Are humans really just violent, psychotic apes?

I am beginning to wonder whether the real nature of humanity is not care or nurture, but psychotic violence. It’s not just the relentless streams of the latter that flow past me in the news. It’s something I discovered directly, the other week.

I was in my home town of Napier, taking a photo of the town pier. I usually do – I’ve been collecting images of it in all sorts of lights, weather conditions and so forth.

I was about 150 metres from the pier when I set the latest picture up. Alas, it turned out that there were some people underneath it, apparently living rough. And as soon as they saw me with a camera they emerged and walked towards me, screaming abuse and threats.

This is the photo I took of the pier and surrounds.

The way to avoid being hurt in a fight is not to have the fight. I walked off, leaving these abusive strangers to vomit all their hate at me.

My crime, apparently, was looking at the pier they were living beneath from a distance of 150 metres.

A few days later, in the middle of quiet suburban Napier, I had to stop my car to avoid running through a group of youths who were sauntering across a road, without any concern for the traffic. Normally, if you stop to let pedestrians through, they thank you. This lot became angry and swore. I got the impression they were deliberately obstructing the right-of-way to force cars to stop.

It’s becoming more common these days. All you have to do is glance in the direction of a stranger, and they’ll take it as a threat to be avenged with violence. And it’s ape behaviour. I mean, literally. Gorillas do it, because to them, the gaze of another is a threat to their status. Apparently this is also true of humans. Not surprising, I suppose; humans are, after all, a species of great ape. But our minds, our civilisation – all were meant to be able to set aside the animal within us.

That façade seems to be wearing very thin just now.

It’s easy to find surface reasons why individuals behave in particular ways, but to me the issue has become endemic, and has to be a product of much wider forces. These are not hard to find; they are right there, in plain sight. The parameters around which western societies – and, to a significant extent, world cultures – have been re-shaped since the late 1970s are so ubiquitous as to go unnoticed. There’s the reduction of social relationships to contract, agency and monetary value. There’s the way that, somehow, the dispossessed have been induced to vote for those who dispossess them.

In reality, that system broke a dozen years ago, during the General Financial Crisis. That showed up the folly of the Hayekian deregulated wet-dream around which the world had been pivoting its economic policies for two generations. The Market, it seemed, had shrugged. And the bankruptcy of the neo-liberal approach seemed clear. But, as George Monbiot pointed out in the Guardian a little while back, there was no new thinking to replace it. And, of course, those who had enriched themselves from that system weren’t going to stop the flows of money that they had directed to themselves. I suspect a part of the ideological issue was that debate had been reduced to childish polemic: IF you didn’t support the monetarist system THEN you had to support whatever the monetarists demonised, such as ‘socialism’ – which, itself, was reduced to caricature in this vision. Such thinking dominated the terms of discussion and destroyed the potential for a completely new approach to emerge.

So the neo-liberal monetarist carcase limped on into the 2010s, becoming more and more extreme as the wealth generated by ordinary people was transferred to an ever-smaller number of rich, and as the ideology underpinning it was reduced to ever-more simplistic polemic.

History tells me that social inequities, inevitably, provoke social trouble. I also suspect humanity has always had difficulty dealing with societies larger than about 150 individuals. And in a large society where the have-nots vastly outnumber the haves, I think the façade of civilisation can be all too easily broken. The dispossessed revert to their underlying ape behaviour – such as attacking strangers for no better reason than that they think (wrongly) that they have been glanced at.

When this is combined with the way that yesterday’s ideological extremes have been normalised, and where new extremes intended to preserve that ideology swiftly become ordinary, I fear for the future. The latest global lurch, I see, includes a purely Orwellian effort to demonise ‘socialism’ as a form of ‘fascism’ . Thinking, quite literally, seems to have been turned upside down.

All of this – the way ordinary people lash out at strangers over nothing, the way the ‘one percenters’ are twisting the frameworks of ideology in an ongoing effort to lead the dispossessed into supporting them – to me, smacks of end-game. It’s where societies go as the foundations on which they rely to survive are breaking, and those on board the sinking ship of society become increasingly desperate. And that’s a pity.

It seems true in New Zealand as elsewhere. Here, thanks to the mixed-member proportional representation system that forces government-by-compromise, and a pernicious act passed by the neo-liberal ‘reformers’ in 1994 – never repealed – government policy is essentially still framed by its mid-1990s settings. The fact that, at the time, this approach was called ‘Rogernomics’, ‘Ruthenasia’ and ‘Jennicide’ – riffing on the first names of its architects – has been forgotten. And although societies are built from a very wide-ranging mix of forces and pressures, the structural inequities that these economic approaches have created – founded in a mind-set that reduces social interactions to ‘price’ and ‘value’ – inevitably, form a significant part of the guiding framework.

What is needed is a new attitude – one that can be reflected by government in its policies. A worldwide shift is needed, one as significant in its own way as the adoption of Keynesianism was from the 1930s. Here in New Zealand, that was reflected – and extended – by the government of Michael Joseph Savage from 1935, brought to reality by his Minister of Finance, Walter Nash. Obviously any new approach must be different again; what worked then won’t work now. Society has moved on, the production base is changing with the unfolding ‘information age’, and new answers need to be found. However, the attitude of kindness, care for those whose misfortune was not their own doing, and a genuine desire to improve the social lot of all people – all of which was at the core of what Savage did – seems a useful foundation and starting point.

One outcome of that attitude – which Savage called ‘applied Christianity’ – was that New Zealand, from 1938, developed one of the world’s first comprehensive welfare states, in which people were helped – not punished – by government; and where capitalism was nurtured as a mechanism to benefit all in society. Savage’s portrait was hung on the walls of many ordinary New Zealand homes at the time, alongside that of Christ. And with good reason. The finance minister Walter Nash, incidentally, had close ties with Napier. His son lived two doors down from my grandfather; and my Dad knew Nash’s grandson Hal very well. New Zealand is not a large place.

That worked – and worked well – through the mid-twentieth century. Societies change, of course, so by the 1970s there was need for a structurally different approach. Welfare had become a lifestyle choice, which was not what the Labour government of 1935 intended. What New Zealand got, though, was the neo-liberal reforms, which pivoted on the notion of ruthlessly smashing every government system, every regulation, effectively giving away every asset owned by the public to foreign corporates; then allowing ‘the market’ to generate a new social nirvana from the wreckage. It didn’t happen, although a few people became very rich indeed. Curiously, this neo-liberal reform process was remarkably close to the occupation scheme Japan developed for New Zealand in 1940, which I’ve read – it’s in the Prime Minister’s files in Archives New Zealand, and was explicitly designed to economically exploit New Zealand to the benefit of the invaders.

The problem is that successive New Zealand governments have only ever tinkered with the edges of the 1990s policy mix. And the social issues among the dispossessed – now entering their second generation of that situation – are a result. It is this that underpins the problems with gang violence, with the way petty crime and street anger has been normalised. New Zealand is not alone – it’s a world problem and the causes are the same; pure neo-liberalism doesn’t work in the longer term.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

It is not the first time this has happened. Back in the eighteenth century, the transformation of mercantilism into capitalism – which in its initial expression was unbridled, untrammeled and with no social conscience – similarly produced an underclass of dispossessed. And, after a couple of generations, they were powerful enough – and angry enough – to start breaking the fabric of the society that had dispossessed them. The nineteenth century was called the ‘age of revolution’ with reason. Worse, the same pressures produced a mirror-inversion of unbridled 1840s-style capitalism: communism. This was equally unable to function as a long-term system, but the two positions then became the framework by which political ideology was measured. Then, when communism collapsed in economic and ideological bankruptcy in the 1990s, that fuelled the sense that the prevailing version of capitalism at that time – neo-liberalism – was the only way forward. History, analyst Francis Fukuyama insisted, had come to an end. Of course it hadn’t. All that neo-liberalism had done was introduce a short-term way of making a few people very, very rich. It was an extreme edge of the broader capitalist system, and – as we’re discovering now – it wasn’t sustainable.

What is needed is a new vision for society, one that engages with where society has gone and in which government is responsive to the people. This is true world-wide. It does not mean getting rid of capitalism. On the contrary; a new vision is needed to save it. Call it a re-balancing. That means finding ways to modernise the philosophy and avoid the extreme and unworkable edges. That’s particularly so given that the production base is changing from physical things to information – a switch as profound, in its own way, as industrialisation was from the mid-late eighteenth century. For humanity to have a future, any new balance in the capitalist system must also be sustainable. Terms such as ‘bio-capitalism’ or ‘ethical capitalism’ have been bandied about, among others. Perhaps there is another way forward. New Zealand, the ‘social laboratory of the world’, has opportunity to lead the way – and back in the early 1970s, almost did so, at the hands of a Labour government under Norman Kirk. But he died in office before bringing his vision to reality.

Norman Kirk – ‘Big Norm’ (1923-1974). Courtesy of Horowhenua Historical Society inc, Levin, New Zealand – http://horowhenua.kete.net.nz/site/images/show/1427-mr-norman-kirk-speaks-to-crowd-levin-1972 Mr Norman Kirk speaks to crowd outside Labour Party headquarters, Levin, 1972

Those older approaches won’t work now. Society and times have changed. However, given time, a constructive new approach will hopefully undo the damage done on so many levels by extreme neo-liberalism. Alas, the current New Zealand government has been supine about it. Nor are they listening. A few weeks back I wrote to the Minister of Police, Stuart Nash (the great-grandson of Walter) with a request for comment on any policy government was taking to address the social issues that have emerged, exemplified by my Napier experience. I knew he’d be busy and didn’t mind waiting for a reply, but what I got from his staff merely referred me to media commentary on another matter (and they admitted it was different). It was an unsubtle brush-off. When I apologised for wasting their time and indicated I’d withdraw my vote from their party, they promptly offered a personal meeting with Nash – obvious damage control. I declined to further engage; the original message had been clear.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020


13 thoughts on “Are humans really just violent, psychotic apes?

  1. I agree completely. It is worse in Napier though and this is why I recently left after trying to live there for five years. I have never come across such selfish mean people in my entire life as I did in Napier. I also wish we could bring back Keynesian economics.

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    1. I was brought up in Napier South in the 1970s, which wasn’t a prosperous suburb at the time, but it was law-abiding and quiet. These days I can only refer to it, and the adjacent suburb of Marewa, as feral. Damn. There will be a whole lot of reasons why, but I keep coming back to the Rogernomics, Ruthenasia and Jennicide of the 1980s-90s period. I had to move to Wellington to find work after Prebble destroyed the Forest Service, ending my history gig with that department. Every time I went back home – which was reasonably often – the place had gone down another notch. By the early 1990s (after Richardson’s ‘Mother of All Budgets’ had driven the economy into its worst recession since the Great Depression) the CBD was filled with empty shops, there was open poverty on the streets, and an air of hopelessness. The reason was the destruction of the local production base and syphoning of the money to the main centres caused by Rogernomics, and aside from a gloss required for tourism I don’t think the place has really recovered, socially. And now, in the second generation – as I say – it’s gone feral.

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    1. This blog, with its central message of tolerance and kindness to others, was blocked by Facebook last September for no reason known to me, after I posted on climate change and pointed out the damage being done by extreme neo-liberalism. I’d guess somebody found it offensive and complained to Facebook instead of approaching me for a discussion. I’ve raised over 40 tickets with Facebook requesting an unblock, but haven’t even had a response from them. I guess it shows how far moral compass has drifted off the rails these days. All I can do is start a blog with a different URL. I’m reluctant to do that until I can figure out how to carry across the 4,600 odd followers of this one.

      Here’s the post that seems to have triggered it. ‘Violent or abusive’? You judge… https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/what-legacy-will-neo-liberal-greed-and-climate-change-leave-for-our-kids/

      Here’s another post that typifies the angle I usually take: https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/remembering-an-act-of-selfless-kindness-amidst-memories-of-horror/

      I have to say it’s been annoying to have somebody – utterly unknown to me – damage my endeavours to spread kindness through the world.

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  2. It’s a grim picture you paint, Matthew, and yet it reminded me of past ‘revolutions’ I studied many decades ago. In particular, I’m thinking of the Bolshevik revolution. Very different era and cultural norms, obviously, and yet there are parallels. Western society hasn’t reverted to feudalism yet, but the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands with a weakened middle class and a poverty stricken ‘under class’ looks eerily familiar.

    And now we have Covid-19 adding to this unstable mix. The poorest and most vulnerable people will suffer the most, especially if governments continue to focus on ‘saving the economy’ instead of saving lives. That seems to be happening here in Australia at the moment, and I can’t help wondering whether this virus will be the catalyst for some kind of core change once the immediate threat is over.

    Stay safe.

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    1. Yes, as we’ve discussed in the past week or so, the Covid-19 virus is a serious issue on so many levels, particularly humanitarian. It’s heart-rending to see reports of the Italians having to essentially engage in triage. Their hospital system is really excellent – and obviously swamped. You have to feel sorry for the doctors who have to make such decisions, the victims, and their families; and I do hope this isn’t a harbinger of the next few months around the world, it’s too awful to contemplate.

      As I understand it, there was an economic crisis about to happen anyway – if it hadn’t been this virus, something else would have triggered it – war in the Middle East, for instance, or something else again – as the conditions were right. The fact that stock losses involve ‘imaginary’ money (no actual existence unless the stocks were sold) doesn’t prevent those with skin in the game feeling they have lost vast sums, with knock-on behavioural effects that can flow into the real economy. The problem governments face is that an exogenous shock such as the virus can’t be fixed by the usual economic tools.

      I think you’re right that the current crisis, with all its multiple layers, will be a catalyst. Hopefully it’ll trigger co-operation, proper analysis and careful thought into ways of making the world a better place for humanity. I confess to cynicism, though: I like to think of myself as a ‘glass half full’ sort of person, but history tells me that humanity has an unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, always because of the way we revert to the ‘us and them’ mentality that seems to have been both an advantage and a curse throughout our existence as a species. We’ll see. But also, as we say in NZ… bugger.

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      1. I loathe the current government of Australia, and not just because it’s a conservative coalition of neo-liberals. I think, believe, that they have a strategy for this virus that may make ‘sense’ on paper, but will see the most vulnerable dying.

        I sincerely hope I live to see a new world order in which life is paramount and wealth must serve the good of the whole species.
        For the moment, however, I have to agree with my esteemed colleague from NZ…bugger indeed.

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  3. On the science TV show “Cosmos”, Dr. de Grasse Tyson said that violence is not natural to us, as proven by the original human settlements.

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    1. I haven’t seen that episode; but I know the theory behind it. There’s a long-standing argument that violence only began with the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago and the hunter-gatherer era prior to that was peaceful. I’d guess Tyson was reflecting that approach, which is non-controversial and is what I was taught, way back when. However, there is a growing body of archaeological evidence that suggests otherwise, including the discovery of pre-agricultural battlegrounds. Into this has also plunged the new(ish) field of evolutionary psychology, which I’m looking into at the moment, which supports the point that human nature hasn’t really changed at all and that urbanisation has made it worse, not better. I had a very, very brief chat a couple of years back with a professor evolutionary science at the University of Chicago, who leaned towards that idea (very brief – this was in a pub with a dozen people at the table, all talking…) I’m watching the science fairly closely and it’ll be interesting to see how the theories play out in the next few years.

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  4. Especially like this one Matthew. Always enjoy your posts. I do believe a rethink and rebalance is long overdue to avoid the ‘endgame’.

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  5. Maybe a disaster that drastically reduces the human population and reverts us back to those small groups wouldn’t be such a bad thing (although miserable for those of us caught up in it, of course). I’m wondering what the effect on CO2 and air pollution levels will be of the economic slowdown we’re seeing because of COVID-19. When it’s over, will it just be business as usual (most likely), or will the data trigger some positive changes? As for human nature, I’m a misanthrope 🙂

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  6. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Sometimes I truly wonder about this exact human proclivity to violence as it certainly seems to be endemic in all societies and apparently has been so since the dawn of humanity. For all those people who believe in a christian set of values there still seems to be an abundance of violence even in the bible? For me it begs the question– why would such a supreme being design such a faulty being?

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