To most parents possessiveness and aggression in young children are self-evident. But Richard Pipes, the historian of the Soviet Union, finds that modern social science has denied these facts or refused to investigate themby Richard Pipes / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
For the past century a furious polemic has raged between two schools of thought on human behaviour. On the one side are biologists and, more recently, sociobiologists who view it as determined by a combination of genetic factors and cultural influences, clues to which can be found in the study of animals. On the other side are sociologists and cultural anthropologists for whom human behaviour is wholly, or almost wholly, shaped by our social and cultural environment. Emotions run high because at stake are fundamentally different visions of state and society.
In the second half of the 19th century, psychology was dominated by proponents of the biological school. Under the influence of Darwin, who had shown that human beings, like animals, are driven by instincts, William James formulated a psychological theory in which instinct was the driving force. The most influential champion of this approach was William McDougall, whose widely read Introduction to Social Psychology (1908) provided a catalogue of what he called “the principal instincts and emotions of man.” These included flight, repulsion, pugnacity and acquisitiveness, to which he later added laughter.
In the early years of the 20th century, however, the concept of “instinct,” and its corollary, “human nature,” ran into resistance. By the 1920s, it was totally driven from the field. Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, led the charge. Raised in a liberal Jewish family in Germany, he made it his life’s task to demolish theories that justified racism. With his disciples, he decoupled sociology from biology, banishing “instinct” and “human nature” from the academic vocabulary. Boas insisted that all human behaviour is conditioned by the environment.
These ideas dominate academic thinking to this day. The current edition of the Britannica refers the reader interested in “instinct” to the entry “animal behaviour.” And as for “human nature,” the computerised catalogue of the Harvard University Library, one of the richest in the world, when asked to provide titles on this subject, responds: “Your search revealed no items”!
For the disciples of Boas, acquisitiveness is a by-product of capitalism. They consider evidence of animal territorial impulses irrelevant to the understanding of human behaviour. Thus the late Cambridge professor Edmund Leach asserted 30 years ago that “no human society, ancient or modern, primitive or civilised, has ever developed customs which correspond at all closely to the stereotype of ‘territorial behaviour.'” Ignoring the record of warfare among primitive societies, much of it occasioned by rivalry over territory, Leach attributed aggressiveness exclusively to “western industrial man who has been culturally conditioned to act with brutality in a ruthlessly competitive society.”
One obvious way to settle the dispute is to study the behaviour of small children before they are exposed to the values of a “ruthlessly competitive society.” But cultural anthropologists and behavioural psychologists have shied away from the subject. Lita Furby, a pioneer of the study of acquisitiveness among children, remarked with surprise in 1980 that “there has been almost no empirical work, and no systematic theoretical work, on the psychology of possession.”
To prove that possessiveness is the result of cultural conditioning only, one would have to show that small children know nothing of possessiveness and display it only as they mature. But evidence gathered by child psychologists indicates the opposite: toddlers are extremely possessive and learn to share in the course of growing up.
DW Winnicott, the child psychoanalyst, labelled the blankets and teddy bears to which an infant clings as “transitional objects,” explaining that they serve, at one and the same time, as mother surrogates and objects which enable the child to wean itself from dependence on its mother. And Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg have observed something most parents are well aware of: that infants of 18 months experience difficulty falling asleep without a special toy, blanket or other object, and are quite conscious of what belongs to whom. At the age of two, a child “possesses as many things as possible” and displays a “strong feeling of ownership, especially in toys.” As they grow older, children learn to share, but the feeling of ownership remains strong as does the desire to accumulate objects.
Research conducted in the US in the 1930s revealed the extent to which pre-school children display aggressiveness in matters of possessions. Helen Dawe studied the playtime habits of nursery children aged 18 months to five years. The instant a quarrel broke out, she moved in to record its cause and duration. She logged 200 quarrels and found that in all age groups disputes over possessions were the main cause of trouble. But they were most frequent in the youngest age group (under two and a half), where they accounted for 73.5 per cent of squabbles.
Empirical studies have further shown that children require a certain amount of private space to develop normally. Torsten Malmberg concluded that “territorial demarcation is necessary for [the child’s] full psychic health.” Like animals, children observe precise distances from friends, acquaintances and strangers, the intervals being different for boys and girls. They surround themselves with proprietary “bubbles,” spaces over which they claim exclusive control.
It is conceivable, of course, that these findings prove nothing because children raised in acquisitive societies could have developed acquisitive tendencies from their environment even before they learned to walk. Studies of children in communistic kibbutzim in Israel, however, make short shrift of this objection. These communities have gone further in denying their members the rights of ownership than any societies in history. In Children of the Kibbutz (1958), Milford Spiro found the young displayed the same acquisitive impulses as children raised in capitalistic societies. Brought up in communal nurseries which teach them to share everything, even their underwear, they nevertheless claim as their property such objects as paints and towels and know very well the meaning of “this is mine.” It is only when they grow up that, conforming to the prevailing communal ideology, they deny the need for private possession.
Bruno Bettelheim carried out similar studies and found that while it was possible over time to inculcate in children indifference to private belongings, this was achieved at a heavy price. In The Children of the Dream (1969), he describes how Israelis brought up in such a Spartan milieu showed exceptional group loyalty and made superior soldiers. But they experienced difficulty in making an emotional commitment to a single individual, whether by forming friendships or falling in love.
The best non-economic explanation of human possessiveness was given a century ago by William James in his Principles of Psychology, which linked the impulse to acquire with the sense of identity:
“It is clear that between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves. Our fame, our children, the work of our hands, may be as dear to us as our bodies are, and arouse the same acts of reprisal if attacked… In its widest possible sense… a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down…”
The studies of children in both capitalist and communist societies bear out this generalisation. The “mine” defines the “me”: the more the “me” possesses, the more competent it feels. This is why utopian schemes and totalitarian regimes couple the elimination of property with the abolition of individuality. This objective was first articulated in Plato’s Laws, with its vision of an ideal community in which not only all objects, including wives and children, were held in common, but also things which are by nature private, such as eyes, ears and hands.
All modern attempts at socialising private property have been based on the assumption that there is no such thing as innate acquisitiveness. Thus, RH Tawney tried to explain the willingness of ordinary people to tolerate the inequalities of capitalism by the fear of losing, should property be abolished, such savings as they had managed to amass for their security in illness and old age. In so doing, in Tawney’s judgement, they acted on a false premise. “Property is the instrument, security is the object,” he wrote in The Acquisitive Society (1921), “and when some alternative way is forthcoming of providing the latter, it does not appear in practice that any loss of confidence, or freedom or independence is caused by the absence of the former.” But this is a most superficial view. As studies of children have demonstrated, attachment to property is a positive force: it is driven not so much by the fear of losing what one has as by the desire to acquire more. It was the failure to recognise this that caused the dismal economic performance and social imbalance of societies that have done away with property.
Nor can the enemies of property gain support from the belief, once almost universally held, that in its early phases of development humanity knew only common possession. Twentieth century anthropology has revealed that property is universal, and that “primitive communism” is as much a myth as Hesiod’s “golden age.”
A truly propertyless society can only be established and maintained by extreme coercion. The most that can be expected of society is that it temper the manifestations of possessiveness by teaching the advantages of sharing, as such non-utopian thinkers as Aristotle and Aquinas have urged. But this can be done only if one recognises possessiveness as an unalterable fact of life and therefore beyond moral judgement.n