A human system of needs

| 22nd February 2019
Humans as systems have complex systems of needs. Can capitalism as a system meet these needs, while also meeting its own systemic needs?

Capitalism has created a vital need for freedom, for leisure, for creative time and space. This need is felt acutely by most human beings.

The primary need of any system is an input of energy and information that will allow it to maintain its existence, its pattern or structure, despite entropy. Systems have developed, have become more complex, over billions of years in order to address this need.

Live forms are systems that have developed an extraordinary variety of methods of meeting this need, and these methods themselves are themselves and relate to other sub-level needs which in turn need to be met by the system. The primary need of energy therefore cascades out into a structure of needs. These needs are different for every system, depending on the methods developed to meet the need for energy.

The human being is an example of this living system, and arguably the most complex yet developed. The primacy of energy flow through the system is expressed through the need for food, water and oxygen, without which we cannot survive for very long.

Anatomy of needs

Humans meet the need for food not as isolated, single systems. They meet this primary need through complex social structures with other human beings. The newborn child cannot feed itself. The human mind continues to develop after birth during feeding from another human being, and the most primary and fundamental characteristics of that mind are created when this relationship exists.

This series of articles will examine in detail some universal characteristics of systems, and the universal presence of such systems in our universe. It will also discuss how the individual human is a system, exhibiting a particular form of these universal characteristics.

Humans exist in groups, and these groups coalesce into organisations and societies - smaller systems together forming global systems. Finally, I want to talk about how consciousness of our existence of systems can help us work collectively towards system change, or development.

I have argued that the starting point of this (dialectical systems) analysis is need. I therefore want to examine human need in particular, developing a sketch of a taxonomy of need for human beings. I will argue later that any one activist will better engage allies and communities by first demonstrating an understanding of others’ needs and how these can be met.

There have been many attempts to map human needs. By way of example. Jonathan Bradshaw published his anatomy of needs in New Society in which he provides four distinct categories: normative needs, felt needs, expressed needs and comparative needs.


Normative needs are the minimum level of adequacy as set down by society, or the state. This might include the British Medical Association’s nutritional standard. The felt need is the want of the individual. The expressed need is that which stimulates action, such as hospital waiting list. Comparative need is that which someone feels if they do not have the same as others. While these definitions are useful, the taxonomy I will be relying on is quite different.

Capitalism has created a vital need for freedom, for leisure, for creative time and space. This need is felt acutely by most human beings.

Humans have absolute needs, below which the individual cannot survive. This includes the universal need to counter entropy, and the need general to all life for a flow of energy - in the form of food. Absolute needs also include warmth, and protection from the elements - which takes the form of clothing, housing and fuel. These material needs are entirely natural, in that other animals also need food and, to varying degrees, shelter.

Humans are among those living systems that have developed a central nervous system, which senses its environment, through sight, sound, touch and so on. We experience pleasure in relation to objects that satisfy our needs, and pain in relation to objects which threaten our safety.

Further, we experience positive feelings such as joy when we know our needs can and will be met, and anxiety when the reverse is true. Feelings and emotions form part of the methods we as systems experience so that we satisfy our needs.

The human being in the process of satisfying these material needs has evolved to work collectively, and in the process has developed further absolute needs which are socially produced needs. These needs are material and also psychological. An adult human being may be able to survive for some time growing food, but in isolation may experience psychosis and therefore no longer function.

Food and shelter

Humans have evolved as humans because of a high level of dependency on the group at birth. A new born child, as with a newborn penguin or bonobo, simply would not survive without the long term, intensive care of an adult. Humans, like other animals, have evolved to need proximity to an adult (a theme I will return to at greater length later). These needs are as absolute for a human being as food and water.

Humans through our advanced tool making, through production, have now inhabited parts of the world where our needs are more general and complex than other animals - indeed, this may be our key distinguishing feature. Central heating, transport, avocados have become for individual humans an absolute need.

These social needs have through history themselves become more complex and the systems that deliver the objects and processes that satisfy them more intricate and interconnected. These social needs remain absolute: the need for money extends to the need for employment, which will in turn result in a need for clothing of a particular kind, for haircuts and the instruments of work.

These needs are culturally determined, and some absolute need in one culture may seem luxurious or frivolous in another. Indeed, needs continue to multiply in form and in extent as the objects and services that can satisfy them. Societies with higher levels of production in turn produce higher levels of need. The need for spectacles is today absolute, but this was only true after their invention and also the growth of the knowledge economy. 

Contemporary society has developed levels of production that it is at least possible for all absolute needs to be met: there is currently enough food and shelter in the world for everyone, were it evenly distributed. There are therefore needs that are not absolute, nor natural, but nevertheless remain needs rather than falling into the categories of wants and desires.

Access to food

Needs that are not absolute can be understood as luxury. But it is impossible to define what objects and processes fall within each category by attempting to find a particular quality or indeed list of qualities. This categorisation is historically and culturally contingent. Meat today is understood to be necessary to meet an absolute need, while artichokes would be seen as a luxury. This may be reversed as plant based diets become more popular, and then necessary.

We as humans are intensely social animals that experience emotions ranging from joy and pleasure to anger and anxiety in relation to our needs, Therefore, when we perceive that other human beings are having their needs met, and we are not, we can experience jealousy and shame. We have a visceral understanding that our needs are not fixed, but are contingent and varied.

The classification any need as ‘absolute’ is not based on the material quality of the object of need, but instead on the social, historical context of the human relation to any object. The definition of luxury then depends on the system of meaning in which they sit.

Among the most significant social contexts which impact on human needs, their satisfaction, and their classification, is production. Production is the mode and method of society in changing natural resources into objects that can satisfy human needs. The nature and classifications of needs change as the levels of production societies develop, and the complexity and abundance of these objects increase.

Industrial capitalism has created some societies where absolute, basic human needs are met and indeed satisfied. I personally have never missed a meal through lack of access to food, nor have I slept outside in the cold unless it was entirely voluntary. I have always enjoyed at least some social connection. Human beings in this context have not stopped needing, and the objects of that need are absolute and necessary to avoid anxiety and other emotional (and physical) harms.


This is why an iPhone could not have represented an absolute need before it was invented, but in some contexts and for some individuals today does represent an absolute need (whether as a non-negotiable tool for work and therefore sustenance, or to maintain a place in a social group such as a school). This in turn explains intergenerational conflict as a parent who never had an iPhone (or indeed reading glasses) at school struggles to understand how this can be the object of absolute need in today’s context.

So far, I have described human beings as systems and discussed their needs on this basis. Human beings are open systems (they take in energy and material from outside, and also excrete material as waste). They are autopetic living systems, self making systems both in terms of generating themselves and in giving birth.

Almost all human beings today organise themselves within another system: the capitalist system. This system also has needs, it takes in energy and produces waste as a necessary activity in generating and regenerating itself as a system.

The capitalist system came into being and evolved (and could only evolve) through meeting the needs of the individual human beings that sustain it, much like the human being has evolved through meeting the needs of the individual cells from which it is made.

Capitalism has, however, evolved its own needs (the creation of profits and the accumulation of value). These needs are different to, and now clearly antagonistic to) the needs of the individual humans that constitute capitalism as a system.


We are all born into a capitalist society, and as such our needs are met through engaging with capitalism as a system. We use money to buy food, and pay the rent, see a film. We earn money through work. When the system works, and our needs are met, it seems fair. The system is based on the fact that we need money to meet our needs.

The inverse of this is that if we do not work, if we do not play our part in the capitalist system as  a whole, our needs will not be met. When we struggle to find work, we face hunger and exposure. The system then starts to feel extremely unfair. It is at its essence a system of coercion (supported by the violence of the debtors’ prison and bailiff).

The often repeated claim that we live in a free market where we have choice ignores the fact that we are not free to choose the type of market in which we live, where we must survive. It is extremely difficult to meet your needs without performing the function of the part in the capitalist system, the capitalist whole.

Capitalism like all other systems has needs, and has purpose. The capitalist system must fulfil certain functions for it to continue. The primary need of capitalism is to generate profit. In the capitalist system profit is generated through the investment of capital in the production of commodities - through the exhaustion of human labour in transforming nature (raw materials) - which are then sold in exchange for even more capital.

If any one investor within the capitalist system cannot get interest on a loan, or a return on their investment, they will withdraw the investment. If all investors withdraw their individual capitals then the system as a whole will no longer function. The result of capital returning a profit on investment across the whole system is an accumulation of capital. This means that over time fewer investors hold all the wealth of society, and need ever larger returns on that investment.

Credit cards

Capitalism, like a living organism without predation, reproduces itself, getting ever larger, until ultimately it exhausts its own supply of food and sinks for waste - its needs multiply until they can no longer be met by its environment.

The problem with capitalism, and the problem of capitalism, is the needs of this system are not the same as the needs of the human beings that enact it. Indeed, the needs of capitalism are diametrically opposed to those of the human beings that live in capitalist societies - including those with capital who need a return on their investment.

Capitalism needs to keep producing commodities for exchange, to make a profit. This need overwhelms and overrides human needs. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, the first study of political economy assumed that the individual in working to meet their own need would unconsciously and naturally meet the needs of capital, of society, more generally.

But as we know, the advertising industry exists today in order to stimulate ever greater needs in us humans. If Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ was effective, there would be no need for advertising at all.

Capitalism needs us to keep buying, even when our fridges are full, our pillows are plump and our iPads are charged. The individual human being might have different needs: a rest from advertising, needs to save and pay off some credit cards, needs to spent more time at home with family, and less at work, and needs a stable environment where resources have not been exhausted and where landfill does not belch out climate damaging gasses.

Vital need

These needs are completely irrelevant to capitalism. Indeed, these particular needs are opposed to the needs of capital. It is the needs of capitalism today that win out, the system has greater purpose and agency than the individuals of which it is made.

Capitalism is the most productive economic system so far developed. It creates enormous wealth, which satisfies both necessary and natural needs and the artificial needs it has also created. The accumulation of capital in the hands of a small minority of the world population has meant that some individuals have extreme wealth.

Capitalism has satisfied almost all of the needs of those with the money to participate in effective demand. Therefore capitalism has to constantly generate new needs. These are artificial, as opposed to necessary or natural needs. These needs can include mouth wash, SUVs and private space travel. Capitalism needs and is very adept at ensuring these artificial needs are felt as, and indeed become, necessary needs. 

The environmental crisis we face is best understood from the standpoint of capitalism constantly creating artificial needs in real, living human beings in order to satisfy its systemic need for the accumulation of capital, and then destroying natural resources in the production of commodities that then satisfy these artificial needs.

Capitalism creates the environmental crisis - but it also creates its solution.


The concentration and absolute levels of wealth in capitalism has created new needs, the most important and significant is freedom. There are human beings who never have to work, are not accountable to anyone, and can be reasonably confident that all their needs will be satisfied during the course of their lifetime, and that the same will be true for their heirs.

Freedom is also experienced by human beings who do not enjoy extreme wealth. Freedom from acute hunger is enjoyed by millions of people. Some countries have a significant cohort of human beings who have retired, have pensions, own their own homes and expect (and feel entitled to) a life of leisure.

They are also free to choose from an extraordinary variety of goods and services, which only centuries ago were beyond the wealthy of any individual.

Capitalism has created a form of freedom not previously enjoyed. However, it has managed this through violence and coercion. Humans who are unfree can see that other humans are free (often, because of our cultural practices, this is impossible to avoid even when desired).

Capitalism has created a vital need for freedom, for leisure, for creative time and space. This need is felt acutely by most human beings. But it is a need that capitalism itself cannot satisfy. I want to discuss this paradox (or contradiction) in my next article.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here