Printer Friendly

The new social Darwinism: deserving your destitution.

Recently while teaching undergraduate college student in downtown Chicago, I had occasion to reflect upon the demonization of the homeless. I teach "useless" things like philosophy and literature (subjects that have never fared very well in a nation built upon the Protestant work ethic). While discussing Plato's "myth of the cave," I asked students to come up with personal examples of people who might be enslaved by their own false beliefs. As my illustration, I quoted Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he uses Plato's metaphor to discuss emancipation. Freedom, he argues, must be won not only for African-Americans but also for the enslaved minds of the racist oppressors. I argued that "the racist" might be a good example of the prisoner in the cave, exposed only to semblance and shadow.

A young woman raised her hand and explained that she had a perfect illustration of the captive soul--"a homeless person." This confused me, but she explained that homeless people were lazy, no-good burdens on society. These homeless people were fundamentally "confused," according to her analysis; like the prisoners of Plato's cave, they were deluding themselves and living under the falsehood of selfish desires. If only they could be led out of the "darkness" of their parasitical natures, they might come to see the "light" of gainful employment.

She was then joined by a supportive young man who buttressed her insights by pointing out the "shiftless bums" whom we all had to pass on our way into the college building. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard Plato laughing--or perhaps crying.

That night, my wife, who works at a primary school in the rural part of Illinois, related a story about the school's lunchroom policy. Apparently, some of the poor children who receive discount lunches (often, their only meal of the day) had some extra nickels and dimes and wanted to purchase an ice-cream or some such treat. A bitter, overweight, red-faced teacher erupted in moral outrage and demanded that some policy be developed to prevent this egregious injustice: "These people have been riding the gravy train too long! And now with that Clinton in office, it will only get worse" Despite one or two objections, a policy was soon enacted to stamp out this selfish freeloading.

That same night, after leaving a downtown nightclub, I witnessed three suburbanite-looking teenagers dropping bottles from an overpass onto a homeless man. He was trying to sleep in a cold alleyway with nothing but a piece of cardboard for protection. The teenagers ran away giggling at his misfortune, and one of them shouted, "Get a job!"

Any one of these events seems enough to shake someone from their everyday state of unreflective coma. But the convergence of all three on the same day virtually pounded the problem into my head.

"The problem" is what underlies these three symptomatic events. It is buried deep in the presuppositions of the Western capitalist geist and I shall refer to it (perhaps none too originally) as social Darwinism.

It should be immediately noted that social Darwinism, as it was referred to in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had almost nothing to do with Darwin but everything to do with Herbert Spencer. Spencer, who is now never mentioned (perhaps because his ideas have become entrenched in what we call common sense), was a philosopher, economist, and sociologist whose life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century. Spencer and his thinking were born out of early nineteenth-century British industrialism, but nowhere did his ideas take greater hold than here in the United States. His major works were published in serial form by such magazines as Atlantic Monthly and Popular Science Monthly.

Spencer was an evolutionist who wrote about the progressive development of society from a "lower" to a "higher" condition. Social development was understood to be just another example of the unfolding universal laws of progressive development. Spencer's thinking was grounded in the idea that all matter moves from a state of homogeneity (undifferentiation) to a state of heterogeneity (differentiation). This was a metaphysical principle that Spencer thought was repeatedly verified in phenomena as varied as embryological growth and the transition from primitive to civilized humans.

Spencer coined the phrase survival of the fittest, and Darwin adopted the parlance in later editions of his Origin of Species. Spencer used this principle--where competition for limited resources results in the survival of the inherently "better" candidate--to explain past, present, and future social conditions. Darwin never extended the principle beyond the biological realm and remained wary of Spencer's speculative extrapolation into the sociological. Social Darwinism is really social Spencerism, but the fact that the idea has been misnamed has not made it any less powerful.

What, then, is this idea? According to Spencer and his American disciples--business entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie--social hierarchy reflects the unwavering, universal laws of nature. Nature unfolds in such a way that the strong survive and the weak perish. Thus, the economic and social structures that survive are "stronger" and better, and those structures that don't were obviously meant to founder. It is better that capitalism has survived the Cold War, just as it was better that the mammals survived the Mesozoic era when dinosaurs became extinct. How do we know that capitalism is better than communism and that the mammal is better than the dinosaur? Because they survived, of course.

Andrew Carnegie, who practically worshipped Spencer, replaced his disenchanted Christian theology with the laissez faire motto "All is well since all grows better." And John D. Rockefeller pronounced: "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest. . . . This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature." These capitalist moguls eagerly embraced a metaphysics that provided the ultimate justification for their ruthless business tactics.

I will not attempt to evaluate the profusion of fallacies contained within such a doctrine. Lamentably, however, doctrines like social Darwinism rarely (if ever) have to pass the test of their logical validity and soundness before they get drummed into the common consciousness and are digested whole by the uncritical masses.

The crucial point to be understood in social Darwinism is that the poor and homeless classes represent a biologically or inherently inferior group of individuals. We know that they are inferior because they have "lost" the struggle. The theory was that, just as the dinosaurs were inherently inferior and thereby perished (a view to which no worthwhile biologist subscribes), so too the poor and homeless represent deviant variations that are doomed to sink because they cannot swim. The poor and the homeless have demonstrated, precisely by being poor and homeless, that they are unfit for survival. Spencerians believe that the unemployed and the underemployed deserve their destitution.

James G. Kennedy, in his book Herbert Spencer, informs us that in 1896 "three justices of the Supreme Court were avowed Spencerians and participated in decisions recognizing corporations as individuals, and disallowing government regulation of contracts with regard to hours of work, a minimum wage, or child labor" Spencer himself adamantly opposed all state aid to the poor on the grounds that it would be an interference with the "natural" developmental process. In other words, unpleasant though it might at first seem, we must stand aside and let the Malthusian forces crush the weak and incompetent, the homeless and jobless--but we can take some consolation in the fact that it was "fated" by nature to happen. This dangerous fatalism reminds me of the bogus biological determinism that comforted Nazis as they exterminated the "inferior" races--or the complacency with which much of American society views the AIDS crisis, convinced that it is taking its toll only among gays and IV-drug users. We simply invoke "God's inscrutable decrees" or "nature's inevitable laws" to get us off the hook. It is the ultimate justification for social passivity and acquiescence in the status quo.

Ironically, the overt cruelty of such a doctrine has prompted a call for a kinder, gentler Spencerism. Rather than avert our eyes and let the unfit play out their inevitable doom, we should treat these inept individuals like the "children" they are. Lawrence M. Mead, in his new book The New Politics of Poverty, makes just such a case for a "new paternalism:" Mead argues that poor people do not work because of their unhealthy psyches, and so an authoritative state should step in and force these "children" to work at any job available. I can hear my student from the Plato lecture applauding in agreement. And I can hear George Bush, during last year's presidential campaign, claiming that "we need to say |get a job or get off the dole.'" Both Bush and Clinton have capitalized on popular prejudice (that the poor and homeless are "enemies" pulling down this great nation of go-getters) by promising to "change welfare and make the able-bodied work." It is truly remarkable that the power elite of this country has been able to convince the middle class that its enemy is the poor.

So two basic responses have been offered: since the poor and the homeless are biologically retrograde, we must either ignore them until they inevitably fade away or, like a stern father, we must force them to work. What must not be permitted--and here we find one of the underlying rationales for the rhetoric against "big government"--are social programs. Such programs are seen as an artificial attempt to save the masses from their own natural incompetence, and this activity can only drag down the best of the species (the successful entrepreneur). With the resurgent popularity of social Darwinism, we seem to have struck upon (or rediscovered) methods by which we can either "hate" the poor or "pity" them like some helpless inferior species. What we do not appear to have gained is understanding.

This same janus-faced response can be seen in our current international imperialism. We have become more elusive in our rhetoric; indeed, we have become masters of doublespeak. But the policymakers of the early twentieth century did not mince their words: "God has not been preparing the English, speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. . . . He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples." This revealing gem was uttered by Senator Albert T. Beveridge when the United States originally sought to annex the Philippines.

At the domestic level, we convince ourselves that the poor are hopeless failures in the natural capitalist "survival" game. Abroad, we convince ourselves that "savages and senile peoples" require their evolutionary superiors--us--to parentally guide their activity. A recent article by Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for the Bush administration, was insistently headlined, "Only the U.S. Is Capable of Leading the Way to a New World Order"

The idea that whole populations--whether abroad or at home--are "naturally unfit" is the ultimate license for social policies of domination. Indeed, domination is for us a virtue rather than a vice. If one pauses for a moment to reflect on whether or not the "natural law of competition" is sound, then one is immediately suspected of impiety. The church of capitalism watches its flock carefully.

My wife's coworker, who fought against extra food for underprivileged schoolchildren, beautifully illustrates how embedded in the common psyche the new social Darwinism has become. With the help of misleading reactionary rhetoric, such as Rush Limbaugh's "liberal fascist," many Americans have become convinced that sympathy for the less fortunate represents a blemish on the competitive spirit that made this country great. The underprivileged are turned against the impoverished.

Politicians not only pit lower economic classes against each other but racial groups as well. The Reagan Democrats of the 1980s were convinced that attempts to reach out to the unemployed were really attempts to favor undeserving blacks over deserving whites, welfare queens over honest workers. It goes without saying that social Darwinism has lent spurious credence to racism. The biological determinism in such thinking conveniently relieves us from reflecting on the environmental conditions involved. The recent tidal wave of layoffs in white-collar areas, as well as the overwhelming inability of many college graduates to get gainful employment, has gone some distance in illustrating to people the contingency and fragility of their own prosperity.

Social Darwinism, however, runs very deep in this country. Spencer was the only intellectual that this country wholly embraced, and that embrace is still strong. A whole series of subterfuges must be created in order to Justify exploitation, the most powerful of which is to convince people that it is "natural."
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Asma, Stephen T.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:The human costs of NAFTA.
Next Article:Saint Martin of Tours and the new world of public policy.

Related Articles
An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution.
Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940. .
Castello Di Rivoli, Turin. (Reviews).
Social Darwinism and the language of racial oppression: Australia's stolen generations.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters