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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Survival of the Fittest: Social Darwinism

“Survival of the Fittest” is one part of Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  The concept is basically that of “Natural Selection;” “Survival of the Fittest“ being an alternate description of that theory.  According to Wikipedia, “Darwin meant it as a metaphor for ‘better adapted for immediate, local environment‘, not the common inference of ‘in the best physical shape‘.”  Further, “the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is not generally used by modern biologists as the term does not accurately convey the meaning of natural selection, the term biologists use and prefer...  Fitness does not refer to whether an individual is "physically fit" – bigger, faster or stronger – or "better" in any subjective sense.  

“An interpretation of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to mean ‘only the fittest organisms will prevail’ (a view sometimes derided as ‘Social Darwinism‘) is not consistent with the actual theory of evolution. Any individual organism which succeeds in reproducing itself is ‘fit’ and will contribute to survival of its species, not just the ‘physically fittest’ ones, though some of the population will be better adapted to the circumstances than others.”

It has often been claimed that the biological theory of “survival of the fittest” was “borrowed” or interpreted by late 19th century capitalists as an ethical precept “that sanctioned cut-throat economic competition,” at times leading to justification for racism, war and most especially of Laissez-faire economics.  It is important not to blame all this on Charles Darwin, as these ideas predate him and even contradict his theories.  Some have argued that “survival of the fittest” provides justification for behavior that allows the strong to set standards of justice and competition and success to the detriment of the weak.  Some even claimed that this idea implied treating the weak badly.  The term "social Darwinism," referring to capitalist ideologies, was introduced as a term of abuse by Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought published in 1944.

Keep in mind, then, that “Social Darwinism is generally understood to use the concepts of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves.”  Those who advocate this view  don’t want to help the poor or the unemployed or others who have fallen on hard times or circumstances because, they say, this encourages life-long dependence and laziness.  Many such views stress competition between individuals and struggle between national or racial groups.  If the ultimate success in competition is to absorb or destroy rivals and emerge at the top of the heap, able to dictate wages and prices, then Social Darwinism is at the heart of modern-day capitalism.

And so we come to modern-day politics, most especially in the United States.  Strangely enough, some modern-day politicians have a view of policies and programs that belongs in another era.  Some would like us to return to the world of the 1920s when Wall Street was unfettered, the rich grew even richer while everyone else sank into debt, and the doors of entry to citizenship were closed to immigrants.  Many would like to take this society even further back: to the late 19th century when there was no federal income tax, antitrust laws, the Federal Reserve, or the Pure Food and Drug Act, and, of course, environmental concerns and the EPA (founded in 1906 under the Progressive Republican, Teddy Roosevelt). These Radical Regressives would be completely satisfied with a small federal government having little clout or power, with no Federal Reserve or IRS and with states being able to determine many policies and programs like taxes, health care, worker safety and hours.  It was a time when so-called Robber Barons -- titans of industries like railroads, finance, coal and oil -- lived like old-time aristocrats and ran the country.  At the same time it was a time of wrenching squalor for many people.  Free Enterprise was an over-arching concern, but many Americans (racially, ethically or income-based) did not enjoy much freedom. 

Perhaps a few photos from those times would tend to help you get the picture of what it was like.

                                                                                  image        Pollutionimage           Crowded living                  

image    Slums


image      Homelessness


These late 19th century problems and concerns were addressed minimally by government, mainly by private organizations which began to grow and take action, like the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, YMCA, settlement houses, etc.  Because government was small and inefficient (as well as inexperienced) in attacking social needs, the private organizations were stretched to their limits by the conditions of the people and the environment. 

This is the world that Regressives prefer.  They want government to drop all their social programs, all environmental regulations, all entitlements so that children, and the sick, the disabled and the elderly and women can be under the care of anyone but government.  In fact, their principles include the belief that government should do very little (or nothing) to help those in need because that interferes with natural selection of the strong over the weak.  They want to undo reform of health care insurance and delivery without replacing the losses, so that we can return to the days of a life expectancy that was unacceptable.  This foolishness of getting government out of our lives is fraught with danger, and with an end result that looks like the pictures you have just seen.  You want a banana republic?  Just vote Republican and you will get your wish.


On the other side of the coin, it is important to understand that alongside these conditions existed what was known as the Gilded Age.  It was a great time for the rich. During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly.  For example, between 1865 and 1898, the output of coal increased by 800% and miles of railway track by 567%.  Large national networks for transportation and communication were created. The corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States led the world.

The businessmen of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and hired an ethnically diverse industrial working class, many of them new immigrants from Europe. The super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Flagler, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the prominent Astor family, were sometimes labeled “robber barons” by those who perceived them as underhanded in the ways they achieved great wealth.  Many of these captains of industry, in addition to building the still fledgling American economy, participated in great acts of philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") and used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.  Rockefeller for example, donated over $500 million to various charities, slightly over half his entire net worth.
Still, while these men donated much to their communities, there existed a rapaciousness in business that exploited workers, especially women and children, and which kept the working class in a place that was not always happy or pleasant.  Their ultimate goals were to make as much profit as possible and to control as much of their milieu as they possibly could.  Often their philanthropy was inspired by more than a “protestant ethic”.  It was informed by a motive of manipulation.  What town in those days would fight against cruel and inhumane practices of the robber barons, if those same men were about to build that town’s first hospital?  Money, as it does today, equates to control, and the barons of industry knew how to control the politicians and the masses.

Our situation today is not so different.  Except today, we have a strong central government that often stands between the working classes and the big industrialists and their greed.  A strong central government is necessary not only for the nurture of the weak, but for the protection and furthering of the aspirations of a broad middle class that exists in this country mainly because government stepped in to “level the playing field”; to control the rapaciousness and the manipulation of power that capitalism sought in the Gilded Age and beyond. 

The Gilded Age has returned, in many senses.  We live today in a society where the richest 1% are seeking to gain control of all aspects of that society.  America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them.

The richest want it all, and then some:

--to control wages and benefits by attacking unions and destroying them (Reagan and the Air Controllers; Wisconsin and the loss of collective bargaining; reduction of union membership from a high percentage of workers to a mere 11.9% now)

--to control the levying of taxes, so the tax burden falls less and less upon the richest 1-2% and more and more upon the middle and working classes (through either a reduction in high end taxes, or a flat tax that automatically favors the richest).

--to undo decades of regulation of industry -- especially finance, Oil, food production, and electronics -- so that they may be unfettered in their conduct of certain business practices 
(the promised doing away with environmental and working-place regulations; the repeal of Barney-Frank law, the Romney promise to overturn all regulations that interfere with the conduct of business)

--to change the educational system in this country from public to private so that only the privileged are well-educated, and all others must struggle for a semblance of higher education (elimination of the Department of Education, the reduction of Pell grants and Stafford loans, the replacement of public schools by charter schools, the prevention of the re-furbishing of public schools in poor neighborhoods)

--to control the levers of power -- from statehouses and legislatures to Congress to the Presidency and even to the Supreme Court.  This is a concerted effort to control, through money, manipulation and inside access, the politicians who represent the vast array of voters.  It involves lobbying, campaign finance, and the manipulation of politicians into sometimes doing nothing to prevent destruction or perversion of our system of representative democracy (the examples extend from barons of industry being called in to  Executive offices or congressional offices to help write legislation or regulations, to lobbyists manipulating representatives with promises of campaign funding, to a Supreme Court decision (in Citizens United) that essentially legalizes the intrusion of corporate entities into the electoral process in such a way (through Super-PACs) that an election can be manipulated by the sheer amounts of cash poured into negative advertising and character assassination (think Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and others).  This is sheer bribery made legal by a Supreme Court in the name of free speech.  But this is not free speech, it is destructive speech meant to destroy the very foundation which protects and defends free speech.  You can’t legally yell “fire” in a movie house, but you can destroy a candidate for public office through lies, innuendo and misconstrued wording in a television ad.  All you need is a few million in contributions.

This is the insane situation we find ourselves in today.  Through money, manipulation of politicians, and destruction of a social contract that has served us well for decades, we are embarked on a course that will lead us into ruin.

Think about it.  The average voter, at an educational level of say an 8th grader, is being led down a path over which they have little control, and even less knowledge or understanding.

So it is, that millions of voters are prepared to vote for Romney for President (or for other Radical Republicans for Congress) in spite of the fact that Romney has now pledged himself to repeal the very health care provisions in the Affordable Health Care act that are designed to help those voters.

So it is, that millions of working class males will vote for a man who has destroyed jobs and doesn’t support unions in their quest for fair wages, health insurance for their families, and an adequate pension for their retirement. 

So it is, that millions of elderly folk, many of whom have always voted Republican, do not realize or acknowledge that this is not the party they have known, nor the party of their forebears; this is a party that wants to destroy the very programs on which they have based their lives since turning 65: namely social security, Medicare and Medicaid.  They don’t seem to understand that this Republican party is not their friend, but their mortal enemy, bent on throwing them back to work, assuring them that any ill-health will become their Waterloo, ripping apart the safety net that keeps them going from day-to-day, and reducing any chance of long-term care that is something they don’t have to worry about. 

So it is, that millions of independents will vote for a man who will allow polluters to raise the level of carcinogens released into the environment, who wants to subsidize the richest among us to the detriment of those who have less, who wants to eliminate any chance they may have had to help their grown children less than age 26 to transition gently into a good paying job while on their health care; who wants to get into a tariff war with China, who wants to continue spending our tax dollars to subsidize big oil, who wants to diminish re-training of workers, reduce Pell grants, and devastate the labor unions.

The Gilded Age was above all, an age of ostentation, crassness, political corruption, squalor, and shoddy ethics.  The term refers to the gilding of a cheaper metal with a thin layer of gold, with a hint of the "golden age" of a nation's glory.  The Radical Republicans of our day seem to be well-suited to produce the cheap and glossy gilding of an austere existence making it appear to many to be a “golden egg” instead of a broken  system. Our democratic system, developed for the benefit of the many, is in danger of being converted into something that works only for the few who can afford to pay to play.