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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Social Darwinism Again

I have now finished Richard Hofstadter's book on social Darwinism (see last post), and it has stirred more reflections about the present and the distant past. Essentially Social Darwinism has once again, in a different form, become our prevailing social philosophy, and threatens to become insitutionalized in our legal system, as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet because the same ideas have reappeared in new forms, observers are only beginning to recognize what it is, and it has already gone so far that it is not clear how much, at this late stage, can be done about it.

As promulgated by Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism argued that history was the product of an unregulated struggle among individuals that was certain to produce better types of human beings and better outcomes for society. Attempts to control this process, he argued, were worse than useless, since the outcomes they produced would be both inferior and temporary. As Hofstadter notes, this philosophy did not conflict with classical economics as it was then understood, and implicitly validated the growth of huge industries and rampant inequalities of wealth. At the other end of the specturm, Marx and Engels also seized upon Darwinism as a vindication of the idea of the class struggle. Geopolitical thinkers also began to see international politics as a struggle for survival among different races, leading to rampant, self-righteous imperialism and playing a major role in the coming of the two world wars. (I treated this at great length in Politics and War.) A similar Darwinist perspective, I would argue, is at work today, both in the domestic and international spheres, and is providing an intellectual and even moral legitimacy to drastic changes in domestic and international life.

In last Sunday's New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen discussed a strong new current in legal thought: the "Constitution in Exile" movement, to which Justice Clarence Thomas already adheres. It argues, essentially, that the judges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who argued that the Fourteenth Amendment protected corporations, as well as persons, from deprivations of "life, liberty or property without due process of law," and that any restrictions upon freedom of contract were unconstitutional. That argument had been used to invalidate a host of state attempts to regulate wages and hours and restrict corporate power. Dissenting from one such opinion, the Lochner case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. objected that "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." "Freedom of contract" was an equally powerful weapon against labor unions, of course, and helped keep them in check during the same period. In the Progressive Era, as Hofstadter showed, countervailing currents emerged, including Pragmatism, which argued that human agency could shape the environment in which competition took place in order to bring about more just outcomes. The Progressives scored some modest successes in the 1901-14 period, but by the 1920s they were in full retreat.

It was only the catastrophe of the Depression that invalidated the Social Darwinist consensus. As Charles A. Beard wrote in his neglected classic, The Open Door at Home, in 1934, no one could now argue that human life was governed by immutable laws of progress, and men and women were free to introduce ethics and aesthetics into discussions what society should look like. The Supreme Court, dominated by men who had reached adulthood during the Gilded Age, held the line against the New Deal's attempts to regulate the economy through 1936 and invalidated several major New Deal reforms on 14th Amendment grounds. But the scare of Roosevelt's court packing plan and a couple of retirements shifted the balance on the court, and the idea that the commerce clause enabled the federal government to regulate economic activity became geenrally accepted for the next sixty years or so. That idea, Rosen showed, has been repudiated from the bench by Justice Thomas, who described the 1937 shift as a "wrong turn," and by a whole school of conservative lawyers and justices. It could, Rosen argued, become orthodoxy again.

Meanwhile, of course, laissez faire has staged a tremendous comeback since the Reagan Administration, with enormous consequences. Labor unions have a fraction of their strength and influence. The minimum wage has fallen relative to the cost of living and restrictions on hours laws are becoming a dead letter. Above all, any attempt to keep competition within limits by favoring domestic production over foreign competition has been abandoned, with catastrophic results for the American working class, and the tax burden on the rich as been cut by more than half since the 1950s. Whether or not the Gilded Age interpretation of the Constitution returns from exile, economic life has once again become a struggle for survival in which different individuals fight with weapons of enormously unequal strength.

How has this happened in the absence of an explicit revivial of Social Darwinism? The main intellectual impetus for the changes of the last thirty years, I would argue, is the fetishism of the market that dominates the economic professsion. Despite the survivial of a few prominent dissenters like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, the idea that competition and market forces on a world scale hold the key to the progress of the human race has become dogma. As anyone who ever took Economics 1 knows, economic logic has a terrifying power, yet any student who retained his critical faculties could also see that it does not actually reflect human behavior and certainly does not guarantee the most just outcome. It has evidently become almost impossible to earn a doctorate in Economics, however, without buying into the orthodoxy.

The power of market thinking among economists is truly awesome to behold. One striking example made a splash thirty years ago, when Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman published Time of the Cross, which was marketed as an econometric analysis of slavery. Actually it made relatively little use of data. Starting with the generally accepted conclusion that slavery was profitable, Fogel and Engerman simply assumed that it could only have been profitable if slaves were exhibiting classic economic behavior and responding to a system of incentives and relatively good treatment. Unfortunately for them, as a whole book worth of critics immediately pointed out, when they attempted to support their thesis with contemporary observations of slaves' behavior, they often wound up misrepresenting the sense of what the source had actually said. Another spectacular illustration of the power of market thining emerged a couple of months' ago in Lawrence Summers' notorious remarks about the lack of top-level female scientists. Lost in the controversy was one or the more astonishing parts of his argument: that if deserving female scientists were being ignored, some universities would inevitably take advantage of this market anomaly to hire them. That a man of Summers's intelligence could spend much of his life in academia and continue to believe that it allocates jobs in a rational fashion is a truly astonishing testimony to the power of the indoctrination he must have gotten in his youth.

Thus, with few exceptions, the American educated elite accepts the idea that lower wages, longer hours, fewer benefits, and the movement of industry to the Third World must in the long run be good things, and that there is no conflict between the interests of the powerful and the rest of us. Supply side economics, which specifically argued that letting the rich keep more of their money would help the economy as a whole, was an attempt to reconcile the market with the general welfare, and it was a staple of President Bush's re-election campaign, even though it clearly is not doing what it was supposed to. As a matter of fact, we may yet see a revival of a completely different kind of economic analysis that emerged during the Depression--the underconsumption argument, which argued that only an economy in which the benefits were broadly spread could stimulate production and create new jobs. That, however, will only happen if we enter a very serious long-term crisis. Meanwhile, the idea of the sovereignty of the market has become a substitute for thought and the excuse for a revival of a social Darwinist economic system, and neither political party has stood in the way.

The columnist Bob Herbert also drew attention to this phenomenon last week when he quoted excerpts from Franklin Roosevelt's last State of the Union address. Every American, Roosevelt argued, should enjoy basic economic rights, including a useful and productive job that paid enough both for life and recreation, access to health care, security in old age, protection against unfair competition, and more. Those principles, I would argue, were a very simple reaction to the Depression and the various catastrophes it had brought about--proof that the market could not be counted upon to assure optimal, must less just, outcomes. Roosevelt's beliefs sustained a whole generation of American leaders--Republican and Democratic--for about 35 years. Now Americans too young to have heard his words are consigning them to the ashcan of history. Survivals of an earlier era, such as the health care benefits General Motors still gives its former assembly-line workers, are cited as crushing obstacles to competition in the new economic world, and the business press anxiously waits for Europe to abandon the workers' rights of the twentieth century as well.

Meanwhile, because manufacturing has been moving offshore, economic social Darwinism and simple greed have funneled more and more of our brightest people into the financial world, and the manipulation of financial markets and the exploitation of new financial innovations have become the highest calling. While it is not generally recognized, our system of higher education has become a mechanism, as a prominent journalist remarked to me lately, for funneling our best and brightest onto Wall Street. (The accumulation by students of six-figure debt during their years of college and graduate school has done a lot to encourage this process as well.) That development, of course, was what made Enron the most esteemed corporation in America before it collapsed. It was not the first example of where unrestrained financial manipulation can lead, and it will not be the last.

Nor is the influence of Social Darwinism confined to economic life. While racism is clearly out of fashion, our current foreign policy leadership sees the world in Social Darwinistic terms as well. To make this point it is only necessary to quote from the opening paragraphs of our current National Security Strategy, published in 2002.

"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

The twentieth century, in short, was a Darwinian laboratory on a grand scale, and the results of the experiment are in. That, moreover, not only proves that the United States was right, it gives us a duty to enforce the results worldwide and wipe out any backward pockets of resistance, in the same way that eugenicists of the early twentieth century sought to stop the propagation of unworthy human beings. A skeptic like the late George Kennan might instead suggest that while Fascism and, eventually, Communism both failed, that does not imply that democratic capitalism is bound to succeed, much less take over the entire world. Both our economic and political life are now dominated by simple linear projections, and such projections have never been a reliable guide to the future of human events.

No aspect of this picture saddens me more than the role of my own generation, which began repudiating our parents' work in the 1960s and has continued tearing it down ever since. Much of what we did was necessary. Our parents' world was socially intolerant and emotionally constricted to a degree that those born since 1960 will never understand, and American life is freer and fairer emotionally because of Awakening that took place then. But in the political and economic sphere our parents had done very well, and we have no comparable achievements to show. The battle over Social Security (which Roosevelt began, but which the GI or "greatest" generation turned into a benefit the elderly could live in) will determine whether we save anything of what they left us. But FDR's principles--which became our parents' principles--are nearly dead, and nothing less than huge economic catastrophe seems likely to revive them.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Perspectives from the Past

For the last month or so, in the midst of a short vacation and a long research trip, I have been making my way through a book that has fallen out of fashion, Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter, probably the greatest historian of the GI generation, is familiar to millions of Boomers who read his books in high school or college, but he died tragically in his early 50s in 1970. That death probably accelerated the movement away from political history in the academic profession, and deprived the United States of a highly perceptive, enormously well-read and generally skeptical voice that we have desperately needed for the last thirty years. Social Darwinism in American Thought was originally his doctoral dissertation. It described the emergence, the brief hegemony, and the gradual eclipse of a particular view of human history and political and economic life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--the view, propagated originally in Britain by Herbert Spencer and championed in the United States by William Graham Sumner of Yale--that the present state of society at any moment is the outcome of a competition between more and less worthy human beings, and that any attempt by public authorities to alter the outcome of the struggle is both useless and immoral. That view, as W. E. B. Dubois mentioned in his autobiography, was almost completely in the ascendant by the late 1880s, but a series of socialist, Christian and other thinkers vigorously challenged it on a number of fronts in subsequent decades, and laid the intellectual foundation for the New Deal.

Hofstadter's book has suggested to me a great many reflections about the present day, because it seems to me that the Bush Administration is in effect pushing a new form of Social Darwinism, even though its rhetoric is of a different kind. That subject, however, will have to wait. Today I want to share another equally important insight that comes up in the book: that of the ebb and flow of the influence of religion in the life of the West since the dawn of recorded history.

Social Darwinism in its pure form was clearly profoundly anti-religious, and some of its first critics used religion as ammunition against it. Academics in the late nineteenth century had less professional training then they are today, but they wrote things of more lasting value than most of our contemporaries because they believed in thinking big. And thus, Hofstadter quotes one critic of Social Darwinism named Godwin Smith, who argued in the Atlantic that its proponents were taking a temporary phenomenon for a permanent one, based upon a long-term view of history. During the last two millennia, he argued, religion had periodically collapsed before an assault by rationalism, creating a "moral interregnum," only to re-emerge a couple of centuries later. "There had been such an interregnum," Hofstadter paraphrases, "in the Hellenic world after the collapse of its religion brought about the scientific speculation; there had been another in the Roman world before the coming of Christianity gave it a new moral basis; a third collapse in western Europe following the Renaissance had produced the age of the Borgias and Machiavelli, the Guises and the Tudors; finally, Puritanism in England and the Counter Reformation in the Catholic Church had reintroduced moral stability." And he might have added that a century and a half of increasing rationalism in the late 17th and 18th centuries had led to the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars, producing yet another reaction which had made the first half of the nineteenth century, in Europe at least, far more religious that the eighteenth.

It immediately occurred to me, of course, that the world is undergoing a similar reaction today. Even though Roosevelt, Churchill and even Stalin used some vague religious rhetoric during the Second World War, the victors in that conflict, who dominated the political and intellectual climate of the world for the next 45 years, all professed devotion to rationalism and science. The emerging nations of the Third World followed their lead. The educated elite of the west, now almost completely irreligious, assumed that this trend would persist--and in Europe it has not yet been challenged. Yet on every other continent, and most notably in the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States, religion has not only revived, it is asserting a growing influence upon politics, directly challenging science, and threatening to re-establish theocracies that value revealed truth more than the results of human enquiry, and attempt to restrain some of humankind's most basic instincts once again.

This in turn led me to the musings of my favorite 19th-century thinker, Henry Adams, whose professional and personal live actually shows a number of remarkable parallels with my own. Specifically, I re-opened the Presidential address which he mailed to the American Historical Association in 1894 from the South Seas, entitled "The Tendency of History." (Although Adams and myself were both undergraduates and assistant professors of history at Harvard, although both of our lives were dominated by a polarity between New England and Washington, although both our fathers were Ministers to the Court of St. James during a war in which Britain took no part, and although both of us wrote books about how two Democratic Administrations led the United States into one of its lesser wars, the presidency of the AHA is obviously one honor that we are not destined to share.) Adams referred also to Darwin's influence, and suggested that history in the last 35 years or so had been trying to turn itself into a science. Within fifty years, he speculated, historians would probably attain this goal, and lay out the immutable laws which history was destined to follow--and he could imagine only three conclusions that the new science might reach.
First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude "that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years," but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove "that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion," but in that case, the science would commit suicide.
Adams's formulation of the problem showed the clear influence of Social Darwinism, since he assumed that one of these three possible conclusions must triumph. That, we can see now, was a mistake. In fact, these three world views--which might be described as the utopian, the stoic, and the religious--have been at war for the whole of western recorded history. What is emerging now is that the struggle is not over, and the outcomes which we believed to be final can easily be overturned. And unfortunately, the stoic view--which I personally believe to be the most useful and accurate, since it alone recognizes limitations on our power to control people and events--while it has nearly always produced the best history, seems, especially during periods of crisis like our own, to suffer from a fatal disadvantage in a contest with either of the other two--its inability to satisfy the eternal human fantasy of living happily ever after.
Rationalism, in the sixty years since the Second World War, has become complacent. It has also bred its own usurpers from within--my own generation of academics, who became bored with their parents' thought patterns and decided, in many cases, that truth is an illusion. Meanwhile, fundamentalist religion has become more and more militant and more and more insistent upon imposing its view of morality and reality upon society. Shame, sex, and human nature are playing an enormous role in this process as well. "The sixties," as they are known, involved a recognition of the true role of sex in human life and an enormously greater tolerance of different forms of sexual expression. That has provoked a violent reaction among those who would not permit themselves such liberty, and they now exert a huge influence over the government of the world's leading power, and the first nation based explicitly upon rationalist principles, the United States.
Had Adams been able to step back even further he might have realized that the three world views he identified would remain locked in eternal combat, and that although scientific truth might actually be established in history, it would never win general acceptance, if only because of the inherently competitive nature of human beings. Stoicism will in the long run always be proven correct, but it can never become a prevailing political philosophy. Those of us who embrace it will always find themselves outside the great ideological movements that shape eras, and even within the historical profession, which should know better, their place has shrunk. The brain is only one influence upon human behavior, and as David Hume recognized, it is not the most powerful. Being right, alas, will remain its own reward. Hofstadter's book, as I have indicated, also provokes some reflections about the new combination of social Darwinism and religion that has taken over the American political process--but that is a topic for another post.