Monday, September 12, 2005


In this very well-written article on the BBC site (where else) Harold Evans (author of the sweeping and superb The American Century) talks about the American philosophy of Social Darwinism (originally a British invention), the principle that governments are not responsible for the welfare of their citizens, when the citizens can rise above their condition through grit and hard work- essentially the survival of the fittest. This principle seems to have been reponsible for much of American growth and prosperity during the last century. The promised land acquired the epithet of the 'land of the opportunity' exactly through this virtue. However, as Evans mentions, Herbert Hoover rose through the repudiation of exactly this same principle, during the floods in Mississippi in 1927, an exact parallel to the situation today. Literally wading knee deep in the floods and assisting in the relief work, Hoover embraced the people and their needs. This was responsible for his rise to the presidency. Ironically, Hoover forgot about this principle and reembraced Social Darwinism during the Great Depression, where survival of the fittest really wasn't a phrase anybody wanted to hear (Instead it was 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?'). Evans says:

"Why then is Hoover almost a dirty word in the history books? It is because faced with a bigger challenge than the floods - the Great Depression with 13 million out of work - he refused to recognise the responsibility of government to relieve individual suffering. He believed that economic depressions, like natural disasters, were acts of God that must run their course. He expected voluntary acts of compassion by business and good neighbours would be enough, as they mostly had been in his humanitarian work in World War I. But the Depression affected so many millions it was too big and complex for that."

The man who turned the tide was of course, Franklin Roosevelt. Realising the simply benefits of large scale relief work and simple acts of comradery on the part of the government, FDR shook the shackles of pity and poverty engulfing the country. As Evans puts it,

"In 1932 Hoover lost both his reputation and the presidency in a landslide to his Democratic challenger Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal FDR ushered in - signing 15 bills in his first 100 days - almost drove a stake through the heart of Social Darwinism. Never before had government so directly shored up the lives of individual Americans at every social level and class. It was the foundation of a welfare state - a ringing reaffirmation of America's commitment to huddled masses yearning to share in the great American Dream."

Evans is quite optimistic that the current spate of empathy and large scale horror evoked by Hurricane Katrina will again serve to extinguish the principles of Social Darwinism and galvanize the government. But GW is obviously not doing it. In the first place, what he said- that nobody expected the levees to break- flies in the face of facts known for decades. If it's anyone that will finally abolish Social Darwinism, it's the people. And not just in the United States, but in the world. Paradoxically, but not quite, mutual cooperation and assistance are going to be essential to achieve the very goals that were deemed as 'individualistic' earlier- the pursuit of personal happiness, success, and freedom. So Social Darwinism, although not quite dead, may take on an alter ego, that even Darwin may not have recognised.

In the end, I think that Social Darwinism is also simply related to the availability of resources. Only when there are enough resources around can one think of pursuing his dreams through hard work and rising to the top. In a country which has always been blessed with more than ample resources, it was relatively easy to rise to glory through sheer grit. But now, that idealistic principle of self-resourcefulness is going to be limited by the heights we can achieve that are in turn going to be limited with what we can do as insular nations, especially with the energy and oil crisis looming on the horizon. If there's any success we can achieve, it's going to be through helping each other in the most comprehensive sense. But before that, we have to learn to respect diversity, accept the fact that people all over the world are (mostly) the same, no matter how different they may appear. And unless this sense of empathy is deeply imbibed, Social Darwinism will always continue to poke its head through the veneer of human folly and weakness. Empathy. It's going to be all about empathy. It always was.


Anonymous Inquisitor said...

Social Darwinism would be most applicable, as you've noted, where there is a scarcity of resources. However, within the capitalist system, the application of Social Darwinism is not dependent on the self-preservation instinct but on the self-aggrandizment 'instinct'. This is that which renders Capitalism anything but natural. However, with the aid of certain sectors of academia, there is the production of pseudo-science evolutionary theorists who seek to bolster the naturalness of the capitalist system via the claim that selfishness is natural which simultaneously equates 'selfishness' as a natural propensity in terms of both 'self-preservation' and 'self-aggrandizement'. Whilst the former may be nature, the latter is simply a consequence of a specific brand of nurture.

9:43 PM  

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