If this nation is led by reason, then what is the logic that permits the rich to get richer while the country struggles through a new Depression?
The logic is contained in a philosophy called Social Darwinism, which appeared in the 1860s. It stated that the rigors and torments of animal life – the struggle for survival – also applies to humans. It is an inhumane and deformed philosophy. And it was welcomed by the ultra-rich in America, because it justified their overflowing ease while on the next street people shuffled in poverty and misery – those everyday social contradictions could be seen in Chicago and New York and New Orleans. It later justified the extravagance of the elite, bankers and plutocrats of the 1930s whose flaunted lifestyles was juxtaposed with bread lines and hunger and broken spirit of America in the Great Depression.
Social Darwinism held that survival is in short supply, and that life itself goes to the fittest of a species. It is a struggle, and only the strong make it. So we should get used to dramatic inequalities, to injustices, to exploitation. Early death, poverty and misery are the just deserts of the slow, the weak and the dull, and of the lower classes, because they are unfit, while success, wealth and comfort are the rewards of the winners of competition. More: it is appropriate for the fit not to help the unfit. It was better to eliminate the unfit – let them die – because, Social Darwinism said, the weakest members are a drag, and when they die, the community improves. This was all part of nature.
So the roughest of animal culture, this tooth-and-claw nature, was an inherent part of man.
In so doing, Social Dawinism divided man against man, pitted people in competition for success, life, and made one person’s happiness the loss of another. It was undemocratic because it makes the ‘fit’ people into a kind of new aristocracy, with no say from the spreading masses. And the fittest are always the fewest, at the top. And this was gilded with a title, laissez-faire.
Antisocial? Of course. Social Darwinism was a nationally disfiguring philosophy. And thirty years after it was introduced in America (by Spencer, then it was spread by Sumner), the public, disgusted, smothered it off stage and replaced it gradually with pragmatism, progressive dreams, and unionism. In particular, populists and a few obstreperous church leaders fought Social Darwinism with a vengeance. Because it gave the church an unprecedented opening, to rail and to clamor that it was unChristian. Jesus’s teachings diametrically opposed exploitation: Give succor to the disadvantaged. Love one another.
Actually, Social Darwinism was easy to attack. It is filled with illogic and it was scorned from pulpit and from university lectern across the land. Some facts: First, in daily life most animals don’t compete with each other. They compete with other species yes, but animal packs, teams, flocks and herds are cooperatives; the community would quickly die if its members started trying to eliminate each other. So Social Darwinism seems to describe us acting even worse than the animals. Second, it omits morality. It was as if Social Darwinism urged us to snatch away the collected thinking about value and ethics that make civilization. Third, the fittest human beings are only the strongest, or the most ruthless: they are rarely the best people. So if we let our society be led by the fittest, we are headed for national trouble.
And America of the twenties and thirties did well to collapse and drag this embarrassing philosophy Social Darwinism away.
A lull for a few decades. Now the ideology of collectivism grew. (Hey, if the bottom fifth of the population was going to die from Darwinism, why don’t they join together in self protection? Hence combinations. Hence unions.) And by the end of World War II, nobody took Social Darwinism seriously.
Then, grotesquely, this mutant ideology rose again.
A daughter-ideology appeared in the fifties. With it, we were all thrown at each other’s throats again. It is with us now, and moves under different names, all ultra-conservative. It refuses to help (altruism) weaker people. It encourages people to compete and defeat others. It states strength is better than goodness. In one toxic form it is Ayn Rand’s deformed ideology, which destroys our organic whole by again setting us into the war of all against all.
Social Darwinism has risen again. The new version is just as illogical as the old. And it can be easily countered: For instance why does it keep insisting that competition helps us? — We are a society of mutually-dependent people; ideally, we would run this nation well as a team. How can a boat in which the rowers are fallen into war, each against each, ever reach its destination? How can you build a strong society with people who’s purpose in life is: get mine? Ayn Rand’s version, just like the original Social Darwinism is acutely pessimistic: life is a dark struggle, and the devil takes those who fall behind. An ideology of no mercy. And this time, it has been deeply and thoroughly absorbed across America. It has inspired truckloads of knock-off writing, with the grand and ruthless justification: Business is business.
And where’s the moral opposition this time?
It’s simply not happening. Unionisms? – hardly there; union power is at its lowest ebb. Progressive activists? – a few. But we can expect religion, of course, to defend us again with its humanitarian principles for eternity. Especially Christianity.
So we might expect, each Sunday morning in Christian churches, some animated incendiary from the pulpit against this Darwinism, warning us to pull together, to mend or social ways lest we destroy each other, thus destroy the nation. If the churches were doing their job, congregations each Sunday should leave the church promoting brotherhood of man and warning against falling into the ways of animals.
But the church is mute.
Let’s return to the opening question: If this nation is led by reason, then what is the logic that permits the rich to get richer while the country struggles through a Depression? – An alternative answer is that the nation is not lead by reason. Nor by the mercy of religion. Nor the choices of an educated people. Nor even by the moderating hand of the principles of open debate. That there is no moderation in where this country is going. It is led by impulse. It is lead by greed, which is after-the-fact rationalized into this mutant ideology of Social Darwinism.
Today’s Social Darwinism is less apparent because today’s practitioners use gleaming technology and appear less primitive. But it is back. And it is still not logical. The new laissez-faire still ignores justice and replaces it with riches. It places opposites in the same city: a neighborhood of squalor and a neighborhood of glitz. It robs of us of humanity and replaces it with towering wealth and claims, look up: an almighty nation. But this technology has not changed any social ethics. The bizarrely wealthy still claim that might is right. The new Social Darwinism still erases the principle of humanity.
But how do we fight this?
This author is not religious. But we expect the church to do its job.
People turn to religion when nothing else makes sense. And economically, this is one of those times. The church is supposed to provide ideas and support in its own ideology, theology, to sustain the community – at least gives value judgments and guidance. But now the church is mute. Worse.
Instead of leading by example, the Christian church is guiding us into fields grown wild with cross purpose and toxic contradictions.
Look what is happening. Our big churches have changed. Money-aggrandized. They have abandoned the righteous path of going activist for the underdog. Instead, mainstream churches have become swollen. When we gaze upon their magnificent architecture we should wonder, in the same way we wonder when we see the architecture housing monster corporations. These days our churches do not argue for the separation of material and spiritual. They run on expansion: a big church must be a better church. (Not the small fundamentalist churches, interestingly: they still preach the separation of material world and spiritual world. We give generously to them.)
The problem lies today in what we are not hearing from religious leaders.
What fills this nation now is a kind of spiritual vacuum, a dilution of trust and mutual faith. This malaise has been growing subtly for decades. We can blame the persistent, ruthless and antisocial force of the new Social Darwinism; it has reached mainstream religion in this country. If it happens in any other institution, it is called corruption.
We cannot live in cross purpose with each other, and we cannot live by contradiction, it is the same, and it is why the original Social Darwinism could not last.
But the fix is in. Our mainstream churches have become fellow-travelers in the new materialism. And they are not denouncing the trend. Quietly, the church has become complicit.
In a word, this nation has been dropped by God.
I am not suggesting all Americans become religious. But if you are a church attender, pull your minister aside. Refuse this silence. Bring him back to task. Demand from your minister a righteous sermon attacking Social Darwinism and its nightmare cousin, the Objectivism of Ayn Rand. Ask him to climb the pulpit again, and once and for all time tear apart spiritual and material. As you say this to him, you can open a Bible. Point to Jesus’s commands: compassion for the have-nots and the weak – it is the opposite of Rand’s scurvy doctrine of no altruism. Demand that your minister judge the ideas which divide us into walled communities, rich against the rest. Ask your minister for a sermon explaining how business “reason” interfaces with what he is supposed to build: loving community. (It does not). Where are these sermons? What kind of congregation is he building? (Footnote: actually, the reverse: a new survey shows that today’s churchgoers are more likely to support torture, here. What devilish land of contradictions is that minister growing within the four corners of his building? )
And smilingly, your minister or preacher will avoid the point. Although you have the side of reason.
Because what worries him: it is not popular to preach that way. If he does, he loses gifts and contributions.
Watch his eyes slide away.