Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pichot on Liberalism and Social Darwinism

I have just finished reading the book The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler (Verso, 2009) by André Pichot. Pichot's book covers a wide range of topics dealing with political biology, including eugenics. The subject of eugenics comes up a lot these days, especially on the Right. While right-wingers such as Glenn Beck are indeed correct to point out that, historically, many progressive figures supported eugenics as a way to solve social problems, it is important to keep in mind that this type of argument is part of a general campaign to paint every modern ideology other than classical liberalism (what Americans call "conservatism") as a variety of  totalitarian statism. In this political taxonomy, fascism, state communism, social democracy and even mild reformism are all in the same statist boat, never mind the enormous differences between them.

Unfortunately for the champions of classical liberalism, laissez-faire ideology was not without its own favorite sociobiological theories. Thus, Pichot writes on the subject of positive and negative eugenics (bold text reflects my emphasis):

"The word 'eugenics'  was invented by [Francis] Galton in 1883 from the Greek eugenes meaning 'well born.' It claimed to be based on Darwinism and genetics, or, more exactly, on the application of these to human society

Two forms of genetics are generally distinguished: negative and positive.

Negative eugenics seeks to prevent the multiplication of individuals deemed 'inferior' from a biological, psychological or intellectual point of view. It postulates that this inferiority is hereditary and seeks to prohibit the individuals in question from having children - or, more rarely, advises them against doing so. The methods employed are more or less brutal and coercive: the banning of marriage, imprisonment, but above all sterilization (which is particularly the issue here when we speak about eugenics). The harshest version is the pure and simple elimination of so-called inferior individuals by Nazi Germany.

Positive eugenics, on the other hand, seeks to improve society by encouraging the reproduction of 'superior' individuals, in the extreme case organizing this either through human 'stud farms,' where chosen reproducers are asked to procreate, or with the aid of sperm banks whose repositories have been donated by great men (nowadays, egg banks could also be envisaged).

These two forms of eugenics are distinguished from social Darwinism - a different application of evolutionism to human society - in that they are based on a more or less strong intervention of the state by way of constraining legislation. Social Darwinism, on the contrary, is a laissez-faire doctrine that rejects state intervention. It is an extreme liberalism, even rejecting protective social legislation, with the goal of enabling selection to do its work in society as it supposedly does in nature, i.e., by eliminating the least competitive individuals. Historically, the liberal form was conceived first, with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, whereas eugenics was only theorized somewhat later in the 1880s.

Social Darwinism, and both negative and positive eugenics, are related and interacting doctrines. They come in a pessimistic version (when they claim to struggle against the degeneration induced by the disappearance of natural selection in human society) and an optimistic version (when they claim to improve the human species and produce supermen, after the model of the improvement of breeds of domestic animal).

The motivations behind them, whether avowed or implicit, are very diverse. They run from pure and simple economics (damaged individuals cost society dearly)- hence measures such as a charity that would seek to spare unfortunate individuals the wretched life awaiting them in a world for which they are not adapted - through to an idealism that may be racial or aesthetic or espouse a certain virtue (the production of supermen who are beautiful, intelligent, healthy, efficient, etc.). These diverse motivations can be combined in different proportions." (Pichot 2009: 110-11).
More directly, Pichot discusses the issue of liberalism, Social Darwinism and eugenics by writing:

"Apart from the Catholic Church and the Lysenko school in the Soviet Union, the only current of thought that avoided any compromise with eugenics was extreme liberalism of the Anglo-Saxon type, which rejected the intervention of law and the state into what it saw as pertaining only to private life. Very often, however, such liberals appealed to social Darwinism, claiming that the abolition of all socially protective legislation would re-establish natural selection as a sorting mechanism in society; the 'invisible hand' would then be at work in human biology just as in economics. From this point of view, the alcoholic worker might well have a whole tribe of children - often defective- but as he could neither feed nor care for them, they would die off. It was a kind of liberal optimism, opposed to the pessimism of the champions of state intervention who would impose sterilization on alcoholics." (Pichot 2009: 126-127).
Pichot's analysis of the ideology of Social Darwinism and its relationship to laissez-faire liberalism should give pause to modern libertarians who think that their ideology is the only modern political tradition that is free from the stench of dehumanizing sociobiological thought.


Pichot, André. The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler (New York: Verso, 2009).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kiwi Keynesianism

Lord Keynes has an excellent post on New Zealand's use of Keynesian stimulus in the 1930s. A very interesting read.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Moral Reasoning and Community Life

Matthew Franklin Cooper has an excellent piece on modern moral reasoning, community life, and the impact of neoliberal economics on such issues, here..

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Close Encounters of the LaRouche Kind

Last week I had an encounter with some members of the Lyndon LaRouche movement. I was going to the local post office to drop off some mail and was surprised to find two LaRouche movement members camped outside with some literature and their now-infamous "Obama Hitler" sign. I could tell that the post office patrons were not too happy about the situation, but being a curious (or foolish) fellow, I walked over and started talking with one of the LaRouchies, a woman, probably in her 50s or early 60s.

The conversation was rather one-sided. I heard some of the usual LaRouche conspiracy theories about the "British Empire" and whatnot. However, when it came to topics such as labor rights and austerity, I found myself agreeing with the LaRouchies, or at least with this particular LaRouche movement member. The woman made the point that a society that squeezes fire and police department budgets but lavishes money on banks to make up for their speculative losses is a dysfunctional one. While I found some common ground on some topics, I just couldn't get past the conspiracy theories and the lionization of the bizarre Lyndon LaRouche. I accepted some literature (which, to be honest, I disposed of as soon as I got home) and politely made my exit.

At a time when so many people are dissatisfied with the political mainstream, it is not surprising that conspiracy theorists such as Lyndon LaRouche and Alex Jones receive so much attention. On the other hand, conspiracy theories often do not accurately depict reality and prevent people from engaging in systemic, institutional or philosophical analysis. At their worst, conspiracy theories can lead to the scapegoating of unpopular groups, as is the case with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, for example.

That being said, I do not see the growth of "fringe" movements as a huge problem, despite fears that one of these relatively small groups will transform into a powerful fascist movement. More worrisome is the alienation of increasingly large numbers of people from public life. I see mass resignation as the most likely result of the transformation of politics into a wholly plutocratic affair. It seems that if democracy is on its way out, it will go out with a whimper, not a bang.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Happy Labor Day

Happy Labor Day to all workers all over the world. Here is Jim Connell's great labor anthem "The Red Flag." Enjoy!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Justice for the Victims of Eugenics

Author Edwin Black has an excellent article on the issue of compensation for the victims of American eugenics programs. A very important article on an issue that is definitely not discussed enough.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Secure The Future

Michael Lind has another excellent article on the deficiencies of the major ideologies of the United States. According to Lind, conservative attempts to create an “ownership society” of home owners and miniature capitalists failed dismally when the bubble economy collapsed, taking real estate and private savings accounts down with it. On the Left, the progressive project of creating a nation of well-educated professionals has also failed given the decline of good jobs outside of the protected, guild-like professions such as law and medicine.
At the end of Lind’s article, he makes a point that is very much out of step with much of the American ideological mythology that dominates both the Right and the Left in this country. Lind writes:
"Supporters of the ownership society and the knowledge economy alike have emphasized economic aspiration above economic security. That might have seemed plausible during the bubble years, but it does not fit the conditions of distressed workers in today's post-crash, slow-growth economy. Whatever forms the next conservatism and the next liberalism take in the US, they may be based as much on a politics of security as the politics of aspiration."

Now, the idea that Americans should value economic security over aspiration seems downright treasonous. Placing economic security above upward mobility sounds like something those socialist Europeans would support. For pioneering Americans, it is nothing less than a betrayal of our highest ideals, our very nature as a people! Or is it?

Many Americans can remember a time when even blue-collar workers with little education made comfortable livings. Sure, they did not make enough to travel to exotic locations on holiday or eat out at the swankiest restaurants every week, put workers made enough to support a family in relative comfort, often on only one breadwinner’s income. They did not need to become doctors or lawyers, nor did they need to become real estate moguls or stock market gurus. They worked hard but they were paid proper wages, thanks to a number of factors, but often because they were members of powerful labor unions.

The 1950s may have been stuffy and conformist, but at least the post-war era produced a society that gave most Americans a good opportunity to find decent work at a decent wage and also to afford to raise a family. As more and more young people find their futures looking bleaker and bleaker, we may very well see an end to America’s obsession with upward mobility and a new emphasis on economic security. The devastation wrought by neoliberalism may prove to have been useful after all if it leads to the destruction of the Horatio Alger and meritocracy myths that have been so detrimental to American society.