Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain

Very many bloggers and political commenters, such as Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman and myself, have made the point that the Tories are Social Darwinists. This is the ideology, founded in the 19th century by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, that demanded total laissez-faire capitalism and promoted the ‘survival of the economic fittest’. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection was held to prove that in nature, evolution proceeded through the survival of the fittest in a state of competition and conflict between individuals and species, so Social Darwinists believed that human social and biological evolution should be promoted through unrestrained economic competition, which should allow people of superior talents to rise to the top of society and keep the less talented masses in their place. Millionaire industrialists were thus celebrated, and attempts to improve the conditions of the poor through legislation, such as regulating working conditions, housing and medicine decried as detrimental to the proper, beneficial working of capitalism.

The philosopher Mary Midgley includes examples of the statement of Social Darwinist attitudes from Spencer’s closest followers themselves in her book, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Midgley herself isn’t an opponent of evolution. The book was written against the way Darwin’s theory had, in her view, been distorted into a quasi-religious form to support malign and dehumanising ideologies like Social Darwinism, or the belief that human culture and action are somehow ultimately the product of our genes.

The first quote comes from George Sumner’s The Challenge of Facts of 1887:

The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done … It is because they are thus selected that wealth – both their own and that entrusted to them – aggregates under their hands … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assure us that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.
(P. 118).

This could well come from a Tory in Britain, or Republican spokesman in America today. There’s the same idealisation of the rich, and the demands that they are the socially and biologically superior ‘creators of wealth’, who should be allowed to enjoy their riches unconstrained by the state. Hence the demands by the Right, including UKIP, that the rich should have their tax burden reduced.

She then quotes the American historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the way Social Darwinism was invoked to prevent any legislation that would improve the lot of the poor by placing constraints on the power of the wealthy:

Acceptance of the Spencerian philosophy brought about a paralysis of the will to reform … Youmans (Spencer’s chief American Spokesman) in Henry George’s presence denounced with great fervour the political corruption of New York and the selfishness of the rich in ignoring or promoting it when they found it profitable to do so. ‘What do you propose to do about it?’ George asked. Youmans replied ‘Nothing! You and I can do nothing at all. It’s a matter of evolution. Perhaps in four of five thousand years evolution may have carried men beyond this state of things’. (p. 119).

The role of Social Darwinism and its malign conception of evolution are too well-known, and too connected to Nazism, for politicians to openly make comments like this in today’s society. Nevertheless, the idea that intense, unrestrained competition somehow conforms more to human nature than Socialism, regardless of the form it is in, nevertheless forms a strong component of Conservative ideology on both sides of the Atlantic even today.

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11 Responses to “Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain”

  1. Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain – Beastrabban’s weblog | Vox Political Says:

    […] For the rest, read the article on Beastrabban’s weblog. […]

  2. joanna may Says:

    Great see you back Beast!!!

    Strangely enough I have just finished watching the episode of The Nazis a warning from history, where a propaganda video was showing, discussing “survival of the fittest”

    Although with the coalition of sub-humans, it is more like “survival of the Richest”!!! (and titled)

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Joanna. Like your comment about the Coalition of sub-humans promoting the ‘survival of the richest’. Very apt!

  3. plhepworth2014 Says:

    If Spencer et al had looked a little closer at evolution they would have found that co-operation between individuals is essential to the survival of species

    • beastrabban Says:

      Absolutely. Mary Midgley herself points out that Darwin remarks on how there is also co-operation in nature in his Origin of the Species. The Russian Anarchist Peter Kropotkin actually believed that co-operation was far more important than competition following his research amongst the flora and fauna in Siberia, and presented his ideas in the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

    • joanna may Says:

      I know this might be a simplistic example of nature co-operating, but when I was about 7yrs, I was stung by nettles, the person with me used a dock leaf on the stings, she said that wherever there are nettles, not too far there will always be dock leaves growing.

      That was the first time I knew about co-operation in nature and I will never forget it!

  4. joanna may Says:

    Thank you Beast!

    I would very much like to get emails from your site as I do from vox but I don’t seem to hear anything, They are the only way I know what is going on, I don’t watch any news or listen to a radio, I haven’t done so for the past 10 years mainly because of my mental health, though for 4 hours a week I do assist teaching adults to read, and when I do, I discuss emails that I get from you both and so, I’m teaching them and they are coming out with really good opinions.

    Plus I really do like how you compare historical figures, to contemporary ones!


    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the appreciation, Joanna, and kudos to you for your good work teaching adults to read. A friend of mine did it for a little while as voluntary work in Liverpool after leaving college. I think he found it very hard, so I think you must be doing a great job to stick with it.

      You’re not alone in not watching the news or listening to the radio. I know a number of people who don’t, for exactly the same reason you don’t: they find it too depressing. And many of them are in good mental health. I have to say I tend to avoid the news on TV because it’s either depressing or makes me furious at what the government and those in power are doing. With the way the people in authority act, it’s no wonder to me that the Beeb was able to make several series of Grumpy Old Men and Women.

      • joanna may Says:

        Thank you Beast! I really do love doing it though I’m not very good at it, but I am learning! I have been assisting teaching where I am for 5 years, before then I was mentoring petty offenders, for 5 years, who were on probation, until certain sub-humans totally cut the funding, now only high risk offenders i.e. murderers have access to that help! I can’t do that because I need a degree, and well, you know what the university situation is, I love helping others, I just wish I could make a positive difference for other people.

        Sorry if this sounds too sweet, but I wear my heart on my sleeve.

  5. joanna may Says:

    There I go, breaking my habit and watching the news, only to hear the sick and disabled are not worth the minimum wage!
    It is scum like him who is worthless, after all wasn’t he the pleb who wasted huge amounts of tax-payers money on worthless investments?

  6. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.

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