Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Darwin

The Two Conflicting Forms of Neoliberalism

Neo-liberalism has – I think – two main contrary forms. Often the thinkers who are cited as neoliberals are philosophers like Nozick, who argued for the minimal state and who took as the primary problem to be solved the question: What is the just and fair settlement for any society? This line of thinking goes back, through Mill and Locke, all the way back to the Classical era. It is the same kind of problem that Plato, Aristotle and other genuine political philosophers, have been considering for over two and half thousand years.

Although I can understand why it has acquired the ‘neo’ prefix, I think it is better to see this kind of theory as a modern form of liberalism (in the English sense). It is an attempt to set out the grounds by which diverse people can live together, with justice and with freedom. It is certainly a faulty theory – like perhaps all political theories – but its faults are better understood in the light of what it is genuinely trying to do, rather than simply treating it as all part of the devil’s work. Almost all genuine liberals (of this kind) are forced to adjust their views to reflect the fact that markets do not ensure social justice. Almost all genuine liberals also tend to recognise that my freedom is limited, not just by direct political oppression, but also by my lack of essential resources.

The second form of neoliberalism is the kind of aristocratic prejudice that the ‘best’ should be richer and more powerful than the ‘worst’. Aristocracy means rule by the best and today this has been transmogrified into what is called meritocracy – which sounds like its opposite, but actually means precisely the same thing. What has changed is the nature of the aristocracy – back then it was landed nobles, now it is the children of Eton and Oxford.
The belief of the powerful that they are the best, and so deserve their power, has always been self-serving, and often laughably so. But since Darwin it has taken on a new and more virulent form. Herbert Spencer outlined the relationship between modern theories of race and genetics as follows:

“The law that each creature shall take the benefits and evils of its own nature, be those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications, has been the law under which life has evolved thus far; and it must continue to the law however much further life may evolve. Whatever qualification this natural course of action may now or hereafter undergo, are qualifications that cannot, without fatal results, essentially change it. Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority, or shield inferiority from the evils it entails – any arrangement which tends to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior; are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organisation and the reaching of a higher life.”

from Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics

Spencer, and many other thinkers from that period, successfully connected human and animal nature (or rather a debased and partial account of animal nature) in order to legitimise the abandonment of most of the moral imperatives passed down from Christian (and before that Jewish) civilisation: concern for the welfare of all, the privileged status of the weakest, the need for humility and the imperative of self-control and temperance. All those things that might be seen to ‘redistribute’ resources and energy from the strong to the weak were converted from moral imperatives into corruptions, temptations and threats.

This way of seeing the world reached its peak under Hitler and has gone into hiding since the end of World War II. But it is this aristocratic conceit that underlies much of what now passes as neoliberalism. It is not liberal to encourage genetic engineering by encouraging the abortion of children with disabilities. It is not liberal to concentrate more power in the hands of politicians and corporations. It is not liberal to sanction, bully or coerce people who are out of work. These approaches are not liberal, they are meritocratic.

Distinguishing these two kinds of neoliberalism – the liberal form and the aristocratic form – is strategically important, even for those of us opposed to both forms. First because we cannot easily defeat both forms together – for they have different bases. Second because we miss the opportunity to divide these forces against each other.

Personally I think liberalism, as a defence of freedom, is not our worst enemy. What is an enemy is the kind of one-eyed right-wing economic liberalism that treats the right to property as if it were some kind of divine imperative. But much worse than this is the kind of elitism that believes that ordinary people don’t really need rights, that we’d much better off if disabled people did not exist and that it is acceptable to manipulate the press and media to stigmatise any group that might be helpfully scapegoated.

Meritocratic elitism (which can be found on both the Right and on the Left) should be our main enemy and it may be useful to demonstrate how illiberal and controlling are its advocates.

The Self-Sacrificing Gene

I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.

It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.

For many hundreds of years human beings have realised that evolution is real – but in more recent years we have started to believe that we have now come to a deeper understanding of how this process works.
The survival of the ‘fittest’

Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]

However to call this a competition is peculiar; for the goal of this supposed competition is not to win anything, not even to survive, but merely to generate others beings who are as similar to yourself as possible. An ape that has become extinct on the way to creating humanity is deemed to have failed; while humanity, who so far has only evolved into more of humanity, is deemed to be a success.

So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms

Genetics
More recently scientists have identified a certain molecule that exists in all living organisms – DNA. This molecule is very important because it seems to hold the information which defines what kind of organism it will go on to create.

As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.

So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.

Metaphor

As I write this I can almost hear all true scientist groaning at my seeming incomprehension:

Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.

But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality –  life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.

As Hegel, Lewis and many others have noticed – all language is in fact rooted in metaphor – strange as that seems. There is no pure non-metaphorical language, and how we choose to describe reality is important and reflect our underlying values and assumptions. The wonderful writer, Marilynne Robinson writes of this issue:

The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. 

She goes on to cite Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Robinson demonstrates that, contrary to many modern accounts, eugenics – the barbaric notion that human beings should be bred towards some madman’s notion of perfection – was always part of Darwin’s thinking. It was not just the result of the twisted thinking of Francis Galton – Galton was just putting Darwinism into practice.

I have written elsewhere of the dangers of eugenics – and of how likely we are to see its resurgence. I will not repeat these warnings here. Instead I’d just like to offer the thought that we don’t need to reject evolution in order to reject the metaphorical (and metaphysical) wrappings provided by Darwin, Galton and Dawkins. Again Marilynne Robinson’s observation is acute:

The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.

Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.

Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.

The Eugenic Fallacy

The contemporary philosopher, Peter Singer, is not the only modern thinker who thinks ‘the handicapped baby should die’. Eugenics is not dead, it is just in hiding. Singer is just more outspoken than most.

But he, like other eugenicists, is guilty of a fallacy. His views may seem obviously wicked to some of us; but to many others they are quite tempting. Yet they are also deeply illogical – as I will attempt to show – and it is logic by which philosophers like Singer must live or die.
To begin with, let us acknowledge, even if we know that we  disagree with the eugenicist, that their  arguments do build on some kind of distorted truth.
Humanity is varied (as it should be) and, of course, part of that variability means that there are some of us who are weaker than others. [Although the concept of weakness is quite ambiguous concept, but we’ll leave that for another day.] This weakness, for example, might mean that I might need help to eat or to thrive; and this help can be treated as a cost – not just a financial cost – but as a cost in the lives of others. 
The eugenicist then demands that we put aside compassion, sympathy or love and instead we judge ‘honestly’ and examine the ‘burden’ that love or morality seems to demand: all the feeding, the caring, or the helping. At some point, they argue, we must recognise that this burden just becomes ‘unreasonable.’ And, of course, there is a genuine temptation here. Most of us might resent the care that we must take of others – all of us can imagine something else that we might do that would be more fun, pleasurable, relaxing, creative, productive etc. [Here we can each choose our own utilitarian poison.]
But how can there be an end to this. Each time we destroy the weakest a new weakest must emerge. Those who were second from last will now become last. There will always be someone with less, who needs more, it is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. The eugenic knife must keep on cutting – once we’ve decided that we are at liberty to destroy the weak we will find new people who are weak – and who must therefore be destroyed.
There can be no end to the destruction. And as the process destruction begins there must therefore appear two classes, those who destroy and those to be destroyed. We may feel that we will not belong to either class, but ultimately we must choose – there is only the illusion of a middle ground. If we are silent while the destruction goes on then we are complicit with destruction. If we resist then we stand with those who they wish to destroy.
Eugenics always opens this gulf within humanity – it is profoundly inhuman because it forgets that diversity and weakness is of our very essence. But it is profoundly illogical because it forgets that eugenics changes everything, for all of us. The eugenicist argues as if the act of genocide is merely some neutral act of science. But always there will be those who wield the knife, inject the toxin or turn on the gas. We must become killer or victim. And as the victims pile up the killers must turn on each other. Eugenics is pragmatically self-contradictory – it cannot be sustained (which is not to say it cannot happen – it is happening now).
Eugenics is a particularly tempting philosophy for those who are powerful or wish to be amongst the powerful. In the nineteenth century, as Arendt argued, it was a critical element in the thinking of al the competing elites – liberals, progressives, imperialists and racists:

Darwinism met with such overwhelming success because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race as well as class rule and could be used for, as well as against, race discrimination. Politically speaking, Darwinism as such was neutral, and it has led, indeed, to all kinds of pacifism and cosmopolitanism as well as to the sharpest forms of imperialistic ideologies. In the seventies and eighties of the last century, Darwinism was still almost exclusively in the hands of the utilitarian anti-colonial party in England. And the first philosopher of evolution, Herbert Spencer, who treated sociology as part of biology, believed natural selection to benefit the evolution of mankind and to result in everlasting peace. For political discussion, Darwinism offered two important concepts: the struggle for existence with optimistic assertion of the necessary and automatic “survival of the fittest,” and the indefinite possibilities which seemed to lie in the evolution of man out of animal life and which started the new “science” of eugenics. 

The doctrine of the necessary survival of the fittest, with its implication that the top layers in society eventually are the “fittest,” dies as the conquest doctrine had died, namely, at the moment when the ruling classes in England or the English domination in colonial possessions were no longer absolutely secure, and when it became highly doubtful whether those who were the “fittest” today would still be the fittest tomorrow. The other part of Darwinism, the genealogy of man from animal life, unfortunately survived. Eugenics promised to overcome the troublesome uncertainties of the survival doctrine according to which it was impossible either to predict who would turn out to be the the fittest or to provide the means for the nations to develop everlasting fitness. This possible consequence of applied eugenics was stressed in Germany in the twenties as a reaction to Spengler’s Decline of the West. The process of selection had only to be changed from a natural necessity which worked behind the backs of men into an “artificial,” consciously applied physical tool. Bestiality had always been inherent in eugenics, and Ernst Haeckel’s early remark [1904] that mercy-death would save “useless expenses for family and state” is quite characteristic. Finally the last disciples of Darwinism in Germany decided to leave the field of scientific research altogether, to forget about the search for the missing link between man and ape, and started instead their practical efforts to change man into what the Darwinists thought an ape is.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism 

Today we have our own ‘neoliberal’ version of eugenics. ‘Let the market do the work of the eugenicist. Let those who are unworthy fall aside. Greed is natural and good. We are powerful, rich and strong because we are the best. We should survive and thrive, they should fail.’
This road to Hell has been trod before. The fact that it is all illogical nonsense does not stop it from growing in strength. Its strength is rooted, not in truth, but in fear and in our natural desire not to find ourselves on the losing side – the side of the weak. 
The only thing that will stop it before it destroys everything is that either when the weak themselves resist or that those who have not yet been marked out as weak choose to stand beside them. 
The trial lies before us now, but we close our eyes and hope it will go away of its own accord. This never works.

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