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The Return of Social Darwinism

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The reactionary twists and turns of the GOP presidential hopefuls recent comments suggest that they would like to take us back to the social life of The Gilded Age, when an exceedingly small percentage of the population controlled American economic, social and political life, the social era of what Herbert Spencer first called "survival of the fittest." With a dash of swagger and a measure of emotionless realism, the Republican presidential candidates have made statements, mostly about economics and personal responsibility, that make you wonder if you' really living in the contemporary United States.

Consider the likely GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Although it is quite difficult to know what Romney, the slippery master of the expedient flip-flop, actually believes, he has taken a clear, concrete and heartless view on home foreclosures. During an interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal's editorial board he said the best way out of the foreclosure crisis would be to let the banks take action against homeowners who have defaulted on their mortgages. Romney, who often appears to be clueless about how average people live in the US, made the following statement in Nevada, the state with the highest number of foreclosures:

As to what do to for the housing industry specifically and are there things that you can do to encourage housing: One is, don't try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom, allow investors to buy up homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up.

Based on this statement, Romney has not thought about the poor souls who would be efficiently thrown out of their homes. Has Romney ever wondered if these "defaulting debtors" had been laid off, had fallen ill with debilitating disease, or had suffered a work-ending accident? Has he been concerned about what might happen to those people -- millions of our fellow citizens -- whose economic status has suddenly made them "unfit" to be homeowners. The impersonal forces of Romney's market, you see, are cold and analytic. Romney's market forces don't account for the personal, emotional or moral dimensions of social and economic processes. After all, there was a time when creditors threw debtors into jail -- a good place for the "unfit" to wallow.

Governor Romney presents his 19th century ideology in a cool, polished and authoritative way that hides the deep intent of his reactionary ideas. Herman Cain, who is currently a front runner for the GOP presidential nomination, is much more blunt about his Social Darwinism. He weaves his reactionary ideology into the tapestry of personal responsibility. Speaking about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Cain famously said: "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame big banks. If you're don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." When Mr. Cain repeated the same mantra at the GOP presidential debates on October 18th, the audience cheered. Put into the blunt language that Mr. Cain seems to prefer, if you're poor or unemployed, you must be lazy or "unfit." Don't blame your misery on the rich or on the structural forces that have created and reinforced social inequality. If you work hard, you can be rich. If you don't, then you'll be poor and it's your fault. Here Cain seems to be channeling Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's classic film, It's a Wonderful Life.

Beneath the surface of this reactionary rhetoric lies a troubling pattern that underscores the Social Darwinist notion that the rich -- or the strongest and fittest -- should be socially viable, while the poor -- or the weakest and least fit -- should be allowed to wither and die. Loosely based upon Darwin's theory of natural selection, Social Darwinists always want nature to take its rightful course in society. In the past the rich and powerful used Social Darwinism to deny workers a decent wage, bash labor unions, and justify the refusal of the economic elite to help the poor. The poor were "unfit" and not worthy of help.

Let the market do its work. Don't blame the rich for your problems! Blame yourselves for being unemployed. Let nature take its course.

That's Social Darwinism. Doesn't it sound familiar?

The comments of Romney on foreclosure, Cain on unemployment, and all the GOP presidential hopefuls on taxing the rich unequivocally reflect Social Darwinist beliefs. Before the Great Depression, Social Darwinist beliefs not only expanded American social inequality but also prompted the eugenics movement, which inspired programs in which the genes of the "unfit" were "cleansed" from society. Beliefs in eugenics compelled many American state legislatures to pass laws that sterilized "unfit" people. Inspired by eugenic theories, the US Congress passed a series of Immigration Restriction Acts in the 1920s. These laws severely limited or barred the immigration of peoples deemed "unit." Fit people came from Northern Europe. Unfit people came from Asia and Southern Europe.

That was in the past. In the present, a moment of great social, economic and technological fluidity, it is unthinkable to ponder a return to a past of scientific racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, and severe social inequality.

Or is it? The choice is ours to make. With the narrow-minded and heartless ideas of Romney and Cain we will not only drift back to a reconfigured form of 19th century economic royalism, but also return to the ideology of Social Darwinism. Such a return will tear our society apart.

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