By Michael Hoexter
Neo-Social Darwinism and Neoliberalism
An ideological support to the rise of the neoliberal consensus in economics and politics has been an undercurrent of neo-social Darwinism in the social sciences and in social discourse more generally, which has gained a stronger role in political discourse since the beginning of the most recent economic crisis. Published in the mid-19th Century, a critical time in the genesis of the social sciences, Charles Darwin’s work proposed that biological reality was fundamentally based on differential advantages of individuals within a species, which in turn led to evolution of that species and differentiation of new species from pre-existing species. When applied to social species (social insects and human beings) that have come to be critical players in the world’s ecosystems, the exclusivity of focus on differentiation between individuals of a species over evolutionary time has been questioned by evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson. Wilson observes that social species’ commitment to survival of the group is an important in co-determinant in their individual evolutionary success.
A more inclusive and realistic alternative to the currently orthodox evolutionary synthesis would be “multi-level selection” a still underutilized paradigm within evolutionary biology proposed by David Sloan Wilson. Multi-level selection allows biologists and the interested public to preserve the value of 150 years of biological data collection and interpretation supporting individual selection as the most plausible explanation for speciation over the biological long haul, while enabling a recognition of the different evolutionary impacts of animal societies and colonies of organisms. Social species in particular experience evolutionary pressures and exert evolutionary forces via the creation of complex societies that transform the natural environment. Thus multi-level selection enables an understanding of both individual and group selection in biological evolution to be considered side-by-side.
The individualized narrative of mainstream evolutionary biology ignoring group or species selection has stated or implied that competition between individuals and not social coordination is the hallmark of success in the world of living organisms, including ourselves. The individualized view of biology as applied via social scientists to society, suggests that individuals who succeed in society must be doing so because they are intrinsically superior competitors who are doing the human species a favor, no matter what they do, including doing-in their fellow human beings or driving other species to extinction. If this individualized interpretation of human biology is taken as foundational, it can provide a justification for sociopathy and ecocide, seeing society and ecosystems purely as a disposable instrument to satisfy individual goals and wants. Of course defenders of individualism in biology and social science will demur at this characterization but their theories present no countervailing force to the atomizing force of individual self-interest, as conceived by individuals-only frameworks for understanding humanity.
Also lost in this atomistic, individualistic socio-biological narrative is the importance of leadership of groups and, as human beings become a planetary community, leadership of the entire species in the survival of the group. As human beings have greater influence on their environment than any other species, the notion of human beings as individualized “genetic information takers”, always acting out a necessarily “selfish” genetic program focused on survival of the individual genome, becomes increasingly maladaptive.
Reproducing and re-invigorating the Social Darwinist trend in the social sciences, the Austrian-neoclassical synthesis in neoliberalism and economics suggests that the individual should not care for others beyond his or her immediate kin or associates and that society is simply a thin veil over the struggle for individual survival at the expense of others, an extension of a vision of nature “red in tooth and claw”. The social institutions that then matter or are even conceivable, at least for ideological purposes, are those that foster competition between people. Economists’ and libertarians’ starry-eyed belief in the market and market mechanisms as a fundamental and unchanging institution suggests that (unregulated) markets are “natural facts” like the individualized view of biological evolution. Furthermore these institutions are viewed as being nearly perfected, not requiring the help of society or government. Thus, for instance, economic and financial fraud, among other forms of white-collar crime, are overlooked as we are taught to believe that markets are inherently self-regulating and that information processing by market participants is perfect or near-perfect, i.e. the market will punish fraud without government help.
In keeping with the current market monomania, a campaign of heaping scorn upon government and its functions has continued for almost 35 years issuing from the mouths and pens of right-wing and centrist-to-left-leaning political leaders. In the propaganda campaign that reaches into the supposedly lofty precincts of social science theory, the market has become an idealized instrument of popular will, the epigone of democracy itself, while government has been scapegoated for all that ails society and the economy. Meanwhile, in reality governments have continued to function, sometimes doing very well and sometimes doing poorly by their people. The actual functioning of government and its potential utility in facing important challenges has gone largely unnoticed within the dominant neoliberal/neoclassical/”Austrian” framework that sees little positive role for government in society.
The Capitalism/Anti-Capitalism Polarity
The animus of the neoliberal/neoclassical/”Austrian” campaign against government comes in part from an old political/economic disagreement about what was to be done to rescue capitalism both from itself and from the now largely defunct Communist threat. A dispassionate look at capitalism’s history would reveal a combination of:
1) remarkable material and technological development,
2) the weakening or shattering of traditional cultural or legal restrictions on individual economic initiative,
3) greater formal equality between individuals in economic and often in political settings as compared to feudal arrangements
4) much greater material inequality and greater disparities in informal power often caused by wealth disparities.
5) heightened exploitation of the earth’s resources with little regard for future consequences,
6) the intensified instrumentalization and exploitation of fellow human beings and human cultural wealth by people themselves, and
7) an inherent tendency towards instability and crisis.
The propagandists of capitalism, of both the conscious and the subconscious variety, would like us to focus exclusively on the first three categories while ignoring or downplaying the four rather more negative aspects of the capitalist economic system. There are schools of social science, including neoclassical economics, which are built upon a foundation that leads practitioners to ignore or minimize these four critical “downsides” to capitalist development.
On the other hand, the critics of capitalism have tended to focus on capitalism’s four weaknesses while ignoring or downplaying capitalism’s contribution to technological and material progress, the varieties of individual economic freedoms and expression it can enable and the formal equality between people that sometimes accompanies capitalist development. While Marx at times expressed admiration or support for capitalism as a progressive force against benighted feudalism, his view that one could accelerate human progress rapidly beyond capitalism led him and his followers to find much more fault than favor with capitalism as a social and economic system. Marxists after Marx have varied in their appreciation of capitalism’s benefits and strengths but their tendency, of course, has been to see capitalism as largely a repository of most forms of human evil which would, in the eyes of Marxists, be banished via the transition eventually to communism.
Not as numerous and influential have been (left-wing) anarchist critics of capitalism who have been even less inclined than Marxists to find any favor at all in the current social system, often choosing either a radical individualism or the celebration of bygone communitarian past that did not involve government institutions. Finally, right-wing and conservative critics of capitalism whose critiques are more self-contradictory than those of the Left, tend to devalue the material and social progress of capitalism as itself promoting cultural degeneration, as destroying the “old ways” of doing things, as a conspiracy of a hated ethnic minority or foreign group, or as promoting the mixing of racial groups.
The tendency to split the good and the bad of capitalism even in supposedly neutral academic settings has dogged efforts to create a many-sided view of capitalism as it really is. Fueled by conflicts within conventional morality about differentiating excessive greed from ordinary material self-interest, the strength of the polarity capitalist vs. anti-capitalist has led people to gravitate to one or the other camp or alternatively to indirectly reinforce the polarity by accepting that a politically expedient melange of views from each polarized camp is what corresponds to reality. Also vast differences in the material or monetary benefit of one or the other economic or political act to different economic actors, i.e. traditional economic class conflict, contributes as strongly to the polarization of views about capitalism. If the lens through which we view capitalism is deeply split via strongly held moral views or personal economic interests, we tend to miss or inaccurately describe the shades of gray that lie between “black” and “white”.
The stakes in this discussion are extremely high, as groups at one pole or the other of this discussion have, at one time or another, wielded great power and often done great damage to civilization. On the one hand, the propagandists of capitalism have created an ideological smokescreen for capitalism’s most destructive aspects. Behind this smokescreen, the logic of capital accumulation presses corporate actors to seek profit in activities like war-making and heedless extraction of natural resources without regard for their ultimate value, while pushing the costs off onto workers, the general population, future generations, and the environment. On the other hand some of the leaders of anti-capitalist movements, armed with one-sided critiques of capitalism as the primary expression of human evil, have created dystopian dictatorships that have generated their own set of human evils that match and, in certain categories, exceed the evils they decry about capitalism. There are also leaders who claim allegiance to an unstable “Third Way” mélange of views from both camps who, like Tony Blair, became agents of one side of the polarity (the corporatist-capitalist one) and also do great damage (enabling the disastrous Iraq war).