Friday, September 20, 2013

Social Darwinism Redux

Herbert Spencer
Jerry Z. Muller’s essay “Capitalism and Inequality” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2013) addresses a central issue our time: “the rise of economic inequality.” The disparity in educational opportunity and achievement is also addressed in the piece. Marx’s Das Kapital and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations are two of the great modern primers on capitalism. But Muller is no slouch in analyzing the rise of “market mechanisms to control the production and distribution of... goods and services” in the “seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Throughout history, most households had consumed most the things that they produced and produced most of what they consumed,” he remarks. “Only at this point did a majority of the population of some countries begin to buy most of the things they consumed and do so with the proceeds gained from selling most of what they produced.” It’s like like e=mc2, a simple equation whose implications hit you right between the eyes. “Commodification—the transformation of activities performed for private use into activities performed for sale on the open market—allowed people to use their time more efficiently, specializing in what they were relatively good at and buying other things from other people.” Though increasing political freedom may have lowered the bars preventing some classes previously excluded from participating in such commodification, Muller concludes “that the inequality that exists today….derives less from the unequal availability of opportunity than it does from the unequal ability to exploit opportunity.” Here is where Darwin comes into play or is Herbert Spencer who coined the term social Darwinism more apropos? Why do some people succeed while others don’t? And why should some activities be rewarded so handsomely while others aren’t? Teachers receive low pay while a small group of global venture capitalists make fortunes that are greater then the GNP of certain countries. Further, how many of those who chose less remunerative work do so because they like it rather than out of fear that they would not succeed in a more competitive arena? Globalization has exacerbated these inequities since those elites that have attained knowledge and power tend to dominate an ever larger marketplace (whose transactions take place in the cybersphere, where social media increase opportunities for exploitation at an exponential pace). From a trickle down economic perspective, one might say, so what? But what are the ramifications culturally and psychologically--which inevitably brings us back to the question of education. A small percentage of the population around the world is receiving a increasingly higher level of education while the rest of the world’s population just gets enough to make them marginally employable. Muller’s analysis of economic inequality is thus a paradigm of the inequities of education both here and abroad. Muller concludes by quoting Marx and Engels to the effect that “what distinguishes capitalism from other social and economic systems is its 'constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, {and} everlasting uncertainty and agitation.'” However the loss of the incentive to grow and produce is the price that must be paid by societies that attempt to seriously ameliorate the inequitable conditions in which they formerly thrived. If this is dysfunctional sounding, it’s, at the same time, a state of affairs that has its own, albeit inhumane, logic  n’est pas?


  1. I like your closing very much. Of course, I'd like to point out (in reference to the capitalist theories mentioned earlier in the piece) that people have always done what they're best at and traded for what they're unable or unwilling to produce on their own--it was called barter and combined both the distribution of goods and services with the news of what was happening elsewhere. I suspect that it was not so much the rise of capitalism as the end of the feudal system in Europe that allowed individuals of entrepenurial bent to keep the gains from trade.
    "Success" is a term widely used and seldom defined. Like "progress", it is highly subjective. 'Progress' can mean building a bridge--over a geographical or social chasm--or it can mean straight-line movement through a morass, ignoring the nearby road which would require doubling back briefly to reach solid ground. "Success" can mean that the best ideas win out, or that the most ruthless do. Our current economic structure is a perfect Darwinian balance in the sense that there are a small number of high-order predators and a large number of prey (i.e., consumers), similar to nature's ecological archetypes.

  2. "Our current economic structure is a perfect Darwinian balance in the sense that there are a small number of high-order predators and a large number of prey (i.e., consumers), similar to nature's ecological archetypes.”



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