Issue #16, Spring 2010

Cachet of the Cutthroat

Social Darwinism isn’t only morally wrong; it doesn’t even perform the function it claims to perform: fostering real competition.

Nice guys finish last. Survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten. For Americans dwelling in the uneasily interesting times of the early twenty-first century, such catchphrases–and the sensibility they embody–strike familiar chords. Stemming from an unwieldy synthesis of fin-de-siecle Social Darwinism and (until recently) trendy Chicago School economics, this ethos claims that ferocious, mercilessly competitive conditions weed out the weak while preserving and enhancing the strongest members of an institution, a market, or a civilization as a whole. Such roughness and ruthlessness render us more competitive, thicker-skinned, and simply better than the rest of the pack. Such maxims are applied to communities and societies as much as to the people who comprise them: The more cutthroat an organization’s culture, the more hardened it is to adversity and tougher the people who emerge from its hallowed halls.

When this belief system bleeds over into the realm of political discourse, it transmogrifies into a paradoxical badge of honor, a disposition toward sink-or-swim hard-heartedness and a spurning of the “distractions” of the broader community. “The public be damned!” Cornelius Vanderbilt famously told a reporter who had asked the nineteenth-century tycoon about his railroad company’s social responsibility. In word and deed, Vanderbilt encapsulated the mindset of a previous American Gilded Age–an eerie precursor to our own–prior to its catastrophic collapse in the Depression. Vanderbilt’s sentiments can still be heard today, couched in p.r.-friendly euphemisms or offered as hearty retorts to the soft communitarianism of Scandinavia, Continental Europe, and Canada.

Of course, there have always been dissenting voices in our policy and cultural debates. Progressive leaders like Robert LaFollette and Eugene Debs, along with their philosophical and administrative successors in charge of the New Deal, exemplified this spirit in the early twentieth century. But such objections have rarely questioned the underlying premise of Social Darwinism itself; they seek to salve the symptoms of its workings in the real world, without curing (let alone preventing) the malaise in the American collective mind, which has paved the way for such a harsh philosophy to insinuate itself into society. Even in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, opposition to this “Cachet of the Cutthroat” is generally confined to ethical qualms about the suffering and personal cost imposed on hard-pressed individuals and families–deploring the scale of the misery, rather than addressing its roots. Across the ideological spectrum, the prevailing wisdom holds that such institutionalized harshness generates a more productive, adaptive, and wealthy society overall, with “liberalism” left to debate merely whether the resulting human collateral damage is an acceptable cost of doing business.

Although such moral objections are clearly relevant, the most devastating counterargument to the Cachet of the Cutthroat is that it is simply wrong. Both the social and natural sciences have conclusively demonstrated that ostensibly “softer and fuzzier” qualities in people and the communities they engender–compassion, goodwill, and above all empathy–are integral to sustainable success, particularly in complex organizations, but even in nature at its rawest and bloodiest. By fostering social cohesion and solidarity against adversity, such attributes paradoxically make us more, not less, competitive as individuals and as a society. Over time, the strongest and most productive individuals, communities, and nations all tend to be especially rich in these supposedly soft-hearted characteristics, while the most cutthroat societies collapse in a state of corruption and acrimony–their “winners” ultimately hoisted on their own petards. The latter, if anything, defines the vicious cycles of corrupt banana republics, their leaders utilizing bribery, coups, and even assassinations in the cutthroat march to power.

This is not to say that all competition is bad, but rather that not all flavors of “competitiveness” are equal. A competitive atmosphere can be constructive and productive, driving individual performers to improve and collaborate, to learn and boost creativity, and ultimately to engender innovation and institutional betterment. The extraordinary discoveries of quantum theory in the early twentieth century were a product of such cooperative competition, or “co-opetition.” A handful of brilliant minds–Planck, Schrödinger, Einstein, de Broglie, Pauli, Bohr, and Born–vied to outdo one another. Yet this was far from cutthroat competition: From their scattered bases in the universities of Austria, Germany, France, Britain, and Denmark, they periodically met and mutually stimulated one another to devise a theory that is today at the heart of countless high-tech industries–a gift to the world worth trillions of dollars in created wealth.

Too often in the United States, co-opetition is conflated with destructive, lowest-common-denominator competition, which has led to predatory lending, underregulated capital markets, and our costly and ineffective health care system. Our counterparts abroad, however, have more prudently (and prosperously) distinguished them. The European Union, Taiwan, South Korea, and other major economies have more attentively adapted to the delicate policy balance needed for modern technological nations in an era of relative resource scarcity, as recently described by Steven Hill in his cogent exposition Europe’s Promise. Even China, with its comparatively authoritarian system, has recently been hard at work introducing Continental European-style regulatory networks, ecological protections, and safety nets.

For the United States to prosper in the twenty-first century, we must learn from these examples, beginning with a better understanding of Social Darwinist ideology and the historical forces that have facilitated its pernicious infection of our society. Only then can we glimpse precisely why this doctrine fails so disastrously in sustaining the true source of a society’s power–the collective will and inspiration of its people to engender a better world. In doing so, we can also begin to lay the groundwork for a more mutually reinforcing, and ultimately more successful, society.

A Brief History of a Dangerous Misconception

If there is any conclusive lesson to be gleaned from the churn of society’s various “isms” over the past millennium, it is that both nature and human communities are far too complex to reduce down to a single, linear theory. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, this has never stopped fools and fanatics in power from becoming dreadfully too sure of themselves, attempting to fit their societies violently into the procrustean beds of narrow interpretations. The annals of history are littered with countless examples–Communism, Maoism, Nazism, and fascism, to name just a few from the past century alone–with often horrendous atrocities expediently justified by simpleminded takes on complex theories and ideas. So it is with the curious history of Social Darwinism.

The work of the nineteenth-century naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace led to a coherent theory of evolution by natural selection, culminating in Darwin’s 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. Their conclusions had far-reaching implications regarding how biological (and, by extension, cognitive and information) diversity evolves and emerges, via accumulated and gradual evolutionary steps over eons, with pre-conscious organisms eventually giving rise to conscious, intelligent life forms through unknown means. Darwin did speculate about the possible implications for his work in human society, but both he and Wallace ultimately remained agnostic on the topic. Neither cast his work as an explicit recommendation for the complex, fast-changing domain of human interactions and societies, populated by conscious, intelligent members whose conduct was guided by concrete ethical codes.

Others were not so circumspect. The term “survival of the fittest” was coined in 1864 by a contemporary of Darwin, the British sociologist and author Herbert Spencer. Even before Darwin’s own meisterwerk had appeared, Spencer had ascribed a degree of moral rectitude to the presumably callous workings of nature, which included, in his mind, the harsh inequalities of aristocratic Victorian society. As he wrote in his 1851 treatise Social Statics, “The poverty of the incapable…and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and in miseries,’ are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.” In Darwin’s subsequent work, Spencer found a naturalistic scaffolding upon which to buttress his own interpretations of social organization and, in so doing, converted Darwin’s descriptive observations into prescriptive arguments about an ideal society. This became the crux of Social Darwinism.

Others followed, in no small part because Social Darwinism would prove convenient for a number of vested interests. Many of the era’s industrial magnates, imperial officials, and landed aristocrats were more than willing to overlook its evident shortcomings and logical fallacies. Vanderbilt was only the first and most voluble; robber barons like Jay Gould and James Fisk followed his lead closely in their attacks on government intervention and unions, while an army of subservient politicians, lawyers, and even preachers espoused Social Darwinism across the country. Substandard wages, child labor, monopoly capitalism–all were justified by an appeal to the “survival of the fittest.”

Gilded Age America wasn’t the only place to see Social Darwinism flower. Darwin’s work emerged at an apex of European colonialism, when the British, French, and Russian Empires, in particular, were marching steadily throughout much of Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. In such a climate, tweaks upon Darwin’s ideas provided an ideal rationale to condone policies that, under almost any ethical system, would be considered abhorrent: the imposition of foreign hegemony to subjugate free peoples, the vicious realpolitik that would culminate in World War I and the ruthless exploitation of human labor toward the enriching of a tiny elite. Vanderbilt’s candid sentiment meshed well with this unrelentingly Hobbesian zeitgeist.

The push toward Social Darwinism was momentarily blunted by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reformers, muckrakers, and human rights conventions. In the 1870s, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced workplace protections in Germany to cushion the shocks of rapid industrialization. Across the Atlantic, American reformers followed suit, beginning with child labor and workplace safety laws in the 1890s and culminating in FDR’s New Deal reforms and Johnson’s Great Society. Simultaneously, the world’s major imperial powers–drained of finances and manpower from the world wars and defeated by both political and battlefield opponents in Egypt, Southeast Asia, India, the Near East, Ireland, and elsewhere–were driven out of their colonies. For a fleeting moment, historical events, and the collective moral outrage of the downtrodden, had thus consigned Social Darwinism to the fringes of acceptable policy.

In this milieu, a handful of pragmatic reformers emerged who defended the essence of Smith-Ricardo capitalism yet saw carefully managed markets (assisted by rational safety nets) as tools for growing wealth and bettering society, rather than socially preponderant forces in their own right: economist John Maynard Keynes, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and New Dealer Thomas Corcoran, who conceptualized the Fair Labor Standards Act. Social Darwinism, they realized, was not only cruel but detrimental to a healthy economy in promoting raw and destructive competition as an end in itself. As Adolf Augustus Berle, an economist and legal expert who served in FDR’s brain trust, said (in words that would resonate today), “The ‘free market’…is an instrument, but it has been displaced as the infallible god,” not to mention as “universal economic master” and “the only acceptable way of economic life.”

But the reformist moment was not to last. To paraphrase George Washington’s cautionary words, human observers must generally “feel before they can see” a slowly building menace. As historical memory and the imminent threat of financial collapse both ebbed, so did the intellectual bulwarks against the speculative and predatory excesses that had brought on the Depression. Eisenhower’s thrifty pragmatism was soon followed by a resumption of polarizing ideological warfare. Meanwhile, in regard to the anthropological assumptions that underpin human systems, traits like compassion and kindness drew little interest among behaviorists and naturalists, generally dismissed as little more than evolutionary static. With few exceptions, such as the Russian zoologist Peter Kropotkin or the American historian Richard Hofstadter (who systematically impugned the logical foundations of Social Darwinism), fewer and fewer in the postwar era questioned the traditional rendition of a cruel, heartless natural world underlying our own.

As a result, reformists eventually saw their gains recede during the vertiginous global economic growth in the postwar era; political fortunes shifted back to advocates of unfettered free markets, and Social Darwinism itself made a comeback. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States, by now dominated by neoclassical economic policy and Reaganite anti-statism, emerged as the world’s unquestioned economic and military hegemon. In this context, “Greed is good”–the narcissistic tagline uttered by Michael Douglas’s unscrupulous corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film Wall Street–became a rallying cry. With the subsequent popularity of neoliberal economic doctrines and the post-1991 “unipolar moment,” doctrines of laissez-faire economics guided development across much of the world, whether through the profusion of U.S. trained economists in the world’s finance ministries or the power of the World Bank’s “structural adjustment” policies. The thinking of Austrian School economists, Friedrich Hayek chief among them, was revived and merged with the efficient markets hypothesis of Milton Friedman and his followers to foster what became the “Washington Consensus,” the prevailing economic framework since the 1980s. This doctrine, in turn, formed the basis for the mass privatization and “shock therapy” that the U.S.-dominated IMF demanded from struggling South American nations, Russia, and Indonesia in the ensuing years. (As with Darwin and Wallace, however, the work of Hayek and his Austrian colleagues was far more nuanced than the practical policies it was later invoked to support.)

Unregulated markets, whatever their Social Darwinist excesses, were said to be self-correcting and ultimately beneficial to the commonwealth of a nation. Short-term and individual pain would be outweighed by long-term gains. Thus, the highest virtues in society became linked to maximizing perceived shareholder value at all costs and as quickly as possible, a presumed catalyst to generate new wealth–whether or not genuine innovation in products or systems had actually taken place. By the mid-2000s, this philosophy naturally spilled over into other arenas: the office, mass media, the courtrooms, and athletic pursuits. If only the strongest would survive and thrive, then all was indeed fair in this most “competitive” of marketplaces. Qualities such as compassion and empathy were dispensable and regarded as hindrances, while ruthless and even cutthroat behavior–despite the presumed social stigma–encompassed the traits most associated with success and social advancement. As the millennium turned, firms like Tyco, Computer Associates, and an ambitious energy-trading company named Enron were feted for their ruthless selection and pruning of personnel, as well as their envelope-pushing aggressiveness with partners and acquisition targets. The subsequent indictment of their executives, and the earth-shaking fall of Enron, offered cautionary omens which, nonetheless, dropped off the radar screen as the 2000s marched along.

Issue #16, Spring 2010

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