Sunday, February 27, 2011

If Conservatives reject Darwin, how can they embrace Social Darwinism? Thoughts on seeing ASEA at State Capitol

While state employees in Wisconsin are demonstrating in protest of their Governor's move to end collective bargaining, Alaska's unionized employees - mostly represented by the Alaska State Employees Union  - were happily doing what lots of groups of Alaska residents do:  walking the state capitol, talking to legislators about issues, and posing in front of the Capitol building for a picture just as the Key Campaign folks had done the day before.

I don't want to get into the pros and cons of labor unions.  *My short personal sense of unions is at the bottom of the post.

But thinking about unions,  Walker's attack on them in Wisconsin, and their beginnings in the US, brought social Darwinism to mind.  Darwin's Origin of the Species came out in 1859 and Darwin's theory about evolution was debated through the Europe and North America and other parts of the world.

One of the offshoots of Darwinism was something called Social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism was a sociological theory popular in late nineteenth-century Europe and the United States. It merged Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection and Herbert Spencer's sociological theories to justify imperialism, racism, and laissez-faire (i.e. conservative) social and economic policies. Social Darwinists argued that individuals and groups, just like plants and animals, competed with one another for success in life. They used this assertion to justify the status quo by claiming that the individuals or groups of individuals at the top of social, economic, or political hierarchies belonged there, as they had competed against others and had proven themselves best adapted. Any social or political intervention that weakened the existing hierarchy, they argued, would undermine the natural order. [Emphasis added]

Social Darwinism was embraced by the ruling class because it justified their wealth and relieved them of any obligation to help the poor. This was 'scientific' support for the market and competition.

Social Darwinism lost influence during the Great Depression but the term came back in the era of Ronald Reagan.

But given that in 2009 only 4 in 10 Americans professed to believe in Evolution and in some states people are supporting the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design in schools, it seems that there is an inconsistency. 

If the hard core Republican base doesn't believe in Darwinism, why are they supporting a party that seems to continue to believe in social Darwinism, continues to favor policies that help the very wealthy and cut supports for the poor?

I can find fault with unions just as easily as anyone.  But those who attack the flaws of unions seem to overlook the equally, perhaps more, problematic faults of business.  Just because the private sector has faults, we don't call for abolishing it, nor should we try to abolish unions.  We should set up safeguards that increase the likelihood that both will do what they do well and not do what they do poorly.

Without unions, individual employees are at the mercy of organizations (I'm not talking Mom and Pop businesses here) with the resources and information that tips every confrontation in favor of the organization against the employee.  Unions provide a base of knowledge for workers - knowledge of the organization's policies, precedents, historical practices, and knowledge of the law and their rights.  Unions give some power to people at the bottom of the heap.  Power to fight abusive bosses, unfair and illegal work and pay practices, power to fight illegal orders and unfair termination.  Without the counterbalance of unions, managers - in public as well as private organizations - have overwhelming power over workers. 

*My Short View of Unions
The fight between unions and management is about power.  My experience, as an employee and as a reader of history, is that American workers are inherently anti-union.  They believe in the individual over the group.  They only vote for unions when management has been so overbearing and unreasonable that joining a union looks like a better alternative. 

And because, despite our rhetoric, we are only moderately good at democracy (look at how many people don't vote and can't tell you the individual candidates' positions). 

And so unions, which are ostensibly more democratic (officers are selected through elections of the members rather than appointment from the top), are easily taken over by those who like to play power games. 

The people on top of organizations aren't very different.  There will be times when unions have sway and times when they have to make concessions (such the current economic downturn).  A good reading of history suggests that without unions, working conditions would be dismal.  And even employees in non-union organizations have unions to thank for things they take for granted, like 40 hour weeks, vacation and sick pay, and a myriad of other benefits. To get a reminder of US working conditions before unions, read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  It's short and available free at any public library. 


  1. The first step to power in union organizing is often the shop steward position. Most shop stewards I've voted for as a union member or dealt with in management were sincerely motivated. Some were after power, but no more so than someone who goes to her or his community council meetings on a regular basis with the goal of eventually running for elected office.

    The fight between labor and management isn't only a fight for power, it a fight for workers' rights to a fair or equitable percentage of the profits the owners get from the labor and intellectual acumen of the total work force engaged.

    Unions work best in situations where the product of the organization's work is a sellable commodity, rather than services - as in hotel workers, teachers or cops.

    Attacks upon unions so strenuously at this point in American history are mostly being directed by behind-the-scenes people contributing to hundreds of organizations with names combining American Apple Pie and Randian corporate utopianism.

    My favorite read on the battles between the true Darwinists and the social Darwinists in late 19th century America is Susan Jacoby's chapters on that in "Freethinkers."

    Every day, since the early 1960s, a higher percentage of the wealth created by all Americans ends up in the pockets of fewer people. Those fewer people use that extra wealth to create an aristocratic environment that allows their accruals to be protected by contracts and laws individual workers and laborers could only dream of.

  2. Phil, thanks for expanding on this. I would argue that ultimately it is a power struggle. Whether the people use the power for improving the working conditions of the employees and effectiveness of the organization OR for one's own personal agenda is another issue. Both happen. And big egos often seem to play a role on both sides. But there are also people on both sides who simply want to make the organization work for everyone's best interest.


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