One of the commentators on this site raised some interesting issues, in response to part of an article that I wrote, which warrant some discussion.
I had said: “Eugenics is now embodied in economic acts, carried out by a government that has systematically rigged the neoliberal market, the act of [state] murder simply requires policies that leave the poorest and the most vulnerable people without support to meet their basic survival needs, denial from government that this is happening, and then it’s just a matter of withholding or hiding the evidence …. the Right are and always have been Social Darwinists.”
The response: “I think you exaggerate a bit by bringing in eugenics – which was a deliberate attempt to wipe out/sterilise large proportions of the poor, whereas here it’s only a side effect that the powerful aren’t particularly concerned about.
There is a strong sense of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ in Tory narratives though, and I find the lack of empathy mindboggling. Particularly as David Cameron himself had a severely disabled son, so must have first-hand knowledge of the expensive nature of care for the disabled.
I don’t disagree with them [the Tories] being Social Darwinists at all – there is a brutal ‘survival of the fittest’ logic to many of their policies in practice. But eugenics is different – I don’t believe that anyone in the current government actually wants the poor and disabled to be dead or infertile, just that they don’t want to pay to support them. There’s a small, but important, distinction between neglect and genocide.”
There are several facets to my initial response. Firstly, whilst the government may not be committing conspicuous murder, people ARE dying as a consequence of Conservative policies. The pertinent question is: are those documented deaths an intentional consequence of Conservative policies or simply because of government neglect regarding consequences of their policies? Does withdrawing essential state support for the poorest citizens, disabled citizens and vulnerable social groups constitute eugenics?
Secondly, there is an intimate and historical connection between Social Darwinism and eugenics, which is also worth some discussion, because ideology has considerable bearing on policies, and policies may be regarded as objective statements of political intent regarding how a government thinks society should be socioeconomically organised.
Social Darwinism was one of the pillars of fascism and Nazi ideology, and the consequences of the application of policies based on notions of “survival of the fittest” by the Nazis drove the eugenics program, which eventually created a very powerful international backlash against the theory, culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Social Darwinists interpret human society primarily in terms of biology, struggle, competition, and natural law (a philosophy based on what are considered to be the immutable characteristics of human nature). Social Darwinism characterises a variety of past and present social policies and theories. Social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalisation behind racism, imperialism, capitalism and eugenics.
The term quite rightly has negative implications for most people because we consider it a rejection of decency, compassion, civilisation and social responsibility, and a devaluing of human life.
Any social policy based on an underpinning philosophy of Social Darwinism – explicitly or implicitly – invariably has eugenic implications. Modern eugenics was rooted in the Social Darwinism of the late 19th century, and is used to justify a hierarchy of entitlement to rights, State withdrawal of support for the most marginalised (and vulnerable) social groups, with all of its associated metaphors of fitness, competition, and intrinsic, tautological rationalisations of inequality.
I want to make clear at this point that any consideration of the political and psychosocial processes that culminated in the atrocities of the Holocaust is not in any way an attempt to trivialise those events. Quite the contrary. In recognising the processes that important researchers such as Gordon Allport identified – the unfolding stages involved in the growth of prejudice in a society that manifests othering, outgrouping, and permits a society to incrementally discriminate and hate over time – and in drawing parallels, we may ensure that such atrocities never happen again.
Eugenic theories are most commonly associated with Nazi Germany’s racially motivated social policies. The Nazis sought the improvement of the Aryan race or Germanic Ubermenschen – master race – through eugenics, which was the foundation of Nazi ideology.
Those people targeted by the Nazis were identified as life unworthy of Life – Lebensunwertes Leben – including but not limited to the “idle”, “insane”, “degenerate”, “dissident”, “feeble-minded”, homosexual and the generally weak, for elimination from the chain of heredity. More than 400,000 people were sterilised against their will, whilst 275,000 were killed under Action T4, a “euthanasia” program.
However, there is quite a broad definition of eugenics and I propose that because it has been so thoroughly discredited, it has been forced to “go incognito” over the last century. The public support for eugenics greatly waned after the fall of Nazi Germany and the Nazis’ attempt to use eugenic justifications for the Holocaust at the Nuremberg Trials.
Right-wing philosopher, Roger Scruton, said in an article in the American Spectator: “The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that “don’t enter” is now written across its door,” implying he would like to see more openness to eugenics as an idea. In a way, he does make a valid point, because when what was once stated explicitly becomes implicit and tacit – normalised – it is difficult to oppose and challenge, essential debate is therefore stifled.
Eugenics is the infamous idea that governments should decide which kinds of citizens ought to be considered desirable – the consensus tends to be that these are white, athletic, intelligent, and wealthy – and which kinds of citizens ought to be considered undesirable – these tended to be black, Jewish, disabled, or poor – and employ the power of the State to encourage increases of desirable citizens (positive eugenics) and encourage decreases of undesirable citizens (negative eugenics).
Eugenics is specifically State interference in and engineering of the “survival of the fittest”. That is happening here in the UK, with Tory policies like the extremely punitive welfare “reforms”, which are aimed at the most vulnerable citizens – such as those who are sick and/or disabled – all too often denying them the means to meet basic survival needs.
The founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, formulated the idea that the protection afforded by civil society had prevented the kind of natural selection occurring in Darwin’s Origin of Species from happening in humans, thus perpetuating the existence of “weak and feeble-minded” people who would have been unable to survive in the “state of nature”.
Thomas Malthus went further, and is most often considered the founding father of this ideology of profound antihumanism: he also believed that giving support to the needy would only imperil everyone else, because resources are limited, so the brutal reality was that it was better to let them starve. Malthus held the belief that the poor are akin to a “horde of vermin whose unconstrained aspirations and appetites endanger the natural order”: that tyrannical measures are necessary to constrain humanity.
It was Malthus that offered a pseudo-scientific basis for the idea that human reproduction always outstrips available resources. Following this pessimistic and inaccurate assessment of the capacity of human ingenuity to develop new resources, Malthus advocated oppressive policies that led to the starvation of millions in India and Ireland.
Malthus’s position as professor at the British East India Company training college gave his theories considerable influence over Britain’s administration of India through most of the nineteenth century, which led to the official response of neglect to India’s periodic famines.
Malthus wrote about restraints on population growth which included famine, disease and war. His theory was later used to explain the British government policy of maintaining agricultural exports from Ireland during the Great Famine (1845-49) in which at least 1.5 million people died of starvation or the side-effects of malnutrition, and at least another million immigrated.
Malthus was also very influential in bringing about the punitive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. His work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, was a product of that era, it resonated with the laissez-faire framework of competitive individualism, and the dominant socio-political paradigm. It remains influential today, despite being thoroughly discredited, not least by social history since his time of writing.
Prior to the Holocaust, eugenics was widely accepted in the UK. Malthus’s ideas on population control and Spencer’s Social Darwinism fitted neatly into the sociopolitcal ideological framework. The ruling elite feared that offering medical treatment and social services to disabled people would undermine the natural struggle for existence and lead to the degeneration of the human race.
Those ideas, once explicitly endorsed, are now implicitly captured in policies and Conservative narratives about sanctions, “conditionality,” “making work pay,” (compare with the principle of less eligibility enshrined in the New Poor Law) “fairness,” “incentives,” “scroungers,” and so forth. A crucial similarity with the early part of the century and now is reflected in Tory austerity rhetoric – a perceived shortage of resources for health and welfare. Another parallel is the scapegoating process and a rise in the level of social prejudices and sociopolitical discrimination.
Anti-immigration rhetoric, reflected in the media, with the vilification of sick and disabled people and the poor, has preceded policies particularly aimed at the steady removal of State support indicating a clear scapegoating process, and this isn’t indicative of a government that is “neglectful”- it is patently intentional, hence the pre-emptive “justification” narratives to garner public support and acceptance towards such punitive and harsh policies.
So, the first purpose of such justification narratives is to make cruel and amoral policies seem acceptable. However, such propaganda narratives also serve to intimidate the targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful.
Furthermore, this type of hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used this type of propaganda and narrative to justify prejudice, discrimination, to incite hatred and ultimately, to incite genocide.)
As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice. The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equal worth of all human beings. This is for very good reason.
Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed. In the UK, we have a government that endorses the repression of the historically oppressed.
Social Darwinists generally argue that the “strong” should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. In most contemporary western societies these views tend to emphasise competition between individuals for resources in a neoliberal State. In the UK, this idea is very apparent in the policies of the conservative-led government, and previously, we saw similar views from Thatcher.
The biological concept of “adaptation” is used by the Right to claim that the rich and powerful are better adapted to the social and economic climate of the time, and the concept of natural selection perpetuates the supremacist argument that it is natural, normal and proper for the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak.
Notions of deserving and undeserving poor flourished at a time when Social Darwinism and eugenics where widely acceptable here in the UK. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identifying moral actions in public policy as those which produce the greatest good for the greatest number, also support the contention that, whilst in the short term the interests of the poor would seem to be supported by public relief, the ultimate result of relief is detrimental to their interests.
Social Darwinism was popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere and the ethical philosophies of Conservatives are underpinned by a strongly elitist view based on the pseudo-scientific arguments of “adaptation and natural selection.” The Victorian era has made a deep impact upon many contemporary Conservatives, such as Gove and Osborne.
Michael Gove has written: “For some of us Victorian costume dramas are not merely agreeable ways to while away Sunday evening but enactments of our inner fantasies … I don’t think there has been a better time in our history” in “Alas, I was born far too late for my inner era”.
A better time for whom, precisely? It was a time of child labour, desperation, prostitution, low life expectancy, disease, illiteracy, workhouses, and a truly dog-eat-dog social perspective. Or was it the deferential protestant work ethic reserved only for the poor, the pre-destiny of the aristocracy, and “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” that appeals to Gove?
In a speech to the Confederarion of British Industry, (CBI) George Osborne argued that both parties in the coalition had revitalised themselves by “revisiting their 19th-century roots.”
Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, with his dictum “the survival of the fittest” – he was a sociologist, not a biologist – provided further support for the view that the “vices” of the lowest class in society make such persons undeserving of help from those who were financially privileged. (“Us” are the fittest: “Them” – the “Other” – are not.)
It is but a short step from the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century to the radical individualism of Ayn Rand, the latter’s popularity on the Right continuing to support a Conservative libertarian celebration of selfishness – “Nobody is mine.”
Conservatives have always seen society and human relationships in terms of hierarchies, based on “red in tooth and claw” Darwinist conflict. A hierarchy is any system of persons or things ranked one above the other.
The term was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. Organised religion is very hierarchical. Hierarchical thinking is about seeing the world through systems of domination or importance. But the central principle of human rights is that each have equal worth: that we are all equally important. But hierarchies ensure that privilege and decision-making is not socially distributed. Nor is power.
The very way that Tories think leads to a collision between their ideology and our human rights, and is completely incompatible with the principles of equality and democracy. Tories think that some people hold a more important place in society than others. This reduces people – they become inferiors or superiors, and really, that is about unequal distribution of power, subordination and domination – those power relationships are no longer entirely notional, we have moved some distance from being a liberal democracy these past four years – and feudalism and manorialism are very Tory ideals.
To summarise, there are strong links between the right-wing idea of competitive individualism, Social Darwinism, social inequalities, eugenics, nationalism, fascism and authoritarianism. Those ideas are implicit in Tory rhetoric, because they form the very foundations of Tory ideology. A society with inequalities is and always has been the ideologically founded and rationalised product of Conservative Governments.
Robert Michel’s iron law of oligarchy describes the inevitable tendency of hierarchical organisations to become oligarchic in their decision making – anti-democratic. And prejudice is an in-built feature of hierarchy, because of the stratified nature of power, esteem and status. Right-wing populism so often takes the form of distrust of the European Union, and of politicians in general, combined with anti-immigrant rhetoric, and a call for a return to “traditional, national values”.
Those “traditional values” that the Tories cherish, and often speak about, mean the end of our hard-earned rights, the end of any principle of the equal worth of everyone, the end of government accountability and increasingly, legal restraint, the end of democracy, the end of access to social opportunities, the end of any meaningful citizen autonomy. Yet these are civilising conditions. The Tories would prefer to have us outwardly oppressed and inwardly repressed, and fighting amongst ourselves for ever-decreasing resources.
This government’s schadenfreude, the intent and motivation behind the draconian policies that we’ve seen this past four years, which target the most vulnerable citizens most of all, is debated.
Some people believe that the policies are a consequence of a redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the wealthy rather than being malicious acts. But the Tories laughed on hearing the accounts of suffering of the poor because of the bedroom tax and an increasing dependency on food banks, for all to see, during parliamentary debate with the opposition.
But entertaining the idea for a moment that the inflicted suffering is not a motivation but rather, a consequence, well that would make the Government at the very least indifferent, callous and unremorseful, since they show a supreme lack of concern for the plight of those least able to defend themselves against injustice and inflicted poverty. And such indifference contravenes fundamental human rights. It breaches international laws.
Either way, I feel shock and anger at the recognition that all of those principles and beliefs we held dear – such as justice, fairness, democracy, freedom, Government accountability, equality (at least in terms of the worth of each life), institutionalised philanthropy – all trodden under foot by advocates of Social Darwinism – an aristocratic elite – in just four years. And the faith we each had in those collective ideals undermined by the constant perpetuation of socially divisive propaganda tactics from the Right.
Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression.
Government policies are expressed political intentions, regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated socio-economic aims and consequences. None of the policies that this government have formulated regarding the “support and care” of some of the most vulnerable citizens could be seen as anything other than expressions of intentional harm.
Services and support have been cut, lifeline benefits have been restricted by a variety of means, such as the revolving door process application of the work capability assessment, benefit sanctions, the mandatory reconsideration process.
Where is the investigation into the very high number of deaths associated with the Tory-led welfare reforms? The government have been made aware of those deaths through parliamentary debate, yet they persist in denying any “causal link” with the significant increase of sick and disabled people dying and their savage cuts to lifeline benefits. If there is no causal link, an inquiry would demonstrate that, surely?
It’s a universally recognised fact that if people are prevented from meeting their basic survival needs, they will die. Benefit sanctions, and cuts to welfare and public services, the rising cost of living and the depression of wages are having a detrimental effect on many. I don’t imagine that it’s the case that everyone but the government are aware of this. Yet the harmful policies remain.
The Coalition will leave more debt than all Labour governments since 1900. The current government’s now responsible for £517 billion of the trillion-plus-pound UK public debt, compared to £472 billion accrued during the 33 years Labour led the country since the turn of the twentieth century.
And the figures look even worse when you adjust for inflation. When you do that, the Coalition’s share jumps to nearly half of the total debt.
But the Coalition don’t meet any public’s needs, they simply serve the wants of the 1%. Labour invested in public services, the Tories have bled them dry. So, what have they done with the money? Because the public have seen only austerity cuts.
These policies are intentional. Withholding State support for poor, disabled, ill and vulnerable people – paid for via our taxes – is a deliberate act.
While our government have been busy denying the eugenics-by-stealth consequences of their diabolical policies in this Country, back in 2012, the Guardian exposed the fact that the British government has spent millions of pounds funding a policy of forced sterilisation of the poor in India as part of an effort to reduce human population to “help combat climate change”. But we also know that many Tories deny climate change exists.
The governments of China and India practice hard eugenics, underwritten by American and British tax money, these are coercive measures undertaken by governments to decrease citizen population. The exposure of support for hard eugenics prompted denial and backtracking. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) claims to support “voluntary family planning” in China. They assume that women, who are aware that conceiving a second child will result in a forced abortion, are free to make choices – thus the forced abortion is a State arrangement entered into “voluntarily.”
Hard eugenics is the ideology that is hiding behind Hitler. But soft eugenics is based on the same pathological belief – that a government should spend its resources to prevent the propagation of those who the government believes to be “detrimental” to society and economic production. It won’t be long before there is some UK policy that imposes a restriction on the number of children poor people may have – probably “soft” eugenic policy, initially. Perhaps a limit on the number of children that unemployed or underemployed families may claim support for. Of course that will have ghastly ramifications for the human rights of children, since it would discrimate against a child on the grounds of when he/she was born.
Here in the UK, our government has been quite explicit in its drive to end “the something for nothing culture”. Our taxes have been handed out to the wealthy and State support has been steadily withdrawn from the vulnerable. Government policies are an explicit statement of political and socio-economic intentions.
Policies based on Social Darwinism and eugenics cannot be justified. Our morality is liberated from the biological, reductionist constraints of evolutionary thinking. We relate to one another through culture, shared histories, language, morality, and law. Even if it were true that we are biologically determined – fixed by evolution, as intentional beings, we are not culturally fixed.
There is a difference between what we are, and who we are. There is also a difference between what is and what ought to be. The theories of Social Darwinism, eugenics and sociobiology involve biological reductionism. A recognition of the importance of biological conditions and even “human nature” need and ought not involve biological reductionism. And to embrace reductionism is to ultimately deny our capacity for making rational choices.
But we exceed the limits of reductionism and determinism every time we make any claim to knowledge (including those claims of reductionism and determinism), make a choice, discuss ethics and morals, explore possibilities, create, discover, invent – we are greater than the sum of our parts. The humanist ideas of human potential have never interested the Tories.
However, humanist principles, particularly those of Maslow, are very closely connected to our human rights and the development of our welfare state. Maslow’s psychology about possibility, not restraints. His metaphysics were all about the possibilities of change and progress, within a democratic framework. These ideas run counter to Tory ideology.
It’s therefore of no surprise that the Tory-led Coalition has steadily eroded our welfare and public service provisions and that Cameron has stated plainly that he fully intends to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
This is a government that chooses to treat our most vulnerable citizens brutally, with absolutely no regard for their legal and moral obligation to ensure that our taxes are used to meet our most basic needs.
There can be no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the vulnerable from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law, and as an instrument of equality, social cohesion and public purpose.
It is expected of a democratic government to improve the understanding and application of the Act. That is an international expectation, also. Quite rightly so.
Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.
We need to ask, in light of the issues I’ve raised here, why would any government want to opt out of such protections for its citizens?
We know from history that a society which isn’t founded on the basic principles of equality, decency, dignity and mutual respect is untenable and unthinkable.
Article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights uses the following definitions of genocide, amongst others:
- Killing members of the group
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
The right to life contained in Article 2:
- Prohibits the State from intentionally killing;
- and requires an effective and proper investigation into all deaths caused by the State.
My work isn’t funded and I don’t get paid to write. But you can support Politics and Insights, and help me to continue researching, analysing and writing independently.
The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.
And a massive thank you to those who have already contributed.