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Social Darwinism – Neoliberalism Correlations

There’s got to be something to the frequent coincidence of social darwinist ideology and free market fundamentalism. Some deep, obscure, primal fear that ties the two together. The Escape Artist and I were watching Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room last night, and all the speaches that Skilling and Lay gave could serve as caricatures of the positions they were espousing: business will thrive through open competition; the fittest, most able will float to the top, while the dregs will sink and be culled; state regulation results in increased costs for consumers; etc. All the while, these statements are flatly contradicted by the progression of events: Enron implodes, the only people left working for it are a collection of cutthroat sociopaths gleefully exploiting whatever they can for a few pennies, Californians have to foot the bill for a rigged electrical market. It’s enough to put a smile on your face.

I found it funny that the documentary continously portrays the douchebags at Enron as scintillatingly brilliant. They are the “smartest guys in the room,” pretty “fucking smart” when it comes right down to it. I’m not convinced about this. If they were so smart they’d not have ended in prison (of course, when they get out they’ll have many millions waiting for them), so I think that’s the wrong adjective. I’d go with typical.

We can tie the endemic megalomania at Enron into a longer tradition in our culture, back to the first stirrings of social Darwinism in the late 1800s (and then further, but I am concerned with the pretentions of this ideology to SCIENCE): The bourgeois individual flexes his natural right to dominate his peers, and so furthers the species. To attempt to do anything but foster this activity is abnormal or unnatural. Such was Herbert Spencer’s line. Its echoes in people like Skilling or even the anarchist kids who conflate antiauthoritarianism with laissez-faire capitalism are unmistakable; it strikes me as a genealogy worth plumbing, and I’m sure someone has done so.

Only a few books come up on google. The first, Social Darwinism in American Thought, by Hofstader, is quite old, but it might be worth a peak. Another Social Darwinism in European and American Thought appeared only a decade or so ago. Anyone read these, or others?

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4 Responses

  1. Personally I think we need to redefine “smart”. Once transported out of the silly and short-sighted context of our culture, it becomes obvious these man were anything but “smart”. I suppose I would have more respect for someone who was wealthy by different means, but I am not sure that wealth should equal smartness. My overall impression was that these men lacked vision no matter how many strippers had their babies. And it was telling, I thought, that even the critics of the game they played and the people they gambled on, still called them the best in the field and smart. Hum.

  2. Heroes, bastards.

    Those writing the rules for praise are produced by the system they purport to critique.

  3. (That film was made by Marc Cuban’s company.)

    chabert29 May, 2008 @ 2:18 pmReply
  4. Amusing. I’d never heard of Cuban till just now. Objectivist, billionaire, vetoing-editor. I suppose I should look at who funds movies as a reflex, but I don’t. Something to work on I suppose.



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