Don’t you think it’s curious that while the rest of the developed world has created significant social safety nets, policy makers in the U.S. are still mired down in old-fashioned ideas that those who are poor or ill or old bring their misfortune on themselves?
Today’s inability to fashion a suitable social and economic platform for all citizens has its roots in the 1890s, when two demagogues, Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, fantasized that only people who were strong and resilient risk-takers deserved to succeed. These two proponents of classical economics concocted a theory blaming the victims of misfortune for what befell them. Though they claimed to have based their ideas on Darwin’s views about natural selection and evolution, they went far afield from Darwin’s scientific observations.
The views of Herbert and Spencer were applauded, however, by corporate and wealthy elites of the time. The combination of Protestant ethic and natural selection allowed them to set themselves apart as America’s aristocrats, those who were “entitled” to special privilege because of their “industrious, temperate and frugal” characteristics. They were the “strong,” the “fittest” in the struggle for survival and therefore deserved whatever resources and wealth were available.
Reality couldn’t overcome the popularity with which “social Darwinism” was received by America’s privileged class. This accounts, in part, for the fact that the United States, except during the Great Depression, has been unable to establish much of a social safety net.
But there’s another factor operating here as well. Racism is deeply seated in the American consciousness. As such, it has been a driving force in the emergence of our aristocracy, says French historian Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book The Society of Equals.
Rosanvallon has studied the history of democracy and the role of the state in questions of social justice in contemporary societies. He says that as the Industrial Revolution and market society undermined the demand of American revolutionaries for equality and liberty, racism allowed whites to feel a kind of “solidarity in shared contempt for a group deemed to be inferior” – African Americans. “Whiteness,” he reminds, gave rise to an aristocratic equality that set apart a distinct race as a “separate branch of humanity.”
One of the reasons why Americans have never engaged in a thorough, public discussion of either socialism or communism has to do with the way “white democracy” became based on “a clear and simplistic interpretation of social distinctions.”
In other countries, “the workers” united as an exploited class against corporate capitalism using socialism as a means of gaining equality in standing against employers. White Americans, however, had no need to unseat a “bourgeoisie” of corporate interests, because they could exercise authority on those they labeled “inferior.” It was easier to beat up on the blacks than to face corporate managers.
Rosanvallon summarizes his discussion of America’s lack of social progress, and its roots in the rules of segregation, with the following: “The gulf created by racism was deeper and more fundamental,” than that between a “proletariat” and a “bourgeoisie.” This led to a very different way Americans created for seeing workers. “Their feelings of exploitation were constantly counterbalanced by the racist staging of their supposed superiority to blacks in both the North and the South.”
In other words, whites in America gave up striving for the democratic values of equality and liberty because of having devised a different way to give themselves the privileges of aristocrats. Now our privileged elites and millionaire members of Congress take it for granted that “the workers” are undeserving blacks seeking ways to take advantage of the system. Under that rhetorical banner our policy makers are fully prepared to forego social welfare programs that might benefit everyone in order to forestall the use of such services by African Americans.
Sometimes it takes an outside observer to help us find a key to our own troubles.
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