In the early seventies, I worked as a route-man for a bread company in Texas. For a couple of companies, actually. The manager I first worked for had hired me when I was down and out (as a favor to my preacher father, I’m pretty sure), but was replaced by his company (Taystee Bread out of Houston) with a younger man who was, I suppose, seen as more of a corporate go-getter.
The laugh was on Taystee Bread. The deposed manager shifted to Rainbow and ran Taystee out of town permanently. (Even at the time I couldn’t help thinking how comic all these bread wars were, what a low-rent farcical version of the corporate competition that we have come to take so seriously in the U. S. I mean, the movies paint CEOs as glamorous and hard-driving heroes, a la Pretty Woman. But come on. Get real. CEOs are pudgy psychopaths on the whole, without a single interesting thought in their narrow pitiful brains.
But before all that happened, I went with the new manager to a strategy meeting in Beaumont. He drove us in his new Lincoln Town Car, of which he was very proud. It was, he assumed, proof of his superiority.
(If you’re over fifty, you might remember what those early seventies Town Cars—boxy wallowing gas-gobblers with plush interiors—were like, and have another laugh like the laugh you had imagining CEOs as dashing.)
He used the trip to hold forth to his employee about what I later learned was commonly referred to as “social Darwinism.”
First of all, the name is completely deceptive. Depends on a total misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Survival of the fittest” is the favored phrasing, and the intended implication is that the financial world is a return to the natural order, when supposedly the bigger badder beast always won. Trouble is, Darwin never used the phrase. His notion for the mechanism of evolution was “natural selection,” but neither he nor anyone else has ever been able to say exactly what “natural selection” is or how it works.
“Survival of the fittest” is nothing but circular argument when you get right down to it. It presumes we know in advance what fitness is, but the only way anyone has ever determined “fitness” is by assuming the survivors must have been the fittest.
There are problems with the meme over and above its logically preposterous circularity. It is, for example, impossible to determine “fitness” without reference to environment. A spider that does well in the desert will not do so well in the jungle. In order to apply the idea of “fitness” to the corporate and financial “jungle,” we have to pretend that that world is a natural environment, that it would not instantly disappear in the absence of tax breaks, lax regulation, and continued special privilege.
What the doctrine really means, how it is usually interpreted, is as justification for hideous and inhumane behavior—amorality, ruthlessness, bullying, unpunished criminality. It’s the way psychopaths justify their offensive behavior as “normal.” It’s what they call “a dog whistle,” coded language that on the surface appears to be acceptable, but whose actual intent is clearly recognized by other members of the pack.
The question I have for any proponent of “social Darwinism” is the same question I asked that new manager in his town car so many years ago. If the world works the way you say, why do you preach with such zeal? Wouldn’t it be smarter, if things really worked that way, to hide the fact? To allow the principled fools to go their way in total delusion while you used their gullibility to take everything they had?
The fact is, things DON’T work that way. The people who claim it does do not preach their perverted gospel because it is truth, but because they can be tolerated only in a world in which most people THINK it’s true.
So next time a so-called “social Darwinist” comes at you with all his bullshit (and it’s usually, if not always, a male who spouts this stuff), just ask him a simple question. If this stuff is so true, why bother to preach it?
There’s no honest answer.