Wednesday, January 16, 2013

1/16 Social Darwinism and Class Politics

"History Repeats Itself—The Robber Barons of the Middle Ages and The Robber Barons of Today," Samuel Erhardt, Puck, circa 1889

After the Civil War, class politics becomes the central political issue of the late 19th century, in many ways displacing race as the central conflict in America, even though racial conflict only intensified in the next several decades. Next class we will talk more about Reconstruction. 

In many ways, Americans throughout history into the present, have tended to obscure or deny the importance of class politics, or politics centering around economic inequality between different groups. The ever expanding American frontier made it possible to  deny the importance of economic inequality. This is suggested in historian Frederick Jackson Turner's essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," (1893). Whenever social pressures between classes were intensifying the government had the option of passing laws that would enable poorer people to attempt to settle areas along the American frontier, thus diffusing the tensions generated by inequality (i.e. the Homestead Act of 1862). This lasts until about 1890, after 1890, there is more of less continuous settlement throughout the continental U.S (from the east coast to the west coast). 

Slavery itself served first of all to take attention away from inequality in the North because so much attention was devoted to the moral evils of slavery. In the South, slavery served to conceal the inequalities between whites because slavery created a sense of "racial solidarity" between whites even though there were such huge economic gaps between rich and poor whites in the South. In this case, race transcended class. However, with the abolition of slavery and the rapid pace of industrialization Americans were forced to have a greater awareness of economic inequality between the working classes (the propertyless) and the ownership classes (those who owned private property especially industrial property).

The pace of industrialization increases dramatically after the 1860s because of innovations in the railroads, coal mining, and beginning in the 1850s, the production of steel.
Similarly, the Republican party becomes more and more identified as the party of "Big Business" which also continues into the present. Although originally formed as an anti-slavery party, with the abolition of slavery (at least in a legal sense) the party has to find a new reason for being. Promoting business and industry was one way to recreate itself. Many Republicans, including Lincoln, were Whigs before they became Republicans, the party of the business interests before the Civil War. Winning the war had in large part had to do with the superior technology, transportation, and larger population of the North. Railroad operators who used their lines to transport soldiers during the war now wanted compensation for their service and "patriotism," the same with manufacturers and large agricultural interests as well.  Also after the civil war, the Democratic party being identified as the party of slavery is in disgrace, and the Republican party dominates government for most of the rest of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1860 and 1932 only two Democratic presidents are elected: Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897 the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).
At this time the Republican party did not subscribe to the free market ideology it has now, instead they stressed a cooperative relationship with business leaders for the sake of economic growth. The ways in which the party promoted industry were threefold: 1) The tariff, the government taxed foreign products being imported into the U.S. so as to encourage people to purchase American made industrial products (this was originally part of Alexander Hamilton's strategy); 2) Currency, the government controls the supply of money, based on the gold standard and the supply of gold. This creates a standard exchange rate between all the major currencies of the world at this time, like the British pound. This also keeps the supply of money small and stabilizes the prices of products which helps the profits of businesses; 3)Putting down labor strikes, the government helps industry put down strikes by workers by sending in soldiers often violently putting down the strikes and killing workers.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), who founded and organized the discipline of sociology in the United States at Yale beginning in the 1870s, is writing against this business-government collusion in his essay "What the Social Classes Owe Each Other," (1884) when he says: 

My notion of the state has dwindled with growing experience of life. As an abstraction, the State is to me only All-of-us. In practice–that is, when it exercises will or adopts a line of action–it is only a little group of men chosen in a very haphazard way by the majority of us to perform certain services for all of us. The majority do not go about their selection very rationally, and they are almost always disappointed by the results of their own operation. Hence, "the State," instead of offering resources of wisdom, right reason, and pure moral sense beyond what the average of us possess, generally offers much less of all those things. Furthermore, it often turns out in practice that "the State" is not even the known and accredited servants of the State, but, as has been well said, is only some obscure clerk, hidden in the recesses of a Government bureau, into whose power the chance has fallen for the moment to pull one of the stops which control the Government machine....( p. 302).
Sumner is usually identified as one of the more influential social darwinist thinkers (the most influential being Herbert Spencer, who Chesterton mentions in his book), who develop the liberal conception of "natural law" while also taking the so-called inner worldly asceticism of the Puritans and stripping it of its religious content:
To make such a claim against God and Nature would, of course, be only to say that we claim a right to live on earth if we can. But God and Nature have ordained the chances and conditions of life on earth once and for all. The case cannot be reopened. We cannot get a revision of the laws of human life. We are absolutely shut up to the need and duty, if we would learn how to live happily, of investigating the laws of Nature, and deducing the rules of right living in the world as it is. These are very wearisome and commonplace tasks. They consist in labor and self-denial repeated over and over again in learning and doing. When the people whose claims we are considering are told to apply themselves to these tasks they become irritated and feel almost insulted. They formulate their claims as rights against society–that is, against some other men. In their view they have a right not only to pursue happiness, but to get it; and if they fail to get, they think they have a claim to the aid of other men–that is, to the labor and self-denial of other men–to get it for them. (p. 303)

Social Darwinism, as the name implies, draws on the biological theories of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), most notably the concept of natural selection, more commonly known as the principle of "survival of the fittest."  The social aspect of it suggests that the analysis of natural selection is taken at a higher level of analysis (thus less empirical) the the individual biological organism. This idea was combined with theories of modernization from traditional societies to develop a general theory of social development and more important to create a hierarchy of "fit" societies. Obviously this analysis favored Western societies that were more industrialized and urbanized than other parts of the world:
A society based on contract is a society of free and independent men, who form ties without favor or obligation, and co-operate without cringing or intrigue. A society based on contract, therefore, gives the utmost room and chance for individual development, and for all the self-reliance and dignity of a free man. That a society of free men, cooperating under contract, is by far the strongest society which has ever yet existed; that no such society has ever yet developed the full measure of strength of which it is capable; and that the only social improvements which are now conceivable lie in the direction of more complete realization of a society of free men united by contract, are points which cannot be controverted. It followed, however, that one man, in a free state, cannot claim help from and cannot be charged to give help to, another (p. 305).
Social Darwinism is criticized for being a business ideology, due to its development at a time when industrial interests were rapidly expanding their control over the State (even though Sumner is opposed to this). Later social darwinist thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) used this rhetoric to justify imperialism. However, when the U.S. became an imperalistic power after the 1898 Spanish-American War, Sumner became one of the most vocal critics of imperialism and was a co-founder of the Anti-Imperialist League.

Growing resistance to the power of the "Plutocrats" (from Pluto, Roman god of wealth and the underworld, and the Greek kratos meaning "rule") who now dominated the Republican party came from, the Populists, mainly Midwestern and Southern farmers (notably mainly were west of the Rainfall line and had to rely on the government to supply water) who resented the abusive practices of economic trusts, like the railroad trust. Trusts or monopolies are able to control markets by controlling prices. Farmers resented the high rates they had to pay to get their goods shipped to market. In fact, there was a prolonged agricultural depression in the country from about 1873-1893, even as industrialization grew rapidly, the prices of crops, even cotton were steadily decreasing. For many farmers even if they produced more every year they would get less money for it. The movement was limited mainly because of divisions between Midwestern farmers and urban ethnic populations. The indignant response of farmers to what they saw as a corrupt system was not shared by the urban populations who were less likely to oppose the system directly for fear of seeming entitled and were more concerned with assimilation.

The Populists were more sophisticated than many modern commentators give them  credit for and were able to focus their criticism against the economic system and not merely against isolated individuals. Unlike evangelists of today who attribute blame solely to individuals, the Populists, who also used the religious rhetoric of natural law in their speeches, stressed the failures of the social system. In this regard, the Populists had more of a sociological awareness than many later commentators give them credit for, later progressives instead tending to portray them as irrational. 

A national People's Party was formed in 1890 to challenge both Democrats and Republicans, but despite winning some Congressional elections, they were unable to win any kind of significant majority in Congress or gain the Presidency in 1892. However, they continued to grow in popularity, and when in 1896 the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, the most populist-leaning Democrat as their candidate, the Populists joined with the Democrats and supported Bryan. The Democrats lost narrowly in one of the most important elections in American history.

Instead politics tended to favor people like Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), who made his fortune in steel. After his death, the Carnegie Steel Corporation was bought by J.P. Morgan, as in J.P. Morgan Chase the bank. It was then renamed the U.S. Steel Corporation which still exists today, the first billion dollar corporation and for many years the largest corporation in the world, although since the 1960s steel production was been on the decline. Carnegie believed in a notion of "benign paternalism" (kind father) similar to the original Federalist idea of the "wise property-owner" who looks after the affairs of his community, now updated to the "wise industrialist" or "captain-of-industry" (the polite alternative to the term "robber baron"). 

Carnegie reflects the dominant social darwinist zeitgeist (German for "spirit of the times" zeit=time geitst=spirit) when he says: 
But, whether the law be benign or not, we must say of it, as we say of the change in the conditions of men to which we have referred: It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race. Having accepted these, it follows that there must be great scope for the exercise of special ability in the merchant and in the manufacturer who to conduct affairs upon a great scale. That this talent for organization and management is rare among men is proved by the fact that it invariably secures for its possessor enormous rewards, no matter where or under what laws or conditions (p. 328).
Many steel workers on strike were killed or wounded by Carnegie's men, but at the same time Carnegie believed that the proper administration of wealth was not incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Carnegie is also known for his philanthropy and patronage of the arts such as Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Carnegie Corporation which provides funding and grants to academics through organizations like the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

A dramatized engraving recreating the Haymarket Riot, 1886

 Strikes in urban centers had been rapidly growing since the late 1860s and especially after a severe economic depression from 1873-1879. One of the most violent was the Haymarket Riot May 4th, 1886 in Chicago. Even in the present Chicago still has a reputation for being a hotbed of radical activity. In the 1960s, groups like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had large headquarters in Chicago, and was also the site of the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. 

Some activists still refer to Chicago as the "capital of Black America," due to its heavy concentration of black political and social activists including Jesse Jackson (who continued the program begun by Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1966), entertainers like Oprah Winfrey, its importance in the history of jazz and blues music, and of course President Obama's political career began in Chicago as well. 

During a confrontation between police and workers on strike for an eight hour workday, a bomb exploded and police started shooting. As a result of the violence, seven police officers and four protestors were killed, with several dozen more  injuries. Seven anarchists were put on trial for this and four were executed despite lack of evidence tying any of the defendants to the bomb. Unsurprisingly this had little effect in decreasing the frequency and intensity of conflicts between industrialists and workers.

 The Populist opposition of the 1890s was led by activists like Henry Demarest Lloyd (1847-1903), a journalist in Chicago (notable as middle-ground between agricultural and urban interests) who became known as one of the first "muckraking" journalists exposing corruption or abusive business practices. He also wrote articles in defense of the Haymarket anarchists. In an era before there is an organized Socialist Party (1901) in the country and long before a Communist Party (1919), the loose network of populists composed mainly of journalists, farmers, preachers, and professors from the Midwest formed the socialist opposition to the system. 

This pattern of conflict between classes becomes evident almost throughout the world as socialist parties in Europe and then later in European colonies develop socialist parties in opposition to capitalist-led (bourgeois) political institutions and parties modeled on constitutionalism and the separation of powers. In European states like Germany (which only became a unified state in 1871) the class conflict was more concentrated in the urban centers, rather than in the rural areas of the country. The growth of the labor movement and the growth of the Socialist Party in the United States under leaders like Eugene Debs (1855-1926) mark the point at which the urban class struggle becomes more the focal point of class conflict than the agrarian struggles of the 1870s through the 1890s.

Next class we will look more at the consequences of the Civil War for African-Americans and how an evolving political system adapts to the inclusion of African-Americans in the political system (not very well), as well as the development of imperialism.

Assignment (Due 1/22): Choose a passage from Sumner, Lloyd, or Carnegie. Write out the passage, explain the meaning of the passage and its relevancy to the themes of this lecture.

Go to the link for the Labor History Timeline. Choose an event from the period we are looking at (1860-1900), research this event and explain its significance to class politics.

No comments:

Post a Comment