Globalization and Social Darwinism

It’s exciting to be living in an era when the economies of nations all over the world are merging, sweeping humankind to new levels of material wealth. Globalization is upon us, and its apostles are jubilant. It is, they say, a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Or is it? The analogy is flawed. Even a rising tide can’t lift boats that are sunk under the water, or in drydock, or stranded on land. Even this marvelous phenomenon of globalization doesn’t seem to be having much effect on the desperately poor, especially in most of the poorest nations. Certainly new wealth is being created, but most of it is flowing to those who already are prosperous. The rich are getting richer. The poor are barely holding their own, while the rest of us are in between, swimming in circles. Meanwhile the planetary support system is being degraded at an alarming rate.

Sound familiar? During the latter part of the nineteenth century, our United States of America were exploiting the cornucopia of a rich subcontinent, united under one flag, isolated from hostile powers, and linked for the first time by that technological marvel, the railroad. Great wealth was accumulating at an unprecedented rate. The rich, all of a sudden, were fabulously rich. And the poor were just as poor as ever.

Back in that bygone gilded age the rich were reassuring each other that they were rich because they were more virtuous than the less fortunate, and if society had its losers, well, that was the way life was, and that was the price one paid for progress. Herbert Spencer read a book by a fellow named Darwin and applied the concept of evolution through natural selection to contemporary society. The rich were rich because they had proven themselves “fitter” than the people who were sweeping their streets and emptying their garbage and tending their brats. Thus was born the doctrine of Social Darwinism, which produced an incredible amount of sanctimonious garbage in its heyday.

In the USA as in Europe, Social Darwinism justified sweatshops and other forms of exploitation, leading to labor unions and much social strife. Over in Europe reaction to these conditions spawned Marxism, while extrapolation of the survival of the fittest concept led to Nazism and the Holocaust. A pretty brew.

I have a question. Do we have to repeat that whole cycle again, this time on a global scale? Do we have to stand back as a few thousand fat cats not only accumulate incredible wealth, but bombard the rest of us with propaganda that it is all for the best, and we must vote for their minions? Or can we somehow balance the phenomenon of the rapid accumulation of wealth with concepts of distributive justice? Can we ensure that the impulse of the rich to get richer is subordinated to increasingly urgent environmental concerns? Can we head off the stresses and strains of the current transition to a global economy by acting now to see to it that those beached boats get lifted too? And that the sea that lifts them does not get too polluted in the process?

I guess that’s what the commotion in Seattle a few months ago was all about. A lot of people were reacting against what they saw as the darker side of globalization. But it isn’t that simple, because the issues are too complex to be cast in black and white. Globalization really is a good thing, good for all humanity, just as America’s climb to unprecedented economic wealth a hundred years ago was good for the USA as a whole (and, arguably, for all the world). It isn’t a thumbs up or thumbs down proposition. It’s a question of how we do it, not whether we do it.

There is an upside to social darwinism, believe it or not. If you are allowed to get wealthy when you build a better mousetrap, you are more likely to be motivated to build one in the first place. Progress of any kind requires innovation and persistence, and those qualities deserve rewards. Even Mark Twain, no sycophant of the very rich, once observed that about the first thing any country needed, if it was to get anywhere, was a good patent office. Strip right-wing blather of its smug, self-serving silliness, and you still have a hard core of rationality. The problem is to get everyone focused on that hard core, and at the same time on the notions of distributive justice and the environment, and agree that the job at hand is how to reconcile them.

This is an issue that progressive humanism is well positioned to address. The progressive humanist, as I said in the introductory part of my webpage, “… strikes a balance between a humanist concern for all humanity, and an impulse to solve problems and get on with the job, whatever that may be. These two concerns are each important but they often conflict. The secret to a meaningful life can be found in finding ways to reconcile them, and to achieve lasting solutions to the world’s current problems in a humane manner.”

So Tom Friedman is right, globalization is inevitable and it’s great; and the Seattle demonstrators are mostly right, it needs a human, environmentally sensitive face. If we can agree on both those propositions, we won’t have solved everything, but at least we’ll be starting out in the right direction.

CSC 12/24/00

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