The Western Socialist
Vol. 39 - No. 285
No. 1, 1972
THE ETHICS OF CAPITALISM
Pseudo Scientists, in Economics, Anthropology, History, etc., have probably erected more obstacles to the clear understanding of reality than any other group, for their misconceptions are tinted with the gild of scholarship.
Herbert Spencer, with his Social Statics, was perhaps the most outstanding of those scholars whose opinions and conclusions were accepted on a large scale by peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain he developed quite a following, but nowhere so avid and devoted disciples as among the burgeoning tycoons in the U. S. A. Following the American Civil War, Spencer's pseudo-scientific* concepts were almost universally accepted.
Making analogies with Darwinian biology, which hit the world like a cloudburst in 1859, he tried to show that in the same way that nature worked automatically to select her "elite" and thus accomplish the "Survival of the Fittest," so society could approach perfection to the extent that free play was allowed its "elite." His statement: "There cannot be more good than that of letting social progress go on unhindered; an immensity of mischief may be done in . . . the artificial preservation of those least able to care for themselves," sets out his position clearly. He defended cupidity (that great capitalist virtue) as part of the universal struggle for existence. The possession of wealth, to him, was the hallmark of the fittest, to be worshipped like the Holy Grail.
Success, sans the saving grace of stewardship, alone was considered of account. Calvinism, the doctrine of thrift, hard work, etc., was here revealed in all its nakedness shorn of its "conscience." No wonder the developing capitalists of the "new" world hailed these findings as those of "science."
Of his disciples in the U.S.A., one of the most prominent was young Andrew Carnegie. This Scotch Presbyterian very early lost his faith and yet could not find justification for his secular calling. "Man must have an idol," he held in 1868. "This amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry — no idol more debasing than the worship of money . . . To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery." He nonetheless confessed: "I was determined to make a fortune . . . and nothing could be allowed to interfere with my business career."
Spencer's pseudo-science provided Carnegie with the rationalization for justifying his outlook. His (Carnegie's) autobiography contains the following: " . .. That light came as a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. 'All is well since all grows better' became my motto, my true source of comfort." So, with his newfound religion, he laid the foundation for U. S. steel production — and the brutalities of Homestead.
MISUSE OF "FITTEST"
"Survival of Fittest" became linked with this "almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States," to quote the poet, Whitman. Carnegie was but one of a vast number (almost all) of the businessmen of the time to take Spencer's "science" to their bourgeois bosoms.
These were the years following the close of the Civil War; THE PROCLAMATION OF FREEDOM for the chattel slaves of the South; the passing of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. These, the days of "binding up the nation's wounds;" of the "Reconstruction," when the "freed" slaves found themselves more insecure, more enslaved than they were on the plantations and together with the "poor white trash" wandered aimlessly throughout the land in search of sustenance. The days of the Spencerians in business who, recognizing the value of political power, were not content to delegate that power to sycophants and stooges but who, directly, as members of the House and Senate were more numerous (as such) than at any other period in U. S. history. Later, through brainwashing techniques and promises of pelf, they produced and relied upon corrupt and mendacious mouthpieces.
In 1886, Senator George Hearst, father of William Randolph, confessed to his colleagues: "I do not know much about books; I have not read very much, but I have travelled a good deal and observed men and things and I have made up my mind after all my experiences that the members of the Senate are the Survivors of the Fittest." (Emph. added.)
These were the days of expanding capital. The year after the war ended the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, envisaging the consequences of the war boom, put it this way:
"There is an increasing tendency in our capital to move in larger masses than formerly. Small business firms compete at more disadvantage with richer houses, and are gradually being absorbed into them."
The Spencerian concept of "The Fittest," not only was accepted, as we have seen, by the business and industrial magnates but also dominated the thinking of the Supreme Court of that day. All the Justices of 1865 had been born before 1820, at a time when industrialism had not yet made its imprint on the life of the country. Three of them saw the light of day in the 18th century, while two appeared during Jefferson's first administration.
That such a court could so narrowly interpret the 14th Amendment as to allow the reconstruction states to curtail the "privileges and immunities" of the "freedmen" was well in keeping with the Spencerian concept. Further, it allowed the states to "regulate" business. The chief dissenter was one of the younger justices, Stephen J. Field, then sixty years old. He was the first to designate "corporations" as "persons," in his interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The next step in his logic was taken: No corporate "person" could be deprived of property by any state without "due process of law." Therefore, since limitations on railroad rates, etc., might reduce the corporations' profit or the value of its holdings, such limitations, under the 14th Amendment were unconstitutional.
Time passed, the make-up of the Court changed, and by 1882 the Court had caught up with Field and the general changing opinion. In 1882, a firm believer in progress through Spencerian "freedom," Horace Gray, from the industrial state of Massachusetts, was appointed, and for the next twenty years was the dominating force. During that period many of the earlier regulatory decisions were overturned. In 1902 Oliver Wendell Holmes succeeded Gray, and the great dissenter made his famous observation in 1905: "The fourteenth amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics."
But before then, and even in the following years, the Court acted as though it did. Between 1890 and 1910 only nineteen decisions based on that amendment involved Negroes, while two hundred and eighty-nine dealt with corporations. These, by and large, helped to sustain capitalist impulses after the Civil War. In the period under review the foundations for the great fortunes were laid: Armour and Morris in meat, Pillsbury in flour, and Rockefeller in oil. The "new" West was opening up with vast opportunities and produced "the men to match its mountains." Leland Stanford left New York and "out west" established the Central Pacific Railroad. One of his opponents said of him: "No she-lion defending her whelps or a bear her cubs, will make a more savage fight in defense of his material interests." Came the dawn of another "era." The modern "Robber Baron" appeared upon the stage of history.
That the Constitution — the Supreme Law of the Land — has been interpreted differently, at different times, by its official custodians, the Supreme Court — because of the stress of changing conditioning circumstances — should be evident even to the most illiterate American. Note a few instances. I first refer to the days following 1830.
One of the "self-evident truths," according to The Declaration of Independence is "ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL." Yet (in the days following 1830) this self-evident "truth" appeared in conflict with the "infallible" Constitution. And opposing economic and material interests lined up accordingly. As the rising trading class of Europe, in the 16th century, seeking freedom from the shackles of ecclesiastic feudalism, using the Lutheran ideological envelope as a covering for their material interests, appealed from "the Infallible Church" to "the Infallible Book," so Southern spokesmen in America derided The Declaration of Independence and appealed to The Constitution. They tried to prove that it was "God's law that fetters on black skins do not chafe." Lincoln's biographer, Albert J. Beveridge, wrote: "The very spirit of the age (was) against them."
So, all the fiercer the challenge. The architect of secession, William Lowndes Yancy of Alabama cried (we must) "abandon the law of compromise and . . . adopt the law of the Constitution." The response was even more definite. The increasing volume of the voice of the North thundered: "We must transcend the Constitution and follow the higher law" of the Declaration and the Christian world. In short, the "humanism" of the Declaration must transcend the "legality" of the "infallible" Constitution.
Now view some interpretations of the Constitution made through the years. The first section of the 14th Amendment states: "No state shall . . . abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person, within its jurisdiction, the equal protection of the laws." While the second section did not give the Negro the vote, it did penalize any state withholding that privilege, by reducing its representation in Congress. The radicals of the North insisted that the South ratify the Amendment, and President Johnson (the 1st) considered it to be "unconstitutional" and advised the states to reject it. 'Tennessee alone failed to follow the Presidential advice and reentered the Union.
A series of Supreme Court decisions beginning with United States vs. Reese, in 1875, and ending with the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, made discrimination easy. The ruling in these cases was that while the Federal Government might continue to protect Negro citizens from discrimination by the state, it could not protect them from the acts of individuals, even if the latter were organized. This, as an eminent American historian says: "was practically an invitation to lynch law."
But State Acts could discriminate on grounds other than "race" or color in protecting Civil Rights; and could discriminate on grounds of "race" and color in protecting social rights. Under such circumstances Jim Crow ruled and little love was lost between "white and black."
The decision of the Court under Chief Justice Taney, of Maryland, March 6, 1857, (the decade before the 14th Amendment) wrote into the "Supreme Law of the Land" the most extreme aims of the South. It demonstrated that the Constitution was for "whites" only; that since a Negro was not a citizen he could not sue in the courts of the United States; and declared "unconstitutional" the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It also established, "constitutionally," that a man (invariably black) could be, and often was, "legally," the property of another (usually white). This dictum stood until the "separate but equal" decision of 1894, which latter held until the Court overturned it in 1954. SIXTY YEARS OF UNDOUBTEDLY "SEPARATE" but very questionably "EQUAL!"
The eighteen years since have shown that the decision of the Court is but "de jure" — and a long way from being "fact." For the "racism," the "white supremacy" claim — in a word the "survival of the fittest" concept as set out by Spencer, is still ingrained in a large measure in American thought, and dominates the social scene.
W. A. Pritchard
*The impact on the intellectual scene made by Darwin (Origin of the Species and Descent of Man) cleared the pathway for others to pursue ideas associated with evolution. But not all investigators were of the same scientific stuff; ergo pseudo-scientific. In the context of this article, Spencer's misapplication of the biological expression "survival of the fittest," for instance, is a case in point.