One or two terms, Trump is likely the end of the most recent forty year experiment in American Social Darwinism. This gradual program is ending in a devastating crescendo. Forty years ago, its pollinators including the Kochs had intellectual fellow travelers in the likes of Liberty Press (now Liberty Fund) and The American Spectator (TAS). Like’s its British inspiration The Spectator, TAS was irreverent, funny, and libertarian. As a university student, I enjoyed it. I found Liberty Press through it and stocked up on books. Then, I matured and put aside TAS. I became busy and the Liberty Press books rested alongside more useful books in my library.
As I prepared to depart for a fellowship at Oxford. Into my shelves, I dove. First, I picked up Jacob Burckhardt’s Reflections on History (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979 — ISBN 0–913966–38-X). My eyes popped wide open. The Liberty Fund and its friends have been educating people who claim to be conservatives, but they are Social Darwinists. They are not conserving, they are destroying. In fact, Burckhardt offers what we could now call a Schumpeterian view of creative destruction.
In three parts, I wish to look at Burckhardt, and then Liberty’s star Herbert Spencer. The third part will examine how Judge Richard Posner’s ideology enabled our forty year failed Anglo-American experiment in Social Darwinism. Posner is possibly the most influential modern American judge not to sit on the Supreme court.
Burckhardt, a Swiss, dismissed his fellow Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the social contract. The essence of a social contract is that the modern state is built on a clear social contract establishing the rights and duties of both the state and citizen. Burckhardt rejects the value of a social contract. Yet, the American republic like each of France’s post-revolutionary republics is explicitly built on a social contract. We, like many other states, have brought these contracts to life in our constitutions. Burckhardt mocks the idea of tribal societies based on social contracts: He ignored the constitution of Madina and the underlying social contract of the early Islamic state. I am sure that other readers will find examples elsewhere.
Oddly, he glibly raises Babylonia as having no social contract. As is often the case when Burckhardt discusses Near Eastern cultures, he is wrong. Babylonia and related cultures, for nearly 1,000 years, practiced jubilees to clear the debts of free men, farmers and those eligible to serve as soldiers. To understand the Babylonian social contract see Michael Hudson’s …and forgive them their debts. This is not to say that tyrannies and some societies follow Burckhardt’s model. The reality is that the foundational social contract is a reality in many societies. This contract, as amended from time to time, exists to protect the weakest in society. It is fundamentally “anti-Darwinian”. Generally, a well crafted social contract, read constitution, is stabilizing.
Burckhardt’s worry was that an empowered state necessarily reduces the freedom of the individual. In Burckhardt’s view as the state increases its dominance, people lose their initiative. People seek for the state to solve all of their problems. This view echos through today’s Republican Party, even if it would not have done so fifty years ago. This Libertarian perspective informed the non-response of the Republican President and Senate to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a number of important reasons for our young and future leaders to skip over Burckhardt . In his own words, he ascribed to the “hierarchy of race”. For him, the German peoples are superior to other Caucasians. And, all Caucasians are superior to Negros [sic], Mongols, Chinese and others. His racist view included a bizarre and unbalanced view of Islam. Influenced by Ernest Renan, his contemporary and a vile Orientalist, Burckhardt dismisses Islam as despotic, spiritually limited (this said by a Swiss Calvinist!). He states that the Quran stifles political and legal growth, and he claims that freedom and personality are denied in Islamic. He further alleges that there is no Islamic art. He laments that the craftsmen transported by Timur to Samarkand had nothing to do in what he assumes is a desolate place. Remember, Timur was a Mongol and a Muslim. He writes:
“Even superior Caucasian races have been doomed to permanent barbarism, that is, to the incapacity evolve into higher cultures where a nomadic and warlike despotism was combined with a specific religion — for instance the former Byzantine Empire under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.”
His views are poor imitations of Renan’s propaganda. Renan, himself, helped to justify why France was “needed” to civilize its colonies in Africa and the Near East.
Burckhardt, like many, idolized classical Greece as the cradle of freedom. This is in spite of its slaves, conditionality on freedom, and its periodic tumbles into despotism.
I do not find Burckhardt devoid of wisdom. Rather the art historian is often out of his depth. Nonetheless, he sends a warning to our time, “Every religion would, if left to its own devises, harness both state and culture entirely to its own ends,…” Indeed, the modern Republican Party is a perverse marriage of Libertarianism and many parts of the modern evangelical movement (which has its own strains of Social Darwinism).
He warned that when businesses become too big, they make it their business to have the state protect their interests over those of the citizens. He shows how this leads to an insatiable demand for state control of the individual. One can think immediately of the Kochs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Donald Trump. He even complained that the expansion of credit may be used to suffocate liberty. Yet, he jumped to blame the equalization of rights attempted in the French Revolution leading to the state’s of control individuals and communities. Another way to think of this is that since Burckhardt did not see all humans as equal, it is a denial of liberty, liberty of the superior races, to force them to live equally with inferior races. First unleashed by Libertarians like the Kochs, TAS and the Liberty Press, this is the demon that Donald Trump is whipping up.