President Obama’s critique of the Republican budget plan as “thinly veiled social Darwinism” is a refreshingly blunt statement about the retrograde features of contemporary conservative thinking.
The efforts of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and his colleagues to accelerate the upward redistribution of income and the unraveling of the social safety net deserve all the scorn that Obama served up.
While invoking a phrase that has a grand history in the critique of laissez-faire ideology, Obama failed to mention how social Darwinism was originally embraced not just by philosophers such as Herbert Spencer but also by leading industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (a fact noted by Richard Hofstadter in his seminal work on the subject, Social Darwinism in American Thought).
Rather than pointing out how social Darwinist ideas can still be found in corporate boardrooms (especially those of Koch Industries) as well as in House hearing rooms, the purportedly socialist Obama went out of his way to sing the praises of business: “I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history.”
Obama also used his speech to extol Henry Ford, specifically for the auto magnate’s policy of paying his workers enough so that they could afford to buy the cars they were assembling. Higher wages are a good thing, but it is misleading to cite Ford without putting his practices in some context.
Henry Ford gained fame as the man who instituted the Five Dollar Day for his workers in the 1910s. The facts were somewhat more complicated: not all workers at Ford Motor qualified for that amount, which in any event was not the base pay. A large part of the $5 consisted of a so-called “profit-sharing” bonus that had to be earned — by working at a high level of intensity on the job, and by living in a style that Ford considered appropriate off the job.
To enforce the lifestyle regulations, Ford created a Sociological Department with inspectors who visited the homes of workers and interviewed family members and neighbors. The company wanted to be sure that workers were not spending their share of Ford profits in a frivolous or irresponsible manner.
Ford’s practices were also designed to discourage unionization. When workers nonetheless tried to organize, Ford’s paternalism quickly dissolved. In 1932 a protest march to the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan was met with tear-gas and machine-gun fire, which killed four persons. Dearborn police officers were supplemented by members of the Service Department, Ford’s own security force. Headed by Harry Bennett, the Service Department became notorious for its surveillance of workers both on and off the job. In a 1937 confrontation known as the Battle of the Overpass (photo), union organizers were attacked by Bennett’s security force and freelance thugs when they attempted to distribute leaflets outside the Rouge plant. Ford was the last of Detroit’s Big Three to give in to unionization.
It is telling that the word “unions” was not uttered a single time during Obama’s speech. Instead, Obama seems to want us to believe that the alternative to deregulation and trickle-down economics is a return to some kind of government and big business paternalism.
The first problem is that big business, despite giving frequent lip service to corporate social responsibility, has almost completely abandoned paternalism in favor of the human resources principles of Wal-Mart. As for government paternalism, Obama himself felt compelled to say in his speech that “I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem.”
Even if the prospects for paternalism were more promising, it would not be the most effective way of responding to neo-social Darwinism. As the story of Henry Ford illustrates, paternalism is simply another form of social control by the powerful, and when necessary it is quickly abandoned in favor of repression and austerity. Collective action of the type that was put aside after Obama took office and recently revived by the Occupy Movement is the only real way forward.