Social Darwinism is an ideological position popularized by 19th-century British philosopher Herbert Spencer -- who originated the phrase "survival of the fittest" -- that borrows loosely from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. It holds that social status is the product of an individual's evolutionary status. That is, a poor person is poor because he is a weak link in the evolutionary chain, while a rich person is rich because she is strong. The philosophy gained easy support among upper class people in 19th-century England and the U.S. inasmuch as it upheld the status quo and affirmed what they wanted to hear -- that their wealth was deserved because they were the "fittest" members of society. This ideology is often combined with a commitment to deregulated, laissez-faire economic systems, in which the individual is left to win or lose according to his presumed evolutionary worth.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, social Darwinism in the West precipitated the growth of now-debunked "racial science," in which evolutionary worth is determined by an individual's race. In its most extreme form in Nazi Germany, disabilities and illness were viewed as evidence of racial impurity. In the U.S., many states maintained eugenics programs that forcibly sterilized men and women who were poor, black and/or disabled. Eugenics boards thought these people were weak evolutionary "specimens" who would strain the welfare state. Meanwhile, limiting social welfare costs was a goal of laissez-faire economists.
The Nazi genocide is the most expansive, horrific result of social Darwinism in human history. It took place in a climate of rapid economic deregulation in Germany in which Communist-linked labor movements and social democrats were cast as Communist traitors. A mythologized racial ideal -- the pan-German "Aryan" farmer -- was offered as a nationalist rallying point in lieu of robust welfare policies. Labor activists unaffiliated with the Nazi Party were cast as traitors to the racial ideal -- and rounded up in prisons. Nazi doctors and nurses oversaw an aggressive eugenics program in which disabled Germans of all ages were killed, including newborns starved to death in state hospitals. The extermination of 6 million European Jews was also the product of social Darwinism in Nazi Germany. German nationalists wrongly held that European Jews had attained wealth and power in Europe by illegitimate means involving theft and manipulation of financial markets; the idea was that they had stolen wealth from more deserving Germans of Nordic heritage.
Myth of the Undeserving Poor
Thatcherism in Europe and Reagan's administration in the U.S. popularized laissez-faire solutions to economic stagnation in the 1980s. Reagan capitalized on the kinds of suspicion and hatred of the poor that proliferated as a result of social Darwinism. He created the myth of the undeserving "welfare queen," who allegedly bore children to receive welfare. Reagan routinely cast the "welfare queen" as a black single mother. He thus used race as a wedge to divide working-class people by painting single black mothers as "undeserving" economic leeches.
Exponential Growth in Inequality
Economic inequality grew for the next three decades in the West. This was especially pronounced in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008 in the United States. Upward mobility in particular declined during the post-Reagan years -- and even more after 2008. The "American dream" had always been limited according to poverty and opportunity, but was almost impossible for poor people by the early 2010s.
- CNN Money: The Myth of the American Dream
- Time Magazine: The Loss of Upward Mobility in the U.S.
- Newsweek: Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?
- The Coming of the Third Reich: Richard J. Evans
- New York Times: The Taint of Social Darwinism
- New York Times: Inequality in America - The Data is Sobering
Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.