Another interesting post from commenter Brian. He ties societal sadism and Social Darwinism into economic changes and ties societal creativity into societal structure, in particular its degree of flexibility.
I completely agree that there is a sadistic tendency in people that is expressed toward those deemed socially inferior. I’ve seen it and, having been in foster homes for a time growing up, experienced it.
I’ve often wondered at what seems to be a mean-spiritedness of the culture in general during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and if this mean-spirited character was linked to industrialization and to the growth of severe inequalities in society, both class and race based.
Those inequalities existed before the industrial revolution, but industrialization marked a new level of complexity in social organization, and the rise of many “new men” as elites. In the transformation of a society toward a new economic system and set of social relations, old inequalities are exacerbated, and the new elites who have risen to the top seem eager to shore up their position by waging a reactionary crackdown on dissent and calls to moderate their avarice.
The Social Darwinist, let-the-undeserving-poor-rot, bootstrap mentality of the upper class was encouraged in the general population by those who had risen to the top as a way to justify their behavior, and it had the effect of drawing out the worst tendencies in human nature in society at large. It was a bully’s ideology and encouraged ordinary people to let out their inner sadism, which ordinarily – without authoritative encouragement – would have been more repressed.
This is how you get gleeful lynchings, the hanging of elephants from a giant chain, the proliferation of freak shows where people can satisfy their inner monster by laughing at folks with severe genetic deformities.
I wonder if this witches’ brew of inhumanity cooked up by the propagandists of the new robber baron class was a factor precipitating World War I. Indeed the displacements of industrialization along with repression of the working class by disconnected and haughty elites and the whole toxic culture this gave rise to poisoned Europe just as badly as it had the United States.
The periods of the cruelest treatment of ordinary people tend to coincide with episodes of great economic expansion, the rise of new men and new families to positions nearer the top of society, and the complexification of society in general.
Another example is a century earlier in Britain, around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was the very beginning of the industrial revolution – or the first industrial revolution, as opposed to the second which I was referring to above – and began with the Enclosure Acts that forced peasants off the common lands so they could become the new urban class of industrial laborers.
During this time the Bloody Code reached its bloodiest extreme and more than two hundred crimes could be punished by death, even as a number of minors were executed for rather petty crimes. These were the classic Dickensian times, and they are marked by great new opportunities for moneymaking that attracted a class of people willing to subject other humans to appalling degradations for their own profit.
When we think of the medieval period, we often think of brutal tortures. But in fact such tortures, while they occurred in the medieval period, were used far more extensively in the Renaissance and early modern times than in the medieval period as was the death penalty in general.
Once again, what we find at that time is a transformation in the socioeconomic system, specifically moving away from feudalism in Western Europe and the rise of a new middle merchant class across much of Europe, starting in Italy. Perhaps the use of such punishments is meant to break the spirits of those who suffer most during such transitional periods so they are less of a threat to the elites, especially the new and very insecure/paranoid elites.
I suspect that what we see today, with the mean-spirited attitude of the neoliberal age – the expansions of the prison system going back to the 70s and 80s (the very dawn of the neoliberal age) and the electronics and digital boom – is another such period of social complexification, economic transformation, dispossession of whole sections of society and even of regions in general like the rust belt, and the rise of many new men (and women now) into the ranks of the ruling class.
For around forty years I’ve been seeing among the upper middle classes and above is an increase in callousness, selfishness towards and even dehumanization of various groups of people, from Blacks to working class (now often poor) Whites and anyone who isn’t at least upper middle class.
To address the idea that such periods help to breed out criminal genes from a population, I do not doubt this is true. These phases of societal transformation seem to yield a more docile population on the other end of them. But I think this process will eventually eliminate the spark of genius in our population and in the West in general.
It largely has eliminated this spark already. At least in the realm of the social sciences of fundamental thought like philosophy, modern European philosophy having seen its best days some two to three centuries ago. Other fields that are downstream of basic thought have been able to flourish since then, but they will stagnate, and some are stagnating already.
Going back to civilizational and race theory, the difference between White civilization and Asian seems to be that White civilization has been far more creative for centuries now, despite Asians having higher average IQ’s. The spark of genius requires a high IQ but also creativity and originality, which mostly comes from people who are off-kilter and don’t easily fit into a very conventional, static society that looks down on new ideas or unusual behavior.
You, Robert, have mentioned before that many very intelligent and interesting people work in odd jobs and have little to show for their talents. I think such people have struggled in any society, but they struggle more as society becomes more closed-minded and starts distrusting anyone who isn’t stable, conventional, and predictable; in other words, someone who fits ready social expectations.
A lot of academics are very bright, but few have that special spark of brilliance in them, and if anything, having that is a detriment for someone in academia today.
As our society stiffens we will likely become less creative, whereas in the past few centuries, we’ve seemed to be able to accept originality even if many geniuses are not exactly paragons of stability. I am not saying that Asians are without creativity or the spark of genius, just that as their populations became more controlled and regimented, they exhibited fewer instances of real inspiration.
We are moving towards greater control and the consequent heavy formalization of life which sucks the naturalness out of life. We should probably expect relative cultural stagnation, at least compared to what we’ve been experiencing for centuries in the West.
The problem with African peoples and societies is an excess of naturalness or primal behavior, which, while it is energetic and creative, lacks the mental and social channels to develop it.
Higher intelligence on the other hand takes that same primal energy the Africans have in excess and focus that energy into socially accepted interests and goals. The problem with Asian societies is there is a serious lack of primal behavior, though I suspect some genetic potential for creativity remains in their populations and could be freed up if they loosened up a bit.
As to our current period of neoliberalism in the West, I think whatever good it did in juicing the development of the new electronic and digital economy is already finished and have been since probably 2008. At this point neoliberalism’s effects on society are very detrimental and could even touch off serious convulsions across Western society if it isn’t moderated.
Continuing on this path can only benefit a small handful of elites and only if they are able to maintain control. But they are gamblers, so they will try, and they seem unlikely to concede much to the population for the sake of reconciliation.