Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Let them eat cake!" (Wild applause) Why? Part I

In this short series, we are asking what kind of real rather than self-proclaimed 'science' can there be in social science, and why don't we already have it, if science is so powerful a way to understand the world?

"The poor are starving, Mum.  They have no bread!"

"Well, then, let them eat cake!"

Marie Antoinette (whose family did, in fact, have cake and bread, too) may never have said those harsh words in about 1775.  The cold quip reflecting a harsh attitude towards the needy had been uttered before, but the point sticks when applied to the royal insensitivity towards social inequity in France.

In the 1790s, and in a spirit of similar kindliness, Malthus concluded his book about population and the inevitability of suffering from resource shortage, by saying that this is God's way of spurring mankind to exertion, and hence salvation.  The 'Reverend' Malthus sneered at the hopelessness of utopian thinking--and its associated anti-aristrocratic policies--then dominating France.  Forget about bread, 'they' (not Malthus or his friends and family) can't eat cake because there won't be enough to go around.

This view was justified by Herbert Spencer directly, and indirectly in effect by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (all of whom had bread) who adopted Malthus' view as a reflection of the 'law' of natural selection, of competitive death and mayhem, and this view was and has since often been, used to justify social inequity as an unavoidable (and hence acceptable) aspect of life.

Of course, that such sentiments are cruel, insensitive, and self-serving does not make them false.  There is symmetry in these things because at roughly the same time, Marxists held that inequities inevitably lead to conflicts that gradually would lead to a stable equitable society, materialist utopian of a somewhat different kind from the Eutopianism of the 18th century, that was perhaps less reliant, in principle, upon conflict.  Religion is "the opiate of the people," he proclaimed with equal insensitivity to the multitudes for whom religion provide the only hope and solace in their lives (when they hadn't any comfort food).  Likewise, the fact that this opposite view of egalitarianism is insensitive in that way, doesn't make it false, either.

What goes around comes around.  Fifty years ago, in 1961, right here in the good ol' USA, similarly elitist, arrogant justification of social inequity were voiced, by a Presidential candidate no less,  as reflected in this famous Herblock cartoon in the Washington Post (for readers of tender age, that's Barry Goldwater, 5-term US Senator, and Republican presidential candidate in 1964; the homeless family, as always, were too numerous to name).

The Reagan-Thatcher era, which came 20 years later, revitalized the justifications of inequality, using images such as [black] Cadillac-driving welfare queens, to emotionalize their reasons for eating cake while others hadn't bread.  Of course, there were and are abusers of social systems.  The difference is that the abusers of the welfare system's entitlements have somewhat different social power, not to mention impact, than the abusers of the legal entitlements to wealth.

Of course, this attitude is not a thing of the past.  At recent debates of current Presidential candidates, it has been said that the poor are poor because of their own failings, essentially because they don't try hard enough (wild applause).  They don't have medical care? Well, then, let them die in the street! (more wild applause).

Similar views-of-convenience apply to people who question the usefulness of international development aid.  Some of these people, often social scientists, believe in development, but just don't think current policies will achieve their goals.  But, one can wonder, when and where is that itself a cover for a cold view that we don't want our taxes to help people of the wrong religion/color/location who haven't pulled themselves up by their bootstraps so that they, too, can have 96" flat-screen televisions and 3 cars (the fact that they don't have boots, much less bootstraps, gets somewhat less mention).

Now our view on this kind of social egotism is clear.  But it is not really relevant to MT, a blog purportedly to be about science.  The scientific relevance is clear, but in subtle ways that blur the kinds of polarized political uses, often by demogogues, that serve the convenient ends of getting elected without necessarily having actual policies that would justify it (which all political parties are prone to).

But what kind of science is this--if it is science at all?  The authors, regardless of their views, were thinking of themselves as scientists.  That is, they saw what they believed to be the truth of the material world, none of them relying on received truth from scriptures. They felt, or acted as if they felt, in their own minds that they were saying things that were not only profoundly true, but which reflected the irrefutable, unavoidable laws of Nature.  But does the scientist's view of the world inform his or her interpretation of the science, or is her or his view of the world informed by the science?  There was arrogance of privilege on both sides, both sides were led by people who ate cake (even Marx, though he was rather impoverished, because he had a Sugar Daddy in Friedrich Engels).

If the harshest defenses of competitive determinism were 'social Darwinists' as early such views were characterized, the harshest defense of equity could be called 'social Lamarckians'.  In the next installment, we'll explain what we mean, as we search for meaning, relevance....and any actual 'science' in this arena of human thought.

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