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A social Darwinist evolves

The zealous federal budget-cutters intent on slashing social programs are the latest social Darwinists, those who believe in economic and social survival of the fittest and think that toughness is the only route to a healthier society. Social Darwinists shout that if you can’t make it on your own, you should please die or get out of the way of those who can.

A discredited philosophy well before the beginning of the 20th century, social Darwinism hangs around because it gives pseudo-intellectual cover for the winners who do not like having the losers — the poor, the old, the infirm and the disadvantaged — get too much of the social pie, especially from the taxes that the winners have paid.   

In 1930, as the future longshoreman philosopher, Eric Hoffer, left Los Angeles after a decade as a day laborer, he was a social Darwinist. He reasoned that because he had made it on his own without ever having been to school and without the assistance of mentors, family, or governments, anyone could — and, therefore, everyone should. He did not consider his self-sufficiency unique.

A favorite story of his was of being among a group of Skid Row denizens whisked into the San Bernardino Mountains to build a section of a road. Without much supervision, the “bums” organized themselves, found within their group people to perform specialized tasks — from preparing meals to reading specs to operating a bulldozer — and got the job accomplished. Had they needed to write a constitution, Hoffer later said, they would also have found a way to do that.

Hoffer’s social Darwinist attitude was further ingrained by his experiences in the early 1930s, when as a migrant field hand he was able to obtain work in varied and difficult circumstances. He became a fervent admirer of capitalism, an anti-New Dealer — while becoming a champion of the outcasts of society, whom, he insisted, had really built America — constructed the railroads and roads and towns, wrested arable land from the desert and forest and created the small and large businesses that were capitalism’s glory.

Hoffer’s attitude began to change when he was swept into a federalized camp for hobos near El Centro, Calif., where he was first inspired to write. It altered more fundamentally in the early 1940s, when in order to work on the San Francisco docks he had to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

No ordinary union, the ILWU was run by Harry Bridges, a firebrand communist, and had wrested control of the docks from owners who had abused workers with the “shape-up” and other ways to keep wages (and wage-earners) down while maximizing profits.   

The ILWU changed Hoffer’s ideas about the nature of capitalism and social Darwinism.  Previously, the idea that individuals must earn their own living and provide for their own future without relying on a group of peers or on government intervention, safety nets or regulations had been one of his basic tenets.  

But at heart he was more of an enthusiast for free market capitalism than a doctrinaire anti-unionist; and once Hoffer started working under the aegis of the ILWU, he recognized that he benefited from the union’s prior successes in forcing concessions from management. He also liked the union’s fairness in dealing with slackers, miscreants and other internal problems.

So he revised his argument that capitalism was a natural activity of human beings, widening his pantheon of normal human traits to include the equally natural activity of workers bargaining collectively for wages and benefits. This led to his tenet that workers and management were eternally opposed, and that while they would always clash, they should work together to create ways to get the tasks done and build a sustainable enterprise.

As a social Darwinist, Eric Hoffer had evolved. He no longer believed America was or needed to be a dog-eat-dog society; rather, he understood the basic need for the “haves” to uphold the dignity of the less-powerful in their interaction with the more powerful.

No Luddite, he embraced the technology that eased the back-breaking nature of longshore work and used that realization in the 1970s to reach the belief that technological innovations would free humankind from the need to perform mindless toil and thereby enable a larger fraction of society to maximize its intellectual and artistic potential.  

Would that those current day conservatives who are still merciless social Darwinists be as willing to learn as Hoffer was.  

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.

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