Spencer: The Unsung Hero of a Modern Conservative

I do not consider myself to be an extremist on many topics. I don’t have strong feelings about the death penalty or how to regulate the economy other than some “common sense” laws to keep corporations from abusing workers or the environment. I believe in an individual’s right to own certain weapons with proper regulations and precautions. I believe people should be allowed to exercise some choice in their own lives without government intervention. I believe in people’s rights to their opinions. I do not believe, however, that oppression is an opinion.

Oppression is not an opinion.

For the past several turbulent years it has become more and more obvious to a growingly disgruntled America that we might not be as “like-minded” as we all thought. Differences in opinion on the economy and how an individual’s income tax worked was once less—charged. Little differences in opinion have far deeper and stronger implications than many people realize. The roots of the modern American conservative trace back much further than anyone might care to admit. We often like to herald ourselves as superior in knowledge and opinion to those who lived in the 1800s, but the very platform of the conservative parties of the United States are based on the work of a sociologist by the name of Herbert Spencer, who (plot twist!) coined the term “survival of the fittest”. It was Spencer that Darwin’s theory of evolution was influenced by.

Spencer’s beliefs are what the modern conservative relies upon to justify their political views. In a country where the conservative side often uses arguments of morality against their political opponents, Spencerism gives them a “moral” excuse for why their policies are often less than kind, loving, and Christianly. Spencer was of the belief that the “weak” (aka the poor) would be eliminated as the more enterprising and astute individuals would continue to thrive. To offer the weak welfare and assistance was to simply extend their misery. Jesus must have just been prolonging the destitute’s miserable lives by giving them bread. It would be kinder to just let them die off sooner, Spencer would argue.

Though Spencer’s beliefs were quite critical of the poor they were not much kinder to the rich, as many conservatives might be surprised to find out. The rich were also idle and unfit. During the time of industrialization, it was the modern entrepreneur that worked hard to build up his business that may have been considered the “fittest”. Now in a system in which the rich often inherit their wealth (much like the noble elitist “idle” rich Spencer criticized) the conservatives have taken only half of Spencer’s “truth” to make their policies and leanings seem somehow less cruel.

Those who champion the term “survival of the fittest” deny those with less means the access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property, if you’re into John Locke more than Thomas Jefferson). They would argue that those who cannot work themselves up from rags to riches are somehow less fit to be alive, completely ignoring the disadvantages those very people face in a system rigged against them. It is odd how over time meaning gets lost. Ironic, almost. The modern conservative fails to see how the very foundation they base their lives upon would be against them as well, in its original meaning. Those who inherit advantage should not actively oppress the less advantaged on the basis of “survival of the fittest”—they themselves are not demonstrating enterprising and astute qualities any more than the idle rich of Spencer’s time.

6 thoughts on “Spencer: The Unsung Hero of a Modern Conservative

  1. I agree with most of what you wrote and it would be nice if the far-right conservatives “in power” actually read up on Spencer so then rather than leaving their assets to their “brain dead” progeny they find one of the less fortunate who is better suited to carrying on the as one of the fittest, maybe then we could see some change. I would also argue however, that some of the far left do the same.

    1. I agree. I would add that the phenomena of “brain dead” spoiled rich kids is universal and not limited to conservatives. Remember when we were learning about the Roman Emperors and that for a while rather than leaving the empire to their potentially unfit natural children they were ‘adopting’ competent men to succeed them? That was a short-lived tradition that should be resurrected. How’s that for eliminating the ‘idle’ rich? Can you imagine what someone with more than two brain cells to rub together could do in someone like Paris Hilton’s position?

  2. I appreciate your well thought out analysis, Rory. I would like to ask however is Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” an ideology or a theory to explain the way our world works and how we interact with it? Or even how Spencer and his contemporaries interacted with their world? Spencer did live in an elitist class and I would argue he is a victim of his environment just as much as those on the opposite end. As we learned for a person in his position, this was the “question of the day” or rather the most logical question and theory to explain social order in the world Spencer was living in. He truly believed what he published, however unsympathetic it may be. I myself do not believe that the “weak” should be snuffed out or left to fend until they eventually parish. Yet, I also ask the question, is evolution at a standstill? Biological Spencerism, explained the reason a random mutation of a gene which better enabled an individual gave that individual a better probability of survival to pass on said gene. In the human species however we no longer hunt for our food or run from predators, on an intellectual level, we are on the top of the food chain. Random genetic mutations that would otherwise give us an advantage in the wild make little difference in our modern age. With modern medicine and technology we literally outlive our bodies and unfortunately, sometimes our minds. I suppose the point I am trying to make is at what point will biological evolution return as a factor into our species? Was this the point Spencer was making; that eventually an economic system will either be the cause or the fall of the system will be the cause for the return of Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” social evolution?

    1. I don’t necessarily think that biological factors matter or will matter in the future when it really comes down to what affects things in society. I think a lot of people go to biology to explain things sometimes because biology is empirical. You can “see” it and it isn’t always affected by interpretation. Looking at social factors that affect things is a much harder task. It relies on interpretation, critical thinking, and looking at historical context, which can be a big task for people who are not interested in the social machinations of our world. However, I will say that people are becoming more and more aware of sociological topics that look at any conflict or structure within our society.

      As for your ideology vs. theory question; I think the terms can be incredibly similar within sociology and anthropology. I think theory may present a more “rational” air but rationalization isn’t always “rational” (but I’m also looking at it from a political sociology view so I could be wrong).

      1. I very much agree that ‘rationalization’ isn’t necessarily rational, although it’s justified that way. Rationalization is a process of bureaucratization, I think. So political sociology works just fine here, Ariana!

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