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Fabians, Progressives, and Eugenics

This is from the fifth chapter, Eugenic Solutions, in Diane Paul’s summary history, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present.

Eugenics did enjoy support from some socialists, most notably members of the Fabian Society, who rejected laissez-faire in favor of a planned economy and establishment of a National Minimum–a guaranteed level of health, education, wages, and employment. Founded in 1900, the society was committed to reform from above rather than revolution from below. While the Fabians condemned capitalism, their ideal was a scientifically planned society that would empower experts rather than workers. The Fabians envisioned a nation managed by people much like themselves: middle-class, professionals, such as doctors, scientists, teachers, and social workers. The society also attracted a number of important literary figures, including George Bernard Shaw, who believed that there is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation, and H. G. Wells, who argued for the sterilization of failures on the grounds that the way of Nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born (Wells 1905, 60; Shaw 1905, 74). Plays like Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) and novels like Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) probably did more than any academic studies to popularize the concept of selective breeding.

Fabian socialism and eugenics shared the conviction that laissez-faire was a bankrupt philosophy that should be replaced by planning based on social needs. The geneticist Lancelot Hogben noted: Negative eugenics is simply the adoption of a national minimum of parenthood, and extension of the principle of national minima familiarized in the writings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It is thus essentially en rapport with the social theory of the collectivist movement (1931, 210). Sidney Webb himself enthusiastically endorsed the claim: No consistent eugenist can be a Laisser Faire individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere! (1910–11, 237).

Fabians were often nationalist and imperialist, though few went as far as Wells, who bluntly asserted that there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it (quoted in Trombley 1988, 32; see also Coren 1993, 65–67). But they vacillated in their attitudes toward the poor, viewing them sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with contempt. The tension between two images of the poor–as exploited and as unfit–was reflected in the Fabian political program, which promoted eugenics simultaneously with measures for improved health, education, and welfare (Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 37).

Fabians tried to resolve this tension by strongly distinguishing the prudent working class from its residuum. They were as alarmed as conservatives at the purported fecundity of the lower classes. Thus the Fabian theorist Harold Laski (who worked briefly in Karl Pearson’s laboratory) warned that the unfit were outbreeding the fit and that society must learn to regard the production of a weakling as a crime against itself if it were not to commit race suicide (1910, 25–34; see also Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 30–48). Many others agreed. Laski’s alarmist view was echoed by Eden Paul: Unless the socialist is a eugenicist as well, the socialist state will speedily perish from racial degradation (1917, 139), while Wells asserted that we cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny (1922, xvi).

However, there was often a large disparity between the Fabians’ extreme rhetoric and their milder policy proposals, which rarely extended beyond segregation. Very few (other than Wells) supported coercive sterilization. Thus Havelock Ellis invoked terrifying images: When we are able to control the stream at its source we are able to some extent to prevent the contamination of that stream by filth, and ensure that its muddy floods shall not sweep away the results of our laborious work on the banks. But he repeatedly rejected coercive sterilization (Ellis 1914, 15–16, 30). In Ellis’s view, eugenics would be effective only if developed from a broader sense of social responsibility. Harold Laski had argued that any action with national consequences may be regulated by the state and urged that the unfit be prevented from breeding. But when it came to public policy, he asked only that the state influence the climate of public opinion. In the end, Laski would counter the threat of race suicide with education. In Britain, that was the best eugenicists could do.

Their inability to pass laws may lead us to dismiss the British eugenicists’ importance. But legislation is not the only–or perhaps even the best–measure of success. The eugenicists were extremely effective in popularizing a new Galtonian vocabulary. Whole sections of British society now took for granted that talent and character were inborn and fixed. Edgar Schuster and Ethel Elderton of the Galton Laboratory remarked, At the time of the first publication of Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius, in 1869, the belief in the hereditary nature of inborn natural ability was held by very few; but so great has been the influence of that and other works that at the present time it would be almost impossible to find an educated person to dispute it (1907, 1). This assumption had consequences far beyond programs of eugenical selection. It shaped policy in respect to medicine, law, and education.

In the United States, eugenicists did enjoy some legislative triumphs, although even here the greatest impact was probably ideological. As many scholars have noted, eugenics was congruent with the scientific and reformist spirit of the Progressive Era, a period of vast economic and social change between the collapse of Reconstruction and the start of the First World War (Allen 1989; Freeden 1979; Pickens 1968). When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States was an agricultural country, which imported most of its technology. By the end of the century, its industrial output had tripled, with steel production exceeding the combined output of Britain and Germany (Painter 1987, xvii). The United States was now a major exporter of industrial equipment and consumer goods. Business and industry became highly consolidated, as small-scale competition gave way to a new system of corporate capitalism in which most sectors of the economy were dominated by a few giant firms. At the same time, the population became increasingly urban. In 1880, about a quarter of Americans lived in cities; by 1900, the figure was 40 percent. These cities now filled with immigrants from Europe and poor migrants from the rural South while middle-class residents moved to new streetcar suburbs.

The wealth so visibly created was very unequally distributed. At the turn of the century, the average workweek was about 60 hours, and the conditions in mines, mills, and factories were wretched; industrial discipline was harsh, and the work was exhausting and often dangerous. Widespread unemployment accompanied frequent and sometimes prolonged depressions. Signs of social disorder were everywhere: in strikes and walkouts that often ended in violence, in highly visible urban slums, in municipal corruption, in rising rates of crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and infectious diseases, in overcrowded prisons, and in asylums for the insane and feebleminded. The middle class demanded reforms that would both relieve distress and restore a stable social order. They called for factory inspection, child labor laws, a shortened workday, community clinics, probation and parole, a federal income tax, workmen’s compensation, the direct election of U.S. senators, prohibition. And eugenics.

The Progressive reforms involved a vast expansion in governmental authority. Whether Democrat or Republican, the Progressives shared a faith in the virtues of planning and the benevolence of the state. Their bywords were organization, cooperation, systematic planning, efficiency, and social control. Julia Lathrop, Hull House resident and later chief of the Children’s Bureau, summarized their credo: The success of our future civilization lies in government adding to their responsibility and taking on work which people have not hitherto been willing to entrust to them (quoted in Rothman 1980, 6). That work would be the province of disinterested experts.

To the Progressives, science provided a model of impartial expertise. Moreover, science, being disinterested, could provide unity to a society that seemed to be culturally disintegrating. Above all, science could supply the tools to manage humans and their environment efficiently (Tobey 1971, 12–19). Science could also address the root causes of social problems and not just their symptoms, like the state, it was assumed to be wholly benevolent. The Progressive attitude was expressed by Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin:

We know enough about agriculture so that the agricultural production of the country could be doubled if the knowledge were applied. We know enough about disease so that if the knowledge were utilized, infectious and contagious diseases would be substantially destroyed in the United States within a score of years; we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation. (quoted in Haller 1985, 76)

Van Hise was also active in the conservation movement, as were a number of prominent eugenicists such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Madison Grant, and Charles Goethe. Both movements emphasized the need for planning and the welfare of future generations. Progressives, like Fabians (whom they resembled in many respects), vacillated between sympathy and contempt for the poor, supporting measures both to ameliorate their plight and to prevent them from breeding. Like the Fabians also, they tried to resolve the tension by distinguishing workers from what in America were called the defective or dangerous classes (those in Britain called the social residuum).

–Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (1995), pp. 75–78.

Feminism seeks to empower women on our own terms – from Catharine MacKinnon, “Not By Law Alone,” in Feminism Unmodified

Critics of feminism from the Right have often painted all feminist demands in terms of liberal feminist claims for equity (for example, in the workplace), and caricatured those demands as a liberal demands that women simply become like men—the women’s own desires, the particularities of women’s lives, the needs of the family, and anything else that gets in the way be damned. Critics of feminism from the Left have often portrayed all feminist demands in terms of radical feminist opposition to sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, and other objections to the sexualized denigration of women, and caricatured those demands as little more than kill-joy Right-wing puritanism, dressed up in progressive clothing. Catharine MacKinnon has argued that this double-bind may simply be the result of the male Right and the male Left’s inability to see any issue except on men’s terms, and so mistake feminist opposition to the Right as liberalism and feminist opposition to the Left as reaction. Consider, for example, how she illustrates her points of agreement, and conflict, with liberalism and conservatism—and draws out the vital importance of understanding feminism on its own terms, on women’s terms instead of men’s terms—in Not by Law Alone:

I speak as a feminist, although not all feminists agree with everything I say. Mrs. Schlafly speaks as a conservative. She and I see a similar world, but we portray it differently. We see similar facts but have very different explanations and evaluations of those facts.

We both see substantial differences between the situations of women and of men. She interprets the distinctions as natural or individual. I see them as fundamentally social. She sees them as inevitable or just—or perhaps inevitable therefore just—either as good and to be accepted or individually overcomeable with enough will and application. I see women’s situation as unjust, contingent, and imposed.

In order to speak of women as a feminist, I need first to correct Mrs. Schlafly’s impression of the women’s movement. Feminism is not, as she implicitly defines it, liberalism applied to women. Her attack on the women’s movement profoundly misconstrues feminism. Her critique of the women’s movement is an artifact, an application, of her long-standing critique of liberalism, just as her attack on the ERA is an artifact of her opposition to the federal government. Women as such are incidental, a subplot, not central, either to liberalism or to her critique. Liberalism defines equality as sameness. It is comparative. To know if you are equal, you have to be equal to somebody who sets the standard you compare yourself with. According to this approach, gender difference is the evil of women’s situation because it enforces the nonsameness of women and men. Feminism—drawing from socialist feminism lessons about class and privilege, from lesbian feminism lessons about sexuality, from the feminism of women of color lessons about racism and self-respecting communities of resistance—does not define equality this way. To feminism, equality means the aspiration to eradicate not gender differentiation, but gender hierarchy.

We stand for an end to enforced subordination, limited options, and social powerlessness—on the basis of sex, among other things. Differentiation, to feminism, is just one strategy in keeping women down. Liberalism has been subversive for us in that it signals that we have the audacity to compare ourselves with men, to measure ourselves by male standards, on male terms. We do seek access to the male world. We do criticize our exclusion from male pursuits. But liberalism limits us in a way feminism does not. We also criticize male pursuits from women’s point of view, from the standpoint of our social experience as women.

Feminism seeks to empower women on our own terms. To value what women have always done as well as to allow us to do everything else. We seek not only to be valued as who we are, but to have access to the process of definition of value itself. In this way, our demand for access becomes also a demand for change.

Put another way, Mrs. Schlafly and I both argue that in a sense, women are not persons, but but with very different meanings. When the right affirms women as women, it affirms woman’s body as a determinant of woman’s existing role, which it sees as her rightful place. Feminists criticize the social disparities between the sexes that not only exclude women from personhood as that has been defined, that noy only distort woman’s body and mind inseparably, but also define personhood in ways that are repugnant to us. Existing society’s image of a person never has represented or encompassed what we, as women, with women’s experience, either have had access to or aspire to.

Mrs. Schlafly opposes feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, and basic change in women’s condition, as if the central goal of the women’s movement were to impose a gender-free society, as if we defined equality as sameness. This is not accurate. Our issue is not the gender difference but the difference gender makes, the social meaning imposed upon our bodies—what it means to be a woman or a man is a social process and, as such, is subject to change. Feminists do not seek sameness with men. We more criticize what men have made of themselves and the world that we, too, inhabit. We do not seek dominance over men. To us it is a male notion that power means someone must dominate. We seek a transformation in the terms and conditions of power itself.

—Catharine MacKinnon, from Not by Law Alone: From a Debate with Phyllis Schlafly (1982), reprinted in Feminism Unmodified (1987), pp. 21-23.

New essays from Instead of a Book, by Benjamin Tucker

The following essays have been newly transcribed for our online edition of Benjamin Tucker’s Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One:

The history of the Black Metropolis, the inner city, and the underground economy in Southside Chicago (from Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books)

This is from the first chapter, Living Underground, in Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s Off the Books:

Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the dilapidated streets and empty lots, Maquis Park has a storied history. From the neighborhood’s beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century until the early 1900s, working-class Irish immigrants populated the community. The region as a whole changed in the mid-twentieth century. African Americans pushed southward from areas near the central business district in search of cheaper rents and better neighborhood conditions. They moved into communities like Maquis Park that had been largely closed off due to segregation, real estate discrimination, and redlining by banks. Migrants also came from the sharecropping American South, and their arrival by the thousands in Chicago meant that the ghetto was always on the verge of bursting at its seams. Maquis Park’s white homeowners had used restrictive covenants to prevent the sale of homes to blacks, but such resistance was futile in the face of overwhelming population growth and the expansion of the black community.

As their numbers grew, black Chicagoans built a Black Metropolis. Maquis Park became part of a broad area of black Southside settlement where migrants and native black Chicagoans could find comfort, opportunity, and a place of their own in the bustling city. But largely they were shunted off from much of that city due to the racism of their white neighbors and the ruling white machine. While they lobbied, protested, and struggled for their share, as a partial response they turned their energies inward. Maquis Park and its neighboring areas became a parallel urban world, integrated into Chicago yet set off because its inhabitants developed institutions that mirrored those of the larger metropolis but served mostly black Chicagoans. They forged what at the time was called a city within a city.

The Southside Black Metropolis would be alternatively celebrated and criticized. It held a thriving black press, prominent black businesses, healthy and active civic associations, and the kind of diversity and spontaneity one would expect to find in an urban milieu. It was known as Bronzeville, a term that honored the unrelenting spirit and commitment of black Americans to forge the good life. On the other hand, its residents were cut off from many political and economic resources, and they were largely unable to acquire homes or run businesses in white neighborhoods. Thus the Southside suffered overcrowding and inadequate housing, limited commercial development, high unemployment, and severe blight. A mansion might adjoin a transient hotel, and a row of shacks might sit opposite a thriving entertainment district. The most prosperous black Americans were reminded daily of the ceiling on social mobility that kept them segregated and that forced them to fend for themselves when the city’s institutions failed them. For this, they shouted at both the ruling political elites and their own black political representatives who worked in the city machine.

In their drive to provide for themselves, black Chicagoans developed an alternate, underground economy–one interrelated to, but distinct from, the wider urban political economy. Even though black laborers were a significant part of the city’s industrial and service sector labor force, there were not enough jobs available for black job seekers. So they worked for menial, off-the-books wages, often in their own community, as janitors and cleaners, waiters and entertainers, shoe shiners, tailors, house-painters, and general laborers. Whites would not hire black contractors for home repair, but they would turn to black women for domestic help, housecleaning, and child care, and they typically paid them under the table. Although black businesses flourished, there was inadequate financial assistance available from white-owned banks. So those starting businesses and those needing cash to survive a downturn went to unregulated creditors, loan sharks, and political bosses for a loan–for which they faced not only high interest rates but also physical harm if they were unable to repay. A significant share of this parallel economy involved criminal work, like numbers running and vice, in which not only were the earnings unreported but the activities themselves were illegal.

The outcome of all these practices was the emergence of a vibrant shady economy in Chicago’s Southside. Well into the postwar era, the Black Metropolis boasted a vibrant alternative sphere of exchange and trading that supplanted the mainstream commercial sphere. It was not only a necessity, it was also a core part of the cultural life of the region. Politicians grew famous by dispensing patronage in the form of city contracts and off-the-books work–sometimes for a kickback and always for a vote on election day. In entertainment and gambling, unreported income was always available if one had connections to the ward boss, madam, or loan shark who controlled numbers, betting, local lotteries, brothels, and gambling parlors. Storied films like Uptown Saturday Night and Cotton Comes to Harlem spoke to the flattering view that many people, not just in black America but the country as a whole, held of the shady aspirant. For centuries, the outlaw, fighting both government and the entrenched powers to rise above the fray and accumulate wealth, has been an American hero, and in the mid-twentieth century this figure found an avatar in the black ghetto hustler.

After the civil rights era, Maquis Park suffered the fate of many American inner cities. Its wealthier classes left and moved into previously segregated areas, while its working and poor households remained. The area lost whatever mitigating effect on poverty the better-off households once contributed–to ensure that some streets were cleaned, that some parks were maintained, that some schools were kept in decent condition–and blight overwhelmed the physical landscape. Many of the beautiful brownstones reached a level of disrepair that required attention beyond the financial resources of their owners. Apartment buildings became abandoned due to neglectful landlords and the out-migration of the middle- and upper-class families. Sanitation services grew insufficient, and one saw litter and refuse everywhere. The homeless set up camp in the abandoned buildings but also in shanties alongside roads and in parks. People sat idle and out of work nearly everywhere.

But the alternate economy continued to thrive. Indeed, the underground economy was fast becoming a primary economy for black ghetto dwellers. Buying goods cheaply, whether on the street or in the alley, behind closed doors or outside of the neglectful state, was still part of their recipe for household survival. Off-the-books services, from tax preparation and general labor to security and entertainment, were plentiful.

Hustling was the word coined in popular discourse to refer to the indefatigable and creative attempts by the down-and-out to find work, make a buck, and make ends meet. But importantly, hustling included not only the labor to find illicit earnings, but also the work entailed in dealing with the consequences of living by shady means. Hustling meant insecurity, crime, and exploitative behavior, to which people had to respond. And in a time period when policing was inadequate and law enforcement relations with inner-city neighborhoods throughout black urban America were colored by neglect and distrust, it meant people sometimes had to take matters into their own hands. Thus, the hustle also involved a diverse set of strategies to make sure that the shady world did not completely ruin the social fabric. These strategies were often as creative as the illegal activities themselves. Whether they settled disputes or enforced underground contracts, people hustled not only to put food on the table, but also to maintain order in their streets and communities.

In time, the coexistence of despair and the outlaw lifestyle would draw the attention of those in the wider world. A wellspring of public scrutiny arrived at the doorstep of communities like Maquis Park in the eighties, after nearly two decades of poverty, unemployment, business failure, and high crime had swept through and ravaged the social and physical landscape. In academic and press reportage, critics and scholars tried to make sense of the apparently marked remove of the black ghetto from the mainstream. In The Truly Disadvantaged, sociologist William Julius Wilson diagnosed the presence of a subclass of black Americans living not only in conditions of extreme impoverishment, but also in relative remoteness from their surrounding city. More than their inability to find work marked their social isolation, Wilson argued. They suffered from inadequate integration into many urban institutions, from the police and schools to philanthropy and the press. And, he pointed out, unlike the mid-twentieth century there were no middle-class persons to serve as role models or provide social controls over unruly and delinquent behavior that was now growing out of control.

Following Wilson’s essay, a flurry of critical assessment arose over the black ghetto. Scholars focused on the household as the root cause of isolation, deploying all kinds of statistical data–such as the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy, high rates of welfare dependency, absentee fathers and mother-led families–in an effort to isolate the role of black family formation in the reproduction of poverty. Detailed press reports, like Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, spoke of the cultural pathologies, such as a lack of work ethic and a predilection for unruly behavior, that had been spawned in areas seemingly forgotten by time and morality. Human interest reportage, like Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, pointed out the limited mental horizons of inner-city youth and young adults; few of these young people could envision a life for themselves beyond the ghetto, in marked contrast to the yuppies who were defining the renewed American spirit in the era of globalization. By the beginning of the eighties, when cities initiated revitalization programs to attract middle- and upper-class residents, the ghetto was pitied for what it lacked (normal families, good schools, working adults) and criticized for what it boasted (gangs, drugs, and crime).

In a way, this kind of attention to the urban underclass was nothing new. From the late nineteenth century onward, Chicago’s black communities (and those in other major industrialized cities) were the repositories for public indignation and, eventually, some type of social reform. The clarion call of distress over a population living outside the social mainstream occurred every two or three decades. Depending on the political climate (conservative or progressive), policies like mass arrest and incarceration, urban renewal and housing construction, philanthropic investment and community development, would follow to integrate the disenfranchised. America’s concern in the nineties for the dispossessed black inner city, seeing in it a form of existence that must be razed and then restored, is really part of a long history of inveighing against and expressing moral outrage at how the minority poor live.

In the midst of this public clamor and sometimes self-righteous inspection, Maquis Park and many other alienated and poor black communities perdure. Though not always in full measure and in comfort and security, households manage. Parents feed and clothe children, chaos does not rule, and people experience joy and see beauty. Residents deal with problems, like crime and delinquency, even if their ways of coping and maintaining social order do not receive much attention. And, as this book contends, an important dimension of their daily struggle to create a habitable place to live and work has occurred behind the scenes. Their labor takes place with resources amassed in the underground economy. Their work to restore order and keep Maquis Park safe and secure takes place often outside government agencies that can be, at varying times, neglectful and begrudging in allocating resources, yet spiteful in the drive to police and punish. Their collective labors have coalesced largely outside the watchful eye of media and scholars, for whom the tragedies of poverty have perhaps justifiably attracted more attention than the simple and remarkable ways in which people actually tend to their affairs in such environs. This book is about making visible these everyday shady efforts by Maquis Park residents to maintain their community.

–Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (2006), pp. 14–20.