Thursday 18 January 2018

The Conservative Party's Eugenics Problem

To find one leading Conservative mouthing off about eugenics is unfortunate, the incidence of others indicates something else. We know about Toby Young, the self-styled "Toadmeister" and his hanging around with Nazis and paedophile apologists at a eugenics conference. He was joined this week by Ben Bradley, the Tories' new youth supremo for ill-advised blog posts advocating vasectomies for the unemployed. Speaking of the young, the semi-official Tory youth movement got it in the neck during the summer for private chats that featured "gassing chavs" among the banter, and during his mayoralty Boris Johnson (who else?) got himself in hot water by pinning inequality on IQ levels. There's more. Newly-minted minister Suella Fernandez and fellow MP John Penrose are opposed to the EU Charter of Rights because, among other things, it disallows eugenics.

If that hasn't sated your appetite, there is this:
A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world.... Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness…. They are producing problem children…. The balance of our human stock, is threatened ...
This was from Keith Joseph's infamous 'Our human stock is threatened' speech, the very same Keith Joseph who was a key influence on and confidant of one Margaret Thatcher - you might have heard of her. Whether there is a relationship between this and the social Darwinist policies the Tories unleashed in the 1980s (a decade in which Joseph continued to lobby for his views, albeit more discreetly) I'll leave others to ponder on. But the point remains, go back through the history of the Tory party and you will find a current, albeit one that becomes more submerged with time, of advocacy of and sympathy with eugenics. Why?

Let us be clear. There are eugenics and there are eugenics. In his reviled but revealing musings on the subject, Tony Young makes the case for "progressive eugenics", a number of biomedical technologies that should be made available to poor would-be parents to engineer their children, in utero, with intellectual and physiological advantages to compensate them for a disadvantaged start in life. It's nonsensical, but Young fits in a long-standing and deeply embedded tradition of eugenics that works to facilitate the reproduction of fit human beings. Naturally, and for good reason, in as far as the term has a popular understanding it is associated with the policies of Nazi Germany, the death camps, and its crank but murderous preoccupation with racial hygiene. But the Nazis were far from the only enthusiastic advocates for the prevention of the spread (and elimination) of the "unfit"; it was a policy followed up in several Western countries after the war with forced sterilisation of the mentally ill, and people with complex and special needs.

Neither of these are acceptable, but eugenics has deep cultural roots and, I'd argue, inseparable from how states govern. The cultivation of the body, the exercise of its physical and intellectual capacities and elevating this as a standard to aspire to goes back to Rome and ancient Greece. The rediscovery of these as virtues dates from the Renaissance to the early modern period. As absolutist and modern states emerged from the wreckage of feudalism, as workers were forced off the land and into waged labour authorities were faced with two problems. There was the question of how to manage populations and maintain public order in large urban concentrations, and how to ensure they were fit enough to supply Europe's endless wars the requisite cannon fodder and provide able-bodied labour power to work the land and then the factories. It's around this time classifications were made and gained force as the centuries wore on: the dividing up of populations into hierarchies by ethnicities and races, the divisions between the deserving and the feckless, of the normal and the mad, and the moral from the immoral. Apparatuses were in motion classifying and labelling populations, while the authorities were able to make use of them as means of managing them, and dividing them according to this problematic.

After two world wars, the problem of management remained the same. As Clare Hanson in her 2013 book, Eugenics, Literature, and Culture in Post-war Britain makes plain, eugenics found a quiet second wind as the new welfarist order was built. Social security as shaped by bourgeois experts and implemented by a Labour Party scarred by the collective memory of the Depression and war was an opportunity to put eugenicist policies into practice. The tripartite education system, for example, was explicitly designed to select for nascent bourgeois qualities among working class kids and socially separate them out during their secondary schooling. The big shift in the alliance between eugenics and the welfare state for Hanson came with the election of Thatcher and the subsequent imposition of market fundamentalism. Here eugenics didn't disappear, but were effectively de-collectivised and privatised. The state was, at least officially, not overtly concerned with population management - this responsibility was devolved to a proliferation of governances of the self. Yet, of course, the state was very interested in the collective fate of the nation as it aided and abetted new divisions between the deserving and undeserving poor, promulgated Victorian values, made hay with the AIDS epidemic, demonised immigrants, and so on. There was a fit population of upright citizens, and there was another Britain of the undesirables and the underclass.

Interestingly, after Thatcher had gone and her legacy limped on in John Major's enfeebled government, the baton was picked up by New Labour. While pursuing economic policies that remained within the Thatcherite mold, Blairism did rebuild the public realm and make significant inroads into child and pensioner poverty, as well as tackle the Tory left overs of crumbling hospitals and schools (though in such a way that Blairism wrecked the party), but the eugenics streak came to the surface. Sure Start, for example, has made a real difference to millions of parents. However its design was about inculcating parental virtues as well as offering child care facilities. They were (and are) instruments for the moral improvement of the working class, defined and devised entirely from above. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime saw a ramping up of authoritarian discipline in schools, and a web of measures linking children's behaviour to an array of sanctions that could be enforced against their parents. Social security deepened Thatcherite logics with the introduction of welfare-to-work schemes that, again, didn't lead to real jobs but "morally improved" the feckless workless according to norms that once ruled the workhouse. The nearest New Labour came to openly touting eugenics was the proposal to fight "social exclusion" by identifying "at risk" babies before they were born. The fag end of Blair's time was about "troubled families" and broken relationships, completely divorced from his government's social policy that, unconsciously, was corrosive of social solidarities.

This brings us up to date. The Tories' embrace of austerity has meant defunding New Labour's hands-on approach, and has abandoned their liberal eugenics for something more sinister: eugenics by indifference. The cuts to adult social care, the underfunding of the NHS, the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax benefit, the explosion of JSA sanctions, the stubborn insistence on the work capability assessment has, as we know, led to at least 120,000 excess deaths during their period of office. These are the most vulnerable, the most infirm, the most precarious people. In other words, this is eugenics as social murder, a dying off of what Ebenezer Scrooge called the "surplus population": people who cannot work and/or live lifestyles that attract moralistic sneers from the very class that oversees this system. The horror is only acknowledged by the Tories in one way, as the (justified) consequence of failures of individual responsibility. They made the wrong choices and they have to take responsibility for them. The victims and survivors of Tory austerity are unpeople who deserve no sympathy, no recognition of their humanity and if they are to be noted at all, it's as butts of eugenics fantasies spoken aloud.

Eugenics then as a self-styled science of human improvement is inseparable from management, from governance and from government. It is a body of knowledge that ranges across human knowledge that informs policy, popular culture, and research trajectories in the biological sciences. But it is not and has never been separate from power, of the management of populations by governments and state institutions. Eugenics, whether "positive" or negative, is an outlook, a distorted view of the way of the social world as it appears from above, from the summit of governing elites and ruling classes. Eugenics so informs the Tories not because they are empty of other ideas, which they are, but because it's a fundamental part of their make up. As the preferred party of government, as the defender of privilege, as the champion of minority interests against those of the overwhelming majority, eugenics as a tool of control and a technology of discipline is organic to their political project. The likes of Toby Young, Boris Johnson and Ben Bradley are not aberrations. They are spokespeople of an attitude, an idea, a sensibility that is inseparable from Toryism.


David Timoney said...

There are no classical roots to eugenics. The Greco-Roman idea of excellence (arete) assumed a stasis in which the individual distinguished himself (it was usually a him) from the mass. Without the continued presence of those lacking in excellence, distinction would be impossible.

The ideas of racial hygiene and national homogeneity arise less than 150 years ago and are bound up with imperialism and the political response to democracy. In many ways Nazism was an anachronism.

Francis Galton's use of Greek was simply an attempt to provide a spurious lineage and respectability for a concept that was the product of an industrial society that feared "the common man".

It is important to realise that eugenic ideas have only ever been advocated by a minority over a very short period of history. There is a big difference between the persistent contempt for the mass and the advocacy of their extermination or generic re-engineering.

dermot said...

QUOTE: The tripartite education system, for example, was explicitly designed to select for nascent bourgeois qualities among working class kids and socially separate them out during their secondary schooling. UNQUOTE

Makes sense; I'd like to hear more about this, if you can.

Speedy said...

Interesting article (although I'm not sure your definition of eugenics would stand up in court).

The worst European offender for "traditional" eugenics was pseudo-socialist Sweden which sterilised 21,000 people up until 1975. Then there was of course Mrs Gandhi...

"They were (and are) instruments for the moral improvement of the working class, defined and devised entirely from above."

This is a troublesome assertion because surely any top-down policy aimed at improving lives could be described thus? I know you're a supporter of universal income, but have you considered there can be such a thing is too much "free" money? My view is that the benefits system is used to sustain capitalism, pacifying the people for whom it has no place - it was no coincidence that under Thatcher an extra two million were signed onto disability, a good way of keeping them off the unemployment register and, essentially, paying them to keep quiet. It is sad that the "left" has come to fetishise benefits and sneer at equality of opportunity - sometimes it seems that the only good working class person is one on benefits.

Of course there are millions who require help from the state, but that does not mean that there are also many others who are spiritually impoverished by it (I have seen it in my own family). The concept of contributing to society has always been central to socialism, and I believe you see yourself as a socialist. I sense in your distate for top down solutions a sense that the only good working class person is one who knows his or her place and has not inculcated "bourgeois" values at a Sure Start. That seems very paternalistic and "top down" to me.

Speedy said...

David, the Romans and Spartans regularly exposed, selected-out, sub-optimal infants, if we are to take Phil's definition.

Dermot, of course the other way to look at it would be that they were trying to give working class kids a leg up, albeit it in an imperfect way (and to serve the interests of their class).

Comprehensive education on the other hand is said to be the great leveller, yet we live in a less socially mobile society than 50 years ago...

I agree with Phil which is that you have to begin with the bottom and look upwards. What would truly serve the interest of the working class? Well, you could start by banning private education and creating a truly equal and meritocratic school system (but when, Phil, would you risk crossing your line and promoting "bourgeois values"?!).

Phil said...

The New Labour connection is significant and troubling (although it complicates your genealogy). I'd go so far as to say that the roots of today's murderous welfare conditionality system lie in the New Labour period, not in Thatcherism. It was New Labour, not the Tories, who proposed tying welfare eligibility to good citizenship under the banner of 'community', on the basis that those who didn't "work hard and play by the rules" were effectively excluding themselves from the community of respectable citizens and deserved to receive nothing from it. (I wrote about this in a collection called Remoralizing Britain?.)

It's not a million miles from the eugenicist ideas of someone like H.G. Wells, who wrote (in 1932): "The world and its future is not for feeble folk any more than it is for selfish folk. It is not for the multitude but for the best". I guess there's a strand of 'leftism' that didn't fall so far from the technocratic/managerial tree.

Anonymous said...

I thought it might be worth mentioning two of the recent Tory policies that seem relevant to eugenics. The most blatant being the restriction of child tax credits to only the first two children, and the other being the benefits cap, which discriminates against larger families. Both give the message that it is socially irresponsible for low income people to breed excessively and, if they do, they will not be supported by the state - even if it means the children will grow up in poverty.

Dialectician1 said...

In reply to Dermot above, the tripartite education system, with its use of psychometric testing (the notorious 11+), was introduced by Labour's Minister of Education, 'Red' Ellen Wilkinson in 1945. The idea of three distinctive types of secondary school: grammar schools and technical schools (for the top 20%) and secondary moderns (for the rest) was certainly NOT integral to the 1944 Education Act, brought in by the Coalition government during the war. It was a Labour government under Wilkinson who sent out Circular 73 in December 1945 to all local education authorities advising them to take the tripartite route. A booklet accompanying the circular notes that secondary modern schools would be for working class children 'whose future employment would not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge.'

However, it is not surprising that Wilkinson took this decision. The inter-war Labour party and the liberal left in general was infused with eugenicist ideas (Fabian society, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, J.B.S. Haldane, William Beveridge, Marie Stopes etc. were all well-known eugenicists). Wilkinson went against the membership of the Labour Party, who were mostly appalled by ideas that underpinned the tripartite system but she was supported by the Spens Report (1938) and the Norwood Report, which stated that there were ‘three types of mind’ natural to all children, who had a ‘fixed maximum ability’.

These eugenicist ideas still lie at the heart of our education system. It is still seen as ‘common sense’ by politicians/parents/teachers that some children are born ‘talented’ and other are not. See Dorling & Tomlinson (2017)

Anonymous said...

Before WW2 eugenics was mainstream science supported and funded by government and academia. After WW2 nobody was a eugenicist and nobody had really believed in it.

David Timoney said...

Infanticide by exposure (or neglect) in ancient Greece was commonplace - because of the lack of reliable contraception - but it was generally applied to children considered superfluous, rather than "sub-optimal", with a clear bias against girls.

Sparta was considered atypical in that it would expose boys considered unlikely to become hoplites as well, though what mainly offended contemporaries about this practice was that the decision was reserved to the state rather than the father. NB: Those boys were well born, not helots (i.e. working class).

To repeat, eugenics as a class project is a product of the late 19th century, and thus the emergence of classes as we understand them. It only arises once labour is conceptualised as a factor of production that requires (and is capable of) scientific improvement.

Though eugenics is popularly associated with traditional techniques of agricultural stock management (e.g. selective breeding), it is really geared to industrial stock management (standardisation, measurement etc), hence modern eugenics has moved on from simple heritability to bio-engineering and chemical intervention - e.g. Toby Young's interest in IQ-enhancing drugs.

If we think of eugenics as one end of a spectrum, the other end is represented by liberal fretting over productivity and poor educational achievement by the "white working class". NB: Many early eugenicists were political progressives, such as the Fabians.

Thomas said...

Nikolas Rose has a good discussion of eugenics in chapter 2 of his 'The Politics of Life Itself'. Although he contrasts 'eugenics' as 'calculated attempts to improve the quality of the nation or race through acting on reproduction' with the more 'molecular' biopower which he argues operates through strategies of self-government linked to choice and self-fulfilment. (Rose, 2006).

JGiftmacher said...

While I agree with the thrust of what you are saying, you are bending the definition of eugenics to breaking point. Social engineering is more like it.

Eugenics may rear it's ugly head alongside demonisation of poverty but it's quite specifically the biological eradication of "lesser genes" from the wider pool. Its important to be clear on this as eugenics utterly wrong scientifically as well as morally, thereby giving it no hiding place in debate.

Population "fitness" technically goes up with more genetic diversity (fitness being the resilience of a population to a changed environment). So even where people can link a trait to genes, eradication reduces genetic diversity thereby harming a population: even harmful mutants can be lifesavers in the right context e.g. sickle cell.

Keith said...

If the ruling class really believed their children to be so superior to those of the plebs why do they spend so much money on private education? Surely the race of genii require no schooling at all....