10 June 2004
To continue my sojourn into the Victorian era it’s also worth looking at the raft of regurgitated Victorian ‘scientific solutions’ that have accompanied the right wing agenda pursued by both the US and UK governments for a decade or more.
The parallels are more than symbolic or even coincidental, they are in every sense of the word a throwback to an age of ruthless exploitation supported by a slew of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that parallels the Victorian period’s obsession with all manner of ‘explanations’ based upon misinterpretation of whatever ‘scientific’ hypothesis was in vogue at any particular time.
Perhaps the best known example was the complete bastardisation of the theories propounded in Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ , most notably the ‘survival of the fittest’ but applied to capitalism (‘it’s a jungle out there’). And amazingly, the idea is still in vogue over 150 years later (but with some ‘new age’ modifications)!
Many of the ideas currently in vogue actually have their source during the Nixon period, especially spurious notions surrounding ‘intelligence’ and ‘race’ but they have resurfaced once more as a result of genetic studies that now claim that there are even genes for religion, criminal predisposition and even female promiscuity (men of course, are ‘naturally’ promiscuous). Such ‘scientific’ studies are of course, qualified by terms such as a ‘propensity’ toward this or that behaviour but the very fact that these ideas are introduced into the mainstream is what makes them dangerous.
So why the resurgence of these deeply repugnant ideas? Some obviously find their rationale in common or garden economics. So for example, during the recession of the 80s, women were encouraged to find their ‘natural’ place back in the home thus removing them from the job market. Others such as the Christian fundamentalist anti-abortionists, have an ideological basis that is closely related to the idea of women’s ‘natural’ state.
But propelling all these ideas is an intellectual ‘mafia’ entrenched in the scientific/academic communities, which reflects the dominant ideology of capitalism, and although scientists claim to be ‘objective’, the subjects they ‘choose’ to study, like their colleagues in the media are a reflection of the concerns of capitalism to justify the capitalist way of life. Even the idea that science is somehow ‘neutral’ is a fiction, for as these studies show, the choice of what to study reflects the concerns of the dominant culture. All we need to is ‘follow the money’.
Lock ’em up and throw away the key
When we look at the vast numbers of people incarcerated in prisons both here and to an even greater degree in the US, we find two processes at work. One stems from the institutional racism of the state that also has its roots in the late 19th pseudo-science of ‘Aryan’ intellectual superiority and the closely related early 20th century Eugenics movement that was later to find its expression in an even more odious form in Nazi Germany but actually persisted in the US and in Australia through to the 1960s. And, as we shall see, the same deeply repugnant ideas are at work in the areas of mental health and education. In fact, there’s barely an area of life where we don’t find these processes being used to rationalise a return to Victorian ‘values’.
The idea of prison as a deterrent (an idea totally refuted by the rates of recidivism as well as the lip service paid to ‘rehabilitation’ in prisons) also has its source in Victorian England’s pseudo-science of ‘criminality’ that is rooted in the idea of a ‘criminal class’, that is, people born with a tendency to commit crime. It’s just a hop and step from this to Blacks (or other convenient minorities) having this tendency and of course, almost without exception ‘criminals’ are poor and largely uneducated. Class, race and gender discrimination are, in my opinion closely related, differing only in how they express themselves but all play their part in maintaining the status quo. What they hold in common is a set of pseudo-scientific ideas about what it is to be human and all are rooted in a fixed notion of human nature.
In addition, the misuse of science and ‘statistics’ to back up these spurious ideas works in close conjunction with the mass media. So for example, even though crime rates are generally falling in the UK, the media and the state are always referring to the public’s perceptions of crime. But where do they get these ‘perceptions’ from? This is another of those self-referential systems where the media scares the living daylights out of people and then asks them how safe they feel and on the basis of this proceeds to tell us that although crime may only affect a tiny percentage of people, we need to turn the place into a police state in order to allay peoples’ perceptions! Reality it appears, has no part to play but then since when has the media bothered with reality?
‘Do not adjust your mind, there’s a fault in reality’
So too with mental illness, with the latest theories that conveniently coincides with the pharmaceutical industry’s production of drug ‘treatments’ for that which ails us. So research follows paths that tend to reinforce the idea that mental illness has a chemical cause. This approach fits in well with the state’s ‘benign neglect’ that emptied hospitals and dumped the unfortunate patients back into non-existent communities as part of the agenda that the state has of shedding its social responsibilities towards its citizens.
And it can be seen that ideas about the alleged genetic or chemical cause of behaviour is closely related to the idea of treating states of mind with drugs. And even where it can be shown that there are chemical changes in the brain that accompany a particular dis-ease, it has yet to be shown whether these are a cause or an effect. After all, we know that stress, hardly a physical process affects the immune system, so why not the brain?
What is important is the connection between the economic motivation to sell drugs and the ideological context, with one reinforcing the other.
The Three ‘Rs’: Reading, Riting and Rote
And in a comparable process in ‘education’, the state has rolled out the same Victorian retread, where ‘teaching’ has retrograded into a formalism masquerading as ‘targets’ reminiscent of the learning by rote approach so favoured by our ancestors. The use of testing proves nothing other than one’s power of memory and is once more, designed to reflect the public’s ‘perceptions’ of the failure of education to educate.
Closely allied to this process is the move to ‘blame the victim’, in this case the parents, virtually all of who are poor and uneducated.
The irony of this approach is that whilst the Blair government talks about the ‘information economy’ that requires people who can think, the testing approach precludes this from happening. In fact, with the advent of a service-based economy, the role of intellectual skills is more important than ever. Computers are mediators between the skills/experience of the user and the work process. Hence ideas such as ‘knowledge work’ require a broad understanding of how the universe works that in turn, can be subsumed under five headings:
(These are not my ideas but those of Professor JD Bernal and for those interested, check out his writings that inspired me as a teenager especially the five-volume “Science in History”. Difficult to obtain but with some effort, all five can be found here, secondhand.
But I digress somewhat, the important issue here is that the revolution in technology that we are currently in the middle of, duplicates the one that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries under industrial capitalism, one that stole the tools and skills of the craft worker and locked them up in machines. A comparable process is taking place only this time it’s our brains they’re after (for those interested in pursuing these ideas further, see my essay “The Macintosh Computer – Archetypal Capitalist Tool?” written in 1987. I also recommend the excellent “Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation” by David Noble, another one of those books that really tells it like it is. Out of print but also available second-hand.)
So we live in a society propelled by an archaic economy even as we enter the age of information, that just goes to show how little real understanding the capitalist class has of its own inner workings.
The reality of this reactionary agenda is all too apparent when we analyse the media’s focus on and treatment in promoting the public’s ‘perceptions’ about crime, education, health and even our membership of the European Union. So the UK Independence Party [sic] yet another throwback to the age of Victoria, panders to the worst aspects of capitalist culture, utilising a (thinly disguised) racism and overt xenophobia. But does it really reflect the public’s opinions or is it exploiting an anti-Blair groundswell? For failing a real alternative to Blairism, many fall prey to such reactionary views.