Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Nature, the Individual, and the Market in Norris and Dreiser

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Nature, the Individual, and the Market in Norris and Dreiser

Article excerpt

The essays in Herbert Spencer's 1884 treatise on politics and economics. The Man Versus the State, combine two justifications of the fire market, each of which also involves a specific view of nature. The first, a staple of classical liberalism, is the claim that a free market is conducive to liberty. Spencer decries the decrease in freedom he sees as concomitant with the creation of Poor Laws (among other government intrusions into the economy), declaring "The life of a society ... depends on maintenance of individual rights" (164), while excoriating "those who, denying natural rights, commit themselves to the assertion that rights are artificially created by law" (165). Highlighting Spencer's importance to American thought, Richard Hofstadter writes, "Spencer's doctrines were imported into the Republic long after individualism had become a national tradition. Yet in the expansive age of our industrial culture he became the spokesman of that tradition, and his contribution materially swelled the stream of individualism if it did not change its course" (50).

Alongside Spencer's classical liberalism and individualism dwell his more Darwinian justifications for an anti-regulation agenda. Describing London's poor as "good-for-nothings, who in one way or another live on good-for-somethings," Spencer asks, "Is it natural that happiness should be the lot of such or is it natural that they should bring unhappiness on themselves and those connected with them?" (80-81). He then blames the proliferation of the poor on the Poor Laws. Spencer later returns to this point, expressing it in explicitly Darwinian terms:

  The process of "natural selection."  as Mr. Darwin called it,
  cooperating with a tendency to variation and to inheritance of
  variations, he has shown to be a chief cause ... of that evolution
  through which all living things, beginning with the lowest and
  diverging and re-diverging as they evolved, have reached their
  present degrees of organization and adaptation to their modes of
  life. So familiar has this truth become that some apology seems
  needed for naming it. And yet, strange to say now that this truth is
  recognized by most cultivated people--now that the beneficent
  working of the survival of the fittest has been so impressed on them
  that, much more than people in past times, they might be expected to
  hesitate before neutralizing its action--now more than ever before in
  the history of the world, are they doing all they can to further
  survival of the unfittest! (131)

Spencer's two modes of rhetorical assault on government regulation thus suggest a harmony between Darwinism and the individualism of classical liberalism. Just as it is ethically wrong to force people to give charity through government welfare programs, such intervention is also deleterious to the proper functioning of evolution. The Man Versus the State thus argues that natural liberty and the dictates of Darwinian nature are in perfect agreement--that, in fact, each reinforces the other.

The fate of individualism and liberty in Darwinian nature is not, however, as clear cut as The Matt Versus the State would have it. In fact, much of American naturalism adopts a version of Darwinian nature that is deeply antithetical to the individual. In "The Law of Life," for example, Jack London writes that nature "ha[s] no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race" (40). Such a view is inherently in tension with classical liberalism's belief in "natural rights." If nature does not care about the individual, then the empowerment of the individual through a system of liberty and rights cannot be of interest to nature. Whereas Spencer sees nature's inherent predilection for competition as empowering to the individual, who is freed from the compulsion to support "good-for-nothings" whose poverty proves their unfitness for economic competition, London's "The Law of Life" holds that the individual is of no importance whatsoever. …

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