The Transatlantic Mainstreaming of Libertarian Theories of Social Darwinism and Apartheid
Nafeez Ahmed reveals how the legacy of the Nazi ideology of eugenics – popularised by Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve – is becoming central to Conservatism
Originally published on Byline Times
Following the reaction to Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s economic policies, ‘Trussonomics’ has been criticised as a case study in neoliberalism. Their financial shock therapy, the assumption goes, is aimed at making the rich richer, because they believe that this wealth will ‘trickle-down’ to the rest of society, driving economic growth.
But this misses a key ideological driving force: the reshaping of neoliberalism into an extreme nationalist economics rooted in a form of social Darwinism. Under this ideology, it is impossible to reduce inequality because characteristics such as race, gender and class that cause disparities are fixed.
In this sense, Trussonomics represents the continuation of an experiment that began with Trump and Brexit, both of which were seen as radical departures from the neoliberal consensus of the ‘golden age’ of globalisation.
Instead of tackling poverty and inequality, this social Darwinistic strain advocates that social divisions are destined to become wider because of fixed biological and cultural group properties. This, in turn, underpins an economic agenda of elevating and perpetuating the ‘fittest’ groups – while finding ways to manage, control and diminish the ‘underclass’.
This ideology has an astonishing reach – from the American Enterprise Institute, which has strong in-roads into the Republican Party; to UK pressure groups including the ‘Tufton Street’ think tanks that have helped shape Conservative Party policies.
The Pseudoscience of an ‘Underclass’
At the root of this thinking is a set of unstated assumptions that have become widely accepted across the conservative landscape – assumptions that have their origins in biological theories of human nature that have become increasingly mainstream across the right, even as they have been overwhelmingly discredited by the scientific community.
The ideology can be traced back to the extraordinary influence of American sociologist Charles Murray.
Murray is one of the world’s pioneers of scientific racism and biological theories of IQ and social stratification, and his related economic theories of the ‘underclass’ have influenced policy thinking on both sides of the Atlantic and the political spectrum.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre – the leading civil rights law firm that tracks extremist groups in America – Murray is a white nationalist extremist who uses “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor”.
His 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, has been described by Scientific American magazine as “the flagship modern work reporting on racial differences in IQ score”.
The book claims that black people, women, the poor and Latinos are cognitively inferior largely due to hereditary genetic factors – and that rises in their birth and immigration rates therefore explains the rise in inequality between racial and social groups. This has led, Murray claims, to the emergence of a “cognitive elite” that consists mainly of concentrated, self-selecting, networks of white men who are well-endowed with cognitive abilities.
The Bell Curve’s core theories around genetics, race, gender and IQ come from research funded by a Nazi eugenics foundation based in the US.
The book was widely critiqued by geneticists, biologists and other experts for being “scientifically flawed” at the time of its publication and has been criticised ever since.
While few of the conservative figures and institutions cited in this article can be seen as intentionally supporting Nazism, their fascination with Charles Murray’s ideas – and their transmission of fringe pseudoscientific theories originally incubated by Nazi ideology into the mainstream – raise concerning questions.
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American Conservatism’s White Nationalist Star
Charles Murray is F. A. Hayek Chair Emeritus in Cultural Studies at the American Enterprise Institute – a powerful neoconservative think tank in Washington D.C. with close ties to the Republican Party. He first joined the AEI in 1990 and has been in his current role since 2018.
In 2009, Murray received the AEI’s prestigious Irving Kristol Award. The AEI’s “highest honour”, it is given annually to an individual who has made “exceptional practical and intellectual contributions to improve government policy, social welfare, or political understanding”. Boris Johnson was honoured at a similar event by the AEI in 2018.
Photographs seen by Byline Times show that a wide range of conservatives were in attendance at the AEI’s annual dinner honouring Murray – throwing light on the extent to which he is considered a respectable and legitimate voice on the right.
Former special assistant and speechwriter to President George W. Bush, David Frum, posed alongside Fox News host Tucker Carlson and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives credited with paving the way for the rise of Trump with his ruthless partisan rhetoric, also attended.
Another figure at the event, who would go on to become very close to Trump, was economist Kevin Hassett, who previously served as economic advisor to the presidential campaigns of John McCain, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney.
Billionaire Roger Hertog, a Republican Party donor credited with being the main conservative funder who financially enabled the neoconservative movement, also turned up. Hertog is linked to several other think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Manhattan Institute.
He was joined at the event by the late Antonin Scalia, a pro-Republican Supreme Court Justice since 1986.
Another prominent billionaire and conservative funder in attendance was Robert Agostinelli. The founder and managing director of global private equity firm the Rhone Group, Agostinelli funds a range of right-wing projects. He also has key political connections in Britain.
In 2018, he gave $10,000 to the Legatum Institute, an influential UK think tank with close ties to the Conservative Party. A year later, the Rhone Group paid £10,000 to Conservative Party MP Jacob Rees-Mogg for a speaking engagement. Rees-Mogg is now the UK’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary in Liz Truss’ Government.
But that is not the Truss Government’s only connection to the nexus surrounding Charles Murray. His influence in Britain goes far deeper than is ever acknowledged.
Charles Murray and the UK Right
Charles Murray’s entry into British politics began via The Sunday Times and Rupert Murdoch’s News International, which sponsored his writing and flew him to the UK several times. This was when Murray was still largely unknown in Britain, but he was sought after by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Government.
By 1987, Murray had met representatives from her Policy Unit, the Department of Health and Social Security, and the Treasury Office. In 1989, Murray met Thatcher herself.
A year later, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – founded in 1955, originally based in Westminster’s Tufton Street, a driving force of Thatcherism, and widely credited as a driving force for Trussonomics today – published Murray’s essay ‘The Emerging British Underclass’. It published a follow-up by Murray, ‘Underclass: The Crisis Deepens’, in 1994 – the same year he released The Bell Curve.
In these essays, Murray expanded on his thesis that the welfare state perpetuates the growth of an underclass by creating self-reinforcing cycles of poverty – not just in America, but also in Britain.
“When I use the term ‘underclass’ I am indeed focusing on a certain type of person defined not by his condition e.g.: long-term unemployed, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition e.g.: unwilling to take jobs that are available to him,” Murray wrote.
He did not mention the role of his biological theories of IQ in determining the assumptions underlying this thesis, but had few qualms about claiming that this growing underclass is “predominantly black” – making the case that this could not be explained by “black history”.
The Sunday Times printed these essays and commissioned Murray to come to Britain and investigate its alleged ‘underclass’.
In 1994, he attended a high-profile lunch hosted by the IEA to discuss his ideas. Then in 1996, the IEA published a series of essays to debate Murray’s underclass theory through its health and welfare unit, headed up by David Green. Green’s unit later seceded from the IEA, becoming Civitas – another Tufton Street organisation that former Downing Street advisor Tim Montgomerie and former Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott have described as a core part of the infrastructure of Britain’s conservative movement.
Civitas continued to draw on Murray’s thinking through the ensuing decade. In 2005, it published Simple Justice by Charles Murray, once again in association with The Sunday Times, calling for retributive justice to deal with crime along with a series of commentaries.
In 2008, Murray was interviewed for a Civitas report entitled ‘Second Thoughts on the Family’. In 2013, Civitas advisor, sociologist Peter Saunders, referred directly to Murray’s theory of “cognitive stratification” to justify his claims that intelligence varies between classes, and also claimed that children’s cognitive abilities are genetically inherited. Saunders then authored a Civitas report in 2019, ‘Social Mobility Truths’ – which not only referred specifically to Murray’s The Bell Curve, but even directly cited one of the dubious sources relied on by that book: the late psychologist Hans Eysenck.
Eysenck was one of the earliest proponents of the race, genes and intelligence hypothesis and received funding from the Nazi Pioneer Fund for his claims. Dozens of his papers have recently been retracted due to serious flaws in his research. As neuroscientist Andrew Colman points out in the Personality and Individual Differences journal, “a deeper understanding of population genetics has shown that race differences in IQ could be determined entirely by environmental factors even if its heritability were as high as Eysenck believed it to be” and new techniques in molecular genetics suggest “that the black–white IQ gap is not determined significantly by genetic factors”.
Neither Civitas nor the Conservative Party responded to Byline Times’ requests for comment.
Over at the IEA, by 2009, Mark Littlewood was its director-general. Two years later, Liz Truss founded the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs – the de facto parliamentary wing of the IEA. In 2012, Kwasi Kwarteng co-authored an IEA paper with Jonathan Dupont on fiscal discipline. The following year, as Education and Childcare Minister, Truss cited Civitas for promoting a new curriculum for schools – a connection also inspired by the Murray school of thought.
Over the next few years, the IEA’s fascination with Charles Murray would continue.
Reports and books repeatedly cited him. In 2012, the IEA’s head of political economy, Kristian Niemietz, published a book with the IEA, Redefining the Poverty Debate, citing Murray’s work on the underclass.
In 2015, IEA’s then head of public policy, Ryan Bourne, interviewed Murray about his recently released book, By The People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. Building on his previous work, Murray dismissed the role of democracy in solving the problems of governmental regulatory overreach, instead advocating for “systematic civil disobedience” to “roll-back the regulatory state”.
In 2019, the IEA’s head of education, Stephen Davies, published a critique of universal basic income citing Murray.
Littlewood has previously told Byline Times that, while he is no expert, he does not believe in the idea of racial differences in IQ or a biological basis for race, and that he believes racism should be called out. But it is difficult to see how that stance squares with the IEA repeatedly choosing to platform Charles Murray – while refusing to challenge the racist theories and biological pseudoscience underlying his work.
A spokesperson for the IEA did not disassociate from Charles Murray’s views and said that its publications and citations of him were not endorsements. “The IEA disagrees with racists, white nationalism, and eugenics,” they said.
But asked whether they agreed that Murray is a racist and white nationalist whose ideas are rooted in eugenics, they added: “The IEA’s mission is improving understanding of the institutions of a free society and role of free markets in solving economic and social problems. We do not then recognise your attempt to link it to things we have not published or supported, let alone third-party interpretations of what they mean.”
The IEA’s engagement with Murray’s work has been careful to avoid acknowledging its well-known racist roots and dependence on questionable theories of cognitively-based social stratification – instead choosing to amplify the social consequences of Murray’s claims around a self-perpetuating underclass that must be managed and controlled by effectively ‘starving’ it of state support.
The Conservatives and Tufton Street
Liz Truss’ ties to the IEA demonstrate how the think tank is now influencing UK Government policy at the highest levels.
The IEA co-hosted numerous events with Truss’ Free Enterprise group and Truss herself has spoken at the IEA more than any other politician over the past 12 years, according to Littlewood. He has been her friend since their student days.
Truss’ senior special advisor in Downing Street, Ruth Porter, is the IEA’s former communications director. During her leadership campaign, Truss cited IEA trustee Patrick Minford in defence of her tax cuts agenda.
A total of eight members of the current Cabinet belonged to the IEA Free Enterprise Group – now known as the Free Market Forum – including Kwasi Kwarteng, Brandon Lewis, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Therese Coffey, Nadhim Zahawi, Simon Clarke, Kemi Badenoch and Alistair Jack.
A Downing Street spokesperson did not clarify to Byline Times whether the Prime Minister and her Cabinet agreed or disagreed with Charles Murray’s views.
Truss’ reference to a new school curriculum by Civitas, while she was Education and Childcare Minister, came from then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s vision of education as ‘cultural literacy’ – the learning of hard facts rooted in the history of a country. This, in turn, comes from the work of English professor E. D. Hirsch, who has been vociferously promoted by Charles Murray.
In 2013, a 237-page private thesis by Dominic Cummings, Gove’s then-special advisor, was leaked. The document, which cited Murray, revealed that Cummings believed a child’s educational performance has more to do with their genetic make-up rather than educational standards. The paper also cited scientists who have been affiliated with eugenics, including Stephen Hsu and Robert Plomin. As the author of Human Genetic Engineering Pete Shanks observed, Cummings’ analysis promoted “the blatantly eugenic association of genes with intelligence, intelligence with worth, and worth with the right to rule”.
Such claims about the relationship between genes, race and cognitive ability have been repeatedly disproved. But the influence of these ideas in British conservatism appears to have persisted.
Following Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019, Cummings appointed eugenicist Andrew Sabisky to his Downing Street advisory team. It quickly emerged that Sabisky believes black people to be genetically predisposed to have lower IQs. Before taking up his role, he had publicly lamented “the white death”, which “sits on a throne of ethnic diversity” driven by globalisation and mass immigration. Downing Street refused to comment on whether Johnson disagreed with Sabisky’s views – a spokesperson said only that his views had been well-publicised already.
Indeed, as Mayor of London, Johnson had claimed that economic inequality was due to some members of “the species” having lower IQs, with economic success equating to higher cognitive ability. While the remarks were condemned by Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians, the Conservative Party remained silent.
The economic agenda spearheaded by Trussonomics cannot be simplistically equated with neoliberalism. Rather, it is a nationalist evolution of neoliberalism seeking to socially engineer market conditions that favour the so-called cognitive elite, while controlling an underclass considered parasitical to society.
Charles Murray has played a critical role in bringing social Darwinistic thinking into centres of neoliberal thought.
In 2005, The Sunday Times commissioned him to write an article explaining what he called “social apartheid”. In it, Murray argued that, given Britain’s welfare policies, the only way to deal with the rising underclass was through its “social segregation” and “increased geographic segregation”, including mass incarceration. In the US, of course, black people are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white people.
Marshalling as much as he could to prove that genes play a large role in determining cognitive ability, he later conceded in The Bell Curve that there is yet no clear evidence on whether genetics or environmental influences predominate in determining IQ.
Murray nevertheless concluded that the emergence of a self-perpetuating underclass of cognitively inferior people is inevitable due to “dysgenic pressures” – and that this is worsened by welfare policies incentivising the underclass to continue self-reproducing on the udder of the state.
Instead of the traditional trickle-down economics associated with neoliberalism – through which growth for the few is supposed to lift all boats – Murray’s ideology not only naturalises entrenched inequalities but argues that there is no point in attempting to lift all boats at all.
He suggests that social policy should be designed not to improve the lives of the less fortunate, but to decrease their numbers. Murray, therefore, recommends the elimination of all welfare policies, hard limits on immigration, and strategies to lower birth rates among these groups through policy disincentives – while implementing ‘social apartheid’ to manage these inferior populations and contain their dangerous impacts on wider society.
An Extreme Trajectory
Charles Murray’s work has channelled the principles of Nazi eugenics into mainstream conservatism, while carefully excising its Nazi origins from visibility.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre points out that the 13 scholars on which The Bell Curve relies to substantiate its claims received funding from the Pioneer Fund – founded in 1937 by Nazi sympathisers to promote “racial betterment” via eugenics and the “repatriation” of black Americans to Africa.
Throughout the 1930s, the Pioneer Fund’s first president, Harry Laughlin, published articles in Eugenical News promoting Nazism and approving of its antisemitic laws. In The Bell Curve, Murray praises Laughlin as “a biologist who was especially concerned about keeping up the American level of intelligence by suitable immigration policies”.
The Pioneer Fund maintained intimate contacts with Nazi scientists. One organisation it finances is the Ulster Institute for Social Research, the journal of which – Mankind Quarterly – was founded by Otmar von Verschuer, who taught and mentored Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele, renowned for his medical experiments at Auschwitz.
In his AEI award speech in 2009, Murray encapsulated some of the core ideas that have come to dominate conservative movements in the US and UK.
He articulated the key ingredients of what is now the ‘Great Replacement’ theory – the baseless far-right belief that white populations in Europe are being replaced by foreign immigrants, largely from Muslim and African countries. “The European model can’t continue to work much longer,” Murray warned. “Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that.”
Murray’s concern was that “every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well” and he pointed to “America’s social democrats, heavily represented in university faculties and the most fashionable neighbourhoods of our great cities” as its main carriers. The good news, he declared, was that science was about to prove the European model wrong to the entire world because “within a decade, no one will try to defend the equality premise”.
“All sorts of groups will be known to differ in qualities that affect what professions they choose, how much money they make, and how they live their lives in all sorts of ways,” he said. “Gender differences will be first, because the growth in knowledge about the ways that men and women are different is growing by far the most rapidly… But groups of people will turn out to be different from each other, on average, and those differences will also produce group differences in outcomes in life, on average, that everyone knows are not the product of discrimination and inadequate government regulation.”
But the vehicle for this vision being executed, Murray said, would be the most powerful people in America, “the small minority of the population that has disproportionate influence over the culture, economy, and governance of the country” – the kind of people “in this room tonight”. He called for a “political great awakening” among these elites to consider “what they are willing to do to preserve” an exceptionalism defined by the right-wing libertarian philosophy of limited government, privatisation and deregulation blurred with social Darwinistic values of survival of the fittest.
These ideas – articulated more than a decade ago – have played a fundamental role in the transformation of Anglo-American political ideology.
Though largely unacknowledged, Charles Murray’s school of thought now permeates the background thinking of numerous politicians, conservative media pundits, thinkers and financiers. Although the specifics may not have been taken up, Murray’s work has set the mood music against which right-wing political and economic ideology is increasingly choreographed. Many who dance to its tune do not know the origins of the music and the beliefs of its composers.
Yet this goes some way to explaining the increasingly extreme trajectory of mainstream conservatism today: its intensifying race-baiting; its infiltration by Great Replacement theorists; and an obsession with an agenda containing social Darwinist strands of thought. It also helps to explain why Trussonomics has converged with the American brand of right-wing libertarianism in a doctrine that revels in inequality, and sees the poor and vulnerable as little more than ‘useless eaters’ who must bear the blame for their own circumstances.
The quiet predominance of this ideology, however, bodes ill for the future of the West. Although the Third Reich was defeated in 1945, right-wing influencers and politicians have cherry-picked from the findings of modern biology to justify retaining its ideological remnants while denying their Nazi origins.
In a time of escalating crisis, the continued radicalisation of the right poses the biggest internal threat to the values defining Western civilisation since the Second World War.
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