Eugenics and the Economic Valuation of Life
Is Being Unapologetically Data-Driven a Good Thing?
The survival outcomes of people who differ from the preferred biologic norm, in any way, shape, or form, varies greatly depending on which “science” is being tapped to guide public policy decisions. Health and science are always political—neutrality is a goal not a characteristic. Science, like any discipline, is often appropriated by the State, individuals and institutions to provide cover and justification for a wide range of genocidal policies, racial capitalist schemes and biomedical oppression via complex schemes of extractive abandonment disguised as policy reform or, worse yet, as innovation.
Innate science-ness is part of the branding of the faux-empiricism that shields the systems of capitalism from the expense and responsibility of being accountable for the broad violence its priorities create and reproduce. This is not to discredit science as a whole, or to say that empirical discovery, neutral findings, etc. are not at all possible or true, it is simply to point out how the invocation of the label of “data-driven” or “science-backed” is one of the more exacting, and cruelly common levers in the functioning of power. Of course scientific consensus is only one of many ways that capitalism justifies and encourages deadly practices of economic extraction, but because of our current situation (a pandemic during a period of crisis) and our preference for data-driven bullshit—I’m focusing on it here.
[Image description: still from Serial Experiments Lain. Two copies of the same person speak with each other in an empty white space. The shot is close and tight, one copy is surprised, the other is mocking. The light is bright and diffuse, there is subtitled text in white reading: “That’s right! Lain is Lain, and I’m me.”]
As Mark Mostert explains in Useless Eaters: Disability as Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany a veneer of science helped provide the empirical framing needed to convince the public to consent to a brutal and cruel policy of state-orchestrated social murder in the name of not preserving life, but preserving austerity. Engels described 'social murder' as murder committed not by individuals to individuals, but murder by the processes of surplus-extraction by industry. This de-personalized (often de-politicized) state murder is incidental, driven by the fact that a capitalist state will always orient itself only to survival of elites. As Mostert discusses: economics, state austerity and a dysgenic discourse about the negative value of non-normative human life had a major role to play in driving fascistic policies and ideas. This same logic also drives even the “purest,” “most-ethical” capitalism.
“A major impetus for Nazi ideology was its claim of legitimacy based on the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism, which drove perceptions of difference from benign recognition to active genocide. Not only was the pseudoscientific claimed as science (i.e., as established fact, data based, and replicated over time), but it was used as an instrument of deceit to perpetrate murder. On one hand, the appeal to “science” allowed the willing German intelligentsia to be more easily convinced to support and participate in brutality masquerading as research.1
It was about the theoretical fiscal survival of nation and genetic perfection. These two goals were inseparable and pre-existing.
“The juxtaposition of severe economic constraints, crowded asylums, the attachment of levels of economic viability to human worth, and the sense that people with disabilities formed a burdensome and often criminal element in society all significantly added fuel to ethical debates concerning euthanasia and sterilization. By the late 1930s, there was open discussion among many asylum administrators about actually killing inmates.”2
This is an old debate, but the eugenics movement makes an argument that accelerated it. It is upon these “scientific” foundations that many currently in-use theories of human value, worth, and right to personhood are based. The biases which drive our investments into scientific inquiry tend to reflect the racist, ableist, colonial and white supremacist values of those holding the purse-strings of society. What is researched and how it’s done matters—what we know is highly subject to capital interests.
The eugenics movement was not just sold as a way to improve society but also sold a technical solution to the fiscal demands of austerity, twin goals oriented around a binary of sorting the good people from the bad people. Artie and I talk about this a lot in our forthcoming book Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto—which comes out October 18th of 2022 (don’t forget to pre-order your copy or request it at your local library)!
It is perhaps worth pausing here and quickly asserting what I mean when I say ‘eugenics’ and that is: an austerity-driven logic which rests the survival of the few on the suppression or elimination of deviancy. Eugenics is a logic, not just a scientific and political historic movement. Most often when I am talking about parallels to eugenics it means a kind of eliminationist tendency exists that is justified by regimes of artificial scarcity enforced by criminalization oriented around the survival of a specific group deemed most worthy.
Everything concerning eugenics is also necessarily under the umbrella of racial capitalism, and eugenics is primarily an ideology which seeks to legitimize racial capitalism through science and pseudo science—its use in the US was explicitly racist, as we discussed on Death Panel with Jim Downs, author of Maladies of Empire. As Adam Rutherford, author of Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics” and Downs both argue that while the formal origin of eugenics is inextricable from the birth of the field of genetics and the study of inheritance, it quickly grew much larger. And as nearly all scholars who study eugenics have noted (but all reply-guys seem to forget)—there has always been a positive and a negative frame to eugenics.
Rutherford: “Selecting for desirable traits must mean that other traits are less desirable, and are therefore being selected against. The existence of desirable people implies that undesirables also exist. You cannot rank things high without there being a lower order, and you cannot only select for enriching the top without at an absolute minimum acknowledging that the people at the bottom will not continue into future generations—its implicit in positive eugenics that there must also be deliberate selection of the unfit, the undesirable or the defective.”3
In terms of a historical definition of eugenics, I prefer to turn to two definitions popularized by the founder of the movement and coiner of the word: Sir. Francis Galton. Galton was from the UK, but his ideas were quickly brought back to the US, reproduced, and expanded to a massive scale by Charles Davenport. Davenport was so inspired by Galton’s expansive definition that he came back to the US with not just an interest in eugenic research but in the possibilities that eugenics offered for a new trend in American policy making. A desire for scientific, “data-driven” policy making that was driving investments into data-infrastructure like the US Census. That is why I prefer to look to this early Galton definition that inspired Davenport to take eugenics so quickly from theory to practice:
Definition of “eugenics” from coiner, Sir Francis Galton, 1883: “...a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had…”4 (emphasis added)
Another popular, much later definition by Galton and his protege Karl Pearson, published twenty-four years later in 1907 reflects and affirms this definition that includes “improving stock” by any and all means.
Here in 1907, Pearson and Galton codify this framework again using different language towards similar aims. “Eugenics is the study of the agencies under social control that improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” (emphasis added). This describes a much different system than our modern definitions of eugenics are often a-historically restricted to. Eugenics was, as Galton wrote in 1883, a call to “[take] cognizance of all influences that tend in however a remote degree to give the more suitable…a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had…”
To construct a fit nation, one must project a kind of preemptive timelessness—an ideological rejection of the possibility of the death of the nation. It is a conference of power through the abstract pre-historicization of a body politic which explicitly rejects not just disablement but many other categories and traits on an absolute basis.
We use systems to measure and collect data which is often used against the populations that are being studied. With little hope for a formal remedy from the state, and so many clear examples of exploitation and violence justified by science, it is difficult to conceptualize what those in power really mean when they invoke the public to trust the science on school re-openings, or mask ordinances, or any number of other pandemic-related policies.
Edwin Black, detailing the global collaborations between states, wealthy elite, and biomedical and technology corporations needed to get the eugenics movement off the ground:
For the first time, personal information and eugenic traits were punched into IBM's Hollerith data processing machines. International Business Machines would be a perfect match for eugenics. People tracking was the company's business. IBM's technology involved hundreds of thousands of custom-designed punch cards processed through punching, tabulating and sorting machines. Hollerith punch cards could store an almost unlimited amount of information on people, places and processes by virtue of the holes strategically punched into their columns and rows. Hollerith processors then read these holes and tabulated the results. Hollerith cards were originally developed for the U.S. Census, and IBM enjoyed a global monopoly on data processing. More than just counting machines, Hollerith systems could cross-tabulate all information on individuals and then match or cross-reference the data to their plain paper or already-punched street addresses or other geographic identifiers. Hence, people identified with certain traits could be easily located for additional eugenic action.5
[Image description: Color lithograph poster from the British Eugenics Society, circa 1930s. A figure of a man walking in profile is silhouetted in red on a yellow background, he walks across a bare field sowing seeds with this hands. Text reads: “ONLY HEALTHY SEED MUST BE SOWN!” Below the man’s feet is a second grouping of text which is smaller and reads: “Check the seeds of hereditary disease and unfitness by eugenics.”]
The fact that “eugenics” in the popular imaginary is most commonly associated with the well-known cruelty of the Nazi T4 program has warranted many to say that any and all comparisons to eugenics are wrong/bad/offensive/incorrect. I disagree with that assertion. Further, I think it is untrue. In truth, the sanitized budgetary-minded approach to justifying state (social) murder and abandonment perfected by the eugenics movement is not much different from what we see in our own contemporary policy contexts. It is a political approach to life, and that itself is also not unique to eugenics, the same attitudes come from historical precedents to the movement, e.g. Malthus—no one era has a monopoly on the rhetorical devaluation of human life. This phenomenon can also be called the “monetary valuation of life” and sociologist Marion Fourcade argues that this system of valuation is in no way neutral or a simple cost-benefit calculation of tax dollars in vs. economic value out. Monetary valuation of life is shaped by social and political factors, not just “pure” data:
“The monetary valuation of life comes, ultimately, from society: not simply from the economic benefits of life, but also from our emotions and our moral assumptions about risk and just compensation.”6
Here’s just one of many examples of this: kitchen and food service workers have more hazardous jobs during COVID-19 and yet due to the ways that the political/social shape the monetary valuation of life, there’s no hazard pay on the table, no raises and politicians are blaming inflation on their wages. Ultimately, our society has decided through a process of cost-benefit analysis that certain lives are not worth investing in from a public health standpoint. From a fiscal survival standpoint. This is why many celebrated COVID as only taking “deaths pulled from the future.”
That is a fundamentally eugenic logic. It’s a logic of austerity and scarcity, it’s a racist ableist logic—but it is also technically a data-driven logic. Unapologetically data-driven. This is something we’ve covered often on Death Panel week after week, throughout the pandemic. And now, with so many clear examples of exploitation and violence justified to the public as good simply because they are “data-driven,” it is not difficult to conceptualize what those in power really mean when they invoke the public to “trust the science” on any number of pandemic-related policies. When we make decisions, which result in the excess deaths of the vulnerable, we also remove those voices from the body politic and we pave the way for the continued supremacy of ideologies which seek to eliminate or exterminate difference within institutions of state and social power. The dead can’t speak up to say, “Hey, you’ve counted us wrong!”
Science’s power to justify survival or condemn a population to death—by data-driven means, with data-driven reasons—can uniquely fate a body to what theorist Lauren Berlant called slow death. 'Slow death' refers to the process called social murder becoming the defining condition of a person's "experience and historical existence."When you’re only entitled to the survival you can buy—it’s no wonder that simple cost-benefit analysis has the tendency to white wash genocidal eugenic policies. As we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes an obvious and easily mitigated threat to the health of the population can be quickly minimized and death can be justified through trust in science which devalues certain forms of life. You should be furious about this.
[Image description: a different still from Serial Experiments Lain that is from the same scene as before. Just as before, two copies of the same person speak with each other in an empty white space. The shot is close and tight, one copy is surprised, the other is mocking. The light is bright and diffuse, there is subtitled text in white reading: “That’s right! Lain is Lain, and I’m me.”]
Mostert, M. P. (2002). “Useless Eaters” in The Journal of Special Education, 36(3), 157–170. https://doi.org/10.1177/00224669020360030601, p. 166.
Mostert, M. P. (2002). “Useless Eaters” in The Journal of Special Education, 36(3), 157–170. https://doi.org/10.1177/00224669020360030601, p. 156.
Rutherford, A. (2022). Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 57-58.
Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. London: Macmillan, p. 17.
Black, E. (2012). “Hitler's Eugenic Reich” in War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows Press, p. 298.