During the presidential campaign of 1964, a bit of doggerel surfaced among liberal wits, as they pondered the popularity of Barry Goldwater on certain college campuses:
We’re the bright young men,
who wanna go back to 1910,
We’re Barry’s boys!
We’re the kids with a cause,
a government like granmama’s,
We’re Barry’s boys!
What could be more ludicrous than the spectacle of young people embracing an old reactionary who wanted to repeal the New Deal? One might as well try to revive corsets and spats. Progress in politics, as in other matters, was unstoppable.
These days the satire rings hollow; so too its hubris. Except for the spats, we really have gone back to 1910, if not earlier. The deregulation of business and the starvation of the public sector have returned us to a landscape where irresponsible capital can again roam freely, purchasing legislatures wholesale and trampling on the public interest at will. The Supreme Court has revived the late-nineteenth-century notion that corporations are people, with all the rights of citizenship that personhood entails (including the ability to convert money into free speech). This is a predictable consequence of Republican power, but what is less predictable, and more puzzling, is that the resurrection of Gilded Age politics has been accompanied throughout the culture by a resurgence of Gilded Age patterns of thought, no more so than with the revival of positivism in popular scientific writing.
More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes. (This strain of positivism is not to be confused with that of the French sociologist Auguste Comte.) The decades between the Civil War and World War I were positivism’s golden age. Positivists boasted that science was on the brink of producing a total explanation of the nature of things, which would consign all other explanations to the dustbin of mythology. Scientific research was like an Easter egg hunt: once the eggs were gathered the game would be over, the complexities of the cosmos reduced to natural law. Science was the only repository of truth, a sovereign entity floating above the vicissitudes of history and power. Science was science.
Though they often softened their claims with Christian rhetoric, positivists assumed that science was also the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization. As their critics began to realize, positivists had abandoned the provisionality of science’s experimental outlook by transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty. Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the “fit” and the sterilization or elimination of the “unfit.”