My fascination with the late 1920s and early 1930s is due to the potential for change that existed in that time. After reading the third installment of Hannah Arendt's Totalitarianism, I am beginning to understanding the mentality of the immediate post-WWI generation.
The First World War, unlike the Second World War, lead to a total collapse of an old order. The imperialistic, heavily class-based order of Europe, which Keynes had spoken of so fondly could no longer be salvaged. Although, the initial revolutionary spirit of 1919-1923 was not enough to take hold throughout Europe, and was suppressed rather brutally in the United States, known as the "Red Scare". What Arendt explained was the collapse of the class-system in much of continental Europe, particularly in Germany and Soviet Russia.
As Arendt wrote: "This generation remembered the war as the great prelude to the breakdown of classes and their transformation into masses. War, with its constant murderous arbitrariness, became the symbol for death, the 'great equalizer' and therefore the true father of a new world order" (27).
What was interesting was with the collapse of the class system, came about a nihilist mob system, that rejected the bourgeois ideologies and hypocrisies that maintained authority in the pre-war world. Although, the onset of Great Depression was the final straw that destroyed the mythologies of liberalism, and capitalism. She posits that the solution to this crisis was to reject the old order in its entirety, and to accept questionable ideologies that sought to explain everything in a immutable logic of history and/or nature, communism/racism.
"They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated to a major virtue because it contradicted society's humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy" (29)
The period of 1929-1933 was that period of time when that hypocrisy was exposed to the world. All around the world, the collapse of liberal democracy occurred as a rejection of the past, and the utilitarian assumptions of liberalism. The common assumption is that this happened only in places like Germany or Stalin taking over in the USSR. This happened in Japan with the end of their democracy and the ascension of the cult of the emperor, which was a creation of the post-1868 elite. Japan's coup was certainly reactionary, although I must say, I must re-read the book Hirohito to refresh my memory.
In Latin America the onset of the Great Depression ended the glory-age of lassiez-faire oligarchic classes, and the insertion of the state. One article I read discussed how due to the collapse of class hegemony in Latin American states, the state had to take over to fulfill the gap left by the end of hegemony, or Bonapartism. In Uruguay for instance, the most democratic state in the region, say its democracy collapse due to the pressures of the depression and a dispension of democratic government as ineffective.
The United States was not much different in the sense that under F.D.R. the state became the main foci for organization and growth in society. A little known fact that most American's forget is that there was a planned coup d'etat against FDR by corporate interests, especially DuPont, to replace FDR or to make FDR a figurehead leader. A proto-fascist movement, by using one of America's greatest generals, and symbolic leader of the veterans from WWI to organize like a SA.
The movie's and art of the era also suggest a modernist break with the past. The pre-code movies of the United States will full of heavy sexual innuendo, references to drug abuse, abuse, glorification of violence and gangsterism, the emancipation of women sexually and professionally. It was indeed a period of rejection of the past mores, and a drive to modernism, guided by the ideologies as Arednt argues, the tyranny of logic.
This was set in an era where a quarter of the American population was unemployed, and worldwide a similar percentage of people were left without means. A book entitled "A Commonwealth of Hope: The New Deal Response to Crisis", I believe gives a very good description of the state of America at the time. There are particularly telling passages in the book I wish to share:
"Less visible were the scavengers who haunted alleys behind restaurants or picked over garbage dumps in search of edible scraps. One observer who witnessed such scenes of desolation was especially struck by the elderly woman, formerly of means, who always took off her glasses so that she wouldn't see the maggots crawling over what she was eating" (Lawson 9).
Within that context it is hard to believe that a rejection of the liberal hegemony could not occur. The "free market" was destroying itself through its own internal contradictions. The disconnect between the reality and the theory was too great, it was the end of free marketism, and liberal traditional values. The ruling classes were delusional and so disconnected from the realities around them that J.P. Morgan himself discussed how maintaining the class inequalities were so fundamental to civilization:
"If you destroy the leisure class...you destroy civilization'. When pressed about how to define the leisure class, Morgran said it would include all those who could afford a maid--about twenty-five to thirty million people, he supposed, until informed that there were only about two million servants in the whole country...Under scrutiny, those who had presided over the debacle and now sought to lead the nation back into the same old promised land showed how little they had troubled themselves to learn about eh society that had made them rich" (Lawson 15).
Finally to make a link to Arednt's position on this whole hypocrisy:
"Since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life" (Arednt 32).
I hope the connections are being made in your mind...
Thus, understand why I am fascinated by that period, a very honest period.
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