we grope our way towards the Covid pandemic exit, there are
increasing suggestions that pent-up economic demand may usher in another
"roaring twenties." This should not be construed as good news, however, as the 1920s was the decade that established limitless consumption as the solution to the frustrations of being an abused order-taker the whole of one's productive life, while setting the country on course for ecological catastrophe. A century later, with average real wages in stagnation or decline for a large majority of workers going back more than four decades, the lure of a perpetually rising standard of living administered by corporate America can be seen for what it always was: a capitalist mirage.
So how did this mirage come to be?
After years of strikes, plots, raids, bombings, deportations, war and (Russian) revolution, brazen plutocracy seized the helm, progressive idealism sank from view, the K.K.K. revived, and Republican Warren Harding was nominated for president by a handful of machine politicians in a smoke-filled Chicago back room. Seen besotted and disheveled on a hotel elevator with bloodshot eyes and two days growth of beard, the "densely ignorant" Harding (William Allen White) was devoid of ethical aspiration but popular as a compromise candidate for lacking enemies. Calling for "less government in business and more business in government," he promised all-too-believably that capital would "exploit the world market." Employers celebrated with a drive to "Americanize" immigrants (turn them into consumers), ban unions, and get "back to normalcy."
Progressive reform didn't even rate token mention anymore. The National Association of Manufacturers walked arm in arm with Wall Street and every state delegation attending the 1920 Republican Convention was loaded with fat cats from major industries - oil, railroads, telephones, steel, coal, and textiles. Founding editor of the New Masses Joseph Freeman sounded an intelligent dissenting note, pointing out that the Harding ascension was more nightmarish than reassuring:
"America was back to 'normalcy' under the small-town smile of a chief executive in golf knickers signing bills which Wall Street ghosted. The elderly playboy in the White House, with his entourage of poker players, topers, Casanovas and oil thiefs, posed benignly for the rotogravures as the Republic relaxed from the war through a long Roman holiday on bootleg gin. Million-dollar prizefights, baseball games and horse races indicated a bigger and better Gilded Age. The public avidly followed a press which, concealing the truth about Mooney and Billings [militant labor leaders falsely convicted of a 1915 Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco], Sacco and Vanzetti, devoted pages to beauty contests and lust murders; and the bourgeois journalists were telling the truth about the war. But as usual after the event and under compulsion; for it was the proletarian revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary that brought to light the secret robber treaties of the imperialist governments. The fraud, the deadly hypocrisy of the prevailing social system, which had duped millions into slaughter (WWI), stood out in all its naked horror."
Organized diversion soon returned American attention to fads, fashions, mah jong, bathtub gin, radio, bathing beauties, crime, women, smoking, Babe Ruth, sex and Freud. The allegedly value-free theories of the father of psychoanalysis proved particularly useful in undermining discontent before it could become popular rebellion, as psychoanalysis blossomed into one of the major preoccupations of the decade.
According to the Viennese physician, unconscious personal habits needed to be inspected, phobias overcome, and ego strengthened. Catharsis, not class struggle, was the way to liberate oneself from the tyranny of primal fears and societal taboos, an apolitical approach that tacitly reinforced the status quo. Reformer Frederic Howe, despairing over the collapsed dreams of a new society, consulted a psychiatrist, who told him he had to rid himself of guilt and tend to his private life. In short order Howe had forsaken social change in preference for seeking "harmony within," trying to fix "gaps in [his] personality," and pursuing a "comradeship with myself such as I have never known before."
In the name of healthy adaptation psychoanalysts helped the socially troubled take advantage of expensive medical treatment denied to all but a few, in order to ease them out of ethical upheaval into complacent lives of private acquisition that made excessive self-preoccupation possible in the first place. Purporting to explain and understand vulnerable conscience, they ushered in moral surrender disguised as the wisdom of an integrated personality. The incongruous result was a contentment-oriented inner quest flourishing alongside an increasingly abysmal outer reality of night-riding Klansmen, bloody Mafia wars, crushed unions, lynch mobs, and brutal subjugations in the Caribbean and Central America.
Far from revolutionary, psychoanalysis settled for merely adjusting patients to an unjust social order's demand for self-perpetuation. Those burdened with guilt that led them to revolt against conventional morality ended up treated by psychoanalysts who diagnosed rebellion as pathology. Honest social conscience, straightforward guilt, direct self-accusation concerning exploitation, all were neutralized for a fee. To quote Freeman again:
"Psychoanalysis was not, as the romantic rebels imagined, amoral. It was highly moral, conventional and bourgeois. Himself thoroughly steeped in middle-class attitudes, the average psychoanalyst looked upon the radical's hatred of capitalist society as a mental derangement . . . In many cases, the psychoanalysis of bohemian writers and artists opened for them a back door through which they re-entered the bourgeois society which they had repudiated in their period of romantic rebellion. It turned out in twentieth century America, as in nineteenth century Europe, that adolescent revolt against paternal authority, clothing itself in literary and political symbols, was but the repudiation of conventional mores under the pressure of a normal sensuality in conflict with an abnormal conscience. Once that conflict was resolved, once sensuality and conscience were reconciled, the road was open for the return of the prodigal to the bourgeois fold. The neurotic bohemian sought in love pleasure without responsibility. When psychoanalysis gave him a sense of responsibility, by leading him out of the realm of fantasy into the realm of reality, he could conceive of responsibility only as the complete acceptance of bourgeois society."
The problem, of course, was that psychoanalysis reduced the sphere of legitimate interest to personal relations alone. Thus, those who protested the organized robbery of private monopoly and its attendant imperialist wars were branded paranoid, on the grounds that they had never met any of the people who carried out the plunder and murder they abhorred. Of course, during WWI it had been considered evidence of sound mind to shriek for the Kaiser's head and yearn for the slaughter of sixty million Germans one could not possibly have met. But that was sincere patriotism, admirable love of country, righteous and healthy desire to shoot, shell, bomb, starve, maim, and kill all those your leaders (whom you had also never met) insisted made the world unsafe for democracy. Thus it came to pass that those pronounced psychologically fit evidenced their mental health by adoring segregationist Woodrow Wilson and Mexican "bandit" killer General Pershing, while those who bitterly resented industrialist leaders for killing workers in Ludlow, Lawrence, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh were found to be delusional. Ditto for those who objected to sending millions of young men charging headlong into withering machine-gun fire in a war President Wilson conceded was the fruit of "commercial rivalry" - after the fact. Those who stood against U.S. participation in the war when it could do some good - like Eugene Debs - were railroaded into prison for obstructing the draft and never forgiven. In the closing days of his presidency Woodrow Wilson granted a customary departing pardon to others, but not Debs, who had violated a prime commandment of Empire: "Thou Shalt Not Refuse To Kill!"
"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it."
--------Edward Bernays, often called "The Father of Public Relations"