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"
Psychoanalytic insights also proved useful in creating artificial wants, which soon established conspicuous consumption as the ultimate measure of a meaningful life.
The possibilities of regimenting the public mind had been spectacularly demonstrated by the Creel Commission during WWI, when an initially pacifist American public was converted to raging jingoist fanatics in a matter of months. Now economist Roger Babson predicted that mind management would move into the commercial sphere: "The war taught us the power of propaganda. Now when we have anything to sell to the American people, we know how to sell it. We have the school, the pulpit, and the press."
Social scientist J. B. Watson of Johns Hopkins University, the founder of modern behaviorism, quickly grasped the possibilities for social engineering in the so-called science of mind. Advocating docility at work and the substitution of marketplace gratifications for the rewards of family life, he dismissed traditional child-rearing practices of kissing, fondling, and caressing as perverse and psychologically damaging, maintaining that they were poor preparation for the realities of commercial and professional life, as indeed they were. What remained unthinkable to him was that private corporate power might have to give way so that the needs of sane and healthy human beings could be fulfilled.
But the demands of corporations for limitless profit won out instead, so consumption was made the antidote for the frustrations of production. Since industrial employments had long since institutionalized monotony, a sense of personal failure at achieving a more meaningful life was a common worker complaint. To prevent this discontent from finding outlet in movements for social change, the business classes celebrated the atomization of the workforce as "rugged individualism," cultivating a corresponding "philosophy of futility" that deliberately confused the good life with what Lewis Mumford called "the goods life." In newspapers, magazines, and on the radio they paraded before America a vision of passive self-fulfillment through spending that shrewdly channeled the dissatisfactions of industrial life into mass consumption. Since by definition workers could never get enough of superfluous commodities designed to replace every partial gratification with a fresh desire, frustration multiplied as the economy boomed.
The inherent pointlessness of such a life struck business economist Paul Nystrom as merely another opportunity to investigate what the public might be induced to buy: "This lack of purpose in life has an effect on consumption similar to that of having a narrow life interest, that is, in concentrating human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption." Soon a narrow life interest became a touchstone of normality as mass produced goods enabled novelty to masquerade as change. "Fatigue" with the futility of modern industrial life was deliberately associated with "fatigue . . . with apparel and goods." This, in turn, allowed the purchase of glitzy merchandise that provided momentary relief from the burdens of daily routine and became America's version of counterfeit liberation. The illusion lasted so long as the dazzling array of goods and alluring images never faltered.
Fashionable consumption as an alternative to social change was a major theme of 1920s business literature. Helen Woodward, the leading woman copywriter of the decade, admitted that change would be "the most beneficent medicine in the world to most people," then put forth consumption as a means of gratifying those impulses instead of enacting change. "To those who cannot change their whole lives or occupations," she observed," even a new line in a dress is often a relief. The woman who is tired of her husband or her home or a job feels some lifting of the weight of life from seeing a straight line change into a bouffant, or a gray pass into beige."
Distracted by considerations such as these, one's assigned role as a subordinated atom of production was far less likely to be resented, or even perceived. Woodward, who warned that factory work should never appear in ads, did not think fundamental change was even possible, but she found fault with the targets of consumerist designs, not the architects. "Most people do not have the courage or the understanding to make deeper changes," she said dismissively.
Diverting workers from the frustrations of production, advertisers exploited their insecurities in a perpetual effort to multiply wants and increase consumption. Since bonds of solidarity were threatening, fear of disapproval had to be raised to a paralyzing terror. Accordingly, ads portrayed people as being trapped in a totally judgmental world in which it was impossible to trust even one's family and close friends, let alone a wider public. The social landscape was shown to be booby-trapped with stigma and packed with private horrors: "sneaker smell," "paralyzed pores," "vacation knees," "spoon-food face," "office hips," "underarm offense," and "ashtray breath." Ads depicting home life, community, and the job encouraged chronic status insecurity, and an attendant anxiousness to "suspect yourself first," and after that loved ones, friends, and neighbors. Stuart Chase, an early consumer advocate, observed that the basic function of mouthwashes "is confined to scaring us to death."
In short, by establishing a spectacle of (status) change in the marketplace, boredom and frustration with regimented existence were mobilized in support of increased consumption rather than substantive change in the workplace. This further entrenched the structures that bred dissatisfaction, in the process legitimizing corporations, pacifying workers, and commodifying visions of private life. Meanwhile, every fleeting gratification offered by the consumption of goods and services only whetted the appetite for further multiplication of artificial needs and yet more gluttonous consumption. Craving, not desire, was enshrined as the engine of American life.
This manifested itself through a tidal wave of consumption-glorifying advertising copy in newspapers, magazines, motion pictures, and on the radio, as a new class of status engineers dedicated itself to manufacturing wants, stimulating envy, and stigmatizing laggard consumers for failing to "keep up with the Joneses." Every year a new automobile, gadget, radio speaker, electric fan, or vacuum cleaner muffler was presented as the indispensable cure for status anxiety based on presumed working class inferiority.
An incessant stream of premiums, prizes, and gifts cultivated brand loyalty at the same time that "down payments" were reduced, "trade in" allowances increased, and credit terms relaxed, all of these being financial innovations expressly designed to expand consumption. With advertisers defining the popular will as the sum total of consumer choices in the marketplace, what Thorstein Veblen had satirized as the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class became the ideal of American democracy, though consumer democracy and real democracy are worlds apart.
Predictably, these spurious choices were advanced as a matter of the utmost gravity. Economist Nystrom emphasized the negative social consequences that would be visited on anyone trying to abstain from the commodified life: "There will be quizzical looks, doubtful stares and critical estimates. He will be thought queer. He will be judged as lacking in brain power and, perhaps, as an undesirable person." And there was to be no mercy for the recalcitrant: "If he persists [in violating the norms of consumption] . . . he will, if he is an employee, lose his job! He will lose customers if he is a salesman; he will lose votes if he is a politician. He will lose his customers if he is a doctor or a lawyer. He will lose all of his friends."
As we know, the story did not end well. Pauper wages and high profits throughout the twenties caused rising industrial productivity to outstrip consumer purchasing power. By decade's end a microscopic minority of investors owned far more wealth than it could productively spend or invest, while seventy percent of non-farm families lacked sufficient income with which to even sustain an adequate diet. Studies by orthodox economists showed that 35% of Americans lived at or below the edge of physical and moral security, with another 25% existing at a "minimum comfort" level.
Soaring productivity aggravated the problem as mechanization, increasing sophistication of industrial processing, and greater specialization of the labor force just concentrated wealth in ever fewer hands. Foreign investment, installment credit, and stock speculation postponed the day of reckoning for a short time, but when hugely inflated stock prices and proliferating numbers of stocks spooked buyers in October 1929, the frenzied clicking of Wall Street's tickers lapsed into prolonged silence.
On Warren Harding, see William Allen White, The Autobiography of William Allen White, (Macmillan, 1946), p. 596
The two long quoted passages on the 20s and psychoanalysis are from Joseph Freeman's, An American Testament - a narrative of rebels and romantics, (Farrar and Rinehart, 1936), p. 233
Also important for general information on the period are Page Smith's two books: A People's History of the Progressive Era and WWI - America Enters The World, (McGraw Hill, 1985), p. 792-4; and Redeeming The Time: A People's History of the 1920s and the New Deal (Penguin, 1987), p. 30-1, 915.
Supplementary detail is from: Thomas C. Cochran and William Miller, The Age of Enterprise - A Social History of Industrial America (Harper, 1961) p. 342, and Murray B. Levin, Political Hysteria in America - The Democratic Capacity for Repression (Basic Books, 1971) p. 72.
On the "goods life," see Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, (Harcourt, 1934) p. 105-6
On the impact of advertising in establishing consumerism, see Stuart Ewen's, Captains of Consciousness - Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, (McGraw Hill, 1976) p. 80, 82-6, 94-5, 97, 99, 102
On the lead-up to the 1929 crash, see Frank Stricker, Causes of the Great Depression - What Reagan Doesn't Know About the 1920s, https://www.bartleby.com/essay/Cause-Of-The-Great-Depression-What-Reagan-F3CAR3LD47W
Also Mauritz Hallgren, The Gay Reformer - Profits before Plenty under Franklin D. Roosevelt, (Knopf, 1935) p. 41