PART III: The Costs of Creative Destruction: Wendell Berry vs. Gene Sperlin
By William Neil
June 2, 2012 - 11:16am ET
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PART III: The Search for Community in the 1930’s.
What they saw in the years 1929-1933 was an economy in a state of collapse, and individuals numb and withdrawn, in a peacetime equivalent of shell-shock, what we call today PTSD today. These thinkers understood that the forms of dominant economic institutions of their day, the ones that had emerged from the intense competition of small firms between 1880 and 1920, were actually behaving in thinly disguised “collective and cooperative” ways, through financial trusts and industrial holding companies, trade associations and their marketing agreements, with Herbert Hoover serving as, hard as it sounds on today’s ears, the most enlightened and representative figure of this advanced economic evolution, “progressive” even. But the trouble was that the dominant ideology in the minds of the average citizen, and which these monopolies and oligopolies still gave much lip service to, was actually from the economic age of small businesses and small farmers, from the lost world of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The truth of the 1920’s and 1930’s, as the best thinkers on the left understood, was that the private sector could not manage its vast productive powers, and could not maintain an adequate level of broadly based demand to purchase its products. It was making so much money, though, by the late 1920’s, that as James Livingston has reminded us (in Against Thrift), that the excess profits were going not to workers and consumers – and least of all to the more than 6.5 million or so farms - but to pyramid schemes on Wall Street. When this world collapsed, and it was a very twentieth century world in terms of economic productivity and business organization, the early 19th century version of the American Dream collapsed as well, and with it the morale of an entire society, which lacked the intellectual means to explain it.
As you can imagine, with the Soviet Union still very shiny, barely more than a decade old, and with its comprehensive alternative philosophy and societal model ready for export, many intellectuals looked in that direction for their solution to both the morale problem and the economic problem. Others, like Stuart Chase of The New Republic, found their inspiration in the “organic” model of the pre-industrial Mexican Village (this makes the 2012 reader, and observer of Mexico, incredulous: a measure of what drugs, NAFTA, immigration and globalization have wrought since then), his answer to the Southern Agrarians, and the resulting book, Mexico: A study of Two Americas, from 1935 and illustrated by Diego Rivera, is still available at Amazon. But Pells cautions, and we should keep this in mind in thinking about Wendell Berry’s worldview, that “if carried too far, what began as a perceptive critique of modern life could end as a complacent celebration of provincialism, small-town neighborliness, and the common man – while the capitalist structure remained intact.”
Instead, Pells asks us to consider the work of Lewis Mumford, especially his 1934 book Technics and Civilization, where the idea “was never to retreat into peasant villages or pre-Civil War romances, but to achieve a new ‘equilibrium between man and nature.’” Mumford takes the long historical road to get us to his vision of a regionalism (he was one of the founders of the Regional Plan Association of America) that will adopt modern technology to serve man’s more specified, social and humane purposes, and which will be placed under a more collective and democratic planning process – his vision for a non-Marxist socialism, and an ecologically sensitive one. Pells handling of Mumford’s ideas echoes the main themes in Berry’s essays, with one major qualification: that “Mumford insisted that science and mechanization were never inherently opposed to human nature…thus men needed technology precisely in order to create a new culture.” Mumford felt that in order to go beyond the machine, it had to be “assimilated”; without that step, “‘we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human.’”
This is a very different attitude than Berry’s insistence that one of the two great aims of capitalism is the “replacement of people by machines” which “the original Luddites saw clearly and rightly.” Mumford saw hopeful signs of the “organic” already emerging in the technologies of the “telephone, phonograph, radio and motion pictures” which were “restoring the human eye, ear and voice to the world of machines. Electric power had made it possible for people to communicate and to react instantaneously; as a result, their sense of personal isolation diminished.” This struck me as both prophetic and too optimistic, because it is so similar to today’s claims made for even more powerful electronic tools working their siren calls, as the levers of democratic citizen control over the political and economic processes that bring them into being, slip ever further from our grasp and the wealth piled up by the owners of the new technologies works mightily to keep it that way. Yet when have Americans ever fallen out of love with technology, and the hope that new inventions will fix our major problems?
Mumford saw dangers not in “the technical processes or forms of work,” but the purposes to which they were put by “capitalist enterprise.” Socialist planning would change that, he felt, and also add “new values…shared activities, common allegiances, collective responsibility, and human fellowship - all the impulses that capitalism had presumably destroyed.” Technology under the new planning arrangements would permit “men to abandon the myths of infinite progress and expansion, to accept their own maturity and sense of limitations.” (My emphasis.)
The only problem, Pells explains, is that Mumford’s Technics and Civilization “was weak in matters of strategy and tactics – not a minor flaw in a period interested in moving from the present into the future…Resting his case on a kind of technological determinism, he never really located the specific engines of change…he was unable to show how men might actually take over their own destinies.” (Editor’s Note: Readers who want to see a more contemporary account of Mumford’s ideas are urged to consider Mark Luccarelli’s fine book from 1995, Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region: The Politics of Planning. I can recommend it with confidence to environmentalists, “smart growthers” even, and all those who are wondering how a different economy might emerge from the badly damaged one we now uneasily inhabit. )
Being unable to locate “the specific engines of change” would seem to be a perennial problem on the American left, perhaps even a more pressing one in 2012 than in the early 1930’s. After all, we have no shining model, even an illusionary one, from among the many nations of the earth, and with “meta-narratives” ruled out, the “end of the working class” as we knew it dating all the way back to the last years of the 1970’s, and OWS’s “invent it on the fly before your very eyes” model having lost its physical basis in reality on or about November 15, 2011, we are indeed hard pressed. Scandinavia, just in case you were thinking along those lines, does not exist on the maps in American conservative atlases. Therefore, it is forbidden to all of us to seek inspiration there.
So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Mark Bittman’s article about his interview with Wendell Berry (NY Times, April 24, 2011), the one that sent me to his Jefferson Lecture in the first place. Bittman was visiting Berry at his farm in Kentucky as he was preparing the lecture, and he asks him “‘How are we going to change this?’” I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at Berry’s somewhat laconic reply, and its similarity to Mumford’s lack of a transition strategy, or having a specific “agent of change” ready for the mission, unless one considers “‘people at the bottom’” a substitute for the old anarchist’s “lumpenproletariet” or the Marxist’s more dignified “working class.” Berry says that things will not happen quickly, although he allows the always lurking environmental catastrophe to edge into the picture, but then he pivots in a poetic way and says: “‘You can describe the predicament that we’re in as an emergency…and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency.’”
The change will happen, Berry says, when the “‘people at the bottom’” do “‘things differently.’ No great feat is going to happen to change all this; you’re going to have to humble yourself to be willing to do it one little bit at a time. You can’t make people do this. What you have to do is notice that they’re already doing it.’”
In one sense, that sure comes as a relief, as it really takes the pressure off some of the traditional and failing agents of change like the labor movement, the environmental movement, the BlueGreen Alliance hybrids, progressives in general and the current President and the Democratic Party. Perhaps openings can be posted on some bulletin board down there in Kentucky, announcing whom to call for the clearly implied exchange: one unit of organic labor, on a daily basis, for room and board. Technology level unspecified. But I can think of about 25 million Americans who might grow a bit impatient at the thought of this pace of change, and maybe a comparable number of Europeans, or maybe it’s double or triple that number. Of course, he could be right. This is the way change sometimes happens, the way civilization recovered during the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, from 400 AD to the emergence of the new synthesis in the proper “Middle Ages,” circa 1050 AD, or perhaps a little earlier.
In thinking about this prospect, however, I had the impulse to return to the other thinkers which Pells recommends to us from the 1930’s, especially the “father confessor of American liberals,” John Dewey, and his two books Individualism Old and New (1930) and Liberalism and Social Action (1935), and the noted academic sociologist Robert Lynd’s Knowledge for What? (1939). It is clear that they won the author’s admiration for their ability to steer an honorable course, in both their intellectual work and their politics, between a clearly inadequate liberalism inherited from the Progressive era, one then buckling under the strains imposed by the Great Depression, and the dangers/illusions posed by the politics of the Communist Party. At stake was all that was still admirable in that old liberalism, especially the creativity and freedom of expression for the individual, old words that took on new urgency in a decade in which Pells says “individualism was always the chief symbolic villain for most intellectuals…” Both Dewey and Lynd turned to democratic socialism to bridge the gaps of the age, and agreed that planning was a necessary means not only to a better and more secure economic fate for citizens, but also to actually enable the private goals that traditional liberalism held out for individuals. Pells puts it rather starkly:
"Dewey wanted very much to demonstrate that liberalism, despite its original alliance with the system of private property and unlimited competition, could no longer realize its ideals in a capitalist society…he looked forward to a release of individuality for genuinely creative work. Dewey assumed that the ideal of collectivism would nurture rather than suppress ‘originality and uniqueness,’ that the ultimate objective of social change was to bring forth a ‘new type of man whose freedom and self-awareness would flourish precisely because he felt emotionally and economically secure."
Of course today the word planning has an even more sinister connotation than it did in the 1930’s when nearly the entire liberal and progressive world was more open to a serious consideration of Marx and Marxism, which Pells takes care to distinguish from the Communist Party version under the control of Stalin, and indeed, he has a section in this chapter to address the attempts to adapt “Marx in America.” The main focus of that section falls on Sidney Hook’s difficult and sophisticated handling of Marx’s ideas applied to the crisis of the 1930’s, and to its intellectual competitors. For example, speaking to the Southern Agrarians and perhaps to Berry today, “the problems of industrialization would never be solved by returning to a handicraft economy, as the Southern Agrarians or those who romanticized peasant villages seemed to want; ‘It is not the machine which oppresses men,’ Hook explained in a voice that sounded as much like Mumford as Marx, ‘but the social relations within which machine production is carried on. Consequently it is the social relations of production that must be changed.’” In a line of reasoning that seems to rule out the future compromises Social Democracy would make, and the New Deal itself made in many respects with capitalism, Hook maintained “since society was an organic whole… one could not hope to preserve the ‘good features of free enterprise (its encouragement of technological efficiency and personal initiative) while eliminating only the ‘bad’ (its vulnerability to overproduction and cyclical depressions).”
Yet those compromises were what the democratic left socialists like Dewey and Lynd were trying to formulate, to protect the freedom essential for individuals to flourish under the new planning measures that were required to bring order to the anarchic production processes that had ceased to function in the 1930’s. They went further to the left than FDR and the New Deal, yet they shared the conclusion of FDR’s, given in what Cass Sunstein has called “The Speech of the Century,” his State of the Union address from January 11, 1944, the one that introduced his “Second Bill of Rights”: “unlike the Constitution’s framers, ‘we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,’ that ‘necessitous men are not free men.’” (The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, 2004).
President Roosevelt, the aristocratic leader with the common touch, delivered this State of the Union Address as an evening Fireside Chat, too ill to deliver it in person to Congress. It listed eight rights in this Second Bill of Rights, the first being “the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.” The third right was addressed to rural America, “the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;” and the fourth, surprisingly, given the animosity which existed at this point towards FDR from the business “community,” was “the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.” This was the culmination of FDR’s keeping faith with the “Forgotten Man” of the Depression (going all the way back to his campaign speech of April 7, 1932), not meant to be passed as actual constitutional amendments or a formal bill of rights, but something for the Congress to achieve working with the American people over the coming years. Although in terms of political timing, it was out of synch with an increasingly conservative Congress, it was connected to the fact that the tide had now clearly turned in the war, and FDR was linking the unfinished work of the New Deal, and its spirit of freedom through economic security, to what he would like to see the nation achieve domestically after the final victory, which he didn’t live to see.
It also made sense because it spoke so powerfully to what Pells calls one of the most striking characteristics of the Depression decade, the “special interest in the lives of ordinary men.” All the more reason to consider some of the thoughts on that decade by one of America’s greatest sociologists, Robert S. Lynd, whose famous studies, conducted along with his wife Helen Merrell Lynd, were of the most ordinary of American places, Middletown, (actually Muncie, Indiana), studies done in 1929 and 1937 (Middletown in Transition). Robert Lynd was a Princeton University graduate who also obtained a divinity degree from Union seminary, spent some time in Elk Basin, Wyoming, as a chaplain in a Rockefeller oil camp (according to Wikipedia), and had his studies funded by a Rockefeller foundation. But the comments which drew my attention come from Pell’s account of Lynd’s more urgent and politically engaged 1939 book, Knowledge for What? and its questions that “involved the emotional as well as the economic effects of capitalism: the feeling of individual powerlessness in the face of large and impersonal institutions, the perception of work as a source of frustration and anomie, the psychology of saving and investment, the moral costs of competition, the disintegration of the family in an industrial society, the subordination of life to money making.”
In Lynd’s opinion, Men’s aspirations were thwarted ‘by disjunctions and contradictions among institutions…and by the erratic reliance upon planning and control at some few points and upon laissez faire, or casual adjustments at most others.’ The gears of American society simply did not mesh…Whatever sense of direction the United States exhibited came largely as a matter of chance. The result, he declared, was chaos for the nation and extreme insecurity for the individual’…Lynd understood that America’s traditional encouragement of competition, mobility, and personal achievement weakened the individual’s commitment to a craft, city, region or community. He therefore suggested that any effective reform movement should have a double mission; it must seek not only to end the depression but also to give people a new sense of partnership, mutuality, and common purpose in their daily work. (My Emphasis.)
So how would the people obtain that “new sense of partnership, mutuality, and common purpose in their daily work” if they couldn’t be assured of the work in the first place, and if “planning” to achieve the goals was ruled out on ideological grounds? Well, before I leave my “retrospective” on the New Deal and the formidable social thinkers in Pells’ compelling history, I want to say a few more words about governmental planning for public purposes, without which none of the hoped for ideals of Mumford, Dewey and Lynd were going to get very far.
Much of the planning that the New Deal carried out was done under the auspices of the National Resources Planning Board, which got its start in 1933 as the coordinating office of the Public Works Administration, which in turn was part of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The fact that the office, called at first the National Planning Board, was headed by FDR’s uncle, Frederic A. Delano, and led by two other public board members, Charles E. Merriam, a political scientist from the University of Chicago and Wesley Mitchell, an economist, tells you something about the nature of both planning and this office in the New Deal: most Americans have never heard of them. Indeed, they initially functioned as the technical back offices of the New Deal job agencies, working on comprehensive regional resource and development plans to help the agencies decide which projects to fund. Later the Board conducted more sweeping research on population trends, housing, land uses and natural resources. By 1939 and 1940 it was issuing reports on The Structure of the American Economy, guided by the philosophy of Charles Miriam, who as early as 1935 felt “‘there is a need for government economic planning not to replace business planning, but to render services to the general public, and to business itself, which business cannot render…Business cannot protect itself effectively against the business cycle hazard.’” (I am drawing upon the excellent section on the NRPB in Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, 1995, pages 246-258.)
But conservative members of Congress and the business community certainly had heard of the NRPB, and that’s one reason the office’s name kept changing as it was shuffled through one governmental reorganization effort to another, ending up attached to the executive office, reporting directly to Roosevelt in its final resting place. The NRPB’s last reports, which came out in March of 1943, one called Security, Work and Relief Policies and the other, a study done for it by economist Alvin Hansen – After the War – Full Employment, were the culmination of liberal hopes for jobs and economic security, and also confirmation of conservatives worst fears.
Cass Sunstein, writing in his 2004 book The Second Bill of Rights, says it was Fredric Delano and Luther Gulick, hired as a consultant to the NRPB, who steered Roosevelt towards the ideas contained in his State of the Union address in January of 1944, and also points out that FDR had already been moving in that direction with his Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter speeches in January and August of 1941: “Shortly after the four freedoms speech, the National Public Resources Board began serious work on producing a second bill of rights. Gulick was the director of the project. On June 29, 1941, an economic bill of rights was specifically proposed to Roosevelt by NRPB advisers in Hyde Park; Roosevelt approved of the idea and asked for a revision.” And so an early version of the bill, one with nine rights, appeared in the massive Security, Work and Relief report. Sunstein writes that “a skeptical legislature, focused on the war rather than domestic planning, had lost all interest in the board’s activities. The NRPB was killed by an appropriations bill just three months after issuing this report.” Yet the issues that the NRPB addressed did live on, even in Congress, which would pass the G.I. Bill in June of 1944 and then a neutered “full employment” bill in early 1946, called the Employment Act of 1946, which is remembered mainly for bringing the president’s Council of Economic Advisors into existence, but a bill which couldn’t bring itself to actually use the term “full employment” in the text.
Yet we shouldn’t leave the New Deal era and FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, which has had a very large impact on economic and human rights documents around the world, with the impression that this was a socialist or even a full blown Social Democratic president. A close look at the language of the original draft of nine rights proposed by the NRPB 1943 shows how conscious the drafters were of the fierce ideological boundaries policed by conservatives and the private sector, so that the fifth right read this way: “The right to live in a system of free enterprise, free from compulsory labor, irresponsible state power, arbitrary public authority, and unregulated monopolies…” (Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights).
So we have to see FDR in the context of his times, and as the genuine socialists to his left, like Mumford, Dewey and Lynd saw him, socialists who in turn were denounced as being insufficiently radical by the more doctrinaire Marxists and Communists even further to the left. And since we have taken a pretty close look at Wendell Berry’s criticism of contemporary capitalism and its effects on farming and rural American, I thought it would be useful to recall how Roosevelt went about his own reforms in the agriculture sector, which was in deep trouble already in the mid-1920’s.
Agriculture’s problems already were foreshadowing some of those of the industrial sector in the 1930’s: high productivity, producing market gluts, along with low and falling prices for the producers. The amazing thing about this productivity was that in 1920 only 3.6 percent of farms had tractors; by 1930 that figure had risen to just 13.5 percent; even as 30.7 percent had cars in 1920, and 58% by 1930. This surprising contrast, putting cars ahead of work tractors, I attribute to the longing of rural American to end its isolation from the rest of the modernizing nation, the contrast made even more painful by the fact that only about 10% of farms had electricity. Here’s how John D. Hicks portrayed the state of rural America in the 1920’s in his classic, Republican Ascendency: 1921-1933 (1960):
"…the number of farms decreased by 2.5%, the first such decline the census takers had ever reported, although in contrast the total farm acreage was up 3.2 per cent. Tenancy…was on the rise in nearly every state, from 38.1 percent of all farms in 1920 to 42.4 percent in 1930. The proportion of farms mortgaged rose similarly from 37.2 per cent in 1920 to 42 per cent in 1930. But the decline of the total value of farm products from $21.4 billion in 1919 to $11.8 billion in 1929 best measured the disaster that had overtaken American agriculture."
Carrying over from the better balanced days of 1910-1914, when the prices for agricultural products were closer to “parity” with those of the industrial inputs needed to raise them, and to the high crop prices of the first World War years, the price of farmland rose, Hicks says, especially in the Middle West, and was up some70% for the nation as a whole by 1919. Then, in 1920, the federal government withdrew its wartime price support for wheat, and the price headed due south, also pushed that way by the revival of European agricultural export markets. In what should have a familiar ring for the America of 2012, everyone who had overextended to buy land or equipment suddenly had their cost/income calculations turned upside-down and “453,000 farmers lost their farms in the crash. The Boom had turned into the worst agricultural depression the nation had ever known.” (Hicks.)
For readers who want both the economic and environmental disaster in greater detail, regionally focused on parts of five states - Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas - I highly recommend Donald Worster’s marvelous account in Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s (1979). Although he doesn’t mention Wendell Berry, his book focuses on how an intense, competitive capitalism in agriculture, the rural American Dream, drove land cultivation beyond “any restraints” - into a region whose climate and soils contained potentially catastrophic risk factors. The result, drought driven, was the dust storms of 1933-1938. Worster says that George Borgstrom, “a widely respected authority on world food problems…has ranked the creation of the Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history.”
So no wonder FDR saw the agricultural crisis as perhaps the most pressing one facing the nation after he was able to restore confidence in the banking system in early 1933. Republican philosophy for dealing with agricultural surpluses and falling prices could only go so far in its willingness to interfere with private competition. It had passed the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which Hicks references as the “‘Magna Charta of Co-Operative Marketing,’” exempting farm co-operatives from anti-trust laws and specifying their freedom of maneuver under the famous “commerce clause.” But such measures could not solve the basic relationship problem and its scope: of too much product and too low prices. In June of 1929, Congress gave Hoover the Agricultural Marketing Act which set up a Federal Farm Board, and a $500 million appropriation to be used in working with the co-operatives and eventually, two stabilization corporations, to try to maintain commodity prices. But the price of wheat couldn’t be maintained, falling from $1.049 per bushel in 1929 to 38.6 cents in 1932.
So that set the stage for Roosevelt’s action in 1933. FDR was cagey about how to get at the problem. He needed action, but didn’t want a bill before there was a consensus among the competing agricultural traditions: the conservative McNary-Haugenites who wanted marketing agreements and parity driven prices domestically, plus dumping the surpluses abroad at much lower prices; the radicals – Milo Reno and his Farmer’s Holiday Association and the Farmer-Laborites led by Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson - wanted “compulsory production control and price-fixing, with a guaranteed cost of production”; and what I will call the academic moderates, like John Black of Minnesota and Harvard, Beardsley Ruml of the Rockefeller Foundation and Milburn L. Wilson of Montana State College and the Secretary of Agriculture himself, Henry Wallace, who backed a “domestic allotment” plan. (From the basic book on the 1930’s, William E. Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940, 1963). Roosevelt, being the internationalist that he was, hated the idea of dumping the surplus overseas. He also, which may surprise many conservatives today, “wanted decentralized administration, and stipulated the plan should obtain the consent of a majority of the farmers – but above all, he insisted that farm leaders themselves agree on the kind of bill they wanted…” thus throwing “the responsibility for achieving a workable solution on the farm organizations.” By May 12, 1933, FDR had a bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which gave the president the flexibility he wanted, since it “provided for alternative systems of subsidizing farm staples,” but it had the effect of postponing some of the critical decisions and conflicts until later that year.
The realities of agriculture in 1933 brought everyone face-to-face with some of the stranger aspects of capitalism, one being that if all the farmers worked hard and the weather smiled on them, and they were the very model of high productivity, the prices they would receive dropped so low they couldn’t cover their production costs: a kind of perverse version of the American Dream. So the initial acreage control plan for cotton resulted in 25 percent of the crop plowed under, but Leuchtenburg says still “the 1933 yield was greater than it had been the previous year.” Now, however, the cotton farmers received $100 million from the new Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) for the ten million acres they ploughed under. In the Corn Belt farmers were already facing a massive draught as well as a huge oversupply of hogs, and thus very low prices – a “ruinous $3.42 per hundred weight” said Secretary Wallace - and so farm leaders there asked that the federal government aid in the slaughter of six million piglets and two hundred thousand pregnant sows. While some of the successfully processed meat was sent to charities, much of it was either mishandled by the processors or was unusable, and some of the piglets got loose and ran the streets in Chicago, resulting in a national media field day with cries of “slaughter of the innocents.” More troublesome for the farm policies the New Dealers were trying to craft, the outcry of “scarcity economics” arose: all that lost pork, bacon, and sausage - at a time of serious national hunger. The slaughter of the piglets was in September of 1933, and even though the corn belt leaders asked for the policy, Secretary Henry Wallace was still on the defensive more than two years later, in a speech he gave entitled “Pigs and Pig Iron,” on November 12, 1935, pointing out that the steel industry handled their surplus by laying off tens of thousands of workers, which produced less of an outcry than the pig slaughter, here at http://newdeal.feri.org/wallace/haw10.htm
This was, and still is, an “ideological moment” for the Right. Some 64 years later, it is still belittling the New Deal’s scarcity economics, as Amity Shlaes does in her revisionist “New History of the Great Depression,” The Forgotten Man, published in 2007. Glenn Beck too, in his recent heyday, was summoning up the slaughter of 1933, linking it to President Obama’s rebate program to get auto clunkers off the road and unsold inventory off the parking lots of dealerships. (There’s that nagging over-production problem again.) Why all this sentimentalism over the lost hogs, because what was the conservative alternative? There was no institutional mechanism, public or private, able to handle that huge pork herd in the fall of 1933, and even if there was, the price level for the farmers would have placed additional thousands of farms on the auction block. Foreign dumping was out of the question, because the tariff and trade walls overseas had already blocked that path. However, in addition to the AAA, the New Deal was also offering the Commodity Credit Corporation, loans for an agreement to cut back on the acreage, run by Jesse Jones and the lesser known of the two “CCC” agencies, the other being the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was sending money back home to many poor rural families. And there was substantial help on the farm mortgage front as well.
It turns out that even the most conservative of farm regions, the South, saw the writing on the wall for the endless crop surpluses. In 1934 the southern bloc in Congress went for a “compulsory crop reduction with ginning quotas” cotton bill (The Bankhead Cotton Control Act), which Agriculture Secretary Wallace opposed because it was not voluntary, and it passed, soon to be followed by similar bills for tobacco and potatoes. That’s how bad the situation was. But we have to ask, in the New Deal’s own terms, was the program successful? Leuchtenburg offers a cautious yes. From 1932-1936, “gross farm income rose 50 percent, crop prices climbed and rural debts were reduced sharply.” And the money farmers received in exchange for crop reduction efforts really circulated. “Even the stanchly conservative Sewell Avery, head of Montgomery Ward, conceded that AAA has been the single greatest cause of the improvement in Ward’s position.” Yet “rising prices of farm equipment wiped out some of these gains, and much of the credit for the rise in crop prices should probably be attributed not to the Triple A but to the drought…not until 1941 did farm income exceed the returns for 1929, an unsatisfactory year for the farmer.”
There was yet another downside to the New Deal method of reform for American agriculture. The payments went to those who owned the land, and yet we have posted those astoundingly high figures for tenant farming revealed by the federal census in1930, over 42%. By market logic, with land taken out of production, the tenants themselves were now a new surplus problem. With the money starting to flow from AAA, a portion was used to purchase machinery, which only intensified the human displacement. These dynamics led to a revolt of the liberal faction in the Department of Agriculture, headed by the assistant secretary, one of FDR’s original brain trust, Rexford Tugwell, and the general counsel, Jerome Frank, over the failure to take on the plight of the rural poor, but Roosevelt sided with a more cautious approach, and so there was a purge and resignations of the liberals. Tugwell ended up heading the Resettlement Administration in 1935, lasting until December of 1937.
We are fortunate to have an excellent account of these programs to aid the rural poor and other “stranded” victims of the Great Depression in Robert D. Leighninger Jr.’s admirable Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten legacy of the New Deal (2007), especially in his chapter entitled “Resettlement.” If the New Deal ever could be accused of utopian streak, here were the lightning rod programs and the leader who attracted the strongest bolts of criticism. The programs: the 34 Subsistence Homesteads of the Public Works Administration from1933-1935; the 28 communities of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s Division of Rural Rehabilitation and Stranded Populations, and the 37 Resettlement Administration communities, which included the “Greenbelt Towns,” were aimed at helping four categories of the economic system’s human “surplus.” They were directed towards those who had been evicted by land owners or because their soil had blown away – the Okies; those who were hanging on to land which could not support them – made famous by the great photographers of the Depression; unemployed city workers who had recently left the farm and thus had some rural skills; and stranded rural workers in timber or mining who had lost their jobs.
The “subsistence homesteads,” as the title suggests, were perhaps the strangest of all: attempts to locate small farm communities near industrial areas. But they couldn’t engage in specialized commodity crop farming, for that would make the already surplus laden national agricultural situation worse. Instead, they would produce for themselves and local markets, and supplement that modest endeavor with industrial employment. Although “later resettlement programs were quite different from subsistence homesteads in important ways…they all had a few features in common: “ ‘a preference for self-help approaches to relief, an effort to reconstitute basic economic relations, a touch of agrarian romanticism, and a strong emphasis on collective or community values.’” (Leighninger here is quoting from Paul Conkin’s Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Programs, 1959.)
Even though it was a Republican administration which passed the “Magna Charta for Co-Operative Marketing” back in 1922, congressional conservatives would go on the attack in the 1930’s against the Resettlement Administration and Tugwell himself, not without some irony, since “one of Tugwell’s greatest hopes was that the farming communities would be showcases for producer, consumer and service co-operatives.” When some of the communities ran into trouble, like the subsistence homestead Arthurdale in West Virginia, whose 165 units were intended to aid unemployed coal miners, or the only “true” farming co-op where the land was not held by the individual families in fee simple ownership (just 60 units), Casa Grande Valley Farms in Arizona, the press and conservative critics turned them into the “Solyndra” circuses of their day.
Yet it’s very important to clarify that these experiments were conceived and executed out of the experimental dynamics of New Deal and its own internal tensions. While Tugwell pushed from the left flank and a theoretical emphasis on planning and co-operatives, Leighninger reminds us that Milburn L. Wilson was the head of the original Subsistence Homestead Division in the PWA, and was such a respected agricultural economist that he initially headed the wheat programs for Agricultural Adjustment Administration. He had a “bootstrap” history, in addition to his academic credentials; after he graduated from college he began as a tenant farmer in Nebraska, later working up to a farm he owned in Montana, which he readily mechanized. Leighninger strongly suggests that Wilson saw the future of farming very clearly: there would be many more surplus farmers, not just the ones who were trapped on inadequate or improper lands. Under the immediate conditions of the depression, displaced agrarians didn’t have industrial jobs to turn to, because there was a human surplus on the industrial side too. Hence some of the complex insights and multiple objectives that went into the experimental land-use programs and their “hybrid” nature. Although it is true that these programs were given a lot of discretion by the initial legislation, leeway to be exercised by the executive branch which later caused a congressional backlash, still, “initiative for a subsistence homestead loan had to come from a sponsoring community.”
There are several important contemporary reasons to spend this time exploring and analyzing these New Deal agricultural and community programs. First, I began this essay by recommending the fall, 2011 economic paper The Way Forward, which had as one of its major themes the worldwide surplus – “glut” - was the term the authors used, in labor and capital – which have also occurred at a time of tremendous productivity improvements delivered by Information Technology and its application to every realm of the economy. At the same time there is a major and probably understated crisis of unemployment in the U.S. and most of the developed Western nations, there are also growing intimations of a “back to the land” movement, just as there was in the 1930’s. This is not being driven by mass unemployment in agricultural – because in 2012 there aren’t many farmers left in the U.S. – roughly one-sixth the number of the 1930’s, one million versus more than six million. Instead, there is a perceived crisis of environmental damage from today’s business farming techniques, and deep questions about the health implications of many of its products (and inputs, implicating the pharmaceutical industry as well as genetic engineering), the “factory” farm being only one of the most egregious examples. But this environmental criticism has also opened up the whole realm of social relations, as is strongly suggested by the work of Wendell Berry, implying in the future, if we follow his directions, a more labor intensive agriculture evolving from a different value system than the intense competitive capitalist model driven by technological innovation, creative destruction, and mechanization.
It’s a fair question how Berry’s local based agrarianism and the source of its values matches up with the “co-operative and collective” leanings of the 1930’s. Both are in part defensive measures against pure free market capitalism, but in the 1930’s there was also an intense ideological source of alternatives in the way of social democratic, socialist and communist ideas and ideals. I have suggested that Berry’s sources for new societal and economic forms stem from his classical-Christian readings and what seems to be his first principle: do no harm to the land and its ecological communities. He doesn’t explicitly use co-operative and communitarian language, although the words he chooses do lean in that direction. In his 2000 essay, “The Total Economy,” he offers the local economy as the deliberate alternative to the aggrandizing nature of free-market globalization and its export oriented production model. Thus he writes “that a viable neighborhood is a community, and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities.” At other places, the words Berry uses to describe what will flow from his remedy - “love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence” – and let us not forget “limits and restraints” – are different, and lean towards individual virtues, not collective ones, yet are still alien terms when compared to the language of the competitive private marketplace, and stand at the polar ends of the earth from the language of Wall Street traders.
Berry, however, is working with much the same “competitive” individualism in the broad society in 2012 as the agricultural reformers of 1930’s were. In that decade the farm owners and most of the farm tenants, were far removed from the left leaning intellectual trends of the decade: they were still, however cruelly it was working out for them ever since the late 19th century, predominantly competitive, capitalist, business-model farmers, tempered here and there with fledgling co-operative institutions. For example, when more explicitly socialist ideas reached the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas in 1934, Leuchtenburg says the “landlords struck back with a campaign of terrorism. ‘Riding bosses’ hunted down union organizers like runaway slaves; union members were flogged, jailed, shot – some were murdered.”
The reaction to even the New Deal’s edgier community planting experiments was nothing like this barbarism, whose extremism was provoked precisely because the Tenant Farmers Union threatened not only existing social relations along their cruel economic fault lines – but also their racial ones. Yet we still need to know how its ninety-nine co-operative ventures turned out. After all, contemporary reformers, like Gar Alperovitz and William Greider, are writing about the alternatives to capitalism, and still hoping that the co-operative movement will further take hold. And Maryland state senator Jamie Raskin has sponsored legislation enabling a “Benefit Form” of corporate chartering, a “B” form, which allows a business greater leeway to pursue other goals besides the era’s dominant and obsessive legal obligation to “maximize shareholder value.” Here at http://www.garalperovitz.com/2012/05/podcast-the-emerging-new-economy/
Some authors, like Paul Conkin, in his 1959 assessment, thought an “ ‘alarmingly large number failed because of poor management, resentment of government control, lack of understanding of the co-operative idea, non-businesslike practices, factionalism in the associations, and outside competition or opposition.’” Leighninger agrees that judgment “seems true for the larger purchasing and marketing co-ops.” However, Stanley Baldwin, in his 1968 book Poverty and Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration, says that the co-ops came out “‘no worse than the prevalence of failure and bankruptcy among private manufacturing enterprises.’ The smaller co-ops, where farmers teamed up to share breeding stock or machinery, were quite successful. By 1942 only 16 percent of 25, 543 cooperative groups had failed and 63 percent of the loans were repaid.”
In another measure of the still formidable conservative headwinds even in the 1930’s, the most politically popular and successful program run by the Farm Security Administration, the successor to the Resettlement Administration, was the one that made loans to enable tenant farmers to buy their own farms. By screening out poor candidates it helped its own success rate, but this, in effect, also screened out the neediest of the rural poor. When all was said and done by 1946, “the resettlement activities, including the cost of retiring submarginal land, were only 20 percent of the FSA’s budget.” As Congress moved to the right in these post-war 1940s years, it made sure that the agricultural agencies got out of their experimenting phase, and sold the resettlement communities to private parties.
As for the mainstream “AAA” programs, the loans and payments in exchange for crop limitations – well, they live on in some form even today. They never intended to disturb social relations in rural America, and they didn’t, but they also were unable to save the small and middling size farms from the trend to larger, more heavily industrialized operations, aided by all the advancements in science and the “education” offered by the land-grant colleges that Wendell Berry so deplores. Indeed, Berry is so critical of what happened, the means and the ends, that he often compares American agriculture to the departed communist methods in the U.S.S.R. and claims they both worked to eliminate the farmer and poison the land – whatever their proclaimed intentions. The tenant farmers, black and white, disappeared, starting in the 1930’s, along with the AAA payments and the growing mechanization, as we have seen from a number of sources, but especially Nicholas Lemann’s account in The Promised Land. Well, not quite “disappeared”; they went to southern towns and cities, and northern and mid-western ones as well, to try to find industrial jobs in the post-war world, where they were, especially if they were black, not welcomed with open arms, or as we have seen earlier, aided by any type of planning for housing or other services (unless they were GIs).
Truly, though now “free” from the shackles of tenant farming, they would get additional schooling in all the shades of meaning of the “freedom” that conservatives so continually recommend and celebrate in our neoliberal days, a concept of freedom very different from FDR’s as put forth in his Second Bill of Rights from 1944. What did smile on the them, though, from 1945-1973, was the broad legacy of a restored capitalism, the golden years of the American economy, and perhaps the best testament to the reforms the New Deal put in place. It wasn’t pretty to watch, and it still left a lot of people adrift amidst the economic wreckage that was not cleared away until World War II delivered a truly “full employment” economy; it left good socialists and planners like Lewis Mumford frustrated and disappointed. According to Pells, Mumford saw “the New Deal as nothing but ‘aimless experiment, sporadic patchwork, a total indifference to guiding principles or definitive goals and hence an uncritical drift along the lines of least resistance, namely the restoration of capitalism.’”
Even though conservatives in Congress were able to “contain” the New Deal by 1937-1938, they did not gain control of the House of Representatives until 1946, losing it two years later, regaining it in 1952, losing it again in 1954 and not getting it back until 1994.
Many conservative Republicans, especially businessman, never forgot what for them was the bitterness of the New Deal. It wasn’t just the economic pain that went with those years - it was the loss of social standing, a standing which now had to be, however unevenly, shared just a bit with labor leaders and federal agency employees, who quickly were labeled government bureaucrats. (Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) does an excellent job of conveying the small to medium sized business man’s view of these years.)
Indeed, in many respects, the Right is still bitter about the New Deal, and that can be seen in its reaction to the crash of 2008-2009. This is a reaction that is deliberately, and fanatically, designed to head off any inkling of a notion, the slightest disposition, towards a re-run of FDR’s New Deal at both the practical and theoretical level – not that the current Democratic Party was even considering it, or capable of mounting an adequate, updated version of it, despite the alignment of the circumstances. Amity Shlaes gave us a clear preview of this in her Forgotten Man (2007), where it is the fumbling, uncertainty, confusion and limited successes of the New Deal that make up a good part of her revisionist history, with private self-help programs like the founding of Bill Wilson’s Alcoholics Anonymous and the work of Father Divine contrasting with the statist overreaches of the Resettlement Administration and the public power programs of TVA. That’s quite a contrast to the emphasis Richard Pells gave us with John Dewey, Robert Lynd, Lewis Mumford, Sidney Hook and Reinhold Niebuhr in his chapter called “The Search for Community,” where it is the left’s pursuit of new communitarian and collective institutions that are at heart of its response to the great economic and social collapse of the 1930’s, while these intellectuals struggled mightily to keep the best of the old liberalism’s focus on the independence and dignity of the individual citizen in the face of the Communist challenge. But I have to note, when one compares the assessment of Shlaes to Mumford’s just above, they have a common critical theme of focusing on FDR’s wavering navigational course, with no theoretical guidance or coherence. Their alternative remedies, however, are at opposite poles of the political spectrum.
I’ve often wondered, since reading Shlaes book, about its fortuitous timing, appearing as it did in June of 2007. After all, why would a conservative be worried about lingering associations and misinterpretations of a decade and a president that the world view of the Democratic Party had already rejected? Was it Shlaes financial connections and associations (Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Fortune that gave her an “insider’s” glimpse, in 2005-2006, or earlier, of what was coming in subprime and the world of mortgage derivatives? If not, she had incredibly good instincts and timing, to have ready at hand, ready in paperback edition too, an attack on every hopeful policy and program about the New Deal just at the very time when Democrats on the left might be inclined to reach back for it. The Republican Right in Congress was reading her book, recommending it and waving it about. Democrats, to prove my point, were not doing the same with Robert Leighninger’s Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, despite its appearance in January of 2007. My book review, Still Shining: A Beacon of Hope from the New Deal up by March, 27, 2008 can be found here at http://www.amazon.com/Long-Range-Public-Investment-Forgotten-Problems/pr... . Nor were Democrats particularly excited when Nick Taylor’s American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work appeared in March of 2008.
I’ve expressed my unhappiness with Ms. Shlaes’ book in a number of different essays and online comments. But I went back to take another look in light of the themes of this essay. Sure enough, she was very tough with Rexford Tugwell, as you might imagine, that left-leaning academic enchanted with planning and federal initiatives, and devoted multiple pages to the struggling co-operative at Casa Grande, Arizona, to show how the devil’s work of co-operative land ownership turned out. She never gives a mention though, to the more pragmatic experimenter, Milburn L. Wilson, who also had an important influence on many agricultural policies, but doesn’t seem to fit as well with Ms. Shlaes attempts to color the New Deal, if not quite deep red, at least a moderate shade of pink, all the while denying she is red-baiting in the traditional fashion.
Then there is a very important matter, which I had hoped other historians would have jumped in on by now, important for understanding rural Americans in the 1920’s and 1930’s and why they may have voted for FDR and the New Deal so often. I caught the discrepancy the first time I read her book. Shlaes is interested in casting the federal government as the aggrandizing leviathan (TVA and much more) in the rural electricity drama, pushing the ready and capable private sector servant out of the way, just when it was ready to give all those poor, living in-the-dark farmers the spark and the light. But it is likely that this is not what happened at all. One of America’s preeminent historians, famous for his unrelenting research, none other than Robert Caro (aided by his wife’s on the ground interviews in rural Texas) tells this public/private power tale at 180 degrees of difference from Shlaes. I don’t see how the discrepancy can be reconciled. Caro does that in the very first volume of his increasingly famous biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, which appeared in 1982. I’ll be quoting from the Vintage paperback edition published in 1990. Caro’s account in the Chapter entitled “‘I’ll Get It for You,’” – meaning Lyndon Johnson delivering on a promise to bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio – doesn’t begin, however, with the specifics of that region - he frames the issue as a national one: two America’s, one urban, with power and a good deal of abundance, and one rural, mostly poor and in the dark. The way he told the story burned it into my memory so strongly that I thought of this chapter immediately upon reading Shlaes account, more than a decade later. So here is the direct flavor of it, from the first three pages of “‘I’ll Get It for You’”:
"As late as 1935, farmers had been denied electricity not only in the Hill country but throughout the United States. In that year, more than 6 million of America’s 6.8 million farms did not have electricity…For two decades and more, in states all across the country, delegations of farmers, dressed in Sunday shirts washed by hand and ironed by sad iron, had come, hats literally in hand, to the paneled offices of utility-company executives to ask to be allowed to enter the age of electricity. They came in delegations, and they came alone…But in delegations or alone, the answer they received was almost invariably the same; that it was too expensive…Experiments – notable ones had taken place in Red Wing, Minnesota, and in Alabama- had conclusively proved that within two or three years after farmers had obtained electricity…their usage… soared - to a point where there was substantial profit for the utilities. When the utilities ignored these studies their true attitude became clear: not that rural electric service could not be profitable, but that it would not be as profitable as urban service…Alabama Power & Light refused to reduce its rates more than a token amount even after it was allowed to buy electricity at a very low cost from the government-owned dam at Muscle Shoals. When a farmer offered to pay the cost of building a power line to his house, the utilities said they would allow him to do so- but that when it was built, they, not he would own it."
This is no small matter, a splitting of hairs over an ambiguous, obscure chapter in American history. This is a matter crucial to establishing a fair history of the contest between public and private power, and why government sometimes needed to step into a vacuum, of power or fairness or both, especially in the 1930’s when the profit sector couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do so, willing to leave one third of a nation in the dark. One would think this would be a major matter between historians on the Left and the Right, and something that might rise to a political debate between Democrats and Republicans in the years 2008-2012. Sitting in front of me, for example, is the April 9, 2012 print edition of The Nation, whose read and black cover asks in giant letters: Can We Trust Government Again? Well, if you believe Shlaes’ account, and this was the clear intent of her book, the answer is no, we can’t, we can only have full faith in the private sector, and its supposedly self-correcting properties, and of course, private personal initiative, like that taken by the founder of AA, and Father Divine. If you believe Caro, then history, and even economics, looks very different, despite all the flaws and contradictions in Lyndon Johnson’s character.
My re-reading of Shlaes also sent me to thinking about Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, and what that organization represents not just in the “self-help” framework that Shlaes is so eager to counterpose to the New Deal, but in terms of the persistent American search for “community” in the midst of a centrifugally mobile society following the dominant version of the American Dream. That’s the version based on a fiercely competitive, individualistic capitalist ethos. That was the title – “The Search for Community” - in Pells chapter devoted to left-wing American thought in the 1930’s. I can’t forget the theme because when I was in graduate school in American Studies, I met an older fellow student who was an active member of AA; indeed, he couldn’t stop talking about its sense “of community,” which gave him a particularly useful window looking out onto the rest of society. My own perspective is a bit different than his or Shlaes, however, leading to that recurring question: when things go wrong in America, who do we blame, the society or the individual? That’s the organizing theme of one of my favorite books, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (2003), by James A. Morone. Morone’s answer, especially when things go wrong economically, is that most of the time, due to our Protestant religious heritage, we blame the sinful individual, not the “system.” In the case of AA, it is the drinker who must take personal responsibility for getting into trouble before being accepted by the supporting community of former drinkers. No matter how one lost one’s last job, all the unfairness, the high unemployment rate, it’s no use to blame the system for one’s drinking, you have to change yourself. Fair enough, most of us would say.
But what about seeing the long history of excessive American drinking as just one more example of many other forms of persistent addiction: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, sports, shopping, eating, dieting, exercise, web-surfing, hand-held electronics gazing…speculating in the markets? Without for one moment eliminating personal responsibility from the equation, might not this list, which could go on for pages, say something else about American life besides its remarkable production of so many seemingly weak-willed individuals – in a nation of headstrong entrepreneurs? Could all these addictive behaviors be part of a pattern, of a search for what’s missing from the intensively competitive economic order? Isn’t the perennial search for community by so many parties a clue that something might be wrong, be missing in the broader society and its economy? Do not the personal dynamics of “the binge” and then the “withdrawal” seem to mirror the psychology of the manic market in its cycles of booms and busts? (Bill Wilson was a stock analyst, after all). Of course, even within AA, the silliness of seeing all this addiction as the result of just so many people with character disorders is deflected by “treating alcoholism…as a sickness,” which Shlaes suggests occurred very early on in the 1930’s formational meetings Bill Wilson had with Dr. Robert Smith. After Shlaes emphasizes that Wilson didn’t like the New Deal at all, we do get some perhaps unintended insights from her on these early days and the fact that Wilson and Smith were both from Vermont: “Part of the problem of the alcoholic was loneliness, especially nowadays – there was no longer the sort of New England village green where the men had grown up. To find consolation…the two could not retrieve the old Vermont village, but they could build a new village, a community of alcoholics.” (My emphasis.)
Although Ms. Shlaes might have worked her hop-skipping, glancing references to the life of Father Divine, the charismatic black religious leader, into a chapter on the search for black community in the Great Depression, that’s not what she was after. Instead, she takes real delight, like many on the Right today, in presenting a black leader who rebuffs the governmental “hand-out” and instead turns to entrepreneurial self-help, an early version of candidate Herman Cain. Father Divine (c.1876-1965) is applauded for his anti-regulatory, anti-government attitudes in shielding his many businesses, his refusal to endorse FDR or the New Deal, his stress on the importance of education, support for anti-lynching laws, and his demonstrations of plenty in contrast to the alleged “scarcity” economics of the New Deal (his low cost restaurants and lavish, free banquets for the poor).
Shlaes also might have seen the convergence between Divine’s economic directions and some of Tugwell’s and Wilson’s “experiments,” because he bought 25 properties, mostly farms, in Ulster County, New York, some 100 miles north of the city. She instead compares his efforts there to Upton Sinclair’s agricultural communities in California (which are not explained) and notes that he was planning to add canneries and “eventually, automobile manufacturing.” Historian Carleton Mabee, in the Preface to his 2008 book, Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York, says there were eventually 33 “communities” with 2,300 members, in efforts that were “experimental, cooperative and nonviolent.”
It’s not easy to categorize Father Divine, whose birthplace is uncertain – most likely in Georgia or Rockville, Maryland, but, in either case, probably the child of former slaves. Following his life here at Wikipedia’s biography http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Divine reminded me of the abolitionist John Brown, who also moved to so many different places and started so many ventures, including bi-racial ones in upstate New York. But I think it is fair to question Shlaes’ emphasis on the individualism of Divine’s business and property buying activities, and comparing his followers aim’s to those of Booker T. Washington. There is a common denominator of self-improvement and education, but in reading further about Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement church, there’s also a clear stress on the co-operative and communal in the way the businesses and farms were run, and later owned after the initial purchase. I doubt Booker T. Washington would have been pleased by that aspect, but, as is true with most of Ms. Shlaes’ book, we’re not getting the complexity and nuances of Divine and his movement, we’re seeing him as a useful agent in skewering the policies and politics of the New Deal.
Yet for all the work Shlaes has put into burying the idea of an “effective” New Deal as any type of useful contemporary model, joined in that effort, I’m sad to say, by the leadership of the Democratic Party, she was really engaging in overkill - in addition to her startling distortions of what actually happened. It’s true, though, that despite mixed results, the “common man” registered his experience of the 1930’s with gratitude at the polls, at least, for FDR’s “experiments.” The decade also registered shrinking Democratic margins after the landslide of 1936, as the nation drifted to the right, especially after 1937-38. When Robert and Helen Lynd went back to see how the Great Depression had changed Middletown (actually Muncie, Indiana) in 1935, their findings, published as Middletown in Transition in 1937, should have been reassuring intellectually to Ms. Shlaes. Pells tell us that they found that “‘no major new …ideologies of a positive sort have developed as conspicuous rallying points…’ Instead the residents of Muncie appeared increasingly vulnerable to ‘gross emotional symbols’ which shaped their view of the world and prevented them from becoming fully conscious of their plight.” (My emphasis.)
Indeed, Pells quotes from someone new to me, Frederick Schuman, a little known political scientist even then, entirely forgotten now, but whose words struck a familiar contemporary note, making me think immediately of the work of George Lakoff, with his emphasis on framing based on metaphors and his constant urging that progressives express the “empathy” that their values are based on – ultimately rooted in a “nurturing parent” family model. (With its interesting resonance both to Wendell Berry’s “It All Turns on Affection” and the language that Rabbi Michael Lerner often uses in his work). Rather than the complex ideas and philosophies advanced by Mumford, Dewey and Hook, with their emphasis on co-operative economics and public planning to cure the chaos of the market, in Schuman’s view, “‘the masses of men are moved not by Reason, nor even by economic self-interest, but by emotions, mysticism, and mythology…Societies are held together never by cold intellect but always by nonlogical symbols of warmly felt collective experience.’” (Fireside Chats, for example; how does that compare to the competitiveness, among other features, of Facebook?). Then, in words that summon up, for better and worse, Father Divine and some of the other successful, indigenous populist movements of the 1930’s - Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and Upton Sinclair – “Schuman proclaimed no revolution was possible unless its leaders inspired ‘awe, reverence, and fanatical devotion’ and unless its programs were invested with the ‘psychological equivalents of religious supernaturalism.’ What the left needed most was neither theory nor organization but ‘faith.’”
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