Just as in 1929, we now live in an economy that is living wildly beyond its means, depending on greater and greater fools to keep bidding up governments’, corporations’ and citizens’ paper wealth. Just as in 1929, everyone is borrowing to buy, either in the hope that they can sell later for a profit (because it is the only way they can hope to increase their net worth), or because it is the only way they can buy at all. And just as in 1929, it is unsustainable, and will lead to a sudden severe reversal followed by a decade (or more, this time) of ever-worsening conditions, except for upper-income (six-figure, this time) earners.

I’ve just finished reading Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression, the definitive history of the 1929-1939 depression. In Part Two of this article tomorrow I’m going to map the behaviours of that era onto the realities of the early 21st century, and tell a story of what life in the next Depression could well be like. Berton’s depiction of the last Depression is one of spectacular political blundering and pig-headedness, and a mean-spiritedness that permeates the whole society. So today I want to explore whether (and if so, how) the attitudes of people (elected, management and grassroots) to their fellow humans are significantly different from what they were seventy years ago. The human effect of a Depression is, after all, as much a matter of how we treat each other as the economic variables that conspire to convert seeming affluence to staggering and protracted misery.

In 1929, the class-conscious society that had existed more or less for millennia was still a reality. While slavery was no longer legal, racism was still very common and overt. Notwithstanding the message of the Statue of Liberty, new immigrants were treated suspiciously and as second-class citizens, when they were allowed citizenship at all. Anti-Semitism was rampant (and had been for decades), and hatred and distrust of other religions and cultures was considered quite ‘normal’ by most citizens. Segregation, at least until a group was assimilated, was the accepted and preferred reality. Women in the US and Canada had only just achieved full suffrage (in Quebec they would not achieve it until 1940). Economic class distinctions were sharp, and there was a general assumption by those in power that the ‘lower classes’ were lazy and needed to be supervised and bullied to perform. Opposition by management to organized labour was virulent, and the government and police forces had no qualms about putting down civil strife violently. Anti-Communist sentiment was uniformly high, had been for years, and organized religions, mainstream political parties and social organizations all preached the dangers of the ‘red menace’. The affluence we attribute to the ‘roaring twenties’ was that of a minority elite only, but then that had been the norm since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Everyone else was deeply in debt, part of the deliberate process of keeping the middle and lower classes in line. The middle classes were the ones who tried to leverage their debts into wealth through the stock market, and were especially hard hit by its collapse. Economic Disparity between rich and poor was massive, with managers earning comfortable 5-figure incomes while many workers’ annual incomes (there was no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance or labour protections) were only in the high 3-figures.

One could argue that most of this is still true today, except that the economic, religious, racial and cultural animosity is mostly tacit rather than overt, and, thanks to automation and other ‘productivity’ technologies that are taking resources from future generations to meet the needs and wants of people today, the economic prosperity of all social classes in affluent nations, adjusted for purchasing power, is proportionally better, though the disparity is as large as ever.

Culture is all about mastery — domination, imperialism, control, and restrictions on behaviour. It can be argued that we humans have three masters, fighting for control of us:

  • Micro-masters: The organisms that make up our bodies and which evolved our minds as a “feature-detection system” for their collective benefit. Stewart and Cohen argue that our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their (our bodies’ organisms’) information-processing system, not ‘ours’. By the time ‘we’ have started to think what to do, our micro-masters have generally already made up ‘our’ minds. 
  • Meta-masters: Our culture and society is constantly attempting to make us like everyone else, to conform to and believe what others believe, for the preservation of law and order of the society. In times of low stress, we tend to obey our micro-masters; as stress increases, these impulses are over-ruled by the rules of our meta-masters, in their perceived collective interest. Edward Hall, in his studies of experiments with rats, found that in periods of high stress, conflict, coercion and social hierarchy soar, as the group sacrifices the welfare of the whole for the survival of the elite. The alphas, with the complicity of the rest, hoard for themselves, so that at least a few can survive the crisis and perpetuate the species. It could be argued that modern civilization is a constant high-stress environment, which is why our human meta-masters now exert so much influence over us, and treat us so badly.
  • Macro-master: Gaia, the collective organism that is all life on Earth. If you buy the Gaia theory (as most scientists now do), there is a higher level of intelligence at work on our planet, a complex, adaptive, self-managed intelligence that recognizes the inter-dependence of all life on Earth and its ecosystems and therefore the need to balance our numbers and behaviours for the collective well-being of all. We were presumably once attuned to this intelligence and accepting of its wisdom, limiting our numbers and our destruction of other life accordingly. But other than a vague sense of biophilia, judging from our behaviour our awareness of this master has long vanished from human consciousness, or at least been effectively sublimated.

The argument about where ‘free will’ fits into this, if indeed we have any free will at all, is best left for another day.

So what happens when an economic depression hits? Suddenly the stress level is increased by an order of magnitude, the poor begin to fear for their very survival, and there is no longer any assurance that there is ‘enough to go around’, so the rich and powerful begin to hoard and to repress the poor and weak to ensure they do not rise up so there is not enough for anyone. Indeed, Berton asserts that the Great Depression could equally be called the Great Repression, so great was the physical, social and cultural clampdown on the masses, and the steadfast refusal to invest tax dollars or incur deficits to relieve the human misery of the time. That refusal, Berton says, was not deliberate cruelty, but rather ideological — the economists of the time (Keynes was not yet in vogue) believed that government intervention and government spending in economic turndowns would worsen the situation, and the political wisdom was that giving people anything for free would make them lazy and unmotivated to work and lead to communism. It was neocon ideology, and it was ubiquitous among the ruling classes (and the political parties in their thrall) at that time, except for the extraordinary administration of FDR.

In fact, there were at the time three competing ideologies, all of them idealistic, and all espoused, more and more loudly as the crisis worsened, as the solution for the society’s ills, by men (women were not taken seriously in politics in those days) who were both arrogant and ambitious — laissez-faire neoconservatism, communism, and fascism. This toxic combination of qualities — fanatic idealism, arrogance and ambition — produced some of the most despotic, extreme and dangerous ‘leaders’ the world had ever known, swept into power on populist platforms that preyed on the utter desperation and learned helplessness of the people. When moderation seems inadequate and ineffectual to deal with extreme suffering, extremism flourishes.

Could this happen today, or are we more reasoned, better equipped, more suspicious of simplistic idealism and ideology? Is it already happening? Will the collapse of the dollar, precipitated by the staggering incompetence and fanatic, dim-witted ideology of the Bush regime, inevitably bring about the Fourth Turning? Or will our 21st century ingenuity, pragmatism, connectedness, collective wisdom, resilience, lead us to a quick and radical correction of the excesses that produce the coming Depression, and hence a rapid and relatively painless end to it? And is this all complicated by the fact that this time, unlike 1929, we are facing permanent, absolute ends to the critical resources on which our society relies for its existence?

My answers to these questions in Part Two tomorrow.