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U.S.A.: The Forces of the Depression
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – May 1976
Were the ideas of the 30s unique to the 30s, or were they merely an extension or culmination of things in progress from the two to three decades preceding? The answer to this is simply the fact that the United States has had, since its inception, a fundamental contradiction that has inspired reforms which have followed every era of national 'trouble' and led, progressively, to merely compound that trouble ... leading to more reforms and more trouble.

The 1930s gave this country the Depression and F.D.R. F.D.R. gave this country relief, recovery and reform ... and prolonged the Depression. The ideas of the 1930s had been lying in wait since the beginning of the country ... they came out during and following the Civil War, following the First World War, during the Depression, during the Viet Nam War ... these ideas are disaster ideas: they come out when there has been serious internal upheaval and some degree of national debilitation. They strike when the nation is weak, because when it is strong it can't be bothered by ideas which threaten to disrupt an established, contented status quo. This is an intriguing idea because, whether the status quo has any right to be contented (and, as often as not, it has) and whether the disrupting ideas are beneficial to the nation on a long term basis (and, occasionally, they are; e.g., abolition of slavery), two things happen every time the nation gets itself in a weakened condition (usually brought to such a happenstance by faulty premises): it gets its basic priorities tugged and pulled at and shifted some little bit in an attempt to get the thing right and get back on a stable course. But, since every shift in those priorities involves fundamental changes that affect future policies (and events), the two out of three tugs (or 9 out of 10), which do nothing to solve the problem, contribute to the making of future problems.

The kinds of ideas which were employed to cope with the Depression of the 30s were of the same stamp as those which had brought it about in the first place - they were certainly not unique to the 30s ... they had been implicit in the very foundations of this country. These ideas basically form the operative moral or sociological premises of this country. They are antithetical to the political system which had been devised to safeguard individual liberties. The separation of Church and State was the crucial factor in the formation of our political system, as it was based upon the principle that the State was not the keeper of morality, merely the protector of the rights of individuals to have whatever moral beliefs they chose (on the principle that one man's beliefs could not be binding on another; i.e., one man could not claim and 'right' to abrogate the rights of another). But this political system, even insofar as it protected individual liberties, denied to all suasions of religous belief an inherent part of religion: the imposition of a social order consonant with their particular religious beliefs (among these were temperance and the concept of social welfare - 'you are your brother's keeper'). Reformism in the country has been, predominantly, a move to re-unite Church and State ... in principle. The moral system of virtually every form of religion is defined in terms of social relationships. It would be unnatural for religious' people to respect the rights of others: it is a virtue to save other people's souls and to manage other people's lives whether the other people like it or not. (The Crusades; the 'savings' of Amerindian souls by the Spaniards; the missionary zeal in the Far East; the Peace Corps of the present day - it is a thread which had run throughout history and which is bound inextricably with religion and is an extension, and a legacy, of primitive tribalism). Through some seeming fluke, however, the political system of the United States was founded upon individual rights; its moral-social system, unfortunately, remained, and has remained, tribal - if and when it is cognized at all. It is this basic contradiction, and some holdovers of European ideas which found their way into the political system, which leads to disasters and subsequent reforms.

There have always been people seeking to ferret out the held-over European ideas, the non-American political elements, such as slavery, the inferior political status of women, and the draft; (generally on the rationale that such things were so unconstitutional as to make a mockery of the Constitution). Occasionally something like temperance has found its way into the Constitution, only to be found politically incompatible. The strong-hold of reformist forces, however, has not been constitutional reform, but persistent and insidious legislation granting control over, or regulation of, one section of society or another. The incompatibility of such legislation has been much harder to see, simply by virtue of the fact that the long-range consequences seldom affect a large mass of the population, because the legislation has been explicitly designed to temper the unsociable behavior (generally so judged by religious moral - 'community' - standards) of some minority group or section of society. It is seldom the case that the regulated circumstance of a single group has had as large an affect on the mass of the population as did the regulation of business and government control over the economy; resulting in the Depression. The causal relationship went unseen for various reasons of moral-religious-social vested interests - to admit it would have been to blasphemy against cherished personal beliefs.

There is a boldness of fanaticism about the ideas of the New Deal: a brazen quest to defy the realities and push on in the belief that pragmatism (expediency) and empiricism - the epistemological foundations of the tribal conception of society - could prove that reality could be averted, ignored, and somehow foiled without retribution. John Dewey's progressive education had laid the educational foundations for the breadth of the nation to applaud such an 'innovative' and daring approach to solving its problems. F.D.R., quite frankly, couldn't have done it any other way; he wasn't aware that there was any other way ... or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in a very fundamental sense he simply wasn't aware (of reality - his substitute was other people).

Relief, recovery and reform. Compare that progression to the more advanced missionary activities; or to the Peace Corps; or the five-year plans of the Soviet Union. There is a national perspective about those ideas, complicit with an ordering of society to suit some particular set of societal standards (of some one individual or of some group). It is a perspective with which a tribal chieftain is familiar. Or a dictator. Or the village elders. Or a commissariat. The social good. The social welfare. Social stability. Paternalism? A benevolent dictatorship? (There is no such anmnal.) Fireside chats; Papa Doe (Duvalier)? The National Recovery Administration or the the A.A.A.; Castro's I.N.R.A.?

The ideas of the 30s had (and have) always been an accompanying part of the American 'tradition.' Now and then, when the system weakened, either through basic flaws or unhealthy legislative exercise, the ideas would break out like a rash and further debilitate or discomfort the patient. In the 30s these ideas broke-out again, for the reasons mentioned above, and in a particularly virulent form. It was like double pneumonia. The patient took a recuperative vacation (and got involved in World War II). And when it got well again people who liked Ike said, "It's well, we don't really know why; never really knew why it got sick. But its well again now, let's leave it alone and not tamper with it." And they did ... for a while.


copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben