Monday, June 28, 2010

America, 2010, and America, 1934: How Are We Different?

By Manifesto Joe

The America of 1934 was much worse off than the America of today. But there are some parallels: stubbornly high unemployment, pay cuts, political polarization, a field day for demagogues, a right-wing Supreme Court confronting a liberal Democrat in the Oval Office ... above all, a general feeling among the populace of, "When did my life become a horror movie?"

Today's America has Keynesian economic precedents, and something of a social safety net, with food stamps as the centerpiece. At least few people could actually starve, unlike the situation in '34. And the official unemployment rate is hovering at only around 10 percent. Even if one factors in the underemployment and other differences of today, the job situation of 1934 was certainly worse. There are no bums coming to my door, begging to do whatever work I have here for some food. My mother, who was 7 in 1934, had vivid memories of them. And, beans and cornbread was mostly what my grandmother had to offer a Depression-era tramp. My grandfather was making about a dollar a day.

But one of today's crucial differences, the social safety net -- such as it was at the start of "The Great Recession" -- now seems in peril.

Last week, the extension of unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed failed to clear the Senate. I've created a link. The vote was 57 for, 41 against, with 40 smug Republicans plus Nebraska Blue Dog Ben Nelson blocking the bill. Nearly 1 million jobless Americans will lose their unemployment benefits because the Democrats could not muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster.

If this had happened in 1934, I would dare say there would have been a lot of people out on the streets all over this country the next day, and quite possibly bloody violence. It's true that Americans were remarkably stoic through 10 miserable years during the Great Depression. But in those days, there was at least enough turbulence to show that people basically knew who their enemies -- and friends -- were. In the America of 2010, at least half the country doesn't seem to get it.

Because of the Senate's inaction, there will be a spike in homelessness and hunger. There will be many more foreclosures and evictions.

There are doubtless some right-wingers who think that unemployment benefits encourage people to remain jobless. I don't think that such people have ever had to try to live on the meager sum that unemployment insurance pays. But even if their notions were so, there are few jobs compared to the number of jobless. This will force many people out of their homes, into shelters, into already-stressed food banks -- and into suicidal despair.

I find it a bit ironic that the one Senate "Democrat" who sided with the Republicans on this is from the very state where a Depression-era food riot occurred. The eruption that took place in 1932 in Lincoln, Nebraska, is now barely a footnote in history. It was one instance in which the stoicism of heartland Americans was finally exhausted.

But, history doesn't exist for many Americans of today. It's interesting to note that one of the most active Communist Party cells in America during the 1930s was in Oklahoma City, capital of what is now one of the nation's most rock-ribbed Republican states, represented by two of the most dimwitted right-wingers in the Senate. Not that being a communist was an especially bright thing, even then -- but it's understandable when you realize what daily life was like for most Oklahomans during the Depression. I lived in that state briefly during the 1980s, and by then, you couldn't tell there had ever been a Dust Bowl. Nobody seemed to remember it.

So, what's the difference between America of 1934 and America today? Back then, people seemed to have a collective memory, at least of sorts. Today, many can't remember back any further than whatever Glenn Beck told them on Fox News yesterday. And, while there were indeed demagogues back then, and right-wing ones -- they seem to have more muscle now.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.


Anonymous said...

>>The America of 1934 was much
>>worse off than the America of

I'm not sure that Noam Chomsky would entirely agree. In April, 2010, he said:

"I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies."

Chomsky also pointed to parallels between Nazi Germany and today's America:

"There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election."

Manifesto Joe said...

Um, I'm not sure what your point is. I actually used some of the first of those two Chomsky quotes in a post I put up a couple of months ago.

"There were far more desperate conditions than today."

The point of my piece is that America was materially much worse off then, yet now people don't seem to "get it." At least they seemed to get it more back then.

Jack Jodell said...

For turning their backs on unemployed fellow citizens, each of those disgusting Republicans, and definitely that vile puke Ben Nelson, should all be sentenced to a year in Watts or Harlem with no baqk accounts, no credit cards, no cash, and no way out. These overpaid time-wasters have been eating lobster, prime steak, and caviar a little too long, and they do not understand the struggles and stresses of being a regular working American, let alone one on unemployment or in poverty. Their coolective insensitivity is reprehensible, and every one of them should have their asses booted from Congress permanently!

Marc McDonald said...

re: "The point of my piece is that America was materially much worse off then"

I agree. But I think it's important to note that a great deal of America's "prosperity" these days is nothing more than a mirage, fueled by massive credit card debt, (as well as the trillions of dollars from East Asian central banks that are propping up our economy).

Ordinary people may not have had as many material possessions back in the 1930s. But they also didn't have massive credit card debts. They paid cash for things.

And for all of America's economic woes back then, at least the nation still had a state-of-the-art manufacturing base that led the world. Today, we really have little manufacturing left and we have titanic trade and fiscal deficits. Basically, our economy is a giant Ponzi scheme that doesn't really produce much of value these days.

Yes, people were going hungry back in the 1930s. But if our MSM would take a short break from covering Paris Hilton's latest hairstyle, or Madonna's latest boyfriend, it might be bothered to report that hunger is "increasing at an alarming rate in the United States." (this, from Feeding America, a non-profit food bank network group).

I encountered a woman pushing a baby carriage last night in a supermarket parking lot. She approached me and politely asked me if I could spare a dollar. I got to talking with her and she broke down in tears and said both her and her baby were hungry and asked me if I could please buy them something to eat.

What's scary is that I'm seeing things like this happening more and more often.

Jack Jodell said...

Marc, both you and Manifesto Joe hit the nail squarely on the head here. It's great to consistently see posts and commentary coming from a pair who live in the REAL world!