The interbellum years II: the crisis.

Hoover came into power 1929. A critical year. He believed that technology and expertise would lead USA to a permanent state of prosperity. Industrial production had increased by 30% during the last ten years, but the characteristic prosperity of the 20s was an illusion and ended in financial disaster. In 1929 the unemployment rate rocketed and 60% of families fell below the poverty line. Several factors contributed to this long crisis:

  • structural weakness of the banking system.

  • Inability of borrowers to repay loans, which lead to a epidemics of bank failures.

  • Unequal distribution of wealth and income (23-29 the income of the wealthiest 1% increased dramatically). Concentration of resources in hands of the wealthy, who didn’t need to spend their money. As a consequence assembly line production, which was aimed for a very different niche, remained stored and the stock surplus lowered prices, which was in turn translated into unemployment and financial failure for the companies. No unemployment insurance: the relief burden fell on state and municipal governments and private charities. Crisis hit during a shift from traditional industries to newer (steel and textiles to processed food, auto-mobiles and tobacco, heavily dependent on the stock market).

  • Farm prices depressed since the end of WWI, when European agriculture revived.

  • Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements and defaulted on their debts putting pressure on the banking system.

  • Protectionist measures: residential construction rose in 1924 and 27 and plummeted in 1929. One of the reasons was the restrictions to immigration. Republican tariff policies damaged foreign trade.

  • Economists and bankers introduced measures founded in past experiences no longer relevant.

  • The Federal Reserve, in order to curb stock market speculation slowed down the growth of the money supply then allowed it to fall after the crash, producing a liquidity crisis. Reduced amount of money available to consumers to spend.

  • USA, UK and most countries in Europe and Latin America insisted on clinging to the Gold Standard after WWI: each currency had a fixed value in relation to gold. It made their economies slow down.

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The Stock Market Crash took place in October 1929. As a result, Hoover was blamed and the new way of life was named after him by his opponents: shanty towns built by the homeless was called Hoovervilles. There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. Newspapers were called “Hoover blankets”, and empty pockets inside out were “Hoover flags”.

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Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929; most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased the demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and consisted of tents and shacks. The authorities did not officially recognize these “Hoovervilles” and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private properties, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity.

According to Hoover recovery was just round the corner. But the reality was that families lived on soup and beans only, without meat and fresh vegetables for months. Family providers were in question and they walked long distances looking for a job while their families had to stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check. The crops rotted in the fields, as prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile. The blacks were the first to lose their jobs and Mexican Americans were deported. Those who were poor before the crisis subsisted better because they were used to subsisting in poverty, but middle class was hit hard. Many professionals and white collars refused to ask for charity and those who fell behind on mortgage payments lost their homes. As health care declined, people stopped going to the doctor, because they could not pay assistance. Banks approached collapse and customers rushed in to withdraw their deposits causing bank failure.

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The interbellum years I: from prosperity to poverty.

Right after the WWI, the USA lived a period of prosperity without precedents and became the richest country on Earth. National per capita annual income increased by 30%. The manufacturing process in factories was greatly modernised, increasing production per worker/hour by 75%. A new culture of consumer goods emerge superseding the old rural values. Migration from rural areas to cities in search of new opportunities grow, and people are eager to buy the new goods advertised by the media. Advertising, electrodomestics, cars and purchase on credit by installments buying plans offer exciting possibilities. The is what Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”. Birth of mass entertainment and blooming of many magazines and publications. Writers like Dorothy Parker wrote short stories in these publications.

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Many American authors went to exile, as living in Europe was cheaper, but also in search for values and beliefs (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound). This generation of writers was baptised by Gertrude Stein as the lost generation and their main trait is their disillusionment and disenchantment after the war. In “This side of paradise” (1920) Fitzgerald describes a young generation at a dead end: “fully dedicated to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shake.” This generation of writers had faced the horror of war, had witnessed massive death and destruction and they lost all faith in institutions, history and the human being. Abstract ideals such as progress and liberty were no longer to be trusted. They felt a vacuum after the war, and the new optimistic idealism was totally meaningless and decadent to them. The superficial materialism of postwar society with its modern commodities, consumerism, conformity and contentment was no substitute for values like altruism, solidarity and heroism. They felt nostalgia.

johnny got his gun

“Johnny got his gun”

When the WWI finished, Woodrow Wilson was in office. During his two terms, several important changes were introduced in society through legislation, and none of them were ‘spur of the moment’ laws, but the consequence of a long time of previous brewing:

  • The Eighteenth Amendment was approved in 1919, a controversial law, the Prohibition introduced restraints in civil liberties, it had been in the background since the times of the Puritans and encouraged by the Methodist Church and the Temperance Movement, who made it gain momentum. The Prohibition was officially working until 1934, when it was officially repealed. The crime rates increased, as the upper class was willing to break the law to have access to alcohol (Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”, 1922) and organised crime bloomed, enriching those who dominated the illicit business, such as Al Capone. Speakeasies, bootleggers and bathtub gin were born and will always remain as symbols of those times (as seen in The Great Gatsby”, 1925).

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (women suffrage) was approved, after a long period of struggle by the Suffragist Movement. Victorian values regarding sex and relationships was rapidly fading and women enjoyed more freedom in this respect (as described by Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker).

  • The Emergency Tariff Act and the Emergency Quota Act, signed in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, established protectionist measures aimed at hindering the introduction of European imports and also set migration quotas related to race and origins, restricting the entrance to certain ethnic groups (it’s consequences are mentioned throughout “Manhattan Transfer”, by John Dos Passos). This severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

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When Harding dies from a heart attack in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took up the torch and ratifies the measures taken by the latter. Due to a decreasing number of Nordic immigrants, writer Madison Grant warned that the Anglo-Saxon stock was about to be overwhelmed by lesser breeds (mainly South and East Europeans, Asians and Africans) with inferior genes, and Harding revises Harding’s Immigration Act, polishes it and ratifies it as the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, establishing a quota of 2% of each national group. The quota subsisted until the 60s. Hostility towards immigrants increased and paved the way for a KKK renaissance in rural USA which would eventually spread to cities, across all social classes.

TONY HARRISON, a working class poet.

Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.

“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise

and England made to feel like some dull oaf

is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes

and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.

tony harrison

He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”

(Them and [uz])

He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.

In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:

“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem

and taking a short cut home through these graves here

they reassert the glory of their team

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”

(V)

Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:

“…

I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,

free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,

free to say up yours to Tony Blair,

to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading

and regret the restoration of his heir.

…”

Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.

JACK LONDON, an awesome person; MARTIN EDEN, an awesome book.

John Griffith Chaney, born in San Francisco on January 12th 1876, was the son of a traveling astrologer and a spiritualist. He worked while he was finishing his pre-university level studies and,among other jobs, he worked as a sea man, a fisherman and a smuggler.

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He was a man of action, not an intellectual, and it is said that his ideas derived from reading Kipling, Spencer, Darwin, Stevenson, Malthus, Marx, Poe and Nietzsche, lack consistency and precision: he accepted Darwinism and racism, prevalent during his time, but at the same time he was troubled that the “inevitable white man” would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered (in the South Seas). He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and married a New Woman (second wife, Charmian Kittredge) but was patriarchal toward his 2 wifes and daughters. He was a socialist but an individualist at heart, with a drive toward capitalist success. It is said that his self-taught and uninformed reading made of him a fervent socialist and a naïve fascist (because of his belief in the übermensch), but personally I disagree and think that it is quite a biased, oversimplistic and hyperbolic view, which partly prepare the ground for some of his works (for instance the one I present below). Besides, many “informed” writers, with a more extensive scholar background, have reached similar conclusions to those of Jack London.

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Jack London lived to the full and went to Alaska to try his luck during the gold rush in 1897-8, an experience which proved a failure as a means of becoming rich, but which was fertile in literary terms, as the experience provided him with material for a collection of short stories and a background for his novels related to the “Homo homini Lupus” concept. It was during his convalescence, as he came back ill, when he started massively reading and writing. His writings deal with human survival, nature and socialist topics.

He died on November 22nd 1916, at 40 in his Glen Ellen estate, and there’s a romantic legend concerning his death. It’s said that he committed suicide because he was suffering due to his kidney condition, although it hasn’t been proved. You may get contradictory information about this fact, depending on the source. Other sources state that he died of renal failure with gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.

Martin Eden

MartinEden

Martin Eden is a sturdy working class mate who has spared a young high-class woman, Ruth, from having a rough time by defending her and getting into a fist fight for her sake. She is so impressed with him, as he “saves” her, and she finds him so different to the kind of men she’s used to, that she invites him over to her house to thank him. There he meets her family and has a look at her surroundings, her upbringing and her library, above all a volume of poems by Swimburne.

He has his own intellectual curiosities and concerns even though he’s automatically regarded as an unambitious working class fellow who is not able to see beyond his limits. But as he puts it: “insularity of mind that makes human creatures believe that their color, creed and politics are best and right and that other human creatures scattered over the world are less fortunately placed than they”, which is of course wrong.

The young couple keep in touch and have long conversations, as couples do, and she seems to strive to change him. In the meantime, due to his monumental strong will, he manages to surpass his own limitations by working and studying at the same time, until he is finally able to publish (“He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live”). In the process, when he’s not known and he has to support himself by his physical work, the woman dismisses his works, but then her opinion changes as he manages to publish and gain a certain renown (“Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in his faith”).

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Then, he seems to be someone new for her, someone she can feel in awe of without feeling embarrassed; but this whole process had made him conscious of several painful truths: “Make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love” and “He knew now that he hadn’t really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, and ethereal creature” and that ethereal creature belong to another world, to the “bourgeois swine” who despised him.

In his journey he meets Brissenden, who also belongs to the upper-class but has somehow rebelled against it in his own way, as an individual against the masses, just like Eden has. He’s a physically weak person who lacks Eden’s will and knows it, and he strives for new thrills in life through drugs rather than through action. He’s a good friend for Eden though and they both manage to understand each other. Eden seem to be in the process of stepping into the nowhere’s land: slowly he discovers that those who once were his mates -working class people- are not so close to him now and fail to understand him, but he doesn’t belong with the bourgeoisie either.

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As an individual standing against the masses (“Herd-creatures, flocking together and patterning their lives by one another’s opinions, failing of being individuals”), even having achieved his goal, discovers that he is alone. His estrangement from Ruth, Brissenden’s death and his growing apart from his former mates, makes him become increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with life: (“I care for nothing. Something has gone out of me. I am empty of any desire for anything.”)

All this foreshadows the end:

“For too much love of living

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever,

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

Articles in November: A suggestion for builders of high-rises

They won’t stop until they make the planet look like a graveyard.

Realm of Empress Musie

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Well, everyone is writing nanowrimo this month, so no stories or poems, I will try something new for me, an article every day, they wont be in the same blog though, scattered all over my blogs, because I am afraid I will be dancing around the blogs till I am up to date and somehow I am quite sure that November will be over dancing around.

So, today’s article, feel free to tell me what you think of it!

” A suggestion for builders of high-rises”

How much it will take? Most probably very little, maybe 1 or 2 % of the entire plot bought by the promoters to build highrises for residential purpose.

Well, those building office buildings may skip the idea but those who are building homes may seriously think about it, for the sake of their flat owners, residents and mother earth.

The housing in which I…

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Nunca seremos los mismos

Inmigración. Encendemos la tele y ahí está. Nos repantingamos en nuestros sofás y vemos el cuerpecito sin vida de un bebé en la playa. Vemos el camión frigorífico aparcado a la orilla de una autopista, lleno de cadáveres, a la reportera húngara dando patadas a hombres, mujeres e incluso a niños. Vemos a las angustiadas familias caladas hasta los huesos bajo la lluvia, con sus hijos llorando a su lado, envueltos en bolsas de basura para evitar congelarse en la calle, ya que las autoridades les niegan un techo bajo el que cobijarse. Vemos a cincuenta personas en una lancha de goma cruzando el estrecho que separa África y Europa. Vemos las playas de Lampedusa, repletas de cuerpos abandonados allí por la marea, los cadáveres de aquellos que un día invirtieron todo cuanto tenían para comprar un billete a ninguna parte. Después, salimos a la calle y oímos: “ por qué no se quedan en su país”, “y eso qué tiene que ver conmigo”, “no me interesa”. Qué poca memoria tenemos…

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Foto 1: Españoles en un campo de concentración francés.

Foto 2: Inmigrantes “ilegalesespañoles capturados en Venezuela.

Es muy saludable ejercitar la memoria y la empatía, y eso es lo que hago, de mano del escritor González de la Cuesta.

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“Nunca seremos los mismos” cuenta la historia de varios personajes anónimos inolvidables como Manuel, Lola, Marga y Rodrigo, y la de otros no tan anónimos, como el afamado y querido poeta Antonio Machado y el presidente de la República, Manuel Azaña. Con “Nunca seremos los mismos” asistimos a los últimos días de Machado en Collioure, desmoralizado, roto. Vemos como la guerra convierte a España en un sitio peligroso para aquellos que formaron parte del bando perdedor y que fueron forzados al exilio para poder sobrevivir. Huyeron sólo para encontrarse con una Europa igualmente fragmentada, a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Y fueron rechazados y despreciados de igual manera por el gobierno francés, que no les dio una dulce bienvenida. Esta novela nos hace bajar de nuestra torre de marfil construida con el olvido y nos recuerda lo que se siente:

huían de su derrota, de la muerte que se cernía como una sombra sobre ellos como una sombra (…) y eso (…) les hacía sentirse como una piltrafa de la Historia. Porque ellos eran personas normales, profesionales que amaban su país, su familia y sus amigos (…)”

nada les produce tanta desolación como la contemplación (…) de miles de personas pugnando por atravesar la frontera (…) las autoridades francesas no están poniendo mucho de su parte por aliviar el sufrimiento de esas personas que sólo quieren un lugar donde vivir y estar seguros. Es más, parecen dispuestos a impedir la entrada masiva de españoles a su país (…) a golpe de culata, empujones, insultos (…)”.

Una vez penetras en el mundo de la diáspora, nada volverá a ser lo mismo. Tú nunca volverás a ser el mismo. Dejas atrás tu país e intentas adaptarte a uno nuevo, donde tu cultura y tu identidad son cuestionadas a cada paso, y cuanto más te adaptas -para poder sobrevivir-, más te separas de tu hogar. Esto es aún más agudo en el caso del exilio motivado por un conflicto bélico. Tú cambias, pero tu país lo hace de una forma drástica, dramática, sin vuelta atrás.

Estas experiencias son vividas por Manuel, Rodrigo y Marga. Dejan su país para no volver, porque aquel país que conocían y amaban ha desaparecido para siempre. Junto a ellos sentimos la aguda punzada de dolor por tan inmensa pérdida, su lucha denodada por sobrevivir y su gran determinación. En su periplo se enfrentan no sólo al rechazo experimentado en Francia, sino que en su camino lleno de dignidad e iniciativa, también hay lugar para la solidaridad y el apoyo transnacional proveniente de ciudadanos anónimos que cobrarán un gran significado en sus vidas: Viveka, Mss.Cameron, Pilar… La crueldad y la indiferencia que muestran las autoridades de los países por los que pasan contrasta con la actitud de las personas de a pie, como suele suceder siempre.

Las ciudades por las que van pasando están descritas a la perfección, y uno puede imaginarse en ellas, a finales de la década de los años 30 y principio de los 40, en una Europa convulsa y en Estados Unidos durante el ataque a Pearl Harbour. Prosiguen, inasequibles al desaliento, con sus vidas, pero algo se ha roto en su interior y sufren la angustia de quien ha sido arrancado de raíz de su hogar y expuesto a la incertidumbre de una vida nueva.
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Sí, hemos estado en la misma lancha de goma, compartiendo el mismo espíritu que conduce a todos aquellos que huyen de la atrocidad. Y no hace tanto tiempo de aquello. De la huída de un país herido de muerte, de la violación sistemática de los derechos humanos básicos, del hambre y de la muerte, de un conflicto fratricida. Éramos ellos. Y nuestras cunetas dan buena cuenta de ello, aún repletas de cadáveres de aquellos que -como Lola- no pudieron cruzar la frontera y fueron ejecutados y enterrados ahí mismo, en fosas comunes. Están por toda España. Justo ahí, bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques, en los prados. Y, como dice esa famosa frase de Jorge Santayana, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo». Es bueno no olvidar. Recordemos.

Día de difuntos de 2015, en recuerdo de todos aquellos que continúan bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques y en los prados.