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Society in The Great Depression

Collapse Without Revolution

For more than a decade, the American people endured a pitiless, hardscrabble life, victimized by the structural collapse of the American economic system. Millions of American workers wanted jobs but couldn't find them. Millions of American businessmen needed customers but didn't have them. The broken economic system failed them all.

In other countries, similar economic crises had caused revolutions. (Lenin's Russian Revolution in 1917 and Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933 both came amidst economic disarray.) Yet, in America, despite the seeming failure of the long-established capitalist system during the Great Depression, there was no revolution.

Why not?

Apathetic Revolutionaries

By the end of Herbert Hoover's presidency, the American people had endured more than three years of ever-deepening economic crisis, and neither the free market nor the federal government had proven able to solve the problem of the Great Depression.

By the time of the bleak winter of 1932-33—which in retrospect proved to be the Depression's darkest hour—Americans were beginning to openly ask whether they might have a revolution. Yet, as the widely read journalist Elmer Davis noticed, they asked the question "apathetically, as if nothing they might do could either help it or hinder it." And apathetic revolutions usually aren't revolutions at all.19

Structural Failure, Individual Blame

Americans reacted to the breakdown of the American economic system less with revolutionary fervor than with stoic resignation, self-castigation, and, well, depression. As historian David M. Kennedy has written, the Great Depression "revealed one of the perverse implications of American society's vaunted celebration of individualism. In a culture that ascribed all success to individual striving, it seemed to follow axiomatically that failure was due to individual inadequacy."20

The American people, even as they endured the ravages of a failed system, blamed themselves.

In the early days of the Roosevelt administration, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins dispatched Lorena Hickok—journalist, close confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt, and perhaps also the First Lady's lesbian lover21—to travel around the country to report on the conditions of life for ordinary Americans four years into the Depression. Amidst the appalling poverty and destitution that had swept the land, Hickok found old attitudes that had not adjusted to the changed realities of the Great Depression.

"I'm Just No Good, I Guess"

In North Dakota, where ecological misfortune and market failure made it all but impossible for farmers to support themselves, Hickok encountered relief officials "inclined still to think there is something wrong with a man who cannot make a living. They talk so much about 'the undeserving' and 'the bums.'"22 This attitude—ascribing macroeconomic failure to individual faults—was common not only among those giving out the dole, but also among those receiving it. In Texas, Hickok encountered a college-educated schoolteacher, left unemployed after her school district went bankrupt, who told her, "If, with all the advantages I've had, I can't make a living, I'm just no good, I guess."23

Intellectually, plenty of Americans recognized that individuals' inadequacies could hardly be blamed for the collective misery of the Great Depression. Reading Hickok's reports back in Washington, Harry Hopkins remarked: "Three or four million heads of households don't turn into tramps and cheats overnight, nor do they lose the habits and standards of a lifetime... They don't drink any more than the rest of us, they don't lie any more, they're no lazier than the rest of us.... An eighth or a tenth of the earning population does not change its character which has been generations in the molding, or, if such a change actually occurs, we can scarcely charge it up to personal sin."24

But deeply held cultural attitudes die hard, and even if most Americans could accept the rationality of Hopkins's argument, they still felt like Hickok's Texas schoolteacher. And, needless to say, "I'm just no good, I guess" was not an attitude that lent itself to revolutionary action.

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