Here's part 6....
Part 6: Despite setbacks, Modernism thrives
What is significant is that the First World War did not kill modernism. For a while, the rebellion against it seemed limited largely to religion and the arts.
(Ironically, both decadent artists - pushing the limits with prurient content - and the prudish conservatives who rail against them, are allies at a deeper level, united against any notion that the future might be a good and desirable destination, subject to intelligent design. It is an alliance we see today, between anti-science fanatics of both left and right. Between those who rage in order to offend conventional normality and those obsessed with defending it. What they share is a detestation of calm, rational, and inexorable reform.)
Despite rumblings among the intellectual elite and from ten thousand pulpits, even the Great Depression did little to dampen the belief of millions that human sagacity and problem solving could get to the heart of matters and make things better. Only now, in the Third Age of modernism, there was more cynicism. The blithe trust that Astor and others gave to a monied aristocracy - belief in top-down entrepreneurial innovation managed by capitalists - had been rocked first by war profiteering and then Depression mismanagement.
After the Treaty of Versailles, modernist thinking swung away from faith in entrepreneurs, turning instead to ideological prescriptions for how the modernist efforts should be organized. Variations on Marxism were attractive to millions, offering incantations that sounded oh-so scientific. But other schemes also flowed from ten thousand pens, presses and fervid imaginations. To many, it seemed obvious that socialism offered a better, more rationally-planned approach, than tossing greedy capitalists into a market stewpot with seething, angry workers and hoping for the best.
Of course, the nastiest version of this turn toward socialist-modernism was German Nazism. But the Grand Deceit of Stalin’s Soviet Union - masking horrors while pushing newsreels of glorious dams - also fooled millions in the West, for some time.
In America, the extravagant ideologies of Marx and Hitler never took hold, but a less ideological social-modernism did tickle the public’s fancy. In 1932 the Technocracy Movement got attention in magazines and on radio. It was the brainchild of Howard Scott, who suggested that engineers be given a chance to do things right. Replace capital with brains. Give the smartest a chance to do the allocating, for a change. Trust the people best equipped to apportion resources fairly and well. Move goods from where they are glutted to where they will do the most good on a supply-need basis. Give all citizens shares in USA Inc. and then simply do whatever is pragmatically needed. Socialism without ideology or oppression. A similar approach is illustrated by H. G. Wells in his novel Things to Come.
Fortunately, technocracy was never fully implemented, or modernism would not have survived the inevitable miscalculations, disasters and disenchantment. As we learned from the collapse of “Japan Inc.” during the late 1980s, nobody knows how to allocate a society’s bewildering array of talents and resources from a plan. Certainly not in a complex peacetime economy. To even imagine that it’s possible is romantic mythology. In this sense, the believers in market magic proved right, after all. (There are other ways in which they appear to be wrong.)
FDR’s more tepid approach to modernist stimulation did help ease the Depression and restored some public confidence. It featured many projects that expressed can do in ways that did incremental good, without plunging into a weird, ideological experiment.
Still, it took war -- a time when technocratic allocation works pretty well, because it is applied toward a simple, ferocious end -- for a version of Scott’s idea to achieve real magic. (That is, a war backed by a unified public, by moral consensus, and an aristocracy willing to help pay for it.) And while a war economy is not a good model for a general economy, it certainly mobilized everyone to defeat fascism.
It was a war both fought and won under principles of modernism, implemented by George Marshall, the greatest pragmatist since Franklin. And, inarguably, the nation that emerged from WWII was vastly stronger than the one that entered.
on to part 7...