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Boom Crash Opera

Shadow-boxing the culture bubble

“From every corner of the earth where the unfettered industrial system was grinding out the raw materials for wealth, crushing men’s bones, parching their blood, following them in a perpetual orgy of chicane and debauchery, came the onrushing flood of pennies pilfered from the poor, from the ignorant and from the savages, from indentured slaves who treaded the death mill to beat a rhythm to the saturnalia of America’s unbridled profits.”

Thus did Kansas Republican and one-time Hoover man William Allen White recall the great bull market that lifted off in 1927 and crashed rather unceremoniously two years later. True, White, one of the decade’s great reformers and journalists, had always kept a certain moral and political loyalty to his political coming-of-age during the Progressive era, but it’s nonetheless striking to ponder how peremptorily the business boosterism of the 1920s curdled into rhetoric that might well have made Marx himself blush. White delivered his thunderous judgment, by the way, not in some street-corner anarchist tract, but in a sympathetic political biography of President Calvin Coolidge, the stiff New Englander who silently fidgeted while the economic order burned.

Now, of course, we have pretty much banished the thought of White’s death mill and its tenders, and we congratulate ourselves that we would never have the bad taste, if we were to remember them, to do so with such pejorative terms as “ignorant” and “savages.” Indeed, the whole industrial system has, in the popular mind, been magically effaced, and the historical table reset with the goblets and aliments of Information Age capitalism. Wealth is now created in suburban office parks, pleasantly minded by the Dockers-clad geeks and engineers who preside over the end of history. Who, after all, could picture aw-shucks Microsoft supremo Bill Gates in an orgy of chicane and debauchery?

However, the unquiet shade of the twenties is not staying put. Its shimmering surface—that high old time of flappers, speakeasies, hopheads, and jazz fanciers—exerts a continuing fascination among our keepers of the zeitgeist. Nostalgic cable channels program “1920s weeks” and ads for Beefeater gin taunt, “There was a decade called the Roaring Twenties. What will yours be called?”

Happy Days Are Where, Again?

But it’s in the field of economic prognostication that the twenties have their most persistent cachet. In a recent cover story on “The New Rich,” Newsweek christened our own purblind time of greed and info-idolatry “the Roaring Nineties” and confidently declared that the bull market is “making instant billionaires—and changing America.” Of course, Newsweek’s frantic bandwagon-hopping raises certain suspicions about its own grasp of history: It was only last year, after all, that the magazine ran a downsizing cover with the crypto-Buchananite headline “corporate killers”—and it would obviously be too much for the zeitgeist-happy Newsweek brain trust to pause and reflect that the new ranks of “Microsoft millionaires” have seen their investor returns skyrocket thanks to the killing sprees of downsizing CEOs.

Newsweek, in any event, only brings up the rear of the sanguine permaboom parade. In fact, the financial press has been boosting the inviting tableau of unruffled, perpetual prosperity since the current bull market took off in 1995. And of course the most blinding reveries of pelf ascendant come from that tireless exponent of Information Age capitalism, Wired magazine. Wired’s massive July cover story plumbs “The Long Boom,” a conceit hatched by Wired features editor Peter Leyden and Peter Schwartz, doyen of the Global Business Network—a visionary think tank of the digiterati that boasts among its members such cyberseers as Stewart Brand, William Gibson, Laurie Anderson, and Brian Eno.

The countless cracked details of the Schwartz and Leyden scenario don’t bear repeating. Mainly, “The Long Boom” is a wish list for an info-imperium, a society in which all sectors of life cop the same techno-buzz and spontaneously do things like devise “a new information-age standard of measuring economic growth” and “begin to shift from hierarchical processes to networked ones.” Imagine Newsweek’s own feel-good economic columnist Robert Samuelson drooling over his fortieth bong hit, and you begin to get the picture.

“Building a digital civilization” is, indeed, Wired’s new unofficial slogan, its former task of shepherding the “digital revolution” into being evidently a fait accompli. You’d think that a company that has twice failed to mount a credible IPO in today’s overheated stock market might have other worries than launching a global mission civilatrice. But daft as it is, this clamor over civilization and communications technology claims a wide cultural ambit in contemporary America: House Speaker Newt Gingrich has nattered tirelessly on the inestimable virtues of “American civilization,” the mandate to spread it indiscriminately and the grave threats that Great Society social engineering poses to it. And of course, techno-utopianism is rife in every nook and cranny of American commerce and culture. Indeed, Schwartz and Leyden might as well have cribbed the title of their Long Boom manifesto from Mel’s current Internet ad campaign: “Is this a great time, or what?”


Here, in fact, the notion of a resurgent twenties culture starts to get rather interesting. We can blow a salutary shotgun out of Schwartz and Leyden’s history bong by noting that the twenties were much obsessed with parallel questions of communication and civilization, even as they were steeped in equally foolish prophecies of a permanent prosperity.

Where do such preoccupations come from? One likely source is a striking, and feverishly repressed, instability in the distribution of the largesse kicked up in the wake of great speculative booms. In economic terms, no recent era in American history bears a greater resemblance to our own than the twenties does, mixing runaway growth in the paper economy with ever-steepening social inequality underneath.

The Culture Sublimation

Yet then, as now, few Americans were greatly exercised over, or even aware of, the downward ratcheting of the citizenry’s comparative economic advantage. Instead, they clamored—then, as now—about crises of cultural self-definition. The “great fear” of the twenties, historian Warren Susman writes, was “whether any great industrial and democratic mass society can maintain a significant level of civilization, and whether mass education and mass communication will allow any civilization to survive.” Strewn atop the squalor of the era’s inequality, in other words, was the elastic scrim of culture, beneath which the unaddressed issues of the day got rearranged into various grand and unedifying questions of civilization’s destiny.

Cultural conflict is at least as old as the American republic.

Indeed, as Susman argues, the era developed a certain Hegelian mania for fusing the talismans of civilization atop the sprawling infrastructures of communications. Hence the mad rush to catalogue and popularize most fields of knowledge, chiefly through imposing tomes such as H.G. Wells’s Outline of History; the reverent Art Deco palaces erected as monuments to the mass-disseminated miracles of the motion picture and the automobile; the fevered excitement of intellectuals over the modernist dispensation, captured, for example, in the lapsed preacher Vachel Lindsay’s celebration of America’s new “hieroglyphic civilization.”

But such questions of cultural-cum-civilizational meaning permeated far beyond the keepers of higher culture and practitioners of high modernism who people Susman’s argument. The twenties were in fact every bit as much a decade of runaway popular Kulturkampf as they were an era of thinly distributed prosperity. Indeed, we can say that the decade inaugurated an arresting leitmotif in modern American history. Call it the Culture Bubble: the inflation of the terms of cultural debate as conditions of social inequality teeter on the brink of intolerability.

Cultural conflict is at least as old as the American republic, as any cursory look at Puritan election-day sermons will quickly confirm. Yet in their modern-to-postmodern incarnation, the Culture Wars—the paint-by-numbers ritual in which the warring parties trade accusations of depravity, repression, and historical obsolescence, with the state usually conscripted to referee—made their bones in the twenties. Fundamentalists railed against evolution; eugenicists, Klansmen, and patrician pseudoscientists inveighed against runaway immigration and racial mongrelizing; the Wilsonian apostles of civilized uplift conspired with the heavily feminized ranks of religious crusaders to produce Prohibition; less genteel official reactionaries weighed in with still cruder measures of sociopolitical control, such as the Palmer raids against foreign-born radicals and stalwart employer-friendly campaigns against union organizing; the New Woman and the Lost Generation marked the first appearance of the twentieth century’s Great Amoral Youth Question; jazz, radio, and the popular cinema all furnished incontrovertible evidence to scores of bush-league Spenglers that the long slide into barbarism was under way; the growth of the automobile, modern advertising and a commercialized mass culture erased the incorrigible regionalism and parochialism of America’s rural village life, prompting intellectuals such as Sinclair Lewis and Robert and Helen Lynd into fervid denunciations of small-town homogeneity and lodge-brother groupthink.

One could go through this litany and glibly substitute latter-day civilizing themes and culture crusades into the templates the twenties left behind: The war on drugs and antismoking hysteria for Prohibition; the V-chip for the Hays Code; The Bell Curve for Madison Grant’s Perils of the Great Race; Generation X for the Lost Generation; Fargo for Main Street; Buchananite immigration hysteria for Klan-led immigration hysteria; and fundamentalism for, well, fundamentalism. Yet such one-to-one correspondences only elide the key, broader point regarding the Culture Bubble: These elaborate contretemps over the culture’s robustness and behavior-policing efficacy are rarely about the country’s real troubles or much of anything at all. Indeed, they furnish the compass by which the embarrassing, discomfiting matters of social class can be endlessly skirted.

This point can be nailed down, with reference both to that distant Roaring time and our own present one, with a few bracing statistics. Surveying the economic changes wrought during the twenties, historian Robert McElvaine notes that as the decade ended, 0.1 percent of the population—some 24,000 families—enjoyed an income equivalent to that of 42 percent of the American population—or 11.2 million families. From 1920 to 1929, aggregate American disposable income rose by 9 percent, while among the top one percent of the population it rose by 75 percent—from 12 percent of the nation’s total in 1920 to 19 percent in 1929. The distribution of wealth—stocks, equity, and savings—was even more upwardly skewed. By 1929, the top 0.5 percent of the population controlled 32.4 percent of individual net wealth in America—the highest such concentration in American history.

Until now, anyway. Even though all the returns aren’t in from the current bull market—which will only accelerate current trends—all the indications suggest, as Business Week economists William Wolman and Anne Colamosca argue, that the nineties have “witnessed a concentration of wealth that is without historical precedent in the United States,” making the upward consolidation of wealth in the twenties “only a pallid prelude.” Between 1983 and 1992, the top one percent of Americans increased their net wealth by a whopping 28.3 percent; in the same period median wealth declined by 8.1 percent, and the bottom forty percent of the population lost 49.7 percent of its net wealth.

The landscape of American enterprise in the nineties remains, despite its many new info-bells and whistles, a playground of unprosecuted leviathans and trusts. Just as Andrew Mellon (who played both sides of the street as an aluminum baron and the Harding-Coolidge Secretary of Treasury) has his nineties analog in Goldman Sachs don/Treasury boss Robert Rubin, so does Henry Ford, who lorded over the dominant growth industry of his day, beg comparisons with Bill Gates. Likewise, entire industries—from Gates’s software empire to the merger-happy military, aerospace, media, and entertainment complexes—are effectively controlled by a handful of cartelized players, much as utilities, banking, and oil were seventy-odd years ago.

Cartelization proves in all ages to be unquestionably good for business—or rather for the charmed circle of business owners. From 1923 to 1929, the income of workers inched up by 11 percent. That may look positively socialistic next to today’s labor-soaking economic order—but only until one notes that over the same period corporate profits rose by a staggering 62 percent, and dividends shot up 65 percent. And while the book has yet to be closed on our own decade, this parallel, too, is unmistakable: The Economic Policy Institute notes that corporate profit rates took off in 1986, and have been rising steadily ever since. Nineteen ninety-six saw the greatest boost in the rate of both before- and after-tax corporate profits (11.39 percent and 7.57 percent, respectively) since record-keeping began in 1959.

“War” Stocks
Pretty Vacant

It’s not hard to see why, in a social order as resolutely individualist as America’s, these rather straightforward matters of distributive injustice get sublimated, as it were, into inherently insoluble matters of cultural identity. This isn’t to say that all culture is reducible to material inequality, as the yeoman Marxist oversimplifications of base and superstructure blithely assume. But it is arresting to ponder the ways in which submerged grievances of class send American discourses of culture and morality into a curiously weightless kind of hyperspace.

In part, of course, social inequality makes only the most muffled peep amid the tumult of America’s great cultural barbecue for quite obvious reasons. The myth of classlessness is the most reverently enshrined article of our social faith. There are no savagely truncated life opportunities or bitterly marginalized outcastes in American social mythology—only entrepreneurs waiting to happen. Thus popular discussions of poverty in America almost never engage the core questions of blighted, rapidly resegregating urban schools or industrial employers that gleefully decamp from urban neighborhoods for cut-rate labor markets in the developing world. Instead, they chase the ever-receding tails of the “culture of poverty” and underclass debates, which open obligingly onto the great question of how best to police the black family.

But critical distinctions between class and culture stubbornly elude us, since the inviolate logic of the Culture Bubble is, in many ways, the story of the past American Century: Time and again, steepening class polarization sends American public discourse a-dithering into queries over What It Means To Be An American. We seek to shore up the edifice of unfair life outcomes with the crumbling mortar of behavioral reform.

That Julia Louis-Dreyfus always seemed a little too stuck up, and didn’t Jim Carrey ditch his first wife?

To help maintain this airtight state of denial, moreover, the news media willfully veer from any material touching on the public weal. Frederick Lewis Allen, one of the twenties’ ablest chroniclers, writes that the era of Coolidge prosperity stands out in historical memory for “the unparalleled rapidity and unanimity with which millions of men and women turned their attention, their talk, and their emotional interest upon a series of tremendous trifles—a heavyweight boxing match, a murder trial, a new automobile model, a transatlantic flight.” These interests were stirred, as it happens, by a media industry that, like its latter-day counterpart, was consolidating its institutional ranks as it multiplied its audience: The number of newspapers dropped from 2,580 in 1914 to 2,001 in 1926, as their readers shot up from 28 to 36 million. By 1927, fifty-five newspaper chains controlled two hundred thirty papers with a combined circulation of 13 million.

Today, as the income gap widens to an unprecedented scale, we have again watched the money culture modulate into so much celebrity planespotting. Global financial markets may shudder and once-secure, unionized workforces may spiral into temp and part-time limbo, but we worry that surly White Sox slugger Albert Belle may not be worth $55 million, that maybe Jim Carrey isn’t hilarious enough to merit $20 million a picture, or that Elaine, Kramer, and company—our Seinfeld buddies—might be overpaid at $400,000 an episode. These celebrity glyphs allow us to formulate nonthreatening judgments on individual character—that Julia Louis-Dreyfus always seemed a little too stuck up, and didn’t Jim Carrey ditch his first wife?— in lieu of asking whether it’s patently delusional to imagine that eight-figure incomes can be “deserved” in the first place. Or, for that matter, asking just what the culture of celebritism is doing in the forefront of national consciousness.

Celebritism, indeed, provides a key reading of the Culture Bubble’s progress. The degree to which questions of personality subsume substantive political debate roughly corresponds to our impatience with the more ponderous matters of social equity. In the early twenties the American farm economy was plunged into a decade-plus depression by the postwar boom in European credit and the concomitant deflation of commodity prices, but Washington stolidly hewed to the laissez-faire-mal line in deference to the stock market’s keepers. The farm relief measures that managed to pass through Congress were dutifully vetoed by President Coolidge as intemperate meddling with the market. The consequences? Rural America’s plight was magically distilled into H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis’s hectoring of the booboisie (and allied celebrations of the “civilized minority”) or Klan/lodge-brother mobilizations of bigotry. The great symbolic clash between rural and urban civilization climaxed in 1925 with a stage-managed sociodrama in Dayton, Tennessee, where William Jennings Bryan debated evolution on a courthouse lawn with big-city agnostic Clarence Darrow.

“Peace” Stocks

Now consider, in our own day, the many efficacious uses of celebritism for short-circuiting political debate. Why should we demand crackdowns on the new global sweatshop’s subcontractors, as long as Kathy Lee did enough damage control for her clothing line to start feeling perky again? Why should feminist writers agonize over comparable worth or daycare, when we’ve got Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf, and Karen Lehrman clamoring over the fine points of dating or “the lipstick proviso”? Few people today remember that 1992’s great “Murphy Brown” flap was not merely a symbolic controversy over single motherhood, but Dan Quayle’s official pronouncement on the causes of the L.A. riots. That the federal government’s most sustained response to the second greatest civil disturbance in American history could be a fight picked with a television character speaks volumes about the suction power of the Culture Bubble. Candidate Bill Clinton made his own statement on race that same long, daft summer by picking a fight with a rap artist.

Five besotted years later, we don’t find it at all unusual that our discussions of race are principally shaped by perceptions of a celebrity murder trial, that our first lady should chide a motion picture character for smoking on screen, that the scale of Bill Gates’s estate commands more attention than the collapse of federal inner-city housing or that a princess who was evidently not versed in the operations of a seatbelt becomes a postmodern saint.

Enterprises such as George magazine are, of course, premised on the notion that celebrity culture and political discourse are identical—a claim it sought to demonstrate recently by publishing photos of its talentless avatar, JFK Jr., in the virtual buff. Meanwhile, in an entirely apt grace note to the forward march of celebritism, the only recent successful defense of liberalism in the marketplace of ideas was a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot—penned, of course, by a TV personality.

The Right-to-Lifestyle Movement

But another coefficient of the Culture Bubble is a general exhaustion of political ideas. Every history of the decade notes that the charming, gregarious nitwit Warren Harding inadvertently christened the twenties a time of “normalcy,” misreading the word “normality” in his inauguration speech. What is less widely noted is that the substance of the speech itself called for the burial of Progressivism, widely discredited as the liberal dogma of social experimentation that led to the catastrophe of the Great War. Rededicating the Republic to its historic “concern for preserved civilization,” Harding warned that “our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government” and pronounced the mandate to keep wages and prices within their “normal balances.” This meant trusting the “unmistakable” momentum of “the forward course of the business cycle” and, naturally, “the omission of unnecessary interference of Government with business” and “an end to Government’s experiment in business.” Harding’s laconic successor Calvin Coolidge stopped all the flowery talk of civilization and cut to the chase, pronouncing redundantly that “the business of America is business.”

In our age, of course, liberalism, rather than Progressivism, has become the great untouchable political doctrine, a bacillus to be vigilantly quarantined in the gleaming laboratory of global business civilization. Clinton’s declaration in his 1995 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” was every bit the valentine to Wall Street—and confession of intellectual bankruptcy—that Coolidge’s tautologies and Harding’s paeans to civilized normalcy were in their day.

Citizens in need, in short, have become the moral equivalent of trick-or-treaters.

Clintonism has made good on the rhetoric of Government Lite, and not only through such blunt and unlovely means as the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 (another nice touch, this—defenestrating federal entitlements to millions of impoverished mothers and children with disciplinary culturespeak about individual “responsibility”). Indeed, the Clinton era will likely be remembered as the time when government wandered around like a bored child on a rainy Saturday, dreaming up busywork to make itself feel like it was up to something important. Entire sectors of public life have been dumbed down into miniature culture crusades in increasingly flailing efforts to bulk up and define a postideological presidency. Education, in many ways the mother of all contemporary American inequalities, is given the digital civilization treatment—glib national-standards rhetoric and millennial talk of VDTs on every desktop—as school infrastructure crumbles and urban districts hemorrhage away their tax bases. Racism is to be assuaged with official apologies and a national “conversation.” Teen anomie is to be micromanaged with feel good measures such as drivers’ license drug tests and the V-chip. Citizens in need, in short, have become the moral equivalent of trick-or-treaters, dismissed at the door with paternal good wishes (or perhaps a lecture and an apology) and a fistful of morsels that will, likely as not, rot their teeth.

The forces of dissent, meanwhile, nicely fit the sobriquet that reformer Walter Weyl in 1921 used to describe the spent Progressives of his age: “tired radicals.” Indeed, they have become the great tenders of the nineties’ culture wars, devoting incalculably more attention to the symbolic defense of the National Endowment for the Arts than they have to the defense of the great shrinking welfare state. Curricular requirements at elite universities, or the tediously rehashed legacies of the sixties New Left campus revolt, invite more sustained comment among the left intelligentsia than wage inequality, strikes, or the explosion of the global sweatshop. As often as not, in fact, the global market’s rhetoric of shopping-as-liberation is indistinguishable from our atrophied Left’s allegiance to Lifestylismus—which is how an enterprise like Wired can simultaneously shill for global capitalism and brandish a nominally alternative, even revolutionary, edge.

Age When Hired by Company

Indeed, much of altcult politics nowadays has fallen, like the aesthetic and literary revolts of the twenties, into a facile, reflexive market libertarianism, which revolves around the classic libertarian aim of securing the optimal conditions of faux-daring self-expression. In the nineties Culture Bubble, this unfortunately reduces to the curious exercise of counterposing “new” media literacy and corporate brand allegiance to the straw demonology of cultural censorship. Today’s cyber rebels trumpet their heroic exploits against the Helmses and Bennetts of our age, much as the bohemians of the twenties fancied themselves a fearless insurgency, scandalizing a nation of Comstocks and Protestant bluenoses with their ethos of literary realism and sexual liberation.

Even more unfortunately, Wired again provides the paradigmatic example of revolutionary cyberpraxis, via the labors of its in-house prophet of political culture, Jon Katz. A former CBS news producer and NYU journalism school professor, Katz plies a vision of the republic eerily well-suited to the twenties campaign of self-styled literary radicals against a largely mythical Puritan culture. “Culture is politics” to today’s young cyber-insurgents, Katz announces in his Digital Age manifesto, Virtuous Reality, which bears the fearless, incendiary subtitle, “How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits, and Blockheads Like William Bennett.”

Katz’s estimation of the digital era’s numberless virtues is every bit as nuanced and complicated as his reading of the culture wars. Tirelessly apostrophizing the “revolutionary,” “free,” and “democratic” virtues of the digital age, Katz detects samizdat rebellion bursting out of every e-mail account—he even, with embarrassing attention to detail, succumbs to a prolonged reverie of Revolutionary pamphleteer Tom Paine as a Web surfer. But since all the great Web controversies seem to take place within the terms of the Culture Bubble, the exercise of telling rude and liberating truths to power seems to concern matters a tad less world-historic than the questions that preoccupied Tom Paine. “The young have a moral right of access to the machinery and content of media and culture,” Katz thunders, as though the central target demographic of the entire culture industry had been banished overnight by William Bennett into internment camps littered with books and broken radios. “Kids should not have to battle for the right to watch MTV,” Katz goes on to declare, with admirable precision. Only in the giddy precincts of the Culture Bubble could the most banal of consumer choices—the freedom to watch frenetically edited advertisements—be worked up into a constitutive political “right.” Nearly as laughable, if they weren’t so poignantly empty, are the shibboleths that, for Katz, comprise the “powerful sense of moral purpose” that, uh, “powers” digital culture: “Information wants to be free, individuals have the right to express themselves.” Gee, that is revolutionary.

Whether it’s Katz’s hectoring, or the Ayn Randish literary stylings of “Silicon Valley” novelist Po Bronson, or the countless cinematic, sitcom, and indie rock productions that baptize gadget-happy entrepreneurs as latter-day Dantons, the Culture Bubble has quietly spread its gossamer casement around every conceivable outpost of would-be rebellion. In point of fact, of course, the matrix of prosperity in our own speculative times is nearly identical to the brutish global repression that William Allen White denounced with, to our ears, quaint moral outrage: Capital treads nimbly across more and more of the globe, romancing and discarding ever cheaper labor markets and in the process consigning even the once comfortable middle class to downward wage pressure and chronic job insecurity. It took a global economic cataclysm for reformers like White to regain their voice in the wake of the twenties Culture Bubble; everyone of the great questions that had recently exercised public opinion, from the revolt against literary gentility to the Prohibition crusade suddenly became embarrassingly puerile.

It’s unlikely, of course, that a class-minded cease-fire is in the cards in our fin-de-siècle culture wars. So it probably behooves us to consider another, harsher verdict that the forward march of history levied upon another of the age’s famed political unfortunates. Lincoln Steffens has won no small amount of infamy for pronouncing his wildly sanguine appraisal of the Soviet Union in the thirties: “I have seen the future, and it works.” It has been far less eagerly recorded that in 1928 he, too, was a Hoover man.