The drawn-out decay of the capitalist class

Richard Overy’s splendid new book on the ‘morbid age’ of the 1920s and 30s sheds light on the emergence of a profound crisis of confidence amongst the bourgeoisie – a crisis that has never quite gone away.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘I’ve enough sense to see that the old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots’, explains the narrator of George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming up for Air. ‘There are millions of others like me’, he continues, ‘[o]rdinary chaps that I meet everywhere, chaps I run into in pubs, bus drivers, and travelling salesmen for hardware firms, have got a feeling that the world’s gone wrong. They can feel things cracked and collapsing under their feet’.

As historian Richard Overy shows in his splendid The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, this sense of menace, of a threat latent in the social subsoil, dominated the interwar imagination. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Overy contends, public discourse on anything from science to economics was refracted through the prism of a crisis of civilisation, a tale of grand historical decline that defined the era.

‘Is civilisation decaying?’ asked the Fabian Society in a series of public lectures in 1923. Few were capable of an optimistic response. While the author HG Wells was issuing endless jeremiads against a civilisation grown rank, last-days-of-Rome despair had found a voluble vent in the form of historian Arnold Toynbee. ‘The modern Western Civilisation’, he told a packed London School of Economics lecture hall in 1939, ‘is likely, on the showing of all the precedents… to break down and disintegrate and finally dissolve’. As critic Geoffrey West observed in 1933, the ‘collapse of civilisation’, once a ‘turnip-headed bogey phrase’, was now a matter for serious intellectuals to mull over, asking not ‘whether’ but ‘when’.

The pessimism was far from groundless. The First World War had left Britain, once the predominant global power, facing an uncertain future. Pre-1914, its empire made it the largest trading economy, and the third largest manufacturing economy, in the world. The 1920s and early 30s, however, witnessed steady economic decline, punctuated only by upheaval, including the General Strike of 1926 and the great crash of 1929. Morally, spiritually, something seemed to have broken also – society seemed bereft of purpose, of direction, other than down. The brutalising experience of the First World War, the mass unemployment of the 1920s and 30s, with no welfare to cushion the impoverishment… all of it seemed to point to a way of life and a social order that could no longer be sustained.

The First World War marked the rupture, the point after which there was no going back. Writing in 1939, Bloomsbury group patriarch Leonard Woolf reflected: ‘In those [pre-1914] days there was an ordered way of life, a law, a temple and a city – a civilisation of sorts.’ But by end of the war there was just ‘hatred, fear and self-preservation’. The poet Siegfried Sassoon echoed Woolf’s nostalgia: ‘What a peaceful world it was! And what a bullying, barbarian world it is now!’

In The Morbid Age, however, Overy refuses to take a portrait such as this at face value. This sense of a civilisation in crisis, decaying, declining, collapsing – such words littered interwar culture like statements of the self-evident – was not a passive reflection of the reality faced by politicians, intellectuals, artists, scientists and so on. Although there were problems confronting a society racked by war and recession in the 1920s and 1930s, the ‘concepts, metaphors and language’ that informed this broader sense of a civilisation imperilled, of an impending Dark Ages, had developed a ‘reality of [their] own’. The sense of an ending seemed to eclipse more sober comprehension. What Overy attempts to do, using pamphlets, books, journals, diaries and lectures, is to show how this sense of crisis permeated every aspect of public discourse from economics to science.

Yet as meticulous and well-written as it is, The Morbid Age seems almost to escape its author’s intentions. Throughout, Overy seems worried that the era he’s laying bare in all its disillusioned delusion is mainly that of the elites, that the grand obsessions of Labour MP Oswald ‘Tom’ Mosely or the we’re-all-neurotic-now musings of Freud’s least-favourite fan Ernest Jones had, in reality, little purchase on the minds of the ‘employed householder in the new suburban housing of the 1930s’ able to buy a small car and a radio, and go on holiday each year’.

To counter this suspicion, Overy stuffs his analysis with statistics: numbers of copies sold, numbers of members, numbers of subscribers, numbers of attendees. In total, it’s meant to add up to popular influence. There’s a touch a desperation to this, as if Overy is a little too keen to show that what he’s analysing are indeed the popular ideas of the time. And to an extent he’s right about the popularity, or, better still, the dominance of the end-is-nigh sentiment: a sense that change was approaching, catastrophic or otherwise, was indeed widespread. In the words of the poet James Russell, quoted at the beginning of Walter Greenwood’s bestselling 1933 novel Love on the Dole, ‘The time is ripe, and rotten ripe, for change; / then let it come…’

Yet Overy’s focus is not really on the lives and outlook of those 3.25million on the dole, nor, indeed, those millions of citizens – some demanding radical change, others keener to keep what they’ve got – beyond; for instance, the Bloomsbury group. And this is no bad thing. For what Overy actually provides is not so much an anatomy of the popular as of the ruling ideas of the time. And this makes The Morbid Age invaluable. It provides nothing less than a portrait of the ideological crisis of the bourgeoisie, a snapshot of a ruling elite losing its ability to rule. Everything it held dear was now in question. It might not have been a crisis of civilisation per se, but it was certainly a crisis of bourgeois civilisation.

If economic crises and the emergence of workers’ movements in Britain and abroad during the nineteenth century had left the bourgeoisie’s articles of faith, from a liberal free-market ideal to accompanying notions of progress, more than a little frayed, then such things were in tatters by the 1920s and 30s. Where the free market had once promised growth and prosperity, it now produced war and unrest; where there was once civilised advance, there was now decline and barbarity. From the perspective of the British ruling elite the future did indeed look bleak. Little wonder that Toynbee’s contention that Western civilisation was decaying due to ‘a loss of spiritual certainty’ provided a rationale.

What makes Overy’s portrait so compelling, so illuminating is his ability to show how the narrative of decline played itself out in different areas of public discourse. In the sphere of economics, laissez faire, free-market capitalism was finding few champions. ‘[A] great deal of British opinion, across the class divides, believed on the evidence all around them that capitalism’s days were numbered’, he writes. From the Fabian left, Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation (1922) found a receptive audience, selling 15,000 copies. Its focus, ‘the moral bankruptcy of capitalism’, was telling – the economic credo of laissez faire no longer provided British rulers with a sense of ‘it works!’ justification.

Elsewhere on the left, historian GDH Cole declared in The Present Confusion (1933) that the intellectual case against capitalism has become ‘overwhelmingly strong’. But liberals too, most famously John Maynard Keynes, were no longer confident in the survival of the current system. ‘I direct my mind and attention’, wrote Keynes following a 1925 trip to the Soviet Union, ‘to the development of new methods and new ideas for effecting the transition from the economic anarchy of the individualistic capitalism which rules today in Western Europe’. In a 1932 journal entry, G Lowes Dickinson, one of Keynes’ colleagues at Kings College Cambridge, was to the point: ‘The capitalistic order has broken down completely and hopelessly.’ It seemed by this point that Keynes agreed. ‘There will be no means of escape’, he wrote in 1932, ‘from prolonged and perhaps interminable depression except by direct state intervention’.

While British economic liberalism appeared bust, the Soviet Union appeared as an ideal. Economic planning was the currency of the future, a belief seemingly endorsed not just by the trade union networks but by the establishment, too. Take, for instance, the Society for Cultural Relations Between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the USSR, set up in 1924. By the 1930s its members included Keynes, Virginia Woolf, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, plus over 10 peers and a few knights thrown in for good aristocratic measure. And in 1935 the Committee of Peace and Friendship with the USSR was established under the stewardship of Lord William Hare, a Labour peer; supporters included the scientist Henry Havelock Ellis, actors Sybil Thorndike and Robert Donat, economist JA Hobson, Vera Brittain, George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. These weren’t in the main revolutionary firebrands; they were disillusioned liberals, searching for the saving idea.

Overy shows how the crisis of civilisation, capitalist, Western or otherwise, played itself out with most glee in the arena of eugenics. Here one can see how the economic and political travails of the bourgeoisie were expressed in terms of racial decline. As the first post-First World War prime minister David Lloyd George warned, how can Britain run an A1 empire with a C3 population (medical categories for army recruits).

Giving the sense of decline a biological twist was not a novel move. It was a view gaining traction in the best circles, something Overy captures when describing the incredibly named Malthusian Ball at the Dorchester Hotel, organised by American Margaret Sanger’s International Birth Control Movement in 1933. Zoologist Julian Huxley was there, as was Labour MP Dame Edith Summerskill, and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. Sanger was not alone in finding an audience for tales of racial decline and the necessity of eugenically progressive birth control. In 1922 Marie Stopes founded a rival Society for Progressive Birth Control and Racial Progress. At an over-attended public meeting the year before, Stopes berated the audience about the perils and expense of allowing ‘wastrels to breed’. So committed was Stopes to the cause of avoiding what biologist Ernest McBride called in a 1931 Nature magazine article ‘undesirable births’, that upon hearing her son was to marry a woman with glasses, she refused to attend his wedding and promptly disinherited him.

The belief that a vital, vigorous imperial race was in the throes of biological decay was not just a potent metaphor – it also provided justification for a whole set of government initiatives. Birth control clinics were set up under the auspices of local health authorities and government-sponsored commissions of enquiry were launched into a wide variety of issues that were ‘biological in nature – population policy, the “feeble-minded”, syphilis, alcoholism’. Overy’s achievement here is to present the development of eugenics not as it appeared in itself – that is, as a sub-Darwinian science first coined by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s and developed towards its tragic Hitlerian conclusion in the 1930s. Rather Overy contextualises it in terms of the wider decadence of a class unable to envision a future for a society forged in its image, except in terms of a crisis of civilisation. Eugenics was the product of a sense of crisis, not a testament to imperial arrogance.

Unfortunately, because Overy seems reluctant to understand the phenomenon he analyses with such perspicacity in terms of the overarching ideological crisis of the bourgeoisie, an ebbing of economic confidence and political control, he struggles to explain why the morbid prognoses for race or the economy so gripped the public imagination. At points it’s as if he believes the sense of crisis was virtually an invention, a self-fulfilling prophecy entirely detached from reality. And in turn, the utopian imaginings of others, equally opposed to the status quo but less inclined to mourn its passing, can be too easily dismissed as similarly deluded. Yet, as his particular analyses show, the cultural climate of the interwar years was not a miasma of pessimism and nihilistic longing without a material basis. Rather it was the ideological end game, not of society as a whole, but of the old bourgeoisie, bereft of the shattered creeds of economic liberalism and imperial supremacy. And while the postwar consensus and ideological props of the Cold War might have soothed this ruling anxiety, it is something that has never quite gone away.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, by Richard Overy, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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