One thing we know about the last Great Depression is that it unleashed some of the most awful political ideas ever known to man. Economic dislocation and crisis often have that effect: provoking and liberating that which is most base and wicked in the politics of man. Here, for instance, we have a comment on the faithlessness set loose upon the world in the 1930s, from a great scientist of despair and treason whose penance for his own was his long perseverance in a cause he thought doomed, Whittaker Chambers:
When, in 1936, General Emilio Mola announced that he would capture Madrid because he had four columns outside the city and a fifth column of sympathizers within, the world pounced on the phrase with the eagerness of a man who has been groping for an important word. The world might better have been stunned as by a tocsin of calamity. For what Mola had done was to indicate the dimension of treason in our time.
Other ages have had their individual traitors — men who from faint-heartedness or hope of gain sold out their causes. But in the 20th century, for the first time, man banded together by millions, in movements like Fascism and Communism, dedicated to the purpose of betraying the institutions they lived under. In the 20th century, treason became a vocation whose modern form was specifically the treason of ideas.
The horror of treason is its sin against the spirit. And for him who violates this truth there rises inevitably Bukarin’s “absolutely black vacuity,” which is in reality a circle of absolute loneliness into which neither father, wife, child nor friend, however compassionate, can bring the grace of absolution. For this loneliness is a penalty inflicted by a justice that transcends the merely summary justice of men. It is the retributive meaning of treason because it is also one of the meanings of Hell.
So what shall be the “dimension of treason in our time,” now nearly three generations on from 1936?
I propose that we may learn much about that question by observing how our deeply the collapse of finance Capitalism coincides with a collapse of faith in America. In other words, we will be able to get a good sense for how deep the shock has struck by observing how many people, seeing finance Capitalism (usurious Capitalism, in my view) discredited, will imagine that America too is discredited. In bald terms, how many people have grown over the years to conflate Wall Street and America? How many think that what is good for Goldman Sachs is good for America? If a huge number of people bought into the illusion of an simple identity between (a) what America is and (b) what investment banking in late 20th century was, then we will have a huge number of patriots thrown into despair by the utter discredit of the object of their patriotism. If, on the other hand, very few Americans have fallen under the spell of this sirens’ song of globalized capital flowing without disruption around the world as the very essence of America, then we will be spared that horrible disillusionment of a patriotic ideal shattered.
It is my view that any conflation of finance Capitalism with America is a ruinous piece of reductionism at the expense of the latter. America is so much more than that. Even Capitalism itself is so much more than its most rarefied field of mathematical engineering. So whatever you do, whatever you may think of the current crisis, do not let the collapse of faith in finance Capitalism sow grave doubt where there once was faith in America. Do not hitch your cart of patriotism to the capricious mistress of investment banking.