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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  2. The transformation of American society
by Leo D'Anjou
  The economic, social, and political transformations of the 1950s did not only bring prosperity and the hope that the "American Dream" would come true, but also fostered widespread feelings of insecurity. This led to a new American consensus, a strange combination of a somewhat naive optimistic belief in a bright future and a deep-seated feeling of anxiety about social change that people felt they could no longer control. If rock and roll was a form of rebellion at all, then only because it did deviate from this new consensus.
1 An economic boom and a new social ethic. World War II definitely transformed American society and it did so profoundly. The war forced the American government to enlarge its debts and pump enormous sums of money into war industries like shipbuilding and aviation. Thereby the administration inadvertently effectuated Keynes' recipe of how to end an economic depression. This policy worked and put an end to the period of economic stagnation that began with the Crash of 1929. Even more important, though, the war also stimulated innovation in every possible domain and the result of this was a real technological spurt. The influx of money in the economy in combination with this technological spurt, released the enormous potential of the United States. It made, as Donald Clarke (1995: 283) assesses, America the only nation to come out of the war economically more sound and healthy than it went into. America enjoyed an economic boom that lasted from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. This boom was strengthened even more by the steady and unprecedented expansion of the world economy — very much the product of this boom itself. Other positive effects on America's economy in this period, were the efforts of other countries to make up for their war losses, the aid the United States gave them by way of the Marshall Plan, and at a later date the military build-up that came with the Cold War.
  Photo left: Levitt-style 1950s suburban tract houses surrounded by highways and fly-overs

The prospering economy accelerated the on-going transformation of small firm and rural America into a world of big industry, dominated by corporations. Older and smaller industries had to make way for newer and larger ones, using more advanced technologies and organizational methods. Entrepreneurial capitalism, in short, was replaced by corporate capitalism. At the same time, economic life became more complex which increased the necessity of economic planning and coordination and thus implied a growth of government. The laissez-faire attitude to what was going on in society, faded away and the functioning of the economy became the subject of government policy. In combination, these developments resulted in a massive growth of bureaucratic organizations in both the private and public sectors (Flacks, 1971: 35). More than ever before America became a society of people working in large organizations and, as William H. Whyte assessed in his The organization man (1956), the belief in and the adjustment to the group became the core of a new social ethic (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 128).

  These changes not only affected the working life of the American population. The economic developments favored an ongoing urbanization and this in turn led to suburbanization on a large scale in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Rising incomes enabled many people to realize their dream: a house of their own with a garden in an agreeable neighborhood. Like so many other consumer dreams in this decade, this dream was realized by commodification. It was William Jaird "Bill" Levitt of Levitt & Sons, who brought standardization and mass production techniques to house building. He turned farmlands into uniform housing projects, so-called Levittowns, which spread in record rates all over the United States (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 133-134; Halberstam, 1993: 131-143). The economic opportunities that the cities offered, the harsh segregation practices in the South, and the availability of houses that the new, white middle classes were leaving for the suburbs, moreover, led to a migration of large numbers of African-Americans from the rural parts of the South, in particular, to Northern cities. These processes, exacerbated by the influx of other minority groups, impoverished these cities and led to ghettoization. For most people the city, however, remained the place to work and the separation of work and home gave the automobile a central position in social life, which in turn led to massive construction of highways, fly-overs, and so on. All this spurred the economic boom but deteriorated city life even more.
  The result was a profound change of the face of America. The country was already changing before the war, but the pace of innovation increased markedly afterwards. For many people the city with its expanding suburbs, its large scale production facilities, and its massive bureaucratic organizations, replaced small-town, rural America as the backbone of society and thereby the personal ties and connections belonging to this society gave way to more formal and anonymous ones. Doing things on a large scale became the typical feature of the emerging society and "mass" its predominant adjective, describing production, consumption, and the way people were mutually connected through the mass media.
2 The Cold War. The military expenditures and innovations necessitated by the war, augmented US military power to such an extent that the United States became a world power; the main world power even by its possession of the nuclear bomb. More important, the war also changed America's attitude vis-à-vis the world. Till then, isolationism — the dominant tendency in America's pre-war foreign policy — kept the United States from occupying a position in the world that corresponded to its strength. Entering the war meant, however, a — for many Americans involuntary — choice for internationalism and after the war it no longer proved to be possible — however hard many, mostly Republican, politicians tried — to return to the isolationist tradition. Eisenhower's election as president confirmed this shift from an eccentric to a central position in world affairs (Halberstam, 1993: 11). America's status as world power was, however, heavily disputed by the Soviet Union, which brought the erstwhile allies in a worldwide competition that went on for the decades to come. The animosity between the Americans and the Soviets was not new. It originated with the October revolution of 1917 and from that time on the myth of the "red scare" had become a successful instrument in the United States in the struggle between capital and labor. For one thing it already had proved to be very effective in thwarting the rise of socialism as a workers movement (Miller and Nowak, 1977). In the Soviet Union it was just the other way around. Here, the capitalists got the part of the villain in a similar myth.
  Photo right: Joseph McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin, who gave his name to the McCarthy hearings regarding communism in the United States

In the aftermath of World War II the animosity between both superpowers, as the USA and the USSR were called from then on, turned into a fierce competition and the myth of the "red scare" grew in force and importance. On the external political stage the competition between both countries took the form of a war without actual fighting, a Cold War. Both countries formed the hub of a system of allies and competed for the allegiance of countries that had not yet decided to which alliance they wanted to belong. In fact, two new empires — a white and a red one — arose of which at least the American one to many of its citizens, including a considerable number of its leaders, was an empire nolens volens. Both alliances made huge efforts to win military superiority which implied, above all, the development of nuclear weapons, submarines, long-distance bombers, and inter-continental ballistic missiles. There was always the fear for a Third World War, as the Cold War always threatened to turn into a hot one as, for instance, it did in Korea (1950-1953) or into crises like the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Finally, the Cold War even extended into outer space especially after the launch of the Sputnik on October 4, 1957.

  Internally, the competition with the Soviet Union manifested itself in a sharp revival of the red scare myth and the development of an anticommunist hysteria in the early 1950s. The decade saw a series of witch-hunts, directed against actual or presumed communists who were accused of helping the Soviet Union by spying and of weakening America's position by corrupting the minds of the American people. Even more important at the time, communists were said to have infiltrated the federal government and secretly guiding and shaping United States policies and "brainwashing" its citizens in favor of communism. These witch hunts were not limited to — former — members of the Communist party or to well-known fellow travelers. Everyone who had ever said or written something positive about the Soviet Union or communism — or for that matter socialism — was suspect. From here on, it was but a short step to include outspoken liberals into these hunts. In the eyes of many conservatives, these people were suspect anyway because of their support of organized labor and Roosevelt's New Deal (Halberstam, 1993: 3-9). Accusations of being soft on communism or worse of being a fellow traveler, a socialist, or a — former — member of the communist party, became favorite weapons in political struggles, particularly in the hands of Republican politicians who desperately longed to end the Democratic reign of almost two decades. In extreme cases, it literally came to smear campaigns on the basis of which politicians like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy were elected. As Miller and Nowak rightfully assess, these politicians were themselves not directly responsible for the paranoia over communism that swept all sectors of American society; they merely capitalized on it. The anti-communist witch-hunts, of which the ones instigated and led by McCarthy became the most well-known, made many victims. A detailed description of the numerous postwar anti-red witch-hunts and their roots can be found, among others, in Miller and Nowak (1997, 21-42) or in I.F. Stone's book about this period with the telling title The Haunted Fifties (1963).
3 The new American consensus. The economic, social, and political transformations of the 1950s had profound effects on the cultural climate. Not only did they bring prosperity and a hope that the "American Dream" would come true, but they also fostered widespread feelings of insecurity. This led to a strange combination of a somewhat naive optimistic belief in a bright future and a deep-seated feeling of anxiety stemming from the ubiquitous processes of social change people felt they could no longer control. Side effects like the deteriorating of the inner-cities and the rising crime figures strengthened this anxiety even more. This basic feeling of insecurity was, moreover, exacerbated by the consequences of America's new status as a superpower. The doom of an eventual annihilation by a nuclear attack loomed large in the American mind. It is only natural that people in such a situation, long to enjoy their newly found prosperity and to preserve it. At the same time, it is understandable that they also wanted to forgo the threats they perceived all around them. The majority of the Americans tried to do so by cultivating a watchful conservatism in the realms of culture and politics and by supporting a strict and normative conformism. It seemed that many people were so desperately trying to find their way back to the safe haven of an unswerving — mythical — past that they, most intellectuals included, readily abandoned their rights to dissent. Striving to consensus had become such a predominant value that conflicts were seen as something of a past that American society had outgrown in its maturity. This conformism was, moreover, strengthened by the omnipresent witch-hunts that made keeping a low profile a central value.
  Photo left: the new American dream — an American family posing before their Levitt housing

This new American consensus, built on the fundaments of conformism an consensus itself, was a quaint mixture of optimism and pessimism. On one hand, people perceived the times they were living in, as an era in which "... everything was all right, everyone was getting richer, and tomorrow would always be better than today" (Brown, 1983: 20). On the other hand, negative feelings were really never far away. The 1950s were, as Miller and Nowak assess, also an era of fear leading to repression and pressures to conform. It was — like the 1920s — a period of relative prosperity and deep conservatism. The fifties were the years of Eisenhower that "... were tired, dull, cautious, and anxious ... Domesticity, religiosity, respectability, security through compliance with the system, that was the essence of the fifties" (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 7). And, behind this urge toward conformism, perceived as the means as well as the ends to a better life, there was always the gloom of pessimism. In Richard Aquila's apt portrayal of the era:

  "Many Americans, still in the shadow of World War II, lived in the fear of the cold war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They were concerned about strange, new forces tugging at the seams of America's social fabric ... In the 1950s, many Americans sought relief from these anxieties and fears through consensus and conformity. Pledging allegiance to American democracy and capitalism reassured Americans that they and their country were on the right track, and conforming to acceptable behavior, traditional values, and the rules of God and country guaranteed personal and national success. Anything that deviated from this consensus model was viewed as a threat to the American way" (Aquila, 1992: 269-270).
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