Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

It can’t Happen Here

It can’t Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis’s novel, “IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE" was published in 1935 in the month that William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, remarked:

Whenever you here a prominent American called a ‘Fascist’, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism”.

Lewis’s satire was aimed at demagogues like Hearst and in particular the Louisiana politician Huey Long who was preparing to run for the 1936 presidential election but was assassinated just before the book was published. Huey Long, was a politician in a long line of political snake oil salesmen and in the novel takes the fictional form of Berzelius Windrip, the elected president of the US; an authoritarian, egocentric, narcissist.

Windrip establishes a fascist regime wrapped in the nationalism of the stars and stripes. The president is protected by his paramilitary thugs known as the Minute Men who beat, imprison, torture and kill political opponents. Corporatism is imposed ensuring the rich and powerful become more rich and powerful. As a result the country is awash with concentration camps filled with political prisoners.

Despite these dictatorial measures, a majority of the US electorate approve these policies as a painful but necessary process to make the US ‘great again’. Others, those less enthusiastic about the prospect of corporatism, reassure themselves that fascism cannot "happen here", hence the novel's title. It is a bleak dystopian vision of the US, set between 1936 and 1939 when fascism was on the rise in Europe and had many influential supporters in the US.

Lewis’s pessimistic vision of political development in the 1930’s has some problems. He lampoons the demagogues of his day but cannot understand the failure of his own liberal politics much in the same vein as President Trump’s detractors do today. Fascism developed in Europe and the US during the 1930’s as an outcome of the consequences of the First World War and the Great Depression which saw millions of workers being made redundant. The economic crisis and subsequent depression was an event incompressible to liberals who had come to see capitalism as a benign and harmonious social system immune to the negative economic laws of the profit system.

Similarly today, following the economic crisis of 2008, capitalism has punctured the utopian belief in a free trade and free market global capitalism for everyone, allowing Trump to become President, not that his politics will be any more successful than his predecessors. Capitalism can never be run in the interest of all of society. You cannot have capitalism without the effects of capitalism.

Not that a strain of fascism runs from the alt-right and militias through to the White House. Violent clashes erupted between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on the 13th August. The white supremacists, many of whom were young males, were protesting against the removal of a statue of Robert Lee who commanded the Confederate army during the American Civil war. A white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing one of them. Trump was ambiguous in his condemnation of the violence making no remark on the act of terrorism against the counter demonstrators or the torch-light parade by neo-nazis the previous night which was reminiscent of a triumphal torch-light parade by fascists through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 30 January 1933, to celebrate Hitler's elevation to the Chancellorship of Germany. The white nationalists bought into Trump’s mindless rhetoric of “Make (white) America Great again”. He is one of them. And you thought it couldn’t happen here.

Restricted Standards of Thinking

Frank Zappa was influenced by Sinclair Lewis. In his album, ‘FREAK OUT’ (1966), Zappa inverted Lewis’s pessimism about political change and used anarchic art and music forms to ridicule the conservatism and authoritarianism of post-war America with its ‘plastic people’, swimming pools and sexual constipation. No more so than in the track “It can’t Happen Here”. Here are the opening lines:

It can't happen here
It can't happen here
I'm telling you, my dear
That it can't happen here
Because I been checkin' it out, baby
I checked it out a couple a times, hmmmmmmmm

And I'm telling you
It can't happen here
Oh darling, it's important that you believe me
(bop bop bop bop)
That it can't happen here

Whereas for Lewis fascism could happen dressed up in the stars and stripes and carrying a cross for Zappa mis-century US capitalism could be subverted by political and cultural anarchy, interracial sex, homosexuality and drugs. Like Lewis’s novel, society is not immune to change. Or, as Marx wrote “All that is solid melts into air”.

“IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE” was a satire on US conservatism, authoritarianism and conformity at the time, where Afro Americans knew their place, where gays were firmly back in the closet and women stayed at home preparing TV Dinners. If Trump’s administration has a coherent vision of where they want to go, then it is “back to the future”.

And Trump is not alone in wanting a return to a 1950’s utopia. This yearning for a mythical past has also been embraced in the UK by the likes of the DAILY MAIL and UKIP, and symbolically represented in the continued repeat on day-time television of the 1958 film GIDEON OF THE YATD in which a dutiful housewife waits with slippers, pipe and the newspaper for her husband’s return from a hard day’s work at Scotland Yard.

Zappa gave a brief account of what “freaking out” was meant to be about:

On a personal level, Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricted standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his environment and the social structure as a whole"
Nik Cohn, "AwopBopaLooBopaLopBamBoom: Pop from the Beginning (Paladin 1973), pp. 222-223 AwopBopaLooBopaLopBamBoom "IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE" is in four movements. The first movement takes at its cue the conservatism of the a capella barber shop quartet while the remaining three movements fragment into free-form musical improvisation.

The four movements depict, in musical form, how conservatives feel threatened by the counter-culture and its effects on their children. To the conservative mind, spontaneous creativity and thinking for yourself, undermines their world view of authoritarianism, conformity and discipline.

The free-form piano solo in the second movement introduces the promise of liberation. Part three is a battle between conservative conformity characterised by the barber shop quartet and liberation symbolised by the free-style piano solo. Part four, a coda, introduces the character of Suzy Creamcheese whose empty life is signified by the marks of heroin-use on her arms (Zappa was forced by his music company to change the lyrics and so the full force of the final movement of the unhappiness of living in 1960’s America was lost on the listener).

And, It Can’t Happen Here

The counterculture associated with Frank Zappa was a failure and in later life Zappa became a “free market libertarian” feted by the Czech Republic and its President at the time, Vaclav Harvel.

Students and hippies in the 1960’s could not change capitalism by anarchic action, drugs, demonstrations and dropping out into communes. Capitalism remained “solid and secure”. By the 1973 Oil crisis the counterculture was dead and buried and a new conservative reaction had set-in; socially by the growth of the religious right, politically by a spurious libertarianism and economically by Friedman’s ‘Chicago boys’ and F.A Hayek’s market anarchism.

Like Sinclair Lewis, the liberals cannot look at why they failed. Globalisation, free markets and free trade left most workers behind in zero-hour contracts, the gig-economy and low paid and insecure jobs. Globalisation benefitted the rich not the poor. Those workers that kept-up with the ever increasing demands of globalisation worked long hours and were still exploited. A stable life for a capitalist minority living-off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit and an unstable and unpredictable life of wage slavery for the working class on the other.

And today’s liberals just do not get it. Each and every Sunday, the likes of Nick Cohen steps up to the SUNDAY OBSERVER pulpit to denounce Trump; to denounce Brexit and to denounce the way the world is drifting towards an authoritarian right. However, he cannot admit to himself that his own politics, has failed. And he cannot understand or explain why it has failed. Like Sinclair Lewis, Cohen cannot understand what in effect the economic crisis of 2008 has done to his politics and world view: turned it to dust.

It was always a failed politics. We only have to look back at Obama’s presidency.

What did 8 years of Obama’s presidency achieve? The rich, of course did well, very well

Of the world's wealthiest people, the majority still hail from the world's top economic superpower — the United States. There are 29 US billionaires who rank about the 50 richest on earth, and they command a whopping $938 billion between them (BUSINESS INSIDER January 27th 2017).

And what was Obama’s contribution to International affairs? Here is the Bureau of Investigation report of January 17th 2017:

There were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during President Barack Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama embraced the US drone programme, overseeing more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency. A total of 563 strikes, largely by drones, targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, compared to 57 strikes under Bush. Between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in those countries, according to reports logged by the Bureau.

Socialism – It can’t happen here?

Music can be political, it can be revolutionary but only socialists can make a socialist revolution. If for Lewis capitalism can slide into fascism, if for Zappa mid-century America can be subverted by a counter-culture “freaking-out”; the working class can free themselves from capitalism; from labour markets, from employment and the wages system by abolishing capitalism.

The working class must indeed throw off “out-moded and restricted modes of thinking”, workers must throw-off their misguided attachment to world capitalism with its, nationalism, religion, leaders and social reformism. However, minds freed from the ideas and beliefs supporting capitalism must be accompanied by political action to replace the profit system with socialism.

Not the ‘socialism’ of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn with its empty social reforms and failed Keynesian economics. There is only one form of socialism – a socialism that has never existed and has never been established. And that is the socialism defined by socialists as the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Trump and his allies fear people who think and act for themselves. Socialists do not need leaders and demagogues to tell us what to do, nor should the working class.

So, to amend Zappa’s words in his “It Can’t Happen Here”, we can sing out:

Socialism in Kansas;
Socialism in Minnesota
Socialism in Washington D.C.
Socialism all over the world.

That is how you get rid of Trump; that is how you get rid of capitalism. To borrow again from Frank Zappa

And they thought socialism couldn't happen here
They were so sure socialism couldn't happen here
They were so sure socialism couldn't happen here

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