The Salaried Masses
Just finished Siegfried Kracauer's The Salaried Masses: Duty & Distraction in Wiemar Germany. It was really good! Fast read.
The most interesting thing? It paints a dew-drop wet portrait of Berlin on the eve of Nazism seizing power, without realizing what was to come.
Here's 5 random quotes I underlined with a red pen (I'm just procrastinating right now... You might say I am "distracted" from my "duty" or what-have-you):
1. "A good society is one that understands how to direct the instincts so that they will ensure its survival and progress."
2. "Ordinary employees. officials, works-council members and deputies assure me that senior posts almost without exception are filled not from within the enterprise itself, but from outside."
3. "We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up..."
4. "And society consciously — or even more, no doubt, unconsciously — sees to it that this demand for cultural needs does not lead to reflection on the roots of real culture, hence to criticism of the conditions underpinning its own power."
5. "Society too is dependent upon diversions. Since it sets the tone, it finds all the easier to maintain employees in the belief that a life of distraction is at the same time a higher one."
Okay, one more:
6. "This is the real complaint against today's economy: that it does not function for the sake of the masses who work in it, but at best manages them."
This book is extremely relevant in the era of Trump.
Many of the conditions seem the same: A dwindling middle class in a robust Democratic-Capitalist society; mass suffering being scapegoated on political & ethnic obstacles by powerful corporate interests; a mass rush toward distraction & escape as a means of coping with decrease in standard of living; a rising far-right ultranationalist movement growing in the background, supported in large part by the quiet agreement of powerful corporate interests…
This is why I believe fascism is the inevitable result of a capitalist society in decline.
"Even if the capitalist intermediate strata today already share the destiny of the proletariat... the majority of them have nevertheless not yet abandoned their bourgeois ideology."
Compare that quote with this modern day newspaper excerpt —
The big idea in Mr. Kracauer’s book is that the middle class are in denial about their lower position in society. So when living conditions get worse for the middle class because they’re being exploited by the billionaire elites, they still would rather side with these billionaires than admit they are being exploited too.
This happens because being exploited is a painful realization, and it forever takes away your dream of one day being rich & famous. So as a capitalist society collapses because of actual unbridgeable economic inequalities, instead of strategically altering the economy to prevent societal collapse, emotional flames are stoked to obscure the source of the problem.
The people stoking these flames are the culpable politicians, lobbyists, and corporate entities that have something to lose in a society that starts thinking about the well-being of all its citizens instead of focusing only on excessive profit accumulation.
And many in the declining middle class are more than happy to point their fingers at the people offering the true solutions to fix society (socialists) or to minority groups that look dissimilar to the majority demographic. It makes their situation easy to explain.
“It’s the Jews that’s ruining society.” “It’s the Mexicans ruining society.”
Once we reach this point, the billionaires will do anything to maintain this divisive split because it means they get to stick around for another day unquestioned.
And many in the middle class have no problem clinging onto this desperate dream of owning a home with a white picket fence in a society where it would require killing your neighbor to get it. Although we get there little by little, this is the natural logic of Capitalism, not an outlier.
As Mr. Kracauer personally observed in Berlin, the salaried masses were open to Hitler’s ideas because he easily explained why they were getting paid less for doing more work year after year… And Hitler offered an immediate solution to bring their wages up. No questions asked. People were enthusiastic to support the Nazis, but justified away the ugly parts.
This reminded me of what Trump supporters say about his rhetoric, “The economy is doing great,” they say, “But I don’t like the stuff he says about [women / hispanics / black people / etc]. I don’t think he means it.” Or they say, “I support his policy but ignore his tweets.”
Perhaps this is why Kracauer predicts, “America will vanish only when it fully discovers itself.”
It didn’t matter that Hitler’s vision of society was insane and false. He offered a simple, quick-fix for problems like health care, employment, immigration, crime, foreign policy — and all other quick-fixes were systematically rejected or repressed by influential forces. The most elite strata of capitalist society would rather collaborate with a fascist than a socialist.
Holy shit, does Siegfried Kracauer come at the capitalist system hard in this book:
"This is the real complaint against today's economy: that it does not function for the sake of the masses who work in it, but at best manages them…
...the frequently heard complaint of employers that there is a shortage of good young recruits. Young people are allegedly not interested in improving themselves and do not want to take on any responsibility…
Even assuming that the mass of employees of the post-war generation are really as apathetic as they are claimed to be, they are so not least because they have to work for the most part in conditions that make them apathetic."