Thank Goodness for the System


A reader asks if Charles Moore of the Telegraph has read my book. Sure sounds like it:

When you do not have strong political systems, these crises give rein to hatred and fear. If you compare responses to the Depression in the 1930s, you can see how a rather frightening rhetoric took hold. In his inauguration address in 1933, F?D Roosevelt declared that “the moneychangers have fled from the high seats in the temples of our civilisation”. This was not so different in tone from Nazi talk about Jewish bankers.

Hitler and FDR came to power in the same year, and not with very different economic policies. They talked about youth and the harnessing of the will. They used government programmes of public works to restore employment.

In desperation, people crave strong leadership. In the original 1934 version of Cole Porter’s song You’re The Top, one line went, “You’re the top, you’re Mussolini”. (It was deleted from later versions.) Dictators were all the rage.

The difference lay not only in the characters of Hitler and FDR, but in the systems in which they operated. In a proper democracy, strong leadership can coexist with constraints. By the end of the 1930s, there were no important robust democracies in the Western world, except for Britain and America. Reaction to the slump had favoured dictators. What the Nazis had called their “war for work” had turned out, because it included rearmament, to be work for war.

We cannot yet see the future dictators, but we can certainly see the weakness that gives them their chance.

For some reason this reminds me of Waldo Frank’s analysis in 1934:

The NRA is the beginning of American Fascism. But unlike
Italy and Germany, democratic parliamentarianism has for gen-
erations been strong in the Anglo-Saxon world; it is a tribal in-
stitution. Therefore, a Fascism that disposes of it, rather than
sharpens and exploits it, is not to be expected in North America
or Britain. Fascism may be so gradual in the United States
that most voters will not be aware of its existence. The true
Fascist leaders will not be present imitators of German Fuhrer
and Italian condottieri, prancing in silver shirts. They will be
judicious, black-frocked gentlemen; graduates of the best uni-
versities; disciples of Nicholas Murray Butler and Walter


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