Ernest Hemingway, lost generations and economic experiments

The Sun Also Rises is the first novel written by American novelist and short-story writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1962). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. A writer of fiction, Hemingway based his writings on his experiences, the social conditions of his time, and the political turbulence which he witnessed in Europe and the United States. The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, and deals with a group of American expatriates residing mainly in Paris, most of whom are veterans of World War One. Hemingway himself served as an ambulance driver on the Italian war front in 1918 and was seriously wounded.

The searing experience of World War One, the death, mutilation and trauma had a shattering impact on the generation that came of age during its ferocious battles. The psychological impact, the war propaganda and the sheer magnitude of the social and emotional wounds inflicted by the war had a profound influence on many fields of human endeavour, and literature was no exception. The decision by the various imperialist states to go to all-out war, mobilising the vast resources each had at its disposal for the purpose of mutual slaughter, involved millions of people and had a decisive impact on their lives. The war propaganda used by all sides, the orgy of national chauvinism, engulfed the European continent and spread to other countries. The generation that was most affected was Hemingway’s. While the survivors continued with their lives after 1918, they struggled with the clash between the vaunted values of patriotism, honour and sacrifice which were the stated motivations of the imperialist powers, and the horrors of death, mutilation, mass slaughter and trauma that they experienced in the trenches.

Hemingway gathered with a group of American and British expatriates in Paris after the war ended. Most of his friends were literary figures, one of whom was Gertrude Stein. She coined the phrase ‘the lost generation’ to refer to those that had experienced World War One. Hemingway popularised the phrase, and dealt with this precise subject in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway conveyed the sense of purposeless and aimlessness that characterised the expatriate generation, and examined how their lives had been subverted by the hypocrisy of fighting for alleged noble aims in a conflict involving mass slaughter and immense suffering. The horrific suffering inflicted by World War One upon members of the Lost Generation is the main theme of Hemingway’s novel, and while he explores many other themes and motifs in the book, the aimlessness and casual drifting of the expatriate generation is the subject to which Hemingway closely hews throughout his first novel. They experienced a significant cultural and social rupture; the pre-war values (or at least what had been promoted as the values of the imperialist powers) of honour, sacrifice and nationalism were used in the service of a horrendous conflict that consumed an entire generation.

There are many themes that Hemingway elaborates in The Sun Also Rises, and a detailed examination of all of them is not the purpose here. Suffice it to say that the main subject of a Lost Generation has contemporary relevance. There is another emerging lost generation in Europe, but not as a result of an intra-European war. There are no bombs exploding, or bullets flying, the suffering and social dislocation experienced by the today’s generation in Europe is no less real. The cause of another lost generation is a different kind of warfare; an economic experiment that condemns millions to impoverishment and daily suffering while enriching a tiny, exploitative minority. Humanitarian crises are certainly evident after a natural disaster, or prolonged warfare. But never before has human suffering been inflicted in slow-motion, economically piecemeal fashion as in capitalist Europe today. The economic crisis of capitalism, having created a vast social pyramid of economic inequality, is now engulfing millions of Europeans as the main imperialist institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the European Central Bank, implement so-called ‘bailout’ packages, enforcing regimes of austerity on the general population. The millions will now pay for the ‘bailout’ in the form of cutbacks to social welfare, wages, working conditions, pensions, and in the latest case of Cyprus, their bank savings. Plundering the savings of what were supposed to be government-backed deposits from workers and pensioners in order to pay for the ‘bailout’ would be called bank robbery in any other country – and it is. When the European Central Bank and IMF impose policies that result in massive losses for long-term depositors and savers results in the spectre of a run on the banks – depositors hurriedly withdrawing their money, then the question has to be asked, in whose interest do the big banks and politicians govern?

Greece was the first country to undergo this social and economic experiment – and is now facing a serious humanitarian crisis. What does that mean? While there is no universally agreed definition of a humanitarian crisis, the lack of social services, the cutbacks to social safety nets, the increasing immiseration of larger segments of the working population, and the growing inequality of provision of education and health services results in greater suffering for an increasing number of people. Previously economically productive people are becoming ever more vulnerable to financial shocks. Living in conditions of preventable material deprivation, more and more ordinary people are driven into psychological problems.

Giorgios Chatzis, a 60-year old construction, left a message on his wife’s telephone back in August 2012:

 “I will not be coming home. I have no more to offer. I am nothing anymore. I love you all. Take care of the children.”

Chatzis committed suicide. Why?

This 60-year-old construction worker had just learned that he was losing his disability benefit of 350 euros per month. He had been drawing on it for four years, in addition to a pre-retirement payment of 50 euros per month. These 400 euros made up the only income for the whole family. When he learned he was losing his disability benefits, after having made several attempts to keep them, he took his own life. His body was found later.

Giorgios Chatzis would have had to wait five more years without income just to receive a reduced retirement of 300 euros per month. The latest austerity package effectively calls for pushing back the retirement age to 67 years, which would have added two years to the total during which he would not have paid in to the private-sector retirement fund, which would have reduced even more the monthly amount of what they called “retirement.”

His case is only one out of millions of examples. The quotes above are from the article “Greece’s social crisis” by Charles-André Udry examining the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Greece as a direct result of the vaunted ‘bailout’  package. The author also looks at the gangrenous crisis consuming the lives of young workers, whose jobs have been cut back and the social stress that is taking lives. It is not just the ‘periphery’ that is experiencing humanitarian suffering and social dislocation; the frontal class warfare attack on the welfare state in Spain, Portugal and Ireland has resulted in reductions in wages, pensions, the privatisation of social services, the loss of public education and the consequent increase of social and psychological problems. According to the London School of Economics, the suicide rate in Spain has increased threefold because of the unbearable stress caused by losing one’s home. These kinds of socially destructive policies are being implemented because the financial and industrial elites of the European powers have decided that the social welfare state is no longer affordable. The chiefs of the European Central Bank, along with politicians in various European countries, all agree that the social welfare state has to be dismantled in order to keep the capitalist economic model going.

The countries of the Mediterranean are not the only European states undergoing significant economic contraction and social immiseration. The much-vaunted Baltic republics, (Lithuania, Lativa, Estonia) hailed as economic powerhouses after they broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, have been economically shrinking since the 2008 global financial crisis.  The Baltic states, along with the rest of the former Eastern bloc, adopted neoliberal economic prescriptions imported from the IMF and World Bank, where local elites made a fortune as their countries were integrated into the capitalist market. The Baltic states implemented the individualistic, IMF-driven economic model from the inception of their independence; there own version of Thatcherism, where social spending was slashed, government assets (built up under the Soviet period) were privatised, and education was cut back. In 2009, soon after the global economic crisis, riots broke out in the Baltic states, puncturing the myth of the ‘Baltic tigers’. The Baltic states are currently under a great degree of social stress, but there is one way that the Baltic populations have avoided the economic crisis in their own countries – by leaving them. The working age and able-bodied population of the Baltics is simply choosing to leave the shrinking economies of their homelands in order to find employment and financial security in other countries. The authors of a Counterpunch article explain that:

As the economic crisis intensified, unemployment grew from a relatively low level of 4.1 per cent in 2007 to 18.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2010 with a concomitant increase in emigration from 26,600 in 2007 to 83,200 in 2010. This was the highest level of emigration since 1945 and comparable only with the depopulation of the country during World War II. Since the restoration of independence in 1990, out of a population of some 3.7 million 615,000 had left the country; three fourths were young persons (up to 35 years old), many of them educated and with jobs in Lithuania. By 2008, the emigration rate from Lithuania became the highest among the EU countries (2.3 per 1,000), and double that of the next highest country, Latvia (1.1 per 1,000).

The high emigration rate, the demographic and social costs of such neoliberal austerity policies make us question the capitalist economic model and its claims to provide prosperity for all. Removing the people from an economic system is hardly an indicator of that model’s success. Back in 2010, economists Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Summers were documenting the staggering decline of Latvia’s economy:

Latvia has experienced one of the world’s worst economic crises. It is not only economic, but demographic. Its 25.5 per cent plunge in GDP over just the past two years (almost 20 per cent in this past year alone) is already the worst two-year drop on record.  The IMF’s own rosy forecasts anticipate a further drop of 4 per cent, which would place the Latvian economic collapse ahead of the United States’ Great Depression.

The highly financialised, capitalist system imported into the Baltics from the ‘free market’ fundamentalists of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the financial elites of Europe are causing a social breakdown in the Baltic republics, just as serious but less publicised than the humanitarian emergencies in Greece and Cyprus.

There is one other theme that Hemingway elaborates in his novel that is relevant for our purposes here. The first character that Hemingway introduces in his book is not the main protagonist, Jake Barnes, the American World War One veteran. The book opens by introducing the character Robert Cohn, who managed to avoid serving in the Great War. Cohn is Jewish, and Hemingway repeatedly and frequently reminds the reader than Cohn is Jewish. He is also the most disagreeable character in the novel; the other members of the expatriate group frequently mock and ridicule Cohn. The latter is the whipping-boy of the group, the target of their taunts and the butt of their jokes. The Cohn character is the outsider, unable to fit in with the rest of the group, separated by an unbridgeable gulf. Certainly Cohn is an outsider because he is not a war veteran, unlike the rest of the cast of Hemingway’s characters. But Cohn is also the only Jewish person, and he is repeatedly ostracised by the others in the group. At several points, Hemingway has one character refer to Cohn as a ‘kike’, a derogatory word for a Jewish person.

Was Hemingway anti-semitic, or was he accurately portraying the attitudes of his contemporaries towards Jewish people? The answer is a bit of both. Hemingway, like all writers, is a product of his times. Casual anti-Semitism was quite common in the 1920s and 1930s Europe and America. Other writers’ of Hemingway’s generation, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, also used anti-Semitic characterisations in their works. In Hemingway’s novel, the one character that is singled out for ridicule and constant mockery is Robert Cohn. There are many instances of interaction between Cohn and the other characters where Cohn is clearly the eternal outsider, and he is an outsider precisely because of his Jewishness. Hemingway possessed a superficial anti-Semitism, and in this he imbibed the prevailing racial perspectives that were ubiquitous in 1920s America and Europe. This does not excuse his anti-Semitism, but only seeks to place it in a wider social and cultural context. Epithets about Jews (and other ethnic groups) were used casually in books and media. It was not uncommon to find cartoons in newspapers using anti-Semitic stereotypes of the ‘evil Jews’, constantly scheming behind the backs of the liberal Westerners.

This point is important to understand, because there is contemporary relevance. While anti-Semitic images and politics are still sadly with us (particularly in Eastern Europe), this particular prejudice has been replaced by Islamophobia, the core of which is anti-Arab racism, applied to the wider Islamic countries and communities. The stereotype of the hook-nosed, duplicitous, scheming alien Jew has been largely replaced by the stereotype of the hook-nosed, duplicitous, scheming Muslim, taking advantage of the liberal-democratic West to spread their secret agenda of jihadism and Shariah law once our backs are turned. The Muslim person is now the eternal outsider, unable to assimilate or participate in ‘our’ democratic system. A great deal of Islamophobia is of course politically-driven. As the United States, since the end of World War One, strove to control greater portions of the Arabic-speaking world for its oil and geostrategic resources, any political group or movement that stood in its way has been demonised. That has meant the Arab ‘other’ has always been regarded as the outsider, the eternal enemy to be confronted. During the Cold War, the Palestinians, secular Arab nationalists were the main victims of this cultural assault. Beginning in the 1980s, but especially since the ‘war on terror’ began in 2001, the ‘other’ has encompassed the Islamic peoples of the world. Islamophobia is not just a cultural exercise, but also serves a useful function as an ideological prop for US imperialism. While the rabid, raving Islamophobia of populistic clowns like the execrable Geert Wilders attract condemnation, it is the creeping, but no-less-subtle form of Islamophobia in the corporate-driven media culture that is gaining ‘respectability’.

Hemingway’s novel, while exploring the major theme of the Lost Generation, never descends into pessimism. On the contrary, Hemingway recounts the resilience and fortitude of the lost generation, and while they have been damaged, they are never the forgotten or hopeless generation. In fact, the title of the book was chosen precisely to illustrate the capacity of the human spirit to defy the odds and revive. Hemingway actually took the title from a verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:3–5):

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The current generation of Europeans is not wasting any time; they are already fighting back for an alternative future.

Broken genius – the case of William Shockley

William Shockley (1910-1989) was a remarkably talented physicist, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a pioneer of research into semiconductors, the materials which comprise the building blocks of semiconductor electronic components. He was the co-inventor of the transistor, the invention that amplifies and switches electronic signals. The implications and applications of the transistor were immense, washing over the fields of electronic communications, computing and general electronics. It is safe to say that without the transistor, the modern electronically-based age would be impossible. Shockley, along with his co-inventors and fellow physicists, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. While Bardeen and Brattain were the ones that directly worked on the research that led to the first point-contact transistor, Shockley was their supervisor at Bell Laboratories, the leader of the solid state physics group, and his semiconductor theories and research work paved the way for Bardeen and Brattain. The transistor replaced the outmoded and inefficient vacuum tube, and boosted the field of electronics tremendously. It is no exaggeration to say that today, nearly every home in the industrialised countries has countless transistors, applied in various forms of electronic machinery. The transistor led to integrated circuits, and then the ubiquitous microprocessor. The latter, combined with the computer, made possible the exponential growth and application of computers to nearly every branch of industry, from finance to telecommunications.

Shockley’s achievements were not limited to the field of electronics; he did important work for the United States military during World War Two, applying his immense mathematical knowledge to the war effort. He worked on a team that calculated the statistical improvement of air power, and advised the US Air Force on how to increase the efficiency and accuracy of its bombing campaign. His work also influenced the US Navy to better target the menacing German U-Boat, the latter engaged in harassing North Atlantic trade between Britain and the United States.

Shockley’s post-World War Two start-up company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, provided the basis for a group of scientists and researchers that seeded what  is known until today as ‘Silicon Valley’, the home of the largest computing and technology corporations. Two of the scientists that Shockley employed went on to found Intel Corporation, today the largest manufacturer of microprocessors based on semiconductor technology. Shockley recruited the electrical engineers and physicists that form the core of the companies that began in the Santa Clara Valley, Northern California.

But if Shockley is remembered today, it is not for his work on the transistor. From the 1960s onwards, Shockley became an outspoken advocate for racial eugenics. Shockley was hardly alone in proposing a genetically-based definition of human intelligence. He was certainly not the first to attempt classifying people into distinct, biologically-determined categories called ‘races’ and endow them with social and behavioural attributes. But Shockley was not just anybody – he was an outstanding scientist and inventor, winner of the Nobel Prize. Venturing out of his field, he proposed that intelligence was largely determined by heredity, and that heredity was reflected in racial categories. The US has a long history of applying the pseudo-science of eugenics, and applying policies on that dubious basis, such as implementing immigration restrictions. In the 1960s, racial theories, and the associated biological determinism that regards the variety of human behaviour as having a genetically-determined foundation, was under attack from the rising civil rights movements, the growing anti-Vietnam war campaigns and the increasing student radicalisation on campuses. Equality between the so-called ‘races’, an assertion of African-American, (and native American) identity and dignity found their reflection on universities through the opening of research departments and courses teaching the history and philosophy of racism, African-American history and literature, colonialism and anti-colonial struggles.

In this charged environment, Shockley, whose stated concern was the quality of human life, steps up and expresses the viewpoint that the reason African Americans consistently score lower on IQ tests is because they are not as genetically-endowed with intelligence as their white American counterparts. He stated that the ‘less intelligent’ were multiplying, and this condition threatened the quality of the human race. Proceeding from his insistence that intelligence is genetically determined, and that races are immutable categories, he was concerned about the ‘retrograde’ effect of allowing the lesser-intelligent stock out-breeding the mainly white, cognitive elite.

Shockley was never an out-and-out Ku Klux Klan-style white supremacist, but his views about the racially determined categorisation of intelligence in humans crashed against the intellectual currents of the 1960s and 1970s. He was absolutely convinced that the future of the human species could be improved by stopping the ‘imbeciles’ from breeding. Shockley was proposed what he called ‘raceology’, the study of races and their inherited intelligence.

Shockley was met with vociferous protests, his colleagues shunned him, he was ostracised by the scientific community, and attacked by student groups whenever he spoke on university campuses. In the early 1970s, a group of students at Stanford University burned Shockley in effigy. The anthropologists and cultural theorists wrote articles attacking his pseudo-scientific theories, and even biologists and geneticists were criticising his racialist views on intelligence.

How did such a prominent scientist, a pioneer in his field and respected, winner of the Nobel Prize, have such a dramatic fall? That is the subject of a fascinating biography of William Shockley by Joel Shurkin. The book is called ‘Broken Genius: The rise and fall of William Shockley, creator of the electronic age’. Shurkin does not engage in a straightforward demonisation of his subject, but rather attempts to understand why such a successful and prominent scientist could fall from grace so publicly and remain unaware of the impact of his views. Shurkin is an articulate writer, and he offers a vivid portrait of the man and his milieu. When the book was published back in 2006, Shurkin was interviewed by the ABC’s Radio National. Shurkin had access to Shockley’s personal archives and diaries, and speaking during the interview, described Shockley as follows:

He was a nasty old man. One of his friends actually described him as having reverse charisma; he would walk into a room and you instantly took a disliking to him. He was, at one time, a young man, a nice young man, not a particularly lovable young man. He was, among other things, extraordinarily bright, brighter than anybody he’d ever run into and he knew it, he was a bit arrogant about it. He lacked socialisation, his parents were, let’s say eccentric, kept him out of school until the 8th grade, so he grew up not knowing how to handle and deal with other people.

Shurkin, taking advantage of the Shockley diaries, portrays a man who was remarkably intelligent in scientific and technical matters, but sorely lacking in social and people skills. Shurkin details the struggles of Shockley’s subordinates who frequently bore the brunt of his criticism and stinging attacks. Shockley was a brilliant man, but lacked what we would today call emotional intelligence. In fact, the core team of scientists that Shockley recruited for his company eventually got so exasperated and frustrated by Shockley’s authoritarian and overbearing managerial style, that they all basically left his company and founded their own ventures which led to the formation of Silicon Valley. Shockley referred to this group of scientists as the ‘traitorous eight’. Shurkin details the attempts by Shockley’s employees to find a compromise solution, to work out their differences – all to no avail. Even Shockley’s Nobel Prize co-winners, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, sensed that Shockley harboured a certain jealousy or animosity that they had directly worked on the research for the first transistor, even though Shockley’s contribution as the overall project leader is obvious and cannot be denied. Brattain and Bardeen had increasing difficulties dealing with Shockley when they were at Bell Labs, even though, as Shurkin documents, the two of them stated that ‘there’s enough glory in this for everybody’.

Shurkin, an outstanding science writer, admirably details the scientific technicalities of semiconductor and transistor research, while also conveying the complexities of the nature-nurture debate with regard to human intelligence. He examines the responses of other psychologists and anthropologists on the ‘gene-versus-environment’ controversy, a debate that still resounds to this day. Sadly, Shockley’s views invited attacks as a racist and ignoramus in the field of biology. Psychologists and biologists currently regard the controversy as outdated, and speak of the interaction between genes and environment. We realise our nature through our nurturing environmental influences. Shockley, by advocating such genetic-determinist views on race and intelligence, seemed like an atavistic throwback, to a time in America’s history when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (particularly Jewish immigrants) were screened out because of their alleged intellectual inferiority to the superior Nordic races. Shockley’s technical brilliance in opening up the field of semiconductor research was overshadowed by his pronouncements on race. Shockley’s scientific reputation was corrupted, and his considerable achievements were largely forgotten in the maelstrom of controversy about his racial views. Shurkin avoids the temptation to dismiss his subject as a lunatic, but rather attempts to identify the trajectory that Shockley followed from public admiration to condemnation.