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.

5 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway, lost generations and economic experiments

  1. An excellent review and insightful connection with current events.

    One thing to add, though, is that a large part of the blame for Greece’s current situation must lie at the feet of successive Greek governments, who did little to plan strategically for Greece’s future and, instead, overstretched its welfare budget. Sadly, this was used as an excuse to impose austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere that are beyond anything previously imaginable, and that, in the case of Cyprus, are surely illegal!

  2. I think one of the myths utilised by the advocates of neoliberal globalisation is the myth of the unaffordable welfare state. While the proportion of a country’s GDP spent on welfare can be measured, the mantra from the corporatist fundamentalists is that welfare expenditure is the main source of blame for the current economic crisis. Welfare measures did rise in Greece over the 1970s and 1980s, but so did the country’s GDP. Public debt did not cause this crisis, but the financial speculation and use of asset bubbles, all of which remained unregulated. Indeed, the advocates of privatisation argued for further loosening of public controls and government regulation of private-banking spending, and this totally unregulated speculative activity is the main fiscal reason contributing to the current economic malaise.

    The welfare state was never out of control, or a major burden on the Greek economy, or the economies of other European nations. In fact, the countries that are currently avoiding the major impact of the capitalist economic crisis, such as Sweden, Denmark, (to a lesser extent France) actually have the larger social welfare expenditures as a proportion of GDP than the other crisis-wracked economies. Certainly the Greek politicians should be held accountable for their decisions. Their mismanagement is not be excused, but financing the welfare state was a responsible and socially-useful measure that alleviated the suffering of the economically disadvantaged. It is the financial mismanagement, the real estate and asset bubbles, the prioritisation of corporate profits over social needs, that is responsible for the economic breakdown. Shifting the cost of the ‘austerity’ policies onto working people is the tactic of the financial elites; shifting the blame for the capitalist crisis onto the socially-useful aspects of state spending, such as the welfare state, is also an ideological tactic of the corporate-financial elite to absolve themselves of culpability for this crisis.

  3. Rupen, you’re right that there are a range of other reasons that also contributed to Greece’s problems. One of these reasons that I forgot to mention is its growing military spending to counter the (perceived or real) Turkish threat. And of course a strong welfare state acts as a buffer for the vulnerable in times of crisis.

    However, I’m not sure if it’s correct to say that public debt didn’t cause this crisis. Sure, the Scandinavian states also have a strong welfare system, but their public debt as a percentage of GDP is lower than Greece’s. Greece has one of the highest levels of debt per GDP in the world, along with Japan and Zimbabwe. This level of debt makes a country more vulnerable to the kind of financial speculation that you refer to above, and an easy target for the knife-wielding ‘austerity surgeons’ at times like this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s