50’s Pop Psych Explains It All
(Pop psychology from the 50’s explains it all, and it doesn’t look good.)
I don’t know what the kids have been learning for the past fifty years or more, but it might be some of the same things we learned back when I was in high school. Pythagoras’ Theorem is still important, isn’t it? And of course we’ll always have “i before e, except after c,” right? Do they still have classes called “social studies,” or is it only Baby Boomers who remember those? If they have anything like that now, or classes that cover the same areas, mightn’t they still be teaching the experiment that we all heard about? The “psychology experiment” where they studied some rats living peacefully in an enclosed environment, and then they added more rats until the rats started killing and eating each other? I’m just going to assume that y’all’ve heard about that- and if you hadn’t until now, well, that’s nearly all you needed to know, anyway.
Everyone who remembers that bit of science remembers only that at some point the rat
population got so crowded that they flipped out, and that the experiment only studied the
rats. I think the assumption back then was that we were humans, so none of that applied to us. If I recall, when pressed, the psychologists and social scientists took the position that the experiment only indicated a potential that humans would duplicate the rats’ response; the experiment was interesting and all, but conjecture as to its predictive value was rarely offered.
We didn’t spend any time in the Fifties thinking about how that might apply to us because we’d just kicked serious, world-shaking ass in World War II and families—mostly returning vets—were reveling in the first throes of omnipotence. All over America, people were expanding out into the suburbs. Not having enough room wasn’t an issue; the government was helping out with cheap housing and educational loans. Money was flowing, the economy was growing, and everyone seemed to have enough food and space.
At that time, the population density of humans, especially in the United States, where much of the social research was done, had not yet gone critical; resources were cheap and seemingly inexhaustible, and expansion seemed inevitable. In the wake of the United States’ convincing leap into leadership after the Second World War, confidence abounded, prosperity first loomed and then ignited, and trust and honor were still characteristics that mattered in the world of business. However, when business gets better, business wants to get… better. In this case, better didn’t mean just better, it meant bigger and more efficient.
In a word: the game was afoot. When did you first hear the phrase, “leaner and meaner?” Were they saying that back in the ‘50’s? No, and I don’t think that was a catchphrase in the ‘60’s or ‘70’s, either. I was out of contact with anything remotely corporate in those years, but I think I’d remember hearing it. I know it was there by the late 80’s. That was the time of “Leaner and Meaner” and “Greed Is Good.” By then, it was a race to show results, to make money. By then, it wasn’t just a desire, it was a war to win profits- and honor and trust were spies for the enemy, weeded out when they couldn’t be used.
Clichés are born of repetition, and Leaner and Meaner became an ever-present mindset. Pressure to succeed was ratcheted up a turn every year in the business world, and the hours of work needed for increased profit also increased, and within a relatively few years the forty-hour work week became a nostalgic relic of the past. We concentrated in the cities and then expanded into the suburbs, and the average time needed to commute to work increased. But they wanted the open spaces and the schools for their kids, right? Many people can’t do the work while commuting and they are getting up earlier than ever to do some work before going to work, and of course sometimes you either have to stay even later or bring the work home with you to do after everyone’s gone to bed. And you have to get it done because increasingly your job performance is in competition with your fellow workers. Invariably, “leaner and meaner” breeds tension and fear.
Remember that the original rat environment started out as a peaceful place, with enough food to go around and enough space so no one was stepping on anyone else’s foot paw. Eating, fucking, shitting, sleeping: it was paradise. Then- from somewhere- new guys started showing up, and they had to share the food. At first there was still enough, but you might get pushed to the back by some of the younger ones and have to wait for yours. Then more of those rat bastards showed up and it turned into a struggle for the food, and then it turned into fighting for the food, and then the guys that didn’t get enough had to eat the guys that didn’t get any, and after that it was a goddam massacre in there until the scientists came in and killed them all.
I don’t believe there’s anyone to blame for not thinking about it back then, but while the experiments with the rats were being observed, no one had any idea that the seeds of a similar situation were being sown in America, had already been sown all over the world, and would soon enough begin to bear the bitter fruit of competition, rivalry and survival. Since those experiments in the 1950’s, the pressure for survival in our culture has increased steadily, gradually. A brief look at the changes over the past fifty years in the familial patterns, the eating, dating, sexual, educational, sartorial and religious habits of the culture, the shifts in attitude, in goals, and especially the shifts in levels of optimism, of satisfaction, and of fear, of depression and suicide, would show an enormous change in our culture, and I won’t make the judgment, but you tell me if you think the changes have been for the better.
There is a new tax proposal that helps corporations and the wealthy considerably more than it helps those in the middle and under classes. The phrase “Trickle- Down” economics is again being hailed as the answer, but it has never worked. Never. Historically, when corporations receive large cash infusions, they use the money to buy back shares, pay down debt, and reward their executives and board members. Historically, none of that largesse ever trickles down to the workers because corporations run America, and they are run by executives who have to answer to their boards of directors, all of whom want increased profits—not just profits, but increased profits—which the executives need to provide to stay in their jobs and get the salaries and all the perks. There is enormous pressure on CEOs to add to the bottom line, not to provide healthy work environments or satisfying jobs. Legality is still an issue, but the need for anything that can be used to increase production is far ahead of worker satisfaction. This is so prevalent that any rare deviation towards worker satisfaction is noticed and celebrated in the media, often by the companies themselves.
A long time ago I remember seeing an interview between Keith Olbermann and Arianna
Huffington, and the subject discussed was what had happened to the billions of dollars that Barack Obama gave to several banks to keep them from going under. At the time, those banks were using some of the money they’d been given to pay lobbyists to persuade members of Congress to vote against legislation that would protect and benefit the public and reduce the profits taken by the banks. The banking industry was using our money to fuck us, and the odds were that they’d get away with it. Now- that is exactly what I was talking about: The guys at the front of the feeding trough are getting theirs, and the guys in the middle are getting theirs, but the guys near the back are turning on the guys behind them and eating them. And those guys in the back are us. It’s cannibalism out there, people, more so than ever. And it’s getting worse. So all I’m saying is that maybe we should go back and look at that rat data again, more carefully this time, and look at- you know, the part near the end- when everything went to shit. Because I think I can see that from here.