The Age of Frustration

The period before World War I was marked by inequality, terrorism, and discontent with democracy. Sound familiar?


We mark this year the 100th anniversary of World War I. Books, articles, and events have mourned the costs, celebrated the soldiers, and extolled the values of the victors. But behind the sentimentalism there are also hard realities and compelling lessons for democracy that apply not to some distant, forgotten world but to our own. There is much about the 1890s that seems disquietingly familiar. Our time echoes theirs.

The period before the First World War was an age of frustration. It was called the Belle Époque by those lucky enough to be the wealthy of Europe — a time of top hats, ennui, and stately promenading. But historian Barbara Tuchman reminds us that there was a frantic, haunted quality to the era as well, what one observer described as a “smell of burning” in the air.

It was a time of increasingly feverish foreign policy crises. Seemingly dire emergencies came and went with dizzying rapidity. The Venezuelan Crisis of 1895, the Moroccan crisis of 1905, even the Spanish American War were short, sharp events that filled the headlines for a day but then seemed to fade to insignificance.

The sudden crises and their sudden enthusiasms were fueled by deep economic dissatisfactions. A large and apparently permanent gap existed between wealthy and poor — thought at the time to be an unavoidable accompaniment to industrialization. Cities now had slums packed with poor and landless workers: restless, hopeless, dangerous. Inequality made the times inherently unstable.

In politics, there were troubling signs of combativeness and strange self-destructive tendencies. Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States were rocked by national crises — like the Dreyfus Affair in France — that caused the work of government to grind to a halt. In retrospect, though, these crises seem to have been about almost nothing at all. Why paralyze France for eight years over a case of injustice to a captain of the artillery? Why bring the German government to the edge of collapse over purported sexual misconduct? Politics seemed like an engine that had slipped out of gear: nations were not moving forward but there was heat, smoke, and the frightening whine of engines spinning out of control.

In a deeply discouraging work called The Condition of England, published in 1909, Charles F. G. Masterman warned of a world divided vertically “between nation and nation armed to the teeth” and horizontally “between rich and poor.” Global society, he wrote, was prey to “gigantic and novel forces of mechanical invention, upheavals of people, social discontents,” while power was “more and more concentrated in the hands of enormous Corporations.” He expressed deep pessimism about the future in a setting where “vast implements of destruction are placed in the hands of a civilization imperfectly self-controlled,” and in which “material advance has transcended moral progress.”

Social life, both high and low, seemed strangely stultified. The rise of claustrophobic Victorian morals among the wealthy was matched by periodic campaigns — like the temperance movements in the United States in the 1880s — that sought to put an end to decadence in the lower classes. For both rich and poor, it was a time of social coercion.

Most tellingly, there was a sharp turn toward radicalism, anarchism, and violence. Assassination became a commonplace. In the twenty years before 1914, six heads of state were killed by anarchists: President Carnot of France, Premier Canovas of Spain, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, King Humbert of Italy, President McKinley of the United States, and Premier Canalajas of Spain. And, of course, in the summer of 1914 Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was also killed.

It was as if heavy skies had settled over the era, bringing tension, claustrophobia, and shortness of breath. It’s difficult to escape the idea that this sense of suffocation was brought about in some way by the long peace that Europe had experienced for almost 100 years. The Concert of Europe — a tacit agreement to avoid war through conferences and a balance of power — was established in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon. It maintained peace in Europe for almost 100 years. It brought economic growth and enormous wealth. But it was also a conservative system that aimed, above all, to preserve the established order. It brought stability, but it also kept monarchies and their backward looking political, social, and economic policies frozen in place.

It is no accident that rebellions flared up across Europe in 1848. There was a deep desire for change. The crushing of those rebellions fueled the hopelessness that led to anarchism and assassinations. The anarchists argued, and many believed, that the only way to bring about real change was through radical, violent action.

While the upper classes felt ennui during “the beautiful age,” others felt a dangerous sense of desperation. War — any war — would be better, they said, than the stifling peace that hung over Europe. We often forget that large numbers of people were relieved at war’s outbreak in 1914. Huge crowds cheered in England and the bells of the churches rang all night and all day following the announcement of war. The German writer Thomas Mann equated peace with “civil corruption,” and wondered whether war could be seen as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope….”

Doesn’t this sense of frustration sound familiar? Each of the conditions in this list — international relations, politics, economics, social mores, violence — is echoed in our own age. There has been a cascade of feverish foreign policy crises: Sino-Japanese disputes over tiny islands, threats of war over Iran’s nuclear program, fighting in Gaza, turmoil in Ukraine, civil war in Syria, and the sudden rise of ISIS. Some of these have been over genuine issues. Others, in retrospect, seem to have been more about anger and emotion than real clashes of interests.

Economically — in the United States at least — there are again robber barons and a wide and troubling gap between the rich and poor. There is a widespread belief that politics is dominated by money and the rich.

We in the West live in a time where the responses to social rule-breaking are at least as ferocious as in the Victorian era. Sports figures lose their jobs over allegations of actions that offend current mores. Campaigns for diversity often result in remarkable intolerance. But it is in less liberal countries that the oppressive enforcement of social mores is starkest. The fierce repression of gays in Russia and fanatic strains of Islam reflect a growing tyranny of social mores. Severity is not simply tolerated: there is a yearning for harsh social rules in many corners of the globe.

In domestic politics, there is deadlock in several key countries, but most obviously in the United States. The U.S. debt ceiling crisis, for example — an impasse that seemed to have no cause, no purpose, and disappeared as soon as it was resolved — had a form that is strikingly similar to the political imbroglios of the 1890s. (Even though the Parliament bill of 1911 “absorbed for months the efforts, passions, and utmost political skills of Crown, Ministers, and Opposition,” Barbara Tuchman writes, it was ultimately “a spurious issue,” quickly forgotten.) Government today is tied in knots over causes so slight as to seem incomprehensible in retrospect. There is an overwrought quality to politics.

And, as in the Belle Époque, there has been a sudden rise in desperate acts of violence. Modern extremism focuses on killing civilians rather than assassinating leaders. But the similarity is there: frustration, rage, and a willingness to shed blood.

One explanation for the peculiarities of our age might be that, like the Concert of Europe, there has been an established order that has been solidly in place for almost seventy years. Anchored by NATO and a series of other alliances (mostly the product of the United States), the world order has remained remarkably stable for generations. It has brought peace and prosperity to much of the West. But like the Concert of Europe it has also sometimes stifled changed and rebellion. For many years it did so in the name of preventing the spread of communism. But it also did so for economic reasons (as in the Middle East) and for simple stability. The United States and its allies have supported monarchies and repressive regimes that have resisted political change.

News reports tell of thousands of volunteers streaming to the camps of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Western leaders scratch their heads and wonder what could possibly motivate people to go to fight in the desert. But in an age of frustration, ISIS must seem to some like a light of change and purity. The “corrupt” culture of greed and sensuality in the West could well seem like a fitting target for violent reform.

The antidote to frustration is both simple and difficult: outlets for real change. Revolution and rebellion offer one path in this direction. This is perhaps why Thomas Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

But revolution risks unleashing the desire for violence that lurks so near the surface of our animal natures. Revolution too often ends as the French Revolution did — with terror, anarchy, and then dictatorship. Revolution is strong but dangerous medicine.

Another possibility would be to let off steam with wars. But this is even more dangerous than revolution. The First and Second World Wars — which were the release valve for all the pressure that built up during the 19th century — resulted in something like 90 million dead. (In the photo above, U.S. veterans dressed as World War I soldiers participate in New York City’s Veterans Day parade on Nov. 11.)

The surest antidote to an age of frustration is to provide regular and steady mechanisms for change, to build into governance mechanisms that allow for change when it is needed — democracy, in other words. Democracy is the most effective antidote to rage.

Yet democracy in some western societies currently appears calcified and ineffective, to the extent that it no longer attracts the interest of a majority of citizens. The voter turnout in the most recent elections in the United States may have been the lowest since the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1804. The widespread sense that government fails to reflect the concerns of the governed gives rise to protest movements such as the Occupy campaigns and the Tea Party. Europe has its own worries about the deepening “democratic deficit,” reflected in the rise of UKIP and other anti-immigrant movements. Many voters share the belief that government responds only to narrow (mostly moneyed) interests that are unwilling to countenance new ideas or fresh approaches. Name the last news story you read that talked about popular pressure leading to refreshing innovation in government.

What changes would strengthen democracy in the West? Attention needs to be given to assuring robust competition in elections. The more districts are designed to be “safe” for one party or the other, the less democracy exists. Care needs to be taken that votes determine elections, not money. But most importantly, the values that form the foundation of each nation need fresh attention, care, and respect. Successful rule, like successful law, is based fundamentally on shared values. Where that sense of shared values evaporates, not even a system perfectly in balance can maintain true democracy.

Frustration abates when constructive work absorbs our attention. When there are new challenges, novel institutions, and better ways of organizing our lives, it can pull us away from the restless desire to tear down, to destroy, to kill our fellows.

Democratic reforms may not suffice to stem the current rising tide of anger and frustration. It may be that human emotion flows in vast waves, and that we have arrived at a moment of frenzy that even governmental reform cannot turn aside. But of the three — democracy, revolution, or war — democracy is the safest, most sensible choice to try. It is, perhaps, our “last best hope.”

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