What Happened To The New Deal

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Howard Zinn asks why neither candidate wants to talk about the New Deal and offers up a potential speech one of them could give. I would argue that neither of them want to invoke that image because both hope to appeal to those who consider themselves “independents”, people who have voted Republican in the past but are disenchanted for various reasons and appealing to a “New Deal ethos” would be considered “too radical” for such broad based appeal. And invoking the “New Deal” would be a frank admission that we are teetering far too closely to collapse. Americans, above all like to “feel good” about themselves and their country. Never mind the blatant hatred those on the right have for the “New Deal”.

As Zinn notes, the “New Deal” was really an accommodation with capitalism, not rejection.

We might wonder why no Democratic Party contender for the presidency has invoked the memory of the New Deal and its unprecedented series of laws aimed at helping people in need. The New Deal was tentative, cautious, bold enough to shake the pillars of the system but not to replace them. It created many jobs but left 9 million unemployed. It built public housing but not nearly enough. It helped large commercial farmers but not tenant farmers. Excluded from its programs were the poorest of the poor, especially blacks. As farm laborers, migrants or domestic workers, they didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, Social Security or farm subsidies

Indeed, what many on the right fail to grasp is the extent to which the “New Deal” sought to save capitalism, not replace it. If one accepts Zinn’s description, the “New Deal” was much better than a band aid, and much less than real structural change.

You can read the whole Zinn article with the speech he wishes somebody would give here.

FDR, as Zinn sees it was largely forced into the “New Deal”.

The innovations of the New Deal were fueled by the militant demands for change that swept the country as FDR began his presidency: the tenants’ groups; the Unemployed Councils; the millions on strike on the West Coast, in the Midwest and the South; the disruptive actions of desperate people seeking food, housing, jobs — the turmoil threatening the foundations of American capitalism. We will need a similar mobilization of citizens today, to unmoor from corporate control whoever becomes President. To match the New Deal, to go beyond it, is an idea whose time has come

Although he asserts, that it needs to be resurrected, he also answers his own question. We might need a mobilizations of assertive citizens pressing and making demands, and that is exactly what we don’t have. Working class and middle class Americans were once able to mobilize and create a collective voice through unions. An NY times editorial notes that 12.1 percent of Americans belong to unions and that in the 1970’s  almost one in four workers belonged to one.

The editorial goes on to suggest that

There is little doubt that American workers need unions. Wages today are almost 10 percent lower than they were in 1973, after accounting for inflation. The share of national income devoted to workers’ wages and benefits is at its lowest since the late-1960s, while the share going to profits has surged. The decline in unionization has been a big part of the reason that workers have lost so much ground

Alas, it is easier said that done. Workers are not exactly competing as equals in the market place.

The future of organized labor is not cause for great optimism. Employers have become more aggressive about keeping unions out. Competitive pressures from globalization, deregulation and technological change have resulted in the loss of many union jobs.

Zinn might also want to ask of the two major candidates, why aren’t you raising the issue of unionization? Why aren’t you aggressively supporting the idea of helping workers organize in the face of employer opposition? They both certainly want union endorsements. Unfortunately, they want to both appear friendly to business interests, as well. After all neither want to offend capitalism, suggest the market doesn’t exactly work except for a few. Years ago, many in the middle class landed there precisely because of union membership, or because of policies unions agitated for. Today, many in the middle class enjoy entertaining the fantasy that they “made it on their own”. They fear aligning themselves with the poor and working class because if they do that, it suggests some punishment of their own accomplishments.

I don’t see the working class as being passive so much as silenced. Unions didn’t just allow bargaining for wages, they created a sense that collectivization was the only bulwark against the much stronger hand of capital. The idea of working class identity has largely splintered and disappeared as a recognizable social contruct. In the south, it has become increasingly aligned with culture politics ( The south will rise again, the Confederate Flag ) that has been successfully copted by the right. In the north, it has been shuttled aside in favor of the neighborhood, an idea that was once connected to the larger role of unions and is now an isolated island.

Unionization won’t solve all of our problems in negotiating with capital. Neither candidate wants to discuss either a “New Deal” or the crucial role unions play because they fear pissing off “moderates” and “independents” who are likely hostile to those notions. They fear acknowledging the “schisms” that are readily apparent as evidenced by two presidential elections that were very close.

Ironically enough, Americans are not as enamored of the free market as the Dems fear and the Republicans wish when it comes to discussing unions. A Gallup poll conducted in 2007 found that 60 percent of Americans approve of labor unions.

Ordinary Americans do recognize they are getting screwed in the market place, they are not just consumerist clones with no wish to talk about a new “social contract”. They are waiting to hear the words. Who dares to speak them?  


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  1. I was raised in a union household.

  2. They are waiting to hear the words. Who dares to speak them?  

    I’m still waiting.

    Great essay, ucc.

    • brobin on April 3, 2008 at 16:36

    of trying to be all things to all people.  Some day, they are going to finally learn that this way of doing things is a lose-lose situation for everyone, including themselves.  I hope that day comes soon.

  3. this should be read, and then his.

    kestrel’s essay deals with the lack of effective citizen push-back.

    and these are the things we desperately need to address and strategize about.

    we got the liar’s list and all the bad and horrible assaults. now we need to look at how to combat the dark forces.

    way to go!!! ucc!!!

  4. Pretty much sums up the choices.

  5. is that the event that made the New Deal happen, nearly happened again last week and may still happen soon.

    No liberal policy or belief can even remotely be blamed for something that may accomplish more change than 1 million protests could. That’s a fact, Jack. An economic meltdown will take any argument away from the Right with regards to policy, especially this war. They are just that close to self-destruction. Of course, we all come along for the ride.

    The MSM could not possibly spin for anything other than an abrupt lurch to the left.

    There is currently no sign that congress gets the message. None of the candidates for president even come close to addressing the fundamental issues that are undermining this country. It bothers me.

    It bothers me a lot. How often is the answer obvious in hindsight? For me, FISA is the issue I keep coming back to. What kind of fucking Democrat would consider for even a moment granting amnesty against civil rights violations, especially since there is an obvious remedy for the telco’s by simply showing a presidential order for anything they did wrong. The amnesty provision prevents Congress and the People from even finding out the extent of the violations. Under what conditions is this even to be considered by Republicans, let alone Democratic lawmakers? Shouldn’t at least one Senator call a press conference to scream at the cameras that something stinks like rotten meat?

    Does this bother anybody else? Ultimately, what could explain such grossly perverse behavior? The government has shown in the past that it is willing to suspend the rights of citizens at will when they interred Japanese American citizens, but this rises to a whole different level in that it affects all Americans, and really for no good reason. You don’t just casually throw away the 4th amendment because a president says it’s necessary, especially a president who has not even bothered to show a single bit of compelling evidence for the action.

  6. for the sort of Keynesian macroeconomic model that the New Deal was intended to impose.  Specifically, spending upon the Vietnam “conflict” was out of control, and so in the 1970s, in an atmosphere of oil embargo, the US (even then a subsidiary of a transnational capitalist class) imposed an economic order based upon dollar hegemony.  The stage was then set for global imposition of the “Washington consensus,” the ideology of neoliberalism, as a banner for “Two-Party System,” and the further imposition of capitalist discipline upon the global working class (and HEY, that means YOU!).

    Back in 1932, Keynes was still alive, and his economic theories were something brand-new, an alternative to the Great Depression.  Today, Keynesianism is said to have been made obsolete by the stagflation of the 1970s, which is said to have been cured by (name your favorite economic mumbo-jumbo).  Of course, we’re experiencing stagflation right now, but that won’t stop the neoliberals from dominating, for instance, the current Presidential contest.

    Howard Zinn tells us that the New Deal, product of Keynesianism, working-class revolt, and the President who believed in it, was a class compromise.  He tells us this because, unlike too much of America, he’s smart enough to have become an anarchist.  Bringing back the New Deal would require the re-establishment of conditions which once obtained in 1933:

    1) A relatively autonomous “national economy,” which the United States had in the 1930s, implying national control over the national currency (which in this case was the US dollar).

    2) An ecosystem capable of withstanding robust economic growth, which the United States had in light of the relatively “undeveloped” state of capitalism at that time.

    3) A consumer society able to increase its ability to consume to match the increasing production of goods and services caused by Keynesian pump-priming.

    The New Deal, see, was the ultimate strategy for the creation of a consumer society in America.  It only took off after World War II, with its total economic mobilization; but that was just icing, as the (Keynesian) rationale was firmly in place by then.  The consumer society was necessary for the growth of capitalism in an era in which factory production couldn’t just sell itself to a working class impoverished by low wages.

    We don’t need another New Deal at this point in capitalist development.  More Keynesianism will not dig the system out of its current crisis, which is ecological as well as economic.  The regime of capitalist discipline will have to be ended once and for all; we will need an ecological disicpline to keep life going.  

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