Book Review: Leighninger’s Long-Range Public Investment (2007)

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Book Review: Leighninger, Jr., Robert D. Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. 1st ed. 1 vol. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

(crossposted at Orange and Firedoglake)

(Inscription found on the Claremont, California post office)

(photos by the author)



Today comparisons are often made between the era of the Great Depression and that of the current era of “Great Recession.”  Obama, for instance, is compared to FDR, or to Herbert Hoover.  Unemployment rates now are compared to unemployment rates then.  The idea that the government might do something real about the Gulf Oil “leak” is compared to the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Slinkerwink puts out the lyrics to “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” on her diary as a metaphor for ‘the same old story.”  

The phenomenon of comparisons with the ’30s has been noticed in recent histories of the Depression: Morris Dickstein’s (2009) Dancing In The Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, for instance, tells us in its introduction:

As the credit markets dried up in 2008, there was a near-meltdown of the whole financial system, followed by a renewed fascination with every facet of the Depression and the New Deal.  (4)

Dickstein, whose history of the Depression largely covers the arts and the mass media, nevertheless lets loose here with a contrast of his own between now and then:

But these problems did not begin in 2007-08.  In the preceding decades we witnessed the contraction not only of American industry but of the old sense of unlimited possibility in American life. (4)

Dickstein, unfortunately, does not then elaborate upon this contrast: in his conclusion, though, he discusses the “collective energy” which brought a spirit of optimism to the later years of the Depression:

This sense of community, of collective action in the face of social disaster, combined with the lessening economic effects of the Depression, helps explain why the last years of the 1930s were a strangely hopeful period — despite the run of bad news from overseas, including the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, which attracted passionate international volunteers, and the intensifying persecution of the Jews of Germany, both of them rehearsals for much worse to come. (524)

Thus even though the Depression was a period of vast poverty and misery, there was a residual optimism to it, an optimism which sometimes suggested itself in radical “popular front” political and cultural production.  (See, e.g., Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front for further discussion of the era of Dos Passos and Steinbeck, Duke Ellington and Kenneth Burke.)  

There’s little optimism to our current period, whatever its relative prosperity, because there’s no honest future entertained by the political class today.  Nobody in power today has put any serious thought into what will happen when fossil fuels become too expensive for society to afford, or about when abrupt climate change eventually undermines the agricultural base, or about what happens when the contradictions of the capitalist system come due.  

There is, simply put, a hegemonic formation in power with no concept of the future outside of its own processes of capital accumulation, and with no serious political or cultural opposition, in an era in which capitalism runs up against entropic limitations.  If an optimism reminiscent of the late ’30s lies ahead for us, it’s hard to see its origin.

Recent discussion of the ’30s, then, is about more than a cultural comparison; rather, a comparison between future horizons is ultimately at stake.  What accounted for the “strange optimism” of the late ’30s?  If the great mass of the people were worse off (in general) in the ’30s than they are now, then what accounts for the difference in horizons?


The back cover of this volume tells readers what this book is about:

In this comprehensive survey combining architectural and social policy studies, Robert D. Leighninger Jr. reappraises the enduring achievements of public investment during the New Deal era. Leighninger argues that, though these initiatives produced the lasting backbone of the U.S. physical and cultural infrastructure, the value of these long-range investments is now being forgotten. In response Leighninger systematically assesses the schools, housing, bridges, roads, power plants, courthouses, hospitals, museums, stadiums, zoos, parks, and other public facilities built under the auspices of the New Deal. Many of the structures are still in use today.

Leighninger’s thesis, then, is that one of the more important remedies for the Great Depression was New Deal spending on “long-range public investment.”  The concept of “long-range public investment,” moreover, is not chic.  From the preface:

Long-range public investment is rarely discussed in public affairs.  When it is, it is with skepticism or derision.  Public works are defended in terms of immediate job opportunities.  They are attacked as wasteful, pork-barrel spending.  The fact that they might last seventy years as community assets is not part of the calculation.  Yet examples of such investment surround us.  They are products of the many public building programs begun in 1933 in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. (xv)

In his first chapter Leighninger discusses, in brief, the background for the Roosevelt programs.  He suggests that, setting the then-newness of Keynesian economics aside, the idea that public works could be part of a government intervention to deal with unemployment had already achieved widespread acceptance.  

The bulk of this book, then, from chapters 2 through 9, is a listing of the various programs which constructed public works in Roosevelt’s Presidential term.  The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was an organization which “put unemployed youth to work saving the nation’s natural resources,” (12) and which in the process built 46,854 bridges (27) and thousands of other towers, wells, cabins, dams, miles of fence and of road, while improving thousands of historic structures and beaches and planting about three billion trees.  The Public Works Administration, or PWA, disbursed money for state and local projects through private contractors.  The Civil Works Administration, or CWA, was a work-relief organization providing government jobs to build and repair roads, sewers, drainage ditches, privies, and other basic architectural amenities.  The Works Project Administration, or WPA, was a rather large employment-focused organization which built a rather wide variety of buildings and other architectural objects throughout America.  The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, is famous as an organization which commissioned dams in the South.  Pictures of famous landmarks built under these various programs are liberally sprinkled throughout this book.

The politics of these relief programs is discussed in good detail in this book.  The ideological limitation of American politics appears to have limited the scope of these programs, and thus the government’s ability to do something effective about the Depression.  As it says:

The WPA survived for eight years.  It never met the full need for employment, nor did anyone ever argue that, based on that gap, it should be given enough money to meet the need fully.  Its spokesmen continued to ask for what was thought to be obtainable and would allow continuation of the program then operating.  WPA was generally attacked on the basis of its being more expensive than a direct-relief program and defended on the basis that it was superior, in human terms, to the dole.  The battle never allowed it to be compared to some other alternative, a program that perhaps could have addressed the total problem of work and relief. (64)

The many successes and occasional failures of these programs are recounted in detail.  There a separate chapter on urban housing programs, many of which were built in slum neighborhoods.  The author tells us:

For those who could afford the rent — many of whom were what we call to day “the working poor” — PWA housing was a godsend.  It was clean, safe, solid, and in many cases had modern appliances that were the envy of many middle-class families.  One group for whom this shelter was particularly welcome was African Americans.  Housing opportunities even for the middle class were scarce and often miserable.  Over a third of the PWA housing projects were built for African Americans.  Twenty-one were for blacks only, and another six were integrated.  In general the New Deal offered unprecedented opportunities to African Americans but rarely came close to meeting what was actually needed.  (129)

There is also a separate chapter on “resettlement,” creating “subsistence homesteads,” rural-urban hybrid communities in which farmers would grow subsistence crops while working at jobs.  Leighninger:

Subsistence homesteads would help to re-anchor the floating population of displaced farmers and factory workers.  They would allow submarginal land — farms on exhausted soil or soil that should never have been planted in the first place — to be returned to forest or grass.  They would also offer a chance of ownership to those who had lost their homes or tenant farmers who had never owned one.  Like many New Deal programs, it was a multipronged attach on variety of problems.  And like most New Deal programs, it was a godsend to some and anathema to others.  (139)

There is a chapter in this book on “economic stimulus” and economic issues, a chapter on “federalism” and federal-state relations, and a chapter on “the paradox of pork,” the general suspicion leveled at some of these projects that they were “porkbarrel” projects.  Throughout this volume, the political context of these projects is discussed — the history of the government officials managing them is related in detail, as well as the occasional political scandals to which they were attached.

Generally, from Long-Range Public Investment we get a composite picture of a set of Federal programs doing quite a bit of business (though never really enough to meet the aggregate need at that time) in an expanding America which was nevertheless screwed up by intense poverty, racism, classism, anti-welfare ideology, and the general corruption of entrenched business interests.  Leighninger’s summary:

The New Deal, in a very short period of time, contributed a tremendous amount to the nation’s public life in the form of physical and cultural infrastructure.  That investment paid dividends for many decades thereafter and in many cases is still paying back. That should be remembered in times when commitment to public life ebbs and belief rises that we simply cannot afford to invest.  There was a time in our history when people found ways to combat despair by building for the future.  The evidence is all around us. (218)

We now live in such times.


In an earlier diary, written about 2 1/2 years ago at Docudharma, I suggested that the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” were being used in largely inappropriate ways in our society.  We cannot argue that our society is in any way sustainable, because our society is pervaded by processes which are unsustainable, and which will result in the destruction of our civilization if carried far enough.  Fossil-fuel consumption, environmmental over-harvesting, and capital accumulation are the three most important of these processes.  (Of course, the cognitive absence of a future makes it possible for “sustainability” to be anything one wants it to be.)

Therefore, I argued, we need a new category: “prefiguration.”  Things such as organic farms, earth-bag domes, and solar panels are prefigurations of sustainability, because they can be parts of a presentation to the world of what a sustainable society would look like.  

Here I would argue that the term “prefiguration” can also be used to describe the various buildings, roads, bridges, and other architectural amenities pictured and discussed in Leighninger’s book.  The difference is that all of this New Deal architecture was not a prefiguration of a sustainable society, but rather of the robust consumer society which was to appear later in American history in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Roosevelt Administration, in its own, compromised way, thought about the contradictions of capitalism which were coming due it its time, and came up with a real answer, one suited to an era of expanding capitalist discipline.  This real answer still constitutes many of the buildings we know and use today.

Our present-day society, on the other hand, needs to “prefigure,” through programs of long-range public investment, a sustainable society to appear in the future.  Sure, we could attempt to get the elites to approve another “New Deal,” compromised as the original New Deal was.  It really wouldn’t be enough — a different emphasis will be needed this time around, and even though the New Deal was a shining example of how government could get something done, any New Deal this time around will have to go forth in a different direction if it is to do something for America re: survival.  We have enough architecture already; the point is to create the right kind of architecture.  Remember, if we want “long-term public investment,” we will actually have to think about the real long term.

Our main requirement will be that our government program be commissioned to design objects prefigurative of sustainability, thus:

1) Minimal fossil-fuel use

2) Architecture which integrates its users into economic systems which are specifically NOT capitalist — this means oriented toward the self-sufficiency of small groups, run democratically, with local production of necessities for local use

3) “Walking lightly on the land” — with minimal impact upon resources

4) Restorative — with spaces for the preservation of natural biodiversity

5) Educative — but with a pedagogic vision centered around the management of ecosystems in more-or-less equilibrium states, rather than “capitalist discipline.”

So those would be meaningful prerequisites for a “New Deal” for the current era, a government bill which would actually address our present-day lack of a future.  Don’t hold your breath.


Skip to comment form

    • banger on June 12, 2010 at 22:29

    I’ll tell you what is needed. It has nothing to do with any particular program. Solutions to our infrastructure, to large scale unemployment, to security issues, health care,  and environmental issues are available to us–it is not so mysterious. Finding “solutions” is relatively easy.

    First we lack a real federal government that is dedicated to Constitutional rule and has at least some minimal interest in the public. The reason for the lack of hope is that everybody knows this and would rather not–therefore the fate of a silly 16 year old letting lost at sea is way more important than one of the greatest disasters to our ocean system we have yet seen.

    It is not the government’s fault that it has been strangled out of existence. The real issue is morality. I know people hate it when I bring this up but I have yet to see an argument against it.  We lack a solid basis for morality which is why I see people descend into pleasant, unpleasant or just deadening fantasies. People do not know how to act–they lack standards–they lack a mythological narrative wherein there is something to aim at and believe in that goes beyond the material well-being of their family and tribe. We’ve had a wholesale assault of virtue by the PR/Advertising/Entertainment media. Most people are confused or filled with the worst kind of fanatical certainty that is immune to discussion.

    All this was not the case in the 1930’s in America. People had enough sense of virtue that they could act in solidarity, make sacrifices, do without, endure pain, all anathema to today’s American. People with character are more optimistic than those who lack it because they know they can, when required, meet adversity with a minimum of fear–particularly because they regard courage as something positive whereas today courage is just some cartoon of an absurd fantasy.

    This reality is exploited by the right who at least make an attempt to provide a frame-of-reference for their idea of morality (as twisted as it is). The left has offered nothing but cynicism and sermons about how bad corporations are–bad based on what frame of reference? The left needs to articulate that frame of reference even if it is tentative.

  1. inquiry. Concepts are continuously being defined and redfined though dialogue within the limitations of the format. Words stand as symbols of a “place” that we can only know of by living itself and created by our willful and sponataneous interactions.

    We earthlings are new, and we have created this language game to which we fall back on all the time using the same dictionaries. Perhaps we need to work on new forms of expression or structures of perception that will enable us to articulate old concepts with new energy that will “catch on”.

    I think “morality” has to be built into every situation and response to it, and thus must transcend language itself, as if it were a new dimension of human intuition.

    Just thinking out loud——


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