Read and be inspired by "Dreamers with Shovels: How the First New Deal Remade America,"by Nelson Lichtenstein, in The American Prospect, the 2019 bonus issue on the Green New Deal
There are lots of stories we tell ourselves during these holidays and one of the most ubiquitous is Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. I have a hard time with the traditional version. For one thing, I know how it is going to end. It's like A Star is Born. I don't want to put myself through either one again--the latter because it is so depressing and we know it will be (four versions are enough for me), and the former because I've seen it a dozen times, and its politics are atrocious. At least in the United States, the capitalist conversion theme has always been a non-starter for 98% of the class. I think it may be worse today. Some very rich people have announced that they should be taxed more, but they really are a handful. Most of the very rich--and they are richer than such people have ever been in America--want to be taxed less and think they deserve to be billionaires.* And, according to Paul Krugman, they are not satisfied to live like kings. ("Warren Versus the Petty Plutocrats," New York Times, 9/30/2019). They expect to be treated like kings, lionized as job creators and heroes of prosperity. If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee, many will vote for Trump, despite his racist authoritarianism and not just because of the giant handouts he gave them in the 2017 tax cut--handouts that Warren and Sanders want to take back. They also think that Warren disrespects them. But she does not seem be bothered about big capital's hostility. Nor was another progressive politician. Franklin D. Roosevelt said this about the plutocrats: "They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred."
There are flaws and bad ideas in every politician and Roosevelt had them. But he and other liberals interacted in creative and complex ways with a surging population of poor people and workers, and the result was a huge reset for power relationships in America. Yes, almost nothing was done to directly attack gender inequality or racial inequality and New Deal spending was insufficient to end the depression. But for the mass of the people there was a huge change: more jobs, more income, more job security, less repression from employers and from conservative--often Republican--politicians who had dominated their communities. Blacks in some cities got a disproportionately high number of positions in the WPA and the PWA, and in the south it was often much better working for the federal government than for private employers. In many industrial towns, "Laborite ethnics" who were Roosevelt Democrats won elections and took over local governments. They defended freedom of speech for unionists, dismantled some Jim Crow traditions, and ran little New Deals that taxed businesses to pave the streets and build schools. In rural areas, small towns and large cities across the land, thousands of local and federal government projects massively improved infrastructure. Not to mention that the New Deal laid the foundations of the American social-welfare state, including Social Security, the Wagner Act (not much enforced any more), and the minimum wage (so low now that it helps few people).
Much of the New Deal's social democratic spirit and mass involvement carried over into the war period. One striking example: to track and limit inflation, federal managers not only hired 60,000 employees; they also enlisted and trained 300,000 volunteer "price checkers." And inflation was tamed, despite the greatest federal borrowing and spending spree in U.S. history to that time.
In his terrific article Nelson Lichtenstein holds up the working-class-New Deal experience as an inspiration for the Green New Dealers of today. He does not discuss why the spirit of that great movement dissipated. Nor specific lessons for today's social democrats and progressives, except the major point that the kind of big plans they want to realize today were realized in the 30s, and can be again. Certainly the story Nelson presents is exciting and inspirational. And it really happened.
*Hold on: Are Krugman and I wrong and Dickens right? Salesforce chief Marc Benioff claimed that "Capitalism as we know it is dead." It is being replaced by businesses that are "driven by values, ethics and a desire to take care of employees." ("Touting Kinder, Gentler Values in Business," Los Angeles Times, 12/26/2019). Really? Let's check back in five years to see whether there was a surge in real wages and in union membership. I am pretty sure right now that Mr. Benioff had a little too much Christmas rum and slipped off into Dickensland. Some big banks may serve more eco-friendly food in their cafes, but will workers gain substantial income? Will corporations refrain from so many stock buybacks? Will the lords of Wal-Mart and Amazon get behind unionization? I think we know the answer. If Trump wins again and the ideas of Warren and Sanders are seen to have been repudiated, even the era of paternalistic good-feelings rhetoric may be over.
Frank Stricker is a board member of NJFAN and emeritus professor of history and labor studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills. His new book, American Unemployment, Past, Present and Future, will be out in June. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations he is part of.