Remembering the New Deal changes our deal

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

Harold Laski's 1934 assessment of FDR (hat tip Anthony) is full of echoes for Obama and 2009.

What is different today is that we are now so aware of the 1930s and the parallels. The New Deal invented the restoration of confidence as it went along. It was part of FDR's greatness that he got so much of this muddling blind progress right. But today, we had got used to Bernanke being the expert on the economics of the Depression when Obama appointed Christina Romer, also the expert, to chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

The self-consciousness means that there is a certain script-like feel to the unfolding of the crisis. The car makers ask for a bail-out; the government asks for symbolic humiliation and a business plan; pay-checks will keep being sent ... Little by little, year by year, fear will subside and the the government will slowly retreat.

But if we know this, then what do we need to fear? If the whole process is too script-like, the crisis may be wasted beacuse the period of fear is when public policy can  make change. The change will be slowly dismantled over generations after the fear is over, but, just as the 1930s legislation defined the broad outlines of consumer capitalism for us, so our policy changes over the coming years will define the context (and the countervailing ideology) for three generations of social development. Chicagoism needed Keynes; what we do today will determine the dominant counter-ideology of tomorrow.

Although Roosevelt was right that fear was fearful, that it needed to be conquered to re-establish some normality to the economy, he must also have known that only fear permitted a genuine, if not permanent, reallignment of interests.

Things to absolutely keep on the agenda: anti-poverty, international, green. Ford understood this in the green business plan it offered up to Congress, but was it only for show?

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Highlights from the article

    • He is attempting a revolution by consent; and it is the latter term in his equation that is fundamental to the formation of a judgment.

    • In Europe and the Far East, in fact, force and unreason dominated the minds of men. Traditional values were in the melting pot; and, as in all epochs where basic changes are under discussion, panic and doubt and even persecution prevented any calm estimation of the effort Mr. Roosevelt had undertaken.

    • than the sober conservatism upon which they have been built.

    • a question as to whether Mr. Ickes and his colleagues can discover undeniable objects of beneficent expenditure.

    • For it cannot be too often insisted, as Mr. Keynes has so often emphasized, that capitalism, by the law of its psychological being, needs to be immensely more successful than any alternative economic arrangement if it is to retain the allegiance of a multitude which possesses political power. The disparities of its results are too irrational for any alternative attitude to be possible over any long space of time. And the changed temper was made the more inevitable by the crude optimism of its defenders in the era of Coolidge and Hoover. They had raised the expectations of the multitude to such dizzy heights that their failure to satisfy them was bound to result in a scrutiny of foundations.

    • We must not forget that the election of 1932 was the expression of nothing so much as a demand for this scrutiny by angry and bewildered men who had entered the Promised Land only to discover that it was a desert. In dealing with their discontent, President Roosevelt has shown high qualities of enterprise and courage; but those who doubt the wisdom of his effort ought to remember that unless he had shown those qualities the patience of the multitude would have been brought to breaking point. He is not a revolutionist pursuing some private Utopia by the light of an inner wisdom. He is the logical expression of social forces and could hardly have acted otherwise if he wished to retain the characteristic contours of American life.

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