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Learning from the Great Depression for Today

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I was happy to be interviewed for this Livia Gershon story at JSTOR Daily on what the Great Depression can tell us about where we are at today. The two main points I wanted to make was that we can’t expect the organizing that happens now to immediately lead to success and that any class-based organizing has to be anti-racist to succeed.

“A lot of Roosevelt’s campaign in ’32 is ‘I’m not Herbert Hoover,’” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s not policy-driven, not about organizing the masses.” In fact, Loomis told me, if FDR had been a left-wing figure, he couldn’t possibly have won the nomination of the 1932 Democratic Party, which, like the Republican Party, was deeply beholden to big corporations.

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Instead, the shape of major New Deal programs—including public hiring through the Works Progress Administration, Social Security’s old age and unemployment insurance, the NLRA, and progressive taxes—largely followed ideas that had been brewing on the liberal side of mainstream political conversations for decades. To many policymakers, relief for workers was a way of supporting capitalism. It powered the economy by encouraging consumer spending.

“When those measures are passed in the ‘30s, the left considers them all sell-out measures,” Loomis said. “FDR is heavily criticized on the left.”

Clemens and Loomis said progressives are better positioned to argue for something beyond “normal” than they were in the last economic crisis, which began more than a decade ago with the mortgage lending crisis of 2008. Between now and then, new ideas have drifted toward the mainstream. The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 brought economic inequality into mainstream conversations. Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and resistance to President Trump’s policies on immigrants have built new frameworks for political work. But, Loomis said, racism remains an enormous stumbling block when it comes to building these policies—or even supporting and protecting workers in the current crisis.

“It’s absolutely my belief that if it wasn’t for the fact that you have higher rates of COVID among people of color—if it was white people that were suffering at that rate—you would not have this right-wing push to reopen the economy,” Loomis said.

He added that progressive economic movements are unlikely to succeed without taking on explicitly anti-racist work.

“It’s the single most important issue,” he said. “It’s something that I think even the left struggles to admit because it forces them to talk about the white working class in a way that does not fit with the kind of narrative that there’s all these people that are just waiting to be organized cross-racially.”

Right now, both Clemens and Loomis said, it’s simply hard to see what this crisis will bring. Maybe we will eventually return to “normal.” Maybe suffering will keep ratcheting up for many people, with no adequate response in sight. Or, perhaps, we’ll shift toward something better.

“We’re not in 1934 right now, we’re in 1929, 1930,” Loomis said. “What people are doing now in these very nascent moments may be laying the groundwork for things that are coming in a series of years.”

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