With everything that has been going on, and the recent announcement that the United States might be hitting 30% unemployment soon, there has been a lot of talk about the Great Depression, and the various similarities and differences between now and then. There are a lot of parallels, and most of them are not comforting. We have a global pandemic that looks poised to kill millions by the end of the year. The economy, after decades of being undermined and redesigned for the sole benefit of the rich and powerful, is collapsing. We’re in the midst of an ecological crisis which, just like the pandemic, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The problems caused by the growing inequalities in wealth and power are leading to a rise in extremist far-right political movements, violence, and scapegoating aimed at those with the least power. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat, but it sure does seem to rhyme.
So what’s different?
Lots of things. For one, we’ve gotten better at medicine. Even with the disastrous equipment shortage we’re faced with, we have a far better understanding of how diseases spread, how to treat their symptoms, and how to develop medicines that make a real difference. We’re also better at moving stuff around the planet. Equipment, doctors, food, and raw materials can be shipped to where they’re needed much more quickly and easily than they could in the 1920s.
I’ve heard some people worry that, compared to the Great Depression, fewer people have the space, know-how, or pre-existing gardens to grow their own food. I think that is a valid concern, but how much of a concern is probably going to depend a lot on policy. As I mentioned, shipping food internationally has never been easier, and while we can’t rule out massive crop failures with the unstable global climate, it’s been mentioned many times that the world grows more food than is needed to feed everybody already. All that’s lacking is the will to invest in distribution. Likewise, with modern technology, a national jobs program could include investment in the construction and running of indoor/vertical farms, and cities could begin to grow their own food. This could both reduce pressure on the various ecosystems currently used for food production, and reduce pollution generated by shipping across great distances.
Things like that aren’t likely to be “crowdsourced” into existence, but if we’re going to be spending vast amounts of taxpayer money to keep the economy afloat, we might as well be using it to address other problems that need solving. Now is definitely time for the Green New Deal.
And that brings us to the key difficulty. Addressing all of these problems requires placing power in the hands of people who want to address them, and taking power away from those who want to prevent the changes we need. Electoral politics is definitely one of the ways to do this, and I would encourage everybody who hasn’t voted in the Democratic primary thus far to seriously consider voting for Bernie Sanders – the policies he wants are the policies we desperately need, not just for America, but for the good of the whole planet.
But beyond that, there’s something that we had in the 1920s that we don’t really have right now, or at least not the way we need it. The missing ingredients are the socialist and labour movements. When FDR enacted the New Deal in 1933, it didn’t just happen because everyone got together and agreed that it was the best course of action. It happened because America had a powerful, and angry labour movement, and a powerful socialist movement. FDR pushed for the New Deal, but what made it happen was the fear, on the part of what he called “economic royalists”, that if they didn’t give up some of their wealth and power, then America might be the next country to see something like a Leninist uprising, and they would lose everything. Faced with that choice, some tried to overthrow Roosevelt and install a fascist regime, but in the end, we got the New Deal instead.
I think by studying that era, we can see cause for hope, as well as cause for fear. We can see the work that we need to do, and we can see the kinds of reaction we can expect. The Left is weaker than it was in that era, and we need to change that. Unlikely as it may seem, I’d still like to see a President Sanders, but he won’t be able to do much without the ability to point out the window when the oligarchs say “you and what army?” Likewise, if we get someone like Biden, he will only agree to left-wing policies if there’s a massive movement pushing him to do so. Any way you look at it, what we need right now is class solidarity, class politics, and a mass movement by the working classes, which I would argue includes most of the “middle” class, whether or not folks like to admit it.
As with so many other things these days, the amount of damage done to society seems to depend a lot on policy decisions. Having the “Camp of the Saints” crowd in charge seems like a good way to have a lot of people die due to incompetence that can never quite be proven to be deliberate.
If you have time to kill, read up on the labour movement. Read up on the Civil Rights movement. Read up on political change. Two books that come to my mind are The Zinn Reader, a collection of writings by Howard Zinn, and Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. I’m honestly not very well-read on this sort of thing, though I’m trying to change that. There’s also a wealth of information to be found online, and useful stuff from Lefty youtubers and people like Richard Wolff. I’ll try to keep linking anything that seems useful as I continue writing.
Thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, layoffs have increased, job interviews have been indefinitely postponed, and many places aren’t hiring new workers. All of that means I really need help paying my bills and keeping a roof over my head. Patreon.com is a way for you to help with that, even if it’s just a little bit, and get some perks and extra content in return. You control how much you give, and how long you give it, and every little bit really does help. When lots of people pitch in, it can make a huge difference. Please help if you’re able, and share my work with others. Thank you!