Their Depression and Ours

Webster’s dictionary defines economic depression  as “low general economic activity marked by mass unemployment, deflation, a low level of investment” and decreasing use of resources.  Whether or not it’s time to use the D-word, with unemployment over 9% nationally by the limited, official standard and much higher if  discouraged workers and part-timers who can’t find full-time jobs are counted, the unemployment picture in the United States is starting to look, well, historic.

I asked James Barrett, a distinguished historian of working-class movements and American history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to place the current economic situation in the United States in the context of American social history.  Below,  Jim discusses “Their Depression and Ours,” comparing people’s responses to the crisis of the 1930s to what’s happening today. 

— Susan Davis

The current depression presents many people in the US and around the world with rather daunting prospects.  Conditions were much worse during the Great Depression of the thirties and workers faced the crisis with fewer resources at their disposal. Yet the prospects for creating social and economic change and solving the problems they faced were far better than they are today.

In the US, about one in three workers was completely unemployed and perhaps another third were working only part-time in the depths of Great Depression.  And if you are getting impatient with our slow recovery, consider the following:  With only a brief respite — produced, it seems, by New Deal spending and jobs programs — depression conditions persisted from around the end of 1929 through most of 1939 and abated only with the advent of war production.

With private charity overwhelmed and the government continuing to follow a laissez-faire course until New Deal programs began to take hold in the mid-thirties, the unemployed were forced to rely on their own resources and creative collective self-activity.  Coal miners in the anthracite region, thrown out of work and faced with a cold winter without heat, set up “bootleg mining operations,” providing energy for their families and friends and marketing the pilfered coal on a small scale in Philadelphia and other cities.  Workers bartered their skills: An electrician turned your power back on for a basket of home-grown vegetables.

But the decade also saw spectacular organized social movements that transformed the social and economic character of the US.  By far the most impressive efforts were the unemployed movements that burgeoned in the early thirties and the industrial union movements of the late thirties.  The earliest and largest movement, organized by the Communist Party, was the Unemployment Councils of the USA which led resistance of evictions and demonstrations to demand new government policies.  Between such self-help actions, unemployed protests, and strikes and organized factory occupations by those workers still employed, private property was violated on a regular basis in the name of human needs.

Today, while Jobs with Justice and other progressive organizations have staged demonstrations of the unemployed, by comparison with the thirties, we have seen little activity from above, in the form of systematic lobbying for relief and public works, or from below, in the form of marches on DC and the state capitals.  Likewise, despite valiant efforts among service, educational, and some manufacturing workers, we are seeing little of the sort of union organizing we saw in the thirties.

Where did the unemployed and other workers’ movements of the thirties come from and why are we not seeing something comparable today?

First, we live in a remarkably different political environment.  The election of a relatively more progressive government in late 1932, which retained its grip on power for two decades, only increased the need for independent organization on the part of working people.  Without the organized unemployed movement and the powerful industrial unions, the meager welfare state measures of the depression might have been quickly dismantled in a conservative reaction.  Instead, these movements mobilized their members in the streets and voting booths and New Deal measures were preserved and modestly expanded during and after World War Two, creating a safety net for the unemployed and a modest redistribution of the nation’s resources toward its working-class families.

While most would point to the strength of the political right today at both the state and federal levels, the biggest difference may be the lack of an organized left.  With no coherent alternative to severe reaction from the GOP and an endless parade of compromises from the Democrats, we have no coherent alternative vision and few organizers at the local level to win any such vision.  Most the leadership in the thirties came from the left and we simply don’t have that today.  Another dimension of this poverty of ideas and leadership stems from the decline of the labor movement over the past four decades.  In the thirties, the decrepit and conservative labor movement sprang to life in the very midst of the depression, but there is little sign of that today.

Behind all this lethargy looms the ideological strangle hold of neo-liberalism.  The thirties certainly had its share of sclerotic free marketers, but they were drowned out by a chorus of voices ranging from the Democratic Party through the democratic left to revolutionary socialists of various stripes.  Today, a remarkable and seemingly groundless faith in the market has become a kind of civic religion. Our conviction that creative solutions to our problems are at best “impractical” and probably “impossible” robs too many of us of our creative instincts.

It would be good to think that the solutions to our current problems lie in our own hands, as they did in the thirties.  But it is difficult to see a way forward at the moment and the odds remain stacked against the sort of genuine democratic movements that heralded vital change in our last great depression.

Jim Barrett

History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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About Susan Davis

I teach in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Theme: Humanities Respond to Crisis (2011-12), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

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