Whatever happened to the Future? Lessons from the 1930s

by Theo Curtis

Make america great again (32035135160)

James McNellis via Wikimedia Commons

The phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ is not just a vague or empty slogan designed to win votes. The lost greatness that this phrase seeks to capitalise on relates to the perception among a majority of Americans that their country is in decline. Nor is this pessimism entirely unfounded – it is a well established fact that living standards have stagnated over the course of the twenty-first century, and have yet to recover from the economic crisis of 2008. Perhaps adding to the sense of hopelessness for the average American is the increasing precarity of existence, as zero-hour contracts, job losses and a safety net savaged by waves of austerity make existence intensely insecure for an increasing share of society. Under these conditions it is no wonder that voters are responding to candidates who offer the possibility of redemption through a return to a mythical past of economic security, national sovereignty and cultural homogeneity. Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Tommy Robinson are united in at least one aspect: they promise to return things to ‘how they were’, to reverse the tide of globalism and multiculturalism that has supposedly destroyed the old way of life. This has been the populist-nationalist response to the flood of anger and fear let loose by the financial crisis of 2008, and it has defied commentators with its unexpected success.

The rise of the populist-nationalist movement has come at a significant cost to the success of social-democratic parties in Europe and America. White working-class voters who traditionally formed the backbone of support for social-democratic parties have migrated in huge numbers to populist-nationalist parties. The compromise between social democracy and neoliberalism forged in the 1990s alienated a large proportion of society from the left. Deeply complicit in the projects of privatisation, globalisation and financialisation, the social-democratic parties are perceived as representatives of the untenable status quo, whilst the populist-nationalists enjoy the status of the authentic voice of anti-establishment outrage.

The group that has most successfully capitalised on this anti-establishment feeling in north-western Europe and the United States has been the populist-nationalists.

The success of the populist nationalist movement is even more striking when contrasted with the political fallout following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The decade spanning the Great Depression bears a number of resemblances to the Great Recession. Both interrupted a long period of sustained economic growth, both were global events and it took almost a decade to recover from both. However, in the aftermath of the Great Depression it was the social-democratic left that triumphed over the populist-nationalists in all but a few fascist states. The change was particularly evident in the United States between the Republican-dominated economic individualism of the ‘New Age’ in the 1920s and Roosevelt’s New Deal collectivism post-1933. The severity of the Great Depression convinced many that this was not just an inevitable phase of the ordinary business cycle. The economists Stuart Chase, Arthur Dahlberg and John Maynard Keynes suggested that the crisis was the result of tension between new technologies and the market economy.

In 1932, the popular economist Stuart Chase published his book A New Deal, which epitomised a new institutionalist understanding of the crisis as a consequence of inevitable technological developments that demanded equally necessary progressive social reforms, including, but not limited to, unemployment insurance, public works and redistributive taxes. The same year, the technocracy movement swept through the nation, attracting millions of followers with the message that free-market capitalism must give way to the forces of rationalisation and planning. Now almost entirely forgotten, the technocracy movement managed to help shift the terms of debate from restoring business confidence to addressing the underlying issue of overproduction and structural unemployment.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on 4 March 1933, he brought with him a ‘Brains Trust’ of advisors. This group of lawyers, economists and social scientists were convinced that the advancement of mechanisation had outpaced social reform, and that the trend towards concentration and automation demanded an increasingly collectivist role for the state. From this conviction sprang Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, particularly the first hundred days of legislation, which managed to create a rudimentary welfare state and much more powerful position for organised labour in the American economy. It was the vision of techno-progressive New Deal reformers like Rexford Tugwell, Gardiner Means and Adolf Berle which helped forge the compromise between labour and capital upon which the post-war economic miracle was based. Although hopes for  universal abundance and a 15-hour working week in a post-capitalist utopia were disappointed, for decades after the triumph of New Deal liberalism, wages rose in line with productivity, working hours declined and incomes became more, not less, equal. (Interestingly the term ‘New Deal’ was borrowed by Roosevelt’s speech writers from one of Stuart Chase’s New Republic articles. This is one of the plethora of connections between New Deal liberalism and the techno-progressives of the 1930s.)

To defeat the allure of the retrotopia offered by the right, the left must invent new utopias for people to believe in.

The heady optimism and enthusiasm for the future in the mid-twentieth century has now almost entirely evaporated. Wages have stagnated as productivity has surged forward, working hours lengthen as work becomes more precarious, and incomes have become dramatically more unequal globally. Under such conditions, voters look with increasing desperation to alternatives to the existing establishment, with votes accruing to those who most convincingly offer a way to turn the tide of diminishing opportunities and status. The group that has most successfully capitalised on this anti-establishment feeling in north-western Europe and the United States has been the populist-nationalists. These new nationalists are motivated by what Zygmunt Bauman terms a ‘retrotopia’ – a form of inverted utopianism which looks to restore an unspoiled and idealised past . For the great majority of voters who have experienced deteriorating economic conditions since at least the crisis of 2008 (and possibly since 1979), this promise of turning back the clock by deporting illegal immigrants and reclaiming lost sovereignty from international liberal elites is compelling. It offers hope in an otherwise hopeless political climate.

In order to regain lost support and to reverse the rising tide of populist-nationalism, the left must devise new progressive alternatives to the current order. The most exciting of these emancipatory visions of the future are coming from writers loosely connected under the banner of left-wing accelerationism. This includes Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Mason, who have both seen the potential of the sharing economy, open-source software and networks to forge a post-capitalist economy. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have emphasised that automation in the twenty-first century makes progressive reforms such as Universal Basic Income and dramatic work-hour reductions not only feasible but absolutely necessary. Even if these imagined post-capitalist futures are wildly optimistic they still have the potential to inspire and motivate support, just as the ‘Brains Trust’ managed to persuade America to adopt collectivistic reforms through a theory of technological and social progress. To defeat the allure of the retrotopia offered by the right, the left must invent new utopias for people to believe in. Only a powerful and persuasive vision of a better future is capable of preventing a regression into a world of competing intolerant nationalisms.

About the author

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Theo Curtis is a recent graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, with a degree in HSPS. His area of interest is the politics of new technologies and their radical potential.

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