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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Resurrecting the ’30s

Resurrecting the ’30s

A response to David Harvey and James Heartfield

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 12 | May 2009


Over! What a stupid name.
Why over?
Over pure nothing, it is all the same.
Why have eternal creation,
When all is subject to annihilation?
Now it is over. What meaning can one see?
It is as if it had not come to be,
And yet it circulates as if it were.
— Mephistopheles, in Goethe’s Faust

THE LAST FORTY YEARS have been conceptually be­wildering for the Left. The withering of working class movements and the rise of the new social movements have coincided with a global shift away from national state-centric (or "Fordist") modes of accumulation towards a more "global," neo-liberal capitalism. David Harvey's work, for instance, has drawn attention to the complexity of this shift by observing its puzzling incompleteness. By focusing on the increasingly uneven and "flexible" geographical development characteristic of recent decades, Harvey has attempted to explain how such diverse practices as computerized high finance, mid-20th century-style durable-goods production (of, e.g., automobiles, refrigerators, and now microcomput­ers), and the rise of "sweatshop" labor-practices rang­ing from the ultra modern to the seemingly historically anachronistic-function simultaneously and, indeed, of­ten interlock in present-day production processes. This layering of social-productive temporalities has vexed the Left for the last 40 years. The contemporaneity of "the present" with "anachronism" has been accompanied by a similar layering of political imaginations, each one seemingly out of phase with the other. Thus, mainstream politics today is characterized by such seemingly incom­mensurate forms as "postmodernist," "decentered," resistance politics; neo-feudal systems of soteriological universality (e.g., Christian evangelism, Wahabi Islam); and the re-mobilization of ethnic particularities (neo-nationalism and subnationalism, and identity politics). But perhaps the most problematic, if seldom remarked, layering of political imaginations is that which we see on the Left today in the murky palimpsest that combines the 1960s with the 1930s.

Some attempts to conceptualize the post-1960s world single out as critically significant the stagnation caused by the decline in the importance of "material" produc­tion. In other words, the most salient economic change since the 1960s has been the emergence of what James Heartfield has described as "job rich" growth, which is to say, the rise of "service-sector" employment.[1] Heart­field outlines how, in particular, the environmentalist movement has taken an affirmative stance towards this phenomenon, crudely denouncing material wealth as the source of the most pressing social ills. As Heartfield says, this plays neatly into the hands of an emerging "Green Capitalism," which is also significantly condi­tioned by the historic "defeat of the working class."

Yet even for the most imaginative critiques of the last forty years, including Heartfield's and Harvey's, their po­litical component has been less than adequate. Such re­sponses often emphasize the need for re-industrializa­tion or for a return to increasingly state-centric models of political economy in the service of a more equitable distribution of material wealth within and across nation states, or both. They thus look to the past for their aspi­rations for the future. On the American Left, this posture has been expressed under the banner of calls for a "new New Deal," an aim shared by mainstream liberals like the recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, Paul Krugman. Such thinkers evince a general dissatisfaction with the last forty years and mark a break with the 1960s political imagination. In this sense, Harvey and others have pre­cipitated a perhaps much-needed re-focus on the 1930s. However, a political focus on just how the 30s played into the defeat of working class politics is often overlooked in favor of an ostensibly more economic account centered around the problems of high finance, to which the New Deal era is counterpoised.

For some time now, David Harvey has been one of the most adamant proponents, at least in left-wing circles, of a "new New Deal." In his book, The New Imperial­ism (2004), written in the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, Harvey sought to prove that by bringing together "democratic, progressive, and human forces" around what Harvey describes as a novel "spatial-fix," a new New Deal might assuage "the raw militaristic imperialism currently offered up by the neo-conservative movement in the United States."[2] The need for a "spatial-fix," whether through transportation, communication, research, or any other major public works projects, is meant to emphasize the desperate need for more peaceful solutions to uneven geographical development, the potential devastating consequences of which are all too clear. However, in his recent Platypus Review article, "Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail," Harvey appears to have become skeptical about the prospects for a new New Deal in the U.S.[3] It now seems Harvey agrees with critics of neo-Keynesian reformism, who argue that "Roosevelt's attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-38 plunged the United States back into depression, and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt's too timid ap­proach to deficit financing in the New Deal." He seems also to have reversed his position due to concerns about a renewed imperialism, on the assumption that a New Deal-like policy might actually cause, or at least exac­erbate, international rivalries. Certainly, the historical analogy poses this question. In recent work, Harvey also raises the idea of a multi-polar world which would mark the end of US hegemony, and says that he has started "to think back to what happened to the 1930s, when the groups decided they were going to go it alone and got into economic conflict between each other[,] I worry about the future."[4] Harvey is pessimistic about current prospects. As he puts it, "greater empowerment of labor, rising wages and redistribution toward the lower classes is politically impossible in the United States at this point in time."[5]

Despite his misgivings, Harvey's conclusions still chiefly derive from his assumption of the need for greater state intervention, a prospect that, as he be­moans, does not seem to be on the horizon in American politics today. One of the problems of capitalism that Harvey raises deserves greater emphasis: Market forces alone cannot reproduce capitalism. Capitalism's own self-expanding logic cannot complete itself as a merely economic process, and so it must employ "extra-eco­nomic" or political means.

With its wistful eye on the 1930s, the emphasis on re-industrialization and greater state intervention so common on the Left today tends to obscure the issue of political intervention that Harvey brings up. In this sense, nostalgia for the 1930s has distorted and deferred the possibility of re-imagining a more effective politics. More dangerously, emphasizing the "equitable" distribution of goods often invests the nation-state with undue signifi­cance (and allegiance), since it becomes the only salient and politically tractable frame within which social dispar­ities can be redressed. "New New Dealers" often down­grade the possibility of international rivalries, as well as all the politically deforming psychological characteristics of nationalism that might likely arise from the reimposi­tion of nationally based regulatory regimes, particularly given the absence of an effective Left. The new New Deal­ers, operating as they do on the national terrain, appear to be more interested in discovering certain potentially "progressive" characteristics in the modern nation-state than they are interested in conceptually reconsidering in­ternationalism. The very idea of what a reinvigorated Left might mean serves as a conceptual blind spot, confusing an otherwise salutary backward glance to the 1930s. For this 30s nostalgia seems tacitly to accept that period's most devastating consequence, the national character of politics leading to World War II (as well as the war that preceded it). But this was not always the case.

In the aftermath of the 1930s Old Left, the New Left hero C. Wright Mills described how "in the United States today there is no Left: political activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities, although formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial, or merely private."[6] For Mills the causes of this decline had roots in the 1930s. One source was Stalinism, or in Mills's words, the "nationalization of the international left." Another source was the shift of power during the New Deal. As Mills wrote in The Power Elite, "during the New Deal the corporate chieftains joined the political directorate; as of World War II they have come to dominate it."[7]

In recent political writing, Mills's insights have been neglected. Take, for example, Naomi Klein, who argued in her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine (2007) that, during the 1930s, "workers' protections-pensions, pub­lic health care and state support for the poorest citizens in North America-all grew out of the same pragmatic need to make major concessions in the face of a power­ful Left."[8] According to Klein, the purpose of building a Left is the desire for a more "responsible" state policy, to shift the national mood through pressure on the state. But the historical analogy is politically incoherent if one simply follows the later history. Mills's point is the very reverse of Klein's, though New Left stalwarts like Tom Hayden celebrate both Mills and Klein as though they are connected within a single political tradition. Mills was concerned about exactly how the decade of the 1930s witnessed the establishment of a new, politically more formidable, national power structure, a state pow­er structure that grew closer to big business and military men, precisely the aspects of modern society that Klein so adamantly abhors. But, for Klein, the Popular Front Leftism of the 30s was a recipe for success and ought to be imitated today. Mills recognized it as catastrophic.

The reason Mills was able to view the 1930s in a criti­cal light was his more adequate grasp of his own political circumstances. Mills knew he was writing during the Left's decline. He could see the Left, and not merely the "power elite," as part of the political regression of his time. Klein, by contrast, fails to recognize the Left's role in political decline and this ultimately leads to a great deal of confusion. It involves an affirmative stance towards historical development, assuming progress where there is in fact none. The Left's current resurrection of the New Deal imagination is an example of the all-too-com­mon practice on the Left of calling defeat victory. Young Leftists should realize that the crucial objection Mills and others on the Left made in the aftermath of the failures of the 1930s was directed precisely against nationaliza­tion. For, in reality, the 30s witnessed the most horrific defeat for internationalism. How else could one describe the events leading up to World War II for the Left? And, after all, the New Deal was also only one form that political nationalization took during that decade. With the erosion of the international socialist revolution over the course of the 1920s, Roosevelt's New Deal emerged in competition with other major political ideologies, es­pecially Stalinist "socialism in one country" and German National Socialist variants, which also oversaw a period of intense industrialization, and should not be left out of consideration. Of course, while the political differences among these forms matter a great deal, it is necessary to point out how vague the call for national re-industrial­ization becomes when discussed in solely economic, and not political, terms.

From today's vantage point, the inability of the 1960s' New Left to work through the nationalization of the Left has made the marginal character of the contemporary "Left" seem rather well deserved. However interconnect­ed and globalized the world may now appear, politically it is nothing of the kind. The increasingly uneven and "flexible" geographical development, which Harvey so lu­cidly illustrates, demands a political solution. Certainly, it may seem that the Left is more suited, in its rather shabby position, to fixate on one place at a time. New global relations of production and consumption, like the "China to Wal-Mart route" Heartfield points to, demand a new perspective on international working class organiz­ing. And exactly which industries will become key sites of political struggle, whether it is mid-20th century-style durable-goods production or new, service-sector indus­tries, or both, it all remains highly vague without testing the waters. But new organizational and tactical difficul­ties should not inhibit the Left ideologically from making bold claims and audacious demands. Moreover, these difficulties should not inhibit the intellectual from laying bare the reality of the past, no matter how daunting. |P

[1]. James Heartfield, "Living Marxism," Platypus Review 9 (December 2008).

[2]. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford Uni­versity Press, 2003), 210-211.

[3]. David Harvey, "Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail," Platypus Review 11 (March 2009).

[4]. David Harvey, "On the G20, the Financial Crisis and Neolib­eralism," interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, April 02, 2009,­pher_david_harvey_on_the.

[5]. Harvey, "U.S. Stimulus Package," Platypus Review 11.

[6]. C. Wright Mills, "The Decline of the Left," in The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, ed. John H. Summers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 214.

[7]. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, [1956] 2000), 275.

[8]. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capital­ism (New York: Picador, 2007), 317.