If you are like me, Occupy Wall Street holds out the possibility of building a modern New Deal. Many protestors are so outraged about wealth disparity because we know it was not like that before the corporate takeover of our government. We fully understand that all remnants of FDR’s New Deal are in tatters. We understand that the last 35 years of U.S. history was defined by the triumph of corporate power over the New Deal coalition. Historian Robert Patterson, in his book Grand Expectations, calls the period from roughly the end of World War II until the early 70s “The Biggest Boom Yet”. It was the largest sustained period of economic growth in U.S. history. The results of that growth were much more equitably distributed than they are now. Common sense would dictate that a return to those New Deal programs that brought about the The Biggest Boom Yet is the cure for our ailing economy. But there might be reason to doubt that these measures alone will bring us home again. The reason revolves around the differences in the international scene between then and now.
During The Biggest Boom Yet, the United States existed in a world with one serious rival: the Soviet Union. The threat posed by the leftist Soviet regime continually prodded us to expand democracy here at home to save face around the world. The Civil Rights Act and the Great Society would probably not have happened as fast if the U.S. was not concerned with protecting its image as a free country in the face of Soviet criticism. There was also the threat of the Communist Party USA, which was an arm of the Politburo and acted as the ideological whip for the entire American left. In short, there might not be enough political will in the U.S. to redeem the New Deal. Occupy Wall Street can hopefully garner enough sustained political will to both revive and improve upon the New Deal. This is one of the things we hope for. We hope for it because at one time it seemed impossible.
But even if the will is there, we also must consider the blow to America’s “superpower” status since The Biggest Boom Yet. We had success with the New Deal when most other industrial nations were wracked by the destruction of World War II. Our factories were the only ones humming. It would take decades before the rest of the world could catch up. In the meantime, they would have to buy from the United States, who became bread basket to the world. Perhaps it was easier to have a living wage and health benefits in an age when so much money came into our country via favorable balances of trade. As the 70s approached, the United States encountered serious new competitors to its industrial might. Western Europe was beginning to tie its economy together thanks in part to the efforts of Charles de Gaulle, who feared France would never be able to keep up with the American commercial juggernaut. Middle Eastern countries in OPEC proved they could send the economy into a tail spin by manipulating oil prices. Our loss in Vietnam bespoke a third world that was ready for an awakening. By the 1980s and 90s, the United States operated in a multi-polar world where Europe, the Middle East, China, India, Mexico, Japan and South America all began to take a greater share of political and economic power. Can the United States afford to revive the New Deal in a multi-polar world? Is taking care of our people compatible with losing what used to be our share of the world’s resources?
The extreme version of all of this, which still might turn out to be the right version, is that this nation’s bigwigs have long foreseen the downfall of the United States. It turns out that hollowing out our manufacturing, infrastructure and schooling while going trillions into debt to fight imperialist wars was not the recipe for national strength. The bankers and the corporate plutocracy said “hey, what the hell? We’ll pick the carcass for all its worth” and we are fast approaching the stage where the carcass will be totally stripped. In that case, can OWS lead to a more equitable stripping of the carcass as we all circle the drain? Shouldn’t we all have the right to have blood on our lips when the music stops?
Just a few questions that Occupy Wall Street might end up answering, whether we like it or not.