The verdict is in. Contrary to what some have maintained, what COVID-19 has provoked is not just another recession in the eternally recurring cycles of capitalism. Not even a Great Recession, like the one the world began wading through 12 years ago. This time, it is clearly our second Great Depression. And, who knows, it could become the greatest of them all.
How do we know this? Simple. Ask Boris Johnson. Or Joe Biden. Or Emmanuel Macron. They are all looking to Franklin D. Roosevelt for inspiration, the man credited with finding a response to the first Great Depression in the 1930s and thereby saving liberal capitalism from the communist wave that had already taken over Russia and the fascist tsunami that was spilling across Germany, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula.
For years, Bernie Sanders has been recommending the Rooseveltian model as a preventive measure in expectation of unnamed disasters to come. But no one feared a depression while believing that our leaders know how to handle recessions. Politicians, pundits and bankers could dismiss Senator Sanders as an out-of-touch old politician playing the role of pied piper by attracting gullible youngsters to his antiquated cause.
The Frailty of White Fragility
The “squad” that emerged after the 2018 midterm elections in the US, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, modernized Sanders’ theme. In a brilliant rebranding exercise, they picked up the reference to Roosevelt’s New Deal and dropped the color “Green” in front of it. Critics, nevertheless, dismissed it as an irrelevant example of tree-hugging whose principal purpose was to confiscate hamburgers as well as people’s guns.
In December 2019, Boris Johnson, the UK’s favorite post-Python political agitator, handily defeated the hyper-Rooseveltian Jeremy Corbyn, proving once and for all the insignificance of the historically discredited Keynesian reasoning applied by Roosevelt. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was destined to live on once Prime Minister Johnson managed to “get Brexit done.”
Then, just as the world was resigned to witnessing the final chaotic act of Brexit and four more years of Donald Trump in the White House, COVID-19 crashed the party and brutally changed everyone’s perception of the economy. Digging out their cookbooks from the 1930s, the leaders of the West suddenly went searching for FDR’s secret recipe.
The New York Times recounts the fruit of Boris’ research: “Mr. Johnson, regrouping after a rocky three months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, has invoked Roosevelt’s name and the legacy of the New Deal in promising that the British government will intensify its plans for ambitious public works projects and other spending to recover from the outbreak.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Something more modern than old deals and different from any of the fanciful deals contained in Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” an idea originating in the world of poker where the truly competent dealer knows how to deal from the bottom of the deck without being detected
Writing for The Guardian, Heather Steward and Larry Elliot express their doubts about Johnson’s sincerity: “Some observers derided Johnson’s suggestion that his plan bore any resemblance to the 1930s White House.” One commentator, Professor Anand Menon, deems that the notion that Johnson might “turn himself into FDR seems absolutely fanciful.” This wouldn’t be the first time Johnson has made fanciful claims for political purposes.
Most progressives in the US remain highly skeptical of Joe Biden’s bid to be the next FDR. The fact that he has surrounded himself with personalities such as the former head of the Treasury, Larry Summers, and the chief of staff under the Obama administration, Rahm Emmanuel, justifies their suspicions. Both men are proponents of Wall Street-style democracy, which generally means socialism for the banks and capitalistic risk for the people. They are “New Democrats,” not “New Dealers.”
The New Democrats, under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, expurgated the last traces of Rooseveltian logic from the Democratic Party in their quest to define a “third way.” It ultimately boiled down to embracing the trickle-down economics that had long been the orthodoxy of Republicans, dating back at least to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
On June 28, France’s Emmanuel Macron suffered a potentially debilitating humiliation at the polls in the final phase of local elections, which had been brutally interrupted by the lockdown that began the day after the first round in March. Contrary to the expectations of some, President Macron’s centrist party isn’t being overtaken by the traditional right that seemed on the verge of taking over the government in 2017. Nor is he being challenged by the traditional French left that had gone through its own phase of “third way” style accommodation of dominant financial interests before being discredited for doing so under the presidency of Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party. Instead, the Green party has emerged as the channel the people have chosen to express the emotions that were visibly present in the yellow vest movement.
And so, the day after watching the Green party take over numerous major towns in France, Macron is reduced to confessing: “The time has come to do something.” He promises that he wants “to go further.” He hasn’t yet mentioned Roosevelt, but at the beginning of the pandemic, Macron evoked the spirit of World War II and the vital importance of the welfare state. The reinforced opposition has proposed a French version of the Green New Deal, but without the radical scope of the American one. Macron has now verbally accepted to act on nearly all of its hundreds of demands.
As of today, the next American FDR, Joe Biden, has no power to act. As the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, he simply hopes the trends continue culminating in his election in November. How he will elect to play the FDR role nobody can foresee. The only thing certain about Boris Johnson is that he will remain a fanciful politician. Emmanuel Macron has the best chance of succeeding, not because of his own position or authority, but because he may manage to move the poker game to the European level with the help of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. The obstacles are great, but if the two accomplices can make some headway, there’s a slight chance that Macron can stabilize things, provided he finds a way of meeting what may be a bigger challenge: bringing the ecologists on board.
The only thing that’s certain is that uncertainty reigns at a moment in history where the price to pay — in the case both of success and failure — is going to be prodigious.
The idea of a “new deal” arose somewhat spontaneously in American literature in the 1880s as the awareness of the injustice and inequality bred by the excesses of what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age” began to trouble the minds of creative writers. In his novel, “The Princess Casamassima, Henry James had the princess make this comment: “I’m one of those who believe that a great new deal is destined to take place … I believe, in a word, in the action of people for themselves … and I’m ready to act with them — in any intelligent or intelligible way.”
In his satirical narrative, “A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,” Twain’s time-traveling hero, a modern American transported to Arthurian Britain, attempts to transform the economy along modern lines and at one point says: “I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.”
Whether some 40 years later Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of what two of the nation’s greatest writers were thinking in the face of the excesses of industrial capitalism, the idea of “a new deal” had clearly taken root in the American psyche. Now, nearly a century after FDR, can the leaders of the developed nations find a way of reshuffling their cards and offering a new deal? The answer to that question will depend on whether they can manage to get the deck in their own hands. For the moment, it seems to be held firmly in the grip of those who control the flow of money. Most governments lost that control long ago, even before Roosevelt.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
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