In recent weeks, we discussed why scarcity is a political choice, not a necessity, and how the construction of suburbs in the postwar period helped to fuel a more individualist society. It’s important to look to the past, but we can’t get distracted in hoping for a return to some imagined period of greatness.
In modern political movements, there’s a lot of focus on particular periods in the twentieth century which are viewed as being better than today. On the right, figures like United States president Donald Trump harken back to the time of American global dominance, while in the United Kingdom they make appeals to the history of the British Empire.
The left also engages in this, though to an arguably less disastrous end. Calls for a Green New Deal make reference to the massive government role in reviving the economy and giving people jobs in response to the Great Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But there are also many references made to the so-called “golden age” of capitalism.
This was the period from the 1950s to the 70s, when Western economies were rapidly expanding, unions were strong, welfare states were constructed and labour got a notably larger share of the economic pie than today. The working class certainly saw gains during this period, but the left would be wrong to suggest we can rebuild those conditions.
The postwar boom involved a very specific set of material conditions that simply can’t be recreated in the present. After the war, the cities and towns of Europe had to be reconstructed, which created a lot of demand for raw materials that the U.S. and Canada were able to supply. There were also a lot of jobs building public infrastructure, homes, automobiles and consumer goods domestically, as living standards increased and the economy shifted toward consumerism.
Moreover, the benefits of that growth in North America mainly went to the white middle- and upper-classes, particularly through men, as many women were still expected to mind the house and raise the children. Black and Indigenous peoples were largely left out of this prosperity.
The economies and (some) people of North America and Europe also benefited immensely from ongoing colonial and imperial relationships that generated great flows of wealth from Africa, Asia and Latin America. These continue to some degree to this day, but more countries in the Global South are challenging these unequal economic ties.
Thus, while we can take lessons from this period, particularly the recognition that the public sector can play a greater role and we don’t need to be so deferential toward private corporations, there’s no going back; the future will look very different than the postwar past.
It’s essential that we assess the present conditions and imagine how they might be transformed to serve the working class and make the lives of poor and marginalized people better. That means recognizing that the public sphere has been decimated, and how it can be rebuilt with public luxuries that promote a renewed collective life.
It also means being more deliberate about the kind of economy we want to build, who we want it to serve and how we plan for it to meet those needs. Giving workers and communities more power over the economy is a key piece of achieving a better future, recognizing that simply leaving production and the direction of the economy to capitalists will serve their narrow interests.
There is a better world to be built, but it won’t look like the past that we know and idealize in popular political narratives.
Perspectives from around the world
Michal Rozworski, co-author of The People’s Republic of Walmart, critiques the individualist notion of freedom behind calls to reopen the economy and lays out a vision for collective freedom of socialism.
John Lorinc, senior editor at Spacing, writes that interest in co-op housing is increasing in Canada after nearly 20 years of little co-op development because federal subsidies were phased out in the 1990s.
Sandy James, director of Walk Metro Vancouver, debunks the claim that suburbs are healthier and safer from COVID-19 than dense cities.
Laura Smith, a columnist for Tribune Magazine, argues we need to push back against capitalism’s effort to isolate us and rebuild a sense of collectivity in our cities and towns.
David Jenkins, a political theorist at the University of Otago, and Lipin Ram, an anthropologist at The Graduate Institute in Geneva, explain that Kerala’s success at fighting COVID-19 can’t be disconnected from its communist politics and decentralized governance structures.
Godfrey Moase, executive director of United Workers Union in Australia, explains how COVID-19 is particularly risky for the working class, especially those in precarious work, as governments have failed to keep them safe.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Ghent University professor Tom Evens about what the history of the television industry can teach us about Netflix and the streaming platforms. I also wrote for Jacobin about why we need great public toilets.
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