COVID-19: A View from the Great Depression of the 1930s

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2128 ... June 21, 2020

COVID-19: A View from the Great Depression of the 1930s

Eric Strikwerda and Ingo Schmidt

The Great Depression. It rests in our collective consciousness as a time when unemployment was rampant, when soup kitchen and bread lines were long, when misery was widespread, when dust was everywhere.

In our imaginations, the Depression had a light at the end of its dark tunnel, too. In that story, the onset of the Second World War single-handedly pulled the world out of its economically troubled times, forging along the way nothing less than a gritty demographic cohort that would come to be called the Greatest Generation.

Like most stories, this one has elements of truth to it. But nestled deep within the narrative are the more mundane public policy stories that actually pulled the world out of depression. And, looking deeper still, one can find the stories of the dramatic and necessary shifts in basic thinking about how economies, states and societies worked (and didn’t work).

In short, the Great Depression forced many to question,... and then begin to abandon, long and deeply held assumptions about the nature of the very economic and political systems on which states and economies stood. In their wake, at least some of those long and deeply held assumptions were replaced with new ones more appropriate to the increasingly complex and interconnected industrial economy of the twentieth century. In the end, a nineteenth-century liberalism that had long been challenged by various socialisms from the left and by protectionism, racism, and nationalism from the right, was finally replaced by Keynesianism, a philosophy of mixed economies and class compromise.

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