This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the Beyond the New Deal Order conference, held at UC Santa Barbara.
I would like to write up a few thoughts about the event, although I worry about three things: I was only able to attend some of the lectures and symposia (and it is in the nature of the breakout panel format that one must miss a few things); many of the organizers and participants are friends, colleagues, and mentors; and it was an unusually hot weekend and I am therefore not entirely certain that I did not dream up the whole thing, after having been slipped some quaaludes by Andrew Hartman.
A fourth caveat (perhaps the most important of all): the presenters discussed work in progress, and to the degree that pre-circulated papers bear the usual proscription of further citation, I want to be tactful––it would be wrong, I think, to substantially reconstruct an argument in order to critique it in a public forum such as this. The appropriate venue for such critique is either the conference itself or via private correspondence.
So, with all these cards on the table, let’s see if an impressionistic review of the conference is possible. I confess, up front, that I am going to try not to use too many participant names, mostly because I don’t want anyone to feel left out (as always happens when conference recappers get selective) and also because it is so easy to misrepresent arguments when breezing through them. Readers are encouraged to invoke specific papers or panels in the comments section below.
What must be emphasized up front is that the conference was a tremendous success: the assembled intellectuals delivered extraordinarily thoughtful, detailed, and generative papers. Everyone was kind to one another, and question periods, miraculously, did not devolve into the karaoke-for-egomaniacs with which we are all too familiar. Presenters made great efforts to be engaging and dynamic, and even the Great Satan of powerpoint presentation behaved itself.
The impetus for the conference was the anniversary of a classic collection of essays edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle: The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published by Princeton University Press in 1989. We learned that this volume came together in the mid-1980s as New Left veterans Fraser and Gerstle surveyed the rise of Reaganism and lamented the poverty of New Deal historiography: dominated as it then was by Whig great man hagiography and toothless stories of cycles of American liberalism and conservatism. We learned, too, that “order” was chosen carefully from a longer list of contenders (“regime,” “system,” etc), and that this choice of “order” was deeply connected to the volume’s stated goal of providing a ‘historical autopsy” for the period that ran from the election of FDR to the PATCO firings.
This leads us to one of the major fault lines exposed over the course of the conference: division over whether or not the term “New Deal Order” means anything. Or, put in more pragmatic terms, whether or not we believe that there was such a thing as a “New Deal Order” and that “New Deal Order” crystallizes certain historical tendencies and dynamics in a useful way. Thirty or forty years into an anti-foundationalist revolution in the field of history, it is not surprising that some attendees expressed skepticism about the very idea of the “New Deal Order,” nor is it bizarre that some expressed a strong desire for different language (although attractive alternatives were in short supply). Speaking only for myself: “New Deal Order” remains perfectly useful, deployed in the manner intended by Fraser and Gerstle: as a sort of Gramscian master-term, indicating a hegemonic logic of articulation and incorporation, a mode of binding a certain conception of the state to a certain vision of the citizen to a certain understanding of political economy.
Unquestionably, the contributor to Fraser and Gerstle’s volume whose name came up most frequently in the conference discussions was Ira Katznelson. The question of race hovered over the pages of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order like an unquiet ghost. Here and there, in that volume, one encountered an older left binarization of race and class (or, much worse “race versus class”). Today, in the wake of Katnelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White and Fear Itself, historians seem to have a much better understanding of the mutual entanglement of race and class, a number of coherent and ready-to-hand stories of the policy-historical roots of postwar, government-sponsored, and putatively “colorblind” white supremacy, and the simultaneous and systematic denial of resources and rights to African Americans.
If the discussions of this past weekend are any indication, however, there might be some cause for concern about readerly overemphasis on Katznelson’s idea of the New Deal Order’s “Southern Cage”––the plain electoral reality that the Democratic Party qua New Deal sponsor was also beholden to its reactionary flank and thus unable to deliver American social democracy without further entrenching Jim Crow in the South. To my mind, the great difficulty with this narrative is that it imagines that Northern members of the Democratic coalition that emerged in the Wilson Era were not deeply committed to racism (their arms twisted by Southern demagogues), a reading that badly misinterprets the intellectual history of twentieth century liberalism (and, in particular, fails to read the development of racial ideology in properly evolutionary terms, or to put it bluntly, fails to recognize that whites grew increasingly comfortable with the logic of white supremacy as it was formatted and reformatted by scientists, historians, cultural producers, and public intellectuals).
It also precludes or forecloses the possibility that Jim Crow was a truly national––rather than regional––phenomenon. That argument is currently being fleshed out by a host of brilliant scholars clustered around the field of critical legal history. It is not a simple argument, and probably requires a more complex political-theological framework (as well as an openness to psychoanalytic theory) than is today typical. As this argument develops, however, I think that we will come to see the “Southern Cage” as a metaphor too colored by presuppositions of white Northern liberal virtue and not nearly attentive enough to the New Deal’s engagement with its Southern bloc as a symptom of (as Deleuze and Guattari might say) desire’s desire for its own repression. (Here, we might see “desire”––unfettered development de-linked from a utilitarian ethos––with Georges Bataille as a synonym for John Maynard Keynes’s “general economy”).
The conference featured a good deal of talk about political economy, and the “history of capitalism” turn was everywhere in evidence. With a few exceptions, there was not much discussion of a theme that is quite prominent in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: the nature of the Great Depression as an economic crisis. Michael Bernstein’s chapter in the Fraser and Gerstle volume makes the case for the Depression as a unique moment of overlap of secular crisis and cyclical downturn. The upshot of this argument is that a lot of the policy prescriptions developed over the 1930s were akin to putting a cast on the broken arm of a patient who also happens to be suffering from the Bubonic Plague. One of the reasons why this is so hard to grasp is explained by Theodore Rosenof in his study of Keynes and American Keynesians: Keynes himself was a Janus-faced thinker, at once offering a toolkit of countercyclical devices aimed at vitalizing purchasing power and getting the economy going, and at the same time drawn to a long-run and evolutionary vision of capitalism as entropic and prone to stagnation.
In recent years, this question of stagnation has provided the basis for a lively debate between Robert Brenner and Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin. For Brenner, the “New Deal Order” was really just a couple of anomalously “good” decades amid a long-term never-ending secular downturn. Profitability has been falling since the 1920s (a point consonant with Bernstein’s analysis). In such a view, the “capitalism” about which many conference presenters spoke––the “capitalism” that New Deal policy elites might have more robustly propped up and revived, had it not been for pesky conservatives and balanced-budget traditionalists––did not really exist. For Panitch and Gindin, the Brennerian story of long-term profitability decline is ultimately unimportant: because the American state emerged as superintendent of global capitalism, the viability of capitalism was largely delinked from the market. Profitability, in such an arrangement, flowed from the barrel of the gun. Lurking in the debate between Brenner and Panitch/Gindin is a serious disagreement at the level of historical ontology––was the “New Deal Order” an administered economy, with US policy elites at the helm, that had “solved the problem of production,” in Galbraith’s terms, and was now solely committed to distribution; or, as Marxists usually insist, was “capitalism” itself still running the show, acting as a high-pressure weather system causing unpredictable outbreaks of global turbulence that policy elites were forced to contain? This, I think, is the nub of the new argument about the “New Deal Order” and capitalism.
In contrast, the conference did feature a wide array of fascinating talks on what might be called the “metaphysics of prices.” Brilliant studies of inflation and the Federal Reserve foregrounded the peculiar political potency of price fluctuation in the post-WWII era. “Metaphysics” comes in as something more than a poetic flourish because prices are overdertermined from the get-go: we recall the long history of “moral economy” and ideas of the “just price,” while at the same time, we are taught that the “invisible hand” of supply and demand has something to do with why things cost what they cost when we buy them at the store, and at the same time, we know that arcane operations of the Federal Reserve and dramatic activities at the Discount Window mean that prices are actually set by invisible technocrats; and then, of course, we remember our Marx, and recall that prices are actually related to wages, and wages are related to our labor power, to the extent it is calculable in dollars and cents and measured against the time of the working day, and that all of those calculations refer to one final calculation, which is the price tag on the loaf of bread that I need to buy if I am to avoid getting so hungry that I can no longer work.
Within the “New Deal Order,” anxieties about the “metaphysics of pricing” were often projected onto the fetish item of “inflation.” Particularly after Big Labor began to take wages out of bargaining (with the various Steel formulae and Cost of Living Adjustments and 5-year contracts), almost every question of class struggle and political economy began to revolve around inflation. Thus, for twenty years prior to the final event of the crisis of the 1970s following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, the oil embargo, and the preludes to the Volcker Shock, all sides of the battle over American political economy had begun to dig trenches on inflation’s battlefield. The intense historiographical focus on inflation in evidence at this conference marks another major difference from the concerns of the original Fraser and Gerstle volume. It would certainly be worthwhile to think about the meaning of this interpretive shift.
A surprise of the conference was the apparent absence of any consensus on the “Rise of the Right” that scholars have been probing in detail for the past two decades. There is a strange asymmetry between the volume and uniformly high quality of research on modern conservatism as a crucial force in the fall of the “New Deal Order” and the collective befuddlement about how exactly to thematize and situate the politics of reaction. I have no ready answers as to why this is the case, save for a gnawing sense that some piece of the puzzle must be missing. It strikes me that one of the virtues of many of the contributions to the original volume was a shared commitment to reading and thinking carefully about the nature of the capitalist state––a commitment that rested on a sustained engagement with European Left political theory. The rise of American Political Development (APD) was premised on such an engagement, but it might be fair to say that some of the offshoots of APD have evinced more interest in the methodological novelties developed in the Skocpolian laboratory than big (Marxist) questions about the nature of the capitalist state. It was heartening, to say the least, to witness, at this conference, a number of younger scholars returning to this theoretical work, and applying it to innovative studies of the unpredictable ideological mutations of the postwar regime.
Despite the presence of a number of outstanding scholars of gender and sexuality, it must be said that the conference felt relatively light on discussions of the gendered character of political economy. Race, as we have seen, was a major theme of the conference, but intersectionality was indexed and footnoted more than it was brought into the foreground. Acknowledgment of the criminal persistence of redlining, say, is not coextensive with a deep confrontation with the ways in which property bleeds into propriety, owning into being. A conference such as this probably ought to have had more speakers with more to say about the intimate correlation of social democracy and state repression, about the tendency of American liberalism to embrace the credo (to borrow a phrase from Chandan Reddy) of “freedom with violence.”
Recalling that The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order framed itself as a “historical autopsy” we might conclude by asking: what sort of “historical autopsy” of the last 25-30 years did the participants in the Beyond the New Deal conference conduct? What were the results? What lividity patterns pointed to what sorts of traumas and injuries?
I think the answers are still coming in, but if I was forced to summarize, I would say something like: what was most evident, at the level of gestalt, in the Beyond the New Deal conference was the perplexity of scholars (largely of the Left, but also including some centrist liberals) at the nastiness and ferocity of the politics of the last 30 years. Over and above any ideological questions, methodological preferences, or interpretive tendencies, we are struck by just how continually unprepared we are for the turn to sadism, violence, and paranoid fantasy, as well as the superficiality, anti-intellectualism, and cynicism of the political class (across the party divide) that has emerged in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. It is tempting to look for historical antecedents, but I am not sure there even is a precedent for this sort of stunned bewilderment on the part of intellectuals in the face of the ordinary operation of the political and economic machinery of the global system. In the end, I think that will seem prophetic about The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order was the way it captured the tang and feel of a generation of intellectuals deeply troubled by the direction in which developmental signs seemed to point. If there is any hope (as the phenomena then on the horizon have, indeed, come to poisonous fruition) it might rest with the shift––subtle but unmistakably underway––from a position of unsettlement to one of lucid adjustment to the “new normal.” Perhaps from such a position, in dialogue across the generations, we can understand where we’ve been and be of service to those who are trying to get us where we want to go.
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