Paul Mattick

Roosevelt's New "New Deal"


Published: Proletarian Outlook, vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 5-10. November 1939.
Source: The Internet Archive.
Transcription/Markup for Marxists Internet Archive: Micah Muer, 2018.


It is claimed that something essential happened in 1935. "Rugged individualism" was replaced by a new "social conscience" on the part of the people and their government. The pleasant word "profit" disappeared behind the still more pleasant word "security". The New Deal was going to change things, until everybody would be able to smile as sweetly as the President. And the magic of words almost succeeded in bringing this about. Now again, however, all faces are sour. Words, ideas, hopes cannot forever compensate for actual needs. The bluff, the make-believe is gone; reality defies the most pleasant phrases.

In the depression which began in 1929 the rich people lost their profits rapidly. The workers lost their jobs, for where there are no profits no chimney will smoke. There were many unemployed -- millions and millions of them -- and if there are too many of them it becomes much too risky to let them starve.

The workers, out of jobs and hungry, did not understand the reasons for their misery. With some exceptions, they had always imagined that we needed capitalists in order to have people employed. However, they could not help getting angry with their employers and their government, as both failed to act "intelligently" to end the depression. They made some trouble, organized, demonstrated, demanded work and relief, and added political unrest to the economic disturbance.

The further society runs downward, the faster it will run. There are many groups with different interests in society, each fighting against all others for a greater share in political rule and a greater part in the profits created by the workers. Depression conditions make worse this struggle of all against all. The longer this competitive struggle remains unchecked, the more difficult it becomes to control the laborers and to secure the existence of the present form of society. "Common sense" rebels against such conditions, and political movements arise to end them in one way or another. Existing political parties are both forced and willing to utilize to their own advantage the social unrest caused by depression conditions. They offer programs of action and, like the beer brewers, invent clever slogans in order to get as many people as possible behind their interests and the plans connected therewith. They always ask for your support, so that you may profit. They tell you, that all depends on you, on your vote, on your loyality [sic]. You must bring the right people with the right program into office.

However, as soon as with your help they succeed in getting control and power, they drop the "you"; they are quite busy then ruling without you and against you. But so far, you have always responded to their call, and consequently, you have always felt cheated afterwards.

You did give the New Deal your confidence. Wholeheartedly, as they say, you supported the presend [sic] Administration and all the organizations favoring it. But were times really getting better? Times were only different, but not better. Many of you thought it was the competition of the machine which made you lose your job, though you knew quite well that not the machine but its owners did all the firing. You thought the new Administration would prevent your bosses from firing you by legislating shorter hours and higher wages. Your organizations, the political parties and the unions supported you in this belief and asked for your vote for Roosevelt. You even gave your money to bring the New Deal into existence by paying millions of dollars to aid the election campaigns. To distribute the existing work among more people, to maintain the purchasing power of the masses to keep people working these slogans sounded quite convincing to you and you hoped for their application.

With happy eyes you saw how more ans [sic] still more workers got organized into new and old unions. You saw, that, with a few exceptions, all parties were willing "to pull together" to get us out of the depression. You saw the beginnings of an apparently new relationship between employers, workers, and the government. You heard even governmental and Supreme Court decisions in your favor. At least, they sounded as if they were in your favor. The "Right to Work" was drummed into your ears until questions of food and wages could no longer be heard, and soon you found yourself with a shovel in your hands enabled to maintain your "self-respect" and earn your living as any other worthy member of society.

A new kind of relief legislation faced you now. Unemployed organizations arose and were no longer hindered by the authorities in their march towards respectability. Organized unemployed found governmental endorsement and the deep sympathy of Mrs. Roosevelt. Though they were not supposed to strike, still their right to organize was guaranteed. And soon there was no need to restrict those organizations, for they were happy in restricting themselves. Their man -- Roosevelt -- was in the White House, he would do all that was possible for the poor, and not to obstruct but to support his fine work was to be the function of the organization. The Workers Alliance, the most important of the unemployed organizations, flourished in the shadow of the Titan, and soon was able to pay its leaders and organizers substantial salaries to enable them to lobby more successfully in Washington.

A new era indeed? But wait.-- If one drinks enough he will soon forget what he is drinking. The same happened to you. You were drunk with words, slogans, hopes, and delusions. You wanted so much that things get better, that saw them getting better. But you did not know any longer what you were getting. Despite all the high-sounding security propaganda you were working for about $50 a month. But you thought it would be temporary. The memories of the past provided you with sufficient excuses to do nothing to improve your lot. You waited for the return of the good times. And as each soldier, though knowing that many will be killed, marches into battle deeply convinced that he himself will be spared, you too kept on hoping that despite all and everything you would some day return to the "orderly life" of a real wage slave. For it is true that, though millions are out of work and other millions on WPA, still many more millions get along quite nicely in private employment, and you drove the blues away by dreaming of entering their lines once more.

There was no longer charity, there was somthing [sic] like a "right to relief", when the "right to work" could not be exercised. There were now budgets, but the budgets remained inadequate. To manage on relief meant to train as a hunger artist. This miserable relief, however, was just enough to make a WPA job look like a great improvement. And as the workers on WPA were hoping for a real job with real pay, you were waiting for your turn on WPA. Waiting -- always waiting! Till then it would be better to try to manage somehow, to be quiet and satisfied in order not to jeopardize your chances to land the WPA job. Even the least relief is undoubtedly better than nothing. Having worked all your life for every little compensation, you have not learned to think of getting "something for nothing." You were surprised at getting anything at all. You hungered proudly and some of you jumped into the lake or out of the window not to be embarrassed by asking for help. Your "pride" is only silly. You continue to produce profits even when unemployed. Your unemployment scares the rest of the workers into working harder and raises the profits of their masters. There is nothing in this world capitalism cannot utilize.

But why count up all those things which you know only too well? We could put your misery into statistics and impress those who do not know what real hunger is those who deal in statistical hunger and find only statistical solutions for it. What you need is not so much exact knowledge, but exact food. What you need are not formulas, but suggestions for real actions to relieve your suffering. It is not illustrations you need to "drive the facts home". Look into you mirror, into the eyes of your children, into the faces of your fellows at the relief stations. The truth is in man, not on paper.

Today the lot of the unemployed is as miserable as it ever was. The newspapers report every day on Public Works, WPA, Old Age Pensions, Unionization, Social Legislation, and Relief. They serve their purpose, but the betterment of your position is not this purpose. All these well-sounding measures are not for you; they are out to serve those who live well already. What had been hailed by people with very little hunger as a peaceful, bloodless revolution, turned out to be exactly that which it was conceived to be a way of maintaining the present-day society, which consists of workers on the one hand, employers on the other, and a tremendous number of parasites between them. And as such, it could result only in an increase of your misery.

The depression forced the American capitalists and politicians to adopt and try some new methods of social control to improve the profitability of capital and reduce the cost of the depression as much as possible. It happened that there was -- for we do live in a capitalist democracy -- no unity on the question as to how to go about stabilizing society. The depression forced the government to interfere to a greater extent than before with the country's business affairs. It had to turn against some capitalist groups in order to satisfy others. It had to force reluctant groups into the general scheme of things expected to bring about a betterment of conditions. It was forced to sacrifice the interests of some capitalists in order to serve the whole of capitalist society. But in America, where "rugged individualism" had celebrated its highest triumphs, the government was relatively weak, and to carry through the measurements deemed necessary it had to appeal for mass support to enforce its will against stubborn capitalistic opposition. In order to get the masses behind itself, the New Deal was decorated with a number of effective liberal phrases.

Successful in pacifying the masses and employing schemes financed with inflationary methods, and supported by a world-wide rise in business activity, the government was able to create new confidence in the present social and economic system. It is today hotly debated whether the temporary upswing experienced after 1933 was due entirely to the New Deal measures or whether it occurred in spite of them. But it should not bother the workers so much what really caused the spurt in business. We do know that the government resorted to a pump priming policy in the hope of initiating a general rise in business activity. In 1937, however, the trend of business once more went in the opposite direction. Despite at all governmental policies the new depression could not be prevented. Opposition to the tried governmental policies now grew rapidly. The New Dealers were driven into defensive positions. They tried to lay the blame for the "recession", as they called the business decline on the shoulders of sabotaging "reactionaries." The latter in turn blamed the policy of the Administration for the new misery.

Defeated slogans came to the force again. No longer was a policy of higher wages and shorter hours demanded, but the reduction of prices by way of an increased productivity in other words, more work and less pay to raise profits. There seemed to exist a real struggle between the "new" and the "old". And as far as political interests of administrative jobholders played a part, there was a struggle going on in preparation for the forthcoming elections. But as regards economic policy and therefore as regards the essential political lines, the struggle between the New Dealers and the Reactionaries is only a sham-battle.

If one pays no attention to his rulers' words, but looks only at their actions, he will soon discover that the present Administration, like any past or future administration of capitalistic character, defends no particular philosophical principle, but is solely engaged in helping to make possible greater profits, and in participating in the enjoyment of these profits sweated out of the workers. Different methods are proposed for that purpose. Some capitalistic groups favor deflationary methods to bring this about. That is, they want to solve the problem by direct wage cuttings, saving expenditures, and by leaving the business revival entirely to the supposedly automatic workings of the market, which would lead to the elimination of incapable capitalists and to a greater profitability for the surviving capitalistic groups. Other capitalist groups are more interested in inflationary methods as a shortcut to better profits. They favor increasing governmental interferenced [sic], they are quite ready to force out of existence undesirable capitalistic elements and to cut wages in the round-about-way of raising prices by prevailing wages. The Hoover administration represented the first group and method. Any other party, wishing for power in 1933, had to express the opposite ides. And that brought the Roosevelt landslide.

Though the methods may be different, the goals of both groups and their parties are identical. The Roosevelt Administration did not hinder further technological development, but, in so far us this was still materially possible forced this development through all its measures, which, however, they appeared still had no other effect but to increase further the centralization and concentration of capital. As always in capitalism, the richer became still richer, the stronger, and the poor poorer. The increase of governmental influence itself is only one indication of the trend towards the control over the workers and their products by fewer people. The "liberalism" accompanying this process was such only apparently. By favoring, for example, the unionization of more workers, most of the possible activities of the dissatisfied working masses were directed into channels not at all dangerous to capital. The workers were busy building their organizations and competing with each other as to which particular labor bureaucracy should remain or occupy the field. The growth of the unions increased also the influence of the unions upon the workers at large. By controlling the union bureaucracy, which in turn controls the unions, the government via the unions controls the laboring masses better than ever before. The union leadership knows quits well that in times of depression it can only operate with, not against, the government. And what the union leaders know, the other labor leaders also know: that under conditions as they are today, it is better for them to swim with the stream.

Roosevelt or no Roosevelt, capitalism remains what it is. It has to follow its own necessities. A depression means that profits are insufficient to induce and make possible further capital expansion. To make things roll again means to make possible greater profits to allow for production on an enlarged scale. Either wages have to be cut, or production has to be so increased that, by prevailing wage rates, the part of the social production which falls to the workers is considerably decreased. The smaller the workers' portion, the bigger that of the capitalists, and the greater the desire and also the ability of the latter to build new plants and hire more workers.

As the pump-priming idea to initiate a new expansion of capital was defeated in the depression of 1937, and as the governmental expenses are growing rapidly, eating up more and more of the diminishing profits, to escape the present slump seems to become more and more difficult. Fear rises again. The old course has to be changed. Other ways must be tried. Wages must be reduced, work hours prolonged, and strikes eliminated. Despite the increasing influence on the part of the political bureaucracy, American capitalism is primarily still based on private property. The government must continue to serve the interests of private capital. At any rate it could do no differently even if it were exclusively serving only its own interests. From its attempts to initiate business activity by way of spending, it now attempts to reach the same results by savings. It once more has to attack the workers openly to let capital flourish again.

For years the capitalist propaganda has hammered against the New Deal. The fiercer the attack upon the New Deal the easier it is for the Administration to change its policies with the least loss of popularity. As long as it is possible to make the masses believe that Roosevelt is still fighting their battle, they hope that he may win despite the present temporary set-back. In the end he may still appear triuphant [sic] with the "tories" on their knees. The friendly attitude the labor organizations maintain towards Roosevelt and his New Deal, not to speak of the open swindle of the Communist Party which attempts against all facts to remove the blame for his policy from the shoulders of the President, serves the Administration well in its attempt at wage cutting and profit raising.

To bring wages down, to make the workers work harder, the weapon of unemployment has to be used to make them submit. However, to scare the workers with the loss of their jobs it is necessary to make unemployment more miserable than it already is. To cut wages, then, means also to bring down the wages of the WPA workers. To bring down the wages of the WPA workers implies the cutting of relief. This, in turn, means savings for the capitalists as it reduces governmental expenditures. It means higher profits, which, combined with the greater direct exploitation in the working places, might improve the position of capital considerably. At least it is hoped that it will do so.

The continued friendly attitude of labor organizations towards Roosevelt and his New Deal means, at the present time, when workers on WPA and relief are forced to defend their very lives against the recent measures of the Administration, that these organizations are acting as scabs sabotteurs of the workers' struggle. Among your enemies today are not only both the reactionaries and the New Dealers, but also the New Deal supporters in your own ranks. To fight, then, against the new measures and to have a chance to win the fight, most of all it is necessary to recognize the fact that you cannot strike and win with the existing "labor organizations," but only against them.