Capitalism and the American Political Ideal

By Edward S. Greenberg | Go to book overview

6. The New Deal and the Foundations
of Corporate Liberalism

The Great Depression of the 1930s was, without any doubt, the most threatening crisis in the history of American capitalism. Making sense of the New Deal response to this crisis is no easy task, for partisan feelings about it remain strong to the present day, and a reasonably objective reading of its history is difficult to come by. To many free‐ market conservatives, the New Deal represents the single most important step toward socialist inefficiency and tyranny in the United States. To reform liberals the New Deal is the watershed period in recent American history—a period that offers proof of the commitment of government to social justice and human welfare. A close look, however, suggests that both views are essentially misplaced. It will be my contention that the New Deal is best understood as a series of attempts to save a faltering and depressed capitalist system by further regulating and rationalizing the economy, by bringing important elements of the labor movement into established political life, and by staving off social disruption and revolution through expansion of the welfare role of government. In the New Deal, public officals and business leaders instituted many of the mechanisms by which government regularizes, stabilizes, protects, and rationalizes a modern capitalist economy. Seen in this light, the New Deal represents, paradoxically, a conservative expansion of government activities. While it is traditional to define any expansion of government as "liberal," I would argue that since this expansion was directed toward preserving and cementing the position of private capital and maintaining the social class system, it must, in the end, be judged "conservative."

The New Deal remains shrouded in confusion, moreover, because of the contradictory character of many of its policies and the general

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