I was born in 1938, and, of course, I don’t remember anything about the New Deal era. However, I witnessed its results in my own family and community and heard countless stories from my father, which I recounted in a historical memoir, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie. My father was one of nine children in an Oklahoma farming family that lost their land in the early 1920s. My father quit school when he was 15 and worked on cattle ranches and farms as a migrant laborer. He married at eighteen an even more impoverished teenager, herself part Indian, and began sharecropping and renting farms in central Oklahoma where I grew up. At the time the New Deal got rolling, my father and mother were in their mid-twenties, with two toddlers, living in a cave, barely surviving in the depths of the depression and the catastrophic drought that created the Dust Bowl. My father had to go to work for the WPA doing road construction, “digging ditches,” as he put it. He considered it slave labor, because the private companies given contracts for the construction didn’t have to pay the workers, rather the government paid a pittance and made it appear to be a gift.
By 1880, a little over fifty percent of the U.S. population was farming, but the proportion declined to seventeen percent in 1940 and then to about two percent today. The decline to 17 percent in 1940 was largely due to New Deal policies to industrialize agriculture. What happened to those who would have become farmers? Were they no longer needed? Growing food remained and will remain a necessity, but large corporations took over the land and displaced individual farmers. Patriotism — in the form of allegiance to a distant government, with its flag and other symbols, with its wars in distant lands — has filled the black hole left by the loss of land and a way of life they loved. New Deal policies were themselves designed to end subsistence farming. Farmers could have survived with government assistance, but the New Deal allowed banks to foreclose and destroyed surplus food production to maintain high prices, while people were starving. The government could have bought and distributed the food they destroyed (“dumped in the ocean,” my father used to say). Then the Dust Bowl refugees were put to work picking cotton and fruit for agribusiness in California, the Northwest, and Arizona, driving out the Mexican farm workers, until the United States entered World War II, and the Dust Bowl refugees went to work in the war industry. All those angry ex-farmers and wannabe farmers making bombs and fighter planes, whole new generations following in that nasty work, a good many other of them serving in the military, now a business, not a civic duty. They get to drop the bombs and man the guns on the tanks that the others manufacture. Subsistence farmers, small farmers, like peace — not war that takes away their young sons, and now daughters. Getting rid of them, reducing them to a tiny minority, has made military recruitment and passive acceptance of war much easier than during World War I, when farmers rose up in rebellion, as did workers, against a “war for big business,” which all modern wars are.
As we search for historical models, it is important that we be fearless in what we draw from them. I think it is essential in assessing the New Deal to acknowledge that when the New Deal was over, as Howard Zinn, notes, “capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, colleges. Enough help had been given to enough people to make Roosevelt a hero to millions, but the same system that had brought depression and crisis–the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need–remained.” (People’s History of the United States, 394)
Indeed, the New Deal did not even work in rescuing capitalism, which was Roosevelt’s stated goal; it took the total militarization of the U.S. economy to accomplish that. However, even before entering the war, nearly every New Deal economic recovery and development program enriched already existing corporations, such as Bechtel and Brown and Root, as well as creating new ones. The ground was set for rapid militarization through contracts with these new corporate giants and massive employment through the military draft and wartime production. The military-industrial complex is the essential result of New Deal policies.
It seems to me that nostalgia for the New Deal era during the past decade is perhaps the principal barrier to the formation of a true left opposition in the United States. Take a look at the April 7, 2008, issue of The Nation as a recent example. My father, whose own father had been a member of the Socialist Party and also active in the Industrial Workers of the World during the first 2 decades of the 20th century, hated Roosevelt, who he called an “Eastern aristocrat,” and hated the New Deal policies, saying that Roosevelt was about saving the bankers and the big wheat farmers, not the poor. It was quite a surprise to me when I moved to the Bay Area in 1960, fired up to find masses of political radicals, and enrolled at San Francisco State to find that the activist students, from the Hallinan brothers to Willie Brown to the Freedom Riders all revered Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Soon, though, New Deal nostalgia faded as the movements that came out of the powerful mass civil rights revolution allowed us to think more objectively and internationally about United States history and its continuing actions, and to take responsibility in understanding that white supremacy, genocide, and imperialism were inherent to the founding and development of the United States.
But, with the fierce counter-revolution that began in the Reagan era and continues today, once again New Deal nostalgia has arisen. I think it’s a result of lowered expectations, an acceptance of defeat.
Even many Latin American intellectuals and liberal politicians pine for the good old days of soft imperialism. Yet, the Rooseveltian Good Neighbor policy was a continuance of imperialism, much like Great Britain’s successful ventures in indirect colonialism/imperialism. In fact, successful imperialism operates without colonies and occupations. Roosevelt’s policy substituted support for local dictators and oligarchies for direct U.S. military intervention in restraining and repressing unrest. There may have been less tension between the United States and its indirect colonies (ruled by dictators and oligarchies) during the Roosevelt era, but the impoverishment and repression of the majority of people continued to grow, while the rulers got richer. “Empire as a Way of Life,” as historian William Appleman Williams dubbed US society, remained intact, as super-patriotism replaced the workers’ culture of mutual assistance and resistance. Rarely, is US imperialism even discussed in reference to the New Deal, yet it is a major, if not THE major reality of the present.
I think it is important that we study US history and understand the origins of the state that has become the most powerful in human history and is the main problem for humanity today. Accepting that fact of US history is central to our conceptualization of organizing, understanding who we are, where we have come from, and what we want. When we envisage the New Deal as our model for social change, we are accepting the permanence of capitalism and assuming it can be reformed, and we are separating the state from capitalism, rather than acknowledging that the US state is a plutocracy.
I think it’s important, in the words of the 1960s French Situationists, that we “be realistic and imagine the impossible.”
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 19601975 (City Lights, 2002). She is a contributor to Red State Rebels, edited by Josh Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org