More than social security, job creation programs, or Keynesian fiscal policy, the idea of full employment galvanized the progressive intelligentsia and excited the imagination of working-class Americans in the 1940s. If historians of the period discuss it at all, however, it is usually as a footnote to New Deal liberalism. These accounts fall short of considering the broader implications of the idea as well as the vigorous business-led opposition to full-employment legislation. The promise of full employment united farmers, workers, and a broad cross-section of the progressive middle class in the conviction that the right to work could be defended against the caprices of a market economy. By questioning business control over the labor market and investment, full employment challenged some of the most essential prerogatives of capitalism. More than security, it promised a fundamental reordering of postwar society.
The Idea of Full Employment: A Challenge to Capitalism in the New Deal Era
MICHAEL DENNIS is a professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. His most recent publications include “Litigating for Profit: Business, Law, and Labor in the New Economy South,” in Organizing Against Labor: Controversies in the History of Organized Employers in American History, edited by Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson; “Women in Defense of Workers: Ella Winter, the Literary Left, and Labor Journalism in California,” Women’s History Review (forthcoming); and Blood on Steel: Chicago and the 1937 Steel Strike (2014).
Michael Dennis; The Idea of Full Employment: A Challenge to Capitalism in the New Deal Era. Labor 1 May 2017; 14 (2): 69–93. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-3790206
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