3 to 5pm
Neo-Liberalism Before Its Time: Labor and the Free Trade Ideal in the Era of the Great Compression, 1945-1972
Dr. Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago
A by-now well-recognized ‘crisis’ overtook organized labor in the 1970s in the United States and other settings as diffuse as Canada, Great Britain, France, and Australia and that rippled out, if in delayed form, across the entire ‘developed’ world (affecting Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, and even Argentina and Brazil) by the 1990s. The decline of the unions as an organized social bloc and vector of political influence is most commonly and obviously associated with ‘de-industrialization’ accompanying the liberalization of investment and especially manufacturing markets associated with ‘globalization.’ Looking backwards, it seems that in rather short order, a ‘post-war order’ of extensive labor influence-associated with the heyday of ‘social democracy’ in Europe and a fulsome welfare state elsewhere–became quickly frayed by forces beyond the control of labor-allied industrial or national political forces.Indeed, it is now commonplace to speak of a transition in socio-economic policy from Social Democracy to Neo-Liberalism.
In this think-piece, I mean to reassess the model of opposing post-war eras. Rather than a shift in political-economic assumptions from the Boom Era to Boom’s End, I emphasize enduring tensions in ideology and practice already apparent by the end of World War II at the very re-creation of the capitalist world economy. I argue, furthermore, that labor movements and the West’s non-Communist Left only slowly and inadequately ever addressed the tensions and contradictions built into the international postwar order in which they occupied a vital part. Correction of the current drift and decline of labor-based social movements, the paper suggests, might begin, in part, with a historically grounded review of the fault lines in our current predicament.
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