Not surprisingly, the consensus from those studying the wartime conversion experience is that a rapid and successful transformation requires aggressive state planning and direction of economic activity. This is indeed an important lesson for our movement to learn. But there is another lesson to be learned from that period, one that deserves more attention than it currently receives. It is that in a capitalist economy, capital’s ownership position greatly enhances its ability to mold state structures and their policies in ways favorable to its interests and to the detriment of workers. In other words, the planning process is a contested terrain, and one not usually favorable to working people.
I will show that, during the war years, corporate leaders were able to rebuff Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) planning proposals and successfully marginalize the participation of unions in the mobilization agencies that were formed, ensuring that labor would be forced into a defensive and ever weaker position relative to capital as the war progressed. Thus, if our aim is not simply a transformation to a somewhat less carbon consuming economy, but a complete and just transformation, we must prepare ourselves, and the movement that we hope to build, for an ongoing and complex struggle to overcome capital’s structural advantages. It is my hope that this article, which focuses on the class dynamics shaping the Second World War mobilization process, can help that preparation. The history it describes offers a useful primer on how the other side conducts its class war.
The climate crisis has driven our planet into uncharted territory. We are close to breaching critical environmental thresholds, setting in motion destabilizing changes to our global climate system that could well make the earth unlivable for humans and countless other species. We must decrease carbon emissions as rapidly as possible and there is no way to do that without significantly changing the operation and aims of our economy. But not just any change will do. It must be one that also promotes worker empowerment and solidarity, community well-being and security, and democracy.
According to defenders of the status quo, the best response to our most serious problems is to let markets work their magic; government regulation of private business activity only makes things worse. That is certainly the line that big finance is pushing when it comes to our ever-worsening climate crisis.
A case in point is the growing popularity of ESG investing, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance responsive investing. You want to save the world, put your money in ESG funds which, according to money managers, will guarantee that your money rewards those companies that value sustainability as well as human and worker rights. What could be simpler.
One problem with this strategy is that ESG investing is largely a fraud, one that allows leading asset management companies to dramatically boost their profits, and the rest of the business community to continue on with their destructive business practices without fear of bad publicity or public action. The end result—the planetary crisis continues unabated and the investing public gets fleeced.
The Green New Deal has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to build a mass movement capable of addressing our ever worsening, and increasingly interrelated, climate and social crises. Building such a movement is no simple task, but I believe that our organizing efforts can greatly benefit from a careful study of the rapid transformation of the US economy from civilian to military production during World War II.
In two recent publications, with links below, I describe and evaluate the planning process responsible for the wartime transformation and offer my thoughts on some of the key lessons to be learned. In what follows I highlight some of the reasons why I believe Green New Deal advocates would benefit from careful study of the wartime experience.
The news has recently highlighted labor’s growing activism, publishing numerous stories about high quit rates, threatened and actual strikes, and wage gains. While these stories do capture the anger and determination of workers who have suffered through the pandemic with limited compensation for dramatically increased workloads while watching profits soar, they also paint an overly optimistic picture of the gains being made. And now, the media seems mesmerized by the threat of inflation, with those advocating austerity increasingly given prominent play. The reality is that the labor movement has a long struggle ahead and it should not be distracted by unwarranted fears of inflation.
We face many big challenges. And we will need strong, bold policies to meaningfully address them. Solving our child-care crisis is one of those challenges, and a study of World War II government efforts to ensure accessible and affordable high-quality child care points the way to the kind of bold action we need.
The child care crisis
A number of studies have established that high-quality early childhood programs provide significant community and individual benefits. One found that “per dollar invested, early childhood programs increase present value of state per capita earnings by $5 to $9.” Universal preschool programs have also been shown to offer significant benefits to all children, even producing better outcomes for the most disadvantaged children than means-tested programs. Yet, even before the pandemic, most families struggled with a lack of desirable child-care options.
Many activists in the United States support a Green New Deal transformation of the economy in order to tackle the escalating global climate crisis and the country’s worsening economic and social problems. At present, the Green New Deal remains a big tent idea, with advocates continuing to debate what it should include and even its ultimate aims. Although perhaps understandable given this lack of agreement, far too little attention has been paid to the process of transformation. That is concerning, because it will be far from easy.
One productive way for us to sharpen our thinking about the transformation is to study the World War II-era mobilization process. Then, the U.S. government, facing remarkably similar challenges to the ones we are likely to confront, successfully converted the U.S. economy from civilian to military production in a period of only three years.
A battle is slowly brewing in Washington DC over whether to raise corporate taxes to help finance new infrastructure investments. While higher corporate taxes cannot generate all the funds needed, the coming debate over whether to raise them gives us an opportunity to challenge the still strong popular identification of corporate profitability with the health of the economy and, by extension, worker wellbeing.
A meaningful working-class recovery from the recession seems far away.
After seven months of job gains, although diminishing gains to be sure, we are again losing jobs. As the chart below shows, the number of jobs fell by 140,000 in December.
We are currently about 9.8 million jobs down from the February 2020 employment peak, having recovered only 55 percent of the jobs lost. And, as the following chart illustrates, the percentage of jobs lost remains greater, even now after months of job growth, than it was at any point during the Great Recession.
This is the first in a series of posts that aim to describe and evaluate the World War II mobilization experience in the United States in order to illuminate some of the economic and political challenges we can expect to face as we work for a Green New Deal.
This post highlights the successful government directed wartime reorientation of the U.S. economy from civilian to military production, an achievement that both demonstrates the feasibility of a rapid Green New Deal transformation of the U.S. economy and points to the kinds of organizational capacities we will need to develop. The post also highlights some of the strategies employed by big business to successfully stamp the wartime transformation as a victory for “market freedom,” an outcome that strengthened capital’s ability to dominate the postwar U.S. political economy and suggests the kind of political struggles we can expect and will need to overcome as we work to achieve a just Green New Deal transformation.