Commentary. In a very short time, a crucible was set up to test the ideas and projects which would span the following years. It was this planning capacity that made the transformative animus of the New Deal so extraordinary.

In praise of reconstruction and work

As we leave May 1 behind, we need to be aware that, faced with the painful recession we have entered as a result of the pandemic, ultra-expansive monetary policies aimed at expanding liquidity and commercial activity, although essential, are not enough.

Instead, we need our public institutions to invent a radical “planning capacity” for job creation on the European scale, similar to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal. That incredible “planning capacity” was built on the key notion that people should not be given a handout, but a job with an adequate salary (offering all the “moral and spiritual value” of such work, in addition to the material), as a lever to lift the community from the condition of collapse into which it had been forced and an opportunity to create the modern public infrastructure that the nation was lacking.

As a result, the first main feature of the New Deal was the priority given to public projects with a dual aim: a) to employ most of those who were unemployed, and b) to revive the private sector, for example through the demand for the intermediate goods of that period, such as steel and fertilizers.

The second feature was the mobilization—also in terms of morale—of extraordinary human and intellectual resources: from associations and volunteers to trade unions, schools and universities, cultural and thought centers, everyone was called upon to contribute to the design of the projects that were needed. The third feature was the “experimentalist” character of the program—for which Roosevelt drew inspiration from American pragmatist philosophers and John Dewey—which meant the stimulation of creativity and inventiveness, informing all the activities taking place.

The fourth feature was the fast pace at which the measures were implemented and the obligation for those responsible to achieve results in the shortest possible time: in the aftermath of his inauguration on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt gave the presidency of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to General Hugh Johnson, because he trusted his “concrete” abilities, developed from his experience in the army. The latter flew across the nation promoting the slogan “We do our part,” and by Christmas 1933 he had secured an agreement from the ten largest industrial groups for the implementation of the new law.

In a very short time, a crucible was set up to test the ideas and projects which would span the following years. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—an experiment in territorial planning (with 29 new dams, infrastructure, schools, libraries, hospitals and public offices) which, in addition to the electrification of rural areas that had been opposed by private companies for a long time, made possible the eradication of malaria and swamps, the increase of agricultural income and the start of industrialization—was created in 1933 and is still active today.

Prominent works were carried out under the Public Works Administration (PWA), including the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, La Guardia Airport, Union Station in Los Angeles and the renovation of the French Market in New Orleans. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) devoted all their energies to creating youth employment through programs of reforestation and the creation of the great American national parks: nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” they defeated the erosion process that had almost destroyed the Great Plains of the Midwest.

The WPA created 8 million beneficiaries of socially useful works that enriched cities and small communities with public buildings, paved roads, sewer lines, literacy classes and the maintenance of historic buildings. In particular, the WPA created jobs in the fields of writing, traveling theater, music, the figurative arts through murals in public buildings, and the collection of the oral histories of thousands of Americans who became American epics. These projects gave work to some of the greatest American artists, including Miller, Welles, Kazan, Pollock or Rothko.

It was this planning capacity that made the transformative animus of the New Deal so extraordinary. Considering dramatic moral problems, such as human suffering, as outright political problems was a political tradition in Anglo-Saxon politics that interpreted social events as a primarily moral conflict between victims, oppressors and reformers.

What made the New Deal unique was that this framework was reintroduced in order to radically redesign the dominant “form of life,” rescuing individuals from passivity and apathy through mobilization for work and for political morality.

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