Michael Dennis

Aug 23, 2021

The Full Employment Horizon in 20th-Century America

The Movement for Economic Democracy

Bloomsbury Publishing 2021

One of the unfulfilled goals of the American left during the 1930s was that of an economy in which every American would enjoy the opportunity for gainful employment. In The Full Employment Horizon in 20th-Century America: The Movement for Economic Democracy (Bloomsbury, 2021), Michael Dennis describes the origins of the movement, the efforts made to achieve it, and the factors that frustrated its realization. Dennis traces its beginnings to a progressive critique of industrial capitalism in the 1920s, which warned of the growing disparity between rising productivity and stagnant wages. During the Great Depression, groups from across the political left took up the cause of full employment, campaigning for legislation to ensure that jobs could be had by all. When President Franklin Roosevelt called in 1944 for a right to a job as part of his Economic Bill of Rights, it seemed as though full employment was close to realization, only for its prospects to be dashed in the late 1940s by opposition from business, Southern conservatives, and Republicans.

Moribund in the immediate post-World War II era, the full employment movement gained new life in the 1960s as civil rights activists adopted it as part of their cause. By the 1970s, their hopes took form with the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which was advocated as a solution to gender segregation and racial exclusion. As Dennis details, though, its ambitious ideas of participatory democracy were opposed by not just the traditional opponents of the full employment movement but mainstream organized labor as well. Without the grassroots efforts that had characterized it during the 1930s the movement lacked the social foundation to push back against this, resulting in the passage of a bill lacking the means of turning its ambitious aspirations into reality. While the full employment cause suffered in the neoliberal age that followed, Dennis notes how the idea persisted into the 21st century, when it was revitalized in the aftermath of the 2008 recession as a response to the economic challenges facing the country.

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