Pictures of a fractured society

When the Great Depression hit the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the misery, uncertainty and social instability it brought in its wake also produced another legacy: an archive of moody photographs that documented the life, deprivation, resignation and hopelessness of a generation. Many of these photos can be seen in various published collections, some of them very famous; perhaps the best known were taken by the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. What runs through these photos, for me at least, is the total resignation – the giving up of all hope – of the people and even the landscapes and scenes.

I was reminded of this when, today in Washington (where I am currently on business), I saw a middle aged man wearing what looked like an Armani suit, though crumpled and somewhat dirty, rummage through a trash bin, pick out an item or two, and then move to the next. Of course I know nothing about the man, but I was struck by the compromised elegance, resignation and the sheer matter-of-factness of what he was doing.

The purpose of this post is not to suggest that we are heading back into the Great Depression. Rather, the purpose is to sound a reminder that economic crises are not just about banks and public finances, but about the fabric of society; we must remember that the products of the Great Depression were not just deprivation and poverty, but also European fascism. Back in the 1930s the United States, with its huge reserves of land, natural resources, materials and human energy, avoided the risk of social upheaval just in time by electing an administration that knew how to tackle the problems it faced. Germany also found a way out, but very a very different one, which produced unspeakable horror.

Recessions may be necessary, at least arguably, to correct economic and trading misbehaviour, but where they get out of hand they produce huge human misery, with resulting social and political risks. It would be very unwise to presume that the conditions of the 1930s could not be replicated today. It is therefore vital that we have a vision and a strategy for the future. And important though it undoubtedly is to balance the books, public finance deficits are perhaps not our most urgent and dangerous problem; indeed addressing them forcefully may seriously aggravate other risks. Now is the time for imagination and determination.

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