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Economic Imaginaries of the American Left, 1950-1980

English title Economic Imaginaries of the American Left, 1950-1980
Applicant Cottier Maurice
Number 186634
Funding scheme Return CH Postdoc.Mobility
Research institution Departement Geschichte Universität Basel
Institution of higher education University of Basel - BS
Main discipline General history (without pre-and early history)
Start/End 01.10.2019 - 31.12.2019
Approved amount 101'832.00
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Keywords (6)

Popular Discourse; Economics and Society; Neoliberalism; Social Imaginary; Keynesianism; American Contemporary History

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
In den letzten Jahren wurde viel über den Einfluss konservativer oder neoliberaler Denkmuster auf die Organisation von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft seit den 1970er-Jahren geforscht. Dieses Projekt untersucht hingegen mit Blick auf die USA erstmals systematisch den linken Diskurs über Wirtschaft in den Jahren 1950 bis 1980. Es fragt danach, weshalb es im linken Lager nicht gelang in einer Phase tiefgreifender sozialer und kultureller Veränderungen für die Zeitgenossen überzeugende Zukunftsvisionen zu präsentieren.
Lay summary

Das Ziel des Projekts ist es, die Desorientierung und Konfusion im linken Lager in puncto Wirtschaftsfragen in den 1970er-Jahren – die Phase der neoliberalen Wende – besser zu verstehen. Dank jüngsten Forschungen wissen wir zwar, dass neoliberale Ideen ab den 1990er-Jahren auch im gemässigten linken Lager Anhänger fanden. Nicht geklärt ist hingegen bisher, weshalb es im Jahrzehnt nach 1968 nicht gelang, eine eigenständige und für die Zeitgenossen attraktive Vision für Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft zu entwerfen. Dieses Projekt untersucht diese Frage mit Blick auf die USA. Der Fokus liegt auf populären Diskursen zu Wirtschaft. Methodisch stützt sich das Projekt auf diskurs- und erzähltheoretische Werkzeuge und unternimmt eine systematische Auswertung von Artikeln zu Wirtschaftsthemen in drei U.S.-amerikanischen Zeitschriften The New Republic, The Nation und Dissent. Gleichzeitig werden international erfolgreiche Bestseller von U.S. Ökonomen wie John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner oder Robert Lekachman analysiert. Im Falle von Galbraith bieten Leserbriefe die Möglichkeit, die Rezeption seiner Theorien durch ein Laienpublikum zu untersuchen. Dabei wird ersichtlich, dass Galbraith trotz seiner Popularität Mühe bekundete seine Leser für seine teilweise weitführenden Reformvorschläge zu begeistern. Das Forschungsvorhaben verspricht, neue Einblicke auf die sogenannt neoliberale Wende in den 1970er-Jahren zu werfen. Anders als in der bisherigen Forschung wird der Blick erstmals auf die Verliererseite gerichtet. 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 20.09.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
180685 Popular Economics: John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman and the Shaping of Public Opinion in the United States and Great Britain, 1955-1985 01.10.2018 Postdoc.Mobility

Abstract

The goal of this habilitation-project is to investigate the disorientation, confusion and frictions of the American left regarding the economy, economics and economic policy during the crisis of Keynesianism and the ascent of neoliberalism in the 1970s. The working assumption is that, starting from the 1950s, significant parts of the left had become critical towards the Keynesian consensus centered around economic growth. The main questions are: Why did the American left become increasingly critical of Keynesian economic policy in these three decades? What were the criticisms and solutions presented? And why were these solutions not more convincing? The focus is not on academic debate but on popular discourse. Inspired by Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginary’, the aim is not just to reconstruct the criticism of leading economists and intellectuals but also to investigate how lay people viewed and discussed economic matters. Next to the popular books by critical left-leaning economists and left-leaning periodicals, an innovative source is used: approximately 1,000 letters written by lay people to famous liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith and Marxist economist Paul M. Sweezy. These documents enable a bottom-up perspective, revealing how people, who were not professionally engaged in the debate, imagined the present and future economy. After preliminary investigations, the working assumption is that the economic imaginaries of the American left contained two major dilemmas. How could a well-running economy, providing lucrative jobs and economic security for a growing number of citizens, be criticized? Therefore, leading left-leaning economists such as Galbraith and Paul A. Baran formulated a cultural critique of economic success pointing to the negative effects of mass production and mass consumption for the environment and the human psyche. Yet, this implied that prosperity might have to come to a halt. The second dilemma concerned the role of the government. While, at first, scholars like Galbraith pushed for the expansion of the public sector to solve these problems, the mood changed during the 1960s in the context of the Vietnam War and the students’ movement. Henceforth, big government as an economic actor was increasingly suspect. But how could the power of big corporations be limited without government intervention? In this context, some on the left started to cautiously discuss the free market as more suitable institution to produce welfare effects.To date, historians have mainly focused on right-leaning (or neoliberal) economists to explain the fall of the so-called Keynesian consensus. This project, for the first time, systematically investigates the disorientation of the left as a major cause for the rise of the free market doctrine from an intellectual and cultural history perspective. Although the focus is on the United States, the research questions address problems which are not limited to the American context and of equal importance for subsequent debates in Europe and elsewhere. By examining the economic imaginaries of the American left, the project contributes to a better understanding of the deep and far-reaching transitions of Western societies and cultures during the Cold War era.
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