The Audacity of Despair

The Audacity of Despair

Fear Itself:
The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

by Ira Katznelson
Liveright Publishing, 2013, 720 pp.

Few topics have been covered in such depth by academic and popular authors as the topic of : the New Deal and “the origins of our time.” Indeed, Ira Katznelson asks: what is left to say, and especially at such length, about such a well-worn furrow? His answer is a lot more than you would think, especially when seen from a rather unusual angle. The clue to that angle lies in the title. Fear Itself is necessarily a big book because Katznelson wants to give us a big picture—not just of the many tortured and unsavory relationships that made the New Deal possible, of dalliances with fascists and alliances with racists and communists, but also of the evolution of the U.S. state and, by extension, of democratic capitalism around the world. Yet more than this, the book is at heart an examination of the role played by fear as a driver of institutional and political change in democratic politics.

To paint such a big picture Katznelson must arrange elements as diverse as the collapse of inter-war European democracy, the rise of the Soviet Union, the making of the nuclear security state, the role southern Democrats played in pushing federal power forward so long as it didn’t upset the South’s racial hierarchy, the role labor unions inadvertently played in limiting their own political impact, and the arrival of a fleet of Italian seaplanes in Chicago in 1933.

Two concepts tie this assemblage together: first, the “Southern Cage” of U.S. policymaking, where senior southern congressmen, racist to the core, exercised veto power on how far and in what manner the U.S. state could expand; and second, the “Janus-faced” state that emerged from this cage. This state is both procedural and pluralist, where the money-skewed play of interests dictates who gets what, and crusading, rallying and charging against foes, domestic and foreign, with a unified sense of purpose. Together these concepts frame Katznelson’s big picture. But then he unexpectedly shifts to a more interesting, and more uncertain, palette.

Over the past few years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, social scientists have been drawn to the relationship between uncertainty and risk. Risk, as Katznelson notes, drawing on the work of Frank Knight and others, denotes situations where inferences regarding the frequency and impact of a future event can be probabilistically drawn from past instances. Uncertainty, in contrast, means no such probabilities can be assigned “because the situation being dealt with is in a high degree unique.” In these moments the shackles of social structure and the inertia of institutions give way to a politics of agency. Katznelson asks us to focus upon what I would term the “audacity of despair”—the agency made possible when uncertaint...


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