Newsletter #52: Using the Twentieth Century for the Twenty-First, with Edward Goetz

By Mack Penner

In the previous newsletter, on Gail Radford’s interview with The Dig, Maia Silber wrote about how, at least when it comes to housing, the history of the twentieth century can be mined for indications of present and future possibility: “the main lesson we might take from the past is that we can and should demand so much more than affordability from our housing. We can imagine housing that creates new possibilities for our relationships, our communities, our politics, and our world.” In this spirit, I want to build on Maia’s point by using Edward Goetz’s interview in order to run a quick exercise in thinking about how we can use the twentieth century.

Listening to Goetz discussing New Deal Ruins and the demise of American public housing in the twentieth century, I kept returning to what an enormous setback the neoliberal counterrevolution has been. While Goetz comes nowhere near telling a straightforward story of “good” mid-century public housing turned “bad” in the 1980s and 1990s, the narrative is still declensionist. Especially in the middle parts of the twentieth century (and even further back; Dan references Vienna in the interview), attitudes and policies regarding public housing contained seeds of the kinds of possibilities that Maia gestures towards. Come the Clintonian nineties and the implementation of Hope VI by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, mid-century potential met its fin de siècle extinguishment. Similar trajectories could be traced across so many categories. The final decades of the twentieth century made ruins of the New Deal across the board, not just in housing.

Listen to the new episode of The Dig here.

What to do with this? Nostalgia for the postwar period is one direction that often appeals: look at the mature New Deal state of the 1950s and 1960s, lament its disappearance, yearn for its return. It has been rightly pointed out that this instinct is best avoided, if for no other reason than the fact that in the history of capitalism the postwar period is exceptional. Its relatively close proximity makes it seem familiar, but in broad historical view, it is unique. Aaron Benanav makes this point in a different context by stressing that postwar industrial expansion was like a centrifugal force, enabling various policy initiatives almost all on its own. We shouldn’t rest our hopes on a return to those conditions.

So we might accept the insight that postwar American capitalism was something unique and use it to ask different questions. Instead of asking how we can rebuild those mid-century conditions of possibility, we can ask ourselves, for example, about how movements can work to our own ends under less-favorable conditions. Dan and Goetz get into this when they discus local housing fights at the end of this episode. More broadly, we can also think about how we might foment new, novel conditions of possibility. In awareness of climate change, enormous industrial expansion — at least anywhere near the sort we’ve come to know in the past century and a half — must be off the table. What other kinds of conditions might enable social democracy or even socialism in our time?

Further Reading and Listening Adjacent to questions of housing are questions of the family. In The Dig’s archive, Melinda Cooper’s interview on her book Family Values is a perfect companion to Goetz’s interview for more reasons than one. Cooper also just published this essay on family wealth management in The Baffler.