Capital used to sell us visions of tomorrow. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, corporations showcased new technologies: nylon, air conditioning, fluorescent lamps, the ever-impressive View-Master. But more than just products, an ideal of middle-class leisure and abundance was offered to those weary from economic depression and the prospect of European war.
The Futurama ride even took attendees through miniature versions of transformed landscapes, depicting new highways and development projects: the world of the future. It was a visceral attempt to renew faith in capitalism.
In the wake of the Second World War, some of this vision became a reality. Capitalism thrived and, though uneven, progress was made by American workers. With pressure from below, the state was wielded by reformers, not smashed, and class compromise, not just class struggle, fostered economic growth and shared prosperity previously unimaginable.
Exploitation and oppression didn’t go away, but the system seemed not only powerful and dynamic, but reconcilable with democratic ideals. The progress, however, was fleeting. Social democracy faced the structural crisis in the 1970s that Michal Kalecki, author of “The Political Aspects of Full Employment,” predicted decades earlier. High employment rates and welfare state protections didn’t buy off workers, it encouraged militant wage demands. Capitalists kept up when times were good, but with stagflation — the intersection of poor growth and rising inflation — and the Opec embargo, a crisis of profitability ensued.