The Unpaid Bill

By Liam Payne

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd president, famously declared in 1936:

“The old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

While far from a socialist administration, the Roosevelt presidencies marked a rupture in the previously cosy relationship between the American state and corporate capitalism. Through government legislation branded the ‘New Deal’, the Roosevelt Administration sought to aggressively regulate the whims and avarice of capitalism, whilst bolstering the ‘dual power’ of organised labour, the federal government and democracy. The raft of legislation passed in the ‘First 100 Days’ of his opening term is still impressive today, and sets the benchmark against which all future administrations are judged.

The New Deal still greatly informs and influences contemporary progressive movements in America and beyond. Current reform agendas such as the Green New Deal owe not just their moniker to the Roosevelt Administration’s efforts, but also the scope and urgency of their offering.

America’s entry into the Second World War saw the whole economic and industrial capacity of the country re-purposed to a ‘war economy’ – largely under the direction of the state. The obvious change and benefits this type of economic settlement brought, coupled with the earlier reforms under the New Deal, led the Roosevelt White House to begin to look further than the merely state-regulated capitalism they had fought so hard to establish in the 1930s.

In his 1944 State of the Union address to Congress, Roosevelt began to sketch out what this could mean for American society. His death in the spring of 1945, and the seemingly shady events that led progressive Henry Wallace being un-democratically denied the position of vice-presidential candidate at the 1944 Democratic convention, brought this vision to a shuddering halt. But its contents and scope still reverberate in the cause of progressive reform, and have interesting connotations for the democratic left in this country as well.

The Unpaid Bill

Addressing Congress in 1944 for the annual State of the Union speech, Roosevelt called on America to establish a new Bill of Rights. Through this, he aimed to further codify and advance the New Deal legislation his administration had previously passed. He wished to engender “a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever known before.”

The country, Roosevelt averred, cannot be satisfied with its standing while any portion of it still suffers from want of the most basic necessities, such as food and shelter. The current democratic settlement in America already confers on its citizens certain ‘inalienable rights’. These protections include: the right to free speech, a free press, freedom to worship, and a trial by a jury of your peers. In the creation of a new Bill of Rights, Roosevelt sought to build on these, and begin to address the glaring fact that these ‘inalienable rights’ are in fact highly alienable for certain sections of American society – and indeed remain so to this day. Roosevelt acknowledged:

“As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

The major weakness in the current Bill of Rights, Roosevelt proposes, is in the economic sphere. People are not truly protected and free to live fulfilling lives if they are economically deprived. Thus freedom from want, and the introduction of guaranteed economic and social security for every American citizen, must be a new right in the post-war world. Roosevelt felt that these truths had themselves become ‘self-evident’ in the modern epoch.

His ‘second Bill of Rights’ would include “a new basis of security and prosperity… for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

This would be codified in the following terms:

  • The right to a useful and well-paid job.
  • The right to an adequate living wage, allowing for sustenance, shelter and recreation.
  • The right to economic freedom from unfair competition and domination by national and international monopolies.
  • The right to decent housing.
  • The right to medical care and the opportunity to live a healthy life.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

Through the implementation of these extra rights, Roosevelt envisioned a post-war world striving toward “new goals of human happiness and well-being”. The risks of reneging on this vision for Roosevelt were grave. Without this expansion of basic rights into the economic life of the nation, the country risked a revanchist ‘rightist reaction’:

“Indeed, if such reaction should develop – if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s – then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

Modern Connotations

Despite the evident progressive nature of this proposed ‘second Bill of Rights’, it is clear from its contents that it doesn’t specifically deal with the overarching problem of race in America. Moreover, as socialists, it is clear that the bill would not fully challenge the systemic cause of the problems identified in its prescriptions – the socio-economic system of capitalism.

However, it is clear that these amendments to the existing structure of rights in America would have moved the country from the state-regulated capitalism of the New Deal, which could be and indeed was overturned by future administrations, into a rigidly regulated capitalism – constrained by new ‘inalienable rights’ for working people.

These regulatory and ameliorative aims could be clearly seen in the presidential platform of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in America, and even in much of the policy proposals and vision of the Corbyn-led Labour Party here in the UK. These were roundly welcomed by socialists across the globe.

In a UK context, the idea of codifying rights in such a Bill or constitution has been one traditionally treated warily by the labour movement. A long and fractious experience of the UK legal system, which would be the ultimate arbiter of such a Bill’s provisions, has led to a preference for pursuing legislation through the democratic channels of government instead.

Perhaps now though, the idea of codifying material gains for working people in such a way has a renewed relevance. The neoliberal ascendancy of the past 40-plus years has called the power of state legislation into question. In a country dominated by a rabid right-wing media, globalised capital, and an archaic and often unrepresentative voting system, is this preference truly still the most effective and secure?

Building on both the proposals of Roosevelt, and the radical history of this country, the left could begin to champion the idea of enacting charters of rights as legal protections for any gains working people may make under a future radical Labour government. A Charter of Democratic rights could build on the existing legislation contained in the 1998 Human Rights Act, and a Charter of Economic and Social Rights could establish, and in many cases re-establish, economic and social provisions (similar to those outlined by Roosevelt) which would be of lasting benefit to the mass of the UK population.

While this may not seem to be a radical enough incursion into capitalist hegemony, it could create the material and political conditions that make future initiatives of such a nature possible. Without the threat of economic precarity, unaffordable housing and a costly education (just for starters), individuals would have more time and space for collective engagement in politics, the workplace, and their communities. This sort of freedom would be invaluable to a labour movement still disoriented by the end of the old industrial settlement of large workplaces centred in specific geographic locations. In short, protections and rights of such a nature as Roosevelt intoned in 1944, could lead to a future revanchist left.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: FDR 1944 Portrait. Source:  derived from: FDR 1944 Color Portrait.tif. Author: FDR 1944 Color Portrait.tif FDR Presidential Library & Museum, derivative work: WikiJunkie, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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