Donald Sassoon: To Understand This Crisis We Can Look to the Long Depression Too

Roundup: Historians' Take

Donald Sassoon is Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary College, University of London.

'Growth, growth, my kingdom for some growth!" But the kingdom is in double-dip recession and the painful slog out of it may be longer than the government expected. Elsewhere, it's not fun either. Spain is in serious recession with unemployment at almost 25%. Its borrowing costs are increasing, as are those of Italy – two major markets for British exports. In France, whose economy is faltering, François Hollande is poised to win the presidential election. The "markets" are running scared.

Crises have always been with us. They are part of the history of capitalism. This crisis is not like any of the previous big capitalist crises except in this: "we are not all in it together". There will be winners and losers and, as usual, the outcome is uncertain.

The crisis of 1929, or the Great Depression, has become the ur-crisis, the proto-crisis, the one crisis all other crises are compared to. Is the present downturn as bad as that of 1929? Recent OECD data is not encouraging, particularly for Europe. The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, is more optimistic, at least for the United States. The meltdown, he explained, would have been even worse than that of 1929 had it not been for decisive government intervention (a modest way of patting himself on the back).

Comparisons are always useful, but the truth is that the crisis of 1929 was quite different from today's – not surprisingly since the world has changed considerably...

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