Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism: The state, capital, and the working class in the Great Depression, Toronto, 1929-1940

Document type Thesis
Author Klee, Marcus Aurelius
Degree Ph.D., History
Publisher Queen's University; Kingston, Ont.
Date 1999
Pages 531


The Great Depression of the 1930s was the culmination of severe contradictions building within a maturing capitalist world economy, and has been credited, in conjunction with the Second World War, for structuring the post-war compromise around a national welfare state, full employment, Keynesian fiscal policy, demand management, and the expansion of trade union rights. Despite the importance of this decade in Canadian history, and the highly developed literature on the Roosevelt administration and the American New Deal, few writers have attempted to probe the finer contours of the Great Depression in Canada. This thesis is broadly structured around the threat of social disorder which state officials and social workers perceived to be rooted in the economic malaise of the decade. Attempts to manage the poor through municipal welfare schemes and efforts to regulate the family through newly developed “socialized tribunals” were paired with a campaign to contain juvenile delinquency and structure the leisure time of working-class adolescents. The order that social workers sought to impose on the working-class family and child was materially related to struggles to bring order to the economy. The ideological retreat from laissez-faire capitalism by business and the state coalesced with a burgeoning and militant union movement that propelled the state towards active intervention in the economic, social, moral, and political relations of capital and labor. Pushed in part by an escalation in strike-related violence, the state tentatively embarked on a program of economic control through the Industrial Standards Act, opened legal space for union activities, and attempted to introduce the first minimum wage for male workers. The thesis explores the role of unions, representing both men and women, skilled and unskilled, in structuring the re-organization of capitalism in Toronto's transportation, construction, and service industries, yet draws upon the paradigm of state-centered regulatory regimes which emerged in the state's treatment of the unemployed, the family, and youth. Policies designed to contain 'chiseling' employers, wayward youth, and cheating husbands all faltered because the state was unwilling or incapable of stepping too heavily into the private sphere or interfering with the prerogatives of private property. The resulting half-measures produced a set of contradictions inherent in initiatives designed to accommodate both labor and capital and generated intense struggles against the 'sweatshop,' while bringing the twin issues of the family wage and relief-subsidized competition to the forefront of political and economic mobilization. The largely ineffectual attempts to bring order to political, economic and social life witnessed the emergence of a nascent regulatory state, tied to significant pockets of organized capital, and contingently supported by organized labor. This particular constellation of social forces not only attained a degree of ideological prominence during the depression, but was of profound importance in shaping the second-half of the twentieth century.