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Tommaso Milani

Dr. Tommaso Milani

Simone Veil-Fellow (Winter Term 2021)


Recasting Internationalism:
The ILO, New Economics, and the Global Politics of the Great Depression, 1929-39

My research project aims to make a significant contribution to the literature on the 1930s by showing how the International Labour Organisation (ILO) helped recast liberal internationalism and strengthened its social/welfarist dimension at a time of international crisis. Moving beyond institutional histories of the organisation (often written by insiders), my research strives to connect developments within the ILO to wider trends in world politics, most notably by looking at the impact of non-state actors in spreading competing variants of internationalism. It will also highlight the heterodox character of the ILO’s economic agenda vis-à-vis that of most Western countries, informed by a more traditional, and at times almost dogmatic, commitment to balanced budgets and to the Gold Standard. From this perspective, the ILO will emerge as one of the most creative, albeit underrated, seedbeds for a new model of international governance that operated through the interwar years, laying the groundwork for some policies that will become mainstream only after 1945.

My project will explain how the ILO embraced an interventionist ‘New Economics’ as part of a relatively coherent, highly original strategy to safeguard and revive the League of Nations’ role between 1929 and 1939 – the period from the Wall Street Crash to the outbreak of the Second World War. The ILO’s shift must be examined against the background of the previous decade. In the relatively stable and less confrontational environment of the mid-1920s, the ILO performed its institutional mission – namely the improvement of labour conditions and promotion of social justice – by encouraging dialogue and compromise between employers and employees. This approach was based on the organisation’s tripartite model in which the representatives of governments, trade unions and employers’ associations each had a voice. However, the economic turmoil caused by the Great Depression led to increasingly strained labour relations and seriously threatened to slow down or even halt the ratification process of major conventions that the organisation had been promoting. In that context, the ILO was forced to reinvent itself, becoming a breeding ground for heterodox ideas that aimed to reconcile full employment, political stability, and global economic interdependence.