Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker and mother of seven children. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Getty Images
In 1936, when this picture was taken, many believed Karl Marx right in his prediction that capitalism would be broken by its contradictions. They looked admiringly to Russia or even joined communist parties. Meanwhile, Hitler's Germany blamed the troubles on Jewish financiers and created work through massive public schemes. Liberal, capitalist democracy would only regain strength with the new consensus for welfare and planning that emerged from the second world war.
The face of Florence Owens Thompson in Lange's photograph is hemmed in by shadows of this dark period in history. So why did she make her appearance on the LA Times the other day, on the breakfast tables of film producers and television executives? The article was asking why today's artists have not risen to the challenge of depicting what it claimed is already a new depression – where is our Dorothea Lange? Yet the real question seems to be why we suddenly find images of the 1930s pertinent and recognisable and … contemporary.
The stark images of the 1929 crash and the 1930s depression that currently haunt us are forebodings, night terrors, nervous jitters. They express something essential about the state of the world in 2011: fear.
Nothing is scarier than the thought that we might be repeating the history of the 1930s. There is no more terrifying period in human history. The economic travails of that time tore apart societies. Americans suffered catastrophic poverty, as shown in Lange's photograph. Germans succumbed to the politics of hate, Spain became a battleground, soon Europe would be one. All that is evoked in chilling photographs of the depression era.
This is a moment of sweat and nerves. Over the summer, financial news got eerie. As it happens, the nightmare scenarios have not yet come to pass – some were predicting a collapse of the euro in August. The threat of Washington failing to raise the American debt ceiling was another panic averted at the last moment. But the fears continue.
In America in 1933, Roosevelt faced down fear and insisted that rational measures could defy the forces of destruction. Meanwhile, that same year Hitler took power with a politics of pure unreason that feasted on terror.
Today it is avowedly democratic politicians who seem ready to exacerbate terror. Deficits are talked up as ghoulish menaces, social ills blamed on moral decay. In America, government itself, as any kind of rational agent for reform, is widely portrayed as a monster.
Related: Facing Change: Documenting America