Review: The Populist Moment–A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America

6 Star Special, Democracy, History

Populist MovementMajor Work Relevant to Reuniting America Today

June 26, 2007

Lawrence Goodwyn

I was moved, impressed, and inspired by this book. There are a couple of other reviews that do excellent jobs of summarizing, so I will try to limit my ten pages of notes to a few highlights, and some other books that I believe can help the 3 out of 5 Americans that want “none of those now running.” The Republican and Democratic parties have sold out (this is best documented in Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It) and it is time we restored the Constitution and demanded Electoral Reform to restore We the People as sovereign.

Written in 1978, this book could not have come to me, and others in the transpartisan movement, at a better time.

The author opens with very helpful overviews of how a mass culture, a mass indoctrination, if you will, is a much cheaper and easier way to keep the mass docile, than a forced or fascist solution. He reminds me of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

He then moves to the manner in which industrialization eroded democracy, making it a poor facade. I am reminded of Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System

He then stresses how in a damaged or constrained democracy, public resignation and private escapism are the dominant features of the mass public.

He then moves into an overview of the agrarian-based populist movement that was crushed by the railroads, Pinkerton’s as an illegal army, and the banks, with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 being the consummation of the banking victory over the people.

He notes that mass protest requires a higher order of culture, education, and achievement, especially in harmonization of disparate nodes. He identifies four steps within which the third is clearly of vital importance:

1. Autonomous institution emerges as a hub
2. Recruiting of masses takes place
3. Educating of masses takes place (40,000 “lecturers”)
4. Politicization of the masses actualizes their power to good effect.

The author does a superb job of stressing the importance of internal communication, and says that IF this can be achieved, THEN a new plateau of social responsibility is possible. He calls this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct “the movement culture.”

The populists achieved a “sense of somebodyness.” I am reminded of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Bk Currents) as well as Society’s Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People.

He examines the Civil War and concludes that it changed everything–it fragmented the nation into sectarian, religious, and racial prejudices. Latter in the book he examines the pernicious effects of white supremacy, which ultimately undid the potential collaboration among poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Catholics factory workers in the Northeast.

The populists tried to break free of the railroads and banks that conspired to keep them in debt forever. Among their brilliant leaders, one stood out, conceptualizing both a large scale credit cooperative (i.e. public ownership of the essentials of society including food, water, energy, and communications), and a sub-treasury that would ensure that natural resources were applied to the needs of the people and not to squatter or absentee landlords.

The seven “demands” of the populists, ultimately crushed by the banks:

1) Abolishment of banks, issuance of government tender
2) Government ownership of the means of communication & transportation
3) Prohibition of alien ownership of USA land
4) Free and unlimited coinage in silver
5) Equitable taxation among classes
6) Fractional paper currency
7) Government economy

The populists opposed “organized capital”, emphasized living issues over dead or archaic contracts, and tried to establish their own newspapers because they understood that the mainstream media had been co-opted by the railroads and the banks.

The following quote on page 168, from the year 1892, is eerily relevant to today:

“The people are demoralized. …The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down our own wages; a hireling standing army (Pinkerton’s), unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down; and they are rapidly disintegrating to European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty.”

Wow. I am reminded of virtually every book I have read in the past four years on unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory immoral capitalism. Just a couple can be mentioned here:

The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)
The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will Take to Win It Back
The Working Poor: Invisible in America

The author draws the book to a close by observing four trends that spelled the demise of the populist movement:

1. Banishment of “financial issue” from public debate
2. Corporate mergers (and one could add, corporate “personality”)
3. Decline of public participation in democracy
4. Corporate domination of mass communications

He identifies three persistent flaws in the existing American economy:

1. Land ownership permitting alien, absentee, and predatory landlords
2. Basic financial structure that imposes debt rather than credit
3. Corporate centralization

He stresses that populism is not socialism, but rather a democratic promise emergent. He is optemistic that lessons from the populist failure could be used by farmers, laborers, and others to do a mass insurgency, to “work together to be free individually.”

If we are to defeat the current corrupt Republican and Democratic parties, we must do so in a transpartisan fashion: a third party must be based on the disaffected from both of the corrupt “main parties” while attracting back to the debate and the electoral process the lapsed voters and the new voters. I think we can do that for 2008.