Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Populist Moment

_The Populist Moment:  A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America_ by Lawrence Goodwyn
NY:  Oxford University Press, 1978
ISBN 0-19-502416-8

(ix)  Finally, and by all odds most importantly, our greatest problem in understanding protest is grounded in contemporary American culture.  In addition to being central, this cultural difficulty is also the most resistant to clear explanation:  we are not only culturally confused, our confusion makes it difficult for us even to imagine our confusion.  Obviously, it is prudent, then, to state here.

The reigning American presumption about the American experience is grounded in the idea of progress, the conviction that the present is "better" than the past and the future will bring still more betterment.
NB:  Although this has changed since the 1970s

(xix)  "Individual self-respect" and "collective self-confidence" constitute, then the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics.  Their development permits people to conceive of the idea of acting in self-generated democratic ways - as distinct from passively participating in various hierarchical modes bequeathed by the received culture.  In this study of Populism, I have given a name to this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct.  I have called it "the movement culture."

(xxviv)  I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
Thomas Jefferson, 1816

(32)  Tactically, the rise of the [Farmers] Alliance was a result of its determination to go beyond the cash stores of the Grange and make pioneering efforts in cooperative marketing as well as purchasing.

(47)  [At Cleburne, TX in August 1886]  The farmers sought "such legislation as shall secure to our people freedom from the onerous and shameful abuses that the industrial classes are now suffering at the hands of arrogant capitalists and powerful corporations."

The committee placed first on its list a demand for the recognition of trade unions and cooperative stores.  Other labor planks called for the establishment of a national bureau of labor statistics "that we may arrive at a correct knowledge of the education, moral and financial condition of the labor masses," the passage of an improved mechanics lien law "to compel corporations to pay their employees according to contract, in lawful money," and the abolition of the practice of leasing state convicts to private employers.  The final labor plank recommended a national conference of all labor organizations "to discuss such measures as may be of interest to the laboring classes."

(56)  It was, in fact, the most massive organizing drive by any citizen institution of nineteenth-century America.  The broader outlines had a similar sweep:  The Alliance's five-year campaign carried lecturers into forty-three states and territories and touched two million American farm families;  it brought a program and a sense of purpose to Southern farmers who had neither, and provided an organizational medium for Westerners who had radical goals but lacked a mass constituency.

(61)  Insurgent movements are not the product of "hard times";  they are the product of insurgent cultures.

(66)  What was true for Kansas and Texas was true everywhere;  indeed, the agrarian revolt cannot be understood outside the framework of the cooperative crusade that was its source.  Amidst a national political system in which the mass constituencies of both major parties were fashioned out of the sectional loyalties of the Civil War, the cooperative movement became the recruiting vehicle though which huge numbers of farmers in the South and West learned to think about a new kind of democratic possibility in America.  The central educational tool of the Farmers Alliance was the cooperative experiment itself.  The massive effort at agrarian self-help, and the opposition it stimulated from furnishing merchants, wholesale houses cotton buyers, and bankers in the South and from grain elevator companies, railroads, land companies, livestock commission agencies, and bankers in the West, brought home to hundreds of thousands of American farmers new insights into their relationship with the commercial elements of American society.  Reduced to its essentials, the cooperative movement recruited the farmers to the Alliance in the period 1887-91, and the resulting cooperative experience educated enough of them to make independent political action a potential reality.  In the process, the Alliance created the world's first large-scale working class cooperative and proposed a comprehensive democratic monetary system for America, the world's emerging industrial leader.  That the chief theorist of both the cooperative and the monetary system, Charles Macune, consistently opposed Alliance political activism and feared the emergence of the third party added a curious dimension to the internal politics of the agrarian revolt.

(75)  In November 1887, the Texas Exchange advanced its program.  It was called the "joint-note plan."  The quiet phrase concealed a breathtaking extension of the cooperative concept:  landowning farmers in the Alliance were asked to place their entire individual holding at the disposal of the group - to stake their own futures on the ultimate success of the Alliance cooperative.  The gamble was an unusual one:  landowners and tenants alike would collectively purchase their supplies for the year through the state exchange on credit, the landowners signing the joint note.  For collateral, they would put up their land and endeavor to protect themselves against loss by taking mortgages on the crops of the tenants.  They would market their cotton collectively through the exchange and then pay off the joint notes at year's end.  The farmers would sink or swim together;  the landless would escape the crop lien, too, or none of them would.  As they had in the past, the brotherhood of the Alliance would "stand united."  In one dramatic season of cooperative marketing and purchasing, they would collectively overcome all of the furnishing merchants of Texas and fee every farmer in the state from the clutches of the lien system!
NB:  collective credit union

(81)  Macune proposed the creation of a treasury within the exchange to issue its own currency - exchange treasury notes - in payment of up to 90 per cent of the current market value of commodities.  Farmers would circulate these notes within the order by using them to purchase their supplies at the Alliance stores.  The latter were to be strengthened by having each county Alliance charter a store of $10,000 capital, half paid in by the local farmers and the other half by the central exchange.  As outlined by Macune, the plan actually cost the central exchange nothing in capital, for it acquired the use of the $10,000 capital of each of the county Alliances for half that amount - in effect, using the credit of the local stores.  The plan, while certainly strengthening the local operation, had as its principal intent the strengthening of the central exchange;  indeed, each county Alliance was to be coerced into subscribing for its proportionate per-capita share - on pain of being excluded from the benefits of the treasury-note plan.
NB:  local currency

(90)  Only one thing was certain:  the Alliance was attempting to construct, within the framework of American capitalism, some variety of cooperative commonwealth.  Precisely where that would lead was unclear.  More than any other Allianceman, Charles Macune had felt the power of the corporate system arrayed alongside the power of a self-help farmer cooperative.  He had gone to the bankers and they had replied in the negative.  Though his own farmer associates had said "yes," they could not marshall enough resources to defeat the crop lien system.

(97)  It is one of the enduring ironies of history that established systems of hierarchy rarely find it necessary to rely on sensible defenses as an essential means of maintaining power.  Police or other modes of social authority are sometimes necessary, but logic rarely is.  Indeed, throughout recorded history, the presence in all human societies of jerry-built modes of thought, behavior, and racial and religious memories have served to help protect traditional elites by strewing complicated psychological and emotional roadblocks in the path of those with unsanctioned but relatively thoughtful innovations.  So pervasive have been these habits of thought that established hierarchies have tended to be defended as venerable repositories of good sense when they are, in fact, merely powerful and orderly.  

A complementary presumption is that insurgent movements are nonsensical.  Indeed, the very thought that an insurgent movement, in its fundamental tenets, may be more than superficial calls into question the usefulness of the established order that resists the movement.  Participants in the mainstream of most societies generally find such causal relationships difficult to accept because to do so would challenge their own individual modes of thought and behavior.  The existence of a coherent protest movement is, therefore, an awkward fact for any society.  For Americans, Populism proved particularly awkward.

(118)  Not until the labor movement developed a tactical solution to the problem of strikebreakers, a solution found only after three generations of experimentation, did effective organization come to a substantial part of the nation's industrial work force. [the sit down strike]
NB:  The urban Socialist surge as the US entered WWI was another time when a farm/labor coalition might have been possible.

(122)  If these black leaders relinquished their power base within the Republican Party - and it was the sole political base black men had remaining to them in the South - only to discover that the agrarian movement failed politically, they faced the probability of being left with no personal foothold at all in the electoral process.

(138)  On the morning after the election [of 1890] it was clear that some sort of earthquake had occurred.  By any standard, the Republican Party was a shaken institution.  The tremors reached all the way to Washington, where President Harrison was moved to describe the Republican performance in the West as "our election disaster."  "If the Alliance can pull one-half of our Republican voters," he said, "our future is not cheerful."  It was not necessary, of course, for agrarian insurgents actually to win elections to directly affect Republican fortunes.  Every independent vote cast in the West, whether it helped elect radicals or not, weakened the G. O. P.  The startling news in states other than Kansas was that the decrease in the Republican vote was enough to send a flood of Democrats to Washington.  The totals were sobering.  While in 1888 the House of Representatives had had 166 Republicans and 159 Democrats, the new House would contain 88 Republicans and 235 Democrats.
NB:  election of 1890 like 2010?

(167)  But the emotional peak at St Louis was provided by Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota.  Donnelly's famous preamble was an expression of the deepest drives of the agrarian radicals who file dthe hall and who had worked so many years to gain the allies who joined them there.  If Donnelly's words seemed harsh and excessive to the comfortable, the delegates at St Louis felt he described the American reality:

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.  Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.

The people are demoralized… The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.
... We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of...

(185)  The strongest Populist vote-getter in Montana [in 1892] was the candidate for Attorney General, a woman's rights advocate named Ella Knowles.

(200)  Still, Populists were by no means disheartened.  They could remind one another, and with complete accuracy, that the infant prewar Republican Party had leaped from obscurity in 1854 to national power in 1860, largely as a result of the hopelessly anachronistic character of the old Whig Party.  Why should reformers feel discouraged?  In 1892 _both_ major parties appeared anachronistic!  Both were in thrall to the whims of the money power, and "concentrated capital."  The "gold Democrats" had narrowly defeated the "Gold Republicans" and given the nation President Grover Cleveland.  Both old parties were continuing to turn their backs on economic realities and were working in a harmonious "sound money" partnership to "down the people."

(207)  What was democracy when aggressive "captains of industry" could buy whole legislatures and keep the United States Congress in a perpetual state of genteel servitude?  What was honest labor when ruthless structuring of the currency drove the price of farm products below the cost of production?  What was thrift when high interest rates gobbled up farmland or when railroads made more money shipping corn than farmers did in growing it?  Where was community virtue when bankers, commission houses, and grain elevator companies wantonly destroyed self-help farmer cooperatives?  Where was dignity when farm women were forced to go barefoot and the furnishing man determined what a farmer's family could or could not eat?  Where was freedom when the crop lien system was enforced by the convict lease system?

(208)  The peripatetic Henry Vincent of the _American Nonconformist_ wrote a brooding account of this epic of industrial despair [Coxey's Army];  he turned it into a book-length assertion of the need for the immediate rise to power of the People's Party.  He called his book _The Story of the Commonweal_.
NB:  I have notes on that book as well.

(231)  At bottom, the third party's internal struggle was a contest between a cooperating group of political office-seekers on the one hand and the Populist movement on the other.  The politicians had short-run objectives - wining the next election.  In contrast, the agrarian movement, both as shaped by the Alliance organizers who had recruited the party's mass base of partisans and as shaped by the recruits themselves, had long-term goals, fashioned during the years of cooperative struggle and expressed politically in the planks of the Omaha Platform.

(249)  Through "Coin" Harvey, the cause of silver was penetrating Democratic ranks from below;  through Herman Taubeneck and his small circle of friends, it was penetrating the ranks of the People's Party from above.  Silver mine owners directly financed both efforts.

(265)  The narrowed boundaries of modern politics that date from the 1896 campaign encircle such influential areas of American life as the relationship of corporate power to citizen power, the political language legitimized to define and settle public issues within a mass society yoked to privately owned mass communications and to privately financed elections, and even the style through which the reality of the American experience - the culture itself - is conveyed to each new generation in the public and private school systems of the nation.  In the  aggregate, these boundaries outline a clear retreat from the democratic vistas of either the eighteenth-century Jeffersonians or the nineteenth-century Populists.

(284)  The idea that serious structural reform of the democratic process was "inevitable" no longer seemed persuasive to reasonable reformers.  Rather, it was evident that political innovations had to be advanced cautiously, if at all, and be directed toward lesser objectives that did not directly challenge the basic prerogatives of those who ruled.  The thought became the inherited wisdom of the American reform tradition, passed from one generation to another.  A consensus thus came to be silently ratified:  reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society.  This conclusion, of course, had the effect of removing from mainstream reform politics the idea of people in an industrial society gaining significant degrees of autonomy in the structure of their own lives.  The reform tradition of the twentieth century unconsciously defined itself within the framework of inherited power relationships.  The range of political possibility was decisively narrowed - not by repression, or exile, or guns, but by the simple power of the reigning new culture itself.

(287)  In addition to the banishment of the "financial question" as a political issue, three other developments soon materialized in the wake of the 1896 election to establish enduring patterns for the twentieth century - the rapid acceleration of the merger movement in American industry, the decline of public participation in the democratic process itself, and corporate domination of mass communications.

(292)  To an extent that was not true of many other societies, the cultural high ground in American had been successfully consolidated by the corporate creed a decade before American socialists, led by Eugene Debs, began their abortive effort to create a mass popular base.  The triumphant new American orthodoxy of the Gilded Age, sheltering the two-party system in a dialogue substantially unrelated to democratic structural reform of the inherited economic and social system, consigned the advocates of such ideas to permanent marginality.  The Populists have thus been, to date, the last American reformers with authentic cultural credentials to solicit mass support for the idea of achieving the democratic organization of an industrialized society.

(302)  As subsequent history was to reveal, these Populistic premises proved to be beyond the conceptual reach of twentieth-century Americans.  Restructuring of American banking was not something about which New Dealers or New Frontiersmen could think with sustained attention.  The received culture has proved to be so powerful that substantive ideas about a democratic system of money and credit have become culturally inadmissible.  Such ideas (the sub-treasury concept of a treasury-based democratic bank will do adequately as an example) are, in the judgment of prevailing cultural authority, "unsound."  No one disputes such culturally sanctioned wisdom today, any more than the goldbug simplicities were disputed in "informed" circles during the Gilded Age.
NB:  Graeber or Krugman or Kropotkin looked at sub-treasury system?

(303)  This [movement] culture was comprised of many ingredients - most visible being the infrastructure of local, county, state, and national Alliance organizations.  But this was surface.  More real were all of the shared experiences within the Alliance - the elaborate encampments, the wagon trains, the meals for thousands - and more real still were the years of laboring together in the sub alliances to form trade committees, to negotiate with merchants, to build the cooperatives to new heights, to discuss the causes of adversity, and, in time, to come to the new movement folkway, the "Alliance Demand"….  Because these multiple methods of interior communication existed, Alliancemen found a way to believe in their own movement, rather than to respond to what the larger society said about their movement.

(305)  All important sectors of commercial America opposed the cooperative movement, not only banks and commission agencies, but grain elevator companies, railroads, mortgage companies, and, perhaps needless to add, furnishing merchants.  The National Farmers Alliance itself persisted as an institution, but the cooperative purpose that sustained the personal day-to-day dedication of members to their own institution did not persist.  Once the politics of the sub-treasury had been orchestrated through the lecturing system in order to bring on the new party, the lecturing system itself withered.  The reason was a basic one;  the lecturers no longer had anything substantive to lecture about.  The Alliance could no longer save the farmers;  only the new party could bring the needed structural changes in the American economic system.

"Lecturing" thus became a function of the People's Party.  The new lecturers who provided the continuing internal communications link within the movement culture were the reform editors.  The National Reform Press Association was to the People's Party what the lecturing system was to the Alliance, the interior adhesive of the democratic movement.  The flaw in all this was the simple fact that the National Reform Press Association did not have an organized constituency, as Alliance lecturers had earlier possessed.  Within the Peoples Party, as it organized itself, there could be no continuing democratic dialogue, no give and take of question and answer, of perceived problem and attempted solution, between rank-and-file members and elected spokesmen, such as had given genuine democratic meaning to the days of cooperative effort within the Alliance.  Rather, reform editors asserted and defended the Populist vision, and their subscribers, in organizational isolation, received these views in a passive state, as it were.  Such a dynamic undermines the very prospect of sustaining a democratic culture grounded - as it must be to be democratic - in individual self-respect and mass self-confidence.  Individual self-respect requires self-assertion, the performance of acts, as farmers performed in their sub alliance business meetings, in their country trade committees, in their statewide marketing and purchasing cooperatives.  But, in vivid contrast, the passive reading of reform newspapers fortified inherited patterns of deference.
NB:  True politics is a performative act - swadeshi

(308)  In democratic terms, the structural weakness of the People's Party evolved from the failure of its organizers, in the founding convention of 1892, to understand that the third party, to be authentically democratic, had to be organized as a mass party with a mass membership.  It was organized instead, like all large American parties before and since, as a representative party, with elite cadres of party regulars dominating the organizational machinery from precinct to national convention.  The People's Party spoke, rather more tellingly than most American parties have ever done, in the name of the people.  But in structural terms the People's Party was not made up of the people;  it was comprised of party elites.  Its ultimate failure, therefore, was conceptual - a failure on a theoretical level of democratic analysis.
NB: Deval Patrick's first campaign as net roots/grassroots and model for Obama in 2008, including lack of follow-through

(313)  Structural reform of American banking no longer existed as an issue in America.  The ultimate cultural victory being not merely to win an argument but to remove the subject from the agenda of future contention, the consultation of values that so successfully submerged the "financial question" beyond the purview of succeeding generations was self-sustaining and largely invisible.

(316)  Awaiting agricultural analysis, embarrassingly enough, is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that the real economies of scale are not technical, but artificial, produced by the monopolistic practices of suppliers and purchasers further undergirded by federal subsidy and tax policies.  But while the concept of "economies of scale" remains debatable, the more germane historical reality is that centralization of American land was well advanced even before corporate agriculture could prove or disprove its "efficiency."  It was simply a matter of capital and the power of those having capital to prevent remedial democratic legislation.  The failure to provide short-run credit for seventy years would seem to be the operative ingredient in these dynamics which has been rather overlooked.

(317)  Yet the idea of a democratic monetary system - the operative dynamic of American Populism - is simply not something that Americans seem any longer to aspire to.  It is not "practical" to have such large democratic goals.  Thus does modern sophistication serve as a defense for modern resignation.  

Inexorably, the consolidation of economic power in corporate America has shaped an entirely new political landscape, one in which the agenda of possible democratic actions has shrunk significantly

(323)  Frank Doster, the socialist judge, became the Populist Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court

(329)  In 1920, Macune deposited his reminiscences of the Alliance years in the University of Texas library in Austin.  The fifty-nine page manuscript, as enigmatic as Macune's own career, raised more questions than it answered.  He understood the nation's economy better than most Gilded Age economists, and he understood the limits of the cooperative movement better than other Alliance leaders.

(331)  In the words of a modern monetary specialist, the sub-treasury plan was "a very subtle mechanism" which "simultaneously would have contended with the problems of financing cooperatives, the seasonal volatility of basic commodity prices, the scarcity of banking offices in rural areas, the lack of a 'lender of last resort for agriculture, inefficient storage and cross-shipping, the downward stickiness of prices paid by farmers vis-á-vis prices received for crops, and the effects of the secular deflation on farmers' debt burdens, all of which, in a far less comprehensive fashion, were the objects of legislation in the next five decades.  … It would have achieved what its supporters claimed - real income redistribution in favor of 'the producing classes.'"

See "An Economic Appraisal of the Sub-Treasury Plan," by William P Yohe, in Goodwyn, _Democratic Promise_, pp, 571-8

(336)  _American Radicalism, 1865-1901_ (1946), Chester McArthur Destler's colorful portrait of the Populist-Socialist alliance in Chicago in 1894.  It is the finest local treatment of the movement in all of Populist literature.

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