November 2010, Week 2


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Mon, 8 Nov 2010 22:06:40 -0500
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The New Populism

VIJAY PRASHAD Frontline (Mumbai), Nov. 06-19, 2010

The people are at bay; let the bloodhounds of money who
have dogged us thus far beware.

- Mary Elizabeth Lease ("Mother Lease"), Populist Party
convention, 1890.

IN 1873, a great panic swept the United States. A stock
market collapse in Vienna was followed not long
afterwards by the collapse of an American railroad
company, Jay Cooke, whose failure led to the closure of
the New York Stock Exchange. Economic growth
deteriorated in the U.S.: the contraction lasted for a
record 65 months. The workforce suffered concomitantly,
with one in four New Yorkers out of work by the end of
1873. The explosion of the railroad bubble left in its
wake casualties in the construction trade and in the
industrial sector. From cities the crisis stalked the
cornfields, as farmers saw the prices of their crops
fall and their wealth being eaten by financial boll

In this context, the head of the New York Central
Railroad, William H. Vanderbilt, provided the
unfortunate motto of his class. A reporter for Chicago
Tribune alleged that when he went to interview
Vanderbilt, the magnate said to him, "The public be
damned." Such arrogance provides the wealthy with
comfort from the uncomfortable reality of poverty and

Jobless and insulted, people in pockets across the U.S.
rose up. The Knights of Labour, the Socialist Party,
the Farmers Alliance and other such platforms came to
the rescue of the distraught. Through these
organisations went the suffering, but now no longer as
individual sorrow; the struggles provided an avenue to
see a future, where distress did not rule the lives of
families. Working people built their social power out
of this unrest. From their efforts came the movement to
restrict the working day to ten hours, the Sherman
Anti-Trust Act against monopolies, and the platform for
social insurance that would be adopted by the state in
the 1930s.

What derailed the advance of the populist movement was
not their own lack of ideas. It was, rather, the shift
of the U.S. state to an aggressive imperial posture.
Invasions of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii and the
Philippines set the stage for the government's
expenditure on the military. Such spending propelled
industrial growth, tying the workers to the benefits of
imperial rule. Additionally, the government provided a
series of reforms that benefited the white working
class at the expense of black workers and farmers
(post-slavery Reconstruction ended and a
quasi-apartheid Jim Crow regime took its place).
Advantages of skin colour and empire enabled the U.S.
to be exceptional in circumventing the development of a
socialist agenda.

Populist upsurge

At a superficial level, the panic of 1873 and the long
depression that only formally ended in the late 1890s
resembles the current economic and political trials of
the American people. Unemployment and war jostle with
each other. A populist upsurge has taken root, but this
time not one of the Left. There are no Mother Leases or
Frances Willards, women who were committed to female
suffrage and social democracy. Instead, we have Sarah
Palin, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, all of
whom bend their knees to the private sector and to the
Christian Right.

The populists of the Tea Party rant and rave about the
economic conundrums, but their views line up with those
of the corporate think tanks, which warn about solvency
and the bond market rather than the crisis of
unemployment. The populist movement in the 19th century
had a few irons in the fire of socialism; 21st century
American populism is galvanized by its hatred for

It is this anti-socialist agenda that holds together
the Tea Party farrago: the hardened far-Right is joined
with people who have recently lost their jobs, racists
with the disgruntled, all now linked by their distaste
for Obama's "socialism". A Bloomberg poll in the summer
of 2010 found that 90 per cent of the Tea Party members
thought that the U.S. verged towards socialism. They
defined socialism as the Obama agenda of health
insurance reform and the stimulus plan to foster job
creation. Universal health care and universal social
insurance, as well as governmental spending in general
are viewed by the Tea Party as anathema to the
"American Way".

Bloomberg's survey went deeper. It asked the Tea Party
members what they thought of specific governmental
programmes. Only 10 per cent of its members felt that
the Veterans Administration is socialist, and only 12
per cent felt that the management of the national parks
and museums is socialist. What is socialist, instead,
is the expansion of health insurance and welfare to the
elderly and the poor and social insurance for anyone.
In other words, the Tea Party members did not like
specific aspects of the U.S. state's expenditure. These
are sections of state policy that benefit underserved
minorities, mainly African Americans, Latinos,
refugees, working-class migrants, and so on.

One illustrative example of the Tea Party is
congressional candidate Stephen Fincher of Tennessee. A
cotton farmer, Fincher is against government
encroachment in the lives of ordinary Americans and
particularly opposes "any attempt to increase
government intervention in our health care". The
solution is not the government, he says, but the free
market. What is remarkable about his political position
is that Fincher sees no problem with his annual
agricultural subsidy of $200,000 from the U.S.
government. One of Fincher's supporters, David Nance of
the Gibson County Patriots, put it plainly to The
Washington Post, "I don't see the agricultural subsidy
thing as an issue at all. If it were an issue, then we
would never elect a farmer to Congress at all. Because,
basically, most farmers get agriculture subsidies. If
they didn't, they'd be broke, and we'd be buying our
food from China."

Nor are the Tea Party patriots uneasy with the massive
governmental outlay to the military. Despite the
current recession, the military budget and the payments
for the two major wars under way went up. The total
bill for the military in 2010 is between $880 billion
and $1.03 trillion, far in excess of the cost incurred
under both the George W. Bush-pushed Economic Stimulus
Act of 2008 and the Obama-pushed American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The military's larger contribution to the deficit does
not incense the Tea Party, which is indeed a blind
supporter of military action and of soldiers. Indeed,
in North Carolina's 7th congressional district, the Tea
Party has thrown its support behind Republican
candidate Ilario Pantano. In 2004, Pantano, then a
second lieutenant, shot and killed two unarmed and
innocent Iraqi men in Fallujah. When he had unloaded 60
rounds from his M16A4 rifle, Pantano placed a placard
on their bodies with the marine motto, "No better
friend, no worse enemy." Pantano worked at Goldman
Sachs before joining the marines. He was not
prosecuted, even though his unit watched him kill. He
is now the Tea Party's choice and is poised to take
this seat from the Democrats.

What spending is bad is dictated by the pact that the
white working class has made with the state since the
fallout of the 1873-1896 depression: that the white
working class would benefit from the military and
industrial expansion of the U.S. economy in return for
its acquiescence to the wiles of the U.S. state. This
section of the working class was able to accommodate
the victories of the Civil Rights movement (1964-65)
because they came during a major expansion of the U.S.
economy (from the end of the Second World War to 1973).

Since 1973, real wages have declined in the U.S. and
the power of unions has withered. Social spending has
largely slowed down, with the immediate negative
effects being felt by those who had only recently been
admitted as full citizens of the republic.

The white working class was somewhat protected from the
fallout of the stagflation of the post-1973 period,
largely by the enormous debt-driven spending that
favoured those who already owned their homes (given
with discriminatory loans in the Jim Crow era).

The effects of the post-2007 recession, on the other
hand, have been that of equal opportunity. The white
working class and the low-end of the managerial sector
have been hit the hardest by the layoffs (this is to
say they were not prepared to lose their jobs,
believing that their white skin had emancipated them
from the mass misery of the 1930s). The Tea Party is
the political expression of the fears of the white
working class and the managerial sector. Most of its
supporters are old, white and male. Many also happen to
be Christian fundamentalists (44 per cent are born

From this context one can understand the findings of
the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity,
Race and Sexuality, released in April 2010. The study
found that most of those who support the Tea Party
believe that the U.S. government has done too much to
support blacks. Christopher Parker, who ran the survey,
points out, "While it's clear that the Tea Party in one
sense is about limited government, it's also clear from
the data that people who want limited government don't
want certain services for certain kinds of people.
Those services include health care." "The Tea Party,"
he points out, "is not just about politics and size of
government. The data suggest that it may also be about

The Tea Party movement seeks a restoration of an early
bargain, one that the white working class lost as a
result of the social processes of globalisation. For
its support of U.S. imperial adventures, it is willing
to put up with a liveable wage even if the CEO class
captures the bulk of the social wealth for itself. Such
a dream is anachronistic.

The Tea Party does not recognise that the "United
States of America" no longer exists. Its elite class
shares far more with the elites of the other G-20
states; it is committed to globalisation as long as
these Davos Men do well; and it has no loyalty to its
own population. The Tea Party represents the patriotism
of fools, who believe that the problem is the gains
made by people of colour within the U.S.

The "bloodhounds of money", to use Mary Elizabeth
Lease's phrase, have nothing to fear from the Tea
Party. Indeed, they are a distraction that turns
ordinary people against each other, leaving the field
clear for the two establishment parties to smirk and
carry forward their own limited agenda: with the
solvency of the financial markets far more important
than the well-being of the people.


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