Monday, November 8, 2010

The New Populism

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 weevils.


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 want.


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 socialism.


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 again).


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 race."


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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