How likely is a new "Populist Moment"?

In the middle of last week, lambert posted on CorrenteWire a brief snippet of a very dramatic and gut wrenching conversation between David Cay Johnston and Chris Hedges, about the likelihood that America is near a tipping point into massive, militant, violent social dissent - but which is coming from the wrong-wing, not the left.

Revolutions occur when young men see the present as worse than the unknown future. We are not there. But it will not take a lot to get there.

I had just begun reading Lawrence Goodwyn's 1978 masterpiece, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn has made a life's work of studying popular democratic uprisings and social movements, and his Introduction is decidedly pessimistic on the prospect of popular democratic uprisings in advanced industrial societies. I posted a large excerpt from Goodwyn's Introduction. Here's a smaller cut and paste:

Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. . . . "The masses" do not rebel in instinctive response to hard times and exploitation because they have been culturally organized by their societies not to rebel. . . .  It is clear that the varied methods of social control fashioned in industrial societies have, over time, become sufficiently pervasive and subtle that a gradual erosion of democratic aspirations among whole populations has taken place. . . .

This gradual erosion of democratic aspirations is usually mistaken as apathy, which would-be revolutionaries incessantly bemoan. But it is not apathy; it is, Goodwyn explains, mass resignation at the perceived impossibility of significantly affecting and altering society's structures of inherited power and privilege. Goodwyn explains that in advanced industrialized countries, both capitalist and socialist, this resignation "has engendered escapist modes of private conduct that focus upon material acquisition." It is also useful here to recall Thorstein Veblen's critique of "leisure class culture," such as professional sports.

In my long quote, I made the observation that Goodwyn wrote this over a decade before the outbreak of massive democratic movements brought down the Iron Curtain, and wondered what Goodwyn has to say about those historic developments. Below, I will give you the answer, having just found a December 1989 presentation Goodwyn gave, when the news headlines brimmed with tidings from Poland, and the newscasts were filled with pictures of Lech Walesa and those unforgettable Solidarnosc banners.

But first I want to point to one comment by quixote, and an accompanying link.

You get violence when the young men are mad. You get revolutions when the grannies start banging on pots in the central square. (Emphasis mine - NBB)

The question then, of course, is how do you get the grannies to join you in the central square with their pots and pans? Quixote provides a link to an interesting study on the characteristics of freedom movements that succeeded. Using statistical analysis of the revolutions and uprisings tracked in the Freedom House database from 1973 to 2002, Adrian Karatnycky, senior scholar at Freedom House, and Peter Ackerman, chair of its board of trustees, show that there was lasting democratization in 69% of the revolts that were generally non-violent, but in only 8% of the revolts that included violent uprisings.

I think two things need to be said about the Freedom House study, and its applicability to the United States today. First, Freedom House gives its highest ratings of "free" in all categories to the United States. Yet, increasingly what we feel in the United States is a hardening of corporate power and privilege that, while not openly hostile to the trappings of democratic political processes, has managed to subvert and usurp those processes nonetheless. We are, in other words, facing something quite different than the traditional despotism or tyranny recognized by Freedom House. Here, we are aided by fairleft, who back at the end of January - when the Supreme Court issued its hideous and blasphemous decision that corporations have the same rights to free speech as we humans - pointed us to Sheldon Wolin's latest book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

Secondly, what Goodwyn excels at, and which, as noted immediately above, the Freedom House study signally fails to address, is how political structures, processes, aspirations, and beliefs, interact with, affect, and are affected by, economic structures, processes, aspirations, and beliefs. In  The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn brilliantly summarizes most of the economic tensions in American political history as being the conflict between two views of human nature: humans as competitive beings, and humans as cooperative beings. Judging from the broad sweep of American history, these tensions have played out rather well, giving us the faint structure of a welfare state, while also giving us one of the most dynamic economies in the world. But I think this happy balance has been seriously disturbed since the Reagan Revolution, with the view of humans as competitive beings becoming dangerously dominant.

Moreover, there are many who argue that a "dynamic economy" is simply not environmentally sustainable, though it becomes painfully obvious, upon closer examination, that these people have not adequately explored the question of how we as a species go about feeding, clothing, housing, educating, and caring for eight billion fellow human beings. The most malignant result of this shortcoming is the blanket assertion that the world is overpopulated. But nobody has yet volunteered to name those who are too numerous - or to be counted themselves as those who are too numerous. A more intelligent approach appears to have emerged in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, where laws mandate that all products of manufacturing industry must be designed for eventual de-manufacturing and recycling. Not surprisingly, these societies have also put into effect programs of renewable energy and public transportation that put the U.S. to shame. It is also worth noting that large industrial firms in these countries have worker representation in management embedded in their structure, carrying those societies further along toward economic democracy than the United States.

If you accept the fact that sustaining eight billion souls cannot possibly be done without industry, I suggest that you next accept the idea that the problems created by industrialization are best solved by industrialists. You then arrive at a new vantage point from which to understand the underlying historical dynamic that drives most of the environmental problems created by industry. Economists touch on this underlying historical dynamic when they discuss "externalities" -- but they are only touching the dynamic, not fully grasping it. Here, again, we are greatly aided by Veblen, who made a distinction between industry and business: industry creates wealth, while business merely accumulates and manages wealth. Once you understand the point Veblen is making, you can begin to see that the real dynamic driving industry to despoil nature is industry's obeisance to the dictates of business. Jonathon Larson has fully developed this idea in his 1992 book, Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental blueprint. Larson recasts Veblen's "leisure class" as the "predator class," which most emphatically includes bankers and financiers (the more truthful things we call them are speculators, rentiers, and usurers).  On the other side is the "producer class." And the producer class is typically quite willing to redesign its industrial processes to conform with the highest environmental and safety standards, once freed from the constant financial and management demands made by the predator class. Economic neo-liberalism is easily conceived as being distinct from and in direct opposition to sustainable development.

Which brings us back to Goodwyn, who strips away all the fluff, foof, and folderol of American history to show that it all comes down to whether - or not - the financial and banking structures of society will be democratically controlled and operated for the benefit of society, instead of the enrichment of a few.

Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective

with Lawrence Goodwyn and William Greider

Remarks presented on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Populist Sub-Treasury Plan for financial reform

9 December 1989, St. Louis, Missouri

Let me say that in my profession, you get acquainted with error. Historians study error. You might even say we study the continuity of error. It is a very sobering occupation. We discover that it is more consoling to develop a long angle of vision. If you focus just on one generation you may not find enough there to warm the spirit. Better to have four or five hundred years in your gaze and be judiciously selective within that period.

All kidding aside, there are certain rhythms that become clear over the long view. First of all, in all human societies, almost all the people, have deep, substantial grievances. That's rhythm number one.

Rhythm number two is that despite this universal sense of loss and injustice and injury, the number of large-scale social movements that exist in human history is very small. In our country the CIO mobilization of the '30s and the Agrarian movement of the 1890s -- Populism -- were the only movements after the Revolution that achieved genuine scale, if one measures movements by their level of internal organization.

It's possible to say, "my goodness, the history of agriculture in America has been one of a systematic exploitation of people on the land by people who lend them money and by people who sell their products." Can it be that only in the 1890s farmers got together to try to do something? How about the 1870s or the 1840s, or what about 1924 or 1935? Looking back over the history of workers in America, one encounters an absolute agony in the industrial heartland from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression.  Is it only in the 1930s that "workers got mad" and decided to do something about it?

How do we explain the fundamental disjunction in human history between the widespread existence of grievance and the very rare collective assertion that we find? The answer to this is appallingly simple: Large-scale movements happen when they're organized. They happen no other way. And the reason that they're not organized more often -- we have people in the audience whose

lives will verify this -- is that large-scale movements are agonizingly difficult to put together. The entire culture of a society is arrayed against the idea of large-scale collective assertion.

Goodwyn's presentation is edited for fair use , and I urge everyone to read it in full, here: Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective



sure is and even more scary

I think corporations are twisting this rage all up and down to make people believe in policies which will take 'em down the toilet.

And the "left" (whose left is this?) is busy doing things like claiming, well, unless you give insurance companies a wind fall, you won't get health care and I have seen even worse, where economics literally turned upside down to advance a special interest political agenda.

I agree with you

about corporations. But it is not "the left" who is cheering the passage of this Gift to the Medical Industrial Complex Bill: it is the corporate Dems.

I don't think it's a battle between the left and right any more. The Tea Baggers and I agree that this health care bill is bad -- only for way different reasons. Dennis Kucinich was dismissed tonight on Washington Week with Gwen Iffil as "so far to the left that he's with the right" (and I was reminded again why I can't bear to watch that "inside the beltway" corporate-sponsored show).

The fight is to take back our government from the corporations and the corporatists. Dennis Kucinich has it right on why the bill was so bad, it's a giant corporate giveaway designed by our corporate Dem president.

Highly unlikely

In America today there are possibly three, maybe as high as five, radio programs I would label "progressive" or truly "populist."

There are quite a large number who award themselves such labels, and they continuously come out with the most obscene, disinformation and misinformation.

One radio "promotion" I recently heard, urges the expansion of the pool from which to generate cannon fodder for the imperialistic forays overseas, from the mass murder in Iraq to whatever is occurring in Afghanistan (I could have sworn those 9/11/01 attacks "officially" involved Saudis and Kuwaitis, and to my knowledge - and I've read extensively on this subject - not a single Afghanistani.)

This falls under the category of removing that nonsensical "Don't ask, don't tell" DOD provision.

Ideally, those so-called "progressives" or "populists" will be happy when openly Gay and Lesbian types are allowed into Blackwater's torture squads and assassination squads.

Or KBR's gang-rape squads.

Nope, there is simply too much corporate control of the media in this Propaganda State. Too many foundations funnel focused money to slant too much of the so-called "news" -- and control what is allowed, or not allowed, to be written about.

Judging by that very sane, and well-thought final document and tape left by that fellow who flew his plane into that IRS facility in Austin, and that other fellow who made that frontal assault on the Pentagon -- many understand something of reality, they simply don't fully grasp who the enemy is.

A very common state of affairs in America today.

Back during the Great Depression, many understand what was economically occurring at that time, as well as who was at fault.

Perhaps today, there are simply too many points of data disbursal on the Web, and too many focused points of misinformation on the PopCultureMedia, for people to comprehend reality?

I see little hope based upon my daily conversations with most Americans.....