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Short essays on the history of the People's Party, their concept of government, and their descriptions of class conflict, and other important facts.

Written July 2006 through February 2007.


Part One: Populism—an introduction

Joe Klein of Time magazine summed up the elite Washington view in a Slate essay when he described populism as a “witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid.”

Anyone who took political science from any self-respecting liberal arts college in USA probably learned to spout the same reactionary nonsense. But in the land where Populism was invented, such academic indoctrination often fails its accomplished task. The late writer Molly Ivins, a hero of American progressives, proudly called herself a Populist and proved her credentials on a regular basis. The cultural Texas Populism of her youth proved more durable than her fancy Ivy League education.

Part Two: Populism--Size matters

Any society formed by humans eventually has to grapple with the question, “what is private? and what belongs to the group as a whole?”

In spite of historical examples where virtually everything of value is thought to belong to individuals (laissez-faire capitalism) or the whole society (communism) such extreme examples have tended to be unstable because humans instinctively seem to believe that an effective social order must be a mixture of private and public.

The Populists of the late 19th century found themselves in the middle of this dilemma.  On one hand, they believed that the owner-operator arrangement in agriculture was not only history’s most efficient, it had been endorsed by Christ himself. On the other hand, they wanted to use government power to regulate big business.  Even if these seemly conflicting demands made instinctive sense, it laid the Populists wide open to the charge inconsistency.  “If,” asked Populism’s critics, “private ownership and management is such a good idea for farmers, why isn’t it a good idea for Standard Oil?”

Part Three: Populism--a matter of class

But just because Marx proposed a class analysis that never much fit the American experience did not mean that class had lost importance, no matter how irrelevant it had become in academe--as the American worker discovered when the Republicans opened naked class warfare during the Reagan administration.  The first shot was the firing of the air traffic controllers.

The destruction of PATCO was the USA part of a world-wide effort to roll back the gains workers had made since 1932.  In England, Margaret Thatcher accomplished the same sort of demonstration of naked class interest by destroying the coal miners union.  Since the Brits can talk about virtually nothing without discussing class, the Thatcherite assault on blue-collar living standards was routinely described in terms of class warfare.  But while the Brits discussed class warfare, the Americans rarely did.  Interestingly, the outcome for the people who live off their paychecks was nearly identical on both sides of the Atlantic.

Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT

The French and American Revolutions were about making social adjustments to the trappings of feudalism--including slaveholding, serfdom, and indentured servitude.  Of course, there were some rumblings about the conditions of trade and manufacturing, but these were mostly line items on a much larger list of grievances.

In the meantime, there was a very real revolution going on in England.  Some may scoff that the Industrial Revolution does not qualify because there was so little armed struggle involved, but it was the most important revolution of all.

Part Five: Modern Populism--technological literacy

Because everything we use requires tools to make, tool creation represents the most sophisticated form of manufacture. It is difficult to make DRAM chips: it is much MORE difficult to make the tools that can make the DRAM chips. And of course, it is insanely difficult to make the tools that can produce those DRAM making tools, etc.

Because there are greater and less difficult forms of tool use, tool users stratify along skill lines. It is in the creation and use of tools that we discover the origins of meritocracy. In the world of tools, it does not matter your age, race, social class, looks, or gender--only your skills. And because these skills can be learned, we also have the origins of social mobility.

All five in a .pdf file

See Also
Economics: A Matter of Life or Death

There has been a lot of invented terminology to describe the change in fortunes of the Keynesians and the Friedmanites. But the MOST descriptive was that it marked the change from Industrial to Finance Capitalism. If River Rouge was the defining symbol of Industrial Capitalism, then the archetypical example of Finance Capitalism was Enron.

Enron embodied the major flaws of Finance Capitalism--it was only possible because of economic deregulation, it relied on a willing suspension of disbelief in all reasonable measures of prudence, it sold cotton-candy products like weather futures, and it relied on industrial sabotage to make its fantasy profit targets.

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