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Populism—a matter of class

The study of class has one overwhelmingly powerful motivation--the belief that people of similar economic status should share political views.  This was the official position of the Political Science, Sociology, and Economics departments at the University of Minnesota from 1967-74, so that is what I was taught.

However, to say I learned class analysis at UM would be misleading.  This was the era of USA assault on Vietnam.  Supposedly, the Vietnamese were to be killed with high explosives because they were Marxists.  This message was not lost on my professors who either claimed their interest in class analysis had absolutely nothing to do with Marx, or in rare cases, taught party-line Marxism to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam War.  Neither true believers nor weenies tend to be effective teachers.

I left school still fascinated with the idea of class analysis, a working understanding of the tools that could be used like the SPSS software, and a vague idea that this was something of an outlaw subject because of its historic roots in Marxism.  This is somewhat less than the definition of learning a subject.

If someone like me, who was actually interested in class analysis to the point where I took graduate-level courses in the subject, could be so indifferent to my educational outcome, one can only imagine the level of interest in the general public.  By the time I left school, class analysis had truly become the tiniest of niche subjects.

And maybe any class analysis rooted in Marx deserved to die.  If the late 20th century taught anything it was that there were many interest areas that crossed economic class lines.  In one especially telling example, billionaire Malcolm Forbes took up the VERY proletarian sport of riding Harley motorcycles because he thought it was cool.

Ronald Reagan opens fire in the latest Class War

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.

Class Analysis--American style

The open class warfare in the 1980s reawakened my interest in class analysis.  Because I soon found Marx as irrelevant as when I had dropped the subject in the first place, I started looking for alternatives.  Eventually I discovered the writings of Thorstein Veblen.

Unlike Marx, Veblen thought that the differences in income levels were not nearly as interesting economically as human habits.  And the most interesting habits were those associated with making a living.  On one hand, you had the Leisure Class who lived off the efforts of others, and the Industrial Classes who performed the community’s necessary tasks.  Since these habits were independent of income, it was possible to have BOTH rich and poor members of the Leisure AND Industrial Classes.

This wasn’t merely an improvement on Marx: this was a wholly new train of thought that was seemingly unrelated to any intellectual traditions I had heard of.  Veblen’s biographer seem equally confused comparing Veblen’s detached perspective to someone from Mars.

Not surprisingly, Veblen’s ideas had NOT come from Mars.  In fact as I carried my research deeper into the roots of the Midwestern progressive traditions, I discovered that Veblen’s most interesting economic idea was actually common among the Minnesotans who helped form the People’s Party.  And where Veblen saw differences between the Industrial and Leisure Classes, the Pops saw Producers and Predators, or Makers and Takers.

(Anyone interested in the minutia of this class analysis is welcome to read further here.  I have even attempted to make a short video using 3D software to illustrate this improved class theory.)

The BEST way to determine whether Producer / Predator class analysis is valid, is to try it out on some recent examples of human economic behavior and see if it describes reality better than competing methods.

Example #1  Energy

When it comes to the big topics like the end of the age of petroleum, it is obvious that there are essentially two real responses. 

1) There is a business-as-usual response which says we are not actually running out of crude, that higher prices will cause more drilling and exploration, so eventually the markets will work as usually described. 

2) There is the “crude is finite on a finite planet” response which says that it matters little how many holes are drilled into an oil field, it doesn’t change how much crude is available.  Therefore, if crude is running out, it makes sense to design and build a new infrastructure that will run on something else (the something else is usually described as hydrogen.)

Let’s call number (1) the Mad Max strategy because it is highly irresponsible gibberish.  Let us call (2) the Invent, Design, and Build strategy (IDB).  Further, let us assume that ethical humans with large frontal lobes are likely to flock to this second strategy.

It is obvious that an IDB strategy relies on the successful work of highly skilled Producers.  The question is, How can such a strategy be implemented if the society’s super-producers are lacking training, resources, and political / cultural support?  The answer is, it cannot.

For example, this country decided that we wanted to clean up toxic waste sites before the toxins polluted drinking water.  We passed a law called Superfund.  20 years later, we discover that virtually none of the Superfund sites have been fixed.  Looking closely, we can see why.  Significantly less than half of the money actually went to those who do remedial work--the majority went to lawyers, bureacrats, and other assorted pencil pushers.  Whatever social value lawyers and bureaucrats may have, it is obvious they cannot solve IDB problems and even worse, they get in the way by diverting money that MUST go to IDB types into their own pockets.

We live in a society where lawyers have more status than engineers--to the point where lawyers actually get the money that should go to engineers.  Why this is so is an interesting question. 

But it is clear that lawyers, financiers, or real estate developers will not produce the nuts and bolts necessary to convert to a hydrogen economy.  ONLY Producers can do that!

Example #2  Business vs. Industry

It all starts with the question--how does the community organize its necessary work?  The basic social struggle is between those who do this work, and those who live off those who do the work.

The key indicator of any society’s success is how good are the working conditions of those who do the productive work.  Do the Producers have power to control their workspaces?  Do they have enough pay so they can basically stop worrying about the problem of simple existence? Etc.

The nearly-perfect example of the ideal Producer workspace would probably have been Intel when Robert Noyce ran things.  But there were many other such places in USA and western Europe post WWII.  And BECAUSE there were such ideal workspaces, they produced nearly miraculous products.

What is most interesting is that the Producer super-achievers from the dawn of the industrial age broke almost every economic “law” taught in our more backward schools these days.  They paid the help more than the minimums (Ford) they lobbied for protectionism (everyone) they lobbied for currency reform (Abraham Darby and almost everyone else) they organized cartels (German chemical industry) they mocked highly stratified organizations (Noyce, Nokia) etc.

In MANY societies, however, all the RESPECTABLE jobs are non-productive jobs--law, finance, military, religion, sport, etc.  What this means is that it makes almost NO difference to those whose jobs are cursed with the “unfortunate” description of necessary, whether those respectable types call themselves leftists or libertarians.

So Producers are threatened from all directions.  From the left they get political correctness, social scorn, and other forms of conformism.  From the right, they are threatened by the vultures of finance capitalism (hostile takeovers, usury, etc.)

The trouble with this nearly universal outbreak of attacks on productive behavior is that important elements of society are starting to show catastrophic strain.  After a generation of glorifying destructive pirates like Jack Welch, the American society is no longer technologically able to maintain itself.  The condition of vital infrastructure is ghastly.

Even worse, the major threats to human existence--climate change, desertification, depletion of freshwater aquifers, etc.--are problems of the uncompleted agendas of the Fords and Noyces of history.  Just at a time when we need nothing less than the Second Industrial Revolution, we have destroyed our Producer genius.

Just remember, deregulation of the energy industry (a core belief of the Predators) did not produce better ways to dispose of nuclear waste, or a better way to negotiate the end of the age of petroleum.  It gave us Enron, rolling blackouts, and price gouging.


There are thousands of equally good examples out there that are easy to see and describe. The fair and logical conclusion is that the Pops invented a form a class analysis that works even better now than when it was first discussed in the 1870s.

The Public Policy implications

Needless to say, Producer / Predator class analysis appeals most strongly to the Producers.  And of course, that is what it was created to do--instill notions of class solidarity and pride in the economically exploited and scorned.

The Populists never advocated an armed revolution--most of them were small rural landowners (with an oversized mortgage) and were as unlikely a band of revolutionaries as that description suggests.  Nevertheless what they wanted was a highly regulated civil infrastructure including publicly owned banks.  (And they call Clinton a liberal--this is what mostly Republican farmers wanted by the 1880s).

No matter how angry they were or how justified their demands would have been, the Populists never called for the guillotine or re-education camps.  Instead they sought power through voting and reform.  The reason the Populists are often described as the most successful political party never to have won the presidency is because they understood the value of setting the agenda.  And informing their agenda was Producer / Predator class analysis.

The Populists who represented millions of economically devastated people, would settle on an awfully lofty strategy when they determined that good ideas should be able to triumph over the savage habits of the Predators.  But it was internally logical.  If you do not advocate killing people for economic reasons, you have figure out how to allow them to live.  The key was to understand how Predators could be allowed to operate in society without letting them wreck things.

1) Regulation.  Example: the Pops didn’t think much of bankers.  Instead of putting them out of business, which would have been foolish, they surrounded them with a host of new rules and alternative lending institutions.  Instead of outlawing usury, they set interest rate ceilings.

2) Funding Producers first.  In a normally operating society, the Predators usually wind up with most of the money anyway.  The Pops claimed (correctly) that when economic stimulation went FIRST to the Producers, everyone would become prosperous (a rising tide lifts all boats-JFK) and the necessary work was done well.  Under the theories of “trickle-down” money goes first to the Predators.  This is like claiming that “rising yachts lift all tides.”  Not only does such a plan leave most Producers in poverty, it means that much of the community’s necessary work goes undone. 

The Populist economic prescriptions not only produce just and prosperous societies, they enable the technological miracles that happen when the Producers are encouraged to think freely.  With oil running out and the atmosphere overheating, we are going to need more than a few technological miracles.


See also:

Part One: Populism--an Introduction
Part Two: Populism--Size matters
Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT
Part Five: Populism--technological literacy

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