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Commentary Last Updated: Oct 8th, 2008 - 01:16:33

Populism then and now: Independence to debt peonage, part 2
By Joseph Danison
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Oct 8, 2008, 00:16

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�I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes, is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter.� --Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

In Part 1 of �Populism Then and Now� the life of a Kansas farmer in 1886 was contrasted with a 21st century counterpart. On the face of it there would seem to be no basis for comparison. Roughly half the US labor force was engaged in farming in the 1880s, which made Jed Dawson fairly representative of his time whereas 100 years later in the 1980s fewer than 3 percent were farmers.

Glen Davis in 2008 is clearly not a poultry farmer, though in private moments he imagines how he might become one. Better yet, he�d like to be the righteous gunslinger Shane, defending innocent homesteaders against greedy and ruthless cattle syndicates and land speculators. But no fantasy can change the fact that he�s employed as a plant foreman for $13.75 per hour in a poultry production facility by a diversified corporate enterprise and can�t even afford the health insurance co-pay.

Farming, by and large, has transmogrified into agribusiness and the small independent farmer has become nearly invisible in our 21st century political economy. Many Americans today are descendants of an ancestor who lost the farm or walked away from it in despair.

The history of the USA from the farmer�s perspective can be summarized as a relentless process of mergers and acquisitions in which millions of small land holdings have been consolidated into the hands of a few corporate landowners. The ruthless cattle baron in Shane lost one small battle, but ultimately won the war, which is not the story Hollywood likes to tell.

At the time the British colonies in North America declared their independence and became the United States of America, 90 percent of the labor force was engaged in farming. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were intimately involved in the business of farming as were most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. These illustrious personalities shared in common with the great majority of newly minted Americans the character and worldview of the farmer. The American Everyman of the time was a farmer, which is not to say that there weren�t merchants, shop owners, carpenters, cabinetmakers, sawyers, doctors, tailors, weavers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, tanners, stone masons, teachers, bankers, lawyers, printers and publishers, brewers, bakers, butchers, inn keepers, millers, candle stick makers, varieties of small manufacturers in a developing industrial sector, apprentices, unskilled laborers, indentured servants, and slaves.

There were no career politicians, however, or career soldiers, or cradle-to-grave government bureaucrats proclaiming their virtuous �government service.� The newly formed United States was a vast assemblage of independent small business interests with the yeoman farmer as the cultural ideal. But that was just a brief moment in time.

The farmer tends to be independent, self-reliant, and a jack of all trades, master of his own destiny, which is why he was once the American Everyman. If he�s talented, he can make his own furniture, butcher his own meat, shoe his own horses, brew his own ale, and his wife can make the clothing they wear, churn the butter, and read the Bible aloud before a crackling fire, as Jed Dawson�s wife was pleased to do. His independence is based on the ownership of his own property and he is self-reliant because he engages in productive labor himself, unless he�s a wealthy gentleman farmer like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and owns slaves. The great convenience of slavery then permits the gentleman the leisure to turn his energies to more sublime undertakings, such as perusing the reminiscences of Cicero and contemplating human freedom.

By the 1880s, the independent and self reliant American farmer had very strong intimations of his own mortality. The business of farming was not profitable for most. Jed Dawson in 1886 managed to get by year to year on borrowed money, but the prices he received for his crops and the high interest rates on his loans conspired to prevent him from ever getting free of debt or enjoying little more than a subsistence life style. He was a debt peon and lived with the daily fear of the repeat of his experience in northern Mississippi when he lost his farm to Elias Scruggs. Still, he had great expectations, unlike his counterpart in 2008, Glen Davis, who has recently fallen down the ladder from homeowner to renter.

Jed Dawson had joined the Farmer�s Alliance in 1886, which was the source of his optimism. He began to understand what was happening in his world and more than that, he thought he had the solution. The plight of small farmers like Jed Dawson fostered political self-awareness and led them to organize into self-help cooperatives. They identified the problems that threatened their pursuit of happiness, and these problems, in a nutshell, were all traceable to the unregulated growth of corporate power and the power of government that supported the organized interests of corporate power.

�The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return,� pronounced John D. Rockefeller in the 1880s, when he had successfully taken control of 90 percent of the American oil business using the infamous corporate tool called the Standard Oil Company. It was a combination of many former separate business activities into an efficient economic dictatorship. Though Jed Dawson poorly understood the legal fiction of a corporate �artificial being,� as Chief Justice John Marshall called it, he knew the only way for the small individual farmer to survive was to combine with others to make a stand against the powerful business combinations in the marketplace.

The once proud and independent American farmer, who was the archetype of the self-reliant individual called �the people� a mere 100 years earlier, opened his eyes in the latter part of the 19th Century and realized that the government created by his forebears in the name of his forebears no longer served him in the same way and that the promise of �life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness� was fading away. His liberty had become the freedom to labor to enrich others like his landless laboring counterparts in the railroads, mines, and factories. He was no longer independent, but had become, more or less, the indentured servant of the most powerful interest group in the land, that organized minority that Alexis de Tocqueville had noticed in 1831 and dubbed �the manufacturing aristocracy.� History calls the most notable of these American aristocrats, �robber barons.�

This �manufacturing aristocracy� was in fact the moneyed interests that were organized in corporate form. These moneyed interests influenced legislation that had kept this aristocracy �the most confined and least dangerous� in de Tocqueville�s day. The corporate charters granted by the states to define and limit the activity of the corporate money machine in the public interest were changed. The corporation was released from its legal public interest shackles and set free as a powerful economic predator to harvest the wealth and property of the population.

The agrarian revolt that spread like wildfire among American farmers to counteract the emergence of the new corporate aristocracy became known as Populism, because it asserted the right of the people whose labor produced the wealth of the country in the farm or factory to have a government that acted in their interests and not primarily in the interests of a wealthy minority. Populism was considered radical and unrealistic in the 19th century, and even today, commentators like William Greider affirm that judgment: �The Populists had an expansive conception of democracy�s possibilities that, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, seemed grandly innocent.�

The Populists may have suffered from naivet� about the difficulty of their struggle, but they were no more radical than the founders themselves who had proclaimed the new republic in the name of �we the people.� They saw no reason why that republic should not serve �we the people� as it had once done. America had changed profoundly since 1789, but it was consistent with the vision of the founders that the republic should also change and adapt to the new conditions.

What prompted the charge of radicalism, in the 19th century as well as the 21st, was the Populist demand that the monetary system, which had been designed by Alexander Hamilton as a private monopoly for the wealthy few, be changed to a public system as described in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 5, in which the Congress of the people�s representatives is assigned the power to �coin money and regulate the value thereof.�

The Populists insisted that the �money power� be a public monopoly accountable to the people, and administered for the benefit of all according to the intent of the Constitution. They descried the private system of national banks that was operated primarily in the interest of the moneyed class. They rejected the gold standard and championed Lincoln�s �greenbacks,� paper money issued by the Treasury with oversight by the people�s government, not by private intermediaries. These national banks themselves made up a de facto �combination� that favored some with credit while denying credit to others, small farmers and the Farmer�s Alliance in particular.

In Part 3, the Populist dream of Jed Dawson is fatally compromised and morphs into something called �progressivism.� The dilemma Glen Davis confronts today is no different substantially from that of Jed Dawson in the 19th century in spite of the development of science and technology, population growth, and the sophistication of economic thinking. The bottom line has always been the relationship between those who lend money and those who borrow it and today a new populist movement to rebalance the creditor/debtor equation is more urgently needed than ever as the financial disaster created by the privatized monetary system unfolds.

Joseph Danison is a novelist and commentator in Western North Carolina. Contact him at

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