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The new populism

Print edition : Nov 19, 2010 T+T-
SARAH PALIN, POLITICIAN and conservative activist, speaks at a rally for the Tea Party Express national tour in Phoenix, Arizona, on October-JOSHUA LOTT/AFP

SARAH PALIN, POLITICIAN and conservative activist, speaks at a rally for the Tea Party Express national tour in Phoenix, Arizona, on October-JOSHUA LOTT/AFP

The populist movement in 19th century America had a few irons in the fire of socialism; today's is galvanised by its hatred for socialism.

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.