Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn.

The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn.

Goodwyn’s 1978 book, published in the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era, is heavily laden with Marxist analysis and argues, “The agrarian revolt demonstrated how intimidated people could create for themselves the psychological space to dare to aspire grandly….” Consensus did not exist, the meaning of the agrarian revolt was its cultural assertion as a people’s movement of mass democratic aspiration against entrenched interests to which “the plain people” were diametrically opposed.(Goodwyn, 295) The Populists were attempting to bring the corporate state under democratic control.

Goodwyn argues that how money was created, and on what basis it circulated, defined in critical ways the relationships of farmers, urban workers, and commercial participants in the emerging industrial state. The government’s reliance on the gold standard meant deflation, which translated into the long postwar fall of farm prices. (Goodwyn, 24) High interest rates benefited only creditors and moneylenders. Furnishing merchants, for example, demanded that their debtors plant one certain cash crop, cotton. “No cotton, no credit”. If the farmer failed to “pay out” he still owed the merchant a remaining balance for the supplies furnished on credit during the year. Such was the crop lien system. The crop lien system became for millions of Southerners, little more than slavery. (Goodwyn 21-25) To the nation’s farmers, contraction of the money supply, caused by business’ insistence on “hard currency”, was a “mass tragedy”. Farmers had three choices, they could put their hopes on more efficient farming, they could concentrate their energies on economic cooperatives, or they could organize and secure changes in the regulations that governed the relations between different classes of citizens. (Goodwyn, 109) When economic cooperatives failed, farmers turned to politics. Goodwyn argues that business and financial entrepreneurs had achieved effective control of a restructured American party system in both the North and the South and farmers had little choice but to turn to politics if they were to “…(achieve) a civic culture grounded in generous social relations and in a celebration of the vitality of human cooperation and the diversity of human aspiration itself ” (Goodwyn, 292) The Populist Movement was the product of an insurgent culture that grew out of the gradual raising of class consciousness as farmers struggled against bankers and financiers. (Goodwyn, 61)

Goodwyn argues that Populism was a insurgent democratic movement who’s time had not yet come. “What could a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon Alliance organizer say to the largely Catholic, largely immigrant urban working classes of the North….In 1892, what (Populism) lacked was a social theory of sufficient breadth to appeal to all….”(Goodwyn, 177) The agrarian movement achieved the politicization of masses of people, however it was still unable to break the bonds of inherited political habits. Populist attempts to construct a national farmer-labor coalition came before the fledgling American labor movement was internally prepared for mass insurgent politics. (Goodwyn, 297) Goodwyn argues, “A consensus thus came to be silently ratified: reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society. This conclusion, of course, had the effect of removing from mainstream reform politics the idea of people in an industrial society gaining significant degrees of autonomy in the structure of their own lives.” (Goodwyn, 284)

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