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Archive for October 12th, 2011

As “Occupy Wall Street” spawns sympathetic solidarity all over the country, it feels very good to postulate that left-centered populism is finally on the rise again. As I wrote two weeks ago, I don’t buy the “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” meme that people are too stupid to vote in their own interests. The real problem is that neither Party serves We the People anymore, but the Republicans and right-wingers are far more skilled at faking that “just plain folks” attitude than the over-educated snobs on the Left are; and when you have a choice between politicians who talk to you like you’re an idiot, and politicians who tell you how great you are and how much they value your vote, I don’t think it’s stupid to pick the latter.

But is this really what’s happening? The guests on Amy Goodman’s October 10th installment of “Democracy Now” seemed to think so. Professor Dorian Warren, historian at Columbia University:

DORIAN WARREN: This is an incredibly significant moment, I think, in U.S. history. In fact, it might be a turning point, because this is the first time we’ve seen the emergence of a populist movement on the left since the 1930s.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain populism since the ’30s, what you mean by that, and the parallel.

DORIAN WARREN: So, populism—the Populist movement started the end of the first Gilded Age in the 1890s and through the 1930s, where we saw mass disruptions and mass protests by unemployed workers, especially in the 1930s.

AMY GOODMAN: The Great Depression of 1929.

DORIAN WARREN: That energy—that’s right, during the Great Depression. That energy was channeled into what we now know as the New Deal. Since the ’30s, and especially starting in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the right actually claimed the label and mantra of populism, and they have successfully changed the entire discourse and politics of this country under populist rhetoric. This is the first time, I think, on the left that populism has emerged with a critique of not only the banks and corporations, but also Washington, also the U.S. political system.

AMY GOODMAN: How long did it take, from the Great Depression of 1929, for the organizing to happen?

DORIAN WARREN: It took roughly four years. We first started seeing the first uprisings around 1933, and continued in 1934, ’35, ’36. Thirty-six, ’37 is the Flint sit-down strike. So it took a while after the crash in 1929 for people to start protesting their—

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they do very first? Was it the marches of unemployed?

DORIAN WARREN: Marches of unemployed, people going into the street, in some cases actually occupying factories, as we saw later on with the Flint sit-down strike. So there was massive unrest and disruption across the country, from both farmers as well as unemployed people. And what’s interesting about that is it was farmers who were in debt both in the 1890s and the 1930s. Today it’s students in debt, to a great extent, to large banks.

What Amy Goodman is doing here, I believe, is drawing a rhetorical parallel between what’s happening today and what happened during the Great Depression (marches of the unemployed = Occupy Wall Street). The fact is, however, that we are in a situation that has no historical parallel. We have never had such sustained unemployment for such a long time. We haven’t ever seen such income inequality. And our manufacturing base, once the engine that drove our economy, has been outsourced and denuded. We are now surviving on debt, consumer purchasing and the efforts of the military-industrial complex (an entity that did not exist in the 1930s). Couple that to outrageous inflation in the cost of health care and housing while wages have stayed flat, and you have desperate times indeed. No wonder the Left is jumping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, screaming “we’re mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take it any more!”

But are they mad at the right people? It doesn’t appear so to me.

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