Anti-Plutocracy is as American as Apple Pie: A Short of History of American Populist Anger

First published on ZNet, May 3, 2013. Yesterday (I am writing on May 2, 2013), millions around the world hit the streets to protest state-capitalist austerity, plutocracy, and exploitation on a planet where the world’s richest 100 people “earned” $240 billion in 2012 (enough money to abolish extreme global poverty four times over)[1] and 2.4 billion live on less than $2 a day.[2] They did so on May Day, an international day of working class protest day born in the great Midwestern U.S. city of Chicago in connection with a Left- and labor-led struggle for the Eight Hour Day in the mid-1880s. Sadly but predictably enough given the unparalleled degree to which the United States’ corporate-dominated ideological and propaganda system has succeeded in separating the “homeland” citizenry from the egalitarian and progressives sides of its own history, only a small portion of the U.S. population knows the meaning or North American origins of May Day. It is as good time as any, perhaps, to take a brief look back at the United States’ own rich but purposefully buried history of “populist,” anti-plutocratic anger.

“Wall Street Owns the Country” (1890) 

Though you wouldn’t have know it from the characteristically superficial and amnesiac way in which dominant U.S. mass media covered the populist and Left-led Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Rebellion, the United States has long been scarred by harsh socio-economic and class disparities that have defied its “land of equality” mythology and raised popular fears and anger about the undemocratic domination of the nation’s economy, society, and politics by the rich and powerful Few. The historical peak of such concern came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions of American populists, socialists, anarchists, labor rebels, and progressives of various stripe rallied and railed against the stupendous concentration of wealth amidst massive poverty and economic insecurity that came along with the United States’ rise to industrial supremacy and the emergence of the modern “managerial” corporation as the leading form of American capitalist enterprise, at once largely financed by and feeding the deep pockets of an ascendant Wall Street. This is how the great Kansas populist orator Mary Ellen Lease put things to an angry crowd in 1890, one hundred and twenty-one years before OWS launched its remarkable but short-lived, police state-dismantled encampment in lower Manhattan: 

“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street….Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags….” 

“…The politicians said we suffered from ‘overproduction.’ ‘Overproduction!,’ when 10,000 little children starve to death every year in the U.S. and over 100,000 shop girls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for bread…” 

“There are thirty men in the United States whose aggregate wealth is over one and one-half billion dollars. And there are half a million looking for work….The people are at bay, let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.” [3] 

Another sterling populist speaker of the time spoke in similar and hauntingly Occupy-foreshadowing terms, adding a critique of the two dominant parties’ (Republicans and Democrats) shared subservience to the moneyed power. As Ignatius Donnelly noted at the People’s Party national convention on July 4th, 1892: 

“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.” 

“…The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down….The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” 

“We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them…. …They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires…. [4]

All the Wealth of Society Comes to Them” (1906) 

Twelve years later, after a decade in which a major industrial depression furthered the control of the economy by a small number of giant corporations and in the wake of a failed national strike against the leading U.S. meatpacking chains Swift’s and Armour’s, the American socialist, novelist, and pamphleteer Upton Sinclair captured a broadly held sentiment when he wrote the following in the widely read socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason:

 “Rise up…and look about you.They own all the instruments and means of production. They own the railroads and the telegraphs, the coal mines and the oil fields, the factories and the stores! They own half the farms and have mortgages on the rest.They own society. They own the government! [5]”  

In 1906, Sinclair published his bestselling novel The Jungle, set among the workers in Chicago’s gigantic animal slaughtering and meatpacking houses. A brilliant expose of the unsanitary and oppressive conditions in one of the nation’s leading food industries, the novel neared its conclusion with its battered proletarian protagonist standing transfixed before a mesmerizing radical orator who spoke of the shocking disparities that had emerged in early 20th century America. The speaker told of the misery inflicted on the laboring multitudes who endured homelessness, hunger, poverty and “the curse of the wage-slave[s], who toil every hour they can stand and see, who are condemned till the end of their days to monotony and weariness, to hunger and misery, to heat and cold, to dirt and disease….” Then the orator asked his listeners to regard the luxuriant, parasitic lives and power of the wealthy few: 

“…turn over the page with me and gaze upon the other side of the picture. There are a thousand – ten thousand, maybe – who are the masters of these slaves, who own their toil…They live in palaces, they riot in luxury and extravagance – such as no words can describe, as makes the imagination reel and stagger, makes the soul grow sick and faint. They spend hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes, a handkerchief, a garter; they spend millions for horses and automobiles and yachts, for palaces and banquets, for shiny little stones with which to deck their bodies. Their life is a contest among themselves for supremacy in ostentation and recklessness, in the destroying of useful and necessary things, in the wasting of the labor and the lives of their fellow creatures, the toil and anguish of the nations, the sweat and tears of the human race!” 

“It is all theirs – it comes to them…all the wealth of society comes to them. The farmer tills the soil, the miner digs the earth, the weaver tends the loom, the mason carves the stone, the clever man invents, the shrewd man directs, the wise man studies, the inspired man sings – and all the results…are gathered in one stupendous stream and poured into their laps! The whole of society is in their grip, the whole labor of the world lies at their mercy….They own not merely the labor of society, they have bought the governments; and everywhere they used their raped and stolen power to entrench themselves and their privileges, to dig deeper and wider the channels through which the rivers of profit flow to them!”[6] 

In the original, serialized version of The Jungle, Sinclair used a fictional representation of the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs to extend his observation that the wealthy “masters” owned “the whole of society” by having the candidate claim that “the two [dominant U.S.] political parties”– the Democrats and the Republican – were “two wings of the same bird of prey. The people [are] allowed to choose between their candidates, and both of them [are] controlled, and all their nominations [are] dictated by, the same [money] power.”[7] This was hardly a negligible sentiment among Americans during the Progressive Age (1890-1917), a high water mark for Socialist electoral success in the U.S. and legislative action to address the system’s most malignant abuses.

 “The Well-Born[‘s] Government of Oppression (1787) 

Deep “populist” suspicions of the wealthy Few and their political reach have hardly been restricted to late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the great debate over the U.S. Constitution in the late 1780s, “Anti-Federalist” opponents of ratification warned that a strong a new and powerful government would be captured by wealthy merchants, creditors, and other “moneyed elites” opposed to the interests of ordinary Americans. Genuinely popular self-government, they said, thrived best in small jurisdictions where political rulers and everyday citizens interacted daily. Only wealthy elites, “ignorant of the sentiments of the middling and lower classes,” possessed the resources to win election to a national government. New York Congressman Melancton Smith warned that the Constitution would lead to the domination of “the common people” by “the well-born” and a “government of oppression.” (Fittingly enough, the distinguished American historian Eric Foner notes that pro-Constitution sentiment was strongest among “mean of substantial property.” If ratification had been put up to a popular plebiscite, the economic historian Lee Soltow has shown, it would not have passed, thanks to the opposition of the non-wealthy majority.)[8] 

“Temple of Mammon” (1830s) 

Four decades later, early U.S. trade unionists and workingmen’s parties denounced what they saw as “the most unequal and unjustifiable distribution of wealth in the hands of a few individuals.” A popular newspaper cartoon from the mid-1830s bore the title “A Confederacy Against the Constitution and the Rights of the People.” It portrayed a diabolical “Temple of Mammon” where a wealthy northern manufacturer conspired with a rich southern planter, saying “You Southern Barons have black Slaves; will you not allow us to make White Slaves of our poor population in our Manufacturing Baronies?” In a similar vein, a labor placard from the time was titled “The Rich Against the Poor!” It proclaimed that “the Freemen of the North are now on a level with the Slaves of the South with no other privileges than laboring that drones may fatten on our lifeblood.”[9] 

Against “Industrial Dictatorship” and “Privileged Enterprise” (FDR/1930s) 

Trumped during the 1860s by North-South sectional conflict and the slavery question, popular anger at the wealthy few and their business order nonetheless lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction to fuel numerous epic labor strikes and other popular struggles across the late 19th century and into the Progressive Age. The open expression of popular loathing of the rich and powerful was interrupted and challenged again by World War I, the federal government and business elite’s Red Scare campaign against labor activists and real and perceived radicals after the war, and a remarkable but short-lived and unequally distributed burst of economic growth in the 1920s. 

But the anger naturally resurfaced in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. The greatest economic collapse in history, responsible for mass hunger, homelessness, and unemployment rates that reached 30 percent, the Depression was transparently triggered by the reckless malfeasance of the Wall Street financial elite and driven and deepened by an astonishing, government-led upward distribution of wealth and income after the war. In 1940, a former Wall Street trader named Fred Schwed wrote a humorous, anecdote-filled book titled Where are the Customers’ Yachts? or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street, wherein he observed that the American public believed that Wall Street was inhabited mainly by “crooks and scoundrels, and very clever ones at that; that they will sell for millions what they know is worthless; in short that they are villains.” It was “an extreme view,” economic writer John Cassidy notes, “but public antagonism toward bankers and other financiers” during and beyond the 1930s would “ke[ep] them in check for forty years,” fueling policies that “restrained the growth of the banking sector” across the 1940s and the post-WWII years: limits on interest rates, a prohibition on deposit-taking institutions from issuing securities, preventing financial institutions from merging with one another [10] — policies whose repeal over the long neoliberal era (1979-present) would contribute to the great financial collapse of 2008-2009. 

The rage against wealthy masters who caused the collapse worked its way into the rhetoric of the White House. In 1935 and 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) “turned the [1936] presidential election into a contest between the haves and the have-nots.”[11] In his 1936 acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, Roosevelt thundered against the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes” who sought “a new industrial dictatorship.” FDR called “the over-privileged” an “enemy within our gates” and argued that “private enterprise” had become “too private.” It had become “privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.” The economic elite, FDR noted, “complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”[12] 

In his end-of-campaign speech at Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt called his quest for re-election a struggle between “the millions who never had a chance” and “organized money.” The “forces of selfishness and lust for power,” he observed, “have never before …been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” [13] 

“We have,” FDR said in his second Inaugural Address, “begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.”[14] 

 No sitting U.S. president before or since has ever appealed so boldly to class hostility. Still, FDR’s successor Harry Truman liked to identify himself with the fight of the “everyday man” against “special privilege” and Democratic politicians have always retained a certain carefully calibrated measure of FDR’s populist-sounding rhetoric for vote-getting use at election time – as when Obama inveighed against “the breathtaking greed of a few” in a 2011 campaign speech in Osawatomie, Kansas.

 “The Property Party” 

Tens of millions of workers, farmers, unemployed, and middle class progressives enlisted in FDR’s Democratic New Deal coalition. Still, many leftists, including the well known radical commentator Ferdinand Lundberg, never forgot that Roosevelt and his party were no less dedicated to the rich man’s profit system than the Republicans and their wealthy backers. Even as the New Deal reconfigured U.S. politics and introduced such hallmark progressive policy achievements as the National Labor Relations Act (legalizing and empowering union organizing and collective bargaining rights) and the Social Security Act (introducing old age pensions for Americans 65 and over, and unemployment insurance), Lundberg echoed Upton Sinclair by noting that “The United States can be looked on as having, in effect, a single party: the Property Party. This party can be looked upon as having two subdivisions: The Republican Party, hostile to accommodating adjustments (hence dubbed ‘Conservative’) and the Democratic Party, of recent decades favoring such adjustments (hence dubbed ‘Liberal’).” [15] 

“The Minority in Business and Finance Who Own and Run This Country” (Savio) 

The New Left rebellion of the late 1950s,1960s, and early 1970s may have focused primarily on black civil rights and the Vietnam War but it also contained a strong dose of opposition to the rich and their business system. Its underlying populism and democratic socialism is captured in the following formulation in Students for a Democratic Society’s founding 1962 Port Huron Statement: “the economy is of such social importance that is major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.”[16] In December of 1964, Free Speech Movement (FSM) leader Mario Savio’s charge that the modern corporate “university’s ‘respectable’ bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats.” American capitalists and their “authoritarian” system – the “machine” whose “operation” Savio said had become “so odious…that you can’t take part [and have to] put your bodies on the gears …to make it stop”[17] – and amoral profit imperatives were held in distinctly low esteem by the insurgent popular movements and the counterculture that emerged during these years. Four years after the FSM, Savio nicely channeled the feelings of many New Left activists on the profit system and what Occupy would latter call “the 1%.” In a statement that might be seen as prefiguring contemporary concerns about environmental ruin, Savio announced his candidacy for the California state senate: 

“All those who gain least from war and poverty – the working people, the small farmers, the small businessmen, the professionals…must join together now against the minority in business and finance who own and run this country, and whose lust for power and profit and whose utter disregard for human suffering threatens now to bring the world to a final catastrophe….Our great task is to organize the people into a new majority. Americans are practical people….we must convince them that it is essential that our economy be dominated by production to satisfy human needs, not to swell profits; that this production can be planned publicly and democratically…and that administration of the economy should be highly decentralized so that the decisions are really made by the people…”.[18]

The New Gilded Age 

Occupy’s anger and rhetoric was richly consistent with this all-too-forgotten history, which suggests that populist anti-plutocracy and suspicion of concentrated capitalist wealth and power is “as American as Apple Pie.” Such anger is richly appropriate to life under the United States current Second Gilded Age (1979-20??), the nation’s post New Deal and “neoliberal” era in which the U.S. is far and away the industrialized world’s most unequal country (its wealth distribution is now more comparable to Latin America and Africa than it is to Western Europe ad Japan) and which the richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth together than the entire bottom half of the population (the six Wal-Mart heirs together have as much net worth as the bottom 41.5 percent) [19] – a reflection among other things of the fact that lowest two U.S. wealth quintiles (the bottom 40 percent) of the U.S. control an astonishingly paltry 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing.[20] Half the nation’s population is now officially “low-income” and a third lives either in poverty or “near poverty” (at or below 150% of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate official poverty level) while the owners of Wall Street and corporate America enjoy record-setting profits and hyper-opulent lifestyles that would make the original Robber Barons blush. 

These savage inequalities are the result not of any deficiency of effort, education, wholesomeness, or still on the part of ordinary American working and middle class people.[21] They are a clear and predictable result of numerous government policies reflecting the corrupting power of the nations leading financial institutions and other giant corporations.[22] “All the wealth of society comes to [the rich and powerful] because that’s how the game is rigged by corporate- and Wall Street-captive policymakers at all levels of government. “It is not,” the progressive economist Laurence Mishel writes, “that the economy been broken for the last 30 years or so, but rather that it is working as has been designed to work…For 30 years, policy levers have been pulled to help the well-off, and this policy orientation worked spectacularly on its own terms.” [23] 

For that and other reasons, the contemporary capital-occupied United States is overdue for rank-and-file re-Occupation from the bottom up – for another great wave of popular anti-plutocratic rebellion, one that builds on the lessons and record of earlier generations of egalitarian rebels and revolutionaries up to and beyond OWS. 

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010). His next volume, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm) will be available this Fall.

[1] Oxfam, The Cost of Inequality (January 2013), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-cost-of-inequality-how-wealth-and-income-extremes-hurt-us-all-266321 

[2] The World Bank, “Poverty At a Glance” (April 2013), http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/EXTPA/0,,contentMDK:20040961~menuPK:435040~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:430367~isCURL:Y,00.html

 [3] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of United States (New York, 1980), 288.

[4]  Larry Goodwyn, The Populist Movement  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 167-168

[5] Upton Sinclair, “You Have Lost the Strike! And Now What Are You Going to Do About it?” The Appeal to Reason, September 17, 1904.

 [6] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle ([1906]New York: Vintage, 1985), 363-64. 

[7] The Appeal to Reason, no. 459, September 17, 1904, 1, reproduced in Gene DeGruson, ed., The Lost First Edition of Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Press, 1988), Illustration L. 

[8] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, volume 1 (New York: WW Norton, 2005), 257; Lee Soltow, Distribution of Wealth and Income in the United States in 1798 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 215-228. 

[9] American Social History Project, Who Built America? Volumes (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 333-34. 

[10]  Fred Schwed, Jr., Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street (New York: Wiley, 2006 [1940]), quoted in John Cassidy, “What Good is Wall Street?” The New Yorker, November 29, 2010. 

[11] Robert S. McElvane, The Great Depression (New York: Times Books, 1993), 281. 

[12]FranklinDelanoRoosevelt, “Rendezvous With Destiny: Speech Before the 1936 Democratic National Convention,”Philadelphia,PA, June 27, 1936.  

[13] McElvane, The Great Depression, 280-81. 

[14] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937, read full text at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105

 [15] Quoted in Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 13. 

[16]  Students for a Democratic Society, Port Huron Statement (June 1962), http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SDS_Port_Huron.html

 [17] Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2012), 216-217.

[18] Rosenfeld, Subversives, 412. 

[19] Tampa Bay Times, “Bernie Sanders Says Walmart Heirs  Own More Wealth Than Bottom 40 Percent of Americans,”  PolitiFact.com (July 31, 2012), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jul/31/bernie-s/sanders-says-walmart-heirs-own-more-wealth-bottom-/; Truth-0-Meter, “Michael Moore Says 400 Americans Have More Wealth Than Half of All Americans Combined,” (March 2011), Journal-Sentinel PolitiFact Wisconsin,  read online at  http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/ (accessed December 18, 2012) 

[20 Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better AmericaOne Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2010. 

[21] For some excellent evidence-based alternatives to dominant neoliberal (bourgeois) victim-blaming narratives (including the “skills gap” narrative) on contemporary U.S. inequality and poverty, see Jeff Madrick, “The Anti-Economist: Half Empty,” Harper’s Magazine (December 2012); Roger Bybee, “Elites Push the Skills Gap Myth,” Z Magazine (April 2013); Marc Levine, The Skills Gap and Unemployment in Wisconsin: Separating Fact From Fiction (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Center for Economic Development (March 2013).   

[22] I detail those policies (with no great claim to originality) in the third and fourth chapters of my forthcoming book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, Fall 2013). 

[23] Josh Bivens, Failure By Design: The Story of America’s Broken Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

 

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By | 2013-05-03T15:13:57+00:00 May 3rd, 2013|Articles|