Populism as Masquerade (was Re: Henwood vs. Cockburn)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Fri Nov 12 01:28:59 PST 1999

from Mark R. to Doug:
>> Much of their ideology is out of American radical populism --
>> anti-statist, individualistic, petit-bourgeois. Unlike fascists, they
>> don't eroticize the nation - state. A visit to the Patriots' Internet
>> site <ftp://tezcat.com/patriot> takes one to a world very different
>> from crypto-fascism. Their economics is classic populist (except for
>> their love of a gold standard, because gold is non-state money);
>> their politics, Jeffersonian and decentralist; and they study the
>> ruling class with obsessive contempt. They claim to renounce racism.
>Where are you getting this stuff about American populism??? Not Richard
>Hofstadter I hope. The radical current (or any current for that matter)
>within the People's Party was not anti-statist -- it called for the federal
>government to build a government warehouse in every rural county in America
>where farmers could store their crops at the end of the season and receive
>federally guaranteed loans against them (the sub-treasury system), thereby
>facilitating an end run around the debilitating debt-peonage of the
>crop-lien system. Nor can populism be described as "individualistic;"
>historical populists called their vision of a better society a "cooperative
>commonwealth." I guess the "petit-bourgeois" appellation does fit the
>populists. For the most part participants in the agrarian insurgency of the
>1890s either owned their own land or were tenant farmers, but were not farm
>laborers. But this fact can't be used as some sort of deterministic guide to
>the quality of the populist's politics -- that is, populism couldn't have
>been properly progressive or radical b/c the populists were not members of
>the proletariat.

In my view, the most accessible source on American populism is _The Populist Persuasion_ by Michael Kazin. Though the book is written as an argument for the power & utility of the rhetoric of populism, it actually serves to underline the fundamental limits & problems of populism. Most importantly, "[t]hrough populism, Americans have been able to protest social and economic inequalities *without calling the entire system into question*" (emphasis mine, Kazin 2).

At least, for the People's Party, one can argue that populism was an organic & authentic expression of oppressed small farmers (i.e. true petit-bourgeois, both in their position in the relations of production and in their worldview). With the virtual disappearance of the petit-bourgeois farmers as a sizable & independent social & political force, populism lost an organic connection with any material base. Now it is merely a rhetorical tool of the Right. Some 'leftists' also try to lay a claim to this rhetoric, especially when they feel that they can't afford to be red-baited, for the unabashed Reds may not be invited to write for the New York Press, you see. In either case, the rhetoric has little to do with the material interest of the constituency for whom it claims to speak; it merely appeals opportunistically to their racially and sexually colored discontent, *without* arming the masses with a theoretical tool that would allow them to name their enemies correctly.

>From the beginning, however, it must be said that:

***** the producer ethic [of populism] was roughly synonymous with male citizens who belonged to what the Philadelphian known as Publius called "the middling sort." They paid America's taxes, fought its wars, and upheld the ideal of economic independence even if, temporarily, conditions might force some to toil for wages. The middle was a broad category, but not an all-inclusive one. Above it sat a tiny elite that lived off the labor of others. Below it was a larger group whose poverty seemed perpetual and whose behavior appeared servile, undisciplined, and childlike. Some antebellum Protestant champions of the producing classes shoved the mounting numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants into this lowest stratum, nativist tracts are full of images of drunken Paddies, licentious Bridgets, and famine survivors who didn't mind living like pigs. But African-Americans provided a far more durable and emotionally charged subject for collective scorn.

The rising of "the people" was an avowedly white affair; the democratic vision rarely extended across the color line. Producers, especially the wage earners among them, feared slaves, not just as economic competitors, but as omnipresent symbols of what utter dependence on men of wealth and social standing could mean -- the specter of feudalism on American soil. The language of the Revolution had encouraged such an opinion; in 1775, John Adams wrote, "There are but two _sorts_ of men in the world, freemen and slaves." By the 1820s, workers in Northern cities routinely protested against being treated as "white slaves" and refused to call their employers by the preindustrial term "master" because it evoked the bondage of the South. Meanwhile, many of the same white workers flocked to minstrel shows where their brethren in blackface sketched the allure and vitality of a race that supposedly lived without material burdens or sensual restraints. The amalgam of loathing and fascination marked all blacks, even the minority who were free, as a perpetual other. They could never be part of the middling and productive majority. Worst of all, as their banning from Fourth of July celebrations in many cities suggested, they were not even truly Americans.

This defense of cultural apartheid did not remain the sole populist sentiment on race. Later, activists in the People's Party and the labor movement would seek an alliance with blacks who shared their economic interests. But the language of white discontent never dealt comfortably with African-Americans. Even the most tolerant populist speakers tried to minimize the profound meaning of our race-divided history, to treat blacks as just one section of a glorious pluralist orchestra or to promote them into categories of "worker," "labor," and/or "producer" whose dominant images were always white.

Not surprisingly, few black activists took the bait.... Blacks could not simply join the great majority in its struggle with a succession of elites; too often, that majority blocked their attempts to rise above the status of servile and menial labor. This uneasy stance toward "the people" often led black activists to withhold or qualify obeisance to the great patriotic abstractions. In 1829, the black abolitionist David Walker sarcastically demanded "inquiry and investigation respecting our miseries in this _Republican Land of Liberty!!!!!!_." And, in 1965, Malcolm X complained, "Just because you're in this country doesn't make you an American. No, you've got to go farther than that before you can become an American. You've got to enjoy the fruits of Americanism."

The third major element in the populist inheritance was _the elite_, the perpetual antithesis and exploiter of "the people."... From the 1790s on, champions of the people described the elite as being everything that devout producers, thankfully, were not: condescending, profligate, artificial, effete, manipulative, given to intellectual instead of practical thinking, and dependent on the labor of others.... (14-5) *****

What's wrong with this political picture? The populist rhetoric divides the world into three parts: the effete elite (presented as either cosmopolitan or outright foreign); the white male 'middling sorts' (which exclude women workers and workers of color, not to mention illegal aliens and foreign workers, but include all who may be presented as 'productive,' extending the 'middle' to encompass many capitalists & capitalist ideologues, small or big, such as Buchanan and Perot); and the rest of the international working class, whose gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc. exclude them from the imaginary of the 'producer ethic.' This political picture is an ideology that unfortunately has prevented many a white guy (and even a few guys who aren't white) from grasping the true dividing line: the line between capital and the workers of the world.

It is not by accident that Alex Cockburn has been given to heaping scorns on Doug, Katha, etc. Cockburn's populist imagination allows him to self-nominate himself as the champion of the white male 'middling sorts' against the 'effete' feminist intellectuals on the East (whether the majority of the right-wing white guys whom Cockburn has been courting want him, however, is another story -- I suspect that, in their eyes, Cockburn might be a tad too effete, too foreign, too intellectual, too 'pwog' to become truly one of them). Such opportunism is a sign that Cockburn has given up on communism, his 'lefter-than-thou' posturings notwithstanding.

Populism was a dead end for Americans _even_ when it was rooted in an actually existing material base. Now that it has become unmoored from its original base of small white farmers (a vanishing breed) and metastasized into an anti-feminist rhetoric of white discontent, it is nothing but a residual but still powerful ideological obstacle, which keeps America stuck in what Fred Pfeil calls a 'ridiculous, obfuscated class war.'

Cockburn wants a class politics? Why not argue for a real one -- Marxism? Not the one that gets grown men running around dressed up in patriot drag. That's just a masquerade, fit only for Halloween, or weekend entertainment of bored intellectuals who need vicarious thrills of Iron John rituals.


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