The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Philosohy of Populist Change

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

Will the next generation of leaders be any better than the ones we have today?

Well, we can guarantee that they won’t be better if we don’t make sure the ideas for better solutions are around.

Milton Friedman and the neo-liberal operatives were very much correct: When a crisis hits, you can only prevail if you already have in place your ideas for the solution. Much to our horror, we have seen that this neo-liberal “shock doctrine” does, in fact, work.

Which is why Ian’s attempts to reformulate a moral, humanistic philosophy for political economy is so important.

(This piece is not by Ian, it is by Tony Wikrent.  I (Ian) don’t agree with everything here, but it’s an important post, and thus has been elevated from the comments.)

My approach has been different: Point to the founders of the American republic and emphasize those aspects of their philosophy for political economy we no longer follow, and, indeed, barely even tolerate today. For example, it was generally accepted through most of the first century of USA’s national existence that gross inequality of wealth and income was a danger to the experiment in self-government.

One reason I favor my approach is that, in the end, who you have to convince, above all, are the military and the police; a revolution only succeeds when the people in charge of suppressing dissent begin to refuse to do so. And I simply do not believe that you are going to convince American police and military that Marx or Mao or whoever is the answer. On the other hand, they just might be convinced that the original ideas of the American experiment in self-government have been trampled on and subverted by TPTB – including (most especially) the “vast right wing conspiracy” which has been funded and built up by the wealthy since their opposition to FDR and the New Deal.

A second reason I favor my approach is that the historical record is very clear that socialism, Marxism, communism, and so on DO NOT WORK. It pains and troubles me greatly to see, in reaction to Obama’s failure to deal with Wall Street since the crash of 2007-2008, a resurgence on the left of these failed ideologies. My guru here is Lawrence Goodwyn, the author of what is far and away the best history of the populist movement. What makes it the best? Goodwyn fully understood the Greenbacker critique of the U.S. financial and monetary systems that powered the extraordinary political success of the populists in the 1880s through 1910s. In December 1989, Goodwyn gave a speech at a special event in St. Louis on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the populist People’s Party “Sub-Treasury Plan” for financial reform, Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective.  After dissecting how TPTB have left no room for serious discussion of a truly democratic system of money, credit and exchange, Goodwyn observed:

There is another society in our time — what we call “the East,” what we sometimes call “actually existing socialism.” For about 40 years, since Stalin imposed this system on whole populations, an idea floated around in people’s heads over there, in “the East.” The idea was, “We will try to create some space where we can talk to each other and affect the world we live in. To do that, we’re going to have to combat the leading role of the Party. We’re going to have to find some way to get around the fact that all the social space in society is occupied by the Party.”

This idea would float around kitchen tables on the Baltic coast in the 1950s and 1960s. And workers in shipyards would say to each other, “We have got to create a trade union independent of the Party.” Now that is an unsanctioned idea. And they knew it was frightening even to say it out loud; you’d only say it around the kitchen table, around carefully selected brethren and sistren. And the idea would go away, because it was unsanctioned. But then there would be another horrible accident in the shipyard, another insane adjustment of work routines, and the idea would come back, simply because it was the only idea that made any sense. “Work organized by the Party is insane, Poland is insane, our social life is insane. We’ve got to have a union free of the Party.”

Over 35 years of self-activity the world has not known about — any more than the world knew very much about how the Farmers’ Alliance organized Populism — they found out how to do it. And in 1980 they did it. There’s a certain logic in history every now and then. The single most experienced organizer in the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, who spent 12 years organizing and brooding about a union free of the Party, who had gone to jail scores of times in the decade — learning each time a little bit more about how power worked in his society — the one single most credentialed worker with other workers based on his own activity, is Lech Walesa. There is every now and then a certain justification in history.

Because that movement existed, even though it was repressed by the government after 15 months, it sent a wave of hope across Eastern Europe. What Solidarnosc combatted, by its simple existence, was mass resignation. This resignation was the dominant political reality in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland until the shipyard workers of Gdansk became the nucleus of a mass movement, one of those rare moments in human history when people get back in touch with their own subjectivity. That is to say, they don’t lie in public. They say what they mean. And they try hard to say it clearly. They’re not trying to make a speech, they’re not trying to be an orator. They’re trying to be clear, like two people in a marriage struggling not to be political with each other but to be honest. One of those rare democratic moments when reality is projected.

Because Solidarity stayed alive during the years of martial law, and because a man named Brezhnev who put down Solidarity passed off the stage of history and another man named Gorbachev who would not put down Solidarity came on the stage of history, the leading role of the Party this very week is going into the dustbin of history all over Eastern Europe.

You especially need to read the speech if you are wondering what the Greenbacker critique is, the truly “American” response to concentrated economic and financial power. But the important thing for me is that after Goodwyn gave us an incredible educational tool in his history of USA populism, he then turned his attention to the Communist bloc of Central and Eastern Europe and, in Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland, showed us that the same problems arose in both settings, and the same populist solutions prevailed.

Well, to be accurate, let’s modify that to “almost prevailed.” In the USA, the populist insurgency actually elected dozens of populists to Congress, including a handful of Senators, hundreds of state legislatures, and a few governors as well. Out of that, we got the first regulations on railroads, on food production, on pharmaceuticals, the only state bank in USA (North Dakota), state and federal crop insurance, among other things. Even the Federal Reserve system was made possible by the populist insurgency, though it was not really their design. They wanted something very different, but it was the populist insurgency which generated the general clamor for reform of the financial and monetary systems after the panics of 1901 and 1907.

Instead of what they wanted, the populists got the monstrous Federal Reserve – even further removed from democratic control under the rubric of preserving the independence of the central bankers – because the populists’ core Greenbacker critique had been fatally devastated by their 1896 compromise with William Jennings Bryan over his position on silver coinage. This destroyed the populist movement during the 1896 campaign. The story of that destruction, by the way, is one of the most important case studies for those interested in the subject and Goodwyn’s is really the only solid history of which I know.

The last great surge of populist success involved the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota in the years just before World War I. At that time, the ideologically weakened populist movement was pretty much eradicated by the anti-German hysteria deliberately whipped up during the war. Chris Hedges provides the history in the opening chapters of his book, Death of the Liberal Class.

It is highly pertinent to ask here: Why weren’t the socialists and communists wiped out along with the populists during the war? There are, I believe, three reasons. First is not really a reason; the fact is, the socialists and the communists were also attacked. Especially targeted, I believe, were the networks that had been established by the European revolutionaries who had fled to America after the failed revolutions of 1848.

A digression here. These networks of 48ers were integral to the electoral successes of Lincoln and the Republican Party. They also were integral to the success of the Union on the fields of battle. There is a new book out, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War, by Don H. Doyle, which details how crucial was the role of the European revolutionaries who remained in Europe, in saving the Union during the Civil War. The story starts with Queen Victoria, who detested the American experiment in self-government and, after some hesitation and misgivings, then British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston finally decided, in September 1862, to dispatch a British army and fleet to Canada. This would create the northern half of a pincers to choke the American republic; the southern half of the pincers were the French and Spanish forces which had already landed in Mexico and the Caribbean, with British assistance, in December 1861 through January 1862.

At this crucial point–just when the British oligarchs thought they could finally get away with crushing the obnoxious experiment in self-government–the Union Army won at Antietam. When news of the victory arrived in Europe, massive pro-Union demonstrations erupted. These demonstrations were led by supporters of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s fight for Italian unification and independence, the most militant manifestation of the general, European progressive, anti-monarchical sentiment at the time. On October 5, 1862, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many garbed like Garibaldi’s red shirts, filled Hyde Park, London, and elsewhere in England. Palmerston quietly abandoned his preparations to militarily assist the Confederacy.

But let’s return to the crushing of American socialism and communism, and what I believe was the second reason it was not as thorough as the annihilation of the populists. It was not until after the Bolsheviks seized Russia that socialists and communists in America could be painted by opponents as “the Bolshevist menace.” The crackdown of socialists and communists thus became particularly severe near the end of World War One and after. Lasting, of course, through the 1920s and 1930s, right up to today.

But for me, the most important is the third reason. The socialists and communists who survived in the USA, I believe, were allowed to survive, because they were funded and controlled by what used to be called The Eastern Liberal Establishment. This is a point about which many on the left get hysterical. But the facts are detailed in Caroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. And if you don’t want to take the time to wade through that massive tome, just look into Corliss Lamont, the major funder of American socialism in the 1960s, note who his father was, and don’t shy from doing the math of putting two and two together.

What about the European revolutions which overthrew the socialist states in the 1980s? The great promise and hope there was crushed by the adoption of Western neo-liberal capitalism. Which, not surprisingly, since it is funded and promoted by a bunch of rich pricks, ended up, when applied to Russia, Hungary, Romania, etc., creating a new oligarchy of rich pricks. And this should be an abject lesson for the left of the point I am making: When a crisis hits, you can only prevail if you already have your ideas for the solution in place. The crisis in the 1980s hit in Central and Eastern Europe and the only ideas ready for use were those of Milton Friedman and the other amoral pigs of the Chicago School. There should be no wonder or shock at the results.

OK, so socialism and communism may not be any better than capitalism in preventing the rise of a repressive, authoritarian political regime. But what about the “tool kit” of Marxist class analysis? Isn’t that valid, even useful? Well, since you ask, I’ll answer: No. I’ll even explain why.

Marx believed that classes were defined by income and ownership. While he engaged in some sociological speculation about how people change as incomes rise, he was mainly concerned with how the rich exploit the poor. The problem is, the really important class division in society is between producers and predators – the Leisure Class, as Thorstein Veblen termed it – and there are a lot of producers that end up being included and condemned in Marx’s capitalist or owner class.

The implications are pretty damn important. Lenin’s and Stalin’s determination to annihilate the krulaks in Russia was one result. But the krulaks were the backbone of agricultural production, they were the producers. Oppressing and dispossessing the agricultural producers resulted inevitably in a catastrophic collapse of agricultural production. So you get the famines of the 1920s and 1930s, which, it should be noted, only made it easier for Western elites to portray the Bolsheviks in the worst possible ways.

Marxist class analysis also is not much help when it comes to climate change, because all of Marx’s classes use energy. Just look at the sources of carbon in rich versus poor countries. What spews more carbon per economic activity: heating a home and cooking meals in a rich, Western country using electricity or even natural gas from the grid? What about cutting down trees and burning them in a poor country?

We need $100 trillion in investments over the next two decades to entirely replace fossil fuels. Of what use is Marxist analysis in getting that done? But Veblen’s producer / predator analysis – that the major struggle in modern economies is the one between industry and business – is immensely valuable. Consider the capitalists who want to build the 1.7 billion home solar power systems we need; Good – even if they are still capitalists. What about capitalists who want to stymie the move to renewables, like the Koch brothers, in order to continue profiting from fossil fuels? Or capitalists who want to identify and buy up emerging companies in renewables and add them to their already immense corporate empires, such as General Electric, and cartelize the industry? Bad.

Now, there are a lot of people on the left who try to avoid the opprobrium of an open embrace of socialism or communism, most often by arguing that the American republic was intended, from its very beginning, to be anti-democratic and tilted in favor of the owners of property. This, of course, is the analysis of Charles Beard in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Since I’m already jabbing at many leftist sacred cows, I might as well jab at this one.

I wonder if these people have actually read Beard. According to Beard’s Interpretation, there were two basic interest groups: “…the merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers and their professional associates” comprised one group. The other was “… the non-slave-holding farmers and the debtors.” This grouping commits the very same error Marx does: It does not distinguish adequately, as Veblen does, between producers and predators. It is simply too crippling a mistake to lump money lenders, security holders, and financiers in with manufacturers. I will also note here that Beard’s analysis of Alexander Hamilton is completely at odds with the negative way these people portray Hamilton.

And I’m absolutely certain those people who champion Beard’s analysis have never read Beard’s later work, The Economic Basis of Politics, which Beard himself considered more important because it addressed the great misconceptions that had arisen concerning his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. To quote from the introduction to a 2002 republication of The Economic Basis of Politics, by Clyde Barrow:

…Beard (1945, 62) concludes that “modern equalitarian democracy, which reckons all heads as equal and alike, cuts sharply athwart the philosophy and practice of the past centuries.” These themes are woven together in Beard’s claim that the central problem of contemporary political theory, as well as the motor of contemporary political development, is the contradiction between the ideals and institutions of political democracy and the reality of economic inequality (i.e., classes)…. The fact that neither capitalism nor communism had solved the problem of class conflict led Beard to the “grand conclusion” that it was Madison’s economic interpretation of history rather than Marx’s, that had withstood the greatest test of modern political history. Madison was correct to the extent that he identifies the problem of regulating class struggle, rather than eliminating it, as the central problem of political statesmanship and constitutional development, regardless of the mode of production or any particular distribution of wealth. There is no end to class struggle and, therefore, no end of history (or politics)….

Screw you, Francis Fukuyama, and your neo-liberal sugar-daddies.

As I argued a few days ago, the only power we have is the power of ideas. If you want the next generation to be better, give them better ideas.


We Know What Our Problems Are and We Do Nothing or Make Them Worse


Serfdom Is Better Than What the West is Heading For


  1. and listen to their ideas.

  2. Tom Allen

    “What spews more carbon per economic activity: heating a home and cooking meals in a rich, Western country using electricity or even natural gas from the grid. or cutting down trees and burning them in a poor country?

    I notice that you’ve externalized all the carbon used to produce the meal (to name a few: destruction of forests to get land for farming and grazing to provide meat-filled diets; transportation of the food, often from the poor countries to the rich ones; packaging.) Burning trees for fuel is a relatively minor cause of deforestation when compared to agriculture. And it should come as no surprise that currently, in general, the richer a country, the greater its ecological footprint (land use per capita to provide its diet.)

    See for example:

  3. Tom Allen

    Should read:

    See for example: “”

  4. subgenius

    The problem is the eternal framing of everything in terms of economics, as opposed to a base of biophysical reality.

  5. guest

    Um, what socialist, communist, marxist resurgence in response to Obama’s failures are we talking about? Occupy? Does that even exist anymore?
    So socialism just doesn’t work? It has failed in all of Scandinavia now? Social Security and Medicare have already failed too and other socialist programs, like public schools and public health unemployment insurance and pension systems, in the west have all failed too? Time to just move on to something non-neo-liberal but nonsocialist too? What does that leave?
    Who is this Eastern Liberal Establishment that was able to spare socialists and communists but not populists? Is this the East in Europe you were talking about before, or a different group in the US? And why is their survival so significant, or the ELE’s roll in that survival, since they have all been pretty much fringe elements for a pretty damn long time?
    I’m no expert on Marx in the least. But I can’t see where class is not an important distinction, either in the past or in the present. At some point the producers have enough savings, from which they want rents, either to support them in old age or just to supplement their own income. And they transition into predators as well. So plenty of middle class Americans used to be producers and predators (often their prey were foreign, and therefor it becomes that much easier to ignore the injustice to them). Now that the US workers pensions are looted, and their portfolios churned to nothing, there may not be as much overlap between producers and predators. But I’m sure plenty of self employed white male “producers” in this country still see their financial and political interests allied more with the predator side of the economy and politics than with their fellow producers. And if the US economy ever recovers and becomes less unequal (nahgonnahappen), I’m pretty sure plenty more folks would start lining up with the predators. Fairness is nice and appealing, but “I’ve got mine” trumps it any day of the week.

  6. EmilianoZ

    I don’t think the producer/predator analysis is very useful right now. It looks like as soon as a producer reaches a certain size it becomes a predator, a rent-seeker. If a start-up is successful, it either turns into a predator (Google, Amazon,…) or it gets happily bought up by a predator (the most likely case). As a result, the producers that matters now are undistinguishable from predators. The distinction could be meaningful if we could limit the size of producers.

    In one of his articles, David Graber said that capitalism did not start as an idea dreamed up by some Renaissance folks. It just grew organically from the Middle Ages. Nobody said: “Guys listen up! I’ve got it all figured out. Here’s what we’re gonna do when feudality bites the dust.” People just made capitalism through their actions. The theory came later.

    Maybe we don’t need any grand ideas now. Maybe we just need to do what seems sensible. Over at Naked Capitalism, some commenter (Diptherio) relentlessly talks about co-ops. That seems worth a try to me. A lot of goods/services now provided by big corporations could as well be offered by co-ops. I like the Chipotle chain. It offers good food at a reasonable price. It doesn’t look like rocket science. If a group of friends wanna open the same kinda fast food, I’d be happy to be a costumer if it’s not too expensive. I’d go there, I’d know the guy making my burrito is a co-owner.

    Over time a lotta things could be replaced by co-ops. I believe Caroll Quigley calls that strategy “circumvention” in “The evolution of civilizations”. You don’t try to destroy the current organization, you just build a parallel alternative structure. Of course it would take an awfully long time to replace the system. But how long did it take for capitalism to become fully fledged? This would be organic growth. That’s how capitalism has grown, starting from the end of the Middle Ages. The ideologizing is recent. Maybe it’s even a sign that it’s about to croak that it needs to be propped up by ideology.

  7. V. Arnold

    @ EmilianoZ
    March 19, 2015

    I like your closing paragraph; I “bank” with a co-op, aka, credit union.
    As much as I can, I have withdrawn support from all major corporations and Israel.

  8. V. Arnold

    If one relies on the proletariat then nothing gets done. Groups and individuals can operate outside the system, independently of the system.
    Let change begin with the individual.
    As to technology? I retired from a high tech position using the latest 3D engineering software and manufacturing.
    I love technology, but not how it’s presently utilized and controlled.
    I do not believe it will save us…

  9. Tzimisce

    What about automation as a replacement for human labor? Generally, it’s presumed that while automation does replace certain jobs, it will typically create new avenues for employment. I think we might be reaching that breaking point. Self-driving cars are out there and how many more years before it becomes a wide-spread technology? Delivery drivers (from pizza to UPS), trucks, taxis, etc… all replaced. Amazon has robots that collect items for delivery, so you could have the entire distribution chain without humans. Just think about how many people will be displaced.

    While we may never reach 100% machine labor, we could reach a point where “full employment” for an economy being ever more out of reach. “The world needs ditch diggers.” True, but does that ditch digger need to be a human? We distribute goods and services in large part because we earn money, with most people earning money through income from a job. How do you distribute without money?

    We should focus ourselves in the short term on ending scarcity. If energy, food, and shelter needs are all met in perpetuity then we might be able to cobble together a decent post capitalism world. Otherwise, I fear the elimination of jobs combined with a fight over an ever diminishing supply of things.

    Ending scarcity is anathema to capitalism. By example, if energy is all supplied by renewable or inexpensive sources, isn’t that a long term loser of an investment for individuals where the only success is quarterly growth? I think we can end scarcity in the next few decades, but we need the courage to enter a new age.

  10. Tony Wikrent

    Guest and EmilianoZ point to something I have been cogitating as I studied the role of government in development of the USA economy. It is starkly clear in the development of the railroads, which were created and built with massive government support in the form of land grants, and engineering expertise provided by the US Army. The railroads became the largest industrial concerns, and the largest corporations, in the country. They also became the largest predators, and the most powerful sources of corruption in politics.

    Clearly, it is better to prevent the rise of such concentrated economic power. But can it be prevented when modern industrial enterprises require investments measured in the billions of dollars? Other commenters have pointed to the need for driving economic activity to the local level, such as with co-ops, which agree with. But I do not at present think localization can be applied to all economic activity. The newest semiconductor fabrication facility, being built by Samsung Electronics in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, for example, is reported to cost $14.7 billion. I believe there are very few local areas other than large urban conglomerations, that could risk that amount of money on a single economic enterprise. And, even if every single one of the world’s 100 largest cities had its own semiconductor fabrication facility, would it make any sense? It would probably result in massive production overcapacity, and therefore a very real waste of both financial and bio-physical resources.

    The production of commercial aircraft is another example. There is not a single manufacturer of commercial passenger aircraft in the world that was not assisted significantly by government support, because the amount of capital required and the technological risk is simply too large for any private enterprise any where in the world. That is the simple historical record of every commercial aircraft maker I have looked at, from the big airliners built by Boeing, Airbus, Antonov, Tupolev, and COMAC (China), as well as smaller commuter aircraft by Embraer, Bombardier, Mitsubishi, Sukhoi, and Dornier.

    So we have a very clear problem of requiring large concentrations of financial and economic power to carry on modern industrial enterprises, but allowing the corporations that result to also acquire disproportionate political power. Now it has been decades since I read Marx, and I very well may have forgotten it, but I remember nothing that addresses this conundrum. As for more recently work by Marxists such as Richard Wolff, I believe there are some workable solutions such as the promotion of co-ops, that, unfortunately, I don’t think that can be applied to all economic activity.

    However, worker representation in management is one possible solution that could work at any scale. The question then becomes, how do you prevent the worker representatives from being corrupted and co-opted my management? This, I believe, brings us to the problem of culture, which is exactly what we are hashing out in this discussion.

    My contention is that Thorstein Veblen is more useful at this point than Marx. Veblen directly examined the issue of industrial scale, especially in The Engineers and the Price System (1921). And his examination of industrial culture, in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1918) is also useful for discussing the positive aspects, one might even argue indispensable aspects, of industrial culture. And remember, Veblen is analyzing this from the perspective of the differences between business and industry. I fear that a number of people read “industry” and instinctively dislike it. But in Veblen’s schema, industry is what creates wealth; business merely appropriates wealth by exploiting industry.

    And even more useful on the question of culture, are the classical republican ideals that inspired the creation of the American republic. Those ideals originally warned that concentrations of economic power were as dangerous as concentrations of political power; and indeed economic power and political power go hand in hand.

    This is also, I believe, the idea of classical liberalism. But what we have now is neo-liberalism, which argues that only concentrations of political power are a problem, and we should not worry about concentrations of economic power because the forces of the market will correct any abuses of economic power.

  11. Dan Lynch

    It’s a rambling post so where to begin?

    , it was generally accepted through most of the first century of USA’s national existence that gross inequality of wealth and income was a danger to the experiment in self-government.

    Except it wasn’t. As Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” has pointed out, the US was founded by the 1% for the 1%, and they had no interest in “self-government” other than a fake sort of democracy intended to keep the masses complacent. Yes, there were a few progressive idealists among the founders, like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, but the progressives were pushed aside once the war had been won and they were no longer needed to secure popular support for the rebellion.

    socialism, Marxism, communism, and so on DO NOT WORK.

    Except many of the Native American cultures had communal economies that worked for thousands of years. And Russian communism did work, in the sense that the Russian economy was booming while the West was in the Great Depression. When Russian communism ended, the standard of living declined, lifespans declined, suicides went up, etc.. One can argue that the people of the USSR were better off under communism than they were before or since. Polls show that Stalin is highly regarded in Russia today.

    Cuba had communism until recently. It worked. Cubans have far better health care than I do ! Is it the ultimate society? Maybe not, but neither is US capitalism. Tony’s argument that communism does not work simply does not hold water.

    The last great surge of populist success was the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota in the years just before World War One.

    Someone forgot to tell that to populist Huey Long. If Huey had not been assassinated in 1935, he might have become president, and the US might be a different place today. As it was, Huey’s socialist/populist policies profoundly shaped the New Deal, forcing FDR to co-op some of those policies to “steal his [Huey’s] thunder.”

    Like Tony, I admire the US populists, and think we can learn a thing or two from them. But I am not hostile to communism or socialism, nor am I hostile to regulated capitalism. I’m rather agnostic about those things, and would be fine with some sort of mixed economic system, as they have in Scandinavia.

    Regarding convincing the military and police to take “our” side, lots of luck with that. The police are a lost cause, and the volunteer army is a lost cause. If you had a drafted military that represented the general population, that might be different.

    The American rebels did not convince British soldiers to lay down their arms and join the America cause. Instead, Americans picked up their own arms and formed their own army — something America’s left seems reluctant to do. If it comes down to a matter of who has the most firepower, then the American right is sure to prevail simply because they understand and embrace the importance of the armed citizen. Not to mention the volunteer military is dominated by the right.

  12. DMC

    Props for bringing more peoples attention to Goodwyn. The Populists eventually got the “soft” money they were looking for but got derailed into nativist xenophobia and WWI pretty much did for the movement. We did also get the “sewer socialists” of New England out of the movement and the Progressisve wave. The TEA party of today could(insofar as they’re not 100% astroturf) be considered the attempt to both create and control a populist movement for reactionary ends. Then as now, as an old colleauge of mine once remarked “Americans just want to find the devil and beat him up.” You’re also much more likely to get social democracy like most European countries have with a few Euro-communists(really just semi-milatant trade unionists, despite the rhetoric) pulling the Overton window to the left. In the US, it just keeps jerking to the right because there pretty much is no (organized)left in the US any more. Maybe its time for the Wobblies to make a comeback.

  13. RJMeyers


    I don’t think the producer/predator analysis is very useful right now. It looks like as soon as a producer reaches a certain size it becomes a predator, a rent-seeker. If a start-up is successful, it either turns into a predator (Google, Amazon,…) or it gets happily bought up by a predator (the most likely case). As a result, the producers that matters now are undistinguishable from predators. The distinction could be meaningful if we could limit the size of producers.

    The distinction is useful because it just allowed you to recast a known problem with an expanded set of variables–it’s no longer small vs. big corporations, but Producer vs. Predator with a tendency to go Predator at large scale. The Producer/Predator axis allows one to distinguish between two different types of activities and begin to formulate some notion of when a given organization transitions from one to the other (or to formulate which activities by said organization fall into which category).

    Size likely has something to do with it, but other solutions beyond just limiting size would be to vastly curtail intellectual property monopolies, to strongly enforce anti-trust and anti-monopoly legislation, to develop new systems of public oversight and regulation of large technology firms, to create barriers to capital flight from the US and then tax these companies appropriately, and… well, I could probably sit and think of a few more at least. These are all designed to discourage Predator profit taking and stealing and make room for more Producer type activities (well, I hope they are).

    I don’t know if there are any examples of a pure Industry (Producer) private enterprise today, since all of them must have a Business (Predator) module attached in order to exist and compete with each other and our society is obsessed with business so much that we barely think of industry anymore. Even startups must have a business and marketing aspect. The key is to think about each of these forces unbundled and figure out ways to rollback the Predator aspects and prevent them from taking over again.

    And also figure out how to keep Producer activities from producing us into oblivion by destroying the environment. But that’s a simpler proposition once you release the stranglehold the Predators have on the current oblivion-producing economy.

  14. Doc

    What I find interesting is that while the deep thinkers, the progressives, the liberals, the democrats, however you wish to identify yourselves, blather on with the deluge of words like this poster; the plodding, ignorant dark forces of conservo/republicans just keep on keeping on. Taking over congress, eventually all state governments, all county governments, all city governments, school boards, utility boards and on and on.

    While you spew words with no end in sight, the dark side just yells single words

    GUNS !

    You respond with more verbal diarrhea.

    And they just keep kicking you butt.

    I hate conservative religious republicans.

    I hate you losers even more.

  15. Ron Wilkinson

    I did not get very far into this political, social and economic word salad. It was aggravating not enlightening.

  16. Barry Fay

    @ Doc and Ron Wilkinson: you both represent just what the problem in America is. The number of people like you that failed “reading comprehension” is far greater than the number of those that did by at least 1000 to 1. I can feel your “frustration” way over here.

  17. V. Arnold

    @ Barry Fay
    March 20, 2015

    Indeed and I owe Tony a mea culpa. After a comment from a friend, I re-read Tony’s piece and it’s quite well done, no, very well done. Thorough and backed up by solid references.
    Quite a good history lesson actually.
    Job well done Tony. Thanks.

  18. Tony Wikrent

    RJMeyers – Thanks for an excellent comment. I also wonder if a pure producer enterprise exists anywhere, since the business schools have been aggressively teaching economic neo-liberalism and libertarianism for well over half a century now. But an interesting place to look at is Silicon Valley. Tom Wolfe wrote a very amusing portrait of Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Intel, in 1983 for Esquire magazine, and adeptly captured the clash of cultures between the studious electronic engineers at Fairchild Semiconductor (Noyce’s first start-up), and some Wall Street types that came out to visit. Here is the URL

    And a great book I have recommended in the past is Max Holland’s When the Machine Stopped, a history of Burgmaster, a maker of turret lathes that was the largest machine tool builder West of the Mississippi. Holland’s father was a machinist there, and Holland describes how the founder and owner, Joe Burg, interacted with his employees on the shop floor. Uh, forget Marxist class analysis; what Holland describes comes entirely under the purview of Veblen’s instinct of workmanship.

    Burgmaster was quickly destroyed when it was acquired by a machine tool conglomerate, Houdaille, which in turn was bought up in one of the first leveraged buyouts by Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts in 1978. KKR are archtypical financial predators, who now control more companies and revenues than Exxon-Mobil. It was KKR that bought RJR Nabisco in an LBO in 1988 at the then stunning price of $25 billion. General Petraeus is now working for KKR.

    (The KKR LBO of RJR Nabisco was one of the first big stories I worked on when I was in DC writing on economics for a small radical news monthly. Believe me, the Marxists I met at the time were utterly clueless. They had no interest in LBOs, and no interest in the dirty drug and mafia money that was behind a lot of it. In other words, they were too busy debating Bukharin versus Trotsky, and were not at all interested in targeting the real bastards behind the scenes: law firms like Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom or Davis Polk & Wardwell, or the big financial houses at the time like Manufacturers Hanover, First Boston, Salomon Brothers, and Bankers Trust. No doubt this is the origin of my animus toward Marxism.)

    Holland’s book details the death agonies of Burgmaster under KKR, right to the bitter end. In March 2007, he wrote a summary, entitled, “How to Kill a Company: Anatomy of a Leveraged Buyout.”

  19. Formerly T-Bear

    @ Tony Wikrent reply # 68066

    May I ask a favour: maybe next time could you post an ISBN for your book references instead of proprietary sites references. This number would be universal for all purveyors of books. I will note the titles and authors on your post above and try to obtain the references that method. I just do not like to give traffic to some entities. Much thanks.

  20. Formerly T-Bear

    @ Tony Wikrent

    My bad: in addendum –

    Thank you for a superbly crafted post. It was a pleasure to read.

  21. RhettORick

    I want to agree with a couple of above posters that intellectualism is getting way to … well intellectual. If only intellectuals could learn to reduce their “word salads” down to talking points like the Right. I think Pol Pot put it quite succinctly when he said, “Kill the intellectuals”.

    For the sarcasm impaired (usually me), I am kidding of course. But those that point out that the idiots on the Right are winning, do have a point.

    I appreciate the OP and comments although I can’t say I understand all. I think that elite theory must be factored in to any potential solution. By definition, elites will always run the world. We need elites to understand that predatory capitalism (or communism) isn’t in their best interest. I, of course, have no idea how to do that.

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