Thursday 2 January 2014

From Populism to Occupy

Observers of the political landscape are often puzzled by the disappearance of the Occupy Movement from public view. Another mystery however is also its emergence in the first place. What was it that motivated people to camp out in the cold in cities across the world?

If there is a unifying theme across the Occupy Movement then it is probably discontent. But discontent with what? The original thrust was directed against Wall Street, or what Occupy participants dubbed 'greed' amongst bankers. Many have commented that this was more an observation of human frailty than a clear cut analysis of what ailed the economy. So, perhaps the reason why the Occupy Movement fizzled out was that it lacked a coherent understanding of what it wanted to change.

Recently, I have been reading Richard Hofstadter's seminal study on Populism in America, 'The Age of Reform'. When I say Populism I don't refer to populism as an opportunistic appeal to popular support. Rather, Populism between 1890 and 1930 was a significant third party movement in the United States with socialist and agrarian undertones. It led to some electoral surprises in some states but ultimately, its main contender William Jennings Bryan was defeated in the presidential elections of 1896.

What does this have to do with the Occupy Movement? Hofstadter's account is fascinating because it charts the diverse origins of the Populist movement and its highly incoherent ideology. It was a manifestation of protest against the status quo, but never achieved any ideological coherence or consistent electoral strategy. In effect, its diversity of themes was probably one reason for its temporary local success, bringing together discontented farmers as well as more dubious figures of public life with anti-semitic tendencies. Yet, what united them all was a yearning for a glorious past and the railing against an 'out of control' finance system that punished ordinary folk by keeping inflation low (the discussion was mainly around the Gold Standard and so-called Bi-metalism).

There is no doubt that there was serious hardship in the United States at the turn of the century. The longing for a harmonious past however where the finance sector is doing the bidding of the economy and greed as a human trait is morally castigated charts a significant parallel between the Populist doctrine and the Occupy Movement.

The most interesting parallel however is the inconsequentialism of either in the long term. The main reason seems to lie in the fact that neither movement managed to undertake a serious analysis of the capitalist system. The Populist pamphlets of the early 1900s read just like some declarations of the Occupy Movement: like a rag bag of moral invectives and disenchantment. The moral tone of both movements is strikingly different to the hard headed Marxist analysis of the capitalist system. Marx's capitalist contributes to the rise of the working class by ruthless exploitation, hence his actions are justified through fulfilling his destiny in the unfolding history of class war.

For the Occupy Movement, just like for the Populist Movement at the end of the 19th century, what was the core of evil was usury or greed, themes that were often laced with anti-semitic rhetoric. As a movement, Populism and Occupy may never have had great chances of success although it certainly galvanised many people who sympathised with its (fuzzy) aims. As an analysis of the weaknesses of capitalism however, both miserably failed and it's this weakness that contributed to the lack of significant reforms of the financial system. It seems we are all the poorer for it.

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