Bryan

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KS.  In light of Rod Dreher’s kind “shout out”—that is, I believe, the proper blog parlance—it seems appropriate to re-run this essay that appeared in Rod’s paper three years ago under the title “Populism Now!” 

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In the 1980s, the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch pronounced dead the conventional political categories of right and left and argued for a revitalization of politics through a redefinition of terms.

“The idea of a ‘left’ has outlived its historical time and needs to be decently buried, along with the false conservatism that merely clothes an older liberal tradition in conservative rhetoric.”

Since that time, a number of third-party candidates have tried to do just that – from Pat Buchanan to Ross Perot to the perpetual candidacy of Ralph Nader – with a mixed record of success and virtually no electoral victories.Yet there remains a growing sense that the times finally have caught up with the prophetic Mr. Lasch. Could it be that the old political stereotypes and national parties are no longer capable of addressing the needs of the nation? Could we be on the verge of a tectonic shift in American politics?

There are signs. Peggy Noonan recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that due to popular discontent with the widening gulf “between those in power and those who put them there,” the time is here for a successful third-party run in American politics.

A few days later, writing in The New York Times, Charles Morris explicitly confirmed Ms. Noonan’s populist suspicions by likening current widespread uneasiness during a growing economy to what historians call the “great depression” of the 1870s – which, it turns out, wasn’t a depression at all. In fact, production, consumption and employment all rose sharply, and economic indicators were uniformly good. “By the end of the decade,” writes Mr. Morris, “people were better housed, better clothed and lived on bigger farms. Department stores were popping up even in medium-sized cities. America was transforming into the world’s first mass consumer society.”

Yet most people in the Gilded Age seemed desperate. A growing disparity between the haves and have-nots brought on by “unbridled entrepreneurialism,” a dramatic increase in both social and geographic mobility, the spread of centralized corporate control over consumer goods and globalizing markets vulnerable to forces far, far away all contributed to a sense of unease and insecurity. Populist fervor swept the middle and lower classes as they felt their livelihood and way of life threatened by collusion between their government and rapidly expanding commerce, industry and mass cultures of transportation and communication.

And so it is today. Midwestern towns are drying up and blowing away like so much tumbleweed. Our inner cities too often function as prisons without bars; suburbia is a blighted, soulless landscape of nowhere; and the yeoman freeholder who was once the backbone of rural America is virtually extinct. Pollsters wonder why George W. Bush isn’t getting more credit for strong economic numbers. Perhaps it is because what are signs of health driven by rampant consumerism are experienced by most Americans as symptoms of economic and spiritual rot – their own and their country’s.

Americans, many of them at least, are awakening to the truth articulated more than 50 years ago by writer Whittaker Chambers: that the modern world’s “vision of comfort without effort, pleasure without the pain of creation, life sterilized against even the thought of death, rationalized so that every intrusion of mystery is felt as a betrayal of the mind, life mechanized and standardized” does not “make for happiness from day to day” – and further, that it may mean “catastrophe in the end.”

My guess is that what all the commentators are sensing is something real. Could it be that unconstrained growth, hypermobility and global markets actually produce social and political instability?

In the mid-20th century, economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism – the acknowledged world-historical champion in terms of producing wealth and prosperity – would, by a process he called “creative destruction,” eventually undermine the very social institutions that gave it birth and guarded its existence. He pointed out that market capitalism exposed more natural ordering structures – the “ties that bind” – to a brutal new calculus. Commitment to kin, community and place entail making heavy economic sacrifices and provide benefits not easily entered on a balance sheet. The more cost-efficient process of market economics fomented an ongoing progressive revolution that eventually rendered those social and family ties largely superfluous. Lord Acton observed that “every institution tends to perish by an excess of its own basic principle.”

This tendency of our political and economic culture toward a state of permanent revolution is the hallmark of any modern progressive society. And if there is one deity today to which every politician, right and left, will pay obeisance, it is the god of progress.

Progressives of all political stripes learn early and often that to get on, they better get out, move on, follow every rainbow. “Oh, the places you’ll go,” crooned Dr. Seuss, and Americans went and went and went until we became a rootless itinerant people – which, it turns out, is exactly the kind of workers required by an economy built on creative destruction. Nanny-state leftists and corporate-state rightists have long been in bed together promoting the wage-entitlement economy with its instantly mobile and fetter-free worker and 100 percent out-of-the-home servitude.

There is a tremendous cost to the health of the republic, to the common good, that comes with the creative yet destructive power of unlimited economic and political progressivism. The vital role property-owning and self-sufficient families, small towns and regional governments play in a free republic has been recognized for centuries. The civic virtues associated with widespread ownership of land, decentralized systems of trade, commitment to the common good of one’s tribe and the moral sturdiness of belonging to a tradition are necessary to the continued independence of a free people.

And the loss of these goods will always strike the middle classes first and hardest. When they are lost, they are felt as loss – loss of an entire way of life. And just as the masses of dispossessed and alienated fought back during the Gilded Age, they are likely to again.

At the 1896 Democratic Convention, the populist lion William Jennings Bryan roared against the elite and monied interests controlling America: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked … We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”

And now we are on the cusp of a new wave of populism in search of its own Bryan to rise up on behalf of the people and defy their progressive masters.

Whoever he is, however, he ought to take a close look at the first generation of American populists who often identified themselves as progressives. When Bryan fought for home, family and posterity, he tapped directly into the heart of the American middle classes. But the populist reforms intended to return political and economic power to the ordinary American were fatally flawed.

The introduction of the federal income tax, the nationalization of the railroads and the direct election of U.S. senators were all major reforms accomplished by the progressive populists of Bryan’s day. But rather than putting a hedge of protection around home, family and posterity, each exposed the institutions of middle America to further exploitation. By empowering centralized planning authorities to directly control Americans’ income, mobility and elections via taxation, bureaucratic infrastructure and national political parties, the populists ended up giving the elites far greater control of the people than they had previously had.

There’s an irony inherent in a system like our own that identifies the individual as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic order. Because it shears the individual of the republican virtues cultivated within communities of tradition in the name of empowering him, it actually makes the individual subject to tyranny. Limitless emancipation in the name of progress is, it turns out, the final and most binding mechanism of control.

When the oldest sources of order – which are at root religious – are abandoned along with their traditions and taboos, the resulting void of meaning is by necessity filled with some ideology promising one form or another of perfect happiness in the here and now. And these systems of self-salvation creep not toward liberation, but toward total control.

Populism in its progressive form is not immune from this utopian yearning, which must always end in disaster. So our neopopulist moment ought to be approached with sober awareness that an angry mob is probably worse than a corrupt bureaucrat. The same bureaucrat who has harnessed the anger of the mob with progressive dreams is far more terrible than both.

What is called for is an anti-progressive populism; an anti-movement movement; a return to what is near, known and particular. What is called for is what I think of as regional populism. Its first political task will be to rediscover the ways citizens of the old American republic used to think and talk.

To begin with, we ought to look to the rich heritage of regional populism left by the somewhat misnamed “Anti-Federalists” at the time of America’s founding. While the Anti-Federalists lost the constitutional debate to the centralizers, their principles endured in the emergence of the old Republican Party under Thomas Jefferson (not to be confused with Lincoln’s Republicans). The Jeffersonians advocated for popular and rural rights of yeoman over and against the aristocratic, citified and industrializing prerogatives of the Federalists.

Because of this primary commitment to local and regional interests, culture and norms over national ideologies, this “folk” populism will not look like any one thing in particular, but rather like many things. It requires people who are rooted by a love of what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things” and who are loyal above all to the tradition and membership of their “little platoons” – Edmund Burke’s term for the small groups and associations to which each person belongs and which, in Burke’s view, hold society together.

Folk populism requires people willing to make sacrifices to defend what they love from encroaching destruction via spaghetti-like superhighways, foreign entanglements, megacorporations and megachurches, technological developments, mass media and hypermobility.

All of these features of modernity are systems of control by other, less violent means. As Mr. Lasch cogently argued, they have the effect of harnessing and neutralizing populist discontent. How? By creating a cycle of dependence whereby local goods – intellectual, fiscal, cultural and generational capital (in the form of children) – are drawn into the maw of the centralized corporate-state. They are returned in the form of processed “goods” – products and services that prove to be remarkably habit-forming in a culture of dependency.

Here’s how it works. Midwestern wheat farms are largely owned by massive agribusinesses that function as industrialized, oil-dependent factories dedicated to efficient mass production of their widget, which happens to be the wheat berry. The wheat berry is shipped to other factories for processing and packaging, shipped again to Wonder Bread Inc. for further refinement into a “bread product.” This, in turn, is shipped to stadium-size retail “food outlets,” purchased by the hurried and haggard farm laborer (who used to own the land the wheat was grown on) and taken home to make sandwiches for the kids to eat in front of the TV.

There’s something profoundly unnatural, indeed fundamentally wrong with a consumer-driven system that alienates people from their land, their neighbors and their traditions for the sake of satisfying consumer desire. We’ve got to break the cycle that turns self-sufficient yeomen into docile consumers who, in the immortal words of Samuel Adams, “crouch down and lick the hands which feed them.” This is the only way we will realize Bryan’s dream of defending our homes, our families and our posterity.

What would this kind of regional populism look like in an actual political platform? Broadly speaking, it would seek at every turn to end the dependence of its constituents on elites. It would oppose, for example, the nationalization of any sector of our economy, from health care to agriculture. Instead, it would seek creative ways to open regional markets for regional goods.

It would seek to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.

But in the end, what this kind of vibrant regionalism requires is something much more difficult to obtain than a slogan. It is a renewed appreciation for society over and against both the individual and the state. Society defined by what the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry calls “membership” – a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. To be a member of this kind of social order is the best hedge against manipulation by the central planning committee for “growth” and “prosperity.” It is, to put it plainly, to be free.

It may be too late, things too far gone, for the kind of Anti-Federalist regional populism I am describing to become politically viable in our day. If so, we will likely be tossed between the tyranny of a militantly nationalist populism and the stifling bureaucratic rule of a progressively universalizing liberalism. Neither is a welcome alternative.

24 COMMENTS

  1. …”open regional markets for regional goods”. The Ford Motor Co. heir stated in recent article in the N.Y. Times that he thought it odd that the U.S. seems to be the only major industrialized nation that doesn’t care about having a vibrant domestic industrial sector. Now, we can debate the messenger but the fact remains that the efficiencies of the late technological-globalist-financial dynamo really have been, to a degree, too much of a good thing. Local economies have suffered tremendously, sacrificing widespread vibrancy for centralized vibrancy, based not upon tangible goods as much as upon financial instruments and debt.

    Financialism and Government are intertwined via a secretive FED and the sordid world of campaign finance.
    Whatever we do will require the major dislocation attendant to major political and economic change and populist movements have historically been dominated not by productive evolutionary change but base theater. The States simply must begin to open a vigorous dialogue geared toward mutually beneficial action in order to counterbalance the efficiencies of centralization without demonizing them where warranted.

    But by all means Caleb, hoist a bucket and get cracking

  2. Modern populism doesn’t have to be nationalist, or at least not mindlessly nationalist.

    By mindless nationalism, I mean “USA! USA! USA! We’re Number 1! We’re Exceptional!”

    Thoughful nationalism would shout “We’re Number 33! We deserve better! Protect our people, not the Afghan people!”

    For a practical vision of thoughtful nationalism, imagine Marcy Kaptur as president and Elijah Cummings as vice-president.

  3. Sir, If this article didn’t read so reasonable both times I’ve gone through it, I’d sick good old Bierce on you publicly. But then, that’s the problem with cavorting with “fossil patriots” and other scandalous species for too long, even digitally. You begin to believe in their possible evolution.

  4. To paraphrase a quote I saw here in another essay, I “protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.” Color me skeptical but I don’t see a return to a plurality of transcendental societies helped along by governmental and corporate decentralization. Progress happens. It’s the very definition of finite existence although it most times is a destructive “progress”.

    Am I the only one who sees the irony of the Front Porchers using the Corporate State’s technological infrastructure as a means to a regressionistic localism?

  5. Ahhh GAS…irony is the mothers milk of the age…the 15th Wonder of the World, a giant Graven Image leering down at us and slowly inundating the land with steady flow of high satire issuing from its navel in a slow second Great Flood.

    As to “regression”, one could dissect that summary charge for days. On the other hand, perhaps it is a charge embraced by the Remnant.

  6. Caleb,

    I don’t have anything against Populists and I like to think of myself as a populist in a sense but I’m not convinced that the Corporate Statists are entirely evil. While the Neo-Pagans are trying to sacrifice the Economy on an alter to Mother Earth the corporate model still feeds billions of people through efficient allocation of resources.

    Full disclosure: I work for an large Corporate entity but comfortably ensconced between the managerial class and the labor class so I have a pretty good detached view of the inner workings. Large corporations have the same problem as large cultures, religions, and so on. Trying to create a unity out of a large diversity will always create problems of trying to mold many things into one thing. Some people and things don’t fit the mold and the Behemoth tends to squash them under.

    OTOH, I also see the labor class has become efficient at finding chinks in the armor of the Behemoth and know that a little slip and fall will net them several thousand dollars. The Behemoth then is constantly trying to patch the chinks which lead to more stringent molding and soon the Behemoth is barely able to walk. So in a sense the labor class is creating an ever larger Behemoth that tends to squash them. At some point the Behemoth has so much armor that it falls under the weight and dies. (Think U.S. Auto industry)

    I believe we need to introduce a form of populism in the legal arena. As it is, the League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen play chess with the system and the pawns are easily sacrificed to gain victory. Some attorneys specialize in the low hanging fruit knowing that the Behemoth is unwilling to pay the price to protect it. In other cases the Behemoth is able to flex it’s muscles knowing the pawns have no defense.

    I haven’t seen anything written here about reforms to the closed legal system which I believe is the root cause of many of our problems.

  7. Excellent article. A few comments. The the false conservatism that merely clothes an older liberal tradition in conservative rhetoric was exactly the point of the Mises debate. The question, over and over again, is “What is it that modern conservatism conserves? It it is the values of the Enlightenment (Liberalism) what, precisely, is the point?”

    Rather than saying “unbridled entrepreneurialism,” I would say “unbridled capitalism,” since large scale capitalism displaces the entrepreneur; it does indeed bridle him, and yoke him as well.

    I suspect that a “populist party” in a commercial oligarchy is a practical impossibility. $50 million is merely a down payment for a presidential race, and such large sums of money have few sources. Obama was able to raise of good deal of that downpayment from small contributions, and hence could have been a populist. However, he ended up with more corporate money than all of his opponents.

    I think you are right that regional populism is the answer, but the question could not be asked up until this moment, because regional economies where impossible–or impossibly dependent–on money market centers in a common currency economy. But now we have come to Schumpeter’s end point of capitalism, and hence localism and regionalism become necessities. Those who wait for Washington, or for Brussels or Beijing, will wait in vain, or will receive aid that only makes things worse.

    Gas, you are correct: corporate statism does work, up to a point. Belloc was correct in predicting that the corporation and the state would merge because it was the only way to stabilize capitalism, and for 70 years in has been stable. Not a bad record. But it is not a “market” economy by any means, and it is (I believe) coming to an end.

  8. The Pirate Party, after a 2006 formation is now the 3rd largest party in Sweden. The pirate party excuses itself of all manifestations of left or right. The Pirate Party is almost exclusively concerned with privacy and reforming intellectual property rights.

    Not saying it is good or bad, just keeping the porchers up to date.

  9. To make the world smaller….now that would be nice! Sometimes I catch myself rooting for the demise of the late great USA to accelerate to break neck speed, to have Kustler’s peak oil dash the military industrial complex to pieces, to have the thieving bank cartel FED monster devour itself into oblivion, to have the whore of Babylon politico pigdogs romanize their nation into the dust. I sometimes wish for these things if not only to salvage neighbor, culture and Freedom. The pangs of birth are often too much to handle, but the longer the baby stays in, the harder the labor.

    Things will not always remain as they are, and eventually, you might be buying your bread from the local bakery each morning.

    So to the train wreck occurring in a motion so slow to even notice at times I say…..good show! Speed it up!

    Three…hunn..dred….six…ty….five…de…grees….burning down the house!

    -Junker

  10. While the Neo-Pagans are trying to sacrifice the Economy on an alter to Mother Earth the corporate model still feeds billions of people through efficient allocation of resources.

    Until the corporations run out of cheap oil.

  11. pb,

    When will corporations run out of cheap oil? 50 years? 100 years? They keep finding new sources every day. And technology keeps advancing in free markets such that the oil question will probably become mute anyways.

    What’s despised around here is efficiency. Efficiency can be despotic and if the current Marxists running our country are efficient in their plans then the free markets will crumble and technology will not advance which is exactly what the Marxists would like to see.

    So the Porchers believe the only remedy to the corrision of efficiency, be it corporate or politic, is radical decentralization of economy and politic. It strikes me as just another manifestation of the Post-modern spirit.

    The irony is if the Marxists are successful the Porchers will get what they want since the inefficiencies of a state run economy will lead to a reliance upon local economies as the only means to survival.

  12. GAS (if that is your real name):

    Fifty years is pretty soon. So is a hundred. The shortest route between plenitude and depletion is efficiency. And energy is not interchageable with technology. When one runs out, the other can’t step in to take you waterskiing. Mind your categories. That’s a rule on the Porch.

  13. Peters,

    Ya, those are my real initials.

    And energy is not interchageable with technology.

    And neither are they mutually exclusive. Mind your efficiencies.

  14. The question is not when oil runs out, which might be never, but when cheap oil runs out, and that is happening today, not some remote time in the future. There might be as much oil in shale as their ever was in Arabian sweet light crude. But shale oil is expensive in terms of the energy and resources it takes to extract it.

    The whole global structure is built on cheap energy; when that goes, globalism (and many other things) go with it. For example, when oil spiked to $140, the cost of shipping a container from China to the US went from $2,000 to $6,000, wiping out the advantage the Chinese had from cheap labor and an artificially low currency. The Chinese got a brief glimpse into their own future, though I doubt they saw it that way.

    As for the “efficiency” argument, it simply isn’t true. Indeed, no one should ever use “efficiency” as a noun, but only “efficient” as an adjective; that is, you have to ask, “efficient at what?”

  15. No, because that says even less than “efficiencies,” and raises the same question: What is being economized? Economics is a humane science, which means it has a proper teleology or purpose. What one considers the proper purpose will dictate what one considers a proper economy. If, like Milton Friedman, you view the purpose of the former (and hence the economy) as limited to producing the highest shareholder value possible, you get one view of the economy. If, however, you view it as the means by which we provide the material basis of society and particularly of the family, you get another view. The meaning of “economy” and “efficiency” will change with your understanding of the purpose of the economy. Neither term get be used as if it were a “pure” term, striped of any value. In fact, they are value-laden and culture-bound.

  16. Well John, I was thinking more along the lines of “Efficient, sparing, or conservative use” and “An orderly, functional arrangement of parts; an organized system”.

    When you bring up shale oil you prove my point. The Oil Companies went to Colorado in the early 80’s to extract the shale oil but the technology at the time made the actual extraction and production cost prohibitive and the Colorado oil boom busted. 25 years later the price of oil rose and technology had improved to an extent such that it became profitable again to extract the shale oil in Colorado. Technology and economics combined to make shale oil extraction an efficient operation.

    So it seems to me that the Porchers are playing right into the Neo-Pagan Marxists hands. What would our current situation be if we could fully exploit the nuclear option and fully drill off our shores or allow the free markets to develop natural gas technologies instead of engaging in a government sponsored fantasy ventures in wind power to appease the Neo-Pagans?

    You guys like to talk alot about human nature but what about taking from man the ability to do his work to produce an orderly, functional arrangement of parts in an organized system?

  17. You are confusing profitable with cheap. They will certainly be able to make a profit from shale as the price of oil rises; they will not be able to make it cheap, and it is cheap energy which has been the basis of globalization.

    And modern corporations are not efficient, sparing, or conservative. Or rather they are not economically efficient, they are politically efficient, that is, efficient at gaining vast subsidies and privileges from governments. They are able to externalize their costs (and these externalities account for a high percentage of the “profits”) onto the environment and the general public. This meets no possible definition of “efficiency.”

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