The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America
by Lawrence Goodwyn
Oxford University Press (1978)
The Populist Moment describes the rise and fall of the 19th century populist movement, the largest mass democratic movement in US history. At its zenith during the 1896 election, the populist People’s Party had two million members.
Author Lawrence Goodwyn credits the rise of the agrarian populist movement to two major factors: 1) the unwillingness of the Eastern banking establishment to issue adequate credit to small family farmers and 2) the sudden contraction of the money supply caused by pressure on the post-Civil War government to repay bonds it floated for $450 million of treasury notes (aka Greenbacks) Lincoln used to pay for the Civil War.
Goodwyn also blames the systematic failure of commercial banks to issue adequate credit for the ultimate consolidation and centralization of farming in the US, leading to the eventual rise of industrial agriculture.
The Call to Prohibit Private Banks from Issuing Money
The populist movement started in Texas in 1878 as the Alliance. At first the group focused on forming cooperative buying committees, trade stores and crop insurance schemes to circumvent the crop-lien system that caused so many farmers to lose their land. Their chief organizing strategy was to send farmer-lecturers throughout Texas and eventually other parts of the South, Midwest and West. The banks, railroads, grain elevators and supply merchants responded by secretly conspiring to freeze them out. In turn the Alliance formed the People’s Party, whose main platform called for ending commercial banks’ ability to issue money.*
Goodwyn provides a detailed state-by-state history of the leadership struggles in the Alliance and in the People’s Party. Both made concerted efforts to reach out to Negro farmers and tenant farmers and to industrial workers, represented by the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, in the cities.
Overcoming Cultural Oppression
The book concludes by tracing the rise of the liberal and progressive movements that followed the demise of the People’s Party. The primary focus of these later movements has been to “humanize” industrial capitalism – as opposed to attacking the fundamental structure of capitalism (like populist movement). Goodwyn blames the absence of comparable mass movements in the twentieth century on the profound psychological oppression that occurs in modern industrialized society.
According to Goodwyn, the values of the corporate state totally dominates modern American intellectual life, as citizens of industrialized society are taught rules of conduct (in schools, churches and the media) that intimidate them and condition them not to rebel. The Alliance overcame these cultural barriers by training and dispatching farmer-lecturers to teach farmers collective self-confidence and self-assertion – ie that the banks, rather than farmers themselves, were responsible for their predicament. Up to this point in time, no democratic mass movement has attempted a similar program of mass education.
*Contrary to popular belief, money used to run the global economy isn’t issued by governments but by private banks. Although most people think banks only loan out money they hold on deposit, loans are actually created out of thin air via a bookkeeping entry. Because this is where roughly 97% of money comes from, private banks have ultimate control over the amount of money in circulation. They exert enormous political power by shrinking the money supply to cause recessions and expanding it to cause inflation. See How Banks Invent Money Out of Thin Air , Stripping Banks of Their Power to Issue Money and 97% Owned