From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders […]
The People’s Party was an amalgam of industrial workers, independent farmers and currency reformers in the United States in the 1890s. The 1892 elections were the high water mark of their independent power and influence. In 1896 the Democrats managed to lure them back into the two-party system to support William Jennings Bryan. Jennings lost to McKinley. In the years that followed America went to war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines and the Republic was buried under the Empire. Some of what the Populists campaigned for was secured in the New Deal, but their effort to rein in the power of the main parties, the corporate economy and the money interest failed.
It is worth taking a look at the party’s platform. Much of it is of its time. Some of it reads strangely. I am not suggesting that an American programme devised in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1880s and 1890s can be translated intact into modern Britain. But there is plenty that still rings true.
Last week I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera, with one eye on Syriza’s success in the Greek system, about the possibility of a Coalition of the Far Left in Britain. Richard Seymour responded at Lenin’s Tomb. At the time I wrote about the possibility that a coalition of, mostly small, parties and existing groups could campaign on a shared platform. There’s a slightly different way to look at it – which broader social movements (I use the term movement because it vague) would benefit from a radical alternative to the existing parties, and how can they organize themselves as a governing power? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I don’t know the answers, and I would like to have them.
We can say this.
There is a large co-operative movement that must surely have had enough of being patronised by ‘progressive Conservatives’. There is an environmental movement that is, not unreasonably, on the edge of hysteria about the threat of catastrophic environmental collapse. There’s an information commons movement that can see the both the liberating possibilities of technology and the danger that the free exchange of ideas and information will be strangled by corporate rent-seeking. There is a movement to reform finance and central banking. And there are the socialists of all stripes who cannot content themselves with sympathetic betrayal at the hands of the Labour party. And let’s not forget the media reformers. How could anyone forget them?
Perhaps most importantly there are groups of people who are mobilizing in an effort to defend public services and to create work and opportunities for themselves. The old New Labour regeneration game has run its course. The consultants have sent in their invoices. The models have been built. The property developers and imagineers have had their fun. People who live in places as far afield as Todmorden and Margate are realising that the only reliable resource they have is one another. We can see that institutions like the NHS are not safe in the unreformed system. Education and healthcare are being converted into profit streams for private companies.
These groups and movements would once have been hoovered into one or other of the existing electoral coalitions. This might not happen now, especially if an alternative arrives that looks like them – democratic, curious, and unimpressed by the old Burke-and-Greasepaint trickery of the representative system.
It is interesting that the elements of a popular coalition are all in place. People will read this blog and say, yes, that would be nice, but it will never happen. But all of it is happening. The groups and individuals involved might not know of one another. Those who currently run public life are anxious to appropriate their energy, perhaps to divert it in the name of realism to support the candidacy of a doomed reformer. Let’s call that the William Jennings Bryan option. They will continue to insist that politics is what they say it is. But their hold is insubstantial, their record too obviously self-serving and bloodstained.
Another extract from the Omaha Platform. Like I say, some of their critique still sounds pretty up to date.
We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform.
(This was prompted by an article in The American Conservative that came to me via a Tweet from the Labour MP Tom Watson.)