Sunday, October 21, 2007

PASSINGS: AL KREBS, RURAL POPULIST

[Al Kreb was a supporter and good friend of the Progressive Review and an all too rare populist voice]

MATT SCHUDEL, WASHINGTON POST - Albert Valentine "Al" Krebs Jr., 75, a journalist who investigated corporate farming and was a determined voice for small farmers and rural communities, died Oct. 9 of liver failure at Emerald Hills Healthcare Center in Lynnwood, Wash. He lived in Everett, Wash.

Mr. Krebs began to cover agricultural issues in the 1960s, when he was a freelance journalist in California covering a farm workers' strike organized by labor leader Cesar Chavez. He devoted the rest of his career to investigating agribusinesses and to projects benefiting small farmers and rural areas. . .

Since 1995, he had lived in Everett, where he was director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project until his death, monitoring the effects of corporate farming on rural life.


WHAT POPULISM WAS REALLY ABOUT

AV KREBS, AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER - In an age when our political pundits like to give great lip service to the notion of government of, for and by the people, populism, and particularly 19th century agrarian populism which often rightfully serves as the model by which all other forms of American populism is measured, has been getting a bum rap. . .

Out of the economic hardships following the Civil War a variety of protest movements rapidly grew, ranging from the National Grange in the 1870's to the Populists in the 1880s. Originally organized as farm social clubs to sustain the certain richness they saw in the texture of rural life, the Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the Grange, came into existence in 1867.

Usually after their formal meetings they would adjourn, only to reconvene an "anti-monopoly" meeting which, although shunning partisan political activity, was largely devoted to discussing the railroads, the bankers' excessive interest charges and foreclosures, grain elevator operators, farm equipment companies and commodity middlemen.

In an effort to overcome these economic hurdles the Grange began cooperative buying and selling while at the same time seeking legislation to control the abuses of the railroads.

Unfortunately, their lack of business knowledge, capital and cooperative experience led to an early demise for many of their cooperative ventures. They were successful, however, in securing many needed reforms in the railroad business, including reduced fare, freight and warehouse rates.

As the influence of the Grange diminished, the Greenback Party came to represent agrarian interests.

As a fundamental transformation in rural America was taking place in the late 1800s, largely fueled by overproduction in agriculture, an accelerated exploitation of abundant natural resources and rapidly improving labor-saving technology, urban America was also changing. Cities were becoming crowded, poverty was increasingly prevalent, huge factories seeking cheap labor were multiplying, and large corporations were replacing small businesses everywhere.

Coming at the end of a generation of instability and suffering, many believed the depression of the 1890s to be psychologically and politically more disruptive than its predecessors. The answer to this new disaster, government and business leaders contended, was to enlarge metropolitan or industrial exports, thereby creating more of a demand in the domestic market for the nation's abundant agricultural surpluses. . .

As Southern farmers sought to escape the tyranny of sharecropping and the "furnishing merchant" system and western farmers fought the tyranny of burgeoning debt and mortgage foreclosures, both believed they saw American agriculture being driven into involuntary servitude.

From a mass democratic movement, which had initially been generated by a cooperative crusade and which was to become the heart of the "agrarian revolt," to the formation of the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union, emerged a political movement that came to be called populism.

Populism, as historian Lawrence Goodwyn reminds us, was characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people could "see themselves" and therefore aspire to a society conducive to mass human dignity. In stark contrast to their efforts was the direction they saw being taken by the corporate state in the existing society.

Populism clearly recognized this condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control.

"Agrarian reformers aim," Goodwyn points out, "was structural reform of the American economic system."

The fact that populism achieved a high measure of success for nearly a decade in the late 1800s explains why in the century since this "agrarian revolt," corporate America has reacted so strongly and swiftly to any renewed moves by the nation's farmers to assert that same economic and political power they so forcefully applied in the late 1800s.

One characteristic of the populist revolt, however, that deserves special attention was the movement's resistance to racism and racist propaganda throughout the South. In a determined effort against incredible odds populists sought to win political rights for blacks and defend those rights against white terrorism. Historian C. Vann Woodward, portrays the results of that effort:

"The Populists failed [politically], and some of them turned bitterly against the Negro as the cause of their failure. But in the efforts they made for racial justice and political rights they went further toward extending the Negro political fellowship, recognition and equality than any native white political movement has ever done before or since in the South."

In addition it should also be noted here that because some elements within the farm communities began to generalize their attack upon the Eastern and English financiers and industrialists of the time into an attack on the Jews there is an assumption that the early agrarian populist movement was anti-Semitic in nature.

Prominent American historian William Appleman Williams, however, disputes that assumption. "Having read a vast number of Populist papers, letters and proceedings, it is my considered judgment that the incidence of anti-Semitism was very low. Those who maintain otherwise are unconvincing on two counts. First, they do not persuade one that they have done extensive research in the primary sources. Second, they do not conceptualize about the problem in a useful manner."

Williams continues,

"Jews did enjoy great power in European and American financial circles during this period. They further took great pride, as they had traditionally, in exercising that power. Hence to attack them for possessing and exercising that vast economic power is not prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism.

"To become such it would have to be supported by proof of an exclusive assault on Jewish financiers, and a general campaign against all Jews, whatever their wealth. The sources do not reveal such evidence. In a similar way, the rising opposition to immigration was due far less to any latent or overt racism than to the conclusions drawn from the analysis that established the end of the continental frontier."

Although many of the "populist" farm policy seeds would later flower in the form of constructive state and national farm and anti-corporate legislation, the Peoples Party demise as a political force came in the 1896 presidential election when the silverites captured control of the Party, amalgamated with the Democrats as William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of the "populist" rhetoric, and were beaten decisively by William McKinley and the Republicans.


WHAT POPULISM COULD BE ABOUT

ALBERT KREBS, CALAMITY HOWLER - As Populist historian Norman Pollack stresses, citizens must now, as they did in the 19th century Populist movement, challenge the strident materialism of our day and "work to achieve a democratized industrial system of humane working conditions and production for human needs." The 19th-century populists sought to build a society, in sum, where individuals fulfilled themselves "not at the expense of others but as social beings, and in so doing attain a higher form of individuality."

Thus, a society we should be striving for in the 21st century is one to be judged not at its apex, but at its base; that the quality of life of the masses should be the index by which we measure social improvement. . . If populists in alliance are to replace today's corporatist culture, they must adopt an ideological framework built on aggressive advocacy and create a "movement culture." Such a populism will have to be characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people can see themselves working together and aspiring to a society conducive to mass human dignity.

People must also recognize clearly the imminent dangers of the "corporatist" culture and educate and work to bring that corporate state under democratic control. Thus, rather than isolate and concentrate on "issues," 21st-century populism must focus on the system, for the system has become the issue. . .

We must develop horizontal communication between such groups of people and individuals both within our own communities, nations and then begin to build an international populism.

We can teach each other what each of us learns and knows and what mistakes we make - a development that can be described as "movement forming." In developing such a system of communication we also create a forum and environment whereby we can continue to attract masses of people - "the movement recruiting."

By proceeding in such a fashion, keeping in mind a commitment to the creative nonviolence and democratic process, and remembering that populism seeks to replace corporate power with democratic power, people can begin a culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis - "the movement education."

Finally, 21st-century populists, in alliance, will create an institutional means, not necessarily a political party, whereby new ideas, shared now by the rank-and-file of a mass political, social and cultural movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way - "the movement politicized."

Unfortunately the demise of the agrarian populists as an organized movement came when they allowed themselves to be sucked into the Democratic Party in 1896, and thus allowed their basic message to get ultimately diluted. Such a mistake must not be repeated for the sake of the republic and its people.

1 Comments:

At October 22, 2007 3:17 PM, Anonymous The Big Box Collaborative said...

Are you worried about increasing corporate power? Do you want to stand up to protect workers' rights in the US and around the world? Then join the International Day of Action against Supermarkets and Big Box Retailers!

Big box corporations, such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco, gain more control of the global marketplace every year and have come to influence international trade agreements and US domestic policy in alarming ways. They prevent workers from exercising their right to unionize at home and abroad, and routinely source products from known sweatshop factories.

Join activists around the world on November 17th and tell the big boxes that their damaging corporate policies cannot stand.

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