Monday, July 7

BOOKSHELF: THE POPULIST VISION

THE POPULIST VISION

Charles Postel

Ruth Rosen, Alternet - In his new book, "The Populist Vision," Charles Postel offers an original and riveting account of the Populist vision that jump-started 20th-century social reform movements and is still relevant to our contemporary American society. . .

Some have viewed Populists as radical visionaries who dreamed of a utopian, egalitarian American society. Still others have characterized them as nostalgic, rural reactionaries who yearned for an Edenic, agrarian past.

Postel, however, offers a far more nuanced interpretation. Armed with a wide array of sources, he convincingly argues that American Populism, for all its flaws and failures-it eventually failed to promote racial equality-was fundamentally a modern social movement that offered a "divergent" path to the creation of a modern capitalist society.

By excavating the ideas, lives and organizational activities of Populist activists, Postel demonstrates that the women and men in the Populist movement largely valued "business methods, education and technology" and embraced the ideas of modernity and progress. He vividly describes, for example, the rich intellectual debates that rippled through the movement. "Few political or social movements," he writes, "brought so many men and women into lecture halls, classrooms, camp meetings and seminars or produced such an array of inexpensive literature.". . .

For the Populists, argues Postel, the Post Office represented the ideal government agency. An elaborate bureaucracy, the Post Office simply delivered a necessary service without favoring special interests or interfering with the lives of its customers. This was "the Populist vision of an alternative capitalism in which private enterprise coalesced with both cooperative and state-based economies." The Farmers Alliance, for example, "pursued the dramatic expansion of government regulation and control in the country's economic life. This included demands for the public ownership of railroads and the telegraph. ... At stake was who should be included and who should wield shares of power-a conflict that all concerned understood as vital to the future of a modern America.". . .

The Populist movement attracted hundreds of thousands of women. Why? Because it was the only institution that offered women equal political participation. In addition, it also "offered rural women hope for an expanded social cultural environment, improved methods in the kitchen and garden, a more just configuration of marriage and family relationships, and increased opportunities for education, employment, and perhaps participation in political affairs. In short," writes Postel, "the Alliance movement attracted large numbers of women because it raised the prospects of a more independent and modern life." . . .

Aside from demonstrating the modernity of Populism, Postel's great insight is that the particular way American capitalism developed was not "predetermined." The Populist struggle to develop a more regulated and equitable capitalism, he argues, was not defeated because it was a backward, traditional, agrarian movement. The Populist vision of progress lost because its participants could not defeat the more powerful political and economic interests they battled.