"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Obviously, Thomas Jefferson's hope of 175 years ago, like so many other of his populist dreams, has not been realized. Not only has the "aristocracy of our monied corporations" survived birth, but it has now grown to a stage where it stands ready to dominate nearly every aspect of our existence.
In almost all phases of our economic, political, social, recreational and cultural lives we are becoming beholden to corporate America. Indeed, it can be said we no longer live in a society ruled by a corporate economy, but in one submissive to the corporatist culture.
Examples of what the Sojourners' Jim Wallis refers to as an "economic definition of life" abound everywhere.
From the food we eat to the caps we wear, from the underwriting of art, music and dance to the naming of our sports stadiums and athletic events, from the nature of our work to the direction of government policies, from the images that attract, lure, and create desire to the objects that have come to define our social status, corporatist culture prevails.
No one aspect of our lives better illustrates the the corporate culture's powerful influence on individual human beings on a daily basis than in our eating and drinking habits.
Food, next to life itself, is our greatest common denominator. Its availability, quality, price, its reflection of the culture it feeds and its moral and religious significance make it quite literally history's "staff of life."
Yet in today's corporatist culture food is no longer viewed solely as a sustainer of life. Rather, to those in the corporate culture who seek to control its supply, food has simply become a major source of corporate cash flow, economic leverage, a form of currency, a tool of international politics, an instrument of power--a weapon!
In the process of substituting capital for efficiency and technology for labor we have turned our family farmers into technological "junkies," locking them in on the "chemical poisons treadmill," endangering their own and their families' health and safety, converting "stewards" of the land into "miners" of the land, creating a class of corporate "welfare queens" living off the nation's taxpayers, and basing farm survival not on earned income but on borrowed capital.
People need to know that, unlike in years past where farmers were the producers of our food, increasing numbers of them are now becoming simply the raw material providers for a giant food manufacturing system.
Meanwhile, corporate America continues to seek to standardize our food supply, while at the same time forcing the nation's consumers to pay a higher and higher quantitative and qualitative cost for their daily food. In this corporatist culture who profits? Who pays? Guess!
According to Forbes magazine, the annual average return on investment for the food, beverage and tobacco processing industry in the past five years was 17.9 percent, making it the nation's most profitable industrial sector. USDA figures showed farmer's average annual returns for the same period was a meager 1.98 percent.
It was this same concentration of capital in the late 19th century that gave rise to the agrarian populist movement. Initially, agrarian populism believed that as the American democratic promise was being destroyed, any possibility of individual respect and mass aspiration was also being killed.
Agrarian populism clearly recognized the dangers of the corporate culture and believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control.
Thus, one can justifiably measure the success of the "agrarian revolt" of the late 1800s by the manner in which corporate America has reacted so sharply in the century since family farmers so definitively proclaimed that you cannot have political democracy without economic democracy.
First came the so-called "progressive movement," and its concerted effort to "industrialize" agriculture through the land-grant college system and the establishment of the Extension Service. From the latter also came the formation of the American Farm Bureau Federation, designed primarily to stand as a "rock against radicalism."
These forces congealed, all in reaction to the 1890s agrarian populists' political achievements and the emergence of the successful Non-Partisan League in the Northern Plains in the early 1900s, and corporate America's movement, which exists to this very day, began to increase momentum.
That movement, traditionally characterized by an effort to rid agriculture of its "excess human resources," has been aimed at concentrating the nation's land and natural resources into as few hands as possible.
Today, we see those same reactionary forces seeking to dismantle the New Deal policies that saved American agriculture from ruin in the 1930s. Those policies had their genesis in the agrarian populists' sub-treasury plan.
Under that plan, the forerunner of today's Commodity Credit Corporation, farmers who had been the captive of monopolist commodity dealers could instead deposit their crops in government-financed storage facilities, receive a certificate of ownership and a loan in the amount of 80 percent of the crop's current market value, plus a 1-percent interest rate. Farmers later could either sell the crop and repay the loan or keep the loan and allow the government to auction off the crop.
Although in the 1890s economic democracy was a stated goal of the Farm Alliance, as its members declared in their Omaha Platform of 1892, it also represented a rebellion against the American political party system of the day. In order to restructure the nation's financial and economic system, the Alliance came to reject both major parties, which they accused of being in "harmony with monopoly."
It is true that the populists would lose the presidential election of 1896, a campaign dominated by big money and mass advertising, a campaign some historians have described as setting "the creative standard for the 20th century." But it is undeniable that they also initiated what Ralph Nader has called "the country's most fundamental political and economic reform movement since the Constitution was ratified."
One noteworthy principle emerged out of the "agrarian revolt" of the late 1800's and today it has particular relevance to our times.
William Lamb, the leader of the Alliance radicals and perhaps populism's most articulate theoretician, spoke of that principle in a historic 1886 open letter to the Rural Citizen.
Lamb saw the society of his day being dominated by the manufacturing class. The traditional image of the farmer as the "hardy yeoman" of the Jeffersonian era was already out of place in the growing corporate state at the turn of the century. He believed the farmer of the new industrial age was a "worker," the "labor question" was the central issue and that the organized farmers of the Alliance should join with the organized workers of the Knights of Labor.
As business became more economically concentrated, Lamb contended, farmers who continued to strive for friendship and parity with the commercial world were simply failing to comprehend "what is going on against us." Members of the Alliance, he wrote, had to put aside such naiveté:
"We think all members should show the world which side they are on ... and we are looking forward for men that will advocate our interests, those who are working against us are no good for us ... Then for it to be said that we are unwise to let them alone, we can't hold our pens still until we have exposed the matter and let it be known what it is we are working for."
While rural America and the family farming community in particular has always allied itself traditionally with ideals of agrarian populism and Jeffersonian democracy, it frequently is left out of the equation when "liberals" talk about fundamental political and economic reform.
Some of that wrong-headed thinking can be simply attributed to urban liberal myopia, but also it happens because "farmers" are looked upon (all too often by the "liberal establishment") as part of the problem, rather than being, as history records, usually the first and hardest-hit victims of corporate oppression.
In a letter to John Jay in 1809, Thomas Jefferson emphasized that "an equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce is certainly essential to our independence." It is that "equilibrium" that today's family farmers are seeking to establish through fair market pricing for what they produce while they work to provide the nation and the world with a safe, affordable and accessible food supply.
It is clear from history, current events and from reading such documents as the National Family Farm Coalition's recent "Ames Platform of 1995," and for all the above stated reasons, family farmers should not be ignored for the insight and leadership they can and should provide in this future populist struggle.
A.V. Krebs, research director of PrairieFire Rural Action in Des Moines, Iowa, is the author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books, 1992.) He also edits The Agribusiness Examiner. Check out the Ames Platform of 1995 on the Progressive Populist Home Page.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST