Anti-Plutocracy is as American as Apple Pie: a short of history of American populist anger

May 5th, 2013

Published on ZNet, by Paul Street, May 03, 2013.

… It is as good time as any, perhaps, to take a brief look back at the United States’ own rich but purposefully buried history of “populist,” anti-plutocratic anger:

Wall Street Owns the Country (1890):

  • Though you wouldn’t have know it from the characteristically superficial and amnesiac way in which dominant U.S. mass media covered the populist and Left-led Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Rebellion, the United States has long been scarred by harsh socio-economic and class disparities that have defied its “land of equality” mythology and raised popular fears and anger about the undemocratic domination of the nation’s economy, society, and politics by the rich and powerful Few. The historical peak of such concern came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions of American populists, socialists, anarchists, labor rebels, and progressives of various stripe rallied and railed against the stupendous concentration of wealth amidst massive poverty and economic insecurity that came along with the United States’ rise to industrial supremacy and the emergence of the modern “managerial” corporation as the leading form of American capitalist enterprise, at once largely financed by and feeding the deep pockets of an ascendant Wall Street. This is how the great Kansas populist orator Mary Ellen Lease put things to an angry crowd in 1890, one hundred and twenty-one years before OWS launched its remarkable but short-lived, police state-dismantled encampment in lower Manhattan: … //

… All the Wealth of Society Comes to Them” (1906):

Twelve years later, after a decade in which a major industrial depression furthered the control of the economy by a small number of giant corporations and in the wake of a failed national strike against the leading U.S. meatpacking chains Swift’s and Armour’s, the American socialist, novelist, and pamphleteer Upton Sinclair captured a broadly held sentiment when he wrote the following in the widely read socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason:

  • “Rise up…and look about you.
  • They own all the instruments and means of production.
  • They own the railroads and the telegraphs, the coal mines and the oil fields, the factories and the stores!
  • They own half the farms and have mortgages on the rest.
  • They own society. They own the government![5]”

In 1906, Sinclair published his bestselling novel The Jungle, set among the workers in Chicago’s gigantic animal slaughtering and meatpacking houses. A brilliant expose of the unsanitary and oppressive conditions in one of the nation’s leading food industries, the novel neared its conclusion with its battered proletarian protagonist standing transfixed before a mesmerizing radical orator who spoke of the shocking disparities that had emerged in early 20th century America … //

… The Well-Born[‘s] Government of Oppression (1787): … //

… Temple of Mammon (1830s): … //

… Against “Industrial Dictatorship” and “Privileged Enterprise” (FDR/1930s): … //

… The Property Party: … //

… The Minority in Business and Finance Who Own and Run This Country (Savio): … //

… The New Gilded Age:.

  • Occupy’s anger and rhetoric was richly consistent with this all-too-forgotten history, which suggests that populist anti-plutocracy and suspicion of concentrated capitalist wealth and power is “as American as Apple Pie.” Such anger is richly appropriate to life under the United States current Second Gilded Age (1979-20??), the nation’s post New Deal and “neoliberal” era in which the U.S. is far and away the industrialized world’s most unequal country (its wealth distribution is now more comparable to Latin America and Africa than it is to Western Europe ad Japan) and which the richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth together than the entire bottom half of the population (the six Wal-Mart heirs together have as much net worth as the bottom 41.5 percent) [19] – a reflection among other things of the fact that lowest two U.S. wealth quintiles (the bottom 40 percent) of the U.S. control an astonishingly paltry 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing.[20] Half the nation’s population is now officially “low-income” and a third lives either in poverty or “near poverty” (at or below 150% of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate official poverty level) while the owners of Wall Street and corporate America enjoy record-setting profits and hyper-opulent lifestyles that would make the original Robber Barons blush.
  • These savage inequalities are the result not of any deficiency of effort, education, wholesomeness, or still on the part of ordinary American working and middle class people.[21] They are a clear and predictable result of numerous government policies reflecting the corrupting power of the nations leading financial institutions and other giant corporations.[22] “All the wealth of society comes to [the rich and powerful] because that’s how the game is rigged by corporate- and Wall Street-captive policymakers at all levels of government. “It is not,” the progressive economist Laurence Mishel writes, “that the economy been broken for the last 30 years or so, but rather that it is working as has been designed to work…For 30 years, policy levers have been pulled to help the well-off, and this policy orientation worked spectacularly on its own terms.” [23]
  • For that and other reasons, the contemporary capital-occupied United States is overdue for rank-and-file re-Occupation from the bottom up – for another great wave of popular anti-plutocratic rebellion, one that builds on the lessons and record of earlier generations of egalitarian rebels and revolutionaries up to and beyond OWS.

(full long text and notes 1 to 23).

(Paul Street ( is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010). His next volume, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm) will be available this Fall).


American Chronicles: Death of a Revolutionary, on The New Yorker, by SUSAN FALUDI, April 15, 2013: Shulamith Firestone helped to create a new society. But she couldn’t live in it …;

Honey Bee Die-Off Caused by Multiple Factors Including Pesticides, on Moyers and co, by Theresa Rilley, May 2, 2013;

Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History;

The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power.

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