Wednesday, October 17, 2018
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Popular Social Movements in History Needed Hope to Succeed

Inteview with Nathan Schneider, assistant professor in media studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, conducted by Scott Harris

Contemporary peace and social movements in the U.S., from the millions who rallied to fight for civil rights and racial justice –  and those that mobilized to oppose the Vietnam war and subsequent American interventions abroad, often looked to history for guidance on how to effect change.
In a recent article, Nathan Schneider, assistant professor in media studies at the University of Colorado and author, examined some of the lessons today’s progressive activists can learn from the populist movements of the late 19th century. In the article titled, “A Populism of Hope Begins When People Feel Their Own Power,” Schneider recounts how white and black farmers from the American South and West, revolted against the “financial power of urban robber barons” that included financier J.P. Morgan, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller.
Schneider notes that it was not grievances against an unfair economic system alone that stimulated the farmer’s movement to grow and go on to win victories. Rather, he points out that the farmers’ creation of cooperatives served as “an engine of counter-economy,” which became a source of inspiration and a means of material support.” Farmers of the populist era, who eventually made common cause with the largest labor union of that time, used their cooperatives known as the Farmers Alliance, to bypass the economic monopolies of the robber barons, using their collective power to purchase supplies, sell their products and extend credit to their own members. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nathan Schneider, who explains why he believes that popular social movements through history have needed to create their own alternative systems and models of empowerment, in order to inspire success.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Turning back to that moment really started for me, the morning after the election of Donald Trump as president. I’d had for some weeks, a book on my bedstand called “The Populist Moment,” by (Lawrence) Goodwyn. And just that title kind of grabbed me after that election and made me curious to go back to other populist moments where people in one form or another turned against an elite.

And what I found in that story was a very different kind of populist moment. Very, very different one. One that arose out of a lot of the same concerns in the late 19th century. It was not a financialization of everything – Silicon Valley and automation and globalization – it was railroads and oil and urban bankers.

And the ways that people resisted first began with developing their own economic alternatives. Developing cooperatives. Developing their own tools and organizations. Unions in the city, especially through the Knights of Labor; in the countryside, it was through the Grange, or the Farmers Alliance.

And what resulted in the form of the Populist Party in the late 1880s and early 1890s, was a populism that was fueled by people’s sense of their own power, their own capacity to change the world around them through those economic alternatives. And it resulted in a really different set of policies. A more hopeful set of ambition. One example of that is in 1893, the year after the Populists elected their own governor to the state of Colorado here, Colorado became one of the first states to pass women’s suffrage.

That’s one of many ways in which this movement envisioned a much more hopeful future than I think the populism of today does.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Nathan, turning to the contemporary scene where so many people have reached their limits and are quite upset and angry about their economic futures and their children’s economic futures in this current system, what is going on today that you feel parallels some of the creative institution building that was going on in the Populist era? Are there contemporary examples of new movements that have developed? I would just point to two that I’m familiar with and our listeners may be, because they’ve been guests on this program over the years. And that is, Gar Alperovitz, a professor, has joined with other people in terms of forming something they call the Democracy Collaborative.

And Richard Wolfe, who has a radio show, and is widely known for his ground-breaking work on progressive economic alternatives. He’s got an organization called Democracy at Work. Those are just two examples that I’m sure you have many more, that you can share with us.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. There’s a new generation of people that are pouring into this cooperative movement. Turning to it almost as if they’re starting by scratch often. And this is really the subject of my next book, which is coming out later this year, called “Everything for Everyone.” It’s kind of a chronicle of the movement that I’ve been exploring since seeing it emerge out Occupy Wall Street and the protest movements of that period where groups from Occupy Wall Street, from the movements around Europe that came around the same time out of Black Lives Matter.

You had young people turning to this cooperative model, again, and they’re finding success all over the country. Cities all over the country are starting to implement the necessary enabling policies to support worker-ownership at a moment where workers are being pressed from all sides. And we see a lot of new formations starting to emerge. I’ve been working very much in the realm of what we call platform cooperatives, which is cooperative models in the online economy. And so, everyday, I’m talking with entrepreneurs around the world who are trying to build successful online businesses that really put people first before investor profits. It’s really exciting to see that.

One organization I would add to your list there is the New Economy Coalition which has become in the United States, a really vital container for this kind of work. And one thing that they do really well I think is put a range of issues at the center – especially racial justice, gender justice – a range of concerns in addition to economic democracy that help these kinds of models really address the vital concerns that the people are facing right now.

Nathan Schneider is author of “Thank You Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse,” and “God in Proof.”  Read Schneider’s articles and essays by visiting his website at Also see: 

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