Waves of Anti-Greed Movements in the United States

Published on Dissident Voice, by Burkely Hermann, February 2, 2013.

I was doing some research for the ‘origins’ section of the Occupy Wall Street page on Wikipedia which I have had free rein on for a while now. Doing that research gave me an idea. In my Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies class, a visiting professor came in and told us how the women’s right movement is viewed as three waves, one starting in 1920, another that included the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and the third one that has lasted since the 1980s.  

She cautioned us that this analysis is limiting. The protests against corporate greed in American history can be categorized similarly as waves up to the present day Occupy movements.

There have been intermittent protests throughout history against greed. These included when workers marched down Wall Street in 1857 shouting “We want work!,” when hundreds of people surrounded the house of speculator William Duer in 1792, when Hoovervilles were set up across the United States by the homeless in order to create homes for themselves, when ACT UP members chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange, and when the AIDS Coalition demanded lower prices for AIDS drugs in 1980s. However, while these actions are honorable, they cannot be considered part of an organized movement against corporate greed.

You may be asking when the first wave of such an anti-greed movement occurred. Interestingly, the first wave began in the 1750s and 1790s, having an integral role in the nation’s founding. William Hoegland writes, “Amid horrible depressions and foreclosure crises, from the 1750’s through the 1790’s, ordinary people closed debt courts, rescued debt prisoners, waylaid process servers, boycotted foreclosure actions, etc.” Hoegland continues that while these people were “legally barred from voting and holding office… they used their power of intimidation to pressure their legislatures for debt relief and popular monetary policies” and had “high hopes for American independence” since they helped “enable[e]… the Declaration of Independence.” This wave included what was called Shay’s Rebellion by the elites, which took place in 1786 in “western Massachusetts [where farmers]… marched on the state’s armory in Springfield to reverse regressive finance policies that had again plunged ordinary people into debt peonage and foreclosure while bailing out rich creditors.” Eventually this rebellion was crushed but resistance continued. In 1794 people were angry once again, so they “took over the militia and debt-court system throughout western Pennsylvania and western counties of neighboring states, flew their own flag, and tried to secede from the United States and form an economically egalitarian country”; they were eventually crushed by federal troops.

The second wave really began in the 1870s which went beyond isolated actions (since the 1830s) leading up to that point, especially concentrated in tenants. While the Grange was founded in the 1860s, it developed as a force when it helped push laws that would better the life of farmers, but unfortunately it wasn’t that radical and opposed what they called “the lawless, desperate attempts of communism…” As a result, their radical partner, the Farmers Alliance began to expand. This organization became what one could call the economic movement of American farmers. It was able to offer an alternative to the usual farm system in the south by allowing people to join them, form cooperatives, and as Howard Zinn notes “buy things together and get lower prices.” This movement coincided with the struggles of working people which at this time were thinking of living in different ways and engaging in mass direct action including parades and demonstrations. Zinn wrote that “what was astonishing in so many of these struggles was not that the strikers did not win all that they wanted, but that, against such great odds, they dared to resist, and were not destroyed.” Such struggles included a series of strikes spread across the country in 1877 with workers striking in solidarity but people like Eugene Debs at the time criticized them. Other actions included the protest in Haymarket Square in 1886 which a bomb exploded in the midst the police causing them to fire on the crowd. This event sparked an international solidarity, nationwide mourning and caused the radical labor movement to be crushed but kept alive class anger for future young revolutionaries. Still, some of this energy went into electoral struggles when labor candidates ran Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, and other cities in the Texas, Ohio, and Colorado. However, the farmers’ movement kept going and evolved into a populist movement.

In the 1890s, people began to rise again in what could be called the third wave. In 1891, the Populist Party was formed,  starting in Tennessee when mine workers took control of a mine in 1891. The next year it blossomed with strikes across the country in New Orleans, Idaho, Philadelphia, and Buffalo among others. The Depression in 1893, the first economic depression in US history, deeply influenced and caused an upwelling of energy in the movement against greed. People protested en masse in cities nationwide which, according to Zinn, “forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or parks.” Even the radical feminist leader Emma Goldman told a massive group of unemployed workers in Union Square (New York City) to raid stores and take food. Eugene Debs, who had previously opposed the strike of 1877, became a socialist and led to one of the biggest strikes in American history.  In June of 1894, a strike of the employees of Pullman Palace Car Company began, and they appealed to the American Railway Union led by Debs to not handle Pullman cars which resulted in a nationwide strike. While cars were derailed, the power of the state militia and federal troops crushed the strike, resulting in Debs going to jail and denying he was a socialist in court … //

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(Burkely Hermann, a Maryland activist, has been interested in politics since 2007, when he wrote an essay against the Iraq War. Now he runs numerous blogs across the internet to educate the public on international, local, and national topics. Read other articles by Burkely).

Links:

It’s a Monsanto Government, on Dissident Voice, by Burkely Hermann, June 5, 2012;

Why Occupy Wall Street Should Oppose Kony2012, on Dissident Voice, by Burkely Hermann, May 8, 2012.

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