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James Burnham

Their Government

(19 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 34, 19 May 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last week, the Senate, by the overwhelming vote of 62 to 14, passed the new Agriculture Appropriation Bill at a total of $1,218,000,000. This, sum raises the figure first proposed by the Administration and already acted on by the House nearly $400,000,000. The Bill now goes to conference. There is every reason to believe that the figure voted by the Senate will be accepted by the House with only slight if any modifications; and that the Bill will then be signed by the President.

Only $290,000,000 of this vast sum is allotted to : the administration of the multitudinous activities of the Department of Agriculture. $928,000,000 is to be used for what Senator Frazier – a warm advocate of the Bill – openly called a “dole” for the farmers. This dole wears various disguises. $500,000,000 goes to the conveniently named “conservation” program. Under this, farmers are paid benefits for transferring acreage from basic crops to certain soil-conserving crops (a verbal variant of’ other Rooseveltian “scarcity plans” which were outlawed by the Supreme Court).

$203,000,000 will go to finance the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation. This agency tries to keep up the prices of agricultural commodities through market manipulations, withdrawing surpluses from the market, and subsidizing exports. The remaining $225,000,000 will be used for what are called “parity” payments: a form of direct gift to farmers cooperating with the Administration’s program.

This $1,218,000,000 is the largest sum ever voted by the government for agriculture. In the light of the howls for economy by business and many Congressmen, and in contrast with the slashing of relief appropriations, the agricultural appropriation deserves reflection.

The New Deal Confesses Failure

No one at all acquainted with agriculture in this country will deny that the majority of farmers are in need of aid. Among the lower strata of farmers – share croppers and poorer tenants – conditions are so appalling that by comparison the life of a permanently unemployed city worker seems like indecent luxury. A considerable percentage of even the owner-farmers work their 12 to 14 daily hours for little more than enough food to live on: mortgages, taxes, low farm prices guarantee that they have no cash in their pockets from beginning to end of the year.

What is most obvious about the present agriculture bill is its revelation of the entire failure of the New Deal to solve the crisis in agriculture. Congress is now preparing the seventh budget of the Roosevelt regime. There have been six agriculture bills in six years and seemingly endless billions of dollars to try out New Deal “experiments”. And all of the experiments and all of the billions have solved nothing.

All of the acreage withdrawal and “conservation” have not been able to raise prices for farm commodities. Mortgages, debts, interest, back taxes, continue to pile up for the bulk of the farmers. Many of the big farmers have, it is true (it is mainly to them that the benefits and subsidies go) prospered under the Wallace dispensation, but share croppers and small tenants remain on a sub-animal standard of living.

The present bill really admits the failure. Senator Frazier is right in calling the appropriation (apart from the $290,000,000 for administration) a dole; and a dole is not a program – in any field of economy – but the recognition of the absence of a program. The parity and conservation payments and the subsidies do not touch a single one of the causes of the agricultural crisis – in fact, they do not pretend to. They hand around a certain amount of cash (some of it, of course, to those who need it) and that is all. Whiskey may make you forget cancer for a while, but it is not going to cure it.

The Farmers as Red Riding Hood

But why is it that Congress, which is so brave about slashing W.P.A. to ribbons, dishes out – Republicans and Democrats alike, with no serious objection from their big business masters – the largest sum on record to the farmers? There is here a little object lesson in the nature of the class struggle.

W.P.A. funds go chiefly to unemployed workers, that is to the proletariat. The farmers are the largest and most important section of the middle classes. Big business knows that its rule will be threatened only by the proletariat; and by the proletariat only when the latter succeeds in winning influence over a considerable part of the middle classes, especially the farmers. Confronted with permanent and deepening economic crises, big business, in order to preserve its rule and its profits, is compelled to strike out first and most of all against the proletariat: by reducing its standard of living and by weakening its powers of organized resistance.

For big business to succeed, a base of popular support is needed. Through this agricultural appropriation, it is hoped to drive a deeper wedge between the workers and the farmers, to prevent the farmers from joining with the workers in a common struggle against big business and its government. The appropriation is a bribe to the farmers, in return for which big business demands that the farmers enlist in the union-busting, wage and relief smashing drive against the proletariat. Not for nothing is the chief reactionary organization in the Far West, financed and controlled by big business, called Associated Farmers.

This, I think, is the fundamental reason – perhaps only half-consciously understood by most Congressmen – for the seeming paradox of cuts in relief to workers and raises in relief to farmers. There is of course a more immediate electoral reason also: Both major parties believe that the farmers’ vote will decide the 1940 election. The proletariat, in part from the very same cause that makes it in the end more decisive, is slower to move than the middle classes. Both old parties apparently believe that the proletariat will remain more or less static during the next year and a half; the majority of the proletariat is evidently (with guarantees from Lewis and Browder) conceded to the Democratic Party. The Republicans will have to take an overpowering percentage of the farmers to win; and neither party consequently wishes to risk farmer displeasure, for all the public talk of economy and unbalanced budgets.

This party jockeying is, however, subordinate to the more basic class perspectives. Indeed, the meaning of this action on agriculture provides an analogue to the scheme of fascism: big business utilizing the middle classes as the mass base in the drive to smash the workers.

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