Isaac William Martin – Rich People’s Movements

Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Isaac William MartinRich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press 2013)


A sociological history of the co-option of progressive protest tactics (originally developed to advance the interests of the poor) in support of tax policies that favor the rich.  The title references the classic by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977).  The premise sounds almost ridiculous, but Isaac Martin makes an interesting case.  His account seems fairly balanced, and for the most part seems reliably complete.  If there is a weak spot, it falls on the more recent efforts.  Martin doesn’t seem to provide enough context for why politicians suddenly capitulated to the same sorts of demands that had been made for decades, and he doesn’t necessarily treat all political parties equally.  It is a small quibble in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.  This is a more thoroughly-researched and neutral academic treatment of a topic that has been addressed in other books like Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire (2012) and Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio‘s Crashing the Tea Party (2011).

Opposites in History

A recurring phenomenon in history is that certain key figures represent a merging of opposite tendencies.  One early figure of this nature is Brasidas, the Spartan officer lauded by Thucydides in his history The Peloponnesian War.  Unlike the most of the terse-speaking Spartans, he was a gifted orator much like his enemies the Athenians.  He died in an attack on Amphipolis  in which he led by making an example of bravery and was one of the few Spartan casualties, though he prefaced the attack with a claim that he would conduct himself in action following the advice he gave to his comrades.  But earlier, he also led covert operations and engaged in deception of cities the Spartans wished to conquer or ally with. Thucydides was actually the Athenian general who led excursions against Brasidas, but he nonetheless praised Brasidas more than almost everyone else in his entire history of the war.  Characterized by his “charm”, that really meant Brasidas excelled at the qualities that his enemies prized, namely oratory.  He also acted quickly with bold, decisive and dramatic surprise attacks.  This quick action was not common among Spartans more known for endless deliberation and caution.  He was an example of one side, the Spartans, succeeding on the terms of the opponent, the Athenians.

John Muir, with the help of many others, remained the primary catalyst for the creation of National Parks in the United States.  He was undoubtedly a pantheist, and perhaps an atheist (as much as would be accepted at the time in his cultural setting).  But reading some of his writings, the overarching tendency is to rely on religious and moral argument.  He especially leans on the tone of fundamentalist christian writing.  Yet his advocacy pointed to a return to a simple appreciation of nature.  This resembled the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critic of civil society.  In this he merged opposite tendencies.  He used the language of the socially conservative religious status quo to advance a position that was ultimately a radical critique of the foundations of the economic system operating in his society.

Of course, history provides plenty of counter examples.  But it is worth pausing on some of the ways opposites do merge from time to time with spectacular effect.