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​Socialism and the North Dakota genius

by Charlie Barber | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Last Word | September 28th, 2016

“[In England] the liberty of the individual is still believed in,…But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.” -George Orwell, 1941

”The farmers in North Dakota were not attracted to socialism, since each person wanted to own his own farm. However, when the [Nonpartisan] League program favored state-owned elevators, mills, banks, etc., the Socialists thought that it was worthwhile to join the League. Many of the Socialists gave to the League their organizing methods, a far greater contribution than their voters alone.”

-Ray Goldberg, The Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, 1946

“Creating occupational cohesion across ethnic and religious divides showed the viability and novelty of the League’s tactics, which proved—alongside the renewal of an alternative capitalist vision—to be the League’s most significant contribution to American political life.”

- Michael Lansing, Insurgent Democracy, 2015

“For the 12th consecutive year, the head of the Bank of North Dakota reported record net income to the nation’s only state-owned bank to state officials.” -Bismarck Tribune, 04/21/16

“An expert in North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law says Thursday’s purchase by Dakota Access LLC of about 6,000 acres of private ranch land surrounding its pipeline route near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation violates the law and should be immediately investigated by the Attorney General’s office.” -Lauren Donovan, Bismarck Tribune, 09/24/16

On February 19, 1941, as London reeled from the constant bombings of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, George Orwell published a short book entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.” In it he argued that a constitutionally based form of socialism would be a good thing for the English people, as well as the Welsh, Scots, and Irish who constituted Great Britain. He was convinced that the basic civility of the English people and their common sense would limit temptations of men and women entrusted with control of state industries as alternatives to the private sector. In 1945, Labor Party electoral victory and a peaceful commitment to forms of Socialism in Great Britain proved him correct.

What Orwell did not realize was that, 21 years earlier, a constitutional form of socialism had already been achieved at the polling place, in the legislature and the courts in an obscure outpost of the American democracy: North Dakota.

While other States of the Union are reeling in deficits, caused in no small part by the dishonesty of their voters, legislatures, and governors on the issues of taxes and crime, North Dakota has been somewhat insulated from similar electoral follies by institutions set up one hundred years ago between 1915 and 1920.

These “socialist” institutions serve us well today, although many North Dakotans seem to have little knowledge or interest in their origins. The rest of the nation, which could sorely use them, knows and cares even less.

As amply explained by Michael Lansing in Insurgent Democracy (The Non Partisan League in North American Politics, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2015) and Robert Morlan, (Political Prairie Fire: The Non Partisan League, 1915-1922 (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983) the founding fathers and mothers of North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League brought into being the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck, and Grain Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, owned and operated of, by, and for the people of North Dakota.

A.C. Townley, Albert Bowen, William Lemke, Lynn Frazier, William Langer and Minnie Craig were among a host of leaders from large towns and the countryside who wrested power from the Twin Cities grain conglomerates and railroad interests to construct these public interest institutions.

In the 1920’s a few far-sighted investors like Bernard Baruch invested in Bonds of the Bank of North Dakota, but he was chided by his Wall Street colleagues for aiding and abetting “Communists.” Baruch knew better. He had seen the rapaciousness of American “Big Biz” against Midwestern farmers while serving on President Woodrow Wilson’s War Industries Board in the First World War.

When the Depression of 1929 threatened their handiwork, Nonpartisan Leaguers were joined by enlightened Republicans like Usher Burdick, who helped defend and preserve North Dakota’s public interest institutions in the elections of 1932 and 1936. Non Partisan League(NPL) voters split their tickets, voting Republican Statewide, but for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt nationally. This produced a good deal of head scratching among “urban bumpkins” in Washington, D.C., and still does for the unwary journalist or historian who fails to recognize the sophistication of North Dakotans when their economic interests are on the line.

But who remembers the bad times, when times are good? World War II’s prosperity produced smugness over time and North Dakotans forgot many of the lessons learned 100 years ago. However, as the June, 2016 electoral smack down of corporate farming by a vote of 3 to 1 reminds us, North Dakotans still refuse to give “Big Biz” all it wants when it comes to some forms of farming, but otherwise, we have failed to be vigilant, and we are paying the price.

The recent rampage of oil companies in the western part of the State is a reminder of how much damage is done, when giant corporations have their way without any meaningful regulation or restraint from elected officials in the legislative and executive branches. One would think there is little hope for the spirit of the NPL to come back against fossil fuel giants as it once did against the big grain merchants and railroads of yesteryear.

But it has!

In defense of their own traditions and in their own unique ways, our Native American brothers and sisters at Cannonball, North Dakota are channeling the activist tactics of the NPL and the wisdom of “North Dakota Nice,” despite all attempts of fossil fuel front men like North Dakota’s Governor Jack Dalrymple and Morton County’s Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier to portray them as a menace to public safety. Their more accurate portrayal by C.S. Hagen and John Strand in the High Plains Reader (08/25/-09/22/16), and photographer Tom Stromme in the Bismarck Tribune (09/01/16) may be lost on the rest of the country, but not on us.

“Minnesotans seem rude, when compared to North Dakotans,” a native of Alexandria, Minn. told me last week. This basic civility, that George Orwell saw tempering public interest politics in England in the 1940s, has held true on the northern Plains for over a hundred years.

The founding fathers and mothers of the NPL were mostly German/Russians, Norwegians, Irish and other Europeans, but our Lakota, Dakota, Ojibwé, and other Native American neighbors know that “North Dakota Nice” is an equal opportunity employer up here, much to the confusion of malefactors of great wealth who dominate the heights of mineral companies. These guys are used to getting their way with intimidation and threats, when buyouts don’t work, and historically have been known to use violence, if they can get away with it. They are desperate, and will continue to fight with every means at their disposal. The window is closing fast on the efficacy of the dirtiest of fossil fuels as the oceans of the world are rising in response to climate change.

China, long a “happy hunting ground” for fossil fuel boys, is wising up, and switching to green energy alternatives with a vengeance. Chinese authoritarian government guarantees a rapid response in comparison with the West, and the cantankerous body politic of America. But even here, popular forces they hadn’t reckoned with, threaten to reign in the greed and arrogance of 21st Century Big Biz.

Now that Standing Rock Lakota and other “warriors who are lawyers” have been joined in legal combat by Sarah Vogel, former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, and granddaughter of former Bank of North Dakota CEO, Frank Vogel, the Seventh Generation of Native American predictions are being backed by the NPL spirit of “We’ll Stick, We’ll Win.” That is very big medicine indeed.

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