“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible
will make violent revolution inevitable.”
– President John F. Kennedy
It may well be time for a kind of revolution. For those too young to remember, or for those who believe history still has much to teach us, here’s a primer before we get to our shared 2010 reality.
Back in “The Sixties,” as we ratcheted up our protests against the Vietnam War, we activist types saw daily evidence that The System (the financial//political/religious/educational institutions that more or less controlled our lives) was rotten to the core. As we liberals inculcated this evidence and became more radicalized, it was apparent that The System needed to be seriously dealt with.
The “Revolution,” we believed, was just around the corner, worldwide. All we young radicals — be it in Berkeley or Washington or Prague or Paris — had to do was kick out the traces holding up the corroded System, and the whole thing would come tumbling down. A new, freer, more humane set of institutions and leaders would lead us all to the promised land.
Well, of course, that did not happen. Yes, we were able to do some damage to the destructive institutions and create some counter- institutions of our own, we helped stop the Vietnam War, and we even created an alternative mindset for a number of years. But it turned out that The System had a lot more “give” in it than we’d imagined. And corporations and multi-billionaires, thinking long-term, were willing to spend big to buy up media outlets and to create right-wing think tanks and other agit-prop organizations to help them regain their “divinely-ordained” throne of power. Notably, they also purchased control of the voting-machine industry, and of the proprietary software that these days runs it, thus guaranteeing insecure, easily tampered-with elections that are undetectable.
One way The System had of dealing with our growing revolt in “The Sixties” was to co-opt its language and thrust by incorporating “revolutionary” catchwords and slogans and visuals into the ongoing rush toward consumerism. “Join the revolution” could refer to anything, from buying a particular make of car to a hairstyle or fashion trend. The result was to dilute and ultimately de-brand the political meaning of “revolution,” turning that concept into just another accoutrement of the time.
In addition, the responses of local, state and national governments, and private organizations, to the ’60s revolts were much more violent and brutal than we’d imagined they’d be willing to go (because we were their children, after all). The System doesn’t like to be mocked and suffer challenges to its legitimacy to rule. And so students and other activists were shot, killed, beaten, indicted and tried and thrown in the slammer, organizations deliberately infiltrated and broken up. The message was delivered: “Don’t even think of trying this stuff again! ” The liberal/radical left thereupon tended to back off from frontal attacks. (Just ask yourself: Where are the academics, the professors, the students when it comes to political activism in the U.S. today?)
The conclusion: Though the outlines for major social transformation were increasingly visible, the “objective conditions” for true revolution simply did not exist in and immediately after The Sixties. In our desire to implement the radical changes that the country needed, we overestimated our strength and resources (and ability to implement many of our programs), and underestimated what the Establishment/System would do to protect its prerogatives and power.
That Was Then, This is Now
But now it’s 40 years later, and, for a huge and significant portion of the electorate, The System once again has revealed itself, especially so in the past decade, as truly dysfunctional, reckless, corrupt, consumed by greed, even more colonialist/imperialist, and thus more dangerous, than in the Vietnam War days. Then, the Cold War was in full force and the menacing presence of the other major superpower acted as something of a restraining force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government, especially under CheneyBush and their PNAC cohorts, felt no such restraint and went wild abroad, as well as unleashing the dogs of greed domestically.
As the Great Recession began to unfold around 2007-2008 and on, it seemed clear that capitalism was in imminent danger of collapsing due to its excesses and inherent contradictions; unwinnable wars were taking trillions out of the treasury; President Obama continued mangling the Constitution and civil liberties in the manner of his predecessor; Americans lost maybe a third of the value of their retirement funds and value of their homes, etc. etc.
Frustration and anger are building in the citizenry and neo-fascism is on the rise. The center is not holding.
Can it be that the “objective conditions” for a progressive revolution finally are beginning to emerge into public consciousness?
Recent polls, for example, have revealed a startling statistic. More than 40% of the American population no longer considers “socialism” an economic system to be feared.
Tarring with Epithets
How to explain this turnaround? For nearly a century, one of the worst political labels you could hang on someone was to denounce them as “pro-socialist.” I grew up in the 1950s when you could be denounced as a “socialist” or “communist” because you liked to listen to world music, or thought racial segregation was a disgraceful hangover from the Civil War, or wanted to buy this new thing called a “condominium.” I’m serious. Numerous professors were hounded out of their college teaching jobs for the sin of engaging in nothing more than innocuous liberalism, or for teaching their students to think for themselves.
One explanation for the new acceptance of socialism by so many Americans can also be traced to the Hard Right of the Republican Party. They call anything and everything “socialist” that they don’t like, and many of those initiatives (public health care, regulation of avaricious corporations, saving the manufacturing base by temporarily propping it up, firm pollution controls, etc.) are quite popular with a majority of the citizenry. If those proposals are called “socialist,” the popular thinking goes, then maybe this “socialist” scare stuff is just a partisan Republican tactic. The bogeyman behind the curtain is just P.R. spin. In point of fact, even though the good name of “liberalism” has been tarred badly, recent polls show that Americans generally favor liberal programs; in short, the U.S. actually supports center-left policies, and, as mentioned above, a growing body of opinion is no longer afraid of the socialist label.
On the other hand, as was the case in the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the cataclysmic social upheavals of “The Sixties,” capitalism is a shape-shifter extraordinaire. To save its prerogatives, its wealth, its power, it’ll do anything to preserve and extend itself — and and including accepting “socialist” reforms. As we saw in the run-up to the Health Care Reform Act, and the Financial Reform bill, it’ll even accept a few minor hits in legislation in order to maintain the fiction that something major is being done. That way, its lasting control of American $ociety remains in place.
A Different Obama Emerged
Plus, let us not forget, that the president we thought we had elected in 2008 — one who promised to confront the greedy corporations, end the wars, respect civil liberties and eschew torture, demand transparency and accountability — is the same one who wouldn’t fight for true health care reform (no public option), who spent billions in tax dollars bailing out the major Wall Street predators (and continues to let them do their thing), swallowed whole the CheneyBush policies on imperial wars and torture renditions and warrantless surveillance, has set up a rigged commission to weaken Social Security, etc. etc., ad nauseum.
In short, Obama talks the talk (or at least talked the talk) but won’t walk the walk, beholden to the same greed and power centers that have ruled the social-political roost for decades.
At one time, Obama seemed eager to be a transformational president, in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, a patrician, realized that the Great Depression was a warning that had to be heeded, that unfettered capitalism could not be permitted to run roughshod over the citizenry. The results of that unregulated economic system were nearly apocalyptic in their gross damage.
FDR understood that socialism was a strong political force in the U.S. and abroad, and a social/economic revolution was indeed possible in this country, given the anger and frustration of a destitute, frightened populace. If capitalism was to be saved — i.e., the best aspects of capitalism: its entrepreneurial spirit, its emphasis on innovation, its ability to spread the wealth around more — it would have to be transformed, leavened with socialist reforms. These New Deal initiatives were not merely nice-sounding, incremental reforms, but real groundbreaking changes.
Dealing With “The Crazy”
And here we are nearly 80 years later and the Republicans, afflicted with a bad case of the crazy, are still trying to undo those popular reforms. Up until recently, they’ve somewhat disguised their desire to tear down the New Deal. But just listen to leading GOP office-holders, and candidates for midterm election slots in the Senate and House: Do away with governmental regulation on banks, insurance companies, mining companies, energy corporations, oil drillers — basically, any business. The “free market,” they maintain, will provide all the regulation the country needs.
If you point out that that kind of thinking is precisely what has taken us into our own era’s Grand Depression — where corporations and the rich are doing quite well, while 15 million ordinary Americans can’t find work — they deflect the argument and instead direct fevered attention to their hand-picked villain: the CommunistMuslimNaziAfrican guy in the White House.
And it’s not just the New Deal the HardRight is out to destroy, but also the major reforms of LBJ’s later Great Society. The Republican rightists are not only advocating “privatizing” (read: effectively eliminating) Social Security, but also getting rid of Medicare, the popular program added in the mid-’60s.
So many in charge of the Republican Party are eager and openly willing to re-fight that social-economic war, and the gains of the New Deal/ Great Society, and some (mostly in the South) are even threatening to re-fight the Civil War by urging state nullification of federal law or calling for secession from the Union.
Costs of GOP Victory
That’s where we are in 2010. There is no center, no moderating influence in the GOP; that may have been true a decade ago but now the party has morphed into extremism as the new Republican normal. The HardRight is now the center. On the other side of the aisle, there is virtually no powerful organized Left. To get anything done, or so Obama and Reid would have us believe, requires constant accommodation to that new center. Thus, it’s not surprising that Obama hovers around a triangulating mode of operation.
To protect what incremental reforms Obama has been able to engineer, the progressive base of the Democratic Party feels it has to support the President. This is especially the case with regard to the 2012 election, where the unorganized left is hostage to its fear of the possible alternative: a President Gingrich or Palin or Romney or Cheney (Liz) or Bush (Jeb), since the damage they could, and would, do is incalculable. After eight years of wrack and ruin under CheneyBush, where the Constitution’s Bill of Rights was essentially eviscerated, one doesn’t even want to think about putting the Republicans back in charge.
A GOP victory would mean disaster abroad, more wars and mayhem, loss of U.S. prestige, the decimation of the American treasury, and the decline of the American middle class would accelerate. Studies show that the top 1% of Americans have doubled their income since Reagan, and that 20% of the people own 85% of the nation’s wealth. That leaves 15% of the wealth for the wage and salary earners, and there has been precious little real middle-class income increase since 1973. And now we’re in a recession that is projected to last for years and years for the less well-off. The major income and tax breaks are designed to flow upwards to the already-wealthy. If the poor and middle class too loudly object, the rich shout “class warfare!”, as if that’s a dirty term. If the wealthy get all the breaks, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Nothing to see here, just move along.
Is “Revolution” Possible?
The coalition that brought Obama into power with such activism and hope for major structural reforms is debilitated by disappointment that the standard-bearer for true change has turned out to be little more than a typical politician, willing to sell out his principles (along with his support base) whenever it’s convenient to do so.
The rightwing activists are beginning slowly to mobilize; the Tea Party movements (deliberately plural, since they’re currently fighting among themselves for control) are a harbinger, along with resurgent nativist militias and various white-power groups. They openly talk about use of weapons, and they encourage violence in their hyperbolic rhetoric.
Their leaders want control of the levers of power; they preach “small government” until they run the government, then it’s an open invitation for the corporatists and ideologues to take what they want while they stomp out the opposition.
Will the angry, frustrated, muttering progressive left begin to coalesce into a movement for genuine change, heading in the direction of a “revolution”? Our program does not want to take over power for power’s sake — thus just aping the rightwing fanatics — but to devise a more democratic way of redistributing power. It’s not a violent revolution we seek, but a non-violent, systemic overhaul of the socio-economic-political structures.
It’s not certain there’s enough momentum at the moment for that kind of revolt — the kind JFK seemed to be talking about — but the outlines of the “objective conditions” for revolution are increasingly visible and should be utilized for organization and momentum. If the Republicans were to regain power, we might not get another avenue for major structural change for a long, long time.
So…If not now, when?
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.