Recently I was reading this article on Gin & Tacos which brought up an issue I’ve often thought about in the past few years. In reality I’ve been thinking about it for at least a decade if not longer. Basically the author asks the rhetorical question as to what it will take before Americans stand up for radical change in their country. What will it take for them to turn off the propaganda coming from well-financed think tanks and the media outlets which broadcast their neo-liberal, uncompromisingly pro-business message, get out into the streets, and demand actual changes?
I had a feeling I would find a familiar answer in the comments and I was not disappointed. The “answer,” and it is pretty much the same whether it’s coming from the far right or left of the political spectrum, is the following- Americans won’t stand up for radical change because they are too fat and happy and have too much to lose. They will only rise up when they don’t have any of that. They’ll fight when they’re starving. Based on this argument, the “revolution,” whatever that revolution is supposed to do, will happen only after that coming apocalypse. Yes, we’re talking about the Collapse of the American Empire(tm), after which organizations whose most visible activity consists of street theater at various demonstrations will suddenly transform into underground guerrilla organizations creating liberated zones and printing their own money.
I actually bought into the “No TV and beer make America go crazy and have a revolution” bullshit for many years, but as popular as the idea is I started questioning it in the past few years.
First, since we’re talking about America here, let’s consider the original American uprising, the American Revolution. Economic factors did play a role in the American War of Independence, but it was far from a revolt of impoverished peasants with nothing to lose. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers were nearly all wealthy land owners or otherwise well-to-do citizens, and many of their soldiers were farmers who had their own land. These people weren’t in poverty, but they felt that the Crown was restricting their opportunities to enrich themselves further. It’s also worth noting that only about one third of the colonists actually supported the rebellion. Another substantial part of the population fought as Loyalist on the British side, and then there were those who didn’t give a shit. So despite plenty of apathy and open hostility, the American revolutionary movement succeeded, and those behind it weren’t hopelessly impoverished people driven to extremes. And before you say “France,” keep in mind that France had to be convinced that supporting the American colonists was a worthy goal. Also France cannot explain how the victors managed to create a successful, expanding nation which has demonstrated remarkable stability over the course of its existence.
The next big American uprising was of course the Civil War. Again the ruling class of the South felt economically threatened, but they were by no means poor. Again quite the opposite, turns out using slave labor to harvest crops which are incredibly valuable at the time makes you incredibly rich! The next violent uprisings in America, including the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, were the so-called Coal Wars. Obviously these never really approached the intensity of the Civil War, but the struggle of the rebels was unquestionably superior from a moral standpoint. The uprising of the oppressed instead of oppressors.
The Coal Wars are extremely important in American history and the powers that be would prefer that we forget about them. Conservatives would prefer that we don’t remember the labor struggle at all. Liberals want us to “remember” that one day really enlightened liberal intellectuals, politicians, and philanthropists took pity on the poor working classes and eventually granted them concessions out of the goodness of their hearts. In reality the rights workers won in America came from blood spilled in the late 19th century through the 1930’s, plus a helpful little event called the October Revolution.
Obviously a factory worker or minder in the 1920’s had a horrendous life compared to the modern American equivalent today. Workers from that era might look at today’s Chinese factories as a worker’s paradise. As impoverished as those workers were, saying they rose up in militant struggle because they were so poor they had nothing to lose is simply ridiculous. Many of these workers had things far better than those in India, Africa, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. We know, for example, that in those days real wages steadily rose with productivity. Somehow this didn’t affect the willingness of workers to engage in radical, even militant action.
I think arguments such as “that was a long time ago,” and “there was no mass media like today,” don’t fly either. Obviously when we look at violent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, there are many among the rebels who are indeed extremely poor and don’t have access to things like internet, or reality TV. It would be arrogant and patronizing, however, to imagine that these people simply live in mud huts and have nothing more than a couple goats and the clothes on their back. These people do have mobile phones and internet access. Many of them could be sitting at home on Facebook if they wanted to. They’re not exactly wealthy plantation owners growing fat off money derived from slave labor, but many of these people certain have things in life to lose.
Maidan is an even better example, because as bad as things have been in Ukraine you wouldn’t really know it in Kyiv. I’ve been there four times myself and I can honestly say that an unaware person could come to believe that Ukraine is better off than Russia based on a visit to Kyiv. And yet here there was an uprising where rather than disperse, people were willing to engage in melee combat with police before graduating to Molotov cocktails and finally whatever firearms they could scrounge. These people had iPads, iPhones, PS3’s, fast food, televised sports, internet, clubs, porno, pizza, gluten-free products, Western brands, in short, they had all those things which supposedly make Americans too fat and happy to get out and “do something” or “rise up” despite the fact that the same Americans complain about virtually everything, all the time. Russia’s opposition rallies could serve as a control subject. Yes the situation in many ways is better in Russia from an economic standpoint, but not so much from a political standpoint. Ukraine actually had contested elections and Yanukovych was democratically elected. Russia’s opposition movement wasn’t just far more mild, it was downright passive. Aside from a few incidents, most protests obtained permits legally and demonstrators mostly observed the rules. Two very similar peoples in very similar situations, obtain very different results. What explains the difference, and how does this relate to America?
I’m writing this not so much to say I have the definitive answer to the question of why certain populations don’t “rise up,” but rather to debunk the “we’re too fat and happy” argument which is so insanely popular in the developed world. I think that handful of historical examples I provided should be more than enough to falsify the claim based on a “black swan” standard, but the reader can probably imagine many, many more cases. The claim that people in a modern society will only rise up against the state if they are deprived of all their modern conveniences and entertainment is demonstrably false.
I can, however, hypothesize as to the possible reasons why Occupy while Maidan drove the sitting president out of power. I don’t mean to sound like Tim Kirby here, but ideology plays a big role. Rebels in Syria have the Salafist ideology, Maidan’s ideology is a nationalist narrative which cannot survive without a Muscovite opponent. In the American Coal Wars it was socialism and anarchism.
Obviously the radical left isn’t the only faction which claims it’s pushing for serious change in America, but I’m going to focus on that segment because I believe that it is the only side which could possibly effect it. Groups like the Tea Party and the radical movements they associate with are notorious for sucking down all manner of propaganda from a particular segment of the ruling class and you don’t get radical change by accepting an ideology that is so obviously beneficial to the existing power structure. Also when one looks back at right wing radicalism in the 90’s vs. the 2000’s under Bush, one notes a rapid decline. I come from a very conservative state and I used to frequent gun shows and I can tell you the tone towards the government made an abrupt change. The reason I read, and I find this quite sound from experience, is that once Bush got elected, many conservatives no longer felt the need to be so radicalized. Conservative media also switched from offense to defense; this was not the time to be anti-government because Republicans controlled the White House and Congress for a period of time. So I’m not just focusing on the left because I support that side, I just don’t believe anyone else is going to do it.
Having said that, I think the main problem with American politics in general, but especially leftist politics, stems from the horribly mistaken ideas of the New Left in the 1960’s. These ideas, often associated rightly or wrongly with the so-called Frankfurt School, put forth the idea that capitalism, “the system” if you will, requires conformity to survive. It needs you to be obsessed with “stuff” and acquiring more “stuff.” It needs strict rules and boundaries to make sure you conform because this will somehow also lead to you buying more “stuff” and those keep corporations profitable. By not conforming, people would somehow be less obsessed with stuff. Then you can go one step further and reject stuff! Don’t buy crap from corporations! Buy from local businesses! Buying the right things will show what a non-conformist you are. Right there the logic of capitalism is reproduced. You are a powerful individual, a consumer, in the market, and you can effect change via buying the “right” products. As the authors of The Rebel Sell pointed out, none of this was subversive. As it turns out, capitalism doesn’t need conformity to survive. On the contrary, it thrives on diversity, or more specifically a society wherein every consumer is constantly striving to differentiate his or herself from the masses.
Identity politics and intersectionality also still hold sway in American progressive politics despite their utter failure in comparison to civil rights movements and struggles which weren’t led by enlightened jargon-spouting Tumblr bloggers with Masters degrees in Performance Art. These “social justice warriors” themselves often imply, if not explicitly state that conditions for their particular, incredibly specific identity group are worse than ever, and yet they’ll look at the progressive struggles of the 30’s, 50’s, or 60’s and shit all over them because those poor, foolish souls didn’t understand privilege theory. It seems any mass leftist movement that pops up will, given enough time, inevitably be set upon by the social network-based defenders of social justice. Turn out Occupy doesn’t fully cater to their specific identity group, and don’t you know it turns out that this makes it even worse than the system! I mean with “allies” like these, right? Meanwhile right-wing populists don’t spend all their time swapping jargon-laden polemics about the semiotics of intersectional disadvantaged identities with the interplay of influences of privilege in modern pop culture. Therefore they sweep in with their “End the Fed,” “international banker” bullshit and turn these movements to shit.
Don’t get me wrong, Occupy had a lot of problems, but it also had potential. That potential was squandered because the so-called American left is largely divorced from reality and still clinging to this highly individualistic, failed philosophy which tacitly accepts the basic tenets of the capitalist system and sees the epitome of subversion in denouncing every single progressive movement in history that actually achieved concrete results. They safely criticize from the sidelines, finding excuses as to why they can’t get into the streets, where the rest of the world can observe them and judge their results.
Conclusions? Well, Karl Marx, contrary to common belief, did not reduce every issue down to class struggle. What he saw is that when you want to understand how human society progresses and changes, especially when a revolution leads from one mode of production to another, after considering all other factors one should consider the opposing classes in the particular society one is examining. In short, class struggle isn’t the determining factor of everything; it but it is the determining factor in political change, particularly of the radical variety. No ruling class has done more to suppress class consciousness than that of the United States. Part of it is due to the role the US played as the leader of the Cold War; another part may be related to the fact that the US was actually mostly agricultural for much of its existence or the fact that from 1820 till about 1970 real wages steadily and consistently rose along with productivity. The New Left with its identity politics and its phony concept of individuality is nothing but a poison pill which has faithfully served capitalism for many decades. Nonsensical ideas like post-modernism merely continue this service in a society which cannot resort to religious coercion.
And what of Russia? Why didn’t its citizens rise up? It’s definitely not the iPad’s fault. The main problem is that Russia is far more atomized than the US. Early on in my tenure here I learned that caring about major social issues was seen as a concept from Mars, that is until that particular social issue personally affects you. In that case you should start a political organization exclusively dedicated to that one problem. In recent years this trend toward looking at the big picture seems to have made a modest improvement, but from my personal observations of opposition rallies in 2011 I wasn’t impressed. Many groups merely attempt to copy things they see in the West, and the results range from poor to tragically hilarious. This is the “cargo cult” of Eastern European politics.
Of course it doesn’t help that Western NGOs and outlets like Radio Free Europe beam an over-simplistic, ridiculously one-sided and sometimes downright dishonest torrent of propaganda into these countries. This helps lay the foundation of the main misconceptions which hobble the Russian opposition, i.e. Putin is the cause of Russia’s corruption, if only Putin weren’t president Russia wouldn’t be so corrupt, and so on. There has been some debate lately as to the elitism of the Russian opposition toward people who live outside of Moscow. I generally lean towards these arguments, but to be fair I’ve seen plenty of “office plankton” types recently turn into patriotic “vatniks” in light of recent events. Again, smartphones, PCs, and vacations in Barcelona fail to explain this phenomenon. The ideological bankruptcy of the Russian opposition movement sounds like a far more likely culprit.
I see many parallels here. In Russian or Ukrainian politics, you are totally accepted by one side or the other so long as you sign on for everything on that team’s checklist. Don’t like the Russian government? No problem. Support Maidan, deny that it had anything to do with nationalism, but if someone points out the presence of nationalists tell them there’s nothing wrong with Stepan Bandera, or Svoboda. Support Georgia, NATO, privatization, Yeltsin, socialism was worse than Hitler…check…check…check. Opposed to Maidan? Great! Here’s your checklist. Support a restored Russian empire! Orthodoxy as the state religion! Support Putin! Check…Check. In America it’s another problem altogether, at least on the left, which as I already explained I see as the only actual “opposition” in the US. There you can’t get more than three people together in a movement without someone complaining, possibly passive-aggressively via a blog, that this movement is worse than Hitler because the members of the organizing committee didn’t devote enough time to your pet project. The one that you never really told them about. Because you have been taught by society to keep silent. Plus you have like this mild OCD and the room temperature wasn’t right. Plus you could be borderline Aspergers. Oh well. Fuck them and fuck the entire left, with their endless micro-aggressions and lack of adequate trigger warnings for subjects such as raised voices! As much as American liberals love to make fun of the Tea Party, those scooter-driving “gun nuts” have been running circles around the American left since the fucking 70’s, or rather their masters have.
So yeah, I went a little off topic today. It’s just that sometimes you hear these claims, such as this cliche about how we’re “too fat and happy” to rise up as a people and demand change, and you just accept it because you hear it from a wide variety of people all across the political spectrum. It sounds really intuitive, because it is true that satisfied people tend not to rebel, especially since it means sacrifice on their part. But the devil is in the details, especially in regards to what “satisfaction” actually means. I don’t think the poorest people could make a successful uprising without any kind of ideology, strategy, or theory to provide coherent goals and motivate them. By contrast, I can’t believe that Sony and Apple are to blame for the failure of Occupy. Yeah sure, they didn’t have Playstation or iPads during the Coal Wars or the Great Depression, but they did have another form of entertainment that was great for neutralizing popular opposition. It was called alcohol. Worse still, this “fat and happy” excuse actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If people, even activists believe it, they will not devote any effort into building the kind of organization and theoretical foundations to change things.
Again, I’m not saying I have the answer to this question of why no revolution. What I am asserting is that the cliche of a docile, pacified populace being the explanation is bullshit. If the masses seem that way, then people haven’t been making sufficient effort to communicate with them. Maybe it’s not the masses who are lazy and brainwashed.