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Is America Ready for Revolution?

Promoted. Originally posted 2008-02-23 01:48:56 EST.

Sara Robinson posted an excellent article on Campaign for America’s Future a few days ago, outlining the seven preconditions for violent revolution discussed by Caltech sociologist James C. Davies in a 1962 article in the American Sociological Review. Davies’s work was largely based on the seven "tentative uniformities" identified by another scholar, Crane Brinton, who had studied and correlated the origins of the Puritan, American, French, and Russian revolutions.

“…it struck me,” Robinson writes, “that the same seven stars Brinton named are now precisely lined up at midheaven over America in 2008.”

Bloggers are telling stories from the front lines of primaries and caucuses that look like something from the early 60s — people lining up before dawn to vote in Manoa, Hawaii yesterday; a thousand black college students in Prairie View, Texas marching 10 miles to cast their early votes in the face of a county that tried to disenfranchise them. In recent months, we've also been gobstopped by the sheer passion of the insurgent campaigns of both Barack Obama and Ron Paul, both of whom brought millions of new voters into the conversation — and with them, a sharp critique of the status quo and a new energy that's agitating toward deep structural change.

There's something implacable, earnest, and righteously angry in the air. And it raises all kinds of questions for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers who've been ground down to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30 years. Can it be — at long last — that Americans have, simply, had enough?

I believe Robinson is so desperately aching for radical change in America, that she sees more hope than really exists. But this can only be a subjective judgment, and the past four decades of seeing my own hopes and aspirations crushed have left me seriously doubting that much is possible in the U.S. But the argument Robinson presents is by no means weak. And, she is a great wordsmith, who delights in taking conservatives behind the proverbial woodshed for a good metaphorical thrashing. So, I pass along these excerpts, the seven preconditions for a Second American Revolution:


1. Soaring, Then Crashing
Davies notes that revolutions don't happen in traditional societies that are stable and static — where people have their place, things are as they've always been, and nobody expects any of that to change. Rather, modern revolutions — particularly the progressive-minded ones in which people emerge from the fray with greater rights and equality — happen in economically advancing societies, always at the point where a long period of rising living standards and high, hopeful expectations comes to a crashing end, leaving the citizens in an ugly and disgruntled mood.

SNIP

2. They Call It A Class War
. . . Progressive modern democracies run on mutual trust between classes and a shared vision of the common good that binds widely disparate groups together. Now, we're also about to re-learn the historical lesson that liberals like flat hierarchies, racial and religious tolerance, and easy class mobility not because we're soft-headed and soft-hearted — but because, unlike short-sighted conservatives, we understand that tight social cohesion is our most reliable and powerful bulwark against the kinds of revolutions that bring down great economies, nations and cultures.

In all the historical examples Davies and Brinton cite, the stage for revolution was set when the upper classes broke faith with society's other groups, and began to openly prey on them in ways that threatened their very future.

SNIP

3. Deserted Intellectuals
Mere unrest among the working and middle classes, all by itself, isn't enough. Revolutions require leaders — and those always come from the professional and intellectual classes. In most times and places, these groups (which also include military officers) usually enjoy comfortable ties to the upper classes, and access to a certain level of power. But if those connections become frayed and weak, and the disaffected intellectuals make common cause with the lower classes, revolution becomes almost inevitable.

SNIP

And yet, when we finally graduated and went to work, we found those institutions being sold out from under us to a newly-emerging group of social and economic conservatives who didn't share our broad vision of common decency and the common good (which we'd inherited from the GI and Silent adults who raised us and taught us); and who were often so corrupted or so sociopathic that the working environments they created were simply unendurable. If wealth, prestige, and power came at the price of our principles, we often chose instead to take lower-paying work, live small, and stay true to ourselves.

SNIP

4. Incompetent Government
As this blog has long argued, conservatives invariably govern badly because they don't really believe that government should exist at all — except, perhaps, as a way to funnel the peoples' tax money into the pockets of party insiders. This conflicted (if not outright hostile) attitude toward government can't possibly lead to any outcome other than bad management, bad policy, and eventually such horrendously bad social and economic outcomes that people are forced into the streets to hold their leaders to account.

SNIP

5. Gutless Wonders in the Ruling Class
Revolution becomes necessary when the ruling classes fail in their duty to lead. Most of the major modern political revolutions occurred at moments when the world was changing rapidly — and the country's leaders dealt with it by dropping back into denial and clinging defiantly to the old, profitable, and familiar status quo. New technologies, new ideas, and new economic opportunities were emerging; and there came a time when ignoring them was no longer an option. When the leaders failed to step forward boldly to lead their people through the looming and necessary transformations, the people rebelled.

We're hard up against some huge transformative changes now. Global warming and overwhelming pollution are forcing us to reconsider the way we occupy the world, altering our relationship to food, water, air, soil, energy, and each other. The transition off carbon-based fuels and away from non-recyclable goods is going to re-structure our entire economy.

[Conservatives] will reflexively try to deny that change is occurring at all, and then brutally suppress anyone with evidence to the contrary.

Which is why, every time our current crop of so-called leaders open their mouths to propose a policy or Explain It All To Us, it's embarrassingly obvious that they don't have the vision, the intelligence, or the courage to face the future that everyone can clearly see bearing down on us, whether we're ready or not. Their persistent cluelessness infuriates us — and terrifies us. It's all too clear that these people are a waste of our tax money: they will never take us where we need to go.

SNIP

6. Fiscal Irresponsibility
As we've seen, revolutions follow in the wake of national economic reversals. Almost always, these reversals occur when inept and corrupt governments mismanage the national economy to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and currency collapse.

SNIP

7. Inept and Inconsistent Use of Force
The final criterion for revolution is this: The government no longer exercises force in a way that people find fair or consistent. And this can happen in all kinds of ways.

Domestically, there's uneven sentencing, where some people get the maximum and others get cut loose without penalty — and neither outcome has any connection to the actual circumstances of the crime (though it often correlates all too closely with race, class, and the ability to afford a good lawyer). Unchecked police brutality (tasers, for example) that hardens public perception against the constabulary. Unwarranted police surveillance and legal harassment of law-abiding citizens going about their business. Different kinds of law enforcement for different neighborhoods. The use of government force to silence critics. And let's not forget the unconstitutional restriction of free speech and free assembly rights.

Abroad, there's the misuse of military force, which forces the country to pour its blood and treasure into misadventures that offer no clear advantage for the nation. These misadventures not only reduce the country's international prestige and contribute to economic declines; they often create a class of displaced soldiers who return home with both the skills and the motivation to turn political unrest into a full-fledged shooting war.

As I read through Robinson, and lifted out the excerpts I wanted to bring to a wider audience, I thought more and more of what I have been writing recently – that the financial crises are going to force the next President to make basic, historical choices between saving Wall Street, or saving the country. I had supported John Edwards, and now I dispiritedly favor Obama over Clinton. I have looked carefully at their economic advisers, and do not like what I see with either one. But Robinson sees something in Obama that I have thus far failed to see:

And Barack Obama is walking away with the moment because he talks of "hope" — which, as Davies makes clear, is the very first thing any would-be revolutionary needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution."

Perhaps I am more desperate for change than even Robinson is. Perhaps I simply cannot bring myself to believe that someone from an Ivy League law school – and editor of the Harvard Law Review, no less – will actually implement real change. Perhaps I had simply been spoiled for Robinson’s article by reading, a few days ago, Juan Santos’ brilliant and deeply disturbing essay:

It should be more than clear by now that Barack Obama will not save us. But neither is the point to expose the man as an individual, or even as a hypocrite, betrayer or oppressor. The point is to see him in context, within the limits of the system, the matrix, the cultural and political environment in which he arose and in which he operates. It’s not that Barack Obama, per se, is worthless, it’s that none of the dreams in us that he speaks to so deeply in us can be fulfilled under the system of oppression he is an expression of and that his candidacy concentrates in visible form.

Is America really ready for revolution in 2008? I don’t think so. But another four years without some drastic changes in national direction . . . And in the end, Robinson does not disappoint. She writes in two sentences what I’ve been fumbling three weeks to express.

When Change Is Not Enough: The Seven Steps To Revolution, by Sara Robinson