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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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Very thought provoking. The point about discontent -- not just racial, but economic and gender -- starting to simmer unto a boil is one I have been reading about and seeing frequently. Your citations from Robinson give my unformed thoughts something of a structure.

ConnecticutMan1 in Bill O'Reilly on Lynching Michelle Obama talks about some of that discontent erupting in ugly manifestations of racism... and statusquobuster (Joel Hirschorn) Delusional Hope: The Obama Rapture talks also like you about Obama's "soft words" that allow those hopeful for change to project onto him their desires and dreams.

Again, thanks for writing this and bringing Robinson's work to our attention!

Thanks again.

Is it really suggesting that the cry for change in the United States should be equated to criteria pointing to an underlying wish for "violent revolution".

What an extraordinary theft of the current earnestness of many Democrats to bring about some specific fundamental changes to their society by such framing from the marginalised extreme left! It does a disservice to all those who are putting their hearts and souls into this coming election.

Robinson's article refers to class warfare like the 1960's European student socialists that resulted in a rejection of any validity in their thinking by the vast majority of the people in those countries and resulted in the current long line of governments that have been seen from Thatcher through Blair to Sarkozy.

Of course, if you are a Republican there is nothing more that you would want than to have someone draw parallels between violent revolutionary change and the simple desire of many to rid themselves of the damage of the last eight years.

The Democrats have a close election race to run as soon as the primaries are over. It can do without those who want to attach their extreme views to the spirit that is fuelling their current enthusiasm.

I too hate to see the past repeat it self. Like the old saying goes. If you don't learn from history you are doomed to repeat it.

Glad to hear your voice again.


Thoughtful commentaries that lead to even wider discussions of deep thinkers... instead of the trivia you find elsewhere.

I have always felt that one reason MLK was so successful before he was assassinated was that he offered a peaceful alternative to the Black Panthers, Malcom X, the Weathermen, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

We must remember that the Kennedy administration sent messages to MLK telling him that America was not ready. But MLK persisted and advances were made, even though MLK passed into history before he saw them himself.

Nowdays, we face the choice between a peaceful transition as represented by Barrack Obama, the 'Kinder Face' on slightly less of "more of the same" as represented by Hillary Clinton, or the 'Ugly Face' of doubling down on the Bushite by John McCain.

To those who worry that Obama may not actually deliver on change, let's recall that FDR did NOT run on a change platform and was a son of privilege.

We know that Barrack Obama is not a son of privilege and he IS running on a change platform. Take heart! We are going to need it for the real fight with Washington, DC which begins on 01-20-2009 "Bush's Last Day" -- that will be "Obama's First Day"! And the Status Quo is NOT going away quietly unless they KNOW the alternative will be worse for them.

I am beginning to feel that Obama may be the FDR of the 21st Century... and that he is wise to keep the total level of change contemplated close to his chest until we elect him to office with a crushing majority, and a clearly dominant majority in both houses of Congress.

Does anybody want to have the Senate Majority Leader worrying about how Joe Lieberman is going to cast his traitorous vote?

If "We, the People..." provide Obama with our support we will be GLAD we did. If we do NOT he will only last for one term before the corporate crocodiles devour him.



You have drunk the koolaid too.

that things had become so unworkable under the criminal administration, that either the country would pivot in the November election, that year, or it would break.

I've rationalized such a scenario as explaining why Nader was willing to dilute the progressive vote with his electoral bid.

Nader knows how corrupt our politically-based system of government has become. Hell, the two Parties wouldn't even let him into debate and, if I recall correctly, the League of Women Voters said that they'd cease their traditional role in hosting such 'debates'.

I think Nader saw that a Presidential win by either side would produce the same result. I think, however, that he concluded that the Dems would take their leisurely time while, with the critical threshold directly ahead, Republicans would be in overdrive and smashing the accelerator through the floor as they crash the American bus through the guardrails and into the abyss.

I think that's why Nader did it cause he knows that we collectively won't fix things that are not shattered.

Are we there yet?

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson

The blame game begins with the first line in Robinson's piece with the phrase "corporate media". The balance of her writing points to the nebulous "conservative movement", with no room whatsoever for either "the people" or the "loyal opposition" to claim even a portion of the responsibility for the current state of our nation. Wilkrent apparently agrees.

Both are wrong to lay blame along such narrow lines. It took a single Republican to keep Bill Clinton in office, and it took a Republican President to start the process of "nation building" at home in the critical decade of the fifties.

It took the support of leading Democrats to pass the destructive and flawed "bankruptcy bill", not to mention that historical (and hysterical) 77-23 vote in the Senate in support of the AUMF, and the overwhelming votes in favor of "blank check" appropriations in the 108th & 109th Congresses.

I absolutely agree that the level of anger and resentment has reached the proverbial point at which the straw breaks the camel's back. I just as vehemently disagree the blame should be placed almost totally on the "conservative movement".

And Obama isn't selling "hope", he's asking for help - and making demands on - an electorate beginning to understand the duties and responsibilities inherent in our form of democracy. At it's most basic level that means putting an "X" in a box.

Revolution may be required, but this time around it will be won with a number two pencil, not an AK-47.

A number of scholars have traced its origins and its funding: the banking and oil money of the Mellon-Scaifes of Pittsburgh, the manufacturing fortunes of Lynde and Harry Bradley of Milwaukee, the energy revenues of the Koch family of Kansas, the chemical profits of John M. Olin of New York, the Vicks patent-medicine empire of the Smith Richardson family of Greensboro, N.C., and the brewing assets of the Coors dynasty of Colorado, and others. Then there's the 1971 memo by Lewis Powell's declaring that the "free enterprise system is under attack," and the subsequent and deliberate mobilization of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fight against "creeping socialism." It is known that the deregulation of banking and finance was orchestrated by a small number of people such as David Rockefeller and Walter Wriston. I suspect that the consolidation of American media, and most especially the rise of Rupert Murdoch, was similarly orchestrated.

Regarding the Democrats and the Republicans, I think it is more useful to think of the political divide as being that between the Money Party and the People Party, as David Sirota has written about. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the Democratic Party is controlled, as is the entirety of the Republican Party, by the Money Party. The Money Party, of course, is thorough it its cultivation of any members of Congress open to its influence.

I think this sentence portrays the problem very well:

And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution."

Too much of Obama's rhetoric serves as nothing more than a blank canvass where his supporters can paint and project all of their hopes as his but it just isn't the case. Obama would be better than George Bush but he is far from the candidate he is far from the candidate that many of his supporters project too. Look beyond the hype and there is little difference from the status quo. The one outstanding difference has been his building of a strong grassroots organizational team for GOTV and fundraising but we have yet to see that it will translate into anything significant once he takes office.

The key word is "yet." If Obama or whoever becomes the next President can somehow deliver "deep structural change" in the next four years, it will be a "soft revolution."

Personally, I think you are correct, but I want to look forward a bit, because I believe I see the path of the future before us. The next President is going to accept the imposition of an austerity economy on the United States - that's what's being discussed now in the financial media when they refer to getting the U.S. to "save more." Remember Bill Clinton's fatalistic acceptance of what Robert Rubin told him about the importance of balancing the budget - that a bunch of "fuc#ing bond traders will determine the failure or success" of his Presidency. At some point between January 2009 and November 2012, the only way the next President will salvage his or her Presidency - and save the republic - is going to be to move aggressively to demolish the power of Wall Street, the financial sector and large corporations and re-impose all sorts of regulations, from Glass-Steagal which was repealed in 1999 under Clinton, to foreign exchange controls, to a securities transaction, or Tobin, tax, to negotiating with the rest of the world a replacement of the international regime of "free trade" with a co-operative system of national development.

If, IF, the next President does not act decisively against Wall Street and the corporations, then the slow slide in living standards for the bottom 60 or 70 percent of the American people will continue, and likely accelerate. In that case, the pre-conditions Robinson writes about will gel into a hardened mass of rage and infuriation. The Infuriation Nation. If things get to that point, I think the outcome will largely depend on which way the Army, the National Guard, and the various local police entities around the country tilt. If these agents of the coercive power of the state fail to see the underlying cause of the social unrest as the economic austerity imposed at the behest of the financial system and large corporations, then the U.S. will likely either begin to fracture, or go the way of Germany in the 1930s. If these agents of coercive power instead align with the general population, then there is hope of -- after a series of civil actions -- getting real structural change.

In summary, of the three front runner for President right now, I don't think any of them fully understand any of this. which means it is more likely that events will shape them, rather than them shaping events.

of lobbyists and Wall Street are still as present as ever in the campaigns of the top three candidates still standing, I doubt we will see much structural change. The only way I see for us to have significant structural change is to adopt fully publicly funded elections. Of course that would also involve holding the media responsible for giving the candidates fair access in exchange for the use of the publics airwaves which I don't see happening either. The loss of ad revenue from the elections would be too much of a deal breaker there too.

I don't know if the citizenry has it in them to stand up and revolt anymore. I watch as we have more people engaged but still seemingly less informed on the elections and have little hope. However, the impetus could be provided by a major economic crisis where people essentially have nothing left to lose.

At some point between January 2009 and November 2012, the only way the next President will salvage his or her Presidency - and save the republic - is going to be to move aggressively to demolish the power of Wall Street, the financial sector and large corporations and re-impose all sorts of regulations, from Glass-Steagal which was repealed in 1999 under Clinton, to foreign exchange controls, to a securities transaction, or Tobin, tax, to negotiating with the rest of the world a replacement of the international regime of "free trade" with a co-operative system of national development.

I agree with you, although I suspect it's asking too much to accomplish all of that. I tried in vain to edit into my comment yesterday, some of the qualifiers but you've done a nice overview of those issues.

I regularly cite the rollback of Glass-Steagal by Clinton as one of the key enablers of much of the havoc wreaked this century. It was the springboard for the current credit/mortgage crisis, the best I can figure. Clinton's mantra, "it's the economy, stupid", may have been born of right thinking but the theme was co-opted by the biggest money to liberate a quite different animal from its regulatory cage. And, well, I think that's why we're leaving a wake of wrecked American dreamers as 'the economy' rolls from one bubble to the next.

That's what I was arguing that Nader saw, the big money controls the power of our 'self-governance'.

As long as they can dominate the bill-writing process by the pre-bought access obtained by campaign-funding corporate lobbyists and can control oversight by appointing corporate interests to agency chairs, the big money will continue to ensure that quarterly profits reign supreme over long-term economic sustainability.

When the big money can no longer precertify their ownership of our elected governors (public campaign-finance and reining-in of money as free speech) is when we'll have returned to some form of democracy.

That's not gonna happen until the broken system damages a critical mass of people painfully enough to force the change.

Hitting bottom either kills or reforms you according to the 12-steppers. Was 2004 (really 2000) that landmark? Tally up costs of recent financial crises and the Bush Admin's destruction of respect for "America". How much corporate interest was responsible for taking Edwards' campaign out of the 2008 race?

We've been blessed with interesting times, for sure.

Thanks for the provocative work.

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson

I think one of the unique strengths demonstrated by FDR was his ability to bring most of the radical left into a New Deal Coalition which tacked and veered, and made many mistakes, but clearly defined its goals in opposition to Hooverism.


First, change the music

Then let's talk about it.


Well there was the Russian revolution, with dictators like Lenin and then Stalin and Mao following in his footsteps. Then their are the Islamic "revolutionaries" and their apocalyptic right wing counterparts who "revolution" involves the violence that proceeds the second coming of Jesus.

You are quite vague Tony on the political process that will "impose" the structural economic solutions you propose. This is no small omission. I do not see any model for a so-called "revolutionary" government than a repressive police state. If we have another Republican administration we will probably see one without the economic upheaval you are projecting.

I believe we need to pick up the pieces of the New Deal, a new deal updated to deal with the present situation which is quite different than that which Roosevelt and his associates faced. As a nation we will need to get to work. It will certainly take time and effort to get it right, and it will need the support of a large majority of the population.

Is Obama up for the job? Can he rally the forces to do this? I sure as hell don't know, but I think he is honest when he says that he will not be able to do it alone, that he needs an organized popular movement behind him.

Remember that it was not Roosevelt who coined the Trade Union slogan, "President Roosevelt want you to organize," it was the union leadership who picked up the ball and ran with it. A movement that projects its hopes on Obama can also run with the ball.

I think it is obvious that government has to resume its proper regulatory function and the tax structure needs to be radically reorganized. A lot needs to be done. But I don't think the pathway to success is empty revolutionary rhetoric. I would have thought that stuff was pretty thoroughly discredited by now.

I also am deeply suspicious about the use of the term "revolution." What about so-called Islamic Revolutionaries. More atrocities have been committed in the name of revolutionary terrorists of one or another flavor than I care to list.

I hope that we in the progressive movement don't become a bunch of impotent arm chair revolutionaries.


which is why I keep blogging on the economic and financial crises. My hope is enough people will become informed about the economic and financial crises that Wall Street just doesn't get what it wants without significant opposition, which is what is happening now. And which is why I forecast that the U.S. is going to be subjected to austerity, because that's what is being talked about in the financial media I am aware of. And which is why I think Sara Robinson's article was worth bringing to a wider audience - because if there is not "deep structural change" done peacefully over the next four years, I think there will be the potential for social unrest that could easily become violent. As Robinson writes under her Point 2:

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.

As for being vague about the political process - well, this is it, isn't it? What we're doing here is the political process. And, I went to a Congressional candidate's meeting yesterday and spoke to to the candidate and two aides about the economic and financial crises. Here is the scary part - no one had heard of Tobin Taxes, for example. So now those three people have. And hopefully, so have the people that read some of my blogging.

thanks so much for posting here. I always come away from reading one of your commentaries feeling like I have actually learned something, not just read something I either agree or disagree with. I think we Americans need to become more curious about our political process and not just let it be something that happens around or to us.

Economics are not my strong point [hmmm, I wonder if I really have any strong points?], but with your help [and a few other bloggers economics bloggers out there] I am trying to learn.

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