You Say You Want a Revolution?

Well, you know
We all want to change the world

— The Beatles

Incantations of “revolution” rise from right and left choirs, reminiscent of the visionary ’60’s. That turned out well – as “the system” swallowed the great divergence, spitting out what it couldn’t digest. How easy to declare war against today’s power-hungry elites, firming up one’s credentials as insightful contrarian, even revered prophet. And yet, sweeping declarations, especially if premature or overstated, won’t likely achieve the core objective: to win over a critical mass. Pie-in-the-sky proclamations alienate, even demoralize newcomers when predictions peter out.

So pardon my skepticism, but permanent revolutions are rare birds, scaling more than misery, even despair. Hard times do not automatically presage something better. Peak events celebrate heroism, yet most history records feats of remarkable endurance to suffering. What, aside from high hopes, makes today so special? Revolutions succeed no more often than breathtaking ideas shake generational foundations.

Less inspirational are voices that reluctantly acknowledge the status quo, not because it’s favorable but because of resistance against big change, certainly revolution. Desperate jeremiads in America, when even our brightest feared apocalypse now, are commonplace. How the world escaped the global nuclear war calamity that bedeviled my childhood is still a mystery. Ditto, the equal horror that sprawling communism would bury us. Reality outsmarts nearly all predictions, dire or otherwise.

Though terrorism re-ignites current fear-thresholds, no mushroom clouds outdid genocides since 9/11. Hey, the year 2000 sparked a mania. Excluding the Confederate rebellion, our legacy is evolutionary reforms, not massive upheavals. Why, we haven’t had a good revolution in centuries. Though the right batters the extraordinary New Deal reforms, this is our grinding, frustrating model of change.

The Elusive Revolution

Are today’s arrogant corporatists worse than autocratic Robber Barons, armed with bad laws, zero regulations, and armies of mercenaries? Did we not resolve equally onerous income inequality of 1928? Does our slowly improving recession outstrip the Great Depression? In fact, ’30’s thinkers produced clearer visions, even agendas, to humanize politics than today, more visible leadership and a more dedicated critical mass.

Yet, history ignores awful structural failings: the outdated Electoral College, prehistoric Senate rules, or state-gerrymandered House districts. Plus new problems, like billionaire payola, knee-jerk media, and post-terrorist hysteria obsessed with symptoms, not causes. Notably, two conspicuous uprisings since 2008 – Occupy and the Tea Party –  have peaked. In this context, I question Chris Hedges’ mystical notions in “Our Invisible Revolution” that an insurrection rises like an unheeded volcano:

No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt is coming. The refusal by the corporate state to address even the minimal grievances of the citizenry, along with the abject failure to remedy the mounting state repression  . . . and the loss of hope and widespread despair, means that blowback is inevitable.

Proof for such exaggerated broadsides?  When have ruthless tycoons (think bitter late 19th C. labor battles) willingly addressed grievances? How can that which mocks all prediction embrace the facile certainty a “popular revolt is coming”? And does today’s corporate state disregard “minimal grievances”? What about half-assed Obamacare? Food Stamps are down but not out; ditto, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and job training. Falling short does not equal falling apart. What’s “invisible” here isn’t revolution but balance and respect for evidence. With such despair, why do right wing pitchforks rise, as well-fed, older, whiter reactionaries execute “blowback” with no small success.

Hedges’ default to mysterious, even subterranean forces imply that context, timeliness, or leadership barely matter, making revolution more like a lottery. Will “state repression” incite “revolution” in jobless millions, or outrage a different class? Do the unemployed track state spying or welfare lines? Overall, what revolution, across American, French, Russian and Chinese events, did not culminate years of bold handwriting on the wall?

Hedges does pinpoint one critical lever, “An uprising that is devoid of ideas and vision is never a threat to ruling elites. Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, descends into nihilism, random violence and chaos. It consumes itself.” But that only prompts the most obvious objection: what positive, compelling ideas or vision emerge in his distinctly negative polemics? Where on the left is “revolutionary” definition and direction?

Strangely enough, the right is flush with ideas and vision. Rapture addicts are addled with weird ideas and nightmare visions: the twin-swords of Almighty retribution and grace will resolve all, in a flash: no muss, no fuss, and upheaval arrives like lightning. Less global, but nearly as implausible, is the revolutionary rhetoric from today’s Confederate zealots driven by the nullification of secession. That crusade might threaten the “ruling elites” but, existing only in a alternative universe, lacks support or leverage. One more bout of secession madness will really do in that noble cause.

Left & Right Mesh

However contrary the aims, curiously the left and right share similar aspirations, even assumptions:

1) Times are bad and getting worse, inviting big-time blowback. The right blames liberal failures, undeserving newcomers and the cancer called federalism. The left blames idiotic blunders, billionaire buffoons, and stalemates that invite the next Great Depression.
2) The American empire or culture or economic system are all diseased, thus facing inexorable decline, likely exile to third-world status.
3) Because national leaders are either corrupt (bought puppets), inept (mismatched skills), immoral or paranoid (starring Cheney) or unintelligent (Dubya), no political engine exists to restore equitable, majority rule.

Such hopelessly dire conditions naturally lead pundits to dish out doom and gloom, not do the harder work of defining values, goals, and strategy.

Revolution or Collapse, or Both?

Certainly the left is bombarded with the merriment of  “America’s Ultimate Collapse”. Oddly, this former Reagan aide steers us to the dubious King World News, pitching the hoarding of gold, with echoes of Glenn Beck. Not only don’t gold coins or bullion pay retirement dividends, high volatility rules. More helpful, Margaret Flowers adds what Hedges most lacks, context and examples, with “Revolution of the Mind“.  Yet her survey covers basic protests, rather isolated and without much national leverage. Flowers’ finale suffers its own overreach, as “the seemingly impossible becomes inevitable.” Sorry, but equating “impossible” and “inevitable” tests language, common sense, and historic precedents.

What’s far more “inevitable” is elitist media scoffing at revolution chatter, evident in Media Lens’ cutting essay,  “Launchpad for a Revolution“.   That covers the BBC interview with comedian Russell Brand, who forgot the revolution won’t be televised, nor instantaneous, but still claims ringleader status, “The revolution of consciousness is a decision, decisions take a moment. In my mind the revolution has already begun.” Whither the launch?

Science, the Political Spark?

More grounded is Naomi Klein’s “Science is Telling Us All to Revolt”, though I can’t find one “science-driven” revolution of note. Anyone? Klein sidesteps “revolutions of the mind,” instead endorsing “resistance” by “groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” Note, “does not fit” language hardly threatens to destroy ruling elites, nor the “culture.” What still works are direct “protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups:”

The early signs [indicting business-as-usual] are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small . . . It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start.

What “erupts” is not revolution as Klein skirts off-putting distractions from indulgent, capitalism-is-evil or the end-is-nigh rants. This reform come from grounded activism, not sweeping broadsides, recharging ’60’s-style, jail-risking protests against defeatable opponents. Just like the clearly-focussed, anti-war, anti-fracking, anti-drone CODEPINK work with allies.

Prematurely talking up “revolution” will not attract supporters plus invites fierce blowback against civilians by terrified forces armed to the teeth. Well-organized, targeted, success-oriented protests, with follow-up plans and focused direction – that vanguard clarifies issues, large and small, expands the critical mass, and best promises to turn the impossible into the probable.  Unless, of course, revolution comes to America, then all bets are off.

Robert S. Becker was educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English). He left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.