Revolutions occur when young men see the present as worse than the unknown future. We are not there. But it will not take a lot to get there.I had just begun reading Lawrence Goodwyn's 1978 masterpiece, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn has made a life’s work of studying popular democratic uprisings and social movements, and his Introduction is decidedly pessimistic on the prospect of popular democratic uprisings in advanced industrial societies. I posted a large excerpt from Goodwyn's Introduction. Here’s a smaller cut and paste:
Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. . . . "The masses" do not rebel in instinctive response to hard times and exploitation because they have been culturally organized by their societies not to rebel. . . . It is clear that the varied methods of social control fashioned in industrial societies have, over time, become sufficiently pervasive and subtle that a gradual erosion of democratic aspirations among whole populations has taken place. . . .This gradual erosion of democratic aspirations is usually mistaken as apathy, which would-be revolutionaries incessantly bemoan. But it is not apathy; it is, Goodwyn explains, mass resignation at the perceived impossibility of significantly affecting and altering society’s structures of inherited power and privilege. Goodwyn explains that in advanced industrialized countries, both capitalist and socialist, this resignation “has engendered escapist modes of private conduct that focus upon material acquisition.” It is also useful here to recall Thorstein Veblen’s critique of “leisure class culture,” such as professional sports.
In my long quote, I made the observation that Goodwyn wrote this over a decade before the outbreak of massive democratic movements brought down the Iron Curtain, and wondered what Goodwyn has to say about those historic developments. Below, I will give you the answer, having just found a December 1989 presentation Goodwyn gave, when the news headlines brimmed with tidings from Poland, and the newscasts were filled with pictures of Lech Walesa and those unforgettable Solidarnosc banners.
But first I want to point to one comment by quixote, and an accompanying link.
You get violence when the young men are mad. You get revolutions when the grannies start banging on pots in the central square. (Emphasis mine - TW)The question then, of course, is how do you get the grannies to join you in the central square with their pots and pans? Quixote provides a link to an interesting study on the characteristics of freedom movements that succeeded. Using statistical analysis of the revolutions and uprisings tracked in the Freedom House database from 1973 to 2002, Adrian Karatnycky, senior scholar at Freedom House, and Peter Ackerman, chair of its board of trustees, show that there was lasting democratization in 69% of the revolts that were generally non-violent, but in only 8% of the revolts that included violent uprisings.
I think two things need to be said about the Freedom House study, and its applicability to the United States today. First, Freedom House gives its highest ratings of "free" in all categories to the United States. Yet, increasingly what we feel in the United States is a hardening of corporate power and privilege that, while not openly hostile to the trappings of democratic political processes, has managed to subvert and usurp those processes nonetheless. We are, in other words, facing something quite different than the traditional despotism or tyranny recognized by Freedom House. Here, we are aided by fairleft, who back at the end of January - when the Supreme Court issued its hideous and blasphemous decision that corporations have the same rights to free speech as we humans – pointed us to Sheldon Wolin’s latest book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.
Secondly, what Goodwyn excels at, and which, as noted immediately above, the Freedom House study signally fails to address, is how political structures, processes, aspirations, and beliefs, interact with, affect, and are affected by, economic structures, processes, aspirations, and beliefs. In The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn brilliantly summarizes most of the economic tensions in American political history as being the conflict between two views of human nature: humans as competitive beings, and humans as cooperative beings. Judging from the broad sweep of American history, these tensions have played out rather well, giving us the faint structure of a welfare state, while also giving us one of the most dynamic economies in the world. But I think this happy balance has been seriously disturbed since the Reagan Revolution, with the view of humans as competitive beings becoming dangerously dominant.
Moreover, there are many who argue that a “dynamic economy” is simply not environmentally sustainable, though it becomes painfully obvious, upon closer examination, that these people have not adequately explored the question of how we as a species go about feeding, clothing, housing, educating, and caring for eight billion fellow human beings. The most malignant result of this shortcoming is the blanket assertion that the world is overpopulated. But nobody has yet volunteered to name those who are too numerous - or to be counted themselves as those who are too numerous. A more intelligent approach appears to have emerged in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, where laws mandate that all products of manufacturing industry must be designed for eventual de-manufacturing and recycling. Not surprisingly, these societies have also put into effect programs of renewable energy and public transportation that put the U.S. to shame. It is also worth noting that large industrial firms in these countries have worker representation in management embedded in their structure, carrying those societies further along toward economic democracy than the United States.
If you accept the fact that sustaining eight billion souls cannot possibly be done without industry, I suggest that you next accept the idea that the problems created by industrialization are best solved by industrialists. You then arrive at a new vantage point from which to understand the underlying historical dynamic that drives most of the environmental problems created by industry. Economists touch on this underlying historical dynamic when they discuss “externalities” -- but they are only touching the dynamic, not fully grasping it. Here, again, we are greatly aided by Veblen, who made a distinction between industry and business: industry creates wealth, while business merely accumulates and manages wealth. Once you understand the point Veblen is making, you can begin to see that the real dynamic driving industry to despoil nature is industry’s obeisance to the dictates of business. Jonathon Larson has fully developed this idea in his 1992 book, Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental blueprint. Larson recasts Veblen’s “leisure class” as the “predator class,” which most emphatically includes bankers and financiers (the more truthful things we call them are speculators, rentiers, and usurers). On the other side is the "producer class." And the producer class is typically quite willing to redesign its industrial processes to conform with the highest environmental and safety standards, once freed from the constant financial and management demands made by the predator class. Economic neo-liberalism is easily conceived as being distinct from and in direct opposition to sustainable development.
Which brings us back to Goodwyn, who strips away all the fluff, foof, and folderol of American history to show that it all comes down to whether - or not - the financial and banking structures of society will be democratically controlled and operated for the benefit of society, instead of the enrichment of a few.
Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective
with Lawrence Goodwyn and William Greider
Remarks presented on the occasion of the 100th anniversary
of the Populist Sub-Treasury Plan for financial reform
9 December 1989, St. Louis, Missouri
Let me say that in my profession, you get acquainted with error. Historians study error. You might even say we study the continuity of error. It is a very sobering occupation. We discover that it is more consoling to develop a long angle of vision. If you focus just on one generation you may not find enough there to warm the spirit. Better to have four or five hundred years in your gaze and be judiciously selective within that period.
All kidding aside, there are certain rhythms that become clear over the long view. First of all, in all human societies, almost all the people, have deep, substantial grievances. That's rhythm number one.
Rhythm number two is that despite this universal sense of loss and injustice and injury, the number of large-scale social movements that exist in human history is very small. In our country the CIO mobilization of the '30s and the Agrarian movement of the 1890s -- Populism -- were the only movements after the Revolution that achieved genuine scale, if one measures movements by their level of internal organization.
It's possible to say, "my goodness, the history of agriculture in America has been one of a systematic exploitation of people on the land by people who lend them money and by people who sell their products." Can it be that only in the 1890s farmers got together to try to do something? How about the 1870s or the 1840s, or what about 1924 or 1935? Looking back over the history of workers in America, one encounters an absolute agony in the industrial heartland from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression. Is it only in the 1930s that "workers got mad" and decided to do something about it?
How do we explain the fundamental disjunction in human history between the widespread existence of grievance and the very rare collective assertion that we find? The answer to this is appallingly simple: Large-scale movements happen when they're organized. They happen no other way. And the reason that they're not organized more often -- we have people in the audience whose lives will verify this -- is that large-scale movements are agonizingly difficult to put together. The entire culture of a society is arrayed against the idea of large-scale collective assertion.
The first duty of a revolutionary when he comes to power is to put down his gun -- that is to say, his immediate objective is to proceed with the business of creating a society where he can put his gun down. The first step is to take control of the past and use it to justify the revolution. American history in that sense begins with the Declaration of Independence. There are 32 paragraphs in that document and 29 of them denounce King George III as a tyrant. It is a classic historical justification of a revolution.
We can look back on this and say, "You know, among European monarchs in the eighteenth century, old George was pretty benign. How about the Hohenzollerns? How about the Bourbons?" Well revolutionaries are not in the business of judicious distinctions. In 1776, in the name of the social objectives of the Revolution George III is a tyrant, 29 times a tyrant.
The second duty of a revolutionary is to create a culture in which ideas beyond those of the revolution are impossible to have, a culture in which it becomes difficult for people to imagine structural change. If this condition is not achieved, those who rule need lots of guns and secret police to keep everybody in line. Social space evaporates and society becomes rigid. Of course those in power don't look at it this way; they prefer to name the result "stability."
Rigidity can also be the governing reality in societies without ubiquitous secret police forces, in societies that pride themselves on their flexibility and openness. Future historians will look back and see much more of this rigidity in the societies of the twentieth century than we ourselves can summon the poise to see. They will see enormous systems of centralized bureaucracy atop an economic structure of large-scale production, and they will say, "What a narrow century the twentieth century was. It was the least creative political century of the last three."
Future historians will be able to say that for most of the twentieth century, until around 1990, there were only two ways to think. One was either a communist, whatever that meant, or one was a capitalist, whatever that meant. The highly stratified industrial societies of the twentieth century were characterized by anxiety, deep brooding anxieties that intruded into and suffused the lives of hundreds of millions of people. They wore social masks to conceal their private anxiety. Publicly, people announced that they lived in the best society in the world, that they were "practicing democracy" or "building socialism." But privately they said, "You can't fight city hall . . . the rich get richer and the poor get poorer . . . all politicians sell out," or (with their teeth considerably more grimly set when they said it) "You can't fight the Party . . . the Party gets all the goods . . . the Party's corrupt."
I do not suggest for a minute that the social distinctions between life in a Leninist party state and life in a corporate-dominated state are inconsequential. As a result of long centuries of political struggle culminating in the Revolution of 1776, one has a Bill of Rights that has authentic cultural meaning in the daily lives of the citizenry and the other does not. But it is also necessary to say -- as future historians will be at pains to point out -- that these differences, while vastly important, do not mean that one society has achieved democratic social relations while the other had not. Congratulating ourselves for past achievements is not helpful if such folkways have the practical effect of blinding us to the political implications of the alienation that pervades our daily lives.
Observe what happens if we put aside public pretense and apply serious democratic standards to twentieth century life. Democratic social relations: can we conceptualize a democratic marriage? A democratic workplace? Can we conceptualize a democratic system of money, credit and exchange at the heart of all our material relations, operating not for the benefit of bankers but for the benefit of society?
Judging by the politics of the twentieth century up to now, future historians will have to conclude that these concepts were not politically admissible within the received culture of American democracy. People did not act politically as if they thought they were admissible.
So it's a very narrow century, politically speaking. 112 years ago, a small group of people, not very different from the people in this room, met together. At their first meeting, they had seven people. Despite the fact that they had a number of deep economic anxieties, they had a sense of self and they talked to each other about trying to do something about their lives and their plight. They created what they called the Farmers' Alliance. And in due course they titled it (they were Texans and that introduces certain regional malfunctions) "The Grand State Farmers' Alliance." I think they got the word "grand" in the title because they were so weak.
The opportunity they possessed 112 years ago was that they could talk about the society and the system of finance. There was an existing literature called the Greenback doctrine. But they had a recruiting problem. This is a big kitchen that we're in today, and we're sitting around the kitchen table analyzing American society. We're grumbling about the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and the local institutions that are not functioning.
We could say such things to ourselves as, "Well, there are three institutions in America that house American workers. The Roman Catholic Church, the black church, and the American trade union movement. Those three institutions, plus us, are victimized by structures of hierarchy in the United States that systematically transfer income from the very poorest to the very richest. And the name of this structure is American democracy."
Sitting around the kitchen, we may tell ourselves that these three institutions that house victims are not internally organized to do anything about it. They're not quite sure who stole the goods. It's awesome to say that both major parties stole the goods. It's sobering to think that something called "Wall Street" stole the goods. We wouldn't want to speculate that that great reform institution -- a product of populist agitation but certainly not anything the populists wanted -- the Federal Reserve System now persists as an instrument of stealing the goods. We can't have people who donate money to the Episcopal Church and then pay their taxes and wear proper top hats and coats being part of the structure of stealing the goods.
The reason we don't want to make this indictment is that it's too sweeping. It breaks the paradigm in which we are trained to think. It produces speculations that are not culturally admissible around dinner tables or even kitchen tables. To the extent that we can create a conversation in a room like this and develop a level of candor, of analysis; to the extent that we think there's nothing we can speculate about that would be subversive or unpatriotic; to the extent that we can create intellectual space to be serious about our society -- then two contradictory things occur. Number one, we're enhanced by the sheer authenticity of the conversation. Second, we're depressed by the discovery; if what we know is true, how are we going to persuade those people out there, otherwise known as the Americans, to think seriously about the state of the Republic?
We have a recruiting problem. Here we are in the kitchen, sitting around the table, talking, and out there are the suffering multitudes. What is the connecting link between us? Well, let us go back to 112 years ago. Their situation is perfectly analogous to ours. They looked for a recruiting device and they found one. The collective problem of farmers was lack of access to credit they could afford. They were paying 30, 40, 60, 80 percent -- sounds unbelievable. But you might be paying more for credit today than you know. We may have reached the Biblical level of usury some time ago.
In any case, these co-ops they created were going to try to do for the farmers collectively what they could not do individually: gain access to credit. People joined the Alliance Co-op and the Alliance grew. In a county there would be hundreds of suballiances of 20-50 people each. And each one had a lecturer who would help them analyze the world. And there were 250,000 members in Texas and 140,000 in Kansas and 130,000 in North Carolina. Eventually the Alliance penetrated into 42 states and there were 2 million people who, in effect, developed a new way to think.
Along the way, in their struggle to get large-scale co-ops functioning, they discovered that the banking community in America did not cooperate. They discovered, too, that the problem of the Alliance was the problem of individual farmers: lack of access to credit. One of their number, Charles Macune, felt the pressure of this failure more acutely than anyone else, because as spokesman for the Alliance he had made projections for people -- "Join us, and collectively we'll try to change the way we live." And he was not able to deliver on his promise. He'd tried a thing called the joint note plan and it hadn't worked; again the bankers wouldn't cooperate.
So in the summer of 1889, brooding about the political trap he was in, brooding about the plight of the nation's farmer, brooding about the structure of the American economic system, he came to the Subtreasury Plan -- which doesn't need to be explained in detail here. What needs to be suggested is the Plan's one compelling breakthrough, which is just as logical and humanitarian and democratic now as it was then. He thought you could mobilize the capital assets of the nation in an organized way to put them at the disposal of the nation's people.
That is a democratic conception that is not on the stage of contemporary debate. It is too broad. It is beyond our imagination. That is not on the agenda of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. In fact, we're in an era where those tiny pieces of the capital assets of the nation that somehow were smuggled to sectors of the society that are not rich are slowly being shipped away. Since 1980, the lowest 20 percent of the American people in income have had a real income drop of 9 percent. And the top 20 percent of the American people in income have had a real income gain of 19 percent. And the top 10 percent of that 20 percent have had a real income gain of 29 percent.
In the last nine years we have witnessed the largest redistribution of income in American history; that is, from the very poorest to the very richest. And there's no institution of large scale in the country that says this central economic fact of our decade should be at the center of public discussion.
Now that's stability. That is the creation of a culture so narrow that no one in the seats of the mighty need tremble because some serious people have gathered in a union hall in St. Louis on a Saturday morning to speculate on the possibilities of a democratic society. They are not nervous on Wall Street this morning. And if they are it's because of their concerns about their own actions, not ours.
There is another society in our time -- what we call "the East," what we sometimes call "actually existing socialism." For about 40 years, since Stalin imposed this system on whole populations, an idea floated around in people's heads over there, in "the East." The idea was, "We will try to create some space where we can talk to each other and affect the world we live in. To do that, we're going to have to combat the leading role of the Party. We're going to have to find some way to get around the fact that all the social space in society is occupied by the Party."
This idea would float around kitchen tables on the Baltic coast in the 1950s and 1960s. And workers in shipyards would say to each other, "We have got to create a trade union independent of the Party." Now that is an unsanctioned idea. And they knew it was frightening even to say it out loud; you'd only say it around the kitchen table, around carefully selected brethren and sistren. And the idea would go away, because it was unsanctioned. But then there would be another horrible accident in the shipyard, another insane adjustment of work routines, and the idea'd come back, simply because it was the only idea that made any sense. "Work organized by the Party is insane, Poland is insane, our social life is insane. We've got to have a union free of the Party."
Over 35 years of self-activity the world has not known about -- any more than the world knew very much about how the Farmers' Alliance organized Populism -- they found out how to do it. And in 1980 they did it. There's a certain logic in history every now and then. The single most experienced organizer in the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, who spent 12 years organizing and brooding about a union free of the Party, who had gone to jail scores of times in the decade -- learning each time a little bit more about how power worked in his society -- the one single most credentialed worker with other workers based on his own activity, is Lech Walesa. There is every now and then a certain justification in history.
Because that movement existed, even though it was repressed by the government after 15 months, it sent a wave of hope across Eastern Europe. What Solidarnosc combatted, by its simple existence, was mass resignation. This resignation was the dominant political reality in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland until the shipyard workers of Gdansk became the nucleus of a mass movement, one of those rare moments in human history when people get back in touch with their own subjectivity. That is to say, they don't lie in public. They say what they mean. And they try hard to say it clearly. They're not trying to make a speech, they're not trying to be an orator. They're trying to be clear, like two people in a marriage struggling not to be political with each other but to be honest. One of those rare democratic moments when reality is projected.
Because Solidarity stayed alive during the years of martial law, and because a man named Brezhnev who put down Solidarity passed off the stage of history and another man named Gorbachev who would not put down Solidarity came on the stage of history, the leading role of the Party this very week is going into the dustbin of history all over Eastern Europe.
What if we were to suggest to the American people that we can't do anything about the homeless, we can't attack the crisis in the cities, we can't do anything about the inability of the children of unionized workers to own a home of their own because America has been sold to foreign creditors, because it's being de-industrialized -- we can't do anything about any of these matters if we don't democratize the financial system in this country? In other words, we can't do anything until we get back to being as advanced as we were in 1889 in this city when the subtreasury system was first introduced.
We can't suggest it because that idea is too much. It's too advanced; it's not properly modest. "Why, you people sound as if you're as crazy as those people in Eastern Europe who want to overturn the leading role of the Party."
But if you have the long-distance view, if you say, "Give ourselves 20 years. Let's see if we can begin the process of educating ourselves and the American people about the idea of a democratic system of money that will save what is left of the American family farm, that will pump life into the cities, that will permit the young to dream that they might own a home of their own, that might somehow begin to chip away at the culture of corruption that is now the norm in public life . . ."
If we can do that, if we can say what we know clearly and endeavor to act quickly and firmly on what we say, then I think we're living a valid political life. We may not change the world. But then again we might. Some Polish shipyard workers offer us an intelligent guide to authentic politics. The choice -- to speak clearly, to act -- is ours alone. As for result, we'll let future historians judge that. Our work is now.