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February 20, 2009

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I agree with you completely. For another take on this subject, read Robert Kaplan's "Empire Wilderness". It's a bit dated, but still hits a bulls-eye.

I quite seriously believe it is time for heads on sticks.

The revolt might look a bit like the lynch-mob ugliness of CBNC's Rick Santelli. It's fascinating to see how a financial news network, one intimately connected to the frauds and manias of the last 20 years, stoking up resentment about some - but, damnably, not all - homeowners getting a break on interest rates. Maybe this is what the Limbaughs and Coulters know about the American Soul: that if see yourself as a victim of Those People (blacks, liberals, bureaucrats, Mexicans, Jews, etc) you'll quickly decide there is no social contract, just your self-interest under assault from the Others.

It would amaze me if anyone besides a few anti-WTO types marched on Wall Street or called for confiscatory taxes on the rich. This is America, after all. We still think we can score big if we know who's really to blame. That's the genius of Santelli. Do the Chicago Board traders really object to AIG's bail-out, or Citigroup's? Of course not. They're white, entitled, and rich. It's those other people who gambled on real-estate, CNBC's favorite bubble just a few years ago, who deserve the contempt of amnesiacs and "responsible" victims.

Class warfare is never so rich as when the rich blame the poor. These are trial balloons the GOP sends up to see which demagoguery moves the most focus-group needles. One went up a couple of months ago: the housing bubble was the fault of liberals forcing mortgage brokers to give unqualified minorities loans. Like all memes, it's not the relative inaccuracy that matters so much as the emotional charge buried in it. We're not one nation. We haven't been for over 40 years now. The time is ripe and the knives are drawn.

The most persistent, and maddening, legacy of the so-called Reagan Revolution is the fixation of white Americans on the notion that some "undeserving" poor (and usually brown) person somewhere, somehow, is getting a government bennie. I have patiently explained, until blue in the face many times, what a pittance welfare and other types of aid to the indigent are, in comparison to expenditures on the defense and various and sundry tax cuts and subsidies to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. To no avail. This explains why the ridiculous meme of low income minorities getting CRA mortgages causing the economic meltdown was able to get such traction. It fits in with the narrative they've been conditioned to believe. That said, I do think the worm may be turning. Like you say, Jon, the Joe the Plumbers are starting to realize that they've been had and their promised ship is never coming in. I don't think they'll be marching out of Ahwatukee either (believe me, I live here) but they're not necessarily going to be suckers for the latest line of bull the CNBC shills lay on them.

Taking the question seriously, I'd say that the probability of "revolution" any time soon is infinitesimal -- that is, not exactly zero but as close as you like.

Clearly, we have to distinguish (in terms of both causes and intended effects) between revolution, on the one hand, and protests on the other. The purpose of revolution is for one segment of the population to seize power from another. For example, radical Whigs in America, from loyalist Tories; or the Third Estate in France, from the nobility and clergy, and in turn, radical Jacobins from Gerondins in the National Assembly.

The purpose of protest, by contrast, is to secure reforms under the existing system.

Riots are a special third category. Riots can spin off the fringes of protests, as militant elements take independent action (often spontaneously). Looting riots may begin with a nucleus consisting of gang members or other criminal elements, then spread as the lumpenproletariat sees successful looting and decides to get in on "a good thing". Neither of these is revolutionary in any genuine sense. Widespread public rioting can, of course, be one element of a revolution, but only if it exists within a revolutionary context.

"...the nation is too narcoticized by American Idol, Grand Theft Auto, endless driving, limitless digital distractions, the deadening civic isolation of suburbia..."

Quite true, but note that a prolonged and acute socio-economic "disruption" (to use Mr. Talton's term) can easily change the national psychology and the associated dynamics.

The real problem is, who is going to lead a revolution? The Democrats or the Republicans? (That's a joke, of course.)

In "What is to be Done?" Lenin argued for a centralized, hierarchical organization of professional revolutionaries (The Party), conspiratorial and life-driven. The idea was to overcome the feebleness, slackness, local dispersion, transience, and amateurishness which afflicted the various revolutionary movements and factions in Russia. (Actually, as originally conceived, the principle of internal organization used was "democratic centralism": members of the party were free to debate policy and direction, but once the decision was made, by a majority vote, all were required to submit themselves to the discipline of the party in carrying this out.)

But even assuming that a secret "vanguard of the masses" existed here in the United States, note that the phrase assumes the organization and cooperation of masses. There is no organization with revolutionary consciousness which has any significant mass following here.

The masses themselves, for the most part, can barely be said to possess rudimentary political consciousness -- indeed, many would be hard pressed to name important local officials -- and are pig-ignorant besides. And this is by design: an informed, active mass electorate is positively dangerous, whereas one narcotized, not by the opium of religion, but the kidnapper candy given partial listing by Mr. Talton (television in particular), can be easily led, as he says, and kept busy. Between boring, low wage service jobs, getting drunk or high at night to get some enjoyment from life, the boob tube, and personal relations, they're kept busy, and perhaps tired, but certainly politically apathetic for the most part.

Television is particularly insidious, because it creates a superficial sense of social participation and engagement while actually maintaining social isolation. And it's curiously hypnotic. I'm not a "TV snob" -- there are a few worthwhile programs of various kinds, including amongst the entertainment genres -- but I've found it very difficult, in the past, to restrict viewing just to those programs. Television sucks the viewer in, and soon he is watching all kinds of god-awful pabulum simply because it seems easier than anything else, like eating popcorn instead of fixing a proper meal. (Well, that was good...I'll just see what else is on now, before I turn it off...) I finally got rid of mine, and the first few months were tedious; but once I had adjusted, substituting music, reading, thinking, and writing, and night hikes, I experienced a profound, literal, even physical sense of relief, like a drug addict who has finally got the monkey off his back.

By the way, my understanding is that in the months preceding the French Revolution, the country was nearly bankrupt and that misery, in the form of famine and widespread malnutrition (some, apparently, intentionally inflicted) was indeed a driving force. I'm certain that Mr. Talton isn't pulling facts out of thin air (he's too well-read) when he talks about France as prosperous in 1789, but whatever he refers to remains obscure to me and clarification would be appreciated.

With respect to the suggestion of a gas tax or a tax on miles driven, floated by Mr. Talton, it isn't a subject I've studied to any degree and my opinion remains unformed. Provisionally, I'm inclined to resist it.

Mr. Talton says that the tax(es) would change habits and fund sustainable infrastructure. I agree with the first part, and the second might even be true. But the best way to fund infrastructure (and everything else) is a progressive income tax taking the bulk of its funding from wealthy individuals.

Don't get me wrong: the share of federal tax revenue deriving from corporations has declined shamefully in recent decades, from about 25 percent to less than 10 percent, and that needs to be fixed, likely by better enforcement and regulation of the tax system rather than large increases in corporate taxes.

One reason I feel this to be true is that once corporate owners and executives take their PERSONAL cuts of the company's profit (whether by income, gains on stock options, or otherwise), taxes on those personal funds can no longer be regarded as part of the costs and overhead of doing business: it can't be claimed that such taxes are anti-competitive, anti-economic, or that they will be passed on to consumers. (Well, some of this can be claimed, but the arguments are erroneous and easily refuted.)

Another reason why I am skeptical about fuel taxes is that every sector of the economy is dependent on transportation costs (trucking, air freight, and so forth), and such costs are built into the final cost of goods and services, so there is a definite inflationary effect. Of course, diesel and jet fuel might be exempted from such taxes, but I'm profoundly suspicious of their general economic effects.

I suspect that there would also be a strong damping effect on the economy since consumers must spend more of their incomes not only on their own transportation but on the goods they buy, leaving them less money for consumption from fixed incomes. Less consumption means less consumer demand means worker layoffs, means less consumer demand...

To the extent that they cut back on driving as a result of such taxes, there may also be a similar damping effect from a more direct decrease in consumption, since, much discretionary driving tends to involve trips to local businesses.

Note also that even as the price of a barrel of oil has fallen and hovers around $35 to $40 per barrel, the price of gasoline has increased 20 percent since the start of this year. This is because refiners have deliberately cut back production to historically low levels in order to increase their profits. (They claim that they had been actually losing money on gasoline sales, and were only making up the losses through sales of diesel fuel. A discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this comment, but I have some waterfront property in Yuma to sell you, if you think that oil refinery is an unprofitable sector of the economy.)

The refiners claim that this is a necessary response to decreased driving and decreased consumer demand for gasoline. The inflationary effects have already begun to manifest themselves.

A third reason is that there is no reason to expect gas taxes to be earmarked for sustainable infrastructure, and even if they are, it's just an accounting trick, since it all goes into the general fund and fund revenues are fungible.

Finally, if there is any truth to the peak oil arguments, this is a FAR, FAR too important matter to leave to such mechanisms as the indirect psychological conditioning of drivers. The only real solution is to find, develop, and implement, truly alternative energy sources, not only for transportation but in the general power grid. That means the government must have the vision, and commit the resources, to funding alternative energy research and development on a wholesale scale and within a fairly short time-frame (decades), starting immediately; then it must impose the new energy systems from the top down (underwriting implementation as required).

Waffling about and hoping that such research, development, and implementation is consistent with the budgetary, growth, and policy plans of individual companies may be a recipe for disaster.

Companies have their own independent values, requirements, schedules, and predilections, and are not good at responding to general calls to serve the broad social good.

In regards to the seduction of television---

in 1958, Edgar R. Murrow wrote: "if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the Kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence...escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late."

And so, here we are fifty years later...

A few thoughts on the situation here in the UK…

If the predictions of some economists are right and we are heading for a prolonged slump, then the answer to the question has to be yes. What is more difficult to predict is exactly how this social unrest will manifest itself and who will be the main actors. Some commentators are implying that we could see a return to the kind of disturbances that swept across the country during the early 1980s. My view is that as the UK has changed so much since the early 1980s as to be almost unrecognisable, the kinds of unrest that are likely to emerge will be somewhat different from anything we have previously .

The UK is a much more atomised and socially fragmented country than it was during the early 1980s. Sure, it was a divided country then but within the class blocks, particularly the working class, there was still some sense of solidarity. Responses to adverse situations still had some elements of a collective character to them. The social and economic changes that came to pass in the 1980s have led to a society where the response to an adverse situation is more likely to assume an individual character.

Given that we are living in a more fractured society where the sense of community has been seriously eroded over the decades, reactions to the stresses of the slump will be individuated ones. As people facing a bleak, empty future try to forget the slump by drinking, expect more in the way of drink related violence. Drug addiction, already endemic in some communities, is almost certain to increase as will the crimes associated with it. A rise in acquisitive and violent crime such as burglary and robbery is inevitable. All of these are self destructive expressions of incoherent anger at the hopelessness of the situation…the ultimate one being an increase in suicides as the consequences of the crisis wrecks people’s lives.

A grim scenario indeed… The fracturing of UK society and the seeming lack of any progressive alternative to neo-liberalism gives rise to a sense of despair as there seems to be no way out. For working class people experiencing the devastating consequences of the slump, unlike the 1980s, there is no political alternative on offer that can offer a progressive vision of social and economic advancement. All that has been on offer from the left over the last few decades has been an identity politics that denies the possibility of transformation and focuses instead on celebrating existing cultural identities…except that of the majority of the population. It is the majority who will be wooed with the reactionary identity politics of the likes of the British National Party (BNP). Simply because when there is no progressive vision of social and material advancement on offer, there is an inevitable retreat into the poisonous pit of identity politics.

There is a likelihood of some more communal expressions of anger. Some of these may be re-runs of 1980s style clashes between police and disaffected youth. What is more worrying is the possibility of inter-communal clashes. The experiment of multiculturalism has failed, leaving communities divided along seemingly unbridgeable ethnic and cultural divides. Once the inevitable austerity measures start to kick in, communal tensions in working class areas will be exacerbated as different groups compete with each other for rapidly shrinking public resources. Rest assured, the BNP and other elements on the far right will be ruthlessly exploiting this for all it’s worth and in some areas, on the other side of the divide, those groups advocating Islamic extremism will doubtless be seeking to increase their influence.

Reading through the reader’s comments on the websites of the likes of the Telegrapgh and the Mail, the level of middle class anger and rage is all too clear as they see their interests and aspirations threatened. I fully expect that certain elements of the middle class will have a role to play in protest and social unrest if Brown’s New Labour government digs in and tries to tough it out into 2010 when they will have reached their full term. As taxes inevitably start to rise in a futile bid to offset the frightening level of borrowing the government has taken on to bail out the banks, some form of tax strike is certainly on the cards.

Of course, a rapid escalation of the crisis caused by a second banking crisis would make some of the above scenarios redundant as there simply wouldn’t be enough in reserve to stem it. Effectively, all bets would be off as we would be looking at widespread system failure…

Yes, this is a grim piece. As someone who has always held progressive views, I find the scenarios outlined above frightening. When an economic crisis hits, much of the middle class will jump to the right. As ever, the working class are up for grabs. Only this time around, there is little in the way of a progressive alternative coming up on people’s radars – only the forces of reaction…

Dave Amis wrote:

"All that has been on offer from the left over the last few decades has been an identity politics that denies the possibility of transformation and focuses instead on celebrating existing cultural identities…except that of the majority of the population..."

This is why, in certain respects, I think that the Old Left had a superior model to the New Left.

Though the record was mixed, the idea was that class interests transcended racial and other subcultural interests; and this idea resulted in greater inclusivity and solidarity across these lines, as the only question was one of shared class interests.

Whatever else you might say about CPUSA (and much, uncomplimentary, might be said with justification), they were about the only organized political party which made the fight against racism within the labor movement, and Jim Crow laws and practices outside it, a consistent principle from the 1920s onward.

They made special efforts to organize Black workers in interracial coalitions within existing unions, at a time when this was unheard of; and they actually advocated a version of affirmative action, within the unions of the period, advocating a kind of "superseniority" for Black workers in workplaces where they were unable to break out of segregated job classifications.

The party newspaper, The Daily Worker, started agitating for integration of major league baseball in the mid-1930s. The party also made a point of integrating its dances and other social events and ostracized or expelled members accused of "white chauvinism".

In fact, this was why the right-wing tended to associate the Civil Rights movement with Communism, even when such links were weak or nonexistent.

The politico-philosophical splintering of the New Left can also be contrasted with the more coherent and organized solidarity of the Old Left. True, during the Stalinist period this led to absurd and fluctuating demands for absolute adherence to dogmatic (if mercurial) lines within the Party, but outside it, especially in the context of popular fronts, there was a great deal of tolerance while maintaining the general directions and policies of a broad-based political group organized around common class interests.

That said, the concept of shared class interests advocated by the Party (and by some Marxists before and since) is clearly too narrow. Some of it is the product of blind adherence to dogma, and part of it is a mean-spirited envy of those who were fortunate enough to be born into better conditions than they were.

For example, I strenuously disagree with the concept of repression (political or otherwise) of the middle class. Many of these individuals are professionals and technocrats whose knowledge, training, education, and services are invaluable in making any alternative economic system viable. Furthermore, there is no reason why the economic interests of such individuals need suffer, whether they are improved or not (and I would expect moderate but significant improvements for the lower middle class).

Their participation in progressive political movements should be encouraged on a personal, economic basis where possible, and on abstract principles of social justice, harmony, and a better and improving life for all, in those cases where their direct economic interests are not expected to be affected one way or another.

Even in the case of the upper class, and indeed, the wealthiest, who do not share common class interests with the majority, such actions as the seizure of personal property are counterproductive and politically unjustified. The end of the old era will be enough: through redistribution of income and through public ownership of the means of production, and the consequent, gradual withering away of obscenely concentrated personal wealth and build up of the economic power of the lower half (especially the lower third) of the population, the old inequities, or at least the old extremes, will die out automatically with the passing of generations.

This leads to consideration of another classic Marxist error, especially in the New Left era: gratuitous alienation of common members of the police and military forces. While it is true that capitalism and imperialism often run hand in hand, and that maintenence of the existing social order is a priority of the establishment, there is nothing intrinsically anti-popular about police or military, and such forces will be required to continue under any alternative economic system.

The point is to educate the population gently and rationally as to common class interests, while creating an organized solidarity which transcends as many social borders as is possible, making inclusion a principle of concrete organization BY demanding the submergence of such differences as subordinate to common class interests, rather than emphasizing them as important things-in-themselves.

Furthermore, the broadest possible class interests should be considered, and even "class enemies" of the movement should be treated impersonally in the general instance, not singled out for abuse. We should be concerned, not with transient personal relations, but with broad and lasting economic changes which will eventually blur if not erase economic extremes as a result of systemic changes.

Just a brief clarification of my previous comment, if I may.

A progressive transformation of the economic system is likely to have a very broad positive effect, improving the positions of the vast majority of the population.

Thus the concept of political alliances based on mutual class interests is actually much broader than may appear above at first reading.

For example, the upper middle class would not have a direct, immediate personal economic stake, since they would not be the recipients of redistributed funds. And since many of them receive health care as an employee benefit from the company they work for, they wouldn't necessarily have a direct personal stake in health-care reform.

However, a national health-care system, comprising treatment (including hospitalization), insurance, and pharmaceuticals, would greatly reduce general social costs, by eliminating the "overhead" of obscene profits demanded by private owners (no more $100 aspirins on hospital bills). As a result, health insurance and health care would be about as cheap as possible.

They would also benefit from such progressive initiatives as clean, inexpensive alternative energy (e.g., solar); and that benefit would improve their personal economic positions.

So, progressives need to reach out as broadly as possible and attempt to include society's movers and shakers in progressive popular fronts.

Those who make a personal fetish out of "ideological purity" or insularity are often impractical or anti-social and should be regarded with suspicion.

Society can be regarded as being broadly divisible into four groups:

(1) adherents
(2) sympathizers
(3) those who do not especially sympathize or oppose
(4) opponents

It is of paramount importance to remember that opponents can be weakened not merely by making converts but by broadening the third category. Revolutionary change can hinge as much upon the indifference of potential foes as upon the loyalty of converts.

Obviously, the message will not be the same for all groups (the first rule of rhetoric is "know your audience"), but should be broadly consistent. Flexibility does not mean that alliances should not be properly guided and organized or that progressive principles should not be advocated vigorously.

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