Rebellion In The Air

Posted by Bob Lord

Are minds much greater than mine looking to answer my oft-repeated question: How much wealth and how much income can we cram into the top 1% before the bottom 90% explodes? 

Quite possibly, yes. My sampling methods are admittedly unscientific, but opinion writers seem more willing to contemplate rebellion openly these days. I follow Chris Hedges, who has dedicated his two most recent columns to the subject. In Our Invisible Revolution, Hedges explains why his preference, a nonviolent movement that removes the current power structure, may not succeed and may give way to a more violent uprising:

By the time ruling elites are openly defied, there has already been a nearly total loss of faith in the ideas—in our case free market capitalism and globalization—that sustain the structures of the ruling elites. And once enough people get it, a process that can take years, “the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent,” as Berkman wrote. “Evolution becomes revolution.”

This is where we are headed. I do not say this because I am a supporter of revolution. I am not. I prefer the piecemeal and incremental reforms of a functioning democracy. I prefer a system in which our social institutions permit the citizenry to nonviolently dismiss those in authority. I prefer a system in which institutions are independent and not captive to corporate power. But we do not live in such a system. Revolt is the only option left. Ruling elites, once the ideas that justify their existence are dead, resort to force. It is their final clutch at power. If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police—to get them, in essence, to defect—nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

In The Revolt of the Lower Middle Class and The Stupidity of the Elites, Mike Lofgren of Truthout explains how violent uprisings most often are ignited in the lower middle class:

In periods of political crisis or threatening social change, the lower middle class often has been the demographic segment most susceptible to militant authoritarian movements – such as the Klan or the Coughlinites in earlier times in American history. In other countries as well, the lower middle class has been the basis of fascist movements. As Richard J. Evans documents in The Coming of the Third Reich, the original electoral backbone of the National Socialists was the lower middle class, exemplified by petty shopkeepers, the lower rungs of the white-collar professions and land-poor farmers. As the great economic calamity of 1929 intensified, these groups feared, above all, sinking into the despised proletariat. It was this emotion that caused them to identify the source of their problems less in the banks, corporations and cartels that were the proximate cause of the crash than in the contaminating presence of foreigners and the underclass. France has had periodic bouts of this phenomenon, with movements like Action Francaise, the post-World War IIPoujadists (the definitive small shopkeepers movement) and, more recently, the anti-immigrant party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose psychologically penetrating political catchphrase was "I say what you are thinking." Capitalists are of course more than willing to fund such parties if they are on the brink of success and can be useful to capital, just as the German cartels began to fund the Nazis after their breakthrough election in September 1930. Nothing succeeds like success: University professors and intellectuals flocked to the Nazi Party once it gained power. But the motivating energy of the movement sprang, above all, from the fear and resentment of those tenuously situated a couple of rungs above the actual poor.

These lower middle class movements often require support from members of the elite, who ultimately rue their decision to provide that support:

All this unhealthy energy usually does not find a unified political objective unless coaxed along by money and organizational skill from outside. Frank's identification of business interests as the nurturers of cultural resentment for their own political and financial gain is of course correct, and we have seen this pattern more and more vividly illustrated since the 2004 publication of his book. But that thesis, which is now common knowledge, seems to implicitly assume that the business interests know what they are doing, and that the dupes are under the firm control of the plutocrats. As we have seen with the US Chamber of Commerce, the plutocracy has gotten more than it bargained for. Local business interests are beginning to be appalled by the berserker antics of Tea Party stalwarts like Justin Amash and Mike Lee.

It was ever thus; there are always not a few businessmen willing to finance an ostensibly populist movement so as better to manipulate it, and who then get an unpleasant surprise. In the most infamous example, the German industrialists convinced themselves that it was so important to crack down on the left that it was worth holding their noses and bankrolling a déclassé Austrian corporal. They could even tolerate him as chancellor; after all, he would be easily controllable because his Cabinet had "sensible, pro-business conservatives" such as Hugenberg and von Papen who would shape the new chancellor's intended policies in the preferred direction. But sometimes Frankenstein's monster does not respond to the commands of its master, and money does not invariably dictate the wayward course of ideas and emotions. In short, our elites, for all their Machiavellian wire-pulling, can be stupid and shortsighted.

The bottom line is that we appear headed for an uprising. The unknowns are how long it will take to get there and what the shape of the uprising will be. I'm with Hedges. I'd far, far prefer a nonviolent movement. But the scenario Lofgren describes — a violent, populist uprising on the right — may be just as likely. We'd be foolish to assume it away. 

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