Sunday, November 28, 2010


Vietnam Veterans Against the War march, circa 1970

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that expectation is the spark of revolution. He said, as many other historians have since repeated, that the French Revolution began when the ancient institutions of the French state and French society found themselves in the way of expectations created by the rise of modernity. The King, but not the Queen, made a too-little-too-late effort to meet those expectations, and ended up losing his head. The leaders of the Revolution found themselves destroyed by the very passions they unleashed.

The USA went through a transformative (though not exactly revolutionary) phase in its recent history from about the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. Long dormant expectations created by the experience of the Second World War awoke and demanded to be met. As a political revolution, this period was only partially successful. Real power did not change hands, but was spread out a little more, if not quite evenly. As a social revolution it was tremendously successful, transforming people’s expectations out of life across the political and class spectrum. Hope and expectation drove the anger of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movements, and various other movements of the 1960s. Hope and expectation gave ordinary people the courage to face down the enforcement powers of the established order, to break the law when necessary, and to face the consequences. Black Americans, women, and others had a taste of real equality in World War II, both on the battlefield and on the home front. The efforts to put them back into their “proper place” after the War could not erase the memories of those experiences. What people demanded was not the Death of the King, or the overthrow of the regime, but a real share in the existing order. Even Dr. Martin Luther King’s talk of “economic democracy” was not so much a Leninist vision of destroying and supplanting the prevailing order as it was of reforming it. He wanted to make that order more just, more equitable, and more accountable. He wanted to broaden the economic franchise in the same way he sought to broaden the political franchise, not to overthrow the whole system. That was the vision of most “revolutionaries” of the 1950s and 1960s (including Malcolm X).

I don’t see any sense of expectation now. Instead, I see a desperate hope that things do not get worse together with a real sense of dread about the future. Our best and brightest don’t really believe in the future, and they are afraid of the past. It’s small wonder that they are signing up in droves for the high salaries and easy money of the financial industry. As we live at the height of our second (or is it our third?) Gilded Age, our political parties are both on the take once again, with the distinctions between them rendered meaningless by the their eagerness to take corporate funding. Our politics and government are paralyzed by corruption. We’ve just experienced our third “wave” election in about 15 years. It will certainly not be the last, and the fourth “wave” will probably be sooner. The electorate will angrily toss back and forth between corrupt parties who are unable and unwilling to serve their interests.

I’m not sure what to do or what the answer is. I do know one thing though that there just isn’t any latent sense of expectation out there waiting to be met. Instead, I see resignation and fatalism, even in the young.

The only exceptions are crazy people who see society as a great big lottery game, or a big game of King of the Mountain, and they expect to come out winners. You can forget about having a middle class if you divide society between winners and losers. In fact, you can forget about having much of a country if half or more of it feels it has no real stake in it, and gets called “losers.” There’s always a risk that those “losers” who joined the military to find a last chance of opportunity might decide to stay in the barracks if they feel they face another “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” If they decide that their rulers are not their friends, then they may take their chances with the enemy. There are plenty of examples of regimes brought down by the rank and file of their own militaries (think of what happened to the Tsar, and then later to the Russian Provisional Government in 1917). As that wicked man Machiavelli pointed out repeatedly, the surest fortress of any state is the loyalty of its citizens. You don’t win loyalty by spitting at people.


it's margaret said...

"I see a desperate hope that things do not get worse together with a real sense of dread about the future."

You nailed it.
I have been fighting to remember that we are to live 'beyond hope' --but I keep thinking that we are sinking in to a very dark age, indeed.

Unknown said...

I agree. There seems little opposition, and only that desperate hope keeps many going. What has stopped the war rebels is the lack of a draft, I think. But it is sad for those who keep going back because for them the emotional toll is HUGE.

JCF said...

I think the Nation-State system is absolutely poisonous to real (positive) Social Change.

Wage-earning people (please, don't call them "workers"!) are FAR too terrified of losing their jobs---looking over their shoulders at China, India, Vietnam, et al AND the "Mexicans coming over Our Border"---to possibly think about the ridiculously Unequal (getting less equal everyday) Division of Wealth in the country.

Saint Karl said "Workers of the World Unite": until we can build an international labor movement (And why hasn't anyone ever thought of THAT? ;-X), things are going to Stay Bad. :-(

[And, per always, the Earth NEVER gets a vote! >:-/]

Counterlight said...

Workers of the World Unite.

Capital has already united. The nation states are but inconvenient antiques, perhaps necessary concessions to the emotional ties of ordinary people as far as capital is concerned. I seriously doubt that any of those high rollers in the international finance markets really give a good goddam about the USA, Britain, Germany, or China, or anywhere. Those are just places to them.

The nation-state may be outmoded. But I don't see what will take their place. All of that international law and organization put together at the end of WWII appears to be coming undone (mostly at the initiative of the country that did the most to put the original agreements together, the USA). Treaties are flouted or broken with impunity these days. The always grim Middle East gets ever more lawless as frustration and fanaticism take over on all sides.

I always insist that we should never underestimate the power or the depth of tribal passions. International Capital seems to recognize this and allows the nation state model to continue as a concession (even though international corporations usually have a much more direct impact on people's lives than their own national governments). They recognize that people invest a lot of emotional attachment in their little piece of territory, and in the identity that a language or a common history gives to them. Nationalism may be irrational, but there it is, and I doubt it can be argued away, or will go away anytime before the Eschaton (I've always argued that perhaps Aristotle was right after all, that humans really are political animals, and not the economic animals described by the Classical Economists of capitalism and by Marx). Marx and Lenin hoped to replace national loyalties with class loyalties. Ironically, capital, which has no loyalties to anyone, was better able to adapt to an international economy. Stalin and Mao in the end became ultra-nationalists and xenophobes. The same could be said of the leaders of North Korea and Cuba who cling to Marxism-Leninism like a kind of state church that no one really believes in anymore.