I don’t believe in revolution. But revolution is not a belief dependent phenomenon. Revolution occurs when reform fails. When reform fails, historic change occurs by other means. Revolution brings a certain type of individual to power. It usually is accompanied by civil war. Marx was not terribly interested in the American Revolution, for instance. He regarded it as a coup d’état. If memory serves (and of course it serves, but it doesn’t always serve well) it was the American civil war that piqued his interest. The American civil war was a conflict between a regressive economic system, slavery, anachronistic, contradictory and unsustainable, and the ascendant industrial capitalism of the north.
Revolution may be necessary, but it is the worst way to change a society. The logic of revolution, and those it catapults into power, or rather, those who catapult themselves into power through revolution, ends in nihilism, murder, oppression and counter-revolution. Families divide against themselves. Rights are suspended. The strong consume the weak. Summary justice, ethnic cleansing, scorched earth tactics, sowing the soil with salt. Revolution is a pure expression of social Libido and Thanatos. Flickering on and off like Hegel’s Thesis and Antithesis. It is only long after the paroxysm has ceased that some sort of equilibrium returns. But revolution is inevitable when reform fails.
I don’t believe in revolution because of who I am. When I was young I did believe in it. But I’m a middle aged man. I own a house, have children who attend public schools, and work at a university. I need the government and my job. I can’t afford private school, or to pay for insurance. If either my wife or I become unemployed we are dependent on unemployment insurance to survive. We need our STAR exemption to reduce our property taxes. (The STAR exemption is a NY State program). I need the future, to know that my children and grandchildren will be OK, our retirement fund and social security will be there, that the house we own will be secure from fire and crime. I rely on stable temperatures and a normal climate. I need a future to believe in.
All of this sounds quaint. I see around me a distressing prospect familiar to any student of history. The very core institutions that support bourgeois stability are starting to crack. In the environment, global climate change and human predation are starting to affect the plankton and small fish upon which the entire food chain depends. The financial system is untethered from real wealth and reality. The belief system that lay beneath American cycles of reform and reaction is dying. People are unable to affect changes. Angry, stupid humans sit atop a snoozing, decadent, angry populace. Our self-absorption is unprecedented.
I don’t believe in revolution, but it will come. It may be in a hundred years. But things are not going to get better. They are getting worse. Each new crisis is described as unimaginable. You can start anywhere, but I think a nice, a good sequence would start with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, one of the most egregious and moronic episodes in American political history. It was not the opening salvo, but rather the opening battle of the war between a theocratic, anti-democratic alliance of reactionaries and the stodgy, capitalist center-right coalition that has ruled this country since Nixon took power. They have so dominated the public discourse that people actually talk about a left wing of the Democratic party, as if such a thing existed. Any manifestation of left wing politics that stands a chance of a public hearing or influence is squashed like a cockroach right away.
I believe in reform. I believe in the power of the middle to broker a deal between the genuine practical left and the genuine practical right. No one is satisfied, but things chug along. The poor have a voice at the table, albeit a little voice. We don’t get single payer, but we get a public option. We don’t get a carbon tax, we get cap and trade and subsides for alternative fuels. The parties are ideologically complex. Cross party alliances are possible in times of reform. Deals get made. Throughout this century we have seen periods of public violence, riots, mass demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience provoke legislative, judicial and social change. I am happy there is a transgender bathroom. I am thrilled there is a black president, and that gays can marry in a handful of states. I am very happy African Americans do not risk being shot through the head for trying to vote, as happened when I was a child. These are real and enduring changes. But the inequalities we face are dire and extend now through entire classes of America that once enjoyed a degree of privilege. Just look at Detroit to see what the problem is, or drive the freeways LA. America has always had gated communities, but the barbarians were always camped outside of the gate. Where are they now? Guarding the gate.
I don’t believe in revolution, so I will hide in my home and hope for the best. Like many Americans I have apparently self-selected, self-segregated. I choose to live in a pocket of progressive thinking. But somehow, I feel like a duck in a barrel.
Individual action is great, but in the scheme of things it is insufficient. But I see no collective out there. I see no party, no gang, no division, no ideology that is up to the crisis we face. Just weak, ineffectual and unarmed intellectuals waging war with blog posts and university lectures addressed to the lucky few who have health insurance, paid sick leave and vacation. There is one side fighting, and they have seized control wherever we have ceded control. They will not stop. I don’t believe in revolution but I have to ask, and not rhetorically, is there any other choice, given what’s at stake? What is the price of failure? What is the price of success?