On the Possibility of Revolution

Something slipped by. Everyone was consumed with what happened after the skinny white kid, high on dreams of starting a race war to rid America of those black folks who were taking over and raping our women, murdered nine folks in the most historic black church down in Charleston. All the Republicans running for president, or about to, and the folks at Fox News, and conservative talking heads everywhere, tried to spin this. This wasn’t about race. The kid must have hated Christians, so this could have happened at a white church. It was chance, or it was inexplicable – no one knows why these things happen. And then the kid’s manifesto surfaced – he explained it well enough. This was racial resentment of the kind Nixon had stirred up with his Southern Strategy – that Lee Atwater stuff – that has won Republicans many an election since and is now a staple on Fox News. “Those people” are the reason that your lot in life is miserable. They take your money – welfare – and they’re living large and laughing at you. They have to be put in their place, or at least they have to learn some sense of personal responsibility – a white thing they just can’t seem to get. The skinny white kid had that whole argument down cold, and he took it to its logical end.

There was no getting around this. That’s what Republicans had been saying too. This was going to happen sooner or later. The chickens had come home to roost and now the squirming begins. The 2016 election is at stake. Racial resentment just lost its aggrieved noble glow. So, what else have they got? They’re working on that.

Then things got worse with the Confederate flag. The skinny white kid had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too. Southern nobility fought bravely and fairly, and Northern generals were crude and vile and had no sense of fair play, as seen in Sherman’s March to the Sea – and Ulysses S. Grant was a damned alcoholic too. It just wasn’t fair. The South had a proud heritage.

Bullshit – what began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state capitol intensified with extraordinary speed and scope into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, internet shopping sites and retail stores – because the Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. That finally sunk in. The Republicans then collectively admitted, one after another, that the Civil War had been a bad idea in the first place and the North had been right all along, and the North won the thing anyway. Dump the flag. Remove the statues. And with that they threw away a big chunk of their base. They have just walked away from the South, the Bubba vote. This was the actual end of the Civil War – and a major shift in American thinking. The nation would no longer turn its lonely eyes to Bill O’Reilly and the rest.

That was the big news, but this slipped by:

Legislation vital to securing the largest U.S. trade deal in decades was passed by the Senate on Wednesday by a comfortable margin, advancing President Barack Obama’s efforts to strengthen U.S. economic ties around the Pacific Rim.

After a six-week congressional battle including two brushes with failure, some fancy legislative footwork and myriad backroom deals to keep the legislation alive, the Senate voted 60 to 38 to grant Obama “fast-track” power to negotiate trade deals and speed them through Congress.

The bill next goes to the president for his signature.

Done, but with some unhappiness:

That could propel the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a central element of Obama’s foreign policy pivot to Asia, over the finish line, while also boosting hopes for completing an ambitious trade deal with the European Union.

U.S. labor groups, which fought fast-track, said they will redouble their efforts. “We will vigorously oppose TPP if it continues on its current course,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

The TPP, potentially a legacy-defining achievement for Obama, would be the biggest free trade agreement in a generation and rank with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which liberalized trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico, while also serving as a counterweight to the rise of China.

That was the problem. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart had previously discussed this:

The concerns about the effect another trade deal will have on the American worker are real. The opposition roaring out of the House Democrats is understandable. After 21 years, the bitter aftertaste of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains. Shuttered factories and the lost jobs that ensued led many Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to turn inwards to protect their livelihoods. That’s why Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in a statement last month that past trade deals “put the American Dream out of reach for countless working families.” Even the president acknowledges that “past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise.”

But as I read and do my own reporting on TPP, I keep coming back to a reported conversation between Obama and the late Apple maestro Steve Jobs. According to the New York Times, at a 2011 dinner in Silicon Valley, the president asked Jobs why iPhones couldn’t be made in the United States.

Mr. Jobs’ reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

Free trade is good – we get to sell a whole lot more of our stuff around the world – but someone is going to get hurt. That’s just the way things are. Some people will get eaten alive, but not everyone. Obama will save who he can. He may be aligned now with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Paul Ryan on this trade agreement, against Elizabeth Warren and most of the Democrats, but is he the bad guy here? Do what must be done – but the most effective solution is going to hurt someone, or many. Net economic gain doesn’t do specific workers much good.

That was the news story of the day that wasn’t the big story of the day, because nothing changed. Everyone knows who will end up smelling like a rose – the multinational corporations and the millionaires who run them. The Walton family, importing even more, even more cheaply, for their Wal-Mart stores, will do quite well. Companies like Bain Capital will do well – the company that Mitt Romney founded, which produced no goods or services but made hundreds of millions a pop buying solid but underperforming companies, loading them up with debt and extracting all value, before selling off what was left at a big profit. If there was nothing left they shut the company down and made a ton of money stiffing the creditors in bankruptcy court. He said he had been a job creator but no one saw how that could be – not that it matters. A new free-trade agreement will shake up a lot of solid but underperforming companies, now in need of reconfiguration. Venture capitalists will make out like bandits, and wages will go down. That which can be made here can be made more cheaply overseas, and it’s on its way here. Match those labor costs or find something else to do.

In short, expect even more income inequality and a middle class shrinking to next to nothing, not that we have much of one any longer now. The new trade agreement, this Trans-Pacific Partnership, is now pretty much a done deal – save for assistance to displaced workers, which will be voted on later, if they get around to it. That assistance seems to be an afterthought – something thought up to sweeten the pot to get a few more Democratic votes for the main deal. Don’t expect much now. The news is the same old same old.

People won’t get upset. Paul Glastris in his editor’s note for the new issue of the Washington Monthly, points out that all the discussions of growing inequality and the shrinking middle class end up seeming pointless:

In the back of many people’s minds, certainly mine, is the fear that maybe there aren’t solutions to this problem. Maybe the great American middle class is just not coming back. We are now six years into an economic recovery that has seen next to zero wage growth. As Monica Potts shows in this issue’s cover story (The Post-Ownership Society), even highly educated Millennials in booming Washington, D.C., are having a hard time seeing a path to middle-class financial stability. Millennials generally are also finding it difficult to start businesses, despite their eagerness to do so (see The Lost Entrepreneurial Generation by Matt Connolly), or to buy homes, with some exceptions (see The Young and the Rentless by Jordan Fraade). The mass downward mobility Millennials are experiencing is not a new phenomenon, either. As Phillip Longman documents (Wealth and Generations), every generation born after 1953 has done less well than the one that preceded it.

Looking back at that record, and looking forward, to an economy where globalization and computer algorithms continue to eat away at middle-class jobs while Thomas Piketty’s famous equation “r > g” (returns on capital exceed economic growth) continues to favor the rich, it’s hard to be optimistic. Sure, generational upward mobility was a defining reality for most of American history. But all good things come to an end, right? Perhaps two centuries of egalitarian prosperity is about all a democracy can sustain.

Given those four articles, you may not want to pick up the new issue of the Washington Monthly, but Glastris suggests that all this is not without precedence. He cites Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece – and that seems to show that stable, democratic political institutions and a competitive-but-rules-based economic system produced gentle patterns of growth and wealth distribution for five hundred years or so:

According to calculations by Ober’s Stanford colleague Ian Morris, per capita consumption in ancient Greece grew somewhere between 50 percent and 95 percent from 800 to 300 BC. That works out to an annual per capita growth rate of between .07 and .14 percent. Ober makes the case that the upper range of that estimate is more likely. If so, Greece’s per capita growth rate exceeded Rome’s and would not be matched again until the rise of Holland in the sixteenth century AD.

Of course, lots of other civilizations during this period – Egypt, Persia, Carthage – were wealthy, too. The difference was in the distribution. Though we lack the kinds of detailed economic records for these societies that we have for Greece and Rome, everything we know about them suggests that their wealth was overwhelmingly controlled by a narrow elite who lived in splendor while the masses living meagerly.

Not so in the Greek world. Home sizes… give an indication. Greek settlements “were never characterized by a few mansions and many huts,” Ober writes, but instead were clustered tightly around a mean size, and over time their size grew in lockstep. By 300 BC, he writes, “houses in the 75th percentile of the distribution were only about one fifth again… as large as those in the 25th percentile.”

Greece was far from a classless society. Ober cites the work of Geoffrey Kron of the University of Victoria, who looked at census reports for Athens in 322 BC and other records and calculates that the richest 1 percent of that city’s population owned about 30 percent of all private wealth, with the top 10 percent owning 60 percent. From there, Kron derives a Gini index – the standard measure of inequality – for Athens of 0.708. That is roughly comparable to the United States in 1953-54. To the extent, then, that America was a middle-class society in the 1950s, so too, apparently, was ancient Greece.

There will be a quiz on this:

One lesson conservatives will like is that Greece achieved its amazing mass prosperity with no interference from some distant, centralized government. Each city-state set its own policies, often within voluntary alliances of other city-states.

A couple other lessons liberals will like. First, the most democratic and economically successful poleis kept taxes, on average citizens, low, and put heavy burdens on the rich, through both direct taxation and strong social pressure on the wealthy to make “gifts” to the commonweal, like building warships. Second, these poleis also had extensive social programs, from grain price stabilization to welfare for invalids to state support for the widows and orphans of those who died in war. These programs were crucial, Ober says, in incentivizing citizens to take calculated risks for their own and the community’s benefit.

Isn’t that special? Yes, and it’s quite literally ancient history. The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall points out our times:

“Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” asks the Economist. “Why don’t voters demand more redistribution?” wonders David Samuels, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The headline on an April 7 National Catholic Reporter article reads: “Why aren’t Americans doing more to protest inequality?”

Edsall is puzzled:

There are legitimate grounds for grievance. For those in the bottom quintile, household income in inflation-adjusted dollars has dropped sharply, from $13,787 in 2000 to $11,651 in 2013. According to the Census Bureau, 64 million Americans currently live in the bottom quintile.

Still, it’s possible that poverty is less grueling than in the past, for several reasons. First, although incomes have declined, the cost of many goods – televisions, computers, air-conditioners, household appliances, cellphones – has fallen, leaving the bottom quintile less deprived than simple income figures might reflect. Second, people nowadays marry and have children later in life than in the past, postponing some financial demands to better earning years. Third, some economists contend that commonly used inflation measures result in excessively high estimates of the real-world cost of goods for consumers, thus making living conditions less dire than they might otherwise be.

He’s not buying any of that:

Society has drastically changed since the high-water mark of the 1930s and 1960s when collective movements captured the public imagination. Now, there is an inexorable pressure on individuals to, in effect, fly solo. There is very little social support for class-based protest – what used to be called solidarity.

Describing a process that sociologists have termed “individualization,” Christopher Ray, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in England, makes the point that individualization is, on one hand, a positive, enabling and democratic phenomenon. On the other hand, the same dynamic generates the conditions of omnipresent and ever-changing risk, perceived as new obligations or burdens, and new forces bearing down on the individual and on local life.

People today, Ray continues, “are not only able to make choices in an ever-expanding range of situations, but they are also compelled to do so.”

In effect, individualization is a double-edged sword. In exchange for new personal freedoms and rights, beneficiaries are agreeing to, if not being forced to, assume new risks and responsibilities.

We can’t protest now, as we’re fighting for our lives, one against the other:

Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who died earlier this year, noted the obstructions to collective social action. In 2002, in his book “Individualization,” Beck wrote that those who in the past saw co-workers as colleagues and allies now face competitive pressures such that when “a shared background still exists, community is dissolved in the acid bath of competition.” The result is “the isolation of individuals within homogeneous social groups.”

Beck goes on to contend that in advanced nations people have been released “from traditional class ties and family supports.” That has forced people to use their own resources to determine their “fate in the labor market, with all its attendant risks, opportunities and contradictions.”

In a 2007 paper, Beck argues that in the new social order, traditional classes – and traditional bonds of community – are disappearing. In their place, an alternative social hierarchy has emerged with comparable inequities:

“Risk and social inequality – indeed, risk and power – are two sides of the same coin. Risk presumes a decision, therefore a decision maker, and produces a radical asymmetry between those who take, define the risks and profit from them, and those who are assigned to them, who have to suffer the ‘unforeseen side effects’ of the decisions of others, perhaps even pay for them with their lives, without having had the chance to be involved in the decision-making process.”


Insofar as individualization has taken hold in the United States, the prospects for collective action on behalf of the poor are dim, at best.

Collective action on behalf of the poor requires a shared belief in the obligation of the state to secure the well-being of the citizenry. That belief has been undermined by what Beck calls the “insourcing” of risk, transferring obligations from the state to the individual. This reallocation of responsibility has been studied from various angles.

In his book “The Great Risk Shift,” Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, joins the argument by documenting the economic pressures on individuals resulting from the widespread erosion of social insurance. “For decades, Americans and their government upheld a powerful set of ideals that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity,” Hacker writes. “Today that message is starkly different: You are on your own.”

Collective social action, in turn, has been supplanted by a different kind of revolt. David A. Snow, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, noted that the top priorities of the specific movements associated with individualization – “the feminist movement, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movements, the black power movement, the disability rights movement, and, most recently, the fat-acceptance movement” – do not lend themselves to broad economic demands on behalf of the less well off.

There will be no populist revolution:

The cultural pressures driving inequality are, in addition, reinforced by heightened competition that has accelerated the decline of unions, served to justify the Republican refusal to raise minimum wages and undermined the workplace stature of employees. The result has been not only surging incomes at the top and little or no growth for the rest, but a withdrawal of community from those who need it most.

All of which brings us back to the question of why there is so little rebellion against entrenched social and economic injustice.

The answer is that those bearing the most severe costs of inequality are irrelevant to the agenda-setters in both parties. They are political orphans in the new order. They may have a voice in urban politics, but on the national scene they no longer fit into the schema of the left or the right. They are pushed to the periphery except for a brief moment on Election Day when one party wants their votes counted, and the other doesn’t.

That’s why the news of the agreement on new Trans-Pacific Partnership wasn’t the big news of the day. It was only more of the same. We have fallen into a socioeconomic dog-eat-dog structure that guarantees more of the same, while precluding any sort of populist revolution. Collective social action is now structurally impossible. The Republicans’ generations of race-baiting and their politics of resentment finally blew up in their faces – that was news. Only nine people had to die. Seeing the decisive end of the Civil War, one hundred and fifty years after Appomattox – that was news. There was no noble cause. Cool. But the slow end of how we thought America was supposed to work, for all of us, isn’t cool at all. That may not even be news.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to On the Possibility of Revolution

  1. BabaO says:

    “There will be no populist revolution . . . .”

    Yep, it’s missed it’s time. Real populists are seldom seen today. Which leaves what? Some modern-day Jacobin? It seems more probable than not as every day passes.

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