I’ve been holding this post for a while, because the situation is moving so quickly and the feelings are so high, but I’ve had enough people ask me about it that I thought it would be good to have a centralized place to direct them. This post is political, but it’s not partisan. If political analysis of that sort bugs you, feel free to click away.
For background, please take 1 minute to watch the following Monty Python clip:
In the commentary on Life of Brian, John Cleese said that the depictions of the fractious, factiony Jewish Revolutionaries were a satire on the left wing activist groups of the 1970s. “They were so interested in ideological purity,” he said, “that they never accomplished anything.”
The last couple years have seen a lot of this kind of thing on the left and the right–the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are not as disparate as their rhetoric makes them seem. To speak in very broad terms, both of these movements are responses to the theft of trillions of dollars from the public and private purses by the collusion of regulators with industry.
The history behind this theft, though, are non-trivial and often subtle, and it’s going to take a lot more than slogans like “Taxed Enough Already” or “We are the 99%” to get anything done. For an in-depth analysis of how this all happened, and a discussion of some things (that are unpopular with all four of the most visible political parties) that can be done, I recommend taking a look at this analysis:
The trouble with both OWS and The Tea Party, in my view, is that these groups have both succumb to the Judean People’s Front syndrome: when faced with a crisis, they have both run home to their pet ideologies as the source of all wisdom, created an insular culture with a bunker mentality, and then started shouting loudly about those who disagree. The Tea Partiers are blaming the socialists for the bailouts and agitating for a radical repeal of taxes and regulations (without agitating for any substantive budget cuts that would make such a repeal feasible), the OWS folks are latching on to a caricatured version of anarcho-syndicalism (the philosophy of Noam Chomsky) or democratic socialism (i.e. European-style central planning and social safety net).
And while everyone is shouting at each other, something vital is being missed:
The Loyal Opposition
When two people disagree about the best course of action, but agree on the goal or on the problem, and both share a true concern for the matter at issue, you have the right ground for the formation of a Loyal Opposition.
This is a basic value of republican society (note the small “r”)–another name for it is pragmatism. Such a system works very well at enhancing liberty and prosperity, as it allows you to watch out for the corruption you find most intolerable, while trusting that the other parties will be watching out for corruption that might slip past your radar. It’s “I’ll watch your back, you watch mine.” The world, and especially politics and economics, is a complex place, and the loyal opposition is vital to the continuation of the Enlightenment civilization.
The trouble is, it’s more comfortable to be in an echo chamber where those who share your views congregate, even if they do not share your values. Jeffersonian Libertarians, for example, have very few values in common with theocrats–but they’re both populating the tea party. Progressive Liberals (i.e. those who believe in working for incremental progress toward the liberalization of society) have very few values in common with Marxists. But these coalitions persist because it is more comfortable to talk in terms of this years electoral policy proposals than it is to talk in terms of long-term goals and agendas.
Different Kinds of Revolution
Broadly speaking (like everything in this post), there are two kinds of political revolution: The Populist, and the Coalitional.
Populism has always been the tool of the demagogue. The October Revolution, The Fascist Revolutions, The Cuban Revolution, and the other revolutions that darkened the 20th century were populist in nature. These are movements that start out of vague popular unrest, are backed by a lot of rage and irritation, and explode almost spontaneously on the scene. During the explosion phase, they grasp about, looking for a unifying voice, and that void gets filled by someone who can speak the right homilies–code phrases about class warfare, or about a Christian nation, or about a return to old-fashioned values, or about social justice. That someone is–very often–a demagogue: someone who is willing to say the popular thing and cloak themselves in the mantle of a humble savior, and who promises radical reform, redemption, or revolution. These movements are characterized by their pursuit of ideological purity, of utopian dreams, and of simple solutions that, while they sound appealing, do not stand up to rational scrutiny.
After all, it doesn’t follow that installing a revolutionary dictatorship will result in a better life for people who were suffering under the boot of a corrupt monarchy or corporate-controlled state (as happened in Russia and Cuba respectively). It doesn’t follow that returning to agrarian existence will make the country strong and morally pure and free from imperial oppression (as happened in China). It doesn’t follow that a return to Catholic morality will fix a crumbling infrastructure (as happened in Italy), or that embracing Protestant Lutheranism and Teutonic Identity Politics or exterminating the Jews will rescue a country’s looted economy (as happened in Germany).
Populist revolution is, and has always been, one of the two chief dangers faced by democracy (the other is popular apathy combined with a culture of fear, which invites aristocracy).
Coalitional Revolution happens when disparate interests with specific agendas team up around their few common goals. Because of the tenuous nature of the coalition, the aims of the Revolution look, necessarily, decidedly modest. “No taxation without representation” is a very, very thin goal, politically speaking, compared to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”
There have only been a handful of coalitional revolutions in world history, and they are the only ones that have not lead, in short order, to dictatorship. Two that spring to mind are the Athenian Revolution and the American Revolution (though there have been several others).
To take the case most of us are most familiar with, let’s look at the American Revolution. This was a period where anarchists, antimonarchs, property barons, industrialists, free trade advocates, theocrats, farmers, merchants, and socialists banded together for a single common goal: to end British Rule in the Americas. They were able to do this because of an implicit (and sometimes explicit) agreement that those who fight get a seat at the table to form the new government. There was no common cause, there was no common leader, and the Constitutional convention was filled with people who would just as soon have seen each other dead (fun fact: there have been a handful shoot outs and duels between senators during congressional sessions).
How do you create a revolution out of that? Thomas Paine found a way, by writing a book called Common Sense and encouraging open debates to get people to think about the two issues they could all agree on: that foreign kings were obsolete, and that a people had the right to chose their own government.
The American Revolution was preceded by years of public education and debates, of long and boring discussions and arguments and fistfights (and sometimes gunfights). In all of this time, the one thing that was never in the cards (despite how some people agitated for it) was a grand unifying vision for the country that would result. It was the only way it could happen, in a landmass populated by colonies that were both urban and rural, both slave and free, theocratic and religiously liberal, separatist and cosmopolitan. The people who pushed the revolution realized that the only way to make meaningful change was to table the question of reforms until they were in the place to implement them.
And who can blame them? Patrick Henry wanted a theocracy. Madison wanted a secular state. Franklin wanted scientific socialism. Jefferson wanted anarcho-capitalism. The Baptists in New England wanted the Quakers in Pennsylvania burned, deported, or tried for heresy. Some wanted universal slavery–others wanted it abolished at the outset. The agendas were so diametrically opposed that the Revolution would never have happened had they not believed one another capable of honor–and had the strength to hold each other to the obligation to hash out compromises the hard way.
In school, we learned about the uncompromising men, heroes or villains–people like Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams, but “uncompromising” is the one thing that they weren’t. Because when they sat down in Philadelphia, they did nothing but compromise. They did not trust each other with the power to take their property, their land, their freedom, or their labor if given a chance, so they hammered out a compromise that let each of them keep what they held most dear, without giving them the power to take those things from other people.
They found a kind of permanence in an ideal that Marx articulated eighty years later, but never understood: The Permanent Revolution.
Why It Blew Up in Oakland
Reading about a coalitional revolution, you might hear in it the echoes of the Civil Rights movement, and you’d be right. Martin Luther King was very well aware of the techniques of Coalitional Revolution, and during the 60s you could find, at many protests, tents for the sharing of ideas. Little universities, at which people shared reports from the front lines and (at least before 1969, when things started to fall apart) welcomed disagreement and discussion. There were people who were in the business of working out compromises–southern churchgoers side by side with Marxist Jews from New York, Republicans side by side with Democrats, disagreeing about the best policy framework while all agreeing that segregation, lynching, and systematic repression had to go.
But one of the camps in that movement DID lose: The Race Warriors. All across the country, there were people invested in the ideals of violent, populist revolution. They agitated for (and tried to create) a full-blown civil war around the subject of race.
For better or worse, a lot of those people still live in Oakland, and they have a cottage industry called professional agitation. It doesn’t take much effort to learn that crowds on the street can be turned violent very easily. In a group of ten thousand, you only need a few dozen people positioned in the right places to turn a peaceful protest into a riot–either by goading the protesters into misbehavior, or by attacking the cops directly, forcing the cops to push back and escalate. These few folks in Oakland and their brethren throughout the U.S. (and also members of various intelligence services, who have non-classified manuals on the technique) are very good at this kind of destabilizing work.
This is why New York might have had a few police skirmishes early on, but Oakland is the place where things went batshit crazy. Oakland is a city whose underlying social history (on both sides of the blue line) guarantees that, if a riot is going to become a war, Oakland is where it starts.
Street wars are one of the fertile germinating soils of populist revolution, and they are a very, very dangerous thing. So far, the OWS movement in New York seems to be holding their shit together in spite of repeated skirmishes–let’s hope they continue to do so, rather than letting misguided solidarity with Oakland push them into escalating (and let’s hope the vast majority of the Oakland protest keeps its cool heads even as the agitators try to work their dark magic).
Becoming The Judean People’s Front (or not)
Without a non-partisan, unambitious slate of achievable objectives, Occupy and The Tea Party are both going to fail. So long as the members remain committed to utopian ideologies or uncompromising agendas, all they’ll achieve is sewing more and more discord and partisanship in a country that is already suffering from deep-rooted, demagogue-driven populist vitriol.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Tea Party, and Occupy, and most of mainstream America agree on the basic problem:
Government and industry (in this case, the financial industry) have colluded in such a way as to create massive opportunities for fraud and theft, and they then colluded to reward those who perpetrated the theft by protecting them from the consequences of their actions (and all this in a climate of grab-it-while-you-can budgetary policy).
That has to stop, and stopping it without ruining our economy or our environment or our stability as a civilization is a solvable, short term, practical goal.
But people from both camps, and from the vast silent majority, have to start narrowing their focus and talking to each other. We have to rediscover the loyal opposition.
The Real Value of Occupy and The Tea Party
Because of how easily they are gamed, subverted, and perverted, street protests and agitation are often a very, very ineffective tools of political change. They can be valuable though, and if a coalitionary revolution arises from them, they can be world-changers. The small goals that the coalition achieves sends ripple effects throughout the world (look at what’s already happening just with the small amount of liberalization brought about by Arab Spring).
Taking to the streets in useless demonstrations of emotion and unfocused frustration can, and often does, defuse those emotions, which can render the reform impulse impotent.
But for all these objections, both of these movements share something of real value even in their most useless and wasteful demonstrations:
The are reminding people of their civil rights, and of their importance. The right to peaceably assemble, the right to petition the government, the right to bear arms, the right to free speech–these are rights that are again unpopular among vast swaths of the population.
When the powers that be push back disproportionately, it reminds people that this is America, and the very rights to not be gassed and to not be provoked to riot by the cops that are supposed to prevent a riot, are sacred. And they have to be, if we want to continue to live in an open society where argument, and experimentation, and discourse are allowed.
Keeping those rights front and center shores up the ornery nature of the American public, and makes them less likely to accept dictatorial solutions.