Update: The Next American Revolution, revised

February 26, 2011

This project was based on the conviction that we need a revolution to save ourselves, the overthrow, ultimately of the latest version of capitalism that is impoverishing most of us, trashing the planet, and running our political system. But that will require first of all, a constitutional revolution to lay the political groundwork for a democratic struggle over our future. That conviction has only deepened since I started work on the book, and recent events in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states have underlined both the need and the importance of acting.

But I have also come to see the task of the book differently, in part because I know more and more that I have no ready answers. As if we didn’t already know it, events in the Middle East have shown just how unpredictable are the time and place of revolutionary upheaval, and of the outcome of seemingly successful popular struggles. What are we to make of these events here? Certainly, Wisconsinites of all stripes have drawn important conclusions from the popular uprising in Egypt, not so much intellectual conclusions as ones of the heart — that popular action is legitimate, that success against our petty tyrants is possible, that pulling together people from all walks of life really can happen.

Does the uprising in Wisconsin “have feet”? Can it travel to other parts of the country, as the Tunisian uprising has spread elsewhere in the Middle East (and Midwest)? We don’t know. As a social scientist (by training, not by profession any more), I think I know that a lot depends upon the authorities. Will they provoke similar uprisings around the country, or will they lie low, counting on the apathy of citizens even in the face of rising food and gas prices, high hidden unemployment, continuing foreclosures, the scandal of Washington’s deals with Wall Street, and all the rest?

So the present vision for the book, if I continue working at it, is to look more closely at revolutionary paths, both those closed to us and those that might be open. I think I see two of each. Of those closed to us, the most obvious is what the seventies called “armed struggle.” The American state is simply too well-equipped for any such option to succeed, whether your vision is short-term of “long march”.

The other closed option, alas, is a Tunisian or Egyptian style popular uprising. Like armed struggles, such uprisings gather strength from the odd combination of intransigence and internal weakness. The American state is both quite capable of buying off and diffusing popular demands and maintaining a unified front in the face of massive popular demonstrations. Witness the Bush administration’s response to the enormous February 15, 2003 demonstrations in opposition to making war on Iraq. Or the Democrat’s willingness to curry anti-war support while refusing to act upon anti-war demands. Barring some enormous and unforeseen crisis, Americans simply won’t turn out for the sorts of protests that overturned Ben Ali or Mubarak. And those who do will be bought off or ignored, probably both.

Of the options that might succeed, I currently see two. The first is a constitutional revolution built upon a long process of organizing and agitating. Move to Amend and Fix Congress First! are both making stabs at this, but without the sort of radical democratic agenda I would advocate (see my chapter 2). As I originally intended, I hope to lay out some of the ingredients of such a struggle. But I’m not now convinced we will get very far by this route. Or maybe I’m just not up to the political organizing it would take to get there. And I know lots of people who could not believe in any such grand revolution. From them I take the second path, what I am tentatively calling “practical secession.”

There are a number of active secessionist movements in the U.S. today. Kirkpatrick Sale, a thinker I admire a lot, heads up an institute in Vermont devoted to studying and promoting secession. Bill Kaufman has a book I haven’t yet read introducing many of these movements, some of them frankly racist and atavist, others with better credentials.

But I have in mind something different. It may be possible, as many people I know assume, that we can simply rebuild our society and economy locally on new terms and provide ourselves and our neighbors, at least, with the resilience to survive some coming collapse of the too large societies we are currently enmeshed in. I would put the task in less optimistic and more radical terms.

As David Harvey argues, contemporary capitalism depends vitally on a compound rate of growth to survive, a demand that is, in effect, systematically destroying the planet as habitat for humanity. We can withdraw our support is a variety of ways. Money has to circulate beyond the local to contribute to the logic of capital reproduction. Local exchange takes money out of circulation to the extent it remains local. Similarly, labor has to be exploitable to provide the surplus capital requires. Withdraw from the labor market and you undermine the basis of circulation and reproduction of capital. So localization has a revolutionary logic. How far localization goes, how much it can achieve is another question, and I am currently as skeptical of this path as of the other. But I’m also convinced it has to be considered among the options that those of us who are fed up and can’t take it any more have.

So the book, as far as it goes here, is still a work in progress. Browse if you’re still interested and give me some feedback. There are too few people, even here in Northern California, who are thinking in these terms to bounce off of and learn from. Join the conversation.

Michael Foley, Feb. 26, 2011

Gulf Coast Disaster: Let Them Eat Jobs

May 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Disaster:  Let Them Eat Jobs

Michael Foley
As the nation’s greatest environmental disaster unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, it has become strikingly clear that environmental issues aren’t just about endangered owls and gorgeous views.  They’re also about livelihoods, about the ways people make a living and their ability to pass down their way of life to their children.  The oil slick off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama threaten wildlife and human livelihoods in the same measure.  “If it gets to the [marsh] grasses,” said one fisherman, “the natural abundance that we depend on is gone.”

President Obama’s efforts to reassure are hardly promising.  BP will pay — but court cases following the Exxon Valdez disaster put quit to any expectation that long-term costs will be borne by the polluters.  The Federal government will continue to do all it can to minimize the damage from the oil spill — but the response is in BP’s hands and damage is already widespread.  Despite the dismal prospects for the region, Obama promised that the government will see to it that affected residents have jobs.

Lose your livelihood and your way of life.  It’s OK.  You can always have a job.  Obama’s resort to the familiar cliche was no doubt unthinking.  After all, it is a matter of faith for both liberals and conservatives that jobs are what make the economy go ’round, jobs are economic development, and it’s jobs people want when they worry about their future.

But for the self-employed, for those who’ve built a fishing or oystering or tour boat business from scratch, for those who live by the sea because they love the way of life, a job, just any job, isn’t much of a consolation for the loss of their independence, self-reliance and deep knowledge of their business and their place.  A job, for someone who has carved out their own place in the world, might even be considered little more than wage slavery.

Wage slavery.  Few know it, but “wage slavery” is a deeply American phrase, coined not by Karl Marx but by struggling American farmers and working people at the very beginning of the nineteenth century when most Americans worked for themselves but also found their independence threatened by an emerging mercantile and corporate economy, nurtured by the courts and promoted by ambitious schemes of national development along lines first sketched by Alexander Hamilton.  The new economy would be built on debt and taxes, and the winners would, over the course of the next two hundred years, come to employ the vast majority of the population.  Sizable majorities of those present at the birth of the nation, however, saw not liberation but enslavement in the prospect of a United States of wage earners.

Were these early rebels — who were also often the heroes of struggles to democratize the aristocratic state constitutions of the day — so far off the mark?  For liberal and conservative intellectuals, business leaders, and professionals, the idea is just unthinkable.  They may revel in their job satisfaction even where they answer to a boss.  But for most people, a job is just a job, and the boss may be benevolent or cruel or just stupid, but he or she is always the boss.  “Do what you’re told, and keep your mouth shut” is the wisdom that governs most people’s work life.

It was certainly the dubious wisdom that kept miners at work at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where a disaster foretold took the lives of 29 miners in April.  Recent testimony by survivors, widows and relatives of the dead make clear that conditions were extraordinarily unsafe at the mine.  But workers who might have walked off the job in protest, if they had been unionized, were routinely dismissed if they raised safety concerns.

The eleven workers who died in the explosion that sank BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig were well paid by any standard.  Some of them may have thrilled at the danger of a job that set them far out at sea with risks they couldn’t always anticipate.  But if they knew they were in immediate danger, it’s not clear that they had any more recourse than the Upper Big Branch miners.

It’s unlikely that any of BP’s even better paid executives will go to jail for those deaths, even if the evidence that they were involved in criminal negligence is substantial.  It is even less likely that the corporation itself — or Halliburton, which had just completed work on the well, or Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig — will suffer more than a handslap.  Corporations don’t go to jail.  Corporations — persons though they be, according to our courts — don’t face the death penalty.  Corporations, after all, provide the jobs that are the lifeblood of the economy.  As for their victims, those that survive, and the multiple ways of life that were built on the Gulf Coast’s natural resources, well, a way of life can always be replaced — with jobs.

One Man’s Terrorist….

March 3, 2010

Ronald Reagan may have had one thing right.  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  Or something to that effect.  The brouhaha over Joe Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin, Texas, last month might be dismissed with that old saw.  But the debate has deeper significance.  While left and right bicker over whether Stack was a “terrorist” or just another angry American, progressives show that, once again, they just don’t get it.

Stack has become a hero manque to large swaths of the American public because he took on the tax system and the federal government in the most direct way possible.  Liberals and progressives, leaping to the defense of big government, insist we recognize that Stack’s act was classic terrorism.  In doing so they line up as implicit defenders of the “war on terror” and the Patriot Act — so long as the playing field is level:  not just Muslims and foreigners but red-blooded Americans, too.  That would be bad enough but not unprecedented:  it was a liberal president Clinton and his liberal attorney general, Janet Reno, after all, who backed the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the pre-cursor to the Patriot Act, in the face of another act of domestic terrorism.

Maybe more troubling is the evidence that progressives want to ignore what Stack was all about and why he has won his momentary notoriety.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Security Scam

January 20, 2010

by Michael Foley

From the moment the news of Haiti’s devastating earthquake hit the White House, the U.S. has been committed to a military presence there. Yesterday, Haitian President Rene Preval officially granted the U.S. control of the Port au Prince airport, but the U.S. military has been in control from Day Two. Complaints have been coming in from organizations as well-known as Doctors Without Borders that the military has obstructed the flow of aid, turning back one important shipment three times over the last few days. This morning Amy Goodman’s report from Haiti on Democracy Now! showed U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne clutching their rifles and machine guns while directing crowds at Port au Prince’s General Hospital, unbidden by the medical staff there. Across the street was the flattened pharmacy, where medical supplies and the bodies of pharmacists, doctors and patients were buried. No soldier lent his hands to uncover the bodies or search for supplies. After all, they had their hands full.

There is no “security crisis” in Haiti. At least that is the testimony of the doctors, volunteers and those journalists who venture into the so-called red zones established by the military. According to Dr. Evan Lyon, the American surgeon working at the General Hospital, there are clinics with ten or twenty doctors and ten patients in so-called “secure” areas, but a thousand wait for surgery at General Hospital, which has only enough supplies to continue to operate for another 12 hours. Maybe the 82nd Airborne, now that they’ve arrived, will help get those supplies downtown. But they’ll have to put their guns down first.

The U.S. reaction to the crisis in Haiti has been likened to the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Fear the victims. Fear the black face in a sea of crisis. But the focus on “security” and reliance on a military presence in the face of untold human suffering bespeaks a deeper malady. Read the rest of this entry »

Private Insurance vs. Public Life

January 8, 2010

by Michael Foley

The Grange Hall in my little community is one of two venues where community groups can rent a room or a ballroom for their activities.  There’s a commercial-grade kitchen under construction, with high hopes that it will serve as an incubator for locally based small food businesses.  But the insurance industry has its claws even into these eminently civic purposes.  Non-profits, small businesses, wedding parties, even little groups of friends have to prove they have a million dollars in liability insurance just to walk in the door.  Why?  Because a single serious accident could cost the Grange its building.  And it’s insurer wants to see, every year, the insurance certificates of every entity that rented Grange facilities.

We tolerate this situation because it is the way we pay for medical care.  Yes, it is primarily a matter of how we cover the inevitable expenses of an accident or serious case of food poisoning or, God forbid, another outbreak of Legionnaires Disease.  Liability insurance, of course, also covers loss of livelihood resulting from such injuries, the pain and suffering experienced by the victim and his or her family, and penalties for gross negligence.  It represents, in short, the complete privatization of public welfare and even basic police functions. Read the rest of this entry »

A New Year’s Revolution

January 1, 2010

Welcome to The Next American Revolution, coming soon to your neighborhood. Or so we can hope. Because the revolution we need will have to come neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, congressional district by congressional district.

Nothing is more depressing, given the corrupted state of our politics, than to hear responsible and perceptive critics of business as usual calling for greater efforts to secure federal funds to solve local problems, as we did this morning on our local public radio station. Of course we need all the help we can get, especially in rural counties like ours, where unemployment is high and underemployment higher, where poverty levels are growing and state services shrinking. Of course we could benefit from help from any source.

But all those federal funds out there — for small business development, for green enterprise, for strengthening local food systems, for creating jobs — come at some price. One price is the procrustean bed of Congressional micro-management on which all proposals must stretch and the limited reach, consequently, of such funding. “Small business,” if I’m not mistaken, is currently defined as any business employing fewer than 500 employees, and much of what the Small Business Administration does caters to businesses at the larger end of the spectrum. Local start-ups need not apply. Read the rest of this entry »


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