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