The Occupy movement in many cities have been forced to fully or partially vacate their sites and people are wondering what’s next. Chris Hedges has been doing some excellent reporting on the movement and in a recent piece titled This Is What Revolution Looks Like he argues that the movement has exposed the bankruptcy of the oligarchy. The oligarchy thinks that by forcibly disrupting the demonstrations and evicting the encampments, they will destroy the movement and force the occupants to go back to meekly accepting the status quo.
The rogues’ gallery of Wall Street crooks, such as Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, Howard Milstein at New York Private Bank & Trust, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co., no doubt think it’s over. They think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes.
He says they are wrong.
The historian Crane Brinton in his book “Anatomy of a Revolution” laid out the common route to revolution. The preconditions for successful revolution, Brinton argued, are discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Our corporate elite, as far as Brinton was concerned, has amply fulfilled these preconditions. But it is Brinton’s next observation that is most worth remembering. Revolutions always begin, he wrote, by making impossible demands that if the government met would mean the end of the old configurations of power. The second stage, the one we have entered now, is the unsuccessful attempt by the power elite to quell the unrest and discontent through physical acts of repression.
Hedges draws upon his long experience as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to draw parallels between what is happening in the US and what he saw in crumbling despotic regimes elsewhere.
George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but that once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We have now entered the era of naked force. The vast million-person bureaucracy of the internal security and surveillance state will not be used to stop terrorism but to try and stop us.
Despotic regimes in the end collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers who are ordered to carry out acts of repression, such as the clearing of parks or arresting or even shooting demonstrators, no longer obey orders, the old regime swiftly crumbles.
The signs of collapse are everywhere. It begins when bystanders, impressed by the stoicism and doggedness of the protestors, defect from their usual stance of neutrality or subservience to the state and ruling class and into the ranks of the protestors.
The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.
Hedges wrote this on November 15 before the police actions that occurred at UC Berkeley and Davis. In Berkeley, 70-year old Robert Hass, a professor of poetry, former poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, couldn’t believe what he was hearing of police viciously beating students and hurriedly went with his wife to see if the reports were true. He described what happened to them when they found themselves face to face with police in the now familiar paramilitary riot gear assembled in riot formation.
Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.
My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.
None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm.
One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.
What popular movements have is a process of ebb and flow. Because they are loose and unorganized and lack money, they tend to occur in waves, with periods of dormancy in between. The key question is whether subsequent waves build on the previous ones and get larger.
When you see elderly and ‘respectable’ people, members of the class that would normally favor law and order and ally themselves with the oligarchy and against the rabble in the streets, willing to switch sides and put their own bodies on the line, you are witnessing a sea change.