Will the oligarchy trigger a revolution in the US?

The political system in the US is, if not actually broken, on the verge of collapse. We have a system where the oligarchy has taken complete control of the system to ensure that only those candidates who are friendly to its goals of vacuuming up as much wealth as it can from the rest of society get on the ballot as representatives of the major parties, so that whichever candidate wins is practically immaterial to them.

What provides a perception of difference between the parties are social issues and while these are real and important and worth fighting for, we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that they are also being used to give us the illusion of real choice when what we have is limited choice on issues that the oligarchy does not care about and indeed (on women’s and gay rights for example) may even have progressive views. We are not given a chance to voice our opinion on the fundamental economic issues that affect everyone. As a result we have the steady and accelerating increase in the gap between the super-wealthy and everyone else, with the latter slowly but surely sinking into lower and lower standards of living.

Veteran journalist Chris Hedges says that things are so bad that it may tip over into revolution.

Corporations, freed from all laws, government regulations and internal constraints, are stealing as much as they can, as fast as they can, on the way down. The managers of corporations no longer care about the effects of their pillage. Many expect the systems they are looting to fall apart. They are blinded by personal greed and hubris. They believe their obscene wealth can buy them security and protection. They should have spent a little less time studying management in business school and a little more time studying human nature and human history. They are digging their own graves.

Our shift to corporate totalitarianism, like the shift to all forms of totalitarianism, is incremental. Totalitarian systems ebb and flow, sometimes taking one step back before taking two steps forward, as they erode democratic liberalism. This process is now complete.

The corporate state seeks to maintain the fiction of our personal agency in the political and economic process. As long as we believe we are participants, a lie sustained through massive propaganda campaigns, endless and absurd election cycles and the pageantry of empty political theater, our corporate oligarchs rest easy in their private jets, boardrooms, penthouses and mansions. As the bankruptcy of corporate capitalism and globalization is exposed, the ruling elite are increasingly nervous. They know that if the ideas that justify their power die, they are finished. This is why voices of dissent—as well as spontaneous uprisings such as the Occupy movement—are ruthlessly crushed by the corporate state.

He says that going down this road will inevitably lead to social upheaval and that is when things start to get chaotic and unpredictable.

Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, descends into nihilism, random violence and chaos. It consumes itself. This, at its core, is why I disagree with some elements of the Black Bloc anarchists. I believe in strategy. And so did many anarchists, including Berkman, Emma Goldman, Pyotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin.

By the time ruling elites are openly defied, there has already been a nearly total loss of faith in the ideas—in our case free market capitalism and globalization—that sustain the structures of the ruling elites. And once enough people get it, a process that can take years, “the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent,” as Berkman wrote. “Evolution becomes revolution.”

This is where we are headed. I do not say this because I am a supporter of revolution. I am not. I prefer the piecemeal and incremental reforms of a functioning democracy. I prefer a system in which our social institutions permit the citizenry to nonviolently dismiss those in authority. I prefer a system in which institutions are independent and not captive to corporate power. But we do not live in such a system. Revolt is the only option left. Ruling elites, once the ideas that justify their existence are dead, resort to force. It is their final clutch at power. If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police—to get them, in essence, to defect—nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries.

We have to be careful about casually tossing revolution in as a political option. In the film O Lucky Man there is graffiti on a wall that spoofs the well-known quote by Karl Marx that “religion is the opium of the people” (His full quote is actually “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”) saying instead “Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals”. And there is some truth to that. It is often middle-class intellectuals, those who see themselves as the vanguard of change, who are quickest to call for revolution. But as Mao Zedong said, “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Revolutions cause great turmoil and upheaval and death and destruction and can often leave people in a situation that was even worse than before for a considerable period of time. Real people get hurt and it is often those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and have the least resources to fall back upon who get hurt the most. So the call for revolution must never ever be taken lightly, as Hedges is careful to point out. While some intellectuals may glibly call for it, it will only happen if the conditions are so dire that people will be willing to undergo the greater hardship that will inevitably ensue as the oligarchy uses the power at its disposal to crack down harshly. It is the oligarchy that is the real instigator of revolution by squeezing people until they feel they have no choice but to bypass the system.

Actions like the Occupy Wall Street movement are the precursors of greater unrest and give us glimpses of how the authorities will react to them. It is clear that they will try and suppress such protests with force. If those kinds of protests recur and gain momentum, given the strength of the US military and the paramilitarization of its police forces, the crucial question will be on whose side the ordinary soldier and police officer see themselves and whether they will be willing to turn their weapons on ordinary people fighting for their survival.


  1. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I really do wish Hedges (and you) were right, but People’s Revolutions only occur when the masses have, or perceive that they have, nothing left to lose. Karl Marx expected his revolution to come in Germany but the German elites were smart enough to outsource poverty and supply just enough to the working classes to keep them engaged. Tsar Nicolas, on the other hand, was not so smart and Lenin was able to bring about the revolution there. We are very, very far from that point because there continues to be a sufficient amount of placating bread and circuses to go around.

    Our own revolution was never about people, but rather We The Wealthy Owners of Property and was more akin to the uprising of the English nobility in 1215 against King John than the Communist Revolutions of the 20th century.

    I think the Oligarchy is self policing and smart enough to not overreach.

    Short of unemployment much greater than that of our Great Depression the 0.1 percent is safe, and if the worst happens, the helicopters are ready to whisk them away to undisclosed locations beyond our nation’s borders.

    Do all you can to make today a more radical day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ian Welsh writes a lot about the oligarchy and the near-inevitability of violence.

    You are going to lose your prosperity forever. Sure, there will be good years (like about 3 years at the end of Clinton’s reign.

    That is the smart money bet. It is not that it couldn’t be stopped, it could be. The policies required are known, the technology is available, and so on. But they aren’t going to happen, because both parties want it to happen. They compete to give money to the rich, that is their job, and apologists (for whichever party) enable it.

    People keep using the Japanese lost decade as an analogy.

    Japan did not lose a decade, it never recovered. And it is still getting worse. And Japan, remember, started with a huge trade surplus and a massive savings rate (though it did have a demographic time bomb.)

  3. md says

    this Chris Hedges?

    Ive got a better proposition than revolution for everyone involved: secession. Assume two things – its peaceful and geographically achievable. Would Progressives go for it? I can see many rational reasons why I think they should but id rather hear from them.

  4. alkaloid says

    @md, #2

    As much as I’ve disagreed with what you’ve written, I’ll say it: yes. I’m well aware of the fact that much of what I would like to see happen I fully expect a significant portion of the country would otherwise balk at. If secession was peaceful and if it finally gave people like me as leftists the chance to build the nation we always wanted instead of the one we’re forced to deal with then I’ll support it.

  5. alkaloid says

    A couple of errors/an omission my apologies. I know that md’s response was #3, not #2. I also think that in many ways Chris Hedges represents the other pole of failure among American leftists besides being affiliated with the Democrats (even beyond the plagiarism allegations, which unlike a lot of other people I am willing to take seriously). He speaks for the tendency of a significant faction American leftists to redefine revolution in such a way as to make it even more difficult, as well as heaping more obstacles upon it based on a vision of social changes as coming from a place of irrationalism/mysticism, slandering rational thought, and treating an essentially nihilistic perspective of human nature/social movements which actually undermines revolutionary thought as a starting point.

  6. lpetrich says

    Peter Turchin – The history of inequality He’s a biologist who decided to apply quantitative measures to trends in human history, like the emergence of large-scale societies and their ups and downs over the centuries.

    He and colleague Sergey Nefedov studied ancient Rome and medieval and early modern England, France, and Russia, and they found a rise-and-fall cycle that is typically lasts 3 or 4 centuries. During the rise phase, the empire is relatively cohesive and egalitarian, and it may conquer some neighboring territory. But elites start getting bigger and richer, often at the expense of the rest of the population, and they end up fighting each other, starting the fall phase. The empire suffers from strife and civil war, and it may lose territory. Members of elites get killed, flee, or descend into commoner status, and as the strife burns out the empire becomes ready to rise again.

    Superimposed on this cycle is a two-generation 50-to-60-year “father and son” cycle of episodes of strife that usually happen in the fall phase. One generation revolts, and its child generation does not want to repeat the experience. But it’s a distant memory for its grandchild generation, and it may have a lot to revolt about. So it revolts.

    Peter Turchin looked at the US over the history since its independence. He looked at indicators like various sorts of strife, largest personal wealth (inequality), fraction of GDP as wages (labor income), fraction of population that is immigrants (labor supply), height (a proxy for health), and age of first marriage (social optimism/pessimism). He had to remove overall trends, but after that, the curves had a strong correlation. He found these correlations:
    Strife: low to high
    Largest wealth: low to high
    Wage fraction: high to low
    Immigration: low to high
    Height; high to low
    First marriage: early to late
    The US was in the first of each of these states in the Era of Good Feelings, around 1825. It then went into the second of each of these states in the Gilded Age, around 1900. It then went back to the first around 1960, the Eisenhower-Kennedy Era, and it’s now headed for the second one.

  7. lpetrich says

    Cliodynamics features a lot of Peter Turchin’s work. Scrolling down to 2012 entries, we find a graph of US political violence that PT had compiled from a large number of incidents. He collected incidents of terrorism (few on many), lynchings (many on few), and riots (many on many). He found troughs in the Era of Good Feelings and the Eisenhower Era, and a peak during the Gilded Age. We seem headed toward another peak of big spikes in violence. Also evident is a father-and-son 2-generation cycle. There wasn’t a big spike in 1820 — did Americans feel too good back then? But there were ones in 1870, 1920, and 1970, and that suggests that we are due for a big spike in 2020.

    So it looks like we have a rough ride ahead.

  8. lpetrich says

    Some more interesting work: CYCLES OF AMERICAN HISTORY drawing from the work of the likes of Arthur Schlesingers I and II.

    They proposed a cycle of liberal vs. conservative. Liberal eras are eras of reform, conservative ones eras of retrenchment. Each one leads to the other. Liberal ones require a lot of reform effort that can be difficult to sustain, especially if it seems to have won some major victories. Conservative ones accumulate problems that society’s elites are unable or unwilling to address.

    Their eras with mine at the end:

    Lib: Adoption of Constitution, Con: Hamiltonian Federalism, Lib: Jeffersonian Era, Con: Retrenchment after War of 1812, Lib: Jacksonian Democracy, Con: Domination by Slaveowners, Lib: Civil War and Reconstruction, Con: Gilded Age, Lib: Progressive Era, Con: Republican Restoration, Lib: The New Deal, Con: The Eisenhower Era, Lib: Sixties Radicalism, Con: Gilded Age II (my identification)

    These eras typically last about 10 – 20 years, but the original Gilded Age lasted for over 30 years, and Gilded Age II seems like it’ll last even longer. It seemed to me that the Occupy movement would be the beginning of its end, but it was crushed. The original Gilded Age followed some major national trauma, and Gilded Age II did likewise.

  9. says

    The US has two choices: revolution or collapse. With the state police turning into police states, military weaponry in the hands of local authority, it’s either going to be a bloody one or a house of cards collapsing. If corrupt governments can’t steal enough tax from the poor to pay to oppress the poor, the police and military might finally turn on the 1%ers.

    The US’s recent history is more and more resembling the end of the Roman Empire. Hannibal took elephants to attack Rome and scared the life out of the empire, after which Rome went on a 150 year long rampage of imperialism, invading and killing people in other countries, stealing their wealth along the way. The empire collapsed (the “crisis of the third century”) because of economic realities – new wealth and resources could not be found to sustain growth and consumption, as well as economic disparity between the rich and poor.

    It should not surprise that the third century CE was also when christianity came to dominate Rome and helped incite its emporers to engage in wars of acquisition.

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