So how would a revolution actually start?
Our daughter, an ER nurse who thinks ahead, has been reading the New York Times Op Eds post-Kavanaugh. She asked this question.
I don’t think it will start before the election on November 6. Everyone is too busy.
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After the mid-term election, if the Democrats pick up some seats – enough to make some difference at the national level – there will continue to be a period while people are waiting to see what happens next. If there is good stuff at the local level – like, if Jovanka (a democratic socialist and DSA member) wins for California Assembly District 15 – then people will take a breath and focus locally. People will get behind the more do-able parts of her Bernie-esque agenda and try to move it forward. That’s all.
But if people feel that this is just another election that has been stolen like Bush vs Gore in 2000 or 2004 and Hilary vs Bernie vs Trump in 2016, then the rope that ties things together will start to shred visibly, like in a movie where the hero is hanging off the side of a cliff and people up above on the top and down below can all equally see what’s about to happen. We will all agree: We’ll say: “You stole it!” and they’ll agree, “Yes, we stole it! Ha ha!”
Like Samuel Jackson in the Instagram mashup, yelling at Kavanaugh: “You did it!! Yes, you did, Brett!”
Then things may start moving.
There are two clocks ticking. One, obviously, is climate change. There will be increasing wildfires, hurricanes, floods, new diseases, etc. The price of food will go up (it already has; I used to be able to buy everything I wanted at the Monterey Market for $35. Now it’s more like $70.) It will probably take a year or two for us here in the Berkeley bubble to feel the big changes, so we will just sit like the frogs in the pot while other parts of the world burn and drown and people put what they can carry on their backs and leave home.
The other clock is the economy. There is another crash coming, and this time the ruling class will not even pretend to put a cushion under those who fall to the bottom. We will all be Puerto Rico while the top .01% sweeps up whatever shakes loose and stashes it away. Note that in the wake of the vote for Kavanaugh, the stock market went up. These people are placing bets.
The economic crisis clock is ticking faster than climate change because the people placing their bets will want to get out with their winnings before it all blows up.
These two clocks will run out no matter what happens on November 6. There is no Planet B, no Westward Expansion, no Darkest Africa to claim, raid and rob.
At the point I called Joe to come and help me think about this. What follows includes his ideas.
A Real Revolution Requires a Power Shift
A revolution in America would not be guerilla warfare like Cuba or Vietnam, despite the millions of guns that are out there. If the civil institutions of our limited and distorted but persisting democracy can survive an electoral transition, a revolution in America could start using these existing institutions. That sounds like Bernie’s agenda: free public higher education, rebuilding infrastructure, tax the rich, jobs in a reclaimed public sector, Medicare for all. But that agenda is the outcome of a power shift, not the power shift itself. A real revolution is, by definition, a shift in class power, in our case from the present ruling class of capital to the working class, the vast majority.
Not all so-called “revolutions” really involve a power shift. When there is just a replacement of one ruling group by another, but no fundamental change in class power and therefore social institutions, that’s not a real revolution. Examples of this are the Philippines and the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former USSR republics, etc. There have only been a few real revolutions, maybe five, in the last 100 years. They can also be reversed and/or distorted nearly beyond recognition.
If a revolution in the US actually began electorally, or looked like it might, at some point the current ruling class would either fix the election, deny the results or attack the new government, eventually by force if necessary. The key example for comparison might be Chile. We would have to be prepared to defend the gains by force, as Allende was not prepared to do in Chile, despite the movement, and many workers, asking him to do so.
There is also the possibility of international action against a revolutionary USA from Europe, Japan, even a capitalist China. From the point of view of the EU, a revolutionary USA might look like a Venezuela. On the other hand, it is possible that if we are prepared, and much of the military refuses to fight us, then it might be fairly peaceful, as it was in 1917 in Russia. Remember that one of the reasons we eventually pulled out of Vietnam was because the soldiers themselves were starting to refuse orders. There still might be a civil war later, with or without foreign intervention. The point is that in order to achieve a real power shift, there would have to be mass support clearly demonstrated for radical changes.
The best way to minimize violence is to be prepared, openly and publicly, and have a big strong mass movement with a leadership that can be trusted. In this we can think of it as a super strike on a much bigger level. We are light-years away from that now, but things can change very fast, even in our lifetimes.
What are the Obstacles? Racism, Police, Lack of Leadership
We can’t just think of a revolution as voting in the good guys and re-writing laws. There will be opposition. One way to evaluate the likelihood of a successful power shift is to look at what would stand in the way.
The profoundly racialized structure of our society is a major obstacle. Racism has power over us white people through our weakness and fear, which can make us impotent in this fight. The House of Kavanaugh is big and well-built (and like the White House in Washington, was built with slave labor). It will be easier to empty it than to knock it down, but one way or another, it has to go. Exiting the House of Kavanaugh onto level ground where people are equal means leaving behind all the little perks and privileges that it enables. Outside the House of Kavanaugh, a white man has no more points than a Black man or a woman. He doesn’t get to talk more or eat more or walk in front. He doesn’t necessarily get the job if he’s applying for one. People inside the House of Kavanaugh are aware of what will happen if they really exit. No matter where their sympathies lie, they will find it hard to do. “I can’t afford it,” they’ll say. But outside the House of Kavanaugh, gains can be made even for white men that they could never win on their own. We have seen this happen in strikes, when by uniting across race and gender lines, major gains were won.
Second, our police system is embedded in our racist culture. There may be individual good guys, but as an institution, they are on the wrong side. Today in America, their job is to protect property. They are now equipped with military-grade weapons. Their system feeds the prisons, where one out of three Black men spend some time during their lives. Then there’s the pseudo-military civilian armed forces that operate with government approval, like ICE, which feed the detention centers and the tent camps in the Texas desert where a thousand children are held captive. There is also a huge force of non-governmental security guards and private armed personnel. These entities also have guns, helicopters, trucks, drones, etc. Their power is force. They might prove unreliable politically at some point, since they are basically mercenaries, and some are unionized now, but that’s a far stretch.
The lack of real leadership is third obstacle. There are voices rising, and new faces that are getting familiar, but no one, no group of people who represent a major movement, has emerged. For that matter, there is no overall movement right now that includes everyone who wants a revolution. Instead, we have dozens or hundreds of campaigns. We have no revolutionary organization. If history is any judge, a revolutionary organization is needed. Even here, the recent growth of the explicitly socialist left, largely due to the Bernie campaign, and outrage over Trump, suggests that both a mass socialist movement and even a core revolutionary leadership might soon emerge.
Some of the real leaders may come from the prisons. Prisons have been opened before: the Bastille, for example. And remember Mandela who was released after 27 years? There is movement inside our prison system, too: they just had a mass strike. Again, racism is our key obstacle here.
Are there some hopeful signs?
Hopeful signs include the fact that the public sector itself is still large and a site of struggle, the teachers especially. Under Hitler, all the teachers just became Nazis or shut up overwhelmingly. The Nazis did not have to do mass purges in the schools or the public sector generally. We think, and hope, that would be different today in the USA. The teachers’ strikes of last spring are a something to be very proud of. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arizona teachers went on statewide strikes, without the leadership of the teacher’s unions telling them to – or even supporting them, until it was clear that they were going ahead with it. The public sector is important. The right wing Supreme Court was not confused when they came down with the Janus vs AFSCME Council 31 decision! The progressive organizing among nurses and other health care workers, both into unions and for the welfare of their patients (Medicare for All) is also suggestive for the future.
Other activity in the world of labor is also hopeful. The Fight for Fifteen started as a ridiculous pipe dream; now Amazon boasts it will pay its workers $15 an hour. Right now there is a national strike going against Marriott Hotels, led by workers in UNITE HERE. David Bacon (dbaccon.igc.org) has some wonderful photos posted of workers on the picket lines in the Bay Area. Based on what we know about internal organizing within UNITE HERE, especially among the housekeeper staff, preparation for this huge action has occupied at least 10, probably 15 years. Not overnight, in other words! That’s a lot of hard work.
Finally, the country might actually split geographically. It happened once already, although the immediate causes were primarily economic, competition against unpaid slave labor, and only secondarily the moral outrage of, and against, the slavers. Also important to remember that what began as a war to save the Union against secession became, of necessity, a war to end slavery, with the action of the Black people themselves, enslaved an d free, absolutely essential to both the change in the war goals and in the final victory. Things can change a whole lot.
What is the comparable issue today? Maybe the two ticking clocks – climate change and the economic meltdown – will force a revolution, but they won’t split the country by themselves probably; we are all in both of those together (only in the final analysis is that strictly true, and as Keynes said, in the final analysis, we are all dead.) But the sharper the differences between the states, in terms of minimum wage, unemployment benefits, environmental regulations, public education, labor protections, Medicaid expansion and public services generally, the more you wonder if we even know that we belong to the same country. In Illinois, speaking of workers’ compensation laws, we used to say, “If you’re injured in Indiana, crawl to Illinois!” But it looks as if people move to where jobs are, or given the price of housing, where they can get a roof over their heads.
An optimistic view, therefore, may be no revolution in our lifetime, but a discernable movement toward socialism or at least toward a post-capitalist future where working people have the greatest say-so over what happens. But it could happen sooner. Some famous revolutionary (maybe a Russian?) once said that in an actual revolutionary situation people learn in a week what would take them a lifetime in normal times. Things can change very fast.
Our job is to try to both move them and get ready for the unexpected.