Revolution, not Reform: Moral Courage, Redefining Progress, and the Myth of Social Democracy
“Revolution in society must begin with the inner, psychological revolution of the individual. Most of us want to see a radical transformation of the social structure…however radical that social revolution may be its nature is static if there is no inward revolution, no psychological transformation…However much and however wisely legislation may be promulgated, society is always in the process of decay because revolution must take place within, not merely outwardly.”
-Jiddu Krishnamurti, The First and Last Freedom
The revolution will only come as a result of inner, mental transformation, as Krishnamurti foretold. Political movements may urge people towards an outward revolution of the economic structure, but ultimately, it is up to each one of us as individuals to awaken from the slumber that imperialism and capitalism has imposed on us.
This is a huge problem in the West: expecting some sort of political party or savior to rearrange the structure of society, from the top down of the establishment, without a viable protest movement and without on-the-street citizen engagement.
Liberal “progressives” are therefore attracted to social democracy. Piecemeal reform, led by establishment Democrats offering a “New New Deal” to industry and workers will most likely lead us to the slaughterhouse, to the bottomless pit Western civilization has been leading us for centuries. “Green capitalism” is another lie advanced by such mainstream social and environmental justice advocates and Democrats.
There’s been a lot of talk among progressives and self-styled Leftists about social democracy. Bernie Sanders talked up social democracy on his campaign, heaping praise on the Scandinavian countries as models the US should emulate.
This seems to reveal a misunderstanding of how social change functions: in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden there is more cultural contentment, higher social cohesion, which has led the political structure to allow for universal healthcare, a strong welfare system, as well as safeguards against high wealth inequality.
Consider the Danish concept of hygge, Swedish lagom, and the Dutch term gezelligheid: there are no comparable factors in the US that engender these sorts of community/quality of life feelings. The frontier cultural roots in the US are shallow, and the dog-eat-dog ethos of laissez-faire capitalism has not allowed for the fertile soil of social/collective well-being that we find in parts of Europe. For an (admittedly poor) analogy, if you work in corporate America, imagine trying to explain to your boss or colleagues how you want to implement the Taoist concept of wu-wei in the workplace.
In other words, the socio-cultural history and background affects the economic-material structure of a nation’s political economy. What Sanders and progressives are proposing is the reverse: that an economic leveling will create a more just, sane society without altering the underlying ideological sickness and contradictions in US culture. This type of argument is used by commentators who talk about a “politics of fear”. Well, politics does not exist in a vacuum: as I’ve said for years, we live in an outright culture of fear. This sort of muddle-headed thinking is naïve at best, and outright dangerous at worst.
Promoting peace and wealth redistribution to developing countries could possibly turn the tide in the US towards achieving a slightly more civil public sphere. Yet, the self-serving agendas of Sanders and social democrats (and all the baggage revolving around entryism that social dems bring with them) would mostly benefit the US middle class, and while the poor could theoretically stand to gain in an upturn of the business cycle in a future 21st century Keynesian economy, another large recession would likely wipe out many of the gains, with politicians returning to their default mode of “austerity politics”. Not to mention the fact that social democrats will continual vote to favor “good jobs” at the expense of the environment, because they have little sense of how industry externalizes the costs of doing business onto the natural world.
The Four Rotten Pillars of the American Establishment
Capitalism is the root cause of over-consumption, militarism, racism, imperialism. Any reform based on social democracy is bound to fail, because it refuses to confront the structural causes of a crumbling society: capital and its accumulation to the few at the expense of the many. Capitalism, not just simply neoliberalism, must be ripped up by the roots.
Historically, the entrenched militarism, and the hoarding of capital into the hands of a few oligarchs is linked to four ideological trends in the US. The first, I like to call “Cultural Puritanism”. This thinking goes back to the original Pilgrims, many of whom were religious extremists who believed in predestination: that God had pre-planned who will ascend to heaven and go to hell. In this formulation, it was simply the will of God that determined who was rich and poor in colonial America, and who was virtuous or wicked. Thus, this Puritan/Calvinist belief allowed for the justification for the huge gap between rich and poor, and the faithful spread the lie that the rich simply are the way they are due to God’s decision, because of their “Protestant work ethic”, while the poor were simply lazy, good-for-nothing troublemakers. Fast forward to today, and we can see this thinking hasn’t changed much at all.
The second ideological lie relates to those most abhorrent of imperialist ideas, specifically the “Monroe Doctrine” and “Manifest Destiny”. Here the expansionists of the 18th century had arrogantly decided to expand the US “from sea to shining sea”, and to subjugate and pillage Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America at the behest of the capricious whims of US oligarchs. Today, the US has spread its reach worldwide, and the globe is divided into regions: CENTCOM, AFRICOM, etc., with special operations underway in over 130 countries.
The third, and perhaps the most deadly, lie spread by Western capitalists is the myth of Social Darwinism. Building on the first two ideologies above, social Darwinists believed that the poor were genetically inferior, and therefore of no use to civil society. The reserve armies of unemployed and the working poor could not be helped: their ill-health and ignorance were inexorable, terminal conditions. This led directly to the popularization of eugenics and fascism, culminating with the regimes of Hilter, Mussolini, Franco, etc.
The fourth lie, and perhaps most difficult to untangle, is the lie of positivism. There is no time here for an in-depth explanation, but positivists look to purely empirical evidence to create psychological and social theory. Feelings, thoughts, emotions, and the inner world are meaningless: this blighted view of the world led to the bizarre/deranged dead-ends of psychological behaviorism. Positivistic theory is used today to support the idea of continual technological progress and materialism, endless economic growth, a deluge of useless “self-help” literature, drugging our children in schools by abhorrently diagnosing them as hyperactive or having short attention spans, etc. Oh, and if anyone cares, almost 70% of American adults are on at least one prescription drug today, more than half take two regularly, and 20% of the population is on five or more medications.
Americans, for the most part, have become childlike, obedient, faceless drones: conformist “last men” who are too afraid and/or too intoxicated by Aldous Huxley’s “soma” brew of mass media and consumer distractions. All empires eventually crumble and fail, and eventually break apart, and the US will be no exception. We are the fascists now, upholding a patriarchal, ultraviolent social order, “inverted totalitarians” if you prefer Wolin’s phraseology. It’s time for us to face the music, because the ship is sinking.
Only a radical reconstruction of society along participatory/direct democratic lines will allow for us to survive the coming economic, ecological, and climate change shocks. Many parts of the world may devolve into small bands and tribes of semi-nomadic “climate refugees” by the end of the century, depending on how the models of climatologists play out. Major nation-states may no longer have the power to enforce rules related to borders, genetic modifications and bioethics, artificial intelligence, cyberhacking, and a host of other issues.
America is an Empire, not a country. The USA will only be a nation when it removes the delusion of “American Exceptionalism” and joins hands with other countries to cooperate and create a peaceful, multipolar world order. America can only become a nation, and not an empire, by reconnecting with its “national soul”: by embracing leaders who embody and promote Native American values which allow for harmony between humans and nature. The egalitarianism and gender equality of the Haudenosaunee tribes was a model that the Founders looked to when drafting the US Constitution.
The solutions aren’t going to be found in technocratic social democratic financial matters: only revolutionary changes, such as orienting community around sustainable agriculture, will allow for a livable world for our descendants. We don’t need more GDP growth or even mainstream jobs: our system is destroying the Earth. We need more walking barefoot, more music and dancing around the village fire, more stargazing, more herbal medicine, more communal farming. Capitalism and the nation-states have only been around for a few hundred years, and their time is passing.
Vltchek’s Revolutionary Optimism
Quite possibly, the most poignant essay I’ve read this year was “Love and Western Nihilism” by Andre Vltchek. There is a spiritual ennui, a gray-cloud of myopia and inertia enveloping the West. Our gadgets and phones take up more and more of our time, leaving less for friends, family, and even the ability to truly love.
Conformism is the norm: we can talk about US football (for those souls still watching, I have only names for you: RIP Mike Webster, Junior Seau), or banal TV series, or what a buffoon our president is, but staring down the abyss of how empty and vacuous our culture has become is too hard for most people to bear.
Predictably, it is people who have either traveled widely or live(d) in other countries who I can commiserate with the most here in the states. Most US citizens suffer from the myth of American innocence, as Barry Spector put it so well.
Late-stage capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, whatever you want to call it: the system is not going to be able to be gradually reformed. Why not? The neoliberal market revolves so heavily around low wage service jobs, and our economic system revolves around the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) corporations, so much so that simply instituting a new progressive tax policy would result in instant capital flight.
Take a look at what’s happening in Venezuela: private multinational corporations are hoarding food, household items, as well as deliberately slowing production in key sectors in lockstep with the US- backed opposition. Foreign banks are refusing to lend and extend lines of credit, citing spurious reasons of unrest: the unrest caused by those who wish to see a military-corporate coup, with the predictable reactionary, ethno-nationalist, neo-fascists already popping up, street-fighting in Caracas and the countryside.
Greece is another recent example: the EU oligarchs punked Syriza, making Tsipras blink and accept austerity measures just after a July 2015 national referendum voted 61% against accepting the EU diktat. The EU put a loaded gun to Syriza’s head: your banks will close and your people will starve and go homeless unless you accept the new deal, which ended up being even harsher than previous versions. Tsipras folded, somewhat predictably given his privileged background, and Greek society still has not recovered.
I’ve said it a thousand different ways: we must slow the pace of our lives and Settle Down from the fast-lane, consumerist lifestyles; Rewild America to conserve land for future generations; Pay Attention to current events to protect us from totalitarianism, and develop a Planetary Vision for world peace and global cooperation on a multitude of transnational issues.
There has to be a movement to lead a de-growth economy, followed up by a sustainable, steady-state system. It can be called socialist, progressive, anarchist, Green: but it has to work, and fast, or we are collectively going down the tubes. The system must be based around egalitarianism, direct democracy, along with drawing up a Green constitution based on Bolivia’s model. New amendments should be added to uphold and strictly enforce the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice should be given real power to prosecute violations of human rights. Implementing these measures would re-invigorate and re-enchant society to live healthier, happier lives, and promote the type of revolutionary optimism needed.
We have to redefine progress as a world community
I have a confession to make: most political journalism, even on the alternative media, bores me. The writers I value the most are the ones who educate about ecological issues and how they relate to structural poverty and misery for most of the world: Vandana Shiva, Robert Hunziker, Colin Todhunter. The environment and most of the developing world is in a state of collapse, and endless articles about Trump’s domestic agenda are not helpful as well as being out of touch, i.e., they are first world problems.
There are plenty of voices speaking truth to power. The problem is, power has never, and will never listen without being threatened, as Alinsky was apt to point out. That is why a mass protest movement is the best way forward. Fires must be lit under progressives and Leftists of all stripes: not just for free health care and free college tuition, but in solidarity with the poor and oppressed worldwide, as well as for threatened and endangered species. We must support a living wage for Zimbabweans and Chinese as well as for Americans, and healthy habitats for species in India and Borneo as well as American suburbs. Progress can’t simply be measured in GDP or low unemployment rates: quality of life and ecosystem health must be taken into consideration.
Taking Them by Surprise
That’s not to say that winning an election isn’t worthwhile. If an electoral victory will seriously help your community, go for it. Yet, the Left should think deeply about how to go about this. If we are to beat The Powers That Be, we should use the element of surprise.
This is why I’m in huge favor of what my friend and mentor Richard Oxman calls the TOSCA approach (Transforming Our State through Citizen Action). In this case, a truly radical candidate runs for office (say, mayor or governor) along with a citizen committee of a small number, say 10 or 12, ideally representing a wide swath of society in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, political beliefs, etc. All of the members must be non-career politicians, i.e., regular citizens. Emphasis will be placed on taking zero money from corporations, as well as the collective deadlines faced by society.
The candidate explain throughout the campaign that she/he is only a figurehead candidate for the ballot, in order to get the citizen committee elected to power, and the committee will make all decisions involving legislation and authority as a group. All decisions are to be made in the open, not behind closed doors, in real time, with Q&A from the public, and an independent media outlet dedicated to transparent decision-making.
This power-sharing agreement could ideally open up citizen’s minds and imaginations to the possibilities of democracy and help create a brighter, more sustainable, egalitarian future. The example set by such a group, the moral courage on display, could send reverberations worldwide.
Zizek on Using Dupuy to Form an Anti-Nuclear Coalition
There was recently a great piece by Slavoj Zizek regarding the US-North Korea standoff. Rather than assessing the “realistic” probabilities of nuclear war, Zizek claims we should use Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s theory of “Enlightened Catastrophism” to prevent a future conflagration. How this would work, then, is to accept the apocalypse as inevitable, yet still, in spite of this, to work to prevent what is already “pre-determined”. In a way, human societies always have been doing this, holding off the end times generation-to-generation, all the while cognizant of the possibility that an extinction event is possible at any time.
In this case, it is obvious that asking the powers that be nicely to give up nukes using rational arguments won’t work: the elites are not going to concede anything without a fight. So, we should take Zizek’s advice seriously:
“What is needed is no less than a new global anti-nuclear movement, a global mobilization that would exert pressure on nuclear powers and act aggressively, organizing mass protests and boycotts, while denouncing our leaders as criminals and the like. It should focus not only on North Korea but also on those super-powers who assume the right to monopolize nuclear weapons. The very public mention of the use of nuclear weapons should be treated as a criminal offense.”
If this were done, it would be possible to link up protest movements worldwide, using the internet and social media, not just focusing on one-issue protests such as anti-nukes. We all share the threat of nuclear war in common, as well as the environmental threats posed by global warming, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, GMO outbreaks, pandemics, etc. Humanity must struggle together to overcome the daunting odds posed by an over-populated planet, mass poverty, and deteriorating ecosystems. In our information age, it is possible that we can bridge the gaps between nations and form a new internationalist, anti-capitalist movement. From all corners of the globe, we can build what Marcos called:
“…an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism… in which distinct resistances may support one another. This network of resistance is not an organized structure; it doesn’t have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.”
Originally posted at Countercurrents.org, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Oct. 9–11, 2017 https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/10/revolution-not-reform-moral-courage-redefining-progress-and-the-myth-of-social-democracy/