The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized

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Jan 202012
(Part IV — Fooled Me Once, Shame on You)
Do you get the feeling that the Occupy protests have a tinge of “rinse and repeat”?  Haven’t we been here before?  Let’s do some counting:  Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Coxey’s Army, the Bonus Army, the Seattle WTO protests, the Occupy movement — seriously, the problem lingers instead of getting better.  Why are we still having this fight?
After the Great Depression of the 1930’s, new regulations introduced by Congress promised to prevent future economic disasters and the political discords that accompany them.  Most notably, the Banking Act of 1933 (aka Glass-Steagall Act) introduced the FDIC to protect individuals’ bank deposits, gave the Fed the power to regulate interest rates, prohibited holding companies from owning other financial institutions (meant to separate investment and commercial banking), and addressed problems of conflicting interests in financial transactions.  It seemed that we were finally leaning from the cycles of economic upheaval and popular protest.  The law seemed to work.  There were notable recessions after (for example, in the 70’s) but they weren’t as frequent, as extreme, or as wide-reaching as before.  The Great Recession, which began in December 2007, however, seemed like a return to the kind of economic turbulence of  pre-Depression times.  The unemployment rate doubled in less than two years; in the same amount of time, global wealth was estimated to have been cut almost in half.  Housing prices fell by 20% — leaving many owing more than their houses were then worth on the market, while foreclosure rates jumped five times higher in an equally short time.  You have to ask:  what the hell happened?
For one thing, in 1999, Congress repealed the part of Glass-Steagall that separated investment banking from commercial forms — prompting banks to mix the two again and put commercial holdings at risk from poor returns (or financial blowout) on the riskier investment side.  The Securities and Exchange Commission allowed investment banks to increase their debts with less in reserve in case of loss, while other regulators allowed companies to hide debts through legal constructs that took liabilities off of their balance sheets.  As a result, many US companies were already unhealthy before the housing bubble — which had been fueled by predatory and discriminatory (read: illegal) lending and grew too fast for the tiny branch of the regulatory mechanism over it to keep up — burst.  Further, Congress refused to move to regulate expanding derivatives markets, which allowed institutions to trade inflated or faulty financial products that made profits off of uninformed suckers buyers.  In short, the protections that had been introduced before (after a previous economic meltdown) and the regulatory apparatus that had been haphazardly constructed in the US over the years had been dismantled and/or disgorged.  There was little left to serve as a necessary preventative then, when it all came falling down.
And, so, again, the people take to the streets.  Disorder and political revolt necessarily follow from malfeasance on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.  Once more, financial chicanery forces the people to occupy public spaces demanding loudly that those in power adopt restrains — and frustratingly enough, ones we had already adopted.  It’s discouraging and outrageous that the people have to resort to such actions to have their complaints heard.  It makes us wonder, yet again, if it’s the system that’s the problem, as we find ourselves in the same spot once more.  Clearly, it is up to the people to remain unruly and outspoken and angry, if they don’t want to be fooled repeatedly by financiers and politicians in cahoots with one another to enrich themselves at the expense of the republic.  Apparently, it’s money as speech versus disorder as speech, in a never-ending civic exchange.  It seems, sadly, then that the democracy will not be civilized either.
 Posted by at 4:26 pm
Jan 062012

(Part III — There’ll Be No Pelters Here)

Here’s the thing that no one wants to say out loud about Occupiers taking to the streets: it is the unspoken threat that they will turn violent that makes people take careful note of them. That hint of danger from groups loose in our cities — it’s ominous; it’s disturbing; it invites resolution. The innate urge to protect oneself and one’s own immediately reacts to crowds of the vocal and disaffected on the prowl. You prepare for danger and move to eliminate any hint of a threat. Hence, you cannot ignore the protesters in the streets.

This sense is significantly amplified in a society built around the sanctity of property.  In a place where it is considered completely legitimate to take a life to protect your flat screen TV or expensive jewelry, any disorder is immediately perceived as a threat to (sacred) stuff.  Oh, my God!  They broke a window.  Can it get worse?  They spray painted graffiti on a statue of Robert E. Lee.  The indignities!  You know, the world will end if anything with a value greater than $500.00 is destroyed.  That’s felony protesting there.  In the greatest turn of irony ever, conservative pundits online are in a tizzy because some protesters set fire to their own stuff.  Where will it end if they don’t even have regard for their personal property?!

(As an aside, this is part of the reason that the government cracked down on Native American practices — the potlatch and fire ceremony — in the 19th century.  As rejections of wealth and materialism, these acts conflicted with capitalism, and they, therefore, had to be stopped.)

Do you know who can least afford to have their property damaged?  Psst, it’s not the one percenters.  Burning your own shit is a powerful statement when you’re unemployed or living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s economic immolation.  Like the hunger strike, it’s an act of sacrifice that pricks the conscience.  Of course, it’s actually more alarming to many that it’s a rejection of commercialism and materialism, otherwise known as the American way.  There is perhaps no greater sin against consumerism.

So, these hooligans are on the loose, lacking any regard for the value of things — theirs or others’ — or the propriety of compliant behavior.  They say they renounce violence, and some of them have even tried to prevent it.  That threat, though, it haunts conservatives (even if they see that the system does unfairly favor the rich) — because they think the bell tolls for them.  Really, it serves the movement best that this unspoken fear does linger.  Truthfully, the monumental changes wrought by the Progressives in the early 20th century were driven by their fear of growing masses of disaffected poor people, who fought back and caused substantial unrest standing up for themselves.  The law didn’t help them.  They couldn’t turn to the government.  So, they filled the streets, sometimes exercising their 2nd amendment right to bear arms.  There was violence, and though we are removed in time from this now, the past lingers. We could return there again.  Great recessions and depressions have driven Americans to violent acts many times before.  It is possible — even with the domesticated citizenry of today — that this spirit reawaken and  we experience a return to the way it was.  The regulatory state and welfare society diffused unrest in the past, but it fails us today.

It could be that the peace of the post-World War II age was an anomaly and we have passed that historical moment. Perhaps we are now at a turning point, transitioning to a new paradigm.  At this juncture, we do not know.  There lies the incentive for the establishment to do as it did in the 20th century:  institute reforms that ameliorate the worst of the effects of systemic inequities on the middle and working classes.  The people were not in the street when the disparities were not so great.  The wealthy elite has forgotten past lessons and gotten too greedy.  It needs to return (at least some) power to the people to preserve the system.  Otherwise, it may be that restraint gives way as the squeeze continues. Desperation fuels violence  — and revolution.  Perhaps, it will come to that.


 Posted by at 11:43 pm