The Habit Of Revolt: The moment the state ceases to fear the wrath of its own citizens, it will move with terrifying swiftness to reverse the equation. Until ordinary citizens once again learn the knack of frightening their governments, their governments will continue to frighten them.
SHOULD A GOVERNMENT be frightened of its people, or, should the people be frightened of their Government? If your answer to this question is that governments should, indeed, fear the wrath of those they govern, then you are a revolutionary. If you believe that it’s best to follow the rules and do as you’re told, then you are something else. In a world ruled, more-or-less fearlessly, by top-down governments, exactly what that may be is fast becoming the most worrying question of the twenty-first century.
There is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that rule by fearless governments is not yet universal. France, for example, has long been upbraided by free-market economists for not implementing the sort of disciplinary economic “reforms” with which the citizens of the English-speaking countries have long grown familiar. The reason why the French people enjoy such a generous welfare state; and why French workers are blessed with a 35-hour week; is, however, very simple. French governments are frightened of the French people. Any perceived threat to their rights, or to the benefits they have extracted from their rulers over decades and centuries, is met by the French people with action – on the streets.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, when one considers that the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is forever calling upon the French people to take up arms against every blood-stained banner tyranny advances against them. Modern France, like the United States of America, was born out of revolution. Where the two great republics differ, historically, is over the desirability of repeating the exercise. For the French, revolution (or the plausible threat of it) has become a habit. For the Americans, once would appear to have been enough.
Which is not to suggest that the USA hasn’t had to deal with considerable and repeated eruptions from below. Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, American historian, Kim Phillips-Fein’s, article “Why Workers Won’t Unite” looks back at the great trade union battles of America’s past and asks: “Is there a new way to challenge the politics of inequality?”
Phillips-Fein’s explanation for the apparent passivity of contemporary American workers is that, unlike their immigrant ancestors, they have no experience of either the personal autonomy inherent in small-scale, artisanal production; or, of the essential (if impoverished) collectivism of the peasant communities from which so many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigrants to the United States had fled. In her words:
“The new proletarians longed to restore the economic autonomy they had once taken for granted—and, not yet steeped in the culture of the marketplace, they believed this was possible. The factories, corporations, markets, and banks that they viewed as their oppressors were still so new that their endurance hardly seemed assured. Many workers imagined that sweeping transformations would continue. They felt that the horrific world they saw around them could not last, that they had the power to help usher in a more humane and egalitarian social order.”
One hundred years later, it is clear that Capitalism ain’t going anywhere. Equally obvious is the fact that the “more humane and egalitarian social order”, which the struggles of the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s working-class Americans brought into existence, is rapidly disintegrating. Working peoples’ faith in “sweeping transformations” is, similarly, at an historically low ebb. When those at the bottom of the social pyramid cease to believe that change is possible, is it at all surprising that governments do everything within their power to further convince them that resistance is futile?
The New Zealand working class’s history of struggle and transformation, though nowhere near as bloody as the United States’, was much more successful. And yet, the New Zealand and US labour movements both find themselves representing less than 10 percent of the private sector workforce. Strikes in both countries are at an all-time low. The confidence in collective action that unleashes a strike, and the solidarity that keeps it going, being almost wholly absent from today’s workers.
For those young people in possession of marketable skills, the preferred method of self-advancement within twenty-first century capitalism is networking. The old adage – it’s not what you know, but who you know, that counts – has never been applied with more determination than today. That networking might represent a dramatic reversion to the self-advancement strategies of feudalism, is not a question that those who already find themselves enmeshed within an organisation where power flows, exclusively, from the weak to the strong, have either the energy or the inclination to consider.
For those without skills, King Richard II’s curt response to the defeated remnants of the 1381 Peasants Revolt: “Villeins [serfs] ye are, and villeins ye shall remain”, sounds cruelly appropriate.
It would seem that the habit of revolution, and the knack of frightening governments, are forgotten at the people’s peril.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 April 2015.