All rhetoric aside, revolutions are not started by the poor. The poor may contribute later on, or pile in and take the revolution to certain extremes, but they are not the ones who start it. I realize it is romantic to think of the poor rising up to break the yoke of poverty, but it is simply not the case. It could be argued that if the poor were that well organized, then they would get it together enough not to be poor.
It’s the disaffected bourgeoisie, the merchant class, the middle class, that always always gets the ball rolling. If at first it is not the middle class directly then it is their progeny, their erstwhile sons and daughters who grow restive in the coffee houses or on the job, in the schools, where discussion leads to protests, and protests leads to violence, or the series of incidents that set it all off. Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, was from a family of lawyers. Castro, in Cuba, was from a wealthy middle class family and also a lawyer.
Lenin was also an attorney; his father a director/inspector of the public school system. Trotsky was raised in a family of wealthy farmers. Che Guevera was from an upper middle class family and was himself a doctor. Mao Zedong’s father may have started life as a peasant, but by the time Mao was still a young boy the old man was doing just fine as a farmer and grain merchant.
The American forefathers were largely merchants or gentrified farmers. Those frocked coats and powdered wigs cost a few bucks, and none of them have been cited as showing up in a peasant rags. In the case of most revolutions, the leading intellectuals and rabble rousers took their cues from principles and doctrines in the literature of choice. The French and the Americans cited passages from the Age of Reason, while the Russians and Chinese took their cue from Karl Marx. Most peasants weren’t reading Marx at the time, and the literature found in Age of Reason or the Enlightenment was mainly accessible to those that had money, and certainly those who could read.
Another misnomer is that revolutions occur out of principle. That they are driven by the abstracts of ideology and their anticipated application. Revolutions, at least successful ones, are based in economics and not the more higher minded principles as some would believe. Most successful revolutions emanate from self-interest and economic necessity before being disseminated to a greater mass through rhetorical ideology. Even in today’s world where even the most complex strategic considerations are boiled down to simple jargon and sound bites, embedded at the root core there is short and long range self-interest and its related economics. The higher minded rhetoric, all that stuff about liberty, equality…whatever…comes after when you need more bodies to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause.
I think about revolution not because I am encouraging it. I do ponder at what point the middle class once again decides it has had enough of the chicanery and double dealing that leaves it holding the bag. I think about the Tea Party and realize that some laud them while some mock or hate them, fearing the worst from the dregs in their lot. But the Tea Party thing didn’t come out of nowhere. People are pissed off. The middle class is pissed off. These are the people who have lost their houses, their jobs, their dignity, and their chance to make life better for their children. While with the Tea Party all that anger is being channeled almost entirely to the wrong places, the frustration is real.
Their jobs are going offshore. Their trades skills if not obsolete are being transferred to other countries, leaving crafts people to work in humiliating call center positions where they try to accommodate those as pissed off as they are. Small businesses have watched the stimulus money get kicked back to the larger banking and financial interests. They have watched the money go offshore so domestic interests can make nice with foreign interests, so everyone is happy for the next financial shell game. Many small and medium size business owners realize they are in a game of musical chairs, and when the music stops they may lack a place to plant themselves. The less evolved make irritating claims about wanting their country back. Few realize that while there were always virtues there were also the ugly elements of sexism, racism, and the economic leverage of the Robber Barons that is not at all unlike the way things work today.
But the smarter souls realize the middle class is dissolving. It is a species facing extinction, or if not extinction then certainly a serious depletion among their ranks. It is becoming increasingly evident, at least to me, that both the right and left are creating a permanent underclass. The Conservatives may be more calloused and venal, willing to exploit cheap labor, and under the guise of free enterprise ship people’s livelihoods to other places, in order to serve their bottom line. But then the Liberals or Progressives, or whatever they are this year, in offering meager entitlement without any real job training or actual support of industry have policies that may keep people alive but eliminate their chances of obtaining the skills that will empower them toward gainful employment. At the end of the day, it is really two sides of the same coin with both sides pandering to their bases. One caters to the rich, and the other tries to garner votes from the poor. The middle class pays the tab and then finds itself ignored.
Common sense would be that rather than just hand people money, it would be wiser to re-purpose factories, even in the supposed archaic industries. Develop a modern version of Roosevelt’s WPA where younger folks can form in teams to employ modern technology with seasoned business sense to make stuff. No country survives by merely shuffling paper around. You need to make stuff. Even in a global economy you cannot constantly suffer trade deficits for goods you can be making here. Or, more to the point, you can not do it and survive. Re purposing factories would allow the government to supplement production. The factories might even operate at a loss to stay competitive, but that loss would not be nearly as costly as just laying out billions for stand alone entitlement programs where nothing comes back to the coffers.
But then some argue, why bother with outmoded industries? Well, for one thing not all of our citizens are technological geniuses. Some of the work may be mind numbing, but it is a living, and a better living than either the call service job that has filled in in many blighted cities, or the government check that covers close to nothing. It is better to have people working at something, especially products that would reduce our imports and overall deficits, than not working at all.
We talk about what great innovators we are. We love to revel in our inventions and our technological brilliance. We boast of our start ups and how great technological achievements have originated from that humble garage workshop. It may be true. But as Co-Founder of Intel, Andy Groves, points out in his terrific article on Bloomberg Business Week, entitled How America Can Create Jobs, even when we innovate through the start ups we no longer scale these companies but instead the big outfits buy them out and ship most of the work offshore. There is little chance for a new Microsoft or anything else when either that fledgling company is left to fend for itself, having no access to the kind of capital that would enable scaling to competitive levels. There is little chance when that nascent company is bought up by the big kid and its resources moved offshore.
And both sides of the aisle are equally culpable. The conservatives bark about free enterprise and the lack of government intercession. These were the same people who couldn’t wait for government handouts from the bailout, where many suffered little or no consequences for their duplicity and lack of sensible business practice. On the other hand, we have the current majority in government boasting of its reforms. They boast of a financial reform and a bill that has no teeth. Companies too big to fail are still too big to fail. As for much of the legislation, five minutes after its passing any corporate interest with a team of lawyers and common sense has figured out a way to beat most of it. There is little pressure for this current or any future administration to reduce or eliminate tax credits for shipping its jobs offshore. There is little incentive via added tax credits to encourage even foreign companies to set up shop over here and hire American laborers.
So, in all, minus the rhetoric from both sides and all the concomitant window dressing, you have people either out of work or working jobs so meager they can’t support their families. Credit extension to the regional banks who would in turn provide funding for local businesses is little more than a passing topic of conversation. The economy is once again stalling. Consumers are reluctant to make purchases. There is talk of a double dip recession. There is talk the housing market could slip even lower with increased foreclosures.
And the middle class? I have to wonder at what point does the toxic mismanagement reach critical mass? It is one thing to wear a ridiculous hat with tea bags draped from its brim. It is another to consider the twenty-first century version of tarring and feathering, vandalizing, and otherwise making life miserable for those who have reduced this country to a shadow of itself. I think about this recent little fiasco in the California City of Bell where it was recently discovered that four of the five council members were getting paid about $100,000 for their part-time jobs in the blue collar city of 40,000 people. The Bell city manager, who made nearly $800,000, which is roughly three times the salary of the President of the United States. For the City of Bell.
Why did it take so long to figure out that these conniving individuals were getting paid so much for so little? The salaries were only made public after a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on California Public Records Act requests, uncovered the ugly fact that the city payroll was bloated with six-figure salaries. Since the discovery, some of the grand city officials have resigned. Others are defiant. Attorney General, Jerry Brown, is contemplating criminal charges. There is much rancor about their very generous pensions.
But supposed they hadn’t resigned. Suppose they all remained defiant and the state government ignored this outrageous transgression on the public trust. One has to wonder at what point do the riots start where some of the city officials are dragged into the street? Maybe never. Maybe the citizens of Bell all toss back a beer and a Zoloft and go back to American Idol. But suppose this incident or an incident much like it does get out of hand. And then suppose in other parts of the country the citizens there think a little tar and feathering of sorts is not at all a bad idea. You know, little local and regional things that suddenly erupt beyond the point of control.
I know it is a lot of supposing here, but if history tells us anything, major changes gestate for years before breaking out to a greater order. History demonstrates it takes just a series of minor incidents that evolve from miniature rebellion to considerable revolution. America had its Boston Massacre, it’s Tea Party, and Lexington and Concord. Russia had its riots in St. Petersburg. France had the storming of its much hated Bastille. And so it goes.
I am not saying we are about to see a full scale revolution, replete with Civil War and all the other accouterments that give new meaning to dangerous living. No extreme sports are necessary when you have massive rioting and killing in the streets. But we are not a country that angers easily. On the top side of our national persona, we have an embedded sense of law and fair play that if it doesn’t hold us back from theft and duplicity at least burdens us with guilt.
On the down said, we are spoiled, fat, lazy, and have far too many distractions. A revolution is hard work and takes focus and a great deal of concentration. Between channel surfing, texting and gossiping, focus and concentration is not particularly our strong suits. It may be difficult to sustain anger when you take mood elevators and believe your critical assignment is attacking the nearest buffet. We are out of shape and eat a lot of frozen yogurt. It could be argued that unless Fro Yo wins the concession for the next American Revolution, turnout will be minimal at best. And if there is a turnout, then is everyone proclaimed a hero? Does everyone get a trophy? Hard to say.
But then that anger is growing out there. It is diffuse and misdirected, concerned with petty concepts like racism and people’s sexual preferences. It is concerned with lifestyle choices and religious beliefs or lack of them. But then we aren’t there yet. We aren’t at the place where that slow to anger big dog finally gets off the porch where sensibilities start to galvanize and find articulation. Where the middle class declares, “enough of this,” and decides that voting for the same thing regardless of party cannot turn it around. When it becomes clear that it is not an issue of wanting one’s country back but moving it forward. Against the deliberate intransigence. And in the face of those who wish to keep you right where you are.