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How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?

26 October 2011

Summary:  Change is slow and difficult.  Reform efforts, no matter how deeply rooted, usually have many false starts.  Success requires learning each failure.  Doing better each time.  Only a people who intensely love liberty have a chance at getting it.  Here we discuss the causes of these grim truths, as we start on the road to reforming America.

“We swear and pledge ourselves to fulfill with zeal and fidelity the duties which devolve upon us.”
— Opening of the Tennis Court Oath signed by members of Third Estate on 20 June 1789, starting the French Revolution

Uncle Sam

Contents

  1. Peasant protests only vent frustration
  2. Peasant revolts complain about the symptoms
  3. We need an alternative vision for America
  4. The Tea Party
  5. The difficulty of change
  6. For more information

(1)  Peasant protests only vent frustration

Injustice and inequality have been the common lot of peasants since the development of settled agricultural societies.  This generates tension.  Peasant protests.

Effective collective action requires competent leaders — and competent followers (people willing to support their leaders).  This combination is rare among peasants.  Even stratified societies allow some degree of upward mobility for aggressive, intelligent peasants.  This removes potential leaders from the peasants.

This is why a regime totters when unrest spreads to the Middle Class (however small), as they provide a leadership cadre for the peasants.

(2)  Peasant revolts complain about the symptoms

Disorders which affect societies are like syphilis, manifesting a wide range of symptoms affecting many parts of society.  Treating the symptoms leaves the underlying illness untreated.  A wider vision is necessary understanding the causes of the problems.

Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) explains one common form of this.  The peasants are oppressed by the excessive, often criminal violence of the Cossacks.  They complain to the Czar, not realizing that the Cossacks work for the Czar.  They do his bidding.  The Czar is the problem, not the Cossacks.  When they realize this truth, then the window opens for radical change.

(3)  We need an alternative vision for America

Leaders can only take their followers down a visible path.  Elites foreclose the possibility of fundamental revolt by using religion and education to fetter the minds of their suspects — so that they believe there are no alternatives to the present social order.  The King is God’s anointed, so that rebellion on Earth means rebellion against God’s will.  Or that history has ended with the triumph of the Marxist revolution — capitalist republics.  As Francis Fukuyama wrote in The End of History?“, The National Interest, Summer 1989:

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. In the past decade, there have been unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world’s two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both. But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture in such diverse contexts as the peasants’ markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

(4)  The Tea Party

The Tea Party movement illustrates all these things.  They did the right things — poorly as usually in the sloppy real world (the downside of open source — grassroots, bottoms-up — organizations).  But they lacked a deep understanding of the problem, a clear vision of an alternative, and competent leaders.  Or perhaps their leaders were competent, but in the pay of our ruling elites.  The result was they quickly became co-opted.  They started proclaiming their independence from the two political parties, protesting the bank bailouts.  In the end they acted as Republican shock troops, supporting shifting taxes from the rich to the middle class and de-regulation of banks (which leads inevitably to more bailouts).

The Obama-as-Messiah believers have traveled a similar path.

(5)  The difficulty of change

Change is slow and difficult, no matter what snake-oil salesmen tell us.  Nature (or Nature’s God) does not care how much we need reform (it does not heed the cries of slaves whipped in the fields).  It does not care how much we deserve reform.  These sad facts shock and disturb many Americans (see the outraged comments on this thread).

Reform efforts, no matter how deeply rooted, usually have many false starts.  Success requires learning each failure.  Doing better each time.  Only a people who intensely love liberty have a chance at getting it.

Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Dr. Franklin “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy”  “A republic, if you can keep it” replied the Doctor.

— entry of 18 September 1787 in the Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787 (McHenry, 1753-1816, signer of the Constitution, third Secretary of War, namesake of Fort McHenry)

(6)  For more information

About political protests and reform:

  1. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  2. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  3. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  4. More people participating in politics: is this good for America?, 20 June 2010
  5. Five steps to fixing America, 19 October 2011

About Occupy Wall Street:

About the Tea Party Movement:

  1. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  2. Our ruling elites scamper and play while our world burns, 11 March 2009
  3. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  4. More examples of Americans waking up – should we rejoice?, 10 October 2009
  5. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”?, 27 January 2010
  6. Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
  7. The Tea Party movement develops a platform. It’s the Underpants Gnomes Business Plan!, 8 March 2010
  8. About the Tea Party Movement: who they are and what they believe, 19 March 2010
  9. The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
  10. At last we see a Tea Party political platform, 13 May 2010
  11. Kinsley – “My Country, Tis of Me – There’s nothing patriotic about the Tea Party Patriots”, 15 May 2010
  12. Why has wild man Mark Williams become a top leader of the Tea Party movement?, 13 June 2010
  13. More people participating in politics: is this good for America?, 20 June 2010
  14. Obama scores again against the Constitution. The Tea Party is right about the battle, but AWOL., 28 September 2010
  15. Today’s tea party propaganda: the wonderfulness of slavery, 8 July 2011

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Pluto permalink
    27 October 2011 12:17 pm

    It’s taken me a couple of days to organize my thoughts after reading this post, FM.

    First, I want to assure you that anybody who reads this post is probably pretty shaken by it. This is not gentle medicine, sir, and it doesn’t go down smoothly.

    Second, I would like to disagree with you on the nature of the Tea Party in one fundamental way. The mainstream Republican party is all about accumulating and keeping power; nothing more and nothing less. They are shocked that the Tea Party actually wants to use the accumulated power to actually do something (lower taxes on the rich and cut away the social safety net). While your definition of the Tea Party as Republican stormtroopers was accurate in the last election, the tension between the two groups is as palpable as the anger between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

    Third, I want to make an observation about American society that is adjacent to your post. As you’ve noted before, the American and French revolutions were largely led by highly competent upper middle class citizens who had hit a powerful artificial ceiling. The upper middle class leaders were able to effectively rally the rest of the middle class and the poor to start the revolution.

    In today’s American society the middle class is being ripped apart. The upper section is, for the moment, drifting upward. Speaking as member of that group, it’s a comfortable experience which does not match the experiences of everybody below us and puts us more in tune with the wealthy than with the rest of society. It seems, at least for the moment, that the American Dream is still intact for me, if not for anybody below me on the economic ladder.

    The lower section of what was the middle class is gently falling into the swirling morass of clinging debt and permanently lowered expectations. They are fighting it with every tool at their disposal but, in general, are in the hopeless position of a rodent caught by a boa constrictor. I’ve seen this struggle first hand as some of my friends are in this position and it is not a pretty one to watch. I’ve done what I can for them but they lack the skills, credentials, and luck to stay afloat in today’s economic conditions.

    This situation, in my opinion, is delaying the effective reform that you crave and I think we will reach a tipping point where we act more from anger than from reasoning (the late French Revolution serves as an example) before we get enough stability to do things similar to the American Revolution.

    • 27 October 2011 1:33 pm

      Thank you for your interesting comment, raising several important points. One, however, is IMO not accurate.

      “The mainstream Republican party is all about accumulating and keeping power; nothing more and nothing less. They are shocked that the Tea Party actually wants to use the accumulated power to actually do something (lower taxes on the rich and cut away the social safety net).”

      Reducing taxes on the rich and cutting the safety net have been long-term goals of the Republican Party’s rich backer for decades. Those were steps to gathering power. As seen in the network of well-funded think-tanks and advocacy groups focused on these two issues. Neither were initial concerns of the Tea Party.

      Channeling the TP energy into support of their goals — and repudiation of their initial anti-bank focus — demonstrated a fantastic degree of skill and resources.

      For more evidence, see the Republican primaries, in which the candidates compete to shift the most taxes from the rich to the middle class (the Cain and Perry tax plans), and slash the safety net — even to the extent of mocking the unemployed and advocating letting the poor sick get little or no care.

      These things are AGAINST the interests of most Republican voters! What an accomplishment, getting people to vote against their interests!

      Street theater and dressing as unicorns will not defeat that combination of power and skill. I wonder if we are yet ready to even start on that road.

  2. Granite Stater permalink
    27 October 2011 8:32 pm

    Most revolutions begin without a focus or center and without leaders, although a common thread in the last 100 years or so has been the inequities within governing and economic systems. I think we are dangerously close to a Black Swan event that could spark some very violent responses throughout the world.

    The defecation is going to hit the rotary oscillator if people in the US break free of the Myth of the Rugged Individual and begin to see the system as oppressor rather than personal failure. Folks don’t starve to death gracefully, especially when they (rightfully) believe that the system is rigged and the house always wins.

    • 27 October 2011 8:49 pm

      You may be correct. We can only guess at what lies ahead. My guesses…

      (1) “Most revolutions begin without a focus or center and without leaders”

      Do have any cites for that? I would like to see them. My guess is that revolutions usually start with a focus group or groups. Certainly the American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions did. It is the formation or resolution of such groups which can be seen as marking the start of the revolt.

      (2) “last 100 years or so has been the inequities within governing and economic systems”

      The studies I have seen date the rise of inequality in the US to the past generation or so. Starting roughly 1970 and accellerating thereafter. It dropped materially in the post-WWII era, until then.

      (3) “Black Swan event that could spark some very violent responses throughout the world. ”

      By definition a Black Swan event is unanticipated, so I cannot disgree. But I find that Americans tend to project our problems on the whole world. In fact many (not all) of the developed nations have serious problems. On the other hand, the emerging nations are doing quite well. They have problems of course, but lack most of our disturbing weaknesses — and high rates of economic growth usually dampens social unrest.

      (4) “if people in the US break free of the Myth of the Rugged Individual and begin to see the system as oppressor rather than personal failure. ”

      Agreed! But Harper’s published Charles A Beard’s “The Myth of Rugged Individualism” in December 1931. It still has not taken hold. Myths die slowly.

      For more about this, including a link to Beard’s great classic, see We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past.

      (5) “Folks don’t starve to death gracefully”

      I think that’s an exaggerated fear, at least in any reasonable time frame. Look far enough ahead, into the fog of the future, and anything becomes possible — but not worth worrying.

  3. Granite Stater permalink
    28 October 2011 4:25 am

    (1) No, I have no research. More of an interested observer of history take on more modern day revolutions and freedom movements. From The Quit India Movement to the Iranian Revolution to the Arab Spring, it seems to me that these more recent uprisings began with a strong sense of inequity, while understanding that incremental fixes to a corrupt system are futile. Also leaderless, at least in the beginning.

    The counter-intuitive (for most) paradigm is that these systems are not broken – they’re working just fine, and producing the results that they were designed to produce. I’ve read several posts on this site that agree with this perspective. As author(s) here have written, the elite do not surrender the status quo easily.

    (2) Inequality in governing systems is as old as human civilization, no? Maybe early groups of people were more egalitarian than others, but I’m pretty sure that there have always been groups of oppressed. Isn’t it the middle class (whatever that is) that is relatively new to human civilization? Most of the course of our history was completed without a middle class, and society with haves and have nots seems to be human nature. Someone always has a bigger gun or a smaller conscience.

    (3) Isn’t there a diary here today that talks about the EU moving closer to the edge of the cliff (with which I completely agree)? Blood is being spilled in Greece (Oakland, too) and if the Italian parliament is erupting into fist fights, can the population be far behind? BRIC economies are showing signs of weakening, and, here in the West, we hardly hear about the aggressive and violent repression of peasant protests in China.

    I’m not trying to belabor the point, because, as you point out, predictions are tough to make, especially about the future. But there does seem to be a certain trajectory here that does not, at present, look like it will have a soft landing.

    (4) That was terrific, thanks. I’m a frequent visitor here, but must have missed this (truth is I sometimes skim over a diary or two.) It’s a brilliant piece, and the anecdote about Wickersham and the dissenters of his report was perfect.

    The myth also infects our communities, where families in need of public assistance are often scorned by neighbors and local officials (particularly in rural areas and smaller communities.) The families in need themselves often feel a degree of shame, thinking that the failure is theirs alone. This is an atomizing phenomena and it isolates those in need (now numbering some 50 million Americans) and diverts any blame on the economic system for producing these results to the individual. The danger to the elite with the 99%ers is that it provides a very broad movement that gives economically distressed citizens an opportunity to amplify their voice. If they can shut off Survivor long enough to notice.

    (5) I didn’t mean too much here. Crime rates (esp. home break ins) in my rural county in NH are up and police are blaming the economy. In his bio of FDR, Conrad Black writes about the machine gun nests lining the procession route that were necessary because of the citizen uprisings around the country. Granted, we have more safety nets today, but if policy makers continue on the path of expansion by austerity, nothing would surprise me.

    Thanks for engaging. Thinking for oneself is a significant responsibility and it helps to share thoughts and question long-held beliefs.

    • 28 October 2011 4:45 am

      Thank you for your reply!

      Re: revolutionary movements

      1. The Quit India Resolution was taken by the Indian National Congress.
      2. The Iranian Revolution was run by a few large (and many small) groups. See Wikipedia for details.
      3. The Arab Spring does not appear to have an organizational backbone, which might explain its limited results to date.
  4. Protest movements pay a high price for the lack of internal discipline and organization permalink
    28 October 2011 4:34 am

    Police Crackdown Effort at #OccupyOakland Raises Bigger Questions About Movement Evolution“, Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism, 27 October 2011 — Excerpt:

    Most readers by now no doubt have heard about the aggressive police crackdown at Occupy Oakland on Tuesday, in which police critically wounded Iraq war vet Scott Olsen while using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to clear Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. The footage right before the tear gassing began does not show any signs of provocation by the protestors, but other reports say that a small group which most believe were anarchists rather than OWS members, had engaged in aggressive actions earlier.

    …And that’s before you get to the issue that the New York Times raises, of provocateurs (some aggressive leftist groups as well as probable plants) who aren’t representative of regular OWS participants:

    Protest organizers said many of the troublemakers in Oakland and elsewhere were not part of the Occupy movement, but rather were anarchists or others with simply with a taste for mayhem. “The people throwing things at police and being violent are not part of our ‘99 Percent’ occupation,” said Momo Aleamotua, 19, a student from Oakland. “They’re not us, and they’re not welcome.”

    Even if this is true (likely), I’m not certain how OWS can say someone is “not us” with what amounts to an open membership policy.

    … The real danger to OWS will come when there is an eruption that can clearly be pinned on the movement rather than the police, particularly if bystanders are hurt or private property is damaged in a serious way (say a fire breaks out or windows get smashed). That will play into well established stereotypes and be far too easy for media outlets to amplify. I’m sure the OWS leadership is well aware of this danger but awareness may not be sufficient to prevent it from happening.

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