Brief response to Global Sociologist on Mason's "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere"
I mentioned that I had too many books to read, and sheesh if Global Sociologist didn't read her book already, and then ping me for a response. Well, I haven't finished the damn book, but in the interests of
starting a blog war inititiating a discussion, I'll throw together this post. The book is Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, which is well worth reading. Here's an excerpt from Global Sociologist's review, which you should also go read:
It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react.... Why?
According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.
Some very brief [UPDATE haw --lambert] comments (because I've been following Occupy very much at the micro level, and from far away, and Global Sociologist, being, like, a scholar, has a richer set of analytical tools than I do. [In fact, this has turned into a brain dump. I've got to leave it that way, since I need to go on and do other things. --lambert]
1. I like it that Mason includes the Wisconsin Capitol Occupation and the Ohio SB5 movement in his timeline, which some of us (lambert blushes modestly) noted at the time. Not to take anything away from the organizers of the events that began in the fall, but civil resistance (as Chenoweth calls it) in the United States did not originate on September 17. (One might also consider the Red Shirt / Yellow Shirt events in Thailand, which happened before Egypt, on the same timeline, which Mason does not do.) [It is clear that Occupy provided a template or pattern for rhizomic growth, however.]
2. The quest for historical parallels is fun, but I don't know how useful it is. That said, I'd prefer 1848 to, say, 1917. It's always possible to make things worse, if one classifies slaughtering millions of people as worse.
3. I'm curious why Mason wouldn't pick 1968, as opposed to 1848, for his historical precedent/cautionary tale for what's "kicking off." My take (FWIW) on the 60s is that there were huge victories over time for civil rights and also for gay rights. Here's my potted history painted in very broad strokes, which also turns out to cover my adult lifetime:
Down to the oft-reviled Boomers of the left: It really is a triumph for good and for the human spirit that gay people can marry, for example, even if it did take thirty years of patient courageous work. (Not saying that marriage is the object, just a good metric for considering that gay people might be fully human.) Ditto consolidating the gains of the civil rights movement, social insurance institutions like Medicare, and environmental institutions established by the Last of The Great Liberals, Richard Nixon. However, it seems clear to as well that the oligarchy (what we know now as the 1%) came to class consciousness at that time, and in essence said "Never again."
As a result, in the early and mid-70s, the patriarchs of the 1% put the institutions of the right ("wingnut welfare") in place. The ferocity of the reaction can be judged by the distance from the impeachment of Richard Nixon for Watergate to the "free pass" given to the Reagan administration for Iran Contra: Less than ten years. At this time, the mid-70s, the patriarchs put their ideological institutions into place, mainly in Washington and Chicago, under the aegis of "the free market." The layered architecture of the right, from the shooters all the way up to George Will, et al. was also put into place at that time.
Also in the mid-70s, the patriarchs of the 1% flattened real wages. Families maintained their standard of living by going into debt (I'm so old I remember when plastic cards were used to buy gas, period, for pity's sake) and by becoming "two income" (the sort of feminism that was permissible). Social conflicts over cultural, gender, and race markers were permitted (the "culture wars," which "the left," for some definition of left, has won or is winning). Social conflicts over class were not. The screws on working people were gradually tightened over the entire period, though sometimes the screw would be backed off a little (real wages under Clinton rose) or tightened a little (Reagan's union busting).
That system ("neo-liberalism") is now broken or breaking. The 1% knows this. So do we. So, if they look at "wages and working conditions" (with one's entire life now "work," so mechanized is the consumption process) do the entire 99%.
The 1%, now freed by wealth from the constraints of patriotism, let alone noblesse oblige -- indeed, freed from the constraints of the nation-state altogether -- are attempting to pivot the United States into a resource extraction economy that consumes cheap goods from overseas assets controlled by them, and produces oil, natural gas, coal, and other forms of power suitable for the production of rent (like wind and not solar). Since the institutions that govern a free people are not necessary for this project, the patriarchs of the 1% are systematically dismantling them, and replacing them by institutions suitable for banana republics (the paradigmatic extractive economy). For example, the systematic theft of approximately half the nation's housing through MERS and LPS, and their repackaging into rental units owned by banks, will have the effect of turning a large part of the country into a 21st Century equivalent of a company town.
4. I think the 60s left can only be said to have failed if the opportunity was there for them to succeed. Take the 1870s as an example: In some ways, the United States really is different. For example, and I forget where I picked up this idea, but consider the US in the Gilded Age, with great extremes of wealth and poverty, constant crashes, albeit with huge advances in quality of life (taken as an average!) Just like Europe! So why no Social Democratic party, and why no organized mass militance? The writer argues that it was the Civil War. The men who would have to have been those militants had fought in the 1860s, and doing that again was not on offer. So there's no use looking for the "failure" of the Populist Movement if a success was not there to be had. The rhymes of history in this context are to be sought at the narrative and tactical levels, and not at the strategic. I would bet the same is true for 1848.
Similarly, in the 60s, anybody with any sense who got near the stupid and/or evil mad bombers of the militant wing of the white left got as far away from them as possible. ("Head for the hills" culminated twenty and thirty years on in a third triumph: Organic gardening and farming, which is going to save a lot of lives if or rather when the petroleum-based economy collapses or, more likely, ceases to live.)
But was success for the 60s left there to be had? I don't think so, exactly as in the 1870s in the US. Success would have taken unity with the (then strong) unions, and for whatever reasons, I don't think success was there to be had, as the left defined success (whatever "revolution" might have meant in that case). So I'm not sure I completely accept Mason's argument on "failure of the left." It's ahistorical.* [This is separate from the question of the left's institutional pathologies and factionalism, though to be generous, it's hard to be functional when whatever it is you have set your heart on cannot be, even though it is is right.]
5. Is "success" to be had today? If you define "success" as an end to the institution of private property, probably not. (The OWS statement of grievances, for example, supports private property.) If you define "success" as a transparent and accountable form of governance that curbs the power of the patriarchs of the 1%, I think it is. The country really is facing a crisis of legitimacy, and national institutions really are more fragile and brittle than we think. Plus, the general flattening of wages and skills elimination and general dehumanization increasingly makes people feel they are more alike than different.** The wall seems impossibly strong until somebody punches through it, and it turns out to have been a movie set all along.***
And Mason's book gives me some hope that #5 is right!
NOTE * To be fair, the left did fail as they defined success. One frame for the Hedges "cancer" dust-up might be that Zeese/Flowers, through Stop The Machine (note 60s rhetoric) were, in a way, seeking a form of expiation for the left's self-perceived failures over the last thirty years by putting together the best organization as they understood it. They were eclipsed, for the moment, after the AdBusters announcement, being essentially Elisha Grey to Occupy's Alexander Graham Bell. I, as a not-very-successful software developer, had the silly idea that one builds the product, and then announces it. In fact, many successful software developers announce the product, get funding, and then develop it. Easier in every way! Adbusters seems to have taken the approach of the successful software developer, and StopTheMachine the approach of the unsuccessful one , that is, mine. And nothing succeeds like success...
NOTE ** This is why the career "progressives" continually running interference for Obama is so very pernicious and destructive.
NOTE *** I'd argue -- completely hypothetically, of course -- that seizing a television station and starting to broadcast would be far more effective than wankery like smashing Starbucks windows or chanting "Fuck the Police." That may be armchair strategy, but shit, as Mason points out, AdBusters original call for "September 17" was totally from the armchair. It precipitated organizing, but was not the organizing.
UPDATE Capitalism is not a "systematic failure" for the patriarchs of the 1%. For them it is a tremendous success! Whenever you hear "success" or "failure" ask "for whom"? Also, surrendering the idea that our ruling elites have any notion of "public purpose" will lend clarity to many discussions. Many people, for example, think the elite are "stupid" because some policy that would benefit "everybody" isn't put in place. Well, it's not put in place because the elite don't benefit. They aren't stupid about their own interests as they understand them.