Revolution: A History Lesson

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson, April 4, 2011

There’s a marvelous essay by Robert Freeman comparing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt with those that began in Europe in 1848.  It begins

In 1848, a series of revolutions convulsed Europe.  From Berlin to Budapest, Venice to Vienna, Paris to Prague, people rose up and overthrew the authoritarian monarchies that Metternich had installed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

The essay traces the rebels’ initial success, the blowback by the monarchs, and the long slog that eventually resulted in improvement in the lives of the oppressed people. It’s worth reading. If we’re going to succeed in taking back our country, we can learn from history.

I’m putting here Freeman’s take on how this history relates to what’s going on now in Madison (and by extension Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and other states yet to come to the fore.)

Don’t let this discourage you.  Let the last paragraph be both a warning and an inspiration. Come back in the next few days.  There’s more to be said.

The conflict in Madison is really a final-stage battle by the rich to undermine unions that has been underway since Ronald Reagan moved to destroy the air traffic controller’s union in 1981.  And even that battle was just a small skirmish in a still-larger war whose goal is to shift power, wealth, and income from working and middle class people to the very wealthy.  It’s worked, beyond anyone’s imagining.

Since 1979, the top 1% of income earners have gained $740,000 in real annual income.  Each.  The lowest 80% of income earners have lost income.  The U.S. actually has greater income inequality today than does Egypt!  NAFTA, enacted under Bill Clinton, shipped jobs and entire industries to Mexico, undercutting the security of American workers.  And Bush added China to the list of countries favored to receive U.S. jobs.  The period from 2000 to 2010 is the only decade in American history in which there were no net new jobs added to the U.S. economy.  The result has been a significant growth in poverty, a dramatic write-down in middle class wealth, and growing economic insecurity.

So, the policies of the rich to undermine everyone else, carried out through their puppets in both parties, have been extraordinarily successful.  They have been multi-faceted, broad-based, bi- partisan, and sustained.  The rich will use every tool in their seasoned arsenal, every suck-up in their rolodex of sycophantic whores, to continue their self-enrichment.

The most powerful tool they will use is the class resentment that Reagan was so deft at manipulating. This proved amazingly effective in 1848.  When standards of living are falling, it is easy to foment discord among people by finding some who are not sinking as fast as everyone else and telling the rest that their misfortune is caused by those who have not yet been drug down.  This is the essence of the Republican strategy against public sector unions:  try to make it look like they are the cause of everyone else’s misfortune.  Sadly, it’s working.

The antidote is class solidarity through education.  People need to understand that the long-term decline in their standards of living is not an accident.  It is precisely the goal of the game in which they are the scripted losers.  They need to know that pursuit of that goal is what Republican politicians are sired and hired for.  The Koch brothers don’t underwrite the slimy likes of Scott Walker because of his compassion or vision or executive ability.  They hire him to break legs and take no prisoners, to gut union protections and destroy the funding base of democratic opposition.

People need to know that the “Golden Age” of growth, prosperity, and economic well-being in this country was precisely that age, from the 1950s and 1960s, when unions were strong and the middle class was vibrant.  They need to know that the decline in living standards and economic security since that time have come hand-in-hand with the decline in unions and the protections they afforded jobs and incomes.

People need to understand that if they break ranks, if they turn on each other as will be so tempting, they will be picked off one by one and used as examples to intimidate everybody left.  They will be pitted against each other and, indeed, against workers in China making $.57 an hour.  They will be fired at will for the least temerity and blackballed for life.  There will be no bottom to the downward spiral of poverty, misery, destitution, and despair.

There will be no institution in America left to stand up to the rapacious predations of the big corporations.  Certainly it will not be the government, which has become little more than a tool in the hands of the corporations to break the backs and the will of the people.  It has been the federal government that has refused to enforce laws protecting union elections.  It has been the federal government that has given tax breaks to big corporations so they can more profitably ship jobs overseas while recycling their swelling profits back into Republican election coffers.

It is the federal government that will not go after Caribbean tax havens for billionaires but will go after the home mortgage deduction for working class families.  It will not reverse the Bush tax cuts that favor the same billionaires but will reverse its commitment to the most successful social program of the last seven decades: Social Security.

Finally, people need to understand that this is a long term game.  The rich have been at it since Roosevelt decried the “economic royalists” that had caused the Great Depression, and passed legislation protecting workers and unions.  They have bought countless politicians at all levels of government, all of them only too happy to sell out their countrymen in exchange for a well-laundered campaign contribution.  The rich own the media who relentlessly re-cycle their ideologically biased narratives about hating the government, lauding free markets, and blaming the people for their own plights.  They have installed the best judiciary that money can buy — witness the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to pour unlimited amounts into election campaigns.

This ring of power, from corporations to the government to the media to the judiciary, is now closing in for the final kill against the working people of the country.  Its goal is the re-installation of the autocratic monarchies that dominated Europe in the nineteenth century.  It demands no less than the complete subjugation of workers and the surrendering of their rights.  It also aims at complete expropriation of the wealth and the independence that they have spent generations amassing.  The handing over of trillions of dollars to the banks in the duress of the collapse of 2008 is only a harbinger of things to come.

The revolutions of 1848 were crushed by the authoritarian monarchs of their day.  But the forces that had propelled those revolutions — the Industrial Revolution and the longing of people for national autonomy — would eventually secure their ends.  Monarchies would retreat from the world of power and people would gain economic prosperity and political freedom.  It is likely that similarly such powerful forces of transformation are at work today.  Unfortunately, they do not portend the same optimistic ending.

Today, the powerful forces rocking the world are the exhaustion of oil and the imminent end of industrial civilization, the rise of China to challenge the U.S. for global supremacy, and the cataclysmic onset of global climate change.  Any one of these will upset the architecture of global power as nothing before has ever done.  This is why it is so important that the present revolutions be resolved in favor of empowerment and choice.  Without such resolution, adaptation to the new world will be imposed by force, and in the interests of those already most enriched.  It will not be pretty.

As in 1848, whether the revolutions succeed depends on whether people become aware, aroused, and angry, and whether they can sustain their indignation for longer than the next commercial, the next season of re-runs, the next election cycle.  It will certainly require years, probably decades, maybe generations, to reclaim the country and the rights people assume to be their inheritance.  But without it there is only the degradation of destitution and the servility of serfdom, a humiliating patrimony to hand down to their children.  We escaped from that once.  Let us hope we don’t return to it again.

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