Schama: Are the Guillotines Being Sharpened?

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Simon Schama tonight warns in the Financial Times that revolutionary rage is close to the boiling point in Europe and the US :

Historians will tell you there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury. In act one, the shock of a crisis initially triggers fearful disorientation; the rush for political saviours; instinctive responses of self-protection, but not the organised mobilisation of outrage…

Act two is trickier. Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that “Someone Else” must have engineered the common misfortune….At the very least, the survival of a crisis demands ensuring that the fiscal pain is equitably distributed. In the France of 1789, the erstwhile nobility became regular citizens, ended their exemption from the land tax, made a show of abolishing their own privileges, turned in jewellery for the public treasury; while the clergy’s immense estates were auctioned for La Nation. It is too much to expect a bonfire of the bling but in 2010 a pragmatic steward of the nation’s economy needs to beware relying unduly on regressive indirect taxes, especially if levied to impress a bond market with which regular folk feel little connection. At the very least, any emergency budget needs to take stock of this raw sense of popular victimisation and deliver a convincing story about the sharing of burdens. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a bad situation gets very ugly, very fast.

Schama knows this terrain cold; his chronicle of the French Revolution, Citizens, made clear what a bloody affair it was. Even so, his account in the Financial Times in some key respects understates the degree of dislocation suffered by many in advanced economies. Schama depicts the crisis-induced change as merely the end of rising expectations, but the shock is deeper than that.

Severe financial crises result in a permanent decline in the standard of living. For some citizens, that has come through contracts being reneged, in particular, pension cuts. Other people see their savings in tatters and have no realistic prospect for being able to fund their retirement. And for many of these individuals, the odds of finding continuing, reasonably paid work are low. Even before unemployment soared, people over 40 face poor job prospects. The idea that the middle aged cohort can earn back losses to their nest eggs is wishful thinking. And the young are not much better off. New graduates also face a hostile job market. Worse, students often went into debt to finance their education, believing the mantra that it was an investment.

And many of the societies suffering these financial shocks have already suffered a great deal of erosion of their underlying support structures. Even before the crisis, in the US and other advanced economies, social bonds have eroded in a remarkably short period of time, roughly a generation and a half. Job tenures are short; employees and employers have little loyalty to each other. Ties to communities are weak. Many families have two working parents, so career and parenting demands leave little time to participate in local organizations. Advanced technology frequently offers an easier leisure outlet than trying to coordinate schedules with time (or financially) stressed friends. But marriage and families are also not the haven they once were, given high divorce rates.

One oft unrecognized factor is that alienation and social stress are directly related to income inequality. This is hardly a new finding, but it seldom gets media coverage in the plutocratic US. And it has concrete, measurable costs. As Michael Prowse explained in the Financial Times:

…..if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries….

Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts. Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people’s sense of control and by low levels of civic participation….

Unequal societies, in other words, will remain unhealthy societies – and also unhappy societies – no matter how wealthy they become. Their advocates – those who see no reason whatever to curb ever-widening income differentials – have a lot of explaining to do.

Yves here. If you look at broader indicators of social well being, you see the same finding: greater income inequality is associated with worse outcomes. From a presentation by Kate Pickett, Senior lecturer at the University of York and author of The Spirit Level, at the INET conference in April:

Picture 52

Note in particular where Japan sits on the chart. Some readers have argued that the US has little to fear from deflation and a protracted period of near-zero growth, since Japan is orderly and prosperous-looking, despite its relative decline. But Japan was and is the most socially equal major economy, and during its crisis, it observed the Schama prescription of sharing the pain. The US, the UK, and to a lesser degree, Europe, have done the exact reverse, with both the bank rescues and austerity measures effectively a transfer from ordinary citizens to financiers.

As James Lardner pointed out in the New York Review of Books in June 2007, even before the wheels started coming off the economy, the social contract in the US was pretty frayed, but a concerted propaganda campaign PR effort promoted the fiction that it was the best of all possible worlds:

To gain their political ends, the robber barons and monopolists of the Gilded Age were content with corrupting officials and buying elections. Their modern counterparts have taken things a big step further, erecting a loose network of think tanks, corporate spokespeople, and friendly press commentators to shape the way Americans think about the economy…. the new communications apparatus wants us to believe that our economic wellbeing depends almost entirely on the so-called free market—a euphemism for letting the private sector set its own rules. The success of this great effort can be measured in the remarkable fact that, despite the corporate scandals and the social damage that these authors explore; despite three decades of deregulation and privatization and tax-and-benefit-slashing with, as the clearest single result, the relentless rise of economic inequality to levels so extreme that since 2001 “the economy” has racked up five straight years of impressive growth without producing any measurable income gains for most Americans—even now, discussions of solutions or alternatives can be stopped almost dead in their tracks by mention of the word government.

Yves here. Having weakened faith in government and made considerable progress towards creating a social Darwinist paradise of isolated individuals pitted against each other, the oligarchs may be about to harvest a whirlwind.

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  1. Captain Teeb

    Great analysis. You see a lot of people discounting Japan comparisons by saying that they had high savings, could sell debt into the carry trade, etc., all of which is true. But this is the first time that I have seen the more subjective variable of social fabric given its due. Even the much-derided ‘bridges to nowhere’ were a (clumsy) attempt to ease the blow on construction workers (and of course their well-connected bosses).

    If I may venture a connected thread, I would point everyone to Nathan Lewis’s blog and its articles on car-free cities, specifically the ones on Tokyo, where he points out that over 90% of Tokyo streets are car-free. If you’re always on foot in your neighborhood you are likely to have stronger social ties to those nearby. Japan is perhaps the only rich country which fits this description (I live in Europe, which is more walkable than the US, but car-dominated nonetheless), making it a special case.

    1. DownSouth

      Captain Teeb,

      I went to hear an urban planner speak once, and he had a quaint way of putting it:

      “In America we may not have very happy people, but we have very happy cars.”

      1. attempter

        The best one-line description of suburbia I ever heard:

        A suburban residence is first and foremost “a place to park your car.”

        The house is also first of all an appendage of the driveway.

      2. Doug Terpstra

        The largest public works project in the world, the US interstate freeway system, has also led to the largest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Our wealth and “cheap” oil have yielded a placeless, faceless asphalt hell of sprawling slum-divisions, “The Geography of Nowhere” in James Howard Kunstler’s of the same name.

        1. Nightgaunt

          The interstate highway system was conceived to help the oil and car companies and with the military in mind to crisscross the country for rapid deployment (1950) of men and material to far locations within the USA. Also good for the burgeoning sales of cars and trucks and the local mass transit systems were purchased by said companies to eliminate them from the economic equation. And here we are today.

    2. emca

      Its hard to frame my disgust of the car culture. Here in CA we have it in spades. Not unique, only in the past a scenario of coming attractions for the rest of the country (or the world). Much wrong can be attributed to it including our dependency on fossil fuels, the consequences of which can be appreciated in Deepwater Horizon (philosophically, is the villain the pusher or user who makes the actions of the pusher possible?)

      More germane to topic, I far more cynical than the “it can’t happen here” comments below on the hypothetical probability of a revolutionary event in this country (not EU). Not only is political revolution grossly improbable, the successful outcome even if should reach apogee, extremely doubtful, fruits of attainment only serving as an exchange of masters. (‘Extreme’ by the way is an understatement).
      In that vain I would also argue that the “American Revolution” was not a revolution at all, but a colonial war similar to the expulsion of the British from India, albeit much more forceful and with a highly structured alternative being formulated. The British in the 18th century certainly saw it in that light.

      The slow-motion corrosion of ideals and material are the ‘market makers’, the endemic catalysts of a new world order. The positive is that there is still the will and the tools to resist, if not in numbers, if not in an unworkable revolutionary precedent, then at least in many other venues available, including I might add, the rants and rhetoric contain within.

      1. ndk

        I agree with both your points: our car culture is tremendously destructive to the spirit and health of our civilization, and that it’s unlikely that any sort of revolution would be successful. I guess we just slide deeper into the squalor from here.

        1. russell1200

          As our waddling multi-chinned revolutionaries entered battled, they would be at distinct disadvantage if they could not find parking near enough the front lines.

  2. Swedish Lex

    As I recall it was discussed on NC late last year the potential for severe social conflicts in EU states during 2010. Things seem to be playing out more or less according to that script with a slow burning exponential increase in protests and general malaise.

    Example is the French Government that is performing a difficult balancing act when it seeks to cut budget deficits, raise pension age, etc. without branding the measures as austerity. The debate in France is very slowly moving towards acceptance with unions etc. that the
    retirement age has to go up. I however anticipate that there will be mass protests in France later in the year when it becomes clear that the budget for 2011 will probably will be stiffer. And so it will go on…

    Mass protests, strikes, hooliganism – sure, but the revolution is on hold as long as it is perceived that burdens are relatively equally shared and that those in power have a clue about what they are doing. On the latter issue, the EU leaders cleary have room for improvement.

    1. Richard Kline

      Mass protests aren’t revolution, I agree; it’s not even clear that they amount to social unrest. That depends upon the goals and the organization behind them. “No cuts,” aren’t a goal of unrest, to me.

      Regarding the room for improvement in the leadership abilities of Europe’s present executive class, and how. But consider: when was the last time that Europe _had_ a crisis? 1991 in the former Yugoslavia? Not really, that was a problem, but it was someone else’s crisis. 1989? Not really; all they had to do, then, was _not_ do something, i.e. not interfere and let the collapse play out. One could go all the way back to 1968. I think it might be fair to say 1973-5, with active and highly disruptive urban terrorisms in Italy and France, severe employment disruptions in the UK plus repressive bungling to an uprising in Ulster; the collapse of fascism in Spain and Portugal. If we take 1975 as the most recent ‘crisis episode’ in Europe—that’s stretching the definition, but let’s take it for debate—then it is immediately clear that the entire senior leadership of the EU and its member states have lived their adult life without any managerial experience in a crisis, some without any experience of crisis at all. Said leadership class has been over-used to the complete absence of serious military confrontations or signficant military mobilizations (and I include both Gulf Wars in that, Europe was never remotely at threat), tortuous negotiation of consensus, firm opinions amongst equals behind closed doors at a glacial pace, incremental policy refinements, and great volumes of nuance to fill in the absence of substantive action which has become something of ‘the Euro way.’ Practice helps is what I’m saying . . . .

      1. Richard Kline

        “Active and highly disruptive urban terrorisms in Germany and France,” read it.

          1. Swedish Lex

            Just to add that the extreme left (and right) have thus far not been able to mobilise as they did in the 70s and the 80s. No sight of the red brigades, yet. The most important threat to public order in France right now is spontaneous (via Facebook) organisation of “apéritifs géants” that attract a few thousand teens that get drunk and disorderly….Mao and Marx were the last generation.

          2. Richard Kline

            I don’t expect that we will see more of strongly leftist insurrectionaries in Europe, but the argument for that is long and somewhat complicated. We’ll know for sure in the later 2020s. I don’t know what form popular dissent will morph into, though. Mass demonstrations are firmly established as a modality, and besides they make a helluva party. Actions more on the order of WTO and anti-Davos protests I suppose.

          3. Benoit

            Well actually, their are still brigate rosse in Italy, although they are more a few copycat than a real, solidly implanted organisation.

            Anyway, the lack of armed activism is not relevant to dismiss the revolutionary potential of the era. Most marxists/leftists groups in Europe have a real grudge against armed struggle, but cannot still be considered dead. In France and Italy in particular, communism is still quite popular as a political concept. And, under a given thresold, their is no proven correlation between the number of armed activists and actual revolutions.

            In France, strikes are less frequents than the previous decade, mainly due to a far more repressive legislation. They, however, do not lack of “punch” (hostage-taking is becoming a comon event, and anti-riot police is nearly as often displayed in factories than in suburbs), and are quite popular (climbing up to 70% of support). Noone, in the other end, actively supports capitalism as a system.And the french “republicanism” have fewer and fewer supporters, most of them being 50+.

            Another (good) sign is the growing involvment of migrant-originated workers in social struggles – mainly in strikes. Those had been for decades the “reserve army” of french capitalism. Their is also more and more “local” struggles, in semi-rural semi-industrious context. As opposed of aging countries, their is in France a lot of youth in quite rural places, youth that lack the visibility of Paris-born petit-bourgeois, and are thus ignored by the media (which never leave Paris).

            I think their is in France a lot of potential, youth and courage, but the new generation lacks of discipline could lead them (us!) to heavy defeats. Yet we have a strong advantage over the two previous generations : we know for sure that their is no way back toward prosperity and decence in capitalism. It won’t “go better”. Noone here think that.

            sorry for the english

  3. psychohistorian


    I continue to enjoy your book but its reading is dense and slow at times which says more about my mental capabilities that your presentation.

    That said I disagree with the timing of the US/UK et al whirlwind. I still think there is a necessary additional step down in the world economies necessary to spark the whirlwind. The unemployment situation in the US< IMO, has not hit the levels necessary to initiate "action".

    It does seem to be coming though but is still up to a year or more out, IMO. I hope like heck more people read your book by then. We will need damn good leadership to emerge at that time and they need to understand the context your book sets for our current situation.

    Everyone keep breathing. Real change provides opportunity for growth and hopefully an end to oligarchs everywhere.

    1. DownSouth


      I’m trapped somewhere between your optimism and attempter’s pessimism. attempter expresses his pessimism in this statement:

      …the most common response on the part of those being liquidated is not to fight back against the robbers and restitute what they stole, but to fight among themselves, the relatively stronger scapegoating and brutalizing the weakest, while the elites try to maintain control over the fascist surge, with more or less success.

      You express your optimism in this statement:

      Everyone keep breathing. Real change provides opportunity for growth and hopefully an end to oligarchs everywhere.

      attempter’s foreboding came true in 1930s Germany, as described by Reinhold Niebuhr:

      If democracy is to survive it must find a more adequate cultural basis than the philosophy which has informed the building of the bourgeois world. The inadequacy of the presuppositions upon which the democratic experiment rests does not consist merely in the excessive individualism and libertarianism of the bourgeois world view, though it must be noted that this excessive individualism prompted a civil war in the whole Western world in which the rising proletarian classes pitted an excessive collectivism against the false individualism of the middle-class life. This civil conflict contributed to the weakness of democratic civilization when faced with the threat of barbarism. Neither the individualism nor the collectivism did justice to all the requirements of man’s social life, and the conflict between half-truth and half-truth divided the civilized world in such a way that the barbarians were able to claim first one side and then the other in this civil conflict as their provisional allies.


      The success of Nazi diplomacy and propaganda in claiming the poor in democratic civilization as their allies against the “plutocrats” in one moment, and in the next seeking to ally the privileged classes in their battle against “communism,” is a nice indication of the part which the civil war in democratic civilization played in allowing barbarism to come so near to triumph over civilization.
      –Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”

      It is certainly not difficult to see the dynamic Niebuhr describes manifest itself in modern-day America with the adoption of Libertarian-Austrian-Neoliberal ideology by certain elements of the Tea Party movement, the nativists (SB1070 in Arizona) and Christian conservatives (Texas State Board of Education).

      Your optimistic vision came true in 1930s America, where hard times had just the opposite effect that they did in Germany, as described here by Frederick Lewis Allen:

      Yet in the broader sense of the word religion–meaning the values by which people live, the loyalties which stir them most deeply, the aspirations which seem to them central to their beings–no such shock could have failed to have a religious effect. One thinks of the remark of a young man during the dark days of 1932: “If someone came along with a line of stuff in which I could really believe, I’d follow him pretty nearly anywhere.” That remark was
      made, as it happens, in a speakeasy, and the young man was not thinking in terms of puritan morality or even of Christian piety, but in terms of economic and political and social policy. For such as he the times produced new creeds, new devotions.

      But these were secular.

      Their common denominator was social-mindedness; by which I mean that they were movements toward economic or social salvation– whether conceived in terms of prosperity or of justice or of mercy– not so much for individuals as such but for groups of people or for the whole nation, and also that they sought this salvation through organized action.

      In political complexion these secular religionists ranged all the way from the communists at one end of the spectrum to the more fervent members of the Liberty League at the other. They included the ardent devotees of technocracy, Upton Sinclair’s “Epic,” Huey Long’s “Share-Our-Wealth,” Father Coughlin’s economic program, the Townsend Plan, the CIO, and, of course, the New Deal. Of the way in which the battles between them raged–and the whole battlefield gradually moved to the left, so to speak–we shall hear more in chapters to come. At this point it need only be remarked that most of the new religions of social salvation did not gather their maximum momentum until after the New Deal Honeymoon was over; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the New Deal, during its Honeymoon, gathered up or overshadowed nearly all of them. It was during the next two or three years that the fires of zeal burned most intensely: that one man in three at a literary party in New
      York would be a communist sympathizer, passionately ready to join hands, in proletarian comradeship, with the factory hand or sharecropper whom a few years before he had scorned as a member of Mencken’s “booboisie”; that daughters of patrician families were defiantly marching to the aid of striking garment workers, or raising money for the defense of Haywood Patterson in the long- drawn-out Scottsboro case; that college intellectuals were nibbling at Marx, picketing Hearst newsreels, and–with a flash of humor–forming the “Veterans of Future Wars.”

      How completely the focus of public attention had become political, economic, and social, and how fully the rebelliousness of the rebellious had turned into these channels, may be suggested by the fact that H. L. Mencken, whose American Mercury magazine had been the darling of the young intellectuals of the ‘twenties, lost ground as it became evident that Mr. Mencken, though liberal in matters of literature and morals, was a tory in matters of politics
      and economics–until by 1933, when he resigned his editorship, the new highbrows were dismissing him airily as a back number.

      –Frederick Lewis Allen, Since Yesterday

      1. Richard Kline

        So DownSouth, I agree or find interesting much that you say, but sadly I’m going to speak to one small point which is manifestly inaccurate. It seems to becoming fashionable to equate Libertarians and neoliberals, linking them in an epithet. I think that you’re sufficiently well read to realize that this is an utter canard, and likely only threw it off as a passing remark, but we really need to end its usage. Libertarians have an explicit philosophy. Neoliberals were far less explicit, being largely described by their opponents rather than self-allied as a clique with an orthodox perspective. Their memberships _did not and do not_ overlap, in no small part because their philosophies and objectives are, in almost all points, opposed. At the very least, Libertarians are rabidly anti-state, whereas neoliberals are arch-statists.

        I suspect this inapt conflation was originally meant to be ‘libertarians and neo-conservatives,’ and indeed neo-conservatives shared some, though hardly all, principles with Libertarians. But even there, I wouldn’t link them. Neocons are first and foremost ‘Everything for Israel;’ if they have a defining principle, that’s it. They are pro-imperial, in many cases or recent remark explicitly so. In both cases, Libertarians have opposing views.

        I’m not saying this in any way whatsoever to defend libertarians; I hold my breath when walking past their explications, and their discussions frankly make my head ache. But this conflation of libertarian and neoliberal makes it impossible to understand what is being done (or said) by whom.

        1. DownSouth

          Richard Kline,

          I have to respectfully disagree.

          What the modern-day “libertarian” is, in reality and in practice, is a 24-carat hypocrite. Laissez faire is embraced with uncompromising zeal, while political and cultural freedoms for the rank and file are blithely swept away.

          This became manifest by the maneuverings of the conservative faction on the Texas State Board of Education to purge Thomas Jefferson from the textbooks. Imagine that! Thomas Jefferson—-the original champion of small and constrained government! The board eschews freedom of religion and wants the long arm of the government to reach out and cram its theocracy down peoples’ throats. And yet, on the other hand, it embraces “free enterprise” and advocates that big business operate totally free from government oversight. That to me is the perfect portrait of the modern-day “libertarian.”

          I suppose the “libertarians” you defend are like those from the Libertarian Party of Texas, such as Amie Parsons, who came out to demonstrate against the new history curriculum, and who operate more in the true Jeffersonian fashion:

          But libertarianism, while on paper looks great, and perhaps maybe does have a handful of honest adherents, in practice never seems to measure up to its lofty rhetoric. It has a troubled past.

          We saw this when Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman went to Chile to throw their support behind the murderous military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “My personal preference,” Hayek told a Chilean interviewer, “leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.”

          And defending the rich and the powerful is what libertarianism seems to always end up being about. And with its inherent cognitive inconsistencies, mindboggling hypocrisy, and built-in blind spots, I suspect always will be about. Is that by accident? Or by design? Either way, it’s never been anything but a tool, and a quite effective one at that, of the ruling oligarchy. Hayek and Friedman were just two in a long line of “intellectuals” who used their considerable talents to perpetuate sophistries designed to lend moral and intellectual legitimacy to corporate hegemony. Reinhold Niebuhr explains:

          Thus, for instance, a laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible political restraint upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory; but it is still maintained, or is dying a too lingering death, particularly in nations as politically incompetent as our own. Its survival is due to the ignorance of those who suffer injustice from the application of this theory to modern industrial life but fail to attribute their difficulties to the social anarchy and political irresponsibility which the theory sanctions. Their ignorance permits the beneficiaries of the present anarchic industrial system to make dishonest use of the waning prestige of laissez faire economics. The men of power in modern industry would not, of course, capitulate simply because the social philosophy by which they justify their policies had been discredited. When power is robbed of the shining armor of political, moral and philosophical theories, by which it defends itself, it will fight on without armor; but it will be more vulnerable, and the strength of its enemies is increased.

          When economic power desires to be left alone it used the philosophy of laissez faire to discourage political restraint upon political freedom. When it wants to make use of the police power of the state to subdue rebellions and discontent in the ranks of its helots, it justifies the use of political coercion and the resulting suppression of liberties by insisting that peace is more precious than freedom and that its only desire is social peace. A rational analysis of social facts easily punctures this pretension also. It proves that the police power of the state is usually used prematurely; before and effort has been made to eliminate the causes of discontent, and that it therefore tends to perpetuate injustice and the consequent social disaffections.
          –Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man & Immoral Society

          1. Siggy

            As it is being described in your narrative and the quotes you provide, it seems to me that you equate laissez faire with libertarianism.

            My view is that Niebuhr is being far too polite. My experience tells me that those who want to have no regulation of commerce and social action simply want to cheat. I am unconvinced that there will ever be a time when the propensity to cheat will be removed from the human condition.

            Unstated, yet implicit, in our contract for government is our right to a revolution. It appears at this moment in time that we shall not have a revolution with blood in the street. What appears to be in progress is a mock revolution that is expressed by the enactment of potempkin laws which will have no curative effect. This coming November we may see some removals of incumbants. I do not believe that those removals will effectuate a sea change in the tenor of legislation and/or the exercise of regulatory control.

            As a carpet bagger now living in Texas, I marvel at the ability of the protestant theocrats to seek the imposement of their brand of theocratic government by polluting the curriculum with intelligent design.

          2. Richard Kline

            So DownSouth, neither von Hayek nor Friedman were in any sense libertarians, far less Libertarians. And those who actually subscribe to libertarianism in any form are definitely _not_ ‘defenders or the rich and the powerful,’ roles which by contrast one could in fact ascribe to both von Hayek and most especially Miton Friedman. I see you conflating classes of ideologies here which are not the same, something unlikely to make your analyses sharper, and which leads you to repeatedly misuse the identifier ‘libertarian.’ I’m simply pointing that out, though I reiterate that observation here.

            Now, I have no truck with libertarianism, properly described, nor neo-conservativism, including its prototypal forms of which von Hayek and Friedman were significant ideologues. But lumping these together under a common rubric serves no function unless a propaganda one. To see a bred-in-the-bone libertarian such as Rand Paul and a hard core neo-conservative such as Dick Cheney as ideological equivalents one could not understand why they despise each other and are presently flogging competing political horses. Their goals are sharply different because their ideologies are as well, if both inimical being wholly inimical to the societies in which they reside.

          3. DownSouth

            Richard Kline,

            Your point is well made.

            The problem I have with it is this: Have you ever heard anyone who identifies himself as a “libertarian” denounce Hayek?

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the libertarian pantheon it’s been my impression that Hayek ranks right up there with Mises.

          4. Robin

            Interesting discussion!

            Here is a link to a definition of “Neo-liberalism”. One can discern the connections between Libertarianism and Neoliberalism.


            In short-

            1. THE RULE OF THE MARKET.


            3. PRIVATIZATION


            5. DEREGULATION

            Quite a bit in common, it seems. Read the link and compare.

        2. JTFaraday

          “But this conflation of libertarian and neoliberal makes it impossible to understand what is being done (or said) by whom.”

          I’m with you.

          (And don’t forget to bait the hook with a few Southern Baptists to really clear things up).

      2. Nightgaunt

        I must tell you that we just missed it happening here by shear fortune in 1934. When the oligarchs here joined into a secret organization they dubbed “The Fraternity” they didn’t like the way FDR was going as early as 1933. To leader their war veterans army armed by their corporations (ITT) they chose Major-General Smedley “Gimlet Eye” Butler to lead their proposed assault on Washington DC. Too bad for them they chose the wrong man. [MacCarther was the one they really wanted but he was tainted by putting down the veterans back in 1932.] Butler had fought in the neo-colonial wars for corporate American and didn’t like it. So this he agreed and listened till he had enough information then with to President Roosevelt and told him all of it. (FDR knew nothing of the conspiracy.) He had talks with the leaders but didn’t do anything else including hushing it up. Some of them later worked with the Axis and got into some trouble. If they had won we would have been a senior member of that Axis and history would have been very different on this earth for the past 76 years. Because of this they have been drawing their plans against us carefully taking many years to do it. Starting in 1980 onward they have been chipping away at our Republic bringing it down bit by bit while making it impossible for our gov’t to operate without corporate help. Not just in the military but other things as well. We are just one Great Depression away from them getting their outcome they planned for. We are at their mercy as I see it. We are running out of time. Not sure we can do anything about it now anyway.

  4. Gerald Muller

    The main problem, as alrady mentioned is that of political leadership. I believe that the main “problem” of the last 60 years has been the absence of worldwars. Although anyone in its right mind welcomes this state of affairs, the XXth Century wars have revealed men and women of mettle. In the super stressed situations of wars, a few men arise, like de Gaulle in France, who become natural leaders.
    The fact that all leaders now have been elected with the associated demagogy of TV soap, yields political leaders who are good talkers, aften good actors (the US even had a professional one) but have never showed an ounce of the kind of medttle that is required in such tough situation that we are in. The pathetic spectacle of the EU is a great example. Si is Obama and his clique, who do not redeem the lot, in my opinion.
    The only favourable point for continued peace is that, maybe for the same reason, there are few, if any, “revolutionary” leaders that could crystallize the rising anger of the masses.

    1. attempter

      The only favourable point for continued peace is that, maybe for the same reason, there are few, if any, “revolutionary” leaders that could crystallize the rising anger of the masses.

      That doesn’t bode at all well for peace, unless by “peace” you mean hiding one’s head in the sand as long as one can.

      The kleptocracy of course will not be able to maintain its power with Bailouts forever. Soon it will have to move to more overt, direct fascism. They’re already laying the groundwork with the gutting of civil liberties, the militarization of the police, expansion of military jurisdiction (posse comitatus), and the enshrinement of a permanent war mindset (via the fraudulent “war on terror”) which is the desired social mindset fascism always seeks to inculcate.

      The only thing which could prevent this, other than the system’s fast complete collapse on its own (which I’m not betting on), would be a level of “revolutionary” change which, while no doubt disruptive to the elites and their hacks, would be far less violent than the imposition of fascism.

      Today a large group, the temporary “middle class”, which had achieved a relatively high level of economic and political power, is now rapidly losing all of it.

      Unfortunately, the record shows that in this historical situation the most common response on the part of those being liquidated is not to fight back against the robbers and restitute what they stole, but to fight among themselves, the relatively stronger scapegoating and brutalizing the weakest, while the elites try to maintain control over the fascist surge, with more or less success.

      Today, with the new propaganda and organizational technologies the post discussed, they may have more success maintaining astroturf control than they did back in the 30s.

      The media aspect of the so-called “rise” of so-called “leaders” like Sarah Palin, corporate confections who are really just top-down manufactured pseudo-political celebrities, only makes all of these developments more likely, and real change less likely, as you said.

      But to think that this means “peace”? No – it means vastly more blood.

      1. reslez

        attempter, whenever I read one of your posts I want to stand and applaud. Thank you for the thought and effort you obviously put into your insightful posts.

        To your litany of groundwork-for-the-kleptocracy I will add the privatization of the U.S. military, an institution which has largely been politically independent and subject to routine congressional oversight. Privatization gained steam under Reagan in the 80s and was expanded by the downsizer Clinton. Offloading military duties to private contractors provides vast scope for politically connected elites to skim off profits from the uncontested billions budgeted for war. And the rise this last decade of private mercenary troops adds yet a frightening layer of opaque unaccountability. What do these mercenary troops do when they’re at home? What prevents them from being used not just in Iraq/Afghanistan but domestically — or by whomever bids the highest? Given the complete lack of success have we had recently in regulating corporations of any size, there is every reason to fear the results.

        1. attempter

          Thanks, reslez.

          Regarding privatization of the military and the famous Friedman/Westmoreland debate, I’ve always thought Westmoreland was hitting far closer to the mark than he knew when he said, “I don’t want an army of mercenaries.”

          I think he meant that basically metaphorically and had no inkling that in Friedman’s ultimate vision the army would be fully privatized.

          I don’t know if Friedman ever went so far in print, but I’ve read Nozick saying the public army and police should be disbanded and replaced by corporate death squads.

    2. DownSouth

      Gerald Muller,

      Your social Darwinism is a theory that was conceived in the latter 19th century and gained immense popularity, as Jacques Barzun explains:

      The educated public that read the weeklies was likely to find in some of them justification for war as such, or at least debate about it. It was a live issue because writers of various nationalities and grades of intellect were Social Darwinists; they believed that the theory of Natural Selection applied to nations as well as to animal species: struggle brought out the fittest. In the light of this belief the Yellow Peril became a “fact” after Japan defeated Russia. The American Homer Lea, a hunchback who was a general in the Chinese army, had warned in “The Valor of Ignorance” against Japanese aggression and pointed out in “The Day of the Saxon” the duty of concerted policies against the menace from the East. He was not alone in arguing that the West must be ready for conflict and never flinch from it. War might be costly in lives and money, but the reward was an improved “race,” a stronger, finer, more capable people. The term “struggle-for-life” was adopted as is into the French language and its equivalent elsewhere. The American president Theodore Roosevelt generalized the notion as “the strenuous life” and defined foreign policy as walking softly and carrying a big stick.

      This argument drew additional plausibility from the analogy with economic competition: the stronger firm conquers and swallows the weaker, proving, itself more efficient. The world benefits from better goods at cheaper prices. Opponents of this simple vision—-a small minority—-pointed out that the economic benefits were anything but likely: the bigger firm charges monopoly prices. And as for war between peoples, it is the fittest, youngest, and most selfless individuals who get killed. Victory is ruinous and defeat profitable, as (for example) it had been to France in the Franco-German War of 1870 and to Spain after 1898. The French reacted with energy and quickly paid off the large indemnity; Spanish industry boomed. The French defeat did Germany more harm than good, economically and morally, as Nietzsche had pointed out: rampant vulgarity and “materialism” characterized the fledgling Second Reich.
      –Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

      Social Darwinism achieved its purest and most virulent form in the Third Reich.

      On the other hand, your theory ignores the theories conceived by prominent thinkers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who advocated nonviolent means to bring about social change.

      1. Gary Anderson

        Non violent means is just fine. Just default on all your debt. It is the patriotic thing to do. If you don’t fix your personal balance sheet, no one, especially the crony bailout government, will fix it for you.

        The war is not against the government, per se, or pitting Republican against Democrat. Nor is the war public versus private, though some who would divert the argument make it seem that way. No, the battle, and it was started from above, is the bankster cartel, including the central banks, who allowed off balance sheet ponzi banking at Basel 2 in 1997, versus the rest of us.

        If we could keep that focus, despite the efforts of the useless mainstream press to divert, we could fight this battle and eventually win. The ultimate win is default, and I don’t mean, default and pay the banks later. I mean absolute default. No first world country should ever give a nanosecond to what the IMF or the BIS say. Ever.

        1. DownSouth

          Yep, mass default would certainly do the trick.

          As Reinhold Niebuhr observed:

          Non-violence is essentially non-co-operation. It expresses itself in the refusal to participate in the ordinary processes of society. It may mean the refusal to pay taxes to the government (civil disobedience), or to trade with the social group which is to be coerced (boycott) or to render customary services (strike). While it represents a passive and negative form of resistance, its consequences may be very positive. It certainly places restraints upon the freedom of the objects of its discipline and prevents them from doing what they desire to do.
          –Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man & Immoral Society

  5. Jeff


    Even living in Japan I had not realized that income inequality was low.

    Of course it is, and this is what makes USAians seem to be and act so
    arrogant as to be repellent in the view of many Japanese.

  6. purple

    The US is on the the fast track to a crisis of leadership. Obama – the fresh face – has proven to be as weak as Bush was belligerent. The ruling class has become so corrupt that they can’t manage things well enough for their own benefit. Strip mining the US middle class means they now dream of fortunes from China and Indian consumers, as if those countries are not capable of developing their own industries to sell to their own people. They seem to be vacillate between stamping their feet at China’s development of ‘national champions’ and raising the menace trade wars.

    1. Gary Anderson

      I found it interesting that China has warned of possible jail for credit card defaults. Indeed that warning could keep the Chinese nation from suffering at the hands of the greedy Wall Street bankers who no doubt wanted 10 Visa cards in the hands of each Chinese citizen.

  7. attempter

    And many of the societies suffering these financial shocks have already suffered a great deal of erosion of their underlying support structures. Even before the crisis, in the US and other advanced economies, social bonds have eroded in a remarkably short period of time, roughly a generation and a half. Job tenures are short; employees and employers have little loyalty to each other. Ties to communities are weak. Many families have two working parents, so career and parenting demands leave little time to participate in local organizations.

    I’d impute far more top-down agency to these processes. They didn’t just accidentally happen against the intention of coporatism. The social contract (and many far more specific contracts like pensions, which Yves mentioned) was unilaterally broken across the board by the elites.

    One oft unrecognized factor is that alienation and social stress are directly related to income inequality. This is hardly a new finding, but it seldom gets media coverage in the plutocratic US.

    Yes, pronounced inequality of wealth is a pure evil in itself, malignant for social and biological health, just like any biological pathogen. (Indeed the presence of plutocrats is such a pathogen.) But of course the establishment discourse depicts the issue as at most a moral/aesthetic quibble.

  8. Mindrayge

    “Having weakened faith in government and made considerable progress towards creating a social Darwinist paradise of isolated individuals pitted against each other, the oligarchs may be about to harvest a whirlwind.”

    Possibly. But the only way that can happen is if they can manage to keep some measure of protection, some perceived benefit that keeps a significant (though not necessarily an equal number) portion of the population that will – in trying to protect their own interests – unwittingly provide the protection that the wealthy require. In a severe economic dislocation such as this one the only mitigating influence comes from government. If the masses decide that the government is not working in their interests and to the contrary are actually working against them then all bets are off.

    In the U.S. the last time we saw such danger of upheaval or even revolution was in 1932. The change in government came with the implicit warning of “or else”. A revolution, and likely a communist one, was not beyond the realm of possibility. And it scared the ever living bejeezus out of them.

    Today, the oligarchy has no such fears of a communist revolution – or any revolution at all. That is a mistake on their part. The masses don’t need a “model” on which to base a revolution. They need only be sick and tired of the wealthy being their problem and then they will make that problem go away.

    The masses have already sent one message through their voting two years ago. They will be even less enamored if they are ignored this next time around. Even the current administration hadn’t realized that its role was that of Roosevelt rather than that of Hoover. And it certainly doesn’t understand just how precarious the situation is in this country.

    Starting at least in 1992 and forward there is the complete disappearance of the discussion of the “poor”. It was, as if, by magic that everybody became “middle class”. It was quite a coup. And it worked for 15 years. Then suddenly the vast majority of people that though they were “middle class” realized that – to the contrary – they were “poor”. They may not acknowledge it publicly but they do know that if you have a dual income household and the loss of one of those paychecks means financial ruin you are, in fact, poor.

    That genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Oh sure, they offered up Bernie Madoff as a proverbial sacrifice thinking that would be enough. It isn’t. Right now what the worker bees of the wealthy in our halls of government are trying to do is convince the masses that everything is looking up and getting better when what they should be doing is sitting their “bosses” down and explaining to them what they will need to give up in order to keep their heads.

    1. DownSouth


      Today, the oligarchy has no such fears of a communist revolution – or any revolution at all. That is a mistake on their part.

      I agree wholeheartedly.

      The historian Jacques Barzun gives a most eloquent rendering of how revolution takes hold, how it appears out of nowhere, even in a setting such as the prosperous American colonies:

      How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event—-total wave from a ripple—-is cause for endless astonishment. Neither Luther in 1517 nor the men who gathered at Versailles in 1789 intended at first what they produced at last. (The same can be said for the American revolutionaries, whose initial intent, before the American revolution took on a life of its own, was more of a “restoration” in the traditional sense of the term revolution.) Even less did the Russian Liberals who made the revolution of 1917 foresee what followed. All were as ignorant as everybody else of how much was about to be destroyed. Nor could they guess what feverish feelings, what strange behavior ensue when revolution, great or short-lived, is in the air.

      First, a piece of news about something said or done travels quickly, more so than usual, because it is uniquely apt; it fits a half-conscious mood or caps a situation: a monk questions indulgences, and he does it not just out of the blue—-they are being sold again on a large scale. The fact and the challenger’s name generate rumor, exaggeration, misunderstanding, falsehood. People ask each other what is true and what it means. The atmosphere becomes electric, the sense of time changes, grows rapid; a vague future seems nearer.

      On impulse, perhaps to snap the tension, somebody shouts in church, throws a stone through a window, which provokes a fight—-it happened so at Wittenberg—-and clearly it is no ordinary breach of the peace. Another unknown harangues a crowd, urging it to stay calm—-or not to stand there gaping but do something. As further news spreads, various types of people become aroused for or against the thing now upsetting everybody’s daily life. But what is that thing? Concretely: ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts, and all assert themselves.

      Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings are defaced, images destroyed, shops looted. Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage—-Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once—-all things new for a blissful life on earth.

      A curious leveling takes place: the common people learn words and ideas hitherto not familiar and not interesting and discuss them like intellectuals, while others neglect their usual concerns—-art, philosophy, scholarship—-because there is only one compelling topic, the revolutionary Idea. The well-to-do and the “right-thinking,” full of fear, come together to defend their possessions and habits. But counsels are divided and many see their young “taking the wrong side.” The powers that be wonder and keep watch, with fleeting thoughts of advantage to be had from the confusion. Leaders of opinion try to put together some of the ideas afloat into a position which they mean to fight for. They will reassure others, or preach boldness, and anyhow head the movement.

      Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families. As time goes on, “betraying the cause” is an incessant charge, and there are indeed turncoats. Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.
      –Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

      1. ArmchairRevolutionary

        “A curious leveling takes place: the common people learn words and ideas hitherto not familiar and not interesting and discuss them like intellectuals, while others neglect their usual concerns”

        I have seen this with school teachers who normally talk nothing of politics or finance making taling about the corruption they are seeing.

  9. Richard Kline

    I’m not sanguine that we will see ‘revolution’ anytime soon in the US, even less in the EU. We have what might be considered ‘incipient revolutionary’ conditions to be sure. There is a body of scholarly literature on this, of mixed quality in results if often interesting in its questions; no consensus conclusions resulted. I draw my own conclusions, from my own study of relevant histories, with three salient issues, all in the negative for a near-term eruction, though the mid-term is quite another matter.

    The primary issue here is one of timeframe. To my observation, it takes a minimum of twenty years (to take a nice round number) to pressurize a population to revolutionary criticality, in a phrase; twenty-five years is more typical. A full generation of thirty years (I use that duration advisedly in a technical sense) is by no means out of the question, although I suspect given historical precedent that if things are going to blow they do so before that term. What it really takes are: a socio-political disjuncture which changes the context insolubly _and_ twenty plus years of compounding political stasis _and_ economic emiseration for a large part of the population, at least. It is not clear whether overt state repression hastens or retards that trajectory; I suspect retards, actually, but more than that I think that repression plays out in context-dependent ways, so it’s clearer to omit it from a basic schema.

    Any analysis can’t be limited to simply the Famous Three of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, although all of these fit the trajectory which I just described. The onset of ‘the French and Indian War’ was the precipitant in the Americas, with much of the population refusing to participate and otherwise becoming irreconcilably alienated from UK policy. There was _not_ severe economic dislocation afterwards, but the changes that took place were not in the interests of Americans, including higher tax rates and much tighter political and economic control from the UK: the Colonies ‘lost’ the war, even though they were on the winning side. Political statis was in place, however. France had been immersed in political stasis for the entirety of the 18th century, and a series of lost wars with the huge financial costs left the nobility entirely discredited. Bad economic times at the back end of that only finished the job. One could argue that the Russian Revolution really began with the emancipation of the serfs more than a generation before, because there was absolutely no political or economic space for them or the pinched and tiny middle class dependent upon the bureaucracy there. Free to serve and starve about sums it up. The ‘eruption’ of 1905 was a precipitant, but it would have taken far longer to reach revolutionary conditions if the collapse of Russia in the Great War didn’t leave governance literally up for grabs, so the Russian Revolution was in many ways exceptional: Revolution happened before the population ‘was ready,’ in a sense. In the same way, it’s difficult to say when ‘the Chinese Revolution’ began. The Qing Dynasty was finished after 1894, unable to even defend itself, so the precipitous collapse of the dynasty in 1911 was ‘pre-mature’ in the same way. Yuan Shikai in other circumstances simply would have declared himself Emperor, but he controlled too little to act in time. If one dates ‘revolution’ there to 1923, which is perhaps fairest, the timeframe holds. Once could also argue whether in South Africa there even _was_ a revolution as opposed to a resistance to colonial slavery which is something of a difficult dynamic, and repudiation of ‘them’ rather than a overthrow of ‘some of us.’

    But there are many other revolutions and Revolutions to consider. The English ‘revolution’ of 1642: twenty years of political stasis from the, in effect, soft coup of 1621 of Charles I, following upon forty years of often paintul economic dislocation. The Dutch Revolution of 1783 was a process of decades in the making [and incidentally Schama’s text on this, Patriots and Liberators, is much superior to his Citizens because more detailed in its examination of Dutch society over time.] The Mexican Revolution began when Diaz swept aside any attempts at reform and ran the country like a feudal fief for a generation prior. The Cuban Revolution had been decades in the making once the US reneged on any possibility of democracy with the end of formal protectorate by placing a running dog cronies in place as a dictators. We have the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a long-term echo of the entrenchment of the Shah as an agent of foreign powers in 1953. The ‘rightist revolutions’ in the former Yugoslavia go back at least to the repression of Croatian national sentiment in the 1970s. The Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe were set in motion from 1968 when it was made plain no reform or change was in any way possible from within the system, which itself could generate nothing _but_ economic emiseration. And so on.

    The first point, then, is that it takes double decades of dismay before one reaches ‘ignition potential.’ Why? that leads to the second contention I would make, that a sizeable part of the population has to be under pressure _and_ without any hope. Because revolution’s are, well, _dangerous_. A lot of people have something to lose, and as long as they have that something, they shy away from risk to it. So one needs at least twenty years of a bunch having _nothing_ to lose. We surely don’t have that now: in the US, in the EU, in Japan. Even a lot of those unemployed folks still have a home, and/or another wage earner in the household. Yes, the American Great Depression ‘could’ have produced a ‘revolution,’ but change came in considerably less than twenty years: the timeframe of those with nothing to lose was never attained even if, briefly, the numbers in that condition were achieved. In 2010, we have neither condition in the US. Fury at the oligarchy is insufficient: they aren’t nearly as bad as, say, the Russian aristocracy or the Shah’s kleptocracy.

    The third point I would make is that, in the main, revolutions are uprisings of the young. Middle aged middle classes losing their pensions aren’t the stuff revolutions are made of. Even if the intellectual leadership of revolutions—when there is such, a condition by no means always in place—may come from older heads, the masses risking their asses are under thirty for sure. So the question is, are the under-thirties in the US presently presently being pressurized to a revolutionary potential? Not as long as they can still live with and off of daddy they’re not. Take away their video gadgets, and we’ll hear a lot of howling, but the skills for mass organization don’t seem in evidence. Oh alright, that’s too harsh, but the main point stands, that there simply isn’t in evidence amongst the young enough discomfort and certainty of a failed society with no place for them. After three years.

    The last point, three years, is where I align, however tenuously, with Schama’s contention. For in 2007 we did have the kind of disjunction which _could_ create a revolutionary potential. The ownership society failed, and it won’t becoming back anytime in the next twenty years. Financial expectations are greatly diminished for anyone not working for the 1% of the oligarchy, say for the other 90% of us. The US has needed an industrial policy and many structural reforms for a generation, didn’t get it, and it is now too late to make those changes under duress: we can expect little change that matters. Whether we have complete political stasis is debatable. Those in government over the last three years have failed spectaularly. The Beltway Party stayed in power, and they exist to serve the corporacracy. Tea Potters foaming with bigotry running on billionaires crypto-handouts are not going to accomplish anything beyond full employment for comedy writiers. Whether a few more ‘progressives’ getting into office in the next two election cycles will make any difference is hard to say. If not, then yes, stasis, as far as the eye can see. But that’s another fifteen plus years. Because really, even three years ago the bulk of the middle class and even some of the working class in the US thought they had found a path to permanent wealth just by ‘being there,’ no special skills required beyond the ownership of citizenship documents. Yes, for the poor and much of the working class it’s been a thirty year slog, but they were and are unorganized politically, and have had a few bones thrown their way. Until 2007.

    There are further issues of cyclcial timing involved which make the above commentary less precise, in that some periods have more ‘revolutionary potential’ than others _inherently_. Raising those issues would take, at a minimum, ten times the verbiage effused here, without changing any of what I’ve just mentioned, so I’m going to skip, with regret, that particular examination.

    A lot of people losing some money doesn’t make for a revolution; it makes for a frustra-tion. A few people losing everything doesn’t make a revolution; it makes the police better paid and more active. Twenty years and more of state failure under conditions of loss, suffereing, and/or gross injustice for a salient share of the population are necessary to achieve a revolutionary potential if it’s achievable at all. And we are years away from that in my view, and with most most far, far too comfortably endurable in their personal social and economic postures to reach that potential at all. And that’s what the oligarchy is banking on, sad to say.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I need to turn in, so my devil’s advocacy will be brief.

      Past revolutions took place in societies that were much more decentralized from an operational perspective and therefore much more robust. It took concerted action by a larger proportion of the populace to undermine the existing authority structure.

      Think of all the points of vulnerability we have now: electrical grids, phone networks, chip deliveries, more urbanization, which means populations dependent on food deliveries as well as government-provided water and sewer services.

      You need a much much smaller percent of the population as active revolutionaries, provided the rest are either passive sympathizers or merely afraid to get caught in the crossfire.

      1. Richard Kline

        It is difficult to think of an instance where a revolutionary population successfully undermined an extant government, certainly amongst the examples I listed, Yves. Maybe the Iranian Revolution. Revolutions occur when governments are decrepit or in collapse. Successful ‘undermine and rise up’ actions occur against foreign or at least minority occupation: Vietnam, Algeria, Eritreia, South Africa all come to mind.

        The points that you make regarding the fragility of critical infrastructure in industrialized countries are germane, yes. There are many on the anarchist end of things who have thought this through, as such actions have an anarchist tradition going back near two hundred years. Those in the US of that mindset are presently mostly in prison or silent under threat of prosecution. That was the result of the last ten years of ‘homeland police stating’ passed courtesy of the Beltway Party. Most Americans don’t think we live in a police state because we police ourselves quite effectively to passivity. There is now the legal and manpower infrastructure in this country to very, very quickly remove from the streets and even the courts any such domestic insurrectionaries and Gitmoize them. I don’t say that in a paranoid sense but in a description of objective reality: the tools are there. The first people to try that are going to be naive, young idealists without any skills to speak of, and their execration will do little to encourage more. Yes, if there was mass resistance _and_ the organization to make it work, there could be some disruption. But it would be very high cost, and I firmly expect that the police powers in the US would have no difficulty crushing it.

        Mass resistance and denial of support is another matter. The US has probably never been more vulnerable to the effects of periodic general strikes. ‘The system’ works because we millions of drones show up and cower in our cubicles, waiting for the oligarchs to to turn off our credit and seize our assets one ‘housing bloc’ at a time. Sabotage can be crushed but a non-cooperation has never had more fertile soil for success than our highly integrated urban societies. Are citizens ‘not cooperating’? No. When they cease to do so, we can talk revolution. I’m banking on fifteen years plus from now, if at all.

        1. Fair Economist

          A revolution in the States would occur through the ballot box. The almost religious belief in the of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution is very strong, and both the Tea Partiers and Organizing for America show how strong a political movement can be formed around even relatively flimsy or fuzzy goals. If things turn south again (and I think they will) we will see all kinds of agitators, but it will be the ones calling for political action who will attract large groups.

          The complicated political maneuvers in the Senate over financial reform are reflective of what we’re more likely to see. Even though the Senate is more insulated from popular pressure than almost any other major legislative or executive body in the developed world, Senator see that political frustration in the grassroots is ending or endangering their careers (Dodd, Specter, Lincoln, Grassley, Bennett, Snowe, Graham – it’s getting to be a long list). They are overwhelmingly creatures of the establishment, and they try to make it all Kabuki theater, but when you have so many agents trying to address so many constituencies they undermine each others’ false fronts and things few intended start getting done.

        2. Ming

          Very nice posts Mr. Kline!!

          I think you underlined a key issue…at present the population is still too comfortable and sedated to enact a revolution. (Cheap food and alcohol, entertaining TV, new tech gadgets, free internet porn) Mind you, the there are many persons who have been ‘downsized’ in their jobs, from working in manufacturuing (as well paid labourers, skilleed trades or engineers) to working at Wallmart. This process started in the mid-1990 as many jobs started to get exported to China. Although I don’t have any hard stats, I’m certain this cohort of people also got burned in the Foreclosure crisis that we are suffering from right now….so they have had a good 15 years of getting beaten up. And now with the internet and twitter, articles, ideas and opinions can be commuicated much more rapdily. So one never knows about the possible time frame for a revolution…only that debate must be fosterd, the truth must be disseminated, and then people can rise up to enact real Change.

          I also believe that the change must come peacefully in America. Violence will beget more violence, which will eventually lead to great destruction. But a peaceful disruption…the police and army in America are still civil and would be loathe to harm the movement or its leaders if no violence is advocated or performed. (In Russia or China there is no similar ‘civility’, hence even a peaceful revolution in those countries, although it can still be successful, is much more risky and much more painful for the populace, and hence much less likely to suceed)

      2. MindTheGAAP

        Think of all the points of vulnerability we have now: electrical grids, phone networks, chip deliveries, more urbanization, which means populations dependent on food deliveries as well as government-provided water and sewer services.

        Whether you realize it or not, your argument is not one of revolution–it is one of collapse. There is not sufficient talent or money in the system to maintain this infrastructure, let alone upgrade it. Once the aeffects of this become apparent to the general public (apparently rolling powe outages every summer aren’t quite enough), rebellion is beside the point altogether.

        And in the end, every country will inevitably collapse if its society revolves around the implicit promises of $20 oil and only 10-15% of income being diverted to reliably-delivered food. An even cursory investigation into the commodities markets would tell you that it is not even remotely possible that either of those conditions will hold going forward.

        As scary as the international financial crises may seem right now, hindsight will likely view them as an insignificant side show in the grander scheme of early 21st century history. The major problem facing most of the world–including the first world–is a lack of basic resources (food, water, energy), and these resources can’t be printed overnight, nor even corrected over a few years. The secondary problems you mention–those of maintaining an ever-increasingly complex infrastructure (the phone lines and power grid and microchips you mentioned)with an ever-dwindling financial base and talent pool–likely won’t be solved either, although there are (for now) ways of doing so if society cared enough to wean itself off of American Idol long enough to bother.

    2. Captain Teeb

      “Middle aged middle classes losing their pensions aren’t the stuff revolutions are made of.”

      Thanks for weighing in, Mr. K.

      Certainly not, and that’s why few (here in Europe, at least) will wish to see their statist systems overthrown. The ‘revolution’ (with a small ‘r’) may come at the ballot box (cf. USA 1932). Exhibit A is the German public’s response to Merkel’s attempt at ‘leadership’ (the lack of which is decried in some comments), which I take to mean selling the public something that they feel is not in their interest. The verdict is in, and Merkel plus the entire political class in Germany is on notice. The same is true in Greece, and will likely become true elsewhere in Europe as the stress slowly rises.

      But I would also submit that things don’t necessarily end in cataclysmic or ballot-box revolution. Exhibit B would be the old Soviet Union, which after a few theatrics simply disintegrated. I don’t see the US going that road, but frankly the US has so many weird variables (e.g., highly mobile, well-armed, lobotomized public) that I cannot imagine how it will come apart (I am not Keynes’s one man in a million).

      1. BillF

        highly mobile, well-armed, lobotomized public

        LOL. Boy, if that isn’t spot-on, I don’t know what is.

    3. Mia

      The twenty-year timeframe is very interesting. But you must also consider that each of these historical instances occurred in a very different world, technologically speaking. In essence, information took time to travel.

      These days, the mood of the country swings much faster, because communication is instant.

      I’d also argue that if we use your criteria, we are already ten years into the twenty year pressure-cooker. Most of us are at least no better off, and many of us are worse off, than we were in 2000. So if the incipient conditions continue for another ten years – which if you listen to most economists, is certainly feasible – AND we continue using our government to siphon money from the average taxpayer to the oligarchs? What will 2020 look like around here?

      Getting some jobs back won’t be enough…

    4. DownSouth

      Richard Kline,

      Let me pile on here too.

      I certainly would not venture any predictions on when or whether the US will experience a “revolution,” what form that revolution might take, or what the final outcome might be.

      That said, I would disagree with your analysis of what precipitates a revolution. You seem to have the same bias that Hannah Arendt describes in On Revolution:

      It was the French and not the American Revolution that set the world on fire, and it was consequently from the course of the French Revolution, and not from the course of events in America or from the acts of the Founding Fathers, that our present use of the word ‘revolution’ received its connotations and overtones everywhere, the United States not excluded…. It is odd indeed to see that twentieth-century American—-even more than European—-learned opinion is often inclined to interpret the American Revolution in the light of the French Revolution, or to criticize it because it so obviously did not conform to lessons learned from the latter. The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.

      The men who led the American Revolution, and those who followed them, were not suffering any “economic emiseration.” Just the opposite was true. This was a land of unbounded natural wealth and prosperity. And the men who led the American Revolution certainly did “have something to lose.” They hailed from the local landed aristocracy, and were quite wealthy.

      The American Revolution was not fought because the colonists were subjected to poverty, or because they were excluded from the private realm of commercial enterprise. Quite the contrary, our Founding Fathers revolted because they were excluded from the public realm, from government.

      The American Revolution demonstrated that revolutions are not always fought for socio-economic reasons, but also for freedom, democracy and self-determination.

      1. Anonymous Jones

        Wow, sorry, do not agree with this at all in any way. I have yet to see evidence that wars are not primarily driven by economics. Skirmishes like Harpers Ferry might be about beliefs, but sustained warfare seems to have always been about economic power. Who would finance the mobilization if not for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I’m sorry, but ROI is paramount. Sounds like good old American mythmaking to say that the American Revolution was about ideals. I’ve heard the arguments before, but I don’t in any way think that if the British Empire were putting more resources into the American Colonies than they were taking out of them there would have been any sustained effort at revolution. It’s not that the American subjects were poor; it’s that they were unhappy with the division of gains. Obviously, I cannot prove this, but I will be very loath to cede this opinion without a comprehensive and airtight argument to the contrary.

        1. DownSouth

          Anonymous Jones,

          I believe wars are and historically have been fought for a whole litany of reasons.

          Jonathan Schell in The Unconquerable World points out that monarchs fought wars “for revenge, power, or loot—-or for that matter, visions of heaven on earth or of mere safety.”

          Then there are what he calls “the unappeased demons of national, ethnic, religious, and class fury.”

          Today, he claims the “logic of war” has “eclipsed the logic of politics.”

          Schell cites two cases that signaled this sea change:

          In the Fashoda crisis and the Franco-Russian treaty, we catch two glimpses of a world in which, though peace still reigned, military victory had become an end in itself. The logic of politics had not been merely challenged by the logic or war, it had been shut out completely. The war that now threatened had become the senseless thing that Clausewitz had once feared: “a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence” that would “drive policy out of office and rule by the laws of its own nature.”

          1. DownSouth

            Anonymous Jones,

            I’d also add that classical economic theory also holds that all human behavior is “driven by economics.”

            As Reinhold Niebuhr notes in The Irony of American History:

            The false abstraction of “economic man” remains a permanent defect in all bourgeois-liberal ideology. It seems to know nothing of what Thomas Hobbes termed “the continual competition for honor and dignity” in human affairs. It understands neither the traditional ethnic and cultural loyalties which qualify a consistent economic rationalism; nor the deep and complex motives in the human psyche which express themselves in the desire for “power and glory.” All the conflicts in human society involving passions and ambitions, hatreds and loves, envies and ideals not recorded in the market place, are beyond the comprehension of the typical bourgeois ethos.

            Eric Hoffer put it more succinctly:

            Every era has a currency that buys souls. In some the currency is pride, in others it is hope, in still others it is a holy cause. There are of course times when hard cash will buy souls, and the remarkable thing is that such times are marked by civility, tolerance, and the smooth working of everyday life.

      2. Richard Kline

        So DownSouth, we’re not looking at the same picture concerning the American Revolution. Now, to be clear, I didn’t stress economic emiseration as the driving factor in the American Revolution, and for clarity’s sake I’ll say that I do not see it as the prime factor. That out of the way, you’re making the same mistake most do with the American Revolution in looking at those ‘founding fathers’ and Committees of Correspondence. Practically speaking, they and their were defeated by 1777, bankrupt, and struggling to get international funding and support which was not forthcoming. The American Revolution was won because large numbers of other folk who have had little place in the history books enlisted in military units, sold goods to those units at a loss, and organized their own governance in areas not under British control, largely without any direct interaction with the feeble and ill-respected Continental Congress. Most of those folks were on the poorer side. Many had had financial problems from the ham-handed British efforts to reshape the Colonial economies into forms more favorable for the UK and less for the Continent as they had been. It is probable, though I have yet to see research proving this, that the bulk of the actual soldiery fighting on the American side were Scoth-Irish immigrants, most of them fairly recent, either from recent frontier regions which suffered under British policy, from those not lucky enough to get land before the British closed off the interior from further settlement and thus squatters in the coastal districts, and all of them anyway economic refugees from Ulster (and Scotland directly) in consequence of hostile English commercial politices.

        There is a lot more to the American Revolution than a bunch of rich, white men in Philadelphia, though yes, the desire of them and their class to continue to run their individual colonies rather than have governance snatched back by the British as had happened already in Scotland and Ireland was a salient factor. To circle back to my main point, and Yves’, revolution is _a broad social process_. Revolutions are not largely the result of ideology and program; that is historical metonomy where it is not historical revisionism. Revolutions occur because a large sector of a society finds conditions intolerable and governance is too weak to surpress citizen defiance.

        On another issue, the timeframe of twenty years is, in my view, highly unlikely to be changed in any way by ‘technological innovation.’ That is a long discussion, but I’ll at least state my reasons briefly. The impact of technology is continually and wildly overstated by those who presently utilize it. Yes, you can get a lot of folks to one place fast, as mentioned well above here by Swedish Lex: organizers in other eras have had no difficulty mobilizing large numbers in the complete absence of modern techology; indeed, they at times had better organization because they had to actually prepare and have leadership networks. Secondly, the twenty year kind of compression I hypothesize in my remarks above is not time-limited by ‘an inability to pass information.’ Folks _know_ things are bad, it’s getting up the gumption or desperation to respond which requires a certain ‘poaching time,’ together with longer cyclical dynamics which are not mediated by technolgical issues insofar as I can tell. Communication times may affect such larger dynamics, I’m not closed to that, but I haven’t seen it yet, nor is there anything on the ground evident which suggests that as of today, May, 2010.

        1. DownSouth

          Richard Kline,

          1) All of the proponents of nonviolent revolution that I have read, and those wanting to bring about change—-Hannah Arendt, Jonathan Schell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King—-point to successful revolutions, such as the American Revolution. The opponents of nonviolent revolution, and those wanting to maintain the status quo, point to bloody affairs such as the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. As Niebuhr points out in Moral Man & Immoral Society, the reason for this is that the plutocrat

          identifies his interests with the peace and order of society. This is the most important of the imponderables in a social struggle. It is the one which gives an entrenched and dominant group the clearest and the least justified advantage over those who are attacking the status quo. The latter are placed in the category of enemies of public order, of criminals and inciters to violence…

          2) Liberalism was once upon a time about truth, or at least the pursuit of veridical truth (Veridical truth has proven a bit elusive, to say the least.). The New Left seems to have completely abandoned this pursuit. As Richard Bernstein put it in Dictatorship of Virtue, “My argument is not that there were no evil consequences to the Columbian arrival, but that between 1892 and 1992 the country swung from a mood that was not critical enough to one that was so critical that another part of the Columbian legacy seems to have been almost forgotten: the eventual building of the biggest and most prosperous democracy in world history.

          Or as Robert Hughes puts it:

          The reading of history is never static. Revise we historians must. There is no such thing as the last word. And who could doubt that there is still much to revise in the story of the European conquest of North and South America that we inherited? Its scheme was imperial: the epic advance of Civilization against Barbarism: the conquistador brings the Cross and the sword, the red man shrinks back before the cavalry and railroad. Manifest Destiny. The white American myth of the 19th century…

          So now, in reaction to it, comes the manufacture of an opposite myth. European man, once the hero of the conquest of the Americas, now becomes its demon; and the victims who cannot be brought back to life, are canonized. On either side of the divide between Euro and native, historians stand ready with tar-brush and gold leaf, and instead of the wicked old stereotypes we have a whole new outfit of equally misleading new ones.

          This part of your comment I find to fall within the New Left tradition:

          …you’re making the same mistake most do with the American Revolution in looking at those ‘founding fathers’ and Committees of Correspondence. Practically speaking, they and their were defeated by 1777, bankrupt, and struggling to get international funding and support which was not forthcoming. The American Revolution was won because large numbers of other folk who have had little place in the history books enlisted in military units, sold goods to those units at a loss, and organized their own governance in areas not under British control, largely without any direct interaction with the feeble and ill-respected Continental Congress.

          If we make the American Revolution a “poor man’s revolution,” and write out of its history the role played by the colonial elites, I believe this to be a tremendous disservice to those who are proponents of nonviolent revolution.

          3) I do not believe that Niebuhr, Arendt, Schell, or King entertained any illusions about the Founding Fathers, nor attempted to whitewash them in any way. Nor do any of them deny that what the Founding Fathers did would have been impossible without the cooperation and support of the common people. Quite the opposite, the close working relationship between the Founding Fathers and the rank and file colonists was the success of the American Revolution. But the writing of a “poor man’s history” of the American Revolution, where the extraordinary and revolutionary role the Founding Fathers played is eliminated or minimized, I believe they would find outrageous, and counterproductive to their goal of bringing about revolutionary change.

          4) As to the materialistic view of history, what can I say? I disagree, as vehemently as I disagree with classical economic theory that holds that material rewards are the only thing that motivate human beings. There’s of course nothing new about the materialistic theory of history, as Arendt explains:

          The connection between wealth and government in any given country and the insight that forms of government are interconnected with the distribution of wealth, the suspicion that political power may simply follow economic power, and, finally, the conclusion that interest may be the moving force in all political strife—-all this is of course not the invention of Marx, nor for that matter of Harrington: ‘Dominion is property, real or personal’; or of Rohan: ‘The kings command the people and interest commands kings.’ If one wishes to blame any single author for the so-called materialistic view of history, one must go as far back as Aristotle, who was the first to claim that interest, which he called the ovuvepov, that which is useful for a person or for group or for a people, does and should rule supreme in political matters.

    5. gordon

      I’m inclined to agree that the US is far from being ripe for revolution, but not because immiseration hasn’t as yet become bad enough. I’m thinking of Brinton’s “Anatomy of Revolution”, and how he describes the split in the ruling class as a necessary precondition. I don’t see any evidence of that in either the US or Europe at the moment.

        1. Richard Kline

          The US has no history of coups. While one will surely be attempted at some point—2030-40??–it is likely to be so lacking in legitimacy as to have no sustained success. That is my view.

  10. Meziadin

    I’ve been living as an expat in South Korea for over 5 years. In many ways, the society is more stable than the USA–very low illegal drug use, low petty crime/vandalism/graffiti, low teen sex problems, high family unity, strong work ethic. But, it seems to me, the level of social tension seems high. Overall (with exceptions, of course, especially among the youth), they love their country, but not their neighbor. Rudeness, inconsideration and corruption are a way of life. They also have a laudable history of taking to the streets to fight the “Man”.

    1. Maru Kun

      What you say may be true, but I would be interested to see where Korea ranks on the income inequality scale. My impression of the country is that it has an extremely rich and pretty corrupt elite built around the chaebol families and those running the major Korean corporations with the average Korean being stuck in a very rigid society with little opportunity to escape. This added to the problems of having to rebuild the country from its desctruction in the Korean war and having North Koreans regularly torpedoing their ships and threatening nuclear distruction on their capital probably adds to the tension.

    2. gordon

      I don’t as a rule engage in National stereotyping, but the definition of a society as stable because of “…low illegal drug use, low petty crime/vandalism/graffiti, low teen sex problems, high family unity, strong work ethic” has got to be typically American. I have seldom seen a better capsule example of the “little house on the prairie” type of social ideal. But life in S.Korea seems to be showing you that corruption and oligarchy can also be social issues in a way that traditionally they haven’t been in the USA. Keep looking out of the window.

  11. Jim in SC

    Outstanding analysis, Richard.

    I agree that conditions are not in place for Revolution in the US. We’re continuing to produce more stuff, even if our increasing productivity comes at the price of job losses. On the other hand, I wonder if Vietnam was not our modern French and Indian war. It divided the populace, and the if you look at the whole tax structure rather than just focusing on Federal receipts, taxes have been rising ever since. The job situation has been worse for the average person since 1973. On the other hand, in the ‘producing more stuff’ category, lots of goods are far more accessible, and higher quality, than they were in 1973. As Robert Reich says, ‘If you want to see the winners from globalization, go to the mall.’ Even people at the bottom of the income strata here have cable and, usually, a car.

    During the Great Depression, my extended family returned to the farm. Some lived in the house, some lived in the tenant houses (goodness knows where the tenants went), and the whole experience brought the family together. Maybe something similar is happening now with kids returning home to live with their parents after college.

    1. Mia

      “Even people at the bottom of the income strata here have cable and, usually, a car.”

      I keep hearing this and it really is not true. The people at the bottom of the income strata here are homeless and have neither of those things. They quite literally work for something to eat.

      The next rung up the ladder are the extreme working poor. I was one. I had a tiny one-room studio apartment, no car, no air conditioning, and certainly no cable. And there were a lot of others like me all around me. My income went entirely to shelter and food. I am sure there are many there now.

      1. Richard Kline

        So Mia, would you have said that you were an incipient revolutionary at that time?

        It is an intrinsic function of American discourse that the poor are air-brushed out of the picture. If one doesn’t have a car and a cell phone, one is socially invisible, a ‘non-American,’ and no discussion of the country or it’s politics includes you. It’s become awkward to get a job without either piece of equipment too; in some regions or professions impossible. “We’re all middle class now.” Which is true in the sense that, since the poor are expunged from any discourse or analysis, all of those in the discourse or analysis are, by definition, at least middle class. That’s liberalism for you. Conservatives by contrast understand that the poor exists—and despise them, in the main.

        The problem now is that many are so indebted that they are threatened with a slide down the class ladder, with some terrified of sinking into the ‘unexitence’ of the poor, that vague groups of losers always ignored or clucked at by the new contingent of ‘candidate poor.’ If a group of that kind has solidarity, they may become the stuff of revolution. If they defect for their own gain, they’re the stuff of fascism. We’ll see, we’ll see . . . .

  12. Jose Luis Campos

    I feel that revolutions are not concluded with the ending of the spasm that gave them birth. For example the American Revolution was concluded with the Civil War. The revolution itself had not solved the problem of slavery. The French revolution suffered many transmogrifications, became a colonialist movement and it was only after Hitler that the structures of feudalism in Europe one might say, were eliminated. The Russian revolution created an experimental state that for seventy years seemed to represent a step forward and it did insofar as educating the people, eliminating actual serfdom. Now the Russians, it seems, have a Russian state to their liking. I am skating on thin ice here. The Chinese revolution was only finished after the Cultural Revolution that really changed the Chinese structures and created new classes. In a word, what is called a revolution is merely a spasm. Rome never had a revolution after the Principate and slipped slowly into new systems, the Middle Ages. I am afraid that in our case the slow rotting is a much more likely process than a revolution.

    1. Richard Kline

      So Jose, I would qualify many of your examples in various ways without, however disagreeing with what I take as your main point: major social changes have long trajectories, typically of multi-generational length. I haven’t the time just at the moment to parse this in more detail, unfortunately.

      I do have one major disagreement, though: Roman society did indeed have a major revolution, and that was, in fact, what destroyed the Principate, not putative invasions. From 250-300, the bulk of the population withdrew from cooperation. This was accompanied by conversion to Christianity in many places, but conversion followed secession. Notables stopped serving in local offices, crippling the local governance. The lower classes stopped joining the military, which they hated; when drafted subsequently, they increasingly resisted, and were either deserters or inclined to revolution when in arms. Everyone ducked taxes whenever possible, with the most effective way in the end being to deed property to the Church, which was exempt: this was the real reason for conversion in large parts of the provinces, in effect, and in provincial notables taking clerical orders. In effect, the population withdrew its support from the upper aristocracy—who exempted themselves from taxes—and the parasitical military who were seen as oppressors. The aristocracy responded by recruiting foreigners to maintain ‘their’ military, until that trajectory ran into the ground. There is a lot of history written which makes this result plain, though the analyses involved to not stress the perspective which I just summarized. But the process is abundantly clear, and I would call it a slow-motion revolution.

      1. Jose Luis Campos

        Richard Kline:
        I agree with you about the profound changes in Roman organization from the Antonines on, but I thought of that not as a revolution but as the necessary internal adjustments needed by a society constrained by fixed borders and demographic constraint.
        Thank you for your courteous comment.

        1. Richard Kline

          So Jose, your description of the form of change in later Roman society is valid as you lay it out. The changes do seem to be necessary, as there was no political and increasingly little economic space for the bulk of the population. A point in favor of your characterization is that there was no obvious, socially coodinated societal change in a discrete frame. At least that we can tell: the actualities may have been different, and the historical record is remarkably thin from a time of disorder. But what we know suggests a fragmentary and irregular change from the 260s on. One could say that the fragmentation of the Principate together with severe foreign incursions in the 250s was a disjuntive impact, though. This profile does not fit that of ‘revolution’ in a clear cut way, no, but it is suggestive of that process, not least because the societal configuration which came out of it was sharply, even radically different than that which preceeded it.

          However, the sense of ‘necessary adjustment’ is very much what I would say distinguishes revolutions, including all the modern ones. Processes described as revolutions are not readily characterized as either insurrections or disorders. This tends to be so because revolutions have an element of societal program to them, definitely so if they succeed. They are not just one faction toppling another, a civil lesion, so to speak, but a change in the ordering of society, usually from costly and unstable conditions to ones less so _at least in the areas do describable before_.

          I’m not proposing any ‘theory of revolution,’ though others have. But I do think the concept has an accurate descriptive validity, something more than a raw classification of otherwise intrinsically unique event-processes.

      2. gordon

        Yes. Michael Grant’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (revised ed., 1990) lays it all out. What you said and more.

  13. kstills

    I’m constantly struck by the thoughts expressed about the ‘kleptocracy’ doing this or that to pull the political strings in order to feather their own beds with our money.


    While there is undeniably collusion between the monied elite and the politicians which tilts legislation towards the folks with money, to assume that the politicians in question either understand the economics or care about them (speaking generally) is absurd.

    Most of these folks were not elected because of their great insights into the world of finance, or engineering, or any other marketable skill; they exist and remain as slightly better versions of the idiots who sit on your local school board and continue to pass one salary (with benefits!!) increase after another to the 2010 version of the Teamsters, the Teachers Union.

    Again, not discounting the obvious corruption that exists, but the primary driver for policy is to do exactly what it takes to PREVENT revolution, even if that ultimately turns out to be the worst of all possible economic outcomes.

    They could have nationalized the banks, they could have assembled all the bad debt and dealt with it, they could have restarted the economy at a reasonable level of output, but that would have made things much, much worse in the short term. Obama, the ‘change’ agent that he was, acted just like any other f’ing pol on the face of the planet when faced with his 3:00 am moment, he panicked. So the banks get bailed out, the economic news get’s twisted to present a fiction of recovery, and we slide every so slowly into a lost 20 years of economic growth, just like Japan.

    People will work, D’s will claim they ‘saved’ the world economy, Bloomberg will tout every 0.01% increase in some measurement of some output as ‘proof’ that things are ‘getting better’, and the vast majority of folks will find a way to get by.

    There won’t be a revolution in the US. There may not even be a return to a more sustainable government at the Local, State and Federal level. We just passed HC reform, for God’s sake, the insanity of the policy responses actually boggle the mind.

    Capitalism, with all it’s faults, has raised more people out of the misery of a hunter-gatherer existance then any other form of economic policy yet devised by man. That’s not even a debatable point, but here on an economic blog; the MOST influential one out there, folks are actually looking to replace it with something based on social justice.

    Good lord.

    Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong. The only way we work well together is to set up systems where opposing interests work in conflict (politically) with each other.

    1. DownSouth


      In your zeal to consecrate capitalism, you engage in some rather outlandish half-truths, if not outright lies. For instance, you proclaim that

      Capitalism, with all it’s faults, has raised more people out of the misery of a hunter-gatherer existance then any other form of economic policy yet devised by man.

      But that is factually incorrect. Capitalism, in its pure form, actually produced living conditions worse, at least for a majority of the people, than those enjoyed by hunter gatherers. As Gregory Clark explains:

      Here’s post-enlightenment Britain, with very prosperous looking people… But even though the English in this period were amongst the richest people in the world, they were no better off than hunter-gatherers. And that seems absurd, but there is always inequality in these societies, so if you actually do a table and compare the two, you can actually calculate English calorie consumption in 1800, the average, and compare that with modern forager societies. The English get less protein and it is a much less varied diet.

      They [the English farm workers] have to work much harder than these forager societies on average.

      Clark cites a lot more data showing that the hunter-gatherer’s existence is actually better than what late 18th-/early 19th-century capitalism provided to workers, but I’ve cited enough to show that your statement is factually incorrect.

      The truth is that it was a hybrid of capitalism, an expansion of the voting franchise and the creation of the welfare-state, all in conjunction with huge leaps forward in technology and efficiency, that have “raised more people out of the misery of a hunter-gatherer.”

      1. DownSouth


        And while Gregory Clark goes on to give capitalism at least partial credit for “raising people out of the misery of a hunter-gatherer existance,” not all political philosophers are so generous:

        Wealth and economic well-being, we have asserted, are the fruits of freedom, while we should have been the first to know that this kind of ‘happiness’ was the blessing of America prior to the Revolution, and that its cause was natural abundance under ‘mild government’, and neither political freedom nor the unchained, unbridled ‘private initiative’ of capitalism, which in the absence of natural wealth has led everywhere to unhappiness and mass poverty. Free enterprise, in other words, has been an unmixed blessing only in America, and it is a minor blessing compared with the truly political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and thought, of assembly and association, even under the best of conditions. Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions can it either lead into freedom or constitute a proof for its existence.
        –Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

    2. MindTheGAAP

      People will work […], and the vast majority of folks will find a way to get by.

      No, they won’t.

    3. Jackrabbit

      I think your rant is way off base. I don’t think most are advocating replacing capitalism.

      And as for competing interests reaching optimal solutions, just ask cigarette smokers, people denied healthcare (that they thought they were paying for), taxpayers who had to bail out Wall Street, and people affected by BPs oil disaster if their interests have been fairly represented. And there are many other examples.

      Oligarchs don’t compete, they collude to get the best outcome for themselves.

  14. Hoi Polloi

    Robber baron Cassano would be a nice case for Madame Guillotine. How is it possible that this thug can get away with his scandalous looting of the society? Odrama has proved once again to be a very weak leader.

  15. zaphodity

    WHAT BULLSHIT, Most yanks are too brain dead from all the prescription medication they take or too obsessed about Lady Gaga’s latest music video to really care, let alone getting up off the sofa and changing a television without a remote. And you REALLY think there’s gonna be a revolution ? Pffffft.

    1. aet

      No, they are not.
      Amongst other things, they are the most technically-sophisticated society that has ever existed on the face of this earth.
      People who sell America – like those who sell China, Russia, or even India, short, are simply mistaken.
      For many things indeed, it is as Chou En-Lai once said: It is too early to tell.
      Who Chou?

      That’s Chou!

  16. Eelco Smit

    “One oft unrecognized factor is that alienation and social stress are directly related to income inequality. This is hardly a new finding, but it seldom gets media coverage in the plutocratic US. And it has concrete, measurable costs. As Michael Prowse explained in the Financial Times:…….”

    Here you can find research that comes to the conclusion that no such relationship exists.

  17. D'Annuzio

    Violent Revolution can never happen in the US –

    Our Oligarchs have zero reservations about massacring the population.

    They have reformed the once civilian Police into a Militarized Force aliented from the citizenry. Our Military is also completely aliented from the citizenry.

  18. i

    I can predict the next revolution quite nicely, based not on time, but events.

    As long as the majority of people in the USA and Europe have access to:

    1) Cheap food
    2) Cheap entertainment
    3) Psychoactive drugs (alcohol, antidepressants, etc.)

    Nothing that looks revolution will happen. A bit of “civil unrest” like the Greeks had, but that’s all.

    When it hits ordinary people where they live, they’ll act. In the USA, this means guns and guerilla war. Hard to say how it plays out in Europe.

    I’m guessing this happens when oil prices increase to the point where *nothing* is cheap or easily available anymore, but probably not before.

    1. Jerry Denim

      While I really enjoy the philosophical and theological context of Down South’s comments and the historical sweep of Richard’s analysis I must say your 3 point synopsis of the criteria necessary for revolutionary action in the US is the most succinct.

      One interesting point regarding the possibilty of revolutionary change that I am surprised no one has noted yet is this: I don’t think there has ever been a more helpless and dependent society than 2010 America. How many people reading this blog post could honestly feed themselves if the revolution was tomorrow and all the grocery store shelves were empty and none of the plastic cards in your wallet worked anymore? Michael Focault noted that pleasure is more corrercive than a jack boot and very few people are willing to run the risk of having their credit deleted for standing up to a system which currently has no viable replacement. Citizens will have to figure out a way to be at least a little more self sufficent before anyone can contemplate revolution, but I guess this brings us back to Richard’s point of revolutions always being carried out by those truely desperate souls with absolutely nothing left to lose. I’m guessing this to be less than 2% of the current US population. Even those without jobs can usually afford to eat, own a television, and have a few minor vices. As long as the current welfare system holds I think revolution is out of the question.

    2. Sharonsj

      I wonder if that’s why gasoline prices are going down while BP is gushing tens of thousands of gallons into the sea?

  19. Tom Crowl

    There are fundamentals that suggest that while some social stratification is natural and encourages ambition and innovation… at a certain point (depending on multiple not always obvious variables) that same stratification leads to social disintegration.

    Network effects favoring wealth/influence concentration (abetted by scaling impacts of the ‘limits of biological altruism’) are ultimately limited by an ‘Ultimatum Game’ backlash… (“Let’s tip over the board dudes, ’cause this game is rigged!”)…

    This process is accelerated by the rapid expansion of ICT, which suggests this issue is and will become more critical.

    Forgive me for hounding on it, but the Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account is NOT about easier charity giving or political lobbying… (though it can help tremendously)…

    It’s about the Internet’s capability to restore functions of ’empowered speech and association’ lost since the birth of organized agriculture… and the emergent characteristics of a properly structured Commons for scaled civilization.

    “Only when the gap in wealth and status approaches that level which would be considered fair within a Dunbar’s number-sized social network in daily contact… only then can we consider the possibility of a healthy, scaled social organism*.”
    *A self-recognized and internally governed economic/political grouping organized for basic survival decisions and actions.

    On the Birth of the Global Social Organism

    Credit Creation and the Building of Sustainable Economic Ecologies


    Really, it’s a simple concept and mechanism… and an essential element for reviving the Commons.

    But so is getting rid of things like gerrymandering. And repairing or adding other simple elements for building better citizenship which are largely ignored.

    When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
    – Hunter S. Thompson

    Anybody interested in investing in the future?

  20. Transor Z

    Immensely intelligent people here greatly over-thinking this issue.

    1789 was a problem of societies always being “nine meals away from anarchy.” A substantial number of French peasants experienced starvation or chronic malnutrition. Lack of social justice/equitable distribution of wealth, incompetent fiscal policies and leadership create the environment — of course. But as a commenter said above, we’re a BIG leg down from spontaneous revolution.

    You’ll know we’re there when the EMH adherents and “shame- on-the-average-American-for-being-so-piggishly-stupid” apologists go underground and stop commenting on blogs like this one altogether.

  21. craazyman

    A pre-requisite for any real revolution is the existence of competing political/economic plan that can challenge the existing structure.

    We have none. Zero. Nothing at all. What would replace representative government with separation of powers, private property, free speech and regular elections? What new political and economic ideas would be put in place as an alternative to what we have now? There really aren’t any.

    Tax the rich may be the only one.

    We are facing a crisis of imagination. This is, I think, a natural event in the progression of communal pysche. Not just in the US but around the world. It will be interesting indeed to see what forms of thinking emerge from this. But I believe it will be decades in the making. Maybe even longer than that.

    The idea of tribe has broken down over a period of roughly 800 years. The notion of the individual as a sacred object at the center of social organization is only a few hundred years old (omitting for the moment ancient Rome, which was an early stab at it) and still gaining momentum worldwide.

    These are very dicey, tricky juxtapositions to pull off in a social construct. The tensions, the inherent empty gap, between micro and macro rip at all forms of thought — economics, physics (atom vs. holstic form), even mathematics (continuities and discontinuities).

    Not to get speciously cerebral about it all, but the absence of any revolutionary structure is a deal-killer. That structure is decades away and nowhere in sight.

    1. Tom Crowl

      I believe a view to solution may be in sight.

      No, not just the specific little innovation I’m hounding on (the Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account )… but the broader concepts behind it which I’m in the grindingly slow process of trying to formulate and lay out.

      I could be full of poop. But somebody better be willing to chance being ‘full of poop’ or we’re going to end up like the original inhabitants of Easter Islands… GONE!

      P.S. The current establishment and world banking approach sucks a HUGE weenie!

      1. craazyman

        I’ve been too busy with my real life job to have the chance to pursue your links Tom. But I respect your search. Communal-oriented social compacts — like communism — inherently fall victim to the lack of a structure that can control thanatos energy. Private property and money are really the only ones that have the power. And where they fail, it is not because of them, but because of the difficulty of wrestling with the thanatos dragon. This is a Manichean perspective, but one that seems unavoidably at the heart of all forms of social analysis. This is a long discussion, but I believe the central challenge for any culture is the channeling of thanatos energy in a way that doesn’t lead to slavery, social collapse or genocide.


    “….Yves here. Having weakened faith in government and made considerable progress towards creating a social Darwinist paradise of isolated individuals pitted against each other, the oligarchs may be about to harvest a whirlwind…”

    I agree wholeheartedly, “you reap what you sow…”. there is also the fact that the narrative has changed in the social dialogue in terms of the discussions of the resolutions for the enemies of American Citizens. I’ve read two interesting contemporary pieces that define wealth as corrupting….

    The Rich Stand Accused
    By Louis-Gilles Francoeur
    Le Devoir

    James K. Galbraith: Why the ‘Experts’ Failed to See How Financial Fraud Collapsed the Economy

    The social contract is in transition and woe to those that can’t see it…

    I’ve been through one social upheaval, Havana, 1959/60…. It came unexpectedly fast and furious…. It was “relatively” bloodless, however many were sent to “El Paredon” the firing squad.

    “…. Revolutions do not evolve in a vacuum…”

    Best regards,


  23. Piero


    As to the prospect of riots over curtailed pensions, well, there are degrees to things. Here in Massachusetts, the employees of the state run commuter rail service have had, among other astounding contractual terms, the ability to retire after 20, yes only twenty, years service with a full pension. I’m not making that up.

    Are we really to believe that these people and/or the analogous group in California will disrupt society if their pensions are scaled back to more sane dimensions?

    Maybe some will but every one of them knows that he was being offered something undeserved. What’s more the general public knows it too. They will not attract a molecule of sympathy from the rest of us.

    Of course others will have their pensions curtailed as well, others who have a far greater case for deserving what was promised. But not every case is the same. You can’t just say “pensions” and refer to every instance that will occur with the same force.

  24. Dan Duncan

    It seems like Yves wanted to address the notion of “anomie” with this post. Unfortunately, she put the predicate first and never recovered.

    Like Yoda, Yves is:

    “Equal, must wealth be.”

    Before getting to anomie, it has to be stated: How utterly ridiculous and laughable it is to include Japan as a model of social equality.

    Yves writes: “But Japan was and is the most socially equal major economy”…

    Of course it is. Unless, of course, you aren’t “properly Japanese”.

    The Land of the Rising Suicide Rate is a culture that “tolerates” 1.6% of its residents to be ethnic minorities. Even the UN stated: Racism and xenophobia in Japan are “deep and profound”.

    [I know, Yves. You weren’t discussing these messy topics, like racial integration. No, this was a post on income distribution. But your myopic assertion that Japan is “socially equal” points out how unrealistic, isolated and selective your analysis is.]

    On to the larger issue of anomie. [“Anomie” refers to an environmental state where society fails to exercise adequate regulation or constraint over the goals and desires of its individual members.]

    Whether one agrees with The Anomie Tradition the issue of a society’s refusal to impose norms on the individual is, indeed, quite relevant—especially when that “individual” is a muli-national corporation.

    Emile Durkheim wrote that the human “capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss”. His anomie philosophy was decidedly anti-Libertarian: He thought that individual happiness and well-being depended on the ability of society to impose external limits on the potentially limitless passions and appetites that characterize human nature in general. Under the condition of anomie, however, society is unable to exert its regulatory and disciplining influences. Human desires are left unchecked and unbounded—the individual “aspires to everything and is satisfied with nothing”. Out of disillusionment and despair with the pursuit of limitless goals, many individuals will commit suicide or act out in deviant ways.

    [Again, the last statement points out why Yves’ inclusion of Japan was so misguided. Spend an hour in Tokyo…deviance is so pervasive, that its no longer deviant to be deviant.]

    Anomie in relation to trade and industry is also interesting. A leftist, socialist, progressive might argue that industry and capitalism are in a chronic state of anomie…as growth (or “greed”, depending on your perspective) has no foothold. A depressing state of “normlessness”, where the construct is a skeleton of brittle, soul-sucking ennui.

    The concept of anomie is relevant, and there would be much to learn if it was discussed in a non-reflexive thoughtful manner.

    But this…

    …this mindless, play-dough lump of “EQUALITY” that is the Alpha and Omega of 10th grade social inquiry…that is somehow supposed to be both The End and The Means to that End…

    Well…it’s ironic. A post that would have done well to invoke the “normlessness” of anomie, instead succumbs to the “normlessness” of an infinite regress: “We must impose Equality”.

    Only, we all know it’s impossible to impose equality. So, instead, some try to sell this notion in predicate-first terms: “Equality. Impose on society we must. Yeeeessss!”

    Those who try to “get income equality” are like those who try to “get love” or “get happiness”. Their attempt, to turn these processes…into “things” –that can ultimately be manufactured and imposed is really quite pathetic.

    There is no doubt a restructuring of the modern economy is needed. “But wrong are those, who focus on “equality” first.”

    1. ray l love


      If you wish to criticize with so much rancor, while attempting to employ obscure terms for the sake of impressing your readers, you must at least get the subjunctive mood correct:

      “The concept of anomie is relevant, and there would be much to learn if it was[sic] discussed in a non-reflexive thoughtful manner.”

      You would also do well to use commensurable comparatives; “love” and “happiness” do not even remotely have common standards with policies which are the results of social engineering. Saying that:’to “get income equality” are like those who try to “get love” or “get happiness”’, is, well… what I suppose you meant by “10th grade social inquiry”.

      History is rife with examples of human progress and improvements regarding ‘equality’… are at the center of that progress. Progress on the existence of slavery and other forms of labor exploitation have for example come as a result of the struggle for equality. And now, in our lifetimes a great struggle is underway to put nations on more equal footing. No such effort or progress exists in relation to “love” and “happiness”.

    2. Chicken Little

      She was, by a clear and unmistakable reading of her actual words, making a *relative* comparison regarding Japan. It’s amazing how much ink you spill after almost always leading off with some wildly moronic incorrect assumption.

      1. Dan Duncan

        That’s the point, Bird Brain: You can’t make a “relative comparison” with Japan. A comparison with that culture is meaningless.

        If Japan “tolerated” any minorities, it would not have anywhere near this kind of income equality.

        Do you think that minorities and the disenfranchised wouldn’t love to go to Japan and partake in all the equitable goodness? Of course they would.

        A comparison between a Western society, with messy issues of immigration and minority assimilation with a culture like Japan is absurd.

        1. DownSouth

          Dan Duncan,

          Way to go! You’ve descended to calling other commenters “Bird Brain.”

          Seriously, are you for real?

          If you wanted to make the case against the rich and powerful you think you advocate for, you couldn’t do a better job of it.

          The logic goes something like this:

          The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced.
          –Martin Luther King, Jr.

          Really man, you’re better than the racists who stood outside the Birmingham schoolhouse yelling “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”

        2. jonboinAR

          No, not entirely. And I don’t think she mixed anything up. She pointed out how income inequality appears to relate to social discontent. See the graph. I’m pretty sure that, in the nations represented, there’s a fair variety in degree of cultural homogeneity/ heterogeneity. Yet none of the countries are outliers on the graph. She never suggested that somewhat closer income levels would or should be as easy for us to reach as it has been in Japan’s more homogenous society. I don’t think then that she’s comparing apples to oranges.

    3. DownSouth

      Dan Duncan,

      It’s absolutely amazing that someone who, only a couple a days ago was railing against intellectualism, today employs so many fancy words and concepts.

      Go figure.

      But that seems to be a trait of yours: the fact that there is absolutely no philosophical consistency in anything you say—-one day you’re a champion of traditional morality, the next day of nihilism; one day you’re a paragon of know-nothingism, the next day you’re spouting fancy words and concepts (like today), and on and on and on the sordid little drama goes. But there is one consistency I’ve noticed, and that is that whatever the Dan Duncan du jour happens to be, the end result is that you always, consistently and without fail end up putting forth a polemic in justification of the rich and the powerful.

      So today you go off on your tirade about the meaning of the word “equality.” The gist of your argument seems to be that since equality has no concrete definition, and is not achievable in a pure sense, that it should be jettisoned as a concept and as a societal goal.

      Now I agree, equality can be a slippery concept. But “income inequality” is something that is definable, tangible, and measurable in dollars and cents. It is the antithesis of that ethereal concept of equality, that straw man you trot out that falls in the same realm as love and happiness.

      There is also equality before the sight of God, equality in rights, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity.

      If merit is measured by ability and it gives unequal results, is it iniquitous?

      Has anyone here really advocated “equal wages for all?”

      Equality is a social assumption, determined by the society, independent of fact. It is made for the sake of civil peace, of approximating justice, and of bolstering self-respect. It prevents servility, lessens arrogant oppression, and reduces envy—-just a little.

      I’ll swear, Dan, sometimes your hyperbole and histrionics test the bounds of civil discourse, and they go completely off the deep end in their disregard for logic, rationality and reason.

      As someone told you the other day: “You need to take it to a bar.”

      1. Dan Duncan

        Damn, DownSouth…do you ever make it through a post without butchering a word and engaging in a malapropism?

        It’s not “inquitous” (as you write. Iniquitous deals with wickedness; we were talking about fairness. Thus, the word you misused is “inequitable”, or some derivation thereof. {Those words with “qui”, they can be so tricky!] How many times have you done this now..on just my posts?!

        As for your reply: Again, you have it backasswards. You say, “Equality bolters self-respect”.

        No it doesn’t.

        Putting the work in, and getting the merit for the same is what bolsters self-respect.

        Inequality–obtained on a level playing field—is what bolsters self-respect.

        Society cannot impose income equality, without the creation of another form of inequality. In fact, the imposition is really just another form of inequality. It’s an infinite regress.

        But, no worries, DownSouth–you get a trophy anyways. In fact, you get 75-100 trophies. One for each and every post you made this week…while spending ENTIRE days on this site…in your own infinite regress.

        1. DownSouth

          Dan Duncan,

          Like I and others have told you, you really do need to take it to a bar. You clearly have some serious personal issues which you bring to this discussion board which cause you to lash out in your puerile, nonsensical rants.

          Heaven only knows why, but you have taken upon yourself the role of defender of the rich and powerful.

          “Putting the work in, and getting the merit for the same is what bolsters self-respect,” you lecture us.

          “Putting the work in, and getting the shaft” is totally missing from your blinkered worldview.

          Of course that’s not surprising, being that it comes from the great defender of the rich and powerful.

          And as you correctly noted, I do put the work in. You come here with your childish, emotional, poorly thought out talking points, spoon fed to you from the latest Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilley show, and expect that sort of intellectual slovenliness to garner some sort of respect.

          Earth to Dan Duncan: You are way in over your head here.

          Do you always show up at a gunfight with a pen knife?

        2. jonboinAR

          The problem with our particular failure to redistribute income, as I see it, is this. The self-made billionaire, he probably has worked very hard, maybe up to 4 times as hard as I have. I think I’m being generous. But he’s recompensed thousands and thousands of times better than I am, to the point that I’m a little hard-up, even if I now put up a whole lot of effort, due to all the resources he’s gathered to himself. Now that he’s achieved this enormous ability to gather wealth, neither he nor all his heirs have to work particularly hard at all to continue gathering the wealth and shutting me and my entire class, out.

          As you pointed out with your talk about “anomie”, the human appetite is insatiable. One can never be rich enough. In the situation I’ve described, one that many of feel we’re approaching today, great wealth tends to become a horrible monster, consuming resources to the point where nearly all are impoverished while a few consume like drunkards and hoard what they’re unable to consume. I think there’s tons of historical precedent.

          Redistibution of wealth is key at this time.

  25. Curmudgeon

    Regardless of what the historians say, political scientists who study revolutions will say that there are at least three necessary conditions for successful revolutions.

    1. A relatively wealthy, relatively educated, middle or upper class at risk of losing its status, broadly defined. Starving poor do not start successful revolutions. Affluent people afraid of becoming starving poor start successful revolutions.

    2. High levels of social cohesion within the critically aggrieved group. Collections of atomized individuals lack the organizational means to conduct organized protests, much less a successful revolution. Social cohesion is why Iranians and Chinese riot when abused but Americans will tolerate anything.

    3. Cooperation from the security services. No revolution can succeed unless the police and army support it either passively or actively. Without security service support, the end result of any attempt at revolution will be no different from the attempted Chinese anti-communist revolution and the recently attempted Iranian pro-democracy revolution: dead revolutionaries and no progress.

    Only point #1 applies to the American situation. Social cohesion among the middle class is inadequate for revolt and the security services are too well pampered and indoctrinated to ever change sides. No matter how bad things get economically, the most that will come of it is riots put down by the national guard and the use of terrorism laws/detention without trial against domestic agitators.

    Plutocrats have learned a lot since the French revolution. They abuse the public because they know they can get away with it.

    1. Transor Z

      It’s certainly highly debatable whether the French Revolution was “successful.” Most historians date its demise to Napoleon’s rise or Waterloo.

      Was the Bolshevik Revolution “successful”?

      Also, cultural/nationalistic independence movements are different from revolutions in the context of this post.

      Members of the political class always try and position themselves at the head of popular movements that may or may not have any true connection to intellectual movements. Songs, flags, slogans, etc. are the external trappings of an intellectual consensus that usually doesn’t run very deep.

      1. The iTod

        Most violent revolutions are not successful and as someone stated “they eat their children”. Certainly the ones you cite led to greater fracturing of society and war. You can also add Nazi Germany (certainly a revolution), Fascist Italy and Spain, Tojo and the corporatists in Japan, the fracturing and failure of the Yugoslavian govt. in the Balkans. Violent revolution based on old hatreds certainly never ends well. However, the breakup the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact went very well initially. The current state of much of the former Soviet countries is debatable.

    2. kievite


      This is a good list. Several comments:

      1. A relatively wealthy, relatively educated, middle or upper class at risk of losing its status, broadly defined.

      That’s true and is often perceived by actors as crisis of the “current way of living” and first of all the current ideology. But the second important factor not mentioned is the acute level of degeneration of the ruling elite (“eat cakes” statements, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, George W Bush). When ruling elite is broadly defined as liars and cheaters and national leaders as bumbling idiots or worse, the legitimacy of the regime goes down the toilet and people start looking for alternatives. There should be broad understanding in the society that the “old way” and old leaders that defend it is a “road to nowhere” and there should be some consensus about the “new way” and harismatic leaders that promote it (it not nessesary needs to be realistic) to solves those problems.

      2.High levels of social cohesion within the critically aggrieved group. I think this is a derivative factor. First of all in crisis social cohesion dramatically increases anyway and that’s true about elite too. Also there are such things as nationalism and religious fundamentalism and level of both increases during crises increasing social cohesion. More important is polarization and deligitimation: as the part of the politico/ecomonical crisis the members of ruling elite are usually defined as parasites. Note that French aristocracy and Russian Aristocracy donated substantial part of their wealth at the beginning of the revolutions, but that was perceived as inadequate, too little too late.

      I would say that polarization of debate into “us” vs. “them”( with “them” being parasides ) is really important for bringing discontent to the boiling point. If the elite refuses to implement changes that most consider necessary, then people understand that bridges need to be burned and seeds “Grapes of anger” became a factor of its own, preventing any reconciliation. The existence of the media that propagate this polarization and depicts real level of corruption and intellectual degradation of the ruling elite is of paramount importance.

      3. Cooperation from the security services. No revolution can succeed unless the police and army support it either passively or actively. Without security service support, the end result of any attempt at revolution will be no different from the attempted Chinese anti-communist revolution and the recently attempted Iranian pro-democracy revolution: dead revolutionaries and no progress.
      I think that this is a derivative factor, that depends upon the depth of the crisis of the ideology and the legitimacy of current elite which broadly affects security services. One can speculate that neither in Iran (Islamic fundamentalism) or in China (a mixture of nationalism with New Economic Thinking and remnants of communist ideology) the necessary levels were never reached.

      Also cooperation is not really needed, all that is needed is passivity and that can be easily achieved due to high level of demoralization. In such cases security services try to redefine themselves from defenders of ruling elite, which they actually are, to the defenders of state and constitution. Also security services are part of middle class and by family ties are interlinked with broadly defined middle class. So if middle class views the current elite as corrupt to the core, then the loyalty of security services is severely undermined and they will be more conscious and more restrained in defending the existing order. Even such formidable security organization as KGB was completely demoralized and remained passive during the USSR collapse due to simultaneous collapse of communist ideology (replaced by explosive mixture of “free market” fundamentalism with primitive nationalism) and economics of the USSR.

      I think that another important factor is an unwinnable, prolonged war that drains resources, demoralizes army and security services and further delegitimize the ruling elite.

    3. attempter

      Regardless of what the historians say, political scientists who study revolutions will say that there are at least three necessary conditions for successful revolutions.

      1. A relatively wealthy, relatively educated, middle or upper class at risk of losing its status, broadly defined. Starving poor do not start successful revolutions. Affluent people afraid of becoming starving poor start successful revolutions……

      Only point #1 applies to the American situation.

      This is actually confusing two opposite situations which historically have led to very different outcomes.

      The classical revolutionary situation was where a rising economic class was frustrated because its economic power had greatly outpaced its political power and wanted to fix this mismatch. That was one common thread in the English, American, French, and Russian (1905 and February 1917) revolutions.

      On the other hand, the situation where an existing economic and political middle class is rapidly losing its economic position has more often been the recipe for fascism. It uses what political strength it has left to lash out, trying to recapture its lost prosperity from the uncanny darkness by force. If they’d only light a lantern they’d see the thief, cringing in the corner. But instead they burn the house down around themselves while the thief happily skips away.

    4. jerry denim

      First two points, agreed.

      Point number three, I wouldn’t bet on it.

      Despite their gullibility for Lee Greenwood and Aron Tippin songs the blue collar underclass of America (the backbone of our police and armed services) do harbor a fundamental mistrust of the elite. While they may not speak like Harvard grads or necessarily draw the same politically correct conclusions that are popular with those of privilege they are capable of some remarkably sharp analysis and do on occasion see things quite clearly.

      Say what you want about the hard-right elements of the Tea Party but they are far from being a monolithic block of astro-turf. The quasi-secret group known as “oath keepers” are living proof that elements of the police and military are very much awake and opposed to the agenda of the oligarchy, and they are prepared to risk insubordination or much worse to defend the republic.

    5. Richard Kline

      So curmodgeon, while some political scientists might support the analytical matrix you present, I’ve certainly read others who disagree with some of these aspects. More importantly, historians parsing specific cases give reason to doubt the constancy of your conditions. I’m sympathetic to the relevance of all three conditions which you raise, but there are exceptions and other issues to contend with.

      Curmodgeon: “1. A relatively wealthy, relatively educated, middle or upper class at risk of losing its status, broadly defined. Starving poor do not start successful revolutions. Affluent people afraid of becoming starving poor start successful revolutions.” You make two, quite separate points here. The second is amply demonstrated. Starving poor frequently raise insurrections, but almost never launch successful revolutions. Their numbers give weight which their lack of resources cannot give shape to, and such insurrections tend to lack the internal organization to sustain mid-term strategy.

      To the first point, though, there are numerous exceptions so numerous that this does not strike me as a valid characterization. attempter’s point is the one generally accepted in the literature, and with the most historical examples, a frustrated rising class tends to lead revolutionary action. Still, one could not characterize the Chinese Revolution in at all by either of those descriptions. Oh, the ‘First Chinese Revolution’ fits the ‘frustrated rising class’ description well. But the Chinese Communists were profoundly a peasant movement; not all of their leadership, but it’s hard to see them another way. The point being, the ‘defection of the threatened’ does not well-describe revolutionary cadres.

      Curmudgeon “2. High levels of social cohesion within the critically aggrieved group. Collections of atomized individuals lack the organizational means to conduct organized protests, much less a successful revolution. Social cohesion is why Iranians and Chinese riot when abused but Americans will tolerate anything.” This is surely a valid point, yes; perhaps _the_ valid point of revolutionary action. High social cohesion is necessary. It is high social cohesion which has made possible anti-colonial uprisings as well, even where they were not revolutionary per se as opposed to ‘patriotic’ or explicitly nationalistic, even ethnic chauvanist. The Indian overthrow of British occupation fits the ‘frustrated rising class’ and ‘high social cohesion’ template very well—even though ‘the revolution’ failed to a large degree in that casteism was not expunged. But yes, high social cohesion is a sine qua non of revolutionary action.

      Curmudgeon: “3. Cooperation from the security services. No revolution can succeed unless the police and army support it either passively or actively. Without security service support, the end result of any attempt at revolution will be no different from the attempted Chinese anti-communist revolution and the recently attempted Iranian pro-democracy revolution: dead revolutionaries and no progress.” Not necessarily, though revolutions are far more likely to succeed where the security apparatus ‘defects.’ Sometimes the security apparatus is simply beaten, with again the Chinese Revolution being a relevant example. Most often, significant parts of the security apparatus _collapse_, in part because their cohesion is eroded by the social cohesion of the citizenry. I would say that that characterized the Iranian Revolution: few went over to the imams, but machine-gunning women and children destroyed their cohesion, and they quit or deserted more individually, melted away in a word. I would tend to see this as the general case, that security forces find their cause unworthy and their morale disintegrates. However, it’s important to note that the number of revolutions we have as a sample is really too small to make certainly valid generalizations as opposed to broadly accurate descriptions.

      In the instance of ‘revolutionary conditions’ in the US, I would suspect that many local police forces would disintegrate if called to repeatedly use live fire or indiscriminate violence against their surrounding publics. They are civil forces indoctrinated exactly _not_ to behave in that way (though eliminating individual ‘social undesirables’ is quite another matter). This is exactly what makes the vast expansion of PRIVATE

      1. Richard Kline

        (cont.) of PRIVATE paramilitary ‘security’ firms, and Homeland Blackshirts so worrisome at present. These groups are not recuited so as to have strong civil bonds with their local deployments, but rather to surpress any and all comers so designated. I think that Xe Services and La Migra’s Jackbooters would endure far longer at live fire exercises and snatching individuals off the streets in unmarked cars to ‘black sites’ since this is exactly what they do now, in some instances. The real worry against revolutionary action in the US aren’t the formal security forces, which are not all that strong and fairly closely aligned with their local populations. It’s the radical increase in ‘unsworn’ paramilitary forces who have no purpose but suppression. As one may note, these are all neo-con raised and paid, something all those liberals in the Beltway Party will be very surprised about at some point if they don’t get rid of them in time.

        ‘Nuff fer this thread.

        1. attempter

          As one may note, these are all neo-con raised and paid, something all those liberals in the Beltway Party will be very surprised about at some point if they don’t get rid of them in time.

          That may be the most amazing thing about the stupidity of Obama and his cultist liberal teabagger followers – they really don’t get it that once the very fascism they’re enabling gets strong enough it’s going to literally exterminate them. They really don’t get how much the real Right hates them.

  26. bird

    Simon Schama has a pedigree. The first video program that I saw that he had created about England was illuminating. He has a unique gift in understanding his subject, and more important, being able to explain his points of fact.

  27. Chris M.

    Great post but I’m not sure anything useful will ever come of it. I see the tea party as essentially counter-revolutionary and bizarre, easily mislead quasi-anarchists. The progressive movement is much too timid to seriously address the income inequality problems. They think reverting to Clinton’s top tax rate is a really bold move even though top rates were twice that before Reagan. And a weak estate tax which exempts most multi-millionaires is really being tough. So who else is there other than some bloggers and columnists and think tanks? I know that after prolonged unemployment or under-employment, most people will turn against the bank bailouts. After all, if you end up being unemployed and losing everything anyway, what good was the bank bailout? We would have been better off letting the rotten system collapse, letting the elite lose their fortunes and then erecting a new system from the ashes. If you’re unemployed and jobs are hard to find, you’d be better off with 25% unemployment rather than 10% because then at least the govt might actually take the problem seriously and put through some serious New Deal-like programs.

    1. jonboinAR

      “…some bloggers…”. -That’s us, no? We can either organize and have a pretty good chance of accomplishing something, or forget it. What do we do? Are there websites already started we should join, or do we need to start our own. (I see blogs such as this as places for intellectually sorting out, not particularly for actively organizing.)

      Is anyone with me? (I never get a response to this type of post. I must be doing something wrong. Am I too intellectually feeble? Are Internet posters a bunch of hot air, nothing else? Is there something important already going on and I’m missing it?)

  28. sabermetrics

    I agree with Curmudgeon. Personally I never listen to anything historian says. To me history should not be an academic discipline.

  29. Francois

    Great post Yves! In a word, the myth that finance and economics can do whatever they wish, whenever they wish without any regard to the underlying social conditions is a sure fire way to destroy a country over the long run.

    That the social contract is badly frayed is pretty obvious. Chalk this one of the Republiscums; you can’t go around saying “He is not my President!” (then, pray inform us which country do you come from, asshole?) without establishing a bad precedent.

    In the meantime, denial runs very deep thank you very much! Alas, the longer and deeper it runs, the more intense, explosive and disruptive the reaction can be.

    I have the feeling the the oil spill in the Gulf could be a trigger, at least at the local level. There are so many aspects of this affair that starkly demonstrate how twisted and inadequate the tandem corporation-government has responded to this crisis, it is sickening beyond belief.

  30. Arciero

    “Note in particular where Japan sits on the chart. Some readers have argued that the US has little to fear from deflation and a protracted period of near-zero growth, since Japan is orderly and prosperous-looking, despite its relative decline. But Japan was and is the most socially equal major economy, and during its crisis, it observed the Schama prescription of sharing the pain.”

    How can this absurd comment stand with any merit? The Bank of Japan has been ran by the major manufacturers for a long time and they intentionally held the yen low for a long time at the benefit of the major manufacturers and detriment of the common person at home so that his or her money doesn’t go as far as it should. Not to mention that Japan’s “happiness” also doesn’t include any child-bearing, meaning the older people in society there will have no one to pay for their retirements down the road because the tax revenues will be significantly curtailed if less people are working.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you familiarize yourself with the history of post-bubble Japan. The yen was held low to preserve the export complex, but the main concern was NOT the major manufactures (the Toyotas of the world could and to a fair degree have shifted lower value added manufacturing to China, Southeast Asia, and export destination countries) but to save the banks and derivatively, the mom and pop suppliers to the manufacturers which have often been thin-margin operations and would have gone under if their loans were not rolled (which is what would have happened if the banks were cleaned up).

      So babying the banks was effectively a move to preserve employment at inefficient manufacturers. The Japanese chose sticking with their social contract as much as they could (creating employment, not wealth, is seen as the objective of entrepreneurial activity) even if it meant sacrificing growth. I’m not sure they would have made the same choice had they known how big the cost in lost growth would prove to be, but that’s another story.

      And have you met any executives at these “major manufacturers”? I know quite a few. They are not paid that much more than factory workers. Indeed, the commercial banks have experienced massive wage compression between new hires and older workers (and remember there wasn’t much wage disparity to begin with).

      The very top level in Japanese companies have generous expense accounts, a car and a driver, and get to fly in the front of the plane for international travel. These are pretty modest perks by international standards. They most decidedly do not get lavish pay.

      You project an Anglo-Saxon model onto a country that operates under very different rules.

  31. The iTod

    I think that people are missing the point of how a revolution works in a non-dictatorship (we have a corporatist oligarchy but not yet a dictatorship). We have had several revolutions in the USA since the original one. The revolutions in a democratic Republic are of a cultural or morals/values nature. We overthrow a belief system rather than a government.

    I would argue that the great depression had a revolution in which the oligarchy/corporatist system was overthrown in favor or a more equitable society (which has now been destroyed) and changed the political landscape. I would also argue that the civil rights battles in the 60s was a revolution that completely changed the USA and our politics. Perhaps women’s suffrage was one, workers rights and unionization during the industrial revolution and Vietnam was absolutely one in which a mass of people rose up against an unpopular govt. and military industrial complex and said “no more”. The politics and governing of the country changed significantly after each of these events. whenever the powers that be are tone deaf to the masses (as they are now), it seems that some kind of sea change comes along and sweeps away the existing beliefs to some extent.

    Because of the nature of our democratic Republic, complete overthrow of the govt. does not happen. We can have “soft” revolutions and change the beliefs, culture and systems of our society – kind of a “bend before breaking” revolution. In all of the examples above though, there were violent protests, social unrest, some anarchy before things changed. I believe that modern Europe works much the same way unless there are very old hatreds and differences that arise such as in the Balkans or maybe WW2 Germany.

    1. psychohistorian

      This is the type of “revolution” that I hope we experience as well. There are plenty of creative moral solutions to societal problems but we must learn to exercise the social will to make them happen.

      I do believe that there are ways to combine capitalism and socialism and whateverism into a set of social policies that are much less destructive of people and the world than our current arrangements. Whatever outcome is going to be best is one in which all of the public participates and understand their roles and responsibilities…..which we have lost sight of.

    2. jerry denim

      “We can have “soft” revolutions and change the beliefs, culture and systems of our society – kind of a “bend before breaking” revolution.”

      Ideally yes, but in order for a soft revolution or ‘bend before breaking revolution’ as you put it there must be a real live functioning democracy that responds to the desires of its people. Obama’s election and the Democratic landslide was peddled by the corporate media as a soft revolution but Obama’s change has proved to be a cruel farce. It would have mattered none from a policy perspective if Bush was presently serving his third term.

      Unless true democracy is restored in the US via a viable third party or perhaps publicly funded elections (even more remote possibility) the situation will continue to deteriorate and a revolution will happen, although I’m not sure the people will be the victors.

      1. The iTod

        Agreed. Obama is a cruel joke. Possibly the worst and most ineffective president of my lifetime. A complete tool of the corporate and special interests. He just wants to join the Oligarchy fully like Clinton and Bush before him. We are a nation, rudderless, with nothing but predatory leadership. I am educated and fairly well off but would gladly risk pulling down the whole system because it has become so rigged and the inequity has reached epic proportion. There is very little upward mobility and very little ethical or moral behavior or true leadership at the upper levels of govt, education, industry, the military, etc. Corruption that would make ancient Rome proud. I would gladly destroy this system if it meant the end of the reign of the robber barrons and their political lackeys because I see what this system has done to members of my family, my friends and just people around me. I have often rubbed elbows with the elite and their sense of entitlement, lack of real compassion and general narcissistic and sociopathic behavior is truly hard to believe. Most of these people really have no idea what life is like for the 95% of the world below them and since they are in “the club” they always come up smelling like roses no matter how incompetent or unlucky they are. The big failure is for people in general to call politicians, bureaucrats and failed corporatists “stupid”. These people are impressively smart and well-educated and what the serfs think does not matter to them. Best to let the great unwashed think them stupid than to see them for the truly corrupt and ruthless predators that they are. That is the game they play and they know how to put on a show.

        1. The iTod

          BTW, I despised Bush but he was much more effective than Obama at getting his agenda across and he HAD an agenda. Obama appears to be only concerned about staying in power and exercising that power for his sponsors interests. I don’t love Clinton but he was impressively effective and could really run a burearucracy compared to both of the dolts after him.

          1. The iTod

            Furthermore, the ideals and beliefs of many of the elite today is so different from the elite of the 20s. 30s or 40s or the 1800s where there was a social compact and there were certain lines of moral/ethical behavior that were not to be crossed for the good of society. People did cross those lines but they were generally not accepted by the proper society. Today, there are almost no lines or boundries and no sense of responsibility. Certainly there are many wealthy people that give to charity and have charitable interests but it seems like more of an narcisstic thing or an attempt to assuage their guilt for many… or even a cynical PR type thing.

  32. EmilianoZ

    There will be no revolution.

    A revolution is an affair of elites. The populace is merely a tool used by one of those elites. We are not elite, we are populace.

    (Look at how this blog works: Yves Smith is the head. She is a financier. She’s the elite. We commenters are the rabble. But there are not enough people like her.)

    Now, what elite do you see in America that would be capable of fostering a revolution? The industrial elite, that actually produces something? Have you ever heard the leaders of “dont-do-evil” Google speak against the wars or warning of the dangers of unfettered finance? I don’t think so. Industrial, financial, political elites are now deeply integrated. There is no leader for a revolution.

    The populace by itself does not do revolutions, the populace only does riots.

    The French bourgeois already had economic power. They only had to wrestle politic power from the aristocracy. Not that big a deal.

    1. jonboinAR

      I see you and me, a bunch of others somewhat like us. We are elite in terms of having, apparantly, some free time and intellectual (at least somewhat) interest. Let’s take the next step. Stop the defeatist talk already.

  33. ray l love

    I suspect that the revolutions of the future will consist of international boycotts. Consumers from around the world will band together via the web and concentrate their efforts against corporations. This could be very effective because an international coalition’s numerical advantage, as compared to the number of shareholders in a single corporation, could be a vast difference with the ability to put irresponsible or exploitative corporations out of business if they fail to comply with reasonable business standards, wages, compensation levels, pollution reductions etc.

    As things stand, corporations in the US are somewhat protected from consumer boycotts by the fact that such a large percentage of the population benefits from corporatism via stocks. Plus, the corporations also of course control, and own, the media. But we may well be just one ‘organizational effort’ away from having something like the recent oil-spill bringing about some much needed change. The existing political process which exists within national borders has become ineffectual due to the fact that such large percentages of the populations in the developed nations have become so thoroughly franchised. The investment-class has simply taken control of the reins of power although this form of democratic tyranny has one very vulnerable weakness: it can not withstand the collective refusal of consumers to support the very success that enables the tyranny. In other words if consumers could organize they could shift power to themselves and without any significant sacrifice. Corporations only need to be targeted one at a time and so goods and services will never be necessarily in short supply and so the potential for a very effective but peaceful revolution is absolutely doable. And unlike political revolutions, participants do not need to agree on a range of issues… they only need to agree that corporatism must be brought under control, and that sentiment seems to already exist. Soon perhaps.

  34. Kevin de Bruxelles

    The calculus of revolution is fairly simple. The key factor is that keep in mind is that while Peter Townsend may have been convinced that the new boss will be the same as the old boss – the reality is much different. Revolution is a crap shoot and you have no idea in advance what the new boss will really be like – he might just make things much worse. So from an economic point of view (revolutions can also take place for ethnic reasons) things need to be really bad before the people will gather up and throw those revolutionary dice. And bad is usually measured by two factors, the interplay between the GINI Index (distribution of wealth) and total wealth.

    The Eurozone currently benefits from the best ratio of total wealth and distribution of wealth in human history. The Soviets had better Gini scores but their total wealth factor was rather weak. America has more total wealth but the distribution is rather Latin American. The current European social model is a total anomaly if seen through a historic perspective and so it should hardly be taken for granted and the standard operation procedure of human societies.

    We typically imagine revolutions as being bottom up in the sense of the oppressed poor overthrowing the rich. But the European masses who benefit from long vacations, universal and high quality health care, free pre-school, free universities, fair pensions, have a hell of a lot to lose by rolling those revolutionary dice since 99 out of a 100 times the outcome would be their current social model being relegated to the dustbin of history while the new boss turns them onto the Latin American model. So the only people who would push for a revolution in Europe would be their very rich people – since even more than 99 out of a 100 times the Latin American model is better for them. The other entity that would have an interest in pushing for a European revolution would be a foreign, say Anglo-Saxon, power who sees both a really bad ideological example being set in Europe as well as a roadblock to global domination. And if, say, these power hungry Anglo-Saxons held a huge advantage in informational warfare, in other words controlled many global media outlets, it would be a safe bet that these Anglo-Saxons would use this advantage to mount an informational warfare campaign trying to provoke unrest in Europe – and to exaggerate and emphasize each any demonstration that do occur in Europe.

    But so far that Anglo-Saxon propaganda campaign has been a failure. Sure the usual suspects have been full of Euro doom and gloom – for example not since the Qing Dynasty moved to block imports of opium has the British press has been so apoplectic about moves by foreign governments to protect themselves from Anglo-Saxon market vultures. But given that demonstrations are a constant fact of life in Europe – which probably helps explain those great GINI scores – lately there have been even fewer than normal in number, not withstanding the breathless Anglo-Saxon accounts of the few that have taken place recently.

    But is the current Anglo-Saxon propaganda campaign just the prelude to something bigger? Graham Greene’s The Quiet American meets John Robb’s Global Guerrillas? The recent drop in the Euro has placed the Chinese in the position of fighting a two front currency war — and they are currently getting spanked hard on their Western (European) Front. If the Chinese are now forced to divert resources away from supporting the American way of life in order to protect their previously free access to European markets, what will this mean for America? Isn’t it better to try to break up the Euro than to face a future where Chimerica will have to compete with Chirope?

    1. Richard Kline

      Asymmetric media warfare! That’s a hoot of a term, but not unwarranted. I broadly agree with your points here, Kevin.

  35. Fang

    One of the issues I’ve noted with the US economy is that the vastly uneven experience people have distorts their understanding of the actual impact of the economy. People move in their own social and economic circles, and may miss the larger picture until the larger picture affects them.

    I see this among my friends and family, which cover a diverse socioeconomic, cultural, and age group. Simply, most don’t understand what’s happening to the other people who differ from them.

    Right now I don’t think Americans have enough “mutual understanding” to ask for and enforce serious change. It’s different groups fighting different groups right now – and some groups don’t care.

    Will that change? Possibly. It’s a time of fast change, people are unhappy, and there’s a lot of knowledge tools out there. But it’ll require a lot of collective effort of people on the same page.

  36. Jerry Denim

    “…Having weakened faith in government and made considerable progress towards creating a social Darwinist paradise of isolated individuals pitted against each other, the oligarchs may be about to harvest a whirlwind.”

    Perhaps, but social unrest does not a revolution make. The populist rage of an unsophisticated mob can be redirected against any number of convenient scapegoats and can even be marshaled to support goals inconsistent with their own best interests. Witness the Tea party rank and file’s unexplainable commitment to “free trade”. I fear the coming revolution is going to be something more like a Nazi Germany revolution but instead of a Hitler I foresee a empty suit proto-fascist figure head like Sarah Palin who would serve the wishes of the oligarchy and direct the passions of the brown shirts. A revolution such as this might suit the tastes of the reigning oligarchs quite well. Enemies of the state could be eliminated or imprisoned and the social welfare rolls could be purged. Any remaining idle bodies could be employed to fight whatever war the oligarchs deemed the most profitable.

    1. PDC

      I think this is a crucial point. The ruling class, if scared, might be tempted to support some kind of “soft fascism”. But this will require a credible antagonist, like the communists in the ’20, which is lacking for now.

  37. Jackrabbit

    I think the point of the article is not that revolution is about to happen, but that some conditions that lead to revolutions have been realized. So it would seem to be inappropriate and a little early in the game to dismiss American revolutionary zeal.

    We have reached a point where people and governments are broke but the exploitive oligarchical system remains. By all accounts no one (or political system) can check this monster and its appetite only grows. Absent some fundamental change, then, more and more people are likely to experience increasing economic stress and political discontent.

  38. Frank Powers


    I assume you’re familiar with Sam Pizzigati’s “Greed and Good” – if not, I highly recommend it, both to you and to the other readers of this cherished blog. He’s made the case against unequality and greed like no one else – his book was a real eye-opener to me, as he brought it all together and clarified the “bigger scheme”, i.e. the meaning of it all for society, and well before “The Spirit Level”.

    His book is available as a BOD as well as online on , the latter as PDFs of every chapter, for free.

    Keep up the good work,

  39. Glen

    Like all things, progress in “revolution” may be that revolution assumes a new form. Like others have cited above, any form of protest which is being massively displayed on the MSM such as the Tea Party is certainly co-opted and being channeled and controlled by the very oligarchy which the Tea Party protests against just like much of the actions in DC by Republicans and Democrats are nothing but kabuki theater for the voters.

    Any new form of revolution is that least likely to be covered well by the MSM such as events in Iceland (where the people seem to have exerted control over the oligarchy and are about to put them on trial) or events which are portrayed as “shocking” or “destabilizing” such as the German ban on naked shorts (wow, a government actually fighting back against the banksters!), or the riots in Greece by the “mob” (most people still fail to realized that those protesting in Greece are a real Tea Party in action).

    In any event, we seem to now find ourselves as unrecognized participants in a “dark” financial war (phraseology similar the “dark” markets). It’s the world banksters against everybody else with most of us who are aware enough and observant enough trying to figure out where our government and other world governments line up.

    One new reality which does seem clear – the MSM is no longer acting as the Fourth Estate, but is the propaganda arm of the ruling elites. Bloggers such as Yves, have become a vital means to learn and spread the news.

  40. Jamisia

    I agree with Craazyman above that this is a crisis of the imagination. But that applies to the comments as well, I’m afraid! Say that Schama is right and that certain conditions for revolution have been met. One ignores the mindset itself: those conditions exist only if one approaches the present as if we’re heading for another 1789 or 1918.
    Let me draw your attention to social/serious games (such as Urgent Evoke, maybe Empire Avenue), Wirtschaftsring and grow bags. What are these ‘things’ conditions for? We’re all talking, I think, ‘connecting the dots’ and ‘culture’, but adding those up creates something more like pinball than coloring a picture.
    In any case, it helps if you thinks about mindset in general (maybe your own) and broaden your mind.

  41. Frank Ohsen

    There are salient factors today that perhaps are being overlooked in these historical revolutionary comparisons. The most prominent ones IMO are

    1). I do not underestimate the ideological resolve of those that believe in defending the tenets of the Constitution at all costs, including with their lives. There is a line in the sand with these people. It is getting very close IMO to being crossed from the rumblings you read on the web, to the lunch benches of mainstreet.

    In effect, the historical battle cry of ‘taxation without representation’ is today increasingly replaced with ‘Defend the Constitution and hence freedom’ as the simmering calderon beneath these idealogical perspectives. The economy as some others have mentioned is secondary to this idealogy for these people and only factors in as an additional ‘proof’ that things are not right because TPTB have wavered from the Constitution. IMO, it is a much more dangerous position we find ourselves here and is as such unpredictable when and if it will set off a runaway nation-changing reaction if it is not defused before it reaches critical mass. Again, that point is not yet defined and cannot be defined because it is principally idealogical in nature, further supported by oathtakers, who vowed to sacrifice with their lives to protect their freedom from any future tyrannical government. Whether they think that this is now a tyrannical government is yet to be determined but the point being is that they already think it is quickly becoming one.

    2). Underpinning the foregoing observations, increasing numbers of states are pursuing secessionist solutions challenging authority from D.C. under pretense of citing constitutional limitations of authority. How will the feds and the states ultimately resolve these highly charged differences and whether these confrontations will be resolved peacefully or otherwise is something no one can predict time-wise with any kind of certainty much less from a historical, social, or political perspective, what likely will be the final outcome.

    We are essentially in unchartered waters here. An unprecedented time in this nation’s relative short history, foremost idealogically fueled, and secondarily economically accelerated. An inherently unstable combination of which that I hope we can escape from peacefully intact as a cohesive republic.

  42. The iTod

    One thing to keep in mind is that the current American Empire was built from the ashes of the Great Depression. It was the ethics, morals, leadership and sacrifice of that era that allowed us to win WW2 and take leadership of the free world and replace Great Britain as the reserve currency. The elements of our society at the end of WW2 have been steadily eroded and corrupted ever since. The most visible example is the amount of wealth concentrated at the top. Almost everything great about the modern USA was born in the crucible of the 30s, 40s and 50s and has been dying ever since… Our decline and failure is inevitable at this point. Out of that failure another great culture may be born or may not. That is the challenge and opportunity of the future. What we have today is slow decline until we reach that point. This seems to have happened to every nation throughout history but human lifespan is too short to learn the lessons: “what we learn from history is we fail to learn from history.”

    1. aet

      When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

      I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

      But these are stolen words, stolen from this:

      Those who do not know history, etc, etc….

      IMHO Mr Schama’s quite good on British history, so a plug for him, too:

  43. mg

    I don’t know. The world is so complex with so many technologies and threats. Most days a revolution is a minor happening in what could go wrong.

    The ability to monitor and quickly react to any expressed threat against the state is remarkable in it’s uniqueness in history. Any group’s leadership would immediately be recognized and targeted.

    Collapse is more of a possibility than revolution.

  44. Crocodile Chuck

    “Governments fall from sheer indifference”, William Burroughs, ‘The Road to the Western Lands’

  45. Hugh

    It is always funny how an idea does not stand on its own but needs the stamp of approval by some official validator. I have been writing for some time now about how we have entered a pre-revolutionary period. I have pointed out that such periods are relatively common in our history happening every 30-40 years from the adoption of the Constitution in the 1790s to Jackson and banks in the 1830s, to Lincoln and the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt, trustbusting, and the labor movement, to FDR and the Great Depression to Johnson, Vietnam, and civil rights, to now.

    As some have noted, what makes our current situation anomalous is that no viable alternatives are on hand. The system can’t last and the elites running it are too corrupt to reform. In the absence of reform, a new social and economic deal is impossible and pressures build until they explode, usually in a big and very destructive way.

    I have also said that in terms of the intersection of economics and politics, 2011 looks like a year we could fall into serious depression. Collapse often precedes revolution.

    Finally, while it is good to see someone like Schama coming on board, it just seems very odd that we should be seeking elite validation when it is our elites that are the problem.

  46. Jim

    Political change doesn’t take place abstractly It takes place within a particular culture and a particular political structure. So when you talk about radical political change, it means you have to go back to the roots of that political culture because revolutionaries are people who are interested in dramatic political change and you have to appeal to those roots in order to mobilize people to act in concert. And the way people are mobilized to act in concert for political change is to appeal intellectually and emotionally to those roots because that is what resonates in peoples’ beings.

    You need to appeal to, in fact, what is the most successful democratic experiment in the history of mankind–our history from 1776 to 1789. That is the model. It’s not something that has to be created new. It’s to go back to our foundations and recreate that model. And that model says that the political theory of the state is American Federalism as articulated by our founding fathers – a brilliant system of checks and balances. It was all there.

    The political social issue is: how was this model destroyed over more than 200 years. How did we go from an autonomous citizenry which created a decentralized political structure and a dynamic entrepreneurial capitalism to what we have today?

    And what’s gone on is that the left has forgotten about this political structure and said it’s no longer relevant and the right, which supposedly gives allegience to it, has in fact advocated the same policies as the left – solving problems through greater and greater centralization in Washington D.C. Both have opted for a strong state structure.

    So the question now becomes – how did this happen? We have to understand how the model was subverted, why the model was subverted, and who were the groups responsible for the subversion. And that’s why Yves analysis, starting in 1975, is only partially correct. It says that, somehow, capitalism and an unbridled financial structure got out of control between 1975 and 2006 and that in order to bring things back into normalcy we need to have greater state regulation and involvement. Yes, deregulation, the rise of a massive financial structure, the revolving door, etc, all contributed to this political economic crisis, but it’s only right from 1975 to the present.

    Between 1920 and the end of World War II, you had WWI, you had the crisis after WWI, you had the crisis during the Great Depression, you had the New Deal, and you had WWII. All of these things were all phenomenal historical social events in which the state was called in to stabilize the crisis and the state stabilized the situation by forming an alliance with powerful capital interests and that’s partially how the structure of power of Federalism – of a decentralized goverment which operated from 1776 until 1880 – was overwhelmed.

    What Obama was articulating in 2007 is similar to what they were articulating with the New Deal. You had people saying the structure of power was collapsing, my god, the only way we can stabilize things is to have the state come in and intervene dramatically. And that was called the New Deal in the early 1930s, it was called TARP just at the end of the Bush administration, and it was called too big to fail when Obama came into power. And what it was were the large public buureaucratic structures of the state and the large private bureaucratic structures of the market coming together and trying at all costs to stabilize their influence by socializing their losses on the American people and to make sure that a populist revolt from the bottom did not take place and to preserve their power.

    What we’re faced with today is a configuation of the market and the state which began to be created in the 1880’s and has been played out – left and right variants of it – up to the present.

    Our dilemma today is to recognize that it was this market/state dynamic and the creation of these large bureaucratic structures which separated the average individual from the structure of power. Our dilemma today is how to reconstruct the market and the state to go back to what it was in 1776/89 or close to it. That’s the question. Is it possible, can it be done, and is it the right solution? Can we, in 2010, reconstruct 1776.

    So, when you go back to the roots, the crisis of imagination is not that you have to think of a new structure, but that the old structure is the answer and has to be reconfigured to 2010. The problem is that both the market and the state, as they have configured themselves over the last 125 years have contributed to the problem.

    In my opinion, this may be the best option and has the strongest possibility of becoming a political reality because it speaks to our traditions. It says a revolution is going back to the roots, going back to the traditions, and drawing on them to recreate something which was destroyed.

    This is why the New Left in the 1960s failed, because it said we had to create something totally new, it said we had to break down all these barriers. No, where they made their mistake – and you can end up with a totalitarian structure like you did in the French revolution – you don’t create something totally new, you draw on the traditions of the culture you are encased in and you go back to something which was successful and reconfigure it. This is the way to do it, this is what’s going to guarantee not totalitarianism, not some type of authoritarian structure, but it’s going to guarantee political change which can draw on traditions which will constrain the crazies.

    Why the New Left was not successful is because it did not accept the validity of traditions, it did not want to be a part of the culture, and wanted to create something totally new which, of course, was both naïve and wrong. The New Left became self-righteous drawing on models from Cuba or the Soviet Union, or the Third World which had little relevance to the United States.

    If you’re going to change the United States and if you’re going to get the American people behind you, you’re going to have to appeal to this country’s decentralized political tradition.

    Now, the next question is how are we going to do that? What are the words we’re going to use to get us there. So what we’re talking about now is not a movement from the Left for greater state involvement, we’re talking about a grass roots movement-a populist movement that attacks the structure of power, not from the right, not from the left, but from below. That seems to be the wisest political dynamic – a populist movement.

    The cultural dynamic is not to say that we’re going to create something new, the cultural dynamic is to say to the American people that we’re going to draw on the rich cultural, historical, political traditions of our country and remake it. Therefore, people are not going to get scared that we are trying something totally unique. We’re just going to go back to what was and make it better. But this cultural message is absolutely crucial and the way you’re going to win over many people from the middle to the Right is by articulating this message. They’re not going to be scared, they’re going to be saying “Oh, these people are talking about what we believe is right but our people have never really delivered on these traditions.

    And this is a great mistake of the Left – they denied the importance of traditions.

    So you have Populism politically, you have an appeal to the cultural traditions which appeal to consevatism which is absolutely necessary in a revolution. Conservative traditions are necessary for revolution. This is something that the Left has never understood. That you have to have an appeal to tradition or you will not be successful. And until the left and the center understand this they will never be able to mobilize the American people. Ok, so maybe that’s the cultural message.

    The economic message is corporate capitalism, the way it developed from 1880 until the present simply duplicated in the private structure what the right hated in the public sector – it created huge private bureaucracies, huge private structures which aligned with huge public structures – and that is what we have today – this private/public collusion where the average person has no political say. So the economic, political, and cultural message is that we have to create a political, economic, cultural structure which destroys our dependency on huge public/private bureaucracies.

    Unfortunately what you have happening now is the Left repeating the old New Deal model and saying that’s the solution and the Right, trying to defend a conception of capitalism which only contributes to the problem– they’ve allowed big oil, big banks and big pharmaceutical companies, and they’ve made alliances with them. The Right now has to say NO, we want to go back to entrepreneurial capitalism, small businesses, initiative from the bottom because small businesses create strong communities.

    And the Left doesn’t realize this. The Left says the way you’re gonna do it is somehow magically through the state. No, the state helps to annihilate individual initiative, the state often helps to destroy rich community structures, the state often impedes intermediary organizations by creating huge public bureaucracies which say we can simply make rules which allow you to run your families better.

    All these things have to be recreated in this new model which is really the old model applied to 2010. It isn’t scary. It’s real democratization, where we are in charge, culturally, politically, and economically.

    So the issue is NOT the state or the market, the issue is OUR DEPENDENCY on the present configuration of the state and the market. We have to restructure the state and the market to make it run in our interests. And that demands, even though the Left has been hesitant to accept it, a decentralized political structure. And it demands, even though the right has been unwilling to face it, that they stop cooperating with this corporate structure which is out of control.

    1. gordon

      In 1776 the 13 colonies were sitting on the edge of a whole unexploited continent, and they knew it. A model which worked (sort of) on the basis of plentiful and cheap natural resources and expanding population began to break down when the frontier ran out.

      If you want to find the beginning of the end I would look at the almost simultaneous closing of the frontier and the debates surrounding the Spanish-American War and colonisation of the Phillipines (see B.Tuchman’s relevant “Proud Tower” chapter).

    2. jonboinAR

      I think that one of the main outcomes we need is to redistribute income more equitably again. Will decentralizing political structures and shrinking corporations help that to happen?

  47. Paul Cohen

    “Note in particular where Japan sits on the chart. Some readers have argued that the US has little to fear from deflation and a protracted period of near-zero growth, since Japan is orderly and prosperous-looking, despite its relative decline. But Japan was and is the most socially equal major economy, and during its crisis,”

    I’m not so sure about this statement, as a long term foreign resident of Japan. For instance, do you know that the suicide rate in Japan is over 30k/yr for the last decade?
    Compare that to other “developed” nations…

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Japan does not only not stigmatize suicides, unlike Judeo-Christian countries, it considers it to be the honorable thing to do in some circumstances (I once had a Japanese subordinate explain to me that the honor in seppuku was not in merely killing yourself, but in the last tug of the knife blade up through your liver, demonstrating what the proper knife path would be).

      Thus it is reasonable to assume that Japanese suicide statistics are fairly accurate, while they are understated, perhaps greatly, in other countries. Another factor in the US, and I assume other countries, is that death by suicide voids payout under a life insurance policy. Thus anyone with dependents would have an incentive to have his death look like an accident (a recent suspect here is the rather conveniently timed death of Ken Lay, and the peculiar circumstances surrounding it).

      For instance, one study found that suicides reported in the local media (local paper, TV, or radio) led to a clear uptick in suicide + accident deaths among the same demographic over the next two weeks. Suicide deaths alone gave an inconclusive result, suicide + fatal accident was consistent. And given that the reporting of a suicide leads to other suicides, that also reinforces the cultural prohibition against accurate tabulation of suicides.

      Isolating one statistic on which Japan scores badly, particularly given how well it does on other measures DESPITE having had extreme, long-standing economic stresses does not disprove the thesis. You would expect some decay in indicators of social well being in a period of long-lasting economic stress.

      1. Transor Z

        Yves, fyi, in the U.S., the insurance industry benchmark is a two-year suicide exclusion provision — often part of a “constestibility provision.” However, even with such language, the payout is not necessarily voided if the insurer cannot show the insured purchased the policy with suicidal intent.

      2. jerry denim

        Right on Yves,

        Too many people here trying to nit-pick or are missing the forrest for the trees.

        Japan and most of the countries which scored well in the equality ratings are extremely homogeneous societies. (at least traditionally) Find me a Norwegian who isn’t Lutheran or has never had the chance to go to college, or has poor bone structure for that matter. Cultural and ethnic homogeneity may make it easier for a country to achieve income equality but this homogeneity or any related cultural idiosyncrasies such as a high suicide rate, do nothing to invalidate your main point, which is chronic income inequality is bad very for the well-being of individuals and society at large. Very simple. Relax and read slowly people.

      3. Paul Cohen

        I don’t disagree with your thesis on macro level.

        Just making a point that all is not well in the land of the rising sun, and while it may look orderly and prosperous looking so does a swimming duck if you only look at the surface.

        The suicide rate is just one reflection of this. Yes, insurance payout for family under economic duress is one reason but there are also significant cultural Quality of Life stressors not present in the west that are part of this long term trend.

        I’ll also pop over to the park next door sometime and let the guys living in the blue tarps tent communiy know that there income inequality is better than there counterparts in the west…

        1. Paul Cohen

          ack..spelling. Need morning coffee.
          “I’ll also pop over to the park next door sometime and let the guys living in the blue tarps tent communiy know that there income inequality is better than there counterparts in the west…”

          I’ll also pop over to the park next door sometime and let the guys living in the blue tarps tent communiy know that their income inequality is better than their counterparts in the west…

    2. Kevin de Bruxelles

      The suicide myth is a very powerful piece of propaganda that serves to reinforce the even larger myth of American Exceptionalism – it appeals to Americans’ desperate need to believe their nation is the best against mounting evidence that says othewise.

      But during the Cold War the targets of the suicide myth were the democratic socialist systems in general and Sweden in particular. It was started in 1960 (in Britain of course) where Cold War propagandists were presented the dual challenge of a certain heavily democratic socialist country having one of the highest standards of living in the world, as well as having one of the most equal distributions of income in human histroy, along with the fact this small “pre-communist” country possessed some of the major manufacturing giants of the world such as Saab, Volvo, Electrolux, Bofors, the Nobel conglomerate, Husqvarna, Securitas, Sandvik, etc.

      Instead of directly challenging Swedish society on its merits, the indirect propaganda method was wisely chosen and instead the social democratic system was attacked in 1960 as a suicide haven by none other than The Earl of Arran from that enduring monument to Democracy [sarcasm], the House of Lords:

      It looks as though for the first time in history the age of mass leisure is being approached, but material well-being does not necessarily lead to happiness. In Sweden and Switzerland, which the highest living standard in Europe, they shoot themselves in great numbers; there suicide rates are the highest in the world with the exception of Japan, where it is a national pastime

      With the powerful meme melody created, President Dwight D. Eisenhower then proceeded to riff on it by discussing “an experiment of almost complete paternalism” in a “fairly friendly European country”

      This country has a tremendous record for socialistic operation, following a socialistic philosophy, and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably and I think they were almost the lowest nation in the world for that. Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides. Therefore, with that kind of example, let’s always remember Lincoln’s admonition. Let’s do in the federal Government only those things that people themselves cannot do at all, or cannot so well do in their individual capacities.

      I remember telling my working class friends back in 1990 that I intended to move to Sweden and all each and every one of them could come up with was a response that included a reference to suicide. Sadly I was recently informed one of these guys took his own life in sunny California last year.

      Of course once I got to Sweden I found out that Swedish insurance policies must pay out in case of a suicide. How often in America do we hear about “gun cleaning accidents” and other nonsense to cover up obvious suicides. If you could look at the real numbers in America as opposed to fake reported numbers and compare them to Sweden or Japan, you will see that America does not stack up so well.

      But discussing the truth only deflects away from the absolute brilliance of the suicide meme. Fifty years later it still going strong as a truth-deflecting tool to keep people in their allocated ideological boxes.


      1. DownSouth

        Kevin de Bruxelles,

        Vinny the other day furnished a link, I think it was to a UN study, that showed the incidence of substance abuse and/or emotional disorder in the United States to be 29%. Further evidence of this is the flood of illicit drugs flowing from Mexico to the US, something like $35 billion per year, which on the streets of the US must be worth five to ten times that much.

        This compares to, according to the same study, 12% in Mexico, which isn’t exactly a paragon of social engineering.

        I wonder how long it will be before the entire edifice built on lies and propaganda comes tumbling down.

        Hannah Arendt put it quite eloquently:

        Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer. It will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The liar, who may get away with any number of single falsehoods, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle. This is one of the lessons that could be learned from the totalitarian experiments and the totalitarian rulers’ frightening confidence in the power of lying—-in their ability, for instance, to rewrite history again and again to adapt the past to the “political line” of the present moment or to eliminate data that did not fit their ideology. Thus, in a socialist economy, they would deny that unemployment existed, the unemployed person simply becoming a non-person.

        The results of such experiments when undertaken by those in possession of the means of violence are terrible enough, but lasting deception is not among them. There always comes the point beyond which lying becomes counterproductive. This point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive.
        –Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic

  48. Andreas

    I circulated the piece among a few friends. One, a psychiatrist and political thinker, R. Spain, replied with the following (posted with his permission)

    Re: Schama: Are the Guillotines Being Sharpened?

    Interesting and cogent but I disagree with the focus. I believe the reason the right was able to accumulate power by replacing a politics of equality with a politics of values is they are right. Values is what determines a stable society. I believe the secret power brokers are happy to have the right and left distract all of us by this false dichotomy between the right being the voice of values and the left equality. Even Marx knew that equality was not the goal as evidenced by “To each according to his abilities. To each according to his needs.”

    There is an excellent book by? Fox and Piven? (I forget the title) which shows Democrats taking up the mantle of equality in the 60s was not a true value but a political ploy. Somehow the right has managed to hoodwink us into opposing them by hoping the public will be won over by appealing to the virtue of equality.

    Certainly some good has come of this (i.e., a Black president) but what goes unchallenged is the perposterous notion that somehow the “good” can come out of free markets. That is a magical concept and appeals to magic are the source of not only bad character but regressive organizations of any size. Appeals for an equal society have taken on that magic quality to. ( Witness the result in communist countries) The good comes out of honest acknowledgment of the consequences of decisions and such acknowledgment is banished from public debate due to fear of alienating constituents or fear of being accused of questioning your opponents motives.

    Some good comes out of some free markets in some situations but I believe more important than appealing to the ideal of equality is restoring to EVERY SINGLE political debate the notion that it is a debate over values and that in every allocation of resources a set of values wins and another set of values loses.

    My father once mocked a political scientist by saying he is paid to appeal to “men of good will.” Who said we have to treat our opponents as men of good will? Why would I want to pretend the soda industry fighting taxes on soft drinks is an honorable position when couched in the lie that they are doing it to save jobs. Motives matter and it serves the secret oligarchs purposes to paint any public insinuation about the motives of our opponents indiscreet.

    When I listen to debates in congress what is clear is that acknowledging that allocation of resources involves winners and losers is the third rail and no one is willing to overtly state that there is no magic economy which provides unlimited wealth to everyone at the same time as being good.

    In Ed Dorn’s tract poem from the sixties called the North Atlantic Turbine he said Americans have been hoodwinked into thinking they can be good and greedy. Opposing sides always present their goals as the universal good. There is no democracy where every politician is a mini ideologue of a utopia of no hard choices. There are no more citizens and what could be more tautological than a democracy without citizens?

    What’s so compelling about the gun and abortion debate is its purely about values and of no interest to the oligarchs except to the degree that it distracts. Obama was a new democrat in that he was smart enough to side step the furor of values embedded in debates over guns, abortions and gays. It didn’t have the courage to say jobs will needs to be lost and there will be deprivation in shifting to a post speculative economy.

    The idea that the new fuel efficient economy could be built out of the existing auto companies is as realistic as if someone tried to say the horse and buggy industry could be transformed into train production. It is interesting that the concept of values is relegated to a few fiercely contested area when it is almost taboo to speak of the recent meltdown as a crisis in values. After all isn’t value the cornerstone of an economy? Equality is a nice ideal but I think it has run its course as a rallying cry for improving society. But of most importance is this little diatribe saved me from having to dig in my garden this morning.

    1. DownSouth


      Interesting analysis.

      According to classical economic theory, the realm of cultural values simply ceases to exist, material values being the only motivators of human behavior.

      Some argue that the plutocrats never really bought into this assumption. They of course keep their eye firmly on the target—-money—-while at the same time inciting and inflaming culture wars amongst their helots.

      If this Machiavellian construct has any truth to it, then the New Left certainly went for the bait, as Robert Hughes explains:

      Hence, in the universities, what matters is the politics of culture, not the politics of the distribution of wealth and of real events in the social sphere, like poverty, drug addiction and the rise of crime. The academic left is much more interested in race and gender than in class. And it is very much more interested in theorizing about gender and race than actually reporting on them. This enables its savants to feel they are on the cutting edge of social change, without doing legwork outside of academe; the “traditional left” has been left far behind, stuck with all that unglamorous and twice-told stuff about the workers.
      –Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America

  49. Valissa

    Great post and great discussion! Finally had time to read all the comments(!) today, very educational… thank you all for your thoughtful and often wise contributions!

    However, here is what niggles at me a bit in thinking about the above discussion…

    What kind of pending revolution are we talking about? What will be it’s focus, purpose, goal? Or are we really only talking about insurrection and rioting as expressions of frustration with downsized lifestyles and expectations for many.

    What will collapse look like? Collapse back to what? Again it seems to be more about downsizing of lifestyles and expectations. That is not necessarily a bad thing, IMO. Maybe some hard reality will motivate constructive changes (although maybe not).

    I agree with craazy man when he says “We are facing a crisis of imagination” … or perhaps a crisis of epistomolgy? Some epistomological innovation might help us think about our problems more effectively.

    And I agree with The i-Tod when he says “I think that people are missing the point of how a revolution works in a non-dictatorship. … The revolutions in a democratic Republic are of a cultural or morals/values nature. We overthrow a belief system rather than a government.”

    I think some form of soft revolution is currently occurring and that we can’t see it yet because we are too close to it. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we are in the midst of multiple soft revolutions, which may be co-incident with a certain amount of insurrection, protesting, etc.

    On the issue of “collapse” here is a book I found very useful… highly recommended!

    The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

    BTW, Richard Kline, when is your book coming out?

  50. Peripheral Visionary

    While I find the correlation in the graph to be too strong (it almost certainly is the result of a considerable amount of tinkering with the weighting of variables to provide the result the author was hoping for), it has an unexpected effect, in that it highlights an issue which the author may not have anticipated: virtually all the variability in position on the line can be explained by rate of immigration.

    And yet, over a hundred and fifty posts later, and precisely one mention of immigration. I don’t know how you have a conversation about distribution of wealth and social stability without talking about immigration, but somehow the commentators here have done it, an extraordinary act of cognitive contortion.

    I also wonder if a revolution may be coming, but at the same time, I rather suspect that any revolution that does come may not be the one the people here are looking for. Revolution is for the young, not the old, and it is the young of the modern world who will carry out any revolution which may come, and I scarcely need to mention that their values may not be the values of the social revolutionaries of yesteryear.

  51. KD

    Japan’s income inequality in the graph seems too low that it makes me cast a dubious eye to cited statistics. Americans sometimes bring up Japan as a model for social stability and coherence, but life is not at all easy here as everybody in Japan knows. The recent decade sees Japan tilting toward more inequality. For example, according to OECD, Japan’s Gini coefficient (the higher the rate, the higher income inequality) is 0.32, while OECD average is 0.31. It means that Japan’s income inequality is at least not less than the average OECD country. Japan is unequal as much as other developed countries. Moreover, poverty rate in Japan is among the worst in OECD countries, though it is still less than the US. Economic meltdown has been imposing a huge burden on everybody.

  52. anti_fascist_freedom_fighter

    I don’t understand how you all can be arguing that a revolution couldn’t happen in this country, when it has already happened. Where were you guys looking n the last decade? Regardless of who you imagine committed the 9/11 terror attacks, what stuns me is that none of you seem to realize that America went through a Coup d’etat directly follwoing 9/11/2001 and the Anthrax attacks on Congress. Congress responded with the immediate imposition of the Patriot Act, which was pre-prepared and was passed sight-unseen, and which eviscerates the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Since they authored the Patriot Act, the most likely perps of the Coup D’etat were the Neocons. Hidden (in the shock and awe of post 9/11) was the complete takeover of Washington by Wall Street to create a new kind of government which we could perhaps call a corporatocracy, lead by multinational corporations (many economically larger than countries) who had earlier created (and who used the crisis to continue to expand) their own self-created legal system ans system of secret courts, called the World Trade Organization. Anyone who believes that our nation, the United States of America, still exists in the same sense as it did, say, in 1970’s, when Richard Nixon was deposed, must either be phenomenally (or willfully) ignorant, or must be intentionally trying to deceive. That country is gone, not as a result of democratic process, but as a result of a corporate coup d’etat. The revolution will not be televised, I guess, or you guess would have seen it.

    Note that I am not saying that “Bush knocked down the Towers”. What I am saying is, that much like that described in Naomi Klein’s Book “Crisis Capitalism”, the Neocons seized the opportunity presented by the 9/11 attacks to permanently change the United State’s form of Government. And that, my comrades, is a revolution.

  53. the.Duke.of.URL

    Forget where Japan lies with respect to this regression line. Look at where the UK and the US are. And the latter is an outlier statistically, which in this context is a very bad thing.

  54. Ray Arco

    There is a disparity in understanding the behavioral patterns phenomenon in our global world mostly due to Ignorance which in turn furthers the lack of acurate perception that the true frontiers are not those politically man-made, but those natural i.e., young or old, male or female, children or adults, naked or dressed, those with uniforms and those without, etc., let alone the variety of cultures on our five (possibly six?) continents!

    Of course, the article reveals many absolute truths that no one can dispute except for those having kidnapped the power to dominate and enslave i.e, the oligarchs, the church and the many politicians. Nevertheless, there are still some of us educated vertically and sober enough to try to do something about it before we too become a historical whim. But then, many shrug asking “Who gives a dam’?” after we’re gone? Which may be an absolute truth, for the way we revere those who passed away and the ephemeral children’s future, we don’t realize the crude reality that we do it more for ourselves conscious-wise, than for them.

  55. Raoul Alteresco

    Though many of the above comments are quite warming to see that there are still out there people with a soul and will to do something about our world status especially today, I am at a loss when I read or hear that though their comments are valid and We the People should do something about it, “there is no Political Will to do it!”

    That baffles me more than anything for if we did adhere to a Democratic Society with elected officials, and if they do not do their job in depth for which they were elected, what stops us to dis-elect or even sue them? Come on folks, come out into the streets in the millions, the way we did during several occasions. Why not now when we have a real chance to make some drastic changes and regain OUR WILL POWER! No, it’s not a call to arms, but to the War on Ignorance a all levels, rather than hiding behind a minimal comfort that the current Social Security provides.

  56. Death of Society

    The Sheeple will be beaten down by riot troops and sonic cannons then sent to internment camps.

    The power elite will show the serfs who is in charge!

    For a while anyway. Then the guillotines will run night and day when the People return from being Sheeple.

  57. Nightgaunt

    The French Revolution analogy is bad because it failed. Yes failed and those who sent so many to their deaths ended when they were the last to go to them inculding their fanatical blood thirsty leader Robsepierre the butcher of Paris. Not good at all.

    It is my opinion based on my research is that the oligarchs of the USA want the “good old days” of the Guilded Age only with the most modern technology to keep it. From surveillance to urban warfare to PR/propaganda to keep the people anxious, distracted, nervous and too tired to do anything about it till it is too late. We are nearing that point. All it takes is a full blown Great Depression, we are already in a Depression so that would break our back and allow for the crypto-fascists to come out and offer us one of two alternatives they give us. Neo-barbarians or their theocratic corporate fascist state. At least with them the amenities of the late 20th would give the slaves some feelings of normality. Most will take it eyes wide open. Just as they want us too. The rest won’t do so well fighting as guerillas in what is left of the mountains as the coal companies remove them. We will get their version of utopia on earth as they wait to prepare the earth so that they Aryan God will return.

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