The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-wing Government

(With the Bolivian coup overthrown, back to the top.  I’ve noticed this is the article of mine front-line activists refer to most.  Originally published May 16, 2016.)

So, we have had a right-wing coup in Brazil. In Venezuela, the left still controls the Presidency, but has lost control of parliament. In Argentina, the right has won the election.

I have been asked how to stop right-wing reversals.

First, it’s worth noting that these three cases are somewhat different. Brazil is a coup in all but name. Venezuela saw massive, deliberate economic sabotage by internal right-wing forces. The situation in Argentina was the closest to fair; a reversal of electoral fortunes.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from their experiences:

It’s Not You, It’s China (or, the World System)

All three left-wing movements in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina were associated with rising commodity prices. When those commodity prices collapsed, it was only natural for their fortunes to reverse. They are in power when the economy goes bad, now people want them out. The populace is willing to be complicit in actions that get them out, which are dubious.

Don’t Run Your Economy on Resources

Yes, okay, this is easier said than done. It is hard to bootstrap into something else if you’re a non-core economy. Heck, even many core economies are losing their manufacturing bases and while finance can “work,” it’s a shit way to run your economy. So are “services.” We’ll discuss this in more depth below. But the bottom line is this: You have to develop (or have plans to develop) your economy into a mixed economy, so that it can survive during the inevitable downturns, and, thus, so that your movement can survive them.

People expect you to be able to maintain prosperity. Given the world order as it stands, that may be like asking you to swim with a hundred pound weight strapped to your back, but you still have to do it.

Your First Act Must Be a Media Law

Break them up. Take them over. Whichever. Ignore the screams about media freedom from the usual suspects in the West, this is a case of “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” In all three countries, the media conglomerates remained in the control of oligarchs (update: to be clear, Venezuela did eventually expropriate them, but only after many years), and in all three cases, the majority of the media remained relentlessly hostile to the left.

This is just as true in countries like Britain, Canada, or the US as it is in Argentina, Venezuela, or Brazil, by the way. There is a reason why the post-war liberal regimes put strict media controls in place–including size limits–and there is a reason why those limits were removed by the neoliberal regimes that replaced them.

You can win “against the media” for a time, but if you leave it in the hands of your enemies, they will eventually use it to bury you.

Take Control of the Banking Sector

The banking sector creates money. Money determines what people can and cannot do. This is the control mechanism for the economy in any state which runs on markets. You must control it. If you control it, you can use it to strangle your domestic enemies. If you do not, your enemies will use it to strangle you.

This is a great problem. The world economy has been designed so that countries need to trade, and they need foreign money. So, you can take control of your banking sector, but you can’t control England’s, or America’s, or the payment system (this is what killed Argentina), and thus you cannot tell creditors to go fuck themselves. You need foreign money for necessities.

It is also problematic because the people who know how to run the market economy are not your people. You have get rid of the people who ran it before, so who is going to run it now?

Who Is Your Administrative Class?

You must have a class of people available to run the state and those chunks of the economy over which you are taking control (whether formally or informally). You must know who those people are. FDR reached into academia for many of his people; he also pulled from the social gospel folks (who were used to administering large organizations), and he found a lot of fellow class traitors (for example, JFK’s father, whom he used to run the SEC–Kennedy knew all the tricks and was able to tamp down Wall Street’s BS).

Post-FDR, one of the reasons why factory line supervisors were made ineligible for union membership was so that union members couldn’t be used as easily to take over organizations–even the lowest level supervisors were no longer union members.

There are always people who know the business and believe the way it is being run is bullshit. But you have to know who they are, both as a class and individually. There are certainly people who can run TV stations and newspapers who are left-wing, but you’ve got to know who they are. There are heterodox economists and people who have worked in the finance industry who are class traitors and just itching for a chance to put the boots to the assholes they worked for. Again, you must know who they are.

Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately exacerbating shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.

These people have power. They are your enemies. They will use their power against you. They will not “play fair.”

In Egypt, under the Brotherhood, the deep state did things like cause electricity outages and blame it on the Brotherhood. Of course, the same bureaucrats as always were running the electrical system.

Again, this comes back to control: You have to take control and you have to have competent people you can trust who can help you. Do you know who they are?

Reduce Your Vulnerability to the World Trade System

The world system as it stands now is designed so that no nation can stand alone: No one can make and grow everything they need. This was not always the case. In the past, many nations went out of their way to be self-sufficient. It was Keynes’ position, by the way, that nations should produce all their day-to-day necessities themselves, wherever possible, and import only what they could not produce and luxuries–but to strive not to need anything they couldn’t make.

This has been economic and political orthodoxy at various points.

But it isn’t now. You’re in hock to various foreigners for a lot of money, denominated in their currency. You probably can’t feed your own nation. You can’t make what you need (toilet paper, famously, in Venezuela’s case) and you can’t buy it without foreign currency. But the foreign financial system is not friendly to you if you’re genuinely left-wing, and the world trade system is set up to make it illegal to do what is required to produce goods domestically.

You’ll need subsidies or tariffs to make new domestic industries viable, and that’s illegal thanks to a web of trade deals meant to make you unable to control your own economy.

Venezuela tried to increase farming, but failed, precisely because the price of oil went through the roof, and foreign food was cheaper than domestic. The classic response would be tariffs, but the kinds of tariffs sufficient to work would not be tolerated by the world trade system.

It’s hard to overstate how huge a problem this is. It goes back to the commodity issue. Maybe you have enough foreign cash for now, but you won’t always, and you must have it. This vulnerability must be reduced, generally.

No one has managed this in the neoliberal era, not completely, and huge amounts of geopolitics are run based on this. Russia has its oil prices drop, so it moves to selling military goods to make up the difference, for example, and its Syrian intervention is, in large part, a venue to show off how well its weapons work.

Workarounds have been tried: Cooperation with other left-wing nations is the standard one. Venezuela with Cuba, and so on. But this is the “south” trading with the “south.” The stuff they really need, generally, none of them actually produce. If they do, they either don’t produce enough, or they don’t really, i.e. it’s produced by some multinational with no loyalty.

So then you try to appropriate the multinational, but that runs you into all sorts of problems from getting replacement parts for the machines, to the experts to run what you’ve expropriated, to effective embargoes (even if not declared as such).

Nonetheless, this is a problem which must be solved. A full description of how to bootstrap an economy is beyond the scope of this article, and I’m not sure I have a full kit, but I will say this: There are a huge number of highly-skilled first world workers, from the Ph.D.-level down to machinists who are unemployed or underemployed. They want to work. They hate their own system. You can bring these people in, give them new lives, and at least have the necessary expertise.

I know many extremely qualified pharma professionals who would love a chance to set generic factories and create new drugs without the pressure for palliatives they receive from their drug company employers (or ex-employers), as just one example.

This bootstrapping is a challenge which appeals to a lot of the very best and brightest.

Be Satisfied with What You Can Grow and Make

If your elites or population insist on fresh summer vegetables in winter, you’re done. What you can produce, you must have a taste for. This is especially true for elites. If they must have the latest Mercedes, a vacation in Paris, and a home in London, you’re screwed because to have those things, they must have foreign currency.

When Korea was industrializing they had huge campaigns to not smoke foreign cigarettes: It was considered unpatriotic.

You need what foreign currency you have to stay earmarked for capital goods, and you need your elites to be local elites, not global elites. If your elites consider themselves global, you will never be able to create the necessary self-sufficiency to buck the world system.

Obey the Laws of Purges

Let’s not dance around. Your first step will be to break the power of the current economic and political elites who are not willing to convincingly join you–or, at least, let you rule without trying to sabotage you.

You must do this all at once. When it happens, it has to happen to everyone to whom it is going to happen. This is Machiavelli’s dictum, and he was right. After it has happened, those who weren’t broken know they’re safe as long as they don’t get in your way.

If the breaking keeps going on and on, everyone who still has something to lose (and still, thus, has power) lives in fear. They must destroy you before you destroy them.

Let’s give a concrete example. Assume Obama was really a left-winger. He gets into power in 2009, and he really wants to change things. He needs to take out the financial elite: Wall Street and the big banks.

They’ve handed him the opportunity. Here’s part of how he does it: He declares all the banks involved in the sub-prime fraud racket (all of the big ones and most of the small ones) conspiracies under RICO.

He then says that all the individual executives’ money are proceeds derived from crime and confiscates it. (This is 100 percent legal under laws as they exist). He charges them, and they are forced to use public defenders.

They are now powerless. This is the second law of purges: Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. If you take away half their power, and leave them half, they will hate you forever and use their remaining power to destroy you.

Leave them whole, or destroy them. The financial executives would have been destroyed, and win or lose in the courts, the next five to ten years of their lives would be consumed by personal legal nightmares.

Again, this is a Machiavellian dictum.

All of this will make many readers uneasy. It seems “mean.”

Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.

Too many left-wingers try to play by what they think the rules are. “We have a fair election every X years and the losers accept the result and don’t sabotage the winner (or start a coup).”

Those aren’t the real rules. If the right is really losing, they will cheat and cheat massively. They will think nothing of running death squads, making a deal with the US to support guerrillas, and so on.

You directly threaten their wealth and power, if you are a real left-winger. Even if all you want is a 50s style social democracy with racial and gender equality, that would destroy almost all of what they have. They remember what FDR did to them, even if you don’t. They remember all the lost power and fortunes.

It is not possible to have a fair, egalitarian, prosperous society, and have very rich and powerful elites. It cannot be done. Brandeis was exactly right when he said you can have democracy or great wealth in the hands of a few, but you can’t have both.

Either you’re willing to do what it takes, including the ugly bits, or you aren’t. There are sometimes local exceptions, places where a lot of the ugly isn’t needed, but there aren’t a lot of those places left in the world. This isn’t the post-war era and even then, in the South (as opposed to Scandinavia), actual egalitarian, developed economies mostly weren’t allowed. You can ask Central and South America about that.

Most left-wing movements get into power without having properly thought out what they’ll do once in power and without a realistic understanding of how deeply their right-wing opponents lack any belief in democratic norms.

Break your enemy’s power. If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs.

And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them.

Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing.

You’re trying to tackle the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few.

So, know the odds are against you and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.

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Presidential Debate Thread


Open Thread


  1. EmilianoZ

    This is one of the greatest posts I’ve ever read here or on any other blogs.

  2. Daize

    Nice to hear left wing warrior talk for once!

  3. “Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.”

    Yes. If you don’t like to fight, don’t fight. But don’t try to stop the people who *are* willing to fight because fighting makes you feel bad.

  4. nihil obstet

    Where I think you’re maybe too optimistic is in slighting the damage the legislative and judicial systems can do. Say, on Obama’s opportunity to break the banks — what he might do legally in confiscating the banksters’ ill-gotten gains can be made illegal by Congress overnight. Or, alternatively, the judges are adept at finding reasons to dismiss cases against their friends. From Reconstruction through the 1920s, judges found that the 14th Amendment requiring equal protection under the laws prevented the federal government from stopping lynching and simultaneously prevented unions and laws outlawing commercial discrimination. And of course the Supreme Court finds today that it legalizes bribery against all other laws and common sense.

    I haven’t followed the events in South America closely enough to comment in an informed way, but my sense is that the courts and legislature are in the tank in Brazil and Venezuela.

    In other words, even a strong administration is going to end up having to act “illegally” to survive, and that scares a lot of people, and there’s some reason for fear of power that doesn’t recognize laws.

    Just thought I’d add to the pessimism.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Yes, I knew I was slighting the justice system, and I’m considering doing a follow up piece which deals with that as well as the general question of legitimacy.

  6. carlos

    Actually Ian if you really want to know why the left failed in Venezuela you need to do more research and less pontification. Most of the top “left” officials have become millionaires with assets hidden through 3rd parties. Have you wonder why a country that produced 3M b. of oil a day (15 years ago) at an average of about $60 a barrel is now very much in bankruptcy? Have you ever visited Venezuela? Now in all fairness the “Chavistas” were never really a left. They were populist which is very different.

  7. carlos

    “Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

    Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately worsening shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.”

    You can not be more ignorant of the facts! All utilities in Venezuela ARE own by the government: CANTV (communications), PDVS (oil) , All the electric utilities. The shortages come form incompetence. Oil production has gone from 3M to less than 1.8M despite huge investment $ (that went to government officials)

    By the way MOST media conglomerates are own by the state. There is hardly anyone that is private and those are continuoslly fine and harass.

    My advice to you is due a little research before you write otherwise your credibility goes down the drain

  8. Ghostwheel

    Thanks for this.

  9. Hugh

    These rules seem rather advice on how to run a successful revolution. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind a few points. Revolutions are always violent. This is so because the old order creates the need for revolution precisely by the violence it practises (stealing trillions from the rest of us, selling us crappy, unusable health insurance, sending our jobs to China and Mexico, etc). It is so habituated to this violence that it sees it as the natural course of things. For the same reasons, it will defend its wealth, privileges, and power with unlimited violence against any challenges. It is used to violence, and its right to power is a fundamental law of the universe.

    We do need expertise. We do not need elites, the system of privilege and wealth which those with expertise have woven around themselves. As a class our elites have betrayed us. As elites, they really could do nothing else. The difference between now and other periods is simply the extreme degree of the betrayal. I would say our political class at a national and state level, that is present and past officeholders, is a dead loss. Only at the local level, there may be a few officeholders and office seekers who might fit into a new order of things. The same could be said for some staff at the state and national levels. One of the keys to a successful revolution is organization and the creation and recruiting of networks to replace the old order. This gets to Ian’s point of identifying those we can work with. A good place to start are with staff who have retired but who still retain contacts with those in the system.

    It is good to break up the media conglomerates. They have been providing a steadily worse, more expensive, more propagandized product for decades. Once again virtually all of the current practitioners are a dead loss. This scenario is repeated as we go through the various categories of the elites: the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the media, the bureaucracy, and academia. Huge swathes of them are not only worthless and unretrainable but hostile to anything that would disturb the status quo and their privilege.

    A revolution also needs a clear, easily followed program. This program is in two parts, one positive and one negative, what we are against and what we are for (and how to get there). None of this is new. Recently, I was glancing through John Stuart Mill’s essay Socialism published in 1879 a few years after his death and noticed he said much the same thing:

    “As in all proposals for change there are two elements to be considered—that which is to be changed, and that which it is to be changed to—so in Socialism considered generally, and in each of its varieties taken separately, there are two parts to be distinguished, the one negative and critical, the other constructive. There is, first, the judgment of Socialism on existing institutions and practices and on their results; and secondly, the various plans which it has propounded for doing better.”

    Revolutions erupt out of discontent with the way things are, but for them to be successful and accomplish some good, this initial negative energy is insufficient. To keep this energy flowing, it needs to be channeled into the positive and constructive.

  10. gringo

    the MOST important thing to do is to rid your country of all traces of the usa

    kick out all NGOs
    kick out all usa personnel
    kick out the IMF
    kick out the world bank
    kick out all wall street scum and parasites
    kick out all usa military
    kick out all usa intelligence
    shut the usa embassy

    know from the start that the usa will target you in a million different ways and will never ever stop trying to depose or kill you.

  11. highrpm

    brutal [leaders].

    the only ones who will understand the extremes of such revolutionary rule are those few good critical thinkers. the great mass populace are [irrational] “i believe’ers,” “i tv’ers”– sorry, give me names, facts and figures. the elite are entrenched, having fed the tap root of dumbness over generations. a missing rule is “purge the idiots from the populace.” and that won’t happen w/o lots of holocaustic cruelty/ bloodshed/ pushback from world opinion — “you’re depriving your citizens of their basic human rights [of freewill].

    what is the likelihood of such a powerfully grounded leadership that can stand against the world? a more likely scenario is the apocalypse of the book of revelation.

  12. Ian Welsh

    No Hugh,

    you can’t even run a left wing government which isn’t revolutionary without these rules, at least in much of the world.

  13. Ian Welsh

    Globovision, for example, was not under government control until 2013. That contradicts my advice.

    I did not say the utilities were not under Venezuelan government control.

    As for industry (like oil) I said that even if you expropriate them you would have problems with production. This isn’t a pattern that is unique to Venezuela, it has happened to most countries which expropriated oil production (but not Saudi Arabia, an interesting exception, no.)

    As for for food and consumer goods, this article is instructive:

    People are policy. You have to be able to run the state and the economy. If you can’t, for whatever reason, people have every reason to be upset at you.

    The article tries, in part, to explain /why/ it is so hard to run a left wing government—what is against you.

    This is a LOT less true the more central your state is.

    Assuming, of course, the bureaucracy worked with him. Parts would clearly need to be brought under control.

  14. highrpm


    your well articulated post and the resulting comments show how truly difficult and rare a revolution is in today’s globally connected world. nuclear atomization seems the more likely alternative as the heat of populace anger rises under the froth of elitism.

    per martin seligman, pessimism requires two of least 3 affects, the 3 P’s as he labels them: taking negatives Personally, seeing negatives as Pervasive and viewing them as Permanent. holding out hope for the future for the loosening of both israel’s and the united states’ elitest stranglehold on the world, i’m a big, big pessimist. not in my lifetime (i’m 65).

  15. Steve

    Has anyone been paying attention to the Philippines presidential elections? Outsider left-wing populist Rodrigo Duterte upset the usual lame centrist candidates. The western media has been calling him the “Filipino Trump,” which is a huge insult to Duterte. Duterte is a much more accomplished politician and plausible leader than pretty boy Trump. It’s good timing for this post, since Duterte is anything but a beautiful soul.

    Anyway, ideological change starts at the fringes and then moves to the center. It’s still ambiguous what the change will bring, and it will be ambiguous until the last moment.

  16. Gaianne


    Precise, concise, and coherent–a really fine essay!

    A bit depressing as well, as one realizes how few “lefties” have a clue.

    But the world is what it is.

    Thanks very much.


  17. Excellent essay Ian. Kudos

  18. Douglas Smith

    Ask a Green candidate whether they would arm the people (as in forming militias) to defend a future left/green government, and they look at you as if you were crazy. Such an eventuality is far beyond their idealist horizon. Hearty congratulations on specifying the terms of engagement so remorselessly. Would you consider wearing Lenin’s laurels?

  19. sanctimonious purist

    Wondering if a U.S. city could do this. Would Lumumba’s Jackson, Mississippi have made it?
    Public bank, universal healthcare, publically run utilities, green energy and housing paid for by municipal taxes. No developer or corporate breaks. Citizen councils that govern for the people. Could it be done at the municipal level?

  20. carlos

    Again, if you want to be taken seriously you should stick with the facts. I don’t mind the essay as advice to left wing government to follow. However, to actually depict the Venezuelan government as a lefty government that is under attack because they didn’t do what you propose is preposterous. The Venezuelan government is populist, corrupt to bone and incompetent. Chaves run intelligent/capable people away because they were a threat to his popularity. He surrounded himself with “yes” men that were more interested in getting rich than anything else. His own daughter (just like Cristina in Argentina) is extremely wealthy so is his father who from being low middle rose to owner of large plantations in his native land. I’m mean just because a government call itself “communist” or “socialist’ does not make it so. Let me give you an example closer to home Obama call himself “liberal” that has to be the biggest joke perpetrated on the American people. Obama by actions is a corporatist nothing more nothing less. So is Maduro’s government. They talk to being “left” while at the same time they loot the country. One more thing Telesur is funded and own by the Venezuelan government. Basically a propagand mouth piece

  21. Ian Welsh


    Nowhere did I say the Venezuelan government was competent. In fact, though the article will be hard to find, as far back as 2004/5 (on BOPNews) I wrote that Chavez was fucking up. Venezuela did not do all of what I say is necessary. NOTE that I said that getting the right people is important: in fact, I spent more time on that in the article than any other single topic.

    That does not mean the Chavistas didn’t have enemies who were sticking it to them.

    By definition, all 3 regimes fucked up. I had a long discussion about how Argentina was bungling the loan shark case a few years ago, for example. They thought they were geniuses, and didn’t hire the right lawyers.

    Take the article seriously, or don’t take it seriously, I will lose no sleep over it.

  22. Joe

    “Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. ”

    Last week’s Silicon Valley when Richard tried to go over the head of his CEO, the CEO replied, “If you’re going to shoot the king, you gotta make goddamn sure you kill him.”

  23. Hugh

    gringo repeats the Chomskyan fallacy that if only American influence were removed everything would be hunk-dory. This view fails to recognize that the US as hegemon has only been on the world scene for 70 years. It also effectively denies the rest of the world its own history, a clearly false assertion. Even if the US ceased to exist tomorrow, local and regional conflicts would persist. Indeed most of these antedate the assumption of US hegemony at the end of World War II by centuries. While no other state is in a position to become a global hegemon, there would still be plenty of regional hegemons seeking to create spheres of influence and dominating their neighbors. Class warfare would not cease to exist. Whether the US was here or not, kleptocracy would remain the paradigm of governments everywhere.

  24. My feeling is that the true Achilles’ heel in Ian’s list is avoidance of a globalized elite. Even without the possibility of a home in London, communications and entertainment tech imply nearly directly that the elite, and not just the elite, is going to be status-competing at a global scale.

  25. V. Arnold

    “Obey the Laws of Purges”

    I particularly liked that section; cuts directly to the point without sentimentality.
    The 240 years of lies will not die easily…

  26. Cody

    Ian, this all seems fairly true, but you miss the hardest thing, by far, which is ensuring that you and your comrades have a genuinely socialist guiding ideology and remain true to it, in the course of amassing enormous power and, consequently, temptation. And, if that weren’t hard enough, ensuring that your entitled children share your austere spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good. It’s not so much the ruthlessness and violence that turns youthful fellow-travelers into progressives, but the inevitable eventual betrayal and corruption of the cause by its own practitioners. All of these so-called right wing reversions, throughout the world and across the last century, have been as much products of the corruption of the revolutionary leadership as the subversion of the counter-revolutionaries. I’d be genuinely interested in how you think such fidelity to principle might be maintained over the course of years, decades, and generations.

  27. There has to be law. Just laws have to be put into place and a just judiciary established to implement them. Or any revolution will end up like the Russian or the French, both dissolving into violent tyranny.

    Maybe the laws could be written first?

    Has anyone seriously attempted to propose a constitution and legal system for a socialist state in the early 21st century?

  28. Duder

    Carlos and Cody are getting at problems not addressed in this list. These rules are good and fine for wrestling the state from control of its previous masters, but they are not helpful for thinking through where to go from there. A revolutionary government needs a program for how to effectively devolve power to the masses, and also carry out that agenda. I don’t think such an agenda needs to be essentially utopian in order to succeed. But there needs to be a plan for how to empower (both politically and economically) the formerly disenfranchised classes in the long run. A concrete proposal for how to transform society. The elites and bourgeois stay in power not just because they control the state, but because the entire society is designed to reproduce their interests, values, and social structure. Otherwise, the old revolutionaries simply transform themselves into new elites in socialist costumes- as has happened in Venezuela. The PT in Brazil is an even more horrid monstrosity in certain aspects.

  29. The problem with revolutions, well… there are two problems: first they are invariably violent, people die, infrastucture destroyed. The second, which could go a long way to relieve the first, is nobody thinks about the other side… revolution is all about getting there but what do we do once we’re there?

    I think we had this conversation at BOP.

  30. cripes

    Yes to this.

    Much of what passes for the left in the US operates on the presumption they are working to implement the existing laws, in the courts, elections and so forth fairly. And fiddle around the edges by tweaking health insurance, immigration, family leave or, marijuana laws.

    In the meantime, their opponents are herding millions through the prisons, expropriating the earnings and the homes of millions more, entrapping the entire working population in debt peonage, while squandering the national wealth on endless war to enrich the contractors and fuel the deluded apocalyptic fantasies of the global billionaire class.

    They’re bringing a letter opener to a knife fight. It’s gonna take more than that.

  31. relstprof

    Preach, brother.

  32. cripes

    Letter opener to a gun fight.

  33. V. Arnold

    September 22, 2017

    Letter opener to a gun fight.

    No, a can opener to a gun fight. (glad you changed to gun fight)
    All the words; makes me tired all over…

  34. bob mcmanus

    Great article, but still understated. IIRC, one of the first things FDR did was to fund and organize under non-com military control the CCC, placing a company of broke hungry young men in every county in the US with shovels and picks…and then demanded Congress authorize it.
    And we got a half-assed social democracy.

    I look at the “successful” social revolutions in places integral or important to the world system and the circumstances that surrounded them, Napoleon, Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin, Mao and they all involve catastrophic war. At some point, the rich will declare some kind of truce and try subversion and messing with your borders instead of all-out war…for a while. You can’t stop at Brest-Litvosk (?). Don’t invade Russia. 🙂
    But it will be total war.

    You will probably need to lose half your population while your enemy loses 1/4 to get a chance to build. Your grandchildren and great-children or somebody else’s may live in a slightly better world because of your efforts. Get the nukes, use a couple. Or they will, if really threatened. Hopefully, revolution will be measured in 1-2 billions.

    Hard sell, slavery may be better.

    Fredric Jameson wrote a recent book where he advocates militarizing everything public. Trotsky.

  35. bob mcmanus

    “Nothing to lose but your chains” was serious. Friends, allies, families, nation, life and the lives of others, the revolutionary has absolutely nothing but chains and the desire to break them.

  36. The Stephen Miller Band

    Great post. I agree with all of itl except you left one thing out.

    Last, but not least, if you successfully complete Ian’s Mandatory Requirements List, be prepared to be bombed back to The Stone Age by America, especially if you have Natural Resources even if your Economy is not predicated on the extraction of those Natural Resources.

    The Global Oligarchy has staked its Claim — and that Claim is The Planet.

  37. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    What Cody said.

    “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”–the Who

    Oh, the new bosses aren’t exactly the same people, but they are the same kind of people.

    People mean enough to win wars also tend to be selfish and dishonest.

    If I understand correctly, the ideal revolutionary, for Welsh, would need to be both mean and ruthless, and also supremely altruistic and honest.

    Meanness and ruthlessness don’t go together often, or well, with self-sacrifice and honesty.

    When they do go together in the same people, they tend to produce the sort of people who prove to be more evil SOBs than the evil SOBs they replaced.

    “Mistrust those in whom the impulse to punish is strong.”–Nietzsche

  38. Patrick Dugan

    I disagree with everything on the premise of the abhorrent statism implied, but… when I got to the part about the purges, I was like, so amazed it just lit up my brain like a Christmas tree. Absolutely! RICO would totally have applied to at least 15-25 institutions with assets over 10B. That’s a perfectly cromulent centrist point. And civil forfeiture laws, why not. Brilliant stuff.

    I suppose there’s a subtext that the orientation of the legal system’s outcomes is at least in some sense politically guided and not nearly a consistent representation of justice, this is a good example why statism is bad news.

    Instead of trying to fabricate top-down microcosms, level the playing field by designing tools for the individual to organized collectively in a dynamic, localized, voluntary way. See, that will actually create systems that produce economic outputs, possibly even measurable in some metric other than units of state-licensed corporate debt. But to do that, you’d have to move on from 19th century economic theory and mid-20th century psych/philosophy to 21st century unit operations.

    Bitcoin for example is way too Austrian in it’s orientation to benefit a large number of poor people, and the fees are too expensive for low holdings, but a better blockchain protocol with lower cost, more scalability, running a mutual credit clearing protocol on top, incorporating capital into community credit, funding worker owned co-ops, no interest. Nobody has to die or get imprisoned for economic advancement and social justice to co-exist.

    Anyways brilliant post, it brings the whole left conversation forward a chapter I think by breaking down the game. I hope a contingent of us will break off from the statist, night of long knives mentality, and start building new, fairer games to compete with the rigidity of the old systems. Imagine that the market can benefit from optimizing its place in the search space of regulatory rule-sets, and this optimization can remain distributed in an elegalitarian fashion given an individually sovereign form of money (i.e. user-issued credit vs. corporate/state credit).

    I’ll but a bow on it by saying that, in your Leftist paradise, you’re still sucking interest out of the people running an old school banking system, nationalized or not. Sure you could fix rates low (like the Fed) or broadly marshall lending programs through 4 horsemen of state-owned entity financing (like China), or provide a low-cost, direct account service to de-cash and provide added services to people in even the poorest places (like in Bolivia) – presumably your country would not run a peg like China and Bolivia do/have.

    I guess it comes down to who is more efficient at allocating credit, the state or the public?

  39. Ché Pasa

    The political left doesn’t exist in the United States of America (or as The Stimulator likes to put it, “the United Snakes of America.”)

    There is something of a revolutionary left, but it is hard to recognize amidst all the noise over the Nazis and Antifa and so forth. Revolution is not something entered into willy-nilly, so for now the revolutionary left bides its time.

    As the instabilities in the current governing system manifest, however, the inevitability of revolution increases.

    The fallacy is in thinking that “revolution” only comes from the left.

    Nearly all the successful revolutions for the past several decades have come from the right, some more violent than others, and most declare themselves the protectors and defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.”

    Liberty for whom? To do what?

    There’s the rub.

  40. Peter

    After seeing how so many adult snowflakes are readers of childish fantasy novels this manifesto exhibits their magic thinking and illogic clearly. They’re going to sprinkle some magic powder or use some occult powers to overcome their growing weakness and the rubes will follow them while the military and the police sit and watch unable to respond to the magic powers.

    Normal people don’t see much profit in turning over power to a Stalinist collective or the apparatchiks who would manage this state, things are bad enough .

  41. You know all about snowflakes, aeh boy?

    Lily white candy assed ignoramous’ who know no more than what comes out of the television and are so afraid of the real world they need safe spaces.

  42. realitychecker

    Thanks for this post, Ian, which represents a huge step forward in the march to actually try to have a realistic discussion of this issue. An adult discussion. And, of course, a hypothetical, theoretical, one.

    That said, I submit that ugly violence would almost certainly play a much bigger role in any successful revolution than most here seem to contemplate.

    Based on that assumption, I submit that the immediate focus should be on the critical point that when one opts for violent revolution as the mission, one must simultaneously yield much or all of the high moral ground we are so used to doing our posturing from. The focus must be on pragmatism at the outset, or you can’t even get started without self-delusion.

    E,g,, the Declaration of Independence was necessary to provide an alternate moral justification because the revolution itself represented a complete rejection of the preceding existing system of laws and morality. You can’t claim the protections of the same justification system that you are trying to destroy while you are actually and simultaneously trying to destroy it.

    So, revolutionaries need to come to terms with the very thorny issue that if they are to be effective, they cannot continue to be about high morality and child-proofed safe spaces. This is a very hard hurdle for decent people to get over.

    Separately but related, because modern surveillance is so complete, organizing in large groups for true revolutionary purposes will be pretty much impossible. That means that probably what would have to happen first is a breakdown in ‘order’ that comes about because of the individual spontaneous actions of enraged (deranged? doesn’t matter) people in sufficient numbers to throw the status quo into disarray. That means ugly guerilla-type activities. That means chaos, not carefully organized, neat little scenarios for an efficient organization process. Not at the outset.

    So, that takes one back to the need to decide if the fight is worth tipping the immediate balance from morality to pragmatism. And, frankly, I think getting past that hurdle is a major obstacle.

    Interested to hear what others think about this fundamental issue.

  43. bob mcmanus

    Interested to hear what others think about this fundamental issue.

    I try not to think out loud in detail about violence on the Internet.

    I love Dugan above, gonna save the world one squat at a time, everyone should look at the Catalan repression if they think your little cooperatives and independence movements will be let alone to grow and spread. If you matter, they will stomp you.

    Just wait and prepare. They will wreck everything, and they don’t need us to do it. Wait for the stuff to hit the fan and jump on the ruins, Like Napoleon, Lenin, and Mao. Or the worst guys if we don’t do it ruthlessly. And all the little Mondragons and anarchists will be roadkill like Ukraine over and over and over.

  44. realitychecker

    @ bob

    It’s really more a matter of a philosophical balancing of fundamental moral and pragmatic considerations. Very time-honored stuff. I think we are still allowed to have such discussions.

    What do we want humanity’s future to look like? Is it ever worth fighting over? What is freedom, and should we allow it?

    Fundamental questions.

  45. bruce wilder

    This is a really good conversation to have. Thank you for this tough-minded post.
    Unfortunately, a really good role or function to have in any society is to be a parasite in control. A parasite in control does not share common cause with those below — exactly the opposite is the case. Parasitical elites prosper on the misery of the bulk of the society and they invest major resources in political media and academia to obscure the extent to which this is the case. The best way to rob a bank is to own one, as Bill Black proclaims. But, we are constantly instructed on free-market economics, when we have precious few markets, and rarely instructed in the problems of organizing by hierarchy, though that’s the dominant model of the modern world.
    Too many on the left, instead of investing in tough-minded thinking about how to organize effectively from below to ensure leadership that is more benign, engage in fantasy and denial, trying to imagine “alternatives” not to parasitism per se, but to all hierarchy and even all necessity. If you cannot get past the simple truism that if you eat, you shit, you probably shouldn’t bother having political opinions.

  46. Sid Finster

    Clear thinking!

    Of course, the average frustrated lefty does not have the stomach for this. Most don’t really want power as that entails responsibility and unsettling compromises. V.I. Lenin, who was as unsentimental a thinker as it gets, recognized as much, and that is part of how he got the job of being Lenin.

    The other problem is – even if you get your revolution, how do you prevent it from being co-opted? How do you prevent the institutions you put in place from being subject to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, just like every other system invented to date?

    I.V. Stalin put forth a truly terrifying solution, but that only worked for so long, and was disastrous for many, including those who had done nothing wrong. Still, Stalin won the Great Patriotic Fatherland War, put Nazi Germany in its grave, and died in his bed, loved and hated and feared in equal measure.

    Stalin’s successors, L.I. Brezhnev in particular, consolidated their hold on power with the phrase “stability in cadres” and the oligarchy was in place and had a firm hold on power.

  47. bob mcmanus

    Crackdown in Catalonia …Jacobin today, but the interview was before the pigs moved in

    “How do you see this playing out in the days before October 1? Is there going to be a referendum?


    No type of vote?

    No. There will be a strategy of resistance in Catalonia: the occupation of city squares — similar to the Ukraine recently — and a possible general strike. Against this there will a massive buildup of police forces. We have to wait and see what happens with the army but the public order units, the most aggressive elements of the police force, are already present.

    What will be the wider consequences of the current crackdown?

    It will place our democracy in danger. The crisis could be used to move us towards a new, more authoritarian situation along the lines of Poland or Hungary.”

    If you organize from below, the minute they notice you, you are toast. Lenin worked in Switzerland. Trotsky and many others were already in jail. It is the 100th anniversary, and it is worth studying.

    Running a left-wing gov’t? First there is the catastrophe, then the opportunity. They sharpen the contradictions for you. Before the mountain of corpses are obvious, nobody at all will listen.

  48. Sid Finster

    One other thing – the SEC did’t exist at the time the first of the two major federal securities laws (the Securities Act of 1933) entered into force. The Federal Trade Commission was given jurisdiction over the securities sector, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street.

    The SEC was created under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, in large part because the FTC was seen as being too zealous in doing their job and an independent agency would be easier to coopt.
    Joe Kennedy got the job as a political favor.

  49. realitychecker

    Just to be clear–my comment above is not OT in view of the ruthless behaviors Ian postulates once power is seized; it seems obvious to me that the revolutionary’s attitudes about violence, morality, and pragmatism must be addressed long before the revolution has been successfully carried out.

  50. Jim

    “…without having properly thought out what they do once in power.”

    Important issue– but even more important is getting into power–which seems to be centered on the construction of a small coalition of powerful supporters (who ends up supporting whom and the nature of the resources that get allocated to these individuals/organizations to maintain that support).

    In addition the absolute necessity of having as broad a base of public support as possible with the understanding that you rarely can afford take money out of your powerful supporters pockets while simultaneously recognizing that you have to offer the right combination of public goods to survive.

    Presently the National Security State dictates our agenda(in cooperation with Wall Street and Silicon Valley) and has the muscle (Joint Special Operations Command) that is essential in controlling the flow of revenue.

    How does a genuine Left coalition deal with this part of the present ruling coalition?

    Does a genuine left also have the courage to attempt to make an alliance with the populist/libertarian wing of the right and center so as to lock in a potentially huge base of public support–those who believe in horizontal transcendence (the genuine left) as well as those who believe in a vertical transcendence that is central to many in the Center,the Right, and among Independents( whether in a religious or entrepreneurship dimension).

  51. realitychecker

    It is very understandable that many shrink from the very idea of starting something, when nobody can predict with any certainty how all the resulting twists and turns might play out, and therefore it’s hard to know in advance what the price for resistance might turn out to be.

    Balanced against the desire for a better system (and the uncertainty that attends any efforts in that direction thru) must be the consideration of the costs of continued inaction–which to me obviously entails humans being treated more and more like livestock, and, eventually, like insects, all under the control and direction of the corporatocracy and its interests (which differ dramatically from the interests of regular people).

    Nothing is easy about this stuff.

  52. atcooper

    There are models like with Helbollah. It’s worth repeating they did very well against Israel a few years back. A few thousand folks.

  53. Control means having choices. Nationalisation reduces choice. Public sector monopolies profiteer just as much as private ones.

  54. Ché Pasa

    As I say, most successful revolutions of the past several decades have come from the right, not the left. There’s a reason for it.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of “Red” China into a state capitalist workhorse/workhouse are fundamental to understanding the rightist ascendancy.

    There’s a critical void on the left without the Soviet or Chinese revolutionary examples. The social democracies have all been co-opted by rightist reactionaries under the guise of neoliberalism. Outright Socialist governments are literally squeezed to death in the global vise.

    Would-be revolutionaries — simple rebels at heart — understandably follow whatever rebellious or resistance zeitgeist is in the air, and when it’s all rightist or reactionary, that’s where they go.

    The rightist-reactionary Islamist revolutions are an obvious case in point. As is their murderous and equally reactionary suppression by Imperial storm troopers.

    That’s where today’s revolutionary and counter revolutionary fervor lies, not on the left. Whether the left will ever re-emerge as a revolutionary force is an open question. It doesn’t look promising.

    There is a quieter opposition, however, communitarian and transformational.

  55. atcooper

    For those worried about surveillance state issues, I offer this book:

    Obfuscation, by Finn Brunton, MIT Press

    The police state stuff is just after climate change on my list of concerns, so I’m not trying to discount folks concerns regarding it. But I’m also worried about hyperbole and paralysis. The above book is just technical enough to be useful, but broad enough in application for laypeople to grok.

  56. Peter

    Ten Beers is having another one of his fits so you might worry about including him in your revolution. AT has the great idea of creating a Homeland Hezbollah who would receive the blessing of the Supreme Leader and maybe some rockets.

    Ian showed where these fantasies can lead when he included the Cult of Kali to meditate on. The Thuggee model may be an appropriate choice for this movement.

  57. Willy

    It’s be funny if at the end of along day, it turned out that boring, competent moderation aimed at keeping the assholes out of power was the only way.

  58. Hugh

    Revolutions need two programs, one positive, one negative. On the negative side, once you have the powers that be on the run, keep them on the run. Give them any respite and they will sabotage you or start a counter-revolution against you. As I have said before, for them, violence is only violence if it comes from us in resistance to them. The violence they do to us, and which makes revolution necessary and inevitable, they always call something else and impute to impersonal, natural processes over which they have no control. Both Obamacare and the shit Republican substitutes for it are examples of this. Tens of thousands die, tens of millions are left with poor, overpriced healthcare or no healthcare, all but the few are left in fear of getting sick, they loot us like bandits, and for them, it’s just business as usual, don’t fix the problem, use it.

    For a revolution to be successful, it needs a clear and encompassing vision so that people know what they have signed up to, see its positive effects in their lives, and hold it and their leaders accountable. We need to ditch cons like the “magic of markets” and understand that all markets and the economy itself do not just happen but are run for someone’s benefit, and that benefit should be ours and our society’s. To that end, the larger the social impact of an industry, the more it should be run as a utility or become a function of government. Banking, healthcare, and the internet are three that come immediately to mind. But more than this, we need a social ethos, that it is not just about maximizing profit, but providing and accomplishing a social good. Creating monopolies and providing crappy, overpriced products, essentially today’s business model, should be scrapped. If a corporation does not serve some social good, it should be scrapped.

  59. Willy

    I know Iranians who were all part of the democracy part of the Iranian revolution. But the Khomeini part, which they claim was in the minority, understood power politics better and took control of that entire revolution. And these Iranians I know got the hell out of there and moved to America.

  60. Willy

    “Creating monopolies and providing crappy, overpriced products, essentially today’s business model, should be scrapped. “

    I once did significant business with Home Depot. But today in my area, much of their entire tile support product line comes from one company, Custom, which they have an exclusive contract with for low quality high volume sales products. On the plus side, small brick and mortar shops (literally) are opening up to fill that quality void. And as a just in time alternative to HD’s move towards online (lag time) sales. The one I went to today was packed with contractors. As more people figure this out others are profiting from the backlash.

    Next up, big medical/pharma/insurance. But they do have those big lobby influences…

  61. bob mcmanus

    “For a revolution to be successful, it needs a clear and encompassing vision”

    1. “Bread and Peace” or some variant is enough.

    2. I can’t get away from history and my ideology.

    a) All plans disappear at the first battle. Lenin I think wrote his plan on the train, and changed it many times.

    b) The workers and peasants made the successful revolutions in Russia and China, the organic intellectuals are about analysis and tactics, the people get to determine strategy and goals. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that has to be the tactics.

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  63. Synoia

    All pigs are equal,
    some pigs are more equal than others.

    So you purge. Then you build the same old structures anew.

    That’s also why Gibbon could write six volumes about the decline an fall of the Roman Empire.

    It was no fall. It was Business as usual.

  64. realitychecker

    I’m not trying to be troublesome, but it seems obvious to me that discussions of how to rule post-revolution should be secondary to figuring out if we can, and especially, HOW TO, win a revolution.

    I see that people are more comfortable with the fantasy that they have already had and won a revolution, than they are with the difficult question of how a revolution might actually be successful in replacing the staus quo power players.

    Fantasy football, fantasy baseball, fantasy lottery winners, fantasy sexual beings (sex robots?), fantasy revolution.

    We are a nation of fantasy-lovers. Maybe we deserve the fate that is being fashioned for us?

  65. Thing of revolution, real, as a party. Everybody wants to party, but nobody want’s to clean up the mess afterward.

  66. bob mcmanus

    That’s also why Gibbon could write six volumes about the decline an fall of the Roman Empire.

    I gave a thought to the 2nd century Roman Empire yesterday, as our current global lack of effective resistance, and whether under conditions of Empire (esp during war, or forever war) popular or populist uprisings are effectively impossible. Populist risings or social revolutions often come after losing a war there are many, but I have a hard time thinking of ones while Empire is cruising. Now I guess we now can decide if the US is an Empire in decline and losing our current wars.

  67. realitychecker

    @Ten Bears

    You are correct about cleaning up the mess afterwards–it will be a real messy and unpleasant chore.

    So, it’s important to remember what the whole game is about-it’s about whether freedom and individual identity and equal rights are important enough to bother about, or whether passive submission to the corporate agenda is good enough for the human species.

    I know I favor the former.

  68. nihil obstet

    @bob mcmanus

    Almost by definition, a strong empire lacks the conditions for a popular uprising, since the discontent necessary for the uprising will already have weakened the empire. The French Revolution, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the takeover of government by the Chinese Communists all took place in weakened empires, and in the two latter cases, while the countries were actively fighting foreign wars.

  69. realitychecker

    @ nihil

    You are correct, but don’t overlook the fact that there has never been another empire with the counter-revolutionary abilities of this one, due to the tech advances in surveillance and weaponry.

    So, the task is even more difficult now than it was vis a vis past empires, weak or strong. Organizing is almost impossible now, and direct confrontation is a sure fail.

  70. Sid Finster

    One very important rule that was left out – any reformer (leftie or rightie) must get control of the military and security services.

    Did we not learn anything from the examples of Chile in 1973 or Portugal in 1974?

  71. Scary as all hell.

    More than a quibble: ” Brazil is a coup in all but name.” No, it’s more like Venezuela: the “left” government lost control of Congress, which then asserted itself. It’s also a convulsive effort to gain control of corruption, which apparently the “left” government did nothing to control.

    WHY did they lose control of Congress? I’m not there, so I’m guessing, but probably because they insisted on austerity policies, thereby wrecking the economy. Was there sabotage from the right, as in Venezuela? Most likely. But the point is that they lost control because they were wrong, as in not nearly left enough.

  72. Ruthmarie Hicks

    This is right out of Game Of Thrones. Sadly, I think that it is near the truth. The way we are goings, we will have another financial disaster. It’s only a matter of time. Obama squandered that first opportunity in 2008. The elite were on their knees facing torches and pitchforks – and he stupidly let them off the hook.

    For years, I had hoped that reasonable legislation and an unwinding of things like Gerrymandering would be enough. But the march towards oligarchy and kleptocracy has been going on for far too long for that.

    We can only hope that there is a power player that is willing to act when the next financial crisis hits. The rug needs to ripped out from under the elite when they are most vulnerable.

    As Littlefinger from Game Of Thrones so aptly said – “Chaos is a Ladder…”

    (Btw, I make reference to the popular show because it is a reference point that most people can relate to…)

  73. rembal

    Congratulations, You have just described all the policies of right-wing nuts currently in charge in Poland and Hungary…

  74. Gaianne

    Ian, this essay is always a welcome reread!


  75. c1ue

    Very nicely written article.
    I would only point out that a key dynamic is assumed – and wrong:
    That progressive politics and policies are necessarily a large number.
    The ability to bring around even those who nominally benefit from the status quo is the key to a truly successful change.
    Otherwise the only option under your stated rules is to await for conditions to be so bad that there isn’t even nominal benefit for those in positions of only moderate power.
    That’s the true insidious nature of “democracy” – it utilizes that fact that only roughly 10% of any random group of people are “doers” – in other words, if you ask them to do something that is of clear benefit to themselves, they’ll get off their butts and do it. Another 10% won’t do anything no matter what the benefit or not. Some portion of the middle 80% *could* do something; the precise proportion depends on the proposition and the coercion.
    In past systems, the 10% that started (the feudal lords) didn’t remain the 10% because it isn’t a hereditary or even societal production function, but the coercion was such that it required a change in the basis of economic power to change the politics (industrial revolution; not land ownership but production ownership).
    Today, the US and UK are fairly far down the road of the 10% oligarchy by numbers descending into a far lower number, but there are still some mechanisms for “bleed through”.

  76. Demeter

    This article is well worth the price of admission.

    I feel I get my $5/month worth with this one column, alone.

    Keep on fighting!

  77. Demeter

    I would refer those interested to Robert Heinlein’s speculative fiction: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” for an example of such an enterprise…

  78. Sounds an awful lot like fascism.

  79. highrpm

    If your elites or population insists on fresh summer vegetables in winter, you’re done. and its corollary: If your population insists on watching tee bee, you’re done.

  80. jonst

    well Ian, you talk, or, write, anyway, a good fight. Be interesting to see you in action.

  81. Ian Welsh

    I rather doubt I’ll ever be in charge of a government.

  82. Aaron

    Amazing piece. So many relevant truths that are not going to be discussed in polite political circles or “safe spaces” as they call them.

  83. Absolutely excellent post!

  84. In the Land of Farmers

    As A Daoist, I understand where you are, but you are not done cooking yet. You think you can control mankind! HA! Let me let someone long dead explain:

    “I have heard of letting the world be, and exercising forbearance; I have not heard of governing the world. Letting be is from the fear that men, (when interfered with), will carry their nature beyond its normal condition; exercising forbearance is from the fear that men, (when not so dealt with), will alter the characteristics of their nature. When all men do not carry their nature beyond its normal condition, nor alter its characteristics, the good government of the world is secured.”

    and continues

    “Tshui Khü asked Lâo Tan, saying, ‘If you do not govern the world, how can you make men’s minds good?’ The reply was, ‘Take care how you meddle with and disturb men’s minds. The mind, if pushed about, gets depressed; if helped forward, it gets exalted. Now exalted, now depressed, here it appears as a prisoner, and there as a wrathful fury. (At one time) it becomes pliable and soft, yielding to what is hard and strong; (at another), it is sharp as the sharpest corner, fit to carve or chisel (stone or jade). Now it is hot as a scorching fire, and anon it is cold as ice. It is so swift that while one is bending down and lifting up his head, it shall twice have put forth a soothing hand beyond the four seas. Resting, it is still as a deep abyss; moving, it is like one of the bodies in the sky; in its resolute haughtiness, it refuses to be bound;– such is the mind of man!'”

  85. Hugh

    I agree. I would just add that getting some concrete, irreversible accomplishments in place, like in the US Medicare for All, are essential to keep momentum and popular support.

  86. Synoia

    I read read Ian’s list. The nearest successful examples appear to be the various revolutions in Europe, with perhaps the early 20th century UK Labor party being an exception to the revolutionary model.

    It also appears the right has had more success with revolutions, especially in Central and South America. Aided by the United States?

  87. Willy

    I’d do a “Top Ten Areas Where Socialist Nations Failed Their People” list and try to figure out how to avoid those things the next time around. I’d bet number one would probably be the same as the top ten list for free economy nations: the wrong people get into power. As we all should know, “the wrong people” care nothing about their ideology, care nothing about their people, only care what their ideology and what their people can do for them personally, and are very good at doing anything it takes to get into power.

  88. Jocelyn Pixley Please use "Joc from Sydney" as name

    It’s a great article and I don’t think it’s necessarily proposing a revolution. I urge readers to look at countries with old labor movements that created labor parties or social democratic parties. It’s not impossible for Germany and France to see a revival of their SD parties (founded mid-1850s). The Americas, save for Canada, have not had strong political parties of labor. But I’d point to two other countries which have long had labor parties that became the main rival to capitalist ones, Britain and Australia. The older is the Australian Labor Party (1893), which, over the years, carried out many of the reforms Welsh mentions. Both Britain and Australia have national broadcasters, the BBC and ABC, loathed by Murdoch. The ALP has a more ‘left’ wing history but Corbyn’s program is similar, and in Australia the polls are showing a possible Labor win by mid-2019. They would have much to do but, in both countries labor governments would mostly be reviving their past, successful policies. Traditions unfortunately matter.

  89. Stirling Newberry

    Do not make oil cheap unless you are an oilarchy.

    It is killing the Venezualans.

  90. bruce wilder

    Very interesting to re-read the post, and the comments both.

    I feel like there’s a shadow imperative among Ian’s “seven rules” that runs along the lines of, “try much harder to be less stupid”.

    Human political society is complex and problematic. You (any “you” and certainly me, too) do not understand how to organize or govern well enough to ensure good results. At best — the pragmatic best achievable under realistic circumstances is to repeatedly try, fail and learn: it is necessary to have some model, some theory, some doctrine, some ideology, rigid enough to motivate persistent and determined effort and flexible and open enough to allow learning and adaptation. That’s a tall order even from the ideal safety of an ivory tower, let alone the contested terrain of politics where the opposition does not share your values let alone your goals.

    “Stupid” is powerful in politics. “Stupid” wins many, many political arguments and struggles just by stubborn incomprehension and consequent incapacity to engage. If you hope to advance some ideal by persuasion and rational argument, you are very likely to be defeated rather handily by teh stupid.

    And, oddly perhaps, it is not effective pragmatism for the left to try to compete at the level of teh stupid. Stubborn incomprehension isn’t really proof against either corruption or failure thru incompetence.

    The right makes stubborn incomprehension work as a false front for smart and cunning selfishness.

    The left — the non-revolutionary left of idle and ill-conceived speculation, especially — seems to want a pretense of smart as a false front for endlessly gullible naiveté and an idealism derived from the power of denial. And, when the pretense of smart doesn’t work, they fall back on their own curated form of teh stupid, where every one “wants the same things” and things can be arranged in an unblemished and uncomplicated, unmanaged(!) socialism of anarchy and good intentions.

  91. DC

    [quote]It also appears the right has had more success with revolutions, especially in Central and South America. Aided by the United States?[/quote]
    If not aided at least abetted by the US thanks to the School of Americas:

  92. Willy

    The 1954 Guatemalan coup is a classic example of how American involvement in other nations affairs works. Guatemalans democratically elected a government which began working for the people, but against some US corporate interests. The US government then used a variety of nefarious means to overthrow that will of the Guatemalan people.

    Pretty much the same thing had happened in Iran 1953, which might be considered the start of America’s habit of overthrowing popular and democratically elected governments just to benefit American corporations, in the modern era. Whether Eisenhower was duped, or simply believed he was choosing a lesser evil is for others to decide.

    Somewhere along the way the elites decided that the will of the American people could also be overthrown, nefariously, because we’re as worthless to them as Guatemalans or Iranians. But that’s a different topic.

  93. Glad to see you support the use of tariffs to balance trade. Since globalisation began massive international imbalances have developed which are setting the world up for a new economic crisis. Best solution would be for the WTO to allow countries to increase tariffs in proportion to their deficits.

    People bang on about the benefits of free trade and point to specialisation and division of labour. Yes globally there is a correlation, though not so great as in the days of Empire when Britain did all the manufacturing and everyone else supplied the raw materials, all protected by the Royal Navy and the Gold Standard. Everyone benefited because the gold standard meant there was one single currency for international trade, precious metals, and that made the exports of deficit countries competitive once again. There was intrinsic stability which we no longer have. Today most countries are industrialising anyway.

    Today even if a deficit county does get any benefit from free trade specialisation, it is swamped by the loss of the deficit itself. Millions have been lifted out of poverty in China and India, but only on the back of a transfer of wealth from the US and Britain. We in Britain have had ‘free trade’ (there is nothing free about it as the import tariff revenues have to replace by other taxes!) within the EU for over 25 years, and the results have been disastrous. A deficit of £4bn twenty years ago is now a deficit of £109bn at the time of the referendum. Whereas our trade with the rest of the world with all its tariffs is showing a surplus of some £20bn now compared to a deficit of £15bn twenty years ago! So much for free trade, yet our clueless politicians remain convinced they need a trade deal with the EU as part of Brexit!

    That deficit has to be financed. Luckily we have a big surplus on capital account, with all those Russian oligarchs and East Asian billionaires laundering their money through the London property market and so on. It’s still their money of course, which they could withdraw at any time, but for the moment we can rob Peter to pay Paul to pay for our imports.

    No, the real financial impact is domestic. A trade deficit creates a shortfall in consumer demand as people but foreign stuff instead of domestic. That shortfall is currently being made up with Quantitative Easing, which persuades people to borrow more, and as a result we have record levels of personal debt. That obviously is now sustainable and the whole edifice will collapse when people just cannot borrow any more. When that happens unemployment will go through the roof and hundreds and thousands of Brits will go bankrupt. We face economic meltdown if we cannot reverse that trade deficit, yet any sort of deal with the EU will lock us into it!

    Watch Britain go down the plughole of Theresa May gets her BRINO (Brexit in name only) deal through Parliament.

  94. XFR

    Millions have been lifted out of poverty in China and India,

    Millions were lifted out of poverty in China, which stuck with the old-fashioned pre-neoliberal, pre-“free trade”/”globalization” economic policy programme.

    India today has the same per-capita calorie intake that it had before “globalization”.

  95. Ian Welsh

    The per capita calorie intake in India is actually, by the last numbers I saw, lower than 30 years ago.

    Some people did well, most people did worse.

  96. peon

    In Venezuela less than 10% of the population farm. This created an opportunity for the international right to create food shortages. The Chavez government attempted to increase this percentage but was largely ineffective.There is nothing like hunger to dampen your enthusiasm for revolution.
    In the US 2% of the population farms. As the number of farmers has decreased the farm size has increased and the variety of commodities produced has decreased. Canada has seen a similar decline in regional food production.
    No revolution can be successful if the populace can be held hostage by the global elites for their daily bread.
    I guess most who comment here remember the Cuban “Period0 especial”:

    “The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. The largest immediate impact was the loss of nearly all of the petroleum imports from the USSR The effect was felt immediately. Entirely dependent on fossil fuels to operate, the major underpinnings of Cuban society—its transport, industrial and agricultural systems—were paralyzed. There were extensive losses of productivity in both Cuban agriculture—which was dominated by modern industrial tractors, combines, and harvesters, all of which required petroleum to run—and in Cuban industrial capacity.

    The early stages of the Special Period were defined by a general breakdown in transportation and agricultural sectors, fertilizer and pesticide stocks (both of those being manufactured primarily from petroleum derivatives), and widespread food shortages. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. Relocalization, permaculture, and innovative modes of mass transit had to be rapidly developed. For a time, waiting for a bus could take three hours, power outages could last up to sixteen hours, food consumption was cut back to one-fifth of its previous level and the average Cuban lost about nine kilograms (twenty pounds).[5] Although starvation was avoided, persistent hunger, something not seen since before the Cuban Revolution, suddenly became a daily experience, and initially, malnutrition in children under five was evident after just a few weeks of these food shortages.”

    Good doc was made about this period, “The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”, Faith Morgan made the doc.

    Lessons for all would-be revolutionaries.

    Apropos of Ian’s admonition to be satisfied with what you grow or make, I find my gardening/farming friends are generally happy to eat their own produce and eschew eating “out of season” fruits and veggies.

  97. Charlie

    In the US, sadly, I don’t think anyone on the left understands the law of purges. More so because they’ve benefited from the status quo in one way or another. Even the “shunned” third parties.

    That said, the first order of business would be to purge the military of its princes to shut down the MIC, then go after the most high profile business/ leaders. That can happen either judicially or be extra-judicial (drones). The laws are there post 9/11. Maybe the elite should have watched what they wished for.

  98. Jocelyn Pixley

    Money is by far the most important factor. The British hegemony made all its colonies suffer when its own banks got out of control. Deep recessions everywhere but the ‘jewell’ India had the worst of it. That British commentator is just wrong. Australia is a useful case: the Empire spent a fortune massacring Indigenous guerrillas, helped by UK officers-capitalist agribusinesses. But the immigrants were the empire’s white radicals: Chartists, unionists and the Irish, then feminists, made fun of pompous aristocrat- money men. Banks were hated from the outset. The aim for state ownership, less to take over but out-compete capitalist banks and industry, became a key to undermining the whole show. Since the 1990s, fragments remain, many still able to be revived. However, I’d point to the US Fed as an apppalling contrast. The District Feds are capitalist bank-owned. Obama faced Geithner who represented Wall Street as head of the NY Fed. How hopeless! The Fed Board in Washington DC has barely stood up to the NY District Fed. FDR tried and failed to nationalise the District Feds. It’s also possible that WW2 was more important in breaking Wall Street’s stranglehold, than FDR. But still FDR did get a lot of class traitors onto his Admin, on that I agree with Welsh. They knew that money had to be democratised; they were committed to serving the public. Is that too much to ask?

  99. Eureka Springs

    Bravo Ian. BRAV effing O!

  100. Peter

    Ian, you pathetic commie slut! I almost thought I wrote those comments while sleep-writing. Your little manifesto will do one good thing, peg you as an undesirable and keep you out of our great country, MAGA.

    (Ian – this is Peter’s last comment on this blog.)

  101. “Obama squandered that first opportunity in 2008. The elite were on their knees facing torches and pitchforks – and he stupidly let them off the hook.”

    Still amazed at the Obama-was-ever-anything-other-than-a-tool-engineered-by-and-for-the-“elites” meme, which lingers on. He was incredibly successful, “squandered” nothing (from his/their POV) and will continue to work his magic, out of office, as a jewel in their glittering web of celebrity kapos.

    I also “like” the conversation-stifling sneers of “yeah, right, let us know when you’ve mounted a successful revolution, keyboard-warrior!” I guess, by that logic, we should only read op eds written by fascists?

  102. bruce wilder

    Hardest of all might be: avoid doing some policy that is really stupid.

    Which in practice means never committing yourself to any particular policy, only to trying and sticking to what works. There are risks with “experimentalism” — particularly that things that do work will be abandoned too soon or too easily, but no particular policy will work indefinitely and some policies may well blow up in your collective faces. Be more ready to abandon failing policy than power.

    Some kinds of stupid are avoidable. But, no individual and no committee is exempt entirely from vulnerability to really stupid. Some of Ian’s advice is focused on the systematic need to find people who can run things because they know how. Which is based on knowing that most people do not.

    Neoliberalism is notable for being an ideology that effectively creates a degree of immunity for corrupt elites by diverting and subverting the shared, popular capacity to think through policy critically. This immunity to critical reason is going to be a serious obstacle for left-wing movements as the imperium collapses. What Ian said about the Media is true — but the culture of a journalistic establishment that is 4/5’s PR hacks and 1/5 stenographers is as much a problem as centralized strategic control in a few corporate hierarchies and inter-networks. That most academic economists are deep in Dunning-Krueger territory is a problem, but so is the culture of administrative hierarchies “trained” in the mind-numbing rhetoric of conventional economics in college or business school.

  103. Jan Wiklund

    The only problem is the international one. You can’t even win an election as a radical if you don’t have enough skilled people with you to run the machine with.

    This is a problem not only for poor backward countries but even for industrialized ones (perhaps except the biggest). A fairly radical Social Democrat government ran Sweden for 44 years, 1932-1976, and did it competently. Except that they didn’t dare to offend the export businesses for fear that it would bring in retributions from international capital.

    I am very pleased that you mention the real cause of the Latin American debacle – running on high prices for raw materials. Very few have admitted that, what I have seen. Most people blame evil interference from the US, which was really unnecessary in this case.

  104. Hugh

    Very good. I agree about the law of purges. When you have the powers that be on the run keep them on the run. As to the world trade system, globalism was always a con. The important thing about this essay is that it applies as much to the US as it does developing countries.

  105. Willy

    I wonder about the angst behind the Qanon follower. There are grains of truth behind the “drops” and the followers know it, yet all that energy gets wasted, or should I say deflected, in such a bizarre direction that the angst is discredited.

    Hillary as evil is reasonable. But how does one deflect angst from the obviously innocent Tom Hanks to where it belongs, the obviously guilty kleptocrats? I’d suggest that the Pope might help, but he’s already seen as evil by many right wing Catholics.

  106. Subtle Ian, subtle. Bet it goes over like an aluminum falcon.

    I remember.

  107. S Brennan


    Much better commenters back in ’18, wtf happened?

    Oh that’s right, election year…mobilize the minion monkeys…

  108. Alex

    Are there any success stories of countries who achieved some kind of success by following this recipe?

  109. Ian Welsh

    A prescription based on seeing the failures during the neoliberal era. There are some similarities to Cuba post 89 and to the USSR’s industrialization. (Before becoming smug, understand that America’s industrialization was based on stealing land and native genocide, while Europe’s was based on colonial empire and all those crimes. They murdered people not considered human, natives and Irish.)

    The other model is simple enough: be important enough to the current world powers for them to allow you to do mercantile based export policy. Worked for Japan (twice), Taiwan, South Korea and non-industrialized West European nations after WWII.

    Almost all such governments are right wing, the rare exceptions were European and VERY cooperative with NATO back when that mattered.


    I’ve written articles on the standard industrialization path, some search engine work should find them.

  110. This is very good, but I’ll quibble here: “Your First Act Must Be a Media Law. Break them up. Take them over. Whichever”.

    Don’t take them over. Turn the media into worker co-ops so managers answer to workers instead of shareholders.

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