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

Some thoughts on revolutions in the Middle East, China… and the West

Looks like Gaddafi is in a bad way: reports of brigades defecting, pilots refusing orders, 3 major tribes coming out against him and a Fatwa for his death.

This is interesting, because the lesson Gaddafi learned from the prior revolutions was clearly “use violence early and hard”.  If it doesn’t work, that’s important.

The lesson is the same as in Egypt: what matters is whether the army will obey orders to kill protesters.  You have to make them choose.  The Egyptians won when they marched on the Palace and presented the army with a choice.

What is required is not precisely non-violence: when attacked in Egypt the protesters fought back, but it is “minimal violence” so that the army is presented with a clear choice.

One shouldn’t assume this always works, it doesn’t. Sometimes the army will fire.  Back during Tiannamen, for example, the real question was what the army would do.  For a time it was in question, one army group looked like they might back the protesters.  But in the end, the army came down on the side of the regime, and that’s all she wrote.

While the so-called Jasmine revolution in China has gone nowhere so far, as I’ve long said, the implicit bargain in China is “economic growth in exchange for freedom.”  Chinese workers riot and strike all the time, villages have fought off police and army units.  Chinese workers work in horrible conditions and they are hardcore, the same way that 19th and early 20th century American workers were.  The potential explosion in China is huge, and the Communist party knows it. Economic growth must continue at all costs in China, because the ruling class knows their lives depend on it.

In America and most of the West, well, the ruling class knows (or believes) that no matter how bad they treat their citizens, they won’t revolt.  Revolting isn’t just protesting: in Egypt businesses were systematically shut down, Egypt was near an economic crisis.  In America, showing up and refusing to leave is good (I’m quite heartened by what’s happening in Wisconsin) but more than that is needed: you must shut the system down.  The French had the right idea when they occupied a refinery.

But, at the end of the day, the question is whether the army and the police will use violence.  If push comes to shove in the US, do you think the military will put Americans down?

And what is the simple demand in the US?  Gaddafi or Mubarak has to go is clear and simple.  What’s the simple change protesters can rally around in the US?  Obama has to go?  Wouldn’t fix the problems.  It would almost have to be a list, and there is no clear ideology on the left for what that list would be.  Protesting to just keep what you already have is all well and good, and even necessary, but it won’t stop the decline, it will only slow it.  Protesting not to keep bargaining rights, but to demand, say, card check union organizing, now that would do something.  And I agree with others that organizing recalls in Wisconsin is a first good step.

It’s nice to see some actual reason to hope in the world, as opposed to all the fake hope we are usually offered.  We’ll see how it turns out.  But notice it requires a lot of people willing to die, be beaten, be tortured or raped, to actually create change.


You don’t always get what you vote for


Talkin’bout a General Strike in Wisconsin


  1. dougR

    Well, OK, I’ll go first.

    I am more frightened, and also more hopeful, about the future of the American worker, and the possibility of mass action in the US, than I’ve been since Obama took office. We are clearly in clearly a death-struggle for the future of labor, and for workers rights, and unions are rising to the challenge with organized protest. But will it spread? Will it last (as it will need to, to prevail)?

    I read over and over again on leftie blogs, “Where are the protests, where are the people in the streets?” and complaints that voters are apathetic. I don’t think they’re apathetic, I think they’re good and damn pissed-off, you get in casual conversations with people and suddenly out comes visceral loathing of the banking class, and politicians. But I also think there’s denial, resignation, ignorance of the possibilities for action, and learned helplessness going on here. Possibly the sight of unions protesting might break through that, but almost everyone I know who’s NOT in a union is full of anti-union bile thanks to decades of unchallenged anti-union propaganda.

    No, I think there’s plenty of rage out there, and at the right people, too. What’s missing is someone, or some organization, to focus that rage. (Well, the right wing has an abundance of these, and they’re trying with success to create hatred-magnets for disaffected people to cling to. What I mean is, similar organizations on the left. Are there any? Can anyone name me one? Just one?) (Well, OK– But are they leveraging their organization to make any alliances with like-minded groups, to coalesce around a few pressing specific issues and then focus on bringing about change in those areas?)

    That leaves the unions. Maybe on this blog it goes without saying that if you work, you have a real, living, immediate stake in what happens with this union-bashing stuff. But what I miss, here and everywhere else in leftie blogland, (and I’m guilty of it myself, I’m sure) is serious discussion about, OK, let’s get past “Way Number 3,655 in which Obama sucks, blah blah blah,” and move on to planning for WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

  2. Yeah Doug, no one seems to know what we should do about all this. If the US left were all at a rally and someone with bullhorn shouted “What do we want?”, they’d give hundreds of different answers at the same time. Ultimately we don’t have leadership problem, we have a systemic problem. We have a sick and perverted economic system and a political system intentionally designed to be controlled by the propertied classes. Nothing will change until the people gain control of the government and the economy and force both to work for the benefit of ordinary people. Like the people of Tunisia and Egypt, we don’t know exactly what we want the government to do, but we know we don’t control it and that it doesn’t listen to or care about the people.

  3. Tom Hickey

    Things are no where near that bad in the US to provoke a general revolt. But there are already repercussions. A critical mass for real change is building, not the faux change that Obummer preached with his hand in Wall Street’s pocket.

    What happened in the Sixties is that a lot people dropped out. I was one of them and I never came back, even though I have a first class education and contacts that I maintain. Once you see through the BS, it is just not possible to rejoin it unless you sell out. Only low life can do that.

    There is going to be another generation of DFH’s, although they will manifest it differently. But the result is similar. People build alternative institutions that circumvent established ones and create a whole new culture that essentially ignores the established culture. Burning Man is an interesting example, in that it is based on the gift economy. In the Seventies it was the Rainbow Tribe (still alive and well). That is the economy that the DFH’s lived in and still live in.

    The Internet is a fantastic resource that was not available in the Sixties and Seventies. It is going to make the new counterculture not only much different, but also much more powerful and far-reaching. It’s viral and it’s going global. It’s great to be young. Don’t miss the action. This is exciting time to be alive. Go for it.

    You can have no idea of the change that it is possible for youth to bring. I grew up in the forties and fifties, graduating from high school in 1957 (Rebel Without A Cause). The wake up call for me was the first time I heard Bill Halley and the Comets when I was 14. I can remember exactly where I was. My cousin Bill and I had been despairing about our parents’ world, which we seemed condemned to relive. Then, in at instant, everything was different. We looked at each other and knew — life really was worth living.

    You can have no idea of the struggle it was to change the culture of the Fifties. Everyone takes it for granted now. Then, it was like attacking a fortress. But the fortress eventually fell. Nixon resigned in disgrace. The US withdrew from Vietnam. We won!

    Then, something amazing and seemingly unpredictable happened. The Empire struck back. Ronald Reagan got elected. Greed was good and many got co-opted. The blue meanies were back in force, and the yuppies joined the party.

    It’s been downhill since then as fewer and fewer people remembered the countercultural revolution and just took stuff for granted. A deep sleep seemed to pervade the land as corporations captured the apparatus of the state.

    Thank heaven, that’s changing. It’s long overdue.

  4. Ian Welsh

    I’ve made specific suggestions of what to do in the past, though not so much here. At BOP, and to a lesser extent the Agonist and FDL I made proposals. But the problem with making them is who’s going to do it? I’m not particularly an organizer myself, and frankly, people don’t want to do the things I say are necessary. They aren’t there yet. Trust me on this, I can’t even convince most other “left wing” bloggers.

    But then I’ve radicalized. The system is unutterably corrupt. It’s not even “capitalism” any more, because in capitalism companies go bankrupt, and there iis no rule of law. The system is evil.

  5. Notorious P.A.T.

    “do you think the military will put Americans down?”

    No. But would Blackwater? Sure.

  6. CMike

    I can’t get the link to work so I’ll reproduce a comment I left at Corrente a while back.

    Naomi Wolf
    January 16, 2009:

    >>>>>[0:07] I’ve really thought about this a lot because I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury [district] and I’m the child of hippies and so my formative memories are of very moving powerful protests that I knew were changing things, not just politically but also kind of spiritually in a way. Like people [themselves] were being changed and society was being changed.

    So I did some research to find out — I mean instinctively, marches I’ve been on lately, I mean lately like for the last decade — they really are, you do feel impotent. You feel like you’re engaging in some type of weird Disneyland activism. You know — like there’s going to be like Mickey Mouse and Snow White, with a banner in front of me — it’s like totally fake somehow. Why is that?

    So, I did some research and I discovered — and many of you are lawyers, you’ll appreciate this, that actually there’s been — it feels fake because it is fake. Now, I’ve discovered that for thirty years there’s been a systematic effort on the part of those who benefit from a small group of people holding power, a systematic effort to kill off effective protest by a death by a thousand cuts of bureaucracy [through] over permitted-ization in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. So what do I mean by this? (Is it OK if I — I feel like I can’t see the people in the back so I’m just going to sit up a little.) I looked at places where protests made a difference.

    Actually, I took one step back. In trying to answer the question how do you save a nation from being closed by an oligarchy that wants to close democracy I looked at other times and places where citizens effectively pushed back against would be dictators. And one thing that came up again and again and again is mass protest. Not only did it come up, but mass protest always works, always works. I mean, unless the leaders are willing to literally send out the military with sub-machine guns and mow people down, mass protest like the kind you saw in Pakistan, the kind you saw with people power in the Philippines, the kind you saw all over the Baltic states, Estonia, when they were bringing down the Soviet Union, the kind you saw in East Germany always works. The Civil Rights movement: mass protest.

    [2:35] OK, so what kind of mass protest? The kind of mass protest that always works is illegal just about everywhere in the United States today. Why is that? For protests to be effective you have to stop traffic. You have to stop traffic.

    What keeps you from getting a permit in the United States? Stepping a foot into the street. Now why do you have to stop traffic? Because for a protest to do anything it has to disrupt business as usual. I don’t mean violence, whoever is tape recording this to take it back to Quantico, or whatever, I don’t mean violence…<<<<<

    Like they say, watch the whole thing. It only runs 6 minutes and a few seconds long.

    [I’ll mention that the demonstrations that followed the June 12, 2009 Iranian presidential elections did not get the result the mass protesters wanted. There was escalating police violence in response to the protests but it was short of mowing down the protesters with sub-machine guns.]

    The big problem we face is getting a mass of people to agree on what we might be demonstrating for (as opposed to what we’d be demonstrating against). Media misrepresentations of what would be going on and the likelihood that agents serving the oligarchy would infiltrate the movement, and misdirect or discredit it by their actions, are problems I’m not seeing as having solutions without our finding a flesh and blood person to rally around.

  7. DupinTM

    Ian, I think now is the time, if ever, to bring back your short-run fiction idea about the major players and foreign policy. Those quick-hit conversations that were a big hit back in the BOP (News) day, and I’m not sure if I can still find those w/o some serious webarchiving – they were great!

    “The system is evil”

    C’est vrai. And, to take a page from Susie Madrak over at yr haunts at Virtually Speaking, the narrative matters at the ground (grunt) level. I think the depression that has lingered over the best, save for the whistling past the graveyard type posts that Fafblog has done, needs something to hold on to. It really is as simple as Gary Farber wrote recently at Obsidian Wings – beat back the ambient opinion that torments us all, from Fox News to Jack Welch’s MSNBC (at all the times people are paying attention).

    At the latest Virtually Sunday w/ Susie and Stuart Zechman, at the tail end of the talk they discussed (w/ a hattip to Chicago Dyke introducing the subject) how opinions of unions have fallen drastically since 2007 – aka the year management got found out as… be civil… Santorum-fetishists. Susie brought up racism as a major factor of how a losing group blames the cultural others for its decades long decline, and Stuart was shocked. As he was about how Clinton’s many nominees fer various judiciary positions were blocked as tenaciously as now, when Frank Rich tells us the Tea Part is just so NEW and DIFFERENT than the last chickenhawks.

    Anyway, as all of our posts in this thread have proved, they’re stones to be stepped over on the path to true Lakoff-nirvana. Or, at least, what I’d like to suggest, some kinda new movie plot that isn’t goddamn Liam Neeson (a fine actor) playing a well-off white guy of some renown who’s just lost something or another.

  8. Tom Hickey

    This is a situation similar to the one as we faced in the Sixties and Seventies. A corrupt system will fall of its own weight. It doesn’t hurt to give it a push, but don’t put your life on hold waiting. The immediate solution lies in creating alternatives with like-minded people that are stepping out there on their own.

  9. nihil obstet

    I tend to think we’ll see a soviet-style collapse rather than positive change through protests. As Ian points out, we don’t have a coherent framework of demands for the protests, and we still can’t even get a strong anti-war push despite the fact that everybody knows we’re now just killing people and pissing away money for no discernible reason.

    We have significant long-term un- and under-employed people including a lot of the young starting out with a blighted work history, and more and more of the employed subject to serious economic uncertainty. The property system has been seriously compromised by the banksters’ feeding frenzy on mortgages. The criminal immunity of the political class and their cronies has gotten really obvious. I think this will result in the kind of withdrawal of political/social assent that will eventually make governance impossible. I’m just not sure what would come next.

  10. Tom Hickey

    I think you are correct, nihil, which is why am saying to drop out of the mainstream if you are in it as soon as you are able, and get out of the way of the falling bricks if you are on the periphery. It isn’t going to be pretty, and a lot of people are going to be crushed. 50,000 American kids died in Vietnam. Bad things happen. Be prepared. The US is headed for an uncivil war as things crumble toward the rotten core.

  11. Morocco Bama

    I’m with Nihil…….and Dmitry Orlov. I chuckle when people say we need to go back to the days of FDR. There is no going back. It’s onward into the abyss, baby!! It’s been waiting with open arms as we rush exponentially quicker to it.

    What a Wonderful Life, you say. Bullshit. It’s more like ……..this bitter earth.

  12. Ian Welsh

    I have been predicting, for a long time, that Soviet style collapse is the most likely end for America, yeah. It’d probably be nice to be wrong about that though. (Probably. There’s always something worse possible.)

    I should add that it’s hard to even SAY what needs to be done these days. The reason I was able to say such things on BOP is that on BOP I had complete editorial freedom. Of course, I do here too, but not at any other blog I have access to (a dwindling list, I might add. Frankness is not, actually, appreciated, even if, as is usually the case, it is good for traffic.)

    The range of acceptable opinions in the US is very limited, even in the blogosphere. This isn’t a whine, I don’t much care anymore (I did once upon a time). I deliberately chose to stop playing the game exactly because there was no point to play the game when you couldn’t tell people the truth.

    An intellectual framework is also required, and very few people on the left have a coherent worldview. Of course, most people never will have an intellectual framework, nor do they need to, but one needs to exist (so people know they have that firepower behind them and what they believe) and it doesn’t anymore. Liberalism is dead, even most liberals can’t explain how it worked back when it did. Marxism is even deader. Liberation theology was assassinated by Ratzinger, and so on. “Progressivism” isn’t even remotely coherent.

  13. Morocco Bama

    50,000 American kids died in Vietnam.

    A drop in the bucket compared to the 3-5 million Vietnamese who died needlessly due to the intervention of the U.S.

  14. Tom Hickey

    Food for thought:

    How to Build a Progressive Tea Party by Johann Hari (The Nation)

    Revolution Handbook for Americans (Global

    Revolution U: What Egypt Learned From the Students That Overthrew Milosevic (Foreign Policy)

    Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993)

    Nostalgia and inspiration:

    Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It aka Free.

    ___________, Steal This Book

    Jerry Rubin, DO IT!

  15. dougR

    Well, the lack of any sort of lefty framework, intellectual or otherwise, complicates things. That’s something the right can scare up at a moment’s notice: the way the R’s have done it is, a bunch of old-fashioned “entrepreneurs” like Karl Rove, Dick Armey, Ralph Reed, and their ilk approach mega-wealthy right wing elites (the Koch bros. et al.) with funding proposals to create activist groups, activist training, think tanks pumping out position papers, all dedicated to buttressing the wealthy elites’ status, and so forth. The money materializes, a staff is hired, goals are set (which might include bankrolling an insurgent band of extremists–“I know what, Karl, let’s call it the ‘Tea Party!!'”), and off they all go, and somehow, they win. Of course, most if not all of the manpower for this comes from people who are literally paid to be “activists”–who on our side can afford to do that?

    But wait–has it even been tried? Paid lefty activists?? All of the high-profile Dem advisors/pundits/former admin officials I can think of, except maybe Russ Feingold or Howard Dean or Allan Grayson, have pledged themselves to K street, but suppose Feingold were to approach Soros with a proposal to start up a think tank/messaging institute that could…..[OK, I know this is veering off into la-la-land, but I’m saying, all it could take is one or two committed people and a ton of money. Hah! “ALL” it could take?] And by the way, the entrepreneur, call him “Howard Grayfein,” draws a nice salary for all his hard work and his tireless plugging on the yak shows and with the press.

    Notwithstanding the “waiting for the tooth fairy” character of the idea, I think there’s something there. You’d have to sell several big-bucks left-leaners on the idea of bankrolling an organized taskforce to bring about two (or three, tops–keep it simple) changes dear to the big-buckers’ hearts, which means you’d have to pick the RIGHT big-buckers. Having done that, you start chipping away locally, nationally, wherever the fight seems to be, allying wherever possible with local left-leaning people of influence and/or union locals, the local WFP, the local MoveOn.

    Or you start a national union to bring about X, Y, and Z. Headed up by Howard Grayfein, or someone like him, the union promises its “members,” who believe enough in its goals to pay “dues,” that it will work tirelessly to bring about effective change. The issues could be publicly funded elections or a 50% increase in marginal tax rates for the obscenely rich, but the issues should be few and instantly meaningful to individuals looking at their own own lives. (I think I would actually pay dues for such a union, as I do to, for instance, the ACLU.)

    Believe it or not, I’ve never checked out my local MoveOn operation as a place to participate and contribute. Maybe that’s an avenue right there.

    If I were a lawyer, I might be looking to set up a sort of lefty “federalist society” of like-minded progressive lawyers, who could provide advice on legal challenges to local laws limiting abortion rights.

    One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be goddamn uncomfortable in the pit of my stomach over the next few years if my political engagement consists merely of writing blog responses, while the institutions I believe in are systematically and thoroughly trashed.

    I’m lookin’. Got to be some sort of way to be effective against the righty juggernaut (or at least, FEEL effective against it).

  16. There’s a lot here to absorb and reflect on. I too am fed up with “progressive” groups whose idea of action is to click “Like” on FB or add your name to some online petition to an officeholder. I’m fed up with protest demonstrations that are little more than pep rallies for the lefty faithful and are studiously ignored by the mass media. I don’t really want George Soros to become the Koch brother of the left and don’t think that would work anyway. And don’t get me started on the devout Marxists and their inane theoretical ramblings.

    Ian, you’re right that we don’t have a theoretical framework. We don’t even have a human-sized laundry list of demands (make that obsequious requests). We can’t agree on the nature of the problem, so finding a solution is impossible. Yes, we’ll have a Soviet style collapse and probably a Russian-style mafiazation of the economy as well. We’re almost there anyway.

  17. Cloud

    There is going to be another generation of DFH’s, although they will manifest it differently. But the result is similar. People build alternative institutions that circumvent established ones and create a whole new culture that essentially ignores the established culture. Burning Man is an interesting example, in that it is based on the gift economy. In the Seventies it was the Rainbow Tribe (still alive and well). That is the economy that the DFH’s lived in and still live in.

    The Internet is a fantastic resource that was not available in the Sixties and Seventies. It is going to make the new counterculture not only much different, but also much more powerful and far-reaching. It’s viral and it’s going global. It’s great to be young. Don’t miss the action. This is exciting time to be alive. Go for it.

    Don’t get me wrong, your post made me feel fuzzy, and I think the internet’s great insofar as we (my agegroup in particular, I’m 24) can avoid letting the computing power of our own minds be squandered on inane memes.

    But also, the physical infrastructure of the internet (i.e. cables) is way too privately-held and beholden to the NSA. Maybe that’s an issue mass movement could coalesce around: Demand democratization of the internet. Don’t trust Uncle Sam to do it, either; set up a “Committee of Internet Safety” headed by open-source gurus and sympathetic lawyers to bring it all into the public ownership. The public’s tax money paid for the internet’s development; and then, of course, it was handed over to private capitalists to make a gazillion bucks off of. The public wants it back.

  18. Cloud

    But all that would be only over der Fatherland Security Archipelago’s dead body. And I also believe digitization represents a naïvely massive wager on society’s ability to keep the electricity flowing permanently. Plus, the DFH in me has observed that Turing machines have inherently anti-community, anti-interpersonal, anti-sensual effects.

  19. Tom Hickey

    Cloud, someone’s already on it. Check it out:

    Media futurist: Time to replace the Internet

    This is going to be an open source revolt.

  20. Tom Hickey

    Here’s another one:

    An international open source global network is coordinating to buy this satellite that’s up for sale for 150K.

    That with off-the-grid solar power and a dish, and you’re in.

  21. David Kowalski

    Each of the last two economic collapses with real unemployment at 10% + for five plus years has generated a march on Washington that was put down. Coxey’s army in 1894 was small enough that the police were able to arrest the leaders for trespassing on the grass and that was all she wrote. The Bonus Army of 1932 numbered 43,000. It was personally put down by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. The first attack was on Hoover’s orders. The second, which routed the remnants from the D.C. burbs was solely on MacArthur’s orders.

    MacArthur’s main lieutenants were Major Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. They followed orders. Patton was so disgusted that he never really got along with MacArthur after that but they followed orders.

    U.S. troops also were used against strikers by Cleveland during the Panic of 1893.

    Draftees are far less willing to shoot civilians than a paid professional army.

    My guess is that the hardest part would be to find an officer who is enough of a prick to lead the deed. Petraeus would do it in a heartbeat.

    We already have a larger group of protesters than the Bonus Army assembled in Wisconsin. We just don’t have a history to indicate that this would be sufficient in and of itself.

  22. Ian Welsh

    There is talk of a general strike in WI. General strikes are illegal. Will Obama send in the army?

  23. Celsius 233

    ^ I’d be surprised; but if he did; what irony, no?

  24. Formerly T-Bear

    Check out what the Belgians are up to these days. Over 8 months without a government, probably some record, and they have not fallen off the edge of the earth, nor have they been invaded by body-snatchers, or become political pod-people. Hoocoodanode maybe governments were not necessary after all, and the anarchists have a point – people capable of self-governance don’t need outside intervention to conduct their affairs.

  25. Morocco Bama

    We don’t even have a human-sized laundry list of demands (make that obsequious requests).

    Here is this “demand” talk again. For there to be any meaningfully positive outcome, proper language must be used. By using the term “demand,” defeat has already been conceded. You want it bad enough, you say “this we believe, this we want, this we will have… move out of the way.” Otherwise, demanding this and that sounds like a petulant teenager insisting he/she be allowed the use of the family auto.

  26. rumor

    Fundamental demands/beliefs, from which other ancillary progressive benefits might flow, and which are framed as very basic concepts. The concepts can be rallied around and the specific implementation isn’t as important. The list is in order of practicality. 1 is more sensible and achievable in the USA than 2 than 3, as near as I can figure. But all 3 would be best.

    1. Income equality
    2. Basic Universal Health Care
    3. No More War Spending

    Pretty simple list, pretty simple phrases that everyone can grasp. The details will hammer out if the will is there, and whatever the details are, the USA will be a far sight better for going after them.

  27. jawbone

    Transcript for the Orlov video posted by Morocco Bama.

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