Revelatur Newsletter, May 29, 2021
Democracy on Life Support
Hello Dear Readers! We have two pieces for you today. The first, “A General Strike is in Order,” explores the curious reluctance of Americans to use the very tool most likely to actually changes things, and encourages us to take concerted, collective action now before it’s too late. In the second, “All Elites Look the Same from the Bottom,” we detail how and why Republicans have created a perpetual grievance machine in which they deliberately make things worse for their base, continuously create additional grievances, then blame it all on liberal elites -- and get away with it. Enjoy!
A General Strike is in Order
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 started in Martinsburg, West Virginia, following an announcement from B&O Railroads of a ten percent wage cut. In response, workers uncoupled the locomotives, locked them in a roundhouse, and brought rail traffic to a halt, demanding their full wages. The Governor sent a militia, and then lawmakers sent federal troops. Workers held fast. The strike spread.
A General Strike in Saint Louis. An uprising in Pittsburgh. Unrest in Chicago. Across the country, strikers destroyed railcars, fought with police and troops, and clawed meaningful labor concessions through sweat and blood. The immediate cause for the convulsion of militancy across the country was the Long Depression, a wrenching period of depressed wages and unemployment that began in 1873. The ultimate cause, of course, being a deeply unjust economic system.
Societal crisis precipitates labor militancy, time and again. In the aftermath of World War One, labor militancy. During the Great Depression. The Reagan-era malaise led to the air traffic controller’s strike.
Goes without saying we are in the midst of societal crisis presently. The COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant economic depression are forcing people to reevaluate their place in the world, asking themselves whether it’s worth it to go back to work for shit wages with no benefits, having seen the utter depraved indifference of the capital class towards the so-called ‘essential’ workers, having watched their co-workers die while customers refuse to wear masks and write “MAGA 2020” in the tip line of the receipt.
There isn’t, despite the crescendo from the pundit class and the Republican Party, a ‘worker shortage.’ There is a shortage of tolerance for bullshit. When anyone bothers to actually talk to workers instead of transcribing bullet points from Chamber of Commerce press releases and calling it news, they find, unsurprisingly, that the reason many restaurants and other low wage industries are struggling to fill positions is because of...the low wages.
People just aren’t enthusiastic about pursuing their own exploitation, so they’re not applying for low wage jobs. And beyond individual decisions to abstain from oppressive working conditions, tendrils of a wider movement break through. On May 19th, McDonald’s employees in 15 cities struck, fifteen cities fighting for fifteen dollars an hour. Over 1,000 mine workers in Alabama have been on strike for nearly two months. Four major healthcare worker strikes and counting.
So while we’re re-evaluating, why not widen the aperture? If we’re going to withdraw our consent and become ungovernable, why not dream a little bigger with what we can hope to accomplish? What if we can withdraw our support from this horrible, unhealthy, world destroying system to embrace not just labor reform, but a complete overhaul, top to bottom, of the whole damned thing? Why not a general strike to save democracy, save ourselves, save the planet? Why not a general strike, now, right this second?
Well? What are we waiting for?
All right, let’s get a few things straight. Organizing any kind of action is tough stuff. Getting fifty people to show up on a Saturday afternoon for a low-stakes, low-risk protest is tough. Getting fifty thousand people to show up, day after day, under threat of violence, is pushing the bounds of feasibility.
Organized labor seems a natural fit for a leadership role in strike actions. Organized labor has been gutted. Deliberately, purposefully, systematically. That air traffic controller strike I mentioned earlier? Reagan crushed it. Corporations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into propaganda campaigns and union busting efforts. Wal-Mart, T-Mobile, Cablevision, no industry is spared the relentless assault on workers’ rights.
The Democratic Party has, for the most part, been quite happy to either step aside as unions withered away, or occasionally directly engage in attacks against organized labor. It’s only fairly recently the Dems have begun to embrace the sorts of modest labor reforms that situate them?) to the left of the National Review. The attacks and indifference have been effective. In 1983, roughly 20% of all US workers belonged to a union. That number has been halved in the ensuing decades. Now, it’s around one in ten.
It’s up to us, then, starting with the person in the mirror, etc. Grassroots mobilization, decentralized. We don’t need to convince anyone of anything, other than one thing: we have the power.
Quite simply, winning is about projecting power. When you’re fighting for justice, you can get lost in the weeds trying to upbraid someone for hypocrisy, to raise awareness about some latest outrage. It’s not that these bastards know they’re wrong -- it’s that they don’t give a shit.
Reading movement theorists like Aric McBay, one thing becomes clear -- movements win when they project power. They fail when they are weak. And it’s pretty hard to argue with the power of grinding the entire economy to a halt. People might ignore a flyer. They don’t ignore heaps of uncollected trash or uncoupled railroads. They don’t ignore millions of people in the streets. They don’t ignore economies ground to a halt.
We’re long past the point of politely asking. The systems of power we’re up against are deeply entrenched. The resources at their disposal are vast -- surveillance tools, wealth, police forces, and violence, state violence to back it all up. Luckily, there is no force more powerful than a people united in saying hell no. Even when you’re going up against a full-on coup attempt.
In 1920, the German Weimar Republic was in its infancy, a fledgling democracy built in the aftermath of World War One. The new government attempted to disband two brigades of the paramilitary Freikorps, and one of the detachments, led by Kapp, marched into Berlin. The people were not going down that easy. Immediately, the entire nation rose up -- not jut militarily, but with massive nationwide strikes.
“Strike! Lay down your work and strangle this military dictatorship! Fight with every weapon to preserve the Republic! Lay aside every division. There is but one means to achieve this goal: the paralysis of all economic life. Not a hand must stir, not a worker give aid to the military dictatorship. General strike all along the line! Proletarians, unite!”
It worked. The Kapp Putsch failed. Democracy was (briefly) restored to the Weimar Republic. The Indian Independence movement gave rise to the Hartal -- a form of strike that incorporates not just labor strikes, but shutting of schools and all places of businesses. In 1979, a nationwide general strike in Iran hastened the demise of the Pahlavi Dynasty. (To be quickly replaced with a religious autocracy). General strikes are the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of movements, and though difficult to organize, they’re also difficult to counter.
Power is the critical factor. Strikers aren’t trying to change any minds. Moral suasion is a dead end. The critical factor of these civil disobedience actions is the undeniable tension they create, the fact that you cannot ignore them. Power.
Power. Power power power. Repeating it a few more times so it sinks in. Movements win and lose on power. (power)
Over last summer, during the height of the pandemic in the United States, social justice protests all across the country exploded. For all the talk about riots and property damage, the real concern hiding behind layers of rhetorical obfuscation is clear for all to see: those who tightly grip the levers of power have no interest in relinquishing it, not even one bit. We’re not talking smoke-filled rooms here, a shadowy ‘they.’ This doesn’t require a conspiratorial mindset; the evidence is right there, in plain sight. Republicans condemned the summer protests, sure. So did some Democrats. Because they were powerful, and working, people got scared.
That about covers the why.
Let’s talk what. What do we want to change? When do want to change it? Everything’s gotta go, unfortunately, the sooner the better, and that’s a tall order. To paraphrase: it’s the whole damn system. In a way, that was the message of Occupy. Occupy’s critique was indeed broad, and systemic, and for many people, indigestible. Yet it’s power lay in its simplicity and accuracy. You can’t really isolate one piece of this system - they’re all connected, and it’s all rotten.
So I propose a list of demands that take on the most essential components of our society -- democratic governance, and real change in economic structure. Income inequality. Structures of governance. Ending the filibuster. Long term, disciplined, proposing a few specific aims. Relationship between, and restoration/creation of true, functioning democracy for the first time in the United States.
All of this brings me back to where we started. If not now, when? If not for these stakes, then there is truly nothing worth withdrawing from. If we can’t panic when the house is on fire, we don’t deserve to keep the house.
Set a date. Work backwards. Go on strike. Everywhere.
To borrow a phrase.
Not a hand must stir. Unite! Unite! Unite!
All Elites Look the Same from the Bottom
A major unresolved Key Intelligence Question* for us at Revelatur is this: Why would anyone (Trumpists) vote for people (Republicans) who impoverish them in all possible ways, laugh at them behind their backs, and abandon them on the field of battle (their perspective, not mine)? *For newer readers, Revelatur uses a unique intelligence and system analysis combination to explain complex phenomena, in which we are perpetually: posing and resolving Key Intelligence Questions; positing and testing hypotheses.
I overheard an interesting conversation today that put recent research and analysis on this question into a new context and perspective -- and gave me some insight and a new hypothesis about why Trumpists keep cheerfully voting against their self-interest. The group of six diverse women I overheard was clearly liberal -- they identified with Biden and the Democratic Party. But most of their conversation was indistinguishable from a group of Trump supporters. They spoke at length about -- and shared tips about -- how to get their children (in private high school now) into the Ivy League, how to secure scholarships to costly enrichment experiences, and how to more effectively network their businesses (some or all were small business owners).
On the face of it, there’s nothing “wrong with” the actual conversation. My problem is with what is behind the conversation. In a nation of restricted political and educational access, limited upward mobility with structural impediments to it, two-tiered justice system, and gross income and wealth inequality, those being squeezed out of access and hope find it easy to blame elites -- because a “globalized economy” and “emerging technology” are too abstract to make good targets. The rural, low information voter, white people being victimized by structural inequalities find it easy and culturally acceptable to blame liberal elites for their plight -- and the right plays on this. Republicans have created a perpetual grievance machine in which they deliberately make things worse for their base, continuously create additional grievances, then blame it all on liberal elites. As we used to say where I grew up, “good work if you can get it!”
The liberal elite is not blameless -- here’s why. First, for taking advantage of and thus helping perpetuate structural inequities -- thereby providing the right’s propaganda machine enough truth around which to form a plausible sounding lie. Second, for failing to fix the structural inequities over the last 50 years when we had the votes, the money, the examples, and the crying need to do so. Third, for failing to discern what the right is doing and then failing to counter the strategy.
A perpetual grievance machine needs a perpetual lying machine and perpetual scapegoating machine. Cynical. Monstrous. Effective. The right is trying to tie the liberal elite, Black people and systemic trends into one simple message aimed at aggrieved white people: “the liberal elite, Democrats and Black people are keeping you down” -- and it is working. Republicans deliberately diminish and impoverish their own people -- then pretend to be interested in solving the very problems they create!
We should also be concerned because that same ability to message this particular lie can be deployed against other groups that don’t now consistently support the right in significant numbers. These groups: Catholics; LatinX; Asian Americans, collectively number far more than Black people. Successfully appealing to one or more of these groups and securing their long-term fealty due to grievance would offset the Democrats’ aggregate “natural” demographic advantage. We currently see traction with Catholics over abortion and LatinX conservatives over a range of cultural issues. It appears that gullibility and grievance knows no bounds or borders. Critical Race Theory criticism is just he latest grievance vector -- but don’t worry, the Heritage Foundation is working on the next set as we speak.
There are multiple required remedies -- but the one that matters most is the one liberal elites are least likely to adopt -- societal fairness, equity, true meritocracy -- a type of generational playing field reset in which the offspring of rich people would receive no more goodies than any other cohort in terms of access.
If the liberal elite won’t push for free college, steep inheritance taxes, equitable tax burden sharing, increased corporate taxes, restrictions of trust formation, universal health care, annual paid vacations, free child care, guaranteed income, income disparity caps, equal pay -- etc., we won’t fix the problem and the right will grow its base steadily.
You see here’s the Achilles heel of the Republican strategy -- that while many people can be manipulated into fear of socialism as an abstract political principle, everyone wants more benefits, better health, and better access to the fruits of a modern democracy. Democrats just have to stop fearing their own shadow and consistently get the people what they want -- not what they want them to have.
Paradoxically, then, the only way to beat the right is to move so far to the left (from a historical American political punditry perspective) that Trumpists are coopted because they have no more grievances! As long as things are moving in the wrong direction (towards increasing disparity and injustice) there is increasing room for grievance and its exploitation. The right must seek the increasing impoverishment of its own base because that’s why their base votes for them. This irrational dynamic is only possible because as a people we permit it and as a party the Democrats enable it.
The right has figured out that this is the left’s Achilles heel -- and manipulated everything so that the elite left does not even protest at the dismantling of Democracy because its elite is still “winning” in the American lottery -- but of course this is ignorance at the level of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!
Our modeling indicates that near term leverage lies not with trying to eliminate scapegoating or racism, nor with trying to educate dumbasses -- but by eliminating the sources of grievance that rely on those for the vicious cycle we are trapped in. Eliminating grievances will be costly -- not in overall dollars -- but in liberals having to give up advantage, privilege, access, and “relative” wealth and status. Only a truly egalitarian society can reduce grievance low enough to remove it as a political lever.