Hidden Revolutionary Sentiment in the Heartland – a Reason for HOPE*

Since its May 1st, the official day of international working class revolution, I thought I would relate something positive and hopeful relating to a speech I gave at the University of Iowa two Saturdays ago.  You can read an extended version of the speech at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/17218


I’d give myself a B+ on the delivery. Part of it was the excellent audience – maybe a hundred or so student activists from across the Midwest, all of them affiliated with the Campus Antiwar Network: very smart, very motivated, and very progressive…more left than I had anticipated. There were a bunch from Madison; many from UW-Milwaukee and Chicago (DePaul, Loyola, UIC, more), one or two from Ann Arbor, and so on. Throw in a good handful of non-student progressives from town (Iowa City) and the local region and it was just the sort of people I like to talk to. 


Anyway, here’s the cool part. At the end, as I was winding up my big fancy address on “Whose Aims in What U.S. Global War Terror?,” I got to my recommendations for antiwar activists at the end. 


Here were my five suggestions: 


“1. Be skeptical about getting too involved in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Ask me why if you want in the Q and A.” [Note: only one person cared to object on this...I think the conspiracy diversion may be fading out]


“2. Avoid Obamania. Look, I like to make a little fun of it all, but it’s a big deal. It’s going to be huge on your campuses next fall and you’re going to have to know how to deal with it in a productive and tactically astute way.  If you want more details ask me in Q and A and I’ll give three of the 25 ways in which His Holiness the Dali Obama is in fact NOT antiwar and how he Clings to the Guns of Empire. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote to block the GOP and ‘for’ Obama if you live in a contested state.  Wherever you live, we need to know how to work with and through the Obama phenomenon in a constructive way. It offers some opportunities. He’s raising and surfing a bunch of expectations he’s not going to deliver on, and that’s very important.” [Note: I expected Obamanist objections on this but there were none.  One activist outflanked me on the Left, saying that he thought Obama might be a worse than McCain because the former candidate’s imperialism is cloaked and the latter candidate’s imperialism is open].


“3. Avoid what the sociologist Charles Derber calls ‘the election trap:’ the belief that meaningful long term progressive change can be achieved by going into a voting booth for 2 minutes once every 1460 days.” [Note: this was admittedly a very partial statement of Derber’s concept]


“4. Please stay relentlessly alert to the critical distinction between opposing the Iraq War on pragmatic grounds and resisting it on principled and moral grounds.  Never let go of the difference between opposing it like Obama says because it is a strategic imperial mistake and resisting it because it is an imperialist crime.”


“5. Call for revolution. I say this for two reasons.  The first reason and this is my personal sense…I’ve been around watching this country and world and society for a while now and I have the very distinct impression that we cannot meaningfully attain democracy, peace, economic, social, racial and gender or any other kind of justice or ecological sustainability under the inherently perverted priorities of the capitalist profit system. The second reason is more ‘pragmatic.’ History shows again and again that big and meaningful reforms — and we need reforms — are only attained when elites are convinced that the cost of changing is less than the cost of not changing. The change only comes when the governing class believes you’re ready, willing, and able to burn down the house.” 


Now, here’s the neat thing. All of these points elicited nice support – verbal agreement, heads nodding, light applause and so forth…except the last one. 


The last point -“call for revolution” – led to an instantaneous standing ovation before I even got into explaining why.


I barely and not all that artfully got these three words out of my mouth – “call for revolution” – and the auditorium went a little bit crazy.


It got pretty good again after I articulated my sense that we’ve pretty much exhausted the limits of democratic progress (and social justice and ecological sustainability and peace and economic rationality) under the capitalist “profit system.”


These young folks were more than a little receptive to the notion that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are about the underlying political economy of military capitalism and imperialism. 


Later in the Q and A, I met strong agreement when a student-activist asked me about the declining state of “the economy” and I observed that the phrase “the economy” was routinely used by mainstream authorities to cloak the dark reality of the capitalist system, a particular historical model of political economy deidcated to concentration of wealth and exploitation of the many by the privileged few.


Listen up you discouraged thirty-something, middle-aged and senior American radicals out there: the post-9/11 clouds have faded. We’ve got some young people who are more than just antiwar.  We’ve got some anti-capitalists, again.


I was reminded of a large number of working-class households I visited as a John Edwards canvasser (I know, yes, not all that radical…spare me the bitter e-mails; it was totally without illusion) last fall. You could (I could, anyway) sense the rage over class inequality and imperial wars (often explained by people in these homes as “all about the oil”) ordered by rich people whose sons and daughters are never sent off to die and kill (that privilege is reserved for thre workking class). I could feel it bubbling beneath the surface of superficially polite discussions over who to vote for in the Iowa Caucus.  On a few occasions, I heard ordinary working folks say basically that they we were going to have to level this society and get rid of “all the rich bastards…or at least cut them down to size.”


The thing a lot of voters (and more than a few non-voters) I met liked about Edwards was his initially insistent rhetoric on what he called “the two Americas”: on one hand the privileged circles of wealth and power and on the other hand the exploited and angry working class majority. That distinction makes a lot of sense to working-class people – imagine.


Being linked to a presidential candidate got me in the door but often the conversation that ensued was about a helluva lot more than candidates and electoral politics.


For this and other reasons, I am more optimistic than I’ve been in a while.  I have the distinct impression that many Americans (young and not so young) are getting ready for some serious radical action beyond the narrow limits of what passes for a democratic political culture in the U.S. Prices are going through the roof not just on gas but on bread and milk and other basic essentials and its got working people more outraged than any time I’ve seen in a long time. That outrage needs progressive channels and radical outlets.


Like the students I spoke with two Saturday nights ago, the working class does not seem all that caught up in “the election trap.” It doesn’t harbor many illusions about candidates Obama or Clinton being big parts of meaningful solutions. “It’s all a big corporate farce,” is what one 50-something guy said to me about the presidential race. It’s about something more significant than switching up corporate-vetted elites. People know the problems go a lot deeper than that. It’s going to take something along the lines of a revolution.



* This essay was written on May First, 2008



Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm). His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).His next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008)

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