“In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers. . . . They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.”
—Howard Zinn, from “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” A People’s History of the United States,
For those of us who have demonstrated and marched in the Occupy movement, it is obvious that the police and the corporate press serve as guards—buffers between the vast majority of the American people and the ruling “corporatocracy” (the partnership of giant corporations, the wealthy elite, and their collaborating politicians). In addition to the police and the corporate press, there are millions of other guards employed by the corporatocracy to keep people obedient and maintain the status quo.
Even a partial revolt of the guards could increase the number of protesters on the streets from the thousands to the millions. When did Zinn predict the revolt would occur, and how can this revolt be accelerated?
The Other Guards
I am a clinical psychologist, and Zinn is correct that mental health professionals also serve as guards who are given small rewards to keep the system going. The corporatocracy demands that psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals assist people’s adjustment to the status quo, regardless of how dehumanizing the status quo has become. Prior to the 1980s, mental health professionals such as Erich Fromm (1900–1980) were concerned by this “adjustment to what?” problem. However, in recent years there has been decreasing awareness among mental health professionals about their guard role, even though today some of the best financial packages offered to us are from the growing U.S. prison system and U.S. military.
Most guards also perform duties besides “guard duty.” The police don’t just protect the elite from the 99 percent; they also provide people with roadside assistance. And mental health professionals also perform “non-guard duty” roles such as improving family relationships. Guards certainly can perform duties helpful for the non-elite, but the elite would be foolish to reward us guards if we didn’t serve to maintain their system.
Many teachers went into their profession because of their passion for education, but they soon discover that they are not being paid to educate young people for democracy, which would mean inspiring independent learning, critical thinking, and questioning authority. While teachers may help young children learn how to read, they are employed by the corporatocracy to socialize young people to fit into a system that was created by and for the corporatocracy. The corporatocracy needs its future employees to comply with their rules, to passively submit to authorities, and to perform meaningless activities for a paycheck. William Bennett, U.S. Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, was clear about the role of schools, “The primordial task of the schools is transmission of the social and political values.”
If you are comfortably at the top of the hierarchy, you reward guards to make your system work. In addition to the police, the corporate press, mental health professionals, and teachers, there are clergy, bureaucrats, and many other guards in the system, all of whom are given small rewards to pacify and control the population. Some guards have rebelled from their pacification and control roles, most have not.
When Will the Revolt of the Guards Occur?
Howard Zinn predicted the revolt of the guards would occur when guards recognize that they are “expendable.”
Historically, the elite’s strategy is to pay what is necessary to fill guard jobs, and when the time is ripe, reduce the rewards of guards and ultimately eliminate the guards. Union teachers—similar to union prison guards who’ve been replaced by non-union guards in for-profit prisons—have discovered that they too are expendable. It is logical for the elite to first use teachers to pacify young people, then use corporate-collaborator politician guards to reduce the rewards of teachers, and finally replace teachers with various technologies (such as computer programmed instruction) that the elite can profit from.
While the corporatocracy once paid us mental health professionals fairly well to provide therapy to help people adjust to the status quo, we now receive relative chump change for therapy, and it’s clear that psychotherapists and counselors are expendable. Mental health professionals are increasingly pressured by insurance corporations to treat the “maladjusted” with drugs, which create wealth for drug corporations and reduces labor costs for health insurance corporations. Today, a psychiatrist can still make good money prescribing drugs, but in the future, the corporatocracy will likely reduce rewards to its drug dispensers. That future is here in the U.S. military, as troops in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are, without prescriptions, given psychiatric drugs by military medics.
So, law enforcement officers, beware. Cameras and other surveillance technology are becoming increasingly inexpensive, and law enforcement labor costs will increasingly be replaced by inexpensive Orwellian surveillance.
How to Accelerate the Revolt of the Guards
For guards, it is not easy coming out of denial of our role and our fate. As Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
To accelerate the revolt of obedient guards, I recommend two strategies: (1) create unpleasant dissonance about their role as guards; in other words, put guards in some pain for their unquestioning obedience that maintains the system. (2) offer encouragement for even small acts of rebellion against their guard role; small acts of rebellion may well be major financial risks.
It is my experience that guards are far less defensive when they are “off-duty.” So, if you are at protest demonstration, don’t try to lecture police about their role as a guard for the system or stroke them for any act of humanity. When we guards we are on duty, we are extremely vigilant about being manipulated. Off-duty, we are more receptive.
If you have social contact with off-duty law enforcement officers, you might ask them “Wouldn’t it be more satisfying putting the handcuffs on some billionaire tax dodger than arresting some small-time pot user?” I’ve asked police officers if they’ve heard of Jonathan Swift’s quote, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” On-duty police will respond with “no comment” or a blank stare, but some off-duty cops will smile and even agree. And should off-duty police ever tell you an anecdote in which they ignored a law designed to catch a small fly, give them encouragement.
For off-duty corporate journalists, you might talk to them about how much you admire journalists such as Bill Moyers, former press secretary of Lyndon Johnson, and Chris Hedges, former New York Times reporter, for their rebellion from the their guard role. Remind journalists of their expendability, as the corporate media is increasingly eliminating reporters for the sake of profitability. And if they give you anecdotes in which they created tension with their editor by challenging the system, be encouraging.
If you know any mental health professionals, ask them if they think insurance companies care at all about either patients or providers. They will likely laugh, and say that insurance companies care only about their profits, and most will agree that other giant corporations care only about their profits. You might ask them, “Just how unjust does a society have to become before helping people adjust to it with behavior modification and medication is immoral?” If they have validated their patients’ pain over an increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian society and helped them constructively rebel against a dehumanizing system, encourage these stirrings of rebellion.
Most teachers despise the tyranny created by “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” with its fear-based standardized test preparations and computerized learning programs. Ask teachers, “Is it possible that you, like manufacturing workers, are also expendable?” You might also ask them, “Have you ever told parents of a disruptive kid that it is possible to effectively teach their child without any medication if there were fewer children in the classroom, which would allow their child to receive the attention and structure necessary?” Certainly give teachers encouragement if they have put their job in jeopardy by explaining the purpose of schools in the corporatocracy to any of their anti-authoritarian and alienated students.
In order to rouse more guards to revolt, we should not let obedient guards “off the hook” for their refusal to question, challenge, and resist illegitimate authority. Do not say, “Hey, I understand, you are just doing your job.” Guards must be confronted with the reality of the misery that results from blind obedience. Guards must deal with the reality that history looks unkindly on those who “just followed orders.” And guards must be given confidence that there are revitalizing satisfactions and new community that will emerge for them when they join the revolt of the guards.
Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011). His Web site is www.brucelevine.net.