Here's the thing: you have a political chant that's very popular, that carries an emotional punch – and yet is much closer to myth than political reality. Is this inspiration or delusion?
The chant I'm talking about is: The people united will never be defeated. Or rather: The people! United! Will never be defeated!
It's been a mainstay of protests, rallies and sit-ins for decades. The Occupy protests this fall were no exception: I don't know how many times I heard it and every time it gave me the creeps.
Because the truth is that the people united have been defeated … lots and lots of times.
The chant seems almost to have been born in defeat. It comes from a song written in Spanish (“El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!”) for Salvador Allende's ill-fated Socialist regime in Chile in the early 1970s. But it only became a global hit as the anthem for the resistance movement to the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who seized power from Allende in September of 1973.
If the chant was intended as a political prognosis (“will never be defeated”), its first test was an abysmal failure. Allende was murdered, as were tens of thousands of leftists, and Pinochet stayed in power for 17 years, which is to say an eternity in politics. It doesn't make the story any better that Allende appointed Pinochet as military commander and that he ignored warnings that the latter was involved in a CIA-inspired plot against the government. It would seem that the unity of the people is no guarantee of political wisdom.
What happened in Chile was hardly an anomaly. The history of the last century is littered with lots of defeated revolutions. The years between the world wars were especially bad: fascism seemed on a relentless rise – Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain – and its triumphs always involved savage repression. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was a classic example, with “The People United” winding up massacred and mutilated.
Then there are all the cases of The People United being hoodwinked. I'm old enough to remember The Peaceful Road to Socialism, a promise that used to be a staple of the mainstream left in Europe. If enough people voted Labour (or Socialist), then we'd bring about heaven on earth. Which turned out to be the welfare state, hardly utopia, actually just a modus Vivendi with capitalism that left the latter with all the real economic power.
And yet even the welfare state reforms, as limited as they were, are now being sacrificed (often by the same 'left' parties who brought them in) to the seemingly insatiable God of Austerity, who decrees that absolutely nothing should stand in the way of the Rich getting obscenely richer or of the Poor – aka “The People United” – sinking into bottomless misery. All those zillions of votes by billions of The People didn't amount to a whole lot in the end.
Sadly, much the same can be said for many of the struggles for national independence in the old Third World. In these countries The People were strongly United against colonialism and apartheid, fighting long and hard to bring these horrors to an end. But instead of a Brave New World, they often ended up with new forms of oppression, a home-grown jackboot on their necks instead of a colonial one. Much of the African continent can serve as an example – Algeria, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Congo, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe. In some of these places hell on earth has gone from metaphor to literal truth. In South Africa political apartheid is gone but economic apartheid is stronger than ever: the elite has more black faces in it but the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere on the planet, with a staggering 70 percent of the country living below the poverty line. One very much doubts this is the sort of freedom The People had in mind when they were fighting and dying to end apartheid.
You could continue with this litany. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall many of The People who came out in their masses to bring down the old Soviet bloc regimes now feel cheated: the Hollywood visions of western consumerism they were promised never materialized, and while a few oligarchs got rich, most everyone else ended up worse off than they'd been.
Last year's Arab Spring is certainly a beacon of hope, but even there it's still far from clear that The People United Will Never Be Defeated. In Egypt a dictator fell but his generals still have a stranglehold on power: Mubarakism without Mubarak. In Libya The People weren't united but divided, leading to a bloody civil war that was decided by NATO aerial bombardment, the only discernible lesson of which seems to be that The Elites United Often Get Their Way.
All of this is NOT an argument against mass political action. Rather it's an argument against a dangerously simplistic notion that if we can all just get together, then that's the answer to all our problems. To be sure, unity is a good thing, but unity for what? So long as we don't have an answer to that, then we're politically blind. And even if there are millions of us in the streets, it's still blindness.
Unless The People know what we want (and, almost as important, how to get it), our unity helps no one, least of all ourselves. That's probably never going to work as a chant, but what it loses in catchiness it more than makes up for in truth.