Resurrect the ‘R’ Word

Revolution to many means chaos, violence, and death. Disagree? Me too. But should we resurrect the R-word?

Consider this: eight million unemployed, 35 million poor, 20 million “hungry,” 400,000 homeless, a third of government expenditures financing militarism. IBM controls 80 percent in computers; GE and Westinghouse control 85 percent in heavy electrical equipment; Boeing and McDonnell Douglas control 80 percent in aircraft; 10 out of 14,500 banks own 34 percent of all assets. Workers sell their ability to produce and as a reward suffer subordination, lies, chicanery, and manipulation. Ambulance-chasing is a profitable professional pastime. Commodity fetishism is the only respected way of life.
Scoring high on the “I own” meter requires accumulating and debauching without a care. Not capitalists’ genes, but the institutional byways they traverse exterminate their human sentiments. To argue that capitalists will freely forsake economic violence is utopian. Capitalism will never give us fine schools, good health care, equitable incomes, solidarity between workers, people before profit, and an environment suitable for human habitation.
Fairness, humane investment, and social self-management require collective public ownership, decentralized participatory planning, and jobs incorporating comparable access to information, responsibility, and skilled work.
We have economic violence. We want economic liberty. The difference is transformative. We need the R-word.
Over recent decades, feminists have taught that women and men are equal; gender is social; and girls and boys, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, daters and datees, top and bottom, are not anatomic roles but historically contingent outcomes. We are what we do, and we can do other than what Playboy, Hollywood, or the “guys” advise.
A woman is raped every 6 minutes, upward of 45 percent of all women suffer rape or attempted rape at least once in a lifetime, 92 percent of all women suffer sexual assault or harassment at some time, and 4 out of 5 murdered women die at the hands of male killers, one-third to one-half of whom are their spouses. Women earn about 69 percent for comparable work, but most women can’t get comparable work (in 1986, 62 percent of all women who were working had jobs in occupations that were at least 70 percent female), and women get top pay for modeling, acting, turning game-show cards, homemaking for the rich, and street-walking in Manhattan. As of 1979, women did four times as much housework as men and still took most responsibility for child-rearing. U.S. teenage pregnancy is highest in the developed world while the multi-billion-dollar U.S. pornography industry evidences mind-staggering manufactured sexist perversion. Child-rearing and education relegate to young women the freedom to be “feminine” and to young men the freedom to be “manly.” Billion dollar diets mutilate millions of human psyches and hundreds of thousands of human bodies. Tens of millions of men and women suffer indignity, brutality, and even death for their homosexual preferences, and the elderly suffer isolated poverty while productive tasks they could do go undone.
Macho doesn’t presuppose male genes. It is not inscribed in their DNA that women should be objectified and battered. Kinship violence stems not from genes gone bad, but from fragmented families, pseudo-sexuality, reductive education, competitive courting, and sexist economics, politics, and culture.
To transcend gender violence we need sex-blind roles; support for single, coupled, and multi-parenting arrangements; and easy access to high-quality daycare, flexible work hours, and parental-leave options. To extend gender peace we need freedom for children to develop views with their peers and without excessive adult supervision. For gender liberation we need retirement guided by personal inclination not age; liberated sexuality respecting all choices and inclinations; and norms of courting, child-rearing, and work, free from gender bias—in short, a transformation replacing this country’s patriarchy with gender equality and sexual freedom. The R-word fits again.
The ethnic, racial, and religious ways we find to understand ourselves and our place in society help define our lives.
Slavery, apartheid, separate but equal, racism, ethnocentrism, colonialism, and religious bigotry are all systems in which one community subordinates another or two communities wage endless conflict that deadens the cultural prospects and the souls and bodies of all concerned. “Walk on water, walk on a leaf / Hardest of all is to walk on grief.”
In the U.S., some blacks and Hispanics earn big salaries and high status as comedians and athletes, reinforcing acceptable images, while Native Americans don’t earn big bucks at all. Sixty percent of all blacks, 53 percent of all Hispanics, 48 percent of all Asians, but only 27 percent of all whites live in deteriorating central cities. The median family income for Hispanics is roughly half that for whites with blacks down another 10 percent. Black infant mortality nearly doubles that for whites. Criminal prosecution, allocation of educational resources, and mass media images all communicate that nonwhite communities are inferior. These differences subjugate whole peoples denying their cultures and their potentials for developing and fulfilling themselves.
The U.S. is far from being a compendium of diverse communities, each free to develop in harmony with others, each respecting and learning from the different cultural answers others offer, each protecting the rights of all. Collapsing all cultures into the norms of the dominant few via “integration” is no solution. Instead, resurrect the R-word.
U.S. politics features media-reinforced apathy, bribes, scams, repression, aid to dictators, regressive taxation, choices between candidate clones, wars, and no accountability. Real democracy features self-management, plebiscites, honest information, informed public debate, maximum accountability, and no possibility for accruing excessive power.
Transition from spectator politics to participatory politics requires new political forms. We need institutional means to develop new viewpoints, debate them, refine them, fight for them, and enact them. Information and power are key. We lack both. We need both. Repeated Watergates, Irangates, and popular resistance campaigns that redress grievances may forestall dictatorship but they will not create new institutions able to propel informed participation. Bring back the R-word.
The Planet and the Ecosphere
Nations fight nations, torture and war ravage the human legacy, hunger runs rampant. Nuclear and chemical wastes infect, air pollution congests, the seed-base depletes, Three Mile Islands fester, forests diminish. Neither the world as a social system nor the world as an ecosphere can withstand much more. Without international equity and new means for care-taking the earth, all will go to hell in a turbocart. In a dirty world, the R-word is not a dirty word.
Sensible Debate
Embarrassment on hearing the R-word conveys that liberated human history is impossible. Equating the R-word with “blood-lust” accepts that struggle for change can yield only minimal gains or, if we get too ambitious, worse than what we already have. To debate the propriety of “revolution” reflects timidity about truth. We must no longer debate the R-word as if humanity may after all be able to flourish within the dictates of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. But a host of related issues do warrant debate.
What characteristics would desirable economic, kinship, cultural, political, international, and ecological goals have? How do we win immediate reforms while strengthening our ability to fight for long-run aims? What kind of organization, ideology, and tactics do we need to reach our goals? Since attention to economics, gender, culture, politics, world relations, and ecology yields contrasting socialist, feminist, nationalist, anarchist, anti-interventionist, and ecological agendas, how can a new movement retain the integrity and autonomy of each, while realizing solidarity among them all?
Debating these and related questions while consciousness-raising, demonstrating, and organizing isn’t “utopian” but is instead the only comprehensive approach to social change.
To win a new world, even to significantly improve this one, we must know what we want. To journey from here to there, we need to know where “there” is. What is a participatory economy and what steps can attain it? What is a feminist kinship sphere, a culturally intercommunal community sphere, and a participatory political sphere? In each case, what steps can take us from what we have to what we want? In face of the horrors we all know so well, it does not evidence maturity, pragmatism, or wisdom to dismiss revolutionary desires as strange. It evidences ignorance, defeatism, or even lack of humanity. Don’t whisper the R-word.
To seek complete freedom does not require adopting arrogant postures that alienate potential allies, but it does require sober yet comprehensive desire, and careful yet unrelenting critique. Liberalism’s half-way programs and tempered rhetoric strengthen the two greatest obstacles to justice in the U.S.: the popular views that you can’t beat City Hall and that even if you do beat the bastards, it won’t mean much because the new bosses will be as bad as the old ones. Isn’t it obvious that the left won’t arouse hope and deserve commitment until its morality, tone, and spirit transcend Band-Aid bureaucratic fixes?
We can’t win what we won’t even name. We can’t orient today’s reforms to furthering tomorrow’s victories if we refuse to define what tomorrow’s victories need to be. Blind strategy is no strategy at all. Resistance is good. But to get to liberation, in speaking, writing, thought, and action—resurrect the R word.

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