The following is an informative back-and-forth I had with a friend online regarding reform and revolution:
Friend: you might have seen this already, but I thought I would send it along to you: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17sharp.html?_r=1&hp
[Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution: For decades, the writings of Gene Sharp have inspired dissidents around the world.]
Me: that’s an interesting article. unfortunately, those tactics seem maybe less effective in bringing down our government :(
Friend: Have you read Edmund Burke? I’m not in favor of bringing down our government. Evolutionary reform seems to sharply reduce the possibility of revolution following the well-worn path of ideals leading to a police state in order to enforce the vision.
Me: i haven’t read Burke, but i’ve read about him. i think we’d both agree that whether revolution or reform is better is a pretty complex issue. not all evolutionary reform is good, obviously, like the kind of reform that isn’t reform at all. (like obama) and just maintains a horrific system. just as a crude counter-example, democratic ‘reform’ was also what led the wiemar republic astray in much the same way the russian revolution lead to stalin.
so whether revolution or reform is necessary seems in part to be a empirical question of how bad the current system is, and if it’s bad enough, like it was in egypt, then flatly bringing down the government seems like at least an option.
i could rattle of statistics about this or that US-imposed evil, but i warrant that the influence of the US, more because of foreign policy than domestic policy, is pretty horrific and the instantaneous disappearance of the government would be a pretty good thing for billions of people. (for example, the 925 million people world wide the UN says are undernourished (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/2011/02/20112442413591195.html), the two primary causes being increased temperature irregularities likely caused by global warming and banks betting on food as a commodity market, both of which are spiking prices (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/24/food-crisis-un-emergency-meeting-rome) and are caused by the US more than any other country).
i don’t necessarily think it’s accurate to say that all revolutions lead to police states. those are the ones that are most talked about, but there are also many examples of revolutions that to something good, like the spanish revolution of 1936, the february revolution in russia in 1917,the zapatista uprising of 1994. the former two were rather just and democratic before being crushed by totalitarian forces, while the latter was also extremely egalitarian and democratic, though the mexican government and corporate-funded paramilitary forces have been wearing down the zapatista movement through direct violence and indirect blockades and other attrition.
obviously, these are not perfect examples for how to guide revolution in this country, but i think reform’s track record is also rather sparse. another aspect of reform that i think is worth pointing out is that it’s rather easy for privileged people to prefer it. unlike the 925 million people without enough food to eat, we have plenty of food and waiting for change is really not a difficult thing. by asking for reform though, you’re also asking people dying of starvation, afghan families missing mothers and fathers, iraq mothers bearing deformed children caused by US uranium munitions to all just wait it out while those of us with plenty of food fumble around and see if we can implement some reform.
anyway, social change and revolution are pretty complex things, and i have a lot more thoughts on them, but generally i’d agree with Malcolm X’s speech, “the ballot or the bullet” (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/065.html): if we try reform, and the powers that be continue to oppress and murder, then some revolution is in order. again, my views on revolution are complex, and it’s not like i’m gonna pick up an ak-47 right now and gonna go out shooting up police stations, but i think it’s worth working up to the point where revolution could happen and have realistic chances of creating a just society afterwords.
wanna grab lunch this weekend?
Friend: I would like to grab lunch sometime, but not this weekend. I’m swamped with work.
I’m skeptical that people in other nations have fundamentally more altruistic human natures and that in the absence of the U.S. they wouldn’t flex their muscles to kill, rape, or maim (think of Bahrain – although the U.S. tightroping on the fence of this issue is pretty offensive).
I also think that, despite all the statistics you provide, you remain firmly committed to revolution as an article of faith. Whenever I talk with you, the word comes up so often it takes on a sense of impending inevitability. Marx was an excellent analyzer of history. But, he was very vague about what the future would entail. (I don’t know about other transformational philosophers, but my impression is that they cling to utopian visions of the future without enumerating a clear path to get there.) While I don’t advocate fearing the unknown, my feeling is that much has been attempted before and not all that begins nobly ends as such.
Me: lunch sometime sounds good.
one thing i’ve been pointing out is that reform as a way to real and lasting social change is as utopian as revolution. to believe in reform i think also takes a great deal of faith. obama, for instance, was the greatest reform project in recent memory and i would argue that he was a complete failure on almost all fronts. so, like revolution, although the reform may have begun nobly, it certainly hasn’t ended so.
being a radical ‘revolutionary’, i can’t help but talk about revolution a lot, haha. but there are some things i think are worth pointing out. unlike leninists or trotskyists or many socialist parties who put all of their eggs in the revolution basket, anarchists are committed to changing the world in the now through creating free, self-governing spaces and on generally educating ourselves and others what it’s like to act freely. so even if a revolution in the US doesn’t happen in my lifetime (or even ever), my work towards immediate local change will have been worthwhile and possibly could lay the base for larger social change in the future.
likewise, i think if one takes the reform route, one should be equally as sober, admitting something like ‘if reform doesn’t happen in our lifetimes…’
also, and you might agree, i think reform is a much dirtier process than it is sometimes portrayed as. for any real reform to take place, it will only come from masses of people making harsh demands of the people in power. people in power will not just reform themselves, they need to be forced into it. reform for mlk jr. meant going out into the streets and getting beat by cops. mlk jr. talked about how he would try to negotiate with city officials to change laws, but that they would never make any concessions until mass rallies and violence against protesters was used and national media attention was on them. so i urge those who are for reform to make the same commitment to action and be ready to take to the streets.
also, i am not against reform as way toward social change, but i think there will, for near future, in the US be an excess of reformists and so i commit myself to revolution for another reason. there’s nothing like a bunch of angry revolutionaries to get a government to cave to more reformist demands, ala Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement or radical labor organizing and The New Deal. a bunch of reformists by themselves, without the actual threat to power on the side that revolutionaries bring, are often useless. that being said, mlk jr. among others recognized the dangerous pacifying effect that governmental reform can have in preventing meaningful change from taking place.
another point that i think needs mentioning is that, as i pointed out before about asking oppressed people to wait it out, reform tells people to accept a power over them, a power which may be very dangerous. if a bunch of revolutionaries take to the streets, i hope the genuine reformers will not actively silence them, but remain on the sidelines and criticize the revolutionaries if they must. but if reformers ever actively side with the government against revolutionaries, i think they are complicit in the government’s actions of violent repression. if anyone, whether riot cops, government officials, or reformists, uses their power to violently keep their power, then they run the risk of being the target of the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors. for if the revolution is ever near, i have little doubt that those in power will use all of the violence at their disposal to keep it.
Friend: I guess what I’m trying to say is that since revolutions often entail a lot of bloodshed, it’s important to analyze whether they are justified in terms of realistic long term gains in equity and rights. Tsarist Russia seemed so bad that it seems revolution was not only the only option, but also a good one by comparison. By contrast, in the US you would have to hope for such economic hardship and government mismanagement in order to foment rebellion that I’m not sure it’s something worth hoping for.
Also, I take issue with your implying that the US is at the root of malnourishment. If that were true, then a number of obvious facts about the world would not be true.
1) Malnourishment has always existed
2) Malnourishment has actually decreased since the early 1950s (the zenith of US hegemonic power) (even counting the recent food riots your article mentions)
Instead, while some policies in the US exacerbate malnourishment, they have, in most cases, a peripheral effect on the problem. Malnourishment is a more complex problem resulting from environmental problems, overpopulation, poverty traps, wars, etc.
The guardian article is really fascinating. You know, in my forecasting class last semester, we looked at how the price of orange juice had fewer fluctuations (as a result of weather – ie freezes in Florida) as food commodity markets developed because futures contracts allowed oj producers and distributors to agree to prices that moderated weather’s involvement. It would be interesting to see specifically why it is exacerbating the problem now.
Me: i think i’d stick to my guns in saying that the US (in collaboration with corporations and pro-corporate governments everywhere, but the US is still the biggest player) is directly and indirectly responsible for most of the undernourishment… in the world.
malnourishment has always existed, BUT the means to end malnourishment haven’t. my guess would be that while the absolute number of people malnourished today is greater than in 1950, the % of the global population that is malnourished has surely dropped. the global population in 1950 was around 2.5 billion, and so i doubt that nearly 40% of them were undernourished (though i suppose i could be wrong).
as evidence for an indirect yet still completely blameworthy US cause of malnourishment, in the year after the stock market crash of 2008, 100 million people were added to the global undernourishment estimates of the UN, which was the fastest such increase in recent history. insofar as the banks and the US pro-bank, pro-corporate government was responsible for the economic crash (in my opinion it was by far the biggest player), the US was mostly responsible for the undernourishment of 100 million people.
the oj commodity market example you bring up certainly exemplifies how people say commodity markets should work, and when they do work that way, i guess they are a useful thing.
however, when certain economic players control large parts of the system, the system is obviously vulnerable to manipulation. this short news piece shows how one hedge fund spiked global chocolate prices recently by buying 7% of the world’s cocoa (http://english.aljazeera.net/video/europe/2011/02/2011217204028299430.html). the people interviewed say that similar things are happening in grain and other staple food markets.
i’m sure you’re aware of this, but when a resource becomes rare, it makes economic sense for people to buy up all of it so that the prices will spike further and give them higher returns. when this happens with diamonds (De Beers owns 90% of global diamond production which keeps prices artificially high) i could care less. but when that keeps food from poor people, it’s a problem. this is, i think, what the above al-jazeera video and the guardian piece on the UN are pointing out.
Me: revolution may involve a lot of bloodshed, but so does reform. waiting for reform in this country leads not only to the undernourishment of 100s of millions of people, but also to virtually every other global problem, whether it’s environmental problems, extreme poverty, supporting brutal dictatorships, US wars in the middle east. so maybe it’s just an empirical question of, taking the US at this point in history, what’s the approach with the highest chance of leading to expansive social change with the least possible suffering. again, i tend to error on the side of revolution, though, if on the way to revolution, everything is gotten through reform, that would be nice. (also, i think, though am not at all sure, the kind of society i envision might be considerably more radical than the one you envision and thus would also seem to make reform an unlikely choice for me.)
and still, there is a very important part of my views on revolution that i have not articulated yet, but since i’m on a roll, i figure i might as well say now.
i think when people hear talk about revolution, they think revolutionaries mean that tomorrow they will take down government. as good a thing as i think that might be, it’s not really what any realistic revolutionaries have in mind nor is it at all possible like that. when i speak of revolution, i mean that we should work up to the point where a massive change occurs and people are aware enough of how to run their own affairs. this necessitates giving people the opportunity to partake in egalitarian, self-governing social structures like housing cooperatives, workers councils, community councils, non-hierarchical organizations that deal with activism, freedom schools, etc… Because in normal everyday life, people aren’t permitted this kind of participatory aspect in society because any power people might attain would mean corporations and governments would lose power, and such institutions are just not in the business of losing power.
this gradual education of radicalism is what lead up to the 1936 revolution in spain. since the 1870s, there had been a growing awareness of anarchism and its practices and ideas, to the point that when the opportunity presented itself, people spontaneously took over the institutions of society and the economy and were able to run them fine without politicians or bosses and were able to enjoy the kind of truly free society that can exist without politicians or bosses. creating true democracy in the present is a necessary precursor to having true democracy after a revolution.
George Orwell, after arriving in anarchist controlled Catalonia, Spain, later wrote: “when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags and with the red and black flag of the Anarchists … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized … There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for … so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low … Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”