Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Field Guide to Revolution - II

Popular Revolution

It is 19 Diciembro 2001 and the banging of pots came down in shatters like rain, at any hour of the day or not, their downburst might come, in square, or remote bario. Cacerolada was the lady that called out, screeching a hymn of protest. Buenes Aires December of 2001 was a nation a fire in the southern summer. While America was marching towards its war of choice in Iraq, Argentina was killing the neo-liberal order from the other end, it had given up all choice by instituting a dollar board and other economic policies designed to force export discipline and fiscal sobriety. Inflation, as in hyper-inflation was a fat bloated fear in the dreams of everyone, including the government.

People milled about in the broad avenues, surrounding cars and knifing the tires of those carrying people in suits. Soon, cabs would only take wealthy fares on long round abouts or at odd hours, or charged.

How did this storm start in December of 2001, and loom into January? The immediate cause came on November 29th, there was a day of decision, as all over the country, tens of thousands staged a massive run on the banks. Millions of Pesos, still theoretically pegged to the dollar were demanded, and dollar accounts that were left were emptied. The banks The bank accounts were frozen under the corral rules. No one but the rich could withdraw money, no one but the connected could spirit it out of the country. Because of the peg, the central bank could not simply print enough money to tide everything over.

For months the unemployed had been wandering the streets shouting for jobs and welfare. They were the picketeers, not just in the capital, but in major cities everywhere. In Rosario, the high December summer was broken with looting. They were in the streets now every day, brawling with police, being arrested, and being let back out again, because the jails could not afford even to feed them.

This was Argentina's popular revolution. There were deaths, and there were fights, but there was not the movement of organized military violence, nor was the violence sufficient to do more than announce the resolve of the public.

The hallmark of a popular revolution is the creation of mass action that halts the normal course of business, and presents a real or implied threat against the persons of the leadership, causing them to flee. The popular coup's strike at the center of power, is that power relies on the multiplication of action, and the popular demonstration accomplishes two attacks on power: first, it is intended to be a blow to the morale and time of the leadership: the must deal with nothing else. Second, it cuts the lines by which decisions made by one group are multiplied. Popular revolution then, rests on the disruption of the channels through which power is transmitted, and a disruption of the centers from which power is born.

The birth of popular revolution, as revolution, is quite old, and so, the myth of popular revolution is rooted in deep history. Even Hugo Chavez cites the creation of Magna Carta.

Popular revolution is also mythic, and enhanced, by it's connection with that element called "the people," that polyvalenced noun which is the root of identity.

In truth people are trained to popular revolution: mass gatherings, mass action, economic and physical, is part of the daily life of most societies. People are called to worship, line up for the openings of movies or release of new products, gather for concerts and parades. The muscles remember the requirement of gathering in large groups and submerging one's individuality into a mass. Popular revolution then, relies on the necessity of the mass to any society, and directs it against those who sit at the center of transmission, and seek to displace the message that the center is obeyed by the million limbs of the social squid.

Popular revolutions are elevated because they are also, in a very deep sense, the most conservative: they disrupt temporarily, but do not destroy permanently, the infrastructure of society. They may burn down a few buildings, trample some grass, or leave undelivered a wave of food, but the do not tear apart the relationships of people, nor the objects which they own.

Every demonstration dreams dreams, of being a popular revolution, as much as any team takes the field dreaming of being champions of their league: it is the exhilaration of participation and triumph, of being alpha for a day, that courses through the veins of those who, in jubiliation, take to the streets, in anger take to the streets. The primal blood is raised, and those who participate feel it. This is the opposite of the blow to elite moral at which popular revolution aims: to feel good, about being small.

In our own time popular revolution is also infused with the ideology of bottom up-ism, that leadership is no more self-empowered than is a plumber. This idea, of the bottom up dictation to power, is not so new, Burke excoriates it in his famous remark:


Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.


Edmund Burke Speech to the Electors of Bristol 3 November 1774

But this very tendency, to desire to elevate a flattering clown to office, is not so easily destroyed. Indeed, the advent of consumerism, where corporations propose products, while consumers dispose, creates an artificial presumption by those who consume, that they are smarter than those who produce. This ideology is writ in every time an individual dismissively critiques some product, as if the people who made it were stupid. The disproof of the ideology of the "smart mammals" against the large dinosaurs is also vividly on display: if the people at the top are so stupid, why have they gotten virtually all the income gains over the last generation? The whole frame of smart mammals is scientifically inaccurate: mammals spent more millions of years underfoot of the dinosaurs, than they have ruling the world. If you are a mammal under dinosaurs, then your strategy is really to wait for a huge asteroid to hit the world, and then survive it.

The same is true with popular revolution. It is an adage that power is more often lost, than won. Popular revolution strikes an elite which has lost power internally, it has lost its morale, and its ability to translate its vision of society into a working reality. The popular revolution rests on the failure of elites, because successful governments do not tend to generate the number of enemies that causes popular revolution. This failure is either general, or it is specific. The French Revolution contained a period of popular coup. The government of France was not unsuccessful on its own measure, but it concentrated discontent in Paris. The old monarchy had many friends, but unfortunately for it, its enemies were all, in a very real sense, a stones throw away, as the laboring class of Paris. It's friends were scattered, and its enemies were all close. Monarchists would win elections even into the Third Republic, almost a century later, but they were never to win the barricades, only coƶpt them.

Thus while publics dream of a "velvet revolution," what they are really talking about is elections by other means, elections that cut through the mechanisms of democracy, through the compromises that elites make with other elites, through the cloud of the electorate and the elect, to the people and the public. They dream of a "people powered" revolution, because it serves the dual interests of a class that identifies itself as working for others, to accumulate goods. It elevates labor, and the products of capital that labor desires to own.

Popular revolution is at its most powerful, when striking against an occupation, or government whose interests lies in the interests abroad, a government that serves other masters than its own population.

The break up of the Soviet Union offered a clear and almost clinical demonstration of the removal of a repressive force, and how popular revolution follows almost logically from it. The states of the Soviet Empire's "near abroad" had long since lost any illusions as to the nature of the Soviet system, and as to the nature of their place in it. While in some countries, particularly Albania, Romania and Yugoslavia, an independent dictatorship had taken root which had either broken from Moscow, or was capable of sustaining itself in power without Moscow, the key states of Poland, the People's Democratic Republic of Germany, Czechoslovakia, as well as the Baltic Republics occupied by Russia, had little internal constituency for Soviet rule.

The lesson of all of these revolutions is that a popular revolution, since it does not have an internal ecology of power, is always a revolution in favor of those ready to take power. Lech Walesa was not a man out of nowhere. He organized boycotts in 1968, strikes in 1970, in 1980, long since out of work from official factories, he scaled the fence of the Gdansk shipyards, and organized the strike. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Far from being a man out of nowhere, a simple person that the mob elevated, he was a long time campaigner, a long time organizer, a long time politician. He spent years under secret police surveillance, and was constantly pushed out of work. The reality is a far more compelling figure, than the image of a nobody who became somebody in an instant. Thus, when the elections came, his "People's Committee" won all of the lower house seats, and all but one of the upper house seats, one of the most astonishing sweeps in electoral history anywhere.

This then is the iron law of popular revolution: It must continue until those who step forward are acceptable. It took several rounds in Argentina, it took only one in the Czech Republic.

American anti-pathy towards the regime in Tehran is mutual. The Iranian Revolution however, was an example of popular coup on the road to violent revolution, and it continued until the Shah had, in fact fled. The final Islamic regime, however, relied on organized military force to secure its hold on power – popular revolution had given way to a coup d'etat in favor of the most organized political force. Whether it would have won by continued demonstration, is not known, and largely academic, because the removal of the old regime was accomplished by popular action.

This demonstrates the difference between the myth and reality of popular revolution. The myth is that it is "non-violent." If one means strictly that there is no organized military violence, then perhaps this is the case, however, in general only the most decrepit regime will yield to absolutely non-violent demonstrations. Instead, most regimes fight back, and fight back strongly. If they can crackdown, and remove the locus of infection they will. Even if thousands die. The amount of violence in popular revolutions is then airbrushed out, or popular revolutions that are halted are airbrushed out of the mythology: Tiananamen, is not spelt or spoken by the priests of pure non-violence, and yet it was less violent than Tahrir Square was. Far less.

It is not that such popular revolutions do not occur: however, they are almost always predicated on violent struggles to establish leadership and existence. Poland? Consider how many people died in strikes leading up to 1988, 30 in 1970 alone. Czech Republic? Consider the 72 dead in the Prague Spring. The non-violent flank of successful popular revolutions prevails not by policing away violent opposition, but by interposing itself as the least unreasonable alternative.

Consider the overthrow of the Aparthied Regime in the Union of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was hardly non-violent, in fact, the ANC had ready its own police and military apparatus, repeatedly clashed with other groups in the movement, and removed by assassination opposition. In 1990 the New York Times ran an op-ed that asked "Why won't Nelson Mandela renounce violence?"

The answer was, of course, because Mandela was interested first and foremost in securing liberation for his people, for his nation, and in his time. He was not willing to condemn millions of people to suffer for years longer under a repressive and imperial regime, whose tendrils reached out into what is now Namibia and Zimbabwe, and beyond into the Congo, rather than scoring some academic point on how revolution ought to be conducted. He was the least violent alternative who could take power.

And this is part of the nature of successful popular revolution: behind it stands the abyss of violent revolution, of street battles, or military battles, of riots and looting, of burning, lynching, and terror unleashed, of lawlessness in the true sense that there is no orderly conduct of daily life. Popular revolution brings the course of business to a halt, but it is a promised pause before returning to it. The street demonstration, the strike, is then, not merely a wave that crashes against power, but a damn that holds back the rootless and nameless anarchic result of a government that has not merely lost the consent of the governed, but of a social order that people no longer respect.

This distinction is in the mind. The popular revolution asserts that there is an order, but that the leadership have violated that moral order. The violent revolution asserts that there is no moral order, and that a new one must be established by the traumatic baptism of the entire population. Popular revolution prevails precisely because the very adherents of the regime's power, those that must carry out its apparatus, realize they live in a house made of dry wood, and that beyond the banners, lie those with gasoline and matches, and no qualms about using them.

This is why popular revolutions often fail: their members are often as afraid of change, as they are adherents of it. Popular revolutions, as in Iran in 1979, as in France in 1789, are often overtaken by the violent crest behind them, but without that crest, there is no reason for power to concede. The popular revolution is the most delicate of revolutions, because unlike political revolution, violence is present, and often in the same places, as popular discontent. The politician elected on a wave to right a country before violence overtakes it, as FDR promised to do, has months or years. The leaders of popular revolution often have weeks or days, before the forces of organized violence, upon whose presence they rely, overwhelm them in turn.

The same forces that work in favor of popular revolution to evict occupation, work against it as a tool for reforming the established order. Under occupation, a small number use force to hold a larger number. In an established society, however, there is a large constituency for the status quo. It may well have to use excessive or unlawful violence to uphold its power, but it has nowhere to flee to. The occupier merely needs to be convinced to return home, and the popular revolution has to convince the public that they will be in possession of the country afterwards, and hence, unleashing larger that minimal violence will rebound against them. In the case of the status quo within a country, those who would lose a popular revolution, have no place to go.

Hence, popular revolution has to be divided into two kinds of popular coup: that which is a statement to the occupiers that the public will not cooperate, which approaches with minimalization of violence, lest it break the glass that it would drink from, and that which convinces an internal elite to yield, which must bare its teeth. First the students demonstrate, and the leaders ignore, then the unemployed demonstrate, and the leaders sneer. Then the hardened workers come, with their spanners and their trucks, and march, gasoline in hand on the Presidential palace. Then the guards run, and the leaders fly to some safe haven, and revolution is accomplished.

The successful popular revolutionary is the vaccine that arrives days before the plague, the fire truck that arrives minutes before the fire reaches the next house. The failed popular revolution exists in that bubble where the leadership share the consciousness of the public, or in the words of Isiah Berlin, they are sheep rallying for vegetarianism.