Transforming the United States into something closer to a democracy requires: (1) knowledge of how we are getting screwed; (2) pragmatic tactics, strategies, and solutions; and (3) the “energy to do battle.”
The majority of Americans oppose the corporatocracy (rule by giant corporations, the extremely wealthy elite, and corporate-collaborator government officials), however, many of us have given up hope that this tyranny can be defeated. Among those of us who continue to be politically engaged, many focus on only one of the requirements—knowledge of how we are getting screwed. And this singular focus can result in helplessness. It is the two other requirements that can empower, energize, and activate Team Democracy— a team that is currently at the bottom of the standings in the American Political League.
I. Knowledge of How We are Getting Screwed
Harriet Tubman conducted multiple missions as an Underground Railroad conductor, and she also participated in the Union Army’s Combahee River Raid that freed more than 700 slaves. Looking back on her career as a freedom fighter, Tubman noted, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” While awareness of the truth of corporatocracy oppression is by itself not sufficient to win freedom and justice, it is absolutely necessary.
We are ruled by so many “industrial complexes”—military, financial, energy, food, pharmaceutical, prison, and so on—that it is almost impossible to stay on top of every way we are getting screwed. The good news is that—either through independent media or our basic common sense—polls show that the majority of Americans know enough about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Wall Street bailouts, and other corporate welfare to oppose these corporatocracy policies. In the case of the military-industrial complex, most Iraq War polls and Afghanistan War polls show that the majority of Americans know enough to oppose these wars. And when Americans were asked in a CBS New /New York Times survey in January 2011 which of three programs—the military, Medicare, or Social Security—to cut so as to deal with the deficit, fully 55 percent chose the military, while only 21 percent chose Medicare and 13 percent chose Social Security.
In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows that the deal is rotten.” Well, maybe not everybody, but damn near everybody.
But what doesn’t everybody know?
2. Pragmatic Tactics, Strategies, and Solutions
In addition to awareness of economic and social injustices created by corporatocracy rule, it is also necessary to have knowledge of strategies and tactics that oppressed people have historically used to overcome tyranny and to gain their fair share of power.
Even before the Democratic-Republican bipartisan educational policies (such as “no child left behind” and “race to the top”) that cut back on civics being taught in schools, few Americans were exposed in their schooling to “street-smart civics”—tactics and strategies that oppressed peoples have historically utilized to gain power.
For a comprehensive guide of tactics and strategies that have been effective transforming regimes even more oppressive than the current U.S. one, read political theorist and sociologist Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, which includes nearly 200 “Methods of Nonviolent Actions.” Among Sharp’s 49 “Methods of Economic Noncooperation,” he lists over 20 different kinds of strikes. And among his 38 “Methods of Political Noncooperation,” he lists 10 tactics of “citizens’ noncooperation with government,” 9 “citizens’ alternatives to obedience,” and 7 “actions by government personnel.” Yes, nothing was more powerful in ending the Vietnam War and saving American and Vietnamese lives than the brave actions by critically thinking U.S. soldiers who refused to cooperate with the U.S. military establishment; check out David Zeigler’s documentary Sir! No Sir! for details.
For a quick history lesson on “the nature of disruptive power” in the United States and the use of disruptive tactics in fomenting the American Revolution, the Abolitionist Movement, the Labor Movement, and other democratic movements, check out sociologist Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Piven describes how “ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” In the midst of the Great Depression when U.S unemployment was over 25 percent, working people conducted an exceptional number of large labor strikes, including the Flint, Michigan sit-down strike, which began at the end of 1936 when auto workers occupied a General Motors factory so as to earn recognition for the United Auto Workers union as a bargaining agent. That famous victory was preceded and inspired by other less well-known major battles fought and won by working people. Check out the intelligent tactics (and guts and solidarity) in the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike.
For an example of “the nature of creative power” that scared the hell out of—and almost triumphed—over the moneyed elite, read The Populist Moment by historian Lawrence Goodwyn. The Populist Movement, the late nineteenth century farmers’ insurgency, according to Goodwyn, was the largest democratic movement in American history. These Populists and their major organization, commonly called the “Alliance,” created worker cooperatives that resulted in empowering economic self-sufficiency. They came close to successfully transforming a good part of the United States into something a lot closer to a democracy. As Goodwyn notes, “Their efforts, halting and disjointed at first, gathered form and force until they grew into a coordinated mass movement that stretched across the American continent . . . Millions of people came to believe fervently that the wholesale overhauling of their society was going to happen in their lifetimes.”
In Get Up, Stand Up, I include the section “Winning the Battle: Solutions, Strategies, and Tactics.” However, a major point of the book is that, currently in the United States, even more ignored than street-smart strategies and tactics is the issue of morale, which is necessary for implementing these strategies and tactics. So, I also have a section “Energy to Do Battle: Liberation Psychology, Individual Self-Respect, and Collective Self-Confidence.”
(3) The Energy to Do Battle.
The elite’s money—and the influence that it buys—is an extremely powerful weapon. So it is understandable that so many people who are defeated and demoralized focus on their lack of money rather than on their lack of morale. However, we must keep in mind that in war, especially in a class war when one’s side lacks financial resources, morale becomes even more crucial.
Activists routinely become frustrated when truths about lies, victimization, and oppression don’t set people free to take action. But having worked with abused people for more than 25 years, it doesn’t surprise me to see that when we as individuals or a society eat crap for too long, we become psychologically too weak to take action. There are a great many Americans who have been so worn down by decades of personal and political defeats, financial struggles, social isolation, and daily interaction with impersonal and inhuman institutions that they no longer have the energy for political actions.
Other observers of subjugated societies have recognized this phenomenon of subjugation resulting in demoralization and fatalism. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Ignacio Martin-Baró, the El Salvadoran social psychologist and popularizer of “liberation psychology,” understood this psychological phenomenon. So too did Bob Marley, the poet laureate of oppressed people around the world. Many Americans are embarrassed to accept that we, too, after years of domestic corporatocracy subjugation, have developed what Marley called “mental slavery.” Unless we acknowledge that reality, we won’t begin to heal from what I call “battered people’s syndrome” and “corporatocracy abuse” and to, as Marley urges, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
Whether one’s abuser is a spouse or the corporatocracy, there are parallels when it comes to how one can maintain enough strength to be able to free oneself when the opportunity presents itself—and then heal and attain even greater strength. This difficult process requires honesty that one is in an abusive relationship. One should not be ashamed of having previously believed in corporatocracy lies; and it also helps to forgive and have compassion for those who continue to believe them. The liars we face are often quite good at lying. It helps to have a sense of humor about one’s predicament, to nurture respectful relationships, and to take advantage of a lucky opportunity—often created by the abuser’s arrogance— when it presents itself.
For democratic movements to have enough energy to get off the ground, certain psychological and cultural building blocks are required. Goodwyn, from his study of the Populists in the United States, Solidarity in Poland, and other democratic movements, concluded that “individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” constitute the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics. Without individual self-respect, people do not believe that they are worthy of power or capable of utilizing power wisely, and they accept as their role being a subject of power. Without collective self-confidence, people do not believe they can succeed in wresting power away from their rulers. There are “democracy battlefields” —in our schools, workplace, and elsewhere—where such respect and confidence can be regained every day.
No democratic movement succeeds without determination, courage, and solidarity, but modern social scientists routinely ignore such nonquantifiable important variables, and so those trained only in universities and not on the streets can, as Martin-Baró pointed out, “become blind to the most important meanings of human existence.” Great scientists recognize just how important nonquantifable variables are in certain areas of life. A sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton stated: not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
The battle against the corporatocracy needs critical thinking, which results in seeing some ugly truths about reality. This critical thinking is absolutely necessary. Without it, one is more likely to engage in tactics that can make matters worse. But critical thinking also means the ability to think critically about one’s pessimism—realizing that pessimism can cripple the will and destroy motivation. A critical thinker recognizes how negativism can cause inaction, which results in maintaining the status quo. Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), an Italian political theorist and Marxist activist who was imprisoned by Mussolini, talked about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” —a phrase that has inspired many critical thinkers, including Noam Chomsky.
Can one have hope without being an insipid Pollyanna? Until shortly before it occurred, the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed an impossibility to most Americans, who saw only mass resignation within the Soviet Union and its sphere of control. But the shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, did not see their Soviet and Communist Party rulers as the all-powerful forces that Americans did. And so Polish workers’ Solidarity, by simply refusing to go away, provided a strong dose of morale across Eastern Europe at the same time other historical events weakened the Soviet empire.
Today in Iceland, citizens have refused to acquiesce to the demands of global financial institutions, simply refusing to be taxed for the mistakes of the financial elite that caused their nation’s recent financial meltdown. In a March 2010 referendum in Iceland, 93 percent voted against repayment of the debt, and Icelander citizens have been drafting a new constitution that would free their country from the power of international finance (this constitution will be submitted to parliament for approval after the next elections). Yes, participatory democracy is still possible.
The lesson from the 2011 Arab spring in and other periods of history is that tyrannical and dehumanizing institutions are often more fragile than they appear, and with time, luck, morale, and our ability to seize the moment, damn near anything is possible. We never really know until it happens whether or not we are living in that time when historical variables are creating opportunities for seemingly impossible change. Thus, we must prepare ourselves by battling each day in all our activities to regain individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, determination, courage, and solidarity.
I just read this at alternet.com and I shared it on my Facebook wall. These thoughts you express are exactly what I have been wondering about. I admire you very much and I thank you for taking the time to study the matter and then to set it out so clearly and so publicly. You are being an educator, which is crucial (“… if only they knew they were slaves”).
Reading your essay has given me my first glimmer of hope, as I had previously feared we had reached a “tipping point” of irrevocable corporate power. Now, I am feeling more receptive to the notion that there are alternatives.
Now I go look for your book. 🙂
Often I feel that by focusing on injustice, my own attitude becomes aligned with it, though in opposition.
I don’t like this influence on my personality and would rather my web of beliefs and states of mind were a product of my own “vision”, instead of being dominated by my reaction to a vision I abhor.
Agreeing with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’d rather be aware of injustice than ignore it. I just don’t want to be defined by it.
Might you have advice for keeping perspective?
I think, Sean, that you have a good insight, and like all good insights, it requires a certain degree of wisdom and discipline to incorporate in your life on a regular basis. Best of luck–Bruce
Thank you for the post and your recent Alternet article. the videos on your web site are excellent. My own experience comes from several of the directions you mention.
I worked as a union organizer with the UFW, studied Paulo Friere, and worked indirectly with Frances Fox Piven. I think your ideas have substantive merit. I posted a link to your articles on my blog. My own writing, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education, (2010) explores some of the school issues which you raise. I worked in schools for 35 years. However, your work from a therapy perspective is mostly new to me. Keep up the good work. You are assisting others.
The USG is funded by the forced contributions, withholding taxes, by taxing labor and is then transferred by the USG to the incompetent, mismanaged, and the criminal Wall st. Banksters. The forced c0ntributions are used to prop up the incompetent, mismanaged banksters, the Wall St., Wash., DC, Axis of Evil, AoE, a criminal conspiracy for unethical gangsterism. The Pentagon protection racket scheme of fund US, the Pentagon for protection or else. The purpose of the Pentagon is to protect and secure the worldwide assets of the wealthy & multinational corporations many if which pay little/no taxes or not even located in the USA while still being Pentagon protected. This is unethical gangsterism perpetrated on the world paid for by the forced contributions of USAn’s. Al Capone was an ethical gangster, Al only protected those that paid for it. Because of withholding taxes, other than Social Security and Medicare, the USAn’s are even worse off than they were doing the “Gilded Age” as the taxpayer’s wages are discounted because of the forced contribution transferred to capital which in effect is a rebate on the wages paid, thereby discounting their labor costs.
“One should not be ashamed of having previously believed in corporatocracy lies; and it also helps to forgive and have compassion for those who continue to believe them.”
I have a hard time with this. I think the shame is natural and good as long as it doesn’t lead to despondency and inaction. Rather, the shame should turn to anger and a determination to make amends for one’s errors in the past. Apparently, it takes a significant amount of integrity and courage to do this, but the buck stops with each and every individual. Perhaps I should be more forgiving of the dupes out there, and I probably would be, if they weren’t contributing to the hurt that is being done to me in the form of alienation, powerlessness, deprivation, and the realization of the looming death of the species in the next few decades unless things can be radically altered. I am prepared to forgive anyone, just as soon as they get their shit together; until then, as far as I am concerned, they are just part of the problem.
On a side note, I would like to say that a class-conscious, Socialist, Working Class movement is our only salvation. Also, Bruce, I admire you and your work. I have followed your writing in Z Magazine and I have been checking out your blog lately. We need more radical, health professionals. Personally, I don’t trust bourgeois professionals, or the bourgeoisie generally. We need people like you. Whatever your class background you have proven to me your allegiance to the Working Class and the cause of justice.
Thanks, Joseph, for your comments. Unfortunately, psychologically, shame more often simply breaks people and weakens them rather than motivates them. Shame is quite different than guilt, as guilt can motivate people to change their behaviors. Of course your frustration with people who have become part of the problem is certainly understandable. The question is what is the best way of building a democratic movement –Bruce
Bruce, I have just discovered your work via your latest article in Alternet.
What a relief to find it. I have a background in the mental health field but as a former sociologist was always working on the edge, influenced by those thinkers whose theory/practice was critical and liberation-oriented (Joel Kovel, Russel Jacoby, some feminist therapists and so on). Ultimately I left the field, got married and now my husband and I are very involved with the environmental crisis… only of course most people don’t see it as crisis. I took a lot of heart from this article, it pulled me back into a psychology I can relate to and gave me a lot of ideas. It’s great to know you’re there and putting such important writing out there. Thank you.
I’ll be ‘staying tuned’.
Catherine [Ontario, Canada]
Thanks, Catherine. Best of luck to you and your husband with your environmental efforts –Bruce
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