Monday, October 13, 2008

Revolution is Dead

I'm travelling out of state, and I think that makes my posts larger. :) Yet, I continue to ramble.

I wonder in today's world, and conglomeration of societies, how does one protest? Okay, not protest, rebel – or revolt. At one time, the world was filled with revolutionaries. I say this because of a long world history replete with rebellions. Today, I ask, and most people say, "What's the point? If you complain you might lose your job – or might not get one." Not much verve there for defiance.

The other reply I often get is, "What's there to rebel against?" To me, but I'll get to that in a moment. First let me cover what I mean by "rebel."

In recent years, the concept of "rebellion" has become one of buying limited edition clothes and commodities that mainstream culture ignores. That is to say, things that seem to say "individual." Sneakers are a good and commonly example. Sometimes a bloated global corporation releases a limited run of sneakers, driving the price into the hundreds (if not thousands), and rebels line up to buy them. These rebels want to have their own, not mass marketed identities. They are making a statement. Add to this other clothing, cars, telephones, pretty much anything that is not "popular," and there is a rebel ready to buy it – the cost is just the side effect of being "original." That's not quite the type of rebellion I'm talking about.

I'm driving at something a bit different. Presently, the entire world is in the grip of an economic crisis. Many people are suffering. And compared to other times in history, there is very little outcry. The issue isn't limited to any one nation; rather, it includes most people on the planet – the vast majority. So how long do those who are governed tolerate the inaction of those who govern? Do the math, one side out numbers the other. Oh, but I'm not suggesting violence. Rather simply grumbling, protests, becoming aware of the situation. The outnumbering part helps with all of those.

Of course, rebellion is a risky business. And business is the game. We live in a world that is fueled by economics – money. Somehow humanity has worked itself into a form of slavery. We need money for pretty much everything we do (at other levels it becomes "capital"). In theory, money buys us happiness (ignore the songs that say otherwise for the moment). At the same time, money is a chain that binds us. I'd love to say a metaphorical chain, but it is not a metaphor. It is a conceptual chain, but one that is as real as any physical restraint. We are bound to it, and exchange our lives for a bit more length. We are born to labor. Attempting to escape this labor usually results in punishment, legally or publically. Nations have constructed vast legal establishments to strengthen the chains that hold us. Try to escape, and problems follow.

About now, I probably sound like I dislike capitalism. Well, actually, I think I do at the fundamental level. However, if it's working for me, then I'm quite content. I am a capitalist. I'm not sure there are many other viable options today. Also, when it isn't working for other people – say most of the world – then I'm discontent. I'm a part of this system as is most everyone else. And I do believe it is a flawed system. I have nothing better to offer. But when it breaks, it causes great despair.

This is where the rebellion part comes in. If we're all slaves to money, and must labor to reach a point where our lives become our own, then we do have a say in how things work (I the "freedom" is supposed to be retirement – live life after decades of labor, buy your freedom and retire). Or, if you don't like the slave metaphor, then try, "we're all prisoners." To borrow from a popular film, and paraphrase a bit, "We are all born into a world that is a prison for our minds." We have the freedom to follow the rules – the narrative of life: go to school, get a job, work, work, retire, die. It is a formulaic tale, but one where most everyone joins in. And it seems we never get to write the narrative ourselves. Someone else is in charge of that.

So here we are, in an age where we can communicate around the world in an instant – although not everyone shares that capability (an economic issue). It seems we have the tools to protest. No more pitchforks and swords and torches. Words can do the work. Throughout history they have done the job several times. But now, when they should be their strongest, those who utter words seem to be missing. A Shakespearean irony if there ever was one. Words abound, but the rebels are silent. Or maybe they aren't missing. Maybe there are too many words. I don't know. However, what I do know is that when the prisoners or slaves revolt, people listen – particularly those in charge. At the least, we can make a little noise. Perhaps startle a few people. It seems the powers that be, be they corporate or government, have turned a blind eye to those they indenture. Maybe it's because they believe all of the rebels are chained up and complacent.


Rick said...

The answer, I believe, is for us all to join publicly owned and traded secret societies, where we will plot revolutionary activities so long as they do not devalue our 401 k's.

Okay, so that was only partially serious. I think that there are many reasons for our passive populace. Sorry for the long answer, but one of the unique things about your blog is that you sometimes deal with challenging issues.

In today's world, the infrastucture of human relations, government, commerce, and even government is so interconnected that the very idea of a potential disruption of that social network is cause for debilitating terror among those who should stand up and be heard. Revolution or at least dramatic changes are messy affairs with unpredictable consequences. Why, in the midst of social unreast, young revolutionies might not be able to use their credit cards at Burger King, or perhaps they might even be forced to miss an episode of "Dancing with the Stars." There are, after all, limits to taking a stand. We have become so interconnected than many fear radical change will result in changes in their media ordered lives. What if their iPods ceased to function for a week? What would they do?

We are truly the Eloi to our computer Morlocks. Actually, the Eloi were Spartans compared to us. We are truly the first species to self-eliminate by building our replacements. We have discussed this before, but I do not believe it is future fiction anymore. It is going on around us.

We have sold the human spirit because its Nielson ratings were too low. Each day our individualism drains away. Marx at least envisioned a society of individuals whose common ownership defined their commitment to each other. Again, he dressed badly, and suffered from dyslexic personal hygiene, but he was aiming toward something. Rand came at it from the other direction, also aiming for something different. But in the end, these two polar extremes at least dealt with individuals moving toward a constructed future.

The difference, I believe, is that we are de-constructing humanity by our apathy and indifference. Unlike years gone by, there will be no dictator or republic or monarchy or theocracy to blame.

I don't believe we will long be dealing with issues of class. We will be dealing with issues of species redundancy. To survive, as the great Emanuel Lasker said, is to struggle. He was a friend of Einstein whom Einstein greatly admired.

Lasker understood the theory of relativity, but Einstein thought that Lasker's thesis "The Theory of the Struggle" was less important than physics.

Evolution, will, I think, prove him wrong.

Voland said...

Ooh.. don't get me started... :-)

This is, of course, a HUGE issue.

At root, I think, is a massive disconnect between the world we *think* we live in, and the world we actually live in. Thanks to the propaganda fed to us every day of our lives, we think we live in a "modern" world of democracy, freedom of speech, and individual liberty. In actual fact we live in a world which is barely post-feudal, encumbered by Imperialist caste systems and hierarchies, and switching over from late Imperialism to proto-fascism (call it "corporate feudalism" if you will) during our lifetimes. Note the distinct lack of words like "freedom" and "democracy" in the above.

Marketing and window-dressing is all. Even in the Middle Ages, when people were chopping one another up on the flimsiest of pretexts and with alarming alacrity, the prevailing dogma was a Candidean "all for the best in the best of all possible worlds", that the state was structured "as God ordained it", and that the world was one of universal brotherhood and love. When of course nothing could be further than the truth. It should give us pause when we blather on about freedom and democracy - the West is a loose mercantile coalition of one party states masquerading as two party states. The reason the US elections pretty much fall 50/50 each time is because people vote pretty much randomly - there are no real issues to distinguish them. "What color chains do you want today?"

To paraphrase Orwell, revolution never comes from the "proles". Western history documents several so-called revolutions - English in the 17th century, American and French in the 18th century, a close call Europe-wide in 1848, the Russian in 1905-17, Chinese in 1949, etc, etc. In none of these were the leaders from the working class; quite the opposite, they were from the disgruntled mercantile classes, looking to remove the glass-ceilings of inherited privilege. And they worked - but only by recruiting the proles to their side by LOTS of egalitarian-sounding marketing.

We are facing a similar Revolution today. Twenty years ago the Cold War began to crumble. Since then, the old guard have struggled to stay in power - finding us a new Bogey Man (in a beard and turban this time) to drum up population-controlling fear, and desperately trying to keep the old oppositional us-and-them confrontation going to feed the military-industrial complex which drove 20th century history from start to finish. With the most Orwellian of irony, the old world order even tried to sell itself to us as the New World Order. Some people bought it; someone always does.

But there is a bunch of mitteltier rebels out there trying to break the NWO glass ceiling; and it's the merchants, again. There are resources *everywhere* available for exploitation today, and the corporate feudalists want to *get at them*! In every Western country over the past decade we've seen corporate interests and government interests gradually become the same - actually the definition of fascism - but in clear opposition (most of the time) to the OWO/NWO.

Hence today's Revolution. The OWO/NWO is collapsing under the weight of its own inertia; in its place, a much more agile corporacy, perhaps not quite global yet, but heading in that direction. As with most Revolutions, its going to be disturbing to the peace of all of us for a while, but, uniquely, perhaps, this time, our New Masters, the corporate feudalists, would like to keep us Consuming and Producing just as before - it's simply the agenda that's changed. There's been a coup d'etat in the West.

Tragically, the rest of us are left blinking in the rubble, clutching our smoke-and-mirrors dreams of a free modern world of liberty and fraternity in tatters to our chests. To quote Starship Troopers (!), the only freedom any of us ever really have is figuring things out for ourselves. Bitter comfort, when you may be losing your house and savings to "historical necessity".

The trouble with Marx is that Lenin gave us the idea we could shortcut the historical dialectic, somehow jumping from "post-feudal late Imperialism" to "socialism-building-communism" in one fell swoop, hurdling possibly centuries of social development in a single bound. The aftermath of the Russian revolution gave the lie to Leninism. But Marx is still in there - we inch one step forwards, as capitalism comes face-to-face with its own contradictions when placed on a global stage. Now we get to post-capitalism - a kind of managed version of what we had, with hopefully some greater social controls. But, dang, is this social progress thing ever a slow business...

HG Wells in "The Shape of Things to Come" predicted total economic collapse and a century of rigorous self re-education before our society could reach some form of sensible organization. I think that's optimistic; last week the US spent TEN TIMES the sum it would take to deal with global hunger on a "bailout" of its banking system, so we have a way to go yet before the era of universal brotherhood dawns.

Perhaps this is the eternal paradox of the intellectual. The world *could* be a paradise, if only people were... well, different... not like they are... weren't people, basically... if only they were more like me... oh, bother... ;-)

In this hinterland of history at the tale end of the Middle Ages, I personally can offer only this advice, from a dear friend who happens to run a Swiss bank investment company in the City in London: Keep it local. Show, don't tell. Create functioning communities and networks *where you are*. Sidestep the corporacy and create your own alternative system. Rebel in small things; don't watch advertising; don't follow the demands of the herd to be "alternative" in acceptable ways. Keep smiling, and crack targeted jokes. Never just mumble and let another overt oppression take place.

As the ex-mayor of London said, if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it.

Cause for hope or despondency? Hope, I'd say - at the price of eternal vigilance. Our civilization has a long way to go yet before it reaches the place our propaganda tells us it's already at. But that's no reason not to keep heading in that direction. It *is* the right direction.

And - William, you're quite right. It has *nothing* to do with a pair of sneakers.


Big topic, long post. Apologies all.

Jeff Edwards said...

This is something of a recurring topic for you, William, somewhat tied to your earlier posts on the "narrative of life" and "multi-colored bits of paper." It's a big topic, and certainly ambitious to address in a blog.

I fall in line with some of what Voland says. When I watch TV, I mute the commercials. I don't chase fashion trends or long for a huge house or flashy new auto. I live within my means.

As far as the upcoming U.S. elections go, I see a clear division between a message of inspiration and hope on one side, and fear and doubt on the other. I'll go for the inspiration. Even if it is all an illusion, I'll gladly follow the positive illusion. (In life, that is -- but in my entertainment I prefer the bleak vision.)


Rick said...

"As the ex-mayor of London said, if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."

What a wonderful quote! Thanks Voland, I'll tape that above my computer.

It brings to mind my all time favorite quote from "Through the Looking Glass" - "First the sentence, then the trial."

MKeaton said...

I fear this may be one of those long posts that I probably should put on my own site but let me offer my own humble insight into the matter.

First off, to define terms, I should point out that the root of rebellion is to rebel while the root of revolution is to revolve. I think the linguistics are accurate. Revolution is the exchange of one leader or form for another—new boss, same as the old—and I'm fairly comfortable in assuming that revolution is not what you're really looking at. Rebellion, on the other hand, is to throw aside the existing and does not expressly have to have a new form or direction. It is, simply put, a rejection. "This, now, is not acceptable." Ironically, even rebellion is predictable because one must rebel against something and that something then, in turn, defines the form of the rebellion. I know this all sounds like semantic nitpicking but to me it seems relevant. If I understand your point aright, your wonder is: why is there no widespread rejection of the current status since it is broken? And, following this: how does one go about rejecting the current status and seeking for a new system in a productive fashion?

As long as I'm defining terms, let me sidetrack into money for a moment. Money isn't real; only the lack of money is. What do I mean by that? Well, if I can't afford groceries, the lack is real—a tangible, immediate, physical consequence. Money in the positive (a bank account, a pocket full of colored paper, etc.) is nothing but an illusion of security. It is backed only by faith and constantly endangered by fate. A man with one dollar in his pocket is, empirically, no different from a man with a million. (I say all of this theoretically. I am an author and therefore know, experientially, only of the lack but I believe my observations are sound.) Assets, however, are real—land, food, knowledge, etc.—although even they must be converted into a useful form and the value fluxuates. Based on this, it follows intuitively that "money" in its various forms ranging from barter to bonds is inextricable from the human condition. (For clarity's sake, let me stipulate that I define theft and robbery as forms of barter. Physical violence is exchanged for assets.)

In effect, man has needs. Every man has differing talents and therefore, no matter how self-sufficient, will encounter a time when his needs require assistance from other men. He attains this action either through a barter variant or the other man's altruism. Since altruism is not a consistent trait in humanity, the barter variant must be the assumed constant. This requires that a man use his own talents in support of both himself and others. Therefore, it is the fate of all mankind to toil beneath the sun. Governments and economic systems are all extensions of barter variants where the assets being traded include force, security, and the like. I think perhaps the reason that capitalism seems to be the best current economic system employed in the world is because it is predicated on the assumption that you can't rely on kindness but you can rely on greed. A system based on assuming the worst and hoping for the best is more robust than the inverse.

To return to the original discussion, to rebel is to either rebel against the basic human condition or to rebel against the current barter variant being employed.

Why is there no widespread rejection of the current status? Because it is not bad enough to be worth the effort. For all of our whining, things just aren't that bad. I don't mean that they aren't bad; I mean that they are not as bad as the cost in personal assets such as security, survival, etc. that would be incurred or at least jeopardized by actual rebellion. Especially when you consider that part of the cost of rebellion is the obligation to find and initiate a better way. Mankind is basically lazy and our current society rife with entertainments and techniques deliberately designed to distract us from our condition makes it even easier to bear the burden of the status quo.

How does one go about rejecting the current status and seeking for a new system in a productive fashion? Here I must admit that I learned a good deal from the great Russian writers throughout history. (The Russians are not alone in this. Most cultures have experienced similar events and people. I choose the Russians only because they are convenient as a point of common cultural reference.) They realized that the only single thing that a man may ever have any degree of true control over is himself. They rebelled by being true to themselves. Imprisoned, tortured, and deprived of solace, they paid the costs of rebellion. By refusing to be complicit in the current system, it may be accurately said that they rebelled. The question is, did they rebel productively?

I would say yes. They rebelled with words and those words abide and resonate with us still today. Man will always labor and he will always suffer. There will always be governments and societies with all their intricate plots and demands. As Solomon wrote, "There is nothing new under the sun." But, unlike most, I don't see this as a bad thing for in suffering and strife arises the glory of the human condition. From the forge of grief comes the true and shining metal of art. Any man who so chooses, is free if only he understands the costs and currencies of his exchanges. Family, friends, integrity—these are the things of true value, the things worth risking for. Nations rise and fall but ideas persevere. In wisdom there is sorrow and in knowledge grief yet also in life is hope and the petty worries of the evening news are as chaff in the winds compared to the implacable tide of history. We have rebelled. We do rebel. We do it with words and ideals, hiding them even in the seemingly innocuous stories we tell for the amusements of others.

If a man wishes revolution, let him study politics but, if a man wishes true change, let him study integrity and learn to write.


(Okay, so I ramble on and oversimplify on a few points. Hopefully you can still see what I'm trying to say.)

Steve Buchheit said...

Here we are now
Entertain us.

(what follows is an actual, true conversation I had at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1998, a visit from my art school)

"So," I said to the high-school kid sketching in front of one of the masters (BTW, something you don't see anymore), "what's with wearing all black?"

"It's to show I'm an individual and don't follow the herd market mentality," this proto-emo said, sneering at my button-down shirt and blue jeans.

"So, you're an individual and unique?"


I make an over exaggerated looking around the room to spot the other three high school students in all black. "Then why are you dressed like all your classmates?"

Rick said...

You don't think this blog will be on a watch list now, do you? Am I going to have to change my posting name again?

Rick said...

Hey, William, I have a question for you and anybody else out there. Who do you consider as a mentor or role model for effective social change?

Lois said...

Today, I ask, and most people say, "What's the point? If you complain you might lose your job – or might not get one." Not much verve there for defiance.

Lo>> Hey, Wm. Most of us have given up hope, become extremely cynical. Most of us are scared. Sure, what's the point? I live in an area where jobs have always been scarce. Thousands of people are laid off every year. If I'm lucky enough to have a job for a couple of years, I can't whine about anything. All I have to do is remember the year my son and I lived on my (not so huge) income from The Computers of Star Trek. We went for many years without health insurance. And we never had dental coverage, of course. When the 60-watt bulbs burned out, we didn't replace them. We were down to one 60-watter in the house. And the house itself: we called it "The Dump," which says it all. So yeah, around here, if I'm lucky enough to have a job so I don't have to leave town, I do what I'm supposed to do, and there's no way I'm going to do or say anything negative.


The other reply I often get is, "What's there to rebel against?"

Lo>> We have become a powerless workforce. In my teens and twenties, companies were whacking people with "pink slips" - good people, young guys with kids, single mothers working their butts off, etc. Whacking people became common and known as "layoffs." Companies (here, anyway) started using 50% (and more) contractors rather than employees who might demand health insurance and some stability. As a contractor, you could work for a company for no more than 18 months, by law. Then you had to move on. I was a contractor going through these revolving doors, in and out in and out, for 15 years. Unions, benefits: since when? If we enter another era similar to the 30's, people may finally start speaking up to change things - we can only hope. I am hoping Obama wins the prez, that he survives (ie, that he isn't blown away by some nutcase - let's pray that he has plenty of protection), and that he can SOMEHOW make changes that finally help ordinary people. Else, the country and 99% of the population will be sliding downhill so fast that...well, you'd better earmark your cardboard "house" box under the railroad NOW.

This is where the rebellion part comes in. If we're all slaves to money, and must labor to reach a point where our lives become our own, then we do have a say in how things work (I the "freedom" is supposed to be retirement – live life after decades of labor, buy your freedom and retire). Or, if you don't like the slave metaphor, then try, "we're all prisoners." To borrow from a popular film, and paraphrase a bit, "We are all born into a world that is a prison for our minds." We have the freedom to follow the rules – the narrative of life: go to school, get a job, work, work, retire, die. It is a formulaic tale, but one where most everyone joins in. And it seems we never get to write the narrative ourselves. Someone else is in charge of that.

Lo>> For those of us who wrote our own narrative (you are included, I assume?), it wasn't a sweet ride. It was difficult. But well worth it. In the end, it'll suck to be so-called "retired" without the fat buffers that other people have accumulated by this slave labor. However, when I'm on my death bed, I'll remember the things that mattered to me - my kids, my books, my stories, the other writers I've known, etc. I do not want to die with my last thoughts being blank - as blank as a life that could have been spent on the straight-and-narrow treadmill: a flat lifetime of grunt labor, no intellectual stimulation, and producing absolutely nothing of meaning. I went off the path in my late teens. As far back as I can remember, I was always yearning for something "fun" to do, with "fun" defined as intellectually stimulating, creative, something I could form from nothing and actually care about. I've paid a price, but I wouldn't rewrite the main paths that I took. There's not much room for creative thinking, unfortunately, in the straight-and-narrow workplace.

It seems the powers that be, be they corporate or government, have turned a blind eye to those they indenture. Maybe it's because they believe all of the rebels are chained up and complacent.

Lo>> I could rant endlessly about this subject. Are people complacent? (sigh) I doubt that many people are feeling complacent these days. Otoh, gotta count your blessings - me? I can walk, I can swim, I can create (write), the leaves are gorgeous, I have food, I make a great angel food cake, I have heat in the winter (knock on wood, right?), my kids are healthy and doing okay, my mom is still around, I can still enjoy the rain, the water, the flowers. I have plenty of good books to read. Without these things -- which are truly the important stuff of life -- I'd be miserable. The rest is (sigh)...the rest is critical but not the driving force.

Voland said...

Hi Rick, hi all,

Your question re: role model / mentor for effective social change.

I was going to say Gandhi. Then I thought about it a bit, and remembered all the tasers, free speech zones, tear gas, guantanamos and halliburton fema camps out there, and thought - no, dang it, my role model has to be the character "V" from the movie "V for Vendetta". I don't know how well known it is in the States - well worth a look if you haven't already seen it. You might recognise the mask... ;-)

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself... and a good kicking..."

Rick said...

Hey Voland! Gandhi was a great choice. My kids are going to explain "V" to me tonight. Mine are like John Steinbeck, Emanuel Lasker, Ayn Rand, Martin Luther King, and Carl Jung. They would hardly agree on any one particular topic, but if a person can't hold contradictory ideas in their head, they'll never choose interesting ice cream flavors. They'll buy chocolate or vanilla. Nothing that explodes the taste buds. Woody Allen pointed out that "People who buy vanilla or chocolate don't revolt."

Did Ghandi write anything? I'm trying to imagine him meeting up with Martin Luther King. That would be interesting.

And now, on to "V" with the kids!

Steve Buchheit said...

Rick, and Voland, sure, Gandhi was good. Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel, Solzhenitsyn, all good choices. But they really only changed the focus of society and replaced it with an existing culture that was in the minority, or out of power. It may just be a product of my mood for the past seven years, but I'm going with Genghis Khan. Forget negotiation, forget soft/velvet revolutions, "Here's the way it's gonna be, deal."

MKeaton said...

I wasn't going to post until Steve showed me that there was someone else who might understand my choice. I have huge respect for Solzhenitsyn and for Socrates but my #1 is Alexander the Great.


Rick said...

Yeah, well Socrates had a mean right hook and Gandhi was a crack shot.

William Jones said...

I really don't know where to beging to respond. I guess that's what I get for going out of town. :) But, I suppose, I had my say in the initial post. Although the more I re-read these posts, the greater the temptation to offer up something.

One common thread I've seen is the reference to fiction and non-fiction and popular culture works (as though both have some influence - how delightful; and Steve, you probably can't imagine know how many times I've used the lyrics you quoted).

And yes, Jeff, this is a recurring topic of mine. The narrative of life, commodities, commercials, reality. You read to closely. :) Occasionally, it even appears in my writing or themes I select for anthologies.

And please feel free to continue the discussion. There seems to be a shift from "revolution" to something akin to the old Pax Romana. Or maybe that is a shift in modern politics. There is a new can of jelly worms.

fever dream said...

Hey Jones,

This entry probably makes way too much sense to me because it's so true.

Firstly let's look at the mass-produced counter culture that exists. It's like being a non conformist is being a conformist, in a different way. There is a t shirt in production that reads "you laugh because i'm different, I laugh because you're all the same". Yes, a mass produced shirt is a great way to declare that you're different from everyone you pass someone else wearing the same shirt on your way to Hot Topic for some more alternative clothing that costs more than you make in an entire day.

It's hard to rebel because everything costs so much money. It kind of becomes, do you fight the system and possibly end up losing everything?

But then, what are you losing? Some of what you lose is simply what society tells you you need. Some, on the other hand, involves losing things that are necessary. Your house, your car (depending on where you live, transportation by car may be necessary). I guess I am a bit of a socialist because I believe there are certain things that all citizens are entitled to, such as health care.

It becomes even harder to rebel when there are those that depend on you. It's a little easier to take a risk that may deprive you of your health insurance, but most people would not even consider the same risk if it meant losing health insurance for their children.

It is not that there's nothing to rebel against--it's that rebellion has become impossible. We are dependent on that which imprisons us. The only way to change that is to fight, but people won't do that because it means losing everything they've known.