Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite
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The following is an excerpt from Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011) by Bruce E. Levine.
How many Americans believe that their voice matters in determining whether giant banks, insurance companies, and other “too-big-to-fail” corporations get bailed out? How many Americans older than twelve believe that they have any influence over a decision by the US government to invade another nation?
There are a slew of books and articles out there providing analyses of the profound problems of American democracy and offering recommendations aimed at improving matters. However, these analyses and recommendations routinely assume that Americans have sufficient personal energy to take action. Instead, what if many Americans have lost confidence that genuine democracy is possible? When such fatalism sets in, truths about economic injustices and lost liberties are no longer enough to set people free.
While a charismatic politician can still garner a large turnout of voters who are angry with whichever party is in power, the majority of Americans appear resigned to the idea that they have no power over institutions that rule their lives. At least that’s what I see. I was curious if what troubled me also was troubling others, so I wrote an article titled “Are Americans a Broken People?” It was republished on numerous Internet sites, and I read more than a thousand reaction comments (some of which are included in this book). I was swamped with e-mails and received several media interview requests to discuss the article, which had apparently touched a nerve among those who identify themselves as progressive, libertarian, or populist. They too wondered why so many Americans have remained passive in the face of attacks on their liberties and their economic well-being. Some of the questions that I first raised in that article and will answer more fully in this book are:
• Has “learned helplessness” taken hold for a great many Americans? Are many Americans locked into an abuse syndrome of sorts in which revelations about their victimization by a corporate-government partnership produce increased anesthetization rather than constructive action?
• What cultural forces have created a passive and discouraged US population? Have so-called right-wing and so-called progressive institutions both contributed to breaking people’s resistance to domination?
• And most important, can anything be done to turn this demoralization and passivity around? Is it possible for people to rebuild their morale and forge the connections necessary to support a truly democratic populism that can take power away from elite control?
Elitism—be it rule by kings or corporations—is the opposite of genuine democracy. It is in the interest of those at the top of society to convince people below them that (1) democracy is merely about the right to vote; and (2) corporations and the wealthy elite are so powerful, any thought that “regular people” can achieve real power is naive. In genuine democracy and in real-deal populism, people not only believe that they have a right to self-government; they also have the individual strength and group cohesion necessary to take actions to eliminate top-down controls over their lives.
If people lose sight of what democracy really is, or if they lose hope of the possibility of attaining it, then they lose their energy to fight for it. The majority of us, unlike the elite, will always lack big money, so we depend on individual and collective energy to do battle. Without such energy, the elite will easily subdue us.
Get Up, Stand Up is, in large part, about regaining that energy. There exist solid strategies and time-tested tactics that people have long used to battle the elite, and these will be detailed. However, these strategies and tactics are not sufficient. For large-scale democratic movements to have enough energy to get off the ground, certain psychological and cultural building blocks are required. With these energizing building blocks, it then becomes realistic—and not naive—to believe that large numbers of people can take the kind of actions that will produce genuine democracy. The belief that their actions can be effective provides energy to take actions, taking actions strengthens the faith, and an energizing cycle is created.
Historian Lawrence Goodwyn has studied democratic movements and written extensively about the Populist Movement in the United States that occurred during the 1870s through the 1890s, what he calls “the largest democratic mass movement in American history.” Goodwyn concludes that democratic movements are initiated by people who are not resigned to the status quo or intimidated by established powers, and who have not allowed themselves to be “culturally organized to conform to established hierarchical forms.” Goodwyn writes in The Populist Moment:
Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect . . . In psychological terms, its appearance reflects the development within the movement of a new kind of collective self-confidence. “Individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” constitute, then, the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics.[emphasis added]
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.
What today, culturally and psychologically, has destroyed individual self-respect and collective self-confidence? One goal of this book is to examine this question. The good news is that answers to it provide, within the ordinary daily events of people’s lives, a road map of opportunities to regain individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, and real power.
The elite who maintain a hold on power are few; even with the support of some non-elites who share an ideology of hierarchical control, this group is a small minority. Those of us who believe in genuine democracy—of, by, and for the people—far outnumber the elitists, but we are divided. The elite’s strategy of “divide and conquer” is one that routinely works, but not always. Their strategy fails when we recognize that the divides among us pale in significance compared with a common desire to have our fair share of power. And so Get Up, Stand Up is also about unifying people who oppose elite control so as to focus on our common desire for genuine democracy.
Forging an Alliance among Populists
The corporatocracy uses its money and power to try to persuade Americans that it is “populist demagoguery” to even bring up the subject of a class war, and that populism means pandering to destructive prejudices. Fortunately, despite the corporatocracy’s great efforts here, many don’t buy it.
In March 2009, a Rasmussen Reports poll reported that “55% of Americans Are Populist.” They defined populist as trusting the American people’s judgment more than America’s political leaders, as seeing government and big business as political allies working against the interest of most people, and as seeing the federal government as one more special-interest group that is primarily looking after its own needs. While 55 percent of Americans were populists, only 7 percent trusted an elite ruling class. According to this measure, 52 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans, and 51 percent of those not affiliated with either major party were populists.
Today in the United States, unlike the end of the nineteenth century, there is confusion about populism. While all self-identified populists continue to reject control by the elite, there are different views of exactly who the elite are and what form of anti-elitism would be best. There are populists who most emphasize “liberty and freedom,” and there are those who most emphasize “social and economic justice.” And a major difference among many modern populists is their view of “government” and the “free market.”
Today some self-identified populists—unlike nineteenth-century Populists—believe it is naive to trust any government, including one created in the name of the people, because such a government will be taken over by an elitist cadre. In contrast, other modern self-identified populists—similar to those nineteenth-century agrarian Populist rebels—believe it is naive to trust the unbridled free market because concentrated economic power (inevitable in an unregulated market economy) can be just as dangerous as concentrated political power, in no small part because those holding concentrated economic power can too easily acquire undue political power for themselves; and therefore, the people must take control of government to counterbalance economic power run amok.
Populists also differ on what’s most important to wrest away from the elite, and they can differ on their views of human nature. Some self-identified libertarians are more focused on liberty and autonomy and believe that people are essentially competitive and motivated by self-interest. Some self-identified leftist populists may also care deeply about liberty and autonomy but stress more the need for economic and social justice, and they believe that human beings are essentially cooperative and altruistic.
In the late-nineteenth-century Populist revolt, insurgent farmers would have seen it as “plumb silly” to debate whether people are essentially competitive or cooperative. As historian Lawrence Goodwyn notes, “Populists thought of man as being both competitive and cooperative,” though they tilted toward cooperation as they desired a generous rather than a selfish society. In a democratic, non-elite society, people would respectfully listen to one another’s views of human nature and ideas about the kind of society that brings out the best and worst of people.
A large divide between populists has to do with their views of the US government. Libertarians see the US government as the tyrant, and they seek to drastically eliminate the government’s power so that “We the People” can regain liberty. Left populists see giant corporations as the tyrants, and short of eliminating this corporate elite, they seek freedom and social and economic justice by taking back control of government and using it to ensure that the corporate elite will not tyrannize them. While some self-identified libertarian populists rail only against “governmental tyranny,” and some self-identified left populists rail only against “corporate tyranny,” other populists get that, in the corporatocracy, Americans are being ruled by a corporate-governmental partnership.
Real-deal populism is hurt by those self-identified populists who ignore the reality that the US government is the junior—not the senior—partner of the corporate elite in the corporatocracy. The corporate elite relishes the role of the US government being seen as the tyrant. Every tyrant wants to demonize some other entity—be it an institution or a people—so as to deflect rebellion against itself. In reality, one major role of the US government in the corporatocracy is to serve as a scapegoat to deflect rebellion against the corporate elite.
All anti-elitists need to realize that what they share bonds them much more than anything that divides them. It is true that not all anti-elitists have the same views of human nature or the same exact solutions to self-government. In genuine democracy and real-deal populism, people will continue to disagree on issues. However, if we want to defeat the elite, we must come to realize that listening to one another and ironing out differences can be individually strengthening as well as galvanizing for us as a whole. I encounter real-deal populists across the political and ideological spectrum, and I believe it is quite possible for us to learn from one another and work together. In my experience, as long as I listen and speak with respect, other populists and I almost always find more to agree about that is substantive than remains between us as difference—and sometimes we can iron out our differences.
In addition to agreeing on the general principle of opposition to elite rule, both left and libertarian populists agree on many specific issues. Both opposed the Wall Street bailout; and similar to most left populists, many libertarian populists oppose the US government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well its war on drugs.
There are of course issues that divide many left and libertarian populists, but I believe it’s possible to have discussions around these issues that create greater unity. To do so, we must keep in mind that some of these issues are fairly emotional ones that need to be addressed with sensitivity.
Gun control is one such personal issue that divides populists to their detriment. Many libertarian populists will tell you something like, “Hang out in rural America, and you’ll see that a gun is just a tool, no different from a hammer or a chain saw, and even among those of us who have stopped hunting, we have fond memories of hunting with our family and buddies, and gun-control liberals are screwing with something very personal here.” For many left populists, gun control may also be a very emotional issue, and they might tell you something like, “My dad killed himself with a gun when the bastards took away the job he’d had for twenty years, and I have two close friends who have had family members who also did themselves in with a gun when they probably would still be alive without such an easy way of committing suicide, and, not living in rural America but in urban America, what I see is people using guns not to hunt deer but to hunt one another.” However, when both sides stay respectful, I have also seen them reach agreements on reasonable gun policies that don’t deprive people of either liberty or life.
Often the most emotional divide between left and libertarian populists is the divide I noted earlier on their view of human nature. All of us have a tendency to focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of others. Not only can respectful communication on the multiple dimensions of our humanity help unify populists, but it can also strengthen individuals, marriages, families, and communities.
Hillel, the great Jewish scholar who lived around two thousand years ago during the time of the Roman Empire’s domination, respected both the libertarian and left understandings of human nature and, in a sense, challenged people to respect both aspects of their own humanity and unify them so as to gain strength. Specifically, Hillel said:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?
So libertarian populists are right when they say, “If I don’t financially take care of myself and my family, then I will not only lose my self-respect but will be a burden to others.” But left populists are also right when they say, “If I am only for myself, then I am some kind of sociopath, like a Wall Street banker ripping off everybody, and if everybody acted completely selfishly, we could never have the cooperation necessary to defeat the elite.”
It’s my experience that when individuals follow Hillel’s advice to care about both self and others, they gain greater wholeness and strength, and they are more capable of uniting with others.
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