"Get Up, Stand Up": Do Americans Have What It Takes to Stand Up to Corporate Power and Does Wisconsin Offer Hope?

Human Rights

In December 2009, Bruce Levine penned a provocative article on AlterNet entitled “Are Americans a Broken People?” The piece touched a nerve among those who identify themselves as progressive, libertarian, or populist and quickly went viral across the Web. Many respondents and media members who later interviewed Levine wondered why so many Americans have remained passive in the face of attacks on their liberties and their economic well-being. In his latest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011), Levine has delved deeper into the cultural forces that have created a politically passive U.S. population. He questions whether “learned helplessness” has taken hold, keeping many Americans locked into an abuse syndrome of sorts. And most importantly, he suggests what can be done to turn this demoralization around. We chatted about his book and some recent efforts by Americans to in fact “get up and stand up.” 

Susan Warner:  If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are so unpopular, why aren’t people protesting more? 

Bruce Levine: Most Americans feel they have no power over whether or not the U.S. invades another nation or for how long it will be occupied. Many Americans know that their government is run by “corporate collaborators” who don’t pay attention to their opinions on wars and other big-money issues that large corporations care about.  So although polls show the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become increasingly unpopular—a clear majority of Americans now oppose them—fewer people are protesting against them.  

Actually, more protests occurred against these wars when they were more popular. Remember back in February 2003, when many Americans still believed the U.S. government’s  “weapons of mass destruction” rationale for the invasion of Iraq? Even though the invasion was a more popular idea back then, there were many large demonstrations against the then-imminent war, including 500,000 protesting in New York City. Even larger protests took place in Europe, with a London protest of more than 2 million, the largest demonstration ever there. But Americans’ voices and the voices of the people of Great Britain, our junior partner in the Iraq invasion, were of little concern to politicians.   

Americans got the message. Their opinion may matter on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage or other issues that the corporate-government partnership—or the “corporatocracy”—doesn't care about, but their opinion is ignored when it comes to issues where real money is involved, such as wars and the Wall Street bailout.  

SW:  What can you say to frustrated anti-war activists? 

BL: Anti-war activists—and other activists—routinely become frustrated when truths about lies, victimization, and oppression don’t set people free to take action. But as a psychologist who has worked with abused people for more than 25 years, it does not surprise me to see that when we as individuals or a society eat crap for too long, we gradually lose our self-respect to the point that we become psychologically too weak to take action.  

Other observers of subjugated societies have recognized this phenomenon. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, understood this reality, and so did Bob Marley, who is sort of the poet laureate of oppressed people of the world. Many Americans are embarrassed to accept that we, too, after years of domestic corporatocracy subjugation, have developed what Marley calls “mental slavery.” But unless we acknowledge that reality, we won’t begin to heal from what I call “battered people’s syndrome” and “corporatocracy abuse.” In Get Up, Stand Up I explain how this can be done, including how people let go of the fear of resistance.  

SW: You note in your book that even within this widespread passivity, there are instances of Americans “getting up and standing up.” What’s your take on recent events in Wisconsin? 

As I make clear in the book, especially for critically thinking pessimists who have given up hope, history teaches us that you never know—until the moment it happens—when the right historical variables will come together to encourage people to let go of their fear and gain the energy to resist.

So in Wisconsin occurred, if not a perfect storm, about as good of a storm as I’ve seen in many years. State employees had actually agreed to eat considerable crap, agreeing to accept a major increase in what they pay toward their pensions and  healthcare benefits, but even those major concessions were not good enough for Governor Walker, who continued to demand the elimination of collective bargaining in key areas. Telling a union that they have no collective bargaining rights on health insurance, pension, and work safety is a blatant effort to try to completely crush it. By this “union death threat,” Walker put workers and union leaders in a position of having virtually nothing left to lose in terms of having a union—and when people lose their fear, watch out!   


Arrogance by oppressive authorities makes them miscalculate the fear and greed variables, important ones in keeping people passive. In the case of Mubarak, his greed and arrogance resulted in him not spreading enough of his loot around with enough thugs, so not enough of them cared about his fall from power. Once Egyptians lost fear and took action, they found even more courage. And, as I discuss in Get Up, Stand Up, the arrogance of oppressive forces makes them a lot more fragile than they appear. 

SW: Tell us more about the “corporatocracy,” a term you use in Get Up, Stand Up. What is its role in keeping Americans quiescent? 

BL: The corporatocracy is a corporate-government partnership that governs society. In a corporatocracy, while there are elections, the reality is that corporations and the wealthy elite rule in a way to satisfy their own self-interest. Most Americans “get it” that they are not living in a democracy where they have direct power, or in a republic where they have representatives who actually represent them. Most Americans understand that giant corporations and the wealthy rule, and so people feel powerless. And this sense of powerless ultimately results in passivity.  

The corporatocracy, through its huge financial resources and control of the corporate media, ensures that only Democratic or Republican candidates have a chance of winning elections. It then buys off those candidates in both parties via campaign contributions, revolving doors of employment, and other bribes in the various industrial complexes. So, people have a sort of "learned helplessness" when it comes to elections—no matter who they vote for they get unnecessary wars, Wall Street bailouts, and so forth. And those few who continue to rebel against the corporatocracy become politically and/or economically marginalized, and that further frightens people into compliance and passivity.  

SW: What are other forces that you think are keeping Americans downcast?  

BL: As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, “The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike.” Increasingly, much of our culture and major institutions are only about making money and controlling the population, not about creating critically thinking people who reject authoritarianism. In Get Up, Stand Up, I have a large section called “Understanding How the People Learned Powerlessness,” in which I describe how people are broken by a culture and institutions created by the corporatocracy. Besides a pseudo-democratic election system that creates helplessness, Americans are broken by increasing domination of “fundamentalist consumerism” and “money-centrism” at the expense of all other aspects of their humanity—this breaks our integrity and weakens us. We are also broken by increasing social isolation, bureaucratization, surveillance, the corporate media, and by other public institutions. 

SW: What about young people, who are traditionally quick to protest against authority. Why aren’t they out on the streets? 

BL: They’re much less apt to protest because the primary socialization forces for young people pacify, zombify, and weaken them. For example, our standard schools teach compliance and following orders far more than how to think critically and resist authoritarianism. And television is such a superb pacifying force that America’s for-profit prisons uses more TVs instead of hiring more prison guards, and nowadays, kids are actually watching more television than ever, with more screens than just a television set. And for many kids I talk to, their only experience of potency is a virtual one, for example, winning a video game.  

For those kids who do rebel cognitively or behaviorally, and who don’t mindlessly comply with any and all authorities, there is an increasing presence of my business – the mental health profession – in their lives, with increasing medication for so-called disruptive disorders such as “oppositional defiance disorder.” And it is getting even worse for young people. Nowadays student-loan debt—more than two-thirds of college graduates are carrying student-loan debt, often huge amounts–crushes their ability to even consider resisting unjust authority.   

SW:  What do you think has led to the rise of the Tea Party movement and its subsequent power? 

BL: Certainly, a sense of powerlessness and anger has fueled the Tea Party movement, which is made up of many different kinds of people, and has now been exploited and co-opted by the Republican party. It is a mistake to focus only on the bigots in this movement and to focus only on the fat-cat financers such as the Koch brothers and to focus only on Republican politician opportunists such as Sarah Palin who are exploiting this anger.  

The Tea Party movement includes many grassroots members who have a genuine belief in liberty and freedom but, as with any movement, it also includes bigots and opportunists. Following the financial crisis of 2008 and losses—sometimes catastrophic—of homes, savings, or jobs for many, and following the controversial Republican-Democratic bipartisan Wall Street bailout, it would be expected that some kind of angry political movement would form. The corporate elite on Wall Street must have breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing how timid American reaction has been. The corporate elite must be especially delighted that of all the very tame reactions that have occurred, the largest—the Tea Party movement—has not been directed against Wall Street but at its junior partner, the federal government. 

SW: How would you compare Tea Party activists and those movements on the Left? 

BL: When it comes to cultural issues, there are major differences between those who attend Tea Party demonstrations and those who identify themselves as leftist populists; however, many people in both groups believe that elite forces who rule them do not care about ordinary people. Both left populists and Tea Partiers opposed the Wall Street bailout, and many grassroots Tea Partiers, like left populists, are opposed to the kind of corporate globalization measures—such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) —that have resulted in the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas. Like left populists, many grassroots Tea Partiers actually oppose America’s recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its longtime war against drugs. Many in both groups oppose the civil liberties abuses of the Patriot Act. At the grass roots, many Tea Partiers hold anger for both Democrats and Republicans, with some grassroots Tea Partiers having even more contempt for Republicans, whom they view as more hypocritical.  

SW:  What are some of the major activist movements you examine in your book? 

BL: In Get Up, Stand Up I describe all kinds of modern examples, such as the worker and producer cooperatives, as well as historical examples, such as the successes of the agrarian rebels in the Great Populist revolt, successful labor strikes even in the midst of the Great Depression, such as the General Motors sit-down strike in Flint, the Abolitionist movement, and so forth.  

However – and this is a big however – a major point of Get Up, Stand Up is that many people today lack the morale and energy to enact time-honored solutions, strategies, and tactics of defeating the elite. And so we must acknowledge this. That’s why I spend a large section in Get Up, Stand Up describing how we regain the “energy to do battle.” We must first regain self-respect and collective confidence that we can succeed.  

SW:  Can you give some details of successful recent activism that you detail in Get Up, Stand Up, and how progressives of all stripes can use these examples to re-energize themselves? 

BL: First off, I don’t particularly like the term “progressive.” The corporate media routinely divides Americans as “liberals,” “conservatives,” and “moderates”—a useful division for the corporatocracy because no matter which of these groups is the current electoral winner, the corporatocracy retains power. In order to defeat the corporatocracy, it’s more useful to divide people in terms of “elitism” and “anti-authoritarianism,” or to divide them as “pro-corporatists” and “anti-corporatists.”  

There are many kinds of successful activism against corporations. City Life/Vida Urbana, for example, has won victories over some of America’s largest banks, including the Bank of America, and prevented many foreclosures and evictions. I detail this and other successful anti-corporatist efforts in Get Up, Stand Up. But I am realistic enough to know these are a drop in the societal bucket, and I totally understand why people can move into hopelessness and defeatism.  

SW:  You mentioned worker and producer cooperatives. What exactly are they, and can you give me modern examples of them? 

BL: While certainly a strong union gives workers more power than if workers have no union, real worker power only comes when they own and control the business they work in. A worker cooperative is a business entity that is owned and controlled by the people who work in it. A worker coop is the opposite of what occurs in the corporatocracy, since worker coops empower people to have actual control over their economic lives. One current example is Union Cab Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, founded in 1979 by a group of drivers, dispatchers, and mechanics. It operates as a truly democratic workplace with one member/one vote. In these worker coops, workers collectively own the business. Worker-owned and controlled businesses—whether the business is a mom-and-pop independent, or Union Cab, or even larger worker coops such as Alvarado Street Bakery (with over a 100 workers and over $20 million in annual revenue)—are the antithesis of the corporatocracy.  

There also continues to be producer cooperatives in the spirit of the late nineteenth-century Populist agrarian revolt. By banding together, producer cooperatives are not at the mercy of giant corporations. One modern example is the organic farming cooperative called the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool, or CROPP. In 1988, with increasing numbers of family farms folding and others being threatened with extinction because of the low prices farmers were receiving for their goods, seven Wisconsin farmers created CROPP. It started with organic vegetables but soon moved into organic dairy products. Eventually, the CROPP cooperative developed its own brand name, Organic Valley, and has become the largest source of organic milk in the United States. CROPP has grown to approximately fourteen hundred farmers. 

SW:Earlier you mentioned “battered People’s syndrome” and “corporatocracy abuse” – how do individuals begin healing from these, and how can we find the courage to stand up and fight in their own lives (such as within schools and in the workplace)? 

BL: Many battlefields for democracy occur in the normal course of our daily lives, and many paths can lead to regaining morale, energy, and strength. History tells us that we can extricate ourselves from fatalistic vicious cycles in which the less we do, the more we are oppressed, and the more defeatist we become.  

To start, we must maintain our sense of humor. Historically, people caught up in these syndromes have learned that humor can turn pain into energy. But we must be honest with ourselves and forgive ourselves—and each other—for succumbing to this corporatocracy abuse syndrome. Beating ourselves up for having succumbed is a waste of our precious energy that would be better spent redefining ourselves as human beings who have beliefs and values that define us more than our fears and greed. And we need to redefine ourselves as worthy of respect and capable of effecting change. And then we can use our energy to provide respect and create confidence in others, which will produce even more energy for ourselves in battling the corporatocracy.  

In other subjugated societies, people have learned to develop what’s been called “critical consciousness” to identify both external and self-imposed forms of oppression and then begin to free themselves. By making changes in our self-imposed slavery, we can start to take actions to change our external world, and we replace a vicious cycle with an empowering one.  This is part of “liberation psychology,” in which critically thinking people can regain morale, discover the various ways people are energized, learn how to combat social isolation and build community, and understand how we can forge alliances among populists—Get Up, Stand Up talks about how to accomplish this. There’s a lot more to “liberation psychology” and a lot more to the book, but hopefully this gives you a taste of it. 

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