Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is To Be Done? (What Is To Be Done)

A couple weeks ago, various progressive media outlets published the transcript of a speech -- "The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies" -- that social critic Chris Hedges delivered in my neighborhood of Santa Monica back in October, 2013. The speech is a remarkable tour de force that centers around Melville's Moby Dick and uses the voyage and quest at the center of that novel as a metaphor for the various crises that global capitalism has both created and continues to hurtle towards. I wish to recommend Hedges' remarkable speech (essay) in the strongest terms possible to my readership here.

Midway through his address, Hedges begins to talk about what he thinks we must do:

We must develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and, of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agro-businesses. Monsanto and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation-state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialized Slavic republics, Russia, Spain and China and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.

That paragraph has been fermenting in my mind ever since I read it. (I did not hear Hedges speak in person.) What does Hedges mean when he talks about a 'revolutionary theory'? I am no great 'theorist' myself, although I acknowledge theory's vital importance. I do not have a wide knowledge of all the various theories of 'revolution' that have come before, so as to evaluate the wisdom in Hedges' remark. Perhaps we do not need to develop a revolutionary theory. Perhaps we already have one that will suffice.

Hedges elaborates that older revolutionary theories were developed for agrarian and, later, industrial populations of workers, both of which he suggests have largely disappeared from the American scene. Hedges thinks we need a new 'revolutionary theory' to serve the interests of the 'working poor' and the unemployed intelligentsia (of whom I am currently one).

Hedges moves on from this issue in fairly short order, but I was again reminded of this paragraph yesterday when I came across remarks made by billionaire Sam Zell, chairperson of the vulture capitalist group Equity Group Investments. Zell was responding to a question from Bloomberg's Betty Liu about the Tom Perkins' letter last week to the Wall Street Journal where Perkins compared the current plight of the global 1% to the plight of Jews during Kristallnacht.

That letter by Perkins (and the responses to it) are grounds that have been thoroughly plowed and I see no need to rehash them. No, what brought me back to Hedges' speech was this little zinger by Zell:
The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent . . . The 1 percent work harder. (Emphasis added.)

Think about that throw-away line for a second. Allow it to sink in. Does this not smack you across the face with its arrogance and paternalism? Does this not make you furious? This is how the 1% think of the rest of us: "The 1 percent work harder."

When I read this, I remembered back to my days growing up on a dairy farm in Southwest Missouri, of baling hay under a hot, sweltering August sun and storing that hay in barns roofed with corrugated tin where the heat radiated from the structure like some Dante-esque oven. I remembered getting up at 4 a.m. on icily cold frosty January mornings to sit in an unheated barn and milk cows by hand while my toes slowly froze within my boots. But Zell also made me remember that my 'work' was as nothing compared to the work of the adult farm workers in whose presence I lived, my Dad who had to drive 20 miles into town to work at a local manufacturing plant because the farm didn't earn enough for us to survive, our neighbor who died of a heart attack trying to hand-deliver a baby calf whose mother was having problems during a tumultuous rainstorm, of one of the local magnates who seemingly worked himself non-stop and sold insurance on the side to help make ends meet.

Does the 1% 'work harder' than those agricultural workers? Do its CEOS deserve to earn 500 times what the average employee earns because those CEOs 'work harder'?

After the fury that boiled in my blood had subsided to a low simmer, I came back to the Hedges' excerpt quoted above and its call. Surely something must be done about attitudes such as Zell's (and Perkins'). Are we going to let such comments and such attitudes stand? What is to be done?

As soon as I asked myself that question, an answer proposed itself, born out of the syntax of that question, indeed a transformation of that sentence from question to statement. One could almost say the question answers itself. A little over a century ago, Lenin grappled with similar ruling class arrogance and decadence and working class suffering and despair and published a pamphlet. Lenin's 1902 pamphlet, ironically, was also titled "What Is To Be Done?" and, in it, he argued that workers will not gain political power merely through battling with employers over economic issues. Instead, Lenin proposed, workers need a vanguard party of revolutionaries ready to propagate a 'revolutionary' consciousness among workers and, when conditions are ripe, to seize power on workers' behalf.

Here is another answer that proposes itself from a revolutionary (Emma Goldman) more militant than I can ever dream of being:
Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.
So, to answer Lenin's century-old question and the question in my title, to rise to the challenge Hedges sets us, here is what is to be done: seize the assets of anyone with personal assets worth more than $1 million and put those assets to work for the common good. Seize the assets of any estate valued at more than $500,000 and put those assets to work for the common good. That's being merciful to Zell and other members of his entitled parasite class. They need look back no further than a century to observe what happens to other parasites whom history does not treat so kindly.

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