by Robert Wilkinson
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington by MLK and countless thousands dedicated to civil and human rights, you may want to check out this CNN article that outlines the requirements of any successful revolutionary movement that purports to lead to positive social change and reforms. Hint – it does not involve guns, bombs, or rhetoric!
In this fascinating article by John Blake titled Four Ways to beat ‘The Man’ we explore why some movements, like civil rights, take off while others like Occupy wilt, and the needed components in any successful attempt to bring a new way of life to an old set of social norms. We read “that it's not just the big moments -- the charismatic leader and the thrilling speech -- that make a movement work. There are those tiny moments, such as ordinary people sharing their stories of quiet courage with outsiders, that are just as crucial.”
There is a secret sauce for the weak to beat the strong, say those who have studied and participated in successful nonviolent social movements. The lessons from the March on Washington and other movements throughout history offer clues. If you want to take on the forces of power and privilege known in some circles as "The Man," they say, you must remember four rules:
1. Don't get seduced by spontaneity
Spontaneity is sexy. The urge to act on an irrepressible urge can inspire others. A Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire is credited with starting the Arab Spring. And who can forget the lone man who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy protests in China in 1989?
A spontaneous act gave the March on Washington its most memorable moment. King's "I Have a Dream" riff wasn't in his written speech. He improvised it after he completed his written speech sooner than he had planned and a gospel singer behind yelled, "Tell them about the dream." (Ed. Note – it was the great Mahalia Jackson)
Yet spontaneity is overrated, some observers say. Successful movements are built on years of planning, trial and error, honing strategies for change. A good movement should already have an organizational structure set up to take advantage of a spontaneous act that grips the public.
This section goes on to offer us the true history of Rosa Parks, and how it was all carefully calculated by Civil Rights strategists to provide maximum favorable publicity while mitigating potential accusations that would discredit the bus boycott. There are other key rules as well that are outlined with great detail in the article, such as:
2. Make policy not noise
3. Redefine the meaning of punishment
4. Divide the elites
In the article author’s opinion, number two defines why the tea party movement lasted and Occupy didn’t. I don’t necessarily agree, since the tea party was well funded and events that were staged had been paid for by Dick Armey’s Freedom Works and other Koch brother funded right wing monkeywrenching efforts, while Occupy really was spontaneous and egalitarian in power sharing, which is probably more the reason it failed than anything. Trying to run a movement by committee with no one as the face of the movement is idealistic but probably not realistic.
And if there's no group to guide the message, and no funding to help shape public perception of what's happening to counter the negative spin put on such efforts at social change, then such movements are always reacting, never pro-acting. Such efforts fail, since we must be more "for something" than we are "against something."
For point 3, he made some interesting observations that bear a direct relationship for the 99% of Americans that are getting screwed by the banksters:
When people experience enough pain, they will mobilize, says Pizzigati, a labor journalist and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"When people's situation becomes worse, when something changes and things that people took for granted have suddenly gone by the board and they see their position in society sinking, that's a powerful factor that can drive movements," Pizzigati says.
He points to the Great Depression as an example. In 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, the top 1% of Americans took in 23.9% of the nation's income. The rich ruled. (In 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, the 1% took in 23.5% of the nation's income, according to a University of California Berkeley study.)
In 20 years, though, a political movement arose that "totally" transformed the nation, he says. A "New Deal" coalition led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a series of reforms to protect Americans from the worst features of unrestrained capitalism. They created Social Security, strong banking regulations, raised taxes on the rich and protected the rights of unions to organize.
The New Deal is a classic example of the weak and powerless -- out of work Americans standing in bread lines -- triumphing over the fierce resistance of many of the wealthiest and most powerful elites in America who dismissed the New Deal as socialism and class warfare.
Pizzigati calls the New Deal an "egalitarian triumph."
He says most Americans in the "Roaring '20s" seemed to accept the economic inequality of that time. Few people thought anything could change, and the courts often ruled against any attempts to protect ordinary workers from workplace injuries and low pay.
Yet that same generation rose up to make the New Deal a reality, he says.
The lesson: "As dark as things may seem at a given moment," he says, "things can change very rapidly when a social movement takes off."
Point 4 iterates something I’ve maintained for a long time. Roosevelt was not elected “to end the Great Depression,” but to prevent class warfare. There is nothing more dangerous for privileged elites than to have millions of undereducated and unskilled people hanging around street corners with nothing to do and nothing to lose. That’s why the elites went along with many of the New Deal policies for a while. More on that a few paragraphs down.
The current elites who run this country should take note, since some things are universal when it comes to humans being unwilling to take abuse and poverty past a certain point. Everyone has to have a reason to live and believe in a better tomorrow. Without that, widespread discontent and revolutionary thinking are inevitable.
From the story:
"Movements at some point have to get support from the elites," says Kazin, the Georgetown historian. "You need legitimation. You need some authorities to sort of say we may not support everything you're doing but basically you're in the right."
The civil rights movement got that support from the elites when the Democratic Party backed a civil rights bill during its convention in 1948, even though Southern white Democrats walked out, Kazin says.
Five years later, another group of elites lent their support to the movement. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.
"The Supreme Court unanimously said that segregation was wrong," Kazin says. "They had an impact."
A movement, though, can't appeal to the altruism of elites to get their support. Elites help movements when they feel their own interests are threatened, says Pizzigati, author of "The Rich Don't Always Win." That cold calculus among the rich is what made the New Deal possible, he says.
Economic conditions were so bad in America during the 1930s that many of the rich in America feared social upheaval, he says. The rich were being blamed for miserable economic conditions. People feared revolution. In 1932, the Communist Party held a rally in New York -- 60,000 people showed up as nervous police officers with machine guns looked on, Pizzigati says.
The people at the top feared that social instability would cause American society to crumble. They were people like Randolph Paul, a wealthy Wall Street tax lawyer who warned other wealthy Americans that they were courting disaster, Pizzigati says.
"Paul became such a fierce advocate for very high taxes on the American rich because he said that we could not tolerate the level of income inequality in the U.S., that it was going to bring the country down," Pizzigati says.
Other wealthy Americans brought into Paul's rationale. They allowed their taxes to go up. The Cold War helped as well. Communists said capitalism spawned yawning gaps between the rich and poor, and the American elite wanted to prove them wrong, Pizzigati says.
And they were willing to pay the price to make these changes possible, he says. By 1961, a married couple's income over $400,000 was taxed at a 91% rate, Pizzigati says.
The rich weren't as rich, but America's middle class was booming, Pizzigati says.
"We had a fundamental economic shift," Pizzigati says. "The plutocracy that had existed at the beginning of the 20th century had essentially disappeared. We went from a place that was two-thirds poor to two-thirds middle-class."
There’s a lot more at the article, so by all means check it out. Clearly we are back in the days of an impossible wealth, income and opportunity gap between the elites and the masses, since the numbers indicate that, regardless of what “they” call it, we are still in the midst of the second Great Depression in less than 100 years. This time the elites don’t seem to care, since they’ve criminalized poverty and outsourced jailing the poor to private prison contractors, paid for by the government, who are lackeys of the very elites that are buying the governments in the first place.
To note, it was not called “The Great Depression” until 1952 except by a British economist in the 30s. And I’m sure what term is used is irrelevant to the millions suffering through the lopsided economic favoritism of the elites for their own that has created widespread poverty and economic misery for millions since the last years of the Bush era. And in a strange Twilight Zone take on “life mirroring art,” Gordon Gekko’s obscene speech about "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," has yielded its bitter fruit upon the world.
And it seems that at least one public servant somewhere gets it. From Wikipedia, “On October 8, 2008, the character was referenced in a speech by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his speech ‘The Children of Gordon Gekko’ concerning the Financial crisis of 2007-2010. Rudd stated ‘It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology. And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.’”
There is much we can do to promote social change that doesn’t require a huge glamorous effort like the March on Washington. It just takes a certain consistency of effort, tremendous self-maintenance in the face of an indifferent, predatory, and hostile social-economic system, and remembering that there are thousands of others who share your hopes and dreams of a better society achieved through a fair and equitable social contract.
I have found the ideas and works on non-violent resistance and civil disobedience of Gene Sharp to be particularly useful and effective in organizing for widespread and enduring social change via nonviolent means. Please take a look at the article, as well as the link to a remarkable man of our times. From here we march on, press on, live on, and love on....
© Copyright 2013 Robert Wilkinson