Where have all the revolutions gone?

slides.015Why have labour and socialist movements declined so dramatically over the past 30 years? Is it mostly a symptom, rather than the cause,of low levels of struggle today? The article below, published in The Economist Jan 21 2014, asks if rising inequality is more tolerable today.

Whatever the case, the old socialist models are no longer attractive not only because of their flaws but because they are now relics of another time, they don’t look fresh, modern, liberal etc.

Where there are newish socialistic struggles – mainly Venezuela – an impasse seems to be reached that is really hard to push beyond, even though conditions are better than before for a successful struggle. For instance the countries surrounding Venezuela have pro-people governments (except Colombia, but they have a strong revolutionary legacy in that country), and the US would be wary of sending in the marines to topple a socialist Venezuela. So what stops the movement progressing?

The article avoids discussing where the real rich poor gap is – between developed and underdeveloped countries. That’s where Tony Norfield’s concept of the China Price is useful.

Today Western democracies are quite good at responding to mass demands, calming and soothing them rather than crushing them.

We invite readers to post their thoughts on this question:

The Economist: Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?

Matt Miller of the Washington Post has a hunch: there hasn’t been a ‘broader revolt’ of the underclass against rising income inequality, he writes, because the poor don’t experience inequality as intolerable. Pointing to a Cato Institute report by Will Wilkinson from 2009, Mr Miller suggests that “technology’s impact on quality and prices complicates the way people perceive these matters and how we should judge them”.

That’s because the surging income gap often masks a narrowing difference in the actual consumption experiences of the rich and the rest of us. “At the turn of the 20th century, only the mega-rich had refrigerators or cars,” Wilkinson wrote. “But refrigerators are now all but universal in the United States, even as refrigerator inequality continues to grow.”  The difference between the rich man’s $11,000 Sub-Zero “monument to food preservation” and the poor man’s $550 fridge from IKEA is smaller than the difference between being able to enjoy fresh meat and milk and having none. “The Ikea model will keep your beer just as cold as the Sub-Zero model,” he wrote dryly.

This argument has the ring of a truism, which should elicit suspicion. Yes, any refrigerator is an infinite improvement on none. And, as Mr Wilkinson wrote, “a widescreen plasma television is a delight, but a cheap 19-inch TV is enough to allow a viewer to laugh at Shrek.” While we’re at it, it’s better to ingest salty, fat-laden fast food than to starve, and donning a burlap cloak is preferable to tromping around naked in the snow. But is the undeniably significant improvement in the quality of life for the poor and working class enough to explain why Occupy Wall Street fizzled and the fast-food workers’ strikes last year were isolated “angry gestures”, in Mr Miller’s words? Are America’s poor telling us that they’re only moderately mad and are fine with taking it some more?

Maybe, maybe not. The serfs went centuries with only sporadic uprisings, and a hundred years elapsed before significant slave rebellions erupted in North America. Horrible conditions do not guarantee revolts, and moderately bad conditions do not necessarily thwart them. The question is what to make of the relative quiescence of America’s poor. Is it a mistake for Barack Obama to make reducing inequality a priority for 2014 if there is no revolution of the proletariat in the offing?

No. It is fallacious to argue that because no one is storming the castle, no real injustice exists. But maybe income inequality isn’t really a problem. “Overall material well-being” should be our lodestar, the Cato report reads, and an individual’s lifetime level of consumption is a better proxy for material well-being than how much money he makes in a given year. While our incomes vary wildly from youth to adulthood to retirement, our level of consumption wanders up and down in a much narrower range. We might borrow money or draw on our savings to maintain a pattern of consumption in lean times, while prime-earning years afford opportunities to build a nest egg. This “consumption smoothing” renders year-to-year income inequality data all but meaningless, some say. Conservatives then attempt to pooh-pooh rising income inequality by pointing out that inequality in how much people consume, the figure to watch, is growing much more slowly.

Recent data shows, however, that consumption inequality is hardly insignificant. In a 2012 paper, Orazio Attanasio and two colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research exposed measurement errors in earlier research. They found that previous studies had seriously underestimated the extent of consumption inequality. ‘The well documented rise in income inequality during the last thirty years, the report reads, ‘was accompanied by an increase in consumption inequality of nearly the same magnitude.’ That goes for food and entertainment spending, home appliances and car purchases – the works.

But leave aside that data for a moment. If we grant that the poor tend to have refrigerators and air-conditioners and cell phones and are objectively better off than their medieval peers, there is still good reason to worry about the rich-poor gap. The trouble with inequality isn’t primarily about consumables. As Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, pointed out a few years ago, public goods must be considered as well. The more inequality, the less rich and poor citizens tend to see eye-to-eye on these common benefits:

“As economic inequality increases, the better off perceive fewer and fewer shared interests with the less well-off. Because they buy many critical goods – health insurance, education, security services, transportation, recreation facilities – individually from the private sector, or pool the provision of these goods within private gated communities or municipalities governed by zoning regulations designed to exclude the less well-off, they tend to oppose public provision of these goods to the wider population.”

This is why Mr Obama calling inequality the “defining issue of our time” has moral resonance. It has nothing to do with the rabble envying Sub-Zero refrigerators. It is not about the iPhone/cheapo-cell phone gap. Inequality is problematic not because it makes some people jealous of others but because it effectively locks millions of people out of opportunities to improve their lives. Ms Anderson put it well: “To live in a low-crime, orderly, unpolluted neighborhood, free of run-down and abandoned property, graffiti-marred buildings, open drug dealing, prostitution, and gangs; to have access to public parks where one’s children can safely play, to well-maintained sidewalks and roads, to schools that offer an education good enough to qualify one for more than menial, dead-end jobs: how many cell phones and athletic shoes is that worth?”

So why are the lower orders twiddling their thumbs while the plutocrats continue their ascent? Maybe the lesson of Occupy Wall Street is that drum circles and pithy slogans accomplish little, in the end. Maybe the underclass is taking their relative plight in stride because they have decent refrigerators. Or maybe the gradual demise of the labour movement and the power differential between rich and poor Americans make it unlikely we will see a raid on the barricades any time soon.

Further reading:                                                                                                                                          A strange paradox: can New Zealand workers really be happy with this crap?                                                        A few thoughts on the politics of stasis



  1. I’d say, just very briefly, that I believe there is a “critical mass” of rational left wing ideas below which we have fallen. Most people have little or no contact with or knowledge of, the canon and history of leftwing ideas and struggle, they experience their conditions “in the wilderness” and invent their responses in the moment – ie., emotionally, with social media and marketing thrown in. Viz, the doomed “Kony 2012” movement – which appears to have disappeared. This rose up very quickly based on some savvy social media marketing and design and hooked into a ready mass of inexperienced but articulate and motivated outrage – and elements of Washington keen to use it to any positive effect. Having engaged with a few people keen on the Kony program, I found it basically impossible to appeal to a logical analysis of their program – their motivation lay in their outrage over child armies. Any broader analysis was simply a foreign language.

  2. 1. The ‘underclass’, ‘Pecariat’, ‘lumpen proletariat – call it what you wil,l has never been revolutionary and , in my view, never will be.

    2. The labour movement, taken as a whole, has never been revolutionary – labourism was, and is, all about ameliorating the impact of capitalism, not effecting a revolutionary transformation of society.

    3. If there is to be a revolution (and some commentators argue we are living through a revolution, or rather revolutions, right now) it’ll be led by the 21st century equivalent of the starving lawyer in a freezing garret – only now there is a laptop in every garret and the Jacobins are networked.

    4.The new revolutionaries are technologically savvy, low commitment, ideologically naïve, and horizontalist in their organisation. Their revolution is unlike anything we saw in the 20th century – it’s like the difference between ‘concurrent’ engineering and ‘over the wall’ engineering – the revolution will burst into action, and when there is a reaction, it retreats into the ‘mental space’, the general assembly, the conference – it’s designing the transformation of society repeatedly and virtually. The Russian Revolution was ‘over the wall engineered’ – it was designed and rolled out and the mistakes were fixed (or not) along the way and improvements attempted. A bit like designing a Model T Ford, releasing it and then improving it in subsequent ‘marks’. Today’s revolutions are being manufactured virtually – like building an aeroplane with a computer design programme, subjecting it to all sorts of stresses virtually and then redesigning it before you even pick up any real tools (see Paul Mason speaking at the Global Uprising Conference last year in Amsterdam – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lirQBhVKoyM – he explains it far better than me)

    So ‘Occupy’ hasn’t gone away; neither have the Indigados, and as long as there are ‘graduates without a future’ the revolution hasn’t gone away either. There’s still room for guys in leather jackets making long speeches about dialectical materialism, as well as disciplined hierarchical labourist trade unions in all of this.

    But make no mistake, society is undergoing a transformation.

  3. The USA I don’t know about very well but here in New Zealand I see some definite reasons why there are no barricades up.

    In no particular order:

    * Our class has relatively easy access to well paid jobs in Australia.
    * We operate a diverse, innovative and thriving big Black economy.
    * In several depressed areas the production and distribution of various drugs dwarfs other facets of the Black economy, producing a good life for quite a few and adequate subsistence for others.
    * NZ capitalists maintain a relatively sturdy health and welfare system.
    * Our organised labour movement has suffered several heavy political defeats and not taken much positive from those losses.
    * We have a diminishing blue collar manufacturing base and have not yet developed a bottom up militant on site culture in the growing service sector.
    * The NZ left has taken little real interest in Marxism and made little use of that resource.
    * The NZ union movement and the NZ left have very weak traditions of political debate. It’s widely dismissed self promotion or as divisive affectation.
    * We like to drink a lot and smoke a lot of dope. That is not conducive to revolutionary self sacrifice.
    * Together with the rest of the world we are atomized by the electronic toys which keep us distracted and occupied for relatively little cost.
    * Modern capitalist political parties have deflected traditional left protest with liberal rhetoric and liberal practice.
    * The question of Maori sovereignty and everything related to that has not reached any consensus.
    * A growing number of us are getting old. We would rather spend our last few years enjoying ourselves rather than man rainy streets trying to sell indifferent strangers papers they don’t want.

    Despite all that I’m sure we will have a revolution, here. It may just be a while arriving.

  4. I agree with Kerr, except rather than think of the future revolutionary vanguard as jacobins with laptops, I like to think of them as blanquists with broadband.

  5. Well, I am woefully ignorant about NZ history, but did y’all ever have a revolution? Here in Oz the answer is decisively no to the same question, despite the Eureka Stockade and the primitive rebel Ned Kelly.

    The chain will snap at the weakest link and we will not know where that is until it has happened. In the meantime we could be in another big financial crisis soon, and that scare is coming from the bourgeois press. 30 plus years of neo-liberalism has reduced demand to critically low levels. The war against inflation has morphed into the triumph of deflation. Bourgeois economists such as Alan Kohler are cheer leading for the coming deflation, but wiser heads are worried. but nothing can stop the capitalist class from heading towards the abyss. Despite all the evidence I still think the working class will have a shot at saving the world.



  6. People are mostly taught to accept the social system as natural, eternal and ‘God given’. As a result consciousness amongst the masses mostly tends to be conservative. It is only when the material conditions became so bad that people start to question the underlining system. I believe that at the moment people are starting to question, but they haven’t reached the point of coming up with answers.

  7. Not so sure about the “only when the material conditions became so bad” argument. Sometimes people do rebel then, but often at that stage they simply abandon hope.

    The big rebellions of the 1960s and early 1970s came in a period of prosperity. I think they were connected to the prosperity raising expectations and then those raised expectations not being met (student rebellions, even the workers’ actions in France in 68). Then, when the postwar boom ended in 1973-4, workers resisted because they were used to things getting better for decades and were suddenly confronted with the things they’d got, and wanted to keep, being taken away.

    It’s hard to say what level of deprivation in NZ might elicit serious working class resistance. But the availability of a lot of cheap goods – the China Price referred to – and continuing access to things to play with, even if you’re poor, seems to operate against rebellion.

    A successful revolution in one or two other countries would sure help, because it would suggest an alternative was possible, which very few think is the case at present. But things seem stalled everywhere.


  8. Computers and the internet are amazing resources and I wish we’d had them years ago.

    Sometimes though, I think they can convey a false sense of power and importance.

    At some stage making a revolution requires going out the door and confronting the physical force of the capitalist state.

    The same state can confiscate your computer and confine you in a cell with no internet facilities.

    • I’m not saying that there doesn’t need to be a physical confrontation – all of the unrest in the last few years has manifested itself physically in some way. Whether it’s a bunch of kids occupying the Octagon in Dunedin or a million people on the streets in Egypt, the revolution still has to confront the state and ‘the street has to get on the street’. As for shutting down the Internet and mobile phone system and throwing people in jail – sometimes that works and the revolution retreats into the mental space. It’s a short term remedy though – authoritarianism is no longer as durable as it once was. Eventually the internet and phone system goes back on (or the activists find a way round the ‘shut down’) because a modern capitalist economy needs them – just as 19th Century capitalism needed a literate workforce. For an amusing take on this see the opening of Paul Mason’s lecture at the LSE and his description of Kevin Spacey channeling Mubarak in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ – if you google ‘Paul Mason LSE lecture’ you’ll get the link.

      Time to get a smartphone Don?

  9. I’m very fond of my computer but don’t have a mobile phone, or any current need for one.

    Nothing at all against the technology, but it doesn’t solve everything.

    Political will is primary.

    After the Tollpuddle martyrs were banged up there were mass protests up and down the UK, big

    and strong enough to eventually get the guys back home. Organised without even telephones.

    The big anti Vietnam war marches and anti Tour marches of yesterday seem like a dream now.

    I remember turning the gestetner and silk screening posters to help build them.

    Yesterday I was singing songs at a public demonstration called Waitangi Alert. Our little radical

    alternative was dwarfed by the official fun time we are all one people gathering round the corner.

    Facebook didn’t help us.

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