(Swans - May 7, 2012) In her May Day article "Welcome to the 2012 Hunger Games: Sending Debt Peonage, Poverty, and Freaky Weather Into the Arena," Rebecca Solnit lists the present ills of US society, threading her presentation with recommendations for numerous books. Her aim is to inspire Americans to participate in the nonviolent revolutionary ferment that aspires to end the many injustices she catalogs, and which is focused in the Occupy Wall Street movement and celebrated this year with a resurgence of May Day demonstrations in American cities and towns.
Near the end of her article, Solnit lists a few recent victories of the nonviolent "people power" agitation she encourages: the city of Norman, Oklahoma, divests from Bank of America and moves its accounts to a local bank; the G8 Summit originally scheduled for Chicago will now assemble safely hidden from the angry 99%, at Camp David, Maryland; the shareholder meetings for Wells Fargo Bank and General Electric Corporation were picketed by vigorous protesters (with numerous arrests); and environmental activists were able to induce the Obama Administration to hold off approval for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (of slurried oil and tar sands from the Athabasca deposit in Alberta, Canada, bound for US refineries). Approval of the pipeline is a certainty after the 2012 elections, regardless of the outcome.
Welcome as these small victories are, they beg the question: why so little relief after so much social anguish and agitation? It seems clear that what Americans who think of themselves as the 99% really want is a revolution -- a real one, not just the hyperbole of so many well-meaning commentators (including yours truly). A real revolution would require a real rising up of the American people. Is that possible? Why don't today's Americans rise up?
Consider these five possible reasons:
1: no expectations
2: financial insecurity
3: trained passivity (of left cerebral hemisphere)
4: conditioned distractibility (of right cerebral hemisphere)
5: deterrence by government violence
Many Americans born after the post WWII baby boom (and free of compulsory military service after 1973) have no conception of a personal and collective future worth working for. This is a societal failure to educate a younger generation in both their rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy, in the classical manner epitomized by Pericles's speech in Thucydides book, and also celebrated by Herodotus in his account of the Athenians repulsing the Persian invasions. This failure of vision is also a personal failure to make use of the education one does have access to, a failure to read and to think, critically, persistently and for (not about) oneself.
The failure to educate younger generations in democratic citizenship is one of laziness and self-interest by the now prosperous earlier generations; a failure to apprentice youth in the maintenance of democracy, which is necessarily an endless rebellion against social injustice. Apprentices learn by assisting in the actions of their mentors. The vast majority of the comfortable older generation of post WWII Americans has failed to lead by actions (beyond words) for at least forty years.
Since the end of the Vietnam War (for most American men in 1973 with the end of the draft, the war officially ending in 1975), the subsequent collapse of interest in social justice by much of white America and its headlong rush into the hyper-materialism of American deindustrialization, the financialization of the economy, and the real estate boom (Proposition 13 in California in 1978, British Thatcherism in 1980, and the Reagan Revolution in 1981) American children have been immersed in an atomized culture of me-first and me-only competitive materialism. There is no social solidarity, no actual society as Margaret Thatcher so infamously said, just individuals in unregulated competition for wealth. So many have bought into the illusion of buying debt for "higher" education that was to be their ticket into the exclusive circles of higher pay and future wealth. Now, the economy that was supposed to levitate those dreams of the good life has collapsed with no prospect of returning, and many find themselves jobless and in debt slavery for as far as they can see into the future. It is very difficult to think about "fixing society" when you are desperate just to find your daily bread.
Trained Passivity (Remote Control Of The Left Brain)
The human brain is a marvel, its left hemisphere houses the linear and logical processes of thought, while the right hemisphere houses the parallel processes of sensory input and integration. (cf., Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke Of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, Penguin Books, 2006.)
Post WWII Americans have been passivated by training (behaviorists would say "conditioning") by remotely programmed electronic media. Aldous Huxley anticipated this development, social control by the leading of human distractibility, in his 1932 novel Brave New World. The violent, semi-pornographic "feelies," films shown in movie theaters with seats wired to jolt the occupants in Huxley's dystopia, are realized today with the Internet, TV, video games, and grandiose amusements that bombard the senses with commercial artificialities. We've even shrunk and reversed George Orwell's ever watching telescreen into a hand-held Svengali our eyes are magnetized to; we have become a nation of cyclops mesmerized by narcissistic voyeurism live-streamed in short attention span quick cuts.
Conditioned Distractibility (Remote Control Of The Right Brain)
While all of our "thinking" is wrapped up ineffectually with our electronic viewing and "texting" (not "writing"), and social networking (in parallel isolation through electronic networks, not in proximate living actuality), our feelings are remotely programmed by the emotionally manipulative content of the commercial media messages with which we are bombarded. Our right brains are sensorially distracted by chemicals (what Huxley called soma, and are today our many many feel-good drugs, legal and illegal) and the titillation of our libidos: sex and hedonism. For many conditioned to expect a life of easy pleasure, their current tragedy is the beggaring of the post-industrial wage-dependent sybarites.
Deterrence By Government Violence
The most obvious form of social control is government violence. In the United States, there is an abundance of means for exerting official violence from every level of government. It is both illogical (left brain) and emotionally counter indicated (right brain) to expose oneself to the hazard of government violence. Hence, a natural reluctance to expose oneself physically in public demonstrations, and to electronic surveillance because of political activism.
The natural survival instinct that moves people toward political quietism also makes them susceptible to co-optation by the state and the major controlling interests of that state. So, one might find it easier as a unionist to "work with management" rather than suffer a strike and risk job loss; as a political activist to join in a discussion group sponsored by a "non-profit" or "foundation" rather than risk getting clubbed by militarized police at a protest demonstration; or simply retreating into an individualistic "spiritual" shell of nonviolent "peace action."
All of this can change as the economy becomes more vile and the environmental conditions of the Earth deteriorate through climate change, increased population, and the continuation of the extractive mentality of capitalism. But, what degree of change?, how soon?, and will it be enough?, are all questions open to debate. People will act when they find that personal fulfillment is to be had by participation in action, and society will change when enough of its people arrive at that realization together.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)