Could a Revolution Happen in the U.S.?

Labor Movement And An Organized College Walkout Add Support To Occupy Wall Street Protest

Nick Hanauer, the only rich VC who was ever censored by Ted talks, just posted an essay on Politico, entitled The Pitchforks are Coming…for us Plutocrats. He raises the spector of a revolution in America unless the issue of income inequality is addressed.

What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible—for everybody. But especially for us.

The image of a combination of Occupy veterans and Tea Party populists marching on the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase with pitchforks is evocative, but for me it remains in the realm of speculative fiction. If you look at the history of inequality in both the U.S. and Europe you come to some pretty clear conclusions. The first is that which political party is in power doesn’t seem to make much difference.

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Looking at the U.S., from 1810-1910, the rise of the plutocrats was very steady, no matter which party was in power. Then in 1913 the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed, allowing an income tax and the share of the top 10% began a slow decline. This movement towards equality was reversed in the the mid 1970’s with the Tax cut revolution that started at the state level  (eg.Prop 13 in California) and continued with Reagan’s cuts to federal income tax rates. From a historical perspective the fact that 90% of the people have never owned more that 38% of the wealth in this country is a bit shocking, but now we have reached a point where the richest 1% of the country owns as much as the poorest 90% of the country.

All of this would seem to be fertile grounds for a populist uprising, and yet it has never happened in America. The reason?

Too much cheap entertainment. Marx never figured on TMZ or the Kardashians. Of course Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” did understand the power of drugs and entertainment to render a polity so passive that the plutocrats would never have to worry about the pitchfork brigade. 52 million Americans use prescription drugs “non-medically”. Then you have social networking which eats up 3 hours a day for the average user. Then we spend 5 hours a day in front of the TV. 8 hours of sleep and two hours eating, who has time for work, much less marching in the streets?

Much as I would like to think that Nick Hanauer could scare his fellow plutocrats into supporting a major raise in the minimum wage, I am highly skepitcal. I don’t think the Millennial generation, which has the most to lose in continuing the status quo, has any gumption to take to the streets. They are deep in college debt, desperate for work and not interested in rocking the boat.

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3 Responses to Could a Revolution Happen in the U.S.?

  1. RickTurner says:

    It’ll be bread and circuses (and we do have gladiators as well…NFL and ultimate fighting), not heads on pikes for a while yet. It’s all about the lotto mentality…the plebes aren’t going to advocate nor vote for anything that might rob them of riches…once they get rich…which is a state to which all feel entitled in America.

    Even the “liberal” blogosphere’s fave site, The Huffington Post, has gone all-Kardashian, all NSFW, all the time. The HuffPo has become downright ridiculous; what’s with Arianna, anyway. I am not attracted to Miley Cyrus’ crotch, and I don’t particularly need to see it every day, nor do I need every celebrity nipple slip on the “front page” of a supposedly liberal news source. I like Eros as much as anyone, but the sleaze factor has become overwhelming. But it’s one of the drugs that keeps the pitchforks in the barn.

    And college debt…bring back “trade schools” and the types of education that actually prepare the right people for useful jobs. And…cut the military budget by about 30% immediately and put the dough into education and infrastructure.

    And tell that soccer player to stop biting other soccer players and go bite Miley where it shows.

  2. len says:

    Mebbe.

    Mebbe not. A real revolution sneaks up on the revolted because the revolters are underestimated. I talk to the late teens and twenty somethings a lot. They grabbing onto to socialism like life rafts as they watch the college debt become insurmountable. They don’t think the kardashians make up for being plantation slaves and it is never the masses who start a revolution anyway. What if they are smarter than you think, plan better, think strategically and work out means you just don’t expect. What if we can’t see it because even if we feel it, we don’t feel the pain the way they do? What if they go through the post-king into the carmichael mode where they become convinced the only way to get change is to eliminate what stands in the way of change? And take advantage of open carry. One thing the Viet Cong, the Taliban and the rest have proven: organization and technology ultimately fail in the face of a committed crew ready to sacrifice and sure of their right to the fight. Collect all the big data and sell all the left-over materiel to the locals you like: once that tide starts rolling, it’s rolling all the way to the shore and a bit beyond.

    That’s revolution. Out with the old (me and you); in with the new.

  3. Fentex says:

    The Golden Goose would have to die first I would think. The danger of relative differences in wealth is not that it demonstrates poverty – a relatively poor person today can still live well – but that it threatens destruction.

    Concentrating wealth is concentrating power which will seek to protect and expand itself by corrupting and exploiting every institution and asset within reach.

    Eventually the undermining of disinterested justice and protection, possibly even existence, of the commons will destroy the wealth that sustains the predation.

    I fear that the greed must first kill the golden goose of strong economies by stealing all the wealth plunging all into economic depression before substantive change can occur – and that change will not likely be pleasant as it will most likely be a vicious over-reaction and justification for lunatic impositions.

    Or maybe not; history is replete of extended periods of rule by oligarchies of one detail or another, bread and circuses is demonstrably successful. If economic disaster is avoided who knows what could persist.

    I personally think the stop gap measures since the beginning of the financial crisis are insufficient to avoid a more substantial crisis and continue to expect it.

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