This is the second of two posts on the role of food prices in triggering civil unrest.
One erroneous conclusion some American activists draw from Keiser’s and Zoellick’s “food theory” of revolution (see previous post) is that organizing is unnecessary – that all we have to do is wait until the food bill reaches 35-40% of workers’ income and leaves them no money for rent, clothes, medical care and other necessities. The first problem with this “no nothing” perspective is that it overlooks the years of sustained organizing by Egyptian unions and social justice groups that laid the groundwork for organized rebellion in February 2011 (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/02/23/egypts-invisible-labor-movement/).
The second problem with opting for inaction is that we greatly increase the probability the capitalistic political-economic system will collapse into utter chaos. If we simply wait for global capitalism to self-destruct, we will most likely end up with a violent, fragmented failed state – like Afghanistan, Somalia or post-Soviet Russia – controlled by criminal gangs and sociopathic warlords.
The Destruction of Civil Society
I see many alarming parallels between the US and the USSR of the 1980s. The most prominent is the virtual collapse of civil society. In Russia, this resulted in more than a decade of starvation, illness and early death because there was no community infrastructure in place when the Soviet infrastructure collapsed. For decades, the KGB systematically infiltrated and smashed all community groups, irrespective of their size or purpose, because the Communist Party elite saw them as a threat to state power. The reasons for the disintegration of American civil society are more complex. They include low wages, long work hours and a highly sophisticated public relations industry that continuously bombards Americans with individualistic anti-community and anti-organizing messages (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/01/thinking-like-egyptians/).
Addressing Psychological Oppression
The lesson I derive from the food theory of revolution is not that progressives shouldn’t organize – but that they need to focus less on political oppression (low wages, attacks on unions and civil liberties, cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Wall Street criminality, etc) and more on psychological oppression. Wilhelm Reich makes the same argument in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. It’s pointless trying to organize the working class around political and economic injustice without addressing the psychological rigidity that imprisons all of us as products of a profoundly authoritarian social and family structure.
To a large extent, this involves counteracting the steady diet of psychological messages from the mainstream media that shape Americans’ identity and values, as well as pressuring them to consume (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/03/overcoming-pro-corporate-messaging/).
Overcoming Psychological Oppression
In my experience, the first step in overcoming this pro-corporate messaging is making a conscious decision to increase our level of civic engagement – even in activities, such as the Girl Scouts, that aren’t overtly political. In getting to know our neighbors and joining community groups, we model (the most powerful teaching tool) and inspire family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers to do the same. The idea is to disrupt Americans’ individualized relationship with their TVs, Computers, Ipods and Androids and get them to interact with each other instead.
The moment they do, they begin to express doubts about the fairness and legitimacy of government authority. These thoughts are surprisingly close to the surface but only become conscious once people have the opportunity to express them.
This, for me explains the phenomenal early success of the Tea Party movement. People immediately identified with the message that the two party system failed to address their needs. They flocked in droves to Tea Party events so long as they believed it was a genuine movement – and quickly abandoned it on realizing the Republican leadership and corporate media were subverting it into a partisan movement.