Have conditions ripened to the point where world revolution has become inevitable, or will the global financial elite save their bacon by throwing a few of their own to the angry hordes?
The grindstone had a double handle, and, turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair Rapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood. Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women’s lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. Hatchets, knives, bayonets, swords, all brought to be sharpened, were all red with it. Some of the hacked swords were tied to the wrists of those who carried them, with strips of linen and fragments of dress: ligatures various in kind, but all deep of the one colour. And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes; — eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun. — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The author of a 2004 book on the French Revolution, British historian Simon Schama is well positioned to offer some illuminating commentary on current political and economic conditions in his native United Kingdom, as well as in Europe and the United States, which he does in a piece that appeared in the May 21 edition of The Financial Times. Certainly no alarmist, Schama remains circumspect on the issue of revolution — its potential and likelihood given the present disordered state.
Decorum notwithstanding, one cannot help but think that Schama’s historical comparisons assure his readers of one thing, which is best summed up in a famous statement by Mao Zedong: “There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.”
Excellent, of course, if you’re among the put-upon majority who must now offer up a collective pound of flesh to cover the bad bets of a tiny plutocratic elite (whom writer David Rothkopf dubbed the “superclass” in an indispensible 2008 book of the same title); not so much if you happen to be … well … one of the plutocratic elite.
To date nothing on the order of out-and-out revolution has occurred — though the recent riots in Greece and the political ferment in Thailand represent two respectable efforts in this direction — but one senses, as Schama does, that the air is thick with dread and portent, particularly as “austerity” and “deficit reduction” have become watchwords for the precariously perched prevailing order.
Fumes are building, gases concentrating. Just one spark will set it alight.
“Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier,” Schama writes, “but you can’t smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage.” This certainly has a nice ring to it, “age of rage,” but when one hears “age,” it suggests a more or less permanent condition, an enduring situation, rather than just some relatively transient event. Is Schama inviting his readers to consider the possibility that the gathering clouds of unrest and upheaval signal the approach of not gale but a steady downpour of biblical duration?
It may just be that the West hasn’t been the same since 1848 or, indeed, 1789, those two watershed years of revolutionary hope and ambition.
Many thinkers who incline leftward would agree that this is precisely what Schama’s comments imply, and that, in fact, raindrops have been fallin’ on our heads nigh these many years. What we’re experiencing is not some setback on an otherwise forward path of progress and prosperity, but in fact simply a relatively more acute throb or palpitation in the long emergency that is capitalism.
The question becomes, then, not when the storm will begin (it’s been raging for some time now), but, indeed, when it will end. The long view of history — economic, social and political events fitted into “ages” (Schama’s preferred term) — suggests that in many respects the West hasn’t been the same since World War I.
This seems a plausible assessment, but one wonders whether the date for this regrettable turn might not be pushed back. It may just be that the West hasn’t been the same since 1848 or, indeed, 1789, those two watershed years of revolutionary hope and ambition. In the words of Bob Dylan, a hard rain’s gonna fall — just as it’s been falling for over two hundred years. After all, French king Louis XV, eerily foretelling the events of the revolution later to follow, is reputed to have said, “Après moi le déluge.”
Schama adopts a conciliatory tone, perhaps out of an awareness as to who comprises his audience (namely, the selfsame plutocratic elite for whom The Financial Times is their organ of dissemination). He takes the line that, once the public’s counterfactual impressions as to what’s happening achieve a certain consistency and momentum, facts themselves wither impotently before the onslaught of popular outrage. “Objectively, economic conditions might be improving,” Schama writes, “but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations.”
One finds it difficult to subscribe to the notion that mere perception can drive a population to revolt, unless, of course, by “perception” Schama has in mind something like the fact that hunger pangs lead to the perception that one’s stomach is empty. Of course, in this instance the perception has an objectively real condition behind it. And so, one can’t thinking, does popular outrage. Things might be improving, to be sure, but the degree to which any of the unruly many have experienced this improvement is, it seems, a co-efficient of his or her proximity to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. or Brussels, or to the lending window of state central banks.
Schama seems to admit as much, albeit in a rather circumlocuitous manner. The fact that expectations for an increased share of the fruits of Capital have been thwarted “engenders a sense of grievance that ‘Someone Else’ must have engineered the common misfortune,” Schama continues,
The stock epithet the French Revolution gave to the financiers who were blamed for disaster was “rich egoists”. Our own plutocrats may not be headed for the tumbrils but the fact that financial catastrophe, with its effect on the “real” economy, came about through obscure transactions designed to do nothing except produce short-term profit aggravates a sense of social betrayal.
Why Schama places “real” in scare quotes is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he believes that the production of derivatives and of, say, grain amounts to the same thing. Most everyone else, it’s safe to assume, would prefer even the most ruthlessly processed fast-food burger to a synthetic security for their evening repast.
Schama would do well to remember the remarks on financial crises that Karl Marx makes in the first volume of Capital. Specifically, Marx observes that
[i]n a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction. Hence, in such events, the form under which money appears is of no importance. The money famine continues, whether payments have to be made in gold or in credit money such as bank-notes.
To Marx’s list one could add credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and the whole raft of exotic financial instruments whose value, had there been no bank bailouts, would be nil.
Indeed, Schama shows himself unwilling to break ranks with the establishment. Rather, he’s menshevik enough to recommend that the elite discipline its own ranks, as this ought to be sufficiently satisfying spectacle to dispel the rabble’s rage. “At this point, damage-control means pillorying the perpetrators: bringing them to book and extracting statements of contrition,” Schama writes,
This is why the psychological impact of financial regulation is almost as critical as its institutional prophylactics. Those who lobby against it risk jeopardising their own long-term interests. Should governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation.
Faced with what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas terms a “legitimation crisis,” the elite should toss a few of the worst behaving among them overboard in order to preserve the prerogatives of the elite as a whole. Thus “the integrity of public stewardship,” would come to rest on the mere appearance of propriety. Schama’s remedy thus promises to do little more than perpetuate the entire worldview upon which latter-day finance capital depends — the appearance of integrity, of value, of profitability in the products and services financiers and bankers foist on the rest of the world.
Schama counsels choosing the least bad option. The institutions of Europe, Britain and the United States are corrupt, compromised, venal, and just generally corrosive, to be sure, but even so they are preferable to mob rule, dictatorship or — Heaven forbid! — something like communism or anarcho-syndicalism.
Anything other than the most timid, tepid centrist agenda is doomed to failure from the get-go, meaning that an electoral system in fact functions only to perpetuate the status quo.
Schama adopts a position that French philosopher Alain Badiou would regard as cause for despair. No fan of parliamentary democracy, Badiou justifies his disdain by pointing out “the manifest powerlessness of any genuinely emancipatory programme within the electoral system.” In such a system “preferences are duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will.” Anything other than the most timid, tepid centrist agenda is doomed to failure from the get-go, meaning that an electoral system in fact functions only to perpetuate the status quo. Which is quite convenient for the electoral system, whose very existence (in it’s present form) depends on the status quo’s perpetuation.
Such an assessment as Badiou’s would be merely depressing if the status quo itself weren’t so malignant. Thus to tolerate its perpetuation as abiding “the devil you know” is to participate in slow collective suicide. Or so seems to be Chris Hedges’s position. In a May 24, 2010 piece for truthdig Hedges, aprópòs the recent Greek riots, writes,
What is happening in Greece, what will happen in Spain and Portugal, what is starting to happen here in states such as California, is the work of a global, white-collar criminal class. No government, including our own, will defy them. It is up to us. Barack Obama is simply the latest face that masks the corporate state. His administration serves corporate interests, not ours. Obama, like Goldman Sachs or Citibank, does not want the public to see how the Federal Reserve Bank acts as a private account and ATM machine for Wall Street at our expense. He, too, has helped orchestrate the largest transference of wealth upward in American history. He serves our imperial wars, refuses to restore civil liberties, and has not tamed our crippling deficits. His administration gutted regulatory agencies that permitted BP to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a toxic swamp. The refusal of Obama to intervene in a meaningful way to save the gulf’s ecosystem and curtail the abuses of the natural gas and oil corporations is not an accident. He knows where power lies. BP and its employees handed more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The slogan, “Expropriate the expropriators!” never enjoyed more crystalline clarity than it does right now. There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.
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