1848 and Now

So what are my take-aways from reading about the 1848 revolutions in France?

The first is that a violent overthrow of the US government is unthinkable.  It is, on one hand, easy to see why this is the case.  It just about impossible to imagine a scenario in which the military of this country would go over to the side of the revolutionaries.  And I think that holds whether the revolutionaries were of the left or the right.  Compare to 1861 when over half of the country’s army joined the Southern secession.  A revolution cannot succeed without the military, at the very least, sitting on the sidelines.  And you would have to be very deluded to think the military would sit a revolution out—or would come over to the side of the revolutionaries.

But, on the other hand, the absence of organized political violence is deeply puzzling.  Think of the over 100 years of racist terrorism in the American South, of the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, or of the extra-state violence (on both sides) of the American labor wars from 1880 to 1930.  The formation of armed groups prepared to fight for political ends is hardly a rare phenomenon in American history.  Yet, with the exception of some very fringe right-wing militias, such groups do not exist in contemporary America—and have not existed since the 1980s.  Why?

One possible answer is that, even given what seem like extreme political differences, most everyone benefits enough from today’s society to see its complete upheaval, its being cast into chaos, as a worse alternative to the status quo.  That doesn’t seem right when we think about 20% of our children living in poverty and other similar signs of deep distress for many. Going down that road, of course, leads to the perennial question of the quietism of the extremely poor and extremely poorly treated.  All the social science evidence always suggests that it takes a minimal level of social well-being to become politically active—and that rising expectations and/or recent losses in status or economic well-being are the engines of violent protest.  By that measure, the absence of contemporary rebellion is a measure of despair, of a fatalistic sense that it can’t be any better.

The left can certainly be accused of failing to tell a stirring story about how it could be better.  Instead, in the US especially, the left always apologizes when it offers policies that aim to the betterment of the least well off—instead of shouting from the rooftops about the glory of a society where we all join together in caring for all.

Anyway, violence is off the table in 2017 America.  Random, single person violence—of either the left or the right—does nothing to change basic structures, while concerted, organized violence (for whatever reason) is unknown.

I will continue this thread with subsequent posts on demonstrations, on “movements,” and on electoral politics.

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