There’s a country in this world in which the government can lock you up indefinitely and kill you without trial. If it comes to a trail it can fix them using secret evidence and “expert” witnesses whose testimony and identities stay hidden. This government can and does spy on its people. Its brutal, corrupt security forces keep people in fear by conceiving, funding and organising, then miraculously foiling “terrorist plots” and bribing, convincing and threatening deranged or deluded people to take the fall. Protestors are brutally beaten off the streets. Peaceful activists are hounded and harassed.
In the whole world, this country has the largest percentage of its people in prison and also the largest absolute number of prisoners. It stands side by side with the Stalinist USSR in the 1930s for the highest rates of imprisonment in human history. This country has launched wars of aggression based on deliberate lies which have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and laid waste to whole nations. It blows up villages to punish one or two people who have stood against its will. It abducts and tortures its perceived enemies, flying them around the world with aid from dozens of other states including my own, Ireland.
Its economy has tanked, with massive deindustrialisation and a spectacular over-reliance on finance and credit turning it from a powerhouse to a basket case in a few decades. Now it borrows unbelievable amounts of money to keep itself from collapsing and its political elites have absolutely no way to tackle this problem. Meanwhile unemployment soars and tent settlements accumulate. A huge chunk of the population has to choose between housing and healthcare.
You’ve probably guessed that this poverty-stricken, dreary, repressive and divided land is the United States of America.
Things have gotten so bad for Americans economically, socially and politically, that cracks are beginning to show. While obviously the conditions the majority are living in are terrible, the potential is opening up for serious changes for the better.
Outsiders can sometimes get a distorted impression of events in another country and magnify the importance of some things while minimizing others. But the radicalisation that’s taking place in America is unmistakeable.
Occupy and the Tea Party
Let’s take a balance sheet of Occupy on the left and the Tea Party on the right. Yes, Occupy had faults: a certain world-defying naivety – which is a positive fault, because you can learn a lot from it. This movement has receded. But the Tea Party got massive corporate funding and didn’t get physically destroyed by the police… and it still receded. The conservative “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington in 2010 was dwarfed by the progressive “Restoring Sanity” rally and a massive trade union demonstration in the same year.
Young American radicals believed in Obama in 2008 and were betrayed. Then they believed in Occupy in 2011-12 and learned a lot of lessons. The next outburst of anger will be more mature and effective, and like the last two, it will echo across the world.
Nostalgia is poison
The last great period of radicalisation in America was of course in the 1960s and ’70s. If today we’re seeing the opening of another period of radicalisation, my guess is it’ll be much more significant and effective. The “New Left” of the 1960s, despite rising to magnificent heights, alienated the white working class with its focus on alternative lifestyles that stressed self-indulgence and individualism rather than sacrifice and collective action. A complacent and conservative labour movement meanwhile shunned the black civil rights struggle.
The strangely complementary utopianism and conservatism of Occupy did reflect some of the hippy baggage of the left. But the openness to ideas and to political parties and trade unions that was evident in the US Occupy movement signals that, if this is any indication of what the future holds for America, then the disproportionate nostalgia for the deeply-flawed radicalism of the 1960s will dissipate.
As well as the Occupy movement the US has seen the massive Wisconsin struggle, the Chicago teachers’ strike, the fast food workers’ movement in New York City and the strike at 1000 Wal-Mart stores. Remnants of Occupy in Minnesota are taking direct action against evictions. A resurgence for the labour movement occurring alongside a political ferment generally could lay the basis for a strong movement with massive appeal and working-class credibility.
Socialism vs Capitalism
Kshama Sawant, a member of the Trotskyist organisation Socialist Alternative who won 29% of the vote in Seattle in November, is herself evidence of a massive change of mood. She reports that while two years ago you wouldn’t have heard people talking about Capitalism very often, there’s much more discussion and insight today. Webster’s online dictionary reports that its two most frequent searches in 2012 were Capitalism and Socialism.
Those right-wingers who have been condemning free healthcare as Socialism have done a massive favour to Socialists. While obviously the understanding of the word “Socialism” is still very mixed and confused in the US as elsewhere, the American right has helped to redefine it as a concept. In most Americans’ minds it seems now to conjure up not an image of a Stalinist Gulag, but of a state-funded hospital. This is of course a much more accurate image so we should thank Glenn Beck and the rest of them.
There’s political paralysis at the top and massive ideological ferment at the bottom, and those at the top are bringing in ever more clumsy dictatorial methods to crush dissent. I’m not predicting revolt tomorrow but nobody can deny that it must be an exciting time to be a Socialist in the US.
And consider how Americanized Irish society and culture are. Occupy spread to five or six cities here in a click of the fingers once it kicked off in America. It was a weaker movement here of course but the fact remains. And remember how big the demonstrations against the Iraq War were here in 2003.
It’s possible that in the years of crisis Irish people’s attention has turned to Europe rather than the US. It’s correct of course that we should look at massive actual struggles in Greece and Spain rather than potential struggles in the US. But a century of listening to US music, watching US films and TV and reading US authors can’t be undone so quickly. Imagine if a serious socialist/left movement got off the ground in America, what an electrifying effect that would have in other countries.