Monday, August 07, 2017

Book Review: Wages of Rebellion

I recently completed the book Wages of Rebellion:  The Moral Imperative of Revolt by Chris Hedges.  He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and this particular book is quite interesting.

The book is provocative and Mr. Hedges is obviously a radical thinker in the sense that he not only believes the status quo is untenable but that we should be actively working to replace it.

The basic premise of the book is "the disasterous economic and political experiment that attempted to organize human behaviour around the dictates of the global marketplace have failed".  Instead of creating wealth for all as promised the global marketplace has created a "tiny global oligarchy which has amassed obscene wealth".  As a result of this situation there is a great deal of anger and unrest percolating below the surface, amongst ordinary citizens, which is one economic, political or natural disaster way from creating a level of unrest and instability sufficient to create the conditions for revolution.

He goes on to argue that the usual tools and mechanisms that can be used by ordinary people to keep the oligarchy in check, such as the courts and the government, have been completely co-opted to serve the new economic and political system of Corporatism and the oligarchy.  As well, he argues that this is not new and that it has been happening for most of the last century.

He spends much of the book pointing out different groups and movements that could have lead an effort to break the power of Corporatism who have been systematically broken by the courts, governments and a compliant mass media.  He points out that every movement from the Black Panthers to the Occupy Movement have been neutered so that they either disappear completely or become nothing more than a nuisance to the Corporatists.

He indicates that the only way to break the power of the Corporatists is revolution.  To replace one ruling class, that is steadily eroding our political and human rights, with another ruling class, which hopefully will restore those rights.  The author does admit that revolutions are a messy business and the replacement of the old order is not always better than the old order.  

Despite this the author does seem to be calling for just such a revolution.  

My thoughts is he is right an he is wrong.

Like alot of "radicals" who have called for revolution and the complete change in how humans organize themselves politically and economically Mr. Hedges has identified the problems with the current system very well.  I cannot argue with his basic premise.  The current system certainly is broken, it has lead to a tremendous amount of inequality and it has demonstratively lead to great unrest in the Western industrialized world.

However, like all "radicals" past and present the solution to the problems they identify are not grounded in fact.  They do not take into account human nature and the reality of the situations that we find ourselves in.

The author points to several historial revolutions as examples of successful revolutions and he is correct.  However, what he seems to overlook in these examples is the revolutionaries had a ready made alternative to the status quo ready and waiting.  The French and American revolutions had Republicanism to replace absolute rule.  Lenin and Trotsky had their brand of Marxism to replace abolute rule and capitalism.  

Is there an alternative to Corporatism?  The simple answer is no.  Corporatism grew out of Capitalism and no historical revolution has ever caused a society to go backwards. Capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith is as dead as Communism and neither one of them is coming back.  Without an alternative for revolutionaries to rally around successful revolutions are not possible.

A second barrier to revolution is the fact that the Western world is largely democratic with a long and deep democratic tradition.  All of the historial revolutions have seen the replacement of autocratic and despotic regimes with something else.  Most of the time that something else was not much better but at least one lead to democracy, which spread to the rest of the industrialized world.  

I believe that democracy will prevent revolution but it will not prevent unrest and political extremism.  Mr. Hedges rightly points out that the current system has created a great deal of anger and unrest amongst ordinary people.  That is objectively correct and we are beginning to see the results in many places with the rise of right wing extremism.  From Brexit, to the election of Donald Trump to the near election of Marine Le Pen extreme right wing politicians are tapping into the anger and unrest to advance their view and their agenda.

This is troubling but in democracies there is usually a pendulum effect in politics.  Society will move from one end of the political spectrum to the next and back again several times within the lifetime of one individual.  As well, if that pendulum swings a great distance in one direction it will swing a similar distance in the other direction once that swing begins.  So right now the pendulum has swung far to the right, which makes it virtually guaranteed that it will swing a similar distance to the left once society begins to move in that direction.  Right wing extremism will be replaced with left wing extremism.

For those of us in the political centre the coming years will be very uncomfortable.  We will be just as leary of the left wing Donald Trump as the current right wing Donald Trump. We will be just as uncomfortable with the left wing Stephen Harper as we were with the original.

Wages of Rebellion is an interesting and provocative book that is very much worth the effort of reading, regardless of your particular political bent.  It very accurately describes the current situation and the fact that it is untenable in the medium to long-term.  However, I find his call for revolution to be premature.  Without something to replace the current system it will be virtually impossible for revolutionaries to be successful.  As well, although I agree with him that the current system puts a great deal of pressure on democracy we cannot yet right off the ability of democracy to correct the situation.  The next decade or so will probably be messy and chaotic but just like Corporatism evolved from Capitalism the next method in which we organize ourselves economically and politically will evolve from how we currently do that.  Corporatism will die like Capitalism did but what replaces Corporatism will still resemble both to a certain extent.


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