In December 2009, psychologist Bruce Levine published an article at Alternet called “Are Americans a Broken People?” His timing couldn’t have been better. Americans of good will and bad analysis were suffering a severe fit of Obamanation withdrawal. The article was reposted everywhere, commented on endlessly, and responded to voluminously. (This was my response.) Levine has now developed his article into an important book called “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Setting aside the particular burst of raging defeatism that has swept through the ranks of borderline Democratic Party loyalists who had placed their hopes in the Savior of 2008, there was always a problem. We had sat on our hands through blatantly stolen elections. We shrank the peace movement as wars grew less popular. We watched the government hand our grandchildren’s unearned pay to Wall Street in the biggest theft ever committed, and while a majority of us “opposed” it, almost nobody did a goddamn thing about it. The labor movement won’t engage in serious production-halting strikes, being too busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Wal-Mart shoppers trample people to death for cheap televisions and refuse orders to disperse, but crowds protesting enormous crimes pen themselves in free-speech cages, while airport travelers meekly submit to gropings and pornoscans, and the natural environment is being deliberately and methodically destroyed for all time before our knowing but glassy eyes. There’s a long-standing lack in our society of whatever it is that causes other societies to not put up with this kind of shit.
Let’s set some other things aside for the moment. We need a lot of reforms to the structure of our country. Political bribery should be criminalized, union organizing should be legalized, the media cartel should be broken up, the two political parties should be broken up, etc. We need better leadership in activist campaigns, which should stop bowing down before the Democratic Party, selling out, and opposing aggressive nonviolent disruption of business and murder as usual. I believe those are all hugely important topics. Activist energy is being misdirected and under-utilized all the time. It also exists in far greater measure than the corporate media tells us, adding to the importance of creating a useful communications system. But Levine’s topic, which does not necessarily exclude or dismiss any others, is the state of the individual U.S. activist, or inactivist as the case may be.
When a group of people gives President Obama $76,000 in order to politely protest his criminal policies for a couple of minutes, there is something wrong with their strategy. But there is probably something wrong in their souls as well. And everyone else in the room who stands by embarrassed that people would bring up the topic of torture: are they healthy? And the hundreds of millions of people doing nothing and telling each other that nothing can be done? There may not be a purely systemic solution to their mental damage. There may be something broken inside them. They may need to be cured of some strain of bubonic babbittry or corporatocritis. And there may or may not be a cure.
I’ve struggled with how to answer what I think of as the “But why don’t we all just kill ourselves?” questions that really started coming up in speaking events in 2009. In the guise of asking a question of an author, people cough defeatism all over the room by declaring everything hopeless and citing some of the supposed reasons why. How does one respond? Telling people they’re mentally damaged doesn’t seem an ideal solution. Telling people success is right around the corner is dishonest and unpersuasive. I’d prefer ultimately to see people able to do what needs doing and enjoy it regardless of whether success is visible on the horizon or not. I’d like to see us motivated by morality. Similarly, I think the peace movement’s focus on the damage wars do to Americans is off-track, as U.S. wars do ever less damage to Americans while killing ever more people. Unless we learn to care about non-Americans, our military will destroy the world. But how do we get to the point where people are motivated by morality, or even by a combination of morality, expectation of success, excitement, solidarity, and peer pressure? The same facts can prove that change is hopeless or guaranteed; the choice comes from inside each person. How do we make it the right one?
This is where Levine’s book begins to point us in some very useful directions. We need to develop individual self-respect and collective self-confidence, Levine writes. We need to unite as anti-authoritarians, regardless of other differences. We need to learn from immigrant groups that have been least infected by our culture of disempowerment. Many factors are working against us: long work hours, lack of health care, and lack of job security or home security. Psychologists now drug people who display signs of anti-authoritarianism, which is treated as a crime. Our prisons are packed with some of our society’s most rebellious, and therefore useful, members. We’re administered every greater doses of television, which is ruinous regardless of the content:
“Researchers confirm that, regardless of the programming, viewers’ brainwaves slow down, transforming them closer to a hypnotic state. That’s part of the explanation for why it’s so hard to turn the television off even when it’s not enjoyable — we have become pacified by it.”
While watching all that television, we fail to talk to each other and build friendships. Increasingly, Americans live alone and lack confidants, something online social media provide only a false sense of. If we had more friends we would be more active citizens. We have learned helplessness, writes Levine, comparing us to a group of dogs in an experiment who were conditioned to believe they could not escape an electric shock and who then failed to escape even when an easy way out was made available.
We also feel helpless because we are. Increasingly, Americans do not know how to grow their own food or even cook their own food, repair their car or their plumbing, or otherwise survive without expert assistance. This, too, teaches inactivism. We’re in debt, including student debt, which tends to make people less challenging of their employers. We also feel spied on because we are, by both our employers and the government, and even by family members. We’re trained to value money and to put a price on everything. We’re conditioned to identify with the Wall Street gang that’s robbing us blind. We’re taught in school to be elitist and, above all, obedient. And if we’re not, we’re diagnosed with “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” U.S. psychologists once invented a disease with which to blame slaves for escaping. They now have diseases for activism.
According to Levine we are in an abusive relationship with corporatocracy, and the abuse has been made to seem normal. Obsession with money and consumption and greed has been normalized. Banks foreclosing on people’s homes is viewed as a natural force or a law of physics, not an immoral act by a bunch of bankers. We must start seeing through lies and treating horrors we have come to accept as horrors to be resisted. We must, Levine writes, forgive ourselves for believing the lies, stop allowing the corporatocracy to define us, and form relationships with other survivors.
Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.
We need to build social connectedness, and to raise children and young people with self-respect. This means that parents and teachers have a special role in developing citizens capable of activism. This also means that our salvation is years away — unless we can find therapy for adults. Levine is a psychologist who often finds his patients to have been misdiagnosed with a medical problem when their problem is political:
“I have counseled hundreds of young people and adults who had been previously labeled with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse, depression, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric diagnoses. What strikes me is how many of these people are essentially anti-authoritarians.”
Essentially. Meaning they’re built that way. They’re what our society needs to fight off the virus of tyrannical plutocracy, and yet we remove them with drugs, prisons, and coercion. Levine tells parents that coercing an anti-authoritarian child is counterproductive:
“I ask them if they would try to coerce their homosexual child into being heterosexual or vice versa, and most say, ‘Of course not!’ And so they begin to see that temperamentally anti-authoritarian children cannot be similarly coerced without great resentment.”
What if we didn’t? What if we were all raised ideally and the prison walls came tumbling down? Then what? Then populists should unite across the lines of non-corporatist issues, those things like abortion and guns that the corporatocracy takes no position on. They should organize, win small victories, and develop confidence. They should learn from current examples of success, which my Email box is drowning in but I never find in the newspaper. They should learn from past successes: Levine recommends Lawrence Goodwyn’s book “The Populist Moment,” as do I, for its account of the building of a mass movement at the end of the nineteenth century.
Our movement should not begin or end or necessarily be involved at all in electoral politics. Every campaign and tactic should be evaluated for whether it builds individual self-respect and collective self-confidence. The answer to the ubiquitous question “Who can run against Obama for us?” should not be a list of names. There are thousands of qualified candidates. The answer is that we should build a confident and militant movement that will challenge the corporatocracy. The replacement or reform of politicians will follow.
“A major role of the US government in a corporatocracy,” writes Levine, “is to deflect people’s anger from the corporate elite. The corporate elite need elected officials to be taken seriously by the populace. Thus, a demonstration against government is actually a statement that the people are taking their elected officials seriously, which is exactly what the corporate elite want, though of course the elite don’t want demonstrations to actually alter government policy in ways that negatively affect the elite.”
Immigrants rights marches in 2006, Levine recalls, blocked bad legislation in Congress. But the corporatocracy was neutral or on the side of the immigrants. The civil rights marches of the 1960s were more effective than the anti-war marches, Levine argues, because the corporatocracy backed the war but not segregation. I would argue that the anti-war marches eventually helped end the war nonetheless. Levine points to the work of groups that are using direct action and public shaming of banks to prevent foreclosures as a way to win small victories and develop activists. I’m inclined to agree. I may not be aware of the extent to which my background of having experienced countless victories by ACORN before ACORN was destroyed has made me immune to defeatism and hopium withdrawal.
I’m thrilled to see the independent activism of campaigns like USUncut going after the corporatocracy, even though I wonder whether saving particular houses wouldn’t build more activism than holding PR protests, protests that send a message more than they actually interfere with business and robbery as usual. I also favor targeting Congress in ways that may not lead to immediate or complete victory but inspire people through how much fun they are and how clearly they communicate the problem. Imagine if everyone who needs a job showed up at Congress with a resume in hand: http://briefcasebrigades.org Imagine if online organizing, while detached and isolating, promoted independent and empowering messages that could then be taken into real communities: http://rootsaction.org
Levine recommends learning from planned communities and withdrawing from the corporate economy, considering the possibilities for state secession, and as long as our government won’t make education free avoiding — if possible — the disempowering student-debts that come with university degrees. In 2001, he points out, MIT put 1,900 of its courses online for free. Most college education comes from books, and books can be had without the colleges. Levine recommends foreign travel and volunteer work. He praises collective businesses and farms. But he is not so much preaching escapism and false purity as he is counseling therapeutic preparation for the struggles people seem unable to take on, struggles we could quite easily win if we had our heads on straight.