I’ll Tell You Why The 99% Is Not In Revolt

| Strategize!

Above photo: Sign at Rally in Portland-November 17, 2011 from Our Curriculum Matters.

A Response to Ralph Nader

We do the work.

Well-known political commentator and activist Ralph Nader was recently featured in a Truthdig article titled, “Why Aren’t the 99% Revolting?”. The points made in the article sharply illustrate the scale of growing crisis and conflict across the US and globally. It covered issues as wide-ranging as medical care, climate change, and the titanic disparity of global wealth distribution. It concluded with the following, hollow statement. “I could go on and on. Pick up the pace, readers. Senator Elizabeth Warren has correctly called for “big structural changes.”

Of course, we are all asking ourselves the same thing. How bad does it have to get before widespread rebellion? How many unarmed people of color will be gunned down by police? How many civil rights are going to be stripped? How rich can the elites get off of our labor? How much pain do we all need to feel before we rise up? It’s a natural question to ask by anyone suffering the nature of US capitalism. Unfortunately, Nader’s article rings tone-deaf. Like so many liberal arguments, it places the burden of rebellion on working class people while ignoring the mechanisms that kill revolt wherever and whenever it threatens to spark into life.

Although the elements that prevent substantial rebellion are many, they really boil down to just three. They are the not for profit industry, the leaders of what is currently mislabeled as, “The union movement”, and the Democratic Party. These three elements, all loyal to each other and working in unison, act as the front-line protective mechanism for US capitalism and the political class that serves it.

Many of you will be tempted to flail at this stage of the discussion. Aren’t the Republicans so much worse? Why would anyone attack the forces that are on our side after all they have done, even if they have some traits we may disagree with? The answer is quite simple. These forces are not allied with the types of changes our world desperately needs. They are not there to build, nor even prepare the ground for those types of changes. They act, instead, as the professional brokers of negotiated surrender for communities, workforces, and the environment. They are not building movements; they are preventing them.

What is a Movement?

What is a movement anyway? We hear the term tossed about as often as references to Martin Luther King Jr in every venue from the election of politicians to online petitioning. Although movements have changed the course of US politics for centuries, the essential qualities of movements are nearly forgotten today. In the 50 years that have passed since the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, the definition of “movement” has become the possession of the same institutions that have been most consistent in keeping new movements from forming.

Let’s look at some basic qualities of movements throughout history:

  1. Although movements may build their own leadership, they do not look for change to come from above. Instead, movements build politically independent power from below.
  1. Movements understand that injustice is not an accidental or coincidental outcome of the political system, but the system working according to design.
  1. All movements, recognizing the systemic nature of the problem, will organize ways to break the rules of that system, not simply appeal to it.
  1. Through building independent political power and organized mass disobedience, movements force the system to do things it was otherwise unwilling to do.

All of these qualities, synonymous with victories and grassroots power historically, are omitted from the dominant and promoted activism of today. Let’s take a look at who is writing the current narrative.

The Not For Profit Industrial Complex

Alongside any injustice taking place nationally, a cottage industry of professional activists and organizations arises. This occurs as soon as any outrage, protest, or other grassroots formation builds to the point of exerting even a minor amount of uncontrolled political power. As soon as sufficient people and attention are involved, not for profit organizations will be dispatched to commandeer, tame, and control the process. The not for profits are funded by foundations, dark money donors, or otherwise politically connected individuals. It’s easy to see why communities or other efforts fall into their influence. They have staff, networks, and resources that we don’t normally possess at the grassroots level. But in the end, they will lead people into the predictable forms of activism that have been the hallmark of the last 50 years of retreat before Wall Street and Washington D.C. The not for profits help you feel better about negotiating the terms of your defeat. They will not lead an effort, however, that threatens the political and economic elites in any meaningful way.

The Union Leadership

The US working class has been on a downward spiral for generations. Once a power that shook the ground and terrified the rich, and sent their politicians scrambling for ways to save US capitalism, the unions have seen decades of defeated strikes and retreat. Today, despite historic popularity, unions continue to lose strikes and membership, all the while handing hundreds of millions of dollars of hard-earned dues money over to politicians. What happened to the thunderous power of the labor movement? Was this what rank and file workers wanted?

After record-setting strikes in the 1930s and 1940s, US financial interests were able to gain dominant influence within union leadership. Throughout the 1950s revolutionaries were expelled from locals as the labor bureaucracy strengthened its ties and acceptance of the generalized dominance of the rich and powerful. The unions became a force that negotiated better conditions of exploitation and traded their power for a comfortable relationship with the bosses and political class. It became so dominant of a strategy that union officials coined the Orwellian term, the “Team Concept”, which promotes the idea that CEOs and workers can overcome their opposing interests and work together. It has meant ruin for the American working class and an unparalleled race to the bottom for workers globally.

Today the strategies of major victory are all carefully avoided within the union hierarchy. Even when places like Puerto Rico show definitively the effectiveness of efforts like a general strike, any discussion around such an idea is opposed by union leaders in the US. Why? Because it would risk the relationship of the union leaders and the owners of industry and government.

The result is that 13 million union members, who could collectively bring the functioning of the largest capitalist economy to a halt, have been reduced to scripted measures and political spectatorship.

The Democratic Party

All resources, assets, time, labor, money, ideas, organizing and initiative are offered to and consumed by this dominant organization of US business interests. The Democratic Party, we are informed, is the alpha and omega of our efforts to organize for justice. The power of the Democratic Party is so accepted that conventional activism has come to mean a simplified lobby effort aimed to influence their operations or talking points. No movement in history started out with the hope that electing the right politicians would save us. No movement ever exploded onto the world stage with the position that powerful interests were open to moral persuasion. But this is the promoted conclusion and focus leveraged upon all grassroots formulations.

When we accept this conclusion, that we can’t build a movement independent of the Democratic or Republican parties, by what force do we expect that they will change? And, even more, if we accept that the Democratic Party is our only political path forward, what specifically are the costs of maintaining that relationship? Given the nature of the Democratic Party, its owners, its ability to co-opt and control entire populations, what is the opportunity cost to staying within its good graces? It can only be one thing: The disarming of our power and any real threat of revolt. That is the price to ride.

The consequences of this are not academic nor intellectual. Simply look at the state of the environment, the conditions in any major city, the US prison population, the decline of the working class, the wars, systemic racism, poverty and deepening crisis everywhere and you will see the objective consequences of a people outsourcing our power to politicians.

The potential for forceful and effective revolt will be defined by its relationship to these three political forces. The more ties that exist between threatened rebellion and these forces, the more predictable and inert that rebellion will become.

Is There Any Other Way Forward?

Yes. Organized revolt has built occupations, urban insurrections, general strikes, and formed politically-independent organizations throughout history. The labor movement, the abolitionists, and the civil rights struggles all created political power sufficient to throw the system onto its heels and compel deep changes to government and industry. The examples aren’t confined to history either. In places like Kentucky and Virginia, rank and file teachers defied all convention and organized statewide strikes resulting in historic wage increases. Within the last five years, rebellion against racism and police brutality erupted in cities after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson. Standing Rock saw a historic assembly of First Nations to protect the water of the Missouri River from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Just this year a general strike in Puerto Rico removed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló from power. And let’s not forget that the work stoppage of rank and file airline attendants that defeated Trump’s attempt to keep the US government closed. It took all of 48 hours for that victory.

In every moment throughout history, forces from below threaten to find expression. It means the system has had to develop elaborate mechanisms to keep these forces in check, predictable, and historically inert. The role of regular people then, the working class, has to be to recognize how we are being maneuvered and by whom, and to overcome those mechanisms so we can build something powerful, independent and existentially threatening to the old order. If we can achieve that, revolt is only a moment away. And when it happens, it will rise to the level of the crisis that compelled it.


Ralph Nader: Why Isn’t the 99% Revolting?


About the Author

Cliff Willmeng is a registered nurse, writer, and activist in grassroots labor and environmental struggles. Born in Chicago, Cliff co-founded the Chicago Direct Action Network after participating in the historic uprising against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, 1999. As a union carpenter in UBC Local 1, he was in the leading body of Carpenters For a Rank and File Union which organized successful fights for building trades members across Chicago. After moving to Colorado, Cliff was at the center of the fight against oil and gas drilling known as “fracking”, and helped to found Labor For Standing Rock in 1996. He ran for Boulder County Commissioner as an independent socialist and union official in 2018, receiving nearly 13,000 votes. Cliff lives with his wife and two children today in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


  • voza0db


    If you guys want to start a major financial earthquake start by recycling this area!


    this will create many opportunities to perform those actions cited above “built occupations, urban insurrections, general strikes” and so on.

    But even if one succeeds in performing that recycling I suspect that the majority of the Herd will fight against the CHANGES the FEW will attempted to generate.

    Why? How many centuries took for the last umans under a different form of slavery to revolt?

    Add to this, the present day tools the Owners & Friends have to Keep the Herd grazing, even if the pasture doesn’t have many grass… From “food banks”, “food stamps” to public housing and so on!

    Why revolt if they can walk around freely and have access to the minimum with very little to no risk at all?

  • Read “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” by John Michael Greer, pub. 2015 and very current, to understand how civil war is likely to start in the USA, proceed and conclude with the break-up of the nation into several sovereign nations. First book I’ve read about the coming civil war, hard to put down once started because it is so real and likely … and the best reason is not addressed in this article.

  • voza0db


    After almost 20 years of presence in Afghanistan and $TRILLIONS wasted… and even MORE $TRILLIONS wasted

    the MONETARY/FINANCIAL conditions are sure present to spark some AWESOME Uman Party!

  • mwildfire

    While the Dems, NGOs and unions have done lots of good things, this analysis is pretty convincing. It’s a lot harder to keep momentum going when every four years (and to a lesser extent every other year) activist energy is diverted into the fool’s game of “let’s get better people into office.” That game is rigged–Lucy ALWAYS yanks that football. Unions have atrophied in part I think because they are hierarchical and those at the top are divorced from the workers…who usually can’t see beyond their job security, wages and healthcare deals. Meanwhile activist alliances are often disrupted by circular firing squads and callout culture.
    But I also think Caitlin Johnstone is right when she says “who controls the narrative controls the world”–our enemies do control the narrative–knocking down net neutrality was in the financial interest of a few telecoms but against the interests of most of the capitalist world as well as all the people, so why did they do it? because they had to be able to silence rogue communication on unauthorized outlets promoting incendiary ideas.

  • subcomandante Felix

    One of the primary reasons Americans don’t revolt (and probably won’t) is that they collectively, are still relatively better off than many if not most of the people in the world.
    Historically, the two most successful revolutions – Russia 1917 and China (1949) – were spawned by real world conditions so bad that most Americans cannot even fathom them. Both revolutions were spawned by wars so horrific that many people – especially workers and soldiers – were literally on the verge of losing the only thing they still had left – their lives.

    The second primary reason is that there was no TV or mass media in China or Russia at the time. People experienced their shocking reality directly. For most Americans, their direct experience of reality is secondary to the powerful virtual reality provided by the mass media (including the internet). They do not revolt because it is far easier to escape the reality of their miserable lives through virtual reality spectacles such as sports, than take meaningful political action. That is why no amount of political education or organizing is going to have much effect – the media is just too powerful. The power of the media is reinforced by a hierarchy of consumer culture and system of relative privilege. The short answer to Ralph’s question is that for most Americans “things could always be worse.” Why risk what little you have in revolt when you can vote for the lesser evil in the hope that things might be a little better.

  • Perhaps the biggest challenge to a True Revolution against the status
    quo is the control the establishment has over communications – if you
    haven’t already, view the docu-video CitizenFour starring Snowden

    Regarding when circumstances will present an opportune
    time for mass revolt? Well, we’ve already gone over the economic
    collapse cliff (we’re just floating at present because of the 100’s of
    billions of dollars the Fed started injecting into the banking sector
    (repo market infusions) and has stated will continue until at least 2nd
    quarter 2020 (uh, more like infinitum). Oh, and because the Debt burdens are so Huge, no amount of money printing will keep us afloat for long – uh, debt payments have to be paid Or defaulted on. I’ll reference a recent article by GoldSwitzerland entitled Global Warning. This is just one publication among many that inform you of the real level of economic woes we face.

    And, if a major economic collapse (think as bad or worse than the 1930’s Depression) doesn’t get the folks up in arms, how about a hootin’ tootin’ shoot-em-up Global War!? I’ll reference a recent article published by Zerohedge on the Syrian debacle or you could just look up Thucydides Trap.

    Gosh, we can hope at least one of those two scenarios gets people off their
    couches eh? As the current system IS the problem, it is utter folly to
    ask the current system to solve the problem.

    PS: I tried posting this comment before with links but it was sent to censorship la la land so this is my plan b comment.

  • schpadoinkle

    also that dream 😉


    Americans are not in revolt because they’re too busy texting.


    Finding specific reasons for revolt is a waste of time. Revolts/revolutions do not happen because people decide to do them. There comes a point in history where the masses start acting spontaneously, fed up with the exploitation, and suddenly what was unthinkable becomes de rigueur. History has its own logic, its own sweep, and once it gets started in this direction nothing can stand in its way. It means the existing system is simply not fulfilling its promises and its duties, and it must be replaced. Not Trump, not the Pentagon, not Wall St can control a mass movement once it gets started. Felix, if you think things are still bearable in the US take a walk on the wild side and see the legions of homeless, drug addicts, etc that populate every one of our cities. You are speaking from a middle class perspective, but never fear- capitalism’s disasters will engulf you too, and it will be just as horrible as a Chinese market in the early 1900s, where human flesh was for sale for food.

  • richardprofumo

    The optical we face is now is much greater then at other time in our lives. The destruction of the environment and perhaps of human life itself is at stake.We can not wait for others; no one is coming to save us! If there is son a thing a sin then it are be complicity! Which side are on?

  • richardprofumo

    The proclamation of the deed!

  • subcomandante Felix

    Your theory of the masses acting spontaneously, sounds a lot like spontaneous generation. Revolutions like life just don’t happen but have reasons that are specific to time and place. It has little to do with people deciding to have a revolution and a lot too do with people being forced to take action often with little choice or forethought. In that regard, a revolution is most likely to occur in the U.S. because of the collapse of the planet’s life-support systems rather than whether life is “bearable” under end-stage capitalism. By then it will be too late.
    P.S. Political revolutions are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Transformational change comes through cultural revolution with politics following after.

  • chetdude

    I’d prefer to see a 20,000 member strong People’s Lobby to directly confront Congresscritters in the Halls of Congress (and elsewhere) to overwhelm the Owner/Donor Class and their paid lobbyists…to get 218 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate (to overrule the filibuster and then) to PASS the Progressive Agenda including M4A, End the Wars, Living Wage, REAL Green New Deal, College without Debt, etc.

    With the same sort of organized effort being waged in State Houses and City Councils…

    Rather than 200,000 to a million folks being ignored in the streets…

  • chetdude

    Most Americans(sic) are not in revolt because they’re too busy trying to survive in a toxic, vulture capitalist socioeconomic system…and are goddamn tired of and from it…

  • Jay Hansen

    While I would not sneeze at that suggestion, I would prefer a 75,000,000 strong wildcat General Strike leading to working class rule.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    “…the scale of growing crisis and conflict across the US and globally…” is directly correlated now and throughout our human history with population growth, which drives ever larger dominance hierarchies and the populations of “have nots” while a tiny elite gets richer and more powerful. Survival for the masses depends on accepting their lot or enduring the frustration of one failed rebellion after another. The only true solution is Negative Population Growth and a new Degrowth economy founded on the utter necessity of preserving the ecosystem which currently can only support 1% of the land-based biomass on earth as “wild”. All the rest is us and our food animals.

    We have no shame. And, so, Mother Nature has some time ago set about to cull our numbers through all of our “diseases of civilization”, although our $3.6T (projected to be $5.9T by 2030) ever more technologically dependent “healthcare industry” constantly seeks to carve out its piece of the financial pie by keeping us alive irrespective of our quality of life. Mega-corporations farm us like our food animals through the MSM and a culture focused on endless “entertainment” in a frightening parallel with the history of the Roman Empire. We who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. Welcome to the Coliseum! We’ve been saving you a seat. Enjoy the “Rally”. Stress R Us

  • potshot

    Takes some chutzpah to take on Nader from the left. But it’s done poignantly.

  • potshot

    One wonders what the good is the Dims have done. Gave Bush a blank check in 2003 for the greatest crime of the century? After eight years of the “Eisenhower Republican,” as Obama called himself, bestowed on the country the Orange Menace in the White House?

  • voza0db

    About communications… That was a reality pre-WWW. Today we can see that WWW is causing real stress to the SRF&Friends control of the PROPAGANDA.

    Unfortunately the low level of the Uman Herd prevents, even with WWW, a “True Revolution” to occur.

    Even with easy and fast communication channels the problem is that the Herd always perform the same type of ineffective actions.

  • mwildfire

    Whether it’s war, the environment or social justice, the Dems are consistently better than the Republicans. They only make things a little worse with each presidency while the Republicans are more ambitious. This is the Donkey Motto: Not Quite as Bad as the Republicans. I never heard of Obama calling himself the Eisenhower Republican but there sure was a massive gap between how his supporters saw him and his actual policies–and STILL IS, that’s the astonishing part. Eight years of being sold down the river and they still think he was a great liberal.

  • voza0db

    By the way…

    the 100’s of billions of dollars the Fed started injecting into the banking sector“… don’t be modest and poor!


    There are a lot of 100’s of billions in $29+ TRILLIONS but using a lower scale never helps to see the Big Picture!

  • Hi dB,
    Yes, the $29 Trillion was during the Great Recession of 2008+
    The 100’s of Billions I’m referring to is the New money being printed and mainlined into Banks that started in mid September this year and has escalated in amount and duration since then.

    This new money printing phase is predicted to make the $29 Trillion for the last collapse look like chump change. Why? Because our balloons are way bigger than last time plus the de-dollarization movement plus war is coming and that means…. More Debt creation! Which means more Money Printing! Wahoo! Let the good times roll!

  • That’s the thing. This upcoming financial collapse is likely to rip away most if not all of the social safety nets (food, housing, medical, child government subsidies) in addition to mass unemployment. So unfortunately, when that occurs, people won’t have much to lose and a lot to gain by rebelling.

  • voza0db

    A running and scared Herd never accomplishes anything balance.

    Most of the Herd just keeps doing what they were programmed to do.

    Work… Issue DEBT… Get drugs/drunk/parties… Sleep… Work… Issue DEBT… …

    In short,

  • voza0db

    REPO for them, RIP for us!

  • I would agree that a herd without direction accomplishes naught but destruction (like buffalo running off a cliff). But, if there is already in place an organized revolutionary movement – then those that aren’t already participating would have a direction to take their nervous nelliness and angry energy.

    This is the difference I foresee as possible vs. the ‘herd’ continuing on in unproductive activities – although, I certainly would expect and hope that a little letting down of the hair now and then still happened 😉 The one thing that absolutely needs to stop happening is the accumulation of DEBT! Buy silver, buy gold to make sure when the fiat money doesn’t buy squat anymore you still have something with purchasing power to trade for necessities.

  • chetdude

    May I suggest that we apply the force where it will do the most good.

    Organizing and financing a militant People’s Lobby that puts 10 bodies on each Congresscritter 24/7/365 to counter the lies and pressure of their campaign bribers and paid lobbyists, to make them fear We the People instead is worth more than 100,000 people in the streets for the cops to cage and/or arrest…

    Same with State Houses and City Councils…

  • chetdude

    HR1384 – stresses prevention and access over highly profitable drugs and surgery.

    The ONLY way to avoid $5.9T by 2030 (I doubt that the population will be as high as those predicting that amount – but OK, let’s pretend) is to Pass HR1384 to begin SYSTEMIC change of the remedial sick care industry into a system of Health Care as a Human Right..

  • chetdude

    (Don’t tell anybody, That’s Step Two!)

  • chetdude

    Unions have atrophied because: Taft-Hartley made them 90% illegal…

    Dems COULD have begun the reversal with Card Check in ’09 — but for some reason didn’t…

  • kevinzeese

    That would be great. It is very much like what Ralph has suggested. The idea is the first step, making it happen is the more difficult step. Popular Resistance would promote it. Go for it.

  • Peter McGrath

    What does “working class rule” look like? Control of the means of production by an elite Nomenclature, totalitarian rule and the nullification of the Bill of Rights, rationing and breadlines for the wretched masses. Good times if you’re an apparatchik member of the Workers Party, not so great for ordinary citizen-slaves

  • Jay Hansen

    That’s state capitalism.

  • Rick Carnal

    When the electronic devices are disabled, the revolt will begin. Until then folks will just text their angst.