Protesters rush a police line after a rally at City Hall in Philadelphia on Thursday. The event followed days of unrest in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. (AP / Matt Rourke)
It does not matter to the corporate rich who wins the presidential election. It does not matter who is elected to Congress. The rich have the power. They throw money at their favorites the way a gambler puts cash on his favorite horse. Money has replaced the vote. The wealthy can crush anyone who does not play by their rules. And the political elites—slobbering over the spoils provided by their corporate masters for selling us out—understand the game. Barack and Michelle Obama, as did the Clintons, will acquire many millions of dollars once they leave the White House. And your elected representative in the House or Senate, if not a multimillionaire already, will be one as soon as he or she retires from government and is handed seats on corporate boards or positions in lobbying firms. We do not live in a democracy. We live in a political system that has legalized bribery, exclusively serves corporate power and is awash in propaganda and lies.
If you want change you can believe in, destroy the system. And changing the system does not mean collaborating with it as Bernie Sanders is doing by playing by the cooked rules of the Democratic Party. Profound social and political transformation is acknowledged in legislatures and courts but never initiated there. Radical change always comes from below. As long as our gaze is turned upward to the powerful, as long as we invest hope in reforming the system of corporate power, we will remain enslaved. There may be good people within the system—Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are examples—but that is not the point. It is the system that is rotten. It must be replaced.
“The only way you can get the parties’ attention is if you take votes away from them,” Ralph Nader told me by phone. “So,” he said of Sanders, “How serious is he? He makes Clinton a better phony candidate. She is going to have to agree with him on a number of things. She is going to have to be more anti-Wall Street to fend him off and neutralize him. We know it is bullshit. She will betray us once she becomes president. He is making her more likely to win. And by April he is done. Then he fades away.”
We must build mass movements that are allied with independent political parties—a tactic used in Greece by Syriza and in Spain by Podemos. Political action without the support of radical mass movements inevitably becomes hollow, and that, I think, will be the fate of the Sanders presidential campaign. Only by building militant mass movements that are unrelentingly hostile to the system of corporate capitalism, imperialism, militarism and globalization can we wrest back our democracy.
“The gates are controlled by two parties indentured to the same commercial interests,” Nader said. “If you don’t go through those gates, if you do what [Ross] Perot did, … you [might] get 19 million votes [but] not one electoral vote. If you do not get electoral votes you don’t come close. And even if you do get electoral votes you are up against a winner-take-all. This means if you lose you don’t build for the future as you would withproportional representation. The system is a locked-out system. It is brilliantly devised. It is pruned to perfect a two-party duopoly.”
We have to organize around a series of non-negotiable demands. We have to dismantle the array of mechanisms the rich use to control power. We have to destroy the ideological and legal system cemented into place to justify corporate plunder.
This is called revolution. It is about ripping power away from a cabal of corporate oligarchs and returning it to the citizenry. This will happen not by appealing to corporate power but by terrifying it. And power, as we saw in Baltimore, will be terrified only when we take to the streets. There is no other way.
“The rich are only defeated when running for their lives,” the historian C.L.R. James noted. And until you see the rich fleeing in panic from the halls of Congress, the temples of finance, the universities, the media conglomerates, the war industry and their exclusive gated communities and private clubs, all politics in America will be farce.
It is apparent to most people across the globe that organizing political and social behavior around the dictates of the marketplace has proved to be a disaster for working men and women. The promised prosperity that was to have raised living standards through trickle-down economics has been exposed as a lie. The corporate state, understanding that it has been unmasked with the rise of unrest, has formed militarized police forces, stripped us of legal protection, taken over the legislative bodies, the courts and mass media, and built the most intrusive system of mass surveillance in human history. Corporate power, if unchecked, will suck every last bit of profit out of human society and the ecosystem before collapse. It has no self-imposed limits. And it has no external limits. Only we can create them.
To save ourselves from impending financial and environmental catastrophe we need to build movements that have as their uncompromising goal the abolition of corporate power. Corporation after corporation, including banks, energy companies, the health care sector and defense contractors, must be broken up and nationalized. We must institute a nationwide public works program, especially for those under the age of 25, to create conditions for full employment. We must mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We must slash our obscene spending on defense—we spend $610 billion a year, more than four times the outlay of the second-largest military spender, China—and cut the size of our armed forces by more than half. We must rebuild our infrastructure, including mass transit, roads, bridges, schools, libraries and public housing. We must make war on the fossil fuel industry and turn to alternative sources of energy. We must place heavy taxes on the rich, including a special tax on Wall Street speculators that would be used to wipe out the $1.3 trillion in student debt. We must ensure that education at all levels, along with health care, is a free right of all Americans, not something accessible for the wealthy alone. We must abolish the Electoral College and mandate public financing of political campaigns. We must see that the elderly, the disabled, poor single parents and the mentally ill receive a weekly income of at least $600, or we must find them space in state-run institutions if they require daily care. We must institute a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions. We must end our wars and the proxy wars in the Middle East and bring home our soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors. We must pay reparations to Iraq and Afghanistan, and to African-Americans whose ancestors largely built this country as slaves who never were compensated for their labor. We must repeal the Patriot Act and Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. We must abolish the death penalty. We must dismantle our system of mass incarceration, release the vast majority of our 2.3 million prisoners, place them in job-skill programs and find them work and housing.
Police must be demilitarized. Mass surveillance must end. Undocumented workers must be given citizenship and full protection under the law. NAFTA, CAFTA and other free-trade agreements must be revoked. Anti-labor laws such as the Taft-Hartley Act, along with laws that criminalize poverty and dissent, must be repealed.
All this is the minimum.
Do not expect the corporate masters of war and commerce to willingly let this happen. They must be forced.
Revolutions take time. They are often begun by one generation and completed by the next. “Those who give the first check to a state are the first overwhelmed in its ruin,”Michel de Montaigne wrote in 1580. “The fruits of public commotion are seldom enjoyed by him who was the first mover; he only beats the water for another’s net.” Revolutions can be crushed by force, as amply demonstrated by history. Or they may be hijacked by individuals such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin or movements that betray the populace. There are no guarantees that we will move toward a worker’s paradise or socialist utopia—we might move toward the most efficient form of totalitarianism in human history.
Radical movements are often their own worst enemies. The activists within them have a bad habit of fighting over arcane bits of doctrine, forming counterproductive schisms, misreading power and engaging in self-defeating and ultimately self-destructive internal power struggles. When they do not carefully calculate their power and the moment to strike, they often overreach and are crushed. The state uses its ample resources to infiltrate, monitor and vilify groups and arrest or assassinate movement leaders—and all uprisings, even supposedly leaderless ones, have leaders. Success is not assured, especially given the endemic levels of violence that have characterized American society.
But no matter what happens, the chain reaction that leads to revolt has begun. Most people realize that our expectations for a better future have been obliterated, not only those for ourselves but also for our children. This realization has lit the fuse. There is a widespread loss of faith in established systems of power. The will to rule is weakening among the elites, who are entranced by hedonism and decadence. Internal corruption is rampant and transparent. Government is despised.
The nation, like many prerevolutionary societies, is headed into crisis. Lenin identified the components that come together to foster a successful revolt:
The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions, and particularly by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: it is not enough for revolution that the exploited and oppressed masses should understand the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes, what is required for revolution is that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. Only when the“lower classes” do not want the old way, and when the “upper classes”cannot carry on in the old way—only then can revolution win.
When I was a foreign correspondent I covered revolts, insurgencies and revolutions, including the guerrilla conflicts in the 1980s in Central America; the civil wars in Algeria, Sudan and Yemen; and the two Palestinian uprisings or intifadas, along with the revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania and the war in the former Yugoslavia. I have seen that despotic regimes collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers of the elite—the police, the courts, the civil servants, the press, the intellectual class and finally the army—no longer have the will to defend the regime, the regime is finished. When these state organs are ordered to carry out acts of repression—such as clearing people from parks and arresting or even shooting demonstrators—and refuse their orders, the old regime crumbles. The veneer of power appears untouched before a revolution, but the internal rot, unseen by the outside world, steadily hollows out the state edifice. And when dying regimes collapse, they do so with dizzying speed. Upheaval is coming. The people must be prepared. If we are, we will have a chance.