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What Has Become of the American Spirit of Rebellion?

"Revolution" is pervasive among media reports of international affairs, yet it seems to have disappeared altogether from American culture.

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 5:02 PM EDT
Protestors in Ukraine

[This essay will appear in "Revolution," the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
-- Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word "revolution" has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody—visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian—to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America's political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s Reagan Risorgimento), asking itself why it's not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry—"Give me liberty, or give me death"— raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for "Freedom Now," "Power to the People," "Change We Can Believe In"?

My guess is next to nothing that can't be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50 percent of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.

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Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo

The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Jefferson conceived of liberty and despotism as plantings in the soil of politics, products of human cultivation subject to changes in the weather, the difference between them not unlike that between the growing of an orchard and the draining of a cesspool, both understood as means of environmental protection. It is the turning of the seasons and the cyclical motions of the stars that Jefferson has in mind when in his letter he goes on to say, "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion"—i.e., one conceived not as a lawless upheaval but as a lawful recovery.

The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things "disturbed and violated" by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government. During the hundred years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had developed tools of political management (church congregations, village assemblies, town meetings) with which to govern themselves in accordance with what they took to be the ancient liberties possessed by their fellow Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. They didn't bear the grievances of a subjugated populace, and the seeds of revolt were nowhere blowing in the wind until the British crown demanded new, and therefore unlawful, tax money.

Arendt's retrieval of the historical context leads her to say of the war for independence that it was "not revolutionary except by inadvertence." To sustain the point she calls on Benjamin Franklin's memory of the years preceding the shots fired at Lexington in April 1775: "I never had heard in any conversation from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression of a wish for a separation, or hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America." The men who came to power after the Revolution were the same men who held power before the Revolution, their new government grounded in a system of thought that was, in our modern parlance, conservative.

Born 13 years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.

The freedom-loving songs and slogans were well suited to the work of ecstatic demolition, but a guillotine is not a living tree, and although manured with the blood of aristocrats and priests, it failed to blossom with the leaves of political liberty. An armed mob of newly baptized citoyens stormed the Bastille in 1789; Napoleon in 1804 crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Jefferson's thinking had been informed by his study of nature and history, Robespierre's by his reading of Rousseau's poetics. Neither set of political ideas brought forth the dream-come-true products of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution—new worlds being born every day of the week, the incoming tide of modern manufacture and invention (the cotton gin, gas lighting, railroads) washing away the sand castles of medieval religion and Renaissance humanism, dismantling Robespierre's reign of virtue, uprooting Jefferson's tree of liberty.

So it is left to Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, to acknowledge the arrival of the new world that never was with the publication in German of the Communist Manifesto in 1848: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society."

Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the "single, unconscionable freedom—free trade," which resolves "personal worth into exchange value," substitutes "callous 'cash payment'" for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energies of the capitalist dynamic take full and proud possession of the whole of Western society. They become, in Marx's analysis, the embodiment of "the modern representative state," armed with the wealth of its always newer and more powerful machines (electricity, photography, the telephone, the automobile) and staffed by executives (i.e., politicians, no matter how labeled) who function as "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." 

What Marx sees in theory as an insatiable abstraction, the American historian Henry Adams sees as concrete and overwhelming fact. Marx is 17 years dead and the Communist Manifesto a sacred text among the left-wing intelligentsia everywhere in Europe when Adams, his habit of mind as profoundly conservative as that of his great-grandfather, stands in front of a colossal dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and knows that Prometheus, no longer chained to his ancient rock, bestrides the Earth wearing J.P. Morgan's top hat and P.T. Barnum's cloak of as many colors as the traffic will bear. Adams shares with Marx the leaning toward divine revelation:

"To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed…Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force."

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