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Amid All Our Disasters, Why Are the Only Revolutionaries on the Right?

As I was watching the local New York City news coverage of Hurricane Irene before “she” made landfall, I was struck, as I have often been before, by the pleasure of the apocalyptic that the newscasters were so obviously experiencing as they reported on the storm: Potentially the first hurricane to make landfall in New York since the Norfolk and Long Island hurricane of 1821! The storm of a generation! The storm of a century! And as weathermen and women conjured up the worst-case scenario and invited us viewers to contemplate what was in store for our beloved city, they grew increasingly giddy. We were told to expect pounding torrential rains and ferocious winds lasting as long as twenty hours straight since the storm was so slow moving; we were told to expect a dramatic surge of water—seven feet of flooding into Staten Island! more than five feet of flooding into lower Manhattan!—due to the timing of the high tide, the arrival of the storm, and the narrow physical dimensions of New York harbor. We were told that there would be uprooted trees, power outages, broken glass flying from skyscrapers, devastating flooding of the subways, with the city paralyzed after the storm passes, not to mention billions in losses due to all the destruction and what would be a massive clean-up, but also because Wall Street, inundated by flood waters, might very well be shut down for days. We were implored to ready our “go-bags,” to fill our bathtubs, to stock up on bottled water, canned food, “energy bars,” radios, flashlights, and batteries, and we were shown empty shelves at markets and drugstores to drive home the point about what awaited any complacent viewer who did not heed their warnings. 

I didn’t for a minute feel any pleasure in entertaining the weather forecasters’ apocalyptic visions. Rather, during the frenzied media build-up, I found myself feeling a kind of perverse pleasure in telling just about anyone who would listen that the approaching storm was good training for the world we are about to enter due to global warming—rising oceans, flooding of coastal cities and towns, black-outs, food shortages, general pandemonium. As I offered my interpretation of the coming storm, I realized—with far less pleasure—that I had been inspired by one of George Orwell’s “London Letters” to the Partisan Review that he wrote regularly during World War II. I had read them years ago but could still recall Orwell informing his American readers that the many shortages and rationing of foods and goods that Londoners were forced to endure during the war would turn out to be good training for the inevitable hard times ahead when Britain became a socialist country following the war. As I was telling this to my husband, I began to have doubts about what Orwell actually said. Luckily, I had made xeroxes of the London letters that I found most striking and was able to locate them. Sure enough, in one that was published in the November-December 1942 issue of the Partisan Review, I found what I was looking for. Orwell did say that due to rationing, 

We are growing gradually used to conditions that would once have seemed intolerable and getting to have less of the consumer mentality which both Socialists and capitalists did their best to inculcate in times of peace. Since the introduction of Socialism is almost certain to mean a drop in the standard of living during the first few years, perhaps this is just as well.

While I was looking for that particular letter, I happened upon another one (published in July-August 1942) that startled me with its relevance to our own particular moment. It again concerned the prospects of socialism in England, Orwell’s belief that “we are back to the ‘revolutionary situation’ which existed but was not utilized after Dunkirk.” I hadn’t heard the phrase “revolutionary situation” for a long time, though I knew it was once a key word in the vocabulary of Marxist intellectuals. Now, of course, the idea of a “revolutionary situation” is as foreign to most of us as the idea that socialism is possible, let alone desirable. But in the bleak summer of 1942, intellectuals as acute as Orwell were able to draw parallels between the crises in the British government’s legitimation brought about by wartime defeats and the chaotic period preceding the Bolshevik Revolution during World War I. Thus, Orwell observed that from the time of the forced mass evacuation at Dunkirk “until quite recently one’s thoughts necessarily moved in some such progression as this”:

  • We can’t win the war with our present social and economic structure.

  • The structure won’t change unless there is a rapid growth in popular consciousness.

  • The only thing that promotes this growth is military disasters.

  • One more disaster and we shall lose the war.

Orwell’s disturbing progression of thought, it occurred to me, was pertinent to today’s global financial crisis, as well as to the crisis that is upon us with global warming. In imagination, I substituted “current collapse in our financial system/environmental-ecological disasters” for “war” and I found unexpected parallels between our current situation and that earlier disaster-laden one:

  • We can’t get beyond the current collapse in our financial system/environmental-ecological disasters with our present social and economic structure.

  • The structure won’t change unless there is a rapid growth in popular consciousness.

  • The only thing that promotes this growth is financial/environmental-ecological disasters.

  • One more disaster in our financial system/environment and we shall lose our world as we know it.

The final point, however, did not quite ring true to me, since we keep having violent gyrations in the stock market worldwide and repeated ecological catastrophes brought on by our insatiable appetite for energy—I thought of the BP Oil spill in the gulf coast last summer and the core meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear reactors this year—and yet our world somehow continues to go on. At the same time I was struck by another possible conclusion to this train of thought: If the global economy were to recover and prosper and produce voracious—i.e., American-style—standards of consumption worldwide, the result would be the hastening of environmental/ecological disasters.

Orwell was living through the most dire of times which no one in his or her right mind would want to live through, yet I couldn’t help envying him and his friends at the Partisan Review, as they not only had a system to help them think through the crises confronting them but an alternative to capitalism to hope for (at least during the war). And yet when I think about our current crises, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to notice that there has been at least the potential for a “revolutionary situation” in America beginning six summers ago with Hurricane Katrina—those dismal images that poured out of New Orleans of miserable men, women, and children abandoned to the full force of the hurricane without sufficient food and water, without sanitary living conditions, and most telling, without the protection of the police or the National Guard. I still feel our nation’s shame when I recall the interviews I saw with people who did not have the means to leave the city, typically African-American, all too often morbidly obese, who said they were suffering from diabetes and/or high blood pressure and had run out of the medications that they needed.

I was dumbfounded by the utter failure of President Bush and his administration to respond to this emergency—the paralysis of the “ruling class” being one of the conditions of a “revolutionary situation”—and felt there was a kind of perverse justice in the spectacle of Cuba offering aid to America. Naively, I believed we were at a turning point in our history. I was convinced that our representatives in Congress would have to drop everything and make the fight against poverty our one and only mission; that, as the saying goes, the whole world was watching and we could not simply blunder on in the old way. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the fact that we as a country had willfully closed our eyes to the disasters (natural, man-made, and terrorist-inflicted) that we all know are surely coming; and its disgraceful aftermath laid bare the fact that we as a country had willfully closed our eyes to the grinding poverty from which too many people cannot escape. I naively thought that this would be the moment that we focused our national attention on the moral imperative of creating decent, good-paying, non-polluting jobs, even consider reviving what in the nineteenth century was called “worthy work”—work that requires skill, knowledge, and experience obtained through years of apprenticeship. And given that the kinds of jobs that were to be created would prove decisive to the survival of our oceans, rivers, land, and breathable air—pollution having entered the world with the industrial factory system and concomitant de-skilling of labor in the nineteenth century—I naively thought that this would be the moment we would reconsider our uncritical allegiance to “growth without end,” no matter what the cost to the world we inhabit together and will pass on to those who come after us.

Was I ever mistaken! And yet … calamities keep mounting, climaxing, at least so far, with the breakdown of the global financial system and the nuclear catastrophes in Japan. I couldn’t help wondering why, under these extraordinary circumstances, we still have not entered a “revolutionary situation.” The “ruling class” in America, even if it was momentarily paralyzed during Hurricane Katrina, obviously does not believe that it must fundamentally change its ways—the government’s gigantic bail-out of its cronies in the banking, finance, and insurance industries under both President Bush and Obama was proof of that. But then it occurred to me that this was not quite right. A “revolutionary situation” is in the making, but I had been oblivious to it because I still expected it to come from the Left (what little remains of progressivism), when it is, in fact, coming from the other direction.

Now that I was viewing our current situation with Orwell in mind—both the World-War-II socialist and the 1984 Orwell—I was beginning to see that the angry masses who refuse to live in the old way—the “third camp”—and the “revolutionary cadre” who would lead them—both of which were required by Marxist theory for a “revolutionary situation” but failed to materialize after the war—are here now in the body of the Tea Party and they are acquiring more and more visibility and power. Newly elected congressmen and women led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor are successfully disrupting the “ruling class,” hijacking the political system, making business as usual impossible, and they are doing so from within by employing legal congressional maneuvers. My re-worked version of Orwell’s train of thought came back to me:

We can’t get beyond the current collapse in our financial system/environmental-ecological disasters with our present social and economic structure.

The appearance of the silly-sounding Tea Party, I thought, was “the cunning of history” with a vengeance: The ever-deepening crisis of global capitalism that is destroying so many people’s lives, instead of being met with revolution by the “progressive class” is being met with reactionary cries of spend less, lay off public workers, dismantle public programs, get rid of government altogether. Again I thought of Orwell’s words: 

Our present social and economic structure won’t change unless there is a rapid growth in popular consciousness.

Who would have thought that the revolutionary change in popular consciousness would be the belief that the root of all our social and economic troubles and the enemy of ordinary people is our hobbled welfare state?

Stuck in old habits of thought, I realized that I had relegated the Sarah Palins of our impoverished political world to the outer region of the not-to-be-taken-seriously bible-thumpers, that in my complacency I had failed to see that Tea Party militants were far better organized and more willing to stand up for what they believe than any Leftist these days. And who knows? Even though they speak for only a small minority, they might very well pull off their revolution. The Left has never succeeded in getting one of their own to run for president under the banner of the Democratic party—Ralph Nader had to run as a third-party candidate—but this time around the Republican establishment is fielding such bona fide right-wing radicals as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. It is hard to believe that someone who claims that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” a “failure,” “something we have been forced to accept;” that the federal income tax was the “great milestone on the road to serfdom;” that global warming is a “contrived, phony mess;” that Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy is “almost treasonous” could be seriously offered as a legitimate candidate for the office of president, but these are the fighting words of Rick Perry and he is at this moment the most popular candidate among Republicans.

The only thing missing from the classic “revolutionary situation” is any sign that the “ruling class” is aware that it cannot live in the old way. But then I realized that even that component was now in place: Mitt Romney, who is supposed to be the “mainstream” Republican candidate, is now pandering to the revolutionary wing of his party, having made his first campaign appearance at a Tea Party rally. But even more telling of the growing consciousness on the part of the status quo that it cannot maintain its hold on power unless it changes, President Obama, as we saw during the debt-ceiling “compromise,” has adopted the Tea Party’s revolutionary tax-cutting, government-cutting program. And with the news just the other day of the President’s rejection of stricter limits on air pollution, coinciding with his much-publicized visit to victims of Hurricane Irene in flood-stricken New Jersey, it appears that the “ruling class” is now also adopting the Tea Party’s revolutionary position that jobs in the short-term are more important than the survival of a habitable world in the future.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.