The people of the United States have been taught for generations that, because we live in a democracy, when something is wrong we can address it by making our voices heard, individually and collectively. We deeply believe that government, though inefficient and even corrupt, is basically responsive to our needs and is there to protect us.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, centered on the Standing Rock Reservation of the Lakota Sioux Tribe, began in early 2016 as grassroots opposition grew to construction of the 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by Energy Transfer Partners. DAPL is to transport crude oil from the Bakken Formation, whose development and social effects are shown in the documentary The Overnighters.
The environmental dangers the pipeline threatened - in addition to the climate and environmental destruction caused by using or burning all those petrochemicals, as well as violation of sites sacred to Sioux Tribes - led to unprecedented protests in North Dakota and worldwide, unifying indigenous tribes on a level not seen for over 100 years. A broad coalition documented why more oil and more pipelines and oil tank-car trains pose extreme hazards and are unacceptable to communities surrounding the entire length of transportation. Thousands from all states and many countries came to stand together.
The broad and diverse protests at Standing Rock were met with an unprecedented, violent level of cooperation between oil & gas corporations, drilling companies, pipeline construction companies, financial companies, local/regional/federal governments, police and politicians, and private police forces. Peaceful Water Protectors were beaten, maced, attacked with dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses in sub-freezing temperatures. Over 2,000 U.S. military veterans arrived in December 2016 to act as a human barrier against the police.
Today, despite ongoing protest and legal procedures, despite making their voices heard, the pipeline is operating.
The persistence of the Standing Rock water protectors was mirrored in September, 2019 by global Climate Strikes with up to 7.6 Million people in 99 countries demanding “a livable future”, and yet in November 2021, School Strike for Climate founder Greta Thunberg had this to say;
“It is not a secret that [the COP 26 climate conference] is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place, and more and more people are starting to realize this. Many are starting to ask themselves, ‘What will it take for the people in power to wake up?’ But let’s be clear: They are already awake. They know exactly what they are doing. They know exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to maintain business as usual…. The leaders are not doing nothing; they are actively creating loopholes and shaping frameworks to benefit themselves and to continue profiting from this destructive system.” Greta Thunberg at COP Glasgow, November 2021
Thunberg’s point applies as well to the racial justice movement, which has likewise seen unprecedented growth in the past decade. Since the Ferguson, Missouri uprisings galvanized by the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, the movement against the prison industrial complex and police killings of unarmed civilians has come to recognize itself as an Abolitionist movement, a significant reference to the Civil War era we will revisit. The 2020 police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor galvanized the largest protest movement in U.S. history, as over 26 million people took to the streets in what noted scholar Keeanga Yahmatta Taylor described as “having the characteristics of a class rebellion”. Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter New York invited onstage at a Trump rally, said “So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter? Because you can watch a Black man die, and be choked to death on television, and nothing happens. We need to address that!”
The rebellion lasted over 1 ½ years, spawned many new community political organizations, and brought promises of deep, long-lasting police reform from politicians. Yet, police killings of unarmed civilians remain undiminished. The Oakland, CA police department, riddled with sex and brutality scandals, has been under federal oversight for 20 years, and its oversight judge noted in January 2022 that evidence of white supremacist activity persists. OPD receives over 42% of Oakland’s budget, in a Democrat-controlled city in a Democrat-controlled state. Police forces nationwide continue to be militarized in tactics, weaponry and training, and white supremacist cells within police forces remain intact. Actions reveal intentions, and if our government intended to do anything different it would have started by now.
These are just two illustrations of many showing that we are at a turning point. The climate movement is at a turning point. So is the movement against police murders and the prison-industrial complex, so also is the movement for clean water for all, so is the movement for public education, and so is the movement for a public health care system. They’re all at the same turning point.
After years of intensive action and sacrifice – massive demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience, and information campaigns to educate or awaken legislators and CEOs to hold government and corporations accountable, it’s now clear that those, by themselves, are no longer having the needed effect. As Greta Thunberg said, the people in power are merely offering the appearance of change, without fundamental substance.
Activists are becoming aware that the fight to save ourselves is not a debate, but a struggle for the power to enact the broad changes in energy, food, water, agriculture, public safety, education, healthcare and myriad other aspects of society that are necessary for justice, and even survival of our species. Some are losing hope, having exhausted every avenue they’ve been taught should work; we are in a tough spot, and in great danger. Wishful thinking and good intentions alone cannot save us. But we can overcome these disasters if we understand how revolutionary changes happen and the power people have to bring about such changes. Real hope depends on a relentlessly accurate assessment of the problems we need to solve and the organizations, laws & customs blocking solutions. Our strategy must be based on that assessment.
Every crisis – from systemic racism, to police killings, to toxic water, to growing homelessness and displacement, to climate catastrophe - is driven and funded by corporate power and market imperatives. This is shown by the insanity of financial markets illustrated in the docudrama The Big Short, and by the extractive economy that is salivating over the soon-to-be-accessible oil and gas lying under the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap. Likewise, every attempt to solve these dire problems is blocked by corporate power – either directly, or more often by the government and the state acting on behalf of corporations as in the Dakota Access project and protests discussed above.
Every movement to address these problems is confronting the reality that the politicians, CEOs and organizations touted as leaders, are not just going too slowly; they are consciously moving in the opposite direction - acting against all of the needs of people and planet. Whether they do so brazenly, or fog the air with populist language, hand wringing, and illusions of “diversity, equity, inclusion” while pursuing business as usual, their actions reveal their intentions. Like Michael Jackson moonwalking, they offer the appearance of moving forward while going backward.
And, not only are they disregarding what they know to be the will of the people, the leaders of both parties are actively turning America into a corporate dictatorship, suppressing not only voting and protest, but democratically elected institutions, as local governments are coerced to do the bidding of giant investment groups. Whether the rapidly growing restrictions on voting rights in many states, or billionaire investors using county and state actors to give orders to a democratically elected school board in Oakland, democracy is being undercut.
Fascism is not only an ideology of hatred we see in the white supremacist groups that our government seems unable to stop; it’s also a business deal – an aggressive campaign to privatize every aspect of life under corporate control. From the Compromise of 1877 between Wall Street and the Southern plantation owners, to Italian fascist Benito Mussolini’s ‘corporatism’, to CA Governor Gavin Newsom protecting PG&E even after its felony conviction for the deadly fires it caused - fascism is the direct control of government by corporations.
So, “What is to be done?”
On a global level, society now has to organize to dispossess the corporations of their property, make their assets public, and declare private ownership of natural and social resources illegal. It’s time to discuss how to end the global corporate-market-commodity economy, and create an economy based on utilization of resources for people & planet. A most basic feature of this economy must be “everybody in, nobody out”; universal access to the basic needs for dignified life as a fundamental, inviolable right. Historically, this level of transformative change has been initiated by social movements, and the task is at hand.
The Abolition movement against slavery is instructive for us today; we are learning that, like abolitionists of the 19th century, we confront an implacable opponent; one not open to logic, negotiation, moral appeals or pressure. Slavery was ended, not by convincing slaveholders of the error of their ways, but by a new government that dispossessed slaveowners and declared ownership of human beings illegal. That government began as a movement.
Today, in addition to the powerful street heat and electoral campaigns already in motion, in addition to the valiant fighters working within the Democratic Party to hold it accountable to the people, it’s essential for movements to begin discussing how they will unite and organize to become the government. With every step, activists realize more and more that the climate, anti-racism, housing, water, public education and public healthcare movements are not separate movements trying to unite – they are a single movement for justice and survival, whose elements have been artificially separated.
Every section of this movement is up against corporate power, its power over the state apparatus, and private ownership of social and natural resources itself. A movement prepares itself to govern by stating its goals as a platform. It organizes on that platform to use the electoral system, combined with street heat, door-to-door community listening and organizing, and community councils, to achieve political power.
That is to say, it forms a political party whose goals and strategy are its platform. It may not look like any party we’ve ever seen, but we need a party that expresses and fights for the platform of every change humanity needs, to survive and live in community. This is not a time for compromise; we cannot fight fascism from the middle. Win or lose, we have to fight for the entire planet.
The work of those, such as progressives within the Democratic Party, who are fighting tooth and claw inside of the system’s machinery, is an intrinsic part of how we break free. The Abolitionist Movement against slavery was working within the Whig Party until 1854, fighting to get it to take an anti-slavery stand. When they realized the Whigs would never become anti-slavery, they abandoned the Whigs and formed the Republican Party as an abolitionist party. By 1860, in just six years, they controlled the House, the Senate and the Presidency, and soon after the election they took the Supreme Court.
To make such a leap possible today, it must first enter the stream of serious conversation. A process this complex, against an intransigent opponent, requires strategic consideration and study. If activists don’t start talking about it now, it will not happen until it is too late; the climate/pollution/ extinction thresholds we are approaching will not wait while we are indecisive.
Taking over the property of a class and declaring it to be public property, not private property (or even not property at all, since indigenous voices speak the truth that Nature cannot be owned), is the process of political revolution.
To many, this is simply impossible - or at least far in the future; “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. It will be argued the project is utopian, that there is no workable alternative to capitalism, that such a project is too huge, that human nature makes it impossible. Others will argue that revolution is violent.
None of these are true. If we believe them to be true, it’s because billions of dollars and decades – centuries - of psychological warfare have been expended to make sure we believe there’s no way out. Both capitalism and private property had beginnings, and they have an end. The all-encompassing nature of today’s crisis shows we are at that end. It does us no good to fear the enormity of the task, or the potential for ruling class-initiated violence. We already have violence, horrible and pervasive. Capitalism is violent. Deprivation is violence. We need change.
Many youth express deep despair, seeing no livable future for themselves or their children if revolution is impossible, but revolution is neither impossible nor optional, nor is it far off in the future. We are in a revolutionary process here and now, and our survival depends on taking the world away from the billionaire tyrants.
On what basis do we say we are in a revolution?
Revolution, as an historical process, is far more than the act of taking political power. We are in a revolutionary process because our economy, and the technology that shapes the economy, have changed fundamentally.
A revolutionary process begins when technology – specifically the technology of how we produce the necessaries of life – changes so much it conflicts with the social structure of distributing those necessaries. That’s why people make systemic change, because the old system – beset with new realities beyond its capacity – shreds the social fabric in its death throes. Systemic change is precisely what we are experiencing today.
An economy is defined as how people produce the things they need, and how they distribute, or circulate them in their society. Technology is commonly thought of as the tools that are used for producing what is required, or even more narrowly as “everything since the microchip”; it actually is more the totality of human knowledge of the laws of nature, which is what allows humans to use natural materials and processes in ways that would never occur in nature. When technology changes, it changes the economy; when it changes fundamentally, the economy changes fundamentally and so does society.
Any given level of technological development tends to generate a certain range of social structures – from ancestral communism (still practiced in many indigenous communities today) based on hunting and gathering, with very little division of labor (every adult basically does all the work every other adult does) – to more complex societies with larger communities, agriculture and, later, industry, and extensive division of labor (adults do many different kinds of work). With agriculture came surpluses, and with surpluses came inequality – some accumulating more land and wealth (often by violence), others losing it due to crop failures or the aforementioned violence. Thus was born private property, or private accumulation of social resources by some, with propertyless people forced to labor for the owners. The owners became the ruling elites, the class that owned the private property. This process occurred, with variations, on almost every continent; the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Capitalism’s structural foundation lies in business owners - capitalists - buying human labor power as a commodity, paying workers enough to purchase at least some of the goods they manufacture and come back to work to generate more profit for the company. In fact, the entire history of private property and elite ruling classes, from antiquity to the present, from slave to serf to industrial worker, is bound up with the need to employ human labor, paid or unpaid, forced or “free”, to accomplish work and produce goods.
A level of technology that can replace humans throughout the production cycle renders such an economy obsolete, and constantly drives down real wages; i.e., the value and price of labor as a commodity. This is why 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency, even during an economic “upswing”.
The introduction of the microchip into industry in the early 1970s began a technological revolution that has undercut the foundations, not only of capitalism, but of private property itself. The revolution hit first in manufacturing – a precision metal part that required 4 hours of labor in 1970 can be made in 1.5 minutes in 2020, on machines that require no human attention for long periods. The same process has metastasized throughout all industries and is now proceeding in knowledge fields including software design.
First, it changed the economy – the economics of doing business – forcing companies to automate or seek lower wage areas. Jobs dried up, manufacturing plants either automated or moved offshore. I experienced this directly while working as a journey-level machinist in the 1970s and ‘80s; after 25 years without a strike - better wages, better healthcare, more vacation etc. - suddenly in the early ‘70s, digitally-controlled CNC machine tools were being moved in at the Caterpillar Tractor plant where I served my apprenticeship. This was a machine shop facility with 1,600 people under one roof, each person setting up and operating one electro-mechanical machine tool. Management began demanding cuts to medical, vacations, sub-inflation raises, and after three strikes in three contracts, Caterpillar closed the plant in 1982 and moved the work to Brazil. Our union was able to ensure we got fired fairly, in seniority order. It became clear to people observing this nationally, that something new was going on in the economy.
Massive job loss and falling wages began a social revolution – destruction of the old social fabric - with homeless families and street begging appearing on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The technological, economic, and social aspects of this revolution are now highly developed, with real wages so reduced that many houseless people work full-time yet can’t afford housing. The 2008 financial collapse may have been about subprime “bad” loans, but the bad loans were about trying to prop up housing sales to people with no money.
The process of revolution can’t go back in the bag, because its driving force – digital technology - can’t be turned back by a ruling class that is commanded by market imperatives to use technology to reduce labor costs, no matter what.
We are in a revolutionary process. Stages of that process – technological, economic, and social revolution – are what we have been experiencing since the mid-1970s.
Political revolution – the rise of new political forces and parties on both sides of the political spectrum, the struggle for power to achieve the aims of either corporations, or humanity and planet – is at our door.
Saying that we are entering the stage of political revolution conjures up dramatic images of the act of political revolution itself, whatever form that takes in one’s imagination. But we are not there yet, any more than entering the birthing process with the onset of labor means the moment of birth. It simply means that we have reached the point where it can be shown that no solution, short of ending private property and overthrowing the institutions that anchor it, will save us. There are numerous steps to be taken to move through this stage toward its conclusion, not the least of which is accepting the reality of classes and class power in the U.S., and how class and race intertwine for corporate control in a system aptly called racial capitalism.
A few strategic questions …. or, HTF Do We Do This?
The key to any political strategy is knowing the enemy, recognizing their strategy, and developing a strategy to defeat it. To understand their strategy, we have to be clear about who they are.
Our ruling class is not the politicians we elect; the ruling class is the owners and top executives of the largest, most powerful investment corporations worldwide, and the corporations themselves (Blackrock, Allianz, State Street, Vanguard, Goldman Sachs etc.), and the global organizations and networks (World Economic Forum, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, etc.) they use to manage global policy. How they rule is best understood through the works of authors like Peter Phillips and William I. Robinson. In summary, these corporate networks control the supply of capital that nations and cities rely on to function. They control the supply and prices of commodities nations buy and sell. Nations and cities are mired in debt to these same corporate networks because of corporate withdrawal of taxes and capital from said nations and cities. They bankrupt schools, communities, nations. They give orders, and expect them to be obeyed.
Any ruling class’s strategy is to keep the ruled from uniting against the rulers and their system, to keep us from seeing them or even looking at them as the enemy, by keeping us looking at each other, accusing each other, fighting each other.
In the United States of America, the main form that takes is white supremacy. To win, we must unite our working class because any sector we can’t unite is used against us. We can only unite our class by working to defeat and destroy white supremacy.
Youth, whose lives are increasingly stressed and destroyed by the upheaval in the economy, have taken a powerful first step, with their massive participation in the George Floyd rebellion, the electoral struggles of 2020, and championing the fight to end systemic racism/white supremacy. They have done so largely on the basis of the immorality of injustice, and their determination to speak and act in accordance with the respect deserved by all people.
In addition to this very appropriate moral outrage, this movement must deal with the strategic side of white supremacy.
White supremacy is not only a moral or ideological issue; it’s not just a belief in superiority, or that whites should be supreme. It is a consciously worked out, 300+ year-old strategy to maintain control and profits, largely by controlling the thinking of white Americans to keep them attached to, and subjugated to the system that is killing us all. They got whites to accept less-than-freedom by convincing them the elites care about them, and that the system cares about them; this is now biting white workers in the ass. Just look at the opioid crisis – does that look like a system that cares about anyone? White people have been politically paralyzed for over 300 years by the deep-seated belief that they are free, that the system will work for them if they work - and fight - for the system, and that all their problems are individual problems. The elites who spur us on are laughing all the way to the bank.
The contradiction we face is that we need to build unity among people who don’t think they like each other and who say all the wrong things, but have the ultimate reasons for joining and bonding – they share the same troubles, and are being sunk in the same boat by the same billionaires. Regardless of their many identities, they are in the same class. Unity is best built through practical work toward common, concrete goals, with conscious intent.
As Flint, Michigan water struggle leader Claire McClinton said when asked about racism in their struggle, “Well, they didn’t just poison black people, they didn’t just poison white people, they poisoned all of us – and we’re in there fighting together, and we’re working it out.”
None of our struggles have been wasted. Every step has clarified our tasks and what we face. Every step brings us closer to the ultimate contradiction, the ultimate battle to end private property and show what the human species can do when our economy allows all of society to develop their full abilities as individuals and collectively. It is a subject for immediate strategizing, and must therefore enter the stream of serious conversation among people.
The Republican Party of Abolition gained power in 6 years from their founding in 1854, and they only had the telegraph. We have astounding communication technology; with a climate catastrophe deadline only 8 years away, we are on a short, and therefore accelerated schedule.
Peter Brown has been speaking, writing and teaching about technology, economics and social change for over thirty years. His work has been published in Occupy.com, Nation of Change, Rally, Comrades! and other venues. He worked in industry as a journey-level machinist through the 1970s and into the 80s, where he experienced both the rise of new technology and the early stages of social destruction. Following a twenty-two year hiatus from industry he taught machine technology at Laney Community College in Oakland, CA for twelve years. He has been an active member of four unions, a social justice activist, and worked consistently for the rights of students and faculty, especially part-time faculty, while at Laney College. Mr. Brown also has danced throughout his life, and professionally for over 23 years, performing, teaching and creating in ballet and modern dance. More recently, he has focused on climate work with youth. He is a founding member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, lrna.org.
Thanks to Aaron Goodwin for invaluable editing help and good thinking.