America’s “Les Miz” Moment: What’s Really Happening?

I’ve participated in two unrelated Zoom groups in the past couple of weeks where the same pair of probing questions were asked: What’s Really Happening? And What about looting?

One group was composed mostly of editorial board members of the online publication, OpEdNews (OEN). The other was a “Mindfulness Dialog” meeting in my local faith community, the Talmadge Hill Community Church here in Westport Connecticut.

Of course, the shared questions were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with the general uprising throughout the country (and world) incited by the brutal police murder of yet another unarmed African American, George Floyd.

In the OEN meeting, the spirit behind the discussion searched for invisible powers (perhaps Deep State?) that have us all under house arrest and why? Who’s benefitting from all this was the underlying theme. Cui bono? And why the general rebellion on a scale that Americans haven’t seen since 1968?  

My church group took another tack. There, the questions became what is Life Itself teaching us by the whole process – the pandemic, the uprising, and the violence? What is the Great Inter-Being that some of us call “God” asking us to learn and transform?

As I see it, the framings of both meetings were inseparable. It’s true that Mother Inter-Being is teaching us something. But she’s also calling us to think critically and structurally precisely about what bell hooks has described as the “white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.” That whole interlocking system is firmly based on violence and looting on a gargantuan scale that makes burning buildings and flaming police vehicles insignificant by comparison.

Pandemic Evolution

Begin with the pandemic. As seen by my church group (and by senior OEN editor, Meryl Ann Butler) it’s a virus and accordingly represents an indispensable part of the evolutionary process directly related to life’s fundamental progressions.

This virus’ name is “corona,” the Latin word for crown. In metaphysical perspective, its message is therefore addressed to our minds where the crown of humanity currently lies so uneasily. “Corona” is also connected with the heart, as in the adjective “coronary.” In this perspective then, the message of the Great Cosmic Mother is addressed to both heart and mind.

And what might she be communicating at such profound levels? Could it be that the way of life we post-moderns have chosen remains at odds with those she has established? That wouldn’t be surprising, given that it’s consistent with the Natural World’s other insistent warnings that humans have chosen largely to ignore. These include human-induced climate chaos, droughts, floods, devastating forest conflagrations, rising sea levels, species extinctions, vanishing topsoil, waste disposal problems, atmospheric pollution, and the human suffering associated with each of those elements. Supported by climate scientists across the planet, desperate Cassandras of every stripe – from Pope Francis and the Dali Lama to Greta Thunberg – have foretold inevitable disaster.

Now it’s happening. The difference this time is that the coronavirus has secured the attention of the entire world all at the same time! Unmistakably, we’re all being told again that the dominant civilization is on the wrong evolutionary track.

Revolt vs. Neoliberalism

That consciousness had already sunk in across the world well before the advent of COVID-19. Remember, it was entirely in flames at the conclusion of 2019.

Recall the inferno of rebellion. Demonstrations and street riots had erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses protested in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surfaced in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Then there were the Yellow Vests in France, and Brexit in Great Britain, and recurring protests in Greece. The list of hot spots also included Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now, with the murder of George Floyd, the worldwide rebellion has finally reached the shores of the United States. Like the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in 2010, like the subway fare hike in Chile, the police murder of George Floyd put a torch to the tinder of discontent that’s long been lying around awaiting the first incendiary spark.

The kindling in question included the frustrations of a nation-wide lockdown that has subjected everyone to a strain of cabin fever even more contagious than the coronavirus itself. The lockdown in turn caused the greatest economic downturn since the onset of the Great Depression more than 85 years ago. The resulting unemployment surged towards 1933 levels of 25%, with twice that number unemployed in black and brown communities. Breadlines had sprung up everywhere, and people experienced food scarcity and hunger in a country where even before the lockdown 40 million Americans were described as food insecure.

Government response to the crisis proved even more frustrating. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it was constitutionally unable to reform its healthcare system. Instead it awarded generous bailouts to the already wealthy and crumbs (if anything) for the working classes. Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, had his income rise by 20 to 30 billion in the first two months of the lockdown. Meanwhile, many workers saw their jobs disappear – some of them permanently.

Those paying attention knew it didn’t have to be that way. As economist Richard Wolff points out for instance, pre-crisis unemployment in Germany stood at 5%. Currently, the rate is 6%. That’s because (thanks to strong labor unions and powerful socialist parties) corporate bailouts there were conditioned on employers agreeing not to fire their workers. As part of the same package, the German government covered up to 80% of the workers’ income. It was similar in France. By contrast, here in the United States there were no such preconditions for the nation’s largest employers. Bezos and others were given carte blanche relief. Their income soared, while pink-slipped workers often wondered where their family’s next meal would come from.

The convergence of pandemic, lockdown, unemployment, poverty, hunger and government’s impotent malfeasance confined working people to a pressure cooker that was bound to explode. Even if protestors were unaware of all its elements, even if they thought it was all about George Floyd and police brutality, there was really much more at work to send the cooker’s gauge beyond the red danger zone. Put otherwise: the explosion we’re witnessing represents an uprising, a rebellion, not mere police riots.  

Les Misérables React

With all those pressures at work, it should not have surprised anyone if a small minority of protestors engaged in property destruction and looting. The reasons justifying (yes, justifying) the petty thievery, breaking of windows, burning of buildings, slashing of tires and throwing of stones should be obvious to everyone. Let me list just a few. They include the facts that:

  • Charges of looting are highly suspect: Everyone knows that police and other official sources regularly employ agents provocateurs. As others have pointed out, it is virtually impossible to distinguish looters from officials masquerading as such for purposes of discrediting protestors in general.
  • Property destruction is the American way: From official statements of “leaders” like Barack Obama, Donald Trump and various police chiefs, you’d think all of them were committed followers of Jesus, King, and Gandhi. You’d think they were all pacifists. On the contrary, our government’s official response to almost any international problem you care to name is that “all options are on the table.” And “all” means bombing, droning, sending in troops, killing on a massive scale, and even threatening nuclear war. Of course, every one of those options includes destruction of lives and property on massive and (in the case of nuclear weapons) total scales. So, it’s quite amusing to see government officials wringing their hands over broken windows and burning police cars.
  • The rich have just looted our treasury: The CARES ACT’s immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic prioritized taxpayer-backed loans and tax breaks to the already rich. At the same time it neglected the pressing needs of the poorest among us (e.g. the homeless and undocumented)  while offering crumbs to the rest of us. Some have described the measures as those of a fire department entering your burning home, forgetting about the fire and stealing your most valued possessions. That’s looting.
  • In a context of lockdown, looting has been long expected: This is what I refer to as a “Les Miz Moment.” Recall that in Victor Hugo’s play, Jean Valjean is imprisoned, tortured, and hunted relentlessly for stealing a loaf of bread. Hungry desperate people do desperate things. Stealing food or a TV from behind a broken display window is less than nothing when compared with the stealing and looting that historically undergirds our country’s primitive wealth accumulation.
  • Historically, our country’s economy is based on looting: It all began with genocidal looting of an entire hemisphere from Native Americans. Remember, African Americans are here in the first place because of the looting of millions of their very lives beginning in 1619. Mexicans had huge parts of their country snatched from them in 1848. And afterwards prosperous Mexican farmers saw whites routinely attack, destroy, and loot their property and homes with impunity. In 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma killed hundreds of African Americans as they burnt down the city’s prosperous “Black Wall Street.” The list of such outrages is long and bloody.
  • It is a form of restitution: Looting represents a poor man’s largely unconscious reparation in a country that refuses to entertain the massive restoration that is systemically due our nation’s black and brown inhabitants.
  • Looting works:  The argument can be easily made that until windows are broken and property destroyed, no one pays attention to “peaceful protestors.” On this, please see the debate on the subject recently moderated by Glen Greenwald.

Conclusion

So, what’s going on?

The murder of George Floyd ignited tinder just waiting for some spark to set it aflame. Obviously, we’re witnessing a rebellion against police brutality particularly as aimed at poor black and brown citizens.

But OEN editors and contributors were also correct: the counter-rebellion involves nefarious forces associated with our government and its armed forces. It’s all part of a last-gasp defense of a quickly disintegrating neo-liberal economic system and the actual worldwide rebellion against its order.

Part of it too is a mostly unconscious, but nonetheless genuine cry for reparations for unaddressed longstanding grievances. And on an even larger (metaphysical) scale, the trouble in streets across the planet can be credibly seen as a desperate response to a message from that Great Interbeing some of us call “God.”

Regardless of what you might call it, we had all better listen and respond before it’s too late.

A World on Fire: The Establishment’s Counter-Revolution against Democracy

On November 21st, conservative pundit, David Brooks published a confusing op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt against Populism.” At least for this reader, it generated an overwhelming sense of information entanglement and of confusion about making sense of the world Brooks described.

I’m referring on the one hand to the welter of detail supplied in his enumeration of countries rebelling against populism. (How is one to know enough to make sense of all of that?) On the other hand, my reference is to Brooks’ all-encompassing use of the term “populism.” For him everyone from Xi Jinping to Donald Trump seems to fit into that category. How is that possible?

The purpose of this reflection is first of all to answer that question: how to make sense of the term “populism.” Its second purpose is to use that clarified term to offer a brief framework explaining the current worldwide rebellion unfolding before our eyes.

Begin with that last point – the rebellion that Brooks describes as a revolt against populism. It’s everywhere. As the author notes, demonstrations and street riots have erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses are currently protesting in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surface in Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Brooks also includes the “Yellow Vests” in France, Brexit in Great Britain, and Trumpism in the United States.

He might well have added venues like Algiers, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Iraq. And then, of course, there are the permanent populist revolts entrenched in China (comprising 20% of the world’s population) and Cuba – not to mention ISIS and al-Qaeda. Finally, Brooks might also have included populist rebellion against climate change in our own country – e.g. Standing Rock, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and School Strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg.

Yes, Brooks is right: the world is in flames; it’s “unsteady and ready to blow.”  

And what’s the cause of it all? Brooks gives two answers. For one, it’s a revolt against the revived and globalized form of laissez-faire capitalism that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. In the aftermath, with the Soviet Union in ruins, capitalist ideologues like Francis Fukuyama hastily declared the end of history and their own particular system definitively triumphant. As Margaret Thatcher put it there was no alternative.

However, far from being generally beneficial and inevitable, the emergent system of world-wide privatization, deregulated markets, and tax cuts for the rich alienated the masses. They experienced globalism as favoring a relatively small number of elites, while adversely impacting wage workers, rural populations and emerging middle classes. Neoliberalism proved to be culturally destructive as well.

In response to its austerity programs for the non-elite, people everywhere gravitated to populism. That’s the second explanation of the world’s turmoil identified by Brooks – a populism so ineffective that people are rebelling everywhere.

But it’s here that his deeper confusion appears. It comes from the author’s mixture of the term’s democratic meaning with neoliberalism’s undemocratic reaction precisely to that popular thrust. It comes from his refusal to face facts. In personal terms, Evo Morales Movement towards Socialism (MAS) represents a hugely effective populism; Donald Trump and the U.S. government is anti-populist.    

To get what I mean, first of all consider the definition of populism itself. Wikipedia defines the term as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

Of course (using Maslow’s hierarchy), the primary concerns of the people everywhere are always the same: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, dignified work, and just wages. Once those needs have been met, secondary concerns emerge such as freedom of religion, of press, and the rights to assemble and protest. According to that understanding, you might just as well define populism as democracy, and the title of Brooks’ article as “The Revolt against Democracy.”

Contrary to the impression conveyed by Brooks, that revolt is primarily embodied precisely in his beloved Establishment’s invariable reaction to the democratic aspirations just listed. It’s always the same: sanctions, regime change, coup d’états, assassinations, and outright war waged by proxy or by direct attack. Popular support for such anti-democratic tactics (insofar as they are even sought) is achieved by appealing to the economic self-interest of the elite and to the primal prejudices of “the base.”

Favorite reactionary anti-democratic themes invoke patriotism, religion, racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia. Meanwhile, the genuine causes of popular misery – including unaffordable rents, inadequate wages, inescapable debt, widening gaps between rich and poor, privatized healthcare and education, a tattered social safety net, decaying or non-existent public transportation, ubiquitous political corruption, and endless war – are left unaddressed. To call such austerity measures “popular” simply muddies the waters making it more difficult to make sense of the world. And yet this is what Brooks and standard treatments of “populism” constantly imply and say.

Such sleight of hand enables mainstream pundits like David Brooks to falsely equate “populisms of the left” and “populisms of the right.” In the process, it empowers them to admit the failures of neoliberal capitalism, but to hastily add that leftwing populism is no better. As Brooks puts it: “But it’s also clear that when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now across the globe we’re seeing “a revolt against the populists themselves.” After all, Brooks claims, “Venezuela is an economic disaster” and in Bolivia “Evo Morales stands accused of trying to rig an election.”

However, Brooks’ declaration of populist failure doesn’t mention:

  • The crippling sanctions the United States has imposed on Venezuela
  • Nor those placed on China, Cuba (for more than 50 years!) and Nicaragua.
  • The fact that Morales’ populist policies in Bolivia had drastically raised the living standards of the country’s majority indigenous population
  • Or that those of populist Lula da Silva had done the same for the impoverished of Brazil
  • Or that China’s policies (with enormous popular support) have transformed it into the world’s most dynamic economic force lifting out of poverty fully 20% of the world’s population
  • Or that the latter’s “Belt and Road” foreign-aid initiative has made its political economy and populist policies the aspirational standard of the entire Global South – despite the contrary efforts of the U.S. and of the EU’s former colonial powers

Above all, Brooks’ overwhelming list and standardized false equivalency doesn’t recognize the historical pattern behind the explosive situation he describes. That pattern has the former colonial powers, and especially the United States, resisting democratic populism on every front. It does so according to the pattern which follows. Here is how I describe it in my recently published The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news:

  • Any country attempting to establish a populist economy favoring the poor majority
  • Will be accused of being illegitimate, communist, socialist, authoritarian, and/or a sponsor of terrorism.
  • It will be overthrown either directly by U.S. invasion
  • Or indirectly by right-wing (often terrorist) elements within the local population
  • To keep that country within the neoliberal orbit
  • So that the U.S. and its rich international allies might continue to use the country’s resources for its own enrichment
  • And for that of the local elite.

What I’m suggesting here is that historical pattern analysis just outlined goes much further towards pinpointing the original spark that has ignited the world’s conflagration and resulting disequilibrium than Brooks’ misleading description as a “Revolt against Populism.”

Underneath many, if not all of the revolts Brooks so overwhelmingly enumerates is the heavy hand of the United States and Europe’s displaced colonial powers. They are the consistently inveterate enemies of genuine populism concerned as it is with meeting basic human need. They are the advocates and sponsors of the world’s anti-democratic forces that have (with the help of establishment pundits like David Brooks) coopted the term to confuse us all.

In other words, there’s no need to be overwhelmed rather than inspired by the unfolding worldwide revolt against neoliberal austerity and laissez-faire capitalism. At least initially, it’s not necessary for us to know the details of every country’s history and political economy.

Instead, critical thinkers should simply remain cognizant of the nature of authentic populism and of the pattern just summarized. Then, when necessary, further reading and research can confirm or disconfirm the validity of the pattern’s particular application. In most cases, I predict, its heuristic value will be vindicated.