by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: A Time of Transition )
Times of transition are very difficult.
In good times, people are more open to new ideas and more willing to organize. The fight for civil rights of the 1950s fed the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Both fueled movements for workers’ rights and for women’s, gay and Black liberation. As millions of people moved into struggle, there was widespread belief that we could change the world.
In the 1970s, the capitalist class launched a counter-offensive to reverse the gains of the 1960s. They were so successful that, today, most Americans believe that real change is not possible. An entire generation has known only setbacks and defeats. Many have swallowed the lie that there is not enough to go around, that we must lower our expectations, that the only choice is the lesser evil. In such bad times, people hunker down to survive and can’t bear to think about anything else.
We are currently in a time of transition, which is the most difficult of all because growing discontent is not matched by a corresponding rise in struggle. There is enough struggle to raise people’s hopes, but not enough to win significant gains.
The anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s raised hopes for change. So did the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded America’s invasion of the Middle East. When the U.S. began bombing Baghdad, many people became deeply discouraged and retreated from activity.
In the spring of 2006, the largest demonstration in American history raised the demand for immigrants rights. Demoralization followed as Washington escalated its campaign of intimidation, arrests and deportations. Immigrants rights organizations were thrown into conflict over how to proceed, and momentum was lost.
Hopes were raised again when the Republicans were swept out of Congress and dashed again when the Democrats voted more funding for the war.
This roller coaster of struggle is hard to take. Pessimism can seem protective. Why get your hopes up only to be disappointed? However, pessimism provides no real refuge and blocks us from seizing opportunities that continue to appear.
America is seething with discontent over the war, environmental crisis, falling living standards, government corruption, and the abysmal state of the medical system. The episodic eruptions of the past decade have the potential to coalesce into a generalized rebellion against the system. The ruling class is concerned about this.
In May, Congress threw the working class a bone by raising the minimum wage. This move marks a shift from the unrelenting attacks of the past few decades. The confidence of the capitalist class has been shaken by their inability to win the war and by their failure to create a workable immigration policy. Their faltering provides an opening for us to step up our demands. To do this, we must fight against pessimism and passivity.
Billions of people live in unnecessary misery, filling all of us with pain. Because human beings are such a social species, our brains are constructed to feel the pain of others as if it were our own. Such compassion is critical to safeguard the common interest. However, when there seems to be no solution, this pain can be overwhelming — it can be difficult to know where our pain ends and that of others begins.
The medical system treats social pain as a personal problem or affliction. As a result, most people mistakenly consider their pain to be a sign of personal inadequacy. When they see no fight-back, they feel even more discouraged, and some surrender to despair.
Every year more than 30,000 Americans kill themselves and half a million are treated in emergency rooms for self-inflicted wounds. This is just the tip of a massive iceberg of social pain.
There is only one remedy for the soul sickness that capitalism creates — a socialist society where ordinary people pull together to solve our common problems. No hero is coming to save the day. It’s up to us to save ourselves by organizing ourselves.
In the past, wars have led to revolutions. The 1960s provided a glimpse of what we can achieve. This time, we must go all the way.
We cannot give in to pessimism. Our survival depends on it.
For more on this topic, read POWER and Powerlessness. Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com