By: Barbara Peterson - May 2020
We are sick of the corruption of corporate executives normalizing unlivable wages for working people, the very people without whom their businesses couldn’t operate. We’re sick of them poisoning, polluting, and otherwise spoiling our local, state, and national environment by hiding behind a regulatory system designed to protect them rather than the people. We can no longer tolerate them destroying local and state economies by using the US Constitution’s Commerce Clause to force in large, chain retailers that make it nearly impossible for small, family-owned businesses, the backbone of every healthy economy, to flourish or even survive. And we must put an end to their buying our government officials who act in their best interests instead of those whom our electeds are sworn to represent: we, the people. We are sick of politicians who cater to the needs of the wealthy elite, those nearly twenty-one hundred billionaires who own more wealth than 4.6 billion people world-wide. These corrupt and greedy politicians are packing our courts, from the local levels to the Supreme Court. They’re building a grassroots movement for their cruel, social-Darwinist view – that it is natural and good that the survival of those at the top comes at the extreme cost of everyone else. They do this by getting those who support their vision into local schoolboards and law enforcement boards, university research centers, textbook industries, news and other media sources, altering the basic tenets of what “truth” means, condemning their opponents through oppressive legislation, and entirely abolishing the function of government that protects and provides for the public good. We need change. And we don’t just need minor changes or new people within our current systems and structures that hold up these corruptions. We need a revolution -- a nonviolent, people's revolution.
If we truly want a nonviolent revolution, and I do, this article explores what a revolution is, what it takes to have one, and what our new governing system could look like.
What Is a Revolution
A political revolution is typically defined as the forcible removal (or alteration) of one system of government and replacing it with another. The American and French revolutions, for example, removed monarchical systems of government and replaced them with forms of a Republic. The Russian Revolution replaced czarist rule with communism. Late 18th and early 19th century revolutions in Latin America sought to abolish colonial rule and replace it with independent sovereign rule. Revolutionaries, then, seek to go beyond replacing one ruler or set of rulers with others; instead, they seek to replace what they see as a corrupt or otherwise unacceptable form or structure of government with a type of government that better serves the needs of the people.
The goal of a revolution, then, is to establish a governing system that meets the expressed wishes and needs of the people. Even if the revolution succeeds in replacing one system with another, many will argue that the revolution failed if the new system does not serve the people in the ways they demanded. Hannah Arendt (1963) argued that revolutions are justified in the name of freedom, but her notion of freedom is very particular. She distinguished between freedom and liberty: the latter being a release from restraint (as with authoritarian rulership or oppressive societal conditions) and the former being an active participation in determining the laws and rules by which community members must live. According to Arendt, the idea of freedom in the West arose from Greek city-states where people sought isonomy, that is, an equality between citizens and rulers where the people come together in public spaces (polis) to shape society and set rules. Hence, in isonomy, there is no division between the ruled and the rulers; instead, they are genuinely equal. “Freedom itself needed therefore a place where people could come together – the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (Arendt, p. 21). In colonial America, prior to the Revolution, Arendt believed people practiced isonomy when they exercised their freedoms by gathering together in local pubs, homes, or town markets to discuss requirements and standards people should be guided by so their communities met their needs. Of course, this was not an idyllic isonomy-styled democracy. The “people” who exercised their freedom nearly always excluded most of the population, including people of color and women. Thus, if we are to learn from this colonial governing system, we need to recognize that the people must include all people, with an especial and conscious effort to give space and support for the voices and needs of marginalized folks who are too often ignored, or they are too often spoken for as if that were ever possible or desirable.
Gene Sharp (1980) used the American colonial “council system,” as he called it, as one example of freedom which, like Arendt, he argued exists in the ability to directly participate in decisional processes that determine the policies and rules impacting our daily lives. He claimed that to move toward more council-like government, we must address two erroneous beliefs: “(a) the only acceptable and effective political power is that which is channeled through the governmental and electoral machinery, and (b) that nothing really significant politically can be done without gaining control of the State” (p. 189). This is critical and cannot be overemphasized. We must realize that the power lies with the people, not the government, to end corruption and form a more democratic system, a system where we the people have a direct say in establishing the laws by which we must abide as well as the socio-cultural values that guide our choices and our actions in the everyday spaces where we live. No longer can we put our faith in a system of representative power, a system that ignores or misrepresents local needs. Our elected representatives, in this new system, must be forced to attend to the expressed wishes of the people, a system that does not allow the passing of legislation that violates the rights of equality and environmental well-being written in our state and federal laws, but can and must pass legislation that protects the health, moral dignity, and socio-cultural as well as political equity of local people.
For Marx, revolution occurs when working people rise up and overthrow capitalism for a system where laborers control the means of production, and production is based on need rather than profit. While we do not need to commit to the fulsome details of Marxist communism, we can endorse his efforts to afford working people a controlling say over their compensation and the objectives of their labor. This builds structures of power for laborers that are needed to not only ensure fair wages and benefits, but also help ensure that corporations act in accordance with the economic, socio-cultural, and environmental needs of the communities in which they operate. These structures can, for example, demand a resource-based economy, one that truly is founded on need rather than profit, and one that does not violate the long-term health and well-being of local residents as well as national economic and political strength.
How Do We Achieve a Revolution
A political revolution for freedom would begin with local activist and advocacy groups. These groups would help found the socio-political structures needed for both local decision-making and for organizing strategic, disruptive, nonviolent direct-action campaigns when state and/or federal representatives ignore the expressed will of the masses. Gandhi spoke about the importance of what he called “constructive programs.” This aspect of his satyagraha was as essential as nonviolent noncooperation. These programs build alternative institutions in society that help support the changes people fight hard to gain. It’s a tremendous success when a people overthrow a powerful and corrupt government and replace it with new elected officials who promise an improved, more just system. Yet, the new government needs societal structures upon which it can look to for guidance on implementing and carrying out new laws. Without them, the new government will rely on old, corrupt systems and structures because they are the only ones in place. If a people tear down one governing structure and don’t have ready a new one to take its place, the void that is left is often filled by strong, opportunistic demagogues, eager to place themselves as head of the newly formed government, passing legislation that ensures their authority and continuation of their power into the future. We saw this in Egypt with the take down of President Mubarak in 2011. No governing structures had been built to take his place, and thus Egypt suffered again from an oppressive government.
If we are to create long-term, enduring change, we must create a governing system that legally empowers local communities (i.e., the people themselves) to have a direct and majority say in the rules and laws by which people must abide. These systems are created at the local level during the organizing and movement building for the revolution. Such organizing builds structures akin to council systems with decision-making powers at the local levels that have stronger legal legs than corporations, and they are imbued with authority to hold state and federal electeds accountable for representing our expressed demands. Community councils derive from organizations that are formed by activists engaged in strategic nonviolent campaigns. We see the beginnings of them everywhere in the tens of thousands of groups that formed as part of The Resistance, the umbrella term used to oppose the Trump agenda.
To have a political nonviolent revolution, we cannot be content with spending 90% of our Resistance efforts on election work. Instead, we must put at least 50% of our time and energy into not only crippling existing corrupt structures, but also into building alternative governing structures. All rulers rely on our cooperation and obedience for their ability to rule. If we withhold our cooperation, via strategically planned, nonviolent boycotts, labor strikes, occupations, and other disruptive action campaigns (many of which can be done safely during the pandemic), we will topple the existing corrupt governing system and replace it with our isonomy-styled democratic one. Is this realistic? Absolutely -- history has shown us that it is realistic because it has happened over and over again. Is it realistic in the United States. Definitely. The only thing preventing it from happening is people assuming it's unrealistic.
The key takeaway here is that it is the people, not the government, who must make these nonviolent revolutionary changes. We cannot hope to make these sorts of changes by simply voting in good political leaders. While it is certainly beneficial to get their support, it is not necessary. In fact, we will not have a truly people-centered democracy if we put our hopes on government officials. The government works for us; we do not work for them. If we want a nonviolent revolution, it is we the people who must act, and if our politicians wish to help, wonderful. But as Sharp argued, we don’t need their help; we can do this without them. And once we establish our more equitable system where power is decentralized, our political electeds will be working in a democratic system designed and operated to work for, by, and of the people.
What our New Governing System Could Look Like
We have a vision of what this new governing system could look like; it could look like a contemporary version of a colonial council system with vital changes that make councils inclusive, diverse, and equitable. It could entail local communities having the legal authority to say no to a corporation that wants to take over neighboring land for fracking; townships saying no to an eminent domain order from the state; and people having the right to provide undocumented neighbors sanctuary in community churches. Generally speaking, it could look like people gathering together in their neighborhoods, town halls, and local meeting houses to discuss how they would like to ensure equal opportunity to all residing in their communities for jobs, education, health, legal protection, safety, and spiritual practice.
In this new governing system, we will be ruled by our own decisional structures built and maintained by a diverse and massive network of local collectives or councils making decisions that protect the well-being of their communities. We will recognize our interdependence upon one another within our larger society for all our health, safety, prosperity, and ecological sustainability. This is not a utopia. Rather, it is the result of years of work with diversely participatory groups setting up local structures of action and decision-making, where each group’s success is dependent upon the collaboration and support of other groups. This work will form relations of cooperation, even among those who do not agree on all details or goals, but who share a vision of a people’s government, one that is truly run by, for, and of the people. We can have a governing system where local councils work to ensure the needs of their communities while being held to guidelines of state and federal constitutions that mandate equity, fairness, justice, and sustainability. In short, we the people will become a nonviolent and courageous network of warriors within a more decentralized, isonomy-styled democracy, working for equity, peace and justice with the socio-political structures ready and able to support our work.
Arendt, H. (1963) On Revolution. Penguin Books: NY, New York.
Sharp, G. (1980) Social Power and Political Freedom. Porter Sargent Publishers, Inc: Boston, MA.