Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Howard Zinn, the 99%, and the problem of the 100%

If the Occupy Wall Street movement had a sacred text it should be A People's History of the United States. This polemical history was Howard Zinn's attempt to take an anti-Establishment sledgehammer to the Great Men Theory of History in which little or no attention is paid to people's movements welling up from below. Zinn inveighed against what he called "the idea of saviors" and wanted to rouse the ordinary citizenry to rise up and take matters into their own hands instead of looking for salvation from Washington or Wall Street or other locations of elite power.

Thirty years ago Zinn wrote about the concept of the 99 percent. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that's where the Occupy people got the idea for their slogan. Zinn argued that the 1 percent employ a divide and conquer strategy to maintain control. This is done by giving "small rewards" to millions of the 99 percent to keep them from joining the discontented "troublesome minority" agitating for change. Zinn thought that if a day ever came when those middle-class millions woke up and realized they no longer had a stake in the system, then there would be a possibility for a widespread grass roots uprising (see my post from last summer Glenn Beck, Howard Zinn and middle-class discontent).

Here are some excerpts from the chapter in which Zinn introduces this idea. The chapter is hopefully titled "The Coming Revolt of the Guards."

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. [The percentage is higher today] The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

Against the reality of that desperate, bitter battle for resources made scarce by elite control, I am taking the liberty of uniting those 99 percent as "the people." I have been writing a history that attempts to represent their submerged, deflected, common interest. (p. 632)

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails.

That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us. (p. 635)

. . . the more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual. The elite's weapons, money, control of information would be useless in the face of a determined population. . . . We readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards. If we understand that, and act on it, not only will life be more satisfying, right off, but our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world. (pp. 640-1)

From where I stand Howard Zinn's narrative has a lot of explanatory power (and it has some problems which I'll point out in a second). We live in a society in which forces are at work to keep us living atomized self-absorbed existences rather than coming together to make common cause for the common good. Some trends that Zinn was identifying in the 70s and 80s have continued, even accelerated, like the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. And the gap continues to widen.

I wonder, as the father of two young boys, what kind of opportunities will they have if the trends of the last decade continue? Will a quality education be available only to the affluent? Even some politicians and commentators on the right are beginning to notice the erosion of social mobility that's been one of the things we Americans have pointed to as evidence of our exceptionalism. The idea that all you have to do to get ahead is work hard and play by the rules has been dealt a grievous blow in recent decades. So yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea of the solidarity of the 99 percent. I'm sure I wouldn't agree with many of the things espoused by what is a diverse group of people, but the Occupy protestors have put the focus on issues we should be discussing. They get to questions of what kind of nation do we want to be? And what are the characteristics of a good and just society?

Some problems. . .

Both Zinn and OWS are naive to think that fundamental change can happen without at some point working within the system. In the long run people's movements that don't lead to legislation won't change anything. The women's suffrage movement led to the 19th Amendment. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act. All the protest marches in the world won't do any good unless they lead to a constructive use of the levers of power. It's naive to think we can, or should, eliminate all hierarchical structures from society. My answer to anyone advocating anarchy? No. A hundred times no.

The bigger problem with A People's History is that it doesn't take into account the problem of the 100 percent, a problem we all share, which is the pervasive effect of human fallenness. The Bible calls it sin. Taking this into account a Christian view of human nature will recognize the difference between working for a more just and peaceful society, and the dangerous delusion that we can create heaven on earth. Howard Zinn was an atheist, and so didn't believe in sin and the need for divine rescue. I think he believed we could create a utopian society if only the 99 percent would get together, and work hard enough.

Howard Zinn's dream of a different and marvelous world for our children resonates with me. The insurmountable problem, though, is that the new worlds of our own creation carry within them the same potential for injustice and oppression as the ones they replace. That is, until the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdoms of our Lord.

Quotes from A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present

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