Waiting for the Spark
In The Public Interest, 4/18/11
By Ralph Nader
In the Public Interest
What could start a popular resurgence in this country against the abuses of concentrated, avaricious corporatism? Imagine the arrogance of passing on to already cheated working people and the jobless enormous corporate losses? This is achieved through government bailouts and tax escapes.
History teaches us that the spark usually is smaller than expected and of a nature that is wholly unpredictable or even unimaginable. But if the dry tinder is all around, as many deprivations and polls reveal, the spark, no matter how small, can turn into a raging inferno.
The Boston Tea Party lit up the American Revolution. Storming the hated Bastille (prison) by impoverished Parisians launched the French Revolution. More recently, in December 1997, an Israeli military vehicle rammed a civilian van in the West Bank killing seven occupants and igniting the first Intifada.
Last December, a young fruit vendor, abused by thieving police in a small Tunisian town, immolated himself in the local square. Seen by millions on Facebook, this self-sacrifice launched the Tunisian and Egyptian overthrow of their long-time dictators. Later, in Syria, after police arrested 13 youngsters in a southern border town for anti-government graffiti the place erupted in riots and rallies that are spreading to other cities.
A few weeks ago, many progressives and quite a few pundits believed that the recurrent, ever larger February-March rallies in Madison, Wisconsin by workers, students and others against the Governors’ and the Legislature’s attack on public employee unions and social services, following earlier blatant corporate welfare enactments, would be the long-awaited spark.
The Madison eruption spread briefly to Ohio and Indiana where Republican officials were moving in the same direction, punishing workers and families while leaving the corporate and wealthy to count their mounting privileges. There, the crowds were neither as large nor as frequent. In all these states, the Republicans got most of what they wanted, albeit with a possible, future political price to be paid. The rallies have subsided, not even culminating—as some organizers hoped—in a gigantic march on Washington, D.C.
Granted, rallying a long repressed people into losing their fear and demanding, as in Cairo’s huge Tahrir Square “out with the dictator”, is a simple, anthromorphic goal. In our country, the rallies are hardly as clearcut, though use of the citizen right of recall for Republican legislators, and later Governor Walker himself, may produce an interesting accountability election. But sparks are difficult to sustain.
In authoritarian regimes, there are few options for dissent or airing one’s grievances. So when the spark does occur, the climate is fertile for an explosion of outrages.
In the United States, there are largely myths such as “anyone can sue,” or “anyone can run,” or “anyone can directly tell off the President or the Mayor,” or “anyone can blow the whistle.” These combine with a few celebrated successes by rebels or an ordinary David taking on a Goliath for a win here and there, from a corporate-government ruling class that bends a little so that it doesn’t break.
Meanwhile, the inequality, gouging, political exclusions and overall gaps between the top one percent and the rest tighten the grip of the oligarchy and its draining, violent militarized empire.
Loss of control over almost everything that matters, including their children to daily direct corporate marketing of junk food and violent programming, is rampant. Over seventy percent of those polled told Business Week that they believed corporations had “too much control over their lives”—and that was in 2000 before conditions and controls—viz, the Wall Street collapse, severe recession and taxpayer bailouts—worsened.
The American people don’t see much they can do to counter the pressures of greed and power that tracks them daily from debt to debt, from lower standards of living to outright penury, from denial of critical healthcare to the iron collar of the cruel credit score, from inscrutable, computerized bills to fine-print contracts trapping their sense of unfairness into waves of frustrations, from being put on hold by the companies until they’re told no, no, no or penalty, penalty, penalty!
How do we break the cycle of despair, exclusion, powerlessness, and endless betrayal by those given the authority to bring down the exploiters and oppressors to lawful accountability?
The Empire rips up the Constitution and takes the reserve army of the young unemployed to kill and die in aggressive wars of the White House’s choice, with Congress watching from the sidelines; its only role to funnel trillions of tax dollars into the insatiable war machine’s unauditable budgets. President Eisenhower wanted us to control the “military-industrial complex”. Instead it grew much more out of control. Eisenhower’s grave warning as expressed in his farewell address in 1961 was prescient.
The spark can come from a recurrent sequence of abuses that strike a special chord of deeply felt injustice. Or it could be a unique episode or bullying that tolls the feeling “enough already” throughout the land. Such sparks cannot be manufactured; the power to arouse and break people’s routines is spontaneous.
When that moment comes, millions of Americans whose self-respect and keen sense of wrong will remind them precisely why our Constitution begins with “We the People” and not “We the Corporations”. They will realize the necessity for a Jeffersonian revolution.