Notes for a day between July 4th and July 14th: Seeds of Revolution in Officially-Sanctioned Reform

Ever since Hillary Clinton’s deplorable performance in the 2016 presidential election campaign there has been a heightened call for radical change in the United States. One possible tactic to achieve this could be the overthrow of the Democratic Party from within. Ralph Nader, for example, has advocated for a massive citizens' effort to focus much less on presidential campaigns and to concentrate instead on taking over Congress by supporting hundreds of new, non-establishment candidates for Senate and the House of Representatives, regardless of whether they run as Democrats, Republicans, third parties or independents.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the first such candidate to gain prominence when she defeated a Democratic Party veteran and won the primary election in New York state’s 14th District on June 26, 2018. Ocasio-Cortez may be a harbinger of new kind of conquistador who will be constructive instead of destructive, but it depends on how much momentum builds after this. It could go either way—to radical change or to this apparently radical departure becoming just another illustration of the Democratic Party functioning as the graveyard of progress. Immediately after Ocasio-Cortez’ victory, skeptics were seeing few signs of hope. They saw another Bernie Sanders type of sheepdog candidate who might win a seat in Congress but only succeed in bringing supporters into the fold of the mainstream, even if it meant a humiliating betrayal of the candidate herself and her supporters who wanted radical change.

As evidence, the skeptics point out that as soon as Ocasio-Cortez won the primary, her strong anti-war message disappeared from her website (but it reappeared later). She got extensive coverage in the mainstream media, which was suspicious because Bernie Sanders was studiously ignored by the same media throughout his campaign. In those interviews, she tamed her message and avoided criticizing the elderly party leadership and hedged answers to questions about being a socialist. Then she said she was always for the working class, as if she didn’t know class struggle was the core value of socialism.

I think the skeptics are correct to see this as a Democratic Party stage-managed campaign, a popular demand for change that the Party and the media are trying to tame. Nonetheless, it has happened because the aging Democratic Party establishment had to react to what was happening in sectors of society outside its control. The Democratic Party is trying to co-opt those who want radical change in the hope of being able to manage an American perestroika from the inside. The situation has historical parallels that show that power holders ride a tiger when they launch such officially-sanctioned reform programs. The chance of being devoured by the reform process is quite high. 

One historical comparison is Soviet perestroika, when the aging politburo chose the relatively young Gorbachev to lead the reform era. The French Revolution is another. It began with a prolonged economic crisis and disputes over taxation. Louis XVI had bankrupted the nation by supporting, of all things, the birth of a democratic republic in the United States, in order to weaken Britain. He was aware of the public mood and demands for democracy in France, so he brought back the Estates General, a legislative body that had been dormant for over a century.

Auguste Couder's depiction of the opening of the Estates General,
in Versailles, painted long afterwards in 1839. 
He probably felt confident that he could achieve what the Americans had. The ruling elite of “responsible men” would be elected, some moderate reform would proceed, but institutions like slavery in the colonies would stay in place. Under pressure, the king allowed a certain number of seats to be set aside for the third estate, “commoners” who were actually mostly the new educated and monied elite. The first estate consisted of noblemen, and the second estate represented the church. Election results produced some surprises. Instead of electing bishops and other high ranking church officials, there were a lot of parish priest in the second estate caucus. The third estate had a radical agenda, but the king had been confident that they would be outnumbered and unsupported by the first and second estate. The balance was tipped when enough members of the first and second estates sided with the third. Louis XVI lost control of his reform plan, and a few years later his head was in a bucket.

He did his best to oppose the legislature, but the people were defending their elected officials. In late June, 1789, the representatives declared the parliament was now a National Assembly, after which it became the Constituent National Assembly on July 9, 1789, for the purpose of drafting a new constitution.

As revolution had been sparked within the government, it was spreading like wildfire without. In order to curtail the king’s actions against the Constituent National Assembly, citizens stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and an armed force of thousands of women marched on Versailles on October 5, 1789, successfully forcing Louis VXI to take up residence in Paris. There were violent clashes, but both French soldiers and foreign mercenaries failed to put up significant resistance to the popular revolt.

This history shows that radical change happens because of changes both inside and outside of the existing structures. The reformers in this process might consider themselves to be gradualists, with no awareness of how the events of the moment may lead to revolution. Just as a pollinating insect has no consciousness of how its actions change the world, individuals have no way of knowing how they might unwittingly open a path for radical change. What happens next depends on whether a mass movement forms and exploits the opening, and on what kind of counter-reaction comes as a response.

Personally, I wouldn’t have anything to do with the Democratic Party, if I were American, but I also don’t think anything will change in America if termites don’t get inside the old structures and start eating them from within. So instead of dwelling on the negative at this point, we can just see Ocasio-Cortez’ victory for what it is. We can be skeptical that this is another illusory “hope and change” campaign. We can be suspicious of her commitment to radical change, but her endorsement by the corporate media (implicit in the fact she got coverage) is a significant concession to the new reality, and her victory—whether she seeks out the middle of the road or leads a revolution—is a disruption of the status quo that may lead to events that escape official control.

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