How ‘Revolution’ Became an Adjective
Posted on Mar 17, 2014
By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch
Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the “single, unconscionable freedom—free trade,” which resolves “personal worth into exchange value,” substitutes “callous ‘cash payment’” for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energies of the capitalist dynamic take full and proud possession of the whole of Western society. They become, in Marx’s analysis, the embodiment of “the modern representative state,” armed with the wealth of its always newer and more powerful machines (electricity, photography, the telephone, the automobile) and staffed by executives (i.e., politicians, no matter how labeled) who function as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
What Marx sees in theory as an insatiable abstraction, the American historian Henry Adams sees as concrete and overwhelming fact. Marx is 17 years dead and the Communist Manifesto a sacred text among the left-wing intelligentsia everywhere in Europe when Adams, his habit of mind as profoundly conservative as that of his great-grandfather, stands in front of a colossal dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and knows that Prometheus, no longer chained to his ancient rock, bestrides the Earth wearing J.P. Morgan’s top hat and P.T. Barnum’s cloak of as many colors as the traffic will bear. Adams shares with Marx the leaning toward divine revelation:
“To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed… Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”
The Sixties Swept Away in a Whirlwind of Commodities and Repressive Surveillance
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The plot line tends to repeat itself—first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.
All the shiftings of political power produced changes within the committees managing regional budgets and social contracts on behalf of the bourgeois imperium. None of them dethroned or defenestrated Adams’ dynamo or threw off the chains of Marx’s cash nexus. That they could possibly do so is the “romantic idea” that Albert Camus, correspondent for the French Resistance newspaper Combat during and after World War II, sees in 1946 as having been “consigned to fantasy by advances in the technology of weaponry.”
The French philosopher Simone Weil draws a corollary lesson from her acquaintance with the Civil War in Spain, and from her study of the communist Sturm und Drang in Russia, Germany, and France subsequent to World War I. “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution... This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”
During the turbulent decade of the 1960s in the United States, the advancing technologies of bourgeois news production (pictures in place of print) transformed the meaningless magic word into a profitable commodity, marketing it both as deadly menace and lively fashion statement. The commercial putsch wasn’t organized by the CIA or planned by a consortium of advertising agencies; it evolved in two stages as a function of the capitalist dynamic that substitutes cash payment for every other form of human meaning and endeavor.
The disorderly citizenry furnishing the television footage in the early sixties didn’t wish to overthrow the government of the United States. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal, or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women, and children confronting racist tyranny in the American South—sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas—risked their lives in pure acts of devotion, refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots.
The Civil Rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Performed as a civic duty, the unarmed rebellions led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the war in Vietnam.
The television camera, however, isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest, the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a revolution along the lines of the one envisioned by Robespierre. Caught in the chains of the cash nexus, they couldn’t do otherwise. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, monetized the fears at all times running around loose in the heads of the propertied classes.
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