Rights and Rebellion

An addendum to Section 8 of Democracy STRUGGLES!


The significance of the Paris Commune cannot be overestimated. It arguably had more impact on US politics and public policy than the French Revolution of 1789 which led to a Quasi War with France and the first panic driven wave of repression represented by the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The fear of unrest, violence, or revolution has probably inspired as much repression as it has spurred economic and democratic reform. A strong case can be made that even in liberal “democracies” repression and reform have generally been employed contemporaneously. Even peaceful agitation can work to profoundly alienate the middle class. A sullen discontented workforce can be almost certainly be adjusted to (temporarily at least) by segmenting it and employing automation for the lower skilled occupations. In that sense, a sullen discontented workforce may not negatively impact productivity in any measurable way. Recent revisionist analysis makes a strong case that even antebellum slavery was amazingly productive in the US plantation (slave labor camp) system.

The economic consequences of an alienated workforce may acceptable to employers, but a sullen discontented electorate is something altogether different. It can easily negate its own potential to press for change by its sallow cynicism or self-defeating antics as in the “trimp electorization” of 2016. Sullen civic alienation is also likely to be like an unpredictable “raisin in the sun” with a very slow, indeterminate, fuse where only the timing of the inevitable explosion is unknown.

The economic development associated with the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath have caused (and are causing) a great deal of injustice and suffering. But these ongoing developments have also dramatically expanded the middle classes while gradually raising living standards in absolute terms for everyone in industrialized areas. The current globalization of the economy is having the same effects (both deplorable and heartening) in more and more areas that previously had languished under the purposeful underdevelopment of colonialism. It’s also true that the active exploitative underdevelopment of post colonialism is still an issue in many benighted places. The middle classes have also more often acted as a conservative (or even a reactionary) force, either actively when threatened - or passively whenever it is possible to ignore the plight of exploited workers or the squalor of the poor. Even when such exploitation or squalor is acknowledged, members of the middle class frequently rationalize these as temporary conditions able to be individually transcended through persistent effort. The middle classes are also quite likely to justify the wretched conditions of others as the natural consequences of poor decisions and bad character.

Looking back at the history of Britain or the United States it is understandable for some to buy into the idea of an “invisible hand” guiding humanity towards more prosperity and justice. If one moves closer to Adam Smith’s understanding of his own term by rejecting preposterous cant about “the market” as the incarnation of this mysterious force, this idea may have merit, perhaps along the lines of Hegel’s “Cunning of Reason” as an active historical force.

But, on the other hand, history helps those who help themselves. Edmund Burke is certainly correct in his dismissal of “natural rights.” Most “rights” are earned by struggle. But however they are won, eternally vigilant defense is a necessity if they are to be preserved.

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