2011 is 1848 redux. But worse

by Robert Freeman

“Gentlemen, I warn you. Though the violence is not yet upon us, we are sleeping on a volcano.” ~ Alexis de Tocqueville, addressing the French parliament, January, 1848

In 1848, a series of revolutions convulsed Europe. From Berlin to Budapest, Venice to Vienna, Paris to Prague, people rose up and overthrew the authoritarian monarchies that Metternich had installed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was these revolutions that prompted Karl Marx’s opening words of The Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe. It is the specter of communism.”

Of course, Marx was wrong. The specter of rebellion was more one of nationalism, and to a lesser extent, liberalism. More importantly, all the revolutions ultimately failed. They were all defeated by monarchical forces which mounted counter-revolutions and routed the insurrectionists. Though many governments made token concessions to the rebels, all maintained, and in some cases strengthened, their authoritarian rule until finally, decades later, they could no longer suppress the impetus for change.

This is the important lesson that history has for the rebels of 2011. Euphoria is not victory. The removal of symbols is not the change of regimes. Whether in Athens or Cairo, Bahrain or even Wisconsin, the revolutions will not be won in the streets. They will not be won early. They will be resisted fiercely, cleverly, tenaciously, and with all the resources that the assaulted powers can muster, including the most important resource of all: time.

If the revolutions of 2011 are to succeed – and it’s a big if in every case – several things need to occur. The grievances must be extended beyond the core of protesters and taken up by their larger populations. The protesters must seize control of not just city squares and capitol buildings, but the institutions of power themselves. And the protests must be sustained, for years if necessary, until fundamental change is secured. These will be extremely high hurdles to clear but unless they are, the revolutions will ultimately fail.

The revolutions of 1848 had a variety of different characters, just as do those of 2011. In Paris they were about the ascendant bourgeoisie wanting access to the levers of state power. In Berlin, they reflected a hyper-intellectual liberalism that sought to unify the disparate German states under the aegis of a constitutional republic. In Budapest and Vienna, they were impelled by nationalist forces seeking autonomy from the Austrian empire of the Hapsburgs.

In every case, a small group of committed protesters took to the streets and overwhelmed local security forces. And their immediate impacts were dramatic. In Paris, Louis Philippe of the Bourbon family abdicated. In Berlin, Frederick William III of the Hohenzollern dynasty acceded to a new constitution. In Vienna, the Hapsburg royal family actually left the city and moved to Innsbruck. The effect was electric. But like electricity, it was evanescent.

In each case, the forces of reaction took stock of the situation, assessed theirs and the rebels’ resources, and mounted carefully conceived, methodically executed counter-revolutions. Two factors proved critical in reversing the gains of the revolutions. First, there were stark class divisions among the revolutionaries which the reactionaries easily exploited. And second, in none of the revolts had the revolutionaries taken control of the instruments of power. These factors proved decisive in the monarchs regaining control of their states.

For example, the class divisions in Paris were notorious. It was the urban workers (Marx’s proletariat) who provided the muscle by manning the barricades. But once the bourgeoisie – the merchants, the professionals, the civil servants – won their concessions, they abandoned the workers and sided with the new government. Similarly, in Berlin, liberal intellectuals were played off against agrarian peasants and urban artisans. In Austria, once the peasants were released from forced farm work they quit the cause, hanging their former compatriots – the students and the nationalists – out to dry. The inability of the people to unite around a singular cause allowed the governments to play them off against each other. It was fatal to the revolutionaries’ cause.

In the use of force, the monarchs were equally effective. In Paris, the army restored order after the riotous “June Days.” More than 20,000 revolutionaries were killed, jailed, or sent to exile in Algeria. In Berlin, the state let the liberals debate until their fervor was spent. Then they used the army to restore order. A decade later, Bismarck would famously comment, “The issues of the day will not be decided by speeches and debate. 1848 showed us that. They will be settled by iron and blood.” Bismarck would come to be known as the “Iron Chancellor.”

In Vienna, which faced the most extensive revolts, the collapse of the revolutions in France and Prussia gave the rulers heart. The Hapsburg rulers had the army shell its own capital cities until the insurrectionists surrendered. Prague, Vienna, and Budapest were ruthlessly bombed and besieged by both the Austrian, and, in the case of Hungary, the Russian armies. In every case, the revolutions were reversed and the empire returned to power.

What can we learn from this not-so-ancient history that might improve the chances of success for the revolutions of 2011?

The first thing is that nobody should have any illusions that the existing orders are going to go quietly into the night. They are too deeply entrenched, too convinced of their entitlement to power, have too many resources at their disposal, and have too much to lose by easy capitulation. They will use every trick in the book to undermine the cohesion, commitment, and resilience of the protesters.

In Jordan and Bahrain, for example, the governments have nakedly moved to buy off the protesters. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the extremely authoritarian, honestly, medieval, government announced mass disbursements to all citizens amounting to thousands of dollars per person.

Each of these countries are critical to U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Jordan is critical to U.S. support for Israel. Jordan supported Jews against Palestinians in the war of 1948 that made Israel a state. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet which keeps control of the Persian Gulf. And Saudi Arabia sits atop 25% of the world’s known oil reserves. We may assume each has a blank check on U.S. resources to help defeat their peoples’ revolutions.

In each of these states, the revolutionaries, though righteous and adamant, have no experience in the exercise of state power, or of any institutional power for that matter. This proved fateful for all of the revolutions of 1848. No one thought enough to seize control of the army, which was then used against them. This is conspicuous in the upheaval in Egypt: that the army has not been converted to the cause of the revolutionaries.

Indeed, Egypt is almost a case study in how all of the tools of reaction will be used to thwart the revolution. It is both the most populous state in the Arab world, and the first state to formally make peace with Israel: the Camp David accords of 1979. While the revolutionaries occupied Tahrir square, Obama played a cagey game of who the U.S. was supporting. When it became clear Mubarak was no longer viable, the U.S. readily threw him under the bus, an artful act of strategic jui jitsu.

Ballasting Mubarak removed the symbolic locus of Egyptian rage, though it did nothing to change the underlying levers of power. His immediate successor, Suleiman, was simply Mubarak with less hair, the anointed choice of Israeli intelligence. All of the resources of U.S. intelligence and military remain supporting a regime that is deeply committed to serving U.S. and Israeli interests, and that is, ahem, pharaohically rewarded for doing so .

Finally, there is Madison. Is there a lesson from 1848 there?

The conflict in Madison is really a final-stage battle by the rich to undermine unions that has been underway since Ronald Reagan moved to destroy the air traffic controller’s union in 1981. And even that battle was just a small skirmish in a still-larger war whose goal is to shift power, wealth, and income from working and middle class people to the very wealthy. It’s worked, beyond anyone’s imagining.

Since 1979, the top 1% of income earners have gained $740,000 in real annual income. Each. The lowest 80% of income earners have lost income. The U.S. actually has greater income inequality today than does Egypt! NAFTA, enacted under Bill Clinton, shipped jobs and entire industries to Mexico, undercutting the security of American workers. And Bush added China to the list of countries favored to receive U.S. jobs. The period from 2000 to 2010 is the only decade in American history in which there were no net new jobs added to the U.S. economy. The result has been a significant growth in poverty, a dramatic write-down in middle class wealth, and growing economic insecurity.

So, the policies of the rich to undermine everyone else, carried out through their puppets in both parties, have been extraordinarily successful. They have been multi-faceted, broad-based, bi- partisan, and sustained. The rich will use every tool in their seasoned arsenal, every suck-up in their rolodex of sycophantic whores, to continue their self-enrichment.

The most powerful tool they will use is the class resentment that Reagan was so deft at manipulating. This proved amazingly effective in 1848. When standards of living are falling, it is easy to foment discord among people by finding some who are not sinking as fast as everyone else and telling the rest that their misfortune is caused by those who have not yet been drug down. This is the essence of the Republican strategy against public sector unions: try to make it look like they are the cause of everyone else’s misfortune. Sadly, it’s working.

The antidote is class solidarity through education. People need to understand that the long-term decline in their standards of living is not an accident. It is precisely the goal of the game in which they are the scripted losers. They need to know that pursuit of that goal is what Republican politicians are sired and hired for. The Koch brothers don’t underwrite the slimy likes of Scott Walker because of his compassion or vision or executive ability. They hire him to break legs and take no prisoners, to gut union protections and destroy the funding base of democratic opposition.

People need to know that the “Golden Age” of growth, prosperity, and economic well-being in this country was precisely that age, from the 1950s and 1960s, when unions were strong and the middle class was vibrant. They need to know that the decline in living standards and economic security since that time have come hand-in-hand with the decline in unions and the protections they afforded jobs and incomes.

People need to understand that if they break ranks, if they turn on each other as will be so tempting, they will be picked off one by one and used as examples to intimidate everybody left. They will be pitted against each other and, indeed, against workers in China making $.57 an hour. They will be fired at will for the least temerity and blackballed for life. There will be no bottom to the downward spiral of poverty, misery, destitution, and despair.

There will be no institution in America left to stand up to the rapacious predations of the big corporations. Certainly it will not be the government, which has become little more than a tool in the hands of the corporations to break the backs and the will of the people. It has been the federal government that has refused to enforce laws protecting union elections. It has been the federal government that has given tax breaks to big corporations so they can more profitably ship jobs overseas while recycling their swelling profits back into Republican election coffers.

It is the federal government that will not go after Caribbean tax havens for billionaires but will go after the home mortgage deduction for working class families. It will not reverse the Bush tax cuts that favor the same billionaires but will reverse its commitment to the most successful social program of the last seven decades: Social Security.

Finally, people need to understand that this is a long term game. The rich have been at it since Roosevelt decried the “economic royalists” that had caused the Great Depression, and passed legislation protecting workers and unions. They have bought countless politicians at all levels of government, all of them only too happy to sell out their countrymen in exchange for a well-laundered campaign contribution. The rich own the media who relentlessly re-cycle their ideologically biased narratives about hating the government, lauding free markets, and blaming the people for their own plights. They have installed the best judiciary that money can buy – witness the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to pour unlimited amounts into election campaigns.

This ring of power, from corporations to the government to the media to the judiciary, is now closing in for the final kill against the working people of the country. Its goal is the re-installation of the autocratic monarchies that dominated Europe in the nineteenth century. It demands no less than the complete subjugation of workers and the surrendering of their rights. It also aims at complete expropriation of the wealth and the independence that they have spent generations amassing. The handing over of trillions of dollars to the banks in the duress of the collapse of 2008 is only a harbinger of things to come.

The revolutions of 1848 were crushed by the authoritarian monarchs of their day. But the forces that had propelled those revolutions – the Industrial Revolution and the longing of people for national autonomy – would eventually secure their ends. Monarchies would retreat from the world of power and people would gain economic prosperity and political freedom. It is likely that similarly such powerful forces of transformation are at work today. Unfortunately, they do not portend the same optimistic ending.

Today, the powerful forces rocking the world are the exhaustion of oil and the imminent end of industrial civilization, the rise of China to challenge the U.S. for global supremacy, and the cataclysmic onset of global climate change. Any one of these will upset the architecture of global power as nothing before has ever done. This is why it is so important that the present revolutions be resolved in favor of empowerment and choice. Without such resolution, adaptation to the new world will be imposed by force, and in the interests of those already most enriched. It will not be pretty.

As in 1848, whether the revolutions succeed depends on whether people become aware, aroused, and angry, and whether they can sustain their indignation for longer than the next commercial, the next season of re-runs, the next election cycle. It will certainly require years, probably decades, maybe generations, to reclaim the country and the rights people assume to be their inheritance. But without it there is only the degradation of destitution and the servility of serfdom, a humiliating patrimony to hand down to their children. We escaped from that once. Let us hope we don’t return to it again.

Robert Freeman writes on economics, history and education. He teaches history and economics at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. and is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a national non-profit that helps American students build schools in the developing world through contributions of one dollar. He can reached at robertfreeman10@yahoo.com.