Monday, October 13, 2008


Think about today's "financial crisis" on Wall Street. Now consider this quote from a French workers' pamphlet dated November 1842:

"Are you not afraid that the poor man put into the dock for snatching a piece of bread from a baker's stall will not, one day, become so enraged that stone by stone he will demolish the Stock Exchange, a wild den where the treasure of the State and the fortune of families are stolen with impunity?"

Today, we are paying the price for tolerating the "wild den" of Wall Street. Yet it is doubtful that we will ever see the "wild animals" punished for their recklessness. Politicians and pundits will continue playing the blame game about the credit crunch. Some will blame the borrowers for "living beyond their means." Others will blame the bankers for "predatory lending." No matter where we point the finger, chances are our society will not take action against criminal bankers. It will take strong action against petty street thieves, but it will not dethrone the financial barons. There are two species of crime at work here, but the law will only address one.

From what I understand, the "bailout plan" essentially invokes the sentiments expressed in the 1842 quote. Those who populate the "wild den" of the Stock Exchange will get away scot free. Indeed, the Federal government is paying to cover their own foolish extravagance. But what about the common man who suffered from that extravagance? He is forgotten. It is "his responsibility" to deal with the crisis. He is not getting any bailout money. He will go homeless, and no one really cares.

There is a fundamental injustice at work in this crisis. Both rich and poor have erred, but only the poor will bear the consequences. Will that not inspire rage? Yes--I think it already has generated some genuine discontent. But will it be enough to cause people to "demolish the Stock Exchange stone for stone?" Probably not. It should, but probably not. Why?

There will be no armed revolts in this country for the same reason this country is safe from revolution: There are not enough truly dissatisfied people suffering truly unbearable circumstances. Just as important, there are enough sufficiently satisfied people who believe that, even though things are bad, they prefer the status quo and their material advantages to risking all for an uncertain new system. Revolutions only happen when a "critical mass" of people truly feel that their way of life is threatened. That has not happened yet.

Now, if more and more crises befall us and more and more people truly feel desperate, I might alter my prognosis. Still, without massive pressures such as invasion, war, pestilence or egregious State violence, armed revolt is unlikely. Historically, economic turmoil commonly accompanies revolutionary spirit, but it is rarely sufficient to bring about actual revolt. In Weimar Germany, the Depression was coupled with massive material and human loss from a devastating war, as well as fallout from an unfair peace treaty. In revolutionary France, economic hardship was coupled with grotesque governmental excesses and pressure from foreign interventions. In revolutionary Russia, economic ruin was coupled with mass starvation, invasion and millions of war dead.

We only face a temporary economic panic. We have not met the dramatic preconditions for rebellion. Too many people are still too satisfied with their lives.

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