As I was sharing pizza with my former students in Hong Kong this past April not far down the street from my flat two demonstrations were taking place: and Occupy demonstration with grievances against the government and banks, and a strike/demonstration by dockworkers against container port owner and “richest man in Asia” Li Ka-shing. I had gone by both of these demonstrations earlier in the day in the Hong Kong trams and on its buses. There were signs in Chinese, songs and speeches in Chinese that I did not recognize other than the characters on the four head of a blown-up photo of Mr. Li that means “devil.” Hong Kong police were in attendance, although in modest numbers, and it seemed to me that other than stopping to take in the demonstrations out of curiosity, Hong Kong people went about their busy circadian activities with little interest or inconvenience. There were marchers in some of the streets, and the local press did standups and interviews, and it all seemed rather familiar and, most likely, ephemeral.
Back in my flat the conversation centered upon an increasingly familiar and vexing theme, that of the stagnation of or the diminution of the middle classes, the increasing concentration of wealth and political influence of the rich, government authorities in collusion with the plutocrats, and the worsening plight of the poor. We were discussing the situation in Hong Kong and PRC China, but the theme was just as relevant to too many other places, Greece, Spain, and the good ole US of A. We were all political liberals, and there was general agreement, institutional differences between China and the US aside, on what was needed to remedy factors that seem to promise a continuation and exacerbation of existing trends.
I wasn’t necessarily trying to be the old professor again when I found myself uttering the thought that had been rattling around in my head but had remained their out of its fearsome implications. “I’m not sure that we are approaching the point where anything of significant change in the circumstances will come about without blood,” I said. There was silence. In spite of the fact that the statement was not some rhetorical gambit I had the floor and I suppose it was a remark of such severity that it begged for elaboration and specifics.
I went on to say that I had seen my share of demonstrations over the yeard and that my “take” on the Occupy movement and so-called “peaceful” demonstrations that I had seen taken place in the United States as well as Hong Kong, seem to have produced little in the way of change. Wall Street seemed little inconvenienced by the Occupy demonstrations there, and after a few weeks it pretty much dropped off the media radar. And so it seemed with many of the demonstrations and marches I had seen in Hong Kong. Perhaps there was a time when this sort of political activity might have produced results, but even when the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and the antiwar movement had many demonstrations, it seemed that usually when things turned violent and when blood was shed (I did not mention Kent State, Selma, Birmingham, or the summers of burning cities in the U.S. because they were unborn at the time) that change began to happen.
Even as I elaborated these points I could feel the sensation that while there has been much social progress and even economic advancement as a result of those earlier efforts it now seemed to be eroding. Soon, in the U.S., the Supreme Court would roll back some important features of the Voting Rights Act, women’s rights were under assault in many states, and efforts to cut food stamps and gut, or defund the Affordable Health Care Act are a regularRepublican suck-up to their Tea Party rulers. The social contract forged in FDR to LBJ span has been chipped away at by the rather silent and insidious consolidation of interests in both the public and private sectors of society that see their accumulation of wealth and power as an almost “divine right” as did the aristocracies of old, or as a twisted public duty to ensure that the “lazy and worthless” (as the Romney phrase makers put it) “takers” in society do not limit the cupidity of the alleged “entrepreneurial classes,” those manipulators of capital in the casinos of Wall Street.
I didn’t have to list the complaints that now seem to have leached from that atmosphere: the general sense of disenfranchisement, of being treated as a commodity, the insistent foreboding of personal disaster, of ill-health unattended to, job loss, rising rents and other costs, the threat of homelessness, that sense of a crippled beast at the edge of the herd about to be taken down by circumstances one cannot control, the menace of economic servitude. It gets expressed in many ways and, unfortunately, as I had that very day apologized to an airline reservation agent for bitching at her for her having to communicate a new airline policy designed to screw the passengers out of more money. I knew that my former students, too, had to watch television commercials by that same airline that sent exactly the opposite message, or seen oil companies’ commercials representing them as friends of the environment, and pharmaceutical companies frightening viewers about some illness or infirmity with the same commercial that offers some chemical nostrum for remedy. The Orwellian “newspeak” insults our intelligence and mocks efforts at any corporate reform by adopting and co-opting its very language. Similarly, the students knew just as well as I do how the inaccessibility and hypocrisy of the wielders of political and economic power frustrates and angers us. The conversation gradually composed a depressing and infuriating picture of a worsening and perilous future.
But what is or might be an apt response? How does one employ the putative societal self-correctives of free speech and assembly, of the voting booth and fair political representation, of media institutions that disseminate truth, and an independent and fair judiciary when each of these avenues have been overtaken, corrupted, purchased, privatized for profit, intimidated by a powerful economic/political oligarchy? Where is the point when an aggrieved people must go beyond peaceful protest, or de facto rigged elections, for example and take to streets with revolutionary intent?
And where is the point when, as in the example of the frog placed in a pot of cold water slowly brought to a boil does not know it is cooked before it is too late, a people are so effectively stripped of economic and political power they might not even possess the capacity for revolt? Or, must circumstances become so desperate that revolt is then only response? When must things be broken and even blood spilled? When must sufficient threat and inconvenience to oppressors be made manifest? We all know of precedents to such circumstances; history is replete with revolution. But history has more victims and slowly cooked frogs.
These were my former students. I was not addressing this subject in my own interests, but in theirs, and my children’s and grandchildren’s interests. Certainly I could not hold out my country these days as an exemplar of economic and political liberalism; rather as an example of what might be termed the “management” of discontent of social inequality. The people are sold the notion that their economic masters have the commonweal at heart, and that the manna of their decisions with “lift all boats,” that the “temporary” austerity they must endure is the “seed corn” of an economic harvest to come.
But there is no “trickle-down.” It is a great fraud. It is, de facto, an Orwellian canard that, when one examines the extent to which national wealth has been appropriated by less than two percent of the population the fact is that, contrary to trickle down, it has been an upward osmosis.
And so the evening wore on. We wondered if there might be evolutionary public responses that engender reform. Will media, for example, serve to countervail the power of corporate media (or will it become distraction that atomizes their potency in “friending” and “tweets”). Is there any hope for enlightened, moral leadership? Will the term “empowerment” become more than a cliché. Though it was in the near future, would the bold actions of the Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden inspire further rebellious behavior. Or, would they be trapped and hunted down and folded into the great justificatory mantra of ”terrorism”? Would there be blood, or a “new normal”? Should we order more pizza?
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.22.2013)