Richard Lichtman on Occupy: “Is this a revolution? We are far from living out our understanding of this question, but I do know that its realization is the meaning of a free citizenry and a good society”

Here’s a subtle, sinuous essay from a “public intellectual,” and, I feel, authentic elder, whom I have just discovered. I very much appreciate the way Lichtman approaches and integrates paradox while seeding an enriched context for further consideration. Much commentary is written about the Occupy movement, but it’s not often that I find myself reading through a particular essay carefully — very carefully. Thanks to

At the end, a short video introducing a course he is giving at Berkeley, this fall semester, 2011. Wish I could have been there to audit it.

Not A Revolution?

14 December 2011

by: Richard Lichtman

Occupy Wall Street, October 10, 2011. (Photo: DoctorTongs)

An honest appraisal of our current accomplishment in the creation of the “occupation movement” leads us to a striking paradox:

Our achievement is obvious: we have succeeded in establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that the current distribution of wealth, and the power it provides, is clearly a maldistribution, a malediction that has produced immense suffering in the lives of millions of Americans and peoples around the world.

We have succeeded in bringing this terrible injustice to the awareness of a large portion of the population, and in framing the fact in relation to the structure of corporate power. We have brought together the awareness of various segments of the population, both the scattered clusters who have suffered the consequences of similar corporate causes and those who have not previously located their suffering in relation to the underlying irrational and brutal origins of their own experience.

On the other hand, the very revelation of this extraordinary concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the privileged few produces a paralysis of action, since the possibility of overthrowing this entrenched plutocracy appears quite remote. The dominant control exercised by the current hegemonic oligarchy of the political system, courts, military, executive, media and organs of police power, as well as the alienated consciousness of a very large number of those who have settled into the subservient routines of their lives, forces us to face the ultimate question – what are we to do against this power, and what, in fact, would we do, specifically, were we in power ourselves?

Consequently, there is a tendency to vacillate between optimism and pessimism, the optimism most visible and the pessimism more forceful but largely out of sight. We celebrate our current victories, but each success forces upon us more acutely the question of what we can do next to extend our vision and move more meaningfully toward the end of replacing the terrible corruption of the present society with an alternative social existence more appropriate to the fulfillment of human dignity. So, on the one hand, the terrible brutality of the police reveals to those who have never considered this situation a power that is mindless and estranged from any viable purpose. On the other hand, it is this very dehumanized terror that presents an opposition that cannot be reasoned with and so remains beyond human engagement.

Or consider a specific example: It is not surprising that Chris Hedges, (Truthdig, November 15, 2011) whose previous “Death of the Liberal Class” [1] was weighted with a pessimism so saturated with paralyzed despair that the best that could be recommended was a retreat to communes in which one would bask in the purity of an idealized vision, forsaking the world and its corruption, now believes he is witnessing a revolution. Of course, there has been no radical transformation of the structures of power, no profound alteration in the mode of production, no undoing of the corrupted system of legality masking the profound immorality of values striated with hypocrisy; and yet, this is purported to be a revolution.

Such confusions are a clear indication that there is nothing resembling even the outline of a revolution. One would have thought that the recent history of Egyptian ferment would have clarified beyond doubt the difference between a necessary condition for revolutionary change and the sufficient condition that actually produces the desired result. In fact, my assertion is itself confused, for the purported “necessary condition” is, in this case, not in itself what is wanted to actually produce a revolution.

It is not the case that revolutions are preceded by a clear vision of the future that only needs to be implemented; history is ripe with instances of revolutionary results that completely astonished their agents. But all of them realized that work of the most strenuous sort was required to produce a revolutionary possibility; they understood the labor of understanding the nature of the current situation and the theoretical perspective that would articulate its system with its strengths and weaknesses in relation to the strengths and weaknesses of the power being arrayed against it.

In 1850, Marx addressed the League of Communists and characterized the Blanquists among them with the following admonition:

Instead of the materialistic view of the “Manifesto” they bring forth
the idealist one. Instead of the real conditions they point to the will
as a major factor in the revolution.

While we tell the workers: “You have to endure and go through
15, 20, 50 years of civil war in order to change the circumstances, in order
to make yourselves fit for power” – instead of that, you say: “We must
come to immediate power, or otherwise we may just as well go to sleep.”

As far as enthusiasm is concerned, one doesn’t need to have much
of it in order to belong to a party that is believed to be about to come to
power. I have always opposed the ephemeral notions of the proletariat.
We devote ourselves to a party which is precisely far from achieving
power…. Our party can achieve power only if and when conditions permit
it to realize its own views. [2]

One of our major difficulties lies precisely in the fact that we have not articulated our own views, neither our vision of a good society nor an understanding of the character of the present society, including an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses and a systematic analysis of exactly which elements of this society are likely to be progressive or regressive in the presence of a process of critical moments. The slogan, “We are the 99 percent” is useful rhetoric up to a point, but a much finer analysis of the various aspects that make up this 99 percent will be necessary before any strategy for enlisting the members of these groups can be considered useful.

From this perspective, the current situation is at most the infancy of a possibility. Infancies are not to be belittled; everything that ripens begins in its infancy. But the infant is not the adult armed with understanding, will, practice and experience. It is the hope of what is to come, eager to explore and learn from its successes and failures, but it must come to know what it does not know, what it lacks in order to succeed in its endeavor. Revolutions are extraordinary events for better and worse, and enormous passion, will, lived suffering, hope, intelligence, imagination and creativity are required to realize their potentialities. False hopes before their time are more likely to produce despair and retreat when actual possibilities lie slumbering like the child awakening to the potentialities of a new day.

As to the lack of an explicit program, the original response of the protesters has been that the initial stages of these demonstrations certainly do not require a detailed set of demands and would only be set back by the attempt to craft such an agenda. And yet there are, in fact, a shared set of demands, principles, values and claims among the “occupiers,” however different they may appear from one location to the next. We know this movement is constituted by a demand for equality, or, at the very least, for a significant lessening of the horrid extent of inequality; for a working democracy; for the elimination of the moneyed foundation of politics; for the abolition of political domination by a dehumanized plutocracy; for the replacement of ubiquitous commodification by the reciprocal recognition of humanity in the actions of its agents.

Is this sufficient? Not finally, of course, but it is a viable beginning because the uniqueness of these gatherings is that they embody a number of the very principles they would assert in theory. What one experiences in the presence of the “99 percent” is communal democracy: the absence of an entrenched leadership, the mobile assumption of initiative, generous reciprocal support, openness to the presence and distinctness of others and a visceral opposition to the attempt of the state to obliterate the unity of those who oppose its system of power.

And, of course, as usually happens in such circumstances, the presence of the police serves to augment and concretize the sense of the inhumanity of those whose pretense is as the guardians of order. The violent, brutal, horrifying indifference of the police only serves to reveal another aspect of the very system the legitimacy of which is being threatened.

To the protesters who assert that the authority of the social order is vacuous and a subterfuge for manipulation, the social order responds by verifying the very claims which are made against it. The law is here represented by those whose violent existence reeks through their veneer of threat and intimidation, itself designed to further the pretense of order. These Darth Vader martinets exaggerate beyond any utilitarian function the sense of threat to decent civil order. What they are incapable of comprehending is the fact that in their purported defense of civilization, they become the barbarians. They merely present themselves as the military equivalent of the ruthless power that has been used to destroy and invalidate the lives of those seeking shelter, work and a life of purpose.

On a very different but related plane, the profound stupidity and egregious fatuousness of the media must be noted, though it swims in a sea so saturated with sensate vulgarity that this miasma is, at first, difficult to perceive. It is the media of People Magazine and the occupiers of “Jersey Shore.” Nothing of any reflective insight is permitted entry while the very thought of critique is made inconceivable.

To the standard media, the dominant issues center on discarded refuse, the costs of occupation, business frustration and mayoral politics. The moral and political claims of the occupiers are treated as irrelevant to the activity that now defines these streets. If any critical questions are raised, they revert to the claim that the ungainly mass is without a sense of meaningful principle.

For now, the aesthetic of protest, the embodiment in living engagement of the values to be defended, appears sufficient. People begin to create and reveal the social relations they wish to initiate. It is rehearsal for a new society. As the great Soviet psychologist and linguist Vygotsky maintained, learning occurs through the development of “a zone of proximal development,” a foretelling of the condition that one is enjoined to enact. It is as though the mother speaks to the infant though she knows it cannot yet understand her, but her voice is essential, and, in time, it will elicit from the child its own speech, as experiments in democracy will elicit from the latent desire of the protesters the demand for a new form of social arrangement in which they can begin to see themselves in each other as the more fully realized beings they wish to become.

In time, and probably sooner rather than later, a program, a strategy and a vision will need to emerge. If it does, we will look back at the preparation that is now being actualized and realize how deeply it has been assimilated by the theory that articulates it. Then we will need to discuss and debate such issues as exactly what is meant by equality, how complex decisions regarding complicated and technical issues will be made, what the relation of our movement is to electoral politics, how we will transform the financial institutions of the society and replace the mammoth clots of irresponsible power that have emerged in the form of corporations. If these understandings do not arise, the current movement will lose all claim to the legitimacy and vitality that is now so compelling and will risk losing confidence in its own capacity to reorder the social system so inhospitable to its fulfillment.

I referred previously to the consideration that the system of protest appears sufficient. I referred to “appearance” in contrast to reality. For, in fact, a new theoretical structure is slowly beginning to emerge in popular consciousness, and new questions are being raised. But all questions arise from judgments of value, for what is questioned occurs against a background of what is taken to be “normal.”

To take a parallel case: in regard to sexual orientation, the old question used to be how gays and lesbians failed to become heterosexuals; in regard to gender identity, the question in the past was how boys failed to become men and girls, women. What were the mechanisms of dysfunction? Such was the question that demanded response.

The old question in regard to wealth and power demanded to know what exactly were the failures of the poor that led to their misery and suffering. Now, the question being presumed and pursued considers how it is that wealth is distributed as it is, in so peculiar a fashion, leading to so much misery and suffering.

The fact that these questions were asked at the birth of economics only reveals how powerfully the theory and practice of economics has managed to obfuscate the nature of its own procedures. It may pretend to be wholly an objective theoretical exercise, but no study that intends to examine the activities of human beings can escape the fact that the basic definitions of its enterprise are intrinsically normative.

Economics must begin with the question of the proper end of economic activity and the intimately related questions of exactly what “economic activity” is and how it is best examined. None of these questions have been properly stated in contemporary American society; rather, they have been posed and answered simply to obfuscate the fact that they are instruments by which ruling power expedites its deception.

Since the primary demand of the occupying movement is for radical democracy, it may be useful to turn back to the doctrine of early American democracy, not because this lovely vision was enacted, for it is clear that the document was as much concerned to deceive as to enlighten. But it remains important if considered on the level of ideal justification rather than as an empirical account of then-contemporary reality, for The Declaration of Independence legitimates revolution and establishes one of its necessary conditions: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [“the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”] it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it … ”

The current government of the United States has, for a very long time, met the standard of having become destructive of “these ends.” It has long since lost any claim to legitimacy. In the destruction produced by the liberal capitalist disorder, while pretending superiority and “leadership of the free world,” this circumstance is one of the most essential: a continually growing portion of the citizenry is coming not so much to deny or criticize the legitimacy of the government as never to have considered it legitimate at all. Morally, it is merely a coagulated mass of power, the function of which has little, if anything, to do with rational authority or justification. Instead, it is taken by a larger portion of the population as disagreeable power that must be dealt with but is less and less considered of any normative significance.

The preamble to the Constitution (though written with a more conservative interest in mind) begins with what was, at the time of its origin, the most revolutionary consideration: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” While the first ten amendments to the Constitution spell out the prohibitions that restrain the power of government from restricting the activities of its citizens, the Preamble articulates the very purpose for which the government and its Constitution are being formed.

It is a declaration of the positive freedoms that are regarded as the ultimate functions for which the joining of its citizens takes place. And it should be noted that the entire structure of the argument is circular, for the government cannot protect its citizens against the excessive power of government unless it is dedicated to creating the ends to which the Preamble speaks. Even more, the government cannot carry out the prohibitions of its restraints, the limitations of powers that belong to the people, unless that people is so constituted that it possesses and exercises the functions that the government is prohibited from enjoining. The government is restricted from invading the speech of its citizens on the assumption that the speech in question is being exercised and that such exercise is necessary to the ultimate welfare of a just society.

Is this a revolution? We are far from living out our understanding of this question, but I do know that its realization is the meaning of a free citizenry and a good society. And we know, all of us know, that our political structure is moribund, unworthy of respect, and destined to further decay. The Occupy movement is energized by the realization of its own necessity and the conviction that the hope of future generations requires a transfiguration of the rotting timbers of this submerging vessel.

Think back again to the macing of the young women in New York and the pepper spraying of the protesters at Davis, and you will know to the deepest measure of the sickness in your soul that it is time to cauterize this festering wound and open the times to the light of democratic change.

When you see, over and over, the police wetting down the peaceful Davis protesters in a sea of poison, another image may move in your mind that will ultimately reveal itself to be a young naked girl running down a screaming road in Vietnam. Then ask yourself what you would do if the students in America were being so assaulted. Ask yourself what you would do if they were your children. For finally, of course, they are.

And that is the beginning of a new vision of the world. No, it is not a revolution. Is it even a significant reform? It is too early to say. It intends, at its most articulate, to transcend the structures of capitalist exploitation. It does not yet know how to proceed to this new place, but it knows well enough the place it intends to leave behind.

And yet, there is still much to learn regarding the manner in which the wounded self is anchored to the myth of its self-interest. To live in this society is to surrender one’s true self-interest for an illusion. In leaving this place behind, the current movement will have to leave aspects of itself behind, for it is through its oppressed labor that the system of domination is reproduced. The forms of injustice are not external to its victims; they are the principles that organize the life of subservience, which maintains the exploitation we are committed to destroying.

This dynamic is what makes transformation so difficult, for as the current structure is formed out of the participation of those most damaged, we must recognize that though the end of this self-betrayal is ostensibly liberating, one becomes in time wedded to one’s own system of habitual life. What I see in the democracy in the streets is the awakening of this realization and the decision to explore its ramification further.

Thanks to Stephanie Solomon for her helpful suggestions for this article.


(1) I have previously reviewed “Death of the Liberal Class” in Against the Current, September/October 2011.
(2) See “The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx,” by Shlomo Avineri, pp. 195-196.

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3 Responses to Richard Lichtman on Occupy: “Is this a revolution? We are far from living out our understanding of this question, but I do know that its realization is the meaning of a free citizenry and a good society”

  1. The video attached to this article had no sound. This link gives a much better version:

  2. Lichtman meaning through use of subjective hyperbole ….” “liberal capitalist disorder, while pretending superiority and “leadership of the free world,” …..” creates his personal preamble for change, but he strattels the fence of meaning:

    “In the destruction produced by the liberal capitalist disorder, while pretending superiority and “leadership of the free world,” this circumstance is one of the most essential: a continually growing portion of the citizenry is coming not so much to deny or criticize the legitimacy of the government as never to have considered it legitimate at all. Morally, it is merely a coagulated mass of power, the function of which has little, if anything, to do with rational authority or justification.”

    One is left clinging tightly to the scaffolding nets on the side of Lichtman’s ship not sure if we are launching an invasion on Omaha Beach or rescuing survivors at Dunkirk. If intellectuals play coy with violence as Lichtman dares us, he shall not be allowed sanctuary in the privileged corridors of Ivory Towers when violence emerges.

    Therefore let us focus on the Constitutionally achievable and not revisit his Preamble a priori, failure of a system as we launch this uniquely American protest for change. Peaceful reform is essential to the OWS Movement cause and fully possible if not likely. Furthermore we will all likely find it prudent to continue to be most clear on that point less we intend to create a self fulfilling prophecy just to appear with an index finger raised to forehead level for our sound bite: “See, I told you so!”

  3. Straddles not Stattles … more coffee please.

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