Book by Bruce E. Levine; 2011, Chelsea Green Publishing, 256 pp.
Dissident psychologist Bruce E. Levine first posed the provocative question, “Are we too demoralized to protest?” in an article published in the November 2009 edition of Z Magazine. Public opinion polls have shown over the years that politicians and their policies remain out of touch with the popular will in terms of numerous issues, including the Wall Street bailout, health care reform, and the Afghan war. This democracy deficit in the United States, however, has been met by a glaring “resistance gap” especially when compared to other nations. Taking this phenomenon into account, Levine follows up on his initial inquiry about the state of the American public in his latest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. Through five concise, compelling, and easy to read chapters, the author delves deeper into the question of our national psyche and its potential to resist a corporate-governmental power structure he deems the “corporatocracy.”
After laying out a brief description of what the corporatocracy (or corporate state) looks like and how it manipulates our political and personal lives, Levine asks, “Are the people broken?” Citing Lawrence Goodwyn, a historian of late 19th century populist movements in the U.S., Levine echoes the scholar’s sentiment that “individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” had been the building blocks to democracy movements and still can be. In assessing whether or not these two core concepts have been withered down in contemporary times, Levine examines key political events of the last decade. Starting off with the Battle of Seattle, the author strikes a tone of hope before turning to the presidential election that was held the following year. The two notable outcomes from Al Gore’s campaign against George W. Bush were the illegitimacy of Bush’s victory and the total deflation of Ralph Nader’s third party bid. As Levine notes, despite feeling disenfranchised and angry, a mass of Democratic voters did not vehemently protest the inauguration of the Bush administration and a deflated Green Party politic would never really recover following the aftermath of the 2000 elections.
When the first term of the Bush presidency launched the Iraq War in 2003, massive and historic demonstrations took place in the U.S. and around the world one month prior to the onset of hostilities. Social critic Noam Chomsky noted then that these anti-war protests marked an improvement from the times of the Vietnam War for its “pre-emptive” demonstrations. In the years since the occupation of Iraq, and Afghanistan before it, however, peace movement protests have diminished in size and momentum despite their increasing unpopularity. Following the election of Barack Obama, Levine examines labor unions as well as the Tea Party political phenomenon. On the latter, he astutely notes that despite all the expressed anger, the contemporary Tea Partiers display no will to engage in civil disobedience, unlike their historical namesake. Taking stock of all that has transpired in the last ten years, Levine characterizes the situation as “light resistance to major oppression” presumably looked upon with much favor by an emboldened corporatocracy.
Looking into how it all came to be is where Get Up, Stand Up sets its sights next. Levine outlines numerous cultural factors that have culminated in the people assimilating “learned powerlessness.” Without setting them within a context of a masterminded conspiracy of the corporate state, he nonetheless shows how the corporatocracy has been able to take advantage of television, the Internet, advertising, consumer culture, the education system, resulting student-loan debts, the corporate media and elections, just to name a few, in terms of breaking down individual self-respect and collective consciousness and supplanting social isolation and demoralization in their place. New technological innovations in the cultural landscape differentiate the present day from the time of 19th century populists and each individual critique is a book unto itself, so the treatments of the subject are brief, yet cogent and compelling.
From that etiology, Get Up, Stand Up moves along to propose a number of ways to reenergize a dispirited public. One of Levine’s main focuses is on morale. Differentiating it from what is known as “positive psychology,” he notes similarities between personal depression and political passivity. Morale, the author contends, comes from small victories at the grass-roots level. Redefining the personal is political framework psychologically, Levine next likens “battered people’s syndrome” to “corporatocracy abuse” and offers tools and suggestions for overcoming immobilization and giving oneself a boost in belief that things can indeed change. The prescription for the personal/political ailments of social isolation is genuine community building that can lead to both individual self-respect and collective self-confidence.
Get Up, Stand Up ends with suggestions, solutions, and strategies for successfully waging battle against the corporatocracy. For starters, Levine returns to the populist movement of the late 19th century and the historical analysis of Goodwyn. Armed with individual self-respect and collective self-confidence, people had formed a democratizing movement through recruiting, educating, and politicizing their swelling ranks. Of course, as history notes, the populist rebellion was thwarted through eventual assimilation into Democratic Party electoral politics. To avoid a potentially demoralizing repeat of history this time around, Levine places emphasis first on other avenues for action outside of the vote. He threads through the efficacy of mass demonstrations, strategies of disruptive power, and societal divorce through intentional communities based on workplace democracies. Levine also offers useful, practical advice for students in terms of ways of avoiding crippling debt at the onset of their adult lives. These are spaces from which small victories can emerge. The author writes of real life examples of organizations who successfully fight back to strengthen his thesis and bring it down from intellectual horizons to the grassroots.
Finally the author asks his readers if they really believe the corporatocracy can be toppled. Indeed, internalizing the question, how much of activism is fueled by the notion that the day will come when small victories culminate into liberation on a grand scale? This, perhaps, is the most pressing question as to whether Americans are succumbing deeper into the recesses of a psychology of oppression. As Levine reminds us, history has shown and continues to show that unforeseen variables can transform the battlefield radically. The release of his book comes at a time when revolts in the Middle East and North Africa serve as the latest reminder. “Days of Rage” were ignited following the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor—an act of desperation that sparked the transformation of long held grievances into a new sense of collective self-confidence that has gone far beyond the borders of Tunisia.
Whether it is the Arab Spring or mass demonstrations against austerity measures in European countries, social justice activists in the U.S. have definitely taken notice and are feeling reverberations of a growing global collective self-confidence. At the same time, the question of why no comparable resistance occurs here at home is inescapable. Get Up, Stand Up sets forth on that timely task with an overall framework that is innovative and provocative, starting the conversation anew.
Gabriel San Roman is a freelance journalist based in Orange County and is a contributing writer for the OC Weekly.