Why 2008 Isn’t 1968

In 1968, John Lennon had a hit with these lyrics:

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright
Alright Alright

And one reason “revolution” was a trendy word instead of a viable concept in 1968 is that it made sense to sing “when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know you can count me out” — as if there were actual options.

Sara Robinson posted a chilling and oddly hopeful post on Campaign for America’s Future the other day about the conditions for revolutions. Under such conditions, I’d conclude that  choosing whether to count oneself in or out would be a whimsical indulgence available only to the privileged. Thus most of the white kids who went around crying “revolution” in 1968 were privileged — privileged enough to let their “freak flags fly” during the school year and go home, trim their hair, and work summer jobs between the Spring and Fall semesters.

Besides, in 1968, the conditions for revolution just were not ripe.

So how do you know the big coconut is about to fall? Noting the enthusiasm filling the primary election season, Robinson muses,

There’s something implacable, earnest, and righteously angry in the air. And it raises all kinds of questions for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers who’ve been ground down to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30 years. Can it be — at long last — that Americans have, simply, had enough? Are we, finally, stepping out to take back our government — and with it, control of our own future? Is this simply a shifting political season — the kind we get every 20 to 30 years — or is there something deeper going on here? Do we dare to raise our hopes that this time, we’re going to finally win a few? Just how ready is this country for big, serious, forward-looking change?

She then goes on to dig into the sociological well, unearthing 46 year old work:

Way back in 1962, Caltech sociologist James C. Davies published an article in the American Sociological Review that summarized the conditions that determine how and when modern political revolutions occur. Intriguingly, Davies cited another scholar, Crane Brinton, who laid out seven “tentative uniformities” that he argued were the common precursors that set the stage for the Puritan, American, French, and Russian revolutions. As I read Davies’ argument, it struck me that the same seven stars Brinton named are now precisely lined up at midheaven over America in 2008. Taken together, it’s a convergence that creates the perfect social, economic, and political conditions for the biggest revolution since the shot heard ’round the world.

Here they are:

1. Soaring, Then Crashing — a long period of rising living standards and high, hopeful expectations comes to a crashing end, leaving the citizens in an ugly and disgruntled mood.

2. They Call It A Class War — the upper classes breaks faith with society’s other groups, and began to openly prey on them in ways that threaten their very future.

3. Deserted Intellectuals — connections between intellectual elites and power become frayed and weak, and the disaffected intellectuals make common cause with the lower classes.

4. Incompetent Government — atrocious government malfeasance in the face of precipitously declining fortunes becomes commonplac as stubborn aristocrats heap fuel on the fire by blithely disregarding the falling fortunes of their once-prosperous citizens.

5. Gutless Wonders in the Ruling Class — the world is changing rapidly — and the country’s leaders deal with it by dropping back into denial and clinging defiantly to the old, profitable, and familiar status quo.

6. Fiscal Irresponsibility — inept and corrupt governments mismanage the national economy to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and currency collapse.

7. Inept and Inconsistent Use of Force — government no longer exercises force in a way that people find fair or consistent. Domestically, there’s uneven sentencing, unchecked police brutality, unwarranted police surveillance and legal harassment of law-abiding citizens going about their business. Abroad, there’s the misuse of military force, which forces the country to pour its blood and treasure into misadventures that offer no clear advantage for the nation. These misadventures not only reduce the country’s international prestige and contribute to economic declines; they often create a class of displaced soldiers who return home with both the skills and the motivation to turn political unrest into a full-fledged shooting war.

We are now into year eight of all-of-the-above. This is scary — unless the energy against injustice is channeled for good. Should any politician exploit this energy without earnestly attempting to reverse the seven conditions above once elected, there may well be hell to pay.

Stay tuned.

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