January 31, 2007

Kropotkin's Spirit of Revolt

Russian prince Peter Kropotkin said that

Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.

This statement was made in his essay entitled "The Spirit of Revolt," which first appeared in Le Rèvoltè in Geneva in 1880. The following excerpt reads as if he were commenting on current events. The notes inserted in the text point to such contemporary examples listed at the end of this blog post.

The Spirit of Revolt

There are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable. New ideas germinate everywhere, seeking to force their way into the light, to find an application in life[1]; everywhere they are opposed by the inertia of those whose interest it is to maintain the old order[2]; they suffocate in the stifling atmosphere of prejudice and traditions [3]. The accepted ideas of the constitution of the State[4], of the laws of social equilibrium[5], of the political [6] and economic [7] interrelations of citizens, can hold out no longer against the implacable criticism which is daily undermining them whenever occasion arises,--in drawing room as in cabaret, in the writings of philosophers as in daily conversation. Political, economic, and social institutions are crumbling; the social structure, having become uninhabitable, is hindering, even preventing the development of the seeds which are being propagated within its damaged walls and being brought forth around them. [7]

The need for a new life becomes apparent. The code of established morality, that which governs the greater number of people in their daily life, no longer seems sufficient. What formerly seemed just is now felt to be a crying injustice. The morality of yesterday is today recognized as revolting immorality [8]. Daily, the popular conscience rises up against the scandals which breed amidst the privileged and the leisured [9], against the crimes committed in the name of the law of the stronger [10], or in order to maintain these privileges. Those who long for the triumph of justice, those who would put new ideas into practice, are soon forced to recognize that the realization of their generous, humanitarian and regenerating ideas cannot take place in a society thus constituted; they perceive the necessity of a revolutionary whirlwind which will sweep away all this rottenness, revive sluggish hearts with its breath, and bring to mankind that spirit of devotion, self-denial, and heroism, without which society sinks through degradation and vileness into complete disintegration.

In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodeling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.

The machinery of government, entrusted with the maintenance of the existing order, continues to function, but at every turn of its deteriorated gears it slips and stops. Its working becomes more and more difficult, and the dissatisfaction caused by its defects grows continuously. Every day gives rise to a new demand. "Reform this," "reform that," is heard from all sides. "War, finance, taxes, courts, police, everything must be remodeled, reorganized, established on a new basis," say the reformers. And yet all know that it is impossible to make things over, to remodel anything at all because everything is interrelated; everything would have to be remade at once; and how can society be remodeled when it is divided into two openly hostile camps? To satisfy the discontented would be only to create new malcontents.

Incapable of undertaking reforms, since this would mean paving the way for revolution, and at the same time too impotent to be frankly reactionary, the governing bodies apply themselves to half-measures which can satisfy nobody, and only cause new dissatisfaction. The mediocrities who, in such transition periods, undertake to steer the ship of State, think of but one thing: to enrich themselves against the coming débâcle. Attacked from all sides they defend themselves awkwardly, they evade, they commit blunder upon blunder, and they soon succeed in cutting the last rope of salvation; they drown the prestige of the government in ridicule, caused by their own incapacity.

Such periods demand revolution. It becomes a social necessity; the situation itself is revolutionary.


1) People's access to inexpensive text, audio and visual production technology has allowed germinating ideas to be documented and shared rapidly worldwide. Experiments in alternative business economic models are being tested by necessity in countries, like Argentina, where the corporate globalization model failed catastrophically.

2) The "old order," harbored by corporate shields, is reflected by today's corporate mass media, a model that is itself failing to provide meaningful investigative reporting. News content generators and distribution owners have consolidated and continue to promote a failed world view of corporate-dominated economics. Since 1980, the number of major media content companies has gone from about fifty to about five. Radio ownership has consolidated radically since passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, from a maximum of 40 radio stations per owner to about 1,200 owned at it's peak by the right wing Clear Channel. For many people, TV and mass media represent reality. Now, that reality is in the hands of a few corporations that seek to maintain the status quo. However, the status quo is being challenged by a rapidly growing media reform movement, and alternative sources of information, that are free to explore real solutions because they are not constrained by commercial bondage.

3) The acceptance of corporate globalization as an "immutable, natural economic system" is the most egregious example of a prejudiced traditon. The corporate mass media repeats, "Government: Wasteful, Bad. Big Business: Efficient, Good," until the inherent socially damaging flaws of the corporate capitalist economic system are no longer examined, let alone questioned. Other "traditions," like excessive checks on popular sentiments by the US Senate, stifle solutions to a growing number of real crises.

4) More people are questioning the U.S. Constitution, recognizing it was created by a wealthy elite minority, with provisions for maintaining their economic dominance (Federalist No. 10 is transparent on this topic). The US Senate's service as a barrier to popular progress is one example. Historical elements of the Constitution prove that it isn't as exceptional as we are schooled to believe; the Constitution originally limited voting to land-owning males, did not recognize Native Americans and women, and legalized slavery. Other elements of the Constitution, created to protect the property of the elite minority, are being being questioned particularly as relates to the growing power of corporations.

5) Concerns about historically extreme wealth desparity are so great that they are being voiced in the mainstream media, by Senators on primetime TV, USA Today, MSNBC and stories of Wall Street Christmas bonuses that are so unseemly that corporate leaders send e-mails to caution staff against flaunting their bonuses in public. Social disequilibrium has become so out of balance, and the governing system so incompetent, that prospects for a gradual re-balancing are fading. The potential for rapid, chaotic social restructuring in increasing.

6) As noted in (5) above, political institutions, having become polarized and beholden to corporate interests, seem incapable of solving problems of the day. Rather than providing a real solution, the so-called healthcare reform process is poised to force citizens to give their money to private insurance corporations thereby boosting the profits, read political and economic power, of this disdained industry.

7) Saved only by accounting slight-of-hand, the American financial system is bankrupt both literally and morally. Given the off-shoring of jobs, the aging populace and the off-shoring of corporate profits to shield them from tax responsibilities, the United States itself is incapable of raising sufficient revenues to cover its ballooning debts.

8) For example, people are now taking notice of outrageous bonuses being paid out in financial services corporations. More people are realizing that highly paid media celebrities are part of the establishment and thus incapable of rendering an unbiased critique of the status quo of which they are a part.

9) Scandals of the privileged and the leisured have faces like that of disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, Wall Street titan Bernard Madoff, hypocritical Senator John Ensign, very connected Jack Abramoff, Paris Hilton, and even the vaunted Tiger Woods to scratch the surface.

10) The war of aggression by the US in Iraq, US use of torture and US backing of blatant war crimes by Israel have made a mockery of principles of civilized behavior of nations. These kinds of grotesque actions, combined with the dismissal of global institutions, like the United Nations, designed to provide a moral compass, provide proof that the law of the jungle is the new normal.


a. "Backlash grows against free tradeæ, Mark Trumbull, The Christian Science Monitor February 16, 2007.

b. "The Future is Now," William Greider, The Nation June 8, 2006.

c. Paris Hilton's Tax Relief, Ellen Goodman, June 15, 2006.

No comments: