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How to Light a Prairie Fire

Here in the USA, millions of people are continuously losing their jobs and not finding new ones, millions more are losing their homes, still more millions are in prison for nothing more than self-medicating with drugs that arbitrarily happen to be illegal and will be discriminated against as felons for years to come. Tens of thousands are being shot to death every year, there are massacres happening somewhere in the country every other week or so, our Democrat-controlled government has just passed a health care “reform” that is being praised by the corporations who bought the government in the first place, we continue to spend as much on the military as the entire rest of the world combined, and our military is actively employed killing people in at least four different countries while threatening to expand that number. The oil industry is making good on their investments in the Congress and expanding off-shore drilling for the first time in twenty years, while the nuclear industry is getting a great bang for their Democratic buck and now has the chance to build new nuclear reactors for the first time in the US in three decades.

Those of us who have woken up from our Obama-induced trance state or never got hypnotized in the first place (because we’re too busy being bombed by drones, for example) are feeling frustrated. Some of us, certainly, are venting that frustration in various constructive ways, but by and large that old “silent majority” is being pretty silent. As I travel around the country doing concerts people earnestly, often a bit desperately, wonder aloud to me, what’s it going to take to get people really riled up and ready to do something about this situation? How much greater must the divide between the rich and poor grow? How many more ecological disasters? How much more climate change? How many more dead Muslims? Etc. People start feeling bad about their fellow Americans – are they just sheep after all?

Backing up a moment, the fact that people are asking the question “where are my fellow outraged citizens” tells me that one important thing is already understood, at least by most people who come to my shows – that mass movements of outraged citizens (and other people) is what’s needed in order for real change to have a chance to occur. So then the question is, what are the conditions that need to exist for this movement to coalesce? If the situation is so bad for so many why is so little happening in reaction?

This is, of course, one of those perennial questions that everyone who yearns for a sane society is trying to answer. If there were a clear recipe, if it were like baking a loaf of bread or something that would be nice, but it’s somewhat more complicated. If there’s one thing I think many people need to understand – and there are probably many things, but if there’s one thing that seems most relevant in what I get out of these conversations I’m having with people all over the place, it is this: sustained mass movements rarely happen unless many of the participants believe they might win.

It seems especially worth noting given that in hindsight everything is a bit less volatile – what’s happened has happened. When you’re there, making history, everything is much less predictable. The rebels in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 knew they were merely choosing the time and place of their deaths, and they referred to each other as “the walking dead.” They are the exception, however, not the rule – most rebellions take place in an atmosphere not just of need but of hope. The tens of thousands who went to Spain in the 1930s were not just planning to become martyrs. They were risking their lives, yes, but they thought that if enough of them joined in, and perhaps if France or Britain helped out a little (they didn’t), they could defeat fascism in Spain. As for the thousands of brigadistas who came from Germany and Italy, why did they not launch a rebellion against fascism in Germany or Italy in 1936 rather than going to Spain to fight German and Italian troops there? Because they thought in Spain they might win, and they had already lost the fight in their home countries for the time being, most of their comrades by then already dead or in prison camps.

You can’t organize workers to go out on strike if they think they’ll inevitably lose their jobs and get blacklisted – people are generally willing to strike if they think there’s at least a decent chance that some of their grievances will be redressed. During the first two decades of the twentieth century there were millions of people involved with a militant labor movement that was ultimately crushed with the Palmer Raids and other events following World War I. During the 1930s another massive wave of labor organizing, this time resulting in lasting reforms to the capitalist system. Why no huge strike wave in the 1920s? Were conditions so good for workers then? No, there were other factors at play – among them the sense that victory was (or wasn’t) possible.

The many thousands of people who were participating in the movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were not planning on being massacred, they were planning on bringing lasting change in China. The millions who poured into the streets of Caracas after the coup against Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 were not planning on being massacred, either. They were planning on bringing about the return of their president this way – and they were successful. A year later millions of people pouring into the streets of every city and many small towns in the US and around the world hoped through these demonstrations they could affect Bush’s foreign policy. If they had known for sure before the fact how little impact this would have on the US government most of them would probably have stayed at home.

Of course there are innumerable other factors involved with movement-building – especially successful movement-building — aside from the existence of conditions people want to change and people having a feeling of optimism about changing those conditions. I’ll outline my take on some of those factors, for what it’s worth.

It seems to me the first thing people need is a sense of who is out there. A heck of a lot of people in this country live in suburbs where they don’t know their neighbors and their main contact with the world is what they see on TV, what they see out the window of their cars, and what they experience at either of their two jobs. These people and people around the country need to know that most of their fellow citizens are also unhappy with the status quo – according to mainstream poll after poll it is clear that most people think things like health care, housing and education should be government priorities rather than oil drilling and empire-building. Most people think action should be taken urgently to deal with climate change.

First and foremost it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people. The ruling elite knows it, that’s why they’ve bought up most of the airwaves and won’t even let Al-Jazeera on cable here. Successful social movements have met this challenge in the past by creating their own media, running their own educational institutions, summer camps, theaters, etc. At the heart of successful social movements is a vibrant culture of resistance, complete with a more sensible historical narrative, a vision of a better society, and lots and lots of songs. There is a clear sense of a larger community of like-minded people and a sense of being part of a long and often successful history of social movements that have come before us.

The movements that tend to succeed are also broad-based, inclusive, and more or less democratically organized. There are commonly-held ideas about tactics and strategies. Tactics tend to be militant and may often be illegal, but are designed to build your support rather than to alienate your supporters.

Naturally, the ruling elite, their lackeys in Congress and the White House, bought and sold by the Fortune 500, will try to convince us that raising money for political campaigns and then voting in rigged elections is the way forward. (Either that or smashing the windows of your local Starbucks.) They won’t tell you that democracy doesn’t happen that way. Naturally, the ruling elite will have their own, much better-funded and far more ubiquitous institutions of learning, their media, their outlets of propaganda in Hollywood or Nashville.

But when people ask me whether I am hopeful in these dark times, my answer, unequivocally, is yes. Perhaps partially because I take a long view of history. But also because I am privy to a secret that is known well to the powers-that-be: for all the wealth and power of the corporate clique who are ruining the world for their private gain, they still require the consent of the governed. They will throw us crumbs while they rip us off and they will try to give us a false sense of security as we race headlong towards the proverbial wall. But, to use a dangerous word, there are basic truths on our side, and as someone said, ten minutes of truth can counteract 24 hours of lies.

We live in a corporate-run empire, not a democratic republic, and there is a mysterious thing that can happen when enough people who are being adversely affected by this fact understand it and realize that they’re not alone. I was interviewing veteran organizer Leslie Cagan for my internet radio show the other day, asking her about the police infiltrators constantly trying to create divisions within activist groups. “They’re just people,” she said. And just like us, they can make mistakes, and regularly do.

What I’m trying to say is, sure, always question tactics, strategies and visions. But whatever you do, ye fellow members of the choir, know your history and don’t give up. Know that as you’re apparently spinning your wheels, doing whatever things you do to try to organize, educate, agitate or otherwise work to build the infrastructure of a future democratic society, the darkest hour is often just before the dawn. At any moment, apparently quite suddenly, the spell can be broken, and things can shift. That another such moment is coming is certain. What we and our neighbors will do with it is the question.

DAVID ROVICS is a singer-songwriter based in Portland, Oregon. For more information about the Shell to Sea campaign go to www.shelltosea.com.

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David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

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