Editor’s Note: This interview aired live on the Rick Smith Show on April 27, 2011. You can access the original audio version by clicking on the Rick Smith Show Exclusive Interview image below.
[Rick Smith]: That’s the key: don’t give up the fight. I look at Friday and Friday marks the 117th anniversary of Coxey’s Army’s march from Massillon, Ohio to Washington, DC. And why did they do that? They did it because they were unemployed and they wanted their government to do something – create jobs, to help ease the pain of the Great Panic of 1893. What you had was 500 people who came together and said, “we’re going to walk from Massillon, OH all the way to Washington, DC.”
The question I have is why aren’t we seeing the fifteen million unemployed in this country and the millions who have been long term unemployed taking to the streets? Why are we not seeing more of what happened in Madison when we were out there – 150,000 people crowding their capital? Why not? That’s why I’ve asked Bruce Levine, author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, to come talk to us. Bruce, thanks for taking time for us.
[Bruce Levine]: Hey, great to be on your show Rick.
[Rick]: You know, I look at this and all of these attacks – states across the country with their budgets, slashing education, stealing collective bargaining rights. I have to be honest. I’ve looked at the American working class and I think they suffer from mass Stockholm Syndrome.
[Bruce Levine]: Yeah, I think part of the problem is that a lot of folks who are academics or even authors and journalists…they tend to focus on this idea that the truth is going to set them free. So we’re just going to keep telling folks about how they’re getting screwed in a million different ways. The problem is that when you get a population that has been so beaten down, so dispirited, so demoralized – in many cases, broken – those kind of truths no longer set us free.
A big reason why I wrote Get Up, Stand Up was to have folks understand that we have to restore guts. We have to restore balls, courage, cojones, and we have to restore unity and solidarity. If we don’t do that not only the truths of our oppression are not going to set us free, but even knowledge of time-honored strategies, tactics, all that kind of stuff – people are not going to implement it. So, there are things that oppressed people have always done to over come the elite. They’re out there – I talk about them in detail in Get Up, Stand Up – but people are not going to do it, I know they’re not, unless we get them back their guts and their courage. That’s a big part of why I wrote the book.
[Rick]: Here’s my problem with that. I believe that people act in their own interest, somehow on this radical self-interest. All I’ve heard during this great Bush recession is, “well, I’m lucky, I still have a job. I can’t do anything right now, I’m just fortunate to have a job right now.”
I believe that things have to get so bad that people have nothing left to lose and that’s the only way you’re going to see the mass mobilization you saw after the Great Depression of the 30s where people did things like in Flint, had sit-down strikes, like here in Hershey had sit-down strikes. People did begin to come together because as the old labor saying says, “when your stomach’s empty, maybe your head gets right.”
[Bruce Levine]: You know, I’ve looked at that whole issue of “maybe we have to wait around for things to get bad enough here.” There’s something a little apocalyptic about it that’s a little bit problematic in the sense that in makes people passive. It’s like, “OK, we don’t have to do anything, we just have to wait around for things to get worse.” How much worse do you want it? I mean, we’re getting completely screwed on every different dimension here.
[Rick]: I agree.
[Bruce Levine]: Yeah, I guess we only have ten percent – well, it’s probably closer in real terms to eighteen percent unemployment – do we need the Great Depression? Twenty-five? Thirty percent unemployment? When you take a look at history, actually, in most cases for the non-elite, things have been incredibly crappy and they haven’t resisted. So the idea that you have to wait until things get bad enough – you know, for most of American slavery – a few hundred years, there were rebellions and resistances. But for most of the time and in most places there was no rebellion, there was no resistance. In fact, the rebellions that did happen in the worst of times, were when people had some how maintained, gotten back their self-respect and some confidence they could succeed.
That becomes one of the themes of Get Up, Stand Up. From the Populist Movement to the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, to – in my childhood – all of those great wild cat strikes that my family was part of. What happened was that folks had developed some great self-respect – I call it individual self-respect – and they had some confidence they could succeed. One of the things that I take a look at in Get Up, Stand Up is how the different spokes on the wheel, how that’s been destroyed – a lot of different ways. Some of these you would expect, like the classic corporate breaking the unions and what they’ve done, but in a lot of other areas too.
In my business – I’m in the psychology business – and I’m embarrassed to call myself a psychologist because increasingly my business is helping break the spirit of resistance in young people. That’s going on in schools and in many other aspects of our society. A big part of what we have to do is stop this from happening. And we can do it every day and every way not just obey and comply to illegitimate authorities out there. That’s one of the ways we get back our guts and get back our self-respect.
[Rick]: That’s right in line with what I’ve been saying for the longest time. I think the unemployed need to take camp in Washington and in state capitals across the country. I’ve been telling kids here, college kids here in Pennsylvania that when school is out, when your finals are done, which could be your last semester, bring your sleeping bag and your toothbrush here to Harrisburg, camp out in the Capitol rotunda like they did in Madison – to draw attention, to do something to bring people back together.
[Bruce Levine]: Right. We have to, in every which way. The reality is that demonstrations are nice, voting is nice, I’m not opposing any of these things. But the reality is, when you take a look at successful democratic movements, I mean, folks, movements where they stopped the power, they stopped the powerful elite from completely trampling on them, they weren’t done risk free. They weren’t done without guts. I mean you talk about the – you mentioned it – the great Flink Sit-Down Strike. As the elite have always done in American history, they used the Army, the National Guard, in that case the police – they own them – and they stormed them, they attacked those guys who were sitting in the factory in the sit-down strike, and those guys fought back. That’s how they won.
There’s almost not any time that you can really take a look at in serious kind of power grabs where poor people are trying to get some power back or, as in the case of the United States today, we’re trying to hold on to what little power that we’ve got. I mean, we’ve got guys in my state – Kaisich – and in Wisconsin there who are taking away what little power that we have. And when that kind of stuff happens, it’s not going to be enough to vote and have demonstrations. You’re going to have to do some things that require some kind of risk, some kind of guts.
[Rick]: Yeah, I’m right there with you. This is the kind of thing that I’ve been talking about. When those kids bring their sleeping bags and camp out here until they throw you out or beat you with a stick and do some of the things that have happened in the past.
You’re listening to the Rick Smith Show. We’re here with Bruce Levine, a practicing psychologist, author and speaker. His book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. You can get that over at BruceLevine.net. There’s also a link at the RickSmithShow.com to get his book.
So, where do we start in all of this, walk me through some of this from the book. Where do we start?
[Bruce Levine]: Well, let’s just take one area—I’ve got like twelve different areas that we’re kind of getting broken in. One of things that most concerns me is with young people out there. Traditionally, historically, you saw this in Egypt, but in American history as well, that’s where you could count on people who were resisting, because they didn’t have their family responsibilities yet and they felt like it was easier for them to take some chances. But, we’re breaking them in our schools and we’re breaking them in my business.
So, what we have to do is really take a look at how that’s happening and do something about it. So, just simple things—like, they’re getting these No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top—basically, these are standardized testing that meet the needs of the corporate state, not students. What’s happening is you’re creating fear and your creating—and fear kills curiosity, critical thinking, challenging illegitimate authority, and fear kills resistance. And then, you’re scaring these young people out there that they’re going to be losers if they don’t go to college at the same time your saddling them with ridiculous debts if they do go to college.
And so, part of what I try to talk about in Get Up, Stand Up is that on every level of our lives we have to resist these kinds of authorities that are breaking our spirit here. And we certainly have to resist those people in my business out there who are creating diagnoses—and I’m not joking here Rick, we’ve created diagnoses same year that Ronald Reagan was elected president, we came up with this diagnosis called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) which pathologizes kids who are not complying with adults. That’s the symptom of the diagnosis and we’re medicating them. My dumb business is medicating them with heavy duty anti-psychotic drugs. At every level here—I wish I could just say it was the right-wing, conservatives here with there breaking unions and their television propaganda and the corporate media—all those things are true, and I go through all the ways that the right-wing aspects of our society are breaking folks—but unfortunately, a lot of the progressive institutions like mental health like schooling have been taken over by the corporatists and we’ve got to fight them too.
[Rick]: Yeah, I’m right there with you. In going back to what you were just saying, the first thing that popped into my head, when I was a kid if you didn’t listen to an adult—I went to Catholic school—there was a ruler usually involved. There weren’t drugs, there was usually a ruler and a beating. Different times.
[Bruce Levine]: It’s much easier to overcome a ruler and a beating than to have your brain fried 24/7 with psychotropic drugs—
[Rick]: Excellent point.
[Bruce Levine]: —and I see those kids today. That your future Saul Alinskys—and I talk about his childhood—Saul Alinsky would for sure—the great organizer who wrote Rules for Radicals—he would have been diagnosed for sure with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Emma Goldman, Cesar Chavez, Walter Reuther…you take a look at our great leaders and we’re losing a whole generation of young people who are essentially anti-authoritarians, people who by nature, by spirit would question authority, do not comply with illegitimate authority, and those people are unbelievably valuable for any kind of revolution and we’re breaking them young.
And that’s not the only area. There are a lot of different areas and the good thing is that once you understand all these areas, you realize don’t have to wait for election day, you don’t have to wait for every four years to vote for the lesser of two evils. There’s things we could be doing every day to get back our courage, get back our balls, and a lot of that is from the integrity you get from resisting illegitimate authority and the solidarity you get from supporting other people who are resisting illegitimate authority in their life.
[Rick]: Excellent point. I was just thinking of George Carlin who I miss dearly. To me he was an absolute genius. But what he said is what the elite don’t want is critical thinkers. They want people just smart enough to run their machines, but not smart enough to question why.
[Bruce Levine]: Right, and interestingly, George Carlin never went to college. And there’s a lot of pretty fantastic, rebellious, anti-authoritarian people out there who were not schooled in college, they were schooled on the streets. Part of the problem too, is that too many authors, journalists, activists…everybody has gotten this idea that if you just keep getting enough information, enough information, certainly that’s going to solve all the problems. Part of what they brainwash you in school—they never taught me this in school—that a huge part of the problem in life are these class battles and they’re won with guts and courage, they’re not won by you just knowing how you’re being screwed. We know how we’re being screwed. It’s sort of insulting for a lot of folks who are in the intelligentsia, in the liberal progressive media to just come at people like they’re stupid and they’re ignorant, that they’re just not resisting, they just don’t know enough. We all don’t know everything, we don’t know every spoke in the wheel—I know a couple of spokes a little bit better than other spokes—but, we all know enough to know we’re getting screwed.
So, we need something else out there and that’s a huge part of what I talk about in Get Up, Stand Up. I talk about how they did it in Flint, Michigan; how they did it in the Populist Revolt, how they did it in the Underground Railroad; how those wildcat strikes—what did they give people besides scolding lectures about how I’m upset with how ignorant and apathetic you are.
[Rick]: To that point, you look at the Tea Party that has sprung up. I don’t agree with the direction they ended up going, but initially I was right with them. I was angry about all the things we had been told, that the 401Ks were going to be our savior; if you worked hard and played by the rules, you’d get ahead—all that stuff they were angry about at the start before the big corporate money came in and co-opted the whole thing.
[Bruce Levine]: Exactly. The Tea Party. I talk about them in Get Up, Stand Up because they’re real interesting for me. Certainly there are a lot of folks in the Tea Party who are racist and bigots and not worth much. But they’re a lot of people in that who are exactly like you are describing and the progressive media sometimes makes fun of who are genuinely angry about getting screwed. And, here’s the thing. They were exploited by demagogues. One of the points I really want to yell as loudly as I can is that when people are in pain out there—and people are unemployed, underemployed, saddled with student debt—I mean people are really in pain out there and demagogues know that. And that’s what those Tea Party people like Sarah Palin and Dick Armey…they come along and they see these folks in pain and they throw them something, something phoney to reduce their pain. They throw them a scapegoat, you know like the undocumented workers or now they try to split us up—their new little technique of divide and conquer is private workers versus public workers, they try to make public workers the scapegoat. A little bone to kind of temporarily reduce their pain. And that’s how they own them and they bring them in a certain direction.
What smart activists who really care about democracy, who really care about the working man, do what folks like Walter Reuther did, and do what folks like…what they did in the Populist Movement was also understand these folks’ pain and try to reduce it, but not to exploit it. To take them in a direction to have more control over their lives and more self-respect.
[Rick]: Excellent, excellent point. You know you write in the book about the Populist Movement of the 1880s, a time that I look at—when the robber barons were in control, the big railroad magnates, guys like Jay Gould, who said “I could easily pay half the working class to kill the other half”—I see we’re living through those exact moments. How can we learn from that and move forward? Your thoughts?
[Bruce Levine]: Yeah. One of the big advantages that the Populists had—most of them were farmers, it was an agrarian revolt for the most part, lot of cotton farmers, but other farmers as well—one of the things they had going for them…they hadn’t been broken in terms of schooling. A lot of those folks had no school, very little grade school education…a couple of grades, maybe. But, they didn’t believe they were inferior just because they didn’t have a high school degree or a college degree, because they knew they knew a lot of stuff. They knew they had a lot of skills—they were intelligent, they had competence in farming, they had economic skills, they had labor skills, they had a ton of talents. So, they didn’t buy into the idea that they were inferior just because they had no money and they didn’t have much education. That was a huge thing that we have to restore.
But what they did—Populist organizers—was real smart. They realized, hey, our guys are getting ripped off by the banks and they’re getting ripped off by the railroads—that was the oligarchy of the time that was screwing them—the grain elevator operators. Why? Because they had to go into debt to plant their crops and when they finally got around to getting their crops sold, they couldn’t get enough money to pay off their debts, and so they were going deeper and deeper into debt, and losing their farms and all that. So, the great organization of that era was called, the short term for it was the Alliance, and what they did was they did some thinking about it. How could we come up with some kind of economic, self-help here that we could pull off that doesn’t take a lot of money, that could reduce these folks’ pain economically. And what they did was they just came up with the first, gigantic scale, working peoples’ cooperative where they basically cut out the middle-man. These farmers got together and they pulled their crop, cut out the middle-man, got great prices for their crop and word spread—they didn’t need twitter, they didn’t need facebook—word spread in a hurry that this was a great deal, this Alliance. They weren’t just an organization preaching at us, they were taking away our pain, giving us back our self-respect, giving us confidence.
And this organization just grew. It scared the bejeezus out of the oligarchy at that time and they damn-near came close to transforming America into a real democracy. I talk about all the details in Get Up, Stand Up about how the oligarchy made a counter-attack, and the great lessons, positive lessons to be learned from what they did, and some of the negative lessons. One of the negative lessons is that in folklore they call the Alliance a great movement that shot themselves in the foot because they went into politics.
One of the things that I talk about in Get Up, Stand Up is that I’m not dismissing electoral politics, but people have to understand that this is an arena, this is a democracy battlefield. The rich in America, the way it’s set up, have such a huge advantage it’s so easy to buy off. I’m not saying to completely blow it off, but you’ve got to move into other democracy battlefields—like the Populists did—where you have a better shot at whipping these guys and getting back your self-respect and getting back your confidence.
Bruce, great conversation, I appreciate your time. We’d love to have you back again real soon.
[Bruce Levine]: Sounds good. It was fun talking with you Rick.
[Rick]: Alright, Bruce. Thank you so much.