The Awakening of the Downtrodden
by Jan Lundberg

Are you the downtrodden?

USA Today made my day today (Feb. 9th, 2005) with its front-page headline — "Poll: Tap Wealthy on Social Security". Lovely! Sure, when hell freezes over. But how fun that a radical concept slipped through the corporate filters in this time of extreme disparity between the super rich and the working/poor.

Is it necessarily the way of humanity to accept grievous abuse and deprivation at the hands of the greedy and devious? If the answer is yes, it may be only in our current paradigm. If our main form of misery or slavery is working too much and having little control over our lives, consider that hunter-gatherers only "work" a few hours a day a few days a week. The savages!

Assuming that people have by and large lived in former times as free individuals — albeit possibly only in a tribal context — and recognizing that "primitive" people still do so today, we can perhaps anticipate a possible return to living as free beings. Another indication is from the present:

Independent-minded anarchists are here and there, feeling as free as they can in or up against the privatized fortress of modern society. Although material wealth can buy some freedom, money tends to buy isolation. The wealthy are less likely to need as many friends or have relationships based on mutual aid and joy that are unrelated to spending money. Voluntary, cooperative associations without the monetary context are closer to freedom. Obtaining a lot of money is about competition, which if allowed to dominate results in many downtrodden.

So it is conceivable, as we see from the example of the primitives and the anarchists, that many more people today can live free. It is certainly possible for the downtrodden to be much better off without even upsetting the apple cart. While it is up to them to effect it and at least start by gaining awareness and an ambitious, rebellious vision, the circumstances for restructuring society and revising the whole system of class need to rise up and hold sway. Aiding this social evolution will probably have to be die-off of much of the population in the "developed world," as a biological consequence upon the passing of today's unsustainable mania for oil.

Living in the overpopulated present, and as society is not pursuing overtly a die-off or "cleansing" that would be abhorrent, one can consider today's socioeconomic and political context for the existence of the growing downtrodden classes. Then we can contemplate their awakening and probable mindless rampage when the food, water and land are — surprise! — not at hand. More than of academic interest is how much oppression, poisoning and exploitation people are capable of tolerating en masse — accepted today with little outcry. As I suggested in "The Cornered Animal" (Culture Change Letter #49), "the masses" have had more than enough to be outraged about, such as the assault of plastics that were always said to be harmless. Why do people take it all, lying down? How have they been convinced that their present lot is the only rational one? Let us see:

Divided, conquered, de-spirited... for now

As the wealthiest are the principal beneficiaries of the dominant culture, we can assign a simple description or prescription for the general population of toilers: divided and conquered. People generally work against each other in modern society in order to achieve personal material security (which they thus, in great numbers, cannot really achieve). Discouraged and even outlawed are relationships between people that work toward self-sufficiency. When people do get together, their power can be felt and is awesome. It is used today in a herded sense, unfortunately, to benefit the few and to maintain order as we know it. Solidarity does function well and reaps benefits, but is barely glimpsed by those who watch much television and dutifully take part in institutions controlled by (or tolerated by) the rulers and the extremely wealthy. There is no capitalistic profit in solidarity and self-reliance.

The extreme stress put upon almost everyone in modern society is not, as the corporate media or the brainwashed among us imply, due to lifestyle choices in a land of opportunity and technological progress. Rather, the state of affairs is geared toward nearly endless labor and artificial wealth such as money. We are accustomed to accepting money instead of real wealth such as land that we rightfully use for our subsistence and life-blood of our families and communities. Without the connection to the land there is little spiritual basis of daily living and very little to be thankful for. No wonder religion has fallen by the wayside compared to the god of science and technology which delivers real goods you can plug in!

Spiritually downtrodden

Personal and collective liberation will require more than, for example, a mass adoption of the practices of yoga, meditation, and reading radical works on politics and philosophy. A generation a few decades ago found that those avenues, even in the context of a "cultural revolution" (stereotyped by psychedelic drugs and enhanced music) didn't make for lasting freedom. Nor did the politically revolutionary youth movement of the times solve deep conflicts between people and classes.

Nevertheless, the value of meditation and growing one's awareness is such that these spiritual pursuits work immeasurably for millions of people today, as in the past. Meditation and yoga enable the seeker to see within and without more clearly and objectively, provided these tools are not simply used as mere enhancements to a consuming lifestyle or for prettifying the sedentary, aging body. Real meditation yields compassionate wisdom, and this can alleviate one's being downtrodden and serve to alleviate it for others. We are spiritually downtrodden, and the answer is within us. People may be more spiritually downtrodden than actually downtrodden. So a spiritual path that reckons with material challenges seems to be the right course.

Affronts to the downtrodden

Ironically, since that time of turmoil and the Students for a Democratic Society/Weather Underground's "bringing the war home" on behalf of the Vietnamese, the affront to our sensibilities has only increased: the environment battered to a pulp... population growth and loss of green space and freedoms... accompanied by falling real wages and rising corporate skullduggery such as almost eliminating the former taxation rate of the rich. More war.

The affronts of today — slaps in the face to the downtrodden — are endless: one of the most glaring was the front page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle of February 3, 2005: "Bush Honors Iraq Sacrifices." Seldom has any propaganda-headline made my blood boil more than that. The insult to the people who have died in Iraq at the hands of the United States, for unjust reasons, is the idea that they made a valid sacrifice when there was almost no threat conceivable to the U.S., relatively speaking. And, what sacrifices should we think of: the Iraqi resistance giving their lives to kick out an invader that almost no one in Iraq wants there? Is depleted uranium strewn about a region someone's "sacrifice?" I phoned the deputy managing editor of the Chronicle and complained about the propagandistic headline and questioned whose sacrifices the term might refer to.

When you have to buy freedom, it isn't freedom

The obvious loss of life from highway crashes, so needless when trains and other solutions are feasible, is another boot smashed down on the face of the downtrodden. Over 40,000 people are killed on the roads each year in the U.S. — and far greater proportions elsewhere in the world — whereas under 3,000 people were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Hello? Needless death is needless death. Anyone involved in pushing cars is a murderer, but that can include almost all of us in a complicit sense. People feel compelled to buy cars as the only way to live full lives and enjoy any freedom. (Never mind that the average speed, when all car-related time is taken into account, is only about five miles per hour.) When you have to buy freedom, it isn't freedom and no one, therefore, is free.

The involuntarily homeless person is the ultimate downtrodden person, yet he or she is more aware than some who have numbed their minds and hearts by spending their wages on consuming crap from Wal-Mart and second-rate alcoholic drink. The actual homeless in the United States can barely be estimated, but three million can be surmised ( Without a pure definition of homelessness and people identifying themselves as such, we still have more than plenty of people with smoldering resentment of the inequities of the capitalistic system. Add the people who feel one paycheck away from homelessness, we have possibly a quarter of the nation in fear of homelessness and absolutely downtrodden for other reasons as well. There is nowhere to turn to when one cannot go sleep in the open countryside that has all been either fenced or paved. The homeless person sees and feels the brutality of this dressed-up hell that everyone is competing in, while the system offers — among some cool stuff too — self-destruction and the annihilation of the natural world.

It is completely unrealistic for there to be universal wealth such as for everyone to have a down payment on a mortgage, for example. Even for those who succeed in this trap, the Shangrila they attain means a slow death in a gray world of conformity, materialism and debt [hear the Kinks' great song Shangrila].

Uncle SamPrison is the home for millions of U.S. citizens who evidently were considered as having no right to be poor, Black, Latino or too interested in their choice of drug. The truly dangerous in need of incarceration could thus be a small minority of prisoners. Some rehabilitation would be a good idea, but there's no profit in that for the huge prison industry. (See "The right to be poor", Culture Change Letter #57). Jerry Brown, now mayor of Oakland, California, was cool enough to point out on his radical radio show in the mid 1990s that unless a person was making $12,000 or more in this nation, the economy benefited more from that person being in prison. One thing for certain is that those running the U.S. do like prisons and want more of them — not to provide treatment to people but to isolate the "lumpen" class and rabble rousers, put fear into the hearts of citizens, and have a labor force that can't walk off on strike.

The downtrodden will awaken. It is only a matter of when, under the current social system, people will reject the annihilation staring them in the face. If none of this seems imminent, it is partly because the climate disaster is still buried on page A-14 of your corporate conglomerate newspaper — suitably downplayed — replete with car advertisements.

Bread or freedom? Take my freedom, sir!

It is claimed by the likes of Dostoevsky that people can be bribed into renunciation of their ideals and rights with promises of material benefits. "Make us your slaves but feed us." This is in part the wry Russian humor. He said human beings must choose: freedom OR bread, freedom OR power and influence, freedom OR security. Could the conversion of liberation into enslavement and the trading of freedoms for bread be the modern human condition in a nutshell? Dostoevsky lived decades prior to the successful revolution whereby the downtrodden did act and take part in soviets and armed defense for a better life. Was it inevitable that a Stalin would in effect usurp leadership from Lenin and Trotsky, and become many of the downtrodden's (and others') worst enemy?

Timing and nature of awakening

In the case of the U.S., however, where the average person has no connection to the land and is full of the most confusing body of propaganda ever to addle the brain, a political revolution will only occur — if necessary and possible — after economic collapse. The nature of this collapse will be unprecedented, as energy for almost everything we now do will shortly disappear. In addition to the petroleum-oriented analysis frequently offered uniquely by Culture Change, this column has looked at cultural causes of dependency. We have looked at the problem of oppression and self-downtroddening from several angles, such as in the syndicated essay "The daily grind in a society mentally ill" (Culture Change Letter #27).

The awakening of modern industrial workers and consumers will be far from political in any traditional sense, but instead will be animalistic and without charts or a compass. The disappearance of industry as we know it will serve to transcend revolution as we have come to think of it. Revolution is an inadequate word and probably an outmoded concept for the world ahead.

Culture Change and a very few other publications and writers have endeavored to provide the compass today for tomorrow's destination. Please let us know what you think. Thanks.

This article originally appeared on Jan Lundgren's website Culture Change.

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