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Revolutionary fantasy

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted April 26, 2010

Tea Party protestorWatchers of the Tea Party movement have noticed an odd dichotomy: they've been portrayed as a bunch of dangerous characters, shelterers of violent extremism, a force of disruptive troublemakers, by the usual sources. And yet, eyewitness reports and footage of real Tea Party protestors have shown little more than rambunctiousness. No clashes with the police, no vandalism, hardly any litter. They say their piece and they go back to their lives. No hint of any professional agitators egging people on to disruptive, let alone violent, acts. It's almost as if a Boy Scout troop was accused of harboring a crime ring.

Plot devices are one thing; they attract us in part because of their exciting implausibility. The very implausibility makes them exciting. How many of us, outside of people who work in one, have ever heard the phrase "Code Blue" in a hospital?

Fiction is one realm; fact is another. A lot of fiction tends to play upon our tendencies to hysteria, in the non-clinical sense. Even the most unassuming of us would sometimes like to believe that things are the opposite of what they seem. The boring old town with right-living folk has dark secrets; the boring old house has a clothes cupboard that leads to a magical exciting land. The people who seem rather predictable have secret lives that are titillating or exciting, or disturbing. The good ol' dependable wallflower has secret powers and is busy saving the world while everyone's ignoring him. The irascible cuss is actually a supervillain out wreaking havoc and killing people. And, of course, the stolid butler was the one who did it. Either that or the cop.

Normally, the bounds between the two realms are pretty clear. To a degree, all fiction is escape fiction. Not being tied to the facts is what given fiction its distinctiveness. In normal times, the only people who have difficulty distinguishing the two stick out like a sore thumb. Nowadays, though, the distinction is more widely blurred. Look at all the "non-fiction fiction" there has been disseminated about the Tea Party crew.

A consummate outsider would find the whole imbroglio amusing. The Tea Party movement, to someone who has no knowledge of the United States or its political drama, appears to be sized up as revolutionary insurgents. The liberals bashing them would appear to be the reliably Tory guardians of the Old Order, treating the Tea Partiers as if they were a revolutionary threat poisoning the minds of the embittered lower orders.

From what I've read and seen, the Tea Party movement is filled with people who take politics – and their good names – seriously. They're too serious to act like the adolescent Left, who like to chortle about scaring "the Man." Bill Clinton got criticized for his recent statement suggesting that the Tea Party contingent may be nurturing new Timothy McVeighs. Had the sides been reversed, he would have been treated as a joke…as someone whose goat was got.

Exciting Dramas…

It seems only a matter of time before the tea party movement is sized up as a fomenter of revolution. Let's face it: there is a bit of blur in the line between fiction and fact; as standards keep going the same direction we know they are already, the line will get even more blurry.

One of the entry points for "non-fiction fiction" in politics is revolution, an exciting drama for those who are safe from it. There are a lot of quasi-fictional narratives about revolution, most using certain politico-economic metrics like science fiction authors use discoveries in the hard sciences: as plot devices. Untangling the real thing takes a lot of work, and an unusual amount of dispassion. Since successful revolutions always appeal to universal values, that dispassionateness is mandatory.

Despite the name recognition of another intellectual, the man to beat in revolution studies is none other than Alexis de Tocqueville. His The Ancient Regime And The Revolution, although merely a history of pre-revolutionary France, had a model that applies to a lot of revolutions since. The key to understanding his work are these two points: the grievances complained about were mostly remedied by the late Ancient Regime, and the revolutionary Republic's reforms were in many cases a formal endorsement of advances that the Ancient Regime had enacted, was on the way to enacting, or was arguably on the way to enacting. It's a known fact that Louis XVI would have stayed on the French throne after 1789 had he agreed to a constitutional monarchy like Britain's; he had that chance until 1791. His refusal to do so is one of the reasons he's thought of as stupid. The fact that it was offered him in the first place suggests that he was thought of as reasonable. Had he been the tyrant that lurid legends pronounce him to be, the revolutionaries of 1789 wouldn't have even bothered. The Romanian revolutionaries in 1989 didn't palaver at all with Nicolae "Draculescu" Ceauşescu.

Not only French but Russian history shows that revolutions are preceded either by liberalizations and/or granting of privileges to the commonfolk. The Marxian interpretation of this, we've heard too much of. One take we've heard too little of is the blood-and-guts cynic's, namely: the reforms made, their order, their pace and their implementation showed to the multitude that the existing order was weak enough to overthrow.

Interestingly, the American experience gives a hint as to another element not often mentioned: alienated from the existing order, the ordinary folk assume the functions of government themselves…often without any formal authority. As a result, the formal authority becomes more and more irrelevant to ordinary people's lives. This was the case in the United States by 1775.

…And The Real- Life Obverse

Although distressing to some, the blood-and-guts approach tells some home truths that are sometimes needful. The British authorities in the American colonies were weak. One of the reasons why there were so many jailbreaks in pre-revolutionary times was that the jails were easy to break into. Moreover, the low taxes that Americans paid at the time were balanced by minimal government services. (No, there wasn't too much sterling spent on the colonial jails.) In many cases, the American governed had to govern themselves outside of any formal authority structure because no-one else would. Yes, this included fending off the natives and sometimes attacking them. In more peaceable times, the colonial authorities appreciated this because it kept their costs down. Before Lord North, the chief reason for crackdowns resulted from native people's complaints about the colonists being too aggressive. Even the quitrent, or property tax, collectors were easygoing.

In addition, the Redcoats had no idea how to fight a war against insurgents. They didn't know the land; the colonists did. Also, despite the unofficiality of the colonial troops, they were a good match for the redcoats as a fighting force. The "armed mob" that the militias were, were fairly up on tactics and carried arms which were not all that inferior to the Redcoats'.

Yes, it's true that the present government of the United States is nothing like the late-colonial government. Taxes are much higher; the corpus of laws and regulations is huge instead of minimal. Most U.S. government spending can be considered largesse; there was effectively none in colonial times. The U.S. government is much bigger, much better staffed, deploys a lot more resources and material, and is much better armed relative to the governed than the British authorities ever were. The soldiers at the time and place of the Boston Massacre only had muskets. What was at Waco?

Granted that the blood-and-guts perspective leaves out a crucial element, but it does shed a valuable light as to the logistics of the situation. Any would-be group of new American revolutionaries would not only be vastly out-armed, but also would be vastly outmaneuvered. In a very real way, thanks to post-modern surveillance technology, there's no place to hide. Or there won't be soon. America, after all, is not Afghanistan.

I did mention leaving something out, and that's the will to use what one's got. There were two crucial weaknesses in the ancient regime at the time of 1789: lack of money and lack of will. The government of Louis XVI was bankrupt; that's why the Estates-General was called in the first place. In addition, a large segment of the rulers had gone native. It's a fact that the reliable liberal bloc was the aristocracy. De Tocqueville himself mentioned that many a bureaucrat was Rousseauesque in his communications. When Rousseau died, before 1789, his funeral in Paris was close to that of a national hero. Given that the 1789 reform movement flew under Rousseauian colors, the rulers were all-but disarmed at the values level. That unity of values is what made reform, and a new unity without bloodshed, seem possible. Of course, that dream turned into a nightmare.

At this level, there's little sign that American government officials have gone native in that way. They're still holding up their prerogatives, particularly tax prerogatives. As far as the governed are concerned, there's little will to do anything beyond petition for redress of grievances. The libertarian cleavage of society into rulers and ruled is only common-sensical at the talk level.


As the both the matèriel and values angles show, the United States is nowhere near a pre-revolutionary state. The governing class is still self-confident – if anything, a little too self-confident – and the weapons imbalance heavily favors the government. Any band of revolutionaries would be hard-pressed to mount a successful prison break, an act that the American colonialists found easy to do.  

All fictions aside, the claim that the Tea Party movement is a harbinger of any revolutionary or insurgent tendencies is little short of ludicrous. Someone who believes the opposite is best pegged as overly entertained. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.


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