Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010

The Second American Revolution

by Ralph Nader
Seven Stories Press, 2009

Review by Charles Derber 

Ralph Nader has written an entirely unexpected story of a second American Revolution orchestrated and financed by aging billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, and Yoko Ono and carried out by millions of mobilized mainstream Americans and a patriotic parrot named Polly. The Second Revolution is against the King Georges of corporate America who rule the country with their lobbyists on K Street and handmaidens in Congress. The masses triumph, take back the country, rein in the corporations, and begin a more authentic democratic American experiment.

But such a triumph of a people's movement is utterly impossible, right?

For most Americans, including most on the Left, system change has become a pipe dream. The truth is that we have become cynical and no longer believe we can transform the capitalist U.S. hegemon. System change is now considered a utopian conceit. Leftist intellectuals have become complicit in this new fatalism, writing endless books and articles critiquing current policies but offering (with some exceptions, as in this magazine) almost nothing about how to imagine and create a revolutionary transformation.

Ironically, it's primarily the far Right that has persevered with a utopian politics and a celebration of intellectuals who unabashedly offer a revolutionary system change. Think only of Ayn Rand, whose utopias, such as the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, continue to be read by millions on the Right. Right-wing populist movements, such as the Tea Party, thrive on such unreasonable flights of utopian imagination, rejecting pragmatism for hyper-conservative and anti-systemic idealism, even where it appears to violate their own interests. They may not get all they want, but by demanding the impossible, they can plausibly get more of what is possible.

The U.S. Left used to have its own utopian sensibility, and Nader has now resurrected it. In 1888, at the peak of the Gilded Age, Massachusetts lawyer Edward Bellamy published Looking Backwards, a visionary socialist novel that sold one million hardcover books to the mass public. It had authoritarian elements that—as with many utopian visions—could conceivably create dystopia rather than utopia. But Bellamy's utopian best seller spawned a new breed of leftist intellectuals who did not find it silly to paint pictures of a world beyond greed, predatory finance, and robber-baron capitalism. And Bellamy spurred cooperativist, socialist, and radical labor movements that promoted previously unimaginable progressive reform.

The fading of the radical, utopian U.S. Left in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has gone largely without notice. Established intellectuals in the Beltway and New York highbrow literary circles live happily in this new world of hegemonic pragmatism, and leftist intellectuals, mainly ensconced in comfortable academic positions, have, for the most part, reconciled themselves to it. In his blistering 1960s critique—titled American Power and the New Mandarins—Noam Chomsky was one of the first to headline the extreme seriousness of this collapse of intellectual vision and courage.

Historian Russell Jacoby has described the intelligentsia's capitulation as one of the great tragic chapters in intellectual history. In books such as The Last Intellectuals and The End of Utopia, Jacoby ferociously attacks leftist intelligentsia for abandoning the radical imagination. Radical imagination, after all, is not a path toward tenure. The professionalization of the leftist intelligentsia in the university has undercut the temperament and intellectual capacity to even conceive a different world.

Chomsky and Jacoby both hint at the larger historical tragedy: the potential disappearance of the U.S. Left, itself. For what is the Left if not the carrier of the vision of what is impossible today? The Left exists to transform the very sense of possibility—as Tom Hayden has said, the radicalism of today is the common sense of tomorrow.

With his new book, Ralph Nader—always the iconoclast and visionary—has created a new genre. Nader breaks completely with the prevailing pessimistic pragmatism, writing of the revolution that might not seem so out of reach if only we believed in its possibility.

Nader hammers out this fable on his typewriter in the frenzied passion that Jack Kerouac made famous in his iconic novel, On the Road. Nader kept writing at night, sometimes by candlelight, to write more than 700 pages, finishing the novel in a few months. Nader was driven by the urgency of the task: to rekindle optimism and possibility in a dying Left and to bring the message to a wider public that the Left has largely abandoned.

Reviews thus far have focused heavily on Nader's notion that the very rich might ironically become the saviors of democracy. This does not seem entirely far-fetched, not only because people in the book, such as Turner and George Soros, do have deep concern about the corporate hijacking of democracy, but also because the recent Supreme Court ruling that frees corporations to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns may indeed require progressives to look to billionaires for resources. Some of the billionaires are beginning to contact Nader for meetings.

But the reviewers' focus on the billionaires is misleading. First, it is ultimately the masses who carry out the revolution in Nader's novel, with the billionaires providing the seed money and helping orchestrate the strategy. Nader knows that civic activism by ordinary Americans is the only force that will change the world—and such grassroots activism gets vast attention in the book. Second, the agents of change are secondary to his real message: the urgency of collectively cultivating a visionary consciousness and gut-level belief in transformative change, and then committing ourselves to making radical system change in the real world.

If this seems to blur utopia and pragmatism, one need only look at Nader himself, who probably knows as much as Rahm Emmanuel about how Washington lobbyists, congressional committees, and presidents actually operate. What makes Nader remarkable is that he has refused to compromise utopian ideals while totally engaging the real world over the last five decades and delivering some of the most important changes from the Left in America in the last century.

Nader's blending of utopianism and pragmatism makes the book a genuine creative leap in genre and substance. Some of the most interesting parts are on nitty-gritty subjects such as how health insurance companies operate to cheat customers and manipulate congressional committees; I re-read these parts several times. These real-world insights would stand on their own as powerful analyses even outside of the larger utopian narrative.

But it is the insistence on leftist utopianism and transcendence of pragmatic pessimism that is the real story. How many leftist books leave you feeling hopeful, even optimistic? How many offer you a picture of a new world that inspires you to act? Tikkun readers will, of course, think about Michael Lerner's work and that of other Tikkun writers. But they are the exception. While inspiring so many, they have also been widely critiqued, even in parts of the Left, for their "unreasonable" idealism and utopianism.

Nader has understood that until leftist writers and readers and activists can integrate a systemic critique of capitalism with a compelling vision of change, the U.S. Left will decline faster than it has in recent decades. For it is utopian sensibilities—impossible ideals that we refuse to sacrifice—that fuel movements and create change. In Europe, Marxist socialists did not get socialist utopias. But by imagining revolutionary change, they did create social democratic societies more humane and peaceful than our own.

In the absence of such leftist utopianism, we will only sink further into despair and provide the opening for the rightist utopianism that fuels movements such as the Tea Party. Therein lies the dystopia which has become the only reality for too many Americans and, sadly, too many on the Left.

Charles Derber, professor of sociology at Boston College, has just published Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy

Derber, Charles. 2010. The Second American Revolution. Tikkun 25(4): 65

tags: Books, Democracy, Reviews, US Politics