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The Revolt of the Guards

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

“The title of this chapter is not a prediction, but a hope”

“The prisoners of this system will continue to rebel, as before, in ways that cannot be foreseen, at times that cannot be predicted. The new fact of our era is the chance that they may be joined by the guards.”

I rediscovered Howard Zinn’s seminal 1980 revised take on American history A People’s History Of The United States last summer. I had, like a bored high school-aged teenager is wont to do, mostly ignored it when it had been assigned to me in my junior year American history class. But as a (somewhat) more matured adult I threw myself back into the nearly 700 paged work and reveled in its scholarly but readable tone. Two parts in specific stood out to me enough that I remember them vividly amongst the 500-plus years of history crammed into one binding.

The first was a discussion on how the constitution and the founding of America, both still upheld and revered to this day, came to be. The Founding Fathers, being the richest men of their time who rebelled mainly due to a desire to conduct their business free of British taxation, set up a society that is made to benefit the rich and powerful, that shouldn’t be news to anyone. But it was in discussing how such a small group of people could not only subdue the unwashed masses but get them to buy in wholeheartedly to a sense of patriotism and an American Dream that stuck with me:

“The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity”

This passage came in the chapters added in 2003, twenty-three years after the book’s initial 1980 publication. It discussed that in the pattern of American history which can be summarized as the revolt of the lower class and the concessions and/or repressions given by the ruling class, these struggles have been just that: between the upper, ruling class and the lower, oppressed classes. The middle class is able to simply drown out the noise, despite them too being victims of an oppressive system, albeit to a lesser degree. Zinn saw the decaying fabric of 21st century American society and predicted that indeed another revolt of some sort was coming but theorized that this one would be different. This time the guards—the middle class, the educated city-dwelling whites, the buffer between the elites and the commoners—would be involved.

“In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen, These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.

That will happen, I think only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.”

Reading this passage eighteen years later, in the aftermaths (if you can really call it that) of the deadliest pandemic in 100 years, the largest social movement in history, and enough mass shootings that one loses track, it’s remarkable how prescient some of Zinn’s observations were. He saw that not only was American society not working for the oppressed, it never has, but it wasn’t working for much of anyone anymore. Yes, those on the lowest rung on society still suffered the worst, but American society was fracturing in a way that made life worse for all but the ultra-rich. He hoped, not predicted, but hoped that there would be a breaking point and for the first time in American history the guards would join the oppressed in rising up, casting off their shared chains, and building a better society in our previous one’s wake.

So yeah, about all that.

Zinn wasn’t really wrong about anything. He accurately categorized the mass economic uncertainty years before the housing market would collapse, sending the country into economic turmoil and eliminating vast swaths of the middle class’s wealth that has yet to be recaptured. He astutely observed the rise of physical and mental health problems due to a broken healthcare system, a rise of increasingly sickening processed foods, and a toxic environment being poisoned by manufacturing, all of which were leading to waves of preventable deaths. He saw that wars no longer united a people against a common, understandable enemy. He, understandably, assumed a breaking point was on the horizon.

The only real thing he got wrong was underestimating just how bad society could get without this reckoning actually coming. As Angela Davis discussed in her 2003 book on our system of mass incarceration Are Prisons Obsolete?, when she began her involvement in antiprison activism in the 1960s she was horrified at the unthinkable number of people locked behind bars in this country. By the time of her writing decades later, it had grown to three times that number. Never think for a second that it can’t always get worse.

Much ink has been spilled on what exactly contributed to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and the modern state of politics that it ushered in, so I’ll avoid any lengthy opining on the topic. But it’s not an oversimplification to say that Trump rode in on a wave of discontent at the status quo, preying on the fury of huge swaths of Americans who felt like they had been left behind by their country. He made their targets easy to identify: Mexicans, Hillary Clinton, the disabled, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. What he didn’t give them was much of an alternative to the status quo to soothe this discontent.

Unlike Reagan, who ushered in the coke-fueled big-business deregulatory greed of 1980s politics with the hope and promise that anyone could get rich in this slot-machine economy of ours, Trump never offered much of a vision for the future for these people. He did usher in a revolution of sorts, but the result was mostly contained to rallies spent complaining about various NYC businessmen that were rude to him at a Vanity Fair cocktail party in 1994. He whipped the people into a furor alright, but what did that produce beyond some corporate tax cuts and a Supreme Court locked in a conservative ideology for generations? There was no uprising against the ruling class, only more fury. It’s a lot more fun to crash the party than it is to figure out how to set up a better one, something that showed in his re-election campaign being essentially a rehash of the 2016 one’s greatest hits. It’s harder to rail against the establishment as an outsider when you’ve spent four years being the establishment.

So that’s the logical end to Trump’s revolution: deliberately preying on the mass discontent of a society that recognizes its impending collapse but unable to offer anyone anything beyond more anger and more outrage. This was obvious from the beginning to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that Trump cared far more for campaigning then doing any actual governing, so his four years in office were spent mostly complaining on Twitter while quietly rubberstamping anything the Federalist Society shoved in front of his face. It was always just a grift for everyone involved. But the emotions of the 74,000,000 or so that all these ghouls preyed on were real and now here we are: two warring factions of the same country, both deeply invested in culture war bullshit so far removed from any of the actual problems facing all but the wealthiest of this country.

It's a terrifying state of affairs when each faction can not only stamp out discontent but also turn it into something akin to a sports rivalry where fans defend their chosen team to the death, inconsistencies from reality and all. The most astute players on both sides of this system realized a long time ago that keeping their most fervent supporters on board had everything to do with perception and nothing to do with the truth, a phenomenon that explains not only Trump but also Greg Abbott, Gavin Newsom, Andrew Cuomo, and countless others. During a brutal cold front that wiped out Texas’s deregulated electric grid, stranding an entire state without power and killing dozens, Greg Abbott placed the blame on liberals, saying that the Green New Deal and clean energy sources had failed the state. Never mind that the Green New Deal remains an un-enacted bill, Texas is as synonymous with oil country as a state can be, and the climate change-worsened extreme weather was able to wreck so much havoc due to the grotesque deregulation of the Texas energy grid. On the liberal front in California, a state that now regularly burns to the ground on schedule several times a year, Gavin Newsom railed against anyone who would still doubt the effects of climate change on the planet. Never mind the more than 360 fracking permits he approved in the first half of 2020 alone and the bill to end fracking that was quietly killed off in the California state legislature after opposition from the oil industry. Cuomo’s history of perception versus reality would take up its own article so I’ll say only this: when his reckoning finally came this year, there was little attention paid to the fact that his behavior had barely changed during his entire time in office, people only now decided to start caring.

So what now? There are some among us who still think if we could only show the inconsistencies of American society that the people will see the absurdity of it all and rise up to demand something better. Unfortunately, it just isn’t happening. Kamala Harris tore apart Joe Biden’s checkered past on the debate stage during the 2020 Democrat primary and what was the result? A barely-interested Joe sleepwalked into the nomination and eventually chose his onetime foe as his running-mate. The Covid-19 pandemic ripped through America’s broken healthcare system, laying bare the greed and utter disregard for humanity at the core of for-profit insurance. The result of that? Almost a year after Biden’s victory, a onetime campaign promise of some form of a watered-down public option has been more or less forgotten, with millions of Americans losing their job-tied healthcare after being laid off. In all this turmoil, millions of Americans struggled to pay for basic necessities and faced evictions from their homes. The result? The media spent endless cycles running back the Clinton-era “Welfare Queen” narrative, accusing a measly $300 of added unemployment insurance of creating a culture of lazy moochers who couldn’t be bothered to work for a living. Police killed innocent civilian after innocent civilian in red and blue states alike. You know the drill. Departments all over the country continue to gobble up a lion’s share of resources while education, housing, and other social services get slashed.

Which leads me to my final point in this contemplation of Zinn’s hope for a better world. Zinn’s prediction that the guards would eventually rise up alongside the oppressed proved to be absolutely correct during the George Floyd BLM protests in the summer and fall of 2020. In cities across the country, white people who never once had to contemplate police harassment marched alongside their black compatriots. Millions of people flooded the streets in protest not because they personally were threatened but because they felt a genuine urge to stamp out injustice where they saw it. As was mentioned ad nauseum in the media, the marches would eventually swell to become the largest social movement in human history.

For a moment, probably sometime in June of 2020, there did indeed feel like a shift in the status quo had occured, and for an even briefer moment it felt like there might actually be a chance to remake the world for the better. The establishment in federal, state, and local governments seemed legitimately terrified at a populace they could no longer control and that no amount of tear gas, riot batons, or rubber bullets from an ultramilitarized police force could slow down. Trump retreated to an underground bunker. Cuomo begged his state to go home. Minneapolis twink mayor and Jon Ossoff clone Jacob Frey’s attempt at an Obama-at-the-2004-DNC-moment was met with boos and jeers, causing him to slink off in embarrassment.

But what exactly came of it? What happens when a protest becomes so broad that it loses focus, so all-encompassing that it lacks direction or a target, so marketable that it can be applied to logos and corporate slogans like any other ad campaign? It becomes just that: a marketing gimmick. Cities across the country painted Black Lives Matter on their streets. Well-intentioned do-gooders reposted black squares on their Instagram. NBA athletes changed their jersey names to racial justice slogans like “Say Her Name”. Protest became distilled into nothing more than a consumption choice, something that could neatly fit into your daily routine. And after a while, hyper-specific demands to reallocate resources away from bloated police department budgets and towards the community gave way to protests vaguely against racism as a concept. Promises from governments to reform their police departments gave way to each party trying to prove they loved cops more. Corporations forced to reckon with their own checkered pasts gave way to shameless pandering like Uber spending $5.5 million on a Super Bowl commercial to advertise their $1 million charity donation. Meanwhile, cops kept killing black civilians, the oppressed stay oppressed, the system survives another day.

This isn’t to adopt a fully cynical view and say that everyone involved in this movement was doing it only to keep up appearances; plenty of people’s consciences were awakened in ways that had never been before and their involvement was born out of a genuine desire to change the world for the better. But to quote a demoralized friend at the end of last summer: “it’s not really a revolution if Mitt Romney is marching in it.” The guards rose up alright. But instead of the establishment crushing this new kind of rebellion with totalitarian authority (although it tried plenty of that in the early days of the marches), it simply repackaged this righteous anger into another aspect of daily life where people could go about their lives and feel like they were doing good in the world. The guards were quelled and went right back to guarding.

So I don’t really know what this all means or where it leads to. I think Zinn’s fatal flaw was just not understanding how bad things could get without a break in the system. I don’t have a neat and tidy way to wrap this all up or a call to action on what you the reader can do. But I will say this: it may be hopeless, but we need to keep fighting. Doomerism and accepting your fate as we slide into a deeper and deeper into a broken society benefits no one except the oppressors and only allows them to step down even harder on the oppressed. Maybe one day society will actually be pushed beyond the brink and those of us privileged enough to observe oppression as an anthropological event (i.e. yours truly, and most of this article’s readers lol) rather than experience it directly will find a more effective way to tear down the ruling class’s chains and remake society for the better. I don’t know how that’s accomplished. It’s certainly not done via the NFL stamping “racial justice” on a helmet. Hopefully one day you or I can figure it out. Until then, give them hell.


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