[p2p-research] The Coming Revolt of the Guards by Howard Zinn
Paul D. Fernhout
pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Mon Nov 23 23:22:40 CET 2009
"The Coming Revolt of the Guards" by Howard Zinn (Note: This is part of
Chapter 24 of Zinn's A People's History of the United States.)"
However, the unexpected victories-even temporary ones-of insurgents show the
vulnerability of the supposedly powerful. 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, garbage men 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
All this takes us far from American history, into the realm of
imagination. But not totally removed from history. There are at least
glimpses in the past of such a possibility. In the sixties and seventies,
for the first time, the Establishment failed to produce national unity and
patriotic fervor in a war. There was a flood of cultural changes such as the
country had never seen-in sex, family, personal relations-exactly those
situations most difficult to control from the ordinary centers of power. And
never before was there such a general withdrawal of confidence from so many
elements of the political and economic system. In every period of history,
people have found ways to help one another-even in the midst of a culture of
competition and violence-if only for brief periods, to find joy in work,
struggle, companionship, nature.
The prospect is for times of turmoil, struggle, but also
inspiration. There is a chance that such a movement could succeed in doing
what the system itself has never done-bring about great change with little
violence. This is possible because the more of the 99 percent that begin to
see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see
their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated,
ineffectual. The elite's weapons, money, control of information would be
useless in the face of a determined population. The servants of the system
would refuse to work to continue the old, deadly order, and would begin
using their time, their space-the very things given them by the system to
keep them quiet-to dismantle that system while creating a new one.
The prisoners of the 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. We
readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards.
If we understand that, and act on it, not only will life be more satisfying,
right off, but our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly
see a different and marvelous world.
See also, from John Taylor Gatto, a similar point:
"Chapter 16 -- A Conspiracy Against Ourselves: Disinherited Men And Women"
Toynbee’s observation that most inhabitants of a modern state are in a
condition of disinheritance, and hence dangerous, calls for what he terms
"creative solutions." One creative solution is to establish work for some of
the dangerous classes by setting them to guard the rest. This guardian class
is then privileged a little to compensate it for playing the dirty kapo role
against the others.
Toynbee is eloquent about the function of bureaucrats in serving the
creative minorities which manage society. Creative minorities always manage
complex societies, according to Toynbee, but the dominant minorities which
comprise modern social leadership are the degenerate descendants of this
originally creative group. Dominant minorities manage the rest by
conscription of all into a massive two-tier proletariat. The guiding
protection is a mechanism to ensure these proletariats don’t learn much lest
they become "demoniac." This is the unsuspected function which school
tolerance of bad behavior serves—in both school and society. The great
majority of proles are kept away from what history refers to as education.
This can be done inexpensively by leading children from ambitious exercises
in reading, writing, declamation, self-discipline, and from significant
practical experience in making things work. It really is that simple, and it
needn’t be done forever. Even a few years of control at the beginning of
childhood will often suffice to set a lifetime stamp.
Toynbee, and by extension the entire cultivated leadership class he
represented, was unable to see any other alternative to this stupefaction
course because, as he hastened to assure us, "the religion of the masses" is
violence. There is no other choice possible to responsible governors who
accept the melancholy conclusion that peasants are indeed revolting. The
only proles Toynbee could find in the historical record who managed to
extricate themselves from a fatal coarseness did so by escaping their
proletarian circumstances first. But if this were allowed for all, who would
You might expect such an observation would lead inevitably to some
profound consideration of the astounding crimes of conquest and domination
which create uprooted, landless classes in the first place—England’s crimes
against Ireland, India, China, and any number of other places being good
examples. But a greater principle intervenes. According to certain
sophisticated theory, you can’t operate a modern economy without an
underclass to control wage inflation; in spite of bell- curve theory, a mass
doesn’t subordinate itself without some judicious assistance.
In his glorious Republic, which may have started it all, Plato causes
Socrates to inform Glaucon and Adeimantus, twenty-four hundred years ago,
that they can’t loll on couches eating grapes while others sweat to provide
those grapes without first creating a fearsome security state to protect
themselves from the commonality. It would appear that long ago some people
realized that a substantial moral trade-off would be required to create ease
for a fraction of the whole, while the balance of the whole, served that
ease. Once that kind of privilege became the goal of Toynbee’s creative
minority, once high culture was defined as a sanctuary against evolutionary
reversion, certain horrors institutionalized themselves.
The clearest escape route from tidal recurrence of caste madness is a
society bred to argue, one trained to challenge. A mentally active people
might be expected to recognize that the prizes of massification—freedom from
labors like toilet cleaning, a life of endless consumption (and reflection
upon future consumption)—aren’t really worth very much. The fashioning of
mass society isn’t any chemical precondition of human progress. It’s just as
likely to be a signal that the last act of history is underway.
To what extent does P2P help create informed citizens, ones that are
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