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Interview with Bruce Levine

Written for the Cincinnati Beacon by Kate Zaidan

One need not look far to see the evidence of a deflated population. Quality of life for the poor and middle classes in America is careening toward untenable, with the most draconian cuts to government services since Nixon advanced by a Democrat promising change.  We live in the most economically prosperous country in the world, and the story we are told over and over is that we are bankrupt.  While spirited protests and committed individuals surround social and economic justice issues, overall, movements for change involve only the tiniest sliver of the general population.  Are we rallying around the wrong issues? Is protest dated and ineffective? Or are we too sad and helpless to believe that anything can change?

I had the opportunity to sit down with Cincinnati’s own Bruce Levine, whose recent book Get up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated and Battling the Corporate Elite is the latest addition to a growing body of work that attempts to explain and diagnose the passivity of the general public in the face of increasing austerity.  Levine is a self-described “dissident shrink” and posits that most Americans are not lazy, greedy and selfish; rather, many have become psychologically incapable of rebellion.  I spoke with him last week at a local coffee shop in his eclectic Cincinnati neighborhood.

Bruce’s take on contemporary American life is painfully acute.  We are in an “abusive relationship” with our society; we live in a cycle of dependency where violence takes the form of complete corporate control of our lives. Efforts to resist are criminalized, medicated, and co-opted. “Most people know that money controls the world, but are either too depressed or drugged to do anything about it.” We learn helplessness: our lives at work, home and school isolate us from each other, compromise our integrity and reward money and ego worship. Drugs, both illegal and prescribed, and television are simply filling the holes in our hearts.  Our psychic malaise serves an increasingly empowered elite, enriched on the backs of working people, without any risk of reprisal.

Levine’s book carefully reconstructs the terrain of struggle for progressives: we need to focus less on information, and more on creating energy.  He points a compassionate yet honest finger at traditional forms of activism, noting that the ever-present lectures and reform campaigns often serve to burden our already heavy hearts. What we need instead, Levine says, are communities formed in struggle that provide a platform for reverberation, a sense of belonging, and small victories that build our morale.

“Strategically, when we recognize that large corporations cannot stomach losing any money, then one realizes that boycotts and bad publicity can be quite effective. Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of mostly immigrant and undocumented farmworkers, decided to fight the biggest food corporations on earth—and they won. Ten years ago they started a campaign for “fair food,” pressuring the major buyers of those tomatoes to pay more. Within four years,  they got Taco Bell to meet all their demands, and by 2007 McDonald’s had fallen in line. When one experiences some sense of potency, this can be antidote to demoralization and defeatism.”

Movements for change must build self-respect and collective self-confidence to summon the energy needed to win our battles.  “Collective self-confidence—or the belief that it is actually possibly to overcome corporatocracy domination—can comes with even small victories. So, for example the Boston based group City Life has won victories over banks, stopping evictions, foreclosures by organizing blockades, vigils and other actions, that exert public pressure on the banks, and these victories energize those City Life activists to take on larger systems.”

“People must believe that they are worthy of power” says Levine, and contends that the institutions supposedly anchoring our democracy, like the electoral system and higher education, actually erode our collective self confidence,  providing a false and hollow sense of control. “If one is only caring about electoral politics on the national level, this can create learned helplessness and be disempowering. After all, whether a Republican or a Democrat wins, we still get senseless wars and corporate control, and because of the power of money in our election system is almost impossible for a third party such as the Green Party that opposes corporate control and senseless wars to win. So, it is important to keep in mind that national elections are only one ‘democracy battlefield’, and we should put more energy into battlefields that are less controlled by big money.”

Progressive books of this sort are often predictably formulaic: seven chapters of hyperbolic doomsday scenarios proceed one chapter of simplistic utopian vision, with a case study of an organization that is doing it right.  Get Up, Stand Up is a refreshing anomaly. Levine instructs us to navigate what might lie in between global meltdown and democratic, self-sustaining bioregions.  While some of his critique of schools and government seemed to be rooted in strongly held yet unsubstantiated opinion, Levine’s book does offer something new and hopeful to the tired reiterations of what is wrong with the world.

“Academics sometimes stress only information and seem to believe that the truth alone is enough to set people free, but all democratic movements—from anti-war, to labor, to civil rights—have always required risk and courage. In the U.S., unlike some other authoritarian societies, there is less risk of being killed for opposing the corporate elite but there is a great risk—almost certainty—of economic marginalization. That’s a big way how the U.S. corporatocracy keeps us in line. So, we must begin to do what old-time activists did, which is that you have create more economic self-sufficiency and a community that supports one another financially. Many of us would like to ‘do the right thing’ but fears including financial ones break us. So activists must begin to do what America’s most successful activists such as those in our great agrarian revolt, the Populist Movement in the 1880s and 1890s, This was to implement practices such as producer cooperatives that reduced the financial pain of its members. That’s how one recruits and sustains a movement so I spend a great deal of time in Get Up, Stand Up talking about the lessons from that Populist Movement.”

Levine’s revolutionary suggestion is that we approach both activism and mental health in ways that are democratic, human-centered, and give us a sense of our own power.  Treading lightly around the questions of ideology, Populism is used (perhaps too casually) to illustrate a vision of a movement that meets both the material and spiritual needs of working class people.  In fact, Levine suggests that traditional divisions of right and left prevent us from building strategic alliances with positive outcomes. “When it comes to horrors of the senseless wars that wasteful military spending, one failure of many left activists is to be unwilling—perhaps out of fear that it is not politically correct—to form alliances with anti-war libertarians who passionately oppose these wars. By they way, these anti-authoritarian libertarians also oppose the Wall Street bailout, the PATRIOT Act, NAFTA, the War on Drugs, and other issues that left-antiauthoritarians also oppose. Alliances among different political camps on these issues don’t prevent debate and disagreements on other issues, such as the proper use of government and markets. In fact alliances on war opposition can turn these other debates into more productive dialogues, and I have actually had libertarian antiauthoritarians tell me, after such dialogues about the corporatocracy, that maybe they will move over to being left anti-authoritarians.”

The old left has been accused of favoring the material over the spiritual. The new left tends to uphold the therapeutic over the concrete. Levine helps us strike a balance. He posits that change cannot occur until we begin to heal our broken hearts. The book stands to change much of what we think about political engagement. Courage, hope and solidarity are more than just buzzwords, indeed, these intangible qualities are the difference between a winning and losing battle.

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