Sometimes when you win, you really lose.
— White men can’t jump
I had previously sounded off in comments on this blog that resistance does not accomplish anything. I was wrong. Resistance can accomplish plenty under the right circumstances. While studying the American revolutionary era, a sudden flash of clarity drove home to me the stupendous successes of the radical democrats of that age. Common people exuberantly entered the political process, first by pushing their way into the formerly elite Committees of Correspondence and by organizing themselves into militias in a shockingly egalitarian way. How’s this for amazing? One captain was asked how many men he had under him; “none,” he replied, “but there are 90 men who command me!” Farmers, millers, artisans and shopkeepers insisted on having a voice regardless of rules and tradition. Then, as soon as the old order fell, ordinary Pennsylvanians had much say in the creation of the state constitution and together with the gentry made it a visionary document embodying strikingly altered practices. A far more inclusive political process than had ever existed among them came into being within months of independence! In addition, people had the good sense to resort to extra-legal solutions when necessary; they were bold enough to interpret laws their way. Militias refused to march against neighbors when ordered to defend the interests of land speculators; they reasoned it would be against “the Very Spirit of our Laws & Constitution.”
When the people realized they could not stop the new American elites from legislating self-serving policies, they put in place resistance networks that were quite able to block their enforcement. Bouton’s Taming Democracy describes in detail the rings of defense circling communities. The first ring was staffed by county revenue officials who thwarted ruinous tax collection. The second ring consisted of county judges who refused to prosecute delinquent taxpayers and tax collectors. Juries acquitting the accused and sheriffs who refused to make arrests made up the third and fourth rings. Fifth ring meant stopping tax collection, foreclosures and auctions through non-violent protests. Violent protests and independent-minded militias completed the circles of resistance. During the 1780s, these protective networks shielded local communities from the excesses of depredation, and gave people an outlet for their efforts to create a more just society. While imperfect, they were for a time so successful that the collection of taxes ground nearly to a halt. (It is useful to remember that those taxes went to pay the gentlemen holders of the war debt IOUs who had created the tight money policies under which the people were suffering.)
It was this very success that was their undoing. Both the power of the local resistance and the people’s outspokenness in the political arena panicked the elites enough to change their minds and begin plans to restructure constitutions, take away local self-governance via top-down political appointees, remove states’ ability to modify contracts and issue currency, and do away with militias’ independence. Through such means and yet others, they pushed democracy way back.
The people’s resistance provided the motivating energy to those feeling threatened by it. Resistance provokes counter-resistance, and the more successful resistance is, the more it alarms and energizes the opposition. Hence the saying, “what you resist, persists.” The civil rights movement energized white supremacists. The environmental movement energized “wise use” anti-conservationists. Decades of official anti-fascist denunciations energized skinheads and neo-nazis. Greens have energized anti-Green opposition. Climate activism has energized climate deniers. Just as in the days of yore, successful radical democrats energized the Federalists who under the guise of democracy amplified the backlash and built it into the Constitution.
Many fed-up people in America and elsewhere long for a powerful movement which would put massive pressure on the elites to effect big changes. Be careful what you wish for! Considering that the odds are stacked in the elites’ favor, why give them the gift of extra umph by our resistance? We need that energy for us; why give it away to those who will use it against us?
And that leads to the million dollar question: if not resistance, then what?