The Center—Can It Hold?
The Pyramid as Two Ladders

by Bob Avakian

EDITORS' NOTE: The series, "The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era," is available online at revcom.us and in pamphlet form from RCP Publications. This article has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added.

Let's look again at this pyramid of power that I have spoken to before. In that piece on "The Pyramid of Power and the Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down," I made the point that:

"At the top of this pyramid are the people that rule this society.. Here's the pyramid and here are the Republicans over here (on the right) with their shit going down to the right-wing social base of religious maniacs and fundamentalist fools.. On the other hand here are the Democrats at the top of this pyramid (on the so-called `left'), Who are the people that they try to appeal to—not that the Democrats represent their interests, but who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base, on the other side of the pyramid, so to speak? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the bourgeois, the mainstream electoral process.and to get them back into it when they have drifted away from—or broke out of—that framework."1

Well, we can also conceive of this as a pyramid made up of two ladders that are leaning against each other at the top; and the centrifugal forces at the bottom, pulling away from the center, can cause it to collapse. In that kind of context and in that kind of way, you can see how the question arises very acutely: the center—can it hold?

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The polarization in the ruling class of the U.S. now is between centrist mainstream imperialist thought and program, on the one end, and, on the other end, fascist thought and program—all ultimately serving the same imperialist system. Yes, there are gradations. Yes, there are forces in between, and there are forces, especially among the broader population, that don't fit into that configuration at all fundamentally, and others that we have to rupture out of it. But if you think of this pyramid analysis, this is basically what's at the top of the pyramid, what's represented on either side of the apex of this pyramid, to put it that way—that's what it is: mainstream imperialist thought and program, on the one side, and fascist thought and program on the other side, all rooted in and ultimately serving the same imperialist system.

And all this is increasingly moving to the right. That's why you had such a (to use their phrase) "disconnect" in this election between the Democratic Party leadership and the "mass base" of people who voted for the Democrats. Even at the Democratic Party convention in 2004, there was this huge gap and difference between the sentiments of the people there, who are Democratic Party lower level functionaries by and large—between their sentiments about key issues like Iraq, which were overwhelmingly to get out of Iraq for basically good reasons—and what was being articulated from the stage and by the candidate Kerry himself. And that great difference ran right to the election. This was a little bit like the phenomenon I spoke to, in terms of the 2002 mid-term election, where people poured out into the streets, largely as a result of the fact that they were desperate to have some way to oppose the Iraq war and the Democrats refused to give it to them. Well, this time around, in the 2004 Presidential election, the Democrats refused to give it to them again, but many people still went and very consciously voted—this was not an apathetic populace in this election, including among the basic masses. Yes, some people didn't vote, but this was a very politically charged and, on a certain level, politically aware populace on both sides of the polarization as it took shape around the election. And many people poured into voting, including a huge number of people who voted for Kerry who were saying, "yes, Kerry is no good," but wanting desperately to get Bush out—and not for bad reasons overwhelmingly. The way that took expression is not what we want or need, but what was finding expression in that was something we definitely must unite with and do unite with, even though we have to divert it and lead it somewhere else.

So there was this very stark "disconnect" between these people and the Democrats they voted for. However, one of the things that does happen—and you could see this also through the electoral process—is something I observed in one of those short comments I made just before the election, which was printed in the RW 2, where I said that if you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are. And you could see that dynamic at work in the 2004 election too. Some people started adopting Kerry's terms for criticizing Bush, even though they don't agree with those terms. If you step back, do you agree that the point is that Bush is an inefficient commander-in-chief in Iraq? Is that your critique of what's happening? For millions and millions of people the answer is clearly: No. But you still find people getting drawn into those terms.

So, on the one hand, this polarization is obviously not what we need. On the other hand, there is potential in it, in terms of the fundamental question of whether the center can hold—and what will happen if it doesn't hold. It's not at all guaranteed that if it doesn't hold there will be a positive outcome, from the point of view of everything we're about and are striving for, and seeking to lead masses of people to achieve. It's not at all guaranteed that if the center, in its present form, doesn't hold things will come out positively—it could all come out extremely negatively. In fact, right now that's the greater likelihood—and that's what got many people paralyzed with fear, frankly. And we have to do something about that too, through our work—ideological and political, and yes, ultimately organizational work on the basis of ideological and political line.

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All the turmoil that's going on in society reflects in a fundamental way our analysis that this is a period where the world is marked by a major transition with the potential for great upheaval—a period transition which began with the dissolution, or collapse, of the Soviet Union and its empire at the beginning of the 1990s. More and more we are seeing this borne out. This is opposed to the sort of classical "Third International" analysis of "the crisis of imperialism," attributing everything U.S. imperialism is doing in the world to the depth of crisis it's enmeshed in.3 That's not to say that there aren't dire conditions for masses of people and real political and other crises in large parts of the world, but "Third International" notions of "crisis of imperialism" is not the way to understand the actual dynamics at work. The program that's embodied in that National Security document of 20024 the program that is represented by, as one book puts it, The Rise of the Vulcans , with Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest, is not a program arising in response to a deepening crisis that's gone on for three decades in more or less the same form—this would hardly account for "minor events" like the dissolution of the Soviet empire!5 Instead, what is going on in the world manifests itself as an expression of this period of major transition with the potential for great upheaval— upheaval which we're obviously already seeing.

But there is a real question being posed: This is the Newt Gingrich point6—his own version of "the center cannot hold." We've seen this in the Clinton impeachment crisis, in the 2000 election, and in a different form through the recent election and things bound up with it. The way in which the ruling class has been able to hold this society together and rule it, and been able to have its larger interests prevail over lesser partisan disputes, is already fraying to a significant degree. There are underlying material reasons for this, some of which is spoken to in Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones 7[as well as in the "Right-Wing Conspiracy" piece8: There are significant changes in the economy—both the U.S. and world economy—particularly as this has been unleashed by the fall of the Soviet empire, there is the heightening globalization. There are the accompanying and corresponding changes inside the U.S., particularly in terms of both the necessity and opportunity to do away with the New Deal9 consensus and the Great Society programs10.

One of the things that is said in Notes on Political Economy is that when a legitimacy crisis occurs, when the "glue" that holds society together begins to come undone, and there is an attempt to forge a new ruling consensus, then it is acutely posed whether that attempt to forge a new ruling consensus (a new "social glue," so to speak) is going to hold and work. That's a very relevant point now and a very relevant thing to dig into more deeply in terms of all this.

So we do have these very acute contradictions in society and within the ruling class, which are not entirely under the control of anyone. We are not dealing with "a committee of the ruling class"—all sitting there turning political faucets off and on. There are people seeking to do that, political operatives like the Karl Roves, or whatever, but that is not the fundamental dynamic that is going on. There are different forces in the fray, within the ruling class and more broadly in society, and this is putting a tremendous pressure on the coherence of the center as it has existed and as they're now seeking to reforge it through a lot of struggle. There is not one uniform group seeking to do this, but through struggle there's an attempt to reforge a center and a ruling consensus, in the context of this period of major transition with the potential for great upheaval.

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In "GO&GS" (Great Objectives and Grand Strategy)11 I quoted Edward Luttwak's book Turbo Capitalism, speaking not so much to the religious fundamentalist aspect of what the ruling class is doing now but to the general punitive aspect of the U.S. culture at this time. And Luttwak actually says something rather striking. He says that the American form is less virulent, but there's a similarity with what occurred in Nazi Germany, where there is a non-economic expression of revenge for ultimately economic factors. This relates to the phenomenon Luttwak is referring to with the metaphor of turbo capitalism—the fast pace of life, the insecurity that is brought with it. Yes, many people have been making a lot of money, particularly in the '90s, but they don't have the job security, they don't have the life security they feel they had before. I have also quoted this other book, on suburbanization, Fortress America , where the authors talk about people retreating into suburban enclaves— trying to pull the drawbridge up around themselves [BA laughs]. There is actual instability and uncertainty and chaos and volatility, and there is also manufactured fear, which is something Michael Moore brought out in his movie Bowling for Columbine . There is both real and manufactured fear and bases for fear. But Luttwak's point about the non-economic expression of revenge for fundamentally or ultimately economic developments is a very significant part of the whole picture that we have to understand—and move to transform.


NOTES:

1. This article originally appeared in Revolutionary Worker #1231 (March 7, 2004) and is available online at revcom.us.

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2. These comments, under the heading "Food for Thought While Agonizing Over Bush and Everything He Stands For," appeared in Revolutionary Worker #1254 (Oct. 10, 2004) and is available online at revcom.us.

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3. The "Third International" refers to the Communist International (or Comintern), which was founded by Lenin shortly after the victory of the Russian Revolution. But especially during the time when it was led by Stalin, from the mid-1920s until it was dissolved at the time of World War 2, the Comintern was increasingly marked by a mechanical approach to analyzing the world situation, which essentially saw capitalism as caught in a continuing crisis that was always worsening or about to worsen. For more on this, see the book America in Decline by Raymond Lotta (Banner Press, 1984) and the RCP's Notes on Political Economy: Our Analysis of the 1980s, Issues of Methodology, and the Current Situation (RCP Publications, 2000).

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4. The full title of the document is "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002."

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5. The full title of the book is The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet , by James Mann.

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6. A reference to this is in a previous excerpt, "The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era," which appeared in RW #1274, April 10, 2005. In that excerpt Bob Avakian says: "In speaking to `a coming civil war' I am `drawing inspiration' from Newt Gingrich (the prominent Republican politician who was formerly the Speaker of the House of Representatives), who has made the observation that what's happening now in the electoral arena and the broader things that it reflects in U.S. society is analogous to what was going on in the U.S. in the 1840s and the 1850s, and that this isn't something that will—I'm paraphrasing, but this is the essence—this isn't something that will go away. It will only be decided when one side or the other wins out."

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7. Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality, Banner Press, 1999.

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8." The Truth About Right-Wing Conspiracy.And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer" was reprinted in RW #1255 (Oct. 17, 2004) and is available online at revcom.us.

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9. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program was enacted in the 1930s to save U.S. capitalism in the depths of the depression by carrying out a series of reforms. Among them was the enactment of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and laws legalizing trade unions and creating the modern system of collective bargaining. The New Deal formed the basis for a modern "social compact" or "consensus" where working people were led to accept the framework of capitalism in exchange for a promise of a social net that softened the extremes of the system.

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10. President Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society programs were enacted in the midst of the upheavals of the 1960s. It was a series of domestic reform initiatives including civil rights legislation, creation of medicaid/medicare government health insurance and general talk of a "war on poverty."

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11. Excerpts from Great Objectives & Grand Strategy appeared in the RW from November 2001 to March 2002 and are online at revcom.us.

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