America: A revolution of rising expectations?

One of the greatest puzzles in politics has always been why people don’t spontaneously rise up against injustice, discrimination and repression. Part of the reason, of course, is that “people” rarely do anything collectively: they usually need leaders or organisers of some kind.

But the other reason, first identified by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s, is that, put simply, to change the way people behave, you first have to change the way they think. As long, in other words, as rebellion is believed to be impossible, there will be no rebellion. This explains the familiar paradox that revolutions and great political changes occur, not when things are static, but when they have already started to change. As expectations start to rise, argued the American political scientist James Davies, the situation becomes pre-revolutionary, and frustration or disappointment with the rate of progress can trigger a violent political change.

Which leads us naturally enough to the American health care debate. There is no easier way of keeping someone prisoner than by persuading them they live in a cage, and, for the last thirty years or so, our leaders have promoted a kind of Learned Hopelessness as the default  political and economic ideology . Things are going to get worse for nearly everyone forever, they cheerfully assure us. Living standards will continue to fall, unemployment and poverty will continue to use, public services and education will continue to decline, job security is a thing of the past, as indeed are decent jobs of any kind, because globalization, competition, innovation, outsourcing aging population mumble mumble anything else we can think of and can persuade Thomas Friedman to write about. And you’ll just have to get used to it, while we live in luxury: imagine a Nike trainer treading on a human face forever.

So, yes, Obamacare or whatever they call it. As a non-American I can’t say I have followed this debate with any great interest, but it does seem to be the case that this is the first government initiative in any advanced western country in modern times which might actually make ordinary peoples’ lives better, rather than worse. Unless you actually remember the great reforming governments of the 1960s, it’s hard to understand just how revolutionary this is. It actually looks as though fewer people will now die or become bankrupt in the US because they can’t afford medical treatment.

But its the longer term consequences that interest me. At the mundane level, this will be evidence that government actually works and can help people: something which is self-evidently true, but which has been loudly denied by the powerful for the last thirty years. But more importantly, dazed Americans might then begin to ask themselves  whether, if this part of their lives can be reformed, why not other parts as well. Their standard of living, for example? Education? Job security? And all at once these demands are likely to accumulate, and, unless they are met, our old friend the Revolution of Rising Expectations might be just around the corner. Now that would be interesting.


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