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The Tipping Point: When Do Americans Hit the Streets?

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Former Wall Street analyst (and fellow expatriate) Max Keiser predicts that American workers are unlikely to manifest the same revolutionary fervor as their comrades in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain until they experience comparable difficulties paying for food. See  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-B2V2l_6QE (link kindly provided by a reader). Egyptians pay 40% of their income for food, Americans only 12%.  Nevertheless with the impending double dip recession, continuing public service, wage and benefit cuts, and financial markets massively speculating in food derivatives (see Speculating with Our Food), Keiser believes, as I do, that this day isn't far off.

As a doctor and healthy food advocate, I was well aware that the federal government massively subsidizes cheap fast food and junk food (Ending the Obesity Epidemic). America's agricultural subsidies kill literally millions of Americans every year, by creating an epidemic of obesity and related medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Yet until Keiser raised the issue, I never recognized the importance of these subsidies in suppressing popular unrest. It seems the main purpose of US agricultural subsidies isn't to help farmers or even the massive food conglomerates that run factory farms. They are intended is to control the single most important factor driving third world resistance movements -- namely the cost of food.

I was also interested in Keiser's view that no subsidy program has the ability to control rising food costs, so long Obama refuses to regulate the investment banks that are driving up food prices by speculating in the food commodities market.

A World Bank Perspective

World Bank President Robert Zoellick describes the link between the cost of food and regime change in an oped he wrote for the Financial Times in February 2011 (only paid subscribers can read the FT article, but it's summarized at click here). The oped points to the widespread food riots that occurred in 2008 due to a sudden spike in food prices -- as well as triggering regime change in Haiti. However according to Zoellick, the 2011 food crisis is even worse -- with rising food costs forcing 44 million people into poverty between June 2010 and January 2011.

The February 27 Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/the-price-of-food-is-at-the-heart-of-this-wave-of-revolutions-2226896.html and March 2 Energy Bulletin http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-03-02/energy-food-revolution-inextricable-link offer a somewhat less ideological analysis than the World Bank president. The Energy Bulletin links the collapse of the Soviet Union to skyrocketing food prices. They point to a sudden decline in oil prices (with oil exports being the Soviet's primary source of foreign revenue) in the late 1980s, leaving the Soviets unable to buy adequate wheat on world markets.

Most commentators seem to agree that the magic number is 40% -- that civil unrest becomes inevitable once food prices consume more than 40% of workers' incomes.

I think the figure that ultimately triggers food riots in the US might be lower. During the Great Depression, Americans were forced to spend 35% of their income on food (http://www.enotes.com/1930-lifestyles-social-trends-american-decades/making-do-family-life-depression). Although we don't read about them in mainstream history books, there were extremely bloody battles in Washington over Hoover's refusal to pay the bonus that had been promised World War I veterans. Barbara Kingsolver writes about some of them in her 2009 historical novel The Lacuna.

Otherwise I totally agree with Keiser's and Zoellick's food theory of revolution, especially in countries like the US where psychological oppression is a bigger problem than political oppression. Psychological oppression is much less prevalent in countries like Greece, France and Spain (and apparently Britain), where strong working class consciousness enables workers to instantly identify when the government and corporate elite are screwing them. In these countries, workers are far more willing to take to the streets over less life threatening issues -- for example, hikes in student tuition, high youth unemployment, pension cuts, an increase in the retirement age, unpopular wars and evidence of corruption in the criminal justice system.

Lessons from the Soviet Collapse

One erroneous conclusion some Americans draw from Keiser's and Zoellick's "food theory" of revolution is that organizing is unnecessary -- that all we have to do is wait until the food bill reaches 35-40% of workers' income and leaves them no money for rent, clothes, medical care and other necessities. The first problem with this "no nothing" perspective is that it overlooks years of sustained organizing by Egyptian unions and social justice groups that laid the groundwork for organized rebellion in February 2011 (see Egypt's Invisible Labor Movement).

The second problem with opting for inaction is that we greatly increase the probability the capitalistic political-economic system will collapse into utter chaos. If we simply wait for global capitalism to self-destruct, we will most likely end up with a violent, fragmented failed state -- like Afghanistan, Somalia or post-Soviet Russia -- controlled by criminal gangs and sociopathic warlords.

The Destruction of Civil Society

I see many alarming parallels between the US and the USSR of the 1980s. The most prominent is the virtual collapse of civil society. In Russia, this resulted in more than a decade of starvation, illness and early death because there was no community infrastructure in place (to take over food production and provision of other basic services) when the Soviet infrastructure collapsed. For decades, the KGB systematically infiltrated and smashed all community groups, irrespective of their size or purpose, because the Communist Party elite saw them as a threat to state power. The reasons for the disintegration of American civil society are more complex. They include low wages, long work hours and a highly sophisticated public relations industry that continuously bombards Americans with individualistic anti-community and anti-organizing messages (see Thinking Like Egyptions).

Addressing Psychological Oppression

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http://www.stuartbramhall.com

I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
 

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Britain's coalition government clearly made a misc... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 6:21:03 PM
To wipe out New Orleans, as it were, or ahem "wipe... by Jill Herendeen on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:38:22 PM
I definitely agree, Jill, that there was a deliber... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:54:01 PM
but I'm sure that they considered it a big bonus.... by Jeff Poster on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 2:47:55 PM
and placed an irresponsible nincompoop in charge a... by Michael Shaw on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 9:18:58 AM
regular Pentagon troops. NOrthern  Com. and b... by bogi666 on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 6:31:50 AM
Excellent point. This never occurred to me.... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 8:12:14 PM
I understand your point too doctor. People need to... by Michael Shaw on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 8:40:02 PM
Weimar 1930?I would say Weimar 1932. Some of ... by yes on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 2:43:33 AM
I wish I could say it was my pleasure for mentioni... by Michael Shaw on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 5:00:02 AM
"You say you've got a real solution,We'd all love ... by Jeff Poster on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 7:58:01 PM
The solution, Jay, is for people to turn their TVs... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:58:55 PM
Nor is it going to happen just because an obscure ... by Jeff Poster on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 2:50:45 PM
The solutions are out there.  To paraphrase H... by Ross Levin on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 4:46:54 PM
Not trying to sound contentious, I'm just saying: ... by Jeff Poster on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 8:59:32 PM
there is pending legislation that would cut off fr... by Michael Shaw on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 7:08:22 PM
Jay,Check out world5.org. We're planning a rally a... by Jim Prues on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 5:18:21 PM
to see that turning the tides is what it has the p... by Jeff Poster on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 9:01:05 PM
Dr. Brimhalls's plan was very clearly stated, "i ... by Paul from Potomac on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 3:19:05 PM
...isn't it evident that the point of farm subsidi... by Jill Herendeen on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:41:02 PM
I believe farm subsidies serve the corporate elite... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 9:08:36 PM
is food pricing going up and the packaging getting... by Michael Shaw on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 9:36:30 AM
Family farms have been extremely resilient, but, l... by Ned Lud on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 9:20:47 PM
Factory farms aren't just bad for family farmers -... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Friday, Aug 12, 2011 at 11:10:22 PM
I didn't grow up on a farm, but I realized it (far... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:00:36 AM
We ain't seen nothin' yet!... by Michael Shaw on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 9:52:17 AM
...the Mennonites and Amish definitely have commun... by Jill Herendeen on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 7:26:49 AM
Here, in Minnesota, there have been Amish for many... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:09:18 AM
Try doing this in a small Mormon community, like I... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:54:52 AM
Geery, you are one of my best friends here. I p... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 10:23:31 AM
I met a guy here (in Minnesota) named Tony, earlie... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 10:34:09 AM
I do see neighbors helping neighbors more often, a... by Michael Shaw on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 9:48:37 AM
Yes, they are (pacifists). This goes under the rel... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 10:17:19 AM
There is no doubt we have a large group of people ... by Michael Shaw on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 11:32:42 AM
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music fo... by Judy Palmer on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 7:37:57 AM
Judy, do you know the story of Ishi? He was the la... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:23:33 AM
I had never heard of Ishi so I looked him up. ... by Judy Palmer on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 5:38:06 PM
loved the land and took care of it. In today's cor... by Michael Shaw on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 11:23:13 AM
and they are destroying all nutrients in the soil ... by nativenezperce on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 12:52:24 PM
the eternal struggle by those with the most money ... by Michael Shaw on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 7:14:38 PM
Hi Doc!This is another fine article. And I too bel... by mike buchan on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 2:22:59 AM
New Zealand and Australia are more tied to China t... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 2:53:45 AM
I have not understood that NZ and Oz were so close... by mike buchan on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 3:06:51 AM
You are no longer fanned! And I am going to wait a... by mike buchan on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 3:10:47 AM
What's going on this street. Treatments For Ps... by Clint Marsedan on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 6:46:04 AM
They can be, have been, but clearly aren't always.... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 10:40:36 AM
Until we stop being afraid of being gassed, hosed ... by Judy Palmer on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 5:47:13 PM
I think you hit the nail on the head, Judy.... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 6:00:18 PM
The greatest swordsman of historic Japan writes ab... by martin weiss on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 8:35:44 PM
World 5.0 is the idea of a new operating system fo... by Jim Prues on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 5:26:37 PM
60% R permanently brainwashed by FOX New and those... by John Smith on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 5:46:00 PM
Enjoy Federal Reserve and 100 years of deception.... by John Smith on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 5:57:25 PM
This Tipping Point article should be read&nbs... by yes on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 6:56:49 PM
Who is gonna make it? Who is gonna make change? Pa... by John Smith on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 8:03:37 PM
anywhere from your secure position.  Do you t... by John Smith on Saturday, Aug 13, 2011 at 8:12:53 PM
A tipping point happens when pressure is extreme a... by Philip Pease on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 10:21:03 AM
Thank you, Dr. Bramhall for this brilliant article... by Ariel Monserrat on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 10:52:44 AM
Ariel, I am extremely active in the sustainability... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 6:03:31 PM
The British riots will happen here in the US next,... by Paul Bern on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 11:24:35 AM
AMEN! WOMEN< CHILDREN< ELDERLY< DISABLED ... by thepiffler on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 5:37:45 PM
Oil and gas catastrophes, financial catastrophes, ... by martin weiss on Sunday, Aug 14, 2011 at 8:28:15 PM
We took to the streets in the 1960s, and look wher... by E. J. N. on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 8:29:17 PM
The title of the article implies that Americans ha... by PAUL FASO on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 7:29:50 AM
winded way through the courts for several years.&n... by Jill Herendeen on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 8:08:29 AM
Please type in your browser the following if the l... by PAUL FASO on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 8:37:03 AM
'Eighty years ago, in the depths of the Great De... by Jill Herendeen on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 8:27:29 AM
Thanks for sending the link, Jill. By necessity, r... by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 6:55:32 PM
For 17 years now I've known things were very messe... by Michael Dewey on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 8:46:57 AM