Marx’s lowest, most degenerate class of the proletariat is alive and well in America today.
In Karl Marx’s famous The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte — the communist philosopher’s examination of the 1851 coup that overthrew France’s Second Republic and the work in which he famously said history repeats as first tragedy and then farce — he describes the lumpenproletariat, a group that played a key role in the destruction of France’s second attempt at constitutional democracy.
Based on a German word loosely meaning “miscreant rag,” he defines these people as the motley collection of violence prone, gutter-dwelling scum of French life that formed, in Marx’s view, the base of Louis Napoleon’s political power. Fully attached to neither the working class, nor the upper classes, they — like the mob of Ancient Rome — could be stirred up by simple slogans and crass appeals to patriotism and self-interest by manipulative politicians skilled in the use of such rhetoric.
Sociologists would later broaden the lumpenproletariat to include all those we might term members of the underclass, and maybe even the class of small shopkeepers and property holders who, in later decades, would become squeezed by the fight between Big Business and Big Labor to control the economy. Regardless of their exact economic circumstances, though, at the broadest definition today they might be defined as easily mobilized mobs of thugs and street brawlers with deeply held, yet ill-defined grievances directed at the powers that be.
If you think these folks sound exactly like the group of gun-toting, low-brow maniacs who faced down law-abiding federal agents at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada last month, you wouldn’t be far off. As far as one can tell, the group of patriotic desperados who rode to Bundy’s rescue when the rancher was faced with actually paying his unusually large grazing fee debt to the federal government weren’t exactly a high-functioning bunch.
Aside from their brave plan to allegedly use women and children as human shields in a gunfight with the feds, the militiamen could not even agree among themselves as to who was friend or foe. At one point, according to some of the participants, the group devolved into something resembling “The People’s Front” scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”
They have remained dedicated to their cause, despite the slackening of media interest after the more mainstream right wing dropped their newfound hero like a hot potato after his incoherent statements on “big government” and “The Negro.” They have, according to reports, occasionally set up roadblocks on public roads and demanded identification from passersby, and they have had armed, hooded gunmen issue death threats to unarmed federal workers — a matter now being investigated by the FBI. So far, no official law enforcement action beyond these investigations has been taken against the Bundy Bund, and the outlaw moocher in a Stetson remains free and his cattle and bank account so far untouched. All this despite mounting what to all and intents and purposes was an armed rebellion against legitimate, constitutional authority.
Now, in another brave act of resistance that is sure to make them a hit with the racist, conspiracy-mongering Alex Jones crowd, Bundy’s son and supporters staged an ATV drive-through in an area of federally-administered western Utah that has been closed off to motorized traffic due to the presence of vulnerable Native American archeological sites and burial grounds. While no guns were present, Bureau of Land Management police were subdued and mostly out of sight, and the leader of the ATV-mounted crew said that if the feds were going to make him lick their boots — well, he just wasn’t going to do that. Fair enough, but it is hard to reconcile how protecting the cultural treasures of a people long oppressed by whites constitutes “oppression.”
That this redneck rabble has been able to threaten the federal government to the point that legal authority is now being forced to hide itself in the face of an ignorant, gun-toting mob is shocking enough, but perhaps what is most hilarious about this reincarnation of the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion out West is just how quickly it has matched up with Marx’s original analysis of the lumpenproletariat.
Marx, to return again to his discussion of the Eighteenth Brumaire, noted that the violent rubes so stirred up by Louis Napoleon were effectively being used as cat’s paws for the monied interests that actually ran France. When the coup succeeded and the state won for Napoleon’s nephew, he promptly threw in his lot with the capitalist elites who really ran France and proceeded to grind under the interests of the salt-of-the-Earth lumpenproletariat who had once helped him gain absolute power.
Useful idiocy being a timeless concept, it should come as no surprise that near simultaneous to Bundy’s protests against the feds, state and local politicians from around the American West met in Salt Lake City to discuss ways to take back federal lands and, in their words, open it up for development. They have a point about locals being able to control the lands around them, but, of course, this is not as clear a case for freedom and liberty as it might seem. Giving control over to the locals does not transfer it to kindly, well-meaning people with hearts made of gold. Instead, it gives it to deeply conservative, easily corruptible local governments that can sell off the land to the highest bidder and campaign contributor.
These, as should be obvious, will not be the same people now risking jail time or even their lives protecting Bundy from the Bureau of Land Management, threatening local federal workers with guns, or riding ATVs through federally-protected sacred Native American burial sites. Instead, as always, the big boys in business suits who sit back in boardrooms — not Bundy’s living room — will be able to pick up the land for a song. The idea that small property holders and average people will be able to access and use land now locked up tight by the feds is a fantasy right out of the cowboy legends and colonial myths Bundy’s supporters think they are reenacting in the modern day.
What’s more, the business types might not even have to have the local yokels take over federal lands to succeed in their own Brumaire de Bundy. The feds have already shown a willingness to back down when confronted, and the Bureau of Land Management is famously open to allowing corrupt, ecologically unsound development to take place on vulnerable federal lands. Oil and gas leases are being made available in both Nevada and Utah, and one can be sure that the interests wanting to get their hands on those leases will use the anti-government fervor created by Bundy and his ignorant ilk to pressure the feds through their handmaidens in official political circles into giving them an even easier deal than they are already likely to get.
Once privatized outright or effectively so through the sale of long-term oil and gas leases, just whose property rights will be respected then? Governments, especially democratic ones, are keen to avoid stirring up trouble that is politically unpopular, which explains the feds backing down over Bundy. But once deep-pocketed corporations with lobbyists, lawyers and armed security get their hands on the land, what hope do the wannabe minutemen have then? The answer, of course, is none at all. Not only will they be opposing the government, who will ride to the aid of the corporate property holders, but they will be opposing a government fully supported by powers far more vast and powerful than they themselves possess.
Like peasants in South America or Africa facing the combined weight of local wealthy elites, corporate influence and government power, they will surely lose and be branded as both socialists and eco-terrorists for daring to challenge big money, corporate control of huge swathes of Western land that will be left poisoned and useless after the corporations have had their way with it.
That all this will occur is clear to anyone with any knowledge of history and how corporate capitalism works. The tragedy is that none of this has to happen. Right now, the only thing standing between the rape of Western lands by corporate interests and the people actually living there is what little power the federal government has to maintain and regulate access to the land it owns there. Lose that, and nothing protects them — something the little people pointing guns at federal workers in the barren Nevada and Utah wastes would do well to remember.