BOOK REVIEW • The Next American Revolution
Reviewed by Greg Smith
Few, if any, U.S. leaders can match the long-term and sustained commitment to civil rights, social justice, and grassroots democracy of 95-year-old Detroit activist and intellectual Grace Lee Boggs. A friend of Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Boggs blends the vision and insights of a PhD-holding philosopher with the street-smart savvy of a community organizer. In her new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, she provides a road map for individuals and communities ready and willing to respond to the challenges and contradictions of our special time “on the clock of the universe.” This special time, she says, requires a fundamental transformation of the way human beings have come to envision our lives on this small and increasingly imperiled planet. She believes that young people can be enlisted to play a significant role in the “re-building and re-spiriting” of our communities and that public school teachers have a major responsibility to ensure that this happens.
At the heart of Boggs’ critique of the current world system is the same concern about the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” that King articulated in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In the nearly half century that has passed since this speech was given, Boggs argues, little has been done to resist, let alone reverse, the social and environmental consequences of these handmaidens of the corporate state and transnational capitalism. She goes on to say that little will continue to be done unless people reject the notion that we are victims of the systems and individuals who perpetuate these ills, and instead take up the responsibility to become the creators of an alternative society predicated on “hope, cooperation, stewardship, and respect.”
Central to this transformation must be a recognition that the lifestyles of most Americans are directly related to the exploitation of people in less advantaged countries and the planet itself. The shaping of a new social reality will require embracing frugality and rejecting the fruits of an economy based on endless growth and domination. This message will not be heard easily by people who already enjoy these benefits or by those who have long been denied but now aspire to them. Boggs writes:
The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and the Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire. It is about practicing a new, more active, global, and participatory concept of citizenship. It is about becoming the change we wish to see in the world. (p. 72)
Participating in this revolution means abandoning expectations of an endlessly increasing standard of living within and across generations—the carrot that has induced far too many of us to forego what is humane for what is comfortable. This revolution instead promises a deeper sense of connectedness and personal fulfillment. One of the consequences of capitalism is the relational, moral-ethical, and spiritual impoverishment that accompanies the pursuit of wealth and status. As Bill McKibben suggests in Deep Economy,people in the 20th century were fooled into believing that more and better are the same thing. Having enough is certainly essential, but more after a certain point does not make us happier. Boggs concurs: “Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers and to relate to other human beings.” (p. 60)