Antonio Gramsci, writing after World War I, describes the effects of the war on Russia and its people.
"Selfish, individual instincts were blunted; a common, united spirit was fashioned; feelings were universalized; the habit of social discipline was formed. The peasants came to see the state in all its complex grandeur, it measureless power, its intricate construction. They came to see the world no longer as something infinitely vast like the universe and as circumscribed and small as the village bell-tower, but as a concrete reality consisting of states and peoples, social strengths and weaknesses, armies and machines, wealth and poverty. Links of solidarity were forged which would have taken decades of historical experience and intermittent struggles to form. Within four years, in the mud and blood of the trenches, a spiritual world emerged that was avid to form itself into permanent and dynamic social structures and institutions." (A Gramsci Reader, page 115)
Gramsci's description of the impact of the trauma of a world war on poor workers and farmers in Russia helps explain how the people managed to come together quickly to form an entirely new political worldview and social framework for such a vast nation. The exploitation and violence of the oppressive regimes of Lenin and Stalin intervened to thwart what might have been created had it been allowed to go forward in more equitable and just ways.
The interesting point here for me is the effect of shared pain on human communities, especially on communities of common interest and experience. Clearly, the pain caused by the war and the preceding stark realities of deep poverty, extreme class disparities, disease and death created a social movement among common, very poor people.
My grandfather once told me that "you can't organize farmers." I expect he should have known. He and my dad were West Texas cotton farmers for decades. The promise and/or availability of continuing credit, no matter how bad the terms, combined with the prospects of a "better crop on the place next year," almost always blocked efforts at collective action or marketing among independent producers.
The same sort of dynamic seems to hold true here in Dallas and across the nation among poor folks, though in an even more hopeless context. It is very hard to organize people at the very bottom of the economic ladder for any sort of collective effort to bring about change or social improvement.
So much energy is expended on simply "getting by" that very few have time or resources to spare on getting together to promote change, reform or better opportunities for themselves as a group.
Mix in healthy doses of a religious fervor that continually points people away from the harsh realities of this world and on toward the next and you take away even more motivation to come together to demand changes and reform for the here and now.
Others turn to narcotics, alcohol or other abusive addictions, including unchecked sexual avarice, to deal with the pain and discouragement associated with poverty and economic failure. The "quick fix" options often crowd out the longer term requirements of community activism and organizing.
Then, there is the extremely resilient power of the persistent social and cultural notion that boasts "anyone who will work hard and follow the rules can make it in this country." Like my grandfather's friends, this takes us back to the power of the motivated individual rather than the promise of the organized group. This social myth leads people to act, vote and behave in ways that often work against their own best self-interest.
Still, Gramsci teaches me that if the pain is severe enough and the crisis deep enough, people will come together to work for better lives for everyone who shares in and understands the difficulties of poverty and the consequences following from the absence of real, widespread opportunities.
Call me naive, but I find at least a glimmer of hope in this promise. Maybe things will have to get worse in our inner cities before they actually get much better.