In his essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously described the French peasantry as a sack of potatoes. This was in response to calls from fellow socialists and anarchists to focus on radicalizing the peasants. At the time this was a big topic of debate among European radicals. One camp thought the peasants held great revolutionary potential as a class, while the other camp thought the urban workers were the only revolutionary class.
The title of the essay refers to the Coup of 18 Brumaire in which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France, linking it to the French coup of 1851 in which Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers. In addition to the topic of the peasantry, Marx was discussing current events in the context of the history of revolution in France and the future of the socialist revolution. That last bit was the main concern of his intended audience of socialist radicals.
As far as the peasantry of France, Marx observed that they formed an enormous mass whose members lived in similar conditions but “without entering into manifold relations with each other.” As small independent farmers, “their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.” These small farmers lived independent from one another, despite being organized into villages. In this way they were like a sack of potatoes.
What Marx was getting at was the sense of identity among these small landowners versus the sense of identity among the urban working class. Unlike the proletariat, the peasant had a sense of independence that defined his relationship with his fellow peasants and his relationship with the state and society. The peasants lacked the sense of togetherness and commiseration of the industrial workers, as they did their work as individuals for their own purposes.
There was something else that made the peasants a tough nut to crack as far as the socialist revolution was concerned. Because they owned something, they had something to lose, which made them risk adverse. Unlike the urban worker, the peasant was unwilling to break with tradition or custom. According to Marx, this is why they supported strong men like Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis-Napoléon. A strong state was good for their narrow interests.
This insight into identity has remained a part of Marxist thinking to this day. The post-Marx culturalists that now run the West are always scanning the fields for identity groups that they view as anti-democratic, which is just the modern way of saying counter revolutionary. People make the mistake of thinking individualism is the opposite of collectivism, but that is false. The real enemy of Marxist collectivism is the alternative identity group, rooted outside of economics.
Putting that aside, the Marxist understanding of the 19th century peasant is useful in this age for understanding the revolutionary potential of normie. Like the peasant, the suburban white guy remains a frustrating element in politics. He understands that he is under assault from inhuman forces but refuses to band together with his fellows in order to defend his interests. Instead, he spouts the morality of the enemy, while hoping a hero arrives to save him from the bad guys.
This was most obvious with Donald Trump. The bad guys clearly understood what Trump could represent, which is why they despised him. He could radicalize normie, they thought, and get him thinking collectively, but in a way that would oppose the interests of the narrow ruling elite. It is why they insisted he was Hitler, despite the absurdity of the claim. Like Hitler, they saw Trump as a radical alternative to the radical assault on normal society.
What Trump represented to normie was the low-risk savior. He would be their Napoleon, but he would not ask anything from them. They could continue to grill, watch sports and consume the cultural products of the regime, but Trump would make sure their small plot in the suburbs was safe. From the perspective of normie, Trump was the low-risk defense against the predation of the people they saw on their televisions burning down cities and assaulting people.
Like the 19th century French peasants Marx observed, the modern suburban peasant is atomized and isolated. He lives in a manufactured house. A dozen or so houses make his neighborhood. A hundred or so houses makes his development, always named after what was destroyed to build it. A collection of developments makes for a socio-economic zone important only to the people who sell them product. The suburban peasant is a potato in sack.
Unlike the French peasant, the suburban peasant has been stripped of his cultural, ethnic and moral identity. His church is the television and his traditions are limited to whatever he can manage among the strangers that make up his world. His spiritual fulfillment comes from playing make believe on-line. The 19th century French peasant had the stability of his environment. He stood where his ancestors stood. The modern peasant stands wherever he is told.
The main difference between the 19th century peasant and the modern suburban peasant is communications. The French peasant could go weeks or months without speaking to neighbors. The suburban peasant cannot go five minutes without information bombarding his senses. The same information storm intended to keep the suburban peasant suspended within a solution of information, often insulates him from his conditioning, resulting in radicalization.
Marx was right about the French peasants. They were never much use for the revolution, something the Bolsheviks would eventually learn as well. For the modern dissident, there may be some portion of the suburban peasantry that has radical potential, even if he is immune to direct radicalization. The phenomenon of normie going from zero to eleven on the radicalization scale after an incidental encounter with forbidden material is well known.
This subset of the suburban peasantry, the alternative to normie, is what the sociologist Donald Warren identified as the Middle American Radical in the book The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. These are people who defy conventional political framing, so they are often ignored. They are noticed when a Pat Buchanan, a Ross Perot or a Donald Trump comes along. It is why all efforts are made to funnel them back into the chute of conventional politics.
In the end, the portion of the suburban peasantry called normie will have little use for the cause, but there is a portion of the peasantry that has potential. They see the futility of trying to exercise power within the system, but they lack the structure to develop into an alternative moral order that challenges the system. The guy with the Gadsden flag on his house is a potato in a sack. The neighbor who reads old books and no longer has a cable sub is a normie with revolutionary potential.
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