The title of this chapter, Zinn begins, is a hope, not a prediction. Throughout his book, Zinn has tried to give a sense of the role of common, ordinary people in American history. Where most history textbooks emphasize heroic figures, who are usually elected throughout organized political means, Zinn believes that people need no such saviors to improve their own lives. Instead, Americans have taken change into their own hands.
This was the original final chapter of A People’s History of the United States—later, Zinn added two chapters, one on the Clinton presidency, and one on the war on terror. Here, however, Zinn summarizes some of his ideas and encourages readers to take history “into their own hands.”
“The American system,” Zinn continues, “is the most ingenious system of control in world history.” The U.S. is a rich, powerful country, and, in order to control its own people, the government doles out just enough money to just enough people to avoid a full-scale revolution. The powerful elite in America are masters of turning the working classes and middle classes against each other. Furthermore, these elites have used patriotism and the threat of war to strengthen their control over their own people. Again and again, however, the American elites have tried and failed to neutralize the inherent threat stemming from their own populations.
Throughout his book, Zinn has argued that America controls its people by giving them just enough freedom and income to prevent a full-scale revolution. From the earliest days of the American colonies, when elites separated slaves and poor white servants, to the modern era, when the Establishment fostered the stratification of the black community, powerful people have remained united in their common goals while trying to divide and weaken the American people.
In times of crisis, American people have mobilized against the Establishment, proving “the enormous capacity of apparently helpless people to resist.” While it’s unfortunately true that most rebellion in American history has been unsuccessful in achieving many of its goals, history textbooks do a disservice to the truth by underestimating the role of revolt and emphasizing the importance of individual statesmen and leaders.
While Zinn’s vision of history—a constant process in which the American people try, and fail, to enact their dreams—may be somewhat depressing, it’s important that students understand the radicalism of their country’s history, instead of thinking of history as a collection of “great, dead, white men.”
Many of the people reading this book, Zinn guesses, stand between the Establishment and the working class: they have some limited power and privilege, but not much. Members of the middle class need to face the fact that they’re like the guards at the Attica prison riots: they’re doing the bidding of the Establishment and destroying the possibility of a radical change in America. America is at a turning-point for the middle class: in particular, “white workers, neither rich nor poor, but angry over economic insecurity” are “open to solutions from any direction, right or left.” In the 1920s, the white middle class faced a similar crossroads—while many white middle-class people joined organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, many others gravitated toward leftist causes like organized labor.
Throughout his book, Zinn has been mostly silent on the question of the middle class. Sometimes, Zinn has treated the middle classes as a part of the “American people”—a persecuted group. On other occasions, Zinn has treated the middle classes as a part of the Establishment—the metaphorical “guards” who help enact the Establishment’s brutal policies. In a sense, Zinn sees the middle classes as having a choice: they can stand on the side of the elite and perpetuate injustice in society, or they can choose to cooperate with the working classes.
For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Establishment offered a simple solution to the problem of crime and civil unrest: expand the jails. As America enters the 21st century, it’s clear to many that the expansion of the prison system will not keep society at peace, it will only create an endless cycle of crime and punishment. The future of the American middle class, Zinn predicts, rests on whether they will continue to accept prisons as a valid solution for the structural problems of society, or if they will support a deeper “change in the system” that addresses the root causes of crime and violence.
Zinn’s observations about the growth of the prison-industrial complex proved prophetic. In the decades following the publication of Zinn’s book, the number of incarcerated Americans increased dramatically, prompting widespread outrage. The prison system, it’s been argued, actually perpetuates crime in America by creating a permanent underclass of felons who have no choice but to commit more crimes to survive.
Zinn asks, “Let us be utopian for a moment” and imagine “what radical change would require of us all.” First, radical change would require the Establishment to lose their means of control: the media, the military, corporate pressure, etc. Then, it would require everyone to work together, even the young, the disabled, and the elderly. The great problem facing a radical society would be to ensure peace and harmony without creating a “centralized bureaucracy” or using the disincentives of prison. Surely the only way to create such a utopia would be to harness all the lessons accumulated in previous radical American movements. And the utopia could only be realized with the help of the middle class as well as the working class—the “guards” as well as the “prisoners.”
It’s striking that, after hundreds and hundreds of pages, Zinn has refrained from sketching out his vision of what American society should be like. Zinn’s role is that of a teacher, not a prophet. In other words, he’s trying to sketch out some of the injustices of history rather than proposing specific remedies for these injustices. Zinn was known to be supportive of some Anarchist ideas, and here, his vision of an ideal society seems heavily Anarchist: people would opt in to society voluntarily, rather than being compelled to join it. Zinn’s utopian vision also reflects his Marxist training—like Marx, he recognizes that the middle classes must play a decisive role in bringing about world change.
While building utopia might be impossible, we need to remember all the times in American history when it did seem possible—during the 1960s, for example. The great lesson of the 1960s is that a determined population is much stronger than the American Establishment. Perhaps, in the 21st century, the working classes will continue to rebel and this time they’ll be joined by the middle class, too. Middle-class figures—a group in which Zinn includes himself—need to realize that, by default, they’re the guards of the prison. Once they realize such a fact, they can begin to engineer change so that, one day, “our great grandchildren might possibly see a different and marvelous world.”
Zinn is an optimist, but he’s also a realist. He wants the people of the United States to work together to challenge the power of the Establishment, but he also recognizes that it will be very difficult for them to do so. Nevertheless, in his role as a historian, Zinn tries to show his readers that it’s possible to assemble broad, radical coalitions, just as people did in the 1960s, the 1910s, and the 1840s. Furthermore, Zinn addresses his own status as a middle-class “guard.” Even though he’s the product of a university system designed to perpetuate inequality in society, Zinn is trying to use his university education to dismantle the Establishment and promote equality and freedom.