Monday, May 14, 2012

Revolution, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment -- Ambrose Bierce

NBC reports that it has picked up a new series for the fall entitled Revolution. The premise (source “Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why?” Uh-huh. Never mind the physics issues here from the subatomic level on up. The eponymous Revolution is political as well as technological; governments fall and local militias take over.

In real life, we need not worry about the NBC scenario (in part because life wouldn’t exist in that world), but I suspect a severe enough energy crisis could spark revolutions. It would take a bad one. We’ve had some tough patches with energy already, and fuel is pretty darn expensive right now. The remarkable thing is just how much folks are “disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable.” Neither the Occupy nor Tea Party movements seem especially worked up about it, not that the bulk of either group is a quarter so revolutionary as it claims to be. Another doubling of price in real terms might do it, at least if it happened quickly. Even then it’s not certain.

In 1971 I lived in a dorm on 19th Street NW in Washington DC, three blocks from the White House. In early May of that year, thousands of people poured into DC from all over the country. After days of unrest in which there were 12,000 arrests and an atmosphere thick with tear gas, calm returned to the city. A fellow student, an enthusiastic participant in the recent street activities, passed me in the hallway in his olive drab jacket with a red scarf tied on the left arm. He was carrying notebooks and textbooks on his way to class. "Revolution's over," he said to me with a smile. So it was. There has been the occasional local urban disturbance and outright riot in the US since 1971, provoked by some local incident, but May 1971 was the very last one that was a broad-based expression of what then was called (by Radical and Establishment types alike) The Revolution. (See older blog The Quiet Riot for a more detailed account:

In the late 60s, there were more than a few intellectuals with radical New Left leanings (and alarmists with radical right wing leanings) who sincerely believed that Revolution was possible and imminent in the United States. The government and corporate Establishment had lost credibility and support among key segments of the population, they believed, and, furthermore, radicals were motivated as never before, as demonstrated in Chicago in 1968 and DC in 1969.

This was pure silliness. It shows the danger of talking only to people who agree with you; such cliques can delude themselves that their opinions are more widespread than they are. There never was a glimmer of a chance of Revolution. On the contrary, the country shifted rightward; Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “Silent Majority” won him the Presidency. Besides, even in countries and circumstances where revolutionaries are, in fact, popular, their popularity is not enough. This is very important: in the absence of foreign intervention, incumbents always beat revolutionaries so long as they retain the loyalty of the police and military. Only when the enforcers defect in large numbers is the government in trouble. This is not Richard’s Rule; it is a rule long-recognized by analysts of revolutionary movements, e.g. Louis Gottschalk in Causes of Revolution: “the weakness of the conservative forces…is the necessary immediate cause of revolution.” Such was the case in the French Revolution. In 1905 Russia, the army remained loyal and the revolutionaries were quashed; in 1917 the army (other than loyal units tied down by Germans, Austrians, and Turks) ceased to be reliable and the very same revolutionaries won. In the American Revolution, the largest part of the enforcement arm (the state militias) went into rebellion, and there was foreign intervention. Since 1865, there never has been a loyalty issue with the military or police in the US. It isn’t even imaginable today.

Conservative weakness is the immediate cause of revolution, but not the initial one. There must be numerous and organized revolutionaries in existence who can take advantage of it. Why would there be a significant revolutionary faction in the first place? Aristotle surely got it right in his remark, “Inferiors revolt in order to be equal and equals revolt in order to be superior.” Both groups claim to call for justice, as both claim to want only their fair due; differing ideologues can and do make arguments for the fairness of equal and unequal results. What causes weakness and defections among security forces? Beyond being influenced by revolutionary ideas themselves, members of security forces start to flake away when they lose confidence in their employers – when they regard the government as unsustainably dysfunctional so that their own futures are in doubt if they support it.

More than a few Western countries are looking ungovernable and dysfunctional these days, as voters consistently demand more than for which they are willing to pay. The US government, for one, is at odds with itself in everything, even in bad causes. The debt crises in Europe refuse to go away and are benefiting extreme parties everywhere. Still, revolutions in democracies aren’t common; they do happen, but aren’t common. Nothing more drastic than see-saw “throw the bums out” elections appear to be this side of the horizon. What is just beyond the horizon, though, is less certain than it once was.

At present, the spirit of Revolution is most alive in the Middle East. I’ll refrain from predictions about future successes or failures there. Many a prognosticator’s reputation has sunk in the sand in that part of the world.

In the West, for now, I see no more immediate risk than there was in 1971. If oil hits $200 per barrel in the next year, however, all bets are off.

A Curiously Counterrevolutionary Song

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