When Change Is Not Enough: Seven
Steps to Revolution
by Sara Robinson, Campaign for
www.alternet.org/, February 22,
If history is any indication, we may already
be on the road to violent revolution. Conservatives finally created
enough misery to make it possible.
"Those who make peaceful evolution
impossible make violent revolution inevitable." -- John F.
There's one thing for sure: 2008 isn't
anything like politics as usual.
The corporate media (with their unerring
eye for the obvious point) is fixated on the narrative that, for
the first time ever, Americans will likely end this year with
either a woman or a black man headed for the White House. Bloggers
are telling stories from the front lines of primaries and caucuses
that look like something from the early 60s -- people lining up
before dawn to vote in Manoa, Hawaii yesterday; a thousand black
college students in Prairie View, Texas marching 10 miles to cast
their early votes in the face of a county that tried to disenfranchise
them. In recent months, we've also been gobstopped by the sheer
passion of the insurgent campaigns of both Barack Obama and Ron
Paul, both of whom brought millions of new voters into the conversation
-- and with them, a sharp critique of the status quo and a new
energy that's agitating toward deep structural change.
There's something implacable, earnest,
and righteously angry in the air. And it raises all kinds of questions
for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers who've been ground down
to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30 years.
Can it be -- at long last -- that Americans have, simply, had
enough? Are we, finally, stepping out to take back our government
-- and with it, control of our own future? Is this simply a shifting
political season -- the kind we get every 20 to 30 years -- or
is there something deeper going on here? Do we dare to raise our
hopes that this time, we're going to finally win a few? Just how
ready is this country for big, serious, forward-looking change?
Recently, I came across a pocket of sociological
research that suggested a tantalizing answer to these questions
-- and also that America may be far more ready for far more change
than anyone really believes is possible at this moment. In fact,
according to some sociologists, we've already lined up all the
preconditions that have historically set the stage for full-fledged
It turns out that the energy of this moment
is not about Hillary or Ron or Barack. It's about who we are,
and where we are, and what happens to people's minds when they're
left hanging just a little too far past the moment when they're
ready for transformative change.
Way back in 1962, Caltech sociologist
James C. Davies published an article in the American Sociological
Review that summarized the conditions that determine how and when
modern political revolutions occur. Intriguingly, Davies cited
another scholar, Crane Brinton, who laid out seven "tentative
uniformities" that he argued were the common precursors that
set the stage for the Puritan, American, French, and Russian revolutions.
As I read Davies' argument, it struck me that the same seven stars
Brinton named are now precisely lined up at midheaven over America
in 2008. Taken together, it's a convergence that creates the perfect
social, economic, and political conditions for the biggest revolution
since the shot heard 'round the world.
And even more interestingly: in every
case, we got here as a direct result of either intended or unintended
consequences of the conservatives' war against liberal government,
and their attempt to take over our democracy and replace it with
a one-party plutocracy. It turns out that, historically, liberal
nations make very poor grounds for revolution -- but deeply conservative
ones very reliably create the conditions that eventually make
violent overthrow necessary. And our own Republicans, it turns
out, have done a hell of a job.
Here are the seven criteria, along with
the reasons why we're fulfilling each of them now, and how conservative
policies conspired to put us on the road to possible revolution.
1. Soaring, Then Crashing
Davies notes that revolutions don't happen
in traditional societies that are stable and static -- where people
have their place, things are as they've always been, and nobody
expects any of that to change. Rather, modern revolutions -- particularly
the progressive-minded ones in which people emerge from the fray
with greater rights and equality -- happen in economically advancing
societies, always at the point where a long period of rising living
standards and high, hopeful expectations comes to a crashing end,
leaving the citizens in an ugly and disgruntled mood. As Davies
"Revolutions are most likely to occur
when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development
is followed by a short period of sharp reversal. The all-important
effect on the minds of people in a particular society is to produce,
during the former period, an expectation of continued ability
to satisfy needs -- which continue to rise -- and, during the
latter, a mental state of anxiety and frustration when manifest
reality breaks away from anticipated reality ...
"Political stability and instability
are ultimately dependent on a state of mind, a mood, in society...it
is the dissatisfied state of mind rather than the tangible provision
of 'adequate' or 'inadequate' supplies of food, equality, or liberty
which produces the revolution."
The American middle class was built on
New Deal investments in education, housing, infrastructure, and
health care, which produced a very "prolonged period of objective
economic and social development." People were optimistic;
generations of growing prosperity raised their expectations that
their children would do even better. That era instilled in Americans
exactly the kind of hopeful belief in their own agency that primes
them to become likely revolutionaries in an era of decline.
And now, thanks to 28 years of conservative
misrule, we are now at the point where "manifest reality
breaks away from anticipated reality;" and the breach is
creating political turbulence. The average American has seen his
or her standard of living contract by fits and starts since about
1972. This fall-off that was relieved somewhat by the transition
to two-earner households and the economic sunshine of the Clinton
years -- but then accelerated with the dot-com crash, followed
by seven years of Bush's overt hostility toward the lower 98 percent
of Americans who aren't part of his base. Working-class America
is reeling from the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs and the
scourge of predatory lending; middle-class America is being hollowed
out by health-care bankruptcies, higher college costs, and a tax
load far heavier than that of the richest 2 percent. These people
expected to do better than their parents. Now, they're screwed
every direction they turn.
In the face of this reversal, Davies tells
us, it's not at all surprising that the national mood is turning
ominous, from one end of the political spectrum to the other.
However, he warns us: this may not be just a passing political
storm. In other times and places, this kind of quick decline in
a prosperous nation has been a reliable sign of a full-on revolution
brewing just ahead.
2. They Call It A Class War
Marx called this one true, says Davies.
Progressive modern democracies run on mutual trust between classes
and a shared vision of the common good that binds widely disparate
groups together. Now, we're also about to re-learn the historical
lesson that liberals like flat hierarchies, racial and religious
tolerance, and easy class mobility not because we're soft-headed
and soft-hearted -- but because, unlike short-sighted conservatives,
we understand that tight social cohesion is our most reliable
and powerful bulwark against the kinds of revolutions that bring
down great economies, nations and cultures.
In all the historical examples Davies
and Brinton cite, the stage for revolution was set when the upper
classes broke faith with society's other groups, and began to
openly prey on them in ways that threatened their very future.
Not surprisingly, the other groups soon united, took up arms,
And here we are again: Conservative policies
have opened the wealth gap to Depression levels; put workers at
the total mercy of their employers; and deprived the working and
middle classes of access to education, home ownership, health
care, capital, legal redress, and their expectations of a better
future for their kids. You can only get away with blaming this
on gays and Mexicans for so long before people get wise to the
game. And as the primaries are making clear: Americans are getting
Our current plutocratic nobility may soon
face the same stark choice its English, French, and Russian predecessors
did. They can keep their heads and take proactive steps to close
the gap between themselves and the common folk (choosing evolution
over revolution, as JFK counsels above). Or they can keep insisting
stubbornly on their elite prerogatives, until that gap widens
to the point where the revolution comes -- and they will lose
their heads entirely.
Right now, all we're asking of our modern-day
corporate courtiers is that they accept a tax cut repeal on people
making over $200K a year, raise the minimum wage, give us decent
health care and the right to unionize, and call a halt to their
ridiculous "death tax" boondoggle. In retrospect, their
historic forebears might have counseled them to take this deal:
their headless ghosts bear testimony to the idea that's it's better
to give in and lose a little skin early than dig in and lose your
whole hide later on.
3. Deserted Intellectuals
Mere unrest among the working and middle
classes, all by itself, isn't enough. Revolutions require leaders
-- and those always come from the professional and intellectual
classes. In most times and places, these groups (which also include
military officers) usually enjoy comfortable ties to the upper
classes, and access to a certain level of power. But if those
connections become frayed and weak, and the disaffected intellectuals
make common cause with the lower classes, revolution becomes almost
Davies notes that, compared to both the
upper and lower classes, the members of America's upper-middle
class were relatively untouched by Great Depression. Because of
this, their allegiances to the existing social structure largely
remained intact; and he argues that their continued engagement
was probably the main factor that allowed America to avert an
all-out revolution in the 1930s.
But 2008 is a different story. Both the
Boomers (now in their late 40s to early 60s) and Generation X
(now in their late 20s to late 40s) were raised in an economically
advancing nation that was rich with opportunity and expectation.
We spent our childhoods in what were then still the world's best
schools; and A students of every class worked hard to position
ourselves for what we (and our parents and teachers) expected
would be very successful adult careers. We had every reason to
believe that, no matter where we started, important leadership
roles awaited us in education, government, the media, business,
research, and other institutions.
And yet, when we finally graduated and
went to work, we found those institutions being sold out from
under us to a newly-emerging group of social and economic conservatives
who didn't share our broad vision of common decency and the common
good (which we'd inherited from the GI and Silent adults who raised
us and taught us); and who were often so corrupted or so sociopathic
that the working environments they created were simply unendurable.
If wealth, prestige, and power came at the price of our principles,
we often chose instead to take lower-paying work, live small,
and stay true to ourselves.
For too many of us, these thwarted expectations
have been the driving arc of our adult lives. But we've never
lost the sense that it was a choice that the America we grew up
in would never have asked us to make. In Davies' terms, we are
"deserted intellectuals" -- a class that is always at
extremely high risk for fomenting revolution whenever it appears
Davies says that revolutions catalyze
when these deserted intellectuals make common cause with the lower
classes. And much of the energy of this election is coming right
out of that emerging alliance. The same drive toward corporatization
that savaged our dreams also hammered at other class wedges throughout
American society, creating conditions that savaged the middle
class and ground the working class toward something resembling
serfdom. Between our galvanizing frustration with George Bush,
our shared fury at the war, and the new connections forged by
bloggers and organizers, that alliance has now congealed into
the determinedly change-minded movements we're seeing this election
4. Incompetent Government
As this blog has long argued, conservatives
invariably govern badly because they don't really believe that
government should exist at all -- except, perhaps, as a way to
funnel the peoples' tax money into the pockets of party insiders.
This conflicted (if not outright hostile) attitude toward government
can't possibly lead to any outcome other than bad management,
bad policy, and eventually such horrendously bad social and economic
outcomes that people are forced into the streets to hold their
leaders to account.
It turns out there's never been a modern
revolution that didn't start against a backdrop of atrocious government
malfeasance in the face of precipitously declining fortunes. From
George III's onerous taxes to Marie Antoinette's "Let them
eat cake," revolutions begin when stubborn aristocrats heap
fuel on the fire by blithely disregarding the falling fortunes
of their once-prosperous citizens. And America is getting dangerously
close to that point now. Between our corporate-owned Congress
and the spectacularly bad judgment of Bush's executive branch,
there's never been a government in American history more inept,
corrupt, and criminally negligent than this one -- or more shockingly
out of touch with what the average American is going through.
Just ask anyone from New Orleans -- or anyone who has a relative
in the military.
Liberal democracy avoids this by building
in a fail-safe: if the bastards ignore us, we can always vote
them out. But if we've learned anything over the last eight years,
it's that our votes don't always count -- especially not when
conservatives are doing the counting. If this year's election
further confirms the growing conviction that change via the ballot
box is futile, we may find a large and disgruntled group of Americans
looking to restore government accountability by more direct means.
5. Gutless Wonders in the Ruling Class
Revolution becomes necessary when the
ruling classes fail in their duty to lead. Most of the major modern
political revolutions occurred at moments when the world was changing
rapidly -- and the country's leaders dealt with it by dropping
back into denial and clinging defiantly to the old, profitable,
and familiar status quo. New technologies, new ideas, and new
economic opportunities were emerging; and there came a time when
ignoring them was no longer an option. When the leaders failed
to step forward boldly to lead their people through the looming
and necessary transformations, the people rebelled.
We're hard up against some huge transformative
changes now. Global warming and overwhelming pollution are forcing
us to reconsider the way we occupy the world, altering our relationship
to food, water, air, soil, energy, and each other. The transition
off carbon-based fuels and away from non-recyclable goods is going
to re-structure our entire economy. Computers are still creating
social and business transformations; biotech and nanotech will
only accelerate that. More and more people in the industrialized
world are feeling a spiritual void, and coming to believe that
moving away from consumerism and toward community may be an important
step in recovering that nameless thing they've lost.
And, in the teeth of this restless drift
toward inevitable change, America has been governed by a bunch
of conservative dinosaurs who can't even bring themselves to acknowledge
that the 20th century is over. (Some of them, in fact, are still
trying to turn back the Enlightenment.) Liberal governments manage
this kind of shift by training and subsidizing scientists and
planners, funding research, and setting policies that help their
nations navigate these transitions with some grace. Conservative
ones -- being conservative -- will reflexively try to deny that
change is occurring at all, and then brutally suppress anyone
with evidence to the contrary.
Which is why, every time our current crop
of so-called leaders open their mouths to propose a policy or
Explain It All To Us, it's embarrassingly obvious that they don't
have the vision, the intelligence, or the courage to face the
future that everyone can clearly see bearing down on us, whether
we're ready or not. Their persistent cluelessness infuriates us
-- and terrifies us. It's all too clear that these people are
a waste of our tax money: they will never take us where we need
to go. Much of the energy we're seeing in this year's election
is due to the fact that a majority of Americans have figured out
that our government is leaving us hung out here, completely on
our own, to manage huge and inevitable changes with no support
or guidance whatsoever.
Historically, this same seething fury
at incompetent, unimaginative, cowardly leaders -- and the dawning
realization that our survival depends on seizing the lead for
ourselves -- has been the spark that's ignited many a violent
6. Fiscal Irresponsibility
As we've seen, revolutions follow in the
wake of national economic reversals. Almost always, these reversals
occur when inept and corrupt governments mismanage the national
economy to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and currency
There's a growing consensus on both the
left and right that America is now heading into the biggest financial
contraction since the Great Depression. And it's one that liberal
critics have seen coming for years, as conservatives systematically
dismantled the economic foundations of the entire country. Good-paying
jobs went offshore. Domestic investments in infrastructure and
education were diverted to the war machine. Government oversight
of banks and securities was blinded. Vast sections of the economy
were sold off to the Saudis for oil, or to the Chinese for cheap
consumer goods and money to finance tax cuts for the wealthy.
This is no way to run an economy, unless
you're a borrow-and-spend conservative determined to starve the
government beast to the point where you can, as Grover Norquist
proposed, drag it into the bathtub and drown it entirely. The
current recession is the bill come due for 28 years of Republican
financial malfeasance. It's also another way in which conservatives
themselves have unwittingly set up the historical preconditions
7. Inept and Inconsistent Use of Force
The final criterion for revolution is
this: The government no longer exercises force in a way that people
find fair or consistent. And this can happen in all kinds of ways.
Domestically, there's uneven sentencing,
where some people get the maximum and others get cut loose without
penalty -- and neither outcome has any connection to the actual
circumstances of the crime (though it often correlates all too
closely with race, class, and the ability to afford a good lawyer).
Unchecked police brutality (tasers, for example) that hardens
public perception against the constabulary. Unwarranted police
surveillance and legal harassment of law-abiding citizens going
about their business. Different kinds of law enforcement for different
neighborhoods. The use of government force to silence critics.
And let's not forget the unconstitutional restriction of free
speech and free assembly rights.
Abroad, there's the misuse of military
force, which forces the country to pour its blood and treasure
into misadventures that offer no clear advantage for the nation.
These misadventures not only reduce the country's international
prestige and contribute to economic declines; they often create
a class of displaced soldiers who return home with both the skills
and the motivation to turn political unrest into a full-fledged
This kind of capricious, irrational ineptitude
in deploying government force leads to public contempt for the
power of the state, and leads the governed to withdraw their consent.
And, eventually, it also raises people's determination to stand
together to oppose state power. That growing solidarity and fearlessness
-- along with the resigned knowledge that equal-opportunity goons
will brutalize loyalists and rebels alike, so you might as well
be a dead lion rather than a live lamb -- is the final factor
that catalyzes ordinary citizens into ready and willing revolutionaries.
"A revolutionary state of mind requires
the continued, even habitual but dynamic expectation of greater
opportunity to satisfy basic needs...but the necessary additional
ingredient is a persistent, unrelenting threat to the satisfaction
of those needs: not a threat which actually returns people to
a state of sheer survival but which put them in the mental state
where they believe they will not be able to satisfy one or more
basic needs ... The crucial factor is the vague or specific fear
that ground gained over a long period of time will be quickly
lost ... [This fear] generates when the existing government suppresses
or is blamed for suppressing such opportunity."
When Davies wrote that paragraph in 1962,
he probably couldn't have imagined how closely it would describe
America in 2008. Thirty years of Republican corporatist government
have failed us in ways that are not just inept or corrupt, but
also have brought us to the same dangerous brink where so many
other empires have erupted into violent revolution. The ground
we have gained steadily over the course of the entire 20th Century
is eroding under our feet. Movement conservatism has destroyed
our economic base, declared open war on the middle and working
classes, thwarted the aspirations of the intellectual and professional
elites, dismantled the basic processes and functions of democracy,
failed to prepare us for the future, overseen the collapse of
our economy, and misused police and military force so inconsistently
that Americans are losing respect for government.
It's not always the case that revolution
inevitably emerges wherever these seven conditions occur together,
just as not everybody infected with a virus gets sick. But over
the past 350 years, almost every major revolution in a modern
industrialized country has been preceded by this pattern of seven
preconditions. It's fair to say that all those who get sick start
out by being exposed to this virus.
Hillary Clinton is failing because this
is a revolutionary moment -- and she, regrettably, has the misfortune
to be too closely identified with the mounting failures of the
past that we're now seeking to move beyond. On the other hand,
Ron Paul's otherwise inexplicable success has been built on his
pointed and very specific critique of the kinds of government
leadership failures I've described.
And Barack Obama is walking away with
the moment because he talks of "hope" -- which, as Davies
makes clear, is the very first thing any would-be revolutionary
needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of
his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution."
And then he describes -- not in too much detail -- a different
future, and what it means to be a transformative president, and
in doing so answers our deep frustration at 30 years of leaders
who faced the looming future by turning their heads instead of
Will he deliver on this promise of change?
That remains to be seen. But the success of his presidency, if
there is to be one, will likely be measured on how well his policies
confront and deal with these seven criteria for revolution. If
those preconditions are all still in place in 2012, the fury will
have had another four years to rise. And at that point, if history
rhymes, mere talk of hope and change will no longer be enough.