Is a general revolution imminent? Are the social, psychological, and cultural effects of social networking rendering the way we conduct our relationships or manage knowledge obsolete? Are domestic and global economic inequities reaching unbearably large extremes? Are the governing institutions capable of resolving current problems? Are the major problems of climate change, global health, and economic development likely to get fixed by Congressional or even Presidential decrees? These crises have been gestating for some time, but as they converge the sense of urgency is becoming overwhelming.
Numerous attempts at revolution have taken place in the modern era. Many have failed. Political revolutions occur when a significant part of the population becomes radicalized and sees no alternative to overthrowing the government. A political revolution differs from rebellions, which tend to be more reactive with a fairly limited goal of simply getting rid of the tyrant or changing who is in charge. Revolutionaries have a vision, a new paradigm that they want to implement. As Antonio Gramsci put it, “The crisis consists precisely with the fact that the old is dying and the new can’t be born.” Revolutions occur when the traditional customs, laws, and practices no longer reflect reality. Social hierarchies are being overrun with the newly enriched nabobs and political representation fails to accommodate changing sociological relationships.
So, the question is really whether the factors that seem to kickstart most revolutions since 1776 are present now. The answer is complicated. Clearly, many factors are converging, both globally as well as domestically, in what could be a perfect storm. That doesn’t mean there has to be a revolution. The underlying tensions could take other forms besides a leftist revolution. Keep in mind that the problems do not simply affect either the left or the right, but affect all individuals regardless of race, income, or creed. It could lead to repression by fearful governments willing to use force to maintain the status quo, or the authorities might manipulate a gullible population that is convinced that any sort of progressive change will threaten their way of life. Most of us hope that nothing will happen and that the technologies and extremely powerful, scientific study of ourselves will magically provide some sort of cure, despite the fact that those technologies are also part of the problem.
Revolutions are not isolated events. They reverberate transnationally. The American Revolution, for example, set off a string of revolutions in France, Haiti, and Latin America in what might be called the Atlantic Revolutions. The 1848 Revolutions erupted simultaneously across Europe and it was probably no coincidence that China experienced the horrific Taiping Rebellion, and the United States fought its civil war at around this time. Common global factors such as rising population, rapid industrialization and disruptive urbanization, linked through a rapid expansion of international trade and eventually European imperialism, stressed populations in transition from traditional modes of living to modern ones. The period from 1989-1991 played host to revolutions throughout Eastern Europe, Tiananmen Square, Namibia, and South Africa.
Today a similar resonance exists globally. The effects of climate change supercharge hurricanes, forest fires are fueled by the movement of winds across continents, and uneven economic development increases migration pressures. The era of international relations is now obsolete, as the practice of Realpolitik inspired bilateral treaties in which problems are resolved through the auspices of national interest has been replaced by transnational issues, which essentially are dependent on global consensus. Yet countries such as China, Russia, Philippines, Poland, Brazil, Hungary, and even the US are turning to more radical right wing political solutions. Donald Trump’s “love” for Kim Jong Un, or his open admission that he would like to have the power that some of his dictator friends have clearly, symbolize this transnational trend. When Vladimir Putin can fairly openly tinker with elections in the US or France without unanimous opposition, national elections are virtually international. Autocrats around the world are hollowing out democracy from within following a different playbook from the earlier strong man model in which the leader comes to power through a coup.
Covid 19 has exposed to the world, but especially to the U.S., several key facts. First, the United States is not invincible. We are unable to bend nature to our will. The pandemic, along with natural disasters, has shown that mother nature has a great deal of uncontrollable power. Even more alarming is that our responses to these crises have been clumsy and even harmful. The differential suffering of the poor during the crisis and the inability of the health insurance to enable medical care to help everyone equally has brought the outrageous gap between rich and poor blinking into the sunlight. Our Rube Goldberg health care system is weaker than anyone imagined. Perhaps this could be fixed, but the virus has brought to light the pathetic inability of our political institutions to deal with any of the major problems, including prominently health care. One party insists on disrupting any government action by denying that there is a problem. (Trump’s attempt to deny the legitimacy of the election is a direct descendent of the climate change deniers.) Putting party interests first and completely devoid of practical policies, the Republican party has relied on a “no government is a good government” attitude. The result is stalemate and the only way anything gets done is through executive decrees issued by the president. The greater the dependence on executive decrees, the more normalized autocratic rule becomes because it is governing without Congress. Moreover, every time the presidential office changes hands, new decrees are ordered that reverse policy, ensuring that crucial policy remains weak and unable to develop momentum.
Since the Civil War, Americans have not faced the kind of meltdown that much of the rest of the world experienced in the aftermath of World War II or the chronic violence since then. Americans are complacent about the possibility of a fundamental upheaval of our existing democratic structures. “It could never happen here” is a slogan that encourages radical groups to become even more extreme, because society’s complacency dulls our awareness of the consequences of political upheaval. As long as we think that such instability can only happen in what Trump so delicately called “shithole countries,” we are vulnerable.
Systematic inability to govern is a key variable in most revolutions, although the reasons for the non-functioning governments vary. By 1789 the French government had to set aside 51% of its receipts to pay off its loans, which were needed to cover the cost of supporting the American Revolution. Chronic debt left no financial wiggle room in the event of a crisis and it left Louis XVI unable to assert royal prerogative over the growing political demands of the nobility and the growing middle class. The Nazi revolution had its way paved by the fact that for three years the majority of the delegates elected to the Reichstag were formally committed to the overthrow of the government. The government relied on Emergency Decrees, which are similar (but by no means identical) to our Executive Orders. “What is the most expensive choir in Germany?” German wits asked. “The Reichstag, because it meets once a year, sings the national anthem, and goes home.” Mussolini did much the same. The Russian Duma acquired some powers as a result of the 1905 uprising that forced Nicholas II to accept some constitutional limitations. But the Russian government used Emergency Decrees for a short period before it rewrote the constitution, which took away the Duma’s authority. Short conclusion: beware and be afraid of any sort of executive decree that allows a ruler to govern without the oversight of an elective body.
Dysfunctional governments are fairly common. When they converge with a real or perceived major problem, the public can decide to take matters into their own hands. Dysfunctional governments are weak and lack either the funding or the commitment to defend themselves. Currently, all three branches of government are faltering. In addition, the so-called “deep state” of government employees who staff all the offices and who are responsible for the bi-partisan maintanence of the stability and continuity of the law is currently under attack from Trump. Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again, or will partisan gridlock continue to radicalize the country?
These problems have been years, decades, even centuries in the making. Prosperity and complacency blinded us to their existence. The dramatic exposure in the last year has been like ripping a bandage off the wound. The nearly simultaneous arrival of the problems created a synergy that has forced most Americans to acknowledge the severity of the dysfunction. Dissonance between social reality and the thwarted expectations is a crucial factor leading to revolution. The initiators of the French revolution were not the poor; they were too busy staying alive from day to day. Instead the poor acted like a battery which stored latent anger, which flared up at key points. It was the upwardly mobile men and nobility who wanted to wrest power from the king that dominated the opening stages. The poor, either rural vagabonds or recent arrivals in the cities, took note that a revolution was occurring, and they radicalized the movement in the second stage. In both cases, the feudal system of divine monarchy and three estates no longer matched the demographic explosion, the growth of frustrated wealthy middle-class merchants, lawyers, rentiers, and well-to-do farmers. Neither the legal system, social traditions, nor political structures could manage what France had become.
Debt, enormous debt, has often proven fatal for the status quo. In 1788-89 the French government, for example, spent slightly more than half of its income paying off interest on loans. Louis XVI tried several ways to raise tax revenue without success. Finally, he called the medieval Estates-general, which had last met in 1614, to legitimize raising taxes. The French, who hate paying taxes, faced a weakened government and, armed with the example of the American Revolution, overthrew the government.
Germany had financial issues that were different, but equally catastrophic. The Nazi party channeled the hyper-inflation in the early 1920s, followed by the depression, into support for its extremist ideas. Whereas the inflation wiped out middle-class savings driving many to lose status, the depression was the opposite. It caused deflation and was caused by shortage of money. This hit workers particularly hard because they lost jobs. The Nazis took advantage of the fear shared by most Germans who had been whiplashed between the two extremes. Fear of loss of status will radicalize people.
No one knows exactly what the debt will actually be a year from now. The debt will be necessary to keep the economy afloat, but even if a bipartisan agreement is reached, a number of businesses will fold. The economy may be weak, which means tax revenues might flounder. Our national debt will be enormous. Institutions, such as higher education colleges and universities, are facing serious, existential budget problems. Small colleges, already suffering severe financial strain, will collapse. Larger universities face budget cuts that will significantly undermine education and research. The sustained crisis in higher education will harm a generation of Americans who will be unable to buy a house, may have to put off marriage, lost a year of either education or work, and who might hold a grudge. The loss of educational prestige and intellectual wattage will have a negative impact on our ability to be at the cutting edge of scientific endeavors, which will result in persistent loss of taxable revenue and jobs.
I prefer to hope that there will be no revolution and that these problems can be solved. I worry, however, that too many variables are converging at once. On the one hand, you have the sharpened awareness and impact of global problems such as climate change, economic disparities, health care, and the return of authoritarianism that seem intractable. On the other hand, governments and their ideologies have proved themselves to be completely unequal to the challenges being faced. This appears to be where we are.
Did I mention that except for 1989, revolutions are extremely violent? Emotions run higher when you think that your opponent should agree with you because he/she shares the same experiences. A sense of betrayal and pent up grievances can raise the level of violence. We should look before we leap.