Friday, May 30, 2003

Discussion: The Revolutionary Threshold

I had a brief discussion with Barry a couple weeks ago regarding the thresholds of social change, and was brought back to that reading the Foreign Policy Mag article on North Korea. In the article the authors reference the position of pre-revolution French philosopher Montesquieu that "revolutions don't occur when the people's conditions are at rock bottom but when reform creates a spiral of expectations that spurs people to action against the old stultifying system."

It's an interesting statement. There are some echoes of it in Orwell's "1984", which delves into the subject of revolution and how to create a society wherein revolution is impossible. His position is that popular revolutions only occur when driven by the efforts of the upper-middle class to bring social reform. The poor and downtrodden present no threat, on their own, to the social order, and are regarded as such by Big Brother.

Discarding revolutions largely driven by outside influence (Iran, Afghanistan, and such), it is difficult to find a counter-example to this theory. China, perhaps, but it would be highly debatable. In the US, the colonists were by no means downtrodden and in fact were in many ways well off compared to their European counterparts. And it was the new and more equitable social structure of the New World that put their expectations at such a level that the revolution occurred. In France and Russia, revolution was preceded by an effort by aristocrats to limit the power of the king. They rallied popular support for these efforts, creating expectations in the people that these limited reforms could not meet, setting the stage for rebellion. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's sweeping reform policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were clearly instrumental in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The flip-side of this proposition is demonstrated by the failure of the embargoes of Cuba and Iraq. Constant outside pressure created an atmosphere of paranoia where the aristocrats had no breathing room to consider reform. The people of these nations were left so destitute and hopeless that little effort was ever made to topple their governments.

And in the end, this ties back, once again, to the inescapable discussion of the role of the intellectuals (typically aristocrats) in guiding the plebes and its impact on the structure of government. Can the plebes truly be made politically enlightened? And if not, where does that leave democracy and the Enlightenment vision of equality?

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