Saturday, May 31, 2003

Discussion: The Revolutionary Threshold

Please excuse any chaos in my thoughts, as I have not fully ripened them. But I still wanted to add whatever I could to this conversation.

I'm not sure that Montesquieu and Orwell are all that similar. Without reading Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws, which is where I presume Montesquieu expresses the opinion set out in the Foreign Policy article, I understand this quote as an observation that people's expectations are what matters more than actual position. If the majority observes a disparity in wealth or condition, they are more likely to revolt because the inequality is salient. I apologize to Montesquieu if that is not his position, but it makes sense to me.

While Montesquieu seems to focus on the ideal conditions for revolution, Joe's statement of Orwell seems to focus on the locus of revolutionary change. Joe's contention is well formed and supported by the examples he gives. But without a more developed understanding of history, I cannot add to or challenge this contention. Assuming it is true, then, let me offer one possible explanation why revolution occurs in the middle- (or upper-middle) class. Ryan, I beseech you to clarify or correct any part of the following as necessary. There is a humanistic branch of motivational psychology (is this the same/related to behavioral psychology?) most well-recognized by Abraham Maslow's theory of the "Hierarchy of Needs," well summarized here. In short, Maslow theorized that lower-level needs (psychological and safety needs) must be satisfied before we are to pursue higher aims, like esteem needs and self-actualization.

I suggest that revolution only becomes a pursuit of some threshold segment of society when other, lower-level needs are met. Because the middle-class as a group is more likely to feel safe and needs to devote considerably less effort toward the basics, they may turn their attention to higher ideals like freedom, equality, and justice. One might wonder, then, why it is the middle-class alone and not all of the upper segment of society that joins in this revolutionary spirit, but I think there is a ready and self-evident reply. The highest of society becomes blind to these ideals by greed and self-interest, just as the lower realms of society are made ignorant by their desire to satisfy basic desires.

Apparently, I am not the first to stumble on this argument. Professor Ronald Inglehart wrote a book entitled, The silent revolution: Changing values and political styles among western publics. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1977), discussing how an increase in wealth might lead to less focus on materialism, which in turn could mean greater political participation. An interesting critique of Professor Inglehart may be found here.

The only challenge I have to this line of thought is that, if authors like Robert H. Frank (Luxury Fever) are correct, wealth is always relative, so materialism is more like a treadmill than part of the hierarchy. Again, it may be perception that matters most--if people perceive that their material needs are satisfied, they may indeed turn to higher ideals (freedom, justice, and equality), but there seems to be no end to material desire.

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