Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Discussion: The Revolutionary Threshold

A few points...

Barry, I think we are focusing on different elements of the statement I quoted from the article (which I can only assume is an accurate assessment of Montequieu's position). You noted that it is expectation that drives revolution. I noted that "the people" need to be prodded along by reforms originating, presumably, from somewhere other than "the people". The latter statement is very much in keeping with Orwell's themes.

On the points you both posted regarding hierarchy of needs and individual empowerment, I would tend to favor Ryan's position. Unless I'm mistaken, most of the peasantry was dirt poor in both the Russian and French revolutions. The role of reform, I think, in inspiring revolution was not so much that it lifted the peasants to a more secure lifestyle, but that it gave them courage question and oppose their governments.

Regarding wealth and materialism, I would definitely favor Frank's position. In countries of great wealth (think Japan and the US), materialism is enshrined rather than reduced. In fact, this is something I wish that Putnam might have studied as a factor in community involvement. I can think of a lot of annecdotal evidence that wealth is tied to a greater focus on personal attainment, where poverty creates more focus on community support. I don't, however, have any great evidence to back that up. It also tends to run contrary to my general feeling that Orwell's assessments are correct.

Also, and this could almost be separate (but related) topic, I was doing some reading in the "Market For Civil War" article in the same FP Magazine which looks at the financial causes of civil war. I was not impressed. First, they bounce back and forth between issues of absolute wealth and relative wealth without distinguishing between the two at all. Also much of their evidence was rather specious.

They pointed out that once a nation reaches a high per capita, the "risk of revolution is negligible". Of course, all the countries they seem to be referring to in that category are liberal democracies. Might that have a something to do with it? The Soviet Union faced economic hardship, but it was still relatively well off when it suffered a massive (albeit bloodless) revolution.

Similarly they supposed that wealth distribution was not a major factor, presenting as evidence that while Columbia suffered for that cause, Brazil "got away" with it. I'd say if 50% of countries with a high inequality of wealth suffer civil wars, that would make it a pretty major factor. Further that, as I mentioned recently to Barry, the other South American countries, including Brazil, that haven't seen recent revolutions are not out of the woods yet. They are facing severe problems with their democratic governments as progressive leadership is elected by the masses and has to go head to head with a small, but incredibly powerful upper class that has heretofore dominated the political system. Argentina has been hovering on the brink of total collapse for some time now, Venzuela just recently stepped back from the edge of civil war, and Brazil is now facing their first such challenge by a progressive government to the entrenched power of the wealthy. The verdict is certainly not in as to whether these democracies will survive their disparities of wealth.

For this very reason, however, I do support the authors' contention that democracy holds no promise of political stability for developing nations. I have serious doubts as to how well democracy can survive in this nation as the disparity of wealth grows. In most developing nations the situation is much worse. I continue to believe that having a large and healthy middle class is a crucial element to a strong democracy. Additionally, it has long been my contention that there needs to be a high level of social and cultural buy-in for democracy to succeed. Democracy is a fragile form of government which offers opportunities for corruption and subversion at every turn. Most developing nations are just not there yet. And this is a major difference of opinion between myself and these authors who completely dismiss the role of culture and historical background in civil war.

But I also have some agreement with the conclusions of the article. One of the elements they stress is the role of international peacekeepers. This I could not agree with more. I think that more than anything we need to buy time for these nations and provide them with the stability they need to grow the cultural, economic and educational infrastructure they need to create a stable government. And to otherwise get out of their way and let them do it. Some lessons can only be learned by experience...

I keep coming back to Iran. I just wish we could have seen what would have happened to them had the whole axis of evil thing never occurred. They had just the incremental reforms and high expectations we've been talking about. They've completely rejected foreign influence for 20 years and at the same time toppled the old aristocracy, and have come around to democracy on their own terms. They have a strong sense of national identity, unity, and pride. And even the newly entrenched powers were recognizing the need to change and liberalise. These are precisely the conditions that I would view ideal for the creation of a healthy and stable democracy. I couldn't write a better script. Unfortunately, by continuously rattling our sabre at Iran and praising the reformers we are tainting them with the perception of being American agents. This in a country that topped out Foreign Policy's chart (same issue) of popular nationalism and that is rabidly anti-colonialist.

And what a powerful example they could have been to the developing world. To demonstrate that nationalism and indepence from the colonial powers, the liberal democracies, is not, in fact, incompatible with the development of one's own liberal democracy. The neo-cons have been hoping that in Iraq they could create a shining example democracy for the middle east. That could have been, should have been, Iran. How much more powerful a demonstration would it have been to show them that they could get where they need to go without having to capitulate to the hated imperialists...

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