Some preliminary thoughts about revolutions

There is a lot of talk about revolution happening now in online communities given the unfolding events in Tunisia and Egypt. This has got me thinking about the nature of revolutions. There’s a rather nice list of revolutions and rebellions on Wikipedia for those who are not up to date with the history of revolutions.

Revolutions come in different forms. Revolutions in ideas and thinking have changed our society and belief patterns. Political revolutions have reshaped our polity. Revolutions can be peaceful, dangerous, bloody. But rarely are they run according to a plan and rarely do they achieve a set outcome. And many times the unintended consequences shape the future as much as did the intentions of the revolutionaries.

This issue makes me think back to one of the seminal thinkers about the nature of scientific revolutions – Thomas Kuhn. He wrote before many of us were born; and one of his most controversial and revolutionary works was a monograph called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this work Kuhn argued that scientific progress was discontinuous and driven by human subjective behaviour that was not always entirely rational.

Kuhn proposed the notion of “paradigm shifts” (which were later adopted by various business gurus with gusto) that were driven by what kind of things were thinkable at a particular time. And it is this part of his thinking that seems important about revolutions. A revolution moves through a cycle where the unthought becomes thought and then is manifested in action.

Some might also base their thinking about the start and spread of revolutions on Dawkins’ notion of memes and the associated idea of memetics.

Unless certain external factors have shifted then new ways of thinking (which go on to drive behaviour) are not possible. An interesting example of this is the recent death by self-immolation of a protester in Tunisia. The Guardian outlines the sad story whereby Mohamed Bouazizi was so angry and disenfranchised within his society that he set himself on fire. This action inspired other young men who felt similarly to commit suicide in protest. And within days this had translated into riots in the capital Tunis.

Thus we see that the idea of rioting in the streets of Tunis went from not-thought to thought-and-action within only a few days. And that this process leached into the political process in nearby Egypt very quickly afterward.

None of the political revolutions of history has occurred in a vacuum. In each case there is political and economic disequilibrium. And, at some stage a tipping point is reached that enables the unequal people in the system to think and act against their situation.

In a Kuhnian sense this is often a visceral movement, not rational and not driven by clear aims and objectives. I think that this is the kind of revolution we are seeing spread through the middle east now. The result of this kind of revolution is hard to predict since it is often not driven by clear ideology or consolidated group goals.

The other kind of political revolution is that driven by an opposition party or parties who share in the political process but have been disenfranchised in some way. Perhaps locked out of power by a despotic monarch or leader, but still the opposition is part of the existing power structure.

Revolutions are driven by feedback loops and these revolutions occur within systems. Taking a systems approach to thinking about them can be helpful. I’m re-reading a number of thinkers about systems theory and strategy at the moment in response to the popular uprisings in the middle east.

Strangely enough thinking about revolutions and systems theory led me to re-read Aristotle. In his Politics Book V Aristotle outlines the reasons why people turn to revolution and it seems a strangely contemporary list:

  • …Insolence and avarice on the part of government officials
  • …one or more persons have a power which is too much for the state and the power of the government
  • …Either men have committed wrong, and are afraid of punishment, or they are expecting to suffer wrong and are desirous of anticipating their enemy.
  • …a disproportionate increase in any part of the state
  • …the slightness of the change
  • …difference of races which do not at once acquire a common spirit
  • …in oligarchies the masses make revolution under the idea that they are unjustly treated, because, as I said before, they are equals, and have not an equal share, and in democracies the notables revolt, because they are not equals, and yet have only an equal share
  • …Revolutions in democracies are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues
  • …There are two patent causes of revolutions in oligarchies: (1) First, when the oligarchs oppress the people [or] …the personal rivalry of the oligarchs, which leads them to play the demagogue
  • …In aristocracies revolutions are stirred up when a few only share in the honors of the state
  • …Constitutional governments and aristocracies are commonly overthrown owing to some deviation from justice in the constitution itself