I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.
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The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.
What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.
John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.
Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.
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That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?
I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.
A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.
A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.
It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.
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Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.
Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?
We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution’: from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.
Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?
Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.
Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.
Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.
The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.
It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?
An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?
What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.
Basically, we need a miracle.
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As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:
The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso