Thursday, February 3, 2011

Revolution and Rebellion in the Postmodern World

Jack A. Goldstone offered a consideration of the causes of political instability that seems timely now in his classic Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991), a useful book despite the biases (and distractibility) of its author.1 Goldstone observed there that a combination of youthful population, urbanization, and economic stress extending as far as falling real wages and rising "elite competition" (too many qualified applicants for too few "good" jobs, the accompanying credentialing crisis, etc.) sets the stage for revolution; and moreover, that this combination of circumstances is apt to be demographically driven.

All of these have certainly been evident in the Middle East and North Africa. Additionally, recent events have exacerbated these circumstances. While it's the spread of social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter that have got all the attention in discussions of the ongoing revolts in the Middle East, food prices--which hit record levels in January, exceeding even those seen in the "food and fuel crisis of 2006-8"--are likely to have been the bigger factor.2 That crisis saw developing nations (where poverty makes the populations more sensitive to price shocks) hit especially hard, many of them (including Egypt) seeing riots as a result, events which seem like a prelude to the economic shocks that followed (the Great Recession of 2008, the renewed rise of food prices) and the greater instability evident now.3

Goldstone also offered an insight into why revolutions (to which he is hostile) do not deliver what they promise; simply put, they take over from a previous regime that had already found itself pushed to the wall, its options and resources exhausted.4 (Put another way, by the time the revolutionaries take the palace, the treasury's empty and creditors are pounding on the gates.) A successor government can hardly deliver rapid, positive transformation in such circumstances.

This is all too likely to be the case again, especially given that, in Egypt at any rate, the change of regime seems to fit a pattern Parag Khanna described in his book The Second World:
Small countries . . . which have less economic weight than many large companies, often act as such corporations do, firing a bad CEO first and worrying about who should replace him later.5
Moreover, the deeper causes of the problem (climate change-fueled extreme weather, population stress, scarcities of energy and other resources, the vulnerabilities attendant on greater integration into a global economy and fuller exposure to the vicissitudes of international finance, the pattern of falling investment and budgetary pressures during four decades of slow economic growth) suggest that the current unrest is just a local, present manifestation of issues which are far wider, bigger and likely to get more disruptive in the coming years.

1. Unfortunately, Goldstone goes beyond the useful thesis he advances to not just offering this pattern as a complete and universally applicable theory, but devoting much effort and space to arguing for that theory as an outright replacement for the Marxist approach to history he seems desperate to replace (not least, in his "straw man" treatment of Marxist historiography). Of course, conservatives have been playing the game of using Malthus to answer capitalism's critics for two centuries, Malthus himself writing his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) to refute the social engineering schemes of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet--clearly, without accomplishing their objective. After all, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive.
2. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in a lucid piece in The New Yorker in October 2010, the technologies that have got so much press support
a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.
3. The last time, rising petroleum prices (which hit $150 a barrel that year) were the component in the mix of factors (which also included bad weather and "soaring" futures markets) that got the most attention. This time, extreme weather and crop failures have received comparable attention, though oil prices are trending upward again, recently hitting $100 a barrel for the first time since prices crested and dropped in 2008. (Events in the Middle East seem to be cause rather than effect, however.)
4. Gabriel Kolko, who approaches some of the same issues from a leftist (albeit non-Marxist perspective) goes further, arguing in Century of War (1994) that revolutions do not so much topple the previous regime as step into the vaccum left by its collapse (though they achieve their successes by being better able to "articulate the desires of the masses," as well as "making fewer tactical and strategic mistakes than their rivals").
5. Parag Khanna, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 29.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009
Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, by Gabriel Kolko

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