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When Change Is Not Enough: The Seven Steps To Revolution

By Sara Robinson

February 20th, 2008 – 6:01pm ET

"Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution

— John F. Kennedy

There’s one thing for sure: 2008 isn’t anything like politics as usual.

The corporate media (with their unerring eye for the obvious point) is
fixated on the narrative that, for the first time ever, Americans will likely
end this year with either a woman or a black man headed for the White House.
Bloggers are telling stories from the front lines of primaries and caucuses that
look like something from the early 60s — people
lining up before dawn to vote
in Manoa, Hawaii yesterday; a thousand
black college students
in Prairie View, Texas marching 10 miles to cast
their early votes in the face of a county that tried to disenfranchise them. In
recent months, we’ve also been gobstopped by the sheer passion of the insurgent
campaigns of both Barack Obama and Ron Paul, both of whom brought millions of
new voters into the conversation — and with them, a sharp critique of the status
quo and a new energy that’s agitating toward deep structural change.

There’s something implacable, earnest, and righteously angry in the air. And
it raises all kinds of questions for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers
who’ve been ground down to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30
years. Can it be — at long last — that Americans have, simply, had enough? Are
we, finally, stepping out to take back our government — and with it, control of
our own future? Is this simply a shifting political season — the kind we get
every 20 to 30 years — or is there something deeper going on here? Do we dare to
raise our hopes that this time, we’re going to finally win a few? Just how ready
is this country for big, serious, forward-looking change?

Recently, I came across a pocket of sociological research that suggested a
tantalizing answer to these questions — and also that America may be far more
ready for far more change than anyone really believes is possible at this
moment. In fact, according to some sociologists, we’ve already lined up all the
preconditions that have historically set the stage for full-fledged violent

It turns out that the energy of this moment is not about Hillary or Ron or
Barack. It’s about who we are, and where we are, and what happens to people’s
minds when they’re left hanging just a little too far past the moment when
they’re ready for transformative change.

Way back in 1962, Caltech sociologist James C. Davies published an article in
the American Sociological Review that summarized the conditions that determine
how and when modern political revolutions occur. Intriguingly, Davies cited
another scholar, Crane Brinton, who laid out seven "tentative uniformities" that
he argued were the common precursors that set the stage for the Puritan,
American, French, and Russian revolutions. As I read Davies’ argument, it struck
me that the same seven stars Brinton named are now precisely lined up at
midheaven over America in 2008. Taken together, it’s a convergence that creates
the perfect social, economic, and political conditions for the biggest
revolution since the shot heard ’round the world.

And even more interestingly: in every case, we got here as a direct result of
either intended or unintended consequences of the conservatives’ war against
liberal government, and their attempt to take over our democracy and replace it
with a one-party plutocracy. It turns out that, historically, liberal nations
make very poor grounds for revolution — but deeply conservative ones very
reliably create the conditions that eventually make violent overthrow necessary.
And our own Republicans, it turns out, have done a hell of a job.

Here are the seven criteria, along with the reasons why we’re fulfilling each
of them now, and how conservative policies conspired to put us on the road to
possible revolution.

1. Soaring, Then Crashing

Davies notes that revolutions don’t happen in traditional societies that are
stable and static — where people have their place, things are as they’ve always
been, and nobody expects any of that to change. Rather, modern revolutions —
particularly the progressive-minded ones in which people emerge from the fray
with greater rights and equality — happen in economically advancing societies,
always at the point where a long period of rising living standards and high,
hopeful expectations comes to a crashing end, leaving the citizens in an ugly
and disgruntled mood. As Davies put it:

"Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective
economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.
The all-important effect on the minds of people in a particular society is to
produce, during the former period, an expectation of continued ability to
satisfy needs — which continue to rise — and, during the latter, a mental state
of anxiety and frustration when manifest reality breaks away from anticipated

"Political stability and instability are ultimately dependent on a state of
mind, a mood, in society…it is the dissatisfied state of mind rather than the
tangible provision of ‘adequate’ or ‘inadequate’ supplies of food, equality, or
liberty which produces the revolution."

The American middle class was built on New Deal investments in education,
housing, infrastructure, and health care, which produced a very "prolonged
period of objective economic and social development." People were optimistic;
generations of growing prosperity raised their expectations that their children
would do even better. That era instilled in Americans exactly the kind of
hopeful belief in their own agency that primes them to become likely
revolutionaries in an era of decline.

And now, thanks to 28 years of conservative misrule, we are now at the point
where "manifest reality breaks away from anticipated reality;" and the breach is
creating political turbulence. The average American has seen his or her standard
of living contract by fits and starts since about 1972. This fall-off that was
relieved somewhat by the transition to two-earner households and the economic
sunshine of the Clinton years — but then accelerated with the dot-com crash,
followed by seven years of Bush’s overt hostility toward the lower 98 percent of
Americans who aren’t part of his base. Working-class America is reeling from the
mass exodus of manufacturing jobs and the scourge of predatory lending;
middle-class America is being hollowed out by health-care bankruptcies, higher
college costs, and a tax load far heavier than that of the richest 2 percent.
These people expected to do better than their parents. Now, they’re screwed
every direction they turn.

In the face of this reversal, Davies tells us, it’s not at all surprising
that the national mood is turning ominous, from one end of the political
spectrum to the other. However, he warns us: this may not be just a passing
political storm. In other times and places, this kind of quick decline in a
prosperous nation has been a reliable sign of a full-on revolution brewing just

2. They Call It A Class War

Marx called this one true, says Davies. Progressive modern democracies run on
mutual trust between classes and a shared vision of the common good that binds
widely disparate groups together. Now, we’re also about to re-learn the
historical lesson that liberals like flat hierarchies, racial and religious
tolerance, and easy class mobility not because we’re soft-headed and
soft-hearted — but because, unlike short-sighted conservatives, we understand
that tight social cohesion is our most reliable and powerful bulwark against the
kinds of revolutions that bring down great economies, nations and cultures.

In all the historical examples Davies and Brinton cite, the stage for
revolution was set when the upper classes broke faith with society’s other
groups, and began to openly prey on them in ways that threatened their very
future. Not surprisingly, the other groups soon united, took up arms, and

And here we are again: Conservative policies have opened the wealth gap to
Depression levels; put workers at the total mercy of their employers; and
deprived the working and middle classes of access to education, home ownership,
health care, capital, legal redress, and their expectations of a better future
for their kids. You can only get away with blaming this on gays and Mexicans for
so long before people get wise to the game. And as the primaries are making
clear: Americans are getting wise.

Our current plutocratic nobility may soon face the same stark choice its
English, French, and Russian predecessors did. They can keep their heads and
take proactive steps to close the gap between themselves and the common folk
(choosing evolution over revolution, as JFK counsels above). Or they can keep
insisting stubbornly on their elite prerogatives, until that gap widens to the
point where the revolution comes — and they will lose their heads entirely.

Right now, all we’re asking of our modern-day corporate courtiers is that
they accept a tax cut repeal on people making over $200K a year, raise the
minimum wage, give us decent health care and the right to unionize, and call a
halt to their ridiculous "death tax" boondoggle. In retrospect, their historic
forebears might have counseled them to take this deal: their headless ghosts
bear testimony to the idea that’s it’s better to give in and lose a little skin
early than dig in and lose your whole hide later on.

3. Deserted Intellectuals

Mere unrest among the working and middle classes, all by itself, isn’t
enough. Revolutions require leaders — and those always come from the
professional and intellectual classes. In most times and places, these groups
(which also include military officers) usually enjoy comfortable ties to the
upper classes, and access to a certain level of power. But if those connections
become frayed and weak, and the disaffected intellectuals make common cause with
the lower classes, revolution becomes almost inevitable.

Davies notes that, compared to both the upper and lower classes, the members
of America’s upper-middle class were relatively untouched by Great Depression.
Because of this, their allegiances to the existing social structure largely
remained intact; and he argues that their continued engagement was probably the
main factor that allowed America to avert an all-out revolution in the 1930s.

But 2008 is a different story. Both the Boomers (now in their late 40s to
early 60s) and Generation X (now in their late 20s to late 40s) were raised in
an economically advancing nation that was rich with opportunity and expectation.
We spent our childhoods in what were then still the world’s best schools; and A
students of every class worked hard to position ourselves for what we (and our
parents and teachers) expected would be very successful adult careers. We had
every reason to believe that, no matter where we started, important leadership
roles awaited us in education, government, the media, business, research, and
other institutions.

And yet, when we finally graduated and went to work, we found those
institutions being sold out from under us to a newly-emerging group of social
and economic conservatives who didn’t share our broad vision of common decency
and the common good (which we’d inherited from the GI and Silent adults who
raised us and taught us); and who were often so corrupted or so sociopathic that
the working environments they created were simply unendurable. If wealth,
prestige, and power came at the price of our principles, we often chose instead
to take lower-paying work, live small, and stay true to ourselves.

For too many of us, these thwarted expectations have been the driving arc of
our adult lives. But we’ve never lost the sense that it was a choice that the
America we grew up in would never have asked us to make. In Davies’ terms, we
are "deserted intellectuals" — a class that is always at extremely high risk for
fomenting revolution whenever it appears in history.

Davies says that revolutions catalyze when these deserted intellectuals make
common cause with the lower classes. And much of the energy of this election is
coming right out of that emerging alliance. The same drive toward
corporatization that savaged our dreams also hammered at other class wedges
throughout American society, creating conditions that savaged the middle class
and ground the working class toward something resembling serfdom. Between our
galvanizing frustration with George Bush, our shared fury at the war, and the
new connections forged by bloggers and organizers, that alliance has now
congealed into the determinedly change-minded movements we’re seeing this
election cycle.

4. Incompetent Government

As this blog has long argued, conservatives invariably govern badly because
they don’t really believe that government should exist at all — except, perhaps,
as a way to funnel the peoples’ tax money into the pockets of party insiders.
This conflicted (if not outright hostile) attitude toward government can’t
possibly lead to any outcome other than bad management, bad policy, and
eventually such horrendously bad social and economic outcomes that people are
forced into the streets to hold their leaders to account.

It turns out there’s never been a modern revolution that didn’t start against
a backdrop of atrocious government malfeasance in the face of precipitously
declining fortunes. From George III’s onerous taxes to Marie Antoinette’s "Let
them eat cake," revolutions begin when stubborn aristocrats heap fuel on the
fire by blithely disregarding the falling fortunes of their once-prosperous
citizens. And America is getting dangerously close to that point now. Between
our corporate-owned Congress and the spectacularly bad judgment of Bush’s
executive branch, there’s never been a government in American history more
inept, corrupt, and criminally negligent than this one — or more shockingly out
of touch with what the average American is going through. Just ask anyone from
New Orleans — or anyone who has a relative in the military.

Liberal democracy avoids this by building in a fail-safe: if the bastards
ignore us, we can always vote them out. But if we’ve learned anything over the
last eight years, it’s that our votes don’t always count — especially not when
conservatives are doing the counting. If this year’s election further confirms
the growing conviction that change via the ballot box is futile, we may find a
large and disgruntled group of Americans looking to restore government
accountability by more direct means.

5. Gutless Wonders in the Ruling Class

Revolution becomes necessary when the ruling classes fail in their duty to
lead. Most of the major modern political revolutions occurred at moments when
the world was changing rapidly — and the country’s leaders dealt with it by
dropping back into denial and clinging defiantly to the old, profitable, and
familiar status quo. New technologies, new ideas, and new economic opportunities
were emerging; and there came a time when ignoring them was no longer an option.
When the leaders failed to step forward boldly to lead their people through the
looming and necessary transformations, the people rebelled.

We’re hard up against some huge transformative changes now. Global warming
and overwhelming pollution are forcing us to reconsider the way we occupy the
world, altering our relationship to food, water, air, soil, energy, and each
other. The transition off carbon-based fuels and away from non-recyclable goods
is going to re-structure our entire economy. Computers are still creating social
and business transformations; biotech and nanotech will only accelerate that.
More and more people in the industrialized world are feeling a spiritual void,
and coming to believe that moving away from consumerism and toward community may
be an important step in recovering that nameless thing they’ve lost.

And, in the teeth of this restless drift toward inevitable change, America
has been governed by a bunch of conservative dinosaurs who can’t even bring
themselves to acknowledge that the 20th century is over. (Some of them, in fact,
are still trying to turn back the Enlightenment.) Liberal governments manage
this kind of shift by training and subsidizing scientists and planners, funding
research, and setting policies that help their nations navigate these
transitions with some grace. Conservative ones — being conservative — will
reflexively try to deny that change is occurring at all, and then brutally
suppress anyone with evidence to the contrary.

Which is why, every time our current crop of so-called leaders open their
mouths to propose a policy or Explain It All To Us, it’s embarrassingly obvious
that they don’t have the vision, the intelligence, or the courage to face the
future that everyone can clearly see bearing down on us, whether we’re ready or
not. Their persistent cluelessness infuriates us — and terrifies us. It’s all
too clear that these people are a waste of our tax money: they will never take
us where we need to go. Much of the energy we’re seeing in this year’s election
is due to the fact that a majority of Americans have figured out that our
government is leaving us hung out here, completely on our own, to manage huge
and inevitable changes with no support or guidance whatsoever.

Historically, this same seething fury at incompetent, unimaginative, cowardly
leaders — and the dawning realization that our survival depends on seizing the
lead for ourselves — has been the spark that’s ignited many a violent uprising.

6. Fiscal Irresponsibility

As we’ve seen, revolutions follow in the wake of national economic reversals.
Almost always, these reversals occur when inept and corrupt governments
mismanage the national economy to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and
currency collapse.

There’s a growing consensus on both the left and right that America is now
heading into the biggest financial contraction since the Great Depression. And
it’s one that liberal critics have seen coming for years, as conservatives
systematically dismantled the economic foundations of the entire country.
Good-paying jobs went offshore. Domestic investments in infrastructure and
education were diverted to the war machine. Government oversight of banks and
securities was blinded. Vast sections of the economy were sold off to the Saudis
for oil, or to the Chinese for cheap consumer goods and money to finance tax
cuts for the wealthy.

This is no way to run an economy, unless you’re a borrow-and-spend
conservative determined to starve the government beast to the point where you
can, as Grover Norquist proposed, drag it into the bathtub and drown it
entirely. The current recession is the bill come due for 28 years of Republican
financial malfeasance. It’s also another way in which conservatives themselves
have unwittingly set up the historical preconditions for revolution.

7. Inept and Inconsistent Use of Force

The final criterion for revolution is this: The government no longer
exercises force in a way that people find fair or consistent. And this can
happen in all kinds of ways.

Domestically, there’s uneven sentencing, where some people get the maximum
and others get cut loose without penalty — and neither outcome has any
connection to the actual circumstances of the crime (though it often correlates
all too closely with race, class, and the ability to afford a good lawyer).
Unchecked police brutality (tasers, for example) that hardens public perception
against the constabulary. Unwarranted police surveillance and legal harassment
of law-abiding citizens going about their business. Different kinds of law
enforcement for different neighborhoods. The use of government force to silence
critics. And let’s not forget the unconstitutional restriction of free speech
and free assembly rights.

Abroad, there’s the misuse of military force, which forces the country to
pour its blood and treasure into misadventures that offer no clear advantage for
the nation. These misadventures not only reduce the country’s international
prestige and contribute to economic declines; they often create a class of
displaced soldiers who return home with both the skills and the motivation to
turn political unrest into a full-fledged shooting war.

This kind of capricious, irrational ineptitude in deploying government force
leads to public contempt for the power of the state, and leads the governed to
withdraw their consent. And, eventually, it also raises people’s determination
to stand together to oppose state power. That growing solidarity and
fearlessness — along with the resigned knowledge that equal-opportunity goons
will brutalize loyalists and rebels alike, so you might as well be a dead lion
rather than a live lamb — is the final factor that catalyzes ordinary citizens
into ready and willing revolutionaries.

* * *

"A revolutionary state of mind requires the continued, even habitual but
dynamic expectation of greater opportunity to satisfy basic needs…but the
necessary additional ingredient is a persistent, unrelenting threat to the
satisfaction of those needs: not a threat which actually returns people to a
state of sheer survival but which put them in the mental state where they
believe they will not be able to satisfy one or more basic needs….The
crucial factor is the vague or specific fear that ground gained over a long
period of time will be quickly lost… [This fear] generates when the existing
government suppresses or is blamed for suppressing such opportunity."

When Davies wrote that paragraph in 1962, he probably couldn’t have imagined
how closely it would describe America in 2008. Thirty years of Republican
corporatist government have failed us in ways that are not just inept or
corrupt, but also have brought us to the same dangerous brink where so many
other empires have erupted into violent revolution. The ground we have gained
steadily over the course of the entire 20th Century is eroding under our feet.
Movement conservatism has destroyed our economic base, declared open war on the
middle and working classes, thwarted the aspirations of the intellectual and
professional elites, dismantled the basic processes and functions of democracy,
failed to prepare us for the future, overseen the collapse of our economy, and
misused police and military force so inconsistently that Americans are losing
respect for government.

It’s not always the case that revolution inevitably emerges wherever these
seven conditions occur together, just as not everybody infected with a virus
gets sick. But over the past 350 years, almost every major revolution in a
modern industrialized country has been preceded by this pattern of seven
preconditions. It’s fair to say that all those who get sick start out by being
exposed to this virus.

Hillary Clinton is failing because this is a revolutionary moment — and she,
regrettably, has the misfortune to be too closely identified with the mounting
failures of the past that we’re now seeking to move beyond. On the other hand,
Ron Paul’s otherwise inexplicable success has been built on his pointed and very
specific critique of the kinds of government leadership failures I’ve described.

And Barack Obama is walking away with the moment because he talks of "hope" —
which, as Davies makes clear, is the very first thing any would-be revolutionary
needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly
hearing as a soft word for "revolution." And then he describes — not in too much
detail — a different future, and what it means to be a transformative president,
and in doing so answers our deep frustration at 30 years of leaders who faced
the looming future by turning their heads instead of facing it.

Will he deliver on this promise of change? That remains to be seen. But the
success of his presidency, if there is to be one, will likely be measured on how
well his policies confront and deal with these seven criteria for revolution. If
those preconditions are all still in place in 2012, the fury will have had
another four years to rise. And at that point, if history rhymes, mere talk of
hope and change will no longer be enough.

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