Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Revolutions as innovation

Today at our first outing for the 'innovation module' we were asked to arrange ourselves in a line chronologically according to our favourite 'innovation'. These ranged from 'Skype' through television to the domestication of wheat and fire! (My own preferred option was monasticism)! But the nearest in chronology was the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. This was problematic as I tend to imagine that something counts as innovation only when it has worked, been adopted, is a part of our given reality.

The revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia are works in progress. When Chou En Lai was asked what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been, he is meant to have replied, 'It is too early to say'! But even with a more compressed time scale, it is certainly too early to ascribe to either North African revolutions the character of a success (given that we know what 'success' would look like). The Egyptian one in particular is not, even yet, over that over-emphasized 'tipping point' and the agencies of reaction, today, appear to be fully activated.

I would wish for them an East European outcome: a relatively orderly transition to a functioning, if dysfunctional at another level, democracy that brings you into the dull round of politely contested politics. However, I fear other potential outcomes - politics is an uncertain unfolding in which determined forces (even if soundly in the minority) can play major, indeed defining, roles.

My model for this is always the Russian Revolution (February rather than the October coup). Here with the monarchy displaced and broadly representative forces in place an opportunity arose for a difficult but real transition to an inclusive polity. However, those forces dallied to destruction - a constituent assembly postponed, a war continued and the illusion held of no enemies to the 'left' only seen from the 'right' - and all was undone by the determined work of the Bolsheviks whose coup (and brilliant strategies of co-option and propaganda) successfully set Russia on an alternate (and deeply damaging) course.

One of the factors of this displacement of reasonable by ruthless men was a profound underestimation both of the utter weariness of war and of the tensions that existed between classes that were to generate such extraordinary levels of violence.

The problem with 'revolutionary liberalism' (or liberals entangled in revolution) is that they seriously underestimate the power of passions to derail as well as push forward revolutionary action and their fastidious reticence to manipulate and direct such passion. It often leaves them at a crippling disadvantage to darker powers. Let us hope that upheavals in the Middle East allow sufficient space for transitions that do not only rely on the understandable, pent up frustrations of subject people.

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