Wednesday, 19 January 2011


In response to Nigel Jones's recent posting on Tunisia I wrote: "Can we really be that sure that by spring 2011 there will not be a string of social upheavals across Europe?" I never used the word "revolution" to refer to what has been taking place in Tunisia, nor did I use the same word to refer to what can take place in Europe. Nevertheless, Mr. Jones replied: "Jon Kofas (17 January) asked whether I can be sure that there will be no revolution in Western Europe by this spring."

The more serious question is whether what has been unfolding in Tunisia in January 2011 constitutes revolution, or whether the correct term that applies is "uprising" = popular defiance (violent and/or peaceful) against government that may or may not result in change of government, which change in government may or may not lead to a revolution = systemic change of regime, which may or may not lead to systemic changes in societal institutions.

The issue of a revolution in the future and what constitutes revolution has been covered before on WAIS, but I would like to revisit the meaning of some terms and concepts.
The word revolution means systemic or structural change in any institutional status quo, including the intellectual domain. The economic change in the status quo that took place in the 15th century (1300-1600 more accurately) during the Commercial Revolution represented a transition from localized rural economies to international urban ones that began to change the social structure as a result of mode of production change (social discontinuity).

The systemic change or change in the religious status quo of Western Christendom that took place in the 16th century in the form of the Reformation was a religious revolution. The systemic changes in science that took place in 17th century Europe are called the "Scientific Revolution." The Enlightenment that followed in the 18th century represented systemic change in philosophical (and value system) thinking, largely influenced by the Scientific Revolution. The Industrial Revolution that started in Britain in mid-18th century and spread to northwest Europe in the 19th century represented a radical or structural change toward mass production. The French Revolution along with many others that followed in Europe and around the world in the next two centuries altered the political status quo. The "Internet Revolution" of course represents a radical change in the manner people communicate.

Social unrest and social uprising do not constitute revolution, but it is possible that they could if institutional structural changes follow. The classic revolution is France 1789, which resulted in structural changes across all sectors of society, including cultural. By contrast, the American Revolution was a national movement for decolonization that did not alter the economic, social or cultural status quo. Edmund Burke supported the American Revolution because it was a war of independence that did systemically change societal institutions, but he vehemently opposed the French Revolution that wiped the slate clean with all institutions, violating the organic nature of societal structure (Romanticism influence) as Burke saw it, and created new institutions based on the ideas of the Enlightenment.

So far, Tunisia has not had a revolution. It all started with riots against a very corrupt regime in a country with immense poverty and wealth concentration. With the influence of the General Union of Tunisian Workers that organized anti-regime protests and forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the situation turned into an uprising against a one-party state whose economy was in the hand of the president and a handful of well-connected individuals. Initially the president was out but the rest of the regime remained, but it seems that the country is headed for broader government changes as the situation unfold. This does not qualify for "Revolution," although it is entirely possible that it could lead to one if the uprising continues and there are systemic institutional changes. That the entire affair is spilling over to other countries, as Al Jazeera is transmitting in its news coverage, is predictable of such events that have taken place in the past. Will social unrest in parts of Africa and Middle East lead to revolution? My guess is that at most there may be change in governments as in Tunisia.

Given that the word "Revolution" can be applied to any domain where systemic change takes place, and given that human beings evolve along with societal conditions, can we expect any kind of revolution in the future in any domain other than science and technology? Can it be argued with certainty that systemic change in the future--until the solar system fails to sustain life on this planet--will always be within an existing evolutionary organic system and within the status quo and never "revolutionary" that would end the existing political and social institutions and create a new ones? Those opposed to Hegelian historicism on philosophical grounds and those opposed to Marxian historicism on ideological grounds can only claim that simply by relying on larger historical trends or laws of history, it is impossible to predict when, how, what type, what social groups will be involved, and if societal systemic change will emerge from social discontinuity.

Nevertheless, history is a guide of how societal institutions were born and evolved, and history can be used to understand broader trends from which to determine how social discontinuity evolves and what are the dynamics that account for it. Social discontinuity is as inevitable as future revolutionary scientific and technological change. Social unrest and social uprisings may not necessarily signal the imminence of revolution, but they do represent at the very least the gap between the elites of political, economic, and social institutions and a substantial segment of the public that existing institutions no longer serve. After the prototype bourgeois revolution of France and the prototype proletarian Revolution of Russia, the question is what form will future revolutions assume, what social groups will be involved, when and how will social discontinuity take place?

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