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Monday, October 21, 2013

Rx for Revolution

Pugachev Administering Justice by Vasily Perov

"We were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries who put through a successful revolution." Kevin O'Higgins

"If they have real grievances redress them, if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them . . . . If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once. "  George Washington, letter to Henry Lee, 31 October 1786

"I am a monarch of God's creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me.  I render an account of my government to none . . . ."
Napoleon Bonaparte, speech at Breda, 1 May 1810

While the exact precipitants of overt rebellion are perhaps impossible to predict, history does grant us absolute certainty that the next regime will be a fundamentally conservative one.

The revolution of 1789 may have been reasonably foreseen given that country's horrific long-term economic trends and decades of fiscal mismanagement by the French Crown.  However, before Easter 1916, few would have dared prophecy an end to nearly 800 years of English dominance in a disgruntled and disenfranchised but thoroughly exhausted and demoralised Ireland. And even today it is more than a little perplexing as to why 1773 in particular should be the occasion for violent resistance to British Crown policies which had been pursued at least since 1696, when William III established the Lords of Trade.  But inevitably each of these momentous events was succeeded by a conservative regime.

The art of successful revolution lies in the reconciliation of the iconoclasm required to dismantle the old regime while simultaneously projecting the familiarity (comfortable or otherwise) required to elicit the confidence of the political nation.  It is, to say the least, a difficult thing to achieve.

During the ten thousand years or so since the adoption of agriculture demanded a fixed ordering of society along more or less arbitrary lines, the specialization of labor has reinforced the naturally uneven distribution of qualities among its members to the point where the presumption of "standing"--the moral right for the individual to meaningful participation in society's ordering institutions--is not so much questioned as it is ridiculed as inchoate nonsense.

In sedentary societies the economic imperative is conformity, based on the conviction that the fundamental questions of physical necessity have been adequately resolved, and that all that is required is their implementation and further elaboration along the established lines.  Deviance, dissent and variation are no longer viewed as presenting valuable new contributions to society's repertoire of resources and techniques, but existential dangers.  This is to say, the only value the individual has to offer society is his consent.

Therefore it is to be assumed that there will always be a fundamental cleavage between the political role of the productive classes (i.e., the masses whose lives are almost wholly given over to the performance of economically productive activities) and the leadership class (i.e., those few who supervise the toil of the many).  Whether or not a given laborer is cleverer than a given member of the ruling classes matters not--his very status as 'laborer' undermines his ability to effectively assume a leadership role.  The fact that the current incumbent may be spectacularly stupid does not matter either, because it is not the validity of the individual which is crucial, but that of the overarching social model, which is usually taken for granted.

As long as the leadership class are capable of wringing at least a subsistence level of economic productivity from the orthodox model, their privilege cannot come under serious internal challenge.  The only people likely to express dissatisfaction are those whose opinion, by definition, does not matter.

So, in other words, the onus on the successful revolutionary is to present himself not as the successor to the existing regime, but the restoration of the productive primal order which justifies the inescapable suppression of individuality which is the lot of the vast majority of people in sedentary societies.

Very rarely combined in one person are both the social facility needed to convincingly perform such an astounding feat of hypocritical playacting and the wisdom needed to recognize and productively direct a cadre of competent followers from the unruly mass of displaced peasantry which is the inevitable result of rebellion.  One is tempted to say that, relatively speaking, serviceable acting skills are more easily found than acceptable management skills, given the extreme infrequency of successful revolutions, but that would be to ignore the fact that given society's conservative nature, the opportunities for play acting are so much more abundant than the opportunities for active management.

In light of all this, it shouldn't surprise us at all that successful revolutionaries, almost without exception, are a very conservative lot.  Indeed, to the extent that a successful revolutionary accepts (or at least does not avowedly contradict) any egalitarian ideals incidental to the movement that brought him into power, he is obliged to balance them against pressing threats to the public to preserve fundamental inequalities. 

This was accomplished in the early days of the Republic of Ireland by Fianna Fรกil's reinforcement of Catholic orthodoxy and an Anglophobic rhetoric which were aimed more at crippling internal dissent and managing unrealistic economic expectations rather than accomplishing their stated objective of political independence of the entire island from Britain.

Washington was faced with a more unique challenge in that, as captain of an entirely new polity, there were few established institutions commanding the unequivocal allegiance of all the former colonies.  He generally steered a very careful, non-committal course between the near anarchic egalitarianism favored by many prominent social philosophers, like Jeffersons and the muscular authority proposed by thinkers preoccupied by the economic development of the American federation, such as Hamilton.  But when this uneasy equilibrium was put to a decisive test, he was not ambiguous.  He quickly availed himself of the opportunity to used armed force against an unpopular minority, the so-called Scots-Irish of America's backwoods regions, to underscore the primacy of the east coast political elites during the Whiskey Rebellion.

In the wake of the disasters of the early revolutionary period, including the generally abysmal conduct of the War of the Second Coalition by the Directory, Napoleon almost immediately recognized that a more dramatic, conventional sort of authority was required to restore public confidence.  He lost little time in leveraging his military credentials to the consulship, and ultimately emperor's throne.  From then on, whatever remained of the high-flown ideals of the Rights of Man were to be brutally (but, within France at least mostly willingly) subordinated to the glory of the French Empire.

Even if we allow ourselves to indulge in the momentary thought that the recent incredible dysfunctions on display in the US Congress heralds the immanent collapse of American Empire, we should be under no illusion that what replaces it will be the dawn of a Utopian society.  Even if the new order is established only after considerable culling, it can in no way base itself on the active political participation of its subjects, for the simple reason that the fundamental top-down economic paradigm remains unchallenged. 

So-and-so or such-and-such may be president or prime minister tomorrow; we may or may not find ourselves with the opportunity to vote over contentious legislation; we may or may not be allowed to assemble in public spaces.  But no one at all seriously expects that he/she will not be required to report promptly as ordered by the workplace supervisor.  Indeed, that we may not be allowed to do so is a very mortal terror.


  1. I don't recall who said it but it was," Revolutions are not sparked by popular uprising of the oppressed but rather, revolutions originate among the disenfranchised elite who use the grievance of the oppressed for their political /social agenda.

    1. That is exactly what was behind my thought process. It all started out looking at this painting, which got me to wondering why almost all pre-industrial rebels felt the need for a royal imposters at the head--Pugachev, Lambert Simnel, etc.