Welcome to the New Age of Revolution

Fall of the Bastille

Last week the prime minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, resigned under pressure from a series of intense riots that had spread from Kiev to the rest of the country. Photographs from the riots in The Atlantic blew my mind, like something out of a dystopian steampunk flic. Many of the rioters were dressed in gas masks that looked as if they had been salvaged from World War I. As weapons they wielded homemade swords, molotov cocktails, and fireworks. To protect their heads some wore kitchen pots and spaghetti strainers.

The protestors were met by riot police in hypermodern black suits of armor, armed with truncheons, tear gas, and shotguns, not all of them firing only rubber bullets. Orthodox priests with crosses and icons in their hands, sometimes placed themselves perilously between the rioters and the police, hoping to bring calm to a situation that was spinning out of control.

Even for Ukraine, it was cold during the weeks of the riots. A situation that caused the blasts from water cannons used by the police to crystalize shortly after contact. The detritus of protesters covered in sheets of ice like they had be shot with some kind of high tech freeze gun.

Students of mine from the Ukraine were largely in sympathy with the protestors, but feared civil war unless something changed quickly. The protests had been brought on by a backdoor deal with Russia to walk away from talks aimed at Ukraine joining the European Union. Protests over that agreement led to the passage of an anti-protest law that only further inflamed the rioters. The resignation of the Russophile prime minister  seemed to calm the situation for a time, but with the return of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych  to work (he was supposedly ill during the heaviest of the protests) the situation has once again become volatile. It was Yanukovych who was responsible  for cutting the deal with Russia and pushing through draconian limits on the freedom of assembly which had sparked the protests in the first place.

Ukraine, it seem, is a country being torn in two, a conflict born of demographics and history.  Its eastern, largely Russian speaking population looking towards Russia and its western, largely Ukrainian speaking population looking towards Europe. In this play both Russia and the West are no doubt trying to influence the outcome of events in their favor, and thus exacerbating the instability.

Yet, while such high levels of tension are new, the problem they reveal is deep in historical terms- the cultural tug of war over Ukraine between Russia and Europe, East and West, stretches at least as far back as the 14th century when western Ukraine was brought into the European cultural orbit by the Poles. Since then, and often with great brutality on the Russian side, the question of Ukrainian identity, Slavic or Western, has been negotiated and renegotiated over centuries- a question that will perhaps never be fully resolved and whose very tension may be what it actually means to be Ukrainian.

Where Ukraine goes from here is anybody’s guess, but despite its demographic and historical particularities, its recent experience adds to the growing list of mass protests that have toppled governments, or at least managed to pressure governments into reversing course, that have been occurring regularly since perhaps 2008 with riots in Greece.

I won’t compile a comprehensive list but will simply state the mass protests and riots I can cite from memory. There was the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran that was subsequently crushed by the Iranian government. There was the 2010 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia which toppled the government there and began what came to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring”. By 2011 mass protests had overthrown Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and riots had broken out in London. 2012 saw a lull in mass protests, but in 2013 they came back with a vengeance. There were massive riots in Brazil over government cutbacks for the poor combined with extravagant spending in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, there were huge riots in Turkey which shook the government of the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a military coup in the form of mass protests that toppled the democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt. Protesters in Thailand have be “occupying” the capital since early January. And now we have Ukraine.

These are just some of the protests that were widely covered in the media. Sometimes, quite large, or at least numerous protests are taking place in a country and they are barely reported in the news at all.  Between 2006-2010 there were 180,000 reported “mass incidents” in China. It seems the majority of these protests are related to local issues and not against the national government, but the PRC has been adept at keeping them free of the prying eyes of Western media.

The abortive 2009 riots in Iran that were the first to be called a “Twitter Revolution” by Western media and digerati.  The new age of revolution often explained in terms of the impact of the communications revolution, and social media. We have had time to find out that just how little a role Western, and overwhelmingly English language media platforms, such as Twitter and FaceBook, have played in this new upsurge of revolutionary energy, but that’s not the whole story.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say technology has been irrelevant in bringing about our new revolutionary era, I’d just put the finger on another technology, namely mobile phones. In 2008 the number of mobile devices had, in the space of a decade, gone from a rich world luxury into the hands of 4 billion people. By 2013, 6 billion of the world’s 7 billion people had some sort of mobile device, more people than had access to working toilets.

It is the very disjunction between the number of people able to communicate and hence act en masse and those lacking what we in the developed world consider necessities that should get our attention- a potentially explosive situation. And yet, we have known since Alexis de Tocqueville that revolutions are less the product of the poor who have always known misery than stem from a rising middle class whose ambitions have been frustrated.

Questions I would ask a visitor from the near future if I wanted to gauge the state of the world a decade or two hence would be if the rising middle class in the developing world had put down solid foundations, and if, and to what extent, it had been cut off at the legs from either the derailment of the juggernaut of the Chinese economy, rising capacity of automation, or both?

The former fear seems to be behind the recent steep declines in the financial markets where the largest blows have been suffered by developing economies. The latter is a longer term risk for developing economies, which if they do not develop quickly enough may find themselves permanently locked out of what has been the traditional development arch of capitalist economic development moving from agriculture to manufacturing to services.

Automation threatens the wage competitiveness of developing economy workers on all stages of that scale. Poor textile workers in Bangladesh competing with first world robots, Indians earning a middle class wage working at call centers or doing grunt legal or medical work increasingly in competition with more and more sophisticated ,and in the long run less expensive, bots.

Intimately related to this would be my last question for our near future time traveler; namely, does the global trend towards increasing inequality continue, increase, or dissipate? With the exception of government incompetence and corruption combined with mobile enabled youth, rising inequality appears to be the only macro trend that these revolts share, though, this must not be the dominant factor, otherwise, protests would be the largest and most frequent in the country with the fastest growing inequality- the US.

Revolutions, as in the mobilization of a group of people massive enough and active enough to actually overthrow a government are a modern phenomenon and are so for a reason. Only since the printing press and mass literacy has the net of communication been thrown wide enough where revolution, as opposed to mere riots, has become possible. The Internet and even more so mobile technology have thrown that net even further, or better deeper, with literacy no longer being necessary, and with the capacity for intergroup communication now in real time and no longer in need of or under the direction of a center- as was the case in the era of radio and television.

Technology hasn’t resulted in the “end of history”, but quite the opposite. Mobile technology appears to facilitate the formation of crowds, but what these crowds mobilize around are usually deep seated divisions which the society in which protests occur have yet to resolve or against widely unpopular decisions made over the people’s head.

For many years now we have seen this phenomenon from financial markets one of the first area to develop deep, rapidly changing interconnections based on the digital revolution. Only a few years back, democracy seemed to have come under the thumb of much more rapidly moving markets, but now, perhaps, a populist analog has emerged.

What I wonder is how the state will respond to this, or how this new trend of popular mobilization may intersect with yet another contemporary trend- mass surveillance by the state itself?

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with his now famous concept of the “fog of war” defined as “the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.”  If one understands revolution as a kind of fever pitch exchange of information leading to action leading to exchange of information and so on, then, all revolutions in the past could be said to have taken place with all players under such a fog.

Past revolutions have only been transparent to historians. From a bird’s eye view and in hindsight scholars of the mother of all revolutions, the French, can see the effects of Jean-Paul Marat’s pamphlets and screeds inviting violence, the published speeches of the moralistic tyrant Robespierre, the plotting letters of Marie-Antoinette to the Austrians or the counter-revolutionary communique of General Lafayette. To the actors in the French Revolution itself the motivations and effects of other players were always opaque, the origin, in part, of the revolution’s paranoia and Reign of Terror which Robespierre saw as a means of unmasking conspirators and hypocrites.

With the new capacity of governments to see into communication, revolutions might be said to be becoming transparent in real time. Insecure governments that might be toppled by mass protest would seem to have an interest in developing the capacity to monitor the communication and track the movement of their citizens. Moore’s Law has made what remained an unachievable goal of total surveillance by the state relatively cheap.

During revolutionary situations foreign governments (with the US at the top of the list), may have the inclination to peer into revolutions through digital surveillance and in some cases will likely use this knowledge to interfere so as to shape outcomes in its own favor. States that are repressive towards their own people, such as China, will likewise try to use these surveillance tools to ensure revolutions never happen or to steer them toward preferred outcomes if they should occur despite best efforts.

One can only hope that the ability to see into a revolution while it is happening does not engender the illusion that we can also control its outcome, for as the riots and revolutions of the past few years have shown, moves against a government may be enabled by technology imported from outside, but the fate of such actions is decided by people on the ground who alone might be said have full responsibility for the future of the society in which revolution has occurred.

Foreign governments are engaged in a dangerous form of hubris if they think they can steer outcomes in their favor oblivious to local conditions and governments that think technology gives them a tool by which they can ignore the cries of their citizens are allowing the very basis on which they stand to rot underneath them and eventually collapse. A truth those who consider themselves part of a new global elite should heed when it comes to the issue of inequality.


3 comments on “Welcome to the New Age of Revolution

  1. […] Social media generates crowds. See this interesting post on the blog Utopia or Dystopia. […]

  2. […] This situation, where you have an intensively dissatisfied urban population, from which mass protests, enabled by ubiquitous mobile technology, protests which governments have extreme difficulty containing, are not, of course, the province of Brazil alone, but have become one of the defining features of the early 21st century. […]

  3. […] On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests. […]

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