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Revolutions in Modernity: What’s Actually Different Now?

The printing press led to pamphleteering, and revolutions. it also meant elites had a new technology to use for spreading their ideology and maintaining control. In the end, the revolutions were co-opted, resulting in new regimes of elite power.

Networking, cel phones and computers have led to an increase in organizing against states: democratic to varying degrees. Elites are busily co-opting these same networks to institute mass surveillance on a scale previously inconceivable.

The contemporary revolutions, described in the Al Jazeera article below, have more in common with the 17th C English civil war, for example, than the author cares to realize. The old regime was toppled, and by the end of the 17th C England had established a constitutional monarchy. The era of Liberal Democracies, in which capitalist economies were given a veneer of democracy was established and their ideals have been spreading. In this era of globalization, it has become patently clear that those initiatives merely consolidated power in the hands of a new elite, no longer justified by “noble birth” and “divine right” but by pure buying power: the power to buy the labour of the “have nots” and the power to rule through elected, corporate puppets.

Communist revolutions, seeking to establish a democratic commons, through the overthrow of states, similarly failed to ensure “rule by the people.” So much for those who seek to directly confront “the old regime” and introduce a state under the control of its citizens. To be fair to the communist revolutionaries, most of them planned to devolve the state, projecting it would “whither away.” It has not.

And then there are the “real radicals.” Every revolutionary space-time generates these or allows them space to erupt into public consciousness. 17th C Diggers & 21st C permaculturists/eco-villagers, operate(d) on identical philosophies: The old regime is crumbling; we will set up an alternative, a return to the commons, rather than engage directly against the regime. They did not seek power to control a large land mass and her peoples. They sought empowerment, instead.

The pseudo-radicals (such as John Locke) hope to topple one regime and replace it with an incorruptible democratic state. They usually enjoy a period of imagining they have succeeded. In the liberal democracies, this delusion is rapidly crumbling, daily.

The real radicals, those who see the root of the problem in the very existence of hierarchy, focus instead on creating incorruptible, directly democratic alternatives. This is a much bolder & braver & far more difficult objective.

Once the new regime emerges, these movements are always rooted out and crushed: labelled “idealistic,” or simply forgotten. At best, “back to the land,” becomes an “alternative lifestyle choice” tolerated as long as there is general consensus that their proponents are “fringe loonies.”

In our recent history, over the last 350 years, both routes have failed: neither replacing the state nor developing non-state alternatives has led to actual, broad scale democracy.

What is very different now, which the author of the Al Jazeera article does not consider, is how the modern era elites, unlike, for example those of the European Middle Ages, have been aided and abetted by an increasing flow of energy, an unprecedented rise in energy per capita. This rise was actually reversed several decades ago and energy per capita has been declining globally since 1979-1984. What does this mean for the prospects of contemporary revolt?

Nor does he consider the bigger picture of civilization. For all of it’s 10,000 year reign, civilization, with it’s agricultural surpluses that enable elite control, and with it’s cities which drain resources from abroad and enable specialization of labour, has enjoyed a very unusually stable climate. Civilization has resulted, not only in the rampant inequality which democratic movements struggle & fail to correct, but, finally, in bringing about the end of this Holocene era of plenty. Our success has led to our demise. We have become so dominant, as a species, that we have caused what no species appears to have caused in the past: a mass extinction & a very abrupt change in climate. What does this mean for the prospects of revolutions today?

The title of the article is “Revolutions, but not as we know them.” Indeed! But not for the reasons the author names.

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