Everybody Wants a Revolution

Whenever I hear people talking about the need for a revolution, I need to look in their eyes and see what they are really thinking by that word “revolution” before I think “careful what you wish for”.

Bankers and capitalism / globalisation / consumerism generally; Democratic, parliamentary government; Standards in education and academe; Press and other freedoms; The “science” of climate change, have we past where having anthropogenically caused it “we” can no longer reverse it; Energy, water, air, resources and sustainability of the planet generally. The list of global challenges is endless, and notice they are all interconnected, partly because they are connected structurally, and partly because we’re all globally interconnected by ubiquitous communications media anyway.

This piece is prompted by several posts on “revolution” recently. Most obviously the New Statesman appointment and Russell Brand’s piece in that journal (and his interview with Paxman on Newsnight). Most recently the wonderful Robert Webb response to that, tweeted by Dara O’Briain and Dave Gorman. But in between these headline grabbers, also Nick Maxwell’s campaign From Knowledge to Wisdom as an “academic revolution”; Positive Money campaign for alternatives to debt-based banking and finance; Climate change scientists, call to arms as politicised revolutionaries.

The point is when a large single sector of human economic activity becomes an established part of “the system”, when something goes wrong, or they are increasingly seen to have undesirable direct or collateral consequences – inevitable – and large because the particular activity we are talking about is large – then we want things to change (for the better). The scale means all such arguments become politicised, inevitably entangling more interests and other “single issues” into the whole. Anger, frustration and impatience at inertia, ineffectiveness and resistance to change lead to talk of the need for a revolution – taking power and action “back” into “our” hands as (many) individuals. Boycotting or even working against the institutions we disapprove of and ….. and then what ?

Violent general social disorder, off with their heads, storm the seats of government, release the prisoners – what exactly ? We had those kinds of revolution last time around before general emancipation and establishment of democratic freedoms and human rights. When people talk of tipping points – in boycotting of the system (be that debt-based financial institutions, or democratic elections, or fossil fuel, or …) what are they foreseeing the other side of that tipping point. Some are indeed planning for that “different world” the other side of the event – variations on self-sufficiency, localisation and downsizing, but with more “borders” to be protected – but most seem to hold some romantic view of taking a stand against the “bad” without seeing anything better other than more anarchic freedom.

My agenda here is primarily about knowledge, the use of that knowledge to make decisions, and how we know that such processes and decisions are wise rather than simply rational by some narrow definition. Many times before I’ve concluded that “governance” is the underlying problem in all these issues – “we” want to have things run the way “we” think they should be, rather than leaving it to “them”, whoever they are. I am he and you are me and we are all together said the same wise poet who penned everybody wants a revolution.

Everybody wants a revolution, but what they really want is something better the other side for “us”. It was Churchill who was reputed to have said “Democracy is the worst from of governance, except for all the others” – which is an adage I subscribe to, which leaves the debate about exactly what forms of democratic institutions rather than alternatives to democracy itself. There are of course many variables to play with and opportunities for creativity, there are few sacred cows within democracy that couldn’t be improved.

The view of revolution I prefer is what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”. Think the industrial revolution, the information revolution, think game-changing processes and technologies in any walk of life. Most of course create collateral damage in the process, even lasting damage to some constituency, that’s the point, paradigm shifts are ultimately revolutionary, but they don’t start with the damage creation process – they start with something of value worth pursuing. It’s the same with new species in biological evolution, with paradigm shifts, you can only identify the revolutionary change that has occurred with hindsight. The revolution was never the premeditated point of the exercise. (Very similar arguments apply to the anthropogenic aspects of climate change and hopes of reversing it – the “right” things to do now cannot be defined in advance in terms of the outcome achieved. Do the right thing anyway.)

Finally, we can join this up with Grayson Perry’s comments on shock tactics as part of game-changing moves against the establishment of the art world. It was ever thus, that shock, including violence, has been and forever will be part of the attention grabbing process of making change happen within any constituency. Exactly what it takes to create that shock, to draw attention to the particular (new or recycled) quality itself changes with circumstances. In some worlds violence and human yuk factor may no longer shock, and the artist needs to work on their creativity more subtly, but clearly in other cosier worlds, violence and disgust can still shock. So, sure violent actions of revolution can be a tactic, but unless they are your perverse objective, they cannot be your strategy for achieving a better future. And as Grayson Perry also said, political aims are as valid artistic purposes as any.

As Robert Webb says the real way to shock democracy into the kind of paradigm change revolution we really want to see, is a very British kind of revolution – vote and engage, engage in improving the institutions of governance. The good news as Rob says, is that Russell Brand’s bullshit is “wilful” – dangerous bullshit nevertheless – but Brand is an intelligent person who knows his words are bullshit. Living dangerously to shock is part of the artist’s world, but don’t confuse shock tactics, with wise advice.

[Post Note : Bruce Sterling’s Medium Tweet “Dread Pirate Nemo – The Silk Road is not about drugs.” or Don’t mess with Texas, ‘cos life gets complicated when it comes to subversive revolution.]

[Post Note : Also this follow-up from Paxman, and offline correspondence with Jeff Huggins. Nothing wrong with a protest vote / spoil / non-vote, signifying a desire for change – we’ve all already been there for years – it’s just not a policy for future governance. Brand’s dangerous arrogance is in the anti “political classes” rhetoric implying no policy for any governance – true an-archy – all freedom and no governance.]

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