FURTHER UPDATE: Now Bahrain is experiencing a similar uprising. The same article states that Jordanian herders are blocking government roads, and that Saudi activists are seeking political recourse against the monarchy.
UPDATE: Iranian protesters, allegedly inspired by Egypt, have taken to the streets. When I wrote this article yesterday, I had no idea just how quickly the revolutionary fever was spreading. -KL
Revolution has come to North Africa. It’s been nearly bloodless, so far, and it seems to be spreading. Revolutionary thinking has taken root and spread like wildfire at least once in the past, and it’s not impossible to think it might do so in the future.
During the late 18th century, a dangerous new sort of thinking appeared, associated with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Simply put, this thinking was grounded in the idea that a nation’s people ought to be sovereign, that kings and emperors should no longer decide unilaterally what was best for the citizenry. The spread of this new philosophy resulted in what are termed the Atlantic Revolutions, a series of loosely-connected revolutions which took place on continents bordering the Atlantic ocean: that is, Europe and the Americas.
The most successful of these revolutions were the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Due in part to a geographical separation of the American colonists from their British government, the American revolution left the monarchy intact. Despite years of hard fighting, in absolute terms, the American Revolution was relatively bloodless: most of the men who went to fight returned home, and atrocities were rare. In France, the aristocracy and the people were not so fortunate: the Jacobins imposed a purge known as the Reign of Terror, the best-known symbol of which is the Guillotine. Revolutionary victories were also won in Haiti, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Greece and Belgium.
These revolutions were not merely knockoffs or copycats of the earlier successful revolutions: they were the result of the desire that the people of these nations had to be free of rule by hereditary monarchs. They were the culmination of a long incubation of the desire of the people of those nations to determine for themselves what was right, to have their voices heard as it respected their destinies. They were also caused by overreaching empires imposing similar hardships on their subjects, which made self-determination and reduced tax burdens much more attractive to the revolutionaries. Seeing the success of other nearby revolutions no doubt emboldened these new patriotic republicans, who frequently took inspiration from the victories their like-minded neighbors had won.
A lack of universal success did not derail this pandemic of popular governance, however. In Ireland and the Netherlands, the revolutionaries were not successful. And Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who was a hero in the American revolution and an honorary ‘Citizen’ of the new French republic, failed repeatedly in his efforts for Polish independence: first in defense of a newly-formed constitutional monarchy against foreign powers, then in an uprising against the Russian and Prussian empires, and finally in an effort to convince Napoleon to bring his Polish Legions to restore their fatherland. Still, the revolutions continued.
We are amid another shift in our intellectual paradigm, one whose magnitude exceeds that of the Enlightenment. The Information Revolution that has accompanied the internet allows for the rapid dissemination of ideas and effective argumentation. Our keyboards are faster than the pens of old, and our electronic transmission of the words that we right far outstrips that which was possible when those words were tied to physical media. We are able to think, learn, and teach as often and as quickly as we wish. Correspondence which once took weeks or months can be accomplished in moments.
Our material wealth, too, has grown much faster than during the industrial revolution. Every one of us has access to an array of powerful vehicles which allow us to traverse the American continent in a matter of hours, with no more exhaustion than our great-grandparents would have felt after a journey of a hundred miles. We spend a tenth of our funds on food, where the generation following the Industrial Revolution spent a third of theirs. We are sheltered in luxury which the kings of yore would deem decadent, and even the poorest of us may be entertained by a magical box full of moving pictures at a moment’s whim.
And just as in the late 18th century, the imperial superpowers are buckling under their own weight. The Soviets fell, leaving Russia a pale shadow of the bogeyman who used to scare American children. The European Union is awash in unevenly-distributed debt, and its future as a single organization is uncertain. The US government’s wars bankrupt it abroad, while the several States bankrupt themselves through entitlements and pension payments at home.
We’re free to exchange information, much more than the scholars and intellectuals of the Enlightenment. We’re wealthier and more productive than any human population in ages past. Our governments are overextended and underfunded.
History does not repeat itself, but it is said to rhyme, and we are set to compose another stanza of the poem started over two hundred years ago. One might only hope that these revolutions bear more resemblance to the relatively benign American Revolution than the vengeful French Revolution or the tragedy in Poland. Based on recent events in South Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, optimism would seem to be warranted.