Culture Economics Politics

Are Revolutions Ever A Good Idea?

Real revolutions are more about ideas than about chopping people’s heads off.

One of the things I love about the film-maker Adam Curtis’s work is that he doesn’t just accept the way things are. He keeps inviting us to look deeper and question the assumed truths of our culture.

One of those assumptions is that revolutions don’t work because the people who come into power always turn out to be just as bad as old lot.

The classic expression of this idea is in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, his allegorical fable of the farm animals who overthrow the incompetent alcoholic farmer and take over running the farm themselves with the slogan “two legs bad, four legs good”. Before too long, the pigs have established themselves as the new rulers and become indistinguishable from the humans, even walking upright on two legs, drinking alcohol and brandishing whips.

Orwell (a socialist) was expressing his disgust at the Russian Revolution and what he saw as the betrayal of socialist ideals. His other great work 1984 was a bleak portrayal of a totalitarian surveillance state, again with obvious parallels with the Soviet Union but actually even more relevant to today’s era dominated by monopolistic technology corporations.

Like the French Revolution before it, the Russian Revolution has been held up by traditional conservatives as a warning about the dangers of revolution. “Look”, the argument goes, “things may be bad now, but a revolution makes things even worse.”

There is much truth to this. Both revolutions saw much bloodshed and it is questionable whether people’s material lives were improved in the years following the revolutions.

But a revolution is different from a coup – a mere change of leadership.

The word Revolution comes from the verb Revolve, meaning to turn around (as in a wheel). A true revolution turns things upside down, it up-ends the old order. And the most profound way it does that is by changing the defining myths of a society.

A true revolution turns things upside down, it up-ends the old order. And the most profound way it does that is by changing the defining myths of a society.

What does this mean?

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, describes how our species succeeded by achieving levels of co-operation which exceeded other primates. In the early stages, language was the important breakthrough, with gossip being an essential part of keeping track of who people were, where they stood in the hierarchies and how much we could trust them. But there is an upper limit to how many people we can keep track of (and therefore trust to co-operate with) using language and gossip alone – and that upper limit is about 150 people.

Then about 70,000 years ago there was a breakthrough which enabled humans to cooperate on scales much vaster than 150 individuals. That breakthrough was Myth – an over-arching story and set of beliefs which transcended any individuals and enabled strangers who shared the myth to trust each other enough to cooperate.

Early myths were about gods and other spiritual beings and heroic ancestors who ordained how we should live and what purpose our lives serve. Prior to the French and Russian Revolutions there were myths about the Divine Right of Monarchs.

Contemporary myths are about money, corporations, banks, property, work, poverty, individualism, education and democracy. These are all human constructs which could be changed in ways that the laws of physics cannot be changed. They are not objectively true in the sense that water=H2O is true, and yet, like the old gods, they are the glue which binds our culture together and shapes the behaviour of the people within it.

Contemporary myths are about money, corporations, banks, property, work, poverty, individualism, education and democracy. These are all human constructs which could be changed

A true revolution doesn’t just change the people holding power, it changes the ruling myths, the core beliefs, of a society.

The French Revolution destroyed the old belief in the Divine Right of Kings and put in it’s place a belief in Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood). This was, in turn, central to the foundation of the United States of America with its majestic Declaration of Independence which includes: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. At the time, these were revolutionary ideas. The mainstream beliefs were the all people were NOT created equal – especially the aristocracy/peasants and men/women. Even many of the Founding Fathers of the USA were slave-owners.

Perhaps the most recent revolution of this deeper type was the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-1993.

At the time, nobody predicted it. From the outside, the power structures looked so solid. People were afraid to openly question the system and those who did faced imprisonment or worse. I remember speaking to a Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in 1988. I had just returned from my first visit to Moscow and Leningrad. Bukovsky, then living in Cambridge, was smuggling fax machines into the USSR as a means to beat traditional censorship and enable a free flow of information. He was making what seemed at the time an outrageous prediction that the Communist regime would fall within 20 years. Nobody believed that was possible.

And yet behind the power-structures, people had, for years, quietly stopped believing. They understood that the Party lied to them, that what they saw on the TV was a distortion. But most importantly, they stopped believing in the ideology – the official narrative, beliefs and (for want of a better word) religion of the system. Like a termite-infested building, the impressive looking structures had become hollowed out. When the time came, they collapsed like a house of cards.

I see the same kinds of things happening now in our late-stage capitalist societies. More and more people are losing faith in the official myths creating space for new beliefs to appear.

We could end world poverty tomorrow if we chose. We could create a world where robots and machines do much of the work and the wealth created is distributed as a basic income for all, freeing up more of us to explore creativity, spend more time with our families and in leisure, or doing work that is more meaningful to us personally. We could choose to prioritise our planetary life-support systems ahead of share prices. We could create a new economy which serves people, instead of having people serve the economy. We could put an end to ruinous financial speculation which only serves to funnel wealth to the wealthiest. Further down the track, we could even dream of a culture without money.

All of this would constitute a revolution, a renunciation of the old myths and the embracing of new myths. Personally, I can’t wait!