Talkin’ about revolution

30 Dec

Interestingly, serious commentators are talking more and more about revolution. Sure, we are familiar with fundamentalists (on the left, the right, or of a religious or nationalist persuasion) talking about major change. Many of these ‘revolutionaries’ are one trick wonders: they are territorially-bounded, and focus on one polity (say regime change in Libya or Thailand). And their ‘revolutions’ tend to be limited in intention – changing the leadership but essentially retaining the system.

But over the past few months, opinion columns and think pieces seem to be increasingly concerned with the prospect of revolution and major political and economic change. Where did this come from? Firstly, we have already seen major political change over the past few years (the Arab ‘revolt’ and counter-revolt, reform (albeit limited) in Myanmar, a new-found confidence among the BRICs, and a new-found foreign policy dithering in the US and UK). Commentators are grappling to come to terms with these changes, especially as they confront old models of thinking and ordering. Secondly, there is probably a World War One centenary factor at work. There has been a rise in reflection by public intellectuals and others on what 1914-18 means for us now, and this encourages us to think about systems of government and governance.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there seems to be growing popular realisation among some that global and national economies harbour serious structural problems. There is growing evidence that publics simply don’t accept that it when political leaders tell them they are better off. Political leaders are fond of throwing simple statistics at the public: Inflation down! Jobs up! Employment up! Growth up! But there is evidence, real evidence from the ways in which people live and work, to suggest that the so-called ‘trickle-down’ effect is simply a mirage. So what is this evidence? It is the evidence of the everyday, and it does not draw on the official statistics that political leaders prefer:

• Food bank bins in the local supermarket, encouraging people to donate basic food to fellow community members;
• The rise of zero-hour contracts that offer employers maximum flexibility and employees maximum precariousness;
• The rise of part-time work – not out of choice, but necessity. People increasingly must work several jobs, rather than one, to make ends meet. Quite simply, traditional employment patterns are being decimated by automatisation and employers playing the system to avoid having to contribute to benefits;
• Rising prices. Despite being told that they are ‘better off’, publics in a variety of societies are being faced with sustained above inflation price rises for basics like food and utilities;
• The very obvious disparities between poverty and stagnation on the one hand, and isolated pockets of growth on the other. This is often highly spatialised, with some areas prospering (very visibly) while others stagnate (not so visibly);
• The continuing failure of governments to take serious action to hold to account bankers and speculators for the 2008 financial crash;
• The present generation finding their economic and job prospects more constrained than those of their parents.

We have seen cost of living protests in Israel, Palestine, Morocco, Brazil, the Maldives and many other societies. These protests are not quite the same as the anti-G8 protests a decade ago, or the Occupy movement of the past three years. They have engaged a different demographic – one that is political with a small ‘p’. The good news for political leaders is that these movements tend to be more malleable than hard-core anti-globalisation/profit groups. Small gestures (such an inquiry into the price of rice – as occurred in the Philippines recently) can assuage publics and give the impression that ‘something is being done’. The bad news, however, is that more and more are questioning the sustainability of an economic model that sees some profit grotesquely and others struggle to get by. This does not mean that general publics are reaching for the collected works of Karl Marx. It simply means that the realisation of structural inequality, of the rigged nature of economies, is becoming increasingly visible. And, of course, things are not getting worse for everybody. There are some very obvious economic winners (especially in countries that have started from a low economic base). And there are also those who continue to sell the ‘everything is rosey’ narrative and mistake economic growth and productivity for wellness (

Part of the problem for governments is that they are proven, time and again, to be powerless to stop cost of living increases or the diminution of employee rights. Political leaders can jump up and down and make vague sounding statements about fairness and affordability (if they are minded to). But given the global and privatised nature of accumulation, and the political economy of electoral politics in which big business is a big donor, their impact is usually minor. So if political elites are a busted flush, and if people recognise this, then why should they vote for them? And if political elites cannot rely on public to follow their line that everything is getting better then why listen to them. This disconnect is profound and has transnational elements in that it is being felt simultaneously in multiple locations, and often involves the same multinational corporations as the ‘villains of the piece’.

Many governments are responding to the cost of living crisis in the time honoured fashion of focusing public opinion on immigrants and external threats. These narratives are powerful. But unless the global economy can get beyond its cannibalistic phase and develop ways of sustaining mutual benefit, then the cost of living populism is here to stay. Does this mean revolution is guaranteed? Of course not. And as Paul Mason argued recently ( it is worth thinking about revolution in a different way than the traditional street protesters versus riot police, and the storming of the Presidential Palace. Certainly there will be plenty of that to come (and we can see it in Ukraine and Thailand at the moment). But the nature of revolution, just like capitalism and other models of political economy, is subject to change. It is likely to be increasingly de-territorialised, increasingly net-worked, and increasingly see governments as only one part of the mix. If corporations hold most of the cards, then why seek to overthrow governments – who are merely the security guards for corporations?

Talkin’ about revolution.


One Response to “Talkin’ about revolution”

  1. David Roberts 31/12/2013 at 10:03 am #

    You’re becoming a public intellectual Roger. This will have to stop 🙂

    On another note, my colleague is now back at work and we should be able to start thinking about that conference on ‘Hearing Voices’ at some point soon. DR. Oh, happy new year; nearly forgot about the seasonal hullabaloo 🙂

    Dr. David Roberts, FHEA Lecturer in International Relations Director of Postgraduate Studies Loughborough University ________________________________

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