Concern-trolling the Revolution

A couple days ago David Rothkopf surveyed ongoing protests in Egypt, as well as Turkey and Brazil –  and found them wanting. Protesters, he claimed, are steadily revealing that they don’t know what it takes to enter the halls of power and effect lasting change; they are “better at organizing protests than… institutionalizing their movements or creating, cultivating, and empowering leaders who could master existing institutions.”

He goes on (after lauding the American Revolution as the historical exception that proves the rule):

Look at some of the recent outpourings of public discontent that have captured our imaginations in the past couple of decades. Tiananmen Square. The uprisings that brought down the Soviet Union. Iran’s Green Revolution. Tahrir Square. Revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Taksim Square. In each case, even where revolutions have brought seeming change, the protesters were hardly among the greatest beneficiaries of the outcomes.

There were really two kinds of outcomes. In the first, there was precious little change at all — as in the case of China, Iran, or, to date, Turkey. In the second, the change shifted power from one entrenched elite to another: Russia may not be communist, but it is run by a former KGB officer in a very undemocratic way; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to fill the void created when Hosni Mubarak was pushed out, and if the current protests there play out, expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.

The essay ends on a perfectly reasonable note – that is, that those who seek to encourage change must “focus more on training oppositions in the long game of getting and consolidating power,” though one might quibble that it overlooks entirely the possibility for oppositions to build their own capacity (no minor quarrel, now that I think about it!). But in its long middle passages it betrays troubling misunderstandings of the workings of revolutionary politics in general, and an odd sense of the way that things might play out in Egypt specifically.

On a general theoretical level the essay’s focus on directly pitting the goals of elite actors against the goals of the revolution muddies conceptual waters profoundly. The author complains that that when “elites have the money, control the military, control the police, control the mechanisms of political expression, if they can use the means of the state to suppress upheaval or if they can exploit revolutions to advance their own agendas versus those of other elites, they become hard to dislodge” – presumably thwarting the goals of real revolutionaries. But it is the rare revolution which contains no elite actors within the revolutionary fold. It is inconceivable, for example, to imagine the French Revolution without the participation of journalists, urban merchants, clerics, even, especially, dissident nobility.

And let’s look to the recent mobilizations cited. In the failed revolutionary case of China in 1989, prominent (and at the time recently deceased) reformer Hu Yaobang provided student protesters with a potent political symbol, while General Secretary Zhao Ziyang cast his lot with the students in a bid to open reform and lost. In the failed Iranian “Green Revolution,” young people flooded into the streets to protest against the effective marginalization and disenfranchisement not of the popular classes, but of two elite (and Guardian Council-vetted!) presidential candidates, both true sons of the 1979 Revolution. These were no less revolutionary upheavals for their incorporation of elite currents of thought and elite actors into an overarching revolutionary discourse.

The essay’s focus on alleged elite appropriation of revolutionary movements is especially jarring, given its choice of a revolutionary lodestar in 1776. The planters, merchants, artisans, and intellectuals who assumed the leadership of the American Revolution were in many cases the homegrown equivalent of a local aristocracy. Seeking to preserve their own interests meant that the American Revolution was not a revolution of “those from below”; elites’ control of money and the means of political expression were key to the American Revolution’s triumph. That’s how these things work.

And not only in that case! The outcome of the Mexican Revolution, which accomplished (relatively) profound structural changes in the Mexican state, was determined by the trajectories of regional rebellions in which elites routinely participated, and by the shift of former players in the old regime to the revolutionary side. Does their participation make less revolutionary the subsequent changes in land tenure rules, the purges of clergy, the nationalization of oil reserves?

Indeed, revolutionary movements almost always incorporate elites into themselves, whether they fail or not. This is because revolutions are inherently messy enterprises, prone to innumerable tactical shifts as their protagonists struggle for advantage not only against reactionary opponents, but also among themselves. This does not mean that pure-at-heart revolutionaries should ignore Rothkopf’s advice to get organized, the better to push back against reaction and retrenchment. But the trajectory toward greater organization and more substantive skills is a long arc, and that elites may wind up on all sides of these enterprises does not detract from their revolutionary potential per se. If we only made revolutions of parties, which also were sure to benefit not a single elite actor, we would all, from “America” to Brazil to China and so on, be… still waiting. In short, revolutionary politics are more or less always profoundly imbricated with elite politics. Imagining a neat binary of the two serves to obscure more than it illuminates, and only makes it more difficult to struggle for justice within the revolutionary context.

It is the more specific case of Egypt, to which I will now briefly turn, which helps to illustrate a bit more the point around revolutionary organizing for institutional control versus contentious politics, with a guest appearance by the oft-posited virtual-physical divide. Remember, Rothkopf is concerned that as things come to pass in Egypt we must “…expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.” This is presumably the fault of protesters who failed to build stronger secular youth-powered parties and so on. But this analysis has at least two flaws. One is that it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the military will resume primary control of the state, as the military more likely seeks a sphere of autonomy and impunity in which the generals may feather their nests and preen in peace.

The latter point, which has greater bearing upon the study of comparative revolutions, and with which I will close, is that the protests of the past several days have been the largest in Egyptian history. They have been preceded by a sustained drive for signatures to a petition demanding Morsy’s ouster. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such popular impeachment campaigns, the oft-cited number of 22 million signatures represents an impressive logistical feat in one of the key arenas of civic action: good old-fashioned canvassing! This is organizational capacity beyond “chants” or “the Twitterverse,” and it indicates that Egypt’s revolutionary forces are working hard to mature and build their own capacity as political actors. Of course there’s a long way to go – but as Rothkopf himself points out, “lasting change is hard.” From all indications no one is heading into this next phase of revolutionary upheaval with their eyes closed. It will continue to be a long haul, with considerable struggle necessary to advance accountability, and human, social, and economic rights. But knowing this upfront means that a little bit of optimism about elite participation and mobilizational forms of revolutionary contestation might not do anyone, least of all editors at Foreign Policy Magazine, any harm.

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