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Could the great recession lead to a great revolution?

A look at mass protests during the past 500 years reveals surprising clues.

By Immanuel Ness / July 30, 2009

Brooklyn, N.Y.

For the first time in generations, people are challenging the view that a free-market order – the system that dominates the globe today – is the destiny of all nations. The free market's uncanny ability to enrich the elite, coupled with its inability to soften the sharp experiences of staggering poverty, has pushed inequality to the breaking point.

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As a result, we live at an important historical juncture – one where alternatives to the world's neoliberal capitalism could emerge. Thus, it is a particularly apt time to examine revolutionary movements that have periodically challenged dominant state and imperial power structures over the past 500 years.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which laid the foundation for liberal democratic elections and the expansion of the free-market system throughout the world, revolution and protest seemed to lose some of their potency.

Leading historians believed that a new age had appeared in which revolutionary movements would no longer challenge the status quo. Defenders of the contemporary system were suspicious of nearly all forms of popular expression and contestation for power outside the electoral arena. But remarkably, this entire discourse sidestepped the major impulses of human emancipation of the past 500 years – equality, democracy, and social rights.

Proponents of neoliberalism are indifferent to this history and dismiss the notion that "another world is possible" that could alleviate grinding misery and poverty around the world. But in opposition to the contemporary individualistic system of capitalism, evidence of a new global movement dedicated to social justice and human rights has sprung from the ashes of the past. Just in the past decade, we have witnessed the expansion of worker insurgencies, peasant and indigenous uprisings, ecological protests, and democracy movements.

Historians frequently view revolutions as extraordinary and unanticipated interruptions of state social regulation of everyday life.

This isn't the case.

In my work as editor of a new encyclopedia of revolution and protest, I've reviewed 500 years' worth of revolutionary actions. And the surprising pattern I've found is the regularity of volatile and explosive conflicts, commonly revealed as waves of protest from within civil society to confront persistent inequality and oppression. While historians cannot forecast the time and place of revolutions, the past has a sustained, if disjointed, record of popular resistance to injustice.

History shows that revolutions must have political movement and a socially compelling goal, with strategic and charismatic leadership that inspires majorities to challenge a perception of fundamental injustice and inequality. A necessary feature is the development of a political ideology rooted in a narrative that legitimates mass collective action, which is indispensable to forcing dominant groups to address social grievances – or to overturning those dominant groups altogether.

Unresponsive rulers risk possible overthrow of their governments. For example, the vision and struggle of a multiracial South Africa was a guiding principle that put an end to the entrenched white-dominated apartheid system.

A second essential element is what Italian philosopher Antonio Negri calls constituent power, the expression of the popular will for democracy – a common theme in nearly all revolutions – through what he calls the multitude.

Mr. Negri counterpoises the concepts of constituent power and constituted power to demonstrate the oppositional forces in society. Thus, following the American Revolution, the ruling elite created a second Constitution establishing a national government with fewer democratic safeguards.