Could the great recession lead to a great revolution?
A look at mass protests during the past 500 years reveals surprising clues.
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In response to challenges from popular movements, modern states have concentrated power in constitutions and centralized authority structures to suppress mass demands for democracy and equality. Few democratic revolutionary movements have gained popular power as new states almost always consolidate control, often resorting to repression of the masses that initially brought them to power. Still, virtually all revolutions during the past 500 years have created enduring consequences that, in evolving form, remain forces for justice to this day.Skip to next paragraph
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Revolutionary movements must recognize the durability and overwhelming inertia of state power. They must acknowledge that they are highly unlikely to seize power from unjust regimes, even when their objectives have moral force and are deeply popular among the masses. And yet, history is full of exceptions to this rule, so we must conclude that while revolutionary transformation is improbable, it is always a possibility.
At a lecture to Young Socialists in Zurich just one month before the February 1917 Revolution, Vladimir Lenin said: "We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution." Less than a year later, Lenin and the Bolsheviks gained power over the Soviet state with the initial support of workers, peasants, and most of the military.
In the last century, the opponents of the failed bureaucratic statism in the Soviet sphere and free-market capitalism in the West have struggled to find a discourse of resistance. While democratic opponents defeated Soviet Russia in the early 1990s, opponents of free-market capitalism have yet to gain traction, in part due to the general consensus among global rulers in defense of neoliberalism. As such, revolutionary movements have had to redefine themselves outside territorial borders as powerful tools of the global collective to petition for human rights and social justice for all.
People are inherently cautious and take extraordinary action only when they have little to lose and something to gain. The current economic crisis has pushed more people into poverty and despair than at any time since the early 20th century, to the point where alternatives to the current system can be considered.
Today, throughout the world, peasants, workers, indigenous peoples, and students are galvanized into movements that are challenging state power rooted in global norms of neoliberalism. New movements have gained greater traction with the legitimacy and strength of a global collective behind them, rather than as isolated protests. The oppressed are framing new narratives of liberation to contest power on a state and international level: whether peasants in Latin America or India struggling for land reform; indigenous peoples mobilizing resistance for official recognition of their rights; or workers and students throughout the world waging unauthorized strikes and sit-ins, and taking to the streets in support of democracy and equality.