Why Revolutions Fail (Abridged)

This is an abridged version of a longer essay. You can find the original here.
After dedicating a good chunk of the time and energy of my adult life to the idea of revolution I have come to an uncomfortable conclusion. I say “uncomfortable” because my current beliefs undermine a lot of my past beliefs and saying them out loud opens me to the accusation that I am colluding with the counter-revolutionaries, and we all know that the fate of a traitor is the harshest judgment of all.

The dangerous idea is thus: revolutions fail when we believe that a.) the revolutionary  governments can fulfill the will of the people without a radical distribution of power and b.) when we believe that one segment of a society can advance without the support and cooperation of other sectors of society. Allow me to explain.

Revolutions are inherently popular, as they say in Spanish, because they necessarily come about as the result of the mobilisation of the masses. A true revolution thus encompasses the will of the vast majority. Most often, after the initial overthrow of the old guard we empower either a person or a limited group of people to carry out the task of institutionalizing the momentum created by the revolution.

It is in this institutionalization process, however, that we err. Our error is derived from the fact that most revolutionary governments continue to concentrate and monopolize power, albeit in the name of their good intentions. They appropriate the symbols and slogans of the movement that propelled them into power, but pursue an agenda that eventually becomes entirely self-satisfying. All actions that come about, even when producing positive impacts for the common good, are designed as a means to perpetuate one’s longevity in power. The confusion between the will of the people and the will of the person is not only created but also intentionally perpetuated. The cult of the personality takes over. A familiar plot plays out like a bad dream we can’t prevent ourselves from replaying.  Another truth slowly reveals itself: power corrupts: or better yet, the concentration of power corrupts.

With my new lenses I see the error of our way everywhere: I see it in the ongoing circus that is Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party aka PRI), whose name embodies not only its inherent contradiction but the main point I am trying to get across here; I see our error when Raul Castro, one hand on a microphone, the other hand pointing an accusing finger to the north, claims to speak on behalf of the Cuban people despite not having consulted them for the past 50 years. I see our error when the same Cuban government goes out of its way to prevent its citizens from communicating among themselves by limiting access to technologies such as cellular networks for fear that someone like Yoani Sanchez might grab the microphone and speak out of turn, deviating from the official script. I see the error when I arrive at the Caracas airport and look into the tired eyes of a revolutionary bureaucrat  who can’t be bothered to enforce the customs rules that are meant to protect the revolution from imported goods; I see the error at the United Nations Human Rights Commission when the Government of Ecuador shrugs its shoulders when asked to opine on the morally bankrupt Syrian regime  by refusing to condemn the mass slaughter of innocents. How can a government that refers to itself as “La Revolucion Ciudadana, The Citizens’ Revolution” take the side of an oppressive regime over the dignified struggle of a repressed and desperate people? I see our error when Daniel Ortega stands tall with the Presidential sash across his chest, because despite the gains brought about after the initial revolution the one goal that escapes the Sandanistas is to build a Nicaragua that doesn’t need Daniel Ortega.

The key question one can ask to determine whether or not a revolution has failed is what happens if the recognized leader of the revolution leaves power? If the will of the people can only be protected and defended by perpetuating one and only one individual in power, then we must admit that the plan to institutionalize the revolution has failed. By nature of being a movement of the masses, a revolution should never rest on the efforts of one since a revolution comprises the efforts of all.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that the other reason revolutions fail is when they plot one segment of society against another. Whether we are discussing the mass genocides of Germany and Rwanda or the fire-breathing and divisive rhetoric of Hugo Chavez (I’m not at all suggesting moral equivalence, btw), the truth is that the only way for nations to advance is for all people to be marching in the same direction. Regardless of how we try to cut up and divide the cloth that is the fabric of a nation, the fact is that in the end we are all part of the same quilt. If as is often the case in Latin America one has extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, this problem cannot be resolved by simply erasing an economic elite from the picture. As long as there is scarcity of power and wealth brought about by their unequal distribution, another elite, be it economic, social or political, will simply rise from the ashes of the burnt out mansions. The only solution to the problem of power and wealth concentration is through the creation and longevity of strong institutions dedicated to the cause of empowerment, something that can only happen when smart public policy triumphs over principled ideology and governments choose what works over what they desperately want to work.

Having drawn these conclusions on the subject of why revolutions fail, I want to be careful to point out that I don’t wish to suggest revolutions are unnecessary, nor do I regret the achievements gained through the blood, sweat and tears of the many: independence movements needed to happen, as did universal suffrage, land reform, the end of dictatorships, equality before the law, etc. What I denounce are the short-sighted revolutionaries who failed to take advantage of key moments in history, key opportunities to break free from the colonial structures which still abound, and failed to delegate power to the people who installed them there in the first place, leaving many nations looking much like they found them.

I for one haven’t lost hope though, for the technological advances that are liberating communication promises an era in which we citizens can easily exercise the power that is rightfully ours to begin with. In its own way ubiquitous connectivity is a revolution, or better yet a societal evolution, whose wide-scale implications for self-governance are only beginning to be discussed. Online connectivity though is not a panacea: like all media, it is simply enhances our ability to do what we would otherwise do. As the South African Mobile Mogul  Alan Knott-Craig is fond of saying, “Technology is not the dream. The Dream is what you can do with it.”

We should not, however, take the next round of power distribution as a given: the biggest threat we face comes from the same governments who will attempt to recycle old excuses to guard against the threat posed by our ability to quickly and forcefully organize ourselves and state contrary opinions. A conflict is therefore inevitable, and once again we will test, as Wael Ghonim puts it, whether the power of the people is greater than the people in power.

For too long we’ve sustained a broken system because Winston Churchill told us it was the best of all the worst options. This tired cliche has given us permission to become complacent and as a result we have failed to iterate on the governing institutions that have changed little since Churchill’s time despite advances in education, communication, transportation, etc. If the Arab spring then represents the beginning of a series of revolutions which will fundamentally alter the world order as we know it, let us be brave enough to imagine a world where the inevitable is no longer inevitable, where the cynics are more often wrong than they are right, and where opportunity and potential are distributed to their logical extremes. Let us then bring about the revolution to end all revolutions where the dream of a more just future is no longer the sole responsibility of a a few, but the common aspiration of us all.

About Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

A former Google and Twitter manager, Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the founder and CEO of Céntrico Digital, a managed marketing services company.

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