Why Revolutions Fail

An abridged version of this post exists for those less interested in reading about my personal connection to the topic. You can find it here.
As a young man growing up on the far eastern edge of the North American continent, I hadn’t much experience of the outside world beyond the borders of the Canadian Maritime provinces. Our concept of diversity was limited to whether you were English-speaking or French-speaking, Protestant or Catholic, but none of this really mattered though because in the end you found households with all possible combinations and on Saturday night we all practiced the same ritual of retreating to our dens to watch Hockey Night in Canada. In my generation which grew up post official bilingualism and post referendum none of our differences were ever worth fighting for.The outside world did occasionally interrupt our hockey broadcasts, forcing upon us a 30 second contemplation of the concept of poverty. Poverty presented as such seemed both relative and abstract: images of fly-infested kids with bloated stomachs touched a nerve, but because they only ever appeared through the glossy buzz of our three channel three-colour television set, I relegated them to the land of fantasy and fiction: like the TV itself, they were easy to turn off and ignore when the physical world beckoned.Going to university then was like switching from analogue to digital where an entirely new world of channels on a previously unimaginable scale produced an abundance of options  for the passionately curious and the curiously passionate.  Fate would have it that a four month stint in Southern Mexico meant that I came face to face with the poverty that I could previously turn off or turn away from. Unlike the shows from my childhood that always concluded within the allotted 30 minute time frame, the scenes before me never seemed to wrap up. The poverty I was witness to was contrasted and accentuated by the inexplicable  wealth of a few, sort of like standing a really tall man next to a really short man to emphasize the scale of each. I quickly became enamored with the corresponding classical themes of Latin America: the destruction of all that is beautiful; the suffering of the innocent; the indifference of the masses fueled by the collusion of the hypocritical righteous; all of which have kept me turning pages even 10 years later. The collection known as the Latin American continent, comprised of countries and peoples united by the shared experience of not being able to free themselves from the legacies and institutions of their colonial pasts, became a conduit for what was an emotional, intellectual and life-altering awakening.

After delving deep into the labyrinth of Latin America, including a two year stint living in Ecuador, my young and idealistic self saw that the problems of continent were easy to define and their solution was clearer than the Caribbean sea: those to blame for the past and current state of affairs are the governments of turn, the anachronist and racist bourgeoisie, and the conspiratorial foreign powers that have supported and enabled both. Luckily I quickly found a panacea, a panacea symbolized through the ever-glowing and defiant red star of revolution.

Pure and righteous revolucion, the complete overthrow of the past and a re-taking of the future from the hands of the cynics, took over every atom that comprised my energy, passion and intellect. Part of what made and makes revolution such a seductive alternative is the rich cast of characters who have pursued it relentlessly since the initial European encounter, often paying the ultimate price for its sake:  with names such as Atahualpa, de las Casas, Sor Juana, Bolivar, Alfaro, Villa, Zapata, Guevara, Castro, Peron, Gaitan, Marcos, etc., Like The Avengers, they cross more than 500 years of history to come together in a common narrative of an unfinished war against injustice. The backdrop of the struggle happens to be comprised of some of nature’s finest work, including the silent peaks of the Andes, the magnetic waves of the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf, etc. It’s a power that equates a gravitational pull that easily derails what would otherwise be normal and potentially uneventful lives.

Though my love affair with the continent continues to this day I have found myself questioning my foregone conclusions of the past as my textual experience of the place became overshadowed by my personal experiences. A true test of how much one believes in something is to question whether or not the ends justifies the means. In my case I started by questioning whether or not revolution is one or the other, and whether or not I serve an ideology or my ideology serves me.

Absolute truth, after all, has a way of disintegrating when exposed to the piercing light of nuanced experience and contradictory information. Though the ends stays intact time has made the means increasingly difficult to identify. Understanding the relationship between time and change further complicates one’s relationship to the means. Often very little changes over a short period of time, whereas a lot can change over a long period of time.

Few, however, have the patience to sustain a continued and concerted effort towards a long term harvest for which there is no guarantee one will be able to taste the fruits of genuine change brought about by his effort. The nagging fear that one might be wrong and dedicate his whole life to a failed idea is a paralyzing force in itself: if only such fear could be equally distributed rather than entirely concentrated in some and entirely absent in others. In the end I allowed myself to consider whether or not true change can happen through quick and dirty revolution, or whether or not true change only reveals itself in gradual increments. Furthermore, the last question that has chipped away at the foundations of my internalized organization of the world is this: given the strength of the cast assembled, and given the inexhaustible good intentions of the masses dedicated to the cause, why does the dream of social justice achieved through revolution still seem so distant?

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.

2 Responses to “Why Revolutions Fail”

  1. In this article you completely eschew and obfuscate the question of Social Class in any serious way. A concrete understanding of revolutions cannot be arrived at without an accurate appraisal of class dynamics in a given society.

    I would like to hear you flesh out some concrete forms to reinforce your solution of “the creation and longevity of strong institutions dedicated to the cause of empowerment”. Also who would pay for these institutions what would they empower people to do? What do you mean by “Smart Policy” and can you give examples?

  2. Hi Chuck, I’m happy to discuss. My point isn’t to address why revolutions occur: as you rightly point out such an article would involve a lengthy discussion of class dynamics. Instead my objective is to address why they fail, and my point is that it isn’t enough to simply change one group of people with another group of people and assume that the good intentions and allegiances of the latter will make all of the difference: instead, you need systematic change involving wide-ranging distribution of powers in order to bring about concrete change.

    When I refer to institutions of empowerment I’m not simply referring to state institutions: I’m talking about all of the institutions that allow for social mobility. Look at how Canada operates: at some point you and I got a good public education, got into university, funded our studies through a combination of subsidies, grants and loans, and then used our newfound skills to find employment, often times doing better than our parents. To enable this process requires a series of institutions, often times independent of each other, some of which are private and some of which are public but all of which combine to enable social mobility.

    As an example of a failed revolution after 13 years of revolutionary government in Venezuela the country hasn’t progress towards the Canadian or Nordique model at all, despite Chavez’s state claims to do so. Oil production is down as a result of the mass firing of ‘non-revolutionary’ employees(many of whom are now working in Alberta); corruption is higher; crime is higher; non-oil related investment has disappeared thus making the country entirely dependent on the price of oil. Any gains in the standards of living of the country’s poorest are therefore also dependent on the price of oil, since price reductions brought about by say subsidized grocery stores are only as durable as state is wealthy. The current state of Venezuela is entirely the product of public policy decisions made by the current government, many of which make Chavez popular but don’t actually address the long term well being of Venezuela. It doesn’t matter that Chavez talks the language of helping the poor if in the end his government is inept. Nothing that has happened in Venezuela over the past 13 years brings it closer to the Nordique model, countries where ideology plays second to effective public policies (look at how Norway manages its oil wealth compared to Venezuela and you’ll see what I mean).

    Brazil, on the other hand, has implemented lots of policies that are pushing the country towards a more sustainable development. Tying welfare payments to school enrollment has kept millions of kids in school thus improving the potential for their social mobility. Allowing Petrobras to be a mixed public-private partnership (thus distributing its ownership model instead of allowing it to be entirely controlled by a federal government) has meant that the company’s management has the right incentives to grow, undertake unique projects like the development and scaling of ethanol production, reducing corruption while continuing to pay dividends to state coffers.

    The counter-point would be to give an example of a country that has developed a sophisticated and diverse economy and high standard of living for its citizens with absolute power remaining tightly controlled by a tiny political elite. Aside from the oil-fueled kingdoms of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia I don’t know of any that exist. If Saudi Arabia were to be overthrown tomorrow and the royal family replaced with a new socialist regime equally bent on concentrating power in its hands not much would change, regardless of the rhetoric.

    Thanks for the post.

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