We are fascinated by the image of rebellion. The present generation came of age amidst global unrest and upheaval, from the Arab Spring to the anti-austerity movements in the West. Its immediate impulse has been to identify with those in the streets, even in the case of ill-fated and dubiously progressive movements. The image of defiance fulfills a deep seated need in those of us who are fundamentally dissatisfied with the status quo — it offers the illusory promise of hope. But the events of the past few years have demonstrated a complete lack of coherent thought on the nature and aims of revolution. Victories have thus been squandered where they were earned, and revolutionary momentum has stalled. Defiance is not enough.
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 exemplified this problem. Protestors demanding “bread, freedom, social justice,” and the collapse of the regime massed across the nation. At the height of the Tahrir Square protests, millions surged into the streets. The inevitable crackdown was defeated, and the army stepped in to remove Mubarak from power. At this point, we were told, the revolution was essentially complete. This optimism, however, was misplaced. The interim military government appointed its own commission to review and amend the constitution, changing little. Egyptians were exhorted to elect a new parliament and a new president, in essence, to rebuild the state with fresh faces. The resulting Muslim Brotherhood government failed to deliver any substantial progress, and a military coup swiftly brought its rule to an end. Egypt is once again subject to a dictatorship.
Few in the present generation would have predicted the tragic demise of the revolution in 2011. Most were seduced by an image of revolution embodied by the pageantry of protest — the occupation of public spaces, chanting, fireworks — but devoid of real content. We were made to believe that the demise of a dictator — a single man — could pave the way for popular democracy. We believed that simply electing a new government could deliver legitimate change. It was no obstacle that this model provided precious few opportunities for those in the street to participate in politics, nor was it an issue that it implied a swift and relatively painless end to revolutionary struggle.
Rebellion itself became a spectacle. It was cynically marketed by media outlets and states to suit the needs of realpolitik. It was no accident that many of the channels aggressively promoting these revolutions were state owned. Al Jazeera, owned by the Qatari royal family, took the lead during the Arab Spring. Its programming is so entwined with Qatar’s political fortunes that Qatar has used its media coverage as a bargaining chip in international negotiations. Russia Today, which is owned by the Russian state, zealously broadcasts footage of unrest across the rest of the world, Russia, of course, omitted. For their part, Western news channels conveniently neutralized the message of the world’s revolutionaries, implying that their struggles were being waged in the name of some version of the Western political order.
At its very worst, the spectacle of revolution deceived some onlookers into supporting outright reactionary causes. In Ukraine, where local anarchists warned of the opposition’s dangers from the very beginning, foreign observers found themselves promoting an “uprising” whose foot soldiers were ultra-nationalists and fascists. Many still support a “revolution” in Syria whose most potent elements are authoritarian reactionaries funded by foreign governments. This historically blind perspective ignores the nature of fascist and reactionary movements, which have been accurately described as a “revolution from the right.” Opposition to the status quo does not imply liberatory aims. It should come as little surprise that both “populist” uprisings have delivered so little to their respective people. By ignoring the actual content of revolution, we condemn ourselves and our allies to inevitable failure.
Substituting one president or parliament for another is not a revolution. A revolution is a struggle against the injustice in society as a whole. This struggle cannot occur without a fundamental confrontation with the state. In Egypt, bread, freedom, and social justice could not possibly have been delivered by the election of a new government. The deep structures of the state — the security services, military, bureaucracy, and their associated corporate interests — remained almost entirely intact. As such, it was easy enough for a new pretender to assume the mantle of the old dictatorship. In Ukraine, the opposition made it clear from the very beginning that it was merely seeking to get a hold of state power. It is no accident that Ukraine is still in the grips of a corrupt oligarchy.
The revolutions of our era consistently lack the final push necessary to win popular freedom: dismantling the state. Powerful constituencies, from the military to institutional political parties, will always seek to divert the focus of unrest to manageable institutional channels like parliamentary elections. As we witnessed in Egypt and Ukraine, genuine revolutionary forces can be co-opted into party politics or simply ignored. This process is even underway in Ferguson, where local politicians seek to transform popular outrage into support for a particular party at the ballot box. This urge on the part of the powerful represents nothing more than a desire to protect the deep institutions of the state from popular outrage. One can vote new managers of the state into office, but one cannot simply vote the state out of existence.
If state power is the foundation of oppression, war, and the monopolization of property, then a genuine revolution must dismantle state power. There can be no half-measures or gradual steps in this regard. There are thus only a few simple questions that the observer may ask of any revolution: Does it struggle for the freedom, equality, and dignity of the people? Does it oppose institutionalized hierarchy and authority wherever it may be found? Does it seek to shatter the state? If a movement cannot answer any of these questions positively, then it deserves neither our support nor our sympathy. To the contrary, if it can, it deserves nothing less than the ardent support and aid of all those who struggle together in the name of freedom.
Where a revolution is made that a new government or party can come to power, its promise is betrayed. And where a revolution shakes the foundations of society and the state, its promise has only just begun to be fulfilled. For a revolution is nothing more than the decision of the people to take power once more into their own hands, freed of the domination of the powerful and the privileged. Without a fundamental change in the political and economic structure of society, “revolution” is merely an image to distract us from the magnitude of the task at hand. Let us cast aside our illusions — the real revolutions are yet to be won.