I was reading something about a battle in the American Revolution and it got me to thinking about what revolution would look like in the modern age. We tend to associate revolutions with mobs in the streets, disobeying lawful orders from whoever happens to be in charge. That’s part of it, for sure, but usually they have more formal elements as well as popular unrest. The American Revolution had a number well organized acts of rebellion like boycotts and peaceful resistance before we got armies in the field.
Revolutions have two forms, at least at the onset. There are the revolts within the ruling class and then there are popular rebellions. The former is more like a civil war played out on the small scale. For instance, a group of soldiers takes over the military and then sacks the civil leadership. The English Civil War is the best example. The latter is when the people get tired of their rulers and rally around a leader or cause (or both) and force out the old rulers. The Bolshevik Revolution is the most obvious example. The American Revolution is unique in that it has both elements.
In the modern west, a military coup is unlikely as the civilian authorities have done a good job over the last few generations of selecting against the sort of ambitious men who tend to lead military coups. In Europe, the military is simply too weak to pull it off. That and the rest of Europe would either send in troops to restore civilian rule or have the US do it. Then you have the fact that there’s not a lot of popular support for the military in much of Europe. A coup would result in massive protests.
The US is a different animal in that we have a big competent military, but it is mostly stationed overseas. That’s not an accident. If the invade the world types are purged from the ruling class, the next step is a great demobilization. There’s simply no way a civilian leadership is going to allow a massive high tech army to be garrisoned at home. Even so, the military culture in the US has long selected against the sort of men that lead military coups. It’s the one thing we have no screwed up yet.
I think if we are going to see a soft civil war or a revolution from within, it will look a lot like what we are seeing with nationalist parties across the Continent. The first wave will be less than professional politicians demonstrating the power of popular discontent, followed by a second wave of real professionals who take control of those new parties and lead a reform movement. This is not so much a revolution or revolt, as a process of internal reform tapping into popular will to overcome internal resistance. It’s not exactly how democracy is supposed to work, but it is not a terrible result if it leads to peaceful change.
There’s good reason to be pessimistic about this possibility. We saw how the Austrians rigged their election and a lot of people suspect this US election could be loaded with shenanigans. Even if Trump overcomes the Clinton crime machine, he will most likely face a ruling class unified against him. In America, we may have crossed the Rubicon in the 1990’s when it became clear that the ruling class could no longer police itself. Their inability to purge their ranks of the Clintons was a sign that the rot had reach a point where reform is no longer possible.
That leaves popular revolt. Certainly voting for Trump sends a message, but messages need a sender and a receiver. If the people on the other end refuse to acknowledge the message being sent, then it’s not really a message. The Olive Branch Petition was the last ditch effort by the Colonist to avoid a breach with the mother country, but the King’s refusal turned it from a message to him into a message from him. That message was clear to the colonials. They could either submit unconditionally or prepare for war. A Trump win followed by a unified refusal by the political class to cooperate would also be clear message.
A few bloggers on our side of the divide have noted that what comes after Trump is, if history is a guide, going to be much worse. Instead of an amateur politician, who still believes in the system, the next guy to rally the troops will be a professional who does not believe in the system. Instead he will be a guy that looks at the system in the same way Turkish strongman Erdoğan looks at democracy. That is, it is useful only as a vehicle for taking the leader to where he wants to go. “If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it,” said Julius Caesar.
That may be true, but it will still require popular support. What we are seeing with nationalist insurgencies in the West is they are running into the massive power that comes from owning the mass media. A little girl skins her knee and there is a news team there to blame Trump in a four hour TV special. Hillary Clinton is caught running a pay-for-play scheme and no one can be bothered to ask her why she went to the trouble of installing an illegal e-mail system in her bathroom. Even the most cynical and savvy insurgent campaign cannot get past this problem.
It may be that the custodial state has reached a point where rebellion is no longer possible. Or, it may simply be that the method of revolt will have to adapt to the modern age. If the rulers no longer have the consent of the governed, then the governed will have no reason to voluntarily cooperate. Perhaps the cord-cutting movement is one of those acts of rebellion that makes sense only in a mass media age. Publishing the private correspondence of rulers, obtained by hackers, is certainly a very modern for of rebellion.
Whether any of it works is open to debate