why democratic revolutions often fail

The short answer is because means matter. But first a bit about democracy. Very fuzzy concept. All concepts are, so that doesn’t make it stand out, but this one is particularly fuzzy and that may require some explicit attention. Fuzzy, isn’t even the most enlightening perspective on meaning, metaphor and analogy are better. As this is meant (sic) to be about revolutions, and I’m two steps removed within just the first couple of sentences I’ll leave that side street for another time (be prepared for some George Lakoff and Douglas Hofstadter some time soon).

An illustrative quote for what fuzzy means is Max van der Stoel‘s answer to the question what defines an ethnic group I don’t know how to define it but I recognize one when I see one. Is that true for democracy? Things so often are not what they seem. Is the main driver of democracy promotion, the US, a democracy? I often doubt it, given the influence of corporate money on its policy. However, what things seem is maybe way too naive a starting point for thinking about anything more complex than a table (and read Lakoff about what it takes to define a table).

My regular readers know that these posts are all an exercise in playing the glass bead game so I’ll take a familiar bead to make my point. When you think Frank Zappa, what comes to mind? Certainly not this businessman:

But does that make him any less Frank Zappa? Now, what about democracy. How to say anything sensible about success or failure without some kinda yardstick of what matters? Much easier to look for negative indicators than a positive definition. Obvious repression of critics by the state, obvious particular interest dominance over policy and its implementation, large inequality and no effort to at least pacify the underclass with creature comforts, no realistic mechanisms for changing the ruling party, a lack of in-build checks and balances, stuff like that, are reasons to label a regime non-democratic. 

The title question is about the inability of movements that are successful in toppling such a  regime, to replace it by something more democratic. Admittedly, sometimes they are not (even) the ones that do the toppling, e.g. the Brotherhood in Egypt, but being the best organized and best funded political force, with the largest constituency, be it based on ideological commitment, performance legitimacy acquired by the provision of social services during the times of the former dictatorship, or patronage and vote buying, they manage to adopt the revolution as theirs. And, ignoring the crucial difference between their constituency and the people, they then tend to use the captured state machinery in ways that are very familiar to anyone who knew the old regime. Hopes are squashed, replaced by disappointment, despair, fear, sometimes anger, a next round of revolution, with either anarchy or another organized player repeating the scenario as its outcome, time and again, how come?

I don’t believe in mono-causal stories but tight-knit organization (and sufficient material support from somewhere) seems a pretty crucial element for any explanation. To topple a regime yourself you need a hierarchical (military) command structures. To take over a popular revolt, you need something similar, down to the grassroots, to enable the capture of votes in chaotic times. Those structures are inherently non-democratic. They tend to be rooted in an absolutist ideology, because a hierarchical command structure thrives best when followers are believers and leaders are the interpreters of truth, whatever its nature. Truth is impervious to real criticism, discussion within such organizations can never really challenge it, maybe current strategies, maybe the purity of intent of leader x or follower y, but not the truth.

Such organization might be good at getting some things accomplished, but it is not good at morphing into what it is not once the job is done. The lack of checks and balances, near certainly ensures that the top dogs (and their families and close friends – we’re tribal at heart) of the party, be that legitimized by fascist, communist, or religious ideology, doesn’t really matter, will turn dictatorial. Philosopher kings, saints, or the ascetic revolutionary vanguard, do not survive the realities of ruling. Their means will catch up with them and undermine the worthy end they pursued.

I’m afraid of utopias. If anything has brought us tinkering and meddling herd animals grief it’s those who hold the word of truth above all else. I totally believe in truth, but not in the words, the words ultimately always lead to killing. Let’s stick to the non-verbal version that tastes like beauty and feels like love.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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