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Between Revolution and Tyranny: A Fluid and Highly Permeable Line

One reason for progressivism is the facility with which exogenous actors apparently manipulate revolutions to serve quite different goals from those espoused by indigenous adherents.

Barricade with protesters at Hrushevskogo Street on January 26, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. The anti-governmental protests turned into violent clashes. (Photo: Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr)

I have been highly critical of virtually all of the revolutionary movements in the MENA region – particularly those in Libya, Syria and Egypt. It would not be a stretch to say that my default disposition is anti-revolution, although from the response to my work in many quarters, there does not seem to be a robust understanding of why. So rather than writing yet another exposé, this time on the pop-media misinformation and problematic framing of the recent protests in Ukraine, it may be more fruitful to explain just why I find these movements are so troubling.

Framing as a Democratic/ Popular Movement

Under all of the rhetorical and ideological flourishes, no action occurs in a vacuum, and all social movements are always and only about one thing: restructuring power dynamics. Accordingly, it is important to ask a number of critical questions about any social movement: Which internal and external actors are involved? How are they involved? What are the relations between these actors? What, specifically, are the most significant parties after? Why?

Under this sort of critical analysis, it becomes apparent that most revolts are driven by ethnic, religious and political minorities, with most of the native population typically neutral to opposed to the demands being made – manifested by the low participation rates of these demonstrations (relative to the broader population), and often in counter-rallies in support of the status quo, which, conveniently, do not receive the same attention by international media despite often being larger than the protest movements.

And of course, another telling indicator is the ballot box, which often puts into place the laws or officials being rallied against and would likely do so again in future elections (in the case of the Ukraine, elections are only about a year away – which begs the question: If the opposition was so confident of the public’s support for their position, why not wait until the impending elections to oust former President Viktor Yanukovych and jump on the sinking ship of the European Union at that time?). Often what these protestors are after is a way to cancel or circumvent the outcome of unfavorable polls, precisely because they do not have the popular support to win democratically.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this in principle: The will of the majority is often wrong (although political minorities are hardly infallible either). Those who have a grievance against the popular will certainly have a right to try to convince the public of its error, to press for reforms in defiance of the prevailing sentiment through the available legal channels, or even to carry out demonstrations of civil disobedience as an expression of their discontent.

However, they do not have the right to declare themselves as “the people’s representatives” when they clearly are not. They do not have the right to call themselves a democratic movement if they are trying to short-circuit the democratic process (often attempting to hold early elections which would exclude the dominant parties or political figures – hardly a meaningful measure of public sentiment). They do not have a right to initiate violence, looting or vandalism without retaliation, given that authorities do have a legitimate duty to protect public safety and reasonably preserve public order.

And finally, it should be noted that if clearly disinterested in the will or interests of the majority, in pursuit of a given objective at any cost (typically, to others) – it is probably not a worthy movement in the first place. After a point, it becomes unjust to impose heavy burdens on the majority for the sake of a minority. It’s a balancing act: one has to consider the stakes for the minority if they lose their bid versus the costs for the majority if they win. One has to consider the size of the relevant majorities and minorities – for instance, given the same demands, a 40 percent minority against a 50 percent majority will have a lot more rights than a 20 percent minority against a 75 percent majority.

In many of these cases, the best course of action would be for the opposition simply to acknowledge that they have insufficient support and deal with it: They can seek a compromise to gain some smaller concessions; they can regroup to build broader and more effective coalitions to realize their agenda; they can narrow their aspirations in pursuit of piecemeal reforms rather than dramatic revolution; they can continue to try and sway popular opinion through grass-roots activism and outreach (perhaps taking a new approach toward this end); they can try to make the best of a bad situation – exploiting loopholes and workarounds to pursue their goals in defiance of the existing regime. Maybe they should even use such a defeat to reconsider their aspirations altogether – perhaps they are after the wrong goal. All of these are noble and productive responses.

Instead, in the age of R2P and CNN, the most common play is to goad the authorities into an overly forceful response (a feat which is never particularly difficult in any society, including the United States), then leverage popular outrage at these abuses to grow their movement domestically – and sometimes more importantly – to rally the international media into prodding external actors (often the progenitors of the relevant movements) to intercede “on their behalf.” This tactic is extremely problematic.

Faustian Pacts

As we suggested at the beginning, it is important to understand whether or not an ostensibly popular movement really does have support from a majority (or plurality) of the relevant population – whether a supposedly “grass roots” movement really is as indigenous as it claims – and for one simple reason: External actors frequently patronize (political, ethnic, religious and now even sexual) minority groups in the service of their own geopolitical ends.

This is a tactic that defined the colonial period, as well as the post-War “great game.” Of course, insofar as these foreign actors have sincere (albeit, patronizing) concern for the people and causes they champion, these ideological concerns are clearly secondary to ulterior geopolitical aspirations. This is important because the interventionists typically exert much more influence than their pawns in the aftermath of any resulting social change. Accordingly, the goals of the sponsor state often are achieved to the exclusion (and often at the expense of) those of their proxies.

It is telling that these movements are typically driven by leftists, but their patrons are usually somewhere on the neoliberal to neoconservative spectrum, or are otherwise unsavory characters. When there is such an obvious disconnect between the indigenous and exogenous elements supporting a movement, one should be extremely cautious (in the case of Ukraine, at least the opposition coalition is primarily drawn from the “right”). This concern should be amplified the more numerous or powerful these external agents are – especially considering that the local insurgents typically do not have the connections, resources or know-how to effectively seize, wield or maintain control of state institutions in the aftermath of a dramatic change. And the people who do (i.e. the “deep state”) tend not to be terribly sympathetic to “the cause” and will exploit any volatility in furtherance of their own ambitions. As a result, the revolutions that activists call for are rarely the ones they actually get once outside powers or the deep state are evoked on the revolution’s behalf. Soul-selling bargains always end in this way – people who think they can outfox the devil are usually fools.

Finally, in those rare instances where the revolutionaries manage to triumph over the extraordinary odds against them, because these changes are usually driven by (ethnic, political, religious) minorities, if they prioritize the benefit of “their own” – especially at the expense of the majority (often in an attempt to consolidate their gains against hostile forces) – the resultant state is typically corrupt, nepotistic, and authoritarian, i.e. far removed from the soaring ideals of the revolution.

Consider the Mideast dictators recently overthrown or currently under duress: Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Gamal Abdul Nasser (progenitor of Egypt’s regime), Hafez al-Asad in Syria – they all seized power in the service of similar ideals: national independence from colonial and imperial powers and their domestic tools and proxies, restoring justice and equality, defending the “common man,” etc. And while their legacies are certainly complex, it should not be too controversial to say their regimes have been generally unsuccessful in these aspirations despite decades of rule and, in the case of Egypt, despite being on the “right side” of the geopolitical order (and therefore free of sanctions and most Western clandestine operations to undermine their regime). And these are just examples from the contemporary Middle East – if one expands our inquiry to the broader globe and across a wider span of time, the picture grows ever-more disturbing.

And So …

When I see people from outside a given country are substantially more fervent about a given movement than the people in that country seem to be, driven by reductive and misleading narratives from international media corporations (who have their own interests and agendas informing their editorial policies and priorities), my first instinct is to think, “if these people get their way, it’ll likely be bad for everybody other than the outside powers backing the measure.” It turns out this heuristic is extremely reliable. Use it when thinking about the tumult in Ukraine (and the next pop-outrage fad, Venezuela).

In the case of Ukraine, these very actors have staged a revolution before (the so-called “Orange Revolution”) that is widely considered to have been disastrous. In fact, it was the opposition’s proven inability to address the challenges facing Ukraine that allowed Yanukovych to ascend to the presidency in the first place. And it is likely that the interim government’s impending capitulations to the IMF (incidentally, these demands were one of the major reasons the former president backed out of the EU deal) will result in the second uprising ending much like the first – if and when free and fair elections eventually are held. This is not “the people’s will.”

Being anti-revolution isn’t sexy – but then again, neither is watching the intentions, efforts and sacrifices of activists be manipulated in such a way as to give rise to even greater injustice, oppression and misery, as is often (perhaps typically) the ultimate fate of revolutions. Although they certainly demand more time and focus, progressive reforms will be a better path forward in most contexts.

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