In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Mark R. Beissinger introduces his unique global dataset and probabilistic structural approach to revolution; analyzes the prevalent form of revolution in our age he calls “urban civic”; dissects how the consequences of revolution have shifted over time; and reflects on how revolution may be changing again today.
Mark R. Beissinger is Henry W. Putnam Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton. His main fields of interest are social movements, revolutions, nationalism, state-building, and imperialism, with special reference to the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet states. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, Mark R. Beissinger is the author or editor of six books, which include Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (from 2002) and the volume Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe (co-edited with Stephen Kotkin, from 2014). He has received several prestigious awards for his scholarship, and his research has been supported by numerous leading academic institutions. He has also acted as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies and as Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, among others.
Ferenc Laczó: Let me begin our conversation today with a quote from your new book The Revolutionary City: Urbanization and the Global Transformation of Rebellion: “If natural analogies are to be drawn, rather than earthquakes or wildfires, urban civic revolutions develop more like hurricanes”, you write. You name your own approach a probabilistic structural one and write that your monograph “attempts to put structural explanation back squarely into the study of revolutions by embedding revolutionary processes and interactions within the structural factors that condition, facilitate, or constrain them. It positions large-scale structural factors like urbanization, geopolitics, and technological change at the center of an understanding of how revolution has evolved over time and integrates structure and agency into a broader, probabilistic approach to revolutionary contention.” How would you characterize this probabilistic structural approach of yours, and how does it relate to and differ from previous studies of revolution? And could you explain what you mean by the hurricane analogy?
Mark R. Beissinger: The study of revolutions has been traditionally dominated by two perspectives. One is a determinist, a deeply structural perspective. This was particularly true of the literature on social revolutions, in which revolutions are treated like earthquakes, with pressure building up into some kind of inevitable explosion, almost automatically. As Theda Skocpol puts it in her study, “revolutions are not made, they come.” They come when all the structural factors are present that lead to this inescapable explosion.
The determinist approach – and this is widely recognized at this point – exaggerated the extent to which revolutions are made unavoidable by structural conditions. It views the emergence of revolution as merely awaiting the arrival of a trigger. In fact, any trigger will do, so long as it places a regime under stress, and if one trigger doesn’t work–well, another trigger eventually will. It’s inevitable that revolution will occur under this perspective.
But social life is replete with all kinds of potential triggers, and that’s something we really haven’t paid enough attention to. As I show in the book, there are plenty of cases in which the structural conditions associated with revolution are present, as well as the presence of potential triggers, but revolution doesn’t happen.
Now there’s another perspective, a second perspective, that I call the indeterminist approach. It argues that the conditions under which revolutions occur are amorphous and inscrutable, and revolutions therefore always come as a surprise. Timur Kuran’s work probably represents an extreme version of this, arguing that revolutions emerge from an unknowable structure of hidden preferences, and we couldn’t possibly fathom when and under what circumstances revolution are likely to emerge. His analogy is not the earthquake but the wildfire. A single spark suddenly bursts out into a conflagration.
I would argue that revolutions are not as shapeless and impenetrable as Kuran would have us believe. They actually occur where we would expect them to occur. There is an important structural dimension to revolution; they just don’t inexplicably burst into flames.
The probabilistic approach that I outline is an attempt to navigate between these two extremes, and to recognize that revolutions are structured events, but also to integrate the role of agency and of interaction into their emergence. As you mentioned, I make an analogy with hurricanes. For those who don’t know much about hurricanes, they develop out of interactive processes, starting as small-scale tropical disturbances over the ocean as a result of interactions between the ocean’s warm surface and the upper atmosphere. Those interactions can transform a tropical disturbance into a kind of heat engine that starts a circular motion.
However, most tropical disturbances dissipate. Only one in eight ever strengthens into the next level that meteorologists call a tropical depression (with below-gale-force winds), and only one in ten of these tropical depressions ever strengthens and grows into what meteorologists call a tropical storm (the next level). That growth depends on interactive processes. A lot of it has to do with the role of wind. Too strong a wind shear can tear these storms apart, or it can keep them together and allow them to strengthen. Sixty percent of tropical storms develop into hurricanes, with incredible wind force. It’s a dynamic process. There are many points at which these tropical disturbances might not develop into hurricanes. We also know that many hurricanes never reached land; they die out at sea. But when hurricanes do smash into shore, they often cause tremendous damage and disruption.
Hurricanes often appear as if there’s a randomness to them, but they clearly are structured phenomena, structured by oceanic and atmospheric conditions. In fact, over the long run, you see distinctive patterns. They emerge in particular places (for instance, the Atlantic basin) that have been especially susceptible to hurricanes. Moreover, as a result of climate change, hurricanes have generally been becoming more frequent over time.
I make the analogy between hurricanes and revolutions: they are structured events, but interaction matters critically to their emergence. Like hurricanes, climate change is also a factor that has affected them – i.e., there are shifting structural factors that have been altering the conditions under which they emerge. As I argue in the book, urbanization (and the growth of cities over the past century) is one such climactic factor structuring the evolving character of revolution. And I lay out a logic for this in the book.
I argue that this combination of structural conduciveness and uncertain emergence is really how we should think about revolutions – in a probabilistic way, not with automaticity. They largely occur in places we would expect them to emerge, but there are plenty of instances in which they fail to develop, even though structural conditions are conducive. Whether they do or do not develop depends upon dynamic interactions between regimes and oppositions.
In this probabilistic approach, structural conditions translate into chance and risk. They don’t translate directly into outcomes. It’s only through human action and interaction that chance and risk become a reality.
Your book insists on the relevance of both spatial and historical contexts for revolutions and studies how these contexts have transformed over time. How has the overall patterning of cases of revolution evolved over time and what are the large-scale structural factors associated with these changes? How would you compare and contrast what you call urban civic revolutions which are so prevalent these days, with the social revolutions of previous decades and centuries?
I argue that no universal theory of the causes of revolution is possible. It’s not possible because of the diversity of purposes to which revolution has been put, the varied social forces that have been involved in revolutions across history, and the changing world historical circumstances under which revolutions have broken out. Theories of specific types of revolutions are possible, but not a general theory of revolution. Skocpol made a similar argument in her study of social revolutions. In my understanding, revolution is a political project of regime change imposed from below that has been used for a wide variety of purposes across history. Social revolutions, which aim at transforming the class structures of society, are the most theorized version of revolution. However, if you understand revolution broadly as a political project of mobilized regime-change from below, they’re less than a quarter of all revolutionary episodes. Social revolutions have largely died out – we don’t really have new social revolutionary episodes since the mid-1990s (the Chiapas Rebellion being one of the last examples).
Social revolutions were never the only form of revolution. Revolutions have also been used to transform monarchies into republics, to liberate territory from colonial rule, to contain the abuses of despotic regimes, to institute a religiously based order in place of a secular order, or, in the case of South Africa, to invert a dominant ethnic or racial order. Revolutions have exhibited other goals as well. Moreover, these purposes often intermix in particular cases.
In short, we should reject the idea that we could develop a universal theory of the causes of revolutions. The purposes to which revolution has been put, the social forces involved, and the conditions under which revolutions occur have changed tremendously over time.
Looking over the past two centuries, there have been a number of changes that stand out as critical. As I argue in the book, one of the most important changes has been the shifting location of revolt, whether they occur in the city or in the countryside. Revolution in the 19th century was largely an urban project—in fact, largely an urban armed project manifesting itself primarily as armed insurrections in capital cities, where the nerve centres of government and the social forces interested in revolution were concentrated.
In my book I talk about something I call the proximity dilemma in revolution. The coercive power of the state is concentrated in cities, and cities are actually the most dangerous places to launch a revolution because of this. But they’re the most dangerous sites not only for revolutionaries because of their exposure to the coercive power of the state. They’re also the most dangerous sites for regimes because that’s where their nerve centres are concentrated. There’s a trade-off that takes place in revolutions that has to be managed both by revolutionaries and by regimes that is associated with proximity to or distance from state centers of power.
Generally, as the state’s firepower increased over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the old-fashioned way of making revolution through armed insurrection in capital cities had a very low rate of success.
Beginning in the 1920s, revolution, particularly social revolution, moved to the countryside. It discovered the peasantry as its key social force.
The decimation of the Chinese Communist Party in the cities of southern China pushed Mao to the countryside. In relocating to the countryside, revolutionaries traded off their capacity to disrupt government directly for their safety from government repression.
In the late 20th century, revolution returned to the city. It did so, however, under quite different circumstances.
In 1900, thirteen percent of the world was urban. Today, more than 54% is. The early part of the 20th century was dominated by what Skocpol called the agrarian-bureaucratic world, a world of aristocrats, landed elites, and peasants. These were the social forces that mattered in her understanding of social revolution. As I show, the revolutionary potential of those social forces has largely dissipated under the impact of urbanization, development, and political change.
Today, we live in a globalized world in which information moves with great speed across political boundaries, particularly within urban environments. We live in a world in which states have proliferated and consolidated, and cities have grown enormously in size. With that growth in the size of cities, new repertoires of revolutionary challenge have emerged based on the power of numbers rather than the power of arms – something that simply would have been impossible in the early 20th century. Urbanization has thus transformed the ways in which revolutions are made.
Prior to 1985, three-fourths of revolutionary episodes in cities were armed. After 1985, three-fourths of revolutionary episodes in cities have been unarmed.
That transformation has been due to the growth of cities and the power of numbers that this has allowed.
In the book I also examine transformations in technology that have facilitated scaling up and coordinating crowds in ways that couldn’t have happened in the earlier history of revolution. For instance, before the 1930s, when the Nazis first used loudspeakers at rallies, people couldn’t hear speakers at rallies at more than at a distance of about 10 meters. Thus, technological change has also been critical to the ways in which the power of numbers can be utilized.
You indeed discuss how our age gave rise to an “urban civic repertoire” as a way of leveraging the strategic advantages of large cities for revolutionary challengers. Could you tell me more about this urban civic repertoire? What are key aims of such urban civic revolutions and to what extent can they be called democratic revolutions?
I use the term “urban civic revolution” to describe revolutions that seek to overthrow abusive government by mobilizing as many people as possible in central urban spaces. Urban civic revolutions aim at regime change through the power of numbers rather than through armed rebellion, street fighting, strikes, or urban rioting. Since 1985 they have been about two-fifths of all revolutions in the world, and three-fifths of all urban revolutions. They’ve driven an increase in the number of revolutionary episodes around the world and are the most prevalent form of revolution in today’s world.
These types of revolutions have an extraordinarily high rate of success compared to other forms of revolution.
That’s due largely to the ways in which this repertoire effectively utilizes the advantages of large cities, in particular large numbers in close proximity to nerve centers of power and commerce, which allows them to threaten regimes directly while often warding off regime repression. The power of numbers can at times block the ability of a regime to repress revolutionary challenges because of a regime’s fear of backlash mobilization in close proximity to nerve centers of government. These revolutions take advantage of the presence of highly networked and resourced populations and robust communications systems in cities. They also attempt to utilize the greater visibility characteristic of large urban environments, exploiting this as a tool to increase pressure on regimes and stay the hand of regime repression.
Moreover, in cities they have thickened connections with the outside world.
In contrast to rural rebellions, which generally use the rough terrain of the countryside to hide from state repression, and in contrast to urban armed revolts, which use the cityscape, i.e. buildings and barricades, as protection against government repression, urban civic revolutions use the empty space of the public square and the boulevard to mobilize large numbers as a strategy for disrupting everyday political and commercial life.
They don’t hide from government repression. In fact, they confront government repression directly (in full view of the nation and the police), precisely where the coercive power of the state is the strongest.
If social revolutions exhibited disproportionate participation by peasants, urban civic revolutions exhibit disproportionate participation by the middle class, with sizable contingents of other urban groups such as skilled workers, manual workers, clerical workers, craftsmen, small business owners, students, and the unemployed. They are associated with a different set of structural conditions than social revolutions–the presence of corrupt, repressive regimes whose leaders have been in power for a long time. They occur not in poor societies, but in lower-middle and middle-income countries.
Aren’t these simply what are called “democratic” revolutions? Why do I call them urban civic revolutions? For one thing, there have been many “democratic” revolutions that don’t use tactics of relying on the power of numbers – we forget that most revolutions espousing liberal aims up through the first half of the 20th century were actually armed rebellions. There are also reasons to raise questions about the democratic quality of urban civic revolutions. Urban civic revolutions concentrate very large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, in open urban spaces in a matter of days and weeks. By doing so, they draw on a large variety of political and social forces. To maximize numbers in this concentrated period of time, they forge a broad, negative coalition in a makeshift manner. They pull in all who favour the removal of the incumbent regime, irrespective of purpose or political beliefs. They rely on hastily assembled coalitional leadership, and sometimes on no leadership whatsoever, using an inclusive civic nationalism to unite participants. Their demands are minimalist. They seek to reclaim state power from corrupt and abusive regimes, which is a least common denominator that can pull in as many participants as possible.
I use a number of surveys of participants in the book from urban civic revolutions in Ukraine, Egypt, and Tunisia, and they show that the people who participate in urban civic revolutions are actually much more diverse in terms of their political identities than the people who don’t participate but support the revolution or those who oppose the revolution. That again has to do with the use of large numbers in a concentrated period of time.
Moreover, these same surveys show that most of the participants are relatively weakly committed to democratic values, and most indicate that the main reasons that they participated in these revolutions had more to do with corruption and economic issues than with a desire for political freedoms.
I prefer the term urban civic revolution because these revolutions are better understood as revolutions against repressive and abusive government than revolutions for democracy. They’re more about what people are struggling against than what they’re struggling for.
I would like us to talk a bit also about methodological questions and the research process. You define a revolution as “a mass siege of an established government by its own population with the goals of bringing about regime-change and effecting substantive political or social change.” You work extensively with statistical inference in the book while also paying attention to the details of individual cases, including the role of agency, interaction, emotion, ambiguity, and errors. You have built a new dataset of 345 revolutionary episodes, which is the basic unit of analysis in the book. This amazing dataset is available to researchers through your website. Could you tell our readers a bit about how your book combines different approaches, and how you have developed and analyzed this enormously rich dataset from a methodological point of view?
The book is multidisciplinary and multi-method in its approach. One of the goals of the book was to apply new sources of information to the study of revolution (like cross-national data on revolutions and surveys of revolutionary participants).
Disciplinary boundaries have always been artificial in the study of revolution; it’s a subject that has cut across the social sciences.
The book draws on a wide variety of literatures from political science, sociology, history, economics, geography, and urban design, and it tries to unpack revolutions at a number of different levels. It begins at the global level, examining the patterning and frequency of revolutionary contention across time. It then drills down to the level of the revolutionary episode and the interactions that happen within it, as well as to the spaces within which revolutions unfold. Then it moves to the level of the individuals who participate in revolutions. Finally, it broadens back to the global level to examine the role of violence and the outcomes and aftermaths of revolution.
I embedded a qualitative strategy within a quantitative strategy. For each episode in the dataset, I compiled a narrative about how the revolution began, how it developed, and how it ended. I also included a bibliography on each case. I use those cases and the sources on which they’re based throughout the book to illustrate particular processes.
In terms of the dataset, there are no comparable global records of revolutions, though I would say that this kind of information has been sorely needed for identifying global trends and to place individual cases into comparative context.
Without this kind of information, for instance, we would never know whether revolutions have been growing more frequent or less violent over time. If they’ve become less violent over time, then when did they become less violent, and why? Have they been becoming more successful over time in terms of the opposition gaining power? And what factors are associated with these trends? These were the types of questions I sought to answer through this kind of data.
The dataset fills a critical gap in the study of revolutions. The field has been dominated by Millian methods of inference, often based on the selection of paradigmatic cases. This has real problems in terms of generating reliable and generalizable inferences.
Analysing the data was not simple because revolutions are rare events, and particularly if you’re going to do a statistical analysis rather than just lay out patterns over time, analyses of rare events can’t rely on normal distribution assumptions. There are all sorts of endogenous processes that also occur within revolutions, so that normal statistical methods are often inappropriate. I was lucky enough to have people to advise me on how to go about these analyses properly. For readers who don’t really want to know about these details, I’ve put them in appendices, so they don’t have to deal with them if they don’t want to.
The book also uses unusual public opinion surveys examining individual behaviour in four revolutions; the Orange Revolution, the Tunisian Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution, and the Euromaidan Revolution, which represent examples of the new urban civic repertoire that plays a central role in the book. These surveys are unusual in the study of revolutions in the sense that historically, what we knew about the individuals who participated in revolutions came largely from lists of people who were killed or arrested. Typically, this information was pretty thin–maybe we knew where they were born, what year they were born in, where they came from, their occupations, and so on.
The survey data from these four revolutions deals with an enormous number of dimensions of people’s lives, including political values, political identifications, what languages they spoke, their religious activity, whether their apartments were heated in winter, whether they went to the gym last week, their drinking habits, and much, much more. Even more important is the fact that the surveys allow us to compare participants in these revolutions with those who didn’t participate but supported the revolution, those who aided revolutionaries but did not participate themselves, those who opposed these revolutions, and even to some degree those who mobilized as counterrevolutionaries.
These are the most detailed records that we have ever had about the individuals who participated in revolutions and the societies in which they were embedded.
As I mentioned, the book also has a significant qualitative dimension that looks at the interactions that take place within revolutions and at the spaces in which revolutions unfold.
Another special aspect of the Revolutionary City is that unlike many previous works of scholarship, your book also studies the consequences of revolutions. You explore the impact of revolution on order, growth, equality, freedom, and accountability through multiple comparisons and through counterfactual analyses. In my reading, one of the key points you make is that many of the advantages that aid urban civic revolutions in capturing power in fact hinder the prospects for substantive change in their wake. These revolutions tend to bring about substantial positive changes in some areas, but their impacts tend to be less conspicuous and more uncertain. It sounds like revolutions in our age are apt at changing regimes but less apt at changing states and societies. Would you be willing to expand on these observations? What can we say about the consequences of revolutions and how they have changed over time?
Within social science, the consequences of revolutions are a tremendously under-studied topic that scholars need to pay more attention to. We have a lot of work about why revolutions occur in the first place, and, once they break out, whether revolutionary oppositions succeed. But what happens after revolutions? We possess a lot less knowledge about that.
There are plenty of works by historians on specific cases, but I’m talking about the theorization of what happens after revolution. The work is thin, and it’s an area that’s ripe for research.
The urban civic revolutions that I described have a higher rate of success than other types of revolutions in the past. They’re also less ambitious in their goals because they pull as many people as possible into revolution. The post-revolutionary governments that they give birth to are less capable of bringing about a substantive change in their wake and are more constrained by their coalitions. At the same time, that coalition is more fractious than is the case in other revolutions. As I show, these regimes are less stable and less long-lasting. A lot of this has to do with the fact that these are rapidly convened revolutionary coalitions that mobilize as many people as possible in an extremely short period of time.
To illustrate, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines lasted for four days. The Orange Revolution lasted for something like 17 days. Compare this to prolonged revolutionary processes associated with social revolutions, which usually involved civil wars that extended over a long period of time and allowed revolutionary movements to socialize individuals into a particular ideology or worldview, and also to select individuals into the revolutionary movement. Urban civic revolutions don’t want to select individuals into revolution; they want as many people as possible to participate.
Successful urban civic revolutions do lead to some substantial improvements. They bring greater political freedoms and government accountability relative to pre-revolutionary regimes.
However, those achievements fall short of the average levels of electoral democracies, minimally defined, over the past century – which is one of the other reasons why I’m reticent to call these “democratic” revolutions. Revolution does not make democracy. It is what happens after revolution that determines whether a post-revolutionary regime will become a democracy or not.
The levels of political freedoms in the first several years after urban civic revolutions generally fall short of the average levels of electoral democracies, and on average they tend to deteriorate over time.
The other important thing is that urban civic revolutions inherit the state intact from the old regime. One of Lenin’s famous dicta was that revolutionaries needed to smash the state’s machinery and create a new state, and of course that was a very violent process. But urban civic revolutions inherit the state, with all its corrupt relationships, largely intact. These were the same corrupt relationships which, in many cases, incentivized people to engage in revolt in the first place. As a result, corruption after revolution is almost identical to levels of corruption before the revolution, and practically identical to societies that experienced failed urban civic revolutions. The levels of corruption are far, far higher than corruption in the average democracy. These are all things which constrain the changes introduced by urban civic post-revolutionary regimes.
Compare this to social revolutions: social revolutions substantively mattered, whether for good or for bad. They led to enormous declines in political freedoms and to an increase in political killing. They excelled at creating political order, and they introduced high levels of social equality. The impact of urban civic revolutions is more uncertain and ambiguous.
They try to mobilize as many people as possible, they pull in a wide variety of people, and they lack the hierarchical organization to be able to enact change after revolution, and their diversity comes back to haunt them after revolution. In other words, they are more successful at gaining power, but more fractious, less stable, and less capable of introducing substantive and lasting change in their wake.
You show in the book that in recent decades, revolutions “have tended to occur in lower-middle and middle-income countries that lacked large oil resources and faced a globalized and unipolar international environment.” You state at one point that two faces of neoliberal development lie at the center of much of the animus fueling contemporary urban revolutions: the rapid growth of urban middle-class populations frustrated by corrupt and repressive regimes, and the contraction of public goods provision and subsidies to many of these same urban groups as a consequence of neo-liberal transformations. In other words, when we talk about urban civic revolutions, we are also talking about revolutions in the age of neoliberalism.
You also state that in an age when liberal democracy served as a universal standard of sorts numerous regimes grew less outwardly autocratic and became more hybridized, more dependent on fostering economic growth for their legitimation, and more integrated into global economic, normative, and information orders, and that this partial transformation of such regimes in fact made them increasingly vulnerable to disruption through such urban revolution.
Would you care to comment on how the urban revolutions may be viewed as revolutions in the age of neoliberalism and US global hegemony? And would you say that revolutions might be changing again at the moment due to the current weakening of both neoliberalism and US global hegemony?
There’s no question that the international and the transnational have always played a large role in revolution. It’s something that has come to be increasingly emphasized in studies of revolution, and rightfully so. Revolutions are not isolated events: they are embedded in geopolitical, political, economic, and communications networks that are transnational in character. The role of diffusion in revolutionary processes is critical – that was true in the past, and it’s true today as well.
Urban civic revolutions occurred largely in the aftermath of the Cold War, a unipolar geopolitical system in which the US and a neo-liberal globalized economy were dominant. The US played a role in facilitating a number of these revolutions. Urban civic revolutions were largely driven by domestic circumstances, but nevertheless the geopolitical environment was relatively conducive. At the same time, the geopolitical environment for social revolution turned sharply negative with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism. Geopolitics thus figures substantially in shaping global patterns of revolution.
The growth of the global middle class under neo-liberalism and the periodic economic crises that neoliberalism has fostered have also played a role in urban civic revolutions. Not all urban civic revolutions emerged out of economic crisis, but a significant number did. Globalization also played a large role in urban civic revolts through cross-national diffusion, which has been particularly important in urban revolutions more generally.
The role of globalized networks across societies and the growth of modern communication systems, with their instantaneous and transnational interactions, are critical to contemporary revolutions. In the book I compare Lenin in 1917 with the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. In 1917, Lenin, then in Zurich, learned about the events of the February Revolution in Russia largely after those events had already played themselves out. By contrast, in the case of the Tunisian Revolution, acts of repression and protests were filmed on cell phones and conveyed transnationally to the Tunisian diaspora abroad (10 percent of the Tunisian population). They created repositories abroad that were accessible to the public back in Tunisia, thus relaying back home what was happening on the ground in Tunisia practically in real time. This is a communications transformation that has altered tremendously the way in which revolutions occur.
Now that US global hegemony has essentially ended, neo-liberalism seems to be on the wane, and globalization is under challenge due to the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, patterns of revolution will likely change. As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, revolution has always been an evolving project that has been used for different purposes. It will continue to evolve in the future as well in response to largescale structural changes in the environment.
As American hegemony and the liberal international order has retreated, the United States has turned inward towards its own problems of political polarization and economic distress. The traditional American emphasis on human rights and promotion of democracy has thinned. That’s already had an effect on revolutionary processes around the world. At the same time, Russia and China have come to play larger roles in supporting their autocratic allies in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, providing them with investment, weapons and resources, training for armed forces, and even direct miliary intervention in some cases.
Both Russia and China define themselves as anti-revolutionary powers in today’s world. They’ve been spooked by the waves of rebellion in the post-communist region and in the Middle East. These regimes have also pioneered new technologies for controlling dissent domestically using digital technologies, and they’ve begun to export those technologies to their allies abroad. All this makes the global geopolitical context much less conducive to urban civic revolt.
So far, we haven’t witnessed a diminution in the emergence of a new revolutionary episodes around the world. They continue to grow in frequency, and urban civic forms predominate. But what we have witnessed is a drop in the success rate of revolutionary contention in recent years. There is also a growing level of crowd violence in urban revolutions. Euromaidan is a good example. This is not a return to armed revolt in cities, but rather a return to more riotous patterns of revolution in cities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the revolutionary riot was one of the basic tactics used by urban revolutionaries. It now seems to be making a return.
In their keenness to counter the urban civic repertoire, regimes have embraced more violent tactics towards unarmed crowds. In essence, they’ve learned the urban civic repertoire and have devised new ways of countering it by dislocating revolutionary protests from regime nerve centers and repressing them with greater vigor.
In response to this greater level of violence, crowds have reverted to the timeworn tactic of the revolutionary riot. Riotous violence in revolutions is compounded by the inability of conventional party and civil society leaders to control digitally mobilized, leaderless crowds. One of the things that the internet does is weaken ties between crowds and traditional political parties. Thus, parties have a harder time restraining followers.
This more volatile synthesis of the revolutionary riot and the urban civic repertoire may represent the future of revolution in cities. Revolutionary contention will continue concentrate in cities but will likely change in form in response to global structural change.
Revolution may also be re-purposed in new ways. With the demise of the neo-liberal order and the growth of within country inequality, it could gain a deeper social agenda. Democracies have been thought to be immune from revolution. Why take the risk of revolution if you can wait to remove a leader at the ballot box? But today that may be changing. With polarization, populism, and de-democratization in advanced industrial societies, democracies may become more susceptible to revolutionary upheaval.
For instance, the United States became much more vulnerable to revolution under Trump. The country started to exhibit a number of the same structural features associated with regimes that experience urban civic revolts. Had the January 6th riot succeeded in overturning the 2020 election, a revolutionary response by sectors of the American public was fully conceivable. There are an alarming number of regimes around the world that are moving away from democracy and approximating competitive authoritarian regimes. These regimes could well become vulnerable to revolutionary challenge in the future.
The transcript has been slightly modified and edited for length and clarity.
In cooperation with Karen Culver.