PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, February 03, 2011

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do revolutions happen?

Dear Friends,
This Sunday we are discussing: Why do revolutions happen?
The most complicated issue with this subject is defining what is a
revolution. And although we might be able to identify a revolution when
we see one on television, what causes revolutions is another matter.
I try and address this other matter in my short essay.
In the meantime, I was hoping to have some news about an exhibition by
Alfonso, but I have not received anything yet. If I have the information
I'll post the details on the blog:
Finally, Peter is still looking for a flatmate:
-------from Peter-----
Peter has asked me once again to remind you that he is looking for
someone to share his flat with in Mostoles close to public transport;
very good conditions. Central heating and central hot water. English
spoken at home if you wish. Single room still available. : tel 609257259
+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.30pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
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tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
Tertulia in English with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30
to 21h, at Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barcel├│ 1 (metro Tribunal).
Why do revolutions happen?

Philosophers and politicians ignore the individual at their own peril.
Indeed, both politicians and philosophers are very good at rendering the
term "the people," as in "the voice of the people" into a meaningless idea.

Unfortunately, it is not always their fault that they ignore the
individual or make the concept, "the people", meaningless. They are born
that way; in fact we are born that way. We are born with the capacity to
generalise, create mental groups, and speak in terms of collectives
rather than individuals.

This linguistic tool helps us to be more efficient and, indeed
rationalise, the world around us. For example, imagine if we did not
have the word forest to describe a collection of individual trees? It
would be very difficult to talk about the world we live in, especially
if we happen to live in a country with a lot of trees. Thus we
rationalised individual trees into a sapling, a tree, a cops, a forest,
a bush (not the shrub), and, of course, a jungle.

Indeed, we can easily argue that when we see a tree we are seeing
reality (whatever reality means) but when we see a forest we are seeing
an optical illusions. As it so happens sometimes this optical illusion
serves a good and functional purpose. Thus when we see a forest nothing
has happened to the individual trees, it's just that our perception of
these individual trees has changed.

However, what does all this have to do with revolutions? But first, what
do we mean by revolution? And what kind of revolutions are we concerned

In the history of humanity there have been many revolutions, but the
ones that I will concern myself with are political revolutions; or at
least revolutions that are connected with politics.

A key philosophical issue is whether there is a single universal cause
of events for revolutions to take place or whether every revolution has
its own set of causal circumstances. So the issue here is, how do
revolutions happen?

Another issue concerns the nature of revolutions. Are revolutions always
violent or could some revolutions take place in an orderly way. Even if
we accept that words like violence and aggression are vague and
relative, we can still distinguish, say, the revolutions that brought
about better labour conditions and the feminist revolutions. No doubt
the revolutions that improved labour relations have not always been
peaceful and orderly. And although some might argue that the feminist
revolution is still not over yet and did involve pain and anguish, we
cannot really say that it has been as violent as the labour revolution.

At this point we encounter a problem. Whilst we are concerning ourselves
with the causal chain of events that lead to a revolution we are in
effect considering a rational process, whereas when we are discussing
the violence or aggression that revolutions bring about we are in effect
talking about real pain felt by real people. And let's face it, it is
the violence in revolutions that we find most distasteful.

One of the problems is of course that we can immediately relate to pain
and violence, but we cannot easily relate to the physical causal chain
of events that bring about revolutions. The average peasant in the late
stages of the 18th century France, wouldn't have the necessary
scientific information to confirm his or her feeling that the poor
weather conditions were the cause of the erratic harvests over a period
of time, and in turn were part of the causal chain of events.

For us to relate to the causal chain we need to be privy to all the
relevant information. This is of course the objective of historians,
piecing bits of information that might hopefully lead us to understand
the causal chain of events that lead to a revolution. But doing history
might be too late for those who are just about to be victims of a

In the meantime, we can point at particular events and say that such an
event played a key part or a minor part or whatever part in the
revolution. A cursory look at the French Revolution (1789–99) for
example, we will discover such players or factors as the Ancient Regime,
hunger, financial crisis, fluctuating weather, the large cities that
were being populated by people from the rural regions and so on.

Basically, if we try to find the causes of a revolution we might get
involved into a thankless task and even then we might be way off the
mark. And if we cannot discover the real causes of a revolution we
certainly won't be able to answer our question, Why do revolutions
happen?, to any satisfactory degree of confidence.

A failure to find the real causes of a revolution is more than just a
failure to find out why a revolution took place. Rather, failure to
discover the real causes of revolutions would mean that we are not
learning anything useful that might help recognise and prevent
revolutions from happening in the first place. Or rather, from evolving
into violent and aggressive political events. We certainly won't be able
to discover whether revolutions follow some universal pattern; at least
not by looking at conventional causes.

This might mean that we have to look at the issue from a different
perspective. So what do we know about revolutions? The first thing we
know is that revolutions are about change because the established system
is failing a number of people. Revolutions also need a sufficient number
of people to collectively try and change the status quo. We also know
that those who are now benefiting from the present situation would be
reluctant to make any changes that will take away any privileges they
might enjoy.

We also know that some revolutions, involve violence and aggression. And
although violence and aggression are relative terms, pain is absolute.
And the reason why the term "the people" is made meaningless is because
it is individuals that feel the pain of oppression, failure of the
system, hunger, poverty, and so on.

Our starting point to understand revolutions is not, therefore, the
question what caused a revolution?, but rather, how many individuals are
suffering or feeling pain (physical or psychological) from the situation
they are in?

And since a revolution takes place in order to change the current status
quo the three questions we now need to ask are these: how much pain does
an individual need to suffer before taking steps to bring about change?
How many individuals does it take to start and maintain a revolution?
And how long does it take to start and conclude a revolution?

Pain itself, as a measure of political disharmony, is not only very
difficult to do but even more controversial. I mean should the
government introduce a compulsory pain test to measure the "political"
pain people are suffering? And then there is the issue of interpreting
biological events in a person to predicting what that person will do and
how they feel (in a political context). Whilst we can safely assume that
someone who is unable to feed themselves might quite easily resort to
criminal behaviour, how can we interpret the same pain as being a cause
of a revolution. However, we do know that hunger and starvation could
easily lead to social unrest.

Maybe the approach is not necessarily to measure physical pain but to
measure the factors that would create the right environment to demand
change maybe through violent means.

Today we know that fear is a compelling factor that leads to a desire
for change. Using fear as political weapon might work in the short term,
but in the long term it is counter productive. Counter productive either
through direct challenge (French revolution) or simply through self
inflicted fatal wounds (Nazi dictatorship).

Hunger is also often cited as a catalyst for revolutions, either
directly or indirectly. But there is a problem with hunger in my
opinion. Hunger leads to malnutrition and mal nourished and starving
people are not like to have the strength to go out and fight for change.
For example the Wikipedia article on the French Revolution identifies
one of the factors that led to the revolution, as failure of the
transport system to move food from the rural regions to the cities.

Most probably it is not so much hunger or the lack of food per se that
leads to revolutions but rather the inequitable distribution of food in
the first place. Whatever the answer might be we know for a fact that
access to food and other human welfare needs are features very high
priority in the life of a person.

I would, therefore, say that such welfare type factors play a key role
in helping us understand what would push a human being to want to change
their lot maybe by resorting to violence. Fear, oppression, inequitable
distribution of food and other resources are all front line survival

Indeed most labour related revolutions addressed the inequitable
distribution of the profits of a company and not profit as a concept.
The fact that some revolutionaries got themselves serious mixed up
between profit and the distribution of profits had serious repercussions
to the people they were supposed to represent and more importantly the
companies that paid the wages. Basically, what these revolutionaries
ended up doing was to destroy the goose that laid the golden egg; which
probably explains why there is very little manufacturing going on in
Britain today.

Going back to our question, most probably we stand a better chance of
finding a suitable answer by looking at the welfare of the individual,
not the people, than trying to find some external causes – that relate
to "the people". Indeed politicians love to do things in the name of the
people, but hardly ever for the people.

Of all the factors that could lead the individual to initiate or get
involved in violent or aggressive action to bring about change, I would
put fear as the first amongst equals. Fear is the only human emotion
that has a clear cut two option reaction: fight or flight. Now whether
we fear oppression or uncertainty of the future, given enough fear and
given enough people having the same experience, the political stage is
set to demand change.

What is also curious for us is why is it that many violent revolutions
do not seem to last in relative terms at least? Despite the touristic
value the French revolution has today, the France of today is nowhere
near the France that was established after the French Revolution. And
the most catastrophic revolution of all in Europe, the Russian
revolution, came and went within the tail ends of a century, with many
years to spare. And the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Chine
(1966-1976) that was initiated by Mao Tse Tung to get rid of capitalist
thought has given way to the great feeding frenzy of greed from the
trough of capitalism.

My conclusion is the same as my introduction, politicians ignore the
individual at their own peril. Or to use the vernacular, if you pi.s.s
off enough people long enough, sooner or later they'll come knocking at
your door.



from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do revolutions

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