Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rebellion in the Streets!

Exciting and frightening! People in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere took to the streets to demand the replacement of the ruling regimes. It is exciting because the people no longer fear the guns of the state. The people have reinstated their sovereignty. They will no longer be dictated to.
But it is frightening also because we know from history what happened to the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions. Around the world, the liberations from colonial rule degenerated into internal dictatorships and new oppressions.
The street rebels call for the dictators to step down. But they also need a vision of what will replace it. Otherwise, extremist supremacists, who are best organized, can become the new masters. Rulers need two tools to impose power. They need force, but they also need propaganda. There has to be some story that provides a willingness to follow by much of the population.
In the old Soviet Union, the story was state socialism, which was supposed to rationally plan the economy to serve the people. In Iran, the story is supremacist religion. In the United States, the story has been representative democracy. When many people stop believing the story, the regime’s rule is finished.
A third source of support for the state consists of benefits. In the United States, Europe, and Japan, the main benefits have become retirement income and medical services. Folks support the state because otherwise, where will they get their retirement income and medical benefits? In countries around the world, folks get various subsidies. They don’t realize that the costs imposed by the state far exceed the subsidies.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the people were getting few benefits from the state. In many countries, most people live at subsistence, just getting enough to survive on, while the wealth of the economy goes to the ruling class oligarchy. The regime depends on propaganda and force, but eventually the story goes stale, as it did in the old USSR. When propaganda fails, it becomes clear that the purpose of the state is only to serve the ruling class. Force alone cannot maintain the ruling class unless the rulers are willing to slaughter with no mercy, as happened in Iraq.
When all that is left is force, the regime is supported by fear. In Egypt, the propaganda was no longer effective. The Egyptian revolution of 1952, the military coup which overthrew the king, had gotten stale. The regime could not provide the people with economic benefits, since the very purpose of the state had become the enrichment of the rulers. U.S. government chiefs and others called for economic reform, but that was impossible, as it would have voided the purpose of the state to serve the landed ruling class elite.
Thus the chiefs hang on to power as long as possible. Shutting down communications is a sign of desperation, an act of futility, as commerce needs communications media. The people also recognize the shuffling of cabinet ministers as meaningless.
But the street revolutionaries should learn from the history of the French revolution. The French overthrew the monarch, and then mass democracy become mob rule and a reign of terror. The street rebels need to also learn from the Russian revolution, where a tyrant was replaced by a much worse regime that lasted for decades because they had a gripping story. Some rebels seek to impose a different type of tyranny, or they seek to copy the mass democracy that has failed and degenerated in much of the world. Mass democracy does not even work all that well in the USA, where it is ingrained in the culture.
If he were wise, here is what the government chief would do. He would declare a state of freedom. All censorship would be eliminated. All restrictions on non-harmful economic activity, gone. All taxes other than on land and pollution, eliminated. He would announce that sovereignty was hereby transferred to the people individually. The chief would organize local elections in villages and city neighborhoods, to which government power would be transferred. The chief would go down in history as heroic.
But such is a fantasy. It has never happened, because having been a tyrant, the chiefs think tyrant thoughts. And the people are not enlightened enough to demand free markets, decentralized governance, and the implementation of the universal ethic of liberty and human rights. What usually happens is that street rebellions result in violent chaos, and demagogues take over.
It is exciting that the people are boldly rejecting tyranny, but it is frightening that new tyrants with a fresher story may replace the old tyranny, rather than true liberty and democracy.


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