What general lesson have recent events in Tunisia and Egypt taught? Not a lesson about those countries per se. That would not be general, but only specific to them. And not a lesson that is only regional either. Nor one that is bound to the current moment and current tensions. Rather, what lesson can we all learn from the events that is virtually universally relevant, here, there, and everywhere, today and tomorrow – and thus likely relevant where we live and work, too?
At least three critically important aspects of any country, anywhere, anytime, figure into undergoing a successful revolutionary transformation. They are sufficient popular support, a large popular movement being able to overcome obstacles to change, and a large movement knowing what they seek and what steps will ensure attaining it.
The lesson of the recent tumultuous events is simply this. Contrary to many people's intuitions and worries, the first two aspects – attaining numbers and exercising effective power – are relatively simple, at least considering that we are talking about fundamentally altering whole societies, They can arise surprisingly quickly, as well.
Put differently, depression and passivity can turn to anger and desire, and anger and desire can turn to activism – all pretty quickly. Thus numbers can be attained.
More, the apparatus of power, while it is rarely if ever a "paper tiger," is also rarely if ever an inexorable and implacably insurmountable obstacle. In fact, with enough activism, reactionary power typically buckles – because its emotional energy and its organizational vehicle both increasingly defect to the side of change. Witness how many of the tanks meant to repress Egyptians have been carting them around as if they were hired by the dissenters for transport or ordered to the field by the movements themselves, not the state. Effective power can be attained.
All too commonly public discussions or private fears assert the impossibility of revolution because states are too powerful or people are too passive. Such doom saying isn't logical and doesn't even correspond to recent history. Public passivity and state power are not minor issues, but with effort they are surmountable. Fear of people realizing this lesson is why the Chinese, among others, are blocking reports from Egypt – and it is why in the West too, those reports are pathetically truncated.
We saw evidence not long ago in Argentina. We saw it again in Greece. And we now see it in Tunisia and Egypt. For that matter, we saw evidence for the same lesson in the Soviet Union not all that long ago, and in Iran some years earlier, as well. The people, sufficiently strong in numbers, sufficiently aroused, sufficiently relentless, can and routinely will overcome state resistance, not because they can marshall more violence than the state, but because the state's power will dissipate as its armies change allegiance.
For anyone to say that there is no point seeking a better world because it is too hard to generate people power, or because regardless of the people power that is generated, state power is insurmountable, is either ignorant or a rationalization for inactivity that has roots in entirely different thoughts and feelings.
But what about the third critically important aspect of successful revolution?
Assuming work and events conspire to elicit, motivate, and unleash the first two aspects – though often in fact, progress on the third is a prerequisite to progress on the first two – what about knowing where we want to go as well as the key steps we must take to get there? This aspect is not so simple. To know what the transcendent power of the people united should do, to know where the people united desire to go, and to know how getting there can be achieved and ensured – that's not so easy. Even more, for the people united to collectively possess that knowledge sufficiently deeply to retain motivation and to guide and wisely participate in collective action is often very difficult.
Of course, if you have dictator, it is not so hard to have aims you want to achieve and to know, pretty much, what steps must be achieved and institutionalized to reach your goal. You dump the dictator and you institute formal freedoms, including voting, etc., as per other countries. Thus, vision and the hope that vision engenders arises and spreads easily in dictatorships and is no doubt propelling and sustaining the street fighters in Tunisia and Egypt – as in other prior similar cases. But if you don't have a dictator, if you live in a developed, industrialized democratic society, the issue of where you want to go is less clear. To know what you want, to know what steps are needed to attain and maintain the sought changes, and to all share that knowledge and the associated aspirations so that the people united are collectively pursing one basic agenda – that's seriously hard. In fact, that's the hardest part of the process. It isn't some non existent innate human passivity that is the biggest obstacle. And it isn't the power of the state that is the biggest obstacle. It is getting our heads straight and acting in accord with one another that is the biggest obstacle.
People desiring change can win. That much is utterly obvious, and honestly, it has been obvious for a long time. Doubts about the possibility of winning change should be banished. What we need is to know what we are trying to win so we have motivation, and, more precisely, so our depression becomes anger which in turn becomes activism, including assembling enough of us with sufficiently sustained commitment, so that armies and police in time become neutral or our allies, and so we know what to do to attain and maintain our aims.
If Tunisian, Egyptian, and Greek style anger and uprising can be married to shared vision of a really better social system, then it can win not solely new leaders for society, or solely new policies from familiar or new leaders, but instead new defining structures in economy, polity, kinship, and culture.
Let me be blunt. If someone says to you, I think revolution in the U.S., the UK, Germany, Australia, Chile, Canada, Argentina, Poland, Italy, South Africa, etc., is simply impossible. The state is too powerful. The people are too passive. That naysayer is not using reason. He or she is not using evidence or experience. He or she is not evidencing wisdom. Instead this type naysaying only rationalizes inaction whose roots lay in other reasons entirely,
Why no uprisings and revolt and revolution in so many countries we can name? Perhaps comfort is dulling desire for some, and fear is dulling dissent for others. More likely, however, doubt about the possibility of change is dulling hope for all. You can logically reply to reactionary naysaying with the above points, spelled out with much more than the brief evidence than I have offered in this short essay, but to really address the reasons for the naysaying, my guess is that you will have to make a case, nine times out of ten, not that we could win change if we got it together to do so, but that there is change worth winning.