Personal Blog of Joe Brewer

The Key Ingredient for Revolutions

In Human Behavior, Social Change on May 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Earlier this year, a wave of populist uprisings swept across Northern African and the Middle East.  Regimes fell, new governments were put in place, and questions lingered about why some countries initiated revolutions and others did not.  Of particular note was the observation that income disparities are greatest in the United States, and yet there is no sign of revolution on the horizon.

The American people have lost faith in our cultural and political leaders.  Public confidence in governing institutions — corporations, the mainstream media, the federal government, and banks — is at an all-time low.  Living wages are scarce and corruption is widely recognized in the electoral process.  And the final bulwark of democracy fell last year with the Supreme Court decision with the Orwellian name “Citizens United” that granted corporations unlimited access to influence elections through direct advertising.

So why haven’t we seen a revolution in the United States?  What drives a country over the edge?  How can analysts mark the trends that convey a structural civil unrest that culminates in political transformation?  There are excellent frameworks for the stages a social movement goes through (like this one), including a tipping point where new behaviors go mainstream and shift the scales.  But what precursors tell us that such a tipping point is nearby?

This is not merely an academic question.  We now find ourselves confronted with the most challenging threats from global change in the history of civilization and our governing institutions have proven inadequate for addressing them.  The international climate talks in Copenhagen last year are but one example that demonstrates how disconnected our leadership is from any genuine ability to serve the needs of people or planet.  We must understand how revolutions reach their tipping point so that more effective modes of government can arise that enable us to solve our most pressing problems.

A Compelling Answer

When asked why revolution doesn’t happen in the U.S., a number of reasons are typically offered — the American people are too ignorant of global affairs; we’re sedated by mass media; our income levels are high enough that we feel buffered against chronic insecurity.  All of these reasons likely contribute.  But is there a lynch pin that holds the broken edifice together?

We often hear about the breakdown of social order as a process led by charismatic leaders.  It is true that Gandhi rose to lead the Indian people to independence and Martin Luther King Jr. offered a beacon of light in the darkness of a century-long struggle for racial equality.  What these shining leaders conceal is the backdrop of a particular kind of unrest that I believe holds the key to societal shift:

The vital ingredient for revolutionary change is highly educated, unemployable young people whose future depends on regime change for their survival.

In Egypt it was young engineers, doctors, and lawyers who led the revolution.  These people were highly educated, accomplished with the newest communication technologies, and removed from decision-making power in a time when their futures were at stake.  They had no access to living wage jobs despite being quite capable of taking leadership.

Here in the United States, we have an up-and-coming generation of highly educated youth leaders who feel disenfranchised by a broken political and economic system.  They are the most socially adept and globally conscious generation of emerging leaders in our nation’s history.  The question remains whether they will be crushed by student loan debt and quelled into acquiescence or galvanized by the converging threats of global ecological collapse and economic breakdown to mobilize and claim their power to create society anew.

I realize that nothing is certain and we are living in turbulent times.  And yet I am hopeful for the future because I see the restlessness of our youth and their dogged entrepreneurial spirit to launch social businesses, run for local office, and rebel against the status quo that has no promise of a better tomorrow for them.  This combined with a restlessness among movement leaders from the previous generation who hold deep knowledge of governing institutions is a source of hope for me.  Intergenerational bridges must be built and knowledge exchanged in order to help the emboldening youth to carry us through a global transition in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

Now is the time for measuring these deep trends and characterizing the nature of the patterns we discover.  It is increasingly obvious that systemic change is vital for our long-term survival.  Can we make use of political, cultural, and economic revolutions to cultivate deep structural transformation?

Only time will tell.

  1. Nice post!
    I would ask you then: why this generation feels equipped for the task, and not -say- the previous one? I was born in 1979 and I see the youngsters (born in the 80’s or later) as a reason for hope.
    My two cents:
    Perhaps is the can-do attitude. Perhaps is the fact that this sense of interconnectedness made considerable change seem possible. Perhaps fast technologies have promoted the idea that is relatively easy to boom with sudden fame (it may take only a youtube video, after all) and these same guys are educated and connected to the real challenges of the world enough so that they want to make a good use of those instruments that until recently have been considered only amplifiers of self-exposion, narcissism, naval-gazing. I see the potential to use fun, engaging things in a ‘meaningful’ way as a bridge to reach the youngsters.
    All the best
    Marco Valente

    • Hi Marco,

      There are many answers to this question. I’ll start with one vital piece, which is that social media technologies significantly reduce the transaction costs for self-organization. This allows affinity groups to form in a manner that was economically impossible before email lists, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, and meta-filtering hash tag systems were ubiquitous.

      This enables crowds to self-organize with structured intelligence that culminates in “swarm” behavior. It is not the complete answer, but is an essential component of the shift in usability for social media tools.



  2. One side-effect of overpopulation is that we can’t hide from each other any more. And all these connected young people appreciate the idea of being connected to others from cool-sounding cultures. I love this idea of the well-educated youth driving social innovation. Much better scenario then a tea party takeover.

  3. It’s the 15th of October. We are a month into the ‘revolution’ you were discussing in this article, Joe. I have just found your work, and you have your finger on our pulse! Thanks!

  4. […] economy has many dysfunctional structures in it that make this story untenable.  And thus the key ingredient of revolution was cultivated as educated youth were not able to make the institutions of society work for […]

  5. Joe, I am with the communications committee for the 99% Declaration. Can you directly assist me/us with our communicating efforts?
    I have been an email subscriber to you for several years.

  6. […] change is highly educated, unemployable young people whose future depends on regime change for their survival” … “The challenge is that no human can fit inside these channels so the only way […]

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