Revolution: A Primer

Hello friends, great first day at the Democratic National Convention, right? There sure was a lot of talk about revolutions there, which is why I think it’s a good time to sit down and have an honest chat about the historical record on revolutions, and how they actually work.

The first thing you should know about revolutions is that typically they are stupid and don’t work. For the most part, social systems exist not because of some great big rigged conspiracy, but because it seemed like a smart idea at the time and mostly because it was in the best interests of whoever was in charge. A true revolution – that is, burning down the entire existing political/social order and starting all over again – almost always just re-creates the problematic structure that existed before, usually oppressing the same groups that were pissed off in the first place. Quite often the new “revolutionary” model is worse that the old one. Good examples of this are the many French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution, The Spanish… actually it’s harder to think of a revolution that this isn’t true of.

What about the American Revolution?
That wasn’t a revolution, it’s a misnomer.

Wait, what?
Really. Colonists weren’t fighting to change their relationship with the British or even be free – they more wanted to maintain a status quo they had grown used to.

The Revolution happened because for the first century white people were living in America, the British colonists were pretty much left alone to do whatever. America was far away from Europe, going back and forth took months, and so no one  bothered to tax or regulate a few hundred people across the Atlantic. Then the French and Indian War happened from 1754 – 1763 , and it was expensive, and the British needed money. They figured that since they had fought on behalf of the colonists, those same colonists could stand to pay more in taxes Historical economists pretty much agree that the tax increase was hilariously marginal by modern standards, but if you’ve risked your life taking a really shitty cross-Atlantic journey, usually to get away from stuff like taxes and laws limiting your freedom to do whatever the heck you wanted, you’d also be pissed. Also most of the colonists were super poor, so they were extra pissed.

So the pissed-off colonists tried not to pay these taxes, which led to the British taxing them more, and then the Colonists would rebel against the new taxes, and to punish them the British would tax them again, and – you get the picture.  This went on for a decade before a single shot was fired. The Americans didn’t even really win their “revolution” as much as the British Parliament went “ah, shit, our empire’s too big and this fighting is dumb and expensive, let’s cut our losses and move out”.  Besides, they kind of had other shit to deal with, like that America had managed to convince pretty much every other European power to join their side (the rest of Europe had and frankly continues to have a vested interest in watching England bite it), they had a lot of domestic unrest, and the king wasn’t healthy enough to handle much of anything let alone squash rebellion across the ocean.

But the Americans still felt very proud of themselves, and they set up America, which was mostly just England 2.0, with a few upgrades and bug fixes. And right after they formed they faced the exact same problem as England before them  when they tried to raise taxes to pay off their own revolutionary debts, further proving that even nominal revolution is bullshit and the more stuff changes, the more it stays the same.

So the American Revolution is kind of a lie.
Yes. Sorry about that.

Does this mean social change is impossible?
Nope. Revolutions happen all the time, the key is how they happen. There’s a misconception that a revolution needs to be big and bombastic and you can point to a time and place and say that’s when everything changed. In reality, revolution happens slowly, and it requires a lot of hard work. Think about, say, the internet. That revolutionized people’s lives, right? But there’s no time you can point to and be like “that’s when the internet happened”. There was a lot of groundwork – literal, in this case, with laying cables – done first, and it was a gradual change to how society functioned.

That’s a pretty consistent historic model: change is most successful if people work to alter the pre-existing system with a narrowly focused goal in mind, and also have a willingness to form coalitions. Changes tend to stick if the changes are in the interests of or at the very least have no effect on the majority of the populace, so said uninvolved populace doesn’t go and undo those changes.

So marching doesn’t work? Do protests?
It depends on how you define “work”. Marches and protests are great for commanding attention or growing awareness, or what people in “the game” call “optics”. They’re also an effective way to vent frustrations, or meet like-minded people to work together. So if that’s your goal, they’re awesome. But they won’t, say, change actual policy or get someone elected.

What should I do if I want to change something?
Assuming you don’t want to dedicate your entire life to politics, the easiest way to change things, if you are of age and live in a democratic society, is to register to vote and vote in every election, including off years. If you live in the United States, this website tells you how you can register to vote in every single state, which is handy.


Also if you live in the United States but don’t know about who’s running, especially in a local race, good news! Your local paper does. Read it. If you hate your local paper, you will like the League of Women VotersThey are a non-partisan organization whose sole purpose is to get as many people to vote in as free, easy, and informed a way as possible. They will always give summaries of each candidate and their position, for every race, often written by the candidate or their campaign. You don’t have to follow local politics. Sign up with them, or just have a standing appointment in your calendar for the first Tuesday in every November, and take a half hour to read the summation LWV puts up.

That seems pretty easy.
It is. Democracy is dope.


One response to “Revolution: A Primer

  1. I did like your encouragement to vote, and your info about resources including the League of Women Voters. I would add that around September every Public Library offers free, non-partisan Voter’s Guides published by your state or county Auditor, not like the ones the parties and PACS send you as junk mail. They contain breakdowns of the law changes, candidate statements, and lists of organizations endorsing them. (Some states mail them to registered voters, not all.)

    You and I have a fundamental disagreement over what the word “revolution” means, but I think we would have a spirited and enjoyable discussion over the nuances between revolution, evolution, the history of ideas, and individual vs societal change.

    You appear to be a bit undereducated about the events leading up to the American Revolution. Escalating arguments over taxes was only the beginning. Then the king sent TROOPS, passed a law requiring settlers to house them in their own homes (the Quartering Act), shut down Boston harbor completely (over that tea dumping incident), placed the government of Massachusetts under direct military control, and started shipping colonists back across the Atlantic for trial without charges (Britmo?) Shame on you for living in Boston, and not knowing this stuff.

    The Quartering Act was really the last straw. Because of the earlier Boston Massacre (1770), the colonists were deeply afraid of the armed soldiers living in their homes. Public demand to do something about it lead directly to the establishment of the first Continental Congress.

    If you think we were set up as England 2.0, why did we go through all the bother to write a Constitution? That’s the real revolution. No other country had done that before, to codify and lay out the entire plan of government with checks and balances in a single document (complete with rules for updating it), a basis for all lower-level laws and jurisdiction. The UK still doesn’t have one, but a lot of other countries followed our example.

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