Why aren’t today’s protests leading to revolutions?

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We live in a world of violent challenges to the status quo, from Chile and Iraq to Hong Kong, Catalonia and the Extinction Rebellion. These protests are usually presented in the media simply as expressions of rage at “the system.”

In Chile, one million people demonstrated last month and that is an estimate. In a day, 19 people died, nearly 2,500 had been injured and more than 2,800 arrested.

How might we make sense of these upheavals? Are they revolutionary or just a series of spectacular eruptions of anger? And are they doomed to fail?

Iraq’s protests have been the bloodiest of anywhere in the world in recent months, with more than 300 confirmed dead in October.

A key question today is whether the rebellions we are currently witnessing are also revolutionary.

A model of revolution drawn from the five great revolutions can tell us much about why they occur and take particular trajectories.

The key characteristics are:
  • long-term causes and the popularity of a socio-political ideology at odds with the regime in power
  • short-term triggers of widespread protest
  • moments of violent confrontation, the power-holders are unable to contain as sections of the armed forces defect to rebels
  • the consolidation of a broad and victorious alliance against the existing regime
  • a subsequent fracturing of the revolutionary alliance as competing factions vie for power
  • the re-establishment of a new order when a revolutionary leader succeeds in consolidating power.

This model indicates the upheavals in our contemporary world are not revolutionary – or not yet.

The most likely to become revolutionary is in Iraq, where the regime has shown a willingness to kill its own citizens (more than 300 in October alone). This indicates that any concessions to demonstrators will inevitably be regarded as inadequate.

We do not know how the extraordinary rebellion in Hong Kong will end, but it may be very telling there does not seem to have been a significant defection from the police or army to the protest movement.

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