Why Revolutions Happen

18 October 2010


A few days ago in Fairness and the Social Contract I wrote regarding Joseph de Maistre’s Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines (“Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions,” 1809) that its formulations, “invite alternatives if not refutation.” I offered a formulation parallel to Comte de Maistre in terms of fairness or justice being the approximation of the explicit social contract to the implicit social contract.

Another way to formulate this would be to say that it is Nietzsche’s “morality of mores.” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom,” which I discussed in The Totemic Paradigm) allowed to grow, to mature, and to evolve into a formal legal system. That is to say, beyond the morality of custom lies legal precedent and the legislation of custom. One could argue that the English common law tradition embodies precisely this gradual accumulation of custom, which, by being rendered in formal legal judgments, is then transformed into a legal norm. This common law tradition is law outside the constitutional paradigm, though a similar process can occur in the context of the constitutional paradigm.

In an earlier discussion of the law, Exaptation of the Law, I argued that, “…the law is intrinsically conservative, or, perhaps better (as that ideological word invites misunderstanding), law has an intrinsic bias in favor of the past.” I made this claim primarily based upon the role of precedent in law: “A ruling in the past establishes a convention that is followed in later rulings and preserves the past into the present.” And when a traditional system of law is overthrown in a revolution, “Laws and constitutions are not written in a vacuum,” so that the past remains a consistent point of reference.

Even the absence of law can establish a precedent. In the cases of tyranny, in which political authority is exercised without legal precedent, tyranny often becomes the rule rather than the exception in a society once conditioned to tyranny. I believe that the record of history demonstrates that tyrannies cannot long endure, but I will admit without hesitation that when a tyranny is deposed the power vacuum is often filled by a regime that is in no sense better and is often worse.

Tyranny is the illegal exercise of political authority. The idea of political tyranny is a familiar one, but there are also intellectual forms of tyranny that are no less invidious. Either through socio-political repression of alternatives or through social inertia or through lack of imagination, some ideas come to dominate societies to the exclusion of other ideas. Some of these ideas can be remarkably one-sided and unbalanced. In so far as an insitution is an embodiment of an idea, if it is the embodiment of a one-sided idea it is a form of intellectual tyranny and it will not long endure.

In the above-mentioned post Fairness and the Social Contract I claimed that a formulation of political society that was obviously extreme (like Comte de Maistre’s) invites a critique precisely because alternatives are schematically suggested by the structure of the ideas in the initial formulation. I also maintain that an idea that invites a critique in this way will eventually be faced with its other. If socio-political factors prevent the timely reckoning of an institutionalized idea with its other, that institution will grow corrupt and decadent. What happens with a corrupt and decadent institution? It is eventually overthrown, even if it is not confronted by its other.

One socio-political force that militates against a timely reckoning of an institutionalized idea with its other is what I have called acculturation to absence of change. I introduced this idea in my Political Economy of Globalization, where I wrote:

Proto-economic activity on the cusp of transformation into commercial economic activity has been the common condition of the bulk of human history. It constitutes the whole of our much longer pre-history, and is a powerful acculturation to absence of change. One engages in the same activities that engaged one’s ancestors since time immemorial, and the very idea of change, competition, or adaptation is foreign. The world is what it is, has always been so, and always will be so, world without end, Amen Thesis 28

When an entrenched, established, and institutionalized idea grows corrupt and decadent, but continues to cling to power through socio-political inertia and acculturation to absence of change, revolution becomes the only possible mechanism of change.

In several earlier posts I discussed the possibility of formulating intelligent institutions. An intelligent institution would be capable of adapting itself to changed circumstances. The kind of ideas embodied in institutions that I have described above have not fostered intelligent institutions. Among its other adaptive behaviors, an intelligent institution would be open to the revision of the idea upon which it is based. An idea open to revision does not become a form of intellectual tyranny. If change is possible — that is to say, if reform is possible — revolution is no longer the only expedient of change.

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