Let’s talk about patterns. I used to sew a lot of my own clothes. I found that using a pattern was a good idea. The pattern allowed me to predict my results with some degree of success. I don’t sew anymore, but my respect for patterns is deeply ingrained.
When I decided to give up on the relationship that gave me my son, I did it not because of any specific event, but because of a pattern–we were in a bad one. I am able to succeed as a self-employed designer because I have established a pattern for my days, and I stick to it. I depend on that pattern–and so do my clients. Patterns show us the shape of our lives.
They also help us understand our history–and allow us to predict our future, if we continue following a given pattern. For instance, it is possible to chart a pattern in the events preceding revolutions.
I’ve been spending some time reading about the events leading up to the major revolutions in history–the English Civil War of 1640, the American Revolution in 1776, and the French Revolution in 1789. While individual variables certainly exist, it is possible to see a certain pattern in the events leading up to open warfare.
1. Outmoded laws no longer promote social and financial security for the middle classes. The rich get richer, and the middle classes get poorer. Note that I have not said “the poor get poorer,” though that is also true. More on this later.
2. The government is in financial distress. The reasons for the distress may vary, but the distress is a constant.
3. Taxation is inequitable. The wealthiest pay little or no taxes, while the middle and lowest classes bear the heaviest tax burden. In France, for instance, the two wealthiest groups–the aristocrats and the Catholic church–lived virtually tax free just prior to the Revolution, while the reduced middle class and the peasants paid dearly.
4. Unrest begins in the middle classes, and spreads downward. One of my history professors noted that people who are struggling for bare survival just don’t seem to have the energy to challenge their circumstances. Fomenting a rebellion requires not abject poverty, but a certain level of success.
5. Revolutions don’t begin with blood in the streets–they begin with words. It takes a lot to whip a nation up to the point of revolution. It takes the kind of rhetoric that at once undermines the legitimacy of the established order, and promises a more equitable, more legitimate new order.
6. For a rebellion to become a revolution, there must also be a powerful, reactionary faction determined to maintain the old, outmoded forms, no matter what havoc they may wreak on the rest of the nation.
7. There is a profound disconnect between the ruling classes and the middle and lower classes. Violent revolutions are seldom a first choice; they generally happen with there is no other perceived path to redress inequities.
We can summarize this by saying that the financial well-being of the nation becomes both unbalanced and polarized, with the vast preponderance of wealth concentrated at the very highest strata of society–whose members also pay the least in taxes. When bad times come, the government must raise taxes. This places an unfair burden on the middle and lower classes, who are already suffering from the economic downturn. Attempts to bring the nation into a more equitable financial balance are stymied by those who have the money, power, and authority. After all, they have succeeded under the present structure; they have no incentive to change. As economic distress worsens, the middle classes become increasingly disaffected. Government rejection of change fuels the fire. And then one day there’s a flash point. It might be an assassination. It might be a bread riot. It might be a confiscated fruit cart. Whatever it is, it provides the spark necessary to convert the violent revolutionary rhetoric and the rage that has fueled it to physical violence.
And this is important why? Take a look at that list. The pattern of revolution is forming around us. Wealth and taxation inequities, economic distress, deep divisions between those who believe the solution lies in a return to outmoded forms and those who believe it lies in restructuring our laws to meet our culture’s evolving needs, government that increasingly serves the interests of business and of the wealthiest members of society at the expense of the middle classes, and increasingly violent language among the middle classes are all present. Our government has become a byword for disconnected, stalled, irrelevance. The recent Supreme Court decision legalizing unlimited political donations by corporations has removed the last safeguard of democracy by turning elected office into a seat for sale to the deepest pockets. We have become not a democracy, but a plutocracy.
There is a great deal of talk about the financial debt we are leaving our children. I find myself wondering about the other thing we are leaving for them–a government run by officials all too often put in place to serve the interests of those who have succeeded by exploiting economic and human resources to the detriment of the rest of us.
Our nation is changing. Technology is changing. The values by which we govern our lives are changing. Our views of gender and ethnic roles are changing. Our laws need to change, too. We have a choice. We can either change our laws to create a better, more equitable life for all of us, and ease the pressure cooker that is fueling the deep anger stoking the divisions in our country, or we can legislate to benefit the tiny minority at the top, dig those divisions even deeper, and move ever closer to the inevitable flash point.
Patterns matter. And we’re in an ugly one right now. History warns us that governments who persist in believing that they can ignore the voices of their people do so at their peril. And at ours.
These images were gleaned in less than twenty minutes of web browsing. They depict revolutions and significant rebellions in America, France, China, Russia, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and India. Five of those revolutions occurred, or are occurring, within living memory. Three of them are currently either ongoing or so recently ended that the result is yet to be seen. Does this worry anyone but me?