A Discourse on the Working Definition of Revolution

I wanted to start this blog entry with the hope of creating a continuing discourse on the working definition of revolution proposed in class.  I asked Dr. Rockhill for the exact wording of the following definition, which he put forward in class, so that we could work closely with the text in our treatment.

Revolutions are historically specific attempts, on the part of multiple points and types of agency to leverage and displace the deep normative frameworks operative in society; they are endeavors to immanently recreate the social order by reconfiguring the norms structuring existence.

I think the definition has several significant virtues.  First of all I think it the notion of “multiple points and types of agency” frees revolution from its traditional conception as a mass movement.  This definition allows for a revolution to be as large or as small, as broad or as focused as it happens to be.  This makes the definition flexible enough to encompass a global revolution as well as an individual one.  The importance of having a concept of an individual revolution cannot be over-emphasized.  The normative relations governing society cannot be changed except through individual or personal revolution.  This is the essence of Gandhi’s maxim to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” [i] This act of conducting your life or reconsidering your feelings or outlook in a manner contrary to the societal norm is an act of revolution not to be discounted.  This is not to say that a personal revolution is enough to assure a successful revolution, but our definition neither requires success nor forbids failure, it merely asserts that an attempt be made.[ii]  Similarly the idea of “multiple points” allows for a freedom of action and disconnection that also differs from traditional notions.  Distinct types of agency may work independently of each other to affect change and for very different (even contradictory) reasons, but revolution will and must make strange bed-fellows and this definition allows for that fact.

Another virtue of this definition is the emphasis on the reconfiguring of social and not just political norms.  This aspect allows for a wide breadth of interpretation as to what constitutes a revolution, anything from a regime change to the adopting of a replacement for the QWERTY keyboard arrangement could and should be considered revolutionary activity.  This definition treats political, economic, social, educational, religious, and even technological norms in the same manner as far as they structure large swathes of a given society.

More critically, I think that the phrase “deep[iii] normative frameworks operative in society” is problematic in two ways.  First and most obviously because the generally ambiguous nature of what constitutes a society combined with equally ambiguous notion of depth leaves ample room for the inclusion of almost any norm as the object of revolutionary action.  The second problem resides within the idea of depth itself, for it is the process of revolution to uplift a deep structural norm[iv] before it can be removed.  This process can be modeled, and in fact, has been by game theorists.  Allow me an illustration: let’s say we invent a new and more rational keyboard to replace the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard.  The incentive to learn a new approach for those already familiar with and currently using QWERTY would be virtually nil in the very beginning.  The revolutionary task of displacing QWERTY would be Sisyphean in shape.  Movement would be hard at first, but as the more and more people make the switch a momentum builds.   If that momentum can be sustained long enough an interlude of ambivalence would be achieved; the zenith of hill, so to speak, the place where each system was more or less equally established as a norm (a 50/50 split).  Should the new system tip the scales QWERTY, which has neither momentum nor the force created to leverage the new system, would suddenly and rapidly drop out of sight in the culture (the boulder plummeting down the other side of the hill) as the system quickly returns to its natural equilibrium (everyone using a single established system).  When we think of this process in relation to our definition of revolution: the QWERTY system was effectively “leveraged and displaced” in the ambivalent middle, not when the norm has been reconfigured, but when things are still up in the air.  This is reminiscent of the problem Arendt elucidates in On Revolution regarding the danger of making the uprooting of the old norm (and not the establishment of a new norm) the end of revolution.  I don’t think that this Arendt read is manifest in our definition, but I do not think that our definition sufficiently guards against what Arendt’s history seems to establish as a nearly unavoidable misstep.  The second independent clause does a better job of instituting the measure of completion, in suggesting the reconfiguration of norms and not their displacement as the end of revolution.

However, reconfiguration is itself problematic in that it leaves ambiguity as to what exactly must change with regards to the norms to be considered revolutionary.  The divide between a negligible reconfiguration and a substantive one is not addressed.  It is all too easy to imagine a reconfiguration of a deep structural norm of society that leaves the status quo entirely intact.  For example, we could imagine reconfiguring the patriarchy by conversion into matriarchy.  This switch undeniably reconfigures the norm, but in a nominal way only, substituting one gender for another and leaving the structure of society (domination by a single gender) unaltered.   I propose the definition be reworded to reflect the idea that any reconfiguration must affect the indispensable characteristics of the targeted norm in the Aristotelian sense of that which is essential.

[i] Incidentally this quote is probably a compression of what Gandhi actually said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

[ii] An argument could be made that simply existing in a state of dissidence is not an act at all and so cannot constitute an “attempt” or an “endeavor.”  I would argue however that dissidence in and of itself is vital to revolution because it presents people with alternatives providing them the space to question the established norm, which they would not have done on their own.  Note that the celebrated Stanley Milgram experiment found that the factor that brought about the lowest completion rate (people’s choice to administer lethal levels of electricity to fellow subjects) was the presence of a dissenting authority figure.

[iii] I am assuming here that the word “deep” means broad and well-established, as in deep seated, but this word might be more trouble than it is worth.

[iv] This is even suggested in this definition by the use of the word “leverage” which invokes notions of lift.

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3 Responses to A Discourse on the Working Definition of Revolution

  1. michaelwardii says:

    Thanks for your post! I wanted to comment on a few of the things you said.

    I like your reading of Dr. Rockhill’s definition of revolution as capable of encompassing mass movements, but Not limited to mass movements, i.e. the definition is able to be applied to smaller groups and perhaps even individuals. I’m hesitant about the idea of a personal revolution. It sounds problematic and to me suggests a turning inward when it is the world outside that needs to be changed. I want to be clear that changing one’s self is important, but I think to call it revolutionary might be a mistake. For example, if one is fighting against environmental pollution, changing one’s consumption habits-by recycle and turning off the water when you brush your teeth, etc-is not revolutionary. These may be good habits and changes to incorporate into your life, but it doesn’t really work to fundamentally stop pollution or “to immanently recreate the social order by reconfiguring the norms structuring existence.” This might be a misreading of your point, but either way it relates to your final point.

    I also think that your comment on the switch from patriarchy to matriarchy gets at an interesting point. First I want to say that I disagree that a switch from patriarchy to matriarchy would be nominal and not revolutionary; such a switch would fundamentally change all-avenues of society (what ever society is) for better or worse. Likewise, if we went from a patriarchy to a non-patriarchy (and non-matriarchy) society that would also be revolutionary because each of these switches would “leverage and displace the deep normative frameworks operative in society” and “endeavor to immanently recreate the social order by reconfiguring the norms structuring existence.”

    However, I do agree with your point that revolution could be applied to situations where the change is actually more nominal that revolutionary. For examples, if in the presidential elections in the United States a democrat is voted into office one term and in the following election a Republican is elected-does this constitute a revolution? I would generally say no, however, if instead of a democrat or republican some third party was elected, I think, given Dr. Rockhill’s definition, this change might be called revolutionary. I’m not sure I would totally agree, but I think a convincing case could be made. The reason this example could be called a revolution is because the definition is left open it can then be applied to a number of situations, but I’m not sure if this is a useful aspect or not. My concern, and perhaps your concern, is that because ‘revolution’ can be applied in all sorts of situations it might loose some of its explanatory power.

  2. crupert says:

    First of all thank you for your comments, I think you raise some good points. I fear we are dangerously close to, if not wholly involved in a sorites paradox of revolution. I think any line we attempt to draw between one and every would be guilty of heap fallacy. The matter is one of spectrum, and I think that fact makes a personal revolution merely the individual expression of a mass revolution and mass revolution only the combination of personal revolutions. In my thinking, they are one and the same event, only viewed from different perspectives.

    I agree my patriarchy/matriarchy is a bit extreme, I too feel it would be something of a revolution, but at the same time it would also largely reaffirm the status quo. I guess there is something of a sorites paradox here as well. I think this is a really thorny problem where almost any reorganization could be an “endeavor to immanently recreate the social order by reconfiguring the norms structuring existence.” My concern is figuratively with Henry Ford’s (perhaps apocryphal) answer when confronted by a customer about the monochromatic color scheme of his “Model T” he said, “You can have any color you like as long as it’s black.” I fear we can have any revolution we like as long as things remain (essentially) the same.

  3. grockhil says:

    Thank you for these insightful remarks. You both raise some important issues, and it is indeed true that every term in the working definition I proposed needs to be unpacked. Fortunately, I have the great advantage of using the entire semester to do so. To begin this process, I will address the essential issue of the relationship between ‘words’ and ‘things’ in the next session. This will be crucial for elucidating how a working definition operates and how it relates to various–more or less implicit–understandings of language. I will strongly contest, in this regard, essentialist approaches that purport to identify, for instance, the true nature of revolution or the definitive dividing lines between the revolutionary and the non-revolutionary. In fact, I will argue that the social battles over such delimitations are themselves part of ongoing struggles. It is important, moreover, to intervene in them, but this does not require a transcendent idea of Revolution.

    In this regard, the question of the relative depth of norms that you both raise is fundamental. There is something quite different about changing the norms that regulate keyboards, redefining revolution in a university course, modifying the chessboard of political parties and overthrowing the patriarchy. This is one of the reasons why I think it is essential to develop a theory of the multiple tiers of normativity and to distinguish relatively superficial changes from more profound reconfigurations. Regarding my working definition of revolution, I do not have in mind more superficial or personal modifications of social norms. In fact, the best vocabulary might be that of meta-norms insofar as I consider revolutionary transformation to be aimed at altering the deep tiers of normativity, the meta-norms, that tend to generate and regulate the surface norms of daily life. I should note, moreover, that in developing a non-salvational or non-redemptive conception of revolution, I do not anticipate that perfect meta-norms will be established at a utopian end of history.

    I hope that others will weigh in on some of the issues you have raised and accept your invitation to collectively reflect on the strengths and limitations of the working definition that I proposed. It is certainly helpful for me, and I hope that it will assist the rest of you in grappling with these fundamental questions. In the meantime, here is a reformulation of the working definition that attempts to take into account some of the points you have raised, as well as some of the excellent questions from the last class:

    “Revolutions are intense socio-historical struggles, on the part of multiple points and types of agency, to displace and reconfigure the deepest normative frameworks operative in society; they are endeavors to immanently recreate the social order by transforming the meta-norms structuring existence.”

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