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Revolution, change and disappointment
I went to another of those splendid RSA lectures and am writing this on the train home, buzzed up and thinking. Tonight we had four talks in one as BBC Radio 4 used the RSA stage to record four programmes. The first was by a proudly Jewish woman who had married, to her surprise, a Gentile. The next was a young man talking about the dilemmas of sustaining manufacturing and jobs in the country. The last was a marvellous story of life in Japan from a professor of Anthropology.
But the most startling story was the third presentation, from an Egyptian lady fresh from the revolution in Cairo. She told of inspiration and hope and I asked her about the expectation of her people for change. It happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet communist system. After so much repression, there was so much hope that somehow the fruits of the Western world would all be theirs in no time at all. But the reality was collapsing industries and massive loss of jobs. And what of big change elsewhere? In Iraq, where oil wealth could mean peace and prosperity, they still struggle with bitter internal divisions.
The speaker told of how a piece of police brutality where a young man died, had led to his sister setting up a Facebook page about it. This got a huge number of followers, so when a call for action in Cairo was sent out, there was a massive response. Buoyed also by events in Tunisia, the people's frustrations overflowed into the irrepressible outburst. A very modern revolution, it seems.
Revolution certainly brings change, but seldom that which was hoped for and seldom as fast as was expected. When a population has been suppressed and where state brutality is institutionalized, will the police suddenly become kindly enlightened? And if you dismiss them, who will know how to keep the peace? In his book 'Trust', Francis Fukuyama described a slippery slope in untrusting change where organized crime steps in, initially as brutal trust-brokers and then as effective rulers.
Every revolution has different issues, and every revolution is driven by unreal expectations that these issues will magically be resolved. The speaker said that all they are seeking now is free and fair elections. But who will become the next Egyptian politicians? Who, in a system that she described as endemically corrupt, will stand up and stand out? They desperately need a brilliant leader and I desperately hope they find one. And then they also need the politicians and police who will support a peaceful way to new prosperity. It's such a difficult path.
An interesting experiment in social harmony was done some years ago by Barry Oshry and his colleagues. He brought people together and forced them into different power groups. The simulation was of social organizational layers, with a few 'elites' at the top, a mass of disempowered 'immigrants' at the bottom and a layer of 'middles' trying to keep order between these two extremes. Over many iterations of this process everything happened, from dictatorships to revolution and communism. What Oshry found was that there is no stable point. Strict hierarchies resulted in revolution, yet in flat structures, hierarchies emerged. The Egyptian revolution was likewise a reaction to oppression. But this will not be the end of change there.
Revolution always creates ripples that echo down history for a long time. Thoughts of the American Revolution still affect American thinking, such as in Sarah Palin's 'Tea Party' enthusiasm. Likewise, the French revolution can still be seen as they openly revolt against pension reforms. What social aftershocks will occur, even should Egyptian elections happen as hoped?
I've got my fingers crossed, but somehow I fear many expectations will not be met.