Home Pushing Paradigms The Price of Revolution

Beyond the specifics of Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Ukraine in 2004, or the Philippines in 2001, what is the global effect of digital technology on revolutions?

Digital networks are a structural factor that decrease the costs of revolution. Authoritarian regimes respond with ever more repressive practices that send their countries in two possible directions. The first is successful totalitarianism, � la North Korea or Turkmenistan. The second and, I think, the more likely, is a repressive spiral in which increased repression causes a decrease in regime legitimacy and revolution or democratic opening becomes the most likely outcome. Here’s how it works:

Scenario 1: Pre-Digital Era

In the pre-digital era (figure at left), the supply of revolutionary means was fairly low. Media was centralized and could thus be fairly easily controlled by the state. If people wanted to meet and discuss the political status quo critically they had to do it in the physical world, which was difficult. Those few who did oppose the regime had little means to share that message to bring others to their way of thinking, let alone actually mobilizing a movement. And meeting to plan actions to actively challenge the political status quo was positively dangerous.

As a result, the price of revolution remained high, as it was both difficult and dangerous, and as a result the number of revolutions in authoritarian states was moderate. They were some spectacular successes, like the end of the Soviet Union, but other non-democratic states, like theocratic Iran, communist China, and the Soviet successor states of Central Asia, formed and consolidated.

Scenario 2: Digital Era – Present Revolutions

In the digital era, the supply of revolutionary means has increased, and we are just beginning to feel the effects. These new “revolutionary means” are the low-cost networked technologies available through mobile and Internet infrastructure. Media is now decentralized and, though censorship is in force in many states, communication is now more difficult to control than when all mass media was capital-intensive and centralized. If people want to meet and discuss the political status quo critically they can do it on a range of content-sharing platforms, from blogs to Facebook groups to Twitter. Those few who did oppose the regime now have many means to share that message to bring others to their way of thinking, and these tools are also useful in mobilizing people to form a movement.

While surveillance means that it is still dangerous to organize online, a range of encryption and circumvention tools has made anonymous communication possible to a degree that was impossible when communication was limited to real-world meetings, land-line phone, and paper. The Internet is a bonanza for government watchers, but mostly because those they are watching are not savvy enough to use available technologies to protect themselves.

As a result of this range of new technologies, the price of revolution has been lowered (by how much we do not yet know). Revolution has has become both less difficult through the introduction of communication tools and less dangerous through the introduction of anonymity tools. As a result, the number of revolutions in non-democratic states has somewhat increased. The Arab Spring and the list at the beginning of this post does not comprise the sum total of examples of this trend, but rather the beginning of one.

Scenario 3: Digital Era – The Empires Strike Back

Of course, the autocrats of the world are not going to sit idly by and let this happen. They are going to try to push the price of revolution up again by making it more difficult and more dangerous. As the price of revolution increases, quantity of revolution demanded decreases. This means that the government seeks to keep the price of revolution high (difficult and dangerous), while the opposition seeks to make the price lower (easier and safer).

The first thing repressive governments will do to raise the price of revolution again is to try to remove the structural factor of the Internet, the factor which initially reduced their price. We are seeing this phenomena already as countries from China to Uganda blocking access to social media or seeking to do so.

However, this attempt to turn back the clock on technology is unlikely to succeed. Their citizens have taste for it and censoring social media too strongly may only serve to politicize the currently apolitical social media majority who wish only to share photos of their pets and vacations.

So these government must try to increase the price of revolution in other ways, most specifically by driving down demand. How does one drive down demand for revolution? First, increase demand for the status quo (“the one-party state brings economic prosperity!”). This is a winning gambit and clearly popular in China. The second option is to intimidate the population so that they are afraid to act on their existing revolutionary demand. This means making high-profile arrests of opposition figures (the recent arrest of Ai Weiwei) and instituting more robust surveillance to identify and intercept the politically motivated (don’t say the word “protest” on a cell phone in Beijing).

If governments succeed in censoring the Internet and decreasing the supply of the means of digital revolution, then the supply curve will shift to the left (S3), resulting in a slightly higher price of revolution (P3) and lower quantity of revolution demanded (Q3). Put another way, by decreasing supply of the digital means of revolution through filtering, intimidation, self-censorship and the like, revolution has become more dangerous and difficult (more “expensive”) than when the Internet was unfettered, and as a result demand for revolution has decreased.

Scenario 4: Digital Era – Revolutionary Demand Rises

The problem is that “intimidating the population so that they are afraid to act on their revolutionary demand” may actually increase that demand by making the current regime seem more unjust and out of step with the interests of the people. The current government seems less legitimate, the status quo seems less appealing, and a revolutionary alternative seems moreso.

Even though the price of revolution (P4) has not changed (it has not become any safer or easier), demand for revolution has increased, which means that quantity of revolution demanded has increased (Q4). Although the price of freedom is still higher than before the digital crack-down, the quantity of freedom demanded is higher than in all previous scenarios.

It is not a new dynamic for an autocrat to seek to stabilize his rule through increased repression, which in turn makes him more odious to his people and thus less stable. However, the Internet and related networked technologies are a new structural factor that can set this dynamic in motion, and this is a dynamic that favors a revolutionary or change outcome.

There are probably limits to this analogy as there are ways in which social movements differ from the market equilibrium model (hell, even economics differs from the market equilibrium model). Nevertheless, I think this is a useful exercise in exploring the macro effects of digital technology as a structural factor in revolution.

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