Why Rebellions and Revolutions Don’t Work Very Well

by Benjamin Studebaker

Throughout the history of civilization, there have been people who have been tasked with providing the necessities of life–growing the food, collecting resources, making the tools, and so on. There have also been people who don’t do this kind of work, who instead have lots of free time. These people have free time because other people provide their necessities for them. In this sense, the first group of people serves the second. The precise social mechanic governing this service has shifted over the years. In the early days, the first group of people were slaves of the second group. Slavery was an astounding social invention–it made it possible for some of us to have large amounts of free time, and we used that free time to do art and science and high politics. But slavery only worked by denying the vast majority of people access to that free time. It precipitated largescale inequality. This made it difficult to sustain. The slaves were unhappy, and unhappy slaves are unproductive. The slaveowners eventually discovered a secret–happy slaves are more productive than unhappy slaves. And to make the slaves happy, you had to tell them a story about how they were free. Into this space steps capitalism, and the employer-employee relationship. You are free to work for any master–but you must work for one, or you won’t earn enough to make a living. The masters have pooled the slaves and shared them, and told the slaves this makes them free. And for the most part, the slaves buy it. Except when they don’t. This piece is about that.

Order is built on two types of social technology:

  1. Biological + Sociological (Bio/Soc): technology which aims at making people who are intrinsically motivated to perform the roles you have created for them.
  2. Surveillance + Coercion (Sur/Co): technology which aims at compelling people who are not intrinsically motivated to perform the roles you have created for them to do so through the proliferation of fear and suffering.

The worse the bio/soc tech, the more we rely on sur/co. The stories we tell our slaves about how they are free because they can choose their masters or because, if they work really hard, they might one day join the ranks of the masters (like champion gladiators receiving the rudis) is a kind of sociological technology–it encourages the modern slaves to be intrinsically motivated to perform their roles. When people stop believing in these stories and begin to see themselves as enslaved people subjected everyday to a sophisticated brainwashing apparatus, they tend to want to do something about it. And if they are angry–and really, anger is a very understandable response to realising our society has played them in this way–they might want to use violence to emancipate the slaves. After all, there are more slaves than there are masters. If the slaves rise up together, won’t they inevitably prevail?

But the bio/soc technology is strong. Most of the slaves still buy the stories. They’re happy. They don’t want to join a rebellion. They don’t want their stories and their happiness ruined. So even though there are more slaves than there are masters, the number of slaves ready and willing to rebel is much smaller than the number of slaves willing to help the masters crush their brethren in a revolt, to help the masters make the sur/co technology fill in the bio/soc gap. So the rebellious slave becomes committed to an extensive campaign to undo and weaken the bio/soc technology. If these stories can be undermined, if the rest of the slaves can be made to see what’s in front of their eyes, if they develop a conscious awareness of themselves, as slaves, then they’ll join the rebellion, right?

But the rebellious slave is in a losing battle. The order strengthens the bio/soc technology faster than the slave can undermine it. And when it does get undermined in one place, and a rebellion happens and has some short-term success, other places see this and they respond by investing in upgrading the bio/soc technology. This is essentially the story of revolutionary communism in the 20th century. It was an attempt by slaves to emancipate themselves. Initially in Russia it looked successful.

But in Germany, fear of a similar rebellion led the President of the Reich to empower Adolf Hitler to defend the masters. And in so doing he waged a terrible war, and killed many tens of millions of people.

And in the west, the masters realised something–you need to upgrade your bio/soc technology to prevent these kinds of things from happening in your backyard. And this is what happened–liberals in the west offered the slaves a lot of stuff. Healthcare. Job security. Education. A safety net. The welfare state was a great leap forward in bio/soc technology.

The revolutionaries in the Soviet Union were economically and internationally isolated. What’s more, the scars of their violent revolution had produced a deep paranoia in Soviet society–everyone could be a counterrevolutionary, everyone could be an agent of the west, witting or unwitting. The Soviet state became obsessed with finding secret enemies and weeding them out. It created an environment of fear which stifled creativity, which facilitated corrupt patronage networks. Economically, it began to fail, and then it attempted to conceal its economic failure from its people through control over information. Soviet citizens began to suspect that they were still slaves–but of the government made up of the very people who had once been among them. The Soviet state possessed bio/soc technology of its own. It also told stories, whispered lies.

The western slavery was more attractive–the western slaves seemed happier. And so the Soviets abandoned their “revolutionary” government and attempted to embrace the masters once again. But they were promptly betrayed–the new class of masters in Russia took everything from them and left them even poorer than they were under the Soviet masters. With their victory over the Soviets clear and obvious, the western masters no longer feared rebellion. They no longer felt it necessary to invest in improving the bio/soc technology. Instead, they began looking for ways to make it less expensive to maintain. How much could they cut before the slaves would notice?

And so after a century of rebellion, the rebellious slaves are back where they were, but with an even more imposing, more developed bio/soc technology arrayed against them, and with millions of lives destroyed. And once again they say “we have to be violent, we have to be angry, we have to name and destroy our enemies, it’s the only way to get anything done.” And once again it’s an understandable response. But it leads places we’ve already been.

There is a better way. The bio/soc technology is so powerful now that the masters themselves believe the stories they tell. The folks on the right, they don’t realise their slaves are slaves. They think of themselves not as masters but as job creators. Because they believe the stories, they can’t control the narrative. It’s bigger than they are. And it has had consequences which could never have been intended or anticipated. One of the stories now is that if we work hard, the future will be unbelievably better. That our kids will live unfathomably better lives than we do. That story increasingly looks like a lie, but not one which anyone intended to tell. The masters wanted it to be true. Even now, they think they can make it true, if we cut their taxes just a bit more, let them “innovate”. But the more they try to innovate their way out, the more they must take from maintaining the bio/soc technology. Lower taxes means more spending cuts.

An unease is spreading, but it is not the unease in which people see the slavery for what it is, grab their pitchforks, and rebel. The bio/soc technology is too strong for that now, and the massive advancements in sur/co technology over the last century would make any such rebellion short-lived. No, it is a different sort of unease–a sense that things aren’t working, that something is wrong, but the cause is unclear. People aren’t willing to fight, and fighting would be unwise–but they are willing to vote differently. That “differently” includes the far right just as easily as it includes the left, but the overton window in politics is wider now than perhaps it has ever been. There is an openness to the new in electoral politics. Those who think they can screw people because people will not physically rebel forget that the people can rebel peacefully at the ballot box.

Convincing people to vote for something is different from convincing them to rebel. It’s not about making them angry, it’s about inspiring them, uplifting them, giving them hope, offering a positive vision of where we might go from here. This vision must reach out to everyone who has been told untrue tales, to everyone who is living a role that doesn’t make them happy–including even the masters, for many of them are among the unhappiest and the most lost. The far right has committed itself to trafficking in darkness. Its defeat comes not at the hands of the center, which still slings the same old tales that brought us to this pass. It comes from a left which meets darkness with light, which offers a hope greater than the right’s hate.