Reflections on Revolutions

Max Prowant on May 22, 2024

For the past few years, pundits and policymakers have made a living explaining why we are at the end times. With the left regularly predicting the end of liberal democracy and the right of moral virtue, we are living in an age that is pessimistic at best, reckless and dangerous at worst. Amid the hysterics, Fareed Zakaria may be the most influential voice that has consistently urged calm in the face of large-scale change. His new book, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present, offers a powerful defense of liberalism’s achievements and a caution to revolutionaries that Edmund Burke himself would endorse. The logic of Zakaria’s defense, however, devolves into an identification of liberalism with “progress” in such a way that appeals to salutary checks on liberalism are treated as reactionary and dangerous. His argument, accordingly, should be taken with some caution.

According to Zakaria, we are living in a revolutionary age, both in our domestic politics and in the world at large. Domestically, the traditional left-right divide is changing. For decades, the dividing line between left and right was economic in nature; conservatives wanted tax cuts, deregulation, and a smaller federal government whereas liberals wanted to preserve and expand a host of entitlement programs. Both, however, operated within a broad liberal framework that located the ends of government in the protection of individual rights. That is no longer the case. The divide now concerns the “open” versus “closed” societies where moral and ideational issues are more determinant of a person’s vote than tax cuts and spending. Internationally we are seeing a similar “revolution” against the US-backed liberal order uniting the world through free trade, collective action, and easy immigration. This revolution, led by an array of demagogues and populists, prefers tighter borders and national identity instead of globalism.

These revolutions are important and will shape politics well into the future. Accordingly, Zakaria counsels a historically informed deliberation. Should we wish to navigate the waters and arrive at a happy port where individual rights remain protected, economies thrive, and the rule of law prevails, we can and should heed lessons from the major revolutions humanity has undergone in the past four centuries, from the liberal revolution in Holland to the industrial revolution in the United States. Revolutions follow a predictable path: some large-scale change in technology or economics triggers a change in identity (how people understand themselves) which in turn demands a new style of politics. How leaders handle these demands determines whether a revolution will broadly improve affected people’s lives, or trigger chaos, blood, and stagnation. It is the difference between the bloodless Glorious Revolution in Britain and the Reign of Terror and the Bonaparte dynasty in France. In the former, leaders followed the organic, bottom-up, and liberal political trajectory of the people and middle class. In the latter, enlightened elites tried to force a rapid change on a backward, intensely traditional society to predictable results.

Continue reading at Law & Liberty here.

  1. Comment by David on May 22, 2024 at 10:28 am

    I watch Zakaria’s show and agree with much he says. Recently, however, he remarked that Trump would not have been prosecuted for falsifying business records if he were not Trump. When one looks at the record, there are many such cases. New York State has issued nearly 9,800 felony charges of falsifying business records since 2015.

    Birthrates in most advanced countries are declining and this even includes China. One has only to look at Japan to see what happens when the population declines—abandoned rail service, mostly empty villages, schools and colleges closing, and shortages of labor as for truck and taxi drivers.

    The US has avoided this difficulty by allowing immigration. Other countries are reluctant to do this for fear of losing their culture. I suppose one might say the US does not really have a culture to lose. People have to accept the reality of change and not pretend they can go back to an earlier era.

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