Revolutions are rather like that. The word has been overloaded, and can’t help us understand what’s going on. How do you know when you see a revolution? How do you know if a revolution has succeeded or failed? Once you start looking at such questions, the image you’ve got of a “revolution” (which is probably something like an angry mob marching on the Bastille) dissolves. “Scientific revolutions” don’t have mobs or violence in the streets; they take place in laboratories and are conducted by men in white coats, for example.
Mobs and violence, even rhetorical violence of the sort the American Occupiers deploy, do not a revolution make. Nor is that sort of activity necessarily “progressive.” There have been very successful right-wing revolutions (Italian fascism, for example, or the 1979 Iranian Revolution that gave us the frightfully reactionary Islamic Republic, or Lenin’s coup d’etat, which may provide the model for what is going on in Egypt, or even in America: one group brings down the regime, whereupon a very different group consolidates power).
The Occupiers in New York seem very happy about the Egyptian “revolution,” and say so repeatedly:
The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.
Further evidence for the Occupiers’ lack of knowledge, let alone understanding, of the farce in which they are acting. And perhaps a telling insight into the nasty antisemitism that has cropped up in so many of their banners.
So how can we measure their success or failure? The question, as always, is whether or not they can impose their will on their enemies (the rich plutocrats). If you see investment bankers and hedge fund owners redistributing their own wealth, it will be a win for the Occupiers. If candidates adopt the Occupy slogans and do well in primaries, that will be a win. If their world-wide sit-in is sent away from the public squares, and they can’t continue to protest in significant numbers, it will be a defeat.
The president, and his media supporters, are joining the Occupy party (and Party), so those considerations apply to him and them as well. It would be surprising if they won, frankly. It flies in the face of many American traditions, it seems very likely to annoy most American voters, and it is so clearly irrelevant to the real concerns of American workers, whatever class they are in, that one is once again awed by how smart Hegel was.
At least I am.