The headiness of 1990s globalisation has waned. But even though the global economy has slowed and resistance has surged up in the Middle East and elsewhere, the world’s comfortable classes peer hopefully into the coming decades.
They do not expect such economic fits and starts, or riots and bombings, to derail the system itself. Even delicate issues around the rise of China and India are more concerned with who runs the world than where the world is going.
The yuppies find it far fetched that by 2050, or even 2100, anything will have changed the basic contours of capitalism and thinned out liberal democracy. No more revolutions, they conclude with relief.
Oddly, the left in recent years has only encouraged their confidence. The anti-globalisation activists of Seattle, Quebec and Genoa are not revolutionaries, for example. By and large, they only want to put pressure on the system in the name of human rights, the environment, a living wage and the like.
Intellectuals sympathetic to them gravely intone all the reasons why the old model of seizing the state no longer works. Socialism after 1989 is a drawn out war of position, they claim.
And the other radicals of our time—the populists and religious fundamentalists around the world—are as culture bound as they are strident. Between the compromises of today’s left and the insularity of the right, no wonder those in power expect to keep the global high ground.
But will there really be no more grand revolutions along the lines of France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949 or Iran 1979? Looked at properly, those upheavals teach a quite different lesson. If old style revolutions within countries cannot happen, then a worldwide revolutionary crisis may be all the more likely in another generation or so.
Economic globalisation, for example, shifts blame away from local elites and onto a vast, faceless economy that cuts across borders. Why bother to overthrow any single government? Socialist experiments that break the rules of the global economy get crushed by investor flight and sanctions anyway.
But despite what some say, such realities need not make revolution unlikely. It may just move on to a grander scale. Globalisation has eroded the national economic bulwarks and subsistence agriculture that once buffered the world economy. If a deep, global depression occurs—triggered perhaps by an energy crisis or a natural disaster—it will threaten the livelihoods of several billion people all at once.
And what thoughts would cross the minds of such people? The legitimacy of global capitalism has haemorrhaged over the last two decades. Professionals and the investor class prosper while most people’s living standards sink.
With each victory of neo-liberal globalisation, the post-war notion that capitalism delivers prosperity for all has lost credibility. Inequalities have widened so far that the rich cannot buy off the poor on the cheap.
The system is more vulnerable, economically and politically, than it currently seems. Many who say the age of revolution has passed imagine that the spread of liberal democracy allows people to let off steam in bad times.
But they forget that global capitalism’s triumph has left democracy hollow. International bodies such as the World Trade Organisation have locked in transnational commitments to economic policies that are good for business.
Even a country that elected a leftist government by a landslide would have its hands tied. Democracy can spread at the national level precisely because the global level belongs to technocrats and the investor horde.
The great revolutions of the past came when the old regimes faced some kind of crisis against a background of longstanding discontent. They then blundered in reacting to it, because they were too politically rigid to do otherwise.
The present order is hard but brittle. The lack of accountability that frustrates its subjects in time of peace can cause a rupture when crisis hits.
Denying people a meaningful outlet at the national level may work well enough for now—but when push comes to shove their discontent will emerge globally, on the same scale as that which provokes it. And the old regime will have nowhere to run.
If a future revolution is global, it may have ideological undertones quite unlike those assumed by many on the left, particularly in the developed world. A challenge to the present order will be strongest if the economic and cultural faultlines of our time overlap.
Can those moved by social justice and those moved by a respect for tradition join forces, against their common enemy in global consumer culture and technocracy? Traditionalists forced to think globally might beat the temptations of xenophobia. And leftists might find in some surviving folkways, especially in the global South, lived examples of cooperation and small scale decency.
If left and right link up in this manner, with the common agenda of founding a new global political order, they will sweep aside all in their path.
Adam K Webb is a lecturer on social studies at Harvard University and author of a new book, Beyond the Global Culture War. A longer version of this article appears as The Calm Before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance in the current issue of the International Political Science Review, 27.