The Arab Spring and the Romanticism of Revolution

by James E. Miller
Oct. 23, 2012

When the so-called Arab Spring erupted in late 2010, it was lauded by the Western media as a triumph for freedom and democracy.  Here was a group of nations traditionally ruled through various forms of theocracy and dictatorship where the citizens had finally had enough.  People were taking to the streets and demanding that those regimes which had been using their leadership roles to suppress dissent and enrich themselves would finally have to own up to the decades of misery they caused.  Time magazine went as far as to name "the protestor," the person of the year while praising the energy and youthful exuberance which embodied the movement.  No longer were street protests "pointless emotional sideshows" according to the magazine; they were a fight for justice.

But the Arab Spring has not turned out to be a jubilee of peace and freedom it was made out to be.  The recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the killing of diplomat J Christopher Stevens has proven false the narrative which held the overthrowing of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was needed to make the transition to peaceful democracy.  In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was elected president in June and his commitment to the party's values has resulted in violent clashes between Islamists and proponents of secular government.  The toppling of the Hussein regime in Iraq orchestrated by the U.S. government has left the country just as violent as ever with hundreds being killed by insurgent attacks this past summer.  The civil war in Syria is still raging on (with rebels financed and armed by the U.S. government) as varying rebel fractions refuse to cooperate due to their difference in views of the future.

By any measure, the Arab Spring is recoiling at an alarming rate.  The great transition from dominating theocracy to representative democracy was embraced more by Western observers than by Middle Easterners themselves.  Instead of pursuing justice and recognition of the rights of man, a reform of the centralized state is being sought.  This has only lead to more conflict as different groups which want to use government power in their favor are now fighting tooth and nail to claim it for themselves.  With death still a common occurrence, the mystique of a surging upheaval of oppressive government regimes in the Middle East has been lost.

Revolution is often thought of in a romantic manner for good reason.  The act of a group of men coming together and declaring themselves free and endowed with rights from their creator is not the work of an imaginative fiction writer; it actually occurred throughout the West just a few centuries ago.  The classical liberal revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries set the foundation for the Industrial Revolution as property rights gave way to the build-up of capital and the expanding of the division of labor.  As Murray Rothbard writes
This was the movement largely responsible for radically changing history, for almost destroying history as it was previously known to man. For before these centuries, the history of man, with one or two luminous exceptions, was a dark and gory record of tyranny and despotism, a record of various absolute States and monarchs crushing and exploiting their underlying populations, largely peasants, who lived a brief and brutish life at bare subsistence, devoid of hope or promise. It was a classical liberalism and radicalism that brought to the mass of people that hope and that promise, and which launched the great process of fulfillment.
A revolution which celebrates the natural rights of man is truly a remarkable state of affairs.  But the classical liberal revolution did not accomplish the ultimate goal of freeing man from the chains of tyranny.  Numerous nation-states were created in the name of protecting those rights seen as a prevailing feature of humanity.  What gradually occurred was the trampling of the very liberty that war was waged over.  The regulatory purview of the state grew, taxes were raised, central banks were established, and imperialist conquest was carried out by the heads of a number of governments.  In other words, the state functioned as it normally does- to enrich a minority of individuals at the expense of the rest.  The trend continues around the globe today as capitalism and free enterprise are losing the fight to interventionism and, soon enough, outright socialism.  Without a reverse in course and a more resolute declaration of the right men have to self-ownership, those hard-fought freedoms may have well been for nothing.  Societies will degrade as resources continue to be siphoned away for state activities instead of wealth producing ones and social unrest overtakes peaceful cooperation.

As long as the Arab Spring remains an exercise in government reform, true justice and a prosperous society will not be achieved.  Absolute power cannot be overcome with force.  General strikes and marches have a symbolic role to play but they must be accompanied by an intellectual rejection of statism to have a significant effect.  Freedom is really won by appealing to humanity as is respected under natural law.  If one were to concede that violence is tolerable as long as the perpetrators are chosen through a ballot box, then justice is lost.  And it is this unrelenting quest for a better, more just world that forms the spirit of revolution.  This strict resolve perhaps best epitomized in the following declaration by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm: tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- and I will be heard.
Garrison, who was a leading voice in the American abolitionist movement, would accept nothing short of the complete eradication of slavery.  Absolute freedom form servitude was the goal and he would not waver.  His rejection of gradualism is a model for all revolutionary movements.

If there is one positive facet of the Arab Spring, it is that it proves revolution can still occur even in the modern era.  It has been an unfortunate development that many see the state as a permanent fixture whose power can only be whittled away at.  But as Rothbard wrote at the time of the massive student demonstrations within France in 1968, the idea that revolution isn't possible within "the modern, complex, highly technological world" is a "widespread myth."  If anything, the advent of technology which allows for instant communication around the world makes a revolution in both the streets and the mind all the more a possibility.

Revolution is really in the heart of anyone who loves liberty.  The establishment of a state will always be a possibility because it allows some men to feast like parasites on the productive capacity of others.  It institutionalizes the cruelest and most devious aspects of human nature.  So when state rule is replaced with another variant of itself; it defeats the purpose of revolution.  This is the lesson the Arab Spring has to learn if the people are really looking to live in a society defined by peace, righteousness, and a better standard of living.

When the people of the Middle East quit being enamored over the prospect of pulling the reigns of Leviathan to control others, then a real revolution may occur.  Until then, it will merely be a destructive circus over which assortment of mobsters will rule.
James E. Miller holds a BS in public administration with a minor in business from Shippensburg University, PA. He is the Editor in Chief at the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada and a current contributor to his hometown newspaper, the Middletown Press and Journal. He currently works in Washington D.C. as a copywriter.

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