Are we on the brink of revolution?

The grim situation the French faced in 1788 was made even worse by the fact that those suffering knew that life could be better. Why? Because they had a glimpse into a better future. The popularization of Enlightenment literature that critiqued inequalities in the social and political system along with the politicization of the French citizenry that had accompanied elections of the Estates General convinced many French men and women that political representation and a more just polity could bring about genuine change.

This fuller picture conforms to the late sociologist James Chowning Davies’s theory of political revolutions, which suggests that revolutions are a response to a downturn in the economy after a significant period of growth that allows individuals to envision a more promising future. A population subjected to unmitigated poverty and oppression cannot imagine a better alternative, and consequently, is unlikely to revolt. However, as life begins to improve and a happier life is conceivable, a sudden reversal of fortune can seem unbearable and trigger revolutionary activity…

This theory may be playing out once again today. The gains of the civil rights movement made it possible to imagine a future of racial equality was within reach. When Barack Obama became president, it represented to many a powerful symbol of progress. But enduring inequality and police violence, and a highly visible white backlash that emerged in response to Obama’s election have been crushing. The covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of the economy have thrown into prominence the sharp disparities in this country and exacerbated the stress and anguish of those suddenly facing economic catastrophe. These dashed expectations of a better life made recent incidents of police brutality, assertion of white privilege and other acts of racial violence all the more intolerable. It is not surprising the killing of George Floyd was the match that lit the fuse.