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8. The Idea of Revolution and the Illusion of Politics

8. The Idea of Revolution and the Illusion of Politics

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 8. The Idea of Revolution and the Illusion of Politics

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 20/10/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

8. The Idea of Revolution and the Illusion of Politics

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the eighth of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 30 minutes, followed by a 10 minute interval, and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture.

Last week we looked at the notion of the ‘post-nation’ state, the progressive degeneration of liberal democracy and a number of the important challenges it faces. Today we will examine the very concept of revolution and the legacy of illusory political engagement.

The French Revolution has been a central theme within this module as the key event in modern political history. We have also noted its importance as a defining occurrence with respect to the accepted understanding of the word revolution (and its cognates), Davies:

“There is a universal quality about the French Revolution which does not pertain to any of Europe’s many other convulsions. Indeed, this was the event which gave the word ‘Revolution’ its full modern meaning: that is, no mere political upheaval, but the complete overthrow of a system of government together with its social, economic and cultural foundations.” [Europe ND p. 675]

However, quite understandably, he goes on immediately to observe:

“Nowadays the history books are filled with ‘revolutions’. There have been attempts, for example, to turn England’s Civil War into the ‘English Revolution’, and still more attempts to upgrade the Russian Revolution into the third round of a universal series. There’s the Roman Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Military Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, even, in recent years, the Sexual Revolution. Not all of them deserve the title.” [ibid.]

Therefore, we should now step back for a moment from the French Revolution in order to consider the idea of revolution per se, as a way of shedding further light on the ordinary reality of the contemporary political experience of people living within the context of liberal democracy, which is by far the most widespread form for the national arrangement of governmental affairs on the planet. Of course, we have already seen the extent to which national sovereignty has been eroded and undermined in practice by the ascendancy of multi-national amalgamations such as the European Union, supranational bodies such as NATO and the unstoppable progression towards the complete establishment of an effective single system of worldwide governance driven by a combination of the inescapable logic of the technological imperative and the paramount hegemony of the financial nexus. The banking network functions independently of the formal, publicly accountable apparatus of the representative democratic system, the primary purpose of which is to serve as an effective cover for and distraction from its operations and as a barrier against state interference in its dominion over the market. 

As we have previously seen, this cover and separation are necessary because the market is geared towards the limitless creation of abstract wealth defined numerically by the mechanisms of usurious multiplication within the banking and corporate system. By this means the masters of finance (who are hence the masters of the world state) are in control of currencies, commodities and their flow within the system; this is the new dynamic that defines the post-industrial economy. The old fashioned industrial economy of capital investment, productivity and sales of manufactured goods is all but extinct in advanced Western democracies. Needless to say, this wealth also permits them to accumulate vast property holdings on a scale and in a manner which, if properly understood by the vast multitudes of the rest of us living under democracy (who are of course, not privy to these extraordinary financial and political privileges), it would never be tolerated openly except by enforcement under the most abject state of subjugation and complete tyranny. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Dec. 2011, Michael Hudson whilst stating in clear terms the current strategy of the banking élite, not only demonstrates his own firm grasp of Carl Schmitt’s dictum regarding emergency measures, he also gives us, the financial version of the classical modus operandi  of the revolutionary coup d'état:

“A debt crisis enables the domestic financial elite and foreign bankers to indebt the rest of society, using their privilege of credit (or savings built up as a result of less progressive tax policies) as a lever to grab assets and reduce populations to a state of debt dependency.

The kind of warfare now engulfing Europe is thus more than just economic in scope. It threatens to become a historic dividing line between the past half-century’s epoch of hope and technological potential to a new era of polarization as a financial oligarchy replaces democratic governments and reduces populations to debt peonage.

For so bold an asset and power grab to succeed, it needs a crisis to suspend the normal political and democratic legislative processes that would oppose it. Political panic and anarchy create a vacuum into which grabbers can move quickly, using the rhetoric of financial deception and a junk economics to rationalize self-serving solutions by a false view of economic history […]”

He continues:

“What is happening today is the equivalent of warfare – but against the power of government! It is above all a financial mode of warfare – and the aims of this financial appropriation are the same as those of military conquest: first, the land and subsoil riches on which to charge rents as tribute; second, public infrastructure to extract rent as access fees; and third, any other enterprises or assets in the public domain.

In this new financialized warfare, governments are being directed to act as enforcement agents on behalf of the financial conquerors against their own domestic populations. This is not new, to be sure. We have seen the IMF and World Bank impose austerity on Latin American dictatorships, African military chiefdoms and other client oligarchies from the 1960s through the 1980s. Ireland and Greece, Spain and Portugal are now to be subjected to similar asset stripping as public policy making is shifted into the hands of supra-governmental financial agencies acting on behalf of bankers – and thereby for the top 1% of the population.” [Europe’s Transition from Social Democracy to Oligarchy]

Given the incalculable vastness of the wealth, power and privilege involved in this ‘revolutionary’ transfer of property and sovereignty worldwide behind a political façade erected within the framework of liberal democracy, the maintenance of the complicated paraphernalia of the electoral apparatus equates to an extremely minor inconvenience to put up with in exchange for command over a stage permanently set for ‘revolutionary’ overthrows and a perfectly camouflaged population control mechanism. It is also, without doubt, far less expensive to maintain and far more lucrative a proposition than the nearest alternative - a world network of nation sized slave labour camps...

Revolution and Coup d'état

Returning to the specific concept of revolution, the question of comparison with the coup d'état arises out of the historiographical tension between the social-scientific determination to define the ideal-type ‘revolution’ as a major transformational occurrence (as for example in the description cited above from Davies) in order to be able to distinguish it from lesser phenomena, such as might be a coup d'état or ‘palace coup’, which entails a change in the governing personnel without necessarily affecting the entire societal infrastructure or even the bureaucratic infrastructure surrounding it. 

The influence of the social sciences on history writing required that a revolution proper should correspond to a ‘concept’ that could be described in socio-structural terms as being part of a process of societal evolution or modernisation, whether that be in reference to the assertion of social groupings, changing modes of production, the redistribution of wealth, or other discernible indices of significant social change. Anything less was to be excluded from the modernist revolutionary typology. JCD Clark, in his account of the declining influence of the social sciences, points to the impact of the increased understanding of the history of ideas, which brought into high relief the danger inherent in the ‘conceptual’ approach, that historical phenomena were subject to being ‘retro-fitted’ to suit the perceptions already contained within the concepts themselves to then be applied externally as tools for analysis post hoc. Clark goes to the heart of the problem in the following passage:

“Concepts did not… impose themselves from outside; they were generated from within. They were indeed indispensable to human action: as one distinguished historian of ideas put it, it is now evident that ‘men cannot do what they have no means of saying they have done.’ If ‘revolution’ had any meaning, men must have known it before they could act it out; without the concept, they would have been performing some other historical act for which they did have words. The historian can only understand past events if he knows how men at the time conceptualized both their intentional actions and the results of those actions (whether intended or not).” [Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History p. 34]

The general acceptance of this point has led to a methodological shift away from the social-scientific emphasis of the late twentieth century, to a new prioritisation of linguistic usage. However, this shift has been more evident in the most influential academic studies of revolution produced on the European continent than it has been in Anglophone scholarship. That being the case, after a particularly useful survey of the ways in which this development has impacted upon recent historiographical approaches to the subject and its implications for looking at the revolutionary discourse in Britain and America (which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who may be particularly interested in this aspect of history writing and interpretation) the main substance of his conclusions is conveyed in the following two key passages, firstly:

“Social-structural analysis previously disposed historians to believe that ‘powerful socioeconomic sources of discontent may have been necessary to transform a revolt or a rebellion into a revolution’. Just as we now see that such ‘socioeconomic’ features were not significant in the 1640s, 1688 or 1776 (or even in 1789), so we can now dissolve the related distinction between ‘great’ national revolutions, those mythic rites of passage, and mere coups d'état. The distinction was one of degree, not of kind; of success, not of typology; and a success explained by complex conjuncture, not by the simple triggering of preconditions.” [ibid. p. 53]


In retrospect, we can identify a phase of European and North American history in which ‘revolution’ was reified into a national rite of passage, but we can declare that phase to be over. In retrospect, too, we can see that as a strategy this was not only an intellectual mistake; it was also profoundly normative. The revolutionary project was one of self-willed emancipation: the end product of this process of self-fashioning was to be a new man and a new world. Such a project was both vainglorious and hubristic. No new men were born, and no new worlds were constructed. The present always exists in its old interrelationship with the past, and we have no reason for thinking that the end result of revolutionary efforts since 1789 has been other than to increase the vicissitudes to which mankind is subject.” [ibid. p. 58]

It should be clear to us that what this last statement amounts to in terms of the results of our own studies during the course so far of this module, is a reconfirmation of the understanding of the French Revolution as an event carried out by active human beings, principally men (whom we have already named and identified) as the essential ‘bio-political’ agents, rather than as passive subjects of a mechanistically determined process. In terms of the present’s inescapable “interrelationship with the past” it also reaffirms our perception of the French Revolution as the indisputable blueprint for the social, political and economic modalities of the modern state, as we saw in lecture number 5 (The French Revolution III - A Template for Modernity).

The Illusion of Politics

Let us begin with the word ‘politics’. The standard dictionary entries provide an etymology beginning with the Greek polis (city), politēs (citizen) and politikos; leading to the Latin politicus (relating to civil administration), to the Old French politique. The actual definitions are quite involved, which is to be expected given the many everyday uses and technical functions of the word. However, the definitions most relevant to our immediate concerns relate to the state, or governmental administration; the art or science of government; relationships in society involving authority and power; and policy-making. Palgrave informs us that the word began in English usage as a term of abuse (rhyming with “knavish tricks” in the National Anthem) and only gradually gained a measure of respectability thereafter. Although the word has never entirely succeeded in freeing itself from its association in the English mind with mischief, it is doubtless true to say nowadays, with the general perception of politicians being at an all time low, that it has to all intents and purposes come full circle. 

Well known aphoristic definitions of politics include: Bismarck’s ‘the art of the possible’; Isaac D’Israeli’s ‘the art of governing mankind through deceiving them’; Hitler’s rather earnest ‘the art of carrying out the life struggle of a nation for its earthly existence’. My own preferred one in this genre is Paul Valéry’s ‘Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.’ All of these contain important grains of truth, particularly so where the illusory aspect of political reality is concerned. However, before proceeding further along that line, we should first settle on a good general definition, as a point of reference, whose elements are widely recognised and accepted, such as that formulated by Bernard Crick (In Defence of Politics, 1962):

“Politics… can be simply defined as the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and survival of the whole community. And… a political system is that type of government where politics proves successful in ensuring reasonable stability and order.”

As for political systems, for obvious reasons we will focus our attention on liberal democracy, being the predominant system in force in the world today, and being the most widespread means for the fulfilment of the aims and purposes of politics as just summarised. Once more, for point of reference, the working definition of liberal democracy provided by Wikipedia adequately serves the purpose:

“Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the protection of human rights and civil liberties for all persons. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either formally written or uncodified, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract. After a period of sustained expansion throughout the 20th century, liberal democracy became the predominant political system on Earth.”

It is, of course, no great secret that there are inconsistencies between the theory of representative democracy and its functioning in practice - just as there were obvious shortcomings in the imagined ideal of the original Athenian form of direct democracy, which is commonly claimed as the mythical birthplace of today’s constitutional arrangements. The truth is that even in ancient Greece democracy was not the prevailing practice; Athenian democracy lasted all of 185 years and in Plato’s assessment amounted to rule by the incompetent; it was not favoured by the Romans and more or less disappeared into obscurity for over 1000 years. It is much more likely that the democratic systems we have developed descend from the assemblies of the Vikings, feudal kings and republican city-states of the medieval period. Davies informs us as follows:

“The theorists of the Enlightenment blended classical knowledge with an interest in constitutional reform; and a romanticized vision of Ancient Athens played a part in this among classically educated liberals. But liberals could themselves be critical. De Tocqueville inveighed against ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Edmund Burke called democracy on the French model ‘the most shameless thing in the world’. Democracy has rarely been the norm.” [Europe ND p. 131]

Genuine ‘rule by the people’ has never been satisfactorily achieved in practice by any form of democracy in the past, and modern theories of popular sovereignty along presidential lines, or parliamentary sovereignty along British lines, have done nothing to bring the reality any nearer to accomplishment (for a complete and comprehensive account of the degeneration and failure of the ‘mother of parliaments’ I strongly recommend Hilaire Belloc’s essay The House of Commons and Monarchy).

With regard to the illusory and deceptive nature of politics in the age of liberal democracy there is no need for us to to repeat here the ground we have already covered in the last two lectures (no. 6 The French Revolution IV - The Political Legacy; no. 7 Democracy and the ‘Post-nation’ State) where we were able to note in some detail the political consequences for modernity of the French Revolution’s legacy of assembly politics as a structural cover for the concealed dictatorship of the financial élites, the absurd game of electoral musical chairs that has become the full extent of the power of the electorates, and the implications of Carl Schmitt’s devastating critique of liberalism revealing what has now become the reality in terms of national populations that are totally depoliticised, indebted, pacified by the media and entertainment, and hemmed in by emergency laws and technological surveillance which have put paid to centuries of civil liberties. 

The following extended extract taken from the writing of Ian Dallas brings the whole process of deception back to the Muslim world in order to complete a decidedly unwholesome picture:

“It is not accidental but certainly significant that the last phase of viable democratic practice should arrive on the scene in Muslim states […] it was when Muslim states foolishly and passively submitted to the procedures of party political franchise, and accepted the claimed act of liberation, voting in elections, that they discovered that their majority decision had to be invalidated and swept aside. The hidden codicil of liberty emerged. You could not choose (vote) Muslim governance, only atheist governance […]

The present structure of human societies cannot be understood as entities functioning under a basic formation of sovereign nation states loosely tied by a political forum of representative ambassadors, without military or financial power, ‘uniting’ the nations. To this system the sophisticated might want to add the ‘world’ bank and the ‘international’ monetary fund. This could not be done without the tacit understanding that the ownership of these funds would not be exposed […] 

Two further elements invalidate the democratic model of governance… Firstly scale. The idea that one can arrive at any form of representative government beyond a very limited scale is sheer media-sustained fantasy. There is no way that an entity whose natural scale was the city state (Rome, Athens) could survive as a state numbering billions. ‘India, the largest democracy in the world’ is a deliberate political deception. India since its inception has been a dynastic monarchy and continues as such today… The USA and Mexico are both quite ruthlessly run by a tight-knit oligarchy of financiers and lawyers. In their and similar cases the ‘President’ is a puppet-figure, manipulated by expert oligarchic personnel […]

Secondly, the internal party structure. The model of the two plus party system with its dishonourable origins is fatally flawed […] The last and condemnatory element of political democracy is that it now produces the worst people to govern where once it produced a tolerable leadership.” [The End of the Political Class pp. 16-19]

I would like to end this lecture by briefly considering the implications of such a state of affairs. It implies that on a level of human political relationships, it becomes obvious that one of the most serious consequences of the democratic illusion is that faced with the prospect of being governed by one’s inferiors, how is one to respond? One can respond by refusing to participate in the charade, this is acceptable because the charade is not politics. But the truly political being cannot refuse to go beyond the illusory apparatus which hides the genuinely political modalities of family, community, open leadership and open opposition to the real enemy.  The following leaves us with food for reflection:

“… what the opponents of the political want is ultimately tantamount to the establishment of a world of entertainment, a world of amusement, a world without seriousness. ‘A definitively pacified globe,’ Schmitt says in an earlier passage, ‘would be a world without politics. In such a world there could be various, perhaps very interesting, oppositions and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of all kinds, but no opposition on the basis of which it could sensibly be demanded of men that they sacrifice their lives.” [Leo Strauss Notes on The Concept of the Political p. 101]

That serious note brings us to the end of today’s lecture. In our next session, which will be in two weeks’ time, we will look at the reality of revolution today. Time constraints have prevented me from doing so, but I had hoped in today’s lecture to make detailed references to recent and current instances of the various machinations that impinge, directly and indirectly, upon the implementation of liberal democracy in modern practice; as fully evident, for example, in the recently held Venezuelan elections, the current American election campaign, and in the backdrop to the elections that are actually taking place as we speak, that have been organised by the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, (in addition to Michael Hudson’s article Europe’s Transition from Social Democracy to Oligarchy cited above, and The End of the Political Class by Ian Dallas) I am recommending for further reading four short articles all freely available on line and which between them provide valuable supplementary background to today’s topic, as well as relevant preparatory reading for future sessions. Thank you for your attention. 

Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Belloc, Hilaire. The House of Commons and Monarchy. Published 1920 (Reprinted in Ian Dallas, Political Renewal)

Clark, J.C.D. Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History.

London: Atlantic Books, 2003

Dallas, Ian. Political Renewal. Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2009

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2006.

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

Scruton, Roger. The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

Strauss, Leo. Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (trans. J. Harvey Lomax). 

Chicago, 1932. Reprinted in Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (ed. and trans. 

George Schwab). University of Chicago Press, 1996


Hudson, Michael. Europe’s Transition from Social Democracy to Oligarchy. oligarchy/

Lapham, Lewis H. Feast of Fools: How American Democracy Became the Property of a Commercial Oligarchy.

Lendman, Stephen. Palestinian Authority to Hold Sham Elections.

Levine, Bruce E. Why Are Americans So Easy to Manipulate and Control?

Lindorff, Dave. Bankers’ Man in 2008, Obama's been Dumped by the Money Men

Complementary viewing

Coriolanus (2010) Director: Ralph Fiennes, 123 mins.

A film adaptation of the powerful Shakespearean tragedy of Coriolanus, the warrior doomed by his uncompromising military pride and integrity to fall foul of the venal manoeuvrings of the political class.