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Accidental agents of change

Nicholas van Praag's picture

In places where conditions are ripe for political change, actually unseating tyrannical regimes requires a spark to light the tinder of revolution. But where does that spark come from?

    In the vanguard

The upcoming World Development Report argues that there is no one push factor. Rather, it shows how a wide range of domestic and international stresses—including economic inequality, political oppression and corruption—can eventually bring a country to its knees if its institutions are unable to mediate tensions and overcome stresses.

But, absent an institutional set-up capable of heading off the pressures before they boil over, when does enough become too much?

Many people are wary and their natural reticence may win out.

I was reading last weekend that most people in the UK pay parking fines—even when they are given erroneously—rather than go through the hassle of complaining.

If that is the case in the UK, what does it take to ignite direct action in places where the dissuasive powers of the authorities are used to scare people into submission?

One of Lenin’s innovations was to substitute Marx’s idea of a spontaneous popular uprising with the concept of the vanguard of the revolution; a more sophisticated cohort that sees the contradictions of the system and forces the pace of change.

Lenin’s wishful theorizing is now experiencing a comeback. After decades of sullen quiescence in places with illegitimate institutions and weak governance, change seems to be on the march.

One explanation for this gear shift is the growth of the middle class in the demographic space between the haves and have-nots.

Every year some 75 million people are added to the middle class in developing countries. And as their numbers grow, so does their influence over unresponsive governments operating in the interests of the few.

They feel instinctively that having a greater say will lead to the opportunities and services that are more frequently forthcoming from governments that are accountable.

Spurring this vanguard to act as the locomotive of change is the opportunity for ‘virtual’ association offered by access to the many different forms of social media.

Facebook, Twitter and the like provide people who use them with an echo chamber for their frustrations and an opportunity to feel part of something bigger.

Freed from their social and political isolation, they share their concerns and learn to think and act together.

And as they mobilize, they are discovering or rediscovering the heady sense of being citizens in a fuller sense of the term.

This digital ‘Dutch courage’ is no match for the determined efforts of weak and illegitimate governments determined to resist change by deploying their security forces or gangs paid to beat and arrest their citizens.

But in places where governments have held back, people on the streets are elated by the flowering of their collective will and determined to maintain the pressure.

The upwardly mobile middle class has become the accidental vanguard of a new mass movement. Its narrative of fairness, democracy, opportunity, and security is a powerful rallying cry for change.