Category Archives: Global

Why revolutions hardly ever represent the will of the people – and why we stubbornly think they do

Popular revolutions around the world have recently disappointed all those among us who are hoping for an expansion of democracy or civil liberties. They have either failed completely (Russia), produced governments that are hardly better than their predecessors (Egypt, Tunisia) or ended in a lengthy civil war (Syria). But this hasn’t stopped the Western public from getting its hopes up over the protests in Turkey. Our media portray the protests as an uprising of “the people”, presumably a uniform and freedom-loving entity, against an authoritarian ruler.

 This common equalization of protesters and people is perhaps at the crux of our misunderstanding of most revolutions. There are very few revolutions or uprisings in history that really saw a participation of “the people”. In most cases, revolutionaries were nothing more and nothing less than particular interest groups. If we recognize this, we have a far greater chance of understanding what’s going on in Turkey right now.

 The Turkish situation is perhaps most similar to the protests against the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia in late 2011. Back then, Western commentators were quick to spot an imminent revolution and an overthrow of the Russian ruling elite. Instead, Vladimir Putin won the Presidential election of 2011 by a landslide, without even having to cheat very much (as he had in the parliamentary elections). The simple truth that dawned on everyone was this: The protesters in Moscow had been educated, westernized and comparatively wealthy. As such, they were not the people, but only a small minority in a large population that has shown little interest in democracy to this date.

 Egypt is a similar case. During the protests western newspapers printed numerous portraits of young, urban Egyptians who demanded democracy and civil rights. In the end, Egyptians elected a repressive, Islamist president. As it turned out, those portrayed to us as “the people” were only a minority.

 But what about the classics – the Russian, French and American revolutions? The Russian February revolution of 1917 may have had popular backing in the sense that few people were content with the government, but it was essentially an urban affair, while the rural majority of Russia remained uninvolved.  The October Revolution is a more extreme example: It was an uprising of such a small part of the population that many historians prefer to call it a coup.

 The French Revolution of 1848 was dominated by radicals and took place primarily in Paris. When the revolutionaries held elections across the country, the rural majority elected conservatives who orchestrated a quick return to monarchy. The first French Revolution of 1789 was an uprising of “the people” only as long as the demands were some form of popular representation and land reform. When republicans overthrew the monarchy in 1792, they quickly found that they only had a part of the population behind them. A civil war followed.

 I could list a dozen more examples. In order to be successful, revolutions need a common purpose and some form of organisation (At the very least everyone needs to take to the streets on the same day). Both are very hard to achieve over an entire country, but easy to achieve among a comparatively homogenous and concentrated urban population. This is why it can hardly be surprising that most revolutions in history were backed by urbanites, but faced with a hostile or at least indifferent rural majority. Revolutions were more often oppressive than liberating.

 With this historical track record in mind, our first thought upon hearing about the protests in Istanbul should have been: Here is another progressive urban minority trying to impose its will on a predominantly conservative country. And yet we all instantly assumed that the protesters represented the popular will, that is to say the majority. Why is that?

 The explanation I propose is that we have unconsciously gobbled up the American myth. The American Revolution is the only major uprising I know of that actually represented the interests of the clear majority of the population. This has a lot to do with the modesty of the revolutionary agenda in 1776. Since parliamentary democracy was already in place in the colonies, the revolutionaries essentially said: We’ll keep everything the way it is, but let’s not pay taxes to Britain anymore. Who would oppose that?

Because of the character of its revolution, the American public consciousness has always equated “revolution” with “the people”. Everyone else has followed suit. Revolutionaries in other countries, from France to Russia, have always claimed to represent the people because it gives their cause legitimacy. Those who weren’t directly involved often equated the two terms because doing so turned a complicated situation into a nice and simple fight between good and evil.

 Our American perspective on revolutions and protests is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it gives us the comforting hope that mankind is progressive and heading in what we consider to be the right direction. But as long as we see revolutions not as what they are, but as what we want them to be, we need to be prepared for eventual disappointment.

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Why the red line in Syria is not where Obama says it is, and why it has long been crossed

It may seem logical that Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s Civil War a “red line“ that would warrant intervention. Most people take it for granted that ABC-type arms are worse than conventional ones, and that their use constitutes nothing short of a war crime. They have a point. After all, chemical weapons can kill far more people than conventional ones and make it harder to differentiate between combatants and civilians.

And yet, there is something fundamentally wrong with this argument. The weakness of Obama’s red line is not its acknowledgment that chemical weapons are bad, but its implicit assumption that using them automatically makes a warring party more violent and inhumane. Is it worse to kill thousands of civilians with chemical weapons than to kill them with cluster bombs? I don’t see why it would be.

The Syrian government and certain parts of the rebels have been murdering civilians for two years now (Recently, the New Yorker had a chilling piece on massacres in Aleppo, Some of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed with conventional arms, think of the Rwandan genocide or the mass murder of Soviet Jews at the hands of the Wehrmacht in 1941. These acts would not have been any more or less horrible if chemical weapons had been involved. My point is this: If Obama’s concern is the wellbeing of civilians, he should intervene when they are being killed in large numbers, irrespective of the type of weapon used. By this logic the US military should have gotten boots on the ground a long time ago.

Rather than focus on chemical weapons, a quick look at military history suggests that the red line in Syria lies somewhere else, and has long been crossed. What matters most in Syria’s civil war is not the type of weapons used, but the mindset of the combatants.

David Bell’s book The First Total War and James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle both argue that warfare became fundamentally more drawn-out, brutal and deadly in Europe some time around the year 1800. Before then, wars were relatively brief and had fewer casualties. The beginning of a new kind of warfare, which both authors call total war, was not the result of new weapon technologies, but of a change in thinking. In the 18th century, wars were fought over disputed territories and usually ended with one side ceding a certain region to the other. Total annihilation of the opponent was out of the question, and while boundaries moved around, monarchies remained stable.

In the wake of the French revolution, an ideological shift occurred that made an end this aristocratic culture of war. Ideals of pacifism and popular sovereignty meant that it became increasingly difficult for rulers to justify going to war. Out of this dilemma emerged the concept of the just war: Fighting was only acceptable under exceptional circumstances against a truly evil enemy that posed an existential threat. And if the enemy was truly evil, a desirable end to a war could only be the enemy’s complete annihilation.

From the 19th century on wars became increasingly rare, but also more drawn-out and deadly. World War I was propagated as “The war to end all wars”, a final clash between barbarous Huns and Western democracy, which was precisely what made a quick armistice impossible. World War II came to embody the new total war in its worst form. Hitler’s belief that Germany would either destroy and enslave its enemies or go down in ruins led to tens of millions of deaths between 1941 and 1945. The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush are another case in point. Both aimed not at a settlement, but at a complete removal of the enemy. More than ten years after the invasions, an end to the violence still isn’t in sight.

Which brings me back to Syria. The fighting crossed its red line when both warring parties stopped seeing any possible end to the war apart from either death or complete destruction of the enemy: when the civil war became a total war. The process that led to this shift was gradual. From the very beginning, the Syrian rebels were fighting for nothing less than the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Similarly, the dictator made it quite clear that he had little interest in serious negotiations or a truce. Nevertheless, a quick solution to the war was still far from impossible. This changed with the escalation of violence. As more and more soldiers were ordered to massacre opponents by an increasingly desperate regime, their fate became tied to the survival of Assad’s rule.

Many government troops know that they are held responsible for the regime’s atrocities and cannot expect any pardon if the rebels emerge victorious. In consequence, they are more likely to fight with indiscriminate brutality, knowing that their survival depends on it. The same logic applies to the rebels. The longer the war lasts and the more government officials are assassinated, the less the insurgents can expect to come out of this conflict alive if they lose. As the desire to avenge the dead pushes the wish to end the conflict as quickly as possible aside, a truce becomes almost impossible.

A foreign military intervention that shifts the momentum of the war against the government will do more harm than good here. If Assad’s followers see themselves with their backs against the wall, unable to expect either victory or pardon, they will react with more and more brutality. Total wars have a tendency to cause the most casualties at their very end, when one side has nothing to lose. During World War II more people died in Europe in 1944 alone than in 1941, 1942 and 1943 taken together. It is not far-fetched to expect a similar dynamic in Syria.

Those who are optimistic about a quick outcome to the Syrian Civil War often point to Libya, where rebels were able to overthrow Gaddafis’s government with Western military help in a matter of months. But the way the Libyan rebels succeeded highlights precisely why a similar outcome cannot be expected in Syria. Far more important than the intervention of France and Britain was the fact that several heads of Libyan clans chose to change sides and fight against their former ally Gaddafi. That they were able to make this choice shows that their fate was not inevitably tied to the survival of the regime. In other words: There was a third option available besides defeating the rebels alongside Gaddafi or going down with the regime.

In Syria, this third option no longer exists. Even if the Alawites, the religious group that is most closely associated with the regime, had clan leaders, and even if they formally chose to switch sides, they could hardly expect the rebels to welcome them. This is not to say that no defections are possible. Many of Assad’s supporters could conceivably start fighting for the rebels, who would welcome more support. But many more have every reason to believe that their fate is tied to that of the regime, be it because they are personally known for crimes they have committed, or because their old military unit or religious affiliation guarantees the rebels’ mistrust.

A foreign military intervention may speed up the fall of the regime, but, if military history is any indication, may lead to many more civilian casualties as the regime desperately struggles for survival. Instead, the best way to save civilians’ lives is by artificially re-creating the third way out that the course of the war has destroyed. Granting Assad exile has been suggested, but doing so won’t solve the problem by itself. What is needed is an amnesty and possible exile for all those who see their fate as tied to that of the regime and have reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods in the event of a rebel victory.

This would be a bold and difficult measure, since it would entail finding a new home abroad for tens if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians. But considering how easily leaders embark on military interventions, a general amnesty would prove far less costly in financial and most certainly in human terms.

It is far from clear if such a programme would work, but it is certainly worth a try. Day by day, regime troops and rebels are fighting for their lives. Compared to that, the international community has very little to lose.

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Reading Tip

This article explains how the fact that everyone today buys diamond rings for their engagement is the result of one incredibly successful ad campaign by De Beers in 1938. If you consider the imprint global demand for diamonds has left on post-colonial Africa (Sierra Leone is the most famous case), a re-evaluation of the role ad agencies play in global politics might be in order. Interesting stuff.

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Horror Movies as a Mirror of History


by Johanna Wilson

Horror films in the silent era had their limits as far as subtlety went. They couldn’t do creepy music, footsteps, strange breathing. So, it was with the advent of sound in the 1930s that we start to see horror movies make their mark. Monsters and murderers no longer had to stand on screen looking vaguely menacing for the audience to notice them, and plots started to become more developed. Early horror films were mostly set in distant lands and times, where men in cloaks with thick accents waited to pounce. The greater technical effects available enabled the creation of two horror powerhouses, Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (1931), whose influential performances you’ll at the very least know through their parodies. With an unsurprisingly large amount of the national budgets of Europe going to World War Two in the 1940s, Hollywood dominated horror film production. These films continued to stress how scary the rest of the world was, with monsters standing in for war as reasons for not leaving America. Even then you weren’t safe. Go somewhere as seemingly innocuous as Wales, you might end up as a werewolf (The Wolf Man, 1941). Alternatively the horror could strike at home; marry a Serbian instead of an all-American girl and you really only have yourself to blame when she turns out to be a cat monster (Cat People, 1942).

The 1950s saw constant fear of nuclear war. This meant one thing – monster movies from the likes of stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen; films about science, bombs and technology that goes too far. This was the age of horror B-movies, where quality became less important as they mainly targeted teenagers. These movies were about action; comprehensible plots and realistic monsters were strictly optional. 1954 saw Ishiro Honda making the first kaiju (roughly ‘giant monster’) movie – Godzilla. Yet it’s rather more solemn watching a film about a monster mutated by nuclear radiation destroying Tokyo when you consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been obliterated by nuclear bombs less than a decade before. The message you get from all these films is about not playing God.

The 1960s saw the sexual revolution, cults, the rise of acid and a lot of other things that had people terrified, while the 1970s saw a general malaise. Horror had come back home. It was no longer the atomic monsters or the creepy foreigners you needed to look out for. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1967) helped make the zombie genre what it is, but is ultimately an indictment of everything he saw as wrong with American society. The breakdown of the family pervades these films; you can’t trust your spouse (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining) or your kids (The Omen, The Exorcist). This period was also seeing the economic recovery and growth of cinema in other countries – the horror scene was becoming more varied.

The 1980s were when an ability to create better special effects and the need to keep shocking audiences caused the emergence of the ‘slasher’ film. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th and so on had one unrealistically strong psychopath killing loads of people in pretty graphic ways. Horror movies were as explicit as possible, and were appealing specifically to horror fans through endless sequels. So, what were directors in the 1990s to do but turn away from supernaturally strong and comically OTT murderers, and start going for more realistic serial killers? Silence of the Lambs, Scream and Se7en brought the horror home to us. The bad guys weren’t going to get us in our dreams, but they were smart, they could be charming and they were real. Their humanity was what made them terrifying. Then at some time after the millennium, we decided that we’d seen it all before, and thus rose the ‘torture porn’ genre. Heavy on torture and nudity, light on plot. You know the kind: Hostel, any of the numerous Saw movies, The Human Centipede. Movies that you watch with friends and then have no desire to ever re-watch. Film-makers also started to remake older horror movies like their lives depended on it. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Zombies made a huge comeback, from Shaun of the Dead to the Resident Evil films. There’s been a huge rise in foreign horror movies reaching our screens: k-horror (Korean) and j-horror (Japanese) are two of the big ones, giving us strange ghostly girls and psychological breakdowns (The Ring, Tale of Two Sisters).

At the end of the day, horror films are like the best monsters – they just refuse to die. The horror genre adapts to each generation’s fears. It used to be technology could save you, now your mobile phone and TV can be haunted. Zombies used to be the shambling undead raised by voodoo. Now they’re created by contagious super-viruses. Monsters may not be made with atomic bombs any more, but toxic waste dumping and other eco-crimes are doing the same job. Vampires are still hanging out in our bedrooms, but now instead of wanting us as their undead brides, they’re… Actually no, wait, they still want to marry us but now that’s romantic. Apparently.

This article first appeared in The Bubble, an online student newspaper at Durham University.

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