The Revolution is Underway

Rebecca L. Spang

Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.

This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790.

Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken. 

We may not be having a revolution right now, but we are surely living in revolutionary times. If we do not perceive them as such, it is because news coverage and everyday conversations alike turn on nonhuman agents. Instead of visionary leaders or outraged crowds, viruses, markets, and climate change seem to shape events today. History feels like it is out of our hands. 

People sometimes imagine yesterday’s revolutions as planned and carried out by self-conscious revolutionaries, but this has rarely, if ever, been the case. Instead, revolutions are periods in which social actors with different agendas (peasants stealing rabbits, city dwellers sacking tollbooths, lawmakers writing a constitution, anxious Parisians looking for weapons at the Bastille Fortress) become fused into a more or less stable constellation. The most timeless and emancipatory lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history. Likewise, the actions we take and the choices we make today will shape both what future we get and what we remember of the past. 

Much like the past 40 years in the Western world, the 1700s were a period of remarkable economic, social, and technological transformation. Today, as in the 1790s, an old order is ending in convulsions. Even before the coronavirus prompted flight cancellations and entry bans, climate activists were rightly telling us to change our modes and patterns of travel. Even before nonessential businesses were shut by government orders, online shopping and same-day deliveries were rapidly remaking retail commerce, while environmental concerns and anti-consumerism were revolutionising the fashion industry. The pandemic and resulting public-health crisis have caused an abrupt and salutary revaluation in which cleaners, care workers, grocery-store stockers, and delivery drivers are gaining recognition for the essential work they have been doing all along. Taken together, these changes may not look like a revolution—but real revolutions are the ones that nobody sees coming. 

The men and women who made the French Revolution—a revolution which, in a few short and hectic years, decriminalised heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft; replaced one of the oldest European monarchies with a republic based on universal male suffrage; introduced no-fault divorce and easy adoption; embraced the ideal of formal equality before the law; and, for a short time at least, defined employment, education, and subsistence as basic human rights—had no model to follow, no plans, no platform agreed upon in advance. As the UCLA historian Lynn A. Hunt has argued, they made it up as they went along. Yet for more than two centuries, elements of their improvised politics have been revolution’s signature features: a declared sovereignty, devised symbols, an anthem, war. At the junction facing the world today, we need to imitate not the outcome of the French revolution but the energy, creativity, and optimism of the French revolutionaries. 

Human beings are responsible both for much of what is wrong and for much of what could be right about the world today. But we have to take responsibility. In hindsight a revolution may look like a single event, but they are never experienced that way. Instead they are extended periods in which the routines of normal life are dislocated and existing rituals lose their meaning. They are deeply unsettling, but they are also periods of great creativity. As some take shelter in our homes from a newly arrived threat and others put their health at risk to combat it, we can all mourn lost certainties, but we can also set about intentionally creating new possibilities. To claim this moment as a revolution is to claim it for human action. 

This is an extract from “The Revolution Is Under Way Already”

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