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Revolution in Human Affairs: The Root of Societal Violence

ARTICLE | | BY Jasjit Singh


Jasjit Singh

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At the time of writing, there is an obvious and tragic upheaval in the Arab world and a large number of other developing nations. North Africa from Mauritania to the Suez Canal and Yemen, the Persian Gulf from Iraq to Bahrain and Oman, and Afghanistan are on fire, much of it fuelled by religious ideologies, but also supported by Great Power politics. This upheaval comes on the heels of a four-decade old, asymmetric war through irregular fighting and terrorism, with the Islamists’ non-military side having been encouraged to fight in the name of religion with a role reversal of most of the participants (except Pakistan). Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) may or may not be anything else, but it certainly has been the epicentre of global terrorism and narcotics growth and trade for four decades. Many optimistic experts believe that the war and conflict in Iraq are over. Others conclude that oil is the main prize in this widespread upheaval, especially since it seems to be on its way to decline by mid-21st century. But that should not blind us to the underlying causes of instability in large parts of the world, which like a smouldering volcano are liable to erupt any time.

Let me state at the beginning my conclusion that this upheaval and violence have been triggered by what could be termed as the “Revolution in Human Affairs”

War and conflict have defined the contours of history of the human race. Revolutions, domestic violence, terrorism, crime and societal turbulence are some of their expressions. Many of the factors that have been responsible for such violence are also common to both interstate and intrastate wars and armed conflict. But national revolutions which have taken on different forms, whatever the reasons, are rooted in a set of factors that can be identified reasonably clearly and have a great deal of commonality among them, even if these revolutions have been separated by space and time spread over centuries.

A large number of global issues and mega trends are beginning to impinge on national/international security and human consciousness; and many have an impact down to the level of the individual. Regular wars between states, as we have known them for many centuries, now appear less likely to occur. But in the process of their winding down, they unleashed terrorism and armed violence with sophisticated weapons where the risk of nuclear weapons/materials leaking to jihadi warriors is high on the list of international concerns. The new “wars” often termed as “4th Generation” or asymmetric warfare include a variety of types of armed conflict, including insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, trans‑national terrorism and other forms of armed conflict within states, though often triggered and aggravated by external factors and actors. Wars and armed conflict of the future, therefore, are likely to involve the use of military force, but not necessarily in direct contact. Threats and challenges to security are increasingly non‑military, though most remain military‑related. Crime, corruption, and murder have become endemic, especially in the emerging economies. Global problems will require global cooperation for their solutions. Otherwise, some states may be able to solve some of the problems, especially from their own point of view. But this would inevitably trigger new issues and disputes. Global threats, unfortunately, do not command immediate attention or a wide consensus on the need to meet the challenges. But it is important to understand the root causes of terrorism and other forms of violence in order to initiate corrective measures.

The New Revolution

The greatest global challenge that faces the international community today is that of the current trans-national revolution in human affairs, which in turn is triggered by the combination of three revolutions:

1. A revolution of rising expectations,

2. The information and communications revolution

3. A broader industrial-technological revolution.

Harlan Cleveland was the first person to identify the “Revolution of Rising Expectations” while administering relief and development aid in East Asia in the early 1950s − an awakening of the population of former colonised nations, releasing immense expectations of a new life after independence based on liberty, equality and fraternity. Expectations of people rose rapidly, in large part because of the rhetoric of independence and the sense of freedom that would create a new life for every one. But the realities did not change as rapidly as the political map of the world. The horrors of the Second World War, with the atomic bombing of Japan, also led to a wave of decolonisation. But most decolonising countries ended up with either violent revolutionary insurgencies (like Malay, Vietnam, Algeria, Indonesia, and even China) or the post-independence new rulers, in many cases, military men who acquired power on the basis of their control over the instruments of violence which had become ever more lethal and triggered numerous ethno-sectarian conflicts. The gap between the aspiration of the people and the reality of existence (which would take decades to change) created an intrinsic instability in the developing countries. India was fortunate, though it had its share of ethnic cleansing and communal riots which overshadowed the non-violent struggle for independence.

Poverty alone does not necessarily lead to societal violence and revolutions. This is particularly so in the earlier history of nations when communication of information and knowledge was slow and limited in space and time. The trigger for revolutions (and its lesser manifestation as social turbulence and armed violence) rests in the rise of awareness of the gap between expectations and reality in life. This had happened earlier during the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries when the normal means of economic productivity shifted from human labour to machine-based production. In turn this led to demographic shifts toward the sources of energy (initially coal), raw materials and markets. The Industrial Revolution first started in the 17th century on the basis of steam driven machines in Britain. This also saw a rapid growth of urbanisation to facilitate the utilisation of new means of production. Living conditions deteriorated and crime, social turbulence and violence increased.

The Industrial Revolution gradually expanded across the Channel into Western Europe during the 18th century. This resulted in nearly endless rebellions and revolts throughout the century till finally the French Revolution provided the major demonstration of the revolution in human affairs, having its roots in the inequities and disparities in social, economic and political domains, and the awareness among people of this phenomenon. Inevitably this awareness led to growth of a sense of relative deprivation among the deprived segments of society; and this most affected youth. The deprived also became vulnerable to exploitation by ideologues, disgruntled elites, and even the affluent, as can be seen from the history of French Revolution where the aristocracy first supported the uprisings against the royalty, only to be swept aside by the anger of the mobs when things did not improve perceptibly. Here the question must be asked: why did Britain not witness a major revolution in the process of rearrangement of social, economic and political life? One answer is the movement of increasing numbers of British citizens, rich and poor, to other lands to be employed in trade, military service in its “small wars” across the globe, and associated professions, which resulted in the extensive British Empire (on which, it was said, that the Sun never set).

Other European countries followed suit and started the migration and colonisation of Asia, Africa, North America and Latin America with twin results: the growing affluence of metropolitan powers and the decline in the socio-economic conditions of populations in the imperial colonies. Only Russia was deficient of maritime power to sail out and occupy the territories and resources of what became the developing world. Hence it set about expanding its territories on the Eurasian continent till it came up against the British Empire to its south. On the other hand, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 broke the myth of the superiority of the European races. It also denied Russia a foothold in the maritime domain on the strength of which it could further expand, although small countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Holland managed to establish colonial rule over territories in Asia and Africa and control their resources, both material and human. Similarly, Spain and Italy expanded to control Latin America, as did Portugal after it failed to get a foothold beyond the small enclave at Goa in India, and Macao in China.

Colonisation by the metropolitan powers of Europe to control the human and material resources of the other continents on the strength of their technological superiority derived from the Industrial Revolution also led to the progressive de-industrialisation of many of the countries which till the beginning of the 18th century had dominated the global manufacturing output and income. China accounted for nearly 33% of global manufacturing output and India, nearly 25% at the beginning of the 18th century. By 1950 both countries combined accounted for a mere 1.3% of the global manufacturing output and income. This impoverishment also implied that they became essentially raw material suppliers, while importing value-added goods from European industries. It was only around the time of the Second World War that industrialisation began in China and India, while most of the other colonies became home to plantations and mining with native labour under European control and ownership.

Decolonisation naturally started the industrialisation of countries such as India. Like the European countries in earlier periods of industrialisation, urbanisation, social imbalance, crime and violence also spread. It is in this milieu that the information-communication revolution impacted on the developing countries. Expectations started to shoot up, especially in the generation after independence when pessimism arising from slower than anticipated progress began to increase. But while India was not fortunate enough to escape the revolution of rising expectations completely, it was moderated by the adoption of democracy and secularism based on the idea and principle of "equality of the human being" which constitutionally narrowed the gap between the haves and have-nots and allowed people’s aspirations to be met through legitimate political and socio-economic processes. Countries such as Pakistan, which ignored the longer term processes affecting human affairs and hung on to medieval style feudal societies, suffered increasing poverty and the rule of the gun.

The revolution in rising expectations, especially when coupled with a growing consciousness of inequities and disparities in social and economic fields as a consequence of an industrial revolution, has been the most common cause of revolutions. The modern information and communication revolution has promoted global awareness of these revolutions, enhancing the sense of relative deprivation resulting from consciousness of disparities and inequities. The increasing gap between rapidly rising aspirations and glacially slow change in social realities has often been exploited by those with a lust for power and by ideological extremism willing to use terror as a tool for political and foreign policy goals.

For the first time in history these three revolutions have converged in space and time to generate a Revolution in Human Affairs. Violence and armed conflict in the Arab world today is due in no small measure to the impact of this Revolution, aggravated by the increasing gap between the affluent and the deprived. The future international order, peace, and security will substantively depend on the progress of this Revolution and the way the international community, states, and societies respond to it. If we look at major departure points in intra-state balance of power and societal equations, we find that the present Revolution, in fact, is the fifth such revolution related to the structures of society and state in modern world dominated by western civilisation.

The first revolution, of which the Thirty Years War was the manifestation and which finally came to an end at the Peace of Westphalia (1648 AD), was triggered by the Industrial Revolution and the revolts and rebellions it spawned among European communities and principalities. The struggle between the aristocracy and the clergy was only a part of the larger struggle for power, which was finally resolved by the separation of the State and Church (in the Occidental Civilisation). But if we look closely, it was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that created conditions of imbalance in society, the awareness of which led to a series of revolts, rebellions and revolutions. The second revolution, manifested in the French Revolution, resulted from the socio-economic mobility (as a result of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution) seeking to alter the intra-state and societal balance of power. Upwardly mobile segments of society− the merchants, industrialists, capitalists − the bourgeoisie, sought a greater role in the distribution of power and status, while the poorer classes sought a better quality of life and some say in the process of achieving it. While the first revolution altered the basis of the state, thE second sought to alter the basis of state as well as society. The third revolution manifested in the shape of a violent implosion following the halting of imperial expansion and resulted in the totality of the First World War. This revolution pitted the proletarian against the bourgeoisie in a struggle to bring about distributive justice in the socio-economic field. The fourth, the revolution of decolonisation, sought political equality in a struggle between the colonised and the imperial metropolitan powers. The Second World War gave this struggle a great boost, because the war itself altered the power equations of the dominant international order.

All these four revolutions were identifiable struggles and closely connected with the restructuring of state power and the international political architecture in association with violent upheavals and major, general wars involving all significant actors. The alteration of the inter-state balance of power after the Peace of Westphalia, Congress of Vienna, Paris Conference and Yalta meeting was also contemporaneous with the intra-state balance of politico-economic power.

For more than a quarter century, the world has been in the middle of a fifth revolution. This is the revolution of information-communication, which has been super-imposed on the historical revolution of rising expectations and upward socio-economic mobility. Countries like China have kept the information-communication revolution on a tight leash; in fact, even using it for its own ideological goals to shape the perception of expectations and realities. But liberal democracies such as India can hardly adopt repressive control of that type. Like the earlier revolutions, its manifestation also happened to coincide with the culmination of a great international conflict − the Cold War. In fact the revolution received a marked boost as the Cold War ended. Not the least amongst the reasons was the expectation of global “peace dividends” and a sense of release and freedom from existing tensions and confrontations.

Human expectations inevitably keep growing with human progress. In fact, a fairly high degree of divergence between expectations and actuality is necessary to provide the driving force for human endeavour and progress. The rate of growth not only defines productivity; the gap in the rates of growth has a powerful influence on human responses. But if expectations start rising at a rate far exceeding the rate at which achievement and satisfaction of those expectations rise, social turbulence starts to increase. Any further increase in the expectations-actuality gap would correspondingly increase instability in the socio-political order, having a deleterious effect on the economic activities. At some point (different for different regions and people) a pattern of dynamic instability is created, resulting in socio-political upheaval.

It may be hypothesised that the rate of growth of expectations can be repressed through tight control over information flows on one side and an ideological rationalisation on the other. This was the case for the Soviet Union under Stalin and Brezhnev. However, as public information flows increased under Gorbachev’s reforms, awareness levels increased rapidly as well. Expectations shot up almost in an exponential growth pattern during the late 1980s. The actuality inevitably lagged behind. It was this phenomenon that Mikhail Gorbachev tried to manage through a harmonisation of ideology and policy to keep the expectations-actuality gap within manageable limits. It is also this rapidly increasing gap that resulted in the continuing politico-economic and social crises and turbulence that has far outlived the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

The opening up of the flow of public information depicting differences in the quality of life in developed and advanced countries in an age of information-communication revolution through electronic media (long held under tight controls) rapidly altered expectations of Russians. Suddenly young girls were out in blue jeans dancing to Western tunes on the thick carpets (in the absence of dancing floors) that were the hallmark of Soviet Moscow’s best hotels! McDonalds opened very soon and a different looking young Russians happily stood in miles-long winding queues; not long before housewives stood for traditional food and were now sitting on the pavement trying to sell items from home to earn more money. Salaried people in the best of government offices and even in the military were not even getting paid by 1992. Hence, in spite of the fact that Soviet economy had been growing under Gorbachev, the dissatisfaction levels among the Russians led to serious socio-economic turbulence which only benefited the rapidly increasing mafia and their lawlessness. Similarly Yugoslavia started to disintegrate along with massive violence.

Interestingly, it was China that learnt the lessons by controlling information and guiding the perceptions of its people, while the Communist Party worked out the plans for change. It kept a lid on the information being fed to the people, while it continued its economic reforms to build a market economy with “Chinese characteristics”. The meagre liberalisation of the early 1980s was quickly snuffed out at Tiananmen Square with battle tanks in 1989. It is under such stratagem that China managed its double-digit growth and phenomenal rise for more than two decades, while maintaining politically authoritarian governance.

In essence, this is a global phenomenon and challenge. It is not a problem that can be addressed at the national level alone. Globalisation of trade and information flows, especially through satellite communication systems, has not only shrunk the globe, but has also rapidly raised the awareness and aspirations of people. There are structural and situational limits to the rate of growth of achievements, especially in the developing world. And the real problem may be that we have yet to achieve adequate consciousness of the ongoing revolution. So far, attention has been focused essentially on the effects of this revolution rather than its true dimensions. But increasing ethno-nationalism, religious-political radicalism, erosion of state control over economic, social, and even political- administrative activities of a modern state (Cambodia, Somalia and Afghanistan stand out as stark examples), corruption, societal violence and conflicts, erection of trade and tariff barriers and other forms of protectionism and cartel building are only symptoms of the real problem.

Given the issues briefly outlined above, the question arises as to how we should manage the Revolution in Human Affairs so that it can be vectored in a positive direction for greater constructive, productive and peaceful outcomes.

To begin with, we hope more and more countries would adopt democratic principles and practice, which can help to moderate the turbulence by the promise of social justice and progress towards more equal opportunities in life, regardless of the socio-economic condition of people at birth. But we know that the world is already facing societal unrest, violence and terrorism, often based on religious extremism and intolerance, and hence more urgent steps are required. One method would be to follow the Chinese model and try to limit the information available to the people. But this goes contrary to the principle just outlined: that of equality of the human being and freedom of expression and faith, the last becoming critical in a developing country where changes in the pattern of family, society and dynamics of work and employment are leading to greater urbanisation and more critically, to the emergence of nuclear families.

Most significant is the fact that over 95 percent of the terrorists in the world today are estimated to be in the age-bracket 15-30 years. This is the age-bracket that is crucial for education and higher learning and entry into job market. This is also the age when man has his largest dreams and hopes for a better life on earth. There is also a certain pervasive innocence, if not naivety, that shapes the views and actions of youth in this bracket. On the other hand, lack of development also implies fewer jobs, especially for the partially-educated and school drop-outs, who constitute the vast majority of even the Islamic madrassas. If we take the short history of Kasab, one of the Pakistani terrorists involved in the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai,* choices are limited for youth in a country where the rate of population growth is higher than the rate of growth of GDP, absolute poverty is increasing, school drop-out rates have been rising due to pressure to find work in order to survive. The choice is clear in such cases − either jobs or jihad.

One strategy that is essential to tackle the Revolution in Human Affairs is to focus on youth, since the energy that can be released for positive outcomes would be the greatest by redirecting youth into higher education and gainful productive employment with future career opportunities. The realists may tend to dismiss this as too utopian. But the alternative is already with us to see and suffer from. This will not be an easy task. For example, India will add over 103 million people to its population during the coming decade, which means it must create an average of 10 million new jobs each year, in addition to the numbers needed to absorb the backlog of unemployed and underemployed.

In this context we need to view the socio-economic disparities and inequities in different regions, such as the areas affected by Naxalism and Maoist violence in India or Balochistan in Pakistan. The demographic trends point toward reduction of working populations in most of the developed countries, with an increase of the elderly population that needs to be supported by societies with fewer working people. There is also the counter phenomenon of high growth rate of population in many Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, combined with very slow economic growth and minimal growth in employment opportunities. But in either case, the solution lies in a massive effort to enhance education and gainful employment, especially of the girl child (a vast challenge in itself, but one which can change socio-cultural dynamics rapidly). Whether this is done in a school, in a Mosque or in air-conditioned class rooms is really immaterial. What is needed is a process that gives the youth a new hope and direction than what Kasab and his ilk have received so far. An accompanying phenomenon important for success is the redirection (not control) of public information and the media to constructively enhance the life and hopes of the people.

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*. Reported in Time Magazine, 16th March 2010

About the Author(s)

Jasjit Singh

Fellow of WAAS and Director, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India. Email-