(This is part 6 in the No Time for Utopia series.)

In The Ethics of Climate Insurgency I argued that an insurgency aimed at overthrowing the enemies of our children is not morally justified because it is unlikely that – in the present situation – such an insurgency can succeed. It may seem that that conclusion also makes a discussion of the possibility of some kind of revolution to avoid catastrophe and establish something like the Lesser Dystopia is moot, but that is not exactly the case for (at least) two reasons. Firstly, in considering the possibility of a revolution it is really a successful revolution that I’m interested in, which means that the focus should be on what comes after the struggle at least as much as on the struggle itself. And secondly, it needs to be emphasized that what I concluded in The Ethics of Climate Insurgency is that insurgency cannot succeed now – not that it cannot succeed in any (future) circumstances. Furthermore, when societies approach collapse due to climate change-related disaster and the socio-economic effects thereof (see On the Fragility of Civilization), there will be revolts, revolutions, civil wars, and related mayhem, anyway, and consequently, something like revolution is unavoidable,1 which in turn implies that it is not a waste of time (I hope) to consider whether (and how) a lesser-dystopian revolution can succeed.

Let me stress once more, that the question about the possibility of a revolution concerns a successful revolution. It is not a question about the possibility of merely destroying the current socio-political and economic system, but about the possibility of intentionally replacing it with another system. That “other system” we’d want to substitute for the current, suicidal order is something sufficiently like the Lesser Dystopia – “sufficiently like” in the sense that it significantly contributes to the same goal: preventing (or significantly alleviating) global societal collapse due to climate change and keeping our planet as inhabitable as possible (for as long as possible, and for as many kinds of creatures as possible).

The success of a revolution to a large extent depends on the ability to grab power and to hold on to it, but those are two very different things and they depend on different qualities. Holding on to power depends partially on force, but most of all on acceptance – no ruling body can remain in power without the consent of the vast majority of the people governed by it. This is, of course, the key point of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony about which I have written on numerous occasions before.2 Creating consent is the “job” of the mass media, so holding on to power requires control over the mass media. This doesn’t have to be direct control – ideological control works just as well, if not even better. What matters is that the mass media are effectively a propaganda tool of the ruling system (as they are now3), regardless of whether they are aware thereof. Consent cannot created by means of propaganda alone, however, but also depends on security – food security, especially.

The latter point I made before in The Lesser Dystopia. There I quoted a text written in 178 BCE by a Chinese official named Chao Cuo 晁錯. Ancient China was periodically plagued by famines caused by natural disaster and war, leading to civil disorder and sometimes even the downfall of kingdoms. Emperors of the Han dynasty were aware of the problem and instructed their advisers to figure out how to deal with it. In response to such a request, Chao Cuo wrote that:

When stomachs go hungry and don’t get food, when skins go cold and don’t get clothing, when even a compassionate mother cannot take care of her children, how could a ruler peacefully retain [the allegiance of] his people? An enlightened ruler who knows this will encourage the people in agriculture and silk farming, lighten tax collection, increase livestock and storage, and prepare for flood and drought, thereby allowing him to hold on to [the allegiance of] his people.4

The key point is that rulers who intend to hold on to power need to make sure that their rule is accepted by the people, and that such acceptance (or allegiance) depends largely on the sufficient availability of basic needs such as food, water, and shelter.

History is probably the most helpful guide in answering the question what is required to successfully grab power in the first place. Russia in 1917 was in a state of chaos. Within that chaos, the communist party was one of the best organized forces. In the counter-revolutions around 1990 (which were revolutions as well), communist parties were still the best organized forces, and middle-ranking party officials were able to “successfully” sell off state assets at discount prices to themselves and thereby simultaneously introduce capitalism and propel themselves into the new elite. In other revolutions the story is not fundamentally different: the ability to grab power depends on organization. It depends on organizational strength, on numbers, on coordination, on the absence of internal struggles, and so forth.

But organization is not the only “thing” that is required for success. The successful power-grabber must also be able to disarm (or demilitarize) opponents and competitors. In 1917, the Russian communist party was supported by a significant number of lower ranking soldiers (in both army and navy), and because of that it was able to take control of the armed forces with relative ease and speed. In the counter-revolutions around 1990, most military forces never seriously considered taking up arms against the middle-ranking party officials that took control over the “revolution”, and military forces certainly never considered supporting the people or dissidents who instigated the fall of the old regimes and their organizations (i.e. hypothetical competitors for power). What these (and other) cases teach us is that grabbing power not just depends on superior organization but also on the ability to use (and control) military-like force and – perhaps, most importantly – the ability to deny opponents and competitors the use thereof.

The historical cases mentioned also teach another important lesson, namely that gaining economic power is at least as important as gaining political power. That communist party officials orchestrated the introduction of capitalism in such a way that they became the new economic elite shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that it was Marx who most emphatically stressed that economic power is the basis of almost everything else. Marx pointed out that in historical processes economic power and political power diverge, which ultimately leads to some kind of adjustment or realignment. That adjustment can be quick as in a revolution, or it can be a slow process of incremental changes under the influence of the pressure caused by the divergence of economic and political power (as in case of the gradual shift from feudalism to capitalist parliamentary democracy in many Western countries). (But obviously, in case of the climate crisis we don’t have time for the incremental approach.) In either case, the outcome of the process is that those who control the economy (because they are the wealthiest and control the “means of production” such as factories, machines, land, patents, and so forth) also control much of the rest of society. An important implication is that a successful revolution should produce increased convergence (rather than divergence) of political and economic power. Or in other words, those who aim to remain in power should make sure that they control the economy as well.

In short, then, a successful revolution requires direct or ideological control over the mass media, over the production and distribution of food and other basic necessities, over the economy, and over the armed forces, as well as the ability to deny opponents the use of military(-like) force, and it requires that the revolutionaries are sufficiently well-organized to establish that control quickly and unambiguously and hold on to it.

It should be fairly obvious that environmentalists and climate activists cannot possibly satisfy these criteria. Most of their “organizations” are loose networks at best and aren’t particularly well-organized at all, and there are vast ideological differences between different wings of environmentalism and climate activism (and their allies), which would result in serious in-fighting, revolts, and secession if it ever would be attempted to impose something approaching real organization on those movements. In other words, while environmentalists and climate activist could hypothetically (!) be the force that initiates a revolution, they cannot possibly emerge triumphant from it.5

Then what or who could? What group, organization, or institution could possibly grab power and hold on to it? Obviously the rich can – they have already done so6 – but it is not in their interest to change the political and economic status quo, and consequently, they cannot possibly be a revolutionary force (in the current circumstances) and will most certainly not save the rest of mankind and the planet from climate disaster.

It seems to me that there is only one organization that is sufficiently well organized to take control over the mass media, food production, and the armed forces, and that is the military itself. Unless I’m missing something important, a military coup followed by some kind of benign military dictatorship7 may be the only kind of “revolution” that has a chance of succeeding.8 However, to be successful as a revolution – and especially as the revolution we need – a mere grab of power is insufficient: the new regime must also establish something as close as possible to the Lesser Dystopia.

Given that military-affiliated research institutes have been aware of the severity of the climate crisis and its social and political impacts for at least two decades, and that armed forces would have to play a significant role in providing security (including food security) and guiding refugee flows it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that a military coup could actually be a (big) step towards the Lesser Dystopia. Certainly, of all branches of government and other powerful actors controlling important sectors of society, the armed forces have least to lose – and perhaps even much to win – from a lesser-dystopian revolution, and are most aware thereof as well as of the need to move into that direction.

However, most armed forces are also hotbeds of patriotism/nationalism and various (extreme) right-wing ideologies (sometimes due to US-funded training and propaganda9), leading to a dangerous fixation on territory, on fixed boundaries, and on the fiction of the “nation”, and to a strong aversion of any kind of revolutionary thought that aims to overturn existing economic power structures (i.e. capitalism). Consequently, rather than establishing the Lesser Dystopia, it seems much more likely that a hypothetical military dictatorship would join hands with the economic elite and right-wing extremists to close the borders, suppress dissent, and safeguard further economic exploitation by the rich. And that would be a step into the wrong direction – it would create neo-fascist fortresses that are doomed to fail because nothing can withstand the combined pressure of natural disasters and ever-increasing refugee flows for long. It would be a variety of what Christian Parenti called the “armed lifeboat” strategy.

There is a real risk that strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. By that course, developed economies would turn into neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos. But a world in climatological collapse – marked by hunger, disease, criminality, fanaticism, and violent social breakdown – will overwhelm the armed lifeboat. Eventually, all will sink in the same morass.10

Unless armed forces worldwide suddenly undergo an important ideological turn, it seems very improbable that a military-led revolution can be successful in the sense intended above. And such an ideological turn seems unlikely for several reasons. Armed forces are among the biggest polluters in the world and have shown little interest in changing that. And no “propaganda war” aimed at achieving the ideological turn required can be successful as long as the enemy controls the mass media, schools and training centers, and so forth, and has the financial means to counter and even obliterate any offense in such a “propaganda war” that goes against their interests. On the other hand, the armed forces are also much more likely to realize (or at least, to realize sooner) that something like the armed lifeboat strategy cannot possibly succeed (and that their alliance with the current ruling elite is not in their long-term interest).

Nevertheless, in the current situation, it is very unlikely that the armed forces will get us closer to the Lesser Dystopia or play any other significant role in avoiding climate disaster (i.e. the greater Dystopia of global societal collapse). And if the armed forces are indeed the only organization that would be able to emerge victoriously from a revolution, then this implies that no successful revolution is possible. (But things will change and in five years from now the political landscape – and therefore, this conclusion – may be very different.)

Links to articles in this series:
No Time for UtopiaSeries introduction. Against “ideal theory” and Utopianism.
On the Fragility of CivilizationPredicting global societal collapse within decades.
The Lesser DystopiaWhat is necessary to avoid that collapse?
Enemies of Our ChildrenWho and what are preventing the necessary change of course?
The Ethics of Climate InsurgencyOn violence as a means to prevent catastrophe.
The Possibility of a Revolution – This episode.
The 2020s and BeyondA scenario for the coming decades.
What to Do?Some closing reflections on what we should and can do.

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  1. See also Michael Mann versus the “Doomists”.
  2. See, for example, the posts tagged “Hegemony” in this blog, as well as my little book The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara, 2017).
  3. Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (London: Vintage)
  4. 夫腹飢不得食,膚寒不得衣,雖慈母不能保其子,君安能以有其民哉!明主知其然也,故務民於農桑,薄賦斂,廣畜積,以實倉廩,備水旱,故民可得而有也。(食貨志 §17. My translation.)
  5. But right now, even their ability to initiate a revolution is entirely hypothetical.
  6. See: Enemies of Our Children.
  7. Assuming that there is such a thing as benign dictatorship.
  8. As a pacifist and conscientious objector to military service, the thought horrifies me, but the point of this series is not to espouse my personal opinions or preferences.
  9. Especially in South America.
  10. Christian Parenti (2011). Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books), p. 20.