We’re going to be having a book event soon: Envisioning Real Utopias. I’m not jumping the gun with this post – or maybe I am.
Anyway, here’s my question. But first, the set-up: there are two ways for revolutions to succeed, and two ways for them to fail.
1) You get what you ask for, and it’s good.
2) You get something you didn’t ask for, but it’s good.
3) You get what you ask for, and it’s terrible.
4) You don’t get what you ask for. You get something else, and it’s terrible.
(There’s obviously a third way for revolutions to fail, namely by not happening. This might be a special case of 4 in which you get a terrible thing you didn’t want: same old, same old. But let’s set this third case aside. We are presented concerned with revolutions that come off, for better or worse, not the vastly more numerous set of those that don’t.)
Thus, the question. Which revolutions go in which boxes? Pretty clearly 2) and, even more so, 4) are going to be full. What about 1) and 3)? Does any revolution ever turn out the way the revolutionaries plan?
Let me refine the question a bit. ‘Careful what you wish for, you just might get it’ is a classic, Brave New World, anti-utopian warning. It needs to be distinguished from the 1984, Animal Farm ‘careful what you wish for, you might get something else’-type warning. But seriously: does anyone ever really get what they want, and it’s terrible? It would follow that the revolutionaries were just complete bastards, right? Because revolutionaries all really have wishes of the following form: ‘I wish for the abolition of private property, so that humans can flourish to an optimal degree.’ Then if the plan backfires, they didn’t really get what they want. Let’s say: get what you want, institutionally, but it turns out terrible. So if you propose to abolish private property, so that humanity may flourish, and you abolish private property, and humanity fails to flourish, you count as 3) getting what you want, but it’s terrible.
Basically what I’m asking is: how many revolutionaries actually get the new social/cultural/legal machines they ask for, rather than getting some strange new machines that may work well, or not, but weren’t what they submitted a request for.
Speaking of institutions: ‘revolution’ is elastic. My question concerns institutions, per above, so let’s say a revolution is what you get when you get something new that has to be institutional, but it can’t be encompassed by existing institutions. But understand it how you like, so long as you appreciate that I really don’t want to hear about ‘revolutions in pop music song structure’, for present purposes. Let’s stick to politics and society and organizations.
Final note: people will want to be able to be squishy about this, since no revolution brings about exactly every last detail the revolutionaries asked for – or absolutely none of the things they asked for. Let’s use a sliding scale for the success column, and another for the failures. A successful revolution that came off exactly as it was blueprinted would be a 10. A successful revolution that produced some new, good thing that was utterly unanticipated by any of the revolutionaries – a sudden black monolith among the monkeys! – would be a 1. And the same goes for failure.
Of course we would really want a separate sliding scale for degree of success vs. failure. No revolution is utterly happy or utterly unhappy. But maybe we can just focus on the narrower question: you can’t always get what you want, even if, if you try sometimes, you get what you need. But, where revolutions are concerned, does anyone ever get what they want, to a first, institutional approximation? What do you think?