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The West Isn’t Ready for a Revolution

Americans keep using a political buzzword—without knowing what it means.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ever since the wheels fell off of neoliberalism in 2008 and Barack Obama clinched the presidency, the West has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the way of the world—nowhere more than in the world’s richest nation. From Occupy and Bernie Sanders to the Tea Party and Donald Trump, many Americans across the political spectrum have called for a revolution. But few have tried to start one, and those who did failed miserably. There are deep-seated reasons for this, and they don’t augur poorly for the burgeoning Trump resistance.

For a long time, unlike in the Arab world or Ukraine, the western status quo appeared to be unshakeable. But then 2016 happened, which, after the twin political cataclysms of Brexit and Trump, would be described as “a year of big political revolutions” by Brexiter-in-chief, Nigel Farage. But this wasn’t so much a revolution as a restructuring of the political order, a transfer of power from one elite to another, rather than the sort of bottom-up popular uprising that many would-be revolutionaries had in mind. The faces changed, but the system itself remained very much the same.

Again, this would appear to suggest that modern western power structures are impervious to the storming-of-the-Bastille revolts that dominate high school history lessons, but as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Trump’s inauguration and his subsequent use of executive orders with tyrannical abandon have spurred a long-dormant spirit of activism into action. Marches and protests have swarmed America’s cities and airports, inspired similar demonstrations globally, and even digital activism has notched victories. The snowflakes, it seems, have whipped up a snowstorm.

While this is all encouraging, there’s little reason to be hopeful. The Iraq war protests in 2003 were the last show of dissent of this scale, and although it was impressive, the public fury was ultimately ignored and accomplished nothing. Two years earlier, George W. Bush’s inauguration had drawn a similar response and a comparable legal challenge, and we know how that ended. Since the end of the civil rights movement, political activism in the West has had a long record of impotency. There’s a reason for this: Few of us have any idea what a revolution looks like, or what it takes to achieve one.

For most of us, “revolution” is an abstract term that we understand in theory, but not in practice. After many decades of relative stability in the West, our sole point of contact with furious political upheaval has been from the safe distance of a news report. But this detachment distorts the reality of political change and propagates an overly neat narrative that has little to do with the truth.

When we see footage of, say, jubilant crowds welcoming a triumphant Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Tehran, or East Germans scaling the Berlin Wall, what we’re really witnessing is the revolutionary money shot. These images dominate the news cycle and remain imprinted on our minds, completely overshadowing the struggle that preceded them. We might understand, in theory, that protest and collective civil disobedience led to these events, but a lopsided emphasis on the end result masks the process that eroded the old power structures and facilitated victory, clouding our ability to comprehend them in a real and practical sense. It’s the equivalent of reducing the entirety of human courtship down to a single orgasm.

If you want to understand how deceptive this media narrative is, I’d suggest watching Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, a documentary chronicling the Ukrainian uprising that toppled Viktor Yanukovych. Stitched together from a series of long, uninterrupted shots of protesters executing a single menial task on repeat, it’s an excruciatingly boring piece of cinema that often feels like staring into the infinitely repeating loop of a gif. In one scene, we see the wounded hobbling aimlessly through the hallway of a makeshift hospital while medics tend to fresh casualties. Another devotes some 20 minutes to filming volunteers prepare sandwiches for those on the frontline with the dull repetition of a human conveyor belt. In a later segment, burly men build barricades by stacking car tires into giant piles, doing the banal grunt work that gets edited out of news reports. There are fleeting moments of clashes and violence, but all in all, Maidan is a compilation of nausea-inducing mundanity.

And yet this is the unglamorous reality hidden away inside the sausage factory of political change. Revolutions are not a single glorious act: They’re a vast constellation of small, monotonous tasks that, although meaningless in isolation, gain significance through mass collective action. It is precisely the opposite of these simplistic hero-on-a-white-horse narratives, which only serve to confuse and mystify.

“The big misconception in the mainstream media is that they only show you the final act, but you can’t understand the plot of a movie if you only watch the last 10 minutes,” Srdja Popovic, a professional activist, told me. “I think that the media don’t cover what’s really important: All the small, doable steps preceding victory that mobilize people. There’s a lot of horizontal learning, and if the media were to cover the real, effective, small acts of resistance it would actually educate people in what really works.”

Popovic, whom The Guardian once described as the secret architect of global revolution, was a key figure in the Otpor! movement that helped topple Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. He now serves as executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, a Belgrade-based nonprofit that teaches political activists how to overthrow oppressive regimes through strictly nonviolent tactics. CANVAS’ practical how-to guides and workshops focus on small acts of civil disobedience with very low bars of entry. They’re specifically designed to engage as wide a populace as possible, incrementally building critical mass and setting the stage for a grand, newsworthy moment like the breaching of the Berlin Wall. CANVAS makes the process behind radical political change look markedly less arcane. While there’s a huge amount of hard work involved, as well as a monk-like devotion to the cause, it’s all very tangible.

But I don’t think that the enduring political stasis in the West is simply the result of its citizens lacking the practical know-how needed to overhaul the system. I think that the problem runs much deeper: We simply don’t want things to change desperately enough.

As bad as things are, they’re evidently not bad enough for a broad enough base of people—yet—because mass discontent hasn’t translated into mass action. The Occupy protesters may have shouted and rallied, but they ultimately failed to attract enough popular support to evolve from protest to movement. It could be argued that their vision wasn’t compelling or clear enough, which is probably true, but this only tells part of the story. Most people, it seems, simply aren’t prepared to commit themselves completely to political activism. Instead, they want the system changed for them.

Although Trump and the Brexiters like to eulogize their achievements in revolutionary terms, their slim victories still came via the voting booth rather than through popular uprisings. The electorate may have rubber-stamped those victories, but they played no part in formulating them.

After all, then–Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t pressured by the British public into holding a referendum on E.U. membership; it was mutinous Conservative backbenchers who forced his hand. Trump is not a product of the Tea Party. His supporters might loathe the Washington establishment, but they never threatened to organize and shake the pillars of power themselves. Unlike the Syrians who risked life and limb to rise up against Bashar al-Assad, most westerners are quite clearly still content to wait it out for a messiah—or a snake-oil salesman, whichever one comes first—to fix the world on their behalf, rather than muster up a solution on their own.

We do this because most of us fail to comprehend the sheer scale of sacrifice that wholesale political change demands. We fixate on street protest, as if it’s the political atom bomb, rather than a singular tool with questionable efficacy. We delude ourselves that protests’ power lies in scale rather than frequency, but the Iraq war protests wouldn’t have been any less impotent had they been bigger; they failed because they weren’t sustained. And even if we did comprehend this, would it change anything? Are people prepared to make the necessary sacrifices?

Otpor!’s victory over Milosevic came after nine years of struggle. In the meantime, lives and careers were suspended. Last weekend’s U.S. airport protests petered out as Monday approached because most people had jobs and routines to return to, so some donated pizza instead. In Britain, protests against Trump’s proposed state visit were scheduled outside of office hours. It’s quite telling that the general strike is an utterly alien tactic to western protesters. Political dissatisfaction may be widespread, but that seemingly isn’t enough: The status quo needs to be so intolerable that people are prepared to prioritize change, and the collective effort that it demands, over their own self-interests.

We are nowhere near that tipping point—especially not in the U.S., where the unemployment rate is just 4.8 percent. Prevailing rhetoric reveals that most people, regardless of their political leanings, want reform rather than revolution. The closure of corporate tax loopholes or greater protectionism are discussed within the context of the existing system, rather than a new one. Most Trump voters simply dream of a return to an era of more job security and greater purchasing power, not a fundamentally different society built on a radically new set of values. Californian secessionists aim to insulate themselves from the Trumpian agenda rather than forge an alternative.

This is what separates them from Occupy or Otpor! or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and although it can be disheartening, it also presents an opportunity. A complete and total demolition job is nothing more than a self-serving escapist fantasy; the majority are too invested in the system to dispense with it completely, but recent events prove that there’s an appetite for change that outsiders can exploit from within.

Let’s not forget that Brexit wasn’t pioneered by a grassroots movement of disaffected Britons, but a 25-year-long ideological crusade by tory Europhobes like Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage, who devoted their entire lives and careers to a cause many dismissed as futile. In Spain and Italy, respectively, Podemos and the Five Star Movement have risen from the electorate, through the political apparatus, and are making tangible gains in government. The Tea Party proved to be an effective pressure group of citizen lobbyists, and their tactics have been co-opted by the authors of the Indivisible Guide for use in the Trump era.

This is what uniquely western revolutions look like. Maybe they don’t fit the the simplistic, news-optimized narrative that we’re used to, but the common thread that ties them to the headline-grabbing popular uprisings of recent years is an absolute, total, and undivided commitment to change. Aspiring revolutionaries just have to ask themselves if they want change desperately enough to commit to that.