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Regime change – past, present, and future
Regime change & cultural transformation
A ‘regime change’ is when there are fundamental and relatively-sudden shifts in how a society operates. The American and Russian Revolutions are familiar examples of regime change.
Regime change brings shifts in which groups in a society exercise more or less discretionary power over the affairs of that society.
Regime change also brings shifts in political and economic affairs, as well as shifts in education and state propaganda.
Of particular interest are the shifts in popular culture and mythology that typically occur in conjunction with regime change. There are cultural changes that occur as the result of regime change, as people adjust to the new rules of the game, the new propaganda, education, etc. In addition, there are typically cultural changes that come first, enabling the regime change to take place.
I’ll be going into a bit of detail with the American and Russian examples, not because we’re in need of a history lesson, but so we’ll have a framework, a language, for talking about the dynamics of regime change in general, including the monumental regime change we are currently in the midst of.
In the American and Russian regime changes, there was a fundamental shift in how society is governed, and who governs it. The old regimes were based on aristocratic hierarchy. I necessarily oversimplify here, but basically land ownership, wealth, and power were passed on by inheritance, with the monarch at the top of the power pyramid, and the common-folk subjects at the bottom. It was a class-based system.
The new regimes brought in new systems and institutions,
whose claim to legitimacy was that they were established by the will of the people, and that they exercised power on behalf of the people. The old popular mythology / belief-system was that power naturally resides in the ‘best families’, who are ‘most able’ to run an orderly society.
The new popular mythology, the republican mythology, was that power naturally resides in ‘the citizen’, and the purpose of the state apparatus is to represent the interests of ‘the citizenry’. The definition of ‘best interests’, and the mechanism of ‘representation’, were quite different in the US and Soviet republics, but the underlying political mythology – serving the citizen – was essentially the same in both cases.
The shift in role, from ‘subject’ to ‘citizen’, represented a major shift in popular culture, in the perceived relationship between the individual and society. A subjects ‘place’ in society was based on performing some role suitable to ones class, serving some function, as required by ones ‘betters’. A citizen, in contrast, has an inherent right to an equal place in society, and is not tagged-for-life with a class or role label.
And it goes deeper than that. A citizen has a certain sense of agency / empowerment with respect to society that is quite foreign to a subject mentality. It’s not that a citizen has an exaggerated opinion of his or her influence in society; it’s more subtle than that. There’s a sense that ‘it matters what I think’, and people of all kinds take seriously their conversations about ‘how things should be’ – something that wouldn’t be the ‘place’ of a lowly subject to be doing: “I wouldn’t know about those things, sir”.
This cultural shift in perceived empowerment is something that began before the regime change itself, and the emergence of this cultural shift was essential to the development of our two republican revolutionary movements. Let us now zoom in on this process of cultural change, and focus our attention on the American case.
When we see activists today, ‘demonstrating’ on the streets, we are seeing an expression of this sense of empowerment, this sense that ‘it matters what I think’. Indeed, what is being ‘demonstrated’ is that some number of people don’t think their interests as citizens are being represented. It’s a form of people-to-government communication. And it’s based on the assumption, the gut feeling, that legitimate power ultimately belongs to ‘the citizen’.
From today’s consciousness, it is easy to think of the American revolution as being the natural and obvious pursuit self-interest, of liberation – citizens throwing off the royal and class shackles … something people must
have wanted, and finally found a way to achieve.
It didn’t happen that way at all. For one thing, most colonists considered themselves lucky to be British subjects, part of the great trading empire, under the protection of the fleet and the Crown. More important, the aristocratic system, trusting the ‘best families’ to run things, was ‘how it always had been’; it was how order was maintained. Just as Columbus’ sailors feared they might fall off the edge of the world, most colonists feared disorder and chaos would result, if the ‘natural order of things’ were undone, if everyone was a power unto themselves.
At the beginning of 1776, the majority sentiment in the colonies was for a redress of grievances, to be more fairly treated – as loyal British Subjects. It took something very special to shift this mindset, to sow fertile seeds of widespread cultural change, and that something special was provided by Tom Paine, when he published Common Sense, in January of 1776.
His arguments about the nature of civil society, and that power derives ultimately from the consent of the governed, were presented in a way that resonated with colonial sensibilities. They could see the truth in what he said in the way the colonies operated. The colonies were pretty much left alone to run their own affairs, as long as they paid their taxes to the Crown and observed certain limitations on their activities. It was easy to see, aided by Paine’s persuasive arguments, that the colonies could keep on running their affairs successfully if they were independent.
Common Sense sold more copies than any previous publication anywhere, and it was read on street corners to crowds (most people couldn’t read or write in those days) – not just in the colonies but in Ireland and elsewhere. The essay was so effective in shifting people’s thinking, that by the time summer came the ‘Founding Fathers’ knew they had the support they needed for a revolutionary independence movement, giving them the courage to sign the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776.
Regime change & elite groups