On revolutionary change

For 28 days, we shared the anxiety, frustrations, excitement, prayers and tears of pain and joy with the Tunisian people as they brought down the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. We then did the same thing with the Egyptian people throughout the 18 days of events that led to the resignation of Mubarak and the transfer of power to the Military forces who vowed to guard Egypt and its people until, hopefully, a free and transparent electoral process takes place.

Revolution is in the air, and densely so. But, like many, I couldn’t help but think about the long term change that these events are going to bring about. Specifically, whether the slogans of change, dignity, freedom, the rule of law and development that reverberate throughout these uprisings will truly be concretised as the ultimate gain of the peoples struggles.

For an Algerian, this skeptic sentiment can be easily traced back to our own experience of repression and uprisings, and in particular back to 1988 and the events that followed, which saw riots that eventually led to the collapse of the one-party system and opened up a fresh air of unprecedented freedom of party politics and media expression. The fresh air was soon to be replaced with more than a decade long of violent conflict that saw the lost of some 200 000 lives and the reestablishment of an occult and repressive regime that made us miss the suffocating one-party system… Two misconceptions about revolutionary change subsequently emerged in our society. There are those of us who fear revolutions because they see them as conflicts that bring about instability, and those who precipitate/ed to ignite violent conflict under the assumption that it’s some kind of a shortcut or a last resort to achieve radical change.

A revolution does not necessary equal an armed conflict, and we Algerians urgently need to learn to make this distinction. Perhaps a closer look at what fundamentally constitutes a revolution helps clarify this point. We can then reflect on whether what we see happening in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are indeed “revolutions”? And whether we are really in need of a revolution in Algeria?

As I wondered, I found myself naturally drawn back to the monumental essay on the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In effect, the publication of this essay and the debate that it generated had itself revolutionised the way science and scientific progress is viewed. So, it seemed to be a reasonable place to start seeking answers. What has science got to do with political crisis and political change you may ask? Well, it turns out that the fundamental characteristics of these phenomena are somewhat consistent across different realms of thought, there is therefore a thing or two that we can learn from drawing comparisons. So, bear with me..

In his essay, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific progress is not merely an accumulation of facts and theories overtime, but rather the result of periods of revolutionary science where scientists’ “worldview” shifts. This shift affects not only which problems are considered worthy of investigation, but also how questions are formulated to address such problems, and how scientists go about solving them. Ultimately, previously established facts, theories and procedures are altogether rejected, or revised, reconstructed and re-evaluated in order to fit the new worldview.

Kuhn analysis outlines the prerequisites of such revolutionary science, the elements that lead to it, its nature and its necessity for progress. Worldview, or “Paradigm“, is a key concept in this analysis, broadly described as:

“[..] some accepted examples of actual scientific practice – examples which include law, theory, application and instrumentation together – provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research” (p.10)

Anomalies and crisis

Scientists within a given specialism share a set of traditions and beliefs which they use as the basis of their research to refine theories, explain data and, in a way, expand and reinforce their established view of the world. The established paradigm continues to dominate the way scientists go about doing their work until an anomaly occurs which casts doubt upon some aspects of such paradigm. As the anomaly grows harder to avoid and ignore, some members of that particular scientific community begin to conduct extraordinary investigations – typically outside of the shared traditions – which could then lead to a revolution where the old paradigm eventually gives way to a new one.

The need for change is therefore at the core of revolutionary change, but it can only be significant when it comes from “the prevalence of crisis of what would appear to be an anomaly in the current system of thought”. When a paradigm shifts, the whole viewpoint of the concerned specialism undergoes a radical progressive change. 

Crisis in science can manifest itself in various ways, but at its core, a crisis casts doubt upon established frameworks, make scientists uncomfortable and unable to accommodate certain phenomena. This is where we can cross over to politics. Kuhn himself wrote about the parallelism that exists between political and scientific revolutions. A crisis, he writes, is characterised by a “growing sense [..] that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created“, that crisis “attenuates the role of political institutions [..] individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it“. The signs of political, social, and economical eccentricity and deterioration are in abundance in Algeria, and they have certainly been strongly accentuated by the increasing expressivity of the Algerian people in denouncing and protesting against such anomalies.

And here we have it, the first characteristic of revolutionary change; in politics, as in science, change does not and cannot come from the same system that brought about the anomaly in the first place. Because it is perceived as anomaly in the current system, it only makes sense that a different system needs to be brought forward where such anomaly becomes law like and it is assimilated properly to resolve the crisis.

Following on from this principle, we can, for example, expect that the series of consultations recently initiated by the Algerian regime in order to address and reform existing anomalies in the current system of governance are likely to lead no where revolutionary. The success of revolutionary change “necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another“, something that is nowhere to be found in the agenda of the proposed reforms.

Alternatives and competing world views

So what happens when crisis is acknowledged? Here, a subset of the scientific community starts constructing a new paradigm where anomalies could be redressed. The emergence of an alternative paradigm is imperative, otherwise no science would exist if the rejected paradigm is not replaced! Before the old paradigm is fully rejected, more individuals will commit themselves to the new paradigm which gains more and more credibility (through the emergence of new data, experiments, instruments, evidence, publications, etc.) But this popularity comes at the price of yet another form of crisis and conflict, which is a second important characteristic of revolutionary change; it always leads to the formulation of competing camps that will seek to defend the paradigm that they see more worthy. Since new paradigms eventually eradicate old traditions and perceptions of what is considered problems and solutions, often competing paradigms tend to be fundamentally incompatible and cannot be reconciled; a third characteristic of revolutionary change.

In this battling, there are naturally those who will defend the current established system and those who campaign for the alternative, and there could also be other competing camps advocating further alternatives. Of course, this is also  where suspicion rises because individuals’ motivations for supporting one stance over another come into question.

The absence of a serious alternative project in Algeria is worrying. But it also means that the ongoing consultations – and any subsequent reforms, elections, etc. that will result from them – are nothing more than the results of a discourse between the regime and itself. There are no adequate and competing alternative camps that are considered in these consultations, in part because the regime will not allow for one to surface, let alone one that fundamentally challenges it. Unless something is done, the people of Algeria will remain stuck with one worldview, one distorted paradigm of governance, even though the need for a fresh new one is flagrant.

Crucially, what this also means is that we are at a stage in Algeria where we need to think, very seriously and very thoroughly, about formulating and articulating an alternative to the current paradigm of governance. Our prospects for revolutionary change depend on our ability to prioritise and promote thought, reason, values and creativity over fanatism, intolerance, violence and armed conflict. Violent conflict cannot be the answer because it can only perpetuate the anomalies that already exist within the current system of governance, subsequently increasing hurdles that block the way toward constructing an alternative paradigm truly worthy of replacing it. A quick glance back at the 90s armed uprisings clearly testifies to this assertion.

Embracing revolutionary change

Revolutionary change in science is the result of a shift in worldview after periods of paradigm construction motivated by persistent failure of current paradigms to address crisis. Support for a new candidate paradigm increases when its competent advocates succeed in exposing its superiority over the alternatives. Seen in this light – and taking a leap to politics – the fundamental actions that lead to revolutionary change should supersede violent conflict to focus on thorough and systematic development of alternatives as a prerequisite for progress that leads to radical and positive change.

With this in mind, we can observe that the people of Tunisia and Egypt have succeed in not only acknowledging crisis, but also in propagating such acknowledgment to reach national and international consensus and paving the way towards constructing an alternative. The uprisings, protests and strikes are no more than a means for achieving such consensus. It is therefore way too early to qualify these events as “revolutionary”. Whether the people will succeed in constructing new paradigms that could implement their aspirations remains to be seen. This is their crucial time for revolutionary action and vision.

Revolution should be viewed in terms of paradigm shift, and as such a revolution is exactly what we need in Algeria. Revolutionary change is about constructing an alternative paradigm of governance, a shift in values and models of practice, and more importantly in the institutions that embody these values and implement these practices.

We are in dire need for a new paradigm of governance where we conceive and construct a system that is inclusive of its people, where we take back the power to define our own terms and values that go beyond imported copy-pasted systems. We need to redefine the relationship between the governor and the governed, the people and the institutions, the regime and its opposition, to construct a transparent system that is open to scrutiny with a real active opposition that can hold it to account. We should rethink our conception of what constitutes a revolution, and then embrace rather than fear revolutionary change because it is the only means that could help us achieve significant, radical and continuous progress.

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4 responses to “On revolutionary change

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