When the history of the current Ukraine crisis is written, scholars will note that it began with demonstrations. The demonstrators were in significant measure young urbanites from the capital of Kiev, in search of a more Western orientation for their country. The European Union might be battered with a half-decade long financial crisis. But the demonstrators, nevertheless, in large part saw the European Union in symbolic terms as a moral savior, promising a future of states governed by impersonal laws that treat everyone equally—unlike the future promised by Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, and his local cohorts: that of nations, saddled with historical grudges, that seek glory for ethnic groups rather than rights for individuals. Cynics believed the demonstrations would peter out in the freezing cold Ukrainian winter, with insufficient public support. They were wrong. The demonstrators kept returning to Independence Square, also known as Maidan, toppling the pro-Moscow regime and changing European geopolitics.
Demonstrators obviously don’t always get what they desire. The ‘60s youth rebellion in the United States split the Democratic Party of the era and alienated many middle-of-the-road American voters—sometimes referred to as the silent majority—and thereby helped enable the presidential election of the conservative Republican Richard Nixon. Many of the Iranian students who demonstrated in massive numbers against the repression of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1978 thought that they were enabling the future of a more democratic and accountable government. Instead, they got the suffocating autocracy, laced with terrorism, of the Shiite ayatollahs. The young Egyptian idealists, influenced by the values of cosmopolitan global culture, thought that their demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011 would break the back of military tyranny. Instead, their protests led to an immoderate Islamic regime that, in turn, was toppled by another military tyranny.
There are two major lessons here. Demonstrators, as numerous as they appear on the television screen—and in the eyes of the media in general—represent only a minute portion of the society, which may be with them or against them. And even if the society is with them, it does not mean that the same society has the social, economic and institutional traction for organizing itself into a version of the new political order for which the demonstrators yearn. Demonstrators often represent an educational elite, and an elite, well, by its very nature is not representative of the population at large, which, in the cases of Iran and Egypt, is composed of vast peasantries and proletariats prone to deep religiosity. The other lesson follows from the first: Just because demonstrators may be capable of undermining an existing order—whether the administration of Lyndon Johnson or the rule of the Shah or of Hosni Mubarak or of Viktor Yanukovich—does not mean that they have the capability of directing, or much less influencing, the emergence of a replacement order. For example, in recent times we have seen how social media can help depose regimes in the Arab world but is unable to foster the bureaucratic and institutional wherewithal to build better alternative ones.
The autocracies of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria were all initially overthrown or at least weakened in 2011 by liberal-trending demonstrators. But with the exception of Tunisia, the result was either anarchy or partial anarchy, not a more liberal order. The fact that demonstrators are change agents does not mean that they know how to direct change. To wit, Ukraine may eventually turn out very different from what the original demonstrations in Kiev suggested.
Of course, massive demonstrations across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 led to the end of communist tyranny and its replacement by mostly liberal democracies of varying degrees of stability and competence. The difference between Europe and the Arab world is that Europe, as socially pulverized as it was by decades of communism, nevertheless had the semblance of institutions and the historical memory of a middle class, as well as high literacy rates, that enabled it to survive the political rigors of freedom—something that the Arab world, with the possible exception of Tunisia, lacked. And Tunisia, remember, is the most European of Arab countries—geographically close to Europe, with a long history as a state and no significant ethnic or sectarian divides. In other words, demonstrators may all look similar on the television screen and shout similar things, but the societies in which they are enmeshed are all somewhat different. And it is that difference that determines what happens after the demonstrators remove an existing order.
Recently, some of the most sustained demonstrations we have seen have been in Brazil and Thailand. Both upheavals fall under the broad theme elucidated by the late Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington in his 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies, in which he posits that the more developed and complex a society turns out to be, rather than become more satisfied, the emerging middle class of that society becomes less satisfied and therefore demands more efficiency and accountability from the government. The more complex a society becomes, in other words, the more it requires more nimble and responsive institutions. This means that social and political upheaval is a constant. Brazilians are dissatisfied that the country’s newfound wealth is not being more equally distributed, even as their government is not becoming more efficient. Thailand’s political divisions are based in part on the wealth disparity between the capital of Bangkok and the far poorer, rural countryside. These are the problems of relative success, but they can nonetheless lead to fierce and prolonged disturbances. And in the case of Thailand, they can lead even to a military coup.
All these demonstrators, from Ukraine to Tunisia to Thailand, have had an ally: postmodern communications technology. Not only does social media facilitate crowd organization, but so does satellite television, which requires only enough bodies to fill a screen in order to provide a crowd with global significance. And with global significance—the knowledge that you are not alone against a hated regime but have virtual supporters worldwide—comes a lift in morale that, in turn, brings along with it courage and the sense of empowerment for those in the street.
The crowd can thus be small in size but vast in meaning. Among the many themes in the late Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti’s 1960 book, Crowds and Power, is his concept that crowds provide an escape from loneliness. Inside a crowd you are protected, for your passions are those of the person next to you, and the next, all flowing together. If a hated regime represents one type of crowd formation, the demonstrators in the square represent another. And from that comes their strength.
The virtual crowd is now everywhere, whether as a horde of Facebook followers tracking an entertainment star or as a throng of people in sync on Twitter supporting or opposing some person or idea. Postmodern civilization encourages loneliness and anxiety, for which joining a crowd constitutes an escape.
Thus, we should expect crowd formations to be a permanent feature of global politics. And the nightmare of leaders, particularly authoritarian ones, is that of being overthrown by a crowd as in Ukraine. Chinese leaders live with this fear, especially as their country’s rate of economic growth is expected to continue its decline. The clerical regime in Iran fears ending up like the Shah’s—toppled by a crowd. That is why the ayatollahs are so keen to see a relaxation of economic sanctions against their country.
Perhaps the most famous crowd formations in early modern and modern history were those of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, when crowds of bourgeois intellectuals and working class radicals rose from France to the Balkans demanding the end of authoritarian imperial orders. But with the exception of the Orleans monarchy in France, those regimes all ultimately survived because divisive ethnic interests undermined the universalist longings of the demonstrators. It was all a close-run affair, though, that took many months to play out. Had the 1848 rebellions succeeded, the history of Europe thereafter would have been dramatically different, with different power arrangements that could very well have precluded the world wars of the 20th century.
Always keep 1848 in mind. For with technology now providing a tipping point in a world of vast urban concentrations, and with more and more human beings living in dense, claustrophobic settings, crowds will be at the very center of history in the 21st century—and, therefore, at the center of geopolitics.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, which was published by Random House in March 2014. In 2012, he published The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, and in 2010, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. In both 2011 and 2012, he was chosen by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.”