The Revolutionary City: Urbanization and the Global Transformation of Rebellion (Princeton University Press, 2022).
Understood as a mass siege of an established government by its own population with the goals of bringing about regime-change and effecting substantive political or social change, a revolution is an extraordinary moment of what Foucault called “chance reversal”--when the ongoing trajectory of a political order can be ruptured and potentially altered in fundamental ways by those subject to it. As Trotsky put it, revolutions involve “the forcible entry of the masses in the realm of rulership over their own destiny”; they are political projects of mass collective agency in the remaking of government and society. But the ways in which populations go about the business of regime-change from below, the reasons they engage in such action, and the social forces that mobilize in revolution have altered dramatically over the past century. I am writing a book about this transformation--and in particular, about the impact of urbanization and the consolidation of political power in cities on the incidence, practice, and consequences of revolution.
Four global trends over the last century establish the puzzles to be explained. First, although revolutions are relatively rare moments of direct mass intervention in politics, these relatively rare moments have increased substantially in frequency over time, occurring at a significantly greater pace today than during the first half of the twentieth century or the Cold War. Second, as revolutions have multiplied, social revolutions aimed at transforming class relations have grown marginalized--even though these revolutions stand at the basis of most social science theorizing on the subject. Third, revolutionary challenges have become increasingly successful over time, at least as judged by whether the opposition gains power. Finally, while increasingly frequent and successful, revolutions have been becoming less impactful in terms of bringing about lasting substantive change in their wake.
Shifting geopolitics and the evolving character of political regimes have played some role in bringing about these changes. But much of the explanation lies in the impact of urbanization and the end of what Skocpol called “agrarian-bureaucratic society." Urbanization and the consolidation of power in cities have undermined the political and social bases for social revolution. At the same time, urbanization has: concentrated large numbers into cities; created new, highly networked, and resourced urban groups; and forged new urban spaces for contesting power. These conditions in turn have facilitated the emergence of a new "urban civic" revolutionary repertoire largely responsible for the growth and increased success of revolutionary challenges (as well as for their declining impact). In this new revolutionary repertoire, oppositions attempt to mobilize as many people as possible in central urban spaces in a concentrated period of time, thereby paralyzing government and society with the hope of inducing regime collapse.
The tactics, goals, and organization of urban civic revolutions attempt to leverage the revolutionary advantages of cities. That advantage lies in significant part in how revolt in urban locations provides ready access to concentrated, more educated, better-resourced, and highly-networked populations, more robust means for communication, greater visibility, and greater numbers of people than is true in rural revolts. Though urban revolts are located where the state is strongest, they are also located in close proximity to centers of power and commerce, facilitating disruption in ways that rural revolts generally are not able to accomplish. The presence of foreign populations, foreign commerce, and greater connections and visibility to the outside world afford opportunities for urban revolutionaries to leverage international pressures on incumbent regimes in ways that rural revolts generally are not able to do.
In documenting and explaining this transformation and its implications, the book brings to bear a number of novel sources and approaches in the study of revolution. For one thing, it utilizes a new dataset on 345 revolutionary episodes from 1900 to 2014 to examine how and why the character of revolution has changed. For each episode, a 500-word narrative describing the major events of the episode, how it unfolded, and how it ended was composed using a large variety of secondary sources. These narratives and the sources on which they are based are used throughout the book to illustrate patterns and trends and to examine in more depth the dynamic processes occurring within revolutionary episodes. The study also utilizes a series of highly unusual nationally-representative public opinion surveys probing individual-level participation in four revolutions representing the new urban civic revolutions: the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2010 Tunisian Revolution, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and the 2013 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. These surveys constitute unique records in the study of revolution, providing a detailed, systematic record of the attitudes, behaviors, and backgrounds of those participating in a revolution and allowing us to compare them with other members of society who supported these revolutions but did not participate in them, opposed these revolutions, or mobilized against them.
Thus, the study unfolds across multiple levels of analysis: the global and cross-national; the narrative and episodic; the chronological and eventful; and granular and the individual. By unpacking revolution at these different levels, I hope to able to gain a multifaceted understanding of the dynamics of revolution as a mode of regime-change, the forces that have shaped its evolution over the past century, and the consequences of those changes.