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, revolutions are, in Foucauldian terms, exceptional moments of “chance reversal”--when the ongoing trajectory of a political order is ruptured and potentially altered in fundamental ways by those subject to it. 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. This book is about that transformation--and in particular, about the impact of urbanization and the concentration of people, power, and wealth in cities on the incidence, practice, and consequences of political revolutions.
The book lays out a theory about how spatial location influences revolutionary processes, outlining what I call the repression-disruption trade-off in revolution and the “proximity dilemma” that all revolutionaries face. That trade-off emerges from the fact that cities are where the coercive capacity of the state is strongest, and therefore where revolutionaries are most directly exposed to state repression. But cities are also where the nerve centers of government that revolutionaries seek to capture are located and therefore where regimes are most directly vulnerable to disruption. Thus, a basic dilemma facing revolutionary movements is how to leverage their disruptive power for inducing regime collapse while warding off regime repression. Several factors affect the nature of the trade-off. By changing the spatial location of rebellion in moving further from centers of power, revolutionaries can gain safety at the cost of disruptive capacity. By moving closer to centers of power, they can gain disruptive capacity at the cost of safety. Tactical learning and innovation also affect the trade-off, as each side seeks to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses within particular spatial contexts. Finally, like climate-change, long-term social structural and technological changes have greatly influenced the possibilities and effectiveness of particular tactical repertoires within spatial locations. Chief among these has been urbanization, which has concentrated large numbers into cities and thereby rendered repertoires relying on the power of numbers increasingly feasible (and effective) in warding off repression.
The proximity dilemma not only helps to understand the starkly different character of urban and rural revolutionary processes. It also provides a framework for explaining why the locations of revolutionary challenges have shifted over time and how largescale urbanization has altered the outcomes and character of urban revolutionary contention. As I show, over time revolutionary contention has grown increasingly frequent, more urban, more successful, less deadly, more likely to rely on the power of numbers than the power of arms, and more ambiguous and uncertain in its lasting impact. Shifting geopolitics and the evolving character of political regimes have also played a role in bringing this about. But much of the explanation lies in the demise of what Skocpol called “agrarian-bureaucratic society," the concentration of people, power, and wealth in cities, and the proliferation and consolidation of states. Urbanization has brought large numbers in close proximity to the state's nerve centers, 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 an "urban civic" revolutionary repertoire responsible for the growth and increased success of revolutionary challenges. The urban civic repertoire seeks to overthrow abusive government by mobilizing as many people as possible in central urban spaces, paralyzing commerce, administration, and society through the power of numbers rather than primarily relying on armed rebellion, street-fighting, strikes, or urban rioting. To maximize numbers, urban civic revolutions rely on loose coalitional forms of leadership, minimalist goals, and a rapidly convened negative coalition, pulling in anyone willing to participate. The consequence is a high degree of dissensus within post-revolutionary regimes, which largely inherit the state intact (including its embedded relationships of corruption). These more fragile post-revolutionary regimes struggle in bringing about substantive change after revolution.
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 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.