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Photo: NightFlightToVenus/Flickr
Photo: NightFlightToVenus/Flickr

"Industrial Revolutions, Rebellions and Civil Society: Lessons from History", by Robert Trevennel Harris.

published 2 May 2019 updated 2 May 2019
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The events of 1968 in France, which shook the fifth Republic to its core, are sometimes mentioned in connection with the current yellow vest movement. A more relevant historical comparison is 1848 - the year of the "People’s Spring” revolutions.

This is a very pertinent comparison, because in 1848, an independent candidate,  Alphonse de Lamartine, poet, historian and academician, neither of the left nor right, seized power, quickly introduced a series of praiseworthy reforms (universal male suffrage, for example), and would become, for a short time, the most popular politician in France. The comparison is even more pertinent insofar as the political revolution of 1848 had its roots in the profound change in society that had been the first industrial revolution. On these two levels, the parallel with 2018-19 is striking.

1848 also saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto by two German journalists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their pamphlet outlined their rejection of the existing system, especially the stratification of the classes that had been created by the first industrial revolution. Although Lamartine had realised the risks to the 2nd Republic, his government failed to take action. The protests continued and in June, Louis-Eugène Cavaignac came to power. Parisian workers rebelled and erected barricades in the streets. Cavaignac ordered the artillery to fire on the barricades and thousands of workers were massacred.

The presidential election, under the new republican constitution, was held in November. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, returning from exile in England, won by a large majority, defeating Cavaignac. Lamartine received less than one percent of the vote. Before the end of his four-year presidential term, Louis-Napoleon would carry out a coup and declare himself Emperor, a move legitimised by a rigged referendum. The Second Republic gave way to the Second Empire.

History does not predict the future. But those who don't learn the lessons of history are often doomed to repeat their mistakes. The relevance of 1848 for today lies in the social and political consequences of a profound change in the economy. In 2018-19, society in France, Europe, and even worldwide, experienced a transformation on a scale even more dramatic and rapid than during the first industrial revolution that led to the political upheavals  of 1848.

The Production and Consumption Revolution

The first industrial revolution replaced muscles with machines. The second revolution, after the Great War of 1914-1918, was one of mass production, pioneered by Henry Ford in the United States, which led on to the consumer society and the mass media. It also had a big impact on the way companies were run and the way in which democracies operated.

The Mobility and Communications Revolution

Then came the third world-wide industrial revolution, in the second half of the twentieth century. This was the mobility revolution, closely linked to a revolution in communications.

This revolution  had been simmering under the surface since the 1970s. The global mobility of production, job mobility, mobility of people and financial mobility were already at the core of our economic system. Mobility goes hand in hand with globalisation.

Political precursors were also in evidence. The Berlin Wall no longer stood in the way of personal mobility and communication, any more than apartheid did in South Africa. The Soviet Union shuddered and collapsed. The countries of Eastern Europe are moving closer to the west; the European Union is expanding.

We also see the emergence of mobility in the chain of production, and it is Asia, China in particular, that is reaping the benefits. Container ships criss-cross the oceans. This mobility includes air freight, with thousands of tons of spare parts and fresh products being delivered by air every night. Mobility is seen as the key to efficiency. This is the lesson being taught by the leading educational establishments, from Harvard in the United States to ENA in France. This is the mantra I have heard many times at ministerial and other meetings at the OECD headquarters in Paris. Mobility equals effectiveness equals well-being - it was obvious, it was indisputable!

But this idea is being challenged by two facts.

The first issue is the impact on the environment.The fuel powering this mobility is warming the planet. The countries of the world have met in Copenhagen, Paris, and elsewhere, to negotiate agreements to slow down this warming process. But in the suburbs, in the countryside, for 30 years or 40 years, people have being forced to become more mobile in their daily lives. They have to travel to get to work, to go shopping, for health services, for the education of their children, for their hobbies. And all of this has a collective cost, in terms of pollution, health, and, more generally, for road safety and climate change.

The second issue is the rise in inequality.The mobility of production chains and finance have widened the gap between rich and poor dramatically over the last 30 to 40 years. The paradox: the policies of the central banks, developed to mitigate the financial crisis in 2008, only made this gap wider. Incomes at the base of the pyramid stagnated. Incomes at the top of the pyramid exploded. These inequalities are no longer mitigated by taxation, because tax laws are national, while the economy is global.

To the mobility required by daily life must now be added migratory mobility, the movement of people. Migration is part of the history of mankind, but has never occurred at the magnitude we see today. Economic inequality, wars and repression, desertification and the overpopulation of cities, are all factors in these migrations, legal or otherwise. The consequences of these unprecedented movements of people are undermining the political life of all OECD member countries in Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia.

Democratic institutions are being challenged, not only in France. The very notion that the freedom of the market is closely tied to political freedom is being put to the test. The concept of representative democracy is being dismissed by some, as they believe it no longer meets their expectations. As in 1968, they are calling for direct democracy, but this is difficult to define. Above all, it is the feeling of injustice that is the driving force behind every revolution.

The yellow vest protest continues. There is a desire to overcome the shortcomings of the traditional interplay between daily life and state institutions. This is an issue that extends beyond the borders of France to the institutions of Europe and the international community.

The questions being asked about taxation, public services, ecological transition and citizenship are necessary but not enough on their own. More fundamental is the question of the conflict between the mobility of society and the two issues mentioned above: climate change and the dramatic increase in inequality.

A civil society of participation and activism

How can we resolve this issue? No government can do it alone. The involvement of civil society, in its broad sense, is paramount. It has been 100 years since the role of trade union and employer organisations was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles by the creation of the tripartite International Labour Organisation; this was an institutional response to the first industrial revolution, its social consequences, and the impact of political upheaval. Even as they reinvent themselves, these social partners still have a vital role to play in the economy of the 21st century. But in the last 100 years the role of civil society has grown dramatically; activists now get involved in development, human rights, saving the planet, and much more. Civil society organisations are very diverse in nature, down to the less structured groups using social media. I am very familiar with this diversity. It's complex, and there are shortcomings, but this diversity of participation and action is also one of their strengths. We must find ways to involve them in our search for solutions. These solutions will inevitably come from their ability to reconcile the realities of life at the local level to global imperatives. The real challenge is to build these connections so that those who are struggling to lead a decent life no longer feel like victims, but in control of their own destinies. This is today's challenge, the third industrial revolution of mobility and communication.

A fourth revolution is already on its way

Even as we face this challenge, we are on the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution, which has been on the table at the World Economic Forum in Davos since 2016. This fourth revolution of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, blockchain, biotechnology, is approaching fast. We are managing the social and political consequences of the third industrial revolution, that of mobility, but the fourth one is already coming over the horizon! It's an important debate for another day, but that day is almost here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.