On Revolution and Bad Food

I have some problems with the politics and promises of The Enlightenment and modernity, but I also realize they are very attractive and that there is no going back. Abbas Milani notes this about Iran for The National Interest, but he could be saying it about any state or society struggling with the promises of modernity and Enlightenment:

While the leftist, centrist and clerical opposition to the shah “overdetermined” politics to the detriment of cultural freedoms, the ruler, for his part, failed to understand what increasingly became the clear iron law of culture: men (and women) do not live by bread alone, and when a society is introduced into the ethos of modernity—from the rule of reason and women’s suffrage to the idea of natural rights of citizens and the notion of a community joined together by social contract and legitimized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular will—then it will invariably demand its democratic rights. That society will not tolerate the authoritarian rule of even a modernizing monarch capable of delivering impressive economic development. The shah tried to treat the people of Iran as “subjects” and expected their gratitude for the cultural freedoms and economic advancement he had “given” them. But he, and his father (and before them, the participants in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century), had helped develop a new cultural disposition by creating a parliament and a system of law wherein the people considered themselves citizens and thought of these liberties as their right—not as gifts benevolently bestowed upon them.

The promises of modernity and Enlightenment in so far as government are concerned are very beguiling. They may be outright lies, or they may be completely unachievable ideals — I’m not quite sure which yet. But they are the only game in town. I am not one of the people who believe old and tired adage that democracy is the worst of all possible governments except for all the rest. I am an anarchist with monarchist sympathies, and my ideal government is a pre-nation-state monarchy. But we don’t live in that time. The bureaucratic nation-state is how moderns govern themselves. There are no real alternatives. What most concerns me is the exercise of state power, and the reality that it is no more moral when exercised on behalf of the people than when it is on behalf of God or some embodied sovereign person. In fact, I think power is actually less moral when exercised in the name of the people, but for now, that is neither here nor there.

To an extent, this is what we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, what we see occasionally in Burma, what wiped out the Nepalese monarchy some years ago, what unseated Soviet Socialism in 1989, and what may rock the West at some point in time when it becomes clear that “democracy” is actually unresponsive oligarchy (though I’m not holding my breath; revolution may be impossible in consumer societies). I sympathize with all the folks who rebel — rebellion is my inclination as well — and I wish them luck, but I suspect many will be truly disappointed when, after their democratic revolutions, they discover they haven’t really solved anything.

However, I also know this — you do not tell hungry people that the food is bad.