What do global protests signify?

Christopher Dickey writes: Not long before he went to the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last month and put a pistol to his head and killed himself, the French historian Dominique Venner was contemplating the contagion of revolt that occasionally sweeps around the globe like a pandemic. “How are revolutions born?” he asked.

Despite Venner’s radical right-wing background the principles he listed in a blog post were not so much ideological as sociological. And as we look at the tumult in the streets from Brazil to Turkey; the ferocious politics of post-uprising Egypt and the sucking wound of the Syrian civil war, I’m struck by a maxim in Venner’s essay that’s so floridly French, it’s hard to utter, unless you’re sitting at Café de Flore in Paris with a cup of espresso and a Gauloises. “The effervescence,” Venner wrote, “is not the revolution.”

Effervescence may mean fizz as in English but in French it also means excitement or turmoil, and effervescence often wells up when a regime — often caught completely by surprise — suddenly has to face several different conflicts. The fizz is the screw-the-system, we’re-all-in-this-together, down-with-whoever, up-with-whatever part of the process that takes place when the government starts to lose its grip on power, and disorder becomes endemic.

You see that in Brazil right now, where a million people turned out to protest on Thursday. There was violence, sure, and one person died, but there was samba, too, and the kind of adrenaline rush that comes from massive collective excitement. A lot of people find the effervescence fun in its early stages. But as Chairman Mao famously said, a revolution is not a dinner party. Effervescence doesn’t become a revolution until it’s organized and lead by a party or a person, and then things start to get really serious, and can get really ugly. [Continue reading…]

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