Phase Change and Revolutions

Phase changes don’t usually happen instantly, like in the video, but they are sudden from the perspective of temperature. You don’t see a few ice crystals forming at 40 degrees, a few large chunks of ice at 38, the water halfway frozen at 34, and the whole thing solid at 32. No, at 34 degrees, water is liquid. Water is a liquid all the way from 100 to 33 degrees, and then suddenly, without warning, it transforms at 32 (even if it takes a little time.) By 31.9, it’s a solid chunk.

One of the enduring mysteries of political science is “Why did no one in political science predict the fall of the Soviet Union?” One of the other enduring mysteries of political science is “Why on earth did the Soviet Union fall when it did? Why not earlier–or later?”

Political regimes don’t fall very often. We can look around the world today and see a number of repressive states–North Korea, Venezuela, Iran–that don’t look like they’re doing a very good job of taking care of their citizens, yet their governments stay firmly in power. Why don’t these regimes fall? Or will they–someday?

I propose that regime change is much like phase changes–difficult to predict because they simply cannot happen before a specific point, and they happen so rarely that we don’t have enough data to test exactly which conditions are necessary to make them occur, much less figure out whether those conditions currently exist within a foreign society.

There are probably two main things necessary for something like the fall of the Soviet Union:

First, a majority of the people with guns–the armed forces in most countries, but a lot of civilians in the US–need to stop believing in the regime.

Second, the majority that no longer believes in the regimes’ legitimacy has to know that it is a majority.

Since opposing the regime will usually get you shot, no one wants to be the first guy to say that he doesn’t believe in the regime. Since opposing the regime will get you shot, even people who oppose the regime will go ahead and shoot comrades who have opposed the regime in fear that if they don’t, they will also be shot.

100% of people in a system can oppose the regime and the regime will still keep charging on, shooting dissenters, if no one knows that everyone else is also opposed to the regime.

So how does regime change actually happen?

First, you need crazy people willing to charge, like Don Quixote, at windmills and regimes. These people will usually get shot, which is why they need to be crazy. But if enough people have already decided that the regime is not particularly legitimate, there is a possibility that one of them will decide to be lenient. They will quietly decide not to shoot the revolutionary.

The fall of the Berlin Wall happened almost by accident–new regulations were passed regarding round-trip travel in the Soviet Union and this was read aloud on the radio in a way that made it sound like anyone who wanted was now allowed through the checkpoints into West Berlin, effective immediately. Thousands of people showed up within hours, demanding to be let through (after all, it had been officially announced, as far as they knew.) The overwhelmed border guards didn’t want to shoot that many people, so after a bit of conferring, they gave in and let everyone through.

There were plenty of cracks already in the USSR’s hold on power, but like a tap to the side of a bottle of supercooled water, this one little mistake caused a knowledge cascade. The thousands of people who showed up at the checkpoint (and didn’t get shot) now knew that there were thousands of other people who agreed with them–and soon that knowledge spread to everyone else in East Germany and the rest of the USSR.

The difficulty with predicting when a regime will fall is the difficulty of predicting a random tap to the bottle or a little dust for the first crystals to form around–and that’s assuming you have a state that has already lost legitimacy in the eyes of most of its citizens. If it hasn’t, that same tap does nothing–and unfortunately, states are much more complicated than bottles of water, and so involve a lot more variables than just temperature.

It’s getting late, but I think this suggests that the thing for most regimes (not even official regimes) is not to control legitimacy (that’s hard if, say, the peasants are starving), but to control what people know and make sure they’re convinced that if they step out of line, they will get shot. So long as shooting is on the table, even people who don’t like the regime will go along and enforce it by shooting dissidents.

The whole point of purity spirals and outrage mobs, then, may be to enforce the idea to people that “if you cross this line, you will get [metaphorically] shot” to people thinking of defecting from ideologies within a culture. It doesn’t even matter if the people being destroyed by the mob actually did anything wrong, so long as the mob is effective at destruction.

14 thoughts on “Phase Change and Revolutions

  1. Megan McArdle advanced exactly the same theory of revolutions here:–and-then-all-at-once/2019/01/24/7f3adae8-200e-11e9-8e21-59a09ff1e2a1_story.html

    I see an oddity in here:

    I think this suggests that the thing for most regimes (not even official regimes) is not to control legitimacy (that’s hard if, say, the peasants are starving), but to control what people know and make sure they’re convinced that if they step out of line, they will get shot.

    The part about a credible threat of shooting dissidents makes sense. But I don’t see how “controlling what people know” is a different project from “controlling (perception of) the regime’s legitimacy”. I think those are the same thing. Sure, it’s hard to maintain a grip on popular legitimacy if the populace is all starving to death. But also, if the populace is all starving to death, they’re all going to know about it. There is no common-knowledge problem to solve in that case. And in fact popular unrest due to food shortages is really common historically.

    I actually thought a different issue from the McArdle piece was more interesting. It describes how Maduro’s regime has completely lost popular legitimacy through the total failure of the economy of the state it governs. And fair enough. It goes on to say that the Maduro regime may well hold on to power by the old-fashioned means of buying off the judiciary and the military. And again, fair enough.

    But buying off the judiciary and the military is a very realist, ideologically neutral thing to do. As far as I understand things, Maduro implemented (or continued) policies that everyone (else) knew were going to fail disastrously, and he got a lot of warnings to that effect. His policies failed in exactly the way everyone predicted. The failure at this point is so total that he’s facing popular revolt. But he won’t change the economic policies.

    He’s known the whole time how to avoid the problems he has right now, and he knows right now how to solve them. (Or, I guess he knew how to solve them as of the moment right before an actual revolution was declared.) That would undermine his legitimacy as a Socialist Ruler. But it wouldn’t undermine his legitimacy as the guy who bought off the judges. The military won’t support you less just because you’re more popular and stand on a firmer fiscal footing. Soldiers appreciate both of those things.

    Why did he never reform?


  2. There is Spandrell’s theory, which – if I interpret it correctly – says that it is when people roughly on the mid-level whose loyalty to a regime matters, not quite middle class, more like career administrators. People very high on the food chain have no reason to revolt, people very low cannot. And the loyalty of the middle is controlled largely through selecting for stupid people who must be loyal to the regime, because they had no career otherwise, could not get ahead on the marketplace. But of course a state ran by stupid people does not work well, so there is also the incentive to recruit more capable people into the administration, which in turn leads to disloyalty because they are confident they can also prosper in a new kind of political system.

    And this really checks out for many Soviet satellites. Once recruitment got more meritocratic, the new, “technocrat” party apparatus, in opposition to the old, semi-Stalinist, stupid “concrete-heads” generally went along with changing the system because they were able to privatize state businesses to themselves, become oligarchs and do similar things. And it is better to be a rich capitalist in a crony capitalist system than an apparatchik in a semi-Stalinist system who can always be purged and cannot drive a Ferrari openly.

    So I like this theory because it matches the facts I see, if younger, more intelligent apparatchiks reinvented themselves as oligarchs, as owners of large formerly state-owned businesses, maybe they did not just use a random opportunity, maybe they in some serious way engineered the downfall of the old system.

    And it reflects how the opposite of it happened. How Communist revolutions happened? It was engineered by a fairly educated middle class, who could grab power, and while they could not just steal and own businesses outright as private property (that was the Nazi method, be Jewish, sign your business over to Göring, get a passport and a ticket to America), making them state property and making themselves as the sole administrators of state property was clearly the second best for them.

    So look at modern America. There are more and more jobs administering tax money, and less and less tax money due to all the taxes and regulations depressing the economy. So it is either food fight to the last scraps in service of the current state… or a big change. But it has to be a big change in a way that people of a broadly middle or even upper but not topmost class, currently working for the state or for other influential institution like the media, can grab themselves lots of wealth and status. Otherwise it does not happen. It could be a Communist revolution, outright taking over private businesses in the name of the state.Or it could be a mass reduction in the size of the sale and them grabbing them up a lot of state property for peanuts. But frankly neither is likely as the American method is not fight too much over who owns what but mostly fight over the regulations, over how that is ran.

    So my prediction of a potential revolutionary change in America will look like sudden, massive deregulation, in a way that it directly benefits (moderately) influential people who are in the right position to benefit from it. For example, there will be a tacit understanding that a lot of housing problems could be solved by construction deregulation, both in the “where” and “how” to build, and the fedgov employees who engineer it all own construction company shares under the name of their grandmothers.


    • This sounds like Peter Turchin’s theory of “elite overproduction” as one of the factors contributing to revolution. As I understand it, the concept is that the society can support a certain number of elites, and if more prospective elites are trained than there are slots available to fill, this tends to promote revolution.


    • I don’t think the Bioleninist lunkheads in the CPSU intentionally decided to start recruiting smarter people. Rather, smart people figured out how to speak and act to get cushy jobs in the nomenklatura. The very definition of intelligence is how quickly you adjust your game plan when the rules change. If the path to success is pretending to be an idiot, a black person, a Native American, or a woman, do it. (e.g. Trump, Dolezal, Warren, and Fallon Fox, respectively).

      This isn’t happening in Venezuela because its borders are open, so the smart people just leave.


  3. The wholesale surprise in the West that the Great Socialist Experiment failed probably came partly from many academics believing in the validity of communism, even after Stalin, and because they actually trusted official economic output figures from a country where “people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them”.


  4. I remember around the time the Berlin Wall fell to the Soviet Union breaking up and a while after, trying to understand the idea that they couldn’t trust the people around them, and constantly worrying about what they said, and having to be super secretive about ideas. Not that I think we’re really anywhere close to that–if I started mouthing off about politics to friends and family, I’d have to deal with strident arguments, and likely more than a little social ostracism… but not literal re-education camp or gulags or whatever… but I can understand the idea in a way that I just couldn’t 25 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If what you’re theorising is true, how can the west still be going so strong after so long?

    Every white English, American, Canadian, German etc know the elites of their country are selling their future & children’s future down the drain for short term gain.

    They know birth rates among whites is record low & still falling while the African Muslim influx is rising & they have huge birth rates (therefore demographically displacing the native people).

    Everybody knows & has known this for decades yet it keeps going without any sense of halt. How can you reconcile these positions?


  6. 1. is a [well-known in Eastern Europe] counter example to “Why did no one in political science predict the fall of the Soviet Union”

    2. The USSR was intentionally disassembled by Gorbachev&Co who instead might have stayed in power for another 20 years. And easily crash the Eastern Germany uprising too – don’t forget ~500K of Soviet troops on the ground. discusses those years in detail.

    A more recent example was the Ukraine where a dictator was not ruthless enough. Or Russia where another one has been. People at the very top matter. If not for the Glorious God-Emperor we would be cutting trees with a dull saw in reeducation camps by now.

    3. The Soviet revolution was such an incredibly messy enterprise a single model is unlikely to explain it. is an outstanding blow-by-blow description.


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