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.

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