Will technology create something akin to another French Revolution or Civil Wars across the West?

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Will technology create something akin to another French Revolution or Civil Wars across the West?

We are in the midst of a revolution: the Fourth Industrial Revolution; but could new technology create unrest akin to a new French Revolution but this time across the West? Or is Civil War a danger?  When the French King Louis XVI heard that a handful of prisoners held in a prison fortress known as the Bastille had been set free by enraged Parisians, he asked a Duke: “Is it a revolt?” To which came the reply: “No, Sire, it is a revolution.”

The storming of the Bastille occurred 231 years ago. It is often seen as the event that exemplifies The French Revolution. Today, we are in the midst of an entirely different revolution; the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  It’s a revolution that holds much promise, but it also comes with danger. It is not inconceivable that the Revolution of business and industry might lead to a civil Revolution, one characterised by violence and blood.  

How likely is this?

How likely is it that advances in technology might trigger something akin to a latter-day French Revolution, but maybe in another country, or perhaps spread across the economically mature world?

Or, might we instead see something slightly different: Civil War?

This article relates to technology and possible conflict. You might agree that there is risk of a latter-day French-style Revolution or Civil War but see only a limited connection with technology. We would disagree with that: technology innovation is always there in the background. So, let us illustrate this by taking a brief look at the causes of the French Revolution and the role played by technology. Then move on and compare this with the English Civil War, and its relationship with technology. And then let’s take a look at what is happening today.

The common denominators

In a classic study, published in 1962, James Davies looked for common characteristics behind revolutions in history.  Among his findings: Revolution often occurs following a period which had seen rising living standards, creating a sense of optimism; followed in turn by falling living standards.  

Successful revolutions require support from across social classes — if the poor rise up without support from wealthier sections of society, then the Revolution usually fails. If the richer, perhaps business class, rise up in-fury, then to borrow words from Davies: “Well-fed, well-educated people who rebel in the face of apathy among the objectively deprived, can at best expect a coup d’etat.”

He added: “The objectively deprived, when faced with solid opposition from people of wealth, status and power, will be smashed in their rebellion.” But there is often another factor at play. Revolution usually follows a period in which new ideas emerge. The spread of new ideas can be encouraged by a technology that supports their mass communication. In the case of the French Revolution, the proliferation of printing presses enabling the dissemination of texts by well-known writers such as Rousseau and popular literature helped light a spark, without which the Revolution might never have happened. The French Revolution  In France, improvement in rural prosperity, had been such that by the mid-years of the seventeenth century, a third of the French land was owned by ‘French peasants,’ suggests Davies in his study.  A combination of events led to a reversal of these happy circumstances.

For one thing, France experienced what one might call a Malthusian trap: higher living standards led a booming population. France’s intervention in the American Revolution had come at a substantial cost — government debt had risen enormously and, to pay for it, taxes increased. That, in combination with a bad harvest, hit the French population hard.

The merchant class, the so-called Bourgeois, had become an essential contributor to the French economy but was largely excluded from political decision making.

The French people had been avidly reading the works of philosophers, enabled by the many printing presses, creating a kind of popular philosophical debate.

Religion was changing. When Martin Luther introduced religious ideas that ran contrary to the prevailing views of the Catholic Church, people began to question long-held beliefs. In France, for example, the divine right of kings was no longer popularly accepted. Martin Luther himself had lived 200 years before the French Revolution, but he merely created a beginning. By questioning the Catholic Church, he sparked a chain of events which eventually meant that in France, the King could no longer count on the unconditional support of his people. What role did technology play? Technology played a role in the events that led to the French Revolution in two key ways:

· Firstly, technology innovations had helped lift the standard of living in France and certainly supported the expansion of a prosperous merchant class.

· The wide proliferation of the printing press was the means by which new ideas spread, as Martin Luther himself said: “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”

The English Civil War

England had gone through its own period of turmoil a hundred years earlier, but there was one big difference. The French Revolution saw the mass population and bourgeois class unite against a tiny minority of the population.

In England, there was a great division. “History,” as Churchill said, “is written by the victors.” The Parliamentarians won the English Civil War, and the history books are replete with tales describing the terrible deeds conducted by the English King, Charles I.

The superficial analysis describes the Civil War as a clash between Protestants and Catholics— a king who believed he held that position because it was what God wished and those who saw the world differently.

If that analysis was both the truth and the whole truth, we could once again single out the printing press as the technology that provided the means of spreading ideas that created the conditions and the momentum for rebellion against the King.

As ever with these things, the reality was subtle. When we drill down, we find the moral Parliamentarians were often motivated by money — and maybe not quite as righteous as we are told.

But if Charles I, was so bad, why did he draw such popular support?

Why did England experience Civil War and not Revolution?  

We find another factor at play, and this time we find new technology and a new way of organising the economy was behind the change.

The English Agrarian Revolution created new efficient ways of farming, and the old system of organising agriculture, intro thin strips of land owned by peasants and common pasture land, seemed inefficient.

And so, we had the enclosure movement. Strips of land were replaced by fields enclosed by fences or hedges, marking ownership. Agricultural production became an order of magnitude greater; we saw the beginning of a new capitalist class who may have created the industrial revolutions to follow.

But we also saw peasants ejected from their land, for derisory compensation, and often left destitute.  The causes of the English Civil War were complex.

It would be a simplification to say England was divided between those who benefited from enclosures — the wealthy landlords/merchants and those work worked for them either directly or indirectly, on the one hand — and those who were impoverished by enclosures; but it would be broadly right.

Another lesson

Nick Hanauer, argues that inequality is dangerous for two core reasons. Firstly, it starves the economy of the aggregate demand it needs to grow (as the richer you are, the less you tend to spend as a proportion of your income); secondly, it leads to social unrest and to use Hanaur’s terminology, ‘the pitchforks’ will then demand change and apply violence to enforce it.

But the lessons of many revolutions and civil wars in the past is that we often saw an alliance between the pitchfork waving peasants, and more affluent classes. Not that such alliances were always based on an honest understanding.

As the Parliamentarian Lord Essex said: “I am determined to devote my life to repressing the audacity of the common people,”

The lessons of today You don’t need to be an expert on modern politics to know that there are some (how shall we put this gently?) issues today!  Whether you fear the rise of the hard-right or hard left, even fascism, you probably agree we live in times when politics has become more extreme.

And if we were to line-up a series of boxes that have characterised revolutions of the past, such as the French Revolution, or Civil Wars, such as the English Civil War, and compare with today, we can start putting an awful lot of ticks in the boxes. Maybe, though, given the divisions we see in society, if we do see some form of internal conflict, the Civil War seems more likely than Revolution.


Technology helped created these conditions in three key ways:

1· Through the internet. Social media and our ever-present smartphones, spreading ideas and incubating new ideas. Our smartphones with their inbuilt video cameras supported by social media advance new causes — maybe we can cite the Arab Spring as the first such example, the Gilets Jaunes movement in France as another and the Black Lives Matter protests as the latest. Such unrest is not necessarily negative, the authors feel considerable sympathy with those involved in some of the above causes, and just as the French Revolution helped create democracy, popular movements today may bring change for the better. A more significant concern may relate to the division, while opinion might be strong on one side, others feel just as strongly on the other side. Echo chambers, groupthink and group polarisation combine to create extremes. And it is these extremes that create the risk of violent clashes.

· Through creating inequality. Just as enclosures in England create wealth but sowed inequality and discontent, new technology and its close cousin globalisation, is associated with wider inequality within countries. It is complex. It seems that globally, inequality has fallen, that people on the lowest levels of income have seen incomes levels rise. Still, those around two-thirds of the way up the income league have seen income level either fall or stagnate. Across much the West, however, the people who fall into this bracket make up a high proportion of the population. See the elephant chart.

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· The third factor, perversely, relates to lack of technology. And we need to give this a fuller explanation: The golden age of innovation occurred during the First and Second Industrial Revolution.

The Second of these revolutions ended around 1914. For the next 75 years or so, technology built mainly on the legacy of these revolutions. During the twenty-three years or so, after World War 2, the West enjoyed its fastest period of growth ever as we learned how to convert the potential created by the advances of the previous era into prosperity.  (In the US this period began a little sooner.)

During this golden age of growth, average incomes rose, and there was a growing expectation that things were going to improve steadily. By the mid-1970s the technology gap had primarily closed, and income growth slowed.  This decline then reversed for a few years thanks to the IT revolution, known as the Third Revolution. However, ever since roughly the turn of the century, growth has been mostly dependent on low-interest rates driving up house prices enabling homeowners to fund their lifestyles via debt.  

The 2008 crash saw a partial correction, but as policymakers responded to this crisis with even lower interest rates and austerity, the problems have become compounded. In the aftermath of the Covid-crisis, we will witness yet further wealth redistribution and risk mass unemployment and falling wages.

The fourth Industrial Revolution  

We are now in the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In our book, Living in the Age of the Jerk, we argue that there will also be a Fifth Industrial Revolution. The Fourth Revolution is mainly about data, information. AI, automation and technologies to support it. The Fifth Revolution is about augmentation.  

Both revolutions will create significant advances in our living standards.  But if we do not ensure the fruits from these revolutions spread out and benefit us all, then we risk re-creating the conditions that have led to civil unrest in the past. Neither a French-style Revolution nor a Civil War appears to be likely, but the risk is not remote either.  

In Living in the Age of the Jerk, we look at the risk that the Fourth and Fifth Industrial revolutions might lead to conflict; in the form of civil war, revolution, war between nations or with the machine.
It is time for us all to join the debate. Our future and that of future generations need us. It is time for us all to understand the issues, decipher truth from fake news, opportunity from threat, ambition from greed, and hope from despair.

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