The Arab world, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, is in a period of political upheaval. Large-scale, anti-regime violence defines Syria. Iran was in political turmoil in 2009. Myanmar is in domestic ferment. Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia is under continual, low-level pressure from pro-democracy demonstrators. Central Asia is quiet, but its Brezhnevite strongmen are more nervous than ever of the fever of rebellion. China's rulers are equally insecure.
The world is in a state that potentially alters geopolitics but that geopoliticians have no direct answer for: Why do men revolt? The best answer comes not from a work of political science but from one of philosophy: The Rebel, published in 1951 by the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus. "Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition," Camus wrote. "The very moment the slave refuses to accept the humiliating orders of his master, he simultaneously rejects the condition of slavery." In the early part of the Cold War, Camus had his eye on the assault on human dignity inflicted by Soviet communism, a system he intuited was impermanent. This won him the rebuke of Jean-Paul Sartre, that icon of the French intellectual left who worshipped Moscow. But in the way of a great classic, The Rebel has held up well for the more ambiguous circumstances of the present.
"The rebel's aim is to defend what he is," Camus intoned: that is, to defend the fact that he is not a slave. Truly, the regimes toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, decayed and reptilian, characterized by obscene cults of personality with little promise of political and economic reform, robbed people of their dignity and consequently made them feel like slaves. Every giant poster of former dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak told people on the street that they were nothing. And the upshot was revolt. Syria now seethes with such resentment. Because the Chinese dictatorship has wrought dramatic economic development and consequent personal freedoms, China may follow a different path, with uprisings more the result of unsatisfied, rising expectations rather than of abject humiliation — and of the acute awareness of unfulfilled aspirations made possible by electronic media.
Camus follows with two arresting insights. The first is that rebellions happen when sacred traditions are discarded, for tradition provides "eternal answers and commentaries," offering solace in times of bad government and thus providing breathing space for the unpopular rulers themselves. Those secular Arab dictatorships were clearly without tradition and were kept going over the decades by a combination of repression and inertia. But when conditions became ripe for revolt, they were defenseless, in the sense that they lacked an aura of traditional legitimacy in the eyes of the rebels.
Camus is not saying that tyrants have no defenders among the population, only that among those who do choose to revolt, fear is absent because rebels, as Camus defines them, are revolting against a slavery imposed by those who have not, in the rebels' eyes, earned their positions.
The collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe and the pressure upon alienating, traditionless tyrannies in the Middle East indicates that Camus is describing an eternal condition. In The Castle (1926), Franz Kafka asks what will take the place of traditional authority. That question has been with the Middle East ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when sheikhs and tribes still held considerable sway, and it has been with Russia since the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. It is a question that the Bolshevik Revolution never really answered. Kafka's answer is that whereas illegitimate authority defends only the "remote," his rebel protagonist is defending "himself" — the individual, in other words. Camus would surely agree.
"Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition," Camus wrote.
Camus' second arresting insight is, "The most elementary form of rebellion ... expresses an aspiration for order," because when the authorities do not respect the individual, disorder will reign — as tyranny becomes a masquerade for anarchy. This is very different from the yearning for a "new human order" that the Hungarian-born intellectual Arthur Koestler discerned in Europe between the two world wars that served as a prelude to fascism. Still, Camus intimates that by demanding order he knows he is on extremely dangerous ground.
"When the throne of God is overturned, the rebel realizes that it is now his own responsibility to create the justice, order and unity that he sought in vain within his own condition ..." In other words, the toppling of kings and tyrants in and of itself does not always morally justify the rebel. To do that, the rebel must replace the old order with a new one that is more just, or at least more benign. This is Camus' most profound critique of communism: By declaring God dead, it was incumbent upon the new ideology to provide its own moral universe, which it signally failed to do. The Stalinist cult of personality was a demonstration of power, not of morality. Even China, with the cult of Mao Zedong dramatically weakened, has seen religion grow exponentially because of a yearning for morality.
Ideology leads to murder, Camus concludes, reviewing the history of the 20th century. Thus, "all of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism." (Nihilism, a characteristic of both Nazism and Communism, is a rejection of all principles in the belief that life is meaningless.)
Camus' philosophy challenges all those in revolt today from Syria to Russia and beyond. It is often not enough to topple a system; one needs a credible plan and path forward to erect a better regime. Moreover, he writes, rebellion requires limits so as not to restrict the freedom of those not among rebel ranks. This is where Camus' philosophy is aligned with traditional statesmanship and in opposition to other intellectuals whose celebration of revolt was narcissistic and therefore not linked to the restitution of law and order.
The geopolitical universe we inhabit now is one governed by Camus' philosophy. Over the next decade, regimes in pivot states such as Syria, Iran, Russia, Myanmar and China likely will be challenged by their own people in ways that affect the global power system. The internal dynamics of these changes will be governed by the very order and discipline of those in revolt. If the rebels in Syria offer little but factional infighting that would provide an opening for further sectarian struggles, then President Bashar al Assad may hold on to power for the time being. If unrest elsewhere is similarly scattershot and lacking the virtue of a unifying idea, then old regimes may soldier on.
The fact is that tyrannies do not govern in a vacuum. They often do so from a base of at least some popular support. This is a truth alien to the American experience but not to Camus'. His very definition of a true rebel — someone possessing the wish to establish justice and virtue — fits well with the notion that the overthrow of tyranny must be earned by offering something better.
Camus' nightmare is that rebellion can lead to even worse tyrannies than the ones we have. But, as he says, ever since the mythical Prometheus rebelled against Zeus in the deserts of Scythia, revolt has been a distinguishing characteristic of man. One task of geopolitics is to ascertain how close the various rebellions around the world come to Camus' standard of virtue, for that will be a sign of how close they are to succeeding.