Small Wars Journal

The Revolution Behind the Attempted Revolution

Mon, 01/11/2021 - 8:41pm

The Revolution Behind the Attempted Revolution

By Frank Sobchak

(Editor’s note: We realize this is a complex time in America.  SWJ does not publish overtly partisan pieces but will publish objective analysis about current events such as this essay which is designed to drive critical thinking and discussion)

Was the Capitol Riot America’s equivalent of the Reichstag Fire?  Or were the shots fired there more akin to those of Fort Sumter, presaging a second Civil War?  Making a comparison to other singular micro events in history is often problematic due to the many differences in each case.  But exploring the causes behind the revolt, especially the macro events that shaped the environment in which dissent, anger, and frustration have festered, is far easier.  The insurrection that played out across the offices and hallways of the U.S. Capitol was not just a reflection of the anger and seditious behavior of some  Americans, it was a symptom of the fissures wrought by the information revolution which has been tearing the fabric of global society apart for the last few decades. 

The information revolution is not the first time when innovations created a turning point in history where nearly every aspect of daily life was radically altered.   During the Industrial Revolution, the shift from skilled craft workers and agriculture to factories and mass production led to massive disruptions in people’s lives.  Unable to adapt quickly enough or lacking the required skills for the new economy, many people lost their jobs and livelihoods.  Working conditions in the new factories were often horrific, and unskilled workers could be replaced with relative ease- further threatening their very existence.

In addition to those economic impacts, the Industrial Revolution drove considerable political and social change.  Economic disruptions and abuses gave rise to the political ideologies of communism and socialism.  Anarchists provided their own nihilistic solution to the revolutionary changes, aiming to bring down the new order through assassinations of political leaders and bombings of state institutions that they blamed for their misfortunes.  The Industrial Revolution also drove social change, often empowering those who previously had no voice through unions, suffrage organizations, and civil rights movements.  Those changes challenged the existing social order, which created additional friction and led, at times, to violence. 

We are experiencing a similar type of change today, if not more intense.   Like the Industrial Revolution before it, today’s information revolution has created massive social, political, military, and economic turmoil.  But because the impacts of the Industrial Revolution were spread out across nearly a century and a half, its effects were diffused and somewhat easier to process.  Today’s changes are amplified by the speed of technological transformation and are occurring at a much faster pace, creating even more disruptions and disorder.

Paralleling the Industrial Revolution, the information revolution has created intense political, economic, and social turmoil.  As those changes scythed across America, they left economic destruction in their wake, creating a “rust belt” where factories now lay idle and jobs were lost as work was downsized and offshored to new global companies.   Mass production of goods could be done with fewer workers due to technology while computer, technical, and service jobs replaced only a portion of the lost industrial era positions.  Many lacked the skills to compete for those new jobs.  Former industrial giants such as IBM and GE are now feeble, and the dais of business is now occupied by Apple, Google, and Facebook.  Old political parties which once represented the majority are beset by their own internal rebellions and are fracturing into splinter elements.  Social movements clamoring for more freedom, representation, and equality are challenging established elites- both peacefully and violently.  Information which had been previously only disseminated by hand or through established media outlets that rigorously reviewed accuracy and sources now can be spread by anyone who can set up their own YouTube channel or website.

Revolutions such as those we are now experiencing are difficult for humans to navigate as change occurs faster than our cognitive abilities to adapt at the individual level.  Governments are even less capable of addressing those changes, and when those changes result in economic upheaval, they are rarely able to put in place programs quickly enough to adapt and cushion the blow.  Even private enterprise often is too slow to navigate the changes, and many traditional companies from the previous era collapse or stumble.  In their place, new companies often aim to cement monopolies or near monopolies over their respective business sector. 

In Ted Gurr’s classic treatise, Why Men Rebel, he argued that the potential for violence is causally related to the difference between what people believe they deserve and what they think they are capable of achieving.  Frustration, when experienced over a long enough period of time, can lead to bloodshed.  Because the information revolution has occurred so quickly, the relative sense of deprivation between what many Americans feel they deserve, because they experienced the bounties of the American dream in their own lifetime, and what they believe they can now achieve is great.  In a phrase, many Americans note this degree of relative deprivation when they call for “making America great again.”  The growth in media outlets and development of social media has highlighted that disparity to many of those who were left behind by the economic changes of the information revolution.  Programs focused on wealth and million-dollar mansions have allowed the struggling under class (many of whom were not part of that strata until the arrival of information age disruptions) to see how other Americans are living in comparative opulence.  Such experiences serve as bitter reminders to the relative deprivation they are experiencing.

For those who have the skills to navigate the changes of the information revolution, they will be economically successful and those changes are little more than a personal annoyance.  But for those who don’t have those skills, they are abandoned by the modern economy and the “brave new world.”  Unable to recognize society around them due to the pace of change, and likely struggling to maintain work, they become angry and lash out at those that they feel should have protected them.  Joining fringe political movements seems to be the only way for them to regain their former status.  Ashli Babbitt, a casualty of the Capitol uprising who struggled after her military service and saw her business fail, is exemplary of those who tried to adapt but were left behind.  In an odd and perverse way, the information revolution also served to help connect those in that group and amplify their anger and ability to plan their counter revolution against the “new world order.”   Ample evidence existed of disaffected segments of society funneling their anger from these changes towards the symbolic event of Congress certifying an electoral college win on January 6th that would seemingly upend their attempts to return to an earlier “greater” era.   Disruption, unrest, and violence was a foregone conclusion.  

While it is easier to assess the tectonic forces at play that have led to these events, it is much harder to chart the course forward and to try to predict what will happen next.  Despite many assurances that the Republic will hold and that good will triumph over evil, history is replete with examples of the opposite and it is far from certain what will be the long-term impact of these momentous days.  To tamp down the caustic effects of the information revolution and prevent future “6 Januarys,” the U.S. government should immediately begin implementing programs to minimize the impact of those social and economic disruptions.  More efforts should be made to try to help those who have been left behind to catch up to the changes that have occurred.  Because if we don’t, this will likely be just one in a series of more serious tumultuous events that undermine the foundation of the Republic.

About the Author(s)

Frank Sobchak (Colonel, Retired) is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Tufts University.  He holds a BS in Military History from West Point and a MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.  During his twenty-six-year career in the U.S. Army, he served in various Special Forces assignments including leading teams and companies in 5th Special Forces Group advising foreign militaries and representing U.S. Special Operations Command as a congressional liaison.  His final assignments included garrison command (akin to being a mayor or city manager of an Army base) and leading the Army effort to publish an official history of the Iraq War.  That effort spanned five years and included the declassification of over 30,000 pages of documents and several hundred interviews in addition to having access to a similar sized set of documents and interviews that had not yet been released.  The project’s culmination resulted in the publication of the 1,500-page two volume set, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War.  He has been a frequent contributor to television, radio, and print interviews for topics such as Middle East security matters, defense reform, civil military relations, and special operations forces.   He is a contributor (Fellow) at the MirYam Institute and has been published in Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Defense One, The Hill, Small Wars Journal, and The Jewish News Syndicate.  His twitter handle is @abujeshua



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:00am

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Tue, 03/23/2021 - 11:14am

Revolutions can change history positively and negatively. In any case, revolution is a way to be heard by governors. I've analyzed reasons that have caused revolutions, along with and this resource I've concluded that the main point is the violence of the people's rights. Everyone deserves to have a good education, work conditions, speech freedom, and so on. And it's ok when people fight for their rights. 

Biggs Darklighter

Tue, 01/19/2021 - 1:56am

The opening comments in the essay seem extremely biased, or at least unbalanced, and the author presents only a binary choice of "Reichstag Fire" or "Fort Sumter" with the assumption that the Capitol riot WAS an insurrection.  Really? Perhaps it was just a riot.  It's hard to believe a disorganized mob of several hundred people would think they could conduct an insurrection against the entire defense apparatus of the U.S.   

Taking the authors pedigree into account, I was very surprised nothing was mentioned about the free speech crisis going on in America today.   He misses the most critical problem with the information revolution the attack on free speech.  Few, if any, could foresee the monolithic and oppressive power of Big Tech oligarchs and media outlets who not only censor a President they disagree with, but censor common citizens whose political views they disagree with, while they concurrently allow riots and domestic terrorism to be planned on their platforms by left wing organizations which caused the most expensive man made disaster in U.S. history.

The author's solution that, "the U.S. government should immediately begin implementing programs to minimize the impact of those social and economic disruptions" is about clear as mud.  So, implement another government program with an ambiguous objective based on an unsubstantiated and unclear argument?     

Finally, the author's thesis that economic success is tied to a persons "skills to navigate the changes of the information revolution " doesn't have much evidence to stand on.  For many, economic success isn't tied to the information revolution...unless you work for Big Tech or the media perhaps....but tied to hard work, persistence, critical thinking, risk taking and the endless pursuit of knowledge and self improvement.   

The author does discuss some good points on why people rebel but the essay overall makes no other solid arguments otherwise.




Jeff Goodson

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 9:52am

Good article.  But the problem isn't technology.  It's the use of technology.  Big Tech's (Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, YouTuge, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, TikTok etc.) pogrom of conservative thinkers last week--using the riot at the Capitol as a pretext--will certainly be remembered as one of the most toxic catalysts splitting the nation apart at this critical juncture in American history.    

MAJ Sack

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:27am

Sir, a solid foundation for examination but any observer, I believe, would have to acknowledge that no matter the extent of economic woes felt by those involved in the capitol riot on January 6th, few could surpass the motivation of group identity. Gurr argued in his work as well for the role of group identity as a motivator. This self-identification is based in cultural elements and are as central to a person's sense of purpose, and in this case I would argue more so, than any economic factors. Those many of us that have spent time involved with the War of Terror should identify this motivator from hard earned experience.

Tom Triumph

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:13pm

Great article.  I went in thinking this was going to be a rehash of instant communication, but was pleasantly surprised. 

In looking at history, it is filled with communication similar to what we see today.  For example, during the election of 1800 candidates not only spread vicious rumors about the other, but even spread word that the other was dead, hoping to suppress the vote.  The deep fakes, trampered and cut videos, and proliferation of fake news and conspiracies of is just more of the same.  Perhaps there is more of it than a simple pamphlet delivered on horseback, but the effect is the same.  Distrust.

Thank you for tipping me off on Gurr's Why Men Rebel.  I just ordered it.  The ideas you share from it explain a lot.  If the debt crisis of 2008 taught us anything it was that many Americans want to live beyond their means.  I see it in the new trucks my neighbors drive and the student debt my sons' peers take on.

The sad truth about Trump is that he represented a number of important ideas for the future of America, but he could not get out of his own way.  We do need to stop the endless wars.  We do need to rethink manufacturing and industry in our own country.  Tradition is important, but rethinking how and why do things is a very American strength.  Even as I lean pretty left, I fear that these important ideas, and more, will be lost among all of the events of the last four years. 

As an educator, I see joy when students work with their hands and build.  Among my neighbors, they spend their free time puttering and working on cars and boats and their houses and they enjoy it.  Baking and building are such are fixations in our country, if television show popularity are to be believed.  Perhaps the solution to our problems involve both information and communication--less social media and more doing and taking ownership and sharing that doing with others.



Thu, 01/14/2021 - 7:56am

Typo alert: I believe you meant “deprivation” when you said “depravation”. Even though the pronunciation is almost identical, the difference in meaning is significant.


Tue, 01/12/2021 - 9:02pm

Enjoyed the article Sir. I am tempted to suggest the underlying revolution is one of communication rather than information. Without picking sides, one could attack all sorts of relevant communications (to the group) on whether they contain any real information. The communications though, however devoid of any real information, are strategically important to the actors and ultimately their conduct. My comment might sound pedantic, but my point is the ability to communicate in ways not seen before has had more of a transformative impact than anything else. I wonder if focusing on that aspect of the revolution might lead to better insight as to what lie ahead??