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The Revolution of Rising Expectations


Starving peasants storm the Bastille because oppression has driven them beyond the limits of human endurance. It is the quintessential image of political revolution. But what if it is wrong? Or what if there is an equally powerful force that also creates revolution and contradicts this received image?

The phrase “a revolution of rising expectations” became popular after World War II. It refers to a situation in which a rise in prosperity and freedom leads people to believe they can improve life for themselves and their families. It leads them to seek political changes that will allow them to pursue opportunity. World War II destabilized the power structure of the world. Former colonies threw off the old imperialism and embraced the prospect of independence, all the while longing for the prosperity of the West. Average people in poor and oppressed nations began to hope for a sliver more of prosperity and freedom.

In the 1950s, a revolution of rising expectations and demands created political revolutions from the Far East to Latin America and Africa. The political instability often ended badly, as revolutions that turn violent do, but that fact makes the phenomenon no less remarkable.

It is a truth that tyrants and despots have long known: downtrodden people obey because they believe there is no option; no other action is likely to better their lives. Totalitarian regimes quash any sparkle of nonconformity because it expresses choice and it cannot be controlled.

The same is true of hope. Hopeful people want to control their own lives, and they demand or simply take the political space to do so. They are especially prone to doing so when culture and news flow freely around the globe, allowing people to compare their standard of living and freedoms with those of others. That makes control of information a top priority for regimes that wish to maintain power. Happily, few things are as difficult to contain.

All that means that improving the lives of average people is a profoundly revolutionary act whether or not those who do so intend it as such. The mere act of producing goods and services produces freedom as well because it makes people aware of their choices and the possibility of expanding them. The opportunities ushered in by the free market establish a thirst for more. Unless a person is willing to cheat and steal, the “more” requires freedom.

History of rising expectations

The idea of “a revolution of rising expectations” has been dated back to insights offered by the historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856) — The Old Regime and the French Revolution.

The aristocratic Tocqueville, whose mother and father were imprisoned and nearly executed in the French Revolution, commented on a dynamic that might seem counterintuitive. Most histories of that revolution dwell upon the hideous deprivations of the French peasants — and rightly so — but Tocqueville noted something odd. The strongest revolutionary sentiment was found in regions where prosperity had been growing. People for whom the bonds of servitude had recently loosened were the loudest voices for change.

Tocqueville wrote that

it is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into a revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened.

The revolution results from the realization of alternatives and possibilities. Freedom breeds freedom so surely that Tocqueville concluded, “Only a great genius can save a prince who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long oppression. The evil, which was suffered patiently as inevitable, seems unendurable as soon as the idea of escaping from it is conceived.”

It is a different approach to analyzing revolution. Karl Marx believed that worsening conditions drove the engine of revolt. Arguably, that meant that the worse things become, the better things become, because the day of freedom draws closer.

But what if the better things become, the better things become? What if despair, stagnation, and fatalism are the props of authoritarian rule and not the inspiration for freedom? If that analysis is correct, then every person who produces a good or service, every individual who adds a choice to the lives of others is a revolutionary. The fact that he or she profits by doing so is to be applauded.

Analyzing the dynamic

The revolution of rising expectations is often broken into two initial stages. First, a modest increase in prosperity and freedom raises the average person’s expectation of what is possible in life. Second, greater access to resources, especially education and information, raises that person’s awareness of oppression and his unwillingness to tolerate it.

Perhaps that explains why social revolt so often brews in places of opportunity rather than ones of stark oppression. Revolutions flow from universities, where comparatively privileged young people believe change is possible and within their grasp. Revolutionaries notoriously come from the upper or middle class; they are usually people who cannot claim the victimization experienced by the poverty-stricken.

The oppressed are often uninterested in working for social change. Marx called them the “lumpenproletariat” and scorned them for not understanding their own class interest well enough to rise up against the state.

In a sense, this is bad news — or, at least, it has an unfortunate implication. Authoritarian regimes may refuse to loosen their control on the grounds that freedom begets freedom. That scenario was lent credibility by a relatively recent event. On January 1, 2014, a headline in the Washington Examiner read, “China May Face a Revolution of Rising Expectations.”

The article explains that, in 2013, “leading members of the Politburo recommended that underlings read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Old Regime and the French Revolution.” The leaders wanted to drive a point home. When social conditions improved, revolution followed. It was part of their argument against granting the demands for freedom that had surrounded the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989.

“Since Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms started in 1978,” the piece argued, there had been an impressive increase in prosperity due to China’s manufacturing exports. The prosperity was accompanied by a hope for greater freedom. But, the article continues,

Repression seems to have worked. The Tiananmen massacre came only 11 years after the beginning of Deng’s reforms. Since then another 24 years have passed, with the regime still in power.

The Washington Examiner elucidated the Chinese government’s perspective:

The Chinese people have come to expect rapidly rising living standards, and may abandon the regime if it doesn’t produce. Regime elites must be careful … or the rulers will lose everything and chaos will be unleashed on China.

At the same time as underling bureaucrats were advised to read Tocqueville, the leadership was also “circulating a six-part TV documentary blaming the collapse of the Soviet Union on Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and softness. Message: Avoid democracy or political freedom.”


The standard view of revolution has been forged by the Left, especially by Marx. At best, it is inadequate. At worst, it is the opposite of what is correct.

Revolution comes from hope and a taste of freedom. It comes when the forces of freedom offer people a glimpse of something better. Violent revolt is the result of despair and rage. The latter is not revolution in the true sense because it merely replaces one form of brute force with another, as though the cast of characters were what mattered. Instead of viewing the Bastille as the quintessential image of revolution, people should look to the farmers in prosperous regions of France who said, “my children will live in freedom and fare better than I.” They were the true revolutionaries.

This article was originally published in the May 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).