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Of Revolution and Equality

November 8, 2010
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Back when the class was talking about Locke, we discussed about Locke’s theory about revolution – that whenever the government uses authority and power beyond right, which is only for the good of oneself, then the populace has the right to oppose and revolt. Locke defines this act of a ruler or government tyranny.

Whenever law ends, tyranny begins. (199, pg 340)

May the commands then of a prince be opposed? … To this I answer, that force is to be opposed to nothing but to unjust and unlawful force. (203-204, pg 341)

Locke’s words immediately remind me of the frequent protests in Hong Kong, my hometown, especially the famous July 1st Mass Demonstration, which is somehow more of a tradition after all these years of continuous protesting on the same day since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. However, it still reflects the ongoing dissatisfaction of citizens towards the Hong Kong government, and most of the time the same issues keep on coming up every year.

Below is one part of a news report in 2009 about the July 1st Mass Demonstration.

As we can see, a lot of Hong Kong citizens are very enthusiastic about the performance of the government, and I’m sure this scene is very common throughout the world, especially in democratic countries. People protest about almost anything you can think of – from education to the economy, universal suffrage to more independence of the HKSAR under the rule of the People’s Republic of China. These maybe issues that the world’s countries are also dealing with, but will Locke agree with all our protests and demonstrations on these social issues?

Let’s put aside issues that involve significant wrong-doings (e.g. corruption) of the government and focus on social issues that are protested on, like the ones that involve in the July 1st mass demonstrations in Hong Kong – will our actions gain the approval from Locke.

I personally think that, to a certain extent, they don’t.

Although not explicitly said, Locke seems to tell us that revolution is a force that opposes unjust and unlawful actions; in Locke’s terms, the people in the July 1st mass demonstration should be protesting the unlawful actions of the government instead of asking for changes after changes on social issues. From my perspective on these mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, seems like Hong Kong people are always asking for more improvements and changes, that they expect the government to have to ability to satisfy every individual’s needs.

Unless within a monarchy or oligarchy, it is impossible for the decisions of the “ruler” (i.e. government) of a democratic society to satisfy every individual’s needs. People protest because they find things to not meet their needs and standards. I do not deny the need to voice out on social issues that are bringing problems to the majority of people, but putting such stress on the government is somehow another issue people should rethink about.

Because of democracy, people have the right to voice out. Imagine living in an authoritarian or totalitarian country, would people still have the right to voice out? People living in such countries would have already taken everything the ruler does to be just and sound as long as it is within the boundaries of the law – sometimes even outside. It is when we put our own definitions into things that cause the rise of issues and inequalities, hence leading to revolutions and oppressions. As Rosseau says,

These relationships which we express by the words “large”, “small”, “strong’, “weak”, “fast”, “slow”, “timorous”, “bold” and other similar ideas, compared when needed and almost without thinking about it, finally produced in him a kind of reflection, or rather a mechanical prudence which pointed out to him the precautions that were most necessary for his safety. (pg 396)

An education system would not be seriously flawed if we didn’t compare it to other ones and that we didn’t put in assumptions of perfection; inequality wouldn’t exist if we didn’t compare ourselves to others. Every noun that is associated with an adjective is relative; as long as the government doesn’t do anything unjust, revolutionary contents are still debatable.

Democracy, by definition, means ruled by the people , which I somehow find a little vague; instead of the the people, it should be the majority, which I think most of us will agree. If because of a protest that the government changed some of the related policies due to the opinion of the majority, it is definite that the majority would benefit and the minority won’t – then how should the government determine what is right to do when people decide to protest on every single social issue?

What I want to point out is that, inequality lies in every single social issue, and for a democratic government to take actions to solve these problems, protests and oppressions will keep coming because inequality will never end once it has started as according to Rosseau,

… inequality is practically non-existent in the state of nature, it derives its force and growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and eventually becomes stable and legitimate through the establishment of property and laws… (pg 410)

Inequality has existed long ago since civil society has begun, mainly involving properties and laws, and it is impossible for us to turn back into Rosseau’s state of nature that everyone is equal.

I’m not inferring that Locke and Rosseau provided us the perfect theories and definitions towards contemporary social issues, but from an objective view, while revolutions and oppressions are inevitable and somehow necessary at times, people should acknowledge the it is unlikely that they are able to obtain “equality” by revolting and that they should think carefully before hand, whether their actions will lead to an effective resolution of an issue, or simply cause an uprising of another one?

One Comment
  1. playdoh4life permalink
    November 9, 2010 9:20 PM

    This is an interesting argument. While reading both Locke and Rousseau, I constantly thought about the current marriage inequalities that exist in America. The final Rousseau quote that you noted truly demonstrated how inequalities are based on many social conditions. Rousseau also notes, “This latter type of inequality consists in the different privileges enjoyed by some at the expense of others, such as being richer, more honored, more powerful than they, or even causing themselves to be obeyed by them” (379). When one prevents another party from something there is a sense of fear of consequences, which is slightly touched upon. As odd as this might sound: are inequalities always bad?

    Locke himself believes in the concept of “no one having more than another” (Second Treatsie). Should social classes all be removed in order for democracy to flourish? Although competition between businesses is a touchy topic, it is similar to the idea of class. Honestly, I do not know how a government could run without inequalities present. The government itself suggests some type of a social hierarchy because they have so much social control. Inequalities keep citizens in place; they place a fence around a perimeter of space. Is that bad? Sometimes it is, for example, because no one should control who another person chooses to love. That’s ridiculous! But are basic rules such as no pets in hotels and no nudity in restaurants understandable?

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