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Could 2018 Be The Next “Year of Revolutions”?

October 25, 2017

David Lye, Director and Fellow of SAMI, looks at the historical precedents and the drivers that might lead to a “year of revolutions”.

When Revolutions Happen….

They tend to happen in clusters. The French Revolution of 1789 inspired radicals across Europe. In 1830, revolutions in Belgium and France helped to inspire uprisings in Switzerland, Poland and Italy. In 1848, revolutions in Sicily and France led to uprisings across Europe: Austria and its Habsburg dominions, the German states, the Italian states, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Russian Revolution 0f 1917 both inspired revolutionary movements from Europe to Outer Mongolia. 1968 saw protests in the USA, France, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia, as well as Chairman Mao’s cultural Revolution against his own Government in China. 1989 saw protests in Poland spread to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, all inspired in part by the student uprising in Beijing. In 2010/11, the death of a young man in Tunisia triggered uprisings in that country, and in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, as well as large protests in a number of other Islamic countries.

Revolutions do not always succeed, and even when they manage to usurp the existing power structures, they do not necessarily resolve the problems that caused them. The uprisings in 1989 were directed against the regimes created by previous revolutions. And in 1848, the French people ejected the monarchy that itself had been installed after a revolution only 18 years previously.

For the purposes of this blog, the term revolution includes both completed revolutions, and major uprisings, which may not succeed.

Why Revolutions Happen

The demand for political change becomes revolutionary when those demanding change feel the “push” factor of intolerable circumstances, and the “pull” factor of a combination of a sense of their own strength, and of the decadence and weakness of the powers that be.

The push factors can be economic – desperation due to famine and economic depression across Europe was one cause of the 1848 revolutions, and economic problems helped to drive the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring.

A desire for self-determination, allied to a lack of identification with the ruling powers is often a factor. The revolutions in Belgium and Poland in 1830, and across Germany, Italy and the Habsburg dominions in 1848 were strongly nationalistic in many places, as were the 1989 uprisings against the USSR.

The generation gap is often a factor, as it was in China in both the Cultural Revolution and the Beijing spring, and in the USA and Paris in 1968, where young people, students and the urban poor, fought against what they saw as a corrupt, out-of-touch and elderly elite.

External influences can also have an effect. In the febrile atmosphere of a revolutionary “zeitgeist”, these influences tend to be greater.

Drivers of Revolution Today

In the West, Governments failed to foresee the Financial Crash, and the recovery from it has been weak or, in some places, non-existent.   But a very narrow elite has prospered, while a much wider section of the population struggles to find and hold on to work, and to maintain its standard of living.

In Europe there are regions demanding autonomy within nations, and tensions between some nation states and the EU. Mass-migration (or perhaps more accurately, the fear of it) has added to these tensions in many places. In the USA there is increasing polarisation, with the white working class, urban minority ethnic populations, and the educated young all feeling different forms of alienation and disconnection from the rulers and the big corporations.

Even Russia, which projects strength beyond its borders, suffers from a weakening economy and disaffection among its educated young people, with street protests taking place for the first time for several years. Rapid population growth in Africa will unleash social and economic tensions. There is plenty of unfinished business in the Islamic world, and South America too faces uncertainty and social, political and economic pressures.

Throughout the world, the increasing access to instant news and social media around the world increases the pace at which uprisings can gather support and momentum.

The 4th Industrial Revolution – even if its long-term effects are beneficial, as we hope – will create extra instability and jeopardy for workers in the short-term, and might very well increase the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. The use of quantitative easing to stave off a repeat of the Great Depression may have been partially successful, but leaves the global economy and the economic powers with unprecedented levels of peacetime debt.

The Revolution Starts Here?

The push factors are in place – economic precariousness, desire for self-determination and nationalist movements, a generation gap in terms of wealth and expectations. The years since the Financial Crash have seen the rise of outsider politics – the Occupy Movement, individuals such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, new parties such as Syriza, Podemos, Cinque Stelle, and, most spectacularly, election winners: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. There has also been a rise in nationalism – with nationalist parties taking a growing share of the vote in almost every European Country, and independence movements in Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, Corsica and Flanders – there is even an embryonic Californian secessionist movement: a response to Donald Trump’s winning of the Presidency.

If the pull factors apply: if the powers that be are incapable of restoring a sense of economic and social security, and the outsider politicians are seen also to fail to provide solutions, and the protest movements continue, what then?

As good futurists we deal in scenarios and ranges of possibility, NOT predictions, and this blog is not a forecast. But if 2018 joined 1830, 1848, 1968, 1989 and 2011 on the list of years of global uprisings, it would not be a huge surprise. The news reports and coverage on social media of the events in Catalonia this month may be a portent of things to come.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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