Revolutions are usually defined in hindsight, but I think the thing we have to be careful about is that not everything we look at becomes a revolution. For example, I don’t think the Bernie Sanders movement was a revolution any more than Thatcher and Reagan can claim to be revolutionary. It’s not that they’re not radical, and it’s not that they’re not transforming stuff, but they’re doing so within the means available to them without breaking the law.
I think a revolution has to be transgressive, it has to be extra-constitutional. Its aims may be primarily political, it may be primarily economic, it may be some combination of them, but there has to be some sense of risk and transgression and going above and beyond the law, otherwise we’re dealing with something that belongs to a different category or class of event – a rebellion, revolt, uprising, something else.
"For revolution you need to have that bottom-up, grassroots mass mobilisation, with that sense of risking your life and your lives of your comrades against the state. Where you’re trying to actually generate a different type of political order."
If you think about China since 1978/79, it’s probably had one of the greatest transformations in recorded human history. That has happened, I would argue, without revolution – that’s a state-engineered social transformation. You might say the same thing about the Gulf states over the past generation or two. Sometimes, quite frequently, authoritarian regimes can generate very rapid transformations that are conducted by the state on the behalf of the state, and wholly within the law of the state, because they’re able to contain dissent and they’re able to manage the dislocation that that kind of transformation generates. So Pinochet’s Chile might be one example, you’ve had various coups – Gaddafi in Libya or Batista’s Cuba. Or think about Germany and Japan after World War Two. So I think definitely you can have transformations that aren't what I would classify as a revolution.
The Reagan and Thatcher years were certainly radical, they were certainly transformatory, but I think they lacked that sense of transgression, they lacked that sense of mass uprising, and they effectively conducted their program by and on the behalf of the state. For revolution you need to have that bottom-up, grassroots mass mobilisation, with that sense of risking your life and your lives of your comrades against the state. Where you’re trying to actually generate a different type of political order.