How Does Change Happen?

“Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.” John Stuart Mills

How Does Change Happen?

"Better that we should die on our feet rather than live on our knees” - François-Noël Gracchus Babeuf, Conspiracy of Equals - April 1797.

I was profoundly influenced by Walter Lippmann’s dictum, “Where all think alike, no one thinks much” (Lippmann 1915, 51). Lippmann’s jab at the color commentary of crowd-following conformists teased my formative years. Since 1980 I have tackled fashionable theories and suppositions not to be disagreeable but to triangulate legitimate frameworks for insight into the actions of groups or crowds and to find out how change happens.

As I read the various articles on “how does change happen,” Timur Kuran’s essay “Now Out of Never” caught my attention. He argued that the East European Revolution was not inevitable. Kuran contends that those surprising days where “tiny oppositions mushroomed into crushing majorities” at breathtaking speed were the seeds of possibility, not a probability (Kuran 1991, 13). The idea that the revolution happened at all, Kuran suggests, should be our surprise. The logical extension of Kuran’s thesis casts a dark shadow over where to sow the seeds of democracy if possibility, not probability alone, rules.

I enjoyed Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (1997) over a decade ago. Consequently, I anticipated a little intellectual girth to his essay’s thesis and a gentle nudge against the orthodoxy. I was not disappointed. He quickly dispenses with the prevailing zeitgeist in the two conditions sparking a revolution proffered by Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions (1979). Additionally, he covered the relative-deprivation approach before landing on his preference falsification theory. His theory asserts that people misrepresent private beliefs and thoughts in public, a thesis similar to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann 1974). After walking through his logic, Kuran laments, “if we possessed a reliable technique for measuring people's revolutionary thresholds, we would see what it would take to get a revolution started.” (Kuran 1991, 47)

However, he further asserts that predictive modeling of revolutions requires access to information or a nation’s citizenry severely restricted in despotic regimes. The result is imperfect data. Imperfect information leads to spurious predictions. Kuran says, “the source of unpredictability is imperfect observability, not unobservability” (Kuran 1991, 47). The degree of imperfection is inverse to the quality of information ranging from robust in strong democratic systems to pathetically anemic in those states with nonexistent freedom. The core logic of his premise feels and sounds self-evident and irrefutable from his worldview.

Stuck with the logical extension of his argument, Kuran circles back to rescue hope, saying unpredictability should not be a dead end. Accepting the limits of science is not an admission of defeat. The limitations of knowledge define the pool of valuable knowledge (Kuran 1991). From Timur Kuran’s vantage point, incomplete or imperfect information from dodgy regimes renders revolutionary predictions moot. Therefore, political revolutions will continue to be surprising. Sadly, his premise becomes a bitter pill for those seeking venues to grease the democratic skids.

Not to quarrel with Kuran’s thesis, but allow me to add a different perspective. The word “crisis” in Chinese is translated as opportunity riding a dangerous wind. I would proffer that the actions taken by ordinary citizens as cracks form in authoritarian facades are a very effective signal of a population ripe for revolution. Revolutionaries are opportunistic in crisis, acting despite the dark clouds overhead.

For example, in June 1976, protests began in Poland after Prime Minister Jaroszewicz unveiled a plan for a considerable price rise in food. Not surprisingly, taking a page from the police state handbook, the government reacted by cracking down on the protestors. In response, the Polish citizens formed underground networks that later integrated with labor unions to oppose the government. Seeking as a people to survive, Poles pushed back. Solidarity emerged on August 31, 1980, at the Gdańsk Shipyard when the Communist government of Poland allowed the union’s formation (Nelsson 2019). Through that tiny crack in Poland’s authoritarian facade, a highly networked and mobilized citizenry forced the hand of history over the next decade.

In the case of East Germany, on September 11, 1989, Hungary opened its Austria border to allow thousands of vacationing East Germans to flee to West Germany. Without today’s technology or phones, vacationing East Germans had mobilized and acted in mass while in another country. The first wave of the 6,000 East Germans crossed the Austrian border beginning the “greatest mass exodus of East Germans since the Berlin Wall was built 28 years ago to block their emigration” (Karacs 1989, 1).

According to information cascade theorist Susanne Lohmann, “the average East German was more likely to take a cue from the exit actions of these vacationers than from the protest activities of nonconformist citizens” (Lohmann 1994, 64). Less than a month later, on October 9, 1989, a candlelit crowd of 70,000 moved through the city center of Leipzig, daring to pass the feared Stasi headquarters chanting. "Wir sind das Volk!" We are the people! (Peter 1989). A month later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, pressured by a swelling crowd.

In all due deference to Professor Kuran, a highly mobilized and coordinated citizenry was not an accident of history, especially in a secret police state like East Germany. The specific “why” of their galvanizing action is not as material as the fact that they were willing to form networks and gather together, risking their well-being for a voice in their political process or seeking freedom’s promise. The crowd’s actions swelled from underground networks of everyday people craving change and looking for a crack in the authoritarian facade as an opportunity to be leveraged for change.

To illustrate, we can arrive at a quick and dirty revolutionary quotient by scoring (1 to 5) the level of government oppression, adding to it Maslow’s hierarchy (1 to 5) as a measure of a society’s needs being repressed, plus the degree of sub rosa network complexity (1 to 5) to calibrate collective capability and urgency. A sum of 13 or more is critical mass. This rudimentary metric offers insight into whether the seeds of insurgency have taken root in the populace. Actions in context, more than rhetoric, opinion, or sentiment, can flag the genesis of an uprising’s tipping point, potentially undergirding “how change happens.”


Karacs, Imre (1989), Hungry Allows Thousands of East Germans to Flee to the West. The Washington Post September 11, 1989

Kuran, Timur (1993), Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolutions World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1 pp 7-48

Lippmann, Walter (1915), The Stakes of Diplomacy, Part 1, Chapter 4: The Line of Least Resistance, Henry Holt, and Company, New York. p 51.

Lohmann, Susanne (1994), The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-1991. World Politics 47(1):42–101.

Nelsson, Richard (2019), The Birth of Solidarity in Poland-Archive 1980 The Guardian -poland-archive-1980

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication 24(2): 43-51

Peter, Laurence (1989), The March that KO’d Communism The BBC