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The Politics of Frustration

Does extreme poverty breed violence and ultimately revolution? Many people believe that it does, and seek to explain phenomena ranging from guerrilla insurgencies to Islamist terrorism accordingly.

But Karl Marx and Alexis de Tocqueville, the two great social analysts of the nineteenth century, knew better what makes people tick, and what makes societies change. Extreme poverty breeds apathy, not rebellion. The very poor can at most be used for occasional demonstrations of anger, but they are not the stuff from which either terrorists or revolutionaries are made.

A far more critical group in any society are those who have begun to move forward to new conditions, but then find their path blocked. Their desires and ambitions are not unrealistic in the circumstances, but they are frustrated. Things do not move as fast as they want them to, or not at all, owing to conditions that they do not control. Opportunities exist, but they cannot be seized or realized.

This group, not the desperately poor and helpless, forms the great mobilizing force of violent protest, and ultimately of major change.