The core characteristics of the kind of disruption are that it:

1) stems from a loss of faith in a society’s central institutions; 

2) establishes a set of ideas from what was once the fringe of the intellectual world, placing them at the centre of a revamped political order; and 

3) involves a coherent leadership group committed to the change.

Disruptions don’t always change who is in charge – they are, in fact, sometimes necessary to preserve a government that is on the verge of failure. But they will at the very least change the way that a governing group thinks and acts.

Disruptions bring a profound shift in people’s understanding of how the world around them works.

Ideological change is crucial for major societal change because societies promote ideologies that support their way of doing business – and if the way of viewing the world doesn’t change, the way of doing business isn’t going to change either.

What I am suggesting is that, when a political system is undermined by events such as economic failure, defeat in war or environmental catastrophe, that political system is going to have to change or fail.

Success or failure depends on the choices that leaders make, and the ability to give people a fresh set of ideas that will help them see a new way forward.

The outcome of a disruption is often completely unexpected to contemporaries, and that is precisely because ideas from outside the mainstream were used to shape the solutions to the problems of the time.

We can’t know in advance exactly how a disruption will end. What history can teach us is what the circumstances are that lead to a disruption. It can make us realise what we might be facing as a result of the situation we are in today.


David Potter is Francis W Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan.

Aeon digital magazine  Jan 8 2022.