For many generations, your greatn-grandparents lived under feudal lords. The lord or king could do whatever he wanted – take your land, take your livestock, anything he wanted. (Look up ‘droit de seigneur’, which means the ‘right of the lord’.) What was the average person entitled to in feudalism? Pretty much nothing.
The French and American revolutions were led by people who believed that tyrants should not have that power. They had seen that overly concentrated power is inevitably abused. They created new social structures in which even the rulers were bound by law, and the citizens were guaranteed some rights, such as privacy, free speech, etc. etc.
But that was not the end of the fight. As long as there are powerful people, they will always try to extend their power. And, unless ordinary people are vigilant and build structures to limit them, they’ll succeed.
Recently, the powerful have become considerably more powerful. They stealthily expanded the reach of their information-gathering apparatus beyond the limitations set by democratic laws. They stealthily expanded assassination programs beyond limitations set by international law. They passed CISA and the TPP, which swept away some old limitations on their power.
There have been victories for people-power as well. We defeated SOPA, protecting our right to free speech. We prevented section 215 of the Patriot Act being renewed, limiting warrantless surveillance.
The struggle is not over. The struggle is never over. We must remain vigilant. In this fight, we can root ourselves in the ideals of the French and American revolutionaries, who sought to minimize the powers of tyrants, but our strategies must be boldly futuristic. Why? Because we live in a time of radical reshuffling of power caused by new communication technologies. The printing press empowered millions with knowledge, and millions of knowledgeable people shook the power of the Church and kings. The 21st century’s equivalent is empowering billions, and shaking the power of states and capitalists. The structures through which power is wielded in society are going to change one way or the other, and we have the romantic, futuristic opportunity to make sure it empowers the many rather than the few.