The ‘Viral’ Revolutions of Our Times – Postnational Reflections
The Arab Turmoil
According to a report in The Guardian, the movement in Egypt that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak is “a movement led by tech-savvy students and twentysomethings – labour activists, intellectuals, lawyers, accountants, engineers – that had its origins in a three-year-old textile strike in the Nile Delta and the killing of a 28-year-old university graduate, Khaled Said”. It has emerged, says the report, “as the centre of what is now an alliance of Egyptian opposition groups, old and new.” The April 6 Youth Movement (primarily a Facebook network), came into existence in in 2008, in support of the ongoing workers’ struggle in the industrial town of El-mahalla El-Kubra primarily on issues related to wages. The struggle in the past few years, also moved towards a restructuring of unions with government appointed leaders. The list of demands for the April 6 strike also included a demand for raising the national minimum wages that had remained stagnant for over two and a half decades. Increasing workers militancy over the past few years was a direct response to the World Bank imposed ‘reforms’ that had pushed lives of industrial labour to the brink. It was this sharpening conflict, consequent upon the serious impact of structural adjustment policies, that provides the backdrop in which the middle class youth decided to rally in support of the April 6 2008 strike. It was they who converted the call for an industrial strike into a general strike, according to some reports. It is virtually impossible to get a sense of any of this in the ecstatic reports of the ‘networking babalog’ making a revolution that is now all over the Indian media.
If sharpening class conflict provides one window into the great upsurge that overthrew the despotic regime of Hosni Mubarak, that is certainly not the only one. The New York Times recognizes the pan-Arab nature of the new movement facilitated by the Internet. What it does not recognize – and possibly most other commentators who see some sort of victory of Western values in these protests and struggles do not – is that the pan-Arab sentiment is at one level, decidedly against the US and its war in the Arab world. (And in the Egyptian case, at least, Mubarak was the protector of US-Israeli interests in the region). This sentiment, as Asef Bayat has recently pointed out, is deeply interwoven with the sentiments of the second Palestinian intifada. “Arab street politics”, he says, “assumed a distinctively pan-Arab expanse in response to Israel’s incursions into the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, and the Anglo-US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.” In fact, Bayat suggests, it is the Palestinian intifada that “remains a role model and inspiration to today’s protesters”. Right from the first intifada (1987 to 1993), that involved almost the entire Palestinian population including women and children, nonviolent resistance to occupation was the primary mode of struggle: civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, withholding taxes and product boycotts. It is also worth underlining that Kefaya [Enough], the other coalition behind the Egypt uprising, owes its origins directly to the second intifada. Bayat in fact, suggest a wider connection between the struggles “in this incipient post-Islamist middle east“. Here, prevailing popular movements “assume a post-nationalist, post-ideological, civil and democratic character” where Iran’s ‘green movement’, the Tunisian revolution and the Egyptian revolution become all of a piece.
Thinking about the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions is no easy task. Standard tools of political analysis seem to be of little help. The discipline of political science has, of course, very little to say anything relevant about anything political in today’s world. Its preoccupation with parties, ‘party-systems’, ‘mobilization’, elections, and governance, or with even with ‘civil society’, rights and ‘social justice’, or cosmopolitanism might have very little to contribute to making sense of some of these ‘new revolution of our times’ (the phrase, courtesy Ernesto Laclau, who in turn took it from Harold Laski). Even ‘democracy’ makes very little sense, once political scientists are through with it. What does democracy mean when masses of people decide to stake their lives to come out on the Asian streets of Yangon (Rangoon), Lahore, Bangkok (Kathmandu is a more complicated, if also more conventional scenario) and now in the cities of Tunisia and Egypt? The virus is spreading from all accounts to the rest of the Arab world – Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain…Democracy here is not the name of some insipid liberal arrangement where sterile debate always inevitably drowns all real concerns of inequality, poverty and domination. It is, rather, an empty signifier of sorts, invested with desires of all sorts, ranging from the desire to be free to the desire to consume. The revolutions and rebellions here are directed against the oppressive and corrupt dictatorial regimes that preside over these countries. But are they really just that? Surely they want a say in the way things happen, the way their future is determined, but is there something more here that needs decoding? Gautam Bhan’s post raises important questions regarding some of the issues that call for some serious thought and reflection, especially around questions pertaining to the public space, to new forms of mobilization and new political practices and new subjectivities – in a word, the nature of the political itself.
But there is another reason for this difficulty and that has to do with the media coverage of these revolutions. Either we have had accounts – very fascinating, exciting, first hand accounts from ‘ground zero’ – or, we’ve had speculations about the future: will there be an Islamic takeover? Will other political forces step into the breach? Are these revolts an expression of a desire for western-style modernity and democracy? While these are important questions to speculate about, one is struck by the dearth – especially in the India media but also more generally – of any background analysis of where the movement actually comes from. What are its antecedents? Who are these people who are apparently tweeting and ‘facebooking’ their way into a real revolution? The Indian media was initially wary and hardly covered the events – waiting for Washington and its hangers-on in the PMO in New Delhi to give the line. And lo and behold! suddenly, the Indian media was all full of excited stories about the great desire for ‘democracy’ bursting forth in the Arab world. ‘Democracy’, let us not forget, is a condensed sign, as far as the Indian elites are concerned, for everything that is Western. They want democracy to overthrow the tinpot Hosni Mubaraks or the Ahmadinejads but not beyond that. After that, it should be business as usual. But let us set that aside for the moment. For any serious political analysis today, it is democracy itself that needs to be decoded.
Consider this: The Egyptian revolution was inspired by the Tunisian that just preceded it. And both together inspire the now ongoing rebellions, if not actually successful revolutions, across the Arab world. The April 6 Youth Movement – one of the key networks in Egypt – was in turn indirectly ‘inspired’ by Otpor! [Resist!], the Serbian group that was instrumental in the anti-Milosevic mobilizations and which is credited with having played a key role in bring down that regime in 2000. Otpor! also has had a more direct relationship with groups like PORA [It's Time!] that played a crucial role in the Orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005 that reversed the run-off vote of 2004 by forcing a re-election. All of them are said to have been directly or indirectly inspired by the writings of Gene Sharp, whose book From Dictatorship to Democracy, became a veritable bible for PORA!, according to one of its leaders Oleh Kyriyenko, and made its way into other groups struggling against dictatorships. Sharp’s books and ideas emphasize non-violent mass action as the most effective way of challenging the power of dictatorships, and not surprisingly, draw on the ideas and work of Gandhi and Thoreau. And the opening page of From Dictatorship to Democracy lays out innumerable other links that connect diverse struggles and movements today:
“From Dictatorship to Democracy was originally published in Bangkok in 1993 by the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma, in association with Khit Pyaing (The New Era Journal). It has since been translated into at least thirty-one other languages and has been published in Serbia, Indonesia and Thailand, among other countries.”
As opposed to the usual two methods of mass demonstrations and strikes, Sharp actually prepares an inventory of almost two hundred forms of nonviolent struggle ranging from various kinds of social, economic and political noncooperation (including running underground presses and production and circulation of leaflets – a task that acquires wholly unprecedented dimensions with the Internet) to occupation and parallel government at the limit point of struggles. And clearly, Sharp’s manual of nonviolent mass resistance has now been widely applied in different parts of the world.
It is interesting to think of the way different points in this tale connect; how different struggles draw sustenance from each earlier struggle – in some other place, some other time. And not always do these struggles obey the normative logic of old left-wing nationalisms; they may indeed seem a bit unpalatable to our thoroughly trained tongues. Thus, when it is revealed that Otpor! at some point, had actually received funds from US government agencies like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, we can easily understand the motives of these institutions in providing such funds (“to promote US friendly democracy”, says the website of one of these organization). It is far more difficult for us to imagine what these movements might be doing, accepting huge amounts of US funding. And before we start getting into some simplistic regurgitations of the familiar story of ‘CIA-inspired movements’, let us remind ourselves that Otpor! started out as a student outfit in the University of Belgrade in 1998, as a reaction to repressive laws promulgated by the government. It was probably around the time of the Kosovo war and the NATO bombing that it gained much greater popular support and US agencies also stepped in. The reasons why organizations like these might accept US support are not as simple as they might seem to be, for they range from amassing international support for the struggle to more simplistic and naive celebrations of a thing called ‘democracy’ that apparently the US (and the West) has and which can deliver societies living under dictatorships to freedom. ‘Democracy’ certainly calls for some decoding. For, these struggles are postnational not only in that they establish connections beyond their borders; they are also postnational because they are not averse to using the support of external powers to aid their internal struggles. However troubling this may be to us, the fact is that struggles against oppressive ‘third world’ dictatorships often do not have the luxury of choosing the ‘anti-imperialist’ side, where many such despots stand.
Popular Will (?) and the Party-Form
There is something very strikingly similar going on here to the revolutions that Laclau was talking about in his New Reflections, namely the revolutions that brought down the state socialist regimes of Eastern Europe. Those too were inspired by democracy – and once again, it stoood in for freedom, market, consumption.
Laclau’s reflections were lodged in a different time and his more abstract explorations do not concern us here. But one thing seems evident in both the earlier revolutions and the current ongoing uprisings in Asia. They possibly signal the last days of that particular form – the party form – that structured all of modern politics in the last two centuries or so. To this form belongs the hijacking of popular initiative and will (or may we say, desire?), such as is expressed either in mass revolts or in elections. To this form belongs the history of 20th century totalitarianisms. For, it is this form that has revealed itself, especially since the last decades of the last century, as the instrument for the destruction of politics and of the political. This seems as true societies where they have become instruments of naked dictatorial power as it is of those where they function in a formal democracy but increasingly begin to look like one another!
At least in India, the last few decades have seen what can be called the implosion of the political: where mass politics and opposition on the streets has been completely erased, partly as a consequence of the drastic restructuring of urban space. In its place we now have sterile parliamentary non-debates, farcical session boycotts and the virtual installation of the television studio and its Big Fight as the arena of phantom political conflicts. Between the parliament and the television studio we have the complete disjunction of ‘party-politics’ from popular mass struggles. Had it not been for the recent land struggles, we might perhaps have forgotten that there is anything like social conflict in Indian society any more.
It is this form that is now increasingly becoming suspect for mass movements all over the world. It is not that new modes of rule have been found – and so, inevitably, every revolution ends up overthrowing the power of dictatorial regimes, only to be replaced by new parties, all wanting to head in the same direction. That was particularly the case with the erstwhile socialist states, but it is also true of many other revolts of recent times including Otpor! which subsequently split into a party wing and a movement wing. The difference is that today, we are no longer innocent about parties and their professed claims of ideology. Even in India, where people routinely vote in elections and often in large numbers, they now seldom do because they believe in the ideological platform of the party they vote for; most often they vote tactically, because they must keep certain channels of access to power open for themselves, which they have carefully built over time. Even in India, recent struggles and movements have widely exhibited this pervasive distrust of the party-form. It is the biggest fiction that the discipline of political science and political theory have manufactured over the past centuries – that it is popular will that constitutes political power and that parties and and leaders merely ‘represent’ the ‘people’. Marxism too swallowed this fiction, hook, line and sinker: all it had to say by way of innovation was that the real party that expressed the will of the people was the party that expressed the telos of History, viz. their own party. The new movements and struggles are no longer innocently prepared to buy this. Probably, that is why, they do not attempt to take power.
While the struggles in the erstwhile state-socialist world belonged to the pre-Internet era, a crucial difference today is the mediation of the Internet and other new media forms. In the context, the suggestion about the viral nature of contemporary struggles made around the turn of the century by Hardt and Negri in Empire, seem apposite here. Movements and struggles at the beginning of the 21st century, they suggest, increasingly take the form of a virus that travels across frontiers and attaches itself to any ‘hospitable’ body. Clearly, a hospitable body is one that is already vulnerable by virtue of its having lost the support of the large majority of its population. This viral struggle is facilitated and in fact, made possible by the Internet – and many posts on Kafila, as elsewhere, on the Egyptian and Tunisian struggle bear this out. New networks of horizontal communication have done something more: they have eliminated the need for a centralized organization with a centralized command structure by opening out avenues of horizontal communication. This much is clear and, by now, not horribly new. After all, it is ten years since Empire hit the scene. It is the problem of new forms of power that still remains to be addressed but we can only begin exploring them once we recognize that the old answers are simply no answers for they merely substitute one kind of despotism for another.