Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dear Mrs. Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to Arab leaders in Qatar:

“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” she said. “Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”

Is anyone else overcome by the irony?

Monday, January 10, 2011


There was a demonstration scheduled this afternoon for Place du Premiere Mai. Twitter is down, as is Facebook. It’s hard to tell what roll, if any, online social networking has played in the protest movement here, yet since the Tehran uprisings in 2009, governments everywhere seem to believe that every Tweet brings us another step closer to the brink.

This is how you know something is happening: it’s rush hour, yet the city is quiet. When I left the university this afternoon, there were few students milling about, and the languages building was almost completely deserted. My classes were more than half full, but many students were missing. We continued a long deferred discussion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” The conversation was animated, as we pondered the problem that confronted Thoreau and his contemporaries: Once you see the world, as it is, once your perspective has shifted, once you know that the emperor is naked, what do you do? What are the consequences of this knowledge? We’re still working on the answer.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Apres-midi, aujourd'hui

This morning, Al Jazeera reports there were again overnight protests throughout the country. The front page of El Watan shows a street clash in Algiers. The caption insists that similar scenes took place across the country: protesters and police injuried in Mascara, Ain Defla, Tipasa, Mila, and Sétif, public buildings attacked in Boumerdes. As of yet, nothing has happened in Hydra. No doubt, the preponderance of embassies in this district means that local security patrols have been increased. Since returning to Algiers, I have not yet left my neighborhood, but I imagine that it might be somewhat more difficult than usual.

The city is quiet, and there is little sign, from up at Place al-Quds, of what is happening in the streets. One of the boulangeries is shuttered. The Viennoiserie is not. The grocery store is open again. The mushrubet kahoolia remains closed. Instead of one cop at the bus station, there are two.

Al Jazeera continues to insist that these recent protests are a consequence of “decades of economic mismanagement” by the Algerian government. Something in this rings false, if only because Algeria’s single biggest problem, economically, is having hitched its wagon to the shooting star of energy production. And this says less about the Algerian government and the last forty years of economic policy than it does about the global north, African underdevelopment, and the legacies of colonialism. Algeria’s economic resources are many and varied, but the hyperdevelopment of the energy sector means that most of those resources remain under-utilized or untapped.

If economic conditions are similar throughout Africa and the Arab world, how can Algerian mismanagement be the cause?

What also falls out of the statistics on Algerian population and unemployment is the impact of the present crisis on the future of the Algerian family. If seventy-five percent of the population is under the age of thirty, and nearly a third of those are unemployed, it means that more and more men will defer, of necessity, getting married and starting a family. To the extent that marriage and family confers social and civic legitimacy, this means that more and more young men will be, as a consequence of economic dispossession, consigned to a marginal position within Algerian society.

Again, this says less about Algeria or the Arab world than it does about the global crisis of expectations, and the collapse of capitalism as a means of social reproduction. Following the logic of a tired, Cold War-era regionalism, the media connects recent protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, while waiting for something to jump off in Morocco. Little is said about how these street demonstrations might align with tuition protests in London, San Juan, or the general protest of austerity measures throughout the greater EU.

Earlier this week, Immanuel Wallerstein announced that the global economy will not recover. Capitalism can no longer expand. It has reached its point of saturation, its structural limit. The only question, he argues, is what comes next. If capitalism is dead, the struggle is over how we will live, now that it is gone.

Somehow, when birds are falling from the sky, it seems fair to wonder if we have arrived at the zero hour.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Algiers, at dusk

When the French surrendered Algeria in 1962, those who were at all circumspect about the legacy of French colonialism comforted themselves with one fact: at the dawn of independent Algeria, the Algerian birthrate was strong. Sartre’s reply was caustic, and to the quick: “They would do well to remember that it is the poorest countries that have the highest birthrates.”

Here are some things we know: since 1988, when youth protests lit the fuse on what would become the Algerian civil war, the population of Algeria has more than doubled. Some seventy-five percent of that population is now under the age of thirty. Unemployment, officially, runs around fifteen percent. For young people it is much higher, nearer to twenty or twenty-five. Some speculate that it’s higher still, more like thirty or thirty-five. Figures and estimates are easy to come by. Their accuracy is harder to judge.

Here are some other things we know: Algeria is blessed with the world’s largest proven reserve of natural gas, and its third largest reserve of petroleum. US-run Halliburton does big business in the south, working in both energy and defense, but the majority of foreign investment comes out of Europe. Algeria, in turn, supplies Europe with the vast majority of its natural gas. As throughout Africa, China has been dumping vast fortunes into the development of infrastructure, but it is Chinese laborers who do the work.

Foreign capital flows into the south. The majority of the population lives in the north. European businessmen can now fly direct from Paris to Hassi Messaoud without ever setting foot in Algiers.

When money makes money, labor is an afterthought, a redundancy.

This is not about the slumbering masses of the Arab world.