Sunday, February 13, 2011

On inspiration and social movement

On Sunday, the Guardian reported from Algeria under the headline “Protesters clash with police as Egypt fervour spreads.” On the CBS News website, weekend demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen were framed with the banner “Infectious Revolution: Mideast Protests Grow.” Both stories follow weeks of reporting by the international press in which protest movements throughout the region have been presented as “inspired by” events in Tunisia. “There has been an awakening of political awareness among the young,” one western official is quoted as saying. “They are [asking]: ‘Why should we carry on like this?’”

There is no doubt that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been enormously inspiring—unless of course you, like Glenn Beck, have spent the last three weeks working yourself into an incoherent dither about the global Islamist-socialist-corporate conspiracy to inaugurate a worldwide caliphate. Within the nominally sane portions of the western media, however, the inspiration theme has played roughly the same role as the Twitter Story, allowing news organizations to construct a neoliberal narrative line in which the protests are portrayed as “spontaneous” and “leaderless,” a consequence of “rising expectations” fueled by “new media” and “social networking.” Very little has been said about the real organizational work that went into building the Egyptian revolution. Instead, CNN asks if Facebook brought down Mubarak.

In retrospect, it should seem painfully obvious to everyone that you do not set out to topple a dictator without having some strategy in place. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Egyptian revolution, thus far, has been the momentum of the popular protests. With every day since January 25, more and more people flooded the streets of Cairo. Less than two weeks ago, organizers were calling for a million people to march on Tahrir. By February 11, the day Mubarak announced his resignation, more than three million people had occupied the square. Certainly, spontaneity and inspiration played their part in growing and shaping the movement, but you do not get three weeks of sustained, non-violent protests without somebody doing some work. Inspiration, after all, is neither easy, nor cheap.

Within the western media discourse, however, inspiration is roughly correlative to infection, and revolution is portrayed as if it were part of a natural, metabolic process, best understood through reference to pathology. This, of course, is an old story, but with regard to recent events, it comes with a special racist twist. Even as the Egyptian revolution provides one more proof that the “clash of civilizations” thesis has always been nonsense, the notion of Arab world homogeneity and volatility reappears, if in a weirdly neoliberal guise. Thus, we get the Guardian talking about the February 12 Algerian protests as though they were a direct response to the ouster of Mubarak, while assuring its readers that Algeria has “many of the characteristics” of both Tunisia and Egypt. Nowhere is it mentioned that the Algerian protests had been scheduled for weeks.

One of the great dangers of this western media discourse is that, in seeking to generalize revolutionary sentiment across the Arab world, it distorts our picture of the unfolding global crisis. The crisis of the Arab nations, after all, is not unconnected to the crisis of the world system. Fareed Zakaria is one of the many western media figures who likes to talk about the “rising tide of expectations” in the greater Arab world; a rising tide that, in his estimation, has been occasioned by the “success” of neoliberal policy interventions that have allowed for greater access to education, information, and western-style media. (The Twitter Story, again.) This, of course, is a profound misreading of the situation. Across the world, expectations remain largely static, yet governments are presently unable or unwilling to meet the expectations of their citizens, in large part because of the intransigence of capital. While expectations vary greatly from nation to nation, based upon the legacies of different social struggles and historical processes, the upward redistribution of wealth to the plutocrats of finance capital has given this crisis a global form, one that is barely registered in present discussions of the Arab revolution.

The other great danger of this media discourse—at least, insofar as it concerns the future of political movements in the greater Arab world—is that it lends itself to a sort of magical thinking. Opposition does not just happen. There may be a great deal of earnest desire for political change, but that needs to be developed through forms of organization and analysis appropriate to the local, national, and global situation. Egypt is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt. The differences may, at times, seem slight, but they are enormously important when it comes to questions of strategy, tactics, and the movement for social and economic justice.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Counter-Revolution and Anti-Americanism

After the mass detentions of foreign journalists in Cairo yesterday, many people seem to be wondering if Mubarak is planning some catastrophic counter-revolutionary action. He may be, although I think it's far more likely that the detentions were calculated to underscore his new found anti-Americanism. In Cairo, Mubarak's thugs are now claiming that the opposition is orchestrated by American and Israeli forces intent on undermining Egyptian sovereignty. Even as he continues to feed at the trough of US foreign aid, Mubarak has now cast himself as the stalwart defender of Egypt and the Arab world, standing alone against the forces of empire. This is more or less the same makeover that Saddam Hussein gave himself around 1990. It's difficult to know whether or not Mubarak's anti-Americanism will play to the Egyptian people (at this point, it seems rather unlikely). Nonetheless, he has, for the moment, successfully maneuvered the US into continuing to fund his counter-revolution. At this point, if the US were to withdraw its aid (so the strategic thinking goes) it would merely confirm Mubarak's identity as a lone wolf, a renegade, a rogue. This may be all the more reason to cut aid now, before the diplomatic situation deteriorates any further. The US has missed its window of opportunity. Strategically, the best it can do is play catch up with events on the ground.

At this point, however, it's probably best that the US concede the Great Game altogether. Strategic planning based upon egoistic calculations of interest is neither ethical nor effective. There are too many variables in play, too many futures at stake. We've been playing out the endgame of empire for nearly a hundred years, and we've nearly killed the planet in the process. It's past time that we move on.