[Multiple Updates] Learning From Egypt: Eleven Theses towards a Theory of Political Change

[Update: So many reports are now trickling in of those who gave their lives for this revolution, so many of them so young. Here’s a link to a growing list of reports of Egypt’s heroic martyrs. These accounts are heartbreaking. Many of the dead are students, in their twenties, who gave their lives just by being at these protests, hit by stray bullets, or taken down by thugs. Those who ordered these things are criminals, murderers, of the worst degree. We need to support this nascent movement for freedom that was paid for in the blood of heroes.]

I hope that it’s in no way trivializing the very real human cost of what’s going on in Egypt and the Arab world as a whole right now to talk about it in theoretical terms. But those of us who theorize about things like political change, who hope for it and seek to foster it in light of a corrupt world system, we have a responsibility, I think, to relate our work to the world. It is perhaps the least we can do to try to analyze the situation, try to understand its implications, to have ‘fidelity’ to it, as Alain Badiou would say, to perpetuate it in the world, to extend it, to learn from it.

Rarely do we see worldchanging in action. I hope that writing about this in this manner is some sort of tribute to those who are putting themselves on the line for change. It is our responsibility to learn, take notes, strategize on how to help foster more events like this which seek to take back our world from the powerful, and make it a more just place. Rarely do we see an event like Egypt, and we have here a massive opportunity to learn, and it is essential, and I think a responsibility, that we try to do so.

So many of us in Euro-American academia want some sort of real change. And we read folks like Badiou, Zizek, Lacalau, looking for clues on what we can really do to make our world a more just place. And I think there are lessons to be learned from what’s happening now. Because it seems to me that several aspects of contemporary theory on political change have been shown to be powerfully active in this most recent set of events. Here’s my take on the this possible nexus.

Firstly, I think that much of the model for social change provided by Badiou and Laclau (I’m thinking particularly his work in the much overlooked New Thoughts on a Revolution for Our Times) has been justified by the recent events, and provides some hope for those of us in different parts of the world. While Badiou and Laclau are quite different in some respects (which we’ll get to shortly), here’s what I think this recent set of events shows us:


1) HOPE: Despite massive seeming hopelessness as the apathy of the people in the face of their own mistreatment (something which many, many had commented on in relation to the repressive regimes in Arab countries, in and beyond Egypt), at any moment, change is possible.

2) SURFACE OF INSCRIPTION: A ‘surface of inscription’ is needed. For Laclau, a surface of inscription is a demand which can serve as a template for those of others. For Badiou, it’s an event to which one can ‘be faithful,’ and which can give rise to a set of events which echo it. We see here how the case of one man in Tunisia, a man who was harassed by police, and who decided to make an example of himself by means of a tragic, symbolic suicide, changed the entire Arab world. I’m not recommending martyrdom as a path to political change. But this one fruit-seller’s death became a symbol which galvanized an entire people in Tunisia. Nothing about this one man’s mistreatment by the police was extraordinary. In fact, it was it’s very ordinariness that gave it its power. But it became elevated from the particular to the general, everyone could say, ‘yes, I’ve been mistreated by the police in a similar manner, or know someone who was.’ In Tuinisia, everyone could say, ‘we are all fruitsellers now.’

3) EVENT: We can never know in advance which event can become a surface of inscription. Who could have predicted that this particular abusive act by police would topple the Tunisian government, or spread to other countries in the Arab world? Granted, very few fruit sellers before took the radical and extreme action of martyrdom by setting himself on fire. But it seems very likely that this could’ve just been one more tragic death. It is unlikely that this martyr thought for even a second his action could truly lead to all this. Perhaps there was a vague hope. But if the circumstances weren’t just right, the same action would’ve led to nothing.

4) CONJUNCTURE: There needs to be a conjuncture between trigger and circumstance, one which can never be predicted ahead of time. Just as we cannot know which event can act as a trigger and become a surface of inscription, we can never know ahead of time if a trigger-type event will find its conjuncture. Only after the fact can we say, ah, this event was a trigger, and it found its enabling conjuncture and became a surface of inscription for the desires of others.

5) CASCADE: Cascades are possible. Change in Tunisia led to change in Egypt, but also Jordan, Yemen, and potentially other states to come. As a surface of inscription grows larger, it becomes emptied of its particular content, and grows more general. As more and more people in Tunisia  were able to say ‘we’re all fruit sellers now,’ then people were able to say, around the Arab worlde, ‘we are all Tunisians now.’ And soon, it will be ‘we are all Egyptians now.’ Each time the particular gets emptied out of its original content, and becomes a more general demand, first for freedom from tyranny in Tunisia, then the whole Arab world, and potentially, in a more general way. I don’t agree with Laclau that we should call these ’empty signifiers’, I don’t think signifiers are ever truly empty, but Laclau knows this, when he speaks of the process of ’emptying’ signifiers. So there are degrees of emptiness, and this is what is necessary to make change happen – the particular is made more general, as people from more and more varied backgrounds feel that the event in question speaks to their situation. If it could happen there, it could happen here. My situation is analogous, I should take to the streets, maybe we too can have a Tunisia, an Egypt, etc. . . . the result is a series, what Badiou calls a generic set, by means of a forcing of the truth of an event via fidelity . . .

[Update 6) ‘All OF A SUDDEN NO ONE IS AFRAID ANYMORE’: This was a refrain I heard again and again amongst protesters who were interviewed. Without question, it seems this was enabled, at least partially, by a decision made by the military not to get involved, to send out clear signals that they were there, but would only protect infrastructure, and otherwise stay out of things. But even so, how did everyone know, all of a sudden, not to be afraid at the same time? This phenomenon is precisely that of cascade at a single level of scale, even as cascades are then possible at multiple as well. We see a uni-level cascade of this sort, for example, when people ‘do the wave’ at a sports arena. No-one in particular can start it intentionally, and if they do, it only works under the right conjuncture of circumstances to support it. What we see is a complex phenomena – each agent only really looks at those immediately around them to see what they are doing. If those people are ‘doing the wave’, then do it. This is how ‘the wave’ ends up having a life-cycle and seeming ‘mind of its own,’ even without central control. The same phenomena builds massive constructions from ants and termites, each of which follows simple rules, or produces flocking behavior from birds or fish.

7) ALL OF A SUDDEN, IT WAS LIKE THE WHOLE COUNTRY WOKE UP: Zizek describes a similar phenomena when Communism fell in Eastern Europe – it was already dead, just ‘it didn’t know that already’, and then it only took the right event to set it off. Often political change is like this. Slowly change happens underneath a situation that appears to have stayed the same. But that illusion comes down all of a sudden when the right event, a seemingly insignificant one, creates a ‘wave.’ This is why reform and revolution are not necessarily opposed. The trick is to try to produce reforms that alter the ‘landscape’ of a situation, even if gradually. Then, even if appearances remain the same, a wind can sweep the surface away. Of course, the rise of youth in any situation can always bring this about given enough time. When an old guard is entrenched in its ways, but doesn’t realize it is slowly being outnumbered as old folks retire, it is only a matter of time until things change. Egypt and Iran are two countries in which the percentage of the country that is young people is staggering. It is only a matter of time. The same can be said in any country in which the poor outnumber the rich. Unless, of course, the rich manage to convince the poor it is in their ‘best interests’ to support them (as we so often see, alas, with the Republican propaganda machine in the US).]

8) DIRTY TRICKS and HOW TO DEFUSE THEM: The same dirty tricks will be tried, time and again, by those in power. We see what Mubarak did by unleashing thugs. His hope was to make it seem like the protesters were causing chaos. He sent in thugs to cause the chaos, so it could be blamed on the protesters. It was only the extreme pacificism of the protesters which showed this to be truly a lie. It was clear to all the huge difference between the protesters and the thugs. But had the protesters become like thugs, even a little, it would’ve been impossible to tell one from the other. This is where figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King show the way. Protesters must have a moral code, and it must stand firm, if they are to topple the powerful by sheer force of will.

9) COMMUNICATION IS KEY: We need to do whatever possible to protect free press and communication. Facebook, Twitter, they were essential here. And now we see that a country can take down the entire internet, but that landlines can get around this. We now know that when the government plans to unleash thugs, they will try to round up journalists. We need to take notes. So that in peacetime, we can make sure that we install measures to make these sorts of counter-actions more difficult. Protecting freedom of communication is an essential part of freedom, and the potential for freedom, in any and all forms. Things like net neutrality and keeping the government out of the telecom industry are essential, as are the freedom of the press. These things seem like luxuries now, but in moments of crises, are key tools for creating change.

10). COUNTER-HEGEMONIC BLOC: Right now, there is one demand in Egypt – Mubarak must go. Much of this was made possible by a specific decision made at a crucial juncture in the protests, when the Muslim Brotherhood decided to allow El Baredei to speak for them and negotiate on behalf of the opposition. Here we see a conservative Muslim organization which allowed a moderate secular man to negotiate. I think this was crucial, because it showed that groups with varied interests would work together in common cause, the cause to remove Mubarak. Once the particular groups decided to work as a bloc to create change, the so-called ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’ described by Laclau and Mouffe in several works, it became possible to see the revolution as general. This wasn’t then a secular or Islamist movement. It was a general movement. And this is where I think Badiou’s approach is lacking. There are always, in any repressive situation, opposition groups. They always will exist, in some form. Only when they decide to work together can the demand for change move from particular (in this case, Islamist to secular) to more general. And that’s what happened here. Rather than, ‘we want an Islamist state now!’ or ‘we want a democratic secular state now!’, we got ‘no more Mubarak now!’ A counter-hegemonic bloc is formed, one in which particular demands become subsumed to the more general demand. A surface of inscription is formed, whereby the particular situation (a fruit seller in Tunisia abused by police) becomes more general as it is seen as representing the struggle of all, despite particular differences, against repressive police states. This moment of representation is essential. Common cause. Repressive power wins via divide and conquer. Only when people can find common cause via representation can change happen. [Update: It seems now that there was much more organization by the students who first put the protests together to keep the movement ‘leaderless,’ and in doing so they went around the ‘professional’ opposition leaders who so often stifle more spontaneous developments, and often unintentionally strangle the sorts of decisions to work together in common cause so needed by a counter-hegemonic bloc. By putting together a massive popular protest first, one without centralized leaders, the students managed to keep the demands general, beyond factions, until it became larger than the factions itself. Wonderful, amazing.]

11) TRANSITION: At some point, once Mubarak is gone, the dust will settle. We will have the end of what Laclau calls an ‘organic crisis.’ When the dominant power is shaken, people want something new to put in its place, lest there be chaos. And of course, Mubarak justifies hanging on now by saying that if he leaves now, there will be chaos. If there’s one thing people fear more than repression, it’s chaos. And part of why the movement in Egypt has been so successful has been the fact that the protesters have put together neighborhood watches to keep chaos at bay. The role of the army has also been essential in playing mediators. There will always be those amongst the powerful who can be brought to the table. This is why the counter-hegemonic bloc must be wide enough to make change happen. But as soon as Mubarak is gone, the in-fighting will re-emerge. Whose Egypt will now come to the fore? Certainly a transition government is needed, one which will keep the fear of chaos at bay. One which will provide for an ORDERLY transition. Only if order is preserved can one move from a general counter-hegemonic bloc, to a peaceful government that works by way of compromise between the factions brought together in that bloc. If no peaceful transition structure is established, the vacuum led to Mubarak will quickly lead to jockeying by the particular groups within the counter-hegemonic bloc for power. We’ve all seen this happen, a revolution that succeeds, only to turn to bloodshed between those who made it possible. The trick, it seems, is to keep these groups in the counter-hegemonic group in tension, without allowing any to try to swallow the others. And each will want to as soon as the common enemy that brought them together is gone. Only a frame in which tension is seen as beneficial can allow for a transition to a freer situation than existed before. Otherwise, a new master, a new dictatorship, will arise, simply in different form. This means that the transition structure needs to maintain the counter-hegemonic form, even without the common enemy. This is the balancing act.

[Update 12. RESILIENCE: After so many points at which the protesters could’ve given up, today we learn that Mubarak has finally resigned and left Cairo. The world powers wanted stability over democracy, but the people kept going back to Tahrir Square in ever larger numbers. The demand became a general one, and it became clear the crowd would only grow until the primary demand was met: Mubarak gone, and a transition to democracy. Towards the end, after Mubarak had tried violence with his thug provocateurs, then he tried pacification, hoping that the bread crumbs of some minor reforms would reduce the numbers of the protesters, and that he’d simply be more patient than they. He was proven wrong, and here we have one more lesson to learn, which is that of patient tenacity, resilience. The crowds needed to grow again, and after a lull, they increased to larger numbers still. From today’s NY Times: ““This is not a military coup,” said Amr Ezz, 27, one of the young leaders of the revolt, imprisoned for three days last weekend in one of the last attempts of the Mubarak government to snuff out the revolt. “It is the people who took down the president and the regime and can take down anyone else. We expect the military to be on the side of the people.”” Marx’s great lesson was that only when individuals stop fighting merely for the bread for their family that individual day, and start thinking collectively, can they win more than that bread in the long run. Only when we think collectively and in the long term will humanity be able to improve itself, remove the chains it has set for itself. Let us learn this lesson taught us by the martyrs who went to Tahrir Square and gave their blood for the collective long term benefit of the rest. Of course, the question arises: but how can these lessons then be applied here, in the land of the so-called free, but dominated by Comcast, GE, Halliburton, Wal-Mart, and Fox News?]

I think there’s much to learn from Egypt, and perhaps there are many other insights to be developed, but these ideas are a start to what I find I’m learning from the situation.

~ by chris on February 4, 2011.

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