Saturday, February 5, 2011

Two Left Views of the Revolutionary Situation in Egypt

Žižek has a piece in The Guardian here, which skewers the "cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilized through religious fundamentalism or nationalism". Indeed, he also puts a lie to the even more cynical wisdom that liberation can only be "brought" to the Middle East by way of U.S. military occupation.

Also, see Ahmed Shawki's excellent update on the situation from here. As he notes, "Right now, the movement is united around the political aim of getting rid of Hosni Mubarak. But hopefully, once Mubarak is unseated, the political questions will then mesh with social questions that still remain unresolved...If that happens, there will be a really explosive mix of political and social issues that represents the possibility of political and social revolution."

Both focus in on the most exciting thing about what's happening in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere: the fact that there is a space being opened up in which social transformation is possible. Comparing recent events to the early, emancipatory stages of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Žižek argues that "it did lead to a breathtaking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. This genuine opening that unleashed unheard-of forces for social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible, was then gradually stifled through the takeover of political control by the Islamist establishment."

It is always easy to say, in a cynical deterministic way, that unsuccessful revolutions were always fated from the very beginning to turn out as they did. But this facile bit of cynicism is not grounded in fact. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was not fated to turn out as it did from the very beginning, and, though seldom discussed, there were many emancipatory possibilities in its early stages. We must learn from such failures, such "revolutionary rehearsals", so that we can do better the next time around. The same is true right now: we cannot say what the result of these uprisings will be a priori. The exciting thing is precisely that, unlike the normal functioning of an oppressive society, space is being opening up in which people may have the opportunity to determine their own fate, to shape society in a humane, democratic way that brushes against the grain of neoliberal capitalism.

To fear this opening as such, to distrust this new possibility in itself, is just to side with the status quo. It is also to verge on an old colonial kind of racism which suggests that "I'm not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process", i.e. "the Arabs are not yet ready for self-governance". To fear incredible possibility of a free and democratic society created by these uprisings is to fear freedom and democracy themselves. It is to be content with the slow-grinding, everyday, ordinary oppression and exploitation that characterizes an unjust social order. No one except the most inveterate conservative could take such a position.

Sort-of Update: I might have added a third, namely, this piece by Noam Chomsky in the guardian. Echoing the views above, Chomsky holds that "It's not radical Islam that worries the US – it's independence...The nature of any regime it backs in the Arab world is secondary to control. Subjects are ignored until they break their chains."

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