Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Why... they want to be just like us!"

The imperialist orientation toward "events" elsewhere in the world typically falls on one or other side of the following dichotomy.

On the one hand, there is the survivalist, frightened, anxious gaze that "Otherizes". On the surface, it can be relatively collected or vitriolic, but the basic attitude is the same. Such a gaze regards that which is "other" as nothing but a threat. Underlying all of this is a rigid unwillingness to question the basic beliefs and ideological framework that legitimate the status quo.

On the other hand, there is the co-opting, appropriating gaze that obliterates all difference. This orientation tends to project a great deal onto other people (expectations, presumed endorsement of one's own politics, etc.). This gaze appropriates movements elsewhere on the globe, and contorts them in such a way that they are entirely consistent with the status quo at home. Again, underlying all this is a similar unwillingness to question or revise basic status quo beliefs and ideological coordinates.

I think we could plausibly argue that the Anglophone media has covered the events in Egypt in one or other of these two ways. Whereas the first response from the US ruling class was one of disbelief, shock, and anxiety, the most recent news from Washington suggests that a shift is underway toward a more co-opting, appropriating gaze. Again, this is typical: when power is in a position to do so, power often reacts swiftly to put down resistance that is visible enough as to not be ignored. But when conditions are such that resistance is growing in confidence and numbers, powerful groups often attempt not to simply "oppose" resistors directly, but to "accommodate" or "co-opt" them in such a way as to undermine their potential as a threat. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is absolutely a case of the latter, whereas the indifference and direct violence against the black liberation movement that preceded it seems more like a case of the former.

It has been obvious from the beginning of the Egypt protests that the US could not directly intervene, for both political and logistical reasons. Politically, there would have been very little support or legitimating grounds for a direct US intervention. The fallout within and without Egypt would have been massive for a US war machine that is already held in contempt by much of the world for its brutal occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the US has indirectly lorded over Egypt by "soft imperialist" tactics, and a move toward direct, "hard imperialist" intervention would breach this longstanding approach. Logistically, the US is over-extended and facing a deep economic crisis at home. It simply could not afford an adventure or increase of military expenditure in Egypt. Thus, the only available course of action for Washington is to work its connections and to try to manage "damage control" via PR. The PR effort, predictably, has shifted back and forth between chastising the protesters and expressing anxiety on the one hand, and appearing to support them and "democracy" on the other.

Now that Mubarak is on his way out, now that it is clear that the protesters will prevail, it comes as no surprise that Obama and Co. have come out as tentative supporters of some kind of "regime change". How could they take any other position at this point? They are merely being dragged along with the tide of this revolution. The interesting question is not "is Washington publicly taking a "pro" or "con" position vis-a-vis the protests?" The question is "what kind of "alternative" is Washington pushing for, and what sort is it pushing against"? Once power realizes that something must change, its task is to influence and mold the alternative in such a way that as little changes as possible (e.g. this is more or less exactly what happened to health care "reform" the US).

So, now that much of the outright anxiety and fear (what about our oil?, what about the "islamofascists"?, etc.) has given way to appropriation, the line coming from the "soft imperialists" is "Look! The Egyptian people want to have freedom just like us!".

Thus, the inspiring revolutionary uprising in Egypt is de-fanged, sanitized and re-packaged for mass consumption. Rather than implicitly criticizing our own society and proposing ways that we, Americans, could change it... the protests are merely an affirmation of our status quo. It's as if they're simply holding a big 4th of July BBQ celebration in our honor in demonstration of their "desire" to "graduate" and join "us" at the adult table.

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite of this rose-tinged fantasy. The Egyptian people are sick and tired of a frozen, ossified political system that is unresponsive to their needs and interests. They are sick and tired of skyrocketing food prices, high unemployment, repression of labor, neoliberal policies and economic insecurity. They are, in short, angry about problems that are angering Americans every single day. They want changes that Americans desperately need: a complete transformation of the political institutions in society, an overturning of the existing strata of elites, a turn towards more Left economic policy, a full-employment economy, etc. etc.

To say that there is no friction between Egyptian protests and the political situation in the USA is to deeply misunderstand both Egypt and the US. It is to walk about covering ones eyes and chanting the trite slogans that cover up the deep cracks in the status quo. The Egyptian people aren't "trying to be like us". They are doing something that we should take note of, that we must learn from: real change only comes as a result of mass struggle from below. The protesters are bearing witness to a basic fact about entrenched power which Fredrick Douglass captured nicely when he said:

"The whole history of the progress of human a
liberty shows that all concessions yet made
to her august claims have been born of
earnest struggle.... If there is no struggle,
there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation
are men who want crops without plowing up
the ground, they want rain without thunder
and lightning. They want the ocean without
the awful roar of its mighty waters. The
struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a
physical one, and it may be both moral and
physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will."

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