It’s not only in the Middle East that the balance of power is moving. The old neoliberal order has also been shaken…
In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir was already bemoaning our tendency to “think that we are not the master of our destiny; we no longer hope to help make history, we are resigned to submitting to it”. By the late 70s such regret, repackaged as celebration, had become the stuff of a growing consensus. By the late 80s, we were told that history itself had come to an end. The sort of history that ordinary people might make was to fade away within a “new world order”, a world in which a narrow set of elites would control all the main levers of power.
Sure enough, for much of the last 30 years, these elites have waged a relentless assault on the people they exploit. Trade unions have been decimated, real wages cut, public services privatised, public resources plundered. For many of these years during which “there was no alternative”, resistance in most places was either marginal or symbolic. In one guise or another, resigned submission remained the prevailing order of the day.
Not any more. In different ways in different places (including most dramatically some places that until very recently were often taken for granted as among the most “docile” and “stable” countries around), people all over the world are rediscovering a principle at work in every revolutionary sequence: if we are willing to act in sufficient numbers and with sufficient determination, we already have all the power we need to devise and impose our own alternative. If we are determined to pursue it, we now have an opportunity to help change the world.
This isn’t to say that either the neoliberal order or the imperial power that protects it are in any imminent danger of collapse. An opportunity is nothing more, or less, than an opportunity. The governments led by people like David Cameron and Barack Obama continue to press an agenda of “reform” that amounts to little less than a form of class warfare. In the UK, current government plans for education and public services are far more aggressive than anything Margaret Thatcher could have proposed. Nevertheless, in the last few years, and most obviously in the last few months, the general balance of power has begun to shift in three far-reaching ways, which together may well transform not just the Middle East but also the world as a whole.
First of all, of course, after demonstrating more clearly than ever before what the unrestricted pursuit of profit involves, in 2008 neoliberal credit mechanisms imploded in spectacular style, and the credibility of the capitalist world system itself took an unprecedented hit. The costs associated with what many have declared the “financial coup d’état” have now exposed the current rule of political accounting for all to see: privatise the profits, socialise the losses. This is the kind of rule that tends to suffer from publicity.
We have always been told that we cannot afford to pursue utopian projects that might reduce social inequalities, or prevent the millions of avoidable deaths that take place each year as a result of disease or starvation. Our governments and central banks, however, have now spent many trillions of dollars – thousands of times more money than what is required to end global hunger – to bail out some of the most blatantly corrupt institutions the world has ever seen. This public money was spent, just as blatantly, to avoid change rather than implement it. The underlying contradictions in the economy haven’t been addressed, and the banking sector has been left to carry on more or less as before. As the consequences of this monumental failure start to hit more and more people over the coming months, class-polarising austerity may well become a difficult political position to defend, especially since measures once justified in terms of economic necessity are now so visibly a matter of deliberate choice and priority.
At the same time, the imperial power that only a few years ago insisted on “full-spectrum dominance” has encountered significant limits to its deployment, both at home and abroad. Washington hawks may still dream of attacking Iran, but it’s perhaps more difficult now to imagine a new US war of aggression than at any time since 1945. Rarely has so dominant, so large and so expensive an army looked so powerless. Rarely, too, has so much diplomatic power looked so hollow, fractured and hypocritical. As it has done so often in previous decades, the US is still free to use its UN veto to thwart justice in the Middle East, but it now finds itself obliged to veto its own policy along with it, at a cost that has already endangered its most essential goal in the region: an end to the Palestine liberation movement.
The US and its allies have been discovering that it’s a lot harder, these days, to lie about what this and other deceitful political processes involve – a difficulty that may soon also have consequences for the ongoing missions to stabilise Haiti, pacify Iraq, conquer Afghanistan, demonise Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and so on. This is the second factor at issue here, dramatised most obviously in al-Jazeera’s publication of the Palestine papers last month, following the WikiLeaks revelations last year. A combination of new technologies, new social media and new sources of information (not least al-Jazeera itself), enabling new forms of association and deliberation, are starting to make it more difficult for political elites to rely on a compliant press to set and limit the political agenda.
These new means of accessing and sharing information are also starting to have a transformative impact on the third and most important development: the extraordinary resurgence of popular mobilisation and solidarity – a renewal that began with the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador (and at work more recently, among other places, in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, in Iran, in China, across Europe), but that has now crossed a new threshold in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. As one Egyptian protester put it, very concisely: “I used to watch television, now television watches me.” On the other side of the world, the tens of thousands of protesters who are mobilising to protect their unions in Wisconsin are among the many millions who have been watching and learning, and who see some similarities between their state governor and Egypt’s deposed president. In the UK, students and workers gearing up for another round of direct confrontation with Cameron’s government have been watching, too.
Diplomats and pundits rush to assure us that what we’re really seeing in north Africa is just an oriental variation on the east European uprisings of 1989, or the subsequent “colour revolutions” – uprisings that served mainly to consolidate rather than challenge the global status quo. Of course, no one can say how the north African mobilisations will develop, or how far they will spread. Like earlier revolutions in France, Haiti and Russia, these are mobilisations whose spatial and temporal (let alone ethnic or religious) dimensions are quite emphatically not fixed in advance. But we do know that they have already changed the course of history, and that they will continue to change it. In each new confrontation, they have demonstrated anew the truth of an old conviction that will always be more powerful than any amount of violent repression or scornful dismissal: the people, united, will never be defeated.
Whatever happens next, the people of north Africa and the Middle East have already won victories that will never be erased. The clashes in Tunis on 11-12 January, the capitulation of riot police in Cairo and Alexandria on 28 January, the retaking of Manama’s Pearl Square on 19 February, the liberation of Benghazi on 20 February – in the annals of revolutionary history, events of the 2011 Arab spring may one day invite comparison more readily with the summer of 1789 or the autumn of 1917 than with the winter of 1989.
In each case, what’s been at stake first and foremost is less a specific demand for objective change than a subjective process of self-empowerment. Every revolutionary sequence applies in practice a principle that every counter-revolutionary theory seeks to deny or disguise: there is indeed no deeper source of legitimacy than the active will of the people. A revolutionary sequence is one in which those people who set out to transform their situation find a way to clarify and mobilise the will of its people as a whole. Where it exists, the will of the people is sustained through the practice of those who compose and impose it in the collective interest – and who thereby invariably risk, at the hands of those few who oppose this interest, misrepresentation as criminals or outsiders.
As the philosopher Alain Badiou points out in a recent editorial, “once they cross a certain threshold of determination, persistence and courage, the people can indeed concentrate their existence in a public square or avenue, in a few factories, or in a university. In the wake of a transformative event, the people are composed of those who are able to resolve the problems posed by this event” – for instance, the problems involved in defending a square, or sustaining a strike, or confronting an army. Buoyed by the assertion of their hard-won power, the people of north Africa and the Middle East are currently inventing means of solving such problems at a rate that already defies any sort of historical comparison at all. Their priority now is clearly to consolidate and organise this power in the face of the many new and more daunting problems they will soon have to confront.
Needless to say, the struggle to come will again play out in different ways in different places. The consequences of even the most resounding victory are always uncertain, and it may take a long time for those of us who live in the more sheltered parts of the world to learn our own lessons from north Africa’s example. The old neoliberal assault remains set to continue. Now everyone knows, however, that it will only prevail if we allow it to.
Tuesday 22 February 2011 14.21 GMT
- Arab uprisings mark a turning point for the taking | Peter Hallward (guardian.co.uk)
- Egypt’s popular revolution will change the world | Peter Hallward (guardian.co.uk)
- In Egypt and Tunisia the will of the people is not a hollow cliche | Peter Hallward (guardian.co.uk)
- In Egypt and Tunisia the will of the people is not a hollow cliche | Peter Hallward (continental-philosophy.org)
- Mubarak’s Folly: The Rising of Egypt’s Workers by David McNally (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)
- ‘History is sweeping through your neighbourhood’: Cameron hails uprisings sweeping the Middle East on visit to Kuwait (dailymail.co.uk)
- Israel: Arab protests ‘opportunity for peace’ – Ahram Online (news.google.com)
- White House support for middle east ‘uprisings’ depends on how and whether they can be used against Iran (redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com)
- Uprisings Put al Qaeda on Sidelines (online.wsj.com)