on April 9, 2011
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Recently there was a conference in Tokyo on political philosophy and, when the time came to raise questions, I asked the French lecturer what he thought about the current events unfolding in Tunisia and in Egypt, where two authoritarian leaders have been ousted by popular protest. I gave a hint of how I would frame the issue in philosophical terms: Kant's cosmopolitanism and republican freedom, Hegel's struggle for recognition and the end of history, Marx's Thermidor, etc. But the French lecturer was unhelpful: he said he had little taste for such grand narratives, and besides he didn't know the social and political situation in North Africa and the Middle East very well. I was left mulling over the indifference of contemporary philosophers to world events that may prove as important as the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989: at least Kant changed his strolling path and showed interest at the news of the battle of Jena. But the French philosopher had a point: when events of world-historical significance unfold, isn't the first duty of a learned scholar to remain silent, to let facts speak for themselves, and to acquire the knowledge and understanding that will allow him or her to make sense of what is happening? This involves much more than just watching the news and listening to the punditry of the so-called experts. Deep understanding requires time and effort, and (in the absence of direct observation or testimony) a detour through the printed word seems to me a mandatory passage. Minerva's owl rises late, and takes flight after having spent some time in the library.
Hence my decision to read books about politics in the Middle East, some of which I have accumulated on my bookshelf over the years without the time to bring attention to them. Life as Politics is one such book: not better nor worse than some others, but with a topical title and an original angle. Its author, Asef Bayat, is a sociology professor in Leiden University and a long-time observer of Islamist movements. The book opens with a premonitory paragraph: "Never before has the region witnessed such a cry for change. The idea that `everywhere the world has changed except for the Middle East' has assumed a renewed prominence." The direction of this change is foretold with some accuracy: it is post-Islamist, non-violent, urban, and grounded in young people's mobilization. It involves "nonmovements" or the collective actions of noncollective actors--the unemployed, street vendors, migrants, young university graduates, internet users, and housewives--and builds upon the "quiet encroachment of the ordinary"--the illegal occupation of public space by squatters, casual workers, business entrepreneurs, or kids playing street soccer as on the book cover. These actors carry out their activities not as deliberate political acts, rather they are driven by the force of necessity--the necessity to survive and improve life. When denied these rights, they can resort to desperate action, leading to consequences well beyond anybody's imagination or control.
One such "ordinary encroacher" was named Mohamed Bouazizi. He was poor but hard-working, peddling fruits and vegetables on a cart he pushed around the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a small Tunisian town. His dream was to buy or rent a pickup truck for his work, send his younger siblings to college, and support his widowed mother in her old age. But when the local police and town officials confiscated his wheelbarrow and his scale, he found himself brimming with humiliation and anger. Out of desperation, he doused himself with a can of gasoline in front of the municipality building and set himself alight. His protest sparked a fire. Demonstrations and riots erupted throughout Tunisia, forcing President Ben Ali to step down and opening the way to democracy. The success of the Tunisian Revolution energized protesters in other Arab coutries, including several men who emulated Bouazizi's act of self-immolation in an attempt to bring an end to their autocratic governments. The ripple effects went as far as China, where the ruling party grew terrified at the thought of the many Bouazizi who were accumulating resentment and frustration in its fold.
What are scholars to make of such dramatic events? I don't know whether Asef Bayat has commented on the recent developments in the Middle East, but his book--a compilation of essays written over the years--helps put events in their proper perspective. First, there is the idea that history is made not only by the grand designs and speeches of great political leaders, but by the mundane actions of ordinary people. Describing the complex dynamics by which common people--such as Mohamed Bouazizi--make history requires a novel vocabulary and new analytical tools. Asef Bayat is cautious in his use of sociological jargon--terms like "the subaltern" or "agency", which obfuscate more than they clarify debates. He also distinguishes his approach from former theoretical perspectives. Social movement theory, drawing on European or Latin American experience, cannot account for the disjointed yet parallel practices of noncollective actors, which he sums up as "nonmovements". The "quiet encroachment" of public space is distinct from survival strategies of "everyday resistance", as described by James Scott in the context of South-East Asia. Foucault's concept of governmentality, in which "power is everywhere" and circulates within a fluid network of connected agents, underestimates state power and the role of institutional actors such as organized labor or religious groups. By comparison, Bayat's approach is more modest, and more grounded in empirical observation.
Second, renewed attention is given to the "Arab street". Political scientists and anthropologists have vilified the concept as a reified category, which reduces the culture and collective conduct of an entire people into a violent abstraction. In the Western media, the "Arab street" is a strange place filled with angry people, a collective entity with a will of its own ("What does the Arab street think?"), leading observers to the logical conclusion that Western standards for measuring public opinion simply don't apply in the Arab world. Asef Bayat has a different Arab street in mind. He is interested in what he calls "street politics and the political street": the street, in this sense, is the chief locus of politics for ordinary people, those who are structurally absent from the institutional positions of power. As he notes, "streets, as spaces of flow and movement, are not only where people express grievances, but also where they forge identities, enlarge solidarities, and extend their protest beyond their immediate circles to include the unknown, the strangers." There is a political geography of urban space that shapes power and politics. Cairo's Tahrir Square, Tehran's Enghelab Avenue, Istanbul's Taqsim Square have become trademarks and rallying banners as the focal points of mass protests and revolutions. Interestingly, they are all encircled by a maze of side streets and alleyways where political escapees can disappear in the event of a police chase. Revolutions in the sense of insurrections possess an inescapable spatial dimension. Bayat also notes the mixed nature of informal settlements in the Middle East, home to many middle-class urbanites and presenting a diverse mix of cultural and religious identities. The informal nature of these neighborhoods (without street names, household numbers, official registration, or maps) also makes them a safe haven for Islamist militants, although the mass of the poor is rather indifferent to political Islam.
As a last point, it should be noted that Asef Bayat largely leaves his politics at the door, and refrains from ideological categorizations. To me, this is a welcome development. Too many sociological tracts put the blame of everything wrong in the Arab world to "neoliberalism", "Western imperialism", or the dictates of the Bretton Woods institutions. Although Bayat is not immune to such biases--I never met a sociologist with a positive appreciation of the IMF--, he is more nuanced and balanced in his judgments than many of his peers. Commenting on geopolitics, he notes, quite provocatively, that "Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, with material and diplomatic U.S. support, has trapped generations of Arab intelligentsia in a narrow-minded nativism and cultural nationalism from which the authoritarian Arab states benefit." Likewise, it could be said that the ritual denunciation of the "Washington consensus" has prevented many social scientists to "get their economics right" and to develop a reasoned diagnosis of the many economic challenges facing the developing world and in particular the Middle East. To put it bluntly, Mohamed Bouazizi was not a victim of neo-liberalism: to say so would be an insult to his memory, and a very misleading signal to the many ordinary citizens who responded to his desperate cry for dignity and recognition.
on January 23, 2014
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I have not read the new edition, but as another reviewer said the first edition reads very differently if you realize that he is writing this prior to the Arab Spring.
The writing is engaging, and Bayat himself offers a unique perspective, spending much of his life in both Egypt and Iran and witnessing firsthand much of the nuance in the larger social-institutional forces and events that have changed these places in the last few decades. However, he manages to keep his analysis highly academic, while paying careful attention to larger sociological data.
The book is primary about putting forth a concept that Bayat calls "social non-movements," people who might not organize, wave flags and attend rallies, but through sheer number the actions of people in aggregate force the social institutions around them to respond. Bayat is interested in the tenuous nature of the relationship between non-movements and social change, as well as how the government tries to deal with these things. He also argues convincingly that the Western fetishization with organized political movements means they are missing the much greater tumult underneath the NGO's and facebook groups.
It's worth a read particularly in the first edition just to see that one person was making some prescient observations about how social and political change might occur in the region.