The Springtime of Peoples Redux
The Egyptian Revolution is continuing. Today on Democracy Now‘s ongoing fantastic coverage from the ground in Tahrir Square, they interviewed a man who with an almost devilish look on his face, smiling while he acknowledged that the slowness of the government’s response was greatly helping the movement to become deeper and more creative. It was just the latest in a long list of incredible moments sparkling out of the uprising. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the two-hour special Democracy Now had on Saturday. In the midst of it is the incredible video that went viral all over Egypt in the week before January 25, showing Asmaa Mahfouz’s Jan. 18th message which some are calling “the video that started the revolution.” We were brought to tears by the intensity of her appeal, the urgency and dignity of her address. Don’t miss it!
The Springtime of Peoples originally was applied as a label to the rapidly spreading revolutionary tide across Europe in 1848. I was reading up on it to contextualize the origins of San Francisco, a city which has only been a city in any sense of the word since 1849-1850. I came upon this passage about the sudden collapse of the Hapsburg Imperial center in Vienna, March 15 1848, quoted in Mike Rapport’s “1848: Year of Revolution” which I thought remarkable for how closely it resembled the events in Cairo:
In Vienna, the whole aspect of things seemed changed, as it were, by a magician’s wand… The secret police had entirely disappeared from the streets; the windows of book-stores were now crowded with forbidden works, which, like condemned criminals, had long been withdrawn from the light of day; boys hawked throughout the city addresses, poems, and engravings, illustrative of the Revolution—the first issues of an unshackled press; while the newly-armed citizens formed into a National Guard, marched shoulder to shoulder with the regular military, and maintained in unison with them, the public tranquillity.
Similar stories are pouring in from many sources now. A fantastic essay appeared in The Asia-Pacific Journal by Mohammed A. Bamyeh, which he datelined Al-Qahira, The City Victorious, February 6, 2011.
…in every sense the revolution maintained throughout a character of spontaneity, in the sense that it had no permanent organization. Rather, organizational needs—for example governing how to communicate, what to do the next day, what to call that day, how to evacuate the injured, how to repulse baltagiyya assaults, and even how to formulate demands—emerged in the field directly and continued to develop in response to new situations. Further, the revolution lacked recognized leadership from beginning to end, a fact that seemed to matter greatly to observers but not to participants. I saw several debates in which participants strongly resisted being represented by any existing group or leader, just as they resisted demands that they produce “representatives” that someone, such as al-Azhar or the government, could talk to. When the government asked that someone be designated as a spokesperson for this revolt, many participants flippantly designated one of the disappeared, in the hope that being so designated might hasten his reappearance. A common statement I heard was that it was “the people” who decide. It appeared that the idea of peoplehood was now assumed to be either too grand to be representable by any concrete authority or leadership, or that such representation would dilute the profound, almost spiritual, implication of the notion of “the people” as a whole being on the move.
I was watching Aljazeera on Friday and at one point there was the anchor querying a guy in Tahrir Square. “Isn’t it a problem that you don’t have a leader? Someone who can speak for the movement?’ or something like that. The guy in the square was beautiful, totally eloquent, and said without hesitation. “No, absolutely not! We don’t need any leaders. We speak for ourselves. We’re very well organized and we don’t need anyone to represent us!”… wow!
Bamyeh has a book called “Anarchy as Order” which I haven’t read but after seeing his essay, I’m very interested in it. Elsewhere he continues:
Spontaneity also appeared as a way by which the carnivalesque character of social life was brought to the theater of the revolution as a way of expressing freedom and initiative; for example, among the thousands of signs I saw in demonstrations, there were hardly any standard ones (as one would see in pro-government demonstration). Rather, the vast majority of signs were individual and hand-made, written or drawn on all kinds of materials and objects, and were proudly displayed by their authors who wished to have them photographed by others. Spontaneity, further, proved highly useful for networking, since the Revolution became essentially an extension of the spontaneous character of everyday life, where little detailed planning was needed or possible, and in which most people were already used to spontaneous networking amidst common everyday unpredictability that prevailed in ordinary times.
Something really big is happening in Egypt. The man who was so proud of the developments and hoping that the authorities would continue to drag their feet so the profound changes in every day life would continue to deepen was one of the best indicators of what an unprecedented moment this is in world history. Tom Englehart gets it, too, from his perch in DC analyzing the U.S. empire. His essay today intelligently puts the Egyptian Revolution in the context of 1989 and the collapse of one half of the Cold War duopoly, and now, finally, two decades later the U.S. empire is in steep decline, perhaps tipping into the dustbin of history not so long after the Soviet Union did.
Clearly the autocratic Mubarak regime, and others like it propped up by the U.S. in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and elsewhere, are more like the absolute monarchies overthrown by the revolutions of 1848 than they are like the one-party states of the old Soviet Union. But the big similarity is in the lack of space for civil society to develop, for the panoply of social actors, contending economic and political powers to hash out their conflicting interests in a public sphere, preferably democratic.
That on February 2 some of Mubarak’s supporters found nothing better to do than send thugs on camels and horses to disperse the crowd at Tahrir, seemed to reflect the regime’s antiquated character: a regime from a bygone era, with no grasp of the moment at hand. It was as if a rupture in time had happened, and we were witnessing a battle from the 12th century. From my perspective in the crowd, it was as if they rode through and were swallowed right back into the fold that returned them to the past. By contrast, popular committees in the neighborhood, with their rudimentary weapons and total absence of illusions, represented what society had already become with this revolution: a real body, controlling its present with its own hands, and learning that it could likewise make a future itself, in the present and from below. At this moment, out of the dead weight of decades of inwardness and self-contempt, there emerged spontaneous order out of chaos. That fact, rather than detached patriarchal condescension, appeared to represent the very best hope for the dawn of a new civic order.
The same process has been underway in Tunisia too, though a bit obscured by the excitement and scale of the Egyptian revolt. Writing in The Black Commentator, Dr. Horace Campbell makes a number of astute points.
We must remember that revolutions are made by ordinary people and that there are millions who want a new form of existence where they can live like decent human beings. In another era of capitalist depression and war it was C. L. R. James who commented that, “That is the way a revolution often comes, like a thief in the night, and those who have prepared for it and are waiting for it do not see it, and often only realise that their chance has come when it has passed.”
And so it is for so many self-identified “revolutionaries” with their eyes stuck firmly in the rear-view mirror. When people begin to move, they really don’t need the political parties and their hacks who have spent so many years churning out empty ideological platforms, barking at people in demonstrations, etc.
The full expression of a worker-student alliance [in Tunisia] was beginning to take shape as workers occupied workplaces while setting up committees to run their workplaces. It is this advanced consciousness of worker control that is slowly taking shape as the revolution of Tunisia experiment with networks of networks beyond the old standards of democratic centralism and other worn ideas of revolutionary organization and the vanguard party. Social media and social networking may represent one of the forms of this revolutionary process, but the character is still embedded in the self-organization and self-emancipation of the oppressed. It is this powerful force of self-emancipation that is acting as an inspiration and beating back vanguardists, whether secular or religious.
This repeats itself in the Egyptian uprising. While the Muslim Brotherhood has plenty of people in the streets and were among those at the front lines of the fighting against the Mubarak Interior Ministry’s hired goons, the story is not of a religious movement but one of civil society. More than that, the missing background is that over the past few years Egyptian workers have engaged in thousands of strikes in the export-processing zones created mostly by Russian and Chinese capitalists, and thanks to the perils of foreign direct investment, consumer politics, and dictatorship, their strike actions established that they could fight and win against the police state.
So it’s an incredibly exciting time in world history. The story is far from over and of course, there’s no certainty that our best hopes will be fulfilled. But the new circuits of communication, solidarity, and mutual aid/trust that have been established in just a few short weeks will be very hard to undo. Perhaps from the wreckage of these police states and the long-term death of statist nationalism will emerge a transnational liberatory movement that unites people across whole swaths of the planet in a new way of living, working, and loving… why not? We know the old models are broken!