Note: Hamid Dabashi’s new book, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012) has just been published by Zed in London. The following is an excerpt from this book, exclusively on Al Jazeera.
The world keeps discovering, keeps inventing, keeps overcoming itself. Because of the Arab Spring, the world is once again pregnant with better and more hopeful versions of itself. The crescendo of transnational uprisings from Morocco to Iran, and from Syria to Yemen, are turning the world upside down. The task facing us today is precisely to see in what particular way our consciousness of the world is in the midst of transforming itself – by force of history. The world we have hitherto known as “the Middle East” or “North Africa”, or “the Arab and Muslim world”, all part and parcel of a colonial geography we had inherited, is changing, and is changing fast. We have now entered the phase of documenting in what particular terms that world is transcending itself, overcoming the mystified consciousness into which it was colonially cast and postcolonially fixated.
In understanding what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East, we are running out of metaphors. We need new metaphors. Even the word “revolution” – understood anywhere from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt – needs rethinking. Such a new language of the revolution will cast the impact of “the Arab Spring” on national and international politics for generations to come. These uprisings have already moved beyond race and religion, sects and ideologies, pro- or anti-Western. The term “West” is more meaningless today than ever before – it has lost its potency, and with it the notion, and the condition, we had code-named postcoloniality. The East, the West, the Oriental, the colonial, the postcolonial – they are no more. What we are witnessing unfold in what used to be called “the Middle East” (and beyond) marks the end of postcolonial ideological formations – and that is precisely the principal argument informing the way this book discusses and celebrates the Arab Spring. The postcolonial did not overcome the colonial; it exacerbated it by negation. The Arab Spring has overcome them both. The drama of this delayed defiance Arabs have now called their spring; and I will use the occasion to make a case for our having entered the phase of the end of postcoloniality, delivered from exacerbating a historic trauma.
The transformation of consciousness, and precisely not through dogma or violence, is the inaugural moment of discovering new worlds – not by willing what does not exist but by seeing what is unfolding. As I write, the Arab revolutions, each with a different momentum, are creating a new geography of liberation, which is no longer mapped on colonial or cast upon postcolonial structures of domination; this restructuring points to a far more radical emancipation, not only in these but, by extension, in adjacent societies and in an open-ended dynamic. This permanent revolutionary mood has already connected the national to the transnational in unexpected and unfolding ways, leading to a reconfigured geopolitics of hope. That the Arab revolutions are changing our imaginative geography is already evident in the interaction between the southern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean in terms of modes of protest, with the spread of Tahrir Square-style youth uprisings evident from Greece to Spain, and indeed to the United States and the Occupy Wall Street movement – with even Aung San Suu Kyi comparing her campaign for democracy in Myanmar with the Arab Spring. These revolutions are not driven by the politics of replicating “the West” – rather, they are transcending it, and thus are as conceptually disturbing to the existing political order as to the régime du savoir around the globe. The ground is shifting under the feet of what self-proclaimed superpowers thought was their globe. These variations on the theme of delayed defiance hinge on the idea that the revolutions are simultaneously a rejection not just of the colonial oppression they have inherited but, a fortiori, of the postcolonial ideologies that had presented and exhausted themselves as its antithesis in Islamist, nationalist or socialist grand narratives.
The mystical consciousness our world has inherited hangs around the binary of “The West and the Rest”, the most damning delusion that the European colonial map of the world manufactured and left behind, with “Islam and the West” as its most potent borderlines. It is precisely that grand illusion that is dissolving right before our eyes. But that is not all: the challenge posed by these revolutions to divisions within Islam and among Muslims – racial (Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc), ethnic (Kurds, Baluchs, etc), or sectarian (Sunni and Shia in particular) – has at once agitated and (ipso facto) discredited them. These revolutions are collective acts of overcoming. They are crafting new identities, forging new solidarities, both within and without the “Islam and the West” binary – overcoming once and for all the thick (material and moral) colonial divide. The dynamics now unfolding between the national and the transnational will, as they do, override all others. The synergy that has ensued is crafting a new framework for the humanity they have thus embraced and empowered. Those dynamics are checked, to be sure, by counter-revolutionary forces that are now fully at work – and that have much to lose from these revolutions.
The world, and not just “the Muslim world”, has long been dreaming of these uprisings. Since at least the French Revolution of 1789, the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917, since the British packed their belongings and left India in 1948, since the French left Algeria, the Italians left Libya, the world has been dreaming of the Arab Spring. From the time the colonial world began lowering European flags, and as the postcolonial world was raising new ones, the world has been dreaming of the emblematic slogan, now chanted by people from one end of the Arab world to another: Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima’iyah, Karamah, “Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity”.
To pave the way for an open-ended unfolding of these revolts, the public space has been expanding for a very long time, and the political act is now being charged and redefined to accommodate it. But the public facade of unity across social classes and between different political tendencies, which has characterised the uprising from the very outset, has been and will continue to be fractured. But these fractures will expand the public space, not diminish it. That societal expansion of the bedrock of politics will not be along ideological lines. In the world beyond Christian dogma, people are not born in a state of sin, for this to be forgiven by way of communal declaration. As there is no original sin, there is no final forgiveness – and thus no grand illusion, no master-narratives of emancipation. The ideals remain open and grand, as they must, but demanding and exacting their realisation require painstaking and detailed work by particular voluntary associations beyond the reach of the state – labour unions, women’s rights organisations, student assemblies – all by way of forming a web of affiliation around the atomised individual, thus protecting her, thus enabling him, to resist the ever increasing power of the emergent state.
The spectre of that emerging state will keep the democratic muscles of these revolutionary uprisings flexing – for a very long time, and for a very simple reason. The world we have inherited is mystified (Marx’s term) by the force fields of power that have at once held it together and distorted it. Fighting the military and economic might of counter-revolutionaries goes hand in hand with deciphering the transformed consciousness that must promise and deliver the emerging world. The colonial subject (now revolting beyond the mirage of the postcolonial state) was formed, forced, and framed as the object of European imperial domination, with multivariate modes of governmentality that extended from the heart of “the West” to the edges of “the Rest”. Europe colonised the Arab and Muslim world from one end to the other precisely according to the model of power by which it was itself being colonised by the self-fetishising logic of capital. It was, by way of partaking in the making of the fetishised commodity, being alienated from itself as it was forcing that massive alienation on the colonial world. Postcolonialism was instrumental in conceptually fetishising colonialism as something other than the abuse of labour by capital writ large. It is not, and never has been.
The postcolonial subject, which was none other than the colonial subject multiplied by the illusion of emancipation, was thus released into the force field of that very same colonial history on a wild goose chase of ideological certainty before and after political convictions. For more than two hundred years – the 19th and 20th centuries – colonialism begat postcolonial ideological formations: socialism, nationalism, nativism (Islamism); one metanarrative after another, ostensibly to combat, but effectively to embrace and exacerbate, its consequences. As these postcolonial ideological formations began epistemically to exhaust themselves, the position of “subalternity” travelled from South Asia and became a North American academic fanfare, before it was politically neutered and soon turned into the literary trope of a “native informant”. Thus colonialism and postcoloniality combined to place the Arab and the Muslim (as its supreme and absolute other) outside the self-universalising tropes of European metaphysics, where the non-Western (thus branded) was never in the purview of full subjection, of full historical agency.
The world was thus sealed in a self-sustaining binary that has kept repeating, revealing, and concealing itself. Finally coming to full historical consciousness in terms of their own agential sovereignty and worldly subjection, “the Arab” and “the Muslim” are now exiting that trap, having identified it as the simulacrum of a renewed pact with humanity – beyond the European entrapping of “humanism”. Arabs and Muslims in revolt have no crisis of the subject, no problem with their cogito.
“The work of our time,” Marx rightly declared is “to clarify to itself the meaning of its own desires”. Indeed – and in that spirit I have written The Arab Spring.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is now released in London by the Zed Books.