Arab revolutions and neoliberal illusions

It is naive to assume that the Arab people in face of setbacks have retreated from their democratic aspirations.

In the waning days of 2013, the harsh tenets of neoliberalism seemed to be gaining ground [Reuters]

Words “are witnesses which often speak louder than documents”, wrote Eric Hobsbawm in “The Age of Revolution 1789-1848”.  And in an age of Arab revolutions (2010- ), words have become effective lethal weapons of counter-revolutions. No such common word may capture this wisdom of the brilliant historian these days than the Western category of liberal democracy preached by neoliberal Arab intellectuals as their people struggle for uprooting the neo-colonial system of oppression and the alliance between global capital and Arab economic elite.

The democracy concept illuminates not only the dynamics of the on-going social and historical confrontations in the Arab homeland, but also highlights the failure of this concept, in the non-Western world, to address either the socio-economic root-causes of the Arab uprisings or address the critical question of democratising (or transforming the structure of) the Arab state, and not simply “peacefully” organise the intra-elite transfer of power.

And as the on-going debate illuminates, this very concept of democracy and the sprouting liberal lingo embraced by a segment of Arab intellectuals are but tools to reproduce the ugly past of tyranny.

Pessimism of the intellect

From the end of 2013’s vantage-point, one cannot help but note that scores of attentive and highly alert Arab intellectuals are fearfully looking forward now (not backward), as their region is being propelled into the future, contemplating a possible catastrophic triumph of a sprouting western backed elite counter-revolutionary forces.

As they look forward, it is not precisely, and only, the massive ruins that have been accumulating by the process of history that catch their eyes or even have become their only source of dismay and anxiety. But, it is the possible triumph of neo-colonial (neoliberal) forces whose lethal counter attacks have not only been economic, military, or political, but, probably in their most destructive form, have also been ideological.

The current storm that began at the end of 2010 as promising social revolutions, with unambiguously socio-economic and geo-political roots, unleashed what might possibly be modern history’s most nasty force to which, I am afraid, modern Arab history and the impoverished and wretched popular classes in the Arab homeland were not prepared.

Of course there is nothing particularly Arab about this unpreparedness and it is neither cultural nor technological. The transformation of the Arab region might mean nothing less than changing the world. Had the Arab people been facing their elite only, the confrontation might have been settled in 2012. But as the US and Russia negotiate a settlement in Syria and struggle in Egypt, it is obviously a global conflict that embodies the fate of the world order and international relations, that Arab people face in their quest for freedom.

True, the storm might be far from over as of yet, and true, only revolutions, in the most orthodox sense of the word, can fundamentally change the political and economic regimes (what people want, as the slogan goes) and seriously address the socio-economic injustices that led to their outbreaks and address the geo-political and regional challenges.

But, as it seemed at the end of 2013, it is the tenets of harsh neoliberalism that are momentarily gaining ground. Aside from the daily bloody confrontations in the streets and public squares between opposing historical and political blocks desiring different futures, neoliberal counter revolutionary forces succeeded, until now, in steering the uprisings away from their original socio-economic quests and geo-political agenda. The hegemonic category of Western liberal democracy (and equally the ahistorical and false conception of nonviolent change) signify the fatal illusion through which counter-revolutions aspire to reproduce a putrescent old world. 

What democracy?

It is very fitting to recall Edmund Burke’s infamous onslaught on the French Revolution. It is, I think, a necessary starting point that future Arab historians, sitting comfortably and free at the “New Bibliotheca Alexandrina” years from now, must consider to impartially construct the seemingly incomprehensible dynamics of the revolution counter-revolution in the Arab homeland into some sort of intelligible account.

Burke’s piece, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, was not merely an attack on the idea of social revolution, but it was also a defining piece of modern conservatism and classical liberalism. It enfolded the seeds of conservative neoliberal ideology that currently informs the fierce counter-revolution in the Arab homeland.

Burke’s assault on the very idea of social revolution and participatory democracy, his support for settler constitutional democracy in North America notwithstanding, goes on at the end of 2013 (the difference between the two revolutions of course explains Burke’s posture). This time, through the appalling disconcerting efforts of some neoliberal Western-educated mainstream Arab intellectuals to reproduce the ugly past of neoliberal tyranny and avert people’s revolts through the tools of liberal democracy, individual empowerment, citizenship, and nonviolence.

Three years later, and while looking backward and forward, it is not only the ghost of Burke and his onslaught on revolution that is still haunting revolutions everywhere, but also that of Friedrich Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty”, and of course, the icons of neo-conservatism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is these faces and reactionary ideas that recalls as s/he listens to some Arab intellectuals preaching these ahistorical falsehoods and ignoring the very structure of oppression.   

What tyranny?

The anti-tyranny liberal democracy discourse promises merely, and only, another elite system of governance, just as tyranny is an elite system of governance. It might democratise governance and organise the inter-elite transfer of power. But it definitely fails to significantly transform the role of the state and the political and economic systems. It neither addresses the underlying socio-economic arrangements nor the geopolitical order. As such, the on-going debate in the Arab elite circles regarding constitutions, civil state, and the role of religion is really meaningless. They are merely manifestations of an ugly inter-elite power struggle within the context of the same old socio-economic arrangements and geo-political order. 

Tyranny is not, therefore, simply a nasty despot refusing the “peaceful” transfer of power, as the discourse of liberal democracy constructs tyrants. Tyranny is never individual, unless we ascribe to individual tyrants a personal power of “initiative unparalleled in world history”, as goes Karl Marx’s criticism of Victor Hugo’s “Napoleon le Petit” characterisation of the 1852 coupe d’etat of Louis Philip of France in the “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”.

True, Mubarak and his ilk of Arab tyrants are a problem, but they are not the problem. They were and are nothing more than representatives of an oppressive alliance of local and global elite forces that recalls colonial times in its most dreadful times. Liberal democracy can hardly address either local or global dimensions of oppression as long as it does not address the question of the state structure and socio-economic arrangements.

To those who have no confidence in the power of the people, the Arab uprisings seemed like a bolt in a blue sky.

Optimism of will

It is a “good moment to be a social historian”, wrote Eric Hobsbawm some four decades ago in his 1971 essay “From Social History to the History of Society”. The historian’s statement, of course, might have embodied a reference to growth and expansion in the field of historiography, to discursive shifts and epistemological uncertainties that continuously disturb the writing of history, and to methodological innovations that called the given assumptions of earlier traditions into question.

But historiographical sensibility is the least of my concerns in this short intervention. It is the story of the most colossal event in the modern history of Arab homeland; the story of astoundingly heroic people challenging not an Arab elite, but a global system of oppression and tyranny.

Three years after the Arab peoples amazing revolts unleashed unpredicted chain of events, it is, therefore, rather vital to be more than attentive, if not highly alert, not only to how events have been unfolding but also to how the history of these uprisings has been recorded. The neo-liberal onslaught on the revolutions in the Arab homeland has not been limited to disseminating illusions of individual empowerment and citizenship within the context of an excessive system of inequality, but also in narrating the story of the revolutions and mischaracterising the revolts as movements seeking individual rather than socio-economic demands.

The story of the Arab revolutions thus far dispels the illusion that regional and global powers are an unquestioned fate, if not an ageless fact of life. The utopia seemed very real and closely at hand just a year ago. Despite the hitherto tragic unfolding course, therefore, the real story of the Arab uprisings carries within it the hope for a just future.

In the year 2000, a few thousand Arab resistance fighters in Lebanon managed to defeat Israel, allegedly the most powerful force in the region. In an act of heroism that only confirmed the optimism engendered by the 2000 victory, they defeated Israel yet again in 2006. Similarly, in November 2010, and despite and against a strong international alliance, the Arab people revolted. To those who have no confidence in the power of the people, the Arab uprisings seemed like a bolt in a blue sky.

Maybe this phase will ultimately end with defeat, but there is no doubt the Arab people have passed into the age of revolution. Thus, to doubt that the Arab people will definitely strike back is crass naivete at best. It is, as it has always been for believers in revolutionary change, a question of when, not if, any more.

Seif Dana is Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He is also associate editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly, contributes to Al-Akhbar Arabic and English, and Al Ahram Weekly.