Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).