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).
“What is necessary for the pubic realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.”
In 1973, Hannah Arendt was invited to participate in a series of conferences on the Humanities and Public Policy issues funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to be held at Columbia University. The first, scheduled for February 1974, was on the topic of “Private Rights and the Public Good,” and Arendt gave a speech in response to a paper on the subject given by Charles Frankel, a Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (The original note cards of her presentation are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and can be viewed digitally online.)
Part of the grant’s requirements included taping the sessions and providing the Endowment with a transcript of all proceedings. Arendt objected to being taped and indicated she could do no more than present her oral commentaries; she had no time to develop a fuller paper. The organizers of the conference and Arendt reached a compromise: they would prepare a transcript of her comments from the tape; the tape would stay in the possession of Columbia University and no use would be made of the transcript, other than filing it with the Endowment as required, without Arendt’s express permission.
Some months after the conference, the coordinator of the conference sent Arendt the edited transcript, along with his wishes for her speedy recovery: while Arendt was in Scotland for the second of the Gifford Lectures, she had suffered a major heart attack. Unhappy with the transcription, Arendt indicated she still had her notes and would prepare something from them, adding that she thought this would present her thoughts more clearly, “even though these notes are written down in a rather apodictic style.” She had her secretary type up a version of the notes and then made a few additional minor changes and sent them to Columbia University.
“Notes on the Discussion of Professor Charles Frankel’s Paper...” provides several succinct insights into Arendt’s critical distinctions between public and private, which are especially germane to today’s political situation.
“Every individual by virtue of his citizenship receives a sort of second life in addition to his private life. He belongs to two orders of existence. Throughout his life he moves within what is his own, and what is common to him and his fellow man.” Public happiness was something that could only be attained “in public, independent of...private happiness.”
Today, Arendt bemoaned, the opportunities for experiencing this public happiness by participating in public life had shrunk, adding, “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” It was better represented in the activities of a jury. But the paradigmatic “public right” for Arendt was the right to peaceable assembly provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Its exercise was still evident in “voluntary association”, she remarked, “of which the civil disobedience groups were an outstanding examples.” Arguably, it has been more recently evident in dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its iterations. (Though, for interesting commentary and documentary materials on this see Cindy Weber’s recent essay in Open Democracy). But what was definitely not an example of the exercise of public rights was the degeneration of peaceable assembly into “lobbying,” which Arendt saw as “the organization of private interest for the purpose of public political influence.
Evidence from the current campaign suggests that the bipartisan perversion of public into private interests continues at an obscene pace. A recent article in The New Yorker provided some frightening facts: The impact of the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has meant that “very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics...A pool of only 2100 people has given a total of 200 million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom 86%.” (August 27, 2012)
What this means, using Arendt’s terminology, is that only a tiny portion of private interests will exert tremendous political influence. Not only has the public realm shrunk; the private realm of influencing politics has all but disappeared for everyone except the very few. Entering the voting booth in 2012 will mean exercising your private right to choose between one form of oligarchy or another. What then of public life? How can it be restored?
Arendt was typically vague about what to do about the influence of oligarchies on public and private life. “Neither the capitalist system [nor] the socialist system respects ownership any more—inflation and devaluation of currency are capitalist modes of appropriation—although both, in different ways, respect acquisition,” she wrote in the same speech. As to the consequences of enshrining acquisition as a principle of social organization, Arendt had nothing but criticism—see The Human Condition for this. To protect private life, we must “restore ownership to private individuals under conditions of modern production.” And what is necessary for public life to be restored is “to shield it against the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.” Yet all recent legislation that would have restored “ownership” or secured the public realm against brutalization by private interests seem to disappeared from the legislative agenda.
Is it time to call upon the 99% to boycott the election entirely? What other act of civil disobedience would be adequate to the task of renewing public life and salvaging it from its bastardization at the hands of greedy private interests?
-Kathleen B. Jones
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