“If it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
With these words Arendt complains, in her magnificent book about the French and the American Revolution, On Revolution, that the essential elements of the foundation of freedom in the former north-American colonies were not kept alive theoretically and therefore forgotten by the time of an apolitical workers and consumers society. What was forgotten were such things as the pursuit of public happiness, the formation of power by federalism, the origins of the senate (in the Roman senate) as the seat of political authority, etc... Instead, politics and its institutions came to be perceived as the arena of money and power, of intrigues and blockades. By contrast, the French Revolution animated many thinkers and imitators to develop a conceptual framework: the revolution of the poor against exploitation and oppression, the fight for freedom, equality and fraternity, the predecessor and example of all revolutions thereafter, etc. For Arendt, in spite of her critique of the revolution’s aftermath in North America, these are misleading concepts that deny the immanent reason for the French revolution’s failure: the political inexperience of the revolutionaries, the transformation of virtue into terror, the swarming of the poor into public institutions, and the incapacity to proceed from liberation to a lasting constitution of freedom.
Revolutions à la française seem to end up in a reign of terror. Is the dictatorship of Castro in Cuba a coincidence? Is Hugo Chavez’ elimination of the second chamber of parliament and the restriction of freedom of opinion in Venezuela also a coincidence? Or perhaps the projection of personal fancy? No, says the Argentinian political scientist Claudia Hilb. These are because of the concept of the radical creation of social equality, which is only possible at the cost of political freedom. Hilb shows, citing Arendt, that “it is perfectly true, and a sad fact indeed, that most so-called revolutions, far from achieving the constitutio libertatis, have not even been able to produce constitutional guarantees of civil rights and liberties, the blessings of ‘limited government’, and there is no question that in our dealings with other nations and their governments we shall have to keep in mind that the distance between tyranny and constitutional, limited government is as great as, perhaps greater than, the distance between limited government and freedom.” (On Revolution)
Claudia Hilb in her “Silencio, Cuba. La izquierda democrática frente al régimen de la Revolución Cubana“ (Buenos Aires 2010) develops a critical framework of conceptual notions which sympathizers of radical social change do not dare to develop, given the discrepancy between their hopes for freedom and equality and the often gloomy subsequent reality. Confronted with criticism on Cuba, they try to defend the regime in Cuba with a “yes, but”. Yes, democracy and civic rights are missing, but there are social achievements like high literacy, general access to health care, and the absence of extreme poverty. Yes, Cuba is poor, but there are no slums like in Buenos Aires. These answers conceal the fact that compared with other Latin American states; Cuba fell from a leading position to a place at the back since the revolution in 1959. Moreover, the defenders attribute Cuba’s economic failures to the boycott by the United States, denying the structural disaster of the Cuban economy on even its own terms. Finally, these defenders color and excuse all this as a “tropical socialism” with its music and the “romantic” ruins that are Havana.
The thesis of Hilb: radical equalization of social conditions was made possible by establishing total domination. For her, the real equivalent is not freedom and equality but dictatorship and equality. Therefore, the missing civic rights as well as the prohibition of leaving the country are less incidental concomitants than a sign of the absolute concentration of power. Dictatorship and equality are inherent components of this form of government itself. Therefore, the dictatorship not only violates certain human rights but also does not recognize human rights as such. They are incompatible with the establishment of, and control through, radical equality, rendering democracy and plurality null.
Hilb describes how Castro from the beginning worked on centralization of power, eliminating revolutionary comrades in the party and armed forces as well as in trade unions and student organizations, elevating only his loyal comrades on unity lists in elections. Trade union and student movements were subordinated to his party.
Likewise the cultural sector was brought into line, not so quickly but just as thoroughly. The shameful self-accusation of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1970 became well known. Radical social change required an increasing concentration of power to eliminate all troubling discussions and deviations.
Social organizations like the trade unions and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were transformed step by step from organizations of mobilization into organizations of control. The trade unions, as “transmissions belts” for revolutionary force, were no longer organizations defending the working class but had the task to imposing voluntary work and intensifying production. The CDRs became instruments to prevent sabotage and control the private life of everyone. With the economic decline in 1970 temporary “re-education camps” were established. During three years 25,000 “antisocial elements” were detained, among them many homosexuals, religious activists, and prostitutes. The film “Before Nights Falls” (2000) based on the novel of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas describes this time.
Claudia Hilb reminds us of the governmental theory of the French political thinker Montesquieu, in an analysis reminiscent of Arendt’s in On Revolution.
Hilb describes Montesquieu’s analysis of fear as the key principle on which action is based under a tyranny. Fear does not automatically lead to obedience; both fear and obedience must be created, in the Cuban case, according to Hilb, by the arbitrary rule of the party. The Cuban constitution gives the party the power over the state and subordinates law under the political power. He who does not behave in conformity with the party consequently becomes a law breaker. Secondly, fear is created by revolutionary virtue, enforcing conformism in forms of behavior through the party as an unlimited instrument of power. And thirdly, fear is caused by shame. The political regime tacitly tolerates the many violations of law and thefts of public property to guarantee a life above subsistence level. This tolerated life of illegality and lying makes the population constantly vulnerable to blackmail through the shame of possible exposure.
Hilb invites Cuba’s defenders to open their eyes to reality in order to work on a framework of notions that would include how to constitute freedom so that freedom and social justice can be balanced to mutual advantage.
- Wolfgang Heuer
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).
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