Changing the game?

by CarlD

A friend of mine notes the strange convergence of political views on the unfolding situation in Egypt. Commentators on the left and the right are excited about the events. I think this is diagnostic, but I’m not sure of what. Certainly it’s taking a moment for the left to fully grasp that neo-conservative enthusiasm for exporting democracy is uncomfortably like what we’ve been criticizing the U.S. for not doing all these years. And of course activism junkies on the left will jump at any popular movement, conveniently forgetting that the Taliban and KKK are popular movements.

Since I’m not smart or patient enough to boil down these and other scattered thoughts into a comprehensive analysis of what at this point could be anything from a social-media-inflated popular tantrum to a fundamentally transformative cultural/social/political conjuncture, or all of the above, I just thought I’d pass on a little gem from a previous popular uprising that has always seemed to me to contain the kind of practical wisdom that’s especially hard to summon up under the pressure of events. This is from Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (1974, that is, immediately following another famous media-inflated popular tantrum conjoined with significant structural transformation):

During one of the many nineteenth-century riots in Paris the commander of an army detachment received orders to clear a city square by firing at the canaille (rabble). He commanded his soldiers to take up firing positions, their rifles levelled at the crowd, and as a ghastly silence descended he drew his sword and shouted at the top of his lungs: “Mesdames, m’sieurs, I have orders to fire at the canaille. But as I see a great number of honest, respectable citizens before me, I request that they leave so that I can safely shoot the canaille.” The square was empty in a few minutes (81).

Of course this does not resolve underlying issues, which in both the French and Arab cases (and, perhaps most famously, the Russian case) involve the ‘overproduction’ from a market standpoint of educated youth. But those issues are not resolved by popular uprisings or representative democracy, either.



32 Responses to “Changing the game?”

  1. Certainly it’s taking a moment for the left to fully grasp that neo-conservative enthusiasm for exporting democracy is uncomfortably like what we’ve been criticizing the U.S. for not doing all these years.

    I realise I shouldn’t rise to this, but the criticism of neocon policy was that it involved bombing the bejesus out of people under the pretense of exporting democracy (it was not a criticism of policy actually oriented towards the achievement of democracy); contrariwise, the popular uprising in Egypt is not the result of neocon policy (except in the sense that neocon policy has contributed to Egyptians’ suffering and anger), but is taking place in the face of a US-sustained oppressive dictatorship. So while it’s galling that the neocons are claiming the Egyptian popular uprising as part of their own political narrative, I’m not sure that’s symptomatic of much beyond the fact that neocons are mendacious shits.

  2. And dude – it’s not a tantrum. People are dying as part of a society-wide mobilisation for a more representative and less oppressive government. It’s an amazing thing – brave people.

  3. Duncan, basically you’re right but (running between classes so not developing this thought with due care and nuance) I do want to bracket the ‘brave people’ thing. This is pretty transparently activism haloing. If you actually listen to what the protesters are saying, they are certainly busy constructing heroic self-mythologies on the fly. But in answer to questions from admiring Western journalists assuming they’re taking their lives in their hands they’re also saying things like “Afraid? Why would we be afraid?” And they commonly express the belief that the chief force of repression is the Interior Ministry, whereas the Army can eventually be expected to intervene on their behalf. That is, they think they’ve got not just popular momentum but ultimately the armed might of the nation on their side. (Again, this seems not unlike the view of many Russians who believed they were being oppressed by their local lords but that if the Tsar knew what was going on he’d make things right.) Under these circumstances, casualties can be framed as unlikely accidents (producing martyrs, certainly), not as inherent costs of action.

    As for what more-representative-less-oppressive means, I’m fascinated enough by the Tea Party’s and British unions’ current views on that subject to be only relatively and reservedly supportive of the agenda.

  4. Re: neocons, it’s not entirely clear how to support democratic development against dictatorial regimes without some bejesus-bombing at a certain point. I mean, I can certainly imagine a long process of gradually undermining the Third Reich from within, but I can also understand the temptations of a more direct agenda. My point here is only that there are trade-offs in these situations that enable a certain kind of ‘critical thinking’ no matter what.

  5. So, anyway, not meaning to disparage this striking effort at all. Out of the fire into the frying pan is certainly progress, as even disenchanted actors fully attuned to the slippages, ambiguities and ironies of the situation might decide. But, to put my remarks more fully in context, I’ve been reading a lot of ethnography lately, so the notion that there’s a way of doing things that’s decisively better than all the other ways of doing things is currently unavailable to me.

  6. I don’t know. Most conservative commentary I’ve heard has expressed wild and racist fears about Muslims.

    Like this:

    Look especially at the really depressing comments.

  7. Glad we’re on a similar page here, but respectfully I think that this –

    I do want to bracket the ‘brave people’ thing. This is pretty transparently activism haloing.

    – is bullshit. It’s great and hopefully potentially decisive news that the army have publicly announced that they won’t attack protestors – though note that the army is not the only institution of state violence; the police have been shooting people (and also assaulting and arresting people, and looting and mugging in their faux-civilian capacity.) (I haven’t been following this as closely as I’d like, but I’m pretty sure the UN were yesterday estimating 300 dead (plus I-don’t-know-how-many-thousand injured, of course). That’s remarkably low given that we’re talking about an uprising against a military dictatorship, but seriously.) And of course it wasn’t at all clear how senior army figures would fall for some days, and the army’s public decision only followed the nation-wide mass popular mobilisation. If you think that this mobilisation involved no bravery, because its success was or is guaranteed to succeed – or was or is perceived as such by participants – then you’re insane.

    I also think you’re being very naive in the way you’re parsing protestors’ remarks about fear. Of course people are saying that they’re not afraid – this is a performative act of political gamesmanship – performative for the benefit of both the Egyptian state and the protestors themselves. All the protestors have as political weapons are their numbers and their tenaciousness. It’s essential to the success of an uprising such as this that the protestors present as unintimidatable. One aspect of this is people saying that they are unafraid. Another aspect is people chanting (as they have been in Tahrir Square) “martyrdom or freedom”. This is not a slogan one adopts if one is unaware of the possibility of violent outcomes.

  8. I mean seriously – it’s a popular uprising against a military dictatorship. You think it doesn’t involve bravery being out on the streets in Egypt? wtf? What is wrong with you?

  9. I mean, I can certainly imagine a long process of gradually undermining the Third Reich from within, but I can also understand the temptations of a more direct agenda.

    But we’re talking about Egypt, where in fact US policy has been to fund and support the regime, not to undermine it in any sense, and where the US is still utterly shamefully refusing to endorse the protestors’ demands for the immediate resignation of Mubarak.


    If you haven’t seen it this site has a powerful collection of images – including some distressing ones of “unlikely accidents” – e.g. #23: “Mohamed Atef lies on the ground after being shot in the head while demonstrating in the town of Sheikh Zoweid, 344 km (214 miles) northeast of Cairo, January 27, 2011.”

  11. More unlikely accidents in Cairo now as the security forces in plain clothes posing as pro-Mubarak protesters attack the crowds – fighting on the streets. AlJazeera says “Tahrir Square is looking like a war zone now”

  12. Duncan, Egypt is, like so many others, essentially a mafia state based on relationships of asymmetric reciprocity and characterized politically by struggles over privileged access to the godfather and his goodies. Which means there are in fact lots of people not police or even elite (I suspect a classic rural/urban split) who are invested in the regime. The current troubles have to do not so much with a fundamental clash between enlightened democracy and retrograde despotism as with the inability of this clientelar framework to absorb large numbers of urban educated youth and the disembedding of communitarian obligation exchanges resulting in the transformation of patronage into ‘corruption’ and anomie into ‘freedom’. These are real structural problems, but not in any clean, clear or reliably progressive way a democracy/human rights thing unless you’re really careful who you interview and what soundbite rhetoric you choose to privilege.

    So I’m kinda in favor of giving it a shot, but just barely. As for whether actors on the ground have a good understanding of the conditions and larger implications of their actions, I suppose there’s always a first time. And there they are, my naive, insane cards on the table.

  13. I’ll say more to this when I have a little more time Carl, but I strongly strongly disagree. If your perspective were applied more generally, it would prevent us from regarding any democratic or human rights movement ever, anywhere, in all history, from being regarded as such. You are wrong. I’ll say more when I have more time.

  14. Actually I don’t really know what to say. Egypt’s a dictatorship, and a police state; people are on the streets protesting and fighting for political freedom. If this is not a democracy/human rights thing, I literally have no idea what those categories would apply to.

  15. Duncan, you are correct that my position implies doubt about the essential democratic/human rights content of all historical movements. And if we accept ideology-level definitions of those things, obviously my position is absurd. But I don’t play well with orthodoxies, so when people tell me things are self-evident I want to consider the possibility that it is not so.

    And I notice a number of ethnographers arguing that ‘human rights’ and democratic ‘choice’ are such thin concepts of moral foundation that real human societies always find ways to contest and supplement them with richer (and more personally binding) notions of community and divinity. (Compare this argument with Polanyi’s about market ‘freedom’ in Great Transformation.) And I notice that the functional reality of democracy in the places it’s most thoroughly entrenched is to create a political culture of personal entitlement buffered by a sense of grudging fairness about a systematic distribution of goods where no one gets more than a fraction of what they want. Which is at best a relative improvement on whatever it replaces.

    I think seeing Egypt as a dictatorship / police state is just such a ‘thin’ reading, as is seeing the protesters as (simply) advocates of political freedom. Those are the legitimizing scripts that are available in the current global context, and they do push systemic discontent at least formally in the direction of the symbolic resources of democracy and human rights. I think it’s likely that the result of the current events will be (at least temporarily) a political structure with the formalities of representative democracy. What remains to be seen is whether democratic habits of mind and process are actually embedded in the Egyptian context, any more than they are in, say, Arizona, or whether instead ‘democracy’ will as is so often the case provide fashionable ideological cover (as it did for Mubarak’s own ‘democratic’ party, mixed with nationalism) for communitarian / clientelar business as usual.

  16. I think seeing Egypt as a dictatorship / police state is just such a ‘thin’ reading, as is seeing the protesters as (simply) advocates of political freedom

    This means that what I’m saying is right, but that since not every aspect of Egyptian society was exhaustively described in my blog comment, you get to pretend that I’m being ideological. We all know that social reality is complex, Carl. That doesn’t make it impossible to accurately describe some political regimes as dictatorships.

  17. I don’t play well with orthodoxies

    Yes you do, because the idea that the Egyptian protesters don’t actually want more political freedom, and that “democratic habits of mind and process” may not be sufficiently “embedded in the Egyptian context” to enable a real transition to a democratic society, is in fact the principal legitimating ideology of those currently working to establish an alternative dictatorial client state regime in Egypt. This discourse is fucking pervasive – don’t try to pretend you’re bucking orthodoxy.

  18. at best a relative improvement on whatever it replaces

    As opposed to what? An absolute improvement beyond which all improvement would be impossible? No, you’re right, the Egyptian uprising could not usher in a society free from all conflict, unhappiness, disease and death. But since all anyone is talking about is a relative improvement – the difference between dictatorship and democratically elected government – this ‘critique’ of what I’m saying is completely specious.

  19. I’m sure the US state department is full of students of ethnography who similarly understand that Arab societies can’t be analysed in terms of democratic movements and human rights.

  20. Polanyi didn’t use his notion of embedded markets to argue that it was inaccurate to described markets as markets.

  21. “I’m sure the US state department is full of students of ethnography who similarly understand that Arab societies can’t be analysed in terms of democratic movements and human rights.”

    When I’m talking to someone from the State Department I’ll have that conversation. Right now I’m talking to you.

  22. “We all know that social reality is complex, Carl.”


  23. For the sake of readability, perhaps we should consolidate multiple small comments made within minutes of each other into a single larger comment?

    Also, I urge all to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy here.

  24. Good!

    But you write as if mafia patronage structures and dictatorship, pro-democracy movements and economic/demographic shifts are mutually incompatible, such that referring to one can undermine a ‘simplistic’ characterisation of events in Egypt in terms of the other.

  25. Perhaps this is our misunderstanding then. I thought I was writing as if those things are mutually complicating, not incompatible. Rather than sowing further confusion, then, I’ll allow that interpretive clarification to recast what I’ve said so far and repeat that I agree with pretty much all you’ve said so far, pending mutual willingness to take the inevitable inadequacies of short blog comments and weave them into a more satisfying analysis.

  26. You were saying they’re mutually complicating – I just think you regard that complication as far more ‘problematising’ than you should. When you express incredulity at the idea that Egyptian protesters see themselves as engaging in a dangerous activity, despite the days of well documented street fighting that had preceded that remark, the well known brutality of the Egyptian regime, and now the days of street fighting that have followed it, this doesn’t put your other remarks in a good light.

  27. I also think your comments implicitly conflate several different things. Democracy is an institution for the replacement of sections of the ruling class via the mechanism of independent popular vote. It’s important to differentiate this institutional set-up from

    a) the habits of mind of the citizens who inhabit a state. It doesn’t matter whether I think democratic or fascist thoughts when I wake up in the morning – if I am a citizen of a state with this institutional set up I live in a democracy. Thus it doesn’t matter that there are a lot of anti-democratic jerks in Arizona – Arizona is still part of a democracy. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that there are millions of people who are pro-democracy in Egypt; Egypt is a dictatorship. Clearly institutional set-up can’t be fully distinguished from habits of mind (since institutions are made up of people). But a robust distinction can be drawn – and the extent to which democracy is about habits of mind, rather than institutions, is hugely overplayed in a lot of academic work, in my opinion.

    b) other institutional set-ups that present as democratic – for the purposes of international public relations and the control of internal dissent – but that in fact are not. (Obviously there’s a range of possibilities here.)

    It’s really problematic to shift between (a) and (b) in the way you do in your critique of (or ‘complication of’) the characterisation of the Egyptian uprising as a pro-democracy movement. It implies, whether you intend to or not, that a nominally but not really democratic outcome is likely because of features of the uprising, rather than because of features of the state and international system that the uprising confronts. Like you, I think – and I very much hope I’m wrong – that a likely outcome here is an similarly authoritarian (if you prefer, mafia state) regime. I think that’s likely because an alternative client state (led by Suleiman) is clearly what the US wants, and is working to get – whereas I don’t see any powerful political actors beyond the protesters themselves pushing for a real democratic transformation of governmental structures. (There are a lot of power shifts that are being covered, in some segments of the press, as if they are ‘concessions’ to the movement, but that are surely just the jockeying for position and purging of rivals that takes place in any period of flux within an authoritarian bureaucracy (or mafia organisation). Presumably the best hope for a democratic outcome is if enough different segments of the present Egyptian ruling class believe that democratic reforms are their own best chance to maintain and enhance power, such that they push for this in internal government power struggles – but there doesn’t seem any particular reason to expect that.) (Please may this all be wrong.)

    One of the main things I’m objecting to in your comments is the way in which a world-weary attitude towards outcomes is projected onto the movement itself. There’s a pernicious sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in the general ideological discourse here (the fulfilment courtesy of state-actors, of course): we shouldn’t let the actual demands of such movements be met, because these movements aren’t really pro-democracy enough to be trusted with such power; instead, a transition must be managed by responsible adults. Predictably, because this was the point and purpose of this ideological move, the ‘transition’ then results in non-democratic outcomes; and this is somehow taken as evidence for suspicion of pro-democracy movements – of the kind I feel is being articulated in your comments here. Presumably you think it’s important not to ‘halo’ activists. But there is no reason empirically not to think that there is massive popular support for democratic reform in Egypt, just as there is no reason to think that protesters aren’t fully aware of the danger they are in should this gamble fail.

    As I’m sure you know, representatives of the protest movement have now issued a set of demands, including the drafting of a new constitution to be voted on in a national referendum, and the holding of local and national elections. Of course the unanimous will of the Egyptian protest movement will not be reflected in this set of demands, so there’s plenty of room for ’complication’ – but at some point descriptive terms like ‘pro-democracy movement’ can be regarded as fully legitimate – as can “thick“ ethical terms like ‘brave‘.

  28. Thanks for this, Duncan. I’m sorry I gored your ox. In general I like people, and I like when they get what they want. So much so that I wish dictators could have their own states of masochists to push around, right next door to Lockean democracies in which fiercely independent smallholders patrol their fences with blunderbusses, and anarchist collectives in which everyone listens to their inner General Will and acts freely and virtuously for the good of all, and ethnic theocracies devoted to the living of a particular vision of the good life, and theater-states to which all the drama queens could go for a continuous political peak experience. Unfortunately politics get a little more challenging when all of those wants are mixed together in one place, although dynamically the dictators and drama queens have an advantage in forcing everyone else to do things their way. Which yes, does make me weary. My own preferences range toward the virtuous republic, but I’m with Rorty in thinking tolerant liberal democracies are probably about the best we can do (which also describes my view of international relations). I hope the Egyptians get what they want, but as you can see, in my view it’s inevitable that many of them won’t no matter what. And this fundamentally tempers my enthusiasm, so I may not be the right interlocutor for the conversation you’d like to be having.

    Of course Egypt is a dictatorship, as in Marxist terms is Arizona (‘in capitalist liberal democracies the vote allows the citizens to choose among their oppressors’). I believe we were talking about what type, and what that might mean about what’s going on in Egypt in particular. Just as it’s important to understand just what’s meant by ‘democracy’ in one context or another. In Egypt, for example, it’s going to have to mean some sort of functional accommodation with the patronage networks that actually get things done there, and mollification of the interests embedded in those networks, while functional alternatives are gradually assembled. (Calls for immediate liquidation of the existing regime are either movement rhetoric or signs of dangerous naivety. Iraq is an object lesson in what that looks like.) It’s also going to have to involve institutional attention to some serious demographic and cultural cleavages in Egyptian society – rural/urban, educated/uneducated, rich/poor, Islamic/Islamist/Christian/secular – the kinds of ruptures that are constantly managed in American democracy by our enormous wealth (less so now, see Tea Party), and that were kept in check in Egypt by the dictatorship’s monopoly of material and symbolic resources (i.e. nationalism), and that have made Lebanon what it is today. Again, think Iraqi federalism as a practical, but not very encouraging example, although arguably a ‘passive’ contrast to Egypt’s ‘active’ experiment. Yay democracy, right, but at some point it’s good to start looking at the forces actually in play.

    And of course there are a lot of brave people in Egypt doing what they think is right, on various sides, although I remain fascinated by the general optimism of the early days in light of the objective danger factors you identify. But I don’t think people should or shouldn’t, can or can’t get what they want because they’re brave or not, so I’m not impressed with bravery as a qualifying rhetoric. Maybe we can just agree to disagree on this point and move on?

  29. Of course Egypt is a dictatorship, as in Marxist terms is Arizona (‘in capitalist liberal democracies the vote allows the citizens to choose among their oppressors’)

    Again I think you’re conflating things that any adequate analysis of “the forces actually in play” would keep distinct. Marxism is a varied tradition, and there are, I understand, some strands of that tradition that would characterise Arizona as dictatorship. But I’m a Marxist, and it isn’t. Arizona is part of a democracy, for the reasons I gave in my previous comment: citizens of Arizona can participate in elections in which local and national political representatives can be elected to lawmaking and executive roles, and there are relatively powerful and effective limits on the ability of ruling bodies to forbid people from running and voting in these elections. There are plenty of problems, and are some major organisational and oversight changes I’d make to US democratic institutions if I had the power, but it’s just silly to characterise Arizona as a dictatorship. Further, “dictator” picks out a much narrow set of political actors than “oppressors”. It is possible (as I and many other Marxists do) to think both that “in capitalist liberal democracies the vote allows the citizens to choose among their oppressors” while also thinking that this claim differentiates capitalist liberal democracies from dictatorships, as it plainly does. We’ve had this discussion before. You claim to be ‘complicating’ a dogmatic analysis, but it seems to me you’re smushing together a whole lot of different categories in a way that makes nuanced assessment of – or even differentiation between – massively different socio-political organisational forms impossible.

    Calls for immediate liquidation of the existing regime are either movement rhetoric or signs of dangerous naivety. Iraq is an object lesson in what that looks like.

    Again, you’re ignoring the differences between radically different situations – which rather undermines your insistence that we “start looking at the forces actually in play”. I’m not totally clear what “calls for immediate liquidation of the existing regime” refers to, but I presume you mean the demands articulated by representatives of the protest movement, which include the dismissal/resignation not just of Mubarak, but of the upper level of the NDP as well. I think this is unlikely to happen, for the reasons I’ve already articulated – reasons of hard power – but it’s not at all naive in the sense of organisationally unfeasible (or in any other sense, for that matter), and it would serve an important purpose: to prevent a simple reshuffle of party leaders, of the kind that currently seems on the cards – Mubarak goes; Suleiman takes over; the ruling class carries on more or less as is. It is certainly tenable to replace a large number of senior government figures in the short term, while working on a more substantial institutional overhaul in the medium term, as the protesters propose. I don’t understand why you think such a thing would be untenable.

    The situation in Iraq was totally different. First, there was a much less robust institutional framework in place to begin with. Second, the institutional change was imposed by an invading and occupying army, rather than by representatives of a mass popular movement, which makes – as you’d expect – a substantial difference as to how easy such changes are to effectively implement on the ground. Third, the de-Baathification of Iraq was almost unbelievably poorly managed, and although such things are always full of unexpected contingencies, the Egyptian protest movement seems to have already thought through the mechanisms of transition more carefully than the US did in Iraq. There are many other big differences as well, but these illustrate the problem. The comparison serves the ideological function I complained about in my last comment, whereby the failure of destructive neo-colonial interventions in the Middle East are taken as evidence that Arab populations can’t self-govern, justifying further neo-colonial interventions. I understand the pressures that induce, say, the New York Times to present this kind of narrative; I don’t understand why you find it appealing, even in a suitably ‘complicated’ form.

  30. Yeah. Well, I think we’ve amply if implicitly negotiated the terms of a possible conversation here and it’s not happening, although we’ve incidentally done a nice job of demonstrating the pitfalls of ‘ideology’. Once again I think you’ve made many good points, expressing a perspective I respect with passion and rigor. In future I’ll try to remember to respect your boundaries around the democracy topic. Cheers.

  31. You don’t have to respect my boundaries – I’d just like a clear articulation of why you regard the manner in which I draw a distinction between democratic and dictatorial forms of government as analytically problematic. But yes, maybe time to call it a day for now. Thanks for the conversation.


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