Withdrawing Consent

For the last month, we have been wit­nessing, in Tunisia and Egypt, the first re­volu­tion of the twenty-​first cen­tury. We are in­deed for­tu­nate to live in the pres­ence of such a world-​making event, even if we are not in the streets to­gether with those who are making it a reality in daily life. Hastening to provide ana­lyses of on­going so­cial and polit­ical al­ter­a­tions of such mag­nitude is al­ways ill-​advised, be­cause world-​historical events also alter the known modes and means of ana­lysis, es­pe­cially those crafted by pun­dits and academics.

Nonetheless, in an at­tempt to re­spond to the sub­lime sen­ti­ment of watching an en­tire people erupt in a col­lective de­sire for self-​determination, which is, moreover, ac­tu­al­ized in the very means of con­ducting and real­izing this de­sire, I feel a per­sonal ex­i­gency to ar­tic­u­late cer­tain ele­mentary ob­ser­va­tions on what I per­ceive to be the world­wide con­sequences of these al­ter­a­tions. I do so in the spirit, not of ana­lysis, but of spec­u­la­tion, and with the self-​conscious risk of being an am­a­teur observer.

My overall sense is that this is a re­volu­tion that has already trans­formed the terms with which, up to now, we have con­cep­tu­al­ized revolution.

Even if, as has been said re­peatedly, one can con­nect the manner of the Egyptian re­volu­tion to what led to the col­lapse of the Berlin Wall, and thereby the Soviet world, the present event — which, I re­peat, is still taking place — tran­scends the events of 1989. And this, be­cause it does not re­main tied merely to the de­mand for polit­ical freedom, but de­mands in ad­di­tion the full re­con­fig­ur­a­tion of so­ciety, the cre­ation of new in­sti­tu­tions (polit­ical and so­cial), and the ac­tu­al­iz­a­tion of so­cial justice and isonomy. Whether these will be achieved is un­clear. But the de­mand for them and the self-​authorized way in which this de­mand was ar­tic­u­lated is re­volu­tionary in it­self and cannot be effaced.

Moreover, since this re­volu­tion is taking place in the Arab world, and in a primarily Muslim so­ciety, the range of its con­sequences over­comes its strict geo­graph­ical bound­aries, which are, in any case, plural and over­lap­ping (Middle East, North Africa, Southeastern Mediterranean), broaching, in­deed, world­wide di­men­sions, all the more be­cause sim­ul­tan­eously it deau­thor­izes the pre­vious model of Islamic re­volu­tion in Iran.

Two things to be said here:

First: It is im­possible at this mo­ment to judge the mag­nitude of sig­ni­fic­ance these events will have for the self-​determination of every single Arab person, wherever s/​he hap­pens to reside on the planet. The re­volu­tion in Egypt and Tunisia means the reawakening of the Arab world in gen­eral and against an in­creas­ingly power­less (in world terms) Arab elite. Whatever the out­come, the rup­ture with the past cen­tury that saw the shift from col­on­iz­a­tion to na­tional in­de­pend­ence — in­deed, a cen­tury of con­tinuous de­pend­ence — is un­bridge­able and ir­re­vers­ible. All Arabs now know — and those who still govern them know it too, but with fear — what autonomy really means: what it means to de­mand, un­hes­itant and un­afraid, and to achieve, as a so­ciety en masse, the right to de­cide your own present and your own fu­ture. For the Arab world — and hence for all its en­emies — these events testify to a found­a­tional re­con­fig­ur­a­tion of the geo­pol­it­ical dy­namic, whose con­sequences may still be in­de­term­inate but are most def­in­itely sub­versive. The re-​awakening of the sense of Arab self-​determination and the de­mands that it poses cannot be blanketed in the lan­guage of ethno-​nationalism, be­cause it is a polit­ical ac­tion that cuts to the core of the most ex­ist­en­tial demand.

The cel­eb­ra­tion with which or­dinary Arabs, in the streets and in their homes all over the world, wel­comed the an­nounce­ment of Mubarak’s polit­ical de­mise on February 11, 2011, is an in­delible in­dic­a­tion of a per­son­al­ized, ex­ist­en­tial sense of awakening. But the re­gional re­con­fig­ur­a­tion reaches beyond the Arab world as such. One might say that, in a Mediterranean con­text, the cata­lytic event took place in December 2008, when Greek youth, re­sponding to a case of public po­lice bru­tality, and using ex­actly the same tech­no­lo­gical modes of com­mu­nic­a­tion and or­gan­iz­a­tion, re­belled against the state with un­pre­ced­ented rage, even if this ac­tion, as rad­ical as it was, re­mained in­ad­equate in its con­stituent di­men­sions. I note that, in those days, Arab youth hailed the Greek re­bel­lion in various blogs as an ex­ample to be fol­lowed. On the other side, tem­por­ally speaking, the re­cent mass protest ac­tion in Italy, spear­headed by women, against the Berlusconi gov­ern­ment cannot pos­sibly be dis­con­nected from the im­pact that im­ages from Egyptian streets had on the ima­gin­a­tion of the pro­testers, even if this would be dif­fi­cult to quantify. That these ac­tions re­main in­com­plete (and per­haps in­ad­equate) speaks more to the dis­em­power­ment of European so­ci­eties (even the two most politi­cized ones) versus Arab ones than an en­trench­ment of un­al­ter­able institutions.

Second: Historical co­in­cid­ence is al­ways ironic, be­cause it can never be de­lib­er­ately pro­duced, and be­cause, when one event shadows an­other, all pre­cedent meaning is thrown off kilter. This is es­pe­cially the case here, where the col­lapse of the Mubarak re­gime hap­pens to co­in­cide to the day with the thirty-​second an­niversary of the col­lapse of the Pahlavi re­gime, as a result of a re­volu­tion that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Feb. 11, 1979). This co­in­cid­ence sig­ni­fies in es­sence the his­tor­ic­ally ac­tu­al­ized dis­en­gage­ment of two oth­er­wise in­com­pat­ible names, be­cause the re­volu­tionary move­ment for demo­cracy in both Egypt and Tunisia never ges­tured to­ward any re­li­gious au­thor­iz­a­tion. Even the in­stances of col­lective prayer in Tahrir Square be­fore pro­jected mass ac­tions re­mained in the realm of a so­cial, not polit­ical, prac­tice. Sublime re­mains, above all, the image of Egyptian Christians forming a human chain of pro­tec­tion around Muslims in prayer against pos­sible at­tacks by thugs of the secret po­lice. (The ges­ture, I was told, was re­versed when Muslims stood guard out­side a Coptic church during mass.) Against all talk by fear-​mongering pun­dits from quar­ters that wish to den­ig­rate Egypt’s achieve­ment, the Muslim Brotherhood ex­pli­citly ar­tic­u­lated its sup­port from the outset for a real — there­fore, secular — democracy.

Let us not mince words in the face of sub­lime events. The Tunisian and Egyptian pop­ular up­ris­ings are the epi­tome of sec­ular ac­tion — which is not to say, sec­ularist. Whatever will be the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of the movement’s con­stituent power — and, at present, this is still pro­foundly un­known, and all bets are off — the con­sti­tu­tion of the ac­tion it­self, in terms of both the in­ten­tion and the ex­e­cu­tion of the actors day after day, un­folded with a uni­vocal con­cen­tra­tion on self-​determination ex­traneous to any ex­ternal, tran­scend­ental, au­thor­iz­a­tion. Moreover, the fact that a world-​historical sec­ular event is taking place in Muslim so­ciety — and es­pe­cially in­sofar as it goes against the legacy of the Iranian Revolution — re­gisters as a powerful in­dic­a­tion of how in­ad­equate has been the haste among pun­dits and aca­demics to pro­claim the ad­vent of a post-​secular age. Although this is a broader issue per­taining to the gen­eral politics of the “post-” — which test­i­fies ul­ti­mately to a gen­er­ally in­ad­equate in­tel­lec­tual re­sponse to the emer­gent — it de­serves to be un­der­lined as a point of de­par­ture for some ur­gent reconsiderations.

Finally: The dom­inant Orientalism that wants every res­ist­ance to power in Muslim so­ci­eties to be an ex­pres­sion of re­li­gious fan­at­icism and ter­rorism was dealt a brutal blow in just eighteen days. We are speaking of eighteen days of ex­plosive pop­ular ac­tion that in­ter­wove a tech­no­lo­gic­ally in­genious urban youth; a deeply en­trenched workers’ syn­dic­alist move­ment; the ini­ti­ative of in­de­pendent women in and out of the family struc­ture; the lib­eral bour­geoisie of the main Egyptian cities; the well-​trained or­gan­iz­a­tion of the Muslim Brotherhood among key pro­fes­sions (es­pe­cially doc­tors); the ex­plicit par­ti­cip­a­tion of people working in the ju­di­cial system (in­cluding judges wearing, as signs, their court re­galia); and, above all, the spon­tan­eously and autonom­ously en­raged as­so­ci­ation of tens of thou­sands of the poorest of the poor. Let us not forget that the spark for this re­volu­tionary rage was struck by a food-vendor’s act of self-​immolation on a Tunis street.

In Egypt and Tunisia, we see the very idea of re­volu­tion being trans­formed be­fore our eyes, yet sim­ul­tan­eously con­necting it­self with its ele­mental and in­tegral sig­ni­fic­ance. Revolution no longer means the vi­olent over­throw of a polit­ical re­gime in an or­ches­trated (or hi­jacked) ac­tion, under the com­mand of a re­volu­tionary van­guard, sec­ular or re­li­gious — an ac­tion that in­ev­it­ably leads to a civil war that never ends for the gen­er­a­tions who ex­per­i­ence it and in­delibly marks the gen­er­a­tions that follow it. Revolution now means what it has al­ways meant in es­sence: the people’s re­moval of their con­sent to power.

For, in the last in­stance, no re­gime can con­tinue to exist without the con­sent of the so­ciety it reigns over, whether this con­sent is con­scious or un­con­scious, willful or co­erced, driven by in­terest or driven by fear. The great Etienne de La Boétie first spoke of vol­un­tary ser­vitude in 1549, sim­ul­tan­eously dir­ecting our at­ten­tion to the fact that it only takes the many to realize they hold more power than the One who nom­in­ally con­trols them. La Boétie’s calling con­tinues to be ut­terly apt to the con­tem­porary situ­ation, where the world’s ubi­quitous ol­ig­archies, which trade in the name of demo­cracy, sus­tain them­selves with the pro­found col­lab­or­a­tion of a demos that dis­avows its re­spons­ib­ility for self-​determination and self-​governance.

I un­der­stand that many would say that it’s much too early to tell. And, even more, mere with­drawal of con­sent is in­ad­equate without the move to con­stituent power. Strictly speaking, this is true: with­drawal of con­sent to het­ero­nomous power (a neg­ative ac­tion) must be fol­lowed by con­stituent ac­tion of autonomous power (a pos­itive ac­tion) for demo­cracy to be fully en­acted as a re­gime (kratos). However, without the first, nothing hap­pens at all. And, in­deed, the first mo­ment — with­drawal of con­sent to power — is, in it­self (in its neg­at­ivity), autonomous action.

Much has been written, from within the Arab world, about the com­plexity of al­li­ances and in­ter­sec­tions that played a role in the pro­cess of this spon­tan­eous re­volu­tion. I isolate es­pe­cially two art­icles by Paul Amar in Jadaliyya: “Why Mubarak is Out,” on February 1, and “Why Egypt’s Progressives Win,” on February 8. I also note Mona El-Ghobashy’s ac­count of Egyptian polit­ical struc­ture in the panel “Egypt Arising” that took place at Columbia University on February 9. Every present­a­tion on this panel (El-​Ghobashy, Juan Cole, Jean-​Pierre Filiu, Rashid Khalidi) was right on the mark, but Filiu’s focus on the new polit­ical cul­ture of avowed ex-​jihadists in Egypt de­serves fur­ther ex­plor­a­tion and discussion.

There is a last in­stance, of course, in hard social-​historical terms. No doubt, capitalism’s world­wide eco­nomic crisis and the wound it in­flicted on the poorest strata of Egyptian and Tunisian so­ciety drew the bottom line of for­bear­ance and was the cata­lyst that dis­solved and stream­lined the sed­i­mented des­per­a­tion of gen­er­a­tions. And this too was con­ducted and guided through a well honed and or­gan­ized workers’ move­ment with a pro­found his­tory of strike ac­tion be­hind it, whose ar­tic­u­lated (and ut­terly real­iz­able) threat of a gen­eral strike that would in­clude Suez Canal workers — in what, we must admit, was an un­canny his­tor­ical real­iz­a­tion of the Sorelian myth — was what ul­ti­mately pre­cip­it­ated Mubarak’s final de­mise. Beyond all this, how­ever, let us re­member that one of the de­mands that be­came a chant on the lips of the mul­ti­tude was karama: dig­nity. This de­mand has already been met, no matter what may ensue, by the re­volu­tion it­self, by the dig­nity of this revolution.

Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics, English, and Comparative Literature and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. He is the au­thor of Dream Nation (Stanford UP, 1996) and Does Literature Think? (Stanford UP, 2003), and editor of Freud and Fundamentalism (Fordham UP, 2010). 

This art­icle was or­gin­ally posted on The Immanent Frame on 15 February 2011.

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