Withdrawing Consent

by | 19 Feb 2011

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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