Libyan War and Revolution – Unity & Multiplicity

by | 8 Jun 2011

The war that has been escalated in Libya over the last week is not the same as the revolt that gripped the country months ago. Even today in Benghazi there are two orders – war and revolt – at work, but the logic of war is destroying the multiplicity of a revolution. In this sense, there is much that we can learn about Libya from the Tunisian and Egyptian experience. From the very first days of success in the Arab Spring, it was clear that long-standing North African and Middle Eastern leaders would be ejected by a massive and sustained popular refusal of consent and representation. In Tunisia, Ben Ali and his RCD party were the initial objects of anger. However, again and again – even after their overthrow – the streets have been thronged with days of anger, indignation and fury. When this continuing revolt is covered in the western media (less frequently as time goes by), the crowds’ demands are explained as freedom, bread, jobs and dignity. However, this coverage, just as the coverage of the Greek student protests of Christmas 2008, misses the fundamental and crucial multiplicity of the events themselves.

Certainly the people demand freedom, bread, jobs and dignity, but what does that mean in terms of political organisation? There is no common narrative. In fact, the streets of North Africa and beyond, are witnessing a resurgence of that fundamental political question – how are we to be-together politically? This question has not found an answer yet. As Foucault said of Iran: ‘I would like to grasp what is happening right now, because these days nothing is finished, and the dice are still being rolled’. Still today we have only the constituent unsettling of the constituted order, without the complete reassertion of the new order.

Unlike the classical narrative of revolution where the people seize the apparatus of power, in Tunisia ‘the people’ does not constitute a new order. Rather on the streets their only common demand is in fact a refusal; their cry is ‘dégage’ (literally ‘clear off’ or ‘leave’). Crucially however, this disorder should not be understood in a negative sense – as chaos or ineptitude or pointlessness. Rather, it is the disorder that permits new political possibilities to emerge.

This should be contrasted with Libya. There the story we are told is very different. Following the events of Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose and tried to topple their long-standing tyrant. Not content to use simple emergency police powers, Gaddafi sent his field weapons. He bombed fuel dumps and ammunition stores in Benghazi and shelled Misrata. This generated the humanitarian emergency, the primal scene of human suffering that lies at the basis of humanitarian interventions. Once the intervention itself began and British, French and American planes were flying over Libya, the humanitarian spectacle changed. No longer are we presented with imagery of suffering and evil – a nasty dictator and his poor people – rather the planes, and now Apache attack helicopters carry seeds of freedom that are scattered across Libya. The dream – quickly turning into an Iraq-like nightmare – was that in each crater, the roots of western freedom will grow.

In this narrative, it is important to note how the subject changes. Initially it is a story about the struggle of those oppressed by Gaddafi, but quickly the emphasis shifts to Western entanglement in another distant quagmire. It is a story about how a revolution becomes a war, but in this simple switch of terms everything changes. In Tunisia, the lack of an overarching organisation and a representative voice forces and facilitates the Tunisian people to think again about their political organisation. In Libya, on the other hand, the revolution is unified under the Revolutionary National Council. It is recognised internationally as the de facto authority. It assures relevant governments of its commitment to free market economics. It promises to observe existing economic commitments. It does new oil deals with Swiss group Vitol and meets relevant western leaders. There is no manifestation of the people on the streets, there is no multiplicity trying to understand the political situation and refashion their political situation. What is more, unlike Tunisia there can be no attempt to challenge the neoliberal economic model that created the stifling unemployment in the first place, the same global hegemony that accepted the repression that caused the revolt. Instead, in Libya, the transition from revolution to war facilitates a unification that destroys political multiplicity. The war against the tyrant becomes everything.

There is an old chauvinistic narrative, much in evidence in Europe before the first world war, that warfare steels the will of the nation by generating its unification. This narrative proposes that democracy gradually becomes weak and decadent and that war affirms the masculinity and unity of the nation through heroic struggle against a common enemy. Aside from the racist and chauvinist basis of these positions, the utility of war for elites is that it unites the masses under a leader: patriots and traitors there may be, but the political sphere is determined by singular opposition to the enemy. The space for multiple positions on the nature and form of political being-together is closed because of the ‘threat to the life of the nation’.

In Libya it is precisely the war against Gaddafi that authorises and legitimates the Revolutionary National Council. They must, by necessity unite the people of Libya because Gaddafi can only be defeated through war. The people must unite behind them or suffer more tyranny. There is no space for the politics of the streets. The revolt that began the Libyan chapter of the Arab Spring is destroyed by the war which claims its authority. With this destruction comes the death of the radical possibilities of a new Libyan democracy.

*Illan Rua Wall is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Oxford Brookes. His book Human Rights and Constituent Power: Without Model Or Warranty (Routledge) is due for publication in September 2011.


  1. So somehow the revolution in Tunisia is a democracy via the multitude (in the sense used by Ranciere and Negri respectively) because the situation hasn’t sorted out its socio-economic goals towards unity, yet the war in Libya is somehow excluded from this label of democracy precisely because the people are complicit with Western capitalism. Thus it can’t be a ‘true’ democracy and is erased under some symbolic war. In a nutshell you are implying then that democracy REALLY means fidelity to international communist revolution (in which, of course, the non-compliant multitude would be summararily exterminated as it was only a tool of communist agitprop), while the opposition to Gadaffi is just a capitalist-chauvinist war fantasy. Brilliant.

  2. Hi Drew,

    A few things: Firstly, I am not saying that Libya is excluded from ‘this label democracy because the people are complicit with western capitalism.’ In fact, I say the war in Libya began with a similar event – a ‘people’ rising against its tyrant. However, this resolved itself into the destructive war structure after the humanitarian intervention. It is not that it ‘cant be a true democracy’, but that the event of dissonance has been crushed. Here’s to hoping it will re-emerge if and when the war is over.

    I like your rhetorical style, its quite funny. You claim to reveal what I am REALLY saying. Your reality behind my words, comes as a bit of surprise to me. I suspect all you are really doing is revealing your own projections and fantasies of this sort of theory. Careful now, those reds are definitely under the bed.

    I am not suggesting some sort of crypto-communist normative position. I am not saying that the events in Tunisia, for instance, are a communist revolution, especially if that was defined by a marxist-leninism. I am not saying that they are determined by some sort of party or determined by the economy.

    The idea that the ‘multitude would be summararily exterminated as it was only a tool of communist agitprop’ is disgusting. That would be the most terrible betrayal of the political theory of difference (cf. Jean-Luc Nancy in the Inoperative Comunity, for instance where he talks about the logics of communion rather than community).

    Finally then, your response entails a flattening out of possibility. Take your last line – ‘In a nutshell you are implying then that democracy REALLY means fidelity to international communist revolution… while the opposition to Gadaffi is just a capitalist-chauvinist war fantasy’. My point is precisely that the opposition to Gadaffi contained within it a million different possibilities and not a simple communist/capitalist dichotomy. Just as the events in Tunisia are not a fidelity to communism. Its not like ‘we’ have to choose – western capitalism or Russian communism. In fact, the whole point is to try to escape such a reductive approach and to try to think about political possibility.


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