Revolution not in the head but on the streets

by · January 29, 2011

canisfamiliaris-__The most subversive protest of all- An Egyptian protestor kisses a riot police officer
11: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

The events in Egypt flatly contradict the received wisdom on the Left that social progress comes through a process of slow, patient education to change attitudes and challenge reactionary ideas. In a very short time a populace promoted as disgruntled but otherwise obedient, tied down by a mixture of conservative Islamic belief and fearful respect for authoritarian rule, has torn up that methodology of struggle by showing that once “the glass wall of fear” of the coercive powers of the state is overcome, longstanding hierarchies can be rapidly shattered.

Action, self-activity, has run ahead of the consciousness of those in struggle, creating new facts on the ground that few would’ve thought possible just days ago — and that the US State Department (let alone Mubarak’s high command) seems totally unable to keep up with. This is what gives such revolutionary situations their “spontaneous” character, something we saw also in Tunisia last week.

It’s understandable why many on the Left see social change as needing to happen first at the level of ideas. Demoralised by 30 years of retreats, we’ve been forced to argue our corner from a defensive stance, convincing small numbers of people through patient argument that we can win a better world. Even for those committed to revolutionary change, it can often seem that cut and thrust of “politics”, somehow abstracted from material conditions and activities, is the barrier to mass action. And in some senses it is, as the conservative politics of reformist politicians and trade union leaders stymie calls for more radical action. Moreover, the reality of decades of collective quiescence and resignation on the part of working people, those we hold as the potential subjects of change, creates the sense that their political ideas are an almost impregnable barrier to serious political struggle.

Such notions are tied up with the heavy weight of reformist consciousness, which for the majority of workers is the sine qua non of life under the rule of capital in normal times. As Cliff and Gluckstein argue in their seminal history of the British Labour Party, reformist consciousness combines “acceptance of the basic tenets of the system with elements of protest against it” in a dynamic tension. Therefore the institutional transmission belts for ruling class ideology (the mass media, the education system, parliamentary politics, etc) seem so impervious that the only hope is to work within them to propose alternative conceptions of the world. Because these are the ever-present fields of ideological contestation, even those who identify as revolutionaries can come to see them as the sole terrain of struggle.

Egypt shows, however, why the young Marx was right to break with those thinkers around him who saw change as coming from the level of ideas, even those who agreed with him that the working class must be a central part of that process. Because for Marx, as he was himself breaking with Hegel’s legacy, the important discovery was how people make their own history (of course rarely in circumstances of their own choosing). It was the material conditions of life, here correctly understood as including the complex social relationships in which people are embedded, that underpinned ideas. But this didn’t mean that ideas were a simple reflection of the material world either:

3: The [vulgar] materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice. [Theses on Feuerbach]

So where have Egypt’s seemingly sudden convulsions — an objectively revolutionary situation — come from?

In 1991 the IMF became involved in Egypt’s economic management, demanding neoliberal reforms in exchange for loans. Yet by the end of the 1990s it became apparent that promised new export markets and foreign investment had failed to materialise. The response by the regime was to accelerate privatisations, sell off the state banks and slash subsidies to the poor. This undermined support for Mubarak’s regime and opened the space for different political forces despite official repression and denial of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood rose to be a major challenge to the regime despite continuing limitations of political rights because it offered a focus in particular for many lower middle-class professionals alienated by the lack of jobs and prospects offered them by a crisis-ridden path of economic development. The Brotherhood, while promoting many deeply conservative social policies, also took stands against United States imperialism, widespread corruption and social inequality (if often vacillating in its opposition to the regime, and offering few concrete alternatives to the state’s economic policies). By the mid-2000s, especially after mass protests against the invasion of Iraq, Mubarak was forced to concede limited democratic rights to opposition organisations.

But the unstable economic development has also spurred wider opposition and politicisation among a fast-growing working class. This has provided a parallel (if occasionally confluent) stream of opposition — especially in the last few years. The crisis nature of Egyptian capitalism has forced workers, who too often face job insecurity, periods of unemployment and horrific working conditions, to organise to protect their livelihoods. This organising has occurred despite the authoritarian response of the state. A 2007 strike and occupation at a textile plant in Mehalla Kubra, the biggest factory in the country, demonstrated how the regime’s ability to repress opposition was already breaking down:

Over the past 30 years there have been sporadic strikes, usually lasting for a few hours, then nothing for months. Generally the state would crush the action, while conceding to a few of the demands. Normally if there is a strike on the scale of the one of Mehalla Kubra the army and military police would intervene, workers would be shot and there would be hundreds of arrests. The workers who led the Mehalla strike were prepared for a life and death struggle. But this time no one was arrested or shot at. The workers occupied for five days and the government gave in to all their demands, and even paid the workers for the strike days, which has never happened before. This sent a message to workers across the country that the state was weak.

Scared of risking opening a second front with workers while battling the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak inadvertently opened the space for a much more powerful challenge from below. Workers have continued to strike in large numbers often despite the conservatism of their union leaders, although that movement has not until now coalesced into a more generalised revolt. In addition, opposition to the regime has coalesced around its backing for Israel, especially after the destruction of Gaza. And there have been recent protests against rigged elections, in part an outgrowth of the powerful Kifaya pro-democracy movement.

After Tunisia’s dictatorship collapsed so rapidly, it was only a matter of time before various opposition currents — the Muslim Brotherhood notable by its reluctance to openly confront Mubarak — emerged onto the streets and in the workplaces. Importantly their demands for an end to the regime also fused political demands (democratic rights) with economic ones (jobs, social equality).

None of this means we’re about to see capitalism swept aside in Egypt. It is true that, compared with the rich liberal democracies we’re more familiar with, the Egyptian ruling class has remained in power with much less developed practices and apparatuses of hegemony. With a civil society destabilised by repeated economic earthquakes and a state forced to favour coercion over consent, the ability for the capitalist elite to pull established, partially co-opted layers of dissent into its orbit is weaker. On the other hand, social formations like the Muslim Brotherhood and trade union bureaucracy do offer some possibilities — if they can both win influence below and agree to make peace with those above.

Furthermore, nature abhors a vacuum and the collapse of previous dictatorships has allowed the rapid rise of once marginal oppositional forces to lead mass movements back into the arms of the ruling class. Portugal’s Communist Party, small and underground in 1975, was able to take advantage of the collapse of the Salazar dictatorship in an officer’s coup and restabilise the country for capital, for example.

But that is when ideas become crucial, because in a period of mass, revolutionary struggle the received wisdoms of the past can serve to tie even the most radical movements to demands for partial change. In Egypt, as elsewhere, the question becomes once more what alternative hegemony can be built from below. That depends crucially on having an analysis of precisely the nature of capitalist rule, its relationship to the state and the proposition that the struggle for democracy cannot stop at the democracy we are offered from above to keep us in submission.

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That said, it’s fitting to note in passing a death on #Jan25, the first day of Egypt’s mass protests, that of Daniel Bell. Bell made his name by predicting “The End of Ideology”, claiming that grand narratives for social change were being made irrelevant by progress to a post-industrial society where economic conflicts were becoming peripheral. Sounds about right, eh?


Filed under: Egypt, Islamism, revolution