In their assessment of the recent revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East, Hamid Dabashi and Tariq Ramadan argue that the Arab Revolution has opened up for the Arab peoples the possibility of reconnecting themselves with their own history. In their view, there is a creative potential in the Orient itself to question, from within its own tradition, the practices and conceptual categories by which the West has objectified it, so as to produce something new and original. In this article, I contend that Dabashi's and Ramadan's appeal to the Arab cultural tradition as a source of meaning for reconstructing Arab societies is a form of culturalization of politics that blots out the role played by political economy in the Arab Revolution. To gain a theoretical grip on this question, I suggest that the ties between culture and politics be severed and, in their place, the connection between the political and the economic be restored.
See “Politics in Emerging Markets: The New Middle Classes Rise Up,” The Economist , September 3, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/21528212.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Arabs Are democracy's New pioneers,” The Guardian , 24 February 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/24/arabs-democracy-latin-america.
The 2011 popular uprisings against Mubarak and Ben Ali have unleashed a revolutionary dynamic in the Middle East that subsequent counter-revolutionary crises have failed to arrest. Although confusion still seems to prevail in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, the revolutions of 2011 have broken a long pattern of political inactivity and opened up the possibility of a different future. Millions of people, especially in Egypt, have demonstrated in public squares, gone on strike, been mobilized in workplaces, become involved in popular committees to believe that they will not continue to do so under circumstances that are more favorable than those prior to Tahrir Square. As Callinicos argues, “revolution is a process, not an instantaneous event. It is marked by advances and retreats, rises in mass consciousness and self-organization and success for the counter-revolutionary forces.” Setbacks are always possible but are far from sealing the last page of a story that is largely still to be written. For an argument against describing the events in Egypt between 2011 and 2013 as revolution and an argument against describing events in Egypt as revolution and counter-revolution, see Hugh Roberts, “The Revolution That Wasn't,” London Review of Books 35:17 (2013), 3–9, and Aijaz Ahmad, “Revolution or Restoration?,” Frontline , 20 September 2013, http://www.frontline.in/cover-story/revolution-or-restoration/article5085155.ece. For a defense of the thesis that revolution in Egypt is still an ongoing process, see Alex Callinicos, “Specters of Counter-Revolution,” International Socialism , Issue 140 (2013), http://isj.org.uk/spectres-of-counter-revolution/, and Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2014), 1–34. Also, on the meaning of the future opened up by the Arab Revolution, see Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (London: Verso, 2012), 127–135.
Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Revolution: The End of Postcolonialism (London: Zed Books, 2012), 37.
To be true, Dabashi qualifies his admission of a reassertion of a “very old-fashioned” imperialism with the claim that “[i]mperialism has always been an Empire, and Empire imperialist, if we simply recognize that capitalism never had a center, and the civilizational manufacturing of boundaries was a heuristic mechanism to sustain the autonormativity of instrumental reason as the heteronormativity of benevolent progress.” Unfortunately, Dabashi never provides a full argument as to why “the United States has lost the imperial game of hegemony.” See Ibid., 35, 140.
Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 80.
Rather too often Ramadan acritically assumes that values such as freedom and equality are shared by the Arab people, given the fact that they can be found in their historical tradition. This understanding of such concepts is highly simplistic. What modern political philosophy means by freedom and equality has a historical and normative dimension which traces back to the social contract theory and the French revolution. Within this framework, the concepts of freedom and equality imply both “a universalist notion of the citizen,” founded on the declaration of the rights of man, and “a materialist notion of social rights,” embodied by the welfare state. To my knowledge, nowhere does Ramadan articulate the Arab meaning of what he terms the values of freedom and equality. Should he do so, though, it is highly unlikely that his findings would capture the logical and historical complexity inherent in the political-philosophical meaning of the concepts. On the meaning of freedom and equality in modern political philosophy, see Etienne Balibar, Equaliberty: Political Essays (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), 100.
Ramadan refers here to the de-democratization thesis, that is the thesis of the erosion of democratic institutions in Western democracies under the neoliberal regime, put forward, among others, by Wendy Brown in “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7:1 (2003), https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v007/7.1brown.html.
Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Revolution , 19.
Rabab El-Mahdi, “Orientalizing Egyptian Uprising,” Jadaliyya , April 11, 2011, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1214/orientalising-the-egyptian-uprising.
See Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 91.
Slavoj Žižek, “For Egypt, This Is the Miracle of Tahrir Square,” The Guardian , February 10, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/global/2011/feb/10/egypt-miracle-tahrir-square.
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History: Thesis XIII,” in Michael Löwy, ed., Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's “On the Concept of History” (London: Verso, 2005), 85.
Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 21.
Balibar, Equaliberty: Political Essays , 8.
Susan Buck Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 36–39.
Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), 157.
Alex Callinicos, “The Return of the Arab Revolution,” International Socialism , Issue 130 (2011), http://isj.org.uk/the-return-of-the-arab-revolution/.
http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/tunisia/overview. Quoted in Alex Callinicos, “The return of the Arab revolution”, ibid.
http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2011/01/15/research-broad-based-youth-programs-needed. Quoted in Callinicos, “The Return of the Arab Revolution.”
Paul Mason, Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (London: Verso, 2012), 8.
Juan Kornblihtt and Bruno Magro, “El norte de África en el epicentro de la crisis mundial,” El Aromo , 59, March-April 2011. Quoted in Callinicos, “The Return of the Arab Revolution.”
Larbi Sadiki, “The ‘Bin Laden’ of Marginalization,” Aljazeera , January 14, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/01/201111413424337867.html.
Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), Vol. 32, 19–42.
It may be suggested that, in the process of translation of economic needs into political demands, culture can still play a decisive role in the way individuals perceive their class interests. Although this may be the case, class perception and actual class struggle are not the same thing. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx sets Hegel's dialectic at work in the political realm. He shows how, in the revolution in France in 1848, the republican Party of Order was formed by a coalition of two royalist (sic!) movements, the Orleanists and the legitimists. Now, the parliamentary representatives of the Party of Order seized on all possible occasions in the parliamentary debate to reassert their royalist credentials. They would constantly produce royalist slips of tongue to ridicule the Republic and convey the message that beneath their republican mask there was still a royalist heart beating. What they never realized, however, was that, while perceiving themselves as royalist, they were passing a series of laws to extend private property that reinforced the republican institutions and eventually made the restoration of monarchy impossible. In other terms, they were unaware executors of Hegel's cunning of reason. In pursuit of their particular royalist interests, they were blind to the universal of the bourgeois-republican new order acting behind their backs. Here, culture and economics, local and global, particular and universal are dialectically interrelated but in a way that undermines culture. The universal really exists. It is “the negative force of mediating and destroying all particular content.” It is this actually existing, becoming “for itself” of universality that Althusser overlooked by his notion of overdetermination and his emphasis on the complexity of the historical process that makes it irreducible to the economy. See Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), 154–156.
Slavoj Žižek, “Trouble in Paradise,” London Review of Books 35:14 (2013), 11–12.