Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hallward and Zizek on North Africa

Both Peter Hallward and Slavoj Zizek have published pieces (here and here) on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the "Comment is Free" Section of The Guardian.

Hallward argues that:
Routine reference to "the will of the people" has long been one of the most formulaic turns of phrase in the modern political lexicon. The actual mobilisation of such a will, however, is less easily dismissed. Ongoing protests in Egypt – and in Algeria, and Yemen, and Jordan, indeed throughout the Middle East – may well oblige their governments to decide fairly soon whether they mean what they say.
Of course, if you read the comments section for this article (at your own risk!), Hallward's claim that in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt we see the will of the people is driving plenty of conservatives and parliamentarian liberals crazy (viz. 'how do you know!?'). I suppose they think that you've either got to be standing there interviewing however many hundred-thousand people there, or maybe taking a poll with a ballot box or two. His fundamental point is correct: we know it's the will of the people when every reformist gesture and every so-called concession brings more people out into the street, reinforcing the revolutionary and collective practice of the uprisings. Hallward again, with reference to Fanon:
Rejecting all distraction through "negotiation" or "development", Fanon insisted on decisive action here and now – the goal was not to reform an intolerable colonial situation over an interminable series of steps, but to abolish it. The "fundamental characteristic of the struggle of the Algerian people", Fanon maintained, is suggested by their "refusal of progressive solutions, their contempt for the 'stages' that might break the revolutionary torrent, and induce them to abandon the unshakable will to take everything into their hands at once". The fate of their revolution depends on the people's "co-ordinated and conscious" participation in their ongoing self-emancipation.

In today's Tunisia and Egypt, as in 1950s Algeria, to affirm the will of the people is not to invoke an empty phrase. Will and people: rejecting the merely "formal" conceptions of democracy that disguise our status quo, an actively democratic politics will think one term through the other. A will of the people, on the one hand, must involve association and collective action, and will depend on a capacity to invent and preserve forms of inclusive assembly (through demonstrations, meetings, unions, parties, websites, networks). If an action is prescribed by popular will, on the other hand, then what's at stake is a free or voluntary course of action, decided on the basis of informed and reasoned deliberation.
Zizek, without any references to movies or chocolate laxatives, attacks the hypocrisy of Western commentators:
What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the conspicuous absence of Muslim fundamentalism. In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong. The big question is what will happen next? Who will emerge as the political winner? [...]

Here, then, is the moment of truth: one cannot claim, as in the case of Algeria a decade ago, that allowing truly free elections equals delivering power to Muslim fundamentalists. Another liberal worry is that there is no organised political power to take over if Mubarak goes. Of course there is not; Mubarak took care of that by reducing all opposition to marginal ornaments, so that the result is like the title of the famous Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The argument for Mubarak – it's either him or chaos – is an argument against him.

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong's old motto is pertinent: "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent."

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