Sunday 11 December 2011

Fantasy, action and the possible in 2011

This essay is about Lenin, Tahrir, Islamists, poetry, choice and destiny in an attempt to provide some sort of theoretical synthesis of a confusing experience. It is the very slightly modified transcript of a lecture I gave at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte on 6 December 2011.

First of all, thank you very much everybody for coming here. I had no way to expect if I would get an audience of two or twenty, and it turned out to be more than twenty. I’m very happy about that. Thank you very much to Joyce Dalsheim and Gregg Starrett for inviting me here. And thank you to the University of North Carolina, and the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Global, International and Area Studies. This is a wonderful occasion to try to make some general sense of something which is very confusing: anthropological fieldwork in times of political and social transition. I have been writing a blog, and in every blog entry I have been presenting a different theory that has contradicted the previous day. It is very difficult to make any general kind of theory these days, but I’ll try to take the challenge offered to me in the shape of this presentation, and do some of that.

I’ll start with a little jump to history, because I think that the question which I try to tackle, which is that of the possible - the question: What is to be done? What can one do? Can what I do make a difference? Do I have a choice, and what kind of choices do I have? - is a question that was perhaps theoretically developed in relation to the revolutions more than hundred years ago by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the to-be leader of the Russian revolution, who in 1901 wrote his very influential pamphlet What is to be done? It is an interesting book to read for various reasons, and I want to open up with it, because he really poses the revolutionary question about the possible in a sense that deals with the tactics, and the conditions one must be able to create to change the paths of action.

Lenin’s book is basically a critique of the social democratic movement, it’s all about polemics against other socialists, and as such it is not very interesting for readers of our times. But it becomes interesting when he argues why the social democratic movement needs a vanguard of professional revolutionaries - because that is Lenin’s answer to the question about hat is to be done: In order to have socialism one must be able to create a vanguard of professional revolutionaries who are able to spread propaganda to all sorts of classes, and when the breaking point of the system comes, they are there, ready to take over. But Lenin also says is that this is a dream. This is a wildly unrealistic, fantastic kind of expectation: to have an all-Russian socialist newspaper, and a secret party apparatus that is there everywhere. But he says: It is a dream, and a revolutionary movement must be able to dream. If it doesn’t, it will become the victim of its own caution.

Lenin’s pamphlet is worth reading also in 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings, for various reasons. One reason is that he was successful. His plan actually worked out. And second, because his success was a terrible one. Lenin offers us a key question: What is to be done? - and a key clue, which is dreaming, fantasy. But he also offers us the historical case of a successful revolution that resulted in a devastating civil war, and, less than twenty years later, in the mass terror by Stalin that killed tens of millions of people. So it is also a very good reminder not to be too romantic about revolutions.

There are moments when revolutions are necessary, and in the Middle East it has come to this point. But even when they are necessary and justified, they are terrible. Things get destroyed, people get killed, and in the end the wrong people seize the power. This has happened in Egypt. The economy is at a standstill. At least a thousand people have been killed. And there seems to be no immediate end to the violence as long as the country is ruled by a military dictatorship that is very brutal in the ways it deals with protests. And it looks like Egypt will be governed for the next couple of years by an uneasy alliance of military rule and Islamist parties. All in all it would look like one should make a sceptical assessment of the current state of the revolution. At the same time, I must add that as a researcher I am a very decided supporter of the Egyptian uprising - so much that in my own work this year it has become very difficult to distinguish between ethnographic analysis and revolutionary propaganda. But I do not support the idea of the Egyptian revolution or the Arab uprisings for their own sake. There is nothing in revolutions that would be valuable for their own sake. They are valuable only insofar they open spaces that didn’t exist before: space to think, to say, to pursue things, to realise things that were inconceivable, or at least unlikely or frustrating just a year ago. And this has definitely changed.

This year in Egypt has been a time of transition when all kinds of people have been struggling with this question, which in Arabic is actually a proverbial question: eh il-‘amal? What is to be done? It is a vast field but I will take us through three concrete case studies which I run through quite hastily: One is revolutionary action; the other one is the dream of the Islamic state; and the third one is literary fantasy. They are all related in quite interesting ways.

Revolutionary action

Revolutionary action is the one which you probably all are better informed about, because it has been very present in the media in the shape of Tahrir Square, in the shape of witty revolutionary activists who speak good English and very capable of conveying their message to the world audience - an important role! It has now become fetishised, it has become copied by various kinds of social protest, it has become a tourist product. The American University in Cairo Press is selling not less than three different glossy coffee table books about the revolution. But it is important to remember that when it originally happened, its power was in its surprising nature. It took everybody by surprise. It took the government by surprise, it took ordinary people by surprise, it took - and this is the most interesting thing - the revolutionaries themselves by surprise.

People went out on the streets not knowing what would happen, not expecting what they could possibly accomplish (inspired and hopeful, however, by the example already set by the Tunisian revolution), but simply angry and frustrated about years and years of social experience that offered them over and over again great expectations of good life and over and over again had disappointed these expectations. People were combining an extreme sense of anger and frustration with a very simple step to occupy the streets that had not been possible in Egypt before. The moment it became possible, the entire picture changed. It required very little in material terms. It required simply the possibility of enough people to occupy streets and to hold out against the police - which had been impossible since 1977, when there was the last uprising in Egypt, which failed. This very moment created a completely new situation, so much that it has become a sort of fantastic, utopian, almost religious moment. Ever since the protesters were able to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo and other squares across the country, this moment of standing in the square has developed into something that now is an essential part of any idea of changing the country by means of revolution.

When I talk about revolution, I refer specifically to a group of people whom I describe as radical revolutionaries, those people who expect the country to fundamentally change, the people to change, the way the country is governed to change. It is not necessarily related to a political agenda. Most people who feature as radical revolutionaries would in Egyptian terms be liberal or left, but there are also Islamists among them who believe in religious government but don’t believe in the established Islamist parties. This radical revolutionary group, which is a small minority - I think the active core is maybe tens of thousands in a country of 80 million people, and its wider supporters may be about a quarter of the population - has turned this moment of standing in the square into a dynamic continuously surprising momentum that has at the same time amazing powers and deep limits.

Its primary power lies in its spontaneous and surprising nature. We saw this in the 18 days of the revolution in January and February when this ongoing pressure from the street made any attempt to strike a nice neat deal between the government and the opposition impossible, because there was nobody to speak to. There was no revolutionary leadership that could sell the revolution. The movement could not be betrayed by its leaders because it did not have any. This has repeatedly happened, most recently in the events this November, when very brutal violence by the Military Police did not crush the revolutionary movement. Instead of running away and being scared, people flocked into the square. There was again a spontaneous reaction. This has created a form of spontaneous resistance that is able to thwart any attempt of authoritarian restauration, over and again.

However, we should be very careful not to glorify this standing on the square too much. When I speak with people there, there is sometimes this idea that this square is what it’s all about. In order to change the country we need to have revolution, we need to have more revolution. It becomes limiting. When we go back to one year ago, nobody could really even dream of this moment. Now that it has become not only possible but material, it has gained such power over the radical revolutionaries’ imagination, that it has become difficult for them to think of any other way of changing this country.

This has become very evident in the elections where the revolutionary fraction received a fraction of the vote that is actually less than their already small numbers. Most of the revolutionaries failed (or refused) to participate in any kind of election campaigning because they were distrustful of the parties, considering all the parties corrupt and interested in sharing the cake of power and not interested in what the people need - which is all true. If you distrust the Islamist parties in Egypt you should see who is running Egypt’s liberal party: Egypt’s second richest man. There is not much to be expected from that side either. But this distrust also means that there is an incapability of taking to the streets outside the square. It is related to the difficulty of organisation, it is related to lack of funds - for example, certain groups have huge amounts of money. Other groups don’t. When it comes to spreading leaflets, you need to print them and you need to pay money for that. It becomes quite a concrete problem.

Occupying the square is a very ambiguous form of social protest and of changing the country. This was very much seen in the events of the end of November when at first, a new uprising took surprised everybody. Friday 18th of November witnessed big demonstrations which were lead by Islamist parties who were using these demonstrations in order to strike a better power sharing deal with the military, in which they seemed successful. These were cautious demonstrations, and the supporters of the Islamist parties were not making any chants aimed directly against military rule, only against certain ministers. That evening, I was in Alexandria, and some of the young leftists - who had also been in the demonstration but had left it early because they found that the Salafis, the radical Islamists, were dominating it - were very pessimistic. Their sensibility was that the revolution had now really lost. Next day, one hundred and fifty people staged a sit-in in Tahrir Square. The police came to break the sit-in with force, but these one hundred and fifty people were enough to create a momentum where thousands of angry people flocked into Tahrir Square, entered a days-long fight with the police whereby more than forty, possibly one hundred protesters were killed, and forced the Military Council to change the cabinet (even if that of course means nothing). There was a huge breakup of the situation, everybody was shaking - end then the elections came.

This time, the protesters were surprised. They had surprised themselves, surprised the government, surprised the Muslim Brothers who had become very defensive. They had seized the momentum, they had once again half a million people on the square, then came election day. The revolutionaries had thought that the elections will fail, that the Military Council doesn’t want to let them go through anyway, that they will sink in a wave of violence, that the elections are pointless. The elections were successful. There was a 62% voting turnout in the first round, which in Egypt is a historical record - usually the voting turnout been more like 6,2%. It broke the neck of the new uprising because people were suddenly happy. They were happy that they could vote. And in order to have an uprising you need people to be angry.

So again, there was a new surprising moment which showed that the way to the square lacked the capacity, the imagination to go other ways. The revolutionaries standing in the square at that moment actually lacked the fantasy to realise what the elections could possibly mean for Egyptians.

Islamic state

The elections are now bringing a landslide victory of Islamic religious parties. I was just reading the results of the first round - we don’t have the final results because the elections take place in three rounds, different provinces voting at different times (the electoral law requires every polling station to be supervised by a judge and there are not enough judges in the country). One third of Egypt’s provinces have voted now. The results show that about sixty per cent of the vote of the party lists go to two Islamist party alliances, one of them the Muslim Brotherhood who are conservative, and one of them the Salafis who are badass fundamentalists. This has completely surprised some people, but anybody who has actually been following the situation in the streets has not been surprised at all. Actually the Muslim Brotherhood got less votes than one would think. With 36% of the vote, they actually did badly. They should have gotten 50%.

In a country that just had a revolutionary uprising against a corrupt system that was not an uprising in religious terms but one in terms of social justice, or freedom, or human dignity, why did people vote for Islamic parties? One of them, the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution (but sided with the Army very soon afterwards), the other, the Salafis, were actually supporting Mubarak. Why did people vote for them?

The first thing to remember is of course, again, that the revolutionaries are actually a minority in Egypt. The majority of people were never quite that enthusiastic about the revolution. They were enthusiastic once it was successful, but as long as it was still happening they were rather afraid. But there is more to it than that. It is important to realise that this sort of revolutionary enthusiasm and action was not the only thing that has been going on in Egyptian society. Lots of other things have been happening.

One of the things that have been happening for decades is a sense of a moral crisis. Of course, moral crisis is nothing special. People who study morality say that they have never encountered any society that does not have a moral crisis of some sort. Describing things as being in a crisis seems to be essential to moral imagination. But I would say that there has been a serious moral crisis that has to do with the fact that traditional Egyptian conservative, very family-oriented, very much relying on patriarchal alliances, clear hierarchies of age and gender, has become more and more destabilised, first by Arab socialism in the 50's and 60's, and then in a more subtle way by consumer capitalism since the 1970's. It has made people to live more individualised lives, and it has made people’s livelihood in most cases immoral, illegal, and against Islamic principles: stealing, taking bribes, cheating, all kinds of questionable stuff. This is a society where there has emerged an enormous expectation for something that is morally sound. And Islamists can offer that promise. They offer a God-fearing government, a government that is morally sound and does not steal from its citizens.

This is another great dream, one that has not been so much the dream of the people who went out to the streets against Mubarak, but the dream of a much vaster part of the population: Can’t we just have a leadership that is good? Can’t we have a pious, decent person running this country? This is a different kind of dream as compared to the revolutionary dream of transforming the ways in which the country is governed (one focussing on the process and practice of government, the other on the characters of the people in the government), and it leads to different consequences. One of the major consequences is that Egyptians who would not be Islamist radicals in any proper sense, who would think about life in very pragmatic terms, who would be sometimes more conservative and sometimes more liberal, would nevertheless in doubt cast their vote for a religious candidate because they think: We want to give them a try.

The Islamist parties have played their cards very well. The revolutionary fraction, including also breakaway Islamists, has huge problems to compete with these large organisations that have huge amounts of money, that have social welfare projects, and that speak to the people. How do we actually struggle with this? This struggle has so far brought a very important lesson: If you don’t want to just change the government but if you actually want to change the way society works and the way people think about society, if you want to win elections, if you want to have majorities behind you, it is necessary to have something which people cannot disagree about.

This is the power of the Islamist movements in Egypt. Most people think of them as politicians. They don’t actually have full trust in them. As said, their support of an Islamic government is a conditional one. They know that politicians lie. Islamist politicians lie, too. There is no question about that. Many think that they are too extremist, too uptight, but they cannot disagree that these are pious people and that they speak the word of truth. They speak about Islam, and that is true. I don’t like you, but what you say is true. This seems to be crucial when we once again ask Lenin’s famous question: What is to be done? A crucial answers to that question is to be able to develop an ideological standpoint that stands beyond critique in a specific social setting.

The revolutionaries actually have a couple of these. One is the hatred towards all kinds of governmental oppression. This is something on which they rely all the time. One is the promise of dignity and freedom. Right now the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to rally on this promise. It depends on their ability to deliver whether the more radical fraction will be able to reclaim it from them. One in particular has tremendous power: The blood of the martyrs of the revolution is an enormously important asset for the radicals.

We have learned to think of Egypt’s revolution as a peaceful one. It was peaceful because the protesters didn’t carry weapons. But it was not peaceful in the sense that nobody would have gotten killed. A thousand people got killed, and the fact that a thousand people got killed has become the primary power and asset of any radical revolutionary action. Whatever there comes a tactical politician or a Salafi, the radicals can say: Where were you when the martyrs got killed? This is very consciously employed now by the radical fraction which last Friday staged a symbolic funeral for the people who had been killed most recently. And this is once again a reminder not to romanticise revolutions. It is easy to romanticise revolutions, and it is even easier to romanticise peaceful revolutions. But peaceful revolutions, too, need people getting killed.

The question that remains now is: Why could the Islamists in particular seize the day in the elections, and why could the radical revolutionaries not? Why could they, in turn, seize the day and surprise everybody on 20th of November but then lose the momentum? This is a question about what kind of actions are conceivable, and how one can actually change the scope of conceivable actions. What kind of actions have people learned to be good at, and how can people in such transitional state try to learn different kind of actions?

Literary Fantasy

I take quite a detour and turn to literary fantasy. The revolutionary year of 2011 is a year that constantly runs ahead of fantasy. Things happen, and people keep getting surprised, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes it’s a disaster, sometimes it’s fantastic. It is interesting to go after the issue of fantasy itself, because literature has a lot to do with this uprising.

The ground has been prepared, especially for the more educated parts of the population, by a growing wave of socially critical writing. Blogging has been studied most intensively but actually blogs are just one part of a big scene of people exchanging facebook posts, publishing books, reading poetry in cafes. I recently saw some friends of mine sitting in Tahrir square - they were protesters camping there since a week - and reading from a poetry collection by Amal Dunqul who at the moment has become one of Egypt’s most famous poets. He wasn’t quite that famous before last year. Amal Dunqul (1940–1983) was a communist poet who in the 60's and 70's wrote extremely pessimistic and critical poetry. He was against everything. He was against the Camp David Agreements two years before they were signed. He was against any kind of concession to power. He the was the personified refusal. He had one of these famous lines opening one his poems: “Glory to Satan who said no in face of those who said yes.” (Last Words of Spartacus, 1962) In a very religious society like Egypt this is a dramatic way of thinking. Now, people frequently cite this verse.

I had a meeting with a group of teachers in a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria who were writing poetry, and we started talking about this. - This is actually my new fieldwork, which is not about revolution, it’s about writing. I hop I can get rid of this revolution stuff and back to the issue of writing... - We started talking about Amal Dunqul. What did this verse (and others) by Amal Dunqul do, what did it accomplish? There emerged two competing theories. Of course, I lean for the other, but it is important to cite both theories.

One of the two theories was argued for by the poet and teacher Hamdi Musa who said: Literature changes nothing. Look, Hamdi says: Every other cafe in Egypt has Qur’an recitation running on all the time, but the people sitting in the cafe are not getting any more pious from it. If the word of God doesn’t do it, how could my writing change anything? He says that literature is only about immediate personal pleasure. If it is transformative in any way it is transformative to myself. But then others argued: No, that’s not true. Literature changes one’s outlook at the world. It offers something to think about. In the first theory, literature changes nothing, and we are now in Egypt reading Amal Dunqul because something happened and he gives a voice to something that was happening anyway. The other theory says: Because we have been reading Amal Dunqul we think about the world differently, we value protest, which we wouldn’t do if we hadn’t read Amal Dunqul.

My good friend and research assistant Mukhtar Shehata turned the second theory into a dialectical model of fantasy, dreams, and decisions. ( Fantasy, he says, is a space of freedom, completely free from any need to realise it. It depends on what we know and our material conditions; it is not free in the sense we could imagine anything. But it is a space of freedom where we can think up something and we don’t have to worry whether it can happen or not. Fantasy, Mukhtar says, is the ground from which we develop dreams (ahlam in Arabic), in the sense of aspirations. A dream is something that calls to be realised: It is my dream to marry, it is my dream to become a university professor, it is my dream that the world will be a peaceful place - it is all something that calls for realisation. Dreams, then, become something that guide people’s actions. Because they guide people’s actions they make people find themselves in situations where they have to make decisions.

His example is private tutoring. In Egypt, private tutoring is the main income of teachers who are very badly paid. So for everybody who goes to school, the actual studying takes place in the evening in private tutoring, which costs a lot of money. He gave up private tutoring after the revolution. On one occasion, he was speaking with another teacher about it, and his point was that you first have to think, imagine that there could be something else than private tutoring. That is the first step. Second, you have to start to desire it: If only I could live without private tutoring! The third step is that of decisions, of it leading you to moments where you can actually say: No, I’m not going to do it. I do something else. - And this, then, changes the material ground of reality because you make certain choices, and these choices bring you new experiences, and these new experiences create new grounds of fantasy, and the circle goes on.

This could, of course, be easily put into the shape of a liberal or neoliberal idea where everything is about choices, decisions, character, building my capacities, etc.
This calls for caution. When we talk about decisions and choices, we also have to talk about the inevitable. You cannot study the possible without thinking about the inevitable. In Egypt, when you talk about choice, people start talking about destiny (nasib). It’s not in my hand, it’s in God’s hand: I want to marry this girl but in the end I marry somebody else and I accept it. In Egypt, the inevitable usually takes religious shape as the will of God. But no matter what theoretical shape we give to the inevitable, be it the will of God or if it is the material conditions of production in a Marxist theory, the fact is that any sort of choices and decisions have to reckon with the inevitable. We live in a world where our character is cultivated and our choices made under specific conditions that direct and encourage what we can do. But the trick is that our own fantasy is one of these material conditions. Fantasy is not something that is fundamentally different from the ground I am standing on. It is part of these conditions that direct what I can do.

This leads us back to the question about why some people could seize the day in certain moments, and not in other moments.

We are talking here about choice and freedom as limited freedom. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist philosopher argued in the 1940's that Human freedom exists only within limitations. Limits are not against freedom. Freedom is only there because there are limits against which we experience our freedom. In Egyptian Arabic this is described with the verb yitsarraf, which means to manage in circumstances that are not of your own making. This is the condition of any answer we give to the question of what is to be done.

Any specific answer, any specific trajectory relies on its own material means and possibilities - the Islamists having vastly more money, for example, and the radical revolutionaries being very well connected to the international media. You have different material advantages that make it possible to do something. But it is also fundamentally related to having learned to anticipate certain kind of situations and to master them well. In a very short time the radical revolutionaries have learned to occupy Tahrir. They have learned to do it so well that in this November they just mastered it. It is a most amazing example of self-organisation. Without any leadership, actually even prohibiting parties and speakers’ stages, they managed to make a much better organised uprising than they did in January. But at the same time, it means that they are really bad at anything else. If you look at the Muslim Brotherhood, they have for decades mastered tactical manoeuvring between an authoritarian government and citizens who want to have a good religious government and society. They have been so good at this manoeuvring that when these elections came and they seemed to win with 36% of the vote but actually lost because they should have gotten 50%, this was because of their mastery of tactical manoeuvring. For the radical revolutionaries, even of Islamist leanings, they became unelectable because they showed absolutely no backbone. A big part of people with Islamist leanings in Egypt who really wanted to have a religious government didn’t vote for the Brotherhood because they thought: We really don’t know what these guys are going to do. (This was a reason for many to vote for the more radical Salafis instead, whose stance and programme are quite clear) Their particular knowledge and imagination of what could be done got them a very strong popular support but also brought specific limitations.

The really interesting question, then, is: How and when can people adapt their knowledge and imagination? My conclusion, a very short one, is that the really revolutionary task is to accomplish a shift in the way people look at the world and understand the scope of what they can do, which leads them to act in a different way. This shift requires fantasy. It requires a kind of active fantasy: not just the kind of passive fantasy of imagining whatever one already was used to, but rather a continuous engagement of going beyond the limits. This is why the Egyptian revolution was possible in the first place: because this shift happened. But its future will very much depend on how different actors in the scene will come to develop their expectations of what is possible (and what inevitable), that is, come up with new answers to Lenin’s question about what is to be done.

Thank you.