In Life as Politics, Asef Bayat argues that such presumptions fail to recognize the routine, yet important, ways in which ordinary people make meaningful change. Asef Bayat is the Catherine & Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, and Professor of Sociology and Middle East at the. Asef Bayat talks about revolutions and revolutionary ideas, the place of ordinary people in social transformation, and what we can learn from.
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Picture courtesy of author. Watch the video by Linda Aeef. Those were revolutions in terms of those spectacular mobilizations, those extraordinary protests.
They were quite remarkable in terms of the tactics of mobilization — how to mobilize, resist, and manage to bring so many people to the streets. In the Egyptian case, Tahrir square became a global space, it became a model for other movements that emerged in other places later on in some 5, cities around the world. But revolution in terms of change, bayzt in terms of having a vision about change, and about how to rest power from the incumbents, that to me was quite lacking.
Of course, there are those who may argue that a vision might emerge in the process spontaneously; but it may or may not. I am not very convinced about that. I think some kind of ideas might emerge in the process, but really those have to be backed up and supported by deep thinking and rigorous analysis. But Baya think that while Tahrir was so spectacular, so inspiring, it was also exceptional, transitory.
It was an exceptional moment in the long process of revolution, which happens in most of the great revolutionary transformations, when there emerge practices that navigate between the real and the unreal, between reality and utopia.
But the question for me was, what happens the day after the dictator abdicates, when people go home to attend to their daily needs of bread, jobs, security, and normalcy? These are the kinds of issues I have in mind when I talk about broader visions and deep thinking, things I feel the revolutionaries should possess. One has to have some fairly good ideas about what happens the day after. How do you want to build a spectacular democratic model that people lived in Tahrir, in the society, in the state, and at national level?
That is the challenge.
And it is not just the Arab uprisings that could not provide answers to these questions. If you look at other social movements throughout the world at that juncture of such as the Occupy movements, they are pretty similar in terms of hayat position of not having a particular alternative vision, in the way that previous revolutions had.
All one can say here is that when a revolutionary movement comes to fruition, having ideas about how power works, how to aseff with it, how to alter it, and how to institute new power relations towards a more just, egalitarian and inclusive order, do matter. But going even further, not only can we think about how to tackle the question of power, but also how to tackle the question of property, in our movements.
I want to emphasize a key difference here: The activists of the Arab Spring separated in some way the realm of the polity from the realm of the economy, as if they were two separate spheres. How did they propose to implement social justice, or was it based on lip service, something that came out of a reaction to the terrible inequalities and deprivations that the economic neoliberalism has unleashed on the ordinary people?
Dr. Asef Bayat | Sociology at Illinois
How do you address these deprivations? They key issues raised by the Arab political class seemed to be with government accountability, democracy, and human rights. I have to say these demands are very significant in our region, indeed. But they are often used and manipulated also by the authoritarian regimes and their western allies, who speak similar language.
This language is often used to hide the ruling class linkages with social exclusion, economic deprivation, terrible inequality, and the regime vayat property. What difference do you see between the revolutions of the s and before, such as in Iran, Guatemala and Cuba, and the Arab Spring?
The key thing to be able to explain the differences is that they happened in different ideological times. The revolutions of the s obviously were happening at the time when the Cold War was at its height, so the world was divided between the Soviet Union and its allies, the socialist world, on one hand, and then the capitalist world on the other.
Then, you had a third world which Iran and Baat were part of. But you still had movements, both liberation struggles and social movements that were inclined towards radical ideologies like socialism and communism, largely in the developing countries. The Arab revolutions happened at the time when the very idea of revolution had dissipated. There were also very powerful anti-imperialist movements, like aasef Cuba, which a lot of these political groups in the developing countries upheld.
In contrast to the ideological times of the s, the Arab Spring came to fruition in some kind of post-ideological interval; this was the aftermath of when the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe were to mark the very end of oppositional ideology per se.
So, with the end of socialism following the Eastern European revolutions, the very idea of revolution, which was so linked to and informed by socialism, came to an end. It was as though the world had gone beyond to sense the relevance assef revolutions.
So, the Arab revolutions happened at the time when the very idea of revolution had dissipated. In what ways did the absence of bayxt avant-garde thinkers such as TrotskyGuevaraFanon, or the Islamic socialist ideologue of the Iranian revolution, Ali Bqyat, affect the process and the outcome of the Arab uprisings? Byaat almost always start spontaneously and surprise everyone, including the protagonists themselves, people like Lenin, who are in the business of making revolutions.
These ideas act as a general guide as to how to push the revolution forward. People like Lenin had written a sophisticated study on the nature of capitalist development in Russia, about the nature of the state. Frantz Fanon articulated a notion of anti-colonial revolution. The Nicaraguan revolution had an intellectual component informed by democratic socialism and the vision of Sandino.
Women in Tahrir Square. Picture by Mosa’ab Elshamy, With permission from the author. It seemed that what the protagonists wanted was to have these autocrats like Mubarak, Ben Ali or Saleh removed.
But what would happen after that? Probably they were envisioning a more representative government, and rule of law. But then, how would you achieve it. How do you want to replace them? In other words, the question was how to wrest power from the incumbent regimes, with what means and resources? Of course, they had the street power, the popular will, and that is important. Here the hope is that the regimes would be forced to concede.
Even if they were forced to concede, a new order would require prior exploration, analyses, imagination, and not to mention organization. You have talked about revolution in terms of state power. No revolution succeeds without ordinary people. Otherwise, they would hayat defeated. In general, the participation of ordinary people can aser much secure the protagonists and the protest actions by making them as if they were the preoccupation of everyone, by bringing them to the social mainstream.
If it is not in the mainstream, the bauat activists bayaat easily be identified, shunned, separated as anti-social deviants and agitators bayay thus suppressed. But when you see the massive number of people on the streets — men, women, elderly, children, families and so on, this really matters a lot.
Such presence of the masses in the public square would, in addition, demonstrate the strength of the movement and of the opposition both to themselves and asrf the opponents. So, yes, ordinary people do play a crucial role in revolutionary struggles.
I have spoken of their role during the uprisings; ordinary people still gave a big role just after the regime change; because they often radicalize the revolutions by their very grassroots practices in factories, farms, neighborhoods, or in their unions. How can we have revolutions, which are by default radical, but at the same time fail to even challenge the worldview of the very system they are revolting against?
This is a very interesting question. I suppose this apparent paradox and contradiction in some way reflects the contradiction of reality in these times. In fact, the first sentence in the book starts with this: Having or not bajat an idea about the revolution has critical implications to the outcome when the revolution actually happens.
In other words, revolutionary movements can happen and did happen even if the political class, the activists for instance, may not have thought and imagined the revolution. And it was for asf reason that when what happened in Sidi Bouzid and later on in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries and activists had to improvise; they had to come to terms with what they had never expected– what to do with this crowd and what will happen the day after?
They had to improvise, and it was very difficult. We had a revolutionary movement that came to compel the existing state to reform itself on behalf of the revolution. This means that we had a revolutionary movement baya came to compel the existing state to reform itself on behalf of the revolution. This was different from the previous revolutions where the revolutionaries would form a provisional government, an alternative organ of power, with some kind of hard power that bqyat would use together with their street power to force the incumbent regime to abdicate.
They would take over the governmental power and institute new governing structures, new social institutions and relations in society. What are the benefits of post-ideological movements?
I am referring here to the oppositional movements in this juncture. Now, ideology can be very powerful in mobilizing, unifying and galvanizing, creating a unified whole, which matters as far as power is concerned. But then ideology also, for that very reason, has the danger of dogma, and the danger of making the ideology so unquestionable that it could be repressive as baayt.
If you look at what happened awef the Arab revolutions, this duality was apparent. On the one hand, the process of the Arab revolutions was by far more open, more participative, and less repressive than the earlier revolutions that had a unified organization and leadership. A unified organization can easily stifle diversity and plurality, which we saw in the case of the Iranian revolution.
Despite that the Iranian revolution had also a strong radical democratic component in terms of the emergence of popular councils at the base of the society in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and the educational institutions; but at the state level it became very quickly repressive and moved to stifle the opposition. This kind of repression did not happen in Egypt, for example, untiland Tunisia remains fairly open and pluralistic. On the one hand, they are by nature pluralistic because the power asff not monopolized by the revolutionary take-over of the state—many institutions of civil society including those associated with the old regime remain active.
On the other hand, however, precisely because of this the forces of counter-revolution would have better chance to engage in acts of sabotage and to regroup to restore old order. Do you think that meaningful change is possible in our current world order, dominated by post-modern and post-ideological thought?
Neoliberalism has the ability, and the tendency, to incorporate and absorb the radicalism that is coming to challenge it. It is difficult to say. Maybe there is more potential for meaningful change. Meaningful change means benefitting the majority of people in disadvantaged positions, whether politically, economically, racially or in terms of identities. But I think this cannot be achieved, unless those who do want change seriously address the overpowering ideology batat practices and institutions of neoliberalism.
Post-ideological might mean that opposition to power may not adhere to a particular ideology.
But most power holders continue to rely on ideology. Neoliberalism has become an ideology and bayar is a very powerful one, and it has these two aspects that I have mentioned: It is very important to critique and subvert that, and highlight its principles and its very repressive and un-egalitarian consequences.