Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution Is Not Miraculous:

Far From Leaderless, Spontaneous, Unplanned, Accidental, or Twitterific, Egypt Provides Resources of Hope for Activists Who Would Be As Resourceful As Egyptian Organizers Have Been

The Egyptian Revolution is not leaderless.

It is not spontaneous.

It did not arise like a spasm in unplanned sympathy with the uprising in Tunisia, or spurred by blind rage at the aged dictator Hosni Mubarak's declared hopes for the kingly succession of his son.

Although it is certainly true that thirty years of oppression have lead to a widespread discontent that proved an incubator for insurrectionary energy, such oppression could just as readily have provided the substance of deepening despair and further generations of oppression in the absence of an actually organized response.

And although it is true that cellphones and twitter feeds and facebook pages were key organizational tools for the Egyption Revolution, what matters is that organizers made use of organizational tools, not that these in particular were the tools they used (which is also true of the faxes, radio broadcasts, megaphones, wheatpaste posters, and pamphlets that were the definitive educational, agitational, and organizational tools of prior revolutionaries).

Cellphones, twitter, and facebook are not inherently or provocatively revolutionary artifacts. It is merely certain deployments of these tools that can be revolutionary. If anything, the default uses of these artifacts have been overwhelmingly reactionary so far, facilitating ubiquitous elite-incumbent surveillance, enabling the radical intensification of targeted corporate marketing harassment, evacuating public discourse of indispensable complexity, depth, deliberation, criticality in a mesmerizing froth of canned one-liners, promotional slogans, and interminable impressionistic, sensationalistic, superficial reportage.

Discussions of Egypt emphasizing social media in the United States may appear to foreground technical concerns about the ease of their use the scope of their reach, and their relative susceptibility or not to censorship, but the focus on such technicality functions in profoundly political ways.

Indeed, this techno-centrist discourse functions primarily to promote an anti-political technologically deterministic fantasy of spontaneism that -- taken together with endlessly repeated declarations about the leaderlessness of the movement and especially of the miraculousness of its nonviolence -- functions to distract countless millions of people from the lessons of the Revolution even while their eyes are fixed on the Revolution: Namely, that well-planned disciplined organized nonviolent resistance to the elite-incumbent authoritarian figures and structures that maintain the profoundly unjust unsustainable corporate-militarist neoliberal/neoconservative global order can indeed be as effective as ever.

It has been said over and over again that it is easier to imagine the end of the world in an environmental collapse or military catastrophe resulting from the greed and stupidity of the current capitalist order than it is to imagine the end of the current capitalist order itself. This is palpably ridiculous, especially when before our eyes we are greeted with literal evidence to the contrary.

I cannot recommend highly enough this informative short documentary from Al Jazeera about the leaders of the April 6th Youth Movement without which the Egyptian Revolution almost certainly would not have taken place or at any rate managed not to founder in the face of the brutal, all too typical and usually effective, counter-revolutionary violence of Mubarak's regime in the Revolution's early days.

The documentary speaks of the beginnings of the Revolution three years ago in the textile strike of April 6, 2008 from which the movement got its name, in the work of activist Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel. Another key figure in the April 6th Movement is, of course, Asmaa Mahfouz, whose work attracted the special attention of Democracy Now! and the New York Times. Coverage of Mahfouz's truly inspiring youtube videos regularly do not go on to point out her crucial connection with a profoundly well-trained well-disciplined well-organized nonviolent activist campaign years in the planning.

It is sometimes noted that the April 6th Movement took up iconography from the nonviolent Serbian Otpor Student Movement which successfully resisted Slobodan Milošević a decade ago (the extent of planning and organization -- with the conspicuous assistance of life-long activist and scholar of nonviolent social struggle Gene Sharp and his colleagues -- is likewise shunted to the side in too many popular accounts of Serbian resistance in my view, for familiar reasons). But it is important to grasp that the connection of the Egyptian April 6th Youth Movement and Serbian Otpor Student Movement was not a matter of superficial appreciation or just some cut-and-paste appropriation of Otpor's raised fist .gif by Egyptian students shopping for slick revolutionary graphics by way of google image search.

Ahmed Maher of April 6th consulted extensively with Serge Popovich of Otpor, and turned to the strategies of nonviolent struggle Popovich learned in turn from Gene Sharp (strategies many of which were gleaned by Sharp, who is sometimes wryly described as the "Machiavelli of Nonviolence," from his extensive research into the successes and failures of King, Gandhi, Thoreau and others). The leaders of the April 6th Movement are well versed in the techniques and, indispensably, the disciplines of a nonviolence well-attuned to the deceptive and distractive tactics of mass mediation and well-prepared for state violence and the difficulties of de-escalation in its face.

Also, young as they are, the leaders of the April 6th movement certainly seem to be very friendly and familiar with the tapestry of Egyptian experienced feminist and labor activists not to mention engaged artists and intellectuals both living quietly in Egypt and, often, less quietly, abroad.

Largely ignorant of far too much of this context myself, even as a highly interested and comparatively well-informed idiot American, I think too much of my own commentary on Egypt here and in the classroom these last couple of weeks has been shaped by my disdain for the ugly conflict-tourism and facile techno-utopianism of so much coverage here in the United States.

Nothing I am saying should be taken to imply that I regard the Egyptian revolution as accomplished rather than only just beginning, that I am blissed-out in celebration and insensible to the dangers ahead, not least because of the actions of my own country in my name. But People Power is real. Education, agitation, and organization is its substance. Egypt is providing still more evidence, in a world with a history brimming full of such evidence, of the real possibilities of nonviolent democratizing revolutionary struggles to defeat corporate-militarism before corporate-militarism destroys the world.


jollyspaniard said...

Facebook and Twitter are a big help in getting the word out which is one of the biggest logistical challenges in organising protests. Traditionaly this had been done by distributing leaflets which can be a bit tricky in a totalitarian state. Now for a totalitarian state to stop people getting the word out they need to shut off the internet and the phone network which isn't viable.

People who think this came from nowhere haven't been reading the news for the past few years. Egypt has been on the verge of boiling over for years according to a lot of reporting. What has happened recently is that Egypt suddenly became un-ignorable. So that attracts a simplistic narrative to be trotted out.

What I find most disgusting about the whole thing is the bloviating in the media about how this might undermine the blockade of Gaza, this little bit of collective punishment is more important than the human rights of 80 million people apparently.

Dale Carrico said...

Needless to say, useful tools are useful, and ingenious humans (some of them tyrants) use them.

I don't agree that Egyptian discontent is the "somewhere" from which the Revolution has come, strictly speaking. Sufficient injustice and discontent to incubate resistance and revolution has existed in Egypt for over a generation, as elsewhere. Organization met opportunity, discipline responded to distress -- what mattered was the organization and the awareness and the discipline.

This cannot be stressed enough: In the absence of the organizing, eruptions of perfectly righteous resistance would very likely have been squashed, diverted, assimilated in the usual manner.

Of course, this can still circumvent the democratizing force of the ongoing Revolution if the youth movement loses focus or fails to shift its organizational focus to meet the rapidly and radically changed circumstances of the post-Mubarak political terrain -- the First People's Communique and news of fledgling dialogue between youth leaders and representatives of the military as well as with El-Barade'i are encouraging in this regard.

Those pundits who now speak of a insurrectionary "trend" that autocratic regimes need to be worried about are no doubt right that sympathetic protests may spring up elsewhere, but in the absence of actual democratic organization those autocratic regimes have little likely to worry about. Like most people who think "trend-spotting" is an argumentative or deliberative mode (my pet targets, the futurologists, provide the conspicuous illustration), rather than just another debased marketing and promotional mode in a "public realm" entirely reduced to advertising and self-advertising in the service of eating the present, are revealed as usual to be useful idiots in a blaze of flashbulbs.

And those who propose that democratic revolution will crystallize spontaneously wherever enough people have cellphones are exactly as dangerously deluded as those who pretended war could be ended by getting a McDonalds franchise in every nation. Democracy is not a spontaneous order, it is a consensual order, depending for its legitimacy on a scene of consent that must be instituted and maintained by political means in ethical terms not one of which is spontaneous.

On this, Anglo-American parochialism and privilege yields disastrously facile readings of both our histories and hopes -- whether right-wing libertopian fantasies of perfectly efficient perfectly ethical natural markets (markets are of course totally artificial and historical and as readily demand injustice as ameliorate it) or left-wing hippie or technocratic fantasies of post-political massified kindness or pre-political elite design (of course one can be a Nazi and yet kind in one's personal life, and all designers, however smart, however well-intentioned, are individually parochial in ways that no democracy can afford to be).

That the Egyptian Revolution is another profound example of the power of nonviolent secular democratic education, agitation, and organizing but that even most of those who are inspired by Egypt fail to grasp the substance of hope this provides us all or to grasp how vulnerable this misconstrual makes the very achievement that presumably inspires them is, I have to admit, a bit demoralizing.