Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Monday, 31 January 2011

Egypt Update

Your Weapons are on Cairo's Streets, America, Spencer Ackerman, Wired Danger Room
The US taxpayer gave Mubarak's military $1.3 billion last year, joining the Shah of Iran, the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan Mujahedeen on the list of colossal fuckups. Congress will do everything possible to avoid giving poor Americans health care, but signs off on this crap every year... there's oversight for you.

Mubarak's Survival Strategy and Looting as Counter-Insurgency, John Robb,
The Mubarak regime is attempting to use the fear of chaos to reassert its authority. Here's to hoping this fails!

Al-Jazeera Jounalists Arrested in Egypt, Josh Halliday, The Guardian
Al-Jazeera has probably played a far more important role in the events in Tunisia and Egypt than social media, but all the attention has been focused on the latter. Scared regimes in the region are starting to catch onto this. What's the betting on a satellite TV clampdown in Syria and Jordan?!

Egypt Protests: Israel Fears Unrest May Threaten Peace Treaty, Ian Black, The Guardian
Israel loves its Collaborator in Chief Hosni Mubarak. Perrish the thought that someone powerful may stand up to Israel one day!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Viva La RevoluciĆ³n

One can't help but have a good degree of scepticism towards the unfolding events in the Middle East given the number of times that we have seen such movements co-opted by reactionary forces, or crushed by the military around the world. Commentary within the Western media has been a continuation of the realist grand narrative that has underpinned policy towards the region for such a long time; namely that the US and her European allies have a difficult balance to strike between the support of democratic forces and the need for regional peace and stability, something which can only be guaranteed by the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Such policy has however always been weighted firmly in favour of the dictators/peace and stability argument, with only an occasional nod towards democracy and social justice in the region. The irony is that whilst the autocratic regimes have provided a degree of stability through the maintenance of peace with Israel and acquiescence to the US, the reality of such a policy has been to build popular hostility towards America, which is seen to be pulling the strings and keeping these people in power. There has always been the potential that such popular anger could reach a tipping point and endanger prospects for peace. Anyone who has studied the history of political Islam within the region, from the likes of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, will recognise that these are movements essentially driven by domestic political grievances, that have always existed in the context of Western imperialisms, be they British, French or American. Anger that is extended towards the West is reflective of the extent to which Europeans and Americans have denied Arabs true self-determination, through direct interventions as well as the indirect support of corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Soumaya Ghannoushi has written an excellent article for the Guardian in which she highlights how the state system within the Middle East has been that which was inherited from colonial rule; designed to contain divisions and repress dissent, and hence has often lacked popular legitimacy and independence from Western or Soviet sponsors. Whilst early post-colonial Arab leaders enjoyed a degree of popular consent they were replaced by authoritarian rulers who increasingly relied upon external support. States within the region have thus been rotten to the core, and a brewing powder keg ready to explode, with fear the only thing holding people back - now that this has gone anything is possible. The movement in Egypt seems to be drawn from a fairly broad demographic with no particular centre of leadership. Although initially more Middle class and secular, with smaller numbers, the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mosques appears to have transformed the momentum of the movement. Reaction within mainstream Western media has unsurprisingly been one of horror directed at the [currently remote] prospect of outright Islamic rule, and hostility towards American interests, repeating the aforementioned peace and stability narrative. Whilst my own personal preference would be for something akin to the Bolivarian Revolution in South America to sweep the Middle East, it would be wrong and unrealistic to project our own desires onto the Middle East, as this has been such a big part of the problem from the outset. It is important to recognise that just as in South America, any grass roots popular changes within the Arab Middle East would likely reflect that regions' own social and cultural traditions, with Islam likely to play a key role. A turn towards Islam and against the established American-led order of international relations does not imply an end to peace in the region. Egypt has been incredibly uncritical of Israel during the last thirty years, and when America remains so unwilling to pressure its ally, the urging of Israel's largest and likely most feared near neighbours, Egypt and Turkey, could play a vital role in forcing a permanent Middle East peace settlement. Of course it is crucial how the West and Israel react to any changes in the region, with hostility likely to be reciprocated. The onus is on the Obama Administration to listen and not impose.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


'Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists', Pankaj Mishra and 'On Mao's Contradictions', Tariq Ali
Pankaj Mishra and Tariq Ali, writing for the New Yorker and New Left Review respectively have written interesting reviews of the recent literature on Mao, with much contention still surrounding the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Western academic discourse has been dominated by the legacy of Cold War anti-communist rhetoric in recent decades, painting a vision of Mao as a brutal tyrant and placing the horrors of his revolution on a par with those of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag, during the Twentieth Century. History is however usually more nuanced than this account can hope to be and Mishra and Ali succeed in highlighting the attention given to the complexities of Mao's rule in more recent work on the subject. In the context of European, American and Japanese imperialisms, Mishra notes that Mao's most enduring legacy remains the unification and mobilisation of the masses through a uniquely Chinese narrative of lost greatness and renewal, even if his egalitarian ideals may have been subsumed under the banner of mass consumerism. Likewise, for Ali, the historical functioning of Mao's leadership and ideology needs to be properly contextualised. The Chinese Communist Party inherited a legacy of Bolshevik thought that was crucial to its establishment, but proved - as was so often the case - unsuited to the realities of communist rule outside of the Soviet Union:

"The model that new Communists imbibed was the one they encountered in Moscow: a social dictatorship of the Party/bureaucracy that was master of all public life and sustained by institutionalized networks of repression. This was the system put in place when they came to power or even within parties active in the capitalist and colonial worlds. The stifling of debate weakened both Party and state".

In China, Stalinist style purges did not take place, and the Soviet dictum was inverted to become a sustained anti-bureaucratic mass revolution drawing its sustenance from the legitimacy of the collective will; but, Ali points out, Mao's China lacked the representative institutions required to transmit different interpretations of that collective will. What resulted was the failure of the Great Leap and famine in the countryside, with a leadership insulated from the reality of an unfolding human and ecological catastrophe.

The mass demagoguery of the Cultural Revolution likewise demonstrated the anti-bureaucratic currents of Maoist thought, but was rather instigated by Mao and his supporters in a power-grab after they had been sidelined. The effects, Ali notes however, were quite contradictory in many respects, unleashing new concepts of social mobility and patterns of thought, beyond what could have been intended. Mishra also, quotes Amartya Sen on the Great Leap. Sen argues that India has seen worse:

"...despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former".

Roderick MacFarquhar adds that: "what Mao accomplished between 1949 and 1956 was in fact the fastest, most extensive, and least damaging socialist revolution carried out in any communist state." Further, for Mishra a complex and often unfavourable geopolitical climate must be accounted for: "...the uprising in Tibet in 1959, anti-American riots in Taiwan, border clashes with India, the Sino-Soviet rift..."

What therefore are we to make of Mao? The enduring appeal of Maoist ideology no-doubt lies in its appeal to down-trodden populations and its possibilities for communism as a mass-movement as opposed to the Soviet model of top-down bureaucracy and oligarchy, and the inequalities of capitalism. Its failures lie in the demagoguery and dogma associated with a mass-movement that came to centralise power in the hands of a few, with the inability to transmit signals to the centre. We can learn a lot from this. Whilst I would not go so far as to say that Mao is in need of rehabilitation or emulation, the historical record certainly deserves an account that is not still driven by the vagaries of McCarthyism's rhetorical norms over half a century on.