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Stateless society and the uprising in Egypt.

February 5, 2011 10 comments

Can the events in Tunisia and Egypt reshape the way libertarians, anarchists and communists think both about a stateless society and how this stateless society can emerge?

I think it should.

The popular uprising, somewhat discredited as a means of achieving a stateless society until recently, appears to be in vogue again. What makes it of particular interest to me is that the uprising is itself a voluntary cooperative act by members of society against an intolerable state machine. It doesn’t take much curiosity to wonder if this voluntary association can do more than simply challenge the existing order.

Can it replace the existing order as was attempted with the Paris Commune?

I have been reading the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s recent talk “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”. As usual, this monumental thinker clarifies a lot of things in my opinion. Just reading his talk aided my own understanding of the Egyptian uprising going on now.

Here is how Badiou analyzes the Tunisian uprising:

The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one…

The power of the uprising, Badiou argues, “is essentially negative (‘make it go away’)” All uprisings are acts of despair and desperation and this desperate act is a striking out against, and throwing off of, the intolerable burden of the existing State.

The problem with this act is that it does not, of itself, address the question: “What now?”

The riot is a desperate rage against an intolerable State, which, even when successful, has no affirmative design beyond getting rid of the existing order. Absent a positive conception of a new order to replace the old one it offers no obvious solution to the problem of the intolerable power whose overthrow it has just effected. The danger posed by the absence of a positive aim after the overthrow of the old order is that the old order merely reconstitutes itself in a new form. In a remarkable passage in which he identifies Egypt as a potential target, Badiou explains this reconstitution of the old order:

The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a Western desire. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali.  How this desire as such suggests a Western desire is very uncertain.

It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way whatsoever about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,* if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.

Without a positive conception of its aspirations the uprising will fall prey to the reconstitution of the old order that is not merely the Mubarak regime, but the empire headquartered in Washington, for which the Egyptian state is only the local outpost. The hallmarks of this reconstitution are constitutional reform, replacement of the most odious personalities, a reshuffling of the cabinet, and a promise of “free and fair elections” — what Badiou calls the “Western inclusion”. Beneath all of this reshuffling, however, the existing State continues undisturbed.

Badiou asks: “Is there another possibility?” He answers: “Yes.”

If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion.

If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing expected from the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections.

What is interesting about Badiou is he never feels the need to tack on some finishing touch to his analysis. He goes only so far as his analysis takes him and leaves it there. This gives his analysis the appearance of being unfinished, but it is actually his most powerful argument. Badiou simply tells us that, so far as he can see, there is no reason why an uprising has to end up with “free and fair elections” and the perfunctory reforms orchestrated by Washington. In the case of the Tunisian riots, he concludes only by stating that what the riot lacks in terms of an affirmative statement can only be discovered by studying the events themselves:

What is required is an patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division … will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: statements. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these statements, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new statements that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.

So, what can we learn from Egypt about the possibilities for a stateless society in light of Badiou’s analysis of Tunisia? In my opinion, the following:

In his inquiry Badiou poses the alternative affirmation as an essentially negative act: “an exclusion” or break with the West. It is expressed in the form of a declaration of intention by the uprising that is fundamentally incompatible with the existing order — with globalization and empire itself.

However, so far as I can tell, the uprising in Egypt is this negative act of exclusion already. By challenging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime the uprising called into question the entirety of relations of which Mubarak and his henchmen are only the local expression. Confirmation of my conclusion can be seen simply by reviewing Washington’s response to the uprising — the Obama administration certainly believes that its fundamental interest are at risk.

What Badiou demonstrates, therefore, is that the uprising must become aware of itself as an active challenge to “the West” — to globalization and empire. To become more than a mere riot, the uprising must recognize that it is the first act of a voluntary association — the first act by which this voluntary association establishes itself as a new basis for society. Badiou demonstrates that it is not a question of organization, but a question of consciousness on a mass scale that is wanting.

The question we all have to ask ourselves at this point is simple: What separates the uprising of January 25 from the Paris Commune?

In the case of the Paris Commune, the uprising recognized itself as the solution to the intolerable burden of the State. It did not merely sweep away the existing order, but set about to manage society itself in voluntary association. It invited the rest of France to join with it.

Every local uprising like January 25 should aspire to become a non-local event – to declare itself as the new basis of social organization and to appeal to the oppressed of the world to join with it. The call for a transitional government, constitutional reform, new elections, etc., should be rejected. The January 25 uprising must avoid being defined as something of significance only to Egypt; it cannot win if it is confined to Egypt — it must strip off its national form. In response to the secret negotiations directed by Washington, the January 25 uprising will have to aggressively declare its intentions to go global.

If the January 25 movement does not acquire a consciousness of its own global significance it will be isolated and suppressed. It has to aspire to more than changing local personalities and declare that the empire, headed by Washington, is the enemy.

What is truly revolutionary in the uprising in Egypt is that it can become a universal event, spreading beyond Egypt – a general rising of the oppressed. To do this, the uprising will have to reject every attempt both to confine it to Egypt and pacify it with minor changes in the existing State.

The target is Washington and its empire; the aim is to replace this empire with the voluntary association of individuals.

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