The Impossibility of Actual Politics
Twelve years have passed since the Arab Spring, and both Egypt and Tunisia are facing a stark economic crisis. Both are currently under the mercy of extremely unfavorable structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, relying heavily on food imports, mired in debt, and facing historical inflation rates with unprecedented hikes in food prices. This dire economic situation is made all the worse by a relentless escalation of authoritarian measures in both countries. The prevailing atmosphere indicates that the counterrevolution has prevailed and that avenues of emancipatory possibility have shrunk almost to the point of extinction.
Every year, however, as the anniversary of the January uprisings approaches, dread ensues, not only because it prompts us to reflect on the defeat, but also because of the steady barrage of analysis we are inundated with, grappling with the same questions every year, and revealing an unsatiated desire to answer questions that we already probably know the answers to. Questions abound about horizontalism or verticalism, leadership, or leaderlessness that date back to the break between Stalin and Trotsky, which have eternally divided those in the 1917 camp vs the 1968 camp. Spontaneity contra organization ad infinitum.
A book that stands out in this genre, however, is Asef Bayat’s Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Published in 2017, it has become one of the most referenced in the field. In it, the Iranian-American sociologist grapples with the idea of what revolution means in a post-Cold War era. Bayat—correctly in my opinion—attributes the failure of the January uprisings, despite their extraordinary mobilization and resistance, to a lack of revolutionary vision, political organization, and a dearth of intellectual articulation by its leaders. He does so by comparing them to the revolutions of the 1970s when the concept of revolution was largely informed by socialism and anti-imperialism. Adversely, the January uprisings, affected by the NGOization of the world, seemed to be more concerned with democracy, human rights, and accountability.
Deviating away from the approach he took in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, Bayat—in his sixth and latest book, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring, published in 2021—decides to focus on the granular rather than the structural by focusing on the “non-movements” as he refers to them, giving primacy to “what the revolution meant to ordinary people.” Focusing on Egypt and Tunisia, Bayat’s argument is that the events of 2011 set something in motion, and brought a different set of social relations in everyday life. The book is rich with examples of this everyday resistance from both countries, covering different categories.
With his starting point being the subaltern, Bayat attempts to investigate the relationship between the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary,” or the “mundane” and the “monumental.” Evoking Antonio Gramsci and American anthropologist and anarchist James C. Scott, his focus this time is civil society and everyday resistance as opposed to the macro approach he used in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, with the aim of finding the connection between both. He also aims to give the subaltern “agency” in relation to revolutionary moments. This is made manifest even in the naming of the chapters of the book (the poor and the plebian, women, children of the revolution, etc.), assigning a separate experience to every group. In doing so he tries to make us consider the meaning of revolution, providing us with an alternative narrative that doesn’t fall under the binary of “success” and “defeat.” Its strength lies in that it rejects the defeatist paradigm that has become the prevalent narrative of the uprisings.
“A ‘failed’ revolution may not be entirely failed if we consider significant transformations that may transpire at the level of the ‘social’,” Bayat contends. Arguably, one can attribute this approach to a sort of theoretical optimism that refuses to give in to defeat. However, it prompts us to think about the bleakness of the current post-counterrevolution reality that these everyday resistances—which one can argue are universal and present in all societies, not just societies that have undergone recent political transformations—are something to be celebrated.
Although the attempt to reframe the revolution from being seen through the lens of “failure” or “defeat” is notable, the premise of the book itself is indicative of the current impossibility of actual politics, be it in Egypt or Tunisia. The absence of which gives cause to the celebration of and the need to document the minutiae of these quotidian acts.
The book’s heavily researched chapters are divided thematically, each tackling a different demographic of the revolution. While these chapters are brimming with examples, the choice to divide them into categories that are arguably liberal watchwords is expressive of this absence of politics, defaulting to the reproduction of cultural subjects. Wouldn’t we rather develop class positions that traverse these social categories than have signifiers like “the poor” or “the children?”
In the chapter, Mothers and Daughters of the Revolution, Bayat references at least three different examples of women taking off their hijab as an example of changing social attitudes. One example was a woman who left her advertising job in the corporate sector to work in civil society and human rights and took off her hijab. Another example was a woman who took off her hijab and married a human rights advocate; another one obtained the courage to travel alone and also took off her hijab. While these examples do not make up the majority of examples of everyday resistance given in the book, they suggest an overreliance on anecdotal experience and cast what are extremely individualized acts of rebellion as resistance.
Nonetheless, Bayat explains that he understands that these categories are more complex than their titles and that they can be divided along class or racial lines. However, he is cautious of a “reductionist Marxism” that tends to “reduce the multilayered sources of subaltern dissent,” and emphasizes the importance of civil society formation, invoking Gramsci’s utilization of civil society as a way to counter Leninist vanguardism (understood as a small elite group leading the revolution on behalf of the working class). In the Gramscian sense, the method through which the working class can challenge this hegemonic dominance is through creating cultural institutions mired in broad-based, popular movements that would develop organically through civil society. However, I do not think this translates to the concept of civil society as it is used today.
As Adam Hanieh argues in Lineages of Revolt, the idea of civil society is mostly championed by international organizations and international financial institutions, linking it with free market economic policies as a bulwark against authoritarianism. For Hanieh, “the state/civil society dichotomy serves to ‘conceptualize away’ the problem of capitalism, by disaggregating society into fragments, with no overarching power structure, no totalizing unity, no systemic coercions—in other words, no capitalist system, with its expansionary drive and its capacity to penetrate every aspect of social life.” He posits instead for class to be used as the “key social category from which to comprehend the dynamics of any society, distinct from the catchall notion of civil society (as it is conventionally understood).”
Bayat also refers to the work of James C. Scott as a necessary departure from this Marxist “economism” when it comes to thinking about resistance, and attributes the concept of everyday resistance to him. However, Bayat maintains that there is a certain reductionism in Scott’s work through his sole focus on everyday resistance as the structure for change, and aims in this book to bridge the gap between the study of everyday resistance and the study of revolutions by using a combined approach to analyze the Arab Spring. Scott coined “everyday resistance” in his 1985 book Weapons of the Weak to describe everyday acts of resistance that are not as impactful or obvious as other forms of organized, collective articulations of resistance, such as revolutions. Everyday resistance or infrapolitics as he sometimes refers to it, is more dispersed and is not as visible to society or the state. While Scott conceives of resistance as an act or acts that could be taken by a collective, his conception of a collective is merely a group of unorganized individuals. In this conception of resistance as the lived experience of scattered individuals with specific grievances choosing to act outside of calculated collective action, it is unlikely that this resistance will grow into broader political dissent that can lead to more organized action.
While the “idea, the ideal and the memory of Revolution need to be maintained,” as Bayat mentioned in a December 2017 interview in Open Democracy, the idea of an unfinished revolution or an unfinished project is one that I largely agree with. However, these forms of resistance that Scott and in this case Bayat bring forth, challenge Marxist accounts of theories of revolution by insisting that political action can also happen on a smaller scale—that way giving up on the more material and structural factors. And while Bayat recognizes in the introduction that these structural and macro factors exist and that Revolution Without Revolutionaries was entirely devoted to them, an acknowledgment of the fact does not explain this Scott-like romanticization of the quotidian in Everyday Life. This horizontally determined view of politics is difficult to square with the more structural analysis he offers in Revolution Without Revolutionaries and offers little politically emancipatory potential for any revolutionary movements to emerge. It leads us to a depoliticized place, unable to conceptualize how political agency is exerted at a structural level.
We can even go as far as to argue that this everyday resistance is a knee-jerk reaction to the counterrevolutions that took place and are therefore defensive and reactive. It fails to offer a transformative political project and is more interested in asserting individual choice and autonomy than the assembling and channeling of collective capacity to act to produce political effects. Of course, that is not a failing on the individuals mentioned but is demonstrative of how grim political prospects currently are and have been since the counterrevolutions.
The spontaneity of everyday resistance can provide insight into how oppressive societies operate. However, in order to overturn these structures, it is unlikely that the separated and defensive actions of individuals would pose an actual threat to the status quo. Such resistance is too disparate and scattered, therefore unable to affect society in a material way. What we need to think about here, what we need to prioritize, is the project of building collectiveness—the radical restructuring of society rather than acts of individual agency.
Is there really a need to differentiate between “everyday life” and “the revolution?” If Bayat’s theory of change is that scattered acts of protest can have a multiplier effect, and accumulate into collective power, then surely the goal is to build the latter. Ultimately, there must be some degree of political organization that can mobilize disparate actors. To that end, everyday resistance in and of itself is ineffectual, and can only mitigate existing social conditions.
In the introduction, Bayat says he attempts to “establish an analytical link between the everyday and the revolution.” He argues that “subaltern everyday struggles came together in the Arab uprisings to forge a collective and contentious force coalescing with the political mobilizations that had been initiated largely by young activists.” However, we saw that this was not sufficient.
Bayat says, “A surprising revolutionary moment may emerge from the underside of societies that appear safe and secure.” Is there even a causal relationship between the macro and the grassroots? There is an assumption that the plurality of organizational forms is a given, and that this plurality of forms in and of itself has an inherent value. If anything, history has shown us that not all forms of resistance can form blocks to morph into macro resistance, especially during times of political thinness and the absence of real political organization.
If resistance is indeed found in everyday life—yet does not evolve or account for further political ramifications in terms of political organizing beyond its moralizing qualities—all it serves to imply is an individualistic conception of politics or an assertion of politics as identity or affirmation; one that showcases the thinning of political formation in the region rather than resistance that can amount to tangible political transformation. The combined vision Bayet thinks or does not exist. In fact, politics within this context can at best be a means of reconciling ourselves to our precarious conditions, rather than a way out of them.
Macro and revolutionary moments have their own micropolitical transformations that emerge in tandem. One does not have to seek the emergence of the latter on its own; in fact, the former often informs the latter. We do not need to pose a false choice between the micro and the macro or the structural. Wouldn’t it be better to seek a structural change that is informed by the possibilities of politics? Attention to the micro is helpful when embedded within a larger political project, and when it can be considered to be developing political consciousness and shifting orientation towards the collective.
While the resonance is great and the memory of 2011 remains, we need to be wary of supporting cautious and defensive reformism, cloaked in the guise of everyday resistance and lacking the antagonisms of political struggle and successful processes of social change.
Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (2021) by Asef Bayat is available from Harvard University Press.
Nihal El Aasar is an Egyptian independent researcher currently based in London.