Here are a few thoughts after watching Frontline’s Revolution in Cairo, which is a very good 24-minute summary of how this particular democratic moment occurred, and after reading Badiou‘s, Hardt & Negri’s, Hallward‘s, Amit Rai‘s, and some other takes on the events.
The first three, in the Egyptian instance, are pretty easy to identify (click on the links). To oversimplify just a little, they are
(i) Tools: Social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and their associated technologies (cell phones, the internet), but always with a certain fall-back reliance on the old tools, i.e., meetings (clandestine, if necessary) and networking with the right people.
(ii) Techniques: The tactics of nonviolent revolution. (As I’ve mentioned before, if we need a non-Egyptian hero here, Gene Sharp gets my vote.)
(iii) Events: the Tunisian revolt, the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi (and the willingness of some Egyptians to follow suit), etc.
The first two require a lot of work. The third requires preparedness, but the events themselves unfold somewhat on their own. (I wouldn’t recommend self-immolation, but there are alternative ways of bringing attention to things.)
The fourth ingredient, “Vision,” is less identifiable. I will describe it as Democracy, or revolutionary democracy, to distinguish it from other “democracies” we think we know too well. It is democracy sous rature, crossed out even as we say the word, not because it doesn’t, or can’t exist, nor because we dare not utter it, but because uttering it doesn’t ever quite capture it — uttering it too loudly, in fact, is usually the clearest sign that it’s already been replaced by something else (“democracy,” which means plutocracy’s bill of goods under that name, and which we know can be a racket when it’s wielded as a bully pulpit, or as a tool to fight wars in foreign lands). And because it ought to remain open, a cosmopolitical space whose terms cannot be rendered in only a single language of inscription.
(2) Where things may go
I doubt the end result will be anything as dramatically new as Badiou and other permanent revolutionaries may hope. A democratic Egypt will be sharply divided, with little capability to outmaneuvre the economic/neoliberal global pressures they will face. Economic difficulties will likely strengthen the support of conservatives, like the Muslim Brotherhood, bent on bringing back traditions that never existed in the first place — just as they do here in the U.S., and as they have in Serbia (Otpor notwithstanding), Ukraine (ditto for the Orange Revolution), and wherever else. Those other revolutions weren’t any less real than this one; and the result of this one may be not that different from them — though we can continue to hope for better.
But that’s not the point. A new experiment begins, and sends its vectors elsewhere to catalyze its own experiments. The open vision of a democracy-to-come, or simply that of justice, fairness, the end of tyranny, or more equal distribution of the goods of the global world, a world we (more and more) share, is worth the turbulence of the political contestation, and sometimes disillusionment, that will inevitably follow.
Badiou’s piece has some beautiful passages, such as the following:
It stands, this new field to come, between the declaration of overthrowing forces and the one of assuming new tasks. Between what a young Tunisian has said: “We, the sons of workers and farmers, are stronger than the criminals”; and what a young Egyptian has said: “Starting today, 25th January, I take charge of the affairs of my country”.
As a moment of self-empowerment, the revolution is what it is, a genuine Event. It is, as Badiou, Hallward, et al., argue, worth celebrating, learning from, and perhaps emulating. But it will pass, and the time of “assuming new tasks,” including the task of building a society, “the common creation of a collective destiny,” as Badiou puts it, will be upon the Egyptians. Badiou calls that task “communism,” but that term is both too old and too late, and maybe too new and too early, since the last set of efforts cast an awfully long shadow. Building communism, as we know, has been tried and failed, because the institutions of the “common creation of a collective destiny” will inevitably fail unless they’re tempered by the recognition of that inevitability.
Liberal and social democracies, and other variants of the democratic project/process, for all their weaknesses, recognize that inevitability and try to work with it, instituting safeguards against the totalitarianism inherent in collective destiny-making of any kind. The everyday realpolitik of democracy can be both messy and boring — which is why pressing the occasional reset switch (as some Obama supporters thought they were doing, but haven’t followed through with), can be necessary.
(3) Social media are not enough
White the internet may provide a lot of people with enough news to satisfy their needs, relying on the for-profit (and volunteer) sectors to generate that news is never enough. Public media — publically funded media — remain essential (the Frontline production being an excellent example of that).
The current attack on public media in this country, and on public sector unions and all they represent (collective bargaining and the gains it has made for working people over the last century), is a frontline of social struggle today. If the Republicans trying to destroy the funding base for NPR and PBS get their way here, expect things to get much worse.