End of ‘1989’?

The Arab world has spoken truth to power in ways that question the celebration of western style democracies and the ‘end of history’ marked by the ‘1989 velvet revolutions’.
Saroj Giri
1 March 2011

The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya have spoken truth to power with fantastic spirit and solidarity (not to forget struggles in Madison and elsewhere). Beyond particular demands, a general rebelliousness and a loosening of the hardened status quo has swept through the Arab political regimes and social life in general. El-Abidine and Mubarak are gone, Gaddafi is nearing his end – and yet there is a general unease and deep mistrust of what is next in store. The need to continue the revolution is widely felt, particularly in Egypt. But the question today is how, how does one grant some kind of a longer life and effective power to the truth that the masses have spoken in such exemplary ways? 

Let us refer to Vaclav Havel, who is a major reference point for proponents of civil resistance right since the days of the Prague Spring and the velvet revolutions in 1989. What is often overlooked is that for him it was clear that civil resistance and speaking truth to power are forms of struggle that must be understood in the context of the kind of regime in place – in his case, the socialist regimes. In The Power of the Powerless he explains that in socialist regimes, “truth in the widest sense of the word has a very special import, one unknown in other contexts. In this system, truth plays a far greater (and, above all, a far different) role as a factor of power, or as an outright political force.” He instances the greengrocer who puts up a board announcing ‘workers of the world unite’ beside the onions and the carrots. Public rituals such as these meant the creation of an elaborate false appearance, ‘a panorama’, a pseudo-reality of ‘socialism’ and ‘revolution’ sustained by everybody acting and behaving as though it were all true. Truth here, he argued, had an immensely explosive power, such that “a single civilian could disarm an entire division”. 

Speaking truth to power could have a far more powerful effect rattling regimes in Eastern Europe during the 1989 civil resistance, than on today’s dictatorships or multi-party democracies whose idioms of rule and internal constitution are different. In Egypt, the Mubarak dictatorship, or now army rule, relies on use of force unmediated by any pseudo-reality, least of all of ‘socialism’ – instead they work through the distribution of benefits to vested interests, class power and the maintenance of related social inequalities. Big business, the old guard within the army like Tantawi, Mubarak’s son’s business empire, NDP leader and billionaire steel magnate Ahmad Ezz, billionaire ministers of Interior and Housing - all populate this network of crony capitalism, neoliberalism and political patronage. Can crony capitalism have truth claims? 

A multiparty democracy, too, does not require the public at large to subscribe to an overarching truth system. You are free to believe or not believe in anything (freedom of choice) so long as you keep doing what you should be doing! Even leaders and ministers do not really need to believe in neoliberalism, in capitalism or anything else. They just need to submit, or so the story goes, to the ‘realistic objective workings’ of the market and economy. Politics itself is declared over. Technocracy rules, hence neither left nor right. Class inequalities? It is either a matter of ‘brute luck’, or a positive indication of the removal of ‘market distortions’ and inefficiencies. Post-Rawls, who doesn’t understand that inequalities are all set to lead to high efficiency, benefiting the least advantaged ? So, let’s only manage things better. Things are just the way they are, nobody’s to blame, there is no wielder of power to speak your truth to, or to practice your civilian resistance against. 

Unlike under ‘socialism’, the present regimes and structures of power are therefore not so easily challengeable. Any effective resistance then means that ‘speaking truth to power’ must be more than just that - it has to be a form of struggle and resistance which does not limit itself to targeting only the form of political rule, but which organizes at the level of social, class and gender relations as the basis of political power. This is already in evidence in Egypt. There is a social ferment, people taking charge, challenging local authorities at the level of the workplace, industry, neighbourhood, city councils, schools, hospitals and so on. Bus drivers going on strike as part of the protests, film makers who wanted their association head to resign for siding with Mubarak, and so on. Perhaps the efflorescence of radical energies that we witness in the Arab countries might be pointing to a new mode of struggle and resistance taking us beyond ‘1989’. 

Civil resistance has joined hands with labour struggles, slum dwellers and the poor converged on Tahrir square with facebooking middle class youth, religious divides evaporated making secularism look silly – this convergence of sorts has allowed the emergence of the realm of politics proper, of universal freedom without however falling into the ‘bad universalism’ of formal rights and abstract ‘democracy for all’. Yet commentators like Timothy Garton Ash package ‘1989’ as the cry for such a ‘democracy for all’, glossing over questions of social inequalities, not very different from the kind of ‘democracy and human rights’ which the US propagates. Nor has movement dissolved into those splintered sectoral ‘livelihood struggles’ and purely economic demands, which call for aid projects and NGOs. 

Demand for political rights is intertwined with popular anger against the military-industrial and business empires that were thriving in the neoliberal success story which Egypt and Tunisia had become. What was one of Mubarak’s early attempts to pacify the protestors? The answer: “in his first effort to quell unrest, Mubarak fired the ministers best known for developing the free market agenda, including Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Trade Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid as well as senior NDP member and billionaire Ahmad Ezz.” This is from a column by a neoliberal proponent, who laments further: “now that the proponents of free market capitalism have been purged from Egypt’s government, economic populism has emerged as a compelling alternative to the neoliberal policies associated with the old order.” 

 Which only goes to show that the Egyptian uprising is more than a ‘pro-democracy movement’, more than ‘civil society against state’, 1989-style. It is also more than just the consequence of the demographic ‘youth bulge’, ‘restless facebooking youth’. This point is however rendered invisible by the dominant model of ‘civil resistance’, of speaking truth to power, since it assumes a system which has one big truth claim set to explode through one big demonstration or mass protest. Writers like Garton Ash have compounded this prognosis, framing 1989 and ‘velvet revolutions’ in ways that simply elide civil resistance with the multi-party democracies they brought about. For all we know, 1989 itself was not like that – and yet this is how the account is handed down to us. So now you have any number of articles on the ‘Arab 1989’ – the ‘1989’ packaging the protests in ways that meet the neoliberal aspirations of western-style democracies. If 1989 was about ‘the end of history’, history locating its end-point in western democracy, the conjugation ‘Arab 1989’ merely repeats it. 

However, if anything, surely these protests mark an end to the end of history and the so-called victory of the western powers as promoters of democracy. It is not the Arab 1989 but more like the end of ‘1989’. So much so that one can even suggest that we can or rather should go beyond just celebrating the overall democratic and revolutionary spirit of the Arab uprising. Isn’t there something more concrete here? Maybe the ongoing protests prefigure a new way of protesting, resisting and organizing, firming things up a bit for a progressive politics which has suffered badly over the past few decades.

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