North Africa, West Asia

Modern serfdom

Maged Mandour

It is important to understand that the struggle of Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians…etc is in essence a struggle against a social condition, what I call 'modern serfdom'. This almost complete system of oppression can only be broken on an international scale. Launching our new column: Chronicles of the Arab revolt

Maged Mandour
19 May 2014

Many might argue that serfdom, in its traditional form, as a social condition has died out and that the majority of the world is, more or less, free. Even in places suffering from autocratic rule, the social condition of 'serfdom' is not apparent; the majority might see oppression as a macro phenomenon. 

However, for those like myself, who grew up in the shadow of a dictator - this mysterious, benevolent, and cruel father figure, who seems so distant yet so present, and oppressive at the same time - oppression is present in everyday life, and it even follows you abroad. Unlike my previous article where I shared my experiences living abroad, this article will share my experiences growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt with a continuous sense of alienation that I, as well as millions, felt. This experience is not limited to the Arab World, it extends to most of the developing world. In other words, the vast majority of humanity who live as 'serfs' in their master’s fiefdom.

The first hallmark of this experience is 'alienation', a term borrowed from the humanist Marxist tradition, where workers feel 'alienated' from their work due to an exploitative relationship with the capitalist. In the current context, alienation extends to cover alienation from one's country, work, family and sometimes friends. The modern serf suffers from contradictions of self-loathing combined with a deeply rooted sense of superiority. In other words, one feels a sense of contempt for one's fellow serfs combined with a sense of admiration for one’s own position among the serfs.

So I told myself, “I am better than them”, it is “their fault”, and that somehow my disposition is more “western”, “liberal” or “secular”. This complex manifested itself in a conversation I had with friends who were justifying European right wing racism as the direct product of Arab immigrants’ behaviour, rather than a complicated historical dynamic of colonialism, neo-colonialism, as well as European policies of segregation. In the end Franz Fanon’s dictum: “the oppressed believe the worst about themselves” has proven to be undeniably and painfully true.

This is also fed by autocratic elites, who mix a rhetoric of ultra-nationalism combined with self-contempt. This contempt, however, is primarily reserved for the lower classes, especially those who reside in rural areas i.e. the majority of the people. This rhetoric helps to build up a general anti-democratic sentiment, reminiscent of the struggle for universal suffrage in Europe, where the upper classes feared that the lower classes would overthrow the current order through the ballot box. It places the elites alongside the urban middle class in the role of guardians of the nation, who will guide the “lost children” to the correct path. Apparently, the old colonial elites left deputies behind to continue their work. Thus, the nation becomes divided between those who identify themselves with the western world and those who are left behind. 

The sense of ultra-nationalism manifests itself in the imaginary achievement of the elites, especially on the international scene. The idea that the nation is somehow better than other nations is engraved in the minds of the urban middle class and propagated to the lower classes. The comparison, however, is usually restricted on a regional level. A clear example of this is the sense of superiority that many Egyptians feel in relation to Gulf States, even though Egypt has become ever more dependent on them for aid and financial support. Thus, the average Arab suffers from a multilayered experience of oppression, one that relates to direct government oppression, in the traditional sense; another that relates to the oppression of the urban middle class regarding the lower classes, and finally the oppression the serf applies to himself by believing in his own inferiority.

The second hallmark, is a traditional hallmark of serfdom, which relates to being tied to the land. Unlike in Europe or the western world, freedom of movement in the Arab World is severely limited for most countries. This limitation means that the ability of surplus labour to find appropriate employment is almost non-existent, lowering their ability to bargain for better wages or conditions. In other words, the mass of the people are overworked and underpaid, with little hope or prospect of escape. The most that one can hope for is an escape to the capital, which might provide better opportunities, but chances of ending up in large slums and working informally are more than likely. 

How does this translate into daily life terms? This means that the oppression of the elites seeps through to the work place, and the employer, who usually belongs to the elites, has a share in the powers of the country’s autocrats. In other words, oppression is not limited to the macro level, it is rather a holistic social condition that encompasses the entire existence of the oppressed. Organs of civil society, for example, defined in the broader sense of the word, are part of the machinery of oppression.

This oppression needs an ideological backbone, and this is built by immersing the oppressed in 'neo-colonial' rhetoric, and a particular version of history that favours the elites. This is done through film and educational institutions, where history is re-written to create heroes and villains, omitting others from its pages. This method involves the creation of a mind-set of obedience and absolute truth. So the serfs oppress one another if one tries to question the 'official' version of history: since this makes life even less bearable, the oppressed tend to prefer to have a 'false consciousness'. 

Here, Plato’s allegory of the cave comes to mind, where one of the prisoners leaves the cave in which he was imprisoned, only to be heavily critiqued by the other prisoners upon his return for speaking about the outside world . 

The third hallmark is the dispersal of oppression into all levels of life. The workplace, school and even the home. There is only one absolute truth, and its owner is the benevolent father figure.

The fourth hallmark, is the arbitrary nature of this oppression. In the Arab World, societal power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite; there is no legal protection for the average citizen as laws are tailored for the protection of these elites. Under these conditions, one need only inadvertently get entangled in a conflict with one of the elites to face a rather grim fate. Even a personal conflict can escalate into a rather grim affair, where the serf would be oppressed by the official organs of the state with no legal recourse. In other words, the elites are immune, while others suffer from severe oppression over non-political issues. Oppression is ever present.

The final attribute is the global nature of this condition. Even if one of the serfs escapes fiefdom to the west, he faces a new type of oppression. Usually arriving and hoping to join a more humane and tolerant society, she or he harbours dreams of 'belonging' and of becoming European, in every sense of the word. However, he/she faces a new kind of oppression, one that treats their existence in Europe as a mistake that needs to be corrected. The newcomer faces the trauma of rejection by a society that they thought they belonged to.

This trauma causes a break with their old identity as 'superior' to the other serfs. They realise that in the eyes of the west they are nothing but serfs, no better than their compatriots, and they come to realise, as I did, that there is no escape from Mubarak or, now, El-Sisi. My oppressors know no bounds, and my fate is tied to theirs. This, of course is limited to the urban middle classes that have the financial resources to escape to the west. However, the masses of serfs are either unable to escape, due to their societal and financial standing, or make their way through illegal immigration on hazardous journeys, where death by drowning seems more plausible than safe arrival. If they survive the trip, they face another array of oppressive tactics that include physical oppression.

This almost complete system of oppression can only be broken on an international scale. The struggle is against a global, rather than domestic system of oppression. It is important to understand that the struggle of Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians…etc is in essence a struggle against a social condition, what I call “modern serfdom”, which has its roots in international, as well as, domestic social orders.

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