North Africa, West Asia

On the absence of Arab intellectuals

Maged Mandour

An explanation for the conspicuous absence of Arab intellectuals from the revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) scene.


Maged Mandour
23 September 2015

PKpix/Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

A few months ago, I came across this article on openDemocracy, where the author was calling on Arab intellectuals to “spill more ink” and get involved in the political and social crisis that is gripping the region; a powerful and timely call indeed. However, there was no explanation for the absence of Arab intellectuals from the revolutionary scene.

After more than four years since the advent of the Arab Spring, with all its turmoil, the movement has failed to produce its own intellectuals—a process that Edward Said had once commented on saying:

“There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces”.

The Arab revolt not only had no intellectual parents, but also failed to produce intellectual offspring that could articulate the goals of the movement within national contexts. The Arab world has not produced a Voltaire or a Sharitiae. Interestingly enough, the counter-revolution also failed to produce its own intellectuals; there are no Edmund Burkes either. But why?

The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, argued that intellectuals play a crucial role in the development of what he termed “hegemony” of one class over another. He argued that in order for one class to dominate, the consent of the other classes needs to be solicited. This can only be achieved through intellectuals who provide the ideological justification for the current order.

Thus, in a hegemonic society, where power is based on consent rather than coercion, the role of intellectuals is paramount. This idea was derived from a statement made by Marx:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class, which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas”.  

Consequently any movement or class that hopes to replace another as the ruling power needs its own intellectuals to lead the struggle in the realm of civil society, chipping away at the hegemony of the ruling class and its ideological superiority.

Examining the Arab world, especially the protest movements, it is clear that there has been a significant weakness in producing intellectuals, either before the eruption of the revolt or after. This can be attributed to a number of factors.

Weak capitalist development

The economic landscape of the Arab world is dominated by crony capitalism, and military controlled economies. The wielders of coercion are the same as the wielders of capital. As such, the Arab bourgeoisie is too weak and state dependent to oppose the current political order. Thus, as a class, it has neither the will nor the power to take over control of the state directly. As such, it has no incentive to produce its own intellectuals to oppose the current order. Instead, the Arab capitalist class supports the current order in the face of challenges from protest movements, even when the political and social foundations of this order are crumbling. 

Weak class-consciousness

This is a strong feature of the Arab protest movements. The protest movements, rather than cast themselves as representatives of a certain social group and appeal to their interests in opposition to other groups, have appealed to national sentiments, and cast themselves as a representative of the “nation”. This negates the idea of social conflict as the essence of the revolutionary process. Instead they have focused on the removal of few figureheads and reform of a collapsing system.

Thus, there is no need for the development of intellectual appeal for these different social groups, in order to form alliances against other social groups, nor is there a need to provide ideological justification for the quest to remove a particular social class from power. If the protest movements are not conscious of themselves, as representatives of one social class against another, then they will be unable to define their goals and instead remain becoming rejectionist movements; thus hindering the development of intellectuals that could provide an alternative vision.

A “post-modern” epoch

David Harvey, in his book “The Condition of Post Modernity” argues that the post-modern condition is characterised by the rejection of meta-emancipation, universal, enlightenment projects, and is rather focused on the immediate, the individual and the transitory.

This has been a strong feature of the Arab revolt, with its focus on political freedoms for the individual and its neglect of the broader economic and social emancipation of the lower classes. In other words, the focus has been more on greater political power and human rights, while the needs and the demands of the lower classes have been ignored.

This has hindered the development of a meta-narrative of emancipation, and has limited the nature of intellectual critique to the tactical; for example, criticising the current regime but the social condition that led to the establishment of this regime in the first place. Thus, the struggle becomes more against Mubarak as figurehead, rather than the military, its crony capitalist allies, and the social relations they represent.

No need for counter-revolution intellectuals

This can be attributed to the nature of the current Arab political order, which can be described as non-hegemonic. There is a reliance on severe coercion rather than consent, and Arab regimes are not attempting to build alliances across social groups. This means that there is no need to develop intellectual justification for the counter-revolution, since the focus is only on the core support base and the means of coercion are abundant and loyal. This can also be attributed to the weakness in intellectual challenge posed by opposition movements; there is no need to develop an ideological response by the current ruling classes.

The above is an analysis of the reasons for the weakness in Arab intellectual development in the cataclysm that the Arab world is facing. The aim is not simply to identify the causes, but to also use this analysis as a stepping-stone to understand the solution, since there is a dire need for intellectuals to take a leading role in the struggle for freedom in the Arab world.

The intellectual, at this stage of the struggle, needs to take the lead in de-constructing the ideological base of the current order. This can only take place if protest movements change their views of the struggle from one for individual emancipation, in the narrowest sense, to a struggle for social, political and economic emancipation that includes other social groups.

There should also be a change of perception of the struggle, to a social struggle against a defined social group, rather than against a “regime”. The struggle should be defined as a struggle against a social condition that produced this regime, and not the regime itself. This change in view will help produce intellectuals as well as political leaders that are up to the coming challenge. 

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