What makes a person a rebel? What drove millions in the Arab World to defy their oppressive states and face death, time and time again? Are they all rebels? Or were they simply swept up in a historical moment, driven by a small band of 'rebels'? And finally, after one becomes a 'rebel', can this sense of rebellion ever be replaced by a sense of normality, where one accepts the new status quo?
All of these questions have haunted me since the outbreak of the Arab Revolutions, especially as I struggle with my own sense of rebellion while witnessing my friends shift to acceptance of the status quo, even becoming its staunch defenders. In essence, I am trying to understand the impact of the Arab revolutions on my own social surroundings.
In my opinion, a 'rebel' is a person who rejects the social constructs with which he/she is presented, in essence, rejecting the current distribution of societal power, and most importantly, the ideological justification for this distribution of power. In other words, a person who has achieved a different 'state of consciousness' which contradicts the 'consciousness of the masses'.
In essence, the 'truth' that is propagated as the most acceptable version of history, used to justify the past, is rejected by this individual as either mistaken, or in more extreme cases, as deliberately falsified. This means, that the 'rebel' at least feels that he or she has escaped from the hegemonic domination of the ruling classes and is creating his/her own 'anti-hegemonic narrative'. This, of course, as often as not, places this person in direct confrontation with the state apparatus, in both advanced democratic societies and oppressive regimes. The naming and process of repression might vary. However, the essence of the process is the same. The fate of someone like Edward Snowden attests to this.
This definition of 'rebel' has an underlying assumption that political power is based on two pillars, coercion, in the classical physical sense of the word, and consent which is based on the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes - a conception of political power worked on by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, and to be found in his Prison Notebooks. Based on this conception, the 'rebel' who somehow escapes from the ideological domination of the ruling classes is often confronted with outright coercion by the state, or repressed by the organs of civil society, in the wider sense of the word. The case of Norman Finkelstein, the Jewish anti-Zionist professor, who was denied tenure largely because of his political activism, attests to this.
The 'rebel' may, if he or she is lucky, become an agent of change in the body of the dominant political order, attempting to de-construct it through attacks on its ideological base, attempting to replace it with another order based on a “counter-hegemonic” consciousness that has been developing in that society. In essence, he/she is paving the way for a “revolution”, even though he/she might not be participating directly in its events. A clear example is Ali Shariati who paved the way for the Islamic Revolution, and is considered to be its ideological father, even though he passed away before it erupted.
What makes a 'rebel'? Does the 'rebel' make the 'revolution', or does the 'revolution' make the 'rebel'? This, I argue is a complicated process, where both the 'rebel' makes the revolution and the revolution, or the narratives of the revolution, make the 'rebel'. From my own experience, the causes of my own rebellion lay in the eruption of the revolution at large. Although I had sufficient reasons for discontent, I was only visited by a 'counter-hegemonic consciousness' through a series of rebellious and revolutionary acts that, interestingly enough, were conducted by others.
In other words, my passive status was sufficiently aroused by this spirit of rebellion, which was based on the sacrifices and struggles of others. Thus, one could argue that it is through a dialectical process of struggle that this sense of rebellion becomes ignited, in a positively enforcing loop that makes rebellion contagious. On the other hand, there are those who pave the way, and create this rebellion, the fathers of revolution, while others are the sons of this revolution, carrying it forward. These pioneers also take inspiration from others who preceded them, usually from past moments of rebellion.
What are the social origins of this 'rebel'? Does he/she belong to the downtrodden masses? Surprisingly, the answer to this question, I would argue, is no. The 'rebel' usually belongs to a disenfranchised elite, an elite that craves a larger portion of societal power and aims to recreate society in its own image. The masses hitherto have usually been led towards rebellion by an elite group that capitalises on popular grievances and is able to oppose the state. This, unfortunately, has tended to mean that once the 'rebel' has achieved his goal of taking over the state, he aims at directing the tide of the revolution to achieve the goals of his social group, which naturally enough involves the repression of the aspirations of the masses, following the Orwellian dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure”. The word 'elite' here does not necessarily only refer to economic elites: it is used in the broader sense to refer to leaders of certain social classes, or social groups, for example labour aristocracies.
Like any other human condition, there is a spectrum of rebellion, where one can theoretically oscillate from one side to another. There are those who participate in a certain historical moment, and then revert to the protection of the new status quo, and there are others who seem to go through what can be called 'perpetual rebellion', who appear to be never satisfied. The clearest historical example is Che Guevara who seems to have had the compulsion to globalise his struggle rather than participate in the benefits of the, then, new order established in Cuba. These 'pure rebels' seem to be in a process of perpetual revolution, not only against the current political order, but against any set of established ideas that they are compelled to attack and deconstruct. These 'rebels' are destined to live restless lives, because their desired utopia always seems close at hand but at the same time far away. Their rebellion is, to a large extent, a rebellion against themselves, or to be more accurate, a rebellion against their old belief system. Those who fall into this extremity of rebellion have what can be called a “Jacobin spirit”, a desire to push the revolution beyond its limits.
This kind of 'rebel' is destined to live a solitary life. With the rejection of current political and social orders, and not subjected to direct state repression, he/she is oppressed by other members of society who are still under the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes, in effect suffering from what I call 'decentralised repression'. This sense of alienation is only alleviated in those rare historical moments when the tide of revolution seems to sweep through society like a tidal wave or a volcanic eruption. However, once this wave has passed, and those who are less 'rebellious' start to consolidate their gains, the struggle between the various elements of the revolutionary left begins, the sense of unity evaporates, and the revolution commences to eat its own children.