The relationship between the North African and Middle-Eastern uprisings and the problems of Europe is highly symbiotic, although rarely flagged up by much of the media on the conservative right and liberal left. Whilst they have tried to diffuse the anger and it’s repercussions by portraying the insurrections as part of a cultural “quest for democracy”, the Arab Spring is, quite plainly, the result of the economic forces of the global downturn and the financial crisis that precipitated it. Faced with already high graduate unemployment and rocketing food prices, the collapse of their export economies were the straw that broke the working-classes back in North Africa– the ensuing crisis of legitimacy, industrial actions and massive street violence (also completely downplayed by the European media) may have then been painted as a political crisis, but they were only the symptoms of a financial crisis with which working people had been lumbered, and could no longer sustain.
It’s perhaps understandable why the west has sought to play down the economic and class nature of the uprisings. It may well seem crass for young westerners to compare, for example, the student and EMA protests of last year with the oppression faced by Egyptian, Bahrainian and Libyan youths and rebels, but the fundamental issues that cause the discontent have similar roots and manifestations– very high graduate unemployment, a rising cost in living (food and, in Europe, rent) and collapsing legitimacy of traditional political structures, both of those in office and opposition- in short, a crisis of trust in the ideology of a social contract. For those involved to start drawing international and class comparisons and links, and for the street protests and direct actions to be generalised across Europe, would not suit the established Western democracies at all well. It’s against this attempt to distance these shared struggles that workers, demonstrators and anti-austerity activists are fighting, because the inevitable realisation would be made, sooner or later, that the problems of each country are not due to, for example, an overbureaucratic welfare state or mismanagement by a particular tyrant, but due to international issues of capital.
These are, indeed, international issues of class vs capital. But what has also been fascinating is the way certain tropes, tactics and symbols of these protests have spread across the continents memetically, not because of any specific tactical or political efficacy relevant to each individual location, but as an only semi-conscious, infectious “linking” of different “struggles”. As an example, the image of Tahrir Square has now become a fundamental core feature linking many of these movements. When tens of thousands of Egyptians headed for the Square on the days following their “day of rage” against the government, they did so for practical reasons relevant to their very specific social and geographic conditions– the need to coalesce for self-defence reasons, to gain a certain communal courage, to keep out in the open and in the eye of the international media, expecting a brutal repression from the Egyptian state security services. But the idea of Tahrir– a central encampment, held for as long as possible, acting as a hub for the worlds media, has since become more than a practical development. It has become a meme of the social movements.
To give a brief overview, memetics is a theory of how information and ideas transfer within and between social contexts. Originally posited by Richard Dawkins in his book “A Selfish Gene”, the theory contends that ideas pass through populations in much the same way as genes do, adapting and evolving according to the conditions they inhabit, with versatile and strong ideas thriving and spreading whilst ossified and unsubstantial ones die of, or perhaps only thrive within a very specific environment and are able to spread outside that environment. Dawkins used the analogy of genetic mutation to explain his basic outline of a theory of ideas, but it remained very much a creative analogy.
With the development of sophisticated communicative technologies, not least the internet, the idea of memetics soon found a fertile breeding ground itself. A meme is no longer a theory of ideas, but an object in itself. There’s much, much more to be said on this than could possibly be included in this article, but today meme can be a self-aware, self-referencing idea, joke or image that finds resonance within a culture or cultures online and in real life, and spreads, changing constantly on it’s journey. It’s even possible for the meme to become a proverbial dustmans broom, with signifiers and content changing until it is almost totally empty of it’s original form, but retains enough generalised understanding to be able to function, for the idea or joke to continue. And this is an important point– a meme doesn’t have to resonate in exactly the same way with all participants to take off. A single idea or image can be read and reflected on by many different audiences.
We can think of the internet as a bank of ideas, and the really successful meme occurs when one of those ideas chimes massively with the population it encounters, summing up a shared or individual experience or viewpoint to the extent that users wish to perpetuate it as somehow representative of their position, often amending it slightly on it’s way. The successful meme is not necessarily new, incisive, funny or holding a powerful critique. It is, however, popular and democratic. This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for the radical democratic possibilities of the self-aware meme. It has proved hard to fabricate memes in an authentic sense if there is not a critical mass within the population for whom the meme carries significant cultural resonance. The infectious symbolism of a “Tahrir Square” passed throughout North Africa in the spring, with the combination a central meeting point and a “day of rage” (organised with the help of Facebook) finding common popular support across the gulf states. So what was a useful tactic for the residents of Cairo has now become a symbolic action, a meme that has found resonance because, from the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain in February to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid this week, the symbol seems to unite the demonstrators to their common grievances.
It’s very difficult, writing from the UK, to fully understand the cultural reasons the meme of the “Square-as-hub”, with pitched tents, net hubs and public discussions has taken off as such a central focus of these protests. Undoubtabley, there’s the obvious reasons of mass-solidarity– street protests have always been a major tool in the arsenal of the working-classes. But these occupations are not identical to street-protests of the past. It’s possible that part of the reason they have proved so infectious is that many of these protests have been organised outside of the pre-existing political frameworks of extant parties or trade unions. The lack of a centralised organisational hierarchy has been a key feature of many of these demonstrations- instead, multiple groups and individuals have taken part in organising collaboratively. It’s not that unions or parties haven’t been involved, but that the protests have not been explicitly called by them, for example. As these protests are new expressions of a joining together and a multiplicity of struggles and concerns, there are constant new conversations, arguments, planning meetings and debates to be had- and the central location of the Square has often been utilised for this purpose. This place of free debate has, no doubt, been one of the reasons the Square has found such resonance as a tactic in the authoritarian regimes it emerged from.
Within the West the idea has transfigured itself. There are no shortage of opinions, and means to express them, within Madrid, for example. Instead, the Square has come to symbolise different values and desires. The occupation of space in capitalist democracies for a non-commercial, non-regulated activity holds it’s own allure, and carries it’s own political message, as does the collective aspects of the political action in an environment where to act politically has being an increasingly individualistic, isolated act. Perhaps these are some of the reasons that the tented Square has become a key trope of dissent, alongside the decentralised nature of protests, the distrust of centralism and party politics and the nominally non-hierarchical organising methods that have characterised popular uprisings and protests this year.
In Britain the Trotskyist political party the SWP tried to emulate this meme in a painfully clumsy way, with calls to turn “Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square” after the huge Trade Unions march on March 26th. Such a plan was almost bound to fail; the meme had passed through the Middle East based upon certain shared grievances and values, not least those of a progressive, networked, over-educated and under-employed graduate class. The “Trafalgar to Tahrir” venture completely missed this fundamental aspect of the Arab Spring, and instead pitched itself instead with the strong whiff of an middle-eastern solidarity camp lumped in with pretty blunt anti-Tory rhetoric, attaching itself to long established ideas of anti-imperialism and “fuck the Tories” rather than relating to the everyday problems of those participating- rent, pay, life ambitions, personal relationships, hours and conditions. Those organisational practices that gave birth to the Tunisian and Egyptian movements have their analogues in Britain, but they are anathema to those of the authoritarian democratic centralism practiced within the SWP.
It failed because it attempted to operate upon a level of kitsch, a recuperation of the aesthetics of Tahrir Square, rather than understanding and acknowledging the resonances that reflect participants lives and turn something genuinely “viral” or memetic. In the end the Metropolitan Police quickly, effectively and brutally cleared the Square late in the evening with a minimum of coverage, because this quintessential “forced meme” had failed to touch the imagination. This highlights something that is core to a meme’s very make-up- it is not a subjective expression, a singular vocalisation of a popular idea. Rather it is a communal creation that changes and develops as it passes across the internet, mutating in various networks. It is a dialogue that works towards a collective, nuanced position as an expression of the general intellect, and as such those who participate in it’s transference, in even the smallest manner, do so out of a feeling of collective ownership of the idea. People can distinguish between this real collectivity and an artificial collectivity in a total natural way, almost intuitively, and as such the Trafalgar to Tahrir “meme” failed to resonate; indeed, it indicted itself as the top-down image-manipulation it claimed to oppose.
Of course, the focus on the square as a symbolic site, either for a “coming together” of an ignored North-African working-class with a wealth of grievances, or, as in Spain, holding specifically anti-capitalist demands, also highlights it’s limitations. For example, both literally and metaphorically, in the non-hierarchical, decentralized “Public Square” it is only the loudest, most imposing voices that can make themselves heard. This “tyranny of structurelessness”, of implicit leadership by the charismatic, manipulative and unaccountable, is a long way from democratic control of power. The inflation of it’s symbolic value makes these attitudes and behaviours much harder to tackle, because questioning them becomes lumped in with questioning the symbol which enables them.
The tactic also becomes problematic when the form of the protest, the driving force of the idea of “the Square” starts to become it’s content; when “taking the space” replaces any discussion of what is being attempted, what aims are and what processes are fit to achieve those aims. We’ve already seen a prime-example of this in Britain last year, where the tactics and processes of campus occupation and “consensus decision-making” became aims and achievements in themselves for much of the so-called “student movement”. A self-congratulatory atmosphere ensued, with the very simple task of making decisions equitably becoming seen as a “victory” against the government rather than a basic component of non-coercive human interaction. This is a key component in the life of a meme– the content is emptied out of the meme until all that remains is a self-reflexive closed network, relevant only to those who already understand, incapable of communicating new ideas or pushing for change.
There’s no doubt the occupation of the Square provides a powerful and, in states with very repressive media structures, empowering spectacle, but it’s ability to deal a hammer-blow to the state are limited. In the final instance, the state will take any measure, no matter how repressive and no matter how ugly, to preserve it’s power structures. In Egypt this meant kicking out it’s venerable dictator– satiating the appetite of western powers and quelling the legitimate voices on the street, but still leaving the fundamental structures in tact. Once the publicity focus of the square had been effectively neutralised, it was only a matter of time before the old practices of state control slipped back in to place. Unable to hold any real leverage beyond the symbolic, workers in Egypt remain fundamentally powerless whilst the political class continue their machinations unabated. In Libya, it has mean a much more bloody and brutal defence of the tyrant, without whom the State would be more likely to crumble. In Spain, we are yet to see, but Puerta Del Sol can only be held for so long, whether it’s police, food or work that forces the occupants to leave. Unlike being faced with industrial action, where the working-class assert their power against the state and capital, occupation on a symbolic level can never force the hand of capital. The Square-as-meme remains a useful communicative tool to draw links between the shared causes of struggles, but it’s essentially only through taking actions that interfere with the flow of capital, with trade and with exploitation, that can begin the transformations of these struggles from protests of grievances into the beginnings of political and social revolutions.
This article is available in French translation here, with many thanks to the translator.