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Towards a more convivial left?

One must ask: who will define what is ‘important’ and what is ‘urgent’ in any particular context?

Sari Hanafi
5 January 2020
Lebanon nationwide protests in front of burning tyres in Khaldeh, south of Lebanon, Nov. 13, 2019.
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unreguser/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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Living in a revolutionary moment in the Arab world and thereby witnessing history unfold, I often wonder why some left-wing forces have viewed the "revolution" (against authoritarianism) and "resistance" (against imperialism) as opposing, and even contradictory, concepts rather than complementary.

This question does not only concern the Arab region. Participating in the Latin American Sociological Association (ALAS) conference in Lima (Peru) in December, I saw similarities between the pathologies of the Arab left and their colleagues in Latin America.

The current neoliberal order has imposed great changes on the human condition (largely as a result of austerity, increased income inequality, reduced social services). In light of these changes, how should we understand the demands of youth in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Hong Kong, Chile and France, especially in the context of their class struggles and other struggles for national/ethnic identity?

How should we understand the demands of youth in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Hong Kong, Chile and France?

The intersectionality approach has the merit of pointing out classical Marxism’s limitations in so far as some interpret Marxism myopically, focusing on economic/social class to the exclusion of other identities. Intersectionality calls for combining the contradictions which emerge from different problems, and dealing with them situationally, based on their temporal-spatial contexts. There are, however, shortcomings to this approach too, as we shall see.

Principal and secondary contradictions

Some leftists adopt the approach of Mao Zedong in “On Contradiction”, which establishes a strong hierarchy between a ‘principal’ contradiction and a ‘secondary’ one. The struggle against imperialism, for example, represents the ‘principal’ contradiction of imperialist vs. colonial (struggle of opposite tendencies), as opposed to the ‘secondary’ contradiction of the bourgeoisie vs. proletariat. When imperialism launches a war of aggression against a country, all its various social classes can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. Although the principal and secondary contradiction can shift positions, many leftists conceive these contradictions in terms of a sort of grand periodization, determining the nature of struggle: struggle against imperialism, struggle against capitalism, or struggle against dictatorship. These eras dictate the strategy, determining where energy should be put.

Important vs urgent contradictions

Together with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, we think it is time to move this dichotomy into a more creative and dynamic one: by arguing that some issues are important while others are urgent. If the conflict with the colonial practices of Israel is important, as it is for social justice, citizenship, gender equality and respect for human rights, yet in a specific moment some of these claims are urgent. What today is urgent for one city is only important in a different place. Such a dynamic thought would liberate us from this grand periodization that blinds us to everyday societal problems, and preempts us from engaging with an extraordinary range and variety of social movements.

Such a dynamic thought would liberate us from this grand periodization that blinds us to everyday societal problems.

In Lebanon, in this revolutionary moment, there is a heated debate between two camps. The first one believes that the current youth uprising, calling for toppling the sectarian political regime and replacing corrupted politicians is simply a secondary contradiction that would harm the principal contradiction, that is, the current struggle against imperialism in the region, especially, the one dating from 1948, when Israel was created and 900,000 Palestinians expelled. The second camp, which I belong to, thinks that the demands of the uprising are urgent, while the ‘resistance’ to imperialism and Israeli colonial practices is simply important at this moment in Lebanon. In the same vein, the ‘resisting imperialism’ camp allies itself with the Syrian regime (ignoring its brutalizing, authoritarian nature and systematic deployment of torture) merely because this regime has been supportive of the Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah). Likewise, the Lebanese people must endure the corruption of the resistance camp, or at least that of their allies, in the name of the main contradiction with imperialism.

I found the debate in Latin America followed much the same lines. The extraordinary congress of the Latin America Sociological Association (ALAS) held in December in Lima and attended by 3,300 participants was one of the sites of such a debate, regarding specifically Venezuela and Bolivia. Some (rightly) argue that one needs to denounce the military coup in Bolivia, but also denounce Juan Evo Morales, who previously acted against the Constitution (which does not allow more than one re-election). This topic was confirmed by a referendum called by the former government itself. Along the same lines, they argue one should denounce the personal power monopoly of President Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela and raise the same question regarding both Bolivia and Venezuela: why did the two leaders, Morales and Maduro, not properly institutionalize their political parties in a way that other leaders emerged? Why are there no second leaders in many leftist (but not only leftist) political parties, that can run for office at the end of the original leader’s term? The same question can be asked in relation to other "progressive" regimes, such as those in Syria and Yemen, along with other republican regimes that have paved the way for the succession to power of their sons. Is there no possibility of resistance under democratic regimes?

So, the main problem is not in theorizing what the two main and secondary contradictions are, but rather dealing with the mechanisms of the defunct type of authority that Ibn Khaldun wrote about, and after him Max Weber, that relies on charisma or tribal/familial allegiances (Asabiyya), rather than legal legitimacy (i.e. the rotation of power through election, respecting basic rights, freedom and citizenship).

Why does the "resistance" camp want to consider that the main contradiction to be addressed leads to the liberation of Jerusalem, while ending the sectarian political system, giving Lebanese woman the right to grant her nationality to her children, or giving the Palestinian refugees basic rights, such as the right to work and ownership, are secondary contradictions that should simply be postponed?

All of these contradictions are important, but what is urgent among them today is not necessarily the same as yesterday, and what is urgent here may be no more than just ‘important’ there. The Arab peoples cannot be held hostage to the Arab-Israeli conflict, construed as the main conflict for two thirds of a century, while tyranny and brutalizing regimes are always considered secondary.[1]

The Arab peoples cannot be held hostage to the Arab-Israeli conflict, construed as the main conflict for two thirds of a century, while tyranny and brutalizing regimes are always considered secondary.

Moreover, this Maoist approach can generate polar, essentializing binaries such as patriot/traitor, resister/foreign agent, patriot/imperialist, western/eastern, secular/Islamic, modernity/tradition, rational/irrational, progressive/conservative, that are so divisive in producing different elite formations, and deep rifts within each society. Such modes of thought categorize the actors in any conflict not as simple adversaries on specific issues (opponent/proponent) but, as Carl Schmitt would have put it, as foes/friends trapped in an eternal enmity/friendship.

As someone who has been working for a long time on Palestinian refugee issues, I was struck by the sight of a banner held aloft by a demonstrator in Shatila camp in 2005: "the right to return, but we want to live." That is, those who chose that banner understood that they could not be “anesthetized” with regard to their socio-economic rights in the name of the right of return. Contrary to the political commissars and the right-wing political parties in Lebanon, who seek to eliminate these rights, Palestinian refugees see that all these rights, the former and the latter, are important. However, their socio-economic rights are urgent today. The refugees behind such a banner cannot be criticized for confusing the main and the secondary contradictions. What is urgent today in the Shatila camp is different from what is urgent in the Gaza Strip, where the urgent struggle is to end the Israeli occupation.

I was struck by the sight of a banner held aloft by a demonstrator in Shatila camp in 2005: "the right to return, but we want to live."

How to determine what is "important" and what is "urgent"?

Finally, one must ask: who will define what is ‘important’ and what is ‘urgent’ in a particular context? This can only be determined through the sharing and exchange of significant critical and moral reflections. If scientific research is important for grounding critical thinking, the major issue at stake is the construction of otherness: not only who is the adversary but also how do I care about the Other. Here serious ethical discussion could tame the pursuit of our own self-interest. This is the sense of Paul Ricoeur’s aphorism:  “the aim of living the good life with and for others in just institutions”, ie. ethics of love, hospitality, care and solicitude with and for others in the framework of institution which ensure and reinforce social justice and democracy. This is in line with what Alain Caillé, Frédéric Vandenberghe and many other anti-utilitarian scholars have proposed in their manifesto on ‘convivialism’ as the successor to the secular ideologies of communism, socialism, and anarchism – ideologies that often embody the grand periodization that I criticized at the beginning of this article.

Transgressing legalistic once-and-for-all labels such “enemy”, “traitor,” or “infidel”, will set the stage for a dialogue in the public sphere capable of reaching what John Rawls calls “Overlapping Consensus,” even if this consists simply in accepting our differences from others (ie. The sense of the pluralist age). This ethical discussion would be able to identify how the intersectionality approach has also failed us at least partially. While this approach might have been very useful in its theorization of the combination of the diversity of contradictions, in practice, it has failed to undertake the process of expanding the base of consensus in society. Instead of bringing together several victims, it has focused instead on the "Ultimate Victim", giving it a first moral prioritization in any analysis.

Thinking of the debate in the Arab world, the "ultimate victim" and the "ultimate enemy" determines only who is a patriot/authentic or a foreign agent and traitor. But the volatility of nation-state boundaries in the era of globalization makes the idea of ​loyalty to society or culture other than the local one, ​pathological. The human yearning for humanity is one of the sources of the multiple allegiances that become the rule and not at all the exception, particularly when both state and society are animated by brutalizing authoritarian forces.

  1. Of course except for the Bahrain revolution! As the “resistance” camp perceived it as revolution of the Shia majority against the Sunni minority.

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