Monday, February 21, 2011

Something is happening here ... and it is not entirely material.

There is a line that keeps coming to mind for me from an insightful Washington Post oped by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley published the day the dictator Mubarak resigned in Egypt.

The grievance Arab peoples feel is not principally material ...

That rings true, not only for Egypt and Tunisia, but for Bahrain, for Algeria, maybe even for Libya (what do any of us know about Libya?).

Sure -- in these countries, there has been repression, there is economic inequality, there are vast numbers of young people with no future prospects, there are rising food prices. But something more animates these uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East; there's a yearning for a more honest national life, a hopeful desire to make their countries into places in which citizens can feel ownership and pride. As Malley and Agha put it:

Arab states suffer from a curse more debilitating than poverty or autocracy. They have become counterfeit, perceived by their own people as alien, pursuing policies hatched from afar. One cannot fully comprehend the actions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians and others without considering this deep-seated feeling that they have not been allowed to be themselves, that they have been robbed of their identities.Taking to the streets is not a mere act of protest. It is an act of self-determination.

Everything in my life experience (I am after all a product of the hopeful 1960s) tells me that insurrections happen when material and immaterial spurs to revolt coincide. That such revolts happen doesn't mean that they win, but it takes both factors to create an uprising that presents a vital challenge to the powers-that-be.
All this is the context in which I am trying to understand the protests now rocking Britain against the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government's attack on the welfare state.

These started among students. The Tories brought in (and passed) a downright diabolic plan to enforce market discipline on universities. They eliminated government support for educational departments they thought failed the test of usefulness to financial capital -- such luxuries as the social sciences, English literature, and the arts -- while funding "useful" subjects like engineering and mathematics. They also cut grants to help poorer students. Oh, but they had a plan for continuing to fund higher education. They'd make loans available if any student wanted to take them out that could be used to pay for the disciplines whose funding had been eliminated. Sure, you can study poetry in an English university, if enough students want to mortgage their future to repay the government to support a department of literature.

Higher education is defined as an investment made by students to enhance their employment prospects in a corporate world (while corporations start to take over and run universities for a profit). The student’s choice is dressed up as freedom backed by government-secured loans. But they are obliged to pay to enter what many understandably feel to be a choiceless world.

Anthony Barnett

A broad coalition was so enraged by these measures they stormed Parliament during the vote in December and torched the Tories' party office. They couldn't stop the government from passing its plan -- but they understood that next up was privatizing the National Health Service through strategic cuts that would kill it over time.

And so a creative resistance has been coming into being in Britain. Innovative flash mob eruptions have become the order of the day. And Open Democracy is promoting a downloadable book about the new forms of protest and new visions for a society where all past forms of political engagement -- the parties, the media, the left sects -- seem moribund. Again, Anthony Barnett from the foreword:

A new movement? Round up the usual gatekeepers! Quite an alliance of forces are darkly jealous of its potential energy and fresh celebrity -- stretching from News International through the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and goodness knows how many NGOs and bloggers. The gatekeepers even include those on the far-left who helped it burst into existence but want to oversee it for themselves. But this baby, as the readers of this collection can see, is not so inarticulate or shapeless. Instead, there is a conscious sense of originality thanks to the power of the modern forces that have propelled its birth. These give credibility to its double wager of defiance: that what the state, the government, and the corporate media offer to the country and especially its young as our fate is unacceptable, and that the claim which accompanies it, that there is no viable alternative, is a lie. ...

Of course there is evidence of idiocy, over-optimism and simplification as well as the usual drawbacks of student politics. But the wider anti-cuts protests that began in late 2010 are not just about fees, and reached well beyond students -- thousands across the country who are not in higher education are helping to create it. Exceptional economic, social and technological transformations are underway. Will the budding movement have the energy, audacity, persistence, imagination and intelligence to make the best of these changes? ....

This movement is now planning a mass assemblage on March 26 -- though the adherence of the trade unions and the Labour Party to this demonstration raise the specter that it will the kind of broad-based, unfocussed fizzle we saw in the U.S. last fall with One Nation Working Together. Then again, maybe the creative energy Anthony Barnett celebrates will break through. Certainly some of the available propaganda logos are fun.

Just because they speak English across the Atlantic doesn't mean I know much about the ebb and flow of their politics either.

And then we have the current unrest in Madison, Wisconsin stimulated by a Tea Party governor's attempt to outlaw effective unions for public employees. Can a U.S. movement find that balance of material and immaterial factors that make an uprising a true challenge? Our labor movement has largely lost touch with the culture of class solidarity which serves working people as the immaterial glue when the going gets tough. Can we find it again?
I'm with that great '60s band, Buffalo Springfield:

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear ...

Lead photo from Cairo, via Digby.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

We the people have the power to change the direction our country is going if we but use it.

I think it's time for peaceful protests throughout the land.

I am sick of hearing John Boehner and his Republican band claim the people want what they are doing. It's time to show them that they are wrong.

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