Reflections | From Tahrir to OWS: Resources for a Journey of Hope

Roger Bromley reflects on how the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, which arose out of very different circumstances and in very different places, have both challenged the individualism of neoliberalism by seeking to reclaim public spaces, demonstrating the power of assembly, and acting collectively.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, April 5, 2012 19:36 - 0 Comments

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When I first started teaching Cultural Studies in the 1970s, the main influence on our work was that of Raymond Williams, now seldom read or referred to in UK higher education. I have been re-reading him recently and at the end of his major work, Culture and Society, he said something which still resonates with me today:

‘There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future.’

The seeds of death, violence and disorder harnessed by neoliberal capitalism are still rooted in our consciousness as we, sometimes, feel powerless to resist and so carry on consuming the promises of being a winner. On the other hand, those ideas with the seeds of life in them were very much present in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

All governments are driven by the politics of fear. I say ‘government’ but this, as we know, is little more than a euphemism for the ways in which those in power organise the societies they control and exploit. What they fear most of all is any manifestations of the collective which is why they so readily embraced neoliberalism which aimed to restore individualism as the centre of meaning and identity for the majority of people.

In this context, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that those opposed to immigration readily invoke the ‘white working class’ as the primary victims of the migrant ‘invasion’. Yet the same people who sentimentally extol the virtues of this disadvantaged class also use such terms as ‘chav’ and ‘pramface’ to describe them in other contexts. They, or their earlier incarnations, were also the first to denounce the organised white working class as ‘the enemy within’ during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. A disorganised working class of discrete individuals is fine as it offers no challenge to the highly organised class in power. In a similar vein, much is talked about the break-up of community but whenever communities do take shape and combine to oppose the decisions or will of the powerful, or their brokers, the response is often campaigns of disinformation and, at worst, violence.

These thoughts have arisen as a result of thinking about events of the past year or so which have challenged power in different ways and in different locations. Obviously, the Arab Spring has captured the imaginations of those who dream that another world is possible, although so far only tiny steps have been taken in that direction, but what of other ‘springs’? The Occupy movement found echoes across 195 countries and, even if its first phase is now over, generated hope that people gathering together without leaders or prescriptive agendas might mark the first stages in a movement for change.

The media, of course, the representatives of the denizens of power, pointed out how Occupy was clear about what it was against but had no firm ideas as to solutions, as though to raise questions means that you already have the answers which, as we know, is precisely the model of understanding which is part of the problem: that every ‘either’ has an ‘or’, every ‘yes’ a ‘no’, the binaries which entrap us and prevent us from moving on to other ways of thinking, other ways of seeing.

Unlike the Arab Spring, Occupy did not overthrow any governments but maybe it has demonstrated by its presence that there are stories to be told other than those which dominate our everyday lives, that collective behaviour is positive, that mutuality can still exist, that a winner/loser ethic is not the only one, and that non-violence is a long-term engagement which, initially, is always responded to with violence – witness the police in New York and elsewhere, the police and bailiffs at St Paul’s Cathedral, the brutal reactions in Greece.

As has been pointed out, Occupy, UK Uncut, Anonymous, and Move your Money, are part of a continuum but is it too fanciful to extend this continuum to the Arab Spring, seeing these as its western manifestation? It is too soon to speculate. One thing, however, is clear that these events were not simply the result of activity on social networks.

It is comforting for those in power to attempt to recuperate the happenings of the past 15 months by describing them as organised by Facebook and Twitter as they are confident that, with the right kind of legislation and technology, these are networks they can ultimately control. This may be true but as these events were the result of people organising collectively and generating enormous amounts of cultural and creative energy, controlling the digital resources may not be enough, as a lot of other resources have been produced –ways of relating and communicating otherwise, alternative sets of emergent values, raised awareness and expectation, spaces of hope even.

As Marwan Bishara (author of The Invisible Arab) and many others have pointed out the Arab Revolution was a long time coming and the so-called ‘captive Arab Mind’ (an invention of the West) may never again be coerced so easily into compliance with oppressive regimes, submission and obedience, now that international visibility and voice have been established.

In his book, Empire of Disorder, Alain Joxe asks the question, ‘What political mediation remains available to express the principle of fraternity actively on the international level?’ and a couple of years ago the answer would probably have been, ‘precious little’. If we substitute the principle of association for that of fraternity, then we can begin to assess some of the real gains of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

Neoliberalism is predicated upon the privatisation of everything and has built real and metaphorical walls and barriers to evacuate the notion of the public from everyday life. SCAF, still very much in power in Egypt, built concrete walls to limit access to Tahrir Square; barricades were erected to keep the Wall Street protestors from the hub of wealth-making activity.

In the medieval period, the concept of the private was linked with deprivation, abandonment almost, and it is one of the ambitions of neoliberalism to ensure that the already deprived (the 99%) are denied any rights to public expression. To reclaim public spaces, to work towards the idea of the consensual in decision-making, and to insist upon the good of association and of the power of assembly are all features of both movements which underline their commitment to overcoming the isolation of individualism and an emphasis upon collectivity.

Given the very different scale of violence involved, with the extensive loss of life in the Arab world, and the different histories and contexts of struggle, it would be crass to make simple comparisons between Occupy and the Arab Spring but it is the ordered, strategic, non-violent ways in which both movements confronted the deliberate chaos of disorder which it is important to stress.

Power can almost always handle violence – it is the oxygen of the arms industry after all – but is frightened by non-violence and assemblies of masses of people; the more we are seen to be ‘bowling alone’, the more secure neoliberal hegemony becomes. Whether a multi-party democracy under the sovereignty of corporations and the market or a one-party dictatorship under the sovereignty of the market and corporations, both forms of governance fear non-violence as it challenges the very principle of the monopoly of violence upon which their power is founded and without which, they would claim, society would descend into chaos.

“Poetry”, Auden said, “makes nothing happen” but maybe all those novels, poems, plays, films, and blogs that preceded and have been produced during these seasons of change might just constitute part of what Raymond Williams called many years ago, the ‘resources for a journey of hope.’ I will return to these in future columns.

The initial stages of making possible the common recognition of the seeds of life sown in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement have perhaps just begun. The seeds of death still run deep. As the tents are cleared and the Egyptians, Yemenis and Tunisians have voted, those in power must hope that the journey of hope is now abandoned. What we need to give notice of is that, far from being over, we have only just bought the tickets.

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Roger Bromley

Roger Bromley is an academic and author who has published widely on a range of topics and, in recent years, has written mainly on postcolonial culture and diaspora, refugee and asylum issues, particularly in relation to cinematic representations, and on post-conflict cultures. He has worked in UK higher education for 44 years until his retirement in 2010. Currently, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, Visiting Professor in the Centre for Transnational Writing and Research at Lancaster University, and Associate Fellow in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa.

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