Much is made, in both the media and in the halls of academia, of the so-called “Arab Spring.” As usual, most of it is self-congratulatory hot air. Let us review.
The nations in which the Arab Spring has occurred have for decades stood in a fake opposition to the West, defined here as those states in which consumer capitalism is most highly developed. While in the West, the population has been kept under control by the latex paradise of consumer goods, the nations of the "Arab Spring," like the USSR, Maoist China, and countless miniature hellscapes run by various autocrats, have been traditionally unable to offer such indulgences to the fearful, offering instead only the comfort of sheer ideology – identification with a Leader or a religion, for instance. These states have found their role to play in the worldwide economic shit parade, usually in flipping the bird from the sidewalk while the rich kids sneer at them from the floats, each finding its own legitimacy in the false choice represented by the other. Internally, the stunted development of these economies means the state must ultimately rely on brute force to keep their populations in line. As the economy of the “First World” expands, pushing with irresistible force against the thin, porous walls on its boundaries, such “Third World” nations must either play ball with the First or shrivel up in the cold wind of total exclusion. Those that choose the former, such as Mubarak’s Egypt, find security as a client state for more powerful economies, doing their dirty work and generally serving as a bogeyman, while those of less strategic geopolitical importance are made to bed down with organizations like the IMF, that Don Fanucci of the global economy. For those that choose that latter, such as Gaddafi’s Libya, it is only a matter of time before their own backwardness transforms the hallucinatory image of economic prosperity and "freedoms" of the West into the ultimate commodity for a worn down population - revolution. Except it’s not revolution, not really, but its consumable image, and one that stirs up the passion for all the others.
As for us, when those in the news media, those carnival barkers for the powerful, start yapping their fool heads off about the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East, this alone should raise the suspicion of any thinking person. Like an open carbuncle on the ass of a well-dressed gentleman, the question nags: what are they fighting for, exactly?
We all should unconditionally support a true, radical emancipatory spirit where we see it, but it is precisely the desire to see it where it doesn’t exist that has led popular movements down the garden path time and again, as the history of the Twentieth Century illustrates. A revolution, if this is how we are to consider these events, fails as soon as it squanders its moment by agreeing to terms with the society it is attempting to dismantle. In essence, the Arab movement is a mass demand for reforms, which may or may not lead to modest improvements in the conditions of everyday life – but its ridiculous to claim there is a radical emancipatory spirit at their core. Indeed, it is entirely silly, not to mention narcissistic, to laud such events as revolutions if their desired outcome is supposedly to have a society more like “ours” – though, let’s face it, this may be the source of Western enthusiasm for the Arab Spring in the first place… and you don’t need to get too close to catch a whiff of the cow pie. (We only really respect the “difference” if the Other is just like us.)
Thus far, this has been the case in Egypt. And the general consensus is that the best-case scenario in that once-great civilization will be the establishment of the kind of bourgeois-liberal democracy, gussied up in empty rhetoric of “multicultural pluralism,” which in the West is crumbling so quickly under the crushing weight of economic pragmatism that it can be had dirt-cheap. Sure, basic conditions of existence are better in, say, the US than Mubarak’s Egypt, but we cannot understand a revolutionary tide in terms of what is preferable over what is desirable. Having yet to assert itself incisively, meaning a total refusal of compromise with existing authority, and without any sign of that happening in the near future, the movement of Tahrir Square has thus far been brought back under the sway the state, which endured by shedding Mubarak, remaining otherwise intact. In point of fact, has reinforced its power by incorporating the demand for “democratic reforms,” but on its own terms. Like BP ousting Tony Hayward after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the Egyptian state solved its image problem by giving itself a makeover.
The situation in Libya is somewhat different, of course, but not fundamentally. Whatever new government takes control in Tripoli will face the same choice: submit or suffer, either to the Euro-American hegemon – or, should the reining champ go down, whatever country comes closest to perfecting the Holy Alliance between state and economic power, and at this point the smart money is on China.
These “revolutions” do not take place in a vacuum: they are outbursts within the hierarchically structured world of sanctified power-through-capital. Although currently in crisis where it has traditionally been the strongest, it is not going anywhere into the foreseeable future. Whatever governments rise to power will emerge from their revolutionary punch-drunkenness into the same old system of capital that has built the world in its image and which, as class societies based on wage labor, are by necessity predicated on domination – and it is this world into which these new states will be integrated. Herein lies the unity between these two societies, one in revolt and in the other in crisis: both are struggling to find better ways of operating the machinery of capital. No one seriously sees in the Arab Spring a refusal of the domination and degradation of life under the integrated state-economy that has ordered the globe – rather, they seek to improve its management on the local level, to participate more “equitably,” which is to say, to get a little more back for their trouble. In this sense, it is simply a quest for modernization of an old system that faces no serious challenges. What they’re fighting for, and what they will in fact be lucky to receive considering the realistic alternatives, is a kinder, gentler form of domination – a velvet glove on the iron fist.
Meanwhile, the postmodern-liberal academics can pat themselves on the back that the poor oppressed people of whatever country they didn’t care about until a couple of months ago rose up to overthrow their governments in order to establish the system they’ve been implicitly defending. Secretly satisfied that they were on the right side of the history they had made careers questioning the existence of, the liberal bourgeois democracy they’ve legitimized by turning critical theory against itself has apparently finally won out.
As China perfects the kind of authoritarian consumerism that will be the result in the United States and Europe of the ongoing “financial crisis,” the nations of the Arab Spring are indeed poised to reclaim their subservient role in this brave old world.