The Power of the Multitude!

The people of the Middle East are writing history.

By Lieven De Cauter, February 4, 2021

Read also: Egypt back against the wall. A tyrant embraces anarchy (February 2, 2021)

Obama’s chance. Can political philosophy help to understand the Egyptian uprising? (January 31, 2011)

 

A spectre is roaming the Middle East: the spectre of the multitude. The beauty and in a sense the world historical importance of this Jasmine Revolution (or whatever it will be called in the annals of humanity) is that it had no leadership. It might also prove its fatal weakness, but that does not contradict its beauty and importance. It was the people rising up. Of course youngsters and schooled people – doctors, engineers, etc  took the lead, but it was from the beginning in Tunisia the multitude at work.

A buzzing discussion is on about how important the new media were for this instant, unpredictable, spontaneous revolt. It is self evident that e-mail, facebook, twitter and mobile phones have played an enormous self organizing role. But you could say that this self organisation quickly could do without some media: when Al jazeera was banned, internet and mobile communication down, the revolt unfolded untouched. So this has to be studied in a dialectical way: the media and the multitude. The re-appropriation of communication that we see happening (also in Iran) after it being monopolized or controlled by power (the state and multinational tycoons) for ages is in itself of world historical importance. This could truly, this truly will alter the Middle East, and indeed the entire world. It is not neocon militarism that brought democracy to the Middle East – that only enhanced radicalism, fundamentalism and terrorism, was in a sense a present to the extremists - but the new media.

In fact, one can say that Negri and Hardt had it wrong - in the best Marxist tradition - in their localisation of the ‘historical subject’, the driving force of history. Marx located it in the industrialized proletariat and the revolutions took place in fundamentally rural and feudal countries, Russia and China. Negri and Hardt in theirEmpire-sequel located the subject of history in the creative class of the Western postfordist, information ecomomy, but in fact it is the Arab people in the street under conditions of old fashioned tyranny en poverty who are giving history a push. The creative classes in the west are safely caught in their ratrace, but it is in the disenfranchised Middle East that the “the multitude” is at work. This is of world historical importance.

Hactivism and online activism has taught us that a good action, is based a strong story, an open ended script or scenario without author. So people can appropriate and improvise. Both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the story was loud and clear: the people rise against the tyrant. Strong story. One of the strongest ever told. That is why it is so contagious. Domino theory in action. After Tunisia and Egypt more can and should follow. Jemen, Marocco, Algeria, a shockwave in the entire middle east are now to be hoped for. Even if Egypt looked dodgy for a moment. This revolt is beautiful and world historical: no hidden agenda, no leaders, no party, no religion.

Indeed, it is one of the most striking things: it is a secular revolt. It might, let’s hope, even mean the end of fundamentalism. The people in Tahrir square street interviews were very explicit: we want and end to tyranny, repression  and corruption, we want freedom and democracy, not theocracy (which is just another form of tyranny and  repression, minus corruption at best). As they have proved the neocons wrong, and the other globalist guru Negri wrong, they are now also proving the islamists wrong.

This Jasmin/Arab revolution could and should change the course of history: the end of tyrannies in the Middle east, the end of neocon militarist policy in the Middle east, the end of Israel’s monopoly on democracy (that could change a few equations), the end of fundamentalism as the main driving force of international politics. The weakening of islam fundamentalism as political Islam could also weaken the fundamentalism of political evangelicals on American foreign policy and the weight of jewish fundamentalism on Israel politics. In short, we are a facing a new phase in world history. The period “after 9/11” is over.

Of course, the world should help. The former prime minister of Belgium, now European MPs, Guy Verhofstadt was right (for once) when he addressed the European Parliament: Europe should support the demands of this revolution explicitly and ask Mubarak to step down. Where is Obama? Where is this world historical figure when you need him? Maybe he is doing what he can. Because it is his slogan that the people of the middle East now practice: Yes, we can. He should not let them down.

This combination of a story without author, a revolution without leaders, via self organisation enhanced by networked new media – rhizomatic, non linear (to say it in a fancy way) and completely secular, open – Muslim, Christian (crescent and cross united on banners!), young and old, men and women, working class and intellectual, children and grandparents - this was, and is, and will remain forever, awesome to see. What ever comes after. Come what may. When the activist writer Nawal Al Sadaawi, a girl in her 80s, said in a television interview: “I have been waiting for this all my life, this is the most beautiful moment of my life,… I have to be here on Tahrir square’ - she was damn right. We should all be with them. Tahrir square is not a symbol of the longing for democracy and freedom, it is democracy and freedom! Self expression, fearless discussing, mutual help, self organisation, all very remarkable Even journalist who have seen a few things and therefore are a bit cynical, rub their eyes!.

The demonstrations are spreading outside Liberation Square - as I write: Tuesday Febaruary 8th, 1 pm GMT - and prawling across the Egyptian Capital; in Alexandria also huge crowds are flocking together. The so called return to normalcy has meant that not only banks are open but that communication is up again, so the people can now see and hear what is happening. Many Egyptians join in now. They start to believe that something is actually happening! Spread the word!   

World historical, I says: the power of the multitude! Shifting the course of history. Let us, on the outside, elsewhere , at least be awake and express our solidarity and enthusiasm where we can. Old Kant had a point when he said that the spontaneous enthusiasm of the multitude for a world historical revolution (he was of course thinking of the French Revolution, we are thinking of the fall of the Berlin wall) that history makes sense, that there is... progress. For that is what this is: a truly progressive uprising of the multitude, not regressive reaction of a minority of extremists. The emancipating effect is visible, like children and women leading the crowds in chanting (I hear their voices as I write – courtesy Al jazeera). Really wish I could be there with you! All I can do is write this text for you. With my utmost respect, for you, the people of the Tunisia and Egypt, you, the multitude of the Middle East.

 

see also part one, already posted: Egypt back against the wall. A tyrant embraces anarchy:  

http://www.fpif.org/blog/egypt_back_against_the_wall_a_tyrant_embraces_anarchy


Egypt back against the wall. A tyrant embraces anarchy

By Lieven De Cauter, February 2, 2021

According to Aristotle there are, as is well known, six forms of government. Three of them are good, three of them are bad. Monarchy is good, or can be good, tyranny is bad. The bad news about monarchy is, that it has a tendency to become tyranny. And so on: aristocracy can be a good form of government, but it tends to become an oligarchy, bad. And finally of course democracy. The bad news about democracy is that it tends to become anarchy. Bad.

The worst case scenario. Nobody wants anarchy, chaos is dangerous for everybody. So, what does that teach us about Egypt? Egypt of course is -- you have to be idiotic or hypocritical not to know after thirty years -- a tyranny. When the tyrant is in trouble, what can he do? Two options: make tyranny worse by declaring a state of emergency: curfew, suspension of all civil liberties, etc. . . . But when tyranny is really in deep shit because of internal turmoil and uproar, it can enhance anarchy. That is exactly the function of the police forces that were signaled by several sources partaking in the looting in Caïro. Or even being its main perpetrators. So first lesson: tyranny can resort to anarchy to save its skin.  The strategy of chaos.

But Hobbes teaches us that anarchy is a dangerous game. It can become a relapse into the state of nature, the war of everybody against everybody. Hobbes himself says that the most concrete example of this relapse in the state of nature is: civil war. Second lesson: Civil War should be avoided at all cost, because it traumatises society for decades, if not forever. 

The political theorist Carl Schmitt (who for a while was member of the National-Socialist Party in Germany) teaches us that at the exact opposite of anarchy/state of nature/civil war we find the state of exception/state of emergency/martial law. The state of nature is bottom up implosion of sovereignty, the state of exception is a top-down excess of sovereignty. In the extreme case, not only the state of exception is installed, but the sovereign can resort to what Foucault calls thanatopolitics (deathpolitics): the sovereign exerting his fundamental, defining, ultimate right: to take the life of his subjects.  So this is what could happen, that the police or the army or the republican guards unchain a bloodbath. Third lesson: the strategy of death. 

Here one of the most brilliant pupils of Schmitt enters the picture, Leo Strauss, the philosophical father of neoconservatives, direct teacher to Wolfowitz and others of the neocon cabal. In On tyranny, a commentary on a dialogue by Xenophon, Strauss points out that tyranny can be good, if and only if the tyrant listens to the advice of  ‘wise men’, the philosophers. Strauss in his ‘classical political philosophy’ says that it is the true esoteric doctrine that politics is based on ‘pious lies’ and ‘useful myths’. His philosophy is classical in the sense that it is what empires have done since they came into being. The neoconservatives were claiming that they were promoting democracy to Iraq, but in fact they were bringing anarchy. Or, a truly classic one in American foreign policy -- from Pinochet to Mubarak -- is preaching about democracy but in reality supporting tyranny. Because, of course, Strauss was right, as long as Mubarak listens to the wise men in Washington who tell him to be a lackey to the US and Israel, he is a 'good tryant', meaning reliable. 

So Obama is in a tough position, but he could once more since his election be on the good side of history: by being serious about democracy, and not just using it as a useful myth. If he has the courage to whisper in the ear of the tyrant to step down. But alas, this opportunity is also a dilemma. If he supports democracy, foreign policy hawks across the board will nail him, and Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in America will never forgive him. If, on the contrary, he supports the tyrant, he will forever lose his credibility. That is the last and fundamental lesson we can draw from Strauss and against neocon cynicism: if he finds the courage, the turmoil in Egypt is Obama’s chance to once again write history, simply by letting the people of Egypt write history.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.

His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.


Obama’s chance

Can political philosophy help to understand the Egyptian uprising?

By Lieven De Cauter, January 31, 2011

 

According to Aristotle there are six forms of government. Three of them are good, three of them are bad. Monarchy is good, or can be good, tyranny is bad. The bad news about monarchy is, it has a tendency to become tyranny. And so on: aristocracy can be a good form of government, but it tends to become an oligarchy, bad. And finally of course democracy. The bad news about democracy is that it tends to become anarchy. Bad. The worst case scenario. Nobody wants anarchy, anarchy is dangerous for everybody. So, what does that teach us about Egypt? Egypt of course is - you have to be idiotic or hypocritical not to know after thirty years – is a tyranny.

 

When the tyrant is in trouble, what can he do? Two options: make tyranny worse by declaring a state of emergency: curfew, suspension of all civil liberties, etc… But when tyranny is really in deep shit because of internal turmoil and uproar, it can enhance anarchy. That is exactly the function of the police forces that were signaled by several sources partaking in the looting in Caïro. Or even being its main perpetrators. So first lesson: tyranny can resort to anarchy to save its skin.

But Hobbes teaches us that anarchy is a dangerous game. It can become a relapse into the state of nature, the war of everybody against everybody. Hobbes himself says that the most concrete example of this relapse in the state of nature is: civil war. The political theorist Carl Schmitt (who for a while was member of the National-Socialist Party in Germany) teaches us that at the exact opposite of anarchy/state of nature/civil war we find the state of exception/state of emergency/martial law. The state of nature is bottom up implosion of sovereignty, the state of exception is a top-down excess of sovereignty. In the extreme case, not only the state of exception is installed, but the sovereign can resort to what Foucault calls thanatopolitics (deathpolitics): the sovereign exerting his fundamental, defining, ultimate right: to take the life of his subjects. So this is what could happen, that the police or the army or the republican guards unchain a bloodbath.

But here one of the most brilliant pupils of Schmitt enters the picture, Leo Strauss, the philosophical father of neoconservatives. Direct teacher to Wolfowitz and others of the neocon cabal. Strauss in his ‘classical political philosophy’ says that it is the true esoteric doctrine that politics, especially international politics, is based on ‘pious lies’ and ‘useful myths’. In  On tyranny, a commentary on a dialogue by Xenophon, Strauss points out that tyranny can be good, if and only if the tyrant listens to the advice of  ‘wise men’, the philosophers. His philosophy is classical in the sense that it is what empires have done since they came into being. The neoconservatives were claiming that they were promoting democracy to Iraq, but in fact they were bringing anarchy. Or, a truly classic one in American foreign policy - from Pinochet to Mubarak - is preaching about democracy but in reality supporting tyranny. Because of course Strauss was right, as long as Mubarak listens to the wise men in Washington who tell him to be a lackey to the US and Israel, he is good, meaning reliable.

 

So Obama is in a tough position, but he could once more since his election be on the good side of history. By being serious about democracy, and not just using it as a useful myth. If he has the courage to tell the tyrant to step down. But alas, this opportunity is also a dilemma. If he supports democracy, foreign policy hawks across the board will nail him, and Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in America will never forgive him. If, on the contrary, he supports the tyrant, he will forever lose his credibility. But if he finds the courage, the turmoil in Egypt is Obama’s chance to once again write history, simply by letting the people of Egypt write history.

 

Lieven De Cauter

 

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces. His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011).