History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into what has gone before.
From Walter Benjamin's 14th Thesis on the Concept of HistoryOne of the first aspects of the Arab revolutions to strike the observer - and still more, one expects, the participant - is the return of words and concepts widely thought to be the oldest of hat. Who, apart from those of us who have been anticipating these events with far less certainty than we would now admit, could use the word 'counter-revolutionary' six months ago and expect the listener to find a common referent? Yet now, there are tangible counter-revolutionaries and with them the necessity for the defence of the revolution. Battalions of citizens are formed: palaces marched upon: mercenary phalanxes await with long-prepared chains. Revolutionary time is a time 'blasted out of the continuum of history'. It is 'a random time, open at any moment to the unforseeable irruption of the new' but equally infused with shards of the messianic moments of the past.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are both right and wrong, then to argue that 'even calling these struggles "revolutions" seems to mislead commentators who assume the progression of events must obey the logic of 1789 or 1917, or some other past European rebellion against kings and czars.'
This is, of course, true. Revolution is when millions of people make history and for that reason it is an unpredictable process. The interesting discussion for those who aspire to the victory of the revolution (how joyful to be able to write those words without irony or condescension) concerns the circumstances in which history is now being made.
Hardt and Negri are no mere facebook boosters. Yet their conception of what is going on in the Arab Revolutions is only a partial truth. They write that the protests resemble 'what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world' in the form of a horizontal network that has no single central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it'. Paul Mason, a man whose attentiveness to the possibilities of rhizomatic rebellion contrasts happily with his job as economics editor of Newsnight, agrees.
This is right. The revolutions are spontaneous, they are "horizontal" and they are not led by latecoming aspirants such as Mohammed el Baradei, Rashid Al Ghanoushi or the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is a mark of continuity with previous revolutions, not a break. Indeed, that's why they were revolutions. It would be wrong to say that there was no leadership - in the simple, tautological sense of people who give a lead - behind the Egyptian revolution at the very least. The January 25th demonstrations were called by a network of socialist, liberal and Muslim Brotherhood youth activists. They saw the rupture in the normal way of doing things opened up by Tunisia and took a 'tiger's leap into what had gone before'. It took a long time before the millions of revolutionaries, having given Mubarak three more chances than he deserved, moved on the palace at Heliopolis and the state TV building. Arguments went on about what to do next in what a BBC journalist called the 'gigantic open air debating chamber' of Tahrir Square and some people made and won an argument to act. This is a different kind of leadership to Mohammed El Baradei turning up and annoucing he is ready to take any mantle offered to him - but the dichotomy drawn by Hardt and Negri between complete spontatneity and utter obedience misses it.
Hardt and Negri's perspective follows on from a particular political economy, claiming correctly that 'the Arab revolts ignited around the issue of unemployment and at their centre have been highly educated youth with frustrated ambitions - a population that has much in common with protesting students in London or Rome'. Paul Mason draws the same conclusion - 'at the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future', living 'in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks.'
The global spread of 'frustrated ambitions' is certainly visible, and a product of the ongoing crisis of capitalism. Youth unemployment, amongst both graduates and non-graduates (such as Mohammed Bouaziz) is very high in the Arab states and beyond. The khobzistes and the shabab, at best in informal employment or an insecure aspiration to petty bourgeois status, have played a most visible role in the street risings of the contemporary scene. Where we find a shard of the old-new, a renewal of the 'secret agreement between past generations and the present one' is the participation of workers - the employed proletarian sort rather than the diffusely multitudinous sort - in the Arab Revolutions. Indeed, taking the spectacle of a mixed-up time in which twitter feeds announce 'Newsnight special on spreading revolution as our warrant, perhaps it is time to revive the concept of permanent revolution?
What are the grounds for this dusting off of a historical subject, usually considered at best a 'stage army to be marched on and off the scene of history' ? Consider the Egyptian Revolution. Its origins lie in the strike wave that passed through the country between 2006 and 2008 and most especially in the mill town of Mahalla. More than 1.7 million workers took part in more than 1,900 strikes and other protests (in the absence of free unions) between 2004 and 2008 (Joel Beinin Workers' Rights in Egypt 2010:49). It was this strike wave that began to weaken the barrier of fear - but also more concretely led to the networks that supported the January 25th demonstrations. One of the groups calling those demonstrations, the April 6th youth movement, although disparate, is linked to this struggle in its very name: it refers to the call for a general strike in support of the worker's uprising that took control of Mahalla on that day in 2008. As Wikileaks has revealed, State Department officials recognised that 'in Mahalla a new organic opposition force bubbled to the surface, defying current political labels...This may require the government to change its script.' Not spear carriers, but authors.
In the three weeks of demonstrations that led to Muabarak's fall, Egyptian workers showed some of the 'awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode'. At first workers participated in demonstrations called by the networks that emerged to support them two years previously and in atmosphere changed by their own struggles. As Mubark proved a more stubborn rhinoceros than many had expected, it was the participation of workers as workers that pushed finally pushed him out. A general strike (remember in a country where there were no free unions until a week beforehand) called on Wednesday the 9th of February spread quickly amongst transport workers, steel workers, Suez canal support workers and eventually so many workplaces that even twitter could not keep up. They are still there and the question is not whether they are organised, but how they can be organised and generalised into an alternative political power.
In Tunisia, the uprising did begin in the poor, marginalised and semi-employed sectors. What spread it and unified these protests however, were the efforts of trade unionist even against their own leadership, comprised by long years of corporatist compact with Ben Ali. One should not forget the 2008 miners strike: background to key point in the revolution, the storming of the UGTT offices in Gfasa by militants in support of the protests (Olivier Piot, 'Tunisia: Diary of a Revolution', Le Monde Diplomatique 1102). Piot is worth quoting at length here
'Fearing student protest, Ben Ali closed all educational establishments. A few hours later, the UGTT finally reacted. Its leadership authorised the regional sections in Sfax, Kairouan and Tozeur to organize a general strike the next day and then in Tunis on 14 January. "Those cities were going to go it alone away" said a member of Ettjadid ["Renewal", a party that emerged form the old Tunisian Communist party]. That evening riots broke out in working class areas of Tunis. This was a turning point.'What of elsewhere? On Libya, where the revolution has now taken on the aspect of civil war against a dictator mad, bad and lucrative to know, any comment would be speculation . In Bahrain, inheritor of a long trade union tradition the threat of a general strike one week ago seems to have been what brought the Khalifas to offer reforms - much as the decision to call off that strike is surely open to criticism. Iran provides a negative example of where the Green Movement in 2009, but hopefully not now, proved unable to mobilize workers.
Two points where Hardt and Negri are conclusively right is when they (unconsciously?) echo an earlier revolutionary :
a radical constitutional response must invent a common plan to manage natural resources and social production. This is a threshold through which neoliberalism cannot pass and capitalism is put to question. And Islamic rule is completely inadequate to meet these needs. Here insurrection touches on not only the equilibriums of north Africa and the Middle East but also the global system of economic governance.
The revolutionary state of exception contains within it both the intimations of a future (and a past) that is kind, human and self-organised and on the other the determined effort of the enemy to remain victorious. In both Tunisia and Egypt the military structure remains and is now - as in the most recent attacks on Tahrir square demonstrated - readying itself. As Comrade Hossam rightly argues the only way to prevent retreat is to continue the attack using the fiercest of weapons, the worker's economic power. As Negri and Hardt understand, this is incompatible with capitlalist economic governance.
And what of that global system? One has but to watch the workers of Wisconsin and the American Midwest - in which the flashes of Tahrir have been both conscious and unconscious - to realise that something is certainly up.
We may wonder where the centre of the world system now lies. The 'global imbalances' of which The Economist have warned for years refer to the dislocation between a Euro-Atlantic (with the exception of Germany) importing zone and a China centred exporting zone, with the oil resources of the Gulf thrown in. Workers have now begun to strike and protest in Saudi Arabia and the monarchy is flailing for some way to buy its way out of the Arab revolutionary wave. Sympathy protests in China so far have been very small but as Paul Mason points out, the social make up of much of the country (what I would like to call the experience of uneven and combined development) is not too far away from the Arab world. Chinese workers have also begun to rediscover traditions of collective action in recent years. Might we believe - is it too soon to hope - that the 21st century has begun?