Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Power and Social Change in Tahrir and at home

We're starting out the course by reading a few books as prep for the trip--Tarek Osman's Egypt on the Brink, Jeff Alexander's brief study of Performative Revolution in Egypt, and Sidney Tarrow's study of social movements, Power in Movement.  I'm starting my reading by revisiting Gene Sharp's study of the Politics of Nonviolent Action, which we'll bring with us on the road as well and read in Cairo, as many of the student organizers did as they worked through how to successfully challenge the corrupt and increasingly ineffective Mubarek regime.  Sharp is an interesting guy, kind of classic empirical social scientist who comes out of Harvard in the 1950s and 60s (and worked with, of all people, Thomas Schelling, the Dr. Stangelove of strategic studies who loved talking about nuclear war in the clinical language of game theory). Sharp's research also got funding from the U.S. Dept. of Defense, who was interested in better understanding the civilian resistance they were encountering in SE Asia and Central America.  Sharp's hero is Gandhi, and his work has apparently been of use to youth organizers from Serbia (the Otpor! youth movement against Milosevic) to Central Asia and Iran, and now Egypt and Bahrain.  He was up for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, and for good reason.

At the heart of his work is an understanding of political power which draws on one of my favorite political theorists, Hannah Arendt .  It understands power not as based on the possession of weapons or troops and the ability to inflict damage, but on the consent or agreement of the masses.  Armies and police and systems of economic exploitation only work if people agree to go along, and for this there must be some level of legitimacy in the system.  At a minimum, the soldiers must agree to fire on the people (as they have in Syria, but did not in Egypt).  State order rests on a thin veneer of threatened violence overlaid on a mass of soldiers, police, state employees, media, workers, and students who must agree to go along with the order emanating from the capital.  Once that consent is withdrawn, state power collapses, and governments of all stripes around the world today are engaged in "managing expectations" and maintaining enough legitimacy to keep most of the people happy most of the time.

There is a constant dance between the rulers and ruled as to how much the wealthy and powerful can extract or take from the ruled and the poor, and the threat of violence is only a small part of how this bargain gets struck.  The economic and political systems must be seen as legitimate in some sense, as guided by some values or logic to which we give our assent.  How far an elite can go in extracting resources from a people will depend in large part on how good a story they can tell about why this is necessary, and about the "natural order of things."  For instance, the idea that "anyone can make it in America" provides a powerful rationale for the few that actually do make it to keep their wealth.  In Egypt, the story that Mubarek was looking out for the interests of the country gradually fell apart, as the realities of torture, imprisonment, and lack of services or governmental accountability gradually became more and more apparent, and Mubarek grew increasingly distant from reality.  As Egyptians of all stripes grew increasingly frustrated with the ineffectiveness and unresponsiveness of the government, they began to look for ways to exercise power nonviolently, to pressure the regime to change, and Sharp provides a thorough laundry list of 198 (count 'em) different methods of nonviolently sticking it to the man.

But this work of opposing injustice is not just a matter of standing up to state power and its "monopoly on the legitimate use of force" (Weber's phrase).  It is a matter of justice and injustice, poverty and wealth, sustainability or environmental harm at all levels of society.  Sharp's focus is on the big stage--opposing and ending dictatorships.  But the work he describes can also be seen to operate within families, classrooms, campuses, workplaces, or local economies.  There is a tendency to frame political action in these grand Manichean terms--the noble people opposed to the evil dictator, with revolutionaries taking to the streets and putting their lives on the line.  But the situations in which this kind of action is really possible or called for are pretty few.  We can use Sharp and his discussion of power for thinking about the great "human project" of constantly assessing what is working and what isn't, learning from mistakes, assessing what kind of power we have in a situation, and working to change it. We each have some degree of power, based on our knowledge and ideas, particular skills and resources, interpersonal connections, and drive.  No one is completely powerless.  Within whatever "realm of power" we have, we can take action, even if we don't happen to be living at a time or place that is ripe for revolution.  I would argue that the vast majority of what we have that is good in the world has come from this much more small-scale, less dramatic kind of work, that slowly builds up a foundation on which people can live reasonably satisfying and meaningful lives.

The degree and type of change needed depends on the amount of injustice or other problems that need fixing, from the most mundane problems of disrespect in interpersonal relations to the grandest crimes against humanity.  In some cases there may be little need for change and in some cases what may be called for (as it was in Egypt in 2011) is revolution, but there is always room for improvement.  This is, as far as I can tell, our work as humans, as educators, and as citizens--to slowly and methodically work on the problems we face and experience, chipping away at the injustice, poverty, ecological damage, or simple foolishness with which we are confronted.  In Cairo we will be learning about some of the more dramatic examples of that work--taking to the streets and bringing down a dictator.  But we'll be thinking as well about no only what made Tahrir Square so effective, but also what creativity, passion, and nonviolent action we can bring to bear within our own sphere of influence.  We'll be meeting with people working in the slums of Cairo, building biogas cookstoves and recycling initiatives.  We'll meet with young microcredit entrepreneurs and ecotourism operations, working to create economic opportunities for the least advantaged while doing as little harm to the environment as they can.  This is part of what we calling the "critical pedagogy of place"--an approach to teaching and learning that is always working on addressing the real and immediate issues of the time and place within which we are living and learning.

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