Nawaat : In your book, Revolutions without revolutionaries, you make a distinction between “revolution” and what you called “ref-olution” [a contraction between reform and revolution]. Why did you feel the necessity to make such a distinction?
Asef Bayat : I have studied the Iranian revolution; in fact, I participated in the events as a student back then and later on, when I did my PhD, I studied the Revolution. Then, more than 30 years later, I experienced the Arab revolutions, in particular Egypt, where I had lived for many years before. When I compared the two, I realized there was a big difference. The Arab Revolutions did not seem to me to be that fundamentally radical. In terms of mobilisation they were very spectacular and innovative, but in terms of change, they did not cause a radical break from the old order. Of course, I’m focusing here on countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen. Libya is a different story because of the deep intervention of foreign forces. To me, these political happenings were not revolutions in the sense of their 20th century counterparts. In the earlier revolutions, a revolutionary movement calls for revolution and mass mobilization; it usually has organization, it has leadership, it has some vision about the future, some kind of anti-hegemonic project. And it wants to establish some kind of an alternative order, whether we like it or not, whether its good or bad. This didn’t happen in the Arab Revolutions.
No one presented an alternative order?
Exactly. It seems to me that these were revolutionary movements that emerged to compel, to force the existing order to reform itself. In this sense I use the term ref-olution with an “F”. Actually, I did not come up with the term. It was used first by Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of history at Oxford. He referred to the Eastern European Revolutions. He was using this term to describe peaceful revolutions, but still they were revolutions in the sense of incredible transformation, politically, economically, ideologically. My use of the term is different. In my case, I call “ref-olution” what I see as a mix of revolutionary movement with reformist outcomes.
There is this novel called The City Always Wins, by Omar Robert Hamilton. It tells the story of a group of activists, throughout different stages of the Egyptian revolution. Somehow, it illustrates certain points you’ve just raised. The characters had this recurring urge to mobilize people to take the streets to put pressure on the SCAF or the Brotherhood later. And there is this character, Khalil, who keeps thinking to himself when he sees the way the events are unfolding: “We should have taken Maspero [where public television is located]” as in “We should have taken power”.
At some point in the course of the protests, some people like this character Khalil thought that, perhaps, they needed to take power. But even if they thought about it, they didn’t have the resources. I mean resources in terms of strategy, organization, the vision, and even some degree of support from those who had hard power (for instance Corry Aquino and her supporters in the Philippines who rose against the dictatorship of Marcos enjoyed the support of groups in the Army).
Do you think this was due to the unexpectedness of the events or was it a more general lack of organization under authoritarian regimes?
I think the revolutions surprised probably everyone, including those who did it. They themselves didn’t expect the protest of such remarkable scale. When you don’t expect something, of course, you’re not ready for it. This is in fact a consequence and power and yet contradiction of the use of social media as a tool of mobilization, where you cannot even estimate the outcome. Here, it was very spontaneous in the beginning, it was Bouazizi who torched himself, his family and friends protested and then things escalated rapidly, from online quickly to offline, to streets, villages and towns in quite a vast scale. The rapidity of the revolution is a handicap, it came to take the protagonists off guard, because they weren’t prepared, they had to improvise.
It seems that we are reaching that point where liberal democracy and neoliberal politics are cracking everywhere in the world, but at the same time it feels that there is nothing coming up. No language replacing that of neoliberal politics, there is nothing or so little to grab. Are we facing some kind of an intellectual breakdown?
There is an ideological crisis, just like Gramsci said: “The old world is dying, and the new cannot be born, from which emerge monsters”. And this kind of right-wing populism we have these days is the monster. The language of neoliberalism has spread everywhere. It became a sort of common sense we’re living that we take for granted. But at the level of grassroots, at the level of workers, there is a deep practical resentment against neoliberal policies, the consequences of neoliberal policies. The task of, let us say the organic intellectual, is to create something, a vision, to hang on to, the idea that another world is possible, another society is possible. For a long time, intellectuals gave up on that task, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and decline of the eastern European socialism. But since the so-called “end of history”, liberalism has faced enormous challenges. It is in a horrible state. It is the task, here and everywhere else, to try to create a new vision, by talking, writing, by taking the streets, or especially creating examples of just institutions and relations. In my book, I explained that there are different levels where hegemony is built: the level of the state, the level of political society, the level of civil society, the level of the street and the private realm. These are significant realms where hegemonies can be created and alternative ideas and practices can be cultivated.
It seems that words such as advocacy, governance, transparency, stakeholders, accountability have gained some popularity in Tunisia during the last eight years. Where do these words come from and are they compatible with democracy?
A lot of these words are actually good words, but the issue is what they mean in practice. Take “civil society”. In substance, it is a good concept, but in what way has it been used? That’s the issue. I think the neoliberal capitalism actively tries to commodify everything, not just labour, but also human relations, emotions, love. Neoliberalism also has this tendency of incorporating these nice words but changing their content. Event words like “revolution”, “movement”, the principle of “activism” saw their meaning change, while words like “solidarity” is seen as a word of the dinosaurs now. This is another task: raising awareness on how these words are used and to expose it. However, the question remains: Do we throw these words away or do we try to rescue them? Abused words like democracy or freedom. What do we do with them? and I don’t have an answer. At any rates, giving meaning to such words is part of the struggle, and one cannot avoid it.
You mention in your book that neoliberal politics deradicalizes the political class and radicalizes the streets, how is it possible to deradicalize a political class? Is civil society a deradicalizing tool?
Neoliberalism generates dissent in the grassroots, because the consequences of neoliberal policies are against the interest of ordinary people- less or subsidies, less or no protection, the erosion of welfare state, of citizen protection. But neoliberalism generates a kind of discourse that can seriously depoliticize activists. Activism becomes limited to working in NGOs to promote entrepreneurship or business, rather than raising awareness or political education. In fact, it can actively discourage political and ideological education as waste of time. In this sense, it can have deradicalizing effect. But I must mention here, organizations like NGOs can serve as a space for promotion and education over rights, economic or social rights. Such organizations can be important, especially under undemocratic regimes. So, the question is how you use them. But in reality, and for the most part, the NGOs played a deradicalizing role. When Mubarak was in power, many young people came to NGOs with good intentions, they wanted to do something good for their society, but they didn’t know much beyond. The problem is that, at the time of Mubarak, the idea that real change could happen was remote, it was outside the realm of the thinkable. It was also true for most of the political classes. I think now after these revolutions, there are indeed some of rethinking and re-evaluation on the part of activists about their past activism. These could be occasions where they can think of the possibility and necessity of alternative visions, about how the future could look like.