Thursday, 24 February 2011

Arab uprisings mark a turning point for the taking

by Peter Hallward, The Guardian

In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir was already bemoaning our tendency to "think that we are not the master of our destiny; we no longer hope to help make history, we are resigned to submitting to it". By the late 70s such regret, repackaged as celebration, had become the stuff of a growing consensus. By the late 80s, we were told that history itself had come to an end. The sort of history that ordinary people might make was to fade away within a "new world order", a world in which a narrow set of elites would control all the main levers of power.

Sure enough, for much of the last 30 years, these elites have waged a relentless assault on the people they exploit. Trade unions have been decimated, real wages cut, public services privatised, public resources plundered. For many of these years during which "there was no alternative", resistance in most places was either marginal or symbolic. In one guise or another, resigned submission remained the prevailing order of the day.

Not any more. In different ways in different places (including most dramatically some places that until very recently were often taken for granted as among the most "docile" and "stable" countries around), people all over the world are rediscovering a principle at work in every revolutionary sequence: if we are willing to act in sufficient numbers and with sufficient determination, we already have all the power we need to devise and impose our own alternative. If we are determined to pursue it, we now have an opportunity to help change the world.

This isn't to say that either the neoliberal order or the imperial power that protects it are in any imminent danger of collapse. An opportunity is nothing more, or less, than an opportunity. The governments led by people like David Cameron and Barack Obama continue to press an agenda of "reform" that amounts to little less than a form of class warfare. In the UK, current government plans for education and public services are far more aggressive than anything Margaret Thatcher could have proposed. Nevertheless, in the last few years, and most obviously in the last few months, the general balance of power has begun to shift in three far-reaching ways, which together may well transform not just the Middle East but also the world as a whole.

First of all, of course, after demonstrating more clearly than ever before what the unrestricted pursuit of profit involves, in 2008 neoliberal credit mechanisms imploded in spectacular style, and the credibility of the capitalist world system itself took an unprecedented hit. The costs associated with what many have declared the "financial coup d'état" have now exposed the current rule of political accounting for all to see: privatise the profits, socialise the losses. This is the kind of rule that tends to suffer from publicity.

We have always been told that we cannot afford to pursue utopian projects that might reduce social inequalities, or prevent the millions of avoidable deaths that take place each year as a result of disease or starvation. Our governments and central banks, however, have now spent many trillions of dollars – thousands of times more money than what is required to end global hunger – to bail out some of the most blatantly corrupt institutions the world has ever seen. This public money was spent, just as blatantly, to avoid change rather than implement it. The underlying contradictions in the economy haven't been addressed, and the banking sector has been left to carry on more or less as before. As the consequences of this monumental failure start to hit more and more people over the coming months, class-polarising austerity may well become a difficult political position to defend, especially since measures once justified in terms of economic necessity are now so visibly a matter of deliberate choice and priority.

At the same time, the imperial power that only a few years ago insisted on "full-spectrum dominance" has encountered significant limits to its deployment, both at home and abroad. Washington hawks may still dream of attacking Iran, but it's perhaps more difficult now to imagine a new US war of aggression than at any time since 1945. Rarely has so dominant, so large and so expensive an army looked so powerless. Rarely, too, has so much diplomatic power looked so hollow, fractured and hypocritical. As it has done so often in previous decades, the US is still free to use its UN veto to thwart justice in the Middle East, but it now finds itself obliged to veto its own policy along with it, at a cost that has already endangered its most essential goal in the region: an end to the Palestine liberation movement.

The US and its allies have been discovering that it's a lot harder, these days, to lie about what this and other deceitful political processes involve – a difficulty that may soon also have consequences for the ongoing missions to stabilise Haiti, pacify Iraq, conquer Afghanistan, demonise Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and so on. This is the second factor at issue here, dramatised most obviously in al-Jazeera's publication of the Palestine papers last month, following the WikiLeaks revelations last year. A combination of new technologies, new social media and new sources of information (not least al-Jazeera itself), enabling new forms of association and deliberation, are starting to make it more difficult for political elites to rely on a compliant press to set and limit the political agenda.

These new means of accessing and sharing information are also starting to have a transformative impact on the third and most important development: the extraordinary resurgence of popular mobilisation and solidarity – a renewal that began with the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador (and at work more recently, among other places, in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, in Iran, in China, across Europe), but that has now crossed a new threshold in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. As one Egyptian protester put it, very concisely: "I used to watch television, now television watches me." On the other side of the world, the tens of thousands of protesters who are mobilising to protect their unions in Wisconsin are among the many millions who have been watching and learning, and who see some similarities between their state governor and Egypt's deposed president. In the UK, students and workers gearing up for another round of direct confrontation with Cameron's government have been watching, too.

Diplomats and pundits rush to assure us that what we're really seeing in north Africa is just an oriental variation on the east European uprisings of 1989, or the subsequent "colour revolutions" – uprisings that served mainly to consolidate rather than challenge the global status quo. Of course, no one can say how the north African mobilisations will develop, or how far they will spread. Like earlier revolutions in France, Haiti and Russia, these are mobilisations whose spatial and temporal (let alone ethnic or religious) dimensions are quite emphatically not fixed in advance. But we do know that they have already changed the course of history, and that they will continue to change it. In each new confrontation, they have demonstrated anew the truth of an old conviction that will always be more powerful than any amount of violent repression or scornful dismissal: the people, united, will never be defeated.

Whatever happens next, the people of north Africa and the Middle East have already won victories that will never be erased. The clashes in Tunis on 11-12 January, the capitulation of riot police in Cairo and Alexandria on 28 January, the retaking of Manama's Pearl Square on 19 February, the liberation of Benghazi on 20 February – in the annals of revolutionary history, events of the 2011 Arab spring may one day invite comparison more readily with the summer of 1789 or the autumn of 1917 than with the winter of 1989.

In each case, what's been at stake first and foremost is less a specific demand for objective change than a subjective process of self-empowerment. Every revolutionary sequence applies in practice a principle that every counter-revolutionary theory seeks to deny or disguise: there is indeed no deeper source of legitimacy than the active will of the people. A revolutionary sequence is one in which those people who set out to transform their situation find a way to clarify and mobilise the will of its people as a whole. Where it exists, the will of the people is sustained through the practice of those who compose and impose it in the collective interest – and who thereby invariably risk, at the hands of those few who oppose this interest, misrepresentation as criminals or outsiders.

As the philosopher Alain Badiou points out in a recent editorial, "once they cross a certain threshold of determination, persistence and courage, the people can indeed concentrate their existence in a public square or avenue, in a few factories, or in a university. In the wake of a transformative event, the people are composed of those who are able to resolve the problems posed by this event" – for instance, the problems involved in defending a square, or sustaining a strike, or confronting an army. Buoyed by the assertion of their hard-won power, the people of north Africa and the Middle East are currently inventing means of solving such problems at a rate that already defies any sort of historical comparison at all. Their priority now is clearly to consolidate and organise this power in the face of the many new and more daunting problems they will soon have to confront.

Needless to say, the struggle to come will again play out in different ways in different places. The consequences of even the most resounding victory are always uncertain, and it may take a long time for those of us who live in the more sheltered parts of the world to learn our own lessons from north Africa's example. The old neoliberal assault remains set to continue. Now everyone knows, however, that it will only prevail if we allow it to.
continue reading

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Egypt and the revolution in our minds

by Nigel Gibson, Radical Africa

‘What makes the lid blow off?’ Fanon asks in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, reflecting on the revolution against French colonialism in Algeria 50 years ago and thinking about the future ‘African revolution.’ In Egypt, a country where 50 per cent of the population is under 30 years old and which has known no other regime than Mubarak’s state of emergency, with its torture and surveillance, it was the reaction to the murder of Khaled Said, a young blogger beaten to death by the police, that was a turning point. It began with a protest of 1,000 people in Alexandria during Said’s funeral and then went ‘underground’ onto the internet. Pictures of his crushed face are still on his facebook page. The next spark in the North African revolution was in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, ignited by the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazazi, a vegetable peddler whose cart and produce were confiscated by the police. Over the next month, despite increased repression, protests grew across Tunisia and on 14 January President Ben Ali was pushed out of the country. The date of the Egyptian revolution is 25 January but its prehistory includes years of labour struggle: The sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations of 2006, the almost daily workers’ actions of early 2007, and the massive strike of textile workers in Muhalla al-Kubra in 2008 initiated by working women. These struggles led to beatings and imprisonments as well as some wage increases and bread subsidies as the regime tried to cheaply buy its way out of crisis. The mixture of economic hardship, political repression and social control indicate how deep the uprooting of the old regime had to be.


The 25 January revolution began as a movement against the odds, despite repression and torture and violence; despite the closing down of the internet which seemed so important to its birth; despite the conservativism of the world powers – Obama especially – and at times corporate media’s conformism. Despite all, the movement grew in size and grabbed the world’s attention as it developed in sophistication and in articulation – expressed so brilliantly in the endless debates, platforms and self-organisation (the organisation of the provision of security, food, blankets, stones, and medicine is a story to be told) around and in Tahrir Square, where the once cowed and silenced people of one of the world’s great cities could begin to speak and engage in seemingly endless debates, and decision-making, in open sessions. This had all the makings of a people’s revolution. There have been discussions of the revolution’s similarity with the velvet revolutions of 1989, Tiananmen Square in 1989, people power against Marcos in the Philippines and Duvalier in Haiti in 1986. It is akin to Paris 1968 and its decentralised working and bottom up democracy reflects the new beginning which began with the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Indeed, aided by social media the revolution has been dubbed Revolution 2.0, a revolution without leaders, a ‘Wikipedia revolution’ as Wael Ghonim (the young Google executive behind the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ facebook page) put it. With everyone contributing to its content, the revolution was never simply a revolt of the middle class and as it grew it increasingly came to reflect the socio-economic composition of Africa’s largest city.


The Egyptian revolution is like a Rorschach test: Everyone can see something in it. And while these insights are all true, it is also a revolution of the 21st century, not simply because of the social media technology (plus WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera). In this age of gated cities, of citadels, under surveillance and policed – what have been called ‘global cities’ – the Egyptian people opened up political space, as an ongoing public debate in the squares, outside the parliament, in the streets. Cairo, a city of 18 million – abundant in its history and riches and also in the lived realities of the majority of its citizens who are poor – became associated throughout the world, and especially the Arab world, with liberation. The Caireans have shown the world how social media relates to social transformation and the retaking of public space. They have implicitly brought into focus the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a collective project of social transformation. They were not stopped by fears about maintaining order, nor by the police and the state’s paid murderers, nor by threats of a coup. Instead they organised a continuous occupation of a city’s central square by tens, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people, defending it, feeding it, nurturing it, articulating it, developing it as their daily work. Cairo was the centre, but in other towns, like Alexandria, smaller groups – perhaps initially under the threat and reality of even more violence – continually gathered. The regime cracked. To remain hegemonic, Mubarak had to be sacrificed.


For Fanon, the timing of the revolution is a moment when the militants make contact with the poor from the outskirts of towns and rural areas and realise that they have always thought in terms of a revolutionary transformation. In Egypt this is only beginning to happen. What began to amaze organisers during the last days of Mubarak’s rule was the militancy of the youth from poor neighborhoods. Before the 28 January demonstration, for example,, a group of organisers ‘conducted … a field test’ walking along the narrow alleys of a working class neighborhood to measure the level of participation: ‘when we finished up the people refused to leave. They were 7000 and they burned two police cars.’[1]

The turning point in the struggle – the point when the ruling elites decided to dump Mubarak – came not after it defeated the police and paid goons, but as workers in the port towns and across the industrial and service sectors began strikes supporting the movement and raising their own demands. With revolts also in rural areas and in smaller towns, it was the beginning of a national revolution whose first phase ended with the departure of Mubarak. Strikes have continued, indeed expanded, but what is also at stake is whether the self-organisation learnt from Tahrir Square will take on a class character and whether the public political space, the democratic space opened up by the revolution, will remain open.


Clearly things were changing during those eighteen days after 25 January and the speed of change, of development, of solidarity and fearless – of a new humanity experiencing freedom – took on a momentum of its own. Steve Biko, the South African Black Consciousness leader, argued that the most potent weapon in the oppressor’s arsenal was the internalisation of fear in the consciousness of the oppressed. But once that mind experiences freedom – not as an abstraction but in and through collective actions – it becomes a force of revolution. ‘People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared,’ argued Ahmad Mahmoud. ‘When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again allow ourselves to be scared of a government. This is the revolution in our country, the revolution in our minds.’[2]

Once the lid is taken off a police state, it is very difficult to put back on. Mental liberation, Fanon argues, and the radical change in consciousness that accompanies revolution, entails a rethinking of everything, a questioning of everything that has been taken for granted. What had been normal for so long has been fundamentally shaken. After 30 years of life under the dictatorship, the Egyptian people had become historical protagonists. Tahrir Square, the revolution’s focal point, became territorialised by those who had not counted. It became the space of a new kind of work in Fanon’s sense, namely the hard but collectively joyous work of human liberation.

Mubarak’s departure represents a victory for the movement but it is not the goal of liberation. Egypt remains at a crossroads with the military as the only possible institution to renormalise it. Yet under the guise of the national interest any return to the old normal must include suppressing freedom, strikes, demonstrations, and any other manifestation of the economic and social revolt against injustice and exploitation that has been brewing for the past decade.


In 1956, four years after the 1952 Egyptian revolution and one year into the Algerian revolution, Algeria’s liberation movement met in the Soummam Valley to discuss the organisation and programme of its revolution. An important principle adopted there was that rather than militarising politics, the military and any military decision had to be subservient to, and under the control of, the political struggle. It is a principle that continues to haunt Algeria and Egypt where militarised states of emergency have been in place for decades, abrogating political rights and suppressing spaces for public discourse.

In 1959 Fanon presented his ‘Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ (which would become a central chapter of The Wretched of the Earth) as lectures to the Algerian liberation army camped on the Tunisian border. Looking forward to decolonisation, he goes further than the Soummam platform, arguing that the army too often becomes the pillar of a nation, which despite independence, does not undergo any fundamental reorganisation. The military enforces systematic pauperisation and ‘the strength of the police force and the power of the army are [simply] proportionate to the stagnation in which the rest of the nation is sunk.’[3] Where there is no parliament, he continues, the army takes over – as it has done in Egypt. But this changes nothing unless the army is truly nationalised and the development of the officer class is curtailed as it becomes a school of ‘civic and political education.’ Rather than a professional army, he adds, the military should become a political organisation which, as a servant of the people, needs to take the step from ‘national consciousness to political and social consciousness’ and become part of a genuine humanist and social national programme.[4] Too often, however, as we have seen in the fifty years since Fanon’s death, the army, as he feared, takes the place of a corrupt political party, and becomes the organizer of the profiteers.[5] This certainly was the situation under Mubarak.

In Egypt the army – intimately connected to the economy and self-interested in the maintenance of the status quo – is repeating the same calls it made during the last days of Mubarak under the slogans to ‘return to order’ and ‘return to normalcy.’ Yet the people are not naïve. During the commune days of Tahrir Square they understood that the tanks not only protected them but threatened them. People slept in the tank’s tracks not only to stop the tanks from moving but let everyone know that they were ready if the tanks did move; they marched around the tanks by candlelight at night to keep them in their place; and they continued to embrace the soldiers as their ‘brothers,’ but announced further demonstrations and encouraged the soldiers to join them. Thus after Mubarak’s departure and despite the army’s clearing of Tahrir Square and its threat to ban strikes and end street demonstrations, the question is can the military put the lid back on the multidimensional revolt? How reliable are the army’s young and badly paid conscripts?


It is the revolution happening in the minds of the people – including perhaps those among the army’s rank and file – that is really significant. Nasser understood its importance, calling his book on the liberation of Egypt a ‘philosophy of revolution’. A different philosophy of revolution came alive in the movement at Tahrir Square. As Sinan Antoon, the Iraqi born poet, novelist and film maker put it, ‘What distinguishes this revolution is the wonderful and sublime example it sets in terms of solidarity among protesters and citizens at large. The spontaneity and cooperation in managing their daily affairs without a hierarchy is what the state didn’t expect as it deprived the people of basic services and tried to spread fear and chaos to terrorize the citizenry.’ The ‘commune’ at Tahrir Square produced a new political form.[6] And in an attempt to de-communalise that form, it has now been deterritorialised. As youths moved to literally and symbolically clean the square, the military destroyed the shelters, banners, and artworks and removed the people. Traffic now moves across the square – but traffic can also be stopped.


There are at least two potential scenarios which Fanon also considered to be the problematic of decolonisation and the African revolution: On one hand, the horizontal movement based on the inclusivity of people’s power – on its ongoing support and democratic organisation – that overthrew Mubarak is understood not simply a fragment or a moment but something that becomes the basis for daily life. On the other hand, a vertical movement based on the exclusivity of an ‘elite transition,’ controlled by professional politicians, generals and planners with their own vested interest in the status quo, which suffocates the air of freedom and the ‘revolution in our minds.’

As strikes roll across the country, from industrial to service sectors, the idea of reconstituting ‘Tahrir’ in the factories remains a radical possibility.[7]


* Nigel C. Gibson is an activist and scholar.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] David Kirkpatrick, ‘Wired and Shrewd: Young Egyptians Guide Revolt,’ New York Times February 9, 2011,
[2] See
[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove: New York, 1968) p. 172.
[4] See Ibid. pp 201-3
[5] Ibid p.174
[6] See
[7] See Charles Levinson, Margaret Coker and Tamer El-Ghobashy ‘Strikes Worry Egypt’s Military, youth’ Wall Street Journal February 15, 2010
continue reading

Revolution Comes Like a Thief in the Night

by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS

Life, ordinary life, is meant to follow certain rhythms. We grow, seasons change and we assume new positions in the world. When you have finished being a child you put away childish things and move on to the next stage of life. But there is a multitude of people in this world who cannot build a home, marry and care for their children and aging parents. There is a multitude of people who are growing older as they remain stuck in an exhausting limbo, perhaps just managing to scrape together the rent for a backyard shack by selling tomatoes or cell phone chargers on some street.

Mohamed Bouazizi was one person amongst that multitude. He was born in 1984 in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. His father died on a Libyan construction site when Mohamed was three. He went to a one roomed village school but had to start working from the age of ten and abandoned school altogether in his late teens. In a city with an unemployment rate of 30% he couldn’t find work and began, like so many others, selling fruit and vegetables in the street. With the thousand rand that he made each month he looked after his mother, his uncle and his younger siblings. He was, incredibly, managing to pay for his sister, Samia, to study at university.

Since he was a child he had been harassed by the police who regularly confiscated his wheelbarrow and his wares. On the 17th of December last year he had just laid out one thousand and five hundred Rand to buy stock when a municipal official asked him for a bribe to keep his place on the street. He couldn’t pay it and so they turned his cart over, confiscated his scales, spat at him and slapped him. He went to the municipal offices to complain but no one would see him. He went outside, bought some petrol, poured it all over his body and set himself alight outside the municipal offices. Mohammed’s mother told a journalist that he didn’t kill himself because he was poor but because he had been humiliated. "It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride."

In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote, from Tunisia, “The colonial world is a world cut into two....The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not how or where.”

Fifty years later cities are still divided into separate zones for those who count and those who don't count. These days what distinguishes those who count from those who don’t is usually the possession of wealth. But the people spurned by society continue to be taken as a threat to society. Jacques Depelchin, the Congolese historian, writes, “the poor in Africa have replaced the Dark Continent as the symbolic conceptual definition of the obstacle to civilization.”

But of course Mohamed Bouzazi didn’t die the invisible death of the average poor person. When he set his own body alight he ignited the uprising that drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia, toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and then spread like a prairie fire to Algeria, Yemen, Iran and beyond. Revolt is leaping across the borders that are supposed to contain people while money is moved, dissidents rendered and intelligence exchanged.

These revolts may, like the European Revolutions of 1848 or the revolts against Stalinism in 1989, remake the world order in ways that we cannot yet predict.

Popular anger can be mobilised against innocent scapegoats like gay people in Uganda, Muslims in parts of India or migrants in South Africa. Revolutions are often rolled back, co-opted or even used to strengthen oppression by modernising it. The future of Tunisia, Egypt and all the other countries where people are now taking to the streets against the police and party thugs has yet to be written. Local elites and imperialism will certainly aim to do more of that writing than the ordinary people that have already brought down two dictatorships.

But whatever the eventual fate of the struggles in North Africa and the Middle East something has been done that cannot be undone. That something is the fact that the refusal of a street vendor to continue to tolerate indignity and the sheer sadism of so much bureaucratic power was heard and acted on in a way that eventually brought down a brutal dictator and ally of imperialism and, for a moment at least, seized the initiative from the dictators, the officials, the experts, the police and the NGOs and put it, firmly and gloriously, in the hands of the people.

This is not the first time that the agency of people that don’t count has, like the proverbial thief in the night, suddenly appeared at the centre of the world stage without warning.

The Christian story is just one of many in which a poor man from some village in the provinces assumes a tremendous historical consequence that far outweighs that of his tormentors. And from the Haitian Revolution of 1804 to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the anti-colonial movements of the 50s and 60s that ignited a global rebellion in 1968 the modern world has periodically been remade by the intelligence and courage of the women and men it has most denigrated.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the drama unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. One of them is that we should not assume that South Africans will continue to trudge through life without work, without homes and without dignity forever.

If we carry on as we are, the day will come when a fire will be lit in Grahamstown or Harrismith or Ermelo, or on some farm or in some school or shack settlement whose name we don’t yet know, and neither the rubber bullets, party thugs, offers of jobs and money to leaders or senior politicians arriving in helicopters with smiles and big promises will put it out.
continue reading

Tuesday, 01 February 2011

In Egypt and Tunisia the will of the people is not a hollow cliche

by Peter Hallward, The Guardian

From revolutionary France and America to modern north Africa, this is a concept that can topple governments

The day after popular pressure forced Tunisia's autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power on 14 January, Egypt's government declared that it "respects the will of the Tunisian people". So did the governments of Yemen and Iran, and so did the Arab League. Jordan's government followed suit the next day. In his state of the union address on 25 January, Obama also celebrated Tunisia as a place "where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator", before reminding the world that "the United States of America supports the democratic aspirations of all people".

Routine reference to "the will of the people" has long been one of the most formulaic turns of phrase in the modern political lexicon. The actual mobilisation of such a will, however, is less easily dismissed. Ongoing protests in Egypt – and in Algeria, and Yemen, and Jordan, indeed throughout the Middle East – may well oblige their governments to decide fairly soon whether they mean what they say. So may renewed mobilisations here in the UK and across Europe, against the latest phase in the long neoliberal assault on public services and welfare.

Needless to say, the US and its far-flung clients have never hesitated – in Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Palestine, Haiti, Turkey – to undermine or crush those people whose wills did not dovetail with their own. But however facile its diplomatic invocations might seem, the "will of the people" remains in both theory and practice a profoundly transformative notion, and even a superficial consideration of its history should be enough to remind us of its revolutionary inflection.

In the 18th century, no less than today, to affirm the rational will of the people as the source of sovereign power was to reject conceptions of politics premised on either the mutual exclusion of society and will (a politics determined by natural, historical or economic "necessity") or on the primacy of another sort of will (the will of a monarch, a priest, an elite). Conceived in terms that frame it as both inclusive and decisive, Rousseau and the Jacobins forced evocation of a popular or "general" will to the divisive centre of modern politics. Reference to la volonté du peuple underlay the French revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens in 1789 and Robespierre's constitution of 1793.

Jefferson anticipated much of the subsequent history of his newly independent nation when he emphasised the struggle between "those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes", and "those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them" and consider them the "safest depository of their rights".

Clarification and concentration of the people's will would remain the guiding thread of Bolshevik strategy in the run-up to 1917, and Lenin's main concern, early and late, was to achieve a militant and tenacious "unanimity of will" powerful enough to overcome the defences of an indefensible status quo. For Mao, likewise, the goal was to unify and intensify the people's "will to fight" against their oppressors, before establishing a form of government that might most "fully express the will of all the revolutionary people". Mao's revolutionary contemporaries (Giap, Castro, Che Guevara, Mandela) adopted similarly militant and "universalisable" priorities. So did, in a different context, the more radical partisans of the US civil rights movement. The ANC summarised this whole line of thought when it insisted in its 1955 Freedom Charter that "no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people", and posed as its first demand: "The people shall govern!"

Around the same time, one of north Africa's most influential writers and activists, Frantz Fanon, conceived of political practice along comparable lines. The whole of Fanon's contribution to Algeria's liberation struggle (1954-1962) is oriented by a popular "will to independence", the "national will of the oppressed peoples", their "will to break with exploitation and contempt". The outcome of the Algerian revolution would be decided, he argued, by "the will of 12 million people; that is the only reality".

Rejecting all distraction through "negotiation" or "development", Fanon insisted on decisive action here and now – the goal was not to reform an intolerable colonial situation over an interminable series of steps, but to abolish it. The "fundamental characteristic of the struggle of the Algerian people", Fanon maintained, is suggested by their "refusal of progressive solutions, their contempt for the 'stages' that might break the revolutionary torrent, and induce them to abandon the unshakable will to take everything into their hands at once". The fate of their revolution depends on the people's "co-ordinated and conscious" participation in their ongoing self-emancipation.

In today's Tunisia and Egypt, as in 1950s Algeria, to affirm the will of the people is not to invoke an empty phrase. Will and people: rejecting the merely "formal" conceptions of democracy that disguise our status quo, an actively democratic politics will think one term through the other. A will of the people, on the one hand, must involve association and collective action, and will depend on a capacity to invent and preserve forms of inclusive assembly (through demonstrations, meetings, unions, parties, websites, networks). If an action is prescribed by popular will, on the other hand, then what's at stake is a free or voluntary course of action, decided on the basis of informed and reasoned deliberation. Determination of the people's will is a matter of popular participation and empowerment before it is a matter of representation, sanctioned authority or stability. Unlike mere "wish", if it is to persist and prevail then a popular will must remain united in the face of its opponents, and find ways of overcoming their resistance to its aims.

Whether it takes place in Tunis or Cairo, Caracas or Port-au-Prince, Athens or London, to ground political action in the will of the people is to reassert a collective capacity for deliberate and revolutionary transformation. As the people who are defying the governments of north Africa demonstrate, there are circumstances in which collective courage and enthusiasm can be more than a match for coercive state power. The cliche remains hollow until adopted in practice: "Where there's a will there's a way."
continue reading

Feminism And the Politics of the Commons

by Silvia Federici, The Commoner

At least since the Zapatistas took over the zócalo in San Cristobal de las Casas on December 31, 1993 to protest legislation dissolving the ejidal lands of Mexico, the concept of ‘the commons’ has been gaining popularity among the radical left, internationally and in the U.S., appearing as a basis for convergence among anarchists, Marxists, socialists, ecologists, and eco-feminists.

There are important reasons why this apparently archaic idea has come to the center of political discussion in contemporary social movements. Two in particular stand out. On one side is the demise of the statist model of revolution that for decades had sapped the efforts of radical movements to build an alternative to capitalism. On the other, the neo-liberal attempt to subordinate every form of life and knowledge to the logic of the market has heightened our awareness of the danger of living in a world in which we no longer have access to seas, trees, animals, and our fellow beings except through the cash-nexus. The ‘new enclosures’ have also made visible a world of communal properties and relations that many had believed to be extinct or had not valued until threatened with privatization. Ironically, the new enclosures have demonstrated that not only the common has not vanished, but also new forms of social cooperation are constantly being produced, including in areas of life where none previously existed like, for example, the internet.

Download the full PDF here.
continue reading