The current Arab ‘revolutions’, pose anew some venerable questions of revolutionary transformation, not least whether they will result in fundamental changes to economic life in the region or, as Antonio Gramsci might have recognised, a restoration of the old political order.
In 1917 one rather renowned contemporary revolutionary figure, V. I. Lenin, opined that, ‘The basic question of every revolution is that of state power’. So what makes a revolution; and can the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East be seen in revolutionary terms?
Generally, when considering modern revolutions it is usual to highlight certain structural conditions that might shape forces for change — so-called ‘objective’ factors of economic crisis and inequality, poverty, or exploitation — alongside a series of conjunctural circumstances that arise in the moment, due to the historical peculiarities of a place or space.
In my own work Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy, these aspects are deployed to understand Gramsci’s notion of ‘passive revolution’. This refers to social conditions that are not literally passive but are often violent transformations. Further, the term captures how processes of revolutionary rupture become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist accumulation processes.
How might the mix of the structural and conjunctural explain today’s Arab ‘revolutions’? And are these pivotal moments better understood as uprisings or revolts (or passive revolutions) leading to a series of reforms rather than a fundamental revolutionary change in power?
First up, on those structural issues, one can highlight the role of the food price crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt. The surge in world food prices, linked to wider speculation on the global commodity futures markets, helped to trigger both uprisings and has been a key factor in past and present ‘food riots’ across the developing world. In 2011, world food prices reached their highest peak in the last thirty years. Given that North Africa imports half its wheat and world wheat prices soared by 50 per cent in 2010, no wonder bread prices have underpinned — but not solely determined — discontent.
What of those cloudier conjunctural factors? Many in the West draw attention to the importance of internet activism – Egypt’s was supposedly a ‘Twitter Revolution’, personified by Wael Ghonim. To overemphasise that aspect, though, would be to fall into a technological determinism whilst overlooking the courage of direct social protest and risk of life against state violence, torture, and imprisonment.
It would also lose sight of other factors, such as odious political regimes and Western complicity; human rights abuses; and kleptocratic states that have contributed to a charged political environment.
We also need to take account of additional specific events and conflagrations in the moment of the conjuncture: Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the subsequent street demonstrations in Tunisia; the counter-space of Tahrir as a site of civil resistance in Egypt; and the intransigence of rebel elements in Benghazi, Tobruk, and Misrata in defiance of the Gaddafi regime.
On that basis, where does that leave the Arab ‘revolutions’? Are we witnessing an Arab 1848, or 1989, or 1789? Historical analogies are difficult to make stick, precisely due to the different mix of structural and conjunctural factors throughout history.
Where, moreover, are these ‘revolutions’ going? Zhou Enlai, when asked in the 1950s what had been the consequences of the 1789 French Revolution, allegedly said that it was still too early to tell. Avoiding hasty conclusions, then, in the middle of current events is perhaps wise.
Whether these ‘revolutions’ will amount to fundamental social, political and economic transformations or, instead, the restructuring and consolidation of capitalism remains therefore an open question.
History, clearly, has not ended but is in the making, again, and again.