The Arab Uprisings and the Blossoming of a 'Global Imaginary'

By Tristan Smaldone
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 2/3 |

Constructing a Heterodox Plurality

To recapitulate, the uprisings that engulfed Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and into early 2011, cannot be attributed to a particular social demand or counter-hegemonic struggle. Rather, they encompassed a diversity of grievances and actors, who coalesced into a singular and unified struggle. Ernesto Laclau insists that within the constructs of such multiplicities, exists a complex relationship between the universal and the particular, always in a state of flux and undecidability. A qualitative assessment of this relationship is difficult due to its ontological variability. Yet, it is precisely this task that is undertaken in Laclau’s deconstruction-informed constructivism, or ‘radical constructivism’ (Hansen, 2010).

The usefulness of Laclau’s grammar of concepts and logics in thinking about social and political changes that occurred in the Arab uprisings, can function independently from any prescribed ideological valuation. His insight into the construction of counter-hegemonic identity provides an inference that does not determine specific political outcomes. Whether or not the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are to be viewed with reverence or ultimately deemed successful is undetermined, in the strict sense, by Laclau’s rational. However, hegemony in a pluralist form is central to the model of radical democracy and constructivism that Laclau and his partner Chantel Mouffe have promoted throughout their writings.

Drawing on the idioms of deconstruction, Laclau states, “we can only be real chooser’s if the course of action opened to ourselves are not algorithmically predetermined. Full rationality and possibility of choice are incompatible with each other” (Mouffe, p. 52) Here, Laclau diverges from the discourses of structuralism and liberal constructivism, which endorse and promote models of rationality, individualism, progress, and universalism (Epstein, 2013; Boli, Thomas, 1999, p.17). In this sense, his theoretical framework is closer to the middle-ground constructivism of Emannuel Adler who’s perspective is defined as “a view that the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world” (Adler, 1997).

Alders variety of constructivism is situated somewhere in between materialism and poststructuralism (Zehfuss, 2002). It seeks to engage in the discursive space of objective and intersubjective politics, while being sensitive to underlying oppression and power positioning that tends to be structured into the language, itself. The acuity of Laclau and Mouffe’s approach is in their determination to pragmatically reconstruct discourse to question normative epistemological claims while fostering a politics of emancipation. Slovaj Zizek describes their work as an ‘extension of the democratic project’, a way to link together and expand struggles into new domains, to construct a social hegemon that allows for the autonomy of each particular struggle to thrive, while reinforcing unity between one another (Zizek, p.97).

Radical constructivism, privileges these ‘nodal points’4 in the expression of a political community that seek to resolve undecidablility, a term borrowed from Derrida (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985, preface). Laclau writes, “Undecidablility and decision are the names of that ineradicable and constitutive tension which makes possible a political society” (Mouffe, 1996, p. 59). While political empowerment depends on the ability to make decisions, decisions can only overcome undecidability through the suppression of alternatives. Therefore, affirmative choices can be made, within an undecidable terrain, by constructing “a normative position that endorses pluralism and conflict rather than unity and consensus” (Hansen, 2010). Following this modality, the very principle of pluralist democracy relies on a certain degree of exclusion, or rather a dialectical logic that creates an internal and external frontier. In principle, pluralism is a struggle that aims to maintain alterity, perceived as being under strain in our rapidly globalizing world. It is diametrically opposed to any effort aimed at repressing or eradicating difference, found in the discourse of xenophobia, fascism, and neoliberalism (Campbell, 1998).

What makes this model especially radical, rather than aggregative or deliberative, is that it challenges representational democratic systems, along with those overly dependent on consensus building, claiming that they reduce the vibrancy of democracy, leading to de facto apathy, increased antagonism, and an undermining of political agency. Mouffe elaborates on this point in her recent publication, Agonistics, in which she criticizes aggregative politics for reducing political participation to the occasional vote for a representational figure, within a highly individualistic framework. In theory, the deliberative model might be more inclusive. Yet, it seeks to eradicate difference through rational consensus building. Here, ethico-political principles are settled through the mitigation of passions and the ability to call into question dominant norms (Mouffe, 2013, p. 5-13).

What Mouffe and Laclau’s agonistic model specifically favors are political conflicts taking the form of a ‘struggle between adversaries’ rather than a ‘struggle between enemies’. Mouffe writes, “Adversaries fight against each other because they want their interpretation of the principles to become hegemonic, but they do not put into question the legitimacy of their opponents right to fight for the victory of their position” (Mouffe, 2013, p.7). It was precisely this model that was assumed during the initial stages of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. A fundamental respect for pluralism allowed for multiple struggles to have agency within a united political front.

Laclau’s work on populism expresses his fully matured formulation of counter-hegemonic ontology. He saw social, or ‘grassroots’, populism as a symbolic structure in the unconscious, that forms as a multiplicity of demands and grievances find common ground in their position of alterity from a dominant social echelon. The hegemonic identity is bound by what he refers to as ‘an equivalential chain of differences’. The group identity becomes an ‘empty signifier’, for ‘a people,’ who’s ideology can neither be expressed in particular nor universal terms. An important distinction here that comes from his grounding in deconstruction is that the group functions at a level of inter-subjectivity, having no central nucleus of power or program to follow. The impermanence of its being, as a signifier, is always in an inchoate state, ‘empty’ and irreducible, but also ‘floating’ and un-territorial (Laclau, 2005, p. 133).

Laclau and Mouffe’s grammar and logic are most secure when applied within the framework of liberal democratic state systems, where the values of ‘liberty and equality for all’ are already consented to and enshrined in the form of law (Howarth, 2008). Superimposing their ideas onto the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia runs the risk of overlooking the unique and oppressive dichotomy between people in these countries and their despotic state leadership. In both cases, the transformative value of populism and the pursuit of pluralist democracy were severely limited by tight restrictions on basic political liberties such as civil society activism, freedom of the press, freedom to publicly criticize the regime, and the freedom to form religious parties (Durac, 2013). In Tunisia, then in Egypt, popular indignation was met with violent state suppression, followed by a clashing of counter-hegemonic struggles, competing for access to new political space.

State Violence and Political Openings

In both Tunisia and Egypt, protesters were labeled and targeted as criminals and terrorists (Collins & Rothe, 2012). In each country, dissent was met with systemic violence. According to The Economist, over two hundred protesters were killed in Tunisia and over eight hundred in Egypt during the uprisings (Economist, 2011). Women participants, in particular, became victims of gendered violence in both countries, despite efforts to draw security forces towards the moral position of protesters. In Tunisia, female protesters were targeted by state security forces, which subjected them to systematic sexual harassment and assault. In Egypt, police forces explicitly used public sexual assault to deter women from participating in visible acts of dissent. Many women were subsequently arrested, charged with prostitution, and tortured in jail (Johansson-Nogues, 2013; Moghadam, 2014).

While the non-traditional and leaderless formation of this political frontier effectuated a total collapse of the domineering powers in Tunisia and Egypt, it was unsuccessful in appropriating a position within the political spaces left open. Instead, non-secular groups with particularistic agenda’s were able to hijack these openings (Durac, 2013). In each case, moderate Islamist parties that were previously barred from political involvement, capitalized on the political aperture, and assumed control. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party won the countries first post-revolutionary elections. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, attained similar success. However, neither of these power arrangements lasted, and both countries are currently engrossed in a state of political uncertainty and electoral instability. The guise of ‘free and fair’ elections has produced insignificant gains in either country towards meeting the demands of protesters (Durac, 2013; Singerman, 2013).

While there was a degree of triumph in many of these uprisings, namely in the reopening of political space that allowed for the brief recognition of marginalized political actors, the insecurity that followed raises necessary questions concerning the pitting of social populism against authoritarian dictatorships. Furthermore, the infectious revolutionary fervor has degenerated into violent civil wars in countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where laudable political developments have been few. (Williams & Popken, 2012; Garwood-Gowers, 2013). This unfortunate turn of events demands a closer look at the virtues of populist revolt.

Purity and Coercion

There is no purity inherent to ‘a people’, regardless of its size, composition, or claims. The nobility attributed to this imagined order is woven into its own ideological patterns that shape discourse, and become ‘real’ only through enactment. Its structure is self-productive and its morality is entirely relative. Furthermore, ‘a people’, as signified by a heterogeneous political frontier, is porous, in the sense that any number of influences may permeate and change its constitution. Populist discourse is equally susceptible to influence and coercion as in any other doctrinal system that appeals to the passions, pleasures, and endearments of the group, or jouissance, in the Lacanian sense.

As Mark Bracher discusses in his informative work on Lacan, “political and religious discourses frequently offer love or recognition as a means of enticing subjects to assume a specific position (Bracher, 1993, p.23). The virtual, meta-connectivity that is amplified through modern media is no exception. Here, unbounded communication has cultivated what Lacan referred to as, ‘active and passive narcissistic desires’,5 through the intermixing of discourse and the proffering of jouissance. Another example of this phenomenon is the ephemeral outpouring of love and compassion from the symbolic ‘global community’, following large-scale natural disasters. In these instances, otherwise disparate social and political groups may form a reimagined community, pivoting on the desire to relieve, protect, and provide security for one another.

While much attention is being given to the pathways of communication (Facebook, Twitter, the news media, etc.), and their significance in the Arab Uprisings, it is important to highlight the primacy of human emotion, the jouissance, which compels communication. Analyzing the utility of media, without reference to ‘narcissistic desires’, or the unconscious ways in which social bonds are formed, will fall short of understanding the interplay between identity formation and the performative reification of these structures (Adler, 1997). In other words, simply looking at how media use influences political uprisings tells us nothing about the value of symbolic orders or why such illusive unification has become so momentous within this particular ‘historic bloc’6. As Lacan suggests, dominant structures, or ‘master discourses’ that stifle the social imaginary, compel ‘hysteric discourses’, or revolutionary fervor (Bracher, 1993, 64-65). When neoliberalism becomes euphemistic for dehumanization, particularly within the context of authoritarian Statism, the perfect environment is created for a discourse of hysterics.

Yet, Habermas described the mythical concept of ‘a people’ as “not comprised of a subject with a will and consciousness …capable of neither decision nor action as a whole” (De la Torre, 2015, p. 365). He is correct in pointing to the significance of imagination in the formation of ‘a people’ but fails to see its pragmatic capacity, which has the potential to solve or act as a corrective for political oppression. Despite many possible openings for cynicism, what can be extrapolated from these revolutionary moments, regardless of their character or outcome, is the destabilizing capacity of their heterodox logic along with the unforeseeable global mimesis that transpired.

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