Global Dialogues

Politics as an End in Itself: The Arab Spring and The Creation of Independent Publics

Social movements create publics. They make it possible for people to express and act on their common concerns together. This creativity of movements has not fully appreciated. It has a long history, and it is also a key characteristic of the new “new social movements.” We discussed this in the Wroclaw seminar, moving from history to the study of the movements of our times.

Our discussion reminded me of the work of one of my former students, Angela Jones. Her dissertation, now a book, is on the Niagara Movement, which preceded the NAACP. The movement established the first national forum for the discussion of African American concerns by African Americans. Until very recently, it has been viewed as little more than a footnote in the career of W.E.B. Dubois. Jones’s work fills in a gap in history, the first fully developed study of this early episode in the long civil rights struggle. The gap existed because of the insufficient understanding of the importance of creating free public interaction in social movements.

In the democratic opposition to Communist regimes, specifically in Poland, the goal of establishing independent publics was not overlooked. In fact, for quite a while, it was the major end of the social struggle. The constitution of a free public space for discussion and action became the primary end of underground Solidarność in the 1980s. Because the regime couldn’t be successfully challenged, the end became to constitute a zone beyond its control. The end was for individual and collective dignity, to create an area where one could express oneself, appear outside of official definition, consolidate agreement among diverse participants in an autonomous public, which could be applied at an appropriate moment. The goal was to engage in a long cultural march, as Adam Michnik put it in a 1976 classic essay, “The New Evolutionism.”

In the new “new social movements,” this movement feature has been cultivated in a new political, generational and media environment. New media forms have played an important role, for better and for worse, and the creation of new autonomous publics has been put forward as a primary end.

Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park were places where all sorts of people met. Many came to know each other virtually, and then being together became the important feature of square and the park. The demands in the square centered on ending the Mubarak regime and its corruption, and in the park the rally cry was for the 99%, but the meeting of Coptics, Muslims and secularists together in the square, and the coming together of students, unionists, young and old, employed and unemployed in the park were at least as significant as the ends of their actions. Indeed, the ends were not all that clear: An Islamic or a Secular Democratic polity, a rejection of the American Dream or the restoration of its promise? As the movements couldn’t answer these questions, they opened up opportunities for new sorts of public expression and action. They expressed a simple but powerful point: the way things have been is not necessarily the way they will be, as the people in these movements revealed themselves to each other.

Wroclaw seminar participant Fernanda Canofre of Brazil wrote her master’s thesis on the Arab Spring and Moroccan films. When we discussed the Arab Spring, she suggested that we review twenty of videos from Morocco posted on globalvoicesonline.org. The videos add up, pointing to the diversity of those who support the protests in Morocco and the breadth and depth of their concerns, and the importance of constituting a free public life. The videos present “the February 20th movement” in action.

The first video presents the demands of the movement made by one of its young leaders, Oussama Lakhlifi. It stimulated a fierce debate about the planned demonstration on February 20th. A week before the demonstration, activists released a well-produced film, the second video clip, in which a variety of Moroccans, from apparently secular students and labor activists to a religious woman in traditional dress, explain why they will join the movement. (See video embedded below.) They want to have a chance at a decent life. They call for a constitution and democracy, an end of corruption, and a chance for a job and the dignity of labor, and lower food prices.

Other videos respond to the unfolding events. The videos counter official propaganda, document official violence and the response of officials to movement demands. Attractive videos include an animated cartoon Einstein giving a lesson on the power elite and music videos of Moroccan pop band, Hoba, Hoba, Spirit and rap video “Mellit!” (I’m fed up!).

An official referendum on constitutional reforms was held and the opposition presented video parodies of the enthusiasm shown on official media. Two other videos call for a boycott. Another documents fraud on the day of the referendum.

After the reforms were overwhelmingly approved. Videos followed, one expressing continued international support for the movement from a gathering of activists and bloggers at a meeting in Tunis. The last video shows a lonely singer with a group of accompanying musicians all but ignored on a busy city street. The post concludes: “What role will the February 20 movement be able to play next year as revolutionary fatigue begins to gain ground? Will it be able to be creative enough to keep pace?”

The February 20th movement changed the course of Moroccan history even though the social order was not fundamentally changed. Reforms were enacted, though the King was very much still in charge, relatively popular, not a Mubarak figure. The demands for the most radical change were not realized. But in this far corner of the Arab world, the accomplishments of the Arab Spring are well documented in these videos.

We see from the inside an independent public, with links to similar publics in the region. They have established the important political fact of their existence. As long as they keep speaking, showing and sharing, their world is fundamentally transformed.

Canofre’s discussion of the movement, and the Arab Spring more generally, was not at all pessimistic. Her interest in the videos, and in film as well, is not only as they document a historical development, but also as they make history. When the Wroclaw seminar participants questioned her about her interest in the videos, it became clear to us that a fundamental transformation in Arab politics is revealed and enacted in them. The fundamental relationship between culture and power has been transformed.

More on this, extended to the case of Occupy Wall Street, in my next post.