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Tuesday
May312011

Revolting against Ideology

This is a repost of an item from February, I thought it was particularly relevant in light of my coming postings on the Libya crisis and how the Arab Spring has unfolded.

Protesters against authoritarian regimes are often criticized for not articulating what comes next.  That is precisely the point, and what it hopeful about them.

In recent years a number of countries have seen large, broadly based movement against authoritarianism.  The most notable recent examples are Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt.  Whether successful or not, many have disputed defining these as “revolutions”.  Professor Hamid Dabashi describes Iran’s unrest, ongoing since the apparently fraudulent election of 2009, as a “civil rights movement”.  Aside from the revolution-like manifestations of protest and civil disobedience, what these movements have in common is their lack of a prescriptive pronouncement for their societies.  Rather, what they seek to do it was classical liberalism has long predicted would happen as modernity spreads—they seek a space where individuals with differing views can articulate and discuss them, and forge an acceptable consensus.

The material progress of the nineteenth and twentieth century caused people to dream of perfection.  Different affirmative programs that promised utopia characterized revolutions, insurgencies, and coups.  The Bolshevik Revolution would create a workers paradise through the dictatorship of the proletariat, Nasser would redistribute wealth fairly with a form of socialism fitted to uniquely Arab circumstances, and Khamenei is reported to have said before the Iranian Revolution “…[W]hen Islam will come to power, not a single tear will be shed”.

But there were tears in all of these cases, and dreams destroyed, and lives lost, and duller and greyer day-to-day existences.  Whether their state was Bolshevik, Maoist, or Khomeinist, differences of opinion continued to surface, often to the detriment of those with the wrong opinion.  A comprehensive solution is easy to contemplate in opposition and hard to implement in power.  In democratic conditions Islamists and socialists alike have had to look for pragmatic solutions or face defeat at the ballot box.

The Iranian Revolution was the turning point.  Instead of one ideology there were many, including feminism, socialism, communism, and Islamism, many with their own claims to providing a complete solution.  The Islamic republic took years used untold violence to suppress its ideological competitors.  The uncertainty of liberalism couldn’t compete with the positivist prescriptions of utopia.  Ironically, many of the ideological warriors of that revolution, such as Moussavi and Ayatollah Montazeri, would be the ones to moderate themselves after years of the practice of politics.  The structural weakness of pre-commitment to ideology turned out to be that it hampered the legitimacy of the state.

The revolutions of 1989-90 did result in the overthrow of previously ideological regimes, but they did not replace them with new ideologies, they replaced them with good governance.  The same pattern has emerged again and again in the years since in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.  In perhaps most of these situations there is still some ways to go until democratic best practices are the norm, but in all cases governance has improved markedly and become more transparent and accountable.  Taken together they add up to more than merely a victory for democracy; they show a growing understanding that modern societies require transparency, accountability, and the rule of law to function.  Furthermore, the principles of good governance are anchored in widespread conceptions of legitimacy. 

Today the notion of popular legitimacy is nearly universally accepted.  Amongst the world’s most authoritarian states, North Korea calls itself a “people’s republic” with putative representative institutions.  Iran and Egypt have set up the legal edifice of divided government and have then undermined it with parallel institutions that give the state a patina of plausible deniability.  In Iran these include the revolutionary guard and bassij, in Egypt they have been the security services and ruling hegemonic National Democratic Party.  The dysfunction of legitimating institutions may be their most notable feature, but also noteworthy is the amount of time and effort these regimes spend making the charade plausible.

Compared to the utopian demands of earlier revolutions, the simpler demands of today’s revolutions can look uninspired or legalistic.  The Iranian opposition consistently focuses on existing laws or constitutional articles and how they should be following.  To express solidarity with the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia Messrs Karroubi and Moussavi don’t simply call for a protest.  Instead, they make a big show out of submitting the formal request and then turning its subsequent denial into a humiliation that is designed to catch the attention of the law-and-order types that most heavily buy into the regime’s line.  In Egypt protesters have focused so narrowly on Mubarak because Mubarak has personalized his rule to such a large extent.  Calling for the specific removal of one person, even if they are the head of state, is still a lot more incisive that calling for the sweeping replacement of one order with another. 

The fundamental weakness of the Egyptian regime’s belated calls for negotiation was its lack of legitimacy.  That lack of legitimacy resulted in the dearth of transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  In a context where the incumbent regime is not legitimate, and legitimacy cannot yet be established as is best-accepted--by the ballot, calling for the bare minimum necessary to facilitate legitimacy is both extremely sensible and shows a great deal of maturity on the part of protesters.

Instead of militants using intimidation to achieve goals outside of the possible, we now see peaceful protests asking for the basics that are: the right to discuss the future and a legitimate state.  I wouldn’t expect or want anything more.

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