Hamid Dabashi’s latest book is a joyful celebration of the ongoing revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. It deserves to be read by anyone with even a passing interest in what must surely rank as the most important series of events in our time.
Dabashi is an Iranian academic based in the US. His writings on Iran’s opposition Green Movement are essential reading. This book combines an extended commentary on events, written as they unfolded, with an attempt to integrate these comments within a broader theoretical framework.
Dabashi is savage in dismantling attempts to cast the revolts as middle class uprisings in support of neoliberal capitalist development. He is clear that the democratic uprisings in places like Syria must be supported, however much those regimes attempt to pose as anti-imperialist. While correctly seeing the intervention in Libya as a cynical attempt to shape the Arab Spring in the interests of the West, Dabashi is scathing in his denunciation of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
He is particularly sensitive to the reciprocal interactions between these revolts and the battles against austerity in the West – such as the Wisconsin workers’ protests and the Occupy movement. Dabashi is consistently, and passionately, on the side of oppressed people demanding to shape their own destinies.
Accompanying this absorbing commentary is a fizzing cocktail of theoretical material. References to thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Trotsky, Foucault, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou and many others populate almost every page. This is both a blessing and a curse. Some of the writers Dabashi quotes sympathetically propose radically different, and sometimes mutually contradictory, ways of understanding social change in general and revolution in particular.
While Dabashi rejects Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s vacuous notion of “the multitude”, and seems broadly sympathetic to a classical Marxist understanding, his main frame of reference is postcolonial theorists. Edward Said, the celebrated author of Orientalism, is a guiding presence throughout.
Even so, Dabashi’s main intention here is to announce the end of postcolonialism. He thinks the Arab Spring marks “the end of postcolonial ideological formation as we have known them for the past two hundred years. By the end of postcoloniality I mean the cessation of ideological production in colonial contexts and terms – the terms determined by the European colonial domination of the region, and the tyrannical ‘postcolonial’ states left behind when the Europeans collected their flags and left.”
Dabashi is determined to show that these movements have swept aside the debilitating ideological baggage of European imperialism, whose lingering effects are still felt in the “postcolonial” dictatorships that are now being dismantled. Dabashi asks whether the Arab revolts have created “a new language for reading them that accords to them the primacy of authoring their own meaning”.
The great strength of the book is that all its arguments flow from the understanding that revolutions are open-ended processes. Nonetheless, there is a tension between Dabashi’s regular assertions that Arab people are re-forging their own destinies, and his desire to place such changes in a broader theoretical context. This tension reflects a real dynamic shaping the development of these revolutions.
Every revolutionary process involves complex interactions between the old and the new. All revolutions generate novel forms of organisation and new ideas. They are also marked by the old world from which they are born. The job of theory in this context is to embrace new developments and combine them with old ideas that pass the test of practice.
Though he generally lays equal emphasis on struggles against racism, women’s oppression and workers’ exploitation, Dabashi suggests that the strike in Suez on 8 February 2011 may have been the decisive factor in the fall of Mubarak, although he doesn’t elaborate on why this might be. He does, however, end his analysis by linking his arguments to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky’s important breakthrough was to grasp that the working class can push a revolution beyond its initial limits, turning a democratic revolution into a social revolution.
Contributors to this magazine have argued, I think correctly, that the fate of the Arab Spring is likely to hinge on the ability of the working class to shape these revolutions, especially in Egypt, precisely in order to push the revolutions past the stifling bounds of liberal democracy – a goal Dabashi would, I’m sure, support. Developments in this direction remain embryonic at present. But, as Dabashi rightly insists, these revolutions are far from over.
This book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Arab Spring. It deserves to be warmly welcomed and widely read.
The Arab Spring is published by Zed Books, £12.99