Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Late Thoughts on Egypt and Democracy


I look on the exhilarating, still unfolding events in Egypt over the last 2+ weeks with astonishment, and something like pride, with not a little hope and fear mixed in for good measure. My blog-silence over the same period is due to combination of factors, not least of which is that nothing else seems worth blogging about if I can't bring myself to blog about that. And yet what could I say? How could I keep up? (I've never been the kind of blogger who keeps up well with events, or who writes quickly.) My own tendency to want to summarize and narrate, if only to myself, to make sense of things, has been happily thwarted at nearly every turn. Almost the only thing I can do is watch and cheer and, I don't know, re-tweet stuff. (I post the above image in particular because it's an enormous gathering and it's from yesterday, more than two weeks in. Amazing. I took the picture from Al-Jazeera's site, though it also appeared at the indispensable Zunguzungu.)

I mention fear, because looming in the background, creepily, is the United States, which is not looking kindly on the prospect that its most important client state not named Israel might soon be unavailable for duty, so to speak. When will the U.S. act decisively? What kind of desperate power will it try to assert? Will the Egyptian people be able to continue to resist the "smooth transition" so much desired by ruling elites?

In a sense this fear is rooted in a tendency to think that the United States is all-powerful, that it can, and will, successfully assert its dominance. But, while the U.S. remains powerful, and is certainly unpredictable and crazy, it is nonetheless a power in decline, a decline that has been ongoing for most of my 40 years. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are indications of weakness, not power, their failures still further indications of that weakness. Regardless, all fantasies about the freedom-loving and Progressive Obama aside, the U.S. is certainly trying to assert its will now. How it will play out, what kinds of deals are attempted or accomplished to continue the client relationship as against any actual desires the Egyptian people might have, still remains to be seen. In the meantime, we are treated to a remarkable series of lessons in democratic action.

Naturally, we have also been treated to standard-issue Western ruling class and intellectual rhetoric about how Egyptians are not ready for or capable of democracy. As if they were incapable of making important decisions or using political judgment. Of course, it's true that this is in part blowing smoke, a distraction meant to ease that desired transition to a favored successor inclined to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, it is typically assumed by such elites, not to mention many policy-wonk liberals, that ordinary people in general cannot be trusted with politics (in any event, they cannot be trusted to do what elites would have them do, which amounts to the same thing). The contempt for democracy, and by extension for people, is never far from the surface.

Luckily for me, since there's not much, if anything, of value I can say about actual events in Egypt, this gives me the opportunity to do what I do best: quote from a book apparently unrelated to the question at hand. It happens that I am currently reading Ellen Meiksins Wood's Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought From Antiquity to the Middle Ages. I'm halfway through, and it's fascinating reading. What Wood seeks to do is to situate the political thought of such figures as Plato and Aristotle in the social and political conditions of their times, to find the problems they were trying to solve, the questions that necessitated their answers. Plato and Aristotle were, of course, of the aristocracy, and on balance hostile towards the democracy, though their work was informed by it. As such, they, Plato in particular, originate the Western elite posture towards democracy and ordinary people. His opponent, usually implicit, is the sophist Protagoras. Here is Wood:
Epistemological and moral relativism, as Protagoras formulates it, has, and is intended to have, democratic implications. Plato responds to this political challenge by opposing Protagoras's relativism with a new kind of universalism. In the democracy, in the atmosphere of public deliberation and debate, there could be no ruling ideas, no individual or social group whose unchallenged dominance allowed it to claim universality for its own values and impose them on others. The only effective way of challenging the conventional wisdom of shoemakers and blacksmiths, and their ability to participate in public speech and deliberation, was to trump conventional wisdom altogether with some higher form of knowledge, a knowledge not of mundane empirical realities but of absolute and universal truths.

Platonic universalism is of a very special kind, and it is perhaps only in relation to this philosophical universalism that Protagoras's ideas can be called morally relativist at all. He certainly did reject the notion that there are higher moral truths accessible only to philosophic knowledge, but he put in its place what might be called a practical universalism, rooted in a conception of human nature and the conditions of human well-being. His argument presupposes a conviction not only that men are in general capable of making political judgments, and that their well-being depends on participation in a civic order, but also that they are entitled to the benefits of civic life. It is true that, in his view, the specific requirements of well-being will vary in the infinite diversity of the human condition in different places and times, and social values will vary accordingly. But the underlying human substratum remains the same, and the well-being of humanity does provide a kind of universal moral standard by which to judge social and political arrangements or to assess the relative value of opposing opinions, not on the grounds that some are truer than others but that they are better . . .

Both Protagoras and Plato . . . place the cultural values of techné, the practical arts of the labouring citizen, at the heart of their political arguments, though to antithetical purposes. Much of what follows in the whole tradition of Western philosophy proceeds from this starting point. It is not only Western political philosophy that owes its origins to this conflict over the political role of shoemakers and smiths. For Plato the division between those who rule and those who labour, between those who work with their minds and those who work with their bodies, between those who rule and are fed and those who produce food and are ruled, is not simply the basic principle of politics. The division of labour between rulers and producers, which is the essence of justice in the Republic, is also the essence of Plato's theory of knowledge. The radical and hierarchical opposition between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, and between their corresponding forms of cognition, is grounded by Plato in an analogy with the social division of labour which excludes the producer from politics.
I have previously sought to define democracy as a situation in which ordinary people have non-trivial say in decisions affecting their everyday lives. I like Protagoras's idea, as glossed by Wood, that "men are in general capable of making political judgments, and that their well-being depends on participation in a civic order, but also that they are entitled to the benefits of civic life". It's not just that we can make such decisions, that we are capable of making such judgments, but that, in fact, we must. Our well-being depends on it, and we are entitled to it. And so we watch an unlikely revolution unfold in Egypt, with hope and longing, as if, perhaps, it were our own. . .


Ethan said...


The book sounds fascinating. Before I add it to my list, a question: if you haven't figured out yet, I'm ignorant to the point of being basically illiterate. If I don't have any kind of a background in Plato and Aristotle and whatever beyond what you can't help absorbing by being alive, will Wood's book be worth reading?

Anyway, about your excitements and fears, I definitely share them. As I see the word coming out of Tahrir Square, particularly from Mona Seif (@monasosh), I've been reminded more and more of what people say about life in the Paris Commune. They're making their own world there, and it's amazing. But then of course the more I'm reminded of the Commune, the more I'm reminded of how that ended.

I'm still more optimistic than pessimistic, though. Last night some friends came over for dinner, and of course all we could talk about was Egypt. At one point I brought up that there's at least one couple honeymooning in Tahrir, and at least one other that was married there, and we all kind of paused for a moment and thought about that, and how if you get married in a revolution, there's no way that you don't pass that down to your kids.

There's just so much beauty going on there--the Copts protecting the Muslims during prayers and vice versa, the guy giving free haircuts at the "revolution salon," the singing welcoming committees at the entrances to the square, the increasing strikes across the country....even if, God or whoever forbid, it is crushed, they can't kill everyone, and they can't make them--or us--forget.

Richard said...

Thanks for your comment, Ethan. I share that sense of optimism; you've articulated some of that beautifully...

I see you've added American Leftist to your bloglist--last week, in a comment to one of the Egypt Erupts post someone wondered about the effect this has all had on plans to attack Iran, wondering further if the Egyptians had "saved the world". Now, it's seemed like an attack on Iran has been imminent for years now, so perhaps it's not likely anyway. Regardless, how the US and the West deals with the Middle East, especially if other countries are emboldened to make their own demands of their own elites, would appear to be heavily impacted.

Regarding the book: yes you can definitely read it without background in Plato or Aristotle or whatever. Truth is, I'm probably not much more knowledgable in this area than you are. Despite my longstanding intention to acquaint myself with the classics, I've only read a handful of Plato's dialogues, virtually no Aristotle, along with a few things here and there that discuss them. In any event, Wood makes it easy. She doesn't really assume that the reader already knows their work (she does occasionally make such an assumption about Greek history, but then she explains it anyway). The book is short, too (236 pp), so that's always nice.

Jack Crow said...

Wood shines in "Origin of Capitalism," too. IIRC, you didn't find as useful as other books, Richard. But I think it's indispensable, because it's so accessible.

(Plus, I happen to agree with her core premise that capitalism had a very specific set of circumstances from which it emerged, in England, following Enclosure...)

Richard said...

Thanks, Jack. Actually, I found Origins enormously useful.

I think her core premise applies to the capitalist mode of production, but I find more comprehensive the world-systems analysis definition of capitalism as, in Wallerstein's words, "a historical system defined by the priority of the endless accumulation of capital". I think this has the advantage of helping to explain the capital preconditions for the those specific set of circumstances of which you speak. In this connection, I highly recommend Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century.

waggish said...

Wallerstein and Arrighi are great. I really don't see them mentioned too much these days, at least not next to people like Hardt/Negri. Am I looking in the wrong places?

I confess I'm nervous about the future: I think the ripple effect from the events may be more salutary than what happens to Egypt specifically, unfortunately, for two reasons. First, as you say, the US meddling to retain a hand in affairs, which would of course mean backing the status quo. But second, the ability for that status quo to persist in the seeming absence of an organized opposition.

I have no idea what the politics are behind the scenes; I'm not sure if anyone outside of Egypt does, even the CIA or whoever. But I fear the chances for a cosmetically-improved Mubarak replacement or worse are high. I had more hopes for Iran because it *seemed*, at least, that Tehran possessed an existing organized and semi-empowered class of people unhappy with the regime, as well as (of course) the absence of US/Russian/Chinese support for the existing regime, as well as the presence of dissident elements in the clergy (Montazeri, e.g.). I still hold out hope for a return to the days of Mossadegh.

For Egypt, I'm not sure I see such a confluence of comparatively benevolent forces, so I'm fearful that the celebrations will be more temporary. Hope I'm wrong on that count. I think it's something of a miracle that it's gotten this far without more violence, so I never lapse into total pessimism.