Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.

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One thought on “Theory in the streets

  1. Pingback: ‘Learning in and through action’ | Pop Theory

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