Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Asef Bayat, "Revolutions of Neoliberal Times"
Response by Rohini S. Singh

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[On October 27, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the first lecture in the 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Revolutions of Neoliberal Times." The speaker was Asef Bayat, Bastian Professor in Global and Transnational Studies (Sociology). Professor Jessica Greenberg (Anthropology) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student affiliate Rohini S. Singh (Communication).] 


"Tahrir Square Was a Revolution – Right?" 
Written by Rohini S. Singh 

People speak often of the "Arab uprising" and the domino series of revolutions it set off throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. However, the key takeaway from Asef Bayat's talk on Monday was that we might not be correct in calling what happened in Egypt a revolution. Instead, argued Bayat, the people involved in the Arab Spring uprisings critiqued the impact of neoliberalism on their lives in ways which conformed ultimately to neoliberal logics. As such, these protesters did not effect meaningful change of the sort usually brought about by revolutions. Rather than unseat political regimes or overhaul economic systems, they merely voiced dissent without enacting tangible changes in existing power structures. 

This ineffectual behavior might seem counter-intuitive, said Bayat, especially in light of the increasing income inequality wrought by neoliberalism, the global economic phenomenon which places the principles of free market capitalism at the center of social and political life. After all, neoliberalism's espousal of capitalism has generated incredible exclusion and inequality. Bayat cited a Forbes survey which found that the 400 richest people possess as much wealth as half the American public and argued that this kind of inequality can be found everywhere in the world. However, in spite of this stark inequality, there seems to have been little challenge mounted against this system.

Bayat hypothesized that this is because neoliberalism generates dissent that is itself conditioned by the structures and logics of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, explained Bayat, has commoditized emotions, relationships, and even social movements. It is a kind of governmentality that structures thinking and decision-making to the point where people cannot imagine a feasible alternative to it. By undertaking, as Michel Foucault called it, the "application of the economic grid to social phenomena," neoliberalism treats every institution as a business enterprise, whether it is a school, a hospital, or the state itself. It manifests in hierarchical structures, the constant striving for unlimited growth, the production of goods for exchange, fierce competition, the prioritization of self-interest, and the pursuit of efficiency. Hence, in its focus on individual effort and interest, neoliberalism seems to lack notions of society, community, the collective good, and real democracy (as opposed to formal democracy). 

Asef Bayat
In an effort, perhaps, to address this lacuna, two types of movements have arisen in response to neoliberalism. In places where neoliberal policies are mixed with autocratic regimes, we have seen revolutions aimed at regime change. However, in more liberal democracies, we have seen movements protesting the effects of neoliberalism while functioning within its structures. It is this latter group that we tend to see more in twenty-first century politics. Thus, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S protested the involvement of money in politics as well as the effects of neoliberal projects (such as unemployment and inequality) without systematically or adequately questioning the capitalist system that lay at the root of this inequality. While the Occupy movement expressed a profound distrust of liberal democracy, the movement focused more on highlighting the crisis of political representation in the U.S. than on articulating a radical critique of liberal democracy or outlining the alternative system they wanted. 

Similarly, in Egypt, it was not the economic model but the political regime that was the early target of the revolutionaries. The irony is that despite being targeted, these regimes did not change. The revolutions of the “Arab Spring” were not revolutions in terms of effecting changes to the state led by the people. Instead, the protesters here sought a mix of revolution and reform: Bayat characterized these protests as “refolutions” or "revolutions without revolutionaries." These protagonists, he argued, had not read deeply about revolutions, unseating regimes, or questioning ideologies. They found themselves caught up in the revolutions of 2011, overtaken by events rather than instigating them consciously. Given that they had not had much experience with past revolutions, these protesters therefore had no idea how to wrest the state back from the power-holders in government. Thus, Bayat observed that the language of revolution in Egypt's most recent revolutions remained mild and innocuous compared to earlier revolutions because the newer revolutionaries lacked the intellectual resources and vision to transform the incumbent regime. The social and economic vision of leaders in the Arab Revolution differed little from that of the old regimes, in contrast to revolutionaries in Cuba, Russia, China, Nicaragua, and Eastern Europe, who advanced different ideologies from the regimes they sought to topple. 

Tahrir Square Protest, 2013
In addition, Egypt's protesters used the language of the markets to critique the political regime, thus resisting their governments while adhering to the principles of the capitalist system by which these regimes functioned. Bayat described how one of the revolutionary groups went so far as to use marketing techniques to “sell” the protests. In doing so, the Egyptian “revolutionaries” borrowed from the 1998 Serbian uprising which also used branding through street art as a way to promote their movement and its aims. As such, the Arab Spring revolutions remained fairly pro-business, both in their tactics and impact. Bayat noted that the Arab Uprising resulted in a minimal flight of capital or investment during the revolutions, with only eight factories taken over in Egypt versus hundreds in previous revolutions in Iran, Chile, Algeria, and Portugal. Bayat closed by noting that the unparalleled number of protests instigated during the Arab Uprising hardly translated into actual revolution or regime change. 

Jessica Greenberg's response asked what the clout of neoliberalism meant for the possibility of a coherent politics or effectual social movements. She argued that modern social movements have shown that if anything, we must abandon existing definitions of revolutions and question the value of revolutions as a means of social change. She suggested that we should shift our understanding from the definitional to the situational by focusing on the everyday lived experiences of people involved in revolutions. To that extent, she argued that for many activists, the important thing is not to ask what revolution means, but what it does. The lesson she drew from this was that the question is not what to do about neoliberalism, but how to live with it. 

The ensuing questions touched on the role of violence in revolutions and the fault-lines of neoliberalism. To the first, Bayat responded that revolutionaries in Egypt were adamant that they did not want to resort to violence in their protests, but that they did fight back when faced with physical intimidation by the regime. When thinking about the possible fault-lines of hegemonic neoliberalism, Bayat mused that neoliberalism's effects are seen in the unprecedented inequality it has generated around the world. Thus, in the dissents of the Arab world, the key issue was not just the dictatorial regime in power but the consequences of neoliberal ideology for the middle-class poor. Bayat urged the audience to realize the importance of engaging in the "long revolution" by seeking changes in laws and systems of power to push for lasting social transformation. 

[Bayat's talk was part of the Unit for Criticism's ongoing 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. The next lecture is on Monday, November 10, at 4pm, in the Alice Campbell Alumni Center Ballroom, where we will hear from Catherine Prendergast (English) on "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account."]

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