Three nettime posts on the Egyptian uprising
1. A comment on a Hernando de Soto article in the Wall Street Journal:
Thanks for this, Patrice:
De Soto's analysis is striking and the problems he reveals are part of what needs to be addressed. One area where neoliberals a la Hayek have been right is that the self-organization of individuals and small groups is more effective than attempts at total state planning of production and distribution. The problem is they draw from that an ideology of abolishing the state, while in reality the state reshapes itself to favor the self-organization of... huge corporate oligopolies whose first rule of business is 'don't let anyone else into the market.' As I understand from reading, the most ever done to help Egypt's rural poor was land redistribution (with or without ownership title, I am not sure) under the socialist Nasser. To help poor people in the Middle East and elsewhere overcome basic problems, we need to forge a new conception of the state as an enabler of everyday life and not as a driver of corporate growth. Failing this, the Middle East is set to become the ground zero of a world war marking the end of American hegemony.
Right now there is a food crisis in the world, which I am sure no one on this list has noticed except maybe in a few specialized articles. But people in Tunisia and especially Egypt have noticed it, to the point where many think it is a proximate cause for the uprisings (not of course the only one, far from it). Food availability is an issue of global well-being (a better concept than global security). To achieve it requires the suppression of commodity speculation and the provision of emergency funds on the global scale, the way bail-out funds are provisioned except, of course, only a tiny percentage of such funds would be needed. However, none of that essential stuff is gonna work in any country where the state does not facilitate individual and above all, community self-organization, not just so that money can change hands but so that vital needs can be met and communities can flourish.
Can capitalism as we know it today deliver such a solution? De Soto's implication is that it would, if we just allowed its true nature to shine through. Reminds me of the arguments about really-existing communism. What we see with really-existing capitalism is the intensification of global oligopolies on the one hand, and the maintenance of oppressive regimes in the name of order and stability, on the other. With Israel armed to the teeth and marauding sadistically every year, with Iran developing a nuclear bomb, with Hezbollah showing the world how to organize both a victorious army and an effective solidarity system on the ground, and with the US pledged to intervene in favor of its key allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia), it is not even sure that a starving Egypt is required to set off the biggest war this world has seen since the 1940s.
Voices ask, rightly of course, what does the blather on lists like this really mean? They know it does not mean much. But we are all more or less intellectuals, of the organic kind that Gramsci described. What we need to do is to conceptualize and to demand a new kind of state. Techno-fetishism is over, it was never worth anything and it has played into the hands of the key producers of neoliberal ideology in the US and Britain. Rather than celebrating the prowess of technology in creating more or less failed revolutions, or alternately, moaning about one's inability to do anything except pointlessly blather, the thing to do is to create and demand an effective understanding of how we are going to survive the historical crisis that is opening up right now before our eyes, since the financial meltdown. You can do that, each one of you, in whatever functions you occupy as an organic intellectual, and not just in teaching or direct politicking. Because the threat is real. There is no one-off solution. We need a people-state, operating at different scales -- global, continental, national, territorial -- and allowing community self-organization for survival and cultural flowering.
2. Felix Stalder's post: The End of the End
The Al Jazeera stream has been running for the last week nearly
non-stop in my living room.
I'm reminded of Berlin 1989. Again, courageous people, highly
articulate and self-organized, are pushing aside a sclerotic regime
and its oppressive apparatus that threatened to swallow the future.
Just a few weeks ago the regime seemed to last forever. Suddenly, it
seems amazing that it lasted so long.
The similarities belie all talk about the 'facebook/twitter
revolution'. It's a true popular uprising, intelligent, peaceful,
using whatever is available to channel its own energies. Sure, the
means of communication are important. But, in the end, they are
secondary to the will to communicate.
But it seems appropriate to connect Berlin to Cairo for other reasons
as well. If the former stands for the beginning of the end of the cold
war geopolitical order, then Cairo could well stand for the end of
the end of that order. Many of the now crumbling dictatorships in the
middle-east managed to extend their lease on live within the American
empire by switching from anti-communism to anti-islamism, for the sole
purpose of keeping their privileged positions within periphery of the
empire. That bluff has been called now by the people.
Thus, it's perhaps only now that the 20th century is truly over. How
fitting it is, that this event is broadcasted not by CNN but by Al
3. My reply: The Beginning of the End?
Felix's sense of an ending jibes with mine, but our reasons are so different that this cannot just be a comment. The Cold War military order ended along with the Keynesian-Fordist industrial paradigm way back in the 1970s. The crisis that is opening now (for the last three years) will spell the end of American-led, financially driven neoliberal globalization. Since that period can also be dubbed "Informationalism" I think does matter to nettime. The "immanent critique of the internet" is now talking place in the flesh on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
Beginning with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the focus of global warfare and the principle justification for the gigantic national arms-manufacturing complexes shifted from Asia (which had occupied that role during the Cold War) to the Middle East. US defeat in Vietnam officialized the shift. Meanwhile, the stunning victory of Egypt in the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian War, coupled with the first oil embargo, brought about a new reaction in the form of a strategic alliance between national militaries, arms manufacturers and oil extractors that is now visible to all as the ugly fist of Anglo-American imperialism. We are talking about a shift from the Cold War atomic-weapons conflict to the hot wars all aimed at maintaining control over the dwindling oil of the Middle East. Felix is right to say that Islamism replaced Communism as the threat required to maintain this military-industrial-extractive complex. That shift occured in the period from 1979 (Iranian Revolution) to 1981 (Anwar Sadat's assassination, commonly attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood, but in fact done by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri). With the monetary turn in the economy and the ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher, that same period marked the beginning of the financially driven political-economic formula of neoliberalism, which went global after the fall of the Soviet Union's hollow facade in 1989.
We all lived through the globalization boom in the 1990s, but most did not realize it was already marking the "financial autumn" (in Braudel's famous phrase) of the American Century. Some of us did: we watched the Asian countries react to the 1997 financial crisis by refusing any new Western loans and ramping up their exports; we followed the deliberate engineering of the property/derivatives bubble after the industrial expansion of the 1990s collapsed in the year 2000; we were not surprised by the scope and severity of the 2008 krach, because we were well aware it had started in the summer of 2007. From this perspective it appears that the American system - or at the very least, the neoliberal version of it - is now on the way out. But the process is only beginning.
Throughout the era of US imperial dominance, the central issue has been opening the markets of subordinated countries to American (and more broadly, Western) trade, on American terms. This began at least as far back as the late 1920s, when the Ford Motor Co. was producing around two thirds of the cars sold in the world. However, the pattern of trade changed decisively in the 1970s, when the US started running very serious balance-of-trade deficits in manufactured goods including automobiles. Many people thought THAT was the beginning of the end. Instead the US continued to ramp up its exports of high-end engineering, of services and immaterial goods of all kinds, of legal frameworks, scientific paradigms and managerial brainpower, and finally, most decisively, of financial flows, which it did not so much supply itself as coordinate, with the help of Tokyo and the City of London, via the new electronic networks. The fiber-optic cable laid in the 1990s permitted the raising and allocation of speculative capital all over the world, giving rise to the tremendous burst of urbanization and indeed, of industrial development, that we have seen in and around the major global nodes since the late 1990s. This financially driven globalization culminated with the entry of China to the WTO in 2001. And indeed, in China it shows its true face: authoritarian state capitalism, information without democracy. The utopia whose promise so many of us felt in the 1990s has reversed into a nightmare. It is not over yet - but a major crisis began in 2007, and by 2008 it was already clear that the crisis would be geopolitical. The unipolar system of globalization has fallen apart. What I call "continental drift" has begun in earnest.
How will world development be coordinated in 10 or 15 years? No one yet knows. But it is known that the great promise of informationalism aka financialization was a lie and a failure. One the one hand it has maintained and even worsened the harshest domestic inequalities (witness Egypt); and on the other, with the deliberate cultivation of the Islamist enemy, it has produced a new form of super-empowered, laser-guided warfare and a process of intensive global policing whose hallmarks are satellite surveillance and assassination by unmanned drones (classic information technologies). Since 9/11 both these developments have made the new-look American imperium even more unpopular than the old one. First Latin America peeled away from what had been called the "Washington Consensus" (Thomas Friedman admiringly called it the "golden straightjacket" but no one wants to put it on anymore). Then, in the wake of the 2008 crisis, China began to assert itself as a fully autonomous and sovereign industrial power. And now, the people in the Middle East can no longer stand to be held in a state of arrested development (if not outright arrest for the slightest critique of their American-backed regimes). But I am sure this is only a beginning.
We are now going to face 10 or 15 years of economic and military chaos, while a new geopolitical order is worked out and a new industrial order emerges to face, for better or worse, the challenges of an ecologically transformed planet. Will this period of chaos entail a great war involving atomic weapons and centered on the Middle East? Will it see the militarization of China? Will it see the continued hardening of the class structure in the Western societies, with the spread of personal-security technologies and the proliferation of sealed borders? Will it see the generalization of GMO farming and the consequent destruction of arable land all over the earth? Or can all these negative trends be halted, in the face of their evident dead-end nature for most of the world population? Will a new ecologically conceived toolkit emerge out of the ruins of financial globalization? Will world development patterns be changed so as to allow everyone, everywhere, to find meaning in their lives by participating in the caretaking of human society?
These are the questions and let us be glad they are now at last coming explicitly on the table. Crisis is welcome, it interrupts the business-as-usual that inexorably makes things worse. My friend and collaborator Armin Medosch is right to insist on the mass intelligence of the Egyptians acting courageously in the street right now: it is impressive, it is beautiful, and even as it marks the beginning of the end of Informationalism it realizes part of the promise of the knowledge economy that neoliberal management killed and abandoned: because listen, remember, the people on the streets are in fact known to many in Egypt as "the digital generation." That kind of intelligence, unfolding in many different forms and at different scales, is in my humbly visionary opinion what will provide the joy of the upcoming difficult years. What the "digital generation" has to invent is not the stiffening of a repressive hyper-technological order. What we have to invent, beyond what we used to think of as "ourselves," is a way through chaos, a way beyond repression, a way out of planetary hegemonies: a chance to coexist in the twenty-first century.