“It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.” Jean Buardrillard.
Jean Baudrillard in 2006, a year before his death aged 77
The “Arab Spring” that never happened? Bahrain’s “revolution of dignity”, March 2012: youths revel in the fresh air of liberation, the question of identity is thrashed out in the process of the struggle
The article “The Invention of the Savage: Colonial Exhibitions and the Arab Spring”, translated from the French, appears on the “Jadaliyya” (“Debate”, “Dialectics”) website, it got me thinking.
This article inspired me to dust off my old Jean Baurdrillard books unread since my undergraduate days (yes, I still have them), and reflect on the relationship between Bardrillard’s ideas to the “Arab Spring”, of which I have been an observer and, in a sense, a participant. The Jadaliyya article is here:
A “human zoo” for the “acclimatisation” of French colonists, early C20th: are today’s media representations of the “Arab Spring” a freakshow? Do they really tell us anything about what’s actually happening? Are they merely Baudrillardian simulacra?
Its thesis is that narrative structures, tropes and villainous and heroic stereotypes from the “human zoos” of the colonial period are reproduced in contemporary Western media coverage of the Arab Spring. The article deploys Jean Baudrillard’s (1929-2007) poststructuralist theory to argue:
“Watching a popular uprising in real time was indeed a dramatic experience. As viewers tuned in to the violence, courage, and uncertainty of events in North Africa this year, many of them had the impression of witnessing the “actual” events, free from the framing tactics and analytical bias often found on the six o’clock news…Spectators were made to believe that a return to the event “itself” was once again possible after decades of being locked into what Jean Baudrillard called the hyper-real. The revolution in-and-of-itself seemed to unfold before our eyes, creating a fetish for real-time revolt.”
But did the “Arab Spring” actually take place? In his 1983 essay Fatal Strategies Baudrillard says:
“Even revolution can take place only if there is the possibility of spectacle; what people of good will deplore is that the media has put and end to the real event.”
If the non-Arab, and particularly Western consumers of mass global media get a picture of some of the Arab uprisings that is framed by media narrative-telling techniques, loaded with political bias and weighted with stereotypical cliches about the Arab and Muslim “Other”, this audience is left completely unaware of certain other important uprisings as if they never happened. Bahrain is the prime example.
On 9th March 2012 some 200,000 Bahrainis attended a 2km long march calling for the fall of the current regime. Multiplied by the population difference between Britain and Bahrain that would be the equivalent of a march of 20,000,000 Britons. What did the world hear of this through the global media’s freakshow reporting of the “Arab Spring”? Very little, it is almost as if the this massive demonstration never happened.
The uprising in Yemen is similarly under-reported, probably because it is deemed to “messy” to make a neatly packaged Beginning, middle and end” newstory. The West and the wider non-Arab world is left in the dark about the on-going resistance in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich and Shia majority Eastern Province centred on Al Qataif, as it is left in the dark about Palestinian uprisings and the pro-Arab voices of Israel’s 2011 Social Justice Protests, about suppressed uprisings in Algeria and Djabouti, and about suppressed uprisings against the pro-Western monarchical dictatorships Jordan, Morocco and Oman. This is the “Arab Spring” that for Western and other non-Arab global audiences might as well not have taken place.
Baudrillard’s 1991 article “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” has become extensively and misleadingly quoted so as to make Baudrillard appear to be some sort of extreme idealist or denier of reality, so it’s worth taking time to see what he actually said:
Baurdillard’s position was not that the Gulf War was a fiction, but that it wasn’t a war. The Clauswitzian notion of “war as a continuation of politics by other means” was replaced by a complete absence of politics. War and politics was replaced, according to Baudrillard, by Saddam Hussein’s symbolic sacrifice of Iraqi soldiers’ lives before the might of 1990s Western arms in bid to remain in power. However, in the then-new global media the familiar narrative structure of “a war” was imposed upon images and reportage of the conflict to provide a packaged and digestible news story, a “simulacrum” in Baudrillard’s language.
Baudrillard’s ideas do indeed have the potential to offer new perspectives on the “Arab Spring”, provided of course we go beyond the “….didn’t happen” cliche. We could perhaps begin with the “…..Spring” trope, which recalls the 1848-1849 “Spring of Nations”, when discrete nation-states began to emerge from multicultural empires, and “Prague Spring” of 1968, when Czechoslovakia attempted to emerge from the Soviet “empire”:
Demonstrators confront a Soviet T-34 tank, Prague, 21st August 1968. Note the Molotovs, today the Bahrain regime would call them “terrorists” or “insurgents” guilty of “attempted murder”, just like the Soviets in ’68.
The term “the Arab Spring” dates back to at least 2005:
So, pace Baurdrillard, perhaps we should argue that “the Arab Spring never happened”, not to say that nothing happened, but that the quick, seasonal spring-like event is a narrative imposed upon events to create an easily consumable media narrative.
This in turn has political consequences: when events turn out to be complex struggle deeply rooted in the economic, cultural, historical, political and social contexts of the countries concerned, the “spring” trope enables us to avoid engaging with this complexity by invoking a subsequent, colder, drabber season as part of an immutable, almost “natural” sequence of events, “the Arab Spring gives way to the Islamist Winter” works as a soundbite, but it has no real explanatory power, and merely serves to shut down engagement with complexity:
A French language cartoon characterizes the difference between the “Arab Spring” (on the left) and the “Democratic Autumn” (on the right)
So far, so good for Baurdrillard: I personally do not like the term “Arab Spring”; I use it as a shorthand in contexts where perhaps one has to, but personally prefer the English translation of the Arabic thawraat l-karaamah “The Revolutions of Dignity”, at least this gives non-Arab readers some sort of insight into what these struggles are about.
Just as 1989 was the symbolic climax of the Fall of Communism, perhaps 2011 was the symbolic climax of the Revolutions of Dignity in the Arabic-speaking world. But of course 1989 had deep roots going back to the Solidarity struggle in Poland in 1980, and beyond that to the Czech uprising of 1968 (“the Prague Spring”), and the events of Hungary 1956.
Likewise, the Arab uprisings have deeper historical roots. The kefaayya kedah “Enough is Enough!” campaign against Mubarak dates back to at least 2002, Bahrain’s “First Intifadha” against Khalifa rule was in the mid-1990s, and Bahraini resistance to the British-supported regime goes back through British imperial history to at least the 1890s.
“Kefaayya kedah!”, “Enough is Enough”, the campaign which after many set-backs throughout the 2000s eventually helped bring about the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt.
Just as 1989 shaped much of Europe’s subsequent politics through the 1990s and 2000s, and indeed is still shaping the continent, so 2011 will continue to shape the Arabic-speaking region for decades to come. So not only is “the Arab Spring” a cliche, it also serves to trivialize our perception of events.
Baurdillard’s notion that the Gulf War was not “war” and was not politics, but rather was characterized by an absence of politics might also apply to the “Arab Spring” in so far that the defensive responses of the embattled Arab regimes are not political, but rather an attempt to ensure that the region under their control never becomes political in the sense that most of the rest of the world is “political”. The aim of Mubarak, Assad, Qaddhafiy, the Khalifas and, most successfully, the Sauds was/is to ensure that politics in the Modern sense never emerges in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
Thus, the “Arab Spring” trope forces a global audience who are not participants in events to imagine the struggles as (a) fleeting and seasonal, (b) part of a naturalistic cycle of time that will inevitably lead to some sort of “winter”, and (c) as “political” when they are not political but an attempt to make politics possible in a context in which ruling elites struggle to retain power through the abolition of politics.
The struggle for politics in Bahrain: over a pile of used CS gas canisters Bahrainis tell the Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa “Game Over!” The real power behind the throne, unelected Khalifa, the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has been in power continually since Bahrain’s “independence” from Britain in 1971.
Further, as the Jadaliyya article argues, the “Spring Revolution” trope requires media coverage to resort to a cast of stereotypes and set-piece causes without which no media revolution would be complete. These in turn are shaped either as heroes or villains through the distorting lens of Western perceptions of the Muslim and the Arab “Other”:
“. . .the logic of civilization versus barbarism is enacted through two classic symbols of modernity that the Arab Spring is continuously asked to uphold and protect: women’s rights and elections. Clearly neither activity is to be discarded, but we should ask why these signs continue to be privileged markers of civilization, especially when both are embedded in a complicated history of social and political contest. Instead of looking at the ways in which women’s bodies have been a site of struggle among competing ideological and sociological factions, the “Arab Spring” is feared to be ushering in an Islamist winter in which women will once again be subjected to the pre-modern fundamentalism of Islamic extremists.”
A female Bahraini demonstrator wears industrial goggles against tear gas
The role of women in the “Arab Spring” protest and resistance movements is, along with the generational shift in attitudes, is of vital importance. Nonetheless, the simplistic “Arab Spring leads to the Islamist Winter” hypothesis privileges what is primarily a Western/European perspective on feminism, marginalizing the ways in which new gender roles and public roles evolve in the course of struggle from within Arab and Islamic culture. It is types of cultural imperialism like this that can make global media constructions of the Arab spring seem like a “human zoo” or freakshow.
Bahrain, March 2012: the Arab-Islamic evolution of gender roles in the course of struggle is stymied when outside intervention turns an indigenous uprising into a bloodier military-on-military clash, as in Libya and, increasingly, Syria. The spray bottle the woman is carrying contains an antidote to CS gas.
There is of course another way of understanding “the Arab Spring never happened”, that of deep denial on the part of the regions anti-political ruling cliques as to what is actually going on.
For these elites there are never uprisings, revolutions or protests, but gangs of criminals, drug dealers and terrorists, usually in league with a historical non-Arab enemy, France, Iran, Israel, the UK, the USA, who are seeking to undermine the “order” which the leader-figure has created.
Protesting citizens demanding not simply political rights, but politics itself are an anathema to models of dictatorship which are fundamentally underpinned by the notion of the disciplined subject. This sees the individual as an apolitical automaton that reproduces the subservient behaviour demanded by submission to the leader, behaviour reinforced through an education system that deliberately seeks never to educate, and a media that cannot ever inform.
In this way the regimes also deny that “the Arab Spring has happened”. There are never revolutionaries, but criminals supported by outsiders seeking to undermine order.
At some point soon, the regimes seek to assure the world, “normality” will return, “order” will be restored. From Qaddhafi’s Libya to Mubarak’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria and the Khalifas’ Bahrain the rhetoric is remarkably similar, except where Western politicians and media rightly exposed this rhetoric for the nonsense that it is in Libya and Syria, in a regime which is strategically important to the West like Bahrain such rhetoric is curiously indulged.
Thus, the symbolic importance of the Bahrain Grand Prix is that it is intended to signal that “Bahrain is back on track”:
Needless to say, many Bahrainis see it differently:
The writing on the wall: “The village of Sanad refuses the holding of the Formula 1 race over the blood of the martyrs.”
In Baurdrillardian terms, the besieged regimes of the Arabic-speaking region mask the absence of politics with a simulacrum of order and normality that offers a symbolic image of politics where no politics really exist. Resisting populations are fighting not to restore but to establish politics in the Arab region, and an essential aspect of this struggle involves the destruction of the symbolic order constructed by the regime. This destruction involves the contestation of public space and the defilement of the sanctity of state symbols to expose the disorder beneath the state’s simulacrum of order.
A global audience is able to feel that it has direct access to events in the Arabic-speaking world through global, 24-hour media. Yet these media produce their own simulacrum that plays on culturally based stereotypes of the Arab and Islamic “Other” and trivialises the nature of the struggles that are underway.
Or at least this is the case of regimes that have had a history of antagonism with the West and are deemed to be better out they way (Qaddhafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria), or which have outlived their usefulness as strategic assets (bin Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt).
In the case of a regime which remains a strategic asset to the West, such as the Khalifas’ Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, the global, primarily Western-based media are complicit in reproducing the anti-politics of the regimes. Accordingly, either nothing really happened there, or it’s back to “normal”, “back on track”.
If news of something happening does leak out, this is put down to the shadowy influence of Iran. If the Bahrain revolution is the “forgotten revolution”, then the uprising against Al Saud rule in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province cannot be “forgotten” in the global media because it was never mentioned in the first place.
Thus although the uprising in Bahrain regularly generates the kinds of images that have proved iconic in other struggles, these are seldom seen outside of Bahrain:
Forgotten Echoes of Prague: the “Bahrain Spring” that is supposedly over, demonstrators confront a Khalifa regime armoured personnel carrier (Turkish-built Otokar Kobra), 23rd March 2012
Ironically, the fact that the Bahrain uprising has not been globalized through the 24-hour media is one of the factors that has meant that the Bahrain uprising has so far been less bloody than was the case in other localities such as Libya or Syria.
The Khalifa regime has its Western backers, and probably would not be in power today without them. At 80 deaths to-date the Bahrain repression is bloodier than many people realize when the figure of 80 is understood as a percentage of Bahrain’s very small population. Nevertheless, the fact that Bahrain has not become a global media story is one of the reasons why the conflict has not escalated into a military-on-military conflict along the lines of Libya or Syria.
The price of resistance: the latest martyr, 30 year-old Ahmed Abdel Naby, killed Friday 23rd March 2012. 33 people have been killed since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a so-called “turning point” was released. Over 80 people have been killed since February 2011, the indigenous population of Bahrain is 600,000 (expats are not directly affected by the violence). Multiplied by the difference in population between Britain and Bahrain this would be the equivalent of over 8,000 British deaths.
For the present, the conflict remains a Bahraini-on-Bahraini conflict, a contenstation between the vast majority of the population and a regime that has lost its legitimacy. While this can be viewed as a stalemate, it helps to limit the level of violence and makes it more likely than less that a Bahraini solution will be found to Bahraini problems.
While as an advocate I seek to raise the profile of the Bahraini struggle, I recognize that the globalization of the Bahrain struggle through the international, 24-hour media and subsequent political action by the West has serious dangers.
Unless or until there is major political change in Iran, Western intervention in Bahrain would be likely to intensify the level of conflict by coming down even more heavily on the side of the regime. As it is, the presence of, for example, the American naval base has acted as a check on the scale of Saudi intervention, or the activities of “loyalist” vigilante gangs who at one point in the middle of 2011 were gearing up for the ethnic cleansing of Bahrain.
The Bahrain “stalemate” works both ways: while Saudi Arabia has backed the Khalifa regime out of fear of a Gulf “domino effect” where the fall of one monarchical dictatorship will presage the fall of the rest, there are distinct limits to which Saudi Arabia would want to “swallow” Bahrain so that Bahrain’s problems became its problems.
So long as the struggle is stalemated, or perhaps “balanced” in this way, the more likely it is that it will be resolved on Bahraini terms. Although the balance of the stalemate shifts this way and that, taking a long view it seems as if it will eventually come down on the side of the protesters. All the more so if a viable political centre can be established that allows factions to come together on their own terms.
A globalised media story can all to easily morph into a global political agenda, complete with blunt instrument “the world must act” solutions. Tempting though it is to want to see Bahrain on the 6 O’clock News, another lesson of Baudrillard’s is that the media simulacrum is not politically neutral.
Informed advocacy helps the Bahrain revolutionaries force a Bahrain settlement by supplementing their Internet 2.0 activities, getting Bahrain on prime-time telly as a “we must do something” cause could make matters worse, as happened in Libya and is happening in Syria, when popular resistance movements morph under international pressure and arms supplies to become military-on-military armed conflicts.
As it is at the moment the Bahrain crisis teeters this way and that, threatening to escalate into a higher level of violence, firstly with the declaration of marshal law and the Saudi-led “Peninsular Shield” intervention in March 2011. The military withdrew later in the summer of 2011, but in their stead the police were equipped with military style vehicles and equipment, and the policy of the “carpet-gassing” of villages began in the late autumn of 2011. This in turn provoked a more violent response from the protesters, who saw themselves as protecting their villages from an external force.
Sitra, March 2012. The co-ordinated use of Molotovs has been an effective counter to the militarisation of Bahrain’s Interior Ministry police. Here a protester wearing a t-shirt saying “NO!” confronts a burning police Otokar Kobra armoured personnel carrier. Yet both the militarisation of the police and popular responses to this threaten to escalate the level of violence, leading to further polarisation.
In his 1985 essay The Masses: the implosion of the social in the media Baudrillard juxtaposes “the resistance of the subject”, which emphasises freedom, responsibility and consciousness, leading to revolution and emancipation, with the “resistance of the object”, emphasising a level of passivity, childishness, dependence, hyperconformity that makes effective rule impossible. He notes that “subject resistance” has, throughout the Modern period, been privileged, especially in its political form, over “object resistance”.
Baurdillard says that both are equally valid strategies for resistance. However, he suggests that in the Postmodern world of 1970s and ’80s one-way mass media the transformatory power of “subject resistance” has been undermined by the media spectacle, meaning that “object resistance” is “the most winning [strategy] today, because it is the most adapted to the present phase of the system.”
Bahrain suggests that perhaps in the second decade of the C21st “the present phase of the system” has changed from the ’70s and ’80s: Bahrainis’ struggle to instate (in-state) the political in Bahrain has restored the primacy of “subject resistance”; meanwhile, mobile “Internet 2.0” communication has shattered the one-way passivity induced by the mass media of Baudrillard’s day, adding a dynamic new dimension to “subject resistance”.
At the time of writing, the Bahrain struggle is probably at the cutting edge of this new, technologically enabled form of “subject resistance”, building as it does on over a decade of new forms of activism. True, the use of Internet 2.0 has been a two-way process, with the Bahrain state, with the help of outside PR and surveillance expertise, mounting an increasingly effective counter-strategy.
But they can only play catch-up. For the foreseeable future the harmony of the medium and the message is with the Bahrain protesters, who make make both new realities and hyper-realities in the same act. This is an advance on the world Baudrillard knew, and pretending it isn’t happening isn’t going to make it go away.
“Down, down Hamad” written in rubber bullets