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Egypt: Educating the Empire

In the imperial center, much continues to be made of contemporary Egyptian politics. Despite theatre and rhetoric to the contrary, the empire’s attention is not the result of humanist values. Nor has the parade of functionaries – Burns, Ashton, Leon, Westerwelle, McCain and Graham – visited Cairo with the primary goal of serving imperial, including Israeli, interests, conventionally understood. The empire’s ruling social forces want the Egyptian crisis resolved lest the ongoing struggle continue to provide valuable political lessons to dominated and subordinate classes around the world.

Almost a century ago Lenin observed in On Imperialism that it is fundamentally wrongheaded to contrast foreign and domestic politics (On Imperialism, 1960, p. 18). Politics are not isolated in distinct, bounded realms but are always interpenetrated in the global political economy. Relations of power are always already local and global. A scant two years ago, Cornell West, in his inimitable style, said that “[America can] learn democratic lessons from North Africa…[to fight domination, America needs to] learn from Cairo, Egypt.” (Al Jazeera Riz Khan, “Cornell West and the fight against injustice,” 25 April 2011). These seminal insights still hold, and reveal precisely why ruling social forces want the Egyptian crisis ended – the longer the crisis persists, the greater the threat to the global order, including class dominance in the imperial center. The material crisis of 2008 was exported from the core to the periphery in the form of inflated commodity prices and increased military spending. Dominant social forces do not want political crises, including challenges to extant orders and governing techniques, exported from the periphery to the core.

Having persisted for a month and a half, it is now possible to draw a number of valuable political lessons from the crisis, provided the mendacity of ideological representations is pierced. I identify and explain five here.

First and foremost, the Egyptian crisis has laid bare the myth of a harmony of social interests and exposed the lie of liberalism. Members of the same society are not all in the same boat. The interests of different classes in a society are irreconcilable; capital’s interest of accumulation can only be served at the expense of the interests of labor and the peasantry. Furthermore, the pursuit and promotion of individual interests does not serve the community’s interests. All societies are at war. Different social forces in societies are constantly struggling for power. This struggle can be occulted and made less directly violent by ideological manipulation, material redistribution and/or institutional mediation of the exercise of power, but it is always being waged. The state exists to forcibly “harmonize” interests, and the instruments it uses to do so are patently familiar – the police, soldiers, laws, prisons, courts. Liberalism represses and occults the irreconcilable disharmony of social interests at the heart of contemporary bourgeois society and reduces it; it reduces the structural to the individual, in the present case from Egypt’s dependent location and rentier condition in the global political economy to Morsi’s failings, and the material to the psychological, from crushing poverty to anger.

Interestingly, and this dynamic is by no means exclusive to Egypt, at the same time that irreconcilable differences in society undermine liberalism they are used by liberals as the rationale for fascism. Then Vice President ElBaradei, for example, defended the July coup on the grounds that the military had to intervene explicitly in the political domain in order to avert a civil war. Liberals support(ed) the USA PATRIOT Act so as to forestall more political violence in and against the U.S. This is precisely why fascism arrives to applause and acclaim – it provides the appearance of social peace by subduing some of the antagonists, specifically workers.

The second political lesson, and a direct corollary of the first, is that all states are premised on violence. Ideological manipulation is a more efficient and effective mechanism of social control, and consequently the first choice of the ruling classes. It does not always succeed in controlling dominated and exploited classes, however. When ideology fails, when subordinate social forces are not spending so much of their time submitting to god or consumed by sports scores as to completely ignore politics, direct violence is used to compel them to accept their domination. The Egyptian state used direct violence on 8 July 2013. It used it again on 27 July. And it continues to do so now on a daily basis, killing more than eight people a day on average. While their ideological apparatuses constantly encourage historical amnesia, this kind of state violence is etched into the histories of all of the imperial states too – think genocide of indigenous peoples and attacks on workers such as that committed in Ludlow, Colorado. Violence is just as much the cornerstone of bourgeois democracies as it is military juntas; direct violence is more obvious in the latter than in the former where ideological consensus plays a larger governing role than coercion. Paradoxically, while dominant classes have historically paid for the means of direct violence and the wielders have been drawn from the ranks of the dominated, as tax burdens have shifted in the imperial center, the laboring classes now pay for and man the very violent means that are directed against them.

The third lesson afforded by the political struggle ongoing in Egypt is that media that accumulates, for a state or bourgeois class, is never independent. The military claims that its intervention on 3 July 2013 restored a revolution and was not a coup, and the media – both state and privately owned – has dutifully represented the intervention as restoring a revolution and not a coup. For a particularly egregious example of this see Foreign Minister Fahmy’s bumbling and nonsensical interview on France 24. The military labels all those opposed to its coup “extremists” and the media obediently incites against the military’s opponents calling them “terrorists.” Possibly the worst offender in this regard is ONTV which was launched, not surprisingly, by one of Egypt’s richest men and reputed financier of the Tamarod movement which collaborated with the military to depose Morsi. And now, the state is requiring that all reporters be accredited by Egyptian intelligence and the Minister of the Interior. The parallels are blatant, even if we ignore the frighteningly familiar terrorism discourse – the dominant narrative in the American media still holds that in 2003 the country liberated, did not occupy, Iraq; Rupert Murdoch’s empire continues to incite against the poor, Muslims and immigrants; and accreditation is functionally identical to embedding. The names vary – New York Times, Al-Ahram, Pravda – but media that accumulates is always the instrument of the dominant classes in society. And make no mistake – the dominant classes are those controlling material wealth, not the numerical majority.

The fourth lesson is that calls for “security” and to “combat terrorism” are articulated by dominant classes as ideological means of perpetuating their political order. Security is a profoundly political value. Claiming security as a good is about projecting an already defined political order, with all its extant classist, racist and gendered relations of domination and subordination, into the future. It is about freezing and perpetuating the existing limits of politics (R.B.J. Walker, Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, p.x). Concomitantly, the term “terrorism” is about dehistoricizing grievances and dehumanizing subjects so at to transform them into acceptable, in the eyes of others, objects of violence. These processes, in turn, enable dominant social forces to assign blame for violence to dominated classes. Foreign Minister Fahmy’s lecture to the foreign press at the end of July is a prime example of the deployment of these mechanisms – only after dehistoricizing and dehumanizing those opposed to the military’s coup could its chief international apologist assert with a straight face that those without American supplied tear gas, guns, tanks and planes were responsible for the violence in Egypt. The finance capital classes ruling the U.S. and Israel use the exact same techniques to justify empire and colonialism abroad and fascism at home.

It is a long incubated fallacy that the weak are to blame for violence. The world over, the social forces with the more destructive means at their disposal rely relatively more on violence. These forces deploy more violence first because they believe that their superior means will enable them to win the political war. This dynamic is what is escalating violence in Egypt just as surely as it has escalated the violence characterizing the state’s so-called war on drugs in the U.S.

The fifth lesson is that bourgeois democratic institutions are reactionary, politically conservative in the sense that they exist to curtail change not facilitate it. Constitutions, elections and legislatures are about perpetuating the political order that produced them. Institutions “lock in” power relations obtaining at their moment of emergence. This is why, on the global scale, Britain and France still have veto powers in the United Nations Security Council, while India and Brazil do not. In the run up to the protests at the end of June, the Muslim Brotherhood demanded that institutional outcomes – presidential elections, constitutional referendums – be respected. These demands were attempts to head off popular political demands and a wider and richer extra-institutional politics. These are the same richer and wider extra-institutional politics the military is already trying to domesticate with its road map for a reconfigured political system. In the imperial center, for politics to be legitimate, they must be channeled through parties and legislatures. Legitimizing is, in effect, a process of institutionalizing demands such that they conform to the interests of the ruling classes. Again examples of this ruling classes managed change abound, two include the delegitimizing of local iterations of the Occupy movement, and the sidelining of single-payer health care in the U.S.

One other point on the reactionary nature of bourgeois democratic values – calls that the will of a majority be respected are really calls for maintenance of the status quo.

According to Emma Goldman, change is always initiated by a minority. At the outset, Rosa Parks was no more in the majority than were the Castros and Guevara and their 26 July Movement. Majorities are obedient and enemies of innovation. The majority is converted to the minority’s position when the latter prevails in the political battle. All polemic recourses to the majority, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s of late June and the military’s more recently, are attempts to realize reactionary politics.

Contemporary Egyptian politics are teaching working people everywhere that we should not take sides in the internecine struggles fought by capitalist factions. When we do, we are used as cannon fodder, as we always have been. They are also providing us another opportunity to abandon the none too subtle and still prevalent imperial mentality that we have a responsibility to educate the noble savage. More workers in the imperial center must transcend self-congratulatory, exclusivist nationalisms or civilizationalisms and recognize that they have important political lessons to learn from the experiences of other toiling peoples, including Egyptians. Our politics are indivisible; their struggles with exploitation, ideological manipulation, militarism and fascism are our struggles with exploitation, ideological manipulation, military and fascism.

S. Fitzgerald Johnson is the nom de plume of a professor of political science specializing in the Middle East.

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