Some Fundamental Lessons From the Arab Spring

Liberalism in Arabic is ‘libraliyya’, a transliterated term which obviously carries none of its Latin roots into the language, nor, except for small groups of expatriates or humanities academics, does it carry any of the usual connotations associated with it. The hard reality is that, for the people on the ground in the Middle-East, it is a term that has come to be associated with either tyranny or imperialism or both. This isn’t the first time this has been said. Emmeline Pankhurst, who did understand what liberalism meant and what it stood for, said as much in 1900 when the Fabians backed British Imperialism, for instance.

But now, in the Islamic world, which has descended into a period of unprecedented chaos, where Muslim populations are seeking and will continue to seek self-determination, the battle-lines are now drawn against ‘libraliyya’ over the matter of democracy. ‘Libraliyya’ has shown its hand.

Despite the outrage expressed by the Pankhursts of today at their side, the high priests and priestesses of ‘libraliyya’ have appointed a blood-thirsty raving lunatic to rule Egypt through a constitution passed by a referendum organised around pre-stuffed ballot boxes, with the entire political opposition in jail. But this is not all, for they actually called this referendum, ‘a step for democracy’. This is formalism, and formalism is a sign of a bankrupt doctrine. So what happened?

The Enlightenment that never really happened

Judging by Pankhurst’s outburst in 1900, it is clearly an old problem. The fount of liberal ideas is represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, and we are indebted to them for the entire mode of expression of modern liberal commentary. But these ideas are seriously flawed, and while Rousseau, representing as he did the unsystematic vanguard of the Enlightenment can be excused, Mill’s writings emerged in a 19th century dominated by Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’, the lessons from which, however, neither Mill, nor many others such as Hegel, or Comte, wished to learn, despite the fact that all their philosophies without exception were shaped by the human epistemic finitude posited by Kant to resolve Hume’s destruction of Enlightenment rationalism. You might think that placing Mill shoulder to shoulder with dogmatists such as Comte, and Counter-Enlightenment figures such as Hegel is perhaps going a bit too far, but careful analysis shows otherwise.

Rousseau wished to free the people of the world, to enable them to express their ‘General Will’. But in The Saint-Justian Arrogance of Liberalism, I showed how Rousseau’s theory led to a totalitarian nightmare in the management of the Republic during the French Revolution in virtue of his appeal to an ‘external Legislator’ to distil this General Will on behalf of the people. I went on to show how Immanuel Kant’s ethics resolved the flaw in Rousseau’s thought by appealing to an internalist thesis about individual rationality, which if circumstances had allowed, could have produced a democratic rather than totalitarian outcome. As it is Napoleon and his family followed on from Saint-Just and Robespierre, and 19th century French historians François Guizot and his pupil Jules Michelet agonised for decades over the reasons why the French Revolution never produced democracy, until it finally began to happen in the latter’s twilight years.

The principal point about Kant’s ethics comes down to the fact of:

“… a rational being in general (human or non-human) applying its capacity for rational judgement in an empirical environment, and in doing so, interacting dynamically with all other rational beings, in a world merely of possibilities, in order to seek the series of temporary accommodations which are the universals that shape our bodies politic” [1].

The point about interaction is vital, but if this has been overlooked in the social sciences since then, this because dynamic systems are difficult if not impossible to model mathematically, especially in the social sphere.

Let us develop this point a little further, using Kant’s explanation as to the nature of our perception of objects, as a framework to understand the philosophy involved. In respect of ‘perception’ then, we can say that one of the principal aspects of individual rationality in Kant was to replace Leibniz’s monadic idea that a community of substances is severally dependent on an external cause, with the idea that substances experience thoroughgoing interaction, in order to provide a foundation to the Newtonian world-view in terms of the most essential features of empirical time determination [2]. When we then go to Kant’s reflections on the overall possibility of justice in respect of this, our empirical, rather than in a Leibnizian ideal world, the overwhelming importance of inter-relationships re-emerges in his discussion of ‘sensus communis’ in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. There, he unpacks the basis of justice in the form of three maxims ‘of the common understanding’ that are followed by rational beings, in relation to the ‘merely possible judgment of others’:

“1. To think for oneself; 2. To think in the position of everyone else; 3. Always to think in accord with oneself”[3]

The first maxim is about an unprejudiced way of thinking that rejects superstition, and is never passive. The second maxim relates to a way of thinking that is enlarged and involves the rational individual reflecting on his own judgment from a universal standpoint. The third maxim is about consistency, about therefore adapting oneself to others on a continual basis.

When the social sciences developed from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, and from the methodological individualism of Mill, as a result of the inability to mathematise and therefore ‘socially rationalise’ complex dynamic systems, we essentially return to a Leibnizian ideal world of self-sufficient non-interacting monads. Such a Leibnizian world, as Karl Marx noted in the notebooks to his thesis, is what demands the existence of theology, or indeed on my view, demands just as well a priori social science, in order to bind the system. At this point, Marx concurs with Kant’s emphasis on interaction being the fundament of justice:

Justice is not something existing in itself; it exists in mutual relations, wherever and whenever an agreement is concluded not to harm each other or allow each other to be harmed” [4].

But this is not how Mill sees it and in On Liberty, the founding document of the modern liberal sensibility, he wishes simply to establish one ‘very simple principle’ in regard to coercive government dealings with individuals in society, whether in regard to physical or moral coercion, which is the ‘harm principle’. There:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good is not a sufficient warrant” [5].

While this seems to have come down to us as an Obvious Axiomatic Truth, this ‘very simple principle’ nevertheless makes the radical mistake of dividing the types of acts in society into two categories, those that concern the individual in question, and those that concern ‘others’. Yet there obviously also exists actions which concern both the individual and the rest of society interacting together, besides which, these actions appear to represent the majority of cases. High Court Judge James Fitzjames Stephen writing in 1873 lauds Mill’s intellect and achievements, but he is stunned by the ‘harm principle’ and calls it ‘radically vicious’ since:-

“Mr. Mill’s principle cannot be applied to the very cases in which it is most needed” [6].

The Millian geniuses

If On Liberty is the founding document of the modern liberal sensibility, this is because, despite its devastating flaws, its persistence as a dominant doctrine to date, has been facilitated by the addictive quality for the educated middle classes of, in particular, Mill’s tone in the delivery of his arguments. As an integral part of his moralistic arguments, he appeals to those of ‘decided mental superiority’, persons of ‘genius’ or those exceptional people in a ‘small minority’, to save society from itself, and in particular from ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’, and this flattery seems to have got him everywhere.

On Liberty is heavily influenced by concerns raised upon the reading of Alexis De Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’, in particular those surrounding idea of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, wherethose who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority may desire to oppress a part of their number [7]. These ‘geniuses’ have then, according to Mill, to be protected for posterity from such tyranny. But before we go into Mill’s arguments more fully, let us see, on this third anniversary of the Egyptian Uprising of 2011, how this modern liberal sensibility expressed itself in Cairo during those events.  

The Arab Spring and the 2011 Egyptian Uprising

The Square is a recent documentary film reporting on those events [8]. It follows liberal activists during the 25th January 2011 Egyptian Uprising in Tahrir Square, which deposed the ageing dictator Mubarak, and during the subsequent return to Tahrir, of some of these revolutionaries, for the 30th July 2013 demonstrations to demand the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected President Morsi.

If I judge the film as ‘a tale (although wonderfully told) full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, this is because, as I pointed out in an earlier co-authored article, the revolution in Egypt was essentially lost by the 26th February 2011, a month into the uprising, when the liberal parties refused the principle of democratic elections, fearing the electoral strength of the Muslim Brotherhood [9]. They pleaded with the military to become ‘guardians of the nation’, essentially to protect them against the Muslim Brotherhood, and this, the military have now viciously done.

The film brings together a large number of committed liberal revolutionaries from the Egyptian scene, including producer Karim Amer and actor Khalid Abdulla, both of whom were vocal advocates of Morsi’s forced removal as president. However, it would be one of their colleagues, Omar Hamilton, who came to articulate their common views in a London Guardian Newspaper article, when he wrote:

 “Morsi’s winning of the presidential elections gave him a degree of legitimacy. But legitimacy without consent is meaningless…” [10].

If this statement demanded an immediate explanation, all Hamilton could say is that he withdrew his consent from Morsi a quarter of the way through his presidential term because, on his view, Morsi was governing badly. This explanation however smacked of dissembling, for earlier on in the Guardian article, he discloses his true feelings when he writes that:

“Elections alone will never be enough because there is a historical and geographical context in Egypt that determines what is and isn’t possible through the ballot box”.

Like a Millian genius, Hamilton is intuiting an entirely different nation in his mind to the one that is the case, seeking extraordinarily to change history and geography through revolution. As Mill would say:

“Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people–less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides…”[11]

Mill’s reasoning

Mill held that there were special people not dissimilar to Rousseau’s Legislator, who could judge what was best for people in general. He was influenced by August Comte in this, but essentially it was also a logical outcome of his revision of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Utility Principle’. For Mill, Bentham’s utilitarian calculus was slightly crass, and there were ‘higher pleasures’, such as reading philosophy, which couldn’t be calculated linearly from the pleasure of quenching a raging thirst with a glass of cold coke. So on this view:-

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” [12].

This needed the intervention of moral experts or what Mill called ‘competent judges’, from whose verdict on the matter of the ‘quality of pleasures’ there ‘can be no appeal’. Comte had suggested incorporating a panel of such moral experts to rule and benignly impose the general interest on the less knowledgeable, but Mill rejected this. In On Liberty, he clarifies that he is against the identification of a social class or a group said to embody the public interest or the greatest happiness. It is from this argument that the chief impression has been culled of Mill’s liberal credentials, but the argument is not all that it seems.

If, as we have seen, the same problems of oppression arise in a democracy as in a traditional despotic state, there is a need to institutionalise not only the right to free speech, but in addition the right also to eccentric and experimental lifestyles, in order for society to ‘discover’ those ‘geniuses’ that can truly be called moral experts, who society must be careful not to stifle, and which:

 “… few are the salt of the earth: without them human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things, which did not before exist: it is they who keep the life in those which already existed” [13].

The rub in Mill’s argument arises from the fact that there is no need to specify a selection procedure for these moral experts, and indeed he doesn’t specify anything at all in that regard, apart from tolerance for all lifestyle experiments, including presumably, and problematically, those that are intolerant. This latter canard becomes the hobby-horse of many conservative critics of Mill, but it misses the real point. The real point is that, for Mill, out of these lifestyles, there are some which will arise in time and appear to us all as glaringly self-evidently true. There is no need for a Comtian incorporation of a panel of moral experts because there is a right answer and, in true Baconian style, experimentation over time will uncover it:-

“The truth of an opinion is part of its utility…” [14].

This, however, is only possible if mankind has reached the stage where it has become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion:

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end” [15].

Presumably this state of affairs must be self-fulfilling, for if a society arrives at the point where it allows lifestyle experimentation, where it begins to cosset those ‘persons of genius’ who are ‘more individual than other people’, and who are the producers of these extraordinary lifestyle choices leading us to the Greatest Happiness, we have by definition reached the ‘final stage’ of society where ‘liberty, as a principle’, has become ‘applicable’.

Leaving the improvement of ‘barbarians’ for the moment, we can say that the purpose of ‘liberty’ in On Liberty, given that utility is truth, is basically to upend ‘custom’:-

“The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement….” [16].

This is the most vaunted purpose of liberals: the fight against custom and tradition. This has become especially clear in the Muslim world in the context of the Arab revolts, where Islam is their enemy. But to what end upend custom? Where exactly are those ‘geniuses’ who are ‘more individual’ than the rest of us, supposed to lead us? Well, they are supposed to lead us to the truth of course, which means ultimately achieving a society with:

“… firm convictions as to right and wrong, useful and pernicious, deeply engraven on the feelings by early education and general unanimity of sentiment, and so well grounded in reason and in the real exigencies of life that they shall not, like all former and present creeds, religious, ethical and political, require to be periodically thrown off and replaced by others” [17].

But if we are to be led to a new ‘general unanimity of sentiment’, that is to a new set of customs and traditions. This time, being subject to the impeccable verdict of our ‘geniuses’, from which verdict there ‘can be no appeal’, they shall not need to be ‘thrown off and replaced’. Liberty presumably ends there and we get Millian despotism. Then, when it comes to ‘barbarians’, there can be no internal resources for any class within their societies to gauge what can be an improvement for them and what can’t. So, logically, it is up to those ‘enlightened’ societies, which have reached the final stage of development, to impose mores on them by imperial edict. Here presumably we get Millian (and Fabian) imperialism.

Mill’s individual and his philosophy of mind

For Mill there is no question that society as such is the basis of anything: ‘there is no social contract’. Instead, the individual represents an abstraction existing separately, if not prior, to its environment. We can see the effects of this where Mill pretends that you can take a disembodied view of the individual, as if the place where he lived, for instance, was never part of his identity:-

“[The individual] devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people: and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin”[18].

This is strange indeed, for Mill, like his friend Alexander Bain, is an associationist, which he calls the a posteriori or empirical type of psychology. Surely an a posteriori empirical approach would suggest that the individual in substantive terms is effaced by his environment: as in Kant in fact, when he attacks the Leibnizian-Wolffian concept of the soul, and says that the ‘I’ is attached to all the individual’s perceptions and thoughts, in such a way that ‘not the least property of the ‘I’ or the ‘soul’ can be noted, cognized, or known at all’ [19].

But where in Kant our consciousness is an emergent property and evidence of our spontaneity, Mill’s methodological individualism takes a ‘constructionist’ path where consciousness is enumerably a compound of prior ideas ‘united by association’ [20]. For Mill, higher mental states are always the offspring of lower ones. Likewise, the deduction of the laws for the complex social wholes can be deduced a priori from the laws for the individual and that there is no need for a ‘composition law’, i.e. for systems of social relations. So the individual cases act “conjunctively”, just as they do in mechanics:

“The effect produced, in social phenomena, by any complex set of circumstances, mounts precisely to the sum of the effects of the circumstances taken singly” [21].

But we have known since a while that the ‘constructionist’ thesis Mill espouses breaks down even at the level of elementary particles, where the behaviour of large and complex aggregates cannot to be understood in terms of a single extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. And at each new level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, such that, for instance, psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry [22]. So while the ‘transcendental’ character of Kant’s theory reflects the emergent properties of the Newtonian system which acts as his launchpad, Mill talks optimistically about the ‘simplicity of the laws of association’, and sees the only ‘complexity of the amount and variety of data’ as the real stumbling block [23]. Only ‘geniuses’ can overcome this through their experimentation.

Thus while Mill and his generation were heavily influenced by Kant’s notion of human epistemic finitude, a notion that forever changed the nature of philosophy and thought in general, and while Mill accepted the consequences of this ‘end of metaphysics’ in terms especially of the underdetermination of scientific theories, his utilitarianism creates a new Incidental Metaphysics, as it were, of the Greatest Happiness. It does this by defining a single internalised utility scale to combine a diversity of external values which, equated with externalised units of measure, guides action towards the ‘best’ result.

It is this one-dimensional Incidental Metaphysics that became the basis of our social sciences, through economics first breaking away at the London School of Economics in the 1930s, and, then by creating Rational Choice in Chicago in the 1970s, coming back to take the whole thing over. At least three generations of our priests and priestesses have now been socialised into this astonishing doctrine.

 Formalism and the democratisation of the Middle-East

If formalism is the sign of a bankrupt doctrine, then the clearest sign of bankruptcy in any theory of justice is the inability to demonstrate individual free will. While Kant’s relentless systematicity permitted him to describe an idea of free will, rejecting even all voluntarism (the ability of the will to choose) as mere ‘freedom of the turnspit’ [24], Mill ties himself down to the determinism of his ‘doctrine of circumstances’. Where the will is said there to be ‘free’ to ‘form our character’ -something which Mill sees as ‘ennobling’ [25], ultimately ‘the sole original power which we possess over our bodily motions, and the ultimate basis of voluntary action’ is the inducing of pleasure and the relieving of pain [26]. Thus, in the final analysis, we find that the whole idea of ‘liberty’ in On Liberty turns out to be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

It becomes clear immediately that democracy cannot survive the contradictions and pseudo-science of liberal doctrine, and has thus to be formalised by the liberal priesthood. This priesthood has its churches throughout the world. In Egypt, as everywhere, there are those priests who are cynically resigned to the contradictions they face such as political science professors Waheed Abdelmagid and Hasan Naf’ah, and who are quite happy saying absolutely anything that will ensure their tenures, however ridiculous [27], and there are others who try to set higher academic standards, and who do struggle with their consciences. An example of the latter case is Amr Hamzawy. Hamzawy, in his capacity as an academic and a political scientist, became the erudite face of the ‘liberal’ opposition to the 2012 government of President Morsi, but has fallen foul of the current Junta as a result of his commitment to human rights. But it is in Hamzawy’s past analyses of the political situation in Egypt that we find liberal formalism at work.

In 2006, in a co-authored a piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called ‘Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World’, Amr Hamzawy analyses the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy, pluralism, the application of religious law, civil rights, and women’s rights. These are set out as check boxes. In analysing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic religious and political organisations their espousal of democratic political ideals could not be challenged: ‘commitment to nonviolence by the mainstream organizations is real’ [28]. However, there was much ambiguity detected in respect of the other check boxes.

If there was any kind of analytical framework in the report behind the bland check box scheme, it was a commitment to pluralism as fundamental, rather than to democratic processes. In other words, a ‘check box philosophy’, which is what essentially pluralism is, was the ground on which the check box scheme was erected in the report. There was no sense that democratic ideals were fundamental in any way, and that this was where human interaction as the basis of justice actually starts, on which I quoted Kant and Marx above. There was no sense that pluralism would have to emerge naturally out of those kinds of grass roots human interactions, rather than it being imposed from above, autocratically. There was no admission that the formal pluralism that was set out as the basis of this report was exactly the philosophical ground on which the régimes of Saddam Hussein and Bashar el-Assad were built: their justification of tyranny. Nor was there indeed recognition that formal pluralism has always been the substance to the idea of imperialistic divide and rule.

Omar Kassem can be reached through his website:


1Omar Kassem, The Saint-Justian Arrogance of Liberalism, Counterpunch August 2-4, 2013

2 Paul Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1987), p. 267

3Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, (trans.) Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001), § 40: 5:294, p. 174 see also the earlier reflection: Kant, AA XV, Entwürfe zu dem Colleg- über Anthropologie aus den 70er und 80er Jahren, K12 Seite 706-16 [at 715]: 1486,

4 Karl Marx, First Notebook: Diogenes Laertius, Book Ten, End of the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius: Epicurus to Herodotus [Principal Doctrines]: see

5 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘On Liberty’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Politics and Society’, (ed.) John Robson, (intro) Alexander Brady, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1977), pp 213-310 [p. 223]

6 James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 2nd ed., New York: Holt & Williams (1874), p.24

7 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘On Liberty’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Politics and Society’, (ed.) John Robson, (intro) Alexander Brady, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1977), pp 213-310 [p. 219]

8 See trailer on

9  Mohamed Malik & Omar Kassem, The Past and Future of the Morsi Government, Counterpunch January 9th 2014

10 See article on

11 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘On Liberty’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Politics and Society’, (ed.) John Robson, (intro) Alexander Brady, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1977), pp 213-310 [p. 267]

12 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, reprinted from Fraser’s Magazine Oct., Nov. and Dec. 1861, London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, West Strand: 1863, p. 14

13 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘On Liberty’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Politics and Society’, (ed.) John Robson, (intro) Alexander Brady, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1977), pp 213-310 [p. 267]

14 Ibid., p. 233

15 Ibid., p. 224

16 Ibid., p. 272

17 John Stuart Mill [1873], ‘Autobiography and Literary Essays’, (eds.) John M. Robson & Jack Stillinger, University Of Toronto Press: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1981), p.172

18John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘On Liberty’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Politics and Society’, (ed.) John Robson, (intro) Alexander Brady, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1977), pp 213-310 [p. 230]

19 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation), (eds.) Paul Guyer, Allen W. Wood Cambridge University Press (1999), A355, p. 419

20 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘Bain’s Psychology’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Philosophy and the Classics’, (ed.) J. M. Robson (intr.) F. E. Sparshott, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1978), pp.339-374 [p. 350]

21John Stuart Mill, ‘A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation’, New York & London: Harper & Bros (1874), p.895

22 P. W. Anderson, More is Different, Science, New Series, Vol. 177, No. 4047 (Aug. 4, 1972), pp. 393-396

23 John Stuart Mill, ‘A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation’, New York & London: Harper & Bros (1874), p.895

24 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy [pp.133-271], (ed. & trans.) Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996), 5.97, p. 218

25 John Stuart Mill [1873], ‘Autobiography and Literary Essays’, (eds.) John M. Robson & Jack Stillinger, University Of Toronto Press: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1981), p.176

26 John Stuart Mill [1859], ‘Bain’s Psychology’, in John Stuart Mill, ‘Essays on Philosophy and the Classics’, (ed.) J. M. Robson (intr.) F. E. Sparshott, Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1978), pp.339-374 [p. 355-6]

27 On this see Esam el-Amin, The Grand Scam: Spinning Egypt’s Military Coup, Counterpunch July 19th 2013

28 Nathan J. Brown, Amr Hamzawy, and Marina Ottaway, Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World: Exploring the Gray Zones, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Number 67, March 2006, p. 11

Omar Kassem can be reached through his website at