Thursday, 17 March 2016

Could the Arab Spring happen in New Zealand?

One of the more fascinating dynamics of the Arab Spring movement was its effects on Western observers. There was a palpable jealousy of the protesting Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans.

The jealousy wasn’t drawn from the protester’s ability to rise up against their oppressors. Rather I think it was a realisation long dormant that oppressors are something which can be risen against.

It isn’t that Westerners feel happy – we generally don’t. We seem to be aware that something somewhere is wrong or broken, but it’s hard to take to the streets over it. Not because we can’t, but because we know it won’t matter. The thing that’s broken isn’t really in the streets, or over here or there. In the West, what’s wrong is just as metamorphic and ambulant as the uprising we would mount against it, if we ever figured out a way.

It’s useful to think about this in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, not the defunct and poisonous paradigm of class struggle. In Egypt and Tunisia, the combination of dictatorship and rising food commodity prices nudged those living on the first two tiers of Maslow's pyramid completely off the structure.

At the other end were Wael Ghonim and Mohammed El Baradei. Rich, Western educated elites who achieved great wealth, power and influence internationally yet still felt they hadn't become who they were meant to become. They had a creeping sense of not bringing their lives the meaning that is only achieved through moral action.

Early on in the protests, Mr Ghonim wrote a tweet to his wife saying “we were looking for Egypt.” He felt that whatever success or stature he achieved was diminished when he had to leave his country to do so. He had to stop being Egyptians and be something else, even though deep down he and El Baradei were always Egyptians.

They felt their success and influence gave them a duty to help change what it meant to be an Egyptian, thereby restoring themselves to their culture – “I’m not a moderate Arab, I am simply an Egyptian,” Mr Ghonim tweeted. To mount the revolution was an act of great service and sacrifice but with a clear personal dimension as well. They were finally fulfilling a long-felt duty.

Wide swathes of Egyptians were being confronted with a future in which they could no longer meet their basic survival needs. And combined with this educated elite ashamed of their home country conditions the two pillars allied against the oppressive Mubarak regime, bringing it down. The actual regime collapse included a lot more detail, of course, but those are important dynamics to tease out.

The Arab Spring showed us that power is never overthrown, it is only dissolved. And the drips of its pure liquid always flow between hands, never a molecule disappearing on the way. Solzhenitsyn, in From Under the Rubble, put it best:

The intelligentsia proved incapable of taking action, quailed, and was lost in confusion; its party leaders readily abdicated the power and leadership which had seemed so desirable from a distance; and power, like a ball of fire, was tossed from hand to hand until it came into hands which caught it and were sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat (they also, incidentally, belonged to the intelligentsia, but a special part of it). The intelligentsia had succeeded in rocking Russia with a cosmic explosion, but was unable to handle the debris.

Power, like a ball of fire! Solzhenitsyn knew what was possible after the Arab Spring. Power, glowing with flame, would spread everywhere. Anyone who could scrape up a piece of it would never have to scrape again. After the revolution, he will be a dignitary, his belly will swell and his children will be well-educated. Yet the revolution died before the power exploded.

What saddens me is that while the protesters wanted freedom, they were tricked. They were sold a flavour of freedom by the Ghonims and El Baradeis that was not freedom at all, only more control. For if a slave is freed, he only shifts control to his new master. The protester’s frustration, acting from vague Westernised dreams of liberalism and equality, were employed for a greater purpose.

The masses in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria each forgot the single most important law of human government: sovereignty is always conserved. If you do not grasp the glowing ball, someone, whose hands are “sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat”, is certain to grasp instead. After five years of the Arab Spring “revolution”, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

What were Westerners thinking while the Arab Spring played out? We were jammed on the third and fourth levels of Maslow’s pyramid, spending the bulk of our lives trying to build meaningful relationships. To love and be loved, but also to belong. To be part of the culture and the broader collective experience. To be confident that we are considered precious by those close to us and respected by others more distant.

Yet none of this ever happens because those things – those relationships – are mediated. We use Facebook to seek attention, to collect images and messages as proxies for friends and intimacy. We log in and are presented with a wall of bright faces, each photograph smiling at different people, at different times and in difference places. We see them all at once directed at us, and it always rings of oppression, quiet and insidious but oppression nonetheless.

Which of us feels as bright and happy as a wall of dozens of our smiling friends? We understand intellectually that these are only images, but our prehistoric minds see only the happiness we lack. Some friends are scattered across the globe, and all we have left are emails and misty tweets. The crucial bonds formed by shared experience is reduced to status updates or “emoticons”.

To this must be added the stories and myths of our time: the images of advertising and popular culture, delivering unrealistic and impossible expectations. These are our modern religions promising salvation and peace, but delivering only guilt and judgment. Everything is about what is coming next. Showing us what we can become if we act now.

We never belong to anything, we conform. Our sense of belonging is simply membership in a demographic group, and what we think of as culture or experience is only following trends. When another (or, god forbid, newer) demographic group breaks those trends, or even mocks them, we immediately feel old, marginalised and unimportant.

The internet shattered the Society of the Spectacle. But it was replaced with a Society of Infinite Spectacles, each uniquely tailored to our individual conditions at any given moment in time. We each carry with us a unique Spectacle for our custom preferences, changing us over and over in a permanent revolution – the only way of responding to the constant bombardment.

The human brain evolved to handle recounting myths of celestial gods around a campfire, not for the semiotic assault waged by television. We have our own Spectacle – an illusion-fantasy-anxiety machine – roaring ahead full steam. Television is a huge part of this. But so is Facebook and the rest of the internet. And whereas Facebook shattered the Spectacle in Egypt, here in New Zealand it is fully integrated.

What still inspires me about the Arab Spring, even though I know it didn’t work, is the idea that to overcome an oppressive force, people don't have to move against it. They simply have to be. To be still when an apparatus says to move, but in great numbers and at the same place and time. It is sufficient that a multitude declares together that everyone is identical. That we are a mass and cannot be moved, we are simply here. And by being here, it means the oppressors are not.

In the West we each experience the same life at different times, but all of us experience anxiety constantly. Anxiety is the one emotion that never lies. For any physical characteristic or personality trait there exists a cultural artefact, celebrity or Facebook friend surpassing us in every way. Anxiety manifests with the impossibility of being perfect, of being whole.

This disparity is sensed in the present. Everyone knows what they are missing, but they can never attain it, for if they do it will instantly change to some other desire. One of the most insightful of Freud’s many theories is that we don’t necessarily want the object or goal. We just want the wanting.

We in the West make small, insignificant moves on the chessboard to soothe this anxiety. These moves constituting the field or our lives – the kitchen, the gym, the website, the school, the therapist or the confessional. Every one of them a lateral movement in a confined space.

What is known with certainty is that we are all alienated. We can argue whether the alienation is a simple by-product of modern society or a deliberate, predictable and intended consequence of modern society. But we are all alienated. Television and mass media alienate us with an image representative of a reality that does not exist, but which we aspire to see as if it were real.

I used to think that the internet would reduce this alienation, allowing us to communicate directly with each other. But the truth is that the internet reinforces alienation. The greatest advertisement for Facebook is a friend's page with more connections than yours. You are not popular enough. Love is reduced to like, which is quantified because computers are good at that sort of thing. And all the qualitative and unquantifiable aspects of love are marginalised or ignored, because computers are terrible at those things. And by extension, so have we become.

This existence is choking us, but only slightly. At some level we all know this. We watched the Egyptian and Arab experiences and we gasp for air. We can sense that real love, real culture, real purpose is out there. Somewhere. A real-life adjacent to our own.

It’s true that Facebook and Twitter facilitated the Arab Spring, but this ignores the key problem with Twitter – users confuse tweeting with action. There are some people who believe a 140 character message constitutes positive action. The more we view events through Twitter and Facebook – as social networks become the filter through which we interact with reality – the more we will incorrectly believe that our actions on these networks constitute changes in reality.

The function of revolution has always been to create a tension which cannot be relieved in any way until the final moment of action. Thus, the revolutionary act is a release. But if people are venting on blogs or Twitter, they are venting the tension away and pressure doesn’t build.

We want to rise up – but against whom, where and for what? We want to take to the streets but only because it’s what we see others doing.

I don't know. The territory that needs taking, that needs de-territorialising, isn't the street. It's our minds. The apparatus of this Thing, this morphing mutating whatever-it-is, has completely restructured and defined our entire way of seeing and being in the world.

I have no idea how one rises up against this.

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