The globalisation of revolution
By Tarak Barkawi, 21 Mar 2011 14:41
To listen to the hype about social networking websites and the Egyptian revolution, one would think it was Silicon Valley and not the Egyptian people who overthrew Mubarak.
Via its technologies, the West imagines itself to have been the real agent in the uprising. Since the internet developed out of a US Defense Department research project, it could be said the Pentagon did it, along with Egyptian youth imitating wired hipsters from London and Los Angeles.
Most narratives of globalisation are fantastically Eurocentric, stories of Western white men burdened with responsibility for interconnecting the world, by colonising it, providing it with economic theories and finance, and inventing communications technologies. Of course globalisation is about flows of people as well, about diasporas and cultural fusion.
But neither version is particularly useful for organising resistance to the local dictatorship. In any case, the internet was turned off at decisive moments in the Egyptian uprising, and it was ordinary Egyptians, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, who toppled the regime, not the hybrid youth of the global professional classes.
Nothing new about globalisation
Are there other tales of globalisation, perhaps those told by rebels and guerrillas?
Globalisation is also coming to awareness of the situations of other peoples, such as those similarly oppressed by local and faraway powers. Of particular interest are those moments when these peoples rise up, when they devise forms of revolt and struggle. Defeats provide lessons, and victories give hope. These revolutions need not be on satellite TV to effect their instruction. Revolutionaries in France and Haiti in the 1790s received news of one another”s activities by the regular packet ship that plied between Jamaica and London.
Sailors, slaves, and workers circulating in the Atlantic between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries shared and improved upon their repertoires of revolt and resistance, bringing the good news to ports from Rio to Boston, Bristol to Havana.
When Indians rose in revolt in 1857, Frederick Engels analysed their mistakes – like the Libyan rebels today, they were too eager to stand and fight against a better organised opponent. Engles publicised the uprising in a series of newspaper articles that ultimately inspired Mao Tse-tung’s theories of guerrilla warfare, which went on to circulate as well-thumbed texts in the pockets of Vietnamese, Cuban, Algerian and other revolutionaries (and of those who sought to defeat them).
Before Mao, Chinese nationalists and intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century staged operas about the dismemberment of Poland and looked to the Boers, the Filipinos and others fighting imperialist oppressors, all in order to think through their own situation.
This is the globalisation of revolution, and these are the histories within which the Tunisian example belongs, the example that so inspired the Egyptian people. News of it might as well have arrived in Egypt by caravan as by fiber optic cable, it would still have been electric, the very idea that the solitary stand of a fruit seller could bring down the big men. The agency was human, the act political.
But these are also histories of despair, self-immolation and tragedy. Few peoples have resisted as have the Vietnamese, but at what cost, and for the reward of delayed re-entry into the capitalist world system. It is a blessing that the voice of the Algerian revolution, Frantz Fanon, who hailed from Martinique, is not alive to see the state of Algeria today.
Soon we may feel the same about Nelson Mandela, the conscience of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, as his country sinks into the hands of a venal elite. China prospers, but has abandoned its revolution, its people paying a greater price for Mao’s strategies in peace than they ever did in war.
It is no joke that revolutionaries face their greatest challenges after the revolution, and usually fail to meet them with sufficient humanity. Having broken from the international order in their struggles for freedom, revolutionary countries have proved unable to negotiate a re-entry into that order on terms that allow them to flourish, while remaining true to their principles.
The question now is what kind of example will Egypt provide, to its Arab sisters and brothers, and to present and future struggles for justice, liberty and democracy the world over. The democratic forces of Egypt must look to other countries to think through their complex struggles, against old regime elements at home, for a political and economic order that promises opportunity and justice, and for a foreign policy that balances realism with values.
In doing so, Egyptians would do well to cease looking to the tired countries of Europe or to the United States for recognition and inspiration, and instead turn their attention to the other powers of the global South who face the same dilemmas, powers like Brazil, India, Turkey and Indonesia.
Having dealt a mortal blow to the American-centreed order in the Middle East, Egypt must still find its way in the one world we all share, and regain its place as a great non-Western power.
Tarak Barkawi is a senior lecturer in War Studies at the Centre of International Studies in the University of Cambridge. He also authored the book Globalization and War (Rowman and Littlefield). He has held fellowships at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University; the Department of War Studies, King’s College London; the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; and the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University.