Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revolutionary Demands

Much of the coverage of the Egyptian and Tunisian protest movements have revolved around phrases such as "protestors' demands." The government must acquiesce to this platform in order to end the unrest. Alternatively, the government must provide some alternative to the status quo that fulfills some of this platform, creating a negotiation framework, which has the tendency to preserve the existing power structure.

The problem with this approach for both sides of the have/have-not divide is that fulfillment of a specific set of demands is likely not to achieve lasting stability. The typical phrase in Marxism is the "Deepening of the Revolution," the profusion of demands which create a more perfect world as the proletariat gets more expertise in designing their ideal conditions. This description has not ever been sufficient on the level of actual protest movements, however. It merely describes a change in narrative that is told about the protest. The revolution does not deepen; instead, the nature of revolution reveals itself to onlookers, the existing order, and revolutionaries themselves.

Consider today's news from Tunisia: police shot two rioters after the local chief of police slapped a woman. It would be idiotic to claim that the Tunisian revolution has been concerned with this specific police force or a particular emphasis on protecting women from police brutality. Instead, much of the narrative has focused on economic conditions and national political stagnation. Riots emanating from police misconduct could be cast in the light of a desire for democratic oversight of institutionalized force in Tunisian society, but I don't think that a protestor on the street would provide that answer or would have given that answer last month.

Nor is this reaction in Tunisia a new force in the protests, something now being added to the mix. I think that instead of looking at protestor demands as an explicit platform, we should expect underserved, brutalized people to agree with James Baldwin's description of the black American demand for civil rights in Fifth Avenue, Uptown:
One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place.
There, and we've described a project without appealing only to western liberal universalizing ideals.

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