Economic Inequities Pull the Cart of Revolution
Reported by Kody Gerkin in Doha, Qatar
One thing I fail to understand about the media and blogosphere coverage regarding the events unfolding in the Middle East is the utter inability of the press to talk about what is actually at stake here, what's really being fought for.
The Western world would love to think that the noble Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians, Algerians, Syrians and whoever else has or might soon be taking to the streets in the Middle East are fighting for freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. Of course this is the message proffered by the mainstream U.S. media, who from what I have seen and heard here in the Middle East can't decide if they support the Egyptian people or not. President Obama is, at this point, calling for Mubarak to step aside and wants us to think that this revolution is about basic freedoms, about the spread of democracy, about people having the capacity to exert their own individuality. Cheney recently called Mubarak an old pal who the US should go lightly on since he has been a good little lap dog all these years, never mind the abject poverty in Egypt or the and basic rights that have been denied Egyptians for decades.
What we have here are direct reflections of the average person from the United States' view on the issue anywhere humans are oppressed for long enough they will eventually cry out for freedom, the right to vote and have freedom of speech, a free press etc, not coincidentally all of the things we Westerners value. A better way to put it would be the say that the Western media will turn this into an opportunity to prop up our values and highlight all of the things we increasingly obese Westerners are privileged enough to value. I've lived most of my life in the United States, a nation with many citizens that have too much food on their tables is just isn't healthy with plenty of jobs available that don't pay well enough for unemployed people to lower themselves to accept so they bicker about the minuscule differences separating Republicans and Democrats and go about life in a giant bubble, individually and as a nation. The U.S. certainly does value some of the freedoms the nation was founded on and the people have been known to fight to preserve them. But valuing isn't involved when we take what we have for granted and descend to a level of mindless political awareness that leads people to hold up protest signs that read "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!"
The average U.S. citizens would never set them self on fire for a belief nor can they believe anyone would. This might help us understand why the imagery of the act is so prominent in the U.S. consciousness and that a member of the "other" is almost always doing the burning. U.S. citizens don't understand what issues someone could feel so passionately about that they would commit such an act so they inject meaning to the act and often formulate meanings they can connect with in order to rationalize the act. The media is often crucial in formulating/fabricating these meanings. The line the media will undoubtedly take on Egypt will be another fine example of this soft cultural/quasi-political imperialism, something the West is really good at and something that consistently positions the U.S. media and the U.S. people to miss the boat when "rioters" and "looters" take over in Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere. I put these words in quotes because according to certain media outlets anyone who refuses to be trampled under the heavy boot of suppression and who chooses to gather peacefully to demonstrate against the abuses of their government is either a "rioter" or a "looter." Which gets to my point; which is Mohamed Bouazizi, a looter or a rioter?
Mohamed Bouazizi was selling vegetables from a cart in Tunisia on December 17th. He was harassed by a police woman for not having the proper registration to sell from his cart. Mohammed was slapped by the police officer in plain view of his companions and other Tunisians in the street and had his deceased father publicly insulted by the police officer as well. Anyone familiar with cultures where the sociological concept of face meaning dignity and prestige is extremely important may only be mildly surprised by what happened next. Mohamed said not a word, bought a can of gas, and set himself on fire in front of a municipal building. He died weeks later and for his blood (among other things) the Tunisian people sacked their president and find themselves in the throes of a revolution to this day.
Let me pose the question again to Fox News. Is Mohamed Bouazizi someone you'd consider a looter or a rioter? Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Moving beyond simplistic and cliché, into definitions and questions no one will ever answer (least of all those at Fox News), let's challenge ourselves to press a little deeper. What really motivated the Tunisian people and what is Bouazizi's death symbolic of?
What's occurred in the Middle East now is as close to confirming Marxist suspicions as you could possibly imagine. I heard recently on Al Jazeera radio which emanates from here in Doha, Qatar that the Egyptian people had somewhat of a non-verbal agreement with the Egyptian government for quite some time we won't make too much noise so long as our basic needs are met. Guess what they are making a lot of noise. Mohamed Bouazizi might not have cared if he could vote or speak his mind or express himself as an individual. I'd guess he committed suicide because of the humiliation he faced as a direct result of trying in vain to find a way to earn money for his family. This draws a direct parallel between Bouazizi's motivation and the desire of all economically oppressed Middle Eastern people to mark his death as a symbol of a growing regional need to have access to an economy that functions for the multitudes and not merely for a minuscule few.
Whenever those who labor to produce what is withheld from them finally revolt, those who live in countries, like the U.S., in which the wealth of capitalist enterprise is not shared in any equitable way but is held by a very few whose wealth compounds and whose power augments, downplay economic causes. Look no further than the message and the U.S. media is trying to sell the U.S. people, they are crucial in fighting this war of words (and ideas) for the powers that be stateside. They want us to think this is about the basic freedoms, about the spread of democracy, about people having the individual will to exert their own individuality, about whether or not one can vote.
I am reminded of the economist Amartya Sen's capabilities approach which helped establish the meat of the UN Human Development Index (HDI) and which seeks to measure human well-being by factors other than GDP. According to this human development approach, the capabilities approach, governments are not measured by outcomes such as how many people matriculate through secondary school but rather by whether or not the citizens have the capacity to matriculate. With regard to economics, the implicit assumption which makes the approach tenable is that we can't force people to participate in an economy and then measure how well the economy functions, so why don't we judge the success of a given government by the capabilities they provide, the access and the structural linkages between people and education, between education and labor, between labor and working wages, and between wages and baskets of goods on which families can subsist and with a little luck perhaps even prosper. For all of this to work we must link our fate to globalization, trust the free market and, most importantly for this analysis, (re)create meaning out of the recent protests in the Middle East.
With a stable job, food on the table, and children in school, I find it hard to believe that Bouazizi would be dead today or that the Tunisians would be angry enough to force Ben Ali and his family to flee the country. Check the press reporting, read the meaning in the words used by the Tunisians. They are living in squalor and the political and economic elite made no attempt to conceal their opulent lifestyles. I share a workspace in Qatar with a Tunisian woman, and she and I just spoke about this very issue. Bouazizi was a college graduate getting slapped in the face for trying to sell vegetables in the street. What does that really mean, what is implied, what is being represented by the case of Bouazizi? CNN would have me believe he was a crazed rioter who, unfortunately, took it too far and it cost him his life. They may not be saying that now, but in two weeks time the Western voice political and media regimes has struggled to reorient itself in order to see through the eyes of the rejects of competitive capitalism. Hence the media's reliance on old standbys such as ``rioter'' or ``looter'' to describe those who protest, they simply can't tell it like it is for fear of what that may entail. The U.S. media regime needs U.S. citizens to believe that Middle Easterners are jealous of their freedoms rather than rejected by capitalism otherwise the vast majority in the U.S. who remain foreclosed and bankrupt might smell the breeze of unrest blowing in from other corners of the globe.
There is an economic impetus to what is happening in the Middle East much more so than there is a political or social one, and that simply isn't being highlighted by major media networks, Al Jazeera included.
These other aspects (social, political, cultural reforms or religion-state relationships) are undoubtedly part of the package. What is the motivation for resisting a military supported tyranny that allows you to continuously improve your family's plight? From what we can gather, the Chinese are quite comfortable with their Communist regime and growing economic prosperity. I believe it is hunger and deprivation, a degraded capacity to educate yourself or your children, and all the crimes and injustices that can be traced to impoverishment that force multitudes into the public square. When the belly is full and leisure from work is possible then a well-being exists, even if perhaps you can't speak out about the ills of the government or take part in legitimate elections. Are these democratic freedoms which have not prevented the creation of a plutocracy in the U.S. worth risking death or imprisonment when one's daily needs are well met? Are these freedoms which seem to end up in a freedom to shop worth burning yourself alive? It seems clear that what we are witnessing in the Middle East right now is a class warfare that has pitched the wealth and power of a few against the hunger and deprivations of the many.
There are some who may disagree with the fact that Barack Obama is the legitimate leader of the United States government; others may violently disagree with the new U.S. health care system; but are Americans burning themselves alive in protest?
I see Marxist analysis fitting in nicely here, particularly since globalization and the spread of the open-market economy has produced a class of people with college degrees who cannot get jobs and who've passed the tipping point. I am talking about Tunisia, though I could be writing about the United States as well, as many recent college and graduate school grads can attest to. Marx understood that capitalism would drag the world forward progress was to be achieved via capitalism until the structural necessities (read inequalities) inherent in a capitalist system were exposed and the proletariat would then be left with no other option than to throw itself into the gears of capitalism with hope of slowing it down, i.e. forcing the bourgeoisie to redistribute wealth and transition into a socialist economic model. The President of Tunisia and his family, along with many of the political and economic elite in Tunisia were not bashful about flaunting their riches. Marx would argue that the best skill the elite class in Tunisia was honing was the ability to turn the multitudes into the grave-diggers of the elite. And he was right.
Undoubtedly Western media and political regimes, which will likely come full circle and end up rooting for the protesters in Egypt before Mubarak leaves office, will turn the protest movement into a fight for freedom, a fight to have their voices heard, a fight for a fair vote and voice with which to politically express themselves and all the other bullshit the Western media wants to say the fight was for. Mohamed Bouazizi had something else in mind when he lit himself on fire.
In Harry Frankfurt's philosophical view bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies. According to Frankfurt, bullshit is designed to persuade and deceive and has no need of knowing truth whereas the liar knows the truth, which better prepares them to be able to conceal it. What is being spread across these burgeoning Middle East revolts is a heaping, stank-pile of precisely this brand of bullshit. Gross economic inequities will be present as long as the global economy is a capitalist one. It is easy to see that the U.S. cannot address a horrendous class divide resulting from the unbridled play of global techno-capitalism without stoking the flame of revolt in the U.S. itself. And of course there would be no convenient scapegoat such as that which is being created in Egypt right now read the Muslim Brotherhood to mask the eventual political repercussions of the economics of oligarchy.