The reproduction of racialized systems of social control

Over the past few days I’ve been reading two sets of texts and I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between them. The first text is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the second set of texts are articles on human rights and democracy as the new standards of measuring how civilized countries are.

In her book Alexander argues that the prison industrial complex is basically a transformed version of the Jim Crow system. Her main point is that following the civil rights movement and the collapse of Jim Crow, white supremacy had to find a new way to maintain racial inequality. This was done through two related processes: the War on Drugs and the expansion of the prison system. In other words, white supremacy persisted in a different form, and is perhaps even more dangerous because it is not overt anymore. No one is speaking about race the way they did during Jim Crow; but the systemic effects are the same.

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were (1).

Around the same time, I began reading articles on the shift in global politics in the 40s and 50s where a “new international society” was created. This meant that what constituted civilized or barbaric countries was no longer explicitly stated along racial or cultural lines, but instead was made dependent on new markers, such as human rights and democracy. So just at the moment when it seemed like the international system was opening up and that any country could be an equal member, and just when decolonization was happening and states were no longer using the language of civilized vs. barbaric, an entire new system of subjugation was being introduced. This new system still ranked countries and still reproduced a civilizational hierarchy, but instead relied on different standards: human rights, liberalism, democracy, gender equality. So just as Michelle Alexander points out in the US post-Jim Crow, a new way of speaking about civilization was emerging, but the systemic effects are exactly the same.

As Buzan (2014, 588) notes:

Because the doctrine of human rights sets benchmarks against which all can be assessed, it naturally generates a performance hierarchy among states. That tendency is endlessly reproduced as the standards of human rights themselves evolve. So as the human rights issue becomes more influential within international society, it probably cannot avoid resurrecting something like the ‘standard of civilisation’.

Development and aid are naturally part of this new system. “The colonial obligation of the metropolitan powers to bring the natives up to a European ‘standard of civilisation’ morphed into an obligation on the part of the rich world to assist in the development of the ‘third world’ or ‘less developed countries’.”

The key point in both set of texts is that nobody is talking about race anymore (except those who oppose these new systems). As Michelle Alexander says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (1). This can be extended to the ways in which the development industry or human rights discourse do not explicitly speak of race, and yet the norms they employ clearly refer to a civilizational hierarchy which, following John Hobson, is clearly a racialized one. Another similarity between these two cases is the formative place of anti-blackness within both systems. In the US, it is anti-blackness that underlies slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex, just as globally, the racist system underpinning notions of development, democracy and human rights is intricately tied to anti-blackness as well as other forms of racism such as Orientalism.

What this shows is why we should be apprehensive when certain trends, concepts of systems are presented as “over” or “dead.” As an ideology that has structured the world for centuries, it is unlikely that white supremacy or Eurocentrism will disappear without attempting to morph or transform itself. As Alexander shows, in the US it has successfully continued the same system in place during slavery and Jim Crow, except it has relies on implicit and covert racialized language and narratives. For example, the idea that a Black man can be president of the US is used as a rhetorical tool that deflects attention away from the fact that most Black men can’t become president of the US. And, as Alexander says, white supremacy doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Similarly, the new international regime of neoliberal capitalism relies on new markers of civilization that relegate countries of the Global South to the category “underdeveloped.” And it would be a mistake to not see this as related to white supremacy and race.

All of this is not to say that we should not be nuanced in the way we speak about white supremacy, and it is also not to say that other groups do not have agency or power. But often when we are called on to be “nuanced” it is a call to stop complaining about hegemonic systems and instead accept that we are somehow all equally responsible for what is happening. We can be nuanced about white supremacy in terms of pointing out its variations, the ways in which it differs according to context, and the ways in which it can be fought. But this nuance should not include accepting that white supremacy is no longer hegemonic, or accepting that groups oppressed by white supremacy hold some kind of responsibility for what has happened to them. While it is true that there is agency everywhere, this agency is not equal, because people are not equal, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

 As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” However as long as the narrative continues to be one of separation and elimination – i.e. racism as something that is in the past and no longer exists – as opposed to continuity and reproduction, it will become increasingly difficult to fight against white supremacy in all of its formations. Moreover, as long as we continue to speak of racism as something some people do (often accidentally), we continue to mask the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism. White supremacy is a system of racialized social control that continues to structure the globe today just as it has for the past few centuries.

On what happened in Egypt last night

Photo courtesy of Amanda Rogers
Photo courtesy of Amanda Rogers

What we witnessed yesterday was a well-thought out plan by the military to corner the Muslim Brotherhood and make them sign their own death sentence. This plan only became clear by the end of the night, and by then most people were happy to have the military “deal with” the MB. After the speech by Badie (who everyone had thought was under arrest) it became clear that the point of letting him speak was so he could incite the MB base to go to Tahrir & Maspero, something that was likely to end violently. Once the violence escalated, it took the military and police more than two hours to intervene—why? Were they waiting for just enough to violence so they could be seen as heroes saving the day? Probably. Once they intervened, the situation calmed down and later both MB’s Khairat el Shater and Salafi Hazem abou Ismail were arrested.

It is unclear what will happen next. Will the military and MB make a deal, or will the military use the manufactured and widespread resentment towards the MB to crush them? The animosity between the military and the MB dates back more than sixty years, and while there have been moments of coexistence, generally it has been a tense relationship. It has also been a relationship which the military has dominated—it has arrested, repressed, tortured, and killed MB members (as have leaders of self-identified secular regimes such as Sadat and Mubarak). In fact the entire MB history has been one of alternately appeasing and challenging power—often the two at the same time. But will this strategy work now? One could argue that they tried this during their year in power, and it failed. Once the military saw their chance to get rid of the MB, they grabbed it, faster than many had expected.

What is clear is that the situation is very fluid. What is also clear is that we are under military rule. But I’m going to do the opposite of what every single analyst and commentator on Egypt is doing and say that this is not new. Yes, there was a military coup on Monday. This coup helped make the military a visible power in Egypt again. It did not signal the “return” of the military to politics. Similarly, those arguing that Egypt’s revolutionaries have made the wrong choice by supporting (supporting is a strong word)—accepting maybe—the military’s intervention because this signals a military interfering in politics: wake up. The Egyptian military has always and probably will always interfere in politics. And guess what, this isn’t a purely Egyptian phenomenon.

Whether Morsi was president or not, the military was and is there. Their vast economic and political empire, the power they exercise, their status as the only coherent and strong elite faction in Egypt at the moment, and their ability to not only learn from past mistakes but also to change their own leadership to adapt to changing times means that the military is not an actor to underestimate.

What does all of this mean for June 30, Tamarrod and the millions of protesters who took to the streets? In my view (and of course I’m biased, as is everyone) those protests represent something separate from the events that overtook them a day later. Those protests represent Egyptians unhappy and impatient with what they saw with a regime less interested in the revolution’s goals and more interested in power grabbing. They saw the economy getting worse, they saw an MB elite that was neoliberal, they saw the social fabric of the country continue to deteriorate, and they saw the increasing polarization of political forces in the country.

Two questions continue to bother me, as someone that participated in June 30, and they are linked. Did the MB have a fair chance at governing, or was the counter-revolution too strong? And did we, Egyptians, give the MB enough time? I am still leaning towards the answer that the MB could have relied on revolutionary support (which they had a lot of when Morsi was elected) and used that to challenge the old regime and the counter-revolution. Instead, he tried to appease the old regime, and when that didn’t work, he tried to challenge them. This strategy failed and was the price was his presidency. Why didn’t he just work with the revolutionaries? (I debated this with some amazing people on twitter, which you can find here.)

That said it is becoming clearer and clearer how powerful the counter-revolution was against Morsi. It became almost taboo in liberal circles to speak of a counter-revolution or a deep state: anything that went wrong was purely Morsi’s fault (and even more problematic, it was his fault because he was an Islamist). This is simplistic. Throughout the year I spoke about how it was unlikely that the “Brotherhoodization” of institutions was happening this fast, or that a “deep state” didn’t exist. Of course it did. And by deep state I mean networks of power relations and institutions that are produced to serve the interests of certain elites and certain goals, and that continue to reproduce even after a revolution. Above all, it is important to look at the money. Who continued to be Egypt’s economic elite during Morsi’s presidency? Sure, the MB had some economic elite (even before they came to power)—but what about the big businessmen from the Mubarak era? Were they all in jail? Were their companies all shut down? Who still had most of the economic power?

(And by the way, while this is becoming clear now, people who are claiming they knew all along that feloul were the ones running the show: okay, why didn’t you say something this past year? Suddenly it’s clear that the feloul are back and you knew all along?)

Do I regret going out on June 30 and supporting the movement? No.

Was I happy when the military intervened and announced the transition? No.

Do I think it could have gone any other way? No.

Does that mean June 30 just shouldn’t have happened at all, just to avoid the military coming back to power visibly? Absolutely not.

June 30 was something to be proud of. What happened the next day was not, as inevitable as it was. The support for the military, however, has its own history (one many analysts would do well to actually study). It is a respected, popular institution and one that has become even more respected in these unstable times. This does not negate the fact that the military are strategic political players whose aim is to preserve their interests. It does not negate the fact that the military have purposively launched a campaign against the MB so they could then imprison them. It also doesn’t mean that the revolution is over. Egyptians went against the military before, it’ll happen again. An important question is whether a revolution against the military can happen now, when so many Egyptians support the army? I know many (myself included) who are aware that the next step of the revolution has to be against the military and the Ministry of Interior: but how? If it happens now, it’ll be impossible to overcome them.

Before I end, a small note on solidarity.

It is no surprise to see condescending comments and simplistic analysis from the media, especially from western media, the majority of whom still haven’t managed to discuss the Middle East in a non-problematic way. What shocked me this time around was seeing this same condescending attitude and simplistic analysis from other people in the Middle East.

We get it. You’re surprised people were celebrating the military intervening. That’s fine, so were many Egyptians. Except we also understood it as the result of long processes of socialization and complicated historical events that have created the military as a positive institution in Egypt’s collective memory.

If you were so confused, outraged, upset, angry (and I kind of wonder why it even got to you this much)—why not engage with people on the ground? What is the point of snide comments? Of jokes at the expense of people dying? Of “I told you so”? Yesterday, as soon as the army began shooting pro-Morsi supporters, I saw a barrage of tweets basically saying: “ha, we knew it, it the military is bad, Egyptians are stupid” etc.

What you’re doing is what you complain western people keep doing to you. You’re removing agency, you’re simplifying the narrative, and you’re doing it to make yourself look more knowledgeable, more objective, more authoritative. Egyptians are stupid and irrational because they didn’t see this coming, while we did see it coming. Well done. Shoving people’s mistakes in their face is always the way to go. The situation in Egypt is complex, moving fast, and many made a tough choice, while others (me included) don’t even believe they had a choice to make. Many also felt the military intervening was necessary to prevent a bloodbath. Finally, people were celebrating the achievement of the goals of June 30, not just the military coup.

It’s not about critiquing what is happening. Critique with nuance is good, and critique without a condescending, know-it-all attitude is also good. Not everything is about fitting events into your discourse so you can be the one who was right about everything. I know this isn’t the first time for this to happen – it has happened to Syrians, to Iraqis, to Palestinians and to others. Maybe it’s selfish to only write about it when it happens to us.

“The failure of media and pundits to both recognize and project the nuances of the current conflict in Egypt through their negligence of people’s agency in shaping the political outcomes is both pathetic and shameful.” (Khaled Shaalan)

Yes, and this is why it’s important to not ignore the fact that June 30 came first, and that the military could not have acted without it. This means something has changed in Egypt after 2011.

My thoughts on what is happening in Egypt

Source: AP
Source: AP

As always, Egypt has managed to surpass and tear apart all expectations and write its own script. At the same time, I feel like my thoughts are so scattered and contradictory that it would be good to write some of them down, so I can remember them later.

Last night President Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military. To deny that this was—technically—a coup, is problematic. The military intervened and influenced the outcome of a political deadlock.

But my instinctive response is not to feel as devastated as I thought I would. The military’s move was not as bad as I had expected—they did not announce that they will be running the country during the transition, and in my opinion el Sisi made a remarkably smart move by appointing the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as interim president. Understanding the history of the military as well as their interests suggests that the Egyptian military does not want to openly govern Egypt. Rather they want to protect their (vast) economic interests, through protecting their political privileges (no government oversight, no accountability, and no transparency). The period following the 2011 revolution, during which SCAF was in charge of the country, was negative for the institution of the military. They lost legitimacy and support following a series of events including the Maspero massacre, the Port Said massacre and the virginity testing scandal. Additionally, questions were being raised about the economic empire the military controlled, as well as their role in political life.

So the military learned their lesson: ruling the country means being accountable to it (post-revolution, that is), so why risk that? Why not continue to exercise power from behind the scenes, while appointing a civilian interim president? Of course the military is a problematic institution (as it is in any country) and of course this is not an ideal situation. But by focusing solely on the military intervention, the grassroots mobilization of millions of Egyptians on June 30 is completely erased from the narrative.

But at the same time, I feel like I should be feeling more devastated, and less calm. This is the military we’re talking about. The most powerful institution in the country that has proven itself capable of brutality & authoritarianism. Of course I’m wary, as is everyone I know. But there is also a feeling of inevitability: this was bound to happen. Along with a feeling of relief, because the demands of the protesters were met. But the feeling of being scared is still there. (Yes, I know the military is still there. But how is that new? It was there before 2011, after 2011, after Morsi, and it’s there now.)

The reality is that June 30 came first. And it didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a popular response to widespread discontent with Morsi’s presidency.

The masses have not revolted anew out of a desire for military rule or love for the feloul liberal alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.  They have revolted anew because Morsi and the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution.

In fact, Brotherhood rule deepened the same policies as the Mubarak regime, of impoverishment and corruption, and the desperate defense of big business interests in the service of American and Zionist interests. (Sameh Naguib)

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, being elected does not mean being allowed to do whatever you want. Morsi’s policies were problematic and were taking Egypt down a road many Egyptians did not want to go down. The protests on June 30 were bigger than those during the 2011 revolution, and that’s saying something. The demands were clear: Morsi should step down, and there should be early presidential elections. This is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood no longer have a place in Egyptian politics. Most protesters I spoke to said they wanted the MB to be part of the political scene—but not at the exclusion of everyone else. Moreover, Egypt has no other mechanisms through which people can express their political discontent.

There was anger at the worsening economic situation, at the instability, at the lack of political inclusion. Granted, these problems were inherited from Mubarak (which is why it is dangerous and stupid to romanticize the Mubarak regime), but Morsi did not appear to be addressing them.

So people responded. And pushed. Until it was clear that Morsi had no option but to step down, which he refused to do (again, understandable considering the way the MB have historically been treated by the state, the army and the police).

APTOPIX-Mideast-Egypt_Horo-7

The question of the old regime is an important one. There is no doubt that the 2011 revolution did not bring down the regime in its entirety. There is also no doubt that the Egyptian state did not magically transform itself into an “Ikhwan-state” in less than one year. Importantly, the same economic elite pre-2011 were active post-2011, in addition to the economic elite from the Muslim Brotherhood. Allegiances and alliances don’t shift that fast, and so of course there was influence from the old regime and old elites, especially since the military was still powerful. But the million-dollar question is: how much influence? Can this explain every mistake Morsi made? Can it account for all of the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood?

I don’t know.

Things are complicated.

So the conclusion is that things are complicated. There are so many historical trajectories that are coming together to create the current situation in Egypt:

  • The position of the military in the Egyptian collective memory and consciousness.
  • The behaviour of the military during the 2011 transition as well as before and after, and its position as Egypt’s powerhouse.
  • The exclusion, repression and murder of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hands of the state, police and military since 1952.
  • The monumental psychological shift experienced by Egyptians in 2011 that has made it impossible to govern Egyptians without accountability.
  • The nature of the Egyptian state, which continues to reproduce itself in specific ways, particularly institutionally.
  • The fact that many Egyptians do support the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, and now feel completely excluded.

Things are definitely complicated.

But people are happy. Not all people. The widespread arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members are a bad sign, there is no doubt about that. The way things play out during this transition will determine the next phase of the revolution. What is happening now – the mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members – is not a promising sign, and confirms the fears everyone has about the military. Again, the history of military-Brotherhood relations is important. But what option is there but to wait?

we must be consistent in opposing all forms of abuse and repression to which the Islamists will be exposed in the form of arrests and closures of satellite channels and newspapers, for what happens today to the Islamists will happen tomorrow to the workers and the leftists. (Sameh Naguib)

In fact there is also this strong feeling of helplessness. We go and protest but to what extent is it meaningful? Won’t it always be co-opted by one elite or another, last time the Muslim Brotherhood, this time the military? That feeling of creating change during protests is quickly replaced by a feeling of powerlessness when you hear about the meetings happening between political elites. Many (including myself) want to defend allegations that this is terrible because we were there on Sunday and know that it shouldn’t have turned out like this. We know people shouldn’t be thrown in jail, we know Islamists shouldn’t be tried faster than Mubarak & co. But somehow it feels like that will happen.

And then what? At the bottom of all of this is the Egyptian military, who since 1952 have structured the state and have ruled the country, whether directly or indirectly. There is no getting around the fact that if the revolution is going to succeed, the state and the economy have to be de-militarized.

The question is how?

(Oh, and a side-note to all foreign (western and non-western) observers, analysts, commentators and whatever else: you can ask why. You can ask how. You can ask what next. You can say you are worried.

But please don’t be condescending, petty and rude. Don’t insult or deny Egyptian intelligence and agency. Don’t say ridiculous things like “Egyptians want military rule, did they forget already?”—this is bullshit. Revolutions are complex. Many actors are involved. Many people wanted early elections and they got them. Was it ideal the way it happened? No. But it’s not the “death of democracy.” There is no ‘return of military rule’ because military rule never left.

If you’re confused about what’s going on, ASK. Don’t make snide comments and flippant degrading remarks. There are 90 million+ Egyptians. Ask. One.)

(Another side-note to Egyptians who are anti-Morsi: the classist, insulting language and discourse being used to target and delegitimise pro-Morsi protesters is disgusting & polarising. No, the Ikhwan shouldn’t be thrown in jail or kicked out of the country. They shouldn’t be arrested. Their channels shouldn’t be shut down. They’re not ignorant or uneducated. Seriously, move on.)

What has happened in Egypt is the height of democracy, a revolution of millions to directly topple the ruler.  As for the military displacement of Morsi, this was nothing but a foregone conclusion, once the military institution saw that the masses had already settled the issue in the streets and squares of Egypt.  Al Sisi did on July 3 2013 what Tantawi did before him on February 11 2011; he acquiesced to the will of the rebelling populace, not out of any patriotism or revolutionary fervor, but out of fear of the revolution.  For if al Sisi had not intervened to dislodge Morsi, the revolution would not have stopped with the overthrow of Morsi and the Brotherhood, but was – and still remains – competent to transform into a complete social revolution which would oust the entire capitalist state, including the leaders of the military institution. (Sameh Naguib)

Till things become clearer, the revolution lives on. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.

And there’s also doubt now. Maybe it shouldn’t have happened this way? Or maybe I’m being influenced by the overwhelmingly negative reactions from outside, from people who are usually in solidarity with Egyptians? But what’s happened has happened. What next?

Voting and the question of meaningful change

Just now I was browsing through my favourite news site (commondreams.org) and I realized most of the pieces are on the US election. Commondreams is a more leftist site, and so most of these articles tend to be pro-Obama. It got me thinking, for the millionth time, why so many American progressives/leftists are ignoring all of Obama’s faults in a series of desperate bids to win him this election? We get it: Romney would be worse. But Obama is far from what these leftists/progressives stand for. To many outsiders, it seems like the US system just keeps reproducing itself with a new face every 4-8 years. Whether that’s Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Romney, it’s likely that the US will continue to be a negative force in the global geopolitical arena, with wars, drones, and continued economic dominance over other countries.

Then I started thinking about Egypt’s last presidential election, between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. And realized I was kind of being a hypocrite. During that election, which many Egyptians saw as having to choose between two horrible candidates, it was traumatic to have to support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the regime the 2011 revolution tried to bring down. And the question that kept coming up was: WHY? Why are we in this position, one year after having a revolution? Why do we have to choose between these two candidates when we know Egypt has so much more to offer?

The answer is that the system is too strong. In the US and in Egypt, widespread discontent with policies are not enough to bring about change. In Egypt even a revolution wasn’t enough to ensure that we could choose between more than just two Mubarak-era figures. The US seems to be in a similar situation, where the system is proving to be much stronger than the people. In the end, we are left with these ‘choices’ that are supposed to convince us that we live in a ‘democracy.’ But really, what’s the difference? Is Shafiq that different from Morsi? Were either of them actually going to bring about social justice, dignity, bread and freedom – the main demands of the revolution? Are either Romney or Obama going to create an economic system in the US that is fair and just? Are they going to end discrimination? Are they going to prevent the US from continuing to be an imperialist force int he world that brings death and destruction to countless people? Or are the institutions and class interests too strong to be influenced by the people through a system of voting?

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre,

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.”

I’ve heard countless people say “Not voting means giving up your power.” Really? What power, exactly? Can’t the act of voting itself be seen as giving up one’s power?

I remember myself clearly telling people that Morsi was horrible, but he was better than Shafiq. It was better to have someone like him than to bring the regime back to power. And I guess that’s what many American leftists are doing by supporting Obama: pointing out that while Obama has faults, Romney would be much worse.

But is this it? Is this just the reality of politics? We accept the fact that we actually don’t have power, and that decisions are made behind closed doors? Accept the fact that even revolutions aren’t always powerful enough to change things?

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.