A spectre is roaming the Middle East: the spectre of the multitude. The beauty and in a sense the world historical importance of this Jasmine Revolution (or whatever it will be called in the annals of humanity) is that it has no leadership. It might also prove its fatal weakness, but that does not contradict its beauty and importance. It was the people rising up. Of course youngsters and schooled people – doctors, engineers, etc. took the lead, but it was from the beginning in Tunisia the multitude at work.
A buzzing discussion is on about how important the new media were for this instant, unpredictable, spontaneous revolt. It is self evident that e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones have played an enormous self organizing role. But you could say that this self organisation quickly could do without some media: when Aljazeera was banned, internet and mobile communication down, the revolt unfolded untouched. So this has to be studied in a dialectical way: the media and the multitude. The re-appropriation of communication that we see happening (also in Iran) after it being monopolized or controlled by power (the state and multinational tycoons) for ages is in itself of world historical importance. This could truly, this truly will alter the Middle East, and indeed the entire world. It is not neocon militarism that brought democracy to the Middle East – that only enhanced radicalism, fundamentalism and terrorism, was in a sense a present to the extremists – but the new media.
In fact, one can say that Negri and Hardt had it wrong – in the best Marxist tradition – in their localisation of the ‘historical subject’, the driving force of history. Marx located it in the industrialized proletariat and the revolutions took place in fundamentally rural and feudal countries, Russia and China. Negri and Hardt in their Empire-sequel located the subject of history in the creative class of the Western postfordist, information economy, but in fact it is the Arab people in the street under conditions of old fashioned tyranny and poverty who are giving history a push. The creative classes in the West are safely caught in their rat race, but it is in the disenfranchised Middle East that the “the multitude” is at work. This is of world historical importance.
Hactivism and online activism has taught us that a good action is based a strong story, an open-ended script or scenario without author. So people can appropriate and improvise. Both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the story was loud and clear: the people rise against the tyrant. Strong story. One of the strongest ever told. That is why it is so contagious. Domino theory in action. After Tunisia and Egypt more can and should follow. Jemen, Marocco, Algeria, a shockwave in the entire Middle East are now to be hoped for. Even if Egypt looked dodgy for a moment. This revolt is beautiful and world historical: no hidden agenda, no leaders, no party, no religion.
Indeed, it is one of the most striking things: it is a secular revolt. It might, let’s hope, even mean the end of fundamentalism. The people in Tahrir Square street interviews were very explicit: we want an end to tyranny, repression and corruption, we want freedom and democracy, not theocracy (which is just another form of tyranny and repression, minus corruption at best). As they have proved the neocons wrong, and the other globalist guru Negri wrong, they are now also proving the Islamists wrong.
This Jasmin/Arab revolution could and should change the course of history: the end of tyrannies in the Middle East, the end of neocon militarist policy in the Middle East, the end of Israel’s monopoly on democracy (that could change a few equations), the end of fundamentalism as the main driving force of international politics. The weakening of Islam fundamentalism as political Islam could also weaken the fundamentalism of political evangelicals on American foreign policy and the weight of Jewish fundamentalism on Israel politics. In short, we are a facing a new phase in world history. The period “after 9/11” is over.
Of course, the world should help. The former prime minister of Belgium, now European MP, Guy Verhofstadt was right (for once) when he addressed the European Parliament: Europe should support the demands of this revolution explicitly and ask Mubarak to step down. Where is Obama? Where is this world-historical figure when you need him? Maybe he is doing what he can. Because it is his slogan that the people of the Middle East now practice: Yes, we can. He should not let them down.
This combination of a story without author, a revolution without leaders, via self organisation enhanced by networked new media – rhizomatic, non linear (to say it in a fancy way) and completely secular, open – Muslim, Christian (crescent and cross united on banners!), young and old, men and women, working class and intellectual, children and grandparents – this was, and is, and will remain forever, awesome to see. Whatever comes after. Come what may. When the activist writer Nawal Al Sadaawi, a girl in her 80s, said in a television interview: “I have been waiting for this all my life, this is the most beautiful moment of my life,… I have to be here on Tahrir square’ – she was damn right. We should all be with them. Tahrir Square is not a symbol of the longing for democracy and freedom, it is democracy and freedom! Self expression, fearless discussing, mutual help, self organisation, all very remarkable. Even journalist swho have seen a few things and therefore are a bit cynical, rub their eyes!
The demonstrations are spreading outside Liberation Square – as I write: Tuesday Febaruary 8th, 1 pm GMT – and sprawling across the Egyptian Capital; in Alexandria also huge crowds are flocking together. The so called return to normalcy has meant that not only banks are open but that communication is up again, so the people can now see and hear what is happening. Many Egyptians join in now. They start to believe that something is actually happening! Spread the word!
World-historical, I say: the power of the multitude! Shifting the course of history. Let us, on the outside, elsewhere, at least be awake and express our solidarity and enthusiasm where we can. Old Kant had a point when he said that the spontaneous enthusiasm of the multitude for a world-historical revolution (he was of course thinking of the French Revolution, we are thinking of the fall of the Berlin wall) that history makes sense, that there is… progress. For that is what this is: a truly progressive uprising of the multitude, not regressive reaction of a minority of extremists. The emancipating effect is visible, like children and women leading the crowds in chanting (I hear their voices as I write – courtesy Aljazeera). Really wish I could be there with you! All I can do is, write this text for you. With my utmost respect, for you, the people of the Tunisia and Egypt and you, the multitude of the Middle East.
Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He has published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.
His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.