Saturday, November 07, 2020

Review: Life as Politics

[Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.]

A book about struggles for social change in the Muslim Middle East, mostly focused on Iran and Egypt but with scattered references to other countries as well. The first edition was written not long before the Arab Spring and laid out an analysis that didn't quite predict the uprising but that described dynamic circumstances allowing for its possibility in a way that most commentators in that moment failed to recognize. This edition was updated in 2013.

My interest in this book was its analysis of what it describes as "nonmovements" as a distinct way in which social struggle plays out in the Muslim Middle East. According to the author, most English-language scholarly analysis of movements in that part of the world has either been hopelessly orientalist (especially regarding movements that incorporate Islam in some fashion) or has uncritically adopted frameworks for analyzing movements that were developed in the West without recognizing why material differences in conditions matter. He argues that most of the states in question act in repressive ways even towards fairly modest forms of collective dissent but at the same time are not as strong or as pervasive in their penetration of social life as we in the West imagine states to be. This means that there is less space for the development of social movements in the sense that we generally understand them here. But (as true everywhere, in all eras) there is still all manner of political diversity, of dissent, of desire for things to be otherwise, and a lot of the time, that manifests in what he describes as "nonmovements." They involve a sort of mass disobedience to state-enforced norms that is not centrally coordinated and is really just lots of individuals acting on their own and in their own interest, but that nonetheless has a deliberateness to it and that cumulatively over time seizes space, physical and social, that the state does not want to yield. This can, under certain circumstances, become more deliberately collective and contentious politics, often when states try to crack down on space that has been seized. He explores this in detail in the context of the urban poor, middle-class women, and youth. In the case of the urban poor, it often means things like appropriating public space for their own purposes, whether that is space acquired to live or to make a living in the informal economy, as well as things like illictly stealing municipal services. For middle-class women, that means pushing against various restrictions on their choices and behaviours, not in a collective and overtly political way but just by pushing back against them in their own lives and in some cases just going ahead and doing the things, in ways that end up over time reshaping dominant norms. States and ruling elites don't like any of this, but are limited in what they can do in response. And obviously this form of struggle has its limits, but it has still managed to accomplish some important things in the context being considered. My own interest in this is because it is very much related to everyday resistance, which I talk about in one chapter of my current book project. Bayat goes to great lengths to argue that what he is describing is distinct from everyday resistance, and I get where he is coming from but I'm not sure that matters for my purposes. I think partly he is distancing what he is doing from some of the less useful (and less actually resistant) aspects of the everyday resistance literature that have emerged in the decades since James C. Scott originally used the concept, and I'm really not very interested in those aspects. And I think partly the phenomenon he is examining includes but also exceeds what "everyday resistance" generally captures, so he is using new terminology to make clear the distinctiveness of the context he is focused on. So despite his disavowal, what he has to say still feels pretty relevant to how I talk about everyday resistance in what I'm writing.

In addition to that part of the work, which I thought was going to be the whole book but is really just the first section, he explores a bunch of other aspects of social change in Egypt and Iran, in a way that mixes history and sociology. I don't know much about these contexts, and I'm fully aware of the limits of what you learn from reading just one book about a topic, but it was still fascinating learning. I wonder in particular how the author's analysis of the Arab Spring might have changed, given that this was written at a point before some of the more tragic and repressive downstream events had become clear. But I enjoyed his examination of the politics of fun (which are quite relevant to the Western left and its tendency towards certain kinds of puritanism), his reflections on what revolution can and does mean today, his use of the idea of everyday cosmopolitanism, and just all of the bits and pieces he shares about political life in the Muslim Middle East, especially Cairo and Tehran, from the '70s to the 2000s. There are points where he talks about movements in distanced and reified ways that seem to be informed by social movement studies discourse, which I don't love, but I didn't find that negated what is of value in this book. I don't know how many people are going to be interested in reading it, but certainly if you are someone who thinks a lot about social movements and other kinds of efforts for collective liberation, and you usually restrict yourself to North American content, this book would be a useful way to branch out.

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