Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Political Predictability, Egypt & the Arabs

JAMES PINKERTON, a northern social thinker in the last half of the 20th century, used to say: 'Revolutions* often happen when folk least expect them'. He would also say; perhaps echoing Colin Ward, that the social philosophy of Anarchism ' always on the cards'. In this respect his view has been born out by events in Egypt and Tunisia, where few pundits until recently seem to have predicted 'revolutionary' outcomes.

This is not just because of the problem as George Orwell perceived it: 'of the countless people hugging quite manifest delusions because the truth would be wounding to their pride', but because political prediction is harder than those who use cookbook analysis like to admit. Orwell, in 1944, talking about the absence of 'reliable political prediction' asked us to consider 'who foresaw the Russo-German Pact of 1939?' He admits that a 'few pessimistic Conservatives foretold an agreement between Germany and Russia, but the wrong kind of agreement, and for the wrong reasons.' Orwell then writes: 'so far as I am aware, no intellectual of the Left, whether russophile or russophobe, foresaw anything of the kind.' Indeed, Orwell goes on: 'the left as a whole failed to foresee the rise of Fascism and failed to grasp that the Nazis were dangerous even when they were on the verge of seizing power.' He claims they failed for the simple reason that 'the Left would have had to admit its own shortcomings, which was too painful; so the whole phenomena was ignored or misinterpreted, with disastrous results.'

Recently the British Left, which is 'vanguardist' almost to a man (or woman), would have been hard put to predict any kind of social or political revolt in places like Egypt or Tunisia, because of their addiction to the idea of the need for a party or movement to lead it. Hence, the most vital ingredient in the left-wing cookbook recipe was lacking: to them it would be like baking a loaf and expecting it to rise without introducing yeast. Recent events would seem to undermine the Leninist or even some Bakuninist** accounts of social revolution. Last Saturday, after the fall of Mubarak, a girl in Tahrir Square declared that: 'There was no government! We didn't need a government or police, as we policed ourselves in the Square and without street cleaners we cleaned-up after ourselves - it was wonderful!'

This Monday, the International Herald Tribune reported: 'In an outburst of civic duty, youthful volunteers swept the streets, painted fences and curbs, washed away graffiti that read "Down with Mubarak," and planted bushes in a square many want to turn into a memorial to the uprising.' Was this what David Goodway at the latest Northern Anarchist Network Conference and in his book that extolled the anarchist, Colin Ward, called 'The Seed Beneath the Snow'?

We don't know yet what all this portends but what we do know is that in the simple terms of overturning a dictator a revolutionary party is unnecessary. But it does show that reliable political prediction is tough. This is clear in the groans coming from the U.S. national intelligence community where last Thursday the national intelligence director sought to defend himself against criticism that they had failed to warn about the coming crisis in Egypt. 'We are not clairvoyant,' said director James R.Clapper Jr., at a hearing of the House intelligence committee. Mr Clapper and the head of central intelligence, Leon E.Panetta, said it would always be difficult to know precisely when a potential critical situation would turn explosive. Unpredictability is built into the human condition and it is impossible to know when a frustrated merchant in Tunisia would set himself alight, to mention an event that went on to feed into the Egyptian crisis. Mr Clapper speaking on worldwide threats to the United States said: 'Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted.'

Last night, an Arab commentator said that what is happening now is like what happened in Europe in 1848; it involves the 'disenthralling' of the Arab people with their rulers. Mr Panetta speaking to the House committee, outlined the problem; 'There's always been a feeling that the military ultimately could control any demonstration in any regime' but now 'the loyalty of the military is now something we have to pay attention to, because it's not always one that will respond to what the dictator may or may not want.'
These are all issues that must now engage those of us who crack-on to be 'social scientists' or political pundits.

* I am treating the word 'revolution' here as a verb - meaning something in the process of transformation, even as I write, rather than as a noun as something accomplished.

** I refer here to Bakunin of the Masonic secret groups; another version of Bakunin would be Bakunin's notion of 'spontaneous combustion' this version would be more appropriate in this 'season of discontent' in the Arab World.


Anonymous said...

What is taking place in the Middle East reminds me of what happened in Europe in the late 1980s. There is a similar domino effect taking place. To my knowledge, no intelligence agency predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. They were all taken by surprise. So were the Bolsheviks in 1917. Just weeks before the February revolution, Lennin, had told some of his comrades that a revolution might not happen in his lifetime. The same could be said of the French Revolution. In his book on the French revolution Alex de Tocqueville, said that while it should have been clear that a revolution was on the cards, the ruling elite didn`t expect it and were taken totally by surprise by the events that overthrew them. What will replace these regimes in the Middle east is unclear. Speaking recently in European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, said that the people in the middle-East were demanding liberty and an end to dictatorship and theocracy. I hope he`s right. I did note however, that when the people of Gazza demonstrated recently in support of the Egyptians, Hamas, tried to suppress the demonstration.

Dick Dutch said...

"I did note however, that when the people of Gazza demonstrated recently in support of the Egyptians, Hamas, tried to suppress the demonstration."

Indeed, I seem to remember couple of years ago certain Trots chanting "we are all Hamas now"...

Anonymous said...

Alex de Tocqueville says this in his Ancien Regime & the French Revolution - Chapter 1.

"There is nothing more capable of inspiring catiousness in philospohers and statesmen than the history of our Revolution, for never were there events more profound, with more distant roots in the past, so long in preparation and yet less foreseen.

Despite his ability, Frederick the Great had no inkling of it. He was close to it, yet failed to see it. Furthermore, by his actions he anticiapted its ethos. He was a precursor and already, one could say, a promoter. He could not see what it was from the advance signs and, when it finally came into sight, the new and extraordinary features which were to mark it out from the host of countless previous revolutions, at first eluded everyone`s notice."