Being that it’s Gramsci’s birthday and all, here’s a little exercise in pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will:

1) To those who said the fire was extinguished, we see today that even in the birthplace of the Arab uprisings where it was said to have succeeded the most (“it is relatively stable and has transitioned to liberal democracy”) that the original grievances that led to the Tunisian uprising of 2011 have yet to be resolved. Political change has not translated into economic and social justice, and political change has not placated the population, particularly those on the periphery who started the protests. This may be an obvious point, but…

2) Given the outcomes of the uprisings in other countries (civil wars, failed states, resurgent authoritarianism) many thought that Tunisians were at least happy to have the aforementioned relative stability and to have avoided chaos. But this Fear of the Alternative was not enough to justify mass unemployment and circumvent protest. The government is trying its hardest to use the specter of ISIS at the Libyan border to discourage dissent, claiming that only ISIS will benefit from any ‘chaos’ that results from protests. But the protests have continued unabated despite the state’s attempts to scare people with the ISIS boogeyman trope.

3) The latest uprising started because of a man being denied a government job and electrocuting himself in protest, and one of the main demands of the protesters is more government jobs, which the government has already promised it will work on. It’s very interesting that public sector jobs are the only work people living in peripheral cities and towns in Tunisia can fathom. It’s as if Capital has rendered all these people totally useless and irrelevant, and their only hope of socially reproducing themselves is through the safety and security of a job in the government bureaucracy. I’m not quite sure what this means, perhaps others will be able to analyze this development better than I could, but it’s definitely noteworthy.

4) For the post-uprising countries that are going through civil wars, these events are instructive. After years of bloodshed and corpses, most people will certainly be content with a return to normalcy, even if that normalcy entails mass unemployment and a lack of economic and social justice. But Tunisia shows that, even in the best-case scenario, the original contradictions are still present, the legitimate grievances have yet to be addressed, and the people can only be placated with normalcy for so long if that normalcy entails the status quo of economic degradation and alienation. Even if the wars end and historic compromises are struck that seem unfathomable today, even if we return to a pre-uprising order with a little more liberal democratic flavor, it seems the region will be in it for the long haul until economic and social justice is achieved. And that’s a positive development. Once again, Tunisia leads the way.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Bertolt Brecht

This is one of my all-time favorite protest videos from Syria. It took place in Aleppo on March 22, 2013, supposedly well-after the civil uprising phase ended. But even as the uprising increasingly took on an armed character, mass politics still existed. You can even see a few local armed rebels participating. But it’s the content of the chants that really makes this a beautiful protest:

“Mortar, another mortar
You are shelling your own people you traitor
I don’t care about all the shelling anymore
I have my freedom, it appeals to me”

“Syria really is for everyone, we don’t have any sectarianism here.”

Despite what the revisionists say, in 2011 a real radical social movement emerged. Against overwhelming odds, that social movement survived for months. It has all but been extinguished now. Those who participated in have either left the country, been killed, been imprisoned, or they simply grew disillusioned and joined an armed group. Nevertheless, despite all the machinations of foreign and local powers to stamp out this revolutionary spirit, this movement will re-emerge at some point in the future, for the social contradictions that spurred it have yet to be resolved. Resignation and despair may win in the short or medium-term. The civil war may continue unabated for a long time. A Lebanon-style sectarian power-sharing solution may be imposed on it from the outside, and elite politics may govern the country for a time. But no matter how dark things get, I am confident that this social movement will come into prominence once more, just like it did this year in Iraq after 12 years of invasion and civil war, in Lebanon after a century of sectarian elite politics, and in Palestine after 67 years of displacement and occupation. Victory is not inevitable: none of these movements have achieved victory yet. But it is necessary that we discern what is a step in the right direction and what is not, and to see through the haze of the dark times.

Yesterday, at a panel on Syria in New York, amidst all the talk about military strategy, literature on civil wars, whether Assad would “really go” or not, Lisa Wedeen, author of the book on Hafez Asad’s cult of personality Ambiguities of Domination, said something that no one really asked about or questioned but, nevertheless, really resonated with me.

First, she implored people to stop treating ISIS and the Assad regime as separate phenomena. Their military-oriented fascism are actually manifestations from the same “ecology of cruelty,” she said. The latest Der Spiegel article on the origins and structure of the Islamic State lends much credence to such assessments.

She then juxtaposed this to the uprising at its outset, where, she said, many Syrians cultivated “novel forms of togetherness.” The initial movement, its protests, its chants, its coordination committees, were no doubt revolutionary in method and in form.

But this romantic juxtaposition has always led to problems for me. Were we naive to think civilian coordination committees could win out against these ruthless authoritarians? Could such forms of collective action actually defeat tyrants with expert knowledge in torture and an endless supply of jail cells?

Yes, Wedeen suggested. We were naive to think that. Our present situation is a testament to that. But, she concluded, ‘without those attempts at collective action, nothing would ever get undone.’

For advocates of social change, a naive outlook can be devastating. Realistically assessing your situation and position relative to the powers that be is necessary for any social movement that wants to win and have a chance at making changes on more than a simply discursive level. However, there is only one attribute that guarantees that social change will never occur and that the status quo will forever be perpetuated—defeatism.

Posting what was originally a twitter rant here, in a less ephemeral medium:

For Stalinist left, it is not enough that Assad destroyed all progressive elements of Syrian uprising, they want to say that they never existed at all. They want to rewrite the history of the uprising and claim that it was always sectarian civil war, and that any progressive elements sided with Assad. As things went on progressives were sidelined, marginalized, imprisoned, tortured, killed. And then they said: “See! They never existed.”

All we have left is that history and the memory of those who fought for something better, and that is something those revisionists won’t take away from us. People like Omar Aziz , like Hassan Hassan. People like Abdel Aziz al-Khayer, and Jihad Asad Mohammad (both still in prison). People like Razan Zaitouneh and the Douma 4, kidnapped by the Islamist reactionaries. These people may not be part of the civil war now, but we won’t forget the hope they inspired, even if it has extinguished for now.

That’s why ending the war should be the number 1 priority, not only as an end in itself, but as a means to rebuilding that social movement. The civil war has to end before these movements can even start to rebuild. That is, assuming that when the war ends, Syrian society won’t be damaged beyond repair. And it very well might be.

Omar Aziz:…/syria-the-life-and-work-…/

Hassan Hassan:…/syria-the-life-and-work-…/

Abdel Aziz al-Khayer:

Jihad Asad Mohammad:…/freedom-for-jihad-and…/

Razan Zaitouneh:

Deep within the valleys of cognitive dissonance, propaganda, and group think, a group of people sincerely believe that all this destruction can be blamed on those few hundred fighters that were left holed up in Old Homs. “Terrible destruction, well yes that’s the armed gangs’ fault.” Really? How? Did the armed gangs do this with all the planes and tanks they have? Has anyone even attempted to explain such a thing? No, they haven’t. Instead they victim-blame, “It’s their fault, they knew the regime would react like this.” That statist logic that it is the citizens’ responsibility to make sure not to provoke the brutality of the state, lest they be blamed for it. Instead they talk about the joy of the few hundred people who were able to return to Old Homs. Return to Old Homs? What Old Homs? Where is it? Is that it? These swathes of empty land and destroyed buildings? How can even memories survive such destruction? Buildings, streets, people, memories, these are things that make a place a place. Old Homs has none of the above anymore. What Old Homs? Is that it? Because I don’t recognize it.


“An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” Theodor Adorno

Pervasive problems can give rise to insidious solutions. Sectarianism in the Middle East is often cited as the root of most, if not all, of the region’s problems. Western and Middle Eastern thinkers alike treat sect as an outdated, archaic tribal institution that must be done away with if the region is ever to see some sort of “progress.”

The construction of an alternative ideology that supersedes sect and has support across sectarian barriers is often touted as the only way to get rid of hostility between different sects. This is seen throughout secular discourse in the region. For example, a Lebanese would advocate for this by saying, “When will we stop belonging to sect X or sect Y. When will we all just be Lebanese?” or, alternatively, “When will we all just be Lebanese first?”

This view, as well as any other view that aims to replace or deprioritize sect with a nationalist or supra-nationalist ideology (Pan-Arab nationalism, Greater Syrian nationalism) will not lead to any sort of salvation for the region.

While it is true that the pervasive sectarian sentiments (i.e. feeling of belonging to a sect, not necessarily animosity towards other sects) amongst many in the Middle East are not ‘inherent,’ nor are they the product of ‘ancient battles,’ as some assert, for the time being, they are here to stay. To think we can construct an ideology out of thin air is not only ambitious, but is also a form of elitism. People are not fickle sheep whereby you can construct an alternative ideology and expect them to instantly follow suit.

That is why when so many have tried, from Saddam Hussein to Hafez al-Assad (no doubt, while also utilizing sectarianism when they thought it would serve them), they encountered resistance from many segments of society. First, a note: the claim that Saddam and Hafez were themselves sectarian leaders is a false one. Whereas both depended on their communities for much of their diehard support, Saddam never posited himself as Leader of the Sunnis, nor did Hafez posit himself as King of the Alawites. They both posited themselves as nationalist leaders of their respective nations, and supported this with a national, not sectarian, narrative. Nor did they want to simply be leaders of their sects. They wanted to be leaders of nations. The simple fact that they often appealed to sect for help and support does not negate this fact.

The reason why advocacy of an alternative ideology to replace sect is elitist and authoritarian is because the only way the national narrative or ideology can survive is by stamping out any resistance to the rule and ideology, which is exactly what the dictators did. From Shias and Kurds in Iraq, to Sunnis in Hama, the imposition of a supra-sect plan will inevitably lead to resistance (militarily or discursively). The supra-sect plan can only succeed if this resistance is crushed. In other words, the only way these supposedly inclusive ideologies can survive is to bathe them in the blood of those who reject it. Otherwise, they will fail.

Therefore, the argument that sectarianism is the root of conflict in the region, and thus, we must get rid of it, is not the answer we have been looking for, as getting rid of it requires conflict and bloodshed as well. Centralized authoritarianism is not much more appealing than de-centralized sectarian hostility.

Even when it does look like it is working, as in Syria before the uprising, this can simply be a facade that veils sectarianism brewing under the surface. Despite jolly tales of coexistence before the uprising, it is evident now that sectarian hostility can spring up very easily, even after being curbed or ignored. Pretending that sectarian tension and differences did not exist did not accomplish anything in Syria. On the contrary, it made sectarian hostility emerge with a vengeance. That is because the differences between sects were never reconciled. They were simply ignored. They were not resolved. They were just brushed under the rug.

The utopia where sect does not exist, or is no longer an issue, will not come about through utopian means. Thus, it would be wise to no longer picture a utopia whereby sect disappears in favor of something more ‘inclusive.’ The ideal should be a situation whereby sects recognize their differences, but embrace them. The fact that sects differ in their beliefs, traditions, and customs does not inevitably lead to animosity. These differences can be reconciled and celebrated, rather than done away with. Indeed, this is the most realistic and least “idealistic” option. What this will look like in practice is not so clear. However, what the alternatives look like in practice is clear: centralized nationalist authoritarianism, or sectarian hatred, bigotry, and conflict.