Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East by Asef Bayat (Stanford University Press, 2010) 304 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani.

Written by admin on April 27th, 2011

What a timely book! Or should we call it prophetic? Published a year before the uprisings that have begun reshaping the contours of the region’s authoritarian politics, this book offers great insights into, and a provocative comparative and analytical framework for comprehending the often overlooked social dynamics underlying the current upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. Bayat takes aim at debunking two prevalent tropes. The first is the idea of Middle Eastern exceptionalism, the widespread notion that the politics of this particular region is uniquely immune to democratization and popular sovereignty due to intrinsic political deficiencies and cultural inertia (read Islam, patriarchy, the corruption caused by petrolic wealth, etc.). The second is the notion that these societies are inherently weak and bereft of the autonomous social organizations and the culture of citizenship needed to challenge corrupt authoritarian states, the intolerant sectarian violence of radical Islamists, or the ravages of neo-liberal economics.

This book challenges the resulting conventional wisdom of many experts and pundits, both local and international, that in this region meaningful change can come only as a result of external pressure (military, economic, political) or internal violence. Instead, Life as Politics offers a brilliant alternative perspective on public life by taking seriously the daily lives and the social agency of ordinary people, hence its subtitle “How ordinary people change the Middle East.” Bayat’s central argument is that formal social movements, like trade unions, student organizations, political parties etc. have little chance of withstanding the repression of authoritarian states. When states are challenged openly, they respond with violence. This intolerance is not inherent to this region, but a byproduct of geopolitical calculations, especially of the self-interested western support of Israel as well as the dictatorial regimes that control the region’s oil resources. In spite of repression and chronic maldevelopment, the politics of the region are under constant challenge, not necessarily through the organized resistance of social movements, but through what Bayat calls the “non-movements” of ordinary people pursuing their self interests in the public domain.

By “non-movements” the author means “the collective actions of non-collective actors” (pp. 14-20) – the urban poor taking over public spaces for informal housing or street vending, the unemployed engaged in the informal economy, the housewives empowered through engagement in neighborhood and informal social services, young people aspiring to normal life chances by seeking fun in spite of the moral condemnation of Islamists or state authorities, etc. What distinguishes these non-movements from formal political challenges to the existing order is the fact that they are driven not by organized leadership, formal organization, or specific ideologies, but by the atomistic and self-interested practices of daily routines.  They involve vast numbers of ordinary urban subaltern subjects of all kind whose common practices of survival and their pursuit of individual life chances and material security undermine the rigid and undemocratic political architecture of police states. The recent events in Iran following the 2009 election, and then in Tunisia and Egypt, and the subsequent wildfires of public discontent across the region, seem to confirm Bayat’s arguments.

In spite of its theoretical contribution, especially the focus on the notion of “non-movements” of ordinary people as political agency, this is not a book of pure theory. Far from it! Bayat’s strength has always been a combination of accessible and lucidly argued theoretical sophistication, accompanied by rigorous comparative empirical research and analysis. Most of the chapters of this book have been previously published, but here they have been selected specifically to support and expand the book’s central theme. The introduction, titled “The art of presence”, is an original essay in which the author presents his main theoretical arguments. This important essay will become, rightly, the centerpiece of much debate about the nature of social agency in the region. Chapter 2 is a seminal critique and debunking of the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, an important document that supports the Middle East exceptionalism discourse. Part 1 of the book (chapters 3-7) titled “Social non-movements” analyzes the “quite encroachment of the ordinary” daily life by the young, the urban poor, social activists, and women. Part 2 (chapters 8-12) titled “Street politics and the political street” analyzes the spaces of urban life and how ordinary people’s activities reclaim the city and the streets from neo-liberal developers, intolerant Islamists, and authoritarian states. Part 3 looks at the prospects of political change, especially by focusing on the emergence and the discursive development of “post-Islamism”, the intellectual and social movement of the pious activists and thinkers who want a place for religion in political and public life, but not at the expense of human rights and democracy.

Life as Politics is written in a clear and accessible prose. It is a wonderful book to use in a multitude of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses on social movements, the Middle East, urban sociology, and political economy. Its insights into the micro dynamics of the Middle East were prescient and anyone interested in finding a provocative, insightful, and timely analysis of the ongoing transformations in this region will be rewarded by reading this book. I cannot but endorse it most enthusiastically.

Having said this, I also have some critical remarks to make. Bayat’s notion of “non-movements” as a sort of emancipatory politics is certainly thought provoking, but also problematic. Liberal and utilitarian political theories are imbued with the notion of atomistic self-interested individuals who, while selfishly pursuing their personal happiness, inadvertently benefit the common good not through design and benevolence, but through the unintended consequences of their fragmented actions. These are the arguments of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and James Madison in the Federalist Papers (Not to mention Hayek). Indeed, it is hard to argue with the separate elements of Bayat’s argument: Which progressive person of the left would not support destitute urban squatters from claiming land for housing when the state fails miserably to protect their rights and ensure their entitlements as citizens? And it would be difficult not to support the rights of the young and the unemployed to don fashionable outfits and turn officially solemn religious festivals into public parties and festive occasions. But “non-movements” do not necessarily lead to democratic empowerment or a more just society. Urban squatters do not resolve the pressing housing question. At best, they alleviate the plight of the individual squatters by turning what had been common property into the private property of the lucky few. This is dispossession of the commons by another means. Young Iranian supporters of the Green movement may have displayed great integrity by their adherence to non-violence, but the apparent absence/rejection of serious ‘ideological’ debates within this movement may reflect the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas about the economy and the market rather than a sign of non-sectarianism.

To claim and to show how ordinary people’s daily routines undermine the tyranny of the markets, authoritarian states, and moralist Islamists is vitally important. Life as Politics convincingly debunks the orientalist myth of Middle East exceptionalism by showing that there is indeed politics and agency among the subaltern. Whether this political agency of ordinary people’s daily struggles can develop an institutionalized form of democratic politics, however, will require good old fashioned political organizing and ideological battles. I don’t think Bayat is advocating a liberal-utilitarian model of politics here, but the notion of ‘non-movements’ needs a more rigorous and critical articulation.

Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University and an editor of Middle East Report

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2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Top post. I look forward to reading more. Cheers

  2. Great blog post. It’s useful information.

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