Sunday, March 06, 2011

Foucault on Tunisia

Negri and Hardt are quite right that the current wave of revolts are 'sweeping away the racist conceptions of a clash of civilisations that consign Arab politics to the past. The multitudes in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi shatter the political stereotypes that Arabs are constrained to the choice between secular dictatorships and fanatical theocracies' (Guardian, 11 February 2011).

But of course this image of 'Arab' politics could only ever have been sustained by a wilful ignorance of history. The radical, secular movements of the past in that part of the world have been airbrushed away, not only from mainstream narratives but from some leftist accounts in which recent North African and Middle Eastern history begins and ends with Israel/Palestine and the Gulf Wars. Everyone knows about Paris '68 but what about Tunisia?

Tunisia too had its 1968, and among those involved was Michel Foucault, who was teaching at the University of Tunis and living in Sidi Bou Said. Shortly after his arrival in Tunis in 1966 there had been a student strike and clashes with the authorities, sparked initially by a student's refusal to pay a bus fare. Student agitation reached a peak between March and June 1968, with a visit from the US Secretary of State Hubert Humphrey prompting riots with attacks on the British and US Embassies. The president levied a tax on every household in Tunis to pay for the riot damage.

Foucault recalled: 'there were student agitations of an incredible violence there... Strikes, boycotting of classes and arrests were to take place one after another for the entire year. The police entered the university and attacked many students, injuring them and throwing them into jail'. Foucault's support for the rebels included hiding a printing machine used for anti-government leaflets in his garden. At one point he was badly beaten up in an attack presumed to have been launched by plain-clothes cops. The whole experience had a radicalising effect on Foucault who said that he 'was profoundly struck and amazed by those young men and women who exposed themselves to serious risks for the simple fact of having written or distributed a leaflet, or for having incited others to go on strike. Such actions were enough to place at risk one's life, one's freedom and one's body'.

Foucault saw the global cycle of late 1960s struggles through the lens of his Tunisian experience, from which he drew wider conclusions:

'What was the meaning of that outburst of radical revolt that the Tunisian students had attempted? What was it that was being questioned everywhere? I think my answer is that the dissatisfaction came from the way in which a kind of permanent oppression in daily life was being put into effect by the state and by other institutions and oppressive groups. That which was ill-tolerated and continually questioned, which produced that sort of discomfort, was "power". And not only state power but also that which was exercised within the social body through extremely different channels, forms and institutions. It was no longer acceptable to be "governed" in a certain way. I mean "governed" in an extended sense; I'm not just referring to the government of the state and the men who represent it, but also to those men who organize our daily lives by means of rules, by way of direct or indirect influences, as for instance the mass media'.

The refusal to be 'governed in a certain way' has certainly been a feature of the current movements in Tunisia and elsewhere, just as it was forty years ago. Of course underneath there has also been the ongoing reality of poverty and dispossession, but the indignity of living under dictatorship and the attendant petty humiliations of daily life has been a key driver of rebellion. It is notable that the spark that lit the Tunisian revolt was the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17 2010 in protest at the confiscation of his wares and harassment by officials.

So as in 1968 there has been a desire for freedom from oppressive regulations at a micro and macro level. But there has also been a desire, as Hardt and Negri put it, for 'a different life in which they can put their capacities to use', for freedom to realize human potential. As H&N put in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004): 'When we propose the poor as the paradigmatic subjective figure of labour today, it is not because the poor are empty and excluded from wealth but because they are included in the circuits of production and full of potential, which always exceeds what capital and the global political body can expropriate and control. This common surplus is the first pillar on which are built struggles against the global political body and for the multitude'. Today this 'surplus' and 'potential' are increasingly concrete as millions worldwide are consigned to the scrap heap by economic crisis, but 'power' is still what confronts those pushing for a better life.

A voice from today's Tunisia

Here's Head of State by Hamada Ben Amor (aka El General), a track that played a part in recent events in Tunisia. It directly addresses (now-ex) President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with lyrics like:

Mr President, you told me to speak without fear
But I know that eventually I will take just slaps
I see too much injustice and so I decided to send this message even though the people told me that my end is death
But until when the Tunisian will leave in dreams, where is the right of expression?
They are just words ..
Tunis was defined the “green”, but there is only desert divided into 2,
it is a direct robbery by force that dominated a country
without naming already everybody knows who they are
much money was pledged for projects and infrastructure
schools, hospitals, buildings, houses
But the sons of dogs have already fattened
They stole, robbed, kidnapped and were unwilling to leave the chair.

He was arrested for his troubles in the early days of the rebellion, but is now out of jail and performing again (more background information and full lyrics at Hip Hop Diplomacy).

All Foucault quotes from Remarks on Marx: conversations with Duccio Trombadori (1991); additional information from David Macey, The Many Lives of Michel Foucault


Becky said...

Really great, thanks. We need a global history of '68.

Jonathan Craig said...

In case you're interested, here's a documentary about the 1968 San Francisco Student Strike: