Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Egypt: The crisis of modernity all over again?

It is possible to place the incipient revolution in Egypt in a wider historical and philosophical framework — one that is very illuminating regarding its potential for liberation as well as renewed oppression. The conceptual framework I am thinking of here is that of “modernity as crisis” — a notion encountered in different guises and in many thinkers’ work, from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, Virilio, Megill and others.

In Prophets of Extremity (1985), Allan Megill reminds us that the word, “crisis”, in medical discourse, denotes that turning-point in the development of an illness where it could go in the direction of either a rapid deterioration (followed by death), or an improvement, on the road to recovery. Transferred to the domain of history, it means very much the same thing, except that the “recovery” and “death” in question mean something different than in the case of a living organism.

This also applies to what has been happening in Egypt over the last few weeks. In the latest TIME magazine it is referred to as a “crisis”, and it certainly fits that description, with the implication that there, too we are witnessing the potential for recovery or death of sorts. What would those two terms mean, in the case of Egypt? Here I will take my cue from Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2001), which necessitates a bit of a digression, to be able to put the current Egyptian upheaval in the perspective unlocked by the concept of crisis.

Their account of the crisis-character of modernity has a historical as well as a critical-theoretical side to it. In historical terms, they point to “two modernities” which came into being in the crucible of the European Renaissance, and which correspond, respectively, to “desire” and “order”, two tendencies that have been in a tug of war since that time.

Most people associate the European Renaissance (there have been others too) with a resurrection of ancient (Greek and Roman) ideals, especially in the arts, literature and architecture, in Italy and the rest of Europe around the 14th and 16th centuries, because of what was seen as the increasing sterility of medieval cultural practices under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not inaccurate as such, but hides the more important revolutionary character of the Renaissance, brought out so clearly by Hardt and Negri.

They call this revolutionary spirit “the revolutionary plane of immanence”, which contrasts with the counter-tendency, to impose a “transcendent plane of order”. The emergence of the revolutionary spirit was, they say, “something extraordinary” that occurred across Europe between 1200 and 1600 (Empire pp 70-71):

“Humans declared themselves masters of their own lives, producers of cities and history, and inventors of heavens. They inherited a dualistic consciousness, a hierarchical vision of society, and a metaphysical idea of science; but they handed down to future generations an experimental idea of science, a constituent conception of history and cities, and they posed being as an imminent terrain of knowledge and action. The thought of this initial period, born simultaneously in politics, science, art, philosophy, and theology, demonstrates the radicality of the forces at work in modernity … at the scene of the birth of European modernity, humanity discovered its power in the world and integrated this dignity into a new consciousness of reason and potentiality.”

The “primary event of modernity”, for Hardt and Negri, is therefore the “affirmation of the powers of this world, the discovery of the plane of immanence”. It is hard to overemphasise the importance of this insight. What it means, is that tremendous new creative powers were unleashed at many levels at this moment in history, including all those mentioned above by Hardt and Negri, and — unavoidably — these powers challenged the entrenched power of various institutions, from the state to the church.

Hence the historical reaction to the revolution, which is commonly referred to as the Counter-Reformation as far as the established church is concerned, but which was spread over a much larger spectrum of cultural practices, from theology and philosophy to the arts and politics. In short: the “transcendent plane of order” reasserted itself, in this way imparting to modernity its strange, two-fold character of “crisis” — a modernity forever caught in the struggle between revolutionary, immanent forces, on the one hand, and reactionary, conservative, powers which tend to play on the fears and insecurities on the part of people (what Hardt and Negri call the “multitude”) on the other.

At the time, a kind of Pyrrhic victory was won by the forces of order — the urgent need for peace after 30 years of civil war in Europe enabled them to reassert themselves, but without being able to return to the way things were before the revolution of modernity, which cut constitutive ties with its past and inaugurated a new future. Hence, the crisis of that time has been perpetuated, as many revolutions and civil wars since the 16th century attest. And the crisis is still with us, manifesting itself, this time, in the revolutionary stirrings in the Arab world — on the one hand, the emergence of socially immanent, creative forces of social and political (and no doubt also economic) change, and on the other the reactionary powers of order.

Just how creative these revolutionary forces are, has been noticed by several commentators. For one thing, they don’t seem to fit the mould of liberal democratic forces, nor that of fundamentalist Islamic ones, but display a curious kind of anarchist-democratic character. One of the symptoms of this is the incumbent Egyptian authorities’ as well as Western governments’ inability to identify “leaders” among the protesters unambiguously, to be able to negotiate with them.

Some see this as a weakness on the part of the revolutionaries, which I don’t believe to be the case. It is strength, because it demonstrates that unexplored alternatives to the liberal democratic model exist at the revolutionary plane of immanence. These people have been able to organise themselves without clearly identifiable leaders, even after the use of the much vaunted electronic communications technology — internet and cellphones — was removed by the Mubarak regime. Obviously, this is a major source of frustration to the regime as well as the West, especially the US, which wants to see “leaders” elected according to their own liberal democratic model of representation, lest they lose the ability to influence these individuals in favour of a continued US/Egypt alliance of sorts.

Those commentators who have seen fundamentalist Islamic powers behind the uprising, also seem to me to be wrong, even if the Muslim Brotherhood does comprise an identifiable political grouping in the mix. It may be that, in the end, some fundamentalist party does take control of Egypt, which would be a great pity, given the wonderful, creative political potential that this insurrection has (in terms of the first, revolutionary phase of modernity).

But should these revolutionary forces prevail, and the army keep its distance (refraining from imposing military rule), it would be just as much of a pity if they were to fall for US and other Western states’ insistence on so-called “free and fair elections” (which they never are, given the mediated manipulations present even in liberal democracies) with a view to establishing a representative democracy of the usual sort. Such a system is not the only way to have a functioning “democracy”. The fact that, so far, the protesters have apparently been able to act in concert without appointed or elected leaders, and yet, in a democratic manner — in the most fundamental sense of democracy as political action of and by “the people” — suggests that an incipient anarcho-democratic political form may be at work here.

Needless to stress, anarchism does not here mean destructive chaos, but minimally a movement predicated on the belief that the state is undesirable, and that people are able to organise themselves politically, economically and culturally without it. I believe that, if this revolution succeeds in overthrowing the Mubarak regime, and neither the army nor other nations intervene, the people should be given the chance to actualise some of the potential of the “revolutionary forces of immanence” identified by Hardt and Negri. I do not have much hope that they will be allowed to do so by the forces that correspond to the second face of modernity — those of “transcendent order” — but there is no harm in pointing out the unrealised democratic potential at work in the way the protests have unfolded in Egypt. In a sense, this potential could make the difference between genuine social and political “life” and “death” in the context of crisis.