A Tunisian Renaissance

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A Tunisian Renaissance
. .Interview with
. . .Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem is a French-Tunisian writer and philosopher. He is the author of three novels and several works of philosophy, including most recently L’Esprit du nihilisme, une ontologique de l’Histoire (Fayard, 2009) and Inesthétique et mimèsis: Badiou, Lacoue-Labarthe et la question de l’art (Nouvelles Editions Lignes, 2010). The following interview was conducted over email by Alexander R. Galloway during the week of January 31, 2011.
What are your thoughts on the recent political events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan–or perhaps even Iran in 2006 and 2009? In what ways are they the first real political events of the 21st century? What constitutes an event?
I wouldn’t speak of all these events taken together, but first of the Tunisian revolution, which the entire Arab world recognizes as the most important event since decolonization. Already more important than the Iranian revolution of 1977-79. Overnight, life changed for millions of people, for me included. Concomitantly, in their interiority, the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Arab world changed: it is possible for an Arab person to be free. If that isn’t an event, I really don’t see what else one needs.
As extraordinary as the Tunisian upheaval was, we are going to have spend some real time considering the parameters for why the revolution probably couldn’t have started in any other country but Tunisia, which is probably the most secular country in the Arab world. “Tunisia” now, politically, means “Tsunami.” In the three days following January 14th, 2011, the words “freedom” and “democracy” were heard more in the Arab world than in the previous forty years. A people accomplished the impossible: the overthrow of an omnipresent police dictatorship, as if Orwell’s 1984 had a happy ending. Whoever was familiar with life on the ground, like me–I’m half-Tunisian–knew what extraordinary ubiquitous terror the regime perpetrated on the population every day.
Only North Korea offers a still more hermetic example. I’m not kidding; everyone will tell you the same thing. In Tunisia, you couldn’t find a single café that wasn’t watched by the police; if you made a joke about Ben Ali on the phone, within an hour you’d be missing a few teeth. It’ll take years to say exactly what happened–in a revolution, every detail counts–and to gauge the repercussions, which will be enormous. It’s the 1789 year of the Arab world; and the consequences will determine this century’s history just like the events of July 14th, 1789, affected the course of European history for the 19th century and well on afterwards. All you need to do is take a walk in Tunisia today to know what a revolution is: everyone talks to each other, everyone’s opinion is more insightful and interesting than the next, just like in May ’68. January 2011 is a May ’68 carried through all the way to the end. It’s a revolution that has more in common with the Situationists or Rancière, that is, a revolution carried out directly by the people, than with the Leninist or Maoist “Revolution,” in which an armed avant-garde takes over power and replaces one dictatorship with another without ever passing through “democracy.” As almost always happens, good old Hegel is rubbing his hands: “the history of the world is the history of the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Tunisia has just written an indelible page of this history.
You grew up in Tunisia as a child. You said recently that the future of philosophy is “Tunisian.” What did you mean by that?
I didn’t write that in a book, but to you in an e-mail! I was kidding; I was caught up in the excitement of the event. Even in France, we knew that we were running a risk, my Tunisian partner and I, first by passing on information from Facebook, then by intervening more resolutely to make French media put the Tunisian revolt on the front pages. Until then all the media was talking about was Islamist attacks against Egyptian Copts, which allowed people to stay within the comfortable framework of a “war of civilizations,” of the good liberal-democratic West versus archaic global Islamo-fascism. In Tunisia, the revolt was secular, democratic and peaceful; the only physical violence, or almost all of it, came from the omnipresent police and the fascist militias in the pay of Ben Ali. In the ten days prior to Ben Ali’s fall, my partner’s computer would be hacked several times a day by the Tunisian police. We weren’t risking our neck directly, but indirectly our families’, because that’s how it worked. In sixteen years of intellectual life in France, I hadn’t written a word on the Ben Ali regime because although it would have given my leftist intellectual narcissism some easy satisfaction, my father or my family would have been arrested and tortured, pure and simple.
For ten days, because of this one e-mail, I feared for my family. Even today, the ghost-like presence of “Benalism” in Tunisia is such that I’m still on my guard; no one knows where the militiamen might be lurking. But there you have it: suddenly, we were no longer afraid. I was ashamed of my cowardice and my silence in my French apartment when I saw elderly Tunisians open their burnooses in front of the police, “You want to kill us? Kill us!” It was very Hegelian, in the sense of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists: “Freedom or death!” And it works. That’s why Kojève wasn’t completely wrong when he said of May ’68, “No deaths? That’s not a revolution.”
By the way, when I say that it was the first Situationist revolution in history (a “successful May ‘68”), that is, carried out by the people directly, there is another dimension to it that concerns the revolutionary, democratic left the world over: the use of the media. When the official media told a lie, within the next half hour it was disproved by civil society on the Internet: a thousand people, ten thousand, a hundred thousand saw the real images, the state’s manipulation, the deceptions, etc. In short, for the first time in history it was the media–television, radio or newspapers–that played catch-up to a new kind of popular, democratic information. And the same thing is going to happen everywhere. It’s even possible that journalism as such will end up being unnecessary. That’s one of the major “Situationist” lessons of this revolution: an absolute victory over one “Society of the Spectacle.” Which means that, tomorrow, others, and not only Arab dictatorships, might fall…
There seem to be two arguments in the West, both of which cast a haughty cynicism over these lands: either Tunisia and Egypt are “merely” the final moments of a revolutionary cycle inaugurated two decades ago at the fall of the Berlin wall to push out the sclerotic tyranny of twentieth-century strongmen; or, as some on the Left have argued, these rebellious Muslims, in seeking their liberal freedoms, are only trying to “be like us,” the children of Coca-Cola–as Godard put it–and hence will only ever gain the false freedoms of neoliberal consumerist democracy. What do you say to these critics?
I’d really like to know who the imbeciles are who have the gall to say those things. But I can’t speak for them. First, the Tunisian event has nothing to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall, whose groundwork was laid in advance by Gorbachev’s politics in the USSR. Nothing prepared for the Tunisian revolution; the unrest was very significant from December 14th, 2010, on. I understood, I’ll say it again, that something very important was happening when people, everyone, started saying, “We’re not afraid anymore.” That came out of nowhere, so to speak. That’s why it was a real event: the people had no support for weeks and weeks, during which everyone consciously, “Hegelianly,” risked their lives.
As a Tunisian, I was already tired of the haughty contempt of those, always from important bourgeois universities, who have never stepped foot in a dictatorship but nonetheless think, from a distance, that Chinese concentration camps–they’re just great, the same thing as Lacan’s couch. I had had enough of the position typical of seventies’ leftism, the contempt for the Law, this way of saying that when all is said and done capitalist dictatorship is the same everywhere. At best it’s ridiculous, at worst obscene. This “hatred of democracy,” as Rancière puts it, which for the last few years has been eating away at the French intellectual extreme-left and beyond. This haughty contempt, as you put it, for formal “freedoms.” It’s always from within a democracy that one plays the trendy provocateur thumbing his nose at democracy. It’s always when one is protected by the Law that one can say, from the perspective of “the” political truth dreamed up in one’s office or some prestigious academic chair, that Law has no importance. It’s always when one already enjoys formal freedoms that one can scorn them elsewhere. There are no fewer rich on the side of “radical chic” than on the right, and in both cases, as if by chance, all those who make these kinds of remarks come from the grand bourgeoisie, and so give themselves away, even if they brandish the little red book to shock the gallery. Those who make these kinds of remarks are no better than those who, during the Tunisian revolution and now elsewhere, claim to see Islamism everywhere.
That’s what Adorno said to the Frankfurt students when they would quote Mao to him, “just like your grandparent’s quoting the Prince of poets.” He would tell them that he knew “what it was like to have someone ring at your door at six o’clock in the morning, not knowing if it’s the baker or the Gestapo.” The Tunisians have ended twenty years during which every day they knew what Adorno meant. Adorno added that bourgeois Law had a positive side vis-à-vis communism itself, in contexts where its absence brought only “the idiotic brutality of leftist fascisms,” notably in the USSR and in Maoist China.
That’s what I had come to last year. I had had enough of this senile rubbish from the leftist ghetto of “radical chic.” But I didn’t expect that a crucial event, arising in the country of my birth, would prove me so right. To get straight to the heart of the matter: I’d been wondering for years if it wasn’t necessary quite simply to forget nearly all of twentieth-century politics. That is, to forget the failure of Leninism and its deep causes.
Concretely, over several weeks Tunisia has become a Commune spanning a whole nation. As far as food is concerned, rubbish disposal, and above all the organization of neighbourhoods against the fascist militias left by Ben Ali to destroy the country, once again, all this represents a small miracle. The savvy and enormous ingenuity displayed by the Tunisian population in limiting to an incredible extent the damage that could otherwise have driven us to civil war–it’s really a heroic feat: and it’s still far from over. Every night we have to get home before the curfew; we talk with people from the neighbourhood getting ready to keep watch all night carrying metal bars, flashlights and whistles to protect themselves from Ben Ali’s militias. The Commune wasn’t a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, an illuminated, armed avant-garde à la Lenin, but a real direct takeover by the people. Self-management, in food, protection and information.
The Marxist and Leninist not to mention Stalinist and Maoist deviation in their interpretation of the consequences of the French revolution–it meant imposing equality dictatorially without ever giving a thought to freedom. As for the American Revolution, it meant exchanging freedom for equality. The twentieth century proved that by and large people still preferred freedom without equality to equality without freedom. And here again it’s Hegel’s turn to gloat: the sole and unique form in which the revolutionary conquest of freedom becomes effective is as Right. Therein lies one of the essential components of the current Tunisian Renaissance.
This is a fact that the Badious and the Zizeks of the world mustn’t make us forget, and especially not a Tunisian in 2011: the Stalinist and Maoist regimes were thoroughly abominable. A Chinese woman whose family actively participated in the Cultural Revolution told me that for her it was worse than Auschwitz. As far as that’s concerned, one really has to beware of the shortcuts one takes, playing at a trendy leftist in the comfort of a bourgeois academic apartment. The “Badiou affair” may very well blow up in our faces just as much as the “Heidegger affair.” What I’ve read from Badiou and Zizek on the Tunisian revolution is absolutely useless. Tunisian philosophers have told me they regret that a Deleuze, a Foucault, a Derrida isn’t still around. They would have found the right, resonant words to take the measure of the event. I find the silence of people like Nancy and Rancière regrettable. Their sensitivity is totally right for what has happened.
It’s obvious that Badiou and Zizek, who reacted very late to the first positive event of historical and global scope of the twenty-first century, know absolutely nothing about the situation, although, in Badiou’s case, it’s truly spectacular: almost like Sarkozy he manages to talk about the Tunisian revolution as if it were no more than some “riots.” He says: “maybe some interesting utterances will come out of this, let’s wait and see…” He’s completely out of it. From where I sit, there are “interesting” utterances absolutely everywhere. One need only walk down Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which has been transformed into a giant agora over the last three weeks. What bothers Badiou’s bureaucratic leftism is that the twenty-first century has begun with the master-signifiers “freedom” and “democracy” and not with “communism” or “equality.” Badiou manages the feat of not even mentioning the word “event,” even though this is the first major, absolute event of the twenty-first century. He doesn’t mention the word “revolution” either, even though that’s what it is. Even me, like most of the thinkers on the “far-left,” I had nearly stopped believing in the word and the concept “revolution”! Then revolution returned to the real, the real of my native country. Badiou obviously doesn’t mention the word “democracy,” which the Tunisian people and a majority of Arabs have only had the right to say for the last three weeks. That’s the profound dead-end of Badiou’s philosophy and, therefore, of his history of the event. For him, history stopped in Shanghai in 1967. I live in 2011, in Tunis. If Badiou and Zizek make fools of themselves with their reflections on the event, it’s because they haven’t understood that a crucial event has made it such that Tunisia in 2011 is in a state of philosophical-political awareness and in a more advanced state in general, if I may say so, than post-Maoist China and post-Stalinist Russia are today.
The Tunisian Revolution is an event because the whole Tunisian people, as a people, are experiencing freedom, here and now. All the social barriers are falling away, just like in ’68. Every voice is free. The Russian or Chinese people, in 2011, as a people, have still not experienced freedom. They went directly from a medieval system to an armed dictatorship of equality–what Adorno called “left fascism.” That’s the reason why the Tunisian event is already a historic event: the Tunisians are collectively experiencing freedom and, in the truth of the event, we see that a people that experiences freedom also experiences equality. That’s the hard lesson that the Tunisian event gives to our academic Stalinist dinosaurs.
Kojève said, rather humorously: “They take me for a leftist Hegelian. But I’m a right-wing Marxist.” He said that Fordism was part of Marxist politics and that he’s the one who thought up the Marshall plan. I’d rather be that kind of right-wing Marxist than a postmodern leftist fascist.
Do you see a connection between, say, Greece and the Maghreb, or Paris in 2005 and Cairo today? Can we speak of a pan-Mediterranean political fervour?
No. The riots in the Parisian suburbs were in fact “desperate”; they led to nothing political. That’s what I was saying earlier. Sarkozy interpreted the Tunisian insurrection as a kind of giant suburban riot. Since we know that he said, “By the end of my term, the French will hate me. And I will have lined my pockets,” it’s no wonder he was so close to the Ben Ali clan right up to the end. Ben Ali is his model and not the other way around: you had to have seen them laughing together, slapping each other’s backs, during Sarkozy’s visit to Tunisia. “The place for freedom is growing in Tunisia,” he had the audacity to say to the Tunisian people at the time. Leila Trabelsi is Carla Bruni’s ideal and not the other way around. Greece was essentially a revolt of ultra-precarious youth, which was also an essential part of the Tunisian revolt, although not the only one. As for Cairo, it’s an event that wouldn’t have taken place without Tunisia; the Egyptian situation is very different from ours, and their probable revolution won’t in any case look like ours, if it works out. Every Arab country, if it accomplishes its revolution, will have its own unique situation.
If there is a revolution likely to really make us think about neocapitalism, this one is surely it. It’s the absolute precedent that the Tunisian event establishes: the Ben-Ali-Trabelsi family amassed a fortune worth tens of billions of dollars on the back of a country that has nothing. There are ten million Tunisians. Among the poorest segments of the population families can live a whole year on just a thousand dollars. Do the math. I was talking with a member of the PDP, the Tunisian social-democrat party, an opposition party which Ben Ali “tolerated” and which one definitely wouldn’t accuse of leftist lyricism, and he told me that the money the Ben Ali-Trabelsi mafia embezzled over twenty years surpassed Tunisia’s total GDP. That’s the reason everyone is affected by the Tunisian event. It’s a magnified reflection of all of modern-day global capitalism. If a philosopher supposedly on the left fails to analyze this event drawing on detailed empirical data, I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing. And that’s what I find so deeply offensive when Badiou, like a regular Sarkozy, talks of “riots” in Tunisia, whereas we are seeing the first secular, democratic revolution in the entire history of the Arab world, as well as the first anti-capitalist revolt in a sense that is happily irreducible to militarized post-Leninist revolutions. The latter belong to a dead and buried twentieth-century past. Let’s keep our eyes on the twenty-first.
One of the Tunisian people’s wonderful slogans has been: “We prefer to be poor and free than rich and slaves.” For example, there was this still very recent event we all talked about here: in a way it was Tunisia’s Long March. Young proletarians, thousands of them, set out on foot from one of the cities where the revolt started, a city that’s been severely hit by unemployment and poverty, Sidi Bou Zid. They arrived in front of the interior ministry then set up at the Kasbah in Tunis. They slept on the ground. At first they were offered a thousand dinars each (and even, it seems, hashish!) to return to their homes. They adamantly refused: “We didn’t come here for your money, we came here for our freedom!” “Power to the people!”–all day in front of the interior ministry. The police would sometimes wake them up with tear gas, with letters on the canisters written… in Hebrew! “Made in Israel,” which was one of the only governments, along with Qaddafi, to openly lament Ben Ali’s fall. You see? Arab democrats! An Arab democracy. This is already the end of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Thanks to this event the Israeli-Palestinian situation itself can no longer be considered, treated, thought in the same way as before. The entire Arab and Middle-Eastern world is going to change the basis of its thinking. If that isn’t an event but just some little peripheral riot titillating the old peremptory Maoist, too bad for “Uncle Badiou.” And then there was Sarkozy talking in a speech about the “desperation of Tunisian youth”… There is no people in the world who exude more hope than the Tunisian people do today!
Mohamed Bouazizi killed himself by self-immolation in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. Can you imagine a self-immolation of philosophy? What would it create?
No, that’s not what I was thinking of. On the other hand, a very sophisticated engagement needs to be made with the Badouian schema of the event as “self-belonging.” I’ve worked a lot on this grandiose concept. But also the event in Heidegger. In a way, my whole philosophical endeavour consists in the deconstruction of that which remains theological in the Badiouian conception of the event. I replace “self-belonging,” rational impossibility [l’impossible rationnel], which is how Badiou formulates the event, with something like “transappropriation.” Suddenly, it’s a completely different concept of the event. There again, it’s Hegelian: sacrificial, if you want, but in an absolutely heroic sense. Although it’s not a philosophy that covers over, as Badiou’s does, the price of bloodshed and atrocities–and not only in politics–which humanity must pay in order to reach the post-evental truth. My event is a lot “gloomier” in its foundations than his. The self-immolation, the self-belonging of the event: this calls for extremely precise and well-thought out philosophical commentary at the right time and place. But yes, I think so. No, not the “self-immolation” of philosophy. Maybe Laruelle would say something different… I’d like to think that the text where I lay out my system of the event, Algèbre de la Tragédie [Algebra of Tragedy], is, in fact, a “philosophy of self-immolation.” After all, the text’s lexicon alone says all there is to say about what made me break with Badiou: “martyr,” “torture,” “surveillance,” “persecution,” “sacrifice,” “Law,” “transgression-legislation,” etc. My Tunisian unconscious was pretty expressive. I know you’ve written that “the next ten years are going to be Badiouian.” For me, it’s more like the last ten years. No one has read Being and Event the way I have. Last year I decided it was all over, that I’d made the rounds, and that it was time to move on to other things. My philosophy has nothing to do with his anymore; I’ve turned the page. And the Tunisian event has come along to confirm as much…
As much as to being a Lacanian, I’m therefore sticking to the letter and the signifier. After Alan B. After Ben Ali. I don’t believe in providence, but I trust in it. And I trust in it because it works.
Translated by Joshua Jordan