Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What is Politics? What is Political? A Hybrid Open Thread on the Egypt Uprising

Let's play this as a hybrid open thread of sorts...

The pundit classes are chattering away on the street-level events in Egypt. I choose to demure. For now, I am just sitting back and enjoying the ride so to speak as Mubarak and 30 plus years of U.S. policy get's shaken, rattled, and rolled. My thoughts on the uprising in Egypt are also more meta-level than policy oriented. I have been increasingly struck by the question of "who watches the watchers?" and how the American media is 1) framing the event and 2) how "experts" of questionable expertise are trotted out for their obligatory 30 seconds of analysis where they offer unqualified observations in the service of very narrow policy agendas.

On an existential level the crisis in Egypt is about politics. This is an observation to which a superficial reader would reply, "and so what?" But, the idea of "politics" and what constitutes "the political" is laden with assumptions (of culture, time period, and social location). By implication, these assumptions go uninterrogated and unreflected upon. Moreover, I would bet dollars to donuts that most Americans (and people elsewhere) could give you examples of things that are political, but would struggle with providing an actual definition of politics.

This is an important exercise if we are going to offer a critique of how the American media is covering the crisis in Egypt. For example, if one watches Fox News there is an implicit narrative that the protests in Egypt are an example of "abnormal politics." If one watches Al-Jazeera the frame is one where the protests are an ideal example of politics as action--regular people are fighting for their share of power against an oppressive State.

For folks in political science this is a basic debate--and one that can become quite heated. In the discipline there does exist a broad agreement on what constitutes politics. However, it is on the margins, in interdisciplinary spaces, and where questions of power, culture, and identity are at the forefront where the "politics" in political science can become very contentious.

A question then: Of this less than exhaustive list, which definition applies most directly to the events in Egypt?

Politics is about how societies negotiate the distribution of power, resources, and access to private and public goods;

Politics is essentially the study of power and authority;

Politics is about who gets what, when, how, and why;

Politics is the study of the large N: institutions, public opinion, mass behavior, and international relations.

Or is the Egyptian uprising an example of some other type of politics (or even a phenomenon entirely apart from Western notions of the idea)?

The floor is yours.


Plane Ideas said...


My spin...

Going underground catch up with you in a couple of months:-)


Invisible Man said...

I wish the revolution for change that's sweeping the African/Arab world would spread to America. We sure could use some uprising outside the white house and congress.

CNu said...

it is on the margins, in interdisciplinary spaces, and where questions of power, culture, and identity are at the forefront where the "politics" in political science can become very contentious.

The real underlying horn of contention and root cause of MENA instability doesn't even appear to be on your radar. The Egyptian uprising, like the Tunisian uprising, is about food security and the failure of the Egyptian state to deliver on its fundamental national security obligations. Watch, wait, and see if the IMF's MENA datasets have any real predictive power re continuing instability in the middle-east and north africa. Speculate then as to the what's, why's and wherefore's of the power elite (PE) getting together in their masses in Davos last week and not lifting a finger to stem the flood of investment dollars going into commodities, causing the food price spikes across the MENA that broke the proverbial camel's back and set all this tumult into motion.

Everything else is merely projective conversation..., {some unintentionally very ironic to be sure}

The "glass half-full" just-so storytellers will provide a post hoc narrative to account for these events which doesn't address the actual root cause - or - seeks to furnish mimetic cover for it as the result of "free-market" forces. Bottomline, the commodities and food price bubble driving this has been anticipated for months and could have easily been braked or avoided altogether with modest regulatory intervention. That it was allowed to proceed without such intervention marks it as wait for it, wait for it possible crank moment ahead ENGINEERED.

Expect it to get truly nasty, killer-ape resource war type nasty, when an underlying primary economic event happens that actually constrains supply.

Neoconservative knuckle-draggers are already chomping at the "opening chapters of WW-III bit" in response to what's now unfolding...,

Cobb said...

I cannot imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood or any other nascent political proto-party of Egypt is any more sophisticated than your ordinary editor at Al Jazeera. Perhaps their English translators leave much to be desired, but I have yet to read anything at Al Jazeera that gives me any confidence that they or their audience is particularly educated. Which is to say for the purposes of provocative debate, that Al Jazeera is not quite as sophisticated as Fox News, or perhaps, owing to their popularity here and abroad Al Jazeera is exactly as sophisticated as Fox News and for exactly the same reasons - to support a particular worldview with political consequences.

Either institution is inevitable if one expects peasants to participate in the proxy of representative government. So each enables the rabble to 'speak truth to power'. Each is 'the voice of the people'. Each is relatively idiotic, and necessarily so.

So now American liberals are faced with the disheartening possibility that in countries like Egypt, there are many millions who would like their own Sarah Palins. Of course the idea that a woman might emerge to rule over the Nilotics is not unprecedented, but I hear no female names trotted out these days. Whatever the candidate and case may be, the fact remains that no matter how romantic this revolution may seem, its eyes, ears, arms and legs are of people who are, by and large, uneducated and unsophisticated in political matters.

It has been said that such things don't matter so long as the people get to express their will and exert self-rule. Every time you see Sarah Palin's face, is that the thought that comes to mind? Of course not. You are political snobs and elitists and so am I. I would not be led by populists and I have no patience for identity politics, but you can bet that has all the political currency necessary in Egypt. Egypt would be lucky to have Sarah Palin, and we all know it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cobb. I would take the Al-jazeera vs. Fox News litmus test any day of the week. To call Fox "news" is a disservice to the very idea of the 4th estate. Now on the Egyptian Sarah Palin that is an interesting idea. Demagoguery is not culturally specific. But the way that demagogues package themselves is indeed a function of the milieu in which they find themselves.

Egypt lucky to have Palin? I shutter at the thought that any society would be happy to have her.