A Lesson for Americans

The people rising up abroad are our future.

Ahmad Hammoud via flickr

Americans are in danger of learning the wrong lesson from the people's revolution that started in Tunisia but will ultimately sweep the globe. Behind our ardent and sincere, outcries of support for the rebellions "over there," one senses the entrenchment of deep feelings of impotency and despair, a note of wistful nostalgia for a time of dictators where revolution would be, we imagine, easy. There is a debilitating political narrative developing "over here" in America – a bastardization of post-structuralist philosophy – which says that the revolution is possible for Tunisians and Egyptians precisely because it is impossible for Westerners.

"They," the paralyzing narrative goes, "are living in the past, dominated by an archaic, out-dated form of power. That is why they won: Tunisians and Egyptians had a single enemy, a repressive, anachronistic tyrant, against which they could rebel. On the contrary, we, citizens of the most 'advanced' 'democracy' in the world, face an enemy that is everywhere. Power is diffuse in postmodernity, it cannot be located, and thus we have no tyrant and, consequently, we have no way to revolt." The dangerous allure of this story, the reason it simultaneously excuses and magnifies our apathy, is that it is partly true. For one, it accurately describes the functioning of power in America today.

Every activist owes a debt to Michel Foucault, the influential French historian and post-structuralist philosopher, for revolutionizing how we think about power. He taught us to distrust the "repressive hypothesis," the belief that power always and only functions through negation, prohibition, censorship, and oppression. He convinced us that power is far from obvious, that it functions underhandedly in ways that secure our consent willingly. "Power is tolerable only on the condition that it masks a substantial part of itself," he explained in the first volume of his 1976 The History of Sexuality. "[Power's] success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms."

It is now commonplace, and far from controversial, to believe that power in our era does not lie anywhere physically locatable but instead emanates from the social networks that surround us, forming us into obedient subjects. The schools that indoctrinate, the regimes of psychiatry that medicalize mental states, even the language we use which constrains our imagination, are all manifestations of power. "Power is everywhere," Foucault declared, "not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere." And he counselled activists to fight power differently than they had ever done so before. "Let us not look for the headquarters … neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society … " This was, at the time, a profound and crucial contribution to resistance.

The problem is that Americans have accepted Foucault's argument only to the degree that it aggrandizes ourselves and our perception of America. We bemoan our powerlessness, our inability to oppose the American empire, crying loudly about the difficulty of resisting a globalized enemy whose strength comes not only from the hundreds of military bases circling the world but from the very words we use in protest, while we underhandedly put down the rest of the world. We accept Foucault's hypothesis on the condition that it does not apply to the people in the streets of Benghazi. We make ourselves feel ultra-modern, yet again, by arguing that "they" are still repressed by tyrants while we live in a much more advanced stage of control. Then we turn their revolution into further evidence of our oppression.

Sustaining all this is one fundamental misunderstanding. The revolutionaries abroad did not overthrow a old-style dictator; they toppled a postmodern network of diffuse power no less advanced than our own. Despite facing an enemy so long in power, with tentacles in every branch of government, every school house, in every neighborhood … an innovative foe with advanced, Western trained technologists capable of shutting down the Internet and pushing propaganda to every cell phone in the nation … the people succeeded in their revolution because they broke totally with the world-as-it-was. In the streets, they inaugurated a new way of being, a new self, a new people. It is that transformation into a new people that gave them the strength to hold their ground in Midan Tahrir under the assault of petrol bombs, to initiate a general strike that stalled the economy, to continue the fight after the fall of Mubarak. The ability to resist diffuse power on all fronts, simultaneously comes from the leap into a new collective subjectivity.

If the revolution is not happening in America today it is not because we are living in an invulnerable society of control. It is because we still see ourselves as the same people as yesterday: obedient consumers, workers, voters. We hesitate to renounce our allegiance to the current world. We balk at the cost of permanently withdrawing our psychic investments. The people who we see rising up abroad have done what we are afraid to do. They are not our past; they are our future.

Micah White