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Syrian Uprising: The Possibility of Democratic Transformation

Posted on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012 at 10:19 am

Author: Kristin Rawls

I do not know what to say about Syria. As the situation on the ground descends into what Al Jazeera reports may become a civil war, the tools available to those of us who comment from afar seem useless. After all, what does rational choice theory – the dominant school of thinking in international relations – offer at times like these? Risking death in order to make one’s country better is nothing if not irrational. And what of state actors like the Assad regime? What is rational about the transformation of a government into a death machine? A tool of total domination?

We like to believe that international relations are governed by something we call “rational choice” because it gives us hope. If we can locate that “rational truth” for the Assad regime – the action that best serves its interests at the present time – we hope that maybe we can predict what will happen next. This gives us the false hope that order can and will be restored – and the indiscriminate killing stopped – within a measureable period of time.

Some of us – those who think of ourselves as idealistic liberals or leftists – have watched revolutionary movements take shape throughout the Middle East with great excitement. We have rejoiced in the irrationality of it all because we hold on to the hope that revolutionary disruptions in the established order ultimately lead to progress. We were schooled to believe, per Martin Luther King, Jr., that the “arc of history bends toward justice.” It’s an idea that we cling to because it provides hope for a future in which justice is restored to humanity once and for all – the secular fulfillment of heaven’s kingdom established on earth.

And after all, shouldn’t the Syrians have their revolution as well? Didn’t we have our own with the death of aristocratic rule throughout the Western world? Didn’t the French Revolution establish a new order of representative governance once and for all?

Of course, we would like to believe that we in the West are living in the light of real democracy. But it seems less clear than ever that we are living in a new progressive age. I do not want to suggest that the gains of the twentieth century – particularly in the realms of racial justice and women’s rights – happened in vain. Of course they did not.
But I think it is important to ask whether democratic transformation has ever taken place in any context. In this age of late capitalism, one could argue that we have simply transferred the means of control from the state to more dispersed entities like multinational corporations. And perhaps the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United just made the undue influence of corporations more apparent than before. In any case, this same financial system that causes growing inequality throughout the West is also exacerbating inequalities between wealthy and poor countries. This happens by way of non-governmental agencies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that use structural adjustment programs to strip the postcolonial world of meaningful sovereignty.

What is the meaning of “democracy” under the kinds of economic constraints that currently uphold the order of things?

And what about the erosion of civil liberties in the West and the growth of the security state after September 11, 2001? It isn’t that the government has no history of abusing individual rights. The FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is a well-known example of the nation’s failure to embody its own ideals. Still, something seems to have changed. Of course we never attained the ideal, but complete human emancipation was always the dream. But as torture and disappearances have been codified in state law, we have lost even the promise of our ideals. We used to believe that disappearances were the domain of autocratic dictators in Latin America and the Middle East. Not so any longer.

What is the meaning of “democracy” when the world’s most powerful democracies have decided that the rights we once took as the foundational elements of any democratic society can be abandoned?

And what of the world’s most powerful democracies and their historical tendency to undermine democratic movements in poor countries? The United States bolstered undemocratic dictatorships throughout Latin America throughout the Cold War, and continues to support undemocratic governance there through its “war on drugs.” It has long upheld Israel’s security at the expense of meaningful democratic change throughout the Middle East.

Even now, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calls on the world to embrace Syria’s pro-democracy movement, it’s hard to craft a proper response to such idealistic rhetoric. For, how can US policy in the Middle East be greeted with anything but cynicism when that policy is cynical still? Where was the United States when Bahrain’s citizens rose up, and where is it now? Why do abuses in Syria garner major world attention when those in Bahrain did not?

Indeed, how can we possibly think of “democracy” when its loudest proponents have long worked to undermine democracy elsewhere?

And then we come to the brutal repression underway in Syria. What is the proper response when the democratic impulse in any given country is thwarted by the excessive and inhumane use of state force? And isn’t it cruel to wonder about the very possibility of democratic transformation in the face of mass killings? When people are staking their lives on revolutionary ideals, is this just an irrelevant intellectual pursuit? As liberals or leftists, must we not believe that transformation is really possible anyway?

But then there are the facts. And one of them is that Syrian regime has long possessed one of the most brutal mechanisms of state control in the region. And as indiscriminate killing rains down on civilians, students of history cannot help but see echoes of the deadly 1982 Hama massacre in what is unfolding now.

So, how can we understand global politics when our realities call the march of progress into question? If there is nothing to march toward – no circumscribed future or hope – what do any of us have but despair? These are questions that figure prominently in the work of political theorist Wendy Brown. In an essay in her book, Edgework, Brown allows that revolutionary work today seems “unprecedentedly dangerous” because “the technologies available to counterrevolutionary forces, and to states in particular, are deadly beyond compare – these include not only the weapons of physical warfare but technologies of organization, infiltration, intelligence, interrogation.” And certainly this is true of Syria.

But even so, Brown reminds us that “revolution was always finest in its opening of possibility, in the sensibility and practices of political risk, imagination, upheaval, questioning and vision that this opening incited.” So, I want to, at some level, affirm the emancipatory spirit that has taken so many countries in the Middle East by storm, and the excitement of a world invigorated with the sense that everything need not persist as before. In recent months, we have all been reminded that revolutionary fervor, if it cannot result in perfect egalitarianism, creates openings and spaces that help us to imagine different – and better – ways of being in the world.

It’s not an easy sensibility to sustain, this “utopian imaginary that has no certainty about its prospects, or even about the means and vehicles of its realization.” A struggle without an end point or destination feels endless. And frankly, promises of cracks in the status quo and openings for revolutionary work are not the stuff of grand revolutionary vision. But there is no grand vision to be had here. The United Nations cannot come through in the case of Syria, thanks to the vetoes of Russia and China. And how many other times have international bodies like the United Nations proven ineffectual because of United States obstructionism? International bodies stymied by the interests of world powers will not – and perhaps cannot – save us all in the end.

But we still believe. At some level, revolutionary politics in the wake of the lost democratic hope requires that we have even more faith than before. But this time it is faith with no object, and that’s harder than the sort of faith we had in the past. It is easier to believe in communism or liberalism than in radical politics with no guaranteed future. At least the grand visions of state liberalism and state socialism gave us roadmaps that promised to make things better. Now, we don’t know where we are going. We have not conceived of the life of the world to come. At least, we’d better hope we have not, because god help is if all we’ve got to work with is the global order as it now stands.

Front page photo of markets in Old Damascus, 18th January by Elizabeth Arrott.

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  1. Kristin:
    I was fascinated in your article when you said: “the secular fulfillment of heaven’s kingdom established on earth.”

    I’ve never heard ‘Heaven on Earth’ looked at in that way. Can you please tell me more.

    Sincerely,
    Martin

  2. The mod hasn’t put it through quite yet, but a commenter asked about my comment about “the kingdom of heaven” brought to earth. No, it isn’t commonly framed this way. But insofar as any grand narrative about how to bring perfect liberty and justice to all functions as a redemption narrative, I think this is what it is. It’s just “heaven” is figuratively understood as something that humans achieve by way of progress. It’s put this way in the work of a lot of the Frankfurt school writers – secular German Jewish writers who generally made their careers in exile outside of the country (during and in the decades after World War II). They often use religious concepts to describe secular impulses like the project of modernity – to redeem humankind and place it outside of history, with no more injustice or oppression. And they often refer to disillusionment in grand theories as the “disenchantment of the world.”

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