The Masses 2.0 – Tunisia’s Turmoil in Perspective





Frank Uekoetter is a Dilthey Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung and Deputy Director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. His books include The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (2006) and The Age of Smoke. Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880-1970 (2009).

As the euphoria over the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia is giving way to anxiety about what is to come, it may be worthwhile to pause for a moment and reflect on how recent events look in a broader perspective.  The last two hundred fifty years have bestowed us with an impressive body of experiences with revolts and revolutions all over the world, and the key themes of protests in Tunisia thus ring quite familiar:  democracy, liberty, government corruption.  Daniel Pipes has judiciously situated events in the context of Arab history, and yet it seems that there is also a broader context here.  In fact, ongoing events in Tunisia may signal a new chapter in the global history of revolutions.

As far as available information permits such a judgment, the Jasmine Revolution was a people’s uprising in its purest form.  There is no reason to suggest that a major impulse came from a conspiracy or plots behind the scenes.  Quite the contrary, the usual suspects stand out for their apathy.  The military kept a low profile, and refused to join the crackdown on the protesters.  The Western intelligence community was presumably happy with Ben Ali, a faithful ally in the war against terror.  The Islamist movement looks like one of the weakest in the Arab world.  Thus, it seems it was really “the people”, as opposed to some specific group, that toppled the regime.

Ben Ali is not the first dictator to learn about the power of the people, and yet something is different here.  The people as they rose in Tunisia are really the masses, with all the connotations of amorphousness that the term implies.  Events started with Mohamed Bouazizi, a lone, impoverished vendor who found his goods seized by the police and, in an act of desperation, set himself on fire.  There was no key pamphlet or program, and little in the way of a dissident community similar to Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, if we can trust reports in English, there was not even a landmark slogan like the “We are the people” which protesters were chanting in the GDR in 1989—let alone a Lenin pondering thoughts as to “What Is To Be Done?”  Even the term “Jasmine Revolution” is not a genuine invention but a bitter reprise of a Ben Ali slogan.  There is no Vaclav Havel, no Nelson Mandela, no Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma anywhere in sight—or at least none of the contenders for that role seems to measure up.  The masses are truly out there on their own.

So maybe the masses of Tunisia are not the kind of masses that we know from labor history, where a Lech Walesa eventually emerges and shepherds his constituents towards the desired goal.  Information on the social background of the protesters is scarce, but they look quite similar to the new poor as described by Zygmunt Bauman:  a group without a discernable political, social, or economic role.  “The poor of today are no more a ‘reserve army of labour’; they are neither exploited nor exploitable [...].  For the first time in history the poor are totally unfunctional and wholly useless; as such, they are, for all practical intents and purposes, ‘outside society’.” (1)

However, Tunisia has shown that the useless poor were not all that unimportant after all.  Of course, they are still prone to suppression, seduction, and appeasement through welfare systems.  But armed with Twitter and other online services, in combination with their huge number, they have toppled one regime, and, in Egypt, brought another one into trouble.  But is there more than the opposition to a corrupt regime that is holding these people together?  The political vacuum in Tunisia is painfully apparent, and the prospect of a dictator rising out of the chaos is haunting many a commentary.  It’s a painful thought at this point, but the masses might some day feel a sense of nostalgia.  As dictators in Africa and the Arab world go, Ben Ali was probably a moderate.

Thus, we are currently watching an experiment of global importance playing out in Tunisia:  how does the furor of the useless poor go along with the needs of modern societies for expertise, and for a government with certain skills?  How can any kind of leadership gain legitimacy in this context?  Can the fearless, online-savvy masses move from protest to positive action, from challenging legitimacy to building it?  Or will things now fall into the hands of technocrats by default?  But then, it is important to recall was also a technocrat when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, the father of independent Tunisia.

So things in Tunisia are probably more than an Arab affair.  It may be a prodigious event foreshadowing the political history of the twenty-first century.  After more than two centuries of revolutionary history, we are stuck without a precedent, and so we watch breathlessly as the masses make up their minds:  what’s next?

(1) Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman. Prophet of Postmodernity, Cambridge 1999, S. 193.

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