Non-Movements as Social Activism

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Navid Pourmokhtari

Life as Politics:
How Ordinary People Change the Middle East
By Asef Bayat
Stanford University Press; 2nd edition, 2013, 392 pages, $22.95 paper.

THE MASS MOBILIZATIONS and political contestation of the Arab Spring brought a paradigm shift in perceptions of the social and political character of the Middle East. The inspiration for these uprisings can be traced to the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, the first mass mobilization of the new millennium, coming as a complete surprise to Middle East observers and the world.

The great, unexpected and sustained populist fervor unleashed by the Green Movement rocked the Islamic Republic of Iran to its foundation. This seminal event would prove to be the precursor of a series of populist insurrections two years later that would shake the Arab world, overthrowing some of its most repressive and long-lived regimes.

Not surprisingly, these events brought the Middle East squarely into the spotlight of social movement studies. Investigation of these vibrant populist movements promised to elucidate both the modes of social mobilization and political contestation, and the dynamics of what passes for social change in the region.

Asef Bayat’s second edition of Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East provides an account of social activism in the Middle East with a view to revealing those dynamics, laying the foundation for examining the processes and events that culminated in the Arab Spring.

The construct of the Middle East as a land frozen in time, inherently prone to violence, and fundamentally resistant to progressive change is hardly new. In the field of social movement studies, such tendencies have led to conceptualizing Middle East social movements as religiously “fundamentalist” and divorced from all that is seen as progressive.

In much of what passes for scholarly accounts of oppositional movements in the region, Bayat asserts, these movements are understood almost exclusively “in terms of religious revivalism, or as an expression of primordial loyalties, or irrational group actions, or as something peculiar and unique” (4) — meaning violent in their tendencies, retrograde in their agendas, and “anti-modern” in their character.

Such dominant coding for mass mobilizations, obscuring their histories, disparate constituencies and trajectories, ultimately relegates Middle East cases to the margins of social movement studies. Life as Politics moves beyond this exceptionalist perspective to a critical assessment of the dynamics of social mobilizations that are struggling to transform the region.

Point of Departure

Bayat goes beyond rejecting the “frozen” and violence-prone perspective on the Middle East. He questions whether mainstream social movement theories are capable of accounting for the histories, complexities and specificities of the region’s oppositional movements, given these theories’ provenance “in . . . highly differentiated and politically open Western societies” as against the “politically closed,” repressive realities of the region. (4, 5)

To underscore this point, the author references studies conducted by social movement theorists among Iranian Muslim women in the early 2000s. These concluded that nothing resembling an Iranian women’s movement could be said to exist during that particular period, given that “certain features of Iranian women’s activities did not resemble the principal model[s of social movement studies].” (5)

For Bayat, failure to conform to those “models” represents the chief factor relegating Middle East oppositional movements to the margins. Developing “a [more] fruitful approach” to analyzing Middle East cases “would demand,” argues Bayat, “analytical innovation that not only rejects both Middle East ‘exceptionalism’ and [an] uncritical application of [social movement theories],” but also “introduces fresh perspectives that make sense of…regional realities.” (5-6)

In this spirit the author introduces several conceptual innovations, such as the “passive network,” “street politics” and the “art of presence,” with a view to underscoring the specificities of social activism and mobilization and the process of solidarity building.

Given space constraints, I shall draw here upon the single key concept of “social non-movements” — used by the author as an analytical framework to examine various modes of social activism, mobilization and change in politically closed settings and societies.

Social Non-Movements

According to Bayat, social non-movements are made up of “non-collective actors” engaged in “collective action” directed at advancing the interests of the marginalized and subordinated, i.e.  urban poor, students, women and youth. (20)

These actors embody the “shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people” and engage in social activism to bring about social and political change through their “fragmented but similar activities.” (15) They are characterized as “non-movements,” moreover, because they lack formal leadership and organizational structures.

But what, might one ask, is distinctive or instructive about such “non-movements” and, equally important, how do they operate? In Bayat’s formulation, social movements in politically open and technologically advanced Western societies pose an “organized, sustained, self-conscious challenge to existing authorities.” (20) These, by implication, are ideologically grounded and organized around formal leadership structures.

Non-movements, on the other hand, tend to be action-oriented, driven by non-ideological factors, and by necessity covert, given the repressive nature of the regimes that confront them. To illustrate the latter point, Bayat cites the case of the urban poor and dispossessed of Hayyel-Sellom, an informal community located in south Beirut.

Their preferred mode of activism is described by Bayat as one of “quiet encroachment,” a term he uses for the “discreet and prolonged ways in which the poor struggle to survive and to better their lives by quietly impinging on the propertied and powerful, and on society at large.” (15)

Herein lies a form of activism involving the protracted mobilization of tens of thousands of individuals who seek to improve their lives through lifelong collective effort, even while possessing little in the way of leadership, organization or ideological commitment.

Engaging in incremental, grassroots forms of activism — e.g. tapping electricity from municipal power lines — these actors seek to reconfigure power relationships between themselves and the state, and to do so by “contest[ing] many fundamental aspects of . . . state prerogatives, including the … control of public space . . . [and] of public and private goods.” (80)

Moreover, unlike social movements operating in politically open societies, wherein the actors are involved in acts of mobilization and protestation that go beyond the routines of daily life — attending meetings, petitioning, lobbying, etc. — non-movements, by virtue of the constraints imposed upon them by repressive regimes, engage in practices that are the stuff of everyday life.

Thus as Bayat explains, threatened with harassment and beatings, disparate activists retaliate by embracing the “mundane practices of everyday life” (17) — such as pursuing an education, engaging in sports, performing music, involvement in arts and crafts, and in the case of women, working at jobs deemed by patriarchal regimes to be the exclusive domain of men: jobs at all levels of the civil service and service-sector and jobs requiring close engagement with the public, such as driving taxis and buses.

In many diverse ways, these disparate peoples do assert themselves as public actors determined to transgress the public-private and gender norms so sacrosanct in the Middle East. Such everyday practices are embraced not by small groups of activists operating at the margins of political life, but by millions of ordinary people.

Thus, the strength and efficacy of non-movements may be seen to lie “[in] the power of big numbers, that is, [in] the consequential effect on norms and rules. . . of many people simultaneously doing similar, though contentious, things.” (21)

Moreover, that such practices are embedded in everyday life means that non-movements are less vulnerable to repressive measures than conventional movements, in that “suppressing [them] would mean curtailing a certain flow of life.” (21)

Herein lies yet another strength: the ability of those comprising non-movements to bond “passively and spontaneously” on the basis of a shared interest in, among other things, “hang[ing] out, food, fashions. . . and the pursuit of public fun” — what Bayat calls “commonalities.” (19)

In Bayat’s formulation, the huge demonstrations that convulsed Iranian cities in 2009 and later swept across the Arab world represent an amalgam of revolution and reform, what Timothy Garton Ash calls a “refolution.” According to the author, despite having succeeding in toppling authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, such movements cannot be viewed as revolutionary, at least not in any strict sense of the term, given their failure to “buil[d] . . . organs of alternative power” and establish “a recognized leadership and organization [and a coherent] blueprint [for a] future political structure.” (272)

Rather, the chief concern of the disparate social strata making up these movements lay in achieving the social justice and human rights so long denied to them. With a new emphasis on human dignity, rights and freedoms, these mass mobilizations, moreover, were the handiwork of cadres drawn from the very actors comprising the non-movements — women, youth, students, the urban poor — who through everyday practices over the course of decades had worked at subverting dominant norms and laws to “cultivate, consolidate and reproduce their counterpower.” (21)

Thus when “political opportunity” (265) knocked, it was these elements that created a theatre of defiance in opposition to the brutal regimes that had for so long oppressed them.

Potential and Future Impact

In Life as Politics Asef Bayat offers up a historically rich, analytically rigorous and conceptually innovative account of Middle East oppositional movements. In particular, his concept of “non-movements” breaks new ground in delineating the potential of ordinary people from diverse backgrounds to bring about political and social reform.

Thus, mapping out their experiences is key to understanding the major sociopolitical trends of the post-Arab Spring, in particular those of post-Ahmadinejad Iran and post-Mubarak Egypt. Perhaps one of the chief lessons to be learned from the trajectories of non-movements is that no matter how unrelenting the forces of repression or unfavorable the circumstances, their disparate actors will never cease fighting for progressive sociopolitical change, in the process leaving their mark on the politics and historical development of the region.

A weakness of Life as Politics lies in the absence of anything like a comprehensive and systematic engagement with the mainstream social movement theories of which the book is so critical, in particular those that occupy a dominant position in the United States and Europe. While the author questions whether these models are relevant to the Middle East, given their “different historical genealogies” (5), the reader is left in doubt as to how and why these theories are incapable of explicating the dynamics driving mass mobilization in the region.

The omission is rather surprising. Bayat’s point of departure is the inapplicability of western mainstream social movement theories to the Middle East — yet he employs the concept of “political opportunity,” so central to American social movement theories, to explicate the conditions for the emergence of those movements constituting the Arab Spring.

Yet Life as Politics remains a tour de force that will inspire as well as inform scholarship on Middle East social movements — most importantly by moving beyond a preoccupation with “exceptionalist” tendencies.

Above all, this work establishes Asef Bayat as a virtuoso of the sociological imaginary. Specialist and non-specialist readers alike will find themselves transported to the streets of the Middle East and afforded a first-hand view of social and political activism in the making. It is in those streets, the traditional locus of the tug of war between the state and the masses, that everyday life practices fuse with political activism to challenge the status quo.

May/June 2015, ATC 176