Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East 2010 Amsterdam University Press 320 pp. $60 (hardback) $22.95 (paperback) E-book $22.95
Article first published online: 12 MAR 2013
© London School of Economics and Political Science 2013
The British Journal of Sociology
Volume 64, Issue 1, pages 176–178, March 2013
How to Cite
Moghadam, V. (2013), Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East 2010 Amsterdam University Press 320 pp. $60 (hardback) $22.95 (paperback) E-book $22.95. The British Journal of Sociology, 64: 176–178. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12012
- Issue published online: 12 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 12 MAR 2013
In the book under review, Asef Bayat, Iranian-born sociologist of the Middle East now teaching in the USA, has collected a number of previously-published articles or book chapters to present his views on social forces and social change in the region. His principal argument – revolving around his concepts of quiet encroachment, street politics, social non-movements, and post-Islamism – is that ordinary people in the Middle East, including the poor, engage in social change not so much as a result of deliberate political strategizing or contentious politics but rather in terms of ‘the active use of public space by subjects who, in the modern states, are allowed to use it only passively …’ (p. 11). As he explains:
[T]he street vendors who proactively spread their businesses in the main alleyways; squatters who take over the public parks, lands, or sidewalks; youth who control the street-corner spaces; street children who establish street communities; poor housewives who extend their daily household activities into the alleyways; or protesters who march in the streets, all challenge the state prerogatives and thus may encounter reprisal. (pp. 11–12).
As a result of their interaction in public spaces and in ‘passive networks’, individuals in these atomized and fragmented social groups forge common identities and may coalesce to resist the authorities and sometimes even to force legal or policy changes. At times, some or all of these groups may form a larger movement for political change and thus launch contentious politics. Bayat cites the 2005 pro-democracy Kifaya movement in Egypt and the Green Protests in Iran in June 2009 as examples.
As we know, both the Kifaya movement and the Green Protests were defeated by state repression, though I have argued that both should be seen as precursors to the much-vaunted Arab Spring, and as expressions of the region's collective action repertoire. Bayat's book was written and published prior to the Arab Spring, and so he was unable to improve on his statement that ‘mobilization of this kind can descend into a sort of ‘chic politics’ of ad hoc and short-lived interventions’ (p. 23). When he writes that ‘this channel is too exposed and contained, and thus vulnerable to police surveillance’ (p. 23), he is correct about the Iranian Green Protests, but not the street protests in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. The question, then, becomes why protests succeed in one setting and not in another. The answer is an empirical one, and cannot be reduced to concepts such as the power of passive networks (or Granovetter's strong and weak ties).
Bayat is aware, of course, that successful social movements or revolutions come about as a result of a complex set of material, moral, and cognitive conditions as well as political (internal or international) opportunities (see, for example, discussion on page 223). But the key point that he wishes to make concerns the transformative power of nonmovements: ‘the collective actions of noncollective actors; [nonmovements] embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change’ (p. 14). And who are these ordinary people? The ‘nonmovements have come to represent the mobilization of millions of the subaltern, chiefly the urban poor, Muslim women, and youth’ (p. 14). People in these nonmovements also engage in quiet encroachment – the latter defined as ‘noncollective but prolonged direct actions by dispersed individuals and families to acquire the basic necessities of their lives’ (p. 45). Quiet encroachment, therefore, is about survival while social nonmovement seems to be about social change.
But what is the massive social change that such nonmovements have triggered in the Middle East? Here Bayat is ambiguous. It is true that there has been tremendous change in family dynamics (e.g., age at first marriage, fertility rates, nuclearization), but is this the result of the ‘social nonmovement of Muslim women’, or the confluence of factors such as women's educational attainment, rising costs of living, and changes in attitudes and aspirations? In turn, these factors have contributed to the rise of formidable women's rights movements, organizations, networks, and campaigns in the region – which have been responsible for the reform of divorce laws in Egypt in 2000, the reform of the highly patriarchal family law in Morocco in 2003, and political rights to women in Kuwait in 2005, followed by the election of four liberal-leaning women to parliament in 2009. One need not be a positivist to note a problem with causality in Bayat's account.
Some years back, I was pleased to see an essay Bayat had written that was a critique of Foucault-inspired ‘resistance paradigm’ writers. The present book includes that essay, in which Bayat writes: ‘[S]ome of the lower class's activities in the Middle East that some authors read as ‘resistance’, ‘intimate politics’ of defiance, or ‘avenues of participation’ may actually contribute to the stability and legitimacy of the state’ (p. 55). He is quite correct about this, but reading it in the context of an overall argument about ‘life as politics’ strikes me, again, as inconsistent. He refers, for example, to underpaid teachers in Egypt who augment their salaries by offering private lessons. But how is this political, how does it contribute to social change, and how is it different from a survival strategy?
A second issue I would note pertains to the notion of Middle Eastern or Muslim exceptionalism found in many studies, which Bayat decries in his introduction. But he reinforces the notion by stating that in the Middle East, contra the ‘Latino-centric model’ of urban social movements, ‘social networks that extend beyond kinship and ethnicity remain largely casual, unstructured, and paternalistic’ (p. 50). Is that so? What of the women's rights movements? And just how does this statement about the kin- and ethnicity-based nature of social networks in the Middle East square with the overall argument about the presence and power of ‘social nonmovements’ and of ‘passive networks’? Perhaps I missed something, but the statements seem inconsistent and contradictory.
As a first-rate sociologist, Bayat's powers of observation are extraordinarily sharp and many of his insights are profound. My favorite chapters are the ones on ‘Reclaiming Youthfulness’ and ‘The Politics of Fun’ in which he describes the ways in which non-conformist youth subcultures are forms of self-expression and ways of enacting cultural change in the face of ‘anti-fun ethics’. He writes: ‘Fear of fun, consequently, is not necessarily about diversion from the higher powers or noble values as such, but about the fear of exit from the paradigm that frames and upholds the mastery of certain types of moral and political authorities, be they individuals, political movements, or states’ (p. 155). In another chapter, his dismissal of notions of Islamist concern for the poor (see chapter 4) is well-grounded, as is his differentiation of militant Islamism from Latin-American style liberation theology (an argument also made some years back by Turkish sociologist Haldun Gulalp).
Bayat writes extremely well and he has read prodigiously. Some of the essays are steeped in the literatures from development studies, anthropology, urban studies, and social movements, which have given us such concepts as survival strategy, urban territorial movement, everyday resistance, urban marginals, the power of weak ties – which some of his own concepts seem to echo. At times I thought that his discussion of social nonmovements, and of ‘the subaltern, chiefly the urban poor, Muslim women, and youth’ evoked Negri and Hardt's notion of ‘the multitude’ (despite the author's protestations to the contrary). Still, his contributions to the sociology of the Middle East are profound, especially in his emphasis on the role of the disenfranchized in ‘street politics’ and his analysis of the post-Islamist turn. In the wake of the Arab Spring, I await confirmation of post-Islamization in Egypt and Tunisia – and expect it to come about, in line with Bayat's prediction.