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Exploring Revolution and Its Others - Counterrevolution, Cooptation, and Counterinsurgency - As Projects of Social Change

RoundTable VII-4, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Projects of social change are significant in revolutions. Whether or not revolutionaries seek to capture state power, and whether participating in the protests that began in SWANA in 2010-11 or earlier anti-colonial movements, revolutionaries pursue social transformation. Yet intersectional identities inflect revolutionary social change; recruits may have pursued earlier emancipatory projects; militants may experience lasting transformation despite facing counterrevolution. Focusing on a discrete beginning or end of revolution may obscure entanglement with social change that precedes, qualifies, and outlasts the revolutionary “moment.” What insights emerge from analyzing revolution, as well as counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and cooptation, as social change processes? Fine-grained ethnographic, empirical, and historical work that addresses each of revolution, counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and cooptation, and, in some cases, their overlap, explores such questions. To what extent do actors pursue or experience revolution, counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and/or cooptation as projects for social change? How do diverse actors evaluate projects of social change - whether as rivals or alternative routes toward overlapping goals such as “freedom”, “justice” and “development” - and potentially change roles over time? What are the implications of encountering social change through these different routes, for emancipation, stratification, gender, class, racialized identities, colonialism, and anti-colonialism? How much, or how little, does the reach of counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and cooptation erase ambitions for revolutionary transformation? Approaching revolution and its others as competing and overlapping social change processes also foregrounds questions of temporality. Does the continuation of projects that originated in counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and/or cooptation imply an ongoing revolutionary presence that conventional histories may too readily dismiss? If revolution and counterrevolution are intertwined, rather than sequential, processes, how does this challenge the temporal metaphor of a “window” and, hence, opening and closure? Foregrounding these processes as projects of social change highlights connections between revolutionary pasts and the present. Furthermore, what gaps exist between declarations of intended forms of social change, and experiences on the ground? Variation in militants’ experiences of revolutionary social change calls for an exploration of parallel diversities in counterrevoloution, counterinsurgency, and cooptation. Such inquiry invites reconsideration of narratives of success and failure, such as of successful counterrevolution/counterinsurgency/cooptation and failed revolution. Pursuing such questions can parse differences and similarities between the physical, structural, and epistemic violence in situations of revolution and responses to it. The roundtable will rethink the relationship between revolution, counterrevolution, counterinsurgency, and cooptation as social processes, therefore necessarily unfolding, open-ended, and contested.
Political Science
  • Interrogating revolution and counterrevolution as processes of social change opens up analytically transformative debates. Such possibilities come to the fore in the ethnographic and archival examination of social change processes during and after the revolution in Dhufar and the often-mythologized counterinsurgency, 1965-1976. On the one hand, on close examination the egalitarian-leaning social change programs of Dhufar’s revolutionaries appear “messy.” Dhufaris exceeded the timescales and scopes of revolutionary agendas, and negotiated forms of change acceptable in their own eyes. Yet rather than indicating failure, such messiness – here and in other revolutions – signals engagement. An acknowledgment of messy, active engagement in revolutionary social change reveals a basis on which former militants, including those who face defeat, disappointment and repression, can later continue to cultivate revolutionary networks and values. Such long-term engagement disrupts narratives of failed revolution and successful counterinsurgency/cooptation. Those whom cooptation policies target with stratifying material benefits can, in parallel and in lasting ways, engage with and create counterhegemonic, egalitarian-leaning relationships. On the other hand, interrogating counterinsurgency from the perspective of social change destabilizes mythologized counterrevolution as an alleged means of bringing “progress” and “development” at an “acceptable” human cost. Paying attention to social change agendas exposes the very dynamics that mythologization obscures, such as counterrevolutionary violence and revolutionary agency. Social change agendas function as a figleaf for and legitimator of counterrevolutionary and, in the Dhufari case, counterinsurgency and colonial violence. Meanwhile, counterrevolutionary efforts to pursue social change as a replacement for the plans of revolutionaries highlight the revolutionary agency that established social change agendas in the first place. In sum, tracking competing agendas for and discourses about social change is analytically transformative for those seeking to understand (counter)revolution.
  • Egypt’s 2013 counterrevolution provides an important case through which to think about the relationship between counterrevolution and social change. Corey Robin (2011) makes the important point that counterrevolutions are never just reactionary; they always have a creative element. Counterrevolutionaries are typically aware that the ancien régime can never be resurrected in its old, sclerotic form, but must be radically overhauled, if only to prevent the calamity of revolution from occurring once again. The creativity of counterrevolution was on full display following Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup in July 2013. Though Sisi did set about restoring many institutions from the Mubarak era, his regime-building project has also involved radical social transformation of its own. Grounded in jingoistic nationalism and security-obsessed paranoia, Sisi has reorganized the Egyptian state with the military at its core. Whereas the Mubarak regime was based on an uneasy trifecta of political party, security organizations, and military establishment, Sisi has done away with the regime’s political wing and subordinated the security organizations to the military, which now wields virtually unconstrained power. This political remaking has been paired with economic transformations, both funded and inspired by the Persian Gulf countries, which has involved the construction of glitzy shopping malls, gated communities, and multi-lane highways in the deserts surrounding Cairo and Alexandria. What, then, of the visions of social change that predominated during the revolution? Have they been eclipsed by Sisi’s counterrevolutionary project? Of course, as other contributors to this roundtable point out, revolutionary visions for social change are never entirely snuffed out, even in the face of devastating counterrevolutions. In Egypt’s case, many revolutionary actors now reside abroad, nurturing alternative political and economic projects that may one day have their chance. But for those who remain in Egypt, preserving visions of change has proven difficult – though not for the reasons one might expect. For sure, the oppression of the Sisi regime is stifling. But even more debilitating, for many revolutionary actors is an overbearing sense of guilt. For Sisi’s counterrevolution was only made possible through the popular support of large numbers of parties, movements, and individuals who were originally at the center of the 2011 revolution. Egypt’s experience therefore forces us to wrestle with another question related to the themes of the roundtable: what happens to revolutionary projects and visions of social change, when revolutionaries have themselves become counterrevolutionaries?
  • Laura Ruiz de Elvira
    Beyond defeat: avenues of social change in post-2011 Syria Twelve years after the beginning of the Syrian revolutionary process, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with the meaningful support of its international allies, has managed to regain territorial control of most parts of the Syrian territory. Yet, I argue that beyond revolutionary defeat and Assadist counterrevolutionary efforts, the social change process put in motion by the Syrian revolutionary actors and networks, have enduring effects on the country’s social fabric, social relations and worldviews, including for exiled Syrian populations. In order to illustrate this statement, I will focus on three avenues of social change that ultimately contribute to new ways of society-making and to more participatory forms of social organization. First, the redefinition of the social values, the identities, and the conception of the self and citizenship, with the attempt to enable social criticism and emancipate individuals after decades of disciplinarisation and forced compliance. Second, the reconfiguration of the relation to the nation, to patriotism, and to Syrian identity, after decades of Baathist alienation relying on repression, obedience, and violence and based on the myth of resistance and pan-Arabism. And third, the shaping of supra-sectarian and supra-regional communities, despite the attempt by the regime to sectarianize the uprising, therefore breaking with years of sectarian, clientelist and corrupted rule.
  • Palestine offers enabling potential, as well as serious challenges, for reflecting upon the relationship between revolution and social change. This is particularly the case when it comes to the Palestinian revolution, which was central to Arab and Middle Eastern revolutionary projects in the 1960s and 1970s. All Arab revolutionary movements drew inspiration and support from Palestine in that period, and so did numerous Iranian, Turkish, and Kurdish movements as well. Yet, while the Palestinian revolution was a locomotive for broader regional projects concerned with altering social and political relations and realities, it was ironically different from all the movements and processes that it had sponsored or influenced. Due to their dispersal, Palestinians had to confront the question of social change in multiple states and societies. Theirs was primarily a refugee revolution, and it accordingly carried multiple transforamtive burdens: social change amongst Palestinian refugee ranks as well as within Palestinian communities that were able to survive the Nakba; social change within the countries hosting Palestinian refugees; and last but not least, the ultimate goal of social and political change within historic Palestine as a whole, which had by then included a substantial settler-colonist component that held social as well as political power. This produced a range of internal and external complications, contradictions, and clashes, whose underpinnings will be analytically reflected upon in this presentation.
  • Revolution and Cooptation: 1960s/1970s Mauritania and the Kadihin Movement The Mauritanian Kadihin (toilers) movement speaks to the themes of this roundtable through the relationship between revolution and cooptation. The Kadihin emerged in the late 1960s as a clandestine movement that confronted the one-party regime of the Mauritanian People’s Party (PPM) and its neocolonial dependence upon France. Together with an umbrella movement known as the National Democratic Movement (MND), the Kadihin included student and women’s branches that challenged social stratification and hierarchies in Saharan society, while also redefining Mauritanian nationalism beyond Arab/non-Arab Black divisions. Incorporating Maoist, Marxist-Leninist and Third World liberation concepts into their movement, the Kadihin enjoyed such widespread support and mobilization that several of its demands were met during the early 1970s. By the time the movement announced the formation of the Kadihin Party (PKM) in 1973, the state responded by offering to incorporate members of the PKM into the government. Those who accepted this offer were known as mithaqiyyin, or “chartists,” for signing an agreement with the PPM. This cooptation split the movement and by 1975 its momentum and influence had significantly diminished; the following year, the war over Western Sahara transformed regional politics. In recent years, a number of former Kadihin have published memoirs, and these accounts, along with interviews, shed light on both the making of a generation of “militant intellectuals,” such as Fadi Bardawil has explored (Bardawil 2020), as well as the “unmaking” of political militant subjectivity. Members seek to make sense of their involvement in this revolutionary movement, and their relationship to its legacies in the present. These sources provide a framework for asking how former members – many of whom subsequently remained involved in politics, sometimes as officials and representatives of the (nonrevolutionary) state – situate and temporalize their involvement in the politics of revolution and, later, of governing. How do the legacies of the Kadihin movement relate to ongoing projects of social change in Mauritania? Moving beyond the periodization of the movement itself, memoirs by and interviews with former Kadihin members foreground the project of cooptation and its role as conduit between revolutionary pasts in the present.