Everyday Resistance Is Not an Alternative to Politics

Following the defeat of the Arab Spring, leftists were quick to look for consolation in the small acts of resistance that took place during the revolt. This optimism was misplaced. In order to enact change, the Left must seize the levers of power.

An Egyptian protester gestures toward nearby riot police during clashes with Egyptian security forces near the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood on March 22, 2013, in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles / Getty Images)

Twelve years have passed since the Arab Spring, and both Egypt and Tunisia are facing a stark economic crisis. Both are currently under the mercy of extremely unfavorable structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, relying heavily on food imports, mired in debt, and facing historic inflation rates with unprecedented hikes in food prices. The rise of authoritarianism in both countries has only worsened this dire economic situation. The prevailing atmosphere indicates that the counterrevolution has won out and that the emancipatory forces behind the revolution a dozen years ago have receded from political life.

Every year, the anniversary of the January uprisings prompts renewed reflection. Not only do radicals mourn the revolution’s defeat, but they have to negotiate the steady barrage of new analysis that seeks to grapple with the same questions every year. There is an insatiable desire among the commentariat to offer fresh responses to questions already answered by a dozen years of retrenchment. Without irony, writers revisit age-old issues about the relative merits of horizontal or vertical leadership or the value of leaderlessness that date back to the break between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, which have eternally divided the Left between two camps, those guided by the spirit of 1917 vs. loyalists to 1968.

A book that stands out in this genre for its brilliance and lack of sentimentality is Asef Bayat’s Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Published in 2017, it has become one of the most referenced in the field. In it, the Iranian American sociologist grapples with the idea of what revolution means in a post–Cold War era. Correctly, Bayat attributes the failure of the January uprisings, despite their extraordinary mobilization and resistance, to a lack of revolutionary vision, political organization, and a dearth of intellectual articulation by its leaders.

He does so by comparing them to the revolutions of the 1970s, when the concept of revolution was largely informed by socialism and anti-imperialism. Conversely, the January uprisings, imbued with a hollowed-out NGOized vision of politics, was more concerned with democracy, human rights, and accountability — worthy issues, but ones which had their base in an activist class more concerned with asserting themselves on the international stage than building an organic base at home.

Nonrevolutionary Vanguard

Deviating away from the approach he took in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, Bayat — in his sixth and latest book, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring, published in 2021, turns his attention away from the broader structural cause of the revolution’s failure. Instead, he looks to the granular quotidian level at which the struggle was lived by its witnesses and participants. There, he finds what he describes as “non-movements” that provide access to “what the revolution meant to ordinary people.” Focusing on Egypt and Tunisia, Bayat’s argument is that the events of 2011 set something radical in motion and imposed a new set of social relations onto everyday life. The book is rich with examples of this everyday resistance from both countries, covering different categories.

Taking as his starting point the subaltern, Bayat attempts to investigate the relationship between the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary,” or the “mundane” and the “monumental.” Evoking Antonio Gramsci and American anthropologist and anarchist James C. Scott, his focus this time is civil society and everyday resistance as opposed to the macro approach he used in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, with the aim of finding the connection between both.

His aim is to find the “agency” of the subaltern within the maelstrom of the revolution. Accordingly, the book’s chapters each take as their protagonist an unrecognized member of what we could call the nonrevolutionary vanguard — the poor and the plebeian, women, children of the revolution, and so on. To each, Bayat assigns a separate experience and relation to the struggle. In doing so, he attempts to construct an alternative narrative for understanding the revolution that falls outside of the binary of “success” and “defeat.” The strength of this reinterpretation is that it rejects the defeatist paradigm that has become the prevalent narrative of the uprisings.

“A ‘failed’ revolution may not be entirely failed if we consider significant transformations that may transpire at the level of the ‘social,’” Bayat contends. Charitably, one can interpret this approach as an attempt to instill into the reader a theoretical optimism that refuses to give in to defeat. It is, however, hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole premise of the book — which seeks to avoid the question of political success altogether — is itself a product of the impossibility of actual politics, be it in Egypt or Tunisia. Because of lack of opportunities for even the most basic social reforms, optimists are forced to change the terms of the debate rather than looking, clear-eyed, at the scale of their defeat.

The book’s heavily researched chapters are divided thematically, each tackling a different demographic of the revolution. While these chapters are brimming with examples, the choice to structure them around social groups understood without any relationship to broader economic structures betrays an acceptance of a liberal worldview. Undeniably the “the poor” or “the children” are social groups worthy of protection, but it is unclear what politics follows from treating them as if they are classes capable of organizing into a coherent bloc. It is only in the human rights–infused language of NGOs, in which severity of suffering, rather than relation to the levers of power, is the most important element of politics, that this kind of categorization makes sense.

In the chapter “Mothers and Daughters of the Revolution,” Bayat references at least three different examples of women taking off their hijab as an example of changing social attitudes. One example was a woman who left her advertising job in the corporate sector to work in civil society and human rights and took off her hijab. Another, a woman who took off her hijab and married a human rights advocate; the last developed the courage to travel alone and also took off her hijab. While these stories are not entirely representative of the models of everyday resistance which Bayat describes in his book, they share with the other examples in Revolutionary Life an overreliance on anecdotes that elide the difference between individual and collective resistance.

Nonetheless, Bayat explains that he understands that the categories he employs can also be divided along class or racial lines. But he holds onto a caution about what he calls “reductionist Marxism” — a fashionable anxiety among academics — and its tendency to “reduce the multilayered sources of subaltern dissent.” Instead, Bayat emphasizes the importance of civil society formation, invoking Gramsci’s utilization of civil society as a way to counter the Leninist vanguardist view that a small elite cadre could lead the revolution on behalf of the working class. In a Gramscian vein, Bayat argues that the method through which the working class can challenge the hegemonic dominance of the elite is through creating cultural institutions embedded in broad-based, popular movements that would develop organically through civil society.

As Adam Hanieh, a professor of development studies, argues in his book Lineages of Revolt, the idea of civil society is mostly championed by international organizations and international financial institutions who associate it with free-market economic policies as a bulwark against authoritarianism. For Hanieh,

the state/civil society dichotomy serves to “conceptualize away” the problem of capitalism, by disaggregating society into fragments, with no overarching power structure, no totalizing unity, no systemic coercions — in other words, no capitalist system, with its expansionary drive and its capacity to penetrate every aspect of social life.

In advancing his case against Marxist “economism,” Bayat also turns to the work of James C. Scott, from whom he derives his notions of everyday resistance. But Scott’s approach is, according to Bayat, too focused on the micro level, and part of the task of Revolutionary Life is to reconcile the focus on individual agency found in Scott’s work with a view of revolution as a broader structural process. Scott coined the term “everyday resistance” in his 1985 book Weapons of the Weak to describe quotidian challenges to the power of elites that are not as impactful or obvious as other forms of organized, collective articulations of resistance, such as revolutions.

Everyday resistance, or infrapolitics as he sometimes refers to it, is more dispersed and is not as visible to society or the state. While Scott conceives of resistance as an act or acts that could be taken by a collective, his conception of a collective is merely a group of unorganized individuals — what Karl Marx, referring to the French peasantry in the nineteenth century, mockingly referred to as “a sack of potatoes.” The problem with this view is that it never becomes clear in Scott’s writing, or even in Bayat’s appropriation of it, how one could move from a collection of individuals to a broader social force without starting — in a Marxist fashion — with some broader concept of a class with its own interests.

And while Bayat recognizes in the introduction that the kind of structural account of class and the state, which Revolution Without Revolutionaries was entirely devoted to understanding, is necessary, he continues to romanticize quotidian resistance in everyday life despite the fact that his earlier study of the subject showed these actions not to be efficacious. The result of Bayat’s analysis, his often-moving descriptions of individual rebellion not excluded, is the depoliticization of politics and the disappearance of a structural analysis of the state and economy.