In both the euphoria and the apprehension that have accompanied the popular uprisings in the Arab Middle East that, no matter who succeeds them, have already resulted in the fall of two tyrants and the first credible threats to several more, there has been much talk about freedom and democracy and about secularism versus Islamism. Predictably, if also dishearteningly, there has been an avalanche of the usual cyber-utopian techno-babble about the emancipatory potential of the Bluetooth devices and Twitter feeds for which authoritarian tyrannies are said to be no match. The political simple-mindedness of this may not always be at the level of a Tim Connors, the California venture capitalist pitching a “Government 2.0” app (I am alas not making this up) who began a blog post on the subject with the following sentence: “10 folks in a small apartment in Egypt used social media and cell phones to start a revolution, and 17 days later the president of many decades is out of power.”
But it is not all that far from it either. Throughout its extensive coverage of the events in Tahrir Square, CNN devoted an enormous amount of time to what was appearing on blogs or being tweeted, and to the Mubarak regime’s decision, as the anti-government demonstrations gathered strength, to shut down access to the internet and cell phones, as if, just as Marshall McLuhan had predicted, the medium really was the message (Hint: it isn’t: never was, never will be), and, without internet, access the revolution might be stymied, but with it, it was irresistible. And, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, went back and forth about what position to take on whether Mubarak should stay or go, the one subject about which they seemed in no doubt and about which their indignation knew no bounds, was that he should turn the internet and the mobile phones back on.
H. L. Mencken, please call your office! Were information technology not the Golden Calf of our age, no sensible person could possibly believe that that the North African revolution took place thanks to social media. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his fine new book, The Net Delusion, this is the same sort of utopian credulousness that led Marx to write that the communications revolution of the railways under the Raj would lead Indians to give up the caste system. This is not to say that social networks don’t matter; they matter a lot. But they do not incarnate freedom, do not bring about some final, heaven-like stage of human history. Indeed, if there was a proximate cause, on the order of Connors’ “10 folks in a small apartment using social networks,” to the Tunisian uprising, it was that least virtual of political acts—the decision of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid who burned himself to death in protest over the police seizing his cart and the produce he was trying to sell, and, more generally, over police brutality and grinding unemployment, poverty, and lack of opportunity. That was the action that provoked the first anti-government demonstrations in Tunisia and soon spawned other self-immolations from Egypt to Mauritania.
But self-immolations do not fit into the cyber-utopian narrative. Like suicide bombings, they are simply too far removed from almost all of us who come from the West. In contrast, tweets and Facebook and the rest of life in cyberspace are essential to the way we now live (if we don’t join in, we’re curmudgeons, contrarians, etc.—the Silicon Valley equivalent, I suppose, of the old Marxist condemnation of those who were “on the wrong side of history”). So, in rooting for the tweeters in Tahrir Square, we are actually rooting for ourselves.
But what’s wrong with that, you may ask, if what we are supporting in Tunis or in Cairo, and hoping for in Algiers and Tripoli and Sana and Nouakchoutt, are the best of our ideals both personally and as societies—our belief in individual freedom and in representative democracy? To which the answer is: nothing, so long, that is, as we do not confuse our situation with theirs. My fear, though, is that this is precisely what we are doing.
Democracy, freedom of expression, individual rights, and the rule of law are all wonderful things. But, without economic justice—that is, without the hope of making a decent living, receiving adequate medical treatment, and no longer living in squalor—these democratic dreams are likely to benefit only a small minority of the population, even if, in a country as populous as Egypt, that is still a great many people in absolute numbers. One does not have to be a Marxist to see the force of Bertolt Brecht’s bitter axiom in The Threepenny Opera, “First grub, then ethics.” It will be a fine thing if, as has been promised in both Algeria and Egypt, the army makes good on its promises to end decades-old states of emergency. But will these changes from the top down, from which the upper middle classes—the Bluetooth, tweeting classes, to be blunt—stand to benefit almost immediately, do anything to improve the lot of the Mohamed Bouazizis of the world? Will they find it easier to find a job, feed their families, in short, to live with dignity? On that, surely, the verdict is very much still out.
Certainly, poor Tunisians don’t seem very confident. In the weeks since the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, whose police had impeded such flows, thousands upon thousands of Tunisians have set out in boats trying to reach Europe and a better life by landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which in fact is closer to North Africa than it is to Italy. They are certainly not showing any confidence that, in a democratic Tunisia—which, in contrast to the uncertainties about Egypt’s future, virtually everyone agrees will come into being—their economic prospects are likely to be better than under the dictatorship. And so many are coming across that, this week, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fratini is making emergency trips to Brussels to get European Union help to stem the migratory flow, and to Tunis to try to persuade the new Tunisian authorities to reinstate the curbs in return for aid that they had worked out with Ben Ali.
But the young men on these often far too unseaworthy boats are not chronicling their trip on their mobile phone cameras, or tweeting about them, or notifying their friends on their Facebook pages that they have decided to throw the dice and try to make it to Europe. And there are far more of these people in the Arab Middle East today than the kind of young democracy activists that we have quite rightly been extolling in the West during these past several extraordinary weeks. They are the ghosts at the democratic banquet (and that’s assuming the whole meal gets served, of course). And, unless the Western governments now pledging aid and political support, and the major philanthropies like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which has vast experience and great success with helping democracy activists and human rights workers over the decades but has never felt itself required to put the same kind of energy into poverty reduction or development, remember that the grub is just as important as the ethics—something the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon have always understood—then this year of revolutions in the Arab world will do much for some, but leave the vast majority who have always been excluded still as marginalized and suffering, with all the consequences, both moral and practical, that will flow from that.
In Yeats’ great poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” the airman flying for the Royal Flying Corps over the trenches muses on why he ever volunteered to fight for Britain. Thinking of his countrymen in his own village back home, the airman acknowledges that:
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
If, when you read this, it is past dark in Europe and North Africa, remember those boats heading north, crammed with the twenty-first century’s equivalent of Kiltartan’s poor, and ask yourself whether what they see is what we see. At the very least, Caveat celebrator.
David Rieff is a contributing editor for The New Republic.