Counter-Power and the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, the succession of popular uprisings still underway in places like Libya and Syria, has changed the way people around the world think about relationships of power. Where political authority had, to many, appeared to be a monolithic, immovable pillar at the foundation of society, it now seems somewhat more impermanent.

That street protests spurred on Facebook could lead to demands, and demands could lead to the ouster of rulers, has come as a surprise to many — including the rulers and the ruled. Though the Arab Spring has something important to teach us about the nature of power itself, it is far from clear what the takeaway lesson is. Freedom-loving people were inspired and filled with hope when, for example, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak vacated his post, but apprehensive at the thought of a new Mubarak emerging from the field of generals governing the country in the wake of the revolution.

For participants in the revolts of the Arab Spring, the conundrum is abstract but glaring in front of them, how to lop off the head of the Leviathan without another growing up in its place. It has too often seemed to be the case that the impetuous societal change or revolution is the one most unable to penetrate deeply into the core premises on which a given society is built.

Events in Libya, where a bloody civil war rages under the paternalistic watch of NATO and the U.N., leave us still more reasons to be skeptical about the aggregate result of the Arab Spring. While the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt stood opposed to dictators aligned with the West, the imperialists (headed by the U.S.) are nonetheless seizing on the opportunity to fashion Libya in their own image.

Between the creeping opportunism of both the state capitalist Empire and would-be replacement dictators, events in the Arab world look, at best, like a mixed bag. Regardless of what transpires from here forward, though, these events have demonstrated with abundant clarity just how fragile power is, and just who controls the destiny of society at large.

Martin Buber’s thesis, that “[p]ower abdicates only under the stress of counter-power,” is central to the questions raised by the Arab Spring. There can be no doubt now that counter-power has the ability to supplant despots and transform governments, but it need not stop there.

As Buber also observed, Marx and Engels were right that, assuming the state actually represented the whole of society, it would be rendered superfluous and therefore unnecessary; their mistake, however, was to maintain the necessity of a total state helmed by the working class itself — to maintain that such a state was even possible, let alone a necessary step toward a stateless society.

Rather than seeking to capture the machinery of the state from the hands of the elite few for the productive majority in society, market anarchists argue that we should begin to make it obsolete right now. Our means of accomplishing that end need not and should not incorporate violence, instead peacefully protesting and competing with the state.

The challenge for anarchists lies in the fact that, although the power elite will not willingly cede its arbitrary dominion over us, adopting its method of violence in an attempt to eradicate it will prove futile. To truly and lastingly eliminate tyranny and empire, we must change the way we look at the state itself.

For market anarchists, the true revolution, which is itself already in progress, is inherent in the demonstrations the world has witnessed in the first half of this year; their potential — the potential of nonviolent protest and disobedience toward the state — is limitless and can, if we want it, create a world defined by voluntary exchange and cooperation.

But we have to want it. We have to continue to put stress on the state at its most brittle points, and to refuse to let up at signs of what seems like progress. No new government is good enough, and the true culmination of the ideas underlying the Arab Spring will not be reached until the state at last wilts and dies.

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