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Neoliberal Autocracy and Its Unmaking
Touted by its publishers as the "most prestigious lifestyle and luxury magazine in Syria," the English-language monthly Happynings enjoined readers of its January 2011 issue to accessorize with camouflage: "From combat cool to aviatrix chic, military style took the fall runways by storm. We show how to pledge allegiance to the season's hottest trend and work army accents into every look." A music video by Husayn al-Dik, the brother of a regionally famous crooner, echoed this aesthetic imperative in Arabic, backed by performers dressed in black-and-gray fatigues, matching hats, and lace-up boots dancing to his sexually suggestive tune "Natir Bint al-Madarseh" (Waiting for the Schoolgirl).
At odds with the ascetic, austere, tanks-in-the-streets reality of the 1980s, the image of military apparel shifting from a sign of autocratic control to an accoutrement of consumer choice proved ephemeral, undermined by the reappearance of soldiers in the streets when protests got underway in mid-March. As demonstrations gained momentum and the regime responded by attempting to crush dissent, the public prominence of consumer preoccupations with lifestyle and luxury gave way to anxieties about conspiracy and disorder — at least among Syrian supporters of president Bashar al-Asad's regime. For others dreaming of an end to authoritarian rule or worrying more about crop failure or lax morals than what to wear to the party, the return of the military to the streets laid bare the unvarnished essence of autocracy — its reliance on coercive power to squelch unrest. As the situation worsened, the glamour and glitz of Bashar al-Asad's first decade could no longer obscure the regime's violence or its evident refusal to respond to protest demands with anything more than empty promises. Yet among Syrians, the regime's marked willingness to destroy perceived threats to its survival was not met with anything near uniform condemnation. Particularly notable for our purposes is the apparent oddity that even as demonstrations mushroomed in various parts of the country, in Syria's two major cities, Aleppo (its largest city and key commercial hub) and Damascus (its capital), the population failed to mobilize in significant numbers. The question posed by this chapter is, Why? Considered against the backdrop of the war's horror, the question of initial participation in protests may seem a remote one. But to move toward a precise understanding of the limits of the rebellion and the seductions of status quo conventionality, it helps to see how the Syrian regime managed to produce a silent majority of citizens invested in stability and fearful of alternatives.
I argue that what might best be described, following Lauren Berlant, as an ideology of the good life operated among key metropolitan populations to organize desire and quell dissent. Syria's good life entailed not only the usual aspirations to economic well-being, but also fantasies of multicultural accommodation and a secure, sovereign, pride-inducing national identity. It is these visions and inducements to compliance in the first decade of president Bashar al-Asad's rule, unevenly saturating and in flux, which defined the terms in which neoliberal autocracy was created, sustained, and, in the context of the uprising, ultimately reconfigured.
Neoliberal autocracy implies two contradictory logics of rule: the one cultivating desires for market freedom, upward mobility, and consumer pleasure, and the other tethering advancement opportunities to citizen obedience and coercive regulation. This contradiction was mediated and managed in pre-uprising Syria in part through a local image world that wedded private capital to regime control in a way officially epitomized by the seemingly glamorous, urbane, and assertively modern "first family." A first-family mimesis worked to produce the celebrity president, his elegant, English-speaking first lady, Asma[??], and their young children as sites of an aspirational consciousness imbued with individual responsibility, refined taste, fashionable possessions, and domestic intimacy. In this first decade of the 2000s, fantasies of upward mobility became tied to acts of personal initiative and a commitment to the status quo, replacing the quasi-socialist promises of state-initiated development or party cadre activism of the previous Asad regime (1970–2000) with a classier, "upgraded" autocracy. By 2011, in the context of the region's growing unrest, we see the regime revamping its modes of ideological interpellation in service of a doubling down on the connection between the continuation of this good life and autocratic survival.
The chapter begins in part 1 by investigating neoliberal autocracy's forms of ideological address, chronicling the regime's success in the younger Asad's first decade of rule in producing this image of an enlightened, more benevolent dictatorship under the paradoxical sign of market freedom. Part 2 explores the onset of the uprising in some ethnographic detail, along with the broader discursive conditions that helped structure forms of both reticence and political participation characteristic of the first year of unrest. Neoliberal autocracy — built on the contradiction between promised freedoms and ongoing coercion while focusing the diffuse desires of Syrians onto centrally managed celebrity — began to unravel. As it happened, the system came undone in the absence of alternatives outfitted with the necessary programmatic vision and organizational wherewithal to mount a decisive challenge. Part 3 complicates the convenient but inaccurate picture, popular among scholars and journalists, of the uprising as largely a product of class conflict. Anticipating objections to my focus on ideology, this section insists on ideology's coimplication with issues of political economy, fear, sectarian difference, and generational conflict — marshalling both ethnographic and quantitative evidence to suggest that areas of protest and quiescence do not map at all neatly onto regions of relative deprivation and plenitude. The chapter's overall exploration of ideology's importance and its production of ambivalence — the specific contexts of neoliberalism, authoritarian rule, and their combined formation in experiences of neoliberal autocracy — requires a few clarifications, to which I now turn.
A NOTE ON AMBIVALENCE IN POLITICS
Scholars of the Left correctly note that neoliberalism produces "zones of social abandonment" and disaffection, as safety nets disappear or are revamped in the context of growing inequality and the availability of perquisites like luxury goods. My intervention, in contrast, aims to explore the power of neoliberalism to seduce even those who recognize and condemn its injustices. For neoliberalism has also organized new forms of sociability, affective connection, optimism, and pleasure — explaining how and why neoliberalism generated the forms of ambivalence that helped sustain authoritarianism in the face of serious challenges to it.
Syrians with ambivalent positions on the uprising were widely referred to as the "gray people" (al-ramadiyyin), and unsurprisingly, they came in various shades. Some were coded by activists as mutazabzib (vacillators), people who swing back and forth between "wanting and not wanting change." Their self-definition as ambivalent onlookers was symptomatic of neoliberal autocracy's success. Opposition activists dismissed this version of ambivalence from the start, calling the onlookers "opportunists" (intihaziyyin) who "every hour had a new opinion" (kull sa [??]a bira [??]y), who could not "commit to a point of view" (ma [??]andu mawqif) or failed "to stabilize their position" (ma yathbut [??]ala ra [??]y). And the number of citizens roughly fitting those descriptions put systemic limits on the uprising and constituted an ideological victory for the regime. Syrians self-describing as "moderates" (mu [??]atadilin, connoting equilibrium or balance) were another shade of gray. Early in the uprising they found themselves being lambasted by opposition activists but tolerated by the regime, with some even recognized as part of an "honorable opposition" (al-mu [??]arada al-sharifa). The characteristic disavowal among this group runs something like this: "I know very well that the regime will insist on holding on to its political power, yet nevertheless I'll act as if it won't"; or "Nevertheless, I'll act as if a civil state is possible within its confines." And finally, regular riders on the microbuses were heard declaring their indifference to what was happening, saying it didn't involve them (mani [??]alaqa).
Represented among these three varieties of ambivalence were two distinct demographics. One set comprised those fortunate enough to be already accustomed to the pleasures brought by new types of prosperity, sociability, and consumerism. Their communities formed the worlds of downtown Damascus and Aleppo, or what advertisers (expanding their thinking beyond strictly economic categories to practices of taste and distinction) rated the "A+, A, and A-" neighborhoods of the two cities. The rest, if more in aspirational mode, were able to imagine at least a modicum of such luxury for themselves. For these, the payoff while unrealized remained a payoff. It was visible in the environment and palpable, worth waiting and working for. In the early days, these two populations were noticeably absent from the protests, evidently preferring quiescence to venturing into the uncharted territory of political resistance. So long as these ambivalent populations continued not signing up for the uprising, the regime had a much easier time responding to pockets of peaceful resistance by deploying scorched-earth tactics.
And this brings us to my invocation of "the good life." Despite its roots in Aristotelian ethics, usage (outside social theory) tends toward the trivial these days, as in a synonym for "consumer pleasures" or as a meme in the pep rally version of American political values. To be sure, neophyte consuming subjects may be expected to act accordingly, but I have more at stake in deploying the notion — both theoretically and in relation to Syrian specifics. Part of what I have in mind is similar to what Jean Comaroff notes of advanced capital in its globally varied neoliberal forms in describing the "powerful fetishisms at work that relate not merely to commodities as consumable goods, but the commodity (and the whole structural order that secures it) as a hieroglyph of profound understandings of value, power, truth, and world-making." These fetishisms are potent in their effects, reshaping in economized terms people's very understandings of and engagements in contemporary life. Itself reshaped by corporate forms of capital, the regime had become a quasi-clan-based corporation, fostering affinities between the idea of market opportunities and political conformity that are familiar from nominally democratic regimes as well. Such major or minor opportunism constituted a degree of outright support for the regime, but perhaps more important, it went along with enough political ambivalence to keep large-scale peaceful protest from developing in the two major cities.
In other parts of Syria (such as "first-mover" areas like Homs, Dar[??]a, Hama, and Idlib), any number of alternative commitments — ranging from styles of family upbringing to attendance at mosque-based study groups or ties to the Communist Party — provided a basis for a potential challenge to the regime's ethical, political, and aesthetic valences. At the same time, regional particularities even within a province are considerable. Mohammed Jamal Barout tells us that so many police officers come from Idlib governorate that when a male baby is born, people exclaim, "It's a policeman!" Yet other areas of the same province are known for their Islamic anti-regime activism. And still other regions of Idlib, in the context of the uprising, became famous for their humor, such as Kafranbel with its inventive caricatures lampooning the regime, or for their well-known affiliation with anti-Ba[??]thist leftist parties. Explaining these variations in detail will ultimately require significantly more fine-grained sociological research and attention to regional specificity than this study allows. That work is already underway, with scholars beginning to grapple with such problems as gathering statistical evidence based on counting protests or having to rely on regime economic data. Barout has been especially attentive to the differences, similarities, and interdependences between the "Damascus metropole" and areas on the periphery of the city, or Rif Dimashq, showing that places belonging administratively to the periphery can be economically and socially very much a part of the city, while the dynamics found elsewhere in the periphery can differ from both Damascus center and other parts of the periphery. Kevin Mazur's work provides another example of important research underway. One of his findings is that the relatively few protest-related deaths that did occur in central Damascus were in areas resembling ones from the rural hinterland. Scholars such as these, and others, like Kheder Khaddour, are generating extraordinarily rich accounts of regional variations, with implications for why people were willing to rebel — when they were.
It remains the case, however, that no one as yet has accounted compellingly for why the uprising erupted in some places and not in others, or why it became violent in some places with recent histories of violence but not in others (at least at the onset). My own view, stepping back a bit, is that the areas that did revolt would not have risen up had Egypt and Libya, the two authoritarian examples with which Syrians of various stripes most vocally identified, not witnessed massive protests previously. The regime's neoliberal autocracy was sufficiently possessed of efficacious compliance inducements to forfend rebellion had there not been regional demonstration effects. Given the uprisings elsewhere, however, my own argument would require that any answer to the variation question consider the salience of attachments to the good life and the complex relationships between ideological addressors and addressees, rather than reducing the analysis to statistically visible indications of, say, affluence. Citizens were similarly hailed but recognized differentially by the regime, whose hold on power was maintained by way of the production of neoliberal lifeways through autocratic means. Neoliberal autocracy required hiding those mechanisms in plain sight, both exciting aspirations for initiative and limiting their political potential. While this chapter is more about Damascus's and Aleppo's quiescence than that of the country as a whole, my general argument should encourage scholars to consider not only conditions of plenitude and deprivation but also citizens' fantasy investments. Attending to the coimplication of ideology and material practices allows us to see expectations shifting in the context of neoliberal autocracy. Citizens were differentially interpellated — unevenly addressed by the regime's seductive images of economic prosperity, discourses of freedom, and empowerment, and by varied experiences of migration.
As a point of clarificatory insistence: I do try to debunk existing explanations that reduce protests to economic grievances, but my immediate objective is not to explain the reasons for the uprising. Rather, to reiterate, I want to understand the importance of ambivalence in sustaining neoliberal autocracy despite major challenges to it. From the point of view of studying ideology's potency, understanding why people refrain from action is as important as explaining their participation. By shedding light on the enticements of neoliberal autocracy in Syria, this chapter offers lessons both for students of comparative politics and for social and political theorists, showcasing fantasies of order and prosperity that are evident (in varying flavors and degrees) in other neoliberal autocratic countries as well.
In short, my focus on the neoliberalism part of neoliberal autocracy in this chapter designates an especially seductive, particularly insinuating, and largely implicit endorsement of market-mediated experiences such as those associated with risk and pleasure. As a particular ideological formation, neoliberalism is saturating without being fully naturalized, organizing lifeworlds in ways that can also structure dissent. Autocracy, despite its cruelties and caprice, offers the promise of order, a way of blanketing over or managing what might be made into incendiary differences (like sectarian affiliation or pious extremism). Neoliberal autocracy, then, delimits a diffusely bounded comfort zone in which staying safe seems possible and consumer aspiration desirable, on the condition that citizens harbor no dreams of even superficial political transformation. By analyzing the 2011–12 period, this chapter brings to the fore a concern that animates the entire book: the spectrum of affective dynamics by which support persists at the same time that ambivalence matters, and resistance — even repugnance — gets organized.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Authoritarian Apprehensions"
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