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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Back to Basics in Political Economy: Power and Inequality

[image from cartoonstock.com] [image from cartoonstock.com]

There was a time in Political Science teaching and research when debates about conceptions of power and inequality were central. But since the 1980s we have, along with Economists, succeeded in reducing power to measured variables while leaving the importance of inequality to parts of Sociology. In my opinion, the 2011 Arab uprisings and the unprecedented social mobilizations that continue to evolve should change that direction. Rather than a turn to discredit academic work which has failed to “account for” 2011 (including work outside Middle East studies), the opportunity should be taken to move forward. The exceptionalism debate is dead. The oil causes things debate is dead. And neoliberalism? It’s not well. I want suggest that in part we be inductive and try to take in what Arabs have been living, and in another part let’s be a bit deductive. Power and inequality is one place to start.

In the classroom, exploring and evidencing new forms of power and bringing back to the fore the analytical importance of inequality connects students and scholars to a classic, and critical scholarly past. In The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi argued that attempts to separate the economy from the society (a free market) can unfold over a long period, but will ultimately be rejected. Inequality of that “satanic mill” does not have an elective affinity with human society; hence, the market will be governed by the society. Can we glimpse aspects of this historical perspective in the great Arab transformations now? Conversely, Charles Lindblom’s, “The Market as Prison,” tells a story of the structural power of modern American business to punish any move to regulate or “curtail the free market.” As the Arab transitions move forward, what prisons of political economy lurk? But we should not be satisfied with such structural conceptions of power, because the 2011 uprisings defy such power, openly. Consider Hanna Arendt in On Violence: “The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” Power is consent; ridicule and humor express this social power and challenge traditional social science models of explanation. Thus others like Jim Scott, Lisa Wedeen and Timothy Mitchell have implored us to recognize the political as local, personal, everyday, and in a way, humble. The Arab Uprisings of 2011 have made empty spectacles of the state and decision making focus that so often grabbed attention in the past. The hidden is now open; the state is laid bare.

Against authoritarianism in 2011, we see new forms of local power mobilized, regionally expressed, and at times thwarted. Inequality, in a multitude of ways, is constitutive of the popular mobilizations but it also complicates and challenges those mobilized. Going forward, the speed of political events will likely be faster than the needed economic modifications. This, I believe, should be among our intellectual concerns: how can one envision a way forward, so that political economy obstacles and challenges to transition can be successfully navigated? This is not to argue for a “how to” on crafting democracy; rather we can and should ask, democracy for what?

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