Tunisia is our University

31 May

Notes and reflections from the Liberation Without Borders Tour

Anna Curcio and Gigi Roggero

Translated by Jason Francis Mc Gimsey



Today, Tunisia is an extraordinary political laboratory. Definitively destroying any inveterate reminiscence of the colonial mirror, where the “periphery” should observe the “center” to see the image of it’s future reflected in it, social struggles are determining the most advanced point inside global capitalism. Doing enquiry in this laboratory means the possibility of finding answers and developing unresolved political questions.

Above all, here some fundamental indications emerge regarding the temporality of the crisis. Between 2007 and 2008, when we began developing our analysis of the global economic crisis, we couldn’t envision the deflagration of new cycles of struggle. Or, rather, these new cycles were fragmented in character and not generalized. Today, we can see how the very concept of cycle must be completely rethought: when the crisis is no longer a specific phase but a permanent and insuperable horizontal element of cognitive capitalism, struggles adopt a different temporality. They wait and attack the enemy where it is weakest, i.e. where the composition of living labor is the strongest.

This is why the first insurrections inside the global crisis happened in Tunisia and Egypt. What’s more, they put insurrection and revolution back on the agenda; two things that many people, too many people, had thought they had been freed from along with the old political problems of the 19th century. But social movements imposed this agenda in new ways. The insurrection is no longer tied to the conquest of the state and the perimeters of national space have been definitively exceeded. One now rises in struggle to destroy borders, to affirm the right to flight and the mobility of living labor.

Tunisian activists have a clear perception of the coordinates of struggle, coordinates that are traced on an immediately transnational level. Again, we can see how another peculiar element of contemporary crisis – that of infection (see Christian Marazzi’s Dairy) – travels in pursuit of the movements of living labor and its organizational practices. The Tunisian insurrection was the spark for the movement in Egypt and the entire Arab world. And now from Wisconson, Spain and Greece the first item on the agenda is: do like in Tahrir square. The infection of conflicts happens over networks, from social networks to text messages. They aren’t simply tools that facilitate the circulation of information and communication. Here, the network is entirely reappropriated by living knowledge, it becomes a form of multitudinary organization and the expression and practice of collective intelligence. What an extraordinary experience to see, concretely, how demonstrators move in the metropolitan space: on a random Saturday morning, the appointment is at 10 a.m. in front of a theater on Avenue Bourghiba. But after 40 minutes there is no one and the police behind the barbwire are tense and don’t understand; in just a few seconds a hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred people gather, shouting at the transitional government that it must go, calling for the continuation of the revolutionary process. When the demonstration is attacked with clubs and knives by undercover police and/or shady figures paid by merchants worried about their business on the verge of the tourist season, everyone disperses in what seems like a sudden, disorganized way, just as they had gathered. But a few minutes later, the swarm recomposes again with even more people in front of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and again in front of the union headquarters to demand the convocation of a general strike.

However, the Tunisian insurrection is not a spontaneous event without a history and without organization. Its has a long genealogy, made of mobilizations and struggles, at least since – as they told us – the beginning of the revolutionary process seen in the miners’ strikes of 2008. But even in the ‘70s and ‘80s students and workers gave life to extraordinary experiences of conflict: Ben Ali’s repressive and authoritarian grip was the answer to them. Youth and Tunisian workers then used, with intelligent pragmatism, the single union of the regime, the U.G.T.T., and the student union, the U.G.E.T.: these were training grounds for activists and spaces of capillary organization that were then overturned against the hierarchy. Again, it was in southern Tunisia that the movement accumulated strength: symbolically, it isn’t by chance that the insurrectional process started on December 17th in Sidi Bouzid when Mohamed Bouazizi – a young university graduate forced to work as a street peddler – set himself on fire in a public square. That strength became potency when the movement conquered the metropolitan space on January 14th, the day Ben Ali fled. Since then, thousands of young proletariats have come from the countryside and other cities to the capital, to occupy the Kasbah and continue the revolution.

Therefore, as Miguel Mellino has already explained, the mainstream media images have nothing to do with what is happening in North Africa. “Bread revolt” or the “Jasmine revolution” are labels that try to exorcise the common reality that the Tunisian revolution really speaks of. Various American analysts observe, terrorized, how the composition of the social movements in Maghreb are so similar to the situation in the United States and in Europe: highly-educated, unemployed and precarious young people who no longer see any possible correspondence between a university degree and their salary. So, while others have recklessly given up the category of cognitive labor for misunderstood tactical reasons, or maybe because they are disillusioned by Italian capitalists’ lack of foresight to invest in the “knowledge economy”, this is the very subject that guided the struggles on the other side of the Mediterranean.

In Tunisia, it should be clear to everyone that there is no identitary essentialism in the category of cognitive labor– even to the stubborn who insist in accusing it of a having “progressive” vice. On one hand, it indicates not only the students or youth that are highly educated, but the multitude that produces knowledge and is impoverished by capitalist capture. Therefore, saying “cognitive labor” means saying potency and exploitation at the same time. In the Tunisian outskirts, the young and less-than-young use the network daily and fluently speak various languages, often learned through the parabolic antennas so hated by the anti-consumerists of the western left who don’t grasp the ambivalent process of subjectivation contained in the use of the peculiar “dead knowledge” of communication technologies. On the other hand, the political question that the revolutionary movement in Tunisia plainly shows us is the alliance, or the common composition between the youth of the cognitive precariat and the proletariat of the banlieue. However, these are not necessarily distinct figures. Rather, they the same process seen from different angles. School, university and knowledge definitively cease to be social escalators for labor market mobility used by the declassed middleclass and a promise of social redemption for the proletariat of the periphery. Various other subjects suffering from the crisis have amassed around this composition, starting with lawyers, magistrates and service workers (may of whom are active in telecommunications), and with the accumulation of the workers’ struggles in the south over the previous decades.

Nor was the revolution in Tunisa a “peaceful revolution”: who knows what the icon of the young celebrated in the Italian newspaper Repubblica would say in seeing the girls and boys of the Tunis banlieue proudly show off the commissariats and the RCD party’s offices that they have torched? Who knows if that disincarnated figure can understand what it means to say that today these kids no longer have to lower their gaze when facing a cop or a thug of the regime, the most immediate representations of class oppression.

Nor was this a simple revolution to topple the rais and finally start the process of liberal-democratic development. Ben Ali’s regime was not an exception or a feudal residue, but a fully integrated cog in global governance and financial capitalism. His attitude, in the end, was no different that the attitude of Enron managers or other great “financial scandals”: when they realized the boat was sinking, like Nazi officials escaping from WWII, they grabbed all the candelabras and silverware they could on their way out. Again, the political point is that the problem isn’t the corrupted, but that the system produces corruption. So it isn’t strange that one of the most decisive aspects is the question of debt: social movements are in fact refusing to respect the agreements made by Ben Ali with the great actors of global capitalism.

For all of these reasons, the present phase is extremely delicate. The transitional government – which, after the destitution of Gannouchi imposed by the by second occupation of the Kasbah, is now lead by Essebsi – is trying to impose a repressive normalization, following requests coming from Tunisian business and commercial sectors readily defeatist of the uncomfortable shadow of Ben Ali’s circle. They are all now pledging allegiance to democratic transition that is to reach its apex in the constitutional assembly on July 24th. In the meanwhile, government offices and Ministries are surrounded by barbwire, tanks occupy the streets, the curfew and the systematic blackouts in the outskirts aim to guarantee the ordered transition to the state of liberal-democracy, i.e. the end of the revolutionary process. Not incidentally, the word “revolution” is celebrated by those who are trying to block it, above all by the moderate Islamic forces who – not unlike the secular centrists – are already candidate as the best allies for imperial stability. This can also be seen regarding the war in Libya. Those who support it are in the moderate block for the most part, while for activists it is clear that it is a war against revolutionary movements. Many activists told us of friends and comrades who wen to fight against Kaddafi’s regime and of the geographic complexities of the insurgents’ battle lines: in Misrata, a composition very similar to the Tunisian composition is concentrated while in Bengasi a succession to the Libyan colonel is attempting to install itself but with a substantial political continuity, in accordance with the forces that are conducting the war.

In front of the Justice Department of Tunis, a lawyer synthetically comments: “we can’t talk about a counterrevolution simply because we still haven’t had a revolution”. This is the question. A few blocks away, hundreds and hundreds of young people who came from throughout the country to occupy the Kasbah don’t want to go home. For the Tunisian proletariat there is no home to go back to if a radical transformation is not produced: the choice of migration or the continuation of the revolutionary process are, in the end, two forms of the same struggle. The explosion of freedom that flows through the streets of the Tunisian metropolis is clashing head-on with the attempt to govern it in order to normalize it: the freedom of commerce opposes, head to head, the potency of the freedom of the common. So, how does destitutent power become constituent power? How does the swarm become a weapon to attack? How can horizontality determine collective verticality, the construction of new social relationships and common institutions? In brief, how does insurrection become revolution? These are the questions that, in the global crisis, the political laboratory of Tunisia are posing.

As we have said, the spatial coordinates of this challenge are clear to the activists here and they are traced on an immediately transnational level: in particular, North Africa on one side and Europe on the other. But it isn’t a question of generic solidarity that risks being trapped by identity or stink of colonial charity. “The best way to help the liberation of the Palestinian people is to liberate ourselves” one activist said. There is much the European left – wallowing in defeat and in sectorial self-celebration without any political vision – could learn from this university if only it had the desire to understand, to do enquiry, to organize the common and breathe this new air of freedom.


* See the diary of the Liberation Without Borders Tour: http://liberationwithoutborderstour.blogspot.com/


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