The Middle East and Marxist History: An Interview with John Chalcraft

John Chalcraft interviewed by George Souvlis.


George Souvlis: By way of introduction, could you explain what personal experiences strongly influenced you, politically and academically?

John Chalcraft: I grew up the son of a social worker and a vicar in a provincial milieu. I remember defending a motion supporting the miners’ strike with a friend at a school debate in the 1980s and being genuinely surprised by the anger our stance aroused in our conservative context. Cycling alone in North Africa in my late teens had a major impact on my perceptions of a part of the Third World that I still viewed at that time in unexamined Orientalist terms. Discovering the writings of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger in my early twenties was a very provocative intellectual and political experience. Their arguments were at odds with the dominant understandings I had inherited. I was also frustrated in regard to the lack of non-Western history on offer in my undergraduate days. This frustration and provocation set up much of the questioning and intellectual drive that took me into critical scholarship and a PhD in the history of the Middle East.

GS: Your first study, Striking Cabbies of Cairo and other stories, is a systematic account of adaptation and protest among craft and service workers in Egypt in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Would you like to present us the basic aspects of the making of the Egyptian working class the period between 1863-1914? What was the role of the petty producers and service providers in this process? In what ways did they use the discourses about social and political rights and the nation to drive forward their political demands?

JC: I argued in this study that crafts and service workers in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Egypt, involved in forms of self-exploitation (profitless self-employment) and labour-squeezing (the extraction of absolute surplus value), formed an important part of the labour movement, though they had been traditionally excluded by accounts that focused on the rise of an industrial proletariat. Crafts and service workers acted in the same political and cultural universe as their industrial contemporaries, went on strike over wages, conditions and especially over intrusive regulations, and they formed alliances with nationalists from 1907 onwards. I used census data and tax returns to show their ongoing importance in terms of employment in the economy as a whole. They were not socialists in some modular European-style, but framed their grievances in terms of a diverse and changing moral economy, informed by Ottoman statecraft, principles of justice, rights (conceived as just shares), customs handed down from the past, and newly developing forms of citizenship and nationalism. I also showed that crafts and service workers’ protest and adaptation played an important role in breaking down the old corporate guild-based urban order and forming new vehicles for collective action, especially unions and syndicates. I found the framework of class formation too clunky to make much use of – and found it very difficult to explain change in terms of capitalist development: objective changes were highly diverse, and did not show any simple development of fully-commodified, doubly-free wage-labour, while articulated modes of production analysis greatly under-states the real change that did take place among labour in survivalist enterprise. I found that politics shaped the forces of production as much as the other way around.

GS: In one of your articles, ‘Pluralizing Capital, Challenging Eurocentrism,’ you criticize Marxist historiography as Eurocentric because of its monolithic and teleological conception of capitalism. Instead you propose a different epistemological approach, focused on multiple regimes of production, and foreground ways in which these forms of economic activity can be embedded in the polity and society. Would you elaborate more on these conceptual alternatives to the dominant Marxist historiography? In which ways does this conceptualization challenge the Eurocentric vision that endorses a unique “passage to modernity,” and what can it tell us about European modernity as such?

JC: I’m still working on these conceptual alternatives. They do, of course, stem from the insight that labour power has not in actual history been fully-commodified or become doubly-free. First, it has fought for and achieved social protections and forms of patronage to replace the old ‘idyllic’, ‘feudal’ and ‘patriarchal’ protections. Second, often-times, and by diverse routes workers have found forms of access to different kinds of capital and means of production – often, for instance, by holding onto small plots of land and domestic communities of production. Third, legal freedom in the labour market varies from place to place – as effectively bonded migrant labour in the GCC countries demonstrates so vividly in the contemporary period. And finally, workers have widely differing powers of combination and association, which generate different conditions of work and forms of politics. For these reasons, I do not believe that it is possible to treat capitalism as self-propelling and all-determining, as without doubly-free and fully-commodified labour power, the extended reproduction of capital does not function; treating capitalism as if it is complete and self-propelling, therefore, is a mistake that reproduces crucial forms of Eurocentric historicity, rationality and consciousness: it condemns ‘becoming capitalists’ to the waiting room of history, and erases their complex forms of agency and the importance of their particular histories. Paradoxically, it reduces the diverse and interesting forms of labour history that are possible.

As for what conceptual alternatives can be grounded in this messy and profoundly uneven view of capitalistic economic transformation, I put forward the notion of labour regimes in the 2005 article, which emphasizes that power relations (and not just relations of production, or culture) play and important role in shaping conditions of work and labour. Since the publication of that article, it has become evident to me, given that power relations are established at the level of the state, and the political community, that it is vital to study politics and political action, and so I have been working on concepts adequate to this venture by drawing on the concept of hegemony, understood in terms of consent to dominant sets of political arrangements.

GS: Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital is a critique of postcolonial theory as represented by the Subaltern Studies school and makes the claim that we can — and must — conceptualize the non-Western world through the same analytical lens that we use to understand developments in the West. What are your thoughts on this claim? Can, or should, we use an analytical repertoire that derives from the historical experience of the West in order to comprehend non-Western realities?

JC: My thoughts on the claim that we must conceptualize the non-Western world through the same analytic lens that we use to understand developments in the West – are that certainly yes, this would be a great idea. The fact is, though, that for this project to be achieved, the non-Western world would have to have become the site of theory-generation (not just theory-testing) over a much longer period, or much more thoroughly, than it actually has. Theories based on Western history would have to be thoroughly revised by their encounter with theories drawn from the history and politics of the colonized world. This has only happened up to a point so far. Although re-reading the history and culture of Europe in terms of empire, a project begun at the discursive level by Edward Said, but explored in more economic terms before that by Marxist and non-Marxist theories of capitalistic development has long pointed in this direction. Subaltern Studies is not a single school, of course, but an amalgam of different theoretical approaches – that started with much Marx and Gramsci, and gradually became more and more interested in Foucault, discourse, culture and semiotics. It has made a major contribution to the study of the non-West in terms more critical than those simply read off the European experience, but the discursive turn lacks a political analysis. We cannot use different categories and concepts for studying the non-West: this is exceptionalism and Orientalism through the back door. But while plenty of Chibber’s criticisms of post-colonialism hit home, and are bracing and provocative enough, his alternative does not work for me, because it seems to me to represent not an alternative, but a rather hoary return to the discredited universalisms of capitalist development, which as I have mentioned, are problematic. In other words, it is one thing to say we should aim for universal concepts and analytic procedures, but quite another to say this takes us right back to economistic and materialist analysis of capitalism. We cannot use concepts drawn from a typically abstracted and idealized Western experience to understand the history of the whole world.

GS: In the book that you edited, Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony, you utilize the Gramscian notion of counterhegemony in order to conceptualize little known episodes of resistance that have occurred in different geographical zones of the global south. How has this concept proved useful? What does it offer us analytically?

JC: This volume was a very interesting collaboration, and I think it helped us work through issues relating to the problems of defining resistance when political, social and cultural logics are in play in addition to economic logics. The premise of the volume is that while academics had become ever more sophisticated on the issue of subtle forms of hegemony, they had left under-specified the equally important concept of counter-hegemony. We wanted to theorize on the basis of cases from the global South – so we had cases from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America. We accepted Laclau and Mouffe’s critique of Marxian economism. We were searching for historically-rooted concepts of what it means to resist in a given, inherited political context. We thought in terms of outright assault on the established order, the re-definition and manipulation of dominant terms, the development of sub-cultures and tolerated spheres of autonomy, and of forms of silent subversion involved in everyday forms of resistance. I think particularly useful was the discussion of different forms of ‘hegemony from below’, where subaltern social groups defend, promote or redefine key dominant terms, which can come under threat from elites and authorities themselves. Our overall argument was that none of the forms of resistance we studied can be considered counterhegemonic unless they push forward a drawn-out process of re-articulation at a variety of levels. We understood this re-articulation as not solely a discursive matter, but of linking particular instances of resistance and antagonism to larger forms of alternative politics.

GS: Your next monograph, The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon deals, as the title indicates, with the history of the migration of Syrian workers to Lebanon over the past six decades. What were the structural conditions that forced, and at the same time allowed, this important flow of workers from one country to another the period under examination?

JC: There were no purely structural conditions, given that the form of hegemony at work in the construction of the Invisible Cage is shot through with agency exercised by migrant workers in segmented, localized arenas. I wanted to show that migrants were not human jetsam and flotsam, driven hither and thither by the different forms of capital accumulation, but neither were they fully in charge of their own destiny. The book illustrated how migrants were unwittingly ensnared in exploitative structures of accumulation and exilic forms of labour rotation by their attempts to pursue valued ends in rebuilding domestic communities of production in the sending country. This was my answer, based on the notion of ‘elective affinities’, to the question of why extra-economic coercion is no longer required to ensure a supply of labour. A number of slow-moving and relatively structural processes were at work, such as the development of a market in land and people in both countries since the nineteenth century, the land reforms in Syria of the 1950s and 1960s which generated a small-holding ‘peasantry’ that was nonetheless unable to live solely from the land, out-migration from Lebanon, which generated demand for labour, and the sharply different social costs of reproduction in both countries, which meant that Syrian, male labour was cheap in Lebanon, but nonetheless unable to bring families there for settlement. I also aimed to show how key periods in the history of this migration were closely tied to political settlements, including Ba‘athism in Syria, and in Lebanon the merchant republic, the civil war, and the period of Syrian military control (until 2005).

GS: What is the Invisible Cage that the title of the study refers to? How this is connected with the Gramscian notion of hegemony that informs your study?

JC: The Invisible Cage idea mixes Max Weber’s ‘iron cage’ with Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. In Weber’s ‘iron cage’, the care for external goods is supposed in Calvinist asceticism to rest on the shoulder of the saint like a light cloak, but instead becomes an ‘iron cage’, entrapping its original protagonists in a new cosmos of capitalism and consumption. In Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, the market and the division of labour is supposed to bring prosperity to those who work hard and avoid ‘riotous living’. The Syrian migrants that I researched sometimes worked 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many strenuously avoided gambling, drinking and prostitution in order to save up for their families and in the hope of buying land and/or establishing businesses. They cultivated a whole variety of ethical and bodily disciplines in order to bear the loss of recuperation time, to persist in employment that was supposed to be temporary, and to succeed. In the event, dreams and aspirations were deferred, and migrants became entangled in polarizing systems of accumulation, disenfranchisement, low-income and exile. The metaphor of the Invisible Cage is appropriate to this situation, where overt forms of coercion were not visibly operative. The notion of hegemony is able to capture this mixture of the voluntary, economic aspects of labour migration, and of choices acting in local, segmented spaces, with the broader forms of coercion and structural power that were at work.

GS: Your article, ‘Labour Protest and Hegemony in Egypt and the Arab Peninsula’ is an attempt to show how old and new movements of labour protest in Egypt and the Arab Peninsula can be understood in terms of hegemonic contestation. Would you like to elaborate more on this issue?

JC: This chapter develops the lines of thought that came out of the Counterhegemony volume and the Invisible Cage. On the one side, there is the idea of defensive forms of hegemony from below, in which subaltern social groups actually defend the terms of an existing hegemony under threat by elites. This seemed to apply to a good deal of ‘defensive’ Left and labour protest in Egypt since the 1970s, as Nasserism and Arab socialism came under threat from new forms of neoliberal politics. On the other, there are more ‘proactive’ and ‘offensive’ (but not in the negative sense) forms of protest associated with the rise of a new ‘historic bloc’, in the Gramscian sense. This idea made more sense in the rise of popular protest on the Arabian peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s – which was linked – ‘organically formulated’ as Gramsci might have put it – with pan-Arabism and socialism. The idea in the chapter was to compare these different streams of activism in terms of these basic ideas. Such ideas could also explain labour quiescence during periods of more expansive hegemony, as in Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. I also argued that more recent protests in the 2000s among migrants on the Arabian peninsula were related to moments when the hegemonic basis of the menial, bonded migrant system broke down. Finally, I made the point, writing before 2011, that it was no longer the case that protest in Egypt in the 2000s was simply defensive any longer – and new forms of re-articulation were emerging, whether out of and because of defensive protest, or because of the way these streams of protest were linking up, very tentatively, to alternative forms of politics.

GS: Your next study, Popular Politics in the Making of Modern Middle East, examines the role of popular politics in the making of the modern Middle East. The central epistemological aim of the book is to move beyond an objectivist historical sociology of social change and a subjectivist social constructionism that neglects the wider historical context within the social action takes place. How you do this? What do you counter-suggest in terms of an epistemology that can grasp more effectively the historical process? Additionally, regarding the Arab uprisings of 2011, why did they emerge? In what ways do you think that they transformed the structures they confronted — if they did it at all. And, vice versa, what was the impact of the political structures on their political DNA?

JC: Objectivist historical sociology tends to see politics and contentious politics as an outcome of processes of socioeconomic change, capitalist development, and class formation. Social constructionism has at its core the study of perception, subjectivity, identity-formation, framing, and discourse. Popular Politics has a different point of departure, relating to the construction of political community. I take to be central the tensions between political logics (involving coercion, domination and control) and social, cultural and economic logics. Hegemony works to resolve these tensions. The book makes axiomatic the tensions between state institutions, established political processes and elites on the one hand, and transgressive mobilizing projects enrolling popular sectors and breaking the rules of formal politics on the other. Hegemonic contestation is read in this political sense, referring to the ways in which the consent of popular sectors to dominant political institutions is won, broken down, and re-negotiated, and built up anew in transgressive and revolutionary ways. I wanted to write the history of these tensions and contentious dynamics which are not reducible to socioeconomic change, or to meaning-making; they concern an unruly popular politics in which ordinary people, typically excluded from access to the polity, try to take matters into their own hands, seizing hold of political and doctrinal agency, and breaking the rules of routinized politics in the process. I hope to have shown the importance of intellectual labour, the trans-local appropriation of models for collective action, normative commitments, and organizing, strategy, tactics and interactions in determining the shape and fortunes of this transgressive mobilization. In view is a kind of political history from below.

To summarize brutally, this approach grasps the Arab uprisings of 2011 in terms of the profound tensions that had built up in recent years between popular sectors and regimes in certain parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Domination without hegemony provided key enabling conditions for new forms of transgressive mobilization and unruly collective action among large masses of ordinary people.

The Arab uprisings were followed by a great deal of bitter violence, repression, counter-revolution, and cynical regional and international great power manipulation. On the other hand, these uprisings showed that ‘presidents-for-life’ and parts of regimes could be overthrown or substantially threatened by ‘people power’ – a fundamental innovation on the post-colonial stage in the MENA region. They have exposed the bankruptcy and violence of command and control structures that rely solely on violence and coercion. They have drawn attention to the importance of trans-local, transregional and transnational forms of politics. They have also underlined the importance in the MENA region of the question of radically democratic, de-centralized, and leaderful organizing — its possibilities and limits.

GS: Your study on popular politics in Middle East, examines cycles of protests throughout the 20th century. In which ways do the current forms of protest differ from those of the past? What new they have offered to the popular mobilizing projects of the Arab people and what they owe to their “political precedents?”

JC: I have already mentioned some answers to this question. But it is worth mentioning that the uprisings of 2011 struggled to elaborate a new political ideology out of the universal claims to popular sovereignty, bread, dignity and freedom that were so loudly articulated by millions of ordinary people on the streets. Instead forms of sectarian, Manichean, and identitarian political ideology have held the initiative among revolutionaries, forms based on the violent, moralizing imposition of a divine law in Salafi-Wahhabi mode. Major revolutionary movements of the past, secular and religious, have had their intellectuals, organic and otherwise. There is no reason therefore to exclude a priori the possibility that interesting new identities, principles, frames and values might not yet be developed by intellectuals representing what Gramsci might have called the ‘new historical phase’.

GS: The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) is still in its infancy, and opinion is highly divided as to its nature and role. Do you think that it can be dismissed as just another form of anti-Semitism? What it has offered in terms of the democratic know-how in the movements as such? Which are its main gains in terms of results? Should left-wing forces join the movement?

JC: The BDS movement, which has been developing since the early 2000s, is an exciting development in the political history of the region and beyond. Modelled on the struggle that helped to bring down Apartheid in South Africa, it is a trans-local and transnational movement, based on the non-violent search for the fundamental rights of dispossessed Palestinians. It aims to develop forms of solidarity across national, continental and geopolitical borders – vitally important in an age of neoliberal globalization, identitarianism, and cynical great power politics. It has a networked, rhizomic and de-centralized organizing structure. It is highly diverse by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, gender, and religion. Its identity bears interesting resemblances to that of the multitude. It takes aim at totalizing forms of discursive closure and refuses identitarian forms of politics, such as those associated with anti-Semitism, or other right-wing, culturally essentialist movements. It establishes a form of energizing direct action, bypassing authorities, to challenge, divest from and boycott states and companies complicit in the violations of international law and human rights abuses attendant on Israeli settler colonialism. Anyone can boycott, and companies are sensitive to boycotts and the reputational damage they imply. Yet, as the word ‘sanctions’ implies, the movement does not give up on the state entirely, or pretend it does not exist: it is a movement rooted in civil and civic society that seeks to alter the actions of states without becoming part of the state. It has already scored some dramatic divestment successes on a shoe-string budget (e.g. re Veolia), and has helped to expose the powerful forms of racism at work in Zionism, although it has not yet managed to do much to blunt the force of Israeli settler colonialism on the ground – although Israeli political elites and their allies have become ever more worried about the BDS movement. Many of the latter’s constituencies come out of the global justice movement and union organizing, and are drawn from progressive, post-nationalist and radically democratic sectors. Such a movement has, and should have, a huge appeal on the contemporary Left.


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