This interview was conducted with Asef Bayat via electronic correspondence. In it, Bayat discusses the inside-out character of neoliberal cities in the Arab world and its influence on the recent wave of protests known collectives as the Arab uprisings. In addition, Bayat elaborates on the notion of urban subalterns, and the existence of social “non-movements” of the poor and the youth.
Nada Ghandour-Demiri (NGD): You recently published an article in City & Society entitled “Politics in the City-Inside-Out,” where you discuss a number of themes related to the “neo-liberal city” and street politics in the Middle East. What are the characteristics of a “neoliberal city,” and to what extent are these found throughout the Middle East and North Africa?
Asef Bayat (AB): Broadly speaking, a “neoliberal city” is a market-driven urban reality. Here, the rationale of the market, more than the needs of the citizens, shapes the urban life, urban space, and its inhabitants. It is a city that responds more to individual or corporate interests than to public concerns. Its manifestations include an increasing deregulation and privatization of production, collective consumption, and urban space. Here, the state and public officials play a lesser role in shaping the city than before, or simply act on behalf of capital accumulation. Of course, such features are not new in the recent history of cities. However, they have been intensified in recent decades as the tide of neoliberal capitalism has been spreading like a wild fire in most parts of the world.
This new restructuring has in practice led to a lot of changes in the domains of work or production, and in collective urban services, as well as peoples’ lives. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon—even though with varied degrees—including the MENA region where cities have featured important changes. For instance, we have witnessed a partial withdrawal of public officials’ provisioning of certain traditional amenities, increasing unemployment, and an expanding informalization, casual labor, street works, and street children. At the same time, we see a more widening spatial divide between the growing “private cities” or gated communities, on the one hand, and, on the other, the expansion of informal settlements and ashwaiyyat, where the poor families encroach onto the back-street public spaces to enlarge their “private” spaces, while utilizing main streets as assets/capital to enhance their life chances.
NGD: What do you mean by the term“urban subaltern?”
AB: This is a descriptive term referring broadly to the non-elites—those women and men who remain on the margins of political and economic power, such as the urban disenfranchised, the unemployed, the working poor, and the impoverished middle classes. Yet, I think the everyday but contentious practices of these groups do have an impact on the ways in which urban life takes shape, on the urban governmentality.
NGD: What role did the inside-out character of neoliberal cities, such as Cairo or Tunis, play in the protests associated with the Arab uprisings?
AB: Let me first state that by the “city-inside-out” I mean the city in which a large of number of urban inhabitants, the urban subaltern, are compelled by necessity to operate, spend time, subsist, and extend their livelihoods in the out-door public spaces. Just think of those who subsist in the vast out-door economy operating as street vendors, workers in the sidewalk stands and restaurants, mechanic shops, or as prostitutes, messengers, and street children. There are also the lower-class youths hanging out in sidewalks and street corner gatherings, passing time and enjoying sociability, or those in-traffic informal workers like minibus drivers, or boss boys, and of course many who actually live pavement lives. You can imagine other examples. But the end result is the operation and presence—indeed contentious and often illegal presence—of far too many people in the out-door public spaces of these cities.
Now in response to your question, I cannot think of an immediate relationship between the inside-out character of the city and the revolutionary protests. What I can say is that the city-inside-out in the Global South does have a great potential for public protestation. It is by character conflict-stricken. Because the reality of the city-inside-out implies that the urban subaltern are already infringing on the prerogative of the states and its agents who oppose those who violate the regulation of public spaces and public order. There are constant tensions between the authorities and these subaltern groups, whose livelihood and socio-cultural reproduction often depends on unlawful use of out-door public spaces.
The tension is often mediated by bribe, fine, physical confrontation, punishment, and jail, or otherwise constant insecurity or a guerrilla-type practice of “operate and run.” Just imagine what happened between the street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi and the policewoman in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid where the Tunisian revolution was ignited. Such confrontations probably happen hundreds of times daily in the streets of Cairo, Tunis, or Amman. Besides, as I discuss in the essay, the city-inside-out (which is marked by the density of collective interaction in the public spaces) is also conducive to the rapid flow of information (news, rumors, or myths) and the formation of public opinion—in the streets, busses, taxies, or bakery lines—for those who are deprived of the modern means of communication such as social media and the like. So, both solidarity and contention are built into the political geography of the city-inside-out—qualities that render the outburst of collective outrage or mass protest very likely.
NGD: You have demonstrated in your work that the subaltern resist certain neoliberal policies by reclaiming or repossessing public spaces. How can this reclaiming of space ultimately lead to democratic empowerment or a more just society?
AB: The immediate outcome of the urban subaltern subverting some neoliberal policies, as in reclaiming public spaces both physically socially, is unlikely to translate into political democracy or broader social justice. Political democracy or broader social justice demand a more strategic and broader means and modality. But the subaltern practice of reclamation does mean a measure of leveling. It means an expression of the “right to the city,” of de facto urban citizenship, if not de jure citizenship when those repossessions ultimately assume legal backing.
NGD: “Social non-movements” is a central concept in your work. In what ways it is helpful in understanding the recent uprisings in the Arab world?
AB: Let me say that by “social non-movements,” I mean broadly the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. These include the non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfill their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere.
These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions. They may also emerge under non-repressive but unresponsive governments (say in India or Turkey) when the collective and open protests of the subaltern groups may fall on to deaf ears of authorities and adversaries.
Now in the Arab world these “non-movements” which I am talking about did not really have the political aim of overthrowing repressive regimes, or pushing for political reforms. Their preoccupation, rather, lay in enhancing the life chances of the actors. The Arab uprisings had a very different logic and set of dynamics. But the actors of these non-movements became probably part of these uprisings.
The link between the non-movements and the episode of the uprisings lay in the fact that “non-movements” keep their actors in a constant state of mobilization, even though the actors remain dispersed, or their links to other actors remain often (but not always) passive. This means that when they sense that there is an opportunity, they are likely to forge concerted collective protests, or merge into larger political and social mobilization. Even though I am still researching this issue, evidence seems to exist that the “non-movements” of the poor and the youth assumed the form of a more concerted collective contention in the wake of the Arab uprisings, and became part of their dynamics.
Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies at theUniversity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-author of BeingYoung and Muslim (Oxford University Press, 2010) and author of Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (StanfordUniversity press, 2010).