Notes on "Anticolonial Afterlives"
6 min read

Notes on "Anticolonial Afterlives"

Notes on "Anticolonial Afterlives"

In Anticolonial Afterlives in Egypt Sara Salem develops a Marxist-oriented account of post-colonial political development in Egypt. In doing so, her book is part of an attempt to fit Marxist political analysis into the trajectory of political decolonisation. In bridging this gap Salem – like post-colonial scholars in India – turns to Gramsci, and particularly to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as the anchoring moment around which post-colonial politics in Egypt has revolved.  The book, she notes, began as an interrogation of the 2011 revolution, yet Salem found herself repeatedly returning to the Nasserist moment of 1952 as the point against which the 2011 revolution was to be contrasted. It is then the apparent singularity of 1952 towards which Salem’s book turns.

This singularity is marked by the Nasserist construction of a meaningful hegemony over Egyptian society through the construction of a broad-based historic bloc, one which was able to contain business elites, religious elites, the military and the workers and peasants in a singular project of national independence and national-capitalist development. Salem’s central point is that this formation of hegemony – of governing through inclusion and consent – was a singular event in Egyptian political history, and its failure in the late 1960s, has led to a series of attempts to reconstruct of the governing bloc and the move from consent to coercion.

In turning to Gramsci Salem notes, quite rightly, the link between Gramsci’s own writings on Italian politics and the development of anti-colonial politics in the global south, particularly around Gramsci’s analysis of the divide between the industrial north and the ‘backward’ South. Thus in works such as “Some aspects of the Southern Question” the problem of generating hegemony was not simply that of a socialist party gaining leadership over the workers nor of a national bourgeoisie gaining leadership of the working class, but of the building a political coalition which transcended regional, developmental and cultural divides, and of integrating diverse groups of workers, peasants and intellectuals within a single bloc. It is in this sense that Gramsci’s writing has been so useful in understanding the politics of anti-colonial nationalism in the context of uneven economic development.

Yet beyond Gramsci, Salem also turns to the work of Franz Fanon and his concern with the post-colonial bourgeoisie and middle classes, to supplement a more political Gramscian reading. Salem’s point here is that Fanon’s conceptualisation of colonial capitalism understood peripheral economies in terms of a relation of dependence between colony and metropole, which in turn prevented the realisation by post-colonial states of a full national capitalism and a complete bourgeois revolution. This entailed then a failure of the post-colonial middle classes to attain a progressive hegemony over post-colonial societies. As she will argue,

Fanon’s point of departure is that capitalism in the colonial – and therefore postcolonial – world took a distinct form. He analyses this specifically through distinguishing between ruling classes in the West and those in the colonized world, arguing that the latter were structurally and fundamentally created to be dependent. Even in cases where this ruling class may want to become hegemonic, it will always fail precisely for the structural reasons emended within colonial capitalism, most notably a failure to accumulate capital on the scale necessary to create an authentic bourgeois project. For Fanon, then, decolonization did not always succeed in its stated goal of interrupting colonial structures and forms of dependency, and often merely transferred those same structures and forms to a native class.

This distinction between Gramsci and Fanon is really then a division between agency and structure. If a Gramscian account gives emphasis to the ways in which elites sought to produce a modern capitalist ruling bloc, then Fanon emphasises the limits placed upon post-colonial ruling classes by global capital – their failure to overcome external constraints. This forms for Salem the historical contradictions of decolonization.

Through such a frame Salem’s account of Egyptian politics mirrors a broader Gramscian reading of Indian political development, developed by Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj. First, the construction of a hegemonic anti-colonial ruling bloc through a process of passive revolution in which progressive and reactionary elites enter into coalition to attain leadership of the workers and peasants, secondly, the gradual breakdown of this process of passive revolution and elite compromise leading to attempts to resolve the crisis of the ruling elite through political contestation – without however inducing a broader revolution from below or process of social transformation. Whilst, finally, a turn to a more radical economic liberalisation which breaks up the terms of the post-colonial economic consensus and turns toward foreign capital, without this process of liberalisation gaining hegemony over mass society. This marks then a movement from a post-colonial national-capitalist project which sought to challenge foreign capital and produce a domestic capitalist consensus through integrating all classes within a ruling bloc, to a process of liberalisation which gives up the national-capitalist project and – in turning to foreign capital – gives up attempts to integrate subordinate classes within the ruling bloc. For Salem the era of hegemony is represented by Nasserism, the collapse of this hegemony by Sadat, and the turn to liberalisation by the story of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The great worth of Salem’s book is the attention it pays to the afterlife of hegemony, to the prolonged period of political stasis which emerged after the Nasserist historical bloc broke up and a new hegemonic project failed to replace it. This experience – common to many post-colonial countries, as anti-colonial united fronts confronted the realities of the world economy – is understood by Salem as an experience of ‘empty time’. This ‘empty time’ contrasts with the vision of progress and development central to hegemonic decolonising projects. Such projects promised national development and political empowerment, in ways which would resolve the persisting contradictions of the post-colony, between rich and poor, town and country, modern and traditional. Yet the failure of this project, for Salem, induced a politics which no longer sought to resolve political and economic contradictions but only to manage them. For Salem this forms the basis for a process of passive revolution which increasingly became defensive, as opposed to hegemonic.

Under Sadat, this was a period of interregnum, a revolution from above which sought to break up Nasserism and military influence without asserting a hegemony over Egyptian society but exercising more direct control over students and workers. Under Mubarak this became more evidently a programme of transformismo, what she terms “damage control”. What interests Salem about Mubarak is his lack of an ideological project. Whilst reforms occur in the first fifteen years of Mubarak’s tenure, “these were not gathered together under a project in the way we could see under Nasser and Sadat”. These years were then, argues Salem, “perhaps the clearest point post-1952 during which we see political change happening as a reaction and response rather than as an attempt to produce something new”.  As she will go onto argue, returning to her concept of “empty time”, “These years can be read as stable; they can also be read as stagnant, begging the question: what happens when time stops?”.

Salem’s reading of Mubarak centres on her argument that Mubarak didn’t himself produce a new government project, nor work with “a clear social force that had its own project”. His goal was rather to respond to discontent which emerged in response to the infitah project. In giving up on the project of national-capitalist hegemony he then paved the way for structural adjustment and the rise of a financial class, which would in turn mark a more fundamental break with earlier attempts to generate hegemony. So too would it mark a break with the politics of decolonization through a new focus on the internationalisation of capital and the financialisation of the Egyptian economy which moved away from the politics of development. What this then produced was a gradual shift towards coercion over consent, evident in the electoral arena as well as in labour disputes.

As Salem then comes to conclude, central to this process has been the state form. The shift she notes from the Nasserist historic bloc to liberalisation hasn’t taken the form of the weakening the state. The state has continued to be interventionist yet its interventions have moved from the production of hegemony to the management of empty time, to a process of passive revolution reproducing the status quo. What this suggests is a further need to understand the nature of the state-form in post-colonial societies and the basis of its power over society. Central to this will be the need to better locate the way in which the process of passive revolution, central to anti-colonial nationalism, intersects with concrete forms of social and economic power.

Finally Salem looks to highlight the afterlives of hegemony and at the end of the book Salem turns to the logic of haunting. The Nasserist project, she argues, has not gone away, the process of passive revolution it organised and its failure continues to impact the present. Why? Because the same contradictions persist, the problems of decolonisation, of class struggle, of economic and social modernisation still haven’t been resolved, a progressive compact hasn’t been produced which could move beyond such contradictions. And if the Nasserist moment is then still with us it is because we haven’t left the world of anti-colonial nationalism, we haven’t left the world of peripheral capitalism and uneven development. We are still in its empty time.