Monday, July 21, 2014
MAGED MANDOUR - Modern serfdom
the struggle of Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians…etc is in essence a struggle against a social condition, what I call 'modern serfdom'. This almost complete system of oppression can only be broken on an international scale..
Many might argue that serfdom, in its traditional form, as a social condition has died out and that the majority of the world is, more or less, free. Even in places suffering from autocratic rule, the social condition of 'serfdom' is not apparent; the majority might see oppression as a macro phenomenon.
However, for those like myself, who grew up in the shadow of a dictator - this mysterious, benevolent, and cruel father figure, who seems so distant yet so present, and oppressive at the same time - oppression is present in everyday life, and it even follows you abroad. Unlike my previous article where I shared my experiences living abroad, this article will share my experiences growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt with a continuous sense of alienation that I, as well as millions, felt. This experience is not limited to the Arab World, it extends to most of the developing world. In other words, the vast majority of humanity who live as 'serfs' in their master’s fiefdom.
The first hallmark of this experience is 'alienation', a term borrowed from the humanist Marxist tradition, where workers feel 'alienated' from their work due to an exploitative relationship with the capitalist. In the current context, alienation extends to cover alienation from one's country, work, family and sometimes friends. The modern serf suffers from contradictions of self-loathing combined with a deeply rooted sense of superiority. In other words, one feels a sense of contempt for one's fellow serfs combined with a sense of admiration for one’s own position among the serfs.
So I told myself, “I am better than them”, it is “their fault”, and that somehow my disposition is more “western”, “liberal” or “secular”. This complex manifested itself in a conversation I had with friends who were justifying European right wing racism as the direct product of Arab immigrants’ behaviour, rather than a complicated historical dynamic of colonialism, neo-colonialism, as well as European policies of segregation. In the end Franz Fanon’s dictum: “the oppressed believe the worst about themselves” has proven to be undeniably and painfully true.
This is also fed by autocratic elites, who mix a rhetoric of ultra-nationalism combined with self-contempt. This contempt, however, is primarily reserved for the lower classes, especially those who reside in rural areas i.e. the majority of the people. This rhetoric helps to build up a general anti-democratic sentiment, reminiscent of the struggle for universal suffrage in Europe, where the upper classes feared that the lower classes would overthrow the current order through the ballot box. It places the elites alongside the urban middle class in the role of guardians of the nation, who will guide the “lost children” to the correct path. Apparently, the old colonial elites left deputies behind to continue their work. Thus, the nation becomes divided between those who identify themselves with the western world and those who are left behind.
The sense of ultra-nationalism manifests itself in the imaginary achievement of the elites, especially on the international scene. The idea that the nation is somehow better than other nations is engraved in the minds of the urban middle class and propagated to the lower classes. The comparison, however, is usually restricted on a regional level. A clear example of this is the sense of superiority that many Egyptians feel in relation to Gulf States, even though Egypt has become ever more dependent on them for aid and financial support. Thus, the average Arab suffers from a multilayered experience of oppression, one that relates to direct government oppression, in the traditional sense; another that relates to the oppression of the urban middle class regarding the lower classes, and finally the oppression the serf applies to himself by believing in his own inferiority.
The second hallmark, is a traditional hallmark of serfdom, which relates to being tied to the land. Unlike in Europe or the western world, freedom of movement in the Arab World is severely limited for most countries. This limitation means that the ability of surplus labour to find appropriate employment is almost non-existent, lowering their ability to bargain for better wages or conditions. In other words, the mass of the people are overworked and underpaid, with little hope or prospect of escape. The most that one can hope for is an escape to the capital, which might provide better opportunities, but chances of ending up in large slums and working informally are more than likely.
How does this translate into daily life terms? This means that the oppression of the elites seeps through to the work place, and the employer, who usually belongs to the elites, has a share in the powers of the country’s autocrats. In other words, oppression is not limited to the macro level, it is rather a holistic social condition that encompasses the entire existence of the oppressed. Organs of civil society, for example, defined in the broader sense of the word, are part of the machinery of oppression... read more: