Rise and Fall, Push and Pull

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperses to naught.

The Decadent City

It is written that tribal and nomadic peoples carry more group feeling (ʿaṣabiyya) than atomized sedentary types. In the towns, men grew weak and corrupt. They became complacent and decadent, falling as easy prey for more robust and virile nomads. The nomads overturn the urban centers, pillaging and occupying them. From the moment the nomads set down in the cities and occupy the seats of power, they begin a slow decline. Some are better at maintaining group feeling over longer periods than others and some cycles are longer or shorter than others. But however long it takes, the process is essentially the same: increasing complexity at the center and constant or increasing cohesiveness among those at the periphery produce a new regime and ruling class.

Ibn Khaldun wrote (from the Rosenthal translation: The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Princeton, Princeton: 2005; pg. 235):

[. . .] at the beginning of the dynasty, the revenues are distributed among the tribe and the people who share in the ruler’s group feeling, in accordance with their usefulness and group feeling and because they are needed to establish the dynasty. Under these circumstances, their leader refrains in their favour from (claiming) the revenues which they would like to have. He feels compensated by the control over them that he hopes to establish. They can put pressure on him, and he he needs them. His share of the revenues is restricted to the very small (amounts) he needs. Consequently, the members of his entourage and company, his wazirs, secretaries, and clients, usually can be observed to be destitute. Their position is restricted, because it depends on the position of their master, and his authority is narrowed down by the competition of the people who share in his group feeling.

Then, when royal authority has come into its own and the ruler has obtained control over his people, he prevents them from getting (any part of) the revenues, beyond their official shares. Their portions shrink, because their usefulness to the dynasty has diminished. Their influence has been checked, and clients and followers have come to share with them in the support of the dynasty and the establishment of its power. At this time, the ruler disposes alone of money, and holds it for spending on important projects. His wealth grows. His treasuries are filled. The authority of his position expands, and he dominates all his people. As a consequence, the men of his entourage and retinue, the wazir, the secretary, the doorkeeper, the client, and the policeman, all become more important, and their positions expand. They acquire property and enrich themselves.

Then, when the dynasty starts to become senile, as the result of the dissolution of group feeling and the disappearance of the tribe that founded it, the ruler needs supporters and helpers, because there are then many seceders, rivals, and rebels, and three is the fear of destruction. His revenues then go to his allies and supporters, military men who have their own group feelings. He spends his treasures and revenues on attempts to restore (the power of) the dynasty. Moreover, the revenue from taxes decreases, because there are man allowances to be paid and expenditure to be made. The revenues from the land tax decreases. The dynasty’s need for money becomes more urgent. The intimates, the doorkeepers, and the secretaries no longer live under the shadow of prosperity and luxury, as their positions lose importance and the authority of their ruler shrinks.

There is something like this in the patterns of politics in the modern Maghreb. The rise and fall of dynasties — or juntas or kleptocracies — is frequently fitted to this socio-political schema. From the independence period onwards, it has mainly been used to analyze elite formation and competition, rather than to evaluate Maghrebi societies wholesale. Part of the reason for this is that cyclical interpretations of history or politics are considered unscientific (in general). Another is that there have been relatively few instances where that model has played out. One can argue that the Algerian and Libyan “revolutions” are very close to Ibn Khaldun’s rise-and-fall model. Indeed, the de-colonization process as a whole might even be interpreted in these terms, though not without risk of severe narrative fallacy. It remains the case, though, that political leaders who do not insulate themselves from internal (regime) fragmentation or do not check drifting loyalties end up under house arrest or worse. Nowadays, when power changes hands it rarely comes as a result of so deep a culture war as in the classical period; elite discontent is frequently tactical or strategic or political in nature. Forced political transitions rarely proceed from a desire to change the deep culture of the elite. The result are “musical chairs” shakeups and coup-counter-coup maneuvers.

Provocative Weakness

The onset of military rule (or military-backed rule) has often followed something like Ibn Khaldun’s model, particularly on the overt introduction of the military into politics: A sitting civilian regime shows signs of weakness or arrogance and comes into competition or conflict with politicized elements in the military/general staff; military officers identify weaknesses within the civilian elite and leverage unity within the armed forces against these divisions; civilians scatter, some in support, others in opposition to the military; the officers establish themselves at the center and often attempt to play the Cincinnatus Card, promising to rule only in the name of order and no more and no less; the Presidential Palace becomes a barracks and the officers trade in their uniforms for business suits while coopting the civilian political class. Where such coups have been successful in the long run (Algeria, 1965; Libya, 1969; Mauritania 1984) the head putschists were often seen as being weak at first. Houari Boumediene was frequently described as “shy”, “reclusive” and “stiff” until 1967; Maouyyia Ould Taya was seen as weak and lacking independent gravitas (and his rise was engineered in part by stronger officers within the CMSN) until the early 1990s; few people thought much of Mu’amar al-Qadhdhafi early on. Military regimes come in with questionable legitimacy and seek opportunities and mechanisms to acquire it, by rigged plebiscites, crises, demagogy and/or repression. Over time, they become weaker and ʿaṣabiyya decreases within the ranks. Corruption, paranoia and conspiracies proliferate among the deputy and middling officers and the process repeats or the regime mutates or collapses. One sees the onset of such quakes in Egypt and Algeria today; the process of consolidation is underway in Mauritania of late — and will face important challenges this summer, from the opposition, labor and in the economy.

Culture is the deepest level on which war can be waged. The kind of total war the Almohads or Almoravids brought on settled life in the Maghreb was consequential because they did not attacked the leadership class and pillaged individuals and institutions and because they changed many of the primary assumptions in Maghrebi life. The stakes were raised infinitely higher at every level because it was not a tactical, strategic or political conquest but a cultural conquest as well. Naked political wars are difficult enough within and between peoples and they therefore require cultural or ideological glossing. It is more frequent that such wars use culture rather actually alter it wholly. Because culture is held with special veneration by individuals, it is hard to change and efforts to do so are especially acrimonious. Culture is where priorities, collective and individual, are ordered and set. Without assigning [too much] determinism, culture — in economic, social, religious and habitual terms — helps to dictate the course of politics and strategy as well as other decision-making processes. Control over culture — the “Strong” Force — offers the elite control over much the rest of society, slowly at first and more precipitously later. In organizations, large and small, the character of intra-group relations is critical for survival and success.

Coup -- wait-- Group Feeling

ʿAṣabiyya is the the degree to which individuals sharing a culture evidence social solidarity and unity, group feeling. Within large, complex societies there are multiple orders of ʿaṣabiyya (as there does within human society at large). Families (nuclear and extended; tribes and clans), friendships (and acquaintanceships), groups within civil society, street gangs, political factions, militaries, ethnic and linguistic communities, state institutions (national and civil) and inter-governmental organizations all possess various degrees of ʿaṣabiyya. Solidarity varies according to various environmental and idiosyncratic factors (personality, ambition, resource scarcity, etc.) and changes over time. When group feeling degrades to the point where loyalties become hyper-commodified or overridden by overlapping or conflicting ones, ʿaṣabiyya collapses and groups cease to exist according to their original purposes. They become the objects of adjustment and redefinition and often lose their ability to exercise independent social functions. Groups with less ʿaṣabiyya enjoy less social capital, those with more ʿaṣabiyya carry more social capital. States with strong ʿaṣabiyya within their elites and societies are more capable of forming and executing policy options. Crises often help to create ʿaṣabiyya between groups where it ordinarily does not exist or exists only tenuously. Groups with more ʿaṣabiyya tend to leverage their greater cohesion against those with less ʿaṣabiyya in pursuit of their own interests.

Power: The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

As societies grow larger and more complex levels of ʿaṣabiyya decrease. Regimes are concerned first with their own survival and thus develop cultural narratives and institutions that make politics (which is a deliberate process) irrelevant or “transcend” politics altogether. In the case of coups d’etats, such things are designed especially to insulate the new governing clique from all things unexpected — that is, to prepare for political “black swans” and to ensure that they do happen — by whatever means are available. This includes the expansion of the police state (a surveillance and “security” culture), the development of personality cults (developing charismatic authority), friendly control of the means of production (by coopting of the business class and corruption networks and nationalization) and the dissemination of information (by controlling and suppressing media and speech) and the swelling of friendly party and civil associations (single or primary-party rule, bolstered by state controlled unions and the crippling of independent ones). Additionally, points of authority and power are divided and weakened such that they are so weak as to be able to support the regime but not rise against it and leveraging primordial rivalries — “coup proofing“. It is at this stage that opportunism and banditry, formerly arts of the frontier, refine themselves for action in the City. Those at the top bother with pageantry where they used to toil. They become caught up in the realization of their ambitions, happily consolidated and comfortable on the throne.

These Guys Want In

These efforts gradually erode the regime’s ability retain its grip on power. As time goes on the image and the myth of far reaching powers becomes greater than their actual grip, and regime pillars become complacent and corrupt and begin to decay. Predatory factions within the elite begin to identify points of entry and periods of opportunity to leverage or “restore” ʿaṣabiyya. And in the public, when these elite fissures become known, questions and disquiet becomes more frequent and brazen. Today, society is made more complex by increasingly rapid information delivery systems (television, the Internet, social networking sites, etc.) make it more and more difficult for regimes to maintain total control — all embracing ʿaṣabiyya. The diffusion of technology, observers often say, brings men together in a more total human experience, liberating and empowering individuals. It is true: technology gradually transfers agency from older gods to newer ones and from what were collective institutions to individuals. Such regimes thus seek to deny citizens access to valuable technologies and the education needed to use it; information technology and management education is funneled toward the regime and its dependents. The ability of citizens to organize and politicize one another depends on the success of the regime in denying knowledge and technology to the public from without and within.

As regimes age and the structure of society changes, the wisdom of denying access to naturally diffusing innovations erodes, along with the capacity to do so. Increasingly frequent concessions on minor issues grow into larger ones, turning into signs of weakness rather than gifts from the strong. These concessions produce and evidence weakening ʿaṣabiyya.Those on the periphery of the regime (“those most remote from royal authority”) and in the public develop greater ʿaṣabiyya and leverage this, adjusting the political climate, reaching for cultural change by whatever means might be appropriate. Survival then depends on containing and concealing the degree to which ʿaṣabiyya has begun to evaporate within the elite and maintaining it in the entourage: the alternative is retirement. The push and pull struggle resulting here is what made U-God say among warriors: “the Good die young and the Hard die best.”


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5 thoughts on “Rise and Fall, Push and Pull”

  1. Brilliant Kal. Very penetrating analysis. What emerges out of those 50 years or so is the vicious circe in which these countries are stuck, unable to break through this cycle and power hold of sterile rule. Had the regimes at least used their power to develop the country, it would have been tolerable for the populations (as in other parts of the world), but what is the general theme here is the ineptitude of the leaderships. Until when ? And most importantly how to escape this political curse ?

  2. Where is Flintock 10 these days. The press not talking about it, neither Algiers complaining anymore. And the Tamanrasset center? And the Spanish hostages? Which (Tamanrasset or Flintock) will inform us that they managed heroically to secure the release of the two Spaniards and the French held in northern Mali? How did they reach there in the first place?

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