Translation: Kadri on ‘Algerian Intellectuals’

This post features a translation of a 11 July 2013 interview in El Watan (conducted by Amel Blidi) with Aissa Kadri, an Algerian sociologist based in Europe. Here, Kadri critiques Algerian intellectuals’ disengagement from sociological debates in Algeria and their confinement to power relationship vis-a-vis elite power structures. It appears to have been passed around among many people in the original French. It is worth translating for the sake of bringing out some of the public sphere discussions that are taking place in Algeria as the country faces looming political transition, the [gradual] passing of the country’s first political generation, the reality of rather widespread micro-instability and a region changing rapidly and unpredictably.

Industry Arabic - translation services 300-1This translation was provided by Industry Arabic, a full service translation firm that provides English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management. Industry Arabic will provide glimpses from Algerian and Maghrebi presses to this site as part of an ongoing partnership.  

Aïssa Kadri is Professor Emeritus. He is the director of a European research program (Marie Curie Action) of the 7th Research Framework Plan.

-There has been a sort of torpor among Algerian elites for the past few years. In your opinion, why don’t the intellectuals participate, or participate very little, in national debates?

Elites, intellectuals and intelligentsias are not interchangeable concepts; they reflect situated and differentiated socio-cultural and political theories and contexts. As for Algeria, it is more a question of intelligentsias than intellectuals or elites. If we exclude some involvement by personalities or intelligentsias that was “guided” by passing along subliminal or downright provocative messages in order to hold some status with respect to certain sponsors or hidden circles of power – both national and foreign — I would say that more than torpor, it is that some of the intelligentsia is absent or withdrawing from debates that are at least tainted, if not refereed..

To quote the great Ibn Khaldun who, characterizing “power and the State … as a market in the public square… [where] storytellers flock like caravans,” noted that “everything depends on the government: when this one, he added, avoids injustice, partiality, weakness and corruption and when it is determined to work properly without deviation, the market will only deal in pure gold and fine silver. But when the State is led by personal interests and rivalries, by the merchants of tyranny and treachery, then counterfeit money occupies the public square!”
I would say that only counterfeit currency prevails in our country. As in a process of runaway inflation where bad money drives out the good, this tends to delegitimize, discredit and swallow up any action, participation, or constructive engagement — and fortunately there is some!

-Is this specific to Algeria?

This is a whole set of causes specific to Algeria, both historical and sociological, which explain why the divided intelligentsias and intellectuals were not able to become independent in their relation to the State and the authorities. From this point of view, the colonial period was important insofar that the pattern of vertical hierarchy, of subjugation, between colonial power and Algerian intelligentsias continues to make its effects felt. The intelligentsias and intellectuals were generally co-opted and exploited in the process of colonial domination. Then, in the challenge to the colonial order, they were generally tacked on to the popular movement here as well, forming a sort of coda to the different orientations.

The desire for autonomy on the part of certain categories of intellectuals petered out in the aftermath of independence and they were quickly brought to heel and domesticated, as with the university that the late Mr S. Benyahia, wishing to “nationalize the social sciences,” said was still a “citadel of colonialism.” Falling therefore into a logic of supporting the national developmentalist approach, certain other categories accompanied the “Caesarist” power structure by helping to channel and control social movements. If the post-October 88 period could be considered a space-time of free speech and commitments, this window was quickly closed as violence targeting intellectuals and intelligentsias spiked, continuing a certain anti-intellectualism deeply rooted in the autodidact intelligentsias — in the Sartrean sense of the term — who occupied the centers of power.

In fact, Algerian intellectuals and intelligentsias are fascinated by the state, by the power that places and classifies, in the absence of an arena for assertion outside the state and clan power, and with the lack of a dense civil society that can lay out conditions of them to assert themselves. Demanding recognition by the State, rather than by le pouvoir, they are mostly beholden to a logic of “voluntary servitude.” In any case, they do not participate in an autonomous intellectual field in the sense of a historically-constituted space with specific autonomous institutions and its own rules, operating in a context of rule of law.

-The aging of the Algerian political class is evident as the presidential election draws near. In  your opinion, why hasn’t there been a renewal of political elites?

If indeed the solid core of power is more than just aging, the substantive issue is not only a question of age, but a matter of the sociopolitical “nature” of power, the modes of exercising power, and respective participation in the process of giving way to the aspirations of the younger generations and the popular classes more broadly. The “cult of youth” also has its negative effects, and there are old people more effectively and dynamically involved in the democratic struggle than many “fortysomethings,” who are more conservative and “serve as a mount for kings,” in the words of the famous fabulist Ibn al-Muqaffa characterizing certain intellectuals in the Islamic world.

That said, there is evidence that since independence up till now, the political and social system has in practice operated with an “old” political elite that owes its position more to a historical legitimacy than a scientific legitimacy and to skills of whatever type, if not to the use of cunning, cynicism and corruption. In fact, there was a renewal of the elites but at the bottom; it is their characteristics that are the problem, and their “circulation” in Pareto’s sense that is controlled or blocked for those at the top.

-But it was the university that previously played a role in awakening political awareness …

The fact is that at the university, the ideological function has taken precedence over the productive function, the plebeian solid core that monopolized power in the aftermath of independence has expanded its clientele and established bureaucratic, ideological and security bases through cooptation, and by tapping into the education system according to subjective, clientelist and regionalist criteria. It thereby replaced its first base of support – the petit bourgeois francophone elite – which was gradually contained and suppressed in certain economic sectors, with an Arabized elite that was the product of mass education, which came from a more popular social origin and which would go on to occupy the ideological sectors.

Under the aegis of the old historically legitimized elite, two generational strata formed by the same fundamentals but in different registers followed one after the other. At the same time, the solid core of power was cloning itself, self-reproducing through children, siblings, elective social affinities and esprit de corps. It was consolidated through interpenetrating matrimonial and economic alliances and by buying allegiances.  As noted by Hughes, the system was reconfigured through the development of intricate networks of patronage, “linking among them politicians, leaders and prominent members of political parties, entrepreneurs and managers of important economic sectors, security agency officials and members of the informal system.

These opportunistic and cynical categories are not mobilized on the basis of the ideological principles that inspired earlier generations — only the ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances prevails, to adapt to the power relations that are taking shape, an ability that is often rewarded and legitimized.

-Is it still possible to rebuild an opposition intellectual class?

There are long processes that will cause power relations and social struggles with new social configurations to emerge. However, the biggest priority, as it seems to me, is to rebuild the educational system, to deeply reconsider the role of the school, the university, research, culture, and the general relationship to knowledge and work. The development of training and knowledge, the clear efficiency these have on productive activity, are at the heart of the future of societies. And from this point of view, education has a central role in social production and reproduction. I won’t talk here about the major malfunctions that affect education. I will only cite a figure that really shows how Algeria is moving backwards in terms of training its elites. While in the 1970s Algeria was at the forefront in terms of the training of engineers in France’s grandes écoles — many of whom were major leaders in business and public institutions — in 2012, the French daily Le Monde (December 13th issue) reported that among foreign graduates from France’s grandes écoles for engineering, only 1.86% were Algerian, while 26.28% were Moroccan, 9.23% Tunisian, 4.69% Senegalese and 11.32% Chinese!

Insightful observers, and even some who are in charge of the sectors concerned, are reporting the state of advanced disintegration, of an effective de-institutionalization of what should be the main drivers of the country’s modernization: the educational and training institutions. Because, how do you explain the fact that many members of the ruling class, and beyond that, some sections of the middle classes see no salvation for their children other than in studying abroad? In fact, the ruling political class seems to disregard the need for an efficient education system that produces elites who can handle the coming century.

Rent-seeking currently allows this disregard. Research units, professionals and foreign engineers are the ones managing many sectors: construction, water, transport, telephony and energy. Elites and productive workers are foreigners, the civil service and the State’s bureaucratic sectors are occupied by “rentier” elites who are often in corporatist demand. The situation is almost analagous to the colonial one: “the country,” has the function of “refining” a cheap labor base, while “the metropole” holds a monopoly on skills and training.

-How can we explain the elites’ absence in the field of social struggles?

In Algeria, the question of how basic challenges articulate themselves is more acute than elsewhere, with the categories that can coalesce, give them meaning and bring them on to a qualitative level. We can see that due to the combined effect of rents, instrumentalized unionism, the weak autonomy of the associative movement, and the absence of management and mediation, the divides between grassroots social movements and committed and instrumentalized intelligentsias are more severe. Thus, challenges appear to be out of control and to have no other objective than corporatist aims and goals of immediate sectoral material interests (housing, water, roads, employment, wages, bonuses, consumer goods, competitive exams for job positions and courses of study, morality campaigns targeting women and alcohol, etc…).

Intellectual, linguistic and intergenerational splits between “diasporic” and local intellectuals, some of whom claim to be “national” (the Appeal by National Intellectuals of 25 March 2001), the binary positioning and commitments, populism versus statism, that prevailed hitherto, meant that these intelligentsias, these fragmented intellectuals, were unable to make any sense. They always appear out of step with the fundamental movements shaping society.

– How is it that Algerian intellectuals do not feel concerned by what is happening in their country?

However, it is not only the responsibility of intellectuals that is committed. We observe as well that the driving force, the degree-holding youth, is here out of step and disconnected from social movements, with the exception of some small active minorities that were quickly exhausted.

As the same time that other countries have been seeing young people who are products of public, private or internationalized institutions of higher learning bypass mass education institutions, whether in the movement in Tahrir Square in Egypt, in Tunisia, bloggers, or in Morocco with the 20 February movement, participating in a more organized way, more linked to other social categories, young Algerians, who are products of an anomic mass university, seem to assert themselves in a way that is wilder, more heterogeneous, more erratic, corporatist, less conscious and cut off from all other forms of mobilization. It should be added that the trampling of the associative movement, its decline, the closing up brought about through the draconian new law, stems here as well from a sort of confinement that, due to a lack of arenas for autonomous expression, only leaves room for corporatist, local and reactive claims, that are becoming chronic and taking on more and more violent forms. Intellectuals are thus aligned  with commitments that mobilize them through the past, “crypto-nationalism,” and the defense of clan and rent-seeking powers.

On the pretext of strengthening the State (at the same time that it is disintegrating and privatizing), against an external threat (that is moreso an excuse for maintaining the status quo), social struggles, contesting authoritarianism and the requirements for a more democratic existence are all considered as so many plots.

-On the 2nd of June, the baccalaureate exams turned into “mutinies” for candidates who contested the topics. Are these behaviors symptomatic of the failure of the education system?

These “mutinies,” as you say, these challenges, these schisms are becoming chronic, and some are causing the others to be forgotten in a generalized process of disintegration. There were also challenges just as serious, cases where students rejected their scores and requested new grading scales, cases where candidates applying to competitive examinations challenged the results and decisions of juries, and cases where medical residents, or even teachers were dissatisfied with the rules for promotion and so on. In fact, the symbolism of the baccalaureate here, as a national exam and rite of passage to the age of maturity,,causes its actual impact to be overestimated.  The authorities’ response was either to give in, or to say: move along, there’s nothing to see here, all while creating committees that at most will impose minor sanctions.

These types of micro-violence that are expanding, these contestations that take a variety of forms, violence against institutions, persons and properties, riots, suicides and immolations demonstrate a grassroots movement that is also related to the disintegration of institutions, especially the school and the family, the ineffectiveness of the norm, as well as the the way in which representation with regards to the authorities is being transformed. The destructive and self-destructive violence committed by young people, these all-out contestations that arise, in my view, bear witness to blockages in the individuation process of individuals who are deprived of possibilities — in the absence of collective registers of signification – of being able to build themselves up, hold themselves in esteem, to assert themselves and to be recognized as such. These phenomena reflect a domination that overtakes their emergence as free and responsible individuals. It is authority in the very foundations of its legitimacy and from top to bottom of its apparatus that is now being contested. This only leaves repression, which will very quickly realize its limits.