In fall 2013, an alleged spy was put behind bars in the Qena governorate in Upper Egypt. The accused’s name was Menes, and his summer residency was Hungary. Menes was caught by a villager who spotted a suspicious device on Menes’s body, and he was put in custody until he was released by an attorney. In 2013, several foreigners were arrested in Egypt on similar accusations. Perhaps the most reported story is that of three Al Jazeera journalists accused of spreading lies and supporting terrorism. They were recently sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison (Al Jazeera 2014).
On 11 February 2011 I stood in Tahrir Square surrounded by millions celebrating the toppling of Mubarak following eighteen solid days of battle. Around me were people from all walks of life: Saʿidis (“Southerners”) who came all the way from villages in the south, street children turned rebels, family members of martyrs who were killed during the eighteen days, leftist feminist women, members from the Muslim Brotherhood—you name it. In between the shoving of the crowd and the incipient boredom with the monotony of the celebrations and the exuberating vibes, the chants were pretty standard: “down down with Mubarak,” “the people have toppled the regime,” and, from the more religious, “God has toppled the regime.”
This paper is an effort to understand social movements in the United States with respect to regimes of accumulation (following somewhat in the footsteps of social theorists such as Gavin Smith (2011) and Jane Collins (2012). Here, I review recent approaches to theorizing social movements of the neoliberal era and then attempt to understand the emergence of various movements over time in New York City. As Don Kalb (2014: 174) has called for, this is part of an ongoing project “to rediscover … the interconnected populist histories, contestations and emergent ‘class compasses’” generated in the urban capitalist context.
This text stems from a historical study. The research focused on the cultures and practices of leadership and authority between 1890 and 1940 in France, Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union (Cohen 2013). Fieldwork, mostly in Brazil but also in Russia and France, must be added to the latter study.1 This historical study can be connected to present-day movements because the question of authority and leadership seemed central in a lot of them since the 2000s (antiglobalization) and mostly since 2010 all over the world. This reflection is shared here, trying to draw some cross-movement ideas in order to think about the contemporary.
When I arrived on the fieldwork in Rome, in early 2008, I was seeking to track and interview the ex-militants of fascism-inspired “Spontaneista groups.” These had been active in the late ’70s, had been very violent, and had claimed to be “neither left nor right.” Their name made reference to the supposed “spontaneity” of their constitution and action, and announced an ideological predilection of instincts and drives over reason and thought.
“The glass will overflow”
Written at the entrance of a factory shop floor in Pernik, an industrial Bulgarian town close to the capital, this slogan predicted an uprising. According to workers’ testimonies, the slogan had been written before the February 2013 Bulgarian protests. Nevertheless, the glass did not overflow in the plant during 2013, as it did not overflow in the early 2000s, when the privatization process brought mass layoffs and pay cuts. Since 2013, in different parts of the country, workers went on strike because they were long-term unpaid. However, workers in Sofia and Pernik, who were low-paid but regularly, and with whom I conducted fieldwork in different periods since 20071, did not participate in the urban protests in 2013 and 2014 that contributed to the fall of two successive governments (February 2013 and July 2014) and happened during a period of economic destabilization, with the near collapse of a bank. In this presentation, I explore reasons and mechanisms of workers’ nonparticipation of the ongoing Bulgarian protests. There is a methodological trap here: an ethnography that searches for the lack of an action already presupposes that the ethnographer would anticipate an action. Nevertheless, Bulgarian workers also comment on the lack of their political participation and give various reasons for this. I take their concerns seriously, and I am attempting to think with them and through their daily talks as well as through their practices at work and at home.
“Mr. Ambani, you are one of the richest persons in this country where majority of the population does not get to eat two square meals in a day. Does your greed for money know no end? Why do you have to indulge in illegal activities to make money when you can do good business without such activities?”
Those are the words of Prashant Bhushan, member of the national executive of India’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—Common Man’s Party—in an open letter (dated 23 July 2014) to Anil Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Group and potentially the richest man in India if it weren’t for his brother Mukesh Ambani, worth $20 billion and famous for having built Antilia, the world’s most expensive personal residential property that towers over Mumbai’s squalor almost as a symbol of “the succession of the middle and upper classes into outer space” (Roy 2012). Prashant is clearly walking a tightrope: he is invoking outrage at the contrast between the wealth of the Ambani brothers and the poverty in which most ordinary Indians live but is keen to temper his criticism to target only the wealth that has been “illegally” made and that is evidence of excessive “greed.” “Crony capitalism” and “corruption” are the vices that the AAP has set itself the task of combating, in favor of “good business,” proper and legal capitalism. Like any populist party, AAP leaders tend to avoid too explicitly leftist or rightist rhetoric, instead holding the two together in often-uneasy tension.