David Rieff on grub, ethics, and revolution.
On the New Republic‘s Web site, one of the best things I’ve seen on the uprisings in the Middle East:
[I]f there was a proximate cause…to the Tunisian uprising, it was that least virtual of political acts—the decision of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid who burned himself to death in protest over the police seizing his cart and the produce he was trying to sell, and, more generally, over police brutality and grinding unemployment, poverty, and lack of opportunity. That was the action that provoked the first anti-government demonstrations in Tunisia and soon spawned other self-immolations from Egypt to Mauritania.But self-immolations do not fit into the cyber-utopian narrative. Like suicide bombings, they are simply too far removed from almost all of us who come from the West. In contrast, tweets and Facebook and the rest of life in cyberspace are essential to the way we now live…. So, in rooting for the tweeters in Tahrir Square, we are actually rooting for ourselves.
But what’s wrong with that, you may ask, if what we are supporting in Tunis or in Cairo, and hoping for in Algiers and Tripoli and Sana and Nouakchoutt, are the best of our ideals both personally and as societies—our belief in individual freedom and in representative democracy? To which the answer is: nothing, so long, that is, as we do not confuse our situation with theirs. My fear, though, is that this is precisely what we are doing.
Democracy, freedom of expression, individual rights, and the rule of law are all wonderful things. But, without economic justice—that is, without the hope of making a decent living, receiving adequate medical treatment, and no longer living in squalor—these democratic dreams are likely to benefit only a small minority of the population, even if, in a country as populous as Egypt, that is still a great many people in absolute numbers. One does not have to be a Marxist to see the force of Bertolt Brecht’s bitter axiom in The Threepenny Opera, “First grub, then ethics.” It will be a fine thing if, as has been promised in both Algeria and Egypt, the army makes good on its promises to end decades-old states of emergency. But will these changes from the top down, from which the upper middle classes—the Bluetooth, tweeting classes, to be blunt—stand to benefit almost immediately, do anything to improve the lot of the Mohamed Bouazizis of the world? Will they find it easier to find a job, feed their families, in short, to live with dignity? On that, surely, the verdict is very much still out.
Read the whole thing here.