Sune Haugbolle and Mark LeVine (eds.), Altered States: The Remaking of the Political in the Arab World (London, UK: Routledge, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sune Haugbolle and Mark LeVine (SH & ML): We have been exploring the transformations of political subjectivities and state practices in the Arab and broader Muslim world since the eruption of the 2009 Green Wave in Iran. After organizing one of the first major post-2011 conferences, at Lund University’s Center for Middle East Studies in 2012 (co-sponsored by Jadaliyya), and several smaller gatherings over the next half decade, it became clear to us that Timothy Mitchell’s groundbreaking reworking of the idea and practices of the state in the early 1990s, especially his “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” offered a powerful narrative for exploring the changes in Arab states and the identities they shape and that emerge in contexts of resistance.
The contributors to this volume have all been long-term participants, and so we had many years to develop our understanding of how a more Foucauldian approach to the state, which sees it as an effect of various forms, networks, and practices of power and knowledge more than a set of concrete institutions, could produce innovative and empirically original research.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SH & ML: First and foremost, we intended to explore how practices of stateness have been transformed in the last dozen years; that is, how the protests, uprisings and attempted revolutions have led to the production and deployment of new kinds of practices and new ideological narratives of all kinds—political, economic, social, spatial, and so on. We felt that Mitchell’s “Limits of the State” marked a good starting point for the kinds of nuanced and deeply grained analysis we hope to encourage, ones that would be transdisciplinary as well as methodologically promiscuous.
We have also been deeply informed by the emergence and rise of decolonial and more recently Indigenous theories and methodologies, and felt like this project and the collection of people we have been so fortunate to bring together offered a good space to see how these approaches can open new ways of seeing, researching, and writing about the changes we are all witnessing and living through.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ML: This book marks the culmination of a journey began in graduate school when I first studied with Tim Mitchell and was fortunate enough to learn about the ideas behind that article, as well as the thinking that was behind the development of his ideas from Colonizing Egypt to Rule of Experts, especially as regards to the invention of the economy. These innovations in the way scholars could look at both the state and the economy, two terms which are too often taken at face value even today, motivated me to want to bring colleagues together to work through their implications in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.
SH: In the past decade, I have been researching the history of leftist movements and ideas in the region. The workshops that led to Altered States allowed me to go back and forth between the 1970s and the 2010s, comparing and contrasting modes of governance and resistance. Like Mark, Colonizing Egypt was a key book in my ‘upbringing’ in Middle East studies, and the Foucauldian lens is probably deeply ingrained in how our generation of Middle East scholars view politics. We therefore found it natural to write a book that develops Mitchell’s theorization of how power works in the region: as underlying patterns, unseen and often transnational networks, and discursive effects, just as much as apparent, material domination. This understanding of power and resistance has been developed by revolutionary groups and thinkers since the 1960s, which is why I find a historically informed cross-reading between different moments of resistance important.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SH & ML: The broad array of countries and approaches featured in Altered States makes the book a useful compendium of the state of the art of social scientific and humanistic knowledge production on the region and would be useful both for teaching about the region today and as an inspiration and guide for research.
We were careful to make sure that all the chapters were equally methodologically and theoretically innovative while remaining accessible to a non-specialist and non-professional audience. We believe this book can be used both in upper level undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as offering useful new pathways of research for scholars already in the field, particularly our theoretically focused Introduction.
As we approach a decade and a half since the eruption of the uprisings, our hope is that this book can impact scholarship in two ways. First, to serve as an example of how some of the most important work of the last several generations of scholarship and theory can be used to explore what has transpired, in new, innovative, and politically salient ways. And second, to inspire our own colleagues and even more so students to think outside the proverbial box and be as methodologically voracious and theoretically curious as possible in their work.
We also hope the book can be seen as an act of solidarity with so many of our comrades across the region who have suffered from the authoritarian retrenchment that follows so quickly upon the initial successes of the protests. There were multiple people who could not participate in this project for political and security reasons, and we hope this volume at least helps shine a light on the reality they have shared with us.
J: Where do you see scholarship on the state in the region going?
SH & ML: The state is too important to be left to a single discipline. Luckily, Middle East studies has been influenced by the way Timothy Mitchell, Lisa Wedeen, Beatrice Hibou, and other influential figures lean towards political sociology in their understanding of the state, drawing on Foucault, Bourdieu, Althusser, Gramsci, and others. But it is still necessary to kick against the classic Weberian ideal type of a state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. It is alive and well, even if reality in the Middle East often contradicts it. For example, in the organizational blueprints of policymakers who reproduce conceptual language of “institutional capacity,” “state building,” “failed states,” and the like. This forest of adjectives—strong, weak, failed, fragile, collapsed—all implicitly hold the Western state as the gold standard by which we measure deviations from the ideal. Scholars and policy makers often end up examining the lack of legitimacy, autonomy, and coherence and the failures of centralized states to monopolize violence and instill law and order, instead of studying the actual social processes involved in statehood. This is a general trend in studies of non-Western states, but it is particularly pronounced in literature on authoritarian Arab states. We think that the more exciting scholarship on the state in the region, such as recent books by Maya Mikdashi and Jillian Schwedler (who contributed the conclusion to Altered States), looks at the exercise of power across society, inside people, and beyond national borders. We hope that our book will help to animate that.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ML: I have just published a new book on revolutionary music across the Arab/Muslim world in the last fifteen years, We’ll Play till We Die (discussed in a previous NEWTON). This follows up on the research and artists featured in my 2008 book Heavy Metal Islam, which is simultaneously being re-released with a new preface based on a long form interview with the group the Kominas about the problem associated with using religion as an analytic for popular music.
I am also completing a co-authored book for UC Press with my UCI colleague Bryan Reynolds, tentatively titled Art Beyond the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Anthropocene, which explores how music, theater, and other art forms function as weapons of resistance and tools of solidarity in the face of intense social, political, and economic conflict.
And I am working with Prof. Lucia Sorbera and other colleagues at Sydney University on a project and exhibition that utilizes Indigenous epistemologies and methodologies to explore forms of resistance to dislocation by communities living in “informal” or otherwise marginalized neighborhoods of major cities such as Cairo, Port Harcourt, and Sydney.
SH: I am working on a book about the globalization of the Palestinian cause in the 1960s and 1970s. It is based on research with my colleagues Pelle Olsen and Sorcha Thomson. I am excavating the history of solidarity movements in Scandinavia from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, by interviewing former and present solidarity activists and reading into their archives, including personal letters and their intellectual and cultural production. I am also researching how Palestinian movements set up networks—secret cells, official representations, and solidarity movements—around the world to globalize support for their liberation struggle.
I am basically curious about the meetings, interactions, and entanglements of revolutionary projects that took place during that other era of dissent, but also the cooptation, corruption, and doubt that crept in during the 1970s. That moment—from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s—when secular Thirdworldist solidarity and revolutionary belief wrestled with counter-revolutionary forces, culminating in the birth of neoliberalism and Islamic revivalism around 1979, is the topic of another book I am writing with my colleague Rasmus Elling, and which will be published next year.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-23)
This book builds on the pioneering but, in our view, underutilized (if oft-cited) work of Timothy Mitchell on the nature, spatiality, and limits of state power. It takes as its starting point Mitchell’s development of Foucault’s discussions of the state—more specifically, the raison d’état of modern systems of governmentality—as a discursive “effect” of multiple regimes of truth and power that successfully establish and deploy “the knowledge of the appropriate means for founding, preserving, and expanding… a firm domination over peoples”. Mitchell zeroes in on Foucault’s idea of the state as first and foremost a state of knowledge rather than set of institutions that enables those wielding political power in modern, territorially bounded nation-states to successfully manage the populations and (more or less) “fix” the economies under their jurisdiction. Focusing on the effect of such regimes of truth and their deployment across society, Mitchell argues that the “network of institutional arrangement and political practice that forms the material substance of the state,” along with its ideologically constructed “public imagery,” together create the “state effect” as a material force that is experienced, perceived, and occasionally resisted by people as a unitary locus of political, economic and ideological power.
But as the explosion of the Arab uprisings beginning in late 2010 made clear, sometimes the effect wears off. Sometimes the fire of desperation burns through the regimes and disposatifs through which power is wielded by political elites, laying bare and raw what often turns out to be the mundanely criminal networks through which politics is managed and wealth concentrated and (re)circulated through society. For a moment at least, people refuse to be disciplined and attempt to take state power into their own hands, to assume that mantle of what in Islamic jurisprudence is known as the “people who loose and bind” (ahl al-hall wa’l-‘aqd). At that moment, the original meaning of “revolution”—as constant motion—and the huge amount of effort and energy necessary to maintain the state effect, becomes clear. We wonder: Why are societies not in a state of liminality, if not revolution, far more of the time? Why is it that stability—status or statum, the Latin root for “state”—rather than instability and even revolution, is the norm?
When it occurs, as during the Arab uprisings, the demasking of state power and political mobilization from below seem to happen almost organically, opening a new horizon of expectation and introducing new social imaginaries that made it possible, for the first time in decades in many countries, to reimagine the political settlement and future direction of whole societies. Beginning in Iran in the summer of 2009, and continuing in the Arab world from late 2010, in fits and starts (including, for a brief moment, in Turkey in 2013) through the time of writing in 2021, the possibility of game-changing levels of mobilization altered and gave new meaning to seemingly well-entrenched political categories and cartographies. What happened during the uprisings was nothing less than a reconfiguration of the political imagination. This return of the possibility of revolution has pushed some political scientists to look at the state as a set of social relations by identifying “interrelationship between actors, institutional networks and fields and practices that are in play in the production of new subjectivities”. This reading sees state formation as a continuous process. By examining the “subtle changes in the flows and networks of power between individuals and various social and political institutions,” the state appears as an assemblage of political actors and techniques.
Most historians recognize the assemblage of power relations involved in the formation of Arab states. However, the constructed, and therefore supposedly unstable, nature of the Arab states, leads them to draw different conclusions. Arab states emerged from colonial intervention in the (colonial) Ottoman Empire and its outlying North African provinces as well as the Sultanate of Morocco. In some countries such as Lebanon and Syria, colonial intervention empowered certain elites and created the basis military structures that in time gave rise to military regimes. In other countries military regimes derived from coups and revolutions. For many different observers in the region and beyond, including Arab nationalists, pan-Islamists, and American Middle East policy makers), the allegedly “artificial” origins of states present a conundrum (needless to say, in reality there is no such thing as an “organic” state). It forces them to ask: why have states not fractured more? For others, the artificial Arab state explains the ‘fierce’ Arab state where, in the absence of a stable social contract, centralized regimes resorted to coercion. Both versions contain an element of truth but are also problematic because they overemphasize the particularity of Arab states. Moreover, such sweeping narratives take attention away from the crucial set of relationships between those holding and (re)directing political power and the peoples they (attempt to) govern.
It also removes or at least relegates agency of local actors—elite as well as subaltern. A more fine-tuned analysis of Arab states should pay attention to the political settlement that fundamentally underpins political power, enabling a more sophisticated discussion of the interplay of coercion and hegemony. We need to move beyond a sharp distinction between state and society that fails to reckon with the mechanisms by which various forms of power operate between individuals and institutions of governance.
In the last two decades, political sociologists and anthropologists of the state have pushed a new research agenda by describing and analyzing the clash of social forces in and around what we call the state (Migdal 2011). A reappropriation and redeployment of Weber by scholars such as Hibou focused on his discussions of political economy as a grounding for the increasingly popular analyses of power/knowledge complexes inspired by Foucault (Hibou 2004; 2015; 2017).
The reevaluation of existing conceptual models has coincided with a transformative crisis of the state in recent decades, and not least the effects of economic and cultural globalization. Meanwhile, ironically, autonomous state theory was canonized at the exact moment when real states began to weaken and lose their monopoly of control over their populations (Migdal and Schlichte 2005: 7). The dialectical relationship between challenges to the state and its increasingly muscular expression in the face of these challenges is of course very pertinent in the Middle East, as well as in other parts of the world (Amar 2013). Waning legitimacy has often coincided with new forms of biopolitical—and increasingly, “necropolitical” (Mbembe 2003; 2019)—control and securitization.
These tangled effects of late capitalism have pushed research on the micro-politics of the “everyday state” (Stepputat and Blom Hansen 2001) and “stateness” generally in the way that we interpret and build on Mitchell’s work in this book. Rather than relying on the tried Weberian framework, the new sociology of the post-colonial state that first appeared in the early 2000s looks at contentions over sovereignty that emerge outside formal politics, in the mythologies, paradoxes, and inconsistencies that can be observed in local and quotidian practices, in border zones, and in exceptional spaces and conditions. This work addresses the frontiers between the legal and the extra-legal that often run within the offices and institutions that embody the state, thereby undoing the clear boundaries between legal and extra-legal forms of punishment and enforcement (Das and Poole 2004: 14-16). A series of landmark articles and edited volumes from the early 2000s (Das and Poole 2004; Stepputat and Blom Hansen 2001; Schlichte 2005) show how the authority of the state is constantly challenged from the local as well as the global, and how growing demands to confer rights and recognition to ever more citizens, organizations, and institutions undermine the persistent myth of the state as a source of social order and an embodiment of popular sovereignty.
Ethnographies of the state challenge Weberian understandings of the state, but also throw up its own set of challenges. The crucial challenge is—as Migdal (2001: 124-5) puts it—to understand how social struggles alter society’s disposition of resources, class stratification, gender roles, and collective identities. Following Migdal’s reasoning, local interactions and contentions “cumulatively reshape the state and other social organizations, or most commonly, both.” Homing in on contentions allows us to appreciate the constantly alteration of state logics and state coherence, what Migdal calls “the foundations of the recursive relationship between the state and other social forces.” (ibid.) In other words, the production of sovereignty is an ongoing process that engages margins of society through various forms of public authorities asserting themselves and clashing with each other in the struggle over resources and over the correct interpretation of social order. If some political scientists have underestimated the importance of these struggles over meaning on the margins as well as at the center of power, it is because they have failed to look up close. Looking up close is, of course, the prerogative of area studies. We therefore find it an important and timely agenda to bring critical political sociology and anthropology of the state fully into conversation with Middle East studies.