- Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East by John Chalcraft
The uprisings of 2011 posed a substantial, if welcome challenge to scholars of the modern Middle East. In the years before crowds began chanting for “the overthrow the regime,” many political scientists had sought to explain why those “durable authoritarian” regimes might never fall. For their part, a generation of historians followed Michel Foucault in exploring how power, whether capillary or arterial, was consolidated and reproduced, but they often [End Page 688] expressed ambivalence about the possibilities for meaningful political transformation. As the protest movements gained momentum, many commentators thus looked for insights not in the region’s own history but in past “springs” in other places.
Drawing inspiration from that moment of captivating upheaval, John Chalcraft’s Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East illustrates that the uprisings of recent years were anything but unprecedented. But Popular Politics is far more than an attempt to show that the history of the Middle East is rich with popular movements and struggles. Rather, Chalcraft proposes that the region’s history can be a site for the theorization of popular politics rather than a mere testing ground for theory generated elsewhere. The problem he sets himself is to resolve the “explanatory paradox” made clear by the Arab uprisings: “How can we explain innovation, without explaining it away” (p. 5)? While committed to documenting their creativity and transformative effects, Chalcraft is also careful neither to glorify popular struggles as necessarily progressive nor to condemn them, in neo-Orientalist fashion, as markers of chaos or symptoms of cultural deficiency.
In his theoretically rigorous introduction, Chalcraft situates his study in relation to the classic works on social movement theory and contentious politics by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. Of particular importance is the distinction between “the routinized, transacted and negotiated politics of those with regular access to the polity … and a contentious politics which includes claimants excluded from routinized decision-making … and involves mobilizing features that challenge, disrupt or influence highly formalized and routinized political transactions” (p. 24). Chalcraft sets out to demonstrate that the latter has proven far more consequential for the region’s modern history than previous accounts have acknowledged. At the same time, he faults extant theories of contentious politics for describing more than they explain and for employing a “weightless, interactionist ontology, which makes history and context very hard to identify, and creativity and dynamism very hard to situate” (p. 27). Building upon the writings of Antonio Gramsci, “while leaving out the co-determining capitalist metanarrative,” (p. 29) Chalcraft thus develops a concept of “mobilizing projects” through the manifold case studies that fill the book’s four substantive chapters (p. 32). He conceives of the political field as the site of ongoing struggles by some groups or classes to maintain power over others and “impose a direction on social life” through that complex unity of coercion and consent that Gramsci termed “hegemony” (p. 30). “Mobilizing projects” draw together particular categories of identity, principles, goals, social relations, and strategies of action in order to mount “a challenge to some aspect of the status quo” (p. 32). Understanding the genesis and trajectory of these projects in turn requires a detailed analysis of both “hegemonic incorporation” and “hegemonic contraction,” in which “reasons for mobilization emerge” and new actors “turn existing resources and capacities to new purposes” (p. 36). And central to that approach is a careful investigation of the way collective subjects, the “people” of Popular Politics, have changed over time.
Chalcraft’s weighty study defies easy categorization. More ambitious than a conventional monograph, the book does not read as an introductory survey either. In places, he presupposes a readership already familiar with the basic contours of the region’s history. The work unfolds as a series of tightly argued vignettes, and it employs a rich body of monographs, both old and new, that may be known to specialists but have yet to enter...