Friday, May 18, 2012

The Languages of the Arab Revolutions

Abdou Filali-Ansary, Aga Khan University, London
The Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World - Abdou Filali-Ansary delivered the eighth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World on 26 October 2011 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and on October 24 at the Centre for International Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The title of his lecture was “The Arab Revolutions: Democracy and Historical Consciousness.” The Lipset Lecture is cosponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Munk School, with financial support this year from the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and the Canadian Donner Foundation.

Seymour Martin Lipset, who passed away at the end of 2006, was one of the most influential social scientists and scholars of democracy of the past half-century. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy and a founding member of its Editorial Board, Lipset taught at Columbia, the University of California–Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University. He was the author of numerous important books, includingPolitical Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason, and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person ever to have served as president of both the American Political Science Association (1979–80) and the American Sociological Association (1992–93). Lipset’s work covered a wide range of topics: the social conditions of democracy, including economic development and political culture; the origins of socialism, fascism, revolution, protest, prejudice, and extremism; class conflict, structure, and mobility; social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; and public opinion and public confidence in institutions. Lipset was a pioneer in the study of comparative politics, and no comparison featured as prominently in his work as that between the two great democracies of North America. Thanks to his insightful analysis of Canada in comparison with the United States, most fully elaborated in Continental Divide, he has been dubbed the “Tocqueville of Canada.”

This paper was originally published on the Journal of Democracy, April 2012 issue, Volume 23, Number 2

I fully appreciate the honor bestowed upon me by my inclusion in the group of scholars and political leaders who have previously delivered the Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World. I am pleased to have this opportunity to engage with Professor Lipset’s thought—an opportunity that I had strongly wished for after meeting him briefly during one of my visits to the National Endowment for Democracy, but one that sadly did not materialize during his lifetime.

In preparation for this lecture, I read again several of Lipset’s writings that had left a lasting impression on me years ago. These included two of his seminal essays: “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” published in March 1959, and “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited,” which was based upon an address that he gave as president of the American Sociological Association in 1993.[1] At a time when change seems to be accelerating, and momentous events are happening in quick succession, rereading these essays invites us to step back from the avalanche of everyday events and place them in a larger frame with a deeper perspective. My hope is that this may help us to gain a better understanding of the changes that are taking place around us, as well as give us some useful insights for thinking about the future.

One of the lessons that we learn from Lipset concerns our need to identify categories that will let us study political change—and particularly processes of democratization—from the vantage of the social sciences rather than from a theoretical viewpoint that assumes hidden forces to be at work, be they cultural or material in nature. The polarity of (ideological or cultural) “superstructure” and (material or economic) “base” prevailed in academic circles for decades after Marxists had introduced it. One and only one unambiguous answer was sought to a very large question: What is the ultimate factor that determines the course of history—economics or culture?

Although such formulations may seem to us now to be crude and old-fashioned, in fact they have not really and entirely gone away. The opposition between the material and the cultural is kept alive by, among other things, a kind of inertia reflected in the divisions separating academic disciplines. Most academics studying social and political matters tend to see themselves either as economists (or economic historians) focusing on the material bases of society, or as specialists in cultural expressions in one or another of their multiple forms. As a consequence, these academics wind up lending primacy to this or that “factor”—the one that they have chosen as their main object of study.

Earlier in his life, Lipset had begun at one end of the spectrum,[2] but when his thought matured, he brought the two poles together, as is shown by the subtitle of his 1959 essay. It is significant that he labeled them differently from the common usage of the time, calling one “economic development” and the other “political legitimacy.” In doing so, he introduced two categories that could be used to establish clearly bounded objects of inquiry, thus allowing them to be approached through the standard and reproducible methods of the social sciences, including comparisons, tests, and sometimes measurements. At the same time, he spelled out the scope and limits of the type of inquiry upon which he was embarking, stressing the importance of formulating testable propositions, of avoiding ideas of mechanical causality in favor of multivariable convergences, and of keeping open the possibility of later adjustment or revision (or “revisitation,” as he called it).

In adopting such a perspective, we are no longer in the grip of deep convictions about great turns in history or enduring cultural or civilizational identities, but in the realm of facts and characterizations that can be observed, tested, and interpreted within explicit parameters. When the concept of “material base” or “infrastructure” is replaced by “economic development,” it immediately becomes a set of measurable variables. When “superstructure” is defined as “political legitimacy,” then questions of history, values, and worldviews can be brought back to the discussion in a “controlled” way, as “variables” that can be studied like other historical matters. The links between the two classes of variables are thus highlighted. The classes cease to be a pair of nonoverlapping sets, each of which comprises objects so completely different from those found in the other that they cannot even be discussed together. Instead, they come to be viewed as collections of variables that can all be studied in ways widely accepted and well understood by historians and social scientists alike.

The View from Political Legitimacy

I believe that a Lipsetian (or neo-Lipsetian) approach can help us to understand what is happening in the Arab world today, and may also help us as we strive to peer forward toward what may happen (which is, of course, not the same thing as predicting what willhappen).

In recent decades, attention directed to developments in the Arab region has focused mostly on its cultural heritage, often assuming a kind of continuity between past and present, a persistence of essential features that can be found in any country or society that belongs to the region. Attempts at Marxist explanations of the region’s past, as well as attention to issues of economic development, have been more or less pushed aside or left to fade into the background. Since the upsurge of Islamism, one might say that all eyes have been directed to the region’s religious heritage and to the overwhelming effects that this is supposed to have on the present.

Here the approach suggested by Lipset helps us to set aside implicit and unverifiable assumptions that can be neither proven nor falsified, and to focus instead on things that we can observe and interpret. He begins with a telling definition:

Legitimacy involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society. The extent to which contemporary democratic political systems are legitimate depends in large measure upon the ways in which the key issues which have historically divided the society have been resolved.[3]

Political legitimacy thus understood applies to all societies across cultural and historical divides, and it brings their particular histories and value systems into the picture in ways that enable us to study their effects on the present. What should count for us now, in other words, is not the past as academics can reconstruct it, but the memory of the past as it survives in the consciousness of people and shapes their attitudes regarding present-day challenges.


Full-text, available at:

Abdou Filali-Ansary is a professor at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations of the Aga Khan University in London, where he was founding director from 2002 to 2009. He has served as founding director of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca, Morocco, and as secretary-general of Mohammed V University in Rabat (1980–84), where he also taught modern philosophy. In 1993, he cofounded the bilingual Arabic-French journal Prologues: revue maghrébine du livre and served as its editor until 2005.

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