Rebel Populism describes the Syrian uprising and civil war through the eyes of Syrian migrant workers and refugees in Beirut. The book relies on many years of participant-observation in Lebanon, hundreds of semi-structured interviews, as well as life history collection, image and video cataloguing, and focus group analysis. Based on this data, it describes, first, how the same socio-economic pressures that pushed the people to revolt against the Syrian government can be located in the transformation of labour migration to Lebanon from a once temporary means of accumulating future-directed savings to a faltering survivalist strategy unable to keep pace with a growing gap between wages and prices. Syrian workers expressed their bottom-up insurgent anti-regime politics through the circulating protest art, anti-regime video clips, and alternative news sources. However, as the uprising collapsed into today’s bloody proxy war, the book then moves to chart how the men began to instead seek to build lives for themselves in Lebanon despite intense social, economic, and legal uncertainty. "
This chapter examines what migrant labourers said about the uprising, what kinds of socio-economic antagonisms they wanted resolved, and what shape their idealised future post-revolutionary society might take. It argues that men’s oppositional politics are neither a mechanistic material “bread riot” response to low wages and high prices, nor are they wholly an emotionally or “affect-driven” response to “shame and indignation.” Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau, I argue that Syrian labourers’ horizontal anti-regime demands and ideas are indicative of a populist rupture in Syrian state-society relations. I show how workers took time to reflect on their material conditions. Then they identified who they felt responsible for those conditions (what they called “the regime”) and decided on what was to be done (“support the revolution”). I show how their opposition to the Assad government is thus not only down to some threatened sense of “identity,” but that sense of threat, and even those identities, always emerge through a specific interplay between their objective material conditions under (neo-)liberal capitalism (as migrant laborers) and subjective understandings of the politically possible (“the people” having overcome the “barrier of fear”).
This conclusion offers an examination of the most contemporary manifestations of enthusiasm, and the confusions they entail. Accompanying the recent rise of populist movements in Western democracies has been the analogous aura of fascism. This chapter explores what happened to the subterranean political effect of fascism once unleashed – the “excitation” of fascism as it carries through the genealogy of this political from, even in its exhausted condition. The result of this analysis is a tracing of the affective boundary between fascism and democratic politics, one that distinguishes excitation from enthusiasm. This chapter shows both how understanding the affective logics raised through fascism might be necessary for preserving democratic forms of life, as well as the risks posed in mixing these forms of politics together. Special attention is paid here to democratic resistances to fascism. My conclusion uncovers a mechanism for identifying the affective boundary that lies between fascism and democracy, and the costs of confusing fascist excitation and democratic enthusiasm.
This chapter explores the origins of enthusiasm and its different varieties. The frame for this investigation is C. M. Wieland’s question on how to distinguish between enthusiasm and fanaticism. The chapter begins with a summary of Wieland’s own articulation of the problem and his working definitions, as well as the place he saw for enthusiasm in an increasingly rationalized world. Wieland himself considered his essay an initiation of debate on enthusiasm’s meaning. This chapter follows Wieland’s lead, contextualizing the previous articulations of enthusiasm on which his definitions and arguments rely. Further, in order to help place Wieland’s essay into the existing literature on this topic, this chapter divides Wieland’s concise history of enthusiasm into three categories: religious enthusiasm, enthusiasm as a bodily disease, and moral enthusiasm. The chapter discusses how these conceptualizations differ and why such differences are important for elucidating the concept of enthusiasm itself. The chapter concludes by noting how this context clarifies how enthusiasm can be reconceived as a political concept.
The chapter introduces the concept of enthusiasm and its place in the history of political theory. It describes how enthusiasm has, over time, become a misunderstood concept in contemporary politics, and the very real consequences that this has for democracy and for how political actors understand themselves and their own political agency. Going beyond the usual debate regarding the dangers of enthusiasm to collective identity and democratic politics, this chapter also describes the way enthusiasm has emancipatory potential for resistance movements. Building on Foucault’s schematic reflections, this chapter also discusses the necessity of reconsidering the concept of enthusiasm beyond its previous historical manifestations. The chapter provides an overview of the subsequent chapters of the book, showing how each help illuminate the meanings of political enthusiasm.
This chapter explores the development of enthusiasm as a political concept. It offers a close reading of Kant’s thinking on enthusiasm and the politics that comes from it. This reading pays close attention to the political anxieties associated with enthusiasm. Kant is usually read as defending a detached, impartial spectator as the ground for a more sober politics. This chapter offers a distinct counter-reading of Kantian enthusiasm that moves past the purified spectator, immune to political engagement. This reading of enthusiasm makes sense of Kant’s own anxiety regarding enthusiasm as the “most dangerous” political idea, showing where Kant gives us the terms to think through how to cross the boundary between actor and spectator, and the place of enthusiasm in constructing that pathway. While Kant struggled to come to terms with the significance of enthusiasm, this chapter argues that we see the grounds for a radical reading of enthusiasm within his thinking; a performance that motivates revolutionary action.
This chapter illustrates how enthusiasm can become both ideological and apolitical. As enthusiasm developed from a religious to a political phenomenon, the result was a bifurcation of its meanings, where enthusiasm was sometimes experienced as an affect that accompanied zealotry, and at others as a more benign swooning. Focusing on the political thought of Hannah Arendt, this chapter pays particular attention to the affective basis of zealotry. It examines the role of the spectator in democratic politics, and the place of the spectator’s enthusiasm in public discourse. While sympathetic to Arendt’s aims, this chapter also presents a critique, noting that she inherits a binary notion of enthusiasm, one that turns political enthusiasm into a depoliticizing affect. Paying attention to this contrasting logic, this chapter shows how Arendt’s reading of enthusiasm fuels an exclusionary and secularized affect, while vacating the concept of its potency. The aim of the chapter is to highlight and push against the binary logic underlying Arendt’s thinking on enthusiasm, and the culmination of that logic in a kind of depoliticization. By delineating varieties of the binaries of enthusiasm, this chapter works to form a new ground for the rethinking of enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm has long been perceived as a fundamental danger to democratic politics. Many have regarded it as a source of threatening instabilities manifest through political irrationalism. Such a view can make enthusiasm appear as a direct threat to the reason and order on which democracy is thought to rely. But such a desire for a sober and moderate democratic politics is perilously misleading, ignoring the emotional basis on which democracy thrives. Enthusiasm in democracy works to help political actors identify and foster progressive changes. We feel enthusiasm at precisely those moments of new beginnings, when politics takes on new shapes and novel structures. Being clear about how we experience enthusiasm, and how we recognize it, is thus crucial for democracy, which depends on progression and the alteration of ruler and the ruled. This book traces the changing ways enthusiasm has been understood politically in modern Western political thought. It explores how political actors use enthusiasm to motivate allegiances, how we have come to think on the dangers of enthusiasm in democratic politics, and how else we might think about enthusiasm today. From its inception, democracy has relied on a constant affective energy of renewal. By tracing the way this crucial emotional energy is made manifest in political actions – from ancient times to the present – this book sheds light on the way enthusiasm has been understood by political scientists, philosophers, and political activists, as well as its implications for contemporary democratic politics.
Chapter 5 offers a refocusing on enthusiasm in democracy and especially the contemporary affective strategies and conditions faced in democratic life. As an entry into the contemporary view of democracy, this chapter explores Rancière’s essay “Hatred for Democracy” as a site to begin to consider these affective dimensions. At the heart of this affective life, according to Rancière, is the condition of hatred. This chapter shows how Rancière deploys a “democratic” rhetoric that does not seek to destroy this logic of hatred, but rather finds a means of existing in a world where hatred(s), including hierarchies and xenophobia, are a profound reality to be resisted – springs to take energy from. This move, from the hatreds that plague democratic life (hatred of democracy), to a political engagement with hatred that acknowledges its reality (hatred for democracy), depends on developing a grammar that begins to reflect these democratic forces between subjectivities. This chapter shows that, at the heart of this grammar of hatred, there lurks a persistent enthusiasm, one that helps make sense of such hatreds and the specific ways they damage democracy.
This chapter explores how to distinguish enthusiasm in political action. Considering Walter Benjamin’s essay Critique of Violence (1921), this chapter explores acts of enthusiasm, and especially the general strike. Benjamin’s discussion of the general strike draws the political imagination to what he named a “pure” politics, beyond mediation. This chapter reads the strike as a principle of political intrusion – one that is a lurking, though sublimated, enthusiasm. This reading productively problematizes the force of the strike. It extends Benjamin’s thesis, beyond any historical imagination of the general strike as the mere force of labor, instead reading the strike as an act of enthusiasm that extends and complicates Kant’s thinking, and in different ways from the Arendtian inheritance. This chapter also moves to more contemporary examples of enthusiastic acts, considering immolations, hunger strikes, and other “suicides” as similarly “general” politics, rupturing the violence of the state according to its own pathways of power.