The MLA’s Vanishing Commission on Faculty Unions

Sitting in my office this afternoon, only the second (or maybe third) rainy day since I moved to Dubai in August 2014, I’m surprised to read this remarkable passage from Margaret Ferguson’s 2015 MLA Presidential Address:

“Looking back once more to the MLA’s past, I move toward my conclusion by noticing that among the seldom remembered documents of the 1970 convention was a resolution urging the MLA’s officers to set up a Commission on Faculty Unions. The commission was to present a report to the membership on such topics as ‘the role of the university teacher as worker–i.e., one who sells his or her skills on the open market’ and ‘arguments for and against teacher unions or collective bargaining units as distinct from professional organizations.’ The resolution’s proposers begin by stating, ‘In the light of the increasing economic insecurity of college teachers, reflecting the overall economic crisis, . . . we recognize the need to explore the possibilities of organizing collective action by college teachers’ (‘1970 Business Meeting Actions’ 597). I’m not sure what happened to this resolution; although it was approved by a majority of the members who voted on it, I haven’t been able to find the commission’s report, which was supposed to build on data gathered with the help of newly hired staff members. The commission was to include members from several organizations that served as bargaining agents for college teachers and teaching assistants. Whatever the commission’s fate, perhaps it’s now time to return to the negotiating table of institutional memory and ask that the ideas motivating that old resolution be dusted off and reexamined” (563).

What happened to the commission’s report? Was it never compiled? If not, this seems to me to be a serious failure on behalf of an organization committed to advancing the interests of literature and language faculty within the academy. Had such a report on faculty unions been generated, members may have had a clearer sense of how to mitigate some of the damage done during this ongoing half-century of crisis in the humanities.

It’s not too late to act on this prescient 1970 resolution. Indeed, the MLA has the responsibility to do so. Because the “economic insecurity” the resolution mentions is much exacerbated now, and because too many members—especially tenured members—are hesitant to see themselves as part of a labor force (and this to the detriment of untenured and contingent faculty), the MLA should finally convene the Commission on Faculty Unions and begin the hard work of imagining forms of collective bargaining that can transcend the limited ability of professional organizations to represent their members’ interests within individual schools and departments.


Ferguson, Margaret. “Negotiating Sites of Memory.” PMLA 130.3 (2015): 546-565.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins

Democracy and the Problem of Speed

We live in a paradoxical time vis-à-vis democracy. While democratic reforms have recently taken hold in places as diverse as Tunisia and Sri Lanka (Tunisia through revolution; Sri Lanka through the ballot), and Greece has turned to the demos as a front line against its predatory creditors, leading democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom continue to suffer economic and political malaise. The developed democracies’ declining influence concentrates a growing skepticism toward democratic governance, especially among the populist right wing and neoliberal elites that constitute such powerful political blocs in the West. It is not uncommon for well-known public figures to openly question—and sometimes even dismiss—democracy’s desirability, and they often do so in the pages of the most widely read and respected publications. Consider, for example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s provocatively titled editorial published in the New York Times this past December: “Is Democracy Dead?” Blair’s op-ed indicts the core political institutions of the US, the UK, and other European democracies as “dysfunctional,” and he openly declares democracy to be “failing its citizens.” These are strongly pessimistic words, yet I suspect they resonate with many people who, nurtured on the Cold War promise that democracy will deliver everything from unlimited economic growth to global political dominance, find themselves disillusioned as the West enters a period of decline. What’s most concerning about this loss of faith in democracy is not that it reflects a failure of democracy itself, but rather that it reflects the success of an ongoing effort to redefine democracy as a tool for advancing economic development rather than as the irreducible means of achieving and preserving political self-determination.

Blair locates the problem with democracy in what he calls the “efficacy challenge,” a phrase which has less to do with the diminishing political power of average citizens than it does with the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. According to this view, speed is more important than popular deliberation. Blair makes this point clear when he writes, “In a world of change, where countries, communities and corporations must constantly adapt to keep up, democracy seems slow, bureaucratic and weak.” He blames this inefficiency on activist citizens groups such as teachers unions, which insists are responsible for rallying the public “to defeat change even when it is in the public’s own interest.” Here again, he leverages these arguments in defense of the view that the public’s primary interest is not justice or equality or political power, but rather the speed with which government is able to deliver material goods and services. This is a vision of democracy sapped of idealism and removed from the higher order virtues that provide the raison d’être of democratic practice throughout history. Indeed, in Blair’s view, the core problem with contemporary democracy is the demos itself, which is either too ignorant to recognize its own best interests or, in those cases when it does articulate interests, too prone to forms of political activism that challenge government hegemony over the political sphere. At the heart of his argument is the peculiar notion that democracy is no longer about a society’s political culture, but that it has become a technocratic means of delivering governmental services with ever-increasing speed and efficiency. Blair is explicit on this point: “It is time to debate how to improve democracy, how to modernize it. Traditionally this debate has been dominated by issues of transparency and honesty [read: accountability to the people] . . . But the disillusionment with democratic governments is really about people believing that the changes they need in their lives can’t happen quickly enough. It is a practical challenge” (my emphasis).

The frustration Blair expresses toward politically active citizens is one of the core anti-democratic attitudes political theorist Jacques Rancière studies in his book Hatred of Democracy. Rancière explains how, by investing political power in elected representatives, democratic societies have opened a paradoxical schism between the public and the private, wherein what has traditionally been understood as public becomes the private concern of the government. By working to demonize and thus discredit and silence political activism, anti-democratic forces seek to wrest political power from the people and establish it as the sole right of elected representatives. Rancière argues that the concern of democracy is not, as Blair would have it, to further privatize what is public, but rather to expand—radically and exponentially—the public sphere: “The spontaneous practices of any government tend to shrink this public sphere, making it into its own private affair and, in so doing, relegating the inventions and sites of intervention of non-State actors to the private domain. Democracy, then, far from being the form of life of individuals dedicated to their private pleasure, is a process of struggle against this privatization, the process of enlarging this sphere” (55). There is, to be sure, an economic component to the struggle over public/private boundaries, and both sides are working hard to establish the political contexts they believe will generate the greatest benefits. Rancière, for his part, sees the privatization of public affairs within the exclusive domain of government to be a thinly disguised substitute for unchecked corporate power, which is why he insists democratic practice “entails struggling against the distribution of the public and the private that shores up the twofold domination of the oligarchy in the State and in society” (55). Blair obviously sees things differently. He openly advocates for increased autonomy of government decision-making power by disparaging the public’s intervention in public affairs, while continually pressing for rapid privatization—both economic and political—as an antidote to the lack of “effective decision-making through strong leadership” that he sees as the principle challenge to 21st century democracy.

With this understanding in mind, it is hardly surprising that Blair holds forth the corporate world—with its anti-democratic, authoritarian hierarchical structures—as a model for how democratic governments can become more responsive to people’s needs. Blair did, after all, cut his teeth as a corporate lawyer and served as a senior advisor to both JPMorgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services in the years following his tenure as Prime Minister [1]. Yet his thoughts on democracy’s failure to keep pace with global capitalism still demand analysis, for it’s precisely in the tension between the public and the private that Blair attempts to shift democratic governance away from accountability to the people and toward an alliance with private business interests. Contrasting government and corporate models, he writes: “Examine the changes in the private sector over the past 20 years. Look at the top companies by market capitalization and how new names have displaced the old. This is the way of the world, except in government. We go along in the same old way—unable to change, due in part to top-down bureaucracies that manage the status quo instead of changing it.” Suggesting that top companies by market capitalization should serve as a model for democracy is a deeply flawed and dangerous (though entirely typical) neoliberal rhetorical strategy. One would think that Blair, with his experience as Prime Minister in the years immediately preceding the great recession and as a senior advisor to JPMorgan Chase, which was recently fined a record $13 billion for its role in causing the 2008 financial crisis, would at least acknowledge the massive fraud and financial destruction companies with “superior market capitalization” have inflicted on the global economy. Yet corporate practices nonetheless serve as the model to which Blair wants democracy to aspire. Indeed, one of the four proposals he makes at the close of his editorial is to allow “greater interchange between public and private sectors,” which is another way of turning to deregulation and privatization to deliver the reforms and services of which he insists democracy is incapable [2].

Blair’s proposal is a call for decentralization, but it is not the sort of decentralization that diffuses decision-making power through varied and popular democratic processes. His concept of decentralization is committed to shifting power away from the centers of government and toward the centers of global commerce, precisely in order to further withdraw power from an impatient people who, imagined as simplistic homines oeconomici, will settle into political contentment so long as their desire for basic services are satisfied without delay. Blair thus recasts the core mission of democracy as evermore speedy (and profitable) economic development, with the weighty and ennobling values that have always been a part of the democratic ideal receding toward the margins of public discourse and policy making. Here we see quite clearly how capitalist ideology attempts to redefine democracy as part of a larger process of economic development and modernization, while actively subverting its deeper purpose: the radical seizure of political power by ordinary people with the intent of advancing evermore freedom and equality. But what’s perhaps most concerning about Blair’s cynical vision for democracy is not that it imagines less public involvement in political affairs, but rather that it articulates a process that has already taken hold around the world and continues to advance with the speed and efficiency he so clearly admires.

We can see how the suture of democracy and development works politically by turning our attention away from the West and toward developing nations in the East, particularly India, which is the world’s most populous democracy and a major center of political gravity in Asia. Take, for example, India’s 2014 general election. Widely heralded as a triumph of democracy after the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overwhelmingly defeated the incumbent and long-ruling Indian National Congress, India’s most recent national elections delivered the Prime Ministership to Narendra Modi, whose campaign slogan—“Unity, Action, Progress”— perfectly expresses the value neoliberal political parties put on speedy economic development. The first part of his slogan speaks to the BJP’s Hindutva ultra-nationalism, which imagines India as a Hindu state and has historically found expression in pogroms against India’s minority Muslim population [3]. The second two terms are geared toward Modi’s promise to streamline India’s notoriously labyrinthine bureaucracy, thus speeding the pace with which India achieves economic development. The emphasis is on development, or “progress,” even when the developmental process disenfranchises people and/or otherwise tramples on basic democratic principles. As prominent author/activist Arundhati Roy makes clear in so many of her writings, the forward march of India’s economic development depends on the mass dislocation and dispossession of millions of India’s most vulnerable citizens—the chronically poor, the indigenous, the so-called untouchables [4]. In her essay “Democracy’s Failing Light,” Roy writes: “Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it—and a much, much vaster desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and Special Economic Zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy” (xiv). This process was well underway long before Modi came to power, but he and the BJP openly advocate accelerating these very forms of development by limiting the state’s regulatory apparatus and undermining processes for collective decision making that are the hard-won rewards of democratic struggle.

On the day that it published Blair’s op-ed, the New York Times also published an article by Ellen Barry and Neha Thirani Bagri outlining Modi’s plans to dismantle India’s environmental regulations as a means of accelerating economic growth. As the article makes clear, the struggle between environmental preservation, which is crucial to sustaining the subsistence economies of India’s vast number of rural poor, and large scale industrial development is being decided in favor of industry: “Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are chocking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects” (Barry and Bagri). Modi’s BJP plans to eliminate regulatory oversight wherever possible, while simultaneously relying on “business owners to voluntarily disclose the pollution that their projects will generate and then monitor their own compliance” (Barry and Bagri). This approach, which Modi’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar describes as an effort to “decentralize decision-making,” is in reality a massive centralization of power within the corporate sector (qtd. in Barry and Bagri). Indeed, the reforms Modi has implemented in the months following his election are overtly anti-democratic and do much to stymie the diffusion of power through institutions of collective decision making. As Barry and Bagri explain: “Smaller coal mines were granted one-time permission to expand without holding a public hearing; projects in forests will no longer have to seek the approval of tribal village councils; smaller mining projects of less than 100 hectacres (247 acres) will no longer undergo ministry inspection” (my emphasis). This is to go beyond trusting industry to regulate itself; it is to attack systems of democratic control over how a nation’s natural resources are used, and to undermine the degree to which communities can exercise a role in protecting their own environments. So when Javadekar proudly boasts that the BJP is eliminating “those [environmental regulations] which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress,” he not only admits that India’s new government will choose development over preservation, but he also hints at how these development plans constitute a thinly veiled assault on democracy itself (qtd. in Barry and Bagri).

This sort of anti-democratic “progress” is the lifeblood of the economic structures that both Modi and Blair hold forth as models of good governance. It is also a principle means by which those who stand to benefit the most from global capitalism exploit the poor and eviscerate traditional communities. Development and modernization are almost always presented as the most efficient ways to liberate the destitute from otherwise insurmountable conditions of poverty, disease, and ignorance, but in practice they work tirelessly to expropriate and transform traditional means of subsistence into profits for those at the centers of global capital. As C. Douglas Lummis argues in his work on developmentalism: “The ideology of development has been immensely successful, not in actually raising the poor people of the world to the level of ‘ultimate prosperity’ but in convincing millions that this is what capitalist activities in the Third World are intended to do” (60). Pretenses aside, developmentalism constitutes “the most massive systematic project of human exploitation, and the most massive assault on culture and nature, which history has ever known. It was the extraordinary achievement of the development ideology to render the imperialism of the countries and corporations carrying out this project an arguable question” (Lummis 60). What this exploitation looks like in India, where democratic environmental protections are being dismantled in the name of speed and efficiency, should sound the alarm for all who care about basic social justice and human dignity, whether in the developing East or the developed West. In India alone, there are an “estimated sixty million people who have been displaced by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminum smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3300 big dams built since Independence, and now by special economic zones” (Roy, “Trickledown Revolution,” 153-154). Such massive displacement, which is also a form of dispossession, is but one sign of the ruin that development and modernization brings to so many of the world’s people. To allow development projects to bypass required public hearings, tribal approval, and government inspection not only threatens democracy, it also threatens the very existence of the communities people like Blair wish to silence in the name of so-called “progress.”

The issue here goes beyond economics and cuts to the core of what it means to exist in a state of self-determination. One of the central aims of neoliberalism is to limit self-determination to such an extent that people have no choice but to participate in the consolidation of capitalist hegemony. Global capitalism—from the time of mercantilism and the slave trade to our current age of free trade agreements and corporate personhood—depends on “the massive uprooting of humanity from traditional community life and work, the rendering extinct of ancient skills, values, and ways of thinking and feeling to make society into an instrument of efficient factory production” (Lummis 55). This social uprooting has assumed many forms, from overt subjugation to the commercialization of culture, but it remains in the service of a totalizing project that seeks to pull every aspect of one’s lived experience into the centripetal orbit of capitalist expansion. Those who wish to maintain ways of life outside the logic of efficiency and profits—ways of life that, in some instances, go back thousands of years—are labeled enemies of “progress” and in need of “development” (as if they are underdeveloped children rather than fully-developed, intelligent adults capable of determining their own socioeconomic and political structures). And besides, existing outside of the development regime is, for many people, simply not an option. For example, as recently as 2008, India’s finance minster P. Chidambaram advocated for relocating 85% of India’s rural population to the nation’s burgeoning urban centers. Such a project would, as Roy argues, “require social engineering on an unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about five hundred million people to migrate from the countryside into cities” (“Democracy’s Failing Light” xv). Such a process is well underway throughout the developing world, compelled by a combination of corporate land grants, unchecked environmental degradation, and the growing number of neoliberal trade agreements that render traditional community life and work unsustainable.

Mohsin Hamid dramatizes this violent transformation in his aptly named novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Taking the form of a satirical self-help book for those wishing to make the most of South Asian economic development, Hamid’s novel traces the upward mobility of an unnamed protagonist (also the narrator) from his youth in a desperately poor village to his rise as a corrupt,  street-smart entrepreneur. There is much I could say about the novel’s commentary on poverty, urbanization, war, and the deleterious effects of global markets, but what’s most interesting about Hamid’s work vis-à-vis development is that he isolates the destruction of traditional communities as the very foundation of “rising Asia.” For example, the book’s opening chapter narrates how the protagonist’s family is forced to move to the city, in part because he has fallen chronically ill from drinking river water contaminated by a textile factory located nearby. As he and his family arrive in the city, the unnamed narrator says (speaking in the second person, as he does throughout the novel):

As you and your parents and siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential. (Hamid 15)

Within this wonderfully dense passage Hamid compresses the erosion of traditional communalism, environmental destruction, the insane proliferation of nuclear weapons (though never explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to determine that the novel is set in Hamid’s native Pakistan, which has been engaged in a dangerous game of nuclear one-upsmanship with India for decades), and the way in which economic “productivity” and “potential” are tied to the “insecurity” and “anxiety” that attend free-market economics. It also gives a powerfully human voice to the sixty million people who, like the novel’s narrator, have witnessed their traditional way of life intentionally rendered obsolete by the forces of development in neighboring India.

This is class war, but it’s also a war on democracy, and the battles in this war occur at the level of language and ideas every bit as much as they do at the level of economics and politics. As such, literature and the arts have an important role to play in cutting through the narrative that reduces democracy to a lubricant in an economic machine. I agree with Michael Mack when he argues that narrative fiction “does not celebrate or endorse what it represents. Rather than affirming the validity of history’s quasi-universal and mythic repetition of harmful socio-political and socio-economic policies, the mimetic content of the novel turns against itself. Here representation aims at interrupting itself” (101; original emphasis) [5]. We can see such a process in Hamid’s work. That How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia gives us a protagonist who only realizes his “potential” through a process of forced urbanization gives the lie to the narrative of neoliberalism as a force freedom and democracy by contextualizing the limited benefits of economic development in relation to an ongoing social transformation that actively limits the potential of people to survive outside of the capitalist paradigm. Hamid thus turns the representation of economic development as a benign, mutually beneficial and voluntary process against itself. There is nothing democratic about a rural community disbanding in order to escape a poisoned river, even if one of its members strikes it rich in the city. And there is nothing democratic about systematically dismantling sites of communal decision-making à la Modi’s environmental deregulation, or concentrating political power in the hands of government and corporate technocrats as Blair suggests we do.

Democracy is slow. It is intentionally deliberative, and it militates on behalf of both expanding the public sphere and subjecting it to the influence of as many ordinary people as possible. When leaders and spokespersons for the world’s major democracies advocate for freeing democratic governments from the influence of activist groups, popular councils, and individual citizens, they engage in an act of doublespeak designed to delegitimize the very premise of democracy—that power belongs to the people. So long as democracy is accepted as a synonym for capitalism, and freedom and power are reduced to free markets and purchasing power, such doublespeak will rule the day. With global economic inequality and environmental degradation reaching alarming heights, it’s clear that a project for revitalizing democracy’s core tenants is in order. Such a project can begin by rescuing the term’s meaning from the perverse uses to which it has been put by neoliberal developmentalists. Democracy is not capitalism, nor does it exist to service the global market’s demand for speed and efficiency. On the contrary, democracy exists to deliver power into the hands of the people. This is the radical point from which all who wish to revitalize democracy’s liberatory potential must begin.


[1] Rancière notes how the easy flow of officials between government and the corporate sector is one way that oligarchy exerts control over both the State and the economy: “What we call democracy is a statist and governmental functioning that is exactly the contrary: eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative school; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; business people who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media. In a word: the monopolizing of la chose publique by a solid alliance of State oligarchy and economic oligarchy” (72-73; my emphasis).

[2] Blair’s other proposals include changing “the relationship between governing and governed,” forcing parliaments to “function differently,” and even implementing “constitutional changes,” all of which are vaguely articulated, to say the least. He also, earlier in the op-ed, proposes raising the salaries of elected officials in order to encourage those who are successful in the corporate sector to bring their business acumen to government.

[3] Modi is widely believe to have used his position as Chief Minister of Gujarat to help orchestrate the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others. The United States was so convinced of his involvement that they suspended his visa privileges. It was only with his election as Prime Minister that the U.S. agreed to issue Modi a visa, after which he promptly traveled to New York City to address a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Since then, President Obama has travelled to Delhi on an official state visit to deepen ties between the U.S. and Modi’s India.

[4] For more on Roy’s advocacy on behalf of those fighting to forestall this process, see my essay “Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy.”

[5] Mack makes this comment in relation to Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, but the point applies to any number of fictions, including Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.


Barry, Ellen, and Neha Thirani Bagri. “Nerendra Modi, Favoring Growth in India, Pares Back Environmental Rules.” New York Times. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 March 2015.

Blair, Tony. “Is Democracy Dead?New York Times. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 March 2015.

Hamid, Mohsin. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.

Lummis, Douglas C. Radical Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996.

Mack, Michael. Philosophy & Literature in Times of Crisis: Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy. Trans. Steve Corcoran. London: Verso, 2014. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. “Democracy’s Failing Light.” Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. New York: Penguin, 2009. ix-xxxvii. Print.

–. “Trickledown Revolution.” Broken Republic: Three Essays. New York: Penguin, 2011. 149-214. Print.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), begins and ends with acts of extreme violence. The first is a murder-suicide committed in the mid-1960s by a West Bengal sharecropper who, ruined by drought and usury, sees in death a welcome escape from what he calls a “world of misery, of endless, endless misery” (Mukherjee 2). The second is a terrorist attack perpetrated more than forty years later by a group of armed insurrectionists who intentionally target some 1,500 commuters as they travel by rail between Ajmer and Kolkata. These militants—members of a largely Maoist guerrilla army fighting against the multinational mining operations and development projects that have coordinated with the Indian state to forcibly expel Dalit and Adivasi communities (i.e., so-called ‘untouchables’ and the heterogeneous tribal groups that make up India’s indigenous population) from their traditional, resource-rich homelands—see in spectacular violence an alternative to suicide’s self-inflicted oblivion. Taken together, these acts frame a critique of how India’s neoliberal economic turn in the decades following the Cold War has exacerbated the rift between the subcontinent’s rural poor and the social, legal, and economic power that has historically consolidated around the issue of land rights. By bracketing his novel with scenes depicting violent acts of resistance against such exploitative socioeconomic practices, Mukherjee draws a straight line between the notorious Naxalbari uprising of the late 1960s, which aimed to restore some semblance of equality—economic and political—between landowners and their debtor tenants, and the much more widespread Maoist insurgency that continues to spread throughout India’s vast hinterlands. The Lives of Others thus encourages its readers to think through the pervasive ideology of developmentalism to its core political problems, namely its corrosive effect on local sites of power and self-determination, and it’s systematic production of economic and political inequality.

Mukherjee figures India’s neoliberal turn as the expansion of a process, born of colonialism and accelerated under the aegis of ‘representative democracy,’ or what political scientist Raymond Aron more accurately defines as the “pluralist constitutional regime,” that actively redistributes wealth—especially collective wealth—into the hands of a ruling elite (Aron 236). This ongoing redistribution acts both economically and politically, for whether under the heel of a colonial power or the influence of the market’s so-called ‘invisible hand,’ the expropriation of India’s natural resources has alienated millions of the rural poor (especially members of scheduled castes and tribes [1]) from both their basic means of subsistence—their land—and from what Jacques Rancière argues is democracy’s dual mission of bringing into existence “forms of organization of the material life of society that escape the logic of profit; and the existence of places for discussing collective interests that escape the monopoly of the expert government” (83). Such systematic dispossession, which is also a regime of domination, generates acts of resistance that range from the largely invisible suicides committed by impoverished farmers to spectacles of mass murder planned and carried out by revolutionary factions seeking to upend India’s existing sociopolitical order. By laying bare the mechanisms by which these acts of domination and resistance meet, Mukherjee shifts our attention from the triumphalist narrative of India’s ascent as emerging superpower—or what the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls “India Shining”—to the ripe contradiction between neoliberal economic development and democratic self-determination, a contradiction that threatens to unhinge demos from kratos, and thus undo the enlightened framework of the world’s most populous democracy. This rift all but negates what, properly understood, may be called democratic politics, for without access to land and the power to manage and distribute it as they see fit, whole classes of people are forced to the margins of a regime administered entirely by technocrats and for the benefit of corporate elites.

The inaugural act of violence in The Lives of Others occurs in its prologue, which, set in May 1966, follows Nitai Das as he walks the half mile between his landlord’s opulent, fortress-like home and his own destitute hovel. The walk is excruciating because, first, he is starving—having survived on a single meal a week for the past three years—as are his wife and three children; but it’s also excruciating because he carries the shame of returning home empty-handed after another long morning of begging; and, finally, because he has just received a vicious beating from his landlord’s guards. While the landlord hopes the beating will deter Nitai’s persistent begging, his main purpose in ordering his guards to attack his tenant is to forecast “what lies in store for [Nitai’s] children if he does not pay off the interest on his first loan” (Mukherjee 2). But such threats lose their edge for those who believe themselves predestined to suffer dispossession and unrelenting poverty. “Who,” Nitai wonders, “can escape what’s written on his forehead from birth?” (Mukherjee 2). The reference to one’s fate being written on the forehead is, as Eliza Kent explains in her essay “What’s Written on the Forehead Will Never Fail,” a persistent theme in Indian folklore and literature: “At the moment of birth, or on the night of the sixth day after birth, a god or goddess comes to write the destiny of the newborn child on its forehead. The destiny so inscribed often takes the form of a set of verses indicating the most important features of a person’s life: the kind of birth (that is, what caste and family they are born into), length of life, work occupation, level of poverty or affluence, and so forth” (2). And so, overcome by a sense of hopeless inevitability and shame at his family’s condition, Nitai returns to his home, seizes his sickle (a complex symbol of his dispossession [2]) and uses it to slaughter his wife and children before committing a final act of surrender—which is also an act of defiance in the face of his landlord’s demands—by drinking deeply from a container of Folifol, a toxic pesticide, “until he too is returned from the nothing in his life to nothing” (Mukherjee 3). Thus Nitai, metaphysically marked by his station in India’s post-Independence socioeconomic order, symbolically joins the hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the years leading up to The Lives of Others’ publication [3].

That Mukherjee so explicitly connects the superstitious belief in predetermination with the exploitative lending practices that worked to impoverish Nitai and his family is, by my reading of the novel, no accident, but is rather a shrewd commentary on the discourse of inevitability that so effectively advances neoliberal ideology. Market domination of the political and social spheres is presented as a given, and resistance to the rapid advance of global capitalism—no matter how insidious the results for the natural environment, historically vulnerable communities, and even the global middle class—is argued to be futile and, depending on what form the resistance takes (including, in many cases, peaceful protests), even criminal. This authoritarian concept of inevitability is what F.S. Michaels calls “monoculture”: the grand narrative of our time that insists upon economic efficiency as the central means of understanding human meaning and worth. Michael’s explains: “The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story—one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it” (1-2). Today’s monoculture is economic, and economic concerns structure nearly every aspect of sociopolitical life, including the viability—and even the desirability—of democratic societies. So long as democracy is perceived as conducive to efficient economic development, it is promoted and defended (sometimes violently so) as an inherent virtue, but when it gets on the wrong side of neoliberal capitalism, democracy—especially in its most radical forms—is rejected as corrosive, backward-looking, and chaotic.

The perceived inevitability of monoculture and developmentalism dovetail in starkly anti-democratic ways. As C. Douglas Lummis notes in his remarkable book, Radical Democracy: “In the ideology of development, the power of the metaphor is that it gives the impression that the projects being carried out under that ideology are natural, inevitable, and bring about the proper and predestined future of the entity being developed. Development is portrayed as something that will happen by itself as soon as the ‘obstacles to development’ are removed. In fact, virtually all of the changes that take place under the ideology of development are of an entirely different sort. Villagers are driven out and dams are built; forests are cut down and replaced by plantations; whole cultures are smashed and people are recruited into quite different cultures; local means of subsistence are taken away and people are placed under the power of the world market. […] Calling such activities ‘development’ conceals the fact that they are human choices, that is, activities that human beings are free not to do” (63; original emphasis). Yet to talk of being free to do or not to do is to speak the language of democracy, and democratic processes and institutions are some of the prime “obstacles to development” in the world today. As India’s former Finance and Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in a lecture given at Harvard, his alma mater, in late 2007: “One would have thought that the challenge of development—in a democracy—will become less formidable as the economy cruises on a high growth path. The reality is the opposite. Democracy—rather, the institutions of democracy—and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development” (qtd. in Roy, “Trickledown Revolution,” 168). Chidambaram’s sentiment couldn’t be clearer: Remove democracy, discredit socialism, and unleash the market.

Mukherjee’s novel focuses significant attention on anti-democratic economic practices, both in its central narrative, which tells the story of the union-busting Ghosh family and their failing paper mill business, and in the parallel plot, which takes the form of Supratik Ghosh’s journals recounting his involvement in the Naxalite uprising. Supratik’s story is especially important, for it’s through his journal entries that Mukherjee contrasts the interests of India’s aspiring middle class with the struggles of the subcontinent’s chronically poor. It’s also through Supratik’s journals that we see how the Dalit and Adivasi communities join with the more educated, affluent Maoists to fight against those individuals and institutions whose political power derives from anti-democratic economic practices. Indeed, Supratik is responsible for passing along the technical know-how that allows the twenty-first century Naxalites to bomb the Kolkata-Ajmer Express at novel’s end. It’s with this spectacular act of domestic terrorism that Mukherjee makes the connection between the uprisings of the 1960s and the now decades-long struggle against neoliberal developmentalism that continues to grip rural India these many years later. The novel’s initial act of violence, rendered private and all but invisible by the victim’s poverty, echoes through the narrative until it finds its answer in a carefully orchestrated act of violence that, by virtue of the sheer scale of its destructiveness, is designed to send shockwaves through Indian society, including its investment climate, in a way that Nitai’s suicide could never hope to accomplish. And there should be no mistake that, from the Indian government’s perspective, investment and development are precisely what are at stake here. As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a 2009 address to the Indian Parliament: “If Left Wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment” (qtd. in Roy, “Trickledown Revolution,” 174). Never mind the climate for democratic self-determination.

Set in September 2012, the novel’s epilogue follows a group of Maoist militants as they assemble an explosive device along the railway connecting Kolkata, in India’s far east, to the north-western city of Ajmer. The expedition is led by Sabita Kumari, a young college-educated woman who abandoned her dream of becoming a school teacher after her sisters were raped and murdered with impunity because her “family had tried to resist the moneylenders’ attempts to take over their land” (Mukherjee 501). Realizing that India’s so-called democracy offers neither equality nor justice, she joined the Maoists: “When the little of her life had been reduced to nothing, the Party had held and rocked her in its iron cradle, told her that the nothing of her life could become a path, a straight, narrow, but tough one, at the end of which was a destination worth reaching” (Mukherjee 501). These lines echo those that Mukherjee gives us at the moment of Nitai’s suicide—“he too is returned from the nothing of his life to nothing”—yet here we see Sabita’s destitution being channeled into revolutionary action rather than self-inflicted oblivion. Mukherjee further distinguishes Sabita from Nitai by connecting the tragic exploitation that destroyed her family to the mass dispossession of India’s tribal peoples, a dispossession carried out under overtly neoliberal imperatives. Mukherjee narrates how the Adivasis were “told that the land where their ancestors had lived from as far back in the past as the human mind could see is no longer theirs, but the state’s to do with as it wanted. They did not have a patta to prove ownership; the state did. Soon afterwards, policemen, contractors, officials spread out over it; their land was going to be mined; the earth there contained metals” (502). When the dispossessed join together and refuse to leave their ancestral homelands, the Indian state—beacon of democracy in South Asia—deploys the military police against them in a vicious counterinsurgency campaign: “The police were protecting the lawful property of the mining companies, the property that had been the tribal peoples’ last year or the year before; they had the right to use force against the tribals, for they were trespassers and outlaws now” (Mukherjee 502). Thus the Maoists, and thus the bombs.

Mukherjee’s sympathetic attitude toward the Naxalites is commensurate with that of Arundhati Roy, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things (1997) and vocal democracy advocate. Since the publication of her celebrated novel, Roy has turned her talents to activism and political writing—a shift that has recast her as both cause célèbre and political pariah. Perhaps her most controversial book is a work of long-form journalism: Walking with the Comrades (2012). Published two years before Mukherjee’s novel, Walking with the Comrades recounts Roy’s experience traveling with Naxalite insurrectionaries through India’s Maoist-controlled forests, an area of the country that, in the parlance of “Operation Green Hunt,” the counter insurgency operation aimed at destroying the Naxalites, has been provocatively nick-named “Pakistan.” The book is controversial, in part at least, because Roy humanizes communities that are routinely disparaged and demonized in the Indian media. Individuals like Comrade Kamla and Comrade Venu, members of scheduled tribes who have joined forces with Maoist revolutionaries, split their time between organizing within their communities and actively engaging in armed conflict with representatives of India’s New Economic Policy—the police, the military, and private security forces and militias. Yet in Roy’s narrative they are sweet, good-humored people driven to extremism by systematic violence and injustice. It’s this latter fact that most disturbs Roy’s readers on both the Right and the Left, for though she ostensibly rejects violence in all its forms, she also suggests that the Naxalites have been so deeply dispossessed—materially and politically—that violence has become the sole means of survival: “I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A real hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy—who find it easy to say ‘There Is No Alternative’—should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach?” (Roy 88). Roy’s position is difficult, yes, and controversial, but it is also a devastating critique of Indian democracy’s failure to empower its most vulnerable citizens. According to her view, the Dalits and Adivasi are funneled into Maoism by a purportedly democratic society in which corporations, political parties, and the media—indeed the entire social climate—are complicit in a massive attack on what little autonomy these people have historically enjoyed..

This view carries over directly into the concluding pages of The Lives of Others, pages in which Mukherjee challenges his readers to imagine the desperate position in which so many Naxalites have found themselves as a result of India’s ongoing modernization: “The same story—forest-tribes banished after their land was sold by the state to mining companies; those meant to protect you turned into your attackers. Imagine coming home one day to find that your parents were waiting with knives to slaughter you. That is what the Maoists said when the tribes escaped into the forests to protect themselves from the military police. They had a choice: to be snuffed out overnight by the world or take on the world and wrest something from it; not very much, just a little, just to survive and live like a human, not an animal” (502). None of this is to say that Maoism is the appropriate model for democracy—it’s not—but rather that both Roy and Mukherjee, two of India’s finest Anglophone writers, are making powerful connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the neoliberal belief in ever-increasing privatization as a means to widespread economic growth. The double enclosure of market privatization, which subjects the material life of society to the rule of a global oligarchy, and government monopoly, which relegates decisions regarding collective interests to a technocratic government elite, produces growing economic inequality and political disenfranchisement. It is precisely in violating this enclosure that the beginnings of a radical democracy occur. Following Rancière’s thinking: “The democratic movement, then, is in fact a double movement of transgressing limits: a movement for extending the equality of public man to other domains of life in common, and particularly to all those that govern the limitlessness of capitalist wealth; another movement for reaffirming the belonging of anyone and everyone to that incessantly privatized public sphere” of governmental/legal decision making (57-58). Roy and Mukherjee are clearly eager for such transgression to occur, and by presenting their readers with narratives of domination and resistance, they beg the difficult question: If Maoism is to be rejected by freedom- and equality-loving people, than what is the alternative to restoring the power of self-determination to the Dalits and Adivasi in the face of such overwhelming odds? Democracy itself would seem to be the answer, yet what are accepted as the world’s great democracies continue to serve as the central purveyors of neoliberal developmentalism. This, then, is the challenge and the value of their works, for they force a re-evaluation of what democracy means in this increasingly monocultural world.



These remarks were delivered at the Hellenic Association for the Study of English’s conference, Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture, in Thessaloniki, Greece on May 17, 2015.

[1] Approximately 250 million members of India’s rural population live in chronic poverty, 80% of whom belong to scheduled castes and tribes. Their poverty is exacerbated by both direct and indirect consequences of India’s neoliberal economic development, including environmental degradation, water and fish-stock shortages, increased vulnerability to natural disasters, and—especially for the nation’s forest-dwelling tribal people—loss of entitlement to natural resources. For more on these figures, as well as root causes of India’s endemic poverty, see Census of India 2011: Rural Urban Distribution of Population and the section on India in the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s Rural Poverty Portal.

[2] Without land, Nitai’s sickle is divested of value as a means of production and is thus reduced to, first, a reminder of his subservience to his landlord and, second, an instrument of death rather than a life-affirming harvesting tool. The sickle does, of course, summon images of the Grim Reaper, as it does the iconic Soviet-style hammer and sickle, which has a closer relationship to the novel’s events, but the true power of the symbol in this context is its transformation from Nitai’s source of livelihood to the instrument of his destruction.

[3] Writing in her 2009 essay “Democracy’s Failing Light,” Arundhati Roy notes that “over the last few years, more than 180,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide” (xvi).


Aron, Raymond. Democracy and Totalitarianism. Trans. Valence Ionescu. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968.

Kent, Eliza F. “‘What’s Written on the Forehead Will Never Fail’: Karma, Fate, and Headwriting in Indian Folktales.” Asian Ethnology 68.1 (2009): 1-26.

Lummis, C. Douglas. Radical Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Michaels, F.S. Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, Toronto: Red Clover, 2011.

Mukherjee, Neel. The Lives of Others. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Rancière, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy. Trans. Steve Corcoran. London: Verso, 2014.

Roy, Arundhati. “Democracy’s Failing Light.” Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. London: Penguin, 2009.

–. “Trickle Down Revolution.” Broken Republic: Three Essays. London: Penguin, 2012.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East

In his introduction to American graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine (1993-1995), Edward Said recalls how “liberated and subversive” he felt upon first encountering the comics medium, with its extravagant illustrations and fantastic, unconstrained narratives of conflict and adventure (i). He attributes his initial enthusiasm to adolescence, but he also admits how, after reading Sacco’s graphic narrative, he was “plunged directly back into the world of the first great intifada and, with even greater effect, back into the animated, enlivening world of the comics [he] had read so long ago” (iii). The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by popular media has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers who are working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary Middle East. Writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq have seized on the comic form’s radical heteroglossia to interrogate topics ranging from religion to politics to sexuality in increasingly novel and challenging ways. Indeed, rescuing these aspects from the margins of representation is one of the comic medium’s principle strengths. Here again, Said articulates the principle in his introduction to Sacco’s work: “As we live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote” (iii).

If graphic novels “provide a remarkable antidote” to centralized media power, it seems important that we look beyond Western interlocutors like Sacco (though his views have real value and shouldn’t be ignored) and attend to the voices of those whose lives are most immediately shaped by the “extreme situations” Said describes. As the 21st Century matures, an increasing number of such voices are making themselves known through the comics medium. Take, for example, Egyptian artist Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo (2008). Regarded as the first Arabic graphic novel for adults, Metro follows a young software engineer named Shehab as he struggles for upward socioeconomic mobility in Mubarak’s Egypt. But Metro is no conventional bildungsroman; widespread corruption—both economic and political—frustrate Shehab’s efforts to put his technical skills to profitable use, and at novel’s end he is every bit as alienated as he was when we first encountered him. Shehab’s alienation and disdain for Cairo’s prevailing sociopolitical order is on full display from the novel’s opening page. Moving from a close-up image of his determined, hard-set eyes to a full portrait set against an urban view dominated by a high-rise banking headquarters, the page emphasizes the sense of angry determination that informs Shehab’s mentality [figure 1]. “Today, I decided to rob a bank,” he proclaims, before reflecting on how he arrived at such a momentous decision: “I don’t remember when I became so angry. All I know is everyone was always going one way and I was going the other. All I had on my side was my brain. So now my brain has a plan, and I’m going to make it work” (El Shafee 1). Through his determination to restore what he feels has been stolen from generations of Egyptian citizens—namely, economic justice—Shehab emerges as a compelling anti-hero who exposes the irony of criminality as such in a bureaucratic society structured by widespread corruption, while at the same time forcefully articulating the frustration that emerges from within the claustrophobic sociopolitical limitations that inevitably attend such systems.

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Figure 1. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, p. 1

El Shafee makes the politics of Shehab’s decision even more explicit several pages later when, in another spread that ends with the very image that opens the book, Shehab attempts to set his friend Mustafa’s nerves at ease regarding his proposed bank heist. Here Shehab explains that “the police can’t be bothered with people like us. They’re too busy taking care of just one man [read Mubarak],” before further rationalizing that, since they will become rich by robbing the bank, they shouldn’t worry about incarceration because “in this country, jail is for the poor” (El Shafee 4). Finally, Shehab thrusts his criminality directly into the realm of emancipatory politics: “Remember, Mustafa—we’re all in a cage. The way out is wide open, but we’re stuck inside because no one ever tries walking out of it” (El Shafee 4). This metaphor that figures the Egyptian people as animals trapped in a cage is repeated throughout the text and is Metro’s principle trope. By suggesting that the Egyptian people liberate themselves from this bondage, El Shafee makes his invitation to revolutionary action abundantly clear. Perhaps the power of his critique explains why Egyptian authorities seized Metro on grounds of “disturbing public morals” and arrested both El Shafee and his publisher shortly after the book’s initial release (the ban lasted nearly five years).

Yet El Shafee’s revolution remains firmly within the bourgeois tradition; when Shehab robs the bank, he does so for his own personal enrichment, not to redistribute wealth more generally. He is, in this respect, a radical individualist, though El Shafee is careful to tie his individualism to the general sense of alienation that so many of the novel’s central characters feel. For example, through a series of panels that show various aspects of Cairo’s densely-populated urban environment, Shehab engages in the following internal monologue: “I am afraid. And alone. Thousands like me are afraid and alone in the night. But I can never accept it” (El Shafee 49-50). The visual representation here is telling, for by filling these panels with images of urban architecture rather than individual figures, El Shafee emphasizes both the anonymous Egyptian masses who move through these buildings on a daily basis, as well as the city itself as the site of coming revolution [figure 2]. It’s important to note, however, that while Shehab may share his fear and loneliness with any number of Egyptians, he almost always acts alone. Relying on his computer technical skills, Shehab engages in a series of subversive assaults on Cairo’s digital grid, hacking everything from the public telephone system to the bank’s central accounts (though his efforts here are ultimately stymied, forcing him to rob the bank the old-fashioned way, and with considerably more violence). So while El Shafee sometimes shows Shehab as an asaya-wielding antihero who defends the revolution against counter-revolutionary forces, he is more often than not portrayed as a politically alienated, tech-savvy Millennial deploying computer code as a weapon against an oppressive, cumbersome bureaucracy. In both cases he acts alone, relying on his individual strength and ingenuity to challenge the existing order, and he repeatedly expresses his suspicion toward acts of collective resistance.

We see the tension between individual and collective action most clearly in Shehab’s relationship with his girlfriend, Dina, a young muckraking journalist and democracy advocate. She first appears in the narrative after calling on Shehab to save her from two male assailants who accost her as she makes her way home from a demonstration. The scene gives El Shafee his initial opportunity to present Shehab as a pseudo action hero, as he easily dispatches the assailants using the tahtib (i.e., cane fighting) techniques he learned while growing up in rural Egypt, though it also eerily anticipates the many reports of sexual assault that emerged from and around Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution. But perhaps more significantly, the scene establishes Dina as a different sort of hero, a hero who joins her voice with others even when doing so threatens her individual safety. She even resists Shehab himself in her determination to change Egyptian society through political protest and direct political action. When Shehab asks her why she can’t “let that stuff go,” she replies: “I’m not ditching my friends. This makes me feel there’s some hope” (El Shafee 65). Not insignificantly, she says this with full knowledge that she is likely to be attacked by the police or hired thugs, as she eventually is. Her courage and steadfast commitment to the social cause to which she has dedicated herself are in marked contrast to the fear that Shehab repeatedly professes. Indeed, just moments after being sexually assaulted by a counterrevolutionary gang, she kneels over an elderly protester who has been mortally wounded during the demonstration and whispers, “Don’t be afraid” (El Shafee 78). With these words, Dina thus emerges as an alternative to Shehab’s bourgeois individualism, a symbolic embodiment of the Egyptian people’s collective optimism and courage in organizing against the Mubarak regime [figure 3].

Figure 2
Figure 2. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, pp. 49-50
Figure 3
Figure 3. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, p. 78

There is, of course, nothing inherently individualistic about computer technology. Quite the contrary. How can we separate computer technology from the tremendous social change that has swept the MENA region in recent years? From Iran’s Green Movement to Tahrir Square to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, computer technology, and especially smart phones and online social networking platforms, have proven crucial to the region’s mass politics, but also to its modes of storytelling. For example, digital technology plays a major role in Iranian writer Amir Soltani and Algerian political cartoonist Khalil Bendib’s collaborative project Zahra’s Paradise, a fact that is foregrounded on the book’s cover, which shows the image of a hand-held device thrust defiantly above a protester’s head. Initially appearing online in early 2010 and serialized in a dozen languages, including Farsi, Arabic, French, and English, Zahra’s Paradise follows an anonymous blogger as he searches for his brother, Mehdi, a young activist who disappeared during the mass protests following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections. The novel’s protagonist is technically proficient, and he uses computer technology in overtly subversive ways, including to hack into what he calls “the bowels of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary” (Soltani and Bendib 168). What he finds there is depicted in dramatic fashion: A record of mass incarceration, torture, and summary executio, carried out on behalf of the ruling clerics, whom Bendib depicts as monstrous machines consuming the aspirations and innocence of the Iranian people [figure 4]. Rather than deploying his hacking skills in bourgeois fashion to re-appropriate wealth à la Shehab, Zahra’s protagonist uses his skills to expose the crimes of the state, including its crime against his brother Mehdi, whose death at the hands of counter-revolutionary security forces is ultimately revealed.

As important as this digital sleuthing may be, it is perhaps even more significant that the novel’s protagonist uses his blog, also titled Zahra’s Paradise, to counter the power of official media outlets to distort and/or efface the stories of average people engaged in acts of mass political resistance. Consider the double-page spread depicting Tehran’s streets during the Green Movement. Here Bendib reverses El Shafee’s tactic of representing the masses through images of impersonal urban environments by illustrating the streets of downtown Tehran filled with Iranian citizens who have joined together to protest perceived political corruption [figure 5]. This iconic image serves as a backdrop for the central character’s frustration with media irresponsibility: “June 15, 2009: three million people were in the streets,” he writes. “A torrent that could have swept everything in its wake. A few days later, we’re dismissed as ‘dust’ and ‘dirt’… Another scorched riverbed” (Soltani and Bendib 40-41). This abuse is further addressed in the chapter titled “The People’s Press,” which begins with the protagonist ruminating on the power of alternative media as he sets to work on a new blog post:

My brother’s lost. But no one publishes the news. The demonstrations get zero coverage… as if they had never happened. How can someone disappear in a demonstration that never happened? […] They want to wipe Mehdi off the face of time, confiscate the sound of his name, the promise of his return. There can be no witness. Now it’s my turn to publish. I’ll test the power of my blog against their press. I will make Mehdi’s absence official, print his face all over theirs. And the world will take notice! (Soltani and Bendib 59)

Like Shehab, who considers the Egyptian press to be “one of our great disasters,” the hero of Zahra’s Paradise recognizes the press as part of what Louis Althusser calls the “ideological state apparatus,” that system of institutions that enforces the ideological framework of the state through non-violent means (El Shafee 47; Althusser 99). But unlike Shehab, he seizes on common digital tools to counteract the all-too-often unchecked dominance of this apparatus.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise, pp. 168-69
Figure 5
Figure 5. pp. Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise, 40-41

As I mentioned earlier, Zahra’s Paradise was originally published as an online web comic, and the text announces itself as belonging to the digital world when, in the narrative’s poetic prologue, Soltani writes: “Ablution, now you too are in the stream, touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise” (14; my emphasis). And indeed, as a blog, Zahra’s Paradise constitutes a singular achievement in the domain of web comics. While print remains the central means by which graphic novelists disseminate their work, web comics are emerging as an important sub-genre that fuses what Said characterizes as the “animated, enlivening world of the comics” with the subversive, radically democratic potential of online publishing. One notable example of this mode being put to good use is the young Palestinian artist Leila Abdelrazaq’s blog Baddawi, which self-consciously presents itself as a means of presenting “a common story that is not frequently told” (Abdelrazaq, “About”). Named after a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Baddawi focuses on the life of Abdelrazaq’s father and, by extension, countless other Palestinian refugees who—through a process of systematic dispossession, political oppression, and media manipulation—have had their stories suppressed and distorted. As Abdelrazaq makes clear in the introduction to her blog, Baddawi works to reclaim the individual narratives born of the refugee camp: “At the end of the day, power is all about who controls the narratives and the discourse around a particular subject. I’m just another Palestinian trying to take back that narrative. […] This comic is one of the ways that I choose to do so” (“About”).

Abdelrazaq’s web comic is at once individual and world historical. Illustrated in a simple, iconic style, Baddawi takes up topics ranging from childhood bullying to Israel’s indiscriminate cluster bombing of Palestinian refugees. In “The Lead Bullets,” for example, Abdelrazaq tells the story of how her father, Ahmad, came to live with lead bullets lodged under his skin. Leaving aside the overarching context of life in a refugee camp (if such a thing can ever be done), the scene is perhaps typical of the sorts of youthful hijinks that may occur in any young boy’s life: bird hunting, teasing mischief, calloused acts of bullying. The violence that concludes the episode resonates with the other acts of violence that Abdelrazaq illustrates in Baddawi, but this is not the violence of occupation and/or forced exile, which is precisely the point. “The Lead Bullets” works to connect Ahmad’s experiences with those of readers around the world; special knowledge of the refugee experience is not needed to understand and sympathize with Ahmad’s dilemma. The simple style of Abdelrazaq’s drawings and the familiar story form a bond between subject and reader that, when carried over into a story like “The Cluster Bombs,” works to both individualize and humanize atrocities that are all-to-often rendered abstract by the popular media. In “The Cluster Bombs,” Abdelrazaq opens with another perfectly familiar activity: baking bread. But here any sense of normalcy is shattered by the roar of low-flying fighter jets as they discharge cluster bombs over the refugee camp. The woman shown kneeling to place the loaves in an oven as the jets release their load is thrust headfirst into the flames by the bomb’s blast, and young Ahmad is left to gather unexploded ordinance—all of which bear stickers reading “Made in USA”—from Baddawi’s streets [figure 6]. Having established a sense of shared humanity between Ahmad and her readers in “The Lead Bullets,” Abdelrazaq’s depiction of the cluster bombing becomes all the more horrific and therefore effective. And like Soltani and Bendib before her, she seizes on web comics to deliver the message to, potentially, anyone anywhere with an internet connection.


Figure 6
Figure 6. Leila Abdelrazaq, “The Cluster Bombs”

Graphic novels in the Middle East are still in a nascent stage, yet there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in evermore productive ways, thus allowing more Middle Eastern artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics for a global audience. Alongside El Shafee, Soltani and Bendib, and Abdelrazaq, artists such as Zeina Abirached, Lamia Ziade, and Toufic El Rassi, to name just a few, are working within the comics medium to tell their stories. In addition to these individual artists, many of whom are enjoying success with mainstream publishers, a number of independent publishing collectives have emerged with the goal of making the diversity of Middle Eastern comics artists more widely accessible through both print and online journals. Two of the most notable examples are Lebanon’s Samandal and Egypt’s Tok Tok, both of which are bringing together artists and writers from throughout the Middle East to experiment with and further refine this politically subversive, pop-cultural art form. By manipulating spatio-temporal dynamics to present multiple, simultaneous contexts within a single narrative, these graphic storytellers practice a sophisticated narratological approach to what has always been a popular medium, thus transforming a traditionally juvenile and ephemeral mode of pop-art into mature texts that capture aspects of life too often relegated to the margins of representation.



These remarks were delivered at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies/American University in Dubai joint conference, “Re-locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse,” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on April 18, 2015.


Abdelrazaq, Leila. “About.” Baddawi. N.d. Web. 20 May 2015.

–. “The Cluster Bombs.” Baddawi. 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2015.

–. “The Lead Bullets.” Baddawi. 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2015.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus: Notes Toward an Investigation.” Lenin & Philosophy and Other Essays. 1968. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review, 2001. 85-126. Print.

El Shafee, Magdy. Metro. 2007. Trans. Chip Rossetti. New York: Metropolitan, 2012. Print.

Said, Edward. “Homage to Joe Sacco.” Palestine, by Joe Sacco. 2001. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2015. i-v. Print.

Soltani, Amir and Khalil Bendib. Zahra’s Paradise. New York: First Second, 2011. Print.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins