José Saramago’s ‘Seeing’ and the Middle East revolutions

Events across the Middle East have echoes of one of the later novels by José Saramago. On the BBC World Service just now in response to a question about who is running the city now that Gaddafi’s authority in the area has collapsed, a Libyan interviewee proudly reported that he has never seen the city so clean; the people themselves have swept the streets. John Rees reported that the same had happened in Cairo after the authorities had abandoned the city. In Saramago’s ‘Seeing’, the government leaves an unnamed city in an unnamed country to its own devices in response to a more gentle and mysterious kind of democratic revolution:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street, from the front door as far as the middle of the road, where they encountered other women who had emerged from the houses opposite with exactly the same objective and armed with the same weapons…they were not just looking after their own interests, but after the interests of the community as well. It was possibly for this same reason that, on the third day, the refuse collectors also came out onto the street. They were not in uniform, they were wearing their own clothes. It was the uniforms that were on strike, they said, not them.’

What is the cause of the strange and sudden outbreak of blank voting that causes the Government to leave the city without a shot having been fired? The explanation of the Government is clear: the normal functioning of the democratic system has been subverted, owing to a nefarious and possibly foreign-inspired plot which must be uncovered and quashed if ‘democratic normality’ is to resume. The effects of this purported conspiracy are described as an ‘infection’, a ‘modern day black death’ and a ‘tumour’, which has been introduced into the democratic system by ‘vandals, barbarians, savages’ and ‘wretched rebels’. The entire city has been contaminated by this moral pestilence, and the best solution, the authorities conclude, is to lay siege to the city and force it to see the errors of its ways.

The Prime Minister feels nostalgia ‘for the happy times when votes did as they were told’: the voters are seen as puppets that can be easily manipulated. Their ‘normal’ role is simply to periodically cast a vote in order to legitimise the continued existence of the political system. It is their refusal to play this role and by so doing create a legitimation crisis that throws their purported political representatives into turmoil. The high-blown and paternalistic rhetoric of the political parties appears to have no impact on the level of disengagement of the electors from the political system. The political leaders talk of civic duty, the ‘vital importance’ of the elections, and the urgency of a return to ‘normal’ political realities. They are portrayed as motivated purely by their own political survival. They contest among themselves the meaning of the results, with the left-wing party claiming it is a mislaid protest vote for their cause. But all three parties agree that they are facing a crisis and that normality must be restored at any cost.

The citizens react with an ominous silence to the Government’s attempts to identify its cause of the rebellion and its perpetrators. They respond blankly or brusquely to inquiries about how they voted. This refusal to engage with the system in its search for a way to address the crisis is understood by the increasingly desperate authorities to be more of a threat to the legitimacy of their power than electoral opposition could ever be. The citizens are violating the implicit rule that interprets any measure of participation as an act of affirmation of legitimacy. The ‘movement’ has no representatives or spokespeople with whom the Government can come to terms; indeed it is clear that in addition to having no figurehead, the ‘movement’ does not exist. It is made up of ‘thousands of people who do not know one another’ who, with no prior agreement, decided to cast a blank vote and who now respond to attempts to persuade them to engage in a dialogue with the same formula: ‘We don’t owe anyone an explanation’.

This new state of affairs is described as ‘mysterious’, ‘new and unknown’, and ‘threatening’. Eventually it transpires that the reason they cast blank votes was because they were ‘disillusioned’ and ‘could find no other way of making it clear just how disillusioned they were’:

‘They could have staged a revolution, but then many people would undoubtedly have died, something they would never have wanted, (…) all their lives they had patiently placed their votes in the ballot box, and the results were there for all to see, This isn’t democracy, Sir, far from it’.

Since this new state of affairs has, in the words of a newspaper editorial, ‘complicated public life to an unprecedented degree, corralling it into a dark alleyway from which not even the brightest spark (is) able to see a way out’, the Government turns to desperate measures in deciding to abandon the ‘rebel city’ to its own devices. As the Prime Minister explains:

‘…our aim is to isolate the population and then leave them to simmer, sooner or later there are bound to be fights, conflicts of interests, life will become increasingly difficult, the streets will fill up with rubbish…there are bound to be serious problems with the distribution and supply of foodstuffs, problems which, if necessary, we will take care to create…’

The President appears on television to notify the country of the Government’s decision to withdraw their ministries and the forces of law and order. He warns the city ‘The streets will be yours, they belong to you, use them as you wish’.

The siege that they plan to impose on the city will ‘inevitably seriously hamper the smooth functioning of an urban area of such importance’, and the Government expects that within a short period of time lawlessness and social breakdown will ensue and the disobedient population, trapped in its ‘unhappy prison’, will learn its lesson and overcome its ‘wicked obstinacy’. However, as soon as they learn that the authorities are gone, the people of the city take to the streets:

‘The streets, which, up until then, had been almost deserted…filled up with people within a matter of minutes…they resembled two rivers, one flowing up and one flowing down, and they waved to each other from river to river, as if the city were celebrating, as if it were a local holiday.’

No-one goes to work, and despite the hysterical predictions of the Government and the press, ‘there were no thieves or rapists or murderers’: It seems that ‘the police were not, after all, essential for the city’s security’, and the traffic flows smoothly. The predicted collapse into chaos does not occur.

One of the key moments of the novel takes place soon after the Government and the police have  withdrawn from the city. After the announcement of a Government-orchestrated strike by the refuse collectors, a Government-friendly newspaper publishes an editorial predicting that the rebellion will end in a bloodbath, a message which is broadcast and discussed on TV and radio. As if in response:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street…they were not just looking after their own interests, but the interests of the community as well’.

It is as if the people of the city have adopted the President’s ironic injunction to make the streets their own and turned it around in order to claim the streets as their own common property in an act of autogestion. With the authorities gone, the city begins to look after itself. Its citizens have shown themselves to be ‘determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style’. Not only have they ceased to play their part in the charade of representative democracy, but their interest in reading newspapers has also greatly declined; the ideological hold that power has had over them is losing its grip. They are gaining autonomy in various areas of their lives, and rather than relying on the abstract entity of the state to take care of the common areas of the city, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In Lefebvrian terms, what was the abstract space of state jurisdiction has been appropriated and transformed into lived space. The Government has made a ‘grave error leaving the city unsupervised’.

Henri Lefebvre regarded the street as the place where spontaneity can express itself, ‘an arena of the city not completely occupied by institutions’. It is not so much public as common. As a result of the political crisis and the Government’s departure from the city, social space begins to assume new meaning. In the protests that take place the streets are explicitly reclaimed by the citizens. The second demonstration takes place after Government agents have bombed the metro station in a failed attempt to provoke recrimination and division. A sea of people floods the street in a silent demonstration that makes its way to the parliament building in a clear example of what David Harvey calls ‘targetting power in place’. The street has become a space of meaningful interaction, and the attempts at dividing the besieged city against itself do not succeed, as the city is experiencing the ‘birth and growth of an atmosphere of social harmony, (of) unequivocal solidarity’. Examples of solidarity abound, such as when, to the shock and disappointment of the watching media, those who have returned to the city after their failed attempt to escape are not greeted with hatred and violent recrimination.

Clearly something unprecedented is happening; according to the Minister of Justice, it is as if an epidemic of clear-sightedness has succeeded the epidemic of blindness that struck the city four years before, and over which has lain a code of silence. Whatever this new plague may be a symptom of, it raises questions of urban governance. By whom and for whom is the city governed? It seems that suddenly the governing class are no longer seen as the natural leaders, and that a transition is underway to what the Prime Minister calls ‘something entirely new and unknown, so different we could probably have no place in it’. The authorities see it as crucial to re-establish their rule and to avert what they see as the horror of the subject classes starting to take care of themselves.

There are a number of echoes in the novel of recent and not so recent events in cities in the real world. In his recent book ‘Violence’ Slavoj Žižek makes reference to Saramago’s novel in the context of a discussion of the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2006, arguing that rather than a revolution, the act of political defiance is one of a purely negative character, a refusal to continue to cooperate with a process that they have come to regard as a charade. It is a movement with no leaders and no demands and as such it can neither be defeated nor incorporated into the system itself. It is a phatic act of rebellion which expresses no deeper meaning than that of mere refusal, ‘reject[ing] the very frame of decision’.

Nevertheless this argument fails to acknowledge that the act of returning a blank vote is not a passive act of pure negation, but a performative one: a subversive act of returning a ballot while withholding a vote. What the Government is faced with closely resembles the legitimacy crisis which Jurgen Habermas argues that government institutions in modern capitalist societies face. Significantly it was also published shortly after the farce of the election count in 2000 in what is purported to be the world’s largest democracy.

One of the clearest historical echoes in the novel is of the Paris Commune of 1871, an event that Lefebvre describes as ‘a spontaneous reaction against the programming and control of [the people’s] lives’. David Harvey records that:

‘When the rural army of reaction was assembled on the outskirts of Paris in 1871 poised to engage in the savage slaughter of some 30,000 communards, they were first persuaded that their mission was to reclaim the city from the forces of Satan.’

The siege of the city in Seeing is a similar struggle over the control and meaning of urban space between the state and what is seen by the authorities as a demonic rabble that has taken over the city. Almost one hundred years after the Paris Commune, the events of May 1968 would be inspired by ideas of reclaiming and appropriating space and time in the city, creating lived space and lived moments, liberating time and space from the confinements of the bourgeois order. Lefebvre wrote of both events that:

‘In 1871 the entire people took to the streets; the bourgeoisie had already left the capital or was preparing to do so…in March 1871 as in May 1968, the people come from the periphery, assembled and headed toward the urban centres in order to reconquer them’.

Another echo which can be interpreted as significant given Saramago’s controversial support for the Palestinian cause, is of the siege of Gaza, which partly results from the refusal of the Western powers and Israel to recognise the results of the election of 2005 in which Hamas was elected to govern. The Israelis continue to besiege and bombard Gaza in the attempt to persuade its inhabitants to vote more appropriately and obediently in the future. The Government’s contempt for the voters in Seeing also recalls Henry Kissinger’s alleged remark in relation to the election of a socialist Government in Chile in 1973: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

Are the citizens who, in the absence of the state authorities, take command of the city in the novel rejecting the notion of democracy per se? It is useful here to consider a rhetorical question posed by Pierre Bourdieu in relation to neoliberalism, urban life and democratic accountability:

‘It can be shown, for example, that the problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities     stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?’.

Both Bourdieu and Saramago are fiercely critical of the neoliberal model of democracy, with its ideological glossing over of social problems caused by political decisions based on narrowly-defined economic criteria. Bourdieu writes that ‘all the critical forces in society need to insist on the inclusion of the social costs of economic decisions in economic calculations’. The concern in the novel is for a more meaningful form of democratic participation in the life of the community, the city and in society. The anodyne model of democracy which is explicitly rejected in the novel is a managerial one, which is concerned primarily with the reproduction of political power, and not with specific problems and possibilities in the life of a city. A politician from the the right-wing party is described as having been ‘appointed to administer’ the city; the dominant attitude of the politicians in the novel is that of cynicism and self-interest. The democratic system is shown to be merely a machine to produce the illusion of democracy.

Alain Badiou makes the point that capitalism is worldless, in the sense that it is divorced from any specific social field of meaning and can operate with any set of values, adapting easily to purported ‘Asian values’ (supposedly collectivist and authoritarian) rather than being entrenched in the liberal, ‘democratic’ and individualist traditions of the West. The city as we first encounter it in Seeing, as in the other three novels under discussion, appears to have no distinguishing features: no past, no place, no landmarks, and no names. It is the bland landscape of liberal-democratic capitalism, with all distinguishing historical and geographical features and social particularities eliminated, not anchored in any specific time or landscape. It might therefore be thought of as a Fukuyamaian post-historical city. Apart from the designation of three political parties, from the right, the centre and the left, ideology plays very little role, and politics is merely a matter of administration.

The pre-rebellion city in ‘Seeing’ can thus be categorized as another non-place; although the politicians insist that the municipal elections are vital for the future of the city, their rhetoric rings false, as the city appears to have no past, and how can a city with no past have a future? The ‘gentle rebellion’ occasioned by the blank votes, however, awakens the city to its past, to its repressed traumas, but also to new possible futures.

These possibilities can be glimpsed in those moments in the novel where the city itself appears to become the agent of transformation. Previously the citizens have not had ‘the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of their rights’, but after they rebel and the Government deserts the city, the city itself becomes subjectivised in a process which Badiou might well classify as an ‘event’: a collective political phenomenon which seemingly emerges out of nothing, and which then opens the way to new possibilities. The city  is said to ‘[take] the matter into its own hands’. Useful here is Lefebvre’s concept of ‘counter-spaces’: spaces which ‘resist the dominant organisation of space around the requirements of political order’, and which can also be categorised in Foucaultian terms as ‘heterotopias’. The action of the citizens in reclaiming the streets creates spaces from which formal power is excluded. Fran Tonkiss writes:

‘Taking to the streets or the square is both a tactical reworking of space – the embassy or the government building is no longer simply a site of official power, but also a site of protest or resistance – and an enactment in time’.

A heterotopia is a kind of ‘effectively enacted utopia’, and those moments in the novel in which the possibility of a genuinely humanizing urban experience is glimpsed can be characterised as utopian in the sense that they offer what Marx described as ‘fantastic pictures of future society’; a vision of what humans can collectively achieve once their ‘slumbering powers’ have been awakened. For David Harvey:

‘The figures of “the city” and of “Utopia” have long been intertwined, visions of utopia assuming an urban form. In remaking the city we remake ourselves, or as the situationist slogan says, ‘changer la ville, changer la vie’.

In those moments in which the citizens express solidarity with their fellow inhabitants and begin to appropriate and produce their own space, the city becomes a place of meaning: in an echo of the closing pages of Blindness, it also becomes a place of ritual. The moment in which the superintendent drinks from the fountain in the park is described in quasi-religious terms.

It is significantly the only one of the four novels in which the city has a clearly defined centre. As we explored in the chapter on The Cave, within Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘right to the city’, the right to centrality, of access to and participation in the life of the city is key. Writing on the Paris Commune, Lefebvre argues that the workers return to the centre, conquer the city. This renovated centrality is a crucial element in the transformation of the city in Seeing. The people of the city produce their own space, creating a kind of experimental utopia of which Lefebvre would surely approve:

‘[Lefebvre] envisaged a ludic city, such that work would be organised around residence, and in which everyday life would be transformed, and people would be in charge of their lives.’

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