Tidiness, the state, and us

"Loading Bay (VII)" by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)
“Loading Bay (VII)” by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)

They pushed the vendors out of Ramses Square this year. Out of other places too, notes The Guardian in an article on street trading in Cairo – a commercial mode that bloomed after the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but which is now actively being suppressed by president (and former field marshal) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s counter-revolutionary government. Squares once full of stalls and carts are homes to new landscaping now, and to traffic.

While the article admits that there’s an element of image-making about all this, it also sees a more direct, if unexpressed, political motive. “You can call it ‘revolution-free’ downtown. Street vendors are only one side,” an urban planner tells the newspaper. “There’s another layer, hangouts for activists and artists and journalists, all these kind of troublemakers who are viewed by the establishment as partially the instigators of the chaos that took place.”

Perhaps this is true – although pushing activists and journalists out of areas where they are known to congregate and can be easily observed surely seems counter-productive from a state security perspective – but even so, we shouldn’t underplay the importance of image-making. Great psychological (and thus political) power issues from the simple act of clearing away messiness and disorder – however defined and perceived – from a city.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness, you see. At a personal level, this may well stem from childhood, a time when messiness was the one thing that brought constant – if not always severe – disapproval from one’s parents. The act of growing up is marked, in part, by an individual’s ability and willingness to clean up after themselves and to keep their personal space tidy. For most of us, untidiness thus brings with it a sting of half-remembered guilt, and a vague feeling that one has to some extent lost control over one’s destiny. The anxious realization, in other words, that your “shit” is not “together”.

There’s a societal memory operating here too. We bury our waste far from our urban centres, rightly fearing the diseases that may come from rotting food, from excrement, from rats, from flies. The Black Plague is a lodestone in our collective memory, a continent-spanning, virus-borne 9/11 that won’t let us forget. Even the closeness of other people brings disease to mind: the flu transmitted through a crowded aircraft’s ventilation system, Ebola coursing through slums. The one hundred tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron were told by characters who had reacted to the plague in Florence by fleeing the city and their fellow citizens. In this light, tidiness is a kind of quarantine, a deliberately-ordered series of compartments built to prevent a leak from sinking the whole ship. A lot in a well-maintained suburb with the car that accompanies it is not simply a declaration of ownership, of status, or of privacy – it’s also a living space and transportation system without common elements: without germ-ridden elevator buttons, handrails, or bus seats. It’s a transmission barrier.

Humanity’s negative relationship with untidiness is also an expression of our general unhappiness with uncertainty (Child: I can’t find my toy in here – did my mother throw it away? Did I lose it? Will I ever get another one? What is happening to the world!?). Considered mathematically or philosophically, uncertainty is simply the state of not knowing a future outcome – a state that is both utterly common to (in fact, definitional to) life on Earth and a primary source of worry and stress for its inhabitants. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that “loss aversion” is a powerful force in our decision-making: that most of us, in other words, would be significantly happier to avoid losing $100 than to win $100. Though economists see this as irrational, there may be a deeper logic to it: for a rich investor, $100 is neither here nor there; but for a financially-strapped householder, $100 may be half of this week’s groceries – so $100 lost can have a far greater and much more immediate impact than $100 gained. Our aversion to risk – and to uncertainty in general — may thus be the natural legacy of a remembered, still-feared general state of poverty.

Our language underlines our ambivalence. We continually associate concepts like “order” and “chaos” (the older brother of untidiness) with positive and negative companion ideas – not in a uni-directional association (e.g. order -> good) but in a multi-directional one. If I say “order”, you may think “repression” – or you may think “efficiency” or “safety” or “harmony”, depending both on the context and on your own personality and beliefs. Likewise, if I say “chaos”, you may think “creativity” or “freedom” – or you may think “anarchy” or “waste” or “danger”. Thus to a Western reporter with no personal stake in the outcome, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 may have looked like a glorious chaos, a momentary anarchy leading to the birth of political freedom. To a Cairo merchant, by contrast, whose still-modest family wealth was tied up in his business, the revolution may have been deeply worrying – a burst of uncertainty that could lead to intangible gains in political freedom, yes, but also potentially to disastrous losses of money and threats to his children’s safety.

This dichotomy in how uncertainty can be perceived by different classes and different individuals is important to recognize, for it has always presented profound dangers for liberal democracy – a form of political organization that we moderns both adore and misunderstand in equal measure. In a rich democracy threatened by terrorism, we are surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the number of people – a majority, only a handful of years ago – who are willing to tolerate outrages like torture and assassination in order to reduce their sense of insecurity. In a poor and fragile democracy like post-revolutionary Egypt, the same mechanism operates, though it is starker and more broadly applied. The promise of a political strongman like al-Sisi is the promise to reduce the majority’s sense of risk by focusing that risk instead on a minority, transforming it both in intensity and in character; boiled down, it’s a promise to oppress the few rather than worry the many. So to the extent that the cacophony of street vendors is a sign that uncertainty remains at large, it is wholly unsurprising that the Egyptian state would sooner or later move to sweep them away.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness.