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Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria


Lisa Wedeen

Touted by its publishers as the “most prestigious lifestyle and luxury magazine in Syria,”1 the January 2011 issue of Happynings enjoined readers to accessorize with camouflage: “From combat cool to aviatrix chic, military style took fall runways by storm. We show how to pledge allegiance to the season's hottest trend and work army accents into every look.”2 A music video by Husayn al-Dik, the brother of a regionally famous crooner, echoed this aesthetic imperative with performers dressed in black-and-gray fatigues, matching hats, and lace-up boots dancing to his sexually suggestive tune “Natir Bint al-Madraseh” (Waiting for the School Girl).3

So at odds with the ascetic, austere, tanks-in-the-streets reality of the 1980s, this shift from military apparel as a sign of coercive control to an accoutrement of market choice proved ephemeral, undermined by the reappearance of soldiers in the streets when protests got underway by mid-March. As demonstrations gained momentum and the regime responded by attempting to crush dissent, the public prominence of market-oriented preoccupations with lifestyle and luxury gave way to anxieties of conspiracy and disorder—at least among the country's staunch supporters of the regime. For others dreaming of an end to the regime or worrying more about crop failure or lax morals than what to wear to the party, the military's return to the streets nevertheless laid bare what is often identified as a key feature of autocracy—its reliance on coercive power to squelch unrest. Recent aesthetic displacement onto such concerns as fashion choices could no longer distract from the inequality generated by market openings and the endless deferral of political reforms. Nor could glamor and glitz obscure the regime's preference for handling protest by promising redress while acting to destroy all perceived threats to its survival. And, yet, even as Syrians were joining the protests in locales throughout the country—in Syria's two major cities, Aleppo (Syria's key commercial hub) and Damascus—the population failed to mobilize in significant numbers. The question is why not? And why did this reluctance to participate actively in the uprising seem to be changing in the spring of 2012—before events countrywide took an overwhelmingly violent turn, thereby making large-scale peaceful demonstrations unlikely anywhere?4

I want to argue that what might best be described, following Lauren Berlant, as an ideology of “the good life”—in this case, combining economic liberalization with fears of sectarian disorder and “nonsovereignty”—operated to organize desire and quell dissent.5 This good life entailed not only the usual aspirations to economic well-being but also fantasies of multicultural accommodation, domestic security, and a sovereign national identity,6 generating conditions for the sustenance of a neoliberal autocracy.7 Neoliberal autocracy implies two contradictory logics of rule, cultivating an aspirational consciousness for freedom, upward mobility, and consumer pleasure, on the one hand, while continuing to tether possibilities for advancement to citizen obedience and coercive control, on the other. These contradictions were mediated and managed in Syria through an image world that wedded private capital to regime/public control—epitomized by the glamorous, urbane, assertively modern “first family.” This first-family mimesis worked to produce the celebrity president, his elegant first lady, and their children as sites of aspirational consciousness in which individual responsibility, refined tastes, fashionable possessions, and domestic intimacy were exemplified.8 Fantasies of upward mobility were connected to acts of personal initiative and status quo stability rather than the quasi-socialist promises of state-initiated development or party cadre activism of the previous Asad regime.


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  • The Assads in happier times (Paris, 2008).