[Marxism] Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East | The Bullet No. 930

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 23 09:37:52 MST 2014


Excerpt from Adam Hanieh's Lineages of Revolt:
Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East
 From Chapter One

Conventional accounts of political economy in the Middle East tend to 
adopt a similar methodological approach, which begins, typically, with 
the basic analytical categories of “state” (al-dawla) and “civil 
society” (al-mujtama’ al-madani). The former is defined as the various 
political institutions that stand above society and govern a country. 
The latter is made up of “institutions autonomous from the state which 
facilitate orderly economic, political and social activity” or, in the 
words of the Iraqi social scientist Abdul Hussein Shaaban, “the civil 
space that separates the state from society, which is made up of 
non-governmental and non-inheritable economic, political, social and 
cultural institutions that form a bond between the individual and the 
state.” All societies are said to be characterized by this basic 
division, which sees the state confronted by an agglomeration of 
atomized individuals, organized in a range of “interest groups” with 
varying degrees of ability to choose their political representatives and 
make demands on their political leaders. The institutions of civil 
society organize and express the needs of people in opposition to the 
state, “enabling individuals to participate in the public space and 
build bonds of solidarity.” The study of political economy becomes 
focused upon, as a frequently cited book on the subject explains, 
“strategies of economic transformation, the state agencies and actors 
that seek to implement them, and the social actors such as interest 
groups that react to and are shaped by them.”

A conspicuous feature of the Middle East, according to both Arabic- and 
English-language discussions on these issues, is the region's apparent 
“resilience of authoritarianism” – the prevalence of states where 
“leaders are not selected through free and fair elections, and a 
relatively narrow group of people control the state apparatus and are 
not held accountable for their decisions by the broader public.” While 
much of the world managed to sweep away dictatorial regimes through the 
1990s and 2000s, the Middle East remained largely mired in autocracy and 
monarchical rule – “the world's most unfree region” as the introduction 
to one prominent study of authoritarianism in the Arab world put it. A 
dizzying array of typologies for this authoritarianism has been put 
forward, characteristically dividing the region between authoritarian 
monarchies (the Gulf Arab states, Morocco, Jordan) and authoritarian 
republics (Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia). These authoritarian 
regimes are typically contrasted with a third category, the so-called 
democratic exceptions, in which “incumbent executives are able to be 
removed and replaced.” Israel is frequently held up as the archetype of 
this latter group – with Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq (following the 
2003 U.S. invasion) also included, each with a varying “degree” of 

An entire academic industry has developed around attempting to explain 
the apparent persistence and durability of Middle East authoritarianism. 
Much of this has been heavily Eurocentric, seeking some kind of 
intrinsic “obedience to authority” inherent to the “Arab mind.” Some 
authors have focused on the impact of religion, tracing authoritarian 
rule to the heavy influence of Islam, and the fact that 
“twentieth-century Muslim political leaders often have styles and use 
strategies that are very similar to those instituted by the Prophet 
Muhammad in Arabia some 1400 years ago.” Similarly, others have examined 
the source of regime legitimacy in places such as Saudi Arabia, where 
the “ruler's personal adherence to religious standards and kinship 
loyalties” supposedly fit the “political culture” of a society whose 
reference point is “Islamic theocracy coming from the ablest leaders of 
a tribe tracing its lineage to the Prophet.” Other more modern 
explanations for authoritarianism have been sought in intra-elite 
division, leaders’ skills at balancing and manipulating different groups 
in society – so-called statecraft, natural resource endowment, and the 
role and attitudes of the military. All these approaches share the same 
core methodological assumption: the key categories for understanding the 
Middle East – and, indeed, any society – are the state, on one hand, 
counterposed with civil society, on the other.

This state/civil society dichotomy underlies another frequent (although 
not unchallenged) assertion made in the literature on the Middle East – 
that of a two-way, causal link between authoritarianism and the weakness 
of capitalism. According to this perspective, authoritarianism not only 
means that political and civil rights are weak or absent but also that 
the heavy hand of state control interferes with the operation of a 
capitalist economy. Individuals are prevented from freely engaging in 
market activities while state elites benefit from authoritarianism by 
engaging in “rent-seeking behavior” – using their privileged position to 
divert economic rents that pass through the state for their own personal 
enrichment and consolidation of power. Authoritarian states seek to 
dominate and control economic sectors through their position of 
strength, allocating rents to favored groups in order to keep society in 
check. In the Middle East, as a result, “private property is not secure 
from the whims of arbitrary rulers...[and] many regimes have yet to 
abandon allocation for alternative strategies of political legitimation, 
and hence must continue to generate rents that accrue to the state.”

Within this worldview, the agency of freedom is neatly located in the 
realm of the market, while tyranny lurks ever-present in the state. The 
history of the region is thus characteristically recounted as a 
long-standing struggle between the “authoritarian state” and “economic 
and political liberalization.” Told from this perspective, the narrative 
usually begins with the emergence from colonialism in the aftermath of 
World War II, when various independence movements sought a definitive 
end to British and French influence in the area. These independence 
movements were typically led by militaries or other elites, which seized 
power in the postcolonial period and began an era of “statism” or “Arab 
socialism.” By the 1980s, however, these authoritarian states would come 
under severe strain due to the inefficiencies of state-led economic 
development and the desire of increasingly educated populations for 
greater economic and political freedom. These pressures for economic 
liberalization were compounded in the era of globalization by the ethos 
of “democratization” that swept the globe through the 1990s. There was – 
as two well-known scholars of the Middle East put it – a “direct 
correlation between economic performance and the degree of 
democracy...the more open and liberal a polity, the more effective has 
been its economy in responding to globalization.” Authoritarian states 
that had “waged literal or metaphorical wars against their civil 
societies and the autonomous capital that is both the cause and product 
of civil society” might sometimes choose the “right” economic policies, 
but these were inevitably “dead letters in the absence of implementation 
capacity, which only a dynamic civil society appears to be able to 
provide.” Capitalism was, in short, best suited to – and a force for – 

     “Instead of viewing the Arab uprisings as protests against the 
“free market” economic policies long championed by Western institutions 
in the region, they were framed as essentially political in nature. ”

This logic was widely replicated outside of academia through the 1990s 
and 2000s, forming the core justification for a wide-range of so-called 
democracy promotion programs. Integral to this was the U.S. National 
Endowment for Democracy (NED), established in 1983 and funded by the 
U.S. State Department. NED, in turn, supported other organizations such 
as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International 
Republican Institute (IRI) – linked to Democratic and Republican Parties 
respectively – and bodies such as the Center for International Private 
Enterprise (CIPE) and the Solidarity Center (affiliated to the AFL-CIO). 
A host of other private corporations and NGOs were also involved. 
Through these institutions, the U.S. government focused on programs that 
twinned the extension of neoliberal policies with the democracy 
promotion agenda in the global South. As then president George W. Bush 
noted in 2004, this policy was based around “free elections and free 
markets.” It was a form of democracy understood in the narrow sense of 
regular electoral competitions, usually waged between different sections 
of the elite, which largely aimed at providing popularly sanctioned 
legitimacy for free market economic measures. While organizations such 
as NED, NDI, and IRI were the most visible and explicit face of this 
policy orientation, all international financial institutions were to 
employ the same basic argument linking “free markets” and “a vibrant 
civil society” with the weakening of the authoritarian state.

In this vein, the response of Western governments and institutions to 
the revolts of 2011 and 2012 was largely predictable. Instead of viewing 
the Arab uprisings as protests against the “free market” economic 
policies long championed by Western institutions in the region, they 
were framed as essentially political in nature. The problem, according 
to the Western angle, lay in authoritarianism, which stifled markets, 
and the popular rage expressed on the streets of the Middle East could 
thus be understood as pro-capitalist in content. U.S. President Obama 
noted, for example, in a major policy speech on the Middle East in May 
2011, that the region needed “a model in which protectionism gives way 
to openness, the reins of commerce pass from the few to the many, and 
the economy generates jobs for the young. America's support for 
democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, 
promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other 
and the global economy.” Likewise, the president of the World Bank, 
Robert Zoellick, argued that the revolts in Tunisia occurred because of 
too much “red tape,” which prevented people from engaging in capitalist 
markets. This basic argument would be repeated incessantly by Western 
policy makers throughout 2011 and 2012 – autocratic states had stifled 
economic freedom; “free markets” would be essential to any sustained 
transition away from authoritarianism.

[Excerpted from Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in 
the Middle East, by Adam Hanieh, by permission of the author. © 2013 
Adam Hanieh. For more information, or to buy a copy of this book, click 
here.] •

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