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Is a Real Revolution Possible in the Arab World?

At first blush, the term “Arab Winter” makes sense given the restoration of military rule in Egypt, Syria’s descent into sectarian chaos, and Libya’s coming apart at the seams. Can a case be made for guarded optimism, however? If so, then there is probably nobody more qualified to make it than Gilbert Achcar, the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region whose 2013 study “The People Want” attempts to get beneath surface impressions, especially those based on changing seasons. If Marxism seems deeply troubled as a political movement and lacks a sizable contingent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it still has a use as an analytical tool. Owing much to its Hegelian roots, the dialectical method at the heart of Marxism is ideally suited to resolving contradictions. And no other region in the world is more riven with contradictions than MENA, arguably the source of its failure as of yet to deliver on the promises of 2011.

In a September 4, 2013 article for “Guernica” titled “What is a Revolution”, Tariq Ali adopted a rather frosty tone in sizing up the undelivered promises of the region, described mostly as a failure to qualify as a genuine revolution. He wrote that only “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” could qualify as a revolution. Now, of course, there was a time in which Tariq Ali would have been more generous with movements that were so lacking, including many of the national liberation movements he embraced as a young radical. Using his yardstick, Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists.  Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops. But that is no argument for not protesting against B-52 bombing raids and Operation Phoenix. If Ali was referring to the classical socialist revolution that have been far and few between since 1917, rarer in some ways than the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was supposedly last spotted in Arkansas back in 2005, he certainly had a point even if it did not do justice to the social realities of Egypt, Syria, or Libya.

Perhaps another term might be more useful when trying to understand the process that began in 2011—one that Achcar argues was already in progress for some years due to unresolved social, political and economic contradictions. In his introduction he makes the case for recognizing the struggle as a thawra, the Arab term for revolt, a word that might be more useful since it is both less restrictive than Ali’s parameters as well as leaving open the possibility that what we are seeing is a protracted and long-term revolutionary process. Considering Ho Chi Minh’s long struggle to break colonial control over his nation, this gives you some sense of the historic mission facing revolutionaries in the region.

Departing from the “game of nations” framework that is used by most commentators on MENA as a way of reducing everything to a battle between the US and an “anti-imperialist” bloc led by Vladimir Putin, Achcar’s analysis is grounded in the class relations that exist within nations like Egypt, Libya, Syria et al. Based on the statistics he amasses in chapter one (“Fettered Development”), one can only wonder why it took so long for revolts to break out.

Perhaps all you need to know is that between 2000 and 2008, MENA had a slower rate of growth than Sub-Saharan Africa. With its ample oil resources, it seems as if there was a deliberate attempt to slow down if not sabotage economic growth. Even with the inclusion of oil and gas rich states like Saudi Arabia and The-People-Want-217x332Algeria, the poverty rate is 39.9% for the region as a whole.

While the statistics found in the first chapter can be gleaned easily enough from the UN or various think tanks, what you need in addition is an understanding of the laws of motion in the economy that made them inevitable. That is what Achcar hopes to do in chapter two (“The Peculiar Modalities of Capitalism in the Arab Region”).

The analysis in that chapter is at least for this reader the major theoretical contribution made by Gilbert Achcar. While Max Weber is a thinker who might be unfashionable in the academy nowadays, Achcar puts his concept of the patrimonial state to good use.  For Achcar, patrimonialism is an absolute, hereditary type of autocratic power that relies on an entourage built of “kith and kin” and which uses the state to protect its interests and those who it favors. Essentially, the term “crony capitalism” describes the power relationships that existed throughout the region despite the tendency of some rulers to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of national liberation and socialism.

For some on the left, there is a tendency to put the most positive spin on patrimonial states when they appear disposed to provide benefits of one sort or another to the population. While this is obviously not socialism, it is a petroleum-fueled welfare state that bears some resemblance to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—or so it would seem.

However, oil revenue can be a double-edged sword. When a state’s treasury relies on oil revenues rather than taxes, such as is the case in Kuwait where tax revenues comprised less than 1 percent of GDP, the ruling clique is not bound by obligations to a largely non-existent tax-paying population.

Oil and gas production in MENA is an industry that generates ground-rent in terms understood by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. This simply means that unlike manufacturing, the means of production can largely do without labor. Wealth is being generated but not jobs. This goes a long way to explain the disproportionately large informal sector in MENA. If factory jobs are virtually non-existent, then the only recourse is to emigrate (the region is known for its massive export of labor) or becoming a street peddler. When a state that has grown indifferent to a non-taxpaying base and has nourished corruption and payoffs throughout the body politic, no wonder someone like Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit peddler, could have touched off the Arab revolts through his self-immolation after years of paying off the cops or being beaten and harassed by them.

Despite the occasional report about diversification in oil-producing nations, manufacturing remains stunted. Compared to Israel that lacks any sort of mineral wealth but enjoys a robust manufacturing base, the Arab states are extremely underdeveloped. Why is there so little commitment from the elites, even on a capitalist basis, to use oil revenue to remove the distortions that plague the local economies?

Public investment in infrastructure and in state-owned enterprises (other than ground rent producing minerals) is lower in MENA than the rest of the world. As a corollary, private enterprise is stunted as well. In some ways the “Asian tigers”, joined and surpassed by late-arriving China, benefited from heavy state investment and a protectionism that finds no counterpart in the Arab world.

With economies tied so closely to oil and gas exports, whose prices can fluctuate wildly on the basis of speculation taking place in the futures market, a gambling mentality infuses the “crony capitalists” sitting on top of the Arab pyramid. They put their money into hedge funds and only invest locally on a short-term basis.

The most popular target for petroleum-generated capital in the region is real estate. The contrast between rich and poor within nations and between rich and poor nations (Kuwait versus Yemen, for example) is most glaring when it comes to the skyscrapers punctuating the urban landscape that would make Donald Trump look modest by comparison. The Emirate of Dubai is leading the decadent pack. The financial crisis of 2008 has caused its patrimonial ruling class to put many projects on hold but at one point it seemed that they were building a new tower of Babel. More than a half-mile high and the tallest building in the world, the Tower of Dubai (later renamed Burj Khalifa, after the king of Abu Dhabi) was like all the rest a Scrooge McDuck exercise in penis-envy type pretension and an environmental disaster.  Perhaps the best use of it was as a backdrop for the latest installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible franchise.

If economics distorts politics within a given country, the same thing can be said about relations between nations. With their oil wealth, Saudi Arabia and Qatar can manipulate the revolts across the region by pumping money into one faction or another. The tendency to reduce such states to an “Islamist” role breaks down, of course, when considering the bitter rivalry between the two patrimonial states above when it comes to their relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Saudis favoring the military crackdown in Egypt.

Not much has changed politically in MENA since a year ago when “The People Want” was published. The final four chapters of the book provide a balance sheet on the various countries that have experienced a thawra and make some projections as to what to expect in the future.

Of particular interest is Achcar’s treatment of Al Jazeera and the Internet, the two new forms of communication that arguably shaped the revolts.

As a symbol of the contradictions involving social class and religion in the Middle East, Al Jazeera is the perfect symbol. Launched by Qatar, it was an attempt to present alternatives to the Saudi broadcasting stations that were largely framed in terms of the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood whose members were liberally represented in the station’s management and reporting personnel. In order to establish credibility, Al Jazeera also included views to the left of the MB, including an occasional visit from Gilbert Achcar. As a sounding board for the socially conservative MB, the station might be faulted as a fetter on political growth. However, by presenting an ongoing critique of Zionism and American ambitions in the region, the station constitutes a powerful weapon against Arab reaction whatever the intentions of the Qatari emirate.

In his discussion of the Internet, Achcar is careful to avoid the kind of breathless enthusing that has led critics such as Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier to adopt an almost Luddite hostility to FB, Twitter, and blogging. If Tahrir Square appeared at first blush to be entirely a product of social media, he reminds us that Facebook networks had emerged from the activism of young people who were in solidarity with the Mahalla workers. Unlike the stereotype of the isolated Web-addict, the social media networks evolved from people who had a myriad of connections to Egyptian political parties and trade unions. They knew what it meant to meet face-to-face and to mobilize people through older forms of communication, including the quaint and humble printed leaflet.

Given the general sense of disillusionment with the outcome of the Arab revolt, including Egypt where a number of the young activists alluded to above threw their support behind the Egyptian military, the question must be posed: is a revolution possible in the Arab world? Does classical Marxism have anything to offer to young people, workers and peasants trying to liberate themselves from oppressive patrimonial dictatorships?

The Middle East and North Africa pose a major challenge to traditional strategies of the left since the states are combinations of modern dictatorial rule of the sort found in Latin America for more than a century with archaic social forms that hearken back to precapitalist societies, including clan-based and clerical rule. On top of that, the masses have to deal with artificial state creations like Syria that incorporate rival nationalities and religious/ethnic blocs. Colonialism left such a legacy for an obvious reason, to divide and conquer. So in a sense a revolution would have to be mounted against feudalism and capitalism at the same time.

When such archaic factors are allowed to fester and grow under a dictatorship that rests on support from either clans or religious institutions, the revolt’s aftermath can even be thwarted by the failure of civil society to have fostered the development of a national identity. The classic example is Libya, which under Gaddafi claimed to be defending the national interest even though he favored his own clan. After his overthrow, the rival clans and Islamist factions have undermined the possibility of national unity since the population as a whole has gotten into the habit of distrusting central authority.

The same contradictions that have thwarted the development of democracy and economic progress in Libya are undermining the revolt against the Baathists in Syria, the prototypical patrimonial state–except in Syria the main division is along religious sectarian rather than tribal lines.

Despite these gloomy conditions, Achcar remains optimistic. In his conclusion, he argues for the need to take a long view and an orientation to the working-class. If images of October 17, 1917 seem as remote from MENA social realities as can be imagined, it is useful to be reminded of the original impetus behind the Arab revolt that had echoes of that ancient Bolshevik history. Achcar writes, and we conclude:

The Arab uprising’s basic aspirations found expression in the very first slogans proclaimed by demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt: “Employment is a right, you pack of thieves!” in Tunisia; and in Egypt, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!” and “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!” where the notion of dignity refers, above all, to social conditions that give the unemployed or small peddlers the feeling that their dignity has been trampled underfoot. If the path leading to the realization of these basic aspirations is to be found, left forces such as the UGTT in Tunisia or the combination Popular Current–EFITU in Egypt will have to grow and triumph. For as long as those fundamental demands—for jobs and better living conditions—are not satisfied, over and above the conquest and consolidation of freedoms constantly threatened even in the countries in which they have already been won, there can be no end to the revolutionary process which, touched off by the spark in Sidi Bouzid, set the whole Arab-speaking prairie ablaze, even if that process continues for many years.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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