Struggle for a Democratic Socialism in the Middle East: Problematica’s interview with Joseph Daher
In this interview with the Iranian site, Problematica, Daher investigates issues such as the relationship between socialism, secularism and democracy, the Arab left experience, the relationship between neoliberalism and authoritarian states, and the Syrian crisis.
Recent mass movements in Middle Eastern and North African countries, despite their defeats and failures, showed prospects and possibilities of a progressive change or a progressive mass organization in the region. Fulfillment of these possibilities requires concentrating on attaining a comprehensive, critical knowledge of the region’s social, political, economic and cultural mechanisms and relations. To achieve these initial goals, Problematica has started series of interviews with progressive or leftist Middle Eastern and North African intellectuals, activist and MENA scholars. In second interview of these series, we have put some questions to Joseph Daher, Marxist intellectual and Syrian-Swiss political activist. He has PhD in Development Studies from School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) and teaches as an assistant teacher in Lausanne University, Switzerland. He is author of a book “Hezbollah, the political economy of the party of God” that will be published in Autumn 2016 with Pluto Press (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/H/bo25052798.html). In this interview we investigate issues like relation of socialism, secularism and democracy, Arab left experience, relation of neoliberalism and authoritarian states and Syrian crisis. From the mentioned series, we have published an interview with Gilbert Achcar (Farsi version and English version).
Problematica: How do you define “Left” and “Leftist Politics”? What are the main theoretical elements of a leftist politics?
Joseph Daher: In my opinion leftist or progressive politics are firstly based on the ideas of defending and encouraging the self-organization of the popular classes in the objectives of struggling for democracy, social justice, equality, secularism and challenging all forms of oppression. It is the combination of the defense of democratic and social rights.
In this perspective of progressive politics, I think it is also important to understand the concept of class as a set of social relations that emerge around capital accumulation and forms of labor, but with the need of avoiding an abstract and economistic understanding of what we mean by class. In other words, it is primordial for me that issues such as gender, age, national and ethnic origin, citizenship status, and so forth, are part of what constitutes class as a concrete social relation.
In the framework of what I said above, the fundamental theoretical elements that characterizes progressive politics are in my view the belief that only popular masses developing their own mobilization potential can realize change through their collective action, in other words people are the actors of their own emancipation. This is in my mind the abc of progressive and revolutionary politics. But this abc, today, faces a profound skepticism from numerous leftist milieus on a world scale unfortunately.
* Many scholars admit that following the collapse of so-called socialist bloc, we see demise in leftist politics in MENA. How those theoretical elements mentioned above can help us in reconstruction of the Left in Middle East and North Africa? What are – or precisely – what should be the elements of a leftist politics in these societies? Or historical, social, economic and political realities in MENA demand what kind of leftism?
Firstly, I think that the region of the MENA has no kind of “exceptionalism” that prevents it from struggling for the same things that other part of the world such as democracy, social justice, equality, secularism, etc… Just as when we study the region we have to reject and fight against Orientalist conceptions that tend to hold up the region as being beyond the grasp of social scientific frameworks typically employed to understand processes of political and change elsewhere in the world. Just as the Arab writer Aziz Al-Azmeh stated “the understanding of Islamic political phenomena requires the normal equipment of the social and human sciences, not their denial”.
Regarding the tasks of the left and progressive politics in the region, wherever that would be, I believe that is to rebuild a large progressive and democratic movement, which enables the unity and independence of the working and popular classes without gender, ethnic, sectarian and other discrimination. This is indeed the only way to liberation and emancipation of the working and popular classes. This does not mean we should just have an “economist” approach, workers’ struggles will not be sufficient to unite the working classes. Of course progressives must be at the forefront of the struggle against austerity and neoliberal policies, but they also must be the champion of the defense of democratic rights in general whether in the defense of women’s rights and emancipations, defense of secularism (separation of State and religion), defense of the freedom of expression, defense of religious and ethnic minorities, defense of LGBT communities, or the fight against racism and sectarianism.
To build a progressive movement, we must understand how, beyond capitalist dynamics, gender issues, discrimination based on religion and / or ‘race’ influences both the structure and dynamics of our societies and of our workplaces and the development processes of consciousness. It is not whether the classes go before gender / race / religion or vice versa, but how these elements come together in the production and in the capitalist power relations, which result in a complex reality.
Discrimination based on race, gender, economic, cultural and ideological oppression should not be underestimated, at the risk of losing sight of the complexity of the task, when building a progressive movement including workers and oppressed populations of all backgrounds. The lack of consideration of these intersections will act negatively in the will of uniting the working class and of the political project for a radical transformation of society.
* How do you assess the experience of historical Arab left in promoting progressive values like secularism, democracy, social justice, gender equality and so on? In Iran we have an absolute lack of knowledge about Arab leftist tradition. I know just five or six names, and among them I am only familiar with works and ideas of Mahdi Amel (Hassan Hamdan) who worked hard to present a Marxism adapted to political and social realities of Lebanon and finally was assassinated probably by Shia Islamists. Which leftist activists and intellectuals have a practical and practicable for us? You can concentrate on the history of left in your own country or anywhere you are more familiar with.
It depends of the periods we are talking about. In the beginning of the establishment of various communist parties in the region in the 1920s and 1930s, they played a role regarding the struggle for independence and anti imperialist struggle, defense of democratic rights and in the establishment of trade unions and organizing, or at least intervening in the worker’s movements.
The majority of the left linked with Stalinist currents and traditional communist parties in the region nevertheless then followed the USSR policies of alliance with segments of “national bourgeoisie” and/or with authoritarian Arab nationalist regimes such as the Baath in Syria and Iraq or with Nasser in Egypt, despite being sometimes repressed by these same regimes. These traditional communist parties in Egypt, Tagmamu, for example supported the dictator Mubarak until its last days, while it supports the brutal dictatorship of Sissi today. In Syria, the historic Syrian Communist Party and communist parties linked to the Bekdashi’s, the founder of the Syrian communist party, tradition support the criminal Assad regime as well until today. So this particular experience, Stalinist tradition, and in-heritage are catastrophic.
This said other leftist parties played very interesting role such as in Syria for example, particularly the League of Communist Action (Rabita al-‘amal al-shiu’i) which was severely repressed in the beginning of the 1970s until the 1980s by the Assad regime. This party always opposed to the brutal dictatorship of the Assad regime and struggled for democracy and socialism, and in addition according to some sources already had a positive position regarding Kurdish self determination, while refusing as well opportunist alliances with extremist Islamic fundamentalist parties at this period and criticizing the sectarian violence and discourse used by these latter. This was actually not the case for example of the Communist Party Political Bureau (CPPB) of Ryad Turk, that although opposed the Assad regime soaked a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhoods, without criticizing its sectarian discourses and violence, and bourgeois section of the opposition. The people from this same in-heritage actually did the same mistakes at the beginning of the Syrian revolutionary process and continue to do so.
So the experience in these years of the League of Communist Action was definitely an experience that I look as an example to follow.
Otherwise, two prominent left intellectuals and activists of the region played an important role in my political formation and readings: Mehdi Amel and Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm.
Mehdi Amel was, I think, the first to understand and explain sectarianism as a political product of modern times used by the Lebanese bourgeoisie to intervene ideologically in the class struggle, strengthening its control of the popular classes and keeping them subordinated to their sectarian leaders. He saw that sectarianism needed to be seen as constitutive, and reinforcing, of current forms of state and class power.
Mehdi Amel was also one of the most vocal critics of the concept of “community class” during the Lebanese civil war. [i] He argued against any attempt to ascribe and equate class position according to membership in a particular sect, and as a result, to then build alliances on the basis of sectarian affiliation. Such alliances would, according to Amel, further entrench the sectarian dynamic inherent to the system and thus strengthen the position of those in power. At a theoretical level, the community class concept was mistaken, in Amel’s belief, because it resulted from an amalgam of the political (the sectarian system) and the economic (the social relations underlying capitalist society). Instead, Amel advanced a position that highlighted the contradictory class nature of different sect communities, one in which the role of sectarianism helped to obscure relations of power and domination within the community itself.
In Lebanon, during the civil war, the Lebanese National Movement, which ead led by the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) in alliance with other leftist and nationalist movements and they supported the Palestinian resistance and called for an end to the sectarian political system, progressively deepened its alliance with Muslim elites and some Islamic groups, leading it to increasingly abandon socio-economic demands and the goal of secularising political structures. LNM’s position was increasingly defensive by dropping its reform program and adopting an increasingly Arab nationalist discourse with sectarian themes, in which sects were divided between “patriotic” and “non patriotic ones”. In this manner, the positions of the LNM and some sections of the left paved the way for increased sectarianism and the facilitation of foreign interference in the internal politics of the country.
These trends confirm the prognosis of Mehdi Amel, who argued that the bourgeoisie would attempt to give a confessional aspect to the class struggle in order to maintain its own dominant position. The confessional inflexion of class struggle reflected the ability of the bourgeoisie to impose itself as the representatives of subordinated classes, making the latter dependant on its political and confessional representation.
His understanding of sectarianism is particularly important until today in the region with authoritarian regimes and religious fundamentalist forces using sectarianism to divide the popular classes and win people on primary identities, and obscure socio economic and political struggles.
Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm on his side was influential by highlighting how the culturalist and idealised view of the past by both Arab Nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist forces was problematic. I particularly liked the concept of “Orientalism in return”, which is actually a concept developed by Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm in 1980 against what he sees as a revisionist line of Arab political thought that emerged as a result of the Iranian revolutionary process after 1979. This revisionnist line stemmed from Arab intellectuals, who were mainly coming from the ranks of the left: former radicals, ex-communists, unorthodox Marxists and disillusioned nationalists of one sort or another. This trend developed mainly following the Iranian revolutionary process. Sadiq Jalal al Azm describes this trend as a revisionist Arab line of political thought.
The central thesis behind ‘Orientalism in reverse’ that was developed by these intellectuals and that can nowadays found in Political Islam movements can be summarized as follows, as argued by Syrian writer Al Azm: “The national salvation so eagerly sought by the Arabs since the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt is to be found neither in secular nationalism (be it radical, conservative or liberal) nor in revolutionary communism, socialism or what have you, but in a return to the authenticity of what they call “popular political Islam”.
Unfortunately, this trend has found followers in some currents of the Left and academics in Europe as well, admittedly a minority, but who are nevertheless present. Political Islam becomes for this trend an agent of modernization and the Islamic religion is the essential language and culture of Muslim peoples. In their view, therefore, Islam becomes the driving force of history in the East, unlike the West, where economic interests, class struggles and socio-political forces shape history.
So this critique of Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm was very useful for me by criticizing the notion that the liberation and development of Arab countries depend firstly upon an assertion of an Islamic identity posited as “permanent” and “eternal”.
Finally, another important scholar, although not from the region, was very interesting for me: Maxime Rodinson. In many respects, he was a pioneer in the analysis of Political Islam. In his 1970s comments over the character of the Iranian revolution, Rodinson argued that while the Iranian revolution may hold anti-American and anti-Western positions, the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to return to an archaic order from times past. In defence of universalism, Rodinson stated: “we cannot think the role of Islam as an ideology at the present time other than in a context of class struggle and that the Islamic world is no exception to the general laws of human history”.
* What is the relation of socialism with democracy and secularism? If there is positive relation between these three, of which kind of democracy and secularism we speak?
Firstly we must be clear that the secularism progressive should defend is not separated from the struggle for democracy, social justice and equality.
The secularism we promote does not differentiate from the different sects and ethnicities, and oppose any discrimination. A secular state, in other words the separation of the state and religion, is indeed a key aspect to challenge notably sectarianism and racism (equality for all in terms of laws and no religious sect or ethnicity favored or discriminated), patriarchy and sexism (no laws based on religions that discriminate women in general in terms of in-heritage, civil status, etc…), sexual orientations (no discrimination of LGBT, etc…), etc… In addition to all this, it is important for increasing democratic rights in a general framework, because I don’t believe that a state established on religion or religious institutions can be free and democratic or don’t discriminate some populations. Religious institutions will try and want actually to impose their own understanding of religious laws, instead of the rule of democratic human-made law and the sovereignty of the people’s choice.
In this perspective and in my understanding of secularism, secularism is also part of the struggle to liberate religion from political parties and to let people live freely their religion without the oppression of the state. Secularism is indeed not the eradication of religion from society but the separation of the religion and the state.
* How about political organization and social mobilization? What are the main challenges and opportunities that leftist activists observe in the way of organization and mobilization? What can leftist learn from leftist (Marxist or Non-marxist) traditions in the case of organization and mobilization?
It depends, where you are based first and the conditions in which you are. Conditions of organizations and activisms are not similar for example in Tunisia and Syria. But what is sure, is that whenever you have the conditions that allow for the establishment of organizations and activities that should be done the fastest possible.
There are traditions that we can continue to use, with updating them with the evolutions of our time, whether regarding modern technology, socio economic evolutions within societies, etc…
The most important in my perspective around the issue of political organization and social mobilization is nevertheless never forgetting that the party and / or the organization is not an end but a mean or /an instrument to reach an end. Therefore this instrument should be adapted and modified according to the conditions in which we are in order to better serve the interests of the popular classes and advancements of resistances.
Then politically, I think it is important to maintain a total political independence of the two actors of the counter revolution in the MENA region, representatives of the former authoritarian regimes on one side and the reactionary and fundamentalist Islamic forces, which have unfortunately not been the case by many on the “left” and democratic forces. These two actors are enemies of the initial objectives of the revolutionary processes. Popular movements, activists and groups that were and are carrying the original objectives of the revolutionary process have been attacked by these two forces. The representatives of the former authoritarian regimes and the reactionary and fundamentalist Islamic forces are two forces of the counter-revolution and this despite a different political propaganda. The representatives of the former regimes present themselves as the defenders of modernism, as the saviour of the unity of the nation and champion of the fight against “terrorism”. The reactionary and fundamentalist Islamic forces present themselves on its side as the guarantor of the Islamic religion, morality, authenticity of Islamic and Arab identity, while making the link with the Islamic “Umma”.
These two discourses that certainly differ in appearance, should not make us forget that these two movements share a very similar political project: the will to limit and suppress democratic and social rights, while seeking to guarantee the capitalist system of production and continue the neoliberal policies that impoverish the popular classes in the region. Similarly these two counter revolutionary forces have not and will not hesitate to use a political discourse seeking to divide and antagonize the working popular classes on sectarian religious, ethnic, gender, regionalist bases, etc …
For those who choose to support one of these two counter revolutionary forces presenting it as the choice of the “least worst”, they actually choose the road of defeat and the maintenance of an unjust system in which the popular classes in the region live. The role of revolutionaries is not to choose between different factions of the bourgeoisie or different fractions of the counter-revolutions that are supported by various international and sub-regional imperialist actors. The role of progressives is to oppose the different counter revolutionary forces and build an independent front from these two forms of reactions and basing it on democratic, social, anti-imperialist basis and opposing all forms of discrimination and working for the radical change of society in a dynamic from below in which the working and oppressed classes are the agent of change. This is the key issue for progressives.
This does not mean after that although we consider for example the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt as a counter revolutionary element that we will not oppose the mass violations of humans rights and repressions against their members, or the massacres of Rabia in August 2013 by the dictatorship of Sissi. It is a duty of the progressive to defend the democratic rights of all.
Just as if there are possibilities of unity of actions regarding demonstrations on democratic and non sectarian slogans and objectives, this should be also thought.
This was well explained in the interview you made with Gilbert Achcar: “The rules to be respected are well-known rules of joint action with any groups with which we don’t have much in common beyond a common enemy. They have been summarized by a Russian revolutionary over a century ago, and I like to repeat them: “1) Do not merge organisations. March separately but strike together. 2) Do not abandon our own political demands. 3) Do not conceal divergences of interest. 4) Pay attention to our ally as we would pay attention to an enemy. 5) Concern ourselves more with using the situation created by the struggle than with keeping an ally.”
* What is the role of Imperialism and Colonialism in the region’s backwardness? How the Middle Eastern Left can balance between fight against despotism and fight against Imperialism?
Imperialism has played a huge role in the political and economic backwardness of the region with the collaboration of authoritarian and neoliberal regimes today, and yesterday as well.
Western imperialist states have conducted destructive military interventions in recent decades such as in Iraq in 2003, a military intervention that followed the murderous embargo implemented against the Iraqi people for over 10 years. It is the Western states that provided continued support for bloody dictatorships in the Middle East, not to mention the full support to the colonial and Apartheid state of Israel that has been oppressing for more than 60 years the Palestinian people. What about the neoliberal policies imposed by the Western states and international monetary institutions that have caused impoverishment of entire societies, displacement of populations, famine, etc … At the same time, fundamentalist Islamic movements received the support of Western states and Middle Eastern dictatorships to weaken progressive and nationalist movements in the region in the past (in the 50’s and late 1970).
It is an absolute necessity to challenge despotism and imperialism and very often they are much linked. The various imperialists powers of the world will usually rather support authoritarian regimes than democratic governments in which popular classes can challenge the submissions of their elites to foreign imperialists interests, whether regarding political, diplomatic or economic issues.
The problem today is regarding the understanding of imperialism, which is generally limited to one (United States) or few actors (Western states generally), rather than understood as a global system linked to the development and transformation of the capitalist system, and not limited to a few players. The increasing influence of China, which has become the world’s largest industrial and commercial State, and continues to experience significant rates of growth, despite a relative decline in recent years, and Russia, which saw the concentration of raw materials and industries in the hands of the state and / or its affiliates through a team of businessmen who are close allies of Putin in a patron-client relationships and the increase in prices of raw materials such as oil, must be seen in this perspective.
This reasoning leads to hostile positions with regards to some popular uprisings, as it is currently the case with Syria and Ukraine or in the past with Iran in 2009. In several debates I conducted in which I condemned all forms of imperialisms, including Russian imperialism in Syria and Ukraine (not to mention the Russian repression against the Chechens and the Russian authoritarian, reactionary and economically neoliberal system, with a concentration of wealth in the country in the hands of a mafia business clique affiliated with Putin), several people claiming to be “leftists” answered that there was no Russian imperialism or that Russia was a power that opposed USA imperialism and should therefore be supported.
Just as some people, claiming to be “leftists” have trouble denouncing the Iranian military interventions (through the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards) in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere as well as the economic assistance and political support provided to the Syrian regime or Hezbollah as forms of political interventions to maintain its political influence in the region.
This understanding of anti-imperialism has nothing to do with progressive politics. As French Marxist Pierre Frank said regarding the analysis of a state: “Let us note that the greatest theoreticians of Marxism did not at all define the political nature of a bourgeois regime by the positions which the latter held in the field of foreign policy but solely and simply by the position it occupied in relation to the classes composing the nation”. This is how progressives should position themselves, always according to the interests of the popular classes.
Our choice should not be indeed to choose between on one side the USA and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar and on the other side Iran and Russia.
The role of progressive forces is not to choose between two imperialist or sub imperialists forces that compete for political gains and / or the exploitation of more resources or of other peoples, this understanding undermines the anti-capitalist struggle putting aside the fact that the struggle of the progressive forces must always be in favor of the interests of the working and popular classes in their struggle for liberation and emancipation against all forms of imperialisms and by their struggles challenge the global imperialist system. To choose an imperialism over another is to guarantee the stability of the capitalist system and exploitation of peoples.
* Let’s turn to more specific events and phenomena in the region. First, we can start from one of the oldest: the Palestinian Question. What position should the Middle Eastern Left take on the Palestinian Question? What are the main problems in Israel-Palestine unequal war? What is the relation of the Palestinian fights for democracy and the fight against Israeli occupation? What position should the Left and progressive groups take on the Islamist resistance groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad? What are the non-Islamist groups which can lead the resistance and how they can be hegemonic both against Islamism and Zionism?
In my opinion, the issue of support to the self-determination of the Palestinian people is the first thing as a principle. This said and because of the role of Israel in the region, as a tool of US imperialism since 1956 in the region and of the British before in intervening in various countries in the region to attack progressive actors, I think that Middle Eastern progressives should argue for the Palestinian issue and the Jewish question in Palestine 1) the destruction of the colonial, occupation and Apartheid State of Israel, which has brought only suffering to the Palestinian People and has never brought security in Israel and elsewhere to the Jewish people as its propaganda promotes it, quite on the contrary, and 2) the establishment of a democratic, social and secular state in historic 1948 Palestine for all ( Palestinians and Israelis ) without any form of discrimination and in which any Palestinian, whether internal refugee or refugee in a foreign country, has the right to return to its land and original house which they were forcibly displaced in 1948, 1967 and after. Of course, there should be a social redistribution in favor of the Palestinian people that have been deprived of their lands, houses, state services, etc. Israeli Jews should be recognized as a people, and they should have the right to stay in Palestine.
Secondly, any kind of progressive movement is not serious and dedicated to the liberation of Palestine if it is not committed to the liberation of the people’s region and opposed to all authoritarian regimes. It is indeed necessary to remind everyone that the liberation of Palestine goes through the overthrowing of all the authoritarian regimes in the region, which are complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people. All the ruling class in the region, without any exception, benefits directly or indirectly from the presence of the Zionist State. The different regimes in the region may have political differences that leads to competition and tensions, but they all agree on the necessity of defeating the popular classes of the region in their will of freedom and emancipation. All these regimes have in addition opposed the Palestinian Liberation movement and / or tried to suppress it through different ways, notably harsh repression, expulsion and killing, and / or tried to co-opt it through funding and push it into submission to its own political interests that are in opposition to the interests of the Palestinian popular classes.
This includes Palestinian groups, which we reiterate our total support in their fundamental right to resistance against Israel and against Arab reactionary and authoritarian regimes and condemn the attacks on them all from Israel and other actors, which for their far majority have had a selected support to popular revolutions. Our support to Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in their resistance against any Israeli military aggression do not prevent us from having criticisms in their political views and programs. We for example condemn the support of Mahmoud Abbas to Sissi’s authoritarian rule in Egypt, the support of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine for the Assad regime and non condemnation of the siege imposed by the Assad regime on the Yarmouk camp, the support of Hamas to the Bahraini regime, visit of Prime Minister Hanieh to the Bahraini King and other ruling kings of various monarchies of the Gulf in addition to Iran in February/ March 2012 in which he saluted the King’s policies and “reforms”, against the Bahraini popular revolution and which was characterized by some Hamas leaders as a sectarian coup by Shia’s.
We need progressive movements and activists that see the link between the liberation of the popular classes of the region and of Palestine, and that struggle for it. The liberation of Palestine and its popular classes is linked to the liberation and emancipation of the popular classes in the region against their ruling classes and the various imperialist, particularly the USA and Russia, and sub imperialist forces, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. In this similar logic we have to fight against all attempts by regimes and religious reactionary forces to divide the popular classes according to their gender, religious sects, nationalities, etc… in an attempt to rule them and therefore prevent their liberation and emancipation and therefore of the Palestinian popular classes as well.
I believe that no such political parties exist currently in Palestine unfortunately, although we can find progressive groups and individuals promoting the kind of politics I was talking above. It is something to rebuild and expand, just like in other countries of the region.
Regarding the collaborations with groups such as Jihad Islamic and Hamas, I think I have answered this question previously in related questions, but very shortly as progressive support the right to resistance for all groups against Israeli attacks and participate in this resistance with our means, but we as progressives support and promote our own political programs that combine democratic and social rights, while showing the contradictions of other various parties, including Hamas and Jihad Islamic.
* How do you explain the rise of the so-called Arab Springs? What was the role of leftist groups in the so-called Arab Springs? If we accept that Arab Springs – at least temporary – have been defeated, whether by dictatorships or by reactionary Islamist parties, what are its promises for future?
I am not and never have been at ease with the term “Arab Springs”, which I have never use, so I will rather use the term long-term revolutionary processes, which is a better way to describe the situation in the region, characterized by ups and downs in the uprisings. This is why I will not say as well that the various revolutionary processes in the region are defeated, even temporarily, despite very harsh difficulties that we can’t deny such as return of ancient authoritarian regimes, threats of religious fundamentalist movements, reactionary and imperialist interventions, and repressions, etc…
The problem with some medias, especially in the west, so eager to speak of defeats, and this for at least three years now since 2013, is that finally they don’t advocate for anything else than the withdrawal of activists fighting for democracy and social justice. Indeed, after being celebrated for their courage and determination in the struggle against their dictators, the people of the region are now described – in an elitist and misleading way – as unable or not ready for radical change. The thesis of “Arab-Muslim” exceptionalism, which supports that these areas are inherently unable to reach a democratic ideal, has returned very fast.
This said in the past few weeks and months we have seen many examples of popular resistance in various countries. In Syria, mass demonstrations occurred following partial ceasefires and respite from airstrikes, throughout liberated areas of Syria with democratic and non-sectarian slogans. It is interesting to note that salafist djihadist military forces and their symbols were absent from these popular demonstrations. We have also witnessed mass mobilizations in Lebanon and Iraq summer 2015, and which continued in Iraq in March 2016, with large sections of protesters challenging their sectarian and bourgeois regimes. Large social movements and strikes were witnessed in Morocco during these past few months, while new strikes and protests erupted in Egypt and Tunisia as well. This shows us that the shock wave of the revolutionary processes that began in the region in 2011 are very far from being finished, despite the various counter revolutionary offensives.
The explanation is that the roots reasons, (absence of democracy, social justice and some form of national sovereignty) for the uprisings that started in 2010 and 2011 are still unsolved, quite on the opposite. The old regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces have failed and will fail to deliver adequate answers for the people’s demands because they promote, as explained above, fundamentally the same policies that brought so much suffering to the popular classes: neoliberal policies impoverishing mass sections of the societies, associated with authoritarian practices and policies to repress any expression of social and /or democratic revendication.
So everything is still open, the problem being the same: the absence of a large progressive and democratic movement challenging as explained above the two counter-revolutionary forces of the region and trying to achieve democracy, social justice, equality and some forms of national independence against the various imperialist and sub imperialist powers. The future of the region depends on the construction of large democratic and progressive movements to allow popular resistance from below to reach the initial objectives of the uprisings.
Regarding the role of progressive movements, groups and individuals, I think they need to do what they can to assist and struggle with the popular organizations struggling for freedom and dignity and to radicalize as much as possible the popular movement towards progressive objectives, while fighting against opportunists and reactionary forces opposing popular class interests.
This does mean that one has to deny the difficulties in Syria – and they are many – or elsewhere but knowing what position to take in the ongoing processes – not finished, despite what some say – and struggle for the principles propagated by these uprisings (democracy, social justice, and equality) is nevertheless key..
As Bertolt Brecht said: ” Who fights can lose, who doesn’t fight has already lost.
Indeed, in a revolutionary process, it is normal that different ideologies are present and battle each other. Are progressives expected to leave the battle and wait for the perfect social revolution, as some do and did in the traditional left? Or do we as progressives decide to be a full part of this revolutionary process?
I like this quote of Lenin who answered to this question a while ago:
“‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable … without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution!…
Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”
A revolutionary process is not of a single color and will never be; otherwise it would not be a revolution. On the other hand, the role of progressives is crystal clear: struggle against the authoritarian regime and reactionary fundamentalist movements and radicalize the popular movement!
It is true that a mass socialist revolutionary party with tens of thousands of members might not exist in Syria or elsewhere, but this absence should not be an obstacle in supporting these uprisings! We do not choose under what conditions a revolution happens, as Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire, “Humans make their history themselves, but they do not do it arbitrarily, under conditions chosen by them: they make it under given conditions, directly inherited. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. ”
* Syria is now torn apart in a civil war. Why Syrian Revolution resulted in such a fierce war? What is the solution in this situation?
It is firstly important to remind everyone that the Syrian revolutionary process is part of the regional uprisings, which have and continue to shaken the entire MENA region as explained above since the winter 2010-2011. The revolutionaries in Syria are fighting, like the other activists in the countries of the region, for freedom and dignity and also against the authoritarian regimes and the Islamic fundamentalist groups and jihadists who are opposed to their objectives.
Very often we forget that neo liberal policies were accelerated massively when Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez Al-Assad, who was in power since 1970. These policies, accelerated by the savage repression of any popular or working class protest since the early 2000s, have had devastating effects. At the same time, the Assad regime became more dependent on the Assad Makhlouf family clan, with a resulting over concentration of patronage, opportunities and corruption in its hands at the expense of the older regime clients. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, represented the mafia-style process of privatisation led by the regime. A process of privatization created new monopolies in the hands of relatives of Bashar al-Assad, while the quality of goods and services declined. According to some sources, Rami Makhlouf controlled directly or indirectly through various ways up to 60 % of the Syrian economy. Assad also weakened the Baath party apparatus and workers and peasant unions because they were viewed as obstacles to neo liberal economic reform. So the regime starved them of funds and attacked their powers of patronage.
On the economic level, the private sector before the popular uprising was contributing to the up to 65% of the GDP (and more than 70% according to other estimates), while it is also the biggest employer as approximately 75% of the labor force in Syria work in the private sector.
On the eve of the uprising of March 2011, the unemployment rate stood at 14.9%, according to official figures — 20-25% according to other sources; it was respectively 33.7% and 39.3% among those aged 20-24 and 15-19 years. In 2007, the percentage of Syrians living below the poverty line was 33 %, which represented approximately seven million people, while 30% of them were just above this level. The proportion of poor is higher in rural areas (62 %) than in urban areas (38 %). Poverty is more widespread, more rooted and more marked (58.1 %) in the northwest and northeast (the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh), where 45% of the population lives.
Real GDP growth and real per capita income has been decreasing since the beginning of the 90s. This has pushed the regime to continue its neo liberal policies and search for more private capitals. Meanwhile ownership of land was increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands. A frontline of a satirical newspaper put it well “after 43 years of socialism, feudalism returns.”
The reason why we reached this stage is firstly linked to the patrimonial nature of the Syrian regime, which needs to be included in any understanding for real change in the country. The centers of powers (political, economic and military) are very much concentrated in the hands of the Assad family in Syria, while in Egypt and in Tunisia, the centers of powers were more diffused among various actors. For example the army in Egypt could sacrifice the dictator Moubarak without challenging the structure of the state radically, same in Tunisia following the departure of Ben Ali. In Syria this is impossible, and therefore the Assad regime is closer by its nature to the Khaddafi Libyan state or the Gulf Monarchies in which families are governing and the state is their private properties and they have personal armies. So they will do everything to stay in power, even destroying their own country such as in Syria.
The Syrian army was actually structured at the time of Hafez el-Assad, which explains why collective insubordination or mutiny is very difficult. The structure of the high command is based on clientelism and sectarianism. Most of the units loyal to Assad are dominated by Alawite officers, even if they also include Sunni officers. The role assigned to these units is to protect the regime by applying various forms of repression. Mostly, those who want to defect can only act individually or in small groups, leaving the ranks with or without their weapons. These difficulties did not, however, prevent the development of desertions. The regime has thus been compelled to secure its units by the integration of new elements from the security apparatus. Thousands of soldiers and officers have been imprisoned as suspected of sympathy with the revolution. According to some testimonies, up to half of the losses suffered by the Syrian army have resulted from murders perpetrated by soldiers loyal to the regime. The regime subsequently set up armed civilian groups, called popular defence committees, to assist it in its suppression, while also receiving massive military and economic assistance from Iran and Russia, while armed sectarian Shi’a groups, including Hezbollah and Iraqi groups, have continued to increase their number of combatants in Syria. Hezbollah has participated in many military operations with the Syrian army, sometimes even playing a leadership role at the military level.
This is actually the second reason for the continuation of the war in Syria, the massive assistance provided by the allies of the Assad regime: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi sectarian Shi’a militias.
Finally a last reason, for the current situation in Syria is the unwillingness of western imperialist powers to see the downfall of the Assad regime. The objectives of the USA and Western powers since the beginning of the uprising in Syria have never been to assist and help the Syrian revolutionaries or to overthrow the Assad regime. The USA especially has tried on the opposite to reach an agreement between the Assad regime (or section of it) and the opposition linked to Western, Turkey and Gulf regimes, represented today by the Syrian National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” John Kerry told reporters in the Russian capital after meeting President Vladimir Putin on December 15, 2015
This “Yemeni type solutions” maintains the structure of old regimes and guarantee the neo-liberal and imperialist order that was existing prior 2011.
Indeed, the different world imperialist powers and regional bourgeois regimes, in spite of their rivalry, have a general and common interest in the defeat of the popular revolutions of the region, and the most obvious example is that of Syria as showed above.
On their side, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on their sides, are the states that want the most to see the fall of the Assad family, but not of the regime and its institutions. The monarchies of the Gulf and private networks within these countries have wanted to transform this popular revolution into a sectarian civil war because they fear a democratic Syria and a propagation of the revolution in the region that would threaten their power and interests. As a reminder Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar enjoyed good relations with the Assad regime before the uprising in 2011. They supported politically and economically Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Sham, Army of Islam and other similar groups that have a sectarian and reactionary ideology in total opposition to the spirit of the revolution. These groups also attempt to reduce the role of the popular committees, sometimes through violent ways. They also propagated a sectarian religious discourse through their various medias.
The transformation of the nature of the revolution into a sectarian war would also able Monarchies of the Gulf to scare their own populations in the following way: all changes in the region are susceptible to result in a sectarian war and we should therefore encourage the status quo, in other words, the maintenance of these dictatorial powers. The Turkish state on its side does not want to see the influence of the PKK in Syria extend all along the border with Turkey and it therefore supports the coalition of the Army of the Conquest, dominated by Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Sham. The latter two groups, but especially Jabhat Al Nusra, have since 2013, launched many attacks against the forces of PYD and committed human rights violations and abuses against Kurdish civilians, in addition to other Syrian Arab groups and civilians.
The Turkish government also reiterated once more that the PKK and Daech were similar in its eyes. The Turkish Prime Minister also declared that Ankara would not hesitate to bomb the PYD (Syrian PKK) forces in Syria as it has bombed the PKK in northern Iraq.
Today, the issue is not refusing any kind of solution to an end of the war: the Syrian people have suffered too much and most of them want a form of transitional period towards a democratic Syria, but any kind of “realist solution”, as officials and analysts like to speak, on a mid and long term can not include Assad and other criminals with blood on their hands of the regime, otherwise we will see a continuation of the military conflict in Syria and the conditions that led to the creations of Daech.
Assad and his various partners in the regime must be held accountable for their crimes, and a similar process could be put in place as well for the crimes of the Islamic fundamentalist forces and other groups as well. In addition to this, we have to understand that to expect any kind of minimum change, not only Assad should be overthrown but the whole team of officials controlling security services, the army and various state apparatus should be dismantled and held accountable. The patrimonial nature of the Syrian regime needs to be included in any understanding for real change.
Any transitional period towards democracy should be the end of the Assad regime and not its maintenance.
* I’d return to the question of economy in the next question, but here I want to ask you about Kurdish Left. Most parts of global left are excited by the experience of Kurdish Left in Syria. Are the Kurdish Left and its radical democratic experiment a real alternative for dictatorships and Islamists in the region? If yes, how this experience can be institutionalized and pervasive? What are the main challenges and threats of Kurdish Left experience?
Some sections of the global left are indeed excited by the experience of the PKK and its sister organization PYD in Syria and Rojava regions. Regarding the three cantons of what is called “Rojava”, many interesting things are occurring on many aspects, including improvement of women’s rights, religious and ethnic minorities’ participation, secular institutions, etc…, especially in a war situation. These experiences of autonomy are moreover positive for the Kurdish people oppressed for decades.
Nevertheless, some contradictions exist in the three cantons of Rojava, which do not represent an example of self-organization from below of the popular masses, but are rather processes controlled from above. First, we must address the authoritarian practices of the PYD, both in their internal organizational functioning and against other citizens and political actors. The authoritarianism of the PYD was demonstrated in its repression and imprisonment of activists and the closure of organizations or institutions critical of them.
In fact, there have been several protests against the PYD forces and their practices in some cities in Rojava such as Amouda and Derabissyat. In the end of June 2013 for example, the two cities have experienced demonstrations and other protest activities to denounce the repression and arrest of Kurdish revolutionary activists by YPG (Units of protection of the people), the armed wing of the PYD. In July 2013, new events occurred in Amouda the PYD did not hesitate to fire on the crowd, killing many demonstrators. Furthermore, since October 2014, mandatory conscription was decreed and implemented by the PYD in areas under its control. This decision has caused the departure of many young people from all communities, to escape imprisonment for refusing to serve.
We should also not forget the distrust displayed by the leadership of the PKK and the PYD to popular protest movement in the past when they were not launched on their initiatives or controlled the party. The leadership of the PKK for example displayed a passive attitude during the Kurdish intifada in Syria in 2004, seeking more to calm the Kurds who rose up against the oppression of the Assad regime, or at the beginning of the Syrian revolutionary process in 2011. The PYD forces actually has actually been coexisting for a while in the cities of Qamishli and Hasaka with the forces of the Syrian regime and is not trying to get rid of.
Similarly in 2013 during the popular mobilizations in Turkey following the issue of the Gezi Park, the PKK carefully avoided any statement on the popular protests, while many Kurdish activists joined individually protesters in Istanbul and other large cities that had joined the protests. In Diyabarkir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, the number of demonstrations was relatively low. The PKK favoured at the time the consolidation and continuation of the peace process with the government of the AKP in 2012, which was severely challenged since then in view of the continued repression of the PKK and Kurdish activists in Turkey and the attitude of the Turkish government regarding Kobani in 2015.
These elements demonstrate the preference of the PKK to change from above and controlled by the party, rather than by changes from below and through mass popular movements.
Although Kurdish youth participated in large numbers in the Syrian uprising since 2011, the PYD has sought a middle path between the regime and its opposition since the beginning of the Syrian revolutionary process in 2011 and seeking its own political interests. The PYD actually currently coexist in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah with the forces of the Syrian regime and is not trying to get rid of them. Some relations still exist with the regime’s armed forces, but also with some groups of the Free Syrian army. PYD leader, Saleh Muslim, has also welcomed Russian military intervention in Syria in October 2015, while some time PYD forces benefited of some Russian bombing to conquer new territories on FSA forces. The PYD also announced its plans to open an office in Moscow on February 10, while preparing to open another in Berlin, with Washington, Paris and Arab countries coming later.
In addition, following the complete failure to assist FSA democratic forces, the USA decided this summer to support the newly formed Kurdish-majority alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) established in October 2015 officially according its statement as a response to fight the “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organizations] and the criminal Baath regime”. This new group is dominated by YPG (armed wing of the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK), while other groups (Syriac and FSA groups like the army of revolutionaries “Jaysh al-thuwar”) within it play until today an auxiliary role. The SDF was established to provide a legal and political cover for American military support for the PKK affiliated group PYD in Syria. The USA considers the PYD as the most effective actor to fight Daech.
The USA is hoping that other FSA groups will join the SDF alliance, but the policies of the PYD, particularly of non-conflict with the Assad regime and expressing on different occasions its acceptance of a political transition in which Assad could remain, and also violations of Human Rights and abuses in some areas against Arab civilians, prevent any trusty relationship to be established and created tensions with local populations. This does not mean that the Assad regime and PYD are allies, not at all, but rather that PYD is tactically collaborating with various actors according to various elements (geography, particular periods, etc…)
In the same time, some pressure is also mounted on PYD and Kurdish forces to collaborate directly and on a systematic way, and not punctually, with regime forces against Daech by Russia, it’s other political supporter. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei actually said on December 23, 2015 that “Moscow is ready to back Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria, but only in coordination with the Syrian government”. PYD is facing contradictory interests by Russia and the USA, both actors supporting politically the PYD and officials from both countries visited Rojava.
Of course we should denounce the various sections of the Syrian opposition that still deny the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people. The National Coalition for the Syrian Revolution and opposition forces, supported by the Western states, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies, had an ambiguous attitude during the attacks of the reactionary Islamic forces, including Jabhat al Nusra in the Kurdish regions in the past. The current president of the Syrian coalition Khaled Khouja even said that the victory of the AKP in the parliamentary elections of November was a ray of hope for the Arab peoples, despite the violations of democratic rights, crackdown on various sectors of the opposition and especially against the Kurdish population of the ruling party AKP, while George Sabra president of Syrian National Council declared that the PKK was a terrorist organization in January 2016 in an interview on Al-Jazeera. The National Coallition also refused to include in their program the demand of the Kurdish National Council to include a federal system in Syria. This opposition has also been silent on the continuous bombing since mid February of Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo by Jabhat Al-Nusra Jaysh al-Islam and other forces killing mostly civilians.
These positions are all the more reprehensible, considering the decades of political, social and cultural oppression of the Kurdish people in Syria and policies of colonization or Arabisation implemented by the Assad regime in the northern regions of Syria. The northern regions of Syria were also the poorest and the least provided with social services. This is not to mention the silence of a large part of the opposition during the Kurdish intifada in Syria in 2004. Some even accused it of serving foreign “imperialist” projects in order to weaken Syria.
This is in addition to the continued repression of the PKK and Kurdish activists in Turkey and the attitude of the Turkish AKP government regarding Kobani and the terrorists attacks against the Kurds in general and the HDP party in particular, the PKK has adopted a more hostile attitude toward the AKP in order to defend itself against the war launched by the AKP government. Let us not forget the airstrikes against PKK bases and Kurdish civilians by the Turkish government. It was also the Turkish government that put pressure on the UN negotiators to prevent any invitation to the PYD to participate in the Geneva 3 conference regarding Syrian negotiations in January and March 2016.
We need to uphold a principled position of support for the Kurdish national liberation movement in its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. It deserves, like all forms of struggle for liberation and emancipation, unconditional support. Once this fundamental principle has been established, it seems necessary to take a critical look at how these movements are led.
Finally, it seems necessary to repeat that any possibility for the self determination of the Kurdish people and concrete and long term amelioration of the living conditions of the Kurdish people, just as for the other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, are linked to the deepening and victory of the revolutionary process in Syria and the achievement of its objectives against the Assad regime and the Islamic reactionary forces. The autonomous regions of Rojava are indeed a result of the mobilisation of the mass popular movement from below by the people of Syria (Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians together) against the criminal Assad regime began in March 2011. The rise of the popular uprising pushed the Assad regime to conclude a deal with the armed forces of the PYD in July 2012 in which they withdrew from several regions, current Rojava cantons, to redeploy its armed forces in other regions to repress them.
The defeat of the Syrian revolution and of the popular movement would therefore probably mark the end of the Rojava experience and the return to an era of oppression for the Kurds of Syria. The Assad regime and the Islamic reactionary forces would not allow any possible development of a political experience that is out of their authoritarian program.
The best examples of the Assad regime unwillingness to any kind of autonomy of the Kurds in turkey can be seen with the latest statements of regime officials. In December 2015, Sharif Shahada, a member of the Syrian parliament said on a recent visit to Erbil that Syria’s Kurdish YPG forces, which currently control their own self-declared and semi-autonomous enclave, have no future in the country, while Bashar Jaafari, the representative of the Syrian regime at peace talks in Geneva said that Damascus would show zero tolerance for any claim of federation or autonomy by the country’s Kurdish minority. In the same time tensions and clashes between regime forces and YPG have increased these past few weeks in the cities of Qamichli and Hassaka.
This is why we have to have constructive critical approach to the will of some among the left to isolate the struggle for self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria to the dynamic of the Syrian revolution, as we have seen in the International Solidarity call with Kobani made on November 1 signed by a number of left figures, including Noam Chomsky who has been very negative on the Syrian revolution in various comments. The PKK is unfortunately acting similarly.
In this perspective, my position is similar, regarding the announcement on March 17, 2016 of the “federal democratic system of Rojava – Northern Syria” in areas controlled by the PYD in the north of the country, following a meeting of more than 150 representatives of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian parties in the city Rmeilane in north-eastern Syria, and in which participants voted in favor of the union of three “cantons” in majority populated by Kurdish people (Afrin, Kobanî, Jazireh). The demand for a federal system in Syria is a demand of the near quasi majority of Kurdish parties in the country, but other Kurdish parties gathered around the Kurdish National Congress, dominated by Barazani political forces, have opposed this announcement because it has to be established, according to them, following discussions and explanations with actors of the Syrian Arab opposition, whom for a large majority see it as a step towards separatism and division as we have seen on many placards in demonstrations in this past few weeks. In addition to this, the policies of the PYD towards the Assad regime, as mentioned above raise suspicions and opposition of a part of the Arab population of Syria. Syrian Kurdish Democrat activist had similar criticisms independent of both parties, PYD and Kurdish National Council. In addition to all this, no participation from below of the local populations was organized to know their opinions and what they expected of the federal system. It was a decision primarily taken from above, mainly PYD, with no democratic dynamics, while other Kurdish parties in the Rojava regions were excluded, as well as other opposition groups from throughout Syria.
This is not to say that I do not understand the demand for a federal system by the Syrian Kurdish political parties, which is rooted in decades of state oppression on a national basis (policies of colonization in the framework of the “Arab belt” and cultural repression) and on socio-economic as well. The most impoverished areas of the country were the areas mostly populated by Kurds such as in the Jazireh. The Jazireh is the region with the highest level of poverty, hosting 58% of the country’s poor population before the occurrence of the 2004 drought, and illiteracy rate. In 2010, poverty increased considerably reaching 80 per cent of the Jazireh inhabitants according to the de Shutter report. In addition to this, the Jazireh region for example produced two thirds of the country cereals (70 percent of wheat) and three quarters of its hydrocarbons. The industrial underdevelopment of the Jazireh, industrial installations were scarce in the region, comprising only 7% of the overall sector, was nevertheless important, for example 69 per cent of Syrian cotton was produced in the region, but only 10 per cent of cotton threads were spun there. Of course all the populations, Arabs, Assyrians, and Kurds, of the regions suffered from the State lack of service and poverty.
On their sides, the Assad regime and the Syrian National Coalition have both stated their opposition to this announcement, while Washington, despite its support for the PYD, and Turkey have both declared they would not recognize this federal entity. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said that “the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic warns anyone tempted to undermine the unity of the land and the people of Syria,” and adding that “”Any such announcement has no legal value and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact as long as it does not reflect the will of the entire Syrian people”. The Syrian National Coalition called the PYD initiative as” illegitimate” and “unacceptable”. 69 armed groups, including the Army of Islam, Islamist and FSA forces, also signed a statement opposing the Kurdish federalist project dominated by the PYD.
That said, I believe we must provide unconditional support to the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria and elsewhere, without meaning being uncritical of the policies of the leadership of the PYD or any other Kurdish political party, while stating very clearly that it is the unity of the Syrian people, including Arabs and Kurds, on the basis of a democratic and inclusive program that will allow their liberation and emancipation against the counter-revolutionary forces of the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces.
* You pointed to corrupted privatization “project” – I prefer to speak of “project” rather than “process” – in Syria. Also in Iran there is a famous debate about corrupted privatization project which endow public companies to quasi-private (often military) establishments. Indeed, looking at Makhlouf clan in Syria or organized defalcations in recent years in Iran, we find out that neoliberal policies and privatizations not only have not restrained economic corruption, but also has increased it. Claiming that these privatizations are not “true” privatization, (neo-)liberal intellectuals try to defend neoliberal policies. Can we ever speak of pure or true privatization countries like Iran, Syria or anywhere else? In other words, is neoliberalism competent and capable to combat economic corruption?
Firstly, we need to understand neoliberalism as a particular organisation of capitalism to ensure the conditions for capitalist reproduction at a global scale and as part of a ruling class offensive, which ran through the recessions in the 1970s and 1980s and resulted in restructuring and generated a new wave of capitalist expansion. The basic goal of neoliberalism, as David Harvey has emphasized in his book, is the development of a new “regime of capital accumulation characterised by a minimal direct intervention of the state in the economy, limited to setting up the legal, political and military functions required to guarantee the proper functioning of markets and their creation in those sectors where markets do not exist”. In the framework of neo liberalism, the State has actually the explicit role of guaranteeing capital accumulation as explained and emphasized by David Harvey: “The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary”
Neoliberalism is therefore a political and economic project for the capitalist class against the popular classes, in which they increase their economic and political power and in which the state should protect capital accumulation at all cost, and reinforcing laws hindering freedoms. So even without corruption it’s already a project that we should fight completely for its socio economic and political consequences on the popular classes. This said it has reinforced corruption these past decades even in Western democratic societies, despite independent judiciary system, as we can see with the multiplication of economic and financial scandals within the economic and political elites. Neoliberal policies favour the reproduction of political and economic elites.
Now in authoritarian regimes the result is even worse because of independent judiciary system and transparency. The neo liberal policies and new processes of privatisations has created as I said new monopolies in the hands of relatives and people associated with Bashar al-Assad and the regime, either through familial ties or through public or governmental positions or posts in the military and security services. It reinforced the patrimonial nature of the state and therefore its authoritarianism.
By the ways, this opening up followed the same logic as its predecessors: it was dictated by a political regime experiencing difficulties in securing new rents, a new base of support, and new allies. The regime had thus expanded its predatory activities from the control over “rents derived from the state” to a position that permits it to dominate “private rents” without any transparency.
The whole discussions and theories around economic liberalization and neoliberal policies leading to a process enhancing an “independent middle class or capitalists” supposed to challenge dictatorships and lead to democracy promoted by an academic literature in the 90s has been a complete failure and we saw it was completely wrong. On the opposite there was a process of “upgrading authoritarianism”. Mutual interests between the state and big business were established. Privatisation in Syria or elsewhere did not and does not mean a retreat by the state but rather its redeployment in ways that modify authoritarian rule.
Regarding, the new “civil society”, supposed to encourage democracy, these were associations and so called NGOs (more Government NGOs that constituted a new elite linked to business networks close to the regime such as Syria Trust for Development, umbrella association set up the sponsorship of Asma Al-Assad). This was far from contributing to the spread of a civic democratic culture, they in fact block the emergence of an autonomous civil society. The rapid growth in the number of development GONGOs has gone hand in hand with the repression of activists.
The emergence of the GONGOs is part of the process of privatising regulatory functions, social services. The Chilean case provides a good illustration of the link between neo-liberal policies and political dictatorship in the countries of the periphery.
In the current war situation in Syria, new examples of neo-liberal policies can be found reinforcing authoritarianism and corruption:
In mid December, the regime implemented two decisions showing that it and close capitalist associates of the Assad family are preparing themselves for the reconstruction period. Already, some key businessmen are believed to be benefitting from this opportunity in the areas destroyed by the regime but now under its control.
Firstly, Bachar Al-Assad issued decree enacting a new urban Planning and Construction Law, which among the main provisions of the text is the greater ease provided for the expropriation and redevelopment of illegal housing areas. As such the decree should ease the destruction of the many urban areas of Syria’s largest cities that have supported the uprising against the regime, giving the law a political as much as an economic flavor.
Secondly, the Syrian Metals and Steel Council was established with the aim of lobbying for a sector that will benefit from any reconstruction drive. The Council will have both the role of a lobby group for the sector and of a regulator. The Council is made up of a board of 17 members including four representing the state and the public sector: the ministries of economy and trade, the General Organization for Cement and Building Materials and Hama Steel.
The President of the Council, which was designated by the Prime Ministry as all the other members of the board, is Mohammad Hamsho, a leading Syrian businessman reportedly close to Maher Al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president. Mr Hamsho, who is under western sanctions, is already active in the metal industry. His company, Syrian Metal Industries, has a production capacity of 630,000 tons a year and is located in the industrial city of Adra near Damascus.
The other members of the board also include a collection of the best connected Syrian investors, three of whom are under western sanctions. They are Ayman Jaber and the two Hamisho brothers, Imad and Samir. The Hamisho Group runs a major plant in Lattakia with an annual capacity of 500,000 tons of reinforced steel, while Mr Jaber is a shareholder in Arabian Steel Company, based in Jableh, near Lattakia.
The building industry is expected to boom during the reconstruction drive and the metal industry will particularly benefit from it. In addition to demand generated by new projects, many metal-related companies will also benefit from the removal of all the metal scrap from the destroyed areas.
The regime seems therefore to be positioning its capitalist associates in order for them to reap the benefits from this new opportunity.
* And at last a question about Iran. How do you see the future possibilities of a progressive, leftist politics in Iran, especially after the nuclear deal between Islamic Republic and Western Powers? Can we see some visible and meaningful political, social changes after the deal? What are the implications of this deal for the Middle East?
Firstly, we should be happy for the Iranian popular classes for the end of the sanctions, they were the ones to suffer most, while the Iranian regimes could use this excuse to justify socio economic problems in the country. In Iran, according to my information, inflation is around 20% (according to official figures), and the deficiency of basic products such as drugs continue, while the unemployment rate is around 25%, and 40 % of the population lives below the poverty line.
Neoliberal policies of previous governments, including and especially those of the populist Ahmadinejad, continued. Eshaq Jahangiri, vice president of Hassan Rouhani, also said in early 2016: “The regime is caught in a particular political and economic situation which requires significant actions. We must respond to important issues, including unemployment, which is prominent “, while adding that” Iran has a large population of young people. If we are not able to solve these problems, this opportunity will become a threat “.
In addition, the government and the bosses are attacking constantly workers trying to establish independent trade unions by imprisoning them. They systematically dismiss spokesperson of strikers in arresting them for “economic sabotage crime”…
So for the left and progressive forces they should use the opportunity, if they can despite the very harsh repression, of the deal to show even more than before the contradictions of regime, their lies and corruptions. Their policies have only impoverished the popular classes, while their authoritarianism and reactionary policies have touched all sectors of society: women, workers, religious minorities, etc…
The nuclear deal will obviously only see an economic opening to foreign investments and trade, while privatizations of various sectors of the economy are encouraged by the leadership, and not an opening in terms of politics, the regimes maintaining its authoritarian nature. The arrival of Rouhani did not change anything to this situation as well, despite being presented by some as a reformist open to more freedom. More than 960 people were actually executed in 2015, a record since 1989.
Politically the deal translated increasing common understanding and/or even cooperation between Iran and the USA around various files such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan in the past and in the “fight against Daech”, especially in Iraq.
But, the nuclear deal between the West and Iran has for the moment above all increased the suspicions of Saudi Arabia, which saw it a threat. The ruling family of the Saud sees the expansion of the political influence of the IRI in the Middle East as a threat to their security and their ambition to play a leading role among the Arab states, and this had been the case since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. In addition, the new young generation in power in the Saudi kingdom, illustrated by the crown prince and interior minister Mohammed Ben Nayef and Crown Prince and Deputy Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, do not hesitate to act out of the US strategic supervision and demonstrate that the kingdom can take initiatives without US approval. We can see this for example with the Saudi intervention in Yemen since March 2015 with catastrophic consequences. According to the UN, an estimated 6,400 people have been killed in 12 months of conflict, half of whom are civilians. Another 30,000 people have been injured and 2.5 million Yemenis have been displaced since the start of the Saudi-led intervention. Now, it is estimated that 20 million Yemenis are in need of aid due to crippling shortages. Saudi policies have been more energetic and aggressive than previously against Iran and its allies in the region such as Hezbollah as well.
[i] According to the concept of “community class,” the predominant weight of Christians in Lebanon’s business elite meant that Christians could be understood as constituting the bourgeoisie, while Muslims (particularly Shi’a) made up the vast majority of the working class and poor. From this perspective, the struggle of a particular sect – in this case the Shi’a – represented a form of class struggle. Mehdi Amel was one of the most vocal critics of the concept of “community class” during the Lebanese civil war. He argued against any attempt to ascribe and equate class position according to membership in a particular sect, and as a result, to then build alliances on the basis of sectarian affiliation.