Unusually for a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Gilbert Achcar has become the hate figure for parts of the left over recent months for his perceived support for big-power intervention in Libya.
The nuances and complexities of Achcar’s real positions, rather than those attributed to him, have been lost on these commentators. There are real issues with both Achcar’s political understanding and his academic analysis. They are just not those thrown at him by those who see “imperialism” (that is, US imperialism) as the main (or only) problem, and have confused the debate by evading the substance of his real and important studies of the uprisings.
The charge of “social imperialism”, which created an imaginary bloc of Achcar, the former Euston Manifesto group and Workers’ Liberty, has been central to this — as if the escape into some fantastic notion of an axis of evil of social imperialists (socialist in word, imperialist in action) could excuse the lack of even the most basic study of Achcar’s politics and research.
Despite the book’s subtitle, this is less a generically “radical” analysis of the uprisings of 2010 onwards than a fully Marxist analysis of the political economy of the origin of the upsurge of democratic and working-class militancy.
It pulls no punches in terms of the spelling out the implications of those uprisings and offering prognoses for the future for working class politics in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA).
The omnipresence of the slogan of “the people want” since the beginnings of the uprisings in 2010 points, for Achcar, to the collective proclamation, and eruption, of the popular will of the Arab masses in states which have been largely tyrannous and oppressive.
The great contribution of Achcar to understanding these developments lies in his outstanding analysis of the nature of those regimes, their relationships with each other, and with their own people.
For Achcar, this is no less than a revolutionary dynamic which is challenging the nature of those regimes equal to the opening moments of the French revolution.
The analogies with bourgeois revolutions are telling. Achcar argues that the uprisings are also about the process of dissolution of the ancien régimes. This dissolution has not, as yet, produced a social revolution but has initiated “a protracted or long-term revolutionary process” (p4). In this sense the uprisings are a kind of prairie fire which will initiate long durational transformations in the social orders in which they emerged in those states already predisposed to dissolution and change.
The similarity of the socio-economic structures of the MENA states lies, for Achcar, in their comparable modes of production or what he calls the specific modalities of capitalism of those states on the peripheries of capitalist globalisation. These specific modalities explain the specificity of the will to social revolution in clear geographical confines even when the states themselves — absolutist monarchies, corrupt semi-democracies, despotic and bureaucratic state tyrannies — seem to widely differ. The elaboration of those specific modalities lies in the MENA developmental crisis and blockage to its capital development.
The demographic revolution in the MENA states and the problem of the GDP average growth rate which Achcar links to substantial questions of inequality and “precarity” are key factors particularly in those states where there is a very high degree of “overconsumption and ostentatious luxury” (p17).
So for Egypt, World Bank data (problematic in itself due to its underestimation of the disparities) points to seven times as much consumption for the top decile as opposed to the bottom decile of the population.
Neo-liberal commentators like Hernando de Soto have argued that Mohamed Bouazizi, who killed himself in Tunisia in December 2010 triggering the wave of uprisings, sacrificed himself for the cause of the “free market” (p22) and that the uprisings signify the final entrance of the Arab states into the neo-liberal economy. In fact it is the very specific modality of neo-liberalism that is itself one of the central factors in the risings particularly around the distinctive ways in which the MENA states interact with the world economy causing precarity and exceptional rates of youth unemployment. Further, specific cultural and economic modalities also have influenced the underemployment of women as well as contributing to their political and cultural oppression and more, to the fettered cultural and economic development of the whole region.
Weak economic growth, itself a product of rentier, state-controlled capitalism and the extraction of natural and labour resources for the hyper-rich of despotic families and the flight of capital out of the region and away from public investment, has led to a intolerable situation for the labouring classes who can no longer “live in the old way”. The racketeering and patrimonialism of the states as well as the suppression of domestic discontent through ramping up hostility to outside forces such as the US or Israel has created a political situation in which the state cliques are largely economically independent from the tax revenues of the masses and also become immunised from any sense of political dependence on that population.
The textbook case of this is Libya, as Achcar correctly notes. The state family clique had annihilated even the most molecular form of representative democracy, and oil revenues (although sometimes invested in quixotic state engineering ventures for vanity reasons) were channelled directly into the Swiss bank accounts of the extended Qadaffi clan. In Libya, and elsewhere, the state bourgeoisie was entwined with the inherited, autocratic patrimony of the clan system, even when that patrimonialism was tempered by so-called “republican” rational-legal authority — just as vile and nepotistic as any other form of cliquedom.
Further, because the state clique does not depend upon the domestic market for its own economic sustenance in the same way as it depends neither on tax revenues nor votes, it was even more entwined with the global market for its own perpetuation. Whether the mafia-like regime of Lebanon, the despot capitalism of Libya, or the military patriarchy of Algeria, the specific modalities of capital shared a predisposition to dissolution at the hands of its own peoples.
The regional political factors of the Saudi “Islamic Texas”, its client relationship to the US, its relationship to Salafism, and the Islamic capitalism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and beyond, have had some influence in shaping both the origins and the course of the uprisings. Itself the political antithesis of social liberation, the despotic monarchy of the House of Saud has acted, with Qatar, as the nanny if not the midwife of large elements of the uprisings.
The co-optation of democratic uprisings by Saudi and Qatari sub-imperialism and their proxies has been a serious challenge to liberatory politics in the MENA states. To a large extent the Syrian tragedy has been shaped by interventions by Salafists within the revolution and against the democratic forces arrayed in the local coordination committees. The marginalisation of democrats and leftists by the Saudi and Qatari proxies on the one hand, and the support of Russian and Iranian proxies on the other, has created a stalemate in which the nascent forces of the third camp, of the aspirations of youth and women, have been largely annihilated.
At the same time, for Achcar, across the MENA states there has been a great display of a universal culture of emancipation, which has nothing to do with the Salafists or the state cliques and everything to do with the opening up of those states to global forms of communication and universal aspirations for freedom of expression and action.
This culture, equally hostile to archaic tribalism and to sectarianism, is in danger of extinction — the populations which sustain it are being physically exterminated in Syria.
Achcar himself clearly retains some faith that the secular, left, and democratic forces organised within the coordination committees can extend the life of those aspirations in the face of the extreme violence of the regime and its “Praetorian guard”, and the increasingly Salafist forces arrayed against it. This is optimistic and somewhat Quixotic, but it has its basis in Achcar’s unwillingness to surrender the idea of the long-durational implications of the uprisings for a social revolution which will transform the MENA states and which has only just begun.
Achcar argues that it was clear from the beginning that a state regime like Syria could only be overthrown by force of arms due to its tribal and sectarian composition: “The state cannot be ‘reformed,’ ‘partially dislocated,’ or simply rid itself of its ruling family by peaceful means. Its hardcore — its praetorian guard, above all — must be completely shattered by force of arms” (p142).
Civil war is the only form that social revolution can take in those states where the masses have no other leverage. Abandoning that civil war means abandoning the social revolution with which it is pregnant. This means that the reversion to absolute barbarism and the absolute ruin of the contending classes is a danger worth facing because only then can the logic of revolution be ultimately fulfilled.
Achcar at this point elaborates the differences between Syria and the Libyan uprising, making the point that any conception of the democracy activists at the beginning that peaceful demonstration would succeed in any way was a grave mistake, citing Babeuf on the necessity of civil war for social revolution and again making the analogy between the third estate and the Syrian rebels at the same time as he recognises how far the uprising has been co-opted by the reactionary forces of clerical fascism.
This failure to recognise the reality of where the uprising has come to in no way undermines the rest of Achcar’s outstanding analytic survey of the MENA uprisings and their implications.
It is for the workers now to both survive the catastrophe and give birth to the new society that might emerge from the demonstrations and ruined cities of the east.