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Genealogies and Balance Sheets of the Arab Uprisings

[Cover of Gilbert Achcar, [Cover of Gilbert Achcar, "The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising."]

Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

In Alice in Wonderland, a flustered white rabbit asks the king: “Where shall I begin, your majesty?” The king answers gravely: “Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Telling a story—let alone one as complicated as that of the Arab uprisings and their historical lineage—from beginning to end is a task few can complete. And by “from beginning to end,” I don’t mean a linear, deterministic narrative but an account that is whole. Yet this is what Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want manages to do. This is the first book to locate the Arab uprisings within a broad historical sweep. It painstakingly digs deep into the objective conditions that made the uprisings the only possible outcome of the “intricate structural and conjunctural developments and regional and international political tendencies,” which have long dominated these countries. However, the book reminds us, this “overdetermined” nature of the uprisings does not necessarily lead to a revolution. A revolution takes place only when the revolutionary class takes mass action strong enough to break the old order. The book, therefore, critically interrogates the different actors and “parameters” of the uprisings, from workers to women’s groups to new information technologies, questioning their ability to play such a role.

Achcar launches this examination by outlining the facts about the region’s fettered development, scrutinizing data and misconceptions about poverty, inequality, and employment patterns. These facts are then situated within the region’s peculiar modalities of capitalism, which is shaped by specific patterns of patrimonialism and a resilient rentier economy. The following chapter interrogates the regional political context of the uprisings where the “oil curse” underpins the work of the Muslim Brothers, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar and its “foreign policy enamored” rulers. The experience of a wide range of groups, such as the Women Journalists Without Chains in Yemen, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, the Tunisian General Labor Union, and citizen journalism across the Arab World are examined as part of the actors and parameters of the protracted revolutionary process, which the book argues dominates the region. A balance sheet of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria two years after their eruption is drawn against a background of sustained efforts by regional and global forces to co-opt the struggles of the insurgent populations.

What this book does, in essence, is extend an invitation to the reader to leave a hall of mirrors that often guides explanations of the uprisings of the Arab world. Once we accompany Gilbert out of and away from the freak show that is mainstream scholarship about the Middle East, historical events and conceptual constructs start to take a completely different shape. In the stark light of his analysis, infitah (which literally means “economic opening”) turns out to be not an opening at all, but in fact “blockage on development.”

Similarly, the book removes the old, tired exotic shroud of Islam and dark Arab culture to reveal a “specificity” of Arab countries and a “particular modality” of capitalism as a generic mode of production. Achar argues these modalities of capitalism developed over decades of imperial rule and torturous processes of building modern—albeit ill-constructed—nation-states.

Analysis, steeped in neoliberal ideology, portrays the region’s political economy from a perspective that only serves to justify a hegemonic neoliberal order. The book goes on to expose this ideologically-laden analysis. The high levels of graduate unemployment, so often explained by market aficionados as a mismatch between supply and demand, are not, as Achcar elaborates, the fault of individual students selecting the “wrong” subjects. It is, instead, the outcome of the failure of the state and private capitalism to provide investment to create jobs in the first place. Endemic corruption, which we are told time and again could easily be remedied by a healthy dose of good governance and appropriate reform packages, is shown to be an integral part of the survival of patrimonial states in the region. And, lo and behold: microcredit is not the way to end the marginalization, poverty, and inequality that the majority of Arab populations have to endure. High unemployment rates, poverty, inequality and an absence of development is the necessary outcome of the regions’ peculiar modality of a capitalist mode of production that is a “mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracies, and generalized corruption, against a background of great socio-political instability and the impotence…of the rule of law.” Such dynamics extend to include both Gulf monarchies and other Arab states. Indeed, the internationalization of Gulf capital in the last few decades has made it a major player in the process of “accumulation by dispossession” in countries of the uprisings.

The title of the book puts the “people” back at the heart of the analysis. The people and what they want are too readily dismissed from the political process, from policy positions, from academic analysis—and even from self-proclaimed radical projects of change. How many times have we seen the Arab Left celebrate the “people,” be they workers, women, or the urban poor, when they take to the streets to protest, as if they were children who have finally come to age only to arrogantly dismiss them when they are perceived to have made the “wrong” choices? The People Want, on the other hand, takes the people seriously. The book emphasizes that one certain outcome of the uprisings is the unstoppable “[b]ursting of the masses onto the political stage.” Beyond adulation or dismissal, the people are now a force to be reckoned with.

In response to hasty conclusions about failed revolutions, aborted transitions, Arab “spring turning into winter,” and a whole gamut of such clichés, Achar provides us with two basic understandings of the complex processes unleashed by the uprisings of 2011. First, the uprisings and what has followed are a “protracted long-term revolutionary process reconciling the revolutionary nature of the event with its incompleteness.” Yet, it is too soon to pronounce upon the consequences, which might take years—if not decades—to become apparent. What we know, however, is that the “incompleteness” here describes the fact that the uprisings were political revolutions that stopped short of social revolutions—that is, revolutions that challenge and transform social hierarchies and structures. The uprisings were able, to varying degrees, to remove the head of the regime, but not to “eliminate the profound causes of the explosion which had set the region ablaze.” However, while they have not presented a rupture with the old system, they have set in motion a revolutionary dynamic that is hard to control.

Second, counter-revolution is always part of a revolution and is not a conspiracy of imperialist intrigue. It is almost always the case that what Gramsci calls a “spontaneous” movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous mass movements, and, on the other, conspiracies among the reactionary groups, who take advantage of the objective weakening of the government in order to attempt a coup. Counter-revolutionary forces can defeat revolutionary forces, temporarily or permanently, if the revolutionary or potentially revolutionary groups are unable to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to turn them into a positive political factor.

Achcar reminds us of a crucial misconception, which has become dominant in speaking about the Arab uprisings—that leadership is necessarily singular and charismatic. He points out that history has been witness to several incidents of collective leadership in the form of organizations or institutions. Both the Third Estate within the Estate General in France of 1789 and the soviets in Russia of February 1917 played a determining role in the unfolding of events during the early stages of the two great revolutions. In the case of the Arab uprisings, one can venture to argue that it has been this inability of revolutionary groups to emerge and develop structures capable of harnessing the energy of the masses that has allowed reactionary forces to subvert a more radical course of change. Workers, for example, played an essential role in the mass mobilization in the years leading up to the uprisings and were a major factor in the outcome of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, the traditional structures around which labor mobilization took place were either co-opted or unable to sustain its revolutionary potential. In the case of Egypt, workers in the post-Mubarak era rushed to create independent unions to break away from the corrupt, state-dominated ETUF. Creating independent unions, however, is one thing. Coalescing workers’ efforts into a movement that could play a leadership role in Egypt’s revolutionary process is very much another. Already, the nascent union “movement” has been beleaguered by both internal and external challenges.

Achcar correctly points out that in the two major cases, Egypt and Tunisia, the capitalist class structure, as well as the state’s repressive arms, have survived the earthquake. However, at the moment, no faction of the counter-revolution is capable of redressing the root causes that led to the uprisings in the first place. Nor are any other revolutionary groups, for that matter. The book reminds us that the basic crisis in the Arab countries—failure of the development of production forces—is not simply a problem to be addressed by regulation or another model of management. It is instead one of social domination sustaining a particular modality of a specific mode of production. It will take more than a change of president, military coups that reaffirm the status quo, or one wave of uprisings to set this right. The book concludes that what the region needs is no less than a move to “break sharply with the neoliberal model…a return to the developmentalist policies of … [the 1950s and 1960s] without the despotism and corruption that accompanied them.” A study is of the essence to elaborate how this elusive project might be achieved.

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