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Neoliberal Pregnancy and Zero-Sum Elitism in the Arab World (Part 1)

[Image from, well,] [Image from, well,]

[This post will probably burst the sweet (though serious) bubble generated by Lisa’s semi-comical/semi-sad post below. So toggle back and forth to withstand the dryness here.] 

Beneath the surface and behind the scenes, though smack in the middle of consequential developments, we are witnessing the slow but steady emergence of a new and increasingly fortified nexus of power between the political and economic elite in much of the Arab world. Far deeper than the everyday talk about the “marriage of power and money” in countries like Egypt and Syria, this intersection is driven less by state officials and businesspeople trying to maximize profit, or even simply maintain (their) security, and more by the emergence of a new political economy (with global links) that rests on protecting/prioritizing markets (not communities) and securing capital accumulation. The pace of this phenomenon differs in various Arab countries—and it certainly pertains to other formerly (semi-)socialist countries across the developing world—but its existence and impact are unmistakable.

As this is a broad topic, it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface in any one paper/article, let alone post. But at the risk of being crude, I would like to provide one thought that encapsulates a significant and unique dimension of this phenomenon by addressing the intersection of its local and global manifestations. Namely, that the neoliberal prescriptions (even if followed properly) to remedy the ills associated with the ascendance of this phenomenon contribute to their exacerbation (i.e., further uneven development within these countries’ regions/cities/economic sectors, increasing social polarization especially between rich and poor, increasing absolute poverty, further disempowering groups/institutions like labor/peasant unions, bolstering consumerism/consumption at the expense of education, emphasizing the rule of law at the expense of its content/substance). This is indeed a context pregnant with a neoliberal moment, disfigured as it may be, absent some of the public goods/advances/empowerment among early developers. Whether through colonization, a long and systematic history of social/labor exploitation, or good old imperialism, early developers (e.g., Britain, France) produced better than a zero-sum game internally (until the 1970s at least), whereby a plurality of their populations shared in the spoils. Alternatively, the current neoliberal moment in the Arab world is cannibalizing (and, for good or for ill can only exploit) its own society, with labor, peasants, women, minorities, the poor and the marginalized being the low-hanging fruit that get further compromised first. The prescribed remedy locally and internationally for the increasing ranks of the growing categories of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised is creating more of them—more desperate ones, weaker and meeker in most regards, vicious in others. The growing nexus of power between the political and economic elite, its bases, origins, and prospects, do not bode well for an exit of sorts from this spiraling down and ticking social time-bomb. At best, the new barons are splashing water on it to diffuse it—or they are imprisoning, containing, killing or disappearing its agents to dim or postpone the explosion . . . دون جدوى . . . to no avail.

One can easily discuss the outward manifestations of this phenomenon as it is all over local and regional media, from newspapers to satellite television (e.g., ostentatious behavior, consumption patterns). More challenging is to dig beneath the surface to discern its origins, dynamics, drivers, and structural features. Alas, for the past 4 decades or more, most research agendas have replaced such inquiries into the deeper local social (re)formations with sexier and more policy relevant topics (that are not insignificant) regarding security, wars, conflict, identity, “democracy,” “reform,” etc.

The authoritarian state and its patrons, as well as their survival strategies, wars, and dynamics, preoccupied many of us for good/consequential reasons, both analytically and empirically. But under these and other pressing topics a reconfiguration of social power has been taking place in many developing countries, not least those in the Arab world. This reconfiguration of power has local, regional, and international drivers, of the economic, social, political, and strategic variety. It deserves more attention (it has not been totally neglected, but it has been marginalized nonetheless). A notable starting point is the unraveling of state-centered economies and the new social (re)formations/(re)configurations to which this protracted process gives rise. This is not an “academic” exercise. It is wholly political, so much so that it is missed altogether as it is all around us. It is the carrier of the neoliberal baby, or a mutation thereof.

There is no substitute to rejuvenating such research agendas, and there’s no substitute to field research, a task that is not easy to come by or conduct. First because other agendas gobble up funding and second because of the difficulty of conducting field research in some countries regarding certain topics. But then again, doesn’t it make sense that many of the pressing issues that in fact directly affect the lives of the majority of human beings anywhere are not very high on the agendas of power centers, locally and globally?

Where to begin? (see Part 2)




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