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Hizballah, Development, and the Political Economy of Pain: For Syria, What is "Left" (Part 3-Final)

[A pro-Syrian regime protester flashes V-victory sign during a protest against the Arab League sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday Nov. 28, 2011. Syria's economy minister called newly approved Arab League sanctions [A pro-Syrian regime protester flashes V-victory sign during a protest against the Arab League sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday Nov. 28, 2011. Syria's economy minister called newly approved Arab League sanctions "a dangerous precedent" that will harm ordinary people more than the regime. AP Photo by Bassem Tellawi.]

[This is a third part in a series under the title of "For Syria, What is Left?" The first two parts can be accessed (1) here and (2) here. Arabic Translations can be found (1) here and (2) here.] 

The enormity of the unfolding tragedy in Syria will dwarf the content of the analysis below. I have been waiting for the right time to complete this series, but matters kept getting worse, and we are now looking into the abyss. But this is not an article about what is happening in Syria today; rather, it is about some of the discursive battles among parts of the political "Left" on the question of the Syrian uprising and its implications. I would like to submit my apologies in advance regarding what may seem like cold calculations to some readers. My position regarding the brutality of the Syrian regime, both historically and today, as well as the sentiment behind the uprisings and, later, some of its deeply problematic turns, has been made clear in previous writings (here and elsewhere), especially regarding my opposition to foreign military intervention. I will not dwell on these matters below. Also, there will be no mention of names (which, admittedly, comes at the expense of this piece’s credibility, but not its tenor).

In the first two parts of this series, I focused on the questions of principles and resistance in combating imperialism. This third part focuses on the political economy of pain regarding two concrete questions: Hizballah and "development." In short, where do, or should, those on the political-economic left stand in relation to both Hizballah's stance on the Syrian uprising as well as the question of political-economic development in Syria?

One way to discuss these questions is through the prism of leftist concerns, including social justice, imperialism, and social empowerment. However, the debates and daily discussions—whether in our living rooms and communities or the hard, electronic, and audio-visual press—suggest that divisions run deep among those who consider themselves on the left. These divisions are solid, and convictions often slip from leftist to nationalist or even communal. At other times, the question is more about whose pain is in view, often to the exclusion of the pain of others across time and space.

Ultimately, amidst the constellation of the fog of war, ideology, and complex regional and international relations, a comprehensive assessment of pain incurred across both time and space is lacking. A broader historical assessment of pain incurred is often washed off by the enormity of the blood being spilled here and now. But history has its own way of judging, and it is mostly concerned with the long-winded tallies. It is on this basis that this article is written.

Before commencing, a short comment on the word “pain” as it is used in this article. “Pain” is not an essential part of the leftist lexicon, but the manner in which the debate often proceeds has referenced pain as a common language/currency. For example, the structural pain of exploited workers or occupied peoples over time; the pain of mourning families; the pain resulting from death and destruction; etc. It matters little whether or not these terms are acceptable. For they have become salient, and the dominant currency of many debates.

[Image from unknown archive.]

Not All Leftist Values are Equal

After at least thirteen-thousand deaths (some say many more) in Syria, this discussion may seem academic or akin to pontification, but it is not. More than an occasion to understand the contradictions among leftists (self-styled and putative), or the prioritization of values/principles among them, this discussion has real implications for consequential alliances, political positions, networking, and agenda setting—both now and in the future. Furthermore, the implications are not confined to the Syrian situation. They also apply to the evolving meaning of terms like “left,” “liberal,” “nationalist,” and “imperialist” in reference to new movements, unlikely alliances, and changing modes of opposition and resistance—locally, regionally, and globally. 

Today, many claim to be a leftist of sort. They claim to be for social justice, against imperial domination (or the hegemony of global political and economic structures), and so on. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that being “left” has also become fashionable for the (a) socially-minded “bourgeoisie” or upper classes (who appeal to amorphous conceptions of social justice based on essentially liberal grounds) as well as the (b) ultra nationalists (who speak and prioritize the language of anti-imperialism from an uncritical nationalist, as opposed to a political-economic or class perspective in relation to capital and various forms of exploitation).

[Chemnitz Karl Marx Monument. Image by Gravitat-Off.]

When “left” is viewed as everything, it actually ends up amounting to very little. This “everything is left and everyone is leftist” approach in part characterizes what has been happening to the left in a post-industrialized world, and what in part explains the decline of the left in the past several decades. In other words, who are we, what do we believe in, and what defines our struggle (i.e., the contours of membership, principles, and action) are questions to which answers have become so radically different among supposed adherents to leftist principles. But, to make a very long story (dissertation long) extremely short, “left” is not everything, and distinctions can be made among the values of the “left” to avoid flattening this category. On the one hand, the prioritization of “leftist” principles, struggles, and action is important. On the other hand, this prioritization cannot happen in a discursive or contextual vacuum. It must be based in practice in order to avoid naive, hypocritical, and/or oppressive dogmatism. For example,  the triumph of the working classes (don’t hold your breath) does not give a carte blanche to the ostensible leadership of this new classless collective, nor is it the end of “politics” or “privilege.” More practically, prioritizing the bigger culprit is the sound approach, but not in all cases and not without attention to detail.

I am not in a position—nor do I have the space—to unpack all facets of these claims at this point. As it is, this article is way too long. I will nevertheless unpack them in a longer study in the future. In addressing “prioritization,” however, I would like to emphasize the issues of modes of exploitation in reference to three sets of tension: (1) rights (individual versus collective); (2) locale (local, regional, and global); and (3) spheres (political, social, economic, and cultural). Though all these levels of analysis are important, and certainly most are important to most human beings, the order of importance differs. And that, to an extent, differentiates one’s politics sufficiently to merit, receive, or adopt the label of “leftist” or otherwise. 

To illustrate the point—even if somewhat crudely within the limited space offered here—many of those on the left prioritize economics over politics as the principal source of exploitation. However, they differ regarding the extent to which politics and strategy is relevant to the very question of economic exploitation; i.e. regarding the utility of politics/strategy in reducing exploitation. Second, most leftists (and one has to be careful here) prioritize collective rights over individual rights as a first principle. Nevertheless, they differ on the extent to which the “collective” is defined and delimited: is it all of humanity, a country, group, or region? Third, most leftists prioritize systemic and usually global levels of analysis over local ones, as the principal starting point of analysis, and thus diagnosis as well as potential action. This is because local dynamics are usually viewed as dependent on global structures. Though many leftists do differ on the question of exactly when and how the local merits independent/immediate treatment. Finally, at least for now, most leftists do not separate local forms of exploitation from global ones, and tend to prioritize their political positions based on the need to oppose the bigger and more systematic culprit. However, they differ on the question of thresholds of pain, where local exploitation/oppression might temporarily trump the global one. This was messily illustrated in the two cases of the US war on Iraq in 2003 (where nearly all leftists opposed it) and the Libya/Ben Ghazi moment (when there was something of a debate as to where to stand vis-à-vis external intervention).

The Syrian Case: The Left on Hizballah and Development

Thanks to the Syrian uprising, one is now forced to descend from the clouds of liberal pontification to the ground of real and concrete case-study treatment. More than a year into the uprising, where do those on the left stand? Where should they stand, and why? In part, I have stated unequivocally my position several times both here on Jadaliyya and elsewhere, which is illustrated primarily in my dual opposition to the Syrian regime and to international intervention (see “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship While Opposing Foreign Intervention in Syria” here). Logically as well as politically, and despite the horrendous pain incurred inside Syria, this position entails the prioritization of opposition to international intervention. However, this position does not absolve the Syrian regime from condemnation based on the same anti-imperialist principles. This position was articulated in the first part of this series in a maximalist form regarding the brutality of the Syrian regime, both now and during the past decades. Furthermore, the Syrian regime’s enabling role in relation to resistance-to-imperialism cannot be considered the sole source of such resistance, especially under the current circumstances. This position, and its justification, was articulated in the second part of this series. In this third and final part, I will address the more concrete questions of the Left’s position on Hizballah and political-economic development in relation to the Syrian case.

Hizballah, Imperialism, and the Political Economy of Pain

The question revolves around how to interpret or judge Hizballah’s supportive stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime from the Left (even if this support has somewhat subsided recently). Should those on the left who prioritize resistance to imperialism and Israel’s policies abandon their support for Hizballah’s resistance function because of its stance towards the Syrian regime? It should be clear that we are always talking about Hizballah’s resistance function here, not its social or economic stances inside Lebanon, as the latter are patently non-revolutionary to say the least.

For many, the answer is a no-brainer, especially among those who saw in Hizballah’s position a deep betrayal of its own values regarding oppression and exploitation, and also among previous supporters of Hizballah’s resistance function who grew literally disgusted with its current stance—whether or not parts of the opposition have gone astray.

[Hizballah supporters gather to listen to Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, during a ceremony, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, 11 May 2012, to mark the end of reconstruction of buildings destroyed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. He said his militant group has weapons that can accurately hit targets throughout Israel. AP Photo by Bilal Hussein.]

 

Having spent some time in Beirut (a world unto itself) and other parts of the Arab world during the past year, the cacophony of views coming from the very same leftist circles is astounding. Some supporters of Hizballah on the left have now abandoned them or disengaged, while others have not budged, or intensified their support almost unconditionally. There are other variations to be sure. 

Those who prioritized the here and now—especially in relation to Syria—have disengaged Hizballah. For them, Hizballah has fallen from grace forever. And those who prioritized the longer view in relation to the entire region and its external relations, despite the pain incurred in Syria, have intensified their stance. For them, Hizballah’s resistance function can never be diminished.

These are essentially a priori positions and not principled ones. One can imagine a scenario where abandoning support for Hizballah is not necessarily a betrayal of anti-imperialism. Similarly, one can more easily imagine a scenario in which the support of Hizballah’s resistance function is not necessarily an abandonment of the plight of Syrians. 

The problem is partly empirical and contingent on behavior. It is a “do you privilege God or good?” sort of issue. Clearly, a non-dogmatic approach should privilege the good, not God. But the difficulty arises in the real world when privileging the good does not shield you physically against real enemies who care about neither. (If this seems confusing, probably due to my articulation, and/or space constraint, ignore it for now and revisit).

Not only is there no simple answer, but there really is no simple way to approach the issue. All the parts involved are contested when it comes to the Hizballah-Syria question. Worse, the pain that is in sight for some on the left is not the same as the pain that others on the left observe (whether it is political, social, economic, or physical—as in the number of dead, injured, imprisoned, or tortured). And even where it is similar, questions of measurement come into play: if we agree to observe the pain on all sides, how do we measure which pain should define our stance now? 

Metrics for Judgment: Problematizing the Salient Simplicity  

In dealing with the Syria question during the past fifteen months—whether it is through discussions, debates, submission, or analysis related to Jadaliyya, whether it is the dozens of conferences I have attended on Syria in the United States, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, or—most importantly—whether it is the thick network of personal and familial relations throughout, it is unmistakable how intensely everyone feels about (and analyzes) both the nature and extent of the pain they focus on. I am here referring to differentials among people and institutions that have always opposed US policy in the region and its allies (from Arab dictatorships generally, and the GCC states in particular, to the apartheid state of Israel). 

Above and beyond the vitriol of neoconservative voices in the United States, as well as that of the fumigating nationalists in the region (often hiding behind leftist language), it is more than evident that the Syrian uprising has become akin to a leftist identity crisis of sorts, requiring anyone interested in making sense of the left to pause for a quick assessment of metrics for judgment—lest one thinks that their left is all there is. Admittedly, the word leftist is used loosely here, as it refers to self-identified leftists. The assessment below is surely my own, and discussion is welcome.

In consideration of metrics, we should look at what exactly we are trying to measure. The list and questions below are naturally loaded, but not necessarily exhaustive. First, the question of horizons in time and space varies when it comes to surveying the political economy of pain, and the question of Hizballah in general.

What are the boundaries of the battle zone in reference to pain when it comes to imperialism and oppression? Is it local (i.e., Syria)? Is it regional (i.e., Saudi and Qatari reactionary politics)? Does it relate to Israel’s expansionism? What about US hegemony or—as of late—domination? Is it global and political-economic? Were the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and NATO “intervention” in Libya in 2011 local, regional, or global affairs?

And what is the time frame and nature of pain? How many have been killed in Syria since March 2011 (mostly by the regime)? How many did the Syrian regime kill in Hama in 1982? How many have the “revolutionaries” killed? How many did the United States kill in neighboring Iraq in 1991 and between 2003 and 2011? What is the real extent of structural devastation unleashed by the United States on Iraq during the years of sanctions after 1991 and in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003? How many Arabs has Israel killed and dispossessed since 1948? What is the structural and human cost of US support for more than a dozen Arab (and Iranian, before 1979) dictatorships for at least the past six decades? What is the structural and human cost of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies during the last six decades? Current killing, deplorable as it is, does not take place in a vacuum. Additionally, though killing on all sides is to be condemned, there is a reason why some ways to stop the killing (e.g., external military intervention) might not be cost-effective and might, as we have seen in Libya, increase the killing by ten or twenty-fold. 

The opposite of calculation is gut reaction. Viscerally speaking, why should the mother of a dead Syrian son killed by Syrian regime forces give a damn about any political economy of pain? The same goes for an Iraqi, Lebanese, or Palestinian mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, or comrade in relation to all the above. They probably should not or cannot care, but observers and practitioners in the real world do not have the same luxury of focusing exclusively on the pain of some. To illustrate the point crudely, how are we supposed to react to the pain of the mother of a Nazi officer who was killed in an aggressively brutal battle to take over Europe and annihilate an entire people? To what extent do we give precedence to individual pain? And what is the alternative?

Thus, there is no avoiding of the big picture, of structure, of the cumulative and often invisible effects of decades of a particular phenomenon/trajectory, lest we are either naive or racist/exclusionary.

How else would you explain to someone who asks, “why are you opposed to the US or NATO efforts to create a humanitarian corridor in Syria?” Where do you start, with a discussion of intentions, with history, or with precedents?  

Metrics for Dummies: One has to look for the bigger monster when considering the political economy of pain—the one that wreaks the most havoc on collectivities in time and space. Step two is never to absolve the little monsters. It is all ugly, but it is not all equally devastating.

Hizballah and Syria

Even if we assume complete knowledge and access, there are differing calculations and answers to the proceeding, which determine one’s stance. In this case, let us consider the stance towards Hizballah’s position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime. It is perhaps fair to dismiss those who do not consider at all the pain of others, but it is not easy to dismiss those who do, even if they come up with different answers. Therefore, we must prioritize, make distinctions, and at times we must be able to go beyond “what is Left” by understanding the relationship and potential trade-offs between our humanity and our politics. 

To make a long story short, it depends on what pain or struggle one privileges, and how they are measured within leftist circles.

Leftist supporters of Hizballah point to the big picture, in time and space, and Hizballah’s role in it—namely, its anti-imperialist resistance—but usually not much else. Hizballah’s resistance function vis-à-vis Israel has arguably been the only one in six decades that posed a formidable defense so far, one that shook the putatively “invincible” aura of the Israeli military machine. This, of course, is by the admission of Israeli generals, among other detractors. One could argue that the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah effectively stemmed the tide of Israeli expansion, at least for some time. The fact that all has been quiet on the Israel-Lebanon front since 2006 is not a function of Hizballah’s irrelevance, as some would like to opine. Rather, it is principally a function Hizballah’s deterrence. Without inflating the role of Hizballah, it is noteworthy that this force is invariably considered when pundits and policy-wonks write about, or call for, a strike on Iran or Syria—and surely on Lebanon. Detractors of Hizballah in the region, and especially in Lebanon, discount such considerations when discussing, for instance, the infamous “Hizballah arms” question and consistently ridicule their resistance function of late, citing the events of May 2008 and their current stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime. Whatever the merits of this critique (especially the group’s stance on Syria), it is not mutually exclusive to the question of deterrence and actual resistance function. In a perfect world, political position should not undermine analysis.

Many disagree with the deterrence thesis, but this is where the question of metrics comes in: horizon and scope, time and space, and local versus regional and international battles. There really is no clear-cut answer in the general sense. But from an anti-imperialist leftist perspective, it is very difficult to disregard the role of Hizballah in both the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict as well as  the question of US hegemony and its conservative alliances in the region. Surely, Hizballah’s allies are no prize in terms of political-economic (or, in the case of Iran, socially progressive) agendas. But the powers amassed on the other side, including the United States, Israel, and conservative Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and their minions, have arguably been much more damaging over the past six decades. The leadership in Syria and Iran can change, but the global political-economic system that is supported by the other camp is here to stay. This should not be lost on those on the left, and it should not be considered as simply another detail. 

 

[Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a TV screen from a secret location, during a ceremony, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 11, 2012, to mark the end of reconstruction of buildings destroyed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. AP Photo by Bilal Hussein.]

Most importantly, this formulation and prioritization of culprits should not let the brutality and neoliberalism of the Syrian regime (now and during the past two decades at least) off the hook. And neither should Hizballah be considered infallible or sacred, for the sake of real resistance, both now and in the future. Does Hizballah’s support for the Syrian regime trump all the above? That is the question for leftist supporters of Hizballah who were let down by Hizballah’s Syria stance.

For the left, beyond emotional and/or knee-jerk reactions, it is prudent to start with rejecting the thesis that the Syrian regime and Hizballah are the same thing, (i.e., that they are equally responsible for whatever atrocities the regime committed). Hizballah’s support of the Syrian regime from the very beginning—when the uprising was clearly local and overwhelmingly indigenous—was deplorable on the basis of the same outright principles that made Hizballah soar in the face of exploitation and aggression. However, this support was clearly politically motivated. This does not absolve Hizballah. However, the complicity factor/thesis is not based on intent or desire on Hizballah's part, but rather on political expediency/loyalty, and some say necessity: from Hizballah’s perspective (at least that of its leadership), it supported the Syrian regime because it had to, both politically and militarily, and for many reasons, not least of which is the instrumental role the Syrian regime played in Hizballah’s ability to fight and stop (if not defeat) Israel in the latter’s war on Lebanon/Hizballah in Summer 2006. 

This question of intent and the internalization of the Syrian regime’s actions by Hizballah’s leadership has become more extant as of late due to the subsiding intensity with which Hizballah has repeated its support for the Syrian regime. Moreover, much chatter has been taking place to the effect that the direction the Syrian regime is taking is becoming doubly harmful for Hizballah: first, because it supported the regime by risking its credibility as a “resistance” movement (from the beginning of the uprising); second, by having the turmoil and killing in Syria overflow into Lebanon, where Hizballah is literally on top, and can only lose from a disruption of the socio-political order. Neither of these observations are lost on Hizballah—or Iran.

It remains to be seen when Hizballah’s discourse toward Syria might change, at least explicitly. The increasing number of horrific massacres and an impending complete breakdown of order in Syria will harden some positions and dilute others. One also has to account for the possibility that Hizballah might be drawn (or actively “lured”) into the conflict by provocation. At that point, all bets would be off regarding the discussion above. There are various actors/forces—local, regional, and international—that would love to defame Hizballah by igniting the Lebanese front, or by dragging Hizballah into the Syrian quagmire as a full-fledged fighting force. If this happens in the absence of direct and ascertainable Israeli and western military involvement, Hizballah’s active intervention in Syria on the side of the regime would prove to be fatal. In the event of an Israeli and/or western military intervention in Syria, Hizballah’s active involvement in Syria would be supported throughout much of the region, at least among the left.

In any case, based on the proceeding, and without belaboring the point further, it is not in the interest of those on the left to equate Hizballah and its resistance function with the Syrian regime at this point. Only under changing circumstances would this logic become defunct, based on the same principles and calculations herein. 

Finally, I tried to argue this point on principle. But it is also important to note the attempts of the Saudi-US alliance, strongly supported by Israel and Qatar, to beat down not only Hizballah, but the notion of resistance to the same imperial and hegemonic policies that have prevailed in the region and devastated its peoples for decades. To be sure, Syria's authoritarianism was not supported by the western portion of this alliance, but it was surely supported heavily, if intermittently, by Arab Gulf oil money since the 1970s. Ultimately, the question is less about the source of funding and much more about what is being done with most of the funding. The majority of the funding and allocation of resources in Syria has been spent on policing its own society or looting it, whereas clearly much of the funding that Hizballah received from Iran or elsewhere--despite less disciplined allocation as a function of its changing class base--has been spent on its fighting force and weapons that are predominantly used in fighting Israel. Many, however, are trying to drag Hizballah in full force into the Lebanese quagmire so as to change the above formula.

Development, Exploitation, and the Political Economy of Pain

For the past sixteen years, I have been both researching and teaching Syria’s political economy, focusing on the shift over the past thee decades in regime alliances from labor to business, and the implications for Syria’s political economy. No other contradiction surpasses the one that exists between the state’s professed political-economic principles and its actual policies, regarding matters that concern the left: social justice, equity, class, empowerment, exploitation, labor, peasantry, and so on, especially since 1986. The regime’s political-economic policies of the last two decades created a powerful new nexus between the political and economic elite, and succeeded in gradually disenfranchising the populist/mass social base which the regime purported to represent in the 1960s and most of the 1970s (my complete analytical narrative of Syria's political economy can be found here).

In the early 1980s, the public sector began seriously to falter, the “Arab Gulf” aid dwindled after the oil bust around the same time, and pressure mounted as a result of the regime’s economic policies that marginalized large sections of the petit bourgeoisie in Syria (connected as they are to the traditional suq quarters with Islamist leanings). In response, the Syrian regime began to unofficially marginalize labor in favor of an unofficial and informal boost to select business interests. Such shifts in policy grew more intense and more formal, and acquired a momentum of their own, for nearly two decades until 2005, when President Bashar Asad announced the establishment of the “Social Market Economy,” a dubious mix of market and state-centered economic policies. This new formula reflected more than a change in economic policy that deepened the economic marginalization of most Syrians. More significantly for the topic at hand, it also reflected a maturing change in the social structure of Syria and the regime’s own socioeconomic standing and, thus natural social alliances. The “Social Market Economy” cemented the marriage between the political and economic elite in Syria and consigned any version of socialism—no matter how diluted—to the dustbins of history, in what was supposedly the most leftist regime in the region.

[A motorcyclist passes in front of a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad displayed on an advert for a construction site with an Arabic writing that reads :"together we build," in Damascus, Syria, Monday, May 23, 2011. AP Photo.]


Even if slower and gentler compared to Egypt’s neoliberalism, the trajectory of the regime’s essentially neoliberal policies gradually destroyed the social safety nets created in the 1960s and 1970s, irreversibly compromised labor laws and rights, and shifted the allocation of resources and the entire structure of incentives regarding development towards (rent-seeking) business interests. In sectoral terms, the shares of trade, service, and tourism in the national economy grew at the expense of industry, manufacturing, and agriculture, dramatically reducing the added value that the economy desperately needed. Concomitantly, not only did poverty increase substantially between 1991 and 2005, but so did unemployment and the size of the hyper-vulnerable informal sector. Worse still, the demand for low-skilled labor increased at the expense of the demand for high-skilled labor as a result of the sectoral shift and allocation of resources, leaving Syria bereft of the kind of creative and productive ingenuity needed for any serious reform as a result of a brain-drain at two levels: from the public to the private sector, and then, as a result of very poor working conditions, from the private sector to elsewhere outside Syria.

[Market in downtown Damascus. Image by author.]
 

The countryside and small towns were also affected, if not devastated, by the systematic neglect of agriculture and infrastructure, leading to very high levels of social discontent, and large-scale migration, the effects of which we now see all over our TV/Computer screens. Arguably, the final blow to Syria’s semblance of social justice came between 2005 and 2010, when the government gradually reduced or eliminated various food and gas subsidies, leaving the majority of Syrians in dire conditions in terms of making ends meet, and leaving many with literally nowhere to go for subsistence. This became the case generally throughout Syria, with the exception of Damascus and Aleppo where citizens benefited from the presence of the “state,” as well as the proliferation of state-business networks and their corollary non-productive business ventures. It is noteworthy that these two metropolitan cities were also propped up financially, and in terms of real estate and consruction, by the inflow of capital(ists) from Iraq after 2003.

In sum, both the productive base of the Syrian economy and any semblance of social justice was effaced by the regime’s economic alliances with capital and the ensuing economic and developmental policies.

The political economy of pain scorecard of the Syrian regime in relation to development and exploitation is poor and, in some areas, reprehensible. Furthermore, it is a fundamental blow to virtually every leftist sentiment as it highlights how the political elite unequivocally championed the cause of the usurpers against a growing army of disenfranchised and increasingly malnourished social sectors (forget about poverty statistics and unemployment).

Leftist politics had no place in Syria for at least two decades, and one can argue that this took place at the expense of creating a stronger sociopolitical front against Israeli expansion, US domination, and conservative Arab Gulf complicity. If only the regime cared a bit more about the left, and/or its own people, before the earth fell underneath . . . 

[Statue of Hafiz al-Asad in downtown Damasus. Image by author.]

Conclusion?

There really is none, unfortunately. The plight of the left in the region continues, but the left is here to stay, so long as certain processes and systems of exploitation are at work. The tragedy of the Syrian people is too painful, as the brutality of the Syrian regime is enmeshed in regional and global contradictions that render the situation almost hopeless. It characterizes a situation where the lesser evil is also impossible to support, in and for itself. No matter the arguments about problematic external ploys, the primary responsibility for all this mayhem lies squarely with the Syrian regime, and, contrary to the rather myopic view, the responsibility started at least three decades before the Der`a protests in March 2011.

The Syrian regime had many choices regarding building a better state and better relations with society. Whatever else was at play (from a desire to resist or support resistance), it did not take any of these choices for the vivid purpose of perpetuating its own interests over those of resistance, Palestine, anti-imperialism or any other value on earth. Where the interest of the regime coincided with popular interests locally and regionally (i.e., resistance, etc.), they were pursued, but mainly through proxy (i.e., by enabling resistance via Hizballah rather than engaging in it directly). When these interests collided, anti-imperialism was thrown out the window in favor of self-preservation. Having said that, it is completely short-sighted and uninformed to reduce Syria's anti-imperialist role to zero or to a facade. Without the support of Syria to groups fighting various version of imperialism and domination (e.g., the expansion of Israel's apartheid state), the political map of the region would have appeared quite different today. Maximalist narratives on both sides are almost irreversibly uncalibrated.

At this point, however, the Syrian regime destroyed its ability to contribute to anything besides its own survival, and in the ugliest of manners. Hence, the importance of separating the question of resistance from the question of the survival of the Syrian regime. Leftists can do this now and prepare for the coming struggle, or they can do it later. The only factor that might revive the regime's fortunes is direct military intervention by the US, NATO, Israel, and their minions. As for Hizballah, one factor that can certainly affect its real (not perceived) standing, is if it is dragged into an ugly civil strife, or war, in Lebanon, even if unfairly provoked by its detractors--this is HIzballah's challenge. In fact, this logic is clearly not lost on Hizballah. The shift in its discourse regarding the gruesome killing in Syria and the marked reduction in its "discursive" support of the regime is not a whimsical one, provided everything else remains constant (e.g., in the absence of direct foreign intervention). A close look at the speeches of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah over the past 4 months is indicative, though it must not be exaggerated.

On the question of development and leftist concerns, the Syrian regime's scorecard constitutes a monumental travesty, and a very old one at that, considering it started abandoning labor in the mid 1980s. The rest is an ugly history of creeping rent-seeking by regime officials and their "private" business cronies, executing the ugliest sides of crony capitalism and neoliberalism under the firm and supportive control of an authoritarian regime. The disenfranchising economic policies of the past two decades are in large measure what brought social discontent to the streets in 2011, even if this discontent wouldn't have expressed itself this early absent the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Gradually crushing the economic opportunities of the masses, as well as their dignity, in favor of amassing capital in the pockets of top business interests is a disgraceful act for a regime that talks that anti-imperialist talk. These were choices governed by the primacy of self-preservation over everything else. Hence, this is the prism through which leftists should regard the Syrian regime, now and yesterday. 

Suddenly, just like some American officials and publics who acted like terrorism started on September 11, 2001, some self-styled leftists assumed that March 2011 is the start of the problem in Syria, where they begin comparing the ugliness of "both parties" (the regime and the "revolutionaries" as the uprising rages). This "liberal" approach to analysis (i.e., let's look at both parties now, and ignore structure, power relations, and history)  is rejected by some of the same forces that subscribe to it when it. The behavior and policies of the Syrian regime created both the monstrosity we observe on all sides (with the regime being responsible by far for the biggest share) and the opportunity for reactionary actors, states, and designs outside and inside Syria to wreak havoc with Syria's ability to play any productive role in the region in the future. 

One might say “where to go?” but there are those inside Syria who will not be waiting for us to answer the question. They are truly independent of any outside influence and truly heroic. The question is whether they are still as relevant as they were at the outset of the uprising. The debate on the left will go on.

In the mean time, all eyes are on the breaking point in Syria, whether they look towards an unexpected turn of events, or towards full-fledged civil war after the continued breakdown of the little remaining semblance of order and state control. Daily and systematic violence and confrontations have reached Damascus in full force, and there does not seem to be any way back.

2 comments for "Hizballah, Development, and the Political Economy of Pain: For Syria, What is "Left" (Part 3-Final)"

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Thanks for this astute and very much needed piece.

Lara Deeb wrote on June 12, 2012 at 03:44 PM
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I'm one of those people who got disillusioned by Hizballah for many reasons: as you mention their internal (in Lebanon) politics that proved to be as bile as any other political perty in Lebanon, and then with the realisation that Israel continues to annex and occupy and "live its life" in spite of Hizballah. Hizballah only stopped it in Lebanon, fo rnow, but thats about it. Hizballah need to expand and include more factions if it really wants to take resistance to the much needed next level. Otherwise, as of now, they are just another political party (highly sectatarian) looking for its intrests in Lebanon ...

Maha wrote on June 13, 2012 at 08:54 AM

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