Beirut, Lebanon. (Karl Bou-Rjeily)
Beirut, Lebanon. (Karl Bou-Rjeily)

Revolution in the Neoliberal Wilderness

The breakout of demonstrations on October 17 in Lebanon and their concatenation into a full-fledged revolution defies theorization. It is true that the accumulation of state failures, neoliberal dismantlement and privatization of state assets, and the overall widening of income and wealth disparities are all obvious culprits, as many commentators have tirelessly pointed out. 

A ‘tipping point’ was allegedly reached with the imposition of a daily 20 cents fee on WhatsApp calls. It was swiftly followed by a chain reaction of events, starting with a road closure by a band of motorcyclists on October 17, and not ending with the glorious popular revolution that is unfolding in front of our eyes today. 

In what sense was a tipping point reached? Was it so as the culmination of the play of impersonal societal and economic forces that some keen student of social sciences can decipher and predict? Not in that sense, inasmuch as a meager fee on WhatsApp calls cannot be adduced as a historically cogent determinant of this revolution. 

More serious measures impoverishing the bulk of Lebanese society have been enacted in the recent past without even remotely triggering such a conflagration. All this is to say that this revolution is a singular and highly contingent historical event

One can argue that it is this very band of motorcyclists, in their action against what they rightly saw as a draconian fee imposed on their main means of telephony, who triggered this revolution of their own volition, inasmuch as they could have changed their mind midway through their ride, decided not to block this road, and headed back home. Thankfully this did not happen, or else our revolution could have ended up being yet another historical what if, if anyone cared to imagine it.

In the global neoliberal wilderness we live in today, such contingent and singular “events” and their attendant concatenations are abounding around us. Worldwide, and in Lebanon par excellence, neoliberalism has proceeded in relentless strides to disembed the economy from its societal matrix. This process has entailed stripping the citizenry naked from its social protections and morphing it into an aggregation of atomized consumers, with no means to satisfying their multiplying needs and desires other than through towering debt. 

If such citizens’ civil rights and claims to social protections are to be revendicated through intermediate formations, be they trade unions or mass and left-wing mass parties, then these are to be tamed or dismantled outright, and neoliberalism’s successes on all these fronts are indeed glaring. In Lebanon, sectarianism has acted as neoliberalism’s enforcer of choice in reducing society to its pre-17-October meekness.

(Firas El Khoury)
(Firas El Khoury)

At the risk of brutal simplification, the main outcome of the neoliberalization of the state, economy and society in Lebanon can be summarized:

On the one hand stands a ruling oligarchy—the infamous one percent—living off capital accumulated without production, mostly through financial shenanigans given to pyramid scheming and the conjuring up of extra-profits out of thin air. On the other hand lies broken and impoverished—and often pauperized—a society left to fend for itself as they are weaned away from agonizing social safety nets. 

Society is therefore invited by the apologists of neoliberalism to recreate itself into a “resilient community,” constantly on the lookout for new and creative means to scrape up a living out of the breadcrumbs thrown its way by the ruling oligarchy through clientelistic channels. 

The result is not only a materially impoverished society, but one also robbed from any discursive or action-oriented weaponry with which to articulate and struggle for class-based demands. The new atomized society is allowed to experience its lifeworld only as an aggregation of egoistic consumers—indeed debt-saddled ones at that—including matters pertaining to politics which were hitherto the province of citizen solidarities. 

It has often been claimed that neoliberalism seeks to fragment societies and citizenries by bombarding them with an ineluctable stream of consumerist experiences and desires going beyond mere commodities to engulf culture itself, variegated into ever more customized strands, hence fragmenting society into atomized consumers. 

It is also true, however, that the objective economic conditions underlying all this is one of credit-fueled consumption by a marginalized society only existing in the meager sphere of reproduction without any meaningful place in the sphere of production to match it. Consumption itself in this neoliberal configuration becomes less of an opportunity for productive capital to realize its profit, and more of finance capital to create fictitious wealth through the amalgamation of interest-bearing consumer debt. 

The term marginalized, and not exploited, has been purposefully used here when referring to society. In capitalism’s neoliberal moment, it becomes increasingly inadequate to solely envision society in terms of social classes with conflicting interests. In the preceding moment of embedded and developmentalist liberalism that followed World War II, even proletarian classes had a solid foothold in economy and society as exploited classes; needed, that is, in good shape and health to generate the surplus value accruing to the national bourgeoisie. 

(Karl Bou-Rjeily)
(Karl Bou-Rjeily)

The neoliberal moment, in contrast, has no robust place for the bulk of society. Proletarians are ousted from the sphere of production altogether through factory closures, automation and massive layouts, resulting in towering levels of unemployment and pauperization. The middle classes themselves are seeing their position in society becoming increasingly precarious, and their secure access to the surplus capital generated by the now financialized comprador bourgeoisie dwindling by the day, only to be compensated by the take-up of ever more debt.

Neoliberalism’s historical reduction of society to a debt-saddled, consumptive multitude is therefore a double-edged sword. Where the intention was to condemn citizens to the pursuit of an endlessly growing stream of consumptive desires, and tame them through recourse to fragmenting identity, confessional and sectarian politics, the economic base of this reality was telling a different story: that the possibilities of credit-fueled consumption are soon to reach their limits among the marginalized masses.

Soon these masses find themselves unable to sustain themselves with any measure of dignity in their pursuit of consumptive desires and docile deference to fragmenting culturalist politics. The homogenizing forces latently at work within neoliberalism become patent, if only its dire economic base can reassert itself in the hearts and minds of the multitude. The revolutionary event is, in its essence, such a reassertion.

If metaphor is our best guide for mapping Lebanon’s version of the October revolution, that of the “tipping point” would be an ill-advised one. It is more favorable to use a metaphor of “self-translocation” in our helpless attempts at understanding the revolutionary concatenation of October 17. 

The motorcyclists who blocked a Beirut main road, and the hundreds of thousands of souls who promptly responded by flocking into the streets and demonstrating for days on end, have done so by a singular act of will, rather than a logical response to a tipping point reached through impersonal economic forces. 

This revolutionary event is at its core a willful act on the part of a conservative multitude to give up on the prospects of credit-fueled consumption and culturalist-sectarian politics, and resolve to action that is closer in line with its objective economic and social conditions. 

It is not some longing for change that drove the masses into the streets, but rather a deeply conservative outlook shaped by neoliberalism’s very oligarchy, false dreams, and fragmenting politics that are being contested. This is a heroic tour de force, for it risks no less than unleashing the vengeful wrath of the powerful ruling oligarchies and their henchmen. 

Are we then witnessing a revolutionary event without revolutionary subjects? I would strongly argue this, without any intention to detract from this revolution’s glory. 

(Firas El Khoury)
(Firas El Khoury)

Further, all events are ephemeral, and revolutionary events are no exception. Yet our revolutionary event will deflect and keep deflecting the course of history for decades beyond the event’s conclusion. What Lebanon’s momentous revolution has triggered, and will persist in triggering, for years to come is no less that an epochal shift in political, economic and social expectations on the part of the disenfranchised citizenry. 

These expectations will be virtually impossible to meet by the state in its current configuration, especially as captured and atrophied by its ruling oligarchy. A course of deep reform to the Lebanese state and strand of capitalism needs to be embarked upon to match the revolutionized outlook of the citizenry demonstrating in its millions on the streets. 

Where did the crisis come from then? To answer this question, a sober understanding of the unfolding crisis of Lebanon’s neoliberal state and capitalism is in order, from which the contours of the requisite economic and social reform can be delineated. 

The plethora of reasons concocted by commentators to unpack this crisis are unimpressive. Confessionalism, corruption, nepotism and the like are all serious ailments in their own right, but they are simply emanations of the deeper crisis at work. The neoliberal onslaught on the state’s welfare safety nets, as tragic as it is, is also not where the crisis really lies. 

Rather, this crisis seems to reside in the neoliberal reconfiguration of Lebanese capitalism, with the state at its helm, from one staking its survival on the accumulation of real capital in the sphere of production and commerce to one magically accumulating fictitious capital within the sphere of high finance and leaving productive forces to decay beyond repair.

And what about reform? A lot of ink has been spilled on charting the lineage of Lebanon’s gargantuan public (and largely internal) debt, how much of a burden it has become to the country’s economy and society, and how it has accrued extravagant wealth to the wealthiest one percent. Proposals to heavily tax this collective wealth are also legion, and for very good reasons. 

The state should also go beyond such taxation and tackle its public debt head on by writing off a large chunk, if not all, of its internal portion. In such revolutionary times, who would not savor the news that the wealthy few are finally being made to shoulder the burden of reform? Yet it would be of paramount importance not to channel the funds liberated from the shackles of debt servicing solely to the redistribution of wealth to the lower echelons of society: If the crisis of neoliberal capital and state lies primarily in the sphere of production, it would be a strategic miscalculation for the sphere of redistribution and reproduction, to which this crisis of production has only spilled over, to become the main locus of reform. 

Rather, serious funds need to be channeled to the development of productive forces in a bid for reviving productive profit, rather than financial rent, as the main motor of capital accumulation. This won’t happen without production and the development of productive forces becoming a central preoccupation of reform, and hence of political discourse and action.

And, last, on whose shoulders should the heavy burden of enacting such reforms fall? This is where skepticism, if not outright pessimism, should strike the highest chord. 

Neoliberalism has left society with no meaningful trade unions or mass parties to formulate alternatives and embark on such reforms, leaving revolutions under its wing leaderless. Lebanon’s current revolution is a case in point. The notion that respectable “personalities” and “experts” could lead this course seems to be overly naïve, at times verging on the comical. 

What of the devil himself, the hydralike Lebanese ruling oligarchy? Is it not looking to secure its survival in such turbulent times? Presumably so, although neoliberalism has left it too structurally shielded from its citizens for it to figure out ingenious and self-disruptive plans for appeasing them with meaningful alternatives. Bleak counter-revolutionary times are likely to lie ahead in the short and medium terms. 

Let the revolution gamble on the longer term for rosier prospects, and let us hope, pace John Maynard Keynes’ famous dictum, that we are not all dead by then!