Revolts in Syria: Tracking Convergence
between Authoritarianism & Neoliberalism
Omar S. Dahi and Yasser Munif (1)
September 5, 2011
With the popular revolt in Syria entering its sixth month it is looking more evident that the current regime in Damascus is in its final stages. While the regime continues to cling to power and brutally suppress the protest movement, it is also mobilizing two of its main credentials: an anti-imperialist or resistant ideology and its socialist-welfare state economic model. While there has been some attention given to the first issue, in this article we examine the second, hoping to call into question the regime’s economic trajectory and better shed light on one aspect of the revolt.
Authoritarianism and Economic Liberalization (2)
Syria’s political leadership has placed a premium on autonomy from oppositional forces within and outside the country. However, through tracing the trajectory of economic liberalization, one can observe a gradual loss of this autonomy through the evolving constituencies of the regime as well as, in part, explain the particularities of this crisis. Unlike other developing countries who went through shock therapy, economic liberalization in Syria was gradual and went through three distinct phases during Hafiz al-Asad’s rule, while a fourth one was inaugurated by Bashar al-Asad as soon as he came to power (Joya 2005). These processes unraveled the model of political consolidation built gradually by the Ba’ath party and refined by Asad when he came to power. What they highlight is that over time, there was an organic relationship between the emergence of a free market economy and coercive rule: the two processes were co-constitutive. However the neoliberal authoritarian model itself also created the possibilities for social revolt.
Since the Ba’ath coup in 1963, the emergent Pan-Arab party developed a brand of socialism inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s economic planning and wealth distribution. The Pan-Arab party was influential among schoolteachers and intellectuals until it merged with the Arab Socialist Party of Akram al-Hawrani in 1952. Hawrani had been an effective organizer and anti-feudal agitator among the peasantry and with the merger the Ba’ath Party acquired a significant peasant base. When the Ba’ath seized power, a main concern was to improve the lives of the workers and peasants and to undermine the hegemony of the Sunni landlord-merchant elite, which previously had controlled the state and most of the economy. One third of agricultural land was redistributed to landless farmers. The banking sector and major industries were nationalized while foreign trade was monopolized by the state (Hopfinger & Boeckler 1996). To implement its program, the party used force to discipline discontent groups and repress any organized opposition. Early on, the minister of Defense, Hafiz al-Asad eliminated his rivals outside and within the party. The political debates between the different factions within the party were finally “resolved” through a bloodless coup led by Asad in 1970. The emergence of the conservative factions inaugurated a new era.
Once in power, Asad initiated a liberal program to undo or halt the progressive measures that the ‘radical’ faction of the Baath, led by Salah Jadid, had implemented in the previous few years in particular on issues such as land reform as well as curbs on the private merchant sector. At the surface the developmental model pursued by the regime was that of import substitution industrialization whereby the state seizes the commanding heights of the economy, launches infrastructural projects and industrial factories, and imposes quantitative restrictions on international trade. At the same time, the massive Syrian bureaucracy incorporated a large sector of the population under the direct control of the state. (Perthes 1995). However since urban workers and peasants formed two important social bases for the regime, the state-led developmental program was meant to protect them from the market rather than subject them to its discipline. This meant that while the regime was able to launch significant industrial and manufacturing projects, it was not able to make them a source of capital accumulation and the state remained distributive in nature relying on oil revenues, aid, and remittances (Waldner 1999). Lack of viable manufacturing and industrial sectors signified that most of non-oil trade remained agricultural either in production or processing of agricultural products. In other words, the regime used its oil revenues to maintain social programs such as free education, subsidized products, and free healthcare. To borrow from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the regime used the “left hand” of the state, which consists of the various welfare programs, to elevate the living conditions of the population. However, as Bourdieu explains, the state’s main goal is to maintain the hierarchy of power regardless whether this is achieved through consensus or violence. This is why when it faces a crisis, the state governs through its “right hand,” by deploying its technologies of coercion and violence to squash any protests or social movements that contest its legitimacy. Peasants, workers, and professional syndicates (such as lawyers unions), while incorporated and given official representation in the regime, gradually lost all autonomy-increasingly the leadership was appointed from above rather than elected and strictly based on loyalty considerations. To consolidate his power, Asad increasingly relied on the military and the secret police, in addition to creating a praetorian guard that his brother Rifat led, and which operated in paralegal spaces. Syrian society was living under a permanent state of exception. Under his rule, there were no Syrian citizens, only Syrian subjects. The underside of Asad’s strategy was an increased isolation of the ruling oligarchy. The regime’s economic policies and securitarian logics were increasing social alienation and potential opposition to the state. However Lisa Wedeen has also argued that the regime’s ‘cult of Asad’, developed in the 1970s by then Minister of Information Ahmed Iskandar Ahmad, utilizes a mixture of spectacle, rhetoric, and rituals that deify Asad which while not producing a legitimacy or Gramscian ‘hegemony’, nevertheless succeeds in ensuring obedience. Though no one truly believed in the cult of Asad, Wedeen argues, the regime’s ability to force people into acting ‘as if’ they did, itself produced an aura of total power and invincibility. It also had the effect of de-politicizing the population and even implicating them in the regime’s actions, though it is so exaggerated that it routinely invites transgressions, which subvert the cult itself (Wedeen 1999).
Asad faced the first serious challenge to his rule in 1976. The regime failed to prevent a long stagnation of the living standards of many Syrians. In addition it was unwilling to open a more inclusive political sphere. The result was the radicalization of the leftist opposition, particularly the rise of the Syrian ‘new left’ embodied in the League of Communist Action as well as the uprising of Muslim Brotherhood. The crisis was on the one hand political due to the absolutist rule of the Syrian general. In addition to a state of emergency in place since 1963, the state waged a brutal war against any form of political organizing and the citizens’ most basic rights were violated. The clash between the state and social movements (unions, Muslim Brotherhood, leftist parties) took various forms ranging from independent organizing within unions and protests to assassination and armed clashing with the police and security in Hamah and Damascus (Lawson 1989). The crisis was also socio-economic since the policies implemented by the ruling oligarchy led to the gradual concentration of wealth and land in the hands of the old landlords and the new emerging bourgeoisie. The process of capital accumulation outside urban areas was profitable to the wealthy landlords who dispossessed a majority of the peasants and left them landless. In the city, the living standards of the middle class declined while the margin for political activity withered away. Filling Syrian jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners and routinely torturing them proved to be insufficient. To end the political crises and to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising from achieving its aim, the regime, through its “right hand,” unleashed its repressive apparatus on the population. The 1982 massacres of Hamah left between 10,000 and 20,000 dead (Cleveland 2000: 394; Fisk 2002: 62).
The economic policy of the Assad regime led to a second crisis in the mid 1980s. To solve its acute debt crisis, a faction of the ruling class considered the help of the World Bank and the IMF. However, the tradeoff for such an action would have been the acceptance of international institutions’ diktats, toward which the Syrian elite was reluctant. Rather than bring in the World Bank, the situation was handled domestically. Nevertheless the regime under the influence of an increasingly powerful business community, chose to liberalize the economy further. Following a severe foreign exchange crisis in 1986, the state announced an era of economic pluralism (ta'addudiyya). It passed liberal policies that allowed the private sector to invest more freely, increased the number of sectors open to the private, liberalized prices and reduced subsidies, and liberalized trade and exchange rates. The General Federation of Workers Syndicates had prepared its own report in response to the crisis which had called for more government control over the economy and blamed the crisis on Syria’s dependent position in the global economy and the rise of non-productive sectors (Sukkar 1994). The fact that the Syndicates’ proposals were marginalized to those of the emerging business elites shows the steady decline in the influence of one of the social bases of the regime-a trend set to continue in the coming decade. It is this context that opened the way for the passage of Investment Law No. 10 of 1991, which exempted new investments from taxes for several years. Multiple factors led to further liberalization in the 1990s. The private sector became a serious competitor to the public one (Perthes 1995: 257-60). Furthermore, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was understood as the demise of socialist ideology. Residual Marxian discourse was dropped from the regime’s literature and university curricula. More generally, the Syrian economy became more intertwined with global capitalism. The capitalist class who was dependent on global finance became stronger than local entrepreneurs. The conditions of state employees were deteriorating very rapidly as the private sector was emerging as the winner of neoliberalization. The contradictions were becoming acute at the level of the Ba’ath leadership. To attend to that problem, the regime started marginalizing the role of the party in certain spheres. At that point, the process of de-Ba’athification in the economy was unmistakable (Joya 2005). The Ba’ath party itself as a locus of decision-making and deliberation gave way to the influence of prominent businessmen.
Bashar al-Asad’s ascent to power came with the promise of political and economic reform- however after brief flirtation with the former only the latter was implemented. The ‘Damascus Spring’ led to a proliferation of independent periodicals, intellectual forums, and civil society organizations culminating in various statements or manifestos (such as “Statement of 99”) which demanded more freedom of expression, rule of law, independent judiciary, abolition of special courts, martial law and emergency legislation. Most of the civil society demands were measured and calculated-none demanded the fall down of the regime or a radical political transformation. However the government clamped down anyway and the “Spring” soon turned to “Winter” with Bashar Al-Assad’s famous interview given to Al-Sharq al-Awsat in February 2001 signaling the shift in government discourse:
“When the consequences of an action affect the stability of the homeland, there are two possibilities… either the perpetrator is a foreign agent acting on behalf of an outside power, or else he is a simple person acting unintentionally. But in both cases a service is being done to the country’s enemies and consequently both are dealt with in a similar fashion, irrespective of their intentions or motives” (quoted in Lesch 2005: 92).
The regime’s message was spread throughout the country by Khaddam, the then vice-president and who later defected and now poses as a democratic reformer- who repeated the line that these liberal intellectuals were tied to foreign agencies or embassies and that they were going to lead to the destruction of the country. It is worth recalling that most of political activism during the “Damascus Spring” was centered around print media, public forums and official statements- there was no one in the streets.
Since Bashar’s accession to power in 2000, the state’s reliance on the private sector grew substantially however the difference was qualitative rather than mere quantitative. Previously, economic liberalization was done piece-meal and gradual, and largely in response to crises. Under Bashar al-Assad there was decisive turn towards the market economy. The economic leadership under Assad decided, and perhaps with good reason, that the old model was unsustainable. However, discarding the model completely represented a dilemma: could the regime afford to completely abandon its key constituents, namely the urban workforce and peasantry? The leadership debated whether aggressive neoliberalization or gradual liberalization should be adopted. The so-called “Chinese model” became a mantra of Syrian officials. Over the past decade the government has dramatically liberalized trade (e.g. Legislative Decree 61 in 2009), including ending government monopolies of imports, and liberalized agricultural exports through lowering or removal of export duties.
Domestically, this has also meant liberalization of prices for most commodities (through the "Competition and Anti-Monopoly Law" of 2008). Private banks were licensed for the first time and a stock exchange was established. De-regulation of the real estate market, including reversal of decade old tenant laws and allowing landlords to more easily evict tenants in previously rent-controlled housing (Tenants and Real Estate Law No. 6), and laws protecting private property were strengthened. Liberalization and withdrawal of public support towards the energy sector in particular prices of diesel, gasoline fuel, gas, and increasingly electricity as well as liberalization of prices of agricultural and industrial inputs. Due to a decrease in oil revenues, which were cut almost in half in fifteen years, structural adjustment was finally implemented. The strategy adopted by the regime signified that the public sector was to undergo additional marginalization while the private sector and the classes involved in the new economy were given a leading role.
The extent of liberalization and rollback of the state in Syria was not as dramatic as its other counterparts, such as in Egypt and Tunisia. However those states were aspirations, or models Syria was trying to emulate. That these steps toward liberalization represented a fundamental change in the economic direction was signaled by major policy documents. In June of 2005 during the Tenth Regional Congress of the Ba’ath Party, the term ‘social market economy’ was introduced as the new economic model for Syria. Though the phrase ‘social’ was retained, presumably to signal that aspects of the welfare state would remain, this signaled a decisive shift towards a market economy. However policy implementation was more ‘market’ than ‘social’ and the Syrian state was unable or unwilling to perform the rational-technical role needed to guide a social welfare developmentalist regime (S’eifan 2009). What emerged instead was an increasingly predatory neoliberal economy with a focus on consumption, unproductive investments, and a focus on the service sector. The replacement of Tayseer Al-Radawi a leftist with Abdallah al-Dardari an economic liberal as the Head of the Planning Commission after the former had voiced concerns about rising inequality as well as marginalization of the peasants and urban workers, two social forces that have been traditionally part of the regimes base was another gesture of this shift.
The rise of this ‘Authoritarian neoliberalism’ is best symbolized by the role the cousin of Bashar el-Assad, Rami Makhlouf has played by infiltrating all major sectors of the economy through a logic of laissez-faire. When the ‘invisible’ hand of the market doesn’t suit him, he doesn’t hesitate to use coercion to achieve his goals. For example, when political dissident and parliament member, Riad Seif, questioned a cell phone company deal in which, Makhlouf was involved, he was put in jail. In the meantime, the economic empire of Makhlouf continued to grow to exceed 3 billion dollars in less than a decade (Wieland 2006: 60). One of the sectors he has almost a monopoly over is wireless telephony. It’s interesting to note that this sector is symptomatic of authoritarian neoliberalism’s cruelty (cell phone networks are installed in areas where access to drinkable water is still limited), and more importantly, it represents a strategic sector for the collection of information and the surveillance of the population. The neoliberal practices of Makhlouf and others like him have devastated Syrian citizens’ standard of living in the past ten years. The concentration of wealth, since the time of the UAR, has never been as uneven where 5% of the population owns 50% of the wealth. At the same time, the ruling class has been enacting an important but gradual transition from the planned economy to a neoliberal economy that left more than 30% of unemployed and between 11% and 30% under the poverty line (Wieland 2006: 63).
In the past, the ruling class used to ask, “what does it cost to maintain power?” The answer was decisive in determining the topology of political alliances and distribution of power between various social groups, the party, the bureaucratic apparatus, and the ruling oligarchy. More recently the ruling oligarchy stopped building coalitions. The military junta became the new bourgeoisie. The generals substituted their khaki uniforms and military hats with black suits and ties. No example illustrates the spirit of the era better than what happened few weeks after Bashar seizure of power in 2000. To reform the autocratic state he inherited, the young president ordered the removal of a massive picture of his father from one of the main squares of Damascus and its replacement with a Lipton Tea advertisement of the same size. Perhaps the young dictator was convinced that the invisible hand of the market would make dissent disappear without appearing authoritarian; the regime decided to play the economic growth card, aided and abetted by former World Bank officials pushing the utopian powers of the market The merger had a price, however. It signified that authoritarian rule was not able to delink from neoliberal classes anymore to preserve the regime. Its destiny was dependent on a “healthy” neoliberalism. The ruling class couldn’t do and undo alliances as it used to in the past; the regime’s margin for political maneuvering became very limited. The conflation of the ruling classes in the political and economic spheres has reduced the field of political possibilities. The crumbling of the current regime should therefore be located in this long history of convergence between neoliberalism and authoritarianism.
Decolonial Arab revolution
The current crisis has also a geohistorical dimension. The power of Arab dictators is being contested because the system of independent nations, which emerged after decolonization, has reached its systemic limits and is currently fissuring. A few decades ago, British and French colonialisms were replaced by military juntas and autocratic rulers who, for the most part, were closely allied to the West. In other words, rulers have hijacked the independence of Arab countries and established neocolonial regimes to replace old-fashioned colonialism. During the colonial era, Western governments have externalized some of the political and economic violence from their own societies by exporting it to societies located in the periphery. Building liberal democracies in the West has been possible only because the surplus of violence was exported to the margins. Liberal democracies were able to solve the conflict of interest between European and American working classes and bourgeoisies by externalizing a portion of the violence inflicted to western dominated classes to the colonial margins. The construction of more “democratic” societies was predicated on the export of violence to the periphery. Arab societies were at the receiving ends.
The current Arab revolts should therefore be understood as a contestation not only to Arab authoritarianism but also to Western dependency. The cost of Western neocolonialism combined with local authoritarianism is too high to be sustained. The struggles of Arab populations and their fight against imperialism have shown that at least some of the Western violence was non-exportable to the margins. In some cases, Arab populations tried to challenge authoritarianism by embracing what Fanon qualified as the colonial “program of complete disorder” and “absolute violence,” but for the most part they have failed to overthrow the regimes as the massacre of Hamah can attest. It’s crucial to situate the mostly peaceful revolts in today’s Arab world within such a context. Realizing that violence against dictatorship is bound to fail, Arab demonstrators have chosen to use the weapons of the weak: peaceful demonstrations. In doing so, Arab populations are leading a dual struggle: 1) they are battling against Arab authoritarianism 2) they are also attempting to contest global neoliberalism. This is why American and European government have been reluctant to support the demands of Arab societies. The West interferes only to contain these revolts either by militarizing them or by making deals with the most regressive groups who are willing to advance the American and European agendas in the region. What is being challenged therefore is the unwritten social contract between the West and authoritarian rulers. The latter have accepted to import a portion of Western violence; in exchange, the “international community” would tolerate their autocratic rule.
Within the context of Arab authoritarianism, Syria has unique trajectory. It doesn’t follow the diktats of the west in the same way Mubarak’s Egypt or Abdullah’s Jordan do but it has never been truly oppositional to the American world order, as it sometimes likes to portray itself. It has been more independent that than the US would like, and in an era of total subservience by Syria’s Arab brethren this has seemed radical, however the main goal for this independence was regime preservation. Its involvement in 1976 in the Lebanese war alongside right wing Christian militias to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization attests to the Syrian regime’s conservative nature. In 1991, Hafiz al-Asad chose to participate in the Gulf War against Iraq while his son’s regime participated in extraordinary rendition, torturing Syrian citizens to gather ‘crucial’ information that can help the US in its ‘global war on terror’. The timid response of the EU, the US and general silence by Israel shows that the West considers the Syrian regime a precious asset that can assist in maintaining the current hegemonic structure of power in the region, though their preference may be for it to be weakened and thus more subservient. However, because of its seemingly ‘oppositional’ foreign policy, the Syrian regime has had a more legitimacy in the eyes of certain Arab populations up until the Syrian revolt. Its close relationship with the Iranian regime as well as the Lebanese and Palestinian movements of resistance makes it unique in the Arab context. The regime thought this strategic relationship would make it immune to the wave of protests in the Arab world. Bashar el-Assad made it clear five months ago that Syria was stable and would not be affected by the “turbulence”.
What does it cost to maintain power now? Authoritarian neoliberalism is rapidly losing its grip over society as well as its remaining legitimacy. An increasing number of Syrians are opposed to its rule even if up until now, only a minority is demonstrating in the big cities. So far, the regime has been able to convince a sizable number of Syrians that the alternatives to its rule are dangerous sectarianisms or dreadful extremisms. The violence and killing of peaceful demonstrators that has been taking place for more than three months is slowly shifting the minds of Syrians. More and more are asking for the downfall of the regime and are persuaded it must go after the many crimes it committed. The inability of the regime to build a viable alliance are almost null. The polarization between the regime on the one hand and the rest of the population is preventing the constitution of a new historic bloc on which the regime could build its future. The arrest of every man and boy below the age of forty in Daraa demonstrates the weakness of a destabilized regime. It is also a practice that is very much reminiscent of the colonial era. The checking of every computer and facebook account of males who enter the country demonstrates the growing desperation of the regime. Fanon notes that once decolonial mechanisms are set in motion, it is very difficult to stop them. He writes, “[d]ecolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History (2).” What the Syrian and Arab regimes fail to understand is that once minds are decolonized, it is extremely difficult to re-colonize them anew. The decolonization of the mind is irritating Arab dictators who often spent several decades trying to “domesticate” their populations. But more importantly, Arab regimes fail to understand that even if they can evade their downfall today, they’re only postponing their ultimate demise. Their only chance to preserve their remaining power is to succeed where Napoleon failed. When revolutionary ideals have contaminated many Caribbean blacks in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon thought the best way to prevent future rebellions was to evacuate the entire population from the island and send it back to West Africa.
The Syrian revolt itself not only contains a rejection of the ruling elite, but has already advanced beyond how traditional dissidents conceptualized the end of the regime. The people on the streets are creating a new reality so far ahead the rest of the population, which has had one way or another to come to terms with an unbearable reality. The internalization of the sectarian discourse and the repression has been deeply ingrained into the minds of many Syrians. Coupled with the systematic dismantling and destruction of civil society, which not only meant the inability to have meaningful discussions on the country’s future, the economy, human development, and democracy but also helped create the impression of a lack of alternative. No matter how imaginary this actual lack may be, many Syrians felt alienated and fearful of each other, seemingly caught off guard by the extent of the suffering of so many fellow citizens. Unable to comprehend how people would march to certain death- and anyone leaving their house in Syria to demonstrate is quite possibly marching to a certain death, unable to comprehend how people would face live ammunition with bare arms, many have gladly taken refuge in lies, conspiracy theories, and plain hatred and anger at the protesters.
As for the Syrian media, it has resorted to the most vile and despicable incitement against the protesters. In addition to essentially creating the specter of sectarianism (fitna) when there was no evidence that it existed, the regime and media wanted to make the population accomplices in the massacres they have committed or about to commit. Caller after caller into Syrian State TV talk shows have announced, to the delight and encouragement of the host their desire to see the regime hit out with an iron fist against the ‘saboteurs’ and ‘conspirators’.
The response of the regime has been a mixture of obviously unsustainable economic giveaways with more sinister social policies and shear violence and brutality. On the economic end, the proposed salary rise: on March 24, about 2 million civil servants and pensioners had their pay increased between 20 and 30 percent, coupled with a general reduction in income taxes. Not counting the loss of revenue due to lower tariff and tax rates (cut to lower the price of foodstuffs and basic consumption goods), the costs of the pay rise along with the Social Fund that was announced recently to aid disadvantaged families will probably exceed US$ 1 billion or roughly 6% of the Syrian governments entire budget, clearly a form of bribery to stop the ongoing protests. The apotheosis of authoritarian rule and neoliberal policies however is best exemplified by the eagerness of top businessmen such as Rami Makhlouf, Ayman Al-Jaber, Khaled Abboud, Ahmad Anas al-Shami to open their warehouses and turn them into detention centers for the regime to use them since its gigantic prisons were already saturated (iatassi 2011, May 5).
Unlike the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, Syria’s army and security apparatus and structure of government are loyal to the ruling class. This obviously makes their removal more complicated than in the other cases. However the lower level of institutionalization and independent institutions may also imply the removal of the regime can signify a cleaner break than those countries and a chance for consensus based and participatory institutional building. Moreover the relatively young population is a gift and not a curse. It means ideologies and world views can be shaped in a positive direction through democratic practice and open discourse rather than continue to ossify and harden under autocratic rule. Time is running out however, and the question of what does it cost to maintain power is yet to be answered.
1 Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. Yasser Munif is an activist and assistant professor at Emerson College.
3 We would like to thank Sayres Rudy and Frank Holmquist for comments on previous drafts of this article. We are solely responsible for its content.
4 The founders of the Party, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-din al-Bitar were schoolteachers educated in France and influenced by the socialist and secularist ideas particularly of French socialism. Zaki al-Arsuzi who was also a prominent nationalist thinker was cited by the younger (military) generation of the Ba’ath, especially Asad who deposed Aflaq and Bitar and claimed Arsuzi as the ‘real’ ideological founder of the Ba’ath.
5 Since Asad and many of his allies were from the minority Alawi sect, many scholars have reduced the multilayered and complex Syrian society to a number of sects with opposing interests. Iraqi historian, Hanna Batatu, among others, has shown that the “sectarian thesis” as a sole grid of intelligibility, is very reductive, though he also argues that over time an increasing number of the heads of Army Divisions and Security Apparatus leaderships have been Alawi. Nevertheless it is a mistake to think of the regime as ‘sectarian’. As recent events have proven, there is a complex political-economy which intersects sect lines.
6 Sayres Rudy “The Arab Revolts” Mt. Holyoke College lecture, April 12th, 2011.
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