Lebanon’s Global Conundrum: Which Strategy for Political Change?
Lebanon is currently stuck in a state of liminality — a transitional stage of in-betweenness where, as Gramsci once put it, “the old is dying but the new cannot be born.” With parliamentary and municipal elections around the corner, anti-establishment groups, which have been growing in size and credibility, are in a conundrum: Do they participate in elections, knowing that they are bound to be rigged and unfair, if held at all? Do they try to force a peaceful transition of power, given that the country is collapsing and there is no alternative? Do they shun state-centered strategies and instead focus on building such economic alternatives as cooperatives and mutual aid networks? The time is ripe for serious and critical conversations on how to move beyond this transitional stage and topple the neoliberal-sectarian regime.
In many ways, the Lebanese tragedy is a somber reflection of a chronic and systemic global ailment: The logics and incentive structures governing financial markets are inherently unsustainable, predatory, and lead to increasingly common and cyclical crises around the world. The hegemonic spread of neoliberal policies, which prioritize deregulation, financialization, privatization and wage repression, has created speculative bubbles of fictitious capital inevitably bound to implode. The resulting crises of neoliberalism vary in scale, yet share one key feature: Those responsible for the implosions not only escape accountability, but also profit from the crises while others get dispossessed. Neoliberal claws run so deep that states and global financial institutions have turned into the safety nets of elites, ready to bail out corporate giants and protect complicit politicians by any means necessary. An infamous example is the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, also known as the “bank bailout,” that was passed by the U.S. Congress following the Great Recession. This Act authorized the U.S. government’s Treasury Department to disburse $475 billion in the purchase of distressed assets from American banks and financial institutions.
The resulting crises of neoliberalism vary in scale, yet share one key feature: Those responsible for the implosions not only escape accountability, but also profit from the crises while others get dispossessed.
This global hegemonic system, despite its cracks and contradictions, is equipped with extensive and multi-layered webs of coercion and collusion that secure its reproduction. The counter-revolution that Lebanon experienced is a clear example of that, from its focus on militarization and violent repression to exploiting clientelistic dependencies, blatant disinformation campaigns, and multifaceted co-optation. Ultimately, the counter-revolutionary effort succeeded, with the help of the pandemic, in demoralizing and taming the streets. In the face of this sinister reality, political cynicism is understandable and, in many ways, valid. The overwhelming scale of the collapse triggered collective despair and, in some instances, capitulation to a new status-quo. However, this prevailing sentiment is troubling and presents a serious challenge to the alternative political formations that are trying to figure out how to trip, once and for all, the hobbling regime.
To generate any kind of radical hope to combat this cynicism, a daring framework that reflects a persuasive political vision and imaginary is necessary, and must account for the long-term nature and tides of the revolutionary process. This has been the historical conundrum for those who have struggled for liberation everywhere. While a structural diagnosis is paramount, the real challenge is to envision alternatives and conceive viable courses of transformation.
After reading through different official statements by emerging political parties and anti-establishment groups, attending discussions that took place in online spaces, and having conversations with a range of activists, I identified the debates taking place amongst recently formed political groups in Lebanon as being two-tiered. On one level, the focus is on determining the best political vision, and on the other devising a practical plan to put theory into practice. Anti-establishment groups are currently debating four main theoretical and practical strategies on the formation of an independent government, elections, collective action, and building at the grassroots.
- Independent Government: Anti-establishment groups, like Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla (MMFD), believe that to seize power and implement urgent reforms to get the country out of the financial crisis, they must continue to pressure the political class to hand over power to them so that they form an independent transitional government with legislative powers. They call for a peaceful transition of power and the implementation of their political program following negotiations with the regime.
- Elections: Given that traditional parties have been unwilling to relinquish executive power, other anti-establishment groups are dedicated to making gains in the 2022 parliamentary and municipal elections, ensuring they are not postponed. Alliances for the next general election are already forming, with alternative parties disagreeing over whether to ally with fringe traditional parties that consider themselves part of the “opposition.” Two coalitions have already emerged: The “Lebanese Opposition Front” includes such emerging parties as Taqaddom and Liqaa Tishreen, as well as the Kataeb and Michel Moawad’s Independence Movement; the second, yet to be formally announced, is led by new political groups (al-Marsad al-Shaabi li Muharabat al-Fassad, Minteshreen, Beirut Madinati, Tahalof Watani, amongst others) and the National Bloc. Some members of these groups have told me, though, that the two fronts may be compelled to ally if they have any chances of making substantial electoral gains.
To generate any kind of radical hope to combat this cynicism, a daring framework that reflects a persuasive political vision and imaginary is necessary, and must account for the long-term nature and tides of the revolutionary process.
- Collective Action: Disillusioned after the repetitive failures of forming an independent government or gaining power through elections, some anti-establishment groups are committed to building the momentum to reignite a street movement that could topple the regime from below. Alternative groups who endorse this strategy tend to support it in combination with other approaches. However, groups like al-Haraka al-Shababiya lil Taghyir (the Youth Movement for Change), prioritize collective action towards radical systemic change, as opposed to state-centered and top-down strategies.
- Building at the Grassroots: Other anti-establishment groups focus on being organized and active on the ground by helping develop new structures for alternative labor unions, local councils, and co-operatives, etc., as a long-term strategy to pressure the regime. LiHaqqi is a proponent of this strategy and has been involved with reviving democratic economic structures, including cooperatives, through the Daleel Tadamon initiative. Rebuilding an organized labor movement has been a key priority. A coalition of over 20 groups recently secured a landslide victory in the elections of the Order of Engineers and Architects.
These strategies are neither mutually-exclusive nor contradictory. Typically, a political organization will use a combination of these approaches, but is likely to have a pecking order based on which strategies it deems most effective and timely. For instance, MMFD prioritizes the formation of a transitional government, while taking part in syndical elections and other forms of on-the-ground organizing. LiHaqqi prioritizes bottom-up organizing, including labor mobilization, while considering the potential benefits of running in parliamentary elections. Strategies, then, are generally informed and shaped by the ideology and political orientation of the organization in question. Those at the center-left or center-right are more likely to favor one of the first two approaches to seek change through institutional and reformist channels from within the system; those further on the left trust more in bottom-up approaches.
Without a doubt, valid concerns accompany each of the four approaches. First, one ought to question the likelihood that political elites would relinquish power and grant legislative powers to an independent government. From the start of the uprising, MMFD stated that this is the only short-term solution available. Second, mired in irregularities, vote-buying, and threats of intimidation, pressure and violence, elections have shown to be an unreliable vehicle to create significant change. Third, successful collective action depends on an organized movement able to sustain large-scale participation — even in the midst of this economic collapse — with specific targets, clear objectives, and preparations to withstand state repression. While collective actions were successful at the peak of the uprising, they succumbed to the state’s militarized counter-revolutionary tactics. Fourth, organizing at the grassroots and building new democratic structures for fair wealth creation and distribution is paramount for any inclusive organized revolutionary movement; it requires time and resources, already in short supply and now further depleted.
Strategies regarding the formation of an independent government, elections, collective action, and grassroots organizing are neither mutually-exclusive nor contradictory. Informed by its ideology and political orientation, an anti-establishment group may use a combination of these approaches, but with a pecking order.
In the face of mounting challenges, dwindling resources, and the urgency of the crisis, how might political organizers and activists develop an effective blueprint that combines these strategies in an optimal way? How can a plan balance out the short-term needs of an ailing population with the long-term objective of radically uprooting the neoliberal-sectarian status quo?
Late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who was based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spent much of his career diagnosing the ills of capitalism to propose radical socialist alternatives. He has developed an “emancipatory theory” of transformation that offers useful insights to the Lebanese context — but with limitations, as it was developed based on Northern contexts. In ‘How to Be an Anticapitalist Today,’ he presents four strategic logics that have been deployed to oppose capitalist hegemony.
“Smashing capitalism,” as he calls it, is the traditional left’s strategy of revolutionary rupture. It provides a structural critique of the system with an alternative vision, but has largely failed, in practice, to erect participatory and inclusive governance models that align with socialist principles. “Escaping capitalism,” or insulating from capitalism, which has been practiced by religious communities and minimalist anti-consumerists, like the Amish and the hippies, is also not enough; he rejects it for its individualistic and privileged nature. Instead of these two approaches, he advocates for a combination of two strategies: “eroding capitalism” and “taming capitalism.”
The first is founded on the introduction of a variety of emancipatory socialist practices and reforms into the capitalist ecosystem. These include proposals for participatory budgeting (allowing constituents to directly vote on public budget allocation), the extension of associational democracy (expanding worker-owned organizations), and the allocation of a universal basic income, among others. Wright considers that, over time, the multiplication and growth of these disruptive maneuvers could subvert, and progressively replace, capitalist relations and structures.
Eroding capitalism succeeds if combined with “taming” capitalism, or the idea of redressing the ills of capitalism through welfarist state policies. Combining the two, he writes, is “a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy. We need to tame capitalism in ways that make it more erodible, and erode capitalism in ways that make it more tamable.”
While conceptually attractive, his theory applied to the Lebanese context — and elsewhere, including in liberal democracies — reveals its key weakness: a deep disconnect from the repressive powers that protect and reproduce the status quo. Indeed, thinking from Lebanon provides a much-needed nuance to Wright’s theory.
The approach of “eroding capitalism” most closely aligns with the strategy of building at the grassroots, but the former fails to account for Lebanon’s context of acute crises: How are bottom-up and community-led initiatives supposed to emerge and survive without basic resources such as fuel and electricity? Can co-operatives and mutual-aid initiatives serve as viable alternatives to the waning clientelistic networks of traditional parties? Can collaboration between different groups and individuals help facilitate this process by tapping into existing networks and resources? While the path forward is indeed mired with uncertainty and challenges, existing initiatives from below are proving there are avenues to build progressive alternatives. The “Dikkeneh Co-op,” for instance, a consumer cooperative in Basta Tahta is rising to the challenge and partnering with small-scale rural farmers to provide more affordable foodstuff and other goods to its members. Other solidarity initiatives, from food banks to cooperative farms and the Daleel Tadamon platform, are also working in this direction.
Rather than viewing seats in Parliament or an independent government as an end-goal, anti-establishment groups ought to adopt a more holistic approach that recognizes the nature of the regime, the severe limitations of the sectarian state, and the protracted nature of revolutions.
There is no doubt, however, that Lebanon’s economic and political landscapes are detrimental to the sustainability and growth of those alternatives. With the right type of backing from a progressive state, their prospects would become much more favorable. Under present-day realities, though, the state is a tool in the hands of clientelistic parties, and views such practices as threats to the ruling class.
This is where a portion of Wright’s theory becomes relevant to anti-establishment groups in Lebanon, particularly those aiming to effect change from within the state: In his approach of “taming capitalism,” Wright recognizes that the system cannot be transformed from within, in light of the limitations of the liberal state. Instead, he argues that the state can be pressured to pass favorable reforms and legislation that can accelerate processes of change from outside the system. Therefore, rather than viewing seats in Parliament or an independent government as an end-goal, anti-establishment groups ought to adopt a more holistic approach that recognizes, on the one hand, the nature of the regime and the severe limitations of the sectarian state and, on the other, the protracted nature of revolutions. With such a reading of Wright, his contribution does not lie in particular policy proposals, but rather in an approach to change that is community-oriented, socialist, and radical in its diagnosis of the regime.
Indeed, the road to change will not be straightforward or linear. Revolutions are processes shaped by unpredictable ebbs and flows, victories and losses, and hopes and disappointments. If anti-establishment and revolutionary actors can come to terms with this reality, new visions of change could emerge in support of already-existing emancipatory alternatives. With increasing demoralization and despair, this path might be the only way toward preserving our sense of agency for a better tomorrow.