Lebanon’s Class Struggle: Between the “Civil” and the “Popular”
Day 46: Sunday, December 1, 2019
Harmonizing between the civil and the popular is one of the most difficult challenges in an uprising. Lebanon is a case in point. We cannot deny the civil character of the Lebanese intifada, in as much as we cannot deny that the battle being waged is also one for citizenship, for reclaiming public space, defending public and private liberties, and abiding by universal, contemporary civic values. Yet, at every turn, this civil character has served to silence the popular manifestations of the uprising. Situated in a bubble that aspires to "global city” status, the civil keeps trying to discipline and refine those cities that actually exist in reality — where rusticity, urbanity, and expulsion converge in untidy patterns.
The relationship between the civil and the popular is a tense one. For its part, the popular has an interest in recruiting the civil to its ranks: by making it pay attention to the socioeconomic not just the political, and by celebrating another version of the "global city" — one in which protest targets tyranny and capitalism alike, and which cannot be contained within Ivory towers and among "activist" elites. The civil, however, has different interests. It seeks to claim moral superiority, to transform all protest into folklore, and to paint the civil as the future and the popular as the past. Meanwhile, the present is a sea that engulfs them both, as they each try to navigate it.
The civil, however, has different interests. It seeks to claim moral superiority, to transform all protest into folklore, and to paint the civil as the future and the popular as the past.The civil has exhibited exceptional talent in framing the agenda. As such, instead of beginning with the question "How do the Lebanese produce their living conditions?" the question is "How do the Lebanese become aware?" The answers then swiftly degenerate into dramatic, impressionistic analysis. All this while the tyranny of the banking oligarchy — both its public (the Lebanese Central Bank) and private (the Association of Banks in Lebanon) branches — toys with people’s savings and prevents them from accessing their own money. At the drop of a hat, the civil is able to stifle any energy generated by militancy, and to deploy classism as a shield for the banking system.
One could say that the civil activist has a seemingly endless ability to remain off topic. As if it were necessary to eradicate corruption and liberate citizens from the shackles of sectarianism for them to be able to access their hard earned savings, withdraw their salaries, and resist attempts to lower them (not to mention prevent the frenzied, arbitrary currency exchange). For the civil activist, these are minor details, or casual matters that can be resolved by the liberatory power of creativity — and by the continuous celebration of this creativity as if we were beholding the birth of a new god (never mind the sacrificial offerings). For the civil activist, one must remain fully committed to this version of the uprising and to its aspirational unity.
The representatives of the popular, by contrast, only participate when all other options have run out. And when they decide to participate, they fully commit, with the seriousness of those who know they are stuck between two choices: if the dominant class doesn't foot the bill, they will have to. There is no room for transcendental civility here.
When the civil activist is forced to speak in class terms, they see a triumvirate composed of "the rich, the middle class, and the poor." A universe away from a Marxist approach. Moreover, they are obsessed with the middle class, and specifically with preventing its "decline:" the fear that its members will hit rock bottom, populating the recycling bin of history.
When the civil activist is forced to speak in class terms, they see a triumvirate composed of "the rich, the middle class, and the poor." A universe away from a Marxist approach. Paradoxically, this emphasis on the middle class coincides with those who oppose the uprising based on their commitment to a policy of mumana'a, and the view that any “color revolution” constitutes treason. They too see only the middle class in this uprising, but for them the issue is that this class is opposed more to the poor than to capitalism.
In both versions, the message is the same: "You are not the working class because you are not wretched enough. Even if you sell your labor for hire, even if your bank loan payments consume three times your salary every month, and even if you have nothing left for schooling or healthcare, you are still middle class." But with some variations. From the civil perspective: "You must fight not to sink to the bottom." For the leftist mumana'a: "You are a class that cannot be trusted by the poor; they are best represented by the muqawama and its power-sharing arrangement with the oligarchy."
Nevertheless, there is still room for the possibility of popular liberation within the uprisings, one that is in direct opposition to these two logics. The key lies in emphasizing that all who sell their labor for wages, and whose primary income is generated in this manner, constitutes the proletariat in one form or another. And that this is especially true when they are also riddled with private consumer debt (not to mention their share of the public debt). Even the petit bourgeois saddled with a lifetime mortgage is, in practice and status, a "hybrid proletarian." Denying that most people in Lebanon are in fact members of the "hybrid proletariat” unites the civil and the mumana'a.
In the history of Lebanese and Arab leftist thought, no one captured this problematic better than Mehdi 'Amel in his 1972 “On the Colonial Mode of Production.” He warned that the categorical distinction we find in imperial sites of capitalism between the working class and the other social classes controlled by the bourgeoisie, is absent in the context of a colonial mode of production. There, we find “relative differences” between classes, and learn that this “relativism” binds all action. The absence of stark class differentiation, according to Mehdi 'Amel, is a direct result of the colonial social structure. At the very least, the structure is responsible for the absence of clear boundaries between the working class, the peasantry, and the bourgeoisie. In Lebanon, they are intertwined to the core. “The difference between the peasant and the worker in Lebanon is very hard to determine… We find the worker returning to his village at every chance, holidays, vacations, or funerals. In fact, he builds a permanent base there that is stronger than in the city. Ultimately he insists on being buried in his village, his ancestral home. The worker is thus a peasant who failed to become a worker in the social sense. The colonial social structure, by precluding the industrial cycle, also precludes the possibility of this social transformation.”
It has been fifty years since this argument, and naturally much has changed in Lebanon. Yet the insight still applies: “The freedom of movement across classes is a defining feature of colonial modes of production. We may find that the worker is simultaneously a peasant and even a seller of consumer goods on the side, i.e. a petit bourgeois.”
The worker is thus a peasant who failed to become a worker in the social sense. The colonial social structure, by precluding the industrial cycle, also precludes the possibility of this social transformation.”The overlap between the popular classes, and especially between the working class, the peasantry, and the petit bourgeoisie, is both a blessing and a curse. For the civil activists, the absence of clear class distinctions grants them the privilege of not seeing class, or of seeing it through the warped "rich, middle, and poor" troika (with all the resulting class delusions for those in “the middle.”) For the mumana'a crowd, it allows them to turn a blind eye to the fact that most of those protesting, though they may not look the ideal type of wretched, are in fact workers. Yet this situation also provides an opening for those who aspire for popular liberation within this intifada, as long as they can accept that most people in Lebanon are hybrid proletarians. Doing so is necessarily a fraught endeavor.
This article was originally published by the Al-Quds Al-Aarabi and translated by The Public Source.