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Gilbert Achcar. The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. xii + 310 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-27497-6; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-28051-9.
Reviewed by Valentine M. Moghadam (Northeastern University)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Gilbert Achcar’s book begins with the thesis that the events of January 2011–which he terms a “revolutionary shock wave” (p. 53)–were but the start of a protracted revolutionary process. In a Marxian vein, Achcar seeks to show that the relations of production were a block on the further development of the productive forces, which, when combined with the Great Recession, exacerbated preexisting contradictions and produced the protests that led to the downfall of three regimes and continued unrest elsewhere. And what was the nature of the social relations of production that produced the blockage and “fettered production”? Drawing on Karl Marx and Max Weber, Achcar claims that neopatrimonialism, rentierism, and the expansion of financial capitalism across the region contributed to the revolutions. Other familiar explanatory factors that he offers are the food crisis, youth unemployment, low female labor force participation, declining public investments, high military expenditures, the rise of finance and construction rather than manufacturing jobs, and so on. Arab capitalism thus is “politically determined”; in contrast to more rational systems of capitalism where the profit motive is supreme and development unfettered (I am assuming that this is the subtext), the region’s development has been held back by “the ghosts of Bonapartism.”
Some readers will quibble with the characterization of sui generis Arab capitalism, but Achcar argues the point forcefully and well. The third chapter, perhaps his strongest, provides a devastating critique of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, including the one-sided presentation of the news by the Qatari-run Al Jazeera Arabic. Noting the alliances these countries have had with the United States, Achcar underscores the all-around hypocrisy of the Gulf countries’ promotion of regime change in Libya and Syria but not in Bahrain, and the U.S. program of democracy promotion in a region where Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies control oil wealth as their personal property and suppress all dissent.
Achcar is correct in insisting that the Arab uprisings in 2011 were entirely homegrown and–pace conspiracy theorists–not made in the West or elsewhere. But he underestimates the nature of global connections, connectivity, and diffusion, not to mention the pernicious nature of Western hegemonic intervention. Achcar was an early supporter of Western intervention in Libya to dislodge Muammar al-Ghaddafi, and he also supports Western aid to the Syrian opposition. This puts him at odds with many on the left, Arab and non-Arab, who are unalterably opposed to foreign intervention, in part because of the rather dreadful history and outcome of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Here his Trotskyism frames his view of the Arab uprisings–there is a permanent revolution underway, and the removal of reactionary leaders, regimes, and systems must be supported by any means possible. This position is evident in his “balance sheets” on Libya and Syria, in chapter 5.
But then he seems to contradict himself in chapter 6, where he discusses co-optation of the uprising. Achcar asserts that the NATO intervention in Libya was propelled by economic reasons (the control of Libyan oil), and the reason the West has not intervened in Syria lies in that country’s lack of oil. This argument obscures the fact that in 2011 political leaders in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States declared that “Assad must go” and their regional allies–Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey–provided support to the Syrian opposition, exacerbating the conflict and prolonging the Syrian people’s suffering. Ultimately, Achcar puts himself in a political quandary; on the one hand, he is rightly skeptical of the motivations of the Western powers, as well as the machinations of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. On the other hand, he defends the use of external force to dislodge Ghaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. He complains that Ghaddafi had the support of leftists such as Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, as well as Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he forgets that his own position is in line with Tony Blair’s call for “liberal humanitarian war” (e.g., Kosovo and Iraq).
Quoting himself in 2005, he writes that “concerted action in partnership with segments of the ruling class [cannot] lead to the lasting establishment of civil liberties and democracy” (p. 75). But this is precisely what occurred in some of the “third wave” democratic transitions, especially those that followed what came to be known as the “pacted transition” model, as in Spain, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and South Africa. Could this not have been tried out in Egypt, Libya, and Syria?
As noted, Achcar presents the Arab Spring as constituting a protracted revolutionary process rather than a set of anti-authoritarian movements, some of which were democratic in nature and purpose and some not. But if revolution is more than an armed uprising and is defined as a rapid transformation of a country’s economic, political, and ideological structures through class-based mobilization, then what occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen does not constitute revolution.
Why this is the case has to do with the missing element in Achcar’s analysis, and indeed in many analyses of the Arab Spring: the agents of revolution. Which social class, or coalition of social groups, is the carrier of the ideals of the Arab Spring and could bring it to fruition? For Marx, the bourgeoisie was the key actor in the rise of democracy in capitalist industrial countries while the landowning elite was the antidemocratic force. Barrington Moore elaborated on the role of competing classes in the rise of democracy, and other scholars of democracy reserved a key role for the middle class. Another body of work has portrayed the working class or labor movement as the mediating group linking industrialization and democracy.
Achcar refers to the importance of consolidating democracy and effecting a major redistribution of property and income, but he does not explain who can bring that about, and how. He notes that in both France of 1789 and the Russia of 1917 pre-existing political organizations provided the uprisings with the necessary collective leadership, whereas such organizations were lacking in the Arab region. On the other hand, he discusses the integral role of Tunisia’s big trade union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), in the strikes and protests that led to the regime’s downfall. But the chapter “Actors and Parameters of the Revolution” (chapter 4) is, at twenty-nine pages, the shortest in the book. It could have been enhanced with more background on the various progressive political and social forces, along with some analysis of why they failed to coalesce or of the missed opportunities. Why, given the importance of Tunisia’s labor movement, was it not able to lead a revolution? Why, given the strength of Tunisia’s feminist movement, was it not able to join forces with labor and leftist parties to marginalize Ennahda? Indeed, Achcar is especially weak on the Tunisian women’s rights movement–there is just one paragraph devoted to what is one of the most assertive and mobilized feminist movements anywhere. Also unfortunate is his reiteration of the tiresome canard, “NGO-ization of the women’s movement” (p. 128).
Many studies on the Arab Spring have drawn attention to the role of “the masses”; unions or workers; unemployed but computer-smart youth; feminist groups; and the (presumably) now-moderate Islamist parties. All such studies have noted the leaderless nature of the mass social protests–as with Occupy Wall Street and the European anti-austerity protests. None, however, has been able to provide a convincing analysis of the social base and leadership of the pro-democracy movements, as opposed to a descriptive account of what happened and by whom, and this is true also of the book under review. It is thus perhaps less Marxian than it purports to be. The question remains: Who are “the people” and how will they gain power in the absence of a revolutionary leadership? If we cannot expect a Marxian-type revolution, can we at least expect something resembling the Latin American “left turn”?
It may very well be the case that in the absence of organized revolutionary agents, the Arab Spring uprisings thus far seem to have resulted in one case of a relatively smooth democratic transition (Tunisia), a reversal of the sort that both Marx and the political scientist Samuel Huntington examined (Egypt), and repression, civil conflict, or failed states (Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen). Gilbert Achcar provides much rich description of political economy and conditions in various countries as of 2013. One of the pleasures of the book is the erudite references to the French and Russian/Soviet revolutions. For these and other reasons, the book is a most welcome addition to the growing literature on the Arab Spring.
Citation: Valentine M. Moghadam. Review of Achcar, Gilbert, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014.
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