North Africa, West Asia

The Arab World: between liberal imperialism and liberal oppression

Maged Mandour

It is essential not only to expose the ideological weaknesses of the current order, but to link the current political order with international neo-colonial ideology, replacing it with one based on the welfare of the average Arab citizen.

Maged Mandour
13 June 2014

The Arab World, like most regions of the Third world, has been suffering from a multilayered process of oppression, on both international and domestic scales. This oppression manifests itself by closely interlinking the domestic elites with the elites in capitalist core countries, both in terms of material interests and ideological justification for oppression. 

To understand this dynamic a closer look at the ideological connection between ‘liberal imperialism’ on an international scale, and what I perceive as its ‘Arabised’ version, which is closely connected with the rentier states and crony capitalist classes ruling the Arab World, what I term ‘crony liberal oppression’, is due. 

What is meant by ‘liberal imperialism’? In the academic sense, ‘liberal imperialism’, is the propensity of liberal democratic regimes to use force to enforce ‘regime change’ or initiate ‘democratisation’. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, is arguably, a very prominent example of this tendency.

Both regime change and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were used as justifications for the invasion. The ideological justification that underpinned this process is what has been called “the democratic peace thesis”, based on Kant’s pamphlet Perpetual Peace, where he argued, that democratic regimes, based on the standards of that time, do not fight each other due to the pacific nature of citizenry, as opposed to the warlike nature of kings. Thus, war would disappear if the world was filled with the “right kind of political system”. Naturally, taking a wider view of this ideology, the free market is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a fully functioning democratic system, thus, an essential ingredient of this ideology, is the introduction of what has been called “market reforms” to the Third World, through organisations like the IMF and the World Bank. 

This ideology, is also underpinned by another element, that is rarely highlighted, namely, an orientalist, imperial perception of the ‘other’, those not living under the same liberal system that emerged in the west. From my perspective, this is rather a crude extension of the ideology that underpinned the beginning of the European imperial project, that arguably started with the colonisation of the Americas. The ideological justification was to educate the ‘savages’ and bring them to the fold of civilisation, a process that seemed without end, since the colonial project extended over hundreds of years with no change in European views of natives. 

This, in effect, also involved a substantial degree of falsification of history, ignoring parts, and blaming other parts on the nature of the ‘natives’. For example, the aftermath of colonial policies on the famine that killed millions across the Global South at the end of the nineteenth century in what is brilliantly described by Mark Davis in his master piece The Late Victorian Holocaust, is all but ignored, and there is no sense of collective responsibility for what took place. These views are still prevalent in the west, perhaps in more hidden and subtle form.

As one can plainly see, this ideology has contradicting tendencies, and can justify imperial intervention on both sides of the spectrum, for ruling dictators or against them, causing devastating effects to societal development in the Arab World, and the Middle East at large.

The first tendency, is direct intervention for the sake of regime change, and ‘democratisation’. Under this guise, the United States launched a devastating war in 2003 that not only devastated Iraq, but led to the emergence of what Fawaz Gerges calls a third generation of Jihadists, who are more ruthless than previous generations.

It also led to the propagation of Al-Qaeda as a decentralised network, much more difficult to combat and contain. This ideology is also used to provide justification for supporting Israeli colonial policy, which is seen as another friendly “liberal democratic” regime, surrounded by Arab dictators and fanatics. This, of course, ignores the openly racist colonial policy of Israel, and the apartheid nature of the Jewish state.       

Ironically, this same ideology is used to justify support for Arab dictators across the Middle East, from Mubarak to the Gulf states and beyond. The ideological justification employed in this case, places more emphasis on the ‘orientalist’ aspect of liberal imperialism, where arguments regarding the need to support stable, allied governments in the face of Islamist fanatics prevail in western rhetoric.

There is also the justification of the ‘exceptional’ nature of the Arab World and Islam, which are not compatible with fully functioning democratic systems. This glaring contradiction between the above mentioned ideological need for intervention and the support for dictatorships, doesn’t seem to cause any angst to the western policy maker, nor to the western public. As far as one can see, this ideology is deeply entrenched in the collective psyche of the west, and in certain cases was used to justify intervention on behalf of dictators and against democratic forces in the Middle East, and the developing world. 

The most famous examples of this include operation Ajax in Iran in 1954, the American intervention in Jordan and Lebanon in the 1950s, the coup in Chile in 1973, the continued American and western support of the military regime in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. All in the name of promoting ‘democracy’.

This policy is also accompanied by the imposition of market reforms across the Arab World in a manner that cements the position of the Arab World as at the periphery of the international capitalist system. This involves, naturally, a cut in government spending and subsidies, the liberalisation of trade and most importantly capital flows, without liberalising the movement of labour, and privatisation. Which, in effect, has a massive distortive effect on the political economy of the Arab World. 

First, it leads to the creation of a crony capitalist class that relies on the appropriation of public funds, rather than productive activities as the base of wealth accumulation. In other words, this leads to the creation of a new elite that is closely tied to the local oppressive regime, and supports the status quo, which makes sustainable economic and social progress difficult to achieve. 

Second, it increases the level of labour coercion across the Arab World, where the lack of mobility of labour, accompanied by political oppression, and high levels of inequality produce inhumane working conditions, which allow the employer, who is most likely also the crony capitalist, to use strong coercive tactics. All resulting in lower standards of living for the masses, while promoting capital accumulation at the top.  

In summary, the total effect of this policy is that it inhibits capitalist development in the Arab World, and conversely promotes the development of parasitic capitalism that would not only stunt economic development, it also inhibits political and social development, cementing the position of the Arab World as a peripheral zone in the capitalist system.

Those local elites, that I have referred to above, carry this ideology of ‘liberal imperialism’ into the heart of the Arab World. However, this ideology is modified, with greater emphasis being placed on the “orientalism” aspect of the ideology and the “need for market reform”, while belief in democratic change is dropped from the equation. This type of ideology I like to call ‘liberal oppression’.  Under this ideology, the local elites, whom I have called elsewhere “The new Janissaries”, share the same openly racist views of their fellow citizens. 

The “new Janissaries” share the western view of the Arabs as lazy, deceitful and most importantly, incapable of ruling themselves, and as such there is a need for a “strong” leader that will keep the forces of chaos at bay. This perception interplays with a strong class bias, where the lower classes are seen as “uncivilised", and the more that one climbs the social ladder, the more civilised he becomes, and consequently more “western”, “liberal” or “secular”. 

There is even a geographic bias included in this distinction, where the rural areas are considered to be less civilised, as opposed to the urban areas, even within the same social class. This acts as the ideological backbone for a highly oppressive social system, that extends from political oppression, in the realm of political society, to oppression in the work place, schools, universities and even television programmes.

The majority of the people are supposedly uncivilised and the elites have the responsibility to “guide” them, even if by coercive tactics. Thus, orientalism becomes the ideological justification for the oppression of farmers and workers across the Arab World.

The other pillar of “liberal oppression” is the belief in the merits of the “free market”, and the need to implement an international neoliberal programme, propagated by the IMF, World Bank and other international powers. This, as recent history has proven, has only allowed for further accumulation of wealth to the crony capitalist elites, and has justified the continued oppression of the mass of citizens under the guise of “progress” and “economic development”.

In reality, these policies disrupt the operation of the market and lead to the creation of monopolies, which undermine any  “free market”. Thus, the aim is to facilitate wealth accumulation, through rent seeking behaviour, rather than creating a framework that would allow for the development of a mature capitalist system.

In the end, what is the role of the Arab revolt in this construct? I propose that the first step for a successful revolutionary push is to deconstruct the ideological base of the current political order. It is essential not only to expose the ideological weaknesses of the current order, but to link the current political order with the international neo-colonial ideology, and replace it with another ideology, that is based on the welfare of the average Arab citizen.

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