The Crisis: Between Politics and the Economy

Gears in Motion (Graphic: Eric Drooker)

At a time when “politics” is reduced to little more than a clash of wills, sectarianism and tribalism, a measure of social security should go some way in decreasing religious and sectarian divisions and tensions. This is not to say, however, that the social and economic situation, on its own, is not deserving of a remedy. With politics having prevailed in the ongoing and escalating conflict between the two parties, the government published the paper submitted to the Paris III conference. It will be said that the timing and purpose of the paper’s publication are political since the standing rule is that everything is political in Lebanon. However, there is a need to discuss the paper and its vision and methods for addressing the socio-economic crisis with all its political ramifications. Here are some remarks:

* The paper proceeds from the main hypothesis that directed the reform projects of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri: return to the “golden age” of the Lebanese economy as it was prior to the civil war, with its symbol being the international trade centre in downtown Beirut. This hypothesis goes hand in hand with an insistence on severing the link between that golden age and the outburst of the civil war exacerbated by external wars. The pretense for this severance is clear: the war was a “war of the others” on Lebanon or a “war for the others”, and there is no connection between the economy and politics. As for why some Lebanese competed in battling one another for the “others”, this and other similarly embarrassing questions go unanswered.

* The reform paper avoids addressing any reform that touches the roots of the crisis—a crisis regarded unanimously as “fateful”. Lebanon has grown used to the economic role it has been allocated. The common image of the Lebanese economy is that of a prostitute who has grown accustomed to a spoiled life at the expense of others and no longer enjoys living and working. In economic terms, the primary role of the Lebanese economy is to sponge off the surplus of rising oil prices in the Gulf countries.

* Mystery rules over the role that the fiscal and tax reforms will play in prompting growth or contributing to the creation of job opportunities. The taxation policy does not move away from the prevailing logic: it is committed to favoring indirect taxes and tariffs over a progressive taxation system. This policy aims to increase the revenue of the Treasury (note that the team promoting this policy has deprived the Treasury of a big part of its revenues, by not only decreasing customs tariffs but also abolishing some of them completely, this even before the respite given by the World Trade Organization has come to an end) without giving any attention to encouraging equal opportunities and a more just social distribution of wealth among the regions and the social classes. The paper, for example, mentions that the poorest areas in Lebanon are the remote areas and city suburbs, without proposing any project for social and regional development.

* Creating job opportunities. This is a project without statistics or goals, but rather stands on the assumption that the greater part of the youth entering the labor market each year – including university graduates - is intended for export abroad.

* The paper handles the problem of fighting, squander and corruption by stoning it with more ragged and mysterious neo-liberal terms like “transparency” and “governance”. Meanwhile, it does not touch at all on the well-known structural problem that goes back to the days of Independence and has to do with a division of tasks between the bankers/importers team and the politicians. The former build and develop a profit-based, service-oriented economy which does not produce sufficient employment opportunities, while the latter buy political allegiances by employing their partisans in the public sector … as for the excess people entering the labor market, they are left with limited options: either to emigrate or stay in Lebanon and face a wretched future. The consequences of this contract are intensifying— from squander and the inflation of the administrative body to the corruption that followed the warlords’ entry into the ruling political team. The challenge facing both the government and the opposition is to confront this division of tasks.

* The paper includes promises of safety-nets as per the neo-liberal schema. We must first make sure that these promises will be kept. The fact is, however, they rarely tackle the basis of the problems they address. Thus, privatizing electricity and increasing taxes on fuel consumption are the focus of attention rather than the “fuel mafias” control of the sources of imported fuel and the price of fuel. There are promises about preventing price increases, without placing any restriction on monopoly or implementing any serious policy to monitor the prices.

If the reform paper elicits observations such as these, it also serves to expose the lack of economic alternatives offered by the opposition. This gives us an idea of the quality of the contribution that the opposition will make in solving the country’s aggravated problems once it joins the awaited national unity government.

The opposition responded to the paper with varieties of the “politics first” symphony: the priority goes to political reform, or no economic reform without “our participation” in the decision-making process. As for the external role in financing the reform plan, Hezbollah’s reply was cautious: yes to external money but do not expect concessions … meaning concessions to the “American project”. This, however, was before the euphonious voices started chanting the symphony we kept hearing during the days of the Syrian tutelage about indebtedness as a conspiracy for the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon in return for forgiving Lebanon’s debts. I do not understand the refusal to naturalize the Palestinians in this manner except as an invitation for expulsion. Those who concurred in striking this chord – which is still sensitive to some Lebanese Christians, or so the orchestra believed – included the President of the Republic, an Irslani emir and the fathers of victory over nationalization with whom God blessed us. The most prominent feature of the opposition’s reaction to the reform paper is the growing contradiction between its words of refutation, on one hand, and, on the other, this political discourse (on the naturalization of the Palestinians) as well as the different strands of its economic discourse.

The meager demonstration organized by part of the General Trade Union was just another tragic instance of the opposition’s reaction. The demonstration revealed the reality of the Union and what end it met after a decade of subjugation and dismantlement at the hands of the Syrian (and Lebanese) security bodies as well as some Lebanese parties. While the subjugation and dismantlement process sought initially to protect Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s construction project from the reaction of active and cohesive social movements, it eventually became a political aim of its own. Thus, the General Labor Union, as a syndicate that is relatively independent from the authority and that transcends sectarian differences, was put to an end. It was transformed instead into an empty shell save for a few hundred non-representative unionists, and it was sectarianized or made subordinate to sections in the authority and the parties aligned with the Syrian tutelage. Even Hezbollah was not so occupied with the battle for liberation that it could not participate in the process of emptying the unions and syndicates.

In a situation such as this, we find that most Lebanese, in their quest for work and bread and a minimum standard of living, have missed the political feasts as well as the economic feasts. Or, as the saying goes: “neither in Damascus did we celebrate the feast, nor in Dummar did we catch the feast”. Meaningless!

This article was originally published in Lebanon’s Assafir newspaper.
Original translation from Marxist in Lebanon, with additions and editing from Brian Aboud and Sherif Khaled from Tadamon! Montreal.