Gilbert Achcar’s new analysis of society and revolution in the Arab world provides much of great interest, as well as some problems, argues Sam Dathi

Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Saqi Books 2013), 358pp.

Contrary to mainstream accounts, the uprisings which spread throughout the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region in 2011 did not come to pass like the changing of the seasons. The Arabs did not suddenly awake, as if from a winter’s hibernation, to walk into the warmth of liberal democracy. Instead, the uprisings represented a peak in longstanding popular struggles against a system which for too long had deprived the Arab people of bread, freedom and social justice. It stands to reason, then, that the uprisings will not end simply by implementing Western style democracy, as the overthrow of Morsi demonstrates.

So it is that Gilbert Achcar argues in his latest book, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, that what we are now seeing in the MENA region is the beginning of a longtermrevolutionaryprocess that will take years, perhaps decades to play out. This process will not end until the root causes of the revolutions have been resolved, and ‘only profound socio-economic transformations can do that’ (p.17).

Before I continue, let me make an extended throat clearing. Like many on the left, I was astonished by Achcar’s support for (or what he might prefer to call ‘non-opposition’ to) certain Western interventions in the MENA region since 2011. Like others I began to doubt the sagacity of the author of The Arabs and the Holocaust. I cannot deny that the bad taste lingered in my mouth even as I began to read The People Want. On finishing the book, whilst I do find his analysis highly problematic in places, it is nevertheless a very useful text containing a number of interesting insights. It is certainly the most comprehensive account I have read on the subject so far. It is a blessing that in the book he refrains from making any explicit case for foreign intervention. I suspect this is because he realised the hostility he would have faced from many would have hindered serious engagement with the text.

The People Want is not just a radical analysis, as the title suggests: it is specifically and unapologetically Marxist in its inspiration. Achcar may reference non-Marxists from time to time, particularly Max Weber, but he always returns to his roots. Indeed, it is Achcar’s use of Marxist theory that gives his analysis a sophistication that is lacking from the ‘Arab Spring’- type renderings of liberal commentators.

The root cause of the Arab uprisings

Achcar begins by examining the root cause of the uprisings. Evoking Marx’s well-known passage from a Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Achcar identifies that the revolutions were triggered by collisions between the relations of production and forces of production, thus bringing about a general blockage in the region’s economic development. In more empirical terms, the MENA region (broadly since the neoliberal turn in the 1970s) has experienced serious stagnation in economic growth, which in recent years has been worse even than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with this, the region has been plagued with record breaking levels of underemployment, particularly youth, graduate and female underemployment. It is these socio-economic ills which lie at the heart of the popular explosions. In support of these claims, Achcar provides a convincing and easy to assimilate body of statistical evidence.

But what caused this long-standing blockage in development? Achcar argues that it cannot be neoliberalism tout court as some on the left lazily argue. After all, countries such as India, where neoliberal prescriptions have been applied more strictly, have posted high rates of economic growth in the last few years. Nor could it simply have been a consequence of the global economic crisis, as others have argued, as the MENA region was less affected by the crisis than other areas of the world. Actually, Achcar rightly argues that there is nothing mysterious about this low rate of growth and high underemployment: it results from the sorry lack of investment in the MENA region, both public and private, over the last three decades.

In turn, this lack of investment has resulted from the very specific modality of capitalism that prevails in the region. Achcar explains that the first unmistakable feature of capitalism in MENA countries is that they are rentier states, in that (essentially) they derive a significant share of their revenues from exports such as oil and gas. This means that the Arab regimes are less dependent on tax receipts and as such are able to acquire significant economic independence from their people. As Achcar puts it: ‘An idea aired so often that it has become a cliché has it that the less governments depend on tax receipts, the less democratic they are’ (p.75).

The second feature of MENA capitalism is that almost all Arab regimes exist on a spectrum ranging from patrimonial to neo-patrimonial. A patrimonial regime (like the GCC monarchies, Libya and Syria) is absolute, hereditary and autocratic. It appropriates the state as its own personal possession. Further, the authorities’ arbitrariness and venality lead to an absence of an adequate legal framework. In this context, corruption and crony capitalism flourishes, dominated by a parasitic state bourgeoisie rather than what he refers to as a ‘free-market bourgeoisie’. Indeed, the rentier nature of MENA countries accentuates this patrimonial character.

Neopatrimonial regimes (like Tunisia and Egypt) on the other hand are distinguished from patrimonial regimes in that the former enjoy some separation between state and regime, or in Weberian terms, they have a ‘rational-legal’ bureaucratic dimension. However, like patrimonial regimes, they are still plagued by nepotism and corruption. Achcar discusses in detail the role that Western imperialism has played since the early twentieth century in perpetuating these archaic systems of governance in order to ensure the oil-rich states remain pliant vassals.

So returning to our earlier mentioned problem of lack of investment in the MENA region, Achcar concludes that it is easy to see why its specific modality of capitalism retards investment: the neo-patrimonial/patrimonial regimes certainly will not invest adequately, instead using the state as a cash cow; and further, private bodies will not invest as they are loath to tie their capital down in an economy ridden by nepotism, corruption and the lack of rule of law. Instead, investors use the region to engage in adventure capitalism and speculative trading in the pursuit of short-term profit rather than the long-term productive investment capable of inducing job growth. At its core, these are the structural reasons that have led to the blockage in development in the MENA region.

Whilst I think Achcar has important insights to offer here, at times it almost seems he is implying that if a country were to have a more dominant ‘market bourgeoisie’ and therefore ‘normal’ capitalist economic development, the preconditions for revolution would be lacking. If that is the case, then revolutionary struggle in all but the most backward economies is pointless, a position I obviously do not accept.

The general contradiction must be overdetermined

Achcar goes on to stress that whilst a general contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production may put revolution on the agenda, that alone will not produce a revolutionary situation, let alone the successful overthrow of the regime. Citing Althusser, Achcar argues that to create a revolutionary situation, the general contradiction must be ‘overdetermined’ by a whole range of ‘local, regional, and international conjunctural factors that contribute to heightening tensions’ (p.144). In chapter three, he gives a lively account of those conjunctural factors as he sees them. They include: Western imperialism; Bush’s ill thought out ‘democracy promotion’ in the region in the mid-2000s, which inadvertently weakened the chains of autocracy; and the revolution in Arab news broadcasting provided by Al-Jazeera.

So it was this melting pot of various conjunctural tendencies combined with the specific modalities of MENA capitalism, which precipitated an explosively overdetermined revolutionary situation in 2011. Whilst Achcar’s reliance on Althuserian overdetermination is perhaps overly formulaic, his discussion of the various conjunctural factors provides a comprehensive and insightful background to the uprisings.

Achcar, citing Lenin, then goes on to remind us that not every revolutionary situation gives rise to a revolution capable of unseating the relevant despot and triggering a long-term revolutionary process. The accumulation of the objective factors detailed above (i.e. those factors ‘independent of the will’ of the revolutionary class), may cause a revolutionary situation, but this will only unseat the despot and trigger the revolutionary process if the objective factors are accompanied by a subjective change, ‘namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government’ (p.145, quoted from Lenin).

And although organised, political resistance was (and still is) sorely lacking in the MENA region, Achcar nevertheless notes that at least in Tunisia and Egypt there have been robust workers’ movements that have been engaged in effective mass action for years. Coupled with youth networks using digital activism and social media in both countries (like the April 6th Movement in Egypt), these forces provided strong subjective factors which combined with the objective factors and helped pave the way for the rapid overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The success of these mass movements was greatly improved by, amongst other things, their lack of sectarianism, or as Achcar describes it, they had ‘a horizontal homogeneity of their social fabric’ (p.173).

I accept Achcar’s analysis that long-term revolutionary processes were triggered in Tunisia and Egypt due to the strong, mass movements that were mobilised by revolutionary organisation. But I am less clear on what basis Achcar then goes on to argue that the same long-term revolutionary process has also been triggered in countries such as Syria. I say this because, even by Achcar’s own admission, in Syria, revolutionary mass action (the subjective factors) has not been anywhere near strong enough to break the regime. Part of the reason for this has been the dogged coherence and repressiveness of the patrimonial state in Syria, which incidentally hindered a workers’ movement developing there in the first place. Another reason has been sectarianism, not least the proliferation of counter-revolutionary, fundamentalist elements within the movement, at times backed by foreign powers. Perhaps it is Achcar’s understandable desire to see the ruthless Assad overthrown that has led him to adopt an idealistic view of the Syrian uprising.

Nevertheless, in the years to come, there will surely be a day of reckoning when the Syrian people have regrouped, and through successive approximations, are able to build a united revolutionary movement capable of defeating the tyrannical Assad, thus triggering a revolutionary process.

Peaceful versus violent uprisings

I think one of the most controversial aspects of The People Want is Achcar’s argument that civil wars were always unavoidable in countries like Libya and Syria, whereas they were avoidable (and were indeed avoided) in Egypt and Tunisia. The reason, Achcar argues, is that the former countries are (or in the case of Libya, was) patrimonial states. As mentioned earlier, this means that the state is the ruling group’s personal possession. A crucial consequence of this is that the armed force’s elite group constitute the regime’s ‘praetorian guard’ whose allegiance to the ruling group is truly guaranteed through organic bonds of tribalism, sectarianism and/or regionalism.

This praetorian guard is therefore willing to go to war with the majority of the population to defend the regime. ‘They know that the fall of the regime will bring the loss of their own privilege, if not the loss of their posts. It might even expose them to sanctions for their actions in the regime’s service’ (p.174). For example, in Syria, this praetorian guard (the Republican Guard) is a sectarian, Alawite force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher al Assad, and is fiercely loyal to the President. Indeed, the entire Syrian military, from top to bottom, is dominated by Alawites, the sect of the ruling group. In other words, Achcar argues that the Syrian and Libyan people always had a fight on their hands.

In contrast, Tunisia and Egypt are (or were) merely neopatrimonial states meaning there was some separation between regime and state. Therefore these states could simply discard the regime whilst themselves remaining intact. Infamously, in Egypt for example, the deep core of the state (made up of the military) was able to jettison Mubarak whilst preserving itself, thus allowing his relatively peaceful overthrow. Of course, this does not mean the ensuing revolutionary process will be bloodless or plain sailing in neopatrimonial states. Indeed, we have been seeing SCAF massacring people on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere. It does mean, however, that at least the initial rupture that removes the despot and triggers the long-term revolutionary process might be peaceful, subject to the strength of the mass movement.

This is an intriguing argument. But sadly, it is this reasoning that has, at least in part, led to Achcar getting himself into the terrible muddle of arguing (not in this book, but elsewhere) in favour of foreign intervention. Essentially, he argues that the Syrian people need US arms in order to take on the praetorian guard. Similarly, in 2011, he argued in favour of a no-fly zone in Libya to help resist Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi and subsequently he supported NATO arming the Libyan insurgency. You might say he saw these interventions as the lesser of two evils when it comes to defeating patrimonial regimes.

It is clear that Achcar’s reasons here are wholly sincere: he is not doing a Christopher Hitchens. Nevertheless, his conclusions are entirely wrong: in supporting, or rather not opposing, these imperial interventions, he dangerously underplays their destructiveness and how corrosive they are to the integrity of any liberation movement. Invariably, such intervention is never the lesser of two evils. To his credit, Achcar explicitly recognises that Western interventions are bloody and do not come without strings; his error is in not giving these facts anywhere near their due weight. Further, his premise that there would have always been civil wars in patrimonial Libya and Syria, to a large degree lets Western imperialism off the hook for precipitating a great deal of that violence.

For lack of space, I will not rehash all the familiar arguments as to why NATO intervention has made things immeasurably worse in Libya and why arming the rebels in Syria would be disastrous for the people. All I will say is that, in the case of Syria, as much as I recognise how hard it will be for the people to overthrow Assad, not least given the patrimonial nature of the regime, their task will be made infinitely worse by the cruel and cynical interference of foreign powers.


Given that Achcar provides a revolutionary Marxist analysis throughout the book, it is disappointing that his concluding prescriptions are essentially reformist. He concludes that ‘what is required today is a return to the developmentalist policies of that period [the 1950s to the 1970s], without the despotism and corruption that accompanied them’ (p.286). So, essentially, Achcar is calling for Nasserism shorn of authoritarianism. Now, I accept we should be under no illusions that socialist revolution is on the horizon in the MENA region. I also accept that a return to post-World-War-Two style developmentalism would be a massively welcome improvement to the lot of the Arab people.

However, ultimately, this cannot be the answer. A developmentalist state would only temporarily resolve the blockage in development: the left-reformist government would immediately come under pressure from hostile, capitalist forces both within and outside the country, leading to the inevitable jettisoning of the reforming credentials and a shift to infitah, as was essentially the case under Nasser. That being the situation, it is incumbent on leading Marxists such as Achcar to make the case that international socialism is something we have to fight for in the here and now; that it is socialism or barbarism.

The People Want provides a great deal of insight and much useful commentary on the uprisings, although it remains problematic in a number of places. What is spiriting about the book is that, however we define the various uprisings, Achcar recognises that the Arabs have learnt how to ‘express their democratic will in the most radical way’ (p.292), not only in the ballot box, but on the streets. They are at the beginning of an era of huge possibilities.

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