lineagesby Andrew Pollack

Adam Hanieh has written what should be considered the essential work for understanding the current political economy of the Middle East and North Africa, and for explaining the political tasks which flow from that understanding. Hanieh writes with clarity and focus as he unfolds a sophisticated materialist analysis of the region in all its multi-layered economic complexity.

There have been works in the past surveying the region as a whole from a Marxist perspective; see for instance The Arab Revolution, a 1958 survey by Michel Pablo ( ), and a 1974 document of the same name by Trotskyists in the region ( ). And Gilbert Achcar’s recent The People Want is essential for understanding the current Arab Revolution, especially the social and political forces and their contending roles. But it is Hanieh’s work which must be considered the starting point for comprehending the underlying economic forces, and on that basis for developing strategies to address the political tasks he so clearly and compellingly points to.

Hanieh succeeds in puncturing myths and truisms – not just those of the mainstream, but also those too often found in progressive analyses which lazily rest on the same factors in isolation from each other, or at best in a mechanical interaction. He demolishes notions that the uprisings – and their results to date – are attributable to “wrong policies,” conspiracies, and so on. Rather, he shows how they are an outgrowth of the region’s evolving economy, and of the efforts of states to deepen and extend the sway of capitalist markets and the classes profiting from them. In sum, he depicts the essence of the social system in the region by tracing patterns of capital accumulation, the structures of class and state shaped by and shaping such capital flows, and the interconnections of all this with global capitalism.


Hanieh’s methodology is a mature and innovative depiction of how different elements and layers of a system interact. For instance, he insists that we take seriously the region as a region, that we “trace the changing hierarchies at the regional scale as an integrated unity that shapes social formations at the national level,” and that in turn have a similarly dialectical interaction with forces at the global level.

All of this is in contrast to the mainstream framework resting on a reified and mechanical state/civil society dichotomy. Instead Hanieh focuses on relationships, i.e. those between capital and the state, which are connected back to the relationships among economic forces and markets at different but intertwined spatial levels. (His methodology, which I have so clumsily and abstractly summarized, is actually laid out in a crystal clear and empirically grounded fashion in his book, as examples below will hopefully demonstrate.)

The innovative aspect of his method draws on Bertell Ollman’s concept of “internal relations,” that is of the inextricable intertwining of different levels of a hierarchical phenomenon. Thus capital from a dominant country or region is not an outside imposition on the economy of another, but, through flows of capital into the subordinate economy, and state guarantees of such flows, becomes an integrated, functioning part of that dominated area’s economy. Thus for instance he states that “a chief premise of this book is that the internationalization of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has transformed the political economy of the region, becoming internalized in the class structure of neighboring states.”

Hanieh also insists that the state should not be conceived of as a self-contained ‘thing’, but rather a set of relations which allows the capitalist class to rule. The state is “the set of institutional forms through which a ruling class relates to the rest of society.” As a consequence of this conception, analysis must start with “the anatomy of bourgeois society,” of the mode of production, “of the laws of reproduction of the whole social formation” – all this in contrast to the mainstream analysis of governments, regimes, and individuals.

Going further, he stresses that internationalization (usually referred to as globalization) means extending the analysis of those relationships across regional and national boundaries – including understanding the role of the state in establishing and securing such cross-national capital flows and ownership. This allows him to explain why there is today no chance of a “patriotic” capitalist class leading a genuine liberation struggle.


Hanieh stresses the centrality of imperialism, which he defines as dominant capital drawing the world market in on itself, forcibly extracting profits from around the globe, “and thereby actively accentuating the unevenness of the system as a whole, while simultaneously deepening the interdependency of states as a necessary prerequisite for this extraction to take place.”

Such a relational view of imperialism highlights the dialectic of rivalry and unity of interests between major imperialist powers. And it also helps us understand that imperialism not just a quest for military or political domination: “imperialism is primarily a question of exploitation – one that necessitates, and is principally bound up in, forms of economic domination (emphasis in the original). As a result much of the book is concerned with tracing the projection of economic power in the Middle East by imperialist states, their attempts “to integrate the forms of accumulation in the region into global production chains and subordinate local classes to the exigencies of capital in the core countries of the world market.”

Neo-liberalism, then, is not just a set of policies. Neo-liberalism aims “to ensure the conditions for capitalist reproduction at a global scale.” It has reshaped both the working and capitalist classes around the new internationally-connected circuits of accumulation. In doing so “it has also lent a particular dynamic to the nature of the state apparatus, closely connected to the spread of authoritarian regimes.” And in keeping with his emphasis on analysing different levels of hierarchies, he insists we look at all these processes at national, regional and international scales and at their intertwining. Doing so allows us to see the results of all the above in “the region’s unequal and uneven integration into global capitalism.”

Deepening exploitation

On this basis he is able to explain the failings of Arab nationalism, an explanation relying not on the faults of individual leaders  or parties but rather on the underlying economic forces which shaped and constrained their ideologies and policies. He reminds us that the rulers espousing Arab nationalism were against a class perspective even in its most radical period, repressing independent labour and socialist movements, and acting to strengthen capitalism and an emerging capitalist class. Ironically the economic fortunes of elements of that new class were in the subsequent period strengthened by imperialism’s rebound, but it came by their increased integration into global circuits of accumulation, meaning less manoeuvring room for their own independence, and enabling deepened exploitation of the region’s workers.

That integration took the form in the 1990s of free trade agreements, both country-specific and region (or sub-region) wide. Along with them came the imposition of structural adjustment programs, i.e. privatization, austerity, dropping barriers to investment, etc. Loans and grants flowed from International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and IMF – not for development, but to structure privatization and heightened foreign investment.

An example of the one-sidedness of these agreements is the fact that the pact to integrate MENA countries into European markets forbade them from European Union membership. On the other hand, Hanieh notes how these pacts fostered not only Europe-MENA trade, but also trade within the MENA region, strengthening the salience of the regional level. In the words of EU commissioner Chris Patten, the goal was to “create larger [i.e. cross-national] markets, which will serve as a strong incentive to make the region more attractive for foreign direct investment.” That meant encouraging “rules of cumulative origin” under which a commodity’s inputs would originate, and its production would occur, in several countries. Taking Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage from the sphere of trade into that of production, Patten urged MENA countries to “perform the different stages of their production in the country where it produces the greatest profit.”

Hanieh also considers the growing role of China and Russia in MENA markets, and notes that while they are seeking more influence and profit, they also have a stake in not upsetting “the global imperialist apple cart. “As such they certainly cannot be considered “a progressive force for liberation” as the partisans of BRICS (the supposed alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) believe.

In sum, Western economic domination has deepened the uneven and combined development of the region, widened the hierarchies of states and their interdependencies, and utilized the resulting differentials of power to consolidate control. Western capital has realigned relationships between countries in the region and with imperialism along six lines: 1) the EU has brought closer to itself key North Africa countries; 2) the integration of Mediterranean productive sectors with European capitalism has deepened social differentiation within states as well as between the region as a whole and Europe; 3) the US has constructed privileged relationships with two core pillars of its power in the region – Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (specifically Saudi Arabia); 4) the US has tried to use those two poles as the axis for drawing together the wider region under its hegemony; 5) the deepening of neoliberal reform has widened hierarchical relationships within the region as a whole (especially strengthening the Gulf Arab states), expressed most sharply through the internationalization of Gulf capital and the enmeshing of Gulf conglomerates with domestic capitalist classes in the region; and 6) the alliance of China and Russia with those states “largely outside of Western hegemony,” especially Iran and Syria.

On this basis we can understand more concretely and in a multi-sided fashion his insistence that imperialism is not primarily military, however much force is used to introduce or maintain relationships such as those just described. Imperialism is above all the subordination of the region’s political economy to the forms of accumulation required by the core countries in this period. Nor is imperialism just free market policies, but rather a radical restructuring of class relations that facilitate external domination. It generates actors and forces with a stake in that new form of domination, actors who play leading roles within nation-states but who are also players in a new set of hierarchies, a new intermeshing of social relations across the region.

Hanieh then examines the specific mechanisms used to facilitate this restructuring, i.e. the policies imposed to meet loan conditions and other mandates of IFIs. These include privatization, labour market deregulation, cutting or ending subsidies on basic consumption goods, Public-Private Partnerships, and enforced opening to the world market and its trade and capital flows. Included in the latter opening is the development and restructuring of financial markets. As is typical of his analysis, he shows how all of these policies interact and facilitate each other.

But these policies have also been met by resistance, by huge demonstrations and strikes. It is the attempt to overcome this resistance which is the key explanation of the consolidation of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes.

Only in the context of the region’s integration into global circuits of capital accumulation, and the imposition of policies to secure and maintain that integration, can one understand the region’s catastrophically high unemployment and the growth in poverty of its laboring classes – not as a result of “bad policies” or “corrupt” or “uncaring” leaders – although these are certainly among the rotten fruits of the processes described.

Hanieh notes the specific impact on labour of this integration, i.e. the increased demand for ever-cheaper labour, for a more flexible, informalised workforce. The extra surplus value thus squeezed from them has both nurtured the growth of large domestic capitals as well as providing “enormously profitable opportunities for foreign investors.” That’s the basis of the rapid “growth” in these countries economies, which shows up in GDP figures but not in the pockets of workers and farmers. He notes that while mainstream analyses admit the growing poverty, unemployment and social exclusion in the region, they don’t see how those are the inevitable, essential result of the growth and consolidation of a domestic capitalist class, one linked to state and foreign companies: “Immiseration and accumulation are forcefully connected – neoliberalism has effectively acted to redistribute wealth from the region’s poor to the wealthiest layers of society by subsuming every aspect of social life under the logic of capital. This radical reconstruction of class power remains at the core of the neo-liberal project in the MENA region – and is an essential element to any assessment of the revolutionary dynamics of 2011.”

Impact on agriculture

Hanieh’s chapter on “Capitalism and Agrarian Change in North Africa” examines how these processes have played out on the land, looking at Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia to understand the roots of heightened dependence on imports, shocking levels of rural poverty, and swelling landlessness.

Once again Hanieh shows how the claims of neutrality by mainstream analysts “act to obscure the relations of power that structure neoliberal reform.” IFIs have demanded the “modernization” of agriculture to fit a globalized economy, but this supposedly merely technical recommendation hides the power relations at play.

In agriculture, as for the economy as a whole, foreign currency earned by exports has swelled GDP figures, but at the cost of increasing income polarities and the underlying discrepancies in ownership, in this case of land. And again paralleling economy-wide phenomena, these exports have helped consolidate a domestic bourgeoisie whose increased profits depend on driving millions off the land and the heightened exploitation of those remaining.

The increased exports of rural products has come through the growth of foreign agribusiness investments, including in cross-national, vertically-integrated production chains. These have been encouraged by IFIs, once again under the guise of supposedly neutral measures of “efficiency.”

What’s more, the North African capitalist class straddles not just nation-state boundaries but also rural and urban spatial locations. At the next level up, “as the heavy predominance of Gulf and European capital in North African agribusiness indicates, the nature of this class formation is necessarily pan-regional. The transformation of agriculture is not solely a domestic affair but one that more closely ties together the fortunes of capital across the Middle East and the Mediterranean as a whole.”

The expulsion of rural labourers from their lands speeds up the growth of the urban workforce, and of migrant labour across the region. Once again, capitalist class development both causes and depends on labour’s impoverishment, resulting in this case in growth of slums, spreading of informal work, susceptibility to a looming ecological crisis, the grinding exploitation of women, and food crises.

Hanieh stresses that this is a still-ongoing process, as IFIs continue to push for liberalized land markets more open to foreign ownership, and for greater privatization of agricultural resources, especially water.

Importance of Palestinian question

Turning his analytical focus to Palestine, Hanieh notes that despite the historic salience of Palestine for liberation movements throughout the region, there has been relatively little class analysis of the Palestinian struggle compared to that generated around other countries in the region, and the Palestinians’ cause is seen more as a humanitarian issue even by many of the most radical analysts and activists. Hanieh’s multilayered methodology enables him to provide the theoretical and empirical basis for redressing this imbalance in a clear and politically-compelling way.

Hanieh focuses on class and state formation in the West Bank, not because he feels it is more important than the other areas of Palestinian life (i.e. Gaza, inside pre-1967 Israel, and in the diaspora), but rather to show how a correct analysis of the West Bank in fact requires situating it in the broader mechanisms of Israeli and imperialist class and state domination, rather than treating it as an isolated entity. He can thus explain how occupation of the West Bank is inextricably connected to mechanisms impacting all Palestinians, and in turn the region as a whole. Hanieh explains how the US-Israel alliance, through not just military means but also IFI and state-imposed normalization (i.e. recognition of, and trade and investment with Israel, by Arab states), “was central to the political subordination of the wider Arab region.”

The West Bank’s economy has over time been transformed from a predominantly rural one “to an incorporated, dependent, and subordinated appendage of Israeli capitalism.” This led to, and depended on, the proletarianisation and dispossession of much of the population, accompanied by and facilitating “the development of a tiny layer of Palestinian capital that articulates Israeli rule and whose accumulation is dependent on this mediating position.”

This small, dependent Palestinian capitalist class is intimately linked to PA structures, and it’s no accident that the PA has embraced the neoliberal vision codified in the Palestine Reform and Development Program adopted as part of the Oslo agreements.

As with other regional rulers, the PA’s policies are not due to corruption and incompetence (although those are certainly present); rather, failed strategies and theft are a function of the PA’s place in processes of class and state formation imposed by Israel, the US, and their regional partners. And, as noted above, these in turn are key to simultaneous and similar regional processes.

The PRDP imposed neoliberal “reforms” to increase the centrality of free markets. It mandated a sharp reduction of public sector spending, including jobs and subsidies. It also encouraged the creation of Special Industrial Zones, which required that a certain percentage of the content of exports had to flow through Israeli factories. The PRDP, and the broader Oslo agreements, was enforced by PA security forces trained by U.S. General Keith Dayton.

As elsewhere in the region, the enrichment of a small layer required the impoverishment and growing inequality of the rest. “Growth” registered in GDP figures was largely an artefact of debt-based spending on services and real estate. This, coupled with a heightened dependence on PA jobs by those kicked off the land or shut out of the Israeli labour market, acted to atomize and conservatize layers of the Palestinian population. But it also laid the basis for rebellion against a craven PA leadership whose participation in the neoliberal schema, and its enforcement, became increasingly obvious and repulsive to the majority.

Hanieh draws a parallel between the way that a new Palestinian capitalist class developed through subcontracting and privileged trade relationships with the occupation, and the parallel processes shaping capitalist classes throughout the region. This proves the thesis stated at the outset of the chapter, that the question of Palestine must be seen not just as a humanitarian issue, and in fact not even solely as a question of national liberation. It is, instead, “an essential component of the broader struggle against the uneven development and control of wealth across the Middle East.” Capitalist development as steered by Israel “has always acted to consolidate and deepen Israel’s power over Palestine, generating a layer of Palestinian society that stands against the interests of most of the population. In this sense, understanding and confronting the political economy of Palestinian capitalism is very much entwined with a struggle of national liberation and return – the success of one fully depends upon the success of the other.”

Importance of Gulf states

The next chapter builds on his previous book, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States, situating its already-multifaceted analysis within the comprehensive framework developed in Lineages. (See review of Capitalism and Class at )

Hanieh insists that the Gulf must not be reduced analytically to just “a giant oil spigot.” “Fetishisation of the oil commodity,” he explains, “can lead to a kind of methodological exceptionalism that obscures serious examination of the questions of capitalism and class.” One can’t simply analyse the Gulf and its investments and markets in the region and world as simply a mechanical expression of a “rentier state.”

After detailing the Gulf’s heavy dependence on migrant labor, he then maps the growth of the Gulf’s capitalist classes “around the three main circuits of accumulation – the productive, commodity, and financial.” These circuits were mediated as they developed through family and business ties to the state and ruling families.

He then looks at dynamics of class and state at scales beyond the national level. First, through the increasingly pan-Gulf scale of the conglomerates, supported especially by the Gulf Cooperation Council. The spread of neoliberalism in the region opened the markets, both commodity and financial, of other Arab states to this newly-unified Gulf capital.

Hanieh describes challenges to the Gulf rulers’ domination in the post-independence period, including often-overlooked workers’ movements, challenges which help explain the extreme reliance on non-Gulf labour. The origins of the latter have changed over the decades, at one point being heavily Arab, but now mostly South and East Asian. At one point Egypt was the largest sender of labour to the Gulf. But their increased numbers, leading to self-confidence in their ability to demand more rights, was a big factor in the turn away from Arab labour.

Again he challenges shibboleths, showing for instance how severe exploitation in other Arab countries was integrally tied to class and state formation in the Gulf as the recipient of “excess” workers. Even remittance flows can thus be analysed as part of the region-wide system of exploitation.

Hanieh notes a partial exception to the reliance on migrant workers in the case of Bahrain, where the citizen population experienced quite significant proletarianisation, due in great part to the much lower levels of oil wealth and the smaller levels of migration. This overlapped with the entrenched sectarian discrimination against the Shi’a population, and explains why labour and left-wing movements continued to be a prominent feature of the country’s political makeup – and why the country “was the principal location of the uprisings in the Gulf in 2011.” (Uprisings, we would note, that have been very conscious of making nonsectarian appeals while still exposing discrimination.)

Hanieh then looks at the formation of the Gulf’s capitalist classes, whose wealth has come not just from oil, but also from related industries, even those related very indirectly, for instance steel, cement and aluminium, which benefitted from lower electricity prices thanks to lower oil and gas costs.

And even when examining oil wealth, Hanieh stresses how that has been used to unify and fortify Gulf dominance across both national and industrial sector boundaries, cutting across the rentier state shibboleth. That is, the skewing of Gulf economies toward oil has resulted in an only-apparently ironic fashion in tightened and reciprocal ties with core country capital. Revenue from oil has enabled export opportunities for foreign companies of luxury goods, machinery and heavy equipment, and services. But the capital from controlling such import trade in turn led to Gulf capitalists’ ownership over the retail outlets where they were sold and the creation of huge conglomerates embracing supermarkets and malls.

Profits from all these ventures were in turn increasingly put into local banks rather than those based in imperialist countries. More recently there has been a shift of capital from state-owned banks to private ones, and the consequent development of private equity and other investment firms. Their rapid growth has benefited from and helped facilitate the privatization of telecoms, banks, real estate and other companies.

Here too Hanieh dismisses the mainstream’s analytical division between state and civil society, noting the role of various state bodies, owned and/or controlled by ruling class families, in fostering and profiting from these huge conglomerates.

This chapter provides another example of how class development can be fruitfully analysed using the “internal relations” concept. Hanieh, again building on his previous book, describes the intertwining of capital from the Gulf with that of Palestinian and Lebanese investors. He also documents the domination by Gulf capital of crucial sectors of the Egyptian economy. In so doing he illustrates again the cross-national connections of the rulers – and the resulting need for the ruled to raise their political horizons to the regional and global levels. The counterrevolutionary role of Gulf states throughout the region can thus be understood at its roots and not simply as an ideological preference of regime heads.

The growing cross-border nature of Gulf capital has become particularly pronounced over the past decade, and on two scales. First, within the Gulf itself, via cross-border corporate activity, investments, and ownership. Second, and building on the first, throughout the region as a whole.

Egypt’s neo-liberalisation is a particularly striking example of the regional significance of this unified Gulf capital, e.g. its involvement in Egyptian privatization. His conclusion: “The Egyptian example confirms that the internationalization of Gulf capital was not simply a matter of access to oil revenues and the deployment of petrodollar flows, but was contingent upon the intensification of neoliberalism across the Middle East as a whole. Key sectors of Egypt’s economy – agribusiness, finance, industry, and real estate – became directly tied to Gulf capital.” Gulf capital was the principal beneficiary of the restructuring of class relations occurring in the neoliberal period. “In this sense, neoliberalism needs to be understood as a project of class power that strengthened the position of national elites while simultaneously consolidating the Gulf’s influence over the region as a whole.”

It is worth quoting Hanieh extensively on this last point, as the political implications he draws out are so true and pressing.

Hanieh insists that the Middle East needs to be seen not just as a basket of nation-states,  but rather “as a set of internally related social relations that striate national borders.”  A crucial consequence of this is that “any reversal of the patterns of neoliberal development in the Middle East requires challenging capitalism in the Gulf itself. For this reason, political struggles in the Gulf… are immensely significant and form a direct continuity with those elsewhere in the Middle East. These struggles have received far too little attention (and solidarity) both within and outside of the region.

“Moreover, a vital element to challenging capital and state in the Gulf must be the defence of the region’s migrant workers…. There needs to be a serious attempt to build cross-regional campaigns with workers who come from beyond the Middle East based around the rights of citizenship, the right to organize, and working conditions. Workers from India, the Philippines, and so forth need to be seen as part of the region’s working class – not as foreigners, ‘guest workers,’ or ‘domestics.’” (Emphasis in original.)

Finally, state and class development in the Gulf is “inseparably bound to the ways Western power has developed over recent decades…. Gulf states form the core of the regional political economy,” and therefore “their paramount position in superintending imperialism flows directly from an existential concern in maintaining the patterns of uneven and combined development that have characterized the region as a whole over the last two decades.” The Gulf’s location at the apex of these regional hierarchies is a consequence of precisely those same processes that have generated, in another form, the conditions for mass revolts. This bears important implications for understanding the possible future trajectories of revolution and counterrevolution.”

Crises and revolts

Hanieh’s concluding chapter, “Crisis and Revolution,” displays a completed tapestry woven from the threads in the book, and expands further on the political tasks flowing from his analysis.

Some observers were surprised by continued high GDP growth rates in MENA countries after the onset of the global crisis in 2008, not recognizing that such growth was made possible only by growing inequality and poverty, which in turn built on pre-existing misery resulting from the prior imposition of neoliberal policies.

The latter shaped how the crisis played out differently across region and class, and blew apart fantasies of continued growth. The crisis manifested itself in much of the region in ways shaped by drops in global demand: first, blows to the manufacturing export sector; second, the curtailment of remittances; and third, an increased dependence on foreign capital inflows as a source of foreign currency thanks to the opening of the region’s economies in the 2000s.

In the Gulf, in contrast, capital dealt with the crisis by shifting away from real estate and other markets whose bubbles were bursting. Gulf conglomerates protected themselves by shifting capital back home and launching massive construction and real estate projects which in turn supported construction companies (and as above, such shifts ignored intra-Gulf borders; Hanieh notes for instance the shift of capital from UAE to now-safer Saudi projects). The reliance on migrant labor also made mass layoffs easier and resistance weaker than elsewhere in the region.

The net result of these varied responses to and impacts of the crisis was deepening gaps between and within regional economies, i.e. the Gulf versus the other countries, and capitalists versus subordinate classes.

And it is those gaps which are the essential context for understanding the uprisings: “These varied paths of transmission of the global crisis –overlaid on the preexisting social crises in the region – were the context in which popular revolts were to erupt in December 2010… The global crisis did not cause the revolts, but it was an essential ingredient. The patterning of crisis and accumulation at the regional scale helped shape the form of these revolts and the nature of the counterrevolutionary response.” (Emphasis in original.)

After describing the initial stages of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, Hanieh focuses on four countries which “stood out for the depth of their popular mobilizations – and the determination of Western powers to shape the eventual outcome: Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.” These mini-case studies are evidence of how it is possible to analyze countries with widely varying histories, prominent personalities, and national cultures, yet still retain the common threads of the processes at play, i.e. the unfolding of cross-regional, even global dynamics. Thus his subhead drawing together these cases: “Common Themes, Contrasting Paths.”

Hanieh rebuts claims that the revolts were “leaderless” and “unorganized” by pointing to prior struggles and the political and organizational legacies they left for today’s rebels. These include the UGTT union federation in Tunisia, and in Egypt the consciousness and embryonic organization left behind by pre-2011 strike waves, and that country’s massive protests in support of Palestine. He notes also prior movements challenging sectarian discrimination or inequalities between a given country’s provinces. And he doesn’t ignore the role of conflict at the top, such as crises of succession. Nor does he deny how the peculiar mixture of any or all such factors explain particular turning points in an individual country’s revolt.

But none of that overrides the unified theme emerging from the uprisings: that the popular movements represented much more than the overthrow of despised dictators. Concentrating on the surface appearance of the demonstrations obscures their real content: “These mobilizations indicate that ‘politics’ and ‘economics,’ which are typically conceived as special spheres, are fused and part of the same struggle. The battle against political despotism is inevitably intertwined with the dynamic of class struggle. These uprisings reflected not just a crisis of regime legitimacy or a concern with political freedom, but were – at their roots – confronting the outcomes of capitalist development itself.”

He then describes attempts by imperialists to derail the revolt, including by new forms of “aid” in the service of attempts to get the new regimes to deepen the neoliberal turn (with some Western spokespersons even claiming that the revolts had been in pursuit of greater entrepreneurial freedom!). He notes also derailment attempts based on efforts to use the Muslim Brotherhood. This passage has an essential class analysis of the MB, a movement which, contrary to even much radical analysis, at bottom – or to be more precise, at its top – is a bourgeois formation, shown both in the personal class status of its wealthy leadership, as well as their participation in neoliberal policymaking even under Mubarak.

“This class character of the MB is intimately connected to the regional patterns traced throughout this book – most specifically the role of the Gulf Arab states.” Those states have taken a leading role in supporting Islamist movements throughout the revolts. The Brotherhood also maintained close ties to the Egyptian military. “One of the conclusions to be drawn from this book is that this aid is not solely due to religious fidelity but is rather a key element to a further deepening of the Gulf’s political penetration of the state apparatus. It is one expression, in other words, of the internationalization of the Egyptian state, a means through which Gulf capitalism ensures that Egypt will continue to maintain the patterns of accumulation that characterized the preceding decades.”

But recognizing these class and state relations doesn’t mean dismissing the role of religion, or seeing it as just a diversion, but rather allows us to see the material basis on which a very key ideological tool grows.

But none of this, in the long run, will avail the region’s rulers or their imperialist allies. Despite attempts at repression and cooptation, the revolutions are not over: “The root causes of the uprisings remain unaddressed, and the potential for a renewal of struggle is ever present. The key reason for such guarded optimism is the growing clarity of the social and class dynamics that have propelled these movements, and the undaunted mobilizations that continue to take place. The millions of people who took to the streets for the first time in 2011 have themselves been radically transformed…. The revolutionary process must either continue to push forward to tackle capitalism itself or be silenced for another generation.”

Balance of forces

He ends with a recapitulation of his theoretical framework in order to ground his (justified) hopefulness. We must see, he insists, the totality of forces involved on both sides of the class divide, how they mutually shape each other; they must not be seen as separate ‘factors’ or ‘things.’

Class formation in the neo-liberal area has resulted in “a growing interpenetration of the region’s capitalist classes such that it makes little sense to identify a ‘national’ bourgeoisie whose interests are somehow counterposed to those of large international or regional capital.” This is particularly useful in understanding the increasingly reactionary trajectory of would-be Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi. It also, we would add, helps explain the programs of ‘anti-imperialist’ poseurs such as Bashar Al-Assad, whose ‘resistance’ is a perverted shadow of even the severely-limited autonomy of regimes such as Nasser’s. In a unique but comparable way, we would add, the supposedly radical Hezbollah has never challenged the capitalist class basis of Lebanon’s state, in whose government it happily sits.

The fact that today ownership structures flow across the region, and between the region and imperialist countries, also has implications for the state, which he defined at the start as “the set of institutional forms through which a ruling class relates to the rest of society.” Thus the state form too has become internationalized, “oriented toward ensuring the conditions of accumulation for all capital, regardless of any apparent nationality. The region’s immense strategic significance, the manner of its integration into the world market, and the fusion of economic and political power all preclude any form of capitalism that is not highly autocratic.”

Fundamental change will also require “being absolutely clear” on the ways that imperialism continues to dominate. “For this reason, the starting point of real liberation will entail exposing and confronting all the myriad forms of this intervention.”

First and foremost this means grasping “the specificity of two poles of imperialist power in the region – Israel and the Gulf Arab states…. Israel’s special place in the projection of Western power stems directly from its character as a settler-colonial state dependent on the dispossession of the Palestinian people, which means that its alliance with imperialism is an existential part of the state itself, uniquely isolated from the domestic pressures within Israeli society…” The country “has also been deeply connected to the way that neoliberalism developed across the region. Therefore the Palestinian struggle holds immense strategic weight in the political struggles of the region as a whole.”

The Gulf’s “dramatic political ascendancy in the post-2011 moment” reflects those states’ particular role in the regional political economy, which bears consequences for coming political struggles. Reversing neo-liberal policies anywhere in the region will come up against the entrenched interests of the Gulf states. This may not yet be expressed formally or explicitly, but it is expressed implicitly “in the essence of these movements and the social forces with which they must grapple.”

Thus “any effective confrontation of capitalism requires a pan-regional approach. There are no long-term, nationally based solutions to the problems facing the Middle East that leave the control of such immense wealth in the hands of a tiny layer of the region’s population.” This doesn’t mean revolutionary movements will immediately start from the regional scale. The point “is to see these different scales of struggle as inseparable. Without a regional orientation that points strategically to tackling the position and power of the Gulf monarchies, there will be no fundamental change in the region.”

Hanieh’s concluding paragraph points to the significance of the region’s uprisings for a globe in revolt against crisis, austerity and repression. And because the hope emanating from the region is hope for the world’s exploited and oppressed, we all have a stake in the success of the MENA revolution.

Fortunately Hanieh’s superb work does a great job of preparing us to understand the basis on which such struggle and solidarity must be constructed.

  1. PhilF says:

    I don’t really agree with the bit about neo-liberalism, because I think it’s much better understood as a set of policies rather than as some kind of new era of capitalism as the latter raises more problems than it helps clarify things.

    Also, the notion that neo-liberal regimes are, and must be, extremely oppressive doesn’t really hold up in my view. The ‘democratic’ regimes which took power in many countries after the old Cold War dictatorships were surplus to the requirements of imperialism (esp US imperialism) were predominantly neo-liberal. The old Cold War dictatorships weren’t, with the exception of Pinochet.

    In NZ we had an extreme form of neo-liberalism for about a decade (1984-1993), often referred to as the most neo-liberal experiment outside Chile under Pinochet. Far from being socially repressive, the governments which implemented neo-liberalism here were *socially liberal*. In fact, I’d argue that a very good case could be made out that the social policies which most fit neo-liberal economics are socially liberal ones. Why would neo-liberal economics, for instance, want to maintain anti-abortion and anti-gay laws? You get the state out of it and let the market sort it out. Most of the neo-liberals in NZ were pro-women’s rights and pro-gay rights and it was in the neo-liberal era here that the anti-gay laws were liberalised, now we have gay marriage, abortion in practice has become substantially more easily available and so on.

    It was the Keynesian governments here which were anti-abortion and anti-gay and maintained rigidly conservative social policies.

    Another good example is South Africa. It wasn’t the old apartheid regime which was neo-liberal; it was much more Keynesian. It’s the ANC that has done the neo-liberal stuff.

    The only repression that neo-liberal policies require is whatever is necessary to prevent workers taking action *as workers*.

    Another problem I have with the way ‘neo-liberalism’ is used as a catch-phrase is that it often gets used as a kind of code word for capitalism. Let’s get everyone together who is against really nasty capitalism, ie neo-liberalism, rather than being *anti-capitalist*.

    The reality is that capitalists are trying to manage a system which they don’t really control. At different stages of the accumulation process different sets of policies are used to try to produce some kind of order to the operations of capitalist economy and to produce more favourable circumstances for the stable maintenance of accumulation – sometimes this means making concessions, sometimes it means rolling back concessions. That’s just how capital operates. It’s not a new era that requires a whole new name.

    The imperialist epoch, and the laws of motion of imperialism, are perfectly adequate concepts for explaining what is occurring and are open-ended enough to take in particular trends in policy as they are varied by the capitalists in line with their specific needs at specific times and in specific conditions.

    Anyway, we might have a productive discussion in the comments section!


    • Andy P says:

      Neoliberalism is Adam’s term. You’re right that it’s used by many people as a catch-all term and/or to avoid saying capitalism or imperialism. But in this case I think he uses it appropriately.

      Yes, it’s not a new phenomenon. I’m still partial to Mandel’s long waves, and would therefore say that neoliberalism (or austerity/privatization/unionbusting/etc.) is a set of policies designed to help the ruling class overcome a long-term crisis of profitability. Of course one would have to find the equivalent label for past long-term downturn periods and the set of policies applied.

      It’s true that in the last couple decades many regimes got less rather than more repressive. One could say that was because in the case of Latin America the repression had done its job, and the bourgeoisie could afford to lighten up — which, after all, makes exploitation more trouble-free. Certainly in the MENA region the repression of the 1960 and 70s also did the job in terms of crushing communist and nationalist movements. But those movements had been so weak, and the region so vital to imperialism, that there was no pressure or incentive to end dictatorships — until 2011.

      Also, and this is what makes Adam’s book so fascinating, overlaying all the above was capitalism’s normal secular shifts in investment and accumulation patterns, which go on as it shifts locations even during a crisis. In the case of MENA that meant Gulf capital asserting greater dominance in the region economically, taking advantage of neoliberal policies such as privatization. In the same way, during the late 19th and early 20th century long downturns one could find equivalent secular shifts as colonial powers fell and rose, as new technologies came online, etc.