One can’t help but feel that the pro-Assad left is in some kind of time-warp. They see Syria as it was in 1969, when it was on the leading edge of economic change in the Middle East—or so it would seem. You get the same thing with the Qaddafi or Mugabe fan club, mostly involving the same people. Of course, there are pro forma acknowledgements that such governments have adopted neoliberal measures, but you are left with the impression that if not for them, things would only get worse. In many ways, this is the same “lesser evil” politics that leads to supporting Obama over Romney, but transposed to the “anti-imperialist” realm. It is necessary to back Bashar al-Assad because his foes would be worse. The same line has been applied to Zimbabwe and Qaddafi’s Libya. Mostly, it is inspired by a kind of bastardized version of “Defend the USSR”, making no effort to really come to grips with the nature of the Syrian economy.
Part of the problem is the tendency for figures such as al-Assad senior and junior, Mugabe, and Qaddafi to use the term socialism in describing their governments. Baathist Socialism has ruled in Syria for over 50 years while Qaddafi’s “Green Socialism” was around for over 30. Mugabe, of course, had the authority of a successful Marxist guerrilla struggle behind him, even though his economic policies were not that different from what could be seen throughout the continent under the rubric of “African Socialism”.
What marked these experiments apart from Marx’s original vision was the utter lack of democracy. When Marx wrote about socialism, he referred to the Paris Commune as an example of the type of system he sought. You always must keep in mind that not much changed economically under working class rule in Paris. Marx was far more interested in workers taking control of the state and making decisions democratically than in any particular measure carried out, which in retrospect appear quite modest.
Baath ideology was conceived by Michel Aflaq in the 1930s as an alternative to communism, just as Qaddafi developed “Green Socialism”, a kindred ideology. Aflaq started out as a member of the Lebanese CP but broke with the party after seeing it support French colonial rule. In coming to reject Marxism, Aflaq developed some curious tendencies. Among them was an admiration for the works of Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg. He also attacked Marxism as a “Western ideology, foreign to everything that is Arab” into which its founder “breathed something of his vengeful Jewish spirit.”
In a September-October 1967 New Left Review article on Baathism, Eric Rouleau summed up the movement’s class basis:
The founders of the Baath, whether of Arsouzi’s or Aflak’s current, addressed themselves exclusively to an elite: students, professors, intellectuals and country teachers, who were expected in their turn to carry the good tidings to the people. In effect, the great majority of recruits to the Baath belonged to the small and middle bourgeoisie. Their natural milieu was that which produced the leaders of nationalism throughout the Arab world.
Despite MRZine’s devotion to the al-Assad cult, the magazine that spawned it in bad seed fashion was quite hostile once upon a time. In 1963, not long after a successful Baathist coup in Syria, the magazine published an article by Tabitha Petran that stated:
The recent coups in Iraq and Syria realize the six-year-old Eisenhower Doctrine’s goal of anti-Communist “Arab unity” under United States protection. The coups’ authors are the international oil interests, the U.S., and their local placemen—the Baath and Arab Nationalist (Nasserist) parties, assorted militarists and feudal left over from Hashemite rule in Iraq, and in Syria elements from the right-wing of the Moslem Brotherhood.
If MRZine bends the stick too far in one direction (if not having fully snapped sometime ago), this article errs in the opposite direction. In fact, the Baathist state took some bold economic actions not long after Petran’s article appeared as Rouleau pointed out:
The authenticity of their radicalism need not be doubted. In the past three years, Syria has undergone a major social upheaval. The Baath government has decreed an agrarian reform with ceilings of 15 to 55 hectares for irrigated, and 50 to 300 hectares for unirrigated land. Uncultivated estates have been expropriated without further ado. In a country where as late as 1958, 45 per cent of all irrigated land and 30 per cent of non-irrigated land was owned by only 2 per cent of the population, while 70 per cent of the population owned no land at all, this is a very drastic change. The reform has not yet been fully implemented, although the Baath claimed to have redistributed 2,500,000 hectares out of the national total of 6,000,000 by early 1967. Simultaneously, the signing of an agreement with the ussr for the construction of the Euphrates Dam ultimately promises a huge leap forward for agriculture: the Dam will double the area of irrigated soil in Syria. In the industrial sector, the Neo-Baathists have been no less intransigent. The lightning decrees of January 1965 nationalized 80 per cent of Syrian industry. Foreign trade was effectively made a state monopoly. The scope of these measures can be gauged from the fact that they instantly led to a general strike and shut-down of all business and trade in the great urban centres and bazaars, while mullahs preached open revolt against the government from their muezzins. In an armed social conflict, the Baath régime, aided by workers’ militias, trade-unions and Communist militants, succeeding in crushing bourgeois resistance to the new order. This unfolding of a mass social crisis and violent armed clashes distinguishes the Syrian experience sharply from the tranquilly bureaucratic Egyptian nationalizations of 1958. It led to wave of emigrations among the once prosperous Syrian bourgeoisie: there are now 200,000 exiles in the Lebanon. Beirut has become the Miami of this class.
Starting in the mid-80s, Syria began to suffer economic stagnation. Mainly this was a function of declining oil prices but also bureaucratic mismanagement of the sort seen in the USSR and Eastern Europe. And just like the “workers states”, it began a kind of Arab perestroika in 1990 that included typical neoliberal measures that did lead to improvements. However, coinciding with a kind of modest boom was stepped up corruption and backroom deals. If Baathism could be characterized by hostility to private enterprise in the conventional sense, there was still lots of opportunities for well-connected businessmen who exercised monopolies under the protection of the Syrian state.
By the late 90s, the economy began to stagnate again. In a 1999 article in MERIP, Bassam Haddad, the editor of Jadaliyya.com, noted:
Virtually every imaginable consumer item is available in Syrian stores today. But most of these items are beyond the reach of the average civil servant earning a paltry 3,000-4,000 Syrian pounds each month (the equivalent of $60 to $80) — which is not enough to cover the most basic living expenses.
Side by side with diminished buying power was increased corruption, a function of Syrian society’s reliance on old-boy Baathist economic connections as Haddad described:
Private interests’ penetration of decision-making bodies, and the ensuing rent-seeking networks that have developed, have blurred the boundaries between state and society. The result is widespread corruption: the compromise of public office for private benefit. Syrian public discourse emphasizes the moral and economic dimensions of corruption more than its bureaucratic and administrative ramifications. The solution to corruption, and to administrative incapacity generally, is not just a matter of putting a morally upright person in the right place. Over the years, the rulers and regulations that bind various bureaucracies, agencies and administrative bodies, horizontally as well as vertically, have been so profoundly compromised that not even the best person or team could ameliorate the state’s administrative capacity in the short run. Serious bureaucratic renovation is required if Syria is to make ample use of its considerable human and natural resources. Rent-seeking networks exacerbate administrative incapacity and hinder the restoration of integrity to the relatively legal-rational framework informing Syria’s bureaucracy. It is important to note that Syria’s experience in this regard echoes that of many lower middle level income late developing countries.
As long as the Syrian economy could continue to expand, even if fitfully, the social and political contradictions did not become insurmountable. Of course, the existence of a powerful repressive police force and a tightly controlled media helped keep things manageable. All that, of course, began to unravel after the Arab Spring began.
Reese Erlich, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who started out as an antiwar radical in the 1960s, described the shifting loyalties in Syria as the struggle deepened:
Conflicting attitudes towards the Assad government date back to economic changes that began in 2004, when Syria shifted from a centrally managed economy to a more privatized one. The business elite benefited as the government allowed creation of private banks, insurance companies, and an airline.
The growth of large corporations in turn spurred creation of small- and medium-sized companies such as the marketing firm owned by Rana Issa. Government policies created economic growth and loyalty among business leaders.
But the new liberalization policy also amplified Syria’s system of crony capitalism, leading to charges of widespread corruption.
Demonstrators have singled out Rami Makhlouf, for example, a cousin of President Assad and owner of the country’s largest cell phone company. Critics say he’s made tens of millions of dollars due to family connections.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to the president, admits that corruption remains a serious problem in Syria. “Rami Makhlouf isn’t the only one who made money in the past period,” she says in an interview at the presidential palace. “There are many people, big capitalists, who made a lot of money.”
But, she argues, the government has taken steps to reform. “This crisis has made us 1,000 more times more aware,” Ms. Shaaban says.
In what can only be described as the classic instance of “too little, too late”, the Baathist system looks like it is on its last legs. While some on the left wring their hands over the possibility that Baathist “socialism” will be replaced by some terrible disaster cooked up by the Koch brothers, the only measures that will prove capable of resisting such an eventuality is the organized power of the Syrian working class and its allies.
For all of the hatred that the “anti-imperialist” left has directed against the common people who overthrew Qaddafi, there are signs that workers are more emboldened in Libya than any time under “Green Socialism”. Marxist.com’s Jorge Martin reported on October 21, 2011:
Workers at Waha Oil company have been on strike and holding protests for 7 weeks now. Their main demand is the purge of the top management of the company from directors whom they accuse of being stooges of the old regime. It is an example of class issues coming to the fore once the old regime has been put to one side.
Waha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resignWaha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resign Field workers say they have documental evidence that Waha Oil directors collaborated with Gaddafi’s troops by giving them food, shelter and equipment worth millions. Workers have vowed never to work for them again. “This management committee gave 60 four-wheel drive land cruisers to [ousted leader Moammar] Qaddafi’s forces in March. These cars helped the Qaddafi forces kill some Libyan people and commit other crimes,” said Riad, an organization supervisor and he added: “We are demanding that the management committee of Waha quit… After the February 17 revolution, we want to get rid of these figures of corruption.”
Could this be contagious? One hopes so.