Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Libyan divisions, and a mirage of revolution

Oh, and while I'm here, this criticism overlaps with something I'm doing at the moment, so I may as well just deal with it now:


Richard Seymour has a more hardline anti-interventionist post on Libya which, while it makes a number of important points, nevertheless seems to me like it strikes rather the wrong note. Seymour observes that “The rebel army is commanded by someone who is most likely a CIA agent”, and goes on to predict that the US and its allies will quickly move to set up a pliable regime pro-Western “liberals” who will go along with the designs of neoliberalism.
I agree with this, as far as it goes. But Seymour goes on to say that “I don’t think we’re witnessing a revolutionary process here.” This strikes me as far too simplistic. The leadership of the TNC may not be revolutionaries, but they appear to have only the most tenuous control over the forces that actually defeated Gaddafi, like the Berber units in the Western mountains and the dozens of privately organized militias. Recall that it was just a few weeks ago that the rebels looked to be too busy assassinating one another to make any military gains. The usual bourgeois foreign-policy types are warning of splits and “instability” on the rebel side, because what the US and NATO want most is a stable and cooperative regime. But the fractiousness and disorganization that so terrifies the Western foreign policy intelligentsia is precisely what may yet allow a revolutionary dynamic to emerge.

A few quick points, then.  First, tellingly, the author does not say that there is a revolutionary situation in Libya, merely that a "revolutionary dynamic" may emerge from the current chaos.  So, although I may be accused of striking the wrong note, I am not accused of being wrong.  Secondly, if there is a danger in striking the wrong note, at least part of that danger comes from wishful thinking.  If a revolutionary situation is to emerge from the fratricidal chaos among Libya's elites today (which is real), we have to ask where it would come from, who would lead it, what would be its dominant political thrust, etc?  If we're talking about something that is on the cards and not merely a distant hope, it should be possible to specify what sort of alliance and what sort of political leadership might be involved.

I grant that the divisions in the leadership reflect the difficulties that the dominant neoliberal clique have had in incorporating a wider array of social forces under their leadership.  Even so, the basis for these divisions appears to be largely over fiefdoms, and very little over popular demands.  On the other hand, there appears to be shockingly little dissent over the ongoing matter of racial cleansing which, far from abating, is intensifying.  Put the hollow expressions of regret from the transitional council (NTC), regarding "a small number of incidents" for which they bear primary responsibility, to one side.  Scapegoating 'Africans' is just how a neoliberal elite in alliance with former colonial powers preserves its 'national' legitimacy.  Yet it is unlikely that this would work as effectively as it does if the opposition had a left-wing, or an organised labour contingent.  As yet it has neither. 

It is also true that there is a certain amount of fluidity in the situation and, in the interregnum, a limited space for localised grassroots initiative.  Yet, for this to become a revolutionary situation, masses of people would have to not only break with the NTC, but also identify with a rising alternative leadership.  The fact is that the Libyan uprising, from inception, has had no alternative leadership.  (This is not unrelated to there being no left-wing, and no organised labour contingent).*  The NTC's weaknesses do not, therefore, add up to strength on the part of potential popular rivals.  And the NTC does now have the immense resources of imperialism backing it up.

So, where is this revolutionary potential?  Is it anything other than a shibboleth at this point?

*This isn't an immutable fact, but it is the reality at present.  And it happens to be rooted in a couple of facts about Libya's development under Qadhafi.  First, the Jamahiriyya didn't allow political parties or independent trade unions because, in theory, it didn't need them.  It was supposed to be governed by popular committees and workers' self-management (outside the crucial oil and banking sectors, of course).  In practise, Libya was a national security state like its regional equivalents, in which the old ruling class - particularly those sections integrated into the state - saw its power consolidated, and even legitimised under a seemingly radical new regime.  The only sustained opposition that could develop took the form of armed Islamist insurgency.  Unsurprisingly, the only potential opposition to the neoliberals today are the Islamists who, contrary the scaremongering of some pro-Qadhafi opinion, are not in a position to take over the country.  Secondly, the social basis of the dominant faction of the opposition derives from Qadhafi's re-orientation toward the US and EU since the late 1990s.  This meant further integration into global capitalism along neoliberal lines as part of the price of relaxing sanctions, which had cost the economy billions.  

The arrival of platoons of lobbyists, oil industry flaks, economists, statesmen and neoliberal technocrats, epecially in the latter half of the 2000s, did a great deal to accelerate the development of a private sector capitalist elite.  Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter played an important role in a programme designed to "create a new pro-business elite", with dozens passing through a 'leadership' programme run by the Boston consultancy firm, Monitor Group.  Porter, along with Saif al-Qadhafi, helped launch the Libyan Economic Development Board which pushed privatization policies.  This was then headed by current chair of the National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril.  Vice-chair Ali al-Issawi also helped develop the same policies as a minister responsible for the Economy, Trade & Investment.  Thus, only when a strategic cleavage opened up within Libya's ruling class - I would characterise it as one between a relatively conservative state capitalist elite cautious about reform and a neoliberal elite impatient for reform, a fissure accelerated by the region's uprisings - was it possible for a viable mass political opposition to emerge.  It's precisely because of the ruling class split that the Libyan rebels were able to so quickly achieve an advantage that the Egyptian revolutionaries lacked - dual power, centred on the control of major urban centres.  Yet it's quite logical in these circumstances for a section of the ruling class to be politically, ideologically and even institutionally dominant within that opposition.  This is what happened.  The alliance with NATO consolidated that dominance, after the revolutionary dynamic had been crushed by Qadhafi's forces.