Thoughts: Marxism and the Arab Spring
July 1, 2011 by danielfurr
Economic prosperity and social stability are interlinked. Growth and employment opportunities provide means for tranquility, within a nation, and means for the individual to accumulate wealth and savings. But when economies fail and governments’ struggle to maintain control, social unrest occurs; in extreme cases, a black swan event, a revolution might result.
The Marxist theory of historical materialism articulates the economic bases of societies and its ever changing relation with an expanding or altering mode of production. As Marx himself said, “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.” And when the mode of production is no longer capable of furling the aspirations of society, a revolution must manifest. History depicts struggles and liberation movements, rebelling against-what Marx described-bases and superstructures. Superstructures are an expression, or avatar, for the mode of production and society itself. What contemporary anarchists renamed ‘the system.’ And history shows what happens to Ancien Régime when its avaricious behaviour and irresponsibility infuriates the citizenry.
Resistance and uprising, in the Middle East, began in December 2010. Unemployment, high inflation, poor living standards and corruption were the catalyst – especially in Tunisia; where the Arab Spring began. The economic situation and lack of productivity became a perfect reflection of the political establishment; failure to share the vast wealth more evenly led millions to revolt against their government. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Bahrain and Yemen experienced a great tempest of political and social unrest. The main criticism was the economic prosperity was only held by a minority, and the political class had nothing but tempt for its citizens. It was no coincidence that the governments, in each nation, were soaked with financial benefits and yet the population were starving. In order to attract investment, from global corporations, protesters believed government officials took either bribes or constructed generous taxation for foreign investors. In February this year, the media reported on the personal wealth of Hosni Mubarak (Former President of Egypt) and it was in the region between $40 – 70 billion. How was it that these Presidents’ and Prime Ministers’ had accumulated vast wealth, but the population witnessed poor living standards? The political establishment become a superstructure and the avaricious nature of politics is a product of the economic environment.
To understand the Arab revolts and the catalyst behind the events, it best to look for a historical comparison; most notably, the French Revolution. Historians tend to focus predominately on the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre and The Terror. The causes of the revolution tend to be forgotten. In a way, the French Revolution is more important to understanding the Arab Spring than the American War of Independence.
Revolutionary France is one of the most significant periods of European history, along with the English Civil war, in my opinion. The causes for the revolution are deeply fascinating and rather complex. There are countless stimuli’s for the uproar, especially the crippling debt from strengthening the United States in the War of Independence. But the most fundamental component (in my opinion) was the famine of 1788-89, which saw the price of bread rise by a near 70 percent. Many of the poor and destitute struggled to survive and thus the infamous ‘bread riots’ occurred. The first signs of revolutionary intent in the air. Mass urbanisation of the cities helped fuel the hunger, due to over crowding and the high demand for employment. The hunger and poor living conditions are a breeding ground for civil unrest; we’ve seen this in the last six months in the Middle East and Northern Africa. When a significant population, collectively, faces catastrophic decline in income and prosperity, it is likely to become hostile to the state. Governments become vulnerable when the people become poorer and hungrier. Once held moderate views are easily manipulated by subversive thoughts, if there is a prospect for a better tomorrow.
The nobility of the French regime, with its gluttonous and avaricious behaviour, infuriated the population. Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were far from popular figures within the kingdom – especially his spouse. Their need for vast wealth and extreme expenditure, did not help the nation finances. Participation in the American War of Independence diverted the nation towards bankruptcy. France was broke. But the aristocracy was immune and unaffected; which was a great irritation to the peasant classes. And, similar to the present time in Northern Africa, the people had enough. Revolution was in the air.
The reason for selecting the French Revolution as a historical comparison was down to Karl Marx. He routinely wrote about the events of 1788-89, most notably in the Communist Manifesto. It was very productive in explaining the theory of historical materialism; the French Revolution enabled him to articulate and define his theory, without devolving into complex and structured language. History is a good tool, which Marx exploited effectively.
But, fundamentally, the authenticity of Karl Marx’s theory – was he right? Well, no. Karl Marx was gifted in understanding the present time, circumstances and historical precedents. However, the solutions were always misguided or completely wrong; Britain never experienced revolution, which Marx believed was inevitable. The working classes never aspired for revolution, majority wanted to be apart of the wealth creators not confiscate it from the rich. It is humorous to watch the modern left rally in solidarity with the Arab protesters, who are rebelling against socialist-esque regimes. Egyptians demanded reform and transparency, none of them sought to completely destroy the system and build a new nation. Which completely contradicts Marx.
The Arab Spring might have given birth to Marxist nostalgia, but there is no justification to suggest a Marx inspired or remotely socialistic reasoning. This utopia, which Marx believed in, never transpired and probably never will. Arab Spring revolutions will resort in either two outcomes: a bloody and more brutal regime (as we saw in France and Russia) or prosperous nation (the United States or India). Either way, these revolutions have once again injected more life into a forgotten political theorists and philosopher.