Amid record abstention, hovering at around 59 percent, and a curfew that banned Syrians and Palestinians from leaving their homes for 48 hours, the Lebanese parliamentary elections were held on 15 May 2022. Naturally, local and international bourgeois media largely ignored these facts. Instead, focusing on the “promising results” these elections would bring.
As in the 2018 elections, this poll was mainly painted as a referendum on Hezbollah’s popularity within the Shia social fabric and across the country as a whole. The delay in results meant that articles such as, “What Hezbollah’s Parliamentary Loss Means for Lebanon” littered the internet as the official results leaked in. Hezbollah’s allies losing seats meant that “Lebanon’s Surprisingly Promising Election” could finally bring the change and demands articulated during the uprising of October 2019.
These types of sensationalist and clickbait articles promised change and reform in the months following the elections. However, they offered a more sober account a couple of paragraphs in, explaining that “the elections mark a small but meaningful shift in Lebanon’s complex political landscape.” Although “Hezbollah and its allies have lost their majority in Parliament — securing only 61 seats out of 128, down from 71 in the country’s last elections in 2018,” they admit that “this loss is unlikely to seriously weaken the party’s military and political power in Lebanon,” conceding that “the win is merely symbolic.”
The symbolism of “opposition candidates” breaking the monotonous composition of the Lebanese ruling class has been a redundant trope for over a decade in liberal circles. These liberals constantly inform us that “we have to try new faces” and “hold them accountable for their actions” as “the lack of accountability was the reason behind the state collapse.” Skepticism around the elections is readily brushed aside by sweeping remarks such as “how can these candidates be worse than the ones we have had for the last three decades?”
Another well-worn trope amongst these circles holds that the 2019 uprising and the ensuing protests would “have been for nothing if those who have protested did not vote for opposition candidates.” Their reasoning stems from a defeatist belief that protests are the outcome of temporary emotions and spontaneous class hatred that will eventually wither away, whereas voting is a logical act that can hold the Parliament accountable in the long term.
In 2014, one of the last Facebook posts by our late comrade Bassem Chit responded to these liberal tropes by tearing apart the “sanctity of voting in bourgeois elections.” Bassem questions the essence of “liberal praxis” as the accumulation of “individual acts of voting,” imperative acts done in a material vacuum regardless of the conditions that shape them. The laws regulating the political, social, and economic dimensions of these acts and the way in which they compartmentalize society in a sectarian and regional manner are all considered secondary. They are mere details that can be set aside to preserve the sanctity of the “individual act of voting”.*
Essentially, the fetish of these individual acts that are devoid of any material grounding that leads to individual acts of representation represent the embodiment of abstraction. The individual becomes simultaneously responsible for, and in charge of, change in an abstracted mode of praxis that is uncoupled from a sectarian electoral law, delinked from apartheid-style curfews, and disconnected from record levels of abstentions.
This technocratic dogma argues that the democratic practice is merely a technical imperative in which every citizen must partake, which ultimately exists independently of how society is shaped and regardless of the structural economic and political crises of society. Voting the crisis away is thoroughly displaced onto the individual actions of “opposition” representatives. It becomes the only acceptable “democratic expression” that is unconcerned with the crisis itself.
Following this logic, we can better understand the analysis that hails the loss of seats by Hezbollah’s allies as promising incremental change and reform only to later concede this win as merely symbolic. In the abstracted and idealistic world of liberals, symbolism, rather than actual structural shifts, represents change.
Symbolism over praxis
The electoral law approved in 2017 provides an explanation of how “opposition lists” breached Parliament in key districts all over Lebanon. In a 2018 article, I argue that the current electoral law was primarily meant to preserve a “unity government” combining blocs representing the ruling class’s main political parties. Although the law introduced proportional representation, it was combined within a hybrid form that involved the gerrymandering of Lebanon’s districts in a way that further encouraged sectarian alliances. The law reduced the country’s electoral districts from 26 to 15, simultaneously strengthening the power of local sectarian leaders and national sectarian parties already equipped with clientelist networks and electoral pull.
Voters were now obliged to vote for a complete list, choosing one “preferential” candidate in a reconfiguration that strengthened the role of sectarian leaders within the country’s districts. This limitation forced local sectarian leaders to form alliances based on their district’s sectarian makeup rather than political or ideological compatibility, resulting in contradictory electoral partnerships across the country. This reconfiguration allowed political parties to prioritize candidates over programs. The redrawn electoral map reduced the number of mixed-sect districts, reducing opportunities for cross-sectarian alliances or cooperation while imposing an environment of compounded competitiveness between, and within, lists for the “preferential vote.”
This electoral law served traditional ruling-class parties well in 2018. However, the post-October 2019 landscape opened opportunities for “opposition lists.” Intra-competitiveness and rivalry between candidates on the same lists fueled distrust and electoral miscalculations that opened seats for the “opposition,” specifically in the Beirut, the North, and in the southern Jezzine-Saida districts.
The electoral landscape was shaped by two paradigm shifts within the Lebanese social fabric. On the one hand, more than 250,000 Lebanese were forced to emigrate between 2019 and 2022 due to the combined effects of the economic crisis, the port explosion, and the ensuing devaluation of the Lebanese pound. Moreover, manufactured food, medicine, and fuel shortages were compounded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences on the post-pandemic economy.
Although the flow of emigrants has accelerated since 2019, Lebanon has always been a labor-exporting country, heavily reliant on remittances to counteract the overwhelmingly negative import/export trade balance. The repercussions on the elections were noticeable as figures published by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities show that approximately 130,000 voters living abroad took part in the electoral process, compared with 46,000 voters in 2018. The turnout among registered voters reached 60 percent, distributed across 58 countries. Around one-third of these 130,000 voters opted for “opposition lists” while two-thirds remained loyal to traditional ruling class parties, a damning indictment of the conservative nature of Lebanese expats.
Nevertheless, the increase in expat voter turnout combined with the electoral law’s proportional nature boosted the “opposition lists,” given the historically high rates of voter abstention.** From a class perspective, this new wave of expats consists of a labor bureaucracy and skilled middle-class technicians and professionals. They saw the crisis decimate any access to the privilege they once enjoyed through their social or clientelist networks. This downwardly mobile and declassed layer deployed its access to education and family ties to smooth the path of migration while the majority of the working class remained stranded.
However, the political repercussions of this socioeconomic chiasm reinforce the “chosen” status among those who have “made it out of the country” and are tasked with sending remittances back to their families. Moreover, this phenomenon is accompanied by a vicious savior narrative which claims that “expats had to save their Lebanese counterparts” since they have succeeded in delinking themselves from the nefarious clientelist networks back home. Not only was this new crop of technicians tasked with “saving the Lebanese back home,” but it found in “opposition lists” a political articulation that resembles its socioeconomic ambition to climb once again the social ladder that collapsed under them.
Philosopher Susana Narotzky suggests that what has always been seen as the defining properties of the peasantry has become characteristics shared with many contemporary jobs that dominate metropolitan and provincial economies. They include petty entrepreneurs, artisans, artists, gig workers, platform workers, designers and creative workers, educators and trainers, researchers, multiple professional groups, multitudes, and workers in various small-scale services such as tourism, construction, and transport.
These workers are to some degree autonomous in their daily labor and have a certain command over some means of production and reproduction. However, they are dependent on large-scale capitalist forces of state and market over which they have no control. These characteristics provide a better understanding of the specific class composition of “opposition lists” voters. The rural detachment of the peasantry is now replaced by the expatriation of contemporary technicians.
Similarly, “opposition lists” were made up of the same skilled technicians, petty entrepreneurs, professional groups, and the labor aristocracy that manage NGOs, private educational institutions, and other entrepreneurial endeavors. In essence, they represented the long-lost dream of Lebanese expats to have made it back home had it not been for an abstract form of corruption that impeded their ascendency. These layers of “imagined middle classes” have a specific vicarious identification and class bond with “opposition lists,” which proved crucial in the 2022 parliamentary elections.
Secondly, the port explosion opened up unprecedented foreign funding cash inflows that were previously closed due to geopolitical considerations and financial sanctions from international funding institutions and expat networks. To date, the disbursed international financial aid amounts to some $318 million, most of which appeared in the first four months following the explosion. Local and expat NGOs mushroomed in the absence of financial transparency and accountability.
The same labor aristocracy and technicians who have held the helms of many of the country’s established NGOs were able to deploy their financial networks to expand their services and networks to include logistical relief in the aftermath of the explosion. As funding flowed into the country through established networks already organized around international aid, these organizations were able to cook their books and redirect large parts of that funding onto sister organizations designed to prepare for the upcoming elections.
The October 2019 uprisings aimed to delegitimize the current ruling class. However, its partial success created a political void that propped up an opportunist, bureaucratic, and ambitious ruling class that coalesced around a new political project. It replaced a failing financial scheme of public debt and bankrupt local banks with international aid, a project already agreed upon by all the current ruling parties.
Institutions of global capitalism
The World Bank is worried about the state of the Lebanese economy. According to one of its latest reports, “Lebanon has lost precious time,” and “urgent action is needed now,” declares Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. Nominal GDP plummeted from nearly $52 billion in 2019 to a projected $21.8 billion in 2021, marking a 58.1 percent contraction. It is projected to shrink further by 6.5 percent in 2022.
The same report argues that the “urgent action” can be summarized in the following:
- A new monetary policy framework to regain confidence and stability in the exchange rate — letting the local currency take a nosedive and “free up” the local market to even more imports.
- A debt restructuring program to achieve short-term fiscal space and medium-term debt sustainability — replacing local debt schemes that could be manageable through nationalization by international debt, which is non-manageable and liable to sanctions.
- A comprehensive restructuring of the financial sector to regain the banking sector’s solvency — bailing out the banks, the primary culprits in the unfolding economic catastrophe.
- A phased, equitable fiscal adjustment to regain confidence in fiscal policy; growth-enhancing reforms; and enhanced social protection — deregulating, even more, the remaining financial and monetary obstacles to the complete takeover of World Bank imposed public-private partnerships (similar to the ones mentioned in the report such as IMPACT) to create “an investor-friendly climate” that can attract foreign investment and re-stimulates growth.
As the World Bank report came out and the elections resumed, the value of the Lebanese pound dropped to an all-time low. It was a taste of things to come and a clear indicator of the unspoken and organized truce the monetary market had sworn during the electoral campaign. However, the World Bank is adamant that the country could conduct the urgent actions detailed above under these three contradictory scenarios: “Political gridlock, minimal consensus, and political shift.” It means the World Bank has ideological guarantees from all elements of the reconstituted Parliament that they are willing to do what is needed to pass these reforms. Thus, they could plead for more World Bank and IMF funds to displace the economic catastrophe from a “local” bankrupt lender (local banks) to an international one (the IMF and the World Bank).
In the last three years, the bankruptcy of most major local banks involved in the public debt Ponzi scheme had significant political ramifications apparent in the latest round of bourgeois elections. A major structural shift in the financial and economic sector is bound to be translated politically as the ruling class reconfigures itself to adapt to a changing economic landscape. These major structural shifts are usually more common in more advanced economic countries where technological advancement in the means of production is the rule rather than the exception. The case of Lebanon, in particular, is intriguing. Unlike its Arab neighbors, the Lebanese economy has always revolved around the banking sector where dependence on financial capital has punctuated the socio-political landscape since its inception and rendered it a country in permanent crisis.
Before the elections, the IMF reached a staff-level agreement on economic policies for a four-year extended fund facility of around $3 billion. It allowed the ruling class to reconstitute itself by shedding the section that was most invested in reproducing the local public debt through a now bankrupt banking system (mainly the Hariri bloc), replacing it with two sections: technocrats and fascists. The former would be capable of managing international aid and funds (a labor bureaucracy and technicians bred by NGOs and the private sector). The latter would militarily secure the application of austerity measures by deploying violence at will (a reinvigorated Lebanese Forces, now leading a right-wing populist consortium).
This new coalition enables the reconstitution of the March 14 wing of the ruling class as the March 8 wing falters. Technocrats, born out of a counter-revolutionary movement that preceded the Lebanese uprising, could now skillfully co-opt and articulate the aesthetics of the uprising. They branded themselves as “opposition lists,” “independents,” and “non-sectarian” while performatively marching toward the Parliament. Thus, “opposition lists” consisted of a neoliberal leadership perpetually set out to cannibalize and convert the uprising aesthetics into reformist compromise. They used some of the traditional language and keywords of the uprising to communicate an essentially neoliberal ideology.
As ideology abhors a vacuum, their political strategy of aesthetics over form and content allows international funding institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank to fill the ideological gaps. This form of ideological filling explains how, for example, a newly elected “opposition” member of the Parliament has recently called on the US to sanction officials and lawmakers over the 2020 Beirut port blast and the country’s financial crisis.
Fascism is the revenge
In his study on the rise of fascism in Italy, Leon Trotsky points out the following: “Fascism is the revenge, the vengeance exacted by the bourgeoisie for the dread it had experienced during the 1920 September days, and at the same time, it is a tragic lesson to the Italian proletariat, a lesson on the meaning of a political party that is centralized, unified and knows what it wants; that is cautious in choosing conditions and resolutely ruthless in applying the necessary means when the hour for it strikes.”
Nevertheless, the Lebanese Forces have chosen praxis over aesthetics. Their military endeavor against a Hezbollah-Amal protest had two clear goals. On the one hand, they delivered a sectarian message of realignment to the Lebanese Christian community that they are now its sole protectors, guardians, and representatives. On the other hand, they gestured towards the international community and international funding institutions that they are willing to do what it takes to quash protests, stand against Hezbollah, and commodify their standing armies in the service of the Gulf kingdoms and the IMF.
In his brief but helpful piece, Jamie Allinson argues that warfare, mainly deployed by and concentrated in the social relation that is the state (and its ruling class components), is a form of economy, and “the economy” is, in fact, a form of war. Allinson details how the accepted notion of “war economy” is skewed to make exceptional prolonged periods of “war.” Illustrating the situation in Syria, he argues that war cannot be detached from the economy even if it (or its prolongation) loses its original “use-value” for most rebels (toppling the regime). The more it is prolonged, the more it acquires an imposing and colonizing “exchange-value” (profiting from war for the sake of profit).
The Lebanese Forces are the revenge for the October 2019 uprising, and they have learned how to commodify this position. They are the counter-revolutionary vengeance exacted by the bourgeoisie for the dread it had experienced during the uprising.
Samir Geagea, a long-term veteran of the Civil War, has impeccably applied the “war economy” concept detailed by Allinson. His long history of genocides and assassinations during the 20-year conflict taught him that one’s militia does not have to be the biggest, strongest, or even the best equipped to prevail in a “war economy.” Instead, it must be able to precisely articulate what the highest bidder is looking for. Thus, standing armies deployed during strategic events are profitable and can be relied on to finance electoral campaigns.
The fire next term
In their powerful book, “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail”, authors Piven and Cloward allude to the Marxist concept of abstraction, specifically the abstraction of the state through parliamentary election. Although “power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of the means of production, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence… [through] electoral-representative institutions [that] proclaim the franchise, not force and wealth, as the basis for the accumulation of power.” If “opposition” parties have succeeded in anything, it would be further obfuscating and obscuring the existence of a unified ruling class.
The changing landscape and the reconfiguration of the Lebanese ruling class due to major financial and economic structural shifts means that this new legislative term will only be marred by a deepening of the crisis. A reconstituted March 14 and a faltering March 8 will conjure up two complementary and disastrous solutions: bail out an existing and crumbling structure (i.e., local banks and other predatory import cartels) or call for privatization and selling state assets in the name of “fighting corruption.”
Which route will “opposition parliamentarians” choose? Will they promote further privatization as a way out of the crisis, as many did in their campaigns, or will they look for a compromise between a faltering infrastructure and an austerity-driven private sector such as the public-private partnerships advocated by the World Bank? Will they react to a rejuvenated war on refugees instrumentalized by the losing wing of the March 8 ruling class attempting to rally a declassed conservative petty-bourgeois reaction hungry for revenge? Their sheer dismissal and aloofness towards the apartheid curfew imposed on Palestinians and Syrians during the elections suggest otherwise.
Where will they stand when the army deploys a never-ending war on drugs and the working classes of the Bekaa region? Will they call them criminals and thugs and “unworthy of an uprising” like they called the Hamra protesters who smashed banks and ATMs? Will they pander to international fossil fuel companies looking to expand their oil foraging to Lebanon and other untapped areas after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or will they stick to their environmental programs when the World Bank assesses that the only way out of the crisis is to become an oil producing country?
What will they do when protests break out against the totality of the ruling class or when they are found out as class traitors and opportunists? When this time comes, even the concrete wall around Parliament that they helped remove will not shield them from our anger.
* لديمقراطية الليبرالية: التصويت مقدس، اما التمثيل فنبحث به لاحقاً!.
لفتني قول احدهم من حملة لا للتمديد قوله، بما معناه ان “على المجلس اولاً ان يكون شرعياً، ومن ثم نناقش بتفاصيل شرعية قانون الانتخابات”.
وكأن جوهر العمل الديمقراطي هو “فعل التصويت”، بينما القوانين التي تنظّمها وابعادها السياسية والاجتماعية والاقتصادية، والطريقة التي فيها تقسّم وتفرز المجتمع طائفياً ومناطقياً، هي كلها مسائل ثانوية، او تفاصيل يمكن وضعها جانباً، من اجل الحفاظ على قدسية “فعل التصويت”!
هذا النهج يمثّل في طرحه، اقصى حدود الليبرالية، في فعل حصر العمل الديقمراطي في حيّز الممارسة الفردية البحتة، او المجرّدة، منتشلة من واقعها، ومعلبة داخل “باكينجينج” يسهل استهلاكه، ولكنه في نفس الوقت، ينقل الفعل الديمقراطي من كونه فعلاً اجتماعيا وجماهيرياً، الى كونه ممارسة شخصية “ديمقراطية” ولكنها بنفس الوقت لا سياسية، ولا اجتماعية، هي فقط “ممارسة”، من دون ان يكون هناك ضرورة البحث في العقل او الفكر الذي يحدد هذه الممارسة.
وهذا المنطق برأيي يمثل اقصى مستويات الاستلاب الليبرالي، اي انه يرى الديمقراطية في كونها ممارسة بنية تقنية موجودة بشكل مستقل في المجتمع، وليس كونها جزء من بنية المجتمع المأزومة نفسها، فالتمديد هو “تعبير” عن ازمة الطبقة الحكمة وجهاز الدولة وليس هو الازمة! وتجنب مسألة طرح مسألة الدولة وطبيعتها هي نفسها، وخاصة في اوقاتنا هذه، هو هروب من معركة بناء وعي متقدّم عن النظام القائم الواجب تغييره، الى تمكين “هوس” او فيتشيزم بالآلية الديمقراطية، والتي في ظل القانون الانتخابي الطائفي القائم، وتوازنات القوى القائمة، لن تكون سوى آلية “لصناعة الاذعان” (Manufacturing of consent).
وهنا بدل التصويب على ازمة الدولة، وازمة نظامها الطائفي والطبقي والسياسي، التي يعبر عنها التمديد، يتم الهروب الى ازقة النقاش التقني بهدف انقاذ جهاز الحكم المأزوم هذا، والذي باقل التقديرات هو مساعدة للطبقة الحاكمة للخروج من مآزقها. إذا كان هناك هدف للتصويب، فهذا الهدف يجب ان يكون من اجل الحق في التمثيل الصحيح (من خارج الطائفية، والمافيوية، وغيرها)، ومن ضمنه الحق بالتصويت، وليس العكس!
** “Expatriate votes played a key role in ensuring the success of opposition lists in the recent elections. The figures published by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities show the decisive role expatriates played in districts that witnessed fierce battles against parties in power, such as Mount Lebanon IV (Chouf – Aley), North III (Koura – Batroun – Zgharta – Bcharre) and Beirut I and II. Approximately 130,000 voters living abroad took part in the electoral process, compared to 46,000 voters in the 2018 elections. The voter turnout among those registered reached 60 percent, distributed across 58 countries. These numbers reveal that a significant percentage of the opposition’s voters are abroad, which indicates that the Lebanese diaspora is getting politically organized. With the recent mass immigration, restructuring the opposition has become a transnational project and requires policies based on the intersection of Lebanese inside and in the diaspora.” Megaphone News, 24 May 2022.