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Between The Bearable and The Unbearable: The Lebanese Revolution to Come

What is happening in Lebanon is truly special. It is special in terms of local and regional politics and it is special as a more specific instance of the struggle against the rule of neo-liberal capitalism in the world.

Protesters stand along the side of the Beirut-Jounieh highway on Wednesday, the seventh day of protests against tax increases and government corruption. Courtesy of AFP

Lebanon’s capitalism has always been extreme and reactionary. When people talked about laissez-faire capitalism, Lebanon’s capitalism was described as laissez-tout-faire so bereft it was of any governmental control on capital accumulation. This is still the case, and in the neo-liberal age, Lebanese capitalism remains extreme and reactionary in its complete obliviousness to anything that can be called a ‘public good’. 

It is also completely oblivious to the social and environmental consequences of the pathology of obsessive wealth accumulation by the Lebanese ruling class. The whole political system of sectarian patronage is articulated to this pathological economy. If anything trickled down in this system it is that pathological obsession with accumulation. The Lebanese believe (or don’t) in it the way they believe (or don’t) in the Saints and their miracles. Not every prayer to a Saint has to produce a miracle for there to be a belief in the Saint’s capacity to produce miracles. Indeed, not even a majority of prayers to the Saint have to produce miracles for the belief in the Saint to be pervasive. In fact, let us face it, not even a minority. It is enough to believe that a Saint produced a miracle once or twice for people to end up believing in him or her for a long time to come. 

In much the same way, not everyone who is going to have a relation of patronage with a Lebanese political leader is going to accumulate wealth beyond belief. Not even the great majority of the leader’s followers, or, yet again, a minority. It’s enough to have the example of a couple of people who have made it thanks to this political leader for people to believe in him. It is this kind of ‘belief’ and adherence that has been broken in the current uprising.

While neo-liberalism openly calls for less government, it has been clear for a long time now that it nonetheless does have a governmental logic, and even a governmental culture. This governmental logic and culture has been circulating within all the global, national and institutional spaces touched by neo-liberalism. In a nutshell, it involves an experiment in pushing marginalized people to the limits of what constitutes a viable life. This, to be clear, does not just mean pushing people towards poverty: many poor people can still live a viable life. Neo-liberalism combines a politics of impoverishment, with an attack on people’s self-worth, their sense of well-being, their sense of sovereignty over themselves and their sense of dignity.

Neo-liberal technology of (lack off)/government is inspired by the techniques of governing prisons. It involves well-oiled and financed policing capabilities while what is devoted to a politics of care for the growth and well-being of people is kept to an absolute minimum. It is well-established that neo-liberalism involves an inflation of the repressive, policing part of the state (what Pierre Bourdieu called the right arm of the state) at the expense of the welfare-oriented/left hand of the state. 

But the government of prisons involves more than this: it is the art of keeping people at the absolute limit of viability. This is what brings out the issue of the bearable and the unbearable. For to reach the limit of viability is to live within the confines of a bearable life. A prison aims to keep the life of prisoners bearable: that is, viable-but-only- just so as to not push the majority of people into mass revolt or mass suicide. One can see this logic played out best in the government of open prisons such as the detention camps where asylum seekers are kept and perhaps most iconically in Gaza where the technique of producing a bearable life is at its most ‘scientific’. It gets to the point whereby the Zionist government (in complicity with the Egyptian military dictatorship) allows into Gaza the absolute minimum amount of nutrition possible. This is based on a calculation of how much nutrition is needed per person for the Gaza population to just survive. At the same time, this nutritional politics is accompanied with a systematic politics of policing and repression as well as a politics aimed at demeaning and degrading people. It is a similar politics that we find in the centers for the detention of asylum seekers in Australia, the United States and Europe.

While we might think of Gaza, prisons and detention centres as exceptional and unusual, in fact neo-liberalism, everywhere around the world, has involved pushing people to this space at the limit of human viability where it experiments with the borderline between the bearable and the unbearable life: how far can we impoverish, how far can we ignore the wishes and aspirations of the people we are governing and not take them into consideration, how far can we walk all over them, demean them and make them feel alienated from power and from each other.

It can be said that it is this slow incarceration within the confines of a just viable, bearable life that is continuously hovering over the limits of the unbearable that the sectarian form of Lebanese neo-liberal politics and economics has subjected the Lebanese people to for some time now. The culture of contempt towards the governed that this type of governmentality produces was amplified in Lebanon by a political class imbued with a neo-feudal sense of entitlement, where even the corrupt stealing of, and profiteering from, public investments is considered an entitlement.

Add to this, the particular personality of certain members of the government which exude a repellant form of arrogance and lack of any sense of understanding or empathy towards the governed. Add to this a week dominated by mismanaged fires that destroyed substantial parts of Lebanon’s shrinking forests. All of the above, formed the background against which people ended up experiencing a government proposal for a tax on WhatsApp calls as the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Many people think that calling the millions of people descending on the streets ‘the WhatsApp revolution’ is demeaning of the significance of the uprising. I disagree. The sphere of personal communication has been for a long time one of the last spaces where people experience a certain sense of viability and self-worth in the face of the politics of the un/bearable. One only needs to note the serious joy on the faces of relatively poor people connecting and chatting ‘freely’ on their mobile phones to see the extra importance the availability of this relatively cheap mode of communication has acquired in their lives.

The sense of release, pride in oneself and others, and just pure happiness that one finds among the Lebanese who are demonstrating and that is entangled with the feeling of anger and frustration cannot be explained by a narrative that only concentrates on the struggle against ‘economic deprivation’. The Lebanese struggle shares its preoccupation with questions such as ‘life’ and ‘dignity’ with many other global struggles against neo-liberalism, from the Spanish Indignados to the Gilets Jaunes. This is so precisely because neoliberalism is always experienced not just as a subjection to poverty but also as a crushing of the totality of one’s economic and symbolic worth. A politics of viability is not easily identified as a politics of the left. Indeed, it can already be noted that the Lebanese uprising shares with the Gilets Jaunes a combination of many contradictory political tendencies all opposed to ‘politicians’, desiring more participation, more respect, etc.

However, the Lebanese uprising also constitutes something unique and specific vis a vis both Lebanon’s political history, and vis a vis the history of the global struggle against neo-liberalism. Regarding its Lebanese specificity, the current uprising has a strong proletarian and non-sectarian component, which was missing in previous popular uprisings in Lebanon. A grassroots spontaneous politics that does not define itself as Christian, Sunni or Shi’a, etc. and that frees itself from the dominant forms of sectarian affiliations is unique in the history of Lebanon. It is revolutionary in itself, that is, it is revolutionary for simply coming into existence. It is particularly so in the way it has taken the form of a politics of irreverence towards ‘sacred’ political figures, the previous ‘Saints’ referred to earlier. It remains analytically to be seen, but along with the forefronting of questions of justice and corruption, perhaps this tendency has been helped by the particularly prominent role that women have played in the uprisings.

The uprising’s global specificity also resides in this freeing of oneself from sectarian identification. Not to collapse the movement into a variant of western politics but simply to explain it better for a non-Lebanese readership: this freeing of sectarian identification would be the equivalent of Trump supporters waking up to themselves and deciding that Trump is part of the neo-liberal system that is crushing them rather than the road to salvation. Except that in the Lebanese situations the belief in Trump like figures’ saving and redeeming qualities has a long institutional history and is even more difficult to break with.

It is of course not clear what the future of the uprising will be. It is yet to face many tests. Not least the tyranny of geopolitical reason that has cursed every social movement in the Arab world whereby every politics has to be measured not only in terms of a local reality shaped by internal politics but also a geopolitical reality shaped by global and regional political manoeuvres. Geopolitics is a kind of ‘reality principle’ whose face in Lebanon is principally Hizbollah, the political party born out of the heroic resistance to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and that has slowly moved from being dependent on Iranian support to play its Lebanese politics to becoming a representative of Iranian geopolitical interests in the area. 

The Party’s recent history as far as its involvement in the Syrian uprising and its inability to even /mildly tamper the primacy of geopolitical reasoning is not promising, to say the least. We are yet to see in the Arab world a political authority that manages to be anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist in geopolitical terms, and that is also open, at the same time, to political movements with local democratic political aspirations.

Still, it is of course to be hoped that the Lebanese uprising will lead to the formation of an alternative political leadership that can help formulate and crystallise the million demands made by the demonstrators, while also managing to preserve their revolutionary spirit. But, regardless of the outcome, these Lebanese men and women who are occupying the streets of cities, towns and villages across Lebanon today are political heroes. As already noted, their politics is in itself a form of heroism. In engaging in this politics they leave a valuable inheritance that will be the basis, if not today, certainly in the future, for the emergence of an alternative kind of politics. For the production and passing on of such an inheritance future generations will be, as we are today, very grateful.

Ghassan J. Hage is a Lebanese-Australian academic serving as Future Generation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

By Ghassan J. Hage

Ghassan J. Hage is a Lebanese-Australian academic serving as Future Generation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne, Australia.