This is the fourth of a five-part series by regular Triple Crisis contributor Ali Kadri, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, and author of Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (Anthem Press).
Is “Arab socialism” viable? And if so, is it desirable?
One must critically analyse “Arab socialism” within its historical context. In times of immediate post-independence autonomy (the 1960s to the late 1970s), state dirigisme, high public investment rates, and more egalitarian redistribution characterised all Arab states. A particular set of Arab states followed the path of “Arab socialism”—they nationalised industry and finance and implemented agrarian reform as in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, and Syria—which resulted in significant welfare gains. However, half-hearted Arab socialist egalitarian processes, initiated from the top down, excluded the working class from participating actively in defending their gains, deepened labour-process regimentation, suppressed autonomous labour representation, and exacted differential gains accrued to the state bourgeoisie via wage system exploitation.
On the opposite side of Arab socialism, in the monarchic Arab states—the Gulf, Morocco and Jordan—regime stability was ordained by the extension of U.S.-tailored security arrangements and the not-so-hidden fact that the monarchs practically owned national resources and managed redistribution solely for the purpose of stabilisation in relation to the U.S.’s anti-Soviet positioning. In Arab socialist states, which sided with the USSR, a colonially-weakened national bourgeoisie that was short on financing and cornered into commercial practices, could not deliver in terms of development. Moreover, its tainted reputation as a colonial subsidiary had not provided it with the necessary ideological support to govern. Single-party Arab socialist regimes rose to power and supplanted the rise of bourgeois democratic governments. The Arab socialist state, through populist appeal and the capacity to generate its own finance, acted as a surrogate industrial bourgeoisie in handling capital’s production and appropriation measures. The state rose as the principal owner of the means of production and appropriator/distributor of the social product. The private sector shrank but still absorbed a significant chunk of the labour force in artisanal and petty farming undertakings. State ownership existed side-by-side with a constrained private sector. In hindsight, it was inevitable that private sector expansion would recommence when the state bourgeois class required more economic space to grow and the political climate ripened for ‘free market’ policies and openness—as happened since the early 1980s, or more conclusively, in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union fell.