[A pro-Syrian regime protester flashes V-victory sign during a protest against the Arab League sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday Nov. 28, 2011. Syria’s economy minister called newly approved Arab League sanctions “a dangerous precedent” that will harm ordinary people more than the regime. AP Photo by Bassem Tellawi.]
The enormity of the unfolding tragedy in Syria will dwarf the content of the analysis below. I have been waiting for the right time to complete this series, but matters kept getting worse, and we are now looking into the abyss. But this is not an article about what is happening in Syria today; rather, it is about some of the discursive battles among parts of the political “Left” on the question of the Syrian uprising and its implications. I would like to submit my apologies in advance regarding what may seem like cold calculations to some readers. My position regarding the brutality of the Syrian regime, both historically and today, as well as the sentiment behind the uprisings and, later, some of its deeply problematic turns, has been made clear in previous writings (here and elsewhere), especially regarding my opposition to foreign military intervention. I will not dwell on these matters below. Also, there will be no mention of names (which, admittedly, comes at the expense of this piece’s credibility, but not its tenor).
In the first two parts of this series, I focused on the questions of principles and resistance in combating imperialism. This third part focuses on the political economy of pain regarding two concrete questions: Hizballah and “development.” In short, where do, or should, those on the political-economic left stand in relation to both Hizballah’s stance on the Syrian uprising as well as the question of political-economic development in Syria?
One way to discuss these questions is through the prism of leftist concerns, including social justice, imperialism, and social empowerment. However, the debates and daily discussions—whether in our living rooms and communities or the hard, electronic, and audio-visual press—suggest that divisions run deep among those who consider themselves on the left. These divisions are solid, and convictions often slip from leftist to nationalist or even communal. At other times, the question is more about whose pain is in view, often to the exclusion of the pain of others across time and space.
Ultimately, amidst the constellation of the fog of war, ideology, and complex regional and international relations, a comprehensive assessment of pain incurred across both time and space is lacking. A broader historical assessment of pain incurred is often washed off by the enormity of the blood being spilled here and now. But history has its own way of judging, and it is mostly concerned with the long-winded tallies. It is on this basis that this article is written.
Before commencing, a short comment on the word “pain” as it is used in this article. “Pain” is not an essential part of the leftist lexicon, but the manner in which the debate often proceeds has referenced pain as a common language/currency. For example, the structural pain of exploited workers or occupied peoples over time; the pain of mourning families; the pain resulting from death and destruction; etc. It matters little whether or not these terms are acceptable. For they have become salient, and the dominant currency of many debates.
[Image from unknown archive.]
Not All Leftist Values are Equal
After at least thirteen-thousand deaths (some say many more) in Syria, this discussion may seem academic or akin to pontification, but it is not. More than an occasion to understand the contradictions among leftists (self-styled and putative), or the prioritization of values/principles among them, this discussion has real implications for consequential alliances, political positions, networking, and agenda setting—both now and in the future. Furthermore, the implications are not confined to the Syrian situation. They also apply to the evolving meaning of terms like “left,” “liberal,” “nationalist,” and “imperialist” in reference to new movements, unlikely alliances, and changing modes of opposition and resistance—locally, regionally, and globally.
Today, many claim to be a leftist of sort. They claim to be for social justice, against imperial domination (or the hegemony of global political and economic structures), and so on. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that being “left” has also become fashionable for the (a) socially-minded “bourgeoisie” or upper classes (who appeal to amorphous conceptions of social justice based on essentially liberal grounds) as well as the (b) ultra nationalists (who speak and prioritize the language of anti-imperialism from an uncritical nationalist, as opposed to a political-economic or class perspective in relation to capital and various forms of exploitation).
[Chemnitz Karl Marx Monument. Image by Gravitat-Off.]
When “left” is viewed as everything, it actually ends up amounting to very little. This “everything is left and everyone is leftist” approach in part characterizes what has been happening to the left in a post-industrialized world, and what in part explains the decline of the left in the past several decades. In other words, who are we, what do we believe in, and what defines our struggle (i.e., the contours of membership, principles, and action) are questions to which answers have become so radically different among supposed adherents to leftist principles. But, to make a very long story (dissertation long) extremely short, “left” is not everything, and distinctions can be made among the values of the “left” to avoid flattening this category. On the one hand, the prioritization of “leftist” principles, struggles, and action is important. On the other hand, this prioritization cannot happen in a discursive or contextual vacuum. It must be based in practice in order to avoid naive, hypocritical, and/or oppressive dogmatism. For example, the triumph of the working classes (don’t hold your breath) does not give a carte blanche to the ostensible leadership of this new classless collective, nor is it the end of “politics” or “privilege.” More practically, prioritizing the bigger culprit is the sound approach, but not in all cases and not without attention to detail.
I am not in a position—nor do I have the space—to unpack all facets of these claims at this point. As it is, this article is way too long. I will nevertheless unpack them in a longer study in the future. In addressing “prioritization,” however, I would like to emphasize the issues of modes of exploitation in reference to three sets of tension: (1) rights (individual versus collective); (2) locale (local, regional, and global); and (3) spheres (political, social, economic, and cultural). Though all these levels of analysis are important, and certainly most are important to most human beings, the order of importance differs. And that, to an extent, differentiates one’s politics sufficiently to merit, receive, or adopt the label of “leftist” or otherwise.
To illustrate the point—even if somewhat crudely within the limited space offered here—many of those on the left prioritize economics over politics as the principal source of exploitation. However, they differ regarding the extent to which politics and strategy is relevant to the very question of economic exploitation; i.e. regarding the utility of politics/strategy in reducing exploitation. Second, most leftists (and one has to be careful here) prioritize collective rights over individual rights as a first principle. Nevertheless, they differ on the extent to which the “collective” is defined and delimited: is it all of humanity, a country, group, or region? Third, most leftists prioritize systemic and usually global levels of analysis over local ones, as the principal starting point of analysis, and thus diagnosis as well as potential action. This is because local dynamics are usually viewed as dependent on global structures. Though many leftists do differ on the question of exactly when and how the local merits independent/immediate treatment. Finally, at least for now, most leftists do not separate local forms of exploitation from global ones, and tend to prioritize their political positions based on the need to oppose the bigger and more systematic culprit. However, they differ on the question of thresholds of pain, where local exploitation/oppression might temporarily trump the global one. This was messily illustrated in the two cases of the US war on Iraq in 2003 (where nearly all leftists opposed it) and the Libya/Ben Ghazi moment (when there was something of a debate as to where to stand vis-à-vis external intervention).
The Syrian Case: The Left on Hizballah and Development
Thanks to the Syrian uprising, one is now forced to descend from the clouds of liberal pontification to the ground of real and concrete case-study treatment. More than a year into the uprising, where do those on the left stand? Where should they stand, and why? In part, I have stated unequivocally my position several times both here on Jadaliyya and elsewhere, which is illustrated primarily in my dual opposition to the Syrian regime and to international intervention (see “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship While Opposing Foreign Intervention in Syria” here). Logically as well as politically, and despite the horrendous pain incurred inside Syria, this position entails the prioritization of opposition to international intervention. However, this position does not absolve the Syrian regime from condemnation based on the same anti-imperialist principles. This position was articulated in the first part of this series in a maximalist form regarding the brutality of the Syrian regime, both now and during the past decades. Furthermore, the Syrian regime’s enabling role in relation to resistance-to-imperialism cannot be considered the sole source of such resistance, especially under the current circumstances. This position, and its justification, was articulated in the second part of this series. In this third and final part, I will address the more concrete questions of the Left’s position on Hizballah and political-economic development in relation to the Syrian case.
Hizballah, Imperialism, and the Political Economy of Pain
The question revolves around how to interpret or judge Hizballah’s supportive stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime from the Left (even if this support has somewhat subsided recently). Should those on the left who prioritize resistance to imperialism and Israel’s policies abandon their support for Hizballah’s resistance function because of its stance towards the Syrian regime? It should be clear that we are always talking about Hizballah’s resistance function here, not its social or economic stances inside Lebanon, as the latter are patently non-revolutionary to say the least.
For many, the answer is a no-brainer, especially among those who saw in Hizballah’s position a deep betrayal of its own values regarding oppression and exploitation, and also among previous supporters of Hizballah’s resistance function who grew literally disgusted with its current stance—whether or not parts of the opposition have gone astray.
[Hizballah supporters gather to listen to Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, during a ceremony, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, 11 May 2012, to mark the end of reconstruction of buildings destroyed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. He said his militant group has weapons that can accurately hit targets throughout Israel. AP Photo by Bilal Hussein.]
Having spent some time in Beirut (a world unto itself) and other parts of the Arab world during the past year, the cacophony of views coming from the very same leftist circles is astounding. Some supporters of Hizballah on the left have now abandoned them or disengaged, while others have not budged, or intensified their support almost unconditionally. There are other variations to be sure.
Those who prioritized the here and now—especially in relation to Syria—have disengaged Hizballah. For them, Hizballah has fallen from grace forever. And those who prioritized the longer view in relation to the entire region and its external relations, despite the pain incurred in Syria, have intensified their stance. For them, Hizballah’s resistance function can never be diminished.
These are essentially a priori positions and not principled ones. One can imagine a scenario where abandoning support for Hizballah is not necessarily a betrayal of anti-imperialism. Similarly, one can more easily imagine a scenario in which the support of Hizballah’s resistance function is not necessarily an abandonment of the plight of Syrians.
The problem is partly empirical and contingent on behavior. It is a “do you privilege God or good?” sort of issue. Clearly, a non-dogmatic approach should privilege the good, not God. But the difficulty arises in the real world when privileging the good does not shield you physically against real enemies who care about neither. (If this seems confusing, probably due to my articulation, and/or space constraint, ignore it for now and revisit).
Not only is there no simple answer, but there really is no simple way to approach the issue. All the parts involved are contested when it comes to the Hizballah-Syria question. Worse, the pain that is in sight for some on the left is not the same as the pain that others on the left observe (whether it is political, social, economic, or physical—as in the number of dead, injured, imprisoned, or tortured). And even where it is similar, questions of measurement come into play: if we agree to observe the pain on all sides, how do we measure which pain should define our stance now?
Metrics for Judgment: Problematizing the Salient Simplicity
In dealing with the Syria question during the past fifteen months—whether it is through discussions, debates, submission, or analysis related to Jadaliyya, whether it is the dozens of conferences I have attended on Syria in the United States, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, or—most importantly—whether it is the thick network of personal and familial relations throughout, it is unmistakable how intensely everyone feels about (and analyzes) both the nature and extent of the pain they focus on. I am here referring to differentials among people and institutions that have always opposed US policy in the region and its allies (from Arab dictatorships generally, and the GCC states in particular, to the apartheid state of Israel).
Above and beyond the vitriol of neoconservative voices in the United States, as well as that of the fumigating nationalists in the region (often hiding behind leftist language), it is more than evident that the Syrian uprising has become akin to a leftist identity crisis of sorts, requiring anyone interested in making sense of the left to pause for a quick assessment of metrics for judgment—lest one thinks that their left is all there is. Admittedly, the word leftist is used loosely here, as it refers to self-identified leftists. The assessment below is surely my own, and discussion is welcome.
In consideration of metrics, we should look at what exactly we are trying to measure. The list and questions below are naturally loaded, but not necessarily exhaustive. First, the question of horizons in time and space varies when it comes to surveying the political economy of pain, and the question of Hizballah in general.
What are the boundaries of the battle zone in reference to pain when it comes to imperialism and oppression?Is it local (i.e., Syria)? Is it regional (i.e., Saudi and Qatari reactionary politics)? Does it relate to Israel’s expansionism? What about US hegemony or—as of late—domination? Is it global and political-economic? Were the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and NATO “intervention” in Libya in 2011 local, regional, or global affairs?
And what is the time frame and nature of pain? How many have been killed in Syria since March 2011 (mostly by the regime)? How many did the Syrian regime kill in Hama in 1982? How many have the “revolutionaries” killed? How many did the United States kill in neighboring Iraq in 1991 and between 2003 and 2011? What is the real extent of structural devastation unleashed by the United States on Iraq during the years of sanctions after 1991 and in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003? How many Arabs has Israel killed and dispossessed since 1948? What is the structural and human cost of US support for more than a dozen Arab (and Iranian, before 1979) dictatorships for at least the past six decades? What is the structural and human cost of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies during the last six decades? Current killing, deplorable as it is, does not take place in a vacuum. Additionally, though killing on all sides is to be condemned, there is a reason why some ways to stop the killing (e.g., external military intervention) might not be cost-effective and might, as we have seen in Libya, increase the killing by ten or twenty-fold.
The opposite of calculation is gut reaction. Viscerally speaking, why should the mother of a dead Syrian son killed by Syrian regime forces give a damn about any political economy of pain? The same goes for an Iraqi, Lebanese, or Palestinian mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, or comrade in relation to all the above. They probably should not or cannot care, but observers and practitioners in the real world do not have the same luxury of focusing exclusively on the pain of some. To illustrate the point crudely, how are we supposed to react to the pain of the mother of a Nazi officer who was killed in an aggressively brutal battle to take over Europe and annihilate an entire people? To what extent do we give precedence to individual pain? And what is the alternative?
Thus, there is no avoiding of the big picture, of structure, of the cumulative and often invisible effects of decades of a particular phenomenon/trajectory, lest we are either naive or racist/exclusionary.
How else would you explain to someone who asks, “why are you opposed to the US or NATO efforts to create a humanitarian corridor in Syria?” Where do you start, with a discussion of intentions, with history, or with precedents?
Metrics for Dummies: One has to look for the bigger monster when considering the political economy of pain—the one that wreaks the most havoc on collectivities in time and space. Step two is never to absolve the little monsters. It is all ugly, but it is not all equally devastating.
Hizballah and Syria
Even if we assume complete knowledge and access, there are differing calculations and answers to the proceeding, which determine one’s stance. In this case, let us consider the stance towards Hizballah’s position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime. It is perhaps fair to dismiss those who do not consider at all the pain of others, but it is not easy to dismiss those who do, even if they come up with different answers. Therefore, we must prioritize, make distinctions, and at times we must be able to go beyond “what is Left” by understanding the relationship and potential trade-offs between our humanity and our politics.
To make a long story short, it depends on what pain or struggle one privileges, and how they are measured within leftist circles.
Leftist supporters of Hizballah point to the big picture, in time and space, and Hizballah’s role in it—namely, its anti-imperialist resistance—but usually not much else. Hizballah’s resistance function vis-à-vis Israel has arguably been the only one in six decades that posed a formidable defense so far, one that shook the putatively “invincible” aura of the Israeli military machine. This, of course, is by the admission of Israeli generals, among other detractors. One could argue that the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah effectively stemmed the tide of Israeli expansion, at least for some time. The fact that all has been quiet on the Israel-Lebanon front since 2006 is not a function of Hizballah’s irrelevance, as some would like to opine. Rather, it is principally a function Hizballah’s deterrence. Without inflating the role of Hizballah, it is noteworthy that this force is invariably considered when pundits and policy-wonks write about, or call for, a strike on Iran or Syria—and surely on Lebanon. Detractors of Hizballah in the region, and especially in Lebanon, discount such considerations when discussing, for instance, the infamous “Hizballah arms” question and consistently ridicule their resistance function of late, citing the events of May 2008 and their current stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime. Whatever the merits of this critique (especially the group’s stance on Syria), it is not mutually exclusive to the question of deterrence and actual resistance function. In a perfect world, political position should not undermine analysis.
Many disagree with the deterrence thesis, but this is where the question of metrics comes in: horizon and scope, time and space, and local versus regional and international battles. There really is no clear-cut answer in the general sense. But from an anti-imperialist leftist perspective, it is very difficult to disregard the role of Hizballah in both the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the question of US hegemony and its conservative alliances in the region. Surely, Hizballah’s allies are no prize in terms of political-economic (or, in the case of Iran, socially progressive) agendas. But the powers amassed on the other side, including the United States, Israel, and conservative Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and their minions, have arguably been much more damaging over the past six decades. The leadership in Syria and Iran can change, but the global political-economic system that is supported by the other camp is here to stay. This should not be lost on those on the left, and it should not be considered as simply another detail.
[Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a TV screen from a secret location, during a ceremony, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 11, 2012, to mark the end of reconstruction of buildings destroyed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. AP Photo by Bilal Hussein.]
Most importantly, this formulation and prioritization of culprits should not let the brutality and neoliberalism of the Syrian regime (now and during the past two decades at least) off the hook. And neither should Hizballah be considered infallible or sacred, for the sake of real resistance, both now and in the future. Does Hizballah’s support for the Syrian regime trump all the above? That is the question for leftist supporters of Hizballah who were let down by Hizballah’s Syria stance.
For the left, beyond emotional and/or knee-jerk reactions, it is prudent to start with rejecting the thesis that the Syrian regime and Hizballah are the same thing, (i.e., that they are equally responsible for whatever atrocities the regime committed). Hizballah’s support of the Syrian regime from the very beginning—when the uprising was clearly local and overwhelmingly indigenous—was deplorable on the basis of the same outright principles that made Hizballah soar in the face of exploitation and aggression. However, this support was clearly politically motivated. This does not absolve Hizballah. However, the complicity factor/thesis is not based on intent or desire on Hizballah’s part, but rather on political expediency/loyalty, and some say necessity: from Hizballah’s perspective (at least that of its leadership), it supported the Syrian regime because it had to, both politically and militarily, and for many reasons, not least of which is the instrumental role the Syrian regime played in Hizballah’s ability to fight and stop (if not defeat) Israel in the latter’s war on Lebanon/Hizballah in Summer 2006.
This question of intent and the internalization of the Syrian regime’s actions by Hizballah’s leadership has become more extant as of late due to the subsiding intensity with which Hizballah has repeated its support for the Syrian regime. Moreover, much chatter has been taking place to the effect that the direction the Syrian regime is taking is becoming doubly harmful for Hizball