Human Rights, the Global Economy, and the Arab World, Part 3

Ali Kadri

This is the third 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).

The series is based on an interview he granted to the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics (LSE). The full interview is available here.

In your work you have argued that the Arab state is at the “behest” of foreign powers as regards resources. Please explain.

Development in a developing and class-divided society depends on the ruling class’s vested interest in capacity building. I also propose that, necessarily but not exclusively, the ruling class tendency to expand its wealth by its mode of integration with the global economy outweighs its nationalist or pan-Arab zeal. After the fact, the cant of Arab or pan-Arab nationalism has been the sentimental veneer behind which anti-integrationist policies have been implemented. Neither the country’s own working class nor the peoples of Arab nations have been integrated into a unifying wealth making process. In a word, the Arab ruling classes, as is the case of other ruling classes, place the concerns with which they accumulate first on their agenda. What has occurred in the Arab world under relentless imperialist assault is the gradual disengagement of national industrial capital (de-industrialisation), after which only commerce bereft of industrial production remained and the merchant mode of accumulation became the dominant mode around which society has come to be organised. So the class in charge no longer reproduces itself (creates the economic and social conditions for its expansion) from production in the national economy, but principally from grabbing national assets, divesting and expanding in the greater sphere of the international financial market.

To use the language of political economy, value usurpation policies (such as under the policies of neoliberalism), uneven development, the blocking of the homogenisation of labour (dividing labour), and value grab by imperialist conquest (wars of encroachment) are some of the inherent capitalist processes that have underpinned the resurrection of Arab merchant capital at this historical moment. But out of all these reasons—or symptoms—of defeat, Arab losses in wars entail the dismantling of their industry, which could have been central to their security structure. Simply put, the United States and Israel will not win successive wars against principal Arab states and still allow them to rebuild an industrially-based defence structure. The repercussions of Arab defeats are not limited in scope; they also weaken the security and sovereignty (a sovereignty whose substance is working-class security) of many Middle Eastern and African states. Thus, the case can be generalised, in the sense that the insecure states of Africa and the Arab world fall on the “grab” side of capital accumulation (encroachment wars and dispossession mark their historical processes), and dividedness becomes the defining feature of their historical subjects—that is, the alliance of their comprador classes and international financial classes that shape their histories. In a nutshell, the imperial centres benefit more in terms of value transfers from their state of corrosion as opposed to what they would from their state of development. To underscore this point, as a result of the declining labour shares, the estimated share of Arab working classes which constitute around 5 percent of the global population is about 0.3 percent of global income.

When state collapse meets socialist ideological retreat, capital (the alliance of the Arab comprador and international financial classes, which are united in the way they appropriate through finance and the dollar form) infuses and employs identity-based divides, principally the sectarian divide, to further their interests by de-valorisation of assets (getting national resources at cheaper prices or by grab). The debilitation of states is the medium by which the under-valorisation of national assets takes place. Capital sustains the ideology that uses the immiseration of all in a selective way, designating for instance, Sunnis or Shias as the victims. Fanning the winds of civil wars dislocates people and assets. In the Arab world, poverty criss-crosses the sects and is dependent at times upon levels of regional development. In certain distressed areas, people of all sects would be poorer than those in the well-to-do region and, hence, the underlying grounds for poverty would be regional underdevelopment.

From a classical political economy perspective, of course, poverty has no sect; the poor are poor prior to and irrespective of their sect. There is a primacy of poverty over sect, or identity in general. A specific identity may collide with a specific poverty condition or abjection. One may say the Sunnis, on average, are poorer in this country than the Shia or vice versa. A statistical observation would not explain why there is poverty first and why some of certain identities are afflicted with more of the poverty. Poverty is a symptom of exploitation, uneven development, and the social arrangements particular to the distribution of the wage share within the working class.

These distributional arrangements are the result of the struggle for power between capital and labour. How equal the wage rates between men and women, Shia or Sunni, is a matter related to the power of organised labour vis-à-vis capital. The success of capital can be partly gauged by the lowering of the wage share altogether and the accentuation of working class differences between labour itself on the basis of identity. Purposefully, the language of sectarianism bestows upon oppression a sectarian identity, which flourishes in relation to the power of the ideology that draws the contours of the political process as a sectarian one. The presence of theocratic or semi theocratic states such as Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia contribute by their very state of being to othering, structural and differentiated racism. So, sowing divisions is an orchestrated process that pushes identity above class, causing the working class along with their state to implode.

The petro dollar funds from the Gulf, which are anything but sovereign because none of the Gulf States are sovereign, have aided and abetted the divisions and the fissure lines of the Sunni/Shiite divide that now threatens to devour much of the Fertile Crescent. The leading US-led capital class is the provider of Gulf security and therefore is the real sovereign. Funds devolved to jihadists are within the purview of US-led capital.  Insofar as transfers of value from the Arab world are concerned, destroying states, cheapening resources and leaving working people without the state-political representation needed to renegotiate their integration into the global order, amount to colonialism without the occupation forces on national grounds.

The merchant-capital Arab ruling class is fully fused with international financial capital because its concrete activities are in the finance-dollar sphere. Arab merchant capital had outdone its international financial counterparts in rentier practices or short-termish money grab. Apart from buying abroad and selling at home as the share of imports rises, its principal endeavours at home are in the speculative areas of a FIRE economy (finance, investment and real estate). This class has little to lose from forfeiting its production base in the home economy. Its raison d’etre is to tap into national resources (national assets and foreign exchange earnings) by speculation, devalorisation of national assets, and the sale of imports to the national economy. The ruling Arab merchant class does not contribute in any significant way to the development of national working classes because it simply does not need to engage healthier, more educated labour in production—industry is in decline. These merchant-capital ruling classes are either detached from the process of industry within the national economy or exhibit an ephemeral link to it. I have come to the conclusion that unlike  the classic comprador class, which partakes in industrial branch-plant economies at home, the Arab merchant ruling class, because it is involved in undermining national industry, it is even a more  subordinated partner of (U.S.-led) imperialism.

Nation-states, at the behest of their ruling classes, subjugate the working classes within them and pursue their vital interests, whether by wars or other, nonviolent means. However, placing their own class interests above those of the nation state as the social contract comes undone, the merchant Arab classes in charge of development have disempowered national working classes, in particular, by stripping them of their sovereignty over national resources—depriving the national working class of owning its resources in violation of the first common articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[1] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [2]. The money earned from natural and human resources, which already conceal much under-priced value brokered by the superior power of US-led capital, re-circulate abroad or do not buttress the living conditions of the national working class. That is where the concept of ultra-exploitation of the third world emerges as an anti-thesis of the Eurocentric concept of higher Western wealth legitimated on the basis of higher  technological progress, as if a whole history of destroying peripheral national industrial development and relegating third world nations to mining and oil production did not exists. [3]

Of all the means of dispossessing the working classes of their resources, war is the most powerful tool for disengaging and leaving up for grab Third World assets. Far worse than foreclosures that evict peasants from their property—so that they join the non-owning, waged labour force—wars prevent whole populations from owning their natural resources. It socialises en masse. War is useful for resource grabs, or the processes by which developed formations garner the resources of the Third World under highly inequitable terms—imposed, more often than not, by military superiority. US-led imperialist wars contribute to enhancing the US’s technological edge, expand the credit with which financial capital operates, and redistribute the shares of wealth with austerity measures and repression. In a strategic region targeted for imperialist control, the Arab ruling-class alliance with U.S.-led capital promotes the reproduction of war because, even apart from the oil hegemony factor, war for the sake of war is a principal tributary of global accumulation.

[1] General Assembly res A/RES/2200A (XXI), 993 UNTS 3, 1966 (entered into force 3 January 1976)

[2] General Assembly res A/RES/2200A (XXI), 999 UNTS 171, 1966 (entered into force 23 March 1976)

[3] See the writings of Anouar Abdel-Malek on Historical Surplus Value.

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