Global crisis and Arab awakening

Tina Becker reports on the new discussion format tried out by Hands Off the People of Iran

On May 28, Hands Off the People of Iran organised a roundtable discussion on the recent Middle East upheavals, featuring Mohammad Reza Shalgouni (Rahe Kargar/Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran), Mike Macnair (CPGB), Moshé Machover (Israeli socialist) and Yassamine Mather (Hopi).

We filmed the speakers and edited up their contributions and the ensuing debate. The resulting film, which is just over one hour in length and has been produced by Red Mist Films (www.redmistfilms.org), can now be viewed online at www.hopoi.org.

With comrade Mather in the chair, a number of highly relevant aspects were discussed. “Why are these revolutions happening now? Are they simply expressions of opposition to dictatorships or do they herald a more significant change in the world situation?” she asked. After all, some of the dictators in those countries had been in power for many decades. And while, of course, there had always been internal opposition, this was on a much lower level than the recent upsurges.

As first speaker, Mike Macnair addressed this point by explaining the impact of the world economic crisis that started in 2008-09. It helped to create the revolutionary upsurges in the Arab-speaking world - and continues to fuel and further radicalise them.

While many journalists rather lazily choose to explain the outbreaks simply as a reaction to a fruit-seller setting himself on fire in Tunisia, a few have dug deeper. Comrade Macnair positively referred to a graph produced by Newsnight’s economic editor, Paul Mason, which shows the relationship between increasing food prices and the outbreak of revolution in each country - not just in the Middle East in 2011, but also in revolutionary Europe in 1848.

“People tend to put up with tyranny, as long as their lives are not made completely intolerable and violently unequal,” said comrade Macnair. The latest crisis of capitalism, however, has led to a coinciding of those two situations: there is widespread unemployment and rapidly rising food prices. At the same time, the imposition of neoliberal measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund has dramatically increased inequality by “allowing the elites to integrate themselves into the international capitalist elite”. This has created a situation where, “as Mao put it - a single spark can light a prairie fire”. In that sense, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi could really have “lit those revolutions”.

Underlying all of this though is the “capitalist business cycle” that produces extreme, massive and regular crises. However, this had been obscured by an “artificial regime of stability” which was created in response to the existence of the Soviet Union in the cold war period. Bourgeois economists call this “financial repression”, which is characterised by high level of controls over the movement of capital, elaborate regulations regarding the size and shape of banks and the situation where only states are allowed to hold gold. In this period, the business cycle had led to “moderate levels” of crisis. But now we are returning to the old style of the cycle, which sees more severe and deeper crises.

Immediately after financial crashes, following their massive losses, capitalists tend to withdraw their money from “newly industrialised countries” and invest their capital in those seen as “safe havens” - thereby externalising losses. This creates more severe crises in the so-called periphery, which leads to massive financial problems and, in turn, the imposition of IMF measures. This explains why we can see attenuated crises in the centre and, crucially, exacerbated crises in the periphery. There, the living conditions become increasingly intolerable for the mass of people.

Also, some countries directly intervene: the US has printed vast amounts of new money, which have further fuelled speculation in food and the rise of prices. “So, yes, Goldman Sachs has helped to create the food crisis,” comrade Macnair said, referring to an article of that title by Frederick Kaufman in the US journal Foreign Policy.

This is the main point to grasp, comrade Macnair said: “The crisis did not come about because the Greek government borrowed too much or because the Irish were irresponsible in terms of property speculation. This crisis is not the fault of the periphery. The bubble and the crisis have been created in the central financial markets.”

In response to a question from comrade Mather, he explained that the current situation does not mean that there is an automatic relationship between crisis and revolution. Crisis creates the conditions for revolutionary upheaval, but “human action” and subjective intervention are always needed to go that one step further.

Arab revolution

Following comrade Macnair, Moshé Machover explained why in his view we are currently witnessing various expressions of a single, Arab revolution. He took on those who insist that there is only a vague connection between the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the other countries in the region.

Of course, there are big differences in the history and political systems. There are also major differences in how the upheavals are playing out in some of the 22 Arab-speaking countries, and therefore the Arab revolution will develop in an uneven manner. However, the people there are united by language, by poetry, by culture and by history.

And crucially, in modern times, a nation can also be defined as a group of people who watch the same television station in the same language. In the Middle East, they are all watching Al Jazeera, comrade Machover said. Last but not least, there is “the strong and noticeable sense of solidarity with the Palestinians, who are seen as the most oppressed sector of the Arab nation.”

To further underline his point, he discussed the original meaning of the words ‘nakba’, which is normally referred to as the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949. “But the original use of ‘nakba’ stems from the year 1921 and refers to the way all Arabs describe the San Remo conference, which led to the balkanisation of the Middle East by carving up the Ottoman empire.” Under the leadership of the British, capitalism artificially created Palestine, Libya and so on, while “Iraq was cobbled together”.

In comrade Machover’s view, the Arab world can only achieve lasting social and political change in “some kind of unity” - the exact form is not predicable, but the unity of the Arab nation, the creation of such a powerful force, is a prerequisite for compelling the Israeli state to decolonise the region, he argued.

In conclusion comrade Moshé expressed the view that the current uprisings are likely to spread even further: “We should not look at these revolutions as a series of still photographs or simply judge them by their demands or their immediate results. I believe that this is an episode in a revolutionary process that will be global.” He mentioned demonstrations and sit-ins in Spain and Greece, which are “only a small beginning”.

Mohammed Reza Shalgouni also expressed the view that there is an “Arab nation”. He focussed on the obstacles and problems that these upsurges are now experiencing. Firstly, he observed the lack of “revolutionary spirit” amongst the people now rebelling. “Whatever one might think the problems were with the Soviet Union, it gave people something to rally around - an idea of socialism, however distorted.” The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to destroy the idea that there could be a viable political alternative: namely socialism/communism.

The young people on the streets of Cairo and Tunis are not acquainted with Marx or the concept of communism and are therefore “vulnerable to liberal ideas”. They are clearly on the left and support workers’ strikes, but their movements have serious limitations.

Another obstacle is the Islamist trend in the Arab-speaking world. While in the past Islamists often “flirted” with the military regimes in power, now many of them, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are being courted by the US, especially in Jordan, Syria and Egypt. At the moment, they are supporting the revolutions - but they are bound to betray them, just as they did in Iran in 1979.

He also argued that we should not forget the “main representative of Arab reaction”: namely Saudi Arabia. Its people are not allowed to vote, there is no transparency, there is not even a government budget - after all, the monarchy owns most of the wealth in the country. Together with Israel and the rich, oil-producing Gulf states, Saudi Arabia is a major obstacle to the successful implementation of the Arab revolution.

Impact on Iran

Comrade Shalgouni went on to discuss the impact of the revolutionary upsurges on Iran: they came as “a breath of fresh air” for the people on the streets of Tehran. However, they also damaged the theocratic regime. For a long time, the Islamic republic was able to present itself as an anti-imperialist force in the region. But since the June 2009 protests and the brutal oppression that followed, nobody is taking this claim seriously any more. None of the demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya are looking at Iran as a viable alternative. They can see that the Iranian regime is even worse than their own.

Finally, Yassamine Mather reported on recent protests in Iran, where a new slogan has been adopted: “Mubarak, Ben Ali - now it’s your turn, Khamenei.” Many people have been arguing that, because of the geographic proximity of Iran, Turkey and the Arab-speaking countries, there could be some sort of easy solution for the whole region. But Iran and Turkey are not part of the Arab nation, she explained. “We are internationalists, but that means we have to understand national and regional peculiarities.”

She agreed with comrade Shalgouni’s perception that one of the problems facing the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia is their lack of revolutionary experience: “The women’s movement in Iran has fought against the Islamic regime for over 33 years, which makes them much more advanced compared to the protestors in Egypt or Tunisia.” The people of Iran, even the young ones, still remember the role of the workers’ movement in overthrowing the dictatorship of the shah in 1979. Therefore, it is not surprising that even the funeral of a famous footballer (who was active in the opposition movement) turned into a highly political event.

Nevertheless, the movement in Iran is currently not visible on the streets. This has partially to do with the brutal oppression of the 2009 protests, but also with the fact that the regime is still very much represented in the country’s militia. Also, some leaders in the green movement actually took measures to prevent the 2009 protests from growing stronger. Furthermore, the state only recently cut subsidies on food and gas: “It’s a relatively new thing that people haven’t been able to pay their gas bills,” comrade Mather explained. But the state is already retreating to avoid protests or mass non-payment.

But there is no doubt, the revolutions within the Arab nation will fuel further unrest in Iran and they have already increased the divisions within the Iranian regime itself.

Following on from the openings, the four speakers went on to debate some of the issues further - for example, the fact that Islamists have not as yet been able to take a hold on the protests. Finally, the speakers discussed the crucial question of whether socialism is on the agenda in the Middle East.

“Objectively, the economic situation poses the question of socialism,” said Mike Macnair. “But there is a crucial problem: socialism is only possible to the extent that the working class organises itself for more than trade union struggles, but also for cooperatives and mutual aid funds, so that this aspect is taken out of the hands of the imams. And, crucially, that the working class organises itself for political action, so that the demands of the working class are reflected in public legislation, to intervene in electoral processes - as the working class for itself.” And unfortunately, the movement in the Middle East is currently a long way from having such a programme for change.

All four speakers will be at this year’s Communist University in August. Details at cpgb.wordpress.com