Libya: The poverty of analyses

Guest post by Elleni Centime Zeleke

I am confused by the analyses of the anglo-phone left with regards to the social revolts in Libya. The only thing folks seem able to muster are a series of bifurcated abstractions. Thus certain metaphors in the analyses of Libya prevail such as, “greed and grievance”, “patron and client”, “rapacious rule vs innocent population “, “madness vs sanity” etc. Absent from the discussion are: social forces, social base, achievements and contradictions of Libya’s Green revolution, contradictions of liberal-democracy, and the contradictions of market dependency on specific social formations. One of the results of such a skewed discussion is that liberal democracy is idealized as the only viable political order in Libya (or the rest of the world for that matter). This is because absent of an analyses of social processes (which the left seems incapable of doing), liberal democracy gets proffered as at least having the institutional checks and balances to keep evil at bay. Of course, historically we know that this is not true. In fact liberal democracy is very often the problem, as it also entrenches certain odd forms of non-state and state led dictatorship and rule. And no stage-ist theory of history can get around this problem. Liberal-democracy does not necessarily lead to things getting better, sometimes life becomes much more ironically cruel. Modestly, then, we can say that what we need is to build institutions that speak to the specific historical problems of a given social formation. And yet given that the category of evil has been one-sidely operationalized as the concept through which we think about Libya and Ghadaffi, the end result has been that we have all been led down the path as believers of liberal-democracy.

In this sense then, it turns out that in fact the left has no alternative vision or plan to what the invading armies propose. Instead, the Western left seems to think it has to support all rebellions in the 3rd world if the rebellion opposes a dictator because dictators are inherently bad things. But are rebels inherently good things? Dictators might be bad, but they usually express something about the internal politics of a country that goes beyond metaphors of evil (which more rightly belong to a bad Greek drama). Such is the case also with rebels. So, if, Ghadaffi has not fallen it is precisely because the Green revolution did achieve something in Libya. The revolution has a social base beyond Ghadaffi’s tribe. Thus, if we are serious about international solidarity we need to figure out what the internal politics of a place is, what has been achieved in that country and what are its contradictions. As I have been saying, supporting rebellions for the sake of supporting rebellions is problematic because everything gets framed as a battle between good and evil. The alternative that ends up being offered actually narrows the space for thinking about and building something different than liberal-democracy anywhere in the world.

Did the Ghadaffi regime change the structures of society in any significant manner? Yes it did. Did the regime defend certain progressive ideas/policies, such as land reform, better prices for oil, massive decrease in child mortality rates, better distribution of wealth and access to state institutions of caring? Yes again. Will it be very difficult to maintain these gains in the present neo-liberal conjuncture? Will it be even more difficult to maintain these gains in a post-Ghadaffi era with a political arrangement that invited imperial forces into the country in the name of human rights? More likely it will be very difficult. So as a good professor at the University of London has pointed out,  ”it matters that we pay attention to the 25 years added to the average Libyan’s life expectancy (compare that to even more oil rich Nigeria, where life expectancy is decades less), that we recognise that the social outcomes have been so much better for ordinary people than anywhere else in North Africa including Egypt. The point is in no way to say that MG was a benign thing, but I do think almost all the analyses makes no attempt to understand why this kind of regime emerged, and indeed what it achieved.”

Two months ago when there was no real organized insurgency in Libya, we rushed the gun and claimed that the opposition in Libya was part of an Arab spring. We should have analysed the situation better and been more strategic in what we asked for. Now that there is a war, everything has been reduced to a battle between good and evil. But if that is the only game in town, it means we have already lost. This is because the terms are not ours to chose.

In the end many leftists including Gilbert Achcar say we need to intervene in a scenario that was set up so that we can intervene. And that is my point. To me, all Achcar is doing is pointing out the obvious: we in the West set up the scenario so that it had to play out in this way. But as Museveni has pointed out what this means is that the opposition prefers to call for imperial intervention in the name of human rights rather than do the hard work of organizing their own people. They remind me of Ignatieff. Should we encourage them to come to power so that we can lose more of what was gained when the 3rd world project was still a viable option? How do maintain a space where more options are put back on the table? How do we maintain space for a 3rd world project? So far, only Museveni has made any sense to me.

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