Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs
Beirut Revolt: What is to be done?
A note from the Salvage editors: Since July, protests have been occurring in Lebanon against the failure of the government to agree a new contract for waste disposal and the consequent build-up of rubbish in the streets. Some of these protests took place spontaneously in poorer neighbourhoods, and some were organised by social media campaigners using the hashtag ‘YouStink’. The demonstrations reached a high-point on Sunday the 23rd of August, when some 20,000 protestors gathered in front of the Parliament building in Beirut: state violence followed, with one demonstrator killed by a shot to the head from the security forces. ‘Troublemakers’ and ‘thugs’ were naturally blamed for this outcome. The demonstrators have used the slogans of the 2011 uprisings elsewhere in the region, calling for revolution and the downfall of the regime. The regime in question is the system of corrupt, sectarian paralysis between two competing blocs, the pro-Iranian, pro-Bashar Al-Assad ‘March 8th’ with Hezbollah at its heart and the pro-Saudi ‘March 14th’. There has been no president for over a year, and the parliament, having proved unable to agree a new electoral law, has simply extended its own mandate.
What we have witnessed over the past two days on the streets of Beirut is both exhilarating and potentially debilitating for the current social struggle against neoliberal capitalism in Lebanon. An uprising is indeed called for in the face of a rampant neoliberal state that has a remarkably resilient ideological apparatus supported by a highly militarised security force. This uprising is to be affirmed, supported, and pushed to reach its radical potentials. The main challenge facing the protestors is to rid themselves of the populist claims that appear tightly wedded to a staunch Lebanese nationalism that has been remarkably present across the spectrum of protest. The celebratory orations of the Lebanese anthem and calls for sectarian unity, Muslim and Christian, are a form of jouissance that must be countered by substantive demands for social justice, the abolishment of class inequalities, and the reclaiming of the commons and all other public services that have been systematically destroyed and privatised over the past decades. The troika of neoliberal capitalism, sectarian state apparatus, and clientelist militia that now rules the country is indeed a monstrous enemy that can only live longer through national sentiment. This national sentiment divorced from anti-capitalist demands may indeed save the state in its current duel with the socially progressive forces on the ground.
The historical moment demands a reconfiguration of concepts, a re-defintion of politics rather than a shunning away from ‘politicising’ the revolt as many non-governmental organisations on the ground have claimed. If they are indeed weary of existing practices of politics, then politics (siyaasa) has to be re-defined as the necessary form of everyday human relations. What does it mean to demand a society free from corruption? When emptied out of this specific content, what will then fill the social form? There cannot be any naivety surrounding the nature of the relationship between corruption and capitalism: they are bed-fellows and have been for centuries. The protestors claims against corruption are supplemented by a demand for a transparent legal system and un-biased judiciary, but have we learned nothing from the historical examples preceding us? The separation of rights and duties, the bulwark of liberal state-capitalism, systematically alienates individuals, robs them of their political capacities, and builds all kinds of social animosities across society: the neighbour the other, the Christian, the Muslim, the stranger is only possible in the face of the law.
The conceptual apparatus of the revolt has to be challenged: de-politicisation , ‘adam al-tasyis, must be countered with a re-definition of the political, activism (nashiteen) replaced with rebels (thuwwar), violence and non-violence replaced by state violence versus revolutionary violence (that may be non-violent yet transformative in its radical demands), ‘against the ‘political class’ (al-tabaqqa al-siyyasiya) replaced by ‘against class’, anti-corruption by anti-neoliberal capitalism, and the list goes on. Most importantly, the role of television in portraying the protest in terms of citizenship has been highly destructive for it is assuming that national identity is already had, that it is not indeed being placed under negotiation and scrutiny with the explicit critique of the system as a whole. We must counter the consumption of nationalism that is being forced upon us. Beirut cannot remain the sole centre of the revolt: the streets, neighbourhoods villages, towns, and homes are the true centre of the revolt. Most importantly, the uprising urges those on the left to awaken to their role, to re-formulate a universalist revolutionary politics beyond national borders, to unveil the local conditions of capitalist global domination, and to invite the broader populace into a radical politics beyond the existing party structures and non-governmental organisations.
Proper waste disposal is not the solution to the current uprising however. The accumulation of waste, its presence everywhere in the streets, has obviously disturbed the system of identity and of borders. Waste has no respect for boundaries, it is the excess that has indeed made ripe the conditions for this social upheaval. We must now appropriate the disruption, and point to the real questions that the revolt has answered to: how do we establish a coherent program against the capitalist neoliberal state without resorting to its own slogans of ‘democracy’, ‘technocratic government’, and ‘reform’?