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The Syrian 'common': an uprising of the working society

By  Yassin Al Haj Saleh

[This an excerpt from an article that first appeared in English at Jadiliyya. For the full article, click HERE.]

August 14, 2011 -- There is a Promethean dimension to the struggle of Syria's protesters to wrench politics away from the self-deifying cabal [who rule] and to attempt to extend politics to all Syrians. The young Marx, who loved grandiose expressions, described Prometheus as “the most noble martyr in the philosophical almanac”, because he stole the fire from the Olympian gods and gave it to humans. The gods punished him by sending the eagles of the Caucuses to tear at his liver forever. Like Prometheus, the uprising represents the most noble rebellion Syria has known since its independence 65 years ago. Like Prometheus, the wrath of the divine cabal is directed against the rebelling multitude. It is murdered, defamed, called names and insulted by the lowliest forces and motives in Syria.

But nothing will bring back those who have participated in this noble act of freedom and have experienced the ecstasy of rebelling, to the political, moral and intellectual decay the regime has in store for them. If this regime is enslaved by and addicted to power, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have developed a more powerful addiction to freedom and collective rebellion. While the regime worked for half a century to strip Syrians of political interest and to spread apathy among them, the uprising today represents a great collective rehearsal on politics and on developing a concern for common interests. In this respect, one hopes that this rehearsal of freedom continues despite its dangers and cost. The sacrifice and selflessness that marks the participation in this uprising, the atmosphere of brotherhood and confidence among people, the broad mixture and coming together, the intense reactions and sharing of pain, all make it a sublime manifestation of life, one that is rarely possible.

Class character

The Syrian uprising brings together the lower sections of the middle class and attracts partners from the educated and professional middle class. It speaks to a diverse spectrum in Syrian society in terms of orientation, culture, religion and sect. In that sense, it is the closest thing to a Syrian “common”. It has brought together from among Syrians what has never been brought together before in numbers, percentages and in the consciousness of unity. Through its central slogan today, “The people want to overthrow the regime”, it represents the constitutive experience for the Syrian people and thus constitutes a new legitimacy based on the people and on popular sovereignty.

The uprising is fighting, in very cruel conditions, a class of special interests and their supporters from other classes. These are defending their absolute power and excessive privileges. They cannot offer anything to other Syrians. They are truly a regressive force, defending the past and its prizes and positions. As for the uprising, it involves a diverse constituency, whose elegance and polish is less than that of the nucleus of supporters mobilised by the regime to claim that it has a “people” supporting it. The uprising’s constituency is popular and populist, in a way. Its education level is varied, but it is extremely vital and is has a keen awareness of justice and oppression. What is significant is that the uprising has brought together, for the first time in Syria’s contemporary history, a multitude that was despised and isolated from public life, together with the most vital and faithful sectors of youth and intellectuals from the educated middle class. As for the owners of Mercedese and four-wheel drives, the great majority of their ranks are with the regime.

The Syrian uprising has a class-related character that is perhaps more prominent than what has emerged in other Arab uprisings. It erupted during the largest process of privatising public wealth to benefit a corrupt elite with intimate ties to the ruling cabal. The uprising has consciously targeted those corrupt elements in its protests, embodied in the person of Rami Makhluf. It spread in the towns and municipalities that have suffered marginalisation, unemployment and poverty more than other places. It is the revolt of the working society against the society of privileges and power. The moral aspect of the Syrian uprising and the frequent condemnation of “thieves” in its slogans points to a social anger that has overcome the working society against those parasites who are sucking its blood and who condescend and accuse it of backwardness and think of themselves as superior.

These are issues rarely realised by a local and Arab left that has long been mired in a discourse that equates the left with a hollow nationalist rhetoric that in recent years has acquired, in its national dimension, an obscure appellation: Rejectionism (mumana`a). This is no more than a flashy label for a local tendency, injected with a dose of anti-imperialism, which cloaks socio-political conditions perpetuated by violence and privilege. As for its social dimension, it has become an impoverished ideology mixed with a state-centred political thought.

Popular revolt

But this is not important. What is important is the liberating vitality of the uprising. No left, worthy of its name, will flourish unless it sides with the uprising and works on linking it to the values of equality and freedom.

Contrary to what may appear initially, the Syrian uprising is not only a political revolt. Nor is it restricted to young political “activists” and traditional political figures who only yearn for political change. It is a popular revolt that seeks to overturn the existing social order at whose heart lies the political order, because the latter is the focal point of violence and looting. It is also the loyal guard of conditions from which a wider sector of beneficiaries whose common denominator is the fact that they either don’t work, or are reaping huge profits from projects and works they attain through privilege and loyalty.

The uprising is the rebellion of working society, par excellence, against the society of power and privilege. This is an essential fact. Its achievement will reflect its deep-rooted social motivations only if it rebuilds the social and political order and hierarchy of values around work, including knowledge and competence, as opposed to wealth and power. The Baath regime, early on, and more clearly in the 1970s, was based on rewarding loyalty and power and, later on, rewarding affinity and privilege, all at the expense of work. In the last two decades of the 20th century, the value of work collapsed and consequently the value of working society and its political and cultural weight did so as well.

Whereas the value of authority was raised to the sky and the president became a god to be worshipped and loyalty to him was the highest value needed. The mukhabarat [political police], the long arm of the ruling elite, enjoyed absolute immunity. At the same time, power produced its nouveau riche; antique and drug smugglers, or simply, those who steal public wealth. These are free to do anything in Syria and to an extent no millionaire in any Western country could even dream of. In recent years, especially after 2005, they began to remake the country in their own image. They moved from secret economic “struggle”, meaning embezzlement, theft, racketeering, to doing it in public by occupying the state and appearing as envied and superior exemplars. Syrian TV, on its three channels, dedicated two days to cover the alleged transformation of a supposedly private citizen, Rami Makhluf, to doing “charity”.

“Development and modernisation” are nothing but the ideology that legitimises the wealth of this group and their privileged location vis-à-vis national resources by using the pretext of “the demands of development and encouraging investment”. As for Baathist doctrine, in its rejectionist inflection, it is merely a language and set of symbols that help profiteering ideologues deceive themselves as they wallow with the mukhabarat and appear on Syrian TV giving sermons about patriotism to Syrians while they spend leisurely times in five-star hotels at the expense of the Syrian people. This requires a more detailed study, which I hope to conduct someday, but it seems plausible in my view that the uprising is a reaction to this policy of “development and modernisation” in general. This policy, which combines vulgar political authoritarianism and a mode of development that is friendly to city centres and the rich, together with a modernist ideology that symbolises a lifestyle combining wealth, consumption and “opening”. This mélange is what has marked the reign of President Bashar al-Asad from its outset.

That the uprising does not target political authority alone, but also its social and ideological links, is what reflects a more deep-rooted character that isn’t apparent at first. And this is what should be clear to a wider spectrum of intellectuals and political activists in order to push the uprising forward and protect the potential political change.

What constitutes a strong barrier against sectarianism is this particular composition of the uprising itself. The sectarian issue falls outside its interests, because it is directed against the society of privilege and power, not against any particular religious group or sect. This is not a matter of consciousness, but of social composition. Or let us say that the social composition of the uprising, which is against the society of privileges and absolute power, is what determines its nationalist consciousness that is above sectarianism. It is also the secret behind attracting youth and intellectuals from the various religious and sectarian backgrounds in Syria to participate in its activities.

This composition is also the secret behind the unprecedented proximity in its logistics and media spheres between people of a traditional Islamic background and between secular youth, including women of “modern” orientation and comportment. It also accounts for its ability to formulate a more flexible and inclusive concept of secularism.

As for the alliance of power and wealth, sectarianism, for them, seems to be a tested means to protect privilege and a cheap method to rule. It is the power that allows for exploiting the have-nots to defend conditions from which they don’t profit materially. At any rate, it seems that what motivates sectarianism in the context of the Syrian uprising is not irrational fear from a dark future if the political status quo changes, but the fear of losing illegitimate privileges.

Here too sectarianism stems from the social composition of the regime, or, more specifically, from the privileged interests it protects, rather than any old or “stray” consciousness. There is nothing better to protect privileges than portraying social conflicts as ones between social types, some of which are superior to others. This way, it would appear that the problems that vast sectors of Syrians have with Rami Makhluf, for example, are related to his background and origins, rather than his illegitimate privileges. But Syrians described him as a thief, because they personally know how he looted them and linked him to an authority that is supposed to protect them from him rather than do the opposite. No one pointed to his origin or background.

It is important to mention here that what is needed to show the social depth of the uprising is precisely what could isolate sectarianism and neutralise its destructive social and political motives. By that I mean showing the class motivations underpinning the uprising and revealing its roots in the socioeconomic changes Syria witnessed in recent years and decades. This will also deepen the roots of the Syrian uprising itself so that it turns from changing the political façade to changing the regime itself, and from the latter to a more profound social change that responds to the yearnings of those sectors that are most deprived of participating in economic, political and cultural life.

If that does not happen, and it might not today due to the weakness of the forces propelling the uprising toward more depth, then the political revolt might be followed by a social revolt within a short period. Perhaps the convergence of social needs that aren’t fulfilled by an economy-centred mode of development, and the appearance of a new generation seasoned by the uprising’s dynamics and the political change that will follow it, will push toward a more profound and democratic revolt. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the future, but we are pointing to these potential horizons in order to raise awareness of our current conditions.

[This article was written in late June and published in Arabic in al-Adab, no. 7-9, 2011. It was translated to English by Jadaliyya's editors.]

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