On being a "Lebanese" leftist

Part I: General considerations

“every language contains the elements of a conception of the world.” Antonio Gramsci (p. 325, Selections from the Prison Notebooks)

Some time ago, there was a little debate engaged on the blogosphere (here and here) on what it means to be a leftist in the context of Lebanon, and on what are the choices Lebanese leftists are faced with in the Lebanese or Middle Eastern context. I was hoping to post something on this but I guess I just needed time to think about the main issues. I’m not saying maturity has been reached, but the time taken has delivered certain conclusions. So in the hope of keeping with this tradition of being labeled as leftist, here are a few preliminary thoughts.

To start with being a leftist is a human condition unbounded by ‘nations’ or other internalized political narratives. When I say in the Lebanese context I mean that I will propose practical applications in the case of this geographic area, this power cluster that came to be known as Lebanon. So the first notion the Lebanese leftist must think of is bringing back the Lebanese entity to its colonial root and recognize that there is nothing inherently “Lebanese” about any of the Lebanese.

Moreover, a leftist perspective would concentrate on demystifying all the various “Lebanese” narratives that are present in the various social fields of the country in so far as they block a genuine awareness of the general public interest. In so doing, any discursive endeavor to conceptualize a people is always geared towards creating new power structures, new dominant actors that use these idioms to better tame constituencies. So being nationalist especially in the reactive sense (against a perceived ‘other’) cannot be leftism. I have in mind all the pseudo-leftist turned anti-Syrian for example. For me, a leftist is someone who resist such labeling because he knows that it ultimately serves specific exploitative structures.

Being a leftist, is engaging above all in cultural issues. It is through the creation of meaning that oppression manifest itself. Paradoxically enough, although being a leftist is often equated with being a materialist and being concerned with the modes of production, social inequalities, etc. I think nothing of that can be understood without taking a close look at what bars some people to rise up and change the status quo, or to just follow different identification processes to arrive at new social realities. What better example to take here than Confessional Lebanon where specific ways of defining one’s self along a sect has tamed a truly popular uprising. Of course, sectarian divisions exists because it pays to be sectarian, meaning that clientelistic ties makes it easy for various players to keep constituencies happy (by bribing them). And vice versa, any individual who needs something is much better going to the local sectarian leader in order for it to be done.

But a truely leftist view should not forget that these ‘modes of production’ (the base as Marx would have it) projects specific forms of conceptualizing one’s self through the use of language. Our discursive practices solidifies, crystallizes our differences that are imposed on us by the coercive nature of power fields, and this is the power of ideology: When one starts thinking of himself as a Sunni, Christian, etc. without a direct conscious awareness of the base (economic and social modes of production).

In effect, being a materialist is an analytic device. It does not mean anything to BE a materialist. Creating sense or representation of reality already distances you from a totally materialist outlook. Moreover, having the “idea” of being a materialist has something spiritual to it. Being a leftist has something even religious to it. Misunderstanding this dimension has been the biggest blunder of the XX century. It unavoidably rendered “Leftism” as a purely European or ‘Westocentric’ phenomenon that emerged from a parochial struggle against the Christian Church over political prerogatives, and it has secluded all other forms of popular uprising as regressive. (In the latter case “Leftism” is a bourgeois phenomenon, but more on that in Part II).

So a genuine leftist view must reckon the religious in the rise of liberalism and the nation-state. A genuine leftist view must demystify the whole ‘enlightenment’ period, and understand it through its political angle, it must destroy words like ‘modernism’, especially when it comes to perceive the Middle East as at a cross road between ‘modernism’ and ‘obscurantism’ (something a ‘leftist’ like Samir Kassir never quite understood, and I will write more on Kassir in Part II). The leftist animosity against ‘religion’ should not be understood as a general reluctance to accept anything religious. On the contrary the left must understand that it is in itself a religious phenomenon and that the real leftist struggle is against those who use religion as an oppressive tool. This goes from certain types of religious institutions (I would call them social institutions) like Church etc. to the modern state.

But there is another point I’m trying to make here: Above all, “Liberalism” is as religious as “Islamism” or “Communism” in the sense that it engages social, political, economic, and cultural practices that disciplines individuals in their knowledge of themselves through ritualistic behavior. I don’t want to elaborate too much on that here, but it must be clear that there is nothing fundamentally specific (in a religious sense) about Islamic movements for example. A genuine leftist view must do away with dichotomies such as secular/religious, and must understand how religion was internalized in the secular.

A genuine leftist view must keep in mind that what it is after, is understanding all forms of oppression inflicted on societies, individuals and their bodies. It is partly why a leftist can understand that in certain parts of Latin America you had what were called “Marxist priests” fighting for native population’s rights and in the Middle East, people like sheikhs sayyeds and the likes who studied radical forms of Islamic thought in Najaf, Qom, etc and installed wealth-redistributive social institutions, or at least institutions that mobilized resources in a new and more effective way. Now what happens to these people across time is another question, and this is why a leftist view must always be concerned with how actors emerge as dominant and the possible oppressive tools they start having at their disposal.

Compare this with traditional ‘religious’ authorities such as the Maronite church (did you know that this church owns most of Christian populated lands in Mount Lebanon?) or Sunni Sheikhs (the type of dudes that were opposed to civil marriage because it would have taken out some of their privileges), or even some traditional Shi’a religious authorities that were vehemently opposed to the new comers. What is really funny is when some Lebanese ‘leftists’ or ‘critical thinkers’ like Wadah Charara (دولة حزب الله، مجتمعاً اسلامياً) writes on Hizbullah as a diabolic force of religious men that came to displace traditional forms of authority. In this sense some Lebanese ‘leftists’ perpetuated classical forms of domination through their bourgeois practices. But more on the Lebanese particularity in Part II.

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14 Replies to “On being a "Lebanese" leftist”

  1. Nice post, but as a rank materialist, I object to a making “leftism” little more than an “aesthetic.” I will elaborate on in a few days. But very well done … d

  2. “in the Middle East, people like sheikhs sayyeds and the likes who studied radical forms of Islamic thought in Najaf, Qom, etc and installed the most progressive forms of social institutions”

    ahem, ok, i’m gonna be nice and just say that i disagree on “that” (gimme proof baby!) and add that “progressivness” is, much like “leftism”, a luxury, in other words it is bourgeois, and so couldnt be found in such social areas populated with Qom graduates. But that’s just the semantic face of my objection 🙂

    i do agree that Waddah is a dumbass, and a disgrace to hiqd and i recommend this angryarab text to nourish your hiqd on waddah:
    http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2006/12/what-does-waddah-shararah-write-some.html

  3. I agree, somewhat. Bech needs to be more precise about what “progressive,” i.e. is this a reference to issues of social justice, mobilization strategies and tactics, or hermeneutics. Stating the obvious, but fundamentalism of every color can be radical, progressive, conservative or reactionary. One does not necessitate the other, but it is important that we know what the noun is that we are modifying. And yes, the Qommies are bourgeois (not sure this term is helpful) in the sense that the clerics trade in and on the ideological.

  4. alhaqid you’re totally right i fell prey to the same reasoning I was trying to criticize.
    “Progressivism” is really not the right word and betrays a bourgeois ‘evolutionist’ reasoning. I will correct it.

    and yes D. I am looking at social redistribution when i used this term.

    Now I don’t really get what you mean by “aesthetic” but I will explain myself better on this ‘materialist’ issue.

  5. Since you appear to be writing your thesis online via the blog I thought I’d drop a few comments. You seek to examine and deconstruct several commonly accepted beliefs, notion and ideas but you leave the concept of ‘the left’/’being leftist’ untouched. What does it mean to identify oneself as such in the first place? Relatedly, is leftism a ‘human condition’? This tends towards an essentialist understanding of leftism, whilst this is precisely what you seek to deconstruct.

    You speak of the ‘coercive nature of power fields’. I agree that power can be coercive, yet understood as a field of forces (the Foucauldian interpretation), power is not merely negative phenomenon but has a productive dimension as well, and whilst great intensities of power do amount to domination and coercion, forces of power can be equally creative of dissent and resistance. (Foucault gives the great example of the way in which homosexuals in the 19th century used discourses and practices levelled against them, and turned these into a resistance against these forms of oppression.) This point, in turn, raises the question of the (inter)relation between discourse and practice. You seem to think primarily in terms of discourse, however, discourse is a practice and has practical effects, and vice versa. How do these issues – the coercive and productive dimensions of power, power/resistance, and discourse and practice of power/resistance relate to the case of Lebanon, or ‘being a “Lebanese” leftist’.

    Good point about the religiosity of liberalism (and of any system of beliefs, for that matter) and the false dichotomy between religion and secularity. Yes, liberalism is, among other things, a technique of governance through discipline. Another, closely related, liberal technique of governance (of people, things, bodies, movements, etc.) is normalisation which, I think is quite relevant in the context of identity formation and the construction of the ‘other’ (Foucault, sorry, him again, conceptualises it in the context of what he calls ‘racism’). This issue of normalisation might have relevance to the case of Lebanon/the Lebanese left as well?

  6. Hahaha i just corrected it, i think mixed up date and month digits..

    So Riemer, you have a blog with Michael Young’s columns? It’s true that not enough people read him in the Daily Star. Keep up the good work…

  7. Leonie, I use the term “Leftist” as a metaphor for practical application in this context, but of course in itself leftism as a concept should be deconstructed.

    When I say to ‘be a leftist is..’ can actually be ‘to be a debunker of oppressive structures’.

    But I go from an idiom people are familiar with in order to enlarge and include other “isms” that are basically similar but are being distinguished from ideological reasons (such as Islamisms etc.).

    For the relation between discourse and practices, I think you misread me. I am placing practices as a precursor of discourse. From a simplistic Marxist viewpoint let’s say (as Gramsci would have it), the base does not determine the discursive content, but it provide it with its overarching form. So now discourse without practices.

    In the case of Lebanon no discourse on the difference between sects, without the different economic relations between agents making the system of one sect and a confessional patron a pervasive reality.

    Also, I’d like to ask what you mean by “normalization”.

  8. By the way to follow on the use of the concept of “left”, I meant critical thought, starting approximately from Marx that thought to debunk exploitative structures since the advent of the modern state or simultaneously since the rise of capitalism as a general economic system of production/consumption.

    Of course it does not mean that exploitative structures did not exist before that, yet this type of critical thought thinks of power relations that are possible under such institutional settings as being quite novel in features.

    Now how to turn thought into action is another question that will be addressed in part II, through a look at its application on Lebanon.

  9. leonie, for the Foucauldian concept of power I fully agree. I was focusing on the oppressive nature of dominant actors power relations.

  10. Fascinating post, Bech – I think what you say about religion is particularly apposite. Looking forward to part two.

  11. Normalisation. Let’s take a step back first, in order to connect the phenomenon of normalisation to the idea of power as a multiple and mobile field of forces and, in turn, establish how these issues link to the possibility of resistance which is, after all, a central concern of those ‘on the left’. As you define it, Bech, ‘the left’ refers to critical thoughts concerned with the demystification of exploitative structures. Traditionally, ‘being leftist’ also refers to (active) engagement in the pursuit of changing this situation of exploitation and oppression. What is interesting in this respect is not so much the relation between discourse and practice this implies, but rather the ways in which different conceptualisations of power produce diverging conceptions of the possibilities for resistance and change. A ‘negative’ idea of power – power as oppression – has, in Marxist thought led to the conviction that, in order to alter this situation (the war waged at the heart of so-called peaceful liberal societies) power must be overcome. What is needed is a war, a conflict, to overcome war and establish some sort of utopian ideal. (Note the similarity with contemporary liberal discourses that argue for war in the name of an ideal state of universal freedom and peace – hence the religiosity of both systems of belief).

    If, however, power is understood as a network of relations, rather than something that can be possessed, the idea of progress towards an ideal, utopian state must be dropped. Power, instead, involves forces that are relational, mobile and varied – a field of lines, which are clashing, entangled, co-constitutive, and/or antagonistic, as Deleuze would argue. In this view, antagonism and conflict are inherent to social relations, although not solely defined by it; power can be both repressive and productive, and so does resistance. Different forms, techniques, mechanisms of power have been and are characteristic of liberal regimes. Disciplinary power, Foucault argues, breaks down individuals, places, time, movements, actions and operations and serialises them within certain distributions; it breaks down into elements in order to modify. Discipline, therefore, starts from the norm and divides the normal from the abnormal. Disciplinary techniques do not constitute a simple relation of exploitation; by making bodies more efficient and useful, discipline is productive.

    Techniques of biopolitics or security (as Foucault varyingly named them) work on the ‘population’ as a whole and concern themselves with overall normal distributions; it seeks not to discipline but to normalise. The system of security starts from the normal and makes use of certain distributions considered to be more normal than the others. These distributions will function as the norm. What is at stake here is normalisation; normalisation through mechanisms that seek constantly to bring new elements into the normal order, in which respect it is enabling and productive of certain forms of action and being (certain identities?) – that which is regarded as the norm; certain forms of circulation, interaction, relationality. It is, of course, simultaneously disabling other forms of being and action (understood to be ‘illiberal’, ‘rogue’, ‘irrational’, ‘apolitical’, etc. forms of action and being). The so-called universal discourse on human rights, which functions as a global normative force is a good example in this respect. As Foucault notes: “[a] certain idea of humanity was developed which has now become normative, self-evident, and is supposed to be universal.” In the contemporary age, it is creative, similarly, of a particular liberal subject – the ‘free, democratic individual’.

    Resistance against these techniques of power creative of normalisation must involve an understanding of the mechanisms involved and the ways in which these are productive of certain identities and normalised modes of (inter)action. What this would mean in practice depends on the particular situation – the specific field of relations and interactions in which they occur. What it could mean in the case of Lebanon is, I guess, your project, Bech…

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