The Arab Left: How Jordan Has Fared

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The full moon rises behind a mosque as birds fly in Amman 5 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Ali Jarekji)

By: Nahed Hattar

Published Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The relationship between the working class, the Left, and the pursuit of socialism was a central preoccupation for the assassinated Lebanese leftist intellectual Mahdi Amel. Never one to defer to dogma, he persistently sought to establish clarity of thought, action and goals in his critique of Arab communism.

Mahdi was concerned with fundamental questions concerning the historical justification for establishing a communist party in countries in which the working class, supposed vanguard of society, does not constitute a majority. Whose party would this communist party be, in that case? And what is its rationale, if not to establish socialism? Does it have the right, in a society with a mosaic class structure, to pursue the goal of socialism which is linked, theoretically, to a workers’ state led by itself?

This is not the place to discuss or debate Mahdi’s answers to such questions. But it remains important to address them as they relate to the pursuit of socialism in our countries now. Such intellectual exertion was the norm in Arab leftist circles in the 1970s, as explanations were sought for the failings of the progressive Arab nationalist regimes that emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it has since been lacking.

Today, with workers increasingly expressing their disaffection in various ways, and with the Left seeking to re-establish itself and regain its role as the Arab order erupts in crisis, these theoretical questions assume fresh relevance, though in different formulations and circumstances.

What rationale does the Left have, other than to represent workers and to pursue the goal of socialism or socialist democracy? The question is posed equally to the liberal Left – which nowadays seeks to justify its existence by prioritizing the unconditional championing of liberal democracy -- and to the disoriented traditional Marxist Left, which is still searching for its place in the new Arab popular movement which emerged from the 2011 uprisings.

The abandonment of a wide range of socialist experiments in the 20th century raised awareness of the need for socialism, as a goal, to be treated as the outcome of a long, historical process of struggle. That means eschewing any putschist, accelerationist or experimentalist tendencies, without for one moment abandoning the goal. Maintaining the centrality of the historic goal should help the Left politically, in the here and now, to regain a realistic view of liberal democracy: as a platform for struggle, not as an end-point or as the highest ideal.

I do not refer here to what might be termed the revolutionary Left, but to the Arab leftist movement overall, including the Arab nationalist Left and social-democratic Left. Is there any social or historical justification for a Left that does not represent the interests of labor against capital, and whose program does not entail cumulative tasks leading to a form of socialism?

It is justifiable, of course, for leftists to be part of a liberal democratic movement. But that does not apply to the Left as such -- as a party, current, platform, or even as a vision. Its involvement is only justified insofar as it relates to its social base – in this case, wage-earners; as it relates to their right to a government that represents them and a social policy that represents their interests, and as it relates to the process that bestows historic legitimacy to the working forces in society. That is the process of building socialism, and it entails both transitional and transformative moments in the struggle against compradorism, capitalism and all forms of exploitation, oppression and plunder.

The Left does not seek to represent the entire labor force, but specifically wage labor – excluding the top management level or the so-called “labor aristocracy.” In Jordan, until the mid-1990s, wage-earners were numerically and politically eclipsed as a component of the private sector workforce by the preponderant petty-bourgeois model of self-employed owner-workers.

This helps to explain the combination of ideological rigidity and political paralysis that has traditionally characterized the thinking of Arab leftists, and which has been retained in the post-Soviet era – albeit with liberalism replacing “Marxism-Leninism” as the baseline ideology.

In the case of Jordan, the neo-liberal era, though barely 15 years old, has brought about structural transformations in the labor force. Wage-earners now constitute some 84 percent of the total. They earn an average monthly salary of US$600 in the public sector, and US$500 in the private sector, whereas the poverty line average hovers around US$700. So only about 10 percent of salaried workers earn an above-poverty line wage.

The radical and abrupt neo-liberal changes witnessed in Jordan had a devastating effect on traditional and intermediary modes of professional, skilled and commercial employment. Small and individually-run enterprises were supplanted by large companies as employers of graduate, skilled and service workers, while comprador-owned megastores, shopping malls and commercial chains - retail outlets, restaurants, pharmacies etc - replaced shopkeepers and family businesses.

Notable, in this regard, is the phenomenon of the proletarization of professional graduates -- doctors, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, accountants etc. These used to constitute an effective social force of petty-bourgeois and the middle-class self-employed. But this is now becoming a thing of the past. There is a declining older generation of such professionals. Recent graduates in these professions either swell the ranks of the unemployed or work as salaried staff for medium or large capitalist companies. Unless they are children of the bourgeoisie, professional graduates can no longer hope of setting up private practices. Their conditions – though not yet their consciousness – are those of wage laborers, competing in a harsh job market whose tyranny is sustained by an army of unemployed people.

This is the main reason why Jordan’s Professional Associations – once Arab nationalist and leftist bastions – were taken over by Islamists whose reactionary ideological frame of reference is completely disconnected from the social struggle. These associations came under the control of the interest-networks of members who had become part of the comprador class. For these elements, political Islam provided a more manageable front than the Arab nationalist or leftist approach could, behind which to pursue their class interests and conceal the class contradictions within the professional associations. Subsequent experience showed that leftist-led struggles in these associations resulted either in failure, or in submission to the dominant comprador alliances.

Another example is the proletarization of low- and mid-level workers in banks and insurance and finance companies. Employees in this sector have been turned into office-based wage laborers, subordinate to a layer of executive managers who enjoy extremely generous benefits. Yet both sides continue to be represented by a single professional association, which has lost its social coherence, and thus its effectiveness.

Neoliberal policies have also destroyed peasant agriculture, replacing it with capitalist corporate agribusiness and export-oriented farming, which are based on imported inputs and labor. Therefore, it is no longer a matter of standing up for farmers in Jordan. It is a matter of standing up for farming. The revival of traditional, environmentally-friendly modes of farming that are geared to meeting domestic consumption needs could be a major source of worthwhile job creation in the countryside.

The concept of workers extends to wage-earners in many traditional and new sectors and jobs. Their labor contributes to the creation of surplus value within a comprador capitalist structure which enables the accumulation of multi-billion-dollar profits from the local market by foreign capital and its local agents – in addition to the proceeds of corruption via privatization schemes, major projects, or the acquisition of land, water and minerals or other resources.

It should be recalled that it was via wage laborers that the Jordanian national movement renewed itself in 2009 as the new workers' movement – which today manifests itself in the independent trade unions federation, the teachers’ movement, and the retired military veterans’ movement; and again in 2011 via the popular committees composed of young wage-earners and students in the provinces.

Thanks to this, the national movement in Jordan has acquired an overtly social dimension, which is reflected in its slogans and program, and is also evident in the class composition of its leadership. The challenge is for this movement to be imbued with the workers’ consciousness, so that workers can collectively become a principal political factor in the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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