Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How neoliberalism begets neoconservatism

Many libertarians claim to hate the neocon empire builders. Their critiques can be quite helpful -- I read on a regular basis -- but also shortsighted. Critics of this stripe will never comprehend (or admit) that libertarianism (in the guise of neoliberalism) is the key weapon of the neocons.

Patrick Cockburn makes that very point in this fine article about Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the dangerous young nutcase who has become the de facto Big Cheese in Saudi Arabia. The Prince understands that "his" country has many internal troubles, and he has decided that the best solution is to inject Milton Friedmanism into the system.
He suggests austerity and market reforms in the Kingdom, but in the context of Middle East autocracies and particularly oil states this breaches an unspoken social contract with the general population. People may not have political liberty, but they get a share in oil revenues through government jobs and subsidised fuel, food, housing and other benefits. Greater privatisation and supposed reliance on the market, with no accountability or fair legal system, means a licence to plunder by those with political power.

This was one of the reasons for the uprising in 2011 against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. So-called reforms that erode an unwieldy but effective patronage machine end up by benefiting only the elite.
The elites understand that hard-ass neoliberal economic policies simply do not work: When the plebes suddenly lose their bread and circuses, Ceasar better watch his ass. Thus, the best way to undermine a regime is to convince its leaders of the Orwellian dictum that austerity = prosperity, and that anything that reeks of hated socialism must be rooted out.

From a 2013 article in The Atlantic:
When he assumed power, the lifestyle of the West still occupied Assad's mind -- In his inaugural speech he emphasized that it was time to begin modernizing Syria. But to modernize Syria and remake it in the "image" he desired, he needed to adopt neo-liberal and capitalist policies, both of which stirred up a strong resistance from his father's old guard, who founded the socialist and secular Ba'ath Party.
Bashar Assad was a doctor in the UK who never expected to become the leader of Syria. When, after the death of his brother, he was forced to assume power, he chose a man named Abdallah Dardari to help run the economy. Dardari, educated in London, had worked for the World Bank and the UN -- he was, in short, a creature of "the West."
Many who bore the brunt of his economic experiments counter that his development plundered the country and struck the heart of its economy.

Dardari’s plan was calculated, and it had an impact. His policies did in fact spark an investment boom, but not without painful side effects.

Syria increasingly became vulnerable to the global economy, while growth imbalances and income inequality multiplied. Cell phones and internet reached Suweida long before much-needed irrigation projects.

The banking, services, and tourism sectors in their current form are largely the result of a plan developed by Dardari over the years to liberalize the economy. Rami Makhlouf, who controls a massive share of the Syrian economy, is in many ways a manifestation of Dardari’s project.
The above words were written in 2011, just before the "civil war" in Syria broke out.

The Daily Beast published a surprisingly incisive piece about all of this back in 2013:
Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s rule tried very hard to join the World Trade Organization. When the U.S. lifted its opposition, the World Trade Organization’s 153 members granted the Syrian government an observer status. Although the state was still the main economic generator, privatization was encouraged; foreign entities such as private banks, joint Saudi-French bank of Bimo, Fransabank, Bank of Jordan-Syria, and the Saudi Islamic bank, joined the Syrian market. The road also began opening for other credible international banks such as Citibank and HSBC to come to Syria and lend money at higher interest rates.

The Syrian government attempted to satisfy the demands of the international banks, which urged Syria to raise the cap and limit on non-Syrian ownership of local banks from 49 percent to 60 percent. In 2006, the Syrian regime of Assad and the new guard became the fourth-largest recipient of foreign direct investment, as well as of Arab Gulf states’ investments. The foreign and Arab investments ratcheted up from $115 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion in 2006. Assad replaced one of the old guards, the minister of economy, with a new economy and trade minister, Lamia Assi, who did not object to the new neoliberal policies.
Whom the gods would destroy, they first make neoliberal.

All of which brings us back to the strange case of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. What to make of his talk of markets and austerity? He didn't come up with those ideas on his own. The Prince, being an idiot, is incapable of coming with any ideas on his own. I think that a little bird has been tweeting those ideas in his ear. What, I wonder, does that little bird have in mind for Saudi Arabia?
Odd that you say "When the plebes suddenly lose their bread and circuses, Ceasar better watch his ass".

Obviously, Caesar was a populist, his platform was largely reclaiming public lands from aristocrats who had usurped them and making sure that the public got grain doled out to them. He needed to watch his ass because there were unhappy aristos sneaking up to stick a knife in it.

I wasn't talking about Julius. There WERE other Caesars...
There were other Caesars, both his family before him and those who took on the title after him, but Caesar was Caesar.
Wow, this article is a shocker, even by Cannonfire standards. If the Prince tries to impose UK-style neoliberalism on the Kingdom, it'll implode within 2-3 years for sure. It's one thing to have closed borders and media control in a very wealthy (and lazy) country, quite another to yank the rug out and impose the chaos and disruption of Margaret Thatcher economics while remaining a medieval theocracy.

People will grudgingly accept dictatorship if they're well-fed and don't have to work hard (or at all). But to throw them to the wolves after they've gotten used to a gilded-cage lifestyle - that's not gonna work.

Since ISIS and Al-Nusra are the direct creations of the corrupt and increasingly deranged states of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, we might just need Iran in the coming years to suppress the worst of the madness in this region. Maybe that's the long-term strategy at play.
Well, they really are not living the gilded cage lifestyle right now -- many Arabians with no connection to the ruling family are pretty miserable. But if things become MORE miserable, rebellion will arise, and no amount of police-state thuggery will forestall it.

The rebellion will have to occur under the cover of religion.
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