Karim Merhej | Wednesday, April 22, 2020
The outbreak of the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and subsequent halting of much economic activity and catastrophic handling of the pandemic by numerous governments across the world has triggered a considerable questioning of conventional wisdom and norms. For one, hopefully the derogatory term ‘unskilled labor’ will finally be put to rest, as supposedly ‘unskilled’ workers such as sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, agriculture workers and delivery drivers, are currently guarding human civilization.
On a broader scale, this pandemic has laid bare the fragile foundations of neoliberalism. The neoliberal model, dominant throughout most of the world since the end of the Cold War, has met its day of reckoning. But before looking at how neoliberalism has ravaged Lebanon and thinking of what comes next, it is crucial to elucidate what exactly its record has been.
“For one, hopefully the derogatory term ‘unskilled labor’ will finally be put to rest, as supposedly ‘unskilled’ workers such as sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, agriculture workers and delivery drivers, are currently guarding human civilization.”
Neoliberalism: A record of liberation and freedom?
David Harvey defined neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free market and free trade” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p.2). Lofty rhetoric of liberation and freedom as espoused by advocates of neoliberalism masks very nefarious motives and practices. Neoliberalism has effectively brought the very opposite of liberation and freedom.
Since the 1990s, governments around the world have provided tax breaks and lessened taxation on corporations and high earners. They have entered into free trade agreements, reduced regulations on financial speculation and the free flow of capital. They have privatized state-owned enterprises and have contracted the provision of basic social services to the private sector. All of this with the objectives of supposedly stirring up entrepreneurship, providing an enabling environment for a dynamic private sector, ushering in economic growth and making it easy for corporations to create job opportunities.
Yet, what has truly transpired can only be described as abominable. Essential social services such as education and healthcare, have become a paid-for privilege rather than a right in many parts of the world. Hard-fought labor rights and social protections have been trampled on, as corporations have outsourced their operations to other countries where workers barely have any rights and where working conditions are abysmal. The defunding of the public sector and the emphasis on the private sector has led to the proliferation of graft, corruption, and mismanagement within bureaucracies. The environment and workers have been exploited limitlessly for the sake of economic growth and increasing profits, with the wealthy reaping in all the benefits while the standards of living of the rest deteriorated. As a matter of fact, according to Oxfam’s Time to Care report, “the world’s billionaires, only 2,153 people in 2019, have more wealth between them than 4.6 billion people”.
It is within this context that the Coronavirus has reared its ugly head throughout the world. The paucity of decades of neoliberal policies has been blatantly put on display, as public health sectors in the Global North and South have struggled to cope with the virus due to decades of inadequate state funding and prioritization of the private health sector.
“Now is the time for both (a) considering serious alternative models of socioeconomic and political governance based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, and for (b) organizing and establishing grassroots sustainable networks of solidarity and mutual aid.”
Neoliberalism in Lebanon: A model built on sectarianism
Lebanon’s liberal economy has been predicated on minimal state intervention and regulation, ushering in widespread socioeconomic disparities and concentration of wealth among a tiny tranche of the population. The advent of the neoliberal era in Lebanon coincided with the end of the Civil War, and all socioeconomic and political ills that Lebanon had suffered from prior to and during the war resurfaced with a vengeance. Nepotism, crony capitalism, and clientelism covered by sectarianism, already extant prior to 1975, proliferated en masse. State contracts with well-connected private firms in virtually all sectors, carried out under shady circumstances, became the norm. The once-robust labor movement was crushed. The informal economy drastically expanded. The public sector decayed, and the quality of life of Lebanese citizens continued to deteriorate, all while the wealthy and well-connected amassed unimaginable fortunes and ensured that the politico-economic status quo remained unperturbed. The sectarian political system served as a coverup for all of this degradation, as sectarian rationales were constantly used by the political elites to drum up jingoistic support and silence any attempts at reforming the system or holding wrongdoers to account.
In fact, these neoliberal socioeconomic policies – which brought nothing but widespread inequalities, extreme corruption, environmental degradation, and severe mental health conditions especially among the youth – were a trigger for the uprising that erupted on the 17th of October 2019. Lebanon had already been going through an economic and financial crisis prior to the uprising, which was amplified by the ruling elites’ utter mismanagement and catastrophic response to protestors’ demands. Poverty and unemployment rates were alarmingly high before the uprising and have only increased since. A struggling public healthcare system was pushed further into dismay by a dollar shortage in the country, which made it extremely difficult for healthcare institutions to obtain essential materials for care. In this desolate context came the Coronavirus. Yet, the Lebanese State has made little to no effort in ensuring basic social protections for the most vulnerable, while the sectarian political parties (which directly and indirectly control the State), and in their typical fashion, have stepped in to provide relief measures for their constituents in the hopes of regaining some legitimacy.
“The demands of the October 17 uprising seem relevant now more than ever: at a time of extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment, measures to bring forth accountability, judiciary independence, social justice and political reforms are no longer a matter of if, but when, especially as the Lebanese are growing hungry.”
What comes next?
Neoliberalism as an ideology and system has been all but exhausted, but its beneficiaries – namely massive corporations, the wealthy and their allies in government – will not go down without a fight. Now is the time for both (a) considering serious alternative models of socioeconomic and political governance based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, and for (b) organizing and establishing grassroots sustainable networks of solidarity and mutual aid. This is particularly crucial in Lebanon. For too long, Lebanese citizens have had their dignity and basic rights trampled on and have been deprived of affordable high-quality education, health services and decent housing. The demands of the October 17 uprising seem relevant now more than ever: At a time of extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment, measures to bring forth accountability, judiciary independence, social justice and political reforms are no longer a matter of if, but when, especially as the Lebanese are growing hungry. Such demands inherently call for drastically changing the neoliberal political and economic system in place in Lebanon.
The Coronavirus does not discriminate between sects, and it does not discriminate between classes. It has proven that the demands of the Lebanese uprising and other social movements around the world are not merely ambitions and dreams, but absolute necessities. Hopefully this can be a wake-up call for the Lebanese to finally move away from a sectarian mindset towards a secular form of citizenship and state-citizen relations. It is high time we build a non-sectarian State and political system that actually provides a decent quality of life for citizens and ensures that every individual pays, and gets, their fair share.
Karim Merhej, Researcher and Google Policy Fellow, IFI GovLab, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
This article is part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global, and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.