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Neoliberalism and the Dynamics of Resistance in Post-Welfare Autocracies

Panel XI-26, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • The conventional reading of authoritarianism and contentious politics in the Arabic speaking World has often implied that democratic liberals are entirely absent in the region, or that if they do exist, they are either entirely ineffectual or self-interestedly complicit in the authoritarian structures under which they live. It is a dark and accusatory narrative in which everyone becomes a tragic part of the mosaic of repression and dictatorship. But as I will argue, the reality is less tragic and more nuanced. The argument goes that both authoritarianism and democratic liberalism are rooted in the region and its history, have consistently impacted upon and shaped its political and social developments, and yet have embodied different communities and occupied different and parallel sociopolitical and cultural spaces. And while Western colonialism and the environment of authoritarian rule, rentier-states, and ideological purists (including radical Islamists) have sought to suffocate liberal activists and their ideas as well as blunt their impact, liberals have still managed to be heard and to generate change -- although to do so, the liberal democratic movement has had to emerge and re-emerge, and re-invent itself many times over the past two centuries. In so doing, democratic liberals have offered original and organic, home-grown conceptions and solutions that are inspired by local contexts, circumstances, and predicaments. Ultimately, the region’s relationship with liberal and democratic ideas is considerably more complex, local, and indeed richer, than most academic studies and the general media suggest.
  • This paper argues that the uneven breakdown of hegemony in Jordan was the terrain upon which social resistance—first from within the public sector—emerged in the mid-2000s. To demonstrate this, I draw on Gramscian concepts to trace the development of successive, often inchoate, historic blocs in Jordan leading to the breakdown, or “contraction” (Chalcraft 2016), of hegemony in the wake of King Abdullah II’s (r. 1999- ) accelerated neoliberal project. Gramsci’s formulation of hegemony as the generalization of ruling-class interests to other classes in society provides the central theoretical lens of the study (Salem 2020). However, because Gramscian hegemony is never complete and must always be understood in relation to the historical conjuncture in which it emerges (Hall 2016), I argue that hegemonic contestation should be understood as taking place within and across multiple dimensions: economic/material, institutional/corporate, and ideological/discursive. Three major implications emerge from the analysis. First, the late and incomplete incorporation of labor into Jordan’s strongest, fleeting, and perhaps only hegemonic bloc in the 1970s left workers only tenuously loyal to the state. Second, hegemonic breakdown in Jordan occurred unevenly, affecting some workers in the public sector more than others. Finally, prior, if incomplete, hegemonic incorporation empowered certain public sector workers to draw attention to the contradictions between historical state obligations and discourse, the promises of the neoliberal state, and the daily realities of working-class Jordanians. Drawing on interview evidence, archival and secondary sources, I argue that these spatio-temporal dimensions of hegemonic breakdown account for the timing, composition, and discursive strategies of workers’ struggles in Jordan—leading up to the 2011 uprisings. Finally, I argue that the study of protest dynamics in the case of Jordan advances the use of Gramsican concepts in contentious politics (beyond the well-studied case of Nasser’s Egypt) by demonstrating the importance of taking into consideration the unevenness of hegemonic articulation and contraction across and within its different dimensions.
  • Scholars of Jordan and the wider Middle East have used the concept of the moral economy to analyze why, when, and how citizens resist the state. Yet, these accounts fail to explain Jordan's overall pattern whereby the regime, despite continual resistance, repeatedly violates moral economies of rights to subsistence and state provisions without encountering mounting existential challenges. This paper argues that to explain this pattern, we must pay attention to how citizens today navigate diverse moral economies, including a moral economy of self-reliance. The regime routinely states that youth must detach themselves from state care. In a speech, the Crown Prince said, "We live in an era of self-reliance (ʿitmād ʿala al-nafs). Today, there are no public sector jobs ready to absorb this generation." Moreover, the moral economy of self-reliance operates independently of regime discourse in social grammars and notions of Jordanian culture, such as the "culture of shame," which posits that youth prefer to depend on their families rather than taking up jobs considered insufficiently respectable. Drawing on data from ethnography and interviews in regime-organized NGOs (GONGOs) targeting youth, the paper illustrates how even youth deeply critical of the regime often recover a sense of moral rectitude in volunteering and entrepreneurial initiatives where they can redeem themselves as useful citizens amidst economic obsolescence. What is more, youth reject charges that they excessively shun certain occupations seen as insufficiently honorable or desirable (the so-called "culture of shame"). Even Jordanian social movements and their activists, who are at the forefront of articulating the state-centered moral economies, are maneuvering criticism that it is immoral to seek to reestablish a parasitic relationship with the government. This paper contributes to making sense of the evolution of state-society relations in post-welfare autocracies. While many Jordanians continue to resist the state's abandonment of state provisions, youth who face expulsion from labor markets and from respectable avenues to adulthood not only blame the lack of state care but also establish new paths to social respectability and belonging amidst uncertainty. These findings affect how we understand modes of compliance and resistance in contemporary autocracies while helping to rethink the concept of the moral economy beyond simple formulations as being shaped exogenously of the hegemonic forces it seeks to resist.
  • The literature on labor autonomy and the Arab spring has largely focused on what initially seemed to be the two most successful revolutions, Egypt and Tunisia. On the one hand, the recent reconsideration of these cases has a done a great deal to advance our understanding of labor and authoritarianism. However, the literature is held back by the relative neglect of the labor movement that was earliest and most open in endorsing a revolution with by far the highest level of popular participation, Bahrain. Neither the Gulf nor petrostates in general are typically associated with labor militance and revolution, making this case all the more generative. Much as recent literature has argued is the case for Tunisia, traditions of militance and autonomy in Bahrain date back at least to the 1930s, and less directly to the pearl diver uprisings of earlier decades. At the same time, unions only achieved legal recognition in 2002, forcing us to rethink several aspects of the current argument. Mainly, it forces us to consider how similar traditions can be developed underground within a single regime. In this paper, I seek to pose the question of why a durable tradition of labor autonomy emerged and reproduced itself in Bahrain. I do so using colonial, diplomatic and press archives from Bahrain, the United Kingdom and United States as well as several key memoirs by labor leaders. I then go onto to explore what this case can tell us about broader debates on union democracy, authoritarianism, and the resource curse.
  • In the years following the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in early 2011, the international democracy promotion community enthusiastically embraced the country’s burgeoning civil society. However, when the democratically-elected president Kais Saied began to dismantle the country’s democratic institutions 10 years later, civil society largely stood on the sidelines. This paper examines the question of what happened during the intervening decade that left civil society’s international funders so disappointed. The paper argues that a failure to develop state capacity and the state-civil society relationship; lack of attention to certain democratic institutions such as political parties and the judiciary; and an absence of trust within civil society and the larger Islamist-secular divide within Tunisian society all contributed to civil society’s inability to stand up to Saied’s autocratic moves. The paper is grounded in the existing literature on democracy promotion and civil society’s role in democratic transition, and is based on a review of secondary sources concerning Tunisia’s transition since 2011. It also draws on approximately 20 interviews conducted with civil society activists and foreign donor representatives in late 2022. The secondary sources include think tank papers, foundation/donor papers, and academic books on the subject of Tunisian civil society development; publications by advocacy/research organizations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group; and books and academic journal articles on civil society’s role in democratic transition more generally. The paper’s findings have important implications for the study of civil society’s role in democracy and democratization, because they highlight the role of the state-civil society partnership and of trust more generally in preventing democratic backsliding. The findings also suggest that the international donor community’s support for civil society in democratic transition should widen its view of such support to take into account the importance of simultaneous democratic development in other areas. Finally, the findings raise questions about the development of democratic values during attempted transition from authoritarian rule. In the case of Tunisia, the absence of trust and the deep antagonism between Islamists and secularists permeated civil society despite ongoing donor assistance, eventually facilitating Kais Saied’s takeover.