The capitalism of our times

The capitalism of our times
Comment: With carbon emissions, property construction and the polarisation of wealth all on the rise, Lebanon showcases some of the worst of the global crisis in capitalism, writes Bassel Salloukh.
6 min read
24 Aug, 2016
July 2016 was the hottest since records began in 1880 [Getty]

Two startling recent news items tell us a lot about the interconnected world we live in, and the dreadful future we are creating for our children and their children. NASA data confirms that July 2016 was the hottest such month since data collection for temperatures commenced in 1880.

You didn't have to try hard to experience this if you happened to be living in the Arab world. Cities across the region experienced record temperatures compounded by suffocating humidity. And it seems the trend will continue into the future. Scientists predict that growing populations, water shortages, and soaring temperatures will make parts of the region uninhabitable by the end of the century.

The other news item refers to, interestingly, an October 2014 comparative study by Credit Suisse on individual net worth across the globe.

Confirming what most Lebanese have always suspected, it suggests that 0.3 percent (8,900) of Lebanese adults control some 48 percent of the aggregate national wealth. This amounts to US$44.6 billion out of a total of US$91 billion, with individual net worth defined as "the marketable value of financial assets plus non-financial assets (principally housing and land) less debts."

The report also highlights a worrying long-term trend: The rich are getting richer in Lebanon but their numbers are decreasing, while, in contrast, the percentage of adults whose wealth constitutes less than US$10,000 is increasing steadily.

The rich are getting richer in Lebanon but their numbers are decreasing

There is nothing idiosyncratic about these ecological and economic trends, however. They are truly global in nature, a consequence of capitalism's growing and seemingly undeterred crisis. The Trump voters are in part a reaction to the financialisation of capitalism in the US in the past three decades, where the top one percent have more than doubled their share of national wealth while the wages of the bottom 60 percent have stagnated.

A similar pattern explains the anxiety of Brexit voters. The malaise producing these populist reactions is in great measure testimony to the widening inequalities and stagnant living standards produced by an increasingly financialised capitalist system. Islamic State terrorism in Europe and North America serves to intensify these populist reactions; it is not their cause.

Nor is the trend of rising carbon dioxide emissions and its inescapable impact on global warming any longer debatable. Capitalism's will to build more towers, uproot more trees, and consume more energy is destroying the planet and there isn't much we can do about it, even if there is a will to try, and despite new international treaties capping carbon emissions.

There is nothing idiosyncratic about these ecological and economic trends, however. They are truly global in nature

And where other than in Lebanon does one see these capitalist antinomies converging in the most horrid way possible? Once marketed as the Switzerland of the East, Lebanon's green spaces and water - to say nothing of electricity - are in short supply.

The vulgar postwar real estate frenzy is not just destroying the country's infrastructure and environmental capital, it is exacerbating the rentier structures of the economy, ghettoising city life into a spectrum that includes anything between gated, posh, neighbourhoods and decrepit shantytowns, and gentrifying young couples further and further away from the capital at a time when the absence of modern transportation networks adds more cars on the streets and hence more pollution.

In a country blessed with 300 sunny days per year with some eight hours of daily sunshine, there is little dependence on solar power, both at the public and private levels. After all, alternative forms of energy supply jeopardise the financial interests of more than one overlapping business cartel.

The same greedy capitalist drive to maximise profits is also behind the snail pace of internet delivery in a country that claims to be a regional avant-garde service hub. And albeit some see in Lebanon's growing inequalities resonance with the immediate pre-war years, the structure of these inequalities is very different.

Once marketed as the Switzerland of the East, Lebanon's green spaces and water - to say nothing of electricity - are in short supply

For whereas in the pre-war years economic and political dispossession overlapped with confessional identity, this is no longer the case as a new trans-sectarian and overlapping political economic elite has emerged in the post-war years, making attempts at political and economic reforms all the more difficult.

But Lebanon is a microcosm of the Arab world's brutal realities. These "pre-industrial welfare states," to borrow Lisa Anderson's haunting phrase, exploded when neoliberal economic policies redistributed the national wealth upwards and alienated core regime constituencies. In turn, sectarianised geopolitical contests turned what started as genuine popular uprisings demanding freedom, employment, and a measure of socioeconomic redistribution into veritable bloodbaths.

Yet there is no letting go of the real estate frenzy and ecological degradation overtaking Arab states. With only minimal exceptions, the drive to build more and consume more is unstoppable. Even in war-torn Syria plans for postwar reconstruction are afoot; all the usual business suspects are swarming for a piece of the postwar reconstruction bonanza.

We seem to have learnt very little from the tribulations of past decades as we go on building more, destroying and then rebuilding, and intensifying the non-productive structures of Arab economies.

Here again, the cognitive dissonance trend is global. Yesterday's financial derivatives are being reinvented and repackaged today by bigger and more opaque banks. Despite all efforts and international treaties to limit carbon emissions globally, they are still expected to grow by another 20 percent by 2035.

There is no letting go of the real estate frenzy and ecological degradation overtaking Arab states

Do we seriously expect countries of the global South to sacrifice economic development to reduce carbon emissions? And given their dependence on them for economic growth, budgetary purposes, and consequently political stability, who can convince the governments of fossil fuel states to stop burning their stocks? Capitalism invents its own contradictions indeed.

Widening inequalities, stagnant living standards and the unstoppable surge in carbon emissions bind the global capitalist economy - and with it humanity - in one big interconnected mess. In turn, terrorist acts fuel xenophobic hatreds and ethnocentric atavisms, camouflaging the political economic causes of populist reactions and unleashing a politics of blame against immigrant communities and the amphibious victims of wars and authoritarian regimes.

But today's capitalist model is not the only available model. There are other, much more humane and ecologically-friendly models available. Their application entails a paradigm shift away from seeing the maximization of profit as a zero-sum game and ecological degradation as a necessary condition for progress.

Yet ironically we go on excelling in the art of destroying our planet under the pretext of developing the world, even if this comes at the expense of the future of our children and their children.

Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.