Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Karl Polanyi, Alexis de Tocqueville, & Muqtada al-Sadr

[A message to a neo-conservative friend. --Jeff Weintraub]

I originally sent out the item below in October 2003, but it occurs to me that it is worth revisiting, because it further explains why the Bush people have been blowing it so badly in Iraq. A lot of them talk about the successful democratic reconstruction of West Germany and Japan after World War II, but it is clear that most of them have no sense at all of how and why those reconstructions actually worked. (And, furthermore, a lot of them are no doubt ideologically incapable of understanding how they worked.) Instead of fostering the social (and socio-economic) foundations of successful democratization, they have at best been ignoring them and in some ways actually undermining them further.

In a society brutalized by despotic rule and fragmented by tribal, religious, and ethnic antagonisms, in which all independent intermediate associations have been pulverized, the collapse of a despotic regime always carries the risk of disorder, massive dislocation, physical and psychological insecurity, and growing desire for authoritarian solutions (if nothing else works). This is especially true if you have large numbers of unemployed and otherwise dispossessed and economically marginalized men who feel they have no stake in the success of the new order. Given these conditions in post-Saddam Iraq, it's no wonder that Islamic-fundamentalist groups (combining violent thuggery with social-service networks, dispute-resolution mechanisms, and a concrete sense of community) have done well in filling this social vacuum. What is crucial the emergence of alternative (more secular & democratic) forms of intermediate association, collective action, social cooperation, and social solidarity to counterbalance them. (In both West Germany and Japan, it so happens that unions played a crucial role in this respect, and the occupation authorities--even the one headed by MacArthur in Japan--did everything they could to strengthen and encourage them. And as someone knowledgeable about the history of the neo-conservative movement, you are aware of the critical role played by non- and anti-Communist unions in Europe, supported by the AFL-CIO and sometimes indirectly by the CIA, during the early Cold War years.)

It's also crucial to make sure that as many people as possible have steady, paid work (even if the ways of providing this work are not the most economically efficient).

In post-Saddam Iraq, by contrast ... well, you know what the record has been. Outside of the Kurdish areas (which the Kurds are running themselves, under the leadership of two nationalist/social-democratic parties) and also the Mosul area (while David Petraeus was running it), the CPA strategy has systematically fostered increased atomization, insecurity, political incapacity, a vacuum of social services and of (non-religious) social cooperation, continuing massive unemployment, and a reconstruction program centered on large-scale oligopolistic crony capitalism that marginalizes Iraqis. This is not only a question of massive incompetence and failure to plan ahead (though that's a lot of it), but also of a fundamentally misguided, faulty, and ideologically blinkered agenda.

If there is going to be any chance to reverse this debacle, getting rid of the present crew is obviously the first step. But, frankly, I have to admit that sometimes I'm not sure whether the US is really capable (politically, ideologically, institutionally) of conducting democratic "nation-building" now in the ways it was after World War II. I certainly hope I'm being too pessimistic about that!.

Cheers (but not cheery),
Jeff Weintraub

Subject: Juan Cole on land reform, unions, & democratization
Date: Wed, 12 Nov 2003 14:59:17 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: undisclosed-recipients

By the way, here are some pertinent thoughts from Juan Cole's website. (The last 4 paragraphs merit special attention.)

Jeff Weintraub

From Juan Cole's "Informed Comment"
October 31, 2003

Mitchell: Land Reform Essential for Democracy

Professor Timothy Mitchell, of the New York University Political Science Department, spoke on contemporary Middle East affairs in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Mitchell is among the more original and insightful thinkers about the region. One point he made was that successful democratization, whether in Japan, India or elsewhere, has always been preceded by land reform. And, he pointed out, this sort of measure is completely absent from the American planning for the Iraqi economy. He said that the Baath years had seen enormous inequalities in landed wealth reemerge. We know that Saddam gave property to Sunni Arabs in Kurdish and Shiite regions, and rewarded the clan chieftains who supported him.

I have myself long felt that insufficient land reform is at one root of Pakistan's failures as a democracy. Whereas India's Zamindari Act of 1952 liquidated the big landlords and rajas of the British colonial regime, Pakistan's governments made only baby steps in this direction (under Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto--though many of Bhutto's measures were reversed by the regime of Gen. Zia al-Haq in the 1980s under the guise of the "Islamization" of Pakistani law). Pakistan's current prime minister is a big landlord from Baluchistan who once called on the army to suppress his peasants, in Zia's time. Big landlords generally don't find it in their interest for their peasants to vote independently, so they use party politics as a way of controlling the peasant farmers and keeping them powerless.

So far the CPA plan for Iraq appears to be to just let businessmen and wealthy landlords run wild, with all the risks of repeating the disastrous errors made in post-Soviet Russia.

Mitchell also wryly pointed out that the main form of American economic activity in Iraq hasn't been market driven at all, but rather has consisted of a few big corporations with pre-arranged contracts feeding safely at the public trough (the $20 bn. Congress just passed for Iraqi reconstruction will largely go to these champions of the free market).

I'd add that it is widely recognized that the trade unions played key roles in Japanese and German reconstruction and prosperity after WW II, whereas Bremer has been dissolving all such associations. It is not clear that the Iraqi workers will even retain the right to organize or strike (this right has largely been denied to US workers over the past 30 years, as judges have permitted corporations to engage in union-busting with impunity).

I'd say that one could forgive the Iraqis if they conclude that the American system in Iraq is a form of state socialism, with Bremer playing the Politburo, giving orders and exercising a veto even though no one elected him to office, and Halliburton and Bechtel playing state-supported industries. Perhaps it looks more like Cuba so far than like capitalist democracy.

posted by Juan Cole at 9:07 AM