Marianne Ghattas, a feminist and social justice activist and member in Dammeh cooperative. She has also organized around protecting Beirut's architectural heritage. She has studied economics at the Lebanese University
Refuting the Ideology of the Lebanese Rentier Economy: Towards Radical Change
The Lebanese rentier economy is finally having its crisis. If this points to anything, then we are simply at a historical crossroad at the political, economic, and social levels. Today, after about two months of a revolution that the resentful wanted to name a “movement,” we are witnessing the complete collapse of the livelihood conditions that prevailed before its outbreak. This collapse started with the weakening of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar, which led to a rise in the value of imported goods, an increase in the prices of consumer goods, and consequently, a drop in people’s purchasing power. In the midst of this situation, the Central Bank was a spectator, as it left the market forces with the task of determining the price of the dollar. This is 1992 repeated in front of our very eyes. As banks declined to deal in dollars, exchange shops were left to determine the exchange rate, to the extent that people took out their anger on the money changers, as if they were the sole responsible for the situation. The panic that reigned and took over people is normal, even expected in such a situation. However, intimidation and us losing confidence in our ability to understand the situation, knowing that we are present and immersed in it, is what disquieted me the most.
We fear what we do not know. We avoid what we consider ourselves unable to understand. So how can we fear what we are in touch with on a daily basis? How can we fear the system when we are certain of its determination to kill and shrink us daily? How can we fear a system that has been feeding us discrimination, oppression, and racism since our childhood? How can we fear what we have memorized by heart? How can we fear what we consider to be our lack of understanding of the means and mechanisms of an economic system which flaws we are constantly cursing, damning, and exposing in our discourse and practice?
The financial crisis that the country is witnessing is not surprising; on the contrary, it is expected in terms of indicators and theoretical terms, especially considering our lived reality. However, this crisis is structural in its essence, revealing in its manifestations both the political and economic structural fragility of the Lebanese quota system.
On the political level, it is a crisis of governments and politicians whose only concern is to preserve their share of benefits and privileges, and to ensure that each partner adheres to and does not exceed his share. This approach explains the interest policy of the group of power-grabbers who, after 1950, were represented by a gang of bankers, brokers, and merchants. It is their vision that ruled Lebanon’s modern experience in terms of the hegemony of the trade and banking sectors over the industrial and agricultural ones. Maintaining the exchange rate stability was their priority concern, even if that meant displacing thousands to ensure the necessary returns in foreign currencies to serve the owners of financial proceeds. The 1956 banking secrecy law served as the guarantee for the banking sector to attract foreign capital. To this day, some fondly remember the stability of the Lebanese pound in the period that preceded the 1975 war and the existence of a surplus in the balance of payments. But the deliberate diminishing of the role of the state by the ruling elite, reflected in the absence of domestic development policies that require financial resources to be implemented, was a reason for the lack of a strong demand on hard currencies – their availability would have guaranteed the stability of the exchange rate. At a time when some feel nostalgic towards the golden period of Lebanon and its economic prosperity, that is, pre-1975, they neglect the economic and social reasons that led to the outbreak of the war itself. During the post-independence era, the economic policy in Lebanon favored the market as an alternative to the state and its developmental role, such that the policy of the “invisible hand,” freedom of trade and opposition to protectionism, and the balanced budget formed the components of the Lebanese economic liberal system. This is what the governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Riad Salameh reminded us of in his last press conference. The conference was held on the 11th of November, that is, the day the banks announced their open strike due to “unstable” working conditions, and a week after they opened their doors to the public following a 12-day closure. Salameh then stressed that “Lebanon’s economy is a free market economy, and we believe that it must remain so. We also believe in the freedom to trade in goods and cash.” This is also what the ruling class is trying to continue sustaining by reducing public spending and securing revenues to achieve a balanced budget for 2020, put in place by the Finance and Budget Committee. This plan assumes that the economic growth rate is 1.2% and the inflation rate is 2.8%, as per the draft budget that sparked the 17 October revolution after the announcement of the $6 tax on WhatsApp. That same draft budget was behind the Lebanese University professors’ strike that lasted three months, and it also prompted the Minister of Education, Akram Chehayeb, to close down 35 public schools to reduce expenditure.
Hence the problematics of focusing on the political side of the current crisis rather than on the economic side, i.e., the financial, monetary, and living conditions. This is due to government policies resorting to the characteristics of the Lebanese experience before 1975 since the 1990s, and guaranteeing the interests of the neo-patrimonial networks that has lent public resources to serve its own benefits in terms of employment in public administrations and institutions for exploitative reasons. Therefore, the separation of the political from the economic, or the preference of the former over the latter, serves the entire oligarchy class without exception, as it turns a blind eye to abuses power in order to serve its interests. In other words, it is the network of interests and benefits that has a strong grip over the Lebanese political scene, and not the other way around, as some portray it to be.
The conviction of the ruling oligarchy in adhering to the Lebanese model of market economy and freedom of exchange undermined the developmental role of the state, focusing instead on the prosperity of the capital in exchange for the general disregard of the rural population. This was echoed by Michel Chiha, who saw the individual initiative of international finance work as real wealth. This supremacy, marginalization, and negligence in dealing with the rural population, which led them to leave their lands and emigrate permanently in search of sustainable livelihoods, turned this reality into the nightmare of every Lebanese family.
The day university and school students walked out of their classrooms on the 27th day of the October Revolution, it was not surprising to hear them express their aversion, anger, and grief over the emigration of an individual or members of their families. During the 15-year period from 1992 to 2007, about 466 thousand people left the country. By inviting us to emigrate because of our dissatisfaction with the current situation, the President has awakened our memories and our collective consciousness to our indignation at the emigration of our family members and the uprooting of our grandmothers and grandfathers from their villages.
This policy of marginalization and displacement has practiced its racism historically against Palestinian refugees as well. Chiha called for the deportation of Palestinian men and women and their redistribution in Syria, Jordan, and Gaza, when he perceived their presence as a threat to the Lebanese entity. This is the same policy of marginalization that the ruling class is adopting today at the expense of Syrian men and women in forcing them to leave Lebanon and blaming them for how the situation turned out to be.
This system is a model of self-destruction. By rejecting it, we protect each other, ourselves, and our safety. We, feminists, are at the center of this system against our will, and we continuously resist its suppression and violence. We are the ones exhausted and engaged in dismantling and exposing it. We, from the position of our resistance from which we draw our strength, are able to give answers. And because we are in touch with reality, in the midst of a system fueled by injustice, inequality, racism, patriarchy, misogyny, systemic hierarchy, and marginalization, we are able, through our positionalities, to diagnose reality with its ambiguities and problems and think about solutions to create alternatives.
What does it mean to be afraid of our inability to withdraw our money from ATMs, when we are already forced to give our domestic labor for free on a daily basis? We face the religious rule, its authority over our bodies, and its accumulation of resources at the expense of our private affairs. We face the discrimination of the state that strips us from our right to pass on our nationality to our children because by marrying outside of Lebanese masculinity, we threaten the Lebanese entity. We resist the patriarchal system that suppresses our sexual identity and pleasure, as if we were creatures designed for men’s desires and sexual relief. We oppose the state and its marital system that controls our relations through its patriarchal laws and that delegitimizes atypical forms of love and gender non-binary individuals.
This is the reality that constrains us physically, emotionally, and sexually; this is the reality we are constantly resisting. This is what we confront within this system, with the aim of breaking it and subverting its normative masculinity. Every policy that discriminates against us is part of a misogynistic puzzle that restricts our movement and freedom, enhances the authority of capital and its economic violence, and guarantees the rooting, survival, and continuity of this system.
Our involvement in the labor market is an essential component of our independence, but domestic and care work are the most prominent reasons for us exiting it. While women go out to complete domestic work free of charge, they do not enter into the workforce calculations, but rather are considered homemakers who are economically inactive.
The ILO distinguishes indirect domestic activities, like cooking and cleaning, from direct personal domestic activities, such as caring for family members and feeding children. Since these activities are not paid when a family member carries them out, they are not counted as part of the GDP. And if they are not included in the national accounts, they remain invisible work. This in itself is the capitalist system’s exploitation of the work force of women, who are assigned to produce that labor without remuneration.
We must start with our reality and daily diagnosis of the provisions of the system that limits our movement and our freedom. Otherwise, we would be maintaining the sanctity of this system of governance and its mechanisms, while disregarding what we know. In other words, we do not need to formally educate ourselves outside of our lived reality to deal with economic issues.
However, the need to turn into an economic encyclopedia to estimate the size of the crisis and have the ability to understand it comes from the superiority of experts’ approaches in explaining the crisis and the system’s economic mechanisms. For instance, some brag about having predicted the economic disaster, as if it was a matter of discovery. It has been clear and self-evident that the gradual, continuous, and systematic deterioration of the economic conditions will lead to their complete collapse. Without wanting to generalize, I take issue with those who impose their recommendations without any disclosure about the economic background, politics, and positionalities that inform their propositions. In economic matters, these recommendations may not be in line with what we aspire to and strive for, and not conform our standards of what constitutes a demand.
Accepting what the experts have in store for us serves the dominant orthodox school of thought, often referred to as neoclassical economics or mainstream economics, which is empirically invalid and theoretically flawed. Instead of starting from reality and building upon it, this method consists in counting numbers, and proposing solutions and recommendations, in order to make reality fit with the theoretical assumptions. This is in complete contrast to the “heterodox” economic and scientific research program that bypasses surface analysis, and thus analyzes the basic structure and causal mechanisms that govern a particular phenomenon.
We stand in stark opposition to this capitalist system, its view of material reality, its analysis, and its solutions to obstacles. We also disagree on tools and the methods it uses for drawing conclusions, simply because we are aware of the power dynamics dictated by the system, with which we have to deal through those policies and their experts.
To reiterate, our resistance to this reality and our daily and continuous contact with it qualify us to diagnose the problem. This is what gives us an advantage in our narrative. We are able to be close to others, unlike the experts who alienated our perception of the economy from our real lives. Evidence of this is the state of collective confusion and people’s perceived need to understand the current economic situation, as if they had been living outside of it all of this time.
As feminists, a shaken self-confidence about the economy and its concepts will negatively affect our political organization. This feeling would stand in our way, paralyze, and delay us from the process of analyzing and reading reality, in order to address it. Let us be bold in terms of talking about economic matters and diving in without having to worry about how our words might be received. While we might not possess the linguistic and conceptual repertoire of experts, we can still think critically about economic issues. We can and must highlight aspects and angles that experts either overlook in their approaches, or do not give the necessary attention and focus to.
Our experience and contact with material reality is what shapes our approach, which starts from lived experience. As such, we are able to devise and offer solutions, and create networks of socio-economic solidarity. This is the basis for grassroots political organizing that is invested in processes that ensure the continuity, permanence, and integrity of all social components, unlike the politics of immediate gratification promoted by the dark capitalism that governs us and that harnesses our efforts in the interests of the greedy few.
I do not question the importance of being privy to the contributions of economists in their specialty. But this in itself is not enough. If it were otherwise, we would not have had to deal with a system that crushes us every day. We are, in terms of our positionality, able to justify and impose our vision, with the aim of achieving a more just system that guarantees freedom and dignity for all, especially marginalized communities.
This is the system we are at the core of. This is the system we seek to destroy. This is our war.