The Permanent Crisis of Social Reproduction in Lebanon: From Past to Present

Author Bio: 

Karen is currently a PhD student at the Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, where she does research on trade unions and social movements’ challenges with, and attempts at, organizing precarious and informalized migrant labor in the neoliberal era. She has an academic background in Anthropology (BA, University of Copenhagen) and Middle Eastern Studies (M.A., the American University of Beirut), and has worked with teaching, consultancy, and advocacy work for migrant and refugee rights. For several years, Karen has been involved in activism on feminist, labor, migrant, and refugee issues. In her M.A. thesis, she examined the organization of social reproduction in Lebanon from a feminist-historical materialist perspective. Her research draws inspiration from Marxist theory, Marxist-Feminism, social reproduction theory, and critical migration studies.

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Karen Ravn. "The Permanent Crisis of Social Reproduction in Lebanon: From Past to Present". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 7 No. 2 (09 November 2021): pp. 3-3. (Last accessed on 28 November 2021). Available at: https://kohljournal.press/permanent-crisis-social-reproduction-lebanon-past-present.
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Haneen Nazzal

Why does everyday life in our households and within our communities often appear as somewhat draining, and how do we conceptualize the daily tasks of washing our clothes, cleaning, cooking, and caring for each other in a world where formal statistics of economies seem to ignore such labor and struggles? Social Reproduction Theory (SRT), functioning as a Marxist-Feminist version of historical materialism, has gained increasing interest as a methodological and theoretical framework to understand the very real everyday processes of daily care and reproductive labor activities needed for the (re)production of life, humans, communities, and labor power in every society – also called the sphere of social reproduction. As a framework, SRT seeks to recenter this sphere within the broader mode of (re)production and arrangements of the political economy in a given society, exactly to expose the intricate link between “formal” economic processes, such as the production of commodities, and the reproduction of humans, and thus of labor power (as the cornerstone of capitalism) and societies more broadly speaking.

In Lebanon, the organization of the sphere of social reproduction, penetrating everyday activities in households and communities, has for long remained a challenged field of everyday life for a large bulk of the population. Particularly in the aftermath of the past few years’ catastrophic context of severe financial and economic collapses leading to a rapid inflation and urgent shortages of electricity, food, water, and fuel, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastating August 4, 2020 port explosion in Beirut, the sphere of social reproduction in Lebanon appears to have never been under such dire and unlivable conditions as currently. This applies to the majority working classes, and especially to women and minorities, queer communities, and refugees and migrant workers deemed non-citizens.

Despite the acuteness of the current financial, socio-economic, and indeed social-reproductive crisis in Lebanon, a feminist historical-materialist approach may offer insights into much more enduring structures of the current crisis of social reproduction. By tracing some of the modern, historical roots of the organization of social reproduction in Lebanon, this article seeks to expose such structures. More specifically, it seeks to depict the intimate link between, on the one hand, reproductive crises on a daily, structural level along gendered and racialized lines, and on the other the capitalist mode of (re)production in Lebanon characterized by the political elite’s centering of financial interests for the sake of unlimited capital accumulation. The inherent contradiction between unlimited capital accumulation and social reproduction, in Lebanon as anywhere else, undeniably produces crises (Fraser 2016). It does so not only because of the contradiction, but because even the processes of capital accumulation in themselves require and rely on the valuable fruits of social reproduction: labor power. By undermining the indispensable social-reproductive conditions necessary for capital, humans, and life, it is no surprise that people in Lebanon took to the streets on October 17, 2019 and for months revolted against the political elites and the political-economic system in place. The collapses, crises, and catastrophes that struck Lebanon during, as well as in the aftermath of, the popular protest movement only confirmed the anger towards a system built with inherent crisis-tendencies, but they also meant a severe deterioration of the conditions for mobilizing, protesting, and for social reproduction.

 

I. Social Reproduction under Capitalism: Feminized, Racialized, Invisibilized – and Indispensable

“Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy.” – Claudia Von Werlhof (Toupin 2018)

Domestic labor, housework, reproductive labor – while different notions keep circulating, they mostly refer to the same sphere of processes: to those manifold labor processes needed for the daily and repetitive (re)production of humans and workers’ livelihoods, such as cooking, cleaning, child/elderly/sick/community care, and biological procreation (see: Bubeck 1995; Vogel 2000; Federici 2012). In all its various formations, reproductive labor activities have long upheld a contradictory and complex status – both within the everyday workings of households and families, as well as within political and intellectual debates on its contribution to the political economy and general (re)production of society and life under capitalism.

Exactly this link – or rather lack of the same – between housework/reproductive labor and formal economic frameworks has been a key motivation for a range of feminist movements and scholars seeking to uncover the crucial role that reproductive labor and housework, historically ascribed to women and often unpaid and naturalized, plays in the overall (re)production of lives, labor, capital, and the systemic totality of societies. For example, Silvia Federici has long famously critiqued particularly Marxist theories of the political economy for ignoring such processes in the overall framework of capitalism despite actually (re)producing the cornerstone of capitalism: labor power. Along others, Federici has shown how such an ignorance further results in the omission of how capitalist divisions of labor are, amongst other structures, highly gendered, and thus a crucial (if not determinate) factor for the oppression of women under global capitalism based on the presumed binary gender relation.

Federici is particularly known for her reinterpretation of Marx’s notion of the violent processes of “primitive accumulation” in the nascent stages of capitalism (and onwards), expanding the notion to cover not only the colonization and expropriation of workers’ lands and means of (re)producing/sustaining, but further the expropriation of women’s bodies that transformed their labor and reproductive function into “a machine for the production of new workers” (and, hence, of labor power) in what became conceptualized as the “private, non-market sphere” of the households. To Federici, this resulted in the structural degradation and subordination of women to men in the social divisions of labor under capitalism (Federici 2004, 12). Alongside feminist movements and scholars, Federici’s critique and analysis came to exemplify what led to the “Domestic Labor Debate” during the ‘70s and ‘80s alongside, and inspired of, global feminist movements such as “Wages for Housework” (Toupin 2018). As such, SRT as a political, analytical, and theoretical approach stems from the feminist movement’s critique of Marxism. Many feminist movements have fought for the recognition of reproductive labor, while theorists have sought to map out the tight interconnectedness between the falsely claimed division between “productive” and “reproductive” spheres. The same body of literature has also shown how different regimes of oppression – gender, race, sexuality, citizenship, ableism – are coproduced with the production of social relations of (re)production in the systemic totality (Bhattacharya 2017, 3-14).

 

Between Theory and Practice: Commodification and Recent Debates

When it comes to the actual historical formations of social relations of reproductive labor and housework, critics have pointed to the limits of the scope of reproductive labor as gendered and unpaid. Such critiques focus on how that framework mostly is directly applicable to white middle-class women’s realities, as it particularly fails to consider the “empirical reality that Black women, immigrant women, and poor women have been engaged in paid market work in large numbers for many decades,” not least in the industry of paid, live-in domestic labor (Duffy 2007, 314).

The last decades’ neoliberal reorganization of the world economy has only intensified such formations further through processes of, amongst others, financialization, austerity measures, disinvestment in social welfare, and increasing commodification of social reproduction. Such developments have particularly led to a remarkable increase in international labor migration and an expansion of the global labor reserve, by migrant workers entering the formal labor force by carrying out commodified, and often informalized, reproductive labor in public and private sectors (Ferguson & McNally 2015). These structures, historically as well as currently, confirm how the organization of reproductive labor both are gendered and racialized. Nancy Fraser argues that the contemporary era of neoliberal capitalism and the externalization of care work onto families and communities has resulted in “a new, dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it and privatized for those who cannot” (132). More generally speaking, Fraser also points out the inherent crisis-tendencies within capitalism with regards to the omission of the value of social-reproductive processes, as she says that “[no] society that systematically undermines social reproduction can endure for long” (99) – a statement that the context of Lebanon currently, as we shall see, only seems to be proven correct.

 

Undermining Social Reproduction: The Case of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

Particularly one aspect of social reproduction in Lebanon has in recent years gained increasing attention within scholarship and activism on the matter: The organization of housework and reproductive labor carried out within Lebanese households. Also termed “the domestic service economy,” housework in modern Lebanon has a rather persistent history of a remarkable presence of live-in domestic workers in middle- and upper-class households, dating back to at least 1905 (Jureidini 2009). Sociologist Ray Jureidini has analyzed the development of the widely spread domestic service economy in Lebanon as persistently gendered and organized in exploitable ways, from involving child labor (young girls) and rural-to-urban or interregional migration at the beginning of the 1900s, to the changes during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) where the workforce became internationalized alongside similar developments in the world economy, and not least in the Gulf countries (74-101). Today, the over 250,000 mostly female migrant domestic workers in Lebanon mainly migrate from different countries in Southeast Asia and Africa and are part of a remarkable group of millions of migrant workers in Lebanon employed under highly precarious labor conditions. Migrant domestic workers, as other migrant workers, are most often recruited through the infamous Kafala (sponsorship) system; a system which exposes the clear commodification of not only the labor relations in question, but also of the workers themselves. Domestic workers are furthermore explicitly excluded from the Lebanese Labor Law of 1946 in its Article 7. Some scholars argue that “domestic work is explicitly excluded because it is classified as a ‘personal’ relationship, not as an employment relationship” (Romero et. al 2016, 96). Still intact today, this exclusion in practice means that domestic workers are prohibited from unionizing, bereft of basic labor rights and the Lebanese minimum wage, and have no access to proper legal recourse for solving labor disputes. Not surprisingly, the consequences of the organization of domestic labor as “non-market” activities count for hyper-precarious conditions for the workers in question, alongside countless cases of abuse and racist and sexist violence, physically as emotionally.

The current financial and socio-economic crisis has only confirmed the hyper-precarious position that female migrant domestic workers uphold in Lebanon, where many employers who have lost savings and income have abandoned domestic workers on streets, thus becoming homeless and unemployed with no social safety-net whatsoever to fall back to. The situation shows as a blatant example of the consequences that the organization of reproductive labor as devalued, commodified/privatized, gendered, and racialized causes for the workers carrying out the indispensable labor activities.

 

II. The Lebanese Political Economy: Financial Markets in the Center, Social Reproduction in the Periphery

Stark Inequality and the Development of the Modern Lebanese Political Economy

The organization of housework in Lebanon is a symptom of the transhistorical configuration of reproductive labor under capitalism, while it has locally specific manifestations. Most historians and scholars agree that the modern history of the political economy in Lebanon first and foremost deserves to be understood from the impact of external dominating powers.1 Up until the country of Greater Lebanon was established under the French Mandate in 1920, the equivalent area was – as the rest of the Arab region – ruled by the Ottoman Empire, except for the Maronite-ruled territory of Mount Lebanon that had achieved semi-autonomous status through interferences of European foreign powers since 1860 (Traboulsi 2007, 42-43). In this period before independence, religious institutions, missionaries, clerics, and foreign relief agencies played a key role in the provision of welfare services; an organization of welfare that had implications on the subsequent historical eras by creating social disparities among the population, as the religious communities did not have equal means to develop social institutions (Cammett 2014, 39-40).

Primarily constituted by France and England, the European powers’ heightened interest in the area of Lebanon particularly stemmed from the geostrategic location of Beirut as a “bridgehead” to gain control and access markets in the region. Fawwaz Traboulsi writes that the “Beirut-Damascus axis became the main avenue of international trade in the eastern Mediterranean” (Traboulsi 2007, 52). The establishment of new routes for international trade through Beirut strengthened by the European colonial powers collided with the gradual demise of the Ottoman Empire during the end of the 19th century and the defeat after World War 1, partly due to increasing colonial dependency and penetration of European capital (52-54). Greater Lebanon, immediately falling under French occupation (alongside with Syria), brought together seventeen religious groupings that were divided into different sects.

The French Mandate upheld close alliances with the Christian/Maronite bourgeoisie, who in return earned privileged positions in the trade structures and within the novel political establishment strategically based on sectarian patterns of rule (Daher 2016, 9-11). The French Mandate, in lines with the interest of European capitalism, further strengthened the role of Beirut as the regional hub for international import, foreign trade, and gate to the Syrian markets, and ascribed a central role to the tertiary sector of finance and banking, tourism, and service (Gates 1989, 16-17). As a result, Beirut experienced rapid urban development with a growing population, not least due to large numbers of internal rural migrants seeking employment options and refugees from civil strife and crises in the nearby region (Traboulsi 2007, 55-57). Traboulsi further links the increasing influence of Beirut to its “indigenous bourgeoisie,” and argues that much “of the city’s role in the colonial economy and the opportunities of wealth and profit it offered were exploited by its merchant class” (58).

In the years leading to independence, the area of today’s Lebanon experienced popular protests and strikes opposing the rule of the French Mandate due to harsh socio-economic conditions for the working classes. In combination with the growth of opposition to their colonial rule, World War II weakened France’s position further and mellowed the conditions for Lebanon’s independence. The transition to independence, however, did not seek to meet the demands of the majority population but instead favored the financial interests of the narrow, local commercial/financial oligarchy. This oligarchy, while still closely linked to Western capital, came to uphold great political and state power along sectarian lines and control over most parts of the country’s economic sectors, and involved a minimal role of the state (Daher 2016, 13-14).

Because of the continuation of Lebanon’s intermediary role for trade, the service sector (particularly banking) came to dominate the local economy, while the first post-independent governments scarcely invested in social and health sectors and, as such, did little to correct sectarian/regional imbalances. Similarly, other sectors such as industrial production became underprioritized. In the agricultural sector, large landowners (mostly owned by urban elite members) were favored on behalf of traditional sharecroppers, resulting in the displacement of such workers from their means of (re)production, a growth in the large-scale rural-to-urban migration, and an expansion of the growing, precarious urban working-class particularly employed within the booming service sector (14-15; Gaspard 2004, 90). Such arrangements for the economy, in combination with ongoing inflation in the aftermath of World War II, further deepened levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

While the increasing levels of social, regional, and sectarian inequalities continued during the following decades after independence, Lebanon experienced some attempts to moderate such disparities during the ‘60s, particularly under the presidency of Fuad Shehab (1958-1964). Throughout his presidency, several reforms sought to improve livelihood conditions through the development of social and economic infrastructures, investment in hospitals and education, and the establishment of the National Social Security Fund in 1963 as a supplementary amendment to the Lebanese Labor Law of 1946, which still today is subject to various critiques.2 However, despite popular labor movements and Shehab’s reform programs, the primary arrangements prioritizing finance, service, and trade remained in place, and social movements continued to evolve, carrying out protests and strikes targeting the financial oligarchy dominating through the sectarian power-sharing system, high living-costs, low wages, and calls for freedom of trade unions.

 

The Entrenchment of Sectarian and Neoliberal Politics, from the Civil War and Onwards

The broad social discontent with the political-economic situation and deepening social inequalities in Lebanon eventually translated itself into the beginning stages of the Lebanese Civil War that erupted in 1975 and lasted until 1990. For many, the Lebanese Civil War rapidly appeared to represent a sectarian-based, rather than class-based, battle. Practically, scholars have argued that this particularly happened due to the continuous overrepresentation of Christians in the local business elite contrasting with the concurring Muslim (particularly Shi’a) majority of the poor and working-class. Other factors often referred to count for the presence of an Arab nationalist discourse on reformist questions, and the weakened options to organize labor particularly in the informal sector, thus, also to organize across sectarian lines (Frangie 2012, 469-72; Daher 2016, 22-23). In intellectual debates on the Civil War, critics point to both theoretical and historical lessons opposing the sectarian-based reading of the war, such as the works of Marxist intellectual Mahdi ‘Amil. ‘Amil, being a member of the Lebanese Communist Party that played an active role in the Civil War, warned against such representations by arguing that, as it effectually happened, the “bourgeoisie would attempt to give a confessional [sectarian, red.] aspect to the class struggle in order to maintain its own dominant position,” thus imposing “itself as the representatives of subordinated classes, making the latter dependent on its political and confessional representation” (Daher 2016, 22-23). From the perspective of Lebanon and the Arab region’s position in the Periphery, ‘Amil generally sought to argue that it represents a “Colonial Mode of Production” (CMOP), which Samer Frangie explains as a concept which, leaning on dependency theory, “represents a colonial formation, or a capitalist formation whose development is governed by the structural relations of dependency with the imperial center” (Frangie 2012, 468-69). Building on this framework, ‘Amil (along with other theorists) presented sectarianism – as constituted in the Lebanese context – as a specific colonial social formation used as a dominating tool by the local bourgeoisie to remain in power in accordance with contemporary capitalist structures of dependency.

Keeping such insights in mind, the outcome of the Civil War appears to be one of defeat for the majority working-class struggle. The turn towards sectarian politics, not least following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the continuous defeats of the coalition National Liberation Movement, was further entrenched by the various sectarian militias – many established as political parties – upholding increasing control of resources, distribution, and trade (Baylouny 2010, 62-63). The militias’ control, while being rather easily obtained in the war-context due to the minimal and centralized role of the state and its provisions (Cammett 2014, 44-49), would soon turn into large business enterprises. As such, Lebanon experienced a resurgence of sectarian groups developing their own social welfare-programs, schools, and private universities in the territories they controlled, alongside the growing role of international and domestic NGOs providing social provision, while the limited state-provisioned social services saw a major downfall in the war-period (45-48). This also caused a rise in the employment of migrant domestic workers from abroad in households for those who could afford it; in other words, increasing privatization measures within social reproduction resulted in simultaneous commodification processes. Such nonstate, militia welfare-programs exacerbated regional disparities in access to social services (Baylouny 2010, 62-63). The war further resulted in expulsion of human surplus by several reasons. Estimates suggest that nearly a third of the population left the country during the war, while it resulted in various massacres in the Palestinian camps, and (what is believed to be) the over 70,000 deaths (some account for hundreds of thousands), nearly 100,000 injured and around 20,000 who “disappeared” during the Civil War (Traboulsi 2007, 238; Elghossain 2020).

The Ta’if Agreement of 1989 – a “National Reconciliation Accord” put in place by the Arab League-initiative and backed by the U.S. (in its role as the current imperial power globally) – led to an end of the armed conflict and further entrenched the sectarian political system, while simultaneously strengthening the political position of the Sunni and Shi’a elites.3 This was followed by a general continuity of the pre-war arrangements of the Lebanese political economy, leaning even more in favor of the tertiary and rentier activities “at the expense of the productive sectors, which suffered most of the destruction from the war” (Traboulsi 2007, 238). Furthermore, the Ta’if Agreement directed the country’s economy on a path of neoliberal/economic liberalization and privatization measures, which Daher writes “had been pursued elsewhere in the Middle East since the 1980s, with an emphasis on increased integration into the global economy and private sector growth” (Daher 2016, 37), and as such in line with similar global trends in the neoliberal era since the 70s. The Lebanese state also started providing financial support for nonstate providers of social welfare with minimal oversight of their activities (Cammett 2014, 50).

The Ta’if Agreement, as such, sought to reestablish Lebanon’s financial position in the region by further opening to foreign investment flows for the banking, financial, and real estate sectors, and urban reconstruction. The outcome, not surprisingly, was a growing public debt and failure of the various succeeding governments to tackle the continuous social and economic problems such as poverty and high inequality levels, low wages, unemployment, and poor quality of social services (Baroudi in Daher 2016, 39). Sufficient to mention is the support of the neoliberal reform processes that followed the Civil War from local political actors, international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank,4 and from regional investors, particularly the Gulf states (70). Such policies became dominant in the following years, in addition to increasing political instability partly due to the impact of regional conflicts.5

 

Foreign Labor – the Lowering of the Costs of Labor and (Re)Production

The entanglement of regional political conflicts/developments in Lebanon has recently been visible considering the Syrian Uprising in 2011. Since late 2012, Lebanon has experienced a huge influx of Syrian refugees, adding to the high numbers of foreign workers and refugees with temporary status in the Lebanese demography and labor force (Longuenesse & Tabar 2014, 6). Generally, the socio-economic consequences of the Lebanese political economy are reflected in the situation for the over one million temporary foreign workers who since the Civil War increasingly have occupied various sectors of low-wage and informalized labor positions – particularly in construction, agriculture, industry, and service – bereft of all social protection (6-7). Cheap/informal foreign labor provides options for employers to reduce their costs of production and labor in the highly unregulated and competitive profit-seeking market, which is further evident by the lack of government policies to protect local production or the labor force (16-17). The conditions for foreign workers in Lebanon, especially defined by severe precarity and temporality, fall along the lines of contemporary structures of the global economy which has seen a massive expansion of the global labor reserve during the last decades as a result of accelerating processes of austerity, commodification, dispossession, and primitive accumulation (Ferguson & McNally 2015, 9-10). The introduction of the Kafala (sponsorship) system in Lebanon during the Civil War, which is still in place, as the de-facto regulatory system for foreign/migrant labor in Lebanon (as well as in other countries in the region), has generated easy ways for employers to access cheap, informal labor in exploitable ways structured along dependency, as workers are bound to their employer to gain residence and work permit (AlShehabi 2019). A huge, global profit-making industry of private recruitment-companies in sending/receiving countries facilitate the labor migration and recruit on behalf of employers, for fees, migrant workers from primarily Southeast Asian and African countries. The migrant workers’ living and working conditions have often been compared to slave-like conditions, and civil society and activist groups are doing what they can to help in a context that gain little if no attention from the minimal role of the different governments in Lebanon (see: Human Rights Watch 2008; Anti-Racism Movement 2019; ILO 2016).

As for the broader popular and working classes in Lebanon generally speaking, living standards have been declining for years.6 While foreign workers meet severely harsh living and working conditions, such circumstances are – despite obvious differences – shared amongst a much bigger bulk of the overall popular classes in Lebanon, disclosing the high levels of inequality and precarity spanning into the everyday social-reproductive structural conditions for workers, households, and communities. Just the past two years, the levels of poverty and inequality in Lebanon have exploded due to the immense financial and socio-economic crisis in place. As shown, the current crisis did not evolve out of a void, but rather out of crisis-ridden structures of the political system and economy mainly focusing on the role of Lebanon as a financial hub for the region at the expense of the indispensable sphere of social reproduction.

 

III. The Workings of Social Reproduction in the Shadows

Sectarian Welfare: Privatized for the Many, Commodified for the Few

Sectarianism, as the constitutional structure complementing the state-structure based on the laissez-faire free market economy, impacts the status of Lebanese nationals in terms of which sect/“community” they belong to, rather than being addressed as “citizens.” This organization of the national population has wide effects on people’s social and social-reproductive life as political and social rights are achieved through one’s community belonging (Majed 2017). In practice, sectarianism in Lebanon is shaped by a specific legal context of a Personal Status Code that subscribes anything from legislation on marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, birth, and death to the respective laws of the 15 religious courts of each sect/community, and furthermore works as the channel to access political representation.

As described above, welfare and social services in Lebanon have a long history of being privatized and accessed through alternative sources than state-provisioned programs. Several scholars argue that citizens who demonstrate loyalties to sectarian organizations expect and precede receiving social benefits, thus creating a system of communal clientelism/patronage.7 Effectively, writes Hannes Bauman, “the political economy of sectarianism is one where a small politically connected elite appropriates the bulk of economic surplus and redistributes it through communal clientelism” (Bauman in Majed 2017). Rima Majed further explains that in Lebanon, such workings of sectarianism effectively “lie in the system of non-state (or para-state) welfare and security, known as clientelism” that creates a system of dependence where, “while the upper ruling class uses sectarianism as a tool of control to maintain their position, the working classes abide by the sectarian rules of the game in order to access welfare and protection or to avoid sanctions” (ibid.). Majed further agrees with the thesis of ‘Amil, arguing that sectarianism effectively, by continuously reproducing itself this way, enables itself to “co-opt most attempts to organize according to class interests from below” (ibid.).

Despite differences in degrees of state-involvement, the welfare regime and social service-provision have remained a highly privatized realm within the political economy of modern Lebanon, leading to commodification processes (for the few who can afford it) and the prevalence of para/nonstate providers of welfare in the form of sectarian parties and NGOs for the poor communities and temporary foreign workers with no social protection. Most often, the extent, quality, and access to social welfare depend on people’s social position, particularly regarding class and citizenship and, in quite some cases, sectarian affiliation/belonging. As such, in the formation of Lebanese political economy, the centering of trade and financial interests has effectively pushed public concerns of social reproduction and welfare to the periphery, making it a field of contestation and a means to gain political support that has broad implications for the organization of social reproduction and, ultimately, everyday reproductive labor treated as “private” and “non-social.”

 

Reproductive Justice Delayed

The specific (colonial) formation of the Lebanese political economy and system, as structured from its geographical location in a dependency-relation to the Center of global capitalism, stretch into the organization of other primary social-reproductive conditions and rights, particularly concerning family relations and regulations. Local and international organizations as well as feminist movements have long critiqued the Lebanese Personal Status Law governed by religious courts as the de-facto family law system in Lebanon and deemed such legal structures gender-discriminatory. Practiced and directed by 15 different religious courts rather than as part of the centralized Lebanese legal framework, critiques have particularly sought to expose the laws as treating Lebanese citizens differently in key aspects of their lives. Critiques have particularly reported the court system as being gender-discriminatory, pointing to continuous unequal outcomes for women, queer people, and even children’s rights by being structured around the submission to the authority of a husband’s interests and needs in the institution of the heterosexual marriage (Lebanon Support 2017). In a report, Human Rights Watch (2015) confirms the critiques carried out by various local organizations that specifically target women’s fewer rights than men to access divorce, high chances of losing maternal custody-rights for their child/children in the termination of marriage, high fees during legal proceedings, lack of legal response to domestic abuse/violence and marital rape – equally inadequate within Lebanese civil/criminal law, and the discrimination of women concerning distribution of marital property following a divorce and during marriages with no calculations of who has contributed to the daily (re)production of the household (6).

In addition to the allocation of legal family proceedings to the para/nonstate religious courts, critiques have also targeted other parts of Lebanese legislations as gender-discriminatory. Lebanese citizenship laws, for example, have – in addition to facilitating systems of “welfare clientelism/patronage” and precarious/temporary conditions for “non-citizens” – a wide impact on racially and economically marginalized communities’ access to reproductive justice. The term reproductive justice stems from demands for the recognition of – and necessary means to – reproductive labor, as it presents an approach that, in the words of Black women’s health activist Loretta Ross places “reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families, and communities” (Ross 2006). Reproductive justice targets what some also denote as reproductive oppression, referring to how “reproductive health issues affect people disproportionately according to social configurations and hierarchies of class, race, and gender,” (ibid.) and more specifically, writes Ross, targets “the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction” (2).

In an article from 2018 on reproductive justice in Lebanon, Rola Yasmine and Batoul Sukkar from the local feminist organization The A Project8 contend that the “Lebanese law has failed to protect and substantiate the basic human rights of women, refugees, migrants, queers, transgenders, working-class people, incarcerated people, people with disabilities, people living with HIV, and sex workers” (Yasmine & Sukkar 2018). Particularly on the gender-discriminatory impact of Lebanese citizenship laws, Yasmine and Sukkar mention how in Lebanon, nationality is passed on through parental bloodline, making it impossible for Lebanese women to pass their nationality to their non-citizen spouses and children, which only Lebanese men can – making their children face state harassment with regards to health access, legal residency, employability etc. As such, citizenship laws – alongside family laws – facilitate gendered relations of dependency within family relations that, effectively, restrict women’s bodily/reproductive autonomy and prioritize the presence of a Lebanese husband. The reality of such laws further manifest in the restricted access to abortion which is only perceived justifiable if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, and as such has created illegal and dangerous channels for women to access abortion (ibid.).

The reproductive oppression of working-class and racialized communities in Lebanon, as such, both stem from the formation of the political economy and the confessional governance system that have created an organization of social reproduction as a peripheral and privatized sphere. Such an organization facilitates particularly gendered systems of dependency through the restriction of women and other individuals’ reproductive autonomy, stretching into family and kinship relations, and furthermore it highly stigmatizes those deemed non-citizens who suffer from severe restrictions to social welfare and reproductive health/autonomy. In return, such arrangements have further reduced the costs of labor and (re)production, and particularly the costs of (re)producing the labor force; permanently delaying reproductive justice and autonomy for the sake of profit and capital accumulation.

 

IV. The 2019 Protests: Against Financialization and the Crisis of Social Reproduction

When the largest popular protest movement in decades set off throughout Lebanon on October 17, 2019, it joined relays with a range of uprisings already happening or about to happen within the same year across the globe, and especially throughout the Global South in the Periphery. While different in their specific demands and critiques, most global public attention analyzed the movements as responses to increasing systemic social problems, high inequality rates, corruption and anti-democratic conditions, deteriorating environmental conditions, and continuous neoliberal measures often facilitated by international actors/institutions and imposed by local authoritarian governments.9 Moreover, and certainly in the case of Lebanon, scholars have pointed to the financialization of the world economy and local economies during the last decades as a crucial factor to understand the economic crises (often linked to high public debt) that spurred protests in the Global South (Salti 2019). The financialization has resulted in cases of “subordinate financialization” of many countries in the Global South, such as Lebanon, where the pegging of local currencies to the U.S. dollar to enter the world markets has ruined domestic economies and industrial capital by promoting financial interests and institutions – leading to increasing public debt (often facilitated by IMF and World Bank imposing structural adjustment programs through loan-conditionalities to struggling countries in the Global South) (Lapavitsas 2020).

In Lebanon, the centering of finance, the banking sector, and international trade in the modern political economy has simultaneously resulted in, amongst many other aspects, underdeveloped productive domestic industries (such as the industrial and agricultural sector), a major informal sector of low-wage labor and a concurrent fragmentation of organized labor, high living-costs and unemployment rates, damaged infrastructures, and a peripheral organization of social reproduction as feminized, racialized, and privatized/commodified. Furthermore, the initiatives taken by the Lebanese government to deal with its growing debt – estimated to be equivalent to over 175 % of the domestic GDP in May 2020 (Hinrichsen 2020) – have continued to follow the lines of austerity measures, for example through increasing taxation on basic commodities. As in several other countries (such as Chile, Ecuador, Iran, and Iraq), new tax implementations (alongside other crisis-signs) eventually led the popular classes in Lebanon to mobilize against the deepening socio-economic crisis. The protest movement mobilized millions of people across class, sectarian, and regional divides to the streets and carried out major strikes, road blockages across the country, shutdowns of schools, universities, and banks, and established a myriad of new organizations and activist groups evolving to mobilize and carry out demands for systemic change (Khneisser 2019). Instantaneously, the country’s crisis sank deeper and deeper.

The Lebanese currency, the lira, has rapidly lost up to 90 % of its value against the U.S. dollar, resulting in the powerful local banks carrying out capital control of people’s savings that they cannot access, a major fall in the value of wages simultaneously with a major price hike of essential products such as food and medicine – since around 80 % of all commodities are imported in US dollars. This also counts for immense shortages of fuel, and thus of electricity for households, hospitals, and general infrastructures across the country. The long-term effects of the (subordinate) financialized formation of the political economy in Lebanon has over a period of a few years intensified all inherent crisis-tendencies and caused an enormous catastrophic all-encompassing crisis, leaving the indispensable sphere of social reproduction to be a struggle by every hour of the day.

From this perspective, the current, intensified crisis in Lebanon that the people are responding to can be paraphrased as an intensification of the permanent crisis of social reproduction under capitalism, threatening the very basic needs and daily means to (re)produce themselves. The already high numbers of people and households living under the poverty line are growing side to side with the catastrophic consequences of the Beirut Port blast (exposing, in the most tremendously traumatizing and destructive ways, the political elite’s deep ignorance towards the majority population), increasing inflation, shortages of essential commons, and increasing unemployment. Put differently, the current crisis of social reproduction in Lebanon confirms its entanglement with the overall financial and systemic crisis, and as such exposes the inherent crisis-tendencies and contradictions between social reproduction and financialization/capital accumulation. In the current context of Lebanon, it seems ever more fitting to reinstate the notion of the global reserve army of labor as it, in classical Marxist terms, implies to represent a “surplus population,” meaning that in moments of crisis, the disposable character of the workers’ conditions enables employers to easily render them unemployed to reduce the costs of labor and (re)production. It further exposes how the costs of labor serve as a cornerstone of regulating capital accumulation at the expense of most people’s reproductive, social, and political life; especially for the “essential workers” carrying out labor of social reproduction, often gendered, racialized, and highly devalued. Not least in the case of the over 1 million migrant/foreign workers generally living under conditions that, as a consequence of lowering costs of labor and (re)production, barely meet their own basic needs of reproduction. In other words, the current situation in Lebanon seems to suggest that the (re)production of labor power, and the whole sphere of social reproduction, takes place in accordance with (and “inside”) the capitalist mode of (re)production – including its inherent, and currently intensified crisis-tendencies. Conclusively, such inherent crisis-tendencies must increasingly become a viable part of the systemic critique that the people of Lebanon and elsewhere in the world facilitate in unexpected and renewed ways – as a struggle for the value of life.


  • 1. See for example: Traboulsi 2007, 2014; Daher 2016; Gates 1989; Gaspard 2004; Makdisi 2000
  • 2. Critiques of for example: The Code’s strict regulation on the freedom of trade unions, its failure to address unemployment and many basic rights of workers, and arbitrary distinctions between public/private sector workers as well as female/male workers in several legislations. Critiques have further targeted the Law’s explicit exclusion of groups of workers from its legislation, which other than domestic workers account for agricultural workers, businesses with only family members employed, government employees, and day and temporary workers, as well as legislation on non-Lebanese/foreign workers exempting them from the law’s regulations and who instead must obtain renewable short-term work permits.
  • 3. Historians explain this with the fact that small parts of these communities, who had otherwise upheld the large majority of the poor – particularly the Shi’a population – had changed their structural class position to join ranks of the bourgeoisie.
  • 4. The IMF and the World Bank particularly played a role through the Paris I/II/III Conferences (2001, 2002, 2007) organized to seek external support to the growing public debt and revitalization of the economy,
  • 5. For example, the political stability of the elites in power became threatened after the assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 (eventually succeeded by his son, Saad Hariri) which led to protests demanding the removal of Syrian troops in the country. The Israeli Invasion of Lebanon in 2006 caused severe destructions of lives and infrastructure in mainly South Beirut and had further political implications, especially for the increasingly popular role of Hezbollah, the Shi’a-affiliated militarized and political party with growing influence and de-facto monopoly on representing the armed resistance against Israel.
  • 6. In an article from 2019, Joseph Daher summarizes some overall stark inequality numbers already before the current financial and socio-economic crisis. For example, Daher shows that between 2010 and 2016, “only one third of the working-age population had a job,” and between “40 and 50 percent of Lebanese residents lacked access to social assistance,” “temporary foreign workers, estimated at 1 million, were denied all social protections,” while “half of workers and more than a third of the country’s farmers were below the poverty line.” Concerning the other end of the scale, Daher writes that for example, between 2005-2014 “the richest 10 percent pocketed, on average, 56 percent of the national income.” (Daher 2019)
  • 7. See for example: Cammett and Issar 2010, 381-421; Majed 2017; Traboulsi 2014, 241; Cammett 2014, 134-35).
  • 8. See: https://www.theaproject.org/
  • 9. See for example: Amnesty International 2019; BBC 2019
Notes: 
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