Thursday, June 13, 2013

Is “Lebanon” the Tea Party Dream Future?

Lebanon is a middle-income country with a per-capita GDP about equivalent to the less wealthy states of Europe (Croatia, Russia, Bulgaria) and some of the more prosperous economies of Latin America (Uruguay, Panama, Mexico).  It’s capital, Beirut, is a lively metropolis, housing about half of the country’s 4 million permanent inhabitants, and the site of a flourishing business, banking and high-tech economy with a frenetic pace of construction that is visible everywhere you look.  And yet amid this hyper-commercialism and rampant but unregulated commercial building, the country is a mess, even a nightmare.  

A few illustrations:

--Electricity is cut frequently, supposedly according to a regular schedule, but often unpredictable; in Beirut power is available on the average 12-16 hours a day, sometimes less.  The government attributes the shortage of power to destruction of infrastructure during the Civil War after 1975. But what is the excuse for failing to remedy the situation 23 years after the war’s end?  People are forced to cope with the power shortages in whatever way they can.  The poor do without, some better-off families have back-up battery supply and others their own generators.  In Beirut there are private power suppliers in many neighborhoods with their own ramshackle distribution networks that kick in when the public power is off.  Where I am staying, in South Beirut, low-amperage power – enough to run some lights, a TV or a computer -- is available when the public supply is down at an additional monthly cost of double what the public power company charges. The wealthy, of course, have made their own arrangements and are scarcely inconvenienced by the power cuts.

--Lebanon is probably the best-watered country in the Middle East.  It has many rivers and even now in June there is snow on the mountaintops of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon peaks.  Yet in Beirut, what comes out of the taps is saltwater, literally, and it is undrinkable.  It’s even hard to wash, as soap does not lather in this water.  Pipes and bathroom fixtures are corroded and sometimes impossible to maintain. Why? Uncontrolled development and poor protection of the local aquifer has allowed it to be completely infiltrated by seawater.  So everyone has to buy potable water, at significant expense.  Again, the rich make their own arrangements.

--Almost all the beautiful shoreline of Beirut is private, with swanky beach and swim clubs, fancy restaurants and yacht moorings.  The only access to the sea for Beirut’s poor is the litter-strewn Ramlet al-Bayda public beach, which recent press reports have shown to be heavily polluted by illegal private sewer connections from the unregulated housing developments just inland.  So if you are poor in Beirut and you want to bathe in the sea you are literally forced to swim in shit.

--In fact, almost everything is privatized in Lebanon, even politics, some would say. The government is postponing parliamentary elections due this month because of the unstable situation in the country But few take notice and few care very much, outside of the elites contending for the spoils of public office and the favors they can sell to influential business interests.

--Of course, inequality is very extreme here.  Lebanon is a playground for Gulf Sheiks and wealthy tycoons from all over the world, while the poor can barely survive.  And the job prospects for those without family or government connections is further undermined by the ubiquitous low-paid labor of impoverished Syrians and Palestinians or imported semi-free workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Africa.

Tax avoidance and corruption here is rampant; commercialism and finance reign.  In Lebanon, private interests are supreme and the state is so feeble it barely exists. By some measures it’s not even a state at all, failed or otherwise. If we take Max Weber’s definition as an entity which claims a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order” then Lebanon clearly does not qualify.  Even armed force is largely privatized here.

Rather Lebanon is a state that never quite came fully into existence out of its colonial past and the contending claims of locality, religious sect and family.

This brings us back to the Tea Party reference in the title of this report.  The Rightwing fantasy of shrinking the state until it is small enough to “drown in a bathtub” is not necessary here. It is already a reality.  Efforts to create a modern state in Lebanon were thwarted by its history and then drowned in blood during the decades of civil war. What developed instead was a kind of commercial anarchy, a free-market “state of nature.”

If you want to know what an Ayn Rand or Tea Party fantasy of the future might look like, you can see it now in Lebanon.

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