Proletarianisation under neoliberalism in the Arab world

Published on RWER, by Ali Kaddri, April 24, 2012.

Between 1980 and 2010 the share of the rural to total population in the Arab world dropped significantly from about 60 percent to around 40 percent. In absolute terms, an estimated seventy million people left the countryside to urban centres at home.[1] This conservative estimate is nearly equivalent to the total number of rural-urban migrants since the beginning of the twentieth century until 1980.  

While this exodus was occurring, the regional rate of unemployment was rising and the share of labour in the form of wages fell to around a quarter of national income.[2] By 2007, the Arab League declared that more than half the Arab population was living at less than the two-dollar per day benchmark.[3] Basic food production was decreasing and food imports were rising in this high per capita food dependent and scarcest-water area globally. Around half the population in the Arab world was spending more than half of its income on purchasing food.[4] When speculation reached the commodity market and basic food prices rose, scuffles before bakeries in Egypt resulted in several fatalities.[5] The agricultural sector was shrinking relative to the economy. The productive economy, in turn, was de-industrialising and retreating relative to oil and geopolitical rents.[6] The deconstruction sustained by the agricultural sector, in particular, led to massive dislocation throughout the neoliberal age.

The explanation of this phenomenon afforded by the class of neoclassical economy models known as dual-economy models are unfitting tools for understanding why and how this process could undergo unchecked for three decades. Dual-economy models purport to provide an explanation of migration from the less developed rural sector in relation to modern sector wages; however, in an Arab context, the rationale for migration on the basis of individual choice between two competing sectors is irrelevant. Moreover, the very idea that an individual residing in rural areas is afforded with the luxury of choice is insidiously ideological. Whatever choice was available to the individual was subsidiary to the choice that was made by the comprador/rentier class in respect to social and macro policy. The comprador/rentier class in charge of development in the Arab world, which personified a cross border alliance of local and foreign capital, had a choice between a neoliberal pattern universalising and facilitating the usurpation of national wealth, and a strategy based on the recirculation of wealth and the redeployment of real resources for development within the national economies. It chose the former. By doing so, it set in motion a whole dynamic accelerating the disengagement of direct producers from the land. Peasants and farmers were forcibly dislocated; the choice left to any individual was that of the necessity of bare survival. The alternatives, with which the individual is afforded as a result of this macro policy context, are further narrowed by successive violent encroachments on the rights of working people to two wretched conditions: the abjection of the countryside or misery of urban squalor … //

… In the past three decades, most Arab countries joined the WTO. This period represents greater openness in agricultural markets and, hence, greater susceptibility to price fluctuations and import surges. An FAO commentary on the  impact of this liberal economic climate on the developing agricultural  markets maintains that ‘[as] countries reduce tariffs and bind them at low levels, they become increasingly vulnerable to external agricultural market instability and to import surges that could destroy viable, well established or nascent production activity.’[8] Intraregional Arab trade is at around ten percent of trade with the rest of the world despite a Generalised Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA). A more interlocked and interdependent Arab food market provides an element to national and inter-Arab security that shifts the power platform making the base of international negotiations tilt towards Arab countries. Neither the Arab comprador-class nor their international partners would support empowering working people in the Arab world with the freedom that comes from food independence. The comprador class and its cross border allies ensure that all integration efforts remain ineffective.

In the poorer countries of the Arab world (Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, etc.) with around forty percent of the population already suffering problems of malnutrition, the slightest decline in the level of domestic supply runs the risk of being translated into a reduction of consumption per capita. Over the past twenty years, average basic food consumption per capita declined. Notably as well for the same period, the production of basic foods per capita exhibited a downward trend, and the slack in the level of domestic supply was covered by higher imports (see Table 3).[9] … //

… In most of the developing world, the proletarianisation process gained momentum as of 1980 or the onset of the neoliberal age.[16] The more easily universalised value became through pricing by the dollar on one end, the more self-particularising and repressive became the labour process of value creation, on the other. Increasingly, the remnants of the declining rural economy became the social support mechanism for the peasant who is a potential wage earner but is unlikely to ever find a decent wage paying job. The failure of the rural sector to deliver sufficient social support raised the spectre of crisis, especially as freer food imports from the North degraded the basis for local sustenance and reduced the share of the consumption bundle which is produced by local means.[17] There are social forces locked into a social relationship and shaping the process of lowering the amount of food produced for immediate consumption by the farmers and, subsequently, their removal from the land. These are unequivocally the autocratic regimes and their Western allies who, as value is held in the universal form of the dollar, become one and the same.

In the Arab world, matters took a turn for the worse pursuant to successive Arab military defeats. The conditions for surrender were cast in a structural and implicit way to guarantee the exposure of working class security and, consequently, a diminution of state sovereignty. Depriving the labouring classes of security, including food security, represented a necessary component that would ensure long-term erosion of state autonomy over policy. The Arab working population through the medium of the state no longer owned its policies for development. There was more than just a commodity mode of integration with the Western world underpinning this relationship. The co-opting of the Arab bourgeoisie- its metamorphosis into a pure comprador class, by the western financial elite was by the time of the Arab spring nearly complete and the resultant disarticulation within an Arab formation became acute to the point of explosion.
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