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Seeds of Revolts

Younes Abouyoub is a researcher at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. He recently published an article on the ecological dimension of the Darfur conflict in the journal Race, Gender & Class.

Rami Zurayk, Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring (Just World Books, 2011), 250 pages, $21, paperback.

When the Arab peoples took to the street, they were not only shouting “The people want the downfall of the regime!” but also—and most of all—“Liberty, Dignity, and Social Justice.” The absence of dignity and social justice points to the larger question of the neoliberal economic world order and the post-colonial states, which are integrated into the world-system, not as peers to the developed countries of the capitalist center, but as dependent peripheral subordinates. The desperate act of self-immolation by the young Tunisian produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi poignantly illustrates the inequity of this global system. Zurayk’s book is a severe indictment of how the cruel economic order affects agriculture and food sovereignty in the Arab world.

During the colonial encounter, the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries witnessed fundamental transformations in their social and economic structures. These changes were imposed from without, and served the development of capitalist states of the center at the expense of the peoples of the periphery. The post-independence states failed to carry out programs of political emancipation and economic development, and ended up only perfecting the colonial legacy of efficient authoritarian administrative states acting as proxies for Northern economic exploitation. This has been the cause of the numerous ills faced by these peripheral nations after they gained their nominal independence. Neo-imperialism generated a network of class alliances—classes engendered by the development of imperialism itself—in the countries of the global South, MENA included, and in a later stage created an ever-increasing reserve army of underpaid, exploitable, and pauperized labor. The comprador bourgeoisie and big landowners benefited from the integration of their respective countries in the world-system by allying themselves with the capitalist center—at the expenses of their own peoples.

Food, Farming and Freedom is composed of a collection of essays published in different newspapers and on Zurayk’s Land and People blog. In it, Zurayk discusses the plight of the declining Arab agriculture, issues of food insecurity, and the dire situation of the small Arab farmers. He shows how projects designed to sustain rural livelihoods are driven to failure by Lebanese state policies that favored the importation of heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States and the European Union at the expense of local producers. These policies are severely weakening the family-farming sector, and the rare public policies aimed at supporting the agriculture sector primarily buoy industrialized, large-scale, export-oriented producers rather than small holders, contributing to the collapse of the latter in the developing countries. Meanwhile farmers in industrialized countries gain comparative advantages through state subsidies, even though it is common wisdom that EU and U.S. agricultural subsidies are a major distorting element in the world food trade.

Zurayk exposes Israeli colonial policies relating to land grabs and the destruction of the social fabric both in Palestine and Lebanon, but he primarily blames the corrupt Lebanese political elite which has been “the main agent of destruction of rural societythrough its blind adoption of the most extreme version of the market fundamentalist creed.” He touches upon the ecological degradation resulting from large-scale, export-oriented agricultural production built on monocultures, with their excessive reliance on agrochemicals and negative impact on biodiversity. This type of agriculture is a major cause of social dislocation as poor rural people are driven out of farming to become underpaid farm workers who lack any form of social security or protection under labor laws. Those pundits who insist that export-oriented farming is good for business usually fail to mention that profits accrue to a small minority at the expense of the pauperized majority.

The neoliberal onslaught sets limitations on the state in general, and in the peripheries in particular, to the extent that states have surrendered to the dictates of the unelected and non-democratic forces operating in the world economic environment. Following the neoliberal ideology of the Washington Consensus, the policies imposed by the international financial institutions, such as the structural adjustments of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, succeeded in ensuring that debt repayment and economic restructuring in the states of the periphery incurred very high social costs. Throughout the 1980s the developed triad, especially the United States, imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on most countries of the South. Formulated as loan conditions by northern governments and the international financial institutions, these policies mandated macroeconomic policy changes that obligated recipient nations to liberalize their trade and investment policies, and open their markets to competition from Western companies. Based on a short-term, profit-maximization model, which perpetuates poverty and inequality, SAPs have required indebted MENA countries to reduce spending on vital sectors like health, education, and development—while prioritizing policies like debt repayment. In effect, the IMF and World Bank have demanded from the comprador elite in several MENA countries that they lower their country’s standard of living to create an exploitable labor class, and then open their markets to the subsidized commodities of the developed countries.

Nevertheless, for the millions disillusioned by the potential of popular resistance to the imperial/neoliberal order, Zurayk concludes that a better world is within reach—provided that people abandon the wishful thinking of attempting to humanize the neoliberal, free market-based system. He says, “Nothing will work short of a systemic revolution.” Humanity needs a system that puts human development rather than profit at the center of all policies: “The weak do not have to remain so forever.” With the appropriate preparation and alliances, people can defy the dominant status-quo and stake a claim to a new world. Zurayk’s book introduces us to many of the issues related to agricultural imperialism, land grabs, and ecology. Although central to the Arab awakening, these issues have been deliberately ignored by mainstream media and experts. Thanks to this book, the reader will understand that the millions of Arab demonstrators have been victimized for too long by cruel policies implemented by local comprador elites who bow to the dictates of the Washington Consensus. The Arab awakening is not only about livelihood, but also a cry for dignity.

Those who sow misery, reap revolts!

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