Economic liberalism and social revolts in Africa and the Middle East

By Vincent Bonnecase (CNRS) and Leyla Dakhli (Principal Investigator, ERC DREAM)

This article, initially published on the Cambridge Core blog, accompanies the IRSH (International Review of Social History) Special Issue When ‘Adjusted’ People Rebel: Economic Liberalization and Social revolts in Africa and the Middle East (1980s to the Present Day).

Since the 1970s, all countries in the world have, in one way or another, been subjected to fiscal austerity policies, coupled with a dramatic decline in social spending, a steep rise in price and trade liberalisation, and a wide spread of the entrepreneurial model and of prioritizing financial economic concerns in the private and public spheres. These developments, which were mostly accompanied by an assumed conversion to neo-liberalism, have unfolded in very different ways in different parts of the world. In the industrialised countries of Europe and North America, these processes were implemented largely by democratically elected governments –­ even if they were strongly backed by and linked to the interests of the national business community – and thus took on a strongly domestic dimension. The most striking examples are the Reagan administrations in the United States and the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom, both of which led their countries into profound and long-lasting political, economic and social transformations, often summarized as the end of the welfare state. But in the so-called “developing” countries, the conversion to neo-liberalism has taken on a strong exogenous dimension, as it has been carried out at the request of the international financial institutions: in response to the high level of national debt and the slow growth of national economies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have drawn up structural adjustment plans with the intention of restoring public finances, stimulating trade and putting these countries back on the road to economic development.

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