Economic liberalism and social revolts in Africa and the Middle East

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.

The 2021 Special Issue of the International Review of Social History“When ‘Adjusted’ People Rebel: Economic Liberalization and Social revolts in Africa and the Middle East (1980s to the Present Day)”, looks at the revolts and other, often contentious, social responses to the forced liberalization programs in Africa and the Middle East from the 1970s to the present day, which are generally captured under the umbrella of structural adjustment policies. The contributions in this Special Issue discuss the riots, demonstrations and rebellions, but also the brutal repressions orchestrated by the authorities in power, with the indirect support of international organisations, often resulting in the death of rioters and demonstrators. But the authors also revisit more discrete elements of everyday life, such as the ways in which governments are ridiculed, how people dealt with price increases or wage cuts, or how the economic crisis was perceived in reference to one’s own daily life. In doing so, we invite a reversal of perspective. Economic policies, their broad directions and their supposed necessity are often viewed through the prism of macroeconomic balances, budgetary imperatives and political rhetoric – even that of opponents. This Special Issue has its focus on the economy from below, as it is understood and experienced on a daily basis by the popular classes of Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Niger, Togo and Tunisia: it is the multiple social responses to neo-liberal adjustment policies in these different countries of Middle East Africa that we have tried to recount.

Yet what has happened in this part of the world can also shed light on what other regions have experienced, are experiencing today, or may likely experience in the near future. Elements of our recent history provide evidence of this. While public debt has long been considered to be much more a problem of poor countries than of rich, yet equally indebted, countries, the financial crisis of 2008 has made clear that this problem is shared more globally, with very concrete consequences for national policies of both poor and rich countries. Since then, some European countries have been placed under the supervision of international institutions, forcing elected governments to implement the exact opposite of the policies they committed themselves to when they were elected. Was a country like Greece not equally “adjusted” in 2015, even if the wording is no longer the same? More recently, the global coronavirus pandemic has gone hand in hand with a relative decline in economic growth and activity, with a drastic widening of budget deficits, even in countries that were seemingly best equipped to deal with crises. While the effects and consequences of this present crisis are not yet fully visible, there is every reason to believe that they will be significant and that austerity policies and policies to “support economic recovery”, with grave social consequences, may have a bright future ahead of them.

No doubt there will then also be revolts and other social responses to such policies carried out in the name of economic rationality. Exploring such revolts, and understanding what they are or can be, based on what they have been in some parts of the world, will, again, be a major challenge, like it was with this Special Issue. Admittedly, the political situation has changed considerably since the 1970s. The political organizations and ideological frameworks that carry social anger and give meaning to it have not necessarily remained the same, and modes and repertoires of action have changed profoundly. The classic forms of protest, such as strikes and demonstrations, have been juxtaposed with other types of protest, sometimes more violent, sometimes more fragmented, or adjusted to modern technological developments. But there is still a huge amount of social anger directed at the effects of neo-liberal policies. This anger manifests itself in many places around the world, and is taking increasingly radical forms even as we write this: just look at the situation in the popular neighbourhoods of Tunisia, or in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Everywhere, the social and economic restrictions imposed in the fight against the pandemic have sharpened divisions and increased inequalities. New subsistence crises emerge whenever the day-to-day economy can no longer find its place. There is no doubt that, in the short or medium term, social anger can impose other logics, other necessities than those outlined by an economic realism of which the political and economic orthodoxy tells us that “there is no alternative”. Focusing on revolts and expressions of anger is not only looking at these events through the eyes of the “losers” of globalisation, it is also about understanding precisely the alternatives that have been sketched out by the women and men who have spoken out, and are speaking out now.

Read all articles in the special issue

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