An interview with Nick Beams
Mike Whitney — In your article “Global forces driving Middle East uprisings”, you suggest that the revolutions spreading across the Middle East are a reaction to neoliberalism. This is very different from what we read in the western media. The MSM seems more preoccupied with tyrants and “democracy” than economics and workers struggles. Would you explain what you think is going on?
Nick Beams—In my article I tried to point to the underlying economic forces driving the upheavals in the Middle East and which led to the entry of the working class into political arena. This struggle has begun as a fight against the autocratic and dictatorial regimes which impose the neo-liberal economic agenda on behalf of international finance capital – both Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya to some extent were held up by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as examples of what should be done in the Middle East and North Africa.
The focus on the economic driving forces makes clear that genuine democracy will not be achieved by changing the faces of the old regime or even by introducing a parliamentary form of rule and elections. Real democracy can only come through the taking of political power by the working class and the establishment of a socialist economy, based on meeting social needs not the dictates of the profit system. Clearly such a perspective can only be realized on an international scale. Is such a perspective realistic? Are the serious of uprisings we have witnessed over the past three months confined merely to the Middle East? Not at all because, as I noted, the massive growth of social inequality, unemployment, falling real wages and ever worsening prospects for young people are global phenomena. We are only at the beginning of a world-wide upheaval, a new period of social revolution.
It is true that there has been much attention given in the mass media to “tyrants” and “democracy”. It needs to be pointed out that in the major capitalist countries the same neo-liberal agenda, with the same consequences, is being imposed by what can best be described as “parliamentary dictatorships.” Two years ago the American people voted for “change you can believe in”. The Obama administration, however, serves the same corporate, financial and military interests as the Bush regime, in some cases even more ruthlessly. In Britain, at the elections last May the overwhelming majority of the electorate voted against the spending cuts – the deepest since the Great Depression – now being implemented by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx explained that every capitalist government was simply the executive committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. The present crisis has, so to speak, burned away the ideological and political coverings which served to obscure this essential truth for decades.
MW–Has the media created a false narrative to deceive people about what is really happening in the Middle East?
Nick Beams—The media, especially in the US, and everywhere else, including where I live, Australia, either directly serves the ruling elites or at least frames the so-called political debates within certain “acceptable” limits. The mass of the people are lied to – the lead-up to the Iraq war was only the most egregious example. This is why WikiLeaks has attracted such vicious opposition from within ruling circles, while at the same time receiving strong support from ordinary people all over the world.
Within the so-called mainstream mass media there is an almost total exclusion of the question of social class. Any mention of the enormous growth of social inequality is greeted with the cry “you are promoting a class war agenda” and declared out of bounds.
But notwithstanding the role of the mass media, hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, have identified with the struggle of the Egyptian masses – an expression of growing class consciousness. This is why we have seen slogans such as “Walk like an Egyptian” and references to “Hosni Walker” in the struggle in Wisconsin.
MW–Have the unions or other workers groups played much of a role in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya?
Nick Beams–The working class has played an extremely powerful role in the Egyptian revolution. It is its real driving force. It was the intervention of the working class, in the form of a series of strikes on February 9 and 10 and the developing movement towards a general strike that was the crucial factor in the decision of the upper echelons of the military that Mubarak had to go. I have gone further into these questions in a comment published on the World Socialist Web Site on February 25 available at http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/feb2011/nbre-f25.shtml.
In Egypt, the official trade union apparatus was part of the regime and functioned as its direct instrument. But in that role it was not fundamentally different from the trade unions in the US or Australia. In the US, the UAW has played the key role in “restructuring” the auto industry and in Wisconsin the unions have already agreed to the cuts demanded by Walker. Their key demand is that the dues checkoff system remain. In Australia, the trade unions are the policemen for the Labor government’s Fair Work Australia legislation which makes any independent activity by workers virtually illegal.
In regard to Tunisia, there has been an attempt to glorify the role of the UGTT (the General Union of Tunisian Workers). The International Socialist Organization (ISO), for example, claimed that the UGTT had “proved to be a critical nucleus for organizing and uniting the employed and unemployed in protest.” In fact, the first reaction of the UGTT was to denounce the protest. The UGTT was central to implementing the IMF-backed “reforms” in Tunisia. See The American middle class “left” and the Tunisian revolution available at http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/jan2011/ugtt-j21.shtml
MW–Do you think that the United States can play a constructive role in helping the people of the region achieve their objectives?
Nick Beams—The first point to make it that the United States is not a unified whole. The Obama administration is working desperately to ensure that the situation in the Middle East is restabilized and that pro-imperialist regimes remain in charge. In the case of Libya, this may well involve direct military intervention under the pretext of averting a “humanitarian disaster” and dealing with the “tyrant” Gaddafi, with whom the US and the European powers have enjoyed the most cordial relations over the past decade.
The Libyan situation makes clear that nothing can really be understood about the events in the Middle East if they are examined through a simplistic pro and anti-democracy framework. The eruption against Gaddafi certainly began as a movement from below, from among the poorest layers of society. But at the same time the leadership of this movement has been seized by elements of the old regime who, up until just a few days ago, were loyal servants of the Gaddafi regime, having enforced its repression in the past. The independent interests of the working class must be disentangled from and developed against those sections of the bourgeoisie which are seeking to maintain control by breaking from the old order.
The rapid fracturing of the Libyan regime at the very first sign of serious opposition must indicate that divisions had been developing over the preceding period. In my opinion this too is bound up with the free market and privatization agenda pursued by the regime. It is one thing when the accumulation of wealth, power and privilege is bound up with state control over the economy, but when a process of privatization gets under way all sorts of divergent interests within the ruling apparatus can emerge. We saw this in Egypt as well with the intense hostility to Gamal Mubarak from sections of the regime because he was so closely involved with and benefited from the free market agenda of the past five years – an agenda which cut across their interests.
The American workers and students as well as the American people in general can certainly play a powerful role in aiding the movement in the Middle East by opposing the predatory plans of the Obama administration. But this is not a question of external solidarity. The most important question is to understand that workers all over the world are now involved in the common struggle against the global ruling classes. In this struggle, advances in one part of the world will materially assist struggles everywhere.
There is already a growing sentiment, after decades in which the class struggle has been suppressed by the trade union and social democratic apparatuses, that it is possible to fight. In the wake of the events in Egypt, workers everywhere can much more easily grasp what socialists mean when they explain that it is necessary for the working class to begin an independent struggle to assert its own economic and political interests against the entire official political apparatus and its servants in the trade unions. And a movement in America will give an enormous impetus to this process. The events in Wisconsin have already had a power effect and the more the independent struggle of the American working class develops the more the workers’ movement in every country will be strengthened.
MW—In your article, you quote Leon Trotsky who said that whatever its particular form, the situation in each country is “an original combination of the basic features of the world process.” Will you explain what this means and what bearing it might have on events in the ME?
Nick Beams—The passage I quoted comes from Trotsky’s introduction to the German edition of Permanent Revolution and is available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/prge.htm
Anyone who wants to gain a real understanding of internationalism can do no better than read and study this work. Trotsky insisted, against the positions advanced by the Stalinist apparatus and its doctrine of socialism in one country, that internationalism rested above all on an understanding of the historical bankruptcy of the national state.
This analysis has the most direct bearing on events in the Middle East. It means that the movement of the working class will go forward to the extent that it is recognized that it is part of a struggle of the international working class. This is not a question of some kind of abstract phrase-mongering but the key to understanding difficult and complex historical questions that must be clarified if the movement is to go forward. In the final analysis, the decay and disintegration of all the national movements – from that of Nasser, to the PLO, and even Gaddafi, is not the outcome of “betrayals” by this or that leader but is rooted in the fact that they all based themselves on the national state.
And that is the same issue which confronts the working class in the major capitalist countries. The decay and disintegration of the trade unions and their transformation into the outright agencies of the corporations and the state is not a result of individual betrayals but flows from the fact that these organizations were based on the national state.
The working class needs new organizations, above all the construction of a world party grounded on the program of international socialism. That is the perspective of the International Committee of the Fourth International and the World Socialist Web Site.
Nick Beams, national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party, the Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Born 1948 aged 62. A founding member of the Socialist Labour League of Australia which became the Australian section of the ICFI in November 1972. A member of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site since its founding in January 1998, specializing in the analysis of globalization of production and Marxist political economy.
Global forces driving Middle East uprisings, by Nick Beams, World Socialist Web Site link: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/mar2011/pers-m05.shtml
The term “Shock Doctrine” comes from Naomi Klein’s highly-recommended book of the same name. Published by Metropolitan Books. Henry Holt and Company, Inc.