People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising


The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising,
by Gilbert Achcar, Saqi books, London

Review by Farooq Sulehria

Brushing aside a host of fashionable narratives to explain the Arab spring, Gilbert Achcar’s recent book, ‘The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising’ offers a radically different perspective.

Instead of over-optimistically glorifying the uprising or pessimistically ridiculing the temporary lull as ‘Arab winter’, he views the Arab spring as a protracted or long-term revolutionary process which may continue to unfold for another couple of decades. In fact, the recent coup in Egypt weeks was a timely endorsement of Achcar’s thesis on the Arab spring.

His prophetic analysis, informed by a Marxist outlook, springs from rigorous research and deep knowledge of Arab realities. Instead of offering Facebook explanations, demographic analysis or ascribing the latest Arab upheaval to middle class democratic aspirations, he identifies “the deep roots of the uprising” because “there can be no lasting solution to the crisis unless those roots are transformed”.

The breadth of the Arab spring shows that its causes are neither confined to the political realm nor limited to linguistic factors. In his view, revolution-by-contagion occurs when “there is favourable ground…a predisposition to revolution”. Even importantly: “Despotism by itself…can hardly be sufficient cause for the outbreak and subsequent success of a democratic revolution.”

One should look for the underlying socioeconomic factors to explain why the Arab spring “triumphed when it did: why 2011, after decades of despotism in the Arab region? Why 1789 in France, after a long history of Absolutism and peasant revolts? Why 1989 in Eastern Europe, rather than, say, 1953-56?”

To solve the puzzle, he delves into history. A series of European revolutions also caused ripple effects. These socio-political earthquakes were, in the words of Achcar, “triggered by the collision of the two tectonic plates” ie “developing productive forces and existing relations of production”. The latter, Marx thought, constitute “legal and political superstructures” with the state at its core.

While this contradiction between the rising bourgeoisie and feudal ‘superstructures’ – translating into revolutions – paved the way for Europe’s capitalist industrialisation, a precisely “comparable instance of the existing relations of production blocking the development of the forces of production was at the origin of the shock wave” that, according to Achcar, culminated in collapse of the USSR.

However, unlike juvenile Marxists, Achcar does not issue any sweeping judgements based on “Marx’s paradigmatic thesis on revolution” he himself invokes to explain European revolutions. This is because every crisis does not constitute a revolutionary situation. Similarly, every revolutionary situation does not lead to a revolution. Therefore, Achcar suggests to cautiously “derive variants” from Marxist thesis that are “less sweeping in historical scope” to describe the Arab spring.

Chalking out both revolutionary possibilities and limitation impregnating a system, he points out: “the development of productive forces can be stalled, not by the relations of production constitutive of a generic mode of production (such as the relation between capital and wage-labour in the capitalist mode of production), but, rather, by a specific modality of that generic mode of production. In such cases, it is not always necessary to replace the basic mode of production in order to overcome the blockage. A change in modality or ‘mode of regulation’ does, however, have to occur”.

To understand the Arab spring, Achcar considers it fundamental to determine if “such a blockage exists”. Consequently, he laboriously builds mountains of socioeconomic data showing the slow pace of economic growth, levels of poverty, dwindling welfare role in the Arab states since the 1970s onwards, effects of neo-liberal policies and foreign debt. Citing painstakingly-gathered data on socioeconomic indicators, he shows how of all the developing regions, the “Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is the one facing the most severe development crisis”.

Besides the failure of Arab nationalist forces paving the way for Infitah (opening) – a term president Sadaat introduced for a neo-liberal turn post-Nasser – Achcar ascribes the developmental crisis, or the ‘blockage’, to the character of Arab states.

He characterises the Mena countries either as rentier states (in the case of the oil-rich sheikhdoms), or patrimonial and neo-patrimonial states (Syria, Egypt, Tunis). However, an element of rentiership marks most Mena countries. The character of these states determines the form capitalism has taken there. From this rentier or neo-patrimonial character of these states flows, on the one hand, nepotistic and crony capitalism. On the other hand, the rentierist and neo-patrimonialist character of these states breeds phenomenal corruption.

Achcar describes the dominant section of private capitalism in the Arab countries as given to cronyism because state resources are exploited to benefit private ventures often run by the autocrat’s familial entourage or henchmen. This nature of Mena capitalism, springing from the rentier/neo-patrimonial character of the states, discourages growth even in the capitalist framework because the profits are not invested in the region.

For instance, in rentier states, the rent money accumulated by the kith and kin of the autocrats is staked in western stocks for quick profits. In neo-patrimonial states, the crony-corrupt character of capitalism impedes growth by eliminating ‘free-market’. In 2008 alone, the capital flight – “bribes, kickbacks, embezzlements, tax evasion, and trade mispricing” – from Mena was estimated at $247 billion. The nature of capitalism also determines the class composition of Mena countries. For instance, in oil-rich countries, labour has been imported and deported at convenience – leading to weak civil societies.

But Achcar does not reduce his analysis to economically-determined factors. He pays sufficient attention to historically-determined variables, creative possibilities offered by new information technologies to organise resistance, imperialist manipulations, colonial legacy, gender dimensions and the role of religion. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to understand the rather peaceful victories scored in Egypt and Tunisia and violence in the case of Libya and Syria.

Since the elements of civil society (unions, social movements, political forces, or historical traditions) in Tunisia and Egypt were able to put a brave resistance for the last ten-or-so years, the ‘final’ uprisings, thus, constituted an accumulative consequence. In Libya, the military-tribal domination meant a violent turn. In an equally nuanced way, he explores the cases of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

What Achcar contemptuously, but in a highly informed manner, dismisses is the tendency to understand the Arab spring via conspiracy theories whereby every twist and turn in the Arab world is ascribed to either Washington or Tel Aviv. “This idea reflects…a naïve belief in the omnipotence of the United States, a skewed vision of the Arab uprising’s impact on US interests and the Zionist state’s, and…deep contempt for the insurgent populations”.

Likewise, he takes up the cudgels with leftist ‘anti-imperialism’ that prioritises anti-American dictatorships (Syria, Libya, Iran) over the democratic aspirations of the working classes. On this question, he finds fault with Trotsky’s position in 1922 on Georgia to Hugo and Castro’s support for Qaddafi.

Described by the French daily Le Monde as “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world”, Achcar teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He has authored several books including the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust and Perilous Power. The latter is co-authored with Noam Chomsky.

This review was previously published in The News, a daily newspaper in Pakistan, for which Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor. Email:

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