International Relations and the Arab Spring: A Non-Conspiratorial View.
Posted by democratist on April 2, 2012
2nd April 2012,
In my last article I discussed the issue of the idea of “colour revolutions” as a “legitimizing myth” of Putinism, arguing that it is far easier for the current Russian government to blame the revolts which have taken place in the “near abroad” and middle East over the past few years on various invented (usually western-backed) “conspiracies” than to accept the increasing anachronism of their autocratic model of governance in the contemporary world.
To nobody’s surprise, this article naturally resulted in yet more conspiracy theory. Did I not know who was “really” behind these events? Who was my article “cooked up” for, and to what end? Surely I was working for [inserted prefered conspiracy here].
It therefore occurred to me that there exists a contemporary demand for an explanation of why (especially) the Arab Spring has taken place; one which might provide a more rational alternative to the fantasies of those whose stock-in-trade is obfuscation and paranoia. Fortunately, an existing theoretical framework with a long scholarly pedigree already exists; that of historical-sociology.
Historical sociology takes much of its inspiration from The Sociological Imagination, a book by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959), which (drawing on Marxism), underscores the centrality of historically specific social structures (patterns of social relationships over time) for sociology in particular, and the social sciences in general. Within the field of International Relations, the historical-sociological school has been developing since the mid-1980’s.
For the practitioners of the Historical Sociology, the key factors behind the Arab Spring are to be found, not in fanciful foreign plots, but rather in sociological developments which have taken place within societies in the region over recent decades: These include tremendous upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of “crony capitalism” (abject poverty side by side with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and technically savvy) young; the delayed flowering of civil society, and finally the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by both Russia and the West in many cases for decades).
The place to look for serious analysis the origins of these events is therefore in the tensions which have occurred within these societies over recent years, rather than in the baseless propagandizing of “foreign interference”. While it may be true that the “great powers” have sought to extend or protect their interests as a result of the initial uprisings (for example, overthrowing Gaddafi in the western case, or seeking to protect Assad in the Russian and Iranian), outside forces were clearly not the initial cause of these uprisings. Indeed, they appear to have taken place despite repeated American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization: The populations in these countries have not been swayed by the fact that the US talks the language of democracy whilst employing the stratagems of realpolitik; rather they are demanding respect and representation at home regardless of (often empty) American rhetoric.
However, this focus on internal developments and rejection of conspiracy-as-explanation does not mean that “international” factors were absent in the Arab Spring. In fact, structural international factors, such as the place of these countries within the global economy, were critically important in the influence they had on promoting the drive for accelerated development witnessed over the last few decades: If these revolutions have been organized through social media; Facebook, Twitter and so on, then the reasons why many of these countries have experienced large expansions in literacy, education, foreign languages and computing skills lies in the positions that they came to assume within global economic and security structures in a globalizing world, and the desire of local elites to improve those positions.
From an even broader historical viewpoint, as Fred Halliday points out in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999), over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has not been on the most developed states, but rather revolutions have tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism. It is at this stage of development that the countries of the Arab Spring now find themselves; driven towards revolution, not by conspiracy, but rather by the pressures placed on existing societies by international structural factors, and the subsequent drive for accelerated development at home.
In conclusion, the obvious question to ask is the extent to which this mixture of domestic and international pressures applies to Russia as well? Russia does not lack a corrupt, inefficient and un-innovative brand of crony capitalism, or the rising expectations of the technologically capable and politically-concious young (especially in the urban centers). Nor is the government indifferent to Russia’s position in the world. On the other hand, exploding oil wealth has meant poverty has decreased greatly over the past decade, and Russians are richer and freer than at almost any other point in their history. The demographic situation is different (fewer young people), and “democracy” is associated with the chaos of the 1990’s. As long as the oil price remains high, economic growth will continue, and the Putin systema remain stable. However, a sharp and sustained dip in hydrocarbon prices would certainly make Russian political life much more complex, and potentially lead to greater change as Russian society evolves.