Capitalism, Crisis and Labor Unrest in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East: A Comparative-Historical Perspective

By Sahan Savas Karatasli
Submitted to Session P4724 (Labor, Capitalism and Mobilization after the Arab Spring, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Using a new major database on global level social protest and labor unrest in the world from 1851 to present (compiled from New York Times and Guardian (London) newspapers), this paper compares class composition of social movements and dynamics of labor unrest in the Middle East to other regions of the world with high level of social unrest (e.g. South and East Asia, Western Europe and North America, Eastern Europe and West Asia) with a focus on (1) transformations in class formation and labor militancy since the 2007/8 financial crisis, and (2) similarities and differences between the current conjuncture and the post-1929 wave of social and labor unrest in world. It argues that labor unrest has been a major but under-recognized feature of the post-2008 revolts and protests in the Middle East and around the world. Yet, to appreciate the role labor militancy played during the post-2008 revolts and protests and in their aftermath, one needs to analyze different forms and changing geographies of labor unrest in their relationship with dynamics of historical capitalism. Today, regions of the world which attract capital (i.e. East and South Asia) experience large scale labor unrest characterized by offensive struggles by new working classes being made, while regions of the world where capital leaves (i.e. Western Europe and North America) see defensive protests of old/former working classes currently being unmade. These two forms of labor unrest played a key role in the post-2008 waves of protests. While the post-2007/8 Middle East has also been experiencing both kinds of labor unrest in different sectors, labor unrest during the Arab-Spring revolts and their aftermath cannot be reduced to these two types of labor unrest alone. Alongside these two types, which have accompanied the development of historical capitalism, there is also a third type of class-based protest resembling struggles of what Marx calls as the upper layers of the stagnant relative surplus population. These are protests by masses of people who have been dispossessed from their lands and proletarianized, but never found stable employment opportunities under capitalism. Comparative analysis presented in the paper shows that both in the aftermath of the 1929 Great Depression and the 2008/9 financial crisis, there emerged a rapid world-wide escalation of protests by these sections of the society around the world. Paper shows that in the early 21st century, the Middle East region has become one of the hotbeds of such movements.