A Historical Sociology of Crisis in the Middle East: From Uneven Development to Civil War in Syria

By Daniel Neep
Submitted to Session P4953 (Politics, History and State Formation in the Modern Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Political Economy; State Formation;
An emerging academic consensus interprets the maelstrom of turbulence sweeping today’s Middle East as symptomatic of nothing less than a region-wide crisis. The term ‘crisis’ is often used in a largely descriptive sense, to refer to whatever political impasse, humanitarian calamity, or military confrontation happens to be the troubling issue of the day. In this paper, I focus specifically on arguments about state crisis: that what we are witnessing is not the mere facts of warfare, territorial contestation, or conflict, but a challenge to the very institutions and apparatus of the modern state in the Middle East so fundamental that a epoch-defining shift in the structure and practice of government is now a genuine possibility.

In this paper, I therefore pose two key questions: (i) how should we conceptualize crisis?; and (ii) how well does this concept help us explain the specific empirical case of the Syrian crisis?

In the first part of the paper, I outline three approaches to understanding crisis in the Middle East (commonly encountered in the Sykes-Picot narrative, the comparative politics literature on authoritarianism, and neo-Marxist political economy of the Middle East) that ultimately prove analytically unproductive. In the second section, I therefore propose an alternative, more adequate account of crisis in terms of uneven development, a concept developed by critical and economic geographers that uniquely captures those spatial dimensions that are largely missing from conventional historical sociologies of state transformation, despite the centrality of territory to Weber’s seminal definition. In the third section of the article, I apply this perspective to the case study of modern Syria. Drawing on a rich vein of historical evidence, including Arabic-language archival records, economic reports, memoirs by officers and politicians, as well as compelling analysis by Syrian historians themselves, I argue that the current crisis is neither the by-product of an artificial state created by the French nor the result of the rapid neoliberalization of Syria’s previously populist authoritarian regime. Instead, I re-contextualize the current situation as the latest and most severe outbreak of a series of crises that have wracked the eastern Mediterranean since the mid-nineteenth century. The uneven development of the capitalist economy, and the subsequent dislocation of social and physical infrastructures, ultimately provides a more adequate account of state crisis in Syria than the dynamics of sectarian identity, authoritarian resilience, or resistance to neoliberal restructuring.