Descent into sectarianism

Lebanon finally has a new president but tensions still continue in the country. Here Christopher Dav

A peaceful strike organised by the Lebanese National Labour Union in protest over low salaries, was dramatically and violently hijacked by Hezballah with support from militias loyal to Amal and the Syrian National Party.

Ostensibly these opposition movements were enraged by the Sunni-dominated government’s dismissal of a Shia head of airport security and its claims that Hezballah’s recently installed telecoms infrastructure was illegal. Tellingly, more than three hours before the labour action was supposed to commence, Hezballah and other allied units were rolling large lorry tires into position on main highways, and militants were taking up sniper positions in Sunni-populated suburbs of Beirut.

By midday, almost all pro-government loyalists had been routed by the much better armed Hezballah fighters. Lebanese Army forces remained impassive and in some cases even retreated from their assigned positions, their commanders worried that soldiers would soon take off their uniforms if they entered the fray. By evening, only the residence of Saad Hariri - the parliamentary majority holder - had adequate army protection, being ringed by a rather frightened looking team of commandos.

Without doubt this was a well planned military coup. Sunni and allied Druze leaders, including the ubiquitous Walid Jumblatt, were rapidly stripped of their status and left at the mercy of the Shia occupiers. A larger-than-life statue of the late Rafik Hariri - erected controversially earlier this year on Phoenicia Street - was peppered with bullets and urinated upon. Also symbolically, Shia militants marched up and down Hamra Street – a main commercial thoroughfare for Sunni Lebanese - and gunmen were stationed on the steps of the nearby Ministry of Economy building.

In many ways this coup has marked the beginning of an inevitable Shia revolution in Lebanon. For decades, the Shia community has been the third wheel in the country. After the civil war, it was only really the Sunni community that gained any ground, with control over a prime minister position with enhanced powers, and with a much greater role in the national economy - almost on a par with the Christian community - courtesy of Gulf investments and remittances from Sunni Lebanese expatriates. Until May of this year the Shia community remained firmly in last place, remaining both politically and economically disenfranchised, despite becoming the most populous sect in Lebanon.

For the last few years it has almost been possible to sympathise with Hezballah’s cause. It represented the only powerful voice of this neglected Shia community, and its militia fended off Israel in the summer of 2006. Unfortunately, if Hezballah really is a patriotic Lebanese movement, then its latest actions have been a severe miscalculation. It may have brought to an end the impasse over the instalment of a new president, and it may have pulled its gunmen out of West Beirut, but the use of weapons on fellow Lebanese nationals will not be forgotten, as sectarian wounds that had only just begun to heal have now been re-opened.

Civil war has been avoided, but the Sunni and Druze leaders are now emasculated - they have had little option but to meet Hezballah’s immediate demands, revoking their airport security and telecoms decisions. But more importantly, Hezballah has been able to push for its preferred presidential candidate, Michel Sulayman, the army chief of staff. With such an indebted Christian figurehead, Hezballah may be maintaining Lebanon’s precarious national pact, but most crucially it has brought the country’s only remaining national institution into defacto alliance, thereby further securing its right to field the only legitimately armed militia.

As guardians over a state-within-a-state that has now hijacked the state itself, the shadow cast over Lebanon by Hezballah and its external sponsors has darkened further. Even if there is an uneasy peace, it will take years for confidence in the economy to rebuild. A fresh wave of educated Sunni and Christian Lebanese - the future of the country - will abandon their homeland for greener pastures, never to return.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times