There Are All Kinds of Revolutions

Matt Stoler over at Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog has a fascinating analysis of the Egyptian revolution as a labor uprising. Quoting Gemal Mubarak — who appropriately enough was an investment banker trained by Bank of America — about the desire to “improve Egyptians’ living standards,” Stoler writes of the demonstrators’ opposition to the Egyptian government’s “familiar recipe” of “[d]eregulation, globalization, and privatization” as authored by and in the Clinton Administration by Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin.

Stoler writes:

That Rubinite rhetoric has been adopted by the children of strongmen shows the influence of Davos, the global annual conference of power brokers. Gamal, far more polished than his father, understood that the profit and power for his family lay in cooperating with foreign investors to squeeze labor as hard as possible.

This strategy was targeted at the global labor arbitrage going on since the 1970s, with Egypt’s role as one cheap labor in-sourcer. It’s no surprise that the Mubarak family has $40-70B stashed away in the global tax safe havens coddling the superrich. This wealth was extracted from the youth and women in Egypt’s new factories making low-cost goods for export. This is why the revolution was spearheaded by youth and women, and why the nationalist business elite, with its deep ties to the military, sided with the protesters. Mubarak’s inner circle aligned themselves with international investors and set themselves against domestic business and military interests.


The political architecture of the Mubarak regime was directly pulled from the neoliberal shadow government model, right down to the political rhetoric of toughness as a mask for theft. Paul Amar has by far the most persuasive account of the Egyptian revolution. Amar goes beyond the absurdist Facebook revolution narrative, and points out that what is going on is in effect a youth-driven labor uprising, combined with fights between Mubarak-centric Rubinite elites and the domestic nationalist business community tied to the military. Mubarak had made tight alliances with the Islamic right, while slashing the social safety net and bringing in international investors to open low wage manufacturing …

There’s a lot in Stoler’s piece consider (especially the parallels he inadvertently draws between the replacement of subsidies with debt in Egypt and the replacement of wage increases in the U.S. with debt), but two things immediately come to mind.

First, if this is true, then the grievances of workers and young people (in their 20s) sounds a lot like the grievances of the anti-globalization movement. I don’t quite know what to make of that, so I’ll let it sit for a bit.

Second, if this is an uprising for greater political representation and accountability on the part of workers and educated young people in a rapidly industrializing country, than what happened in Egypt resembles — at least on the face of it — the struggles in Taiwan and South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s to shake off dictatorship and create fully “democratic” polities. It took South Korea nearly 30 years to become a fully functioning democratic state following the first protests that forced the ouster of Syngman Rhee in 1960, though much of the country’s most important initial economic growth took place during the dictatorship of Park Chun Hee in the 1960s and 1970s. The military did not give up power easily or quickly (the massacre at Kwangju in 1980 is evidence of that), but by the late 1980s, the South Korean military did give up power without significant struggle. I know less about Taiwan’s long march (no pun intended) from KMT dictatorship under Chiang Kai Shek to fully functioning, multi-party state, so I cannot really make a comparison there.

But both these states were becoming industrial economies, moving from the periphery of the global economy in 1960 to very near its center by 1990 and from poverty to wealth (South Korea was a much poorer place than North Korea until well into the 1970s). Dictatorship was deemed necessary to the creation of the industrial economy in both South Korea and Taiwan, both were integrated fully into the American world order and both were former Japanese colonies. Egypt is a very different place than South Korea or Taiwan in 1960, or 1980s. Being part of the American world order hasn’t really helped Egypt economically, but then it’s not been a place where significant things are made either. But it sounds like things are now being made there. So, who knows.

It suggests there are all kinds of ways to think about the events there in the last few weeks.

2 thoughts on “There Are All Kinds of Revolutions

  1. if this is true, then the grievances of workers and young people (in their 20s) sounds a lot like the grievances of the anti-globalization movement.A good portion of the “anti-globalization” movement isn’t actually against global interdependence, merely the form that so-called globalism has taken thus far.A good starting place is actually the first half of the chapter “Democracy and Development: Their Enemies, Their Hopes” from Chomsky’s book “Hopes & Prospects”. He outlines that, while there is no casual factor indicting neoliberal (another misnomer) policies with structural decay and collapse, the correlations are many, and there is little to no causal evidence supporting the opposite.So when Egypt looks at it’s economy, it’s government and says “no”, it’s not merely a no to nepotism, to rampant corruption, to anti-democratic regimes; it’s also a no to the neoliberalism that enables all of the above without providing an adequate structure towards growth.Historically, protectionism has been the norm in healthy economies until the state’s economy is robust enough to stack the deck in its favour for trade; cf. England with it’s textiles industry, America for most of its history, China today. Even now, American tech mostly derives from government R&D, and agriculture is heavily subsidized; practices that the IMF considers problems in potential borrowers.I feel very sympathetic to the free market economists, as I am with the anarchist and libertarian political communities, but in both groups there is a strong element of reality-disownment; when the facts do not mesh with the ideology, the facts must bend. I find Manuel De Landa’s explanation of markets & antimarkets in 1000 Years of Nonlinear History to be the best articulation of the dilemma; to talk about entrepreneurs, small businesses, government organizations, guilds, unions and transnational corporations all under the same “markets” rubric unnecessarily muddies the water.This is a horribly long comment, but I’d be happy to discuss this further, if you’re interested. hewhocutsdown is my handle, at gmail.Thank you for your thought-provoking posts.

Comments are closed.