Over the past years, Capitalist Culture has been a regular feature of Executive, so what better occasion than this 100th anniversary issue to look back at the column, and more particularly at the themes it has tried to raise in looking at Lebanon and the Middle East.
A persistent aim of Capitalist Culture has been to address those issues somehow fitting into a broader context of free markets and free minds. The assumption has been that capitalism in its cultural manifestations encourages, or should encourage, openness, the free exchange of ideas, minimal state-imposed restrictions, an embrace of globalization, and, in some absolute way, the pursuit of human liberty. The column has always considered in an implicit way that the state is, at best, a necessary evil — an often clumsy barrier to naturally free flows in the human marketplace.
Has the column been successful in getting the message across up to now? Readers will have to answer that question. However, Capitalist Culture has benefited from the gargantuan transformations in Lebanon and the Middle East in the last five years — from the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq as of 2003, to the 2005 Independence Intifada in Lebanon, to the summer 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel and its aftermath. Each of these events, and the countless ones in between have, in some fashion had an impact on the issue of liberty, state power, the forcible imposition of a democracy agenda, and much more.
The war in Iraq, following on from the 9/11 attacks of 2001, unleashed one particular global debate that has yet to subside: Was imposing democracy on other peoples the optimal way to bring about open societies in the Middle East — societies that would not send young men on missions of mass murder half way across the globe?
The answer was no way as clear-cut as the question, but suddenly the matter of liberty in the region became of paramount interest. The fiasco in Iraq did not simplify matters. From a war against terrorism, the conflict became a war for democracy, before metamorphosing, today, into a war to contain Iranian power. The centrality of freedom had not lasted very long, but in many ways it very much remains at the core of the Middle East’s woes, as does the suffocating hold of states over the region’s peoples.
Capitalist Culture also addressed, as best it could, Lebanon’s effort to break away from Syrian hegemony in 2005 and afterward. The uncertain results of that endeavor were best summarized in the piece on the late Samir Kassir, whose assassination in June 2005 was the first bloody sign that “independence” would come with a heavy price tag. And Lebanon’s peculiar confessional system has been a frequent theme of articles on Lebanon — the argument being that, for all its faults, the system, by making the religious communities and their leaders more powerful than the state, has in some way also protected pluralism. Why? Because no one side or person can impose its writ on the others, and the state is in no position to control everybody, therefore each community, even faction, is able to survive amid a general balance of forces in the country.
Where Lebanon has been less impressive, however, has been in allowing its divisions to deny the full flourishing of a capitalist culture. What openness can there really be when the society is all rifts and cracks? What kind of prosperity can ensue when political groups are willing to punish the society at large merely to score points against other political groups? Why is it that liberty in the country — such an essential aspect of the Lebanese template — is so often ignored when it advantages the other side?
The guiding libertarian principle of freedom being something one must pursue as long as it does not encroach on the freedoms of others is violated daily in Lebanon. If anything, freedom is often deployed at the expense of others, creating a society far more divided than it need be.
In the coming years in the Middle East, a great deal of trauma is likely to be felt, but the essential demands of capitalist culture will remain at the center of the region’s reality. The overbearing nature of state authority over its citizens, the lack of freedom, of intellectual liberty and artistry, of opportunity, the persistent mistrust of globalization — globalization that is increasingly leaving the Middle East far behind in its wake — are all issues that will handicap the region in ways far more fundamental than the usual and appalling problems one hears about: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear project, or the killings in Iraq.
The reason is simple: Everything boils down to the issue of liberty and its interpretation. One might applaud the expansion of markets when they affect economic relations; but if they don’t expand human freedom and facilitate human relations, some form of deep failure is bound to ensue.