Three catastrophes and three contradictions

by Executive Editors

Truthful words are not beautiful.

Beautiful words are not truthful.

Good men do not argue.

Those who argue are not good.

Those who know are not learned.

The learned do not know.

Lao Tzu

At this pivotal moment of Lebanon’s history, it would be counterproductive and even evil to mince words. It is, in the opinion of Executive editors, inescapable today to apply the old Chinese sage’s paradigm that truthful words are not beautiful. That is why, in our initial discussion for the cover image for this first post-blast issue of Executive, we agreed that the magazine would scream FUCK OFF. This message—which has been reassigned as the title message of this leader—is not personal, not targeting any individuals in high or low places. We are not talking to any person or about any human being. We are simply respectlessly addressing ourselves to the corrupted system of the old Lebanon’s clientilist reality and rentier economy. It is time for conscientious citizens and all who love this country to stand for something that is actually impossible to achieve by conventional reason and rational reckoning: a totally new system and social contract, a totally clean and productive economy, and an uncorrupted future.  

We have to come to terms with three catastrophes, each either outright man-made or causally linked to irresponsible human behavior, and each signifying horrible destruction of Lebanese lives and livelihoods. The first is the national economic and financial meltdown that has unfolded over the past year; the second is the local impact of the coronavirus threat, COVID-19 pandemic, and the historic global recession that surrounds it; the third, and until August 4 unimaginable catastrophe, is the Beirut Port explosion.   

Cognitive dissonance

As we observe our economic existences being reshaped by these three catastrophes, the mental reality of being Lebanese has been compounded into a state of cognitive dissonance. This means that on collective and individual levels, all denizens of this country are faced with having to reconcile new realities and actions with hugely discrepant concepts of their minds. As evidenced by frantic search for explanations of the blast—including the flotation of conspiracy theories, investigations of questionable cover stories, and debates among intellectuals—there is an existential need for all of us to solve contradictions between today’s reality and our long-held, sometimes century-old, cultural beliefs, good and bad living experiences of three decades and—some accurate, some flawed—accumulated perceptions.

In practical terms, the present need for strategizing for Lebanon’s societal future has been shaped as much by the country’s descent into sharply reduced productivity and sharply increased poverty as it has been informed by the inability of past and present administrations to implement structural reforms or even achieve decisive progress (or secure common ground) in 17 virtual negotiation sessions with the International Monetary Fund. In this magazine’s view, this creates a contradiction between the established wisdom—whereby rescue needs technical expertise and years of professional experience—and an impossibility to rely on the present known exponents of expertise and experience. We thus have to revise the entire system. For designing it and setting up this new system and social contract (including electoral and decentralization systems designs), we have no option but to trust in the young people that will live our future—meaning many unpolitical or anti-political minds in our universities, communities, and civil society with great ideas but with no or next to no years of experience.   

The second practical contradiction regards our micro- and macro- economic futures. For example, in a simple micro perception of the need for economic media and responsible journalism, we at Executive are determined to survive and contribute, as faithful media watchdog, our small share to the implementation of Lebanon’s economic future—even as we honestly do not always know how. We have invested our energy for over 20 years of covering this economy and its stakeholders to the best of this magazine’s and its team’s ability. Just to give one example, as one editor was cleaning broken glass and dirt out of his personal archive of Executive back issues after the Beirut Port explosion (thankfully, while several editors and team members saw their homes wrecked by the blast, no one in our team suffered any major injury), he came across an issue from July 2015 with two once again frighteningly relevant stories, one on the need to develop a national port management and maritime strategy despite deafening silence by Lebanese administrations with regard to this need, and the other on the dangers of the persistent parity regime on the Lebanese lira under the country’s long-standing monetary policies.

Our writers and editors are sad, angry, and extremely tired of trying to accurately describe economic and business realities while we all around us watch others—including some media that are very vocal about their rights—that distort and obfuscate facts and disregard professional ethics. Those of us, who are determined to remain in Beirut as long as whatever divine agency affords us this power, recognize that those members of the editorial team who have over the past two months determined to depart from Lebanon and who have successfully negotiated new opportunities outside of this country, have richly earned their upward career moves. Executive also acknowledges that one cannot blame any Lebanese who will use any available opportunity to look for a sustainable future beyond the confines of the land where the proponents of the old system have already—just over one week after the Beirut Port explosion—started playing their old devious games of grabbing for ever more power and refusal of responsibility. 

But the old political joke which circulated in East Germany in the late 1980s—that the last one to leave the country should switch off the lights—does not work in Lebanon. Other than the state that has to be built here, with immediate urgency, on new foundations, there is no polity and no other state for more than four million Lebanese. Executive is convinced that the stresses and mental recuperation needs of the Lebanese economic stakeholders, including us, put this country up for a mission impossible but we at this magazine believe against all understandable flight impulses and motivations to escape that all economic actors remaining in this country (a country where millions are deprived of the chance to seek for better futures anywhere but at home) have no choice but achieve this mission of restoring a viable economy under a real political equation in an equitable societal system by investing their every ounce of enthusiasm, professionalism, and entrepreneurial spirit.    

Lifetime fight

The third practical contradiction with relevance to the urgent need to elevate the Lebanese system to a higher level is the contradiction that you can’t defeat corruption but have to fight it anyway. This is the case whether the diagnosed corruption is from the start really intentional or a fateful systemic product of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby incompetent individuals cannot be cognizant of their incompetence (especially in a hierarchy with no or bounded meritocratic structures), in combination with the Peter principle whereby people in conventional hierarchies tend to rise to positions that reflect their achievement of incompetence. In looking at the historic trajectory of documented efforts of clipping corruption, one presumably can go back for over 45 centuries to the Sumerian city state of Lagash. Its ruler Urukagina—responsible for a legal code that protected the poor from undue pressures from the rich and powerful—is by present-day reading of his social innovations associated with reforms to fight corruption. There are no narratives of his corruption-fighting successes known to us but we as Executive editors are more than 99 percent confident in saying that the fight against corruption will not in the near future be crowned by a total victory (and that the validity of our special report on anti-corruption remains—if anything it has increased urgency).

This fight—which was the central focus of this pdf issue of Executive that was prepared during the month of July and that we bring you here as it was ready for publication in the first week of August 2020—is a necessary fight and one that deserves to be fought with full commitment and unconditional assumption of responsibility. To examine a commitment of fighting corruption in this country, it is not in the least necessary to go back and interpret codes that were hammered in stone over 45 centuries ago. It suffices to look back and ask about the fulfillment of a commitment made just over 45 months ago. Re-reading the inaugural address of President Michel Aoun in a destroyed Beirut apartment (a newspaper copy of his speech was another find from the recovery work after the blast), we were reminded that President Aoun on October 31, 2016 addressed Parliament by acknowledging that he was assuming “the responsibility of the highest position in the state.” Including national unity, and political and security priorities, he dedicated himself to these with view of “safeguarding the country as an oasis of peace, stability, and encounter,” elaborating furthermore that the successive and continual economic crises required a “transformational approach which begins with economic reform.”

In the urgent need of resolving the cognitive dissonances that were caused by the three catastrophes which Lebanon has suffered in the recent past, it must be asked what is needed today to implement the faith of the Lebanese in each other. Moreover, have the professed objectives and needed gains of the Lebanese been achieved as far as their trust in their state as protector and provider of rights? It is a question that every position holder and every responsibly minded resident of this country has to answer for themselves. 

While acknowledging the damaging potentials of self-interest and the futility of empty intellectual arguments when actions by good women and good men are Lebanon’s highest needs, Executive will conclude this contemplation in a second part—by taking a very brief look at four scenarios for conceptual futures.     

Four scenarios

By any sense of logic it would appear to be an extremely complex undertaking to map the possible trajectories and outcomes of the coronavirus dilemma. This is because this unprecedented global crisis in its first dimension has sparked severe negative outcomes on the levels of physical and mental health. Then, in its second dimension, it resulted in equally severe social and economic disruptions. Seven months after declaration of the pandemic, the perception just of this catastrophe alone is that the more humans learn about it, the less and less of what was assumed previously in the short history of the virus and pandemic can be presumed to be confirmed today.

By the same common sense, mapping the interactions of the three Lebanese catastrophes would constitute an even greater gamble. To give a simple example on the situation in Lebanon, the visual impression of people’s adherence to mask wearing and social distancing in the first ten days after the blast is that the sudden emergency and its aftermath of human suffering and new societal concerns has reduced the possible and practical amounts of worry power that citizens can dedicate to the coronavirus’ dangers (see story page 40). 

Notably, the rates of coronavirus infections have increased and Lebanon has been catapulted from its previous low count of daily new infections into more worrisome territory. However, the number of deaths in this country still is shown in international statistics in the very low range of less than two deaths per 100,000 population, much below the rates of around 50 per 100,000 in the US and Brazil or for the extreme outlier case of tiny San Marino with 124 deaths per 100,000 population. In the 2020 global coronavirus landscape, people are exposed heavily to incomplete and changing information. Given the very contradictory signals and their individual perceptions, some people in Lebanon will in their minds sensibly latch onto the seriousness and danger of the growing exposures to health risks (including COVID-19 risks and corollary risks for non-treatment of other illnesses in the overextended hospitalization system), while others—and especially those with daily economic survival needs—may latch onto contrarian positions. So how worried one must realistically be with regard to the COVID-19 threat in Lebanon is probably going to remain, for quite a long while, mostly a question of personal temper and disposition.   

First and worst scenario 

Correlating the possible impacts and outcomes of the economic crisis, the coronavirus crisis, and the historic Beirut Port explosion by parallel reasoning appears as another impossibility among this year’s many impossible Lebanese quests. Nonetheless, in very broad strokes it is from Executive’s perspective warranted to look at the economic future in terms of four possible outcomes—a worst-case scenario, an almost-as-bad scenario, a least-worst-case scenario, and a utopian best-case scenario.

With regard to the worst-case scenario, the signals of caution in need of adhering to are, first, the past of this country and, second, the fact that it can always become worse. Only weeks ago, voices might have quite convincingly reasoned that this country could not be falling into deeper troubles than those that it was in by the end of the second quarter of 2020. August 4 has proven all those voices to be painfully wrong. Thus it would be perilous to believe that we are today at the lowest rung of existential misery that is possible. 

The worst-case scenario for Lebanon from today’s perspective would be a next war, whether internal or external. The factors contributing to war risk for this country are unfortunately several, spanning from fears of historically aggressive non-state actors to the intransigence of belligerent neighbors and the arrogance and pressure mongering of distant powers. 

By desperate hope that wishes for a future of peace or at least non-war for this country and its surrounds, it will not come to that worst reality. However, if the experience of the last internal war in this country is any indicator, a war would be devastating for people and livelihoods overall and widen to the extreme the gap by which Lebanon is already trailing behind peer economies with profiles of highly trained human capital, cultural resources, and tourism potentials. But even more perversely, the war economy would have a few large-scale winners and even more small profiteers who would not pursue peace as long as they benefit from war.   

Second almost-as-bad scenario

An almost-as-bad scenario would be a failed-state of Lebanon that is settling, via some steps of a “most-worsened“ country, in what is now known as the fragile state index, into a lasting degree of severest fragility that cannot be distinguished from a de-facto failed-state (in the decade to 2020, Lebanon ranked as the world’s 40th to 45th most fragile state). In such an extreme state, the old dysfunctional system (the country’s most detrimental sub-ranking has consistently been in the factionalized elites sub-category that measures issues such as fragmented state institutions and gridlock among ruling elites) might linger as the zombie of perpetual doom and prevent any form of social organization. 

It seems likely, however, that Lebanon in such an organizational vacuum would still retain some of its financial markings of the past—such as inflows of family remittances from the diaspora as well as some very subdued tourism and other inbound money flows, including a relative increase of funds and human capital related to the international humanitarian economy. More detrimentally, some (falsely) indulgent and geopolitically self-interested benefactor/s might even show generous external support for Lebanon as a failed state in the Eastern Mediterranean. This means a player, with a much larger economy than Lebanon, might even support this country as one supports a vassall territory as an asset that can be deployed in geopolitical and regional power games. 

A Lebanese vasall could easily be sacrificed for greater interest or used as pawn in regional power conflicts, for example power conflicts surrounding Iran and the Gulf, or Egypt and North Africa. At the same time, whether by the suffocating effect of its stifling and chronic external debt or by its severely and lastingly curtailed economic productivity and vigor, Lebanon’s independent economy, mutual solidarity, and self-determination would be lost and any pretended sense of freedom gone. Dominated by a few satraps, the country would be descending into being a basket case of total inequality, impoverishment of the many, and lasting external dependency.  

Least-worst, perhaps

The third scenario would be that of dignified poverty and a small degree of freedom. Like the almost-as-bad scenario, this least-worst-case model could by the superficial observer be easily confused with the country’s existential status quo ante (before the three catastrophes) but its inner characteristics would differ greatly. The scenario might furthermore be evolving somewhat unpredictably, i. e. conceivably with some surprisingly productive synergies of developments realized by virtue of international influences after the three catastrophes. 

As per the conditionalities of currently offered international funds inflows on the implementation of reforms and more reforms (iterated since decades but externally enforced after August 2020), this scenario necessarily begins with reforms adopted and implemented by uncorrupted Lebanese—meaning the total-cleanup-now generation of new and untested representatives and aspiring leaders. Handheld by international expert advisors (with their own interests), they would create the constitutional and administrative core of a country whose willing allegiance to foreign interests is cemented for decades. 

Corruption would be controlled (even though no more eradicated than the flu). Politics and economy could be streamlined to comply with either the interests of the surveillance capitalist West or the data-controlled state capitalist East. Instead of being constantly disrupted by fragmented and contradictory local interests, Lebanon would be managed under coordinated interests of the geopolitical bloc that it becomes integrated in. The tradeoff, however, would dictate that it would lose its uniqueness of convivial chaos and gain the surety of dependence. This surety will fundamentally have to entail dependence on the geopolitical bloc’s dominant values but allow for collateral benefits owing to 21st century global economy elements of interdependence and mutual prosperity. Also on the historical balance sheet, Lebanon will lose all of its fake rentier economic gains of the past three decades and see its overall societal wealth greatly reduced but, going forward, could maintain and even develop a part of its economic and cultural specificity.

The utopian hope scenario of peace and prosperity 

Based on the assumption of a developmental and innovative capability of Lebanon even in a situation of dignified poverty (a relative poverty that would be dignified socially by rise of solidarity and economically by values of bootstrapping), a utopian scenario is justified in our view. Importantly, this astounding assertion has to be qualified by the notion that such a scenario of peace and prosperity, while absurd by design, would be sheer madness if presented as a comprehensive plan or coherent roadmap.  Any utopian scenario is only legitimate as a suggestion of inspirations situated in the sphere linking the absurd to the salvatory, inspirations some of which may trigger realization of micro-realities that can influence the least-worst case scenario referenced above. 

Without trying to detail any of them, Lebanon from 2020—yes, today—has an abundant potential to innovate and test economic and social solutions that can help make the future in this country (and hopefully elsewhere) more sustainable and livable. There is need for solutions in external transport, in domestic logistics and in internal public transport; need for solutions in reallocation of real estate (office and residential) for the enhancement of urban productivity; need for solutions in effective digital government and digital infrastructures of the private-sector economy; for industry, education, social security, and poverty alleviation; for channeling of savings into productive sectors, and for balancing of social capital (overused in wasta settings to the detriment of qualified individuals) and human capital. 

This reservoir of issues is just to name but the first line of items where every current need and unfulfilled want represents opportunities for multi-level entrepreneurial action, in form of policy improvement, macroeconomic integration, micro-economic innovation, and business creation. To sum it up, these potentials for Lebanese creativity are real and urgent but have two preconditions: a) that economic opportunities can be taken on basis of universal acceptance of several years of dignified poverty lying ahead and that opportunity taking has to be qualified by the expectation and willingness to satisfy the societal need for better sharing of economic and social burdens, and b) that the platform of a new system is implemented. 

As to the second precondition for economic restoration, there are no real tabula rasa precedents for systemic reinvention but there are rich precedents for both very beneficial and less successful practical transitions into new systems in the late 17th, 18th, and especially the 20th century beginning with the termination of World War II. In Lebanon, the path will in our view have to start with a systemic sweep that cleans out the old system. 

But on the human level, a beneficial transition will have improved chances if it is built upon the old guard’s assumption of moral responsibility for the Lebanon-internal attitudes and actions that built the conditions under which the three catastrophes have unfolded. Taking unconditional responsibility on the part of all entrenched and temporary leaders would set an example and contribute massively to resolution of the cognitive dissonance now ravaging the country. 

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors represents the voice of the magazine.

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