Berch Berberoglu, ed., Power and Stability in the Middle East (Zed, 1989).

Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East: State, Class and Economic Development (Westview, 1990).

Is class-based analysis relevant to understanding the contemporary Middle East? These two volumes provide food for rethinking the analytical approaches taken by social scientists considering questions of socioeconomic transformation in the Middle East and North Africa in the twentieth century. The contrast between the two books is instructive in this regard, as are the unique contributions of each book. I have assigned them in my course, Economies of the Middle East and North Africa, both as a stimulating exercise in comparing techniques of analysis and as useful renditions of the economic realities of the region. There is a relatively small body of literature in English on the recent socioeconomic transformation of this region as a region. Most work has been done on a country-by-country basis, and comparisons are scattershot. These two volumes take a regional approach and explicitly consider class as an analytical tool. Their common intellectual forbear is Roger Owen, whose grand synthesis of Middle Eastern transformation, The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914 (\Methuen, 1981), rests on the central premise that how production takes place and by whom and how surplus product is appropriated and by whom are the two key questions to understanding the historical process.

Other synthetic works treating the region as a whole — Charles Issawi’s An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa (Columbia, 1982), Yusif Sayigh’s The Determinants of Arab Economic Development (St. Martin’s Press, 1978) and Elias Tuma’s Economic and Political Change in the Middle East (Pacific Books, 1987) — have summarized long-term trends and problems, provided large sets of comparative data and incorporated North Africa (which Owen did not do for his period) in their presentations. However, while they recognize the existence of economic inequality and other “class” issues, they do not take class as a central category of analysis or treat class dynamics as a motor force in the historical process. The stories they tell, then, take on a descriptive rather than an analytical quality: We learn what was and what is, but we do not get a sense of why history moves as it does.

Of the two books reviewed here, Berberoglu’s is more strictly in the Marxian tradition. All the articles share a common theoretical approach and a common commitment to understanding popular struggles. The articles on Egypt (Ahmad Azim) and Syria (Fred Lawson), for example, explain how dynamics among the various segments of the capitalist class interacted with the evolution of the state and the ruling regime. The articles on Saudi Arabia (Ghassan Salame) and Iran (Farideh Farhi) treat the emergence of the powerful contemporary state as a product of history, in contrast to the usual non-Marxian theoretical approaches which treat the state as a given. The articles on Iraq (Joe Stork) and North Africa (David Seddon) portray the state as an arena in which conflicts and alliances among classes play themselves out. The articles on the Palestinians (Pamela Ann Smith) and the Armenians (Paul Saba) demonstrate the interlacing of the class and national questions in this region of the world, while the one by Julie Peteet masterfully interlaces gender, national and class dimensions in a comparative setting.

These articles are short, focused and concrete in the presentation of data, and provide clear introductions to the various countries and issues for the non-initiated. They offer excellent background for discussions of the 1990 Gulf crisis. The articles which deal with comparisons among countries and groups — Peteet, Seddon and Saba — as well as some brief comments by the editor in the introduction, make a good start toward a much-needed regional synthesis. In the end, though, the volume falls seriously short of this goal, for it lacks a conclusion interpreting and comparing the findings for the various countries on a regional scale. The Richards and Waterbury volume maintains a focus throughout on the Middle East and North Africa as a region and possesses an attractive coherence of argumentation that is not possible in an edited volume. Its objective is to analyze the processes of socioeconomic transformation, using many concrete examples from countries of the region, and to draw lessons that may be applicable elsewhere.

Richards and Waterbury, unfortunately, do not question the concept of “development” itself, thereby limiting the range of the challenge their work poses to accepted wisdom. To their credit, though, they tackle all the issues and themes of the “development” debates, from population growth to agrarian supply lags to choice of industrial technology to the role of the state, comparing and contrasting various country experiences and abstracting common themes and problems.

Like Marxist social scientists, and unlike the liberal and conservative schools in various social science disciplines, Richards and Waterbury are self-conscious about their choice of theory and methodology. Also like Marxists, they explicitly use class as an important category of analysis. But they keep a careful distance from the Marxists in both theory and methodology, appropriating Marxian categories for specific analytical purposes while criticizing the rest of what they define as the Marxian approach. The coherence of their unique position then rests on two planks, the internal consistency of their analysis and the accuracy with which they portray the Marxian vision in contrast to their own. Richards and Waterbury define themselves as political economists, which loosely translates as social scientists concerned with “development” in the broad sense — not just with economic growth narrowly measured but also with questions of equity and of institutional change in developing societies. In their view, “political economy” has three main dimensions: structural transformation (e.g., the relative enlargement of industry versus agriculture), state structure and policy (institutionalized power over both the means of coercion and the direction of social and economic change), and class (a group of people who share a common set of property rights or relation to the process of production).

So far, this does not sound significantly different from the concerns treated by the authors represented in the Berberoglu volume. Here, though, is where the difference becomes apparent. Richards and Waterbury posit that the three dimensions of political economy are mutually interdependent: “Each one influences and shapes the other; each is therefore both cause and effect, both starting point and outcome. Our model is one of reciprocal causation.” There is no one point of entry in understanding historical process.

This vision contrasts with the view of Marx and most contemporary Marxists that posits human productive activity as the motive force of social change. What makes human history evolve, in the Marxian view, is the peculiar species-specific characteristic of human beings that they act on their environment to change it and, in so doing, elicit responses from other active human agents. The point of entry into understanding society and social change is then human beings relation to production: for class societies, class relations. Structural transformation and state policy are the logical results of human action, which then become part of the conditions in which the next set of human actions take place. There is a mutuality of causation here, a cycle of feedback, action and reaction, but the entry point is human activity.

Richards and Waterbury do not hold themselves to the pure model of mutual causation. They implicitly recognize that in order to have any explanatory power at all a model must posit some point of entry into the cycle of feedback relationships. Their point of entry is the second dimension of political economy, as they define it: state structure and policy. It is the:

formulation of public policies that shape the allocation of resources within societies and the political consequences that flow therefrom …. As we shall show repeatedly, those authorities, the people who make up the governments and staff the upper echelons of the bureaucracies and public enterprises, frequently constitute an autonomous set of actors and interests in their own right.

In Richards and Waterbury’s analysis, it is the powerful autonomous state and state interventionist policy which is the leading force in the region. It creates and shapes classes, it determines the course of economic development and structural transformation, and it has its origins in the history of the region, namely “the politics of decolonization and development.” The state also has to respond to class pressures, including those arising from the state’s own earlier policies, and to exigencies arising from the results and contradictory processes of state-initiated development schemes, but the state is still the active, initiating party. Class politics and class analysis are of secondary importance, since classes are relatively powerless in the face of the powerful state.

In making their case, Richards and Waterbury mention class factors frequently but do not treat class analysis itself until the next-to-the-last chapter in the book, by which point they have laid the foundations for their interpretation: “Our purpose here is to sketch out how state policies have contributed to class formation and the ways in which class interests have manifested themselves.” They distinguish their view from what they see as the “instrumentalist” view of Marxists regarding the relationship between classes and the state: namely, that in a capitalist system the bourgeoisie is in control of the state and uses it to run the political and economic system to its own advantage, and that in the state capitalist system in the Middle East the petty bourgeoisie plays that role. The Marxists they cite are Michael Kalecki, Samir Amin and Mahmoud Hussein on Egypt, and on Algeria Marc Raffinot and Pierre Jacquemot.

While the arguments here are worth pursuing, and an engaged debate between Marxists and liberals around the role of the state and its relation to class forces in the Middle East is an exciting prospect, Richards and Waterbury do the debate a disservice by ignoring the rich and sophisticated debates within Marxism on this subject and, in effect, caricaturing the alleged Marxists. Two aspects to this debate are immediately relevant to the Richards-Waterbury line of reasoning.

First, Marxists such as Nicos Poulantzas argue that the instrumentalist view of the state is too narrow and that a structuralist analysis is needed:

Classes should not be seen as simple economic forces existing outside and independently of the state and capable of manipulating it as a passive instrument or tool…. Class struggle is not confined to civil society, but is reproduced within the heart of the state apparatus itself…. [Furthermore] the state has an objective function to perform in maintaining social cohesion so that capital accumulation can proceed unhindered. [1]

This means that the state may have to act to preserve the system as a whole, even if it means harming individual capitalists, for example, when the Federal Reserve Board in the United States raises interest rates in order to cool inflationary pressures (which depress the real rate of profit) even though that may bankrupt some heavily indebted firms. The Özal regime accomplished the same feat in Turkey in the early 1980s. The main difference was that US firms are used to this system and accept it, while it took military rule in Turkey to make such bad-tasting medicine palatable.

Second, Marxists explicitly recognize the focal role of a centralized state in promoting the conditions for the development of capitalism and the capital-labor class system. “The different momenta of primitive accumulation,” Marx said quite clearly, “all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shown the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.” [2]

A Marxist view can recognize the power of the state in the contemporary Middle East to use organized force to shape the class structure or direct the course of economic change. After all, that is what the governments of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Algeria all did through policies toward agriculture and agrarian reform, for example, effectively promoting a modem version of primitive accumulation. But this does not mean giving up on the centrality of class analysis. On the contrary: The state is an institution created and enlivened only by human action. It is more imperative than ever to understand how that comes about, how the interactive dynamics of class relations and class conflicts play themselves out through the state. This is the contribution that Marxist scholars make to Middle East and North African studies. While the difference between them and Richards and Waterbury may be subtle, it is fundamental in determining the point of entry into explaining the process of socioeconomic transformation.


[1] Bob Jessop, “Recent Theories of the Capitalist State,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 1 (1977), p. 358.
[2] Capital, vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 751.

How to cite this article:

Karen Pfeifer "Class Acts in the Middle East," Middle East Report 170 (May/June 1991).

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