Reflections on Revolution in Lebanon, Part 1.
An incomplete, Moldbugian analysis of power…
Note: This article was initially published on Medium on August 18th, 2020—two weeks after the infamous Beirut explosion.
*To read Parts 2 and 3 of this series, click here and here.
Revolution is always bad. Many of you will disagree with this, but I will repeat; revolution is always bad.
I’m sure I’ve already lost 90% of you, dear reader, with just those two simple sentences.
This is the time to turn back. Go home, close this article, and feel free to look at Russian meme pages on Instagram (they’re very much worth following). You won’t be interested in what I have to say. You will probably be much happier not reading what I have to say, and not learning the lessons I aim to teach you.
If you are still here and wish to continue, then this is your final warning. Please read on to the end. If you are an open-minded revolutionary, or even just an average person interested in politics, then this will be one of the most uncomfortable — and thought-provoking — things you probably will ever read.
If you are Lebanese, then you know the basics of what has happened to our beautiful country. I won’t insult your intelligence by restating the tragic facts which occurred on August 4th, 2020. That is not the purpose of this article.
This article aims to summarize the facets of political reality in Lebanon, which lead to that fateful tragedy. And let’s not get bogged down in the past. In a later part of this series, we will have ample opportunity to explore our future as a nation.
For the moment, the reality of the situation is this:
Our beautiful country has become a literal failed state. It cannot feed us, and it cannot protect us—from violence, Coronavirus, or its own malfeasance. It kills us with incompetence. Thirty years of systemic issues were accumulated and swept under the rug, only to blow up in our faces.
We’ve had enough. We know our anger is just, our rage righteous. We’ve shed more tears than any one person should, over a land that has stolen our hearts without our consent.
It is a cruel twist of fate. To fall in love with a land and a people, and have that same land and people give you every reason to hate it, to abuse you, to force you to flee. It tortures you for loving and caring for it. A truly borderline country.
If you are a supporter of revolution, then I applaud you. I mean this, sincerely. It shows you have a fire in your belly. You cannot ignore the tragedy and failure all around you any longer. You care, too much and too deeply. Every day you can see we are surrounded by ugliness. Ugliness and failure.
We’ve had rivers of trash. We’ve had wildfires burn down our forests and homes. We’ve had our beautiful piece of the sea polluted. We’ve had our food spoiled from a lack of electricity. There’s so much more to add. But I don’t have to tell you this. You know it all already.
This is a life that grinds you down, and everyday feels like the country is at war with everyone and everything.
Enough. We should never again have to live like this.
So, dear revolutionary, what I’m trying to say is that all your criticisms are just and righteous. You are even more correct than the reformers. Only radical change is necessary. Only systemic regime change has a chance of saving the country from its death spiral.
And now that we are left with this mess…what are we to do with it?
The great silver lining of hope is this; every regime, when it is in power, thinks it is immortal. And history has shown us that no regime lasts forever.
Take this to heart. Reflect on it. No regime ever lasts forever.
Once we accept this, once we temper down our emotions and our righteousness, we can begin to think of a better future.
I am not writing this article for the Lebanese person of 2020. I am writing it for the people of Lebanon in 2050.
Be calm. Clear your mind. And think of your grandchildren. Do not give them the leftovers of a nation. One that surrendered to chaos and uncontrollable emotion. Give them an inheritance worth inheriting.
Remember. Emotions are easy. Building the future is hard.
But there is light at the end of this tunnel, so let’s walk down it and see where it leads us. To a safe, secure Lebanon for us all.
The first thing we must realize is that reform is impossible. Reforming the Central Bank, government, or courts is impossible. Anyone on television or social media who believes restructuring the cabinet, electing technocrats, or creating a Taif 2.0 is deluding themselves in 2020.
Reform might have been possible 5, 10, 20 years ago. That door is now shut, locked, bolted, and the key melted down for recyclables. Many of you reading this will be university-educated, and — if you’re fortunate enough — will probably know engineer or two (it doesn’t matter which kind).
This is important, because there is a simple principle we can take from engineering. A good engineer will say, “In many cases, it is better to build an entirely new system, instead of fixing and tinkering with a (dysfunctional) system that already exists.”
In other words, sometimes the amount of time and energy needed to fix a broken machine is much greater than the cost of buying a new machine. To anyone unfortunate enough to have used Windows 8, the solution is not to install Windows 8.1, or 8.2, or 8.3… No, the solution is to create Windows 10. Hell, even reverting back to Windows 7 would be an improvement.
So, if that is the case, if reform and moderation are truly off the table…what options do we have left?
To put it simply, there is only the choice between submission or regime change.
I don’t think I have to explain to anyone why submission is the worst of all possible choices. So…let us talk about regime change.
I support regime change, and yet I oppose revolution. Is it even possible to support regime change without revolution?
Yes, it most certainly is. Because historically every regime has changed and there have been very few revolutions that killed them.
A regime is an entity (similar to a corporation) that has control over a state. But a state is not the same as a nation. States change hands with the times, from one powerful leader or oligarchy to the next, but a nation — or even an empire — can endure for centuries.
The sad reality is that, after the excitement of a new leader coming into power, most of the work of regime change is simply paperwork.
This should fill us with hope. Because this tells us that regime change does not need to be violent, or bloody, or disruptive.
A Few Words on Revolution:
I started this article with a very controversial statement. Revolution is always bad.
Let me explain.
Revolution is the cause of more violence, chaos, and suffering than just about anything else except war. In many cases, revolution is also the catalyst for war. If you are unaware of this fact, then you have either never read a history book or never read an honest history book.
The three most impactful revolutions in human history were the American, French, and Russian/October Revolutions.
What you probably don’t know, dear reader, is that each one of these revolutions ended up being a disaster for that country. Their effects on the populace of America, France, and Eastern Europe are inescapable and still felt to this day.
Many of you will probably agree the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave us the Soviet Union, was a giant mistake. Everyone basically agrees that it destroyed Russia as a nation forever. Unless, of course, you are a devout Marxist-Leninist. To which I say, f*ck you.
Moving on, what about the American and French Revolutions? People are quite smitten and fond of those two. The Republic of France celebrates the storming of the Bastille and downfall of the Bourbon monarchy every year. The same goes for the Americans, launching fireworks and grilling hamburgers (a German delicacy) every 4th of July.
This is an easy trap to fall into, as most people do. But let me repeat myself; If you are unaware of the monumental failures and chaos caused by revolutions, then you have either never read a history book or never read an honest history book.
The French one is easy to debunk. They didn’t call it the ‘Reign of Terror’ for nothing. And the less we bring up the Marquis de Sade — the man who inspired and gave his name to the word sadism — the better.
Still, the French Revolution is lionized as a great leap forward in the name of freedom and democracy. It was not. If you believe the Revolutionary government of France cared about the working class and the peasants, please Google how many peasants were executed, how many villages subject to genocide, and how many Christians burned alive along with their churches.
It is undeniable that, for the average person, living under the Revolution was worse than living under Louis XIV. And it was only the power of a reactionary military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the reestablishment of order that saved France from total collapse into barbarism.
And what about the American one? It is even easier to debunk but almost everybody is completely unaware of the disaster that was the American Revolution. And that’s because you only see the country as it is today. A rich, prosperous, beacon of democracy. The world’s superpower.
Let me tell you, dear reader, the uncomfortable truth. It is so easy to debunk, I didn’t even have to read a book to discover it. The information is on the front page of Wikipedia.
In a nutshell, the Revolutionary war started in 1776. The fighting had ended by 1781, with an American-French alliance defeating the British. The Peace treaty was signed in 1783. The American Constitution was written and adopted as law in 1789.
So what was the government of the U.S. like between 1781–1789? It was the government under the Articles of Confederation. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it,
“As the Confederation Congress attempted to govern the continually growing American states, delegates discovered that the limitations placed upon the central government rendered it ineffective at doing so. As the government’s weaknesses became apparent, especially after Shays’ Rebellion, some prominent political thinkers in the fledgling union began asking for changes to the Articles. Their hope was to create a stronger government…This became the Constitutional Convention. It was quickly agreed that changes would not work, and instead the entire Articles needed to be replaced. On March 4, 1789, the government under the Articles was replaced with the federal government under the Constitution. The new Constitution provided for a much stronger federal government by establishing a chief executive (the President), courts, and taxing powers.”
Here is another juicy passage, again, from Wikipedia.
“Although the states’ representatives to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were only authorized to amend the Articles, the representatives held secret, closed-door sessions and wrote a new constitution. The new Constitution gave much more power to the central government, but characterization of the result is disputed.”
The first government of America was so weak it couldn’t keep the States together and on the same page, in order to deal with internal conflicts. Therefore, the leaders of the US organized a reactionary coup, in secret, to replace the previous government with a new, stronger, and more authoritarian system.
So, with all that out of the way, do Revolutions produce good outcomes?
Yes. Yes, they do. Because they create so much chaos and disorder that they breed stronger, reactionary, authoritarian governments.
If you are a liberal or libertarian, you will hate this. You will speak about natural rights and freedoms, but you will not get them in the end.
You will not get them because your strategy is set to create a power vacuum.
The State We Live In:
Enough history. I’m sorry to drag you all this way, dear reader. I promised you an analysis of the political realities of Lebanon. Please, don’t be too upset at me. I hope you learned something valuable in that gentle introduction. So, you’ve gotten this far and now you deserve a reward, the really — really — interesting stuff about Lebanon. Here you go then, this is my incomplete, Moldbugian analysis of power. This is the state we live in:
In many ways, Lebanon is a special case. We are technically a “democracy”, in that our leaders are elected by the people. Everyone knows this is a lie. Everyone knows this is fake. Lebanon is special because we have eighteen dictators instead of one. An oligarchy of elites.
In places like Egypt or Tunisia, places that had a one-party state, it is much simpler to overthrow the government. There is only one man with true, undisputed power. Only one man who is ultimately responsible for the condition of the country.
But an oligarchy does not function like a normal dictatorship. Power is decentralized, and you get something resembling the bystander effect. The more power is spread out, the less responsible each individual is for the tragedy happening right in front of them. They can always — always — point to the person across from them, who has just as much power as they do, and point the finger of blame onto others.
It is a system designed to distribute power without responsibility. Ben Ali was responsible for the state of Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak was responsible for the state of Egypt. They both failed in their duties, but they were responsible for their failures. There was no doubt on who was to blame.
An oligarchy has another advantage over a one-party state. Because it is extremely hard to rally a population against a class of people, without pointing to specific individuals. Typically, the worst and most powerful of those individuals in that class. General Michel Aoun has the biggest party in Parliament and is the president. His son-in-law is the most blatant signal of nepotism one could imagine. It is obvious why these two are the biggest targets of rage, and rightly so.
But the problem remains the decentralization of power. The problem remains the diffusion of responsibility.
You can protest and march and shout all you want, but your target is dispersed. If you manage to hit a few important targets, if the cabinet is disbanded, if a few MPs resign — or even better, leave the country — the system will adjust. It is designed to withstand direct attacks (such as street protests), since any accusation of failure travels through the decentralized network and distributes blame onto everybody. The result is no one is at fault for anything, because everyone is at fault. This is a normal, adaptive response the regime uses to route around your attacks and keep the network intact.
And never forget, dear revolutionary, your target has guns. And people with guns will always matter more.
The Sectarian Question:
Another unique feature of our system is the sectarian division, and its unending potential to foster violence.
We are all tired of this. We should be past this already. But we are not.
Our youngest generation is overwhelmingly secular and anti-sectarian. This should give us great hope for the future.
However, we must never forget, man is just a human animal. Once violence breaks out, it is very easy to activate a tribal Limbic system in the brain, especially when that violence is specifically targeted at certain groups.
It has happened before. It is always at risk of happening again. Any death of a family member can trigger this. There is always the immediate instinct to anger, to lash out in search for revenge. This is a natural response, but one which can also lead to more deaths and cravings for revenge.
The leaders of our current regime know this, intimately. They were all direct participants in ethnic cleansing. The least honorable and most disgusting form of brutalism and savagery.
How is it possible that they’ve remained friends all these years? How do they shake hands and smile at each other given all the blood between them?
It is quite simple.
In multi-ethnic or diverse nations, the elite of each different group rise to the top and form a conspiracy. They hate each other, instinctively, but they are forced to coexist in a shared territory. Even advanced, Western nations are not immune from this. The two most peaceful examples of which are Canada and Belgium. The French and English Canadians avoid each other unless it is absolutely necessary, and the Dutch and French Belgians are forever stuck in an unhappy marriage, too comfortable in their misery to file for a divorce.
In both countries, only the elites of the two groups mingle freely, forming a conspiracy to safeguard their power against the masses. They will also occasionally participate in political theater and manufacture conflicts into order to appease the base group’s desire for blood and conquest.
Different groups are almost never united by higher ideals, appeals to nationality, or shared interests. The simplest way to have peace between different groups is to find the lowest common denominator, the one thing that unites them — or at least, pacifies them enough to make violence an unattractive option.
For the past thirty years, the one thing that has pacified our ruling class into nonviolence has been dollars. Billions and billions of dollars. Every year. With interest rates at 8% or more, and hundreds of millions of dollars in graft and corruption.
The uncomfortable truth is that it was dirty money and corruption that kept everything running smoothly and saved the country from outbreaks of violence. War is disruptive and inconvenient. Peace is always more profitable.
That money not only pacified the ruling elite, but also the entire population. Six billion dollars had to be deposited every year to keep the people happy. That doesn’t even include the other four billion dollars in remittances. Four billion dollars that subsidized entire families and villages in Lebanon.
But now, that gravy train has ended, and the regime is feeling under pressure, with no more money to go around and no clear way out of this mess.
The ultimate goal of every regime is to secure its own power. The simplest way to achieve this is control over the military. In a multi-ethnic state, each group must either secure its own monopoly over a different branch of the security services, or it must form alliances in order to deny any other group a monopoly on power.
This extends not only to the military and security services, but also to all departments of government. Which is why absolutely nothing works in this country. No one can be fired without upsetting the internal power balance in that branch of government.
The reason the military still functions is because they are trained to function, and there is room allowed for genuine meritocracy. A proper army is also forced to have standards. Not very high standards, mind you. But they have standards, which is always necessary to filter out the worst kinds of people. An army built on nepotism and political status is not an army, but a group of thugs in green uniforms.
This is why the Lebanese army still functions, while our police do not.
The Parallel State: Our NGO’s & Institutions:
You may not have realized this, dear reader, but there is an ongoing cold war happening in Lebanon.
No, it is not the one going on between Syria and Israel. Neither is it the one between the US and Iran.
There is a cold war between political NGO’s and “non-political” NGO’s. And what you might not realize…is that this is the most important battle we must fight. This is the fight that will determine the future of the country. Because this is a battle over the Parallel State.
I might have lied just a bit to you, dear reader. These “non-political” NGO’s are actually quite political, in that they have their own political agenda and/or views.
They are mainly liberal or progressive, by Middle Eastern standards. They are also anti-sectarian in nature. Unless they are a part of or explicitly state their religious affiliation.
Now, I am not a liberal. I am also openly hostile to Progressivism. But these organizations do good work. And good work should always be applauded and encouraged, no matter who it comes from.
A better term to describe all these ‘non-political’ NGO’s is Civil Society.
And the enemy of Civil Society is the Political Society — i.e. the social and economic networks of the main political parties.
The Party of God (Hezbollah) is the most obvious example of one of these political NGO’s.
The Party of God has charity organizations. They have construction firms. They have day care and social welfare centers. None of these are a formal part of the government. But they are organizations that provide much-needed services in exchange for party loyalty and votes. And so, they are the real government of Lebanon, or what I call the Parallel State.
The uncomfortable truth, dear reader, is that the secret desire of every NGO — whether they are a Civil or Political group — is to either write the public policy and laws, or better yet become a formal government department. These organizations remain informal because that is the only way they remain effective. But once they are a part of the government then they are secure in their existence and have direct access to power.
Every political party secures loyalty through its patronage networks. It is patronage and corruption that kept everything running smoothly in Lebanon. It has happened in my family. It has probably happened in yours too. My cousin has probably gotten a job this way. Your cousin probably has too.
The problem today is that the machine is broken, because the machine relied on giving people money, security, and status. And now it is broken beyond repair.
You can tell a regime is collapsing with a very simple metric. How much responsibility is leaking out of the regime?
This might sound like a difficult thing to measure, but it isn’t. A state that begins to abandon more and more responsibility is a state that is losing power.
Who is picking up all the trash in Beirut?
Who is sweeping up the broken glass, wood, and debris?
Who is providing housing for the people with shattered apartments?
As the state is leaking power, organized groups rise up to meet the responsibilities. These groups not only perform the essential services, but also gain the loyalty and trust of those they serve. These groups gain power as they transform into reliable, trusted social institutions — and thus, they each become a node in the parallel state.
If the Civil Society is to win this cold war and rescue the country, then it must start to earn the loyalty of people and form networks. This is already happening on the ground today. And as the state continues to be ever closer to collapse, then it will be extremely easy for these organizations to slide into the power vacuum and transform from being the Parallel State into becoming the formal State government.
That will be enough for today, dear reader.
This was a lot to chew on, and I’d like to end on an optimistic note, that Civil Society is one possible route for success. Trust me, we have a lot more to get through, if we are to choose the right kind of future. I started this series because I care about building a better Lebanon, and I see very few people online with realistic or productive ways of achieving it. Hopefully, this is the start of that project.
Part 2 will discuss the question of leadership, the Party of God, the Central Bank, and much more. Stay tuned and subscribe!
I would love to hear any comments you have down below. Till next time — Hunger.