The Vulgar Marxism of Middle East Punditry

For political activists in the Muslim world, it's not just the economy, stupid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shops in the Black Sea town of Safranbolu on Jan. 1, 2005. (Hakan Goktepe/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shops in the Black Sea town of Safranbolu on Jan. 1, 2005. (Hakan Goktepe/AFP/Getty Images)

Years ago, when I was still a graduate student, I used to get regularly invited to a fancy lecture and dinner held annually at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I typically accepted, but when the night rolled around I had to drag myself there. The lecture always interrupted my study routine, I was forced to wear a suit and eat rubbery chicken, and the last thing I wanted to do was engage in small talk when I should have been reading.

One year that small talk involved someone who turned out to be the dean of Wharton, and when he learned that I was a Ph.D. candidate in political science with a research interest in the Middle East, he went on for some time about how if there was only economic development in the region all would be well. I had heard this argument many times before, and when the dean asked me my thoughts I let my crankiness get the best of me. “Ah well, the only places left in the world where Marxism is alive and well are at U.S. business schools,” I said, joking. The dean looked at me sharply as I explained that Karl Marx believed there was an underlying economic cause for every political phenomenon, and plenty of Americans—not just business professors, but also policymakers—seemed happy to make the same mistake.

My snark did solve one problem—I was never invited back to that lecture and dinner. But it created a sort of obsession. I am now well into my second decade of trying to beat back lazy analysis, especially of the Middle East, by way of economic determinism. Despite mounds of evidence, the idea that people—whether in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Tunisia, or the United States—make choices based solely on what is in their wallets will not go away.

Only recently did Robert Samuelson, who writes about the economy for the Washington Post, discover that, when it comes to the rise of anti-establishment politics, “It’s not the economy, stupid!” It was gratifying to read something that validated my grumbling, but still, Samuelson’s headline writer did not quite get it right. Samuelson’s column—and certainly any discussion of uprisings around the Arab world—should be titled, “It’s not just the economy, stupid.”

It’s hard not to notice the parallels between the famous demand for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” that rang out during the Egyptian uprising in 2011 and U.S. President Donald Trump’s critique of a rigged political system that has undermined American culture and economic life. I am not saying that Egyptian demands for a more just, inclusive, and open society are the same as the president’s angry and vengeful critique of the U.S. establishment. But the lightness of what Tahrir demonstrators wanted to build and the darkness of Trump followers’ aims to tear things down are linked in that they connect dignity, politics, and economics in a way that cannot easily be disentangled.

Still, it seems that the U.S. policy community has been generally slow to recognize the shortcomings of policies based on half-baked economic determinism. The reasons for this are both obvious (there is a glaring need for economic development in the Middle East) and mundane (foreign service officers have a fairly good sense of what they need to do to help countries develop their economies). Then there is the all-consuming issue of stability. U.S. officials have devoted resources to economic development in friendly countries in the region not necessarily out of altruism but because they tend to believe in the “fat and happy” theory of politics. If people benefit from the system, they are unlikely to rise up against it. As an aside, this is not always true. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are cautionary tales of countries that experienced (uneven) growth and became unstable.

Analysts have come to recognize that the underlying assumption of “it’s the economy, stupid” is faulty. But the bias among policymakers remains. Take, for example, the case of Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been successful for so long because he, like Trump, has a vision that encompasses a broader spectrum of issues in addition to prosperity. And, of course, it helped that Turkey clocked high economic growth for a good portion of the 2000s. But the other components of AKP’s transformative agenda—allowing people to live their religious identities more freely, the establishment of Turkey as a regional power with broader ambitions, and an uncompromising nationalism, to name a few—were also critical to the party’s longstanding success. Even so, Washington tends to see Turkey’s economy as the basis for Erdogan’s dominance. Successive reports from the U.S. Congressional Research Service cite the economy’s growth as a primary reason for the AKP’s success.

As the Turkish economy faltered through 2018, journalists and analysts pondered the possibility that Erdogan would take a political hit in last June’s presidential election, but he won with 52.6 percent of the vote—a slightly better margin than his 2014 victory. When the lira’s slide turned into a meltdown in August, Erdogan’s grip on the country didn’t loosen. Instead, he successfully appealed to identity, religion, and national dignity to thwart the logic of the market and deflect responsibility for the mess. Erdogan’s opponents in Turkey are still predicting that the economy will bring the Turkish leader down, and when the lira plunged over the summer, there was concern in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the press that recent economic mismanagement would produce instability in Turkey and beyond. It’s a classic example of economic determinists not appreciating the power of ideas.

The counterexample to Turkey is Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. He had lived through the excesses of both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, so he staked out a middle ground. During his last decade in office, Mubarak called upon Egyptians to safeguard “stability for the sake of development.” From the perspective of U.S. policymakers at the time, the fact that Mubarak appointed an economic policy team of self-declared reformers who were empowered to pursue neoliberal policies was a positive development that would finally put Egypt on track for sustained growth and stability. This might have been materially satisfying for those who benefited from privatization, a more flexible exchange rate, and a more permissive investment environment, but there was nothing emotionally satisfying in the appeal for stability. Mubarak’s failure to articulate a positive, moral, uplifting future that Egyptians could believe in meant it was hard to rally pretty much anyone to his defense at the first sign of trouble. The folks who tell you that the economy is paramount would have predicted a different outcome.

Almost everyone I know in the scholarly community nods knowingly any time someone declares that “ideas matter,” but this consensus does not translate easily into policy. How do you tell a foreign service officer to promote dignity and a positive vision of the future? As talented a group as U.S. diplomats are, this is not something they are equipped to do. It is not even necessarily their place to do it. Still, a better understanding of the dynamic interaction between the economy, the quality of politics, and dignity would serve everyone. That way, the next time Arabs rise up and demand “bread, freedom, and social justice,” we’ll know that economic development is not the only thing they want.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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