Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God, Joseph Daher traces the development of Hezbollah within the dynamic context of Lebanon and the wider Middle East. In a rebuff to the Orientalist claim that Islamic political movements require a unique set of social scientific frameworks, he analyzes Hezbollah using the common methodological approach of Marxists: historical materialism. This method understands human societies on the basis of their economic activity and social relations of production while emphasizing the centrality of class struggle. Rather than focusing exclusively on ideology, Daher locates the party’s evolution “within the changing class and state formation in Lebanon,” arguing “that while the ‘Islamic way of life’ may be the professed goal of Hezbollah, its actual practices can best be understood as harmonious with—and reflective of—the nature of the capitalist environment in which it operates.”
He concludes that Hezbollah does not represent a real alternative to Lebanon’s sectarian political system nor to neoliberalism.
Hezbollah emerged within the sectarian political order contrived during Lebanon’s formation. In 1920, after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, France outlined Syria and Lebanon, drawing borders to ensure a Maronite Christian majority in the latter in order to consolidate the Christian bourgeoisie’s power and link it to European capital. With Lebanese independence in 1943, the National Pact entrenched sectarian politics by assigning specific political positions by religious affiliation. The president would be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker in the National Assembly a Shi’a. A six to five Christian to Muslim ratio in the parliament solidified the position of the Maronite ruling class.
At this time, the Shi’a population was politically weak, concentrated in south Lebanon and northeastern Lebanon, and predominantly rural. As large landowners began to dominate the agricultural sector, many poor farmers migrated to the cities for work. At the start of Lebanese civil war, about one million poor Shi’a lived in a “poverty belt” that surrounded Beirut. These impoverished Shi’a farmers and laborers formed part of the initial base for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah originated during the Lebanese civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion. Many of the party’s founders were related to the first Shi’a party to form in Lebanon: Mahrumin, later Amal. A significant portion of Hezbollah’s initial support came from the Shi’a lower-middle class and clergy. From the start, Lebanon’s Shi’a parties have been ideologically and financially linked to Iran.
With roots in the “Islamic Resistance” to Israel’s attack, Hezbollah has always maintained that its raison d’être is to resist the Zionist state. In their 1985 political manifesto, Hezbollah condemned Western and Zionist imperialism and argued for an Islamic government. They pointed to the Iranian Revolution as an example of how to accomplish their explicitly revolutionary goal of transforming the state. Amal’s tacit support for the Israeli invasion allowed Hezbollah to gain legitimacy as the genuine resistance. The party’s ascent was solidified with the Ta’if Agreement that ended the civil war and allowed it to maintain an armed wing while all other militias were forced to disband.
Daher skillfully explores the increasing class differentiation among Lebanese Shi’a and how this transformed Hezbollah’s base and the party’s politics. Following the civil war, a Sunni bourgeoisie led by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri liberalized capital, deregulated the tax system, privatized the public sector, and prepared the country for foreign investment. Aided by remittances from the Shi’a diaspora, a Shi’a fraction of the Lebanese bourgeoisie began to form and they increased their representation in business associations.
Previously, the party had maintained the facade of representing the oppressed and propagated the idea that Christians were bourgeois and Shi’a were working class. Thus, they portrayed their political leadership of the Shi’a population as a form of class struggle. By the 1990s, however, the party’s leadership increasingly became bourgeois and petty bourgeois and its supporters could be found across all social classes. Moreover, instead of challenging Lebanon’s sectarian political system, it began to adapt to it.
In 1992, an internal debate emerged over whether Hezbollah should participate in elections and pursue civil peace. The more “revolutionary” tendency argued against integration within the sectarian political system and lost. With its entry into parliamentary politics, Hezbollah began to implement and benefit from neoliberalism by privatizing public spaces, drafting anti-tenant legislation, and favoring large landowners.
On an internal level, the pyramid party structure limited debate and control to the highest levels of cadre. Elected by a few hundred top cadre, the eight-member Shura, which includes the Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, determines the direction of the party with scant input from its membership. In 2011, Hezbollah sabotaged a significant reform measure, the Nahas plan, that would have established a “social wage” funded by higher taxes on rentier activities, established a universal health care system, and included transport allowances in salaries. While this reform would have undoubtedly benefited the majority of Hezbollah’s support base, the party actively opposed it.
Despite increasingly acting in the interests of the Shi’a bourgeoisie, Hezbollah has grown into a mass movement that enjoys broad support. Daher uses a Gramscian theoretical framework to describe how the party has achieved a position of hegemony within Shi’a Lebanese society through both consent and coercion. Hezbollah has won support though a broad range of activities including extensive social services in poor Shi’a communities, interest-free loan services, religious seminaries, a media empire, private schools, and the al-Mahdi scouts for youth. The party has also used authoritarian means to enforce its dominant position in the Shi’a population. It uses its social and financial power to ostracize individuals who step out of line or question authority.
Daher argues that none of Hezbollah’s civil work is anti-systemic nor does it challenge contemporary hierarchies in Shi’a society. For example, women play a particular ideological role as the teachers of future generations of Shi’a. They are expected to demonstrate religious piety by engaging in social-welfare volunteerism. Hezbollah’s enforcement of strict gender roles in the community extends to support for repressive laws. The party has opposed women’s equality on a legislative level and squashed a bill aimed at criminalizing marital rape.
In contrast to its image as champion of the oppressed and poor, Hezbollah has a pattern of discouraging struggle from below. This is clearly illustrated in the party’s policies in relation to the country’s labor movement.
Hezbollah blocked with the Hariri government, Amal, and several groups tied to the Syrian regime to undercut the powerful, cross-sect General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL). By establishing rival, sectarian trade unions and federations, the CGTL was effectively pacified by 2001.
In the early 2000s, new labor struggles developed outside the CGTL. In May 2006, a quarter of a million workers went on strike in support of the public sector. Hezbollah supported this strike as an expression of Shi’a discontent. The next year, only two thousand people went on strike, in part because Hezbollah was unwilling to mobilize when it appeared the strike would take up socioeconomic issues across sectarian lines.
An essential pillar of Hezbollah is its military apparatus. Its estimated that as many as 7,500 of its cadre are full time soldiers, with reserves of 20,000. Hezbollah has used its military to crush political rivals. In several incidences, the party’s security patrols demonstrated the ability to become a “quasi-state” apparatus, overriding Lebanese governmental order. In 2008, the government attempted to reign in Hezbollah’s military. In response, Hezbollah took over West Beirut in twelve hours and two weeks later the decree was canceled.
The party’s External Security Units conduct operations beyond Lebanon in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Egypt, and Iraq. Despite rhetorical resistance to the state of Israel, Hezbollah has actually preserved calm on the country’s southern border with the Zionist state. Tellingly, the party’s 2009 manifesto justified the existence of its military units, not as a means to liberate Palestinian land, but to protect Lebanese sovereignty.
With the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, Hezbollah initially welcomed the revolutionary processes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. However, as the protests spread to Syria, it abandoned this stance and replaced it with a defense of the status quo. Nasrallah characterized the Syrian uprising as an American and Israeli orchestrated plot designed to topple the supposedly “pro-Palestine” regime of Bashar al-Assad, rather than a grassroots uprising. Soon, Hezbollah began funneling arms to Assad’s force as well as deploying thousands of its forces to support Assad’s counterrevolution.
A minority of the Lebanese Shi’a population has become disenchanted with Hezbollah’s military ventures. They don’t see Assad’s fight as their own and question the logic of Muslim fighting Muslim. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria demonstrates a shift from primarily confronting Israel to using its military force to advance its own regional interests and influence. According to Daher, “Hezbollah’s international relations are driven by political interests, and not by a principled commitment to solidarity with the oppressed.”
Much mysticism and romanticism of Hezbollah exists among the left today. Daher’s book punctures this mythology and replaces it with a historical materialist account of the party, its class nature, sectarian neoliberal politics, and counterrevolutionary role in Syria. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.