Cynicism, socialism, and labour migration
in Rebel populism
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The dominant narrative of the Syrian uprising is that regime violence suppressed mass protests calling for “freedom of expression and democracy,” and that, consequently, a movement once liberal and democratic degraded into a sectarian civil war. Stepping back from a sarcastic joke from a worker dismissing the Ba’athist ideological pillars – “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” – this chapter examines transformations in Syria’s political economy.

We learn that what’s being objected to here is not only the violence of the state’s repressive arm but also its abandonment of a welfare pact between the city and the countryside. The chapter examines, in turn, how the “Populist Authoritarian” Ba’ath state did enact material transformations that coalesced around its those initial headlines – “unity, freedom, and socialism.” However, we then see how, due to a series of liberalising reforms in the 1990s, deepened in the 2000s, anti-poor outcomes began to constrain the future of the men who made that joke. Thus, in a bid to understand their sarcasm that this chapter moves gradually toward the book’s central analytic framework. We learn how the Ba’ath party’s social contract snapped, lost its remaining populist credentials, and exposed workers and peasants to the increasingly unfettered capitalism. Labour migration thus shifts from a means to build a future to a mechanism of survival. The Assad government, under a global push toward market liberalisation, thereby lay its own populist powder keg.

Rebel populism

Revolution and loss among Syrian labourers in Beirut

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