Hezbollah: The political economy of Lebanon’s party of God

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What is Hezbollah? Its disciplined and well-armed fighters are an important player in key regional conflicts, working in alliance with Syrian and Iranian states. Its media and telecommunications systems are independent of Lebanese state interference or control. Its network of municipal, welfare and business organisations structure daily life for hundreds of thousands of residents in its heartlands.

Joseph Daher’s well-researched book aims to uncover a rounded picture of Hezbollah, setting the organisation in the context of changes in the Lebanese state and society over the past 20 years. The mass of detailed evidence he presents on Hezbollah’s business and welfare activities and its role in civil society provides a crucial source of new information about the party’s changing role in Lebanon for English-speaking readers.

His overall argument — that Hezbollah has evolved into the political and military representative of the Shia bourgeoisie — raises as many questions as it answers.

At the heart of Daher’s analysis is a double transformation: firstly of Hezbollah itself and secondly of the class structure of the Shia community within Lebanon. In the process of reconstructing South Beirut after the Israeli invasion, Daher argues, Hezbollah has become enmeshed in the rise of a new urban Shia bourgeoisie. This process has taken place within the wider context of both neoliberal reforms and significant mass movements and strikes challenging their effects. Faced with resistance from below, Hezbollah’s leaders have consistently worked to maintain the existing social and political system, rather than change it.

As Chris Harman noted in an article written shortly after the 2006 Israeli invasion, Hezbollah’s acceptance of both the neoliberal capitalist order in Lebanon, and the regional role of more powerful neighbouring states such as Syria, was pushing the party down a similar route to the Palestinian guerrilla movements: rejecting the processes of mobilisation from below which gave vital impetus to their initial military and political successes. Daher’s exploration of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war provides a further example of this contradiction.

The party’s enthusiasm for the uprisings evaporated when it became clear that the Syrian regime was under threat and it sent fighters to its aid, justifying its actions by mobilising both a sectarian rhetoric of threats to Shia shrines in Syria from Sunni jihadist groups and arguments that the Lebanese “national interest” demanded a “pre-emptive” war in Syria.

The class contradictions within Hezbollah’s social base are likely to sharpen when the trickle-down effects of the post-2006 construction boom dry up. The sectarian rhetoric which Hezbollah has used to mobilise support for its military campaign in Syria has clearly been effective to a degree, although Daher cites tantalising examples of critics within who have demanded the party turn back to the battle with Israel instead of sending teenagers from South Beirut to die doing the dirty work of Assad’s murderous regime.

There is a danger here of conflating the accommodation of Hezbollah’s leadership to the needs of a newly-confident Shia bourgeoisie, with the more complicated question of the class base of the entire movement.

A key question for socialists in Lebanon remains how to fracture Hezbollah horizontally, winning the support of the workers, urban and rural poor who support the party, rather than treating it as a reactionary monolith.