04 March, 2009

Business and Democracy - Liberal Think Thank Ramblings

I just stumbled upon a fascinating piece of liberal thinkthanking in last week's issue of Al-Ahram Weekly. Amr Hamzawy, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece, put forward the often repeated argument that the emerging business elite can be a liberalising force. Some excerpts:

"On the otherwise stagnant Arab political scene, something has stirred. Slowly but surely, business elites have found their voice, formed their own associations, and begun to have an input into the region's political and social life. /---/

"The business associations of Morocco and Tunisia and the chambers of commerce of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are all playing a major role in determining public policy on labour and investment. Before any laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations are passed, the business community is consulted."

Hamzawy believes that this increased role of the business elite in politics "may eventually relax the customary grip of the state." Others would say that business elites are naturally opposed to democracy precisely because they want to make sure they, but not the majority of the people, are consulted when it comes to "laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations."

Liberals often depict various business associations as a vital component of "civil society," without acknowledging that these organizations also have a strong common interest with the authoritarian state in stiffling the free operation of other segments civil society. As Marsha Pripstein Posusney argues in her book Labour and the State in Egypt, "genuine political liberalization would necessarily entail an end to the screening of union leaders and their co-optation into the ruling party, as well as the lifting of the ban on strikes and other legal constraint on union activities. Because these measures have their corollaries in similar restrictions on the activities of professional associations, opposition parties, and mass organizations, liberalizing union laws threatens to unravel the entire repressive apparatus of the regime."

In the last paragraph of his article, Hamzawy admits that most Arab businessmen "would defend their governments to the hilt in the face of opposition movements, whether religious or non- religious," and that "few if any Arab businessmen are willing to speak up for democracy." Despite this he maintains that "their presence gives us a shot at democracy that we wouldn't have had otherwise." That's liberal logic for you.

The article makes sense, however, if "democracy" is defined as something like this: More laws that benefit the business elite, more privatization, lower wages, less social security and unemployment benefits, weaker anti-trust regulations, more flexibility on the labour market, more security crackdowns on union activists, more harassment and lawsuits against independent media that cover labour protests, and so on...

By the way, the wikipedia has this interesting piece of information about Amr's employer: "Jessica T. Mathews, the current president of the institute, has become a source of controversy for the institute due to the claims by the International Labor Rights Forum that garment workers at the TOS factory owned by HanesBrands Inc. in the Dominican Republic are subject to serious workers' rights violations.[5] Mathews is a Board Member of HanesBrands. On March 14, 2008, students and labor activists demonstrated outside the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Carnegie Endowment, in order to "pressure" Mathews to "use her power as a Hanes board member to end sweatshop conditions" at the factory.[6] One worker from the Hanes factory, Julio Castillo, carried a poster with the slogan "Human Rights Hypocrite of the year". According to the protestors, Mathews refused to meet the workers.[6][7]"

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