This is a conversation with Julia Choucair Vizoso, an independent scholar trained as a political scientist as well as an editor and translator at The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization which describes itself as such:
“dedicated to reporting on socioeconomic and environmental crises afflicting Lebanon since the onset of neoliberal governance in the 90s, and providing political commentary on events unfolding since October 17.”
She is also is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative, collaborating on the Programme on Sustainable and Inclusive Environmental Policy in the MENA Region.
I wanted to talk to Julia because she’s well-placed to explain how the Lebanese oligarchy operates and how or if the October 17th revolution has threatened it. You can read part one and part two of her essay on The Public Source.
You can follow the podcast on Twitter @FireTheseTimes.
Patreon is for monthly, PayPal is for one-offs and BuyMeACoffee has both options.
A big thanks to Thomas Cugini for this.
0:00:00.0 S0: Hello, my name is Banchi Yimer, I am the founder of Egna Legna Besidet organization, Egna Legna Besidet organization, focusing on domestic worker and Lebanon, because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, many domestic workers are suffering behind closed doors and they can’t even feed their kids because of that, we are gathering food and distributing home to home, but we want to do more and we set up also GoFundMe accounts, if anyone is interested to donate we will be grateful, and you can find this link to our Twitter at @EgnaLegnaDWU thank you so much.
0:00:48.0 S1: So this is a conversation with Julia Choucair Vizoso. She’s an independent scholar trained as a political scientist as well as an editor and translator at The Public Source, which is a Beirut-based independent media organization. She’s also a non-Resident fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative, collaborating on the Programme on Sustainable and Inclusive Environmental Policy in the MENA Region. Now, The Public Source describes itself as such: “It is dedicated to reporting on social, economic and environmental crises affecting Lebanon since the onset of neo-liberal governance in the 90s, and providing political commentary on events unfolding since October 17, 2019.” For that reason I wanted to talk to Julia, she’s well-placed to explain how the Lebanese oligarchy operates and how or if the October 17th revolution has threatened it, as usual, you can follow the podcast on Twitter at @FireTheseTimes on Instagram at @thefirethesetimes and you can also support it on Patreon or on BuyMeACoffee.com, the links of which are in the description. Thank you for your time.
0:02:09.0 S2: My name is Julia Choucair Vizoso, I’m here today as editor and translator of The Public Source, which is a new independent bilingual media organization based in Beirut, and that is dedicated to reporting on the socioeconomic and environmental conditions afflicting Lebanon since the end of the Civil War. I am currently based in Madrid in Spain, and I will soon be teaching political science here, which is a discipline I am academically trained in, and I’m also a fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative in Paris, helping work on the new Programme for Sustainable and Inclusive Environmental Policy.
0:02:48.3 S1: Awesome, thanks for having this conversation with me.
0:02:50.3 S2: And thanks for having me.
0:02:52 S1: My pleasure. So hopefully by the end of this episode, listeners would have a decent idea of how oligarchy or the oligarchic system in Lebanon works and how it intersects with the media system in Lebanon, so obviously that’s a very, very big ask, and I don’t expect… I think it would be unrealistic to expect that we will have a perfect 100% detailed understanding by the end of it, but let’s consider this basically a general introduction, I think would be a decent objective. So, in your two parts here is on The Public Source, which is on the Lebanese oligarchy, you first explore the meaning of an oligarchy in Part One and then in Part Two you explore its particular applications to the Lebanese context, so can you guide us a bit through your arguments like what is an oligarchy, and how do these oligarchs in Lebanon get and maintain their power and wealth?
0:03:48.3 S2: Well, just for some background, the piece was motivated by something I was observing in public discussions in Lebanon a few weeks after the October Uprising, which was the back and forth about whether the word “oligarchy” or rather “oligarchia” in Arabic should be used to describe Lebanon’s system, and we have seen this word on some protest banners, but really it was appearing much more in social media, and I found it interesting that the discussion wasn’t focusing so much on what the concept meant or even if it was a correct description for the Lebanese system, but rather whether we should be using it at all, because it was… Some people were saying it was a foreign concept, others were saying it was an elitist concept, like an academic understanding that, quote “the lay people” wouldn’t understand. And I thought it was an interesting example of two things, and one is that I find that often when we use concepts like oligarchy, which at its core is trying to draw attention to material conditions and economic inequality, when we use concepts like that, often we’re held to a higher standard than when we use concepts that don’t necessarily talk about material conditions such as democracy, which is also a quote-unquote “foreign” concept in that sense to Lebanon in terms of not being originally an Arabic word.
0:05:09.9 S2: And so that was one thing. And the other though was that oligarchy itself as a concept has been quite muddled, so also people who say that it’s not, perhaps not an apt description can be forgiven because it itself has been muddled in the specialized literature especially, and so I wanted to do like a two-part series, the first of which would kind of go into this idea of how do we understand oligarchy today and the social sciences, also while being self-reflective about how we’ve modeled it over the past century, and then to kind of turn to Lebanon. And I also, it can be fun to talk about Lebanon without trying to mention the word “sect” a single time, and so I was trying to do that, of course, a lot of criticism can come from that because I do think you naturally missed a lot of nuance so I try to just talk about oligarchy in this comparative framework, just to put Lebanon in a more comparative framework, which we also struggle to do sometimes, so… Yeah, so having said that, that was a motivation. And so basically, I mostly, in Part One, talk about this one particular book, which is a book written in 2011 by the social scientist, by the political scientist Jeff Winters, Jeffrey Winters, and the book is called Oligarchy.
0:06:33.4 S2: And the reason I talk about the book is I think it’s a critical intervention, because what it does is it reminds us of the original intent of the term oligarchy, which was a term that at its core talked about wealth, and that was of course, a term that Aristotle introduced. And what Winters argues, and I agree with him, is that oligarchy as a term in the last century has been muddled because we started talking about it only as minority ruled, so it’s often described in the dictionary, in PoliSci 101, you think of oligarchy think minority rules, so rule of the few as opposed to rule by the many. But what does that really mean? Rule of the few. Does that mean any system that doesn’t have full participation by population at all times is oligarchy… What does it mean when you say rule of the few versus a ruling class, which is another concept we see a lot, or political class, or even elites. So it doesn’t really get us very far when we think about rule of the few, but if you return to what Aristotle was saying, it was that what really distinguishes oligarchy from democracy is not the number of rulers, but the material position, and here I’ll read a quote from Aristotle, “for the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth, whenever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is oligarchy, and where the poor rule that is democracy.”
0:08:09.9 S2: So Winters builds on these materialist origins of the concept, but his intervention is to really look at the concept of wealth defense, and here it’s the idea that what makes people oligarchs and worthy of study as a special set of actors different from ruling class or different from the idea of elites is the extreme concentration of one specific power resource, which is wealth. When we think of elites, you can think of a lot of different types of power, they can be symbolic power, charismatic power, political power naturally, but religious power, but wealth is a very specific power resource, and that is what defines oligarchs. And oligarchs are actors who have a lot of massive concentrations of wealth in a society, and they can or not be poli-, they can be politicians or they can’t be politicians, that’s not part of the term… Of course, a politician is an oligarch when they first hold and have a lot of material power, but an oligarch is an oligarch even if they don’t govern personally. And then if we think about that, if that’s what oligarchs are, then oligarchy as a system is the politics by which people who have extreme amounts of power defend their wealth.
0:09:21.4 S2: So oligarchy is not a system of government, it’s not a particular method of rule, it’s a material project, which is rooted in this idea that wealth must be defended from being redistributed essentially. And when you think about it that way, you end up with an interesting way of dividing societies based on the type of wealth defense project that they happen to be subsumed in at any given time, and in the book, Winters goes on to talk about four particular typologies, I’m not sure it’s necessary to get into them all right now we can just get into the Lebanese case, but essentially what differentiates them is two kind of types of questions, one is whether, are these oligarchs who are having to defend their wealth, which by the way, defending your wealth is always a coercive project, there has to be the threat of coercion otherwise you cannot hold on to your wealth, and so: Do these oligarchs, they themselves hold that course of power, or do they rely on the state to do it for them? That’s one. And then the second one is, you know, is there a single individual oligarch that kind of dominates? Or do you have multiple players who are working more or less in harmony, and so that’s what ends up giving you a typology of different types of oligarchies, which I go into a little bit in the first piece, but then on the second piece, really talk about Lebanon.
0:10:49.2 S1: So one of the things that I’m trying to do with these episodes on Lebanon especially, excuse me, is to try and assess in a sense, where are we today, so more or less six months since the start of the uprising and the different effects that it must have had, on different issues related to Lebanon, some might say, well, it has failed on some things, it has succeeded on some things, and for me, it’s much more interesting to just see how the changes that have occurred so far have occurred, or how it might be lacking in a sense, for more change to happen in the future. So on that note, is it fair to say… Oh, let me ask it this way, could we say that the October uprising Lebanon posed or continues to pose a threat to this oligarchic system and… Does that question even make sense? And if the answer is yes, how and if not, why not?
0:11:45.7 S2: Yeah, so I think the question definitely makes sense because I think, uh, Lebanon, I believe Lebanon is a ruling oligarchy, which is one of the types, and I believe that the protesters, many of the protesters demands articulated in October and since have really struck at the heart of oligarchy. But what I mean by that, as many of the protesters are making demands about the redistribution of wealth and society in Lebanon, about the impossible socio-economic stratification that they’ve been subjected to, and so that at the heart of it strikes at oligarchy and at the project by Lebanese oligarchs to defend their wealth. However, not everybody in the uprisings and not all the protesters have voiced these demands in these ways, so we also have as with all popular struggles, there is a dissonance of demands, there are many… And you definitely, as I’m very much simplifying here, but you can find a line of thinking that I would call like a civic- a civic demand or a political reformist demand, which is many are prioritizing the idea that what we need in Lebanon is a more open political system, such as a new electoral law, more civil liberties or citizenship rights, especially for women, for refugees, an independent judiciary, freer elections.
0:13:17.7 S2: These are all very, very worthy causes that would necessarily make life better for Lebanese citizens, some are even calling for an abolition of political sectarianism together, which is obviously a very important fundamental demand, but what I was arguing in the piece is all of these could still happen and we would still not make a dent in socio-economic stratification, so all of these could happen and we would still be an oligarchy in Lebanon… And the reason I say that is because if we look around the world, we find that democracies and here, I mean democracies the way we understand it today, which is regular free elections, not democracy the way Aristotle thought, which is explicitly different from oligarchy. If we look at democracy how we understand it today, most of them are captured and dominated by oligarchs, so what many mainstream social scientists believe today is that democracies have not made a dent in social inequality, in fact, we are now more unequal as human systems, more unequal than we have ever been. And so there’s no inherent conflict between oligarchy as concentrated, as extreme concentrated wealth and democracy, and so if we understand that, if we understand the place we are historically as well as comparatively for Lebanon, we have to understand that we could potentially secure all these positive changes, I talked about in terms of political reform and still be an oligarchy…
0:14:53.1 S1: And so the only way that we threaten oligarchy is if we disperse wealth… Right, just by definition. And I think a lot of protesters understand that, but I think sometimes the tension, the tension there can be is that, how do we do that? Right. And something else that history teaches us is wealth dispersion has happened in the past, but it’s always happened as a consequence of… Or as a consequence of conquest, as a consequence of revolution, but it has never been attempted successfully as a democratic decision, so that fact really should give us all pause when we argue that maybe if we just have a more perfect electoral democracy, we would have better socioeconomic equality. So that, I think, is something that I think is necessary for the debate on… again, this is all on the protester side, on the side of the people who are pushing for a change in the system, to understand that if what we’re talking about is socioeconomic equality, it’s not going to come through these civic-centered demands. On the other side of what the… how the system has responded so far to the uprisings, I think what we’re seeing is at very best, a shift in the type of oligarchy, and this is something I also get into in that second part of the piece is you know Lebanon has been a ruling oligarchy since it’s founding really, but more and more, what I mean by that is it’s a system in which all the oligarchs are directly engaged in governing, so political office is peppered with oligarchs…
0:16:44.4 S2: There are eight political families who control 32% of the commercial banking sectors assets, so a very concentrated wealth among political families, they also choose to govern, they choose to govern directly, they primarily rely on their material power for patronage networks, and once they’re in power, they obviously use that power to keep enhancing their wealth, so it’s kind of like a vicious circle, but something that we have been seeing, not just as the uprisings, but particularly since the uprisings, is maybe Lebanon is shifting a bit to this idea of a civil oligarchy and the civil oligarchy is one where oligarchs can increasingly rely on the state’s coercive apparatus to defend the wealth stratification. So oligarchs in Lebanon have their own private militias, private armies, private guards, so they defend their own property privately, they defend public space that’s not theirs with their private coercive means, but we also have been seeing that more and more, the military is willing to defend wealth stratification in Lebanon. On the nights where we were witnessing the extreme violence perpetrated by the state on the protesters, you know, it’s starting to look more like a system where the state services are doing the work of the oligarchs for them.
0:18:18.0 S2: Another way that Lebanon might be becoming more of a civil oligarchy is obviously the technocratic government that was put in place. So in civil oligarchies, oligarchs sometimes realize that they don’t need to engage in direct rule, that you can simply use your enormous resources to shape outcomes without being directly, you yourself holding office. And you know, we’re seeing that in Lebanon where you can delegate to your favorite technocrats and then say that you have a technocratic government wherever oligarchs get to appoint their technocrats. Yeah, so I think that’s what we’re seeing in Lebanon so far.
0:19:03.4 S1: The transition. I think, yeah, I definitely agree with that, obviously, that we are transitioning and some might say even optimistically speaking with transitioning into a more like civil-oriented oligarchy, as you defined it. Would you say… let me phrase it this way, would you say that the fact that in the demands of protesters, and as you said, of course, we cannot say that there have been only five demands or unified demand, there is definitely been a dissonance and multiplicity of demands, but the fact that it wasn’t as loud, it was in the… in the majority every day, and that kind of thing. Isn’t part of it, the fact that in oligarchy, part of how it maintains itself is by kind of limiting the imaginary of what is possible in the first place. So in Leb-, in the context of Lebanon, we know what we’re talking about it now, that the oligarchy concentrates such a massive amount of power and wealth, and at the same time, part of its strength is to basically say that “You guys, you don’t actually have any alternatives we are the best you got… so let’s work together,” so to speak. Does that make sense?
0:20:21.0 S2: Yes, of course. I mean, something that we see in civil oligarchies around the world, which again, I don’t think moving from a ruling oligarchy to a civil oligarchy is in any way- is an optimistic thing, in fact, I think… No, I really don’t. I think maybe the civil term can denote that, but actually civil oligarchies are some of the most dangerous because they’re the most stable and the most obfuscating. So the point you were just making about how rhetoric is used, that is used very successfully in civil oligarchies because in civil oligarchies, oligarchs also control media and they control public discourse in a way that is maybe less obvious than in ruling oligarchies, but it’s still very pernicious. So for example, in the case of the United States is a very good one where, most media that most people consume are owned by these conglomerates, groups that rely, as you said, constrain the imagination of what is possible, and it is a continuous project of saying, you know in the case of the US, now, we focus a lot, on obviously Republicans and Trump, but actually the Democratic Party and like Hilary Clinton herself ran on a platform of, this is as good as it gets, you know.
0:21:41.0 S2: There is no option, there is no alternative. And now, in Lebanon all of these who are trying to stay in power, it’s the same type of discourse; its that this is as good as it gets, and we have no alternatives, that is a constant project of limiting the imagination. So I completely agree with you.
0:22:00 S1: So speaking of the media in Lebanon, it’s definitely intimately tied to this oligarchic class, but for those who don’t know, can you give an overview of maybe the main stations and the relationship through the sectarian parties, or more broadly how these systems have come to dominate Lebanese life, especially in the post-war era, now, three decades.
0:22:23 S2: Sure, so I should start by saying that I myself don’t work on media or media studies or communications, and there are many people who work on this much better, but I can give a very broad overview and also refer anyone listening to the Media Ownership Monitor in Lebanon, which is this project by Reporters Without Borders and the Samir Kassir Foundation. And it’s the most comprehensive data project I have seen on the players involved in the media landscape in Lebanon, because it tries to run their visible, but underlying interest structures and connections.
0:23:01.8 S2: And so based on that report, I can just give a bit of a summary, so they analyzed 37 outlets which have the largest audience share in Lebanon, and this was in 2018, and they found that 80% of these outlets… So 29 out of the 37 are either directly controlled by the state or by former members or current members of parliament or the executive or by political parties. And 12 of the most famous or rather infamous family dynasties control about half of these… And five of these families are representative of more than one media sector, so across formats, TV, radio, etcetera. And something I found interesting, is these reports have been done for a number of countries at the time, they have been done for 16, and Lebanon of 16 countries had the highest rate of political affiliation of media. These included like countries like Albania, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Ghana, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine, so you know, Lebanon, highest rates of political affiliation in the media. These politically affiliated outlets account for the entirety of TV viewership… so if you’re watching TV in Lebanon today, you’re watching a politically affiliated channel.
0:24:26.4 S1: There is no alternative.
0:24:29.4 S2: Yeah, 94% of print readership, which is enormously high, and I guess the most… Not the most independent, I guess, of formats as radio, but even there it’s 80% of radio listeners will be listening to a channel that is… That is, either belongs to a political party or to a family who is a dynastic political family. Something else though, to mention about Lebanon, as you know, this report was done in 2018, and since then the media landscape has significantly been hit by a drain of funds. You know, there’s a mix of reasons. Obviously, some are specific to Lebanon, bad investment decisions by these dynastic families, or more broadly, the financial crisis, some are about the region, there’s more funding going to satellite stations in the Gulf that has been happening for the last 15 years or so, but then also there’s a generalized crisis for media around the world, because we know that advertisers have moved to other platforms for advertising, and we know the readers don’t wanna pay for content when so much content is available, so there’s a generalized crisis, and so since 2018, you know Lebanon has also been… has been facing that. I did wanna say just one more notable example is the case of Hariri’s family media ownership and which was the family, the one family with major shares in all four media sectors, the only family that really had major shares in all format print, online radio and TV, and they have shut down.
0:26:08.5 S2: Most of them are not all of their media production and they have yet to pay their employees for past work, and it was interesting to just last week, I think in the middle of the Corona lockdown, former employees were protesting in front of Future TV for their old salaries. Anyway, so this all goes to show that this market, which is obviously not independent at all, the… given what I said is also in itself not sustainable.
0:26:35.3 S1: Yeah, that’s a very good summary thanks. So again, to segue from that to your own work at The Public Source, The Public Source was launched a few months ago. When did it launch? Exactly.
0:26:48.9 S2: So The Public Source launched exactly around… In terms of going live online was around the protests, so… Right, I believe two weeks after the protest started, because it was originally conceived as a platform for in-depth long-form journalism, accountability journalism that would be focusing on the material effects of all these hegemonic systems in Lebanon, and with the start of the uprising, we decided to pivot a little and change the publishing date, precipitated and launch with these Dispatches, which were not long-form investigative journalistic pieces, but rather these insider observations that were analytical, but also experiential to try to convey the spirit of the day. And so we opened it up to workers, organizers, activists, agitators, students, intellectuals, academics, artists, anybody who wanted to share ideas and collect their collective experiences of this critical moment, so we launch- we launched with the Dispatches, which we’re still continuing, which are mostly in written form, but we’re also starting to experiment with sound work and some video production, and we’re still working on the original platform, which is to have this long long-form journalist, investigative journalism, which will be called, which are called the Chronicles of the Crisis, and those will be launching hopefully very, very soon.
0:28:26.2 S2: And there’s other parts of the platform as well. We’re now doing a Comictern, which is politically charged comics, we’re trying to feature different comic artists struggling and emerging comic creators, and we also have another platform which is for whistle-blowing called Sarreb (Ya Sha3bi), which is a platform hosting secure and anonymous communication channels to try to encourage people to whistleblow. Yeah, so that’s where the plans are now, but in terms of, you know, the general drive for the public sources that, you know, we were really… We were really thirsty for a different type of media in Lebanon, and we were, you know, daring to hope that there can be another way of doing media Lebanon, media in Lebanon, one that’s loyal only to editorial independence, and that is not afraid of exposing power and that can focus unapologetically on processes that have enriched the few and dispossess the majority, so we really have a clear editorial line, I would say, in terms of the topics that we cover, and we thought that that was sorely missing in Lebanon at the time.
0:29:42.9 S1: Yeah, and as someone who is on the consuming end of this, I can say that we have seen, if you pop up, especially after 2015, Megaphone, I guess is the best example of that. But yeah, it is definitely true that there is a very obvious lack, the numbers that you cited of how the percentage… how much the oligarchs actually control… these numbers speak for themselves. And so, I do honestly think that the reason why I wanted to have this episode is… well, to have the overview that we just had, and I really thank you a lot for this, and I had the same time to… well, essentially urge folks to actually check the website, that’s a very long way of encouraging people to do it, and I would say so, as someone who grew up in post-war Lebanon, born in ‘91, basically the entire post-war era is my life essentially, and we just got used to… As you said, We just got completely used to not expecting that anything like this can even be possible to… Among other things, this whole constraint of the imaginary that we mentioned before, to the point where as an undergrad student at AUB, it was even more common among us fellow students to talk about what’s happening outside of Lebanon.
0:31:09.0 S1: Really anywhere pick your country, because we would have more information on what’s happening there than we would have on what’s happening in Lebanon due to this concentration of media and wealth that we just mentioned. So maybe on a closing note or ish, depending on how we take this, like what oligarchy ultimately comes down to is power, I guess that’s a very simple way of summarizing it, but can you expand a bit on: what are some ways maybe that power can become more visible and so what I’m trying to ask is, part of how these big families control this much wealth is that they don’t necessarily flaunt it that much, it’s not out in the open all the time. Most people have some vague ideas, they know who the rich people are, but it’s not like in their face all the time, this kind of this- the way to turn it, and it’s kind of like that, what was the name of the children’s story? The Emperor’s New Clothes. And so as protesters, as media workers, as leftists, progressives, etcetera, etcetera, anyone who just wants things to change for the better, how can media, or maybe you can use The Public.
0:32:25.8 S1: Source specifically, if you feel more comfortable, how can The Public Source help to use the metaphor of The Emperor’s New Clothes, make this wealth more naked for everyone to see?
0:32:37.8 S2: That’s exactly the purpose of why The Public Source was originally conceived, that look, we all have a sense that we’re being pardon my… but we’re all being screwed, right, by these political families, like we all have a sense of that, that that was the driving reason for the creation of The Public Source is to uncover how oligarchic power affects our day-to-day, affects our health, affects our- the air we breathe, affects the price of the medicine that we pay, I mean for really the most basic daily struggles of Lebanese citizens and non-Lebanese… Anyone who resides in Lebanon. And so that’s… And I think the one way to do that is through investigative journalism, through serious unabashed, unafraid journalism. However, I will also say that information is one side of the coin, so more information is one side of the coin, but to go back to your point about the imagination, I think that is the other side. I think you know, knowing, just knowing how bad things are, it doesn’t… It gives us a lot of anger and it motivates us, but we also need to be able to imagine what things could be…
0:33:51.1 S2: And that is what we’re also hoping to do in The Public Source through these more creative outlets and to, you know, imagine… You know how things could be different and also doing… not just theoretically, but also through doing so, something else that The Public Source is, which I haven’t discussed so far, is that it’s an experiment with a different way of working together as journalists, as scholars, as translators, as creators, and so right now we’re bound by principles of non-hierarchy, there’s no CEO, there’s no boss, so to speak, it’s collectively owned… It’s a mutual aid network, and we’re very committed to non-alienation in our labor, we all come from- so we’re a diverse group of people, journalists, as I said, scholars, translators, we have all been burned by our respective institutional affiliations, so we’re all trying to find a way of working together that might be different. This is very difficult, of course, and so that’s why it’s an experiment, but it’s one that I think is- it’s beyond journalism, I think it’s one that is afflicting anybody trying to make a project that they believe in, that they can also make a living out of it… so that’s also part of our mission.
0:35:15.8 S1: Oh, well on that note, is there anything that you feel that we could have touched upon but I forgot to ask or we didn’t really have the time to do so…
0:35:23.8 S2: No, I think that was great.
0:35:25.5 S1: Awesome, thanks for your time.
0:35:27.5 S2: Yeah, thank you.