The Lebanese group, Hezbollah, is militant, Islamist, and portrays itself in terms of various dichotomies: resistance versus oppression, Islamic morality versus corrupt secularism, and so on. Since Hezbollah’s establishment in 1985, many analyses of the group have focused on these ideological underpinnings. Assessments based only on ideology are, however, inevitably limited in their usefulness.
In his new book, Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God, author and academic Joseph Daher eschews these one-dimensional analyses of the group. Drawing from archives, public records, and interviews, Daher goes beyond ideology to chart the group’s development from its earliest origins to its current form. Ultimately, Daher challenges Hezbollah’s own mythos as a resistance actor on behalf of the oppressed.
Adopting critical frameworks from Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and others, Daher analyzes Hezbollah’s relationship with various neoliberal economic policies (including privatization, openness to foreign investment, and so on). He finds that, by and large, the group has offered no broad, consistent opposition to liberalization and, instead, has only presented piecemeal objections to a few policies. Even in these cases, its opposition has largely been rhetorical.
To support his argument, Daher highlights how the group has pursued municipal policies that favor development over local interests. The urban renewal program in the Hezbollah-controlled Ghobeiry neighborhood of Beirut, for instance, privatizes public spaces to the detriment of long-term residents and informal communities and aggravates the city’s already significant wealth inequalities. In another example, Daher discusses Hezbollah’s reaction to the Lebanese government’s liberalized rent laws in 2014. While Hezbollah officials expressed concern about the effect of rising rents on the poor, the group offered no resistance to the law. When it came up for a vote in the Lebanese parliament, all Hezbollah deputies, with the exception of one, voted in favor of the legislation. Banks and real estate developers applauded the law’s passage.
Hezbollah’s relationship with Lebanese workers is also fraught. While the group has established its own trade unions across a variety of fields, only Shiite Muslims are allowed to join. These sectarian divisions have helped, in part, to make it very difficult to mobilize labor in Lebanon.
As Daher shows, promoting sectarianism in labor unions helps Hezbollah maintain the socio-economic and sectarian status quo from which it benefits. Hezbollah has relied on clientelism and neoliberal economic policies to solidify its power base among Shiite Muslims. By preventing a cross-sectarian labor movement from developing, Hezbollah ensures these strategies will remain effective.
The jewel in Hezbollah’s rhetorical crown is its resistance activity against Israel. Even here, however, sectarianism, rather than social justice, is the main driving force. By failing to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, as well as integrating anti-Semitism into its core vocabulary, Hezbollah shows that its opposition to Israel is not simply anti-colonial, but also religious.
Daher synthesizes these various points in his overarching thesis. “Hezbollah’s professed solidarity with the oppressed of the world is largely subordinated to its narrower political interests,” he writes. It is, therefore, “neither revolutionary nor progressive…but [a party] led by political interests that can be explained through a materialist approach.”
As Hezbollah’s military, political, and economic clout continue to increase, Daher’s contribution is a timely one. Scholars of the group should take heed of Hezbollah for its well-rounded and incisive discussion of the organization’s place in the contemporary global order.