Mitchell Land Reform Essential For

Mitchell: Land Reform essential for Democracy

Professor Timothy Mitchell, of the New York University Political Science Department, spoke on contemporary Middle East affairs in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Mitchell is among the more original and insightful thinkers about the region. One point he made was that successful democratization, whether in Japan, India or elsewhere, has always been preceded by land reform. And, he pointed out, this sort of measure is completely absent from the American planning for the Iraqi economy. He said that the Baath years had seen enormous inequalities in landed wealth reemerge. We know that Saddam gave property to Sunni Arabs in Kurdish and Shiite regions, and rewarded the clan chieftains who supported him.

I have myself long felt that insufficient land reform is at one root of Pakistan’s failures as a democracy. Whereas India’s Zamindari Act of 1952 liquidated the big landlords and rajas of the British colonial regime, Pakistan’s governments made only baby steps in this direction (under Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto–though many of Bhutto’s measures were reversed by the regime of Gen. Zia al-Haq in the 1980s under the guise of the “Islamization” of Pakistani law). Pakistan’s current prime minister is a big landlord from Baluchistan who once called on the army to suppress his peasants, in Zia’s time. Big landlords generally don’t find it in their interest for their peasants to vote independently, so they use party politics as a way of controlling the peasant farmers and keeping them powerless.

So far the CPA plan for Iraq appears to be to just let businessmen and wealthy landlords run wild, with all the risks of repeating the disastrous errors made in post-Soviet Russia.

Mitchell also wryly pointed out that the main form of American economic activity in Iraq hasn’t been market driven at all, but rather has consisted of a few big corporations with pre-arranged contracts feeding safely at the public trough (the $20 bn. Congress just passed for Iraqi reconstruction will largely go to these champions of the free market).

I’d add that it is widely recognized that the trade unions played key roles in Japanese and German reconstruction and prosperity after WW II, whereas Bremer has been dissolving all such associations. It is not clear that the Iraqi workers will even retain the right to organize or strike (this right has largely been denied to US workers over the past 30 years, as judges have permitted corporations to engage in union-busting with impunity).

I’d say that one could forgive the Iraqis if they conclude that the American system in Iraq is a form of state socialism, with Bremer playing the Politburo, giving orders and exercising a veto even though no one elected him to office, and Halliburton and Bechtel playing state-supported industries. Perhaps it looks more like Cuba so far than like capitalist democracy.