My recent article published in the Review of International Political Economy focuses on the centrality of US-led imperialism in Libya’s socio-economic trajectory, exploring the role of everyday social imaginaries of the ‘good life’—promises of global inclusion, consumer desires, fantasies of better infrastructural development—which began to emerge in the late 1980s. I trace their emergence in relation to the changing political-economic trajectory of the Libyan social formation vis-à-vis US-led imperialism.

I show that everyday imaginaries drew people close to capitalism’s mirages of safety and inclusion, what I call capitalist modernity, acting as a catalyst for the 2011 popular protests. Yet, in doing so, they also shaped and reified regimes of accumulation and modes of regulation that sustain US-led imperialism’s control of the Global South.

Ultimately, my intention is to question the potential of these imaginaries of freedom to trigger radical political change by upholding capitalist modernity as an alternative to socio-economic inequalities and failing infrastructural development.

The Arab uprisings and the rise of US-led imperialism

When the Arab uprising broke out in 2011, many scholars dismissed too quickly the connection between the popular protests and the dynamics of the world market. From their focus on authoritarian resilience to subaltern resistance, many studies failed to consider how the historical trajectory of these Arab governments should be understood in relation to their gradual and subordinate reintegration into the US-led world market. That is, the gradual de-development of the Arab region—and its recent neoliberal authoritarian turn—is linked to the military-ideological defeat of Arab Socialism and the consolidation of US-led imperialism in the region via its support of regional conservative allies, the petrodollar monarchies of the Gulf.

While the initial state-led capitalist experience provided relatively prosperous results for the population of the Arab Republics in the aftermath of colonization, seen through large redistributive programmes and national infrastructural development, the military and ideological defeat that followed reversed this process. Under the geopolitical threat of war and sanctions the ruling elites abandoned progressive policies, systematically transferring their wealth abroad instead of investing in national or regional enterprises.

Libya was not immune to this process. After the 1969 revolution, the Libyan government pursued a revolutionary project of national independence, while also advocating for a radical change in the relations of domination in the international order. As part of this anti-imperialist project (and despite its numerous limitations), several political and economic initiatives were undertaken in order to improve the living conditions of the population, including the nationalization of the oil industry in 1973, the construction of infrastructural and redistributive programs, as well as the support of revolutionary movements worldwide and the pursuit of projects of regional integration.

Those programs, however, were undermined as a result of the intertwined political, military and economic measures that the US and its allies adopted in order to weaken the achievements and ambitions of the Libyan revolution, including gunboat diplomacy, sanctions, and military bombings.

The promises of capitalist modernity: Consumerist fantasies and Dubai

In such a context, since the late 1980s, social imaginaries for Libya’s future began to emerge, largely constructed from ideals of individual freedom and consumerism.

For instance, discussions around food shopping and consumer goods encapsulated these new desires. One would be tempted to argue that state-led economies, like the Jamahiriya, purposefully engineered these repeated shortages of consumer goods to control the population, turning them into dictatorships over people’s needs.

Therefore, like in the Soviet Union, consumer fantasies ought to function as forms of popular resistance against a repressive government. However, such analyses forget to pay attention to questions of class and capital in Global South contexts, ignoring how these governments also operated under a wider geopolitical structure: US-led imperialism.

In other words, consumer fantasies certainly articulated popular discontent towards the government; yet they also mirrored existing contradictions at the structural level. They were, in fact, symptomatic of a wider reconfiguration of the ruling class and its gradual abandonment of another vision of the future, which initially had sought to build an alternative to capitalist-led development.

However, being defeated under the threat of war and sanctions vis-à-vis US-led imperialism, it had metamorphosed into more repressive policies and rising socio-economic inequalities. These changes, which appeared since the late 1980s, continued to shape people’s social imaginaries, even more so when the country re-joined the international community in the early 2000s, when the future tense for Libya aligned with the regional promise of Dubai.

Dubai, and the Gulf more widely, had become the new benchmark for gauging regional development. A recurrent story emerged throughout my interviews that recounted how the former leader of the UAE, Shaykh Zayed, had been struck by Libya’s level of infrastructural development during one of his visits in the 1970s, to such an extent that he planned to transform his country into a place more like Libya.

However, at the dawn of the new millennium, the Libyan wheel of modernisation had spun in the opposite direction for more than thirty years. Its infrastructural development had failed to advance, while Dubai became a world symbol of progress in the region, a way to measure success and to think of the ‘good life’.

Dubai’s success story became the future tense of Libya. It not only became a catalyst for popular discontent, but also revealed the heightening intra-elite tensions between the ‘technocrats’ or ‘reformers’ and the ‘old guard.’ Each camp offered a different vision of Libya’s political future. The reformist programme, embodied in the figure of Saif al-Islam, had gained momentum, and became a magnet for those clusters of desires and promises of capitalist modernity, an improved infrastructure, and renewed global ambitions articulated in the fantasy of Dubai. Meanwhile the ‘old guard,’ closer to Qaddafi’s affiliates, seemed more interested in pursuing a foreign policy of diplomatic expansion and economic investment in the African continent.

More importantly, to understand the fantasy of Dubai requires capturing how the remarkable transformation of the Gulf is intimately linked to its vital role in the maintenance of today’s US power globally. The Gulf region has been the fulcrum around which the global economy was consolidated in the last two decades—thanks to its commodity exports providing energy (oil), its financial flows balancing the global deficits, and its acquisition of armaments and military technologies from Western countries.

Inevitably, while controlling the Gulf region became a vital necessity for US-led imperialism, the Gulf has acquired an increasingly dominant and successful role in the region. Therefore, the constitutive role of the Gulf in US-led imperialism underlies how ordinary cultural experiences called for better infrastructural development and a closer relationship with the West.

Yet, this simultaneously failed to consider the interests and role US-led imperialism played in aggravating socio-economic inequalities in Libya historically, including its reintegration into global circuits of capital after years of international sanctions and isolation. By tracing these contradictions ineherent in these social imagined, I argue that it is possible to understand the cruel outcome of the protests in the country in 2011.

A Cruel ‘Revolution’

On 15 September 2011, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy—prime ministers of Britain and France—arrived in the city of Benghazi to a rapturous welcome. In the spirit of the revolutionary festivities, both leaders announced:

‘Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your democracy.’

However, if Libyans were eager to enjoy the fruits of globalization and Western countries were happy to sustain their dreams, how did the country descend into chaos and violence?

I argue that by linking economic prosperity and freedom to capitalist modernity, these social imaginaries I have described prepared the ground for revolutionary optimism, yet they also contained the cruel seeds of its outcome.

The everyday aspirations of numerous Libyans revealed an increasing desire to embrace capitalist modernity and its promise of global inclusion to improve their lives. Yet these same aspirations did not take into account the inherent cruelty that the promise of capitalist modernity offers to the Global South in a capitalist-world system, where a structural process of unequal exchange is required to maintain US-led dominance. As such, capitalist modernity was being desired, while another model of development was being attacked, and thus defeated, under the assault of US-led imperialism.

As this confrontation evolved, a progressive post-colonial revolution (with its own limitations) metamorphosed into an increasingly repressive and domestically illegitimate government, now linked to dollarized financial capital. By 2011, fifty-two years after two Western military bases had been evacuated, Libya has gradually been re-integrated into an infrastructure of militarism, development agencies and border control in the hands of foreign powers, which weakened further its sovereignty and independence.

In this context, for the Libyan protests to carry an emancipatory stance, an alternative ontology to the capitalist one is essential, acknowledging—for instance—how some of the values that accompanied the decolonization era are still important goals to be achieved.

Capitalist modernity haunts the future of the Global South because it has normalized certain ideas around what politics should look like and what the economy should deliver to the population. A decolonial future must challenge the desire to imitate and reproduce imperial hegemony in Europe and elsewhere.

My reading of 2011 in Libya suggests that the events did not produce something different, rather they largely emerged whilst more radical visions for the postcolonial future of the country had been gradually defeated. As it stands, capitalism’s promise of inclusion to the Global South is premised on the structural imperative to dominate it. Thus wars, sanctions and liberal interventions will continue to define the promise of capitalist modernity that haunts the present and future of the Global South.

Matteo Capasso is a Marie Curie Global Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University and Columbia University, working on a project that focuses on the global dimension of the Libyan war.

This article is based on Matteo Capasso, “The perils of capitalist modernity for the Global South: the case of Libya.”Review of International Political Economy, DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2022.2028180

Image: Tripoli skyline uploaded by Mariam, from Pinterest