As Syria ploughs forward in its own version of an open market economy, certain positive and negative consequences are inevitable. My highly subjective article is not concerned at all with the role of the government. Whether Syria, on the political and administrative levels, is doing the right thing is not my field of specialty. Instead I want to handle a few particular facets in this transformation. I want to shed my own light, knowing full well the biases inherent when one follows his instincts and private observations rather than empirical research, to answer some seemingly innocuous questions. Have the average hard working bread winner's conditions improved today from what they were a few years back, when Syria was still shackled by the obsolete restraints of an archaic ill-implemented socialist economy? Is the Syrian Middle Class better off economically, assuming of course that it still exist? Are Syrians, in general, happier, healthier and wealthier? Finally, it is my intention to briefly evaluate the relationship between the Haves and the Have-Nots.
As an advanced warning, I need to make it clear that I am not totally impressed by the effects of the opening market economy in Syria. I also need to assert that my own "bitterness", although purely subjective, is not a result of a personal struggle. I am not a victim of circumstances, and the economic, but more importantly, social morphing of society has not and probably will never make me suffer as a consequence. Over my entire life, I have considered myself a man of the middle. But with the advent of these sweeping changes, I become more at odds with the right, even when it tries to remain close to moderation. I am a diehard Middle Class man and will not give up my status without a fight.
The conditions of the average Syrian working person are as bad as they were ten or twenty years ago. This average person has in fact lost his or her real identity and their outlook on the future. Currently, the average job hardly pays enough to maintain a subsistence level for a family of four. If both wife and husband hold average jobs they are not able to go on a one-week vacation once a year in Syria. They cannot take their two kids to a decent restaurant even once a month. By the way, the average Syrian family numbers 6.3 according to the World Health Organization*. Although this is not a recent study per say, I believe it to be still accurate today. It might be easier to digress on the prospects of this family rather than on its aspirations. The children will continue to rotate pieces of clothing bought once or twice a year on religious occasions. They will continue to consume more carbohydrates than they should and less protein and fruits than they ought to. They will dream of someday buying their own mobile phones and sleeping in their own private rooms. When they reach the point of enrolling at a university, and if they are lucky indeed, they will pursue an affordable education (free) with very limited options. It will be extremely hard to break free out of this endless loop. So it was, so it will continue to be.
The Syrian Middle Class is all but gone. With the polarization of our society at both ends of the economic spectrum, the Middle Class is becoming more and more a mythical group. There seems to be a space/time warp from which some "lucky" individuals are stepping out of their misery and into the haven of the rich. This warp, also known as a worm, is as twisty and dirty as it could get. Therefore, when these individuals emerge on the other side they often become "filthy" rich. Should I always write that I am making generalizations and that there are some people who get there through hard work and perseverance. I don't believe it is necessary. These honest, self-made persons are the exception rather than the rule. As the intellectual elite stratum, historically the upper middle class of Syria, was being slowly eroded and replaced by a business class, the impact on the Syrian social identity has been tremendous. If we compare the cultural scene in the country in the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s of the last century with what has become of us now, we cannot help but feel desperate and hopeless. From the 80’s onward the Syrian upper middle class has changed from a group comprised mainly of professionals to one that is a mélange of army officers and public "servants". Old Money circumnavigated the devastating effects of a deficient and corrupt socialist system by moving their capital to foreign lands. They acted, generally speaking, like social parasites and led their own strange lives and held their own extravagant wedding receptions while their country around them was falling apart economically. Then the upper middle class of Syria changed again. The officers either retired or died but they were never replaced from the army or from the ranks of government again. A new group was on the rise, their children, a second generation of shrewd calculating money hungry monsters took control. They acted very swiftly and efficiently and established a new economic and social network. They jumpstarted the process and within a few years and immediately within the short span since the beginning of the new millennium they partnered almost completely with the traditional Old Money of Syria. Somehow similar in shape to a sand clock, today’s Syrian social composition is based on a wide base of underprivileged, poor and disillusioned majority, topped by a very small “squeezed” middle class then overwhelmed by an increasing number of scoundrels and ex-convicts nouveau riche, blessed and manipulated by the Old Money who had never relinquished their economic prowess through it all.
Are Syrians happier, healthier and wealthier today? I daresay NO. We have turned into a consumer market playground. Sure, our shops and stores sell almost everything under the sun and we do not have to smuggle “luxury” commodities from across the border anymore. But, who can afford to be a consumer of items beyond basic food and clothing. Who, for instance, can enter a prestigious shop in Damascus and buy the US$800.00 pair of jeans shamelessly displayed in the shop front. I, for one, feel appalled that such offensive display of wealth is allowed while the masses await their paychecks to juggle with the possibility of buying a $15 pair of pants or pay their outstanding electricity bill. The average Syrian cannot afford private hospitalization. She has to surrender her body and soul to the public health system with often tragic results. We are, as a nation, in deep economic shit and it seems to be getting worse.
I indicated in the beginning of this article that I do not intend to go into what the government should and should not do. I want to place all the blame on the ruling Economic Class of Syria. Those in business, who are paying less taxes than a poor laborer is, have caused more economic and social damages to this country than any stupid government action can ever inflict. The morality of the super-rich in Syria is immoral to say the least. When “the rich goes cheap to stay rich” the consequences are destructive. I have attended a meeting recently where Syrian businessmen explained to their European counterparts that the Syrian worker is lazy and does not work unless coerced. They were contemplating bringing in foreign experienced labor (Indian factory workers) because they are more committed to work. They did not even consider the possibility that the Syrian worker is lazy because the (SP15,000 = US$300.00) they were paying him per month do not even cover the basic necessities in an ever more expensive country. What do you expect for $300 per month you damn sonsofbitches? The hotel where the meeting was held charges $200 per single room, per fucking night, breakfast not included.
Now, you the reader, might have developed a better idea why I do not care (on the surface) so much about democracy or its absence in Syria. Even if we were a truly democratic country the results of the parliamentary elections would not have been that much different. The scoundrels and ex-cons ran for chairs in the parliament and paid for votes with vegetable oil, sugar, rice and cash money. The poor elected them and were glad that they got something out of the whole commotion. The Middle Class did not give a damn, by not voting, but who are they anyway but a "filthy" minority. The economic ruling class of Syria supported and celebrated the occasion with banners and banquets and everyone clapped their hands and danced while the voice of Ali Al-Deek echoed grotesquely between the walls, the usually silent walls.
* International Family Planning Perspectives and Digest, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 58-59doi:10.2307/2947510