People Reloaded: Why Mass Protest in Iran Is True Politics Worth Supporting

[Thanks (again) to Infinite Thought, who published the following essay on her blog this morning. This piece is copyright-free. Please distribute widely. The authors, Morad Farhadpour and Omid Mehrgan, are translators and philosophers based in Tehran.]

In the past two weeks, the majority of people in Tehran and other cities in Iran (including Shiraz, Ahwaz, Tabriz, Isfihan) have been on the streets, protesting against the theft of the presidential election by a handful of state’s agents at the top level. It was not a rigging in the usual western sense, no added votes or replaced ballot boxes, the election went on properly, the votes were taken and probably even counted, the figures transmitted to the ministry of interior, and it was there that they were totally disregarded and replaced by totally fictitious figures. That is why all the opposition forces (Sazman-e-Mojahedin-e-Enghelab, Mosharekat party…) together with people called it a coup d’état.

Global public opinion and, especially, the body of (leftist) intellectuals, Inspired by recent events in the middle Asia and east Europe, mostly regard this Iranian mass protest as another version of the well-known, newly invented, neo-liberal, U.S.-sponsored, colour-coded revolutions, as in Georgia and Ukraine. But is it the case in Iran? This article intends to clarify the issue, to reveal the properly political essence of current mass movement, and to demonstrate that this movement has the potentiality of a self-transcendence, of surpassing its actual demands, of traversing its current phantasy. To do this, we shall first examine the contemporary tradition of radical politics in Iran. Without these references, the current movement, which truly deserves this title, can not be understood correctly.

People, whether consciously or not, are frequently recollecting the 1979 Revolution and the 1997 Reform Movement. Many of their slogans are transformed slogans of the ’79 Revolution. The paths of demonstrations are symbolically significantly, the same as those against Shah. But this does not mean that people are imitating the ’79 Revolution: there are many new possibilities and creativities, many formal and thematic inventions. As for the 1997 Reform Movement, and its aftermath (the crushing of student protest in 1999), the affinities are even more obvious. Khatami, along with Mir Hossein Mousavi, is one of the most significant leaders and supporters of the protest. It is as if people are trying to redeem the 2nd of Khordad (May 23, 1997), to revive the unfinished hopes and dreams of those days. But this time, the protest is by no means limited to students and intellectuals. Although Khatami in 1997 was elected with 20 million votes from the most varied sections of the nation, the movement was characterized by the political and cultural demands of the middle-class, of students and educated people. But, apart from this, what is the true significance of the 2nd of Khordad Front for politics in Iran?

On the 2nd of Khordad, for the first time since Iranian Revolution, we were encountering a dichotomy between the state and the total system of Islamic Republic of Iran, known as Nezam (System, which is based on the principle of Velayat-e-Faghih, the supreme authority of high-ranked Mullahs). This duality was partly due to the fact that the leader of the opposition, Khatami, was at the same time the chief of the state. It was the only occasion where this duality, which is, in a sense, one between the development of productive forces and cultural, political backwardness, between secular democracy and religious fanaticism, could be revealed. Before and after that period, the state and Nezam have been basically in accordance, as it had been in the Shah’s Regime. One of the reasons, if not the main reason, why elections in Iran are of such importance for democratic movements, despite trends to boycott them, lies precisely in the significance of this very duality. Seen from a classical-Marxist perspective, in order to pave the way for the development of productive forces, in order to accomplish the ‘civilizing mission’ of capitalism, there must emerge a bourgeois state capable of carrying out the process of democratization and modernization. Whenever the state has been in full accordance with Nezam, this process fails to go on. Besides this, we deal with yet another duality, one between the capital and the state, the former as the means of development (with all its discontents, aptly and righteously exposed by the Marxist tradition), and the latter as the organ of regression and anti-modernism. So, the progressive and socialist opposition in Iran are faced with the unprecedented, hard task of fighting in two fronts: against religious fanaticism and the authoritarian factions in a semi-democratic government, and simultaneously against global capitalism and its hegemony by means of the production of wars. In a sense, intelligentsia in Iran are very similar to that of Russia and Germany of 19th century. We are a handful of schizophrenics who are, at one and the same time, against and for progress, development, capitalism, state management and so on. In other words, for us, the Faustian problematic, his tragedy, is formulated in a typically Hamletian way. This ambivalent attitude (to western civilization) can be characterized by the dialectic of state and politics. We are neither dealing with a pure politics a la Alain Badiou, nor with a classical Marxist politics, exhausted in class struggles, nor with the liberal-democratic politics of human rights, which was, by the way, the dominant discourse of opposition in Iran before Mousavi. Our supposedly radical politics consists of every one of these elements, but is not reducible to any of them. To deploy Agamben’s terminology, it is a politics of people against People, i.e. voiceless, suppressed people, against People officially constructed by the state. The current movement materializes, in many respects, this very politics.

But the question, which has confused the western (left) intelligentsia and has caused the most varied misunderstandings regarding Iran, is whether Ahmadinejad is a leftist, anti-imperialist, anti-privatization, anti-globalization figure. The common answer is a positive one. That is why certain misguided western leftists tend to regard the current mass movement in support of Mir Hossein Mousavi and against Ahmadinejad as the struggle of liberalism against anti-imperialism, of privatization, liberal-democracy against the enemies of global hegemony of America. The main aim of this article is to expose, to expel this widespread illusion. As regards the other confused camp, the Western, more or less, Islamophobic liberals, who are inclined to identify Ahmadinjad with Al-Qaeda, who refer to Mousavi, because of his Islamic-Republican career in 80’s, as another version of Islamic, anti-democratic Ideology, one could say that they too are caught up in an illusion based on easy Euro-centrist generalizations and lack of familiarity with the Iranian historical context. We should thus answer the simple question: what is actually at the stake? Apart from the triad of French Revolution, the triad of modern emancipatory politics, liberty, equality, fraternity, one could maintain that the main bone of contention in this struggle is precisely politics itself, its life and survival. Our government is called the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now the republican moment, which has always been downgraded by the conservatives, is presently being annihilated. It is precisely through this very outlet that any popular politics, from social movement of dissent and class politics to the defence of human rights, might survive. 

Another common approach, no matter how radical, supportive, or conservative, to mass protest in Iran is the following: it is a youth movement, at its best, similar to 68’s student protests. New young generation in Iran, armed with Internet, socialized by social networking sites, tired of Islamic ideology, has awakened, claiming its own way of life, and so on. According to this attitude, which is evoked by a number of journalists, it is only the middle-class intellectuals, students, feminists, and other educated people in large cities who are rallying on the streets, communicating with each other thanks to the internet. What is striking is that the state discourse in Iran widely promotes this very attitude. The ruling elite, based on a populist rhetoric, tends to single out a certain section of the nation and call it the People. The state television, Seda-va-Sima, is the main place where this People is represented, indeed constructed, mostly through the usual populist tactic of one nation versus the evil external enemy who is the cause of all trouble. It presents a unified, pure, integrated image of People, all devoting themselves to Nezam, all law-abiding, religious, etc. This image of People is daily imposed on the masses and inscribed onto the body politic. Against this formally constructed People, with the state as its formal face, there has come out another people, a subaltern, muted people, claiming its own place, its own part in the political scene. June 2009 Election was a decisive opportunity for this people to declare itself, in the figure of Mousavi, who from the beginning insisted on people’s dignity as a true political right. But why him? Why not, say, Karroubi, the other reformist candidate? Has Mousvai, now the leader of the mass movement, appeared on the scene in a purely contingent way? Has he by mere chance, by force of circumstances, as it were, become the leading figure, the reform-freedom-democracy incarnate? The answer is positively negative. To elucidate this, we have to draw attention to the tradition from which he has emerged and to which he has repeatedly referred during his electoral campaign. As we said before, this tradition is rooted in 1979 Revolution and has been revived in the 2th of Khordad Movement — whereas, Karroubi’s ‘politics’ was based on a subjectless process in which different identity groups would present their demands to the almighty state and act as its passive, divided, depoliticized supporters. In fact, Karroubi’s campaign, with its appeal to Western media, using the word ‘change’ in English, and profiting from celebrity figures, was the one that could be called a Western liberal human-rights-loving, even pro-capitalist movement. The fact that millions transcending their identity and immediate interests joined a typically universal militant politics by risking their lives in defence of Mousavi and their dignity, should be enough to cast out all doubts or misguided pseudo-leftist dogmas.

Leave a comment

Filed under international affairs, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, protests

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s