'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ride the Tiger 

I will be the first to admit that I'm not especially knowledgeable about Iran. Outside media coverage of the country has been limited since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Combine that with the demonization of the country's political leadership within the US since the hostage crisis, and the impediments to reliable information become even more severe. Even otherwise responsible journalists like Robert Dreyfuss find themselves recycling tired, embarrassing stereotypes about the populace when they are impertinent enough to support Ahmadinejad. Anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism become evidence of a virtual fascist movement.

My political perspective has been shaped by two touchstones. First, Tariq Ali published one of the most incisive critiques of the Islamic regime in his chapters related to Iran in The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Based upon his encounters with exiles, he describes life within Iran as one of a stifling conformity, with women and young people especially estranged from the remorseless constraints of fundamentalist life. But, as with any inflexible social system, it is not uniformly enforced, as the powerful were able to buy their way out of marriages, morals charges and military service (a matter of urgency during the Iran-Iraq War). If this society could be summarized in one sentence, it would be this: Do as we say, not as we do.

Second, as someone who came of age in the period leading to the 1979 revolution, and encountered the history of US involvement in Iran, I have always been insistent that the Iranians should decide their destiny in the absence of American intervention. As readers of this blog know, I am generally negative about the policies of the Obama administration, but, on this one, Obama has gotten it right. Through past actions, and present day threats, the US government has figuratively cut out its tongue when it comes to making statements about Iran. A country that refuses to disavow the possibility of launching airstrikes against an imaginary nuclear weapons program, airstrikes that could even involve nuclear weapons, while imposing economic sanctions, has nothing to say about what is transpiring there. At most, it can say this: the future of Iran is something to be decided by Iranians, hopefully in the most non-violent way possible.

On the left, there is a vibrant, creative debate about how to respond to the protests. Some believe that Ahmanijedad did win the election, and that Mousavi and his patron, Rafsanjani, represent a neoliberal alternative that will retain the oppressive state apparatus while impoverishing workers even more:

In the history of social revolutions, it often happened that leftists helped to bring about social revolution (socialist or nationalist), and then, after the overthrow of the ancient regime, a faction of revolutionaries (usually centrists) liquidated left-wing and right-wing revolutionaries as well as defenders of the ancient regime.

That's what happened in Iran, too. The revolution did in its leftists, as well as rightists. But, over all, the Iranian Revolution has done more good than bad for a majority of Iranians, making Iran the best country -- the most democratic! -- in the Middle East today.

Others believe that the protests can create an opportunity for the Iranian working class to rediscover its voice and obtain the right to independently organize:

. . . Reza Fiyouzat makes what seems to be to be a far more compelling point, though: "The most class-conscious, the most politically active of the Iranian working classes, are by far the most anti-government. How do we know this? We know this because they invariably end up in jail." Well, quite.

The issue of class is important here, not because the workers are angels with whom we may not ever differ, but because their organised power is necessary to make even these democratic demands effective. Even if the protesters were all middle class, I would want them to win. Truth be told, I would want them to win even more than they bargained for - to win so comprehensively that they gave a shot in the arm to the working class and facilitated their rapid self-organisation outside of the Islamic Labour Council approved unions. Never mind a general strike: what is urgently needed is the reappearance of the shoras. And we have seen the riots spread chaotically to working class areas of Isfahan (see also), where the protesters drove out the police, and the southern city of Yazd. The protests have spread to workers districts in southern Tehran. Reports of working class turnout are appearing, albeit infrequently, in some of the English-language press.

As you might have guessed, I find this latter perspective more compelling, but the first one is not without credibility. For example, the protests that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR resulted in nearly incomprehensible immiseration for most people, as the old apparat, with the willing help of foreign investors, spirited away the resources of many of these countries while interior ministries and intelligence services suppressed any dissent. Furthermore, ethnic violence exploded throughout the Caucasus, with the countries of this region ruled by gangsters. We should not blithely dismiss similar outcomes in Iran if the Mousavi/Rafsanjani faction prevails.

Even so, is it possible to avoid such traumas by holding fast to a repressive social system imposed by a discredited elite? To ask the question is, as the saying goes, to answer it. It is also important to note that the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the USSR occurred as neoliberalism was in the ascendancy, while it is now in decline, making it plausible to suggest that an Iranian revolution could carve out the path advocated by Ali, a rejection of the fundamentalisms of both American neoliberalism and extremist Islam. Indeed, American policymakers and journalists seem to vaguely sense this troubling possibility. Unlike with the anti-communist revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, support for the protesters is not uniform and unequivocal. And, then, there are the geopolitical fears, what if the people of Saudi Arabia and Egypt get the same idea?

Finally, as an anarchist, it is hard for me to oppose a movement directed against religious forms of social control. One of the central tenets of anarchism is a condemnation of the feudal powers assumed by religion over everyday life. As someone told the Angry Arab:

. . . I am glad that you are defending neither Ahmanijejad nor Mousavi. It is frustrating that everyone I talk to from Pakistan to Egypt loves Ahmanijedad and is shocked to hear that many Iranians think he is ineffective and embarrassing. Meanwhile every Westerner seems to think that Mousavi is a great reformist or revolutionary, and some kind of saintly figure beloved by all. He's an opportunist crook. That being said, I support the students and protesters in Iran, even the ones chanting Mousavi's name. I believe they are putting their lives on the line to fight for greater freedom, accountability, and democracy within the Islamic Republic, and they have to couch that in the language of Islam and presidential politics in order to avoid even greater repression than that which they already face. A friend who is in Iran right now confirms: "half the kids throwing rocks at the police didn't even vote." To me, that means that they are not fighting for a Mousavi presidency, but for more freedom, which they must hide under a green Mousavi banner in order to have legitimacy in the eyes of the state."

Even in the absence of immediate economic concerns, workers can find this just as objectionable as purportedly more secular intellectuals. The challenge is, of course, for workers to participate with such effectiveness so as to economically empower themselves as well:

Strike in Iran Khodro:

We declare our solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran.

Autoworker, Fellow Laborers (Laborer Friends): What we witness today, is an insult to the intelligence of the people, and disregard for their votes, the trampling of the principles of the Constitution by the government. It is our duty to join this people's movement.

We the workers of Iran Khodro, Thursday 28/3/88 in each working shift will stop working for half an hour to protest the suppression of students, workers, women, and the Constitution and declare our solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran. The morning and afternoon shifts from 10 to 10:30. The night shift from 3 to 3:30.

Laborers of IranKhodor

If they can strike against the Ayatollah Khamanei, one hopes that they can also strike, if it becomes necessary, against those that replace him if the protests blossom into a successful revolutionary movement.

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