Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
In the weeks following the disputed presidential election in Iran, the majority of people in Tehran and other cities (including Shiraz, Ahwaz, Tabriz and Isfahan) were on the streets, protesting against the theft of the election by a handful of the state’s agents at the top level. It was not a rigged election in the usual western sense. There were no added votes or replaced ballot boxes; the election was conducted 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 fictitious results. That is why all the opposition forces, together with the people, called it a coup d’état. The violent reaction of the state, the deportation of international media, the casualties in the streets, the shutdown of local newspapers and the arrest of more than 500 dissidents must be sufficient to persuade people worldwide that annulment of the election is a legitimate demand.
It is worth emphasising the properly political essence of this movement and its potential for self-transcendence, moving beyond its present demands. This politicisation of large masses may be difficult to observe from the outside, particularly due to 30 years of isolation and media misrepresentation of Iran (including the tendency to dwell on ‘security’ matters critical to the western states, such as the nuclear issue, terrorism and so on). That is why any examination of the current situation needs to be set in the context of the recent history of radical politics in Iran.
Many Iranians are recalling the 1979 revolution and the 1997 reform movement. Many of the protesters’ slogans are new versions of those adopted in 1979. The routes of demonstrations are the same as those against the shah. But this does not mean that people are imitating the 1979 revolution; there are many new possibilities and creativities, many formal and thematic inventions.
Calling the regime’s bluff
The expression ‘people reloaded’ tries to capture this sense of repetition without mere imitation. For 30 years, the regime has claimed that freedom and, more recently, justice have been realised, praising the Iranian people for their political commitment and courage. Now people are taking these claims literally, calling the regime’s bluff. People are trying to redeem the lost hopes and aspirations of the revolution, as they did once before by electing Khatami in 1997. But this time, we are much more resolute and creative.
As for the 1997 reform movement and its aftermath, the crushing of the student protest in 1999, the affinities become even more explicit. 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 characterised 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, the pro-Khatami reform movement, for politics in Iran?
On the 2nd of Khordad, for the first time since the revolution, we encountered a dichotomy between the republican state and the totalitarian system of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is known as Nezam (System), which is based on the principle of Velayat-e-Faghih, the supreme divine authority of high-ranked mullahs. This duality was intensified as a result of the fact that the leader of the opposition, Khatami, was at the same time the head of the state. It was the only occasion when this duality, which is, in a sense, one between the development of productive forces and cultural, political backwardness, between secular democracy and religious fanaticism, became explicit. Before and after that period, the state and Nezam have been basically in accordance, although the system used the state as a tool for bureaucratic management of its internal and external affairs, and this on many occasions led to a disruption of day-to-day functioning of the state as the chief organ of socio-economic development.
One of the reasons, if not the main reason, why elections in Iran are of such importance for democratic movements, despite attempts at boycotting them, lies precisely in the significance of this duality. In other words, elections have been the only occasions when it has been possible for the people to challenge this archaic and theocratic system, particularly as regards their social life and economic welfare. Since the second world war, the Iranian state has acted simultaneously as an instrument of plundering – at the service of the power elite – and the main agent of development. This explains why the state has been the main object of popular movements. But the state has always somehow managed to escape popular control, thanks to its economic independence based on oil revenue.
Since the revolution, the process of building a modern bourgeois state has always been sacrificed to the requirements of the Nezam. This, at times, has led to a conflict between capital (both the Iranian private sector and international capital) and state. As long as the state remains dependent on the Nezam (as the advocate of regression and anti-modernism), the state/capital cannot function as the means of socio-economic development – a process that has its own discontents, aptly and righteously exposed by the Marxist tradition.
Fighting on two fronts
For this reason, the progressive and socialist opposition in Iran is faced with the unprecedented, hard task of fighting on two fronts: against religious fanaticism and the authoritarian factions in a semi-democratic government, as well as against Iran’s integration into global capitalism (as a backward, raw material producing country). In this sense, the Iranian intelligentsia is very similar to that of 19th century Russia and Germany. We are a handful of schizophrenics who are both for and against progress, development, capitalism, state management and so on. In other words, for us, the Faustian problematic is formulated in a typically Hamletian way.
However, we should not forget that despite all these complexities, the key fruit of the 1979 revolution was politics itself – that is, the process of politicisation of people as distinct from both Nezam and any form of state-capital-nation building. For all these reasons, any radical politics in Iran must entail a dialectical relationship with the state. Due to the aforementioned dualities, our politics cannot bypass the state in an anarchistic way. This is as a result of both the state’s role in socio-economic development and the political necessity of strengthening the civil society.
We are neither dealing with a pure politics a la radical French philosopher Alain Badiou, nor with a classical Marxist politics, limited to class struggles. Nor are we dealing with the liberal-democratic politics of human rights – which was, by the way, the dominant discourse of opposition in Iran before Mousavi. Our radical politics includes all these elements, but is not reducible to any one of them. To use Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s terminology, it is a politics of ‘people against People’ – that is, voiceless, suppressed people against ‘People’ as officially constructed by the state. The current movement materialises, in many respects, this very politics.
Ahmadinejad and the left
The question that has confused the western (left) intelligentsia, and caused the most varied misunderstandings regarding Iran, is whether Ahmadinejad is a leftist, anti-imperialist, anti-privatisation, anti-globalisation figure. A common answer is positive. That is why certain misguided western leftists tend to regard the current mass movement in support of Mousavi and against Ahmadinejad as the struggle of neoliberalism against anti-imperialism, of privatisation and liberal democracy against the enemies of US global hegemony.
As regards the other confused camp, the western, more or less, Islamophobic liberals, who are inclined to identify Ahmadinejad with Al-Qaeda and refer to Mousavi, because of his Islamic-Republican career in the 1980s, 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 generalisations and lack of familiarity with the Iranian historical context. We should thus answer the simple question: what is actually at stake?
Apart from the French revolutionary triad of liberty, equality, fraternity, which is common to all modern emancipatory politics, 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 being annihilated. It is precisely through this very outlet that any popular politics, from social movements of dissent and class politics to the defence of human rights, might survive.
Another common analysis, heard from both supporters and opponents of the mass protests in Iran, is that this is a youth movement, at its best similar to the 1968 student protests in the west. The young generation in Iran, the analysis goes, armed with the internet, socialised by social networking sites, tired of Islamic ideology, has awakened, claiming the right to live its own way of life, and so on. According to this approach, 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 and mobile phones.
The people versus the People
What is striking is that the state discourse in Iran widely promotes this very analysis. The ruling elite, using 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 as the cause of all trouble. It presents a unified, pure, integrated image of the People, all devoting themselves to Nezam, all law-abiding, religious, and so on. This image of the 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. The June 2009 election was a decisive opportunity for this people to assert itself through the figure of Mousavi, who from the beginning insisted on people’s dignity as a key political right.
But why him? Why not, say, Karroubi, the other reformist candidate? Has Mousvai, the present 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, turned into the leading figure, reform-freedom-democracy incarnate? The answer is 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 noted previously, this tradition is rooted in the 1979 revolution and has been revived in the 2th of Khordad movement. In contrast, 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 their passive, divided, depoliticised supporters.
In fact, Karroubi’s campaign, with its appeal to the 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 transcended their differing identities and immediate interests and joined a typically universal militant politics by risking their lives in defence of Mousavi and their own dignity should be enough to cast out all doubts or misguided pseudo-leftist dogmas.
The most striking consequence of the revival of politics in Iran is a reconfiguration of everything and everyone. Under the midday sun of politics a minimal shadow separates everyone from him/herself, from his/her cultural, economic, and social identity. Persons and factions that were hitherto classified according to their lifestyles and statuses, and who were considered politically indifferent or even hostile to politics per se, came together to choose to join the movement led by Mousavi.
From their point of view, everything has become crystal clear and the border separating true and false is no longer a matter of scrutiny. In this political high noon in Iran, their choices are for them as certain as 2+2=4. To one side of this political divide belong the universal values of liberty, equality and dignity of citizenship, while all the personal and factional idiosyncrasies remain on the other side.
Morad Farhadpour and Omid Mehrgan are translators and philosophers based in Tehran
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency