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The people reloaded

Misguided western leftists may have their doubts about the Iranian mass movement against President Ahmadinejad's disputed election 'victory'. They should put them aside in the face of the new politics of revolt, write Morad Farhadpour and Omid Mehrgan

September 14, 2009
11 min read

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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