Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Imperialism and political economy. posted by Richard Seymour

Here, I review Alex Callinicos' latest - one of his better books in my estimation - on Imperialism and Global Political Economy. I think the most theoretically interesting part of the book is that on the relation between capital and states. Drawing on some theoretical ideas he shares with David Harvey, he elaborates a theory of imperialism (in the sense of the term intended in the Lenin-Bukharin thesis, meaning capitalist imperialism and inter-imperial rivalry) that deals with one of the most difficult problems for marxist theory: namely, the question of the nation-state. Marxism sustained serious body-blows from competing theorists in the 1980s due to its apparent inability to adequately explain in historical materialist terms the rise of national states. This is important, because if you can't explain nation-states, then your theory of imperialism lacks something So, it is invigorating to see an answer to this conundrum begin to emerge.

In other 'complete and utter works' news, the Morning Star published an edited version of my Honduras article here.

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Enemy flags posted by Richard Seymour

In 1989, when the 'foulard' controversy first arose in France, the bicentennial celebrations of the revolution provided a political, intellectual and moral context for those who wanted to suppress the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. Ernest Cheniere, the headmaster who precipitated the row by expelling three Muslim girls for refusing to remove the garment, justified his decision in terms of a need to defend the republican principle of laïcité, the separation of civil and religious affairs. These girls were not poor students, not did they have disciplinary issues. They simply insisted on wearing their headscarfs. But according to Cheniere, this was a form of proselytism inimical to the Republican tradition, consecrated in a 1905 law establishing the separation of church and state. In fact, he later claimed, the wearing of such garments was part of an "insidious jihad". Sizeable sections of the left intelligenstia supported his claim, as when philosophers writing in the left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur asserted that since the school was the foundation of the Republic, the destruction of the school (by admitting the wearing of religious garments) would undermine the values upon which the nation was built.

The Conseil d'Etat ruled against Cheniere and there were numerous legal challenges. But Cheniere was not just any headmaster. He was a headmaster with political ambitions that went beyond who did what with the petty cash tin. In 1994, as an elected deputy for the department of Oise, representing the right-wing Raillement pour la Republique, he raised the issue again, launching a bill to ban all 'ostentatious' religious clothing. This failed at the time, but it is notable that such was the language used to justify later restrictions aimed at Muslims. In 2003, after Chirac had been elected in a presidential contest between himself and Jean Marie Le Pen, it was Socialist deputy Jack Lang who would bring it up again. Sarkozy was the interior minister at the time. A committee was convened to consider banning conspicuous religious garments in the schools.

The feminist writer Joan Wallach Scott, discussing the affair in The Politics of the Veil, notes that it was at this point that the media focused on the story of two girls, the Levy sisters, who had converted to Islam and chose to wear the hijab. What was interesting was that they were under no social pressure to convert. Their parents were atheists, and the father didn't approve of their conversion. But, seeing the hysterical media response, he suggested that his children might decide for themselves if they wanted to abandon their faith. He expressed astonishment at the attitude of the 'Ayatollahs of secularism' who wanted to boss his kids about. That this was the chosen symbol for the media campaign was telling. It would seem to indicate something about the complexities of faith, and of identity. It would seem to tell against the simplistic wisdom according to which the 'foulard' (or 'le voile' as it was increasingly called) is imposed by a patriarchical family. It certainly doesn't support the spurious racist conspiracy theory that Islamist troublemakers are simply using the garment to create "Muslim ghettos" and advance a state of conflict with "the West". But that isn't how it was received, and the ensuing debate corroborated the ultimate decision to ban the headscarf in French schools - a net loss for personal liberty, and for secularism at that, which was cheered as much by the far left as by the far right. It didn't maintain the state's neutrality as regards religion; it essentially said that Islam is incompatible with the Republic. It increased the state's interference in personal affairs. The justification for such interference was that the headscarf was too conspicuous a symbol of Islam, and therefore a kind of proselytism - not just for Islam, it was claimed, but for jihad. As Scott puts it, the garments are seen as "enemy flags" in the Republic.

This kind of 'laïcité' is therefore a curiosity. A particularistic universalism; an aspect of exclusionary nationalism that supposed internationalist embrace; a form of reaction and authoritarianism that some revolutionaries are willing to support; a harrassment of women of colour that so-called feminists endorse, etc etc. That it takes as its cue the legacy of Jules Ferry and the Third Republic - the high tide of French colonialism, the civilizing mission and kulturkampf in Northern Africa - is to be expected. Today's civilising mission is directed just as much against the indigenes.

It's worth noting that as this discussion has been reheated again and again, some British liberals and conservatives have looked across the Channel with envy. That such low politics, such vileness and stupidity, could be expressed in such grandiose language is a prospect that leaves these people breathless. Thus, from the liberals, Tories and 'decents' to the most reactionary elements in British politics, Sarkozy's broadside against the burqa has been a ralling cry over the last week or so. Now, Sarkozy was only last year on speaking terms with the Roman patriarch and floating the idea of "laïcité positive" in which religion might re-enter the public sphere. He was talking about his Christianity and his godliness as though he were the American that he obviously wants to be. But he is also someone who made his name with inflammatory attacks on Muslims in the banlieues back in 2005, which he promised to "karsherise". He knows perfectly well that from Le Pen to the left-republicans, there is a broad coalition of French voters that is deeply hostile to Islam. So, here he is baiting the burqa. And here we are, surrounded by the dim and the devious who cheer him on. And, as a speaker at the recent launch of 'Kafa' - a campaign against Islamophobia - noted, such racism toward Muslims is the cutting edge behind which every other form of racism follows. Islamophobia is correlated in the polls to other kinds of prejudice such as hostility toward asylum seekers and 'economic migrants'. The BNP are certainly using it in this way, and their supporters and voters largely seem to get this. The people who don't get it, or don't want to get it, are those who think you can flirt with 'progressive' Muslim-bashing today and not wake up with a more racist and fundamentally nasty society tomorrow.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Ahmadinejad and accumulation posted by Richard Seymour

Oh, I know, this is so last week. It's over already. The twittering has stopped, the protesters have been beaten into retreat, the Youtube videos aren't being uploaded at the same frequency. This week is all about celebrities turned zombie. Still, indulge me for a moment. This image of Ahmadi the pious populist, I think, arises in part from a certain spectacle positioning. After all, the corporate media find it difficult to construe someone as an enemy without also implying that they are some kind of 'commie', one of those heretics who rejects the sacred wisdom of property rights, free markets etc. The election commentary, with its condescending subtexts about Ahmadinejad's ability to win over the ignorant poor by tossing sacks of potatoes their way, surely reflected this. And anyway, it is not within the media's repertoire to explain the underlying divisions in Iran's ruling bloc, or to give anything but a crayola account of the class politics of elections. Partly, I suspect, such crude plot devices is what drove Juan Cole to dismiss the issue of class in his own analysis. Some belated analysis worth paying attention to, then, includes this discussion of labour under Ahmadinejad; this discussion of privatization and accumulation in Iran; and this useful discussion of the elections from the Middle East Research and Information Project.

The main point that arises, I think, is that the division that has been posited between a kind of socially conservative resource populism on the one hand, and a socially liberal austerity programme on the other, is not adequate. The more that comes out about the elections, the more it is clear that they exposed a raging war in the ruling class over political ascendancy and property, with relatively minor differences on other matters exaggerated. The second point is that the right-wing bloc behind Ahmadinejad has tended to use anti-imperialist rhetoric to justify the most naked transfer of wealth from the public sphere to capital, particularly to more influential players in the bazaari class and state-affiliated capitalists. They shake their fists at Washington just as they're about to go further toward neoliberalism than even the IMF proposed. And they justify it by referring to the need to break the sanctions imposed by Washington. This policy is obviously designed not to enrich the poor or sustain them in the long term, or strengthen their bargaining power as workers, but specifically to reduce their long-term wealth and purchasing power by redirecting a larger portion of socially produced wealth to a specific sector of the capitalist class. Ehsani et al are far too soft on Mousavi in their discussion (Ehsani called Mousavi's programme 'social democratic' on a mailing list, which I think is about as credible as Hamid Dabashi's claim that the man was a hardline socialist). This appears to stem from their assessment that the faction backing Ahmadinejad are uniquely dangerous and authoritarian, posing far greater dangers to democracy and labour than even the crooked neoliberals supported by Rafsanjani. Their tone may be unduly alarmist, and their approach to the elections is not one I share, but it is hard to argue with the overall analysis.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Excursus on an author's vanity posted by Richard Seymour

Every now and again, I hear about a new website offering free e-books. You will forgive me for the fact that, without fail, I first scour the site anxiously to see if someone has uploaded my book. This is pure vanity on my part. No one would waste their time, and if they did I should likely have the person flayed and generously doused in salt and vinegar before forcing them to appear on Britain's Got Talent. Well, I'd probably meditate on that image before telling myself to get a grip. In fact, I should be flattered, not pathetically worried about whatever marginal (and probably non-existent) loss of sales resulted. But this thought arises because of the growing profile of devices like 'Kindle' and other pda-like e-book-reading technology. We are told, somewhat pontifically, that the age of the printed book is over. That soon a great portion of our current consumption of wood-producing florae will be finished, resolved and absolved, by a technological fix. I look forward to any innovation that will reduce the clutter about my house, never kind the carbon footprint. But I remain sceptical nonetheless.

Here's the explanandum and explanans. I find myself buying a copy of a book that I know I can read for free as an e-book on, say, Gutenberg or any number of less august websites. This despite the fact that I have decent computer, and a pda device as well. I can re-format the text if I like, add pictures at a stretch, save it as a word document or convert it to pdf. There's a vast array of free open-source software that will enable me, provided I will invest a small amount of time and effort, to do more or less what I like with a document. Yet, I still go and get the Penguin classics edition of Pride and Prejudice rather than take a few moments to download, perfectly legally, a text file of the whole work. Why? John Sutherland has pointed out that the printed novel or book has some technological advantage that e-books and equivalents can't emulate (as yet). Just for example, you can use your opposible thumb to flick back and forth between pages. You can write notes in pencil where you feel like it, underline if you want to, fold page corners to mark a place - all in a very easy, manageable and physically satisfying way. Now, I know you're going to say that these functions can be replicated or simulated in the e-book reader format - true, but far more burdensomely. With a printed book, you can insert yourself anywhere in the text in a split second. You can dip in and out, use the index, find a page number in very speedy systems of reference that actually don't work very well with reader technologies. The tactile aspects of reading which we take for granted just don't seem to be assimilable to the current in-your-face interfaces.

There is also a sense in which the e-book reader profanes what was holy. Once, however much a book was mass produced, and was as commodified as a packet of biscuits or a VHS cassette, all one had to do to bless it with the seal of the author's pure presence and authenticity was to get him to sign it. (I have repeated this operation a few times, and you'd be surprised by how many people are called 'eBay', 'Seventeenpoundsisabitsteep' and 'Justfuckingsignityoutwat' - all Tibetan names, apparently.) Now, I suppose, they'll simply superimpose a scan of the author's signature on a limited range of the downloadable e-books and punt them for 2% more. If that happens, I'm just going to call it a day, loves. Without that occasion for intercourse with the Ordinary People, I'm lost, and so are they. Anyway, the point is, that isn't going to happen, because e-books are mostly crap.

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Coup d'etat in Honduras posted by Richard Seymour

So, is the six month old Obama administration taking ickle baby-steps towards its first coup? Eva Golinger thinks so. The background:

Supposedly at the center of the controversary is today's scheduled referendum, which is not a binding vote but merely an opinion poll to determine whether or not a majority of Hondurans desire to eventually enter into a process to modify their constitution.

Such an initiative has never taken place in the Central American nation, which has a very limited constitution that allows minimal participation by the people of Honduras in their political processes. The current constitution, written in 1982 during the height of the Reagan Administration's dirty war in Central America, was designed to ensure those in power, both economic and political, would retain it with little interference from the people.

Ah yes, the Reagan years, during which time Honduras was the base for CIA training of Nicaraguan death squads. This was also the era during which John Negroponte was helping flood the country with military aid so that Battalion 316 could murder and torture dissidents. Proceeding:

Zelaya, elected in November 2005 on the platform of Honduras' Liberal Party, had proposed the opinion poll be conducted to determine if a majority of citizens agreed that constitutional reform was necessary. He was backed by a majority of labor unions and social movements in the country. If the poll had occured, depending on the results, a referendum would have been conducted during the upcoming elections in November to vote on convening a constitutional assembly. Nevertheless, today's scheduled poll was not binding by law. In fact, several days before the poll was to occur, Honduras' Supreme Court ruled it illegal, upon request by the Congress, both of which are led by anti-Zelaya majorities and members of the ultra-conservative party, National Party of Honduras (PNH).

Zelaya has been irritating the country's ruling class for some time with his support for Chavez and the 'Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas', and his calls for drug legalisation, but the attempt to maybe, pending a possible future referendum, democratise the system a little was a step too far. The Miami Herald, naturally enough, vocalised the propaganda of the would-be putschists a couple of days ago, namely their speculation that the aim might secretly be to try to remove the cap on presidential re-elections and thus have some sort of elected dictatorship just like that Chavez monster. So, to forestall the possibility, the military has installed an unelected dictatorship. The White House is denying any involvement in the coup. Is it a plausible denial? Back to Eve Gollinger:

Another major source of funding in Honduras is USAID, providing over US$ 50 millon annually for "democracy promotion" programs, which generally supports NGOs and political parties favorable to U.S. interests, as has been the case in Venezuela, Bolivia and other nations in the region. The Pentagon also maintains a military base in Honduras in Soto Cano, equipped with approximately 500 troops and numerous air force combat planes and helicopters. Foreign Minister Rodas has stated that she has repeatedly tried to make contact with the U.S. Ambassador in Honduras, Hugo Llorens, who has not responded to any of her calls thus far. The modus operandi of the coup makes clear that Washington is involved. Neither the Honduran military, which is majority trained by U.S. forces, nor the political and economic elite, would act to oust a democratically elected president without the backing and support of the U.S. government.

Well. I would say that if the behemoth just to the north has a military base in your country, and funds your military and major pro-US parties, then you probably do have to get their permission before overthrowing the government. The Honduran army will presumably now have a brief to deal with the protesters, the social movements, the labour organisations, and everyone else who has been inconvenient in backing Zelaya and might now try to resist the coup. They're calling it a 'bloodless' coup... for now.

Update: well, well.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Total workers win posted by Richard Seymour

The news is reporting that a deal has been reached between Total management and the workers undertaking wildcat strike action. This actually means that the workers got their jobs back and management caved in after losing 100m euros to the strikes. This is a stunning victory over a management that sought to break the strike movement by sacking hundreds of workers. It should be taken as a model of how unofficial action and widespread solidarity can win elsewhere - at Corus, for example.

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Murder in Port-au-Prince posted by Richard Seymour

Gabriel Ash at Jews Sans Frontieres has been doing a few posts highlighting instances of state murders caught on camera and not reported as avidly as the death of Neda Soltani (actually, hardly reported at all). This is worth adding to the list:

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Acts of violence in Baharestan Square posted by Richard Seymour

The attempt to drown the protests in rivers of blood have reportedly led to a "massacre" in Baharestan Square, outside the Iranian majles, today. Tens of thousands of basiji reportedly surrounded hundreds of protesters in this small square, and battered them, then opened fire on them. It's not just basiji - multiple reports indicate that young men without uniforms were given batons and let loose. How much of this is true is obviously impossible to tell, but given that dozens have been killed so far, the worst would not be surprising. The regime probably believes it has this situation locked up, for now. And maybe it does: who would dare to guess that protesters will continue to keep putting themselves through this? But the fact of having to resort to this level of brutality is indicative of a state in deep crisis. Police have been nicking protesters and parading them on television with confessions blaming the Western media for leading them astray. This would imply that the Iranian state has roughly the same idea as US neoconservatives - that democracy and protest is somehow the a cultural peculiarity of the 'West', which can only be imposed on Iran from without.

Various statements of solidarity with the protesters are being circulated. The NPA are pledging to join protests to show solidarity with the people and travailleurs of Iran. On the anti-imperialism front, I would draw attention to this statement by Venezuelan socialists. There also is an intervention by Slavoj Zizek, which has been circulated by Iranian academics, and is published here. I don't need to restate my scepticism about Zizek's broader politics, nor do I agree with every last word or emphasis. However, I do think it makes some very important points, perhaps the most important of which is that anyone on the left who doesn't see an emancipatory dimension in the protests is politically defunct. The bloodless lack of enthusiasm for what is manifestly a democratic movement in some of the commentary reflects not anti-imperialist sensibilities so much as political timidity. The key here is universality: these protesters are no different from those who have been beaten or killed in Genoa, in London, in LA, in Athens, and everywhere that the state is challenged by a democratic movement and responds in this way. Their case for solidarity is not diminished by the fact that they live in a society that has been threatened by imperialism. On the contrary, it means we ought to redouble our efforts.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The pitfalls of premature eloquence posted by Richard Seymour

The dilemma faced by commentators of all kinds, not just bloggers, on the Iranian protests can be summarised by a single, annoying portmanteau word: instapunditry. The pressure to take a view prematurely in such a situation can only produce a series of stock responses, either based on CNN filtered news, or speculation from various samizdat-style websites, or material provided by the Iranian media itself. And after all, while these protests had precedent in previous student and workers rebellions, the sheer scale of upheaval had no precedent in the entire history of Islamic Republic. How to relate to that?

It has been possible to be both eloquent and consistent only be relying on an analysis made for a different situation that seems to fit. Thus, right-wing bloggers have tended to interpret the events in terms of the 'colour revolution', involving a relatively smooth transfer of power from a weakened, no longer hegemonic ruling bloc, to a pro-US faction. symbolised by a striking advertising symbol - the purple finger, the green fingers, etc. A few left-wing commentators look at it the same way, but simply reverse the value significations. It is a handy ready-made template, and if it were an accurate reading, then the protesters would have been little more than useful idiots for a comprador elite. But there is little evidence that anything like this is happening. The most we have seen is some bizarre rumours about Israel trying to promote a 'twitter revolution' (probably put about by Twitter, you know). Similarly, prefabricated ideas about Ahmadinejad representing the uneducated poor and Mousavi representing the articulate middle class, have been ubiquitous on all sides. And just the same, they have turned out to be wrong.

The difficulty is amplified by the fact that there doesn't appear to be a clear left-wing pole in this conflict. To try and find that pole, there has been a tendency to feed stereotypes about Ahmadinejad being a firm anti-imperialist and populist, neither of which really bear scrutiny. On the other hand, some have interpreted the reformists and Mousavi in particular as having far more left-wing credentials than they really do. Thus, in a typically interesting and fruitful discussion, Hamid Dabashi claims that Mousavi is universally known as a "hardcore socialist". He is not a socialist, of course. Even when he was on the 'Islamic Left', it would have been a stretch to call him a socialist. Then, he favoured nationalisation and redistribution of wealth, neither of which he supports now. (Of course, back then Mousavi was also co-responsible for quite brutal purges of the left from the government and public institutions, which he may now regret.) But this background is important for mapping out one dimension of the dispute. Since the early 1990s, the 'Islamic Left' that Mousavi represented has tended to retreat to various forms of social liberalism. The catastrophic experience of the Iran-Iraq war, followed by the collapse of the USSR, formed the background to this shift. They also faced increasing difficulty as many of their candidates were struck off the elections lists, and they lost control of the majles to a conservative-centrist coalition. As such, they drifted into the 'reformist' camp, de-emphasised economic statism, and focused more on questions of human rights and democracy. What remains of the Iranian left is almost certainly in the reform movement today.

Another problem with interpretation is that domestic social conflicts interact in a very complex way with imperialist pressure. Thus, even during Rafsanjani's 'pragmatic' reign which sought to improve relations with Europe and the US and expand international trade, Clinton imposed an economic embargo, starting with partial sanctions in 1993, and then a full embargo including on oil production in 1995. Why did he do this? It seems it was partly due to pressure from the pro-Israeli right, which wanted a much more aggresive response to, eg, Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas. This strengthened the position of the Iranian hard right who, because of their basis in the bazaar merchants, weren't particularly interested in opening up to international trade anyway. Even Khatami couldn't get the sanctions released, despite overtures to the US. Not because there weren't forces in American ruling circles interested in talking, but because the stubborn fact is that Iran is not about to abandon its geopolitical interests and those matter far more to the US than any internal liberalisation in Iran.

None of the current elite factions are going to deliver Iran to the US as a client regime, and there would be no popular basis for it - this, by the way, is one reason why they haven't been able to impose a 'colour revolution', and why Bush had to resort to violent forms of interference, sponsoring terror groups and bombings and so on. So, it can't just be assumed that a reformist success would necessarily be in the interests of the US - it depends how those interests are construed, and what the reigning strategy is. For example, it really seems at this point as if both the US right-wing and the Israeli leadership would much rather deal with Ahmadinejad, the better to expedite the case for war. This suggests, not that Ahmadinejad is an effective anti-imperialist, but that he and the conservative leadership backing him are actually rather poor defenders of the country. For the realpolitikers around Obama, I suspect regional stability is more important at the moment than either candidate.

In short, just as the neocons and their 'decent' allies are likely to be disappointed by the result of these protests, especially if they manage a decisive win, so there's no reason for leftists to panic at the prospect of the CIA taking control of the situation and engineering another client-state.

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Total workers strike posted by Richard Seymour

There's some good coverage of the strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery in Socialist Worker this week (not to mention the coverage of Iran, of which this discussion of the new student left is the pick). The last time Lindsey was in the news, there was a ferocious argument over the all too popular slogan 'British jobs for British workers'. This time it's much more simple. In order to defeat the unofficial strike wave that had kicked off among construction workers, the management decided to set an example by sacking hundreds of them. This has led to mass meetings campaigning for support, and unofficial walkouts and solidarity strikes across the industry. The GMB union is apparently going to ballot for official support for action by the whole union, but the workforce is way ahead of this. I particularly like this quote from the Unite shop steward:

“Would Total do the same thing in France?

“Absolutely not, because there wouldn’t be a tanker left on its four wheels.

“They’d all be turned over on their sides, blockading every road to this refinery, because the French wouldn’t put up with it.”

Not for the first time, I envy the French.

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Iran: This Is Not a Revolution posted by Yoshie

Let the Iranian people solve their conflict on their own. Defend Iran -- including both sides of the conflict -- from the Western powers. Then, one day, the Iranian people will perhaps choose a man -- or even a woman -- who is truly worthy of their fidelity, someone who thinks like Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and is capable of synthesizing the aspirations of those who voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi (freedom) and those who voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (faith and democracy) and uniting people behind the new synthesis.

Iran: This Is Not a Revolution
by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Political power is never good or bad, never really just or unjust; political power is arbitrary, discriminatory, and most of the time violent.  In Iran, the ongoing demonstrations sparked by the election results in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicate that such power can never really be monopolized by the state.  Iran's civil society is fighting; it is giving blood for a just cause.  It is displaying its power, the power of the people.  Today, Iran must be considered one of the most vibrant democracies in the world because it is the people who are speaking.  The role of the supporters of the status quo has been reduced to reaction, which is why they are lashing out violently at those who question their legitimacy.

In all of this, the current civil unrest in Iran is historic, not only because it has already elicited compromises by the state, but also because it provides yet more evidence of the way societies can empower themselves against all odds.  These brave men and women on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and other cities are moved by the same utopia that inspired their fathers and mothers three decades ago: the utopia of justice.  They believe that change is possible, that protest is not futile.  Confronting the arrogance of the establishment has been one of the main ideological planks of the Islamic revolution in 1979.  It is now coming back to haunt those who have invented such slogans without necessarily adhering to them in the first place.

And yet the current situation in Iran is profoundly different from the situation in 1978 and 1979.  First, the Islamic Republic has proven to be rather responsive to societal demands and rather flexible ideologically.  I don't mean to argue that the Iranian state is entirely reflective of the will of the people.  I am saying that is it is not a totalitarian monolith that is pitted against a politically unified society.  The fissures of Iranian politics run through all levers of power in the country, which is why the whole situation appears scattered to us.  Whereas in 1979 the bad guy (the Shah) was easily identifiable to all revolutionaries, in today's Iran such immediate identification is not entirely possible.  Who is the villain in the unfolding drama?  Ahmadinejad?  Those who demonstrated in support of him would beg to differ.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?  I would argue that he commands even stronger loyalties within the country and beyond.  The Revolutionary Guard or the Basij?  Mohsen Rezai, one of the presidential candidates and an opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is contesting the election results, used to be the head of the former institution.

The picture becomes even more complicated when we take into consideration that some institutions of the state such as the parliament -- via its speaker, Ali Larijani -- have called for a thorough investigation of the violence perpetrated by members of the Basij and the police forces in a raid of student dormitories of Tehran University earlier this week.  "What does it mean that in the middle of the night students are attacked in their dormitory?" Larijani asked.  The fact that he said that "the interior ministry . . . should answer for it" and that he stated that the "parliament is seriously following the issue" indicate that the good-vs-bad verdict in today's Iran is more blurred than in 1979.

There is a second major difference to 1979.  Today, the opposition to Ahmadinejad is fighting the establishment with the establishment.  Mir Hossein Mousavi himself was the prime minister of Iran during the first decade of the revolution, during a period when the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was president.  Mohammad Khatami, one of the main supporters of Mousavi, was president between 1997 and 2005.  Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, another political ally, is the head of the Assembly of Experts and another former president.  They are the engineers of the Islamic revolution and would never devour their project.  When some commentators say that what we are witnessing is a revolution they are at best naive and at worst following their own destructive agenda.  The dispute is about the future path of the Islamic Republic and the meaning of the revolution -- not about overthrowing the whole system.  It is a game of politics and the people who are putting their lives at risk seem to be aware of that.  They are aware, in other words, that they are the most important force in the hands of those who want to gain or retain power.

Thus far the Iranian establishment has shown itself to be cunningly adaptable to crisis situations.  Those who have staged a revolution know how to sustain themselves.  And this is exactly what is happening in Iran.  The state is rescuing its political power through a mixture of incentives and pressure, compromise and detention, due process and systematic violence.  Moreover, when push comes to shove, the oppositional leaders around Mousavi would never question the system they have built up.  As Mousavi himself said in his fifth and most recent letter to the Iranian people: "We are not against our sacred regime and its legal structures; this structure guards our independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic."

Born in Istanbul and educated at the University of Hamburg, American Universtiy (Washington DC), and Cambridge, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam lectures on politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  The author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Hurst/ Columbia University Press, 2007/2008) and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Routledge, 2006), he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  He was also elected Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge European Trust Society at the University of Cambridge.  His latest publication Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic is now available for worldwide distribution from Hurst & Co., Amazon.com, and Columbia University Press.

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Iran's ruling class split widens posted by Richard Seymour

I don't know if this is unprecedented, exactly, but I suspect the intensity of infighting among Iran's rulers is novel. Aside from the arrests of reformists, we have the open targeting of even quite establishment figures, members of the Rafsanjani family and so on. Now, the conservative majles speaker Larijani has said that 'most' Iranians think the election result was fixed. He has been condemning the protesters, but there are now reports that he's expressing 'concern' over the crackdowns. And he is being attacked in what would ordinarily be sympathetic right-wing papers. We've had Montazeri, apparently one of those who exerted a humanising influence on Iran's penal system in the 1980s, denouncing the election results and the attacks on the protesters. We've had Khatami attacking the 'hardliners' and condemning the government for outlawing protests. I don't encourage anyone to put their faith in any of these individuals, but the fact of the shift is significant and bears consideration. The protesters didn't just take advantage of a split; they stuck a big crowbar in it, and pushed. The neocons are trying to take credit for this on the bizarre assumption that the destruction of Iraq belatedly prompted a liberation movement in Iran. A sharp piece by Justin Raimondo points out that it is far more likely that "the Obama effect" (actually, the effect of the US facing defeat in Iraq) allowed Iran's system to open up a bit more, and enabled the establishment to air its differences a bit more openly.

If it was just a split in the ruling class, those who expected the movement to fizzle out would have been right. But so far, despite some premature indications from commentators, there is no sign that they are right. Yesterday's protests apparently spread well beyond Tehran, with this footage purportedly coming from the southern city of Kerman. Despite the ongoing violence of the state, the protesters kept coming out, in new places. Given the extreme brutality of the basiji, it is amazing that the protesters didn't just stop turning out. But it may be that the repressive strategy is blowing back on the state. For, after the murder of Neda Soltani, and the reaction against it, Mousavi seems to feel more confident to make his move. He and other 'reformers' are backing protests over this, apparently despite a government ban - quite unlike previous occasions where they have backed down and allowed protesters to brave the basij militias alone. He now says he is trying to organise a general strike, and is getting some interesting advice from people responding to his Facebook message. But if the protesters had followed his advice and stopped turning out when rallies were declared banned, he would not now be in a position to talk about a general strike. Unconfirmed reports on The Guardian have suggested that 30% of workers in Iran are already striking - which, if true, would be a phenomenal rebuke to the government, which threatened that anyone who didn't turn up for work would be fired. Try sacking 30% of the workforce.

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The First Neoconservative posted by Richard Seymour

The latest edition of Historical Materialism is now out, and it contains my lengthy review of a biography of John Spargo, arguably America's first neoconservative:

Markku Ruotsila's impressive new biography of John Spargo is an incisive assessment of one of the earliest architects of neoconservatism. Spargo, a British socialist who spent most of his life in the United States, had moved gradually to the right of the socialist movement, advocating a gradualist and anti-revolutionary interpretation of Marxism. Having defended the American intervention in WWI, he was an early and avid critic of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was Spargo who composed the Colby Note that formalised the Wilson administration's anti-communist doctrine, and engaged in a political alliance with Benito Mussolini which he maintained through Italy's Fascist years on account of Mussolini's intransigent anti-communism. A harsh critic of the Roosevelt administration's 'New Deal' and its recognition of the USSR, he moved to the hard right in his domestic politics, supporting the Dies Commission and McCarthy, and later supporting first Richard Nixon then Barry Goldwater in the 1964 elections. This review examines Spargo's journey to the right in the light, not only of the peculiar Hyndmanite Marxism into which he was initially inducted and the reformist socialism to which he later graduated, but also of his social Darwinism, his support for colonialism, and his perceptions of the global racial order. I argue that Ruotsila, while providing an unprecedented glimpse into a neglected prehistory of neoconservatism, is mistaken to see Spargo's transition as a logical and linear progression in which he successfully preserved the core of his 'Social Gospel' even as he became a Republican activist. He also understates, I will maintain, the role of Spargo's racial concerns in the fervent anti-communism that he espoused after 1917.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

A question of solidarity. posted by Richard Seymour

With the protesters, or with the state? The charge of some on the left is that by backing the protesters, one is de facto drafted into the camp of the crooked neoliberals behind Mousavi's campaign. Moreover, it is claimed, since there has been no proof as yet of an electoral fraud, it is also to support a movement that rejects the popular will. Such is the gist of the post that appears immediately below this one and, though I don't think the manner of putting this argument reflects well on those who are making it, this does need to be discussed. We admit that there can be no conclusive verdict on fraud in the Iranian elections short of a full and impartial investigation conducted by the Islamic Republic itself. That such an investigation is not forthcoming, and that the only concession in this direction was prompted by the protests, suggests that the interests of veracity in this matter are best served by the popular revolts we have seen. And if we decline to join those who are absolutely convinced that fraud was perpetrated, until matters become far more clear than they presently are, we equally refuse to align with those who take the contrary position as an article of faith.

The truth is, almost everything we are hearing on this topic from either side of the argument is hearsay and speculation. We are told that a poll predicted the results, though it seems it didn't, and was at any rate taken before the campaign had really begun. We are told that secret pre-election polling by the Iranian government predicted a massive win for Mousavi, though we have no way of telling how true this is, any more than we can verify the document circulating that purports to be a letter to Khamenei from the interior ministry confirming Mousavi's win. We are told that many of the regional results are hard to credit, but also that any statistical analysis at this point is inconclusive. A preliminary analysis by a team led by Iranian historian Ali Ansari for Chatham House suggests that in two provinces, the supposed turnout was higher than 100%. The report asserts that to believe the results we have to make improbable assumptions about Ahmadinejad's support. In many areas, he gained not only all conservative votes, all new votes, and all centrist votes but additionally almost half of previously reformist voters. Again, highly suggestive (and I do recommend a thorough reading of the document), but not conclusive proof. One could go on - secret polls, open polls, documents, pre-election violence, alleged irregularities, etc. Plenty of grounds for concern, nothing conclusive. Still, uncertain about the status of the recent elections, we are surely quite capable of discerning the grievances that led people - perhaps an overwhelming majority, we don't know - to support the Mousavi candidacy, and which now leads them to risk their physical integrity by taking to the streets even after veiled threats from Khamenei.

What do the protesters want? We know what Mousavi wants. There is no doubt that Mousavi stands for neoliberal economic policies, while also offering some political liberalisation to inspire progressive supporters. Mousavi, who bore substantial political responsibility for pushing through the nationalisation programme in the 1980s, now supports further privatization, and is in favour of constitutional amendments to make this easier. We also know that while Ahmadinejad initially expressed reservations about the agenda of liberalising state enterprises, one of his major planks of reform during his term was the proposal to privatise 80% of state assets, half of the shares of which were to be distributed through the stock market, and half to be distributed to those with low incomes. According to Kaveh Ehsani, despite the decision to distribute shares to the poor, the likely result is the radical reconstitution of wealth and political power on the Russian model post-1990. In 2007, under Ahmadinejad, the scale of privatization reached a record high, with total sales of $5bn. So, the main difference between the candidates on this question has been over the nature and pace of the reforms. It is also true that Mousavi wants to rein in the expansionary spending policies that have characterised Ahmadinejad's government, in a bid to cut inflation. It has been a complaint of some analysts that Ahmadinejad's spending amounts to 'bribery', and of his internal critics that it was unsustainable splurging that led to stagnant growth and such high inflation rates that any benefit to the poor from such spending was immediately negated. In truth, what Ahmadinejad's development projects have entailed mainly enriching those sectors of Iranian capital most closely imbricated with the state. His opponents think it more pragmatic to divert those oil profits into developing a more sizeable private sector. That is the basis of this division.

Ahmadinejad's clientelism obviously is not genuine defence of working class interests, nor has it been particularly effective as palliation. Apart from the fact that the suppression of trade unionism does tend to somewhat diminish the bargaining power of labour a bit, the redistribution hasn't really benefited Ahmadinejad's supposed supporters in the rural poor whose incomes have stagnated. Absolute poverty has not declined under Ahmadinejad, although it did under previous administrations - even under the neoliberal Khatami - while relative poverty has certainly increased. (It's possible that a slight change in inequality in 2007 favours Ahmadinejad's regime, but equally possible that the change is nothing to do with Ahmadinejad's policies, any more than the problems caused by high oil prices are necessarily his fault). Overall, there is little to suggest that workers or even the very poor have a deep material interest in electing Ahmadinejad, any more than his opponent.

Does this mean that the protesters, or those who voted for Mousavi, wanted a neoliberal strategy rather than the conservative 'populism' of Ahmadinejad? Does that range of options exhaust the range of popular opinion? There has been an assumption thus far that Ahmadinejad does well among the poor and working classes, while Mousavi's supporters are 'middle class'. But one begins to see a problem with such terms as soon as you investigate what is meant by 'middle class'. According to this analyst, 46% of the Iranian population is now middle class - but he defines "the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expenditures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary)." Now, if this reflects the common way in which the term is used, then marxists should be saying that what is actually happening is that large sectors of the working class backed the Mousavi camp. Indeed, we have already seen the most politicised and organised sectors in the trade union movement also back the protesters (they declined for obvious reasons to back any one candidate). So, at the very least, the lazy assumptions about the class basis of the vote and of the protests merit re-examination. In fact, the same analyst argues that a substantial layer of this supposed middle class vote comprises young unemployed people. If you're unemployed, by my book, you probably shouldn't be called 'middle class'. As far as this layer goes, we're talking about young, educated workers who are suffering in the economy and who lack the democratic right to do anything about their situation. They see no future from themselves in the current set-up. That is certainly a class grievance, but it can hardly be reduced to a petulant middle class cultural complaint - it's not the Gucci crowd, because you can't buy Guccis on $10 a day. While we appreciate the scepticism that some people entertain about these protests, and understand the reasons for this, the condescending claims and gratuitously nasty language about them does not bear examination. It actually redounds to the massive discredit of those using such rhetoric when the protesters are being murdered in the streets, with far less money and social power to their being than any of those who are deriding them as yuppies.

Further, from all that we are able to glean about the protests and their demands, the focus is overwhelmingly on changing the undemocratic nature of the Iranian state, going much further in their demands than Mousavi or his elite backers are prepared to go - abolishing the apparatus of repression, stopping the death penalty, stopping political imprisonments, democratising the state, abolishing the Council of Guardians. All these are the demands that we have seen repeated during this period, and none of them were adocated by Mousavi. The idea that the protests are just a flash mob for the crooked neoliberal sector of the elite is unsustainable. The question of whether, in practise, all these protests do is strengthen one faction of the ruling class will be decided to a large extent by the protesters themselves. There is a huge generational shift underlying these protests, and that means that even if the present wave were to fizzle out - which I don't think is likely - it is likely to recur in even more militant forms. So, the question is whether the protesters can take the independence in ideas and action that they have already exhibited and turn it into lasting movement. It is true that the left should have no illusions about this. There is no necessary reason why such a movement will take on a leftist hue. It hasn't so far. Only by engaging in the movement could the left hope to shift it in that direction. Far more important, however, is that the democratic demands and the bravery of those pushing for such changes, are worthy of support and solidarity in themselves. It isn't good enough to say that because Mousavi is a neoliberal, therefore the protests deserve no support. It isn't good enough to sniffily denounce the 'western left' on behalf of the supposedly univocal figure of the Iranian worker, the poor, or - as in the post below - Muslims. Especially since Muslims, the Iranian working class, many poor Iranians, can not be counted on as allies of either Ahmadinejad or the Iranian state.

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What Western Leftists Lost in the Iranian Elections posted by Yoshie

. . . is a chance to gain the trust of Muslims, such as Al Musawwir, regarding Western leftists' commitment to truth, democracy, and class solidarity, transcending the cultural divide:

Wittingly (for the most part) and (a few) unwittingly, the "western" left is, in essence, siding with the elite, upper classes, against the working class. Now, why are they supporting these elites -- well, the twisted logic is that this has "politicized the Iranian people" and that civil strife of this kind is good, even if the cause they are supposedly fighting for is not real "fraud or no fraud". This is like saying, that running towards a mirage is good, hey, at least you are running, it'll get you energized. That is the kind of nonsense one would expect from those who engage in psyop destabilization, because their aim is to create a chaotic situation, and then swoop down and take the spoils.

Strange as it may seem to some, these days, Muslims are, probably on average, better at being historical materialist than Western leftists, who prefer fantasy to reality.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Protesters clash with basij militias... posted by Richard Seymour

...and force them to flee:

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Isfahan posted by Richard Seymour

I got these pictures in the post, as it were:

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Be Like Rostam posted by Yoshie

Had I lived in Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic republicans running Iran today would have killed me at worst or put me under house arrest at best, like Iran's Red Princess Maryam Firuz in her last years, because I'm a socialist. But still and all, a majority of the masses supported, and still support, the Islamic republicans, because they are populist Muslims, not socialists.

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.

The fate of leftists in many countries (excepting Cuba) is often the fate of Rostam: serve the rulers who are unworthy of your support, because the nation ruled by the unworthy rulers still must be defended from its many enemies.

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Attacks on Romanians in Belfast posted by Richard Seymour

Now, you might be thinking, "bigotry in Belfast? Well, I never!" True, the attacks on Romanians earlier this week come after years of assaults and intimidation of Chinese workers which reached a bloody crescendo in 2003 and 2004. And it follows attacks on Polish workers earlier this year, in which Unionist politicians tried to cover up the extent of what was happening. Actually, Unionist politicians like Sammy Wilson - one of the few people in the world who really does have a face like a well-smacked arse - have been openly encouraging discrimination against migrant workers. But I do consider it significant that the attackers were chanting BNP and Combat-18 slogans as they did this. Not because there's a powerful Nazi organisation in Ulster, but it does look as if Northern Ireland's disproportionate number of violent young bigots have been heartened by the recent success of fascism in the mainland. Eamonn McCann, noting the lack of BNP presence in the areas affected, suggests that the attackers are "invoking an established brand rather than acting at the instigation of an organisation". (Mind you, it seems the BNP have just established their national call centre in Dundonald, and presumably intend to try and build a little family of fascists in the area: can't you just hear the pitter-patter of tiny goosesteeps?)

Over at Splintered Sunrise, I see that the UDA boss is ventilating over the BNP's malevolent influence, desperately trying to deflect any blame that might be placed on his right-wing paramilitary outfit: "It seems that what is exercising Hard Bap is the possibility that the UDA’s good name might be besmirched by commentators linking it with the BNP. Which sort of says something about Nick Griffin’s push for respectability." This won't fly, of course. Studies have shown that 90% of racist crime in Northern Ireland takes place in Loyalist areas. It may not be that the UDA are actually encouraging such attacks, but there is a powerful continuity in the methods of violence and intimidation, and the bigotry underwriting them. Moreover, it seems that some other things don't change either: most of Northern Ireland's minorities consider the Police Service of Northern Ireland (née RUC) to be institutionally racist. Well, of course it is. It is the still largely unreconstructed authority of an occupying power that has spent decades terrorising Catholic estates. On top of that, the Crown Prosecution Service only seems to try a fraction of the reported cases of racist violence. So, if you're being driven out of your home by some jumped up Rangers fans with an admiration for the fascist way of doing things, you can't rely on the police, and you can't rely on the courts. And as for the Assembly, they've done fuck all about it for years, despite having pledged to do so. (The lack of consideration given to migrants in policymaking is discussed in this lengthy and useful report [pdf]). The efforts of solidarity campaigners is all that is coming down the pipeline.

McCann argues that the root of this is more than a deflection of older forms of sectarian violence, though, and I think this is crucial:

It is not to excuse the assaults to point to the fact that the Protestant working class, and its young people in particular, have been the main losers from change in Northern Ireland. It's not that they have taken a hit that their equivalents on the Catholic side have not also suffered. Whatever your religion, the poorer you are here the more likely you are to have not benefited at all from the agreement hailed around the world as ushering in a peace based on mutual tolerance. It's no accident that the Real IRA draws its support almost exclusively from the least well-off in the Catholic community.

The snarling young men who forced the Romanian families out have the additional grievance that the Protestant community's sense of itself as living in "their" state has been shattered by the developments symbolised by Sinn Féin sitting snugly in government with the DUP. That none of them can remember the glory days of untrammelled unionist rule matters little. They feel – and it's a feeling they know is endorsed and welcomed by many nationalists – that Catholics are on the way up, Protestants on the way down.

I know that complaint very well. One used to hear quite a bit (from Protestants) in the 1990s, that while once it was the Catholics who were being victimised, now it's the poor Prods. The neoliberal consensus reinforces this sense of grievance by reducing the sphere of legitimate arguments about public spending and resources to sectarian ones: not, will we close this hospital, but will this hospital be closed in a Protestant, or a Catholic area. This entails McCann's conclusion that, while it is necessary to confront these thugs - physically, if it comes to that - it is also essential to build the kind of radical anti-neoliberal left that has just done so splendidly well in the south of Ireland.

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The Iranian working class and the revolt posted by Richard Seymour

It was a commonplace in the build-up to the elections that Ahmadinejad would hold the working class vote. This had been the case in 2005, and it was assumed it would be the case in 2009. The reason given was that Ahmadinejad had supported the working class with various benefits paid for from oil profits. And of course he is himself a working class kid made good, as it were: the son of a blacksmith who got himself a PhD, joined the right-wing in the revolution, and eventually became president. Finally, it was inferred that the workers were socially conservative and had little time for middle class people who wanted more liberal legislation. This picture, while touching on important truths, is also rather patronising in its assumption that the workers only care about bread and butter issues and that they tend toward sullen bigotry when it comes to issues of democracy and womens' rights.

The electoral coalition around Mousavi, by contrast, was seen to be middle-class, based disproportionately among professionals and students, with the loot provided by ruling class interests. (As one dyspeptic analyst called it, the "Gucci crowd" in alliance with Iranian capitalists). Mousavi was pushing an austerity agenda, with privatization and counter-inflationary measures at its core. To broaden his appeal, therefore, he touched on the progressive concerns of a layer of the population which has had enough of the basij militias and the media clampdowns and the political prisoners. He didn't actually offer much reform, but all was in the branding. (It is telling that, in much of the Anglophone media coverage, these concerns are emblematized by the status of the chador - as if the major issue is the right to expose one's hair). So, when these protests began, it seemed a reasonable assumption that it was overwhelmingly a middle class revolt - perhaps not for neoliberalism as such, but against what they saw as an electoral fix-up and the obviously undemocratic system behind it. If Mousavi's base was so middle class, however, it would be difficult to see how he could possibly have been in the lead. If the protest movement were exclusively middle class, it probably couldn't win, and could be expected to dissipate.

Some liberal analysts disputed the idea that Ahmadinejad had decisively won the working class vote. Robert Dreyfuss, reporting from Tehran, claimed that it was almost impossible to find a supporter of Ahmadinejad even in the poorer areas. Juan Cole, disputing the primacy of class in interpreting Iranian elections, pointed out that neoliberal reformers such as Khatami had won 70% of the vote in 1997, and then over 78% in 2001. Khatami obviously had to win support far beyond his business supporters. This did not prove that the reformers had a majority in 2009, of course - we aren't going to get proof, whatever the truth of the matter is - but it does mean that caution is called for in the assumptions that we make. 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.

There is an understandable tendency to think of this upheaval in terms of the 'colour revolutions'. I have even seen reports quoting figures from the March 14th movement attempting to associate themselves with the revolt. It's fatuous on their part, since there is clearly a lot more going on here than just another 'Cedar Revolution', with the upper and middle classes (and their much abused Syrian maids) turning out to be admired by photographers. The demonstrations have not been restricted to middle class areas or richer parts of Tehran. They have not been orchestrated set-piece protests with glory days in the sun and an atmosphere borrowed from a Coca-Cola commercial. At any rate, what the self-styled cedar revolutionaries typically neglect to mention is that Hezbollah's protests were far bigger than theirs. That isn't the case in Iran, where Ahmadinejad's supporters have plainly been outnumbered by far more militant protests.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Oxford Working Class Bookfair posted by Richard Seymour

Just a quick reminder for those who can make it, I will be speaking at the Oxford Working Class Bookfair this Saturday from 4pm, discussing The Liberal Defence of Murder (details here). I see David Renton is also there, talking about different traditions of anti-fascism, which is a useful discussion to have these days. Be there, or be somewhere else.

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SOAS deportations: what you can do posted by Richard Seymour

The campaign in defence of the SOAS cleaners has issued a statement asking people to help out. The following is a list of things you can personally do (see the update at the end of the post):

1. Sign the online petition: http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/28557.html

2. We have only hours to get the message to Alan Johnson & Phil Woolas, who have the power to intervene and stop the deportations. Please sign it, or write your own similar letter, and circulate to as many people who will do the same.

You can:
email: johnsona@parliament.uk
Subject: For the urgent attention of Alan Johnson

Email: woolasp@parliament.uk
Subject: For the urgent attention of Phil Woolas

Post the letter to:

Home Office
Direct Communications Unit
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF

020 7035 4848 (09:00-17:00 Mon-Fri). Fax: 020 7035 474


To Rt Honourable Minister of State, Phil Woolas
To Rt Honourable Home sectary, Alan Johnson

We are writing to ask you to grant leave to remain, with the right to work, to the SOAS cleaners, Marina Silva, who has claimed asylum and Rosa de Perez who are currently being held in Yarlswood detention centre. We are deeply concerned that five of their colleagues were deported within 48 hours of the raids, without any chance to put their case for being granted the right to stay and in come cases breaking up family relationships.

Marina and Rosa are two of the nine cleaners who were arrested in a raid by around 40 officers of the Border Agency on Friday 12th June 2009, on campus at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). They are charged with overstaying visas—but both women have had good reasons to have entered the UK and an urgent need to work to support themselves and their families. Both have worked hard for ISS, a company which is notorious for exploiting migrant labour, for low wages.

Marina is sixty three years old. She is from Bolovia and her husband was killed in an honour killing after which she was threatened and harassed until she was forced to leave her home. She has been living in the UK for several years and has made a life here. She is ill and was due a hospital appointment on the day of the raid. She has now made an application to stay to be safe and to live in dignity in the UK. These women are not criminals, they are hard working people on low pay who have worked to pay their bills and support their family in the dirty and undignified job as a cleaner. We believe that they should not be treated as criminals.

While Rosa has not sought to resist removal, she will be returned to extreme poverty in Nicaragua and will be unable to support her family—having four children who in the economic crisis of her home country have no other means of support. She will be unemployed when returned. She is in urgent need of the compassion to allow her, now she is here, the ability to stay and to work to support her children and we would ask for a work permit to allow her to continue to work, but in dignity.

While we recognize that their overstay was unlawful, the manner of their detainment at SOAS was shockingly aggressive, disproportionate, deceiving and unnecessary. The cleaning company which employs the cleaners, ISS, had collaborated with the UK Border Agency to arrest the workers through the pretence of an “emergency staff meeting” at 6.30am on Friday 12th June. Once 40 officers, dressed in riot gear, were hidden around the meeting and managers barred exit during the first part of the meeting before the immigration officers pounced on workers. The SOAS campus was sealed off while workers were locked in a room, and then questioned one by one in an adjacent room. Union representatives trying to bring water and aid to their members—including a woman more than six months pregnant—were denied access and not allowed to provide any legal aid for their members, who should have had the right to a solicitor.

We are very concerned about these workers who were employed by ISS, a company which had just been forced to grant union recognition and to pay the London Living Wage to its cleaners working in SOAS. We are especially concerned that the raid took place on the very morning on which cleaners were to rally in support of their sacked UNISON trade union branch chair, who was also an ISS employee. Rosa and Maria are just two of the thousands of migrant workers, refugee and asylum seekers who make a valuable contribution to our society. Like so many who work unsocial hours for low pay, they are making a valuable contribution to society, and they should not be punished and hunted like criminals for this.

We are deeply concerned at what appears to be BIA officials being used to discipline workers in the process of unionising and appeal for permission to stay and work to be granted to the SOAS workers. All of these people are working and supporting themselves as well as paying taxes and national insurance contributions. You will be aware of the research which shows the greater than average economic contribution of working migrants who are single and without dependents in the UK.

We therefore urge you to:

--Release Marina and Rosa on bail immediately and give consideration to our appeal for a grant of leave to remain to these workers.

-- In Marina’s case to grant humanitarian protection. In Rosa’s case to grant a work visa.

--to allow those SOAS cleaners who have already been deported to renter the country for reasons of family reunion and to work.

--to make clear that no person should be raided and held in such a way in the future, without water, medicine or the right to be seen by representatives wishing to provide legal assistance.

We would welcome an urgent response as these workers have only hours before removal directions. We look forward to hearing from you on the matters we have raised above.

Yours sincerely,


3. Ring your MP and express your concern for these individuals and ask them to pass on the message to Phil Woolas. You can get your MPs details from www.theyworkforyou.com or ring 020 7219 3000 and ask for their office. Your Mp can ask a question about this or can lay down an early day motion.

4. Fax/email a copy to your own MP and ask that they pass this on urgently to Phil Woolas.

5. Ask your trade union branch/faith group/community association etc to also take action.

Update: as the students have declared victory, there is to be a rally tomorrow at 6pm in SOAS, to celebrate, take stock, and remind management that they are still under scrutiny. See their blog here.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What can the opposition win? posted by Richard Seymour

Hamid Dabashi has an interesting article on the protests in Iran. He points out that, whatever the truth on the elections, the 'fix' has become a 'social fact' inasmuch as millions of Iranians are staking their lives on that very belief. He also pointedly satirises Orientalist assumptions of the Reading-Lolita-in-Tehran variety, and takes the opportunity to remind people that solidarity, not 'democracy promotion', is what is required.

Unfortunately, the excitement about the possibility of a mass civil disobedience campaign arising does lead to an astonishing final sentence - the idea that Mousavi could be a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King beggars belief. In fact, the more one learns about Mousavi, the more unsavoury he seems, and the more it bcomes clear that his candidacy is essentially an enterprise of the plutocratic Rafsanjani family. And, as the Angry Arab has pointed out, when Mousavi was prime minister the Iranian state was much more repressive than it is now. In fact, it's hard to go along with Dabashi's wholehearted support for the 'reformists' who have yet to demonstrate that they are worthy of leadership of such a movement as this.

The movement is still in its earlier stages, there is an interesting document circulating that purports to be a 'manifesto' of the Iranian opposition. I don't know how reliable this is: one has to make allowances for the possibility of it being a forgery, or e-mail spam, or some NED bureaucrat's wet dream. Still, it does seem to summarise the main thrust of the protests - put Mousavi in charge, review the constitution, free political prisoners and disband the apparatus of repression. If the main goals are to be achieved, it looks as if the movement will have to move way beyond Mousavi in ideas and practise. If the protest movement were to die down following a recount in which Mousavi won, the result would probably be a few blunted reforms coupled with a more aggressive neoliberal policy. If a dozen deaths are to mean anything, the movement must surely acquire an independent organisational backbone to sustain it when the inevitable disappointments come.

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SOAS: injunction served posted by Richard Seymour

A court injunction has been sought and obtained against the students' occupation of SOAS in defence of the cleaners targeted by the college, and applies 'with immediate effect'. Anyone who has the ability to do so is encouraged to make their way to the building, just off Malet Street, and show support for the students.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran vote and protests posted by Richard Seymour

I think it's a consensus on the liberal-left in the US and UK that the Iranian elections were fixed. If they are right, we are watching a bloodless coup turn into a bloody one, as protesters have been beaten and are now being shot at and killed by cops. One of Mousavi's supporters alleges he was told that a coup was coming. If they are not right, we are still faced with a state busily beating and killing the opposition. The Iranian state is still detaining 'reformist' MPs, censoring newspapers, shutting down access to social networking sites (although people are still finding ways to Twitter), and behaving as if for all the world it had every reason to act guiltily. It is not inherently implausible that Ahmadinejad got 63% of the vote, and it has to be shown that there was a fix. The fact that Ahmadinejad used state oil revenues to fund programmes for the poor can be approved or derided, but it arguably gave large numbers of people an interest in voting for Ahmadinejad against his more explicitly neoliberal rival. It gave him a base among some of the working class and bazaaris. Still, it is hardly implausible either that some vote-rigging went on, if only to make the win decisive enough to avoid a run-off.

So, the first question that occurs is, why should the ballots be rigged? This is skated over in a lot of the commentary as if the answer were obvious - Mousavi advocated reform, duh! However, Mousavi is hardly a dangerous candidate for the Iranian ruling class: rather, he represents a powerful faction of it. True, he was once on the 'Islamic Left' back in the 1980s, and it was due to the support of the left-leaning majles that he was made prime minister against Khomeini's preferences. Today, however, he is a centrist allied to the 'Modern Right'. His solutions to Iran's problems of accumulation and development are impeccably neoliberal. This is why he got the backing of the old crook, cynic, capitalist and Iran-Contra arms dealer, Hashem Rafsanjani. He supports privatization, and wants to reform Article 44 to assist the process. He supports strong counter-inflationary policies. Of course, he would like to take a slightly less 'hard line' with respect to the US. Indeed, like other would-be 'reform' candidates, his campaign tried to channel Obama - with some success since his wife, who spearheaded some important reforms in the late 1980s, was cast as the Michelle Obama of the campaign. Still, he isn't an outsider by any means. His candidacy wasn't struck off, while those that offend the Council of Guardians usually are. He wasn't excluded from the debates, as far as I can find out. He wasn't excluded from the polls, some of which put him ahead, and some behind. Why should he have suddenly become so dangerous that the Iranian state, or powerful sectors within it, would risk a stupid fix? The answer could only be that by tapping a popular demands for reforms, the candidacy might have unleashed a movement that seriously frightened some factions in the ruling class.

The next question is, what can come of the protests? Whatever the motivations of Mousavi, we have an enormous number of people on the streets, with a clear demand for political reform. They took to those streets, reportedly ignoring warnings that the police were carrying live ammunition. This means they are brave, certainly, and also confident in their numbers. Already, Khamenei has ceded the question of investigating the elections, which it seems clear he didn't want to do. The Iranian state may kill people, but these protesters are already starting to win. They can make gains far beyond the very limited promises that Mousavi made in order to excite progressive layers. (As far as I can tell, Mousavi was mildly critical of some state repression of television channels, and promised to 'review' legislation that could be harmful to women - hardly a tribune of the oppressed). So, whatever the truth about the claims of a fix, these protests can do nothing but good. They may, in addition to getting rid of some particularly onerous forms of oppression, open up a space in which the left can operate more freely, and in which the labour movement can assert itself more forcefully.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

SOAS deportations posted by Richard Seymour

You'll remember that SOAS college has recently been the target of a campaign because of its sacking of a key union activist. Now, the union-busting process has acquired the assistance of the state. I am told that at 6.45 am yesterday, representatives form the Border Control Agency raided SOAS. The entire cleaning staff were in a meeting called by the contractors when up to fifty officers arrived. The immigration police interrogated the cleaners and eventually rounded up nine of them who they claimed were in the UK illegally. They were, eyewitnesses say, lined up against the wall, and marched into a room, locked inside, and forced to fill in some documents. They were given no legal representation, and no interpreters to assist in understanding the documents they were supposed to be filling in. If I understand matters correctly, the cleaners were due to be deported this evening. SOAS management say that the raid was carried out in a "sympathetic manner", but disclaims any responsibility. Members of the Living Wage campaign don't believe them, and students from SOAS have mounted protests over the raids with a number of members of staff have supported them.

This is one struggle among many, but for me it also resonates far beyond its own example. In what way? I think this instance makes a strong case that 'Fortress Europe' and the immigration controls associated with it in fact constitute a form of class war. As in the US, while employers are all to happy to exploit immigrant labour, they also rely on the state to discipline and attack that labour when it becomes too assertive and organised. I think it also makes the case that any political slogan that divides the working class, such as 'British Jobs for British Workers', is a valuable tool of employers for defeating it. Finally, I think it is resonant in another sense. Neal Ascherson once suggested that if you want to see how the government would like to treat us, look at how it deals with immigrants. In this case, the almost Gestapo-like tactics deployed by immigration police (which is absolutely routine) provide the model for crackdowns on all kinds of labour organisation.

Update: the cleaners are being fast-tracked for deportation. Campaigners are asking people to come and join the demonstration this morning, Monday 15th, at 8.30am, on the steps of SOAS just off Malet Street.

Update II: the students are in occupation. See their blog for details.

Footage from the occupation:

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