Friday, June 19, 2009

The Iranian working class and the revolt

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.