Monday, June 22, 2009
A question of solidarity. posted by Richard Seymour
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.