June 21, 2009

Iran, Gucci anti-imperialism and movement anti-intellectuals

We know what a movement intellectual is, but perhaps we need a new category for James Petras, a movement anti-intellectual.

Here is how Petras describes the social-economic dynamics behind the split in Iranian society:

The great majority of voters for the incumbent probably felt that national security interests, the integrity of the country and the social welfare system, with all of its faults and excesses, could be better defended and improved with Ahmadinejad than with upper-class technocrats supported by Western-oriented privileged youth who prize individual life styles over community values and solidarity.

The demography of voting reveals a real class polarization pitting high income, free market oriented, capitalist individualists against working class, low income, community based supporters of a ‘moral economy’ in which usury and profiteering are limited by religious precepts. The open attacks by opposition economists of the government welfare spending, easy credit and heavy subsidies of basic food staples did little to ingratiate them with the majority of Iranians benefiting from those programs. The state was seen as the protector and benefactor of the poor workers against the ‘market’, which represented wealth, power, privilege and corruption. The Opposition’s attack on the regime’s ‘intransigent’ foreign policy and positions ‘alienating’ the West only resonated with the liberal university students and import-export business groups. To many Iranians, the regime’s military buildup was seen as having prevented a US or Israeli attack. (James Petras, Global Research --was Ziopedia)

Now maybe some of it is correct. It makes some sense. There is certainly a class split in Iran as there is everywhere else. But the class composition and the class content of the latest Iranian intifada is very difficult to discern, and the claim that all these oppositions, market vs. community, high income vs. low income, city vs. country side, align neatly behind two candidates from two factions of the same authoritarian ruling class is stretching credulity. The way class plays itself out in Iranian politics is a hotly debated issue. Petras, as far as I know, does not read Persian, and doesn't have any special expertise of Iran. His knowledge is second hand, based on choosing sources from available translated material and English speaking informants. He may be smarter than the Western journalists he derides, but he is in the same position they are and I am with regards to information. That position calls for a certain humility in putting forward broad theories about what is happening in Iran. Instead, we get an airtight encompassing know-it-all theory, without any attribution of any of the contentious facts, any recognition of the difficulties of getting or interpreting information, and any wrestling with alternative or discordant data. This discursive style is pseudo-intellectual. While formally argumentative and rational and sprinkled with sociological categories and apparent deductions, it boils down to a single command to the reader: "trust my wisdom".

Here is Richard Seymour summarizing what he knows about class and the current intifada in Iran:

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...

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.

...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. (Leninology)

What is the difference? Seymour links to no less than four discussions of class politics in Iran by people who have more knowledge than he does and who together produce a complex and sometimes contradictory image. This is not because he isn't smart enough to provide a clean-shaven Marxist analysis a-la Petras, but because he is smart enough to know when it isn't enough to be smart.

In the final analysis Petras doesn't provide an analysis. He provides marching orders based on his supposed intellectual authority rather than an appeal to the reader to exercise her own intellect in order to understand social reality and to move to action based on that understanding. That kind of demagoguery, despite the intellectual accoutrement it is shrouded it, is both anti-intellectual and anti-democratic. And to the extent that there is a link between theory and practice, that perhaps explains why he is so solidly supportive of Khameini.

That is so far as style, which is quite important. But here a few more substantial questions.

Let us begin with "the Gucci crowd" of North Teheran. (This is a digression, since Petras mercifully doesn't use the phrase, but he supports the sentiment behind it.) That dismissive phrase was perhaps legitimate when Bhadrakumar coined it on the 16th. At that time, the people were largely absent from the scene and it was quite reasonable to read the events soley through the prism of elite manoevring between Rafsanjani and Khameini. To use this phrase today against millions of working people who have marched for days facing state violence and even live ammunition is deeply offensive, and those who use that phrase, however much they take issue with the politics of the marchers, should be ashamed of themselves. Besides, it sounds very much the camel does not see the crookedness of his own neck. Those who have used this phrase probably own more iPhones than the people about whom this phrased was used. Perhaps we need to talk about Gucci anti-imperialism first.

Second, Petras uses class language that is emptied of its emancipatory content. To the extent that the class relations in Iran matter, the first question is how they matter to the future history of Iran, not how they explain elections. One uses class to identify the forces that can propel the interest of the working class moving forward. That is hardly discovered by simply noting whomever a majority of low income workers voted for in an electoral conjecture with a binary choice between two elite candidates (assuming it is true, and I think we simply do not know whether it is true, that Ahmadinejad won that support). In the U.S. low income voters were more enthused about Palin than about Obama. In Israel, Avigdor Liberman is a working class hero, a recent immigrant from Russia who rose from being a night club bouncer to the post of Foreign Minister. Shouldn't we all welcome the wisdom of the voters who elected him? All over the world, low income majorities often vote for lousy candidates, not because they are ignorant, although that does happen, but primarily because a vote is not a vision statement but a context-bound decision within a scope limited by material conditions, institutional constraints and social horizons. It is crucial to understand popular electoral preferences, but if the goal of the radical left is to rally behind whoever wins the vote than how come we are we not rallying behind the ruling parties in our own countries? But for Petras the future advances of Iranian people seems at best a secondary concern. The current economic arrangement, with a sclerotic capitalist economy owned by a clique of security services and clerical families and mitigated by a "moral economy" that does little besides an inadequate safety net with a few bones thrown to the masses must be defended at all cost against an impressively brave and popular nascent civil rights movement. Why? As we get to the end of Petras's article we see that what matters to Petras is not the future of the Iranian working class but the future of Zionism in the U.S. It is the fact that the Iranian protesters provide fodder for the Zionists in Obama's administration that warrants making little of the protesters. They crashed his party.

When people demonstrated in the U.S. against George Bush, not against capitalism, but often just against the oversexed unaccountability of the Bush administration, its so-called "excesses," it was the Ann Coulter variety of fascist bufoons who criticized those protests for "giving comfort to the enemy". You didn't have to be a radical anarchist to understand that Americans have the right to demand greater transparency and accountability of their state regardless of whether that makes Osama bin Laden smile. It is a shame that in the name of anti-imperialism one would deny Iranians the same basic right. When the "Supreme Leader" of Iran accuses a million protesters in the streets of serving Zionism, he is making the Ann Coulter argument. This is no perfect analogy because the threat of interference in Iran is more substantial. But it is not that far off either. There hasn't been a wretched regime on Earth that hasn't used national security and patriotism to justify its wretchedness. Relaxing the clutches of the Iranian power structure requires no subservience to the West. That is especially true if indeed Ahmadinejad won. But to claim that clerical authoritarian control is needed to defend Iranian independence is an insult to Iranians. Using "treason" as a cudgel against dissent is just too easy and it doesn't take a lot of perceptiveness to notice that the Iranian ruling class is excessively liberal with this tactic. Moreover, a great deal of the ease with which this argument is accepted abroad is about illegitimate projection and appropriation by non-Iranians like Petras. As long as Ahmadinejad makes the right noises on Palestine (and whether he does that is at least debatable), as long as Khamenei supports Hizbullah, that kind of "anti-imperialist" message means that Iranians who reject the repressive political system imposed on them can drop dead, because getting agitated might, God forbid, cheer Tzipi Livni. The Iranian regime is apparently too valuable for that anti-imperialist cause to allow the Iranians people much say in how it is run. But may I ask who appointed any of us to decide on the right order in which people should queue up to reclaim their freedom? Who decides that the status quo in Iran is just too important for letting the mere aspirations of Iranians shake it? A further frightening aspect of these preposterous accusations is that they can become self-fulfilling. People tend to seek the friendship of their enemies' enemies, and the conservative clerics' tendency to see imaginary Zionists behind every stone can make way to many Iranians feel unwarrantedly charitable towards Zionism. Add to that a dose of historical anti-Arab racism that could be easily exploited and the "anti-imperialist" infatuation with the Islamic Republic has the potential to explode in our faces in ways we will come to rue.

It is one thing to defend the Iranian state from outside assault and interference, all necessary and laudable, one thing to recognize the occasional political usefulness of the Iranian state on the world's stage, which is real enough if often exaggerated, one thing to admit that the replacement of the Shah's kingdom of thieves with the Islamic Republic was a positive historical development with real material gains for the Iranian working class, and quite another thing to cheer the crackdown on dissent and to root for state violence against a mass movement of people demanding basic civil and political rights, especially rights that our Gucci anti-imperialists enjoy in their safe(r) abodes. Furthermore, in so far as divide-and-rule is the lifeblood of imperialism, the pitting against each other of different forms of oppression, the demand that we chose exclusively, whether one is pro-Palestinian OR pro-civil rights in Iran, but not both, whether one is against Islamophobia OR for womens' rights, but not both, and so forth, in short, imposing whichever struggle we fancy to be more important on others and demanding that they put their demands for liberation on hold, is not anti-imperialist. On the contrary, it deepens the divisions on the basis of which imperialism flourishes.

As outside observers it is not our role to decide between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Nor it is our role to certify or decertify the elections or solve the legitimation crisis of the Iranian state. It is reasonably clear that much of the popular support behind Ahmadinejad is based on legitimate concerns and claims, including fears that Mousawi wished to deepen exploitation and collaborate with the West. It should be equally clear that the millions of working people who are now braving state violence in the streets also have legitimate concerns and claims, including true self-determination, which is not only freedom from U.S. imperialism, but also freedom from state violence and basic civil rights, including the right to form independent trade unions and parties that militate for real economic transformation and not just palliative populism.

As outside observers, we have two obligations now. First, we need to keep our own states from using the events in Iran to advance imperialist stratagems. But we also need to show solidarity with the struggle for greater freedom in Iran. And not much is demanded from us. All that is asked for is, as Hamid Dabashi phrases it,

the active solidarity of ordinary people around the globe to be a witness to their struggles and demand from their media an accurate and comprehensive representation of their movement (Hamid Dabashi)

All we are asked for is to respect the Iranian people, all of them, both those who voted for Ahmadinejad and those who didn't, and not to confuse their voice and their interests with that of either their unelected ruling clique or the foreign "support" that seek to exploit them.

Is that too much to ask from the radical left?

(images collected by the WPI)

UPDATE: The link to Petras's article is stale, so I changed it to where the article was apparently originally published. Perhaps Petras ask them to remove the article. Just to be clear, I wouldn't have changed it to appease the dishonest islamophobic alliance that complained about the link. Their "criticism" is beneath contempt.

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