Danny Postel’s “The Specter Haunting Iran” is a welcome call for “critical solidarity” with the Iranian democratic opposition movement. Unlike those on the Left who have been wary of characterizing the current democratic movement in Iran as a progressive phenomenon, Postel has supported this movement as a completely new and progressive phenomenon or what he calls “a deep-seated shift in the consciousness of millions of Iranians in their ways of seeing and perceiving their political reality.” . . . Given Danny Postel’s grasp of the “deep shift in consciousness” that has taken place in Iran, I am surprised to see him offer Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian economic experiment as an alternative . . .
By Frieda Afary
Source: Tehran Bureau
February 24, 2010
Danny Postel’s “The Specter Haunting Iran” is a welcome call for “critical solidarity” with the Iranian democratic opposition movement. Unlike those on the Left who have been wary of characterizing the current democratic movement in Iran as a progressive phenomenon, Postel has supported this movement as a completely new and progressive phenomenon or what he calls “a deep-seated shift in the consciousness of millions of Iranians in their ways of seeing and perceiving their political reality.” In his previous writings, he has also attempted to demonstrate that the non-violent and pluralistic features of this movement are related to the deep interest in philosophy, and specifically rationalist philosophy, that has emerged in Iran during the past 20 years.
I would add that the feminist movement in Iran which has offered thoughtful and courageous arguments on women’s rights and the issue of sexuality, is also a manifestation of the philosophical awakening that has characterized Iranian society. Readers who have had the opportunity to read Fatemeh Sadeghi’s “Why We Say No to the Compulsory Hijab” (http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2009/07/fatemeh-sadghi-is-assistant-professor.html) or Shadi Sadr’s recent challenge to Ayatollah Karroubi (http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2010/01/feminist-attorney-shadi-sadr-critiques.html) will know that Sadeghi and Sadr are not only activists but also deep thinkers and theorists.
There is no doubt that poverty and economic inequality is a major concern of the mostly young participants in the current opposition movement. Iran’s university students, of whom sixty percent are women, face unemployment or poverty wages that pay less than $250 per month and offer no benefits. According to the World Bank and the Iranian government, the absolute poverty line has been set at $2 per day per person, which means that a minimum of $240 per month is needed to support a family of four. In fact, according to the Centarl Bank of Iran, the general poverty line for a family of four in 2006 was no less than $400 per month. The newspaper Sarmayeh (Capital) has admitted that the poverty line in Tehran is $800 per month for a family of four.
The question of alternatives to economic inequality and specifically alternatives to capitalism however have not been theorized by the Green movement. Whereas the Islamist movement of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati’s brand of Islamic socialism in the 1970s used the promise of economic justice to gain adherents, the leaders of the Green Movement, Karroubi and Mousavi advocate one or another form of market capitalism.
In face of this reality, I appreciate the following statement from Danny Postel:
I want to suggest to Iran’s Greens that they take a close look at the cases of Eastern Europe and South Africa. The democratic movements that by and large formed the post-Communist governments of the former Warsaw Pact countries faced a similar situation — different from Iran in many regards, to be sure, but similar in the crucial respect that their focus was political in nature and their platform consisted mainly of democratic principles and negative liberties. It was presumed that these were the most pressing matters and that economic issues would get worked out in due course. But what happened? To make a long story short, shock capitalism happened, and it brought the kinds of dislocations, dispossessions, and disfigurations that are its global trademarks. Because the democratic-movements-turned-governments hadn’t given much thought to questions of economic structure or policy, they were unprepared to respond to the convulsions induced by neoliberalization.
In fact, Iranians have already experienced “the convulsions induced by neoliberalization.” Ahmadinejad’s government has recently approved a plan for “targeted monetary subsidies” which will gradually phase out existing government subsidies on basic food items and petroleum. In addition to having banned independent trade unions, the Iranian government has been promoting the two-tier wage system which has practically meant that a large percentage of Iran’s workers are contract workers without any benefits.
Mohommad Maljoo, an Iran-based professor of economics, has also addressed these questions in a recent interview in which he refutes “trickle down economics” and argues that the accumulation of capital will not necessarily improve the conditions of the lower classes. (http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2010/02/is-there-labor-movement-in-iran.html).
Given Danny Postel’s grasp of the “deep shift in consciousness” that has taken place in Iran, I am surprised to see him offer Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian economic experiment as an alternative in order to take the terms of the economic discussion beyond capitalism.
First, Postel admits that Hugo Chavez has been a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Although Postel limits Chavez’s support to the political realm, in fact Chavez’s involvement with the Iranian regime is deeply economic. The Iranian regime has made large investments in Venezuela. Chavez in turn has been providing the current government with petroleum to reduce the impact of the western governments’ sanctions on Iran. The separation made by Postel between Chavez’s political practice and his economic practice is indeed not true.
Furthermore, Iranian labor activists have attempted to make a distinction between Chavez and the Venezuelan labor movement by issuing statements in which they appealed to Venezuelan workers to support them in their struggle against the current regime. In January 2007, on the occasion of Ahmadinejad’s trip to Venezuela to meet with his friend, Chavez, the Bus Workers’ Union sent an open letter to the Venezuelan Workers Syndicate and demanded that they confront Ahmadinejad and defend Iranian workers (www.peiknet.com, 1/17/07).
Not only would I argue that Chavez’s political and economic support for the current repressive government of Iran flow from his economic views. I would further argue that Chavez’s economic views, examined in isolation, do not offer much more than a state- controlled version of capitalism. Indeed, the very article which Postel cites as evidence of the achievements of Chavez’s economic programs, offers important critiques of the glaring contradictions in Chavez’s brand of socialism. Below are two passages from this article, “Venezuela’s Cooperative Revolution,” by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone:
Zaida works seven hours a day, five days a week, and is paid $117 a month, the uniform income all employees voted for themselves. This is much less than the minimum salary, officially set at $188 a month. This was “so we can pay back our [government start-up] loan,” she explained. Venezuela Avanza cooperativistas have a monthly general assembly to decide policy. As in most producer co-ops, they are not paid a salary, but an advance on profits. Workers paying themselves less than the minimum wage in order to make payments to the state was, Zaida acknowledged, a bad situation. “We hope our working conditions will improve with time,” she said. . .
And even if all of the country’s current cooperativization programs succeed, will that struggle—and it will be a struggle—result in socialism? . . . the history of co-ops from the Amana colonies of Iowa to the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque country shows that even when they start out with a community-service mandate, individual co-ops, or even networks of co-ops, tend to defensively re-internalize capitalist self-seeking and become indistinguishable from their competitors when made to compete alone against an array of capitalist firms in a capitalist economy.
As this article indicates, workers’ self-management, in the context of a capitalist world can simply not transcend capitalism. I would add that that the combination of a massive oil income, state supervision and worker’s self-management for capitalist profit sharing can also not be posed as an alternative to capitalism.
While most members of the global Left continue to offer uncritical support for the political and or economic programs of Chavez, there are a growing number of youth associated with the new Left in Iran who do not see Chavez’s programs as an alternative but are also interested in developing alternatives that can transcend capitalism.
Unlike the period preceding and immediately after the 1979 Revolution when the vast majority of the Iranian Left consisted of the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party or the Maoist advocates of guerrilla warfare, there is now a growing new Left in Iran that challenges the old Left’s legacy of support for the former Soviet Union or Communist China under Mao. This new Left is completely aware of the collaboration of the pro-Soviet Tudeh with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 in the name of anti-imperialism. It welcomes critiques of Stalinist and Stalinist-Maoist brands of thinking. It has welcomed new translations of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as well as Marx’s Capital. (See the English translation of Hassan Mortazavi’s preface to the new Persian translation of Marx’s Capital volume I. (http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2009/07/translators-preface-to-new-persian.html). It is fascinated by discussions on G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. This new generation of youth is also the product of the deep interest in philosophy that has characterized Iran during the past two decades. It is challenging the economic and ideological views of the old Left which continues to exist but cannot offer new ideas.
After the Ashura protests, the Iranian government accused the democractic opposition movement of having been instigated by “enemies of God and Marxists.” This statement was indeed surprising even to Iranian socialists who did not think that their influence had been widespread. Since then, many of those associated with the new Left have been arrested. These thinker-activists include Omid Montazeri, a 24-year-old law student, journalist and writer for the online youth journal, Sarpich, who was forced to “confess” during show trials after the December 27 Ashura demonstrations. Omid Mehregan, editor of the online journal Rokhdad and co-translator with Morad Farhadpour of Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment was released on February 19. Many others remain in prison.
I agree with Danny Postel’s call for a critical solidarity that is based on addressing economic alternatives to capitalism. Those who are interested in this call can begin with defending the members of the Iranian new Left who are languishing in prison. We need to hear their views and learn from their experiences and questions in order to engage in critical solidarity with the Iranian democratic opposition movement.