Class and Labor in Iran: An Interview with Sohrab Behdad

Translator’s Note: Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani are the co-authors of Class and Labor in Iran: Did the Revolution Matter? (Syracuse University Press, 2006). Recently, Alborz, an Iran based site devoted to a critique of political economy, conducted an interview with Sohrab Behdad about the new Persian translation of this book. The interview was conducted by Kaveh Mozafari and Aidin Akhavan. Excerpts follow:

Class and Labor in Iran after the 1979 Revolution
Translated by Frieda Afary
Edited by Sohrab Behdad
. . .
Alborz: In your book, you refer to the economic crisis of the mid 1980s, the pressures of the war with Iraq and ultimately the death of the system’s charisma, as factors which led to the reversal of the process of involution and the beginning of deinvolution. [See pages 34-35 of Class and Labor in Iran where involution is described as a degeneration of market capitalism and deinvolution is described as a reconstruction of market capitalism—tr] Please say more about this transformation. What were the main forces which led to this change, and what forces opposed this change?

SB: Structural involution goes hand in hand with increasing poverty because it is highly inefficient. Despite the economic involution, during the first four years of the revolution, the income from the oil export(and the large reserve income from export which had remained from the years prior to the revolution) prevented Iran’s economy from collapsing. During these years, the rise in the price of oil and the rise in imports which resulted from it, prevented a massive decline in consumption and paid for the costly war with Iraq. However, this period did not last long. In 1985, the price of crude oil declined in the world market (from $30 per barrel in 1980 to $6 per barrel in 1985).
Iran’s oil income is its umbilical cord. From 1986 onward, the pressures of economic chaos and war increased. . . .The Islamic Republic had to change course. It accepted a cease-fire with Iraq. The project to “Islamicize the economy” was shut down. The call for creating a government of the oppressed was forgotten.

The period of economic liberalism was officially started when Hasehmi Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989. However, the matter was not so simple as taking sides with or against economic liberalism which led to economic deinvolution and the reconstruction of capitalism. Many of those who bore the burden of “economic moderation” [economic liberalism—tr] were the ones who had been forced to pay for the war and the structural involution. They were fed up. Workers lose their jobs during periods of economic crisis. They suffer a decline in their real income during periods of combating crises.

Alborz: The concept of “political functionaries, which you discuss in your book is very important in Iranian society. It demands more discussion. You refer to the traditional petty bourgeoisie, especially the bazaaris [merchants –tr] as the backbone of the government (political functionaries ) at the beginning of the revolution. How have the interests and social position of the political functionaries changed during the past 30 years? Do they still represent the interests of the petty bourgeoisies? What is their relationship to the Islamic Bonyads [foundations—tr] ? [ Hasn’t the increase in the power of the foundations led to a change in their class position? [On p. 37 of Class and Labor in Iran, the Islamic foundations are described in the following manner: “Ayatollah Khomeini chose to keep the confiscated properties as “public” entities and not as state enterprises. As such they were similar to religious endowments (waqf), not subject to state audit and control and only under the disposal of the Imam. Thus they became quasi or para-statal enterprises. They are often referred to as Bonyads”—tr] . . .

SB: Yes, the traditional petty bourgeoisie formed the backbone of the government. They (and their kin) took over the institutions of the state, the police, the management of governmental enterprises, revolutionary courts, and prisons. They became Revolutionary Guards, members of parliament, chief executive officers or ministers. One of the unique features of the Iranian Revolution was that the traditional petty bourgeoisie gained the levers of political power. This in turn clearly affected the political orientation and policies of the Islamic Republic during the first decade after the revolution.

However, the traditional petty bourgeoisie has not taken a vow to remain so. Many who had gained governmental power in this massive political-economic shift, did their best to take personal advantage of their status, even as they pretended to be pious and revolutionary. Without any fear of political danger, they became engaged in rent-seeking activities to grab a large chunk of the accumulated capital.

This group established a powerful network of large and powerful capitalists who were associated with governmental bureaucracy, the Bonyads, governmental enterprises, or belonged to a clique of influential clerics or clerics’ sons.

Clearly, they changed their class position. Furthermore, after the changes in 1989 and the election of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the presidency, the Islamic Republic was openly interested in the reconstruction of the capitalist economy of Iran. There was no longer the slogan of “down with dependent capitalism ” or any reference to “the rule of the oppressed .” The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which were previously called the representatives of the “Great Satan,” were now consulted. Foreign investment became a wise policy, and “bloodsucking capitalists” became “job creators.”
. . .

Alborz: From your theoretical perspectives, the deinvolutionary trend began in the 1990s. As you describe, during this period, the employment opportunities for women and especially skilled women increased. You predict that in the coming years, the increase in women’s economic participation and the rise in the number of women seeking employment will be one of the main challenges. At the same time, the government is pursuing plans that push women back to being homemakers, wives and ultimately accepting traditional roles. Under these circumstances, how do you analyze the contradiction between these two processes?

SB: Standing in the way of women’s free and equal participation in Iran’s economic, political and social life is like standing in the way of sunrise. Those with political insight should have learned this fact from the 30 year experience of the Islamic Republic. During these three decades, Iranian women did not sit back. Wherever they could, they tried to take steps forward despite the numerous limitations. Clearly, the Islamic Republic has had to step back in some areas.

The first decade after the revolution was the most difficult for employed women. Many women were forced to leave their jobs and take refuge at home. As a result, the rate of women’s employment declined.

From the beginning of the second decade, the needs of the capitalist labor market during the period of deinvolution, along with increasing pressure from women for regaining their lost rights, created a wider field for women’s participation. Up to 1996, the year which ended our study, the rate of women’s economic participation and employment continued to increase. Our prediction was that this trend would continue.

Our preliminary investigations, reflected in an upcoming article, reveal that during the decade from 1996 to 2006, the rate of women’s economic participation has increased. However, their unemployment rate has also increased. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts to force women back into the home, the average marriage age and the fertility rate have decreased. The impressive gains made by women in higher education and the acquisition of scientific and technical skills, have made it increasingly difficult to prevent women’s free participation in the economy.

However, it is one thing to discuss the degree of women’s participation in the labor market, and another to address the nature of that participation. We have examined women’s labor based on social classes. In other words, which women have been able to move forward under these difficult circumstances, and in what areas have they been able to move forward? Which women have been marginalized? . . .We have devoted a long chapter of our book to the marginalization of women’s work . . .

Alborz: Based on the latest data in your book which refer to the year 1996, the working class constitutes 31% of the employed labor force. You say that a large portion of the working class is employed in construction, and mostly consists of unskilled workers. Please say more about the status of the working class. Is the Iranian working class fragmented ? How will the status of the working class be affected by the continuation of the trend toward deinvolution? Under these circumstances, how will the formation of workers organizations be affected?

SB: Yes, in 1996, only 31% (4.5 million) of Iran’s employed labor force consisted of laborers (working class). Among those, 69% were employed in the private sector, and the rest were in the public sector. Clearly the percentage of the working class in the employed labor force decreased from 40% in 1976 to 25% in 1986. After 1986, the increase in the number of working class members within the employed labor force, was a result of the economic deinvolution.

As we predicted in our book, the trend toward the proletarianization of the labor force (the move from petty bourgeois to wage laborer status) was slow in the decade 1986-1996. It only increased to the extent that the employed labor force increased.
A large percentage of the working class are unskilled. Furthermore, a large percentage of them work in very small enterprises. In 1996, the wage laborer to capitalist ratio was not even one to six.

Although there are a notable number of large capitalist enterprises, many capitalist firms in Iran employ only one or two wage laborers (so that the the average ratio of wage laborers in the private sector to capitalists would become only 6 to 1). As a result, not only is the working class fragmented, the capitalist class is even more fragmented.

On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie which constituted 32% of the employed labor force in 1976 (99% of them were the traditional petty bourgeoisie), had increased to 40% of the employed labor force in 1986 (99% of them were the traditional petty bourgeoisie).

During the period of economic deinvolutin, the petty bourgeoisie partially lost its place and constituted 36% of the employed labor force. By 1996, five percent of them were the modern petty bourgeoisie. . .

Alborz: What is your evaluation of the current class structure of Iranian society? Is the class composition the same as that calculated for the year 1996? What has changed? How has the position of the working class changed, given your prediction that the entrance of the baby boom generation into the labor market will increase the size of the working class?

SB: Statistics from the three decades after the revolution show that during the first decade of the post-revolutionary economic crisis, important changes took place in Iran’s class composition. These changes are clearly visible in the 1986 census. This is part of the structural involution discussed earlier.

During the first decade after the revolution, we witnessed the growth of the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantization of agriculture, the deproletarianization of labor, and an increase in the number of political functionaries. Furthermore, the labor force became more traditional and more masculine (defeminization of labor). From the end of the 1980s, economic liberalization under Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami slowly (although timidly) pushed Iran’s economy toward the reconstruction of its capitalism.

The statistics show that the class composition of the labor force is moving toward its pre-revolutionary state. Although the working class has increased in number, it is still very fragmented. Many are unskilled and work in small firms. What I say about the working class in a way also applies to the capitalist class. They are also fragmented. They own small firms and work in traditional fields. Their situation is often not very different from the traditional petty bourgeoisie.

Although the large enterprises are few, the number of workers employed by them, especially in several large cities, is considerable. Many of these workers work for government enterprises such as the oil industry or public transportation, or are employed by enterprises owned by the Bonyads. We should also add that alongside the rise in the number of the unemployed who are mostly young and educated, the literacy rate among workers has increased. A considerable portion of the traditional petty bourgeoisie also consists of unemployed workers awaiting wage labor. They have become peddlers and have set up stands, but are in fact waiting to become wage laborers. . .

This interview was conducted in May 2009. It was published on December 24, 2009

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