Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2795. The Catalan Integral Cooperative … The Simpler Way revolution is well underway!

By Ted Trainer, January 15, 2018
The Catalan Integral Cooperative is a political project to merge labor and consumer initiatives.  
This is a remarkable and inspiring movement in Spain, now involving hundreds of people in what I regard as an example of The Simpler Way transition strategy … which is primarily about going underneath the conventional economy to build our own new collective economy to meet community needs, turning our backs on and deliberately undermining and eventually replacing both the capitalist system and control by the state.  

The context
It is now abundantly clear that a just and sustainable world cannot be achieved unless consumer-capitalist society is basically scrapped. It involves levels of resource use and environmental impact that are already grossly unsustainable, yet growth is the supreme goal. The basic form the alternative must take is not difficult to imagine.  (For the detail see TSW: Summary Case.) The essential concept must be mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in which we can live frugally but well putting local resources directly into producing to meet local needs … without allowing market forces or the profit motive or the global economy to determine what happens.  

Unfortunately even many green and left people do not grasp the magnitude of the De-growth that is required.  We will probably have to go down to around 10% of the present rich world per capita levels of resource use. This can only be done in the kind of settlements and systems we refer to as The Simpler Way. Most of the alarming global problems now threatening our survival, especially ecological damage, resource depletion, conflict over resources and markets, and deteriorating social cohesion, cannot be solved unless we achieve a global transition to a general settlement pattern of this kind. 

For some time the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements have been developing elements of the alternative we need to build, and there are impressive radically alternative development initiatives in the Third World, notably the Zapatistas and the Kurdish PKK.  But the Catalan Integral Cooperative provides us with an inspiring demonstration of what can be done and what we need to take up.  

The CIC response
Although only begun in 2010 the cooperative now involves many hundreds of people and many productive ventures, 400 of them involving growing or making things. Although there are far more things going on than those within the CIC its annual budget is now $480,000! (More on the scale later.)

It is not just about enabling people to collectively provide many things for themselves underneath and despite the market system --- it is explicitly, deliberately, about the long-term goal of replacing both capitalism and control by the state. These people have not waited for the government to save them, they are taking control over their own fate, setting up their own productive arrangements, food supply systems, warehouses and shops, basic income schemes, information and education functions, legal and tax advice, technical R, and D, and even an investment bank. Best of all is the collectivist worldview and spirit, the determination to prevent the market and profit from driving the economy and to establish cooperative arrangements that benefit all people, not just co-op members. The explicit intention is to develop systems which in time will “ … overcome the state and the capitalist system.” In other words, the orientation differs fundamentally from the typical “socialist” assumption that the state has to run things. 

We are in an era in which the conventional economy will increasingly fail to provide for people. What we urgently need are examples where “ordinary” people, not officials or governments, just start getting together to set up the arrangements that gear the productive capacity they have around them to meeting their collective needs. The remarkable CIC shows that people everywhere could do this, especially in the many regions Neoliberalism has condemned to poverty, stagnation and “austerity”.

Stated principles and practices
Note that this not just a wish list of future goals or ideals, it is mostly a list of the aims and values guiding practices that have already been implemented.

The CIC is not a central agency running everything; it is an umbrella organisation facilitating, supporting and advising re the activities of many and varied cooperatives.  Thus it is not like typical cooperatives wherein members focus on a single mutual interest, and work only for the benefit of members. 

It is important to recognise the significance of the concept ”integral”. The word “integral” refers to the concern with,  “ …  the radical transformation of all facets of social and economic life.” That is, they are out to eventually bring about comprehensive social revolution. Simpler Way thinking about settlement design emphasises integration, i.e., the way interconnections between functions that small-scale makes possible enables synergism and huge reductions in resource use. For instance, backyard and cooperative poultry production enable “wastes” to go straight to gardens, imperfect fruit to be used, chickens to clean up garden beds, and elimination of almost all energy-intensive inputs such as fertilizer, trucking, and super-marketing.

The CIC is establishing projects which benefit all people in the region whether or not they are members of the CIC or associated cooperatives. Unlike most cooperatives, the CIC develops structures and tools which are not reserved just for its members, but are accessible to everyone.” For instance, non-members can use the arrangements that have been set up for providing legal advice, they can use the technologies developed, and they can use the new local currency. There are about six hundred people who are not in cooperatives but are self-employed and are able to use the services the CIC has created. Similarly, the machines and agricultural tools developed for small-scale producers are “…freely reproducible”, i.e., their design information is available to all free, giving anyone the ability to build them on their own and customize them according to their needs. 

Thus the concern is to prevent goods being treated as commodities produced to make a profit, but to see them as things that are produced to meet needs; “…  basic needs like food and healthcare are not commodities but social goods everyone has access to.”

To be part of the CIC cooperative projects need to practise consensus decision making and to follow certain basic principles including transparency and sustainability. Once the assembly embraces a new project it enjoys legal and other provisions and its income is managed via the CIC accounting office, where a portion goes toward funding the shared infrastructure.
The huge significance of all this could be easily overlooked. In a world where capital, profit and market forces dump large numbers into “exclusion” and poverty, and governments will not deal properly with the resulting problems, these people have decided to do the job themselves.  They are literally building an alternative society, not just organising the provision of basic goods and services, but moving into providing free public services like health and transport. Note again the noble and radically subversive worldview and values here; people are working to meet the needs of their community, driven not by self-interest or profit but by the desire to build good social systems.  This ridicules the dominant capitalist ideology that is the conventional economic theory!

The Scale
Many people in different groups participate in varying degrees. There are about six hundred self-employed members, mostly independent professionals and small producers, who use the legal and economic services made available by the cooperative, such as insurance at less than the normal rate in Spain. There are more than 2,500 who use the LETS system. Many are involved in the Catalan Supply Center (CAC), which is the CIC committee coordinating the transportation and delivery of food and other items from the producers to the “pantries”, i.e., distribution points. In addition there are several co-ops associated with the CIC. 

The headquarters of the CIC is in their 1,400 square metre building, which includes space for a library and for rent.  The “eco-network” has 2,634 members. The scale and numbers are also indicated by the food distribution system described below.

As noted above the project involves creating an economic system which contradicts and rejects the mainstream economy. It is an economy that is not driven by profit, self-interest or what will maximise the wealth of those with capital to invest. There is social control over their economy, that is, there are collective decisions and planning in order to set up systems to meet community needs. People work to build and run good systems, not to get rich.
Non-monetary forms of exchange are encouraged, including free goods and services, barter, direct connections between producers and consumers, and mutual giving.  The CIC regulates the estimation of fair prices and informs producers of consumers’ needs. 

There is a LETS-type currency, the ECO, which cannot be converted into euros and cannot be invested or yield interest. About 2,600 people have accounts. Anyone can see the balance in another’s account. “The currency is not just a medium of exchange; it's a measure of the CIC's independence from capitalism." There is a “Social Currency Monitoring Commission whose job it is to contact members not making many transactions and to help them figure out how they can meet more of their needs using the currency.” 

The CIC’s financial operations do not involve any interest payments.  No interest is paid on loans made by the cooperative. In this radically subversive economy finance is about enabling the creation of socially-necessary production, not providing lucrative profits to the rich few who have the capital to lend. (The US finance industry was recently made about 40% of all corporate income.) The committee entitled ‘Cooperative of Social and Network Self-financing’ deals with savings, donations and project funding in order to “ …  finance self-managed individual or collective projects aiming at the common good”. It has 155 members. Contributions to this agency earn no interest, so “… it is truly remarkable that the total amount of deposits made in the last four years exceeds €250.000.”

It is especially noteworthy that emphasis is put on the sustainability of activities, Permaculture, localism, and De-growth. National and global systems are avoided as much as possible and local arrangements are set up.  As advocates of the Simpler Way emphasise, unless rich world per capita levels of resource use can be cut enormously sustainability cannot be achieved, and this requires local economies and happy acceptance of frugal lifestyles. Frugality is an explicit goal of the CIC.

The creation of commons is of central importance. There is “Collective ownership of resources to generate common goods.” That is, they seek to develop common properties for the benefit of whole communities. Some lands have been purchased by cooperatives, and some donated by individuals. Included in the category of commons are non-material “assets” such as the LETS system, the software for accounting purposes, and other services made available. Each of these is managed by a committee. “We promote forms of communal property and of cooperative property as formulas that … enhance … self-management and self-organization …” Again the intent is to develop systems run entirely by citizens and that do not involve either capitalism or the state.

One participant says, "I cultivate a garden and I hardly buy any food in euros: I acquire everything I need in the eco-network and through the CIC with the ecos, I earn by selling my vegetables." Fairs and market days are organised. "Going to the markets and the fairs is like recreation, it’s meeting up with friends and family in a spiritual sense."  

Note again the remarkable anti-capitalist element that loans are extended to assist the establishment of new ventures enabling people to begin producing … but no interest is charged. (Kennedy, 1995, estimated that in the normal economy interest charges make up 40% of all prices paid.) Another radical element is the refusal to regard things like food as commodities, that is to be produced and sold to make a profit. In seeing the point of economics as producing to meet needs they are contradicting a central taken-for-granted premise of the conventional mentality.

The CIC has two main expenses: the ‘basic income’ paid to the members of its committees and the funding it provides for projects. It pays half of these expenses with fees levied on the 600 member individuals, firms and co-ops (e.g., E25/month from the self-employed businesses). Most of the remaining 50% of income comes from tax refunds the CIC’s legal people are able to engineer.  In addition, donations are received.

“Shops”: The distribution outlets

Many goods are distributed through the “Catalan Supply Centre”, one of the most active CIC committees. It is a network for the transportation and delivery of the products of many small producers across the entire Catalonia region. These are brought to “… the self-managed pantries that the CIC has set up all over Catalonia – twenty of them ... Each one of them is run autonomously by a local consumer group that wishes to have access to local products as well as products made (by producers associated with the CIC) in other parts of Catalonia. “This system cuts out middlemen, reducing costs. The CIC currently lists more than a thousand products.  “The Supply Centre provides the markets throughout the region with about 4,500 pounds of goods each month, most of which come from the cooperative's farmers and producers.”
“Of all the initiatives, by far the most successful is the one focused on food.”
Again note the scale of operations.

The technology R and D committee
There is a technology committee responsible for the development of tools and machines adapted to the needs of member producers. They often find that devices on sale are not appropriate for the needs of small-scale or commons-oriented projects. They develop machines mostly for agriculture and small firms.  These devices, “…exemplify the principles of open design, appropriate technology, and the integral revolution – geared to the needs of small cooperative projects.” This committee also organizes training workshops to share knowledge. The agency occupies a 4,000 square metre site, and no longer needs financial assistance from the CIC.

Example projects
Dafermos sketches several of the settlements and projects whereby people are coming together to set up arrangements to enable communities to apply their productive capacities to providing a wide range of things for each other.

For instance, the Calafou village of twenty-two people has a housing cooperative managing twenty-seven small houses. Tenants pay €175 per month for each house. The aim is to become “… a collectivist model for living and organizing the productive activities of a small self-managed community.” It has “ … a multitude of productive activities and community infrastructures, including a carpentry, a mechanical workshop, a botanical garden, a community kitchen, a biolab, a hacklab, a soap production lab, a professional music studio, a guest-house for visitors, a social centre …, as well as a plethora of other productive projects.” There is a general assembly each Sunday, operating on the consensus principle.
Members of the AureaSocial cooperative can choose to live in an affiliated block of apartments in Barcelona or at a farming commune with teepees, yurts and horses, where residents organize themselves into "families”.

Macus is a group occupying a 600 square metre space hosting a close-knit group of modern as well as traditional craft producers of wooden furniture, clothes and herbal medicine, photography, sculpture and digital music, as well as fixing bicycles and repairing home electronics.

Their form of government is a direct deliberative, participatory democracy involving decentralization, self-management, voluntary committees, “town assemblies” … and no bureaucracy and no top-down ruling or domination.  Note that “direct” means more than “participatory”; all individual members meet to make (or ratify) the decisions. “Each cooperative project, working commission, eco-network or local group makes its own decisions.” Committees and fortnightly general assemblies work out mutually agreed solutions, decisions are not handed down by executives, CEOs or political parties.
In all meetings the goal is consensus decision making; there is no voting. “ In case of a predicament, the proposal is reformulated until the consensus is reached, thus eliminating the minorities and the majorities. All previous agreements are revocable.”  “…the quality of the agreements is a great success, and there hasn’t been any major decision-making conflict in all these years.”

All issues are handled at the lowest level possible, as distinct from being taken by higher or central agencies. This is the basic Anarchist principle of “subsidiarity.”
There are about a dozen main committees, including Reception to handle inquiries from groups wishing to join, an Economic Management Committee, a Legal Committee, an IT Committee, and one managing Common Spaces. The Productive Projects Committee facilitates ‘self-employment’ and the exchange of knowledge and skills and helps job seekers to match their skills to jobs, using an online directory of self-managed and cooperative projects in Catalonia. That is, they have set up their own employment agency, independent of the state, and its focus is on helping people to find opportunities to get into socially useful productive activity. 

 “CIC committee members receive a kind of salary from the cooperative, known as ‘basic income’, which has the purpose of freeing them from having to work somewhere else, thus allowing them to commit themselves full-time to their work at the CIC.”

Creating public services
No aspect is more remarkable than the concern to set up public services. The intention is “… to displace the centrally-managed state apparatus of public services with a truly cooperative model for organizing the provision of social goods such as health, food, education, energy, housing and transport.” The legal services, the technical contribution and the currency are also in this category. Again these are projects that are not designed by or for the members of specific cooperatives; they are services for the benefit of people in general. 

One of these service operations, organized by the “Productive Projects Committee” is the employment facilitation agency mentioned above. It helps people to become “self-employed, and to share knowledge and skills enabling people to increase their earning capacity.”  It makes it possible for “ … job seekers to match their skills to jobs posted by productive projects associated with the CIC …” There is “….  an online directory of self-managed and cooperative projects in Catalonia…” in which people can function using the ECO currency.  Thus this committee assists people who are unemployed, without many skills and likely to be poor, to find some socially useful activity they can take up in order to earn an income. “…anyone has some abilities that they can offer to people and with that acquire what they need." 

The activities of the above-mentioned supply centre constitute another public service. It enables small producers to sell their produce and many to buy what they need, without having to earn normal money. 

This public service providing realm is only developing slowly, which Dafermos thinks is because Spain’s service sector is relatively satisfactory.

Problems, questions, doubts?
It is important to look for problems and faults in alternative initiatives because we urgently need to clarify what the best options are.  Although I have little information apart from the Dafermos report, I am not aware of any serious problems or criticisms that might detract from its potential. However, following are some of the concerns I have come across.
Does the underlying “theory of transition” lack depth? Does the rationale derive from a comprehensive global analysis of the many alarming and terminal problems consumer-capitalism is generating, (including environmental destruction, Third World poverty, resource wars…) and is the CIC seen as the solution to them all (… I firmly believe it is the beginning of the solution.) The Simpler Way analysis of our situation includes detailed argument on the global scene; does the CIC vision extend far enough beyond setting up coops?

This involves the question of long-term strategy for getting rid of capitalism.  This question is studiously ignored by the Transition Towns movement …at least my attempts to get them to deal with it have failed. Their strategy is just do something, anything alternative in your town and eventually it will all add up to the existence of a beautiful, sustainable and just world. The red left rightly scathes at this; they want to know how precisely are your community gardens and clothing swaps going to lead to us taking state power and eliminating the capitalist class? Simpler Way analysis has an answer to this question; whether it’s satisfactory is another issue. It could be that CIC people also have an answer but if so it’s important that they should make it clear to us.

This leads to the need for a manual. One would hope that we can all soon benefit from a document designed to assist us to set up similar projects, especially suggesting mistakes to avoid.

Some people believe the CIC was established using funds acquired via questionable financial activities. I am not able to pronounce on this but I think it is irrelevant.  What I want to focus on is the fact that the CIC now seems to be an extremely effective movement and model, one that I think could be followed with little or no funds, and that I can see no reason why it cannot thrive in the wreckage neoliberalism has wrought.

There is, however, an associated issue that I think requires careful thought, i.e., the role and nature of alternative currencies.  The CIC uses a basic LETS system and this seems to me to be the ideal. However much effort is going into establishing another system, “FairCoin”, intended to enable new alternative economies.  I am uneasy about this; it seems complex, costly to set up, a “substitution” currency (requiring normal money to purchase), and not easily capable of enabling the amount of economic activity that would occur in a whole economy. It seems to be geared to longer distance trade and in the coming world of intense scarcity and localism we won't need much of that.  It seems similar to Bitcoin in being a commodity open to speculative investment and price rises.  But a sacred principle on the left is that money, labour and land should not be commodities. Above all it seems to me to be unnecessary; a kind of LETS will do. 

I am also uneasy about any focus on currency; I would rather see most attention being given to getting people to understand the goals and to join the co-ops. 

It is not clear to me the extent to which the success of the CIC has been due to an initial access to capital.  (It is said to be self-funding now.) What we want are strategies that require little or no money to set up, and I believe these are available. 

Spreading the revolution
Considerable effort is being put into “spreading the model.” “The members give talks about eco-networks, the cooperative, and social currency in various parts of the country. As a result there are seeds of integrated cooperatives in Basque Country, Madrid and other regions of Spain and France.” In 2017 the Athens Integral Cooperative began. 

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the CIC achievement. The scale of its activities and the good that is being done are now huge.  But what is most remarkable is its subversive focus and power, and potential. To repeat, the CIC is “…an activism for the construction of alternatives to capitalism.”  In my view it is one of the leading initiatives in a movement that constitutes by far the greatest threat that capitalism has ever confronted.  Along with the Zapatistas, the Kurdish PKK, the Senegalese Eco-villages, and many others it is demonstrating that there is a marvelous alternative way, that it can be built by ordinary people, quickly, and without overt conflict or violence (at least not yet.). It is shredding the taken for granted TINA legitimacy and inevitability of allowing capital, market forces and profit to determine what happens to us. Above all, it is showing that ordinary people can and must come together to collectively take control of their own economic and political situation, without having to depend on capital or the state.

Consider the implications for Third World development. The conventional view takes it for granted that “Development” can only mean an investment of capital to crank up more business activity, more production for sale into the global economy in order to earn money to enable purchasing from it and to create jobs. It is taken for granted that profit and the market must drive the process, meaning that it enriches the already rich and the rest must wait for the trickle down…while their national resources are shipped out to rich world supermarkets. Thus about four billion are very poor and will remain so for a long time … yet the CIC is showing how quickly and easily they could implement a totally different model of development, a different path to different goals, without approval or assistance from existing state governments. Obviously, even a little state assistance would make a huge difference to what could be done. In Senegal thousands of villages are moving in the Eco-village direction, assisted by the government. (St Onge, 2015.)

It is not surprising that the CIC has originated in the Catalan region.  That’s where the Spanish Anarchists In the 1930’s performed miracles, establishing an entire economy on worker-cooperative lines.  In the Barcelona region containing up to a million people, voluntary committees of citizens ran factories, transport systems, hospitals, health clinics etc., strenuously rejecting any role for paid bureaucrats or politicians.  The CIC seems to be a textbook example of Anarchism … at least the variety I’m in favour of.  Consider again the themes noted above; citizens coming together to turn their backs on the market system, the capitalist class and central government, and on any form of top-down rule, and resolving to govern themselves, setting up arrangements for collective benefit, using thoroughly direct and participatory processes that do not involve bureaucrats or politicians of superior authorities, striving for consensus decisions, subsidiarity and spontaneity, thereby “prefiguring” ways they want to become the norm in the new society. This is precisely what The Simper Way vision has been about for decades, and it is the only way the required revolution can come about.

Consider the built-in but easily overlooked wisdom. The inclusiveness and empowerment of all and the prioritising of arrangements that attend to the needs of all generate community morale, public spirit, enthusiasm and willingness to contribute. Thus synergism is increased; for instance giving is appreciated and generates further generosity. Motivation is positive: doing good things like joining a working bee or giving away surpluses is enjoyable, not a burdensome duty. Contrast this with present competitive, individualistic, winner-take-all society which often forces us into situations that do not bring out the best in us. 

The power to release resources and spiritual energy is also easily overlooked. My study of an outer Sydney dormitory suburb (TSW: Remaking Settlements) found that by reorganising space and use of time the suburb might be able to produce a high proportion of its own food and other needs, while dramatically reducing resource and environmental impacts. Consider the fact that if people in the suburb gave only two hours a week to community working bees, rather to watching trivia on a screen, the equivalent input of 150 full-time council workers would be going into community gardens etc. And they would be much more happy, conscientious and productive workers than council employees, and community familiarity and solidarity would be generated.

And then there are the consequences for the personal development of citizens. Bookchin pointed out the profound educational benefits the Ancient Greeks saw when every individual had the responsibility of participating directly in the process of government. This means that there is no government up there to do it for us and we had better take responsibility for thinking carefully, discussing ideas, considering the good of all, being well informed, …or w might make the wrong decisions and have to live with the consequences. If we take a long historical perspective it is evident that accepting being governed, ruled over, represents an immature stage of political development; we will not have grown up until we all take part in governing ourselves, in direct and participatory ways.

Also easily overlooked is the significance of empowerment.  Ivan Illich stressed the passivity and lack of responsibility characteristic of consumer society. Your role is to obey the rules set by others. If something goes wrong it’s up to some official or professional to fix it. As I see it the crucial turning point in the Transition Towns process is the shift from being a passive acceptor of the system designed and run by unseen others, to see it as your system and if it's not working well it’s a problem you worry about and want to do something about. Good citizens have the sense of owning their communities, of knowing that they share control over what’s going on and willingly sharing responsibility for making things work well. In other words, they feel empowered. “This is this my town. I’m proud of it. If there’s a problem that’s my/our problem, let’s get at it.”  This seems to be a strongly held orientation among CIC participants.

All this clarifies the distinction between Eco-socialist and Eco-Anarchist perspectives.  Both recognise the need to transcend capitalism but the former assumes the transition must come through the taking of state power and then “leadership” by the state. But fundamental to Simpler Way analysis is the fact that when the realities of limits and scarcity are grasped it is clear that the alternative society must be extremely localised, not centralised, that it cannot be established or run by the state, and that it can only work satisfactorily if it is run by communities via participatory means. Although there will always be a role for some central agencies it will be a relatively minor one as most of the decisions and administration will (have to) be handed down at the small community level. Note again that the CIC emphatically rejects the state as a means for achieving or running the new society.

The Simpler Way vision of a workable and attractive alternative society (See TSW: The Alternative) is sometimes criticised as unachievable because it is unrealistically utopian. The existence of the CIC demolishes that criticism. Its significance cannot be exaggerated; it and related movements are showing that the path that has to be taken if we are to get to a sustainable and just world can easily be taken.

CIC website.     https://cooperativa.cat/en/
Dafermos, G., (2017), The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative”, Commons Transition, 19th Oct. https://cooperativa.cat/en/george-dafermos-publishes-his-report-about-catalan-integral-cooperative/
Kennedy, M., (1995), Interest and Inflation Free Money: Creating an Exchange Medium That Works for Everybody and Protects the Earth, Seva International.  
St Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal Transforming 14,000 Villages Into Ecovillages!” Collective Evolution, http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/06/17/senegal-transforming-14000-villages-into-ecovillages/
TSW: Remaking Settlements. thesimplerway.info/RemakingSettlements.htm
TSW: Summary Case.   thesimplerway.info/main.htm
TSW: The Alternative.   thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

Monday, January 15, 2018

2794. How the Other Half Lives in Iran

By Shahram Khosravi, The New York Times, January 14, 2018
A Kurdish koolbar (porter) who carry goods between Kurdistan of Iran and Kurdistan of Iraq on their back.  Kurds are an oppressed nationality in both countries and have been fighting for self-determination for decades. 
The village of Zaras lies in a valley circled by the Zagros Mountains in southwestern Bakhtiari Province of Iran. An hour’s ride from Izeh, the nearest town, Zaras is home to about 60 families, who make a living from farming, pastoral nomadism and working as migrant laborers in Iranian cities.

On a September afternoon in 2014, I sat by the mud wall of a hazelnut garden with Darab, a 50-year-old farmer in Zaras. Darab, a man with a charming face and rough, calloused hands, cultivated potatoes, beans and onions on a plot of land slightly larger than an acre. Yet the harvest wasn’t enough to feed his family — his wife, his six children and his elderly parents. Iran imported grains and potatoes on an enormous scale, and the prices fell each year.
Darab supplemented his meager earnings by digging wells and working for a few months at construction sites in nearby cities. He would make less than the equivalent of about 20 American dollars for 10 hours at a construction site — work that did not offer the safety net of insurance against accidents or ill health.

The village of Zaras has, like the rest of Iran, suffered from drought in the past decade. The land and the harvest have depleted. Darab spoke wistfully about a time when there was enough water for the gardens and the fields in the village. “It gets worse every year,” he said. “Nowadays they pour some water around the trees. It does not reach the roots.” Many hazelnut trees around us were already dead.

On Dec. 31, Izeh, the town near Darab’s village, witnessed one of the more violent protests triggered by economic hardships across Iran. Young men in Izeh took over the city for several hours. Several young men were killed; many were injured. They had
But the first targets of the protesters’ rage were the buildings housing the banks. The drought has forced an increasingly large number of people in the region to seek loans. Unable to pay off their loans, their debt grows, and the bank confiscates what they have left — land, a house or a tractor.

“People’s lives are worthless!” I repeatedly heard Iranians in the villages and the cities make this despairing declaration. Sociologists use the term “precarity” to describe this abandonment, these depriving people of a livable life. “The world has boycotted us,” Darab said. Before the sanctions were imposed on Iran, Darab and other workers would travel to Iran’s Persian Gulf area to work for oil and gas companies. Foreign companies moved out after the sanctions and the jobs dried up.

Almost all young men in Darab’s village moved to cities to join the growing urban precariat, who are exploited as cheap and docile workers in the informal labor market. The absence of opportunity has intensified the migration from the villages to the urban areas, which have been growing five times faster. According to the Iranian Parliament data, the number of Iranians living in slums has increased 17 times since the revolution in 1979 to almost 10 million.

Every year more Iranians are classified as poor. Official sources reported in 2015 that 40 percent of Iranians lived below the poverty line. The unemployment rate among young people — between 20 and 24 years old — rose to 30 percent in 2016. This explains why more than 90 percent of the people arrested during the recent protests were under age 25.
About 11 million Iranians, around 50 percent of the workforce, work in irregular employment, according to Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Almost all young workers I met during my extended fieldwork in the past 15 years have been in irregular employment, rarely paid on time, with little protection from exploitative employers. Between 10 million and 13 million Iranians are entirely excluded from health, work or unemployment insurance.

The Iranian poor do see the vast riches of the Iranian elite. Since the early 2010s Iran has witnessed the growth of a consumerist culture and rising inequality. An increasing number of imported luxury cars have appeared on the roads; buildings whose price per square meter equals three years of a worker’s wage have come up across the cities. Ice cream covered in edible gold — worth a worker’s monthly salary — is on the menus of luxury restaurants.

After the day’s work, I would walk with workers from Darab’s village from the construction sites in wealthy neighborhoods in North Tehran to their modest rented rooms in the poorer South Tehran. As we walked past Porsches and Maseratis parked outside luxury boutiques and restaurants, they would address God satirically and say, “If these people are your creatures, what am I then?”

Alongside financial insecurity and drought, Iranians are reeling from intense pollution in the cities. A decade of sanctions has significantly increased the prices of groceriesmedicines and fuel. The sanctions also excluded Iranians from the formal international banking system and forced them toward informal cash-based transactions, making them vulnerable to fraud and black market prices. The value of the Iranian toman has fallen by more than half against the dollar since 2012, which affected all other costs inside the country.

President Trump’s anti-Iranian tirades leave no hope for lifting or easing sanctions on Iran. The fear of military attack by Israel or the United States has added to the popular anxieties.
Yet hope for democracy and social justice in modern Iran has been replicated time and again through political struggles, from the constitutional revolution in 1911, the oil nationalization movement in 1950, the revolution in 1979, the green movement in 2009 and the most recent protests led by the poor.

As the images of the protests in Iran appeared on screens worldwide, I thought of my conversation with Darab in his village. We had stared at the distant mountains rising toward a clear, blue sky in silence. “See all these lands that we cannot get one single toman from. We do not have water. Write it,” he had commanded. “And write that those in Tehran have been taking all money for themselves and have forgotten that we also are people.”

Shahram Khosravi, a professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University, is the author of “Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran” and “Young and Defiant in Tehran.”

Saturday, January 13, 2018

2793. The Islamic Republic's Endgame: On the Recent Protests in Iran

By Kamran Nayeri, January 12, 2018
Protesters in Mashhad on December 28, 2017.
Street protests that began in the northeastern city of Mashhad (pop. 2.8 million) in Iran (pop. 80 million) on December 28 and spread to some 80 cities, towns, and some villages, have been suppressed or otherwise ended by January 3 when the Revolution Guards (incorrectly translated as the Revolutionary Guards) were sent to the remaining trouble spots in Isfahan, Hamadan, and Lorestan to quell any protest.  At least 21 protestors were killed and according to a member of parliament, more than 3,500 have been jailed. On January 3, the government also organized demonstrations of tens of thousands of supporters of the Islamic Republic to politically isolate the protesters.  Meanwhile, Internet access for selected regions was disrupted and access of the social messing site Telegraph with 40 million subscribers in Iran was cut off. Still, the protests have captured the imagination of many Iranians and the international community.  

In what follows, I will outline some basic facts about these protests in section 1. These are collected from news articles and commentaries about the protests. However, much of these fails to place the protests in their historical context which includes the rise and demise of the 1979 revolution and the role of Shi'ite clergy in it.  Sections 2 will deal with the historical context, including the role of the Shi'ite clergy.  Section 3, will outline the counter-revolutionary role of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic that destroyed the 1979 revolution against Shah's autocracy by imposing a theocratic capitalist regime in its place, now opposed even in the urban poor and some rural population.  In section 4, I will argue that the recent protest marks the beginning of the end of the theocratic capitalist regime and suggest a way forward for the radicalizing youth and working people in Iran drawing on the historical experience of Iranian people as well as the current social and ecological crisis in Iran and the world.  

1. Some facts about the recent protests

Governmental factional struggle sparked the protests
According to the New York Times reporter in Iran, Thomas Erdbrink, in November President Hassan Rouhani had leaked the draft government budget that including its traditionally secret portion which showed how much money is being allocated to the religious institutions. For the first time, the public learned that “billions of dollars were going to hard-line organizations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite. At the same time, the budget proposed to end cash subsidies for millions of citizens, increase fuel prices and privatize public schools.” As the public learned about it resentment began to build up. A young man told Erdbrink: “There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment.”

In a maneuver to turn the public anger away from the “hardliners” towards the President and the “reformist” wing of the Islamic Republic, a demonstration was organized in the city of Mashhad that blamed the economic problems on the Rouhani government (I will explain what these factions represent later). But the genuinely angry protestors chanted not only “death of Rouhani” but also “death to the dictator” (that is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei).  According to Erdbrink, the prominent hardliner Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhoda, was summoned by Iran’s National Security Council to explain his role in the demonstration.  In a subsequent article, Erdbrink cites Iran’s Prosecutor General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who on a television appearance included the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among the international and domestic forces behind the unrest.  In his second term as president, Ahmadinejad, a hardliner, came into conflict with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and in the last presidential election, he was disqualified as a candidate.  Ahmadinejad is a religious disciple of the extremist cleric Mohammad Taghi Meshbah-Yazdi, who openly opposes the democratic rule, whose Islamic foundation was to receive eight times more funds in the proposed government budget than a decade ago.

Thus, the Mashhad protest that was probably organized by the hardliners to target the reformists got out of control, denouncing the Supreme Leader, hence the Islamic Republic.  The news of this protest provoked sympathy protests across the country where similar resentments of the Islamic Republic are widespread.  

Mostly poor young working people in small towns protested
Reports confirm that the bulk of the protestors were young low-income working people in smaller cities, towns and some villages.  At the time of the 1979 revolution, two-thirds of the population of 35 million was rural. Today, two-thirds of the 80 million population lives in urban settings defined as municipalities with 5,000 or more.   The traditional rural population has historically been the bedrock of Shi’ite clergy.  Thus, urbanization has loosened the religious influence on the current generation that has either migrated into nearby town or have been part of the urbanization of the old villages.  Of course, some urban working class youth, as well as university students and unemployed college graduates, also participated in the protests.  Young people make up half the Iran’s population and those arrested have an average age of under 25.  Most analysts believe that unemployment among youth runs at about 40% while inflation is about 15%. Reza Fiyouzat cites a report by the head of Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, Parviz Fattah, that said (link in Farsi) that between 10 to 12 million Iranians live in absolute poverty. He also draws attention to a World Bank 2016 report that praises Iran’s implementation of its structural adjustment program.  Of course, neoliberal policies and structural adjustment programs have been central to government economic policies since the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997).  Promoted by the IMF and the World Bank, these programs have been widely criticized for their adverse impact of the working people, including by increasing poverty (for brief accessible review see, Anup Shah, 2013, for more detailed studies, see Joseph E. Stiglitz).  

The politics of the protests
The revolt against the Islamic Republic is not surprising in a theocracy where political protest is routinely discouraged and suppressed.  There is no legal political party operating in Iran; even the Islamic Republic party organized by Khomeini’s lieutenants was dissolved in the late 1980s. Thus, economic, social, cultural, and political grievances cannot be aired by the population in a systematic and organized fashion much less democratically discussed.  When people protest they risk arrest, prison, torture, and even execution. The Islamic Republic’s 38 year history includes coup attempts by various highly placed individuals, sharp conflicts resulting in imprisonment or house arrest of its statesmen (a former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and a former speaker of the parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who were presidential candidates in the disputed 2009 elections have been under house arrest since).  Thus, protests in Iran tend to be explosive.  In addition, the recent protests were mostly spontaneous, small (a few hundred to a few thousand), and scattered as they did not gain active support from the middle-class Iranians in larger cities.  They included political demands such as freedom for political prisoners and demands for economic equality.  One slogan that was repeated in a number of protests was “work, bread, freedom,” (kaar, naan, aazaadi). Mina Khanlarzadeh cites a statement by a coalition of some of the small but independent labor groups that is worth noting:

“Today, we see the eruption of the accumulation of working class people’s rage due to, on the one hand, looting and defalcation of milliards by highest officials, people, and financial institutions that are related to the government and, on the other hand, poverty and misery of millions of people, unemployment of millions of workers and youths, the beatings of street vendors and the killings of Kurdish koolbars [porters who carry commodities on their backs commuting between Iran and Iraq border], the imposition of wages several times below poverty level on workers, and the  imprisonment and torture in response to any demands of social justice and freedom.”

Intervention by the imperialist and rightists forces
Ayatollah Khamenei has placed the blame for the protests on foreign powers without naming anyone. Montazeri in his TV appearance names the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, longtime enemies of the Iranian revolution of 1979 who have worked for decades to replace the Islamic Republic with a regime friendly to them. The Trump administration has used the protests to push its goal of derailing the nuclear agreement which Israel and Saudi regime also oppose without any success (for a discussion of the nuclear agreement, see, Nayeri, 2015). Their Iranian cronies, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah who lives in the Washington area, and the Mujahedin who are based in France and funded by the Saudis, joined the fray.  Although these reactionary forces are a shadow of their former selves, the defeat of the Iranian revolution by the Islamic Republic, and its oppressive theocratic capitalist policies continue to make some Iranian vulnerable to the imperialist and rightist campaigns.  Thus, in the Green Movement of 2009 as well as the recent protests there were slogans that counterposed the aid given to Palestinians and other Arabs to the economic needs of the Iranian people.  Thus, I find Fiyouzat’s argument unconvincing that the slogan “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon; I give my life for Iran!” chanted in a few protests is actually a criticism of the Islamic Republic policy that like the Arab regimes uses Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian peoples’ crisis for its own end.  He has no way to verify this claim and anti-Arab prejudice in Iran is as prevalent as the well-documented anti-Afghani prejudice.  These are both the leftover from the Fars (Persian) chauvinism of the Shah’s time. Similarly, I think Fiyouzat is mistaken to dismiss the calls for the return of “Reza Shah.” 

Fiyouzat, like all other commentators I have read, does not place the recent protests in the context of the 1979 revolution and its defeat. But before I take that up it is necessary to briefly recall what Shi’ite Islam represents in the Iranian society and history.

2. Placing the protests in the historical context

Shi’ite Islam in the class and state formations
To understand the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic regime, it is necessary to understand the role of Shi’ite Islam in class and state formations in Iran.  The ascendence of Shi’ism to the official religion of Iran originated in the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) that also inaugurated the modern Iranian nation-state.  Thus, Shi’ism became the state-sponsored religion and remained so until the rise of the Islamic Republic in which the relationship was reversed, it is now the state that is sponsored by the Shi’ite hierarchy. I will get back to this soon.  

For over 2,000 years, Iran was an agrarian economy based on the village (deh). Under the Safavids, there were three primary forms of private landholdings (amlāk) that include at least one but typically many villages. These were (1) private estates of large landlords; (2) the private estates of the reigning Shah considered separately from the estates owned by the crown and called amlāk-e ḵāṣṣa or amlāk-e ḵāleṣa; and (3) private estates set aside in special trusts by owners for the permanent benefit of heirs and descendants in accordance with Shi'ite legal principles and known as waqf-e ḵāṣṣ.  Thus, the Shi'ite clergy has been tied to land ownership and the royal court for centuries.  However, in the late nineteenth century, European ideas of Enlightenment and modernity penetrated Iran which laid the intellectual basis for the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11). In the twentieth century, this landownership system became an impediment to the development of capitalism in Iran and increasingly questionable politically.  To facilitate the former and to undermine his enemies on the right and the left, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi carried out a program of land reform. 
"By 1962 a land reform law was enacted. This law, which was implemented in stages over a decade, effectively abolished amlāk by making it unlawful for a single landowner to possess agricultural property in excess of one village. Landlords were required to sell all surplus villages to the government, which in turn arranged for their resale to the peasants who held cultivating rights. A by-product of this program was the virtual disappearance of all the traditional dues and servitudes the peasants had rendered to landlords. As a consequence of the land reform program, amlāk, which had been a characteristic feature of Iranian land tenure patterns for more than two thousand years, virtually ceased to exist." (Hooglund, 1989). 
The Shi’ite clergy has been closely tied with the bazaar merchants who in turn were linked with their supplier both artisans and agricultural producers in Iran and abroad.
“The bāzār was and is a social institution, comprising religious, commercial, political, and social elements. The bāzār is the center par excellence of personal transactions, commerce, and communication in urban life; thus one needs to under­stand the bāzār’s function within its context, the city. In Iran, the city forms a political, commercial, cultural, and religious center for its hinterland. The bāzār has played a very important role in this relationship, reflecting the character of the Muslim city.” (Floor, 1989)
The bazaar also had had a political function:
The Friday mosque—the main religious and political center of the city—and the bāzār are always found together. In the mosque the population prayed in congregation, came to hear proclamations of its rulers, and gave vent to feelings about the ruler’s policies.” (ibid.)
The merchant class has had a tense relationship with the royal court and some prominent merchant have supported mass protests in the 20th century, yet they have consistently served as a conservative force.  Thus, while the bazaar merchants participated in the Constitution Revolution, they did so in sit-in at the British embassy. It was not unusual for big merchants to have dual Russian citizenship as it helped with their overseas trading practices and offered them a measure of protection against the royal court. 

Thus, the Shah’s modernization programs, which included the extension of the right to vote to women and land reform, directly threatened the interests of the Shi’ite hierarchy and its landowning and merchant allies resulting in the June 1963 revolt organized by Khomeini and other clerics. The revolt was crushed and Khomeini imprisoned. His life was spared and he was exiled to Iraq only after key Shi’ite clerics conferred him the title of Ayatollah raising the risk of any harm to him by the government.  Ayatollah Khomeini who had already positioned himself as an anti-American and anti-Israeli politician who wants to “protect” society from “decadence” went on be become the leader of a section of Shi’ite clergy that opposed the Shah and played a key role in the mass movement that overthrew him in the 1979 revolution. 

The social function of the Shi’ite clergy
It is also important to understand how the organizational form of the Shi'ite clergy and its social function. The current organizational form of Shi’ite clergy and its social function is through Marja or the system of emulation of a religious authority.  This was founded in the 1830s when Mohammed Hassan Najafi became the first transnational Shi’ite religious authority (marja) in Najaf, Iraq. Najafi created a universal patronage network through which he received religious taxes and endowment incomes, and appointed religious representatives from Shi’ite cities from Iraq to India.  
“In the 16th Century, Shi’ite jurists [mujtahids] had established a new conceptual theory describing the relationship between [Shi’ite] community leaders and Shi’ite worshipers. According to the theory, each worshiper should either reach the highest educational level in Shi’ite jurisprudence (ijtihad) or follow a living person who has attained such a level. The theory of ‘following’ (taqlid) was intertwined with another significant theory, which permitted Shi’ite jurists to receive religious taxes on behalf of the infallible and hidden twelfth Shi’ite Imam. It is believed that this Imam will return at the end of time to establish a just global government. Thereafter, a new form of Shi’ite leadership emerged that both provided the monarchy with legitimacy and was protected by it, but was also financially independent from it.” (Khalaji, no date)
Thus, in addition to their waqf landholding (described above), the Shi’ite mujtahids also benefitted from taxes they collected. There are two forms of such taxes. Khums (Arabic for a fifth) is a tax paid equal to a fifth of the surplus from the income left after annual expenses of a Muslim’s that is paid to a mujtahid.  Zakat is a tax on income-generating property or asset paid to a mujtahid.  The mujtahid is supposed to spend such revenue for the welfare of the Shi’ite community such as orphaned children and for religious affairs, such as scholarships for a new crop of talabeh (seminary students) recruited from adolescent boys usually from the villages.

The Islamic Republic added to these sources of revenue for the Shi’ite clergy portions of the state’s revenue which is given to the religious institutions as part of the secret annual government budgets. 

3. The Islamic Republic as the counter-revolution
We can now understand the counter-revolutionary role played by Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic in crushing of the February 1979 revolution that overthrow the U.S.-installed and U.S.-backed dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  Alireza Nassab and I have outlined this elsewhere (Nayeri and Nassab, 2006).  Here it is helpful to outline the major junctures in the rise and fall of the February 1979 revolution.

The revolution had a humble beginning in the clash between Tehran shantytown dwellers who were defending their homes from demolishment with the police in the summer of 1977.  Like todays’ protestors, they had come to the cities, many to Tehran, in search of work because of the Shah’s land reform that had improvised large sections of the peasantry who were deprived of any access to land or had lost their land due to inadequate support for small family farmers.  Despite the defeat of the shantytown dwellers, social protests continued and by February 1978 a million people marched in the city of Tabriz chanting anti-Shah slogans. Despite much brutality by the regime, by October 1978 the oil workers had capped a national wave of strikes with their own general strike that shut off the flow of oil to the Shah’s regime while distributing it to the population.  By November 1978, many millions of Iranian (one account put it at 17 million out of the population of 35 million) took to the streets of major cities.  On January 16, 1979, the Shah and his family fled the country leaving behind a caretaker government headed by the bourgeois nationalist Shahpour Bakhtiar. By February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini who enjoyed massive support because of his opposition to the Shah’s regime since 1963 returned and appointed a Muslim nationalist, Mehdi Bazargan, the head of the Freedom Movement (Nehzat-e Azadi), to form a provisional government.  On February 11, the youth and armed urban guerrillas joined a garrison of air force technicians in east Tehran who had just pledged their support for the revolution to ward off an attack on the technicians by the elite Imperial Guard.  Almost all of Tehran mobilized and the youth and working people laid siege to the Shah’s armed forces, police, and prisons.  By the end of the day, the Shah’s caretaker government had collapsed. In the next two days, all of the Shah’s army, police, gendarmerie, and secret police were crushed in the entire country. Political prisoners who were still in jail were freed. National television and radio stations were in the hands of the people as were all newspapers.  The Iranian working people had armed themselves and taken control of every lever of power. The capitalist and landlord classes with ties to the regime as well as the top brass and state bureaucrats had left the country or were in hiding, or have been detained.  A lion share of the economy and social and cultural affairs were in the hands of the working people who began a council movement in workplaces, schools, and universities, in villages, among the oppressed nationalities, in neighborhoods,  and even in what was left of the armed forces.  Given the anti-capitalist dynamics of the revolution, workers and peasants could have moved towards forming their own government.  

Instead, they handed over the power to Ayatollah Khomeini. But Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the Shah from the standpoint of the Shi’ite clergy, not from the standpoint of the interests of the working people.  What followed made this abundantly clear.  Within 48 hours, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani headed a group of armed supporters to take over the national TV and Radio stations from its employees to impose an Islamic censorship on the news and programming (Rafsanjani says in his memoir that he wanted to make sure the national radio and TV spoke of the ISLAMIC revolution, not revolution).  As the International Women’s Day was approaching, Ayatollah Khomeini issued an edict that required women to wear the Islamic hijab.   When women opposed this and protested, their gatherings and march were attacked by semi-fascist Hezbollah gangs armed with stick, knives, and chains. A few years later, a cleric member of the Islamic Consultive Assembly (parliament) revealed that he had organized the Hezbollah goons. By Iranian New Year (March 21) the air force was bombing Turkmen Sahra on the Caspian sea where the oppressed Turkmen nationality lives and they had organized peasants shoras (councils) to take over the land they cultivated. On March 30 and 31, Khomeini staged an undemocratic referendum in which the population was given the choice of continuing with the monarchy which they had just overthrown or the undefined Islamic Republic. The voters rejected the monarchy by over 98% majority giving Khomeini and his allies the opportunity to claim that such huge majority actually wanted a theocracy in place of autocracy!  By the summer, instead of a constituent assembly organized by the grassroots movements of the working people, Khomeini organized an Islamic Constitutional Assembly of the clergy that drafted a constitution that was crowned by Vilayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) which gave absolute power to one man (or group of them) over the affairs of the country. Before the year’s end, this theocratic capitalist constitution was put to a vote and approved. Meanwhile, all freedoms that were won by the people in the February revolution such as freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and protest were suppressed. In April, a mass-circulation daily, Ayandegan, which was critical of Khomeini, was shut down. This was followed by a war waged against the Kurdish people who have been struggling for self-determination for decades. At the same time, armed Hezbollah gangs were used to ransack headquarters of socialist parties and 40 newspapers were shut down. 

It took until the end of 1982 to co-opt or crush all grassroots movements, opposition parties (liberal and socialist) and consolidate the Islamic Republic.  By the summer of 1988, Khomeini decided to purge the prisons of the remaining socialist and Mujahedin supporters.  A wave of mass execution followed. Amnesty International estimated “over 4,482 disappeared prisoners during this time.” This crime of the Islamic Republic was so horrendous that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who was picked by Khomeini himself as his successor publicly condemned it. Khomeini was outraged and placed Montazeri under house arrest where he remained until his death. 

Hardliners and reformists
Clever politicians, Khomeini, and his lieutenants began to build a new state structure instead of relying on those left by the Shah.  They also created their own party, the Islamic Republic party.  By the end of the 1980s the Islamic Republic party was dissolved and in effect, Iran became a country without any well-known and mass-based political party.  But the clergy was far from united in their views of the best policies to pursue and many factions emerge, united, split, and disappeared in the past 38 years of theocracy. What has become consistent is a two-camp political system where “hardliners” and “reformists’ (sometimes called “moderates”) vie for power.  The roots of this division go back at least to the Constitutional Revolution when the clergy was split between the Mašrūṭa and mašrūʿa factions. 

From the outset, the ʿolamāʾ [Shi’ite hierarchy, KN] had stressed the necessity for compatibility between constitutional demands and Islamic principles. There was a consensus that restraining the ruler’s power and creating a consultative council would preserve the “substance of Islam” (bayża-ye Eslām) against domestic tyranny and European domination. What remained in dispute, however, was the role of the ʿolamāʾ. Islamic constitutionalists claimed a leading role for the clergy in the new order. As early as 1324/1906 Ḥājī Mīrzā Ebrāhīm Šīrāzī had defended the authority of the ʿolamāʾ against the secular intellectuals. Addressing Moḥammad-ʿAlī Mīrzā, then crown prince, he declared: “Up to now our opinion was that the government consists of the men of the state and learned politicians, and not of unripened Westernizers, rotten materialists, and dried-up newspaper readers who [only] learned [to criticize] the despotic absolutist government. Yet Persia is an Islamic republic (jomhūrī-e eslāmī), for from earlier times to the present the ʿolamāʾ of every people and every city rebelled against the provincial governors, and the [central] government dismissed the governors with the blessing of the [leaders] of the public . . . Therefore, our republic is the envy of France and America” (Tārīḵ-e bīdārī I, pp. 395-97). On the other hand, Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī saw the mašrūṭa, the growth of secularism in the Majles, and anti-ʿolamāʾ sentiments in the anjomans and in the press as detrimental to the Šarīʿa and the supremacy of its representatives. Many ʿolamāʾ agreed. Nūrī’s opposition to mašrūṭa was also provoked by the influence and popularity of his chief rival, Behbahānī. (Amanat, 1992)

Of course, today’s “hardliners” and “reformists” articulate their policies in the context of a much different world than that in the late nineteenth century and early 20th century.  Still, it is not difficult to trace their conceptions of the Islamic Republic to those held by Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī or Ḥājī Mīrzā Ebrāhīm Šīrāzī.  Add to this ideological differences, the fact that the “hardliners” have controlled the Revolution Guard Corp  (Revolutionary Guards Corp), and the Bassij Mobilization Corp ( The Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed), the judiciary, and the national TV and radio stations where their ideological views are expressed and implemented daily. Given that the Revolution Guard Corp and some religious foundations controlled by “hardliners” hold a significant part of the economic and financial assets, they are somewhat less willing to support neoliberal policies that the “reformists” typically embrace.  Still, both camps by and large have agreed to implement structural adjustment programs that has shifted the social base of the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the economy and the state remain, 38 years after the revolution, still dependent on revenue from oil and gas.  

Where the two camps differ most clearly is with their relation to the civil society and relations with the West.  The “reformists” are willing to tolerate secular Iranians and enter into agreements with the West as long as they do not pose a threat to the Islamic Republic. The “hardliners” view secularists and Western values as dangerous to the Islamic Republic.  Needless to say, their anti-Western views are not anti-imperialism.  Khomeini’s slogan was “Neither the West nor the East, Islamic Republic.” 

4. The road forward
The sociopolitical base of the Islamic Republic narrows  
Let’ recall that the recent protests were largely by the young low-income working people who live in smaller towns and some villages with a recent or still some ties to the land.  While relatively small, scattered, disorganized, and proved easily repressed, this wave of protests has signaled an important shift in politics in Iran.  Let me explain why. 

Because of its anti-democratic and anti-working class nature, the Islamic Republic quickly lost its support among the more class-conscious workers, especially the industrial working class, and among much of the modern, but not traditional, middle class.  Still, when the counter-revolutionary Iraqi invasion of Iran began on September 22, 1980, the population rallied in support of the defensive war effort.  In 18 months, Khorramshahr, the last city that was still occupied by the Iraqi forces, was liberated at the expense of the lives of 30,000 Iranians; Saddam Hussein’s army was cleared off the Iranian territory except for a few narrow bands along the border. It was high time to sue for peace and negotiate for an end to the hostilities.  As Fidel Castro put it, it was a fratricidal war; it was instigated by the megalomanic Saddam Hussein who was supported by imperialism as well as the Soviet Union that provided it with military hardware. Instead, Khomeini campaigned for the “liberation of Karbala,” the Shi’ite holy site in Iraq, with the slogan of “The road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala.”  The revolutionary defensive war degenerated into a Shi’ite Iran vs. Sunni Arabs struggle. The Islamic Republic used imagery of the Hidden Imam to urge World War I human wave attacks by Iranian volunteers resulting in massive human losses. The war quickly lost its popular backing in Tehran and other larger cities and among the working class and middle classes, especially as the Islamic Republic used the war to militarize workplaces and society to suppress the grassroots movements and its political opponents. What enabled Khomeini to pursue his repressive anti-democratic and anti-working class policies and the war effort was the backing of the traditional middle class in the urban centers and rural and small-town population.  Thus the war dragged on until August 1988 when Khomeini finally accepted a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Over one million Iraqis and Iranians had fallen victim to the policies of Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini, with untold economic and social devastation for both countries.  

The recent protests showed that at least a section of Iran’s rural population who have moved into the smaller towns no longer supports the Islamic Republic and some actively oppose it.  This spells trouble for the future of the Islamic Republic. Its social base has been narrowing.  The Shah’s autocracy was toppled despite his military might, and large-scale use of the police, secret police (SAVAK), prisons, and torture and executions, because its political base narrowed sufficiently by the fall of 1978.  A similar process may be at work in Iran today.  

A new radicalization, a new generation
The Islamic Republic counter-revolution demoralized the generation that made the 1979 revolution.  It took until the July 1999 student protests in Tehran and other cities demanding basic democratic that a new generation began to radicalize (Nayeri, 1999; Nayeri, 2000).  This was followed by a resurgence of the labor movement that demanded independent workers’ organizations spearheaded by the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs (UBCTS) with 17,000 employees, including some 10,000 bus drivers. Although the Islamic Republic labor law does not provide for the right to strike the bus drivers staged a strike for their union in December 2005 (Nayeri and Khosroshahi, 2006).  Other union organizing efforts followed such as the strike by the Haft-Tapeh sugar cane workers in southern Iran in 2007.  

In 2010, up to three million supporters of the “reformist” candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, protested the outcome of the presidential election that declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the “hardliner’ incumbent the winner.  Becoming known as the Green Movement, these protests shook the Islamic Republic regime because of the split it caused between the “hardliners” and “reformists” in the streets. Yet, it differed dramatically with the student and workers struggles preceding it because the latter strived for universal democratic and labor rights without giving political support to any section of the theocratic capitalist Islamic Republic. Those who joined the Green Movement politically supported Mousavi who was Khomeini’s prime minister (1981-89) when the decisive blows to the revolution were delivered or Karoubi who was the Speaker of the parliament (2000-04) and both still supported and continued to support the Islamic Republic.  Significantly, the recent protests not only did not appeal to the Green Movement but equally protested “hardliners” and “reformists” by taking a position against the Islamic Republic.  Further, while some of the former Green Movement spokespersons (such as Behzad Nabavi) have belittled the recent protests, the independent labor movement organizations have stood up in solidarity with them (see, the statement by the Bus workers’ syndicate of Tehran and sugarcane workers’ syndicate of Haft Tapeh). Similarly, some university students joined the protests or supported them and a list of 50 college students arrested has been published. 

For an ecocentric ecological socialist Iran
A recent statement about the Iranian protests recalled Karl Marx’s motto in Class Struggle in France: “The revolution is dead! Long live the revolution!” The new generation of radicalized youth and working people could similarly exclaim: “The 1979 Revolution was betrayed! Long live the coming revolution!”  It is hard to imagine that the coming Iranian revolution will not build on the lessons of the February 1979 revolution, in particular, the grassroots mass organizations, the shora (council) movement, the only leadership that could guarantee both democracy and socialism. Both theory and history have proved that neither is possible and sustainable without self-organization and self-activity of the working people.  

However, at least some in the new generation also know something the generation who made the 1979 revolution did not know—the ecological crisis that has been simmering in Iran and worldwide.  A seldom noticed part of Thomas Erdbrink report in the January 2 issue of the New York Times tells us:
“For decades, those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.
“In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.”
In his excellent article, “The Role of Water Crisis in the Recent Iran Protests,” Louis Proyect  discusses how the drought, capitalist agriculture, and state mismanagement have contributed to the water crisis in Iran which in turn has added to the socioeconomic crisis in rural regions which as Edrbrink and I noted has been the bedrock of support for the Islamic Republic. 

As Proyect notes the water crisis also contributed to a similar political crisis in Syria and the brutal war that followed.  The Israeli occupation of increasing regions of Palestine also is motivated in part by the water crisis.  In fact, the water crisis is a world phenomenon.  Here are some United Nations figures:

  • 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. (WHO/UNICEF 2017)
  • 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. (WHO/UNICEF 2017)
  • 340,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases. (WHO/UNICEF 2015)
  • Water scarcity already affects four out of every 10 people. (WHO)
  • 90% of all natural disasters are water-related. (UNISDR)
  • 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused (UNESCO, 2017).
  • Around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. (SIWI)
  • Agriculture accounts for 70% of global water withdrawal. (FAO)
  • Roughly 75% of all industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production. (UNESCO, 2014)
But the world water crisis is part of an integrated social and planetary crisis caused by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization that includes three existential threats to the humanity and much of life on Earth: climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear war now being threatened against North Korea by the United States.  Thus, the challenge the new generation of radicalized youth and working people in Iran face is not simply to replace the Islamic Republic with a democratic republic of working people but one that can join others across the globe to replace the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization with an ecocentric ecological socialist mode of production that will ensure social harmony as well as ecological harmony with the rest of nature.  As part of a growing ecological socialist movement, I have discussed our current predicament and the possible road forward (Nayeri 2013A; Nayeri 2013B; Nayeri 2017).  The interested reader may find convincing evidence and argument for a truly radical change in society, economy, and culture.  Needless to say, given the existential threat we face time is of the essence.  The future of the world depends on the youth and working people of Iran and the world. 

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