WOID XIX-30. The Iranians Ye Have Always With You.
I) Must be a hell of a lot of rich folks in Tehran. A curious argument’s been circulating, curious not so much for the conclusion drawn that the US and others shouldn’t intervene in the Iranian unrest, or even for the implication that the US has, or will. Curious, rather, for its premiss that the Iranian elections were fair, and the inference drawn that the protests are illegitimate. This argument shows a touching faith in the power of the State – any state – over the individuals – all individuals - who happen to live within its borders.
Curiouser, yet, the argument, made right and left, that the protests are illegitimate because, as the Financial Times put it in a June, 15 editorial, “Politics in Iran is a lot more about class war than religion," and therefore the legitimate winners of this election are the poor who supposedly support Ahmadinejad, against the wealthy who oppose him. The Financial Times believes the demands of the poor take moral precedence over those of all the rich in Tehran: “Change for the poor means food and jobs, not a relaxed dress code or mixed recreation.”1 This can’t be the first time the Financial Times (or any kind of Times) takes sides in a class war. It’s surely the first time they side with the poor.
Even curiouserer, the argument’s been taken up by sectors of the Left. As one cyber-rad put it, “The millions of Iranian rural poor who don't have an iPhone to go on twitter and don't speak English if they could, certainly aren't being heard over the few pro-Mousavi sectarians who are undermining Iranian democracy.”2
It makes sense for self-styled Marxists to stand in defense of “the poor,” even the imaginary ones; it makes no sense for Marxist-Leninists to endorse the concept of democratic elections. Nor does it make sense to simultaneously condemn the protesters for introducing liberal Eurocentric values into their argument while defending the abstract principle of a democratic election process - a liberal, eurocentric idea if there ever was.The European Greens, whose party line is adherence to the abstract values of liberal parliementarianism and a preference for life-style over economics, have also come down on the side of the Iranian Government: as usual, when the Cohn-Bendits of this world are faced with the choice between life-styles and repressive power structures, they'll support the power structure. Large sections of the Left in France have been following this line, which is even more curious than all of the preceding put together considering that the same people who cheer as the French State forbids the headscarf for French Muslim women now jeer as Iranian women take off the headscarf and lose their lives in doing so. Machisme au deçà des Pyrénées, machisme au delà.
II) The New York Times Book Review this week devoted a page to Michael Harrington, the weenie-socialist who popularized the idea that the poor are all deserving – deserving to be poor, that is.3 You see, there is no moral precedence for the poor because there’s something called “The Culture of Poverty” that keeps them poor – things like not having a strong male presence in the house, for instance, unless of course it’s the Iranian rural poor who, I suspect, are pretty accomplished at the male presence thing. But, the reviewer concludes, “Today the poor are no longer invisible.” This, presumably, does not include the Iranian poor, who are invisible because they don’t have access to i-phones and twitter, and thus require the help of the Financial Times and the Workers World Party to get their message out.
III) The poor today are very visible in the New York Times - I mean the newly poor: Should You Rent Your Second Home? Should You Cut Down on Organic, Free-Range Chicken? Sunday’s Arts section covers the tough times in Hopperville, at the prestige art galleries in Chelsea. And the money quote comes in the last paragraph: “[Gallery owner X] said ‘what drives me crazy are these clichés that say only the very, very best survive. I don’t believe that recessions are Darwinian systems.’”4
Only boom times, darling. What Harrington’s argument boils down to (Oscar Sanchez’, actually), is that the poor are poor because they’re fated not to struggle, since after all, to struggle is to succeed. A struggle’s not a struggle if the wrong people struggle, and we know they’re the wrong people because they’re incapable of struggling, hence the inevitable failure that proves them to be the wrong people that they are. Meanwhile, on the Times' Op-Ed page, the neo-con apparatchik David Brooks has discovered that the so-called science of "Evolutionary Anthropology" isn't so scientific after all. Now that failure looms for white folks and their value system, Brooks discovers that success isn't genetically programmed. 5 This theory’s found, with minor variations, among superannuated communists in Europe and America and among reactionaries everywhere: it’s the destiny and privilege of a certain social class to struggle, so long as it’s the working class, or the rich unworking class, or whatever class we chose to define as struggling towards victory. When the "wrong" class, or gender, race, or culture breaks out of its ideational confinement, it's resented as a deep violation of the Order of Things.
Ultimately the one thing that supporters of the Iranian repression have in common - ALL supporters, from Cesar Chavez to the French center-left to the American fringe-left to the Ayatollah himself - is the level of their rhetoric, a varying mix of Baath Party and third-world leftism (which the French have already dubbed Islamo-gauchisme), or American right-wing talk-show triumphalist rhetoric; in sum that narcissistic rage coupled with irrational grandiosity that the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut fingered as the most typical neurosis of "advanced" Western cultures.
IV) At the bottom of all this lies the conviction that Iranians, like all Muslims, are not simply unwilling to “be like us,” they’re incapable as well. Among Europeans in particular, denigration of the Iranian opposition barely conceals a fear of the possible admission of Turkey into the European Union – a fear of admitting Muslims into the ranks of the elect and the electing. As the French Marxist Etienne Balibar points out, “Race, Nation, Class” are inextricably linked in the movement and counter-movement of globalism and counter-globalization. As of today he might have added “Gender” to the mix. Marx had sensed this already when, in 1871, he defined the Paris Commune as “Storming Heaven:” not, that is, acting out fixed positions on race, nation, class or gender, (not even his own), but the process of a gradual crystallization of positions against the positions imposed from above – whatever they may be. Hope, after all, is an ideology, not a strategy. The Revolution has only just begun.
1] Not available on-line; widely quoted.
3] Maurice Isserman, “Warrior on Poverty.” New York Times Book Review, Sunday June 21, 2009, p. 19. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/books/review/Isserman-t.html
4] Dorothy Spears, “This Summer, Some Galleries are Sweating”. New York Times, Sunday, June 21, AR25 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/arts/design/21spea.html
5] David Brooks, "Human Nature Today." New York Times, Friday, June 26, 2009, p. A25.
6] Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, nation, classe : les identités ambiguës. 2nd ed. Paris : La Découverte, 1997.