Hamid Dabashi has had a remarkably consistent line about what’s going on in Iran. Consistency is an admirable trait, and the line is an attractive one. It goes something like this. Dabashi demurs from taking a stance on whether there was electoral fraud, calling it a “social fact,” e.g. widely believed in Iranian society. He deems the demonstrators part of a burgeoning “civil rights” movement. He calls Mousavi a nascent “Gandhi,” or “Mandela.” He says that the protesters are a rainbow-hued, heterogeneous lot: middle class, lower class, peasants, workers, plumbers, waiters, officers, bankers, students, professionals. And he doesn’t say much about those who voted for Ahmadinejad, or protested in favor of his victory, or stayed home.
A recent Al-Ahram essay crystallizes this message in remarkably compressed form, although slightly adulterated by a bit of ideological obfuscation. The obfuscation comes when he lectures Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara, for having the temerity to note that there exists in Iran an “ideology that claims to have answers for everything and that seeks to permeate all aspects of life.” According to Bishara, that ideology “is a real religion embraced by the vast majority of the people…a religious doctrine is the state ideology, the clerical hierarchy defines and anchors the state hierarchy, and the lower echelons of the clergy are the intermediaries between the people and the ruling ideology.”
Dabashi will have none of that. Although he calls Bishara’s argument “by far the best in the literature so far,” he won’t accept Bishara’s precise formulation: that this ideology merely “seeks to permeate” [my emphasis] all aspects of life. Instead, we get the Foucaldian assertion that a “totalitarian ideology permeates all spheres of private and public life in Iran, not unlike the power of consumer ideologies doing pretty much the same in North American and Western European societies.” Ideology everywhere, like oxygen!
So, according to Dabashi, Iranian religiosity is a cousin to Western consumerism, a “totalitarian” ideology, threatening Wal-Mart shoppers with thunderous thwacking from a cudgel . One needn’t be inquisitorial to question the coherence of this formulation, even as it applies to Iran. What of the strikes at Khodro, the protesting university students?
Surely such “spheres of life” as universities and industrial shops, some of which are in fact para-state institutions, aren’t “permeated” by totalitarian ideology, whether or not one wishes to note that an autocratic state is fiercely repressing them.
Perhaps this is crudely reductionist, but ideology is, at the simplest level, what people believe. The struggle between Iranian reformists and conservatives is over the meaning of the very ideology, the Islamic spiritualism, which anchors the institutional legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. But totalitarian ideologies are marked by their consistency, not the degree of disputation over them. Quirkily enough, Iran is plainly heterogenous ideologically, in the Western sense, insofar as some sectors want more political reform, and some want less. The reform movement was proof enough of that.
The clerical elite may seek to universalize their specific understanding of Islamic ideology, but that doesn’t equate to a “totalitarian ideology permeat [ing] all spheres of private and public life in Iran” [my emphasis], unless one should wish to make the case that ideology is definitionally totalitarian. A white sheet permeated by black ink turns black. A people permeated by a specific ideology believe in it. A mind permeated by ideology adheres to it unquestioningly. Ideology is decidedly different from the fierce physicality of state violence, pace post-colonialism’s adherents’ hesitations about the physical world.
This both does and doesn’t matter. It does matter because different sectors of Iranian society doubtless believe different things—different sectors have different ideologies. Such ideologies could conceivably map over class lines. For materialist analysis, ideas matter.
So what’s further confusing is Dabashi’s claim that those protesting, particularly the young, are members of “a post-ideological generation.” Dabashi has made this claim elsewhere. It’s true that the protesters’ demands are in a sense non-ideological—“Where’s my vote?” “Recount!” etc. But although the demands are non-ideological, they express a desire for democratic norms. His larger point is that the protesters themselves are “post-ideological.” This maneuver disappears the background radiation of capitalism , and ignores various ideological currents within Iran and among the protesters.
Sure, the protests have taken on nothing remotely resembling a class character, but this doesn’t mean that Marxists, for example, aren’t self-consciously participating as Marxists. By calling Iranian society “post-ideological,” Dabashi can sidestep the political economy of Iran, voting patterns, class analysis, and refer instead to this wondrous abstraction—the protesters!—without situating them within their social context. That achieved with the off-hand gesture of calling a whole generation “post-ideological,” the poor who probably voted for Ahmadinejad thus disappear as a class bloc. And once the poor disappear as a class bloc, it becomes easier to avoid or reject class analysis while analyzing the protest movement.
This is what Dabashi does, while responding to Bishara’s apparently wrong-headed assertion that
the criticisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, especially those from middle class backgrounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are reminiscent of the grievances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their individual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle.
According to Dabashi, this is brazenly untrue: it’s a “false premise,” indeed, “The assumption that supporters of Mousavi and/or Karrubi, or indeed that masses of millions of people who have poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, come from ‘the middle class’ is a common fallacy that Bishara shares with quite a number of others who are watching the Iranian scene from a theoretical distance that conceals more than it reveals.” As Dabashi continues, “the false premise of ‘middle class’ support for Mousavi, particularly by people I deeply admire, needs more urgent attention.”
Attention it gets. Dabashi writes that
Of a total Iranian population of 72 million, upward of 70 per cent are under the age of 30. While the total rate of unemployment under Ahmadinejad, predicated on correspondingly high numbers under Khatami’s two-term presidency, is 30 per cent, this rate, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, the most reliable Iranian economist around, for young people between the ages of 15 and 29 (some 35 per cent of the total population) is 70 per cent. So seven out of every 10 people in this age group can scarce find a job, let alone marry, let alone have children and form a family. In exactly what phantasmagoria [sic] definition of “the middle class” can they hope to be included?
There are two major flaws in Dabashi’s treatment of the numbers.
The first is interpretive: Dabashi’s understanding of class and class-consciousness is in need of serious remediation. Unemployed Iranians below the age of 30 may not be able to “find a job” or “marry,” but this doesn’t mean they don’t have middle-class class consciousness. It’s not an unknown phenomenon that middle-class people—in Bishara’s more considered phrasing, those from “middle-class backgrounds”–be unemployed or underemployed. Nor should it shock if unemployed middle-class people identify with their middle-class origins as opposed to their employment status. Revealingly, Salehi-Isfahani writes, “The vast majority of unemployed youth are supported by their parents. More than 70 percent of youth in their twenties live with their parents.”
The second is epistemic—he uses a non-evidence-based argumentative strategy, with tenuous connections to numerical facts. Put simply, he makes a bunch of stuff up. Iran’s unemployment rates for people in their early twenties are 20 percent for men, 40 percent for women. Salehi-Isfahani wrote just days ago that “Nearly a quarter of people in their 20s are unemployed.” How did Dabashi miss this?
Clearly, his case needs reinforcements. This he knows, and so he writes,
Consider another fact. If we were to believe the official tabulation of the presidential election, which I have no way of proving otherwise (though that they are rigged is now a “social fact”), twice as many of these young voters have voted for Ahmadinejad as they did for Mir– Hussein Mousavi, Mahdi Karrubi and Mohsen Rezai put together. In other words, the official results shoot the argument of a pro-Mousavi “middle class” in the foot, for we will end up either with the bizarre proposition that pro-Mousavi Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad, if the results are accurate, or else the perfectly plausible possibility that the unemployed — and thus by definition the poor — voted for Mousavi, if the results are rigged. Either way, the supporters of Mousavi are not the upper middle class bourgeois class that thinks its votes are worth more than others.
Place on hold the aforementioned contention that the election being “rigged is now a ‘social fact,’” a formulation that begs precisely what it purports to explain. The “official tabulation” doesn’t break down election results by age or social class, nor does it correlate turnout with either of those two categories. Salehi-Isfahani elsewhere notes that the middle-class probably comprises 46 percent of the population, using a definition of “the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expenditures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary).” Such a definition is plainly extraordinarily capacious, perhaps to the point of being non-sensical as a unit of class analysis. But one could merely stipulate that three-quarters of this segment, trending along income lines, voted for Mousavi to see that Dabashi’s numbers prove nothing, and can easily be interpreted to strengthen Bishara’s case. I wrote earlier that consistency is an admirable trait. It’s true, it is. But for the scholar, accuracy would be slightly more valuable.
Meanwhile, Dabashi’s suggestion that pro-Mousavi voters voted for Ahmadinejad is sophistry, and his identification of “the unemployed” with “the poor” is a piece of class analysis that wouldn’t pass muster in a Marxist playlet.
So what’s the problem here? The problem is that while Bishara may well not have supplied much evidence for his assertion, Dabashi doesn’t provide any evidence for his either. His theoretical and physical distance conceals quite as much as it reveals too: in this case, profound lack of empathy for the choices of the Iranian lower-class, coming perilously close to Slavoj Žižek’s brusque dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s policies–-which have reduced inequality; in 2006–2007, expenditures in the lower deciles increased sharply relative to those of the upper deciles–-as the “demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor.”
The fraud may be a “social fact,” but it is a “social fact” precisely for those who believe there was fraud. Idle tautology, sure, but the problem is that Dabashi’s formulation ignores the part of society for whom Ahmadinejad’s victory was a “social fact”—those who voted for him! The evidence of fraud may be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean Ahmadinejad wouldn’t have won without fraud. That doesn’t mean people didn’t have real, valid, understandable reasons for voting the way they did. And that doesn’t mean that analyses that write the Iranian poor out of history and society do us any good as we try to understand the divisions, movements, and ruptures within the Islamic Republic.
It’s not altogether clear from this physical distance who’s been protesting this past month, nor can we know the protesters’ composition with any precision. But over 70 million people live in Iran, and just under 40 million went to the polls on June 12. Analytical attention has zeroed in on the protesting minority. We are instinctively attracted, like hunting beasts, to flashing movements, the brilliant spectacle of mobilization. One would hope, from certain quarters, for something slightly better.