WILL THE CAT ABOVE THE PRECIPICE FALL DOWN?

[The following is a guest post from Slavoj Žižek sent to us by Ali Alizadeh who writes, "Apparently the mainstream media has not shown interest in publishing it. Hope that the blogsphere can counteract their tendency." The piece is copy-right free and you should feel free to republish this on your own blog.]

When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew; in a couple of hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although there were street fights going on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game is over. Is something similar going on now?

There are many versions of the events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. – a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism. They are counteracted by skeptics who think that Ahmadinejad really won: he is the voice of the majority, while the support of Mousavi comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. In short: let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad: Mousavi also wants to continue the atomic energy program, he is against recognizing Israel, plus he enjoyed the full support of Khomeini as a prime minister in the years of the war with Iraq.

Finally, the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad: what is really at stake for them is Iranian independence. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed elite corruption and used oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority – this is, so we are told, the true Ahmadinejad beneath the Western-media image of a holocaust-denying fanatic. According to this view, what is effectively going on now in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a West-financed coup against the legitimate president. This view not only ignores facts: the high electoral participation – up from the usual 55% to 85% – can only be explained as a protest vote. It also displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left.

Opposed as they are, all these versions read the Iranian protests along the axis of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists, which is why they find it so difficult to locate Mousavi: is he a Western-backed reformer who wants more personal freedom and market economy, or a member of the cleric establishment whose eventual victory would not affect in any serious way the nature of the regime? Such extreme oscillations demonstrate that they all miss the true nature of the protests.

The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

There are a couple of crucial consequences to be drawn from this insight. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. His demagogic distributing of crumbs to the poor should not deceive us: behind him are not only organs of police repression and a very Westernized PR apparatus, but also a strong new rich class, the result of the regime’s corruption (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not a working class militia, but a mega-corporation, the strongest center of wealth in the country).

Second, one should draw a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

And, last but not least, what this means is that there is a genuine liberating potential in Islam – to find a “good” Islam, one doesn’t have to go back to the 10th century, we have it right here, in front of our eyes.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

Why are Iranians dreaming again?*

[The following is a guest post from Ali Alizadeh, Researcher at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University who has asked bloggers to post this to their blogs.]

This piece is copyright-free. Please distrbute widely.

Iran is currently in the grip of a new and strong political movement. While this movement proves that Ahmadinejad’s populist techniques of deception no longer work inside Iran, it seems they are still effective outside the country. This is mainly due to thirty years of isolation and mutual mistrust between Iran and the West which has turned my country into a mysterious phenomenon for outsiders. In this piece I will try to confront some of the mystifications and misunderstandings produced by the international media in the last week.

In the first scenario the international media, claiming impartiality, insisted that the reformists provide hard objective evidence in support of their claim that the June 12 election has been rigged. But despite their empiricist attitude, the media missed obvious facts due to their lack of familiarity with the socio-historical context. Although the reformists could not possibly offer any figures or documents, because the whole show was single-handedly run by Ahmadinejad’s ministry of interior, anyone familiar with Iran’s recent history could easily see what was wrong with this picture.

It was the government who reversed the conventional and logical procedure by announcing a fictitious total figure first – in four stages – and then fabricating figures for each polling station, something that is still going on. This led to many absurdities: Musavi got less votes in his hometown (Tabriz) than Ahmadinejad; Karroubi’s total vote was less than the number of people active in his campaign; Rezaee’s votes were reduced by a hundred thousand between the third and fourth stages of announcement; blank votes were totally forgotten and only hastily added to the count when reformists pointed this out; and finally the ratio between all candidates’ votes remained almost constant in all these four stages of announcement (63, 33, 2 and 1 percent respectively).

Moreover, as in any other country, the increase in turnout in Iran’s elections has always benefitted the opposition and not the incumbent, because it is rational to assume that those who usually don’t vote, i.e. the silent majority, only come out when they want to change the status quo. Yet in this election Ahmadinejad, the representative of the status quo, allegedly received 10 million votes more than what he got in the previous election.

Finally, Ahmadinejad’s nervous reaction after his so-called victory is the best proof for rigging: closing down SMS network and the whole of country’s mobile phone network, arresting more than 100 leading political activists, blocking access to Musavi’s and many other reformists’ websites and unleashing violence in the streets…But if all this is not enough, the bodies of more than 17 people who were shot dead and immediately buried in unknown graves should persuade all those “objective-minded” observers.

In the second scenario, gradually unfolding in the last few days, the international media implicitly shifted its attention to the role of internet and its social networking (twitter, facebook, youtube, etc). This implied that millions of illiterate conservative villagers have voted for Ahmadinejad and the political movement is mostly limited to educated middle classes in North Tehran. While this simplified image is more compatible with media’s comfortable position towards Iran in the last 30 years, it is far from reality. The recent political history of Iran does not confirm this image. For example, Khatami’s victory in 1997, despite his absolute lack of any economic promises and his focus instead on liberal civic demands, was made possible by the polarization of society into people and state. Khatami could win only by embracing people from all different classes and groups, villagers and urban people alike.

There is no doubt that new media and technologies have been playing an important role in the movement, but it seems that the cause and the effect are being reversed in the picture painted by the media. First of all, it is the existence of a strong political determination, combined with people becoming deprived of basic means of communication, which has led the movement to creatively test every other channel and method. Musavi’s paper was shut down on the night of election, his frequent request to talk to people on the state TV has been rejected, his official website is often blocked and his physical contact with his supporters has been kept minimum by keeping him in house arrest (with the exception of his appearance on the over a million march on June 15).

Second, due to the heavy pressure on foreign journalists inside Iran, these technological tools have come to play a significant role in sending the messages and images of the movement to the outside world. However, the creative self-organization of the movement is using a manifold of methods and channels, many of them simple and traditional, depending on their availability: shouting ‘death to dictator’ from rooftops, calling landlines, at the end of one rally chanting the time and place of the next one, and by jeopardizing oneself by physically standing on streets and distributing news to every passing car. The appearance of the movement which is being sold by the media to the western gaze – the cyber-fantasy of the western societies which has already labelled our movement a twitter revolution, seems to have completely missed the reality of those bodies which are shot dead, injured or ready to be endangered by non-virtual bullets.

What is more surprising in the midst of this media frenzy is the blindness of the western left to the political dynamism and energy of our movement. The causes of this blindness oscillate between the misgivings about Islam (or the Islamophobia of hyper-secular left) and the confusion made by Ahmadinjead’s fake anti-imperialist rhetoric (his alliance with Chavez perhaps, who after all was the first to congratulate him). It needs to be emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s economic policies are to the right of the IMF: cutting subsidies in a radical way, more privatization than any other post-79 government (by selling the country to the Revolutionary Guards) and an inflation and unemployment rate which have brought the low-income sections of the society to their knees. It is in this regard that Musavi’s politics needs to be understood in contradistinction from both Ahmadinejad and also the other reformist candidate, i.e. Karroubi.

While Karroubi went for the liberal option of differentiating people into identity groups with different demands (women, students, intellectuals, ethnicities, religious minorities, etc), Musavi emphasized the universal demands of ‘people’ who wanted to be heard and counted as political subjects. This subjectivity, emphasized by Musavi during his campaign and fully incarnated in the rallies of the past few days, is constituted by political intuition, creativity and recollection of the ‘79 revolution (no wonder that people so quickly reached an unexpected maturity, best manifested in the abstention from violence in their silent demonstrations). Musavi’s ‘people’ is also easily, but strongly, distinguished from Ahmadinejad’s anonymous masses dependent on state charity. Musavi’s people, as the collective appearing in the rallies, is made of religious women covered in chador walking hand in hand with westernized young women who are usually prosecuted for their appearance; veterans of war in wheelchairs next to young boys for whom the Iran-Iraq war is only an anecdote; and working class who have sacrificed their daily salary to participate in the rally next to the middle classes. This story is not limited to Tehran. Shiraz (two confirmed dead), Isfahan (one confirmed dead), Tabriz, Oroomiye are also part of this movement and other cities are joining with a predictable delay (as it was the case in 79 revolution).

History will prove who the real participants of this movement are but once again we are faced with a new, non-classical and unfamiliar radical politics. Will the Western left get it right this time?

* The title is a reference to Michel Foucault’s 1978 writing on Iran’s revolution: “What are the Iranians dreaming about?”

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