Iran: The Democratic Illusion

Why Parliamentary Democracy Will not Solve Iran’s Problems (and is Unlikely to be Achieved Anyway)

by Carsten Faber

Author’s note: A shorter version of this article was originally submitted to the essay contest “What are the ways to bring about a democratic change in Iran?”, held by the Dutch-based group “Iranian Progressive Youth” in April 2011. [1] (Unfortunately, it didn’t receive any prize.) The present, printed version allowed me to carry out some minor corrections and clarifications and to further elaborate on several points (on the limits of a “liberalization” of the Iranian economy; on the question of an “oil socialism”; on the breadth of Iran’s overwhelming social problems; and on the limits of the Green Movement). Also, several remarks have been added to link the current social and economic situation in Iran to the situation of the Arab states and their perspectives.

1. Introduction: In Solidarity With the Iranian Freedom Movement

The felt necessity for a reappraisal of the Iranian freedom movement can itself be understood as the result of the Green Movement’s defeat in the aftermath of the rigged Iranian presidential election of June 2009. After the second half of 2009 had seen a period of massive street protests, the Green Movement did not have any means to oppose the ensuing brutal crackdown of the regime against any form of protest or dissent. The recent de-facto imprisonment of the Green Movement’s leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi marks the victory of the regime, at least in the short-term. Without adequate organization, political agenda or any link to social power, the remaining options of the freedom movement are reduced to isolated street demonstrations of small groups of “activists” which have no prospect for instigating any regime change.

The defeat of the Iranian freedom movement requires a more fundamental analysis of the movement’s historical situation, its goals and its strategies. Such an analysis is essential not only for formulating the necessary goals of any movement confronting the Islamic Republic’s regime, but also for critically assessing the limits of its strategies. Without putting Iran’s current situation into the global and historical context, any analysis is bound to remain within the limited scope of an endless debate about conflicting strategical recipes for a political practice which itself might not have any perspective at all.

2. The Current Historical Situation: Capitalism’s Global Crisis

The current global situation is defined by the all-embracing crisis of the capitalist world economy. Capitalism, which came to be the prevalent mode of production in the 18th century in Europe, is based not on the production of material goods for specific human needs, but on the accumulation of capital. By carrying out socially productive labor, human laborers increase the abstract economic value of a given product. However, each laborer adds more value to the product than what she/he receives in the form of wages; the difference is the capitalist surplus value, which takes on the different forms of profits, interests, rents, dividends, etc.

In their quest for the production and realization of surplus value, the capitalist enterprises are in competition with each other. In order to increase profit and decrease production cost, they are forced to constantly reduce the working time needed for the production of their commodities to a minimum – i. e., to produce more commodities in a shorter time with less and less human laborers. While this technological progress could be a blessing for a self-conscious humanity, it turns out to be a bitter curse for humankind under capitalism: If capitalism does not find other ways to absorb the labor which became superfluous (e. g. through the development of new labor-intense products or through market expansion), these workers are permanently cast out of the production process, while, on the other hand, the quantity of surplus value, and therefore the quantity of profits, is diminishing, since the production of surplus value rests on human labor. This is exactly why Karl Marx calls capital “the moving contradiction”:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labor time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.” [2]

The current global crisis is a consequence of this dynamic. With the level of productiveness reached through the third industrial revolution – based on microelectronics and computer chips –, capitalism reaches its own historical limits. As Robert Kurz ascertains,

[…] the relationship between the elimination of living productive labor through scientific rationalization on the one hand and the absorption of living productive labor through the process of capitalization on the other […] is irrevocably overturned: from now on inexorably more labor will be eliminated as can be absorbed.” [3]

In this context, the most notable characteristic of the 2008/2009 depression was that it showed the current state of the capitalist economy on a truly global scale. As just outlined, the cause cannot be attributed to financial speculation, even less to “irresponsible” financial speculation, but to the inner dynamic of capitalist production itself. This profound capitalist crisis is the general framework in which the situation of Iran must be considered.

3. From the General to the Particular: Iran’s Economic Crisis

Disregarding the Islamic regime’s pathetic propaganda, all analysts agree on the fact that Iran’s economy is highly non-competitive on a global scale: “The economy of Iran is in a deep recession, which has only been exacerbated by the recent round of sanctions.” [4] According to some analysts, “about 90 percent of Iran’s textile industries are on the verge of collapse.” [5] The actual unemployment figures are estimated between 17 and 20 % [6], the inflation rate is at 12.4 % [7] according to the Central Bank, but most likely higher. In many factories workers have not been paid wages for months (see e. g. [8]) and around 50 % of the urban population live under the poverty line [9].

It sounds rather strange that while Western economists have (mostly vainly) tried to understand phenomena like “jobless growth”, and while Western states have increasingly lost control over the economic and social situation, the economic problems in Iran on the other hand are usually understood as being caused only by the false and inefficient economic politics of the Iranian regime, or by its corruption and lack of transparency for investment. The truth is, however, that the current situation in Iran – as well as in the other Arab states which are experiencing social and political revolts – is induced by a global dynamic of the capitalist system in which these regions, which lacked the financial capital of the Western centers, are bound to fall behind as they cannot keep up with the pace of the automation and rationalization of the capitalist production process.

The current political developments in the Islamic Republic are more determined by this dynamic in which the state loses influence on the struggling economy, rather than by a simple reallocation of social wealth to the regime’s followers within an otherwise flourishing economy. The latter is often suggested when it is pointed out that a huge portion of the Iranian economy is transferred to the paramilitary and terrorist Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC). Kevan Harris maintains that this “pseudo-privatization” is in essence rather a “bureaucratic disintegration” than a “bureaucratic takeover”:

Despite growing rumors of an impending IRGC monopoly over the economy, the reality of the situation seems to be quite different. The Iranian regime appears to be decentralizing its social and economic responsibilities, resembling a “subcontractor state.” Instead of a bureaucratic takeover, we are witnessing a bureaucratic disintegration. While this may not be the government’s intent, this transformation reveals a breakdown of its administrative capacity, as it becomes more willing to accept ad hoc, temporary solution to the country’s social and economic problems.” [10]

This shift towards “temporary solutions” shows – under different circumstances, as should be noted – a general similarity to the economic and social politics of other nations, e. g. the hasty measures adopted by the European Union in order to salvage its peripheral states (Greece, Portugal, Ireland) from economic bankruptcy, or the recent debate over the United States’ debt ceiling etc. The “normality”, from which the economic measures adopted by the Islamic Republic are said to deviate, belongs to a pre-crisis capitalism.

Adding to his critique of the one-dimensional theory of an “IRGC takeover”, Harris also notes that “the IRGC is just one of several significant state-linked players in Iran’s pseudo-privatized economy. Other power players include […] banks, investment conglomerates, and pension and healthcare funds in both the public and private sector.” [10] The implementation of rigid economic politics, as has been demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank from Iran for more than a decade, would invariably lead to even further deterioration of the social situation, since it would first and foremost result in the cut of subsidies and the destruction of the “pseudo-private” welfare funds (the bonyads) described by Harris. Further, the cut of government subsidies to local businesses would lead to a massive devaluation of the Iranian companies, which would over night appear as what they are: inefficient and non-competitive. It is an ironic fact, that in countries like Germany or the United States it is widely accepted government policy to prevent major industries (like General Motors) from going bankrupt in order not to trigger a chain reaction of economic breakdowns.

Therefore, the proposed liberalization of Iran’s economic policy would bring the Iranian society “out of the frying pan and into the fire”, because it would in the first place result in a massive loss of (non-profitable) jobs. Only by increasing their global market shares, the remaining competitive industries could absorb this “surplus population” back into the production process, since any increase in productivity means that the same amount of goods can be produced by less workers. However, such an expansion is itself limited by the massive global industrial overcapacities and would definitely fall short of bringing back the lost jobs.

4. The Illusion of an “Oil Socialism”

It is oftentimes argued that Iran, as a territorial state, is endowed with huge material wealth in the form of its natural gas and oil reserves. If only, so this argument goes, the revenues from the export of gas and oil could be used for the advancement of education, private business etc., the social and economic situation in Iran could profoundly improve.

As appealing as such an idea might be, this argument is questionable for several reasons. First, as said, a modernization of Iranian industries (e. g. textile or automobile) would have to result in an expansion of market shares if it is to re-employ the workers cast out due to rationalization. It is thus very unlikely that the actual modernization of Iran’s industry, even if successful, would benefit the Iranian masses. Secondly, the seemingly-gigantic $80 billion in oil revenues (which had been projected for the Persian year ending March 2011 [11]) is still diminished by the government’s own spending (health care, military, administration), since this spending cannot be financed by taxing the revenues of the same industries which are to be subsidized. After all, the portion left would turn out rather small in the face of the required modernization. Thirdly, the oil and gas industry is itself highly dependent on capital investments. With the natural oil and gas reserves decreasing, the exploration and production of oil and gas is becoming technologically more difficult and increasingly expensive. Together with the fluctuating world-market price, the export of crude oil and petrol makes up for a highly unstable source of revenues. Last, attempts to use the wealth generated through oil exports for a general improvement of economic and social conditions, has so far neither succeeded in Venezuela nor in Iraq. A closer look at these examples might lead to more clarity of why an “oil socialism” is questionable. With the global maximum oil production (“peak oil”) being passed in 2006 according to the International Energy Association [12], the Iranian reserves might run out faster than expected anyway, ruining the chance of any long-term advantages through its natural reserves.

5. Emancipatory Alternatives to Parliamentary Democracy

As has been outlined above, the current economic problems Iran is facing are of a structural character and cannot be adequately addressed by a mere change in the form of government, e. g. to a constitutional democracy. The current uprisings in the Arab states will be forced to make the experience that it is not only the problem of corruption which hinders economic and social development, but the global state of capitalism itself. Therefore, they signify not the beginning of an epoch, but the end of it: in a situation that has run out of the control of nation states and politics, these essentially nationalist uprisings have no perspective.

Not only the economic, but also other social challenges in Iran are unlikely to be solved by a democratic nation state. As Ali Mostashari has pointed out, a federal nation state in Iran will most likely lead to the disintegration of the Iranian state, given Iran’s multi-ethnic population and huge economic and social differences between its provinces [13, 14]. Mostashari correctly adds, that the social and ecological problems faced by many cities in Iran (poverty, air and water pollution, traffic jams, waste etc.) could best be dealt with through “a decentralization of power and direct participatory democracy”, making city governments “directly responsible for the everyday well-being of their citizens” [13]. Also, as the national political sphere in Iran is dominated by male cliques, a reversal to more local forms of government could prove helpful for women voicing their demands and criticizing patriarchal Iranian society. However, as Mostashari strictly ignores the global framework and the economic realities determined by it, the localization of power within the uncontested capitalist world system will turn out to have the opposite effect of what he might imagine. The “cities as centers for competition” will not, as Mostashari believes, “spur mutual prosperity for the citizens of these cities and result in greater prosperity for the country as a whole” [13], but will almost definitely result in the outpacing and further economic decline of those border regions, in which already “under both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic investment […] has been minimal” [14]. Again, this outpacing of the peripheral regions is a general characteristic of world capitalism since the 1990s, both on a national and global level.

However inspiring Mostashari’s theses thus may be, their complicity with the capitalist compulsion for competition and increase in productivity turns them into just another mode of managing the global crisis (in this case: by effectively cutting off the non-competitive outer regions so they don’t burden the isolated centers). Instead, Mostashari’s remarks about the possibility of “more radical and experimental policies”, which could “be explored in smaller cities and towns” [13], should be taken seriously, in that the first “radical policy” would require nothing less than the abolishment of the capitalist mode of production. This would include the abolishment of the production of commodities for the sake of accumulating abstract capital; the need to sell one’s labor power in order to survive; the separation between (masculine) “wage labor” and (femininely connoted) “housework”; and the differentiation between the sphere of living and the political sphere of representative power.

This abolishment could profit from the experience of an episode in Iranian history which is rarely mentioned: the history of the shoras, the spontaneous workers’ councils which had sprung up in 1979, as part of the movement of strikes and factory occupations which substantially helped for the downfall of the Shah – and which were eventually repressed by the new Islamic rulers. One of the main reasons for their downfall, according to Saeed Rahnema, was that “[t]here were no industrial organizations that could connect individual [factory] units together”. [15] The shoras eventually failed to exert social power and limited their perspective to the immediate work place. Nevertheless (as outlined by Guy Debord in 1967), workers’ councils, when “vesting all decision-making and executive powers in themselves and federating with one another through the exchange of delegates, answerable to the base and recallable at any time” [16], could serve as a point of departure for practical strategies on how capitalism with its detrimental competitive logic and its social divisions might be overcome.

6. Why the Green Movement Will Fail

To be completely clear: It cannot be questioned that the realization of the Green Movement’s agenda – consisting of the call for human rights, women’s rights, personal freedom, labor rights, freedom of the press, etc. – would be of immense emancipatory value and fully justifies the call for a liberal state with a parliamentary democracy. Any movement for such a liberal state is also fully justified by the fact that a democratic state would almost definitely abandon the Islamic Republic’s support for Hezbollah and its quest for nuclear weapons (which continues despite the sanctions [17]). However, as the Green Movement is strictly limiting its aspirations to the political sphere, it is at best calling for abstract political rights instead of tangible improvements for women, laborers or minorities (see e. g. Moussavi’s declaration for International Workers’ Day 2010, revolving around “social justice and equality” [18]). For the last two years, numerous strikes and revolts by workers in Iran can be listed (as done, e. g. by Jamshid Assadi [19]), but their distinct feature is that they seemingly have no connection or contact at all with the “political” Green Movement and remain completely separated from it. This fundamental blank is also stressed by Aresh Zehforus (quoted in a very interesting summary by Frieda Affary):

[t]he discussion of democracy and freedom can only have an impact on social classes and strata when it is directly related to their situation and the production and distribution of wealth in society. Otherwise the discussion of democracy and freedom will turn into an abstract and ineffective discourse and will lead to disillusionment among the masses.” [20]

As should be clear by now, this essential blank spot within the Green Movement’s agenda is itself a result of the false self-constraint to strictly adhere to the capitalist forms of society. As liberation within capitalism is only conceivable in forms of a more democratic representative government, while at the same time the structural roots for the current crisis are beyond the reach of individual states and governments, it is clear that the striving for emancipation in capitalist forms cannot have any concrete demands on its agenda, because its prospects of a tangible improvement of the situation are itself meager. It must necessarily be limited to the call for abstract “rights”, “dignity”, “pride”, etc. – slogans which obviously fail to raise the necessary support.

Furthermore, the self-imposed limitation to the abstract political sphere also results in the forsaking of any social power, which is invariably necessary in order to confront the conflicting interests of Iran’s ruling caste. In an interview in March 2010, Saeed Rahnema correctly pointed at this fundamental lack in the Green Movement’s strategy:

[…] there are lots of street protests and confrontations at this stage, but as important as they are, none of these can really threaten the existence of the Islamic regime. […] The regime will not change with street demonstrations alone.” [15]

The struggle of the Green Movement for democratic reform cannot succeed without attaining social power to confront the Islamic regime; at the same time its own goal is to relinquish all power, because it is the very essence of representational democracy that all power is wrestled from the individuals and their communities and concentrated within the elected government. It could therefore be said that the Green Movement is already “too democratic” from its beginning, since it forfeits any possible power it could have – and, thus, any chance for success. (The influence of religious ideas on the movement and its leaders also contributes to this refusal of the movement to constitute itself as social power.)

As M. Cheshme, also quoted by Frieda Afary, concludes: “[i]n light of the developments and events that have begun with Tunisia as the starting point, it seems that the era of revolutions of color has come to an end. Theoreticians need to think about theorizing a new model for revolutions or socio-political changes” [20]. The end of the epoch of the “revolutions of color”, confined to the political space, asking for abstract liberal rights etc., itself is marked by the increasing incredibility of the capitalist state as a form of emancipation. This also puts an end to any ideology which invariably links any far-reaching social and economic emancipation from capitalism to the transitional phase of a “truly liberal” democratic state. Given the deteriorating 21st century realities of capitalist crisis, the longed-for “normality” of such a state is inevitably lost. The struggle for social emancipation, political participation and improvements of the situation of living cannot express itself in the vision of a democratic and liberal state anymore. As paradox as it may sound, but it might actually be easier to overcome capitalist society than to supplant the Islamic Republic’s terror regime with any form of parliamentary government.


[1] Iranian Progressive Youth Essay Contest 2011. (June 2011)

[2] Karl Marx: Grundrisse. Cited after: Moishe Postone: Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Cambridge 1996, p. 34.

[3] Robert Kurz: Die Krise des Tauschwerts (German). Cited after: Claus-Peter Ortlieb: The Lost Innocence of Productivity (2010).

[4] Ali Amadi Motlagh: The State of Iran’s Economy: An Interview with Professor Kaveh Ehsani. (25.10.2010).

[5] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: Iranian Textile Workers Demand Back Wages (04.11.2010).

[6] Payvand Iran News: Conflicting Reports on Iran’s Unemployment Rate (07.04.2011)

[7] Payvand Iran News: Inflation rate hits 12.4% (04.04.2011)

[8] Ardalan Sayami: Wave of Labor Strikes in Iran (07.03.2011)

[9] Homylafayette: Iran’s Cities a Sea of Poverty (04.03.2011)

[10] Kevan Harris: Pseudo-Privatization in the Islamic Republic (15.10.2010)

[11] Payvand Iran News: Iran Sees Oil Revenues Hit $80B (05.03.2011)

[12] Steven Connor: Warning Oil Supplies are Running Out Fast (03.08.2009)

[13] Ali Mostashari: Government from the Ground Up (09.08.2010)

[14] Ali Mostashari: The Strength of the Cities (27.08.2010)

[15] Ian Morrison: Not by Street Demonstrations Alone. An Interview with Saheed Rahnema (28.03.2010)

[16] Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle. New York 1995, p. 86

[17] Julian Borger: WikiLeaks cables: Iran Has Cleared Major Hurdle to Nuclear Weapons (20.01.2011)

[18] Arash Aramesh: Green Movement Reaches Out for Labor for Support (30.04.2010)

[19] Mohammad Tahavori: The Green Movement and Labor Movement. An Interview with Jamshid Assadi (23.4.2010)

[20] Frieda Afary: Iranians Draw Lessons from Middle Eastern Uprisings (27.03.2011)