Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 14, 2018

Tehran Taboo; Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 14, 2018

If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.

New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.

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January 7, 2018

The role of Iran’s water crisis in the recent protests

Filed under: Ecology,Iran,water — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

On January 2nd, an NY Times article about the protests in Iran included a couple of paragraphs that caught my eye:

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 a nutshell, these are exactly the sort of social/ecological contradictions that helped to pave the way for the Syrian revolution as I pointed out in an article titled “Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden”, where I quoted a high-level government official:

There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.

–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria

In going through 16 years of articles on Lexis-Nexis about the drought in Iran, I came across a Financial Times article dated August 21, 2014 that cited a high-level government official who was just as terror-stricken:

Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.

The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.

It is important to understand that the migration of countryside people to the cities of Syria and Iran was not exclusively made up of people like the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath”. It did not just include farmers but those tied into the agrarian economy as well– such as farm equipment vendors and their workers, shopkeepers, professionals and the like. When the farm is the hub of a wheel, the spokes will certainly be affected when it is removed.

Most dramatically, Iran has suffered the loss of major sources of water in the last few decades that were as much of a cultural landmark as they were economically critical. It would be somewhat analogous to the Rio Grande river drying up in the USA (a not far-fetched comparison in light of this article.)

On September 18, 2001, the NY Times reported that Lake Hamoun, Iran’s largest body of fresh water and one of the largest in the world, had turned into a desert. The drought was to blame but so was the geopolitical conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which controlled a major dam on the Hirmand River that fed Lake Hamoun. Despite a 30-year-old agreement that allowed some water to flow even in dry years, the Taliban cut off the supply. After the Taliban were ousted, the American-supported regime had just as little interest in cooperation with Iran for obvious reasons. As I pointed out in my review of Müşerref Yetim’s “Negotiating International Water Rights: Resource Conflict in Turkey, Syria and Iraq”, this is not uncommon:

Competition for Euphrates and Tigris water has reverberated in domestic politics, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Following the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iraq began to step up suppression of the Kurdish movement in the north. This prompted Syria to undermine Saddam Hussein by reducing the Euphrates flow. In effect, the conflicts between states in the Middle East over strategic goals almost inevitably spills over into the conflicts over water.

Lake Urmia, another key water resource, was also deeply impacted but in this instance, drought was conjoined with government mismanagement to create an environmental disaster as the Guardian reported on September 6, 2011. This time it was not an Afghan dam that was drying up a lake but the 36 dams within Iran built on rivers flowing into Lake Urmia. Since Urmia was a salt lake, the ecological impact would be catastrophic for farms surrounding it. When salt lakes go dry, the salt diffuses into the surrounding terrain and will kill crops such as almond and garlic found near Lake Urmia. It is also necessary to understand that its loss would be a major loss to the Azeri people who lived in the region. This video shows a protest held in September 2011 about the pending loss of the lake.

One other example should give you an idea of the gravity of the situation. Zayanderud is a river whose name means “life-giving waters”. In the FT article referenced above, you discover that it has flowed through Isfahan for more than 1,000 years from its source in the Zagros Mountains to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni south of Isfahan. But the FT now described it as “a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan”. A man quoted in the article has the exact profile of those who were raising hell a few days ago:

“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.

A loss of this river meant that about two million people who depend on agriculture have lost their income, according to Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.

Despite the FT’s obvious neoliberal bias, its analysis of how this came about is quite accurate. Under Ahmadinejad, profits generated through the sale of oil helped to prop up a water distribution system that was unsustainable. As a rentier state, Iran’s economy was based on handouts rather than the production of manufactured goods. Ahmadinejad targeted the farmers as a primary source of support without regard to the broader consequences for the nation. Cheap oil and subsidies made the massive use of pumps feasible just as was the case in Syria. As groundwater became more and more diverted into growing water-hungry crops like melons for the export market, the mostly urban population had to pay the piper. According to the UN, groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000 while the number of wells rose fivefold.

To give you an idea of how irrational such practices can become, the Trend News Agency reported on November 7, 2017 that Iran continues to prioritize the agri-export sector even as increased production yields fewer revenues. Last year exports increased by 15 percent but their value fell by 9 percent.

Watermelon was an exception to the norm. It registered an 18 percent and 33 percent growth in terms of volume and value respectively. This is a water-consuming commodity par excellence and as its name implies is mostly water. Some economists in Iran argue that Iran is actually exporting water in a period of drought.

As the drought and the misuse of water resources began to take its toll on society, Ahmadinejad came up with a novel excuse. In 2012, he made a speech claiming that the drought was “partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country”. Supposedly Europe was using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops. As might be expected, Global Research found this plausible. To bolster its case, the conspiracist website informed its readers:

Hollywood just released a film on Weather Modification gone mad titled, ‘Geostorm’ right after the worst hurricane season in a century. The film is about a network of satellites designed to control the global climate landscape. The plot of the film is that the satellites turns on Planet Earth with the intention to destroy everything in it by causing catastrophic weather conditions including hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Geostorm” earned a 13% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic opining that a Sharknado or two could have livened things up.

Not to be outdone by Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad from the city of Isfahan that lost its legendary life-giving waters blamed the drought on—who else—impious women. In a sermon, he offered this version of why the lakes and rivers were running dry: “They have brought me pictures that shows women by the side of the dry Zayanderud river. These actions will ensure the upper stream of the river will become dry too. Believe me it is true. You may ask yourself why European countries with so much crime and sin have so much rainfall … God punishes the believer, for remaining silent and letting girls take pictures by the river as if they were in European countries.”

Although the Ayatollah might be dismissed as Iran’s version of the idiot living in the White House, he reflects a deep structural problem in the political system that militates against a solution to these deeply entrenched policies that are typical of the short-term mindset of rentier states. With the revenues generated by oil exports, it is likely that the elites will not pay much attention to the overall need for a sustainable economy but to seek out technical solutions, the most recent of which is the use of desalination plants.

Ahmadinejad, the conspiracy theorist, initiated something called the Caspian Project that envisioned a vast network of pipelines that pumped desalinated water to the major cities. This was met with skepticism by the nation’s water and environmental experts who warned that the infrastructure necessary for such a system would cripple fragile agricultural communities and ruin ecosystems, especially near the desalination plants. These massive operations separate the salt from the incoming water and funnel the brine byproduct back into the ocean. In so doing, it has caused irreparable damage to marine life. In effect, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are also heavy financing requirements that are just as onerous as those involved in building nuclear power plants. If Iran is in a race to build a society that has a future, it is probably a big mistake to use technologies so wedded to the past.

There is only one scholarly article that deals with these intractable problems, which fortunately can be read online. Titled “Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation”,  it reviews the main causes of the crisis in terms geared to a mainstream audience. The section on the role of agriculture is worth quoting in its entirety:

The agricultural sector uses up to 92 percent of Iran’s water. Due to having an oil-based economy, Iran has overlooked the economic efficiency of its agricultural sector in its modern history.10 The desire for increased agricultural productivity has encouraged an expansion of cultivated areas and infrastructure across the country. However, this sector is not yet industrialized and is suffering from outdated farming technologies and practices leading to very low efficiency in irrigation and production.

The agricultural sector in Iran is economically inefficient and its contribution to gross domestic product has decreased over time. Irrigated agriculture is the dominant practice, while the economic return on water use in this sector is significantly low, and crop patterns across the country are inappropriate and incompatible with water availability conditions in most areas. Recently, concerns about the embodied water content of produced and exported crops have increased, but business still continues as usual as interest in crop choice by farmers is mostly correlated with crop market prices and their traditional crop choices in the area.

The claimed interest in improving the living conditions of farmers is inconsistent with their relative income, which has decreased over time due to increasing water scarcity and decreasing productivity. Forced migration from rural to urban areas has been observed in some parts of the country where farming is no longer possible. However, agriculture continues to play a major role in the country, providing employment to more than 20 percent of the population. This role will remain significant as long as alternative job opportunities are unavailable in other sectors such as services and industry. The recent turmoil in Syria underscores that a loss of jobs in the agricultural sector can cause mass migration, creating national security threats and serious tensions.

While I would agree with the general analysis presented above, I would not call the protests a “national security threat”. If anything I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain. Iran has long-standing revolutionary traditions that will acquit the country well as the state lurches unsteadily into an approaching storm that will pose very sharp class contradictions.

January 4, 2018

The Iranian People’s Uprising

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:28 am

Iranian People Rise Again
By Reza Fiyouzat

Starting on Thursday December 28, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in different towns and cities across Iran. The protests broke out over economic issues such as high inflation and high youth unemployment, with the trigger being the sudden hike in price of eggs and chicken. The protesters, however, soon took up more politically oriented slogans, attacking the leaders of the regime with slogans such as, “People are begging and Mullahs rule like they’re gods!”

Regardless of how long these protests last and what the outcomes may be, these protests have proven once again that the Iranian regime is fundamentally incapable of addressing people’s most basic social and economic needs, and that is why for forty years it has depended on brute force to control the population. But, rule by brute force alone cannot last forever.

Deep-structure poverty has once again pushed the population over the edge. This uprising did not just happen out of the blue, though; it is the culmination of many smaller and more localized protests over a variety of social issues that have sent people to the streets in the past year.

But, first let’s see what has pushed people in Iran to take to the street once again, on a mass scale, across the country, in big cities just as in small towns; towns that most western readers have never heard of, nor will ever remember.

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May 22, 2017

The business of America is business

Filed under: Iran,Saudi Arabia,Trump — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Calvin Coolidge: The business of America is business

If the overarching goal of the USA is to use Saudi Arabia as its chief partner in a proxy war on the “axis of resistance” in the Middle East, then it can be said that Donald Trump is continuing with the policy of his predecessor Barack Obama and one that Hillary Clinton would have continued as part of the “neoliberal” foreign policy supported by John McCain, the NY Times op-ed page, and me–according to my intellectually-impaired detractors.

On the other hand, for NY Times reporters Ben Hubbard and Thomas Erdbrink, the visit was a departure from Obama’s foreign policy favoring Iran:

In using the headline address of his first foreign trip as president to declare his commitment to Sunni Arab nations, Mr. Trump signaled a return to an American policy built on alliances with Arab autocrats, regardless of their human rights records or policies that sometimes undermine American interests.

At the same time, he rejected the path taken by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr. Obama engaged with Iran to reach a breakthrough nuclear accord, which Mr. Trump’s administration has acknowledged Iran is following.

One has to wonder why the two reporters ever thought that there was a “return” to an American policy built on alliances with Arab autocrats given Obama’s actions as opposed to his high-falutin’ words. In a 2002 speech he called upon the Saudis to “stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent” but as President he sold $115 billion of arms to the Saudis, which was $30 billion more than George W. Bush ever did and even $5 million more than Trump’s deal.

Gareth Porter, a well-known supporter of the “axis of resistance” must be particularly disappointed in Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia since his foreign policy was supposedly a repudiation of Hillary Clinton’s hawkish stance. In a January 20, 2017 Middle East Eye article titled “US intervention in Syria? Not under Trump”, Porter expressed relief that Trump would cut off funding for the jihadi groups in Syria:

The US military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance US interests in Syria in the first place.

It recognised that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, for the very first time in the six year war in Syria, the USA has deliberately struck Assad’s military. The first instance was to retaliate for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack; the most recent was an air strike against a convoy of militias advancing on a base where United States and British Special Forces were training Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. Pirouetting as nimbly as Baryshnikov, Porter warned Commondreams readers about Trump agreeing to the Pentagon’s “permanent War in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria” but held out hope that “judging from his position during the campaign and his recent remarks, Trump may well baulk at the plans now being pushed by his advisers.” This distinction between Trump and his bellicose advisers James Mattis and H.R. McMaster based on Trump’s “remarks” is a reminder that P.T. Barnum was right when he observed that there is a sucker born every minute. Doesn’t Porter understand that if Trump said it was a sunny day, you need to to bring an umbrella with you when you go outside?

On April 18th, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a letter to Paul Ryan assuring him that Iran was living up to the agreement made with the Obama administration not to develop nuclear arms even though the letter referred to Iran’s support of “terror” in the Middle East. Tillerson sounded very much as if he was Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State on April 10th in the aftermath of the bombing of a Syrian air base (largely ineffectual) with his statement that Assad’s reign was “coming to an end”. One supposes that these words carry about as much weight as Obama’s frequently repeated call for Assad to step down.

Meanwhile, Al_Masdar news, the former employer of neo-Nazi/Assadist Paul Antonopoulos and a reliable source of “axis of resistance” opinion, has good news for those who hoped that the Trump/Putin détente could be salvaged:

Russia’s Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford confirmed in their phone conversation the readiness to reinstate the memorandum of understanding on safe flights over Syria and to draw up more measures so as to avoid any conflicts, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday.

“Syria was in focus of the talks in the light of the agreements, reached in Astana on May 4 this year, on establishing de-escalation zones in some regions of Syria,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Astana talks began in Khazakistan in early January. Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Syria, they were supposed to lead to a truce and eventually an end to the war. The USA sent observers to Astana but did not push for “regime change”, even from the peanut gallery. Last week the rebel delegation boycotted the talks because Assad had violated the truce. Syria blamed Turkey for the breakdown at Astana but the idea that it was opposed to the general aim of the talks to consolidate Assad’s rule over the carcass that is Syria today appears ludicrous given Erdogan’s bromance with Putin that grew out of Turkey’s anxieties over the US-Kurdish military ties plus the need to reestablish commercial relations with Russia to counteract a deep economic slump.

Five days ago Trump announced that a waiver on sanctions on Iran would continue even with added restrictions. Relaxation will continue unabated in all likelihood given the election of Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who favors “globalism” as the people at Global Research might put it.

The verbal belligerence to Iran must be weighed against the USA’s continuing support for the Shi’a sectarian state in Iraq and its obvious willingness to abide by Assad’s continuing rule despite the two military strikes in 2017. If Trump and his generals were genuinely for prosecuting a proxy war with Iran and Russia, the first thing they would do is arm the rebels against Assad. However, as was the case with Obama, the rebels are expected to fight ISIS, not the blood-soaked despot whose brutal sectarian dictatorship helped ISIS take root.

In May 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry advised European banks to proceed full speed ahead investing in Iran, even if American banks still could not. It didn’t take too long for American corporations to take advantage of the thaw. On April 4, 2017 Iran signed a deal pay Boeing  $4 billion for 60 jets to refurbish its aging state-owned airline. I am generally not in the business of playing Nostradamus but I am predicting that Trump will okay the deal. After all, Calvin Coolidge got it right when he said that the business of America was business.

As the WSJ reported on March 28, 2017 in an article by Asa Fitch and Benoit Faucon, those European corporations Kerry encouraged will take advantage of profit-maximizing opportunities that it will be impossible for the USA to resist, especially when it comes to someone as nakedly devoted to corporate interests as Donald J. Trump:

After years shunning Iran, Western businesses are bursting through the country’s doors — but U.S. companies are noticeably absent.

Dozens of development projects and deals have been hammered out since Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers in 2015 lifted a range of sanctions. Among them, France’s Peugeot and Renault SA are building cars. The U.K.’s Vodafone Group PLC is teaming up with an Iranian firm to build up network infrastructure. Major oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell PLC have signed provisional agreements to develop energy resources. And infrastructure giants, including Germany’s Siemens AG, have entered into agreements for large projects.

Chicago-based Boeing Co. last year got the go-ahead to sell 80 aircraft valued at $16.6 billion to Iran. But for the most part, deals involving U.S. businesses are few and far between.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., have steered clear of Iran since the nuclear accord. A Ford spokeswoman said the company was complying with U.S. law and didn’t have any business with Iran. GM is focusing “on other markets, and other opportunities,” a spokesman said.

Peugeot has taken notice. Its Middle East chief, Jean-Christophe Quemard, said Peugeot’s early entry has left U.S. rivals in the dust. “This is our opportunity to accelerate,” he said last month.

U.S. companies are at risk of losing lucrative deals to early movers into a promising market of 80 million people, analysts say, setting off skirmishes among European and Asian companies eager to gain an edge on more-cautious U.S. competitors. But as latecomers, U.S. companies likely won’t face a learning curve in dealing with the political risks and the bureaucratic difficulties in Iran.

Apple Inc. explored entering the country after the Obama administration allowed the export of personal-communications devices in 2013, according to people familiar with the matter. But the company decided against it because of banking and legal problems, the people said. Apple declined to comment.

U.S. companies usually need special permission from the Treasury Department to do business with Iran. Further complicating matters for U.S. companies: President Donald Trump during his campaign threatened to rip up Iran’s nuclear deal, and he hit the country with new sanctions shortly after taking office. On Sunday, Iran imposed its own sanctions on 15 U.S. companies, mainly defense firms.

The nuclear deal removed a range of U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions in 2016 that had held back Iranian energy exports and put the brakes on foreign investment. But while food, medicine and agricultural products are exempted from U.S. restrictions, U.S. products are available in Iran often only through foreign subsidiaries or third-party importers.

Peugeot, officially known as Groupe PSA SA, is aiming to hit annual production of 200,000 cars in Iran by next year in conjunction with its partner Iran Khodro, after the two signed a 400 million euro ($432 million) joint-venture agreement in June. Already, the pace of both Peugeot’s and Renault’s car sales in Iran has more than doubled.

Asian companies, mainly Chinese ones, have had a growing presence in Iran. Some have stepped up activities since the nuclear deal, including China National Petroleum Corp., which joined France’s Total SA in a preliminary agreement to develop a major Iranian gas field in November.

Iran has caught the attention of a broad spectrum of investors beyond autos, with foreign companies selling everything from gas-powered turbines to mining technologies in the country.

Government-approved foreign direct investment shot up to more than $11 billion last year, official figures show, from $1.26 billion in 2015. Pedram Soltani, the vice president of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, said more than 200 foreign business delegations have visited Iran since the nuclear deal took effect.

“We see what’s happening in the U.S. and Mr. Trump’s comments,” said Ghadir Ghiafe, an Iranian steel-industry executive who is exploring partnerships with South American and European companies. “Our businessmen don’t pay much attention to it.”

Foreign companies still face daunting obstacles to doing business in Iran. Iran placed 131st out of 176 countries for corruption in a ranking by Transparency International last year. It also has major economic problems, including high unemployment and a banking system saddled with bad loans.

Large international banks remain reluctant to re-establish links with Iran despite the nuclear deal. That reluctance has made transfers of money into and out of Iran a challenge.

Western banks such as Standard Chartered PLC, BNP Paribas SA and Credit Suisse Group AG have generally refused to handle transactions to Iran for fear of running afoul of banking sanctions that remain. Chinese and smaller European banks have attempted to step into the breach, even though many companies remain concerned about the regulatory environment.

Some large multinationals — including infrastructure giants and major oil companies — are keeping a close eye on the U.S. in case sanctions snap back into place. Shell, Total SA and OMV AG of Austria have signed memorandums of understanding for deals in Iran but have yet to complete terms.

Last month, Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said the company would wait for clarity from the Trump administration before completing a $4.8 billion investment in the country’s South Pars offshore gas field.

But many foreign companies are finding the country’s growth hard to ignore.

The International Monetary Fund recently estimated the economy grew 7.4% in the first half of the Iranian fiscal year that ended this month, rebounding from a decline in the previous year. Meanwhile, a surge in demand has pushed consumer spending in Tehran to $5,240 per capita so far in 2017, up about 11% compared with 2016, according to Planet Retail, a London research firm.

American deals with Iran will go full steam ahead. That’s my prediction based on the fundamental laws of capitalism, a system that allowed IBM, Coca-Cola and Ford to do business with Nazi Germany even after WWII had begun.

May 19, 2017

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

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January 2, 2017

MRZine: goodbye and good riddance

Filed under: Iran,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

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After a decade of pumping out propaganda for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Baathist dictatorship in Syria, MRZine is no more. In a farewell note, editor Yoshie Furuhashi, who never wrote more than 2 or 3 articles for the online publication and none at all for its parent print magazine Monthly Review, stated that she is being reassigned to do translation for the institution founded by Paul Sweezy 67 years ago as a voice of the independent left.

Furuhashi’s hiring was a perverse act and likely the decision of MR board member John Mage, who like Furuhashi has a scanty publication record. Around the time that she was being considered for this post, she had been at war with subscribers to Marxmail, the mailing list I created in 1998, LBO-Talk, Doug Henwood’s listserv created the same day as mine, and PEN-L, a mailing list geared to economics professors in the spirit of URPE. For Furuhashi, these 3 mailing lists, which were among the most prominent in Marxist cyberspace, only served as a receptacle for her pro-Ahmadinejad messages that came across as leaflets being dropped from an airplane.

Her devotion to the Islamic Republic was the culmination of a several years long disaffection from the American left, including a brief membership in Solidarity. Like many young radicals, the realization that socialist revolution was not around the corner came as a bitter disappointment. Instead of taking the “longer view” of history as articulated by Monthly Review editor Paul Baran, Furuhashi was attracted to the Ahmadinejad presidency like a moth to a flame. Why fritter away your time in a small and isolated socialist group in the USA when you can become a minister without portfolio for a government that she considered even “more socialist” than Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela?

Not everybody at Monthly Review was happy with MRZine turning into something that prefigured the turn toward RT.com on the left. Seven years ago, Barbara Epstein resigned from the MR board because she found the pro-Ahmadinejad material on MRZine unacceptable. Three years earlier 17 Iranians living outside of the country wrote an open letter to Monthly Review with the same complaints. Despite Epstein’s resignation and the open letter, John Mage rejected the idea that MRZine was pro-Ahmadinejad. Of course, as is the case with all such matters, the people who owned Monthly Review were not under any obligation to meet anybody’s expectations. Who knows if Mage or John Bellamy Foster would still regard MRZine as having a diversity of views on Iran and Syria today? If you did a mathematical analysis of the tweets that appeared on its home page, you will find that there about 100 pro-Assad tweets to every one against the dictator. But like I say, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

I had the foolish idea ten years ago that MRZine might have functioned in the same spirit as the Guardian (the now defunct American leftist weekly newspaper) and Monthly Review that were both launched around the same time as part of an attempt by the left to reach out beyond the CPUSA’s orbit. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s American Socialist, the Monthly Review was not a “line” publication but much more of a forum for the Marxist left to discuss and even debate its differences.

In a NY Times obituary for Paul Sweezy in 2004, John Bellamy Foster is quoted about the original vision of its founder:

“The Monthly Review was attractive to people who were leaving the Communist Party and other sectarian groups,” said John Bellamy Foster, a co-editor of the publication now. “It was and is Marxist, but did not hew to the party line or get into sectarian struggles.”

That might be true to some extent about the magazine but clearly not of MRZine. There certainly was a party line and it certainly did involve itself in sectarian struggles. Everybody understood that Yoshie Furuhashi was the last person in the world to be hired as an editor if the intention was to stay above the fray. Her history was that of a one-person sect that had a program of defending the “axis of resistance” to the point of self-parody. In March of 2011, when Assad’s cops had castrated a 13-year old boy who had been caught protesting the dictatorship and left the dead body on his parents’ doorstep, Furuhashi wrote one of the few articles under her name for MRZine that showed her true colors:

Millions of Syrians rallied all over Syria, pledging loyalty to the country, in support of Bashar al-Assad, on 29 March 2011.  The dialectic of the regime and the opposition in Syria, it is safe to say, is neither like Tunisia and Egypt, nor like Iraq and Libya.

Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.  Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.

This was the Furuhashi that had antagonized hundreds if not thousands of subscribers on listserv’s such as Marxmail, LBO-Talk and PEN-L. Her article was pro-regime propaganda and blatantly so, the sort of thing that people like Rick Sterling, Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett have become infamous for. After six years of genocidal=like war, there are more and more articles now that assess the role of this sector of the left. Among them is one written by Santiago Alba Rico, a Spanish-born philosopher and writer based in Tunisia. Titled “Aleppo, the tomb of the left”, it is unsparing in its judgement of the Yoshie Furuhashi’s of the world.

In short, a large part of the Arab, European and Latin American left has sacrificed internationalism to a geostrategic order in which the peoples and their democratic struggles no longer have any friends and in which this left, irrelevant and in retreat now throughout the world, has let the regimes against which the “Arabs” rose up in 2011 advance without resistance. We have understood nothing, we have done nothing to help, we have handed over to the enemy all our weapons, including conscience. After Syria democracy is retreating everywhere. Aleppo is indeed the tomb of the Syrians’ dreams of freedom, but it is also the tomb of the global left. Just when we need it most.

 

October 2, 2015

Taxi

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

Paradoxically, Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” is now the third film the Iranian director has made despite the twenty-year ban on making films imposed by his nation’s morality police. What keeps him out of prison, you might ask? It is likely a function of his enormous prestige. Since he is widely recognized as one of Iran’s leading directors along with Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he has written two films, and Asghar Farhadi, it would be unacceptable to put him in prison. As a sign of the delicate balance between acclaim and censure, the state-controlled Cinema Organisation, congratulated Panahi for winning the Berlin Film Festival while at the same time accusing it of undermining the Iranian state. Its top executive Hojjatollah Ayyubi stated, “I am delighted to announce that the director of Taxi continues to drive in the fast lane of his life, freely enjoying all of its blessings.”

Read full article

April 7, 2015

About Elly; Salvation Army

Filed under: Film,Gay,Iran,Islam — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Although I am generally put off by prizes and “best of” lists, I would be remiss if I did not cite Asghar Farhadi as one of the best filmmakers in the world today, who is to Iran what Nuri Bilge Ceylan is to Turkey: a supremely gifted dramatist that weaves the stories of individual men and women into the social and political fabric of his nation.

Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, “About Elly” is the third Farhadi film I have seen. Even though its release follows “A Separation” and “The Past”, it was made first—back in 2009. Made in 2011, “A Separation”—as the title implies—deals with the break-up of a husband and wife in Tehran whose marital problems are exacerbated by Iran’s charged political climate, especially for such well-educated and secular middle-class people. Made a year later and set in Paris, “The Past” examines some of the same family issues of “A Separation”. An Iranian husband has traveled to Paris to sign the divorce papers for his French wife. Although the primary tension in the film is about the pending break-up, a parallel drama revolves around the fate of foreigners in an increasingly nativist France.

This social milieu and its particular problems are once again the subject of “About Elly”, a film that works both as a story of responsibility and guilt after the fashion of Ian McEwan’s earlier (and better) novels, as well as the problems facing single women in Iran today.

“About Elly” opens with a small caravan of cars barreling through a tunnel in Iran as one of the women passengers is yelling out the window for no good reason except to be heard. She and the others are in high spirits since they are driving to a beachside resort on the Caspian Sea, the Iranian counterpart to a weekend in the Hamptons.

One of the male passengers is a handsome and bearded (but probably not for religious reasons) man in his thirties named Ahmad, who like the protagonist in “The Past”, has just separated from a European wife—in this instance a German. He is visiting Tehran where he hopes that Sepideh, a female member of the entourage, can fix him up with a nice Iranian woman.

Sepideh invites Elly, her daughter’s teacher, along for just that reason. Despite the Western-sounding name, it is just an informal version of Elizeh or Elika, etc. The fact that Sepideh has no idea of Elly’s full name might indicate that the ties between her and the rest of the group are tenuous at best. In essence, what is taking place in this well educated and secular milieu of law school faculty members is not that much different than traditional courtship rituals that have taken place for a millennium and one that usually empowers man at the woman’s expense.

As the group drives along toward the resort and even after they have unpacked, they tease the two who have just met about the upcoming marriage—to Elly’s mounting irritation. Perhaps the fact that all the women wear scarves—even indoors where it is not mandatory—indicates that their modernity is incomplete.

In the only moments when Ahmad and Elly are alone together, she asks why he and his German wife had divorced. His answered that she told him “a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.” He obviously agreed.

About twenty minutes into the film, there is an abrupt shift toward the tragic. Sepideh has asked Elly to keep an eye on her young son who is wading in the sea just behind their villa. As the film cuts to the group playing volleyball in their villa’s back yard, we see one of the younger children come crying. Sepideh’s son has been carried out to sea. The men rush into the turbulent waters and rescue the boy from drowning but Elly is nowhere to be seen. They fear that she has drowned trying to rescue the boy but hold out hope that she might have only left unannounced back to Tehran out of annoyance with their teasing.

The remainder of the film consists of mounting tension between Sepideh and her husband over her role in procuring a date with Ahmad, especially in light of the fact that Elly has been engaged for the past three years. If Elly had mixed feelings about the arranged tryst with Ahmad, she is simply miserable about being engaged to a man who will not allow her to break it off. All of this takes place against a backdrop of a desperate search for her body in the foreboding waters of the Caspian.

It is worth mentioning what David Bordwell, arguably the most respected Marxist film critic in the world today, wrote about the film in 2009:

The best, and my favorite film I’ve seen so far this year, was About Elly. It is directed by Asghar Fahradi, and it won the Silver Bear at Berlin. I can’t say much about it without giving a lot away; like many Iranian films, it relies heavily on suspense. That suspense is at once situational (what has happened to this character?) and psychological (what are characters withholding from each other?). Starting somewhat in the key of Eric Rohmer, it moves toward something more anguished, even a little sinister in a Patricia Highsmith vein.

Gripping as sheer storytelling, the plot smoothly raises some unusual moral questions. It touches on masculine honor, on the way a thoughtless laugh can wound someone’s feelings, on the extent to which we try to take charge of others’ fates. I can’t recall another film that so deeply examines the risks of telling lies to spare someone grief. But no more talk: The less you know in advance, the better. About Elly deserves worldwide distribution pronto.

While not quite “pronto”, we can be grateful for the opportunity to see a film that according to Wikipedia was rated the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time by a national society of Iranian critics. Considering the artistic merit of Iranian films in general, this is high praise indeed.

Arriving as VOD (identified at the distributor’s website), “Salvation Army” is a major breakthrough since it is the very first film with a gay protagonist to come out of the Middle East and North Africa.

Abdellah Taïa, the first openly gay author in the Arab world, has now adapted one of his novels as a film, one that showed at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York last year. Set in Casablanca, this is a bildungsroman in Taïa’s own words. The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdellah who is a closeted gay who has desultory trysts with older men in his neighborhood but whose most amorous feelings are directed toward his older heterosexual brother. His mother, sensing that there is something “wrong” with him, abjures him from spending too much time going through his brother’s clothes, especially his underwear.

It is obvious that family life has gotten the better of him. With a father who beats his mother and a mother who treats him like a servant, and sisters who laugh at his softness without actually openly engaging in gay bashing, there is not much joy to be found in Casablanca. In many ways, this is a tale that subverts the stereotypes many people have developed from reading Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and the like.

Deliverance arrives in the form of a gay Swiss professor who kept Abdellah as his courtesan in exchange for help in a visa and entrance into the college where he works. The second part of “Salvation Army” depicts and older and wiser Abdellah fending off the professor and trying to eke out a living in Switzerland just before his first semester begins. This includes crashing at the local Salvation Army, the title of the film.

The film does not have a conventional plot but moves along as a series of vignettes that reflect different aspects of gay life in Morocco. It is not surprising given its provenance that it has a novelistic quality, with most of the drama having a subdued if not repressed quality. In the most evocative scene, Abdellah has gone to a beachside resort with his older and younger brothers. Just before they leave, the mother gives him an amulet to put under his older brother’s bed as a spell to ward him away from prostitutes. When he hooks up with a surly but willing waitress, Abdellah phones his mother to advise her that a stronger spell was needed.

I strongly recommend the Wikipedia entry on Abdellah Taïa that reveals him to be a multifaceted figure with a willingness to take up many other issues besides gay rights, including repression in Putin’s Russia and the terrorism that afflicts the Muslim world.

There is also a N.Y. Times article that is very much worth reading that I include below, just so that you do not run into the usual paywall issues:

HE was born inside the public library of Rabat in Morocco where his dad worked as a janitor and where his family lived until he was 2. For most of his childhood, he hid his sexuality as best he could, but his effeminate demeanor brought mockery and abuse, even as it would later become a source of artistic inspiration.

About eight years ago, the author Abdellah Taïa, now 40, came out to the Moroccan public in his books and in the news media, appearing on the cover of a magazine under the headline “Homosexual Against All Odds.”

It was an act that made him one of the few to publicly declare his sexual orientation in Morocco, where homosexuality is a crime. The hardest part, he recalls, was facing his family. They probably always knew, he said, they just never talked about it. Still, it took years to overcome the rifts.

“They cried and screamed,” said Mr. Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “I cried when they called me. But I won’t apologize. Never.”

In February, Mr. Taïa screened his film “Salvation Army” at the National Film Festival in Tangier, an adaptation of his book of the same title, and a promising directorial debut that gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist. The film, which has already been shown at festivals in Toronto and Venice and won the Grand Prix at the Angers Film Festival in France, was shown at the New Directors Festival in New York last month.

“Salvation Army” is based on the author’s life growing up in Morocco, his sexual awakening, his fascination with a brother 20 years older, his encounters with older men in dark alleys and his complex relationship with his mother and six sisters who mocked him for being too girly or too attached to them.

SHOOTING the film in two countries, he made clear artistic choices: no voice-overs, no music, no explicit love scenes. The film details a trip with his brother on which the two men bonded and also, a few years later, an affair with a Swiss man. After he moves to Switzerland in his 20s, he connects again with his mother.

But the film also shows the anger and frustration of the young Abdellah, as he fends off the advances of older men in a society that publicly rejects homosexuals.

“A lot of men in Morocco have sexual relations with men, but I looked feminine so I was the only homosexual,” he said. “In Morocco, sexual tension is everywhere and I wanted to show that in my film without having crude sex scenes; to stay true to these secretive behaviors.”

One night when he was 13 and with his family, drunken men outside called out his name and asked him to come down to entertain them, a traumatic scene he recalled in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” After that he decided to change his persona, to eliminate his effeminate mannerisms to stop men asking him for sexual favors.

He worked hard to learn French so he could move to Europe to escape the oppression, moving to Switzerland in 1998 and then to France the following year.

“I can’t live in Morocco,” Mr. Taïa said in an interview in a Parisian brasserie. “The entire neighborhood wanted to rape me. A lot of people in Morocco are abused by a cousin or a neighbor but society doesn’t protect them. There, rape is insignificant. There is nothing you can do.”

Mr. Taïa spent his childhood watching Egyptian movies, detailing them in a scrapbook where he collected pictures of movie stars he admired, like Faten Hamama and Souad Hosni. The freedom in Egyptian cinema, where women appeared without veils and alcohol was consumed openly, pervaded his living room and gave him hope. In a scene in “Salvation Army,” the family is seen watching “Days and Nights” (1955) by Henri Barakat, and a scene where Abdel Halim Hafez sings, “Ana Lak ala Tool” (“I Am Yours Forever).

“Egyptian movies saved me,” he said. “There was already the idea of transgression through television happening in my house with my sisters. In my head, I connected that to homosexuality.”

THE author says he considers himself Muslim because he is very spiritual, and he believes that freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as “1001 Nights.”

“I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam,” he said. “It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”

His books have stirred some negative reviews and reaction. His writing, in particular, has been criticized as undisciplined, as if it were dictated. Others say that it is the rawness of the writing that makes his work authentic and touching.

Mr. Taïa says he always wanted to become a filmmaker. He became a writer by accident after writing all his thoughts and experiences down in a journal to learn French. While he draws on his experiences growing up, he says he has never looked to art to exorcise the pain and abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.

“Books, like the film, do not solve anything,” he said. “My neuroses are, at some level, what we might call my creativity. But what I produce artistically does not help me in any way in my real life. Nothing is resolved. Everything is complex, complicated. I sincerely believe that there is only love to heal and soothe troubled souls.”

He says he has no preference between writing and filmmaking. “To me, both have the same source: the wonderful Egyptian films that I discovered with my family on Moroccan television during my childhood. Everything comes from images. For years, my brain has been structured from images of films I thought and rethought, in a manner at once naïve and serious. I will continue to write books inspired by images — and by my neuroses, of course.”

Today, he has patched up relations with most family members, though there are still awkward moments. His older brother, always cold and distant, remains estranged, a point of particular pain for Mr. Taïa. The brother was worshiped by the entire family not only for his charisma but because he saved them from poverty when he took several government jobs before marrying at the age of 35.

His mother died shortly after Mr. Taïa came out, and he now has a cordial relationship with his sisters. He has over 40 nieces and nephews who symbolize a new more open-minded generation of Moroccans — they often post messages of encouragement on his official Facebook page.

Still, Mr. Taïa finds it very difficult to go home.

“I can’t talk to them,” he said. “I am just a human being. They were ashamed of me. I always felt they were. I don’t want them to be proud of me. And anyway, they’re not.”

HE was one of the few Moroccan authors to denounce the oppressive policies of the kingdom and to strongly back the Feb. 20 movement that led protests in Morocco in 2011 demanding democratic reforms. His thoughts on this experience are detailed in chapters of the book “Arabs Are No Longer Afraid,” which was released at the biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York in March.

Mr. Taïa is working on his next book: a tale about old Moroccan prostitutes who at the end of their careers touring the world have landed in Paris. He lives in a small studio apartment near the central Place de la République, and worked as a baby sitter for over 10 years to finance his work. He still hasn’t found love but is convinced it is what will heal his wounds.

December 30, 2014

David Duke’s warning

Filed under: Iran,racism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

RAW STORY

Ex-KKK leader David Duke: Lay off Steve Scalise or I’ll start naming other pols I met with

David Duke (DavidDuke.com)

In an interview with Fusion.net explaining his connection to current House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Duke said that he is exceptionally well-connected within the U.S. political class and that charges of racism against him are a product of the media’s “zionist” and “tribalist” mentality.

Incoming Majority Whip Scalise has come under fire over a speaking engagement with Duke’s pro-white EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) foundation in 2002.

According to Duke, the rush to repudiate Scalise and his possible white-nationalist sympathies is “all bullshit.”

“I’ve grown up” since his days as a Grand Wizard of the Klan, Duke told Fusion’s Brett Logiurato via phone. “And I know who the real racists are.”

* * * *

Yeah, and this is one of them:

November 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

Filed under: democracy,Iran,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

A guest post by Reza Fiyouzat

The engineers know better, but the common story about Edison finally finding the one filament that did work suggests that it took more than a thousand tries. The social project of building a socialist society must surely be more complicated than that, and therefore will require many tries. So, let’s not be disheartened. We do know what does not work. That is a good continuing point; not a starting-from-scratch point, but a point of progress.

In the Manifesto, Marx draws a comparison between the transitions from feudalism to capitalism to the epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. In other words, for Marx, there would not be one major event that would bring about world socialism, but a series of events and a long period of class struggles that would eventually overthrow capitalism as the dominant mode of production and social relations.

Looking at it as a historical process, we must then assign characteristics to this process, so that we can determine at what stage of the historical process we stand today, and where to go from here. Traditionally, it has come to a few choices; one way to look at the transition to socialism is as a two-stage revolution with two historically distinguishable stages, the first ‘democratic’ and then ‘socialist’, with strict rules to be followed at each stage, in some prescriptions with experts at the helm of a revolutionary command center directing the revolution, deciding all the important decisions. Or, we can see it as a dynamic historical process with ups and downs for both sides of the class struggle, yet a process that can be influenced by the wise tactical and strategic interventions of revolutionaries, yet a process that has to be moved from below. Or, you can just characterize it as an uninterrupted process (as some do), or as the Trotskyist school suggests, a permanent revolution. If I were a Trotskyist, I would propose a reformulation in favor of a permanent revolution/counterrevolution.

All these different formulations point to the same basic historical fact: the fact that class struggle does not take a break. You’re either winning tactically or strategically, or you’re losing tactically/strategically. So perhaps too much energy is expended in some socialist quarters in the debate over ‘how many stages’ we should have. All sides agree that it is a historical process, not a one-step event.

For this reason it is important to take into consideration Gramsci’s insightful concepts of ‘war of maneuvers’ (as in, what we should do during revolutionary periods) as contrasted to ‘war of positions’ (characterized by spontaneous mass struggles that arise in non-revolutionary conditions, and what socialists should do in those fights). This conceptualization is much more productive than the simplistic and ultimately mistaken dichotomy, ‘reform v. revolution’.

For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.

That is why for Lenin it had become clear that the most conscious and committed communists and socialist workers and intellectuals needed to organize themselves in a political party exactly because they are supposed to intervene in every struggle caused by the never-ending contradictions that capitalism throws up periodically. Your intervention is likely to be a lot more effective when you have an organizational capability for analyzing, planning and acting when you need to do so. This is just elementary politics.

Now, a political party based on ideas of Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries, at a particular time and in a particular place, should not be reduced to an organizational fetishism, attempting to replicate the Bolshevik party. The principle we need to take into account is far more basic, and is the antithesis of fetishistic. The basic principle is simple: Be Organized! For the obvious reasons that the other side is highly organized and a very violent and effective fighter.

The organizational form itself cannot be the main problematic; the form can and does vary and nobody can eliminate the possibility that, besides the old forms that have proven effective, newer forms of organization are possible and even necessary. Some will work, and some will not work, like the Occupy Movement’s ‘lack of structure’ structure. But the reason Occupy Movement fizzled out quickly had less to do with a ‘lack of organized structure’. ‘Lack of structure’ went along with a more fundamental lack. There actually was a structure, I went to regular peoples assemblies: the hand gestures and the people’s mike, as you remember, even came in handy for the late night comedians to get easy laughs. The structure, however, did not allow for a clear articulation of what concretely it was fighting for. It became the hallmark of the movement to declare even (and proudly so) that they must not explicitly state demands! Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of a movement, in a way.

So, the main problematic is not lack of ‘proper organization’. Our most real concerns should be to engage with and intervene in reality, and while doing so let’s not forget to pay attention to how we’re doing it, ergo, the need for being organized and self-critical, always learning from our own practices and mistakes, always looking for more effective means of achieving political goals that actually have an effect in the real world.

That is where we can win the battle of democracy. Not just in struggles that come out with declared socialist aims. No such mass movements ever happen anywhere spontaneously. People come out onto the streets for very concrete demands. They don’t come out shouting, “We Want Socialism!” Most people come out shouting, “We Want Water! We Want Bread! We Want No More Wars! We demand equal rights! We demand safety from the random violence of the State! We want water sources that don’t burn up when you light a match to ’em!”

Democracy is not just some nicety or luxury, as some socialists are prone to think. It is not reducible to elections. Democracy is the essence of pushing capital to its limits and then pushing some more till it cracks wide open. This means that, as socialists, we don’t sit back and grade whatever movement arises in the society, giving it a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ before we decide whether or not it should be supported. Supported, as in, just in words even (not to denigrate the value of verbal support when that is all you can give). Notice the mentality though:  the movement hits the streets; we wait some time to give ourselves enough time to give it a grade; then what we mostly do is announce support or no support. The mentality is that of a reactive mode, not a proactive mode; not a mentality that tries to shape and change reality, but one that takes directions from social reality.

This mentality does nothing to intervene and affect the movements that arise spontaneously; to find, in the array of forces present, close allies and build them up and change the internal dynamics of the movement; to infuse good ideas into those movements, to facilitate their organizing, to bring them resources, etc. To intervene in all struggles thrown up by capitalism’s never-ending crisis-inducing nature, that is the duty of the socialists. Sometimes we get defeated, and sometimes we win and elevate the social discussion around particular issues, and make clear the universal elements in those localized struggles. And by so doing, we elevate the conditions to our benefit for the next struggle that is sure to come up. And only by doing all that can we shorten the timeline for creating conditions that would support a revolutionary leap. Revolutionary conditions don’t just materialize out of the blue all by themselves. They must be brought about.

Aside: This is why one can easily find fault with some socialists and Marxists who denigrate environmental issues as ‘liberal’ or ‘middle class’. Such arguments are erroneous on two counts because environmental issues negatively impact the working classes doubly. On one level, environmental degradations that lead to loss of quality of life are invariably targeted at working class and poor communities. Are socialists and Marxists justified in ridiculing as ‘liberal’, for example, the Appalachian poor working class residents, whose mountaintops are being obliterated, for demanding that their tap water should not be a fuel source as well?

On another level, environmental damages brought about by industrial capital must be looked at in terms of externalization of costs for particular capitalists (and capital is always concrete, not an abstract economic category), and therefore about maximization of profit margins. To externalize the environmental costs to the society (again, always targeted carefully) is an indication of the inherently anti-democratic nature of capital, something that should be exposed by socialists as such, and used to draw attention to the inability of capital to protect the environment, which belongs to all. On the flip side, by forcing environmental regulations on polluting industries, we reduce their profit margins, and place limitations on how freely they can exploit resources. For socialists to consider environmental issues as something to be denigrated as subsidiary, unworthy, below-me-so-blow-me, is to abdicate responsibility as socialists. End of aside.

Looked at in this framework, for Marx and Lenin (see his State and Revolution as well as his debates regarding the necessity for the independence of the labor unions from both party and state structures in post-revolutionary Russia, particularly debates starting in 1918 and continuing to early 1920s, before his death) the battle for democracy means exactly to push into the cracks (contradictions) in capitalist social contract and to force them wide open. As well, capitalist accumulation, by nature, will present us with an infinite reserve of spontaneous social movements sure to arise as capital develops, expands and consumes more spheres of social life globally.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents the now-well-known formulation, “winning the battle of democracy”. Elsewhere, Marx explains in detail how bourgeoisie presents an appearance of fairness when it presents the market as a place where equals meet and agree on a contract. According to the bourgeois ideologues, the market creates an equal playing field in which the two sides (labor and capital) come to a mutually agreed upon price for the labor hours to be purchased by the capitalist and provided by the laborer.

In the first and the second volumes of Capital, however, Marx clarifies how this ‘fair’ contract is in fact based on a history of forced expropriation of means of independent production for the workers, a historical process that stripped an entire class of the society, a vast majority, of all means of making an independent living, forcing that class to the position of having to sell itself, its labor power, in order to survive.

“The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property and the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale” (Capital, Vol. 1, Part 8, Chapter 26).

Part eight of the first volume of Capital then goes on to chronicle a short history of that process of expropriations: forced land expropriations driving peasants off their lands, through to anti-vagabondage laws, maximum wage laws, “forcing down of wages by acts of parliament”, as Marx describes it. Further, the original accumulation of capital was infused plentifully with the wealth stolen from the colonies, explicitly enumerated by Marx in part eight of the first volume. In the second volume, Marx reminds the reader that money should not be mistaken for capital since money cannot become capital unless under social relations in which the complete expropriation of all independent means of living has already stricken the vast majority; just as money can only be exchanged for slaves under social relations that allow slavery.

However, exactly because there is a gigantic historical theft hidden behind bourgeois presentation of the marketplace contract as fair, Marx could call the historical bluff. More specifically, throughout his seminal work, Capital, he shows the workers the exact mechanisms through which the employer extracts surplus value from them, and how capital enriches itself while spreading misery among the workers and property-less classes.

This fundamental contradiction in the social contract presented by bourgeoisie opens a crack in the system. By exposing the mechanisms through which surplus value is created and extracted by capital, Marx in effect shows the workers how to fight back, how to intervene in the cycle of capitalist production and accumulation, how to minimize (to start with) the surplus extracted from them; and how through a protracted struggle in a historical process, working classes will eventually be able to expropriate back all the surplus value.

So, to answer the question in the title, it is clear that capital is definitely afraid of real democracy. That is why it has had to distort and twist the concept beyond recognition, reducing it to mere elections, and it has had to work hard and tirelessly at this task, with the aid of millions of organic intellectuals it trains and retains in its educational institutions, mass media, the culture industry, its think thanks, industrial associations, financial cartels, etc.

But even while distorting the meaning of democracy in the public mind, selling it as cyclical elections of representatives, capital never forgets to fight back against, and attempt to repeal and reverse, all the real democratic gains of previous fights by the working classes. Why else the 30-some-year long attack by the right wing in the U.S. on women’s rights such as reproductive rights, or attacks on laws protecting collective bargaining by unions, attacks on public education? The list can go on.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy opposing reform to revolution, and to some others who are afraid of democracy, in very unexpected quarters: some socialists. In this unfortunately posed dichotomy, reform is the all-negative, as contrasted to revolution. I believe that the error arises from the assumption that we are always in revolutionary conditions. Under revolutionary conditions, of course, it would be folly to advocate reforms, when in fact the ground is well suited for a revolutionary leap. However, revolutionary conditions do not persist at all times. They are rare. So, what do we do when conditions are not revolutionary? Pack it in and wait?

Socialists who truly believe that reforms are bad, to be consistent, must join the Republican politicians and fight for the repeal of all laws protecting the environment, all child labor laws, maximum hours-in-a-workday laws, workplace health and safety laws, equal rights legislations banning racial and other discriminations, women’s rights legislations, and so on.

Of course, no socialist would do such a thing. Why then hold such dichotomies as if they were true?

Any past democratic gain by our side is a limitation we have been able to force on capital, a limitation on how freely capital can act, and is therefore a positive. It is a platform from which we can deploy a more effective fight, something to be cherished and appreciated and not denigrated. For capital will not rest until it has snatched back every single one of those platforms.

However, there are other indications that some Western socialists do not really understand the importance of democracy and democratic movements that arise spontaneously all over the world, all of which movements are pooh-poohed by these kind comrades, who are adept at missing opportunity after opportunity to be actually effective for the right side of the battle.

A case in point is the massive popular movement that filled the Iranian streets by the millions, in the aftermath of the too-obviously stolen elections of June 2009. Now, let me clarify that normally everybody in Iran knows the elections are a farce as a matter of routine. But in 2009, people came out agreeing to go along with the farce, and asked only that state functionaries at least follow the script they themselves had written; as in, allow the real votes for the two candidates to be counted fairly, since the state had allowed the two to run., So, when the functionaries suddenly did switch scripts in mid-process, then people had every right to take to peaceful massive protests to declare they were pissed off.

Let’s look at that historical moment, just for two more seconds. In Tehran alone, in a matter of three days after the hasty announcement of the results in favor of Ahmadinejad, in a highly irregular manner, more than three million people occupied the streets of the capital city. By contrast, if any political organization in the U.S. could bring three million people onto the streets (less than one percent of the U.S. population), they would announce it as a revolution in itself. Now, when that happened in Iran (a country of 70 million at the time), in just one city (and there were massive street protests in many major cities), some leftist writers and activists in the west argued that the whole thing was an imperialist conspiracy, the work of CIA. These socialists concluded that the movement as a whole was engineered in the west to destabilize the Iranian regime, and therefore the movement had to be condemned.

The enormous absurdities in that explanation are so numerous that will go way beyond the scope of this piece. Still. That is quite a conclusion coming from socialists, but believe it or not some were actually publishing articles arguing exactly that. Iranian socialists, of course, were shocked and awed, not so much by the sheer ignorance of such statements, in themselves enough to cause extreme alarm, but mostly because it sounded exactly like the propaganda by the theocracy that was busy shooting at peaceful demonstrators, imprisoning them by the thousands, torturing them at will, raping them, or threatening them with rape in their dungeons. So, yes, we were truly shocked by the depth of antipathy toward just plain human decency displayed by socialists.

How can CIA have such superpowers as to bring people onto the streets of Iran, in millions, at will? Really? I am sure CIA analysts get a good laugh when they hear of these superpowers they are supposed to have. It seems amazing that all the enormous and very real internal social contradictions, the suffocating puritanical social rules dictated by a theocracy of a minority, the massive economic pressures of mass unemployment and huge inflationary rates, all these obvious sociological factors figure not at all in the political explanations of these socialists. One would have hoped that socialists would have, by now, left the bizarro land of conspiracies and returned to the firm terrain of scientific historical materialism.

All kinds of social demands started percolating up to the surface as a result of that mass movement in Iran, a movement that initially took to the streets asking merely: “Where is my vote?” That movement very rapidly graduated onto more general demands regarding governmental accountability, political rights of free speech, free association and free assembly rights, just to name the obvious ones. Even the legitimacy of the theocratic state apparatuses came under open and loudly expressed social questioning. This was a huge move forward, and if it had been helped and supported, it could have led to better places and could have provided some breathing space for the Iranian working classes. Which section of the working classes would not benefit form the advantage of being able to organize freely and protected by law? Who would gain the most from legal equality between men and women? And who would lose the most? Who would gain the most from limitations put on state security forces so that they are not able to torture political prisoners at will?

How a big segment of the western left behaved toward the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009 is indicative of a fundamental malaise that runs deep and far too widely in the global left: misunderstanding the importance and the meaning of democracy.

It is time for socialists, and leftists in general, to stop being afraid of democratic movements that arise spontaneously. It is time to expose capitalist development as inherently anti-democratic and to fight to win the battle of democracy anywhere we can.

Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com

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