By Hamid Dabashi
18 January 2018
In the most widespread series of demonstrations in Iran against structural poverty, rampant corruption, and political tyranny in almost a decade, mostly poor, underemployed, and unemployed Iranians poured into the streets of their country and challenged the ruling apparatus of the Islamic Republic.
By all accounts most of the evident demands of the demonstrators were economic, but no economic demand is ever without a potent political twist. As the Egyptian slogan used to say - combining both economic and political: "Freedom, Human Dignity, and Bread!"
A few weeks after the sudden rise and eventual pacification of these uprisings, various factions invested in them were still trying to put their own spin on what they meant and where they were headed. Not since the heydays of the Green Movement in Iran and the Arab Spring had we seen such outburst of social unrest. Amid the global focus on the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), these demonstrations in Iran suddenly reminded the world of the presence of people and their demands.
But what did exactly happen in Iran - and how are we to read it? Scattered but altogether substantial demonstrations spread like wildfire through some 80 cities and resulted in more than two dozen fatalities, with hundreds arrested. What were these rallies: signs of revolt, widespread protest, chaotic disturbances, or just plain old-fashioned plots to dismantle the ruling regime?
The ruling state in Iran dubbed these protests as "fetneh" (sedition) and dismissed them as plots by foreigners, especially Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. They were so convinced that these were foreign conspiracies to put political challenges to their legitimacy that they immediately arranged for counter-demonstrations to show how popular they are.
While some high-ranking officials acknowledged there were legitimate economic grievances for these protests, they nevertheless called on a massive constituency of their employees and wage-earners to march along with their families to show the world they supported their "beloved" Islamic Republic. The state employees and others whose livelihood depends on the state did as they were told.
The more liberal and reformist factions of the ruling regime were dumbstruck and did not know what to say about the protests. This particular uprising was out of their control. They could not abuse them to negotiate a meagre share of power for themselves in the upper echelons of the state. So in effect, they dismissed, denounced, and denigrated them as "blind violence".
These demonstrations may not have resulted in dismantling the ruling regime. But they most certainly exposed the reformists to be part and parcel of the tyranny.
Meanwhile, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were quick to embrace and endorse these protests as the outbreak of a democratic uprising. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, even took the matter to the UN Security Council - which of course backfired and other council members publicly denounced her for her opportunistic charlatanism.
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted and taped their messages of solidarity to the "Iranian people", while the Saudi media were abuzz exaggerating these protests as signs of a revolution against their archenemy.
Trump forgot all about denouncing the peaceful protest of the US football player Colin Kaepernick against an entire history of racial violence in the US and calling him "a son-of-a-b****." Netanyahu forgot about sitting over a settler colony in which the rights of its Palestinian inhabitants are denied. The Saudis suddenly saw themselves as the Switzerland of the Middle East and thought they were showering the Yemenis not with bombs and ammunition but with flowers and baklavas.
They were all suddenly for peace, justice, and democracy in the world, especially in Iran. The hypocrisy was more luxurious than Muhammad bin Salman's austerity measures in his 300 million dollar Chateau Louis XIV.
On the other side, pro-regime mouthpieces rushed to global media to denounce those who had plotted against their favourite Islamic Republic, while the equally bankrupt anti-regime vigilantes were scrambling for nonsensical claptrap dispatched to their nearest blogosphere about the imminent collapse of the very same Islamic Republic. It was quite a circus.
Responsible scholars were trying to make heads or tails of these protests, while dilettante observers were rushing to the nearest TV station to share their confusions with a bewildered audience. Learned Iranian "philosophers" from Germany, fraudulent and plagiarist lobbyists in Washington, DC - they were all busy pulling out their old hobby horses for yet another tiresome ride.
The demonstrators had packed their meagre belongings and gone home to bury their dead and report back to work. The global media were speaking in tongues and the pundits were still busy with their punditry.
But did the uprising really occur - or where we all at the mercy of one abusive reading of it or another? It was at a moment like this when the eminent French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote his pioneering postmodern kitsch, "The Gulf war did not take place (1991)".
The question thus remains: How do we know what we know and say about these or any other such protest movements - from the Green Movement to the Arab Spring, and now down to these nameless uprisings in Iran?
Between 28 December 2017 and 5 January 2018 the world witnessed a bushfire of protests in Iran. That there is massive poverty and widespread corruption in the country no one could deny. Poor people in Iran sell their organs to survive. But no poor people rush into the streets screaming their pain and suffering just to appease foreign powers. They detest those foreign powers as much as they do their own tormentors.
The daily news in Iran speaks of all such economic malaise on a regular basis - for those who care to listen and read. "Those of us who have followed the news of workers' strikes in Iran," one observer rightly put it, "don't need various kinds of conspiracy theories to interpret the recent protests." She proceeds to give specific examples of workers' strikes in Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Plantation and Mill Complex. "There the labour activist protests against several months of unpaid incomes ... [demanding] there be structural changes to how their workplace is managed."
The dissatisfaction, though, was not solely among the poorer classes. The hardworking middle class were also affected - among their woes, "thousands of unlicensed credit and finance institutions in Iran that had flourished during the two terms of Rouhani's predecessor. These institutions had lured millions of customers, hoping to make money amid a stagnant economy by offering high interest rates on deposits in the Iranian currency. But because of extensive corruption, many of them collapsed and went bankrupt."
Those among the Iranians following these rallies in and out of their homeland and who wholeheartedly supported and encouraged them considered them nothing short of revolutionary outbursts.
The Gathering of a Perfect Storm
Widespread but small protests across the country, a few provocative slogans, occasional acts of violence, and at least 22 dead human beings were all that was left for the posterity to ponder what had happened.
How are we to read this scattered body of evidence beyond those who are always already invested in reading them ideologically in one way or another? Suppose we dismiss both the pro- and the anti-regime wishful thinkers - then what?
Here are the facts on the ground: an incompetent, self-righteous, ideologically blinded conservative leadership; an even more incompetent and corrupt reformist camp; a small class of obscenely wealthy nouveau riche and their brazenly conspicuous consumption; rampant unemployment and underemployment; an angry and hateful generation facing an economic dead-end. These provide for combustible circumstances, however you look at it.
Here are more facts on the ground: an ideologically driven state caught in the geopolitics of a region infested with war and destruction; the spreading thin of its regional wings from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen beyond its means; a pernicious Saudi-Zionist alliance against the state; a tacit alliance between the People's Mujahedin of Iran and the monarchists, with personal vendetta against the Islamic Republic; a vicious US president who detests his predecessor and wants to undo everything he did including the Iran nuclear deal that began to ameliorate crippling economic sanctions imposed on an entire nation.
Beyond these parameters, factual and evident, very little evidence exists as to how to read this particular set of uprisings, or more precisely their particularities. The cacophony of varied and opposing voices aired over the last few weeks more conceal than reveal the scene.
No two social uprisings are identical. Over the last century and a half, Iran has witnessed a major social upheaval roughly every 10 years. With every new uprising something different, something new is revealed about the inner dynamics of the nation.
Reading such realities requires a clear vision of both political history and the language of revolt it engenders. But by now something drastically different is happening about these latest uprisings. They are performed in one language and read in another. That linguistic power differential is at the crux of where we stand today.
The Dumb Dreamer
In by far the best piece of critical thinking on these protests, "The Moral Economy of the Iranian protests," two senior Iranian scholars have pointed out how "beset by inequality and corruption, Iran's provincial working classes are revolting against the revolution's broken promises".
These two scholars are Iranians and have read the signs of these uprisings in their own mother tongue, writing their analysis though in English, as I do here. There is a linguistic and therefore analytic differential between the reality of those revolts and the theoretical speculations of what they mean.
Iranians themselves, of course, write in Persian relentlessly analysing what is happening in their own homeland. But the language barrier makes it impossible for those readings to enter into the global marketplace of privileged interpretations. They become raw material, like the protests themselves, for others to read them.
In her classic essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1983), the eminent literary critic Gayatri Spivak famously dwelled on the paradoxical moment when the subaltern cannot but be misunderstood, given the always slanted global operation of capital and all its cultures deciding the language of abusing and silencing the poor.
As a political subject, the subaltern is therefore conditioned for indexical expressions only it understands, unable (and perhaps even unwilling) to reach the layered hegemonies of the states and empires that rule over its destiny. The subaltern is the walking embodiment of a power differential - in language and truth, fact and theory - that can never be trespassed.
Iranian and Arab protesters protest with Persian or Arabic slogans, as others do, in their own mother tongues, some immediately understandable, others less so.
When the demonstrators in Iran shout "We are Aryans, we do not pray to Arabs" we cringe. When they scream "Death to inflation" we understand their pain. When they chant "Independence, Freedom, an Iranian Republic" we decipher their reference. When they scream "We made a revolution. We made a mistake" we wonder. When they say "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life for Iran" we reach for our pillow. Their slogans are cacophonous, jarring, inconsistent, dissonant to our theoretical desires for consistency - in English.
None of these slogans can be privileged. None can be dismissed just because we do not like them. All of them together constitute the heteroglossia of a rebellious society that cannot possibly speak in one language - the language of our theoretical consistency.
In its intents, contentions, and interpretations, the most eloquent language the Iranians spoke in these rallies beyond any shadow of doubt is when they smashed windows and set buildings on fire. There was no misreading, no misinterpreting, no false exegesis here.
The subaltern in Iran, in the Arab and Muslim world, or else in Asia, Africa or Latin America does not speak English. Like all the subalterns around the globe, they speak in the language of their angered frustrations, of their constitutional alienation from any language that seeks to understand, analyse, interpret, and pacify their sufferings.
The most eloquent language that they can speak is therefore when they are burning a building down, or when they leave their broken and dead bodies on the front line that separates their sufferings from the question: Can the subaltern speak ... English?
Long before Spivak's learned essay, a poet wrote in Persian: "I am a dumb dreamer, unable to talk, and the world all deaf/I cannot say what I have dreamt, and the world cannot hear what I have seen."
In the impossibility of that hermeneutic dead-end, the subaltern will not speak, read, or write (in English). Its inability to speak echoes our incapacity to listen. In between those two dead-ends, history has a widening highway upon which we (subaltern and their unwanted interpreters) march, dumb dreamers, hard of hearing, blinded by our own insights.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.