North Africa, West Asia

Neoliberalism and Iran’s protest movement

The protests in Iran, like those elsewhere, are the outcome of discontent in our circumstance and the present situation in the world.

Amin Bozorgian
14 February 2018

Demonstrators in Iran on December 30, 2017. Picture by SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On the 1st of January, and the fifth day of protests in Iran, President Rouhani decided to pursue a course that the security and military officials had pursued before him. While speaking of the importance of attention to economic and political realities and the people’s right to protest, Rouhani overlooked the true reality of the situation when he proclaimed: “There is a minority, a tiny group, who would come in and do something: to chant slogans against the law and the will of the people, to insult the sanctities and values of the revolution, and to destroy public property. Our country will round them up good.” 

There is no doubt that government – any government - is in the business of “rounding up.” It is in the essential working of government to round up collective wealth, to gather subjects, and to stockpile power. At times, such an act takes on a harsher form. Banks and prisons, two important institutions in the modern Iranian order, are crystallizations of the ultimate form of this gathering up. These two entities may help us understand what took place in Iran in the last few months.

Iranian neoliberalism

Since the moment privatization and the economy of an “eastern” neoliberalism was rolled out in Iran during the administration of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) through its ripening in the Rouhani years, they have, beside their other results, created a class of poor and destitute people who have viewed their own meager prospects as being bound to the very government which in fact saps their lifeblood. Owing to their dependence on government aid, these people have always been the greatest supporters of those in power. Because of economic challenges posed by various administrations' adjustment policies and international sanctions, this burgeoning class has widened to include the classical middle class and is now at the end of its rope, in just the fashion Fyodor Dostoevsky describes in his Notes from the Underground. It should come as no surprise that this class tends to see itself as opposed to all the factions of Iran’s two-party system (conservatives and reformists). In fact, it is the very thing the system in power has not been able to accomplish – unifying the government – that masses of protesters are doing now. This time around, protesters chant against all factions and cliques: reformists, conservatives, middle classes, and the whole governing class have been called into question.

All movements and struggles require strategic mistakes on the part of the ruling class. 

If this broad class was previously less inclined to join political, social, and labor movements given its vital dependence on various administrations, it is now, in the course of this unexpected event, in the process of slipping out from Big Brother’s lap. More specifically, the possibility has been opened up by political scuffles within the ruling bloc. Conservative tendencies and those opposed to Rouhani who dreamed of using this class’ grievances to their own ends, thought they could tilt the electoral field in their favor for the coming decisive presidential election by firing up the cauldron of economic woes as Ahmadinejad had. Now the cauldron’s lid has flown off, and political figures on all sides find their faces scorched. We know that all movements and struggles require strategic mistakes on the part of the ruling class.

This boiling cauldron is the outcome of the policies which govern the Iranian economy. This situation is not limited to Iran but rather a global condition. Capitalism has fallen into a crisis of neoliberalism and its political consequences. The Rouhani administration is no longer keen to join global labor markets, for such a move would bring repercussions that they would prefer avoiding. Even the reactionary demands some protesters have voiced in recent days (e.g. slogans calling for a return of the dictatorships of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his father) are in fact the Iranian form of a longing to return to the past, a sentiment brought about by discontent with the present situation, whose expressions we see elsewhere also as in Brexit and Trump. Everyone wants to return to a time and place they’ve lost, captive to a certain nostalgia of living standards. 

What is moderation?

The moment he threw his hat into the ring for the presidency, Rouhani presented himself as heir to the legacy of Hashemi Rafsanjani and christened himself a moderate with neoliberal economic policies. In such a situation of moderation, nothing in fact remains moderate: in order to construct a moderate position, things must be done away with, voices silenced, and terms changed in advance. In an age that proclaims itself moderate, moderation in fact always goes to shambles. A number of Rouhani’s policies are carried out in the name of moderation and adjustment: changes in labor law, bank loan conditions, and housing programs; the employment plan; the introduction of tuition at universities and remaking of curricula. But they are in fact brimming with radicalism, a plot to conserve and entrench class divides. A controlled parliamentary democracy on the neoliberal model is the preferred political mode of the age, and the instrument of its advancement is a weakening of the role of the human sciences and a removal of all intellectuals save for free-market economists from the circle of major decision-making.

In an age that proclaims itself moderate, moderation in fact always goes to shambles

What has been said is a summary of Iran’s experience, one that has intensified in these recent years of the Rouhani administration. Given such conditions, what we see unfolding in the streets of Iran’s smaller, poorer cities should come as no surprise. We read in Hobbes that if people are sufficiently scared, they may do anything. A kind of fear that works more strongly than anything else: a collective fear which manifests itself in situations of collapse. Poverty, corruption, earthquakes, polluted environment, and other calamities are stoking the fears of Iranian society. The recent events are not at all unexpected, in fact. Iran’s deprived classes have spoken of their fears long ago: in small street protests, in their demonstrations and occupations before the parliament, factories, and even their own slum dwellings. It is enough to skim through the social affairs pages of Iranian newspapers from the past few years to understand that the government, and country more generally, have been deaf.


Various political and social movements in Iran have, as in other countries, been labeled "subversive protestors (or agitators)” intent on undermining public security through the destruction of public property and other disturbances. We should recall that the principal agitation and disturbance is in fact to be found at the level of our collective life. The true agitators are the mechanisms and actors who have, through their conduct and policies, thrown our common collective life into chaos, leaving it staggered and knocked over: the powerful, leaders of the major economic and cultural monopolies, and all who have helped implement the economic program of social immiseration.

If violence should break out during the protests, it is but a part of this totality, an expression of the everyday situation. This is why the imprisonment and arrest of people and their means of communication on the pretext of national security is, despite its populist gloss, in fact a strategy which is against the people and the reality of things - and thus unacceptable. The protests are the outcome of our circumstance and nothing else, e.g., the meddling of a foreign enemy. The efforts of both wings of Iranian politics to justify their ignorance and fear of protestors with charges of “agitation” and working for a foreign power, will disillusion their last hope. “Reform” means being answerable to the current situation – not denying it. 

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