North Africa, West Asia

The return of ‘class and social justice’ in Iran and Tunisia

The new dimension of these social upheavals was a coalition between young educated people who think they have no future under the current system, and the least advantaged groups.

Alphan Telek
4 February 2018
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A demontrator holds a portrait of a 20-year-old man dead during clashes with police in Tataouine, south of Tunisia, as he attends a gathering held on Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis, on Monday May 22, 2017. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Press Association. All rights reserved.Recent social explosions in Iran and Tunisia make us wonder whether ‘social justice’ demands and ‘class’ politics have made a comeback. The importance of both Iran and Tunisia derive from the representative and vanguard roles they played in triggering the emergence of the global social movements, which exploded in 2009 and spread to the rest of the world. 

These occupation movements all around the world between 2011 and 2013 began in 2009 with the Green Movement in Iran, reappearing in a stronger form in Tunisia one year later. The ripple effects of those upheavals impacted in remote parts of the world including the US. All those movements raised new questions for us, creating a new vocabulary and new perspectives – questions such as, ‘how the fusion of plutocracy and the political caste could be prevented from imposing excessive power on us?’ and ‘how we can form an alternative to the current social, political and economic system’.

Analyzing the political and economic features of these recent events remains important for the future of social movements still struggling to establish a better political strategy against the fusion of dynamics of capitalism and political caste in their geographies. In this article, events in Iran and Tunisia are considered from the point of view of social justice. Is social justice back on the agenda? And if social justice is back, is it possible to talk about the return of social ‘class’ as a player? If both are back, how should we assess these upheavals in terrains torn apart by ravaging identity conflicts – radical religious groups, nationalist and authoritarian leaders, rising populism – for many a long year. 

Bi-structural nature of social conflicts

The term ‘social justice’ has disappeared from the agenda of intellectuals and societies for a while now. In order to decide if it is back or not, we should consider the structural nature of social conflicts. But first, we should acknowledge that every society and/or group has its own dynamics, which display differences and contradictions.

Albert Hirschman argues that every society has its own conflicts. He asserts that there are two types of conflicts: more-or-less and either-or conflicts. Before 1980, the more-or-less conflicts influenced our way of thinking. Its socio-economic reflection was class conflicts, whose discourses were built on the demands of social justice. The trade unions, the influence of working class, social-democrat parties, a strong labourism, welfare-regimes and its benefits, socio-economic security and some certainty in life were all features of that conflict.

However, after 1980, the world witnessed the rise of an either-or type of conflict: identity politics. You are this or that! By contrast this provides no space for reasonable negotiation. In this period, the class dimension disappeared in the terrain of social and political spheres. The demise of left and socialist projects accompanied it.

It is natural that societies have conflicts. The thing that is not natural is when one of the dynamics of a society dominates political and economic power and excludes others from decision-making processes, making their daily lives vulnerable to every form of mismanagement, profit-maximization, commodification, and fluctuation of the market.

The coalition of neoliberal capitalism and bogus-democracy (ballot-box democracy) in the most recent four decades has resulted in these either-or conflicts. Though it has manifested itself in the form of liberal-democracy and the domination of capitalist markets in the western world, it has also functioned in the non-western world where we have seen the fusion of authoritarian rule and neoliberal capitalism (including the clientelism around authoritarian rule).

This fusion has destroyed the basis for class politics and social justice. Accordingly, social justice dropped from the agenda of both western and non-western societies. 

The forgotten flame of progressives

Left and progressive thinking before 1980 was preoccupied by inequalities and social injustices, the main concerns of social justice. However after 1980, in a strange way, the problems of inequalities and social injustices were left to the IMF, the World Bank, non-socialist academicians, populist and authoritarian leaders. Populist politicians and radical groups drew on social injustices and inequalities more effectively for the purposes of recruitment than left groups and socialists in recent decades. I believe that is why populist politics has gained in strength around the world, since so much of the world suffers from these problems and their victims incline towards the people who promise a change to this aspect of their daily lives. 

As vulnerable people once more come into the streets to protest against economic insecurity and austerity policies, these recent social explosions in Iran and Tunisia present all progressives with an opportunity to reconsider the values that have been neglected by the left: inequalities and social justice. This is especially important in terrains dominated for long years by social polarization on the basis of identity conflict.

A new dimension in Iran and Tunisia protests

Why did people in Iran and Tunisia pour onto the streets in protest? First of all, we should note the provincial and leaderless characteristics of these protests. The powerhouse of these protests was provincial: they erupted in small cities and towns in which the most disadvantaged segments of society live.

These protests included a high proportion of young people who hold an undergraduate degree but who are unemployed. They poured onto the streets, seeing themselves as the least advantaged groups in both countries. It may be argued that they chose a vanguard role, which only closer examinations of these protests will reveal in future studies.

I think the new dimension of these social upheavals was the coalition of young educated people who think they have no future under the current system, with the least advantaged groups affected by the latest budgetary announcements of their governments (both in Iran and Tunisia, they were launched in January 2018) that cut social spending while driving up the prices of basic goods.

For years and years, these same young educated people have struggled over identity issues and focused almost solely on these. This destroyed the all-important bridge between them and poorer segments of the population. In the Green Movement, which became so visible in 2009 in Iran, disadvantaged groups kept their distance from them and their apparent concentration on life-style issues and political justice (fraud in elections) to the neglect of more unifying concerns. However now, for the first time after many years, they have come together to struggle against social injustice, the uncertainty of their lives, the insecurity of their moment and precarity of the future. This is new and has a new chance to spread to other parts of the world if it combines with a political program that simultaneously shake the foundations of capitalism and its political mask, nationalism and populism. 

The protests both in Iran and Tunisia were triggered by the issue of new government budgets that cut social spending, and subventions of basic primary goods such as food and energy, cuts on unconditional cash transfer (in Iran’s case, yaraneh, a kind of basic income), increases in the price of basic goods (egg, olive, meat, bread etc). Both countries have experienced high unemployment especially among young people (30% in Tunisia, 40% in Iran). High inflation rates (13% in Iran, 6.7% in Tunisia) are also impacting on the daily lives of people. Moreover, the declining values of national currencies in these countries (20% decrease in value only last year in Tunisia) showed itself as the increasing prices in the street, dismaying people who watched their wages and/or non-wage incomes fail to increase with the price index. 

Under these conditions, people have to work in more than one job to sustain their lives. Nor is this sufficient to guarantee a future for themselves and their families. Nothing is certain for these people: neither the present moment, nor the future. However, they have to work more and more. One protester in Iran says, “I am in university, it is a waste of time. What future do I have to live for? There is no future for me and for any of us.” It is the same story in Tunisia, where one protester is quoted as saying, “we have nothing to lose” This sense of deprivation of one’s very future emerges as a common feature among these protestors.

Deprived of a future

When it does not provide a future for people, the system soon loses its legitimacy. This sense is not confined to Iran, Tunisia and Middle East. It is one of the symptoms of the coalition of neoliberal capitalism and bogus-democracies around the world, which has made people’s lives so miserable. Even a student in university has this same sense of deprivation of any viable future. Hence the maturing potential of young and educated people to lead social movements on the basis of social justice.

The goals of socio-economic security and a sense of certainty against precarity can unite people from different segments of the society, and provide them a tactical leadership around the same goal. In fact they are on the same side, experiencing the same uncertainty, insecurity and sense of stress, anger and no future… already sharing the common way-of-life of the precariat.

Guy Standing’s new concept, the precariat, invites us to pose the question: Can we talk about the existence and formation of a new class in these social upheavals? Certainly, the coming together of young educated progressives with the poor masses is an exciting opportunity to radically shake the foundations of regimes authoritarian and non-authoritarian alike. Even capitalists accept that we are in the middle of a global swell of transformation. The fusion of capitalism and populism has plunged us into mental darkness. However, these uprisings continue to suggest that people (maybe even a new precariat) will not go gentle into those realms of obfuscation.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas

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