Iran Election, U.S. Intervention, and the “Left” is the complete list of sources, and extracts, used for this post. If a reader does not have time to read the entire articles — more than two dozen are listed — the extracts provided on that page should give one a fairly good background for the post below.
Dr. Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is an expatriate, writing from a distance about events in Iran, a country that he left soon after the 1979 revolution so that he could study in the U.S. He is also the author of a recent, scathing article in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly condemning what he thinks is the “left’s” position on Iran, titled simply “Left is Wrong on Iran.” Many accusations are made in that article, and the point of this one is to assess the merits of Dabashi’s charges, which are often expressed by way of verbose, vituperative prose.
Let me begin with my initial misgivings about the piece, before raising some questions below. First, I am very suspicious of anyone speaking as if he might have been a good partner of “the left,” but then hardly showing any affinity to whatever that political field is imagined to be. This is not leftist self-criticism — his article is explicitly written by someone who positions himself outside the left. Second, any article titled along the lines of “how the left is wrong” automatically implies the converse: the Right is right. Without a balanced criticism that includes the right, but instead only targets the left, then the political intent of an author should really not be that difficult to figure out. If we are mistaken, then it is a mistake that is up to Dabashi to correct. Third, I am also suspicious of anyone who claims to simultaneously speak for a whole nation, and about the cumulative, amorphous “left” of every other nation — suddenly, the room is crowded with all sorts of midget-sized straw men. Fourth, I become especially intolerant toward anyone who presumes to command my sympathies and who expresses astonishment at those who fail to automatically jump on the band wagon of the day. Fifth, and related to the last point, arguments made without evidence, while making accusations for which the evidence is contradictory, leave me very cold.
I should also pause to note that for anthropologists in particular, Dabashi’s article poses some very sharp challenges for the discipline of anthropology as we have known it, not that it was his intended target. First, Dabashi essentially dismisses all opinions of those outside the region — if you are not Iranian, or at least Arab, then forget it, you have nothing of value to say and you cannot know anything about Iran. Dabashi raises the bar very high: you need to know 200 years of history — so, anthropologists, your one year of obligatory fieldwork just doesn’t make the grade, sorry. Second, there is the question of distance — those who write from outside the region are held in high contempt by Dabashi, except that he too writes from a distance. The questions I liked to pose some of my suddenly nationalist, right wing, Honduran sparring partners in Twitter was: Does the truth have GPS coordinates? Is all accurate and valid information only to be had by those whose bowels are emptied in Honduras? If one does not care for the opinion of foreigners, then why write in their languages and seek to curry favour with them? In other words, regarding the latter question: you do not need our support and approval for your new found sense of absolute autonomy. Otherwise it’s just not autonomy. Dabashi raises what for anthropologists should be the very familiar trope to establish authority: being there (or in Dabashi’s case: being from there). Either way, the outsider can either shut up, or sympathize with the causes commanded by Dabashi.
Having established what are some of my main problems with this piece by Dabashi, I can now more honestly outline my questions, and my criticisms. Needless to say, I do not think that everything he writes is objectionable or questionable, and he does make numerous excellent points.
Hamid Dabashi’s central argument is that those who would choose to focus on the ways the U.S. has manipulated or seeks to exploit the political unrest in Iran, while ignoring the demands of this allegedly massive social movement seeking liberty, are fundamentally wrong, ignorant, and morally confused. He sees these problems as specific to “the left”, the primary target of his article:
“Who are and who promoted these leftist intellectuals who question the social uprising of the people in Iran?”
“Over the decades I have learned not to expect much from what passes for ‘the left’ in North America and/or Western Europe when it comes to the politics of what their colonial ancestry has called ‘the Middle East’.”
“those farthest from it write with an almost unanimous exposure of their constitutional ignorance”
“they are a lost cause, and frankly no one could care less what they think of the world”
“…[who would] take more than 70 million human beings as stooges of the CIA and puppets of the Saudis”
While dismissing many as a lost cause, Dabashi is kind enough to specify those writers he respects and generally agrees with (Azmi Bishara, Mustafa El-Labbad, Galal Nassar), contrasted with those he specifically ridicules, rejects and condemns (Slavoj Zizek, James Petras, Paul Craig Roberts, Anthony DiMaggio, Michael Veiluva, Jeremy Hammond, Eric Margolis).
The evidence, in the form of the author’s actual writings, does not support Dabashi’s thesis — most explicitly do say the exact same things he does, and only three would seem vulnerable to his attempt at caricature: James Petras, Paul Craig Roberts, and Jeremy Hammond (but only if we play along with Dabashi, and play loosely with the facts — see Hammond’s response to this article in the Comments section below). The three might be seen as casting the Iranian election protests as either a CIA-plot, or aligned with, or directed by U.S. intervention. None of the other authors singled out by Dabashi makes that argument, nor even one approaching it, and in fact most explicitly reject it. Suddenly, Dabashi’s “left” boils down to maybe three authors. And what makes Petras, Roberts, and Hammond representative of the entire “left”? My advice: if you are going to pontificate about the left, especially one which is in such close proximity, you have little excuse to pontificate with such “constitutional ignorance.”
But the person for whom Dabashi reserves especial scorn, is in fact a Lebanese professor in the U.S., also a well published author, speaker, and blogger: As’ad AbuKhalil. Here it seems that Dabashi has entirely misunderstood AbuKhalil’s most basic points and his focus of interest, which are not about the Iranian protesters. Instead, his biggest failing, Dabashi suggests, is his failure to actively and loudly support, sympathize, defend, and cheer for the Iranian protesters, as a “leftist”:
“having principled positions on geopolitics is one thing…being blind and deaf to a massive social movement is something entirely different….he dare not take a stand.”
Reese Erlich, not mentioned by Dabashi even though he is the only author who appears to have an identical argument to his, also states: “The leftist critics must answer the question: Whose side are you on?”
Let me simply list some questions which Dabashi’s article provokes, and which he does not answer in that article, or anywhere else as far as I know:
- Are only Iranians allowed to investigate and criticize the many ways the U.S. has planned, funded, and implemented various forms of intervention in Iran? Is this uniquely “Iranian” knowledge…when it is exposed in such places as The New Yorker, by such persons as Seymour Hersh?
- Because Hamid Dabashi is very proud to have been called in by CNN and featured as an expert, does that mean that those of us who very rightly question and criticize CNN’s misleading coverage of the Iranian situation must be implicitly condemning Iranian protesters? Does CNN represent the Iranian opposition? Are they one and the same?
- Are the opponents of Ahmadinejad “leftists,” such that other “leftists” should be supporting them? Or is it the expectation that whenever and wherever anyone protests and condemns a regime, that it is the duty of leftists to support them? Since when? Says who?
- If Petras’, Roberts’ and Hammond’s alleged rejection of the protesters as a genuine social reform movement with indigenous grievances, responding to endogenous dynamics, reflects their “constitutional ignorance”…then why is it that those who sympathize from as a great a distance, and with just about as much knowledge, or any less “ignorant”?
- Are not the “leftists” that Dabashi names doing what they can do, what they ought to do, and that is writing about what they know best, i.e. the mainstream media where they live and the documentary record of the U.S. government’s efforts to destabilize Iran? Why doesn’t Dabashi talk about such facts in his article, instead of engaging in the comical hyperbole that an “entire nation” is against Ahmadinejad, as if he won no votes, as if the opposition consisted of the entire population?
- Does Dabashi think that not a single person in the Iranian opposition has ties to the CIA? If not, then just how much influence might they have within that movement? As someone who is an expert, and “in the know” as an “insider,” then surely this is the kind of thing Dabashi should be explicating at length?
Dabashi’s Fallacious and Illogical Reasoning
The primary fallacy in Dabashi’s argument is clearly pinpointed in AbuKhalil’s response:
“to say that the US, Saudi and other reactionary forces were involved in a conspiracy in Iran is in no way to deny the existence of a genuine and sincere movement in Iran against the oppressive regime there….To say that there is an American plot in Iran is not to say that all the protesters in Iran are tools of a Western plot.”
And why should AbuKhalil endorse a distant movement that suddenly appeared on the scene when, as he says, “I don’t pose as Iran expert but I comment on matters of international affairs”? Had AbuKhalil stood and cheered the protesters, only then might someone have reason to take up Dabashi’s pontificating-while-ignorant thesis.
Is Dabashi right to castigate all the authors he mentions? Read what they say, Dr. Dabashi, and tell us if most do not echo your statements and sentiments exactly, while contradicting your misrepresentations.
Here is Michael Veiluva:
“We Americans love to shoot our mouths off over matters we know next to nothing about. It’s something that we are hardwired to do. We have utmost faith in the power of words. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is one of our favorite phrases, even when some of the ‘truth’ is actually nonsense.”
Here is Eric Margolis:
“the majority of protests we see in Tehran are genuine and spontaneous”
Here is Anthony DiMaggio:
“It is worth reflecting on one central question regarding Iran: why does the recent election enjoy so much attention in the U.S.?”
Here is Slavoj Zizek:
“the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad….displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left [here Zizek explicitly assumes the opposition is the “secular left”]”
Thus, among the so-called leftists, Dabashi is so far wrong about four, and perhaps only partly right about three (see the Comments section).
Dabashi’s arguments fare even worse when it comes to those whom he cites approvingly, since they say many of the same things as the writers above. Let’s look.
Here is Galal Nassar:
“Two decades ago, the CIA set up an organisation targeting young people around the world. It enlists young Westernised men and women with ostensibly liberal political sympathies in order to incite social revolutions that favour Western interests. It trains these youths in the use of modern media, methods of instigating unrest, and ways of undermining the authority of the target societies. The first success of this network was in Serbia. It then scored similar successes in the Ukraine and Georgia. Its tentacles are to be found in every state and society that is of importance to American interests and its cadres benefit from Washington’s secret protection. Moreover, the US is serious in its determination to entrench and expand these networks so that it can draw on them whenever and wherever it needs to. Many have hastened to deny its existence, attributing it to the fantasy of the conspiracy mentality. But the organisation is there and boasts of its accomplishments.”
Here is Mustafa El-Labbad, speaking of opposition figures and the political spectrum in Iran:
“Rafsanjani has been an integral part of the ruling order since the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979….no analysis of ‘the contemporary situation in Iran’ can stay afloat for long, unable as it is to withstand the perpetually shifting variegations in the Iranian political map and a seesawing in the balances of power….the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ serve more to locate their relative positions on a geopolitical territory than shades of political opinion.”
This is an important observation that El-Labbad makes, because some may make the mistake that everywhere on earth institutional politics fits into a left-right spectrum, and that is simply not the case. I think of the Anglophone Caribbean, where the only two places one might find with left-and-right party politics are, in descending order, Guyana and Jamaica, and even then it is a stretch. In the case of Trinidad, there is no leftist party in parliament, and much of mainstream politics is structured on race and personality.
Now here is Azmi Bishara:
“The difference between Democrats and Republicans in the US is not much greater than that between reformists and conservatives in Iran….[differences in Iran] are more in the nature of electoral leagues….The criticisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, especially those from middle class backgrounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are reminiscent of the grievances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their individual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle….While not dismissing or belittling such criticism, it is important to bear in mind that these people are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class….Most of the youth from the poor sectors of society support Ahmadinejad, just as the poor support Chavez in Venezuela….Remember that Ahmadinejad’s in 2005 was a protest vote, mostly on the part of the young, against corrupt conservatives, not just against the reformists.”
Well, read on, since Bishara is making the exact same arguments about the opposition that Petras-the-ignorant-pontificating-leftist made.
And here is Bishara again, this time echoing AbuKhlail on the Western media:
“I was so taken aback by this unusual sentimentality from The Economist that I turned back to the edition that went to press on the eve of the Iranian elections. Not a single piece of news about the forthcoming polls; let alone a prediction regarding the outcome….If the reformists had been expected to win, as it claimed after the elections, how could it have overlooked such an important forecast before the elections, given how central Iran and the Gulf are to the global economy and the security and politics of the West?….Time magazine devoted pages to a portrait of Mir-Hussein Mousavi, introducing readers, probably for the first time, to what a nice guy he is, and talented too — a painter and an engineer, with a nice home and a family. Ahmadinejad does not have a family, or a nice backyard, or artistic talents that we know of, so he is obviously not worthy of Time….And to think that the Americans had once regarded Mousavi, a former foreign minister of Iran, as one of those shadowy figures who had supported ‘terrorism’ against them in Lebanon and other parts of the world in the 1980s…..Such is the nature of Western media. It painted a halo around Arafat and bestowed on him a Nobel Peace Prize when needed.”
In these three instances, Dabashi is partly supported by them, and most of their statements flatly contradicted his own, especially as Dabashi seems to have drawn an entirely false and fictitious dividing line between the first seven (lousy) writers and the second three (great) writers.
What are Dabashi’s Scruples?
If personally find it very distressing that a scholar should turn to other scholars and demand that they agree, without ever bothering to provide a shred of evidence to support the “stolen election” thesis, as if it was not scholars’ job, their duty, to be suspicious and skeptical. The more that is written about the “stolen election” hypothesis, the less credible it becomes (see especially this piece, and contrast it with Newsweek‘s assumptions). What we have instead of concrete evidence are allegations, erroneous suppositions premised on ethnic/tribal voting patterns, mathematical guess work on top of assumptions about how little inventive human beings are when it comes to inventing tallies, and conspiracy theories suggesting that an average of 860 ballots per box could not be counted in two hours, and that tens of thousands of election volunteers conspired to keep silent on massive fraud. I can defend the Iranian opposition’s demands for greater civil liberties and more participatory and legitimate forms of democracy, as I would for anyone. My consistent problem with even liberal democracy is that it is not democratic enough. But that does not translate into an uncritical eagerness to believe that an election was stolen. Give me some real evidence, and I will certainly change my mind. In the meantime, I reserve the right to think critically.
There is a bigger question about Dabashi’s scruples at play however. When you attack those who unveil and criticize the U.S. “regime change” schemes, when you attack those who attack imperialism, and when you create a false caricature of a left that not even those you name abide by…then what are you doing? When you attack those who criticize Western media such as CNN — institutions that embraced and included you as an expert — and then you attack those who criticize the CIA…then you leave yourself in a very dangerous position, because now we know that your score so far is “1 for 2.”
The most reprehensible aspect of Dabashi’s and Erlich’s pieces are this: why on earth would you single out “the left” as the problem, as if actual imperialism and actual intervention were simply not occurring? Whose side are they on?
38 thoughts on “Dabashi is Wrong on the Left”
Jeremy R. Hammond
Good post. However, you wrote “The evidence, in the form of the author’s actual writings, does not support Dabashi’s thesis — most explicitly do say the exact same things he does, and only three would seem vulnerable to his attempt at caricature: James Petras, Paul Craig Roberts, and Jeremy Hammond. The three see the Iranian election protests as a pre-planned CIA plot, without any kind of real, local “legitimacy.”
That is not an accurate charaterization of my view. In my interview with Talk Nation Radio (http://hammond.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/07/02/my-interview-with-dori-smith-ontalk-nation-radio/), for example, about the topic of my article (shortly after it was published), I described the protests as largely “grassroots”.
To say that the U.S. has played a role and interfered is not to say the protests have no “legitimacy”. I, for one, have certainly never made that argument.
Also, I don’t know why people focus so much on the CIA, suggesting I (and others) said the CIA was behind this. My own article focuses more on funding for opposition groups and such that originates in the Congress. I discussed CIA interventions elsewhere only as background information, but also observed that much of what the CIA used to do covertly is now done overtly.
You are right Mr. Dabashi’s article mirror’s Reese Erlich’s. I responded to Erlich here: http://hammond.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/06/28/reese-elrich-responds-to-fpj-on-iran-election-article/.
Here’s another response to another example, from the Wall Street Journal: http://hammond.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/07/01/wall-street-journal-calls-me-a-lefty-for-ahmadinejad/.
I also submitted a response to Al-Ahram for publication last week, but have as yet received no reply. I posted the article on my blog, though, under the same title as you brilliantly titled post here ;) — http://hammond.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/07/30/dabashi-is-wrong-on-%E2%80%98the-left%E2%80%99/
Jeremy R. Hammond
Hi. I posted a comment in reply, but included a number of links, which is why I suspect it didn’t appear. Just wanted to say good post, though you mischaracterize my view. I also wrote a response and submitted it last week to Al-Ahram, though I haven’t heard back from them. My piece was also entitled “Dabashi is wrong on ‘the left'”, and is posted on my blog (go to Foreign Policy Journal and click “Blog” to find it — not posting a link because don’t want this comment marked as spam).
Admin, If my previous comment is awaiting approval and later gets posted, please feel free to delete this one! Thanks. Cheers.
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Hello Jeremy, many thanks for your visit and comment (I included the second only as a notice to others that sometimes comments get misdirected simply because of having more than a couple of links).
I obviously will not disagree with you, because the argument would then be that you do not say what you say. In a way I am glad that I misrepresented your argument, because it allowed me to play the game like Dabashi, only to be contradicted by the actual facts. I will post some sort of revision in the text, without making your comment redundant.
You are right, I was playing fast and loose with the characterizations. Even in the case of your article linked to in this piece, there is a TON of factual information that I would hope people would take the time to seriously study and consider.
Now, on to the revision, and reading the additional links you sent, which I will also add to that diigo list I linked to at the very top of the post.
Many thanks again and very best wishes.
Max, without trumpeting my writing (too much!) I have taken Dabashi to task here: http://pulsemedia.org/2009/07/26/riposte-to-hamid-dabashi-max-ajl/
When it was published elsewhere, the piece was derided as “pompous,” “incoherent,” etc., without “improving” on Dabashi’s notions of class. It escaped my correspondent’s notice that when one punctures a balloon that’s blocking the view of reality, one doesn’t have to put a new one in its place; sometimes (as with your piece right here) destruction is a contribution to knowledge.
I’ll add that Dabashi in person plays just as fast-and-loose with the facts, and relies on demagogy (those worthless American leftists! I am no paid shill for the CIA etc.), so of course it’s an odd charge to level at others.
Many thanks for the link, I am glad to read more on this.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Thanks Maximilian, that’s very gracious of you.
The first link is, as you said on my blog, broken. The problem is the end parenthesis is part of the link and shouldn’t be. Here’s the correct link: http://hammond.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/07/02/my-interview-with-dori-smith-ontalk-nation-radio/
People draw their own conclusions from my “fomenting unrest?” article, which is fine. My intent, though, was merely to pose the question and relate some background info and some facts to show that the notion of U.S. interference really isn’t so outrageous. It’s really a very reasonable suggestion, and a very real possibility.
Erlich, Dabashi, Taranto, and others, however, dishonestly twist what I wrote, or put words in my mouth, or just create strawman arguments. I presume that’s because they don’t want people asking that question or looking for answers that might take them to a place they don’t want people to go, for their own ideological reasons.
Erlich, for example, replied to my reply to him by saying if I just say I support the pro-Mousavi Iranians, he’ll buy me a beer. But what does that mean, to “support” them? I certainly support their right to voice themselves and protest peacefully. But I also happen to think they’re mistaken. And I certainly don’t support Mousavi. I don’t support any politician in Iran. It’s not my business to. That’s the Iranian people’s business. Fellow Americans taking a ride on this “green” wave is highly disturbing to me. Very, very, disturbing.
What I support is the principle of democracy, and if Ahmadinejad won legitimately, and I haven’t seen conclusive evidence to the contrary, then that vote needs to be respected.
I have no problem with your mischaracterization above. It’s an honest mistake, with no personal character assassination intended, and you’ve been gracious about allowing me to clarify my view here. The nature of Dabashi, et al’s mischaracterizations, though, is an entirely different story.
I agree, and I don’t see how the person who is slammed as “ignorant” for being critical or at least a bit aloof, suddenly becomes “highly knowledgeable” the moment he/she decides to become, still from a distance, pro-Mousavi.
I am especially in agreement with this:
As I am in questioning the “stolen election” argument, which really isn’t an argument: it’s a demand that you either believe it, or be tarred and feathered.
Let me add, Jeremy (I’m Max Ajl and not the proprietor of this website) that this talk of “support” is mostly a joke anyway. And among Marxists/socialists, has led to a huge, nasty internecine battle, which of course is why we’re always losing.
But what does “support” mean? A doughnut? A blog-post? A way to chat up an Iranian Mousavi supporter at a bar? Seems like mostly posturing to me. I think (on this I’m sure we agree) that the best way to support the Iranians is to try to tell the truth, in whatever fragmented, partial way we can, and scream, hands off Iran, as loud as we can.
From one Max to another, let me say that I am also in full agreement with this statement.
Jeremy R. Hammond
I’ll third that.
Great post (and excellent blog, by the way – I’ve been reading it for a while but am just now commenting). I wanted to share my post on the subject as well. While I agree with most of your criticisms of Dabashi’s article, I thought that his critique of the position of some Western leftists on Iran–however flawed–was necessary, and I have tried to recreate some of that, while hopefully avoiding some of Dabashi’s mistakes. Rather than addressing individuals, I spoke to what I saw as trends that can be commented on in general.
Still, I think your final point is the most salient one; it is a fundamental mistake to focus on leftists as if they were the problem, when they are merely responding to the biggest and most pressing problem, which is imperialism. I appreciate that your posts here on Iran (and other topics) seem to have kept that in perspective.
Thanks very much Eskandar, I have been reading your own post on this as well. One can/should discuss trends, as you chose to do, but it’s also important to name the names of representative authors, so a reader can discern to what extent an argument is with straw men, or with actual, influential tendencies within a field.
Another point that stood out for me, because it has been repeated often by those who object to the portrayal of Mousavi’s as a middle class, urban movement, and Ahmadinejad’s as based in the working class, is the counter-argument that one can find Iranians of all classes and backgrounds, in both parties. Alright, but that is actually true of virtually ANY political party one looks at in the world, and it doesn’t say much for that reason.
The question is: predominantly, which groups and whose ideas by and large tend to weigh more heavily in a party? This is what needs to be shown, more than telling us that one can find those of all walks of life — some lead, others walk behind.
Also, why are the overwhelming majority of protests taking place in Tehran? This is an honest question, not a rhetorical one.
I know of one racist, anti-Indian party in the Caribbean that features cabinet ministers who are of East Indian ancestry, and it claims to be a “national party” which makes everyone, the opposition and members of the party, snicker. (I am speaking here specifically of the People’s National Movement.)
Otherwise, there is another leftist tendency you could have discussed: the anti-left “left”, which uses the left as target practice in the absence of direct confrontation with what leftists typically oppose, or who assume that permanent revolution requires constant inversions. Various self-described “Trotskyists” in the West fit in this camp, people whose primary ambition is to splinter. Also, various puritanical know-it-all’s, as well as a variety of middle-class leftists who were never too comfortable in their red skin. Just because Stalinists (which you name) are bad doesn’t mean that their opponents are any better.
Then there is also the pro-imperialist left, such as Iran’s very own Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, who had no problem siding with Saddam Hussein against their own country, assisting in massacres, and then aligning themselves with the American invaders and occupiers in Iraq.
Finally, there is one very big mistake being made by most authors, especially Dabashi, and that is the identification of anti-imperialism entirely with the left. As someone who has lived in the U.S. for nearly three decades, he ought to know better. In recent times we have had right wing, Republican presidential candidates, such as Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, who are very much against the ambition to dominate the globe, to have a hand in every society, etc. One also has to appreciate the somewhat isolationist tendency within the American right, for whom foreign adventures are repugnant and dangerous. We thus saw Dabashi slam as a leftist people such as Paul Craig Roberts and Jeremy Hammond above…so it’s not even a critique of leftist writers/scholars that Dabashi is producing, but something much simpler and cruder: making room for PR by imperializing a field and booting out all opponents.
To respond to a couple of your questions/points:
… The question is: predominantly, which groups and whose ideas by and large tend to weigh more heavily in a party?
Your point is valid, but your question cannot be answered satisfactorily at this time. As far as I’m aware, there exists no meaningful, holistic data about the background/class makeup of either group. I point out that both are very diverse groups primarily because that’s as much as anyone (in Iran or outside) knows at this point, and I’m very suspicious of anyone who claims that either group is more representative of the poor or working class. In my opinion, a comparison between the Iranian ‘Principalists’ and ‘Greens’ to the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties would not be entirely off-base. All claim to be in the interest of the middle class as well as the poor and working class; the Principalists/Republicans claim that their opponents are elitist North Tehran/New York snobs and that they culturally represent the average Central Iran/Middle America types, whereas the Greens/Democrats claim that their opponents are less democratic-minded and that their own policies are more beneficial for the average person, while the political leaders of all these groups (in both the U.S. and in Iran) serve the interest of various political and economic elites more than anyone else. The crucial difference for me is that in Iran, we are not talking about concentrated political parties as in the U.S., we are talking about (a) movement(s). It is clear that not everyone protesting supports (or even voted for) Mousavi, that segments of the protesters are much more radical in their demands than ‘their’ political leadership, etc. For this reason, it is even more difficult to characterize the protesters as being primarily one thing or another; they are not unified in any real way other than in their opposition, and therefore draw their numbers from every sector of society. By the same token Ahmadinejad’s supporters are not registered members of any party, and are also a diverse group with sundry reasons behind their support. I know I am repeating some of what I wrote in my post, but I wanted to reiterate some of the reasons for which questions like yours are difficult (perhaps impossible) to answer meaningfully.
Also, why are the overwhelming majority of protests taking place in Tehran?
Tehran is a city of ~8 million, making up about 11% of the total population of Iran, so it’s natural that it would have more activity than anywhere else. It’s the capital city, so protests there may feel more relevant than anywhere else. As such, it’s also where Mousavi and other public figures stage large-scale demonstrations or other events. When a politician such as Mousavi organizes a protest, he has much more resources at his disposal than when student activists elsewhere do, but more importantly, he lends legitimacy to the protest. Many people may be scared to attend an “unofficial” protest, but one staged by a public figure like Mousavi is “safer” because there is a diminished likelihood of violent reprisal against an event associated with a prominent politician, plus media (local and international) are guaranteed to cover the event, which also decreases the chances of violence. These are some of the main reasons why more protests have taken place in Tehran, though there have been substantial amounts both in other urban centers (Tabriz, Shiraz, Esfahan, etc.) as well as in more rural areas such as Iranian Kurdistan.
Just because Stalinists (which you name) are bad doesn’t mean that their opponents are any better.
Actually those who I pejoratively labelled “Stalinists” most likely self-identify as Trotskyites or something else. I was comparing their rhetorical tactics and analysis to that of Stalinists, not claiming that they’re all card-carrying members of the RCP or whatever.
You’re right that there are many more ‘types’ of leftists and anti-imperialists that I left out. The discussion in the comments of your post on American conservative anti-imperialism, for example, is very interesting. And by the way, thanks for linking to my piece in your Links post.
Thanks very much for the reply, and your responses as well on the Hanifi posts. I find both sets of contributions to be very interesting, and I am sure other readers as well are benefiting from the exchanges.
That overly-quoted Terror Free Tomorrow did find that the only groups where Mousavi did better than Ahmadinejad were students and those with higher-incomes. So we don’t have “no” information; we just don’t have a lot. We also know that inequality decreased in 2006-2007. And we know that increasing portions of the Iranian electorate (again according to the TFT poll) like Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy (not a majority, but a trend).
Finally, we may not know anything about the composition of the protesters in a social-scientific way, but we do know that there has yet to be definitive evidence of fraud at anything more than the margins. If one agrees that there’s little reason for Ahmadinejad supporters to have joined the protests (which again isn’t to say they’re not out there but obviously the overwhelming component is Mousavi-ists) then again we can make reasonable inferences about the demographic composition of the protesters.
Thanks for the needed correction here. I think the last sentence leaves the strongest impression on me. Why in the world are people attacking the American left, as if progressive activists have: 1. a monopoly on media coverage; 2. are responsible for the wrongdoings that have happened in Iran. Both statements are ludicrous. Dissident groups like Counterpunch, Open Anthropolgy, etc. fly under the radar of popular discourse, unfortunately, so to target us over corporate media (which has heavily distorted the Iran coverage) is not only counterproductive, but irresponsible, I think. Why not spend your time, as a citizen of this country, focusing on those with no commitment to Middle East democracy – specifically political elites in the Democratic and Republican party who are still all too happy to support Israeli repression and aggression, and medieval dictatorships in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc.
Just my thoughts,
I am especially happy that you visited, Anthony, I am quite a fan of your writing. Many thanks for these comments.
My pleasure, you put out a lot of important information.
Thank you first of all for the excellent blog and deep analyses of the topics that you tackle. Concerning Prof. Dabashi, I thought I might throw a couple of thoughts your way; I agree with much of what you are stating here, and I don’t want to seem as if I am jumping to someone’s defense when they can surely defend themselves. But I also have a sense of “getting” where Dabashi is coming from, and I feel that it might help to try and elucidate this, in order to shed light on perhaps a greater topic of discussion.
First, as background, I moved back to my native Lebanon some five years ago, and admit to having been caught up in the quote-unquote “Cedar Revolution”–so dubbed by the State Department who had a problem with the Arabic name, the “Intifada of Independence”–in 2005. There was at the time a kind of elation in the direct action on the street almost in and of itself that I have rarely seen in my lifetime, especially when you consider that a quarter of the population of the whole country was in one place at one time.
Later, of course, we would realize that demonstrations that are allowed are allowed for a reason, in a country with a political class that is supportive of the United States. Later, of course, we would also find out that much of the “support” behind the ersatz revolution came from USAID, as well as advertising agencies with a definite political agenda, as directed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy here. This article appeared at Electronic Intifada:
Brand America: Of Broken Promises and Snake Oil
I bring this up because I agree with the statement that one can get caught up in the demonstration taking place, voicing valid grievance, and not be aware of being duped by a mediating entity or entities. Furthermore, as the “ad wars” of the recent elections in Lebanon have shown, the “voice of the street” can also be mediated out of existence. Meaning, the non-mediated expression that is direct and of the people is different from the mediated and super-mediated versions that go out over airwaves, get blogged about, appear in newspapers, and later replace the original Voice as it were as being representative of an event that has taken place.
It seems to me that perhaps Dabashi has this in mind; a spectrum of “distance” from this event that is not geographical, but that is of mediation. He himself is in a difficult position, in which he wishes to claim an immediacy which he is not afforded by his having left the country many years ago. In order to reclaim this, he goes after those who might be seen to be claiming (and erroneously to him) a “closer” position along this spectrum.
Second, there is in this part of the world a realization that the “Left” as it were is not much different than the “Right” when it comes to certain topics which, under examination, reveal a desire to maintain the status quo, a superior class status, and reflect the tacit Orientalist view of those outside the secular West as being backwards, uncivilized, unenlightened.
I refer in just one case to the example of the two men hanged in Iran who were later “championed” by gay rights groups as examples of persecution within Iran of homosexuals. It seemed strange to me at the time that any group on the left might come out with press releases that match in tone and wording the directives of the U.S. State Department, but this is exactly what happened. I have since seen many groups advocating for the rights of those engaging in same-sex behavior in Africa and this region writing letters to their European and American counterparts to stop interfering with a mediated spectacle that causes a backlash on the local level; that this imposition is invalid culturally and politically speaking, and does more harm than good. Joseph Massad most famously argued this case in his book “Desiring Arabs”.
It brings up issues of class as well, that are striking in their similarity to the “uprisings” in Iran, that seemed to be of a certain class level, and reflective of a mentality that is willing to forego considering anyone who doesn’t have a Twitter account as being valid in the truly political sense. I’m being slightly facetious, but I think you see my point. The same thing occurred in Lebanon, when an equivalent number of people demonstrated downtown in support of the opposition but did not find themselves on the cover of Newsweek.
The case in Iran I wrote about on a mailing list, and it was picked up by Yasmin Nair at Windy City Times:
Arrogance and purposeful misunderstanding http://www.inquisitor.com/pcgi-bin/NYD.cgi?NA=NYD&AC=File&DA=20061009ZBE&TO=DI
The Gay Movement Is Over
I would thus agree that one need not go to the CIA for the source of destabilization, when one need only look at local and foreign NGOs, their sponsors, and their efforts; Jean Bricmont in “Humanitarian Imperialism” exposes a lot of this as well. That the CIA is historically speaking a valid source of agitation in Iran cannot be overlooked all the same.
A second issue along these lines is that of international adoption, as viewed from a Third World perspective. An article I wrote along these lines was translated and published in the local left-wing daily paper al-Akhbar, and republished online at Monthly Review Zine as well as Dissident Voice. You might think that the Left would champion the stated case, which examines adoption from a political and economic viewpoint; unfortunately it is quite the contrary, where the issue remains completely off the map, most likely due to the calling into question of particular class status that allows for this view of the world to begin with. Locally, the article was very well received:
fadiha ‘arch du zuwih: ‘ighadeh taqwim it-tabanni
Re-evaluating Adoption: Validating the Local
The third error of the Left as seen by Dabashi and many others (including myself) is the mistake of not seeing within Islam anything redeemable in terms of resistance discourse. There is a sense that in arguing from within a religious perspective that one is automatically discounted. I do not mean to speak for the professor, but I can imagine, based on his writing, a desire for a revolution in Iran from within the revolution, and not imposed from without. So those from a secular framework are automatically seen as the equivalent of these outsiders. There is a great opportunity being lost in this ignorance.
Finally, I would like to suggest that the East/West positioning need be redefined; as you question, does one need to physically be in a place in order to understand it or comment on it? The reply I think is both yes and no. I say this because on the local level is nuance and complexity that is only reduced as it makes its way up the chain of mediation; but on the other hand one cannot maintain a privileged position without invoking, on some level, the sentiment that keeps that privilege in place. This is where I see Dabashi most at conflict with himself in a way, and perhaps lashing out is an attempt to literally regain “street cred” with a street that he is currently estranged from.
This remapping would be along economic lines:
Traversing Meanings: Remapping East and West
What I aim to say here is that from a distance, the “Western Left” can be described as existing more or less wholly in a mediated space removed from the non-mediated expression such as that of the demonstrations in Iran. In its inability to remove itself from a certain class position, it is loathe to champion any cause that might call that position into question.
I don’t claim to have an answer to this discussion; I have been following it on many levels, local and global, and find that there perhaps needs to be not so much an examination and analysis of Prof. Dabashi’s statement in terms of this mediated Left, but in terms of where he is or hopes to be “coming from”. By this I mean that he is writing from a different place, using a different voice, and it is perhaps unfair to examine it using a rational framework that is in and of itself representative of a way of looking at things that cannot reveal but shortcomings, in the reverse of what the professor was attempting to say, and at a time when resistance movements of all stripes globally speaking need be working together.
I apologize for linking to so many pieces I’ve written, but I propose them as perhaps helping to elucidate some of these “unseen” and “unspoken” aspects of the discussion.
Excellent insights and very thought provoking observations and interpretations. Thanks for the links as well, which I am slowly reading through. Not to make short work of a reply, but if you wish to submit a piece as a guest author here, please know that you would be very welcome. I really have no issue with any of the points you raised, I think they were very much on target, and very reasonable.
Thank you for taking the time to read the many links, as well as the offer. I was thinking after I posted that there were more points to bring up….this I think I can sum up in short time and send your way. Best wishes to you, and thanks again.
I appreciate a good deal of what you wrote here, and don’t take my nit-picking to stand in for my broader response. But I take serious issue with two statements:
One, “The third error of the Left as seen by Dabashi and many others (including myself) is the mistake of not seeing within Islam anything redeemable in terms of resistance discourse. There is a sense that in arguing from within a religious perspective that one is automatically discounted. I do not mean to speak for the professor, but I can imagine, based on his writing, a desire for a revolution in Iran from within the revolution, and not imposed from without. So those from a secular framework are automatically seen as the equivalent of these outsiders. There is a great opportunity being lost in this ignorance.”
The irony of this point-of-view is that it is precisely liberals who are most hostile to Muslim religiosity, or religiosity in general, and that the leftists who are abrasively demanding “solidarity” who may well be more hostile to religion than others [Zizek’s opportunist muttering I’d take to be a case in point]. Religion of course is totally if tacitly welcomed by the left when it comes to Latin American liberation theology, anyway.
You write: “By this I mean that he is writing from a different place, using a different voice, and it is perhaps unfair to examine it using a rational framework that is in and of itself representative of a way of looking at things that cannot reveal but shortcomings”
Now, this veers dangerously close to a post-everything denial of the utility ofr the universalism of rational discourse [as distinct from positivism, libertarian rationalism, etc.–I’m thinking here of C.P. Otero’s notion of “rationalism,” which I think very much ecumenical].
I think it’s never “unfair” to examine anything using a “rational” framework, because I see no other option. If there is, explain it to me. But how are you going to explain it to me if not with reason?
I think you may be suggesting (but maybe not?) that Dabashi is operating within that Saidian framework wherein Western interpretations of “the Orient” literally could not be true or accurate, or are always “mediated”; thus someone’s subject position may be preventing them from accessing the truth. Given that we’re “in here” it may be hard to access the truth and we may be doing so in a fragmentary manner, partially occluded by our “subject positions,” but I don’t think Orient/Occident dichotomies do us any good at all here, or have much to do with it.
As for Dabashi: you additionally write that “perhaps needs to be not so much an examination and analysis of Prof. Dabashi’s statement in terms of this mediated Left, but in terms of where he is or hopes to be “coming from””; I have my own thoughts on this, and suspect the Max who runs this blog was being overly-polite in writing of “PR”; my own descriptions of where Dabashi might hope to be coming from or is coming from would be far harsher, and maybe this isn’t the place for them. But I wouldn’t give the man too much credit; the Voice of a People ends up on CNN for a reason, and it’s not for telling the truth.
Just to continue for a moment with one of the points raised by both Max and Daniel, and that is the question of religiosity and the section of the left that calls for solidarity with the protesters.
In the piece by Zizek — http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2009/06/will-cat-above-precipice-fall-down.asp– (which seems to get worse each time I look at it), he writes:
The implication here is that Mousavi and his supporters are in fact the “secular Left” — and I have seen absolutely no evidence to suggest either how secular they are, and even less than nothing on their supposed “left-ness”. While some call on leftists to support Mousavi and the movement behind him…my question remains: what have they said or done that specifically should appeal to the left? Is it just protesting? There were protesters against Allende in Chile…should we have backed them? There are anti-Castro protests in Miami…should we back them?
So Zizek says this is the “secular Left”…but then by the end of his very short article, as if he forgot his own theme, he writes:
This statement was downright stupid, I almost lost all respect for Zizek when I read that bit of Eurocentric, imperialist rubbish. This is someone that — to his surprise — has discovered that some Muslims might actually live up to the standards by which he submerges them. There may really be some “good” Muslims, as long as they conform to the fantasies he has woven for them. He writes like a Crusader, relieved that total war might not be necessary because now we have found some enemies we can relate to.
Max–thank you for your points, they are well taken. Though in the first point you make I think we may be stating the same thing? What I meant to say is that the secular left will not allow for a revolutionary discourse that is based in religion, much less from within Islam. I have been researching liberation theologies, and have yet to see a case where the left has embraced such a discourse, much less those positing it. Mike Davis describes this very well in City of Quartz for example. At the same time, to me there is great irony in the fact that I am able to have more “revolutionary” discussions with a sheikh on my street in Beirut with posters of Che on his wall than with anyone in the States who might describe him/herself as a “leftist”.
Of course it is more problematic than this, the local left remembers very well what happened to them after certain groups came to power in various countries of the region. But at the same time, no one in the Western left has been picking up on or noticing (on purpose, I believe) that for example, at local socialist conferences, you have the various political Islamic groups represented. In Lebanon, you have a left-wing daily newspaper that supports the Resistance, but is vocally critical of its non-economic engagement. There is a huge potential here, that the left ignores (on purpose, I believe) to its own detriment.
Which leads me to what I see as the reason for this, which is such a discourse calls into question one’s comfort in terms of his or her class status, or truly political view of the world. Zizek is representative of this left that is more concerned with its own self-promotion and marketing than any message it is putting forth. This is the complicit dance I refer to between “sides” in the current leftist discourse. To me they fall along a spectrum, but they all walk the line in such a way that in terms of mediation, they are darlings, in terms of discourse, they push buttons. But the “system” knows they are not dangerous, so they are given their space to work in, to write in. But in terms of action? They are useless. I feel on Dabashi’s part–and I give him credit, in a way, since it is difficult to be living inside the Beast and maintain a remove from it–an awareness of this.
This leads me to your final point concerning rational approaches. I imagine at one point there was a sense of rationalism as a tool to glean meaning from our reality, and I am no stranger to it in terms of what I am positing, especially since all of the great Islamic scholars (that I am only able to scratch the surface of what they’ve written, mind you) have availed themselves of in order to advance their arguments, even the metaphysical ones. So I would not say I am “post-everything”, but perhaps “pre-everything”….
What I am trying to bring forward is that there is another side to such rationalism, which is that of an active and reductive tool to undo Voice that does not fit into the dominant or hegemonic discourse. It has become a systemic enforcer of this discourse, and does not allow for the “unsaid”; the “unspoken”. Your Saidian interpretation starts to get at it, but I am currently arguing in my work that it is much deeper than this, and that a true revolutionary movement need stop defending itself along these lines and need start advocating in ways that are understood by those who inherently “get it”.
The examples locally are quite numerous, in which the universalist given does not stop to take into account local reality. This often comes up with my thesis advisees. Simply by virtue of using, say, a European-based framework to describe Beirut or the region, they are imposing huge limitations on their thinking but also forcing square pegs into round holes. One basic example is that of mapping (I’m in a graphic design department) in which a 2-D Cartesian system is useless when trying to accomodate the way that Beirutis see their city, or visualize it, which is based in collective memory, an active dynamism of the urban space, and a non-transient connection to the land. I call it 4-D space; it took a long time to get my head around directions given to me while walking around the city such as “turn left where Abou Ahmad’s roastery used to be”. Mind you, this is just one small example. Thus to go ahead and use a non-local (often rationalist) framework on local phenomena and concepts thus immediately does them an injustice, which is, I believe now, not naive, or without purpose. The current focus on semiotic surface meanings is another example of this.
In the last piece I linked to about remapping East and West, I refer to what you are saying as fish not being aware of the water they swim in. I grew up in this water, and now I’ve been out of it for 5 years. I’m still putting things together for myself, and don’t claim to have any greater perception of a culture I did not grow up in. But I am sensing something along these lines, am pursuing it as much as I can, and am trying to elucidate it as best as I can. I am trying to say that I see Dabashi perhaps coming from this same place, in terms of argument. I remain very much open to words to the contrary.
Sorry for any confusion, but in case I was the Max you were referring to in your first paragraph, regarding the passages from Zizek, yes, we are in agreement. In fact I am not so sure that you and the other Max are in disagreement either, since he seemed to mostly be expanding on or adding to the points you made. I think that the points you make above are genuinely fascinating and important ones and I am grateful for the contribution.
No confusion! But thanks again for the nice words and the opportunity to add to the discussion. I was replying to both Max’s issues and your comment on Zizek at the same time–perhaps I should have “threaded them out”. It is perhaps me who is making things confusing!
Daniel—I think we agree on the spirit of what we’re saying, but not on the first point. The secular Left doesn’t activelyembrace Latin American liberation theology, true, but accepts movements based upon it, as in the case of the MST in Brazil, which is supported by the Western left, as quick Google search should confirm. I’d say that its religiosity is underplayed—hence there’s less knowledge of its organic links to the Pastoral Land Commission, its notion of Mistica which is also prevalent across La Via Campesina, too. Hence, my use of the word, “tacitly.” I haven’t yet read Davis’s book that you reference, which may clear some but not all I think of this confusion up. I do think there is more general discomfort with Islam(ism) in general in the American secular left. The issue of embracing “such a discourse” vs. “those positing it” I can’t adequately resolve. I simply meant to say that leftists certainly embrace Latin American practitioners of liberation theology with considerable enthusiasm.
There is a huge potential here, that the left ignores (on purpose, I believe) to its own detriment.
I think a lot of this may simply be due to prevalent Western Islamophobia, frankly, although I’m open to other explanations, too.
Zizek is representative of this left that is more concerned with its own self-promotion and marketing than any message it is putting forth…But the “system” knows they are not dangerous, so they are given their space to work in, to write in. But in terms of action? They are useless. I feel on Dabashi’s part–and I give him credit, in a way, since it is difficult to be living inside the Beast and maintain a remove from it–an awareness of this.
agree that Zizek is partially representative of this tendency, but also think he is at least somewhat subversive nonetheless…he’s not, to take a relevant hypothetical, appearing on CNN. Again, I give no credit to Dabashi, until I see good reason to; for example, point out something that he’s said that appears particularly brave or on-point or not self-regarding.
What I am trying to bring forward is that there is another side to such rationalism, which is that of an active and reductive tool to undo Voice that does not fit into the dominant or hegemonic discourse. It has become a systemic enforcer of this discourse, and does not allow for the “unsaid”; the “unspoken”. Your Saidian interpretation starts to get at it, but I am currently arguing in my work that it is much deeper than this, and that a true revolutionary movement need stop defending itself along these lines and need start advocating in ways that are understood by those who inherently “get it”.
Again I don’t think we substantially disagree in spirit, and agree that a certain variety of systemic social rationalism can be pernicious, as can various versions of what are called Rational Choice Theories, or “rationalist” approaches to movement formation, etc., which ignore what scholars call “ideal interest mobilization,” or what I’d more cornily refer to as a utopian spirit. I actually wasn’t endorsing the Saidian interpretation, but overtly disputing it; as Aijaz Ahmad wrote in his (strong) criticism of Said in In Theory, Said was the first to suggest that a Western analyst was actually incapable of constructing “true” knowledge about the “Orient.”
You may be correct that a “true revolutionary movement” needs to stop defending itself along rationalist lines, but how do you expect it to organize? “Well, this program will improve your well-being, it’s in accord with norms of social justice, etc.,” which are rational arguments; what would the type of argument you envision look like? And how again would you convince leftist organizers to deploy it if not with the rational argument that it would be a more efficacious means to arrive at the desired end? And why would we wish to abandon rationality when it’s actually along rational grounds that one can deconstruct the apologiae of empire and capitalism? I ask these questions because the type of universalist “rationalism” I’m envisioning accommodates the counter-examples you offer:
it took a long time to get my head around directions given to me while walking around the city such as “turn left where Abou Ahmad’s roastery used to be”. Mind you, this is just one small example. Thus to go ahead and use a non-local (often rationalist) framework on local phenomena and concepts thus immediately does them an injustice, which is, I believe now, not naive, or without purpose. The current focus on semiotic surface meanings is another example of this.
Again the example you here bring up seems eminently rational, e.g. given the different assumptions and culture and collective memory of a given society then the directions you offer make sense and are totally rational.
I am trying to say that I see Dabashi perhaps coming from this same place, in terms of argument. I remain very much open to words to the contrary.
Perhaps it would be better if you could cite specific phrases from his argument that appeal to you, or that are examples of the phenomena you’re trying to describe; otherwise I’d just be speculating.
I”m interested to know more about support for even tangentially liberation theology-based groups or organizations. Because my experience, even locally most especially in academia, and even as concerns Islam is very different, and I would agree with the reasons you state, as well as our agreement in spirit.
In terms of Dabashi, I will state that I didn’t mean to imply that I agreed with what he said in this particular article, only that I can sense where he might be coming from, as someone who in a short period of time has grown quite tired of defending the local against definitions from without. I will say that I think there is an internal conflict on his part, having to do with distance and class position, as described previously.
By rationalism I don’t mean thinking rationally, or within a different context something making sense. I mean the imposition of a “flat”, reductive evidential way of viewing things onto something more complex, that involves the elliptical, the unsaid and unstated, or unsensed.
In terms of the “how”, I plan to write this all up in an article (and hopefully a book) shortly, based primarily on the experience of starting up an artists collective here in Lebanon that is based in a consensus model, and reflects a systemic approach that is self-sustaining and resistant to both internal dissent and external attack. I can’t really do it justice here. But thanks for indulging the conversation.
Many thanks Daniel. I very much appreciated the points that you raised here and, speaking for myself, I believe that I had understood what you are explaining here and I am in agreement with your point of view. Incidentally, when your book comes out, please drop us a note, I would be very happy to post news of its release.
Jeremy R. Hammond
It’s still difficult for me, I confess, to follow a lot of what people are talking about without terms like “left” being defined. I tried to offer a definition, but that didn’t go over so well. I’m perfectly open to alternatives, but I would appreciate when people use such terms if they would explain what the mean, because I acknowledge my ignorance in that regard. It’s hard to interpret a lot of comments here without knowing what is meant by “left”, which gets us back to the original question posed, which still hasn’t been answered.
I don’t think it’s ignorance on your part Jeremy, there really is a lot of confusion among all of us. I only use the term out of laziness, or for Twitter purposes, as a short hand. Implicitly my view of what “left” ought to refer to is a body of fundamentally anti-capitalist positions, but that is not good enough in the end.
I recalled distant memories of the origin of the terms “left” and “right” and these date back to the parliamentary or legislative bodies of the French Revolutionary period — not exactly a good formula for encompassing all of the politics of the world, then and afterward.
Interestingly, there is a Wikipedia entry on this at:
Jeremy R. Hammond
Okay, take “a body of fundamentally anti-capitalist positions”.
For that, we need to define “capitalism”, for which I’ll again defer to the dictionary: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.
“Conservatives” as I defined them earlier (or as Merriam-Webster defined them, rather) are naturally inclined towards this economic system since it is favored by a lack of government interference.
The antithesis to capitalism is greater state intervention in the economy, which is a more “liberal” position, which, in the discourse I’m familiar with (U.S.), is a also a “left” position — which therefore happens to parallel your own description of what “left” means.
But then there’s this wrench in the gears (from Wikipedia): “Whether capitalism is called right-wing or left-wing varies from country to country.” In other words, the terms can mean completely opposite things for different people, rendering it practically meaningless. We’ve already run into that trouble here.
But if we overlook that, I can agree with this definition of “left”, and it parallels the starting point I offered earlier.
But if we accept these few axioms established here as our groundwork, then, again, what some call “libertarian socialism” (again, an oxymoron under this framework) would be an extreme RIGHT position, just as I previously said anarchism would also be.
Wikipedia contradicts that, saying anarchism is a “left” position – but that makes precisely zero sense to me and I have no idea what criteria is being applied to arrive at that conclusion.
We’ve got one basic criteria so far that I can see in establishing a framework: a person’s position on proper amount of government control/influence/interference in people’s lives. I would postulate that what kind of views a person might have on a preferred economic system follows from their view on that basic criteria.
This is our linear spectrum: people favoring more government being on the “left” of that spectrum and people favoring less on the “right”. Can we agree on that criteria? Or do others prefer a different criteria? If so, what?
This description is what of course allows for the ability to state things like, “fiscally conservative yet socially liberal” in the States. And this thus describes the starting point of challenging such a conflation of terms.
You’ll permit me I hope to point out that this definition of capitalism states it is a given, an accepted status quo, and we thus define “left” and “right” based on this given. To say “The antithesis to capitalism is greater state intervention in the economy” is to describe a reductive binary that then leads to the problems of definition we seem to be having.
I only point this out because there are collective/cooperative models which don’t necessarily involve the state; which are bottom-up instead of top-down. I live in a country in which there is no active state whatsoever, yet somehow the social contract maintains a certain functionality on the communal level, for better and for worse….
Having said that, I would argue that I rarely use the terms “left” or “right” except when describing a spectrum that is reflective of the parliamentary division that was mentioned earlier. I think I did a pretty good job of implying the adjective “so-called” when referring to the left in my posts above; the one place that I used it less facetiously was when I was describing the local newspaper al-Akhbar, which, on a political spectrum (here, in the parliamentary sense) of newspapers in Lebanon, is left-wing.
For myself I define things in terms of the dominant or hegemonic discourse that is the by-product of a system bent on dispossessing populations, amassing wealth for an elite few, views the world in terms of an atomized individual with perhaps an allowance for a nuclear family, and which further enables such laws, media (including Wikipedia!), and systems that will sustain this discourse and the status quo. It enables and empowers upward. This is countered by a resistance discourse which speaks for the Voices of those discounted by the former, and which views the world in terms of a collective aggregate, with local community being the most indivisible element. It enables and empowers downward.
This allows me to say, for example, that Libération, the putatively socialist newspaper in France, is part of the dominant discourse. Same for Zizek. This is what allows Prof. Dabashi, in his book Islamic Liberation Theology to state that ethnic studies tend to be of this discourse, odd though as it seems. It also allows me to say that many groups viewed as “conservative”, for example, within political Islam, or South American Catholic liberation theology, are actually resistant. I do not mean perfectly so, and this is where the non-engagement of the so-called “left” with such resistance groups 1) reveals them to be supportive of the status quo and 2) shows their willful ignorance of the potential of reaching out to such groups. I call this the difference between activism and passivism. It also explains the will of the dominant discourse to atomize and thus destroy resistance discourses.
This question has plagued me for ages. I remember writing about what I called back then the “Marketing of AIDS” in the early 90s, and it was clear that something wasn’t right in the way active resistance and passive compliance were conflated. It is only now that I live in a more community-based culture, and am witness to the depredations of the market as representative of the antithesis of such community, that I have come to a definition.
I currently believe that we can find the answer to this question in examining current modes of mediation, as well as the systemic tendencies that we take for granted–such as rationalism, discussed above–and call them into question on a fundamental level. At least that is what I am trying to do currently in my writing. Those who are willing to call these tendencies into question, knowing that they might very well be challenging their very status in terms of class and ownership of property, their societal position, as well as the very notion of their individuality, are what I would refer to as leftists.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Far be it from me to not permit you to make observations, but in this case I don’t see what you mean by saying the definition of capitalism “states it as a given, an accepted status quo”. I don’t know what you mean by that or how you got that out of the definition.
As for your description of “left”, it parallels the dictionary definition of “liberal” in that liberal means more inclined towards social change, as opposed to “conservative” which can mean favorable to the status quo. Again, this further explains why “left” and “liberal” are often used synonymously in the U.S.
But this is confusing, because now we have two criteria: 1) position on government role in society and 2) position on change vs. status quo. One could favor small government (conservative) and yet seek dramatic change (liberal). The dictionary definitions themselves are thus greatly problematic and contradictory.
The terms “left” and “right”, besides the fact that 100 different people could use them to mean 100 different things, are further problematic because they suggest this linear framework. People are supposed to fall into a single point along a line.
We need a 3-D model, really, to graph where a person’s politics lie. A linear model is really practically useless. There are too many other criteria to consider. Even with just two (above), problems arise with this linear model.
A solution might be to just stop using “left” and “right” as descriptive political terms, since they’re practically meaningless (as so effectively demonstrated throughout here).
Interesting points Jeremy, about “liberal” and “left” (I should drop the quotes by now) being seen as the same by U.S. conservatives because they both involve relying on the state to carry out change. I understand it — which is not to say I agree with it.
Large parts of the Marxist left are indeed oriented toward the state as a key actor within a socialist society, but to be more precise, a state that is subordinate to the interests of the proletariat (at least in theory). This is not the same as the liberal state, which in fact tries to maintain much of the status quo by trying to absorb contradictions — what appears to be managed change. You could have a state that does absolutely nothing, besides foreign representation, defense, etc., like conservatives might want — but if social strife is left unaddressed by a state, especially extreme inequalities and injustices against groups, then conservatives too would be ushering in massive change…just by virtue of doing nothing to ameliorate the situation because that would involve a growth in government.
Your point about anarchists earlier. Anarchism emerged from the socialist left, and much of it is still tied to it. Anarchists were active in trade unions and for the most part are anti-capitalist. Most are also far more anti-state than orthodox Marxists, who are willing to rely on a state in the transition toward communism, which is itself a stateless and classless society.
Neither liberals nor conservatives share a vision of a stateless or classless society. In the meantime, most Marxists and anarchists do share such a vision.
Otherwise, yes, outside of these simple/simplistic schematic outlines…the terms are almost useless and obsolete and rather Eurocentric. The terminology really falls to pieces when it comes to so-called “Islamic fundamentalists” for example, who have been dubbed by some “Islamo-fascists,” even if they share little in common with actual historical fascists (i.e., desire for a secular state).
Your project links helped me a lot in my studies. Thank you very much.
My pleasure. Over time, the list of links really has grown, I am glad you found it useful.
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