Thursday, 1 September 2011

Street Politics: Poor people's Movements in Iran

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, an active political movement emerged on the streets of Iran's largest cities. Poor people began to construct their own communities on unused urban lands, creating an infrastructure----roads, electricity, running water, garbage collection, and shelters----all their own. As the Iranian government attempted to evict these illegal settlers, they resisted----fiercely and ultimately successfully. This is the story of their economic and political strategies.

Click here to download this book in pdf.

Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (Columbia University Press, 1997)
Reviewed by Peyman Vahabzadeh
The Rain 4:2 (Summer-Autumn 2006): 6

One of the merits of Assef Bayat’s Street Politics rests in the pursuit of showing the continuity of movements of urban disenfranchised across defining political thresholds in a country whose modern experience of politics has always involved revolutionary or liberation movements. The history of the twentieth century Iran attests to the fact that political stability lasts no longer than a generation’s life-span and each new generation brings with it, and vehemently tries to implement, its own vision of the future. It is easy, so to speak, to lose sight of movements that are not by any standard étatiste or are strategically unorganized or “spontaneous”. Bayat’s study shows that the movements of urban disenfranchised, misplaced, poor, and squatter-dwellers in Iran are symptomatic of mutant developmental projects under both the ancien regime of the Shah and the current Islamic Republic. His aim is “to recover and give agency to one of those suppressed voiced, that of the urban disenfranchised” (5). The “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”, as the author calls movements of the urban poor, bears only indirect political implications, but it “implies changes that the actors consider ... significant in themselves without intending necessarily to undermine political authority. Yet these very simple and everyday practices are bound to shift into the realm of politics” (8).

Sociologically, the phenomenon of rural-urban migration in its present form markedly started in the 1950s and was accelerated during the 1960s, thanks to the Shah’s land reform intended to enter into world capitalist system, supposedly as a strong, but in fact only a peripheral, participant. Making family subsistence based on land impossible in the face of growing agribusiness or agglomeration of small lands in few hands, his reforms detached rural laborers from their traditional niches, forcing them to seek employment in the then newly-emerging industrial sector. An all but familiar trend. By the 1970s, the phenomenon of the “new poor” was more than visible and the new urban poor, these victims of “maldevelopment” or “pseudomodernization” were treated by the state as villains of development (23). Bayat estimates that by 1980 in Tehran alone at least thirty-five percent of the city’s population lived in slums, squats and makeshift settlements (29). To maintain the image of a modern Iran, the Shah’s regime made consistent efforts to push back squatter-dwellers to the unnoticeable outskirts of Tehran and other big cities, never hesitating to use force to achieve such ends. The “problem” of the urban poor eventually came to the fore as a political issue in the 1977 bloody confrontation outside the municipality of Rey (south of Tehran) in which squatter-dwellers defending their homes spontaneously clashed with the gendarmerie forces and municipal bulldozers that had orders to level all illegal constructions. What added to the significance of this incident was the vivid politicization of the issue when a team of the Marxist Fadaian urban guerrillas bombed the municipality building in Rey in solidarity with urban toilers and squatter-dwellers (43).

The populist language of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, uplifted the scorned image of the new poor by calling them mustaz’afin (a Koranic expression)—the downtrodden—in an attempt at winning over this growing but alienated segment of the Iranian population. Seeking to give Islam a populist and emancipatory image, Ayatollah Khomeini personally and repeatedly called the Revolution one of the downtrodden and squatter-dwellers (gowdneshinan) (35). In the face of a revolutionary but modern, liberal and westernized middle class, a working class that had historical ties with the Left, and regions, ethnicities and minorities that treated the idea of a Shi’i state with great suspicion, the leaders of the Revolution had no alternative but to appeal to the urban poor as the authentic people. The new poor were propagated as devoutly religious people with strong ties to traditional ways of life, people who bore the disdain of westernization and piously lived in communities of the dispossessed. The urban poor and squatter-dwellers almost by default became the standard bearers of the revolutionary promise.

In the aftermath of the subversion of monarchy in Iran, radical populism and the early revolutionary spirit facilitated the permeation of the urban poor into the big cities and notably into wealthier neighborhoods. In many cases the new wave of re-migration led to the occupation of the abandoned hotels, villas and mansions that belonged to the former regime’s top functionaries (chapter four). Notwithstanding the revolutionary promise and its idealization of the urban poor as the authentic people, the situation of the urban poor was exacerbated following the Revolution and war with Iraq: soon eviction orders were delivered and enforced by the Revolutionary Guards (67-74). In the absence of independent formal organizations, social mobilization fell into the hands of local neighborhood councils and Islamic consumer cooperatives, formed following the Revolution, that were informally state-sponsored (41, 52-58). Various leftist groups started organizing and mobilizing shantytown dwellers, but eventually to no avail, thanks to the general repression of all opposition beginning in 1981.

The Islamic state’s response to the problem of the new poor mainly hinged on the institutionalization of the relationship between the urban unprivileged and the state. As Bayat observes: “Whereas the poor viewed migration as a means to a better life, for the authorities it represented a ‘social catastrophe’, ‘the most important problem beside the war [with Iraq]’, and ‘a major threat to the revolution and the Islamic Republic’” (101). The newly formed Housing Foundation provided limited provisions (100). Given the structural failure as well as the government’s repeated policy fiascoes in deterring migrants from settling on the outskirts of the big cities, and given the political cost of a confrontational approach with the poor, quiet policies such as reforestation of vacant lands outside Tehran are now implemented (108).

But such policies can only address part of the problem. Expectedly, the squatter phenomenon of such magnitude as it exists in Iran always comes with problems of rampant unemployment and the subsequent visible growth of an informal economy featuring smugglers of goods, merchandise brokers, street vendors, and a vast unregulated service sector. Due to their connection with the growing labour movement in the months following the Revolution, the unemployed managed to stage protest movements, which only achieved meagre results before ceding into the suppressive, but transient, postrevolutionary political climate of the summer of 1979 (chapter six). However, given the obstinacy of unemployment and the presence of street vendors in the 1990s the City of Tehran tried to regulate and organize “committed” vendors (by issuing them licenses) into scheduled day markets, now dubbed “traditional markets” (154)—a practice in lifting the “burden” of employment off the state that is well in place in France, Italy and many other countries today.

As an attempt at mapping out the new poor as underrepresented social actors, Bayat’s study demystifies the notions of the “passive poor” as well as the so-called “natural alliance” between the Islamic state and the religious poor (158-159). In fact, Bayat points out that the new poor are politically divided: some are incorporated by the state (namely into the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basiji corps, or the Construction Crusade), but “[m]ost of the poor seem to be uninterested in any particular form of ideology and politics” (159). In any case, rational calculation and hopes for a better future remain the defining characteristics of movements of the poor, and Bayat’s book offers a valuable study of the informal, street politics of the new poor in Iran.

The study also raises two critical points that deserve further discussion (which this review does not claim to embark on). First, Bayat frequently makes reference to the problem of the urban poor and squatter-dwellers as a specifically Third World problem. He analogizes the Iranian case with that of Egypt (21, 155, 158-59) and Latin America (21, 41-42, 87) in order to assert the “maldevelopmental” roots of the phenomenon. While one need not deny such structural political economy approaches to the problem of the urban poor and displaced (which always implies an ideal image of development) by widening one’s comparative scope—that is, by making analogies with European and North American cases of the urban poor, homeless, and cardboard-box, back-alley dwellers—one can indeed take the issue beyond explaining rural-urban migration and squatterdwelling in terms of the flaws of capitalist incorporation of labour power. Stated differently, while the problem of the “new poor” can be traced to the industrialization of peripheral economies in a capitalist world system (which is the case in Iran), the issue in fact reveals the problem of modern urbanization. This brings us to the second point: the urban monster is both a blessing and a curse for modern politics. Without urbanization, modern forms of power, political representation and liberal democracy would not have been possible. But at the same time, as an original institution modern politics presupposes a normative, civic, labour-based, and free-enterprise-oriented public. Naturally, those who do not fit in these urbane axes of citizenship disturb the smooth functioning of the political apparatus because, among other things, they cannot be socially located. Thus, from the dominant utilitarian view of politics, prevalent where the modern state is in place, the urban poor produce no “meaningful” political participation, precisely because those who cannot “dwell” within the urban organization of politics according to the above axes of civic participation cannot be politically significant either. And this is the source of political underrepresentation of the poor, a problem that in liberal democratic regimes can be addressed by bridging the gap between the “people on the ground” and activists. In countries like Iran, where authoritarian states try to steal the representation of the poor and squatterdwellers from genuine grassroots social activists, the movement of the poor inevitably oscillates between, on the one hand, political refusal that involves prolonged and agonizing negotiations with—and protest movements against—all levels of government around local demands and specific issues, and on the other, the spontaneous political show of “people’s power” and direct, at times revolutionary, confrontation with the state.