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Iran and the Future of Liberalism

by Danny Postel

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A painfully salient illustration of Western leftism’s irrelevance to contemporary Iran is Antonio Negri’s visit to the country in January 2005. Given the intellectually omnivorous climate in Iran today, it’s no surprise that Negri was invited to lecture in Iran and that his talks were well attended. But most of those gathered found what the radical theorist had to say “oddly tangential to [Iran’s] most pressing concerns”, as Nina Power puts it. With the country’s “widespread suspicion of classical Marxist or revolutionary solutions”, she asks, “What exactly does Antonio Negri have to say to Iran?”.

Most of the audience saw “little of relevance in his ‘communicative, productive’ model of mass political agency to what is, in many ways, a society constrained, at virtually all levels, by a ubiquitous, if internally riven, state”. Negri’s “concept of radicalism”, writes Power, appeared to possess “no frontal relation to the constraints of the existing order” in Iran. If anything, Negri’s message appealed more to the religious hard right and to Iran’s conservatives, Power explains: “If there is to be a new Iranian revolution from below”, she writes, “it is unlikely to take the form of a plebeian carnival or quasi-Biblical ‘exodus’”.

Conversely, the Western Left has been largely silent – and flummoxed – about the liberal upheaval in Iran. One would have hoped to see the Iranian struggle figure prominently in the world of solidarity activism, or at least get some play in the left press-especially at the high tide of unrest, during the student-led demonstrations in the streets of Tehran in June 2003, which the regime crushed in a paroxysm of repression. Compared to the attention the western Left typically pays to student revolts in the Third World, the Iranian struggle has been virtually invisible on the radar screens of most leftists. In short, the tunnel-vision anti-imperialism of much of the Left (a current which has intensified considerably under Bush) leads down a dead-end of myopia and confusion vis-à-vis a case like Iran, in which the struggle is not being waged against the American Empire or its proxies.

This silence has not gone unnoticed by Iranian dissidents. In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation: Why, they ask, is the American Left so seemingly indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle? Afshin Molavi captures this all too well when he observes: “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone down that route”.

We require a radical liberalism to fill this vacuum. Leftists have largely ceded on Iran because it doesn’t conform to the all-consuming anti-imperialist paradigm; they’re letting the imperialists, in other words, set the terms of the debate and thus do their thinking for them. Liberals have the right intellectual sympathies, with our insistence on the primacy of human rights, liberty, and democracy. But far too few liberals are willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in the kind of solidarity politics that the Left, to its credit, made a centrepiece of its activism, for example, in Central America and East Timor during the 1980s and ’90s. That kind of activism necessarily involves a degree of intensity that liberalism isn’t exactly known for. But it should be. We need to make our own liberalism radical again – to infuse it with a spirit of internationalism and solidarity.

Radical leftists have no monopoly on that spirit. In fact, they’ve dropped the ball on it repeatedly, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and now in Iran. When the Balkans were engulfed in a frenzy of murderous nationalism and death-squad terror in the 1990s, it was human rights groups, feminists, and liberal internationalists who took action while the radical Left either sat on the sidelines in silence or came to the defense of the “demonized” Milosevic. As mass graves were being filled and hundreds of thousands of people being dislocated, the likes of Z Magazine and New Left Review disgracefully turned their scorn not on the murderers but on the West; hell bent on squeezing the Balkan nightmare into preconceived Marxian categories, they claimed that the Western powers were intent on dismantling the last outpost of socialism in Europe – as if Milosevic ran anything other than the most vulgar form of gangster capitalism. Some even engaged in outright apologetics for the Milosevic regime and denial of atrocities.

Meanwhile, thousands of humanitarian workers, international lawyers, and human rights activists went to the Balkans and did something; the putatively ‘tepid’ liberals at The New York Review of Books featured the Balkan cataclysm front and centre in its pages, providing a vital chronicle of both reportage and analysis that stands in marked contrast to the muted, convoluted, and morally-disfigured record of the radical intelligentsia. The Balkan episode should be remembered as one of liberal internationalism’s finest moments.

Of course the geopolitical constellation that created that liberal internationalist moment and opened the intellectual space for the humanitarian interventionist paradigm seems to have been torn asunder by subsequent developments, rendered obsolete by the rampages of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.
To be sure, the geopolitical equation and the terms of the debate have been dramatically refashioned. The principles of liberal internationalism may now be on the defensive, but they remain as vital as ever to struggles taking place around the world, and we liberal internationalists need to be avant la lettre in advancing its cause – from struggles like the one in Iran today to asserting the continued need for humanitarian intervention in Darfur.

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