Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Green Movement is one year old

One year ago, vast crowds took to the streets of Iran to protest what they believed to be a stolen election and demand more freedoms. The international media celebrated their actions, and liberals the world over showed their support (many further to the left joined in, at least in the Anglo-American world). Two things come to mind now that a year has passed. First, although no evidence has ever been presented that the election was in fact stolen, the idea that it was has firmly taken root, at least in the US. Here it should be noted that while it is always difficult to assess how valid an election was, in most cases where fraud is alleged (Afghanistan last year for example, or the US in 2000, or Mexico a few years ago) those making the accusations produce an account of what they think happened--ballot boxes were stuffed, election laws were manipulated, opposition activists killed or intimidated, etc. This has not been the argument made about Iran. Instead, the argument has been exclusively that the results do not look right to those who expected a victory for Mousavi. But this perception is not evidence.

Secondly, several parallel mobilizations have occurred around the world. In Thailand, 'red shirt' supporters of former prime minister Thaksin protested in Bangkok. In Nepal, Maoists who have felt increasingly betrayed by the political process since the civil war called for a general strike which produced considerable participation. And in Greece, the economic crisis produced huge protests against demands for austerity. None of these protests generated even a small fraction of the sympathy produced by the Green wave. The Thailand protesters were vilified as the violent dupes of a corrupt billionaire. Greek protesters have been portrayed as entitled brats who fail to appreciate that their claims for pensions rest on foundations of clay. And Nepal generated virtually no interest outside of a few far left quarters and those with a specialized interest in South Asia. This suggests that it is only very specific forms of people power that generate international sympathy among liberals. The Green wave was rooted in the more educated, wealthier portion of the Iranian population, although it was not necessarily limited to them. The suspicion that their demands for more freedom would probably lead to reduced state control over the economy (creating more 'opportunity' for the middle class and foreign investors, and greater inequality in Iran), and perhaps a more pro-Western geopolitical orientation may not have been unfounded. On the other hand, the protests in Thailand, Nepal, and Greece all in one way or another insisted that economic resources be deployed to improve the lot of the worse off portion of the polities in question. It seems to me that the differences in the class basis of the protests explains entirely the huge disparity in attention and sympathy for Iran on the one hand, and neglect or vilification for protests in Thailand, Greece, and Nepal, on the other.