The Formation of Workers’ Councils in the Abode of the Islamic Republic’s Chicago Boys and the Striving of Democracy Promoter Vultures in Iran

“Our alternative is clear, the only way out of this crisis rests in the hands of the working class; the formation of independent workers’ councils”.  The voice of Esmail Bakhshi, a representative of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Complex’s workers, was lost amidst the specific imperial projects on the table of the  “Iran Action Group” and the hashtag movement. Meanwhile, the U.S. aims to crush the Iranian oil sector in a new wave of sanctions in November; intensify the various Western and Saudi-funded “democracy” promotion projects; yet again, the different liberal and hawkish imperialist think tanks striving to take advantage of the potential uprisings against Iran’s casino capitalism in the coming months. To feel the voice beyond Tweeter storm on Silicon Valley’s toys, I spoke to Bakhshi from his work place in Iran’s volatile and oil-rich province of Khuzestan which is suffering from poverty and deprivation.

In Bakhshi’s speech among his fellow working class colleagues who have been waiting for months of unpaid or delayed wages, he addressed wages, layoffs and privatizations. In a recent interview with this author, he said, “my language is the kind of language to talk with the Iranian working class, my audiences are not academicians, the think tank pundits or the users of social media[slacktivists]. Our concrete situation makes us determined to start forming our councils to survive.” He goes on, “I emphasize on the democratic aspect of these workers’ councils, which included a vast range of people beyond Haft Tappeh Company who are suffering from everyday precarity of their tough jobs.” Bakhshi added that, “Haft Tappe belongs to the workers, not the state or private sector.” According to him, to resolve its structural crisis, the state in Iran completely rests on capitalists and private sector, and Haft Tappeh is only part of this broader image. “We had a brilliant strike in the history of Haft Tappeh, and a slogan came out of this strike which gave many people hell: ‘the formation of independent and democratic workers’ councils!’” He went on, “all of these political factions in the Islamic Republic are in the service of the capitalists, and the so-called entrepreneurs. We have just started; it is only the beginning of a tough path to organize workers.” According to Bakhshi, the government yet again started forming fake parallel councils like state-sponsored Islamic labor councils to obstruct workers’ attempts to mobilize.

Forming “Islamic labor councils” has always been one of the Islamic Republic’s tactics against workers’ attempts to form their independent councils and unions. Four decades after establishing Islamic Councils and the Islamic Associations to bring the councils under the Islamic Republic control, we still face the same conundrum. We face the same pattern from Arbeitsfronts in Nazi Germany and the Sampo in Japan during wartime fascist rule to state-sponsored Islamic labor councils in Iran. Despite the government’s attempts to distract workers, the demand for the formation of independent workers’ councils is at the center of the Iranian truckers’ strike which still continues; this demand has also been raised by national steel workers. It was also echoed in recent national teachers’ strike against commodification of education, for “educational justice”.

Were the Showras Real Workers’ Councils?

In all of the major political upheavals of Iran in the twentieth century, from the Iranian Constitutional Revolution,(1906-1911) to the incomplete 1979 Revolution workers played a significant role and have paid a high price. However, in all of these historical periods, the governments ignored their legitimate demands. The early months after the 1979 Revolution were the heyday for workers’ councils in Iranian factories (‘showras’) . The councils, which were the offspring of the strike committees against the imperialist Shah regime in the middle of 1978, were supposed to introduce a fresh chapter shortly after the revolution. However, as the Islamic Republic consolidated its power, the councils came under increasing attack, and crumbled one after another.

Going back to the experiences of what the researchers consider workers’ councils in Iran’s history, the differences between the concept of unions and councils in terms of both demands and the model of organization is the crux of the matter. The question which needs to be addressed is: whether those entities called “shoraws” after the Revolutions were really close to the real concept of councils as they were during the October Revolution, Paris Commune, the German Revolution, class struggle in Bolivarian process, or the long-standing experience of worker cooperatives in Argentina? Getting into the concept of councils sheds light on the reality of the past and the urgency of today’s mobilizing beyond limited and specific demands of syndicates.

Councils, Beyond Syndicate, Workers Management of Workplaces

The critics of the idea of workers’ councils formation argue that when the demand for a trade union–that many workers have already been struggling to achieve for many years–gets a harsh response from the government, the demand for independent workers’ councils in this situation looks like an abstract demand. The fact is there is some truth in this argument, and today nothing remains but a few weak syndicates. As Farshad Esmaeli, an independent researcher of labor rights and social security in Tehran indicates, the demands for workers’ syndicates has been in the category of rights and benefits on the one hand, and collective bargaining and organizing on the other; but what is significant in the idea of pushing for independent workers’ councils is the requirements for workers’ control and management, as opposed to the reformist idea of workers’ participation.

Therefore, the demand for the formation of independent workers’ councils are beyond the rights of syndicates and labor unions. Esmael Bakhshi defines himself as a “child of the syndicate movement in Iran”, but his ideas about workers’ councils refers to an umbrella for a vast collection of people who are the direct victims of the ongoing waves of privatizations in Iran. Most liberal pundits claim Iran’s system is not a capitalist system because it lacks the bourgeois democracy. Putting aside the awkward combination of Islamic jurisprudence and the modern nation-state, the fact is Iranian society is a capitalist society; so what rules over this society is definitely nothing but the bourgeois class.  However, capitalism in the Islamic Republic has its own characteristics as everywhere. The main characteristic of capitalism is the “extraction of surplus value of labor”, which isthe case in Iran. When it comes to the question of political agency, as Vivek Chibber reminds us, workers are important for a strategic reason which is that they are the agent, and the only agent, that has a structural place within the society that can bring the power centers to their knees. The pivotal role of oil workers during the incomplete Revolution of 1978-1979 is a significant part of this legacy, thus, the ongoing discussions on the formation of workers’ councils in Iran sheds light on the way in which Iranian working class may overcome the resistance of the capitalist class and its political functionaries.

Thanks to the phenomena of Lumpen Development, as Andre Gunder Frank describes, the Iranian working class, like the rest of their counterparts in the captive periphery countries, are mostly semi-skilled without education in the areas of production and services. Like all the workers in the world, they do not have access to the means of production and resources, and they lack power in the core of the Islamic Republic’s main organs. However, their labor force,“the biggest thing for the global economy since the Berlin Wall fell”, is the largest source of super-exploitation for the concentration and accumulation of capital in the hands of the militarized bureaucratic bourgeoisie. Thus, it is not a big surprise if the Islamic Republic with all of its political factions are deeply afraid of the formation of independent workers’ councils.

The IMF’s Structural Adjustment policies and the ongoing privatizations in the Islamic Republic–hand in hand with Western imperialist sanctions–have disenfranchised more workers, especially the most vulnerable ones in the service sectors, and the question is how can the accumulation of the mutual demands lead to the formation of different cores of workers’, nurses’, teachers’ and students’ councils?!

Student Councils against the Commodification of Public Spheres

As a matter of fact, what is known as the Iranian council movement was not only limited to workplace councils, but in schools, universities and in rural areas in the early years after the revolution. Yet, the student councils at different universities across the country were again very active in the protests in Iran that erupted on December 2017. Their significant role in agitation and mobilization mostly overlooked. The sentences speak for themselves. Parisa Rafiei, a twenty-one-year-old student activist and a member of Tehran University student council, was sentenced to seven years in jail for taking part in university sit-ins and “assembly with the intention of acting against national security”. Leila Hosseinzadeh, an anthropology student of Tehran University and another member of the student council, was also sentenced to six years in jail. These are only a couple examples of the way the ideological state apparatuses function within the Islamic Republic.  It is important to bear in in that these students are not part of the “reformists”/” moderate” circles or other “democracy” promotion projects in the West. They are echoing the economic demands of the lower classes in society and protesting against the ongoing commodification of the public spheres, they are part of the project of restoring class power. By linking the neoliberal policies to the increasing commodification and cheapening of the labor force, they emphasize the linkage between labor and student struggles. The students and workers who are striving to organize independent councils under Rouhani’s neoliberal doctrine of “economic surgery” have always been the most active opponents of the imperialist sanctions and humanitarian intervention, and have always been constant supporters of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist occupation.

The famous slogan “Worker, teacher, student let’s unite” goes back to anti-imperialist struggles during the 1979 Revolution. This spirit is still pretty alive in Iran”.The recent statement of the Syndicate of Iranian Industrial Metal Workers against the Islamic Republic’s neoliberal policies and the fresh waves of US sanctions is the evidence: “what is happening on the world stage in relation to our country currently has nothing to do with improving the working conditions, resilience and fighting ability, or the welfare of Iranian workers: it is a total war against the Iranian population and workers. US imperialism is leading policies aimed at transforming the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and Iran.” This statement from the heart of struggle in one of the targeted countries in the periphery goes way beyond the fashionable narrative of the humanitarian imperialist “left”, branding itself with the reactionary slogans of the Islamic Republic’s pro-West opposition like, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.”

A few weeks prior to Bakhshi’s speech, a frustrated sugar cane plant worker took his own life after months of unpaid work. Along the same lines, another municipal worker set himself on fire and died; he soon become the subject of another hashtag movement on Silicon Valley’s toys, and provides the material for the Persian language democracy promotion venues in the diaspora.

Democracy Promotor Vultures

Meanwhile, the pro-West democracy promoters keep investing in the upcoming uprisings in the Islamic Republic. From the IREX (the State Department and USAID) project bilingual venue IranWire to the Saudi-funded TV Iran International with $250m budget from the Saudi royal courtfull of formerly unemployed reformist journalists in the diaspora and the herd of super-opportunist forces with the generous salary—to a new Persian language Saudi-funded website in the Independent, lurk behind the walls.

If the uprisings in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed election in 2009, branded as “the Green Movement” in the Western mainstream media, was mostly dominated by the middle class demands, last year’s uprisings known as “bread, jobs and freedom” was mostly dominated by the presence of the urban poor on the streets across the country. Meanwhile, the assembly line of “Iran experts” from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) with its brand of yuppie neoliberalism, the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution to the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and the rest, were busy figuring out the best approach to appropriate “the people”. Along the same lines, the State Department democracy promotion venues like Iranwire, hand in hand with the Persian propaganda of theBBC Persian, Voice of America and the Saudi-funded Iran International, were trying their best to fish in the troubled waters.

The last pathetic attempt of manufacturing “opposition” in diaspora is an “action network” by the name of “Iran Revival” also known by its native awkward name “Farashgard”. About forty pro-neocon Iranian activists, who were mostly part of right wing student activists in Iran gathered around the multi-billionaire Iranian-American Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi and attacked Iranian leftists and anti-Israel policies.” This is the same circle who wrote a letter to the Trump administration earlier, and asked them to reimpose sanctions on their own country. However, the kinds of attempts hardly go beyond an online black and white album of these “activists”, getting news coverage and self-promotion on the Persian language western propaganda such as the BBC PersianVOAManoto TV.

Becoming the subject of another hashtag movement is also part of this package.  It is important to bear in mind that the main function of these democracy promoters, whether these vulgar pro-hawk clowns or the liberal pro-” reform” and imperialist smart power think tanks of any kinds, is mostly about a psychological war instrument; meanwhile, the IRGC militarized bureaucratic bourgeoisie has an upper hand in the ongoing processes of transition. Joining a convention against the funding of terrorism (CFT), was only a signal to move the Islamic Republic closer to “global norms”.  As William I. Robinson, reminds us when U.S. policy makers and transnational elites talk about democracy promotion, what they really mean is the promotion of polyarchy. In the age of globalization, creating a polyarchy after the defeat of the 1979 Revolution and injection of the IMF’s prescriptions to the current system in Iran, the new face of the Islamic Republic with the IRGC as a main political actor in dialogue with Washington, would generally be a more reliable option for containing and defusing mass pressure for popular social change. Along the same lines, the labor movement is still at the center of the discussions of the democracy promoters. The tragic ending of Mansour Osanloo, a leading trade union activist in Iran who has been swallowed by imperialist democracy promotion projects in diaspora, and become a clown of the venues like the notorious NED-funded Tavana as an Iranian cartoon of Lech Wałęsa, is only part of the ongoing process of the commodification of activism.

Bringing the people of Iran to their knees for an imperial “regime change” project or to increase pressure for another potential “Iran Deal” is once again on the table on Capitol Hill. Given the fast pace of these upheavals, what is at stake is how can the powerless working class practice its political agency in the context of growing disillusionment with the state politics, democracy promoters and the inauspicious ghost of “activism”?

The IMF’s and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs pave the path for a full reintegration in the global capitalist system and linking Iran’s parasitic finance capital, the little casino, to the major casino capitalism in the world. While the pro-reformist liberal pundits both inside and outside the country talks about a ” ‘wrong sort’ of privatization “, the following paragraph from a report by the World Bank on how Iranian authorities have adopted a comprehensive strategy encompassing market-based reform is a reasonable summary of the situation. Privatization and the maximization of profit for the sake of ‘growth’ besides the ending of welfare subsidies. This is the most familiar feature of the last two decades in the Middle East as Adam Hanieh put it. These processes are unfolding in Iran under the rule of the Islamic Republic’s Chicago Boys in close collaboration with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Persian speaking propaganda apparatus of the West, the human rights industry and other bilateral institutions like USAID.

The Islamic Republic’s Chicago Boys

Meanwhile, the level of Neo-McCarthyism among the Rouhani administration and reformist venues hit a significant point. These examples give us a specific anti-leftist trend, from the bourgeois opposition of the Islamic Republic within the system to their rivals outside of the current political structure. “The leftists are the main obstacle to the private sector”, says Eshaq Jahangiri, first Vice President of Rouhani’s government, while the president’s neoliberal fiscal policies arecheered on by the IMF. Along the same lines, Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a typical neoliberal entrepreneur serving as the Minister of Health and Medical Education in the administration of Rouhani, in his meeting with a Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, known as the king of sugar of Iran (due to his control of Iran’s sugar exports) says, “thesocialist thoughts of some decision makers hamper the development of the private sector in the area of health, they believe that the state is responsible for the health system and do not let the private sector to intervene”. Shortly after this , when he has been asked on Iranian state TV  about how patients with SMA can get access to their medicines, he, who himself is a medical doctor pulled himself together, and said, “do you think our people are agree with spending one billion dollars for patients who are going to live more two years?!” He has been compared to Hitler who himself initiated a decree which empowered physicians to grant a “mercy death” to “patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health”.

Yet, take the cover of Eghtesad Nameh, one of these neoliberal venues in the Islamic Republic, which warns against the rise of Marxist-Leninists in Iran’s universities, the author Alireza Behdad who is the former member of the popular reformist daily Etemad considers the new generation of leftist students “a major threat to Iran’s political and economic system”; to crash the new generation of anti-capitalist students in Iran, he even gives a direct hint to the security forces by writing that the students’ hub is the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Tehran.

What is the students’ crime?! The reformist journalist says “they are against implementing the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs in Iran and consider these policies as betrayed people of Iran, they had a significant role in the last year uprisings and their main slogan is ‘Reformists, Conservatives your time is up!’” Shortly after this notorious article went viral, it was Esmail Bakhshi, the representative of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Complex’s workers who responded to the reformist journalist in the social media, “we have not chanted, ’Reformists, Conservatives your time is up!’ because these two passive factions(Reformists versus hardliners) have become irrelevant to us a long time ago,” he then adds, ”this slogan is done to us, while you bury your head in the sand, our slogan and practice yet is the formation of the independent labor councils.” He then invites this anti-left reformist journalist to a debate.

Soheil Asefi is an independent journalist and scholar. He studied Political Science at The New School for Social Research in New York, and is a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant at the Department of Sociology, UNLV, he is a member of American Sociological Association, Marxist section, and his research focuses on commodification of activism, migration and political agency. Asefi left Iran in 2008 after a ten-year professional experience in major Iranian media outlets. He was arrested in 2007 and spent most of his incarceration in solitary confinement in 209 ward of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. He was released on an unprecedented amount of bail for a journalist at the time and barred from continuing his professional work and education in the country. Soheil Asefi was the guest of the city of Nuremberg under German PEN project “Writers in Exile.” He is the recipient of the prestigious German Hermann Kasten award in Nuremberg. While in exile, he has written extensively on the politics of belonging, imperialism and the dimensions of democratization and neoliberalization in the Middle East, particularly in Iran today. He can be reached on Twitter @SoheilAsefi.