On Lice and Fleas: Observations Starting from the Conflict Between Iran and the USA

A new situationist analysis of the threat of war between Iran and Iraq and the way this functions to sustain the dominant society, plus some critical comments on the wave of proletarian struggles in Iran.

Submitted by SW on June 16, 2007

"Johnson, for sport perhaps, or from the spirit of contradiction, eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer. Mr. Morgan argued with him directly, in vain. At length he had recourse to this device. ‘Pray, Sir, (said he,) whether do you reckon Derrick or Smart the best poet?’ Johnson at once felt himself rouzed; and answered, ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea’.” (James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791)


Within the catalogue of absurd actions, values, goods, entertainments, aspirations, emotions and ideas that the society of the spectacle ubiquitously parades before us as a summation of all that has been said and done, and all that can be said and done, the dispute between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has of late obtained a certain intermittent prominence.


The possibility of an armed conflict between the United States and Iran is perhaps a fairly remote one. If and when an attack occurs, however, it will do so because that ever-shifting admixture of blind self-interest, shrewd strategic insight and deluded ideological delirium that characterizes the thought of the Bush administration and its global allies has come to conclude that the political and economic interests of the national and international capitalist systems they oversee would best be served by such a course of action. The ends pursued by such an attack would doubtless include the preservation of American and Israeli military hegemony within the region; the curtailment of an Iranian regional influence that has only been enhanced by the elimination of the hostile regime of Saddam Hussein and its replacement by a Shi’ite dominated government sympathetic to Iran; the opening-up of the vast Iranian oil reserves to less fettered use by the West; and the intimidation of present and potential opponents worldwide and those local governing regimes who have to date been dilatory in their submission to the dictates of the Western powers.


America and its allies have so far grounded their measures against Iran on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and any approach towards war is likely to continue using the treaty as justification. The treaty undoubtedly lends itself to such use. In practice, it has always served to hinder new powers who are objectionable to the existing powers from acquiring weapons of mass destruction while doing nothing to require the globally dominant national powers to renounce their existing arsenals, or even to refrain from introducing new and modernized weapons systems. In this way, it perpetuates the military dominance of the states that possessed nuclear weapons in 1968 (when the treaty was first ratified) over those who came later. However, it is not just the hypocrisy of the treaty and the one-sidedness with which it is implemented that renders it contemptible. The fundamental function of the treaty is to ensure that the conflicts of interest that continually erupt between current or aspiring hierarchical powers competing with each for dominance over populations and resources do not escalate into a global catastrophe that would destroy the system as a whole. Thus, while it reduces the possibility of contending powers wreaking terrible destruction across the planet, it does so only as part of the institutional and regulatory framework of global capitalism and in order to ensure that humanity remains available to be subordinated by someone or other to the state and the economy. We are permitted to go on living, required indeed to keep ourselves alive, purely in order that the economy and its deceptions, the autonomous movement of the non-living, can continue to exercise its sway and pursue its blind passage to nowhere.


On the other side of the line of conflict that has been drawn for us, Iran cites its sovereignty as a nation and the needs of an economy worryingly reliant on oil in defence of what it claims is its entirely non-military nuclear programme. However, the sovereignty that Iran’s ruling elite insists upon in relation to other states is equally and necessarily asserted against the ordinary people of Iran. Moreover, the economy about which the state is so concerned is nothing more than the mechanism whereby the labour power of the Iranian proletariat is extracted from it, often with the crudest brutality, and then circulated locally and globally in the form of alienated commodities. The history of Iran since the 1978 revolution demonstrates beyond doubt that the practical reality of the clerical “rule of the just” at the heart of the self-definition of the Islamic Republic is the systematic subjection of society to the separate power of an external ideology and the social strata of clerics, cronies, traders and capitalists that rule in its name or flourish under its control of everyday life. It is the standing refutation of the false promises of all the pseudo-revolutionaries of radical Islamism. Of course, many Islamists belong to branches of Islam other than Shi’ism. But it is not the theological differences between Shi’ism and the other strands of Islam that have been responsible for the creation of a new tyranny within Iran since the revolution. Rather, it is the fact that the revolution permitted to come to power a regime that was separate from the proletariat and sought to impose upon it the dictates of a separate ideology. Liberation descending from above inevitably crushes those waiting below.


Even before any armed hostilities break out, sections of the ruling classes in the United States and Iran have sought to utilize the tattered but still functioning ideology of nationalism - with its core doctrine that the individual must assimilate into and defend whatever arbitrarily-defined hierarchical collectivity is said to be the nation - in order to claim that there is a threat to people like “us” that requires a rallying behind the state. The cynicism bred by the long line of all-too-obvious lies the Bush government and the rulers of Iran have trotted out over the years perhaps renders this crude manipulation of public sentiment of limited efficacy. However, the spectacle also uses the prospect of war between the two countries to secure obedience to the interests of the state and the economy in more subtle ways, especially in the liberal and affluent West.


In the advanced capitalist countries, submission to the logic of the commodity and the state is secured less by militarism than by the false pleasures, false choices and false oppositions the spectacle provides in abundance. The spectator is continuously presented with choices and issues that make no qualitative difference to everyday life. He or she is urged to support or participate in an endless succession of campaigns that may ameliorate some aspect of contemporary alienation but leave the fundamental bases of the society unchanged. We are already seeing the death in old age of individuals who have spent an entire lifetime battling inequalities and injustices, opposing wars, striving to increase citizen’s rights, exposing unsafe goods and practices, challenging the stupidities and deceptions of politicians and bureaucrats, etc, sometimes indeed with a reasonable degree of success. In doing so, they have not weakened the subordination of the totality of society to the commodity economy and its state in the slightest. Capitalist society is now openly reformist at almost every level, permitting, even encouraging, suggestions and demands for change within the confines of the system. For example, the UK Parliament alone (not counting the legislatures in Wales and Scotland) brings into force over 3,500 new statutory instruments (regulations, etc) each year, many representing attempts to modify some aspect of life. The total body of reformist activity is much vaster, as many administrative and other changes within government, industry, etc, do not require changes in the law. Far from weakening the dominant society, the vast tide of complaints, analyses and proposals for the amelioration of isolated symptoms of the reigning alienation generated by the many thousands of campaigning groups operating in every advanced country in effect serves as an invaluable source of hypotheses and data for the refinement of alienation, helping the system to identify ideological and practical improvements that have escaped the inevitably blinkered notice of politicians, industrialists and bureaucrats. Not everything is acted upon, and certainly not straightaway; nonetheless, small but real changes are introduced at the surface of social life over time and the observable consequences of the endless but intermittently rewarded process of pursuing such changes are to adjust capitalism to the beginnings of dissatisfaction and the beginnings of dissatisfaction to capitalism.


The spectre of war in Iran offers yet another opportunity for the spectator to spend time thinking and acting in ways that will leave his or her alienation just where it stands and just where it has always stood. The merits of the cases for and against an attack on Iran, as judged by one or another liberal, conservative or pseudo-revolutionary perspective within capitalism, are endlessly discussed by specialists and then mulled over by spectators. Means for a peaceful resolution are advanced and considered and protests are discussed and carried on. In all this, nothing of importance is challenged and nothing of importance changes. Even the narrow interests of American and European capital can be safeguarded without recourse to a military strike on Iran, as the existence of dissenting voices within the military, political and cultural establishments amply testifies. More importantly, whether or not America or its allies pursue an attack, the system in which we sacrifice the whole of our lives to the autonomous process of the capitalist economy, and the empty roles and pleasures it offers, will persist. Whether or not the hawkish voices for war within global neo-conservatism have their way in this instance, the everyday lives of the individual will remain imprisoned within the system of alienation that ensnares us. Mere opposition to war in Iran, like tourism, will take us nowhere worth going.


In Iran, the Islamic regime’s attempts to impose an ideological monopoly leave less room for proponents of reform or pseudo-revolution than in the West, but false opposition exists there too. The economic liberalization initiated by President Rafsanjani in the early 1990s and the growth of higher education in the country have increased the size of the bourgeoisie, the middle class and the student population. Some members of these groups have done relatively well in economic terms, while others, such as the students unable to find professional work commensurate with their qualifications, have seen their aspirations frustrated. Both hope that more radical socio-economic shifts in the direction of liberal capitalism will increase the benefits they receive from an economy that continues to be constrained by the economic isolation of Iran and the control of much of the economy by the state and the giant para-state Islamic charitable institutions (bonyads). Equally, this milieu expects that a civil society less bound by the moral archaisms of the current regime will allow it to indulge more freely those tastes for commodified pleasure and display that it derives from the global spectacle of consumable life and through which it likes to pretend that it is independent, sophisticated and superior to both the vulgar workers and the philistine clergy. The result is an ideology that loudly proclaims the importance of human rights and bourgeois democracy and remains silent about almost everything else. In recent years, the collapse of the organised reform movement in the face of the intransigence of the regime has left the middle classes without a vehicle for social change. Nonetheless, its capitalist ideology (with its retinue of photogenic human rights advocates, film-makers, musicians, fashionable young people and other enthusiastic proponents of consumer conformity to dramatize it) continues to serve as both a false model of radical social change within Iran and a resource for proponents of military action against Iran in the West.


The potential for radical opposition to the regime in Iran is to be found amongst the proletariat. In January 2004, the majority of workers who had constructed a copper-smelting plant in Khatonabad on the promise that they would be offered jobs in the works were dismissed. The workers and their families responded by strikes and blockades of the plant, demanding that the agreement be honoured and outstanding wages paid. After eight days of conflict, helicopters sent by the local Security Council fired on the protestors, killing between 4 and 15 and wounding up to 300. Around 80 workers were also arrested, with some later being tortured. This exercise in state violence did not, however, extinguish the dispute, for clashes between workers and the security forces persisted for several days afterwards. Moreover, the spreading news about the massacre served to stimulate rather than intimidate proletarian resistance in Iran. A growing wave of class struggle has now emerged, with teachers, bus drivers and workers in the car, petrochemical and textile industries, amongst others, taking up their own grievances against their employers.


As yet, the proletarian movement in Iran has not stepped beyond demands (such as those for better working conditions, the payment of arrears of pay and improved wages) that continue to recognize the existence of capitalism. However, there are also signs that sections of the workers are seeking a revolutionary position. One such is the formation of the Komiteye Hamahangi (“Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organization”), an anti-capitalist grouping that has avoided the Stalinism that has long afflicted revolutionary thought in Iran and whose founding declaration attracted the signatures of over 3,000 Iranian proletarians. Unfortunately, the Komiteye’s present orientation appears to contain fundamental weaknesses that seem likely to hamper the class struggle. The objectives of the Komiteye are to foster the emergence of activists from the underground; to help create, link and coordinate workers’ organizations; to encourage workers to be open to organization; and ultimately to establish the founding committee of a national anti-capitalist working class organization in Iran. The purpose of the association between the members of the Komiteye is thus not to develop for themselves the theory of their own practice and the practice of their own theory; nor is to aid other proletarians to do so. The organization exists largely to build itself and other organizations and the individual is expected simply to aid this construction of collectivies. The internal structure of the Komiteye seems consistent with this mediated and submissive view of the individual’s role in class struggle and its inattention to the nature of social relations that result. The individual is required to attend the monthly ordinary meetings of the Komiteye but no attempt beyond this is made to require or ensure egalitarian and active relationships between the members. No concern about the possibility of hierarchy and passivity is evinced and no mechanisms to militate against these abnegations of autonomy have been instituted. Also, the role of the ordinary meeting is limited. It sets policies and the constitution and it elects both sub-committees and an executive committee; however, its control over these committees is evidently limited. The executive committee may be dissolved on a vote of an emergency committee but there is no requirement that it periodically report to the members and have the steps it has taken to carry out its mandate approved. There is also the question of the fundamental relationship of the individual toward his or her own activity in the organization. Who decides what practical steps are to be taken by the members? Is the individual’s initiative as a member subject to prior orders or subsequent approval by the executive or ordinary committee? The Komiteye’s constitution says nothing on this matter expressly, suggesting a complete indifference to the matter of whether the individual retains autonomy or surrenders it to the group he or she has joined. To the extent it is possible to tell from outside, it would seem that it is down to the executive committee to initiate the activity of the Komiteye’s members and perhaps appraise it afterwards. If that is so, the relationship between individual members and the Komiteye only replicates the alienated relationships between order-givers and order-takers, and between separate bodies and their subordinate members, that are found in the capitalist world. The individual members serve the organization; the organization does not serve the individual. Moreover, an analogous relationship appears to be contemplated between the Komiteye (and the national organization it aims at) and the wider proletariat, with the role of the proletariat being to open itself up to being organized from outside and approve the “influential and well-trusted worker activists” who will carry this organisation out on their behalf. Across the board, the Komiteye fails to take into account the long and sad history of proletarian revolution and revolutionary activities being subverted by the presence or emergence within them of alienated social relations; it fails failed fully to learn the historical lesson that alienation cannot be combated with alienated means.


In an interview with Against the Wage in 2005, Mohsen Hakimi, a founder member of Komiteye Hamahangi, suggested that the current wave of disputes over terms and conditions of employment in Iran “calls into question the bosses and the government” and “by its very nature, is anti-capitalist”. It can hardly be doubted that the concrete experience of the crude exploitation by which the Iranian ruling classes enrich themselves, an exploitation that often includes wages below the official poverty line for a family, dangerous conditions, and militarized workplaces, opens up the possibility of revolutionary praxis within the Iranian proletariat. However, the course of revolution depends fundamentally on the proletariat consciously and practically repudiating all the alienated thoughts and actions that arise out of and sustain capitalism, and doing so by and for itself. In the same way that the Komiteye fails radically to engage with everyday social relations within itself, so it fails in theory and practice to contest social relations in wider everyday life. For example, the Komiteye proposes to foster a propensity to organization in workers by means that include “cultural, artistic and athletic organizations of the workers”. These measures betray a taking for granted of separate thought, separate creativity and separate play in an epoch when culture, art and sport are not just lucrative fields of commodity production and consumption but also vital ideological bulwarks of the rule of the commodity and its economy worldwide, not least because of the ways in which they corral human creativity and play into specialized domains separate from everyday life as a whole and divorced from an unmediated use and control of the means of modern production. If the Iranian proletariat is to supersede a clamouring for better wages and more humane conditions of labour and embark on a social revolution, it can do so only by way of a comprehensive practical critique of everyday life. Such a critique must attack poverty and oppression at the hands of the ruling classes and everything else in the everyday life that makes individuals the agents, hand-maidens and mouthpieces of the commodity and its circulation and prevents it from taking the possession of the whole of social life. Such a critique should undoubtedly include, yet can hardly be restricted to, a practical critique of the alienations, constraints and miseries of ordinary family life, gender roles, nationalism, sport in particular and leisure in general, art, the organization of town and city, and the consumption of drugs and other commodified oblivions.


A central threat confronting the project of proletarian liberation in Iran is to be found in the efforts within and without Iran to foster the growth and recognition of trade unions in the country. The hierarchical relations between officials and grassroots members, which can already be seen coalescing in the Tehran bus workers syndicate and other organisations in Iran, sooner or later take the theory and practice of struggles out of the hands and minds of proletarians themselves, assigning strategy, tactics, the correction of errors, and a wider comprehension of struggles to a specialized bureaucratic elite and reducing ordinary members to spectators and order-takers in their own struggles. Moreover, in relation to Iran, the unions are a counterpart to the spectacle of overseas consumer happiness carried by the popular culture, advertising and other commodified thought emanating from the West. At the same time that consumer publicity fosters a demand for the products of advanced capitalism, trade unionism seeks to promote a local economic organisation that will supply such consumption across a wider section the population. Here as elsewhere, trade unions seek to limit the ruling classes’ ability to extract profits on the basis of low wages and poor working conditions and thereby oblige the existing rulers or their successors to engage in an economic modernization that will increase the productivity of workers and provide the means to combine higher wages and continued profitability. The price of this strategy is every moment of every proletarian’s life, for the simple reason that life remains subordinated at every stage and every point to the alienated production of commodities and their alienated consumption. The same can be said for the array of ‘non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) within Iran, a body of reformists of everyday life that may be content to see all or part of the existing regime replaced but envisages in its place nothing more than a new alienation refurbished in accordance with one or other brand of capitalist liberalism. At bottom, the civil society so beloved by NGOs and human rights advocates is conceptually positioned in its ideology between the state and the economy precisely because it takes these twin pillars of contemporary alienation entirely for granted as essential components of all conceivable life.


The progress of revolution in Iran turns in part on the extent to which proletarians rediscover, refine and put again into practice the historical experience of the Shuras. From the second half of 1978 onwards, Iranian workers became an increasingly prominent and effective component of opposition to the Shah’s regime, as the country’s economy was crippled by huge strikes in the oil fields, copper mines, banks, railways, civil service, ports, factories, shipyards, transport network, etc. With the insurrection of 14 February 1979 that destroyed the Shah’s regime, factory owners fled the country in considerable numbers. The Shuras arose as organs of workers’ control over these and other enterprises. However, they were at length eliminated by the new clerical regime. From the outset, the Shuras failed to understand themselves and act as the means by which proletarians exercise unmediated control over the totality of social life. They tempered but did not eliminate the control of management, foremen and other agents of power over the workers. They did not oppose the state but instead sought to bargain with it. They did not uniformly adopt a direct democracy that placed all decisions in the hands of the workers and their strictly mandated delegates but instead often allowed power within the Shura to be alienated from the workers in favour of representatives placed above them. They did not extend their reach by confederating both with each other and with local councils bringing together the elements of the population (such as the retired, the disabled and those housewives who worked only at home) that were excluded from workplaces. They did not communicate with workers abroad to spread their revolution, leaving it isolated within an extant global capitalist economy. The next time around, Iranian workers must know that nothing can be left outside the power of individuals organised in workers councils and must act quickly and consistently to that end.


The progress of revolution in Iran will also centrally turn on the extent to which it can foster proletarian revolution across the globe, and especially in the economically dominant advanced countries. The destruction of the state capitalist system in Eastern Europe in 1989, which was observed passively by the proletariat in Western Europe, America, Japan and Australasia, illustrates how social change that does not put into question the affluent alienation of the advanced countries, that restricts itself to demanding the miserable wealth and miserable freedoms that the proletariat already possess in those countries, is all too likely to remain unanswered and alone. The revolution in Iran must strike at the heart of capitalist society, at the alienated submission of life and labour to the commodity, if it is to find sympathetic echoes abroad. Nothing less will do.

By Wayne Spencer

June 2007

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The author can be contacted at aqrj35 (at) dsl.pipex.com