Iran is a middle income country, where middle class consumers are the fulcrum of economic growth. It is politically expedient, therefore, for Iran’s centrist politics to cater to this ascendant class. This is in accordance with the trajectory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself. As Ervand Abrahamian has chronicled, Ayatollah Khomeini’s earlier writings and speeches were devoid of concepts such a tabageh, or class, but by the 1970s he was actively adopting language associated with the Iranian left. In these later works, Khomeini exposed society as “sharply divided between two warring classes,” drawing upon the imagery of the zagheh-neshinha (slum dwellers) and the kakh-neshinha (palace dwellers). In post-revolutionary Iran, the imperative of economic development led to the privileging of “apartment dwellers”–the middle class–in a way that has hidden both extreme poverty and wealth, and obscured the fact that the Islamic Revolution has failed to solve the economic inequality that was once described as the Shah’s greatest betrayal.
In this context, the recent wave of Iranian protests is notable for the important role played by the working class. Despite the protests’ unclear origins and increasing diversity, there is growing consensus among informed analysts that the core constituency is made up of youth from lower-income backgrounds, who have been brought to the streets by economic grievances. Any act of protest is a demand for recognition. But this mobilization, at this scale, seems to be a spirited effort by the working class to rectify its erasure from the Islamic Republic’s political and economic systems.
Ignoring the Working Class
Unfortunately, over the decades, outside observers have been complicit in the erasure of the Iranian working class. Dominant political and economic conceptualizations of Iran have minimized or ignored this segment of the Iranian population. The political preferences of members of the working class have been consistently devalued, and their votes for conservative candidates have been treated as errant, the product either of coercion or enticement, but not genuine deliberation. As Kevan Harris has recently observed, “Analysts often assume that conservative factions of the political elite collectively mobilize the votes of individuals who receive aid or welfare from the government, engendering a dependent class of beneficiaries in the process.” In a major study, Harris found no evidence supporting these assumptions. The strong influence of human rights discourse on Western analysis and reporting about Iran also makes it difficult to account for working class agency, which is generally circumscribed by conservative values.
In discussions of Iran’s post-sanctions economic potential, the working class has again been ignored. International media has enthusiastically noted the Westernized tastes of Iran’s middle class consumers and the ambitions of its middle class entrepreneurs, which combine to create a promising emerging market. But beyond invocations of Iran’s labor force and manufacturing potential, the working class has been left out of view. When it is discussed, the focus is often on dysfunction. Unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction are highlighted to make broader points about the government’s economic failings. The millions of working class Iranians, who are productive members of society, producing the goods and services enabling the middle class narrative, remain invisible.
With its emergent cosmopolitan character, it is easy to valorize Iran’s relatable middle class as the “true face” of the country. This is perhaps the great legacy of the thwarted Green Movement, where the brave and laudable mobilization of the middle class, for the sake of civil rights rather than economic grievances, produced a kind of hagiography. If today’s protests are sustained, while also retaining their working class composition, will solidarity with Iran’s working class also be shown? Will the same adulation and remembrance be given by Western politicians and the conscientious public? Or will the impulse be to elide the distinctions between today’s events and those of nine years ago, in order to offer some catharsis for those who feel justice has yet to be delivered?
The Working Class: Then and Now
To avoid elision or conflation of Iran’s political mobilizations, it is similarly important to recognize the distinctions between the working class of 1979 and today. Members of Iran’s contemporary working classes enjoy greater social mobility than previous generations. In a fascinating qualitative study from 2015, Manata Hashemi details the strategies used by lower class youth to achieve socio-economic mobility “wherein they follow certain moral criteria that allow them to save face in front of those whom are in their personal social networks.” “Saving face” means “being self-sufficient, working hard, being pure and maintaining appearances.” Adhering to these values helps youth build “moral capital” and leverage that capital to access social and economic opportunities afforded by their personal and communal networks.
That mobility has increased also lends credence to Mohammad Ali Shabani’s recent suggestion that the protests in Iran should be viewed through the lens of the J-curve. According to that concept, protests occur when “a long period of rising expectations and gratifications is followed by a period during which gratifications … suddenly drop off while expectations … continue to rise.” The expansion of education, accelerating urbanization, and increasing economic development has created more contact between the lower and middle classes in Iran, creating opportunities for working class youth to become socially mobile and cultivate the expectation that such mobility is attainable. But while working class youth may have greater prospects for individual mobility today, the working class’s collective economic capacity has diminished.
Historically, the bazaar embodied the strength of the working class. As Arang Keshavarzian noted in his seminal study of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, historically, there have been “dramatic disparities in wealth, educational attainment, access to resources, and means to develop a reputation within the bazaar.” Prior to the Islamic Revolution, bazaari elites enjoyed means that equaled or even surpassed the middle class. They also provided for the livelihood of millions of members of the working class, who were part of the bazaari elite’s social milieu. According to the assessment of Abrahamian, at the time of the 1979 revolution, “The bazaar continued to control as much as half of the country’s handicraft production, two-thirds of its retail trade, and three-quarters of its wholesale trade.” But the bazaar was not merely a source of wages. It was a financial institution that helped members of the working class accumulate savings and take out loans.
In response to political isolation by the Shah, who favored Iran’s upwardly mobile middle classes, the bazaar’s pre-existing internal loan system expanded into an “important source of funds for all those who were unable to access the official banking system.” Indeed, despite its sub-state status, the lending system grew quite powerful and “in 1963, the bazaars in Iran were estimated to loan as much as all the commercial banks put together. In 1975, the bazaar was estimated to control 20 percent of the official market volume, or 3 billion in foreign exchange and 2.1 billion in loans outstanding.” This gave the bazaar increased economic power and anchored the working class as a potent force, which would eventually overthrow the Shah against all expectations.
Today, as Iran’s economy has modernized, the bazaar no longer plays this pivotal role. The working class now depends on wages paid largely by state-owned enterprises, which proliferated and grew as Iran pursued import substitution industrialization in the 1980s. For example, Iran’s auto-industry, dominated by state-owned firms, now accounts for 12% of the country’s total employment, according to government figures. That the working class draws its wages from state-owned bodies, supplemented by welfare transfers, has created an economic dependency on the state that did not exist when the bazaar dominated the economy. As Harris has cautioned, however, economic ties do not reflect political allegiance: “Individuals linked to welfare programs currently or formerly associated with conservative politicians or factions… are not voting differently on average than people linked to welfare programs associated with technocratic or moderate politicians or factions.” Such dependencies do mean though that the government’s economic policies and mismanagement have an outsized impact on working class livelihoods.
As the bazaar’s economic might diminished, a new crop of unlicensed savings and loans institutions sprang up to fill the gap in financial services. These institutions, whose unscrupulous practices have been the focus of a government crackdown, double the dependence on the state. In the view of some experts, most of these institutions are “affiliated with power and wealth centers and have been established by semi-state institutions.”
Solidarity with Iran’s Working Class
The working class’s sense of collective marginalization is palpable in the protests, especially in the slogan “Death to the Dictator.” For many working class protestors, the “dictator’s” most salient abuse of power may not be ideological imposition or curtailment of rights, but economic marginalization and the curtailment of livelihoods.
As the international community weighs the appropriate response to the protests and as conscientious members of the global public contemplate their solidarity, it is important the economic dimension and working class composition of the protests is not forgotten or ignored. In seeking a grand political solution for the “dilemma” of Iran—a revolutionary state that has proven remarkably successful despite its enforced isolation and unenforced errors—outsiders risk marginalizing the experiences of a whole class of Iranians. Likewise, for middle class Iranians, some of whom have joined these protests in solidarity and to express their own grievances, the challenge will be not to drown-out the voices of others who first and foremost wish to join their ranks, should economic circumstances one day allow.