The Implausibility of Liberal Revolution

I’ve been struck in the past week at some of the similarities between Iran and Zimbabwe. Yes, there are vast differences in geopolitical status, economic health, histories of 20th Century statehood, religious and social ideology and much else besides.

But in both places in the last few years, you’ve had some similar kinds of reformist movements that looked to elections as a possible window of opportunity for changing or eroding the power of an authoritarian state elite. Similar in the kinds of claims and strategies they’ve employed, similar in being forced to rely on a figurehead opposition figure whose future commitment to liberal political values is at the least ambiguous. Similar in the social composition of the strongest underlying constituencies pushing for reform: urban populations, educated elites, aspirant cosmopolitans.

And the consequence of both reform campaigns has been broadly similar: to reveal that the state they critique is even less ideological than it appears and that the chief authoritarian or his closest associates is only partially in charge of a state apparatus that has largely been taken over by a silent coup d’etat of securocrats who have connections to paramilitary or irregular forces which draw from different social foundations than the reformers do. And that the securocrats are determined to stay in power regardless, and have the means, lack of scruples and competency to do so, perhaps indefinitely.

Some critics charge that liberals or the left are silent about Iran (or Zimbabwe) because they have a double standard, or even because they have a kind of bizarre sympathetic view of nationalist autocracy in developing nations. I’ve agreed that there’s something to this charge when it comes to Zimbabwe. I don’t feel competent to say the same about Iran. But the substance to this critique strikes me as complicated.

More importantly, there’s another layer of silence that comes from feeling an echo of the same futility and despair that’s clearly affecting reformist actors in Iran or has affected them in Zimbabwe. Beyond saying for the umpteenth time that the upper echelons of state power and securocrat authority in both states are morally contemptible, destructively short-sighted, grotesque, and so on, what’s left to hope for or advocate? Every avenue of international or local action seems played out. The people in control of both states don’t appear likely to allow themselves to be tricked into letting a process of change develop so far that they can’t stop it. They don’t seem to have any interest in the long-term sustainability of their economic or social policies. They seem to have a strong enough internal organization of the state’s capacity for violence that they can’t be challenged effectively by militant or violent action from within. We’ve already seen where most kinds of external intervention lead; even strong diplomatic suasion arguably has a rebound or self-defeating effect in some cases.

Many postcolonial regimes which have organically collapsed from within have done so in many cases because they commanded states with little internal coherence or capacity for directed force, not because they were challenged by strong local social movements, international pressure, or more competent rivals intent on reorganizing and reforming the government. I can think of some important exceptions, but even a few of those seem to me to have given way over time to a recurrence of the same kinds of regimes that they originally displaced.

This is where Iran is a really different kind of case: not contemporary Iran but the beginnings of the current regime. Depressingly similar as it might appear now in its resistance to some kind of liberalization or democratic reform, the current government was the consequence of a pretty genuine bottom-up revolution which gained important traction from international pressures against the Shah’s regime. What I’m struck by, though, is how impossible that kind of successful bottom-up social upheaval against an oppressive state feels to me now, if it is limited to an alliance between urban populations and educated elites. (Which, importantly, the Iranian Revolution was not, though it incorporated those constituencies.) All around the world, it seems to me that states dominated by military or police power have learned how to resist, frustrate, suppress and isolate that kind of transformational pressure from loosely “liberal” constituencies pretty much indefinitely. The only real threat to most regimes are illiberal social and political movements: national or ethnic resistance or religious fundamentalism primarily.

I think a lot of the starry-eyed fetishization of Twitter and other new media in the case of Iran is simply about a hope that a magic technology will come along and make liberal revolution or transformation plausible where social organization has not. As we’ve seen, the technology for organizing smart mobs works for as long as a securocrat state will tolerate it working, and no further. If shutting it off and violently crushing public dissent costs such a state some kind of economic opportunity in the global system, that’s clearly a cost that these states are prepared to pay.

So all of this thinking is also why there’s silence of a kind. Getting up with a bullhorn and declaring one’s outrage slides pretty quickly into self-parody, into a public confession of impotence. Knowing that, what is there to say? I suppose one could get busy with the five-point plans and communiques and various inventories of miniscule carrots and eeny-weeny sticks, but it seems all rather futile. Or, as a lot of blogspheric hot air producers seem to prefer, one could just recycle ire and outrage into wholly domestic attempts to gain miniscule political advantage over local opponents.

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2 Responses to The Implausibility of Liberal Revolution

  1. NadavT says:

    Penetrating and depressing insight, as usual. I really appreciate how you use your deep understanding of socio-political dynamics in post-colonial regimes to offer unique perspectives on contemporary world affairs.

    Sort of related to your discussion of authoritarian regimes, I just stumbled across Robert Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian trends in U.S. politics. Are you familiar with his work, and do you have any opinions on his approach?

  2. nord says:

    Very good post. One thing that has struck me is how well some of these regimes send their children to the US for college. What do you say to someone who is the son/daughter of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army in one of these countries? My experience at Swarthmore is that they learn the language and process of liberal activism and use that to build a colonialism-based excuse as to why their gov’t is what it is. Not that many of them go back there – it seems the reward for being a bureaucrat of a dictator is the hope that your children will lead a better life … in America.

    Divest from Sudan? How about not allowing any children of the current government from studying/traveling/living in the US?

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