Intellectuals, Political Elites, and the Middle Class in Post-Revolutionary Iran

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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What accounts for the dearth of liberal political philosophies in contemporary debates about the course of democratic development in Iran? This paper argues that a lack of appreciation for the moral doctrine of pluralism (i.e. the notion, a la Isaiah Berlin, that human flourishing has neither a single source nor a singular end) among intellectuals and political actors alike has been a key yet oft-overlooked factor. Since the advent of constitutionalism in modern Iran, a combination of monistic political beliefs, absolutist systems of rule, and foreign interference has stifled the articulation of an indigenous liberal tradition. In this paper, I trace the swift rise and tragic fall of liberal political ideas through both an intellectual and historical history of sustained challenges to value pluralism.

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This paper argues that secularism is in a deep theoretical and practical crisis but it is not a failed project that should be rejected. All main four theses of political secularism (differentiation, privatization, decline, and universalism) are under heavy justified criticism. However, I argue that, first, this profound criticism does not refute secularism altogether; second, religious ideas and practices in many societies, including Muslim societies, are sources of institutionalized domination, exclusion, and oppression; and third, conventional models of secularism do not offer a sound and feasible model for eliminating this domination.

Alternative models of secularism should provide space for religious arguments in the public sphere, on the one hand, and find a normative justification to limit dominant authority of religious arguments, on the other. Neither radical exclusionism nor pure inclusionism is compatible with the basic values of a democratic polity. A context-sensitive secularism: first, rejects timeless principles; second, recognizes the necessity of an endless local interpretation of basic values; and third, emphasizes that local institutional arrangement for a conflict resolution between separate values must be a version of democracy.

If we follow the conventional portrayal of an ideal secularist state and assume that it should be constructed in a three-stage process of: 1.Distinction of church and state, 2.Separation of church and state, and, 3.Marginalizing religion from the state and from public life, then it is very difficult to imagine that Muslim states and societies, including Iranian state-society, might become “secular” soon, if at all. However, if we attempt to prepare cognitive and material conditions of a fair and free coexistence between citizens of Muslim societies, then we not only remain loyal to the background values of secularism, but also propose a feasible plan for change.

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Our epoch is witnessing the disappearance of the 20th century intellectuals characterized by political totalitarianism, ideological thought and ultra-centralism in all forms of political organization. The question that will be addressed in this lecture is whether the disappearance of 20th century intellectuals implies the end of intellectualism in general. How can one characterize a 21st century intellectual? How did the discourse of postmodern criticism impact the emergence of this new figure? How can the rising intellectual play a fundamental role within dictatorships such as Iran? The emergence of the Social Network in the world has altered the definition and understanding of civil society and power, both in theory and practice. In fact, the 20th century was a century characterized by a “vertical view” while the 21st century is characterized by a “horizontal view”. The social and political movements of the 21st century are evolving without strong and charismatic leadership, without pyramidal political organizations and totalitarian ideologies, which in itself contrasts with the 20th century. This emerging reality is clearly visible in the North African and the Middle Eastern movements. The same situation could be observed in the Iranian Green movement in 2009. This point to a great historical transformation which has altered the reality and role of intellectuals both in relation to political power and social movements. In 2009, Iran experienced this shift, brought about by a new generation of intellectuals that clearly belongs to the 21st century. This lecture will consider this development.

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What is truly new about the “new middle class" in Iran? The notion of a middle class in the Islamic Republic is usually discussed wherein middle-class habitus is assumed to be universal among society as well as deeply marginalized from the state. Yet it now seems clear that the 2009 protests were not an epistemic break in Iran’s political dynamics, but a preview of the social power that the new middle class would exert even more assertively from below in 2013.

What are we to make of Iran’s middle classes, and in what context are middle class politics forcefully relevant instead of quiescent, co-opted, or divided? In order to understand the structural power of Iran’s middle classes, I argue, we need to rearticulate class formation away from a reified notion of the middle class as a trans-historical subject. The structural power of Iran’s middle classes comes not from its own habitus or its universal ideology but from the contradictory positions of the Islamic Republic in the world economy and the changing state and class responses to this position.

In this paper I discuss the existing debates over class formation within Iranian social science, their inadequacies and the telos usually embedded within conceptions of the middle class. I put forward four ideal-type middling classes which have been present in some combination throughout the global South during the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century and describe their socioeconomic characteristics and social power vis-à-vis the state and market. Lastly, I put these concepts in play for Iran in the decades after the 1979 revolution up until the present day.