The Limits of Liberal Paradigm for Iran’s Democratization: Towards a Social Democracy from Below?

Over the past one-and-a-half centuries, modern Iran has been a pioneer of progressive political changes in the Middle East: the home to the first Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), the first post-colonial nationalist and parliamentary democratic movement (1950-1952), the first anti-despotic revolutionary change (1977-1979), and the first civic post-Islamist movement, known as the Green Movement (2009-present), in the Middle East. These four historical democratic waves introduced Iran to constitutionalism, democratic nationalism, anti-despotic revolutionary change with elements of an Islamic discourse, and a new historical era towards post-Islamism, respectively.

This paper suggests that Iran’s current wave of democratization is overly loaded with (neo) liberal discourse, undermining the social elements of democracy and democratization. The paper is an attempt to problematize the limits of (neo) liberal paradigm; it proposes that two social elements of democracy, namely societal empowerment and social justice are central to the success of a genuine, bottom-up radical social democracy. To this end, in the first part of the paper, theories of Radical Democracy (Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, among others) and Deliberative Democracy (Jürgen Habermas) will be examined to explore the twin pillars of social elements of democracy. The second part of the paper is devoted to a critical examination of the discourse of an authentic egalitarian democracy in the works of a few Iranian intellectuals (Mohammad Nakhshab, Khalil Maleki, Mostapha Shoa’ian and Ali Shariati).

The conclusion is twofold: first, it sheds lights on the conditions and possibility of materializing a radical social democracy from below in the current Iranian context. Second, it examines the extent to which the intellectual legacy of a genuine egalitarian democracy, represented in the works of the Iranian intellectuals, contributes to Iran’s quest for democracy and overcomes the limits of liberal paradigm for Iran’s democratization.