Friday 24 July 2009


Many people on the left in Britain and further afield are generally dismayed and confused about the nature of Islamism. The traditional Muslim opposition to charging interest on loans, the clear preference of many Islamists for nationalised property, when linked to hostility towards America, Western interests and multinational corporations, creates a thoroughgoing anti-capitalist impression. Despite socialist hostility towards what Tariq Ali has called ‘the social programmes’ of Islamists, many socialists are always prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to America’s enemies.

However, the nature of nationalisation and the relationship that exists between the public and private sector creates an extremely complicated picture in countries where capitalist relations are thin or poorly developed. Such is the case in Iran where the relationship between the public sector, the private sector, charitable trusts (Bonyads), cooperatives, and the organs of state security, are often interfused: sharing a webwork of senior officials, politicians, and clerics between them.

In the struggle to understand more about how these complicated networks function in Iran the US Secretary of Defense recently commissioned a study of the Revolutionary Guards by the RAND Corporation. This study has just been published as The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and it looks in some detail at the nature of the Guards’ relationship to the rest of the Iranian state and society.

Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 as an ideological police guard for the infant revolutionary regime the Pasdaran (or Guards) have grown into a vast net of political, military, economic, and social influence embracing hundreds of companies engaged in large civil engineering projects, manufacturing, chemicals, housing projects and health facilities. The 120,000 Guards train and supervise the tens of thousands people in the Basij Militia, in youth camps, student and professional organizations; they have interests in think tanks, press and publishing houses; they work closely with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the Islamic Propagation Organization. All this, together with their own army, navy, air force, and the crack troops of the Jerusalem Force (Qods), makes the Revolutionary Guards Corp a truly formidable organization, one sewn into the very fabric of Iranian society.

In their economic role they are not dissimilar from the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) before the reforms of the late nineties. In 1998 Jiang Zemin’s government forced the PLA to give up all its interests in agriculture, transport, information technology, and entertainment: the PLA lost all of its business enterprises. In Pakistan, however, the army continues run the country’s largest construction consortium, it has interests in petrol stations, shopping centres, farming, and in ‘charitable foundations’ that have spun off more than a hundred companies in banking, insurance, education, and information technology.

So Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not alone in engaging in extensive business activities. There are circumstances in which it is often necessary for military and police formations, in countries unable to subsidise them sufficiently from taxation, to assist the state by generating their own income. In the case of the Guards this is further complicated, and their economic influence greatly enhanced, by their capacity as a police agency and armed militia, to place people in key positions in private companies, in nationalised enterprises, in the judiciary, in Parliament, and in university faculties.

Following the Revolution some eighty per cent of the Iran’s economy was state owned and controlled. Since then only 15% of state enterprises have been privatised. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to strengthen economic activity in Iran by privatising much of the economy have run into numerous difficulties. To carry out successful denationalisation you need a stable environment for investment, good regulation, developed capital markets, open competition in the delivery of goods and services, and the capacity to get the workers, sacked in the process of privatisation, back into good jobs. None of these conditions exist in Iran. Consequently, the process of privatisation grinds very slow indeed, in the face of considerable opposition within the middle class and throughout many other sectors of society which benefit from the continuation of economic arrangements dependant more upon the quality of personal contacts than upon competence and technical expertise – more upon military, paramilitary, and clerical influence, than upon professionalism, profitability or efficiency.

In a situation like this it is clearly inappropriate to think in terms of the kinds of struggles, which in Britain or France might centre on the defence of public enterprises against the introduction of private capital. In the context of the thin or fragile development of capitalist relations, in which pre-capitalist formations, clerical elites, oligarchies, armies, militias and police organizations are vying for political and economic power by seeking control of the state, the rhetoric of ‘public ownership’ versus ‘private enterprise’ makes little or no sense.

It remains to be seen how the struggles taking place within the Iranian Revolution and within Iranian governing circles play out, but we can be sure that nothing resembling a socialist defence of public ownership will have any part to play.    

  •   See the note on RAND Corporation below.


RAND Corporation: a note

Project RAND began work in December 1945. Its raison d’être was to connect military planning with research and development decisions in both the public and private sectors; the idea was to preserve and develop the close liaison and team work that had arisen during the Second World War between the United States military, other US government agencies, private industry, and the universities.

Project RAND began life under special contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company and quickly evolved into an organization with 200 staff, including mathematicians, engineers, physicists, chemists, economists and psychologists. In February 1948 the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force approved the spinning off of Project RAND into a not-for-profit corporation, independent of both the Douglas Aircraft Company and the armed forces: this led to the creation of the RAND Corporation in May 1948 and the transfer of Project RAND’s contracts to the new corporation in November that year.

The express purpose of the Corporation is the development of non-partisan research and analyses to assist policy makers in all branches and levels of government and the private sector in the interests of  “the public welfare and security of the United States of America.”

The RAND Corporation is, like the Internet, the product of United States armed forces’ planning and research, and like the Internet, it has moved far beyond its initial focus and concerns. It aims to produce objective research and analysis of use to policy makers throughout the world; it is independent of political and commercial affiliations and interests. Consequently, it is a valuable resource for anybody interested in understanding contemporary political, economic, and social developments.

Friday 17 July 2009


L’Osservatore Romano, the Pope’s very own newspaper has just praised Oscar Wilde as “a lucid analyst of the modern world”.  This is not bad. After more than a century of nastiness about Oscar the penny has finally dropped: homosexuals can be articulate, witty, talented and observant! I wonder if it will take as long for Holy See to give a positive spin to the observations of Sacha Baron Cohen?

This is particularly relevant, now that Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie, Brüno is being released worldwide. The discussion of the film’s contribution to homophobia will greatly exercise those appalled by the appallingly camp Austrian far beyond the first, second and third circles inhabited by Benedict XVI and his boys.   However, this worry will probably only afflict the humourless among the laity, or those straight-acting gay men who can’t abide being remotely associated with effeminate Nancy Boys. However, this kind of discussion will paradoxically be restricted to places where homosexuality is openly acknowledged and widely accepted. In other less liberal places, they won’t even attempt to get the joke.

For example, Ukraine’s culture and tourism ministry is set to ban Brüno throughout the country. This is expressive of the widespread hostility present in Ukrainian society towards homosexuality. The east of the country is dominated by Soviet era heavy industry and the sort of communities and social attitudes that went with that, while the cultural life of Western Ukraine is dominated by Catholicism of both the Eastern and Roman Rites. In this respect, Ukraine is not greatly dissimilar from Poland and a number of other post-Soviet societies dominated, either by large populations of conservative peasant or collective farmers, or by communities that arose around Soviet era heavy industry. In these sorts of societies, anti-Semitism, hatred of Gypsies, and fanatical hostility towards homosexuals is the ‘normal’ state of affairs.

Anti-gay political parties run by conservative Catholics or fascists are not, of course, restricted to Eastern Europe, but it is here that they have real purchase and real social weight within society: what they think matters in Poland or Hungary or, indeed, pretty much anywhere east of Berlin, Prague and Ljubljana.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc [PiS]), provide a relatively moderate example of the sort of the attitudes which flourish in lands where the Communist Party once ruled the roost. The party’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said, “The affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization. We can’t agree to it.” Jaroslaw and his brother Lech Kaczynski are at the centre of a welter of Polish institutions like the League of Polish Families and Radio Maryja, all dedicated to pumping out this kind of trash. These organizations are replicated throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia and anywhere where the struggle to defend civilization from dissolution and moral decay is at its hottest.

Now, as capitalism begins to develop on the ruins of state-directed economies, peasant and collectivised agriculture, and Soviet era heavy industry, the public existence of homosexuals and gay rights have begun to be contested matters within society. Gay Pride marches are called and promptly banned, gay organizations arise, and the battle with nationalist and religious reaction is joined with a vengeance. The attitudes which homosexual people face in these situations are not really caused by religious obscurantism as much as by the pre-capitalist or early-capitalist nature of the social circumstances and social relations, which obtain in much of the post-Soviet world.

If we trace the modern emergence of public homosexuality over the last couple of centuries, and then of the achievement of the widespread acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships we can see, that in all circumstances, we are looking in the first instance at the growth of large capitalist cities and conurbations, and in the second (or latest phase), at the emergence of economies founded upon services, batch production, and communications, rather than those dependent upon the rigid gender, social, and functional hierarchies which dominated industrial working class communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not until the decline of economies organized around these hierarchies began in the late fifties and early sixties, that the successful struggle to articulate the defence of difference, the fight for the full emancipation of women, of black people, of homosexuals, and finally of the disabled, could come to the fore.

There is an inescapable relationship between the full development of modern capitalist relations and the emancipation of lesbians and gay men throughout most of the big cities of the rich world. Plainly, highly developed capitalism is not a sufficient condition for gay liberation, but it certainly does appear to be a necessary condition. It appears to be the case that it is only when capitalist relations reach a certain kind of density and the organization of the labour process begins to depend more upon articulate modes of cooperation, rather than upon the direction and command of socially homogeneous labour forces, that acceptance of difference begins to gain the upper hand. It is the decay of the need for modes of social organization which rest upon everybody sharing a similar race, class, and social outlook, that has opened up a public space for homosexuals and which has made it possible for lesbians and gay men to fight successfully for their rights. This public space has, of yet, only be produced within fully developed capitalist economies – it is absent everywhere else.

Evidently, this strange emancipatory aspect of capitalist development needs to be investigated more thoroughly.

Friday 10 July 2009


The recent race rioting in Xinjiang has once again revealed the consequences of denying civil rights to people throughout China. While it is clear that neither the Beijing government nor the regional authorities in Xinjiang actually sparked the recent round of bloodletting the Communist party-state is certainly responsible for creating circumstances in which such disorders are all but inevitable.

After many struggles and much strife Xinjiang was annexed by China in 1884 and has been under the continuous rule of Beijing since 1949 when the Communist Party came to power. Since then the Han Chinese population of Xinjiang has grown from six per cent to around fifty per cent; a clear majority of the population of Urumqi, the province’s thriving modern capital, are now Han Chinese. The government has also recently announced plans for the demolition and rebuilding of the province’s second city, Kashgar; this will, in the prevailing circumstances, inevitably increase the size of Kashgar’s Han Chinese population. The region’s native population of Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking peoples are now a minority in their own land; Beijing’s policy of promoting Han Chinese immigration is decisively changing the demographic structure of what many Uighurs continue to think of as East Turkistan or Uighurstan.

The party-state’s policy has been accompanied by the introduction of Mandarin as the language of instruction in the schools, the dismissal of Uighur teachers, and their replacement by Han Chinese. Uighur Muslim weddings and pilgrimages have been banned and children are prohibited from entering Mosques or places of religious instruction. The repression of Uighur religious practice and particularly of their language is key to the unrest because getting a good job depends upon speaking Mandarin, and access to public sector jobs and to the party-state’s apparatus depends upon both speaking Mandarin and rejecting any specific Uighur or Islamic identity. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, emphasised the party-state’s position on demographic and cultural domination when he said in 2002 that the Uighur language was “out of step with the 21st century”.

Without linguistic and religious freedom within a territory directly controlled by the party-state the Uighurs have no other channels for the redress of grievances or protest other than rioting or what the Ministry of Public Security calls “mass incidents” or “public order disturbances”. In this they are, ironically, in exactly the same position as the billion or so Han Chinese in Xinjiang and throughout the rest of China.

The absence of the rule of law within the party-state means that the enforcement of contracts, the determination of property rights, the decisions of judges, the investigation of murders and other crimes, compensation for industrial accidents, the arbitration of labour disputes, or access to health services, housing, or education are all in the hands of around sixty million Communist Party members and party-state officials. Chinese people are simply unable to seek redress or to resolve problems except through the good offices of Party members and officials.

This is why there are some 80,000 “mass incidents” or “public order disturbances” every year in China – and this number seems to be on the increase. Without trustworthy courts, enforceable contracts, or free trade unions the Chinese people (including those belonging to the fifty or so national minorities) have no outlet other than rioting and violent outbursts against the decisions and actions of party-state officials. Even when the official trade union congress, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) promotes the unionisation of those working for foreign companies like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, it is simply to improve the Party’s surveillance and supervision of the company in question, not to protect the wages and conditions of the workers. In fact, every attempt to form genuine free trade unions that put the interests of their members before those of Party officials has been met with repression. Trade union or labour organisations independent of the Communist party-state are routinely denounced as “reactionary” and as enemies of China’s “harmonious society”.

Democracy in the form of elections or of an explicitly consensual form of government is an extremely abstract concept in these circumstances. Slogans like “Free Tibet” or “Democracy Now” are really worthless. What is actually needed is the building up of the elementary or fundamental prerequisite for democracy: the rule of law. Enforceable contracts; the full right of peasants and workers to buy and sell land, houses and flats, courts that make decisions according to law rather than according to political exigency or to the private interests of Communist officials; equal access of health services and to education regardless of residency qualification or ethnicity, and trade unions which are independent of both the employers and the Communist Party. All these must be won before there can be any possibility of freely elected national and local governments in China or genuine autonomy for her national minorities.

If the Communist Party refuses to participate in the development of courts and other institutions which are genuinely independent of the party-state bureaucracy then it will condemn China to an endless cycle of riots and repression which will undermine economic development and growing prosperity, the two things that have legitimated its rule since the death of Mao Zedong. This is the paradox facing the CPC: its future existence depends entirely upon its capacity to promote the development of civil society and the gradual dissolution of the party-state.


Friday 3 July 2009


On Wednesday John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, was a happy man. “I thoroughly enjoyed having a nationalised cup of tea and a nationalised bacon sandwich.” Obviously, John is not a man of taste and discernment, but his relish at the sudden renationalisation of the East Coast main line was typical of a man of the left. The cause of John’s culinary delight was the failure of the National Express franchise that has resulted in a swift, but temporary, government takeover of the railway.

Of course, many on the left proper would regard Prescott as a fierce old right-winger, but they will share his delight at this manifest failure of private enterprise. Even the revolutionaries scattered throughout an archipelago of groupuscules will agree – nationalisation is a self-evident good – even without workers’ control. This is a cardinal truth, an article of faith, for anybody claiming to be on the left. It even extends to defending wretched municipal council housing against the estate management of social housing, by housing associations, and co-ops.

Why this shibboleth? Why is nationalisation and municipalisation thought of as a good thing by socialists and anti-capitalists in general? Some would say that it’s all about democracy. I would say, “Come off it!” There has never been anything democratic about council house building, the allocation of tenancies, or the direct works department dedicated to keeping them in a state of permanent disrepair. What was democratic about the National Coal Board or British Rail? I would say, “Nothing at all.”

Others would attribute their love of the public sector to the ethos of public service; they argue that public service, not profit, is the raison d’être of municipal and nationalised enterprises. This wish is the father to the thought. There is a conflation here between the lack of profit and the ‘ethos of public service’. It is self-evidently the case in capitalist economies that activities, which cannot make profits because of structural or temporary market failure, will fall into the lap of state agencies and local authorities. There is nothing new or socialist about this – state and municipal enterprises have been an integral component of any fully developed capitalist economy for the best part of two centuries.

Life for full-time and lay trade union officials is certainly easier in public service companies than in profit-driven enterprises, in some sectors wages and conditions for workers are much better than in the private sector. However, low pay and rotten conditions are common enough in publically run institutions; certainly none of the benefits of public employment are consistent or reliable enough to justify left-wing veneration of the so-called ‘public ownership’ by the capitalist state and its quangos of railways, hospitals, roads, banks, building societies, social housing, and any other activity that offers little or no prospect of returns for the investing public.

National and municipal enterprises are a vital part of a healthy capitalist economy – they do the things that the capitalist class cannot make profits from – things which provide the capital and social infrastructure necessary for the continued success of private enterprise. If this is true, why does the left love it so much?