Lessons from Iran


Prediction in social science is d— difficult, but it is awfully easy to retrodict. Charles Kurzman makes the important point that when the outcome is clear in Iran in a few weeks or months, lots of ‘experts’ will say it was ‘inevitable.’ Excellent point against social science hubris. So, I will hazard my guess now, in advance:

1. These color revolutions, and their model, the Velvet Revolution, always seem to take us by surprise. Suddenly, previously apathetic populations explode and and waves of protestors hit the street. No one seems to be able to explain why quiescence so quickly collapses. This is terribly humiliating to the social sciences, because we strive to build theories that explain social action. Yet we seem to get it wrong time and again – particularly in identifying the social breakpoints which push populations from apathy into activism. The CIA has been criticized for years for wildly overestimating Soviet power in the 80s and having not even an inkling of the coming collapse. Even Paul Kennedy, one of the finest historians working today, assumed the USSR would survive into the 21st C. (And good prediction is why Nouriel Roubini is such a rock-star today.) We just don’t know nearly enough about the intersection of politics, psychology, and social mobilization. Nonetheless, the lesson I draw is that political apathy is ticking time-bomb. If you endlessly repress (and bore) your population, there will be a backlash. China and even, or perhaps especially, NK beware.

2. Stagnation and low growth seem to be a driver of these revolutions as much as freedom. Freedom is great, but so are mundane things like being able to travel or getting a cool, future-oriented job. Eastern Europeans didn’t just want liberalism, they wanted globalization – the fun hip, exciting lifestyle they saw filtering in on bootleg VHS or western TV shows. Who wants to work for some bland, grey, state-owned enterprise making soviet-model toasters? People would rather work for Yahoo or Intel and be connected the world and the future. That the China seems to be able to deliver this, where the Islamic Republic could not, is my guess why China seems more stable.

3. Autocracies are frequently terrible economic managers. East Asian states seem to be an exception to this, but even they have high levels of corruption and can become unexpectedly brittle (Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis). Ideologues who demand national, religious, or other principled ‘purity’ frequently must do so at the expense of cool, fun, modern global lifestyles. Who wants to be cut-off from the fun world of globalization, video games, HDTV, Starbucks, etc? Maybe the Amish or Haredim, but the vast majority of people hardly want to be constricted this way, or at the very least, they want to choose to be or not be so restricted. To the Amish’ credit, they at least allow their children a choice to stay or go. In these color revolutions, economic stagnation is usually combined with closed politics.

4. Foreign influence can energize these revolts, but not seriously participate. I think there was a W effect and an Obama effect that helped spur these movements. Both presidents spoke meaningfully about democracy (2005 & 2009), and both were followed by outburst of popular enthusiasm. That is a good correlation. Further outside attention can put the regime in the spotlight and so raise the costs a Tiananmen-style repression. But this hardly means it won’t happen. The best we can do is continue to talk about it in the press and keep attention on it. This will give the regime pause. But openly intervening is hard (these places are far way; what exactly would we do?). So part of the blame for the recent Iranian crackdown is the ADD-level attention span of cable news. Michael Jackson saved the mullahs. That’s globalization for ya’.

5. Islamic governance is not inevitable in the Middle East. The ME will always be the home of Islam. But Islamic politics is not the only way. Muslims clearly like more open politics, even if they do then vote for Islamists. Yes, Hamas got elected, and Turkey’s Islamists are reasonably successful. But then these parties must govern. Inevitably, they make mistakes, and in so far as they close politics to criticism, those mistakes will remain unaddressed, pile up, and exacerbate. When they screw up, there will be pressure from below for change. That Muslims vote for Islamist parties does not mean they want to never vote again, or live in an Islamist tyranny. The Iranian clerics confused the two. They saw the mundane rejection of the Shah as an apocalyptic endorsement for Islamic theocracy. So did Hamas. So to will the Islamist in Egypt if they ever tip Mubrarak. The trick is retain democracy while allowing Islamists to run. This is challenging. The US allows anti-systemic parties like nazis and communists to run. Germany, given it history of voting in the Nazis who then prohibited voting ever again, does not. Whether or not to allow parties who want to destroy democracies to run in deomcratic elections is tough question.

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