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Critical Readings in Political Economy: Resilience

Sean Yom, From Resilience to Revolution (Columbia, 2015); Suzanne Maloney, Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution (Cambridge, 2015).

Why do governments last? What kind of governments last? Increasingly, studies on the stability of regimes in the Middle East/North Africa region focus on how elites enfold the middle and working classes into socio-political orders. Such enfoldment happens through turning the state into not merely an instrument of violent class rule through extraction, but also part-and-parcel of everyday social reproduction.

Sean Yom’s From Resilience to Revolution addresses government resilience and longevity. He builds his study on three historical sociologies: the US-supported regimes in pre-revolutionary Iran, in Kuwait, and in Jordan. He links government durability to the breadth and depth of popular support. The core claim is that “political order in the postcolonial Middle East was more likely to be durable when founding conflicts between state and society were secluded from geopolitical interference.” Governments last when countries are able to work out their social conflicts internally.

Yom identifies three historical paths. One, in Iran, where “geopolitical substitution,” or constant foreign support, in this case from the US government in the post-Mossadegh era, replaces domestic coalition-building and a broadening of the government’s base. This dynamic leads to revolutionary collapse. A second path is “geopolitical subsidization and tenuous survival.” Jordan after 1958 is the exemplar. There, as in Iran, US support “facilitated the continuity of an endangered dictatorship; but unlike Iran, it did not result in that dictatorship dismantling its own social foundations in favor of reliance upon external protection.” The third path is “geopolitical seclusion and durable order,” which Kuwait exemplifies. There the government, unable to rely on external buttress in the 1950s, built a coalition inclusive of the powerful merchant sector, as well as some subaltern segments of society. Such inclusiveness accounts for the al-Sabah government’s longevity, while the narrowness of the Shah’s support base brought the state crashing down as it slowly but surely eroded its social support.

Yom provides a useful account of the “substitution” of exterior capital flows for internal social resources, and their use for repression and reproduction. He also shows how drawing on external class power – US imperialism – and deploying it in the form of repression is only a wan substitute for the longevity assured by internal social support. The coda mars the book most. There he notes, “If Washington wishes to keep even its most unsavory allies in weak states in power, it should get out of the way and support them less.” This prescription sidesteps the fact that the United States’ “unsavory allies” are allies precisely because they are unsavory, devoting resources less to internal needs and more to arms sales and sumptuary elite consumption. This prescription is indicative of a broader unwillingness to theorize why the United States intervenes in the first place.

In Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution, Suzanne Maloney read and synthesized the political economy literature on Iran with stunning diligence. She provides a massive amount of information that enables the reader to understand not merely “why the Islamic Republic has survived,” in the pithy phrase of Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian, but what about it so perturbs the US government.

Maloney argues that the Iranian government is “populist,” born of a revolutionary dynamic where the rhetoric of social justice dominated. She excavates an under-known history in which grassroots expropriations prevailed in the early days of the uprising, even before the government had put in place a legal scaffolding for such action. As this process of post hoc legalization of changed property relations proceeded, “this dynamic helped shape a constitution replete with populist jargon and riven with contradictions on the economy… [which] sought to enshrine a redistributive economy.” Because the post-revolutionary state saw a populist social compact as only possible through its own control over the productive process, “the postrevolutionary regime has intensified pernicious patterns of state domination of Iran’s economic life.” From Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad to Rouhani, each successive government has had to articulate its claims to legitimacy in the idiom of government responsibility for citizens’ well-being.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad, rather than the output of crass reaction, was “particularly rooted in the basic forces of Iran’s postrevolutionary political economy,” reviving themes “that were central to the early postrevolutionary period.” Maloney also notes that up to the 2009 elections, “the president retained a considerable constituency.” She also adds, in a somewhat unsubstantiated addendum, that the “margin defied credulity.”

She then offers a comprehensive chronicle of the US economic attack against Iran, laying out its effects in the oil and gas sectors, and the geopolitics of Saudi connivance in the suppression of Iranian oil exports. Maloney claims that the sanctions were meant to “cripple Iran’s energy sector,” and, of course, its economy. It is within and against this framework of external interference that she summarizes moves towards selling-off state-owned enterprises, a long-standing trend of post-2000 Iran. She notes that the “the establishment of the strong fundamentals for a competitive capitalist economy give way to legitimate optimism about the future economic and political prospects of Iran.” On metrics like “growth, productivity” and per capita income, Iran has lagged behind countries like Turkey and South Korea. However, in other ways, Maloney notes, Iran has done quite well. Redistributive populism has built up an “infrastructure for the support of health, education, and social welfare” which “has permeated the country on a dramatically wider basis.”

This encyclopedic book is extremely useful. But there is also a basic underlying tension. On the one hand, Maloney describes populist state policies, and catalogues their beneficial effects. On the other, she prescribes their removal based on expectations of future well-being, a case which the author not only does not make, but would be hard-pressed to defend. Societies which have put in place the policies she advocates –neoliberalism – have not done very well. If, as seems likely, such policies would erode the government’s support base by destroying the social pact upon which it relies, it would also, if Yom is correct, lead to that government’s fall. It would also both prove and disprove his thesis – proving that narrow and exclusive pacts lessen regime endurance, and disproving the tacit suggestion that “stability,” in of and itself, is of any particular concern to the United States at all.

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