Will The Cat Above The Precipice Fall Down? – by Slavoj Žižek

This is a peice by Slavoj Žižek on the current affairs in Iran. I found his insight to be rare, if not unique for someone who has not lived in nor is an expert on Iran. It was actually  quite surprising for me and some other Iranians I had feedback from how precise and well-informed he was. Some of points about the Western interpretations of what’s going on were previously brought up here, some in the comments (like the particularly cool bit about the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad), but he writes it so concisely.

I am copying it from here, from which I quote: “[…] sent to us by Ali Alizadeh who writes, ‘Apparently the mainstream media has not shown interest in publishing it. Hope that the blogsphere can counteract their tendency.’ The piece is copy-right free and you should feel free to republish this on your own blog.”

When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew; in a couple of hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although there were street fights going on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game is over. Is something similar going on now?

There are many versions of the events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. – a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism. They are counteracted by skeptics who think that Ahmadinejad really won: he is the voice of the majority, while the support of Mousavi comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. In short: let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad: Mousavi also wants to continue the atomic energy program, he is against recognizing Israel, plus he enjoyed the full support of Khomeini as a prime minister in the years of the war with Iraq.

Finally, the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad: what is really at stake for them is Iranian independence. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed elite corruption and used oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority – this is, so we are told, the true Ahmadinejad beneath the Western-media image of a holocaust-denying fanatic. According to this view, what is effectively going on now in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a West-financed coup against the legitimate president. This view not only ignores facts: the high electoral participation – up from the usual 55% to 85% – can only be explained as a protest vote. It also displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left.

Opposed as they are, all these versions read the Iranian protests along the axis of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists, which is why they find it so difficult to locate Mousavi: is he a Western-backed reformer who wants more personal freedom and market economy, or a member of the cleric establishment whose eventual victory would not affect in any serious way the nature of the regime? Such extreme oscillations demonstrate that they all miss the true nature of the protests.

The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

There are a couple of crucial consequences to be drawn from this insight. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. His demagogic distributing of crumbs to the poor should not deceive us: behind him are not only organs of police repression and a very Westernized PR apparatus, but also a strong new rich class, the result of the regime’s corruption (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not a working class militia, but a mega-corporation, the strongest center of wealth in the country).

Second, one should draw a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

And, last but not least, what this means is that there is a genuine liberating potential in Islam – to find a “good” Islam, one doesn’t have to go back to the 10th century, we have it right here, in front of our eyes.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.



  1. Chiara said

    Very interesting article. I do wince though at the “1979 Khomeini revolution” as I understand Khomeini to have usurped a revolution that was in progress by the people, mostly against the Shah, but hoping for diverse outcomes only one of which was Khomeini (I know many who faught against the Shah but not for Khomeiny). Also, many, like Shirin Ebadi, were rapidly disillusioned by the Khomeini regime, ie within a year. Perhaps, however, the author is referencing the Khomeini part of the revolution.

    His reasoning of how the West misundertands the events there and his concerns about Berlusconi and Europe are on point and well stated.

    • Sara said

      It is very hard to have a balanced view about Khomeini.
      To give him the credit that he is due, I honestly doubt if the revolution would have actually succeeded without him. He really was the leader of “the people” at some point. There are definitely people in both groups that you are talking about, many of them, with various political tendencies, fighting the Shah, but it was Khomeini that brought the opposition to the masses. He was a Marja’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Ayatollah), he had enormous influence on people that other activists and political groups could not reach, and that was key to the success of the revolution.
      About his legacy, it is a double-sided sword. Khomeini was more progressive than a typical cleric and particularly a Marja’. On one hand, the revolution resulted in restrictions for someone like Ebadi (which is such a pity), but on the other hand it brought many many traditional families’ girls to schools and universities, so that now we have the over 60% entrance of girls in the universities as you may know. His very involvement in politics and standing up against the Shah, which was brave and the right thing to do in my opinion, was frowned upon among the conventional conservative ayatollahs, and his extreme belief in this involvement (velayat-e faghih http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guardianship_of_the_jurists_(doctrine)) is what has put us in this mess of a political system we have now.
      He was not a religious fanatic, and he drew a line in front of them whenever he could. People like Ahmadinejad and the clerics that support him (the most important being Mesbah Yazdi, who is the root of all this evil … i should write a post about that …) had no room for expressing themselves when he was alive, just as the liberals and progressives did not. Do you get the picture?
      Long story short, I don’t think the principles of “Khomeini’s Revolution” were awful, but they took an awful course in the turn of events. And the current establishment is diverging more and more from it as we go forth. So the way that Zizek is putting it was surprisingly accurate, particularly with how Mousavi sees it himself. Take a look at this statement of his to get a glimpse of his rhetoric and mindset:

      Personally I don’t completely buy his rhetoric, the loyalty that he has to his “Imam” is not defined for me, and many in my generation, but I respect him, and I think he represents a good chunk of what was good about Khomeini (plus the fact that he is a moderate figure, has integrity and has the personal characteristics of an artist makes him an acceptable candidate, the courage and persistence he has shown after the elections makes him a legend). There are even some in my generation that look at Khomeini as their Imam, but the truth is that not only most of my generation do not, but many of our parents’ generations have been disillusioned about him too (I was born shortly after the revolution).

      Anyway what I meant to say is that it is not so easy to summarize Khomeini or these sort of stuff in a sentence or two, I strongly believe he made huge mistakes and should not have practically gotten involved in politics (as he had promised in the course of the revolution). But my personal judgment considering the historical evidence that I have seen up to now is that he did not intentionally have a conspiracy to trick people like Ebadi to believe in him, but it was them who were taken with the wave. The same goes, I think, for other things that he did not do as he had promised. I do not think he intentionally lied in order to get to power, because he had the power anyway, but that the changes in his stances happened because of a mixture of the influence of those surrounding him, the constantly crisis-like atmosphere of those days, and probably changes in his own views.

      • Chiara said

        Yes, of course, it is all very complex, and I do respect that Khomeini had a major following and was a true leader of the 1979 Revolution, yet is seems to be forgotten in the West that others wanted the Shah out too (and hence would resent the US putting him in power), even if they weren’t for Khomeini.

        Mousavi has been a very impressive figure throughout the post-election period, and I disagree with those who say either that he is the same as Ahmadinejad, or that he is trying to completely over throw the current system.

        One of the most impressive aspects of Iranian society to me was the high degree of university scholarization of women, and the deliberate creation of Medical Faculties to graduate more female doctors (in part because of the restrictions on men doing Obgyn.

        I wonder if most of the West realizes that green is the colour of Islam, or if they think they are seeing some sort of reference to spring/summer, renewal/growth/blossoming, “hope-change” (LOL)? Probably subconsciously even the ones who know, see what are more typical Western associations of verdure, new growth, etc.

  2. Chiara said

    PS the West is most likely ignoring Zizek because he is Eastern European, Marxist-Leninist, and a Lacanian psychoanalyst–none of which gives him much credibility except in narrow academic circles–which I inhabit! LOL 🙂

    • Sara said

      Yeah, I guess you are right.

      The author of one of my favorite Persian blogs had an interesting explanation for this too. He believes that they are ignoring him because he is bringing up “Khomeini’s revolution” in the way he is, and that is against the general impression that the west has of Khomeini (as some sort of bin-Laden) and so the do not let something like that through … anyway, I don’t have a strong view about this, just quoting.

      • Chiara said

        That is very plausible. The West has always seen Khomeini as a scowling Mephistophelian figure, in suspicious black garb. To think he may have contributed in positive ways, or that, as in all revolutions there is a certain violence that escapes even the leaders is beyond what most are likely to know or posit. The general attitude in the West is that the Shah made an error by being insufficiently Machievellian, when he had the chance to kill rather than exile Khomeini. The complications of martyrdom are generally not addressed.

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