Image: protestors invoke Dylan on the streets of Teheran yesterday.
In his Tiananmen epic, Beijing Coma, Ma Jian develops the theme that two things were happening in parallel in China in the spring of 1989: on the one hand, a power struggle among the Party elite, on the other the student movement, ragged, prone to extremists, but heroic and glorious. Although cultures differ, there appear to be parallels with developments in Iran this week: probably what will really determine the outcome will be the power struggle in the religious leadership. And yet, who knows what the silent but determined and courageous marchers of Teheran might achieve?
It is the most terrifying group activity on earth. It brought Lenin, Hitler and the ayatollahs to power. To the ancients, it “takes men close to madness”. Irrational, inconstant, violent and destructive, it is the enemy of order and the dread of monarchs and democrats alike. It is the crowd or, if we dislike it, the mob…
In his work on the power of crowds the philosopher Elias Canetti referred to the mystical transformation of persons into groups. Individuals ”discharge difference to become miraculously equal”. As a result, moral and social constraints evaporate. Crowds assume a licence to anarchy, to smash, burn and kill. They are proto-armies. The demonstrator is as reckless of his own safety as of others. He is swiftly reduced to a blind cruelty, ultimately to the murderous rampages of Rwanda, Somalia and Kenya.
Surveying the moral wreckage of the mid-20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against the eulogising of the crowd, observing how people tend to behave worse in groups than they would ever do as individuals. He contrasted “moral man and immoral society”. His plea for a politics of patience – “nothing worth doing is ever completed in our lifetime” – is as disregarded now as ever. The mob remains the embodiment of “When do we want it: now!”…
The mob may be “poor man’s politics”, in the same sense that revenge is poor man’s justice. It may not represent a majority and is usually a gathering of urban, often middle-class, youths far removed from the provincial and proletarian masses.
But the forces that drive men and women to take to the streets remain potent. They are the last resort of self-determination, what people do when they believe they are cheated by their rulers and all other redress has failed. People cast aside all concern for safety and attempt, however inadequately, to take power into their own hands…
In Iran there is no mob but courage, and the mystical power of the crowd. People have cast aside their concern for safety in a unified, unmistakable protest at a sense of being cheated by their rulers
Also in today’s Guardian, Azadeh Moaveni writes that it may feel as if the discontent among young Iranians has blown up out of nowhere, but explains they have been growing steadily more angry for years now. She emphasises the role of women in the protests this week:
Of all the images I’ve seen emerging from Iran this week, those of fiery women beating policemen and leading protests have moved me the most. Throughout the past decade, Iran’s extraordinarily sophisticated and well-educated women have sought for peaceful change through the existing system. Accounting for 60% of university students, Iranian women emerge from university armed with career expectations and modern attitudes toward their role in family and society. They have patiently petitioned the state to grant them more equitable rights before the law. But at each opportunity, they have been treated with contempt. Their vibrant presence in these protests is signalling to the government that they will not tolerate its discrimination and disdain any longer.