Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran by Danny Postel (Review)
April 1, 2007        

Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran by Danny Postel. Prickly Paradigm Press (dist. by Univ. of Chicago Press), 124 pages.

Reviewed by George Scialabba

Most of us ordinary citizens, with limited time, energy, and resources, inevitably take short cuts to our political positions. One of the most common (and useful) of these is “Out Now.” Out of Vietnam, out of Central America, out of Iraq, out of the West Bank, out of NAFTA. “Get out” if our government or one of its clients has already intervened; “stay out” if they haven’t yet. It’s not infallible, but it’s a reasonable default position.

It does, however, have its drawbacks, like all mental shortcuts. It doesn’t, for example, suggest ways we might help people whose political problems are not solely America’s fault. Contemporary Iran is one example. The US menaces Iran but probably cannot carry out its threats. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime persecutes Iranian democrats. How can Americans help Iranian democrats against their government without furthering our own government’s purposes, which have little to do with democracy in Iran or anywhere else?

Even to raise this question is, for an American leftist, to think outside the box. If Danny Postel’s eloquent and provocative Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran did nothing more, it would still be an important contribution to the political conversation. But it does more. The book explores four related matters: “the widespread confusion on the western Left about Iran; why the school of political thought that resonates with and animates dissident intellectuals in Iran today is liberalism rather than Marxism; the tremendous vibrancy of the political and philosophical dialogue that has taken shape in Iran and what lessons we might draw from it about the future of internationalism and solidarity; and Michel Foucault’s complex engagement with the Iranian Revolution and how, in retrospect, we might make sense of it.”

One chapter is a sensitive review of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, which documents Foucault’s puzzling and slightly scandalous enthusiasm for the Islamic regime. Another is a wide-ranging interview with Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, mainly about which Western political thinkers currently interest Iranians most and why. Apparently liberals and pluralists like Habermas, Arendt, Berlin, and Popper are far more popular than radicals and anti-imperialists like Chomsky and Said, while Marxism is simply a dead letter. Revolution and class struggle are conversation-stoppers; instead Iranians want to discuss individual rights (also known as “bourgeois liberties”): “democracy, pluralism, civil society, tradition and modernity, religious tolerance, and the like.”

The central argument of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran is that Western progressives, preoccupied with the sins of their own governments, are not doing Iranian democrats as much good as they might. “Anti-imperialism” sometimes even provides a rationale for ignoring or excusing the crimes of the Iranian regime, since any such criticism may be seized on by right-wingers seeking pretexts for intervention. This is all wrong, Postel protests (as do Iranian activists, many of whom he cites). Iran, he points out, is “a state at war with itself,” and “progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”

True, but what can Americans do for Iranian democrats? Postel’s answer seems to be: moral support. Encourage them, send them speakers, bring them over here to speak. Yes, of course. But what about material support? They don't want it and individual citizens couldn't offer much if they did. As for US government money: “thanks, but no thanks," they say – probably wisely, though I don't see any objection in principle, only that it would be a tactical mistake. We can demand that the Iranian government release this person, stop that policy. But to whom do we make this demand? The Iranian government has no incentive to pay the slightest attention to American progressives. Nor, for that matter, does the American government. The proper audience for those of us whom Postel is addressing is his and our fellow citizens, whom the US government cannot ignore, at any rate indefinitely. Only an informed majority of American citizens, after all, can force a decent foreign (or domestic) policy on the American government.

So what would be a decent and effective US foreign policy toward Iran, apart from nonintervention? It's so much clearer in the Israeli-Palestinian case or the Cuban case or the globalization case or the list of cases Postel rattles off at one point as examples of what progressives usually concern themselves with: "poverty, development, trade policy, capital flows, financial markets, sweat shops, structural adjustment, landless workers, transnational corporations, ecological destruction, genetically engineered crops, and the like." In all those cases the US government is already doing things that make a very great deal of difference, usually for the worse. But what about Iran? What is it urgent that well-intentioned Americans persuade their fellow citizens to force our government to do or stop doing in respect of Iran?

That question can be generalized: what would the world’s richest and most powerful state do if it were serious about promoting democracy and equitable development? The material infrastructure of democracy and human rights is economic security, literacy, public health, and the absence of external threats, which typically furnish governments with “national security” pretexts for repression. American citizens, via taxes, annually fund hundreds of billions of dollars worth of not entirely benign international activity by their government. A fraction of this money would go a long way toward helping build that infrastructure in non-rich societies, which are usually (and not coincidentally) non-free societies. As Postel rightly insists, international solidarity isn’t all about changing American policy. But perhaps most of it is.


George Scialabba is a book critic and the author of Divided Mind (Arrowsmith Press).