For the last three weeks or so, Tehran’s bus drivers have been striking for better pay and working conditions; here’s a very good Observer (U.K.) article and commentary about the ongoing dispute, written by Nick Cohen. (Hat tip: the inestimable, astute, and erudite Norman Geras of NormBlog.) I won’t waste your time (or mine, for that matter) restating what’s in the Observer piece; go ahead and read it.
Good. The article pretty much speaks for itself, but it triggered a couple of thoughts:
- In case we needed to be reminded, this story shows that a dictator is never a friend of “the people”, or at least not for long. Power-seekers are also wealth-seekers and prestige-seekers; once they don’t have to worry about winning free and fair elections, they no longer need the support of the poor, who have little to offer beyond their votes. It doesn’t matter whether a dictator is a right-wing capitalist, a left-wing socialist, a theocrat representing the religion of your choice, a populist demagogue, or some other flavor of despot. Ideology is, in many ways, a distraction; the central dynamic in these situations is power and its abuse by entrenched elites. Thus we should always be cautious – at least – about supporting “good” dictators who we think are our friends and allies; in truth, the despot is a friend only to himself, and not always even that.
- Stories like this should be cautionary to those on the Israeli religious right who denigrate democracy and yearn for some form of Jewish theocratic state. I feel a bit odd having to mention this – it should be obvious to anyone, I would think – and yet, I frequently see anti-democracy comments written by some of my fellow “settlers” and their supporters, as well as other nominally Zionist types. (Even more strangely, all such comments I’ve seen were written by people who grew up in democracies. Perhaps these folks are too familiar with the problems of democracy, and not familiar enough with the alternatives.) These messianic types long for a return of the Biblical monarchy, or perhaps advocate a state run by a revived Sanhedrin; presumably they believe that such a non-democratic regime would be virtuous because it would be run by righteous, observant, scholarly Jews rather than by Ayatollahs, Communists, or other disreputable types.
I’ve got news for you, guys: There is no such thing as a virtuous dictatorship. Power corrupts, and democracy – despite its manifest flaws – is the only system available that limits this corruption.
- President Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s ruling establishment should be very worried indeed. In general, dictators don’t have too much to fear as long as their opponents are intellectuals, students, human-rights activists, and the like. These groups and individuals can all too easily be marginalized, suborned, suppressed, exiled, killed, or simply ignored; after all, nations can live quite comfortably (at least for a time) without philosophers. But when ordinary workers begin to lose faith in “the system” and cease to cooperate with it, things can become very rocky very quickly. A government can function without philosophers and novelists on its side, but it can’t survive for long without bus drivers, mechanics, nurses, garbage men, and the rest of the working-class heroes who keep society running. If Ahmadinejad and the mullahs keep trying to suppress labor unrest as they’ve been doing, sooner or later an Iranian Lech Walesa will appear; and once that happens the regime’s days are numbered.
Ralph Kramden’s gonna getcha if ya don’t! watch! out!!!
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)