Failure and Success from the Inside and Outside: Studying Iran’s Green Movement

By Kevan Harris

Ask Iranians what caused their country’s 1979 revolution, and usually a little folk sociology comes out. Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy was a “pressure cooker,” they say, and the top eventually was blown off. Authoritarian political rule coupled with rapid social change meant the revolution was inevitable. Around the country, I have been told this story many times from academics and armchair intellectuals to aging aunties.

Of course, as Jeff Goodwin recently pointed out, no set of political opportunities existed under the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1970s which could have provided an opening for successful mobilization from below to trigger a revolution. Yet a series of widening protest cycles over 1977-78 eventually paralyzed the state’s coercive apparatus, forced a fissure among political elites, and engineered a fiscal crisis. It was state breakdown theory in reverse. Even Theda Skocpol admitted that if any revolution had ever been “made,” Iran’s came closest to the description. But as Charles Kurzman persuasively argued, not only is the 1979 Iranian revolution unexplainable with our current theoretical toolkit of social science, it was also “unthinkable” to most of the participants making it.

The pressure cooker theory, in other words, suffers from the fallacy of retrospective inevitability. One could construct a case for Iranian exceptionalism—oil, Islam, luxury carpets, a superior pistachio, etc. But recent theoretical work has shown that the entire field of social movement studies somewhat suffers from this fallacy. Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, for one, get downright medieval: “the field has grown so narrow, so movement-centric throughout the years as to distort the original phenomenon of interest—for example, contentious politics—in much the same way that Ptolemy’s model of the universe misspecified Earth’s position in the cosmos.” James Jasper argues that the conceptual reliance on political opportunity structures to explain social movement outcomes “not only allows but also probably encourages vague overextension.” If we only study successful social movements, then mobilizing shifts that occurred on the way to victory can retrospectively look like pre-existing political opportunities.

Failed movements, however, are another matter. In 2009, I ended up in the middle of the Green movement, the largest protest wave in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Formed out of a shock re-election of the Islamic Republic’s incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, which many perceived as fraudulent, the Green movement’s number of participants rose quickly during its first week and then slowly de-mobilized into a dwindling core of militant but ineffective street protests within a few months. At first, participants demanded an election recount, but as the state clamped down on demonstrations, some Green movement members called for more wide-reaching political changes. Yet after six months, it was over.

As I wrote in an article in Mobilization, the “protest wave seemed to emerge out of nowhere. But state repression alone cannot account for its rapid decline.” Studying this failed social movement generated three insights that point to larger theoretical and methodological issues in the field.

First, “going micro” inside social movements can provide a new set of lower-level mechanisms which more accurately draw out the patterning of protest waves. Green movement demonstrations did not develop from preexisting oppositional networks but were a spillover from the 2009 electoral campaign. Solidarity was mostly built through rituals that relied on pre-election symbols and slogans of oppositional candidates’ races. The free rider problem was temporarily solved through a mechanism I call brokered exuberance: “the micro-interactional process through which emotional transformation occurs, generating feelings of group solidarity and belonging that can temporarily paper over the inherent and palpable feelings of uncertainty present in collective action.” This was not an arena of individually autonomous rational calculation, but of chained affects, moral outrage, improvised tactics, and rapid reformulations of political strategy.

Yet such linkages of emotional energy did not universally transfer to all comers. Class and status markers of social distinction could trump moments of solidarity, as I witnessed in several protests. Spatial perceptions could give the impression of crowd power if a small enough city square or street filled up with protesters as far as the eye could see. But if a crowd’s energy did not fill up enough of the urban ritual space, police forces seemed dominant. To better understand failed (and successful) movements, as Jasper argues, we need to “drop to a more concrete level of reality, closer to empirical observations, in order to measure and compare.”

Second, “going macro” outside social movements can give the context for the political orientation of participants as well as interactions between protestors, antagonists, and fence-sitters. Following Andrew Walder’s call for investigating the “impact of social structure on movement political orientation,” I examined the growth in middle class occupational structure and dispositional habitus in Iran over the post-revolutionary era. Green movement participants may have seen themselves as completely severed from a loathsome regime, but their social power resided in the relative expansion of this class over the past several decades. This was irrevocably linked to the Islamic Republic’s developmental aspirations and state-building welfare and economic policies. The Green movement’s social composition and political ambitions were shaped, in part, by the modernizing efforts of the post-revolutionary state itself.

In addition, contrary to media accounts which claimed that an increase in state repression resulted in movement failure, I observed the inverse. Initially, spectacular acts of state violence tended to spur on waves of crowd-building emotional energy. A subsequent routinization of police control—mimicking riot police tactics in Southern Europe or Latin America—tended to demobilize a tenuously joined crowd. The state’s strategy moved away from the use of randomly violent street militias towards a greater reliance on trained and uniformed riot police, using more symbolic violence in lieu of spectacular physical violence. This can only be explained by unpacking the state itself, as more institutionalized actors in the Islamic Republic took charge of the government response in the wake of the Green movement’s rapid and unexpected escalation.

Third, failed movements are not necessarily fruitless movements.  In Iran this past summer for another presidential election, I had an odd sense of déjà vu. An oppositional candidate was running against a conservative slate with the odds stacked in the latter’s favor. Political apathy suddenly turned into fervent support for the former in the final days of the campaign. This time, unlike 2009, the center-left candidate won. The Green movement, largely dormant for the past several years, had an important effect on the recent victory of Hassan Rouhani. Activists and sympathizers who had participated in the 2009 protests took it upon themselves to push a usually sheepish liberal faction to run a united coalition front at the polls. In addition, state elites were far less willing to risk another sketchy election outcome and rouse another set of demonstrations in a far more uncertain regional geopolitical environment. Every ballot cast was likely counted. In the end, Rouhani won a bare majority (50.7%) of the vote thanks to a “Green movement plus.” Given subsequent events this year and the promise of future changes, the 2013 election may be the most important ballot ever held in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. It would not have been possible without the 2009 Green movement, and in a (still tenuous) sense, represents a belated victory. There was nothing inevitable about it.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

2 responses to “Failure and Success from the Inside and Outside: Studying Iran’s Green Movement

  1. Pingback: Why Social Movements Fail | rationalinsurgent

  2. Pingback: Kevan Harris Goes Inside Iran’s Failed Green Movement | This Is Hell!

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