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How social and political movements happen?


On the Martin Luther King’s day, Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy was honored to hold an event about Globalization and Social Movements in Touch Art Gallery. Aram Hessami, Montgomery College professor of Political Science was the speaker. Nazila Fathi, former correspondent of New York Times and a current fellow at Harvard University, moderated the event.

Dr. Hessami started by talking about a book that is edited by him which is a collection of fifty articles called Contemporary Discourses in Iran. The book is in Persian and is being translated to English. In addition to be the editor, Hessami has contributed an article in this collection called Globalization and Social Movements.

In this article Hessami intends to present a theory that is applicable to all revolutions and social movements throughout modern era, from 1688 Glorious Revolution in England to American Revolution as well as the French Revolution, Iranian Revolution of 1901 and 1979, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, currently the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and many other examples. Hessami believed that there is a continuity and universality in these phenomena that helps us to come up with a formula of how and when people rise to revolutionize a system or pushing it toward reform; the emphasis in the article is on rejecting this approach that each one of the revolutions or social movements are unique.

The question that the article Globalization and Social Movements is trying to respond to is ‘how social and political movements happen?’ It is ‘social’ and ‘political’ because these two concepts are strongly intertwined and impossible to separate from each other in reality of the movements. The first point is that all the movements, revolutionary or not, aim at change; in all movements there is a very strong desire for what that does not exist in the existent situation; in other words, it is aimed to move from that which is to what ought to be. Hessami emphasized that wherever there is a movement the desire for change should be there too.

Then Hessami faced the question by Nazila, the moderator, that there has been a strong desire for change, as well as in Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries; however, we did not see any social movement or revolution until very recently, and in Iran yet to come?

Hessami said that in order to answer this question he would need to finish explaining his theory. He continued by formulating his theory as below:

F = ER

F stands for Frustration

E stands for Expectations

R stands for Reality

In order to have frustration, expectation should be greater than reality. This formula, according to Hessami, is applicable to all the revolutions and movements. In the American Revolution, there was a great frustration with the way colonies were being handled by the British, heavily taxing the people without letting people to be represented in the British Parliament at the time, what was caught in the phrase ‘taxation without representation;’ the frustration grew when the British responded to the protests and petitions with heavy hand. In the 1688 Glorious Revolution, British people were frustrated with the fear that the king is going to impose Catholicism on them. In the Civil Rights Movement, there was an enormous frustration with discrimination.

However, frustration by itself is not enough, if it is not popularized; in other words, if it is not shared with a great number of people, there won’t be any movement. As soon as the frustration is popularized, it turns into a social movement or a revolution. Hessami emphasized that movements are strongly related to the legitimacy of rulers; always in these occasions the legitimacy of the existing situation is under question. In the modern time, people are the source of legitimacy and their frustration means the legitimacy of the system is severely damaged.

Answering Nazila’s question, Hessami added that frustration is one side of a movement’s formation and the other side is the regime in power; how does a regime manage that frustration and what the amount of frustration is.

Nazila put forward this question that “how the globalization is affecting the social movements around the world?”

Thanking Nazila for her question, Dr. Hessami said that this is the main point of my article. High degree of expectations leads to high degree of frustration. In the current world situation that is the product of a globalized world, there is a high degree of expectations because people know about each other more and much more. But let’s see what Globalization is? Globalization, according to Hessami, is facilitated by the revolution in information technology that has empowered individuals and severely challenged the power structure in societies.

Before, the revolution in the information technology, there were a power structure in which the individual was subjected to. But, this is not true anymore, because individuals are empowered. We do not need to get our latest news through some media that are of a hierarchy which is deciding about what to be news and what not to; now people get the needed information through social media, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other individually managed sources. Anonymous and Wiki Leaks are clear signs of empowered individuals who are able to shake the world. It is not possible for governments to control news anymore, even if the authorities try to filter websites as they do in Iran and China.

Hessami continued that in this globalized world, people know about each other very much; they know how their country is being handled and how other countries are being governed. The current generation that has access to information very easily gets the news faster, gets frustrated faster, and take action faster. They know about each other, therefore, they have a higher expectation, less satisfied with the reality of their country and so much more frustration with the rulers, no matter where they are.

In answering questions by the audience, professor Hessami added more points. One of the most important questions was to do with the reality of the situation in the Middle East. How was that the movement in Tunisia and Egypt were successful while the Green Movement in Iran was not? Answering that question, professor Hessami asked his audience to pay attention to the regimes of power, the level of frustration, and the reality of the countries, in terms of infrastructure or what it is called civil society. Sometimes, the level of frustration is so high, like in Syria, that people are ready to risk everything. In another case, this is the regime’s management which is a very important factor in silencing a social movement, at least for sometime.

As the discussion went on, the case more and more got focused on Iran, and professor Hessami got more in detail about differences between the movements in Egypt and Iran. The first difference was the power structure in two countries; while Arab countries are mainly autocratic with a figure heard on the top, the Islamic Republic in Iran is more of a totalitarian regime with different layers of power, and a much more complicated power structure. In an autocratic state like Egypt, by removing the figure on top, Mubarak or Ben Ali or Gadhafi, the system collapses, as in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt. In Iran, however, there is not simply a figure on the top that eliminating him would lead to a system collapse (Hessami added, it is getting more and more autocratic by Khamenei monopolizing power and removing other power centers in the system.)

Moreover, in Hessami’s belief, the current Egypt should not be compared with the contemporary Iran but with the Iranian movement in 1979 that lead to the Islamic Revolution in which the Islamists monopolized the power in the country. He said how in his belief, Islamists in Egypt through democratic processes are going to pass some undemocratic laws, similar to what happened in Iran in the post 1979 Revolution.

To wrap up the talk, professor Hessami mentioned that first there is a frustration, which leads to a revolution or movement, then it comes the time of replacement. Here he mentioned that there are four discourses to replace a status quo:

Traditional Discourse which is concerned with order and security; it is very patriarchal.

Discourse of Modernity that emphasizes on rights, legitimacy by people, and equality of all human beings; people do not to be be shepherded as it is believed in the traditional discourse.

Marxist Discourse that is concerned with social equality and being concerned just with economy; this discourse is less concerned with political rights that is considered to be superstructure.

Discourse of Postmodernity that emphasizes on blank spots of modernity like tyranny of majority and other blank spots of that discourse.

Professor Hessami expressed clearly that he finds the discourse of modernity a legitimate one that has proved to be functional and in people’s interests and social movements should go toward replacing that with the existing state of affairs.

Report be: Mohsen Jalali, Research Fellow at Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy



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