* *


In response to the exhibition of "9 Scripts From A Nation At War" at Tate Modern Level 2 Gallery (13 June — 25 August 2008), I wish to take a sideways look at current imperialist adventures in the Middle East. Although nations are not real, they are experienced as real because of their poisonous effects in the form of wars, exploitation and mass murder. When the ruling class goes to war, the impact is felt not simply in the immediate battle zone, but also in neighbouring territories and often across the world. The pursuit of war provides the bosses with opportunities for economic expansion both through the production of military materials and via acts of primitive accumulation (plunder). That said, war is also a snare used to trick workers into identifying with the 'national' interests of their masters. One of the innumerable negative effects of the US led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to temporarily dampen resistance to the theocratic dictatorship in neighbouring Iran. The following summary of the 2001 football riots in Iran, which I have juxtaposed against an abridgement of Guy Debord's analysis of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, is simply one way of exploring the ever present possibilities for the revolutionary transformation of the world.

AUGUST 13 — 16, 1965, the blacks of Los Angeles revolted. An incident between traffic police and pedestrians developed into two days of spontaneous riots. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. By the third day the blacks had armed themselves by looting accessible gun stores, enabling them to fire even on police helicopters. It took thousands of police and soldiers, including an entire infantry division supported by tanks, to confine the riot to the Watts area, and several more days of street fighting to finally bring it under control. Stores were massively plundered and many were burned. Official sources listed 32 dead (including 27 blacks), more than 800 wounded and 3000 arrests.

In October 2001, after two international football matches, Iranian fans ran screaming into the streets. While some observers scoffed at what they took to be an unnecessarily primal protest against capitalist social relations, others understood that shrieking was one of the few'‘speech acts' utterly resistant to recuperation. The rioters made no demands; and their frenzied wails heralded the re-emergence of a force capable of abolishing alienated social relations precisely because it rejected a priori any and all attempts at negotiation with the ruling class. It should go without saying that alcoholic intoxication played a major role in this self-conscious hysteria. Such behaviour is a very public slap in the face to the Islamicist ideology of the Iranian state.

Reactions from all sides were most revealing: a revolutionary event, by bringing existing problems into the open, provokes its opponents into an unhabitual lucidity. Police Chief William Parker, for example, rejected all the major black organizations’ offers of mediation, correctly asserting: “These rioters don’t have any leaders”. Since the blacks no longer had any leaders, it was the moment of truth for both sides… And all those who went so far as to recognize the “apparent justifications” of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks (but never their real ones), all the ideologists and “spokesmen” of the vacuous international Left, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets) and the 2000 fires with which the blacks lit up their battle and their ball... Let the economists fret over the $27 million lost, and the city planners sigh over one of their most beautiful supermarkets gone up in smoke, and McIntyre blubber over his slain deputy sheriff. Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.

Spontaneous rioting was the popular response to the shock 3-1 defeat of the Iranian football team at the hands of Bahrain on 21 October 2001. Iranian fans had expected their side to slaughter Bahrain in this World Cup qualifying match. Rumours abounded that the authorities – who found the exuberant behaviour of fans shocking – had told the national team to lose, or else! One version of this conspiracy theory suggested a zealous mullah had made the players spend the night before the match praying, and they lost because they had no sleep. Public denials of these charges by Safā’i, head of the Football Federation, had little effect on demonstrators. There was mass rioting in Tehran, Tabriz, Kerman, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman-shah, Qazvin and Rasht. As this frenzy of destruction played out over two days, it took an increasingly 'political' turn.  Police stations were besieged by crowds demanding the release of arrested rioters. From screaming, angry proletarian crowds progressed to chanting slogans including: 'Death to the Taliban, whether in Kabul or Tehran' and 'Death to the mullahs'. Likewise, the local bourgeois-theocracy was compared to the hated Israeli ruling class and accused of 'transforming Iran into Palestine'.

Until the Watts explosion, black civil rights demonstrations had been kept by their leaders within the limits of a legal system that tolerates the most appalling violence on the part of the police and the racists… the main point is that the civil rights movement only addressed legal problems by legal means. It is logical to make legal appeals regarding legal questions. What is irrational is to appeal legally against a blatant illegality as if it was a mere oversight that would be corrected if pointed out. It is obvious that the crude and glaring illegality from which blacks still suffer in many American states has its roots in a socioeconomic contradiction that is not within the scope of existing laws, and that no future judicial law will be able to get rid of this contradiction in the face of the more fundamental laws of this society. What American blacks are really daring to demand is the right to really live, and in the final analysis this requires nothing less than the total subversion of this society. This becomes increasingly evident as blacks in their everyday lives find themselves forced to use increasingly subversive methods. The issue is no longer the condition of American blacks, but the condition of America, which merely happens to find its first expression among the blacks. The Watts riot was not a racial conflict: the rioters left alone the whites that were in their path, attacking only the white policemen, while on the other hand black solidarity did not extend to black store-owners or even to black car-drivers. Martin Luther King himself had to admit that the revolt went beyond the limits of his specialty. Speaking in Paris last October, he said: “This was not a race riot. It was a class riot.”

During Iran's 2001 uprising, the ecclesiastical section of the bourgeoisie shook in its shoes as it was systematically targeted by proletarian insurgents. There were reports of provincial clerics being jostled, punched and kicked, then in the ultimate act of humiliation having their turbans pulled from their heads! Rioters engaged in acts of public nudity, another direct assault on the ridiculous morals of the mullahs, as was the music that blared on every street corner. Government buildings, banks (at least 32 in the capital alone), and ticket kiosks, were burnt to the ground. In places rioters succeeded in disarming the militia, and proceeded to respond to armed attacks by the military with more than the customary stones and petrol bombs. Jubilant crowds also made good use of stun grenades, smoke bombs, firecrackers and bricks. Teenage protestors outside the headquarters of the 'moral police' in Tehran forced security guards to break-dance for and with them! The airing of new slogans revealed ongoing radicalisation among insurgents: '[Regardless of] Canons, tanks, rockets, Khamene’i [supreme spiritual leader] must die'. Khamene’i was only a starting point, before long President Khatami (a so-called 'reformist') was being showered with derision. The mullah-bureaucracy even found itself tarred with the same brush as the old and completely discredited Shah, 'Shame on you, Khamene’i, time to vacate the royal crown'.

The Los Angeles rebellion was a rebellion against the commodity, against the world of the commodity in which worker-consumers are hierarchically subordinated to commodity standards. Like the young delinquents of all the advanced countries, but more radically because they are part of a class without a future, a sector of the proletariat unable to believe in any significant chance of integration or promotion, the Los Angeles blacks take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible, because they want to use them. In this way they are challenging their exchange-value, the commodity reality which molds them and marshals them to its own ends, and which has preselected everything. Through theft and gift they rediscover a use that immediately refutes the oppressive rationality of the commodity, revealing its relations and even its production to be arbitrary and unnecessary. The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle: “To each according to their false needs” — needs determined and produced by the economic system which the very act of looting rejects. But once the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized, instead of being eternally pursued in the rat-race of alienated labor and increasing unmet social needs, real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities. They stop submitting to the arbitrary forms that distortedly reflect their real needs. The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption. The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, is the best image of the lie of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take. Only when it is paid for with money is it respected as an admirable fetish, as a symbol of status within the world of survival.

When the Iranian football team faced the United Arab Emirates on 25 October 2001, hundreds of teenagers were in custody awaiting trail on charges pertaining to the football riots that had erupted across the country a few days earlier. Iran enjoyed a resounding 2-1 victory over UAE but once again fans rioted, proving that it was political and economic factors — and not the result of the game — that drove Iranian football supporters to defy the authorities. In a bid to quell this second wave of proletarian unrest, the police were augmented by the Basiji militia, Pasdaran units (a.k.a., revolutionary guards), the riot squad, Hezbollah 'club-wielders', a parachute regiment and regular army units. To circumvent this heavy handed repression, demonstrators in the north-western city of Ardebil left cassette recorders playing anti-government slogans at strategic locations. The crowds were then treated to the edifying spectacle of the security forces running around like gormless idiots attempting to locate cunningly concealed tape machines. Teenage girls threw away their veils, while male youths covered their faces to avoid being photographed. The authorities suppressed news of protestors in Isfahan destroying the local council's decorations put up in preparation for a visit by Iran's 'spiritual leader' Khamene’i. Likewise, the mullah-bureaucrat feigned illness and cancelled his trip.

The rational world produced by the Industrial Revolution has rationally liberated individuals from their local and national limitations and linked them on a global scale; but it irrationally separates them once again, in accordance with a hidden logic that finds its expression in insane ideas and grotesque values. Estranged from their own world, people are everywhere surrounded by strangers. The barbarians are no longer at the ends of the earth, they are among the general population, made into barbarians by their forced participation in the worldwide system of hierarchical consumption. The veneer of humanism that camouflages all this is inhuman, it is the negation of human activities and desires; it is the humanism of the commodity, the solicitous care of the parasitical commodity for its human host. For those who reduce people to objects, objects seem to acquire human qualities and truly human manifestations appear as unconscious “animal behavior.”

The way in which the government controlled media in Iran heaped abuse on the 2001 football rioters bore remarkable similarities with the smearing of anti-capitalist protestors by the western press. Demonstrators were characterised as 'hooligans' (O’bāsh), 'seditious' (Sharoor), 'rogues' (Arāzel), 'saboteurs' (Ekhlālgar), 'infiltrators' (Nofouzi) and 'thugs' (Khashen). Younesi, the minister in charge of the security services, wandered through the throngs of protestors in plain clothes and declared them 'apolitical'. This particular mullah-bureaucrat explained that he was not against people having fun; but he objected to behaviour incongruent with Sharia (sacred law of Islam) and Effat Omoumi (public decency). In one interview Younesi expressed shock and disbelief that teenagers had shouted anti-Islamic slogans. The Iranian riots ended with mass street parties accompanied by a pounding soundtrack of techno music. Across the country exuberant youths could be seen dancing semi-naked on top of cars. Public parks, which are carefully regulated social spaces under Islamic rule, were used for raves. Such activities made officially sanctioned celebrations — involving classical Persian music and some fireworks — look like damp squibs by comparison.

American society itself must disappear — in America and everywhere else in the world. The end of all racial prejudice, like the end of so many other prejudices related to sexual inhibitions, can only lie beyond “marriage” itself, that is, beyond the bourgeois family (which has largely fallen apart among American blacks) — the bourgeois family which prevails as much in Russia as in the United States, both as a model of hierarchical relations and as a structure for a stable inheritance of power (whether in the form of money or of social-bureaucratic status). It is now often said that American youth, after thirty years of silence, are rising again as a force of contestation, and that the black revolt is their Spanish Civil War. This time their “Lincoln Brigades” must understand the full significance of the struggle in which they are engaging and totally support its universal aspects. The Watts “excesses” are no more a political error in the black revolt than the POUM’s May 1937 armed resistance in Barcelona was a betrayal of the anti-Franco war. A revolt against the spectacle — even if limited to a single district such as Watts — calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanized life, a protest of real individuals against their separation from a community that would fulfill their true human and social nature and transcend the spectacle.

An extended analysis of the 2001 football riots in Iran can be found in Mastaneh Shah-Shuja's "Zones of Proletarian Development" (OpenMute 2008). I therefore conclude this response to "9 Scripts From A Nation At War" with a theoretical summary provided by Shah-Shuja: "The Islamic Republic came to power with the unstated mandate of temporarily reversing capitalist development to its formal phase of domination, which entailed the extraction of absolute surplus value through 'terroristic' means. The formal phase is now complete and many in this society ache for transition to the real phase of domination, with its emphasis on relative surplus value extraction, Keynesian macroeconomics, or what is inaccurately termed a 'consumption based economy'. Some hope that cultural openness will bring in its wake a respectful growth rate and economic diversification. The phrase 'civil society' is uttered frequently, sometimes as mantra, sometimes as a code for 'liberalism'. What concerns us here is the strategy of excess that is being adopted by both atheistic-proletarian and 'secular'-bourgeois opponents of the clergy as a mechanism for resisting the frugality associated with the formal phase of capital accumulation… the two above-mentioned classes utilise excess for contrasting reasons, the 'secular'-bourgeoisie, in order to secure and dominate the real phase of domination, and the atheistic proletariat, in order to transcend all forms of capitalist exploitation."

First piece in this residency series: Web Sex Archives of Karl Marx

Previous piece: Save The Last Dance For Me?

Level 2 Gallery Project

Stewart Home on 9/11


colour field
This is a response to the 9 Scripts From A Nation At War exhibition and its theme of the state. For further information go to Level 2.