Mobilise the dispossessed

Shanty town dwellers make up an ever increasing proportion of the population in the cities of the so-called third world. They have been used as the battering ram of counterrevolution, but this is not inevitable. They can be won by the left. This is an edited version of a speech delivered to Communist University 2006 by comrade Mehdi Kia and is entirely based on research done by Ardeshir Mehrdad - co-editor of Iran Bulletin - Middle East Forum. Comrade Mehrdad had previously presented the core of this research in two four-hour talks to the 2006 Socialist Forum. This article must not be reproduced in whole or in part

In my opinion the left has largely ignored what is in essence a major section of the working class, without whom progressive change is impossible in a country like Iran. I am referring to the millions who live in shanty towns. If we claim to be the advanced representatives of the working class, then we must certainly relate to these people. If we do not do so, others will step in - indeed they are already doing so - in order to mobilise them for reactionary purposes.

I want to look in particular at the situation in Khuzestan, the Arab province of Iran. Khuzestan has a population of 4.35 million, of which about a million are shanty town-dwellers - one third of the urban population. Khuzestan is the richest province in Iran, where all the oil is located, yet one third of its urban population lives illegally in appalling conditions.

The official unemployment rate for the whole of Iran is said to be around 12% and increasing, but the actual figure is way above that. In Khuzestan over the last 10 years official unemployment has risen from 16% to 18%. So in this, the richest province, already high unemployment is rising. It is here that the largest movement of the workforce from the official to the unofficial economy takes place.

The essence of my thesis is that this marginalisation into shanty towns is the geographic expression, if you like, of a deep, structural change within capitalism in Iran and more generally. It is a new phenomenon that has occurred over the last quarter of the 20th century. It did not happen in Marx's time, which is why he had nothing to say about it. The left must learn to understand what this structural change means.

It combines class inequality with ethnic inequality, so that they intermingle and feed on one another. Why is this happening?

Two interlinked processes are involved. One is the dispossession of people from the land and their proletarianisation. After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1997, the entire reconstruction process speeded up this development.

There was a large-scale movement out of the war zones and a major shift of refugees. Those forced out of their home territories by the Iraqis were not allowed to go back. They were indeed dispossessed of their land. This was a conscious policy decision made by the government after the war. 'Security' was the excuse given to justify it.

This move was designed to take the labourers off the land and drive them into the towns. The combination of ethnic repression, the language barrier and the unskilled nature of their work meant they had to compete unequally in the labour market. So within the proletariat minorities ended up at the bottom of the pile. The role of the state was and remains central in this - not only because it used the security argument to bring about their dispossession, but because it is also the biggest single employer.

Part of working class

How should we define shanty-dwellers? They live outside the official demarcation of the city and consequently are excluded from all the services that any urban conglomeration provides: welfare, roads, water, electricity, sewage, etc. They are not just defined by their poverty - they are not the same as the poor who live officially within the cities, since their geographical separation and removal from access to all conventional services puts them in a special and quite different situation.

The Iranian government has recognised the situation of the shanty-dwellers as a real issue, because these were the very people who were, if you like, the battering ram of the islamic revolution during its early period, and the government needed to mobilise them. They provided the main fodder for the war and for all the most repressive aspects of the regime - but now they have become a thorn in the side of the government, representing as they do the most rebellious forces.

The regime has come up with various policies to deal with this, but none has had any real impact. Improving village facilities, in an attempt both to prevent further migration into the cities and to rid the shanty areas of their existing populations by pushing them out back into the villages. The money that has been allocated to this task in the latest budget amounts to about $200 per person, but it has not worked.

So what significance does this population have for socialists? What potential does it have for its own self-liberation? Is there any objective criterion one can use to say that it can actually act in its own liberation and that of others? Have they got any incentive to change and are the conditions right?

Unequivocally, let me make clear that in my understanding shanty-dwellers - whether they live in Iran, Calcutta, Port au Prince or wherever - are members of the working class, of the proletariat, of that very class which we strive to represent. However, their struggle is different from the struggle of the employed working class. Essentially it occurs in the realm of consumption rather than production - although a section does have a role in production, even if it is often intermittent.


This structural change that has led to the growth and development of such marginalised conditions over the last 25 years needs to be linked to the commodification of housing. In the old village the house was not a commodity, but a use-value. There was no housing shortage. You just built a house with bricks wherever you wanted.

That is no longer the case and these people have no place at all in the commodified housing market. In a way the existence of shanty towns is a phenomenon at the core of which is the extension of capitalism into housing, which is what makes it predominantly an issue in the so-called developing world.

When housing is removed from the 'basket of consumption', that actually makes it easier to survive in the competitive capitalist labour market, since many other commodities are also removed at the same time. It is, in a sense, a way of easing the crisis of reproduction in the labour force by going outside commodity relations and reducing the cost of living.

If we accept this, then logically we have to accept that shanty-dwellers, through the removal of their housing from the control of the state, have been removed from its political control to some degree. Already within the shanties a form of self-government operates in these areas of Iran, just as it does in a parallel situation in Brazil, for example.

What are the elements that can provoke rebellion in this group? Shanty towns are often situated around rivers, canals, railways, major road arteries, oil pipelines, places where the shanty-dwellers can 'decommodify': ie, steal resources. So, importantly, shanties are not just defined by their poverty, but by their geography. They totally lack basic amenities and are threatened both by the natural elements and by the effects of the social infrastructure - road accidents, flooding, collapsing power lines and so forth.

But they also have some specific freedoms: in particular, freedom from the state's control, which in one sense makes it possible to survive. So shanty-dwellers are in a continuous state of war with the authorities - it is part of their daily life.

However, they need to consolidate their position by retaining what they have gained through struggle. For example, once the attempt to bulldoze them out of existence has been defeated, their next struggle is to extend and improve upon those gains: getting electricity and water supplied; creating shops and schools; winning official recognition for the dwellings they have built and establishing their right of ownership over them.


Their resistance often takes the form of riots, taking to the streets. Because they are only on the margins in terms of production, they are hampered from fighting for an increase in their earnings, so what they need to do is fight in order to reduce the cost of consumption. Hence such phenomena as protests against price increases, which manifest themselves in things like bread riots. This means that in Iran the price of bread is in effect fixed - raise the price of bread and you get rioting in the streets.

We should not, however, forget that there is a struggle in the sphere of production as well as in other areas. For example in Ahvaz, one of the main cities in Khuzestan, and in a whole series of other cities in the south of Iran, this took the form of the street vendors' battle to resist efforts by the government to close them down.

In the Arab zone, obviously the issue of language is also important because the combination of shanty dwelling and ethnic discrimination makes language a critical issue. Arab boys who do go to school are at a great disadvantage, because schooling is carried out in Farsi. Language is not just an emotional issue, but a material one in terms of conditions and access to the labour market. In a multilingual society like Iran, where ethnic discrimination is so prevalent, the right to be educated in your own language becomes one of the fundamental democratic demands - not only for the various national movements, but also for the left.

Acts of rebellion are the main weapon is all such struggles. For example, road closures. This is actually an economic act, because it clearly blocks economic activity and is the equivalent of strike action in a factory and can have a similar impact. Revolts tend to take the form of protesting against something rather than demanding concrete improvements. For the shanty-dweller, rebellion is a continuous process, a way of life.

What is perhaps not understood is that rebellion is virtually always successful - perhaps not immediately or in full, but almost always the rebels will get something of what they ask for. Although the street vendors' protests were initially broken up and repressed, the government subsequently agreed to allow them space to trade. Remember that the Iranian revolution was itself triggered by rebellions in many areas over a number of years.

In addition shanty-dwellers do have a degree of bargaining power, in that, although they are outside the official structures, they are legally entitled to vote. This can create pressure for concessions. Of course, this has a downside we are all familiar with - the islamic movement is sometimes able to mobilise the shanty-dwellers for its own purposes - into military or paramilitary organisations, for example.

The neoliberals have also used them as a means of reducing the cost of production - indeed their lack of access to normal provision of services means a reduction in costs to the state. But the left as a whole has ignored the slums and shanty towns, despite the fact that in Iran there are around 10 million people (one sixth of the population) who occupy them and that figure is likely to double in the next decade.

Role of the left

We need to understand the forms of struggle that this section of the working class is engaged in and intervene within them in an effort to deepen and expand them. Initially we need to be aware that their needs are particularly in the sphere of welfare. The islamists have seen this and responded to it, but the left has not. Why don't left doctors, lawyers and teachers go in there and get involved?

We need to help them maintain their relative freedom from central control. The more we can expand those aspects that are outside the sphere of commodity production, the more we can weaken capitalism. Instead we should aid the process of creating use-value - in other words, the establishment of cooperatives and so forth, thereby reducing the private ownership of the means of production.

We need to be able to create equal relations in terms of tackling ethnic and gender inequalities - especially the latter, because it is women who are very often the prime movers in these forms of struggle. They are the ones at the forefront of demonstrations and blocking streets.

Given that these struggles are currently geographically isolated, we need to try to unite them across the country. This also means linking up the struggle of the shanty town-dwellers with those of other sections of the working class. It was sad to see the oil workers not intervening when the street vendors throughout Khuzestan were fighting for their rights. Unity between those working in the industrial sector and the people in the shanty towns becomes a critical factor and it is our job to help link these struggles together. This population is very vulnerable and fragile in terms of the attraction of populism - something which has been exploited by the islamists.

So addressing these people's welfare interests is primary at this stage. And we need to link their struggles for such things as work and housing with the democratic demands for freedom and equality. The left really needs to understand that these people are in a struggle for survival and they need help to achieve self-organisation. We should have done what the damned mullahs have done, but done it better.

The shanty-dwellers are not just part of the reserve army of the proletariat. In some areas they are the proletariat. For instance, in one industrial region near Tehran some 90% work in factories.

Their struggle is also intrinsically connected to the national question. Being the underdogs of the proletariat is a reflection of their status as members of minority ethnic groups. There has been increasing class polarisation within the national movements between the bourgeoisie and the working class. Undoubtedly the slogan of self-determination is important, but we do not want to simply transfer power from one bourgeoisie to another, allowing them to remain exploited in the same way.

As the lowest level of labour, these people require a different kind of organisation from what we have traditionally had. The way to do this is to focus on their struggles - organisation will develop through the struggle itself, rather than on the basis of an organisation set up to create struggle.

If the leadership of the struggle is not in the hands of the left - and so far we have largely ignored it - then reactionary forces will be there to exploit the shanty dwellers as part of their aim to crush the urban working class.