Image: Painted mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran.
When considering Iranian-American relations we tend to limit ourselves to national security or religion, but in doing so we paint an incomplete picture. The security and religious analysis of Iran is pursued ad nauseum, yet fails to present us with a complete understanding of the Iranian zeitgeist, especially in regard to its relationship with the West. In fact, the analyzer should investigate an Iranian theorist named Jalal Al-e Ahmed and his views on colonialism. In pursuing this path, a more nuanced, and surprisingly familiar, discourse emerges: Marxism.
Necessary to any accurate conception of Iranian animosity toward the West is an understanding of “Occidentosis”. Occidentosis is predicated on the basis of there being an Occident (the West) and an Orient (the East). Ahmed had noticed a peculiar reaction amongst Iranians upon Occidental encroachment: abandonment of Iranian behaviors and customs in favor of those many might deem “Western.”
On the very first page of his manifesto, Ahmed conceives of Occidentosis as a sickness. We can understand this definition through the -osis suffix, i.e. a diseased condition, and Occident, the source of this condition. Like “tuberculosis,” Occidentosis functions as an “infestation of weevils,” spreading to an environment made amenable to its intrusion.
Ahmed immediately sets upon an antagonistic interplay between the Occident and the Orient, to which he further ascribes notions of “hunger” (to the Orient) and satiation (to the Occident) suggesting a parasitic relationship wherein the Occident feeds upon the Orient. Facilitating this relationship is an emasculating, sanitizing, humiliating, and debilitating disease. This disease reduces Iranian culture to only its most token qualities. The process is completed with the obliteration of Iranian culture’s core essence, making Iran more easily exploitable. Replacing this core essence is Westernization.
Ahmed decries Western style education as Occidentosis’ facilitator, claiming that it produces rote and passionless government bureaucrats trained only to pursue the goals of the Occident: consumption of Occidental goods. As far as Ahmed and his adherents are concerned, Occidentosis’ teleology is one in which Iran becomes a dumping ground for Western goods, an unproductive center of consumption lacking any authenticity and existing as only a hollow shell.
For Ahmed, education was the systematic imposer of Western cultural hegemony. Perhaps Ahmed’s most pertinent example to this article’s aim concerns tractors and textbooks. Ahmed’s claim is that the textbook educates the Iranian on the use of American tractors. This is problematic because the tractor is designed for the cornfields we might find in Nebraska, not the rice fields of Mazandaran. Western cultural hegemony directs the Iranian to consume Western goods for the West’s benefit, nothing is designed to actually help the Iranian.
The relationship between the Occident and the Orient is actually one of oppressor and oppressed, or in the international Marxist context, a core and periphery. In this paradigm, countries are divided into two groups. One of these groups, the periphery, harvests raw materials that they send to the core, to be turned into a processed or manufactured good, to be sold back to the periphery. While not every relationship operates exactly along these lines, its emphasis on the core’s exploitation of the periphery is integral to situating Ahmed’s theory of Occidentosis into the Marxist schema.
Crucial to this outlook is a brief explanation of Marxism as it relates to International Relations. In outlining Marxism’s implications for International Relations, we see a close parallels with Ahmed’s theory of Occidentosis emerge. Broadly, Marxism is the view that social phenomena function as products of class conflict between what Marx labels “oppressor and oppressed.” For Marx and his ilk this power relation also exists between countries, functioning as a product of capitalism’s frontier mentality: capitalists must “nestle everywhere” (not too dissimilar from Ahmed’s weasel[J1] analogy), always searching for new markets from which to hawk their wares.
We might assume that the exploited would rise up and tear down the shackles the exploiter imposes, yet this has largely failed to occur. For the Marxist, an explanation for the oppressed’s apathy is that a “false consciousness” emerges as a result of “manufactured consent.” False consciousness should be understood as a commonly shared belief amongst the oppressed (consciousness) that either rationalizes or distracts them from the true source of their oppression (the oppressor). This process should be defined as the manufacturing of consent (to be oppressed).
In the Marxist canon, there is one theorist that stands apart from the rest, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argues that the “economic infrastructure” informs the “ideological infrastructure.” What this means is that the bourgeoisie manufactures the acceptable discourses on culture. In attempting to realize these ideals, the proletariat succumbs [J2] to false consciousness and acquiesce to hegemony.
American author John Steinbeck offers the most concise example of Gramsci’s interplay: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” For the Marxist, the American Dream is a false consciousness shared amongst the oppressed who believe they can become rich one day. This belief facilitates the oppressed’s acceptance of capitalism, even though that economic system necessitates a poor underclass to be successful. The manufacturing of consent does not necessarily need to be a conscious act, but curiously, it manifests wherever there are institutionalized asymmetrical power relations.
Ahmed’s analysis of Occidental intrusion into Iranian education parallels Gramsci’s framework. The Occident is the bourgeoisie and the Iranians the proletariat. Through Occident-designed and-funded educational aid programs, an accepting consciousness of Occidental economic and political hegemony emerges within the Orient. The Iranian education system, Ahmed demonstrates, reprograms the potential revolutionary into a hollow government employee or businessman, existing only to purchase the goods of the Occident. Devoid of any dynamic or vibrant beliefs, the Iranian in this system becomes a passionless actor, totally comfortable with imposed hegemony.
For proof of the like-mindedness of the oppressed, we need to look no farther than the parallels between an Italian philosopher named Antonio Gramsci and an Iranian dissident named Jalal Al-e Ahmed. Their similarities in thought demonstrate the universality of oppression and reactions to it. There is a shared consciousness among the oppressed, disproving contentions made about Iran’s “otherness.”
Perhaps an excerpt most telling of Gramsci and Ahmed’s similarities is when Ahmed states “all we are we have had to conform to the measure of the machine.” For Ahmed, the Occident terraformed the Iranian reality, they imposed a false consciousness, and grew richer in the process–at the expense of the Iranian.
As in any complex political or economic relationship, factors beyond those most easily digestible are at play. Recognizing that Iran is just another country, one no more susceptible to certain ideologies than any other would allow American policymakers to gain a more holistic understanding of Iranian political thought, and thus craft better policies and engage in a more tenable détente.
“Experts” like John Bolton advocating for regime change in Iran need to understand that the grievances of the Iranian people toward the West lie much deeper than the facile and stale Clash of Civilizations argument. There is a genuine and complex history of colonial oppression in Iran. Misperceiving opposition to this power relation is myopic and will only inform policies that worsen the underlying tensions generating Iranian animosity toward the United States.
Analysts grasping for a genuine comprehension of Iranian politics, especially its view of the Occident, need to look beyond the easy lenses of security and religion. It will be curious to those Western analysts obsessed with cultural differences that the roots of their anti-Occidental consciousness may very well reside in the West’s old enemy: Marxism.
Adam Goldstein is a senior at American University on the combined Bachelors/Masters track majoring in Comparative Politics.