Bearded old men running scared will lose, though it may take a while

Whenever the cumulative effect of the daily observation, looking out of my window or into the mirror, of human inequity and wretchedness brings me to the point that I am convinced the human race is an evolutionary dead end, something incredible happens to restore my faith that a hunger for freedom and an unquenchable thirst for justice and fairness are part of our genetic code. Crowds often become mobs and mobs are mostly ugly and destructive. The sight of large numbers of unarmed people, most of them young, facing heavily armed police, regular army, militia or other armed thugs is awe-inspiring.

Hungary 1956

My first political memory dates to 1956. As a seven year old, I was glued to the radio, listening with my parents and older sister to radio Budapest broadcasting appeals for help in every language under the sun “… help ons, help ons…”. Then suddenly a loud noise, as of doors being broken down, and then silence. The tanks won that day. Imre Nagy was murdered by the Soviet Regime. But the spirit of 1956 lived on and burst through in 1968.

Czechoslovakia 1968

Another attempt to create a socialist regime with respect for fundamental human rights and civil liberties. Socialism with a human face, Dubczek-style too was crushed by Soviet tanks. I lived in Brussels at the time and was 18-years old. It is the only time I have been apprehended by the police (thus far) – for throwing rocks at the Soviet Embassy in Brussels. The police were sympathetic, and let us all go after a few hours. Again, Soviet troops crushed this rush for freedom, but like the earlier uprisings in Hungary, in Poland and in East Berlin, each act of repression and oppression became another nail in the coffin of the Soviet empire.

The Berlin Wall 1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a moment I never expected to see. I had watched the wall going up. It seemed as solid and menacing as the Soviet Union. Both turned out to be built on sand. The discredited, paranoid regime of the German Democratic Republic was swept away when it became clear that the tanks of the other Warsaw Pact countries were not going to be turned on those demonstrating against the regime. It was a glorious thing to watch.

Tiananmen Square 1989

A defining moment for China. Between three and five thousand unarmed civilians, many of them students but many from all other walks of life, were killed – murdered really – when the Chinese army drove tanks and armoured personnel carriers to Tiananmen square on June 4, where a mass protest against the totalitarian Chinese regime had been growing in scale and scope since April 14 1989. Who does not recall the incredible pictures of the young man standing in front of an oncoming tank, causing it to come to a halt – followed by a string of further tanks. What happened to that brave, mad young man? Did he get away? Did he live? Was he arrested? Did he suffer? Was he murdered by the security forces?

The Tiananmen Square massacre did not change the Chinese political system, which remains a corrupt, absolutist one-party state. But it forced the ruling clique to engage in radical economic reform, in order to forestall a repeat of 1989. So far the Chinese ruling class has succeeded in combining economic liberalisation and a limited measure of personal freedom with a complete absence of political freedom and open and accountable government. This is obviously not a sustainable equilibrium, especially because of the high levels of education and IT sophistication that characterise the younger Chinese generations. The political control of the Chinese Communist Party will crumble as surely as did the control of the Soviet Communist Party. It may take another 20 years, but it will be worth waiting for.

South Africa 1994

I remember watching the first free, multi-racial democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. The joy of the crowds lining up to wait for hours and hours to get to the voting booths was uplifting and exhilarating. No “why should I bother to vote, no individual vote matters for the outcome” instrumental rationality here. People that have lived through oppression for too long value their right to vote. When you give them the appearance but not the substance of the vote, surprises tend to happen. As recent events in Iran illustrate.

Iran 2009

We will never know who won the Iranian presidential elections. We won’t know who got the most votes or whether any candidate achieved the plurality necessary to avoid the need for a run-off. What we do know is that there was large-scale electoral fraud perpetrated by the supporters of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, aided and abetted by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the bearded old man and minor religious scholar who was appointed (Supreme) Leader by a collection of other bearded old men – the Assembly or Experts. The main expertise required for membership in the Assembly of Experts appears to be the preservation of religious and political power for a parasitic religious estate. This Assembly of Experts is a deliberative body of 86 Islamic scholars, elected by direct public vote from a government-screened list of candidates.

Theocratic rule must be the most odious rule of all. Imagine Italy run by a Pope with the religious views of Benedict XVI (except for his opposition to the death penalty), supported by a sixteenth-century Inquisition, a secret police with a tradition of torture going back millennia, and large numbers of paramilitary thugs as well as the usual Ordnung muss sein police and regular armed forces.

It is not unusual for a paranoid ruler or ruling group to pervert an election they are likely to win. This has been seen repeatedly, for instance, in Belarus, where the President, Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko – another card-carrying member, along with Ahmedinejad, of the class of authoritarian leaders for whom the elevator does not travel all the way to the top – has repeatedly engaged in massive electoral fraud in elections he would have won by a wide margin even without the dirty tricks. If you think my doubts about the sanity of the Iranian president is exaggerated, I can point, in addition to his repeated manifestations of paranoia, to recordings of Ahmedinejad waxing lyrical/mystic about the return of the Hidden Mahdi or the Twelfth Imam. Millenarians are off-putting at the best of times. Millenarians as heads of governments/heads of state are worrying. Millenarians as heads of government/head of state of countries in possession of weapons of mass destruction (Bush Jr.) or close to achieving that status (Ahmedinejad) scare the living daylights out of me.

It was humbling and inspiring to see young men and women in Iran face armed thugs and risking life and limb confronting the Revolutionary Guards and especially the volunteer Basij who take their orders from the Revolutionary Guards.

The Iranian regime may well survive this challenge, in the sense that Khamenei, Ahmedinejad and the other bearded ones (including possibly a number of bearded ladies) that have ruled the country will stay in their current positions for the time being. It is clear, however, that things will never be the same again. Not since the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 has the regime’s authority been challenged and dented to this extent. Its very legitimacy is in threads. The medieval version of Shiite Islam that has ruled the roost in Iran for the past 30 years is dying on its feet. Educating your youngsters is very dangerous to the health of autocratic and authoritarian regimes.

Economic, social, political, cultural and religious reforms will come and transform the country. I look forward to watching Iran join the 21st century not just in a few selective technologies, but in every way, drawing on the astounding wealth of its multi-millennial history rather than on the medieval caricature theocracy the country has had to put up with for the past three decades.

Watching the full sadness of what is going on in the streets of Iran, I cannot but be an optimist.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website