As memory serves, I’ve mentioned French philosopher Etienne de la Boetie a time or two in this forum.
His observations about how the fortunes of government, any government, no matter how democratic or authoritarian, ultimately rest on the sentiments of its subjects, invariably remind me of the tumultuous events culminating in the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The ways that tbe Shah’s besieged caretaker government under Shapour Baktiar desperately clung to power following the Shah’s hasty departure, issuing edict after edict, proclamation after proclamation, in the forlorn hope of reining in revolutionary discontent would have resounded with de la Boetie. He even coined a succinct phrase, which has been employed by paleo-libertarian writers time and again to describe those rare inflection points in history when a large segment of a society’s population simply has had enough, writing off governmental authority as utterly debased, illegitimate and unentitled to obedience, despite the potentially deadly consequences this behavior often invites. I have racked my brain for years and still can’t recall the phrase, though it brilliantly conveyed the essence of this historical inflection point, which invariably portends a abrupt, irrevocable break with the old order.
As de la Boetie would have anticipated, Bakhtiar’s efforts amounted to nothing, as millions of rank-and-file Iranians, obstinately ignoring all of them, pushed ahead with insurrection. Iran had reached an inflection point of popular discontent, one that bore close parallels to the descriptions of popular disillusionment that de la Boetie supplied in his own writings.
I was a high school student way back in 1979, too intellectually unsophisticated at the time to grasp the full implications of what was unfolding in Iran. But I possessed at least enough insight to discern that some sort of line had been crossed. And I also suspected that it marked not only a significant historical departure for ordinary Iranians but also a monumental shift in the geopolitical balance – namely, the ways the United States subsequently ordered its affairs in this tumultuous region.
Granted, most Americans of the time held no sympathy for radical Islam and knew that what followed would impose significant hardship for the Iranian people. But based on all the facts that we were able to garner at that time through broadcast and print media – this, after all, was almost a full generation before the advent of digital media – many of us knew that longstanding American support for the hated Pahlavi regime was a significant driving factor behind this uprising.
Empires, especially global ones, require client states, and the Shah’s regime served American interests in a variety of ways, despite their running counter to the aspirations of millions of ordinary Iranians, especially those in rural locales, far removed from the material prosperity unfolding in Iranian cities.
To be sure, “dark forces,” notably the Soviet Union, may have been working behind the scenes to exacerbate the these social, cultural and political cleavages, but I, for one, still believed that the raging anger of the Iranians was rooted in genuine grievance. Yet, who could ever had imagined that this conflagration ultimately would lead months later to the storming of the American Embassy in Teheran?
By that time I had graduated high school and enrolled in college to earn a political science degree. I can still recall almost verbatim how one professor described the embassy occupation as an event of profound geopolitical significance, one that likely would be remembered many years later as one of the watershed events of the post-war of the 20th century. He was right: Iran’s Islamic Revolution marked a significant reformulation of American strategy in the Middle East, one that would be followed by an immense expenditure of American blood and wealth.
The Pahlavi regime’s collapse not only foreshadowed the erosion of American influence in that region but also of the decline of the comparatively short-lived American Empire, which had been hastily improvised little more than a quarter century earlier to fill the breach left by a beleaguered British Empire in the aftermath of World War II.
Americans were in store for a long and arduous journey, though one punctuated by the assurances of U.S. governing elites that all setbacks were only temporary and that the expenditure of American blood, wealth and geopolitical capital to contain and ultimately to reverse the viral eruption of Islamic radicalism ultimately would tip the scales, drawing us finally toward a new flourishing of the American-fostered liberal-democratic imperium, in which democracy and secularism finally would would take root and thrive in previous inhospitable Mideastern soil.
We know better now – at least, growing numbers of us do. And we also perceive how this vast expenditure of blood and treasure in this region of the world has sapped American strength not only abroad but also at home, embodied in the decaying infrastructure and boarded store fronts as well as in the social pathology and breakdown evident on so may small cities and towns across the vast American heartland. Tens of millions also perceive how our elites, increasingly exposed, cornered and threatened as a result of the wind they sowed decades ago, have turned to the same desperate tactics to which previous ruling classes have resorted in the face of imperial decline and rising levels of discontent.
Our rulers and their media enablers characterize the occupation of the U.S. Capitol in January essentially Qanon conspiracy fearmongering run amuck. Millions of us aren’t buying it. We even suspect that decades from now, this event very well may be recalled as an turning point, perhaps even as the harbinger of a de la Boetiean-style watershed event in America not that far removed from what transpired in Iran more than two generations ago. Indeed, for tens of millions of us, this event only served to shine a light on the perfervid anger of millions of rank-and-file Americans, not only over the rot that has set into many, if not most, of this country’s political and cultural institutions but also over the ways that our governing class and their enablers (e.g., academia, media and Silicon Valley) have contributed immensely to it.