Liminal States: Everyday Practice as Revolutionary Politics in 1979 Iran

Maryam Alemzadeh, University of Oxford

Routinization has been defined as the very opposite of the revolutionary process. After social movements successfully initiate revolutions, state-building is believed to necessitate a centralized taming of revolutionary spontaneity, so that new socio-political institutions can form. Relying on Iranian state builders’ memoirs and interviews regarding the first few months after the 1979 revolution, this article demonstrates that routinization and revolutionary ethos can co-exist. I argue that the spontaneity associated with revolutionary order, rooted in strong interpersonal ties and manifested in decentralized organizations and endorsement of direct action, can be institutionalized as everyday practice (recurring and automatic patterns of understanding and acting upon the social world) and continue life within seemingly rigid state structures. I propose that by focusing on the emergence of revolutionary practices on a micro level, we can detect unconventional patterns of large-scale institution-building, which are difficult to notice if studied only through a macro lens. Post-1979 state-building in Iran is an exceptionally rich case in point. The eventual state builders in Iran, i.e. the Islamists, were initially embedded in long-shared Shi’a spaces of familiarity, where they could take for granted that others act predictably in line with cultural expectations. Politicized individuals from these communities carried over the habit of trusting fellow activists’ independent, spontaneous decisions and actions. At each step of revolutionary institution building, they validated and expanded practices of spontaneity into the sphere of governance. By illustrating the centrality of revolutionary-cultural practices in post-revolutionary in Iran, I argue that state building after revolutions should be studied not just through macro ideological frames and organizational structures, but through state builders’ micro-level practices as well.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 17. Can Revolutions Be Permanent? New Approaches to Assessing Revolutionary Outcomes