Even though we still do not know for sure how we got to be on this planet, we have a long history of living on this earth, and any time archeologists discover one more skeleton, a few thousand years are added to human life. However, no matter the length of our history, the record of our economic progress is relatively short. During most of our history, we have lived under primitive living conditions without much disparity among nations. Until the late 18th century, we had lived at a very low income level for thousands of years. This implies that almost all of our economic achievements, wealth, and income creation must have advanced basically within the last two and half centuries. Before then, we all lived generally under similar economic conditions, and there were no developed and undeveloped nations, not much income gap, and no concrete standards for comparing the economic status of different nations. Such historical realities lead one to wonder about what prevented us from growing economically for tens of thousands of years before the late 18th century and whether those preventive barriers are still at in some countries that remain poor to this day.
Even at present, the evidence regarding gloomy economic conditions in Middle Eastern countries in general and Iran in particular is staggering. An scant examination of key economic indicators, especially those that are related to modern production mode, income, and wealth, reveals disappointing results in prominent Middle Eastern countries. These countries are typically impoverished. According to the available data, not only is the level of income in Middle Eastern countries low when compared to Western standards, but the income gap between them and wealthier countries is wide and it is growing. Economic backwardness in a particular country is an evolving predicament thus can be better understood by examining the country’s historical roots. In this vein, a deeply-researched book by Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi entitled The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars is designed to accomplish that kind of historical examination and uncover its resulting economic connections.
Dr. Amirahmadi’s book is about the historical events that caused economic transformation in Iran from what the author calls “pseudo-feudalism” to “proto-capitalism” from 1890 to 1926, characterized by the author as the “formative years” for the political economy of Iran. During this period under the Qajar dynasty, the Iranian economy underwent certain tectonic shifts. Nonetheless, it failed to modernize its economy and advance it to what the author calls “development and manufacturing capitalism.” The central theme of this book is to examine the history of Iran’s political economy in anticipation of a better understanding of its current condition.
The author delves deeply into historical events, especially Iran’s relationship with other countries, Russia and England in particular, to describe why the road to a democratic government and to economic modernization in Iran was bumpy and difficult to navigate. As Dr. Amirahmadi explains in the introductory chapter: “The purpose of this study is to show that it makes more sense to use the political economy framework to periodize the Qajar rule in terms of the level of development of the productive forces, the corresponding social relations, the nature of imperialist interventions and class control addiction and struggles.” He argues that the interplay of power among influential elites including state officials, major landlords, religious authorities, merchants, and usurers dominated and often detracted any plan to recondition the economy. The persistent pseudo-feudal state and the increasing intervention of imperialist powers, namely Russia and England, undermined any internal reformist forces. The earnest struggle of bourgeoning progressive forces against these adversarial obstacles could not help to advance the economy into an industrial state because of corrupt government. In bed with oligarchs, its policy resulted mainly in polarization and class struggle. Even though Iran tried to incorporate into the world economy by increasing its economic ties with other countries, such efforts resulted in economic dependency and growing trade deficits.
Dr. Amirahmadi consistently places blame on the malevolent nature of the feudalist system that weakened the ability of Iran when it came to dealing with other countries, especially Russia and Great Britain. Besieged by foreign competition and lack of government protectionist policies, the Iranian traditional industries were ruined and were inept to compete with foreign counterparts. Accordingly, Iran ended up with an import-dependent economy, even though “by 1890, a significant number of small-scale consumer goods industries have been established. However, in the next 25 years, every attempt to develop the industrial base for the economy was frustrated by the feudal state and foreign forces.”
The consequential accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of ruling elites and their government cronies further led to the polarization of the society and class struggle. The fading bourgeois class did not have sufficient purchasing power to support Iran’s domestic burgeoning industries. As the misery of the middle class continued, many of its deprived members were forced to migrate to other parts of the country or to urban centers in search of a better life. A feudal economy riddled with corruption disrupted the development of an industrial-based economy. With an underdeveloped proto-capitalism that depended largely on foreign suppliers for its survival and being unable to compete with foreign forces, Iran’s economic leaders had no choice but to rely on agriculture and construction, the two key industries that depend mostly on domestic resources.
The meddling of Russia and England extended into the political and social affairs of the country. Numerous attempts by the middle class and the emerging intelligentsia/reformists to establish democracy and a manufacturing-based economy failed because of the obstacles that were created by a feudal system and reinforced by foreign forces. “The gap between the political elite and the masses could only stifle attempts toward meaningful reforms.” According to the author, even nationalism, the rejection of foreign domination, and an emerging Iranian intellectuals did not deter foreign countries from interfering in the domestic affairs of Iran.
Dr. Amirahmadi believes that even after the Constitutional Revolution and the installation of the Pahlavi dynasty, instead of cultivating independent-thinking politicians and intellectuals, “Iran has continued to produce more politicized intellectuals than enlightened politicians. It is no wonder that the country cannot break through the vicious circle of dictatorship, revolution, and chaos.” Such a tendency has obstructed any nationalism that could have helped a blossoming democratic regime and a healthier economic system.
In summary, Dr. Amirahmadi argues that the substandard economic conditions and the dictatorial regime in Iran were largely the result of the interaction between the embryonic domestic forces that did not have much brokering power and the stronger external imperialist forces that tried to protect their vital interests by dominating the economic and political structures of Iran. The major instruments of penetration into the internal affairs of Iran, according to the author, were “militarism, trade, treaties, concessions, subsidies, diplomatic and military missions, consular offices, trading houses and companies, capitalization, cash crop and raw materials production, local allies, corruption (bribery and thefts), loans and advances, and orientalism and freemasonry.”
In The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars, Dr. Amirahmadi argues equitably that the destructive impact on the economy of a country like Iran as a result of the self-serving domination of imperialist forces could not happen overnight; it has to be an evolving phenomenon. Therefore, the blame not only goes to the dominating forces, but the country being dominated has to share equal blame for allowing these forces to continue with their destructive manipulations.
Reading this book is highly recommended. It can help readers to better understand why a country like Iran remains economically underdeveloped and must be still extremely wary of the interventions of foreign forces and questions their true intentions, especially when negotiating with those forces. This cautious wariness and reticence make absolute sense when the historical context analyzed in this book is brought into consideration. Historical memory can be a powerful thing, having long-term ramifications. A saying in Farsi expresses this perfectly: “If you have been bitten by snake, you are a little afraid of a black and white rope!”