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The rights to the city or the neoliberal Tehran municipality

Professor David Harvey's visit to Tehran grants a seal of approval to the agents of Iran's ongoing neoliberal project

In his acclaimed 2012 book Rebel Cities, David Harvey, one of the world's most prominent urban theorists, wrote about how Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and a three-term mayor of New York, had reshaped Manhattan.

According to Harvey, Bloomberg reconstructed the city in order to facilitate the circulation and accumulation of capital.

In other words, Harvey’s theory of “accumulation by dispossession,” in which he describes the ways neoliberal capitalism uses force and theft to rob the world of value - both human and natural - is traceable in the privatisation and commodification of public assets.

The neoliberal nation-state, across the globe, is one of the most important agents of redistributive policies.

Yet Harvey, alongside other radical urban theorists including Setha Low and Saskia Sassen, were guests of the Iranian version of Michael Bloomberg, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor, at the "Women and Urban Life Conference" organised by Tehran municipality.

The venue where Harvey and the other radical urban theorists spoke about the right to the city is the embodiment of exclusion of oppressed people from the capital.

Tehran mayor Mohammad Bager Ghalibaf pictured during an interview with AFP in Tehran on 9 January 2012 (AFP)
Since Tehran’s mayor took power in 2005, he has been involved in the coordination of infrastructure, land use and service provision, to turn Iran’s capital to another market-centric city of the world, a prototypical neoliberal Middle Eastern city.

He serves essentially as the capital’s CEO, runs the city’s government as a corporation and treats the city as a product to be branded, marketed and developed. Ghalibaf’s neoliberal city - its mode of governance, social structure and spatial development - express the neoliberal vision of the Islamic Republic’s free-market utopia.

Economic progress in Tehran springs from individual initiative and unfettered markets in land, labour and money. Government is modelled on the enterprise, the citizen on the consumer and governance on business management.

Stand by the oppressed

Harvey and other urban theorists have long urged us to think about “an alternative model of urbanisation” away from accumulation for accumulation’s sake and production for production's sake, yet, through a live feed, they were the guests of a governmental institution which is the embodiment of neoliberalisation and militarisation of the city, at an event which is the embodiment of exclusion of Tehran’s oppressed people.

Harvey and the other radical urban theorists discussed the right to the city, a concept first developed by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le droit à la ville. Lefebvre defines the right to the city as the right of inhabitants not to be excluded from the quality and benefits of urban life.

Later on, Harvey and social theorist Margit Mayer further developed the concept as a kind of request for all the people who live in the city. 

In other words, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights, Harvey’s and his colleagues’ request is about exploring another type of human right, that of the right to the city.

Cars drive past billboards in the Iranian capital Tehran on 6 May 2015 (AFP)
But in sharp contrast to what these theorists wrote about, the conference at which they spoke was held at the International Centre for Conferences in the Tehran Milad Tower, one of the most expensive places in the capital and one to which the majority of those living in Tehran are denied access.

The conference entrance fee itself was 50,000 toman ($15.5) which was more than a quarter of the monthly minimum wage in Iran, in complete contrast to the gist of Harvey’s theory: “The people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they've spent their time building and sustaining: simple as that.”

Moreover, having failed to mention one word about the current policies in the city of Tehran, Harvey and his radical colleagues confined themselves to very general statements - despite the fact that prior to their virtual talk, a number of Iranian socialist activists wrote an open letter asking him to not grant his seal of approval to the agents of ongoing neoliberalisation policies in Iran.

A group of Iranian socialists both in Iran and diaspora appealed to him not to take part in this seminar funded by the Tehran municipality and stand by the oppressed and suburbanised people of Tehran and say "no" to the oppressors by refusing to attend this conference.

Tehran, city of paradoxes

Known as the city of paradoxes, Tehran is one of the most neoliberalised cities in the Middle East. Public spaces are highly controlled by the state and have been widely privatised over the past decade.

The shift in the ideological winds toward a "free-market" economy in recent years has brought profound effects to urban areas, including increases in child labour, homelessness and poor residents selling goods on the streets.

Recent photographs of homeless people sleeping in empty graves outside Iran's capital is only an indication of the ongoing urban policies in Iran, decades after Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, promised free housing, electricity, and water for all people.

Meanwhile, the city has also deprived basic services to a wide range of citizens including the elderly, the disabled and those with special needs. In fact, these services have never been available.

Putting aside the Islamic Republic’s policies towards women's rights and gender oppression in urban spaces, in many urban centres and areas of Tehran, the disabled are not granted even minimum support.

Despite the high number of this group, no appropriate welfare amenities and facilities based on their needs is considered. Streets, sidewalks, shopping centres, educational centres still are far from global standards.

The municipality's policies include confiscating vendors' commodities on the streets, and attacking, arresting and even killing them with brass knuckles.

Homeless dwellers in a cemetery in the town of Shahriar, near Iran's capital Tehran (Twitter)
Municipality staffers, known by their black-coloured shirts, “clean” the streets with brutal force and "pick up" the drug addicts by transferring them to government-run rehabilitation; setting fire to immigrants' sheds who live in deprived areas on the outskirts of the towns and prosecuting journalists who expose city corruption. 

One hallmark of Ghalibaf’s time as mayor is the outsourcing of administrative and security contracts to private contractors, who are easy scapegoats for scandals.

Under his tenure, the city has used new construction developments – including those by industrious private developers and investors who have redeveloped large portions of previously neglected neighbourhoods - and the elimination of important public squares to clamp down on social community bonds and neutralise potential political conflict.

Over the years, Harvey has emphasised on the right to the city as the right of citizens to coexist.

He has stated that there is nothing to ensure it other than social movements, active political engagement and the willingness to fight for one’s place.

Tehran municipality’s plan, “Integrated Urban Management”, (IUM) viewed as a “successful” model of urban “good governance” advocated by the World Bank, clearly stands in stark contrast. Instead, at the centre of Tehran’s policies is extreme forms of city commodification.

Tehran activists speak out

Given the massive transformation of daily life, Iranian independent and left urban activists have been thinking about what kinds of politics will come out of this.

The mechanisms of government and repression directly run by Tehran municipality have been at the centre of activists' attempt to shape the city for those who have been excluded from economic development.

Along the lines of the new phase of neoliberalism in Iran, Harvey’s simple argument that the people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they have spent their time building and sustaining, has always been at the centre of activists’ and academics’ discussions in Iran as one of the cases of casino capitalism in the Middle East.

The website Baahamestan” (a non-profit organisation that advocates citizens' right to the city, especially for those groups and interests that are marginalised) is only one of the venues of activist attempts within the country to shed light on the current urban policies and its ramifications for the citizens, particularly working people.

The guest of academia, not a governmental institution

The acceptance of the invitation of a governmental organisation which implements various fearsome scenarios in favour of neoliberal urbanisation by the major producers of critical interpretation of the ideas of "social justice and the city" violates the principles they have been trying to promote for a while.

Nevertheless, it is needless to say that having public intellectuals like Harvey in Tehran, not in a governmental institution, rather an academic and non-government venues, would be a great opportunity for a number of activists and scholars who wish to discuss how to organise a whole city, politically, around an anti-capitalist project.

Soheil Asefi is an independent journalist and analyst. He is studying political science at The New School university in New York. After a ten-year professional experience of major Iranian media outlets, in 2007, he was imprisoned in Iran and was released on bail. He was the guest of the city of Nuremberg under German PEN project "Writers in Exile" and is the recipient of the prestigious Hermann Kasten award in Nuremberg. He has written extensively on the dimensions of democratisation and neoliberalisation in the Middle East, particularly Iran today. Soheil Asefi can be reached on Twitter

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: View of the Milad telecommunication tower engulfed by smog in Tehran on 19 December 2015 (AFP)

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