In Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim defines petite bourgeois as a social base of conservative ideology which is an intellectual and political reaction to the destruction of the old world. He points out that in Europe, the petite bourgeoisie, along with traditional classes, resisted administrative and financial modernization and feared losing their little capital. They opposed progressive revolutions (including the French Revolution), as well as modernism and secularism. The Iranian petite bourgeoisie of today share very similar views. For more than a decade anomie has been evident in Iran as a result of declining ideological solidarity and norms. The decrease in religious beliefs and non-ideological and non-religious lifestyle is in conflict with the official values of the Iranian Revolution. As economic opportunities become available to the petite bourgeoisie following the nuclear deal, how will they respond?
The Iranian petite bourgeoisie has been one of the most significant political forces in times of crisis, riots, and revolutions during the twentieth century. In the major cities of Iran, the petite bourgeoisie has supported the traditional political forces, especially clergymen, and has always had a religious orientation. Some political parties, such as the Fadaeian Islam, were supported by the petite bourgeoisie in 1940s. The petite bourgeoisie has also been one of the major bases of the political Islamic movement in Iran opposing the influence of the West. Clergymen were successful in mobilizing the petite bourgeoisie under religious and anti-colonial slogans. Due to the economic and cultural influence of the West and Iran’s growing dependence on the world capitalist economy, the petite bourgeoisie was marginalized during the reign of Pahlavi. In that period, petite-bourgeois parties such as the Fadaeian Islam were against Western democracy and Iran’s dependence on the West. The petite bourgeoisie also opposed the land reform, since many clergymen had lands in rural areas, and the division of the lands between the peasants was not in their economic interests. The petite bourgeoisie also opposed the women’s right to vote due to its traditional values.
These problems brought the merchants closer to the clergy. Between 1963-1958, as a result of modernization and industrialization of the country, the situation deteriorated for the traditional bourgeoisie in Iran. Unlike the owners of new industries, the petite bourgeoisie were not provided with supportive government policies in the fields of finance, tax exemptions, and customs support. The religious sentiments of the traditional middle class was one reason that led to the development of the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. Many clergymen and religious intellectuals supported the petite-bourgeois values of supporting Islam and Islamic culture, anti-imperialist policies, and economic self-sufficiency, since they were opposed to the cultural, political, and economic influence of the West.
The official policy of the government during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was to undermine traditional petite bourgeoisie and encourage and strengthen the financial and industrial investments. On the one hand, the government supported the development of major industrial investments, and on the other hand, merchants were under pressure in terms of loans, interest rate, work permits, and executive rules. In addition, determining the price of goods by the government caused every shopkeeper and businessman who violated the approved rates to be fined or imprisoned. Consequently, a deep hatred of the Pahlavi reign existed.
After the Islamic Revolution, the bourgeoisie class was removed from the political scene, and replaced by mosque and market, i.e. clergymen and merchants. Islamic political parties and groups gained much of their social support from their petite bourgeoisie. Islamic Associations of market traders were one of the main supports for the new government. The Islamic Republic Party also mobilized its active advocates within the market.
When President Hashemi Rafsanjani came into power, the merchants approached his right-wing government, and gained a bigger share of power. However, during the eight years of the reformist government of President Khatami, the situation was worse for merchants due to the economic and financial consequences of globalization. Perhaps this was the issue that led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rise to power with the support of the marginalized petite bourgeoisie who was afraid to lose its position.
Now, with the spread of anomie, political apathy and passivity, there is the emergence of a passive mass versus primarily promoted by the petite bourgeoisie. In the absence of dynamic civil society and political participation (which occurs only during elections), the result could lead to the failure of democratic solidarity since reform was previously associated with failure in Iran. In economic terms Iran is not pre-capitalist today, but is a society in transition. If after the removal of sanctions and the availability of Western capital and goods, the petite bourgeoisie will certainly be the main social force that will suffer, and therefore react. The government will be forced to adopt more transparent tax policies to receive loans from international institutions, and may adopt the policy of increasing taxes for high earners; which will make merchants unhappy. Moreover, the presence of Western commercial and industrial companies will limit possibilities for Iranian merchants, since they will not be able to compete with Western products in terms of quality. The petite bourgeoisie has the necessary levers to oppose efforts to join global markets that may in turn have cultural and political consequences. The petite bourgeoisie still has control over the most important and influential organizations.