The second case study investigates several informal settlements in Tehran, focusing on the economic realm. The theoretical grounding is provided by Esteva (1985), who points out that the post-war project of ‘development’ continued the ‘violent transformation’ of societies (first performed in and then exported from Europe), in which ‘the economic sphere’ is excised from society and culture as an autonomous sphere and installed ‘at the centre of politics and ethics’ (14), subjecting them to the imperative of maximizing production and productivity and disvaluing allegedly unproductive activities (15). This new project no longer relied on domination by Europeans and was compatible with anti-colonialism. On the individual level, it implied the transformation of humans into economic beings as a ‘precondition for the emergence of economic society’ predicated on the assumption of chronic scarcity (15). A new society geared to endless accumulation was based on the idea of human beings possessing infinite needs for material goods, acting as rational maximisers of utility pursuing this goal. However, this assumption of homo oeconomicus acting according to this logic is ‘untenable when confronted with what we know about ancient societies and cultures and even with what we can still see in some parts of the world’, says Esteva (1985: 17). After realizing that the project of ‘development’ failed to deliver the good life that was promised, people on the margins resisted the ‘economic invasion of their lives’ by ‘disengaging from the economic logic’ and creating ‘new commons’ through ‘strengthening forms of interaction embedded in social fabric and by breaking the economic principle of the exchange of equivalents’ (19). Esteva (1985) asserts that in these alternatives to ‘development’ ‘common men’ (20) and women would manage to re-embed the economic sphere within social relations (14), engaging in practices of reciprocity and solidarity. Esteva’s claims have been disputed by critics, accusing Post-Development of romanticizing poverty (Corbridge 1998) and mistakenly identifying practices arising out of practical necessity as resistance to Western models. ‘When those excluded unite in groups and forge ties of solidarity’, Schuurman argues, ‘this must be seen not as an embryonic form of a new society, but rather as a survival strategy’ (Schuurman 1993: 28).
Against the backdrop of this debate on whether or not practices arising out of practical necessity or survival needs can be considered as resistance to Western models (Schuurman 1993), we are investigating practices in three different marginalised communities. We are asking: Can we find alternative economic practices of reciprocity and solidarity here or do people on the margins conform to the model of ‘economic man’, the utility-maximizing individual? We will further explore what these practices (if they exist) look like, to what extent they are limited to a specific social group, and whether they should be interpreted as survival strategies or forms of a new society, how we can differentiate between the two and to what extent they are related to cultural traditions.
The study is based on data collected during field research from January to May 2020 in Tehran. The research methods included participant observation and interviews that are backed up by a literature review. We gained access to the communities through family ties (one of the authors originally comes from the Azeri community in Nasimshahr) and intermediaries who have worked with the Afghan and the drug addict community in district 19 for several years, building up relations of trust. Data was also provided by community members themselves on the basis of (oral) informed consent. Translators were not necessary. The interviewees were not taking part in the research design. There were no conflicts or challenges during the research process, apart from one intermediary being called upon to ‘first take care of his own people’ (Iranians) before worrying about Afghan immigrants. Research results will be presented informally and orally to community members.
Marginalisation and exclusion in Tehran
In the past decades, Tehran, the capital and largest city of Iran, has seen a massive influx of rural migrants. This can be understood as a result of social transformation processes as described by Esteva (1985), which we discussed in the theory section above: the advent, spread and intensification of capitalist practices and the imperative of competition and ever increasing productivity have led to a destruction of traditional rural livelihoods and the attempt to find new ones in the modern, urban sectors of the economy. However, the promises of ‘development’ did not materialize for the majority of migrants. In Tehran, marginalised communities are characterised by insecure employment or unemployment; lack of access (or extremely difficult access) to social security, public facilities, hospitals, and universities; low literacy, or few years of schooling; and insufficient transport infrastructure. Our geographical focus was Tehran and its suburbs and we chose three different marginalised communities with different and increasing degrees of marginalisation:
an Azeri community in Nasimshahr, Hassan Kandy Rood.
an Afghan community in district 19, Kooreh Pas Khune.
a drug addict community in district 19, Seyyed Shapour (behind the stadium of Shahid Kazemi).
We found a number of economic practices which deviated from the model of the utility maximizing individual (‘economic human being’/homo oeconomicus) and may constitute elements of an economy of solidarity.
Solidarity networks in the Azeri community of Nasimshahr
The residents of Nasimshahr usually work in Tehran and under the conditions of deficient public transport. They were among those hit hardest by the price hike of petrol in November 2019, which led to massive riots. The Azeri or Azerbaijani, mostly Shia Muslims, are the second largest ethnic group in Iran (between 10 and 15 million people) and their language is closely related to Turkish. The Azeri living in Nasimshahr have migrated from villages in the Northwest of Iran and their social structure still mirrors this migration history: social relations and marriages take place usually within those originating in a particular village. We interviewed members of the Azeri community who have their roots in the village of Hassan Kandy Rood. Their social web is extremely dense, so that one community member could outline the precise family structure and situation of all 136 households. In this community, most earn a living as construction workers or shop keepers. Voluntary work at construction sites of relatives is frequent. On a larger scale, communal voluntary work has also been used for the construction of a mosque for the community. The subsequent enlargement of the mosque has been financed by donations of the community. The women regularly provide cleaning, and the men provide cooking services and take care of maintenance and repairs. Religious sites are seen as commons to which everyone contributes and which everyone benefits from. In the case of serious illnesses whose costs cannot be covered by the families themselves, the community collects donations in support. In case of economic hardship or need, interest-free loans are available from other members of the community. However, all solidarity practices take place within the limits not only of the Azeri community but even more specifically between those with roots in the village of Hassan Kandy Rood in the Northwest of Iran. Practices of solidarity towards non-members of this community usually do not take place, the primary focus of moral obligations seems to be one’s own village (even if they do not live there anymore). The one exception is the Islamic Ashurah mourning ceremony, where food is provided for everyone regardless of origin or religion.
Solidarity practices within the Afghan community of district 19
The Afghans from the Hazara community originally come from central Afghanistan and speak a Persian dialect (Hazaragi). Those we interviewed were mostly born in Iran since their families have migrated 60 or 70 years ago from the Afghan provinces of Daykundi and Bamyan. Discriminated against or even persecuted as Shi ‘ites, they migrated to Iran but continue to be confronted with discrimination. Only since 2017, their children are allowed to attend public schools and as non-citizens, they face numerous obstacles. In particular they are not allowed to buy property. In contrast, the majority of the Azeri community from Nasimshahr introduced above, own their houses, however small and remote from job opportunities it may be. Members of the Hazara community, on the other hand, are living in houses belonging to a semi-active brick kiln, where most of the men are partially employed. Their right to housing is linked to their precarious employment and thus endangered by the imminent shutdown of the kiln in the near future for ecological reasons. Many also work as traders in the bazaar of Kholazeer.
We find similar practices of reciprocity and solidarity in this community as in the Azeri community, for example in cases of illness, voluntary work to repair houses of relatives or in the construction of a Husseinye (a room for prayer which is considered less sacred than a mosque). After two community members contracted tuberculosis, an impressive amount of 30 million Toman (approx. $1700) had been collected for their treatment (while 1.5 million Toman or $84 is considered a good salary). Child care is periodically (usually in the summer when women work as agricultural labourers in other areas of Tehran) provided by neighbouring families, and so is help for illiterates by more educated community members, also concerning practical matters like finding the way or talking to a doctor. Again, the religious site serves as commons of the community. Here, too, we can find a closely knit social web among the people, containing many practices not compatible with the idea of homo oeconomicus. However, again, practices of solidarity are usually confined to one’s own local community. This may also be the result of the discrimination they face as Afghans in Iran. One informant from a different community explicitly criticised our intermediary for also supporting a school for Afghan children, reminding him that he should first help ‘his own people’.
Practices of reciprocity and solidarity among drug addicts of Seyyed Shapour
The third community is not based on ethnic origin, but on the common habit of drug addiction and partly also on the common activity of drug dealing. The drug addicts of Seyyed Shapour live in sheds (‘Alonak’) which they have built themselves. These are located behind the stadium of Shahid Kazemi, in the vicinity of a garbage dump. The existence of the individuals in this group is strongly characterised by social exclusion from their families (see also Tohidi et al. 2018). While the houses in Nasimshar are formalized today and those of the Afghan community are semi-informal (brick houses with electricity and gas but not running water), the settlements of Seyyed Shapour are entirely informal. The hangout at the back of the stadium has no electricity, and people use candles and fire to illuminate it. Shelters have no gas or water, and there is only one water pipe about 150 m away. People living here have usually been cast out from their communities due to drug addiction (mostly ‘Shishe’: crystal meth). On some days, food is provided through charities. Almost no one possesses an identity card. The rate of literacy and the occurrence of high school degrees is higher than in the other two communities. People earn money by selling drugs, collecting and selling waste, and stealing. Practices of reciprocity and solidarity are common: food, money and drugs are shared if they are available, and mutual help and compassion are mentioned as characteristic for the social relations in the community. However, this changes in circumstances where drugs are not available. Then people resort to less benign practices, such as stealing or robbery, to get access to drugs.
Can we find alternative economic practices of reciprocity and solidarity among people on the margins in Tehran?
Just as proponents of Post-Development such as Esteva (1985) claim, we do find economic practices of reciprocity and solidarity among the marginalised communities in Tehran, constituting what he has described as ‘new commons’, a sense of community, cooperation and collective ownership and responsibility (mostly related to religious sites). However, this finding has to be qualified in several respects. First, the economic practices of reciprocity and solidarity (e.g., non-market finance, such as interest-free loans or donations) aim at limited redistribution of material goods but not at equality; sometimes they are part of patron–client relationships and reproduce hierarchies in status regarding material affluence or education. Second, the practices of reciprocity and solidarity are usually limited to one’s own village, ethnic and/or religious group and are compatible with a lack of solidarity towards members of other groups. Among the first two groups, these practices are seen as in line with cultural traditions. Third, among the drug-users, who are outcasts from their own families and ethnic and religious groups, practices of reciprocity and solidarity extend to all members of the social group beyond ethnic and religious borders. Fourth, in this social group, which is the most marginalised one, the practices of reciprocity and solidarity go deeper than in other groups, amounting at times to a joint/common economy (e.g., non-market transactions such as sharing or alternative property such as common funds). However, it must be said, that this is highly conditional on access to drugs for the respective community members and their solidarity is, therefore, much more fragile than in the other cases.
As for the concept of ‘development’ prevalent among the community members, there is often a low level of literacy and education and no conscious or explicit concept to be found. However, there were certainly ideas of what ‘improvement’ or a ‘good life’ could look like. As a rule, the marginalised we spoke to were seeking to find suitable employment and income, to provide education for their children, and to be able to afford insurance and retirement. Therefore, their desires did not seem to diverge significantly from a mainstream model of ‘development’.