From Dispersion to Counterpower: Diaspora as Politics

This text assesses how our diaspora can develop a framework that can re-present our voices, analysis, and experiences within and beyond the Iranian diaspora, as well as concrete approaches to building community around efforts to confront power, capital, and construct alternatives.

This text is related to several layers of analysis that are critical for any future movement research project, including:

  • The accumulation of decades of political analysis within the Iranian diaspora
  • Reflections on the intersection of Iranian diasporic politics with struggles beyond the Iranian community (ex. Migrant justice movements, Radical Feminism, worker’s rights and syndicalism, etc.)
  • Broader analysis on the metaphorical condition of diasporic communities
  • Reflections on our class identities within the context of neoliberalism, migration, and de-colonialism
  • Identifying concrete elements that may actualize a broader participatory, collective, diasporic framework that builds on the multiplicity and potentiality of our community to sustain a global network committed to social justice, no borders, non-capitalist life, gender justice, and any other desired horizons of liberation

Introduction. On the present

The Iranian diaspora is constituted by generations of networks, organizations, and communities dedicated to social justice within Iran and globally. We have survived assassinations (within Iran and abroad), torture, migration, factionalism, cooption, and exhaustion. Our generation has been immersed into a state of permanent crisis – war, mass executions, censorship, sexual violence, depression and drug addiction, migration and resettlement. Yet despite these realities, the Iranian diaspora defies and transforms so many facets of daily life – art, politics, gender relations, borders…

Importantly, much of our present work is still engaged with the project of decolonization. A process rooted in two centuries of debt and humiliation, as well as resistance against the Global North’s use of race to organize and exploit the Global South as well as rising numbers of migrants entering their borders from the Global South. As a result, our identity has gradually transitioned from “east vs west” binaries, beyond the singularity of nationalism, and towards the possibility of cognizing resonances with other anti-capitalist struggles to resist the traumas of war, migration, among other issues.

Such processes are not only part of a broader political project, but eventually become an identity in and of itself; an identity emerging from the concentration of time, friendships, and useful labor (mutual aid, emotional and material support) committed to our collective well-being. Here, we define community as that flow of emotional and material support that deepen interdependency to address our basic emotional, physical, and material needs while also confronting precarity (e.g., criminalization and deportations of migrants, denial of housing/healthcare/freedom of movement, unemployment). For instance, along migration routes crossing into Europe and Australia, Iranians have been critical in the migrant justice movement, linking with migrant communities from Africa and the Middle East to organize hunger strikes, marches, squats, occupations, and other campaigns.

And unique to all migrant communities is the accumulation of experiences gathered from each phase of struggle (within the native country, during migration, and resettlement within the host country) that inform subsequent political formations within- and beyond our diasporic networks. Diasporic communities have the capacity, as Edward Said states, to “see things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actually here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation.” (Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual, Vintage Books, 1996). This “metaphorical condition” grants us a critical eye towards constructs such as nationalism, citizenship, racism, etc., while also heightening our awareness of more discrete forms of violence around employment, housing, restrictions on movement, education, healthcare, and other issues. However, despite these experiences and the importance of our participation in a broader anti-capitalist struggle, our voice remains peripheral to the state, capital, and even much of the Left in the Global North.

Assimilation as proletarization

“Workers are the unconscious collective agents of practical synthesis. I.e., the worker is the total sign (icon + index + symbol) whose substance is indifferent to object or signification. The worker is the power sign of capitalism.* (The working class is the class of deterritorialization, the bourgeoisie is the class of overcoding).” Felix Guattari, The Anti-Oedipus Papers, page 192.

Our ability to speak is suffocated by the relentless barrage of immigration documentation requirements, fears of detention/deportation, search for stable employment, financial security, housing, and emotional support. The bureaucratization of fear ensures maximum obedience and productivity. We lack desire and subjectivity outside of capitalist life.

Regardless of whether we are arriving in the host country in order to escape persecution, sexual violence, ecological disaster, or debt, we must accept the following: our “native” ways of life, political desires, and affects must be censured in the public, academic, and professional sphere as any human relations or affects beyond the employer/employee function are ‘unproductive’.

Assimilation is therefore proletarization. We are channeled towards adopting the host country’s ideal worker identity with the caveat that our documentation status somehow “naturally” devalues our labor, forcing us to work more for less, accept deplorable working conditions, and live/work/study in remote, often hostile communities that lack diasporic support networks in order to revitalize their stagnant economies. While students from the Global North freely travel, study abroad, and even build academic careers based on their forays into the Global South, the few migrant students that are granted entry into the Global North must accept disproportionately higher tuitions, poorer living conditions, restrictions on employment and movement beyond the host country’s borders, and even heightened surveillance. We are marinated with the American or Liberal European Dream, channeled into the most miserable jobs and areas of urban decay to “revitalize” slumlords, business owners, vacant university and research positions (especially in rural and less prestigious universities), while pitted against other communities of color for “taking their jobs”. If we “speak”, we do so through the mouth of a few expert activists, savior academics, NGO’s, or state officials.

We are individualized in our struggle and lack multiplicity and collectivity; we need saviors to feed, treat, and house us. Women, Queer, and other marginalized groups lack agency in the Global South, and leads to further fragmentation of our community as saviors hierarchize the “true victims” while neglecting, incarcerating, and deporting the rest of us. Quasi-humanitarian operations that manage or “save” migrant bodies are security/containment operations in discrete. The global north doesn’t respond to crisis, it produces it; and is able to dissect crisis at each phase to expand profits and power (war:military contractors à migration:NGO’s and hedgefund humanitarianism à asylum:de-valued labor bodies). Our silence and the so-called “refugee crisis” is their ride – the business owners (employers) and the saviors (NGO/academic/government staff).

As a result of the reconfiguration of this quasi-humanitarian/security schema, diaspora communities from the Global South must remain unrecognized as networks capable of: 1) social reproduction during and post-migration through expansive networks of mutual aid, support, and pleasure (parties, festivals, sports); 2) collectivizing around any desire for non-capitalist modes of life while sustaining heterogeneity; and 3) resisting against the very instruments of capitalist power (proletarization, de-valuation of labor via racism/sexism) that determine much of the migration and assimilation experience. Such narratives leave diaspora communities voiceless and transfers authority over political desire to institutions (NGO’s, state agencies, academia) or Left groups with few or no diaspora participants.

Misperceptions of diasporic networks

“I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers; my chest has the power to expand to infinity. I was made to give and they prescribe for me the humility of the cripple. When I opened my eyes yesterday I saw the sky in total revulsion. I tried to get up but eviscerated silence surged toward me with paralyzed wings. Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.” Frantz Fanon

The more vulnerabilities we bear, the longer our paths of migration, the more our political subjectivity risks a state of perpetual flux and cooption. And if left unable to socialize and collectivize with one another, the deeper our sense of hopelessness. Issues limiting our capacity to collectivize around vulnerability and social justice also exist within and beyond our communities.

Global North Left networks for instance may assume a lack of collective will and political consciousness among diaspora networks since they may be preoccupied with “making the immigrant dream.” While migrants are desperate to survive and share resources with fellow migrants and loved-ones back home, they also demonstrate the remarkable capacity to sustain their livelihoods and education while playing a significant role in social movements across the Global North. For the last century, Kurdish, Palestinian, Mexican, and Puerto Rican diaspora have sustained a radical diasporic identity that has transformed politics beyond their homeland. Nonetheless much of this history remains absent in the genealogies of social justice in the Global North as misperceptions around trauma experienced in our native countries and during migration, as well as a lack of formal education and experience in liberal democracy leaves us voiceless and lacking political desire.

Orientalist perceptions among some in the Global North Left assume the climax of any radical struggle in the Global South is when we turn violent or armed; we are all YPJ, brown faces leaning on AK-47’s synthesized into a Global North imaginary of a truly revolutionary Global South struggle able to confront power only through destruction within our native borders rather than forming more complex platforms of counter-power within and beyond the Global South. If we migrate from such a struggle, we’ve betrayed “our place” (geographically) in radical politics while being unable to articulate any theoretical, poly-centric, non-masculine politics. Even if we appear to contain a theoretical or ideological platform, it is one that has no history of anti-colonial struggle, devoid of local/regional context; and in the case of YPJ, matured from the cliché frames of Nationalism/Trotskyism/Maoism/etc., to an Anarchist ideal of struggle that as Spivak describes “symptomatically renders ‘Asia’ transparent”.

And within some Left diasporic milieus, barriers towards a broader community committed to mutual aid and social justice also exist. Exhaustion, remnants of prior political divisions, feelings of powerlessness, and fears of agents and assassins (from home and abroad) are projected unto those closest to us. Recently arriving migrants to the Global North may even silence older generations claiming their lack of familiarity with happenings “back home” and vice-versa. Both experiences assume that the right to think and engage in politics is limited within fixed physical borders and generations, and that exchanges with non-Iranians abroad are irrelevant towards a broader political platform.

Between nothingness and…

“With regard to the consensus on group or national identity it is the intellectual’s task to show how the group is not a natural or god-given entity but is a constructed manufactured, even in some cases invented object, with a history of struggle and conquest behind it, that it is sometimes important to represent.” Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said

Arrested between objectification (by the media, state) and gestures of pseudo-agency (NGO/activist saviors), notions of emptiness and nostalgia deepen. To escape our individualized/colonized subjectivity, a horizon is presented to us – one that requires our assimilation into the Global North’s framing of “acceptable” life – hyper-capitalist bodies that must whitewash any remnants of cultural or political subjectivity.

In response, we desire an escape from the dominant binaries of life abroad: colonized/capitalized bodies at day and nationalist/nostalgic desires at night. Such a refusal allows us to then see more critically what was “left behind and what is actually here and now that never sees things in isolation,” per Edward Said. Such an outlook, defined by Said as the “metaphorical condition,” grants us a more critical outlook towards the array of artificially created barriers and instruments of power that subject us and so many other communities to isolation, exploitation, and censorship.

In addition to this metaphorical condition however, another layer emerges in the diasporic imaginary that sets us apart from the state/NGO/academic/saviors – the desire for community. One that socializes around and collectively intervenes with politics rather than bureaucratizing and intervening upon it in the abstract. In other words, although we are forced to apply for immigration documents, seek legal aid and the advice of our peers to address documentation issues, we also have the potential to build community around such constructs rather than individualizing the assigned tasks of migration.

Such a desire frees us from the point of nothingness (acceptance of individualized/colonized/capitalized bodies completing immigration applications, work permits, etc.), and instead seeks out to preserve those sensibilities (humor, recreation, socialization, mutual aid, reciprocity, communization, and other indispensable elements of our collective survival) that recuperates our collective well-being. Without communalizing around precarity, we are plunged into depression or cycled into the consumerist/debt machine.

From Multiplicity to Social Reproduction

Beyond coping with the burdens of assimilation, the process of collectivizing around politics risks personal exhaustion, and even abandonment of the very emotional and political attachments that constituted our identity in the first place. To avoid such an outcome, exploring the practice of social reproduction (within a broader anti-capitalist sphere), becomes essential. This practice signifies the practice of reproducing our bodies and ecologies to survive the violence of the state and capital, as well as reproducing new spaces and terrains of non-capitalist life that deepen our interdependency and provision of basic necessities (food, housing, care) beyond money relations. In many ways, socializing over how we address our immediate needs (housing, healthcare, emotional support, legal aid) becomes a constitutive element of our daily life while sustaining our capacity to build infrastructures and projects expanding non-capitalist life.

At the point where we are able to live with and beyond politics, we have effectively created community. With time, we merge and diffuse with other such communities which overlap over issues of mutual concern and seek to re-produce one another. This community is able to recuperate us from the traumas of migration and confront subsequent stages of exploitation and violence experienced when we enter the workforce and so forth.

A key element of living non-capitalist politics is to embrace the affective: autonomous assemblies that care as much about the space, its fellow participants, and any new encounters, as much as it is dedicated to housing, healthcare, migrant support, etc. The extent of care that unfolds onto the various facets of the space’s “everyday life” is itself a point of significance – the inclusivity of everyone’s voice and subjectivity, the socialization around points of struggle (fundraising through parties/festivals instead of grant funding, social kitchens, open movie nights), and collective inquiry are the early phases of the formation of a common. Since this common is something constructed to address a finite array of needs and desires beyond the framework of capital/power, the space engages in a protagonist discourse. Conversations abandon the negating, objectifying, administrative, or vanguard tone adopted by institutional or hierarchical milieus. Here, participants within the collectives, neighbors, and affiliated collectives are not seen as bodies, but bodies with desires, and spaces are therefore organized around the liberation of such desires rather than being fixated on singular or reactive interventions.


Diaspora networks experiencing vulnerability have the potential to intersect with an even broader milieu of networks creating autonomous life, including housing, food, farming, education, public spaces, etc. Such encounters may start from an event (protests, prison hunger strikes, fascist violence) or out of need (evictions, labor disputes, access to care). The means by which we recuperate from the physical and emotional sequelae of such conditions while continuing to confront politicians, landlords, or employers are heightened.

The process of social reproduction and building community around vulnerability gradually leads to abandoning rigid political identities, organizational hierarchies, and even social milieus that “organize” our political desire. It excludes the saviors, curators, experts, and representatives of our vulnerability (including both native and non-diasporic figures), while confronting the instruments of power and capital that materialize our vulnerability at home, during migration, or in the host country. In doing so, we transcend capitalist life entirely dependent upon a protagonist consciousness. In other words, we enter politics at the point of the antagonistic (resisting assaults against our bodies and ecologies); however in order to sustain our collective well-being and withdraw our labor permanently from capital, we require a protagonist consciousness that allows us to address basic human necessities (safety, food, care, housing). To develop into a protagonist politics, we must have the capacity to share analysis, reflections, and proposals for future actions beyond the limits of academia, the state, and even a few selected comrade “experts” who are tasked to think, compartmentalize,  and formulate for the rest of us.

We must embrace a fundamental process of reflection and transformation that adheres to a collective framework in addition to broader theoretical constructs. This framework is itself subject to change based on how we normalize politics, and must be discussed; however, it is critical that the framework and elements contained within this discussion is totally ours and remains a collective project. It is something more easily done as a process, rather than explained in a few words. It’s the depth of the social relations, bonds, and intensity of exchanges, addressing our material and emotional needs, rather than a formal organization with informal hierarchies, lexicon, and unchallengeable political horizons. We will attempt to concertize this process below.

Concretizing a political framework of the diaspora

Per Fanon, the goal of the native intellectual is not to speak like their colonial predecessor or to position themselves in the colonial master’s institutions to leverage privilege towards a radical anti-colonial project, but rather the invention of new souls. Here we believe that such an outcome relies on a concrete framework of knowledge and experiential exchange which nurtures our desires towards new modes of life (community building, support, mutual aid), which further strengthen our political desires as well (resisting criminalization, borders, surveillance, racism, sexual violence). Rather than attempting to trace a “native” radical Iranian identity, the framework experiments with new modes of exchanges rather than imposing a particular political or nationalist criteria by which others must assimilate.

A movement research platform, also described as militant research* (Colectivos Situaciones in Argentina or The Children of the Gallery in Greece), offers a critical platform for recuperating spheres of diaspora politics that embraces individual experiences generated through our various struggles with precarization and vulnerability as both a means of engaging in politics and producing radical knowledge that may impact other circuits of struggle. This practice (unlike an academic’s) seeks to reproduce struggles both within one’s collective while also influencing other networks. Its observations and potential impacts are diffuse, overlapping, and synergistic; it avoids strict pre-fabricated theoretical constructs around how individuals are organized and able to express political desire.  Such an inclusive platform nurtures the multiplicity of our lived experiences. In addition, exchanges between various nodes of radical diasporic communities avoids the sense of exhaustion and hopelessness that isolated networks spread across the world often experience. In finding resonances between our nodes, we rupture the static nature of exclusivist and reductive politics that only suffocates radical potentialities and community.  Such a framework does not prescribe courses of action, but hopes to inspire further engagement with politics knowing that each voice is being heard, in exchange with others, drawing from the multitude of analysis and experiences being presented globally to effect change locally.

The conception of a diasporic political framework would not be possible without considering these other issues:

1_ Historical analysis. Reassessing past political discourses (Maoism, Trotskyism, Orientalism vs occidentalism) and how they impact our present political relations, modes of analysis, and potentials for divisiveness.

2_ Intersectionality. Studying other horizons that define how we intersect within- and beyond the Iranian diaspora network around vulnerability. In other words, how do our local actions addressing various issues (housing, detention, sexual violence for instance) gain even more momentum and theoretical depth when we act and reflect with other networks? Intersectionality remains a core political element of the Global South and diasporic networks; excluded from the dominant institutions that can inform and effect change (academia, state), we instead rely on resonances within and beyond our communities to then devise new modes of struggle and daily life.

3_ Communization. Shifting analysis towards a new mode of socializing around politics and collectivizing around vulnerability; sparking concrete approaches that liberates diaspora politics from static antagonistic narratives, and seeking that which re-produces a life beyond the commodity-form and collectivizes around housing, food, safety, education, and so forth.

4_ In rejecting monotone, sterile, academicized formats, how do we exchange passions, possibilities, recognitions and praises, setbacks, and concerns? Experiences (particularly around vulnerability) that are packaged into orthodox slogans and codes only strengthen organizations, “political experts”, and institutions who enter such events dominating the narrative and stifling alternatives. Rather, those directly experiencing vulnerability must articulate politics in any format (art, text, interviews, poetry, performance…) they see fit in order to preserve the authenticity of politics from cooption by institutions, experts, and other elements that make politics void of meaning and social change.

5_ How can we publish collectively in order to avoid the individualization/hierarchization of political discourse? And how can we shift our political exchanges from facebook/social media as a means of knowledge production, towards more constructive exchanges that archive and thread towards more dialectical approaches to political discourse?

“In an era when communication is the indisputable maxim, in which everything is justifiable by its communicable usefulness, research militancy refers to experimentation: not to thoughts, but to the power to think; not to the circumstances, but to the possibility of experience; not to this or that concept, but to experiences in which such notions acquire power (potencia); not to identities but to a different becoming; in one word: intensity does not lie so much in that which is produced (that which is communicable) as in the process of production itself (that which is lost in communication). How to say something, then, about all this and not merely exhibit the results of such a process?” (p 81, Something More on Research Militancy: Footnotes on Procedures and (In)Decisions. Chapter in Constituent Imagination. Colectivo Situaciones.

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