Guilds and Civil Society in Iran

The Idea of civil society signifies liberal Western values, including freedom of the individual from arbitrary violence and of private property from arbitrary seizure. Realization of personal security requires the sanctity and enforcement of legal rights. The experience of democratic societies has demonstrated that the existence of well-established independent associations, such as political parties, labor unions, professional societies, and guilds mediating between their respective members and the state apparatus, has been indispensable for the formation and survival of civil society. The paper examines the establishment and functioning of guilds in Iran as both promoters of, and obstacles to, the development of civil society.

Guilds and civil society evolved in the course of economic and political development of the West and played an important role in the formation of modern bourgeois capitalism and commercial democracy. Indeed, the formation of guilds has long been considered as a major characteristic of pre-modern city, both in Europe and in the Middle East. The medieval European guilds seem, however, to be characterized by a greater degree of independence than their counterparts in the Islamic world. Furthermore, it seems that the idea of individual liberty, equality before law, and security of property was widespread in latter period of medieval Europe.

In pre-modern Islamic Middle East guild-like associations called asnaf, were often set up either by city authorities or were normally used for tax collection and corvee services. When, in modern times, the guild's corvee was abolished and guild tax system lost its importance for the state revenues, the guilds were drawn into the political arena. Thus, in Iran, during the constitutional revolution of 1906-9, the guilds of Tehran and a number of other cities created political associations that functioned as effective instruments of mass mobilization. Persian governments or its domestic challengers have ever since attempted to organize the asnaf in larger units either as politically-oriented associations and unions or as purely administrative bodies created by the state. "High Council of Guilds" or "Chamber of Guilds" in the 1960's and 1970's and "Central Council of Guilds" in the post-revolutionary period are examples of the latter. Since 1950's the state has used both the guilds and government-run associations as instruments for its periodic campaigns against price gouging.

The tradition-bound Iranian merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen, while jealous of their economic and occupational independence, continue to entertain age-old suspicions about modern state institutions and values. They, therefore, seem to have had contradictory impact on the development of civil society in Iran.

* Abstracts prepared by author.

Ahmad Ashraf
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