The Basij and “mass organizations” in single-party states by mattsteinglass
June 17, 2009, 2:49 pm
Filed under: democracy, Iran, Vietnam

A report from NIAC (via Andrew Sullivan) notes that:

there appears to be a rural-urban split in public perceptions of the Basij, noted in a previous  RAND study and reinforced to us in 2006 by a longtime visitor to the Islamic Republic. In the provinces, the Basij present a more benign face through construction projects and disaster relief, while in urban areas, they are more apt to be seen quite negatively, quashing civil society activities, arresting dissidents, and confronting reformist student groups on campuses. Urban sentiments may be, moreover, affected by the Basij’s affilia-tion with the “pressure groups” or hardline vigilantes, of which Ansar-e Hezbollah is the most widely known.

This is somewhat typical of mass organizations in single-party or otherwise autocratic states. In Vietnam, it happens with organizations like the Youth Union and the Fatherland Front. It stems from an imbalance in the vitality of authentic civil society activity in urban vs. rural areas. Basically, in rural areas, there’s not much civil society organization going on. People are less educated and have less free time, and social activity tends to be structured around the extended family. In that context, there’s a lot of constructive work for government-sponsored mass organizations like the (Communist) Youth Union or the Basij to do.

In cities, on the other hand, there’s typically a lot of independent civil society energy, with people forming clubs and organizations to do everything from reading books to lobbying for more parks and playgrounds. In those contexts, government-sponsored mass organizations tend to play a more negative role, often trying to shut down independent organizations, co-opt them, or crowd out their space. The mission of the official mass organizations is to organize society within a government-controlled framework. In the quietude of the countryside, that often means organizing things where nothing existed before. In the hubbub of the city, that often means trying to shut things down or take them over.


3 Comments so far
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It would be hard for me to say what the Chinese equivalent to these organisations is. The communist party is in no way more popular in the countryside that it is in the cities, and seems to have as many problems with extra-party activities in the country as it has in the cities. The PLA still (as far as I know) helps out gathering in the harvest, but that said they are no longer a mass organisation. The various communist youth organisations are centred around schools, particularly universities, and are valued only as a route into the communist party – the attitudes of both urban and rural population seems pretty similar in this respect.

Comment by FOARP

Hm. I admit I don’t know how this works in China. But what about, say, the Women’s Union? Or the national Labor Union? Or the Farmers’ Union? How are they seen in areas where there’s not much autonomous civic organization, versus areas where there is?

Comment by mattsteinglass

I would have to say that attitudes to the labour unions are pretty much the same – your are as likely (maybe more likely) to see a wild-cat strike in the country as you are in the cities. The farmer’s union is also approached fairly dismissively. However, I guess since many in the cities are only a few years removed from the country the similarity in attitudes should not suprise.

Comment by FOARP

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