The New Oil Habitus in Post-War Abadan

Aerial photo of Abadan 1930's
Aerial photo of Abadan 1930’s
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


Small and local as this episode may appear, it encapsulated the emergence of a new habitus around the oil complex in Khuzestan. WWI was generally acknowledged to have marked the end of an era, and the following decade and the interwar period were experienced globally as a period of transition, uncertainty, and experimentation. This was true in Europe, the primary instigator and the main theater of the total war, but also in West Asia, which the main protagonists had turned into a major center of conflict and contention.
The struggle over the construction of the bazaar of Abadan caused major
frictions[55] between the Oil Company, the upstart provincial bureaucracy, and the local residents, which included oil workers and their dependents living in the neighborhood. It is ironic that a small patch of land and ongoing disputation over its control, ownership, and land use, became a major “ frontier of awkward engagement” between the key actors in the oil complex and played an important part in shaping the new oil habitus.
As we shall see, the frictions caused by this protracted struggle over controlling and shaping physical space forced all the main actors involved to redefine their strategies, to re-conceptualize their practices, and to re-organize their actions and dispositions in relation to each other and to the built environment and the social space they inhabited: Local bureaucrats and administrators of the fledgling new centralizing state began to define their institutional responsibilities as the protectors of national citizens and providers of general welfare in the form of municipal services and public health. In the aftermath of the war the Oil Company officials were in the midst of a major strategic rethinking of their long-term goals in Iran, and of understanding and managing their internal re-organization and external transition into a global giant corporation (chapter 2). Like the local state bureaucrats, the Oil Company experts and strategists had to scramble to fill the political and social vacuum left from the elimination of Sheikh Kahz’al and the old social order. Last, the local residents were forging new networks and links of solidarity and resistance that were based not only on the so-called “primordial loyalties” of language, kinship ties, and ethnicity[56]; but on the novel, effectively coerced, and shared experiences of urban living, participation in a wage labor market, dependence on an increasingly monetized economy. These new place-based ties were being forged amidst new and unfamiliar forms of destitution that resulted not only from natural calamities, familiar material scarcities, or local conflicts, but by the newly imposed regimes of property and legal exclusion[57].
Khaz’al had ruled over a relatively homogeneous tribal-agrarian region. But by the middle of 1920s when he was removed from power, Abadan had become a sprawling industrial boomtown of global importance. The refinery, shipping docks, and storage facilities soon came to be surrounded by European enclaves on the one hand, and on the other by slums and shantytowns housing migrant workers, a town center called Shahr (the City), and some remaining indigenous villages. Its governance required new skills and resources that were altogether different from anything that either upstart provincial Iranian bureaucrats or the Oil Company managers had previously experienced or possessed. Under the circumstances, the political and social vacuum left by the removal of Sheikh Khaz’al and the end of his British-dependent patrimonial rule had to be filled by the embryonic Iranian bureaucracy and/or the Oil Company itself. There were major challenges facing the oilmen and bureaucrats. These ranged from the growing urban militantism among the new city dwellers, mounting class tensions in the workplace amongst skilled Indian workers who were angry at the repression of nationalist sentiments in India and against their own working and living conditions in Abadan, as well as among the unskilled Iranian workers demanding better treatment and decent work. There was the simmering discontent of indigenous populations that kept breaking out in bad tempered small skirmishes and confrontations, or on occasion into full-scale tribal revolts, as in 1925 and 1929 (see chapters 3, 6, 7). The anxiety of rising Soviet influence among oil workers, as well as the perceived threat of American competition for the oil business preoccupied Company managers and directors, and affected their policies; as did the ever present fear of deadly epidemics decimating the city, Europeans and ‘natives’ alike, scaring away valuable recruits, and harming production. There were cross border threats from Mesopotamia and an Arabian Peninsula that were in throes of nationalist upheaval under British occupation[58], while regional centrifugal forces on the Iranian side of the highly porous borders were equally challenging[59].
For APOC as well as the Iranian bureaucracy developing new techniques of managing these challenges were partly shaped by trial and error, through dealing relentlessly with protracted and controversial events like the newly proposed bazaar; or by reaching out to global innovations in professional techniques of social and spatial governance and industrial management. But these new mechanisms of governing the oil complex (what Foucault calls governmentality, or the art of governing populations, territories, and mentalities[60]) were not forged in isolation. They emerged during WWI and its aftermath in multiple but interconnected places, in Abadan as well as in London, Tehran, and other global nodes. They were the result of new parameters in social and political life that were tied to regulating the social domain.


55. The concept of ‘friction’ is borrowed from Anna Tsing, whose ethnography of extractive capitalism in Indonesian rainforest highlands sheds light on the mechanisms through which globalized capitalism is shaped not in a single privileged location, but through the awkward engagement between a diverse cast of characters ranging from speculative investors, adventurer and crony capitalists, environmentalists, eco-tourists, and indigenous activists. As in Tsing’s case studies, the friction over Abadan’s bazaar in the 1920’s demonstrates that the Oil Company was not merely introducing a set of actions intended to flatten out local differences and shape Abadan according to some existing universals of global urban modernity. Rather, the demand for this bazaar project emerged out of the frictions between various actors involved, and the eventual outcome was the result of these awkward engagements. See Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 4, 21, 33.

56. Essentializing notions, always open to internal challenge and re-interpretation, yet held dear by orientalists and modernization theorists. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (Boston: Basic Books, 1977). For a pivotal critique of the notion of primordial identities see Edward W. Said,
Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).
57. For an incisive social and cultural differentiation of poverty caused by material scarcity versus the very modern forms of destitution imposed by the social and cultural norms of the market see Ashis Nandy, “The Beautiful, Expanding Future of Poverty: Popular Economics as a Psychological Defence,” Economic and Political Weekly, January 3, 2004, 94–99.

58. On post-WW1 Iraq and British occupation there see Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 30–73. The vital importance of oil in Mesopotami and British calculations in their subsequent military forays and occupation there see Helmut Mejcher,
Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Ithaca Press, 1976). For a closer look at the range of political activism in Iraq, especially communists, see Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement in Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). although the great value of Batatu’s analysis is his analysis of post WWII Iraq. The British imperial experience is well discussed from the first hand perspective of Arnold T. Wilson, Loyalties; Mesopotamia (London: Oxford University Press, 1931). And critically evaluated by Marion Kent, Oil and Empire; British Policy and Mesopotamian Oil (London: McMillan, 1976). On Arnold Wilson’s stint as de facto governor of British occupied Iraq, prior to his becoming the managing APOC director in Mohammareh/Khorramshahr, see John Marlowe, Late Victorian: The Life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (London: Cresset, 1967).
59. See the fascinating memoirs of the British diplomat in Dezful C. J. Edmonds, East and West of Zagros Travel, War and Politics in Persia and Iraq 1913-1921 (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
60. Foucault defines governmentality as follows:
“1. The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means [the] apparatuses of security.
2. The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre- eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of savoirs. 3. The process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the 15Th and 16th centuries, gradually becomes
governmentalized.” Foucault et al., The Foucault Effect : Studies in Governmentality : With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, 102–103. Foucault argues that the art of modern government under the contemporary welfare state has made a distinct shift from previous notions of statecraft that he calls pastoral power (government as a shepherd tending its individualized flock) and sovereignty (princely power imposing its hegemonic will over territory), to a notion of governance which combines disciplinary power (notions of productivity and self-improvement anchored within the individual body) with an even more absolute claim of sovereignty over territory and the individual, but not in the name of a prince, rather in the name of the universal welfare of all members of society. Foucault presents this shift as a defuse process, a “technology of power” embodied in individuals as well as in institutions, shaping ‘the soul’, and regulating the individual from inside. See Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison; Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
As I will argue later, the modern professional middle class and the institutions it helped create, and by which it is reproduced, ought to be assigned a defining role in shaping this hegemony. I do not think assigning significant agency to particular social groups is contradictory to Foucault’s argument, even though Foucault saw modern power as a widespread, discursive exercise, rather than the exercise of particular groups seeking domination over others. I concur with Tania Li’s view that various forms of power – sovereignty, disciplinary, governmentality – are not historically superseded, but act simultaneously in shaping modern political economies, especially in the domain of ‘development’. See Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 1–30.


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