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)” ]
When in 1926 APOC undertook the task of re-configuring its operations in Khuzestan, the protracted and extensive discussion among its senior directors and managers was undertaken in a new language and spirit of comprehensive planning of its long term relationship to the new and emerging central government in Tehran, as well as to their employees in Khuzestan. At the center of the new approach lay an acknowledgment of the necessity of formulating and implementing a set of social policies that in appearance had little to do directly with oil extraction, market shares, or profit rates. In previous years the notion of the Oil Company committing itself to providing social amenities and services for its employees, ranging from education to public health, municipal planning, housing provision, recreational facilities and leisure amenities for rank and file workers, and so on, would have been considered odd. But by the mid-1920s the Company was actively discussing a long-term commitment to initiating an extensive and costly range of social initiatives that would reshape the daily lives of its employees, as well as the region’s population (chapters 5 & 6).
In official Company correspondence and in the energetic propaganda it set up to shape public opinion (see chapter 5), these interventionist social policies were
always articulated and presented as reluctantly undertaken, generous, and benevolent contributions to public welfare. In practice, and forthrightly articulated in internal documents, they were aimed at reducing friction with its workforce and the Iranian government, and to increase the productivity of operations. These social policies became the instruments through which the Company engaged in shaping and managing the territory and the spaces where it was operating, as well as the populations and the institutions it had to deal with. Ironically, most of the Company officials involved in these internal debates belonged to a pre-war generation shaped by the colonial Victorian and Edwardian culture and worldviews. However, economic institutions and their constituent agents are not formed a priori, but are shaped through praxis and situated within the various social and geographic contexts (scales) where they operate. APOC’s new corporate culture was simultaneously being formed and performed at various scales in which it was operating – local and global – in Abadan, Britain, Basra, and Burma. A new regime of accumulation was emerging out of WWI. This global political and economic landscape was ushering in new labor relations that now were being managed through professional and technical expertise, and were premised on an increasingly regulated economy, and on planned social reforms aimed at mediating class frictions.
In Britain, the wartime governmental intervention in the civil society, in tandem with employers and trade unions, was becoming a lasting feature of the postWar era. Early on after the war this trend was highly contested both by labor, which mistrusted the state as the instrument of employees, as well as the traditional ruling establishment which was suspicious of bureaucracy and resented the subversion of the free market and what it saw as the corruption caused by the undeserving poor taking advantage of the publicly funded welfare measures. As the economic crisis worsened throughout the 1920s desperate attempts to return to pre war economic policies, like the return to the gold standard in 1925 to shore up the Sterling, proved a failure. However, as worsening social conditions began to threaten political stability, especially with unemployment staying persistently above a million throughout the decade, the proponents of greater regulation of the economy and long term social and economic planning gained greater acceptance and began to exert their influence. Despite calls for austerity amidst mounting economic crisis and the ongoing debates over the appropriate extent of social policies, the overall trend throughout the 1920s was toward the significant expansion of the public sector, as a succession of Liberal, Conservative, and (briefly) Labour, governments kept steadily increasing expenditures for social projects throughout the 1920’s. By 1930 public spending on various social services had increased from virtually nothing to nearly 40 percent of overall expenditures, with state contributions to unemployment funds, for example, increasing twelvefold, from £3million to £37 million. Not only the older and established means of dealing with social inequality — such as charities, local parishes, and poor laws — were no longer able to cope with the scope of the post war social problems, but also a permanent shift in public culture had rendered these Victorian institutions irrelevant. Out of work laborers and the poor were no longer content with accepting charity for the helpless; instead they were demanding employment and work as a social right. Decommissioned soldiers, women recently employed in dangerous munitions works, and hard-pressed families in industrial cities now expected more decent living conditions and greater economic security. The question of balancing political stability with the pursuit of economy in public expenditures had become a priority for the state and the elites.
138. See Chapter 2 and the discussion of Arnold Wilson, Reynolds, Dr. Young, J.M. Wilson, John Cadman, and other Victorian and Edwardian era agents of Britain and APOC. Arnold Wilson’s fascinating memoirs of his early years in Khuzestan, and then his controversial stint as the de-facto viceroy of Iraq after WWI are illustrative of this unmistakable shift. Wilson’s early memoirs in Khuzestan are mostly told through his correspondence with his family and his daily diaries. They are the voice of a Victorian zealous conservative officer of the Empire who remains unconvinced of the political possibilities of constitutional political change in Iran. By mid 1920’s, when he had become the senior managing director of APOC in Mohammerah, he had overseen the Company’s dramatic shift of allegiance away from Britain’s erstwhile local allies, Khaz’al and the Bakhtiyari Khans, and had become an unabashed and pragmatic advocate of social planning and Company engagement and investment in a wide range of social projects in Khuzestan. See Arnold T Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941); John Marlowe, Late Victorian: The Life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (London: Cresset, 1967). See chapter 6 for further details.
139. On the relation of culture and economy see Marion Fourcade, “Culture and Economy,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2007).
140. Harris, “Society and State in Twentieth Century Britain,” 75–80.
141. Alan Deacon, “Concession and Coercion: The Politics of Unemployment,” in Essays in Labour History; 1918-1939, ed. Asa Briggs and John Saville, vol. 3 (London: Croom Helm, 1977), 9–14; John Burnett, Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990 (London: Routledge, 1994), 199– 264.
142. Harris, “Society and State in Twentieth Century Britain,” 78.
143. Deacon, “Concession and Coercion: The Politics of Unemployment,” 9–10.