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In Defence of Ken Loach

So, it’s come to that: Ken Loach is now the target of a character assassination campaign waged by those who will stop at nothing to shield the apartheid policies of Israel. Their message to people of good conscience is simple: Unless you too want to be tainted as an antisemite, keep quiet about the crimes against humanity and the assault on human rights in the land of Palestine. They are putting the rest of us on notice: If we can do this to Ken Loach, a man who has spent his life championing the victims of oppression, racism and discrimination, imagine what we shall do to you. If you dare support the Palestinians’ human rights, we will claim that you hate the Jews.

The art of assassinating the character of a leftist has become better honed in recent times. When the Financial Times called me a Marxist biker, I confessed to the charge gladly. Calling me a Stalinist, as some unsophisticated rightists do, also fails to ignite an existentialist crisis in my soul because I know full well that I would be a prime candidate for the gulag under any Stalinist regime. But call me a misogynist or an antisemite and the pain is immediate. Why? Because, cognisant of how imbued we all are in Western societies with patriarchy, antisemitism and other forms of racism, these accusations hit a nerve.

It is, thus, a delicious irony that those of us who have tried the hardest to rid our souls of misogyny, antisemitism and other forms of racism are hurt the most when accused of these prejudices. We are fully aware of how easily antisemitism can infect people who are not racist in other respects. We understand well its cunning and potency, for instance the fact that the Jews are the only people to have been despised both for being capitalists and for being leftie revolutionaries. This is why the strategic charge of antisemitism, whose purpose is to silence and ostracise dissidents, causes us internal turmoil. This is what lies behind the runaway success of such vilification campaigns against my friends Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Brian Eno, Roger Waters and now Ken Loach. 

‘Is your exclusive criticism of Israel not symptomatic of antisemitism?’, we are often asked. Setting aside the farcicality of the claim that we have been criticising Israel exclusively, criticism of Israel is not and can never be criticism of the Jews, exactly as criticism of the Greek state or of American imperialism is not criticism of the Greeks or of the Americans. The same applies to interrogating the wisdom of having created an ethnically specific state. When remarkable people like my heroes Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein questioned the Zionist project of a Jewish state in Palestine, it is offensive to claim that to debate Israel’s existence is to be antisemitic. The question is not whether Arendt and Einstein were right or wrong. The question is whether their questioning of the wisdom of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine is antisemitic or not. Clearly, while antisemites opposed the foundation of the state of Israel, it does not follow that only antisemites opposed the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

On a personal note, back in 2015, while serving as Greece’s finance minister, a Greek pro-troika newspaper thought they could diminish me with a cartoon depicting me as a Shylock-like figure. What these idiots did not realise was that they made me very proud! Trying to tarnish my image by likening me to a Jew was, and remains, a badge of honour. Speaking also on behalf of aforementioned friends vilified as antisemites, we feel deeply flattered whenever an antisemite bundles us together with a people who have bravely endured racism for so long. As long as a single Jew feels threatened by antisemitism, we shall pin the Star of David on our chest, eager and ready to be counted as Jews in solidarity – even though we may not be Jewish. At the very same time, we wear the Palestinian flag as a symbol of solidarity with a people living in an apartheid state built by reactionary Israelis, damaging my Jewish and Arab brothers and sisters and stoking the fires of racism which, ironically, always forge a steelier variety of antisemitism.

Returning to Ken Loach, thankfully no smear campaign against him can succeed. Not only because Ken’s work and life are proof of the accusation’s absurdity, but also because of the courageous Israelis who take awful risks by defending the right of Jews and non-Jews alike to criticise Israel. For instance, the group of academics who have methodically deconstructed the IHRA’s indefensible definition of antisemitism, which conflates it with legitimate criticisms of Israel that many progressive Israelis share. Or the wonderful people working with the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSELEM to resist the apartheid policies of successive Israeli governments. I am just as grateful to them as I am to my friend and mentor Ken Loach.

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War by Other Means

One principle that gives relative coherence to the political rationality of the Trump faction is this: politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. That was on full display in the rhetoric of previous weeks, with Rudy Giuliani calling for ‘trial by combat’, or Trump exhorting his followers to show ‘strength’ at the US Capitol. This combative approach is not reserved for moments of crisis; it rather permeates the political reasoning of Trumpism, and identifies it as a direct outgrowth of a long line of reactionary thought.

Here I want to investigate not so much the ‘warlike’ logic of Trump’s politics but the other half of the equation, which is its grounding condition: the assumption that traditional logics of political mediation are vacuous and serve merely as a ruse. Here one can discern a rational kernel in the deeply mystified shell of Trumpian thought.

First, let me step back and explain briefly what it means to assert that politics is a continuation of war. In his 1976 lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault invoked this transformed relation between politics and war, ‘the inversion of Clausewitz’s formula’, to grasp the functioning of power (admittedly, in a very different political context than our own). When Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously claimed that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, he intended to emphasize that diplomacy between states (this is primarily what he meant by ‘politics’) does not cease with the outbreak of war but continues in other forms. Or, to put this in different terms, military confrontation does not mark the end of political mediation but its persistence in a different mode.

Foucault, then, adopts Clausewitz’s logic in reverse: whereas for Clausewitz war is still ‘filled’ with political mediation, for Foucault politics are reduced to confrontation, ‘emptied’ of mechanisms of mediation. Foucault is experimenting with this formula, in my view, as a key to interpret the emerging neoliberal strategies to undermine the structures and mechanisms of political mediation, such as trade unions, welfare structures, the reformist Keynesian state, and so forth. (Although he poses this inverted formula as part of a general analysis of power, it is reasonable to speculate that it serves also as an indirect analysis of the political developments of the 1970s, especially since this argument appears primarily in his courses, which were much more tied to current events than his books.) The neoliberal vision of a politics without political mediation certainly persists in the Trump world, but it has become more extreme in many respects.

This frame helps cast a different light on the events of January 6. It is instructive that apologists for the descent on the US Capitol claim it was no different to BLM protests of the previous summer. That assertion betrays blindness to many essential distinctions, one of which is that, in contrast to BLM actions, the Capitol siege was not a protest. The logic of protest assumes a context of political mediation: a situation in which social and governmental structures at various levels will potentially respond with reforms. The demand to ‘defund the police’, as it is generally understood, for example, only makes sense in a context characterized by potential political mediation. Yet for Trump and his supporters, since the logic of and potential for political mediation is absent, protest makes no sense. They expected no mediation in response to their actions, only a political result: to remain in power. There was, then, no passage from politics to war on January 6. Trumpist political praxis was already animated by war logic, which is to say, devoid of mediation.

The lack of credence in political mediation also illuminates the Trump faction’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of election results since, at a deep level, claims of political representation are conceptually allied to those of political mediation. There is, of course, an overtly opportunistic element to Trump’s acceptance of some and rejection of other election results, as there is too with the longstanding Republican strategy to exclude voters (especially Black voters and other people of color). But these opportunistic tactics rest on the view, deeply embedded in reactionary thought, that claims to political representation are deceitful. For instance, in the early 20th century Robert Michels, wary of the rising electoral power of European socialist parties, sought to unmask what he considered their false assertion of representational legitimacy: all parties – even those purporting to express the popular will – are in the final analysis dominated by elites, and political representation is an elaborate deception wielded by those elites to gain and maintain power.

The same logic, at a much lower level of sophistication, underpins Trump’s view of representation, and that of the Republican Party more generally. Neither suppressing voter turnout through devious legislative fabrications (as Republicans have long done) nor discarding legitimate ballots (as the Trump faction recently attempted) appears scandalous or hypocritical, because claims of representation – like those of political mediation more generally – are seen as inherently bogus. From this perspective, liberal hand-wringing about democratic safeguards is simply disingenuous, since those who champion representation are not really handing power to ‘the people’, but rather using the ruse of representation to legitimize their side’s social, media, and political elites. Every election, by definition, is rigged.

This brief characterization therefore suggests that, beneath the cloud of lies and buffoonery, a relatively coherent rationality animates Trumpism: since effective political mediation is lacking and claims to representation spurious, the thinking goes, politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. Last week, Mike Davis and Thomas Meaney debated the meaning of the Capitol Hill riot for the future of the Republican Party. If we accept my hypothesis about the rationality of the Trump faction then we should also consider its consequences for the left in the US and elsewhere. What constitutes an adequate response to such agonistic logic? One might reasonably reply that we should contest its premise, championing the existing structures of political mediation and representation as effective and progressive. Alternatively, one could advocate that we inhabit the same plane of combat as our adversaries, treating political contestation as war. My view is that neither of these is adequate. Structures of political mediation have indeed largely been withdrawn and structures of representation are relatively ineffective, but the solution is precisely to invent new mediations, including novel mechanisms of democratic participation and collective decision-making. This is, in fact, what some of the most powerful social movements today are already doing. Articulating that next step, however, must wait for another occasion.

Read on: Hardt and Negri revisit the theses of Empire, twenty years after its release.

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Ins and Outs

For several years now, a serious effort has been under way in Brussels to learn nothing from Brexit, and the way things are it may well be successful. What could have been learned? Nothing less than how to shake off the late-twentieth century technocratic, anti-democratic, elitist chimera of a centralized European neoliberal empire and turn the European Union instead into a group of friendly sovereign neighbour states, connected through a web of non-hierarchical, voluntary, egalitarian relationships of mutual cooperation.

The internal life of the European Union is unendingly complicated and uniquely opaque, but one principle applies throughout. To understand it you must grasp the domestic politics of three key member states, Germany, France and Italy, and their complex trilateral relations. There is no supranationalism here at all, or only as a veil behind which the real action, national and international, takes place. France sees Europe as an extended playing field for its global ambitions; Germany needs the European Union to secure production sites for its industries, markets for its products, and low-wage workers for its domestic service sectors, as well as to balance its relations with France and the United States; and Italy needs ‘Europe’, in particular Germany, for its survival as a capitalist nation-state and economy.

The British never really understood this. Even the famously formidable British diplomatic service found the Brussels underbrush utterly impenetrable. While Thatcher hated the EU – too foreign for her taste – Blair believed that by turning it into a neoliberal restructuring machine, together with Chirac and Schröder, he could become its Napoleon: the Great Continental Unifier, this time from without. Little did he know. France and Germany let him walk into the Iraq war alone, as adjutant of his American friend, George W, and subsequently into his demise. And Cameron learned in 2015 that even Great Britain, used to ruling the waves, was unable to extract from Merkozy the tiny concessions on immigration that he thought he needed to win the referendum of 2016 – called after all to cast British membership in stone. There was no consideration in Germany of the effect on the British vote of Merkel’s open borders in the summer of 2015, letting in one million refugees, mostly from Syria, driven from their homes by a civil war deliberately left hanging by Germany’s American friend, Barack Obama. For Merkel, this was an ideal opportunity to correct her image as ‘ice queen’ acquired in the spring of the same year when she had let it be known that ‘we cannot take in everybody’.

Mystification was mutual. On the Continent nobody believed that the Cameron government could lose its referendum gamble. The only Brits to which the ‘European’ educated classes ever talk are from the British educated class, and these were for widely different, often incompatible reasons in unqualified love with the EU. For the Euro-idealists on the liberal left the EU was a preview of a political future without the blemishes of a political past, a constitutively virtuous state if only because it was not yet a state at all, uniquely desirable for people who saw their own post-imperial country in need of a moral refounding from above. Others who knew how Brussels works must have laughed up their sleeves – in particular a political class which had long cherished the possibility of moving difficult subjects directly into the bowels of that inscrutable Brussels Leviathan to be dismembered beyond recognition. This included the post-Blair Labour Blairists. Having lost power, and facing a working class that they in good British tradition found not quite up to snuff, they were happy to import a residual social and regional policy from Brussels – knowing full well that Brussels was unable to deliver anything of importance, not least because British governments, including New Labour, had pulled the teeth of the ‘social dimension’ of the ‘internal market’ by subjecting it to the sacred imperatives of economic ‘competitiveness’. Nobody realized that this was bound to backfire the moment people began to wonder why their national government had left them unprotected in the social desert of global markets, having turned over responsibility for its citizens to a foreign power and a foreign court.

When Cameron lost, left to his own devices by Merkel and Co., the shock was profound, but then EU politics resumed as usual. France saw an opportunity to unearth its original concept of integrated Europe as an extension of the French state, with the special purpose of locking Germany into a French-dominated alliance. In case Britain changed its mind and the Remainers got their way after all, the return to the flock had to be humiliating enough to rule out any possibility of future British EU leadership. Negotiations on a divorce settlement were to be led on the EU side by the French diplomat Michel Barnier, one of the outstanding technocrats of the Brussels scene. From the beginning he played hardball, doing little to help the referendum revisionists on the British side. But neither was Britain to be let go easily. Here Germany chimed in, keen to uphold discipline among EU member states. Macron and Merkel insisted that the divorce settlement had to be expensive for Britain, preferably including an obligation to accept Internal Market rules and the jurisdiction of the EU court forever, even outside the EU. For Germany this was to show other member states that any attempt at renegotiating their relationship with Brussels would be futile, and that special treatment either inside or outside the Union was entirely out of the question.

It will fall to historians to uncover what really happened between France and Germany during the negotiations between the EU and Britain. There is no democratic, or presumably democratic, political system on earth that operates as much behind closed doors as the European Union. The German national interest in maintaining international discipline notwithstanding, the German export industry must have been equally interested in an amicable economic relationship with post-Brexit Britain, and it must have informed the German government of this in no uncertain terms. No trace of this was visible, however: neither in the negotiating strategy of Barnier nor the public pronouncements of Merkel. Very likely, this was because Germany at the time was under pressure from Macron to use the British departure as an opportunity for more and stricter centralization, especially in fiscal matters – an issue where Germany’s reluctance to agree to arrangements that might in future cost it dear had met with the tacit support of the British, even though the UK was not a member of the Eurozone.

As the deal-or-no-deal day approached and the usual ritual of negotiation until the last minute unfolded, it appears that Merkel finally threw her weight behind the demands of Germany’s export sector. The United Kingdom had now been sufficiently humiliated. During the final negotiating sessions Barnier, while still present, no longer spoke for the EU; his place was taken by one of von der Leyen’s closest aides. Toward the end France used the new ‘British’ coronavirus strain to block traffic from Britain to the Continent for two days, but this could not prevent the deal being closed. Johnson’s brinkmanship was rewarded with a treaty that he could reasonably claim restored British sovereignty. He paid for it with a lot of fish, mercifully obscured by the further unfolding of the pandemic.

What are the consequences of all this? France hired 1,300 additional customs officials to be deployed to interrupt economic relations between Britain and the Continent, including Germany, any time the French government feels that the deal’s ‘level playing field’ is no longer being maintained. France and Germany succeeded in scaring other countries, especially in the East, out of claiming the settlement with the UK as a precedent for their aspirations for more national autonomy. Pressures inside the EU for a more cooperative and less hierarchical alliance didn’t even emerge. And Merkel’s successors will have to navigate an even more complex relationship with France than in the past, having to resist Macron’s embraces without British succour and in the face of the uncertainties of the Biden administration in the US.

As to the United Kingdom, for the Lexiters Parliament rules again, unconstrained by ‘the Treaties’ and the European Court, and British citizens finally have only their own government to blame if something goes wrong: no responsibility without responsiveness. Moreover, the Remainers – the euro-revisionists – seem to have given up, at least for the time being, although they may continue to look for other protections against strictly majoritarian parliamentary government. There is also the possibility of Scotland breaking away from the UK, as the Scottish National Party might mop up pro-European sentiment with a promise to apply for the empty British seat at what will by then be King Emmanuel’s Round Table of 27 knights. This would amount to turning Scottish national sovereignty over to Brussels immediately after having recovered it from London, forgetful of the mixed historical experience of Scotland with French allies and rulers. As long as there is in Brussels a reasonable prospect for Scottish entry, forget about Brussels learning from Brexit. On the other hand, unlikely as such learning is in any case, one might just as well leave the matter to the good sense of the Scots.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton’s analysis of European futures.

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War Zones

With Biden in the White House, do you foresee any major US policy changes towards West Asia?

Let us look at what we are changing from before we look at what we are changing to. This is difficult to do because Trump’s policies, assuming them to be coherent strategies, were chaotic in both conception and implementation. Trump did not start any new wars in West Asia, though he did green-light the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2019. He withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, but relied on economic sanctions, not military action, to exert pressure on Iran. In the three countries where America was already engaged in military action – Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – surprisingly little has changed. Keep in mind that his foreign policy was heavily diluted by the more interventionist policies of the Pentagon and the US foreign-policy establishment in Washington. They successfully blocked or slowed down Trump’s attempted withdrawals from what he termed the ‘endless wars’ in West Asia. It is not clear, however, that they have a realistic alternative approach.

Biden will be subject to the same institutional pressures as Trump was and is unlikely to resist them. He may be less sympathetic to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu in Israel, but I doubt if the relationship between the US and either country will change very much. The next Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, approved the Iraq invasion of 2003, the regime change in Libya in 2011, and wanted a more aggressive policy in Syria under Obama. It does not sound as if he has learned much from the failure of past US actions in West Asia. This is not just a matter of personalities: the US establishment is genuinely divided about the merits and demerits of foreign intervention. It is also constrained by the fact that there is no public appetite in America for more foreign wars. For all his rhetorical bombast, Trump was careful not to get Americans killed in West Asia, and it would be damaging for Biden and the Democrats if they fail to do the same.

Will the Biden administration want to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran?

Biden says he wants to resume negotiations, but there will be difficulties. One, security establishments in the West are against it. Two, Saudi Arabia and its allies are against it, and so, more significantly, is Israel. Three, the Iranians did not get the relief from sanctions they expected from the nuclear deal of 2015, so they have less incentive to re-engage.

A misunderstanding – perhaps an intentional one – on the side of Western states, Israelis and Saudis/Emiratis about the nature of the deal may prevent its resurrection. They claim that Iran used it as cover for political interference elsewhere in the region. But Iranian action, and its ability to project its influence abroad, is high in countries where there are powerful Shia communities such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan – and low elsewhere. Iran is never going to stop its intervention in these countries in which, in any case, the Iranians are on the winning side.

Gulf countries such as the UAE and Bahrain have recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. What effect will this have on Israel-Palestine relations?

This weakens the Palestinians, though they were very weak already. The UAE and Bahrain (the latter is significant only as a proxy of Saudi Arabia) did not do much for the Palestinians in any case. Yet, however weak the Palestinians become, they are not going to evaporate so, as before, Israel holds all the high cards but cannot win the game.

You’ve said that ‘great powers fight out their differences in West Asia’. Why is that?

West Asia has been unstable since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an arena for international confrontation ever since. Reasons for this include, one, oil; two, Israel; three, states in West Asia look weak but societies are strong and very difficult to conquer – witness Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the even more self-destructive US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Invaders and occupiers in West Asia have great difficulty turning military superiority into political dominance.

What role did colonial rule play in the ethno-political conflicts of West Asia?

Foreign intervention usually exploits and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic divisions, though it seldom entirely creates them. Britain relied on the urban Sunnis to rule Iraq; the French looked to minorities such as Christians in Lebanon to rule there. More recently, foreign powers gave money, arms and political support to factions in Iraq to enhance their own influence but fuelling civil war. Opponents of Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But, on the contrary, they got much deeper and more lethal. The same is true of Syria: the battle lines generally ran along sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Intervention in West Asia has traditionally ended badly for British and American leaders: three British Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair) lost power or were badly damaged by the West Asian interventions they launched, as were three American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).

You’ve said that the Iran–Iraq war was ‘the opening chapter’ of a series of conflicts in the region that have shaped the politics of the modern world. Why?

The Iran Revolution was a turning point, out of which came the Iran-Iraq war that in turn exacerbated Shia-Sunni hostility throughout the region. Saddam Hussein won a technical victory in the war but then overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. Aside from Iraq, the sides confronting one another in West Asia are much the same now as they were 40 years ago. One big change is the recent emergence of Turkey as an important player, intervening militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

One has to be careful to distinguish between different ‘proxy groups’. The phrase is often used as a form of abuse to denigrate movements with strong indigenous support as mere pawns – and sometimes this is true. The Houthis in Yemen, for instance, have been fighting for years and receive little material help from Iran, but are almost always described in the Western media as ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’, implying that they are simply Iranian proxies, which they are not. In Iraq, some of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Shia paramilitaries) are under orders from Iran, but others are independent. The Kurds in Syria rely on the US militarily and politically because they fear Turkey, but they are certainly not American puppets.

What has been the outcome of ‘the War on Terror’?

It was America’s post-9/11 wars, supposedly against ‘terrorists’, that created or increased chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These wars turned out to be endless, so populations had no choice but to flee. In Europe, the refugee exodus from Syria peaked in 2015–16 and was probably a decisive factor in the vote for Brexit in the UK referendum. All the anti-immigrant parties in Europe were boosted. The intervention by Britain and France in Libya (backed by the US) in 2011 destroyed the Libyan state and opened the door to a flood of refugees from further south seeking to cross the Mediterranean. The Europeans in particular remain in a state of denial about the role of their own foreign policy in sparking these population movements.

You were one of the first to warn about the emergence of ISIS. What led to its rise?

ISIS was born out of the chaos in the region. Before 9/11, Al Qaeda was a small organisation. Al Qaeda in Iraq, created by the US invasion, was far more powerful. Defeated by 2009, it was able to resurrect itself as ISIS after the start of the civil war in Syria. I am surprised now that more people did not understand how strong ISIS had become by 2014, the year they captured Mosul in northern Iraq. They had already taken Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad earlier in the year, and the Iraqi Army had failed to get them out. This should have been a sign that ISIS was stronger and the Iraqi government weaker than had been imagined.  ISIS was a monstrous organisation, but militarily it was very effective in using a mixture of snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps. Its weakness militarily was that it had no answer to air power.

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

There is a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not on the scale of 2012–14, but still significant. I am not convinced that clones of ISIS in other countries are as significant as is sometimes made out to be. ISIS lost its last territory with the fall of the Baghouz pocket in eastern Syria in March 2019. ISIS leader and caliph, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a raid by American Special Forces on a house in northwest Syria in October the same year. Since then events have favoured ISIS: the US-led coalition against it has fragmented and the defeat of ISIS no longer has the priority it once had; Sunni Arabs, the community from which ISIS springs in Iraq and Syria, remain impoverished and disaffected; ISIS has plenty of experience in guerilla war, to which it has reverted, because holding fixed positions led to it suffering heavy losses from artillery and airstrikes. The Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as the Kurds, all have weaknesses like corruption that ISIS can exploit.

That said ISIS no longer has the advantage of surprise, the momentum that comes from victories, or the tolerance – and probably the covert support – of foreign countries (notably Turkey) that it had in 2014–16. The Sunni Arabs suffered hideously because of the last ISIS offensive with the part destruction of Mosul and Raqqa, their two biggest cities. Many will not want to repeat the experience. Local security forces are more effective than they were five years ago.

Was ISIS an anti-imperial force? Not primarily, since their main enemies were Shia and other non-Sunni minorities. Objectively, ISIS energised and legitimised foreign intervention wherever it had strength.

You’ve recently argued that ‘oil states are declining’. If so, what are the implications for the region and international politics at large?

Biden or no Biden, the nature of power in West Asia is changing. Oil states are no longer what they were because the price of oil is down and is likely to stay that way. This is profoundly destabilising: between 2012 and 2020, the oil revenue of Arab oil producers fell by two-thirds, from $1 trillion to $300 billion, in a single year. In other words, the ability of the rulers of a state like Saudi Arabia to project power abroad and retain power at home has significantly diminished. A country like Iraq has just half the income it needs from oil – and it has no other exports – to pay state employees and to prevent the bankruptcy of the Iraqi state. People forget what a peculiar situation we have had in West Asia over the last half century, with countries that would have had marginal or limited importance in the world – like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya and Iran – becoming international political players thanks to their oil wealth. They could afford to buy off domestic dissent by creating vast patronage machines that provided well-paid jobs. But there is no longer the money to do this. The end of the oil-state era is not yet entirely with us, but it is approaching fast.

Is the US now trying to extricate itself from the region?

Obama and Trump both said they wanted to reduce on-the-ground commitments in West Asia, but somehow the US is still there. In reality, the Americans would like to enjoy the advantages of imperial control or influence but without the perils it involves. They would prefer to operate by employing other means such as economic sanctions or local proxies. The Obama foreign policy was meant to see ‘a switch to Asia’ but this never really happened, and it was the West Asian crises that continued to dominate the agenda in the White House. In other words, the US would like to withdraw from West Asia, but only on its own terms.

Across West Asia, left movements have increasingly been replaced by Islamist forces. How would you explain this change?

I am not sure that this is quite as true as it used to be because Islamist rule in its different varieties has turned out to be as corrupt and violent as secular rule. Both have been discredited by their years in power. Secularism was always strongest among the elite in countries like Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. It never offered much to the poor. To a substantial degree the same thing that happened to the Left is now happening to Islamist forces. Elites with a supposedly socialist ideology were as kleptocratic as everybody else. The same was often true of nationalism because religious identity often remained stronger than national identity.

How would you analyse the changing inter-state dynamics in West Asia?

States have gone up and down. The crucial change in the relative strength of states was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, so regional powers that it had protected became vulnerable to regime change. Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 has somewhat reversed this – but not entirely. Iran became much more of a regional power thanks to the elimination of its two hostile neighbours – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – by the US post-9/11. It is under strong pressure from US sanctions, but these were never likely to bring about its effective surrender. Iraq and Syria are too divided for state power to be rebuilt. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman produced few successes, aside from cultivating Trump and his entourage. Does the embrace of Israel by some of the Gulf rulers enhance their power or that of Israel? Probably less than they hope. Likewise, the Palestinians are weakened, but the ‘Palestinian Question’ has not gone away, will not do so, and will always return.

What of the ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflicts in Syria and Iraq?

The main sectarian and ethnic communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – will still be there in both countries, though there are winners and losers. The Sunni Arabs lost power in Iraq in 2003 and the Shia Arabs and Kurds have been dominant ever since. The Sunnis have failed to reverse this despite two rebellions, roughly 2003–07 and 2013–17 during which they suffered severe losses. The Kurds expanded their power (taking Kirkuk), but could not cling on to their gains. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful player.

In Syria, the Alawites (a variant of Shi’ism) hold power now as they did in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. The majority Sunni Arabs, under jihadi leadership, have suffered a catastrophic defeat with more than five million of them refugees. The Kurds expanded their power thanks to their military alliance with the US, but they are under serious threat from Turkey that has invaded two Kurdish enclaves and expelled the inhabitants.

The Kurds’ problem is that they are a powerful minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but all these states oppose them becoming an independent nation state. They did achieve quasi-independence in Iraq and Syria thanks to central governments in Damascus and Baghdad being weakened by ISIS and thanks to American backing. Without these two factors the Kurdish communities will be squeezed. They will remain a power in Iraq, but in Syria their position is more fragile.

How do you look back at your four decades of reporting from the region?

I am still amazed by the regularity with which Western powers, notably the US, launch military and political ventures in West Asia without knowing the real risks. They do not seem to learn from their grim experience. Reporting this was always dangerous and is getting more so.

A longer version of this interview appears in the Indian fortnightly Frontline on 15 January 2021. The questions – some of which have been shortened – were asked by Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M.  

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Republican Futures

No one writes about the American berserk with the perception and ethnographic fluency of Mike Davis. In his account of the rampage on Capitol Hill, a tonic rebuttal of the present hysteria, he sees an already long-exposed faultline of the Republican Party becoming irrevocable. To one side, post-Trump Republicans for whom the mines of Trumpism have been exhausted: they’ve already extracted their justices, their tax cuts, and their anti-immigration credentials. On top of all this, Trump has now offered them the perfect excuse to spit him out as quickly as they popped him like a pill four years ago. It’s been ‘a helluva journey’, as Lindsey Graham said from the Senate floor, like a man back on dry land. Meanwhile, erstwhile Trump loyalists like Kelly Loeffler appeared like truants mouthing remorse in the principal’s office. To the other side of the divide, Davis points to the ‘True Trumpists’, led by the two Ivy League slicksters, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who hung on to the rocket too long, and now find themselves in Republican outer space – captains of a de facto third party that is mostly concentrated in the House of Representatives and state legislatures.

For all of its obvious power, one nevertheless wonders if Davis’s read on the events is perhaps too categorical. If anything, it may underestimate the sheer cynicism of many of the Trumpist representatives and, more importantly, the traditional, tactical amnesia of the Republican Party, although Davis is hardly unaware of this. If Tucker Carlson’s open-air therapeutic ward is anything to go by, the content of Republican grievances has already shifted away from election fraud – a one-time travesty anchored in delusion – and onward to the dark plots and complicity of Silicon Valley – an on-going travesty anchored in reality. Hawley and Cruz and their shock troops in the House have spent the past four years trying to assemble a permanent front against Big Brother Tech. To this end, they will reframe their own intransigence as just a more piquant version of Republicans blocking Merrick Garland from occupying his Supreme Court seat, and they will recast the rampage of the Capitol as the Alamo of free-speech.

There is much ground to be won by whichever Party can position itself as the long-term opposition to Silicon Valley. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brandishing a copy of Logic magazine will be no match for a party that dedicates itself to that mission. Structurally, the Republicans have the advantage. As Dylan Riley made clear in NLR 126, both Democrats and Republicans have no interest in attacking the components in each other’s coalitions that they share – finance, insurance, real estate – but each has something to gain in attacking the other side’s exclusive components: Silicon Valley, in the case of the Democrats, and extractive industries in the case of the Republicans. As the battle lines clarify, the Republicans have only been aided by the social media monopolies themselves, who appear to be working out deals with the incoming Biden administration and Democratic Party charismatics. Even if Biden’s call to repeal Section 230, as Trump desperately tried to do last month, is the opening salvo of a gruelling offensive on the Valley, as seems very unlikely, it does not necessarily bode well for public speech to have to answer to the pleasure of an implacably centrist regime.

Surely Davis is correct that the Trumpist faction of the party will never rally around another Romney type, but Romney was already a Jurassic figure in his own time. And I will eat my laptop if Chuck Grassley ever becomes president. The extreme stab-in-the-backers may make up a sizable fringe – around 20 percent of the party – and Mike Pence may look over his shoulder for the rest of his days. But it seems that the unstable Republican coalition has a chance not only to hold, but to bind itself anew if it can use Valley-hatred to suture its wounds. Will Trumpist electoral terror against traditional Republicans be any fiercer than the kind mounted by its Tea Party incarnation? However sharply or dubiously the two camps of the American Right define themselves – True Trumpists and Back-to-Businessers – the future leadership of the Party may belong to the most enterprising half-breed.

Read on: Mike Davis’s account of Republican realignments after the Capitol Hill riot.

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Riot on the Hill

Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy – oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc. – constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians – including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat – stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. (The aesthetic was pure Buñuel and Dali: ‘Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.’)

But something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and right-wing young lions, whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long-awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy, with half of the Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. By the White House’s Fuhrerprinzip standards, Pence, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Jim Lankford even Kelly Loeffler are now traitors beyond the pale. This ironically enables them to become viable presidential contenders in a still far-right but post-Trump party. Since the election and behind the scenes, big business and many mega-Republican donors have been burning their bridges to the White House, most sensationally in the case of that uber-Republican institution, the National Association of Manufacturers, which yesterday called for Pence to use the 25th Amendment to depose Trump. Of course, they were happy enough in the first three years of the regime with the colossal tax cuts, comprehensive rollbacks of environmental and labor regulation, and a meth-fed stock-market. But the last year has brought the unavoidable recognition that the White House was incapable of managing major national crises or ensuring basic economic and political stability.

The goal is a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and, via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the battle to replace McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene. (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize his hardcore followers to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red-state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.

Read on: Mike Davis’s New Year’s blast to the American left. 

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The Trial of Julian Assange

The trial is over. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States. If anyone who has been observing the trial says that they aren’t surprised, they’re fibbing.

Nobody who sat through the proceedings (as I did at an earlier stage) could have failed to detect the bias and, on occasion, outright hostility that Baraitser displayed towards the defence lawyers. The bulk of her judgement is in that vein. The defence put forward numerous arguments for why Assange should not be extradited to the US – above all, that the US was bringing political, not criminal, charges against Assange, prohibited by the UK–US extradition treaty – and she ruled against nearly all of them.

She ruled there were no grounds for thinking that Assange’s constitutional rights wouldn’t be upheld in the US or that he would not be subject to arbitrary punishment after extradition. She denied at length, in the final paragraphs of her verdict, that this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing a journalist – essentially providing a face-saver for the UK government.

Instead, she ruled against extradition on the grounds that it would be ‘oppressive by reason of mental harm’ – that under US pre-trial conditions, held in isolation in a maximum-security prison, Assange would not be prevented from committing suicide.

It seems that the spectre of ‘supermax’ – the brutal reality of the American carceral system – was placed in the dock and found guilty. Pure hypocrisy. Is London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was held in isolation after being forcibly arrested in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019, a humanitarian zone by comparison? In late 2019, doctors who inspected Assange wrote an open letter to the British government, stating that he ‘could die in prison without urgent medical attention’ due to the conditions in which he was kept. Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, noted that ‘Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture’, having been ‘in solitary confinement for all intents and purposes for more than a year now’. But Baraitser gave short shrift to this testimony.

Her ruling is only the first step. We do not know whether Assange will be granted bail pending the US appeal, or whether the judge will be vindictive. At his bail hearing tomorrow, the court will be more concerned about the risk of flight than the risk of assassination. And though Baraitser expressed her grave concern for his psychological wellbeing, she is unlikely to safeguard it by issuing an order of protection.

Questions also remain about the real reasons for this clemency. Did the incoming Biden administration let it be known they would rather avoid a US prosecution, in which the New York Times would be bound to defend Assange’s rights under the First Amendment, since it had also published Wikileaks materials? Did the British government want to link this to its own stalled extradition case against Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife who fatally ran over a British teenager in August 2019? More details may yet emerge. But as they say in sport, a win is a win. The refusal to extradite should be celebrated, whatever its motives.  

As most people know, the case against Assange – an initiative of Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under Obama – is little more than an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. In a world where visual propaganda is central to war making, counter-images present a problem for the warmongers. When Al Jazeera broadcast footage of American troops targeting civilians during the War on Terror, a US army general – accompanied by a jeep full of armed soldiers – entered the news channel’s compound in Qatar to demand an explanation. The director of the station, a soft-spoken Palestinian, explained that they were simply reporting the news. A year later he was dismissed from his post.

Wikileaks likewise obtained footage of a 2007 US helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. The pilots were heard cheering, ‘Light ’em all up!’ and cracking jokes after firing on two young children: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.’ The ghoulish cynicism shocked many after the tape went viral. The crime it depicted wasn’t novel, nor was it comparable in scale to previous American atrocities (massacre of POWs in Korea, chemical warfare in Vietnam, carpet bombing in Cambodia and so on). Yet the Pentagon fulminated that the Wikileaks video would encourage terrorist reprisals. The problem was evidently not with committing war crimes, but with capturing them on film. Thus, Chelsea Manning, who leaked the material, and Assange, who published it, must be made to feel the consequences. 

Wikileaks cast light on the real reasons for the military interventions of the 2000s, which had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or human rights – except as codewords for capital accumulation. Using the internet to bypass legacy media, Assange published more than two million diplomatic cables and State Department records that exposed the machinery of American Empire. The reaction of the US state has often tipped into absurdity; a dog snapping mindlessly at everything ends up biting his own tail. Assange pointed out that ‘by March 2012, the Pentagon had gone so far as to create an automatic filter to block any emails, including inbound emails to the Pentagon, containing the word Wikileaks.’ As a result, Pentagon prosecutors preparing the case against Chelsea Manning found they were not receiving important emails from either the judge or the defence.

Revenge was the lesser motive. The primary aim was to deter other whistleblowers. Yet this was shortsighted and foolish. Those who expose war crimes, corruption or corporate malfeasance are usually courageous but ‘ordinary’ people, often quite conservative, working in establishment institutions: think of onetime CIA employee Edward Snowden or former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Would such a person – whose entire worldview has been shaken by some horror in their conscience – succumb so easily to a deterrent? The attempt to make an example out of Manning and Assange is at odds with the mentality of the whistleblower, whose sense of injustice drives them to accept the life-changing consequences of leaking.

Ellsberg, the State Department official who handed over secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, eventually became a liberal sweetheart, especially amongst Democrats, as he had exposed Nixon’s lies and misdemeanors during the war in Vietnam. I doubt whether Julian Assange will ever reach that exalted status on either side of the Atlantic. He has been slandered by media outlets across the political spectrum. Liberal newspapers have lined up to claim that he is ‘not a journalist’ but an ‘activist’ – or, as the Boston Herald had it, a ‘spy’. His trial never got the coverage it deserved in the NYT, Washington Post or the Guardian. The latter, despite publishing the Wikileaks material back in 2011, now appears to have given up on serious investigative journalism altogether. By contrast, El País and the Suddeutsche Zeitung were more objective.

Given what Assange has suffered, a few weeks of freedom in lockdown Britain will be a gift from heaven. No more cramped space and lack of sunlight; a chance to hug his partner and children, to use a computer, or pick up a random book. ‘I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers’, he wrote to a friend from Belmarsh. ‘But the days when I could read and speak and organize to defend myself, my ideals and the people are over…’

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

Like the biologist’s dye that stains bodily tissue and illuminates its cellular structure, the laboratory-grade opportunism of Markus Söder is a useful resource for understanding German politics. As the Minister President of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, Söder currently polls as the leading contender to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor next year, despite not having declared his candidacy. The calculus is not strained: the CDU’s own three pretenders – Norbert Röttgen, Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz – could all cancel each other out. For all of northern Germany’s imputed reluctance to being ruled by a Bavarian, the closest election in postwar German history was between Söder’s political mentor, the Deutschmark fetishist CSU leader Edmund Stoiber, and Gerhard Schröder, who only narrowly won after he cannily channeled popular discontent about the US plan to invade Iraq. Most decisively, Söder is a Nürnberger from the relatively industrialized region of Franconia, not some primitive mountain yodeler of Berlin caricature.

From his earliest days, the German press identified Söder as a formidable political animal. After a minor deviation in childhood, when the five-year-old Söder brought home a ‘Vote for Willy’ sticker and his father enjoined him to pray for his sins, Söder slickly ascended the ranks of the Christian Social Union: president of the youth wing of the CSU at 28; CSU association leader for Nürnberg-West at 30; CSU media commissioner at 33; CSU general secretary at 36; CSU chairman for Nürnberg-Fürth-Schwabach at 41; Minister President of Bavaria at 52; and, as of last year, party chairman of the CSU at 53, with a standard CSU-majority of 87.4 percent of the party vote behind him. In what is essentially a Catholic political aristocracy – the CSU now has a room of its own in the Bavarian Historical Museum in Regensburg that follows the suites devoted to the reigns of Ludwig I and Ludwig II – Söder is perhaps only unusual in being a Protestant. Long known as the CSU’s attack dog – a reputation only aided by his beefy figure and faintly menacing, and quite possibly self-administered, haircut – Söder has been known to pick gratuitous fights with opponents. His ability to switch positions nimbly with plausible conviction, and his sheer enjoyment of political battle, has consistently earned him comparisons to Schröder. In their biography of the ‘Shadow Chancellor’, Roman Deininger and Uwe Ritzer note that Söder, who had a poster of Franz Josef Strauß, the Barry Goldwater of German politics, above his teenage bed, was also impressed by the pageantry of George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’, which he witnessed at close range as a CSU emissary to the 2004 Republican Convention in New York (Curiously, Armin Laschet introduced this fairly critical biography of Söder at an online event in Berlin the other day, partly, it seems, as a gambit to narrow the race for the Chancellorship down to the two of them.)

How did this immaculate CSU stalwart become, over the past year and a half, an ardent progressive, posing as Merkelite Landesvater? It is one of the puzzles of contemporary German politics. The answer has roots deeper than simply the fact that Söder, with his eye on Merkel’s job, now has some appreciation for how she does it. To begin with, it’s worth recalling how drastically both he and the current Interior Minister (and preceding Minister President and CSU chair) Horst Seehofer misread the consequences of Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep the German border open to asylum-seekers. In their interpretation of events, the political crisis over refugees was the uncorking of a bottle that would release all of the conservative spirits that Merkel had suppressed. As Merkel seemed to reveal her true colors – that of a delusional humanitarian – Söder and Seehofer finally thought they had her cornered. 2015–18 was the period in which they tried to finish her off by riding the wind of the right-wing backlash toward her and her policies (Needless to say, there was no principle in any of this: in his days as the Health Minister under Kohl, it was Seehofer who was regularly criticized within his own party for being ‘communist’ when it came to the destitute). Seeing no threat from the AfD, Seehofer and Söder decided to relax the CSU’s Strauß doctrine (‘Never allow a democratically legitimized party right of the CSU’) and appeared to think that the fledgling party’s promotion of more forthright Euroscepticism could be helpful. Then comes the CSU’s Austrian romance. Let us revisit those happy days:

  • Mid-December 2017: The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, and his coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache of the hard-right FPÖ, presented their coalition agenda withdrawing protections for refugees at the Kahlenberg, site of a decisive 1683 battle against the Turks.
  • Early January 2018: Alexander Dobrindt, head of the CSU’s parliamentary group, published his call for a ‘Middle Class Conservative Turn’ in Die Welt (Springer’s ‘prestige’ paper). Portions of it read like a less erudite version of Anders Breivik’s manifesto.
  • Early January 2018: Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the CSU-Klausur, and gave an interview to Bild-Zeitung (that had been leading a pro-Kurz campaign for weeks by then): ‘We are not talking of immigrants or refugees, we are talking about an invasion’.

And so the CSU with Söder in the driver’s seat appeared prepared to go down the Austrian road: EU-critical, Putin-curious, agrarian-traditional, culture-war-trigger-happy, maximally Islamophobic neoliberal.

Then came the stunning upset. The CSU was humiliated in the 2018 October regional election. Söder lost 10 percent of the vote, much of which seemed to have been recouped by the Greens, who offer an ever more urban and online electorate the sought-after credentials of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism. With 16 seats lost in the parliament, Söder’s majority vanished. He had to build a humiliating, if not unprecedented coalition with the Free Voters of Bavaria, a hodge-podge ‘non-ideological’ party of the centre. It was now clear that the turn to the right had been a mistake. How did Söder respond? By conducting one of the most dramatic U-Turns in recent German history. Overnight he became a lover of bees and trees – calling for new regulations for their protection. He declared combustion engines would be banned by 2030. His progressivism even overshot what his party was prepared to stomach. At the CSU conference last year, Söder’s proposal for a quota of 40 percent women at all levels of the CSU was rejected by the party delegates. The CSU still has the best discipline of any party in the land, but there are audible grumblings from lower quarters. The CSU Landtag chair Thomas Kreuzer has been lately appending pointed reminders about ‘the farmers’ to Söder loyalty oaths.

What all of this reveals is not simply that Söder is now, belatedly, reforming the CSU in the same way that Merkel did the CDU. It shows that, with his eye on the Chancellorship, Söder knows that he has no choice but to forge a working alliance between main sections of export-oriented industry and the progressive middle classes. He grasps the objective pressure Merkel is under to balance the hegemonic alliance of big multinational corporations (as opposed to smaller, more conservative family businesses), moderate conservatives and urban liberals. Urbanization and export-orientation are two of the dominant forces shaping German social life: and they are moving the country in a progressive and liberalizing direction. (The AfD, caught in factional infighting, and experiencing diminishing returns on its novelty, has meanwhile become a party of last resort for disenchanted members of the state security apparatus and the Bundeswehr). Söder knows that he must divert some of the Green vote or at least make the prospect of ruling with them more plausible. The Austrian example was always an unworkable fantasy in Germany, even in Bavaria, where there are fewer traditional Catholics, the population is urbanizing, and there is a strong ‘progressive’ neoliberal ideology that emanates from BMW (Munich), Siemens (Munich), Adidas (Herzogenaurach), Audi (Ingolstadt), etc. Companies like this do not exist on the same scale in Austria; the country is 20 percent less urban than Germany; and Austrians never underwent any comparable ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, as they still prefer to think they were not responsible for crimes committed by Nazi-Germany. Despite Kurz’s relative popularity among the professional classes of Vienna, and his wing of ÖVP’s closer position to the Federation of Austrian Industries (Industriellenvereinigung), which represents big capital groups, Austrian conservatives can still cobble together a majority without the sort of urban progressives on whom Merkel has increasingly come to rely.

What are Söder’s chances for Chancellorship? It is still too early to say. He has acquired enemies all over the country, but also ardent supporters in unlikely places. As he approaches the seat of power in Berlin, he will come under much more scrutiny. It is practically a German political rite of passage at this point to plagiarize your doctoral dissertation, but if anything it’s a sign of Söder’s intelligence that he did not resort to the copy-paste method of his peers, but rather appears to have commissioned the thing wholesale, unless one is persuaded by the image of one of the busiest political operatives in the land pouring over hundreds of documents written in Kurrentschrift in a state archive to produce the 263-page thesis, ‘From old German legal traditions to a modern community edict: The development of municipal legislation in the Kingdom of Bavaria between 1802 and 1818’. That said, Söder has had a very good pandemic, which suited both his and the CSU’s authoritarian instincts. He locked Bavaria down faster, harder, and more coherently than any other state minister, and his resolute media performances played well in the liberal press. As he considers the dimensions of Merkel’s shoes, Söder is seeing like the German state: no longer the optics of the Mittelstand businessman or the farmer in the beer tent, but something more total and omniscient: Der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist.

Read on: Joachim Jachnow on the degeneration of the German Greens; Christine Buchholz’s wide-ranging survey of the political landscape under Merkel.

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Wisdom Accumulates

On 26 June 1930, the oldest parliament in the world, the Icelandic Alþingi, celebrated its thousand-year anniversary with all the pomp and circumstance that the country was able to muster. The festivities culminated in a performance of the ‘Iceland Cantata’ – whose verses the nation’s most celebrated poets had competed to write – in the presence of King and Queen. Those gathered may not have noticed a twenty-eight-year-old man in the audience rolling his eyes and grumbling in frustration. Halldór Laxness, recently returned from North America, and before that an extended stay in a Catholic monastery in Luxembourg, was so dismayed by the libretto’s bloviating rhetoric that he was prompted to respond with his own poem, ‘The alþingi Cantata. To be sung after 1930’. Where in this encomium, he asked, are the farmers? Where are the dairies, the shipwrights, the fisherman? Against the mythical glories of an ancient nation, Laxness invoked the ‘penniless people, which for a thousand years has chewed its bread, weeping the pauper’s tears of hunger, bleeding, torn and tormented by the black art of the exploiter’.

This counter-cantata would comprise the final entry in Poems (1930), Laxness’ first publication after coming back to Iceland. Laxness had changed – returning to his homeland with a new set of principles, a new poetic vision and renewed faith in himself as a prophet. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in his quest to drag Iceland and its literature into the age of modernity.

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It is common to say of great writers that they spent their juvenile years in search of a voice. But Laxness possessed his at a young age, like a rough diamond. His debut, Child of Nature (1919), published when he was only seventeen, tells the story of a real estate agent, Randver, who returns to Iceland after three decades in Canada to fall in love and start a farm. The tragic romance eventually finds Randver in a drunken stupor, unable to recall the language of his homeland and so forced to babble in English. Though critics labelled the novel ‘childish’, it was animated by themes that occupied Laxness well into adulthood: the false comforts of nostalgia, the bathos of homecoming, the hard silence of nature.

What Laxness needed to find was not so much a voice as a form. His problem was that he had an overabundance of voice or voices, but no overarching narrative or structure in which to place them. In his search, he was led to reinvent himself again and again, the first time when he chose a nom de plume for the publication of Child of Nature. Born as Halldór Guðjónsson and raised on the Laxnes farm in Mosfellsbær, he chose to shed his patronymic in favour of one that would root him to the land. This act of moulting a past identity would become a ritual – a means of purifying his contact with the essence of the nation. ‘Henceforth my past is reduced to ashes and my future is the song of the northern hemisphere’, he writes in Poems.

As his biographers have observed, Laxness’s life can be told in terms of these moultings – as a sequence of identifications with higher order abstractions and different systems of belief. He made of his own existence a kind of epic, an odyssey through the chaotic world of twentieth century ideas. Throughout, Iceland remained his Ithaca, the homeland to which he promised to return in body and in spirit, always with the aim of liberating it from the hordes of unworthy poet-suitors. As the critic Brad Leithauser has written, ‘Laxness’s ambition was to become a major, truly modern Nordic writer – a legitimate heir to Ibsen and Hamsun and Strindberg – rooted in a Viking culture’. The dialectic of modern and medieval, the fisherman and the Viking, is one constant that underlies Laxness’s many metamorphoses. His third novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), is indicative. Often described as the first truly modernist Icelandic novel, the quasi-Surrealist Great Weaver is structured in close accordance with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Joyce, its author wanted to forge the epic within the infinitesimal.

To accomplish this, Laxness had to maintain two contradictory ideas: that Iceland was central, and that it was remote. He needed to assert both the centrality of the peripheral and the peripherality of the central. Iceland boasted one of the oldest continuous literary cultures in Europe. As Laxness put it in his Nobel lecture upon being awarded the prize in 1955: ‘It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition’. The Sagas endowed Iceland with a claim to be at the heart of European culture. Yet the island has always been geographically and politically marginal – a waystation for ships, a Danish colony, a base for American NATO troops (which Laxness would vehemently oppose). In Laxness’s view, however, it was from such outlying regions that one could gain an objective view of the world. They are places ‘where wisdom accumulates’, as Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to the English translation of Under the Glacier (1968). The glacier community of that novel lives, seemingly, outside the bounds of history and Christian values, in a pagan dream-world marginal even within Iceland. And yet: ‘No one in these parts doubts that the glacier is the centre of the universe’.

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What displeased Laxness most in the summer of 1930 was the state of Iceland’s class-consciousness. In all the nation’s literature, as he saw it, none had grappled with the material realities of life there: the poverty, the abjection, the oppression. His years in the United States and Canada had provoked a transformation as dramatic as any he would experience in his life. What began as an opportunity to be tokenized in exchange for a warm American welcome – giving lectures on Iceland around the country, writing screenplays for Hollywood on Scandinavian subjects – had evolved into a political awakening. One could credit Upton Sinclair (Laxness did, anyway), who introduced him to the communist circles of Hollywood and New York’s literary scene. When Laxness found himself detained and stripped of his passport for a comment made in a newspaper article about Americans being kept in a state of idiocy, it was Sinclair who organised efforts to secure his return to Iceland. Leaving behind his fervent Catholicism, Laxness now embarked on a decades-long embrace of Marxism. In the words of the critic Nicholas Shakespeare, he fixed his ‘childish faith on the Soviet Union’, where he travelled twice; for Sontag he became ‘obtusely philo-Soviet’. Awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, he would begin a slow retreat from the USSR after 1956. But Laxness’s political commitments were never as straightforward as such accounts would have it. In his own time, it was the left who needled him the most. His first socialist novel, for example, Salka Valka (1931-32), was not what many had expected – far too ironic for the serious matter of proletarian revolution.

Originally published as two distinct novels – O Thou Pure Vine (1931) and The Bird on the Shore (1932) – and only later unified, in 1951, into a single book, Salka Valka landed on readers’ bookshelves in much the same manner as any hefty, social realist novel: with a dull thud. To those not on the left, the book seemed anything but ironic, perceived, rather, to be as doctrinaire as anything Zhdanov himself could have conjured. The genre of social realism, unlike its naturalist precursor, never enjoyed a period of uncontested supremacy in European literature, in part because of its reputation for inflexibility. Almost as soon as it took shape, writers from various quarters criticised it on account of its intellectual rigidity and stilted grasp of human emotion. As Alain Robbe-Grillet emblematically put it in the 1950s, the ‘total artistic indigence’ of social realist works is to be expected: ‘the very notion of a work created for the expression of a social, political, economic, or moral content constitutes a lie’.

Yet Salka Valka eludes the indictments of both Robbe-Grillet and its socialist critics. Upon close inspection, clichés are uttered only to be upended by the novel’s dialogical qualities. Laxness forged a synthesis of art and politics by such reversals. With its acerbic wit and idiosyncratic yet deep-seated socialist sympathies, it is neither the book which early left critics lambasted, nor that which was scoffed at by readers of more liberal stripe. To contemporary readers who, thanks to translator Phillip Roughton, can now read a new English translation of Salka Valka, Laxness’s achievement will be plain.

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The novel’s two parts are less a continuous narrative than two sides of the same coin. The first volume, which takes place between 1910 and 1914, recounts in epic terms the tribulations of a mother-daughter pair stranded in a remote and backwards fishing town. Sigurlina Jónsdóttir and her daughter, Salvör Valgerður, whom she affectionately calls Salka Valka, land in the village Óseyri destitute and homeless. The Salvation Army and the local fishing business, helmed by the monopolist Jóhann Bogesen, are the twin pillars of the town, and Sigurlina is forced to navigate their influence to find room – literally, a shelter – for herself and her daughter. This volume is in many ways not about Salka, but Sigurlina. Or: it is about Salka witnessing the abject collapse of her mother’s spirit. Sigurlina is wooed by a man named Steinþór Steinsson, a local fisherman, a brute – the living image of the rugged land itself. But in truth, he desires Salka. After an attempted rape, Steinþór’s subsequent flight from town, his penitent return, his ultimate abandonment of Sigurlina at the altar and the death of Sigurlina’s son as an infant, Salka watches her mother wither away in body and soul. One Easter Sunday, she drowns herself.

At the start of the second volume, a decade has passed. In her struggle to find herself, and to avoid ending up like her mother, Salka actively resists the patriarchal world (she is mocked for wearing trousers) and develops an affinity with the oppressed. Thanks in large part to her childhood friend, Arnaldur, who studied in Reykjavik and returned a staunch socialist, Salka takes up the cause of the local fishworkers, helping them to organise a strike against Bogesen. But Salka and Arnaldur, bound into a love affair by their utopian impulses, are wrenched apart by the unforgiving reality of Óseyri’s shores. The strike is broken, Arnaldur leaves, and Salka is left alone with ‘the birds of winter’.

What we have, then, is a novel that begins as an epic only to morph into a social-realist Bildungsroman. But that is not to say that O Thou Pure Vine and The Bird on the Shore are two incongruous wholes. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the project is precisely the way in which its formal transformation is concurrent with the gradual coming-to-consciousness of its world and characters.

If O Thou Pure Vine is an epic, its cosmology is a Christian one adapted to Icelandic climes. The narrator, presuming to know as much about God’s intentions as Salka’s, routinely invokes the divine origins of the weather (‘There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky’). The characters themselves, meanwhile, appear as if composed out of the landscape itself, so consubstantial are they with the world they inhabit. ‘I am the waves that break on this beach, I am the wind that plays about these peaks’, says Steinþór. Even though Salka is presented as Steinþór’s moral counterpart, the novel’s monist ontology sees her drawn from the same materials: ‘in her strong, primal facial features dwelt all the merits of the salinity that is and always will be in seawater as long as it breaks against the shore’.

The hinge that binds the two halves together is Sigurlina’s death – or more precisely, the discovery of her drowned body. For Salka, this is the final straw in several senses. Her mother lived her Óseyri years prostrate, in near complete submission to the abuses of Steinþór and the pieties of the Army. As she grows older, Salka questions the rectitude of this way of life, challenging Sigurlina about her desire to have another child with Steinþór. Her mother can only respond that God ‘created me with a woman’s nature, and I cannot oppose it’. With Sigurlina’s death, Salka resolves never to acquiesce to her so-called ‘woman’s nature’ and thus never to trust in God. She would rather put her faith in what she can see, touch, taste. ‘I suppose there’s no other God but fish’, she says near the beginning of volume two, a materialist turn matched by that of the wider narrative, which evolves as the plight of the fishworkers intensifies.

The sighting of Sigurlina’s corpse is also what closes off the epic worldview. This is depicted in miniature by way of jarring juxtaposition. Sigurlina is found clutching ‘a pair of boy’s shoes’, the narrator tells us. They belonged to her dead son, and ‘she had taken them with her into eternity’ in case she found him there, shoeless. What confronts the reader is the incommensurability of the two facts: the shoes are both here, in this world, and they are in ‘eternity’. The epic voice that can speak of empyrean ascension is undercut by the realist one that will not. Reality has gained a new function; it is no longer in collusion with divine will.

*

Like Laxness himself, Salka Valka switches from one thought-world to another as a means of gaining perspective. The old system of values is revealed as comprising so many pieties, as when the church Dean informs Salka that her mother’s favourite hymn is a fanciful invention of the Army and nowhere to be found in scripture (no system of belief, in fact, comes under as much scrutiny across Laxness’s novels as Christianity). But a man who moves from identification to identification also earns a sort of meta-identificatory perspective. Even from within the Marxist world view to which he then adhered – in later life, he would discard this in his move towards Taosim – Laxness uses his fiction to locate points of weakness. In this way, Laxness is hardly serious when he allows Arnaldur to tell Salka, who wants to help the motherless children of a recently-deceased friend, that lending a hand to individuals is ‘nothing but bourgeois sentimentality and hypocrisy’, and that ­– quoting Sinclair – ‘it’s like throwing a few drops of water into Hell’. After all, Arnaldur only says this after uttering perhaps the crassest sentence in the novel, in response to Salka’s resolve to help the children: ‘I would have let them kick the bucket’.

Even when Laxness believed in revolution, he was unwilling to forget that to be a ‘man of the people’, as he enjoined his audience at the Swedish Academy to be, is still to be a man – that is, an individual. Salka belongs to the ‘humble of the earth’ but she is also, like Laxness, unwilling to dissolve herself into them. For in her sovereign ego lies the capacities to doubt, to point, to laugh. And if nothing else, Laxness’s prose sings right through with laughter. ‘He has an irony rarely found in Nordic letters’, commended Le Monde upon his death in 1998. Perhaps this accounts for his incongruous reception in the Anglophone world, where such subtleties are often lost in translation. But parody is key to his temperament, allowing him both to adhere and not adhere at one and the same time – to be both Arnaldur and Salka. We might, then, ultimately view his changeable affiliations less as a quest for truth than as a bid to find the next kick. ‘I must be getting old,’ he said in the midst of his socialist years. ‘It isn’t as much fun shocking the bourgeoisie anymore.’

Read on: Sille Sigurgeirsdóttir and Robert Wade, ‘Lessons From Iceland’, NLR 65.

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Bad Habits

For nearly half a century, acclaimed Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has specialised in giving audiences a bit of what they fancy in the guise of a critique of their fancies. In his most successful ventures – Starship Troopers (1997), RoboCop (1987)the underlying gag allows for some insight into the nature of the institution, ideology or phenomena at hand: under American imperialism, military victory means endless war; in the destitute inner cities of Reaganism, the best cop is a dead cop. The resulting films are gore-splattered festivals of silliness; the major award achievements of his works to date have all been in the fields of special effects rather than script or direction. When Verhoeven has turned from violence to his other major theme, sex, as in Basic Instinct (1982) or Showgirls (1995), he has pioneered a pantomime representation of female sexuality. Only Elle (2016), his penultimate film, heralded as a return from his ironic Hollywood period to a European auteur style, avoided the tone of a clownish striptease, thanks to a magisterial performance by Isabelle Huppert and the strength of its source material, Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh (2012).

In Benedetta, a loose adaptation of historian Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts (1986) – an account of the life and times of Benedetta Carlini, a seventeenth-century nun and reputed mystic in the Tuscan town of Pescia, tried for her sexual relationship with the younger Bartolomea – he turns his focus to the early-modern Catholic Church. Kind of. Benedetta is also Verhoeven’s first film to feature a lesbian sexual relationship at its heart, rather than as ballast for cheap thrills and even cheaper character development. Except Benedetta is not really a film about either of these things, as uninterested in female desire as it is in the transcendent psychology of the mystic or the conniving intrigues of the Medici courts. Rather, it’s an excuse for some bedbound writhing, some CGI snakes, and a lipsmacking papal nuncio, all stitched so baggily together that the sum of the whole is less fun than its parts.

Faith, in particular, is a source of silliness in the film. The potential for the failure of religious conviction it depicts to act as an engine of drama is overlooked in favour of low-level convent intrigue, and so one is left wondering why anyone bothers with vespers, never mind lauds. No one seems to believe with any fervour, except a few unnamed nuns and the wretched and filthy poor who stumble about farting into torches in the town square, genuflecting to closed convent doors, picking up and putting down baskets of chickens. Inside the convent walls, Reformation-creep has set in. The Abbess (a wearied Charlotte Rampling, whose resolute theatrical posture acts as a mast for the drooping sails of the action) admits to having consecrated herself to Jesus out of ennui. When her daughter attempts to denounce Benedetta (Virginie Efira) for feigning her visions and signs of God’s grace, the Abbess confides that religious life is all a ruse anyway – the prosperity of the town and its church functionaries take precedence over truth. This is no revelation to her or to the audience: as we discover in the opening act of the film, eighteen years earlier, after a falling statue of the Virgin failed to crush Benedetta, the Abbess remarked that ‘miracles sprout like mushrooms, and usually they’re more trouble than they’re worth’.

Benedetta’s visions are obviously the product of zealous narcissism and boredom, and no one is fooled or even particularly interested in attempting to be fooled by her stigmata, for which entirely modern explanations are offered: she has fallen into a trance and self-harmed, which is possibly an obscure expression of God’s will but, who cares. This ambiguity could well have been a source of tension for the film – the emergence of a new mystic was always a threat to the Church. Like the human vessels of RoboCops, saints have to die before they can be useful to authority. But Benedetta is sent to the stake for sodomy, not heresy. When two characters expire with the word ‘lies’ on their lips both are merely making observations, not accusations.

In interviews, Verhoeven confessed to having rarely considered nuns before reading Brown’s book. Perhaps as a result, he exhibits a flippant view of the convent, seeing it as window dressing for the violation of taboos, rather than a social and spiritual system of its own. The film’s secular portrayal of religious life corresponds to his unlikely but devoted participation in the Jesus Seminar, a now-dormant working group of iconoclastic New Testament scholars and interested parties (Verhoeven’s academic background lies in mathematics) committed to determining the historical basis of Jesus’s life and teachings through anthropology, ancient history and exegesis (he published a book on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth, in 2010). But where the subjects of his other films – Vegas, insect alien invasions, dysfunctional murder detectives – can withstand an infusion of irony, the same cannot be said of holy orders. Catholicism is perceived by Verhoeven as a melodrama, full of knowing participants along for the ride. In Benedetta, this manufactured unseriousness leads Verhoeven to overlook a truism: one cannot out-camp the Catholic Church.  

Such a view needn’t necessarily condemn the film – the rich canon of cinematic nuns is hardly known for its historical fidelity. But despite effortful performances from Efira and Daphne Patakia in the two lead roles, there’s little delight outside the few moments of slapstick. Disappointingly for Verhoeven, whose penchant for excess has generally produced visual feasts, there’s not much to look at either. The film’s palette flips back and forth from a muddy orange candlelight to a blanched stone, and much of the dialogue is shot in a blockish profile across the central third of the screen. In her book, Brown goes into some detail regarding the painterly aesthetics of Benedetta’s visions, which produced a closed-circuit justification: Catherine of Siena, the historical Benedetta claimed, looked just like she did in the pictures, which meant the visions must have been genuine. For any filmmaker a vision sequence that takes its cues from the art of Renaissance Italy ought to be a source of endless invention and play, the uncanny landscapes of what Yves Bonnefoy called the arrière-pays (isolated clusters of Tuscan towns dotting the hillsides behind portraits of merchants or Nazarene scenes) a fertile setting for wild imaginings in which a sheltered nun might encounter her immortal husband in Christ. Instead Verhoeven gives us a soft-rock Jesus herding lambs in a soft-focus landscape that wouldn’t look amiss on the backwall of a ropey British trattoria. These scenes are played for their ridiculousness, but the few laughs they generate don’t justify the missed opportunity to develop a less bland aesthetic; instead, they just allow us to see Benedetta’s rape and saviour fantasies played out with codpieces and habit-ripping galore.

If religion is merely a form of sanctified daftness, one lacking any power over the protagonists except in the provision of bureaucratic offices in which to pass their days until the next plague, then something else must take its place as the film’s animating concern. In the second half of Benedetta, the plot moves from visions to assignations. Here Patakia as Benedetta’s novice lover manages to create moments of light and sweet naivety, enjoying the privacy afforded by Benedetta’s promotion to Abbess without suspecting surveillance and betrayal (whereas for Verhoeven straight sex always inclines towards performance, lesbian sex is possible only in titillating secrecy, glimpsed through closing doors and peepholes). Verhoeven doesn’t reward her for it though, and instead films her character’s subsequent torture scene with the same waist-up angles as he filmed Benedetta’s ecstasy; if it’s meant as a comment it’s a strangely cruel one, undermining earlier moments of tenderness between the protagonists by drawing parallels with a gruesome set-piece of sexual suffering. Verhoeven’s major deviation from the historical record is to repurpose a Virgin Mary statue into a sex toy, which in interviews he claims was to justify Benedetta’s death sentence (for centuries canon law prevaricated on the sinfulness of lesbianism, but generally agreed that the use of instruments qualified as an impotent form of sodomy and was thereby punishable in the same manner). For a film which has shown so little interest in the reality of its historical material it feels like a tawdry excuse. But then so does Benedetta.


Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Church Militant’, NLR 128.

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Gary’s Inferno

There is only one thing you need to know about American democracy: it does not exist. Using data collected on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 – well before Citizens United v. FEC made corruption first amendment protected speech – a 2014 study by two professors of political science at Princeton concluded that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy’. This finding has significant downstream consequences on all aspects of American life, not least because it is largely unacknowledged, even as its effects, to varying degrees of injuriousness and fatality, are felt by 99% of the population.

The sovereignty of the ‘average American’ is outbid by economic elites as a matter of course, not excluding those supposedly divisive issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, single-payer healthcare) on which there is in fact bipartisan consensus in the electorate, but that does not mean he has become depoliticized as a result. On the contrary, he is more politically engaged than ever before – only his political activities consist in impotently watching cable news, posting about it on social media, arguing with family and friends during the holidays, decking out his lawn and bookshelf with totemic merch and PayPaling donations to whatever politician or cause has most recently shoved its cup into his diminished span of attention. Yes, he sometimes goes to rallies, protests, city council meetings, or even the ballot box, but these activities, whatever he may believe, have become ends in themselves. ‘Politics is downstream from culture’, one of the more astute ghouls recently uncorked in America liked to say, and it is true that the country’s myriad cultural pathologies give its politics their particularly rancid flavour. But the real takeaway from the Princeton study is that, in the daily experience of the average American, politics is culture, culture is politics, and – with one class of exceptions – never the twain shall meet.

Best known for his tenure as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-impress art critic at the Village Voice during the last gasp of the counterculture, Gary Indiana’s insight into this state of affairs is that insofar as the US has become a ‘televised democracy’, it may, like any other aesthetic phenomenon, be reviewed. Now 72, Indiana – born Gary Hoisington in the ‘factory world’ of Derry, New Hampshire in 1950 – has enjoyed an accelerating renaissance since the 2015 publication of I Can Give You Anything But Love. The utterly unsentimental ‘anti-memoir’ touches on his time in Berkeley in the late 60s, the LA punk scene of the 70s, and the downtown art world of the late 80s hollowed out by financialization and decimated by AIDS and the ‘depraved indifference’ of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Semiotext(e) and Seven Stories Press reprints of his collected Voice columns (1985-1988), his early novels Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), as well as his true crime trilogy Resentment (1997), Three Month Fever (1999) and Depraved Indifference (2002), have followed and been greeted with increasing interest. American readers born in the 80s, in particular, have been drawn not just to his nuclear-grade pithiness, his brazenly queer and bohemian narrative persona and his marriage of the techniques of American New Journalism and French avant-garde fiction, but also to the refreshing absence, rare among members of his generation, of nostalgia and apologetics in his accounts of the political events that have formed the pre-history of their lives.

Fire Season, an eclectic new selection of thirty-nine essays from 1984 to 2021, spans my own, give or take a few months on either end. It makes a compelling case that the window on American democracy closed sometime before I became a teenager: between Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on 18 February 1992 and the opening of the assisted suicide trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on 20 April 1994. In that period, Indiana filed five pieces for the Voice – ‘Northern Exposures’, ‘Disneyland Burns’, ‘Town of the Living Dead’, ‘LA Plays Itself’ and ‘Tough Love and Carbon Monoxide in Detroit’ – that deserve to be regarded as classics of cultural reportage and travel writing. When paired with the more recent art, film and book reviews collected in Fire Season, they connect, as Christian Lorentzen writes in his introduction, ‘the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in ways readers and critics are only beginning to apprehend’.  

In ‘Northern Exposures’, Indiana returns to towns of the Granite State where he grew up to sit in reconverted porn movie houses and rooms that look like furniture showcases and Anglophile prep school auditoria alongside the ‘blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls’, ‘Alan Alda types’ or else the ‘dewlapped, earnest preppies’ who have shown up to hear the mercenary, delusional or deranged pitches of half-a-dozen Presidential hopefuls (five Democratic, one Republican). Throughout Fire Season, Indiana shows himself to be landscapist worthy of Bosch and a portraitist worthy of Francis Bacon: he paints with a rich palette of displeasures whose pigments range from the scatological to the refined. What makes the candidates and the people who will vote for them symbiotic is not only that they are grotesque, hideous, odious, scabrous, tacky – to use some of Indiana’s favourite epithets – nor simply – with the exception of Pat ‘Caliban’ Buchanan, who is ‘tediously, exactly’ the frightening bigot and sexual hysteric he appears to be – that they are fake. It is that, like pink urinal cakes in a football stadium bathroom, their half-hearted attempts at concealment have only made everything smell worse. Critics are often praised for their visual abilities and Indiana’s eye for the revealing detail is second to none, but the moral sense is in the nostrils, and New Hampshire reeks of something that has ‘crawled up in you and died’.

New Hampshire’s vices are those of the nation: self-pity (they ‘regard themselves as the only true victims of history’), buck-passing (they ‘admit nothing’ and ‘blame everybody’) and provincialism (they refuse ‘to learn from the larger world’). ‘Of course people are “hurting”’, Indiana writes, giving the campaign cliché the scare quotes it deserves – ‘you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot’. But to shoot oneself in the foot is still a form of agency. If only someone would inject the readership of the Union Leader with a journalistic cocktail of rabies vaccine and truth serum, the logic goes, the residents of this ‘backwards but perhaps not entirely hopeless state’ might start to acknowledge the ‘bad choices’ they have made, replace the ‘bad leaders’ they have put into power and actually fix problems that do not fail to repeat themselves, no matter how bitterly they are complained about.

The degree of civic optimism this presupposes, however miniscule, is no longer in evidence when Indiana flies to Paris a few months later to visit the Euro Disney resort in Marne-la-Vallée. An ‘obvious expression of cultural imperialism’, he writes in ‘Disneyland Burning’, Euro Disney is – no less than New Hampshire – a microcosm of the nation that made it, and not just in the literal sense that you can find Carnegie Deli and Big Bob’s Country Western Saloon there, or even in the sense that Mickey, Minnie et al are ‘genuine American archetypes’. A merger of state and corporation policed by a private security force backed up by gendarmes and staffed by ruthlessly exploited labourers, the ‘superficially varied’ architectural styles of the theme park’s six ‘lands’ ‘articulate…a mode in which any escape from cliché has become impossible’ and ‘presume a universe in which human beings no longer have any minds at all’. Indiana estimates that it would take two hours to make a complete tour of the park, but the average visit requires an outlay of three vacation days because you will spend most of your hard-earned leisure time waiting in line for rides and restaurants while being bombarded with advertisements telling you and hundreds of others how great the experience you’re not having is. Like the off-brand version in Branson, Missouri he will later describe in his essay ‘Town of the Living Dead’, what Euro Disney offers visitors is the slow suicide of this ‘alienated duration’, mort à credit. (Later, making mental notes for a piece on the artist Barbara Kruger, he will say, apropos of Walmart: ‘You can get anything you want at Walmart. The fact that you want it means you are already dead.’) Indiana is not the first to compare Disney’s franchises to concentration camps, but what makes them red-white-and-blue is that you have to pay to get in.

On this description, American culture is something more sinister than merely the means by which political power obfuscates its workings; it is the soft adjunct of a killing machine that reaches its telos in the carbon monoxide pumped through a rubber hose and into the mask held over your face by kindly Dr. Kevorkian. Just as Disney promises the ‘time of your life’ only to deliver dead time, Kevorkian’s ‘Kmart kind of suicide for a democratic era’ promises a dignified death, only to ‘surrender the last remaining mystery to faceless consumerism’. These days, the importance of aesthetic concerns is routinely downgraded in favour of more obviously political ones, but in a country where, as he writes in the Kruger essay, ‘democracy = capitalism = demolition of utopia’, matters of taste and tastelessness are far from irrelevant to the question: how should we live?

If it is to be objected that taking Disney and Kevorkian as the alpha and omega of US culture is to cherry pick from the bottom of the barrel, Indiana does not let its putatively higher precincts off the hook either. The American literary world will later be excoriated for its culture of ‘careerism’ and ‘fatuous self-promotion’ in his introduction to the French transgressive novelist Pierre Guyotat’s memoir Coma. Behind the ‘costume of authenticity’ worn by the first-person narrators of today’s ‘bourgeois literary writing’ – whether memoir, food writing or autofiction à l’Américain – ‘lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption…a “self” that constructs and sells itself by selecting promotional items from a grotesque menu of prefabricated parts’. To write such a book is to indulge in the provincialism of personal identity; to read one is to be given yet another anesthetizing hit of ‘cultural morphine’. 

Meanwhile, some thirty miles north of the Disney mother ship in Anaheim, the only genuinely democratic event that occurs in a society where there is no means of peacefully translating popular will into public policy took place. Following the acquittal in the state trial of four LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, thousands of people staged a massive six-day insurrection (or if we must, ‘riot’) in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown, which lead to over 60 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 12,000 arrests, and $1 billion of property damage. Covering the federal trial a year later in ‘LA Plays Itself’, Indiana does not fail to note that the father of Laurence Powell – the officer with the ‘put-upon, porcine expression of a slow-witted high school bully’ who broke King’s leg with his baton – ‘usually sports one of three differently coloured Mickey Mouse ties’. Nor does he fail to observe that although every politician, including Bill Clinton, that could get in front of a TV camera between 29 April and 4 May 1992 described the insurrection as a ‘wake-up call’, the underlying juridical and socio-economic conditions – the analogy Indiana reaches for is apartheid – that lead to it hadn’t ‘changed an iota’ since. What had changed? Gun sales. Police budgets. The ‘heavier application of cosmetics to a festering wound’.

‘The model really appears to be the old patronizing thing, corporations coming down, helping out, chipping in a little bit, rather than long-term stimulus’, LA Weekly reporter Ruben Martinez tells Indiana. ‘Given that the economic outlook is still piss-poor, and that that’s what set people so much on edge, how can you think there’s not going to be another riot eventually, whether it’s after the trial or some other occasion?’ Fast forward three decades, pausing the tape in Ferguson, Baltimore: the cover of Fire Season features a painting by Sam McKinniss, one of the artists reviewed in it, of an NYPD squad car that got torched during the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, while then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden – who helped author the 1994 legislation that would give the US world history’s largest gulag – was in Philadelphia calling the murder a ‘wake-up call’.

‘Do I honestly “believe” in democracy?’ Indiana asks himself in his Obama-era travelogue ‘Romanian Notes’, channel hopping between coverage of Tahrir Square and James Clapper’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about PRISM, a surveillance program so extensive it would have made Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, turn green with envy. The trap for a critic of such unrelenting negations is cynicism; however close he edges to despair, Indiana does not fall into it. Cynicism, after all, is just the flip side of the coin of ingenuousness, a sign that one has lost the ability to make distinctions. Although Indiana knows that democracy is ‘irrelevant’ to the people who run the US and a ‘joke to the people who own it’, he also knows that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. For critique – of an artwork, of a society – to be meaningful it must be undertaken, at least implicitly, in the name of a preferred alternative. When his wallet is stolen by a Bucharest taxi driver in a companion essay, ‘Weiner’s Dong, And Other Products of the Perfected Civilization’, Indiana is surprised and indignant to learn how many details of his personal life the customer service representative at Chase is able to access based on ‘publicly accessible information’. Surprise and indignation are emotions you are capable of feeling only if you believe things ought to be otherwise.

Fire Season is a vision of hell, but just as every Inferno must have its gradations of offense, it ought to have a place in it for virtuous pagans. The book’s heroes are, first of all, the reporters: Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice, Ed Leibowitz and Ruben Martinez of LA Weekly, Masha Gessen, Anna Politkovskaya. What earns them deserved praise is, quite simply, that they tell the truth. Truth is a much-abused concept in our time; what Indiana means by it is less our gamified sense of fact-checking than an ethos of candour: to ask questions others will not, yes; to point out inconsistencies and outright lies, yes; but also to refrain from omitting ‘complicating facts, mitigating causalities’ from one’s account, or to lard it with ‘exaggerations’. It was for her candour about the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya was shot four times, once in the head, in a contract-style killing whose timing suggests that it doubled as an obscene birthday present for Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, or both. ‘There is no need for the truth anymore’, a Chechen war widow says in a documentary Indiana watches in ‘I Did Not Know Anna Politkovskaya’, a reflection on the art and function of journalism, the profession for which she gave her life. ‘That is why they killed her’. The widow is right in one sense – despite what Politkovskaya uncovered in Grozny two decades ago, Putin and Kadryov are, as I write, savagely burnishing their résumés as war criminals with the blood of Ukrainian civilians. But we also need the truth, and always will, because it is essential to human dignity. Without it, we are already dead.

The book’s other heroes are its artists (Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Kruger, McKinnis, Andy Warhol), its filmmakers (Robert Bresson, Louis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Pierre Melville, Barbet Schroder) and its many writers (Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett, Anya von Bremzen, Jean Echenoz, Guyotat, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Mary McCarthy, Paul Scheerbart, Unica Zürn). What by and large unites this somewhat disparate group is a certain sensibility: a fatalism that does not lead to resignation, a stoicism that does not preclude sympathy, an ironism that is tolerant of human folly, a tragicomic sense of life that is born of unperformed familiarity with grief, psychic extremity or violence. It is a sensibility that Indiana, as a reviewer of their work, shares. As with his reportage and his true crime novels, the idiom of his criticism is equally at home in the gutter as it is in the firmament; it is informed by the conviction that these are the zones of lived and aesthetic experience, however painful they may be to occupy, where something of value can be wrested from a cruel and cretinizing late capitalist social order.

It is noteworthy – but should come as no surprise – how few of the names on the above list were born in the US and how little of the work for which they are best known was done during the years 1984-2021. This sensibility may be diametrically opposed to the one laid out in ‘Northern Exposures’, yet in a way it is also a kind of shooting oneself in the foot. Over and over again, Indiana compares the experience of such art to a symbolic mutilation: Guyotat ‘spoils the flavour of bourgeois literary writing’ and ‘exposes [the class system’s] corruption of feeling’; Bresson ‘ruins one’s taste for mediocrity’, like a cigarette put out on the tongue; Kruger’s work is ‘the ruin of certain smug and reassuring representations, the defacement of delusion’, such as the one about living in a democratic society. The function of good art – and by extension criticism practiced as an art – is to render its audience unfit to serve as an extraction site for the cultural killing machine. Fire season, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is every day now. This is what we’ll need if we’re going to survive.

Read on: Alexander Cockburn, ‘Dispatches’, NLR 76.

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Radioactive Righteousness

We’re all going to be radioactive and happy. Contaminated and self-righteous. The Geiger counter will tick furiously as democracy triumphs over barbarism. For in Europe, fingers crossed, we’re headed full-steam towards a nuclear showdown. We are advancing towards the abyss with the same joyous thoughtlessness with which the great powers plunged into the First World War, as recounted in Christopher Clark’s fine work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). But, unlike then, today’s sleepwalkers are in an induced narcosis.

Transfixed by the horrors perpetrated in Ukraine, we no longer perceive the escalation that’s unfolding before our eyes. I’m not referring just to Russia’s intensifying war effort and the senseless brutality displayed by its armed forces. Nor to the West’s increasingly heavy sanctions against Moscow, or the influx of ever more powerful and sophisticated weaponry from NATO member states to Kyiv. Rather, the most worrying escalation is in the rhetoric of war. In the present conflict the field of propaganda is decisive, perhaps even more so than the battlefield itself.

In recent weeks, all the tropes of ‘war crimes’, ‘genocide’ and ‘atrocities’ have been adopted (before the war began I wrote for Sidecar on the use of atrocities as a political tool). Let’s be clear: atrocities have surely been committed, and more will come. War is atrocious by definition; otherwise it would be more like a sporting event, a jousting tournament. Yet it is uncommon to call the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a genocide or an anatrocity. Atrocities are committed in all wars, but only decried in some. These categories are evoked with the specific aim of excluding any possibility of negotiation. It’s not by chance that poor Macron (snubbed by the US and mocked by Putin after hours of useless tête à tête) had opposed the verbal intensification represented by accusations of ‘genocide’. You can’t negotiate with a war criminal; deals can’t be struck with a mass murderer. If Putin is the new Hitler, the only thing left to do is to raze the new Reich to the ground. There is no room left for reasoning, so no remedy is possible.

No room, indeed. Who remembers the four rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine held between 28 February and 10 March (three in Belarus, one in Turkey)? A deal seemed possible then; now it’s inconceivable. The feeling we all had from the beginning – that the United States wouldn’t be displeased with a Russian invasion, and that they would do very little to avoid it – was increasingly confirmed as the months went by. As early as March, when it became clear that no one wanted to negotiate a peace deal, one of the leading scholars of Stalinism, Stephen Kotkin (not exactly known for his tenderness towards Russia), warned in an interview with the New Yorker:

The problem…is that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to ‘do something’ because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

Since then, two months have passed, and the situation has deteriorated. On 26 April James Heappey, the British Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, told the Ukrainians they should bring the war into Russian territory. Such figures in the Western foreign policy establishment are aware that, contrary to what common sense would dictate, the stalling of Putin’s military advance has actually undermined the hopes for peace. The Kremlin could never expose itself to Russian public opinion and sit down for talks without having achieved any of its war aims, for that would highlight the failure of its offensive. And NATO, for its part, has no interest in de-escalating the conflict. It will not spare Russia from punishment, either for its atrocities in Bucha or its insubordination before the US hegemon.

The war’s trajectory has shown that Russian military power was overrated. Just as Germany has been defined as an economic giant and a political dwarf, Putin’s Russia has, until recently, been seen as an economic dwarf and a military giant. But a dwarf-giant is an oxymoron, and Moscow’s military might is more realistically commensurate with its economic capacities – a GDP larger than Spain’s but inferior to Italy’s. This was made strikingly apparent on 14 April, with the sinking of the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Whatever the truth about its demise, whether it sank because of a fire – implying that the Russian Navy is in such an appalling state that it was unable to put out such a blaze – or due to a Ukrainian missile attack – indicating that Russia lacks the technology to repel an offensive against its most advanced vessel – the calamity demonstrated what the impasses of the ground war already suggested: that Putin’s Russia can also be defined by the sardonic turn of phrase once used by a Financial Times reporter to describe the USSR under Gorbachev, an ‘Upper Volta with rockets’.

More concretely, though, the Moskva’s shoddy anti-missile defences have taught the Pentagon that if this is the condition of Russian electronic systems, the risk posed by its nuclear arsenal is relative. As Andrew Bacevich notes in The Nation,

most embarrassingly for American policy-makers, the failure of Putin’s ‘special operation’ exposes the overall Russian ‘threat’ as essentially fraudulent. Barring a suicidal nuclear attack, Russia poses no danger whatsoever to the United States. (Emphasis added for the slow-witted.). Nor does it pose a meaningful threat to Europe. An army stymied in its efforts to overcome the scratch force cobbled together to defend Ukraine won’t get very far should the Kremlin choose to attack the European members of NATO. The Russian bear has effectively defanged itself.

Bacevich is too hasty in excluding the possibility of a suicidal nuclear attack, but he’s also wrong on another point. It’s true that Russia doesn’t constitute a serious threat to the United States and its defensive arsenal, itself protected by a web of satellites and avant-garde technology. But what about Europe? European cities are truly at risk, both because of their more modest protections and their contiguity with Russia (that is to say, the relative speed with which Russia could hit them). Berlin lies a mere 1,000km from the Russian border. Let’s not forget that the conflict between NATO and Russia has taken place entirely within Europe; it would be the third time in a little over a century that the United States fights a war on the European continent without having to face its consequences at home (in March, erstwhile CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded that the US was already fighting a proxy war in Ukraine).

By now NATO and the US have begun to speak like victors, openly discussing what punishments to inflict on a defeated Moscow. ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’, says US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama predicts that ‘Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine’ – one that ‘will make possible a “new birth of freedom”, and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.’ Moreover, writes Fukuyama, the war will be

a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built up seemingly high-tech military forces in the past decade, but they have no combat experience. The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.

In short, ‘thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians’, the defence of the free world becomes an unexpected occasion to reaffirm US global hegemony and consolidate an empire which a few months prior had been diagnosed with irreversible decline. As Pankaj Mishra writes, ‘Humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home by Trump, demoralised the exporters of democracy and capitalism. But Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given them an opportunity to make America seem great again.’ (Everyone takes advantage of war to settle personal scores: Boris Johnson, for instance, is using it to cause problems for Germany, exacting a small revenge for the humiliations suffered during the post-Brexit negotiations).

The main problem is that the more Russia finds itself backed into a corner, the more it will be restricted by its military weakness, and the more it will be tempted to compensate with nuclear threats. We know from experience that threats can’t be drawn out indefinitely – sooner or later they must be carried through, even if they are entirely counterproductive (as Putin has seen, at considerable cost, with the decision to start the war itself). ‘Do not press a desperate foe too hard’, Sun Tzu cautioned, some 24 centuries ago.

This is a different escalation to the one Kotkin described, but its effect is the same. As Russia comes unstuck in Ukraine, its enemies are no longer compelled to negotiate; they therefore become more intransigent and change the negotiating terms, leading Russia to intensify its efforts, and so on. The first victim of this cycle is the Ukrainian people. The outcome of stalling negotiations is the shelling of more cities and the death of more civilians. The West will continue to trumpet its values over their corpses (unless it decides to intervene directly and trigger a nuclear war). To paraphrase an old saying: it’s easy to play the hero when someone else’s neck is on the line.

In the meantime, the Russian invasion has already caused irreparable damage. It has shown just how much the environmental question counts for those far-sighted elites that govern society. Any global crisis becomes yet another opportunity to relegate the future of our planet to the lowest rung on the order of priorities. There’s a pandemic, ergo forget about the environment. A war in Ukraine? Let’s start fracking at full blast. They’re already making us swallow the comeback of nuclear energy. More coal plants, more gas from our ‘democratic’ ally al Sisi – anything is better than striking a deal with the perfidious Kremlin.

The second victim of the Russian invasion is the EU, which will emerge in tatters, even if it’s spared the missile strikes. German fantasies of a new Ostpolitik have vanished,French dreams of (relative) military autonomy have been dispelled, and the relations (kept throughout the Cold War) between Rome and the Kremlin have been severed. Above all, any notion of the Union’s political autonomy is now extinguished. Europe in its entirety has realigned itself with NATO, the same organization that Macron termed ‘brain dead’ in 2019. On the contrary, Monsieur le Président: today there are queues outside NATO’s box office.

But there’s more: the Russian invasion, with its aim of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, has also given renewed legitimacy to neofascism and authoritarianism across Europe. The right is no longer judged on its dictatorial impulses, but on its relative hostility to or sympathy for Putin. Poland, on trial by the EU for infringing its rule of law, finds itself miraculously elevated to a bulwark of democracy, while Hungary is further ostracized for its tepid anti-Russia stances.  

Putin has performed two miracles. The first has been the creation of Ukraine. If to exist politically a nation must first be imagined as a community, and if this community can only be imagined when the dead become our dead, then the Russian invasion has truly given birth to Ukraine, not just as a geographic entity, not even as a political-diplomatic construct (remember that from the fourteenth century until 1991 Ukraine has always been under foreign control), but as a community, as a feeling of belonging to a people.

The second miracle has been the legitimation of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the eyes of the world. Of note here, for anyone who might not have read them, are the two fine reports on the European far-right published before the invasion of Ukraine: one in Harper’s, other in Die Zeit, both dealing with Ukrainian neo-Nazis and their leading organization, the Azov Battalion (now a Regiment). When Russian tanks crossed the border, the Azov Battalion became a hotbed of heroes. This transformation verges on the ridiculous – if it wasn’t already tragic. It has been expressed in interviews like the one in La Repubblica, which quotes the commander of the second regiment as saying, ‘I’m no Nazi, I read Kant to my soldiers.’ The commander goes on to cite the well-known conclusion from the Critique of Practical Reason: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’ All this is reminiscent of the SS, who were known to have an exquisite taste for German Romantic music.

This goes to show that, in propaganda wars, the law of the excluded middle doesn’t hold. It isn’t the case that if one’s opponent is wrong then their adversary must be right. Lies in war aren’t symmetrical; two enemies are perfectly capable of lying simultaneously. That’s why it’s childish to accuse anyone who questions the Western narrative of the war of philo-Putinism. The fact that Putin is, to borrow Roosevelt’s words, ‘a son of a bitch’, doesn’t mean his enemies are angels. And the opposite is also true; Western political cynicism shouldn’t turn Putin into a saint.

It’s striking that the US always stages the same script, presenting itself as the Empire of Good, sometimes clashing with the Empire of Evil, sometimes with a rogue state or a crazy criminal. For over eighty years we’ve been shown this same Western. In reality, though, human history resembles a Spaghetti Western more than the American variety; a story without heroes and villains, where everyone acts unscrupulously in their own interest, or what they (often wrongly) perceive as such. Let’s just hope that this time round story doesn’t end with Joe Biden riding solo into a sunset blotted out by a billowing mushroom cloud.

P.S. Contrary to most self-respecting commentators, I’d be extremely happy to be contradicted by the facts and admit to committing an enormous error. I’d be happy, most of all, simply to be alive.

Read on: Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘Towards the Abyss’, NLR 133/134.

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Same As It Ever Was?

Evgeny Morozov’s ‘Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason’ in the latest NLR takes aim at the growing list of thinkers who have seen homologies between feudalism and current tendencies in the capitalist system – prolonged stagnation, upward redistribution by political means, a digital sector in which a few ‘barons’ benefit from a mass of users ‘tied’ to their algorithmic domains, and the growth of a service sector or sector of servants. Among those accused of ‘feudal-speak’ are Yanis Varoufakis, Mariana Mazzucato, Robert Kuttner, Michael Hudson and myself. Morozov dismisses feudal analogies as meme-hungry intellectual attention-seeking, a failure to understand digital capitalism, rather than insights into the possibility that it might be turning into something no longer aptly described as capitalist. Is he right?

In defining what makes capitalism capitalism, Morozov contrasts the conceptualizations of Marxists like Robert Brenner with those of world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein. As he notes, Marxists generally conceive the process of surplus extraction under feudalism as ‘expropriation’, driven by extra-economic coercive or political means: lords expropriate produce from peasants over whom they exercise sovereign political and juridical power. Capitalism, by contrast, relies on ‘exploitation’ – surplus extraction by purely economic means: deprived of the means of subsistence, nominally free workers are obliged to sell their labour power for a wage in order to survive in a cash economy. For Wallerstein, by contrast, capitalism also centrally involves processes of expropriation from the periphery by the core. Morozov pinpoints this continuing role of ‘extra-economic coercion’ as the key difference between the two.

Morozov takes Wallerstein’s side, arguing that ‘dispossession and expropriation have been constitutive of accumulation throughout history’. But this dissolution of the difference between feudalism and capitalism, in favour of eternal expropriation, fails to attend to changes in the forms of exploitation. It naturalizes capitalism – in a way effectively criticized by Ellen Meiksins Wood in The Origin of Capitalism (2017) – and abandons any effort to recognize and specify systemic change. Besides, as Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg all emphasized, extra-economic coercion isn’t simply replaced by exploitation, but accompanies it; capital comes to overlay, incorporate and rely on previous social forms. Marx understood that the compulsion of labour is not unique to capitalism. Pre-capitalist economic formations also compelled labour to produce a surplus, expropriated by the master or the lord. But capitalism changes the form of this compulsion: what was a direct and personal form of domination becomes impersonal, mediated by market forces – the economic separated from the political.

In the Grundrisse, Marx posits an originary unity: in the ancient communal form, the producers are a community of proprietors, who take for granted that the earth is there for them to labour on in order to live. They reproduce themselves and their community through processes that are both productive and destructive. Increases in population mean wilderness needs to be cleared and land cultivated. The need for land propels conquest and colonization. The rise of towns, of artisanal labour and property in the instruments of labour bring about a loosening, a separation, in the community. The community starts to appear not as a naturally and spontaneously given relation to labour, but as itself a product of labour.

Capitalism presupposes that the whole has dissolved into parts. The proprietor of the land no longer works it, and those who work the land no longer own it. Craftworkers likewise stop owning the instruments of labour. The tools employ them instead. Everything that was present in the originary unity is still there, but in a different form. Under this new order, the separated conditions of production come together through the mediation of the market. Contrary to Morozov’s presumption of a continuous linear history, the Grundrisse illuminates the processes by which continuous reproduction can generate fundamental change.

Is there evidence of such a change in the elements that constitute contemporary capitalism? An examination of Uber – the ride-sharing app and the company – helps to bring the problem into focus. First, the labour relation. Are Uber’s drivers independent contractors or employees? On the one hand, the company describes its service as providing a tool for people to access ‘flexible earning opportunities’, getting extra cash by driving in their spare time. The drivers are ‘earners’, independent contractors who use the Uber app to gain access to ride-seekers. Uber connects them to the market and collects a fee for the service. On the other hand, court rulings and workers’ organizations argue that Uber drivers are employees. In February 2021, a London employment court rejected Uber’s claim that its drivers were independent contractors, observing that Uber controlled their working conditions and remuneration. Drivers have no say in negotiating their contracts. Uber controls the information they receive and monitors their passenger rates, penalizing them if they don’t conform to its standards.

For some commentators, Uber exemplifies ‘algorithmic management’, a digitally turbocharged Taylorism. For others, it is ‘a modern version of the company town’, or an ‘on-demand’ servant provider, funded by billions in venture capital. In After the Gig (2020), the economic sociologist Juliet Schor describes the new online labour platforms as recreating a servant economy. At first glance, these interpretations seem to contradict each other: are platforms like Uber manifestations of unbridled capitalism or of a new feudal servitude? For proponents of ‘employee’ status, it is better for drivers to be workers, with legally regulated conditions of employment won by decades of working-class struggle. Defenders of the ‘independent contractor’ designation – including many drivers – don’t see employee status as particularly liberating. Gig workers often say they value their freedom to set their own schedules, even if they loathe the way the platforms manipulate the apps. Likewise, from Uber’s side, the ostensible capitalist doesn’t want to invest in means of production and purchase labour power.

The Grundrisse’s account of the separation that capitalism presupposes provides a way to resolve this inverted binary of servitude and ‘freedom’. Marx describes the mass of living labour thrown onto the market as ‘free in a double sense, free from the old relations of clientship, bondage, and servitude, and secondly free of all belongings and possessions, and of every objective, material form of being, free of all property’. From this perspective, it makes sense to think of Uber drivers as ‘free’ contractors – not because of what they gain in flexibility, but because of what they lose: they are ‘freed’ from workers’ rights to guaranteed hours, paid leave, healthcare benefits and so forth.

They are also ‘freed’, in a sense, from their property. In his discussion of transport in Theories of Surplus Value, Marx notes that ‘the relation between buyer and seller of this service has nothing to do with the relation of the productive labourer to capital’. The buyer of the ride service is not employing the driver in order to accumulate capital by putting them to work. The instrument of labour, the car, ostensibly belongs to the driver – just as the pre-capitalist craftsman owned his tools.

And yet something in the driver’s relationship to their car changes: from being an item of consumption – something purchased out of their own ‘consumption fund’, wages they had received for their labour – the car becomes a means for capital accumulation by another, Uber. Instead of Uber paying for and maintaining a fleet of cars, the company puts the drivers’ cars to use, in effect getting cars to employ their owners. Because they are rated by riders, many drivers feel pressured to keep their cars extra clean and pleasant smelling. The car’s purpose now is less personal enjoyment than generation of income. It stands apart from its owner, as an independent value. The car becomes capital.

The debt many Uber drivers accrue in order to acquire a car signals this change in form. Traditional cab drivers could shift to other jobs if they were unhappy, but Uber’s drivers are often locked into vehicle financial obligations that make it much harder to leave. Debt tethers them to the platform. At the same time, the burden of car maintenance is turned into a cost of production, which drivers have to assume. Drivers have to drive in order to pay for repairs and to keep up their car payments – which means earning for Uber as well as themselves. Drivers’ double freedom – from employee status, from leisured car ownership – ushers in a double dependence: dependence on the market and on Uber, for access to it. Uber inserts itself between driver and rider: they cannot meet without it.

Uber’s insertion of itself as an intermediary between buyer and seller superficially resembles Marx’s discussion of how the intervention of merchants transforms independent spinners and weavers into dependent workers. But Uber differs from the merchant: Uber isn’t buying labour power. Riders are.   

*

Morozov’s critique of techno-feudalism insists that our digital overlords are not ‘lazy rentiers’. With Google as his primary example, he sees them as innovators pouring money into research and development, engaging in the production of new commodities such as search results. But the drive to maximize profits can prevent the reinvestment of surpluses in production, directing them towards destruction instead. Capitalism’s own laws can undermine capitalism and generate something worse. Thus, for example, Uber undercuts and disrupts the urban-transport sector, driving down pay and making it impossible for cab drivers to earn a living wage. Airbnb has similarly led to declines in hotel revenue and employee layoffs. DoorDash is undercutting the restaurant sector through its unlicensed, uninspected kitchens which reproduce the menus of actual restaurants for delivery. 

Platform work carries out this sort of destruction wherever it takes hold. As Alexis Madrigal writes, companies like Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, Doordash, and Instacart have ‘wired those in local industries – handymen, house cleaners, dog walkers, dry cleaners – into the tech- and capital-rich global economy. These people are now submitting to a new middleman, who they know controls the customer relationship and will eventually have to take a big cut.’ Whereas before these workers’ earnings were their own, now an intermediary extracts a fee, a rent based on control over access to the market.

The process of separation that fragmented the pre-capitalist originary unity continues as middlemen, platforms, intermediaries insert themselves into exchange relations, disrupt markets and destroy sectors. Insertion, the creation of new dependencies based on monopoly power, doesn’t come cheap. Market domination costs billions, raised through venture capital and private equity, accumulations of wealth that multiply through destructive rather than productive investment. Uber’s strategy – deploying enormous amounts of capital to incentivize drivers and subsidize riders until the company has established itself in a city and can start upping fees – is not unique. Tactics of ‘blitzscaling’ or ‘lightning growth’ are practically gospel in Silicon Valley. According to Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and author of Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies (2018), the process involves ‘purposefully and intentionally doing things that don’t make sense according to traditional business thinking.’

WeWork is another example of blitzscaling, this time in the office-rental sector. Armed with billions of investment capital from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, WeWork attempted to dominate markets by using hoards of cash to destroy or purchase competitors, paying out huge incentives to early renters, and so on. What makes blitzscaling appear feasible is the enormous amount of venture capital seeking outsized gains, especially the kind that can accrue from a successful IPO. Billions are funneled into a company that can destroy all potential competitors, rather than having to compete with them directly through efficiency improvements. Once competitors are eliminated, and regulations circumvented, the victor can increase the squeeze on workers and customers alike. The laws of motion here are not capital’s imperatives of market competition and profit maximization. Capital becomes a weapon of conquest and destruction.

Neoliberalism turns into neofeudalism because it effects a change in social-property relations by destroying state ‘fetters’ or constraints on markets – employee safety nets, corporate taxation, social-welfare provisions. The enormous stores of wealth that accumulate in the hands of the few exert a political and economic power that protects the holders of capital while intensifying the immiseration of almost everyone else. Wealth-holders seeking high returns rely on hedge funds, private equity, venture-capital funds and the like to sniff out high-risk, high-reward pursuits of the kind favoured by Silicon Valley – destructive platforms that insert themselves into exchange relations, rather than production. Manufacturing these days isn’t likely to generate super-profits; platforms that can make themselves indispensable to market access and extract fees in novel ways are more promising.

The increases in precarity and anxiety under neoliberalism, as well as broader patterns associated with privatization, austerity and the decline of the organized working class, have created a base of consumers grateful for price breaks and a supply of labour looking for work. Dependent on the market for access to our means of subsistence, we become dependent on the platform for access to the market. If we are to work, the platform gets its cut. If we are to consume, the platform gets its cut as well.

As it produces new social-property relations, new intermediaries and new laws of motion, the ongoing process of separation is not a ‘going back’ to historical feudalism, as Morozov would have it, but a reflexization, such that capitalist processes long directed outward – through colonialism and imperialism – turn in upon themselves. With advances in production seemingly at a dead end, capital is hoarded and wielded as weapon of destruction – its wielders new lords, the rest of us dependent, proletarianized servants and serfs. If feudalism was characterized by relations of personal dependence, then neofeudalism is characterized by abstract, algorithmic dependence on the platforms that mediate our lives.

What of the role of the state, which Morozov describes as weak to non-existent under the ‘parcellized sovereignty’ of the European feudal era, but ‘constitutive’ for Silicon Valley? Logically, of course, state involvement in the consolidation of an economic sector tells us nothing about its strength or weakness; it could just as well be the tool of special interests. But Morozov misrepresents the discussion of parcellized sovereignty in contemporary debates about feudalism and neofeudalization.

The key processes here are fragmentation and extra-economic expropriation. Just as feudal lords both exploited peasants and held juridical authority over them, so today economic actors exercise political power on the basis of the terms and conditions they set. Private commercial interests are displacing public law through confidentiality agreements, non-compete rules, compulsory arbitration and the dismantling of public-regulatory agencies, creating a fragmented form of ‘legally sanctioned private jurisprudence’. With the privatized parcellation of sovereignty, political authority and economic power blend together. Law doesn’t apply to billionaires powerful enough to evade it. Corporations like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Alphabet are treated by governments like sovereign states. Immensely concentrated wealth has its own constituent power, determining the rules it will follow – or not.

The counter-revolution of neoliberalism has been a process of privatization, fragmentation and separation, in the name of a hyper-individualized freedom that resembles the ‘dot-like isolation’ of the Grundrisse’s ‘free’ worker. Today’s proletarians are caught up in a new kind of serfdom, dependent on networks and practices through which rents are extracted at every turn. When production is insufficiently profitable for accumulation, holders of capital seek returns elsewhere. In the process, they further the dynamic of separation and induce new dependencies, which require a new name. Neofeudalism speaks to that.

Read on: Evgeny Morozov, ‘Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason’, NLR 133/134.

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Guns Without Butter

Ottawa political circles must have heaved secret sighs of relief when Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh announced their confidence and supply agreement on 21 March. In return for advancing some social spending priorities, the NDP will keep the minority government in power until 2025. No party wants an election anytime soon. Decades of neoliberal predation have diminished their vote-pulling capacities, as the national ballot in September 2021 testified. Voter turnout fell, the NDP gained a single seat, the Conservatives lost two and, most importantly, the Liberals once again failed to win a majority. In the aftermath of the vote, 55% of Canadians said that Trudeau should step down, and he is now reportedly tempted to leave harried public life for lucrative retirement. That would mean giving way to heir apparent Chrystia Freeland, the so-called ‘Minister of Everything’: Deputy PM, finance minister and lead on the Ukraine crisis. With politics this unreliable, backroom deals are needed to shore up Canada’s ruling bloc.

The Liberal–NDP deal has been discussed in the usual terms by media commentators. Will it last? Probably, unless Singh unexpectedly grows a backbone or the Liberal leader improbably spots an opportunity for a majority. Will the NDP benefit? Only by a miracle. Does it undermine Canadian democracy? Another nail in its coffin. Will it be good for the Conservative Party? Certainly for all those pushing it to embrace the hard-right white-supremacist politics of the ‘Freedom Convoy’, which immobilized Ottawa in January and February 2022. To these talking-points, provincial politicians added criticisms of the federal overreach built into the deal’s spending pledges (bringing to mind an old Canadian joke: Asked to write an essay on elephants, the Englishman titles his, ‘How to Shoot an Elephant’, the Frenchman, ‘How Elephants Make Love’, and the Canadian, ‘Elephants: A Federal or Provincial Responsibility?’).

Few, however, have asked why the deal was negotiated now, given that the very same arrangement was considered and dismissed after the September election. The text of the agreement gives two reasons: that ‘increasing polarization and parliamentary dysfunction’ was preventing the government from implementing its agenda, and that it is more urgent than ever to provide stability, since Canadians ‘face a world made less secure because of Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine’. Yet these seemingly innocuous explanations conceal powerful undertows pulling the country rightwards.

Military spending is not mentioned in the agreement, but it is written all over its timing. On 22 March, as Trudeau left Canada for G7 and NATO meetings in Europe, The Globe and Mail front page headline announced that the NDP were willing to ‘back military spending in exchange for social programmes’. Yet if Singh believes he can secure a 21st-century combination of imperialism and social reform – or ‘guns and butter’ – he will have to think again. The deal’s social policies are slim: some means-tested dental care, a Canada Pharmacare Act by 2023, a droplet of additional healthcare funding, a Safe Long-Term Care Act, some more affordable housing, tepid climate actions, ten days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and legislation to prohibit scabbing. Meanwhile, both parties look set to increase weapons expenditure drastically. Singh has reversed his earlier opposition to lethal aid to Ukraine and committed to expanding Canada’s arsenal, while the Liberals have opened negotiations with Lockheed Martin to buy 88 F-35 fighter jets, in an estimated $19 billion upgrade to the Canadian war machine.   

And this is only the beginning. As the Ukraine crisis ignited, the defence establishment whipped out its shopping lists, while ‘security experts’ warned that Putin’s imperial designs may threaten Canada itself. After all, Russia is a rapidly melting Arctic away. A well-orchestrated effort is underway to ensure plenty of guns but scant butter. The string section of defence contractors and foreign policy hawks conjures up new threats and sets higher military spending goals, while from the woodwinds – orthodox economists and media pundits – waft dire warnings about the dangers of fiscal irresponsibility amid inflation, economic uncertainty and pandemic-doubled public debt. Their fugue of iron necessity will ensure that social expenditure stays well below the Liberals’ manifesto commitments, let alone the NDP’s. The policies that survive will invariably generate handsome profits for the private sector (the involvement of private insurance in Pharmacare is already being discussed).

If this is what really lies behind Canada’s new ‘insecurity’, what about the ‘increasing polarization and parliamentary dysfunction’, given as the other justification for the deal? Here, even the Liberal-leaning Globe and Mail does not buy the government’s rhetoric, accusing Trudeau and Singh of trying to ‘neuter parliament’ and its committees. Given his 72% ‘success rate’ for proposed legislation while governing with a minority (a figure just 10% below that of his majority government), Trudeau’s accusations about Conservative obstructionism in parliament, the Globe argues, are baseless. Moreover, throughout his tenure, Trudeau has been able to harness the many methods devised by recent Canadian governments to bypass the legislature: tucking controversial laws into sprawling omnibus bills, shortening parliamentary sessions or announcing major initiatives in press briefings. This has outsourced government scrutiny to an array of parliamentary committees. In the absence of substantive policy debates, they have come to focus on rooting out ‘corruption’. Because of the mismatch between its progressive rhetoric and elite connections, the Liberal party has proved particularly scandal-prone – and Trudeau has faced nightmarish committee questioning on a number of occasions.

Early in his tenure, the Trudeau family’s vacation at the Aga Khan’s private Bahamas residence was found to have contravened conflict of interest rules. Three years later, in 2019, the revelation that Trudeau pressured his attorney general to go easy on his corporate cronies made front-page news for months. Though he pleaded that he was merely protecting ‘Canadian jobs’, the public didn’t buy it: he lost two ministers and his majority in elections that year. From there, things only got worse. The WE Charity scandal – a $912 million contract to run the Canada Student Summer Grant given to an organization that had paid members of Trudeau’s family to appear at its events – blighted 2020, with Trudeau’s proroguing parliament only escalating the crisis. In 2021, the Liberal government provoked outrage by teaming up with the Bloc Québécois to stall a probe into sexual assault in Canada’s military. Topping it all, 2022 is set to be dominated by the inquiry into whether the government was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act to end the Freedom Convoy’s occupation of Ottawa. There will be much sound and fury as the Liberals lean into a law-and-order position while the Conservatives style themselves the party of rights, freedom and parliamentary rectitude. Among other things, this is sure to drown out any discussion of the real dangers that the Convoy revealed.   

They are rooted in the erosion of the Liberals’ legendary hold over Canadian politics (the party has ruled for 52 of the 77 years since 1945). Today, the Liberals are not only neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, with a third of the popular vote each; the former has nothing to match the latter’s overwhelming support in Western regions, with majorities of up to 70% in many constituencies. This process began with Preston Manning’s Reform Party rising in the West in the 1980s. It set off a slow political earthquake that rumbled through the Canadian party system, first reducing the Progressive Conservatives, the established party of the right, to two MPs in 1993, and then setting off the rocky process of right-wing recomposition that culminated in Stephen Harper’s Conservative governments of 2006-2015. These developments expressed underlying shifts in the structure of Canadian capital. A largely extractivist Western Canadian capitalist class emerged in the 1970s as the Canadian state sought to reduce foreign ownership and encourage oil and gas investment. Driven by resentment at the dominance of eastern finance and manufacturing, such interests were already taking Western provincial capitals when Reform gathered them into a national force, becoming the official opposition in 1997. By 2003, the ‘Unite the Right’ project had succeeded, merging the PC rump with Reform to form the Conservative Party.  

Handed Ottawa on a plate for a decade and a half by these realignments on the right, the Liberals responded to the same social shifts by becoming card-carrying neoliberals, prompting the long electoral downturn that saw their support dip below 20% in 2011. Desperate times required desperate measures, so in 2015 the Liberal establishment installed Justin what’s-not-in-a-name Trudeau as leader and donned some fetching policies – higher deficit spending, and a referendum on proportional representation. That managed to extract a majority from an electorate tired of Harper’s dogmatic market reforms and personal unattractiveness. In office, however, the Liberals’ appeal faded fast. With social spending still limited by ‘modest short-term deficits of less than $10 billion’, which would keep the deficit as a share of GDP declining, Canadians were invited to marvel instead at Trudeau’s gender-balanced and ethnically-diverse cabinet: ‘a cabinet that looks like Canada’. Aside from reversing some of Harper’s most unpopular measures – such as the raising of the retirement age – the Liberals delivered little, and their vote share resumed its slide in 2019 and 2021.

The Freedom Convoy’s bizarre antics – at once carnivalesque and menacing – unfolded against this backdrop. When the overwhelmingly white lumpen petit-bourgeois Convoy, with generous sprinklings of white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism and Islamophobia (plus considerable funding from US donors), occupied Ottawa and other cities, it styled itself both as a protest against vaccine mandates and an insurrection to bring down the duly elected government. The Trudeau Liberals were paralysed like a deer in the headlights. Their electoral insecurity did not permit them to alienate either the Convoy’s supporters or its opponents. While few Canadians supported the Convoy’s tactics, enough of the suburban white middle class – as essential to Liberal victory as they were fickle – were sufficiently inconvenienced by the governments’ handling of Covid to sympathise with the protesters. Though strong majorities supported decisive action, exactly how they would react to forceful policing of an overwhelmingly white group was unclear. Trudeau finally invoked the Emergencies Act almost three weeks into the occupation of Ottawa, only to revoke it within a week.

As Convoy sympathisers decried Trudeau’s authoritarianism and detractors his indecisiveness, fewer people paused to consider that the Emergencies Act was simply unnecessary. Canadian authorities already wielded the requisite powers to stop the Convoy at any time in its long and well-advertised journey. Only the political will was lacking. Throughout those tense weeks, policing remained light, even friendly, and cosiness between the protesters and police was reported. Notwithstanding the invocation of the Act, the Convoy dispersed largely amicably, the use of special powers being confined to some freezing of accounts. Conservative provincial governments, moreover, simply refused to use it.

The Freedom Convoy has already scored a victory: the moderate Erin O’Toole was ousted as Conservative leader for being insufficiently sympathetic to the Convoy. Distinguishing herself as its defender, interim leader Candice Bergen (not to be confused with the American film star) rails against high social spending and the alleged impending destruction of the oil and gas sector and denounces ‘socialists’ in government. Meanwhile, the suave pro-Convoy Pierre Poilievre pulls crowds whose sheer size anoint him leader pending only the rubber stamp of the leadership election in September. Given that Singh’s NDP is unlikely to survive its guns but no butter deal, the transformation of Canadian politics into a US-style entrenched confrontation between an ostentatiously ‘woke’ neoliberal establishment and an enragée hard right can only accelerate.

Read on: Ho-fung Hung, ‘Canadianization’, NLR 88.

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Return of the King

If there ever was a question of who is boss in Europe, NATO or the European Union, the war in Ukraine has settled it, at least for the foreseeable future. Once upon a time, Henry Kissinger complained that there was no single phone number on which to call Europe, far too many calls to make to get something done, a far too inconvenient chain of command in need of simplification. Then, after the end of Franco and Salazar, came the southern extension of the EU, with Spain joining NATO in 1982 (Portugal had been a member since 1949), reassuring Kissinger and the United States against both Eurocommunism and a military takeover other than by NATO. Later, in the emerging New World Order after 1990, it was for the EU to absorb most of the member states of the defunct Warsaw Pact, as they were fast-tracked for NATO membership. Stabilizing the new kids on the capitalist block economically and politically, and guiding their nation-building and state-formation, the task of the EU, more or less eagerly accepted, would be to enable them to become part of ‘the West’, as led by the United States in a now unipolar world.

In subsequent years the number of East European countries waiting to be admitted to the EU increased, with the United States lobbying for their admission. With time Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia achieved official candidate status, while Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Moldova are still kept waiting further down the line. Meanwhile enthusiasm among EU member states for enlargement declined, especially in France which preferred and prefers ‘deepening’ over ‘widening’. This was in line with the peculiar French finalité of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’: a politically and socially relatively homogeneous compound of states capable collectively of playing an independent, self-determined, ‘sovereign’, above all French-led role in world politics (‘a more independent France in a stronger Europe’, as the just reelected French president likes to put it).

The economic costs of bringing new member states up to European standards, and the required amount of institution-building from the outside, had to be kept manageable, given that the EU was already struggling with persistent economic disparities between its Mediterranean and Northwestern member countries, not to mention the deep attachment of some of the new members in the East to the United States. So, France blocked the entry into the EU of Turkey, a long-standing NATO member (which it will remain even though it has just sent the activist Osman Kavala to prison, for a lifetime in solitary confinement with no possibility of parole). The same holds for several states on the West Balkans, like Albania and North Macedonia, having failed to prevent the accession, in the first wave of Osterweiterung in 2004, of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary. Four years later, Sarkozy and Merkel barred (for the time being) the United States under George Bush the Younger from admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, anticipating that this would have to be followed by their inclusion in the European Union.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine the game changed. Zelensky’s televised address to the assembled heads of EU governments caused a kind of excitement that is much desired but rarely experienced in Brussels, and his demand for full EU membership, tutto e subito, drew unending applause. Overzealous as usual, von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv to hand Zelensky the long questionnaire required to start admission procedures. While normally it takes national governments months if not years to assemble the complex details the questionnaire asks for, Zelensky, Kyiv’s state of siege notwithstanding, promised to finish the job in a matter of weeks, and so he did. It is not yet known what the answers are on questions like the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities, above all Russian, or the extent of corruption and the state of democracy, for example the role of the national oligarchs in political parties and in parliament.

If Ukraine is admitted as swiftly as promised, and as its government and that of the United States expect, there will be no longer be any reason to refuse membership not just to the states of the West Balkans but also to Georgia and Moldova, which applied together with Ukraine. In any case, they will all add strength to the anti-Russian-cum-pro-American wing inside the EU, today led by Poland, at the time like Ukraine an eager participant in the ‘coalition of the willing’ assembled by the United States for the purpose of active nation-building in Iraq. As to the EU generally, Ukrainian accession will turn it into even more of a prep school or a holding pen for future NATO members. This is true even if, as part of a potential war settlement, Ukraine may have to be officially declared neutral, preventing it from joining NATO directly. (In fact, since 2014 the Ukrainian army has been rebuilt from scratch under American direction, to the point where in 2021 it effectively achieved what is called ‘interoperability’ in NATO jargon).

In addition to domesticating neophyte members, another job that has come with the EU’s new status as a civil auxiliary of NATO is to devise economic sanctions that hurt the Russian enemy while sparing friends and allies, as much as necessary. NATO controlling the guns, the EU is charged with controlling the ports. Von der Leyen, enthusiastic as always, had let the world know by the end of February that sanctions made in EU would be the most effective ever and would ‘bit by bit, wipe out Russia’s industrial base’ (Stück für Stück die industrielle Basis Russlands abtragen). Perhaps as a German, she had in mind something like a Morgenthau Plan, as proposed by advisers to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to reduce defeated Germany to an agricultural society forever. That project was soon dropped, at the latest when the United States realized that they might need (West) Germany for its Cold War ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union.

It is not clear who told von der Leyen not to overdo it, but the abtragen metaphor was not heard again, perhaps because what it implied might have amounted to active participation in the war. In any case, it soon turned out that the Commission, its claims to technocratic fame notwithstanding, failed as badly in planning sanctions as it had in planning macro-economic convergence. In remarkably Eurocentric fashion, the Commission seemed to have forgotten that there are parts of the world that see no reason to join a Western-imposed boycott of Russia; for them, military interventions are nothing unusual, including interventions by the West for the West. Moreover, internally, as push came to shove, the EU found it hard to order its member states what not to buy or sell; calls for Germany and Italy to immediately stop importing Russian gas were ignored, with both governments insisting that national jobs and national prosperity be taken into consideration. Miscalculations abounded even in the financial sphere where, in spite of ever-so-sophisticated sanctions against Russian banks, including Moscow’s central bank, the ruble has recently even risen, by roughly 30 percent between April 6 and April 30.

When kings return, they initiate a purge, to rectify the anomalies that have accumulated during their absence. Old bills are presented anew and collected, lack of loyalty revealed during the King’s absence is punished, disobedient ideas and improper memories are extirpated, and the nooks and crannies of the body politic are cleansed of the political deviants that have in the meantime populated them. Symbolic action of the McCarthy type is helpful as it spreads fear among potential dissenters. Throughout the West today, players of piano or tennis or relativity theory who happen to be from Russia and want to continue playing whatever they play are pressed to make public statements that would make their lives and those of their families back home difficult at best. Investigative journalists discover an abyss of philanthropic donations by Russian oligarchs to music and other festivals, donations that have been welcome in the past but are now found to subvert artistic freedom, unlike of course the philanthropic donations of their Western fellow-oligarchs. Etc.

Against the background of proliferating loyalty oaths, public discourse is reduced to spreading the King’s truth, and nothing but. Putin verstehen – trying to find out about motives and reasons, searching for a clue as to how one might, perhaps, negotiate an end to the bloodshed – is equated with Putin verzeihen, or forgiving; it ‘relativizes’, as the Germans put it, the atrocities of the Russian army by trying to end them with other than military means. According to newly received wisdom, there is only one way of dealing with a madman; thinking about other ways advances his interests and therefore amounts to treason. (I remember teachers in the 1950s who let it be known to the young generation that ‘the only language the Russian understands is the language of the fist’.) Memory management is central: never mention the Minsk Accords (2014 and 2015) between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, don’t ask what became of them and why, never mind the platform of negotiated conflict settlement on which Zelensky was elected in 2019 by almost three quarters of Ukrainian voters, and forget the American response by megaphone diplomacy to Russian proposals as late as 2022 for a joint European security system. Above all, never bring up the various American ‘special operations’ of the recent past, like for example in Iraq, and in Fallujah inside Iraq (800 civilian casualties alone in a few days); doing so commits the crime of ‘whataboutism’, which in view of ‘the pictures from Bucha and Mariupol’ is morally out of bounds.

Throughout the West, the politics of imperial reconstruction is targeting anything and anybody found to deviate, or to have deviated in the past, from the American position on Russia and the Soviet Union and on Europe as a whole. It is here that the line is drawn today between Western society and its enemies, between good and evil, a line along which not just the present but also the past needs to be purged. Particular attention is being paid to Germany, the country that has been under American (Kissingerian) suspicion since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the German recognition of the postwar Western border of Poland. Since then, Germany has been suspect in American eyes of wanting to have a voice on national and European security, for the time being within NATO and the European Community, but in the future possibly on its own.

That three decades later Schröder, like Blair, Obama and so many others, monetized his political past after leaving office was as such never a problem. This was different with Schröder’s historical refusal, together with Chirac, to join the American-led posse invading Iraq and, in the act, breach exactly the same international law that is now being breached by Putin. (That Merkel as opposition leader at the time told the world, speaking from Washington DC a few days before the invasion, that Schröder did not represent the true will of the German people may be one of the reasons why she has up to now been spared American attacks for what is claimed to be a major cause of the Ukrainian war, her energy policy having made Germany dependent on Russian natural gas.)

Today, in any case, it is not really Schröder, all-too-obviously inebriated by the millions with which the Russian oligarchs are filling him up, who is the main target of the German purge. Instead it is the SPD as a party – which, according to BILD and the new CDU leader, Friedrich Merz, a businessman with excellent American connections, has always had a Russlandproblem. The role of Grand Inquisitor is robustly performed by the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, one Andrij Melnyk, self-appointed nemesis in particular of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now president of the Federal Republic, who is singled out to personify the SPD’s ‘Russian connection’. Steinmeier was from 1999 to 2005 Schröder’s Chief of Staff at the Chancellor’s Office, served two times (2005-2009 and 2013-2017) as Foreign Minister under Merkel, and was for four years (2009-2013) Bundestag opposition leader.

According to Melnyk, an indefatigable twitterer and interview-giver, Steinmeier ‘has for years woven a spider web of contacts with Russia’, one in which ‘many people are entangled who are now calling the shots in the German government’. For Steinmeier, according to Melnyk, ‘the relationship to Russia was and is something fundamental, something sacred, regardless of what happens. Even Russia’s war of aggression doesn’t matter much to him.’ Thus informed, the Ukrainian government declared Steinmeier persona non grata at the last minute, just as he was about to board a train from Warsaw to Kyiv, in the company of the Polish foreign minister and the heads of government of the Baltic states. While the others were allowed to enter Ukraine, Steinmeier had to inform the accompanying journalists that he was not welcome, and return to Germany.

The case of Steinmeier is interesting as it shows how the targets of the purge are being selected. At first glance Steinmeier’s neoliberal-cum-Atlanticist credentials would seem impeccable. Author of Agenda 2010, as head of the Chancellery and coordinator of the German secret services, he allowed the United States to use their German military bases to collect and interrogate prisoners taken from all over the world during the ‘war on terror’ – one can assume in compensation for Schröder’s refusal to join the American adventure in Iraq. He also didn’t make much of a fuss, indeed no fuss at all, when the United States held German citizens of Lebanese and Turkish descent prisoner in Guantanamo, each of whom was arrested, abducted and tortured after being mistaken for somebody else. Accusations that he failed to provide assistance, as he should have done under German law, have followed him to this day.

What is true is that Steinmeier helped make Germany dependent on Russian energy, although not quite as charged. It was he who, in 1999, negotiated the German exit from nuclear energy, on behalf of the Red-Green government under Schröder and as demanded, not by the SPD, but by the Greens. Later, as opposition leader, he went along when, after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Merkel, having reversed nuclear exit I, now reversed again to push through nuclear exit II, ever so cunningly hoping that this would open the door to a coalition with the Greens. A few years later, when she for the same reason ended coal, in particular soft coal, to become effective at about the time of the shutdown of the last remaining nuclear reactors, Steinmeier went along as well. Still, it is he, not Merkel, who is being blamed for German energy dependence on and collaboration with Russia, perhaps out of lasting American gratitude for Merkel’s assistance in the Syrian refugee crisis following the botched American (half-)intervention in Syria. Meanwhile the Greens, the driving force behind German energy policy since Schröder, like the CDU manage to escape American wrath by pivoting to attack the SPD and Scholz for hesitating to deliver ‘heavy weapons’ to Ukraine.

And Nord Stream 2? Here too, Merkel was always in the driver’s seat, not least because the German end of the pipeline was to be in her home state, even her constituency. Note that the pipeline never went into operation, a good deal of the Russian gas that goes to Germany being pumped through a pipeline system that runs in part through Ukraine. What made Nord Stream 2 necessary, in Merkel’s eyes, was the chaotic legal and political situation in Ukraine after 2014, raising the question of how to secure a reliable transit of gas for Germany and Western Europe – a question that Nord Stream 2 would elegantly solve. One doesn’t have to be an Ukraineversteher to understand that this must have annoyed the Ukrainians. It is interesting to note that after more than two months of war Russian gas is still being delivered through Ukrainian pipelines. While the Ukrainian government could shut these down any moment, it does not do so, probably to enable itself and associated oligarchs to continue collecting transit fees. This does not keep Ukraine from demanding that Germany and other countries end their use of Russian gas immediately, in order to no longer finance ‘Putin’s war’.

Again, why Steinmeier and the SPD, rather than Merkel and the CDU, or the Greens? The most important reason may be that in Ukraine, especially on the radical right of the political spectrum, the name Steinmeier is known and hated above all in connection with the so-called ‘Steinmeier algorithm’ – essentially a sort of roadmap, or to-do-list, for the implementation of the Minsk Accords drawn up by Steinmeier as Foreign Minister under Merkel. While Nord Stream 2 was unforgiveable from a Ukrainian perspective, Minsk was a mortal sin in the eyes not just of the Ukrainian right (among other things, it would have granted autonomy to the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine) but also of the United States, which had been bypassed by it just as Ukraine was to be bypassed by Nord Stream 2. If the latter was an unfriendly act among business partners, the former was an act of high treason against a temporarily absent king, now back to clean up and take revenge.

As much as the EU has become a subsidiary of NATO, its officials can be assumed to know as little as anybody else about the ultimate war aims of the United States. With the recent visit of the US secretaries of state and defense to Kyiv, it seems that the Americans have moved the goalposts forward, from defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion to permanently weakening the Russian military. To what extent the US have now taken control was forcefully demonstrated when on their trip back to the United States the two secretaries stopped over at the American airbase in Ramstein, Germany, the same that the US used for the war on terror and similar operations. There they met with the defense ministers of no less than forty countries, whom they had ordered to show up to pledge their support for Ukraine and, of course, the United States. Significantly the meeting was not called at NATO headquarters in Brussels, a multinational venue at least formally, but on a military facility which the United States claims to be under its and only its sovereignty, to the muted occasional disagreement of the German government. It was here, the United States presiding under two huge flags, American and Ukrainian, that the Scholz government finally agreed to deliver the long-demanded ‘heavy arms’ to Ukraine, without apparently being allowed a say on the exact purpose for which its tanks and howitzers would be used. (The forty nations agreed to reconvene once every month to figure out what further military equipment Ukraine requires.) One cannot but recall in this context the observation of a retired American diplomat at an early stage of the war that the US was going to fight the Russians ‘to the last Ukrainian’.

As is well-known, the attention span not just of the American public but also of the American foreign-policy establishment is short. Dramatic events inside or outside the United States may critically diminish national interest in a far-away place like Ukraine – not to mention the upcoming midterm elections and the impending campaign of Donald Trump to regain the presidency in 2024. From an American perspective this is not much of a problem because the risks associated with US foreign adventures almost exclusively accrue to the locals; see Afghanistan. All the more important, one would think, for European countries to know what exactly the war aims are of the United States in Ukraine, and how they will be updated as the war continues.

After the Ramstein meeting, the talk was not just of a ‘permanent weakening’ of Russian military power, never mind a peace settlement, but of an outright victory for Ukraine and its allies. This will test the Cold War wisdom that a conventional war against a nuclear power cannot be won. For Europeans the result will be a matter of life and death – which might explain why the German government hesitated for a few weeks to supply Ukraine with arms that could be used, for example, to move onto Russian territory, first perhaps to hit Russian supply lines, later for more. (When the writer of these lines read about the new American aspiration for a ‘victory’ he was for a brief but unforgettable moment hit by a deep feeling of fear.) If Germany had the courage to ask for a say on the American-Ukrainian strategy, nothing like this appears to have been on offer: the German tanks, it seems, will be handed over carte blanche. Rumours have it that the numerous wargames commissioned in recent years from military thinktanks by the American government involving Ukraine, NATO and Russia have one way or other all ended in nuclear Armageddon, at least in Europe.

Certainly, a nuclear ending is not what is being publicly advertised. Instead one hears that the United States assumes that defeating Russia will take many years, with a protracted stand-off, a long-smoldering stalemate in the mud of a land war, neither party being able to move: the Russians because the Ukrainians will unendingly be fed more money and more material, if not manpower, by a newly Americanized ‘West’, the Ukrainians because they are too weak to enter Russia and threaten its capital. For the United States this might appear quite comfortable: a proxy war, with its balance of forces adjusted and re-adjusted by them in line with their changing strategic needs. In fact, when Biden requested in the last days of April another 33 billion dollars of aid to Ukraine for 2022 alone, he suggested that this will be only the beginning of a long-term commitment, as expensive as Afghanistan, but, he said, worth it. Unless, of course, the Russians start firing more of their miracle missiles, unpack their chemical arms and, ultimately, put to use their nuclear arsenal, small battle-field warheads first.

Is there, in spite of all this, a prospect for peace after war, or less ambitious: for a regional security architecture, perhaps after the Americans have lost interest, or Russia feels that it cannot or need not continue the war? A Eurasian settlement, if we want to call it so, will probably presuppose some kind of regime change in Moscow. After what happened, it is hard to imagine Western European leaders publicly expressing confidence in Putin, or a Putinesque successor. At the same time, there are no reasons to believe that the economic sanctions imposed by the United West on Russia will cause a public uprising toppling the Putin regime. In fact, going by the experience of the Allies in the Second World War with the carpet bombing of German cities, sanctions might well have the opposite effect, making people close ranks behind their government.

De-industrializing Russia, à la von der Leyen, will not be possible anyway as China will ultimately not allow it: not least because it needs a functioning Russian state for its New Silk Road project. Popular demands in the West for Putin and his camarilla to stand trial in the International Criminal Court in The Hague will, for these reasons alone, remain unfulfilled. Note in any case that Russia, like the United States, has not signed the treaty establishing the court, thereby securing for its citizens immunity from prosecution. Like Kissinger and Bush Jr., and others in the US, Putin will therefore remain at large until the end of his days, whatever that end will be like. Those European countries that are historically not exactly inclined toward Russophilia, like the Baltic countries and Poland, and certainly also Ukraine, stand a good chance of convincing the public in places like Germany or Scandinavia that trusting Russia can be dangerous to your national health.

A regime change may, however, also be needed in Ukraine. In recent years the ultra-nationalist end of Ukrainian politics, with deep roots in the fascist and indeed pro-Nazi Ukrainian past, seems to have gained strength in a new alliance with ultra-interventionist forces in the United States. One consequence, among others, was the disappearance of Minsk from the Ukrainian political agenda. A prominent exponent of the Ukrainian ultra-right is the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, mentioned above, who let it be known in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine that for him, someone like Navalny was exactly the same as Putin when it comes to Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation-state. Asked what he would say to his Russian friends, he denied having any, indeed having had any at any time in his life, as Russians are by nature out to extinguish the Ukrainian people.

Melnyk’s political family goes back to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in the interwar years and under the German occupation, with which its leaders collaborated until they discovered that the Nazis really didn’t distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians when it came to killing and enslaving people. The OUN was led by two men, one Andrij Melnyk (same name as the ambassador) and one Stepan Bandera, the latter to the extent possible somewhat to the right of the former. Both are reported to have committed war crimes under German license, Bandera as police chief, appointed by the Nazis, in Lviv (Lemberg). Later Bandera was pushed aside by the Germans and put under house arrest, like other local fascists elsewhere. (The Nazis didn’t believe in federalism.) After the war, the Soviet Union restored, Bandera moved to Munich, the postwar capital of a host of Eastern European collaborators, among them the Croatian Ustasha. There he was in 1959 assassinated by a Soviet agent, having been sentenced to death by a Soviet court. Melnyk also ended up in Germany and died in the 1970s in a hospital in Cologne.

Today’s Melnyk calls Bandera his ‘hero’. In 2015, shortly after being appointed ambassador, he visited his grave in Munich where he laid down flowers, reporting on the visit on Twitter. This drew a formal reproach from the German foreign ministry, headed at the time by none other than Steinmeier. Melnyk also came out publicly in support of the so-called Azov Battalion, an armed paramilitary group in Ukraine, founded in 2014, which is generally considered the military branch of the country’s several neofascist movements. It is not quite clear to the non-specialist how much influence Melnyk’s political current has in the government of Ukraine today. There certainly are also other currents in the governing coalition; whether their influence will further decline or, to the contrary, increase as the war drags on appears hard to predict at this point. Nationalist movements sometimes dream of a nation rising out of the death on the battlefield of the best of its sons, a new or resurrected nation welded together by heroic sacrifice. To the extent that Ukraine is governed by political forces of this kind, supported from the outside by a United States eager to let the Ukrainian war last, it is hard to see how and when the bloodshed should end, other than by the enemy either capitulating or reaching for his nuclear gun.

Ukrainian politics apart, an American proxy war for Ukraine may force Russia into a close relationship of dependence on Beijing, securing China a captive Eurasian ally and giving it assured access to Russian resources, at bargain prices as the West would no longer compete for them. Russia, in turn, could benefit from Chinese technology, to the extent that it would be made available. At first glance, an alliance like this might appear to be contrary to the geostrategic interests of the United States. It would, however, come with an equally close, and equally asymmetrical, American-dominated alliance between the United States and Western Europe, one that would keep Germany under control and suppress French aspirations for ‘European sovereignty’. Very likely, what Europe can deliver to the United States would exceed what Russia can deliver to China, so that a loss of Russia to China would be more than compensated by the gains from a tightening of American hegemony over Western Europe. A proxy war in Ukraine could thus be attractive to a United States seeking to build a global alliance for its imminent battle with China over the next New World Order, monopolar or bipolar in old or new ways, to be fought out in coming years, after the end of the end of history.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Matrix of War’, NLR 133/134.

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Border-Crosser

By the time Aijaz Ahmad published his now classic, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), he was 51 years old. He had already drifted through Lahore, Harlem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Anatolia and the Palestinian camps in Jordan, before settling in New Delhi. In the book, Ahmad dissected the antinomies of the new theoretical turn in the Anglo-American academy – its schematic conceptions of the third world, its distancing of culture from political economy and activism, its reluctance to highlight its institutional sites, as well as the class locations and practices of its practitioners. I first encountered the book at the University of Delhi. An engineer at the time, I was mesmerized by its feverish blend of a theorist’s insight and a pamphleteer’s loose wit – equal parts revelatory (‘Determination … means the givenness of a circumstance within which individuals make their choices, their lives, their histories’) and rancorous (‘Ranajit Guha … a typical upper-layer bourgeois’). Enrolling in the English department, I soon discovered that this was precisely the kind of writing that is known to sink your academic career. Good thing Ahmad didn’t really have one when he wrote the book.

A year after In Theory was published, the journal Public Culture assembled a set of critical responses. Marjorie Levinson described it as ‘an ugly book’, dismissing it as ‘harangue, jeremiad, flyting, ethnic cleansing: not to make a mystery of it, jihad’. Peter van der Veer started by declaring that the book reminded him of a visit to Calcutta in 1973, where he was shocked to discover a photograph of Stalin in the house of a communist cadre. References to ‘hardline Indian communism’ and Ahmad’s ‘style of inquisition’ duly followed. Talal Asad tersely suggested that the book was influenced by the European teleology of progress. Partha Chatterjee questioned Ahmad’s grasp of Indian Marxism. Nivedita Menon and the book’s commissioning editor Michael Sprinker offered perceptive rejoinders (the only courteous ones) to Ahmad’s portrayal of Edward Said. Andrew Parker wrote that the book failed to achieve an integral unity; it was more a blend of ‘oil and water than political history and literary theory’. And like many other reviewers, Vivek Dhareshwar highlighted the curious disjunction between Ahmad’s focus on the institutional locations of specific scholars and his reluctance to discuss his own involvement in the metropolitan academy. Invoking Ahmad’s criteria, Dhareshwar countered: ‘Does the work/individual have or provide any links with determinate emancipatory movements?’

Ahmad fled Pakistan for the first time in 1966, at the height of Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. He had recently finished a masters at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. Two years later, he started teaching at the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program at the City College of New York. His colleagues there included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, David Hernandez and Adrienne Rich. Although the college was located in Harlem, the cultural epicentre of the country’s Black community, only 9 percent of its daytime students were Black or Puerto Rican. SEEK was instituted to counteract the college’s racist admissions policy and course design. But radicalized by the Vietnam War and Black Liberation, the students wanted to open more than just the gates to a public college. Screening radical cinema and publishing political pamphlets, they swiftly turned the campus into a site for revolutionary politics. In December 1968, addressing a multiracial assembly of students and activists, Stokely Carmichael offered a thunderous ‘blueprint for armed struggle against American racism and capitalism’ that drew inspiration from the raging anticolonial struggles in the Global South. A decade earlier, this same struggle had thrust Ahmad into the fold of radical politics. When Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in 1956, massive anticolonial demonstrations erupted in Lahore. The 15-year-old Ahmad had joined the demonstrators, and in a burst of youthful impudence, climbed onto the veranda of a British consulate official’s house, picked up a chair and smashed it to pieces.

Living under the high noon of ’68 in Harlem, Ahmad translated the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the last Mughal poet, whose career was dramatically transformed by the failed anticolonial rebellion of 1857. In that apocalyptic summer, the Britishers had hanged around 27,000 people in Delhi alone. With his friends either dead or deprived of their patronage and wealth, Ghalib rushed to publish DastAmbooh, a pro-British diary of the revolt. In his private letters, he bitterly censured the reign of colonial terror, and continued writing poems of intense ‘moral loneliness’. Ahmad’s collaborative translations with Adrienne Rich (a close friend), W.S. Merwin and William Stafford first appeared in Mahfil, a mimeographed magazine published at the University of Chicago. Their experiments created a poetic montage, which valued the play of translating over literal translations. Ahmad juxtaposed his ‘prose versions’ with ‘notes’ (explanation and general vocabulary) for each couplet, which were followed by the poets’ own versions of the original ghazal. In this newfound avant-garde collective, Ahmad listened for the echoes of an insurgent humanism: ‘Poetry happens wherever men suffer and posit their humanity against their suffering. Viet Nam, Harlem, the Delhi of 1857. LeRoi and Ghalib. You hold out your hand and you tell another person what you are going through: that is the final poem’.

At SEEK, Ahmad became the Interim Director, but was summarily replaced by a hostile administration in the summer of 1969. He had refused to support the Dean’s decision not to renew the tenures of ten Black faculty members (the charges against one included writing a pamphlet in support of Black workers at a Ford plant). In the fallout of a campus takeover by students, Ahmad was blacklisted from teaching in New York. He crossed the Hudson and started teaching at Rutgers. His translation project, Ghazals of Ghalib, was published the following year by Columbia University Press. By this time, however, Ahmad was occupied by developments in Pakistan, where a militant upsurge of students and urban workers had overthrown Khan’s dictatorship. The Pakistani left was breathing again. A split in the National Awami League had birthed the Mazdoor Kisan Party, a Maoist organization that soon liberated 200 hectares of agrarian land from feudal landlords in Hashtnagar (Northwest Frontier Province). He took a leave of absence from Rutgers, abandoned his PhD at Columbia and returned to Pakistan. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me (2020), a book-length interview with Vijay Prashad (the best source on his life and work), Ahmad reveals that in Pakistan he worked closely with MKP’s leadership ‘at the underground level’. But details of his political activity remain in short supply.

Recently, the anthropologist Shozab Raza told me that, during his fieldwork, he picked up an elusive trace of Ahmad’s presence in South Punjab. Ahmad makes an unexpected appearance in the personal notebook of Sibghatullah Mazari, a poor tenant and member of MKP. Around May 1972, Afzal Bangash, the party’s co-founder, dispatched Ahmad to Bangla Icha, Sibghatullah’s village, where he taught literary and political writing to young students. Raza added that his clandestine presence in the village was ‘likely part of a larger reconnaissance trip, which also included travelling to Hashtnagar’. Ahmad was also a punctual presence in MKP’s official organ, the Circular, where he translated Amílcar Cabral and Lê Duẩn, among many others. Rejecting the stuffy Urdu translations produced in Moscow, he re-translated Lenin in the diction and syntax found on Pakistani streets. If in Harlem, Ahmad grappled with the politics of poetic innovation, now he stressed the poetics of his political interventions. This came naturally to him. During his college years in Lahore, Ahmad had sharpened his convictions on the whetstone of literary style. Novelist Intizar Hussain and the poet Nasir Kasmi had been among his friends. One day he would study Proust, whose ‘sentences ran to five, ten, fifteen, even twenty clauses’, inconceivable in Urdu; the next day, he would translate Joyce’s Dubliners with its ‘short, pithy sentences, hard as diamonds, impossible to cut’. Youthful enthusiasms now bloomed into a desire for new dialectical idioms.

Ahmad was prolific throughout the 1970s, publishing poems, translations, literary criticism and political analyses in various Urdu magazines – not just in Lahore and Karachi, but also across the border, in Allahabad and Hyderabad. His phenomenal critique of Baloch separatism appeared in Pakistan Forum in 1973. The complementary essays, ‘The Agrarian Question of Baluchistan’ and ‘The National Question of Baluchistan’, offered a sweeping account of the tensions between Balochistan’s linguistic and ethnic history, and the contradictions afflicting its severely impoverished economy (founded on inward and outward flows of migrant labour). Though an uncompromising advocate of the liberation of Bangladesh, Ahmad rejected calls for an ethnolinguistic revision of Pakistan’s national borders. A secession, he emphasized, could not resolve the class contradictions of Baloch society. Instead, it would further empower elite landowning Sardars, who would readily become neo-colonial clients of the US or the Soviet Union. As expected, Ahmad’s contentions enraged Baloch nationalists and their sympathizers, including the journal’s editor Feroz Ahmed, who rushed to rebut his friend in a new book. Cracks also developed in Ahmad’s relationship with MKP. The party saluted the Naxalite insurgency smouldering across the border. But Ahmad became increasingly critical of this Maoist adventure, eventually drawing the ire of the party. Writing to the political theorist Noaman G. Ali, Ahmad revealed that ‘a whole session of MKP, with perhaps 60 or 70 members present, was once called in Faisalabad for (him) to be held answerable for this heresy’.

During this period, Ahmad also travelled widely in the Arab world. Defeat by Israel in the Six Day War and the subsequent decline of Nasserism had spurred a wave of Islamist reaction. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state religion and Shar’ia ‘the main source of state legislation’. Crisscrossing the peri-urban townships surrounding Cairo and the small-town interiors of Anatolia, Ahmad closely studied the unexpected rise of an Islamist bourgeoisie. In Jordan, he discovered that ‘the (Palestinian) camps were just full of Quranic recitations, full of Islamic cassettes of various sorts’. In Lebanon, his comrades in Palestinian liberation organizations painted similar pictures of Birzeit. Ahmad’s analyses were regularly translated and published in Rose Al-Yusef, the Egyptian political weekly, and As-Safir, the leading daily newspaper in Lebanon. He had already experienced similar tensions in Pakistan, where the MKP had tried to meld Marxism and Islam into a revolutionary program. Tariq Ali memorably described it as ‘the party which begins its private and public meetings with recitations from the Koran and whose manifesto is liberally spiced with quotations from the same!’ But this new shift shared little with revolutionary politics. In 1977, Pakistan also fell to the Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented martial law, disbanded Parliament and ordered the Islamization of the entire country.

Ahmad fled back to the US. A 90-page essay, ‘Political Islam: A Critique,’ soon appeared in three parts in Pakistan Progressive, as well as a ‘balance sheet’ of the rebellion against General Zia’s coup in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Struggling to find a political foothold, by the mid-1980s Ahmad resolved to move to India, the country of his birth and home to a still robust national communist movement. But since laws forbade Pakistani citizens to work in India, he gave up his citizenship and acquired a US passport. It was against the backdrop of these transitions that Ahmad wrote the essay which famously rebutted Fredric Jameson’s claim that ‘all third-world literatures are … national allegories’. Rejecting ‘Jameson’s haste in totalizing historical phenomena in terms of binary oppositions’, Ahmad asserted that capitalism imposed an economic unity on the entire world and that national cultures evolved on a shared, but uneven, political terrain. When Ahmad arrived as a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a new generation of scholars was starting to scrutinize the explosion of theory in the West. In 1990, Suvir Kaul published ‘The Indian Academic and Resistance to Theory’, a moving essay about his return to the University of Delhi after finishing PhD at Cornell, in which he astutely noted how theorists like Paul De Man and Homi Bhabha ‘co-opt(ed) … the language of resistance into … a purely linguistic, tropological activity,’ and neglected that theories of différance are subject to the “invisible hand” that scripts the global equation of knowledge/power’. Composing In Theory simultaneously, Ahmad explained that this new theoretical turn (which took Marxism as just one critical framework among many) was mediated by the successive eclipse of anticolonial struggles, the New Left and the socialist bloc. Driven by his own itinerant political life, Ahmad decreed that theory must be rigorously held ‘accountable’ by the ‘non-academic political field’.

Just three months after the publication of In Theory, a right-wing Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, sparking a blaze of anti-Muslim pogroms across India. In the early 1950s, the growing threat of the Hindu right had forced Ahmad’s family of farmers to migrate from the present-day Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan (his earliest memories included his uncle hoisting the Indian flag on the morning of independence and imbibing progressive Urdu fiction and poetry in a village that lacked electricity and a school). Four decades later, its rise was complete. As In Theory occasioned fiery debates in the Anglo-American academy, Ahmad’s own career now took a sharp turn. In a series of critical essays, later collected in The Lineages of the Present and On Communalism and Globalization, Ahmad dissected the precipitous decline of Indian democracy. Never afraid of challenging popular consensus, Ahmad resolved that there was no contradiction between liberal institutions and the Hindu right. The BJP had no need to suspend liberal democracy because it had already captured its institutions from the inside – judiciary, universities, media, bureaucracy and military. Legitimized by these same institutions, it could freely orchestrate ‘perpetual low-intensity violence’ against Dalits and Muslims. But the left, Ahmad suggested, could not replicate this strategy. The ‘liberal-democratic state apparatus’ is designed to stabilize the capitalist order. It might allow for limited welfare reforms in individual states like Kerala, but it ‘will never permit the communist Left to implement its programme’ on a national level. ‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves,’ was his grim forecast.

Ahmad’s arrival in India also radically transformed his role as an intellectual. While in Pakistan he had lived underground with MKP and published in small Arabic and Urdu magazines (many of them lost to us), now he became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, and wrote for India’s prominent Anglophone magazines. In Frontline, Ahmad published over 80 essays, including celebrated long-form coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (collected in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of our Times). In Newsclick, he tracked the geopolitical crises of late capitalism: the French bombardment of northern Mali, the fallout of the Crimean referendum, among others. When the BJP came to power in 2014, Ahmad’s visa was not renewed. Aged 75, he was again forced to relocate to the US – now as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, ironically a wellspring of the same theoretical turn that Ahmad had publicly censured.

When In Theory was first published, Partha Chatterjee had charged Ahmad with ‘dissembling’, querying why the book ‘should conceal so strenuously, in its jacket, preliminary pages and text, the fact that the author has spent the overwhelming part of his career studying and teaching in the ‘metropolitan academy’”. But looking back, what is bothersome is not the alleged suppression of Ahmad’s academic career, but rather that of his career outside the academy. Why do we know so little about the political ebbs and flows of Ahmad’s life? Or more broadly, why do we know so little about the lives of those countless organizers and activists, autodidacts and litterateurs, who live and write in the postcolonial periphery? Why does their work rarely travel to the shores of the metropolitan academy? And who is responsible for this ‘concealing’?

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, NLR I/208.

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Theorist in Exile

I first met Aijaz Ahmad in London in the mid-1990s. We ran into each other by chance. As I was introduced, he immediately said, ‘You have a very unusual name. No one from Uttar Pradesh is called Vinayak’. Only a local would make such a comment. Many men from north India of my father’s and grandfather’s generation had noted the anomaly between my firmly north Indian last name and my first name, which has its roots in western and southern India. Ahmad was the last person I met who made this observation; that generation is now mostly gone. What Ahmad said next was more striking. He explained that Vinayak, one of the names of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was his favourite Hindu deity: a seeker of knowledge, a remover of obstacles, a consumer of intoxicants. But he lamented that the Hindu right’s appropriation of Ganesh now made it impossible for him to view the deity positively.   

It was fortuitous that Ahmad and I ended up teaching at the same university nearly twenty years later. Ahmad had arrived under adverse circumstances. The election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 meant that his Indian visa had not been renewed. His criticism of the Hindu right had finally caught up with him, not to mention his name and Pakistani identity. He could no longer live in the country of his birth. Instead, he had to return to a metropolitan university in the ‘belly of the beast’ – Che Guevara’s phrase that Ahmad often cited. He arrived at University of California, Irvine as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature in 2016. I am sure the irony of moving to an institution that was a major site for the ‘theory’ of which he had long been a critic was not lost on him. Nor the fact that he was now living in a city that wholeheartedly embraced the culture of late-capitalism – one that that Slavoj Žižek has described as the strangest place on earth.

Ahmad had experienced displacement at a young age, when his family moved from the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar to Lahore, Pakistan. The formation of India and Pakistan as newly independent nation-states occurred in a period of great tragedy and violence that Ahmad described as a ‘communal holocaust’. The generation that lived through it never forgot their histories of forced migration. Very few returned. Ahmad, though, was different. He left Pakistan when he found himself in political trouble for questioning General Zia-ul-Haq’s military coup in 1977. But he was not allowed to live in India until he acquired another citizenship; in his case this meant moving to New York and becoming a US passport holder. Ahmad later resided in India for many years on short-term visas. Government policy stipulates that any individual who was once a Pakistani national cannot become Indian again – at least on paper. Living in India also complicated Ahmad’s re-entry into Pakistan; it was no longer possible for him to return for any length of time. The Radcliffe Line arbitrarily drawn on a map as the permanent border between India and Pakistan divided the people of both nations for posterity.

It is not surprising then that alienation is a key theme of Ahmad’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, he was best known for his translations and interpretations of Urdu poetry, especially his work on Mirza Ghalib, considered by some to be the greatest Indian poet of the nineteenth century. There is a personal inflection to his description of Ghalib as a ‘tragic poet’, ‘surrounded by constant carnage’ in a world undone by British domination and the decline of early-modern Mughal courtly culture. Ahmad was acutely sensitive to the historical conjuncture in which Ghalib no longer felt he belonged, describing his life as ‘unbearable’. Equally sympathetic to those forced into exile, he was a fierce protector of the historical legacy of Marx, especially from postcolonial scholars who dismissed him as an Orientalist, a racist, or worse. Ahmed argued that these critics had failed to read Marx’s writings on India (or elsewhere) carefully or systematically enough, countering that his analysis was far more complex and radical than most of the anticolonial leaders of the period. ‘Expecting more from a German refugee who spent much of his pauperized life in nineteenth century London strikes me as somewhat unfair’, he wrote.

The defence of Marx was part of a broader project. As an essayist extraordinaire, he spent several years writing critiques of what was popularly known in the Anglo-American academy as ‘theory’, which were collected in his most famous book, In Theory (1992). For Ahmad, the theoretical formations of postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism were characterized by a retreat from socialist politics into ‘fashionable’ discursive strategies – their theory not only distanced itself from historical materialism but sought its undoing in the name of dismantling all grand narratives. Ahmad also sharply criticised those postcolonial writers who used ‘exile’ as a metaphor for all ‘Third World’ immigrants irrespective of their circumstances. Some, he argued, were engaged in‘an opportunistic kind of Third Worldism’, whereby wealthy, educated immigrants living in the diaspora for reasons of professional aspiration neglected to distinguish between themselves and those forced to flee their homes for fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Ahmad lamented that this ‘inflationary rhetoric’ had entered the writings of literary theorists who claimed marginality as a strategic subject position in their work.

In Theory received a great deal of attention as a major intervention in Marxist cultural criticism, and for its trenchant critiques of Fredric Jameson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. This was softened – or at least that is what Ahmad thought – with a comradely gesture to his interlocutors: ‘Suppression of criticism, I have come to believe, is not the best way of expressing solidarity’. Criticism was ultimately intended to bring them together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The book provoked a furore, with many condemning its combative tone as well as its insistence on linking Marxist political economy to the study of literary theory. Ahmad regretted that his criticisms were misconstrued as personal attacks, and he emphasised that he celebrated parts of the work of those he criticised. What he found more disappointing was that many of these detractors failed to engage with his central arguments about ‘Third World Literature’ and ‘Three Worlds Theory’ ­– not to mention his essay titled ‘Marx on India’.

In Theory was followed by a second volume of essays, Lineages of the Present (1996). This included an autobiographical introduction in which Ahmad identified himself as an exile and perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his departure from Pakistan, describing the ‘painful cultural price’ of renouncing Urdu as his primary language. He also made clear that the bricolage of essays reflected a personal story about his life: each represented a specific moment of his intellectual and political development. In particular, the collection charts his growing concern with the rise of the Hindu right and the ideology of Hindutva. The demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992 had been a major turning point. If Mirza Ghalib had experienced the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmad witnessed the beginning of its historical erasure. The collection also included literary engagements with Urdu writers, as well as a critical analysis of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx that became the leading Marxist response to deconstruction at the time, alongside a defence of Gramsci from cultural theorists whom Ahmad felt no longer interpreted him as a revolutionary socialist.

The book marked a transition of sorts, as Ahmad’s attention increasingly shifted towards journalism and current affairs. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s project was expansive: US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Russian concerns about NATO, Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, the domestic economy of China, the persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the global financial crisis. The rise of India’s Hindu right though concerned him most intimately. He argued that there were ‘structural connections’ linking the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in India with what he called the ‘communal fascism’ of Hindu nationalism, and a new, globalized form of imperialism. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, India witnessed a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 would establish Modi’s credentials as the next leader of the BJP. Ahmad described the period as reflecting a ‘culture of cruelty’. His work elucidated how the legacy of the communal holocaust of 1947 persisted into the new century.

At Irvine, Ahmad was initially reluctant to discuss the difficulty of leaving India once again. The last time I met him we were on a panel together at a South Asian Studies conference before the Covid breach, where speaker after speaker denounced the idea of ‘South Asia’ as a neo-colonial construction. Many anticipated that Ahmad would maintain his combative position against postcolonial studies as he had done for many years, but instead he opted to share his life-story of multiple migrations and displacements. He described himself as a political exile who could no longer return to India or Pakistan. South Asia meant something to him that others in the room could not know or understand. Now, in an echo of what he had written in the 1970s about Ghalib, his world was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Ahmad never returned ‘home’. He died on March 9, 2022.

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘A Gift of Memory’, NLR I/237.

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Fables of Migration

On 14 April, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood chatting to the reassuring blue uniforms of the Royal Navy with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly in view, courtesy of Downing Street TV. ‘Our compassion may be infinite,’ he said, ‘but our capacity to help people is not.’ On the same day and in tandem, his home secretary Priti Patel was visiting Rwanda to sign an agreement with foreign minister Vincent Biruta. Although details remain scant, the deal means that many refugees arriving in Britain will be sent to Rwanda while their asylum claims are assessed. If their application is successful, they will gain the right to settle – in Rwanda. The expulsions could begin in weeks.

Johnson’s late-evening announcement ensured that the policy was emblazoned on the newsstands the next morning. ‘UK Migrants Off to Rwanda’, barked The Sun, the ‘off’ faintly suggesting that this was a journey the migrants would be making ‘off their own back’. The Mail adopted its usual tone of righteous aggression, proclaiming ‘Rwanda Plan to Smash the Channel Gangs’. Meanwhile, headlines in the Times and Telegraph were almost identically bland – ‘Channel Boat Migrants Will Be Sent to Rwanda’; ‘Channel Migrants To Be Sent to Rwanda’ – as if Patel’s programme were no more than a simple, technical solution to the ‘migration crisis’.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper immediately responded to Patel via Twitter: ‘Desperate and truly shameful announcement from Govt tonight as an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking. Unworkable, unethical and extortionate.’ Later that day, the same triad – ‘unworkable, unethical, extortionate’ – was repeated by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Since then, the opposition has continually described the scheme as a diversion from the Partygate scandal, keeping its moral outrage firmly focussed on the latter. Although the ethical content of the Rwanda plan was criticised in passing, its greater evil apparently lies in distracting from what really matters. Much like the Murdoch broadsheets, Labour has stayed mostly silent on the morality of the policy while questioning its practicality and efficiency – Does it work? How much will it cost? The implication being that, if only the government could resettle migrants to third-countries at a reasonable price, Sir Keir would offer his full support.

What explains this emphasis on the plan’s technical details over its human cost? Since Johnson secured a resounding parliamentary majority in 2019, he has sought various ways to maintain the populist energy of his campaign. Exploiting the issue of migration has been chief among them. Over the past year, the Home Office has considered a number of bizarre initiatives to push back dinghies using wave machines, deport migrants to remote islands on the other side of the world, or imprison them in disused ferries off the British coast – all in the name of ‘taking back control’. None of these blueprints were realised, and some have predicted that the Rwanda policy won’t come to fruition either. But their ideological function was obvious: to naturalise the treatment of certain people as objects that can be ‘offshored’, ‘processed’ or ‘relocated’. If this latest announcement prompted more hand-wringing over its administrative complexities than outrage at its political purpose, that was a clear sign of the government’s success: drawing on the history of enslavement and empire to cast migrants (particularly black and brown ones) as inert matter which can be transported, stored or disposed of, according to the priorities of the British state. 

Yet migrant-baiting is a contradictory discourse. On the one hand, the refugee is presented as a lifeless object – a problem in need of a solution. On the other, the public is told to be wary, suspicious, even fearful of those who land on Britain’s shores. Threaded through the Tories’ speeches and statements is a familiar narrative of criminality; and though it is primarily directed at ‘gangs’ and ‘people smugglers’, the taint spreads by association. Johnson warns of the ‘healthy young men’ or ‘economic migrants’ who come here under false pretences, sometimes posing as minors, in place of the truly vulnerable. We are taught to distinguish such pretenders from the ‘genuine asylum seeker’, for whom the government declares its endless sympathy. The construction of this ideal type acts as a ploy to justify state violence towards anyone who dares to cross the Channel. Early announcements of the Patel plan suggested that only single men would be sent to Rwanda, though this was quickly revised to include single women as well. Of course, there is no fixed criteria for becoming an ‘authentic’ asylum seeker. The status is unattainable; yet its imaginary preservation allows any aspiring refugee to be disciplined and demonized.

As such, while migration policy is drained of its ethical content and cast in bureaucratic garb, it is also paradoxically reframed as a pressing moral mission. In his speech on 14 April, Johnson stressed that the Rwanda deal was both an ingenious policy fix and a virtuous crusade:

From the French Huguenots, to the Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, to the docking of the Empire Windrush, to the South Asians fleeing East Africa, to the many, many others who have come from different countries at different times for different reasons, all have wanted to be here because our United Kingdom is a beacon of openness and generosity, and all in turn have contributed magnificently to the amazing story of the UK.

But this generosity is only possible, he went on to argue, in the absence of illegal migration and people trafficking:

These vile people smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children, drowning in unseaworthy boats, and suffocating in refrigerated lorries. And even if they do make it here, we know only too well some of the horrendous stories of exploitation over the years, from the nail bars of East London to the cockle beds of Morecambe Bay, as illegal migration makes people more vulnerable to the brutal abuse of ruthless gangs.

Robust, impermeable borders are therefore necessary to protect both the British public and the ‘good immigrant’ from the criminal Other: a point that Tory ministers repeated in press interviews over the following week. By extension, opposition to Patel’s plan amounts to supporting the traffickers, or siding with Britain’s civilizational enemies. When the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged this logic in his Easter Day sermon, describing the offshoring scheme as ‘the opposite of godly’, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg seized an opportunity to double down on the Tories’ fable. He described the plan as ‘almost an Easter story of redemption’, since it would involve the UK using its first-world privileges to support a deprived African nation and its people.

The missionary script was vividly present in these remarks. Yet the Tories have also harnessed another, less well-known legacy of the colonial era to their anti-migrant rhetoric. In late nineteenth-century Britain, popular fiction made abundant use of what the critic Stephen Arata has called ‘narratives of reverse migration’: stories where primitive forces threaten to colonise the Western world. In Rider Haggard’s She, Ayesha wants to sack London and depose Queen Victoria; in Dracula, the Count invades Britain by boat after buying a series of large properties. As Arata points out, these stories stemmed from anxiety about Britain’s place in the world when confronted with increasingly globalized competition. They built on a pervasive cultural suspicion of unmoored or uprooted people, who find themselves isolated, far from home, for opaque reasons. Their purpose was to shore up a ‘civilized’ and stable British identity in contrast to this itinerant one. In our post-Brexit age, as Ukania struggles to articulate its role within a multipolar order, the relevance of this narrative has been renewed. Following Theresa May’s invective against ‘citizens of nowhere’, Johnson has moved to excise these nomadic subjects from the British polity.

The outsourcing of what was formerly state provision (health, education, security, justice) to global conglomerates in the name of efficiency and frugality is a familiar feature of neoliberal capitalism. Any public service can be broken down into a set of anonymized technical procedures administered by profit-making companies. Yet Patel’s asylum plan represents a particularly noxious form of public–private partnership, in which the state, its capacity eroded by years of austerity, can only execute its nationalist-authoritarian turn by delegating its repressive functions to unaccountable contractors. This was true of the plan’s immediate forerunner: the Australian practice of removing migrants to Manus, Papua New Guinea and the small South Pacific island of Nauru. Shadowy companies like Serco and G4S were awarded substantial ‘care and justice’ contracts to carry out this programme, and they are now likely to be enlisted by Patel (who hired the architect of the Australian plan, Alexander Downer, in February of this year). If this is the reality of Britain’s ‘post-neoliberal’ settlement, then it is no cause for left triumphalism. It means the empowerment of parasitic companies to compensate for the weakness of the imperial state – whose atrophy and insecurity has not diminished its malice.

Of course, as Justin Welby noted, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker; but the proliferation of various categories of migrant creates a hierarchy of virtue which is easily exploited by those who seek to block migration tout court. Is long-term structural unemployment a less valid reason to leave your home country than state persecution? Is lack of access to education? My father left Karachi by ship in 1955 for what was supposed to be a temporary stay in London. It was a comfortable journey, sharing a cabin with a friend, and he was relatively privileged compared to most of those who were arriving from the Caribbean and Subcontinent. He soon became an immigrant, gradually settling in London without even realising he was doing so. Yet just eight years earlier, he and his family had left Amritsar for Lahore amid the Partition crisis, in which two million were killed and up to 15 million displaced. It is unclear what motivated my father’s onward journey to Britain; and one may have struggled to classify him as either an immigrant or a refugee. But one thing is certain: were he to set out on the same journey today, the machinery of the Home Office would be mobilized to stop him.

Read on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, ‘Empire, Twenty Years On’, NLR 120.