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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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American Interregnum

What trends do you see emerging from the social, health and economic crises produced by Covid-19? What do the post-pandemic reconstructions tell us about the ‘crisis of care’?

Both the pandemic and the response to it represent the irrationality and destructiveness of capitalism. The crisis of care was already evident before the outbreak of Covid, but was greatly exacerbated by it. The pre-existing condition, so to speak, was financialized capitalism – the especially predatory form that has held sway for the last forty years, progressively eroding our public-care infrastructure by disinvestment in the name of ‘austerity’. But in fact, every form of capitalist society works by allowing business to free-ride on unpaid carework. By subordinating people-making to profit-making, it harbours a built-in tendency to social-reproductive crisis.

But the same holds for the current ecological crisis, which reflects a deep-structural dynamic that primes capital to free-ride on nature, without thought for repair or replenishment, periodically destabilizing ecosystems and the communities they sustain. The same holds for our current political crisis, which reflects the severe weakening of public powers by mega corporations, financial institutions, tax revolts on the part of the rich, resulting in gridlock and under-investment in crucial infrastructure. Although this has been made especially acute by neoliberalization, it expresses a tendency to political crisis that is hard-wired into every form of capitalist society. The crisis of care is inextricably intertwined with other dysfunctions – ecological, political, racial-ethnic – which add up to a general crisis of the social order.

Covid’s effects on humans would be horrific under any conditions. But they have been worsened by the fact capital in this period has cannibalized public power – the collective capacities that could otherwise have been used to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As a result, the response has been hampered in many countries, including the US, by decades of disinvestment from crucial public-health infrastructure. There is a tendency in the US to blame Trump. But that’s a mistake. The disinvestment has been going on for decades.

The Clinton administration in the nineties took the first steps toward this.

Yes, a whole series of US administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, disinvested from essential public-health infrastructure. They drew down stockpiles of essential equipment like PPE, ventilators, masks, depleted vitally important capacities – contract tracing, vaccine storage and distribution – and underfunded critical institutions like research centers, public hospitals, ICU units, government health agencies. Scientists were warning that another viral epidemic was likely, but no one listened. So, when Covid arrived, the US was utterly unprepared. We had virtually no contact tracing – and we still don’t, after more than a year. The public-health authorities simply lacked the ability to organize it and have still not managed to build that capacity up.

The collapse of already weak systems of public care threw all the burdens back onto families and communities – and especially onto women, who still do the lion’s share of unpaid carework. Under lockdown, child care and schooling were suddenly shifted into people’s homes, leaving women to take on that burden on top of other responsibilities – and to do so in small domestic spaces, not able to bear the load. Many employed women ended up quitting their jobs to care for kids and other relatives; many others were laid off. A third group, lucky enough to keep their jobs and work remotely from home, while also performing carework, including for housebound kids, have had to take multi-tasking to new heights of craziness. A fourth group, ‘essential workers’, face the threat of infection daily on the frontlines, fearful of bringing the virus home to their families, while doing what needs to be done, often for very low pay, so that others, more privileged, can access the goods and services they need in order to isolate at home. Which women find themselves in which group has everything to do with class and color. It is as if someone had injected a dye into capitalism’s circulatory system, lighting up all its constitutive fault lines.

In the United States, the outbreak of Covid was followed by an impressive wave of protests, mostly led by young black people, against racist police violence. Did the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ take on a different meaning during the pandemic?

It’s an important question. Why did the resurgence of militant anti-racist activity in the US coincide with the Covid pandemic? Police murders of people of color have been going on for a very long time, as have struggles against them. So why did the protests become so large and sustained at just that moment, in the midst of a horrific health crisis? Some have suggested that the months of lockdown created intense psychological pressure, which found a much-needed outlet on the streets. But I think there are deeper reasons, forged in the crisis, which provoked some major flashes of political insight. The realization that these two apparently distinct expressions of structural racism – disparate vulnerability to death from the virus, and disparate vulnerability to death from police violence – were actually linked, that both were rooted in the same social system.

By the time the protests erupted in May 2020, it was already clear that Americans of color, and Blacks in particular, were disproportionately contracting and dying from Covid. They got worse health care and had a higher rate of underlying conditions, linked to poverty and discrimination, and associated with bad Covid outcomes – asthma, obesity, stress, high blood pressure. They faced greater risks of exposure, thanks to frontline jobs that could not be performed remotely, and to crowded housing conditions. All of this had been widely reported in the media. And it resonated, lending new meaning to ‘Black Lives Matter’.

The slogan had been circulating since 2014, when Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson MO sparked the Movement for Black Lives. Since then there’s been a great deal of organizing, including consciousness-raising and reading groups, forming a new generation of militant anti-racist activists, especially young activists of color. That was the context, the atmosphere, in which reports of the racialized impact of Covid were received and processed. On top of that came George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, captured for all the world to see in that enraging and heartbreaking video. And so the fuse was lit. In other words, the timing was not coincidental.

The convergence of pandemic and anti-police violence protest expressed the expansion, the deepening, of ‘Black Lives Matter’. A first level of meaning was that, if Black lives really mattered to the US criminal ‘justice’ system, then the multiple forms of racialized violence within it would not exist. When the pandemic hit, it also came to mean: Black lives should not be disproportionately lost and shortened by this lethal mix of exposure to infection and pre-existing health problems – pointing to underlying structural conditions as well.

The electoral impact of BLM was hugely positive, most obviously in the state of Georgia, which turned from deep red to blue, giving its electoral votes to Biden and flipping two Senate seats, giving one to an African-American and the other to a Jew (which is big news in the Deep South) and thereby handing the Dems control of the Senate. The dynamics at work here included white suburban revulsion against Trump as well as massive Black turnout, the latter no doubt galvanized by Black Lives Matter but also prepared by years of ‘get out to vote’ organizing in that state – the sustained hard work of activists on the ground, like Stacey Abrams.

Trump’s defeat in the election was hailed as a victory, but it does not seem that the same enthusiasm was aroused by Biden’s win. How do you read the result of the American elections? Has a ‘progressive neoliberalism’ decisively won out against the reactionary populism of the Trump bloc and the progressive populism of Sanders?

We remain, to use Gramsci’s terms, in an interregnum, where the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In that situation, you tend to get a series of political oscillations, back-and-forth swings between alternatives that are exhausted and cannot succeed. At present, however, we haven’t yet swung back from Trumpism to the full-scale ‘progressive neoliberalism’ embodied by the Clinton and Obama administrations. That could still happen, of course, but as of now the pendulum motion is being checked by the emboldened left wing of the Democratic Party. Trump’s defeat was secured by an alliance between the Party’s establishment neoliberal center, the Clinton-Obama wing, and its left-populist opposition – the Sanders-Warren-AOC wing. Granted, the centrists had engineered Sanders’s brutal ejection from the primary process, despite – or because of – his strong showing, in order to clear the way for the then-stumbling Biden to become the Party’s nominee. But unlike in 2016, the two wings coalesced for the general election. The Sanders faction gave fairly full-throated support for Biden against Trump and in return gained increased voice in policy.

The upshot is that progressive populists and progressive neoliberals are now in a coalition. The populists are the weaker party in this alliance and are not represented in Biden’s cabinet. But their influence has nonetheless grown. Sanders now heads the powerful Senate Budget Committee and is frequently interviewed on national TV, which is new – he was never previously treated as a key spokesperson or commentator. Then, too ‘The Squad’, AOC’s caucus in Congress, has doubled its numbers, winning some important House races in the 2020 election.

And on domestic policy, the centrists have moved to the left. The Dems in both Houses voted unanimously for Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, which contains several items on the progressive-populist wish-list. That package clearly reflects the strength and influence of the Sanders wing. Yet it had the support of Biden’s economic advisers who, while certainly not ‘on the left,’ represent at least a partial break from the Goldman-Sachs alums who ran the Treasury Dept for decades and brought us financialization. Led by Janet Yellen, the new team’s orientation is neo- or quasi-Keynesian; although still committed to ‘free trade,’ they have at least temporarily renounced austerity logic and prioritized full employment over low inflation.

The current state of the Biden administration represents a compromise formation. Its politics of (re)distribution melds some reactivated elements of New Deal thinking with the free trade side of neoliberal political economy, while its politics of recognition includes both meritocratic and egalitarian elements. There are a lot of built-in tensions here, and these are bound to erupt sooner or later. It remains to be seen when and in what form – also, whether they can be resolved and on what terms. In general, the left/liberal alliance is shaky and won’t last forever. But what exactly will replace it remains unclear.

A key variable is the extent to which Biden’s policies will satisfy a population reeling not only from the pandemic’s health and economic fallout, but also from the ‘pre-existing conditions’. Forty years of deindustrialization and off-shoring, financialization, union-busting, McJobification, infrastructural decay – as well as police violence, environmental devastation, the shredding of the social safety net: everything that has worked to worsen the living conditions for the poor, the working class, the lower- and middle middle-classes.

These are the process that sparked the mass defection from ‘progressive neoliberalism’, in the two-sided populist revolt of 2016 – Trump, on the one hand, Sanders on the other. And both of those movements will continue in one form or another, as long as those processes continue. So, the future of the Biden compromise depends on its ability to make sufficient pro-working-class concessions to keep the left populists on board and to blunt the force of the right populists. Plus, it must also keep the investor class happy. Not an easy job.

The election of Kamala Harris has provoked mixed reactions on the left, between those who emphasize having a black woman as Vice President and those who criticize her past positions on the death penalty and her cover up of abuses of authority as Attorney General of California. What is your analysis?

I’ve never been a big fan of what Anne Phillips once called the ‘politics of presence’, the idea that electing someone who looks like you – for example, a woman or a person of color – is in and of itself a great achievement. Nobody with a feminist bone in her body supported Thatcher. We in the US are clearer about this now, I think, after having elected an African American to the Presidency in 2008. Many people cast that vote with tremendous hopes for a major change, which the candidate deliberately cultivated through soaring campaign rhetoric. And the result was deep disappointment. Once in power, Obama quickly dropped the inspiring talk and governed as a progressive neoliberal. After that experience, no one who thinks at all deeply about politics will feel much excitement about Harris’s ascension to the Vice Presidency. We have an old saying: ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’.

In any case, Harris – unlike Obama – is neither a political unknown nor a soaring orator. She has a long political track record as a ‘tough on crime’ prosecutor and administrator – and as an ambitious political operator. You’d have to be willfully blind to think of her as a beacon of ‘hope and change’. On the other hand, she is very bright and flexible, good at reading the tea leaves and adjusting her course accordingly. She could conceivably move a little to the left if that course served her ambitions, which include the Presidency for which she is now being groomed as Biden’s number two and presumed successor. But insofar as she is someone who goes with the flow, it’s more important to analyze the flow.

When the Biden compromise collapses, as it must, the liberals will probably attack the left and try to resurrect progressive neoliberalism in some new guise, just as the MAGA forces will try to resurrect their reactionary-populist alternative. At that point, the left will face a crossroads. In one scenario, it would double-down on the forms of shallow identity politics that drive cancel culture and diversity fetishism. In another, it would make a serious effort to build a third alternative, by articulating an inclusive politics of recognition with an egalitarian politics of redistribution. The idea would be to split off the pro-working-class elements of each of the other two blocs and unite them in a new, anti-capitalist coalition, committed to fighting for the whole working class – not only the people of color, immigrants and women who supported Sanders, but also wooing – on the basis of their economic interests – those who defected to Trump. Such a coalition could be understood as a leftwing version of populism. But I see it less as an endpoint than as a transitional stage, en route to something more radical – a deep-structural transformation of our whole social system. That would require not just a politics of left populism, but something more like democratic eco-socialism.

Questions by Alessandra Spano.

Read on: Nancy Fraser, ‘Climates of Capital’, NLR 127.

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Stalemate in Israel

On Israel’s Channel 12, a few days after the latest elections, the talk-show panelists did their best to find a bottom line. The final results made it clear that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, had secured the largest number of seats: 30, with 24% of the vote. Yesh Atid, the so-called ‘centrist’ party led by Yair Lapid, won just over half that number: 17 seats at 14%.

In regular times, Netanyahu’s vote share would make it easy for him, as an acting Prime Minister, to form a coalition, roping in the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties to make up 61 seats (the key figure needed to guarantee a majority in the 120-seat Knesset).  Yet these are not regular times. The 2021 poll was the fourth in less than two years, and Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial has been a constant background presence. As the frequency of elections has increased, the opposition to Bibi’s right-wing leadership has been reshaped.

There is not only the ideological resistance of the shrinking left, but also a centrist ‘in the name of democracy’ opposition and a right-wing ‘in the name of Jabotinsky’ opposition. The most prominent member of the centrist camp is Lapid: a former TV anchor and journalist who founded Yesh Atid in 2012. Despite serving as Netanyahu’s finance minister in the national unity government between 2013 and 2014, Lapid won plaudits from anti-Netanyahu centrists when he refused to join the PM’s coalition following the 2020 elections. Since then, he has increased his popularity by parroting the key points of the Israeli consensus. When he speaks – with the charisma of a TV presenter – he usually waves Jewish-Israeli flags, invokes the memory of the Holocaust, praises the IDF and excoriates the BDS movement.  

Bibi’s main rivals on the right are Naftali Bennett of the New Right party, Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu (‘Israel Our Home’). Of the three, Bennett is aligned with the religious-nationalist strand of Israeli politics – although he has recently appeared to place nationalism above religious purity, highlighting his refusal to take orders from the Orthodox rabbis. More secular in character, but as right-wing and pro-settlements as Bennett, Sa’ar’s New Hope has positioned itself as a ‘clean’ version of Likud, reviving the tradition of Menachem Begin (whose son, Zeev Benjamin Begin, left his father’s party to join Sa’ar). Its electoral pitch has revolved around Netanyahu’s personal sleaze and unfitness for high office. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has traditionally been a party of the extreme right, oriented toward ex-Soviet immigrants like Lieberman himself (who was born in Kishinev and emigrated to Israel in 1978). Yet in the past four elections it sought to broaden its appeal, playing to secular and anti-Haredi sentiments while abandoning its usual Arab-baiting rhetoric.

The balance of these forces has produced a deadlock. Although there is a record number of right-wing parliamentarians, Netanyahu cannot find 61 MPs who will support a coalition under his leadership. This is because a large proportion of Israelis voted tactically for right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties who vowed not to strike a deal with the incumbent. Many who identify with centre – and even with the left – decided to support Sa’ar or Lieberman, as they believed this was the best means of ending the Netanyahu era. As a result, the anti-Netanyahu opposition now has more than 61 MPs, yet this bloc includes a mix of parties who do not share much common ground apart from their contempt for Bibi, and would have serious trouble forming an alliance. It is still possible that the insurgent right-wing groups will try to band together with other parties and oust Netanyahu by appointing Bennett or Sa’ar as PM. Yet this is far from certain given the rifts between them; and before that can happen, Netanyahu will spend weeks attempting to eke out a majority. On the Channel 12 panel discussion, one of the guests presented her conclusion: ‘This is already the fourth election campaign in a row in which Netanyahu did not win. It is obvious that he didn’t win’. Another panelist responded: ‘It is also certain that he did not lose’. That, in a nutshell, is the story.

It must be remembered that for Netanyahu, the number 61 is crucial – not only because this is where his political survival lies, but also because this is where his personal freedom may be found. If he succeeds in creating a sturdy coalition, Netanyahu will be able to start fighting his legal case – not from inside the courtroom, but from outside it, pitting the executive against the judiciary. There are various speculations regarding what he will do should he reach the magic number: sack the current State Attorney and appoint someone who is softer on corruption; hire a new, flexible Minister of Justice (Israel currently has no one in that position as Netanyahu refuses to enable a permanent appointment); introduce the ‘French Law’ which would prevent a sitting Prime Minister from being convicted; select an agreed candidate from Likud to be the PM in return for a coalition vote on Netanyahu becoming the next president; and other such creative ideas. Anything that would prevent the incumbent finding himself in the position of former Prime Minister Olmert – behind bars.

Ahead of the vote, there were several factors that worked in Netanyahu’s favour. First, support for Benny Gantz’s Kachol-Lavan (‘Blue and White’) alliance collapsed after it betrayed its promise not to enter government with Netanyahu. Gantz had sleepwalked into Bibi’s disingenuous offer of a rotating prime ministerial position, proving himself easily manipulated and alienating much of his base. That left no other political force whose popularity could rival Likud’s.

Second, Netanyahu made the most of the successful Israeli vaccination operation. His campaign slogan, ‘Hozrim la-Hayyim’ (‘going back to life’), was also the Ministry of Health’s vaccination slogan. (Netanyahu knew that Likud’s appropriation of this motto would be outlawed by the Supreme Court, but he ploughed ahead with it anyway, and managed to print these words on countless billboards before the court ruling arrived.)

Third, Netanyahu went into the election having secured four peace-deals with Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – during Trump’s final weeks in office. These states displayed a willingness to normalize relations with Israel and pursue their shared economic interests in the region without demanding any concessions over Palestine – a coup against those who believed that Israel would have to end its occupation and improve relations with the Palestinians before it could establish warm relations with the Arab world.

Fourth, the union of Arab parties known as the Joint List had won a record 15 seats in the last election, yet its unity was severely damaged after one of its components – the Islamic Movement led by Mansour Abbas – began a flirtation with Netanyahu. Splitting with other Arab parties, Abbas declared that he was open to the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. This created a division in the Arab community which, combined with its general apathy, led to a decline in Arab voter turnout – from 65% in 2020 to 44% in 2021. (The overall Israeli turnout of 67% was the lowest since 2009, having decreased by about 4% since the 2020 elections.) With a growing number of Arab citizens backing Zionist parties including Likud, the Joint List’s seats fell to 6 (down from the 15 it had when unified with the Islamic Movement), while Abbas and his allies picked up 4.

Throughout the election campaign, Netanyahu continued to court the Islamic Movement while pandering to Israel’s Arab citizens, nicknaming himself ‘Abu-Yair’ (literally ‘Yair’s father’, the traditional Arabic way of naming a person after his eldest son), and claiming that the Jewish nationality bill – a law enacted in 2018 which demotes non-Jews to the status of second-class citizens – was never designed to target Arabs. It was merely an attempt, he said without blinking, to stop illegal immigration from Africa.

While reaching out to this demographic, Netanyahu simultaneously cheered on the far-right Religious Zionist Party – a group that harks back to the racist legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane, pledging to annex the West Bank, legalize settlements, roll back LGBT rights, expel ‘disloyal’ Arab MKs and scrap Israel’s commitment to gender equality. The PM knew full well that if this group did not pass the electoral threshold, then votes from the pro-Netanyahu camp would likely be wasted. His electoral strategy therefore relied on cozying up to the Arabs and the ultra-right-wing-Zionists who want to transfer them out of the country. It is hard to believe that someone can move from saying green is black to red is yellow so quickly, but for a politician who could teach Machiavelli a few lessons, this came as no surprise.

Yet the bottom line, if one looks for one, is this. Despite all the hocus-pocus, Netanyahu cannot form a coalition in the present circumstances. The evidential stage of his trial has now begun. This means three hearings every week to pore over accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases. The Israeli political system is more stuck than ever, and on each side the outlook is bleak. For Netanyahu, the principal aim is to evade a jail sentence. His foremost rivals, from Lapid to Bennett, want him to face justice, yet their ambition is to lead a coalition that will continue the main tenets of his rule. The Israeli ‘opposition’ may question Bibi’s morals, but they pose no threat to his politics.  

Read on: Yitzhak Laor, ‘Israel’s Peace Camp’, NLR 10.

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Scientists or Experts?

Never have we seen as many white gowns as in the past year: epidemiologists, virologists, infectiologists, doctors and clinicians of all specializations, from resuscitation to pneumonology, springing like mushrooms out of every news broadcast. Thanks to Covid, it seems that scientists have broken into society at large. But is this invasion a transitory phenomenon, or is it destined to become a permanent occupation? Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves how science has fared in this recent period, and how the relationship between science and society has altered – an ambiguous relationship at best, demonstrated by the resistance which vaccination efforts have met thus far, even among some healthcare professionals.

As the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers noted in a recent interview, this relationship has lately become suffused with panic. It’s an uncomfortable word to use, for most are reluctant to admit they’re gripped by this feeling. Yet the term is appropriate: ‘confinement should be understood from the standpoint of a panicked reaction. And when we panic we forget many things. We react under the pressure of an emergency, which prevents us from thinking. We have been guided by panic, and it has accentuated all social inequalities and relations of power… Deep down, I think what we saw was indifference towards anything that fell outside the preservation of public order’.

Stengers also observes that, in these conditions, science must be discussed in the plural rather than the singular:

Regarding the sciences, what really hurt me was hearing talk – from doctors, in particular – of ‘science’, and seeing politicians parroting the term (‘we listen to the science’) out of convenience. All of a sudden, in another panicked impulse, they forgot about politics, making way for a ‘science’ which began guiding us. Now, it is always a terrible idea to ask ‘science’ what to do, because that’s not its job. Its role is to try to ask pertinent questions. As soon as we say ‘science’ we forget the pertinence of its questions. It’s as if there were a universal scientific method, capable of responding to everything objectively. It’s also a way of silencing people, as it’s well-known that ordinary people are unable to understand ‘science’. It’s striking to me that the pluralisation of the sciences proceeded through this unifying, singular denomination of ‘science’. This plurality depends precisely on the different objects of each of the sciences, and on the questions they raise, faced with which each science will respond as it sees fit.

When politicians claim they listen to the science, in reality they resort to experts. And there’s nothing further from a scientist than an expert. As a group of researchers wrote for Scienza in rete,

the scientist selects the object of and questions for an investigation; the expert – who enjoys a certain experience of recognised value – is called on to apply knowledge and judgement to a query posed by others. This raises a series of problems: 1) It’s often not possible to trace the answer to a problem back to a single field. The Covid-19 pandemic posed problems at once virological, epidemiological, economic, social: problems of healthcare, relating to public order, and so on; 2) It is necessary for the expert to respond to the issue at hand in a restricted amount of time – or in any case by a certain precise deadline – scarcely compatible with the time needed for research, which, moreover, often ends up raising more questions, calling for a further round of studies; 3) the multidimensionality of problems requires the expert to give an answer that transcends the limits of what they possess any authority to say (given their disciplinary field), setting off political conflicts and controversies which bear only a distant relation to more focused scientific debates.

The advice of scientists (or ‘researchers’, as they are often called) and experts tends to diverge depending on several factors. Among them: the economic, social and political stakes of ‘expert opinion’; the uncertainty of the information on which they base their advice; and the urgency of the political decisions that flow from their intervention. When the stakes are high, facts uncertain, values in dispute and decisions urgent, then we enter into the realm of ‘post-normal science’ (as defined in a seminal article by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz from 1993).

The uncertainty surrounding the basic facts of the pandemic was evident in this list, drawn up by epidemiologists on 25 March 2020, of information that was then unknown to us:

Known unknowns include the real prevalence of the virus in the population; the role of asymptomatic cases in the rapid spread of the virus; the degree to which humans develop immunity; the dominant exposure pathways; the disease’s seasonal behaviour; the time to deliver global availability of an effective vaccine or cure; and the nonlinear response of individuals and collectives to the social distancing interventions in the complex system of communities interconnected across multiple scales, with many tipping points, and hysteresis loops (implying that society may not be able to rebound to the state it was in before the coronavirus interventions took place).

Apart from the vaccine, these ‘unknowns’ remain more or less obscure despite thousands of scientific studies. The result is a profound uncertainty which renders any epidemiological forecast hypothetical and unreliable. Yet to make policy decisions, governments now use mathematical models which produce crisp numbers via a drastic simplification of such ambiguities. (This tension between scientific uncertainty and political decision-making sometimes breaks out into the open: Dr Anthony Fauci, grilled by a Republican Congressman on exactly how many coronavirus deaths could be expected back in March 2020, responded, ‘There is no number-answer to your question!’)

All the ‘unknowns’ cited above depend on data-collection processes which often prove fallible. After a year of Covid, even the simplest figures still elude us, and it’s probable we’ll never pin them down. This is in part due to the inveterate habit of governments to lie to themselves; the more autocratic they are, the more they can cherry-pick the most convenient facts. Studies using various indicators of despotism show a strong inverse correlation between authoritarianism in a given country and its tally of Covid victims. The firmer the regime, the fewer deaths it declares. Last November, the prominent Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi wrote that even in a relatively transparent country like Italy the official rate of transmission (Rt) is untrustworthy. Imagine, then, how trustworthy the political decisions based on it have been.

Do you remember when, in 1986, Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud ground to a halt at the Rhine and dared not cross the Franco-German border (at least according to French health statistics at the time)? As the rest of Europe monitored the levels of radioactivity in their food, the French joyfully consumed vegetables which the douanes had cleansed of any radiation by pure administrative fiat. Well, a similar phenomenon occurred with Covid-19 at the frontiers that separate Europe and Asia. It’s mysterious how advanced healthcare systems could record such high mortality rates: hundreds of times higher than in states with fewer resources. While social (and state) control in China and other Asian countries has played a part, it’s difficult to imagine that deep in rural Laos restrictions can be so thorough as to prevent contagion completely. In other cases – in Russia, for instance – the numbers are totally fictitious; they have displayed an unnatural regularity, day after day, for almost a year now. Elsewhere, in the Amazon rainforest or the High Nile, the task of collecting data would require superhuman abilities.

Thus, in recent times, numbers have come to serve a purely rhetorical function, appearing to confer certainty on the uncertain. The claim that ‘thousands of people have died’ leaves some room for debate, whereas the statement ‘there have been 12,327 victims’ sounds indisputable. The ‘number-answer’ is vital to establish trust – justified or not – in the opinion of the expert. But the means by which we arrive at these numbers are not always interrogated.

Here, Stengers’s distinction between singular and plural ‘science’ becomes decisive. On the one hand, there are sciences that rely entirely on data collected by central governments and public health agencies. Epidemiologists are at the mercy of statistics. To give just one example: after a year of Covid, we still don’t know the proper measurement of social distancing. A metre, one and a half, two, three? It varies, according to ‘expert opinion’. On the other hand the hard sciences, based on laboratory experiments, are often shielded from the game of experts. In the lab, the expert and the scientist are allies, for the demands of the outside world accord with the aims of the latter: discovering how to produce the vaccine, for instance. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful sciences are those which generate the most profit: in them, the tension between exogenous pressures and endogenous logic is less pronounced.

Yet when we enter into the ‘post-normal’ domain, the sciences lend themselves more readily to manipulation. Researchers that produce vaccines respond to socially pertinent questions, but those tasked with establishing the safety of the vaccine become ‘experts’, and are drawn into the realm of conflicting interests, as we saw with the flurry of judgements surrounding the AstraZeneca jab. Put bluntly, in post-normal conditions (Chernobyl, Covid-19, global warming), the sciences begin to practice politics.

In one of the best articles written on the subject, ‘New Pathogen, Old Politics’, Alex De Waal recounts the history of the cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892; an instructive episode, for viruses and their transmission rates may differ, but they always seem to trigger similar social responses. Today, we’ve forgotten that the first immunity passports were established by Italian cities in the Late Middle Ages to facilitate the free circulation of diplomats and merchants. We also forget that local elites, wherever they might be, have always opposed quarantines and confinement measures imposed by central authorities, fearful of potential damage to their economic interests. As De Waal reminds us, it was in the 19th century, with the advent of colonialism, that the allusion to warfare became widespread, with the development of an ‘anti-infection arsenal in the service of expanding the writ of the colonial state’. In France,

the government portrayed the disease as an ‘invasion’ from the Levant and India, which justified martial medical measures and the establishment of the outer ramparts of Europe’s sanitary frontier in the Middle East. The metaphor of ‘fighting’ a disease, apt for the body’s immune response to a pathogen, is incongruous for the social response to an epidemic. Nonetheless, the language of warfare has become so familiar today that it is adopted unreflectingly – a mark of true hegemony. The traffic in metaphors runs both ways. When mobilizing for war or authoritarian measures, political leaders inveigh against ‘infestation’ by invaders or infiltrators that are akin to pathogens. In times of health crisis, they like to ‘declare war’ on a microbial ‘invisible enemy’.

The metaphor of war recalls the ‘state of exception’ – a return to the ‘state of siege’ of past epochs – which this year’s curfews evoke only vaguely, contrary to what The Economist has called the ‘coronopticon’, evoking Bentham’s infamous gaol.

Gauging the relationship between science and society in light of Covid-19 is therefore a complex matter. Health policies are hurling us into a new political order, a new configuration of power, yet we remain largely unable to see the direction in which we are headed. Of course, the parade of new variants gives us a terrifying glimpse of confinement without end, for as soon as society is relaxed and ready to stretch its legs, the shadow of an invincible mutation (Brazilian, British) rears its head. One can only hope that we emerge from both the state of panic identified by Stengers and the constant fear of new viruses, aped by governments to infantilize and surveil their citizens.

Best to conclude with De Waal’s wise words:

The motives for – and consequences of – public health measures have always gone far beyond controlling disease. Political interest trumps science – or, to be more precise, political interest legitimizes some scientific readings and not others. Pandemics are the occasion for political contests, and history suggests that facts and logic are tools for combat, not arbiters of the outcome. While public health officials urge the public to suspend normal activities to flatten the curve of viral transmission, political leaders also urge us to suspend our critique so that they can be one step ahead of the outcry when it comes. Rarely in recent history has the bureaucratic, obedience-inducing mode of governance of the ‘deep state’ become so widely esteemed across the political spectrum. It is precisely at such a moment, when scientific rationality is honored, that we need to be most astutely aware of the political uses to which such expertise is put.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Politics and Pandemics’, NLR 125.

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Killer Prince

The Saudi offer of a ceasefire in Yemen on 22 March was an acknowledgement by Riyadh and its backers in Washington that they had lost the war. Biden signalled the grudging surrender in February, when he announced the US would end its support for ‘offensive operations’ there. After six years of bombardment and blockade, Houthi forces are poised to take the strategic central city of Marib. They demanded that the aggressors – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, UK and France – lift the stranglehold on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, cause of a humanitarian catastrophe of famine and epidemics in the country, before sitting down to talk.

The Houthi alliance would most likely have taken the country in 2015, sweeping away the weak government headed by Saudi stooge Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, if Obama had not greenlighted the Saudi assault against them. The war on Yemen began as part and parcel of the celebrations that ushered in the young, ‘dynamic’, ‘modernising’ Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) as the de facto heir of the Kingdom. In January 2015, MBS’s doddering, octogenarian father ascended the throne as King Salman, and MBS was appointed Saudi Defence Minister. Obama indulged MBS’s itch for war as a sop to keep the Saudis onside while he pressured Iran to accept the US nuclear deal. On the eve of the 25 March 2015 Saudi invasion, the White House issued a statement supporting military action ‘to protect Yemen’s legitimate government’ – i.e. Hadi, who was hiding out in Riyadh, having been ousted by mass protests a few months before.

Two weeks into the invasion, Anthony Blinken, then Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State, announced: ‘Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies.’ He added that the US was expediting weapons deliveries. Billions flowed to Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, DynCorp and Textron (who provided the notorious, UN-banned cluster bombs which the Saudis dropped on residential neighbourhoods of Sana’a). The Obama White House signalled it would also provide logistical and intelligence support, including target selection. British intelligence operatives had already been despatched to assist Obama’s drone strikes in Yemen, identifying targets for the US bombing operations that killed an estimated 1,775 people on the thin pretext of ‘counterterrorism’ during the first decade of the War on Terror. Since 2015, the UK has supplied the Saudis with aircraft, weaponry, training and aerial equipment, as well as SAS fighters. The US has lavished high-tech weaponry and military aid on MBS, with Obama offering to provide over $115 billion worth of arms to the Saudis in 42 separate deals, and Trump signing a $110 billion agreement with the Kingdom in 2017.

The result? The worst humanitarian catastrophe since Iraq. Cholera and hunger on a scale that has not been seen since the last century, with some 20 million experiencing food insecurity and 10 million at risk of famine. An estimated 110,000 have been killed in the fighting, with a death toll of 233,000 overall, mostly due to indirect causes such as lack of food and health services. Few of the country’s medical facilities are functional.

The UK’s arms sales, approved by the High Court in 2017, are on the scale of £5 billion – while its humanitarian aid to Yemen has just been cut by nearly 60 per cent, to £87 million. In this context, it’s worth recalling John Major’s private remark to the late Sir Martin Gilbert that, after giving a footling ‘lecture’ to a tiny group of people in Saudi Arabia, he was surprised to find his hosts handing him a very handsome cheque. Most servants of the British security state understand that this is part of their retirement package. Compared to Saudi largesse, the consulting fees doled out to David Miliband by his Pakistani and Emirati patrons must be peanuts. Lucrative connections of this kind help explain the role of British politicians in the conflict.

As for MBS, Western media outlets swallowed the Saudi publicity, promising great things and new beginnings. The Kingdom was at last taking steps towards becoming a ‘liberal’ state with a ‘diversified’ economy. Notable cheerleaders were David Ignatius in the Washington Post and evergreen apologist Thomas Friedman at the New York Times. As the Saudi war in Yemen escalated in 2016, Ignatius gushed: ‘MBS proposes a series of sweeping reforms. Saudi Aramco and other big, state-owned enterprises would be privatised; cinemas, museums and a “media city” would be created for a young population starving for entertainment; the power of the religious police would be curtailed; and, at some point, women would be allowed to drive.’

When potential MBS opponents in the Royal Family were removed from key positions and placed under house arrest (albeit in a five-star hotel), the Western media treated it as a local peccadillo. ‘This is a man to do business with’, cooed the Financial Times editors in a leader of March 2018. The Economist published glossy ads for Saudi privatisation tenders.

As pointed out by the Saudi historian Madawi al-Rasheed (one of the few genuinely critical voices in exile) in the London Review of Books, this reception was backed by a multi-million-pound propaganda campaign, handled in Britain by Freud Communications and the strategic consultancy Consulum. Before MBS’s visit to Downing Street in 2018, billboards in London were plastered with his portrait, headlined ‘He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia.’ An ex-employee of one of the firms told a reporter that representing a client like Saudi Arabia was like being a defence lawyer: ‘You have to work to get the client out of trouble.’ MBS was duly given a red-carpet welcome and lunch with the Queen. As al-Rasheed noted: ‘No one thought to bring up his destruction of Yemen or his detention of political enemies.’

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 made it more awkward for MBS and his state-funded gangsters to maintain this positive spin. Khashoggi, previously a stalwart defender of the Saudi Royal Family, was hostile to the interloper and wrote as much from his platform at the Washington Post. That was his real crime as far as the ‘liberaliser’ was concerned. The victim was lured to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, tortured at leisure and bone-sawed into segments, which were packed into diplomatic bags and sent back to Saudi Arabia. All this was secretly recorded by the Turkish state, which duly handed over the snuff-doc to the US after leaking the most grizzly details to the press. The Americans sat on it until last February, when a declassified report by the intelligence agencies concluded that it was undoubtedly MBS who ordered the hit. Biden, Johnson, Macron and Merkel – quick on the draw when it comes to imposing ‘human-rights’ sanctions on enemy states – promptly agreed to forgive the Saudi criminal, imposing no consequences for his actions.

How has the Houthi alliance managed to prevail against the world’s most powerful states? The Zaydi Shi’as from Yemen’s mountainous north had long played an important role in the region, fighting both Ottomans and Wahhabis. (Zayd, the great-grandson of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, had led a revolt against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD.) The Zaydi tribes were a dominant force under the Shi’a Imamate that ruled the country for centuries. After the fall of the Ottomans, a Zaydi monarchy ruled North Yemen until its overthrow in the republican revolution of 1962. Sixteen years later a Zaydi republican general, Ali Abdullah Saleh, succeeded in imposing a new dictatorship on the north. After 1990, his regime pushed through a take-over of Soviet-aligned South Yemen, later reinforced through civil war. (Yemen has long been more populous than Saudi Arabia, and – though officially Saudi Arabia now has 34 million to Yemen’s 30 million – may still be, if foreign workers are subtracted from the Saudi total.)

In the 1990s, Zaydi resistance to Saleh was spearheaded by Hussein al Houthi, leader of a small clan in the north. Radicalized by the US War on Terror and invasion of Iraq, the group founded Ansar Allah, or ‘Supporters of God’, and engaged in a tireless guerrilla war against Saleh, whom it excoriated as a puppet of Washington and Riyadh. Thousands joined the Ansar Allah’s ranks, taking its estimated number of fighters from 10,000 to 100,000 by 2010. However, clashes with Yemeni state forces were mostly confined to the Houthis’ mountainous home province until the following year, when the Arab Spring transformed the country’s political landscape.

In 2011, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, protesters flooded Yemen’s urban centres, occupying public squares and state buildings while chanting their demands for jobs, incomes and fair elections. This mass movement succeeded in forcing Saleh from office in February 2012. Yet the replacement ‘transitional government’ installed by the Gulf Cooperation Council was headed by Saleh’s Vice President Hadi, a Saudi-backed Sunni, and awash with figures from the old regime and the Islamist Islah party. Their corrupt and incompetent administration did nothing to quell the widespread discontent. Hadi further antagonized the masses by raising diesel prices at the behest of the IMF. The Houthis continued to agitate against it, expanding their military presence across the country and forming an alliance of convenience with their erstwhile enemy – the ousted Saleh.

Though Western powers threw their weight behind Hadi’s transitional government, it was no match for this new partnership. Saleh retained high levels of support within the security services, while the Houthis were able to mobilize their vast militias to march on the capital. Between late 2014 and early 2015, Saleh–Houthi forces stormed Sana’a, seized key political and military buildings, formed a ruling council and exiled most of the transitional regime – meeting barely an iota of resistance along the way. The Houthis’ decentralized command structure allowed them to draw in diverse actors and forge partnerships with Sunnis who oppose the central government. They would have gone on to capture the entire country if not for the Saudi-led bombing campaign, Operation Decisive Storm.

Intermittent clashes between Riyadh and the Houthi rebels on the Saudis’ southern border long pre-dated the outbreak of war. Saudi sectarians had always been determined to crush the Shi’a Houthis, whom they accused of being Iranian relays. In fact, the Houthis’ military training was the fruit of decades of struggle against Saleh, not from any foreign backer. By instigating the brutal bombing and blockade campaign against them, MBS hoped to assert his authority in the region, pose as Yemen’s saviour and impress the Israelis (who also regarded the Houthis as an Iranian pawn). ‘Liberated’ from Saleh–Huthi control, southern Yemen quickly deteriorated into a morass of competing militias under loose Emirati supervision. A military stalemate ensued.

Despite constant Saudi cluster-bombing – targeting civilian gatherings, schools, medical facilities, key infrastructure and ancient heritage sites – the Houthis held on in their urban strongholds. Hadi remained president in name only, living under effective house arrest in Riyadh. After two fraught years, the Houthis’ alliance with Saleh predictably unravelled. The former accused the latter of conspiring with the Saudis and Emiratis, and a series of clashes broke out in Sana’a culminating in Saleh’s assassination in December 2017. From this point on his loyalists were marginalized, leaving Ansar Allah as the only significant rival to the Saudi coalition.

Despite their shortcomings, the Houthis continue to enjoy more popular support than the Saudi-led forces of aggression for reasons that are both historical and immediate. Yemen is one of the oldest countries in the region, unlike the real-estate kingdoms and sheikdoms first set up by the British and later the US. The country has a distinctive cultural memory, visible everywhere in its astonishing early Islamic architecture. Much of the population views the Houthis as the sole defenders of this sovereign legacy. Their control of cities like Sana’a, Saada and Taiz – along with the country’s most densely populated governates – is based on this deeply rooted perception, as well as the more imminent necessity of resisting the Wahhabi Kingdom.

In their support for this murderous war, the US and UK have found a willing servant in the UN, which continues to recognize Hadi’s government as Yemen’s rightful rulers despite its non-existent mandate. The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on the Houthis and Saleh, but not on Hadi’s forces or their foreign allies. It has removed the Saudi coalition from its blacklist of actors violating children’s rights, despite hundreds of children being killed each year by anti-Houthi airstrikes; winked at the Saudis’ obstruction of humanitarian aid; and steadfastly passed resolutions which call for absolute Houthi surrender as the precondition for any dialogue.

MBS would now like to achieve through a peace of the graveyard what he has failed to secure via bloody and ruthless war. His planes have been downed, drones have hit Riyadh, and his army – designed for show rather than for battle – has suffered serious setbacks. UAE ground troops were forced to withdraw in July 2019, whereupon the Abu Dhabi regime shifted to funding a political coalition based in Aden.

Though Biden has signalled the US will end ‘offensive operations’, it will continue to provide Saudi Arabia with ‘defensive weapons’, which appear to serve much the same purpose. His Administration has said nothing about halting technical, logistical and intelligence operations. By all indications, its plan is still to extract an unconditional surrender from the Houthis while maintaining its disastrous ‘counterterrorism’ operations in the country. To date, Biden’s promised ‘recalibration’ of the US–Saudi relationship is nowhere to be seen. 

In recent weeks, Foreign Office apologists and linked flotsam and jetsam have criticised the Houthis for turning down Saudi ‘offers’ of negotiation. Yet as even The Economist has pointed out, there is nothing new in these proposals. They are stale repetitions of yesteryear – calling on Ansar Allah to relinquish its military gains, surrender to the Saudi-led coalition and turn Yemen into a Western vassal state, while receiving nothing in return. As if to illustrate the vacuity of this ‘ceasefire plan’, MBS decided to rain bombs on several Houthi sites just hours after it was issued.

The brutal fact is that Yemeni lives – like many others – are expendable for US Senators and British MPs, who form part of a chain of imperialism that extends back for many centuries. Britain itself is a satrapy, prime ministers from Thatcher to Johnson little more than adjutants to the White House. Revelling in that status, they would like nothing more than to drag Yemen into their tent. So far they have failed. The costs of this venture have been high for the people of that beleaguered country, much higher than the profits accruing to the arms industries. Yet a permanent arms economy requires two, three, many ‘humanitarian wars’. Yemen will not be the last.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Yemen’s Turn’, NLR 111.

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Dreamworlds of Catastrophe

Among the most affecting and disconcerting moments in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s six-part ‘emotional history of the modern world’, is the tale of Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian national and alleged al-Qaeda operative who has been detained without charge and tortured by US authorities for almost two decades. We first encounter Zubaydah in the context of the Afghan Civil War as he tries to recover from a shrapnel wound to the brain, and the ensuing fragmentation of his consciousness, by writing a diary. This ‘vast collage of memories and feelings’ (amounting to some 10,000 pages) is a testament to a splintering of experience and the emergence of multiple personalities. Doubts about the path taken by the Mujahideen mingle with reminiscences of youth – the jihadist’s unlikely passion for Chris de Burgh is mined by Curtis as he plays the saccharine hit ‘Lady in Red’ over footage of Afghanistan.

Zubaydah is not just playing a bit part in Curtis’s latest survey of the making of our dejected present, he is also something like an allegorical figure conscripted to embody a collective condition, as well as refract Curtis’s own practice of archival storytelling. As the director observes in his voiceover, ‘there was no story that made sense’ to Zubaydah anymore, ‘he was trapped in a perpetual now, haunted by fragments of memory, with no way of moving into the future’. At his bleakest and most intransigent, this is not just what Curtis says, it is what he does, in the thousands of cuts and samples that make up this Gesamtkunstwerk of the archival film-essay, which replays and remixes sundry leitmotivs from the over three decades of work he has produced for the BBC. The wash of melancholy that accompanies distant footage of Zubaydah being led to and from his cage at Guantanamo, as Curtis intones ‘his fragmented memories are now starting to fade’, crystallizes the claims that Curtis has long been making for ‘our’ politically disoriented and perceptually destabilized condition. (The ‘we’ – generically standing in for inhabitants of depoliticized parliamentary capitalist states – is as ubiquitous here as ‘the elites’, ‘the politicians’, ‘the old system of power’ or ‘the bankers’, along with ‘the scientists’, ‘the white radicals’, ‘the revolutionaries’, etc.)

Born in 1955 to a family with both a political and artistic orientation – his socialist father was a cameraman for the documentarian Humphrey Jennings – Curtis abandoned a PhD at Oxford (about ‘how politics got taken over by economics’, he has said) in his mid-20s for the BBC. Initially a researcher for daytime television, he has since the early 1990s made political documentaries of growing ambition. This latest series marks something of a departure, or at least a heightening of recent tendencies. While the works that made his name traced the unintended consequences of world-changing ideas launched by particular individuals or groups – following the symptomatic career of James Goldsmith from asset-stripping tycoon to nationalist critic of globalized capitalism in The Mayfair Set (1999), the arc from psychoanalysis to the focus group through Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays in The Century of the Self (2002), or the political entanglements of neo-Darwinism in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) – the multifarious protagonists of Can’t Get You Out of My Head are there more for the emblematic significance of their experiences than for their actual impress on events. This is even so for Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, whose counterintuitive figuration as the harbinger of a new individualism allows Curtis to delve into her early cinema career (and the virulent jealousies it seeded), as well as her promotion of the new revolutionary opera, but leaves the complex canvas of the Cultural Revolution painted in a predictable light (Mao’s power-grab, popular frenzy, and so on).

Thankfully, Curtis’s feel for the archive often overwhelms the representative tasks he has enlisted these individual stories for. The more he conveys a situated sense of their individuality – of the transgender activist Julia Grant’s struggles with a callous medical establishment, of countercultural prankster Kerry Thornley’s entrapment in his own conspiratorial fabulations, of black nationalist and enforcer Michael de Freitas and slumlord Peter Rachman as products and agents of a historical violence mainstream England wished to blot out – the more the grand narrative these biographies are meant to embody betrays its two-dimensional character. Whereas previous works sketched impressive if inevitably tendentious genealogies of the present – and were greatly aided in that effort by Curtis’s skill not just as a researcher but as an interviewer – the gain in affective texture in the new series is at the expense of its argument about how we got here.

Ever since The Century of the Self, Curtis has clung to a story that goes something like this: the failed revolutions of the 1960s accelerated the collapse of mass democracy into an individualism that left traditional political parties and elites without a people, sending them into the arms of financial operators and behavioural psychologists to manage and monetize these social atoms. The tale is rebooted here, bringing to mind an abridged version of the arguments that a Régis Debray or a Christopher Lasch were already making in the late 1970s, only with the dossier augmented by the unsparing group portrait of human rights interventionism (from Bernard Kouchner’s rescue of the boat people all the way to Blair’s vainglorious walkabout in Kosovo, not forgetting the unintended consequences of Live Aid on the Ethiopian Civil War). These fragments of our own political memory – as sampled, remixed and collaged by Curtis – are poorly contained by such a monotonous diagnosis, and are more compellingly experienced, especially through the mediation of Curtis’s compellingly curated soundtrack, as historical moods, whose cognitive potential remains at best ambiguous.

The ‘age of individualism’ has been greeted and its demise mourned at other junctures. For members of the Frankfurt School in exile, the America of the 1940s had already seen the demise of individuality and the surfacing of a ‘new type of human being’ – as Adorno wrote in a 1941 memo to Paul Lazarsfeld, his boss at the Princeton Radio Research Project, where the ‘like and dislike’ studies that anticipated the algorithmic manipulations of Facebook or Twitter were first conceived. Even in terms of Curtis’s own periodization, the ‘when’ of these mutations seems rather arbitrary. His animus against the Third Way notwithstanding, the idea that it was in the early 1990s that ‘the shift in politics had begun’ can easily be rebutted by turning to The Mayfair Set, which lingers on Callaghan’s 1976 Labour Party conference speech where, in reference to Keynesian state policies, he uttered the watchword: ‘that option no longer exists’. Curtis could just as well have turned to Carter’s 1978 State of the Union address (‘Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals. It cannot define our vision’). A dogged hostility to what he sees as the debilitating leftist academic narrative of neoliberalism (the ‘n-word’, as he dismissed it in a recent interview), and the effort to trace the mood rather than the origins or structure of our present, leaves an aesthetic of explanation without the required content or complexity – the capture of emotion without the current of history.

There are subordinate storylines grafted onto Curtis’s chronicle that are certainly more compelling, or at least suggestive, than his idée fixe. These include his excavation of the place of an invented folk tradition in Britain’s imperial and post-imperial machinations (which ultimately seems to draw a weird thread between the first Glastonbury festival and the rise of ISIS, while informing us that a biopic celebrating Saddam Hussein’s life shared a director with Dr No), and the adaptation of Timothy Mitchell’s thesis about carbon democracy that connects the geopolitics of the Gulf, the implosion of Appalachian mining communities and Sackler’s shift from medicating alienated suburban housewives with Valium to anaesthetising laid off manual workers with Oxycontin (the material history of emotions, as it were).

There is an irony, most likely intended, in the fact that much as a kind of mimesis takes place between Zubaydah, Curtis and the viewer, so there is a short-circuit between Curtis’s methods – scanning through hard drive upon hard drive of disparate digitized BBC footage – and the myriad projects of pattern recognition that populate this series. This is most evident when it comes to Curtis’s own emotional history of conspiracies, as he moves from Richard Hofstadter’s insights into the paranoid style, to a memo on pattern detection by Jim Garrison, the Louisiana District Attorney who tried to unmask the JFK conspiracy, and into Thornley’s ‘Operation Mindfuck’ and the unwitting birth of contemporary conspiracism from the spirit of the counterculture (the Illuminati presaging QAnon). Curtis also returns to the very real conspiracy that was the CIA’s MK Ultra programme, delving into the Montreal experiments overseen by Donald Ewen Cameron, whose brutal techniques of depatterning, so akin to Zubaydah’s torture, left behind fragmented rather than new selves.

The associative functions of montage, the contiguities of narrative (‘meanwhile’, ‘but at the same time’), the integument of ambient and pop music – all entice us to ‘spot the pattern’, but also to suspect that in the end the mapmaker cannot (and maybe does not wish to) extricate himself from his map. But pattern recognition is also crucial to two other interlinked domains – behavioural science, algorithmic finance – that flourish on the hollowed husk of ‘mass democracy’. Weaving in and out of the series (though not featured as protagonists as in earlier works) are the likes of the mathematician John von Neumann, the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, the complexity theorist Murray Gell-Mann, with their invention of new ways of seeing what cannot be seen, the logic beneath the chaos. In Curtis, ever since his first series Pandora’s Box (1992), the scientific always spills over into the political. Here, Geoffrey Hinton’s neural networks or Michael Gazzaniga’s multiple selves are mined for their resonance with the shattering of selfhood that shadows the ‘age of individualism’, while the monetization of pattern prediction resurfaces in the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s and the collateralized debt obligations that seeded the crash of 2007-8 – not to forget the place of pattern recognition in the understanding of climate change that preoccupies the third part of the series.

The history of pattern recognition as behavioural management (and depoliticization) is ultimately traced back to the classification, mapping and measurement that undergirded colonial power. The afterlives of the British Empire have populated Curtis’s work over the past two decades – accelerated by the ‘War on Terror’ and reformatted here in the flickering light of Brexit. Whether in the dancing of folk revivalists, the tawdry meetings of the League of Empire Loyalists or the brutal footage of concentration camps and informants during the Mau Mau Rebellion, it’s an unflattering collage. A not very cool Britannia.

Curtis is far from the kind of film-essayism – from Marker to Kluge, Miéville and Godard to Sekula – that would reflect back on the powers of the image. In the British context, the preeminent exemplar is the work of Patrick Keiller. But the affinity between his method of storytelling and his subject-matter carries its own uneasy reflexivity. It is difficult here not to consider the archaeology of Curtis’s own medium. The practice of montage has always pivoted around a choreographing of emotions. Eisenstein, the greatest theorist of film montage, summarized his doctrine in ways that could easily be folded into Curtis’s narrative, just as they might unsettle a narrative that waits for behavioural psychology to foreground the manipulation of selves and feelings. The powers that Curtis explores in the domains of psychology and the various behavioural sciences were in a sense pioneered with the cinematic image (so that, following Jonathan Beller, we can even approach our digitalized attention economy as a cinematic mode of production). Eisenstein himself spoke of ‘cinema as a factor for exercising emotional influence over the masses’, while famously suggesting that film, like a tractor, should plough the psyche of the viewer in the direction of a new class consciousness. The rhythmic montage of attractions is both what makes the filmic or video medium ideally suited to an emotional history, but also what always risks the history collapsing into the emotion, the mood. Tellingly, Curtis ascribes his sensibility to an early epiphanic reading of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, along with Balzac and the nineteenth-century novel. It is Dos Passos’s ‘camera eye’, rather than Vertov’s, that informs his approach to the ‘great dialectic of our time, which is between individual experience and how those fragments get turned into stories, both by individuals themselves, and then, by the those in power above them’.

The danger of doubling down on fragmentation or mirroring our disoriented mood is not one that Curtis is unaware of – it might even be treated as a salient theme of his more recent work, from the installation piece It Felt Like a Kiss (2009) through to his last major film HyperNormalisation (2016). But it is very imperfectly offset by tying the tangled threads of history and biography that he has gathered into a refrain about how ‘we’ let the commodified promises of ‘individualism’ strip us of collective agency. Similarly, bookending this series with David Graeber’s optimistic dictum about our world-changing capacities sits uncomfortably with Curtis’s insistence, everywhere else, on the unintended consequences of passionately held convictions. That what progressive forces require is a good story, that the problem is not so much a deficit of power as one of meaning, is a hobbyhorse of Curtis’s, and may also be seen to fuel his abiding fascination with a supremely equivocal figure like National Bolshevik novelist and provocateur Eduard Limonov. In a recent interview with Jacobin, Curtis, no doubt in a bid to épater les gauchistes, provided a biographical clue for this inclination: ‘I used to be a skinhead when I was young because I loved reggae and ragga music. Skinheads are ambiguous characters, and I’m attracted to ambiguous characters.’

To turn to another of the work’s allegorical figures, the Black Panther militant Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac, who in turn comes to represent the dead end of a rebellion in the domain of ‘culture’), it is when Curtis allows the framing narrative to fade that his emotional history allows us a glimpse of a politics, and of a political emotion, that refuses to be shoehorned into a story about depoliticizing individualism or hollow calls for the return of collective meaning. Questioning the undercover agent Ralph White as she was tried with the Panther 21, Shakur got him to aver that – though he was conspiring for the state and trying to lead the group into a murderous conspiracy – he had experienced their activism as ‘powerful, inspiring and beautiful’. Tarrying with the history and the everyday life of these political emotions, which no amount of elite depatterning ever fully eradicated, could prove a subtler and more powerful way to repair our fragmenting memories than the vague hope for a new ‘story’ that will lead us out of our ‘hypernormal’ present.

Read on: Alberto Toscano, ‘A Structuralism of Feeling?’, NLR 97.

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Signs Everywhere

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a radiation physicist who writes fiction about reality – or about his own pixelated, anti-realist perception of it. In the mid-1980s, when other students were getting legless at the post-dictatorship party of La Movida, he’d be writing all night with the TV on, guided, as he disarmingly recalls in Nocilla Lab, ‘by a ridiculous but not ineffective feeling of romantic superiority.’ He was on semi-automatic, filtering the world that reached him, pouring out fragments and fantasies distilled from TV, pop culture, science, history, the arts and just about everything else, not excluding literature. But he didn’t meet any writers until the age of forty, he’s claimed, evolving rather in his own mental Galapagos while working as a subatomic engineer. From this detachment he has castigated mainstream Spanish literature, especially poetry, for its failure to reflect global (post)modernity the way contemporary art has done – or even as well as the foreign authors on his altar, paradoxically retro figures from Borges to DeLillo.

Despite the striking novelty of his verbal installations, Mallo should not be accused of ‘originality’, a concept he quite properly rejects. ‘All Origin is a fallacy (in this I follow Nietzsche)’, he told 3:AM in 2017, justifying the right to appropriate. He is more of a beachcomber, though one who picks up less ‘low’ debris than you might expect from his assertion around the same time of the poetic equivalence of the Divine Comedy and a packet of Cheetos. The assimilation of Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, informs sly games with map and territory and allows him to call his storytelling ‘rhizomatic’, ramifying with a fluid spontaneity that relies on minimum research in favour of truth in the moment: many of the misquotes and almost-true facts derive from not looking up, apparently, though they come over as deeply artful. Who cares? For him, trained in systems both macro and micro, reality manifests in perpetual transformations of matter/culture throwing up capricious, quasi-mystical patterns; his fictions chart vast processes poking through on the intermediate, ‘human’ scale, with quantum uncertainty built in, free of psychological or sociological concerns. He considers himself ‘above all else, a poet.’ You don’t, in other words, read Mallo’s novels for the plot or the relatable characters.

The trilogy that so challenged the Spanish literary scene (Nocilla Dream, 2006, Nocilla Experience, 2007, Nocilla Lab, 2009 – Nocilla being Spanish for Nutella and referring to an iconic punk song) led to the instant media invention of a ‘Nocilla Generation’ that was furiously disavowed by the alleged members. What they shared was scorn for cultural supplements, loyalty to indie publishers and pugnacious introspection on select blogs. Then Mallo signed with the publishing giant Alfaguara, and his star rose. Another novel (Limbo, 2014), essays, and several books of poetry fill the interval between the Nocillas and Trilogía de la guerra (2018), now superbly translated by Thomas Bunstead into The Things We’ve Seen. If the Nocillas were disjointed and parataxic, expository of a method and a set of raw sources, this sequence of three books is closer to conventional narrative, in a neutral register allowing for deadpan dissonance, and narrated by three practically interchangeable voices; one of Mallo’s points is that we are interchangeable.

Book I is told by a Spanish artist invited, as Mallo was, to a livestreamed conference on the tiny islands of San Simón, site of a concentration camp during the Civil War. After a period of amnesia brought on by a strangely shaped biscuit, he reappears in New York, where he becomes obsessed with trash, the residues of life and time, and finally in Uruguay, following up a San Simón trail of two men and discovering that the one he’d thought was the prisoner was actually the jailer, there being no essential difference from far enough away. This book dwells on ideas of fossils, archaeology, the past – historical but especially organic. Early on, with grainy Sebaldian photos to prove it, the narrator tracks down the sites of old snaps of prisoners and retakes the now deserted scenes, causing him to meditate on ‘the disappearance of flesh’, something the evening meal does not distract him from: the menu ‘led me to reflect on the special nature of eating … a kind of ritual in which … we made something sacred disappear forever.’ (Or not: vomit will play a major signifying role.)

Not only the narrators proceed in chains of this-made-me-think-about. The people they meet talk the same way and notice the same sort of things at the same sort of length, and there is little dialogue: shades of Being John Malkovich, though the multiplication of flat, sententious POVs tests reader stamina to the limit. Still, with this device among others, Mallo’s structural rather than linguistic plasticity undercuts the linear nature of writing. Echoes, implosions and coincidences soon make us feel we are circulating in a single space-time of displacements and substitutions. Shapes, for example, repeat in different scales or contexts: the reservoir in Central Park has the outline of Iberia. The most bravura example of this form of paranoia – signs everywhere – is given to a Dalí avatar who establishes a connection between the Twin Towers, the twin girls in the corridor of The Shining, the two columns of the pause icon on a screen, and (the narrator’s later input) a line in one of Lorca’s New York poems. It stays with you.

Book II is concerned with the shiny idea of ‘future’. We’re in the mind of Kurt Montana, who grew up in the optimism of post-war America, enjoyed killing people in Vietnam, and after training as a pilot (cue aperçus about forms only perceivable from above) became an astronaut, despite having weak lungs. But he doesn’t appear in any of the Moon Landing photos, because he was the photographer. Always the loser, he is now an alcoholic working in a nursing home. As he rambles back and forth over his life, the future shrinks. Archaeological metaphors reappear, such as the bottomless layers of old carpet and lino lifted to clean a smelly apartment, which prompts a super-Mallo moment: ‘All that had happened was these things being moved to and concentrated in that single point … I fell asleep thinking of the universality of this flow of ideas and bodies.’ Subtitled with an inaccurate quote from ‘Life on Mars?’, this middle book is pretty funny, in a straight-faced way, because Kurt is such an absurd composite, and the writer’s audacity can thrill. At one point Kurt recalls a visit to his lottery-winning parents in Florida, to see their latest hopeful project – holiday timeshares. Nothing could dent their positivity, though the complex was falling apart faster than they could fix it. But just when I’d had enough standard satire on an American Dream always-already in ruins, Kurt describes chancing, decades later, on a Jeffrey Eugenides story  called ‘Timeshare’. ‘I could hardly believe what I was reading: nothing short of a blow-by-blow, word-for-word account of the time I spent in Florida that March, except one or two small circumstantial details’ which he goes on to parse at length, uncurious about the crazy main fact.

There are many such almost-repetitions, landmark nodes in a thickening net. In Book III, following an ex-girlfriend of Book I’s narrator (or of someone almost identical) as she retraces a Normandy hike they once did together, elements of the novel’s mythology can be spotted like beeping, unintelligible transmitters half-hidden in the litter of thoughts and things. They include golf balls in space, fires in Africa, ATMs, fainting, fractals, cookies in the shape of a pregnant dog, KFC, three-coloured pencils, and walking in others’ footsteps. Oddly, for an author who harps on the epistemology of the internet age, there is no social media. War itself, despite the Spanish title, is glancingly dealt with as an amoral mechanism, as much connector as disruptor. Avoiding the obvious, Mallo is after what he calls the ‘B-side of reality’: shadows and parallels, the errors and mutations that are most influential for occurring unseen.

One war-related image, hauntingly reworked – and surely the core of the book – links physical disintegration to a helplessly absorbed residue. For instance, the atomised matter of the Twin Towers: ‘It must be pretty strange knowing you’ve got particles of people’s spleens inside you, particles of pens and hair, of Turkish rugs and asbestos …’ Kurt is afraid he’s got a Vietcong man he killed inside him, after a flock of birds that were eating the body suddenly attack his head, Hitchcock-style. The Normandy beaches are full of ground-down bones, thinks the female narrator: ‘all those souls with phalluses surely still residing among the cockle shells, salt crystals and seaweed, sand too … later to be used in the construction of houses, bridges and motorways’; the stains appearing on cement are the extrusion of that human dust. At an exhibition in the Einstein Museum, she notices hunks of melted matter from Hiroshima, fused with the porcelain of a teacup, which already contains bone ash; this compound makes Hiroshima itself, whose people also took the disaster into their bodies, into ‘the great porcelain artefact of the West.’

At the end of Book II comes a version of this absorption of the other that is genuinely moving, because willed. In a side-story whose text has literally materialised on X-rays vomited by George Bush Sr (I simplify), we are in a future Spain turned desert, almost everyone evacuated by air, à la Ray Bradbury. A family survives on supermarket tins. The little boy, then the wife, disappear. Much later the man finds his son’s rubber ring. He puts the valve into his mouth and squeezes, ‘taking into himself all the remaining air, until not a single drop of what was his son’s breath remains.’

This entropic tendency toward the undifferentiated – first, high and low culture flattened and blended, then our very atoms – is not easy to embrace. After all, no less a philanthropist than Mark Zuckerberg recently crowed that ‘we are moving to a world in which we all become cells in a single organism.’ Perhaps we should set it in the context of something ordinarily existential that Mallo once said: ‘The only subject I really care about is loneliness.’

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘Post-Postmodernism?’, NLR 59.

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You’re Over

Among Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was a scorched-earth assault on Brazilian cinema. He eliminated all state financing of film production, had the Cinemateca Brasileira – home to one of the world’s five largest film archives – effectively shuttered, and suspended funding for film festivals at home and for sending artists to festivals abroad. Then came the pandemic to put the sector out of its misery: the cinemas were closed for much of 2020, and when they reopened, most of the public stayed away.

All that remained were the online film festivals. These draw support from the global circuit which, in recent decades, has swelled the worldwide audience for art films. Such digital events are modelled on the festivals at Cannes and Venice, but with a broader range of films permitted to define themselves as ‘artistic’ – usually resulting in an aesthetic conformism, even when the subject matter itself is not particularly commercial.

This is the case with experimental films and documentaries, both of which are so well-represented at these festivals that they almost make up an aesthetic category in themselves. Many of the former are positively yawn-inducing, awash with empty, self-indulgent images, submerged in a sensibility of false refinement that makes no real impression on the collective consciousness. The documentaries, meanwhile, provoke yawns for other reasons, characterized by the trudging alternation of archive images and commentaries from assorted talking heads. These works suffer from the same flaws that define the worst kind of journalism, compressing a complex reality into a worn-out rote formula. We are a long way from the shock of Chris Marker’s La Jetée or the anguished tenacity of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog.

In this context then, it is remarkable that Brazilian cinema has recently produced three films as creative and politically incisive as Carlos Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque, and Bárbara Paz’s Babenco. All emerged through the festival circuit but refuse to be boxed in by its conventions. All were produced either after Bolsonaro’s assumption of the presidency, or in the immediate run-up to it, and each, in its own way, deals with the deeper conditions that gave rise to his ascent.

To start with Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, which is only 16 minutes long. A literal translation of the title would be, ‘What There Is in You’, although the play on ‘Haiti’ in the Portuguese allows it to be rendered officially as Brazil is thee Haiti is (t)here. A word on the director. Carlos Adriano is a rare, perhaps unique, case within the landscape of contemporary Brazilian cinema. He has made dozens of films, of varying length. He doesn’t go looking for success; he is an eminently personal, subjective auteur; highly educated, with two post-doctorate degrees, his raw material consists of cinema footage itself, specifically archive images. His artistic influences can be found in poetry, above all in formalist verse, and Russian constructivism, both visual arts (Malevich, Rodchenko) and movies (Dziga-Vertov, Eisenstein). None of his films is linear: what generally distinguishes them is their sense of abstraction and, in many cases, self-conscious aestheticization.

O que Há em Ti retains this general aesthetic framework, though the crux of the film is the politics of the present moment. It deploys a piece of found footage, whose motif is a two-word phrase: Você acabou – ‘You’re over’. On the night of 16 March 2020, a black man accosted Bolsonaro in front of the Alvorada Palace, his official residence in Brasília. This is where, heading out in the morning or coming home at night, the President stops to consort with his admirers (police ensure that nobody else is able to enter the area). That evening, however, a man came up to Bolsonaro and said: ‘You’re over.’ The President pretended not to have understood, whereupon the man completed his thought: ‘You are no longer president.’

Having said his piece, he disappeared. Nobody knows his name, his occupation or his motives. Was he an avenging angel, visiting from the future to share the good news of Bolsonaro’s downfall? All that is known of him is what he said that night: ‘I’m from Haiti, I’m Brazilian’. 

Adriano replays this scene with variations innumerable times: he provides close-ups on the hand gestures, puts the sequence into black and white, divides the screen, blurs the images, transposes them into negatives. It becomes a kind of visual mantra, with an accompanying musical mantra provided by the lyric ninguém é cidadão (‘nobody is a citizen’), from ‘Haiti’, a 90s rap track by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both point in the same direction: Brazil and Haiti share a historical trajectory, their development arrested by the deformation of colonialism. The wider historical context appears through a series of references: Toussaint Louverture on the Haitian revolution and the abolition of slavery; the poetry of Aimé Césaire; Paul Robeson’s political interventions; the Black Macbeth of Orson Welles.

Suddenly, the screen turns black and the film takes a sharp detour to the recent past. White text appears onscreen relating the massacres perpetrated by the Brazilian military during its 13-year deployment in Haiti, authorised by the Workers Party government. On 6 October 2005, troops from MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, under the command of Brazilian generals, invaded the slum quarter of Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince and killed 65 people. The film gives the names of the officers responsible for these acts of barbarism, who were subsequently promoted to senior military positions by Bolsonaro. Is it ‘over’? Hardly. O que Há em Ti shows Bolsonaro at the height of his recent agitation for a coup d’état, when he demanded the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, by force if necessary. Speaking at a demonstration, he roars: ‘It’s over, fuck it!’ The repressive impulse is still very much alive and has now been turned back against Brazilians.

Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque#and now what? – contains a scene, only a couple of minutes long, which is so brutal that it seems to last a half-hour. A young black man starts caressing the face of a white spectator, whispering: ‘Buy!’ He gets closer and closer and, when the two are only a few centimetres apart, he roars – 204 times – the furious imperative: ‘Buy!’ You can almost feel the spittle.

In another scene, the same white man, who we now know to be a philosopher, speaks with two favela residents from the outskirts of São Paulo. He tells them that the intellectuals and the favela-dwelling poor can learn from one another and should join forces to revolutionize Brazil. He gets an unwelcome response: no chance. ‘What, us over here, and you tucked away over there?’, one of them asks. A black girl informs the esteemed intellectual that white academics are paternalists and ideologues, looking to manipulate the disenfranchised. The clothing of these young people almost seems like a uniform: T-shirt, piercings, tattoos, a hat or cap. They repeat, ad nauseam, a question that won’t be evaded: ‘Tá ligado?’ (‘You get me?’) ‘Perhaps what I meant to say didn’t come across clearly…’ ventures the philosopher, at which, there’s a hail of shouting. ‘What, you don’t think we can understand you?’ The philosopher falls silent; white as wax, bald and sporting a Lenin-like goatee. He bows his head.

Scenes like this give #eagoraoque a feeling of high voltage. The rather weak title is a gesture towards social media, an area that these filmmakers otherwise do not engage with. It is the work of a collective at the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious university: the critic and writer Jean-Claude Bernadet, the philosopher and musician Vladimir Safatle, and the playwright and film director Rubens Rewald. All are part of the left intelligentsia, a category under attack from the Bolsonaro government and often deprecated as well by feminists and black activists from the favelas and poor neighbourhoods. As Bernadet and Safatle appear as themselves, the film elides fiction with documentary to the point of making it impossible to divide the real from scripted or unscripted dramatic enactments.

Bernadet, at 84, is an intellectual of the old-guard who, in his latest work, is returning to the themes that concerned him in the 1960s: the relations between aesthetics and politics, popular struggle and the petty-bourgeoisie. Belgian by birth, Bernadet was a leading critical theorist of the Cinema Novo movement spearheaded by Glauber Rocha. The 47-year-old Safatle, meanwhile, cuts a rather different figure: a philosopher of a newer generation, public-facing and cosmopolitan, attentive to micropolitical details, and eager to connect with the energies of Brazil’s disenfranchised peripheries.

In the very first scene of the film, Bernadet sees a girl playing an extremely violent video game. He asks her if she likes killing people. Quite candidly, she replies: ‘Yeah.’ Afterwards, we see Bernadet practicing marksmanship and then singing the Internationale in the shower. He ends up wounding himself in the breast with a knife. Safatle, meanwhile, against the backdrop of a shelf stacked with books in French, Greek, Latin and English, explains to his daughter that people’s assemblies are a kind of mechanistic political theatre, but nonetheless an indispensable element of revolution. Without missing a beat, the girl asks him: ‘How do you want to make a revolution without listening to other people?’

The film is full of philosophical exchanges between Bernadet and Safatle, but these frequently become the object of ridicule or contestation. In two of them, for instance, the interlocutors are inconvenienced by the intrusion of poor people: a cleaner vacuuming, and a waitress who serves them coffee. These women exemplify a different species of ‘alienation’ from that which the two intellectuals are fond of discussing. A simple device, but effective.

Equally effective are the snippets of dialogue from various popular Brazilian figures hailing from both the academy and the favelas, including the rapper Mano Brown (‘what’s killing people is blindness and fanaticism: you don’t understand the people anymore, you’ve lost it’) and the leader of the homeless workers’ movement, Guilherme Boulos (‘the people who were holding that space nine years ago have all got themselves a nice little place by now’). But the most damning line of the film is an inadvertent one delivered by the philosopher Marilena Chauí to an assembly of thousands of anti-Bolsonaro students: ‘Goodnight, USP!’ The line brings home that the scene is taking place within a bubble at the University of São Paulo, isolated from the lives of the mass of impoverished Brazilians.

The disorientating alternation between skits and non-fiction sequences underlines the fact that Rewald, the director, aims to foreground contradictions rather than to provide ready answers. Leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions, #eagoraoque sometimes seems to flail without direction – and may itself provoke some murmurings about the gulf that separates middle-class intellectuals from the masses. Indeed, this is a classic subject of discussion in Brazilian culture, which Rewald, Safatle and Bernadet are seeking to exhibit in its contemporary form. They are principally committed to noting the differences in the language used by the two social strata. As in Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth), the great Brazilian film of the 1960s, the ‘trance’ of rhetoric supplants the firm ground of the real for many of the intellectuals depicted.

The third film, Babenco – Alguém Tem Que Ouvir o Coração e Dizer: Parou, is directed by the actress, Bárbara Paz. (The subtitle has been translated for Anglophone viewers as Tell Me When I Die, but a closer rendering would be, Someone Has to Listen to the Heart and Say: Stopped.) Although its apparent subject is Paz’s late husband, the film director Héctor Babenco (1946-2016), this is no straightforward biography; and though it has been selected to represent Brazil in the documentary category at the next Oscars, it is far from conventional Hollywood fare. Babenco does not concern itself with didactically imparting knowledge. Though the film reproduces scenes from Babenco’s films – Pixote, Ironweed, Carandiru, At Play in the Fields of the Lord – it does not identify them. It doesn’t proceed chronologically, nor give the names of those who speak about Babenco.

The film is deeply unconventional, just like its subject. Born in Argentina to a family of Jewish heritage, Babenco left the country in his youth and spent years wandering penniless in Europe. He read the Beats, worked as an extra in Italian films, frequented the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, before going to live in Madrid. Imprisoned in Spain for theft, he was convicted and served a sentence – an experience that he would draw on when filming Carandiru, his portrait of the Carandiru Penitentiary in São Paulo, Latin America’s largest prison, in 2003.

Eventually settling in São Paulo, Babenco began to sell cemetery tombstones and, for the first time, found himself with some money to spend. He fell in with people in the film industry, and started helping out on set as a lighting technician, a cameraman, a continuity supervisor. Eventually he got the chance to direct, and revealed himself to be a great talent. In 1980 he made Pixote, a powerful denunciation of the plight of impoverished children in Brazil. Hollywood opened its doors after he made Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), based on the novel of Manuel Puig, which won William Hurt the Oscar for Best Actor. Around the same time, at 37, he discovered he had lymphatic cancer, which would afflict him for the rest of his life.

The film, though, refuses to transform Babenco into a celebrity or a cult icon. As a narrator, he is aloof and elusive: he sees himself neither as Argentinian nor as Brazilian; he is not religious; he doesn’t believe in collective solutions to the oppression and poverty in Latin America. He appears – young, hirsute and robust – and discourses on the past and present. He appears – old, bald and with one foot in the grave – and continues dreaming of the future. When we hear him idly humming ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, we feel his presence in the here and now, yet we also feel that he is nowhere, a slippery and timeless figure. 

The images from Babenco’s films ultimately acquire a distinct value of their own in the documentary: that of laying bare this stateless man, this ‘wandering Jew’, this most rootless of artists. The film also lays him bare in a very literal sense – spotlighting the irreducible reality of his naked body. Paz’s camerawork roams freely across Babenco’s fragile form. With no sense of morbidity, she discovers his beauty as he rests on the verge of death. She has composed an elegy, which almost seems to be grabbing her lover by the shoulders, looking him dead in the eyes, and saying: ‘You’re over.’ Héctor Babenco might indeed be ‘over’, but this powerful film proves that – despite the best efforts of Bolsonaro – radical Brazilian cinema is not finished yet.

Translated by Max Stein

Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Political Iridescence’, NLR 75.

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Macron’s Wars

Hard to put it simply, but perhaps (Groucho) Marx can help. ‘Why, a child of five could understand this’, he would exclaim, gesturing at the staff map. A pause. ‘Fetch a child of five.’ What would that prodigy make of the sight of France, battling in Africa – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad? First, that a civil society for which the death of two soldiers on manoeuvres is a national trauma, meriting an emotional ceremony and a presidential address, has reached the point where waging war anywhere has become unthinkable. In 1914–18, a thousand killed at the Front was a good day; ten thousand in a single offensive, a bad one. Today, for the first time in two centuries, France is governed by a generation with no experience of civil, colonial or world war. For these young managing directors, soldiers are civil servants, held to accountancy principles. When nothing is worth the loss of life – and life, therefore, worth nothing – better assign them to less dangerous tasks: psychological – patrolling the city; technological – robotization or cyberwarfare, most urgent of all.

Yet a nation, like an individual, inherits certain repetition compulsions from its past – ‘uncontrollable processes’, as Freud put it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as a result of which the subject unconsciously but deliberately places himself in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience, but without recalling it. The subject, by contrast, is under the strong impression that the situation is fully determined by the circumstances of the moment. For France, one of those amnesiac processes is known as ‘Foreign Ops’. This is an unvarying drama, composed of three phases.

The first is euphoria. Not conflict but intervention, pacification or ‘regional stabilization’ is at stake. Initial success swells the optimism. The operation appears to make good sense, for it targets the same enemy everywhere: a conquering, multifaceted ‘ism’ – communism yesterday, terrorism today. That communist countries could come to blows – the USSR against China, Vietnam against Cambodia – should have been sufficient proof that this was not a homogeneous entity. Terrorism even less: no Comintern or Manifesto, and the practitioners can equally well set about exterminating each other (Shiites versus Sunnis, for example). To take the adjective for the noun is to mistake the subject; to forget about national, religious or tribal factors. The discourse serves to conceal a complex reality behind a simplistic abstraction: a textbook definition of ideology.

The ‘ism’ simplifies the process of selling the military operation to public opinion. The expert, the adventurer and the intellectual affirm the consensus. The first, a retired military type, will talk tactics, logistics, last-minute reinforcements (the ‘surge’). The second, a worldly, well-travelled sort, will evoke on his return from the conflict zone the suffering but also the hard-won virtues of the intervention. The third, a blowhard, will speak in capital letters about values and the West (to the point of transmuting Taliban into ‘freedom fighters’ and jihadis into admirable rebels). Heading this trio is the Commander in Chief – the most dangerous of all, because the occupant of the presidential palace knows nothing of the regions where the shooting takes place; his compass is the latest opinion poll and he thinks – if he thinks – in the very short term: about his re-election.

A more helpful trio would be the ethnographer, the historian, the geographer; regional specialists, not opinion-makers. The risk with these over-prudent scholars would be to see too clearly the mounting complications – the entanglement of traditions, tribes, climes, faiths. Thus, for example, the brilliant invasion of Libya was undertaken without consulting specialists on the country, nor even the French Ambassador to Tripoli, an eminent Arabist. A telegenic ignoramus served as expert opinion.

And so, with the best of intentions – responding to a cry for help, reacting to an atrocity – these valiant interventionists find themselves among populations of whose history, language, religion, cuisine and family structures they know nothing. Armed missionaries are not loved, and the natives know well enough that Robocops descending from the skies will leave again one day; after which will come the settling of scores (another reason to be careful). On paper, the ‘human’ of ‘human rights’ has no memories, no gods, no attachment to the soil. On patrol, there will be some surprises.

Robert McNamara, Defense Department overseer of the Vietnam War, drew up a balance sheet 27 years later. Effectively, he said, we knew nothing of Vietnam and its people. We were not in our own country and we could only lose this war of independence, despite our formidable military superiority. The domino theory proved false (if Vietnam falls, so does the rest of Asia). But no history lessons were learned. McNamara’s later candour did nothing to prevent his country imperturbably following suit in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – same line, same bitter outcome. There is good reason to think that France, at the appropriate scale – 5,000 troops, not 500,000 – intends to take up the burden (though with the decisive logistical support of its big boss leading from behind). With one notable difference: in France, the military-industrial complex pales beside what Pierre Conesa, former Defence Ministry official, has dubbed the military-intellectual complex. It’s a longstanding paradox: civilians with no experience of battle tend to be more zealous warmongers than the military themselves.

The second phase is despondency. Things get off to a good start, given the overwhelming disproportion of forces – mastery of the skies, the seas, the cities; spy satellites, drones, etc. – and the chest-thumping President has seen his popularity soar. But soon afterwards, amid general inattention and indifference – people have other fish to fry – the intervention force is bogged down in a war of attrition, with its victims and its blunders. An appeal is made to the allies, who jib at it, despite the humanitarian support of the UN, for only an empire can smoothly cobble together an ‘international coalition’. It is beyond France’s means.

The next big idea is training local forces, so that those we have come to save can bail out their saviours. There will be talk of Vietnamizing, Afghanizing, Sahelizing, etc., the outcome, of constructing a ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Malian’ army. This is the hour of nation-building, under the direction of a foreign occupation. Result: corruption, desertion, double-dealing, listlessness. The supposedly brand-new local army, charged with protecting the protectors, fails to render the expected service. It is seen from the start as an auxiliary force and thereby discredited. Anti-occupation sentiment spreads among the exasperated population, erupting in protests. In the metropolis, questions begin to be asked – at first cautious murmurs, then voiced aloud. What’s the point of all these deaths, all this sacrifice, for such ingratitude? All these millions spent far away when there is such a crying need for them at home?

The third phase, then, involves covert preparations for returning home. It starts with an official denunciation of the ‘cowardly advocates of a pull-out’, heedless of the dire consequences that will ensure; because, of course, there is no negotiating with terrorists. This is the obligatory prologue to the opening of secret talks, soon made public. But it is already late and there is little to discuss other than the modalities of a – hopefully, honourable – retreat, which rarely include the fate reserved for local recruits. The West houses an invasive species, but one which has the knack of waving goodbye, in Kabul or Tripoli alike, without worrying about what will follow (the USSR in Afghanistan was no exception to the rule).

With good reason: coming to remedy disorder, the intervention leaves chaos in its wake. The page will be turned without a word being said. ‘How can a 100-to-one ratio of conventional forces result in failure every time?’ is the question not to be asked, the critical balance sheet to avoid – allowing the same process to be repeated the following decade, with other presidents, moralists and humanitarians, as if there had never been a precedent.

What then, should the West stop defending its interests, its businesses, its citizens? Tear up its defence agreements, abandon its dependents? Here a realist à l’américaine could whisper a few words of advice to such epigones. There are two ways to proceed: a knock-out punch – aeroporting in and out, commando-fashion; and/or an entrenched ground camp, as in Iraq. This solves nothing in the longer term, but it limits the damage. A cynicism with little honour, to be sure. But in asymmetrical warfare, where superior intelligence racks up stupidities, it is pointless to dream. The Bridge of Arcola – seizing it was Napoleon’s glory – is and will remain beyond your reach.

Translated by Ros Schwartz

This article was originally published in Le Figaro under the title «La France du XXIe siècle face à la guerre, l’éternel retour des mêmes erreurs»

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold’, NLR 105.

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Burning Bodies

The acute, tender personal essays of Megan Nolan have developed a significant online following in recent years. Her readers – myself included – look forward to the publication of her next piece, where we will no doubt find some aperçu that will illuminate things we knew to be true about ourselves but lacked the words to articulate. Nolan, born in Ireland in 1990 and now based in London, specialises in unflinching self-exposure: her articles for the New Statesman, the New York Times and elsewhere are assured exercises in introspection that tend to circle around the body, sex and relationships. The particular feeling or concern to be anatomized tends to be announced in the opening line. A recent essay on what lockdown has meant for those like her, for whom ‘social comfort comes from dating or from having sex with strangers’, begins: ‘In early lockdown, I spent most evenings in the front room of my mother’s house, drunk, staring at a computer, reeling at the prospect of my body being deprived indefinitely of touch’.

One of her most affecting pieces deals with her history of self-mutilation and compulsive biting of her fingers. It is a condition Nolan shares with the unnamed narrator of her debut novel Acts of Desperation. The essay, published in 2019, is typical of her writerly procedure: an event, in this case the engagement of her best friend, prompts her to focus in on an aspect of her life she considers shameful. Her ‘dermatophogia’, as she categorises it, is then traced back through her history – she notes how when single she would let the tearing of flesh become so bad as to grow infected, causing her to be ‘ashamed of what feels like uniquely, viscerally ugly behaviour, the mess of skin and bone and chewing, all so animal’. Violent imagery and polysyndeton are both characteristic of her prose. The essay concludes on a redemptive note – but it is not that Nolan has overcome her condition, only made peace with it: ‘There is no end to me, my body, myself; I am a problem there is no solution to’. It is an elegant ending, and one that evades resolution, lifting the reader from the specific concerns of the piece in a volute of thought.

I return to Nolan’s journalism so as to better understand her novel and its limitations. At the turn of the millennium, the critic James Wood proposed a new genre by which to assess Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth. He called it ‘hysterical realism’, also including within its rubric ‘big contemporary’ novels like those of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo. These novels were ambitious, the kind of work that ‘knows a thousand things’ but in Wood’s analysis ‘does not know a single human being’. So anxious were they to represent the complexities of the modern world that they neglected the individuals inhabiting it; a restless zaniness and propensity to caricature elided the complexity of human beings, when for Wood the novel’s essential domain is the realm of consciousness. Acts of Desperation, by contrast, might be considered as the polar opposite type of novel: a work that wishes to know nothing at all, but for a single human being.

This need not be a negative appraisal. Though willing to consign her own novel to Wood’s new category, Smith objected to his bringing every other ‘big contemporary’ novel down with her. ‘Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned,’ she responded, ‘I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise’. Both polarities in truth offer rewards as well as risks. The attempt to contain the whole world inside the pages of a novel is a commendable ambition so long as the writing is good, so long as the reader feels the attempt has value. To understand just one person may likewise be a productive limitation, and in the broad church of contemporary authors bidding to do just that, there are some outstanding examples: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, to name a few. Whether such books are successful, then, depends on something much harder to articulate: the book’s ability to hold us, to last, to mean something.

Acts of Desperation shares the lineaments of the work by this crop of autofiction writers. Nolan has written of the profound influence of Knausgaard in particular – how his writing gave her permission to write of the ‘emotional minutiae’ she feared were ‘trivial, unintellectual and altogether too feminine’, how she read nothing but his work while writing her own book. The narrator-protagonist of Acts of Desperation resembles Nolan; as in her essays, the writing is intense and introspective, with the camera held so tightly that one catches little sight of the world beyond her own frantic mind. The novel is a confessional account of an abusive relationship that the narrator fell into in her early twenties, while living alone in a Dublin bedsit and regularly obliterating herself with drink. When she first meets Ciaran, she thinks him the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen. But as the infatuation develops, Ciaran’s unpleasant traits begin to accumulate. He is bad-tempered, mercurial and increasingly manipulative. And yet, she loves him so fiercely that his impression on her mind is like a continually erupting firework, burning with such intensity that, even when she tries to look away, she can see nothing but the afterimage of that brightness.

It is a promising starting point: an exploration of the way one’s sense of self might be annihilated by a toxic, all-consuming relationship. Her narrator’s manic devotion to Ciaran is movingly depicted, as every other aspect of her life becomes blurred and monochromatic. ‘If it was possible for me to have lived just like that, no other life coming in at the edges, no friends, no family, no work – if I had been successful in my attempt to boil my whole universe down just to us, burning bodies welded together in a cold bed – I could be happy there, still.’ Larger structural and stylistic flaws, however, prevent the novel from doing justice to its primary themes.

Its narrative takes place over two time periods: Dublin, between 2012 and 2014, and Athens in 2019 (where Nolan in fact wrote much of the novel). The Dublin sections proceed chronologically with calendrical headings (‘April 2012’, ‘November 2012’), while chapters from Athens are interposed periodically. Such a technique might allow for a distanced, reflective view of the main narrative. But tonally, despite the intervening years there is no shift from the voice of the Dublin chapters, nor a convincing change in psychological distance from the relationship. This is a novelistic requirement, different in kind to that demanded by the essay. Other novels might also have inspired more imaginative means of achieving the same effect. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018) for example – which if contracted to a single question asks ‘Should I have a child?’, just as Nolan’s asks ‘Is it possible to live for myself?’ embeds the narrator’s experience of flipping a coin to answer particular questions, in an adaptation of the I Ching, the Chinese divination device. ‘Is it that making babies is not a woman’s special task?’, ‘Is this book a good idea?’ Such moments provide welcome interruption from the anxious, tightly focused perspective of the rest of Heti’s novel.  

Often, the Athens sections begin with an aphorism: ‘Being in love feels like nothing so much as hope; a distilled, clear hope which would be impossible to manufacture on your own.’ These bear a close resemblance to the kinds of perceptions in Nolan’s journalism (Nolan has mentioned in interviews that the book in fact began as a work of non-fiction about relationships), but here they do not have the same effect. They stick up awkwardly, neither advancing the narrative nor being embodied or illustrated by it. Though some critics have drawn positive comparison with Knausgaard (something encouraged by his prominent commendation displayed on the novel’s back cover), these succinct lines are indicative of the distance between them. In Ben Lerner’s review of the third volume of My Struggle, he wrestles with the fact that ‘Knausgaard isn’t really quotable.’ The narrator’s thoughts are too digressive and circuitous; one would have to quote for pages on end just to illustrate a single idea. Such resistance to quotation is in fact part of Knausgaard’s mastery; his writing evades simplification. And, perhaps, the kind of thinking achieved in an essay would do well to be just as complex. Returning to Nolan’s journalism between readings of her novel, I found my relationship to it somewhat altered. I noticed more keenly the moments where my own experiences were seemingly condensed into the simplest of sentences. But what of those that aren’t ‘really quotable’?

While reflections within chapters tend to be short-lived and undeveloped, most chapters as a whole end so abruptly as to feel incomplete. I include one in its entirety below:

‘I remember the last meal I ever made for him, before everything changed for good, because it looked so pretty that I took a picture – crawfish and crab, arranged in neat pink scoops of lettuce leaves, lime juice and chilli, a spoonful of avocado, a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, and as I took the photograph, my phone lit up with a call from another man.’

There is nothing wrong with the writing itself. But there is not enough behind it. So brave in her personal essays, here Nolan seems to lack the courage to delve more deeply into the emotional texture of the story she is telling. For much of the novel, the narrator glides above memories of the relationship instead of entering into them for any significant duration – we tend to hear of them rather than witness or experience them. This again is symptomatic of the novel’s close relationship to the personal essay, which must be efficient and terse, providing fleeting vignettes extracted from the writer’s life. Of recent novels, perhaps Acts of Desperation’s closest stylistic relation might instead be the works of Jenny Offill. Reviewing Weather (2020), last year, Lauren Oyler mordantly suggested there was no reason why the narrator’s capsule-like paragraphs ‘should be organised as a novel and not a particularly literate Twitter feed.’ The implication was that there was something missing from the novel which might have given it life – the messy parts of experience that exist in the gaps between the short paragraphs and neat thoughts.

There are several longer chapters in the latter stages of Acts of Desperation though that indicate Nolan’s potential as a fiction writer, where the narrative is allowed to develop uninterrupted. The concluding section, after the narrator has fled Dublin for Athens in the wake of Ciaran’s last act of violence, is the strongest of all. A friend comes to visit, and she is again forced into sex against her will. More so than anywhere else in the novel, here one feels the presence of both bodies in a bed, the shifting power dynamics illustrated by what is said and what is not. The power of Nolan’s essays is transmuted into narrative. Afterwards, she finds ‘he was easier to listen to now, less grating. I was able to laugh along without it hurting too much.’ It is a heart-breaking moment. Sometimes it can feel easier just to let things happen. The novel ends in much the same way as Nolan’s essay on her dermatophagia. While so often it is the recognisable features of Nolan’s journalism that hold Acts of Desperation back, here this is not the case. Nolan refuses to offer a definitive answer to the question of how the narrator will live now, leaving a space for a future that is unfixed, but is at least more hopeful than the place from which she has come: ‘What would I think about, now that I wasn’t thinking about love or sex? That would be the next thing, trying to figure out what to fill up all that space with. But that was all right. That would follow.’

What might follow for Nolan? Might she widen her perspective a little, beyond that of a single human being? In a recent interview, she has suggested that her next novel will have ‘more of an expansive story, and more of a world’. One of Acts of Desperation’s epigraphs comes from the The Divided Self by R. D. Laing: ‘A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her’. It is an evocative quotation, and yet, in its original context, the image was contrasted with another, more disturbing vision. Laing continues, ‘That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from “reality” than many of the people on whom the label “psychotic” is affixed.’ The horrors the girl internalises are not of her own imagination; they are the product of those in power.

Read on: John Frow, ‘Thinking the Novel’, NLR 49.

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Hungarian Liquor

‘Are you a Soviet woman?’ asks Lyudmila Syomina in an opening scene of Dear Comrades!, the latest film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. The question is more forceful than inquisitive. The person that she is interrogating is no enemy hostage, but rather Lyudmila’s local grocery store clerk, a kind, visibly younger woman who, when we meet her, is standing in the stock room, pulling one coveted item after another – a roll of salami, a bottle of rare Hungarian liquor – out of the fridge and off the shelves for Lyudmila to take with her. Outside, other shoppers coalesce into a small stampede around the cash register, buying whatever they can get their hands on. ‘People started coming at seven in the morning, all of this talk about prices going up’, the amiable clerk explains. ‘Are we going to starve?’ she asks Lyudmila, who reacts to the question with a stunned look on her face. ‘Starve? In the Soviet Union? Do you hear yourself? Keep your mouth shut.’

Communication failure between generations lies at the heart of Dear Comrades!, a film that is as much about the personal challenges of historic political change as it is about what happened in 1962 in the city of Novocherkassk, an industrial town located just over the south-eastern Ukrainian border, when price increases led to one of the most violently repressed strikes in Soviet history. Konchalovsky, amongst Russia’s oldest and most recognised directors, provides a clear-eyed reconstruction of this long-suppressed episode, but in doing so he explores the pull that even the most incontrovertibly evil forces have on ordinary people. Through Lyudmila, played by his wife Julia Vysotskaya, he tracks the crushing disappointment that people face when history tells them to move on, be happy, and never look back.

The end of a dark era and the beginning of another; winter thawing into spring: most would greet this with optimism either muted or unrestrained. Not Lyudmila. As the people around her talk gleefully of communism’s imminent arrival, the latest agricultural advances, and above all, the gentler, kinder leader in the Kremlin, all she can do is scoff. Not because of any scorn she harbours towards the Soviet state. Just the opposite. Early in the film we learn that Lyudmila – likely to be in her early forties when we meet her – is a proud party activist, and a member of her local party committee where she oversees the city’s production sector.

She would have first become involved in the party in her late teens or early twenties under Stalin. During the Second World War, Lyudmila went to the front as a nurse where she met the man who, before dying in battle, fathered her daughter, Svetlana, or Svetka. We learn that, for her wartime sacrifices, Stalin’s government bestowed upon her a handsome consolation package: an apartment large enough for her daughter and elderly father to share, a government job, promises of indefinite raises and promotions, and, of course, the material privileges to match her high-ranking position ­– specifically, access to rare consumer goods like those we see her stuffing into her shopping bag in the grocery store.

To show her gratitude, she hangs portraits of Stalin on her wallpapered apartment doors, laments the fact that Khrushchev ordered his body moved out of Lenin’s mausoleum, that holiest of sites, and defends his record whenever someone, above all her daughter, tries to remind her of all the terrible things that Comrade Stalin did. ‘He executed so many innocent people!’ Svetka insists during one particularly strained exchange with her mother. ‘What do you know about Stalin?’ Lyudmila snaps back.

Then comes May 1962. That month, Khrushchev signed off on an abrupt 25% increase in the price of meat and butter, a reform designed to stimulate government revenues and boost collective farmers’ incomes to offset stagnating economic growth. In Novocherkassk, the increases stung particularly sharply. The city’s workers, nearly a tenth of whom were employed by the Electric Locomotive Plant, built in the 1930s as the Soviet Union’s largest producer of train engines, had just learned that their pay would be slashed, in the middle of a city-wide food shortage that forced citizens to stand in line at all hours of the day. Many became accustomed to saving their potato peels to get them through to their next meal. When workers at the plant learned of the price increases, they organized a strike, something which, at first glance, should register as neither a shock nor a rare occurrence in a country that called itself the world’s first workers’ state. Yet as far as party officials were concerned, labour strikes had no place in a socialist country where class conflict – and classes in general – had ceased to exist.

When the factory strike develops into a city-wide strike, workers spilled out into streets holding portraits of Lenin, signs that read ‘Proletarians of the World Unite!’, and pamphlets with demands for ‘Meat, Butter, and Higher Salaries!’. In the film, Konchalovsky shows city officials, watching from their office windows, respond with confusion and derision. ‘A fucking strike in our socialist country?’ one party official gripes. The protesting workers eventually storm the city’s party headquarters and go on a smashing spree, marvelling with disdain at the rarefied foods which the party officials treated themselves to as the rest of the city goes hungry (‘Look what they’re eating! Hungarian liquor and ham!’). ‘Arrest them all’, Lyudmila recommends, unflinchingly, during a meeting of local party committee members, who are joined by a coterie of bureaucrats flown in from Moscow to monitor the situation. ‘These people are extremely angry at the Soviet government, you never know what they might do’, she warns her peers. ‘Arrest them and take them to court, to the full extent of the law.’ Stalin may have been dead, but his methods lived on.

The officials end up taking her advice. What happens next would come to light nearly half a century later in 1991, when Gorbachev called for an honest, moral reckoning with even the most unsavoury aspects of the country’s past, including what happened that summer day in Novocherkassk. As the protestors enter the city square, we watch as bullets begin to rain down on the workers and their supporters. To this day, it’s unclear whether the call to shoot came from the Soviet Army or the KGB, but we know that 26 people died (87 more were injured and 110 sent to prison for their involvement in the strike). Knowledge of the event remains scarce. When I told my mother, who grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in 1987, that Dear Comrades! was about the Novocherkassk massacre, she had no idea what I was talking about.

One of the most underappreciated and – not incidentally – insidious aspects of Stalinism was the moral simplicity it offered. Dividing the world into good and evil allowed citizens like Lyudmila to navigate the cataclysmic changes brought about by the First Five-Year Plan, the wave upon wave of political purges, an apocalyptic world war. Of the many things that Khrushchev overturned when he denounced Stalin in his 1956 ‘Secret Speech’, perhaps this simple code of right and wrong represented the greatest loss. Practically overnight, ‘enemies’ were rehabilitated as ‘victims’, ‘heroes’ turned into opportunistic collaborators, and ‘foes’ into ordinary neighbours, who, after years labouring in the gulag, returned home to haunt the people next door who had turned them in to save themselves. ‘It was so easy then’, Lyudmila reflects at one point, because it was clear ‘who was an enemy and who was ours’.

For a while, Lyudmila refuses to give in to the topsy-turvy moral universe of Khrushchev’s making. She continues to refer to former gulag prisoners as criminals, invests her hopes for society in the KGB, and advises the government to seek the death penalty for the strike’s organizers. But her world view is challenged when she learns that her teenage daughter, herself an employee at the locomotive plant, is planning to participate in the strike despite, or in spite of her mother’s protests. An enemy? In her own family? The possibility leaves Lyudmila visibly unsettled. When Svetka goes missing after the shooting, Lyudmila immediately embarks on a search for her daughter’s whereabouts, a search that continues for the rest of the film.

Her odyssey takes her to the city’s various agencies and offices, each with a portrait of Khrushchev hanging where a portrait of Stalin once rested, the sloppy mounting job visible. We see her visit a morgue, where she almost trips over the bodies of people who died in the shooting, their corpses strewn on the floor like clutter. We watch her visit the city’s army headquarters, where a gang of young soldiers conduct a rough search of Lyudmila, neglecting to pay her the respect that a war veteran, long-time party member and panicked mother deserves. Finally, we join her as she pays a visit to a cemetery outside the city, where victims’ bodies are rumoured to have been clandestinely buried in plots already occupied by the dead.

Like many features of the film’s plot, this one, too, is rooted in historical fact. Researchers in the early 1990s revealed that party officials – those whom Lyudmila would have called her own – had dumped the bodies of the massacre’s victims in nearby cemeteries. Reeling from the realization that her daughter’s body might have been thrown, anonymously and thoughtlessly, into another’s grave, Lyudmila breaks down, a moment that we are instructed to interpret as her loss of faith. In one of the last scenes of the film, we watch as she sips unceremoniously on a bottle of unlabelled Soviet vodka, a far cry from the Hungarian liquor we saw her purchasing with delight earlier in the film. In this way, she becomes, perhaps for the first time in her life, a true comrade.

Yuri Trifonov, a Soviet writer who made his career during the Khrushchev years, described members of the generation that preceded him as ‘people of the beginning of the war and people of the end of the war’, who despite their best efforts, ‘remain such to the end of their lives’. Lyudmila, by this formulation, is a child of the end of the war. Konchalovsky however, like Trifonov, is a product of the Thaw, and is no stranger to the need to move with the times. Born Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky in 1937, the year that launched Stalin’s Great Terror, into a family as close to royalty as possible in the Soviet Union – his father wrote the Soviet national anthem, and his relatives, the Mikhalkovs, were old Russian aristocrats who traced their lineage to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – his life’s trajectory maps neatly onto Russia’s long twentieth century.

His is a rare career that transcended not only the Soviet-post-Soviet divide, but also that between Russian and American film circuits (his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, also an actor and director, accomplished a similar feat when he won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Burnt by the Sun (1994) about Stalin’s Great Terror). The seeming ease with which he’s managed these transitions is a testament not just to the strength of his artistic vision and its broad appeal, but his ability to acclimate, even thrive in political environments which others would find prohibitively hostile. In his more than sixty years of directing, writing, acting and producing, Konchalovsky has had to navigate institutional alliances with everyone from Communist Party bureaucrats to Los Angeles studio executives to Russian oligarchs. One of this latest film’s producers is Alisher Usmanov, a Moscow-based metal and mining tycoon worth an estimated $11.68 billion dollars – an unusual choice of funder for a film about a labour strike. This also helps to explain how and why he has embraced film styles as varied as socialist realism (1964’s The First Teacher), avant-garde (1962’s Andrei Rublev, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Andrei Tarkovsky), and Hollywood action (1989’s Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell). Lyudmila may have had trouble adapting to changing times, but Konchalovsky has not.

Or has he? A consistent theme that runs through many of the interviews, profiles and discussions of Konchalovsky is his refusal to accede to prevailing moral binaries, or to depict his own life story as a gradual move away from darkness and towards light, from unfreedom to freedom. When asked in 2011 whether during the Soviet part of his career he worried about his ability to express himself in the face of government censors, he responded with an automatic no. ‘Creativity’, he told the visibly confused interviewer, has nothing to do with ‘freedom of self-expression; it’s an illusion, for me’. He then consciously upended the interviewer’s assumptions about what the end of the Soviet Union bestowed upon artists like himself. ‘Russia got a lot of freedom in the nineties, and no masterpieces or great films appeared.’

In an interview conducted in 2018 at an election-night victory party held in Moscow to celebrate Putin’s ascendancy to his sixth term in office, a Russian news correspondent runs into Konchalovsky and asks him to offer his thoughts on the results. ‘Extraordinary joy, a realization of my hopes, and I was almost sure it would happen’, he told the reporter in perfect English. ‘And Putin will lead’, he added, a banner with the words ‘A Strong President; A Strong Russia’ strung visibly behind him. When asked what he thought about the thousands of anti-Putin demonstrators who were out on the streets that same night – many of whom were organized by the now-jailed Alexey Navalny – Konchalovsky did not mince words. ‘It’s not important.’ Like Lyudmila, he would not – perhaps could not – succumb to other people’s assessments of reality. For both of them, it’s too indecent, too unnatural, to bite the hand that feeds.

Read on: Sophie Pinkham, ‘Nihilism for Oligarchs’, NLR 125.