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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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Favoured Nation

Britain goes to the polls on 4 July, but one issue not on any politician’s lips is the country’s relations with the Land of the Free. Angus Hanton’s Vassal State: How America Runs Britain is the latest book to break this Westminster taboo, doing for business studies what Tom Stevenson’s Someone Else’s Empire recently did for foreign affairs. The book is a statistical barrage documenting the very high proportion of UK corporate assets owned by US multinationals, private equity and big tech. Parliamentarians who fulminate about China’s TikTok and Huawei may be barking up the wrong tree, it seems. Hanton considers why Britain has been singled out by American capital and urges action to tackle the country’s ‘abject’ economic dependency.

On Hanton’s figures, the UK accounts for 30 per cent of American overseas investment and over half of US corporate assets held in Europe, making New York–London the ‘biggest route of cross-border takeovers in the world’. American investors hold $2 trillion of British assets while UK investors own nearly $700 billion of US assets – actually a favourable contraflow for Britain, given relative GDP and population, but affording US capital a bigger stake in a smaller foreign economy. The Americans employ more people in Britain than in France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. Vassal State calculates that the larger US-based multinationals earned $88 billion in Britain at the time of the last general election, equivalent to £2,500 per UK household and largely tax-free (of course, most tax havens are located in British jurisdictions). It stresses the overtopping size of the larger American companies, the valuations of Apple and Microsoft (each over $3 trillion) individually greater than the combined value of the British FTSE-350.

Dig into any economic sector and you will likely strike American ownership, the book shows, compiling a shopping basket of goods dominated by the likes of Kellog’s, Mondelez, General Mills, Mars, Kimberley-Clark and Colgate-Palmolive. On the ailing high street, an outsize American presence includes Boots the chemist (Walgreens) and bookstore chain Waterstones, as of 2018 owned by Eliott Investment Management of West Palm Beach, FL. Amazon, meanwhile, has captured 30 per cent of all online commerce, partly as a marketplace for third-party sellers – one of many US ‘toll bridges’, as Hanton puts it, within the digital economy. Domestic consumers and companies must negotiate American tech platforms to access their home market, whether it is advertising via Facebook or Google, buying services on Deliveroo or Uber, networking through LinkedIn or Bumble, or paying for things using PayPal or Visa. These digital fiefdoms don’t just apply to the UK, but Vassal State pointedly contrasts the country’s sluggish economic growth since 2008 with the skyrocketing UK earnings of US tech firms over this period.

In the City, the number of firms trading on the Stock Exchange has fallen by 40 per cent since 2008: firms have been taken private or relisted in New York. US shareholders control a quarter of the remainder. Hanton identifies only three British entries in the Forbes list of the hundred largest publicly traded companies – GSK, HSBC and Unilever, each dating back to the nineteenth century. In the West End, Hanton takes in the branch offices of private-equity behemoths Blackstone, KKR and Apollo, leading buyers of British industry. ‘The true financial capital of the UK’, he argues, ‘is located on Manhattan Island’.

And on it goes. We learn that Jones Lang LaSalle of Illinois and Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis of Texas are the UK’s largest commercial property managers. In agriculture, CF Industries of Illinois dominates fertiliser production, commodity giants Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill the buying and processing of farm output. American agribusiness spearheaded by Pilgrim’s Pride of Colorado controls 50 per cent of chicken production for the British market despite a ban on chlorine-washed US poultry. ‘The full extent of US ownership has left most of British society in the dark or, in some quarters, in denial’, Hanton argues. There is a chapter devoted to US commercial inroads into the NHS following Blair’s outsourcing of elective procedures in 2002, and another on government procurement and the recent US takeovers of aerospace firms Cobham, Meggitt and Ultra, acquisitions which Hanton says the French would never have allowed.

What explains corporate America’s Anglophilia and vice versa? Vassal State dismisses a common language and UK law as explanations. Sterling’s weakness since the 2016 Brexit vote and low LSE valuations are clearly factors, but Hanton instead emphasises policy choices – ‘pandering to foreign buyers’ – beginning with Thatcher’s liberalisation and privatisation measures four decades ago. In 1981, less than 4 per cent of UK shares were owned overseas; today the figure is more than 56 per cent. The book recalls Tory grandee Harold Macmillan’s criticism of Thatcher for selling the family silver through her privatisations. In an interview with the Spectator Hanton goes further, warning that the end result of depleting one’s assets is ‘beggary’.

Both governing parties have propounded what Vassal States calls the ‘big lie’ of conflating corporate takeovers with genuinely useful foreign direct investment. Vassal State links this ideological disposition toward FDI to the intimacy of senior politicians with US firms, noting their revolving-door job appointments. On leaving office Blair and Brown were hired as advisers to JP Morgan and Pimco respectively, Cameron worked for payments processor First Data of Atlanta and biotech firm Illumnia of San Diego, and George Osborne was taken on by BlackRock. Rishi Sunak, alum of Stanford Business School, ex of Goldman Sachs, was only reluctantly parted from his Green Card. Britain’s leaders ‘have been coopted into the American machinery of influence and have rarely, if ever, questioned its growing dominance’.

Blame for weak corporate governance ultimately lies with a supine, and self-interested, political class. A chapter titled ‘Puppet Masters’ describes the Trump Administration’s brusque insistence that the Johnson government reverse its decision not to strip Huawei from the country’s 5G network, Pompeo issuing barely veiled threats of repercussions for Five Eyes intelligence sharing. ‘Mostly Washington is happy for the British to have their own conversations and make their own decisions, and there is no need for the US to show its teeth,’ comments Hanton. ‘But if the Brits act against perceived US interests, American diplomats go to work, even threatening “the special relationship”.’ The Huawei episode, he adds, ‘demonstrated the language of partnership coupled with the actions of control.’

What motivates such stinging judgements? Hanton is an Oxford-educated real-estate broker from Dulwich, a picturesque neighbourhood of south London. Now in his sixties, he entered public-policy discourse a decade ago when he cofounded a think tank to promote intergenerational fairness. His father Alastair was a public-spirited Methodist banker who set up the Post Office Girobank for the first Wilson Labour government and devised the Direct Debit payment method. Vassal State is at pains to stress that the logic of its analysis is not anti-American, just pro-British, pleading that a weakened UK poses a problem for the US and Europe in the fight against climate change and authoritarianism (read: Russia and China). It urges a reset and the binning of false prospectuses. Concretely, the introduction of legislative protections like France’s 2006 Danone law, a Gaullist rebuff to reported hostile-takeover interest from PepsiCo.

Anxiety about US commercial penetration isn’t new, but sporadic. In the Edwardian period, amid debate over tariff reform, Canadian journalist Frederick Arthur Mackenzie anticipated in The American Invaders (1902) that British capital faced a ‘Waterloo of Trade’, especially in advanced sectors such as electrical engineering. After the Second World War, as David Edgerton notes in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, the US was already by far the largest foreign investor in Britain. It’s worth noting that it also called the shots in monetary policy: foisting sterling convertibility on Attlee in 1946 after Truman abruptly terminated Lend Lease (a ‘financial Dunkirk’, according to Keynes), forcing Eden into an immediate troop withdrawal from Suez in 1956 in return for emergency funding to maintain sterling parity, blocking devaluation by Wilson in 1965 and leading Callaghan into IMF austerity in 1976. The institutional nexus of US financial influence, continued into the twenty-first century with the dollar swap lines of 2008 and 2020–21, is missing from Hanton’s account.

Nevertheless, Vassal State seems a textbook illustration of the consequences of what Tom Nairn described as the British political economy of eversion, the country’s non-industrial metropolitan heartland waxing rich as a service-zone to international capital while regional manufacturing plant is either shut down or sold off. The book has had mixed reviews in the British press. The Tory Telegraph responded that ‘we have willingly and happily prostrated ourselves – in some ways for good, but clearly also for ill’. The centrist Times was defensive of Hanton’s impugning of the economic value of the transatlantic link. ‘Polyvalent dominance’, Nairn argued in his 2003 Postscript to The Break-Up of Britain, ‘is most effective when the suborned have chosen their prostration. And normally, such elective subjection is founded on apparently sensible (if short-range) economic or career reasons: myopia re-attired as the national interest.’ There will be plenty of that in evidence on the campaign trail over the next six weeks.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Edgerton’s Britain’, NLR 132.

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A Reprieve for Assange

The High Court’s decision to permit Julian Assange to appeal his pending extradition is an important, if partial, victory. The judges are aware that, in reality, he has no case to answer. The US charge of ‘espionage’ is blatant nonsense. The fact that it hasn’t already been dismissed and Assange released is a sign of the UK’s generalized subordination to American interests.

Full credit must be given to the international campaign to free him – in particular the steely determination of his wife Stella Assange – and to Nils Melzer’s forensic and unanswerable deconstruction of this whole sordid affair. The New York Times and Guardian, both barometers of obsequious opinion, have acknowledged the absurdity of the charges. Even the otherwise slavish Australian political class has voted to demand his release. (‘History’, wrote Engels, ‘is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life.’)

Assange’s only ‘crime’ was to expose a crime. To make available the evidence of US brutalities in Iraq. He could only do so because Chelsea Manning supplied him with the explosive ‘Collateral Murder’ video along with other vital information. She has since regained her freedom, while Assange still rots in Belmarsh. An even-handed Crown Prosecution Service would not have pursued him in the first place. Back in 2013 the Swedes were keen to drop the case. But the CPS, led by Starmer, pleaded with them to keep it open. He and his staffers flew to the US where they conspired with the Obama administration – though the documents related to these trips have been either hidden or destroyed. Like hardened criminals, Starmer and his chums did not want any details leaked to the public. That this fellow is now the so-called ‘Leader of the Opposition’ – applauded by the establishment for having gotten rid of Corbyn’s cohort, reinstated the Blairite old guard and supported the Israeli genocide – is hardly surprising. His training to become the next acceptable Prime Minister began with the framing of Assange.

Another appalling and vindictive decision was to keep Assange locked up in a maximum security facility, with prolonged periods of solitary confinement amounting to outright torture. The official explanation was that he had jumped bail, which might explain the refusal to release him; but an open prison, such as are used to keep financial criminals, would surely have sufficed. The real reason was that the intelligence agencies wanted him punished and humiliated. As a result the WikiLeaks journalist is so ill that he has not been able to attend his two most recent court hearings. Are they hoping he will die before the final appeal?

Five years ago, Assange wrote to a friend from his prison cell:

I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers, but the days when I could read and speak and organise to defend myself, my ideals and my people are over! Everyone else must take my place. I am defenceless and am counting on you and others of good character to save my life . . . Truth, ultimately is all we have.

Truth alone is never enough, especially in this vile world of Western double standards. The British judicial system has a gruesome record when it comes to dealing with ‘enemies of the state’. That’s because it was created to be an enemy of the people.

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Battle Machine

In June last year, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez scraped together just enough votes to save his PSOE-led government, aided by Basque and Catalan independence parties as well as the progressive coalition Sumar. The latter, led by the Vice President and Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, has since tried to assert its hegemony over the country’s left. Its political approach – technocratic and top-down, conciliatory towards the PSOE and the media – represents a break with both the mass mobilizations of the Indignados and the left-populism of Podemos, which suffered a virtual wipeout in the 2023 municipal elections and has been reduced to only four seats in parliament. Although Podemos reluctantly joined Díaz’s alliance in the last election, she has now marginalized it even further: preventing it from nominating parliamentary spokespeople and locking it out of government ministries. Podemos, in turn, has split from Sumar and is running a separate list of candidates for the European Parliament. Gone are the days when Pablo Iglesias promised to ‘take heaven by storm’ and ‘overthrow the regime of 78’. What went wrong? And what lessons can be drawn from this defeat?

Three recent books by key players in Podemos attempt to answer these questions by retracing the party’s trajectory during the 2010s. Iglesias’s Verdades a La Cara examines the Spanish establishment’s all-out war on his political project; Iñigo Errejón’s Con Todo makes the case for a populism reaching across the left/right divide as the only electoral strategy that could have saved the party; and Sergio Pascual’s El Cadaver en el Congreso reconstructs the organization’s factional disputes. Predictably, these accounts are highly subjective and sometimes reflect the authors’ desire to exonerate themselves or justify their political positions. Yet, considered side by side, they shed light on the Spanish left’s decline and whether it could have been avoided. 

The founders of Podemos, a nucleus of radical academics at Madrid’s Complutense University, set out to harness the energy of the Indignados, which signalled mass frustration with the austerity regime of the 2010s yet failed to leave an institutional legacy. With the post-Communist Izquierda Unida proving resistant to change, there appeared to be a need for a new party that could draw on the experiences of the Pink Tide and the ‘populist reason’ of Laclau and Mouffe, as well as Iglesias’s growing profile as a media commentator. Four months after it was established, Podemos unexpectedly won 1.3 million votes and five seats in the 2014 European elections – a breakthrough that led to soaring popularity and an expanding membership. The following year, it surged to 5.2 million votes and 69 seats in the general elections, trailing the PSOE by only 200,000 and fundamentally altering the national political landscape. 

The Spanish elite hit back with sustained lawfare and media attacks that battered the party’s reputation, deepening an internal dispute between the Errejonistas, who advocated a moderate populism and conciliatory approach towards the PSOE, and the Pablistas, who advocated a more unambiguous leftism and an alliance with Izquierda Unida. As this division became more pronounced, the party began to lose electoral support and organizational cohesion. In late 2019, having been reduced to 35 seats, Podemos struck a deal with the PSOE and agreed to enter a coalition as its junior partner. In office it extracted a number of policy concessions: a ‘Minimum Vital Income’, additional welfare support during the pandemic, a cap on the price of gas, and various articles of pro-LGBT and feminist legislation. But the party’s popularity continued to decline. As the far right made gains at local and regional level, Iglesias resigned, and Yolanda Díaz assumed the de facto leadership of the Spanish left, presenting her moderate tripartist politics – brokering compromise between labour, capital and the state – as the only way forward.  

*

Reflecting on these turbulent years, Iglesias’s Verdades a La Cara focuses on the relentless attacks against Podemos – coordinated by right-wing elements in the judiciary, the police and the media – which intensified after the 2015 elections. This included over twenty criminal cases alleging corruption, illegal financing, receiving material support from Venezuela and Iran, and so on. These baseless accusations have not resulted in a single conviction to date. Yet they created a sense of constant scandal which sapped the party’s insurgent energy. In 2015, police confiscated the mobile phone of one of Iglesias’s advisers, hoping to unearth evidence to use in a criminal case against Podemos. Finding none, they proceeded to drip-feed negative stories to the media based on anything they could comb from the device’s memory. In 2016, one of the country’s most prominent newscasters, La Sexta’s Antonio Ferreras, colluded with the police and tabloid press to spread stories about Podemos that he knew to be false. Hostile journalists also allegedly offered to strike deals with Podemos’s ‘softer’ figures, such as Errejón, in which they would be given positive coverage in return for attacking Iglesias.

In Memorias de un Piloto de Combate, the former deputy Pablo Echenique describes an ‘iron law’ of the Podemos years: anyone willing to undermine Iglesias was guaranteed favourable treatment, while anyone allied with him was savaged in the public eye. Echenique recalls how, as a disabled activist, he received positive media coverage – which framed his political ascent as a heroic struggle against adversity – so long as he was willing to assail the Podemos leadership for its supposedly antidemocratic impulses. Once he switched sides and joined the Pablistas, he was instantly maligned as a corrupt and dangerous figure.

Faced with this onslaught, Iglesias and his family were forced to endure almost a year of daily protests and intimidation by far-right groups outside their house. The leader responded by doubling down on his combative approach and calling out influential media figures for their mendacity. He rejects the notion that greater compromise or appeasement would have helped to manage the firestorm. The only option was to use the smear campaign to sharpen the antagonism between masses and elites. Rather than discussing the split between him and Errejón in detail, he focuses on the qualities that activists and politicians need to operate in such conditions: bravery, loyalty, audacity, a willingness to tell hard truths and stand up to bad-faith actors.

These attributes, he suggests, made Podemos resilient enough to enter government despite losing significant popular support. Overcoming massive resistance from PSOE elites, and scepticism from left-wing allies including Izquierda Unida, the leadership hammered out a coalition agreement in late 2019, making Iglesias Vice President and securing some key ministries. Iglesias is positive about Podemos’s governing record. He views the legislation passed by the Equality Minister Irene Montero – supporting trans rights and offering women paid menstrual leave – as a significant long-term gain. During the pandemic, Iglesias’s ministers pressured Sánchez to move away from ad-hoc mitigation towards progressive social welfare policies, such as the Minimum Income, which would outlast the virus itself. Yet they lacked full ministerial authority over the design and implementation of the policy, leading to its eventual dilution. Podemos was also forced to turn down an offer to take charge of the Ministry of Health because, thanks in part to its rapid rise, it did not have anyone with sufficient expertise.

In 2021, Iglesias left the government to lead Podemos’s Madrilenian regional election campaign, hoping to stave off a resurgent right led by Isabel Ayuso and prevent the party from being eliminated in the capital. While Podemos retained some seats, the campaign failed to achieve its main objectives – owing, in Iglesias’s view, to the effects of the seven-years-long campaign to discredit it. Accepting that his presence was a hindrance to further progress, Iglesias retired and effectively anointed Díaz as his successor. At the time she was an ally of Iglesias and had won widespread support for her pro-worker policies, especially during Covid-19. Iglesias believed that she could renovate the Spanish left while pursuing broadly the same political agenda – an assessment that turned out to be misjudged.

Verdades a La Cara is a set of personal reflections from someone bruised by his battles with a corrupt and unaccountable elite. It is adept at analysing the machinations of the Spanish establishment and the extraordinary lengths to which it was willing to go in order to destroy Podemos. Yet its examination of the party’s internal dynamics is limited. Iglesias does not explain why the factions became so polarized or whether this could have been otherwise; his main emphasis is on whether specific actors were ‘loyal’. The media is identified as the main obstacle to social transformation, yet the book offers no argument for how to surmount it.

*

In Con Todo, Iñigo Errejón sets out his alternative vision for Podemos. The book is more programmatic than Verdades a La Cara and addresses the rift with Iglesias more directly. It begins with Errejón’s account of his political formation. Though he was initially drawn to anarchism, his encounter with the Latin American left convinced him of the transformative power of the state. He completed a doctorate on the MAS in Bolivia before working with left-wing research institutes in Argentina and Venezuela. He later used the work of Laclau and Mouffe to develop a theory of ‘transversalism’ – dividing politics between ‘below’ and ‘above’ as opposed to ‘left’ and ‘right’ – that could be applied to Spain. This involved a populist conception of patriotism, whereby the left would construct an image of the nation as representative of the majority in contrast to a predatory elite. 

Errejón served as Podemos’s campaign manager in the 2014 European elections and 2015 regional elections before becoming a parliamentary deputy later that year. While the party was still in its infancy he brought together a team of committed organizers and administrators who established a verticalist ‘electoral battle machine’ – giving him significant power over its internal bureaucracy. From early 2016, he used this position to challenge Iglesias on a range of issues: electoral strategy, policy direction, media appearances. Errejón firmly opposed Iglesias’s plan to ally with Izquierda Unida, which he saw as relapsing to a traditional ‘left unity’ platform. He also called for a more conciliatory approach to the PSOE, urging Podemos to abstain in parliament and let it form a coalition with Ciudadanos.

Errejón lost on both counts. Iglesias refused to prop up a PSOE-Ciudadanos administration, and the alliance with IU was ratified by a large majority in an internal referendum, leading Podemos to rebrand as Unidas Podemos. Yet UP’s failure to overtake PSOE in 2016, losing a million votes compared to the previous year, appeared prima facie to vindicate Errejón. He decided to go on the offensive, staging an infamous showdown at the 2017 party congress. Errejón campaigned to return to the transversal formula and soften the party’s rhetoric, attempting to install his own leadership team around Iglesias instead of his rival’s preferred candidates. Yet in a party as personalist as Podemos, Errejón’s alliances within the administrative machine were no match for Iglesias’s charismatic persona. He was defeated by a two-to-one majority and effectively became a lame duck. Though he was offered the opportunity to run as the Podemos candidate in the 2019 Madrilenian elections, he claimed that his freedom of action was curtailed and his position systematically undermined by the Pablistas.  

Errejón therefore led a split, forming Más Madrid to contest the municipal elections in May 2019 before launching Más Pais ahead of the general elections later that year. For the Pablistas, this confirmed what they had long suspected: that Errejón was willing to undermine Podemos, and ally with some of its worst enemies, in order to advance his personal ambitions and lukewarm brand of populism. In Con Todo, however, he insists that Podemos had lost votes from 2016 onwards because of its rebranding as a conventional left party. The shift, as he puts it, was from ‘using moderate rhetoric to advocate for radical measures to using radical rhetoric to promote modest measures’. He stresses the necessity of a broad-based appeal to the electorate, and laments that the vertical structures he set up were subsequently used by Iglesias’s faction to crush all internal dissent.

Con Todo captures Errejón’s gifts as a campaign organizer and political operator, with a talent for translating theory into practice. It also reflects some of the traits that undermined his project: an intransigent, often sectarian disposition, and a lack of patience for building robust political institutions. The author’s strategic outlook ultimately fails to convince. Unlike Iglesias, he has virtually nothing to say about the array of forces stacked against Podemos. Politics, for him, is not about the balance of power between clashing institutions. It is merely a set of discursive strategies with a horizon that rarely extends beyond the next election. His claim that transversalism is the most effective means of rallying voters against neoliberalism is belied by the performance of Más Pais, which failed to make serious electoral gains, and has since been dissolved into Sumar. Nor is it clear how, even if a ‘below-versus-above’ strategy managed to improve Podemos’s poll ratings, it could have succeeded in forging a radical government or popular movement capable of confronting vested interests. In many cases, Errejón’s prescriptions merely involve appealing to the political centre – a tactic that has hastened the collapse of left parties elsewhere in Europe.

*

Sergio Pascual was appointed Podemos’s Secretary of Organization in 2014 and sacked by Iglesias two years later for playing a leading role in a factional Telegram group led by Errejón. After his defenestration, he distanced himself from both factions and served out the rest of his parliamentary term before leaving frontline politics in 2019. Un cadáver en el Congreso is his attempt to make sense of his experience, providing a more comprehensive account of Podemos’s internal struggle than can be found in Iglesias or Errejón. Pascual begins by recalling his political work in Latin America, where he held a mid-level advisory role in the Maduro government. While working in Caracas in 2014, he received a call from his close friend and comrade Errejón, who asked him to return to Spain and join Podemos. He soon became the main interface between the national leadership and Podemos’s unruly local branches, as well as the unofficial lieutenant of the Errejonista faction. 

Un cadáver en el Congreso describes an informal gathering of the key Podemos members in the town of Ávila‎ in August of 2014, where they discussed the party’s internal composition, its distribution of power, whether to ally with IU, and whether to run candidates in the upcoming municipal and provincial elections. The so-called ‘Ávila trauma’ was the first indication of major political differences among the leadership. Errejón stressed the need to ‘arrive light’ at the next general elections, with a limited policy platform and without the ‘baggage’ of IU. He rejected the idea of deploying the Podemos brand for local elections, arguing that they should conserve their energy for the national one and assemble an electoral base by winning over unaffiliated voters. Iglesias, for his part, was more concerned with building a loyal organization, rooted in Spain’s radical left tradition, that could withstand inevitable attempts at elite sabotage. Pascual recalls that the leader gave

a realistic political reading of actual power in our country. He reminded us that we would not be allowed to govern, and that full democracy does not exist in Spain . . . He outlined the difficulties we would face, the use of (now proven) state conspiracies against us, and he anticipated the ad hominem attacks we would receive and that would soon become a reality. He said that we should make gains in provincial government and use them to counterbalance the onslaught, and he made it clear that this would not be possible without allying with Izquierda Unida.

Iglesias developed this thesis in a subsequent email discussion, where he predicted that Podemos would soon establish itself as a national political formation yet remain subordinate to the PSOE and PP, and that a longer-term struggle to overtake them would mean gaining a presence in provincial administrations. Iglesias was willing to use Errejón’s populist methods and tactical innovations to break open the two-party system. But he saw that the left/right binary would eventually reimpose itself on Spanish politics, and that maintaining a transversal identity would be impossible. Pascual agrees with this diagnosis; ‘we were on the left and everyone knew it’. Rather than hiding this basic fact, it was necessary, he writes, to strengthen Podemos’s forces by forming an alliance with other experienced and battle-hardened parties: IU chief among them. Yet Iglesias nonetheless accepted Errejón’s argument that Podemos should not field municipal candidates to avoid contaminating its national brand: a decision which meant that Podemos failed to carve out local power bases at the height of its popularity, leaving it in a vulnerable position.  

Errejón won the Ávila debate thanks to the superior organization of his cadres, preventing Podemos from allying with IU for the time being. Iglesias was clearly rattled by the experience. ‘I realized that I was leader of a party machine that would not necessarily be loyal to me’, he later wrote. He began to seek out allies who could challenge Errejón’s growing influence. The two emerging factions managed to maintain enough unity to defeat the Anticapitalistas, a Trotskyist group that argued for the creation of decentralized democratic channels as opposed to a nimble and vertical electoral machine. Yet the tensions between them would become impossible to contain following the December 2015 election.

After the party secured its spectacular result, both Errejón and Iglesias were sceptical that the PSOE would agree to a coalition, and both were exhilarated by the idea of a possible sorpasso of the centre left. But their strategies diverged. Iglesias wanted to accelerate attacks on the PSOE in an attempt to win over their core voters, while Errejón argued for a moderate line to attract their wavering supporters. When the PSOE establishment ruled out any deal with Podemos, the Pablistas advocated a rerun of the election, hoping to form an alliance with IU, which they believed could add a million votes to their tally. The Errejonistas believed that standing back and allowing the PSOE to form a government with Ciudadanos was necessary to shield Podemos from the responsibility for forcing another election. These disagreements erupted with a series of leaked Telegram messages, coordinated resignations, briefings, counter-briefings, and Iglesias’s eventual sacking of Pascual. Un cadáver en el Congreso describes how this series of events eradicated any ‘common language’ between the party militants and created a vicious cycle of factionalism.

Despite his previous identification with the Errejonistas, Pascual has produced one of the most measured and self-critical accounts of the period. Not only does he chart the evolution of the factions in compelling detail; he also evokes the emotional intensity and chaotic atmosphere of party life. Podemos, he writes, was a ‘totalizing institution’ that consumed its key players 24 hours a day. Being invited to an exclusive Telegram group was a ‘sign of social ascent’; being expelled or excluded from one ‘was the worst form of exile’. The book shows how loyalties and patronage networks played a key role in determining political allegiances – which, in an organization that lacked developed internal structures or procedures for mediating disputes, created the perfect conditions for a fratricidal war.

*

It was always going to be difficult for a party like Podemos to maintain its momentum thanks to coordinated political attacks and unresolved internal differences. But could it have achieved a softer landing, establishing itself as a permanent actor on the political stage and laying the groundwork for future gains? If factionalism played a significant role in unravelling the project – not only damaging its public perception, but exhausting many of its activists – could this antagonism have been managed more effectively? It is tempting to think that the Errejonistas could have formed a loyal opposition, agitating for a softer populism without undermining Iglesias, or that the factions could have become more porous over time, with political differences hashed out through internal democratic channels. Yet the fast-paced, high-stakes context in which they were operating, as they tried to exploit a vanishing window of political opportunity, militated against patience and compromise. Errejón, convinced that the ‘populist moment’ had come, was never going to accept a subordinate status, keeping his head down until he could contest a future leadership election. And Iglesias was clear that he would not lead Podemos if it meant having to implement a strategy he did not agree with. It is facile to think that ‘compromise’ would have saved Podemos, since the disagreements between the Pablistas and Errejónistas were often zero-sum: whether to ally with IU, whether to enable a PSOE/Ciudadanos government. Even if the party’s internal structures had been less majoritarian, halfway solutions were not always available, let alone desirable.

Still, there were some things that Podemos might have done differently. As Pascual demonstrates, its factional disputes were exacerbated by a lack of clear regulations and procedures, which the leadership had little interest in developing. And its refusal to run municipal candidates in 2015 was a grave error. Doing so would have had its costs in terms of party unity and resources, yet it would have helped to develop local cadres and build organizing infrastructure across the country. Without such ballasts, Podemos consistently underperformed at municipal level over the coming years, before suffering a near total collapse in 2023.

Today, neither Podemos nor Sumar is capable of overtaking the PSOE, which means that the divergence between them centres mostly on their clashing approaches to the coalition. While Podemos were ‘noisy’ and confrontational in government, Díaz has tried to establish a long-term consensus between the two parties. Yet Sumar’s moderation, which is largely consistent with Errejón’s, has so far failed to solve the left’s electoral problems; it lost over 600,000 votes in 2023 compared to UP in 2019. Nor has it yielded any dividends in terms of democratic participation; fewer than 7,000 people voted in Sumar’s recent Assembly. It appears that most of Podemos’s problems – weak social bases, a limited presence in local government, overreliance on centralized communications – have simply been reproduced by its successor.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the organic crisis that precipitated the Pink Tide was not replicated in the Global North following the 2008 financial crash. There, elites could fall back on the media, the state and financial institutions. They could also mobilize nationalist and patriotic sentiments, unlike countries outside the imperial core – Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina – where the left developed alternative ‘national-popular’ discourses. Thus, while radical social democrats made significant gains during the 2010s, they struggled to withstand concerted counterattacks. ‘We can win the cup’, observed Iglesias, ‘but winning the league is extremely difficult’. This doesn’t mean that it was wrong to try to ‘take heaven by assault’, or that left-populism should be written off altogether. This was a serious attempt to win power in an atomized and mediatized political environment. Yet the dynamism and creativity of the early Podemos needed to be channelled into more durable and resilient structures. In the 2020s, the priority for the Spanish left is to maximize policy concessions from the PSOE without adopting a dependent position that forecloses long-term structural transformation. Its task is to build a pluralist coalition which could capitalize on the next elite crisis. It remains to be seen whether Sumar can rise to this challenge.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘After Populism?’, NLR 144.



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Crosshairs

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico is in a ‘stable but serious’ condition following an attempt on his life. The 59-year-old premier was shot multiple times on Wednesday afternoon as he greeted supporters in the former coal mining town of Handlova, before being airlifted to Banska Bystrica for emergency surgery. Fico’s politics have made him many an enemy among Europe’s liberal Atlanticists. Though he has taken some boomercon swipes at ‘gender ideology’, his foreign policy is the most contentious part of his programme. During his 2023 election campaign he pledged ‘not another bullet’ for the war in Ukraine – which he characterized as a ‘Russian-American conflict’ – and urged the EU to help negotiate a peace settlement rather than sending further military aid. Unlike uber-Zionist Viktor Orbán, with whom he is often compared, Fico has also criticized the hypocrisy of European leaders in refusing to acknowledge Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

While these positions are typically presented as evidence of Fico’s authoritarian populism, they reflect mainstream public sentiment in Slovakia. In 2022, just 47% of Slovaks supported sending EU aid to Ukraine; last March, 60% said they opposed the transfer of fighter jets. More than half the population believes that Ukraine or the West are to blame for the war. For the past two decades, Fico has dominated the country’s political landscape. His party, Smer-SSD (Direction–Slovak Social Democracy), governed from 2006 to 2020 – save for a short break between 2010 and 2012 – and returned to power after winning last year’s parliamentary elections, running on a pledge to protect welfare entitlements, end austerity and deescalate tensions with Russia. Blending popular social policies with cultural conservatism, it won 58 out of 72 electoral districts and continues to poll well ahead of its liberal rivals.

No wonder the media reaction to Fico’s attempted assassination has bordered on victim-blaming. A Sky News commentator suggested that Fico was a Russian stooge and that the attempted murder was the natural consequence. ‘He’s become very pro-Russian over the years; one wonders why and how . . . It’s not surprising that this sort of event might take place, because it’s a very unhappy country at the moment’. The question, he said, was whether Slovakia ‘will go towards a more authoritarian future, or a more conventional West European future’ – the shooting presumably having opened up this brighter possibility.   

The BBC meanwhile recalled Fico’s leading role in the ‘unruly and ugly’ demonstrations against the previous centre-right government, ‘rousing the angry crowds with megaphone in hand’. It claimed that he had ‘taken a sledgehammer to Slovakia’s institutions’, citing his closure of the Special Prosecutor’s Office and restructuring of the national broadcaster. Following a similar script, the Guardian likened Fico to Trump, and provided a rundown of his most ‘extreme positions’: ‘attacks on western allies, pledges to stop military support for Kyiv, criticism of sanctions on Russia and threats to veto any future NATO invitation for Ukraine.’ It noted that he had ‘worked hard to exploit the division between older, more conservative provincial voters and those in the capital, Bratislava, with its more progressive culture, and wealthier and often more educated population.’ This approach, we were told by outlets from the Telegraph to the Financial Times to Politico, had given rise to ‘polarization’ and ‘toxic politics’ which had culminated in the shooting.

This, of course, was idle speculation. The would-be assassin was identified as Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old poet from the town of Levice who reportedly worked in Handlova’s now shuttered coal mine. Why he pulled the trigger is unclear. It was revealed that he had once expressed admiration for a far-right Slovakian quasi-paramilitary unit with loose ties to similar outfits in Russia – prompting Yahoo News to report that Cintula ‘may belong to pro-Russian paramilitary group’. Yet his more recent Facebook posts were supportive of Ukraine and the liberal Progressive Slovakia party. In a video clip recorded after he was detained, Cintula can be heard denouncing Fico’s domestic record.

If the shooter’s precise motives are unknown, the attempts to define them have nonetheless been telling. Moscow alleged Ukrainian involvement; right-wing conspiracists pointed the finger at the vaccine lobby; establishment commentators swung between implying that Fico had it coming given his support for Russia, and that Russia itself must be responsible. While they lamented Slovakia’s polarized condition, they did not stop to consider their own role in creating it. For just as the populist right have exploited ethnic divisions across Europe, the liberal centre has resurrected Cold War narratives that separate East from West, bringing this rhetoric to fever pitch. Acceptable opinion is tightly circumscribed. Dissenters are tarred as foreign agents. Violence against them may be outwardly deplored. But is it tacitly accepted?

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘An Avoidable War?’, NLR 133/34.

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A Bronx Tale

In 1909, at a library in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, Abraham Kazan, a twenty-year-old union clerk who had grown up on the countryside estate of a Russian general in what is now Ukraine, and who arrived in the US aged 15 to work on a Jewish agricultural colony in New Jersey, met an older Scottish anarchist named Thomas Hastie Bell. A friend of Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and Oscar Wilde, Bell had recently been arrested for political organizing in France and had once shouted in the face of Tsar Nicholas II. He made a deep impression on Kazan, introducing him to the philosophy of cooperatives – ‘that men can help themselves if they try to combine their forces and work together’. Soon, Kazan joined Bell’s Cooperative League, which met on the Lower East Side and operated a hat store and a restaurant.

As Kazan worked his way up through the powerful International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and, later, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, he continued his studies of cooperatism. In 1920, after successfully wholesaling sugar and matzos to union members, he put his ideas to the test by opening a cooperative grocery store. But his dream was to build cooperative housing that would undercut New York’s notorious landlord class. ‘The question in my mind at the time was, “Why couldn’t 50 people . . . join their forces and put together the required equity money and buy a house and own it, and not be subject to rent increases or any other problems such as confront people who live in somebody else’s house?”’

The passage of New York State’s 1926 Housing Act gave Kazan the chance he needed. The law allowed for the creation of limited dividend corporations, which granted developers a twenty-year exemption from property taxes provided a third of the capital was raised from shareholders, and that dividends and rents were limited. Under Kazan’s initiative, the Amalgamated soon formed the state’s first limited dividend corporation and, only a year later, opened the Amalgamated Cooperative Apartment House in the Bronx, where rents were capped at $11 per month. Thriftily using brick that had arrived as ballast on Dutch ships, yet featuring oversized neo-Tudor façades and dumbwaiters to bring ice to residents’ iceboxes, the development gained a reputation as a worker’s idyll. Kazan himself moved in, and went on to build cooperative housing across New York City. But it took another forty years for his vision of a ‘cooperative commonwealth’, in which workers would live and shop only in collectively owned establishments, to come closest to fruition, when Co-op City opened just a few miles from his Bronx home.

The world’s largest housing cooperative is hidden in plain sight. It is tucked away in the northeastern corner of America’s most populous city, in an area disconnected from the subway. Comprised of over 15,000 apartments in 35 towers and hundreds of townhouses on a 130-hectare site, it caused entire neighborhoods to empty as people clambered to move in. This nearly bankrupted the city and the state, shaping municipal housing policy for decades – yet Co-op City barely appears in the many urban histories of New York.

Co-op City ‘fits awkwardly or not at all into the standard narrative’ of New York’s dramatic postwar decline and revival, Annemarie Sammartino writes in Freedomland, one of two well-researched books that give the development its due. It is an outlier, she argues, because of its consistency in providing affordable housing since the 1960s to ‘residents occupying the hazy space between the working class and the lower middle class’. ‘Even if the color of these people’s skin may have changed in the ensuing five decades’, Sammartino notes, ‘their social and economic position has not’. During this period, as New York City dramatically cut public services, from local libraries to the City University of New York, Co-op City ‘weathered New York’s neoliberal transition in a way that residents of other neighbourhoods often did not’. But it was not an easy path. Its outsized ambition made Co-op City both the crowning achievement of the cooperative housing movement and its swansong.

Robert Fogelson’s Working-class Utopias begins this history earlier, describing the rise of cooperative housing in New York as one of several responses to the city’s endemic housing crises. The Bronx of the 1920s saw a cooperative renaissance. In 1927 alone, the year that the Amalgamated Houses opened, Jewish Communist and Socialist groups inaugurated three other sizable cooperative apartment complexes. The depression and World War II slowed the construction of cooperatives, but in 1951 Kazan formed the United Housing Foundation (UHF) to expand the movement again in the prewar spirit. In 1955, two state senators sponsored what became known as the Mitchell-Lama act to stimulate the construction of affordable housing; five years later, a Housing Finance Agency (HFA) was created to enact the law by offering long-term, low-interest mortgages to cooperatives. As well as seeking funding from banks and the state, cooperatives relied on economic support from labour unions, insurance companies and of course the ‘cooperators’ themselves, as the tenants were endearingly known.

Kazan cultivated a somewhat unlikely partnership with city planner Robert Moses, who was typically hostile to unions but who shared Kazan’s contempt for slums, as well as his conviction that entire neighbourhoods could be razed. Both of them dreamed of scale. In the early 1960s, the UHF significantly expanded its developments: Brooklyn’s Amalgamated Warbasse Houses have over 2,500 apartments; Penn South, in midtown Manhattan, has nearly 3,000; a group of buildings known as Cooperative Village, on the Lower East Side, comprises 4,500; while Rochdale Village in Queens contains nearly 6,000 units. By 1964, the UHF had built twenty-three large cooperatives that provided housing for over 100,000 people in four of the city’s five boroughs, amounting to half of all affordable housing constructed in postwar New York. At the same time, the failure of public officials to rehouse the tens of thousands of New Yorkers displaced by slum clearance had become impossible to ignore. Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. called relocation the city’s ‘number one problem’. Proposals for redevelopment were met with increasingly intense protest.

No one would have to be displaced from the land where Co-op City would be constructed. The site of a failed American history-themed amusement park called Freedomland, it was a marshy and uneven tract on Pelham Bay. Its vacancy made it attractive, but it would need to be rezoned, and it lacked sewer mains and other essential amenities, necessitating a close relationship with the city and state from the outset. The HFA agreed to provide $261 million of the $285 million the UHF needed to purchase the land in 1964 and build the enormous complex, which required transporting tonnes of dredged sand from Coney Island to fill in wetlands, and driving thousands of steel pylons into bedrock. The city agreed to build infrastructure such as schools and planned to extend the subway to the site (which never happened). The long-term, low-interest loan from the state, and a 50% tax abatement from the city, ensured that apartments would cost an affordable $450 per room, plus around $20 in monthly carrying charges, while Co-op City’s inclusion in the Mitchell-Lama programme meant that cooperators could earn no more than seven times the carrying charges. When the UHF broke ground in 1966, the New York Times reported that ‘officials of the United Housing Foundation say Co-op City will be the world’s largest apartment development, including any built in the Soviet Union since World War II’.

Co-op City attracted fierce criticism for its twenty-four-, twenty-six- and thirty-three-storey high-rise towers designed by Hermon Jessor, whose style Sammartino compares to that of late modernist social housing in the GDR. Sammartino notes that Jane Jacobs, in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, ‘reserves particular contempt for the UHF’s Lower East Side cooperatives . . . She chastises the affiliated cooperative supermarket for its lack of friendliness’. Fogelson recalls that a group of academic architects told the mayor and governor that Co-op City represented ‘the negation of the ideals of the Great Society’. But the old union executives running the UHF could not have cared less. They understood their role as providing ‘the best possible housing at the lowest possible price’ and allowing people to shop at the cooperatively run grocery stores, banks, daycares, pharmacies and opticians that eventually opened in the complex. UHF leaders harboured ‘an almost perverse pride in Co-op City’s lack of charm’, writes Sammartino. As Harold Ostroff, Kazan’s longtime assistant and the executive vice-president of the UHF, explained, ‘We do not subscribe to the theory that people become frustrated, alienated or dehumanized by the size and shape of buildings. What is important is for people to have the opportunity to live in dignity and self-respect with their neighbours’. Less than two months after Co-op City was unveiled, almost 15,000 people had applied to live there. After the groundbreaking ceremony, Ostroff declared optimistically that the UHF was ready to build forty Co-op Cities to solve New York’s slum problem once and for all.

A lot happened between 1964, when the UHF bought the Freedomland tract, and 1968, when Co-op City opened. Co-op City had been promoted as a solution to white flight from urban neighborhoods but came to be seen as a cause of it. Sammartino writes that despite the universalist aims of the UHF, ‘in practice most residents of UHF cooperatives were Jewish, or involved in the labour movement, or both’. In her estimate, Co-op City was over 70% Jewish when it opened, and a large number of these residents moved from the West Bronx, especially the area around Grand Concourse. This alarmed the administration of John Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor elected in 1965, who was concerned that entire Bronx neighborhoods would be destabilized by such a dramatic demographic shift, and that non-whites would be left out of Co-op City. Herman Badillo, the Bronx Borough president, told Lindsay, ‘Everybody knows that the word “co-op” is a synonym for “Jewish housing”’. Under pressure from the NAACP, the UHF advertised outside of Jewish labour circles to attract more black tenants while continuing to stress that its priority was economic integration. In 1970, when the Black Caucus at Co-op City denounced a board election that saw no people of colour elected, they put forward a controversial resolution that called for an additional seat set aside for ‘any non-white Jew, or any person other than the Jewish faith’. The resolution passed. By 1972, when tenants moved into the final section of Co-op City, the racial demographics reflected those of the city as a whole.

That year, construction costs had run about $150 million over the original estimate. Cracks were beginning to appear in walls in each tower, pylons were sinking, and miles of pipes already needed to be replaced. There were also instances of alleged corruption, such as the hiring of Kazan’s nephew to design a power plant that never worked, and the cost of Kazan’s extravagant, shareholder-backed retirement party in 1968. (He died in 1971.) Perhaps most significantly, interest rates shot up on the government-backed bonds that financed Co-op City, which meant that the UHF planned to pass on the cost of its ballooning mortgage to cooperators in the form of rising carrying charges.

The UHF and Riverbay, the corporation it formed to run Co-op City, required new residents to undertake multipart courses on cooperative philosophy. But as Sammartino and Fogelson both observe, the utopian rhetoric of Co-op City tended to dissipate in the face of mundane matters such as carrying charges, which the UHF, now headed by Ostroff, raised by 15% in 1970, 35% over three years beginning in 1971, and an additional 20% in 1973. Ostroff was just as radical as his boss, Kazan. Raised in the Amalgamated Houses by anarcho-syndicalist immigrant parents, he had wanted to convert even the sprawling cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens, along with a slice of Central Park, into cooperative housing. Now he was in the difficult position of negotiating with cooperators and tried to blame the rising carrying costs on the state and its mortgages. Yet as Sammartino writes, ‘the majority of residents saw the UHF as part of the same power structure that was imposing the cost increase in the first place’. In 1974, cooperators formed a Steering Committee to address the rising charges, by striking if necessary.

The following year, a charismatic, thirty-two-year-old union typographer by the name of Charles Rosen became head of the Committee. The child of Jewish immigrant anarchists, Rosen was widely read in the history of the left and a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Carrying charges had gone up 250% since Co-op City opened, and that summer Rosen helped spur a strike. Sammartino observes that ‘the New York Jews who made up most of Co-op City’s population were generally undeterred by his political views, which were – if somewhat more colorful than most – certainly not as far removed from the mainstream as they might have been in many other places in America at the time’. Residents were easy to organize in the lobbies of the towers they had to pass through daily, and support for a strike was overwhelming. Cooperators were instructed to write out rent checks, which were collected and hidden in secret locations, while mimeograph machines churned out literature around the clock thanks to Rosen’s expertise as a printer. Sammartino argues that ‘Rosen’s Marxism was central to his understanding of why the rent strike had to happen and how it would be won’. UHF leaders maintained a paternalistic attitude, criticizing residents for showing a ‘lack of cooperative values’. Despite threats of eviction, and a trial of Rosen and other strike leaders for contempt, cooperators hung on until the HFA made moves to foreclose on Co-op City. Thirteen months into the strike, the Steering Committee and New York Governor Hugh Carey struck a deal that would allow cooperators to run Co-op City if they handed over their checks, which they did, in hundreds of boxes that filled up the Bronx County Courthouse.

While Fogelson ends his book after the rent strike, Sammartino carries the narrative forward to 1995. The Steering Committee ran into the same problems as the UHF. Unable to pay its mortgage or afford construction repairs (which the state eventually funded), Co-op City stopped paying city taxes. In 1979, Mayor Ed Koch threatened Co-op City with foreclosure again before coming to an agreement to gradually raise carrying charges over the next six years in exchange for a state loan to offset operating expenses.

The demographic shifts that had affected so many other parts of New York City eventually reached Co-op City. According to census data, in 1990, the complex’s black and white populations had evened out at 40% each, with 18% of residents identifying as Hispanic (and an additional 2% in none of these categories). Sammartino cautions against understanding this as ‘white flight’, noting that the elderly population of Co-op City was always whiter than the rest of the development. ‘What caused Co-op City to become less white was not so much that white people moved out but that so few white people moved in’, she writes. Nonetheless, some of the conditions that caused white flight in other areas, such as a rise in crime, did touch Co-op City, although not as much, in part due to close coordination of residents, both black and white, with local law enforcement. ‘Two decades after it had been constructed, there were few utopians left in Co-op City. Instead, Co-op City’s residents were hard-bitten realists’. Today, monthly carrying charges for a one-bedroom apartment in Co-op City are well below the citywide average. Co-op City is majority-black and still home to a Jewish community and radical labour leaders such as Bhairavi Desai, the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Charles Rosen lives there to this day.

At the heart of Co-op City is the tension between the old utopianism and the new. Union leaders’ vision of economic equality conflicted with, but eventually accommodated, the demands for racial justice that characterized New York liberal politics of the 1960s. It was this balance that helped it survive ‘the supposed transition between the urban liberal era to the neoliberal era’, argues Sammartino. Another key factor was Co-op City’s sheer size, which gave it political power in Albany, the capital of New York state, and, due to the quantity of its debt, leverage in the rent strike. Sammartino also suggests that the persistence of a belief in the value of living in a multiracial community helped Co-op City residents avoid the racial tension that plagued other New York neighbourhoods. But these ideals were isolated from the broader philosophy of a cooperative commonwealth. Even at the height of Co-op City’s financial troubles and existential crises, ‘Riverbay and others rarely made a larger case about the importance of either subsidized housing or the cooperative model’.

Fogelson’s conclusion is harsh – Co-op City ‘was not the wave of the future, not in New York City and not anywhere else in the United States’ – while Sammartino’s is more optimistic: ‘It is possible to imagine a way in which Co-op City would represent the vanguard of a better America rather than its past’. Yet both authors acknowledge the utopianism at the heart of the cooperative endeavor. Sammartino lingers on Co-op City’s streets, named after figures such Edward Bellamy, Eugene Debs, Theodore Dreiser, George Washington Carver and Sholem Asch. Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backward, tells the story of a man who falls into a century-long sleep only to awaken in the year 2000 and find the United States has become a socialist utopia. To walk Bellamy Loop and Debs Place today, or for that matter Kazan Street on the Lower East Side, surrounded by thousands of affordable homes, is to tour a past generation’s version of the future. In such moments, one feels that it is those outside of the cooperatives who have yet to awaken from their slumber.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Unchanging New York’, Sidecar.

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Radio Waves

Among the explanations the early NLR gave for the parochialism and inertia of post-war intellectual life in Britain was its reception of the wrong kind of Central European immigrant. In ‘Components of the National Culture’ (1968), Perry Anderson noted that over the course of the thirties and forties, ‘in this intensely provincial society’, émigré intellectuals – from Nazi Berlin, Austro-Fascist Vienna, Horthy’s Budapest, occupied Prague and Warsaw – ‘suddenly became omnipresent’. The ‘quality and originality’ of their work varied greatly, ‘but their collective role’ was ‘indisputable’. ‘A process of natural selection occurred, in which those intellectuals who had some elective affinity to English modes of thought and political outlook gravitated here. Those refugees who did not went elsewhere.’ The Americans got Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Wilhelm Reich and Brecht; we got Ludwig Wittgenstein, E.H. Gombrich, Karl Popper and H.J. Eysenck. Empiricists, Anglophiles, ‘classical liberals’, these émigrés would flatter English culture and reinforce its conservatism. This, after all, was what had drawn them to Britain in the first place, as an alternative to the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary turbulence of their home countries.

This picture was in part the product of Anderson’s exclusion of natural sciences and creative art in order to focus on areas of culture that ‘directly provide our basic concepts of man and society’ – history, economics, political theory, psychoanalysis and so on. Anderson’s argument was strongest on the fields of art history and philosophy. The examples of Popper, Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner, were most telling, all eventually receiving what Anderson called ‘the appropriate apotheosis’, a knighthood. Each took discordant, disruptive forms – Viennese positivist philosophy, Warburgian art history, Bauhaus design – and made them cosier and safer, inoculating Britain against their original avant-gardism. 

In visual cultures, however, the hue of the British intake was not so pale. To cite some obvious examples: filmmakers, publishers and even municipal planning departments employed Otto and Marie Neurath’s Isotype Institute, which developed a pictographic language for educating children, after their escape to Oxford on the eve of war in 1939. The development of modern sculpture in Britain is scarcely imaginable without Naum Gabo’s ten years living in Hampstead and Cornwall. In architecture, Ernő Goldfinger and Berthold Lubetkin became the major figures of twentieth-century socialist modernism while in exile, and Walter Segal used his modernist training in an embrace of anarchic self-built housing. None were liberal or conservative: the Neuraths were on the far left of social democracy; Gabo and Segal were Anarchists; Goldfinger and Lubetkin were both Communists. In cinema, Alexander Korda hired the Bauhaus exile Moholy-Nagy long before Hollywood discovered Modern Art, while Expressionism and Surrealism could be found in surprisingly unadulterated forms in the films of The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s production company, which employed a team of Weimar cinematographers, musicians and set designers.

Reputations have risen and fallen. Gombrich and Pevsner’s work has endured, but few even on the right read Popper today, preferring the more hard-headed apologetics for capitalism of his Viennese compatriot, the former LSE lecturer Friedrich Hayek. In the arts, the stock of municipal modern architects like Segal, Goldfinger or Lubetkin, or commercial filmmakers like the Hungarians Pressburger and Korda, is far higher now than it was in 1968. It is also true that many important Central European émigrés lived in Britain for periods ranging from a few months to a few years, before escaping to more expansive horizons over the Atlantic at the end of the 1930s. This included Frankfurt scholars like Adorno and Franz Neumann (whose Behemoth was published by the Left Book Club), Brecht himself (a lifelong Anglophile whose stay in North London was sadly brief), Gropius and Moholy-Nagy (who had lived with other exiles in the Constructivist Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park); their work here, like Gropius’s Impington Village College in Cambridge or Brecht’s poem ‘On the Caledonian Market’, is better known today.

Some major Weimar artists created their weakest work in Britain, like John Heartfield, whose London montages are seldom included in his anthologies, even though he lived here for ten years; others created important work more obscurely, either publishing in German, like the socialist poet Erich Fried, or going undiscovered until after their death, as in the case of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, whose Intellectual and Manual Labour, composed during his London exile, was rejected by Lawrence & Wishart. Most unusual of all was the radical Central European intellectual actually interested in British culture and history, and who made it central to their worldview – a rare case is Karl Polanyi’s account of the world-historical consequences of upheavals in early 19th-century Berkshire in The Great Transformation (which he began in England and completed in the US). For most, London – usually somewhere near the ‘Finchleystrasse’ in Hampstead – was a refuge, but a rather dull and uninteresting one. Indeed, the dullness was the point.

New discoveries are constantly being made. The bestselling success, upon its re-issue a few years ago, of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s forgotten novel The Passenger is a spectacular example. In 2019, the nationwide ‘Insiders-Outsiders’ arts festival celebrated a cast of little-known British émigrés, which included ‘red’ exiles like the Polish Socialist Realist Josef Herman, who painted epic frescoes of the miners of South Wales, and the German late Expressionist Eva Frankfurther, whose vivid street portraits were early documents of multicultural East London. Now arriving among these rediscoveries is Esther Leslie and Sam Dolbear’s exhumation of Ernst Schoen: Frankfurt radio pioneer, socialist intellectual, close friend of Walter Benjamin, and long-term resident of East Molesey, Surrey.

Dissonant Waves: Ernst Schoen and Experimental Sound in the 20th Century does not, however, present an easily accessible oeuvre, let alone does it resemble Alan Powers’s Bauhaus Goes West (2019), an attempt to make the case for parochial British culture at mid-century. Rather, it’s a story of failure, of someone who in the Weimar era was involved in some extraordinary projects, and then was unable to piece the fragments of his shattered world back together in the decades that followed. He owed Britain his life, but little else. The book begins with Schoen’s son leaving answerphone messages for Leslie at her Birkbeck office, asking if she was aware of his father’s work; after this, she and Dolbear (who is working on an account of another émigré and friend of Benjamin’s, the psychologist Charlotte Wolff) embarked on a series of meetings with the younger Schoen at his home in East Finchley. These led them to an archive in Koblenz and an apartment block in Surrey. Dissonant Waves is not a conventional biography; its non-linear approach evokes the fragmentation of Schoen’s own life, a montage method Schoen introduced to mainstream broadcasting in the 1920s.

The book’s centrepiece is a long chapter, ‘Radio and Experiment: Weimar’, whose approach will be recognisable to readers of Leslie’s heavily illustrated, punk-and-Dada-infused, explicitly Marxist accounts of Weimar culture in books like Hollywood Flatlands (2002) and Synthetic Worlds (2005). The story of Schoen’s life is chopped-up, One-Way Street-style, with sections on the motifs of the era, from the radio tower to the popular magazine, with biographical details featuring elliptically, and not chronologically – an account of Schoen’s birth and early life does not appear until around sixty pages in. His career in radio was enlivened by a close alliance with the avant-garde. He was a contributor to the great Berlin-based Constructivist journal G. In one article, ‘The Theatre Muse’, he blasts the sentimentality of Expressionism – ‘the Teutonic religious-pacifist epidemic’, with its ‘flood of brotherly dramas (that was our revolution)’. In typically unsentimental style, he also contributed a mock advertisement for ‘Musical Portraits’ and ‘Musical Advertisements’, ‘individually and universally designed by Ernst Schoen’. Schoen enjoyed a long friendship from childhood with Walter Benjamin (and an affair with Dora Benjamin, whom we eventually find in post-war Britain, running a hotel), and readers of Benjamin will know Schoen, if at all, for his role in producing, directing or otherwise collaborating in many of the broadcasts later collected in the anthology Radio Benjamin. Schoen wrote the music and created sound effects for Benjamin’s ‘Much Ado About Little Kaspar’ and directed ‘A Pay Raise?!’. The otherwise unsympathetic Adorno credited Schoen’s commissions with Benjamin’s only years of financial security (and accordingly, happiness) at the end of the 1920s.

In Weimar-era Frankfurt, Schoen also worked as a composer (creating a series of atonal ‘art songs’ for children), and as a critic, writing about the links between jazz and the avant-garde, which can scarcely have endeared him to the fanatically anti-jazz Adorno. At Frankfurt Radio, where Schoen worked in one form or another for many years – producer, jobbing musician, critic – he wanted to explore the specifically radiophonic properties of the medium, rather than simply broadcasting plays or concerts; he and Hans Flesch pioneered the Hörspiel with the 1924 show ‘Broadcasting Radio Magic’, which in Leslie and Dolbear’s words ‘presented radio not merely as a technology, but as technology mediated by social relations, a realm of conflict, negotiation and work’: the piece contains a sound collage, scratching, static, and ‘a booming voice announcing the station has lost its mind’. Until 1933, Schoen had fairly free rein: although Frankfurt Radio was funded by the ‘reactionary industrialist’ Carl Schleussner, it ‘fostered experimental work and employed leftists’. The local trade unions had their own half-hour weekly slot, and Schoen worked on a broadcast of excerpts from Trotsky’s My Life. Working deep in the culture industry, Schoen couldn’t stray completely from entertainment, but like many in Germany during the 1920s he regarded popular forms and the avant-garde as by no means antithetical. The authors note that in his ‘Conversation with Ernst Schoen’, Benjamin recalled the producer stating as a motto: ‘give every listener what he wants, and even a bit more (namely, of that which we want’).’

Working back from East Finchley, Dolbear and Leslie find Schoen in the 1920s living in one of Ernst May’s modernist ‘New Frankfurt’ housing estates, the Siedlung Höhenblick. A neighbour, the Dadaist Willi Baumeister, painted for Schoen and his wife Johanna a ‘Still Life with Head’, a post-Dada assemblage in which ‘a dummy head is surrounded by “the dials, amplification and antenna of radio”’. Despite Schoen’s work for G and friendship with Baumeister, Dada could be a step too far for Frankfurt Radio – a proposed radio programme with Raoul Hausmann was aborted for being in Schoen’s words ‘too difficult conceptually for our listeners’.  

Less than a decade after the start of their experiments in 1924, these radical radio producers were targeted by the Nazis. In 1933, they were dismissed en masse, and worse was to come. In the middle of that year, ‘one issue of the Nazi programme press, Der Deutsche Sender’, write Dolbear and Leslie, featured a full-page piece on the radio producers that they had persecuted. A group including Schoen’s close collaborator Hans Flesch was photographed arriving at the Oranienburg concentration camp, beneath which the caption read: ‘a Roll of Honour for the “Systemrundfunk”’. Schoen was imprisoned in 1934, released due to the lobbying of his wife and the intercession of an enthusiast abroad, Lord Reith. The memory of the heroism of his Communist fellow inmates seems to have stayed with Schoen for the rest of his life, and given this left-leaning but previously unaligned figure a strong loyalty to German Communism; but it was to Reith’s country that he would escape.

With the subsequent long section on ‘Exile Life’, the book becomes more straightforwardly biographical, and the excitement of the early radio experiments gives way to growing disappointment. It was not, at first, clear that Britain would be so uncongenial. The BBC’s producers were from early on aware of what Frankfurt Radio was up to. Schoen hoped he would be able to continue his experiments in the new laboratory of Broadcasting House. In 1934, he wrote in the BBC House Yearbook that ‘radio music would be “music that is played nowhere”’ and ‘works on the basis of electricity, tube technology and radio waves’. But Reith was hardly a natural ally. Despite his role in Schoen’s release from prison, privately, he was an enthusiast for Hitler and Mussolini, and related in his diary his pleasure that ‘Germany has banned hot jazz and I’m sorry that we should be behind in dealing with this filthy product of modernity’. In the pages of the Radio Times, Schoen tried to introduce readers to Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók, which led to a furious response from a pseudonymous critic in Musical Times, describing these composers’ works as a ‘swindle’ and Schoen as an ‘extremist’. In the BBC Annual of 1935, Schoen criticised the notion that ‘the famous man in the street wants “none of your high-brow stuff”’, arguing that this attitude is owed largely to ‘hard and tedious factory or office work day after day . . . artificially keeping down his claims on life’. With greater leisure, this would change; the experiments at the BBC between the 1960s and the 1980s, from the Radiophonic Workshop to Dennis Potter, would appear to vindicate Schoen, though long after his death.

If the populist side of Schoen’s interests was now blocked, so too was the avant-garde route. He tried and failed to publish a long history of radio with the Frankfurt School’s Zeitschrift, causing a bitter enmity with the ‘snob’ Adorno, whose work he considered a blunderbuss attempt to find the ‘commodity character’ in music (Leslie and Dolbear note that ‘Schoen wondered if Oxford University was to blame’). Perhaps most interesting among Schoen’s British activities were his productions of mixed classical and modern opera with an ‘Opera Group’, touring all around the UK, with stops in Portsmouth, Belfast, Sunderland, Sheffield and Leeds. These performances impressed even Adorno, upon whom one of the Opera Group’s London shows ‘made a brilliant impression’. In 1938, Schoen would take the group to perform excerpts from The Threepenny Opera at the New Burlington Galleries’ ‘Twentieth Century German Art’ show, the famous Herbert Read-curated counter to the Entartete Kunst exhibitions.

Schoen, his family and their Willi Baumeister portrait were by the mid-1930s installed in Kingfisher Court, a mildly modernist block near Hampton Court Palace, designed in a provincial approximation of the high modernist housing he had left behind in Frankfurt. Dolbear and Leslie record a visit in the 1940s from Hanns Eisler, who paused to mock the Baumeister painting, by then terribly unfashionable. The building, on the Surrey/London border, had serious pretensions, with its own tennis court and bowling green; its records include complaints about the Schoens’ throwing fishbones out of their windows. From Kingfisher Court, Schoen wrote a series of London Elegies in German in 1943. These poems, including one elegy for Benjamin strikingly similar to Brecht’s, have an uncanny thematic resemblance to the greater poet’s Hollywood Elegies of the same time: similarly lonely and disenchanted, but set in a rainy, bombed out city rather than in the hills of Los Angeles. In ‘Peace and War’, Schoen looks out of his window at

A fascinating old woman: England,

London: Millions of tightly compressed

Identical little houses built quickly out of dirt

After the war, Schoen attracted the attention of MI5, who were keeping tabs on a discussion group with other fellow-travelling cultural émigrés, including the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, the actors Ferdy Mayne and Herbert Lom, and the Czech LCC architect Walter Bor; he was unaware of this surveillance when he returned to live in Germany in the mid-1950s. Back in Frankfurt, he found that his modernist house had been destroyed; he would move first to the western and then the eastern zones of occupation, but the ‘New Germany’ wasn’t much more hospitable than old England. In Berlin, Schoen proposed numerous projects for the stage, radio and translation, from a DDR production of Shelagh Delaney to a project with his friend Ewan MacColl, but few of these came to fruition. This last section of the book, on Schoen as a ‘re-emigrant’, is enlivened with his dream diary from the time – mostly melancholy, racked with guilt and loss. Schoen’s widow blamed the Nazis for Schoen’s relatively early death at the end of the fifties; Dolbear and Leslie also connect his premature decline to the interruption of his project in Germany in 1933, and his inability to resume it elsewhere.

Schoen thrived for a startlingly brief period. Over two decades in outer London he did not successfully burrow into British cultural life and transform it. Nonetheless, his interests while working as an English translator in the DDR – of work by Delaney, Joan Littlewood and Wolf Mankowitz, among others – suggest that had he lived into the sixties, he would have found his conviction that the avant-garde and the popular were not opposed was not so eccentric after all. More mercifully, having died before 1961, he would not have been forced by the construction of the Berlin Wall to choose between comfort and Communism. When the avant-garde of which Schoen was a part was rediscovered in the 1970s, it was via post-punk pop culture – the cult of Weimar Germany, Constructivist album sleeves, Brecht-Weill cover versions and late-night screenings of M and Metropolis. Schoen himself had no influence on this, but the revival of the unadulterated Weimar culture he represented – political and populist, harsh and witty, tasteless and experimental – had come to influence a genuinely vital culture over here, and the sanitised version that once made up part of our ‘National Culture’ would be forgotten.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, NLR I/50.

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The Winning Side

If the battle of Điện Biên Phủ – the Stalingrad of decolonization – were in need of a symbol, you could do worse than a bicycle. One saddled with pieces of Katyusha rocket artillery, en route to be reassembled on the rim of the highlands overlooking the valley where the army divisions of Võ Nguyên Giáp smashed the French imperial forces seventy years ago. To commemorate their victory, the Vietnamese state this week staged a full-scale re-enactment of the events, with thousands taking up the roles of peasant porters and army regulars who won the First Indochina War. Everything was in place except for actors to play the French, though if the invitation had gone out to veterans of the French New Wave, it’s hard to see them turning down the call. Jean-Pierre Léaud as Henri Navarre!

One of the central dramas of Điện Biên Phủ is that both sides wanted the showdown. The commander of the French, Navarre, was confident they could rout the Vietnamese army just as they had done at Nà Sản two years before. He wanted to shut off any Vietnamese incursion into Laos in the north, turning Điện Biên Phủ into an ‘entrenched camp’ populated by 12,000 French troops, while simultaneously dispatching 53 battalions to root out the Vietnamese forces in the southern river delta. His second in command, René Cogny, wanted to meet Giáp’s soldiers out in the open in the style of battles of the previous century: ‘I want a clash at Điện Biên Phủ. I’ll do everything possible to make him eat dirt and forget about wanting to try his hand at grand strategy.’ Giáp was happy to take up the gauntlet, telling his planners that ‘Điện Biên Phủ could be the battle’.

The battle itself had features that seemed to look backwards rather than forwards: a set-piece confrontation, in open terrain, with trenches that, with tropical monsoons, must have rivalled Verdun (a few of whose veterans fought on the French side). There were calls to go over the top; there were attempts to tunnel under the enemy; there were even poets involved on both sides. French politicians tried to gin up war fever by suggesting that Ho’s forces were nothing less than Nazis. ‘I say that any current policy of capitulation in Indochina would be just like Vichy’, Edmond Michelet told the French deputies in Paris. (The call went unheeded by the dockworkers of Marseilles who refused to unload the coffins that came back from Điện Biên Phủ.)

But for Ho the battle was even more existential: it would be the masterstroke that would put Hanoi in a strong position in the postwar negotiations in Geneva. In the month leading up the clash, the Chinese supplied the Vietnamese troops with a bounty of artillery and ammunition. Giáp’s guns took out the French airstrip within the early days of bombardment. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese, the majority of them women, were recruited as porters, providing food and weapons. The French focused on breaking their access to rice. ‘Starve the adversary’, was Raoul Salan’s command. The robustness of food supply chains was paramount for such an extended battle, and northern Vietnamese memories were raw from the experience of famine brought on by the US aerial blockade in 1944-5 – a famine in which at least a million people died, and which deserves a firmer place in the annals of liberal-capitalist infamy.

The First Indochina War was in many ways a continuation of the US–China confrontation in Korea, carried out on new terrain, with the US supplying the French. The 1950s were a decade when nuclear weapons still figured as a godsend in the Western military mind, and their use was not at all off limits. MacArthur had mused about their deployment in Korea; Eisenhower would threaten China with them in the Taiwan Straits Crisis. Whether or not Secretary of State John Dulles offered to supply the French forces with atomic weapons – as Georges Bidault said he had – the idea of nuking a coalescing communist state was far from fantastical for Washington or Langley.

‘What must we do to realize a Điện Biên Phủ? How do we go about doing it?’, Fanon asked in The Wretched of the Earth. It’s a question the historian Christopher Goscha answers with aplomb in his recent history of the battle. His response is that the Vietnamese revolution in the postwar decades went beyond that of almost any other decolonizing state. Ho may have spoken in parables about Vietnam being the guerilla tiger capable of taking on the imperial elephant. But by 1954, as Goscha shows, Ho had an elephant of his own. As well as introducing obligatory military service, the communist Vietnamese state daringly – and brilliantly – implemented land reform at the height of its conflict with the French, in order to build the type of war communism that could fully mobilize a peasant class and turn minorities into Vietnamese. For Ho the war had two fronts: against the French, and against even the most ‘patriotic’ Vietnamese landowners. The peasants proved to be the decisive factor in Giáp’s victory. This was in stark contrast to the more guerilla-style forces of Indonesia and Algeria, which had no communist states to guide them.  

The legacy of Điện Biên Phủ was already of limited use by Fanon’s time. There was no conventional force in the Middle East, nor Africa, nor the rest of Southeast Asia capable of meeting the Western powers on open terrain. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by some Southern states, if anything, obviated the need for conventional forces that aspired to that level of strength. The Algerians, meanwhile, showed that political victories could be as effective as battlefield ones. But the capacity of Asian states to fight maximal wars with vast tolerance for casualties and shift to a war economy on a dime never became entirely idle. Though the battle was merely a prologue to the decade of aerial bombardment and chemical warfare that the US was about to unleash, no Western power ever won another major land war in Asia. Western leaders were haunted by the memory of 1954. As Lyndon Johnson put it: ‘I don’t want any damn Điện Biên Phủ.’

Read on: Che Guevara, ‘Vietnam Must Not Stand Alone’, NLR I/43.

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A Global War Regime

We seem to have entered a period of war without end, extending across the globe and unsettling even the central nodes of the world system. Each contemporary conflict has its own genealogy and stakes, but it is worth taking a step back and placing them in a larger framework. Our hypothesis is that a global war regime is emerging – one in which governance and military administrations are closely intertwined with capitalist structures. To grasp the dynamics of individual wars, and to formulate an adequate project of resistance, it is necessary to understand the contours of this regime.

Both the rhetoric and practices of global warfare have changed dramatically since the early 2000s, when the ‘rogue state’ and the ‘failed state’ were key ideological concepts thought to explain the outbreak of military conflicts, which were by definition confined to the periphery. This presupposed a stable and effective international system of governance, led by the dominant nation-states and global institutions. Today, that system is in crisis and unable to maintain order. Armed conflicts, such as those in Ukraine and Gaza, are drawing in some of the most powerful actors on the international stage, summoning the spectre of nuclear escalation. The world-systems approach has typically viewed such disruptions as signs of a hegemonic transition, as when the World Wars of the twentieth century marked the shift from British to US global hegemony. But in today’s context, the disruption portends no transfer of power; the decline of US hegemony simply inaugurates a period in which crisis has become the norm.

We propose the concept of a ‘war regime’ to grasp the nature of this period. This can be seen, first of all, in the militarization of economic life and its increasing alignment with the demands of ‘national security’. Not only is more public expenditure earmarked for armaments; economic development as a whole, as Raúl Sánchez Cedillo writes, is increasingly shaped by military and security logics. The extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence are in large part propelled by military interests and technologies for war applications. Logistical circuits and infrastructures are similarly adapting to armed conflicts and operations. The boundaries between the economic and the military are becoming ever more blurred. In some economic sectors, they are indistinguishable.

The war regime is also evident in the militarization of the social field. Sometimes this takes the explicit form of suppressing dissent and rallying around the flag. But it also manifests in a more general attempt to reinforce obedience to authority at multiple social levels. Feminist critiques of militarization have long highlighted not only the toxic forms of masculinity that it mobilizes but also the distorting influence of military logics on all social relations and conflicts. Various right-wing figureheads – Bolsonaro, Putin, Duterte – make a clear connection between their militarist ethos and their support for social hierarchies. Even when this is not outwardly articulated, we can observe the spread of a reactionary political repertoire that combines militarism with social repression: re-enforcing racial and gender hierarchies, attacking and excluding migrants, banning or restricting abortion access, and undermining gay, lesbian, and trans rights, all while often invoking the threat of a looming civil war.

The emergent war regime is also visible in the seeming paradox regarding the continual failures of recent hegemonic war campaigns. For at least a half century now, the US military, despite being the most lavishly funded and technologically advanced fighting force on the planet, has done nothing but lose wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. The symbol of such failure is the military helicopter carrying off the last remaining American personnel, leaving a devastated landscape in its wake. Why does such a powerful war machine keep failing? One obvious answer is that the United States is no longer the imperialist hegemon that some still believe it to be. Yet this dynamic of failure also discloses the overarching global power structure that such conflicts help to sustain. Here it is worth recalling Foucault’s work on the perpetual failures of the prison to accomplish its stated goals. Since its inception, he remarks, the penitentiary system, ostensibly dedicated to correcting and transforming criminal behaviours, has repeatedly done the opposite: increasing recidivism, turning offenders into delinquents and so on. ‘Perhaps’, he suggests, ‘one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison . . . Perhaps one should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution.’ In this case, too, we should reverse the problem and ask what is served by the failures of the war machine – what is hidden beneath its apparent aims. What we discover when we do so is not a cabal of military and political leaders plotting behind closed doors. It is rather what Foucault would call a governance project. The incessant parade of armed confrontations, large and small, serve to prop up a militarized governance structure that takes different forms in different places, and is guided by a multi-level structure of forces, including the dominant nation-states, the supranational institutions and competing sectors of capital, which sometimes align and sometimes conflict.

The intimate relation between war and circuits of capital is nothing new. Modern logistics has a military genealogy with roots in colonial endeavours and the Atlantic slave trade. Yet the current global conjuncture is characterized by the increasing imbrication of ‘geopolitics’ and ‘geoeconomics’, amid a constant making and remaking of spaces of valorization and accumulation, which intersect with the contested distribution of political power across the planet.

The logistical problems of the Covid-19 pandemic set the scene for a number of subsequent military disturbances. Images of containers stuck in ports signalled that world trade had become sclerotic. Corporations made frantic attempts to cope with the crisis, reconsolidating old routes or opening new ones. There followed the invasion of Ukraine and the consequent logistical disruptions. The oil and gas trade from Russia to Germany was one of the major casualties of the war, especially after the spectacular sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, renewing talk of ‘nearshoring’ or ‘friendshoring’ as a strategy to wean Western economies off Moscow’s energy supplies. The war also stemmed the flow of wheat, maize and oilseeds. Energy prices soared in Europe; food staples grew scarce in Africa and Latin America; tensions rose between Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine after limits on the export of Ukrainian agricultural products were lifted. The German economy is now stagnating, and several other EU member states have been forced to reorganize their energy provision by striking deals with North African countries. Russia has rerouted its energy exports eastwards, mainly to China and India. New trade routes – through Georgia, for instance – have allowed it to at least partially circumvent Western sanctions. This reorganization of logistical spaces is clearly one of the main stakes of the conflict.

In Gaza, too, logistical and infrastructure arrangements are decisive, although they are often obscured by the unbearable spectacle of the slaughter. The US hoped that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, stretching from India to Europe through the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Greece, would shore up its regional economic influence and counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet this relied on the project of Arab–Israeli normalization, which may have been fatally undermined by the ongoing war. Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have, moreover, compelled major shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal and take longer and more expensive routes. The US military is now building of a port off the coast of Gaza, supposedly to facilitate aid deliveries, although Palestinian organizations claim that its ultimate purpose is to facilitate ethnic cleansing.

The fighting in Ukraine and Gaza thus exemplifies the worldwide remaking of spaces of capital. Key sites of circulation are being reshaped, under a war regime, through the active intervention of nation-states. This implies the intermingling of political and economic logics: a phenomenon that is even more apparent in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, where mounting tensions in the South China Sea and military alliances such as AUKUS are influencing economic networks like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. In this transitional period, each conflict or supply-chain disruption may benefit this or that state or capitalist actor. Yet the system as a whole is beset by increasing spatial fragmentation and the emergence of unpredictable geographies.

In opposing the global war regime, calls for ceasefires and arms embargos are essential, but the present moment also demands a coherent internationalist politics. What is needed are coordinated practices of desertion through which people can depart radically from the status quo. At the time of writing, such a project is most clearly foreshadowed by the global movement in solidarity with Palestine.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, internationalism was often conceived as solidarity among national projects. This sometimes holds true today, as with South Africa’s case at the ICJ. Yet the concept of national liberation, which served as the basis for past anticolonial struggles, seems increasingly out of reach. While the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is ongoing, the prospects of a two-state solution and a sovereign Palestinian state are increasingly unrealistic. How, then, can we configure a project of liberation without assuming national sovereignty as a goal? What needs to be renovated and expanded, drawing on certain Marxist and Pan-Africanist traditions, is a non-national form of internationalism, capable of confronting the global circuits of contemporary capital.

Internationalism is not cosmopolitanism, which is to say that it requires material, specific and local grounding rather than abstract claims to universalism. This does not exclude the powers of nation-states but casts them in a wider context. A resistance movement fit for the 2020s would include a range of forces, including local and city-wide organizations, national structures and regional actors. Kurdish liberation struggles, for example, extend across national borders and straddle social boundaries in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Indigenous movements in the Andes also cut across such divisions, while feminist coalitions in Latin America and beyond provide a powerful model of non-national internationalism.

Desertion, which designates a range of practices of fugitivity, has long been a privileged tactic for war resistance. Not just soldiers but all members of a society can resist simply by subtracting themselves from the war project. For a fighter in the IDF or the Russian Army or the US military, this is still a meaningful political act, though in practice it may prove extremely difficult. This could also be the case for Ukrainian soldiers, although their position is very different. Yet for those trapped in the Gaza Strip it is hardly an option. Desertion from the current war regime must therefore be conceived differently from traditional modes. This regime, as we have already noted, exceeds national boundaries and governance structures. In the EU, one can oppose one’s national government and its jingoist positions, yet one must also contend with the supranational structures of the trading bloc itself, while recognizing that even Europe as a whole is not a sovereign actor in these wars. In the US, military decision-making structures and fighting forces also spill beyond national boundaries and include a wide network of national and non-national actors.

How can one desert such a variegated structure? Local and individual gestures have little effect. The conditions for an effective praxis must involve collective refusal organized in international circuits. The mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq, which took place in cities across the world on 15 February 2003, correctly identified the supranational formation of the war machine and announced the possibility of a new internationalist, anti-war actor. Though they failed to stop the assault, they created a precedent for future practices of mass withdrawal. Two decades on, the mobilizations against the massacre in Gaza – springing up on city streets and college campuses worldwide – portend the formation of a ‘global Palestine’.

One of the primary obstacles to such a liberatory internationalist politics is campism: an ideological approach that reduces the political terrain to two opposed camps and often ends up asserting that the enemy of our enemy must be our friend. Some advocates of the Palestinian cause will celebrate, or at least shrink from criticizing, any actor that opposes the Israeli occupation, including Iran and its allies in the region. While this is an understandable impulse in the current conjuncture, when the population of Gaza is on the brink of starvation and subject to horrific violence, campism’s binary geopolitical logic ultimately leads to identification with oppressive forces that undermine liberation. Rather than supporting Iran or its allies, even rhetorically, an internationalist project should instead link Palestine solidarity struggles to those such as the ‘woman, life, freedom’ movements which challenged the Islamic Republic. In short, the struggle against the war regime must not only seek to interrupt the current constellation of wars, but also to effect broader social transformation.

Internationalism, then, must emerge from below, as local and regional liberation projects find means to struggle alongside one another. But it also involves an inverse process. It should aim to create a language of liberation that can be recognized, reflected and elaborated in various contexts: a continuous translation machine, as it were, which can bring together heterogenous contexts and subjectivities. A new internationalism should not assume or aspire to any global homogeneity, but instead combine radically different local and regional experience and structures. Given the fracturing of the global system, the disruption of strategic spaces of capital accumulation, and the interweaving of geopolitics and geoeconomics – all of which has laid the groundwork for the emergence of the war regime as a privileged form of governance – the project of desertion requires nothing less than an internationalist strategy to remake the world.

This article owes several insights to Brett Neilson, who is the author with Sandro Mezzadra of The Rest and the West: Capital and Power in a Multipolar World, forthcoming from Verso.

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

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Ghosts of ’68

‘And they’ll say that we are disturbing the peace. There is no peace. What bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.’

Howard Zinn, Boston Common, 1971.

On 17 April, at dawn, students at Columbia University camped out on the lawn outside Butler Library, demanding that their institution divest from companies complicit in Israel’s genocidal war. The following afternoon, the administration began suspending students and summoned the NYPD, which tore down the encampment. Another was quickly put up. Faculty were informed that because Columbia was in a state of emergency, its standard policies had been superseded by ad hoc ones, which included circulating fliers to threaten demonstrators with arrest or expulsion. Faced with the crackdown, on 30 April a small group of protesters – perhaps several dozen – took over Hamilton Hall, just as students had done on the same day in 1968. They renamed it Hind’s Hall, after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl whom the IDF killed in late January, and flew a banner reading ‘Liberation Education’ from the second-story window overlooking Amsterdam and 116th St.

When self-censorship at US universities fails – a rare occurrence, as Edward Said noted three decades ago – overt censorship takes over. Yet few were prepared for the swiftness or brutality of the police-administrative-political response. With encampments springing up across the country, a series of police sweeps took place from 30 April to 3 May, at campuses including UT-Austin, UT-Dallas, Emory, USC, UCLA, UCSD, Emerson College, Northeastern, Dartmouth College, Washington University, Arizona State, University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Portland State, SUNY-Stony Brook, Cal Poly Humboldt, Ohio State and Indiana University (both of which saw rooftop snipers deployed). More than 2,400 arrests were made. Steve Tamari, a history professor at Washington University, was beaten unconscious and hospitalized for filming police during their rampage. At the same protest, Jill Stein, the seventy-four-year-old presidential candidate for the Green Party, was roughed up, arrested and charged with assaulting an officer. At Dartmouth, Annelise Orleck, a sixty-five-year-old labour historian and Chair of Jewish Studies, was knocked to the ground by riot police, who cut off her airway before handcuffing her and taking her to jail. The college subsequently banned her from the campus where she has worked for thirty years.

Federal law enforcement agencies had clearly been coordinating with city, state, county, highway and campus police; the New Hampshire governor said as much. At UCLA, a group of pro-Israel demonstrators attacked the Gaza solidarity camp while the LAPD stood by (a pattern that has since been replicated nationwide). The next day, hundreds of riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at the students, dismantling the tents and arresting more than two hundred people, including some two dozen faculty, on unknown charges. Students at CCNY, New York’s flagship public university, had initially managed to chase the NYPD out of their uptown campus quad. Yet they later returned in full force, imposing a military-style occupation that saw the encampments destroyed and protesters detained. At NYU, the police stormed the protest site at Gould Plaza and arrested more than 130 people, including some professors trying to get into their offices, for trespassing. The encampment went back up days later, but in the early hours of 3 May the NYPD destroyed it and arrested a dozen or so protesters. The same sequence of events played out at the New School.

With dozens of quasi-military vehicles deployed, and entire city blocks cordoned off, riot police occupied the New York campuses, brutalizing anyone they perceived to be standing in their way. Columbia will remain under police lockdown until 17 May. Its commencement ceremony has been cancelled and some of those arrested will face criminal charges. The NYPD claims that roughly 30% of those detained at Columbia are non-students, while at CCNY the figure is said to be 60% – including some alleged jihadis who have yet to be named. Stanford has sent a photograph of one suspected ‘terrorist’ to the FBI. Students and staff have been subject to constant surveillance and relentless administrative harassment, with Columbia calling in the federal agents and private investigators. Policy changes and disciplinary measures have generally been announced ex post facto, via email or fliers, with no transparency or accountability. At NYU, an early career academic has been suspended for removing a pro-Israeli poster from a wall.

Politicians from both parties helped to manufacture the hysteria, with Democrats playing a leading role. President Biden declared the protests antisemitic and accused the students of causing ‘chaos’. From the senate floor, Chuck Schumer called students ‘terrorists’. The House of Representatives voted that slogans in support of Palestinian liberation constituted antisemitic hate speech and were therefore unlawful. Representatives from New York introduced the bipartisan Columbia Act, which pledges to create a federal commission at the Department of Education to oversee government-approved, third-party ‘antisemitism monitors’. New York Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference where he railed against ‘outside agitators’ and stressed the importance of identifying them through the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit, in coordination with the Columbia administration. Rebecca Weiner, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, currently serves as the Deputy Commissioner of that unit – which has an office in Tel Aviv, where it studies crowd control tactics and surveillance technologies with the Israeli security state. Adams remarked that Weiner had been ‘monitoring the situation’ on campus and deserved credit for the NYPD operation.

What explains the scale of this response? The semester ends sometime between late April and mid-May. Why not wait the encampments out, negotiating and offering symbolic concessions to buy time? This is partly a reflection of the changes that universities, like many other institutions, have undergone during decades of neoliberalization. In the mid-1970s, Republicans identified public universities as a crucial source of anti-authoritarian sentiment and demanded a complete institutional overhaul. The subsequent process of privatization, which has made tuition prohibitive for most prospective in-state students, has been catastrophic for democratic principles and practices. With massive, untaxed endowments running into the tens of billions, universities have slowly morphed into public-private police-carceral states, catering to ‘customers’ and answering to benefactors and politicians, not students or faculty.

At Columbia, whose endowment is $13.6 billion, students must pay $90,000 per year plus travel expenses – a dramatic rise since the 1980s. Administrative posts and salaries have increased relative to faculty ones, and the number of non-tenured staff has grown steadily. Nationally, three-fourths of faculty are non-tenured and therefore do not have academic freedom. The privileged minority of tenured faculty did nothing to fight this trend, nor did they participate in adjunct efforts to unionize, since the current system enables them to take research leave and sabbatical. Now tenure itself – under attack from Republican politicians, trustee boards and university administrations – seems unlikely to survive. Recent years have seen an upswell of labour activism among graduate students and adjunct faculty, some of whom have managed to win collective bargaining rights, but they are a long way from re-democratizing the academy.

Another crucial factor is the influence of so-called ‘shot callers’: a donor class of billionaires, often working through politicians or board members, with the power to force institutional changes or get people fired by threatening to withhold funding. As universities have become more like corporations, whose primary duties are to their shareholders, administrators have become increasingly pliant before donors and their representatives. Presidents can be forced to resign even when they have strong support from students and faculty, as at Harvard; or, conversely, they can ignore significant internal opposition because they have outside backers, as at Columbia. (One of the main shot callers there is Democratic donor Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who responded to the protests by revoking a donation and taking out full-page advertisements in major newspapers which denounced ‘antisemitic hate’ and demanded greater ‘protection’ on campuses.)

It was the aftermath of 9/11, however, that brought the neoliberal university deeper into the embrace of the national security state. In the run-up to the second invasion of Iraq, campuses saw a new wave of political organizing spanning students and faculty, including the formation of groups like Historians Against the War (which remains active today). The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign was founded in 2005 and took wing at the end of Bush’s second term, attracting the ire of university administrations. At the same time, radical academics faced greater scrutiny and often direct surveillance. Alan Dershowitz, having been exposed as a plagiarist by Norman Finkelstein, used his connections to get Finkelstein’s tenure at DePaul denied. Finkelstein never found academic work again. Aijaz Ahmed, a leading critic of US empire, was fired from York University in Toronto for his writings on Palestine. Perhaps the most emblematic case was that of Sami Al-Arian, a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida who worked in the Clinton White House, and who came under federal surveillance because of his advocacy. In 2003 he was falsely accused of providing ‘material support’ to Islamic Jihad ‘terrorists’, fired from his job, held in solitary confinement for three years and hounded through the courts. Federal prosecutors failed to convict him on a single count. The only evidence they presented was Al-Arian’s public statements and writings on Palestinian liberation. In 2014 the government dropped all charges, and he was deported to Turkey the following year.

After the 2008 financial crash, austerity became the order of the day for everyone except bankers, big tech and investors, and public universities were starved of funding. Anti-imperial scholarship and activism generally receded, even as Obama ramped up drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan while opening new fronts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. His presidency was crucial in consolidating the relationship between the higher education sector and the Democratic establishment. In 2012, his leading campaign donors were faculty, staff, students, alumni and administrators at UC Berkeley, with Harvard and Stanford not far behind. The eruption of BLM in 2014-15 did little to change this trend and may have even accelerated it. To the extent that it was a movement at all, as opposed to a branding exercise, it never represented a threat to the Clintonite wing of the party, much less to the donor class. It merely helped turn the creed of diversity, equity and inclusion into more rigid and constricting policies used, especially by HR departments, to keep people in line. Universities have now become factories where Democratic ideology is mass produced and disseminated in the media, cultural, entertainment, technological and scientific spheres. By pointing this out, and by disingenuously framing higher education institutions as insufficiently supportive of Israel, Republicans hope to burnish their ‘anti-elitist’ credentials and target a key site of Democratic power.

By the time university presidents were hauled before Republican lawmakers to answer a series of cynical questions about campus ‘hate speech’, they had long since sawed off the branch on which they needed to stand. Having spent decades silencing criticism of Israel, they could not invoke first amendment rights or academic autonomy. Instead, they have simply tried to comply with the Republican clampdown. Of course, as Trotsky noted, playing nice with wannabe fascists rarely works. There are no steps the university presidents could take that would satisfy far-right legislators. For the latter have nothing to lose by continuing their offensive, which allows them to divide the Democratic base against the leadership and the Zionist donor class to which it answers, increasing the likelihood of a Republican victory in November.

In 1968, a split Democratic Party handed the presidency to Nixon, at a time when most US citizens opposed the Vietnam war and, paradoxically, opposed the peace demonstrators as well. Today, a majority of Biden voters want the genocide in Gaza stopped, and most Americans support the student protests. This is bad news for the incumbent. Of his 2020 voters, 10% now plan to back Trump. Should a significant number of independents, who make up 43% of the electorate, or ‘progressives’ – who number about 35% and reliably vote Democrat – decide to stay home or support another candidate, the president will be in trouble. Between the growing uncommitted block of anti-Biden delegates, the potential for mass unrest over the summer, and the protesters planning to converge on Chicago for the Democratic Convention, a repeat of some aspects of ’68 appears to be on the cards, although this time it is as if a much-diminished LBJ had decided to run for re-election. The latest polls indicate that if Biden wins, it will be because abortion mobilizes predominantly white suburban women in sufficient numbers. The failed Democratic strategy in 2016 – ‘for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we’ll pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin’ – seems to be the only one that the leadership is capable of pursuing.

The 1968 occupation of Hamilton Hall – protesting the university’s complicity in the war, its real-estate rapacity in Harlem and its authoritarian approach to student demonstrators – was captured on film, along with the brutal retaking of the building and over 700 arrests. As the footage circulated, protests spread to high schools and other campuses across the country. Over the next two years, the tide of history turned. Võ Nyugên Giáp, architect of the Tet Offensive, famously remarked that the US could never have won in Vietnam regardless of its superior military strength. Why? Because ‘the human factor’ was decisive. It did not matter how many Vietnamese the US killed. There would always be enough willing to fight and die in defence of their country. The goal of the NLF and Hanoi was to break the will of the American government to continue the war. Eventually, with help from the US student and anti-war movements, they succeeded.

Since then, the so-called human factor has played a crucial role in other anti-imperialist struggles. General Giáp’s insight has held true in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Lebanon, South Africa, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, the West Bank and now Gaza. In none of these cases have bombs, artillery, torture, surveillance technology or counterintelligence, whether used by US military or its proxies, secured outright victory for the hegemon. Resistance movements, some of them popular and democratic, have endured.

Nor can militarized police raids, which bring counter-insurgency operations home, vanquish the ghosts of ’68. Thanks to student organizers, along with a critical minority of professors, intellectuals, scientists, technical workers, lawyers, human rights activists and cultural producers, people across the US are mobilizing in defence of first-amendment rights and against Israel’s genocide of Gazans. They are making history, and they know it. An increasingly authoritarian variant of neoliberalism will not stop them. Following a forty-year eclipse, might we see the rebirth of what Said called democratic criticism, or what Mike Davis called the revolutionary socialist project, as an antidote to ethno-religious nationalism, empire and thanatocracy?

Read on: Ernest Mandel, ‘Lessons of May’, NLR I/52.

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Problem Trump

A mystery surrounds Donald Trump: if he is so good at selling himself, why is he so bad at selling his own-brand products? That he sells himself well is self-evident; otherwise, he wouldn’t have one of America’s historic political parties on a leash, like a well-trained puppy. He wouldn’t have won the presidency of history’s most powerful empire, nor be at risk of winning it again. As a result, for the past seven years half the world’s political commentators have talked about little else.

What’s more, last month he showed he could sell himself not just politically but financially, when the paper value of the Trump Media & Technology Group touched $10 billion (before falling by $2 billion when 2023’s balance sheet was made public). It’s clear that Trump was actually selling himself here since TRUTH, the social media controlled by TMTG, has only 9 million users and posted a loss of $58 million for the year 2023, after losing $50 million the year before. These figures are laughable compared to those of X, better known as Twitter, which has 550 million users and revenues of over $5 billion. Only its identification with Trump could explain why such a flimsy, loss-making project was valued (briefly) at such an eye-watering sum.

But equally evident, and quite funny, is the disastrous performance of the many products launched under the orange man’s logo. A non-exhaustive list, in chronological order:

  • Trump: The Game, a boardgame released in 1989, sold badly. It was re-released in 2004 to coincide with The Apprentice, but failed once again. Today it is a collector’s item for Trumpomaniacs.
  • Trump Shuttle, launched in 1989. A regional airline operating between New York, Boston and Washington, complete with faux-marble burgundy carpets and gold-coloured toilet fixtures. Went bankrupt 1991.
  • Trump Table Water (Ice Natural Spring), on sale in 1990, in cheap plastic bottles. Discontinued in 2010, though still available at Trump-branded restaurants and golf-courses.
  • Trump Pale Ale, announced in 1998 but never went on sale. Ditto, two soft drinks, Trump Fire and Trump Power.
  • Donald Trump: The Fragrance, a perfume brand launched in 2004. Sold under various labels, always at a loss; the cologne was relaunched this year as Victory47.
  • Trump University, which opened in 2004, was not a university and did not grant degrees. It provided courses lasting a few days on how to get rich, with fees of up to $34,000. Sued by 7,000 former students, Trump settled the lawsuit for $25 million after his election in 2016.
  • Trump Vodka, launched in 2005 as ‘Success Distilled’. Discontinued in 2011, though still sold in Israel, where it proved popular for Passover as distilled from potatoes, not grain.
  • GoTrump.com online travel agency, set up in 2006, promising Trump-style travel. Closed the following year.
  • Trump Steaks, launched in May 2007, advertising fillet at $96 per pound. Closed down two months later owing a debt of $715,000 to suppliers.
  • Trump Home, a furnishing brand, launched in 2007. Produced the Trump Mattress, to very poor reviews. After various mishaps, these disappeared from shops in 2017.
  • DJT, a steak house, opened in Las Vegas in 2008. Briefly shuttered in 2012 for an alleged 51 health violations, including parasites in undercooked halibut, expired yoghurt, month-old caviar, four-month-old duck, two-week-old tomato sauce, expired peanut dressing and an improperly functioning freezer.
  • Trump Winery, a 500-hectare estate in Virginia, purchased by Trump in 2011 and run by his son Eric. Produces various wines, including Trump Pinot Noir, etc.
  • Trump Sneakers, all gold, with a capital T on the buckle. Launched in February this year at $399 a pair.

I’ll skip other failed initiatives, like Trump Magazine or Trump Mortgage, as the picture is pretty clear already.

It’s plain that the purpose of selling this stuff was not political. Trump was not using merchandise to spread ideas, as with party T-shirts, or the Tory flip-flops with Keir Starmer’s face, or the barracks humour of the UKIP condoms with a picture of Nigel Farage and the motto, ‘For when you have a hard Brexit’:

The only generically political Trump merch is his God Bless the USA Bible, released in March this year for $59.99. In addition to the canonical King James text, it includes the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lee Greenwood lyrics to God Bless the USA. We don’t know yet how sales of the MAGA Bible will go. In this instance, it is not so much that Trump wants to be seen as a co-author (though that cannot be ruled out), but rather hopes to endear himself to Evangelicals, close to him on many issues but not so keen on his relations with porn stars or his role in the gambling industry.

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If Trump isn’t selling merchandise to spread ideas, perhaps he wants to use his ideas to sell merchandise: not money for politics, but politics for money? In fact, as the list shows, Trump was already selling board games and spring water in 1990, when he was still a real-estate developer, implicated in various bankruptcy proceedings. Trump started selling his image before he became Trump. This tells us something vital about his idea of himself. As someone dear to me used to say: ‘If you don’t believe in yourself, why should others?’ Trump was already cultivating a high opinion of Trump in the late 1980s.

The list also shows that the Trump brand surged with The Apprentice. Although perfume, vodka, tourism and steaks were a failure, their multiplication indicates that the reality TV show – a hit in its first two seasons, whose ratings then sank – functioned to reveal Trump to himself, as if he had found his way at last. The disparity between the boost of the promotional launch and the mediocrity of the product shows that, for Trump, the important thing has always been the packaging, not the object.

In this sense, he was a precursor. Many commentators, Italians in particular, point to Berlusconi as Trump’s forebear. Berlusconi also made his money as a real-estate developer, then built his political career on TV (and on his football club). Berlusconi presented himself as the anti-politician, who brought the know-how that had made him a successful entrepreneur to bear on running the country.  Like Trump, Berlusconi was a standard bearer for misogyny and machismo, surrounding himself with ‘women as objects’.

Trump was also a real-estate developer and he too presented himself as the anti-political saviour of politics. But here the similarities end. Berlusconi made his money himself, and didn’t inherit it from his father. Berlusconi bought a second-division football team and primed to win the European Champions Cup. Trump never managed to buy an American football team, despite his multiple, vain attempts to acquire the Boston Celtics. Berlusconi was the owner of a TV channel, not the presenter of a show. Berlusconi was the thing itself, while Trump always tried to present himself as the image of the thing; that’s why The Apprentice suited him so well.

Berlusconi’s channel put out reality TV shows, though only after he’d clawed his way into power. But he would never have dreamt of being a reality-show host, or appearing on one. This indicates a caesura in the realm of communications: with the reality show, there also appeared what we now call the influencer. While Berlusconi did politics as a tycoon, Trump does politics as an influencer, playing the tycoon. Not by chance did he say that reality shows were ‘for the bottom-feeders of society.’ As our list shows, Trump was already thinking and acting like an influencer in the 1980s, decades before the type appeared. He is the first top-level American politician to have internalised the modalities of social media for political purposes.

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Critics have treated Trump as a calamity to be deplored, rather than a problem to be solved. His unprecedented novelty – no one, as late as 2012, could predict his meteoric rise – still obliges us to explain why we did not foresee what happened. Much treatment of Trump recalls that useless notion, the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’, which tells us that something ugly has happened between the head and the neck of some unfortunate bearer of (only) ‘human’ rights, without saying why or how – with no one guilty, or held responsible.

Or, worse, the blame is put on the (many) voters who backed him, and so are deemed irremediably stupid, perverse, racist or even fascist; the equivalent of saying it would be better if government depended a little less on the voters, if the political system were a little less representative – a return to ‘rule by the best’, perhaps now by a ‘cognitive aristocracy’. If Trump is treated as a problem, rather than a calamity, more discomfiting questions arise.

Meanwhile, it is easier to understand how Trump the influencer is good at selling himself, but not merchandize that doesn’t really correspond to his image. As a celebrated advertising guru explained to me, Trump has little real connection with board games or mineral water: ‘If your products are bad, or blurry, or too expensive, and you can only count on half the potential market, and your celebrity’s image, style and behaviour are a poor match with what you’re selling, well, it’s obvious you’re heading for a fall’.

She added an interesting observation:

‘I’m not sure the metaphor of “selling” is so appropriate, if we’re talking about votes and political support. A vote is something you give to someone, for a thousand reasons: anger, sympathy, interest, identification, lack of alternatives, resentment, convenience… Giving it costs you nothing, and you may get a certain satisfaction from it. If you don’t, it’s simple: you don’t go out and vote. Buying something costs you money, though, and the more expensive it is, the more you have to think. Or at least, the more you need to be able to rationalise your choice and show it’s worth it, even if it was an impulse buy. In this sense, consumers are more rational than voters. It’s not by chance that one of the sharpest political slogans ever – JFK’s poster of Nixon in 1960, asking, ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ – tried to persuade voters by turning them into consumers.’

She then produced a long list of reasons to vote for Trump, noting she thought some of them well-founded, despite being ‘not exactly a Trump voter’ herself. Here are some of them:

  • Because MAGA and America First are two big promises (who remembers Biden’s slogans?)
  • Because you can understand what he’s saying
  • Because he seems convinced of what he says, much more than Biden
  • Because this wokeness has gone too far
  • Because ‘let’s just see what happens’, it can’t get any worse
  • Because the newspapers and TV networks tell lies, and I only trust what I read in my internet bubble

At this point it is customary to ask readers how many they agree with.

On the efficacy of the JFK slogan, though, one might object that the Democrats lost the White House to Nixon in 1968 and 1972, even if they wouldn’t buy his used car. Besides, there is not much in this list that would convince the CEO of a large corporation, with billions in sales and hundreds of thousands of employees, to give Trump their financial backing. Yet such CEOs do exist. Here is the head of one of the world’s biggest banks, as reported by the New York Times:

The Davos attendees needed reassurance, and Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, had some to offer. In an interview with CNBC that made headlines around the world, Dimon praised Trump’s economic policies as president. ‘Be honest’, Dimon said, sitting against a backdrop of snow-dusted evergreens, dressed casually in a dark blazer and polo shirt. ‘He was kind of right about NATO, kind of right on immigration. He grew the economy quite well. Trade. Tax reform worked. He was right about some of China.’

In other words, classic liberal-capitalist policies, à l’américaine. This is why Trump continues to be a problem and not just a calamity.

Read on: JoAnn Wypijewski, ‘Politics of Insecurity’, NLR 103.