Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.  

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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. 

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

Remainders

The documentarian Thomas Heise, who died in May aged 68, was drawn to the marginalised and ostracised – the working class, the unemployed, the incarcerated, the politically extreme. Across his more than two dozen documentaries, individual lives open onto larger historical forces. Yet his work is always animated by a humanist intimacy, by Heise’s radically open-minded curiosity about the experiences and outlook of his subjects – how they think and feel, and why. He was interested in those who don’t have a voice; ‘Heise makes people talk who are not used to it’, as Mathias Dell observed in an obituary for Die Zeit. His films are at once indelible portraits and rich, ambivalent documents of modern German history.

Heise was born in East Berlin to an intellectual family – his father was a Marxist philosopher, his mother a literary scholar. After cutting his teeth as a director’s assistant at DEFA, the GDR’s state-owned film studio, he enrolled at film school in Babelsberg in the late 1970s, but left to avoid expulsion for political reasons. Two early documentaries about life in the GDR – including one, Volkspolizei, set during a night shift at a police station in central Berlin – did not accord with official visions of East German society and were banned from public viewing. He began making radio features in the 1980s, hoping the medium would offer more freedom, but this work ended up being censored too.

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall that Heise could resume his documentary work. Eisenzeit (Iron Age), a film of painful beauty released in 1991, set the tone for what followed. A continuation of work begun at film school, it is a fragmentary account of the trajectories of four troubled boys in Eisenhüttenstadt, a town on the Polish border. Two of the four take their own lives; the other two emigrate to the West. Their stories are told largely through interviews with their friends and acquaintances. Carefully composed montages of mundane locations would become a trademark.

The fall-out from the unification of Germany – especially its disappointments and unsettling effects – became a major concern of his work. Perhaps his best-known and, at the time, most controversial, film is STAU – Jetzt Geht’s Los (1992), the first in a trilogy which chronicled the lives of a group of neo-Nazi youth and their families over a decade and a half. (The practice of long-term observation was something older DEFA filmmakers, including Volker Koepp, had specialised in.) Strongly criticized when it came out – the premiere in Berlin was cancelled due to protests – today the documentary seems an invaluable account of the rise of right-wing extremism in the early 1990s, a period that came to be known as the ‘Baseballschlägerjahre’ (‘baseball bat years’) due to the regularity of fascist riots and attacks on immigrants and leftists, especially in the freshly integrated Eastern Bundesländer.

The trilogy is set in Halle-Neustadt, a planned city built in the mid-60s to house workers employed in two nearby chemical plants. STAU opens with a shot of a burning car in an empty parking lot. Clouds of black smoke billow towards a busy street, but nobody seems to care; there is no fire truck or police car in sight and the traffic keeps flowing – a vivid metaphor for social conditions in Neustadt at the time. The film develops a divided relationship to its subjects, alternately remote and intimate. When the young neo-Nazis are together, the camera tends to keep its distance, capturing their aggressive, raucous energy from afar as they brawl drunkenly and shout fascist slogans. But much of the film is composed of one-on-one interviews: we see the young men in their homes, sitting more or less uncomfortably in front of the camera, talking about their frustrations and longings.

Early critics argued that the film gave its protagonists too much control over their self-presentation, disregarding their victims, and failing to condemn their behaviour. The documentary certainly displays a lot of patience with its characters. We learn about the boredom and listlessness that comes with unemployment, about absent fathers and overworked mothers. ‘We want to be noticed’, one youth says. But Heise does not provide clear-cut psychological explanations. He is interested in understanding the lives of these alienated young men without making excuses or inviting easy judgements.

In the austere living rooms of their working-class families, the young men are often polite and friendly, sometimes embarrassed, even shy. Of course, they do their best to present themselves well, often fishing for sympathy and downplaying the radicalism of their beliefs, claiming they only carry weapons for self-defence or that ‘Sieg Heil’ is an expression of protest without concrete political meaning. Heise listens and films. His interventions are subtle: ‘Do you know them?’, he asks one youth when he mentions his aversion to ‘the foreigners’. Juxtapositions reveal contradictions: one of the boys is shown talking about his resistance to ‘mixing different cultures’, and then in the next shot is seen enjoying a meal at an Asian restaurant.

The sequel, Neustadt. Stau – Der Stand der Dinge (2000), homes in on a couple of the young men and their families. After several court cases – two of them for violent assault – Ronny has turned away from the scene, although it’s clear that his worldview hasn’t changed. Konrad, on the other hand, who had dreamt of becoming a baker, has made politics his main purpose. No longer getting drunk and beating up leftists, he instead reads books by right-wing thinkers. Compared to the crude sloganeering we witness in the first part, Konrad is eloquent and seems politically sophisticated, confidently discussing the construction of a different system ‘with authoritarian elements’. With Jeannette, Ronny’s sister, a woman comes into focus for the first time. She is recovering from an abusive relationship that ended with her partner’s suicide. She was pregnant at 15 and the older of her two sons, Tommy, is now about 8 years old and already showing signs of rebellion. ‘Schade drum’ (‘too bad’), Jeanette says looking sadly at his photograph. By the time of the final film, Kinder. Wie die Zeit Vergeht (2007), Tommy has dropped out of school and spends his time with a much older neo-Nazi.

As in many of Heise’s documentaries, the landscape itself becomes a protagonist: Neustadt’s monumental, increasingly run-down housing blocks, the decaying facades of empty apartments, deserted streets and train stations. Like many parts of East Germany, Neustadt suffered heavily from the economic shock of reunification. The derelict buildings and drug trafficking cause many residents to feel unsafe; some blame the increased presence of immigrants. Kinder moves away from the housing estates to the industrial periphery. It opens with a tracking shot of the grounds of a huge refinery. Rendered with an abstract beauty, it appears inimical to human flourishing. Although shot in colour, Heise decided to make the film black and white in the edit. In an interview he explained that he had a hard time adapting to the garish colour schemes dominant in Western advertising, which by the 2000s had invaded East Germany too, even its most deprived neighbourhoods. The reduction to black and white helped him to concentrate on the essentials: on facial expressions and the texture of the landscapes (‘Black and white creates clarity in the images’).

Heise’s last and arguably most accomplished film, Heimat Ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Heimat Is a Space in Time, 2019) tells the history of his own family across the twentieth century. Running to nearly four hours, it combines materials from the family archive – letters, diary entries, school essays – read in voiceover by Heise himself, with footage of contemporary Germany: abandoned buildings and construction sites, woods and beaches, stations and schools, the crowded square behind the Brandenburg Gate. The effect is to transform biography into a kind of collective history. Heimat begins with love letters between Heise’s grandmother, a Jewish sculptor from Vienna, and his grandfather, a communist teacher from Berlin, where the two marry and settle down. We follow their correspondence with her family in Vienna until their deportation in 1942. A slow tracking shot over a historical document shows the names and addresses of the deported; the sequence ends with the words, ‘I am travelling today.’ The film continues with the next generation: Heise’s mother Rosemarie corresponds with a lover in West Germany, whose love letters are studded with cynicism about the political systems on each side of the divide. Ruptures in time and perspective are not acknowledged or glossed. Though the film is essayistic, the material is not coerced into an argument. It stands for itself, first and foremost.

‘There is always something left over, something that doesn’t add up’, Heise says at one point in the voiceover of Eisenzeit. His striking documentary Material (2009) is largely assembled from such remainders. A feature-length montage of miscellaneous footage collected over years, including much shot around the time of the fall of the Wall, it is perhaps the purest expression of Heise’s bricolage approach (history is not linear but ‘a heap’, he says in the film). The account it offers – fragmentary, variegated, contradictory – challenges the bullish official history propagated by West German media: it features recordings of GDR residents speaking about their hopes for the future of their East German state – hopes that dissipated when Germany was reunited on terms dictated by the West. Heise was interested in such untidy ambiguities, and was always willing to doubt preconceived opinions, including his own. Refusing to explain or cast judgement on what we are being shown, his films are deliberate without being imposing, leaving the complexities of history intact.

Read on: Julia Hertäg, ‘Germany’s Counter-Cinemas’, NLR 135.

Categories
Uncategorised

Mutiny in Bolivia

During the two hundred years since it gained independence, Bolivia has experienced innumerable coups d’état. The presidential palace, flanked by the Cathedral of La Paz and the Legislative Assembly on the Plaza Murillo, has been the setting for many of these blunt bids for political power. It became known as the Palacio Quemado, or ‘Burnt Palace’, after it was set afire during a failed uprising in 1875. Yet despite this history, it came as a shock when fourteen armoured vehicles rumbled into the Plaza on 26 June and smashed open the palace’s gate. The leader of the incursion, General Juan José Zúñiga, entered the grounds accompanied by the heads of the navy and air force, and was met by President Luis Arce Catacora. Arce ordered him to withdraw his troops. Zúñiga refused. The face-off lasted several minutes before Zúñiga got back into his vehicle and retreated to the army headquarters in Miraflores.

Zúñiga later told journalists that his aim was to seize the government buildings and ‘reestablish democracy’ by military means. He denounced the Arce administration and called for the liberation of political prisoners, including the leaders of the 2019 right-wing revolt that overthrew Evo Morales. As Arce swore in new military commanders, Zúñiga was arrested and jailed. Yet by that time he had already contradicted his previous statements and declared that it was in fact the President himself who had directed him to stage the event in an attempt to prop up his faltering government.

In the wake of the stand-off, there was an outpouring of support for Arce in the largely indigenous city of El Alto and among sectors of the social movements. Yet many of the administration’s critics, on both the left and right, believed Zúñiga. Morales, who still leads the governing Movement for Socialism (MAS) party despite having been ousted from the presidency in 2019, and who is Arce’s main rival in the 2025 presidential elections, claimed that the government had orchestrated the incident to garner popular favour. The right-wing lowland opposition and urban middle classes agreed that it was all a political show.

As coup attempts go, it was certainly a strange one. There were no bullets fired, no occupations of government buildings. But if it were staged, why would Zúñiga and his accomplices have accepted the role of scapegoats? This murky episode, and the clashing responses to it, provide a window onto Bolivia’s current state of crisis. Two decades after the end of neoliberal governance, the country is experiencing a sort of structural decomposition. The economy is in steady decline, the leadership of the MAS is profoundly split, state institutions are eroding, and visions of national renewal are hard to find.

Arce served as Minister of the Economy in the Morales government for over a decade – a role in which he oversaw the greatest economic bonanza in republican history. Poverty and inequality declined, the middle class expanded, urban development accelerated and GDP grew at a healthy rate. Yet as with other Pink Tide projects, the MAS model depended on the commodities boom of the 2000s. It began to falter when prices took a downward turn in 2014, and further deteriorated when the pandemic triggered a global recession and soaring inflation in 2020. Since then, the state coffers have dried up due to decreasing fossil fuel production and exports. Bolivia collected $5.5 billion in natural gas rents and $6.6 billion in foreign sales in 2014, compared to $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion in 2023. Its mineral exports are still significant, but they bring in scant revenue because the tax structure favours cooperative mining producers. Despite the country’s hydrocarbon wealth, the government continues to import fuel for popular consumption, and it is yet to industrialize its potentially profitable lithium holdings.

Foreign exchange reserves have meanwhile fallen from $15.1 billion to $1.8 billion over the last decade. The government has borrowed to cover its losses, with foreign debt now at around 30% of GDP. It has retained many redistributive measures, including direct cash transfers to the poor and subsidized fuel prices, but this has cut further into the state budget. Partly as a result, public investment declined by half between 2016 and 2022. The currency is officially worth 6.97 Bolivianos to the dollar, but this can reach 9.20 on the black market. A scarcity of dollars and fuel has generated frustration across class lines. In late June, the government faced a strike from the heavy transport sector. These issues leant plausibility to the notion that the Plaza Murillo affair was confected as a distraction.

Bolivia’s economic crisis coincides with a political one. The gulf between President Arce and Morales, head of the MAS party, appears unbridgeable. Morales routinely attacks his former comrade, denouncing him as a traitor to the Proceso de Cambio (‘Process of Change’) who has reverted to the neoliberal status quo ante. Arce, in return, asserts that Morales’s public criticism amounts to collaboration with the right. The truth is that the two do not differ much in terms of policies or principles. Both seek to use the country’s natural resources to sustain a development model that mixes state and private enterprise, mitigates inequality through the redistribution of rents, incorporates indigenous and popular sectors politically, and preserves some autonomy from Washington. The differences between them are largely a matter of political style (Morales is combative, Arce mild-mannered) and the changed economic circumstances (initially favourable under Morales, much less so under Arce).

The main point of contention concerns who exercises greater power within the MAS. Morales’s frustration began in 2021 when the President ignored his advice to change the composition of the cabinet. The animosity has only escalated – partly on account of the caudillismo that is baked into MAS political culture. The cult of personality surrounding Morales can be traced back to his days as the leader of the coca-growers’ movement. It was inflated by MAS ideologue Alvaro García Linera, whose theory of Evismo framed Morales as an irreplaceable, once-in-a-century revolutionary hero. Since assuming office, though, Arce has developed his own personal ambitions and loyal following.

While Arce’s approval ratings have declined from around 50% to as low as 18%, Morales’s bid to replace him faces major legitimacy problems. Morales oversaw the passage of the 2009 Constitution, which allowed for only two consecutive presidential terms. Yet in 2013 the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal ruled that his first term should not count since it preceded the new constitutional framework, permitting him to stand for a third. In 2016, Morales held a plebiscite to modify the constitution to enable him to run again, but the initiative was narrowly voted down. The following year, a new ruling declared that term limits violated Morales’s human rights and allowed him to contest the 2019 elections. This knife-edge race concluded with Morales declaring victory and the opposition crying foul. Middle-class protests against ‘electoral fraud’ culminated in street violence and attacks on MAS officials. The Organization of American States, backed by the Trump White House, declared the victory illegitimate. Social movements and security forces both urged Morales to step down to prevent a wider conflict. Fearing for his life, the President fled the country, bringing an end to the longest civilian government in Bolivian history.

Military officials swore in Senator Jeanine Añez in November 2019 to head an unelected right-wing regime. Her government used heavy-handed tactics to silence its critics and carried out two massacres that left 21 protestors dead and hundreds injured. Deeply unpopular, Añez crashed to defeat in elections the following year, which Arce won with 55% of the vote. Morales then returned from exile and prepared for his next presidential campaign, on the grounds that the constitution does not rule out discontinuous terms in office. Yet his repeated attempts to cling to power and control the party apparatus have eroded his popular prestige. Arce has sought to use his institutional influence to block Morales’s return to the presidency. Morales has retaliated by expelling both Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca from the party.

It remains unclear how this power struggle will play out. The MAS was founded in 1997 as a hybrid between a political party and a federation of social movements (its full name is Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People). Although Morales is the leader, he does not have the power to nominate electoral candidates. They must be selected at party assemblies with the participation of the social movements, which are currently aligned with Arce’s faction. The polarization of the party renders it unable to nominate a contender. The two sides are too far apart to even engage in negotiations.

The confrontation in the Plaza Murillo bears the marks of this division. Three days earlier, Zúñiga, once a close ally of Arce, publicly denounced Morales and promised to block him from returning to office. This outburst violated a constitutional ban on military interference in political affairs and led Arce to dismiss him from his post. Soon thereafter, the general launched the mutiny. In their tête-a-tête outside the palace, Zúñiga accused Arce of betraying him. The episode could thus be seen as a spin-off from the Arce/Morales struggle, triggered by Zúñiga’s overzealous attempts to side with the former against the latter.

The acrimony between arcistas and evistas has also inflicted serious damage on both the legislature and judiciary. The 2023 judicial elections could not be held on time due to the factional deadlock in the legislative assembly. This caused the current Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal to extend its mandate, prompting the evistas – who already have reason to view the institution as biased in Arce’s favour – to denounce its rulings as illegitimate. At the same time, congressional infighting has frustrated important actions such as the approval of loans and lithium negotiations with potential foreign investors. Almost $1 billion worth of loans, earmarked for projects including infrastructure development, land titling and irrigation, have been secured by the executive but held up by the evista bloc, which insists that they should not be approved until the judicial elections have taken place.

As the MAS continues to tear itself apart, the Bolivian right is still struggling to assemble any meaningful opposition. It remains discredited after Añez’s disastrous stint in office. She and Luis Fernando Camacho, governor of the lowland department of Santa Cruz, are both serving time in prison for their roles in the overthrow of Morales. No candidate has emerged to replace them, and the conservative bloc is beset by deep divisions. Given the strength of popular opposition to neoliberalism, they cannot offer any alternative agenda to the left-nationalism of the MAS. Indeed, the right’s weakness helps to explain why personal and factional hostilities have freely proliferated within the ruling party.

The MAS has clearly lost a significant degree of control over the armed forces. Morales had quadrupled military spending in the hope of ensuring their loyalty. Unexpectedly, though, cadre at all levels turned against the President after the 2019 election and aided the right-wing power-grab. Until last month, Arce’s administration appeared to have the military in hand once again. Yet it is now apparent that the split within the MAS has destabilized the structures of command and facilitated armed intervention in the political process. Those who claim that Zúñiga’s mutiny was stage-managed neglect the extent to which the army can operate autonomously from the elected government.

Bolivia’s social movements have also regained significant autonomy from the state, and may be decisive in shaping the outcome of the ongoing political struggles. Between 2000 and 2005, they were by far the most powerful force in the country, bringing down the government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, setting the agenda for economic and constitutional transformation, and elevating Morales and the MAS to high office. Yet after the right-wing opposition was defeated and the new constitution passed in 2009, political power was increasingly centralized, and the social movements came under MAS control. When the ruling party was unable to co-opt them, it resorted to strong-arm tactics to weaken the grassroots leadership and in some cases create parallel organizations.

Morales has always been able to control the syndicalist organizations of coca-growing peasants in the lowland Chapare region. But during his time in office, several other popular organizations – constituting the Pacto de Unidad coalition – were gradually brought into line, either voluntarily or under sustained pressure. When the Morales government fell, these organizations reclaimed much of their political independence. Though they never recovered the vanguard role that they had played in the early 2000s, they were effective in organizing against the Añez regime and securing the MAS’s return to power under Arce. As the antagonism within the MAS deepened, the Pacto de Unidad continued to support the Arce government, while the coca-growers stood by Morales. The social movements have increased their influence within the MAS and reasserted their capacity for large-scale mobilization. On 26 June, hundreds of people spontaneously surrounded the Plaza Murillo and confronted the troops in the street. This popular intervention was likely one of the factors that prevented an outbreak of violence and stopped the military from seizing power.

Despite the Añez interregnum, Bolivia has been one of the most resilient of the Pink Tide countries. Yet its economic and political problems are now being compounded by a challenging international conjuncture. The government must contend with the longstanding animosity of the United States as well as the reactionary turn in Europe and the stalemate in Latin America, where the left has come up against right-wing restorationist and populist projects. The stand-off in the Plaza Murillo demonstrates that the dissension within the MAS has created opportunities for reactionary forces, foreign and domestic, to wreak havoc on the country. Arce’s opponents may dismiss it as nothing more than a simulacrum of history, but it reflects a very real trend, whereby the stalling of the Proceso de Cambio has opened the door to would-be authoritarians.

There is nothing inevitable about this decomposition. What are the possible alternatives? The MAS has been gravitating towards China, the BRICs and de-dollarization to address the country’s structural economic obstacles. Lithium extraction remains the developmentalists’ dream, while environmentalists face an uphill struggle for a green transition. Popular forces are in a strong position to counter caudillismo, perhaps drawing inspiration from indigenous political cultures that favour decentralization and rotating authority. Yet these pathways are rarely the subject of open debate or contestation. On the eve of the bicentennial, it seems that the starting point for envisioning Bolivia’s renewal is recognizing the depth of its current crisis.

Read on: Álvaro Garcia Linera, ‘State Crisis and Popular Power’, NLR 37.

Categories
Uncategorised

Same Blade

A few weeks before Rishi Sunak called a snap general election, an anonymous Labour source, supportive of the party leadership, expressed surprise at the failure of the left to cause problems for Keir Starmer over his obsequious backing for Israel’s war on Gaza. ‘I’m surprised at how little they’ve taken advantage of it’, they said. ‘If you can’t build a mass movement inside the Labour Party about this, what can you build it about?’ Around the same time, an MP on the Labour left explained why they had not attempted to build such a movement: ‘We are frightened of being called antisemitic.’

Not everyone in British politics was paralyzed by such timidity. After nine months of sustained mobilization against the attack on Gaza by a solidarity movement that faced down splenetic charges of antisemitism from its opponents, Starmer’s party took a notable hit at the ballot box from candidates who declared their support for Palestine. Four independents won seats at Labour’s expense with platforms that highlighted Starmer’s public endorsement of war crimes, while several other Labour MPs, including the new Health Secretary Wes Streeting, came perilously close to being defeated. Starmer himself saw his constituency vote share fall by 17.4%, thanks to the insurgent left-wing candidacy of Andrew Feinstein. The Green Party, which also stressed its opposition to Labour’s line on Gaza, elected four MPs with its highest ever vote share. Most woundingly for Team Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn easily retained his seat in north London after being expelled from the Labour Party, despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of Labour bigwigs like Peter Mandelson and Tom Watson campaigning for his opponent Praful Nargund.

These results told a tale about the eclipse of the Labour left, less than five years after it held the leadership of the party, and the search for new openings outside the ambit of Labourism. In the wake of the 2019 election defeat, the general staff of the Labour left collectively decided that there was no point challenging allegations of antisemitism, whether or not they had any basis in reality. As Rebecca Long-Bailey, Starmer’s defeated opponent in the 2020 leadership contest, put it in an article for Jewish News: ‘My advice to Labour Party members is that it is never OK to respond to allegations of racism by being defensive . . . The only acceptable response to any accusation of racist prejudice is self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-improvement.’

As they offered this advice, Long-Bailey and her team ignored the fact that Corbyn’s opponents routinely blurred the distinction between prejudice against Jews and the most elementary forms of solidarity with the Palestinian people. A few months later, Starmer ousted Long-Bailey herself from the Labour shadow cabinet, having cobbled together a charge of antisemitism that was insultingly threadbare, but there was no reassessment of the defeatist line. When Starmer had Corbyn suspended as a Labour MP for stating the obvious truth that the scale of antisemitism in the Labour Party had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents’, the parliamentarians of the Socialist Campaign Group barely lifted a finger in response. They appeared to believe that Corbyn’s removal had no wider implications for their political project, even as Starmer steadily expunged any trace of left-wing influence from the structures of the Labour Party in a way that put Tony Blair to shame.

By the time the general election was called this year, the LSE economist Faiza Shaheen was one of the few candidates on the Labour left standing for a winnable seat – Chingford and Woodford Green, in northeast London – who had not fallen foul of Starmer’s purge. In keeping with the general approach of the SCG, Shaheen pointedly refused to criticize Corbyn’s exclusion, telling the New Statesmanthat his statement was ‘really stupid’ and incompatible with Starmer’s much-vaunted ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on antisemitism. This did Shaheen no good when, in the run up to the vote, Labour apparatchiks decided they wanted to replace her with one of their factional allies.

The list of unforgivable offences for which Shaheen was arraigned included liking a tweet that referred to the existence of the Israel lobby. Extraordinarily, during a BBC interview, Shaheen conceded that it was unacceptable to talk about ‘professional organisations’ which direct hostile flak towards critics of Israel (this at a time when, across the Atlantic, AIPAC was investing unprecedented sums in a Democratic primary race to oust Jamaal Bowman). As with their response to Corbyn’s suspension, the most prominent leaders of the Labour left once again seemed incapable of planting their feet on the solid ground of empirical reality, deferring instead to feelings and perceptions, however absurd they might be. To her credit, Shaheen declined to bow down and ran as an independent, matching the vote for Labour’s hastily drafted candidate; Labour’s insistence on pushing her out allowed the Tory politician Iain Duncan-Smith to retain the seat. Hopefully she now understands how easy it is to find yourself accused of antisemitism by cynical operators on precisely the same basis as the former Labour leader.

In that respect, the last nine months have been chock-full of what Barack Obama would call ‘teachable moments’. The same bloc of political forces that came together to vilify Corbyn has been campaigning tirelessly in support of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Earlier this year, two of Corbyn’s most indefatigable critics, Margaret Hodge and Ruth Anderson, posed for a photo alongside Israel’s president Isaac Herzog. This ‘solidarity mission’, as Labour Friends of Israel proudly called it, came shortly after the International Court of Justice had cited Herzog’s bloodcurdling remarks about Palestinian civilians when ordering the Israeli government to prevent incitement to genocide.

The leaders of this political bloc directed their fire against the Palestine solidarity movement that has organized so many big demonstrations in London and other British cities calling for an immediate ceasefire. To their immense frustration, they found that movement unwilling to capitulate or jump through hoops at the behest of its opponents. A figure like Mike Katz, the corporate lobbyist who chairs the Jewish Labour Movement, was left to engage in the usual vague innuendo, implying that Labour’s image was at risk of contamination from ‘the regular protests down the road in Parliament Square’ without being able to say what was wrong with those protests.

As the carnage in Gaza continued, Britain’s anti-Palestinian front began to lose its cohesion. The soi-disant Campaign Against Antisemitism overreached itself by picking a fight with the Metropolitan Police as part of its vendetta against the pro-ceasefire marches. The former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was bold enough to raise some questions about the ‘closely guarded secret’ of who owns the Jewish Chronicle and what influence they may have on the newspaper’s ‘pungent line’ over Gaza. After several years in which national media outlets, including the Guardian, were happy to present the Chronicle as the unmediated voice of Jewish opinion in Britain, this was quite a breakthrough. When Starmer made some ambiguous comments about recognizing a Palestinian state, the Chronicle editor Jake Wallis Simons accused him of ‘surrendering to jihad’ and ‘rewarding the worst pogroms since the Holocaust.’

If the Labour left had not internalized the notion that support for Palestinian rights was a liability, it might have taken the opportunity during these months to push back hard against the false narrative of pervasive, quasi-genocidal ‘Labour antisemitism’ under Corbyn and explain how that malign fable fed directly into Starmer’s endorsement of mass killing in Gaza. In practice, the SCG couldn’t even cause Starmer difficulty when he suspended their own members on absurd pretexts: Kate Osamor for listing Gaza as an example of genocide along with Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia (she immediately apologized for doing so, which wasn’t enough to satisfy the Labour leader); Andy McDonald for promising not to rest ‘until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty’. The obvious response to McDonald’s suspension would have been for other left-wing MPs to repeat his statement and challenge Starmer to explain why he objected so vigorously to the notion of Palestinians living in ‘peaceful liberty’, but they were unwilling to do so.

In the end, Osamor and McDonald both had the whip restored after Labour came under strong pressure from the outside. First the Scottish National Party brought forward a pro-ceasefire motion in the House of Commons; Starmer had to lean on the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, to break the rules of parliamentary procedure so his MPs would not have to vote on the SNP motion (Hoyle was rewarded for his misbehaviour after the election with a fresh term as Speaker). Then George Galloway took a seat from Labour in a Rochdale by-election at the end of February by turning it into a referendum on Starmer’s Gaza policy. McDonald’s return to the Parliamentary Labour Party came within days of Galloway’s victory, while the leadership appeared to be saving up Osamor’s eventual readmission as a pacifying gesture, since it coincided with the defection of Natalie Elphicke, a Conservative MP whose record of bigotry was so extravagant that even a dedicated Blairite like the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley found her recruitment hard to swallow.

There were a few more teachable moments in the course of the election campaign. At the beginning of June, the Starmer leadership announced that it was dropping a vastly expensive legal action against five former party staffers whom it accused of leaking a report on Labour’s organizational culture under Corbyn. The main purpose of the action – apart from unadulterated spite, a motivation we should never discount when Labour’s right-wing faction is involved – was to discourage public discussion of the report by creating the impression that there was something illegitimate about its contents.

This effort was vital, since the evidence in the report discredited the lurid version of events peddled by Corbyn’s inner-party opponents in productions like the BBC documentary ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ In another report, this time commissioned by Starmer himself, the lawyer Martin Forde deemed that version of events to be ‘wholly misleading’ and vouched for the accuracy of the leaked report. As election day approached, Forde revealed that he had also been threatened with legal action by lawyers acting on Labour’s behalf in an unsuccessful attempt to deter him from speaking about his findings. Forde may well regret having given the members of this clique the benefit of the doubt about their motivations at several points where there was no doubt available.

We will never know how the period since 2019 might have unfolded differently if the Labour left had displayed the same combativity as politicians like Rima Hassan and Rashida Tlaib when faced with deceitful attacks. Corbyn’s suspension was a turning point – the moment when some of his allies decided that telling the truth about their own record was simply too hard. Fortunately Corbyn himself decided not to go quietly. His successful campaign, along with those of the Green and anti-war candidates, delivered a blow to Starmer just as he seemed to be triumphant. From the outset of his leadership, Starmer and his team decided to conflate uncritical support for Israel with a righteous stand against antisemitism so they could use this conflation as a weapon with which to slay the left. Now they have ended up cutting themselves on the same blade.

In the short term, Labour’s position on Gaza is unlikely to shift in response to the election. Despite the Green and independent gains, the bloc of Westminster MPs challenging that position is actually much smaller than it was before polling day after the SNP lost most of its seats in Scotland because of factors that had nothing to do with international policy. Ousted Labour MPs like Thangam Debbonaire and Jonathan Ashworth have displayed all the humility we might expect since losing their seats, telling the broadcast media that they were the victims of dark, illegitimate forces. John McDonnell’s suggestion that Corbyn might be readmitted to the PLP is yet another example of wishful thinking about the nature of Starmer’s project and the place of the left within its confines. But the evidence that Labour can be punished at the ballot box in areas it took for granted, even at what is likely to be the high point of its fortunes under Starmer, has put down an important marker for the years to come, and should give more confidence to those organizing outside the party.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘False Compromise’, Sidecar.

Categories
Uncategorised

Victory Deferred

Minutes after the first exit polls in France last Sunday, Jean-Luc Mélenchon told a large crowd of supporters that the Nouveau Front populaire (NFP) had received a mandate to implement ‘its entire programme’. It was a stirring moment; the speech concluded with the opening bars of Jean Ferrat’s Ma France, one of the most beautiful left-wing songs in the national repertoire. Yet the spectacle risked raising hopes that will soon be dashed. For the left did not really win: the newly elected National Assembly numbers some 200 MPs affiliated with the NFP or likely to vote for the coalition – among them the Socialist François Hollande, whose disastrous presidency is still a fresh memory – against 350 right-wing MPs, from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance to Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella’s Rassemblement national (RN). The left may have defied predictions of a victory for the far-right – no small achievement – but it did not triumph.

As for the ‘New Popular Front’, it is ‘new’ in the sense that isn’t as populaire as its predecessor of 1936. Among those who did not abstain, 57% of manual labourers and 44% of service-sector employees voted for the RN. It was in the big cities, where the population is disproportionately bourgeois and highly educated, that the NFP won the majority of its seats. This was especially true of the Socialist Party (PS) and the Greens. Mélenchon’s attempt to appeal to the popular sectors succeeded on one level: the mobilization of the banlieues, where large numbers of immigrants allowed La France insoumise (LFI) to achieve impressive results, often without going to ballotage. All the same, even a casual observer of French politics must have smiled on reading the headline in Libération, the daily newspaper of the progressive urban petty bourgeoisie, the day after the first round of the legislative elections: ‘Paris, capitale du Nouveau Front populaire’. Paris, the most expensive city in France, where apartments frequently go for over €10,000 per square metre, indeed elected twelve NFP MPs out of a total of eighteen, eight of them in the first round. By contrast, in working-class constituencies that for almost a century were citadels of the left, often of the Communist Party (PCF), the results were disastrous. Picardy returned thirteen far-right MPs out of seventeen; in the Pas-de-Calais, longtime fiefdom of Maurice Thorez – head of the PCF for more than thirty years – the RN claimed ten out of twelve seats, six in the first round. In the Gard, the party won every constituency.

One can therefore see why the Secretary General of the CGT, Sophie Binet, did not mince her words:

The arrival in power of the far-right has only been delayed . . . Working-class bastions in the Bouches-du-Rhône, the East, the North and the Seine-Maritime have fallen to the far-right. This is not merely a protest vote against Emmanuel Macron. A large number of working people voted for the far-right out of conviction. In duels with the left, wage-earners cast their ballots for the RN candidate. The casualization of employment and collapse of organized labour have accelerated the progression of the RN . . . The left that governed the country under François Hollande abdicated in the face of finance and oversaw increasing inequality within the workforce, pitting middle-managers against workers . . . Some formations abandoned the struggle for the collective improvement of working conditions in favour of welfare measures, while renouncing any confrontation with capital. The left must once more become the party of workers.

No doubt this problem is not confined to France. It suffices to replace ‘François Hollande’ with ‘Bill Clinton’, Paris with New York, ‘la France périphérique’ with ‘flyover country’ and Maastricht with NAFTA to paint a similar sociological and political portrait of the United States, and plenty of other countries as well. Even if the advent of LFI resuscitated the genuine left in France, many voters – in Picardy, in Lorraine, in the North, in the East – have not forgotten that on crucial political-economic questions, especially when it came to the EU, an entity responsible for destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs, the Socialists linked arms with the liberal right; to the point that in 2005, Hollande and Sarkozy posed side-by-side on the cover of a celebrity magazine to call for a ‘yes’ vote in the European Constitutional Referendum and then, likewise united, ignored the opposition of 55% of the population to impose the treaty they had rejected. The two men then went head-to-head in the next presidential election, one ostensibly representing the left, the other the right, before succeeding one another at the Élysée, and adopting more or less the same supply-side economic policies, as stipulated by Brussels. In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that upwards of 10 million voters would henceforth seek a political alternative, looking to ‘those who have never governed’ – that is to say, the far-right.

But one can always hope that lessons are at last being learned. On the morrow of the elections, in the absence of a majority, all the parties of the NFP affirmed that they intend to govern together, and that they would not enter into a coalition with the centre or the right which would oblige them to renounce the better part of their economic and social commitments. They seem to understand that any new government which does not enact urgent social measures – annulment of Macron’s pensions reform, a minimum wage hike, increased taxes on the very rich – will almost inevitably hand the far-right an even higher score in the next election. Although the RN thrives on xenophobic fears and rancour, it also benefits from working-class people’s sense that nothing ever changes politically while their own lives get harder and harder, which makes them want to overturn the status quo, ‘just to give it a shot’. Like in the US, where Trump’s victory – that is to say, first and foremost, Clinton’s defeat – led the Democrats to propose Keynesian policies that broke (somewhat) with free-trade orthodoxy, the rapid advance of the RN plus pressure from LFI have at least had the advantage of preventing the French centre-left, in particular the Socialists, from continuing to defend neoliberal policies on the grounds that ‘there is no alternative’ to globalization and no salvation beyond the ‘cercle de la raison’.

In the wake of the ballot, the ascendancy of the far-right in France has only been postponed. The electoral ‘barrage’ meant that the RN came in third place, with around 140 seats in the National Assembly against some 160 for Macron’s Ensemble and 180 for the NFP (of which LFI took 74). But it won considerably more votes: 37% in the second round, as opposed to 26% for the NFP and just under 25% for Ensemble. What’s more, caught off-guard by Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament, the RN ran whatever candidates it had to hand, including dozens with no political experience, who were swiftly revealed by their social media profiles to be openly racist, antisemitic, homophobic or simply incompetent.

Bardella has already acknowledged these ‘mistakes’: ‘There is still work to be done in terms of the professionalization of our local representatives, and perhaps also the choice of a certain number of candidates. To be honest, in a few constituencies the choices we made were not good.’ The RN can henceforth count on considerably more public funds, allowing it to better prepare its cadres. And it will almost certainly claim additional mayoralties in the upcoming municipal elections (at the moment it has very few), which will enable it to further ‘professionalize’ its operation and expand its territorial grip. As if that weren’t enough, the RN will have another advantage over the coming months: while its rivals’ coalitions are fragile and have already begun to fray and vacillate, its own is solid. It isn’t an alliance of parties that detest each other, as with the PS and LFI. The RN already knows who its candidate will be in the next presidential election, which could be called at any moment: namely Marine Le Pen. Neither the left, with a host of contenders still in the ring, nor Renaissance can say the same. Macron cannot stand again, and four or five of his lieutenants are already vying to succeed him.

Nor can the President call new legislative elections for the next year. In the meantime, France is likely to be ungovernable. The RN will not join any coalition, as all of the other parties are in league against it. The NFP cannot command a majority unless it allies with Ensemble, but the presidential coalition is already in the process of disintegrating. One fraction would like to join forces with the NFP on the condition that it banish LFI (which, in turn, has warned that ‘no subterfuge, scheme or arrangement would be acceptable’, a position echoed by most of the Socialists). The other fraction would prefer to unite with forty or fifty right-wing MPs, but the feeling does not appear to be mutual. Were such an alliance forged, Ensemble itself would be shattered.

Having wrought the current chaos, the President departed for the Washington NATO summit, leaving behind a ‘Letter to the French’ in which he refused to acknowledge that they rejected him and demanded that the parties arrive at a solution that excludes both the RN and LFI. None has been found. By dissolving the National Assembly, the enfant roi at the Élysée has broken his toys and called on others to fix them. Over the coming months, his impulsiveness and egocentrism will make him more dangerous and unpredictable, to the point that even the once worshipful Economist has begun to worry: ‘Far from settling France’s political divisions, Emmanuel Macron’s surprise decision to call a snap election looks likely to usher in a period of deadlock, apprehension, and instability.’

Macron’s election in 2017 enabled the French bourgeoisie to bring together elements of both the left and right around a programme of neoliberal reform and ‘the construction of Europe’. Politically, this ‘bourgeois bloc’ has now imploded. Its left wing has turned its back on a largely discredited neoliberalism and a despised President who seems to have botched everything. Even so, enthusiasm for Europe continues to serve as ideological bedrock for this onetime alliance. To this one must add attachment to the Ukrainian cause and obsessive Russophobia, especially pronounced among the educated middle classes. Hammered home fanatically by the media, these Atlanticist passions are nonetheless insufficient to reconstitute the erstwhile bourgeois bloc, as Macron would like. Not in peacetime, at any rate.

Neither Europe nor Ukraine are sufficiently popular causes to cement a new coalition that would keep out LFI and the RN alike, on the model of the ‘Third Force’ that from 1947 to 1948 regrouped the pro-American parties in opposition to the Communists and the Gaullists. Yet François Bayrou, an intimate of Macron’s who was responsible for his victory in 2017, still hopes to accomplish something similar, leveraging the ultra-Atlanticist turn of French diplomacy following the President’s discussion of sending troops to Ukraine. Bayrou has set out the parameters of this potential alliance against ‘the extremes’: 

There are people who are all in agreement that we should pursue the construction of Europe. They all agree that we should continue supplying aid to Ukraine, at a moment when Putin has come out publicly in support of the Rassemblement national. So there are people who share what I consider to be the fundamental values. There you have an arc républicain, you have common values. I don’t exclude anyone. But I don’t think that LFI corresponds to those values.

It is doubtful whether anyone could form a government in France solely on the basis of such ‘common values’, especially given the composition of the current parliament. Paris is not Brussels, where socialists, conservatives and liberals get along well enough to govern. But nor is there any parliamentary majority to enact the programme of the left that came first in the legislative elections. This impasse, instigated by Macron, can only bolster the far-right, even after a plurality of French citizens rallied to prevent it from taking power. The President remains its best campaign official.

Translated by Grey Anderson.

Read on: Serge Halimi, ‘Condition of France’, NLR 144.

Categories
Uncategorised

Washingtonology

In 1952 and 1968, unpopular Democratic incumbents renounced their claims to reelection, in both cases against a backdrop of low unemployment and brutal, pointless wars. But despite such parallels, Joe Biden now reminds one more of Richard Nixon than of Truman or LBJ. In March 1968 – reeling from the Tet Offensive, a gold crisis, and Eugene McCarthy’s near-upset in New Hampshire, LBJ complained that ‘the establishment bastards have bailed out’. Yet he didn’t resist. Faced with a similar set of problems, Nixon ordered his men to break into the Brookings Institution (though not, as he briefly considered, to firebomb the think tank). Biden hasn’t bombed anyone in this country yet. But after his disastrous debate performance on 27 June, he has engaged in a level of intra-elite conflict – with certain donors, large sections of his own party, and above all, the media – which the country has not witnessed since 1974.

To a degree which is hard to exaggerate, the media reaction to the debate was swift and unanimous. Shock and panic were understandable, since the clearest implication of the debate was that Trump was now heavily favoured to win in November. Mixed with this were expressions of personal betrayal from people who, by their own account, had looked away from earlier signs of mental decline because they trusted the assurances issued privately by Biden’s camp. Ron Klain, one of Biden’s three or four closest non-family associates, reportedly told a New York Times journalist ‘a couple months ago’ to set aside ‘age concerns’ because ‘we haven’t had a campaign yet. Watch him campaign, watch the debates’. As Matthew Zeitlin predicted correctly the day after the debate, ‘A lot of reporters feel like they were gaslit, bullied, unfairly attacked for bringing up Biden’s age and will now feel absolutely emboldened to talk about it nonstop and won’t feel any need to respect the campaign and White House’s arguments for why they shouldn’t.’ 

As the tide went out, you could suddenly see which figures in the media were the most firmly anchored in defence of Biden, even the version of him on display at the debate. Chris Hayes of MSNBC offered a good example. On 6 July, Hayes interviewed Congressman Mike Quigley, one of the first to call for Biden to step down. In describing his own feelings to Quigley, Hayes identified himself frankly as a partisan: ‘I think I’ve been pretty honest about this – you talk about working your way through this. I feel somewhat similarly; differently because I’m a journalist, I’m not an elected member, but I have a deep stake in the prospering of American democracy and its future’. Casting about for defences of Biden, Hayes tried the following:  

There’s been a few moments [in earlier presidential races] where if you went up to anyone who’s a political practitioner they would be like he’s toast, he’s done, and then he wasn’t. So there’s some sense in which there’s some part of me sympathetic to the argument of like don’t get caught up in the moment, things can change, this like don’t, don’t get too, because you don’t – you never know what’s gonna happen.

This is a reasonable way to talk to yourself when your favourite team is losing a baseball game. As an argument about Biden’s fitness, it is stunningly vacant – and blithe, given that the future of American democracy is said to be at stake. Even Hayes had trouble believing it. When Quigley responded that ‘Four years ago you saw a different Joe Biden’, the host had to agree this was ‘incontrovertible’. By this week, Hayes had come around to Quigley’s view, though he made sure to say that ‘this is not a scandal’ and that Biden ‘is a decent man who has done nothing wrong’. Flattery has been a consistent feature of the appeals to Biden; despite its limited success so far, one can’t say for sure it won’t have any effect on a man with such a high view of himself.

Inevitably, journalists have described the succession drama as ‘Shakespearean’. If there’s a ghost haunting this feast of cliches, it is probably a starving Gazan. There has been strikingly little discussion of any connection between Biden’s reversal of political fortunes and his support for the ongoing Israeli assault on Palestine. But watching White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre get into a shouting match with journalists over Biden’s health, it is impossible not to think about the credibility gap that has grown wider with every press briefing about Gaza. 

On 8 July, the NYT reported, ‘The White House briefing room devolved into shouting on Monday as the press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, repeatedly dodged and refused to answer questions about the president’s health, and whether visits to the White House by a Parkinson’s doctor were about the president.’ The next day, a journalist asked another Biden flack, Matthew Miller, about the death toll in Gaza. As Miller delivered a typical non-answer, the journalist interrupted. Here is the exchange that followed, as reported in the State Department’s transcript:  

QUESTION: You’re smirking. You’re smirking as you say that.

MR MILLER: No, excuse – go ahead with another question, Said.

QUESTION: You are smirking as you say –

MR MILLER: Absolutely not. I’m not going to – I’m not even going to entertain that.

QUESTION: Let me finish my – let me finish – let me finish my question, please.

MR MILLER: I’m not even going to entertain that.

Said, go ahead with another question.

QUESTION: Matt, you’re smirking.

MR MILLER: That’s ridiculous.

There was a reason the journalist was asking about the death toll. The Lancet had just published a letter estimating that the Israeli ‘war’ has killed at least one in twelve people in Gaza – close to a decimation in the strict sense. The estimate is necessarily crude given the destruction of medical and communications capacity in Gaza. We have a more precise measure of Washington’s support for an openly genocidal government since 7 October: $6.5 billion. 

It is a scandal, but at this point not a surprise, that large swathes of the US media and political elite have made their peace with both of these numbers. What is harder to understand is the media’s continued lack of interest in a related question: given the new consensus on the President’s inability to rule, who is making decisions about foreign policy? It is not as if such decisions have been suspended since the debate. On 10 July, the day after AOC burned the emperor’s incense – declaring that ‘He is in this race, and I support him’ – an ‘administration official’ told the Wall Street Journal that the US ‘will soon begin shipping to Israel the 500-pound bombs that the Biden administration had previously suspended, ending a two-month pause it had imposed in a bid to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza’. On the Ukraine front, the liberalization of the administration’s restrictions on the use of American weaponry is likely to continue. Since the Russian bombing of a hospital in Kyiv, one hears calls for the removal of all restrictions.  

Who has been making and will continue to make these decisions? As Bruce Cumings wrote at the dawn of the Second Cold War, there are certain questions which one can only study by squinting at ‘the fine print of our dominant newspapers, pursuing a Washingtonology that can reveal the hidden struggle’. Is it significant that three of the first legislators to come out against Biden were Quigley, who co-chairs the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, plus Adam Smith and Seth Moulton, both members of the House Armed Services Committee? It is well known there are sections of the national security establishment who have not forgiven Biden and Jake Sullivan for the Afghanistan withdrawal; even those who got over this may want a more legitimate figure in office to deal with NATO and – dare anyone hope? – prevent the reelection of Trump and the presumable consequences for Ukraine.     

What do we make of the timing when, on 9 July, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines put out a press release claiming that ‘Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza’? Just a week earlier, right after the debate, ex-Obama Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson said that ‘A presidency is more than just one man. I would take Joe Biden at his worst day at age 86 so long as he has people around him like Avril Haines’. Johnson earned his cabinet position in 2008, when he led Obama’s effort to compete with Hillary Clinton for money from New York financial circles; reportedly, Johnson and Obama sought specifically ‘to draw from pools that barely existed four years ago, particularly hedge fund and private-equity fund principals’. After leaving the Obama administration, Johnson became a proud recipient of the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award. He is on the boards of Lockheed Martin and US Steel, a trustee of Columbia University, and a major figure within the network of corporate law firms, some of which are openly blacklisting anyone who has mouthed the slogan ‘From the river to the sea’.

Two statements, with opposing implications about the attitude of the national security apparatus toward the president. They may mean nothing, or they may represent the iceberg-tips of deep politics. How is anyone to know? Reportedly, Mao Zedong believed that Watergate was the result of ‘too much freedom of political expression in the United States’. For those of us living in the US, it is no small comfort that this freedom still exists, at least formally. It is good that we still have newspapers, and that they still report these details in the fine print. It would be better if they gave us more help in putting it all together. 

Read on: Richard Beck, ‘Bidenism Abroad’, NLR 146.

Categories
Uncategorised

Damage Control

Iran has a new president, its first avowed ‘reformist’ in almost two decades. Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon and former health minister who served in the Khatami administration of the early 2000s, clinched the election with 53.6% of the vote. Born to an Azeri father and Kurdish mother in the city of Mahabad, and raised in Urumia in Western Azerbaijan, Pezeshkian has a common touch, humble demeanour and fondness for Azeri proverbs which set him apart from his rivals. Just two months ago his ascent to the presidency was unforeseeable. Yet the sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in mid-May prompted a political shift which commentators inside and outside the country are still struggling to comprehend.

To grasp how someone like Pezeshkian managed to pass through the filter of the Guardian Council, the clerical dominated body responsible for vetting the ‘suitability’ of electoral candidates, we must rewind to 2021. The election that year was perhaps the most carefully stage-managed in the Islamic Republic’s recent history. Raisi’s meteoric rise through several unelected power centres – his trusteeship of the powerful Astan-e Qods-e Razavi religious foundation, his tenure as Prosecutor General and then Chief Justice – led many to assume he was being positioned as the successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had entered his fourth decade of rule. It appeared that Khamenei and his allies had decided to sacrifice the already limited competitiveness of Iran’s presidential elections to guarantee conservative control of all three branches of government and ensure a smooth transition when he finally left the scene. Millions of Iranians, incensed by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the unfulfilled promises of the Rouhani administration, refused to go along with this electoral charade. Turnout hit a historic low of 48.8% and ballots were spoiled en masse. Raisi coasted to power regardless.

Yet his death in the forests of Eastern Azerbaijan put paid to this plan. In 2021, the presidential contest was inseparable from the question of leadership succession. Now these two processes of elite selection have been decoupled. In light of this, Khamenei’s inner circle have seemed willing to entertain the idea of reintegrating the more politically amenable section of the reformists – often called ‘state reformists’ by their critics – as a means of stabilizing the system. Unlike the presidential race of 1997, when the establishment was taken by surprise by the success of the so-called ‘left flank’ of the political class, this time they were prepared for a moderate candidate, even if he wasn’t their first choice. Khamenei and his closest allies may also have realized that when hardline Principalists (Osulgarayan) control every branch of the state, the supreme leader himself becomes a lightning rod for pent-up anger at the system, making it harder to deflect blame for corruption and mismanagement.

Yet the reasons for this reintegration go beyond intra-elite manoeuvrings. The nationwide women-led protests that erupted in 2022, as well as the ethno-national uprisings across Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces during the same period, saw the emergence of powerful anti-systemic forces that rejected the Islamic Republic and its political class tout court. No politician, except the most intransigent ones on the right, could fail to recognize their social and cultural reverberations. Pezeshkian was among a tiny handful of parliamentarians to publicly condemn the fate of Mahsa Jina Amini shortly after it became a national news story. He also mentioned her several times during his presidential campaign, signalling the enduring legacy of the movement and the widespread anger over its brutal suppression.  

This period of unrest coincided with an unprecedented wave of teachers’ strikes and labour militancy, as Iran’s downwardly mobile middle class, clobbered by double-digit inflation and radicalized by regular cycles of protest and repression, began to mobilize for change. Recent years have seen a pronounced deterioration in living standards, affecting millions of Iranians in the cities and provinces, from the salariat to the working poor. The country’s economic woes have been compounded by the marginalization of reformists, a clampdown on civil liberties, and the pursuit of a reactionary agenda around the politics of social reproduction and population control. US-led sanctions have accelerated the devaluation of the currency, causing many Iranians to channel their savings into the stock market or cryptocurrency.

The Iranian state is therefore facing a plethora of structural contradictions. The supreme leader’s office and highest echelons of the IRGC initially responded by doubling down on ‘national security’ and deterring outside incursions. Though this strategy could claim some success on its own terms, it was hardly a recipe for stability, let alone prosperity, and it failed to address the causes of spiralling domestic discontent. After Raisi’s death, it became clear that a significant part of the power elite and the wider political class did not believe that the radical Principalists – whose most extreme cadre is represented by the Endurance Front (Jebheh-ye paidari) – were capable of managing the crisis, or even understanding its stakes. Effective adaptation meant widening the sphere of political decision-making, albeit in a highly controlled fashion. 

Enter Pezeshkian. His presidential campaign had a slow start, and he did not perform well in the first televised debates. Despite his stint in the health ministry his national profile was meagre, and he was seen as lacking requisite experience. Endorsements from Khatami and other leading reformists, as well as former political prisoners and prominent intellectuals, failed to move the dial. The first round of voting saw the lowest ever turnout for a presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic: a dismal 39.9%. Among the 60% that refused to vote, some were unwilling to confer legitimacy upon the system, while others were simply apathetic, no longer believing that the presidency could affect their daily lives, given the overarching authority of the supreme leader and other political, legal, religious and economic power centres. Yet Pezeshkian benefited from the shoddy performance of the system’s favoured candidate, the former mayor of Tehran and current Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who crashed to a humiliating 14% of the vote amid swirling accusations of corruption.

Almost every Iranian president to date has come to blows with the supreme leader when they have tried to pursue their own agendas. From Abolhassan Banisadr in 1981 to Mohammad Khatami in the 2000s, to the more recent administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even Hassan Rouhani, relations have inevitably deteriorated, often leading to estrangement and finally the president’s expulsion from the real sites of power. In his campaign, Pezeshkian decided to address this issue by openly discussing the limitations of the president’s office. He told voters that he was not a miracle-worker, that his authority was constrained, and that he could only bring about change in areas under his immediate control. In those beyond his remit, he pledged to enter negotiations on behalf of the people. He would not confront the entrenched interests at the heart of the system but rather work with them constructively. This brand of centrism is a far cry from the Khatami years, where parliamentary democracy and neoliberal globalization were thought to represent the End of History, and from the more radical promises of ‘political development’ (towse’eh-ye siyasi): a common euphemism for democratization and constitutional reform. Yet it nonetheless represents a significant break with the past three years.

In the second-round runoff, Pezeshkian vied with the hard-right Principalist Said Jalili, a onetime nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Among Jalili’s key supporters were Covid-denialists, antisemitic conspiracy theorists, radical autarkists and absolutist theocrats. His programme combined an ultra-conservative cultural politics with a pseudo-populist economic offer which tapped into undercurrents of resentment. He promised to protect Iran’s most vulnerable citizens while tackling the corruption and rentierism of its crony-capitalist class. In response, reformists joined with the centre right, warning of the ‘Talibanization’ of Iran and its transformation into an Islamist North Korea should Jalili and his ‘shadow government’ take power. Fear of this prospect was enough to push voter participation to just under 50%. In the final tally, Jalili won 13.5 million votes to Pezeshkian’s 16.4 million, reflecting the growing polarization of the polity. The significant decline in the conservative vote share – Raisi received 18 million in the previous election – indicates that many moderates abandoned Jalili for Pezeshkian. Yet the dismal turnout rate, down from 73% in 2017, suggests that the politics of lesser evilism and damage control are now delivering diminishing returns.   

Pezeshkian’s campaign pledges were short on detail, but they aimed to address three main areas. The first was civil liberties. The candidate opposed the hard right’s clampdown on the public sphere – the ever-tightening regulation of women’s attire and gender relations, the increasingly stringent censorship laws, the looming threat of a restricted ‘national internet’ – and vowed to do everything he could to reverse these trends.

The second was foreign policy, widely seen as inseparable from Iran’s stagnant domestic economy. Pezeshkian promised he would try to salvage the nuclear deal, free Iran from the debilitating ‘cage of sanctions’ and de-escalate tensions with the US and Europe. This, he argued, would mean standing firm against radicals who seek to sabotage negotiations, choosing ‘expertise’ over ‘ideology’, improving ties with Iran’s regional neighbours and establishing more balanced relations between East and West.

Finally, Pezeshkian stressed the need to deal with soaring inflation, which was above 40% throughout 2023 and early 2024. His powerful coalition of political and economic interests advocated a series of measures to solve the crisis: market liberalization, deflation of the ‘bloated’ state sector, the stemming of middle-class capital flight, the empowerment of the private sector (as opposed to the crony-capitalist parastatal sector), and the courting of foreign investment. They believe this will fix the inefficient labour market and counterbalance the outsized influence of powerful religious foundations (bonyads) and assorted IRGC-linked firms and subcontractors.

In each of these areas, Pezeshkian’s policies could in theory be materially consequential for millions of Iranians. Internet access has been essential to the country’s democracy movement as well as individual freedom of expression. It has also been decisive for countless small traders and businesses in staving off bankruptcy. The Guidance Patrol’s heavy-handed policing of dress codes has violated the basic rights of millions of women, and their horrific actions, frequently caught on camera and broadcast across social media, have inflicted huge reputational damage on the system, provoking disgust even among many religious traditionalists. Reining them in would mark an advance for both the Iranian people and the regime.

In the realm of foreign policy, there is no evidence that the fundamental tenets of the Islamic Republic’s security doctrine are up for negotiation. Ayatollah Khamenei and leading figures in the IRGC have spent decades building up what is today known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’. They see it as an indispensable part of the Islamic Republic’s ability to protect the country from foreign threats and imperialist interference. While a turn towards proactive diplomacy may effect a degree of de-escalation, with potentially beneficial results, it will not change this essential part of the Islamic Republic’s defence doctrine. There is also a large question mark over whether any US president, Democrat or Republican, would be willing to spend a modicum of political capital breathing new life into a deal with the Iranian state.

As for the economy, the conviction that ‘expertise’ will save the day rings hollow, as does the idea that Pezeshkian will be able to pass his measures with a weak mandate and a parliament baying for his blood. Developing an effective technocracy would not be inconsequential, but nor would it circumvent the structural drivers of inflation and falling living standards. The incoming president seems to be aware that he must secure at least a modicum of popular consent for any reform programme. In late 2019, Rouhani applied a disastrous round of shock therapy by removing fuel subsidies, devastating working-class Iranians and sparking mass protests in which hundreds were killed. Reluctant to repeat this mistake, Pezeshkian insists he will only increase fuel prices with the hamrahi of the people – meaning their ‘participation’ or approval. Will it be forthcoming?

Pezeshkian has already made clear that his government will rely on a familiar cast of veteran politicians, technocrats and administrators. Two high-profile ministers in the Rouhani administration, Mohammad Javad Zarif and Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, were at the forefront of his campaign. His power bloc includes the neoliberals of the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, moderate senior clergymen, former and current elements of the Revolutionary Guard, and even some purged university professors. This fraction of the ruling class does not want to upset the apple cart. One of the main reasons they flocked to Pezeshkian was the hope that he could bring the economy under control, stabilize the domestic arena and calm international tensions in the shadow of the Gaza genocide.

Yet they also know that something needs to change. The status quo is becoming untenable and much of the population is at breaking point. Their solution is to mollify the urban middle classes and provide some concessions in the cultural and social spheres so as to prevent further brain drain and capital flight. They not only stand to profit personally from expanding the private sector and attracting foreign capital; this gambit will also allow them to check the parastatal sector and its undue political influence. To secure higher levels of foreign investment, they may have to improve relations with the West and secure the removal of US secondary sanctions. But they are aware that this agenda will be highly circumscribed by the supreme leader’s office and security-military establishment.

What this amounts to is a possible shift in tone, style, competency, policy priorities and ‘governance’ strategies, within clearly defined limits. This may well be registered in Iranians’ everyday lives, but it will have little bearing on the deep socio-economic problems by which the theocratic republic is afflicted. These will continue to cause disruption over the coming years, which will in turn elicit state repression in the name of ‘public order’. Once the next major crisis hits, the middle and working classes are unlikely to stay passive in the hope that the Pezeshkian government will finally deliver for them. They have been disappointed too many times to rest on such laurels.

Read on: Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, ‘Rules of the Game’, Sidecar.

Categories
Uncategorised

Gaucho-Lepénisme?

The stunning electoral successes of France’s Rassemblement national over the past month have naturally elicited much reflection on the sources of this historic breakthrough for the country’s postwar far-right. The RN won 30 out of 81 seats in the EU elections in June: the largest parliamentary delegation of all parties in Europe, garnering more than double the vote share of Emmanuel Macron’s bloc. In the first round of the subsequent snap National Assembly elections, the RN secured 33% of the popular vote. The Nouveau Front populaire – a broad left-wing alliance that includes the Socialists, La France insoumise, the Greens and the Communists – trailed on 28%, with Macron’s Ensemble on just 20%.

The polls are predicting that the RN will nonetheless fall short of a workable majority in the second round on Sunday, blocked by a ‘Republican Front’ spanning the centre and parts of the left. A total of 221 candidates from the NFP and Macron’s Ensemble have pulled out of the race to avoid splitting the vote, although the distribution is uneven: 132 NFP candidates stood aside compared to 83 Macronists, and anti-RN candidates are still facing off against each other in three way contests in almost 100 constituencies. This reflects the centre’s reluctance to collaborate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI, which many of them view as just as dangerous as the far right, if not more so. Some have speculated that in the event of a hung parliament, Macron will resign and use a controversial interpretation of the constitution to run for another presidential term. But such a coup d’état would be extremely risky. It is more likely that he will try to appoint a ‘moderate’ Prime Minister who could assemble a government comprising figures like François Hollande, who has been working hard to launder his reputation, Macron’s former Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau, a candidate for the NFP, and even the LFI dissident François Ruffin. This formation would then pave the way for an anti-Mélenchon unity candidate in the 2027 presidential election, reconsolidating the centre and excluding the ‘extremes’. Even if the RN is prevented from forming a government this time, though, the party will likely be in a strong position to style itself as the country’s sole opposition and bide its time until the next vote.

Which regions and factors are driving the striking upswing in support for the RN? There has so far been little discussion of the RN’s strong showings in parts of the country hitherto resistant to the far-right. In the EU elections, the RN list came out on top in all the socio-demographic categories analysed by the pollsters, including households in the top income quartile. Among intermediate occupations, such as clerical and sales jobs, the RN vote jumped from 19% to 29%. The leap was even bigger among those with at least two years of higher education: from 16% to 29%. The party is also making headway among managers and retirees. It is now on 20% among the former, on par with the Socialist Party (and up from 13% in 2019); among the latter, the RN holds a considerable lead: 29% of retirees compared with 23% for the Macron list. Symptomatic of the normalization of the RN vote, in the European elections the far-right lists came out on top in the affluent 16th arrondissement of Paris, a historic bastion of the liberal right.

All of this urges some reconsideration of the composition of the Lepéniste electorate. The dominant view, relentlessly voiced by the mainstream media and party leaders, has been that the RN vote is a cry from the heart of France’s ‘forgotten people’ – those overlooked by Europe, globalization, the elites and, above all, the left. According to this perspective, formerly Communist working-class communities have drifted to the far-right, driven by the successive betrayals of social democracy and progressive movements. Pundits repeat the notion that the RN – France’s leading workers’ party in the polls – is heir to the conservative, family-oriented values that characterized the old PCF. Geographically, their vote is perceived as rooted in ‘La France périphérique’, to use the phrase popularized by Christophe Guilluy: depressed rural areas far from major transport hubs and dynamic employment centres. This so-called ‘gaucho-lepéniste’ thesis forms the backdrop to Didier Eribon’s Retour à Reims (2009), in which Eribon recounts the political trajectory of his northeastern working-class family, from the PCF to the Front national, the predecessor to the RN.

It is certainly true that the FN has long made efforts to establish a presence in the north and north-east – most emblematically the parachuting in of Marine Le Pen in 2012 and her election in the 2017 legislative elections in Hénin-Beaumont, the heart of the former mining area of Hauts-de-France. However, to locate the FN/RN’s base in deindustrialized areas and former PCF voters is too simplistic. An abundance of social science literature highlights the protean nature of its vote, while the data shows that abstention remains by far the most common option among those who once would have voted for the PCF. Although voting patterns regularly show the FN/RN in the lead among blue-collar workers, it is important to note that the INSEE classification includes small-scale tradespeople, a stratum that has always been drawn to the right. Think of the ‘petits métiers’ of nineteenth-century naturalist novels, whose ambivalence towards both the bosses and revolutionary ideas is evoked in Zola’s L’Assommoir. Today, these occupations – butchers, gardeners, lorry drivers, garage mechanics and builders – are statistically the most numerous among the working class. These are jobs that cannot easily be offshored. Unlike factory work, which has been shrinking since the 1980s, they have been relatively spared by globalisation.

A more nuanced version of the ‘gaucho-lepéniste’ thesis requires a clearer understanding of the evolving and often contradictory politics of the party itself. Many argue that the RN (and the FN before it) are ‘bifrons’, or two-faced – appealing to both right and left. This too can be overstated. The RN’s ‘social’ tilt was promoted in particular by Marine Le Pen’s erstwhile right-hand man Florian Philippot, a former chevènementiste who encouraged the party to present itself as the champion of those caught between the big guys who monopolize everything and the little guys – the unemployed and idle immigrants – who produce nothing. The RN’s 2017 platform included a series of measures such as lowering the retirement age to 60 and raising wages, which positioned the party to the left of the identitarian liberalism of the Sarkozy right. At the same time, particularly in the south-east, the RN continued to align itself with the values of the traditional right – those of small property owners, hostile to taxation and attached to law and order. Yet this orientation, which has deep roots in the FN and is descended from the Poujado-Reaganism of Le Pen senior, became hegemonic once again after the party’s relative failure in the 2017 legislative elections and the ousting of Philippot from the leadership. The ‘social’ elements of the 2017 programme were discarded from the 2022 platform, deemed incompatible with the objective of joining forces with the right wing of Les Républicains.

This changing of the guard refocused the party on its heartlands far from the deindustrialized north: Provence and the hinterland of Nice. After the 2022 elections, one in two MPs in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) were from the RN. This region is home to a large concentration of pied-noir repatriates from Algeria and their descendants, whose collective imagination was formed by the colonial era. Support for the FN here was of a piece with rejection of the Evian Accords and hostility towards the ‘bradeurs de l’Empire’, as the Gaullist right was labelled by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, far-right presidential candidate in 1965. Jean-Marie Le Pen succeeded Tixier as the head of this nebulous movement, which encompassed former OAS militants and various neo-fascist groupings as well as royalists and traditionalist Catholics. Mitterrand, political adversary of de Gaulle, cultivated relations with these ultras throughout his political career, culminating in a presidential amnesty for the generals who staged the April 1961 Algiers putsch. Since then, this fringe constituency has abandoned the Socialists and returned to its natural political home: the RN. Yet this is hardly a movement from left to right, as it is often portrayed.

The racism that characterized social relations in the colonies was thus part of the DNA of the FN. It was originally exacerbated by the fact that the repatriates were themselves victims of xenophobia when they arrived in France. Subsequent waves of immigration thereby offered them the opportunity to join the majority group by distinguishing themselves from the new minorities. Immigration has been a constant of FN/RN discourse, although its significance has shifted: the immigrant is no longer figured as the person stealing jobs, but rather as the welfare recipient stealing money. This has been part of a demographic realignment that has seen the party move from a predominantly urban vote in the 1980s – Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first major campaigns were driven by hostility towards immigrants in physical proximity – to a rural and suburban vote, reaching its peak in areas where immigration is virtually absent.

As Félicien Faury points out in his book on Lepéniste supporters in the PACA region, the cultural dimensions of the FN/RN vote tend to be overlooked in favour of economistic interpretations. In Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé’s recent book, for example, a sweeping overview of the driving forces behind voting in France since 1789, electoral behaviour is explained principally through income inequalities. Yet the core of the FN electorate has always been middle-class voters, those who can afford to put ‘un peu d’argent de côté’ in the jargon of pollsters. If Jean-Marie Le Pen’s themes appealed to certain fractions of the popular classes, it was because private property had become a cornerstone of working-class identity. As Violaine Girard reminds us, the flip side of deindustrialization was massive access via subventions to small-scale, individual property.

While surveys show that the RN vote, like the LFI vote, is concentrated at the lower end of the income scale, the weight of this variable is qualified by the fact that RN supporters tend to be based in areas where the cost of living is lower. And contrary to perspectives centred on wealth inequality, education level proves to be a greater determinant. Lepéniste rhetoric is most effective in places where social success is not coupled with educational attainment. In these environments, identification with the interests of the boss – often a friend who controls employment opportunities – is predominant. This has been reinforced by the disappearance of traditional relays of left-wing perspectives. As reported by the sociologist Benoît Coquard, author of a long-term ethnography of social life in rural areas, many teachers, who were often also coaches of the sports club and were once considered local notables in their villages, have left and moved to towns. The ethos of the hard-working small businessman – the entrepreneur who doesn’t count his hours – is held up as a model, while voting left has become stigmatised as the choice of the lazy. The ambivalence in these areas towards the gilet jaunes movement bears witness to this trend. Coquard has shown that initial support faded as the movement becomes urbanized, with media coverage shifting from roundabout and tollgate blockades to street demonstrations.

Lastly, while the discourse of ‘peripheral France’ has focused on industrial relocation and economic concentration in the metropolises, for RN voters the main concern seems to be less employment than where they live. In the PACA, the tourism sector accounts for 13% of the economy, compared with 8% nationally. In this respect, globalization has been a boon for the region, but the downside has been an influx of bourgeois from the north and abroad. The ‘great replacement’ of the local middle class reflects a geographical rather than a professional downgrading – the ‘beaux coins’ where people were planning to retire have become unaffordable, trapping small businessmen and middle-class employees in the declining suburbs. This resentment feeds a ‘triangular’ social conscience – both anti-elite and anti-welfare recipient – in contrast to the dichotomous ‘us and them’ of left-wing discourse.

Such an interpretation seems to be confirmed by the breakthrough of the RN in the west of the country, where anti-Covid restrictions and remote working have attracted white-collar workers to the seafront. While these transfuges occupy the charming cabins of the Gironde estuary, independent fishermen are relegated inland, their purchasing power undermined by the explosion in fuel prices. The rise of the RN in Brittany is symbolic. This relatively privileged region benefits from a rate of job creation higher than the national average. But, as in the rest of the country, its economic dynamism is based primarily on the tertiary sector. Historically a land of agriculture and industry – textiles, automobiles, metallurgy, rubber – today the number of second homes and seasonal accommodation is rocketing, leading to the desertification of villages in winter and the phenomenon of ‘volets fermés’. The ‘peripheral France’ thesis describes an inexorable territorial polarisation, yet surveys reveal antagonisms within these areas: between the scenic regions that attract the educated upper middle classes and the neglected places – the ‘endroits moches’ – where the RN has the wind in its sails.

What are the chances of a shift to the left among this electorate? Some commentators insist that winning over the RN base is a lost cause, and that the left would do better to concentrate on areas with a Macronist majority. Yet the polls show a broad consensus in favour of progressive measures at national level: an increase in the minimum wage, which the RN parliamentary group opposed in 2022, and tougher legislation on workplace safety standards, an important issue to strata often employed in high-risk jobs. People living in the suburbs are attached to public services and facilities, as illustrated by the protests in villages and towns against school closures. Setting limits on real estate speculation – the real fuel for the RN vote in areas where the party is growing fast – would send a powerful signal. The RN’s vacillation on the retirement age and minimum wage, and refusal to lower VAT on basic necessities, meanwhile, would seem to present opportunities. Is the party on the side of the small craftsman, stifled by spiking energy prices, or on the side of capital, which has largely benefited from the inflationary crisis? These are the contradictions that the left should throw into relief.

Read on: Serge Halimi, ‘Condition of France’, NLR 144.

Categories
Uncategorised

Majority Without a Mandate

Was ever a country, in this humour, won? A majority without a mandate, and a landslide that isn’t a landslide. Labour won 64% of the seats with 34% of the vote, the smallest ever vote share for a party taking office. Turnout, estimated at 59%, was at its lowest since 2001 (and before that, 1885). When a soggy Sunak finally pulled the plug on his flagging, flag-bedraggled government at the end of May, every poll showed Labour with a double-digit lead, at over 40%. Sunak’s litany of unforced errors, as well as the massive funding gap between Labour and the Conservatives and the queue of businessmen and Murdoch newspapers endorsing Labour, ought to have helped keep it that way. Instead, Labour’s total number of votes fell to 9.7 million, down from 10.3 million in 2019.

The Conservatives plunged from 44% to 24%, feeding into a surge for the far-right Reform UK which, with 14% of the vote, took four seats. The combined Tory–Reform vote, at 38%, was bigger than Labour’s share. The latter would not have increased at all, as the pollster John Curtis pointed out, without the Labour gains in Scotland enabled by the SNP’s implosion. Meanwhile the country’s left, despite its tardiness and lack of strategic focus, did well. The Greens increased their vote share from less than 3% to 7% and took four seats. Sitting alongside them in the Commons will be five independent pro-Palestine candidates, including Jeremy Corbyn who defeated his Labour rival in Islington North with a margin of 7,000 votes. Intriguingly, George Galloway’s diagonalist Workers’ Party didn’t win a single seat – including Rochdale, which Galloway has represented since February.

Never has there been such a yawning gap between the fractal pluripotencies of the age and the suffocating politics at the top. Few governments have been this fragile coming into office. There will be no honeymoon. Labour and its leader are deeply unpopular; just less so than the Conservatives for now. Disguised by the commanding scale of Labour’s majority in Westminster is the drastic expansion of marginal constituencies, where the party barely clung on. In Ilford North, independent left candidate Leanne Mohamad came within 500 votes of unseating the incoming health minister Wes Streeting; in Bethnal Green & Stepney, the incumbent Rushanara Ali, who refused to back a ceasefire in Gaza, saw her majority reduced from 37,524 to 1,689; in Birmingham Yardley, the right-wing sectarian Jess Phillips was almost unseated by the Workers’ Party; and in Chingford and Woodford Green, where Faiza Shaheen was blocked from standing as the Labour candidate, she fought her former party to a draw – splitting the vote and allowing the Tories to retain the seat.  

How did Labour do so well, yet so badly? The party’s vote share usually falls during an election campaign. Yet the deeper issue was the basis on which it sought office. The decisive factor here was the cost-of-living crisis and its political metabolism. In periods of low inflation, price rises erode the consuming power of those at the margins of the economy, but in 2021-22, as a combination of supply-chain crises and corporate profiteering drove up costs, even some of the middle class felt the pinch, while the government’s attempt to scapegoat striking workers generated little sympathy. The Tories’ turn to open class war laid waste to their talk of ‘levelling up’ and belied their overtures to ordinary Britons.

The Conservative Party responded to this crisis by turning on itself and its charismatic yet wayward leader, Boris Johnson. The result was the catastrophic Liz Truss interval. Standing as an ‘anti-globalist’ reactionary, attuned to the concerns of a Tory membership protected from the worst of the crisis but stagnant relative to the soaring wealth of the super-rich, Truss crushed the media favourite Rishi Sunak. But her government, after a mini-budget with £45bn worth of unfunded tax cuts, was immediately subject to the kind of institutional aggression usually reserved for the left. The financial sector, Bank of England and national media made short work of her. Sunak was hastily ushered into office without a vote among Tory members, and an assortment of austerians appointed to the Treasury. The strategy since then, continued into the election, has been to combine fiscal sadism with ineffectual culture warring. The result was a realignment of the political centre behind Labour, transforming the electoral calculus.

From that point on, Labour could seek office without a mandate. It abandoned its most ambitious spending commitments, notably the £28bn to be spent on green investment. It positioned itself as a safe, managerial option for the establishment. Its offer to the electorate was telling: a politics that would ‘tread more lightly’ on people’s lives. In a campaign fought less on policy than on vibes, it offered an insultingly vague manifesto. Its tax and spend commitments amounted to just 0.2% of GDP: small change given the crisis of British infrastructure, health, schools, water and housing. But then ‘small change’ is Keir Starmer’s forte: small change on the last government, small change in spending, small change in the share of votes. Labour’s tiresome mantra has been ‘growth’. It was never explained how this was to be achieved, given Labour’s unwillingness to raise taxes on higher incomes or corporate profits to fund investment, barring vague references to planning law.

Late in the campaign, however, it became clear that Labour is hoping for asset managers to lead a spurt of private-sector investment. BlackRock boss Larry Fink, who endorsed Starmer, has positioned his firm as a means of providing resources for green investment without raising taxes on the rich. ‘We can build infrastructure’, he writes in the Financial Times, ‘by unlocking private investment’. This is the ‘public-private partnership’ boondoggle on a massive scale. BlackRock already owns Gatwick Airport and has a substantial stake in Britain’s crumbling, sewage-spewing water industry (70% of which is currently owned by asset managers). As Daniela Gabor writes, ‘the profits BlackRock will hope to generate through investing in green energy are likely to come at a huge cost.’ As Brett Christophers points out in his critique of ‘asset manager society’, owners are far removed from the infrastructures they control, and have little incentive to care for them. They just create vehicles for pooling investment capital, milk the asset for what it’s worth, and move on. This is the big idea on which Labour is pinning its fragile fortunes: no wonder they didn’t want to explain it to the electorate.

The obvious danger is that an unpopular government, made complacent by its grossly disproportionate majority, systematically imposes an agenda that the majority don’t want, and which will make most people worse off. Waiting in the wings to claim scalps, if the left doesn’t get its act together and stop merely coasting on transient mass campaigns, will be grifters of the farraginous variety, attuned to the darker side of public passions. Grace Blakeley has warned that Starmer may be the next Olaf Scholz – or, we may now add, Emmanuel Macron. Yet the left has been warning the centre for decades, to no avail. For all their feted ‘pragmatism’, centrists are at heart absolutists of necessity, even more rigorously deterministic and unilinear in their reading of history than Stalinism at its peak. They have repeatedly walked willingly into electoral oblivion to deliver austerity and war, their ‘morituri te salutamus’ echoing in the halls of power as they went. Starmer will do the same, and anyone on the left still hitching their fortunes to his will go down with him.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘False Compromise’, Sidecar.

Categories
Uncategorised

Familiar Faces

In recent years, Britain has been gripped by a clichéd image of the country’s working class: socially conservative, almost entirely white and based in small, depressed towns in the Midlands and the North – the ‘left behind’ voters of Labour’s post-industrial ‘heartlands’ who supported Brexit in 2016 and then the Conservatives three years later, and have apparently returned en masse in 2024 (at least if you ignore the enormous votes in the North and Midlands for both Reform UK and pro-Palestine independents). This outdated caricature, drawn from grainy images of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike and propagated by pollsters, think-tank reports and vox-popping journalists, has blocked reflection on the lived realities and culture of Britain’s actual working class: who composes it, what they look like, where and how they live.

These are the sorts of questions addressed by After the End of History, a travelling exhibition of photographs taken between 1989 and the present, curated by the writer and photographer Johny Pitts. The show has just arrived at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea from Coventry’s Herbert Gallery, the appropriate municipal modernist space where I saw it. The effect – of seeing contemporary working-class life, represented in its real complexity and variety, on gallery walls – is startling. The first thing you see is a hyper-realist image by Trevor Smith of Prince Naseem Hamed, an Anglo-Yemeni boxer from Pitts’ native Sheffield. Prince Naseem was a charismatic cult figure in the 1990s, his persona equal parts gangsta rap-inspired, devoutly Muslim and extremely Yorkshire. Smith, who ran a photography studio in Chesterfield, represents Prince Naseem in a heroic pose, the bright colours slathered in gloss; this is not how coalfield towns are supposed to look, at least as imagined from London.

Pitts’ selection is extremely broad, including work by 26 photographers, ranging from local jobbing professionals like Smith to artists like Khadija Saye. There are frenetic photographs of youth at UK Garage parties in Ayia Napa, and quieter ones: a white plastic chair outside a corner shop the height of summer; a West Midlands council estate falling into desuetude. There are sketches and photographs made by a waitress in a Soho strip club depicting her leering clients, there are rural labourers in tracksuits, there’s a gentrifying street in Hackney, its barber shops and greasy spoon cafes in the midst of being replaced by artisanal emporia with their unmistakeable white-on-black shop signs.

The visual unity of the exhibition, however, is impressive – in part the result of its 1990s presentation, designed by Sheffield’s once-famous record sleeve artists The Designers Republic.If you grew up in the British urban or suburban working class in the 1990s, these photographs will produce a shock of recognition. Spaces you dimly remember or had wanted to forget, familiar faces or people you crossed the street to avoid, bygone shop signs and ephemera: all are on show for what feels like the first time. The Hoggart-inspired popular imaginary of a working-class past of cosy collectivity is totally absent; so too are images of poverty, misery and deindustrialisation, at least explicitly, as well as the sneering ‘chav towns’ caricatures of post-Blair TV shows like Little Britain. There’s a strange, saturated brightness to it all, recalling the sometimes tawdry, sometimes glamorous sheen of a late 1990s style magazine.


Installation View ‘After The End of History’ 
Photograph: Anna Lukala, Courtesy the Artist, Focal Point Gallery and Hayward Gallery Touring 

After the End of History is the most recent instalment in a curious project of cultural entryism. It follows Afropean, a dazzling travelogue through ‘Black Europe’ Pitts published in 2019. The book’s deadpan monochrome photographs and dense text detail a kaleidoscopic journey from Sheffield to Lisbon – via the Stockholm suburbs, the Paris Banlieue, Claude Mackay’s Marseille, the old Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, among other places. Since then Pitts has become one of the most interesting artist-intellectuals in Britain, seemingly on a mission to free discussions of art, class and race from social media clout-chasing and academic reputation-building.

Yet, perhaps in part due to the lack of jargon and posturing in his writing, the radicalism of Pitts’ work is seldom appreciated. His subjects tend to be people on buses or trains, loitering outside shops, wandering the streets, doing nothing in particular. He is attracted to what hides in plain sight. Visibility (2022) was his subversive contribution to Tate Britain’s ‘Look Again’ pamphlet series of politicised, often decolonial ‘responses’ to its collection. Pitts sidestepped the brief, filling his booklet with photographs of and interviews with the museum’s predominantly Black security staff (the ‘proletariat beneath the paintings’), as they observe the gallery-goers, look at the artworks and articulate their own highly sophisticated responses to them. Home Is Not a Place (2023), an exhibition at Soho’s Photographers’ Gallery and a book with the poet Roger Robinson, showcased Pitts’ matter-of-fact colour photographs of Black Britons; nearly everyone looks straight at the camera, evoking an intimate complicity between subject and photographer.

Although part of what makes Pitts’ work interesting is its refusal of the standpoint epistemology of the 2020s, it is often strongly autobiographical. He grew up in Firth Park, a Victorian multicultural interzone in Sheffield, between the city centre and the low-density interwar council estate of Parson’s Cross. He is the son of a White English mother and a Black American father who played in a cult Temptations tribute act, and Pitts himself has mainly made a living as a voice actor, continuity announcer and presenter (in the early 2000s he presented a kids’ pop music show on Saturday morning television). He is steeped in the history of photography but his lack of formal academic training gives his work an effortless originality – he has little interest in the clichés of radical chic – and this absence of pretension confers a kind of directness. He’s here to communicate, if not necessarily to tell people what they want to hear. At the Herbert Gallery, people responded to the photographs in a similar spirit. As we were looking at the British Indian photographer Kavi Pujara’s images of the interiors of South Asian family homes in Leicester, a stranger turned to us and pointed out the polystyrene tiles on the ceiling in one photograph – an aesthetically questionable fire hazard ubiquitous in working-class houses between the 80s and 2000s.

But if this is working-class photography – of and by working-class people – it is a long way from the overtly politically engaged and programmatic ‘Worker Photography’ movements of 1920s Berlin or 1970s Hackney. There’s a class in itself here, not a class for itself. Describing the nightlife photographs of Ewen Spencer – off-the-cuff snapshots of dancing youth with six-packs and pressed shirts, showing off at raves in Ayia Napa or the Old Kent Road – Pitts’ wall-text reads: ‘Spencer is not interested in what people want the working class to look like, but what actually goes on: brand names, VIP areas, aspirational drinks and cocktails’. Explicit politics occasionally strays into Pitts’ work, from the nostalgia for Communist Internationalism that is a surprising thread running through Afropean, to the more consciously iconic photographs in Home Is Not a Place. One of these, titled ‘The Black Activist’, depicts a young woman in a puffa jacket standing in front of a long block of sixties council flats, holding a home-made cardboard placard emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and the words ‘THERE IS NO CLIMATE JUSTICE UNDER CAPITALISM’. But the story told by Pitts’ pictures is not of an always resistant, always resilient proletariat. There are no strikes or brass bands. The defeat happened some time ago, and life goes on.

Some of the most exciting photographs in After the End of History are of revolutionary cultural moments, especially musical ones – from Eddie Otchere’s thrilling, kinetic images of the Jungle scene in mid-1990s London, to Barbara Wasiak’s Neue Sachlichkeit-style photograph of Sheffield techno producers Parrot and Winston staring out from the streets-in-the-sky of the long-demolished Hyde Park Flats. There’s little outward sign of the possibility of change through collective action, but change happens nonetheless. One large-format photograph by Hannah Starkey shows a young woman walking past some UDA murals in Belfast wearing the sort of outré garb that emerged in Harajuku, Tokyo, in the 1990s and was for a time described as the ‘Gothic Lolita’ look: wild pink hair, short skirt, thigh-high socks and cartoonish platform boots.

This juxtaposition – Japanese dreaming in a working-class neighbourhood overpowered by a particularly grim history – runs through Pitts’ new project. Visit his Instagram account and you’ll find image after image of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. Outrageous futurism and lurid kitsch rub up against each other; there is no trace of the ‘healing’, folksy Japan sold to middle-class readers via Marie Kondo or books on ‘Old Kyoto’. This series is once again rooted in Pitts’ autobiography. His father toured Japan with an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the late 80s, which meant Pitts was as a child whisked out of depressive, post-Miners’-Strike Sheffield into the giddy futurism of the bubble economy at its delirious height. In the last few years, Pitts has been working on Sequel to a Dream, a piece about the experience of moving from Sheffield to Japan and back. So far there have been photographs, some from the family archive, others freshly taken on the bright, distorted film stock of the era, in an effort to evoke some of its atmosphere, to ‘bend time in the present’. Some of the project’s themes were summarised in a Radio 4 documentary, The Failure of the Future, though it remains to be seen what final form it will take. What is clear is that these images of a semi-real, semi-imaginary Japan completely scramble received ideas about race and modernity. Pitts seems to regard this as a redemptive project – one in which the ‘end of history’ can mean something other than the hegemony of neoliberalism, the death of solidarity and the crushing of working-class resistance, but can instead point toward something else: a future of leisure and technological abundance, and a future that is neither European nor American.

Read on: Rebecca Lossin, ‘The Multiple Gaze’, NLR 147.

Categories
Uncategorised

Private Riddles

Anne Carson once wrote that Paul Celan is ‘a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.’ His elliptical, compressed poetry has been a longstanding influence on Yoko Tawada, another writer who seems to exist between languages. Born in Toyko in 1960, Tawada moved to Hamburg when she was twenty-two, eventually settling in Berlin. She has written some ten books in Japanese – both fiction and poetry – and five in German. A keen observer of cultural and linguistic dislocation, Tawada has absorbed a kind of anti-language from Celan, a deeply affecting, sui generis diction unmoored from nationality or obvious tradition. As the poet and critic Ryan Ruby has written, ‘More than simply international, [Tawada’s] writing is translingual; she leaves the borders between languages open and allows them to cross-pollinate.’ She shares with Celan the desire to render inbetweenness legible, and to give form to emergent or unspeakable sensation.

Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel, newly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, follows a literary scholar named Patrik through Covid-era Berlin as he contemplates presenting a paper on Celan’s 1968 collection Threadsuns at a conference in Paris. Lockdown has wreaked havoc on Patrik’s psychological and spiritual life; suffering from a kind of soul weariness, he is known as ‘the patient’. Listening to Patrik’s thoughts diatribes against former colleagues, concerns about technology and disconnection, excursuses into poetic theory, musings on time – gives an impression of overlong isolation and anomie. For most of the novel, Patrik seems half-asleep, his language coiling in private riddles, his will thwarted by existential paralysis. Into this inert space, the past rushes, blurring distinctions, inviting phantoms and regrets. Above all he faces the challenge of simply finding enough to do to get through the day. He may or may not still be employed by the ‘Institute of World Literature’. His habits have calcified, transformed into strange, ascetic rituals. He watches a lot of opera DVDs, thinks about his ex-girlfriend, wanders the city, and begins conversing with an angel, Leo-Eric Fu, whom he meets at cafes to discuss loneliness, life and the koans of Celan. The conference in Paris begins to take on existential significance: if he attends, his life might begin again – a terrifying thought.

Is Leo-Eric really an angel? Does he actually exist or is he merely a figment of a lockdown-ravaged mind? ‘The man standing in front of Patrik looks very Trans-Tibetan,’ we’re told. He speaks ‘a straightforward German with a faint accent.’ He ‘appears to know even unimportant details about Patrik’s life.’ He gives Patrik a card on which is printed ‘Chinese Cultural Institute’; when Patrik calls the phone number on the card, no one has ever heard of a Leo-Eric Fu. He lends Patrik an anatomy book, one in which ‘Leo-Eric’s grandfather copied the traces left behind by [Celan]’ in a similar volume, the striking terms underlined: ‘aortic arch’, ‘cerebellum’, ‘bright blood.’ At the end of the novel he sprouts wings and bears Patrik to Paris – or maybe to his own death – a divine force shattering Patrik’s stasis in Berlin. He may be an emissary of God or of Celan himself. (In Patrik’s mind, there isn’t much difference.)

Born in 1920 in Czernowitz, then part of Romania (now Chernivtsi, in southwestern Ukraine), Celan was raised to speak German and Romanian, while also picking up Yiddish and Hebrew in his Jewish family home. From the start he felt an affinity with Kafka, who had complained of ‘the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, and the impossibility of writing differently.’ During World War II, Cernowitz was occupied by the Soviets, then by the Germans. Celan survived the camp he was interned at but both his parents perished. The tragedy would bequeath profoundly conflicted feelings about German, the language in which he wrote, and inform his haunted, compact style, rife with enigmatic silences, startling portmanteaus and ruthless self-interrogation. His attitude toward German was both unsparing and almost mystically devoted:

It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. It had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for what happened; yet it passed through this happening.

Though not a character, Celan suffuses Tawada’s novel like a vapour, his language, experiences and eventual suicide warping its gravity like a superdense star. In this respect, it continues a tradition – call it the skewed homage – well-represented in the last half century of European fiction. Works like Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser (1983), Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain (1984) and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris (2003) also ventriloquize or orbit an historical figure: the pianist Glenn Gould, the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, and the novelist Ernest Hemingway, respectively. They are strange and wonderful, these half-characters and shadowy projections, glancing figures skimming the surface of reality in service to the fictions they bolster and sustain.

Patrik is an avatar of Celanian aesthetics and concerns, his thoughts imbued with the poet’s obessions, his hyphenated nouns pulled directly from Celan’s ambiguous poetics: ‘thought-scraps’, ‘thought-worms’, ‘thought-foam’, ‘breath-pause’, ‘breath-turn’. The poems themselves have been ransacked for incident and imagery. In her translator’s afterword, Bernofsky lists some of the novel’s borrowings: ‘Rolling the dice, Van Gogh’s severed ear, the krater, foam, needles, hammers, pomegranate, quince, lips, blackbird, jackdaw, cockchafer, diving whales, phosphorus, comets, corona, melancholy, hard silence, and folie a deux.’ The non-expert will surely miss many of these references, though this hardly lessens the book’s effect. Something of Celan’s lyric mystery seeps through even the most obscure allusions.

Each lifted motif acts as a platform upon which Tawada arranges the fears and anxieties of contemporary life, many of them recognizably pandemic-era: technological atomization (‘What appears to connect everything with everything nowadays isn’t the soul – it’s a digital network’); temporal distortion (‘On the radio, they’re saying all the opera houses and concert halls are open again, but the timelessness persists’); emotional numbness (‘Opening hurts. Closing brings comfort’); pathology fatigue (‘Fortunately every human being is potentially sick, so you can ask for a checkup withoutspecifying your symptoms’); romantic hopelessness (‘What are the dead genres? Poetry? Opera? Love?’); and persistent fantasy (‘Telling well-calibrated lies is the only way he can draw a map in his head’). Yet amid these crises, Patrik’s consuming predicament is whether or not he should attend the Celan conference in Paris. When he receives a printed e-ticket from Leo-Eric Fu, he mistakes the barcode for a burn mark. The scrap of paper might free him or burn him, offering a potentially dangerous reacquaintance with the world at large.

Yet this is first and foremost a novel about loving a poet. Patrik is always coming back to Celan’s works – an elliptical return like that of migratory birds or weather patterns. He yearns to be absorbed in individual poems, permanently frustrated at anything – errands, obligations, relationships – that stands between him and his quarry. All sensation, all thought, all activity leads back to Celan. When he is ailing: ‘I’ll stop trying to read my partial physical pain. Instead, I’ll read Celan.’ When entertaining fantasies of purpose and meaning: ‘One day Patrik would give a lecture in which he revealed the significance of every single letter Celan used in his poetry.’ When facing social commitments: ‘I wished for nothing more than to become invisible so as to be able to read. To read Celan.’ Devoted readers will recognize such bewitchment – the beautiful, baffling, embarrassing ambit of literary enthusiasm for which prosaic reality is no match.

Celan’s refusal of answers urges the reader toward better questions, the kind that light a path through the text’s darkness. Tawada’s novel lifts this, too, from the great poet, the atmosphere of mysterious meaning in which one wanders, sometimes lost but for the illumination provided by leaps of chance understanding, references dimly apprehended, jokes overheard, problems rued and poetry exalted. This loose weave of connection – of what we love, what we lose, what we talk about, what we read – remains intelligible, even amid forms that don’t readily yield their meanings. In this sense, Patrik is lucky. Would that we all might find our Celan.

Read on: Michael Maar, ‘The Ordeals of Fire and Water’, NLR 2.