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In Defence of Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War by Other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ins and Outs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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Riot on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trial of Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vectors of Inflation

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell’s recent speech at the Jackson Hole conference, delivered to an audience of central bankers from around the world, was a highly anticipated event. He arrived there a chastened man, having previously claimed that US inflation was a transitory phenomenon while implementing the lax monetary policies that many blamed for its recent surge. Could he now pull off a ‘soft landing’, bringing inflation back down from its forty-year high of 9.1% to the desired 2%, without causing a recession?  

Central bank monetary policy has various tools at its disposal for managing inflation: higher rates, quantitative tightening (i.e. selling assets to reduce liquidity in the system) and managing expectations about future monetary policy through ‘forward guidance’. Powell began raising the policy rate in March, taking it from the pandemic-era low of 0.25% to 3.25% by the time he arrived at Jackson Hole in late August, through a series of incremental rises. Yet these increases still left interest rates well below inflation, making real rates negative. Meanwhile, the debate over monetary policy heated up. Inflation hawk Larry Summers accused Powell of underestimating the problem and doing too little too late. Another hawk, Henry Kaufman, advised him to shock the markets – to ‘hit them in the face’ as Paul Volcker had done in 1980, by hiking interest rates to 20%.

By inducing a deep and prolonged recession, Volcker’s move had elicited a backlash from progressive economists, with Robert Solow likenening it to ‘burning down the house to roast the pig’. Today, the prospect of a similar hike has prompted renewed criticism of the monetarist perspective which views inflation as the result of an increase in the money supply relative to output. For inflation doves, such as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the current period of inflation was not caused by the fiscal and monetary stimuli of the pandemic, unprecedented though they were. Nor is it the result of a wage-price spiral – since the uptick in union activity remains relatively modest in historical terms. Doves claim that inflation is rather the outcome of factors beyond the Federal Reserve’s ken: food and fuel price rises sparked by the war in Ukraine, plus ongoing price-gouging by large corporations. Hence, it cannot be solved by raising interest rates; it requires solutions such as those set out in Jamal Bowman’s Emergency Price Stabilization Act: monitoring and regulating consumer prices, alongside measures to safeguard the supply of essential goods and services.

The hawks are certainly wrong to see inflation as a purely monetary issue. Indeed, very little of the pandemic-related stimulus, fiscal or monetary, made it into the pockets of ordinary people. When it did, it largely went towards debt repayments and had a limited impact on demand. Yet the doves are also wrong to identify war-induced food and fuel prices as a major contributor. The August 2022 inflation rate of 8.3% may have been boosted by these factors; but the core US inflation figure of 6.3% – far higher than the European average – reflected a structural malady. The real culprit here is the diminution of US productive capacity, caused by four decades of neoliberal policies – disinvestment, deregulation, outsourcing – which have rendered the economy extremely vulnerable to supply chain disruption, and prevented supply-side measures to bring prices down.

That diminution is the flip-side of the ceaseless growth in financial activity since the early 1980s. This process is usually termed ‘financialization’, although the plural ‘financializations’ would be more accurate, since each historic expansion of the financial sector has involved different structures, practices, regulatory regimes and assets. In recent decades, financialization has come to rest on asset bubbles sustained by lax monetary policy. This has created the conditions for today’s rising prices, while inhibiting the only sort of anti-inflationary policy of which the current system is capable. Yet this crucial dynamic is overlooked by economists across the political spectrum.    

Prima facie, hawks and doves pull at opposite ends of the ‘dual mandate’ that the Federal Reserve acquired in 1977, when the Humphrey-Hawkins Act added high employment levels to its original price stability mandate. Some progressive economists now point to Alan Greenspan’s tenure in the 1990s as ‘an instructive model of what a full employment economy can look like’, implying that the Federal Reserve’s current leadership can and should revert to this paradigm. Yet the full employment mandate – a last gasp of Keynesianism in an increasingly hostile political environment – was never taken seriously. Indeed, Volcker proceeded to violate it almost immediately with his historic rate hikes. Since then, the Federal Reserve has consistently curbed both employment and wages, even if this has often been obscured by the statistical inflation of employment figures (for example, counting the partially employed while ignoring declining labour force participation).

Greenspan made the dramatic decision to increase interest rates despite inflation running at a modest level. To justify this step, he cited Milton Friedman’s complaint that the Federal Reserve always raised interest rates too late, and insisted instead on getting ‘ahead of the game’, pre-empting inflation rather than responding to it. Greenspan thus extinguished the nascent manufacturing revival which, as Robert Brenner writes, held out the possibility of a ‘break beyond stagnation’. When Greenspan eventually decided to loosen monetary policy, it was not to support the expansion of production and employment, but to inflate asset bubbles, starting with the so-called ‘Greenspan put’: an injection of liquidity into the financial system in response to the stock market crash of 1987. This policy (which was continued by Greenspan’s successors, such that it became known as the ‘Federal Reserve put’) generated speculative bonanzas for the rapidly deregulating financial sector and provided generous liquidity after each inevitable crash. It was rightly criticised for creating systemic moral hazard by inducing financial institutions to increase their risk exposure.  

In the 2000s, asset bubbles grew by new orders of magnitude and loose monetary policy became a permanent policy rather than an episodic fix. Yet, because not much of this money flowed into productive investment or translated into rising demand, its inflationary effect was negligible.  Moreover, other secular trends kept inflation low: workers were too insecure to fight for wage increases, even amid relatively high employment; manufacturing supply chains extended to producers in lower-wage locations; immigration cheapened services; and income deflation in the Third World suppressed global demand and commodity prices. Dollar overvaluation was also deeply intertwined with the Federal Reserve’s bubbles. By diverting investible funds from productive to financial investment, these bubbles – the market stocks of the 1990s, housing and credit of the 2000s, the ‘everything bubble’ of the 2010s – attracted enough foreign funds to dollar denominated assets to counter the downward pressure of US current account deficits on the dollar. This, too, helped to subdue inflation.

Since Greenspan lowered interest rates to deal with the 2000 dot-com crash, they have never returned to their 1990s peak. Meanwhile, quantitative easing – effectively Federal Reserve asset purchases – has become a systemic imperative to keep both asset markets and the dollar high. With fiscal policy largely missing in action (aside from tax cuts for the rich), this monetary policy created a highly peculiar political economy. Thanks to declining industry, low investment and fiscal austerity, the consumption of a narrowing well-to-do layer, facilitated by the ‘wealth effects’ of asset bubbles, came to act as the country’s primary economic motor. As a result, anaemic growth and extreme inequality is all that contemporary US capitalism can manage.

In this context, Powell’s priority is to avoid Volckeresque rate rises on the wing of slight rate increases and the prayer of forward guidance. Why? Because hawkish rate hikes – the only effective weapon against inflation from a monetary policy perspective – would burst the asset bubbles on which the American financial sector and ultra-rich depend. Back in the late 1970s, Volcker did not have to worry about this risk; but in the early 2020s, Powell very much does. Policy interest rates of 5% triggered the collapse of the housing and credit bubbles in 2007; the current 3.25% rate has hit real estate and venture capital, while stocks have suffered the worst streak of quarterly losses since 2008. Given the fragile makeup of the US economy, rate hikes constitute a real risk; which means that the Federal Reserve has become largely impotent. No wonder it is described in the pages of the FT as ‘the least credible Fed in the markets’ estimation since the 1970s’.

The markets’ lack of confidence reflects a structural dilemma. If Powell increases rates to required levels, the US can expect a recession that will make that of the 1980s seem like a boom. But if, as I believe is more likely, he refuses to do so, the US can expect chronic inflation whose origins lie in the productive debility of the US economy, recently exacerbated by supply chain disruption, trade and technology wars with China, and self-destructive sanctions on Russia. The Federal Reserve faces a fork in the road: one where both paths will damage working-class incomes and wellbeing.

In this sense, both hawks and doves miss the elephant in the room: financializations backed by easy money. The dynamics of financialization contribute to inflation by raising the value of housing and commodities while allowing the rich to maintain their spending at inflated prices. While doves rightly emphasize the need to expand production to ease inflation, they fail to appreciate the scale of state intervention this would entail. For four long decades, neoliberal policies have entrenched the Long Downturn, reversing Janos Kornai’s old adage that socialism is a supply-constrained system while capitalism is a demand-constrained one. Making contemporary US capitalism productive again would involve not only reversing the logic of financialization; it would require a state-led programme to lift supply constraints, which is almost unthinkable within the parameters of the present system.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The Crises of Democratic Capitalism’, NLR 71.

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Damiba’s Ousting

On one level, the ousting of Paul-Henri Damiba just eight months after he led the ousting of President Roch-Marc Christian Kaboré on 31 January of this year, is a simple story. Damiba staked his legitimacy on ending Burkina Faso’s Jihadist tragedy. At the beginning of April, he announced there would be a stocktaking of his ‘reconquest mission’ in five months’ time, billed as an ‘appointment with the nation’. The underlying pledge was that by that point, Burkina would be liberated from ‘the forces of evil’ – the Islamic-State and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jihadists plaguing the so-called ‘three-border area’ of the Sahel (the other countries concerned are Mali and Niger). But when the appointment finally came in early September, it took the form of an uninspiring, somewhat deflated speech, parts of which now sound prophetic. Our ‘grave problem’, Damiba explained, was the result of multiple failures, ‘first of all from us, defence and security forces in charge of defending our territory and protecting our populations. Internal divisions have weakened us.’ His account of the progress achieved so far was essentially that this was only the beginning of the beginning – not even, à la Churchill, ‘the end of the beginning’.

The studied humility was sensible: 24 hours after Damiba’s address to the nation, Jihadists remotely detonated a bomb on the road to Djibo, the largest town in the country’s northern Sahel Region and a symbol of the Burkinabe state’s resistance against the forces of evil. It became a symbol of Damiba’s failure. The bomb destroyed a heavily guarded convoy bringing food and other supplies to the besieged town, killing 35 and wounding 37, all civilians. Dijbo was once the largest cattle market in the three-border area, with traders travelling from as far as Senegal to attend its weekly fairs. It is also the birthplace of Burkina’s first Jihadist armed group, Ansarul Islam, now merged into the Al-Qaeda franchise Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). In recent years, JNIM has occupied all the rural districts around Djibo and established a sadistic version of Sharia that sent many fleeing to the town, now the last state sanctuary in what has become Al-Qaeda country. Djibo thus became a refuge of over 200,000 people – nearly four times its official population – living under a JNIM blockade that has stoked the joint scourges of famine and hyperinflation.

The coup against Damiba was set in motion in Gaskindé, a small town just south of Djibo, where another supply convoy fell to a Jihadist attack on 26 September. This time, at least 11 soldiers were killed along with dozens of civilians, while the convoy trucks were capsized and burned. Details suggested that the sloppy military strategy associated with Kaboré’s tenure remained unreformed, and anger among the troops reached the same perilous levels as before the January coup. Two days after the attack, Damiba flew to Djibo and told the soldiers stationed there that he ‘felt for them’. But to no avail. One widely-circulated WhatsApp message I received in the days before the coup correctly read the temperature: ‘Be careful with your comings and goings, it would seem things aren’t smelling right with the troops, possible temper [grogne] with uncertain outcomes. Letting you know just in case. You never know. Thanks.’

The troops at Djibo did not believe that Damiba ‘felt for them.’ When he spoke of ‘internal divisions’ in his stocktaking speech, he may have been thinking of the effective military caste system found in many armies in the region. This is the division between ‘special forces’, trained to protect the powers that be, and the common soldier. The two other coup-makers in the region, Assimi Goïta of Mali and Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea – who came to power in May and October 2021 respectively – were both commanders of their countries’ special forces, and Damiba was a member of Burkina’s, the Forces Spéciales, established by Kaboré in June 2021. These élite corps enjoy superior treatment and status. In mid-September, Burkina’s regular troops heard that Damibo was granting the special forces a bonus – each was allegedly promised six million francs (about 9,000 USD) and a villa – in spite of the fact they were not fighting on the frontline.

A further aggravating factor was that most officers of the special forces – including Damiba – were once members of the infamous Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP in the French acronym), former despot Blaise Compaoré’s own special forces. Compaoré, the man who toppled charismatic revolutionary Thomas Sankara in 1987, was chased out of the country by insurrectionists in October 2014. The RSP survived his fall and predictably staged a coup to restore him a year later. The attempt, labelled ‘the stupidest coup in history’, failed after a week and the RSP was disbanded. It became clear to the public that Damiba was still an RSP man to the core when he tried to engineer the return of the exiled Compaoré to the political stage in July, under the pretence of ‘national reconciliation’, just four months after a court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for ordering Sankara’s murder. Compaoré flew to Ouagadougou and stayed a few days in a state villa, arousing such anger that air traffic controllers at the capital’s airport reportedly considered preventing his plane from departing so that he could be arrested.

Damiba’s actions rekindled the major conflict in Burkinabe politics, between revolution and rectification. The latter is the name that Compoaré gave to his policy agenda some years after he took power in 1987, and is viewed by partisans of the revolution as irredeemably reactionary. Damiba appeared as a rectification man in a country where the more acceptable attitude among opinion leaders is revolution. The name he gave to his governing outfit, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, soon became suspicious; ‘what exactly did he wish to restore?’ ‘Restoration’, according to a democracy activist I interviewed in August in Ouagadougou, ‘sounds like the opposite of revolution’. (Shades of Charles II and Louis XVIII, the latter better known in Burkina). Damiba meant to ‘restore’ the integrity of the national territory, but it was a poor choice of words, especially since he also refused to use the rousing Sankarist call, ‘the fatherland or death, we will vanquish!’, replacing it with a watered-down ‘for the fatherland, we will vanquish’, which imprudently reminded people of the real thing.

In January, the Burkinabe broadly approved of Damiba’s coup – some of them boisterously, others cautiously – because they were tired of Kaboré’s incompetence in the fight against Jihadists who had embraced mass murder as a war tactic. This meant that Damiba could stay in power only if he succeeded where Kaboré had failed. But since he had so clearly failed by the deadline he set, and there was no democratic means to remove him, a coup was preordained. In May, facing off with protesters at Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, he told them, ‘If you are so strong, then make your own coup d’état and rule the country as you see fit.’ Speaking to angry but unarmed civilians, the jibe sounded like easy derision, but others were listening.

Those others, the military rank-and-file, were already feeling betrayed – but apparently they did not want to act violently at first. In late September, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the new coup leader, was sent by the disgruntled soldiers to meet and talk with Damiba. He spent a week in Ouagadougou, but his requests for an audience were ignored. Frustration played a visceral role in the coup, which at first sight looks like the revenge of the lower-caste on the battlefield against the upper-caste who are not. Even members of the auxiliary civilian-staffed force VDP (French acronym for Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland) took part. But there may be more to it than this. In the initial phase of the coup, Traoré, faced with the resistance of Damiba – who controlled much of the capital and the security services in it – went on national television and announced that his adversary had found refuge at the French military base of Kamboinsin, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. ‘He could plan a counter-offensive’, he warned, against ‘our firm commitment to reach out to other partners willing to help us in our fight against terrorism’ – in this context, an ostensible allusion to Russia.

This was an intervention in a debate of sorts (I say ‘of sorts’ because only one side is actually heard) on the ‘diversification of partners’, a euphemistic phrase for ditching the French and finding another patron, preferably Russia. But it was also a ploy: Traoré knew that, although Damiba was not actually in Kamboinsin, this rumour would detonate a public-opinion bomb given Burkina’s rampant Francophobia, and thereby force the incumbent to negotiate. It was a risky move – the French Institute and the French embassy, both located in the city centre, were attacked by angry mobs and had to be defended by the coup-makers. But it worked. Damiba negotiated his resignation, while Traoré insisted that France had not interfered, explaining that his phrase ‘other partners’ did not necessarily mean Russia (the US was thrown in). His first interview was given to Radio France Internationale – an outlet reviled by the militant Francophobes of Ouagadougou – not to Sputnik or Russia Today, whose audience in the Francophone world is highest in Burkina.

At the time of writing, many issues remain unresolved. The coup aims to be a form of rectification, to use a word perhaps unpalatable in Ouagadougou. Damiba had deviated from his mandate, and now the army intends to return to it. ‘We must do in three months what needed to be done in twelve months,’ Captain Traoré asserted, a statement that indicated the continuity of objective, only now with significantly less time to fulfil it. But it is not yet clear who would lead this process. Traoré, a thirty-something low-ranking officer who claims to be uninterested in power, may not be the most suitable candidate. But who might be? Abdoulaye Diallo, a political activist keen on revolutionary figures – he is working on a documentary about the life of Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings – told me in August that only a Promethean figure of the calibre of Sankara could pull Burkina out of its quagmire, not uncharismatic soldiers like Damiba (or Traoré?). This is a bit like hoping for a Shakespeare or two in every generation. But one may wonder how such an intensely national and ideological leader as Sankara would have fared in a regional conflict and in the current geopolitical fog of war.

Damiba made the point that he was trying everything: the stick and the carrot. He beefed up military control of the territory (maillage territorial) as well as engaging in talks with the Jihadists. What he did not do was to increase support from foreign powers or regional cooperation, in particular with Niger and Mali, two measures without which it is impossible for Burkina – and indeed Niger and Mali – to win the war. Damiba preferred French help, which was provided only in emergencies on the ground and without fanfare, for fear of antagonizing the more active sections of public opinion. But Niger, France’s ally in the region, and Mali, which is in the Russian camp, are opposites. Damiba sent feelers to Bamako and visited Niamey, in an awkward dance that did not get him very far. A new leader, whoever he is, must have the skills for carrying on with Damiba’s stick-and-carrot approach, navigating the treacherous shoals of Burkina’s volatile public opinion – where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the now in-the-open master of the Wagner mercenary enterprise, has started his manipulations – and working with neighbouring states. A tall order, but an imperative.    

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.

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Pride and Fall

‘Number one: stay close to the Americans’, said Boris Johnson in his last Commons address as prime minister, echoing Churchill’s verdict on the wreckage of UK statecraft in the Suez Crisis. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute thought Johnson’s advice to his successor superfluous, given the strength of the Atlanticist consensus at Westminster. The Washington Examiner, on the other hand, detected a dig at leadership contender Rishi Sunak for being ‘soft’ on China.

Stay close to the Americans: but at the same time, know your place. ‘Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America’, reads a Financial Times headline after the market turmoil prompted by Kwasi Kwarteng’s unofficial budget last Friday. ‘Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation’, argues FT associate editor Janan Ganesh, who goes on to point out the positional differences: sterling isn’t a major reserve currency anymore; UK producers don’t have simple access to a continental market since Brexit; gilts aren’t Treasuries. In these circumstances, Kwarteng’s back-of-an-envelope, rolling programme of debt-financed tax cuts – ‘Reaganism without the dollar’, Ganesh calls it – presumes too much.

The week’s events bring to mind the historian Correlli Barnett’s trenchant commentaries on British decline and lingering great-power reflexes. Tory Britain in the 1950s was an American satellite ‘posturing as an equal’, he argued in The Verdict of Peace (2001). It was a characteristically sharp turn of phrase from Barnett, who died recently at the age of 95. Few public intellectuals in Britain have questioned national shibboleths so trenchantly and doggedly as he did, from a conservative perspective, over a long career of book-publishing and commentary. His obituary in the Guardian described him as controversial – nothing worse than that – while The Times was puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on the Establishment, since ‘it was not as if life had dealt him a poor hand.’

He was born near Croydon, on the south-eastern approach to London, in 1927. His father, who worked for an American bank, named him after the Baroque composer. Croydon was an early Luftwaffe target in 1940 on account of its aerodrome and Barnett recalled as a schoolboy listening to the drone of enemy bombers, the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, ‘the whistle and crash of nearby bombs that rocked the house’. He took a second in modern history at Oxford, his special subject the theory of war. National Service was spent with the Intelligence Corps in British-mandate Palestine as it conducted sweeps for underground Zionist paramilitaries. There he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem (‘the corpses lying on slabs in the morgue, spittle still bubbling out of their mouths’) by the Irgun group of future Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Civilian life in the fifties proved anti-climactic: a graduate traineeship at the North Thames Gas Board, then a job in public relations. He recalled ‘stretching a little effort over a long day’, pouring his energies into a novel instead, The Hump Organisation (1957), which charted the progress of an Oxford graduate at a sleepy industrial conglomerate in the Cheshire countryside, in the manner of a Boulting brothers farce. But his true métier became apparent with The Desert Generals (1960), a history of the North African theatre in the Second World War – ‘war in its purest form’, across the arid plains. Barnett took aim at outsize British veneration of Montgomery, hero of Alamein. Strong sales enabled him to quit his desk job for freelance writing, topped up with consultancy work for the BBC.

A second war book, The Swordbearers (1963), sympathetically narrated the experience of four First World War commanders-in-chief – von Moltke, Jellicoe, Pétain and Ludendorff – as they grappled with high command in an era of mass mobilisation. ‘War is the great auditor of institutions’, Barnett observed, a theme to which he would return. In Britain and Her Army (1970) meanwhile, he mounted a ‘hazardously long march’ from Tudor abolition of private armies of retainers to the Wilson government’s 1967 white paper liquidating British deployments east of Suez. ‘A history of the institution that the British have always been reluctant to accept that they needed’, Britain and Her Army regarded colonial retrenchment as imperative but complained that Whitehall appeared to regard troops stationed in western Europe as just ‘a plate-glass window’ to trigger the nuclear alarm, should the Russians attempt to break in. Greater strategic flexibility was called for.

Then came The Collapse of British Power (1972), the opening instalment of his Pride and Fall quartet, a sweeping historical polemic of twentieth-century British decline. Barnett reached back to the post-Napoleonic era to trace Britain’s long descent into a ‘bankrupt American pensioner’ under Lend-Lease in 1941–42. Imperial overstretch and a liberal national culture had blocked the concerted programme of industrial renewal needed to counter Germany’s rise after 1871. Conventional balance-of-power considerations reasserted themselves in 1914 but a laissez-faire governing elite afterwards allowed economic modernisation to lapse, as moralising internationalism reached new heights in the ‘pseudo-religion’ of the League of Nations. England at last recovered the flinty resolve of its best mercantilist days when the Second World War was upon it, but Churchill failed to plan beyond victory, mortgaging the future to a rising American superpower that didn’t reciprocate his misty-eyed infatuation. US loans papered over the dilapidated state of the country’s heavy-industrial base, flattering to deceive about its wartime record, argued volume two, The Audit of War (1986). The UK was ‘not so much a victor in her own right’ in 1945 ‘as simply on the winning side’.

The Lost Victory (1995) homed in on the record of the post-war Attlee government, by and large classical-liberal in outlook, which failed to retool the economy before European and Japanese competitors recovered from wartime devastation. Britain’s large helping of Marshall Aid instead leaked overseas into the Sterling Area and troop deployments as far afield as Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, while ‘New Jerusalem’ liberals like Beveridge prioritised welfare and housing over the productive economy (a policy of ‘parlours before plant’). The Verdict of Peace (2001), the concluding volume, surveyed the years of resumed Conservative rule between the Korean War and Suez Crisis which cemented a ‘fateful pattern of national overambition coupled with industrial underperformance’. In only four decades since the First World War, the country had blown its position as the most powerful industrial machine in Europe through the hangover of Victorian liberalism, a failure to implement technical educational training, and the pretensions of a world role.

In each volume, the damning judgements flow uninterruptedly for a hundred pages or more without so much as a section break. They rest on realist assumptions about an anarchic state system: ‘small “l” liberalism might be desirable in friend but serves ill as a guide to a nation’s total strategy in a ruthless world of struggle.’ Paul Addison described Barnett in the LRB as ‘probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism’. Barnett certainly benchmarked British inertia against Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrialisation, and his anti-liberalism and emphasis on total strategy may have had a Prussian air. All the same, the epithet doesn’t capture the oppositional quality of Barnett’s elite-patriotic politics, for which Gaullist might be a closer fit. He envied France its home-made nuclear deterrent and the greater freedom-of-action this afforded, arguing in The Times in March 1982 against the Thatcher government’s purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the Pentagon.

The eighties were Barnett’s years of highest public prominence. Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, secretaries of state under Thatcher, both cited his various diatribes against welfarism, industrial mismanagement and liberal-arts bias in the state-education system. But the author retained his dissenting cast of mind, deflating Falklands triumphalism with a call to drastically curtail the Royal Navy’s high-seas role and to ‘shed such unprofitable bits of [imperial] pink in good time’. Within the academy, David Edgerton opposed Barnett’s account of industrial archaism within the state-military complex and Jose Harris deflated his claims about the novelty and profligacy of the Beveridge-Attlee welfare state, while the economist-mandarin Sir Alec Cairncross shrugged that bolder government action was unlikely to arrest the spiral of relative economic decline.

A critic of nineties ‘humanitarian interventionism’, Barnett likened Blair to a Victorian proconsul and contrasted his unctuous liberal rhetoric to the worldly self-interest of prime ministers past: Walpole’s policy of non-engagement in the War of the Polish Succession (‘50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman’) and Castlereagh’s scepticism about Holy Alliance plans for carte-blanche counter-revolutionary action. NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia and semi-permanent occupation of Kosovo was ‘money better spent on our own health service, education and training, and sink housing estates’. The War on Terror which followed exaggerated the threat from ‘a scattering of bedsit plotters with homemade bombs’. Bush and Blair’s grounds for attacking Iraq were obviously spurious and illegal, and their invasion spread death and mutilation far beyond Baathist prisons and execution sites. The US assaults on Fallujah (‘mini-Stalingrads’) were more destructive than Saddam’s 1988 gas attack on Halabja. Like the Afghan occupation, the Iraqi campaign had merely opened up a long Western flank to guerrilla attack. The only thing to be done was withdraw, and avoid further such entanglements with US foreign policy.

Irate at Cameron’s support for Blair’s wars, Barnett demanded in the Tory Spectator magazine in 2006: ‘The Conservatives believe in personal independence, why not national independence in foreign policy?’ The American link had lost its strategic value with the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued, and become ‘potentially dangerous to British interests so long as American policy is run by narrow technocrats with juvenile political understanding like Rumsfeld, and religious zealots like Cheney and Bush who see world affairs as a Manichean conflict between good and evil’. Barnett regarded Russia’s 2008 rout of the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia as a reversion to nineteenth-century Realpolitik rather than a new Cold War, and considered Bush a greater threat to world peace than Putin. What might have been his take on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine – European, but outside NATO? Johnson rushed headlong to sanction Europe’s largest gas exporter without first reopening the UK’s only gas-storage facility, closed in 2017 in blithe assurance of a ready supply on the open market: a penny for your thoughts on that piece of statecraft, Correlli.

British pomp and British realities: the Johnson government announced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on American lines in the 2021 integrated defence review and despatched the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, causing consternation in some quarters of Washington. Its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is struggling with technical problems at the moment and can’t travel further from port than the Isle of Wight. At what point, asked Barnett apropos the 1953 coronation, is the line crossed from moral reassurance to flattery of prideful illusions?

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘The Family Firm’, NLR 75.

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Concerning Godard

After decades in which inscrutable titles signed Godard popped up as regularly as clockwork in the film festivals, while the image of their maker deteriorated from rebel into dirty old man, if not technologically obsessed sage, it is stunning, leafing through the filmographies, to remember how much these films counted as events for us as we waited for each new and unexpected one in the 1960s, how intensely we scrutinized the political engagements of the Dziga Vertov group, with what genuinely engaged curiosity we asked ourselves what the end of the political period would bring, and later on what we were to do with the final works of the ‘humanist’ period, where they came from, and whether they meant a falling off or a genuine renewal.

Throughout all this we were entertained or provoked by the increasingly ignoble ‘thoughts’ or paradoxes which either demanded meditation or inspired a mild contempt, tempered by the constant reminder that visuality, if it thinks, does so in a way not necessarily accessible to the rest of us; while his films went on ‘thinking’ in chiasmatic images: Belmondo imitating Bogart, Piccoli inviting Bardot to use his bathwater (‘I’m not dirty’), the world conquerors exhibiting their picture postcards, Mao’s Cultural Revolution taking the form of the most infectious music, the world ending in a traffic jam, a character scarfing up yoghurt with a finger in the bathroom, two African garbage collectors reciting Lenin, our favourite film stars baffled by their new roles, an interpolated series of interview-interrogations in which ten-year-olds are asked about class struggle, and fun-loving models, about the latest decisions of the CGT, ‘la musique, c’est mon Antigone!’ – narrative deteriorating steadily all the while only to end up in 3-D or in images as thick as butterflies in front of the face.

All this then building inexorably towards the final impertinence, in an unmistakable voice now indissociable from his idea of pedagogy: namely, that History is (nothing more than, nothing less than) the history of cinema. Well, why not? If everything is narrative, always mediated by this or that picture on the poster, as in the battle cuttings of the hell sequence of Notre Musique (2004), the images themselves have to fight it out, like people chasing each other, shouting and jumping into cars – along with their distinctive historical styles – silent or sound, black and white or technicolour; maybe this is all he knows of History anyway, what he calls cinema.

And alongside the history of cinema, there is the history of a film, where does it come? From the images themselves, as he extracts them from the most sublime of his later films, Passion (1982), unfolding itself into the even more sublime lineage of Scenario du film “Passion” (1982), which, out of the Mallarmean blank page (or plage, or grève) a young woman appears who tries to start a strike (grève). In that case, there must follow the factory she strikes against, along with its owner, and then his wife, and then the hotel she runs. And finally a mystery guest from some place beyond the film, himself trying to make a film with a narrative, himself plagued by images, the world’s great paintings, tableaux vivants of the world’s great paintings, reconstructions in miniature of their architecture – Jerusalem through which the crusaders ride, driven forward by Dvorak’s inexorable piano concerto, just as the potential film’s producer is harassed by unwilling bankers and money-lenders. The would-be foreign director is as disabled as the other characters (stutter, cough), he cannot return the love of any of the women, he cannot turn these images into narrative scenarios, he finally gives up and goes home to History itself (Poland and Solidarność). So now the film becomes an allegory of the new Europe and its ‘peu de realité’: great actors stand for France, Germany, Hungary, Poland (the great traditions) with a presumably Swiss director; fundamental themes like love and labour can never be represented; great paintings are as mute as The Voices of Silence Belmondo reads in the bathtub; but Godard has his scenario, he can now begin to film his fiction film.

Scenario now rewinds the tape, runs the whole thing backwards, breaking the fiction back up into its component parts, lingering over the images, superimposing them, returning to origins, identifying the origins of itself. So now: two films about the same thing, two films sharing the same body = Cinema. Cinema, film’s mirror stage.

Cinema equals visuality, sounds, words (with glimpses of money), it is life itself or living as such, everything is cinema. Maybe the late films try to climb back down the other side, begin with the narrative, the scenario, and then tear it apart, with raucous glee give us the pieces in joyous collision, punctuated by raw gunshots, silent films with sound, history going backwards.

He lived, ate, breathed, slept movies. Was he the greatest movie-maker of all time? A party game question. What he was, if anything, was Cinema itself, cinema rediscovered at its moment of disappearing. If cinema really is dying, then he died with it; or better still, it died with him.

Read on: Michael Witt, ‘Shapeshifter’, NLR 29.

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False Compromise

Since becoming leader of the British Labour Party in April 2020, Keir Starmer has comprehensively marginalized the left-wing tendency associated with his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. At every turn, Starmer has depicted his moves against the Labour left as an exercise in moral hygiene to cleanse the party of antisemitism. This was the argument he used to justify the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, his main rival in the 2020 leadership election, from the Labour shadow cabinet. It remains the rationale for depriving Corbyn of the Labour whip in the House of Commons.

On the eve of the 2021 party conference, Starmer categorically denied that he was engaged in a factional campaign against the Labour left: ‘The battles we’ve had in the Labour Party in the last 18 months have pretty well all been about antisemitism . . . you can’t have a united Labour Party if you’ve got antisemitism there.’ In January 2022, his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told the Financial Times that she was delighted to know that at least 150,000 people had torn up their Labour membership cards since Starmer became leader. According to Reeves, this was a price well worth paying to efface the ‘stain’ of antisemitism.

In making these claims, Starmer, Reeves and their allies rely upon a lurid media narrative about the Corbyn years that cannot withstand a moment’s scrutiny. The key points of that narrative were as follows: after Corbyn became leader, there was a sudden and horrifying escalation in levels of antisemitism among the party membership, to the point that such prejudice became ubiquitous. Instead of trying to combat this alarming trend, Corbyn and his allies deliberately encouraged it, presumably motivated by their own anti-Jewish bigotry.

It became commonplace to describe Corbyn as a dangerous antisemitic rabble-rouser without any analogue in Europe since 1945. During the 2019 election campaign, opponents of his party claimed that a Labour government would precipitate the departure of British Jews from the country en masse. Looking back on the election a year later, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr suggested that anyone who campaigned for Labour in 2019 would probably have turned their Jewish neighbours over to the Gestapo under the Third Reich. Such rhetoric has been bog-standard in Britain’s liberal commentariat as its members seek to rationalize their hostility to Corbyn’s project.

In reality, there was no evidence that antisemitic attitudes were more widespread under Corbyn than under previous Labour leaders. Nor, for that matter, was there any evidence that such attitudes were more widespread in Labour than in the other main parties. What changed after 2015 was the degree of scrutiny, with marginal, unrepresentative cases held up in the national media as if they were typical of the Labour membership. As we shall see, the narrative also relied upon the elision of sympathy for Palestinians with hostility to Jews, in a way that US politicians such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib would find wearingly familiar.

In July of this year, the barrister Martin Forde finally delivered a report on Labour’s organizational culture that Starmer had commissioned two years earlier. It demolished one of the central planks of the case against Corbyn. Forde addressed the claims made most prominently in a 2019 BBC documentary presented by John Ware, ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, which accused the Corbyn leadership of systematically thwarting efforts by the party’s disciplinary unit to expel members with antisemitic views. His report confirmed that this version of events was ‘wholly misleading’ and indeed the opposite of the truth.

Staff in the leader’s office only intervened in a small number of cases after an ‘enthusiastic invitation’ from officials in the disciplinary unit who ‘refused to proceed’ without their advice. According to Forde, the villains of John Ware’s documentary ‘responded to the requests, for the most part, reasonably and in good faith.’ Corbyn’s critics presented ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ as a modern-day version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal. To judge by the contents of Forde’s report, we should picture instead the Washington Post publishing an unexpurgated version of Richard Nixon’s enemies list on its front page as if it were the work of a courageous whistle-blower at the highest levels of government.

Yet the British commentariat has buried the findings of the report, just as it buried every previous rebuttal of a propaganda campaign that set new standards for mendacity in British public life. This is primarily a function of the power imbalance shaping this discursive field: the Conservative Party, the Labour right, and their respective media allies are determined to uphold these fictions about what happened under Corbyn’s leadership, and the megaphone they collectively possess can drown out dissenting voices. However, there is a subjective factor that we must also take into account. At leadership level, a significant part of the Labour left made a conscious decision not to challenge the false narrative that was gradually constructed from 2015 onwards.

Instead of enabling them to defuse the controversy and move on to other subjects, as they hoped it would, this approach merely encouraged their opponents to launch wave after wave of attacks. The best starting point for a retrospective evaluation is the summer of 2018, when Corbyn and his allies came under intense fire for their reluctance to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism with its full, unamended list of examples.

Two of the insider accounts to have appeared after the 2019 election defeat – This Land by Owen Jones and Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire – channel the perspective of those who believe that this controversy could easily have been avoided. In their opinion, the party leadership should have adopted the full IHRA text from the very start; failing that, it should have caved in as soon as the controversy erupted instead of trying to hold the line around an alternative definition of antisemitism. The books attribute this view to figures such as Andrew Fisher, chief author of the 2017 Labour manifesto, and above all Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, while Jones himself is very much in agreement with their thinking.

The problem with this line of argument is easy to identify. Instead of examining the IHRA controversy in its own right to determine what might have been an effective response, it starts from the assumption that there must have been a compromise available, so long as the will to compromise was there. Needless to say, the political field is littered with the corpses of those who were only too anxious to retreat under fire. Genuine pragmatism demands that you recognize when your opponents have no interest in compromise and will not halt their offensive no matter how much ground you concede.

The Corbyn leadership did not have the option of defusing the antisemitism controversy by making a concession to its critics at any point between 2015 and 2019, because it was never simply an empirical debate about the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, or the steps that should be taken by its leaders in response. That kind of discussion requires a shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism, which is precisely what was lacking.

Corbyn’s most strident and influential critics, from Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD), to Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, all relied upon the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, according to which the dominant contemporary form of antisemitism expresses itself through attitudes to Israel. The IHRA definition has become a totem for those who want to impose this understanding as a rigid orthodoxy. Several of the examples attached to it link certain forms of speech about Israel with antisemitism, and the wording of those examples is sufficiently vague that they can be used – and have been used – to stigmatize any kind of meaningful solidarity with the Palestinian people.

If the Labour left had accepted the IHRA definition in toto from the start, its leaders would simply have delayed the cycle of controversy rather than avoiding it. With the definition in hand, their opponents would have begun excavating statements about Israel by prominent left-wing activists, from Corbyn down, and presenting them as violations of the party’s new code. Instead of denouncing the party leadership for their refusal to adopt the definition, they would have denounced them for not putting it into practice.

By the time Labour’s national executive agreed to pass the full definition in September 2018, it was no longer necessary to comb through past utterances for supposedly incriminating material, because figures like the Labour MP Margaret Hodge had already normalized the most extravagant and defamatory claims about Corbyn and his movement. It was Hodge who opened the floodgates with a carefully planned and pre-rehearsed tirade against her party leader in the House of Commons, explicitly branding him as an antisemite. Stephen Pollard and his associates followed this up with a statement denouncing Corbyn’s party as an ‘existential threat to Jewish life in Britain’, while Marie van der Zyl claimed that the Labour leadership had ‘declared war on the Jews’.

In Left Out, Pogrund and Maguire inadvertently drive home the absurdity of these claims when they attempt to translate them into the language of political rationality:

Some thought the rhetoric overheated. To many Jewish leaders, allowing Israel to be characterised as a racist project did pose existential questions. If a Labour government adopted the same position, could Jewish bodies with links to Israel lose their charitable status? Would the government continue to fund Jewish security charities which had links to the Israeli embassy? Could Britain become a cold home to its Jews, the vast majority of whom did support Israel’s existence?

This passage combines inaccuracy with illogicality. First of all, Labour was not proposing to adopt, as its collective view, the proposition that the Zionist state-building project was a ‘racist endeavour’ (a phrase which appears in one of the IHRA examples). It was being urged to adopt a definition of antisemitism that would prohibit any Labour members from articulating that view, on pain of expulsion from the party. One is left with the implication that if a single Palestinian member of the Labour Party was allowed to recall what happened to their family during the Nakba, it would set off a chain of events that might culminate in the demise of Britain’s Jewish communities – a preposterous idea, of course, but a convenient one for those who would rather not hear about the Nakba at all.

Secondly, even if Labour did adopt the critical and historically accurate understanding of Zionism spelled out, for example, by Rashid Khalidi in his book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, it would not oblige a Labour government to sever all ties with the present-day Israeli state, let alone with Jewish organizations in Britain. Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledged to block the sale of weapons ‘used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians’, not to expel Israeli diplomats from the UK. In itself, a freeze on arms sales from a previously staunch ally of Israel would have represented a significant breach in the wall of complicity.

It is vertiginously implausible to suggest that a government which carried out such a policy, in the teeth of fierce opposition, would then want to provoke an entirely avoidable row by stripping the Community Security Trust (CST) of its status as a recognized charity. In any case, talk of Labour posing an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews conjured up – and was intended to conjure up – a far more alarming picture. Margaret Hodge sketched it out explicitly when she compared the token reprimand that she received from Labour’s disciplinary process for her tirade against Corbyn to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Pogrund and Maguire have to perform such intellectual contortions to avoid stating the obvious: the claims that were made by Hodge, Pollard, van der Zyl and others during the summer of 2018 had no basis in reality, and it doesn’t really matter what precise combination of delusion and dishonesty was at work in their respective minds. There was no practical step that the Labour leadership could have taken to address concerns that lacked any empirical foundation. The only pragmatic course of action available to them was to stand their ground and state the facts at every opportunity. Above all, they needed to challenge the relentless conflation of support for Palestinian rights with hostility to Jews that underpinned the media campaign against them.

Instead, there were two months of public paralysis as some of Corbyn’s allies pressed for an immediate climbdown. John McDonnell even went on Sky News in the week following Hodge’s outburst to affirm his belief in her sincerity:

I’ve worked with Margaret over the years. She’s got a good heart. Sometimes you can express anger – I’m one of those people who has in the past – and basically you have to accept that people can be quite heated in their expressions.

Hodge made it perfectly clear that she would not rest until the project of the Labour left was reduced to a heap of political rubble. Yet McDonnell was willing to put his own personal relationship with Corbyn under intense strain – according to Jones as well as Pogrund and Maguire, the two men were barely speaking at the time – in a forlorn bid to appease her. Hodge gladly pocketed the concession and carried on as before. By the time the summer of 2018 was over, Corbyn’s opponents had established a template that could be used over and over again, most damagingly in the run-up to the 2019 election.

When Corbyn stepped down, those who had wanted him to capitulate immediately over the IHRA definition believed it was their chance to start again with a clean slate. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate supported by Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group in the 2020 leadership election, immediately signed up to a list of ten pledges which the Board of Deputies had drafted. Those pledges really amounted to a single demand that the BOD would have the exclusive right to determine what constitutes antisemitism as well as what constitutes effective action against it.

In an article for Jewish News announcing this move in January 2020, Long-Bailey addressed the following message to her own would-be supporters:

My advice to Labour Party members is that it is never OK to respond to allegations of racism by being defensive. No-one is immune from racism as long as it exists in society, whatever their past credentials in opposing racism. The only acceptable response to any accusation of racist prejudice is self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-improvement.

This would have been an extraordinarily naïve statement for anyone to make at the very beginning of Corbyn’s leadership. Coming just weeks after an election campaign of stupefying mendacity, during which British partisans of Narendra Modi added the charge of ‘Hinduphobia’ to the indictment of the Labour Party because its members would not support Modi’s violent clampdown in Kashmir, it beggared belief.

Long-Bailey followed up on this gesture by appearing at a hustings organized by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel. The JLM had actively sought to depress the Labour vote in the recent election, having previously solicited an inquiry into the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) with a dossier that was littered with inaccuracies concerning matters of public record. The moderator for the hustings, broadcaster Robert Peston, invited the candidates to agree that it was antisemitic to describe the circumstances around Israel’s foundation as ‘racist’. Long-Bailey did so.

This deferential stance towards political actors that openly favoured a Conservative victory in 2019 did Long-Bailey no good in her contest with Keir Starmer, which had almost certainly been lost before the leadership campaign officially began. It also did her no good when Starmer decided to force her out of the shadow cabinet because she was too closely aligned with the teachers’ union in her role as Shadow Education Secretary. Starmer grasped hold of a pretext when Long-Bailey shared an interview with the actress and left-wing activist Maxine Peake.

Peake had recently paid a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, and she drew a connection between what she had witnessed there and the ongoing protests in the US after the murder of George Floyd. She referred to a statement by an Israeli peace activist, Neta Golan, who suggested that the Israeli security forces had passed on a specific restraint technique used by the officer who killed Floyd in the course of their training sessions with US police departments. Golan had seen the same technique used time and time again in the West Bank. She subsequently explained that this was an ‘unverified assumption’ on her part rather than an established fact: she had since discovered that US police officers were already kneeling on the necks of detainees before those training sessions began.

It was beyond question that Israeli security officials were systematically imparting the lessons they had learnt from ruling over an oppressed, stateless people for more than half a century to US police forces. Golan’s minor inaccuracy did not detract from this more substantial point about the elective affinity between two forms of state racism. Yet Starmer and his allies immediately began telling journalists that Peake was propagating an ‘antisemitic conspiracy theory’ and used this claim to justify Long-Bailey’s sacking.

Two things should have been clear after this episode. First of all, Starmer was determined to use spurious allegations of antisemitism against his inner-party opponents, in the context of a stampede away from Corbynism and his own platform for the 2020 leadership election. Secondly, no one on the Labour left would be immune to such allegations, because the concept of antisemitism deployed in the British public sphere no longer had even the most tenuous connection to prejudice against Jewish people. If all else failed, they could be accused of ‘antisemitism denial’ if they questioned the most lurid fabrications about the period between 2015 and 2019.

That was precisely what happened when Corbyn issued the following statement after the EHRC report was published in October 2020:

Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should. One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.

The most striking feature of Corbyn’s statement was its restraint. His observation that ‘the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated’ was the very least that could be said by anyone who wanted to have a rational discussion. In particular, it was essential for the Labour left to be able to make such arguments if it wished to have a future in the party.

The Corbyn years were the first time since 1945 that the party’s left-wing tendency had won control of its leadership; neither Aneurin Bevan in the 1950s nor Tony Benn in the 1980s could manage that. If Corbyn and his supporters allowed the standard media narrative to go unchallenged, they would have to accept that Labour suddenly became infested with antisemitism after 2015 from top to bottom, with the eager complicity of its most senior figures, and that the actions of a Corbyn-led government might well have prompted British Jews to flee the country in large numbers.

In the event of a future leadership contest, any left-wing candidate would certainly have this fictitious concoction thrown in their faces. After all, if the claims made with such vehemence during and after the 2019 general election were well grounded in fact, the Labour left could hardly be trusted to administer a parish council, let alone the British state.

We can be sure that all the Labour MPs and Guardian columnists who responded to Corbyn’s statement with splenetic rage wholeheartedly believed that the media narrative was ‘dramatically overstated.’ If they genuinely thought that that Labour Party under Corbyn posed an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews, they would be implacably opposed to Starmer, who campaigned to elect Corbyn as the country’s Prime Minister in full knowledge of the dire warnings that his opponents had been issuing.

Starmer’s move to suspend Corbyn from the Labour Party was entirely of a piece with his established modus operandi. It should have been more surprising that some of Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters, including the Momentum founder Jon Lansman and the journalists Owen Jones and Rachel Shabi, explicitly criticized his statement, while John McDonnell might as well have done so when he made the following remarks in an interview:

Numerically, the number of cases of antisemitism within the Labour Party might be small, but that’s not the issue. It’s the pain . . . you don’t calculate the numbers, you calculate the pain that’s inflicted.

These increasingly tortuous efforts to avoid calling a spade a spade were inscribed in the logic of a strategy that had already proved to be a comprehensive failure. It is hard to think of another political movement whose leading voices were so anxious to take responsibility for the false perceptions that their opponents had created.

In the meantime, efforts were afoot behind closed doors to negotiate Corbyn’s return to the party. Allies of Starmer tacitly confirmed that Len McCluskey’s account of these efforts was accurate when they issued a blustering non-denial denial. The former Unite general secretary described his own reaction to the news of Corbyn’s suspension:

I genuinely thought Starmer had lost his temper and made a mistake; I didn’t want to think such a damaging move had been premeditated . . . that evening, in a Zoom call between leading figures on the left, it was agreed that before mobilising the membership against the suspension – and potentially splitting the party – we should see if a negotiated solution could be reached.

The agreement thrashed out with Starmer’s approval was that Corbyn would not have to apologise for his statement; instead, he would issue a clarification with an agreed wording, after which his suspension would end. When it came, the second statement actually muddled the clarity of what Corbyn had previously said, and bore the unmistakable stamp of having been drawn up by committee:

To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated’. The point I wished to make was that the vast majority of Labour Party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to antisemitism.

A Labour disciplinary panel restored Corbyn to full membership. However, when organizations like the BOD and JLM denounced this move, Starmer immediately reneged on the deal and blocked the return of his predecessor to Labour’s parliamentary caucus. Margaret Hodge’s threat to resign as a Labour MP may have been the decisive factor behind Starmer’s change of heart.

The attempt to reach a ‘negotiated solution’ thus proved to be a failure on its own terms. It could only have been otherwise if Starmer was a trustworthy individual who was willing to stand up to his party’s right-wing tendency for the sake of better relations with its left. Nothing about his track record up to that point should have encouraged such beliefs about his character and political orientation.

This failed experiment in reaching out to Starmer came with a substantial opportunity cost. Not only did the leading figures on the Labour left refrain from ‘mobilising the membership’ against Corbyn’s suspension, as McCluskey explained. They also held back from enlisting their own voices in the battle by expanding upon the incontrovertible point that Corbyn had made. This would have generated a headache for Starmer and – more importantly – placed some of the basic facts on the public record.

In the period immediately following Corbyn’s suspension, the EHRC was scattering evidence of its crude political bias like confetti. One former commissioner, Ian Acheson, even boasted in the Spectator that its investigation of Labour was the result of a sustained effort to align the EHRC with the agenda of the Conservative Party through carefully targeted appointments. Those appointments also helped explain why the Commission had categorically refused to investigate Tory racism, despite the wealth of evidence submitted to it by those seeking an inquiry.

The EHRC’s threadbare report could only determine that Labour had engaged in ‘unlawful harassment’ by inventing a law that determined the boundaries of legitimate speech about Israel and applying it retrospectively. The British media studiously ignored the holes in the report’s logic, just as it ignored the lack of a single reference to the supposedly canonical BBC documentary about Labour’s internal culture. Yet there was no public challenge to the Commission’s authority from the Labour left.

In contrast, the LGBT charity Stonewall came out swinging in February 2022 when it found itself in the EHRC’s firing line:

The government is involved in appointing EHRC commissioners, ministers hold annual reviews with the chair, the government controls EHRC funding, and it has no independent relationship with parliament. The risk this creates – that the EHRC will not act to promote and protect the rights of all its citizens, but instead will be swayed by personal whims and the politics of the day – has now become a reality.

We cannot know whether an alternative strategy based on confrontation rather than compromise would have secured Corbyn’s readmission. Starmer’s leadership descended into a trough after his move against Corbyn. Labour trailed behind the Tories in opinion polls for much of 2021 and lost one high-profile by-election in Hartlepool. Another parliamentary contest in Batley and Spen would almost certainly have been fatal for Starmer’s leadership if a few hundred Labour voters had decided to stay at home. He might not have been able to cope with another conflagration during the same period.

At any rate, the outcome could not possibly have been worse for the Labour left than it was. Starmer paid no price for going back on his word, since there was no turn to a more confrontational approach by the Socialist Campaign Group after he did so. He had no reason to change direction when faced with this good cop/good cop routine.

The self-inflicted Tory meltdown of 2021–22 then supplied a new lease of life to his leadership, even though it remains as unimaginative and uninspiring as ever. Smelling blood in the water, Starmer and his allies have set out to obliterate what remains of the Labour left, targeting left-wing MPs for de-selection. In the case of the east London MP Apsana Begum, this has involved using domestic abuse as a weapon against their factional opponents.

While seeking to exclude socialist MPs from the party, Starmer has welcomed Conservative defectors like Christian Wakeford. Wakeford was an enthusiastic supporter of the xenophobic legislation that Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary Priti Patel enacted in 2021. Having been elected in 2019 with a razor-thin majority in a previously Labour-held seat, Wakeford was perilously exposed in the event of a swing towards Labour, so he decided to jump ship before he had to walk the plank.

This did not stop the JLM chairman Mike Katz from presenting Wakeford’s defection as a ‘positive choice’ inspired by ‘Starmer’s integrity and leadership – not least on the issue of tackling antisemitism’. Katz highlighted the fact that Wakeford had been ‘active in Conservative Friends of Israel’ as a reassuring sign. With men like Wakeford on board, Katz informed us, Labour had taken the first steps on ‘a journey back to political respectability, where Jews will ask if Starmer has the right policies, not whether he is a racist.’

There could hardly be a better example of the way in which Labour’s dominant right-wing faction has cynically deployed the issue of antisemitism as a cloak for its own political agenda. Katz is no doubt well aware that members of other ethnic minorities have repeatedly asked whether Starmer and his associates see them as equals. Martin Forde’s report identified a pervasive culture of racism and Islamophobia within the Labour Party, and black Labour MPs were infuriated when Starmer brushed that finding contemptuously aside. For Katz and his co-thinkers, this is irrelevant, and certainly has no bearing on the question of ‘political respectability’.

The main purpose of this propaganda campaign has not been to discourage prejudice against Jews, or even to protect Israel from scrutiny. It has been to create a Labour Party that is a hostile environment for socialists like Jeremy Corbyn and Apsana Begum, and a welcoming home for right-wingers like Christian Wakeford. The Labour left would be in a stronger position today if its leaders had recognized that a long time ago. Whether or not it can recover from its current position of defeat and disorientation, there are important lessons to be learnt from the sequence of events that led to this point.  

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Crosscurrents’, NLR 118.

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Sweden’s Pariahs

The runup to Sweden’s parliamentary election, held on 11 September, read like a Houellebecq novel. A party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement is surging. In Muslim neighbourhoods, a far-right Danish politician accused of soliciting sadomasochist sex from teenage boys is livestreaming himself burning the Quran. Riots break out across the country. Indolent centre-left politicians issue limp pleas for tolerance. The Social Democrats, having been willingly cannibalized by NATO and financial markets, fail to rally support. Meanwhile an insurgent Islamist party is making inroads in immigrant neighbourhoods once considered strongholds of the left. Mainstream conservatives, who for years positioned themselves as a bulwark against the far-right, realize that the clearest path to power involves joining forces with it. All this with unrest already on the rise, a war in Europe and a winter energy crisis looming.

But this wasn’t fiction. A few days after the election, Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson resigned and the right-wing coalition declared a narrow victory. In the final count, the left-wing bloc of the Social Democrats, Left Party and the Greens netted 173 seats in the Riksdag. Its rival grouping, made up of the far-right Sweden Democrats, conservative Moderates and the Liberal Party, secured a total of 176. But the biggest victory belonged to the Sweden Democrats. Political pariahs until recently, they are now the second most popular party in Sweden, with 20.5% of the vote. Only the outgoing Social Democrats, who campaigned primarily on not being the Sweden Democrats (while also parroting some of their rhetoric), received a larger vote share, 30.3%. But in the end, it was not enough.

Now, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson has been tasked with assembling a new government. In a historic overture to the far-right, Kristersson has included the Sweden Democrats in these talks. Jimmie Akesson, the party’s studiously bland leader, says that a coalition including his party would faithfully reflect the country. He may not get his wish, but whatever happens he will wield considerable power. It appears likely that Kristersson’s Moderates will form a minority government with the Liberal Party and Christian Democrats, with the Sweden Democrats providing external support via a confidence-and-supply agreement.

The election concludes eight years of Social Democrat-led governance. For much of the twentieth century, the party enjoyed near unrivalled power in Sweden. But in recent years it has been challenged by the liberal centre and mainstream conservatives – who have now given legitimation to the far-right. Back in 2018, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson met with Swedish Holocaust survivor Hedi Fried and solemnly pledged before the media that he would never collaborate with the Sweden Democrats. After Kristersson changed his mind, the Moderates sought to deflect criticism by purchasing Google ads with the keyword ‘Hedi Fried’, which led to a page explaining that it was all a misunderstanding: the Moderates, they said, had merely promised that their previous coalition ‘Alliance for Sweden’ would not work with the Sweden Democrats for the 2018 election. Now, four years later, this promise no longer applied.

Founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrats capitalized on the upsurge in far-right extremism generated by the financial crisis of the early nineties. In 1991, the Moderate-led government of Carl Bildt began to administer a series of predictably disastrous neoliberal reforms – following on from the Social Democrats’ dismantling of the Keynesian infrastructure that undergirded the Swedish welfare model during the previous decade. Amid the deregulation of credit and capital markets, unemployment more than quadrupled, from 2% in 1990 to 10% in 1993. GDP fell by 4%, and it cost another 4% of GDP to bail out the banks. This economic downturn coincided with a wave of neo-Nazi street violence, including bombings and targeted attacks on political opponents: trade unionists, journalists, left-wing activists, the Stockholm gay pride parade.

Back then, the links between the white nationalist movement and the Sweden Democrats were explicit. Founding members came from the fascist Bevara Sverige Svenskt (‘Keep Sweden Swedish’) organisation. The Sweden Democrats’ first chairperson had been an activist in the Nordic Realm Party, and their first treasurer had served as a translator and propagandist in the Waffen-SS. But when Akesson became party leader in 2005, he embarked on a thorough rebranding aimed at making the party more palatable to mainstream voters. They redesigned their logo, ditching a flaming torch in the colors of the Swedish flag for a hippie-ish anemone. They dropped the slogan ‘Keep Sweden Swedish’ and swapped pseudoscientific racism for national chauvinism.

Few were convinced. Major media outlets remained wary, and the postal service reportedly refused to deliver their leaflets. This outsider status would turn out to be something of a mixed blessing. With fewer traditional channels of communication open, the Sweden Democrats turned to then-nascent social media platforms. A few years after Akesson became leader, the Sweden Democrats had a Facebook presence more than eight times the size of the Social Democrats. Ahead of this month’s election, a massive online troll army, reportedly funded by the party’s communications office, helped shape the online discourse on immigration and crime.

Two additional macroeconomic shocks aided the Sweden Democrats’s ascent. In 2006, the Alliance for Sweden – also led by Bildt’s Moderates – implemented a package of austerity and tax cuts designed to ‘make work pay’. This sparked a significant rise in inequality: the largest in any OECD country. One study found that during this period, ‘incomes continued to grow among labour-market “insiders” with stable employment, while cuts in benefits implied a stagnation of disposable incomes for labour-market “outsiders” with unstable or no jobs.’ By 2008, however, even the ‘insiders’ had been precaritized by the effects of the financial crash. A new layer of workers began to emerge who remained in stable employment, yet were hit by stagnant wages and the threat of automation. These two marginal groups – labour-market outsiders and vulnerable insiders – are overrepresented among the Sweden Democrats’ politicians. The party also gained the most votes in areas where the incomes of ‘outsiders’ had dropped the most relative to ‘insiders’, and among the long-term unemployed. Their strongest base was in the country’s provincial south, as one might guess from Akesson’s distinctive drawl, redolent of a humble farmer from Scania.

The Sweden Democrats also enjoy striking levels of support among those that depend on social insurance. And not without reason. During the leadup to the 2014 election, the Social Democrats criticized the Alliance’s restrictions on sickness and disability benefits, vowing to rebuild the welfare state. Yet, once in power, the exact opposite happened. The Ministry of Social Security vowed to reduce the number of people reliant on sickness benefits. Over the next four years, we saw a five-fold increase in rejections for long-term sickness benefits. For those with disabilities requesting personal assistance, the rejection rate rose to 90%. Facebook groups sprung up in which people posted about friends and relatives who had taken their own lives as a result of these restrictions. The Sweden Democrats’ representative on the Riksdag’s Committee on Social Insurance began to leave posts and comments, becoming a regular presence on these platforms.  

The Sweden Democrats claimed the government had cut sickness benefits to free up resources for immigrants. At the centre of their ideology is nostalgia for Folkhemmet, or ‘people’s home’, a concept coined by the Social Democrats’ Per Albin Hansson in 1928. For the Sweden Democrats, the welfare state is a zero-sum social good that is threatened by globalization, the EU and immigration. They have pilloried the Social Democrats for betraying their own legacy by serving globalist elites instead of ordinary Swedes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Sweden Democrats have managed to poach voters from their centre-left opponents. Support for the party has even grown within the Social Democrats’ own union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, or LO. A recent survey indicates that among LO members, the Sweden Democrats and Social Democrats now enjoy similar levels of support – with the former beating the latter among male members. (This mirrors trends in broader society: if only men voted in 2022, then right-wing and nationalist parties would have gotten nearly 60% and the Sweden Democrats would be the largest party).

This can be partly attributed to the Sweden Democrats’ success at foregrounding immigration in public discourse. For decades, Sweden was a European anomaly, experiencing waves of inward migration with minimal pushback. In 2011, the year after the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time with 5.7% of the vote, only 8% of Swedes believed that migration was the most important issue facing the country. But as the effects of austerity began to bite, and as the Social Democrats lay supine – providing no effective opposition to the Alliance government – support for the Sweden Democrats rose steadily. Then came the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than 162,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, at which point support for the Sweden Democrats jumped to 20%. The following year, the number of Swedes who cited immigration as the most important issue rose to 44%.

But the pivotal moment came a few years later, when the Moderates decided to make immigration the central issue of the 2018 election, setting the tone for all other bourgeois parties. When riots flared up in several Swedish cities after Rasmus Paludan’s public burning of the Quran, even Prime Minister Andersson attributed the unrest to the ‘failure to integrate’ immigrants and ‘the creation of parallel societies’. These riots offered the Sweden Democrats a critical boost ahead of the election. At the party’s election night celebration, one prominent Sweden Democrat posted a photo with the editor of a right-wing publication on Instagram with the caption ‘the Quran riots did their job’, plus a winking emoji. This prompted the more conspiratorially-minded to wonder whether the party may have orchestrated the Danish provocateur’s activities.

A small Islamist party – Nyans (meaning ‘nuance’) – emerged in response to the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Though it didn’t cross the threshold necessary to enter parliament, it made a strong initial showing in some distressed immigrant areas. Its leader had been expelled from the Centre Party in 2018 for failing to disclose his personal ties to Turkey’s ultranationalist Grey Wolves. Turkish media have published a series of glowing profiles of Nyans, and some have even speculated that Erdogan plans to use it to exert his influence in Sweden. Predictably, right-wing media seized on this story to feed the general hysteria.

In recent years, the media has effectively incited moral panic about immigration and crime. (While certain crimes, such as shootings by organized criminal groups, have increased in recent years, the overall crime rate is actually down; but this is rarely acknowledged.) The media’s rightward turn was already underway during the 2010s. In that decade, free-market thinktanks proliferated; Sweden now has more than any other country in Europe besides Germany and the United Kingdom. Among the most prominent is the neoliberal advocacy group Timbro, modelled on the Cato Institute, which runs an academy for training young politicians and journalists. Timbro is funded by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which has reportedly courted the Sweden Democrats in recent years. The confederation has lobbied the party to drop its opposition to for-profit welfare systems. In exchange, the Sweden Democrats have gained mainstream respectability and access to elite corridors that were previously closed to them. Speaking at the confederation’s SME committee meeting in February, Akesson adopted Timbro’s red-baiting register: ‘When the government says they’re going to “take back democratic control of welfare”, I get Soviet vibes.’

Thus, while the Sweden Democrats have retained much of their chauvinist welfare rhetoric, they have also steadily embraced a Thatcherite policy platform. Few may have noticed, but in the lead-up to the election, Akesson even U-turned on one of the party’s supposedly core values: Swedish jobs for Swedish workers. Until 2008, a test was used to restrict labour migration to those jobs facing domestic labour shortages. Under this system, employers, unions and the government would assess whether a given job could be filled by Swedish workers before opening it up to foreign applicants. But in an interview last month, Akesson said that he ‘doesn’t want unions to control work permits’ and voiced his opposition labour market tests – aligning himself with the bourgeois parties.

The Sweden Democrats have also started to echo mainstream parties’ support for membership in ‘globalist’ institutions like NATO. In 2016, when the Rikstag voted on whether to allow NATO forces to be stationed on Swedish territory, the Sweden Democrats were expected to join the Left Party in their bid to delay signing of the agreement pending a further review. But at the last hour, they decided to back closer military cooperation with the alliance, allowing the vote to pass with a broad majority. Then, in April, the party went so far as to complain that the Social Democrats’ timetable for joining NATO was ‘far too slow’. Now, former Prime Minister and uber-Atlanticist Carl Bildt has been floated as a potential foreign minister in the new government. How the Sweden Democrats will retain their anti-establishment, anti-globalist bonafides while working with a man who once rhapsodized about the ‘New World Order’ before his sponsors in Washington, is anyone’s guess.

Read on: Göran Therborn, ‘Twilight of Swedish Social Democracy’, NLR 113.

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Sound Money?

On 6 September Liz Truss was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, after a Conservative leadership contest notable for its near-total lack of reference to the social calamity known as the cost-of-living crisis. While the ruling party spent the summer decrying ‘woke culture’ and praising the trickle-down theory, Keir Starmer’s Labour found a new spring in its step, calling for a windfall tax on energy firms and opening up a poll lead that could point towards the steps of Downing Street. Meanwhile, a wave of strikes and protests – centred on consumer prices and real wages – has given a shot in the arm to a radical left still emerging from the post-Corbyn doldrums. Don’t Pay UK, canvassing support for the mass non-payment of energy bills in the wake of a 56% April increase and an 80% hike scheduled for October, has amassed a pledge list of almost 200,000 refuseniks.

During this period, the cap on maximum domestic energy changes by Ofgem – toothless regulator of the privatized energy system – became the object of increasing discontent. This was not the intention of Theresa May’s government when it introduced the energy cap in 2018, in an attempt to allay pressure from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour (the proposal for a cap itself dating as far back as Ed Miliband’s leadership). Yet as wholesale natural gas prices spiked across Eurasia over 2021, then skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ofgem continued to raise its price ceiling to unprecedented heights, bound by legislation to guarantee a 1.9% profit to retailers. This brought with it the prospect of nationwide strikes plus mass civil disobedience. So, on the second day of Truss’s tenure, the government pledged a not-quite freeze on bills (the typical bill will go up £600 rather than £1,600) for the politically significant period of two years, up until the last possible date of the next general election. This was the largest single economic intervention in Britain’s peacetime history, dwarfing the eventual cost of the Covid furlough scheme.

There is an obvious precedent for Truss’s handout. When Thatcher became PM in May 1979 she immediately accepted the recommendation of the Clegg Commission, established by Callaghan after the Winter of Discontent, for an average public-sector pay rise of 25% – approximately double the rate of inflation. This elicited a backlash from the new breed of hardline monetarists, but Thatcher recognized that securing industrial peace was more important than appeasing them. As The Economist reported at the time, she entered office with a clear intention to buy off stronger sections of organized labour while confronting and defeating weaker ones. The 1977 Ridley Plan described this as the ‘salami’ approach – ‘one thin slice at a time but by the end the lot is gone.’ In the short term, wrote Ridley, the government would have no choice but to ‘pay up’ to those unions ‘that have the nation by the jugular vein.’

It seems that today’s Tories – even (or perhaps especially) their most committed ideologues – are once again prepared to ‘pay up’ if it allows them to win a class fight. And let’s not delude ourselves: Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, announced this morning, shows that a class fight is underway. His so-called ‘fiscal event’ was the most dramatically regressive announcement by any government for some time – giving a £4,500 tax cut to the richest 500,000 people in the country while further tightening Britain’s miserly benefits system. This smash-and-grab raid on behalf of the very wealthiest must be set in the context of recent global upsets: the shifting international balance of power, trade wars, Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and worsening ecological crises. With growth rendered uncertain by such turbulence, but profits still demanded, working-class and middle-class living standards are on the line. We are entering an era of zero-sum capitalism, even more cut-throat than that of the early eighties.  

In this conjuncture, the old rules of Ukanian state management – according to which the Treasury’s books should be balanced and the free market should come first – appear to have been rewritten. The Tories of the Cameron-Osborne era are gone; in their place, we have austerity-sceptic Johnson followed by deficit-sceptic Truss. The former Chancellor Rishi Sunak has seen his drab bean-counting rejected by the Tory membership, while Truss is set to embark on a £150bn-plus borrowing bonanza. Reversing the NICs rise, cutting green levies on domestic energy bills and reversing Sunak’s planned Corporation Tax hike were the priorities she enumerated during the leadership campaign, the total cost of which could easily reach £30bn. These aren’t the Tories of old: neither Thatcher’s homilies on household budgets nor their repetition by Cameron and Osborne get a look in.

With that in mind, it is worth considering the Spectator’s fascinating survey of ‘Trussonomics’, based on interviews with her three leading economist supporters, for hints as to where the Tory right are headed. In it, Truss’s backers – who prefer to be known as ‘Trusketeers’, alas – outline a programme that deviates significantly from the traditional Conservative prospectus. Julian Jessop, former chief economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, now asserts that the austerity of the 2010s was a mistake: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind…Ten years ago, I would have been much more conventional in my thinking that you need to get the budget deficit down as quickly as possible. But it’s clear that isn’t working.’ Patrick Minford, an early supporter of Thatcher, is currently reprising that role but flipped 180 degrees as he lays into the Treasury’s obsession with book-balancing: ‘We have policies in place which are raising taxation, that damaged growth in order to satisfy short-run borrowing constraints put forward by the Treasury.’

As for the monetarism Minford once expounded, with its insistence on a strict separation between the monetary authorities and the government as well as mechanical targets for monetary growth, Gerard Lyons, tipped as a member of Truss’s as-yet-unveiled Council of Economic Advisors, says he wants to ‘re-examine’ the Bank of England’s remit ‘to make sure it is fit for purpose’. Elsewhere, Kwarteng pays lip-service to the idea of central bank independence whilst simultaneously pledging that ‘fiscal and monetary policy must be coordinated’ – the passive voice happily disguising who, exactly, should be making the coordination happen. Put all this together, and the family resemblance is not so much to Thatcherism, with its rhetorical commitments to ‘sound money’ and balanced books, but to Reagonomics, with the US deficit under President Reagan ballooning to unprecedented levels thanks to tax cuts for the rich and vast increases in military spending. (Truss has promised to increase UK military spending to 3% of GDP by 2030, at an estimated cost of £157bn.)

Of course, these solutions are presented as short-term ones: a necessary yet temporary detour from the true path of deregulation and ‘sound money’. Minford has suggested that a 7% interest rate might ultimately be more appropriate for the British economy, while Jessop has suggested relaxing restrictions on financial services, ‘gene editing’ and data protection. But all this is for somewhere down the line. For now, the Trusketeers anticipate significant state intervention and large deficits, in part to provide a political cover for their long-term plans.

Will any of this work? Most economists would say no. The FT’s Martin Wolf claims it is a ‘fantasy’ to believe corporate tax cuts and deregulation will deliver improved growth, while Jonathan Portes asserts that deficit spending will stoke inflation. But here we might pause. With inflation largely driven by external factors – Putin’s invasion, environmental collapse, supply issues linked to the pandemic – conventional economic models of why prices rise, focusing on excessive demand, are falling short. Those still using them to talk up the inflationary risks of increased government deficits are likely to be proved quite wrong. It is therefore worth attempting a level-headed assessment of Truss’s economic prospectus – identifying its strengths and weaknesses, in the terms it has set itself – beyond the standard neoclassical framework.

The most pressing challenge for the British economy is currently the soaring price of essentials goods, causing households to spend less on desirable things like pubs, restaurants and local shops and more on undesirable things like fossil fuel companies – which means that government support, of the kind promised by Truss, will be necessary to sustain demand. Contra her detractors, this is unlikely to have much meaningful inflationary effect. If the government borrows money to cut domestic energy bills, the Institute of Public Policy Research estimates that 3.9% would be taken off the ONS’s calculation for the headline rate of inflation – a win-win, making life easier for households and reducing pressure on the Bank of England to further increase interest rates.

Other things being equal – the economist’s get-out clause – Truss’s plan to massively increase government borrowing will also have some impact on growth, if only because it’s hard to borrow and spend over £150bn without making something happen. Whether this is useful in the long-term is a different question: handing £30bn more to corporations, already squatting on a £950bn hoard in their bank accounts and showing no great inclination to invest, is hardly an effective use of the tax system. Then again, if corporations don’t actually spend their unexpected windfall in Britain, it is less likely to feed into inflationary pressures here.

So, when it comes to propping up demand, limiting inflation and stimulating immediate growth, Trussonomics won’t be as abortive as orthodox economists predict. And she needs only two years, at most, to prove something like competence before facing a general election. Yet there may be other fronts on which her domestic plan could falter. For one thing, the international situation today is more uncertain than in the 1970s, and Britain’s global position is far weaker. The UK retains immense privileges as a developed economy with deep, liquid capital markets and venerable institutions. But it is also undergoing a radical shift, via Brexit, in its relations with the rest of the world at a time of acute social stress. This will inevitably unsettle the Conservative’s traditional support base in big capital and finance, while the decrease in the value of the pound, presently hitting an almost forty-year nadir against the dollar, indicates the possibility of funding problems ahead.

This is compounded by Britain’s reliance on imported energy and food supplies. In the last true currency crisis face by a Conservative government – Black Wednesday in 1992 – Britain ran a small deficit on its energy consumption, soon to disappear as gas production peaked in 2000, and was 70% self-sufficient in food. Today, it imports roughly half its natural gas, and 45% of its food. The Black Wednesday crisis erupted because the government was unable to defend the value of the pound against the deutschmark inside the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a precursor to the euro. Today, Britain is out of the EU and the pound floats freely, but the currency crisis could be even more fundamental, if we are forced to pay higher sums for basic goods in a declining currency. Even if Truss – borrowing from the playbook of Anthony Barber, Chancellor under Heath in 1970 – manages to engineer a short-lived growth spurt at the beginning of her tenure, this will prove difficult to sustain. Indeed, it may have already evaporated by the time she is forced to face Starmer at the polls.

Truss also harbours unrealistic hopes of unlocking growth through a post-EU shake-up of employment laws, threatening the removal of rights on working time and, in a familiar trope, invoking the spectre of trade union militancy. But while the recent uptick in union membership and activity is to be welcomed, strikes in Britain remain rare, with the number of annual walkouts still close to the all-time lows of the last decade. Further restrictions on union organizing will not miraculously translate into improved productivity. Nor are there many remaining costs in Britain’s perilously neoliberal labour markets that could be removed without pushing further and deeper into living standards. If Truss wants to press ahead with such reforms, she will likely have to sweeten the pill or buy off discontent with further temporary handouts – which may draw opposition from the backbenches.  

But where Trussonomics is perhaps most likely to fall apart due to domestic factors is in failing to overcome the resistance of the Treasury. Rumours that the new energy plan would involve forcing ten-year loans onto households indicate the lingering presence of Treasury Brain (harking back to the equally daft forced loan scheme which Sunak cooked up for domestic energy bills last spring). That this misstep was avoided suggests someone, somewhere in government is prepared to put political strategy over Sunak-style bean-counting. Yet the fact that this supposed ‘price freeze’ doesn’t entirely freeze prices, seemingly in deference to vestigial accountancy concerns, also evinces the zombie-like persistence of the latter.

As a result, the policy’s political efficacy has been blunted, opening up a gap which Labour could easily exploit. And this is to say nothing of the evident hypocrisy of making £40bn of liquidity support available to energy companies whilst promising only six months of support to every other business, large or small. Kwarteng’s peremptory sacking of Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, having been Second Permanent Treasury as austerity was implemented in the early 2010s, was greeted with howls of outrage from the liberal end of the media. But it reveals the new administration’s determination to press ahead with its programme against concerted opposition. The new Chancellor knows that realizing major deficits and mighty tax cuts means overriding Treasury recalcitrance.

It was always a mistake to think of austerity as a programme that swivel-eyed true-believers were determined to force upon the rest of us. This may have applied to a small number of Thatcherite diehards baying for shrunken states and flat taxes. But, by and large, austerity was promoted, designed and delivered by a cadre of ideologically adaptable Sensible People like Scholar, poring over spreadsheets at the Treasury and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. They were the ones who inflicted a miserable lost decade on the country. Now, the current crop of Tories may have few compunctions about cutting spending when the time comes; but they know better than to insist on it as a strategic priority. The class battles ahead demand a more considered approach. And should Truss’s plan fall short, as prices spiral upwards, growth disintegrates and the capital markets turn sour, there are many forces waiting to move: from the Don’t Payers to the striking workers, to those in her own party sharpening their knives for the next leadership contest.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Transformatrix’, NLR 131.

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The Pundit

Fame has been kind to Ian McEwan, but not to his writing. Few under the age of fifty remember him as the author of the short story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975), the novella The Cement Garden (1978), or the Cold War spy thriller The Innocent (1990) whose taut, gothic explorations of sexual taboo and violence earned him a reputation as a provocateur and the moniker ‘Ian Macabre’. Starting with the critical success of his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998) and the commercial success of Atonement (2001), which was adapted into an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning film starring James MacAvoy and Kiera Knightley, McEwan’s plots have slackened into melodrama, and, starting with Saturday (2005), the cool reserve of his narration has succumbed to the temptations of intrusive and unenlightening commentary. With the exception of On Chesil Beach (2007) and Sweet Tooth (2012) – set in the early 60s and the mid-70s respectively – McEwan’s post-Atonement subject matter has been ripped from the headlines. As befits a regular of the international festival circuit with the occasional byline in the Guardian opinion page, his treatment of issues such as the Iraq War, climate change, euthanasia, artificial intelligence and Brexit could be described as narrativized punditry. For this, McEwan has been rewarded with increasing extra-literary prominence. In 2000, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the late Elizabeth Windsor; in 2016, the Daily Telegraph named him ‘the 19th most powerful person in British culture’, an honour at once dubiously conferred and comically specific.

His latest novel, Lessons, finds the author, now an autumnal 74, in the mood to encapsulate his life and career. McEwan lends a number of biographical details to his protagonist, the ‘less-than-brilliant’ cad and dilettante Roland Baines. Among them: the 1948 birth in Aldershot, the working-class Scottish father who works his way up the ranks of British army and class system, the childhood in Tripoli and Singapore, the boarding school education at Woolverstone Hall School (which appears in the novel as Berners Hall, ‘the poor man’s Eton’), the late-in-life reunion with an older brother given up for adoption, the hobbyist passion for scientific inquiry and the news cycle, as well as several of his own published opinions. Everything, it might seem, except literary fame, which McEwan gives instead to Alissa Eberhardt, Roland’s first wife and the mother of his son, Lawrence. Regular readers of McEwan will also find incidents and thematic preoccupations from his earlier novels alluded to or repurposed in omnibus-fashion for this one.

At 481 pages, Lessons is the largest canvas McEwan has worked on; its jacket copy calls it an ‘epic’. Like many contemporary novels so hailed, it is far too short. From its first mentioned incident – which takes place in 1940 – to its last – which takes place in 2021 – McEwan dispatches twice as many years as In Search of Lost Time in a little over one-tenth of the page count. The ‘lost decade’ following Roland’s comprehensive failure at his O-Levels in 1964, during which he pursues odd jobs, tours with a country rock outfit called the Peter Mount Posse, travels as far as Big Sur and the Khyber Pass, and satisfies what he sometimes calls his ‘pathological’ sex addiction, is lost not only to Roland, but to the reader as well. Because the third person narrator does not stray from Roland’s point of view, the lives and motives of the book’s vastly-more intriguing villains – Peter, Alissa, and his Berners Hall piano teacher Miriam Cornell – are left in various stages of underdevelopment.

Everything in Lessons, whose story concludes within a year and a half of its publication date, gives the impression of having been written in extreme haste. Its prose, for example, is pocked with first-order clichés (‘trying to escape his own demons’), second-order clichés (‘a demon he hoped to slay’), dull metaphors (‘Time, which had been an unbounded sphere in which he moved freely in all directions, became overnight a narrow one-way track down which he travelled’), mixed metaphors (‘ten on the pain spectrum’), limp similes (‘Some love affairs comfortably and sweetly rot. Slowly, like fruit in a fridge’), oxymorons (‘a settled, expansive mood’), pleonasms (‘the photograph which would posthumously survive her’), catachresis (‘domestic violence – generally code for men hitting women and children’), jejune diction (‘the creepy shifting shadows’, ‘the magical or silly element’, ‘shivery’, ‘mushy’), trivializing double entendres (‘Lucky too that so far no child was left behind’), pomposities (‘They rose in his thoughts as a black hammerhead cloud of international disorder’), flagrant abuse of self-reflexive questions (‘Would Roland have had her courage?’, ‘What held him back?…Courage. An old-fashioned concept. Did he have it?’, ‘In the face of it would he, Roland, have risen to Sophie and Hans’s courage?’) and barely-concealed cribbings from more talented stylists like Nabokov (‘parenting, its double helix of love and labour’, ‘seven paces up her short garden path, his signature taps at the door – crotchet, triplet, crochet, crochet’). Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in.

McEwan’s novel is not so much an epic as it is three novellas in a trench coat. Novella 1: eleven-year-old Roland is molested by Miriam during a piano lesson and is groomed by her between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, which precipitates the aforementioned ‘lost decade’ and scares him off from intimacy and discipline for the better part of his life. Lessons: our interpretations of events often do more harm than the events themselves; ‘most’ of the ‘problems’ we blame on others are in fact ‘self-inflicted’; forgiveness is essential to freeing oneself from the effects of trauma. Novella 2: thirty-seven-year-old Roland and his seven-month-old son are abandoned by Alissa, who, having witnessed her own mother’s sacrifice of her career as a journalist to marriage and family, decides that being a parent is incompatible with her vocation as a writer, and retreats to a remote village in her native Germany, where she becomes ‘Europe’s greatest novelist’ and a contender for the Nobel Prize. Lessons: just as a ‘cruel act’ which makes a work of art possible ‘made no difference’ to our assessment of them, the ‘quality of the outcome’ did not excuse the cruel act; Roland wouldn’t ‘swap his family for her yard of books’. Novella 3: twenty-something Roland meets Peter and his wife Daphne; the former goes from prima donna lead-guitarist to abusive Thatcherite businessman to philandering Brexiteer and ‘ennobled junior minister in the Johnson government’, whereas the latter becomes his best friend, confidante, co-parent, and – following her Stage 4 cancer diagnosis – second wife. Lessons: reason and fair play are no match for cunning and the will-to-power; making a commitment to someone other than oneself is ‘the best thing’ one ever does.

If this all sounds pat, it has less to do with the necessary evil that is plot summary in book reviewing, than to the didacticism with which McEwan imparts these and other praecepta in the novel itself. Yet perhaps worse than the way the book comes pre-interpreted for the reader is the way it comes pre-criticized. McEwan does not fail to anticipate the objection that what makes Roland’s case notable is that, statistically, male teachers are more likely to sexually abuse their students than female teachers, and that, historically, male artists are more likely to disregard family obligations in the pursuit of their creative ambitions than female artists. Nor, in the novel’s climactic scene, a fight in the Lake District between Roland and Peter over the urn that contains Daphne’s ashes, does McEwan fail to have Roland acknowledge that what the two septuagenarians are doing is ‘absurd’. Indeed it is – all the more so for being a bathetic allegory for Brexit (a Remainer and a Leaver duke it out for the right to bury the ashes of the United Kingdom) as well as a reprise of the fight scene of Amsterdam.

In an op-ed, anticipating objections strengthens one’s case; in fiction, however, it draws unwanted attention to the hand of the author, without whom the particular element that is being apologized for would not exist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is hardly exonerating that Roland self-effacingly describes an article he writes as ‘plodding, earnest, lifeless’, and the journals he keeps as ‘hasty’ and ‘without interest’ compared to the writing of his wife and mother-in-law. We do not get to see Alissa’s prose, which is frequently compared to that of Nabokov, who, judging from the synopses Roland provides of her novels, would have dismissed them and – by extension – Lessons as ‘topical trash’.

The trench coat is History. Draped loosely from the backs of these three narratives are hundreds of named political and cultural events, persons, and phenomena, starting with Dunkirk and ending with the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which range from the genuinely consequential to the merely newsworthy to the unmentionably trivial. The ones that are important to the plot are the White Rose movement (through which Alissa’s parents meet), the Suez Crisis (which precipitates Roland’s return to England from Tripoli and his matriculation at Berners Hall), the Cuban Missile Crisis (which inspires him to pay a call on Miriam so he can lose his virginity before the world ends), divided Cold War Berlin (it is thanks to the Mauerfall that he learns the reason for Alissa’s disappearance and that she will be soon publishing her first novel) and Brexit (which precipitates his final conflict with Peter).

At first it seems as though the effect of ‘public events on private lives’ is going to be the major theme of Lessons. ‘Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, miniscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence’, he writes. ‘His case was not special – all fates are similarly constituted’. McEwan wisely abandons this Forrest Gump-like conceit midway through the book in favour of a much more plausible, if still unsatisfying, depiction of the way citizens of wealthy countries like the UK typically encounter history: as a spectacular entertainment mediated by newspapers, television, and/or the Internet. The historical events appear to serve two narrative functions: as substitutes for the kinds of concrete details other novelists use to convey the quiddity of a character’s experience of the world and as markers for the passage of time. Because of their sheer quantity, however, and because the vast majority of them are simply referred to rather than assimilated into Roland’s consciousness, time feels curiously static in Lessons, which has the unfortunate effect of making the dramatic ‘reckonings’ McEwan stages between Roland and Alissa, Miriam, and Peter seem, well, staged. At a certain point, historical events become little more than narrative boxes for McEwan to check off. He tells us, for example, that Roland ‘made a list of the people he knew who died of AIDS’, but since we don’t see the list, and we hear nothing more of persons who might have been on it, this kind of detail trivializes what it refers to more than if it had simply not been mentioned at all. As with his raiding of female narratives to gin up sympathy for his otherwise undistinguished male protagonist, McEwan’s use of historical events in Lessons is guilty of borrowed gravitas.

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to draw lessons from history than it is to manufacture them in fiction. In his final days, Roland rereads the ‘forty journals’ he has been writing ‘since 1986’, the year the novel opens, and which function as its ur-text. ‘Reading back…did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life’, he reflects, and from the single excerpt we have been shown 150 pages previously – which mentions, inter alia, Islamofacism, the NHS, Scottish Independence, Princess Diana, a certain satirical columnist at the Telegraph, and the Booker Prize – it is easy to see why: the journal entries are a mishmash of noted events and reported speech.  ‘There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned’, he goes on to lament, as he operatically consigns the journal ‘one volume at a time’ to a fire bowl in his back yard. A self-described ‘centrist’ and ‘liberal’, Roland’s blind spot remains, to the end of his life, his politics. For those who are inclined to examine them a little more attentively than Roland seems capable, at least one ‘obvious theme’ emerges.

Time has done its inevitable work on a number of Roland’s cherished illusions, particularly to his whiggish conviction that economic liberalization produces political liberalization – refuted, in his view, by China – and that history is a slow, but inexorable march towards an ever-more-open society – refuted by democratic backsliding in Putin’s Russia, Trump’s United States, and post-Brexit Britain. Surveying the present, Roland is rightfully anxious about the world he will leave his granddaughter. His ‘bad dream’ for the future is two-fold and incompatible: that the planet will not support life long enough for her to see the end of the 21st century and of ‘freedom of expression, a shrinking privilege, vanishing for a thousand years’, as it had done in Europe during the Middle Ages. A pretty pass, to be sure. Especially for a man who has just torched his complete works.

Assessing his personal responsibility for this turn of events, Roland says: ‘Enough! Those angry or disappointed gods in modern form, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Gorbachev, may have shaped his life but that gave Roland no insight into international affairs. Who cared what an obscure Mr. Baines of Lloyd Square thought about the future of the open society or the planet’s fate? He was powerless.’ Let us state the obvious: Hitler, Nasser, et al are not gods, but people, as are, a fortiori, Johnson, Cameron, Blair, Major, and, yes, even Thatcher. As he so often admits, Roland is a member of the most affluent and freest generations history has ever known; if he finds himself powerless to secure these privileges for future generations, it is not exclusively due to impersonal forces beyond his control, let alone the whims of a handful of world-historical individuals. Nor is this simply a matter of moral judgment: even if you were inclined to cut Roland some slack on the grounds that no one person ought to shoulder responsibility for the state of the world, a reader, who has at this point been subjected to nearly 500 pages of the views of the ‘obscure Mr. Baines’ has every right to care, not least because McEwan is implicated in them.

Roland spends the seventies as a member of the Labour Party, living in a cheap Brixton flat and leafleting for Wilson and Callaghan. Through his then-girlfriend Mireille, a French journalist with a diplomatic passport, he travels to East Berlin, where he strikes up a friendship with an agronomist named Florian Heise and his family. He returns often to smuggle banned records – Dylan and the Velvet Underground – and books – the classics of liberal anticommunism: Koestler, Nabokov, Milosz, and, of course, Orwell – across Checkpoint Charlie. His friendship with the Heises and his unwillingness to qualify or contextualize his critiques of the political conditions in the GDR puts him increasingly at odds with his fellow Labour Party members back home, who regard actually existing socialism as the ‘lesser of two evils’ compared to US Imperialism. Disgusted by what he perceives as their apologetics and moral equivalence – after all in the West, you are free to listen to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and read Animal Farm – he drifts ‘rightward’, in the words of one of them, towards the party’s ‘middle class intellectuals’ who support the ‘democratic opposition’ in Eastern Europe. After Florian is arrested at work, has his house turned over by the Stasi, and is threatened with the breakup of his family – as a result, Roland wrongly imagines, of the illegal reading material – Roland hands in his party card.

When his one-man influence campaign on behalf of the Heises inevitably fails – the family is not broken up but is relocated to the dismal village of Schwedt – Roland pays a tribute to Florian the only way he knows how: with the purchase of tickets to a Dylan concert at Earl’s Court, in ‘a symbolic act of solidarity’. It is June 1981 and for the past three months Roland’s largely African-Caribbean neighbourhood, Brixton, has been undergoing sustained rioting following the Metropolitan police’s Operation Swamp 81, an aggressive, blatantly racist response to protests against high unemployment and dangerous housing conditions in the area. Having spent fifteen pages describing Roland’s time in East Berlin and the plight of the Heises, a tossed-off allusion in a single line of dialogue is all McEwan devotes to the unnamed Brixton Uprising.

Here we have an unwitting parable about the perils of making ‘freedom of expression’ the core of your politics. In the abstract, Roland’s criticisms of the GDR’s censorship policies are not wrong, but as a British citizen, he has no power to change them, and aside from having to listen to disagreement from other British citizens, he will not suffer for his views. Roland’s views are far from fringe – in fact, they are aligned with the ruling party’s foreign policy platform – so his principled stand on the matter is acquired on the cheap. While he engages in consumerist acts of symbolic solidarity with people living in other countries, he does not lift a finger to help his neighbours, who are not only living in worse economic conditions than people in the GDR, but are also suffering, like them, ideologically-motivated repression by the security forces of a state apparatus. It is a state apparatus that Roland is theoretically in a position to do something about, or would be, if he hadn’t just abjured meaningful political activity in a fit of pique.

This is by design. The function of ‘debates’ over ‘free speech’ in neoliberal societies like Britain is not to ensure that citizens retain a potent tool to criticize state policy, it is to defang criticism of its material effects, in part, by deflecting attention, energy, and personnel that might be directed towards raising the tax rate, reducing economic inequality, rolling-back privatization, or preventing a mass extinction event, back on to abstract debates about virtues of free speech, whose opponents are always, conveniently enough, located to the left or beyond the border. In fact, free speech debates are not debates at all – free speech is the condition of the existence of debate in the first place – but are rather a form of political blackmail not unlike the one Squealer levels at the supporters of Snowball in the book Roland smuggles through Checkpoint Charlie for the edification of the thought-policed citizens of the GDR: ‘you wouldn’t want Mr. Jones back would you?’

A self-appointed scourge of secular and religious ‘totalitarianisms’ and the other forms of ‘unreason’ subscribed to by the ‘delirious masses’, Roland fancies himself a man of the enlightenment, but does not seem to remember that on the flipside of the coin that reads Sapere aude is written: Argue as much as you like, and about whatever you like, but obey. He does not see that if he is ‘powerless’ and ‘obscure’ to the extent that no one ‘cares’ about his ‘opinions’, it is because whatever power he might have had he gave away long ago thanks to his rather myopic obsession with ‘the shrinking privilege’ of ‘free expression’. Roland wonders whether he should not perhaps have stayed in the Labour Party after all to ‘argue for its centrist and liberal traditions’, but concludes that he would have been ‘driven miserable and mad after four consecutive defeats’. This is not only a bizarre thing to say of a party which has recently ousted Jeremy Corbyn in favour of Keir Starmer, it is also a rather unfortunate testament to the flimsiness of his convictions. It never crosses Roland’s mind that one of the reasons Labour has suffered four consecutive electoral defeats is because of supporters like him.  

Whether free speech really is ‘shrinking’ is – you guessed it – a matter of debate. On the one hand, more speech is being produced by more people than ever before. Yet just as Roland does not regard all repression by state-apparatuses as equally deserving of his attention, he does not regard all speech as equally laudatory. When, despite being a legendary ‘hermit’, Alissa is ‘cancelled’ for making a transphobic joke on an ‘American TV chat show’ – the incident is an allusion to the reaction to a 2016 comment made by McEwan – Roland attributes it to her mix of ‘acerbic rationalism’ and ‘seventies feminism’ rather than to her penchant for verbal cruelty and blithe disregard of others, which he, his son and his mother-in-law have all experienced. Following outcry, an Ivy League university withdraws Alissa’s honorary degree, her speaking tour falls apart, Stonewall and anonymous commentators on the Internet criticize her, and her US and UK sales drop. We are supposed to think that the ‘Young Puritans’ Alissa has offended are overreacting, but it is worth noting these are all instances rather than violations of free expression: private institutions and persons withholding what they had previously chosen to grant – praise, honours, money – according to their best lights at the time. Liberalism giveth and liberalism taketh away.

On the other hand, we need look no farther than the recent assassination attempt on McEwan’s friend Salman Rushdie – the 1989 fatwa against The Satanic Verses is among the events catalogued in Lessons – to concede that freedom of expression is not as secure as we would like it to be. And we may grant that, as a novelist, McEwan has a legitimate interest in its preservation. But it is precisely qua-novelist that he has a special responsibility to freedom of expression that goes above and beyond that of the pundits who argue in its defence in op-eds or even that of advocacy groups like PEN that raise money and awareness on behalf of writers around the globe who have seen their work banned or who have been imprisoned, attacked, harassed or murdered for publishing it. It is this: to create a work of literature whose aesthetic power justifies the privilege in the first place. Without such power, all we have is yet another commodity – far too disposable a peg on which to hang the values of an entire civilisation. Just as people living behind the Iron Curtain had no shortage of reading material as mediocre as Lessons, the market is currently condemning far better books than it to smaller print runs than a samizdat. A bestselling, Booker Prize-winning Commander of the British Empire, McEwan is not obscure, nor is he powerless, according to the Daily Telegraph. Lessons was written in perfect freedom. What did he need it for?

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Forever Orwell’, NLR 87.

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Imagining the Seventies

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ A number of European artists working with the moving image have recently offered answers to this question. Éric Baudelaire, Filipa Cesar, and Jean-Gabriel Périot are just a few of the most prominent to return to the period and its legacy of vanguard film practices. A 2015 exhibition at London’s Raven Row comprising some fifty hours of moving image work, ‘The Inoperative Community’, was devoted to what its curator Dan Kidner described as ‘the long 1970s (1968–84)’; a key motif was ‘the limits of political activism and the fate of left political subcultures’. Today, these years of interchange between the avant-garde and progressive movements of various stripes seem to exert a determined pull on a younger generation. Is this a classic case of left melancholy, a nostalgic turning-back that is also a turning-away from the impasses of the present? The fetish for radical chic is unrelenting, and it is easy to counterpose the complicities of the present with the convictions of the past. Yet there is no denying that it is easier to see after the dust has settled, and the long 1970s offers a range of aesthetic and political histories that are enduringly relevant, some perhaps newly – or differently – visible in the light of the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ is also a question that Peter Wollen asks his ten-year-old daughter Audrey in Kerry Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere (2002). The split-screen video was positioned near the entrance of ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’, held this summer at Camera Austria in Graz. The exhibition’s curators, Oliver Fuke and Nicolas Helm-Grovas, framed their inquiry as a ‘belated’ encounter, foregrounding the distance that separates them from their subjects. The effect was to partake in the retrospective impulse animating much recent artistic and curatorial practice while also interrogating its stakes. Thanks to meticulous research, the two offered a very different response to Wollen’s question than his young daughter. While she answers, ‘I don’t see anything’, Fuke and Helm-Grovas see plenty. The exhibition succeeded in staging a dense network of relations between theory and practice, between Mulvey and Wollen’s work and the social context that informed it, and between the heady moment of the mid-1970s and its enduring afterlives.

The core of the exhibition consisted of films made by Mulvey and Wollen, together and separately. Their best-known features, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), played in alternation as a single projection. An array of other works were displayed around the room on monitors with headphones, including their diptych portrait Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1984) and Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s Disgraced Monuments (1994) which examines the fate of Soviet statuary after the fall of the USSR. Initially working as critics and theorists, Mulvey and Wollen ventured into filmmaking in the early 1970s to put into practice their conception of ‘counter-cinema’, one which would embrace radicalism of both form and content. In a 1976 conversation in Afterimage, they described Penthesilea as an attempt to bridge what Wollen had identified a year earlier as the ‘two avant-gardes’ – on the one hand, ‘experimental or avant-garde film’, and on the other, ‘political film, in the agitational or militant sense’. (In another testament to the contemporary fascination with the long 1970s, selections from this little magazine, including Mulvey and Wollen’s ‘Written Discussion’, have just been reissued as The Afterimage Reader.)

Forging a counter-cinema meant breaking not only with Hollywood, but also the medium-specific purism of the film co-operatives and realist practices that located their politics exclusively at the level of content. Riddles of the Sphinx tells the story of Louise – a mother who is politicised through her daily experiences and a close female friendship – in thirteen single-shot chapters. Yet all familiar articulations of filmic space and, as a corollary, conventional forms of identification are refused; in their stead is a series of 360-degree pans that rotate with indifference to the action. These are interrupted by title cards and bookended by other material, including a to-camera lecture by Mulvey on the topic of the titular myth. Braiding together semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism, and the post-Godardian revival of Brechtian aesthetics, the film dispenses with the pleasures upon which cinema habitually depends, installing in their place the pleasures – powerful, too – of critique.

In Graz, a vitrine displayed the small mercury maze that appears in the final shot of Riddles, a children’s toy repurposed as enigmatic (non-)ending. Surrounding it were archival documents, scribbled notes and diagrams, salutary reminders that behind these seminal films and polemics lie the false starts, speculations and revisions that form part of the process for us all. On the opposite wall were two sets of index cards that appear in Penthesilea: the first, typewritten prompts used by a thirtysomething Wollen, then a visiting professor at Northwestern University, as he delivers a lecture in a house in Evanston, Illinois, parsing the construction of the film (‘…our film is un-natural. It is a film which avoids conventional cuts, but not discontinuities or breaks. It is a montage film…’; the second, handwritten in block capitals, are seen scattered around the same space and intermittently captured in close-up by the roaming camera. These artefacts had a multivalence, at once seeming to consign Mulvey and Wollen’s work to history, yet also rendering it palpably present in the here and now, by supplementing the immaterial film image with the materiality of things. These were things that have survived from the world of the films, the world of the 1970s, to meet us in our own beleaguered time. And if things can survive, so can ideas. The wager of the curators seemed to be that Mulvey and Wollen’s theory and practice should and could return to challenge the present with the force of anachronism.

Around the corner was Victor Burgin’s Gradiva (1982), a series of seven captioned photographs that reimagine Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novella of the same name, famously analysed by Sigmund Freud. The work primarily featured in the exhibition as an emblem of the longstanding dialogue between Burgin, Mulvey and Wollen; likewise the presentation of Mary Kelly’s Primapara: Bathing Series (1974), twelve photographs depicting the body of the artist’s infant son in fragmenting proximity, closely linked to her landmark work, Post-Partum Document (1973–79). In the context of the assorted film props and documents, though, Burgin’s photographs took on an added resonance. Gradiva is, after all, a story of archive fever, of the impossible dream of defeating time by rematerializing the past. In Jensen’s novella, an archaeologist becomes obsessed with a woman he sees represented in a Roman bas-relief sculpture and goes to Pompeii in search of her. There, he believes he finds her, alive. It falls to this woman to explain that he has misrecognized her, that she is not from the ancient past but is familiar from a time much nearer yet nonetheless gone, his childhood. For Derrida, the story spoke of the ‘painful desire for a return to the authentic and singular origin’ – in short, of the longing for an impossibility, one perhaps familiar to anyone who has engaged in historical research. 

Something of this desire could be felt in the exhibition, insofar as it was directed by the urge to recover a time when British cinema was marked by commitment, experimentation, intellectual seriousness and independence – qualities that have undoubtedly atrophied in the intervening decades. Yet as much it was warmed by the flush of archive fever, the presentation deftly avoided succumbing to its delirium. True to their stated embrace of belatedness, the curators chose not to present a time capsule of the 1970s, but rather opened their inquiry outwards by presenting Mulvey and Wollen’s later work, as well as instances of artists engaging with their legacy in the twenty-first century. Holly Antrum’s contribution self-consciously pointed to the danger of over-identification with the archive. The artist presented a vitrine of barely legible pages written in pencil, facsimile copies of documents in the Peter Wollen collection at the British Film Institute National Archive, credited to the fictional researcher Markéta Hašková. The implication being that in trying to remain as close to Wollen’s notes as possible, Hašková sacrifices not only her own perspective, but also loses sight of the material’s substance.

In Em Hedditch’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (2006), Mulvey sits at a desk reading, much as she did in Riddles over thirty years before. She recites passages from her much cited (and much misunderstood) titular essay, now and then explaining why she chose to do certain things, such as her controversial choice to describe cinema as having a universalized masculine form of address. Occasionally, clips from films such as Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) appear onscreen, illustrating the article’s claims. It would be wrong though to consider the work as simply an adaptation of Mulvey’s essay, in the form of ‘videographic criticism’ that prevails today; the sparing use of clips alone should be a clue that something different is at stake. Hedditch’s gesture is better understood as an act of intergenerational memory, and symbol of the overarching conceptualization of the exhibition.

Similar concerns inform Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere, which borrows its title from Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs (1976) as well as something of its approach from their France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977). Wollen remains out of frame, asking his daughter philosophical questions concerning time, existence and the image. The setting is domestic, their rapport intimate. Theory becomes the stuff of bedtime stories; the theorist becomes father, caretaker, teacher. Periodically, panning shots of the Los Angeles cityscape appear, presenting a geography distant from the Englishness apparent in Wollen’s voice, articulating an additional notion of the ‘here’ and the ‘elsewhere’. As in Hedditch’s collaboration with Mulvey, the act of unfaithful remaking serves to pile temporal layer upon temporal layer, allowing a return to privileged moments in the film historical past while nevertheless remaining firmly anchored in the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’ reminds us that the wording of Wollen’s question is crucial. One cannot see the past the way one sees a film or a memorable prop exhibited in a gallery space. The 1970s, or any other vanished decade, can only come into view through acts of imagination and creativity. This was something Mulvey and Wollen themselves knew well: as the latter puts it as he roams around the Evanston house in Penthesilea, reading from his index cards, ‘It is only through the detours of fantasy and dream that we can return to history and act there’.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Brecht in LA’, NLR 136.

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Privatized Universe

There is no limit to human megalomania. One recent example – which went largely unnoticed during this torrid and neurotic summer – was a bizarre exchange between NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the Chinese authorities. ‘We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: “It’s ours now and you stay out”’, Nelson cautioned in an interview with Die Bild. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately hit back: ‘This is not the first time for the chief of NASA to lie through his teeth and smear China’.

Nelson’s accusation was strange, given that this December will mark fifty years since anyone has set foot on our natural satellite. Since then, moon exploration has been delegated to small, tracked vehicles which scuttle over its rocky outcrops. China has only deployed one such robot, which travelled to the moon’s ‘dark side’ in 2019. So the idea that it could establish sole dominion over an area the size of Asia, suspended in a vacuum at temperatures ranging from 120 degrees Celsius during the day to minus 130 degrees at night, exposed to cosmic radiation and more than 384,000 km from the closest supply base, was somewhat of a stretch.

The accusation was all the more outlandish given that it was the US, not China, that planned to launch a gargantuan rocket into space on 29 August, completing a few lunar orbits before returning to earth, all for the modest sum of $29bn. This would be the first leg of the Artemis mission – so-called after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister of the Sun-god Apollo – which eventually aims to establish a base worth $93bn on the moon by 2025. In theory, this lunar settlement will one day serve as a launch pad for a human expedition to Mars.

The question is: why are we interested in further trips to the moon? On their successful voyage in 1969, American astronauts collected a few curious stones but nothing else – so it is hard to find a scientific rationale for future missions. There may be a military objective: it was not for nothing that in late 2019 the US established the sixth branch of its armed forces, the Space Force, to manage all space-related military activities. But why the moon? Perhaps to install a military base from which to threaten an enemy on earth? Surely it would be sufficient to use the satellites already in orbit, which are much closer, cheaper and more precise.

Cynical onlookers such as the Financial Times and Economist insinuate that these missions are merely a ploy to bankroll the defence industry and distribute funds to strategic electoral constituencies. The latter publication reported that the Space Launch System (SLS) used in the Artemis project was nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’, and its technology, derived from the now defunct Shuttle programme, was intended to safeguard jobs in Alabama, where the bulk of the Shuttle’s components were manufactured.

Another hypothesis is that US wants to replay the game that eventually caused the USSR to collapse. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme, was a cosmic defence system whose pursuit brought the Russians to their knees, despite the fact that it was never realized. To keep pace with the American conquest of the moon, China would similarly have to divert a quantity of resources that would plunge its economy into crisis. Hence the US calling upon its vassals – Canada, Japan, the UK and EU – to participate in the Artemis mission.

Lest this New Cold War expenditure should strike the public as somewhat pointless, the government can always pull a rabbit out of its hat. In recent years we have seen countless economic gurus extolling the potential of resource mining, not only from the moon but also from asteroids. Names of great prestige from the world of finance have begun to sponsor this nascent industry. In 2009, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt joined with the director James Cameron and the aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, among others, to found Planetary Resources, a company whose ultimate mission is to mine high-value minerals from asteroids and refine them into metal foams. Meanwhile, iSpace, a similar venture launched in Japan in 2010, claimed that

by taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily life on earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space. Also, by making the earth and Moon one system, a new economy with space infrastructure at its core will support human life, making sustainability a reality.

Fantastical enterprises of this ilk have since proliferated. In 2013, Deep Space Industries Inc. drew up an ambitious blueprint for identifying asteroids suitable for mining by 2015, returning samples to earth the following year, and commencing full-scale operations in 2023. Shortly after, a Californian company called OffWorld announced a grand plan to ‘develop a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.’ It envisioned ‘millions of smart robots working under human supervision on and offworld, turning the inner solar system into a better, gentler, greener place for life and civilization’.

In a 98-page report to its clients in 2017, Goldman Sachs asserted that the prospect of mining platinum in space with ‘asteroid-grabbing spacecraft’ was becoming increasingly affordable, and forecast ever-increasing profits in the sector. Morgan Stanley followed suit. When such banks are encouraging their clients to invest in space mining industries, it is worth remembering that it was Goldman Sachs who managed Greece’s national debt, practically doubling it in the process. That is to say, large financial institutions are endlessly capable of squeezing their clients like lemons. In the end, despite the banks’ predictions, Deep Space was sold to Bradford Space, a comparatively modest trader of orbital flight systems and aircraft components, while Planetary Resources was liquidated and its assets auctioned off. Illusions, however, die hard: January 2022 saw the founding of AstroForge, another Californian firm which claims to have developed new lab-tested technology for processing asteroid material.

Bloomberg has warned us in no uncertain terms about these sci-fi-esque enterprises:

Where would science fiction be without space mining? From Ellen Ripley in Alien and Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, to Sam Bell in Moon and The Expanse’s Naomi Nagata, the grittier end of interstellar drama would be bereft if it weren’t for overalled engineers and their mineral-processing operations…It’s wonderful that people are shooting for the stars – but those who declined to fund the expansive plans of the nascent space mining industry were right about the fundamentals. Space mining won’t get off the ground in any foreseeable future – and you only have to look at the history of civilization to see why. One factor rules out most space mining at the outset: gravity. On one hand, it guarantees that most of the solar system’s best mineral resources are to be found under our feet. earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals the globe attracted as it coalesced is as rich as will be found this side of Alpha Centauri. Gravity poses a more technical problem, too. Escaping earth’s gravitational field makes transporting the volumes of material needed in a mining operation hugely expensive.

Indeed, if we exchange illusion for reality for a moment, we realize there are good reasons why very few people over the last fifty years have poked their heads out of the immediate vicinity of our planet. The International Space Station orbits the earth at only 400km from the earth’s surface – if one were to represent the earth as a sphere a meter in diameter, it would hover just 3cm above it. The moon, on the other hand, is almost a thousand times further, and the shortest distance between the earth and Mars is 55 million kilometres. This doesn’t mean that humans will never exit the solar system, but doing so would require a scientific paradigm shift beyond Einsteinian physics, plus staggering technological advances which would revolutionize transportation in a manner as unthinkable as the reaction engine would have been in the age of the horse-drawn carriage.

The mirage of space exploration obeys the same iron law which Horkheimer and Adorno identified in the culture industry. Namely, it works by indefinitely postponing satisfaction: ‘The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged.’ We are constantly told that in two, five, ten years’ time, a new mission will land on the moon – or better still, build a base there. Likewise, we will always be twenty, thirty or forty years away from establishing colonies on Mars. Deadlines for space flights are infinitely delayed, as demonstrated by Artemis, whose launch was first scheduled for 2020, then for the end of 2021, then 29 August 2022, then 3 September and now, ‘probably’, for later this month, or maybe next…

There’s a stark difference, though, between the ‘normal’ culture industry and the space mirage; the former is produced for the masses, the latter for the capitalist class. It is the Larry Pages, the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezoses that tell themselves such fairytales – believing, with frenzied hubris, that they can turn fiction into science. From this point of view, the exploration (or exploitation) of space takes a form that is closer to religious postulate than plebeian superstition. For the concrete fact which continues to vex capitalists is that the earth is round (and therefore limited, finite). Capitalism is an intrinsically expansionist system; without unrestricted growth, the profit mechanism jams. We’ve frequently witness this phenomenon as capitalists are forced to open new frontiers of industrialization and accumulation; after Britain and the US it was France, then Germany, then Japan and Italy; now it is China and Vietnam, and one day it will be Africa. Yet the earth remains stubbornly spherical – and this poses an insurmountable problem unless the market can expand beyond its frontiers; or maybe even further, beyond those of the solar system. The capitalists’ dream is of an infinite, universal market, where you can buy shares of the Andromeda Galaxy and futures on the commodities produced on the three planets which orbit the pulsar PSR B1257+1 in the Virgo constellation, 980 lightyears away from our solar system. Imagine: an entire cosmos to exploit! 

Yet capitalism is not simply an expansionist economy; it also involves a proprietary relation to the external world. It is enough to recall the paeans which accompanied last year’s flea-jumps out of the earth’s atmosphere by three billionaires (Branson, Bezos, Musk), heralding the private conquest of space (obviously far more efficient than any public equivalent). Here we must reckon with the notion of the privatized universe: entire star systems recast as private property. Our billionaires have no trouble thinking on this scale. Nor, for that matter, are they reluctant to embrace the ridiculous.

The history of space conquest stretches back to the middle of the last century. The moment humankind peeped out of the earth’s atmosphere (Laika the dog in 1957; Yuri Gagarin in 1961), governments immediately began using international fora to stake their claims on the cosmos. To prevent future galactic incursions and imperialisms, they solemnly signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which recommended that the ‘exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind’. But this peacemaking was merely a facade. In 1979, when the Moon Treaty declared the moon and its natural resources ‘CHM’ (Common Heritage of Mankind) and called for ‘an equitable sharing by all countries in the benefits derived from these resources’, many states including the US refused to ratify it. Nine years later, the US government’s Department of Commerce established the Office of Space Commerce, whose mission was ‘to foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the US commercial space industry’.

Now, over the last decade, Washington has intensified its efforts to create a legal framework that would enable the exploitation of resources in space:

The Obama administration signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, allowing US citizens to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resoources’. In April 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order supporting US mining on the Moon and asteroids. In May 2020 NASA unveiled the Artemis Accords, which included the development of safety zones around lunar mining sites.

At this rate, it won’t be long until law firms begin to handle space-related controversies, hiring lawyers who specialize in the intricacies of interplanetary commerce. And all this before anyone has even returned to the moon itself! The problem is that, while we pursue such extravagant schemes, we are simultaneously condemning this small, singular, fabulous planet of ours to destruction. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Eva Díaz, ‘Art and the New Space Age’, NLR 112.