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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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The Opposition Business

At the end of June, the European Union introduced a fourth set of sanctions against Belarus in response to the detention of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, after his Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk the previous month. The new measures will affect key areas of the economy: potassium fertilizers, oil, tobacco, as well as access to EU capital markets. Washington has vowed to introduce similar restrictions. Yet for the time being it looks as if the Belarusian regime has faced down its adversaries, external and internal. The US and EU-backed opposition is in ruins. The mass protest movement that began in 2020 has practically vanished, although support for the government has also fallen significantly. 

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled over Belarus’s 10 million people since 1994. For decades he championed the so-called ‘Belarusian Way’, which sharply differentiated the Republic from other post-socialist countries. For the first three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the rapid marketization of the economy caused social collapse and mass discontent. Lukashenko presented himself as the solution to these ailments. He slowed the pace of privatization, partially reinstated price controls and restored elements of central planning. He established economic ties with Russia and brought back some of the social guarantees from the Soviet era. Manufacturing remained under government control, deindustrialization was halted.

Such policies set off a growth spurt. Since 1990, Belarus’s real GDP has doubled, manufacturing has tripled, and agricultural output has increased by 37%. In Russia, by comparison, real GDP has only grown by 20% over 30 years. GDP per capita in Belarus is lower than in the rest of Europe, but the gap is narrowing. The country has one of the lowest levels of social inequality in the continent, with the incomes of the top 10% only six times higher than the poorest 10%. These successes turned Lukashenko into one of the most popular politicians in the post-Soviet space, earning him the nickname ‘Bat’ka’ – the father. At the turn of the century, Russian politicians were wary of political integration with their neighboring republic, fearing that Minsk’s premier would become a powerful presence in the Kremlin.

Yet Lukashenko never attempted to convert his popularity into a mass movement or a coherent ideology. His regime has always been a centralized bureaucracy. Grassroots initiatives are distrusted and suppressed. The government and its propaganda apparatus have sought to demobilize even loyal supporters, assuring them that popular participation is unnecessary. Lukashenko may have restored some Soviet symbology – such as the flag and anthem of the Belarus Soviet Socialist Republic – but his leftism goes no further than that. The regime’s socio-economic reforms were merely enough to guarantee passive loyalty from the majority of the population and marginalize the liberal-nationalist opposition.

But the situation began to change after the onset of the world economic crisis. Despite its resistance to shock therapy, Belarus had steadily been integrating into global markets. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, Minsk was critically reliant on energy supplies from Russia, whose oligarchs were eager to gain approval for the privatization of Belarusian gas transportation and oil refining industries. These negotiations led to rising tensions with Moscow, which in turn pushed the republic toward dependence on Western imports (hence its current vulnerability to sanctions). During the 2010s, falling demand in the world market and protectionist measures adopted by Western governments finally sapped the dynamism of the Belarusian economy. To make its manufacturing output more competitive, the government devalued the national currency twice. Real incomes fell, and Lukashenko expanded the public sector to prevent mass unemployment. Soon there was not enough money left in the budget for social services. Austerity and incremental privatization followed; the pension age was increased and labour rights were eroded. In an attempt to restock the state coffers and eradicate the grey economy, the government introduced a highly unpopular ‘freeloader’ law which required all those who are not officially employed to pay the government a fixed fine.

Thus did Lukashenko’s ‘social state capitalism’ begin to falter. Even its previous victories came back to bite it. Having created one of the most successful IT-clusters in the world, employing over 100,000 people and attracting significant foreign investment, Belarus’s tech workers turned against the government after 2010. This section of the population was embedded in the global economy, favoured market-friendly reforms and saw the sluggish Belarusian ‘social state’ as a socialist hangover. They demanded regime change and a complete repudiation of this legacy. ‘We now have the bourgeois, rich people, IT people’, complained Lukashenko, ‘whom I created…providing them with conditions that would be impossible elsewhere. And now they want power.’

Faced with this movement, Lukashneko again did nothing to mobilize the support of the wider population. He knew that, as well as weakening the grip of the bureaucracy, the masses would oppose the creeping liberalization which he saw as the only way out of the economic crisis. Instead, Bat’ka took a nationalist, pro-Western turn, hoping to outflank the opposition on cultural issues and strengthen the regime’s legitimacy. He refused to accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, stopped delivering his presidential speeches in Russian, and increased the hours dedicated to Belarusian language in schools. At a press-conference in 2014, Lukashenko declared that Smolensk, Bryansk and Pskov rightfully belonged to Belarus: an overture to far-right nationalists who see the country as an heir to the medieval Great Duchy of Lithuania. He proposed a tactical union with the opposition against Russian revanchism and entered further into NATO’s orbit. As recently as 2017, the president referred to himself as an ally of the EU.

But it was no good. Lukashenko could not win over the liberal-nationalist opposition, especially once the fear of Russian expansionism had subsided. Nor could he endear himself to Western powers, who would accept nothing short of full-scale privatization of Belarusian industry and a turn toward political liberalization that would allow them to influence the makeup of government. The anti-Lukashenko forces inside and outside the country continued to lambast ‘the last dictator in Europe’. For the previously loyal majority, the president’s nationalist turn was disorienting. His most popular policies – social provisions and friendship with Russia – had been abandoned. He had refused to assemble a coalition in favour of preserving the Belarusian Way. The pro-government camp predictably fell apart. Passive support mutated into apathy, or outright hostility. 

As many as 1 million people – more than 10% of the population – participated in the anti-government protest movement of 2020. According to the Centre for East European and International Studies, a little less than half of Belarusians supported the protestors: 29% fully, 16% partially. Only a third opposed them (although if we include senior citizens and rural citizens, who were not accounted for in this survey, the figure rises to about 45%). But liberal-nationalist leaders squandered their popular support by failing to put forward a compelling economic programme. Eager to dismantle the remnants of socialism, they offered no vision for Belarus beyond unpopular market reforms. This gradually alienated workers and the unemployed, most of whom have now either split off from the protest movement, or made clear that their discontent with the government does not equate to support for the opposition. This loss of numbers, along with escalating repression, has checked the momentum of the protests. In the first four days of the upheaval, around 7,000 people were detained: a tally that increased to 33,000 a few months later. Between four and seven protestors died, six disappeared and over 200 were wounded. By the beginning of September, the UN had already documented over 450 instances of torture.

The story of Roman Protasevich’s arrest speaks to the character of the current opposition movement. Protasevich had been an opposition activist since 2010. He travelled to Ukraine in 2014, where he claimed he fought in Donbass as part of an ultra-right Azov battalion. (It was later said that he was not a militant but a journalist, although there is no evidence of Protasevich’s publications from that period). In 2017, Protasevich and Stepan Putilo created the telegram channel NEXTA, which soon became the main broadcaster of the Belarusian opposition, gaining over 2.5 million subscribers. Three years later, Protasevich abruptly stepped down as editor-in-chief. He did not explain his decision at the time, but has since suggested that ‘outside curators’ handled HR decisions, and that NEXTA was being funded by Western patrons.

In May 2021, Protasevich flew to Greece with his girlfriend to meet the exiled Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. He was hoping to become her official photographer, but she did not take him up on the offer. It seemed that his position at the top of the opposition’s thriving media industry had been lost, leaving him full of bitterness about his former comrades. There was speculation that his dismissal had been the result of maneuvering by factional opponents.

Protasevich struck a deal with the authorities shortly after his arrest and is now playing a major role in the state propaganda campaign. He has admitted to stoking ‘chaos’ in Minsk in August 2020 and claimed that the opposition is sponsored by ‘Lithuanian taxpayers’, Russian oligarchs and Western powers. He has lauded Lukashenko, describing him as ‘a man with balls of steel’ who refuses to cave under external pressure. Protasevich’s father argues that his son has been coerced into making such statements: an assumption reiterated by liberal journalists in Russia and Belarus, and taken for granted in the US and Western Europe. But Protasevich, who signed a plea bargain and is currently under house arrest, maintains that no one has made him say anything he didn’t want to say. His denials could be motivated by fear, but they could also be a sign of shifting loyalties. Shunned by the opposition, might Protasevich instead be seeking refuge with the regime?

If so, this personal drama is symptomatic of a broader process: by refusing to build an oppositional ideology rooted in the concerns of ordinary Belarusians, the anti-government movement is fast becoming a tech-savvy business project, whose main goal is to fight the state for control over resources. Often, its leaders are driven by entrepreneurial instincts rather than political convictions – which means they are liable to flip should the government offer them a better deal. There is no sense of solidarity or collective action among this cohort, whose purse strings appear to be controlled by foreign actors. Lukashenko’s propagandists like to say that ‘a dictatorship is better than puppet democracy’. It is to the discredit of Belarusian opposition that they help to legitimize this mantra. 

Read on: Dmitri Furman, ‘Imitation Democracies’, NLR 54.

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Forces of Change

The extent of the break with neoliberalism initiated by the Biden administration will depend upon both the unfolding of Washingtonian politics and the impact of mobilizations from below. Yet in the background, impersonal forces will continue to affect the metamorphosis of capitalism through its successive stages. It is from these structural constraints and opportunities that the fabric of the current conjuncture is woven. What can contemporary political economy tell us about them? Beyond the sphere of mainstream liberal thought, an array of recent theoretical contributions have tried to diagnose the current moment by situating it in the long-term rhythms of capitalist development. They offer a fresh light, if not a magic key, for understanding the systemic shift represented by Bidenomics.

Such forces of change are routinely ignored by liberal economists. Market exchange is viewed as a sphere of activity that depends solely on itself; conscious collective intervention must not interfere with the invisible hand or spontaneous order. However, it is increasingly clear that this faith in self-equilibrating market adjustment cannot provide a general theory of rapid socioeconomic change, nor a specific explanation of our present political turbulence. Recognizing this limitation, The Economist recently rejected neoclassical equilibrium modelling and Friedmanite instrumentalism in favour of evolutionary economics, which ‘seeks to explain real-world phenomena as the outcome of a process of continuous change’. ‘The past informs the present’, it declared. ‘Economic choices are made within and informed by historical, cultural and institutional contexts’.

This intervention signals the weakened grip of neoclassical economics on the profession as a whole. Yet the evolutionary schema nonetheless retains a deep loyalty to bourgeois ideology, premised on the belief that Natura non facit saltum, ‘nature does not make jumps’. For this school of thought, evolution is always incremental. There may be pragmatic exceptions to this rule, such as when neoliberals embrace shock therapy to dismantle the remnants of the ‘unnatural’ socialist order in Eastern Europe, or launch a revolution against the French social model in the style of Emmanuel Macron. But this opportunistic voluntarism is rooted in the presupposition of the transhistorical virtues of the market; it neither relies on a theory of periods in capitalist history, nor on an explanation of its turning points beyond ad-hoc arguments.  

Four decades ago, John Elliott wrote in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that despite their opposed ideological commitments, Marx and Schumpeter agreed on the three salient characteristics of capitalism’s evolutionary dynamic: ‘It comes from within the economic system and is not merely an adaptation to exogenous changes. It occurs discontinuously rather than smoothly. It brings qualitative changes or “revolutions”, which fundamentally displace old equilibria and create radically new conditions.’ Pierre Dockès delineated this ‘mutationist’ perspective in his monumental work, Le Capitalisme et ses rythmes (2017): ‘mutation affects not an aspect or a character of the productive order, but the system itself: a change of state. From a certain threshold, there is percolation: the quantitative change of the elements crystallizes into a qualitative change of the state of the system’.

Still, the question remains: What is driving this percolation, and how exactly does it crystallize?  More to the point, which long-term trends are pushing the current mutation beyond neoliberalism?

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To illuminate these issues, we can first turn to the rich intellectual tradition derived from Schumpeter and Nikolaï Kondratiev, which links technological change to multi-decade waves of capital accumulation. For this tradition, clusters of innovation are deployed during the expansionary phase up to the point where most profitable avenues have been exhausted. Then a depressionary phase fosters an intensive search for new business opportunities, sowing the seeds of a new potential expansionary phase. These shifts are long waves rather than cycles. While depressions are an ineluctable outcome of capitalist development, it is by no means inevitable that a fresh phase of expansion will be unleashed.

According to Ernest Mandel’s Long Waves of Capitalist Development (1980), ‘it is not technological innovation per se which triggers a new long-term expansion. Only when this expansion has already begun can technological innovations occur on a massive scale’.  This requires ‘both a sharp increase in the rate of profit and a huge widening of the market’. Because ‘the capitalist way of securing the first condition conflicts with the capitalist way of assuring the second’, Mandel argues that ‘changes in the social environment in which capitalism operates’ must intervene. In sum, while downturns are endogenous, upturns require exogenous ‘system shocks’ – wars, counter-revolutions, working-class defeats, the discovery of new resources – to allow capital accumulation to take off again.

Before his death in 1995, Mandel identified the ‘total integration of the former USSR and the People’s Republic of China into the capitalist world market’, along with a ‘major defeat of the working class’, as preconditions for an upswing. This analysis was partially borne out: the expansion of global value chains and the increasing rate of exploitation resulting from neoliberal policies, plus the availability of a huge reserve workforce, were decisive changes that propelled the upturn of the global economy from the mid-90s up to the 2008 crash. But due to mounting overcapacity and anemic demand, a full expansionary phase led by the digital economy failed to materialize.  

Mandel’s theory is seldom mentioned nowadays, but one can nonetheless find some of his ideas in the influential work of Carlotta Perez and Mariana Mazzucato. In a 2014 joint paper entitled ‘Innovation as Growth Policy: the challenge for Europe’, they too sought to describe the conditions for an economic upswing. ‘Markets alone cannot return us to prosperity’, they wrote. ‘Investment is driven by innovation; specifically, by the perception of where new technological opportunities lie. Private investment only kicks in when those opportunities are clear; public investment must be directed towards creating those opportunities across all policy spaces and affecting the entire economy’. Perez and Mazzucato attempted to move beyond Mandel’s reliance on ‘system shocks’ by giving the state responsibility for the extra-economic factors necessary to launch an expansion. Desirable innovation should be made profitable through industrial policy – financial regulation, demand management, education, etc. – while adequate tax, fiscal and monetary policies should equip this active state with the necessary resources. 

Thus, the forces of change can lie outside the economic sphere. For Perez and Mazzucato, the ‘current problems are structural’ (read: endogenous) and date back to decades before the 2008 crisis. But, crucially, they believe that conditions to overcome them lie in the autonomy of policymaking. Policy can change structural conditions. This is an inescapable lesson from Communist Party-led Chinese catch-up, and the basic rationale for state capitalism’s return to grace.

If one accepts this argument, it is tempting to push it a step further by exploring the factors that might foster institutional change and reframe the conditions for capital accumulation. What immediately comes to mind is Karl Polanyi’s ‘double movement’. In The Great Transformation (1944), he writes that ‘while laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate state action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way’. If liberalization is a political project, the destructive impact of market forces is automatically ‘stopped by the realistic self-protection of society’. While Polanyi’s focus is on institutional change rather than accumulation waves, his analysis draws an unmissable connection between the two.

A recent contribution from the post-Keynesian school picks up where Polanyi left off, proposing an elegant endogenization of institutionally-driven class conflict in long-run economic fluctuation. In Michalis Nikiforos’s model, ‘The increase in the profit share is related to the domination of the self-regulating market and inevitably leads to a crisis. Society will mobilize to protect itself and there will be a counter-movement, which…shows up as an increase in the wage share’. For Nikiforos, ‘this counter-movement can also later lead to a crisis that will make the emergence of the self-regulating market more appealing and will lead to a change in the direction of distribution and an increase in the profit share’. He argues that the instability of income distribution is due to class struggle dynamics: the more power a class has, the greater its potential to appropriate a larger share of societal income. But the power of each class in turn rests on ‘its potential effects on the macroeconomic performance of the economy’. When excess profit begins to damage the economy in general, the political pressure mounts for an arrangement more favorable to wages. And vice versa.

This framework allows for a straightforward interpretation of the current conjuncture: ‘The recent crisis and the current stagnation are the result of the neoliberal institutional arrangements, which emerged as a response to the profit-squeeze and the crisis of the 1970s…The sudden rise of egalitarian political forces that were until very recently on the fringe of the political system, or the popularity of Piketty’s book, are all manifestations of society’s reaction against the institutional arrangements responsible for the crisis and the stagnation’. The unidimensional focus on the distribution of income is of course a limitation of Nikiforos’s model, but the advantage is that it provides an explanatory mechanism at both ends of the fluctuation.

Economists influenced by the so-called Regulation School have also tried to explain the recurrence of ‘structural crises’ which necessitate a major institutional restructuring and produce a new balance of class forces. In The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism, published in 2015, David Kotz anticipated a movement toward a more regulated form of capitalism, defined by a stronger state influencing and constraining the market. He notes that ‘the current crisis is not the first but the third crisis of a liberal form of capitalism in the United States. Each of the previous two crises was followed by a regulated form of capitalism. Big business played an important role in the shift to regulated capitalism both in 1900 and in the late 1940s, with large social movements creating a context that led big business leaders to support or acquiesce in an expanded state role.’

One of the strengths of the Regulation School, inherited from its Althusserian ascendency, is that its theorization of the succession of accumulation regimes is not limited to the regulated/liberal dichotomy. Each mode of regulation is organized under the constraint of a specific institutional form that weighs on the other components of the system. This allows for a serious engagement with capitalism’s qualitative evolution through its successive stages. Under this framework, competition, the capital-labor nexus and finance have each played prominent roles in different historical periods. Looking ahead, Robert Boyer sees the current conjuncture as open to producing three potential forms of regulated capitalism: a bio-capitalism centered around anthropogenetic activities; a platform capitalism associated with the rise of large digital companies; and a neo-dirigist state capitalism linked either to the Chinese model or to what he calls ‘democratic populism’.

The downside of the Regulation approach, however, is that the precise mechanisms of change tend to be overlooked. While mounting dysfunctionalities in the accumulation regime lead to a structural crisis, the process by which a new regime emerges is unpredictable – depending on trouvailles (incidental discoveries) rationalized ex-post by policymakers, theoreticians and social actors. The fascination with capitalism’s capacity to resuscitate itself after crises comes at the cost of an impoverished political imagination.

The most promising extension of the Regulation School – which comes closer to formulating a coherent theory of institutional change – can be found in Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini’s The Last Neoliberal (2021), an incisive analysis of Macron’s France. For Amable and Palombarini, macroeconomic dynamics, institutions and political mediations exist as a totality. Society’s institutional architecture stems from the historical sedimentation of macro-social compromises which are the result of irreducibly conflicting political processes. Those political processes are themselves determined by economic dynamics through the evolving expectations of various social groups. Following Gramsci, the neorealist approach places a clear emphasis on the autonomy of politics. Social expectations are not fixed in a crude expression of interests but proceed from moving ideological representations that respond to a specific political elaboration.

Macron is swimming against the international tide, toward an intensification of neoliberal restructuring. Amable and Palombarini’s theory provides a powerful interpretation of this phenomenon. The progressive disarticulation of the strongly coordinated national model, which took place over four decades of incremental neoliberal reform, disappointed the expectations of popular classes. This led to a disaggregation of the traditional right-wing and left-wing blocs, paving the way for a full-bloodedly neoliberal-bourgeois movement, embodied by Macron. However, the lack of popular support for this movement hinders is ability to pursue radical neoliberalization. This was forcefully demonstrated by the gilet jaunes, even before the Covid-19 crisis rendered the neoliberal playbook obsolete.

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There is much to learn from these various iterations – Polanyian, post-Keynesian, Regulation, Gramscian – of the historical stages approach: the non-linearity of change, the contingency of technological-economic expansion on adequate institutional settings, the socio-political reactions to the destructive forces of markets, and the qualitative changes to the system brought about by its mutations. These insights help us to decipher the current conjuncture and forecast its possible directions. However, we must also keep sight of the cumulative effects of  successive developmental stages. Contradictions do not just exist within each phase; they also build up from stage to stage, as the dynamics of one accumulation regime conflict with its forerunners. Capitalism, as a system, is ageing.

With the globalization of manufacturing, overcapacity continues to mount and spatial fixes continue to exhaust themselves, making the internal contradiction of the process of accumulation manifest at a truly global level. It remains doubtful that services industrialization and its international fragmentation could create opportunities large enough to absorb this mass of overaccumulated capital. In the meantime, what James O’Connor described as the second contradiction of capitalism is gaining steam. For O’Connor, a key obstacle to capitalist development arises not within the accumulation process per se but ‘between capitalist production relations (and productive forces) and the conditions of capitalist production’, due to ‘capitalism’s economically self-destructive appropriation and use of labor power, urban infrastructure and space, and external nature or environment’. The ecological crisis, the rising price of healthcare and education, the deterioration of physical infrastructure – all this indicates increasing costs on the supply-side that could further hamper the accumulation process. Dealing with these issues is by no means out of reach of human agency. But it would be foolish not to ask whether the additional systemic constraint of profit-making may have set the bar too high.

Read on: Ernest Mandel, ‘The Industrial Cycle in Late Capitalism’, NLR 1/90.

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Values for Money

On 24 June Angela Merkel attended what was advertised as her last European Council meeting; prematurely, perhaps, given that the formation of the next German government is likely to take some time. The European Council is that most secretive jamboree of all 27 heads of state and government; the EU’s executive and legislative in one. A hotspot of ‘multi-level diplomacy’, to use the language of American political science, its proceedings are hidden behind a flurry of PR messages carefully crafted for diversified national consumption. On this occasion, there was general agreement that the meeting was a mess; a mess attributed by some to the Council’s long-time dompteuse having turned lame duck.

The most spectacular flop was the refusal of the Council to support a German-French proposal for it to meet in plenary with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leading the opposition were several Eastern European countries who insist on the EU maintaining a maximally hostile posture in relation to Russia. Their position is that any meeting with Putin would have to be conditional on Russia withdrawing from Crimea. They know, of course, that it never will.

Why did France and Germany try in the first place? Preceding their initiative was the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva, on 16 June. Post-Trump the US is returning to the Democratic Cold War against Russia, needed as a substitute for the Soviet Union, and demanding that its NATO retinue follow suit. This conflicts with French efforts to seek some sort of accommodation with Russia – not just in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East – ideally on behalf of the EU as a whole. For this France needs Germany.

Germany, in turn, needs France to support its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia, urgently required to secure its energy supply, after having decided, under Merkel, to end nuclear energy and coal at the same time. Siding with the Eastern Europeans, the US opposes the pipeline, hoping to prevent a German rapprochement with Russia and thereby keep the EU united within the American flock. While under Trump it did this rudely, under Biden it speaks more softly – without, however, hiding the big sticks it keeps in reserve for the time after Merkel. France and Germany, the odd couple aspiring in vain to the status of a composite European hegemon, could have gone to see Putin on their own, except that this would have laid bare and further deepened the Eastern fault line of the ‘European project’.

The French-German debacle at the Council meeting closely coincided with two events formally unrelated to the EU, which may nevertheless be of lasting consequence for its future politics. In early June Emmanuel Macron let it be known that he would end Operation Barkhane, the eight-year-old military invasion of several Sahel states on the pretext of fighting Islamist terrorism. Then followed the overthrow of the France-friendly President of the state of Mali by his French-trained military in a successful anti-French coup d’état. Operation Barkhane, with sometimes more than 5,000 French troops, was never popular among French voters, and after the latest setback Macron seems to have feared that its imminent military defeat might jeopardize his already inauspicious reelection efforts next year. His decision to get out was apparently made in French Presidential style, without consulting anyone. Certainly Germany, with up to 1,700 soldiers in the area, was caught by surprise.

At first the German government indicated that it might, on French request, continue the effort on its own until a European Endsieg. But then, while the Council meeting was still underway, a suicide bombing in Mali left 12 German servicemen wounded, making it necessary to fly them home for treatment. Even the Frankfurter Allgemeine, otherwise known for its Nibelungentreue – its unflinching loyalty – to German allies in general and to the mirage of a French-German ‘tandem’ pulling ‘Europe’ toward a better future in particular, advised that Germany join the French cop-out – though not without hinting that finishing off Islamist rebel leaders could in any case be done both more effectively and covertly by Special Forces.

Not that Germany is on principle averse to being left holding the bag. The second potentially formative event was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending ‘Resolute Support’ (yes, this was the official name of the invasion). France and other members of the American-led posse of the willing had long abandoned the sinking Afghan ship. Germany, however, was still on service, the last of the Mohicans, going into the third decade, by now with a visible force of 1,100, the second-largest behind the Americans, and, of course, an unknown number of Special Ops. When Biden let it be known that unlike Obama and Trump, he had overcome the opposition of his military and would follow through with his decision to get out, the German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, aka AKK, publicly mused about staying on. After all, the mission – education for women, clean water in the desert, and preventing young Afghan men from seeking asylum in Germany – was far from accomplished, and official German doctrine still held that, in the words of a former Social-Democratic defense minister, the freedom of Berlin was being defended at the Hindu Kush.

This, however, was too much deutsche Gründlichkeit (German thoroughness) even for the German public, and certainly for Biden. On 30 June the last German contingent from Afghanistan arrived at a military air base near Hannover, flags and all, only to discover that not a single government representative was there to receive them, AKK having flown to Washington for urgent talks on an undisclosed subject. Victory, it is said, has many parents, while defeat is an orphan. To make good, the government is now planning a welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of the Ministry of Defense, hidden to the general public, while the Greens demand a parade in front of the Reichstag. None of this, it is safe to assume, will whip up enthusiasm for further out-of-area military ‘missions’, be it under German, European or even American auspices.

To return to the European Council, the other high drama that spoiled Merkel’s farewell was the next episode in the running soap opera featuring the Hungarian strongman Orbán, with his telling first name, Victor. The Council met during pride month, with LGBTQ parades all over the world. Just in time for the meeting, cunning Orbán had his parliament pass a law ostensibly to protect Hungarian children from information on homosexuality and transsexuality, reserving the responsibility for parents to educate their offspring on life in its diverse forms. Wrapped into that law was a rich assortment of vicious language on gays and lesbians.

Coincident with the Council meeting was the European Football Championship. The European Football Association UEFA, traditionally a rather homophobic environment, had recently discovered anti-discrimination as a new marketing device, to heal its sagging reputation caused by a heavy overdose of corruption. When the Council met, the German national team was preparing to play the Hungarian team in Munich. There the city government, in a spirit of anti-discriminatory hospitality, planned to greet the Hungarian team by lighting the stadium in the colours of the rainbow. UEFA forbade this, in a name of sportsmanship, but allowed the German captain, the World Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, to wear a rainbow-coloured captain’s armband. Germany played a lousy game, foreshadowing its subsequent elimination from the tournament by the English, while the Hungarians went home with their heads held high.

The same can be said for their Prime Minister after the European Council meeting. To understand why one needs to consider the prehistory. To get its 750 billion Next Generation European Union post-Covid debt package passed, the Commission had to promise the EU parliament that payments to Hungary and Poland would be conditional on changes in their domestic policy, to curtail the influence of their governments on their judiciaries, under a new so-called ‘Rule of Law Mechanism’. The Commission, however, needed a unanimous vote to circumvent the Treaty prohibitions on borrowing. To get this it had to promise Poland and Hungary that the ‘mechanism’ would not be used against them until the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) had ruled on its legality, which would be long after their share of the money had been paid out and spent. When this became known, the Parliament was infuriated enough to take the Commission to the CJEU for neglect of its duties.

In response the Commission, to placate the Parliament, did the same with Germany, starting a so-called infringement procedure for violation of the EU Treaties. The violation, according to the Commission, consisted in the German government not keeping the German constitutional court from ruling that the CJEU had acted beyond its powers when it found a particular Quantitative Easing programme of the European Central Bank to be in conflict with the Treaties, the Union’s de facto constitution. One reason given by the Commission was that the governments of Poland and Hungary were citing the German constitutional court in arguing that the CJEU must construe the intent of the member states as signatories of the Treaties narrowly rather than broadly, and that it must not be allowed to expand its jurisdiction and that of other EU bodies beyond the strict wording of the Treaties. This is how the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ is being forged, or not forged.

Apart from the EU-Putin meeting, the June Council session was dominated by an emotional debate on Orbán’s law. Seeking to close ranks with the EU Parliament, Council members expressed their disgust not just with Hungary but also with Poland, where some local governments had declared their territories ‘LGBTQ-free zones’. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, under pressure at home for his government having harassed a sizeable number of destitute families over years for allegedly having illegally collected social security payments, asked Orbán why he didn’t just leave the EU, given his contempt for ‘European values’. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg, reportedly in tears, let his colleagues know that his mother won’t talk to him anymore since he married his male partner. Others from countries whose laws closely resemble those of Hungary and Poland, in part because they are inspired by the Catholic Church – a European institution if there ever was one – did not say a word. The same, it is said, holds for Orbán, who might have been busy calculating the number of votes the event would win him in his national election early next year, compensating for whatever he might lose by way of cuts in EU financial aid.

As for the Commission, it seems to feel that its sex re-education exercise – through leaked reports from a closed meeting – was not sufficient atonement for its secret deals with Orbán, and its failure so far to achieve regime change in either Poland or Hungary. In another turn of the screw, four weeks after the Council meeting, the Commission started more infringement procedures, this time against Poland and Hungary for defying ‘European values’ by discriminating against LGBTQ. A procedure of this kind could result not just in fines, but in expulsion from the Union, although this would take a long time, during which all sorts of deals could be made. Short of this, the LGBTQ procedures may help to divert attention from the less sexy and more technical rule-of-law issue, where according to the Treaties the Commission must prove that a country’s judiciary lacks the independence required to oversee the correct use of EU money. (It will be interesting to see how the Commission manages not to indict countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta, always reliable supporters of the Commission, which when it comes to the corrupt use of EU funds, and indeed to corruption generally, must at least be on par with Poland and Hungary, the same holding for diverse forms of discrimination.)

Whether either sort of measure will prove capable of disciplining Orbán and his Polish counterpart, Kaczyński, is anyway doubtful. The advantage of the LGBTQ proceedings is that they offer more drama and may provide a façade behind which compromises can be made on the EU financial subsidies. Generally, the hope on the part of the Commission seems to be that ‘values’ are a better tool than ‘rule-of-law’ for extending its jurisdiction over the domestic politics of member states, above and beyond treaty language. In any case, the LGBTQ dispute will drag on. To pour oil on the flames, by the end of July Orbán, retaliating for the Commission’s infringement procedure, had called a national referendum on his sex education law. If the case goes to the CJEU, it will keep the Court busy for some while, during which the moral fervour of June 2021 may cool off and geostrategic interests, not least of the United States, in Eastern Europe remaining a Western European-owned thorn in the Russian flesh may reassert themselves.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Markets and Peoples’, NLR 73.

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Unchanging New York

In his successful run to become its first black mayor in 1989, David Dinkins was fond of describing New York City as a ‘gorgeous mosaic’. The electoral map that began to emerge on 22 June – in a primary that is almost sure to determine the next mayor of the city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one – suggests a less benign picture of fragmentation. A glance at the first choice of in-person voters reveals stark divisions not just by race and class, but by neighborhood, almost by block and building.

After a campaign with little reliable polling, the social basis of the leading candidates is suddenly flush with color. What does it show? To start with, candidates who barely made a mark, despite spending some of the largest sums in the race. Ray McGuire, head of global investment at Citigroup until October, and the only top candidate to forgo public matching funds, carried ‘Midtown East’ – 24 square blocks of the priciest offices and condos in the world that includes Citicorp center on Lexington and 53rd. Shaun Donovan – Obama’s housing secretary, whose shining moment was guessing the median house price in Brooklyn is $100,000 – appears to have done best on his own block in Boerum Hill (median house price $1.3 million), where he placed fourth. Neither reached 3% of the overall vote.

The map also registered the way voter preferences seemed to shift rapidly from where they had been as late as May – like those split-flap displays in old train stations, when the arrivals and departures suddenly tick over all at once. The most obvious instance is Andrew Yang. For months, the former presidential hopeful was assumed to be ahead, attracting the lions’ share of media coverage, much of it fawning. Yang initially benefited from, and encouraged, this soft focus, and the little online dustups it generated over his bodega and bagel preferences or ability to get to the Bronx on a subway. But his ‘good vibes’ offensive may have backfired. Not just because these attracted the only serious scrutiny of any candidate, revealing a threadbare record of the entrepreneurial spirit he claimed to embody, but policies that looked far from ‘breezy’ underneath it.

Guided by tech investor Bradley Tusk, the most post-modern of mayoral candidates ran the most old-school of municipal campaigns. Playing to Chinese small business owners wary of the growing number of street vendors, he pledged to limit licenses to the latter. Pandering to the ultra-Orthodox, he indicated he would not act on a city report that found that their yeshivas (26 of 28) failed to provide a basic secular education as required by law. And to outer-borough white homeowners and older voters, he stressed his opposition to ‘defund the police’. Coming in a distant fourth on election night, he did best in the ethnic enclaves he targeted – Hasidic South Williamsburg, Chinatown in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in Flushing, College Park and pockets of commuter Queens and Staten Island.

The most dramatic deflation was not the Yang ‘helium balloon’, however, but that of the entire left. The strongest candidate to claim the progressive mantle appeared to be Scott Stringer, city comptroller, who staked out positions – to make CUNY free; on the Green New Deal; to replace ‘mandatory inclusionary zoning’ with ‘universal affordable housing’ – that earned him the early support of DSA-backed state senator Julia Salazar, congressman Jamal Bowman, and the Working Families Party. But within hours of an uncorroborated accusation from Jean Kim on April 28 – that 20 years earlier he had groped her in a taxi when she volunteered on his public advocate campaign – all had fled, without waiting to delve into a story that soon unravelled. With Stringer sidelined, Dianne Morales was anointed the candidate of the left. Built around slashing the police budget in half, her campaign promptly fell apart when staff walked out in late May, citing a hostile environment and retaliation for their unionization drive. In the weeks before, it emerged that she supported charter schools, had once bribed a city water inspector, and that she earned up to $350,000 a year at a nonprofit whose real estate development arm has one of the worst histories of tenant harassment and evictions in the city.

Two weeks before the start of in-person voting, fortune smiled on Maya Wiley: the attorney and MSNBC pundit became the progressive standard bearer by default. Receiving a surprise endorsement from AOC, it no longer mattered much that her rudderless campaign had promised little concrete, or that her most notable public act had been as a lawyer for De Blasio, concocting a transparently absurd designation to shield his emails with advisors lobbying the city. About 21% of voters put her first anyway – at once a sounding of the baseline strength of the left as well as its ideological shallowness. Wiley won parts of increasingly affluent Harlem, but she dominated in whiter, younger, gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, Queens and Lower Manhattan, from Alphabet City and Fort Greene to Greenpoint, and from Long Island City to Ridgewood, in bands of yellow that roughly tracked the L and G trains.

But the unmistakable leaders geographically ­– sweeping the widest swaths of the city on election night – were Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams. Once the final ranked results were released on 12 July, just a point separated them, but here, the glaring polarization was not straightforwardly ideological. Garcia took the wealthiest and whitest zip codes in Manhattan and tiny beachheads along the East River in Queens and Brooklyn; Adams led in every other borough, and among the Black and Latino working class.

Garcia, a sanitation commissioner under De Blasio, ran on grim managerial competence, with an upfront commitment to austerity, along with the standard ‘moderate’ package of charter schools, police and unfettered real estate development. She was not just non-partisan, but anti-politics, against experiments with the status quo after the pandemic, beyond bus and bike lanes and solar panels. She was not simply endorsed by the Times, but in a real sense created by it: the editorial board selection on 10 May tripled her support overnight among the demographic most likely to read it – 38% earning over $75,000, over 70% white with at least one degree.

Adams, in contrast to all candidates save Stringer, is a product of the much-weakened Democratic machine – an ex-police captain, who by his own admission has planned for this moment for thirty years, keeping a nightly diary of all he hoped to do as mayor, while dispensing patronage as state senator and borough president. His campaign was built almost exclusively around ‘public safety’, the most important issue for voters after a spike in gun and subway violence during the nadir of the pandemic. While he is certain to win in November, Adams will have made it to that point without the coalition Dinkins assembled in 1989, which combined high turnout among blacks and Latinos in the wake of Jesse Jackson’s presidential run and white liberals.

‘Social media does not pick the candidate. People on social security pick the candidate’, Adams declared after his victory. A clever slogan – as much in rebuke of the left as a defiant gesture of pride in his working class roots. In fact, he is even less disconcerting than Dinkins to the ‘permanent government’ of the city, which happily opened its pockets to them both. Favorite of the housing projects of Red Hook, he was also the top pick of the ultra-rich bottom corner of the Upper East Side – the Sherry Netherland, Trump Tower, The Parc V, 810 Fifth Avenue. Hedge fund managers pick the candidate too: Steve Cohen, billionaire owner of the Mets, chipped in $1.5 million; Dan Loeb, champion of ‘educational choice’ who once accused De Blasio’s black deputy of putting ‘union puppets’ over ‘the interests of little vulnerable black children’, gave $1 million.

*

How to explain the election of a black former policeman with a tough-on-crime message as mayor of New York City, less than a year after it saw one of the largest uprisings for black civil rights in the US, with broad cross-racial support? What are the lessons for the left, which will elect several socialists to the city council in this same election? For Ross Barkan, whose substack provided the single most insightful reporting on the race (putting what remains of the metro desks of the big papers to shame), it was the obsession of the ‘professional left’ with Yang that allowed Adams through, despite the latter’s far more consistent record of hostility to it. But this debate seems beside the point when set against other factors.

One is the desiccation of the local press corps, which meant that we learned next to nothing about the greatest novelty of the primary (apart from ranked choice voting). A day before polls opened, the Times disclosed that just 14 billionaires had spent $16 million in the first city election to see unlimited outlays by super PACs. The head of Adams’s came direct from the charter school movement, which spent lavishly in a race where its assault on chronically underfunded public schools was barely discussed. Elections for class president have been more substantive.

The more fundamental question is why a city that saw the largest concentration of donations to Sanders, who accepted AOC’s endorsement before a jubilant crowd of 26,000 in Queensbridge, and where he polled between a fifth and a third in the presidential primary (until the same Board of Elections that accidentally counted 135,000 ‘test ballots’ in the mayor’s race cancelled it, as a favor to Cuomo) could not field one candidate in his image, or who had so much as voted for him in 2020. The dominance of the Democrat-aligned establishment –  media personalities, union leaders, nonprofits, lacking any organic link to broader movements – goes unchallenged at mayoral level, even as its incumbents have proven vulnerable in local, state and federal elections. The largest DSA chapter in the country cannily made no endorsement for mayor here. Yet the real test is not of discretion, but whether the left can produce a citywide, mayoral candidate who could then form a slate around a distinct program.

Another way of asking this question is to focus on defunding the police. The mainstream media has eagerly sounded its death knell as a political program, and Adams encouraged it to read the race as a triumph of a multiracial blue-collar Bidenism over out of touch, lily-white leftists. There are at least two problems with this. Adams won not just because he defended a large police department, but as a credible candidate to reform it, going back to his founding of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care in 1995. His voters were not primarily white ethnics who want a return to ‘stop-and-frisk’, but East New Yorkers, Harlemites, Bronx residents, many of whom would have put Wiley – his chief critic, calling for fewer new recruits, more civilian oversight, removing cops from schools, mental health and traffic enforcement – as their second choice. In most areas where Adams triumphed, Wiley was runner-up in first-choice votes.

Adams’s election is certainly a setback for those who want to see the end of policing as we know it, in part because his whole career is based on the hypnotic idea that a more diverse force – one with a woman at its head, as he promised? – can be fairer, kinder, less violent. But it is not necessarily a regression to the Giuliani years, nor even Bloomberg. De Blasio won in 2014 not just on account of his ‘tale of two cities’ rhetoric, but because he called for ending stop-and-frisk, before it was ruled unconstitutional. If Adams or his commissioner try to bring it back under a new name, he will face powerful opposition in the streets – not least from the people who elected him. 

The second problem is that the issue of crime and policing are too often treated as separate from economic insecurity, even on the left – when the former has developed in response to the latter, as the city turned to a growth model based on attracting inward investment, tourist dollars, and financial and real estate speculation after 1975. This model has generated massive inequality in the city and state – now the most unequal in the US – characterized by badly paid service work and cycles of boom and bust, as a once diversified economic base with a dynamic light industrial sector gave way to virtual dependence on FIRE.

Covid exposed the immense fragilities of this model, but did not create them: from February to April 2020, a decade of employment gains – over 900,000 jobs – vanished in three months. More than half came in leisure and hospitality, as restaurants and theaters shuttered, and hotels emptied. By June, 41% of workers in the Bronx – the poorest county in the country – were on unemployment relief. Before the pandemic was even a dot on the horizon in 2018, 63,000 people on average slept in shelters each night – almost 80% more than a decade before, the most since the Great Depression. Three quarters were families, and in a third of them at least one parent was employed: all that the ‘growth’ of that decade had meant for them was that they could not afford rent, which reached an average of $3,500 around the same time, in a city where the average household income is $62,000.   

‘Quality of life’ policing developed as a response to the social problems this unbalanced model created: it is the direct outcome of a system geared towards attracting money and people – via tax credits, subsidies, exemptions, land giveaways, branding – from outside the city, whose actual residents threaten the scrubbed-clean ‘luxury product’ image used to sell it. Giuliani formalized this into a campaign against ‘disorder’ that cleared the streets of homeless – vastly enlarging the police force, given a ‘zero tolerance’ mandate, that used the theory of ‘broken windows’ to harass blacks and Latinos. But the origins of that punitive turn go back to the aftermath of the 1975 fiscal crisis when the current economic model was put into place: ‘I Love New York’, its first global marketing effort, coincided with Koch’s stepped-up ‘war on graffiti’ – involving razor wire, guard dogs and infrared sonar, in a ‘multimillion dollar assault on a few hundred kids with spray paint’. Dinkins, who pledged to heal the racial animus Koch had stoked, in fact laid the groundwork for much of what his successors in Giuliani and Bloomberg would do – targeting squeegee men for arrest; sweeping homeless from Tompkins Square Park; authorizing William Bratton, his chief of transit police, to crack down on panhandlers and turnstile jumpers in the subway; and hiring thousands of new officers as part of his ‘Safe City, Safe Streets’ initiative.    

Adams was rehearsing a well-worn theme when he arrived in Times Square – twice in one day in May – after three bystanders were hurt in a shooting. ‘We’re not going to recover as a city if we turn back time and see an increase in violence’, he intoned from the epicenter of the antiseptic tourist hell the city has become. Invoking the specter of chaos and crime from the 1970s and 80s – in which the Bronx burned, the safety net collapsed, and population declined by a million – has been effective at enforcing the warped settlement that is its chief legacy. Working-class voters of color have fared uniquely badly by this arrangement, but they also have good reasons to fear its collapse. The bad old days of ‘planned shrinkage’ may seem an even worse fate than the gentrification that has driven many from their homes. 

*

So long as the left offers them no real economic alternative, why shouldn’t they vote for someone like Adams, who matter-of-factly draws the connection between policing and an economy that seems to demand it? None of the mayoral candidates truly questioned that economic model. Nor did most of the socialists running for council. They mainly called for redistributing the gains from its frothy markets – in real estate and equities – while continuing to rely on them as drivers of growth. Most simply demanded more affordable units from private developers. But their status as the primary providers of housing should hardly be set in stone, when some of the best buildings we have were erected by public entities or union cooperatives – from the art-deco Amalgamated on the Lower East Side to Tudor-revival United Workers in the Bronx. Given the option, how many would choose the hideously cheap ‘luxury condos’ that sprout like weeds in vacant lots in Bushwick? The idea of ‘trickle down’ prosperity has permeated municipal politics here far more completely than in the places Reagan won. Golden drops do not fall from the ‘super-tall’ residential towers of 57th Street, which suck billionaire wealth into airtight containers rather than see it squandered on the specks a thousand feet below.

For socialists running in city and state elections, the challenge is bigger than crafting legislation to bring these down to size: it is to build a different legislature. What good is winning more seats on the council without a radical critique of that body as catspaw for real estate interests? The practice of deferring to individual members on projects affecting their districts has led to terrible abuse. On rare occasions when a member is forced by a community to oppose a development – such as the four 75-100-story luxury towers in ‘Two Bridges’ that would cast the projects and senior living centers around it into literal darkness – the council itself can be bypassed by mayoral fiat via the City Planning Commission. Local initiative in planning decisions, inscribed in Section 197-a of the Charter, is a dead letter. The relationship of city to state cannot be ignored either, given how few of its own institutions and resources the city directs; it cannot even raise the one tax it does control on property outside of a formula codified in state law. Within this structure, the mayor may overpower the council, but he is a Lilliput compared to the governor.

This constitutional setup was not handed down by the Catskills equivalent of Lycurgus. The current city Charter grew out of two commissions in the 1980s – the first led by one of the key players in the new crisis regime, real estate scion and lawyer Richard Ravitch; the second by F. A. O. Schwarz Jr., heir to the toy fortune. A grassroots campaign for a brand new charter could be a powerful mobilizing tool for the left, dramatizing the need for a much more democratic – and less biddable – city government. It might also provide a numerically significant but politically demoralized and divided union membership – at 24%, this is twice the national average – with a citywide basis on which to organize, rather than cutting constant side deals when its particular contract falls due. The mayoral endorsements of the major unions tell their own story – with DC-37 and the TWU 100 backing Adams, the UFT going to Stringer, and SEIU 1199 to Wiley. 

David Harvey placed the coup in Chile in 1973 side by side with New York City’s bankruptcy two years later, as turning points on the road to neoliberalism. Chileans have just called a convention to turn the page on the restrictive political regime imposed on them in its aftermath. How long before New Yorkers follow their lead? If they did, they could slam shut a whole chapter in the era of political economy.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘The Flames of New York’, NLR 12.

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On Phan Nhiên Hao

In March of 1975, in the early stages of their bloody and triumphant march to Saigon, North Vietnamese forces laid siege to Kon Tum, a provincial capital in the Central Highlands, near the border with Laos and Cambodia. Outgunned and abandoned by central command, South Vietnamese defenses chose to retreat, and within two weeks this former resort town had all but emptied out. In a melancholy article, the New York Times described a ‘vast exodus of refugees’ heading southeast, most of them on oxcart or foot. The column of dispossessed stretched 140 miles.

The child of a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, Phan Nhiên Hao was among the lucky few airlifted out of Kon Tum. In a 2002 essay, ‘This Year I Am the Same Age as My Father’, he recalls a curious incident from his final day. Before boarding the military aircraft, the seven-year-old walked to the surrounding fields, where he released his pet cricket, which ‘disappeared in the blink of an eye’, amid smoke and the din of artillery fire. ‘I didn’t want to keep my little cricket in its prison’, he writes, ‘because I sensed my own childhood coming to an end and the misery that awaited me in the days ahead.’ Phan’s father stayed back to fight and was killed a month later. ‘Even now, I still see my father in my dreams from time to time’, he confesses. ‘He remains a symbol of the war and the loss I carry with me throughout life.’

Phan arrived in the United States in 1991 on the Orderly Departure Program, an emigration scheme set up to grant safe passage to southern refugees. Since then, he has written a steady stream of poetry and criticism in Vietnamese. His translator Linh Dinh regards Phan as among ‘the best and the most courageous’ Vietnamese poets of his generation, though this status is not widely known. His work, which is censored back home, appears on diaspora websites and sometimes on his blog. He has mostly ignored – and been ignored by – the circus of American publishing. In 2006, a slim and striking volume of his verse, Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker, appeared, and in 2020 he released another, Paper Bells, translated by Hai-Dang Phan. Both books, from small presses, vanished without trace. In three decades, Phan has given a handful of cagey interviews, avoided the reading circuit, and kept his criticism and nonfiction untranslated. Welcomed to the feast of liberty, he was offered one of two seats, reserved, respectively, for ‘communist dissidents and ‘Asian Americans’. He backed out the door and found himself alone.

Phan’s poems address the country’s post-war disasters: hunger and reeducation camps, corruption and market reform. Yet he has resisted the language of victimhood, as well as the first-person confessional mode which has dominated American poetry for the past three decades. ‘A poetics of pious solitude for a neoliberal age, one that has transformed us all into atomized loners’, as Ken Chen recently described it. Rejecting both assimilation and nostalgia, Phan has gone his own way, writing short, spiky, shapeshifting poems, rooted in the present, although Vietnam is never far from his mind: ‘Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat.’ His poetry lays bare a self that, if not exactly erased, is constantly on the run, in lyrics possessed of a fugitive beauty:

Growing up I thought speech could heal

Open a would, disinfect, then rebandage it. . .
Now in this silence sometimes I see

memory’s two hands reaching out

to clap violently without making a sound

Phan has made a virtue of displacement, finding a language for the strangeness of his exile, in which nothing can be taken for granted and the consolations of Western society ring hollow. At the same time, he satirizes all forms of oppression, and maintains what Hai-Dang describes, in the introduction to Paper Bells, as a ‘commitment to a more just memory and history for South Vietnamese.’ In this sense, Phan neatly inverts much ethnic literature, whose protagonists are forever striving to break into society, setting aside issues of morality and justice for the melodrama of identity. The context is important. ‘Vietnamese American literature fulfils ethnic writing’s most basic function’, argues Viet Than Nguyen in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016). ‘It serves as proof that regardless of what brought these others to America, they or their children have become accepted, even if grudgingly, by other Americans.’ Phan’s modest body of work, composed in obscurity, shows one way out of this impasse.

Born in 1967, Phan lived in Vietnam until he was twenty-four. At school he had to overcome what he described as ‘the political difficulties of my family background’, since anyone associated with the southern government and military were targeted after reunification. Graduating with top grades, he was admitted to the Teacher’s College in Saigon, where he fell in with the city’s avant-garde writers, among them Nguyên Quôc Chánh, whom Hai-Dang has described as ‘the unacknowledged trailblazer of post-1975 Vietnamese poetry.’ This emerging tradition was marked by a kind of rough, earthy and – truth be told – undisciplined surrealism. (Unlike most European writers, surrealists were not censored after the war, because of their ‘communist sympathies.’) A representative poem by Nguyên Quôc Chánh runs:

The sun lunges forward crossing a boundary puncturing a late sleep
An egg hatches a sound.
I grip my hand holding a shadow and releasing it into a glass of water
On the silent shore the sea of memories spares two shells odorless and empty.

Phan’s early verse conveys a similar longing and restlessness, though from the first he has been more focused and patient, and his images sharper: ‘time puffs out/its bronzed chest/pinned with medals/each one for a day I lived/in the pits of pain’.

Moving to the United States in 1991, Phan worked different odd jobs – janitor, newspaper delivery man – before settling in Northern Illinois, where he is now a research librarian at its state university. In the 1990s, he briefly lived in Little Saigon in Orange County and studied American Literature and Culture at UCLA. ‘My first reaction to American literature was disappointment’, he has said. ‘But then I understood that the direct, non-fussy quality. . . is suitable to a pragmatic culture, with its focus on results.’ He studied the country’s plainspoken modernism, translating William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and Charles Simic, among others. These influences tempered his youthful lushness, making for a verse of lucidly registered mysteries, in which the border between documentary and interior report blurs. In ‘Night Working as a Janitor in Seattle’, he writes:

Peering into countless toilets each day
by the end they become mere loudspeakers to you
babbling fouls songs
about desperation and hope
. . .
You drive home through clouds of steam
rising from street grates and manholes like coffee for the waking city
on your right is the ocean
a white ship sinking
nobody notices.                                                                    

The tone is oneiric, even vatic, though leavened by self-deprecation, and firmly grounded in the world. In a typical move, Phan goes from material to metaphorical and then back to material description, catching the drift of a mind under duress, without framing the anecdote as an ‘emotional crisis’ of the kind favored by lyric confession. Nothing is explained, let alone resolved. One dismal mystery has given way to another. That the poet registered both suggests he will live to fight another day. 

Anonymity and defenselessness are two of Phan’s great themes, and neither should be confused with loneliness. He is less interested in American society than its landscapes – eerie farmlands and fantastical cities – where vaguely threatening activity plays out: ‘Sixty-five miles west of Chicago/the day smells like peanut butter/on the fields of glory tractors are busy drawing/the austere face of freedom’. In a parody of the immigrant narrative, where the newcomer is remade in the melting pot, Phan circulates in the country’s bowels, like a parasite or microbe: ‘In the Coca-Cola Museum/I pissed more than I drank/of the different sodas/tricking my thirst/I heard America burp’. Or again, more ruefully, in ‘Like the First Time’:

Like the first time I was swallowed whole by
my clothes

a serious suit worn for an interview

on the forty-eighth floor of an ugly log-like building
in downtown Los Angeles
standing in the elevator I saw I resembled a matchstick
struck against the day’s dampness

The speaker is at once combative and vulnerable, clever and bewildered. ‘The first time’ is a nice touch, undercutting the sense of crisis, turning loss of self into a routine. Phan has spoken of the influence of Camus, whose books he read as a teenager: ‘At a very deep level, Existentialism has influenced the way I look at life. This strong belief in the essential isolation of man has helped me cope in the US. Without this philosophical foundation, I must have already killed myself just by living here.’

Several of the poems in Paper Bells recount trips to Vietnam, taken, it seems, after a decade away. These are looser, longer, less internal, and more direct, closer to speech. If in the United States Phan is primed for survival, back home he is wound up to attack. Favored targets include politicians, royalty, tourists and businessmen:  

Camped out in the Gentleman’s Club chewing dog meat
the worldly smart asses talk big
then stumble home
to hang themselves upside down
in the style of bats.

Those shady dealmakers
cunning malignant
clowns (who are rightly
scorned), travel in packs through the slums
plotting land grabs.

These lines – from ‘Regarding the Spiritual and Social Situation in Vietnam Today’ – are buoyed by outrage and revulsion, ballasted by social concern, and tinged by a kind of caustic patriotism. Time and again, Phan is drawn to extremes of feeling by the spread of greed and commerce, which has deformed a place he once loved: ‘Da Lat now has gotten fat,/With streets stretched way out, houses recklessly thrown up./Motor scooters have all stolen the peace of morning’. Still more powerfully, he writes about poverty, and the shame of living decently as others stuffer:

Now imagine a child

A small child
wandering the street of Saigon for a living
in a country where the poor have two choices:
to take a piss in the street
or hold it.

Keep holding that image until your head
cracks
like
a bladder.

And you catch a whiff of your own life
stinking.

 
Is Phan Nhiên Hao a great poet? Probably not, or not yet. The ‘homespun’ technique Hai-Dang praises can only be stretched so far; often, it snaps into to kind of doggerel: ‘History is a series of seizures/If lucky we live in the meanwhile/in periods of peace’. Phan’s verse is not as burnished as Bei Dao’s or as consistently rich as Luljeta Lleshanaku’s – two poets that he resembles. Still, he is a serious and independent-minded writer whose willingness to confront politics and history without self-pity marks him out in the American landscape. He is also at heart a social realist, exposing the operation of power and siding with its casualties. Lines like these don’t lose their urgency:

When the nameless are executed in the city’s square,

write their faces in blood, and never wash your hands –
not until freedom spreads like soap bubbles
from scrubbing history’s shameful spots.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73

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Leftovers

The 11 July snap election in Bulgaria may ultimately be remembered for its turnout rate, which fell to an all-time low of 42%. Much of the post-election debate revolved around the reasons for this figure. Some blamed the new electronic voting machines, which supposedly scared off the elderly and less educated; others claimed that people were unwilling to vote during the summer vacation, especially since the outcome was entirely predictable. Only a few observers on the left suggested that the country’s consistently dwindling voter participation might have something to do with the lack of alternatives on the ballot.

The previous Bulgarian elections, held in April 2021, produced a short-lived hung parliament. President Rumen Radev, affiliated with the ‘conservative-left’ Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), facilitated a political reconciliation of sorts by appointing a caretaker government with members drawn from various political backgrounds. With that, the almost uninterrupted 12-year rule of the right-wing party GERB – under the leadership of strongman Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – came to an abrupt end.

Borissov founded GERB (literally ‘coat of arms’) in 2006 after a four-year stint as Chief Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior in the cabinet of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the former Bulgarian tsar who was elected PM in 2001. Borissov’s popular appeal was based on his brash persona and tough stance on organised crime, along with his self-presentation as a political outsider. In 2005, he captured the mayoralty of Sofia with almost 70% of the vote. Four years later, he led GERB into government after almost winning an absolute majority in parliament. His party, modelled on Germany’s Christian Democrats, promised to eradicate criminal cartels, ensure the efficient disbursal of EU funds, limit government spending and taxation, and loosen employment laws: a programme that won support from the European political establishment.

Once in office, GERB relied on a revolving door of coalition partners to stabilize its rule: most recently, an alliance of far-right parties known as the United Patriots. Its tenure was characterized by growing social inequality, brutal austerity, and a steady decline in the quality of public services, healthcare in particular. With the government unable to sustain its momentum amid a series of corruption scandals and protests – which escalated throughout 2020 and 2021 – GERB’s former coalition partners eventually decided to draw a cordon sanitaire around the ruling party, joining the rest of Bulgaria’s political class in refusing to cooperate with Borissov. The Biden administration dealt the PM a further blow in June by sanctioning several Bulgarian politicians and businessmen under the Magnitsky Act. The list included the media mogul Delyan Peevski, an MP for the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and allegedly a close associate of Borissov. The leader’s fall from grace was finalized by the election results this month. GERB dropped to 23%, down 1 million votes from its 2009 result. Parliament is now deadlocked, and negotiations between the parties are underway.

However, the real losers of the night were the BSP. Despite the popularity of President Radev and his brief caretaker administration, the party crashed to one of its worst ever results, taking in only 13%. Descended from the Bulgarian Communist Party, which ruled the country from 1944 to 1989, the BSP was one of the most popular national political organizations after the fall of the Eastern Bloc – a stark contrast with its sister parties in other former communist countries. It rebranded itself as ‘socialist’ in 1989, won the first democratic elections the following year, and adopted a new constitution. Along with its main rivals – the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), now allied with GERB – it supported a prompt transition towards liberal capitalism. But the general population had different priorities, expecting the elimination of old-regime privileges without sacrificing the robust welfare state built up over previous decades. This split between the parties and the electorate led to a series of unstable governments, which struggled to hold onto power throughout the 90s.

The skyrocketing unemployment and poverty of the transition period caused the BSP to pitch left in the 1994 elections, promising to temper neoliberal reforms with social protections. Elected on this platform, the BSP tried to retain price controls and protect the welfare state while privatizing the financial sector and deregulating international trade. Yet this attempt at class compromise resulted in a severe banking and social crisis three years later. Popular discontent with hyperinflation brought down the government in 1997, and the anti-communist parties managed to win a stable majority for the first (and only) time, offering radical neoliberal reform and the privatization of virtually all industry. The lesson for the BSP leadership was simple: that its left flank must not be allowed to govern. The BSP’s liberal faction soon took the helm, serving two more stints in government: from 2005 to 2009, and 2013 to 2014. 

Today, the nominally social-democratic BSP is facing a crisis similar to that of centre-left parties in the rest of Europe. Voters resent it for the right-wing measures enacted in the late 2000s, including the introduction of a 10% flat tax. They were also repelled by its decision to appoint the media tycoon Delyan Peevski as head of the National Security Agency in 2013. Since its return to opposition, the BSP has failed to highlight the contiguity between neoliberal reforms and rampant corruption. Instead, it has opted for handwringing over the loss of the ‘traditional Bulgarian family’, quixotic denunciations of ‘genderism’, and support for GERB’s nationalist campaign against Northern Macedonia. As a result, the BSP’s voter base has abandoned it in droves. Its working-class support fell to just 44% in the last election, compared to over 65% for all other parliamentary parties.

Amid the terminal decline of Bulgarian socialism, the country’s politics are now defined by the fault line between ‘protest parties’ and ‘the establishment’, pitting new and not-so-new smaller parties against the bloc composed of GERB, the BSP and the DPS (which claims to represent Bulgaria’s Muslim minority). Given Bulgaria’s status as the poorest, most unequal country in the EU – with swathes of its population lost to outward migration – one might assume that the field would be wide open for a left-leaning social-democratic opposition. But this prospect has largely been eclipsed by the dominance of ‘anti-corruption’ discourse, which overrides all other concerns. This idée fixe, which grew partly out of popular anger at socialist Bulgaria’s so-called ‘red bourgeoisie’, was compounded by the country’s accession to the EU in 2007, since fighting corruption formed a central pillar of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, introduced to monitor the integration of Eastern European nations to the bloc.

During the most recent election campaign, the self-styled ‘parties of change’ promised to break with the GERB model. One of their slogans talked about ‘scraping off’ the leftovers of the Borissov legacy. Yet when the votes were cast, none of them received a definite mandate. Izpravi se, Mutri Vun (‘Stand Up, Thugs Out!’), a centre-left grouping led by the charismatic former ombudswoman Maia Manolova, got just 5% of the vote, roughly the same as its share in April. Democratic Bulgaria (DB), the liberal-green coalition, won 13%: a slight increase  from the last election. The outlook was somewhat better for the populist Ima Takuv Narod (‘There Is Such a People’, ITN), led by the popular folk-rock singer and TV talk show host Slavi Trifonov, which rose to 24%. All three organisations came to prominence last spring through an effective PR campaign which sought to expose GERB as morally and institutionally corrupt. They organised live-streamed hearings in parliamentary committees to investigate accusations of graft by Borissov’s top officials. These weeks-long sessions, presided over by Manolova, made for highly entertaining primetime television, featuring testimonies of shady businessmen who claimed to have been extorted by government ministers. Their findings validated the sentiments of the anti-Borissov protesters who had swarmed the streets of Sofia since July 2020, denouncing corruption and political repression.

Izpravi se is the only ‘party of change’ whose platform raises social justice issues and attempts to confront the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its membership includes former BSP activists and participants in the recent protests. Yet even Manolova tries to avoid the appearance of progressive politics, describing herself as ‘neither left nor right’. The DB’s Hristo Ivanov has also cultivated an apolitical vocabulary around state capture and judicial reform – issues thought to transcend traditional political divisions. He has recently reoriented DB along populist-nationalist lines in an attempt to move on from his embarrassing tenure as a reformist Minister of Justice under GERB and shake the coalition’s reputation as an exclusively middle-class outfit.

While Ivanov’s strategy has had some success, Bulgaria’s most important political actor following the July ballot – catapulted into the strongest position to form a government – is ITN. Though the party ran in parliamentary elections for the first time in 2021, Slavi Trifonov has arguably been building up its base since the 1990s. His music group, The Ku-Ku Band, has been one of the most popular acts for the past thirty years. Their patriotic songs were the soundtrack to the anti-communist movements of early 90s, and their current popularity can partly be attributed to nostalgia for the optimism of that period. The Bulgarian diaspora, many of whom tune into Trifonov’s talk show and turn out to see The Ku-Ku Band on tour, voted for ITN in large numbers. The party won 45% of the vote in Germany, and over 50% in the UK and Spain.

ITN representatives embrace the ‘populist’ label, comparing themselves to Italy’s Five Star Movement, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and even Trump. The leaders refuse to be referred to as ‘politicians’ and style themselves as ordinary workers employed by the people. Their party is not a ‘party’ but a ‘political project’. Like the Italian M5S, they promise to introduce direct democracy mechanisms including frequent referendums. They are heavily reliant on social media and private broadcasting channels, which allow them to skirt public scrutiny.

One of ITN’s few definitive political commitments is to reduce taxpayer subsidies for political parties: a reform which Trifonov tried to pass via a public referendum several years ago. Whether this would aid Bulgarian democracy is questionable, as subsidies are currently the only mechanism to transparently fund political activities given the parties’ low membership numbers. In general, ITN has maintained a remarkable silence on most major issues beyond electoral reform (again rejecting the left-right axis as outdated). It would not even offer an unqualified endorsement of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, asserting that the public should hear ‘all points of view’ on the question of vaccine safety. Despite its anti-elite posturing, the party is now proposing a government made up entirely of corporate-technocratic ‘experts’. The first nominee for Minister of Culture was Stanislava Artmutlieva, the owner of Bulgaria’s largest music distributor, famed for her passionate defence of copyright law. The Ministry of Energy is to be handed over to Krasimir Nenov, the director of a private coal thermal power plant. A Minister for the Environment has not yet been nominated.

Trifonov’s first choice for Prime Minister was Nikolay Vasilev, an investment banker who served in the former tsar’s cabinet and identifies as the country’s ‘top fiscal hawk’. Vasilev pushed through the radical deregulation policies of the 2000s, privatizing the state-owned telecommunications company and making almost 20,000 public employees redundant. Under his influence, ITN has forecast further public sector redundancies in the coming years under an obscure ‘digitalisation’ agenda. The party has also announced its intention to privatize major highways, along with the last publicly owned Bulgarian Development Bank (embroiled in controversy after huge loans were given to a group of politically connected businesses during GERB’s term). Although Trifonov has since withdrawn Vasilev’s nomination after a public backlash, the pair’s proximity underscores what many voters knew already: that the leftovers have merely been reheated, rather than scraped off the plate. 

The three protest parties agree on the need to pass judicial reforms and oust the current prosecutor general, who has served as GERB’s legal enforcer. They all subscribe to the magical powers of ‘e-governance’ in rooting out corruption and improving public services. In their campaign against graft, each is remarkably insensitive to social disparities: ITN has compared the corruption of the bus driver who steals petrol from his work vehicle with that of the politician embezzling funds from the public purse. Added to this, each party combines its emphasis on ‘the masses’ with a blind deference to experts. The deputy leader of ITN has remarked that he admires Margaret Thatcher for her resolve in doing what was ‘right for the people’, even if the people themselves did not realise it.

Such commonalities make it possible that Izpravi se and Democratic Bulgaria will choose to prop up an ITN minority administration. But this is far from certain. So far, only DB has expressed its willingness to enter negotiations with Trifonov, whereas the BSP and Izpravi se have been entertaining the possibility of giving the caretaker government a regular mandate. Borissov has ruled out supporting ITN, yet he may stand to benefit from an unpopular and ephemeral cabinet led by aloof technocrats. Many are speculating that GERB politicians will simply not show up in parliament and allow the other parties to vote in ITN. Then, when the new government falters, they will exploit the desire for ‘stability’ and storm to victory in the next election.  

Absent an explosion of social protest from below or a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the trade unions, Bulgaria’s chances of reversing this regressive trend are bleak. Given the continued dominance of the anti-corruption framework, the best shot for the country’s left is to shift the emphasis onto the structural reasons for widespread corruption – presenting itself as the solution to the causes rather than the symptoms. Otherwise, it risks disappearing off the radar of the popular classes, whose only options will be an ‘old politics’ or a ‘new populism’ with little to differentiate them.  

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Populism and the New Oligarchy’, NLR 82.

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Entrepreneurs in Uniform

It owns facilities that manufacture cement, steel, vehicles (passenger cars, subway cars, rail wagons and tractors), agrochemicals (especially fertilizers), and energy (petroleum retail). It has companies working in public construction (including desalination plants), mining, logistics, and retail. Its factories produce pharmaceuticals, processed foods, home appliances, kitchenware, computers and optical equipment. It reclaimed hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land and constructed bridges, hotels with lucrative special event venues, seaside resorts with luxury summerhouses, apartment complexes and lavish villas. It runs petrol stations, shipping firms, domestic cleaning companies, and parking lots. It was allocated thousands of miles of land by the state to construct toll highways and collect usage fees.

To whom does this economic empire belong? The answer is the Egyptian army. This list of assets is taken from an interesting report published last year by the Carnegie Foundation. (The army’s ventures aren’t always prudent: in 2018, as the Financial Times reported, it opened a $1.18 billion cement factory that led to domestic overproduction, causing prices to collapse.)

Every country has an army, but in Egypt it is the army that has the country, as per Ayesha Siddiqa’s useful formula, elaborated in her pioneering study of Pakistan, Military Inc. (2007). By this, I’m not simply referring to a society controlled by its armed forces, which exists in various forms in countries from Nigeria to Brazil. Neither am I concerned at present with so-called ‘praetorian states’ – not to be confused with military regimes, for praetorianism can exist alongside an electoral system, its hallmark the number of ex-generals occupying public office as in Algeria and Israel, or in various African and Central American countries. Nor I am referring to the ‘military-industrial complex’ that exists in many Western states, from the USA and France to the UK, where the armed forces creates substantial demand from buying weapons and technology, fulfilled by private industry, with connection between the two parties ensured by the ‘revolving door’, or in the more suggestive turn of phrase employed in France, through a pantouflage: the investiture of civilian ‘slippers’ to high-ranking officials who, once retired, enjoy the comforts of a boardroom seat.

Instead, I’m talking about those countries whose economy is dominated by the military, whose most powerful entrepreneurs are dressed in uniform. Where can these be found? The People’s Liberation Army played a significant role in the Chinese economy up until the 1990s, but after a series of anti-corruption trials, purges of high-ranking cadres and legal reforms the Chinese Communist Party regained control. In Russia, military influence is certainly expanding. According to a report by Transparency International, its army ‘is involved in many sectors of the economy, ranging from transportation to healthcare’ and has recently expanded into ‘the sale of surplus weapons, and insurance and marketing’. There however, the Soviet legacy of the Party’s supremacy over the armed forces – dating back to the Stalinist purges of Tukhachevsky’s Red Army in 1937 – remains significant.

With the notable exception of Thailand, the particular social arrangement where ‘Military, Inc.’ comes to dominate in fact tends to be found in Muslim countries: Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran (without considering Indonesia, which would require a historical digression). What is curious is that this military mercantilism has little to do with religious dispensation. In Egypt the army presents itself as a secular bulwark against Islamist militancy (recall Sisi’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members in 2013), whilst in Turkey it is indelibly marked by the laicist inheritance of Kemalism. In Iran the entrepreneurial army was a by-product of political Islam, whilst in Pakistan it was the military itself that oversaw an Islamist turn in the state under the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (who ultimately executed the secularist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979).

The case of Pakistan is the best documented, thanks in large part to Siddiqa’s research. Its military possesses 12% of the country’s arable land, much of it in the most fertile and productive areas of Punjab and Sindh. Business operations are conducted through five ‘charitable’ foundations: the Fauji Foundation (run by the Ministry of Defence), Army Welfare Trust (Pakistan Army), Shaheen Foundation (Air Force), Bahria Foundation (Navy), and the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Foundation (also Ministry of Defence). Together Fauji, Shaheeh and Bahria control more than 100 separate commercial entities, from fertilizer factories to bakeries, petrol stations, banks, cement plants, hosiery factories, milk dairies, golf courses, and, in recent years, TV channels. A recent article by Eliot Wilson notes that

‘The Fauji foundation operates a security force (allowing serving army personnel to double in their spare time as private security agents), an oil terminal and a phosphate joint venture with the Moroccan government. Elsewhere, the Army Welfare Trust runs one of the country’s largest lenders, Askari Commercial Bank, along with an airline, a travel agency and even a stud farm. Then there is the National Logistic Cell, Pakistan’s largest shipper and freight transporter (and the country’s largest corporation), which builds roads, constructs bridges and stores vast quantities of the country’s wheat reserves. (…) In short, the military’s presence is all-pervasive. Bread is supplied by military-owned bakeries, fronted by civilians. Army-controlled banks take deposits and disburse loans. Up to one third of all heavy manufacturing and 7 per cent of private assets are reckoned to be in army hands.’

Foundations play an equally prominent role in Iran, where the Revolutionary Guards manage around a third of the economy, from energy to infrastructure, finance to the automotive industry. These include the Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution, jointly controlled with the government. Its largest subsidiary, the Agricultural and Food Industries Organization, owns more than 115 companies. The holding company Khatam al-Anbia (Seal of the Prophets), meanwhile, controls more than 812 registered companies, and has been responsible for a vast array of construction projects in the country, including, according to a recent RAND report, ‘dams; water diversion systems; highways; buildings; heavy-duty structures; offshore construction; water supply systems; and water, gas, and oil main pipelines.’ To this we should add university and military research centres, construction of a new line of Tehran’s metro system as well as a high-speed rail link between Tehran and Isfahan. Since 2009, Khatam al-Anbia has also controlled the leading shipbuilder in the country, the Marine Industrial Company (SADRA), and the shipyards at Bushehr, which specialise in the construction of freighters and oil tankers.

This is all without considering the black market. The Revolutionary Guards control a large part of the contraband that enters Iran, bypassing Western sanctions which, paradoxically, have actually increased their wealth, influence and popularity. The last presidential elections can be read as the revenge of the Guards against a wing of the clergy that had sought to reduce their influence. Not only were the charitable foundations asked to pay taxes during Rohani’s presidency, but the police conducted a series of high-profile arrests of prominent figures in the organisation, accused of corruption and unlawful enrichment. Woe betide any reformist clerics.

Perhaps the most interesting case of all is Turkey, where for two decades Erdoğan has sought to rein in the army. The positive consensus during the first years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) time in government was in part due to the relief many felt at the thought of finally being rid of the yoke of the generals, who have been the principal tyrannical political actors since the foundation of the Republic in 1923. The violent repression that followed the opaque coup of 2016 provoked less hostility than was predicted precisely because those disproportionately targeted were army officials.

And yet the Turkish military’s economic empire remains intact. How so? The pillar of this empire is the army’s pension fund, OYAK, which, as Metin Gurcan writes in Al-Monitor:

‘all officers and non-commissioned officers of the Turkish military are obliged to join. About 10% of the monthly salaries of 250,000 OYAK members are automatically deducted as contributions to the fund, generating a monthly cash flow of around $35 million…OYAK is a major player with multibillion-dollar investments in sectors such as iron, steel and cement manufacturing, car making, construction, mining, energy, finance, chemicals, logistics services and seaport management. In some fields it has even grown into a dominant force. OYAK enterprises contribute 25% of Turkey’s industrial steel production and control 20% of the car-making industry in the country. Standing out among them are the iron and steel factories in Eregli and Iskenderun and the Renault OYAK plants in Bursa. The fund’s cement plants also make a significant contribution to the national economy. More than 32,000 people are employed in OYAK’s 60 companies, which operate in 21 countries.’

A question arises: why hasn’t Erdoğan succeeded in dismantling this bastion of military hegemony in Turkey? Because being the able politician that he is, Erdoğan has proceeded obliquely, by encircling and infiltrating. He has bolstered the assets of the police, often at the expense of the army, and through various measures greatly weakened a pillar of the army’s economic power – its land holdings. The armed forces historically possessed large swathes of territory, often in areas primed for property speculation, such as military bases on the outskirts of the big cities. Construction and property speculation have been the two (now very much sputtering) motors of the ‘Turkish economic miracle’; it can’t have displeased the AKP that this growth occurred at the expense of the military estate. Following the attempted coup, Erdoğan then appointed himself a member and president of the board of TSKGV (Foundation for the Strengthening of the Turkish Armed Forces), which controls the production of armaments and military research.

But the truth is that given Erdoğan’s military adventures in Kurdistan, Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan, he needs the army more than ever, and so can’t risk undermining its loyalty. This is so even before acknowledging that in the current economic climate he cannot possibly afford to go after OYAK, which would be akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This brief survey of ‘Military, Inc.’ however leaves a basic issue unresolved in three of the four countries in question (Iran is a case apart). How does the entrepreneurial army coexist not only within the religious climate that characterises these states, but also with neoliberal orthodoxy? It was easier for the army to present itself as an engine of development when privatisation wasn’t in vogue. But now? Curiously, the three armies in question have in fact benefitted from the neoliberal wave, as they and their foundations have bought up industries abandoned by the state in the name of liberalisation. OYAK, for instance, acquired the steel-producing giant Erdemir for $2.77 billion in 2005.

What this demonstrates is that for neoliberalism, privatisation serves a purely rhetorical function, ready to be disavowed if no longer convenient. Neoliberalism and the military have a long and intimate history (think only of its origins on a national scale with Pinochet’s military coup and the regime he established as per instruction from Friedman and Hayek). The hand of the market is invisible but what Adam Smith failed to tell us – and the Chicago School revealed – is that it also comes armed with an assault rifle.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads’, NLR 127.

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Private Transportations

Ghédalia Tazartès, collector of glass figurines, surrealist of sound and lifelong Parisian, sang in a private language and recorded his albums in a small atelier in the 11th Arrondissement, many in the company of domesticated pigeons. He often said that his life as a musician began at the age of twelve, when his grandmother died. The story goes that Tazartès went into the woods, dug a hole, and then sang so loudly that the ducks on the lake began to shake. He and his music continued in this vein until his death in February at the age of 73, after years of fighting both lung and liver cancer.

Depending on when you asked him, Tazartès said that his instrument was his voice, the tape deck, or a microphone. His first album, Diasporas, was released in 1979 on the Cobalt label founded by Philippe Conrath, a journalist with Libération. ‘My wife worked with him at Phydor, a biscuit factory’, Conrath told me. ‘He would sing while he was loading the cookies onto a truck. I knew he was singing something very, very, very, very strange’. As with everything he did for Cobalt, Tazartès recorded the music at home on a Revox reel-to-reel and delivered a complete album to Conrath. It begins in media res, Tazartès ululating in benevolent code, the tape collage making a dirty trampoline for his voice. The eleven tracks sound as if Tazartès had spent years watching cities from a train, landed in prison, and then decided to create a guidebook from memory, screaming about each city, one after the other, from his cell.

His second album, Tazartès Transports (1980), took this sound further. He collaborated with Jean-Pierre Lentin, editor of the counter-cultural magazine Actuel, who wrote a series of fake ethnographic texts describing the music of invented regions. ‘Each track had a particular function, to chase away birds for hunters, or something’, Tazartès explained. This gives the impression that the record might resemble something like CAN’s ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’, a collection of songs that does live up to that name. But, despite the origin story, Tazartès Transports does not sound like the music of another country. The album comes across as exactly what it is: a sui generis performer with no musical training, improvising on a Moog synthesizer and pushing the world in his head out through his mouth.

When Tazartès uses a language we recognise, it feels like a clue. On the first Tazartès Transports track (numbered but not named), he sings in French with his throat constricted. It is squeaky, as if the tape has been sped up slightly, his voice put over a timid synthetic rhythm. Translated into English, his plea ends like this: ‘It’s no small matter to give birth to lots of little cockroaches / Who will go about their business and won’t be cited in history / At least they won’t have fought any wars, it would be cruel to resent them for it’. This music seems like it might have fallen, after some half-hearted redacting, out of a bureaucratic satchel, a samizdat manifesto with an audience of zero.

Tazartès’s labels sometimes felt like this about his commercial potential. My favourite of his albums, une éclipse totale de soleil, came out in 1983 on Cobalt. It has not softened over time. Singing and tape edits create an immersive bad trip over the course of two very long tracks, birdsong and rhythmic pips jump cutting to fried pulses and vorpal growls. The topic and mood are so impossible to determine that one can only listen, obediently, hoping to answer the only real Tazartès question: What is this? Cobalt’s American distributor, Celluloid, did not care what it was, and refused to put out the record unless Tazartès waived his fee.

When I found une éclipse in 1987, I was entranced. I assumed ‘Ghédalia Tazartès’ must be the name of a collective. The only image on the sleeve was of a smiling toddler sitting next to a boat. (It’s a photo of Raphaël Glucksmann, now a member of the European Parliament.) My first thought was that the Tazartès Collective had kidnapped the baby as some kind of anti-imperialist gesture. That this is as far from Tazartès’s character as possible does not negate the fact that the music was intense enough to suggest a kidnapping was not out of the question.

On the basis of these first three albums alone, Tazartès deserves a comfortably elevated place among the sound artists of the 20th century. Like Meredith Monk and David Hammons, Tazartès was a hybrid artist living at the world. In the same way that Monk is a dancer equally skilled as a composer, and Hammons makes beautiful objects while questioning the need for objects, Tazartès was a spontaneous musician with a fine compositional sense, who made furious and compact recordings that give lie to the assumption that improvisers are experimenting rather than stating.

He was born in Paris in May of 1947 and got his first name from his grandfather, ‘born in the Ottoman Empire’, in Tazartès’s words. More specifically, he was from Salonika in Greece, a city which Tazartès said ‘was almost entirely Jewish, 80%, like Warsaw at one time’. After moving to Istanbul and having children, Tazartès’s grandfather relocated to Paris in the early Thirties, apparently for medical treatment. In 1933, at the age of fourteen, Tazartès’s father started working to help support the family. He was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the war but survived and returned to Paris where he worked in various shops. Using the stage name Betty Riche, Tazartès’s mother sang in clubs briefly, before leaving the stage to work with her husband in a clothing shop.

His family’s path has led to Tazartès being described as an inherently diasporic figure, a characterization that the music supports. But it isn’t quite accurate. ‘I am really French, despite my name as a Salonician Jew’, Tazartès said. ‘It bothers me a little when they say that I am something other than French because it is not true. I do not like lying very much, it is useless – it is not my style’.

Tazartès was not only a Parisian but someone whose life revolved mostly around three places: a bar called the Baron Rouge, a flea market called Marché d’Aligre where he found most of his clothes and glass gewgaws, and his beloved atelier, the loft on the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine that he found in 1968.When the building started selling off apartments in the early Seventies, Tazartès was strapped, so his friend, André Glucksmann – philosopher and father of Raphaël – bought the atelier for him. He lived there, at least part of the time, for the last fifty years. ‘I have some kind of superstition about this place’, he told The Wire in 2008. ‘Without it, I don’t know if I am a musician’.

Tazartès fell in love with Beethoven and jazz as a teen but was unable to stick with either piano or saxophone. Though he never travelled in any specific musical cohort, his ex-wife, Nathalie Richard, recalled that he was a devoted fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Around the events of May 1968, Tazartès decided that he was a revolutionary and, in his words, ‘a bigmouth’. After working in the Phydor and General Motors plants, Tazartès started attending lectures at the Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis. As his daughter, Elie, described him, Tazartès was very much ‘in the present’ and participated in May ‘68 largely because that was the most intense present available. In the early Seventies, he became, briefly, the singer of a rock band but the arrangement ended when he was asked to sing in English. Tazartès refused and walked away, permanently, from normative music, deciding to observe his own militancy of sound.

In l’atelier, as everyone called it, Tazartès began experimenting with a tape deck and a microphone, creating collages he called ‘impromuz’, sharing the results with a few close friends. One of these tapes reached Michel Chion, a composer of musique concrete – a style of composition that builds from recorded sounds rather than performances – with whom friends thought Tazartès shared some commonalities.

In 1976, Chion invited Tazartès to play a concert at the INA-GRM institute, musique concrete’s high church. The event, though, earned him an instant enemy in GRM chief François Bayle, who allegedly asked his colleagues during the show, ‘How can you all listen to this shit?’ This resentment aside, his entry into the public went well enough that Tazartès found the confidence to make a go of it with Conrath and Cobalt. Chion is actually part of Diasporas, heard on a fairly traditional track that isn’t representative of either artist’s general style. On ‘Casimodo Tango’, Chion plays both piano and toy piano while Tazartès croons the part of Quasimodo, singing in French about a leap from the top of Notre Dame and his love for Paris. According to Tazartès, he improvised the lyrics while riding his motorcycle around Notre Dame. According to Chion, it was played on the FIP radio station in Paris.

This was the closest Tazartès ever came to a hit. What little income he earned came not from records or live shows, but from the work he did with dancers and theatre directors. François Verret was one of the first dance artists Tazartès worked with, and their first collaboration in 1978 was an accompaniment for a routine which Verret performed with his ‘face plastered in clay, in a dress made of rags’. (Though they never discussed it, Verret said he made the piece while thinking of refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge by sea.) For the rest of his career, dance and theatre kept Tazartès afloat, including some fairly mainstream work with Philippe Adrien at the Comédie Française.

Richard gave birth to their daughter, Elie, in 1985, and Tazartès began splitting his time between the atelier and their nearby apartment. He slowed his recorded output and didn’t release anything for seven years after his 1990 album, Check Point Charlie. At home, with Elie, he created a language called ‘jhama’, a variation of the dialect he used for singing. ‘It’s a kind of emotional conversation’, Elie told me. ‘It relates to his family’, Richard said, ‘because the grandmother, she was talking Greek, and the parents were Ladino, and then they never talked in Ladino with Ghédalia, so he invented his own language.’

Tazartès had moved away from dance and was working more in theatre. ‘After 12 years working with modern dance, I felt there was nothing more to say with it’, he said. ‘I was interested in theatre, because there, you have text and you can discuss the subject with the director’. He came back to recordings in 1997 when a musician named David Fenech asked him to make an album for his new label, Demosaurus, created for the occasion. ‘He gave me three C90 tapes from which I picked a coherent set of tracks’, Fenech told me. These selections became the album Voyage à l’Ombre (1997).

As Fenech pointed out, the cassettes Tazartès gave him also contained tracks that showed up on later albums like Granny Awards (get it?) and Repas Froid (another joke). This cassette was drawn from the recordings Tazartès made over the years in his atelier, a collection only now being sifted through. In the last two decades of recordings, Tazartès was moving closer to a kind of universal melody, though without attempting to be more accessible. The jump cuts and dirty sounds had been abandoned and a new kind of approach was taking hold. Tazartès began sticking to a single mode for the length of the track without interruption, even if it was just an unidentified opera singer and Tazartès gargling above a rumbly synth pattern. Tazartès started playing bandoneon more and working with Tibetan bowls to create his drones. He began, essentially, trusting his own sound and interfering with it less.

In the 21st century, Tazartès returned to live performing, reaching New York once to play FUUB in 2016, Cafe Oto in London that same year. Though he never quite cottoned on to computers and went to an iPad only to return emails, Tazartès upgraded his equipment, moving to a sampler which he loaded with pre-recorded sound libraries. From here, he would burn CDRs of his creations. On the 2010 album, Ante-Mortem, Tazartès has become the ghost of his own machine, singing over stock string sounds, much clearer but also more uncanny than in his 1970s recordings. On ‘Seize’, he sounds as he often did, like a court jester larking about over some kind of cheap organ sound. On ‘Dix-Sept’, he seems to be chanting over a destroyed guitar drone, his two voices sounding like lost plainchant. How firmly he avoids anything identifiable begins to support his claim that he was a sound painter, and maybe not even a musician, a term he found pretentious.

Over his life, Tazartès created a small network that understood his thinking. At the Baron Rouge, he met an employee named Quentin Rollet who became a collaborator and ended up releasing some of his records. Together with Jerome Lorichon, Rollet and Tazartès played an improvised set at Église Saint-Merry in 2019, the recording of which has just now been released as La Chute de L’Ange. Tazartès played Tibetan bowl and small bells, Lorichon a Buchla synthesizer, electronic effects and a trumpet, Rollet alto and sopranino saxes. The concert proves that Tazartès was something he rarely described himself as – an improviser, though he often called his music ‘spontaneous’. The three musicians build a mesmerizing and dead serious meditation. For someone who always seemed to be playing a cosmic prank on the world, this recording demonstrates his sensitivity and how fully he could blend his work into that of others.

As his catalogue of unreleased recordings reaches the public in the coming years, comic and spiritual sides will hopefully receive equal attention. His tendencies towards the vulgar ensured that the musique concrète hardliners would never accept him. (For the 2015 album, La Bar Mitzvah du Chien, Tazartès demanded that Rollet appear naked, on all fours, for the album cover.) What remains is a lifeforce that shreds any container.

He was accompanied in his final days by his partner, Dominique Abensour, and his friend Goury Deco, a set designer. ‘The last music he made me listen to, a few days before he died, was a montage around a text by Artaud, pure Ghédalia, sensitive and angry’, Deco wrote to me. ‘Ten minutes non-stop of an acidic and guttural text, almost without taking a breath. I asked, “How did you do that, in multiple takes? We can’t hear you breathing!”’

‘“No,” he replied. “Just like that all at once, here, in one evening. Afterwards, I thought I had to do it again a few times, to get a handle on it, but no! The first take was the best.”’

Special thanks to Meerabelle Jesuthasan for the translations.

Read on: Eric Hazan, ‘Faces of Paris’, NLR 62.

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Continuity UK

As Britain attempts to normalise from the pandemic, the country’s politics is settling into familiar grooves. The hardline Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced measures to offshore the asylum system, while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guard and aerospace contractor, celebrated the first British and American sorties to launch from the decks of the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, against scattered ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria – a return to maritime strike operations for the Royal Navy after a ten-year hiatus, Gaddafi’s Libya its last target.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer, who voted against RAF airstrikes in Syria in 2015 because he wanted a ground invasion to accompany them (‘I am not against airstrikes per se’), has been bolstered by a narrow byelection hold in Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. ‘Labour is coming home’, he declared. The party appears to have benefited from a late shift in opinion in Conservative-leaning mill villages after news of a ministerial tryst at the Department of Health brought charges of Tory hypocrisy over social-distancing regulations.

Whether society is as pacified as the current Westminster scene would suggest, beyond party-political disagreements over the schedule for final lockdown easing, is another question. The Conservatives lost the safe Home Counties seat of Chesham and Amersham on 17 June on a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats, having earlier taken Hartlepool from Labour by a similar magnitude. But see-saw byelection results aren’t necessarily destabilising in the aggregate.

‘Are provincial gains for the long-term? Probably. Can the party hold on to at least most of the affluent South? Definitely’, argues James Frayne, an associate of the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings, writing in the Telegraph. He urges Johnson to hold his nerve and persist with the Vote Leave-derived electoral pivot to working-class voters in the Midlands and the North, although they should dial down the rhetoric – ‘provincial voters doubt “levelling up” could ever happen; affluent Southern voters think they will be fleeced to pay for revolution’.

In The Times, columnist Rachel Sylvester describes a Cabinet tussle between levellers-up and libertarians, the latter identified by their co-sponsorship of a Cameron-era neo-Thatcherite screed, Britannia Unchained (2012), which among other things had urged the Party to ‘stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the North and the South, women and men’. Backbench MPs at the time, they have since risen through the ranks: Patel at the Home Office, Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss at the Board of Trade, Kwasi Kwarteng at the Department for Business.

To complicate matters, Truss is singled out for criticism by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times as one of the ministers seeking to wrest control of competition decisions and trade disputes from the arms-length regulators to which they were hitherto entrusted. Shrimsley decries ‘a new creed of unchained Tory interventionism’ spreading out from Number 10 and he urges more orthodox ministers – presumably, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid, both former investment bankers – to reassert the importance of parameters and self-discipline.

How much Conservative dirigisme will outlast the pandemic emergency? It’s true that Brexit has given ministers a sense of greater latitude on regulation and policy. They have ‘lost the excuse that EU rules prevent action’, Shrimsley despairs. (Two of Thatcher’s chancellors, Nigel Lawson and John Major, had supported the idea of shadowing the deutschmark through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism precisely in search of what the Italians used to call a vincolo esterno). At the same time, however, with Cummings departed from Downing Street, Johnson is the only ‘leveller-up’ that Sylvester can locate on the premises, and it’s often overlooked how much ordinary Thatcherism there is in the Prime Minister’s belief system.

While trailing in the polls last autumn, Johnson generated headlines with a conference speech over Zoom conjuring a New Jerusalem on England’s Covid-splattered shores, invoking the spirit of Second World War state-welfare reformism. But as he made clear to the Party faithful, this time around it would be powered by free enterprise. A subsequent ‘Plan for Growth’ published with the March Budget was a damp squib, retailing discretionary competitive funding pots for infrastructure and skills projects to turn local areas into ‘hives of entrepreneurialism’. A £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, already in operation, has been converted into a useful pork barrel to divert funds into Tory constituencies. Local authorities are left asking Whitehall for favours, a former official within the Northern Powerhouse unit complains to the FT.

Over at Business, Kwarteng, a former JP Morgan analyst, has scrapped Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy Council and published a Subsidy Control Bill expressly prohibiting subventions that require enterprises to relocate their activities from one part of the UK to another, as post-war regional policy used to do. The Economist observes that measures to boost advanced sectors such as life sciences are likelier to increase regional disparities than to ease them, since ‘turning Britain into a scientific superpower, for example, would be best done by focusing development on the already crowded and wealthy golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge’.

In the real economy, meanwhile – that is, the part of the economy that really matters – Sunak has published the outlines of a new rulebook for financial services, easing the Mifid II regulations inherited from Brussels in order to attract share trading and listings, and to retool the City’s competitive advantage after the loss of EU passporting rights. At the Bank of England, Governor Andrew Bailey tells a parliamentary committee that there are no ‘natural limits’ to a programme of quantitative easing now in its twelfth year and running close to £1 trillion. Indeed he is ‘not in a position at all to promise’ that it can be unwound to any degree.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey two-thirds of people in both England and Scotland say that the current income distribution – further skewed by the QE stimulus to asset prices – is unfair, and that society needs to change. How to ease neoliberalism’s continued passage against this amount of passive resistance?

Well in advance of the pandemic, the National Health Service had become ideologically amplified in the national culture as a social-democratic companion to a revived monarchy and Army – fixtures of public life untainted by popular animus towards Westminster. Charities supporting veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq were doing a roaring trade until the pandemic disrupted the flow of street donations. Last week, the Palace awarded the NHS the George Cross, home-front counterpart to the Victoria Cross historically awarded to the gallants of colonial conquest. The NHS is the first collective subject to be so garlanded since the viciously sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary for its service in the Troubles.

Clap for Carers, Help for Heroes, QE for asset holders. It didn’t need a football tournament to keep this long-running show on the road for a while yet.  

Read on: Anthony Barnett, ‘Iron Britannia’, NLR I/134.

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The War They Call Peace

As of 9 July 2021, ten years after independence, South Sudan lies in ruins. A civil war that began in 2013 has razed many of the country’s cities, displaced millions, and left entire regions at the edge of starvation. A peace deal, signed in September 2018, only succeeded in returning the main belligerent parties to Juba, the country’s capital. From their perches in a transitional government, the commanders who waged the last civil war continue to clash across the country. What a difference a name makes. Hostilities are now depoliticized as disarmament campaigns or else dismissed as ethnic violence by the billion-dollar UN mission. The UN is keen to cling onto a narrative that sees the peace agreement as a success, despite the fact that its own agencies have found that the level of violence in the country has increased since 2018. It insists that there has been a reduction in ‘political violence’, points to regrettable inter-ethnic conflicts, and suggests that it is the government’s responsibility to police them. Whenever researchers point out the involvement of national politicians in the supposedly local violence scarring South Sudan, the UN plays a credible Captain Renault at Rick’s, announces its shock, and redoubles its support for the government.

This was not the plan. A decade earlier, on 9 July 2011, dignitaries visited Juba to congratulate themselves on the creation of the world’s newest state. This despite the fact that South Sudan’s new ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), had fought a twenty-two year long civil war against the Sudanese government in Khartoum, and that it was the southern Sudanese who had voted to secede from their northern neighbour. For the Americans, British, and Norwegians involved in the peace agreement that ended the civil war, South Sudan was their baby. A World Bank report written shortly before independence brought these neonatal fantasies to their colonial apotheosis, hailing South Sudan as a tabula rasa. There are no roads, no markets, and no institutions, the report stated, and as the consultants’ eyes gleamed, added: they will need to be created. For the internationals who thronged through Juba’s airport, eager to build a new nation, that South Sudan was terra nullius obviated any need to learn something about the country. Cookie-cutter approaches to statehood and simplistic tales about a victimized Christian south, now free of the yoke of the northern Islamic oppressor, were more functional than a real understanding of the region’s history. A state needed to be built, consequences be damned.

The SPLM’s leadership profited from international ignorance. An enduring aspect of the SPLM’s story is its ability to turn the – often simplistic, if not simply racist – tales outsiders tell about southern Sudan to its own ends. It is equally adept at manufacturing stories destined for external consumption. The SPLM’s first leader, John Garang, was a master in this regard. A charismatic politician with a PhD from Iowa State, Garang started the SPLM in 1983 with a plea for revolution in Khartoum. (Southern independence, diplomatically a lower-hanging fruit, emerged as a goal in part thanks to American pressure). The incoherence of Garang’s later statements was not the result of insufficient hours in the library, but an appreciation of discordance as a diplomatic tool of the trade. Rebel movements in Sudan have always been reliant on manipulating external supporters. Garang could appear Marxist to the SPLM’s Ethiopian backers and then, following tectonic regional shifts and the collapse of the Derg regime in Addis Ababa, miraculously become the paragon of national self-determination that his American cheerleaders wished him to be. He died in a helicopter crash just after America forced Khartoum to sign a peace agreement in 2005. Amid the disasters of the Middle East, this was to be an easy American foreign policy win. The agreement guaranteed southern Sudan six years of self-rule and a referendum on secession in 2011. Salva Kiir, Garang’s successor, inherited none of his charisma, but all of his ability to manipulate self-regarding foreigners. From 2005-11, as oil revenues and donor funds flowed into the south, Kiir cultivated adoring foreign state-builders, eager to see their dreams of a new nation-state play out. He got into the act himself shortly after independence. South Sudan, he claimed: it’s a tabula rasa!

It wasn’t, of course. Britain took thirty years to pacify southern Sudan, principally via indirect rule, as it classified the region’s many groups according to ethnicity, while setting them against each other. At independence in 1956, northern Sudan, more urbanized, and putatively Arab, was ready to continue British policies, and use the south as a backyard from which resources and labour could be extracted. Sudan’s first civil war (1955-1972) had begun the year before independence, pitting the northern elite against the marginalized peripheries of the country. The war ended with socialist dreams of development in the south, aspirations that died when the financial crises of the 1970s hit Sudan, and Khartoum collapsed under its debt burden. The second civil war (1983-2005) began soon after. According to the just-so stories pedalled at South Sudanese independence, the war pitted the northern Sudanese state against rebel groups in the south. In reality, the north borrowed a trick from the British, and set southern populations against each other in violent ethnicized conflicts. For Khartoum, this was war on the cheap. Oil had been discovered in southern Sudan in the late 70s, and the north sponsored militia forces under the command of Paulino Matip to fight the SPLM and clear populations from around the oil wells. Elsewhere, multiple militia groups emerged, frequently changing sides, as they manipulated the winds of regional favour. From the outside, this looked like an intense case of divide-and-rule, the north setting southern groups against each other. Inside southern Sudan, if it’s true that Khartoum manipulated southern commanders, those same commanders also used regional support to build up their own personal empires, transforming the social structure of the region.

Whether commanders were cadres from South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, loyal to the SPLA (the militarized wing of the SPLM), or members of Matip’s militias, largely drawn from the Nuer, the second largest ethnic group in the country, they used weapons from external backers to manipulate humanitarian aid, control cattle and grain markets, and position themselves atop a war economy. Endowed with weapons, they predated on local populations, enriching themselves at the cost of South Sudan’s farmers and pastoralists. Geopolitically dependent on external forces, fighting against each other, these commanders were nonetheless engaged in a process of class formation. It was this militarized class that took over the southern Sudanese state in 2005.

Once the second civil war came to an end, humanitarian supplies were supplemented by more lucrative sources of income. Oil revenues and donor funds went into the pockets of commanders who built a rentier economy predicated on the redistribution of external income to armed supporters. Superficially, a modern, liberal state was being created under the watchful eye of the Adam Smith Institute. Sub mensa, the project of class formation that had begun during the war continued apace. Commanders displaced hostile populations, rewarded loyal constituencies with NGO development projects, and attacked opponents under the guise of disarmament and demobilization campaigns. If in Juba the international community dined out on imported wine and mozzarella in restaurants next to the Nile, in the rest of the country, the civil war continued.

It wasn’t just that the UN and the diplomatic corps were wilfully blind to the travails of the country outside the capital; the very form of the peace deal signed in 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), encouraged this process of class formation. The CPA was a bilateral framework between two belligerent parties: the SPLM and the Sudanese government, and excluded all the militias who had fought against the southern rebel movement. It ignored the fact that for much of southern Sudan, the SPLM was an occupying army. The agreement left no space for political discussion and was designed to move along in a strictly technocratic fashion. This left the problem of all the militia groups around the country. Kiir took a leaf from Khartoum’s playbook and decided to buy them off.

In 2006, the Juba Declaration brought Matip’s militias – amongst many others – into the SPLA, rewarding ephemeral loyalty with petrodollars, and setting in motion a system in which commanders leveraged potential violence into lucrative payoffs. Commanders began to stage rebellions and demand better positions as the price for their reabsorption into the army. The SPLA’s ranks swelled with ghost soldiers, invented so commanders could augment their salaries. Soon, almost the entire state budget was directed to feeding the war machine. None of this was acknowledged by the intentional community. Formally, the South Sudanese state was being built and the army reformed. Millions were spent on fantastical security sector reforms, dutifully superintended by international consultants, but meaningless outside the air-conditioned offices of the capital. If military reform was a charade, it was dreamt up in London and D.C., and made money for commanders and consultants alike.

Across the country, an increasingly zero-sum politics took hold. Commanders and politicians made ethnicized appeals to their constituencies, setting communities against each other. The state existed on paper, a thin veneer of legitimacy given by the international community to a predatory elite. Most commentators place the end of this bonanza in 2012, when in a stand-off over oil transit fees with Sudan (the only pipeline in the south runs north), the SPLM turned off the oil, activating what Alex de Waal called a ‘doomsday machine’. Without the money to grease the wheels of the commanders’ impressive 4x4s, de Waal held, civil war was imminent. The system would have imploded regardless. Kiir and his clique of largely Dinka politicians could not have indefinitely afforded to stave off war by continuously increasing rentier payments to commanders, especially given the collapse in global oil prices that would follow in 2014. Alarmed by the numerical dominance of Matip’s Nuer forces in the SPLA, Kiir’s clique had begun building up mono-ethnic militias from amongst their home constituencies, recruited outside the ambit of the army. The development of these private militias was simply a reflection of what the army had become: a collection of commanders bound together only by the common project of enrichment.

By June 2013, facing an increasingly austere financial situation, Kiir had dismissed both Riek Machar, his Nuer vice-president, and his cabinet, and it was clear to everyone except the diplomatic corps that war was on the horizon. Fighting within the presidential guard in December 2013 was the spark that set the country aflame. On one side: Kiir, his militias, and what remained of the oil revenue. On the other: Machar and virtually all of the Nuer commanders brought into the SPLA in 2006. It could have been the second civil war, redux, except a regional realignment had occurred. Museveni’s Uganda backed Kiir’s ruling clique and sent troops to stop the nascent rebel force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), reaching Juba. Khartoum shifted sides. Kiir had pushed out most of the so-called ‘Garang boys’, loyal to the dream of a revolution in Khartoum, and replaced them with southern politicians who had served the northern enemy and more amenable to a settlement with Sudan based on shared economic interests in oil and mining. Without an external backer, the SPLA-IO was soon outgunned. One leading rebel general, Gathoth Gatkuoth, now comfortably ensconced in the government, told a UN investigator that he would happily convert to Islam, if only Khartoum would offer him resupply.

The SPLM was always going to win the war. For Kiir’s clique, the conflict was an opportunity to consolidate control of the country. The war continued the process of class formation, rather than interrupting it. Two modes, one substance. From 2005-13, the government had used county-border redistricting to force opponents from their land. When the war began, the government completed the process, carrying out the wholesale ethnic cleansing of opposition populations. The de facto displacements of the war would then be made the object of de jure legal judgments, following the latest peace agreement, sanctifying the land grabs. In some of the country, displaced populations would then be sent back to work the land they had once possessed, this time as wage labourers. To add insult to injury, the food so produced is sometimes purchased from the elite by donor governments, to be distributed to the displaced as food aid. The great untold story of the South Sudanese civil war is that it has been a massive wealth transfer from an immiserated population to a militarized elite, enabled by the international community.

The only people to not see these continuities are the UN and the diplomatic corps, for whom the civil war came as a shock. Seen dimly from behind the international veil of spreadsheets and guarded compounds, the war was not part of their implementation matrix. There was a timetable for state-building, and war rent it asunder. To repair this hole in the web of time, an army was dispatched from what Séverine Autesserre calls ‘Peaceland’. The courtiers of Peaceland are diplomatic corps, international experts in security sector reform, and the UN. Soon there were innumerable meetings in expensive hotels in Addis Ababa, many a failed ceasefire, and two peace agreements. The formalized technocratic process of these agreements was as wilfully blind to the real political economy of South Sudan as the state-building process, and was instrumentalized just as easily.

By 2018, the SPLA had won a consummate military victory. The second peace agreement – the one apparently now holding – was effectively a negotiated surrender. Machar slunk back to the capital, dependent on crumbs from Kiir’s table. The security sector reform process currently underway as part of the agreement is a giant pyramid scheme, in which commanders recruit troops with the promise of wages and ranks, just like it was in the good old days after 2005. No such bonanza is forthcoming. The government is keen not to repeat the Juba Declaration and bring Nuer troops back into the army. In any event, the major military power in the country is now a series of mono-ethnic security services directly controlled by Kiir’s clique. The largest of them, the National Security Service, modelled on Khartoum’s secret police, just had its salary paid via a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In Juba, the elite has formed a transitional government. The class war continues, this time under conditions of austerity. South Sudan’s greatly reduced oil production has already been pre-sold to Emirati and Qatari banks, and in the place of petrodollars, Kiir’s regime dispenses licenses to commanders and politicians jockeying for position. Their income is derived from land, minerals, taxes, and manipulating humanitarian NGOs. One commander I know makes a good income creating prêt-a-porter compounds on land he has occupied and renting them out to NGOs who are supposed to assist the people the commander has displaced. The elite may be a fractitious class, but it is very conscious of the fact that its position depends on the veneer of legitimacy given to it by the peace agreement. It’s a farce that suits everyone in Juba. In countless meetings this year, I have had to field questions from eager diplomats, wondering if the time is ripe to start reforming the army again.

The World Bank formally considers the war a disaster, but in many respects, the conflict has accomplished the goals of the organization. Vast tracts of the country are now uninhabited, as populations withdraw to relatively safer urban areas. South Sudan’s population of 12 million is now 20% urban. The empty land that results can be sold off to foreign companies and local barons. The South Sudanese population, displaced into cities, is increasingly reliant on markets for food and wages for income. Over the last few months, protests and riots have spread throughout the country. Youth groups have demanded that international NGOs employ local people or else leave. Warehouses have been burned. In Juba, internationals dismiss these demands as identarian ethnic claims, created by the manipulations of unscrupulous politicians. There is some truth to these statements, but it is none the less notable that even if youth demands are ethnically articulated, they are nationally identical, and a socio-economic mobilization that the international community would like to downplay. There is, after all, a state to support.

Read on: Alex de Waal, ‘Exploiting Slavery’, NLR I/227.