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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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In Buffalo

Eugene V. Debs Hall, Buffalo. Photograph author’s own.

Socialism is a story on the streets of the twenty-first century city. A lot depends on the teller. There was a mayor’s race here on November 2. One of the candidates called herself ‘a proud socialist’, a ‘democratic socialist’. Her opponents called her a ‘radical leftist’ and ‘dangerous’. An editorial cartoon in the daily newspaper in June, shortly after she upset the four-term incumbent mayor of this Democratic city in the Democratic Party primary, depicted her benevolently extending City Hall to a throng of outstretched arms. By October, the incumbent having decided to run a write-in campaign premised on the unique peril posed by this upstart, the newspaper decided that it too found her a ‘threat’. She is four feet eleven inches tall. In her pitch to voters, socialism amounted to advocating an economy and society that worked for everyone; she seldom used the term. Leftish commentators nationally rhapsodized about socialism taking the reins of power in Buffalo, and got almost everything wrong. The Erie County Democratic Party chair said talk of radicalism was ridiculous: ‘she sounds like FDR’. ‘Write-In’ came out ahead on November 2, an indistinguishable heap that didn’t officially return the incumbent mayor to City Hall until late November, once his votes were separated out from those for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback and a few candidates who also ran as write-ins, though mostly invisibly. Election night returns were robust enough, though, to relieve some contributors to the newspaper’s letters section that Buffalo had been spared from becoming North Korea on Lake Erie.

Words are pesky when they have no agreed-upon meaning.

Young woman waiting for the bus: ‘Socialism? I heard that word back in school, in history class, but …  I can’t remember.’

Young man waiting for the bus: ‘I know exactly what it means. To be sociable, you know, just socializing, talking with people, over the internet, just everywhere, everywhere.’

Old man getting on the bus: ‘I wish you’d asked me first. [gruffly] I’ll tell you: Joe Biden.’

***

Socialism is a history in fragments in a fragmented city. Walking distance from my natal home there is an empty lot. There are many, actually, but 1644 Genesee Street, next to Ike and BG’s BBQ and across from Island Food Mart, a bodega defenced by door and window grates, once denoted the East Side Labor Lyceum. The building is said to have survived until 1991, though I don’t remember it. A stone’s throw away, a small but handsome brick structure where I checked out books as a girl has not been a library for decades, but the central library downtown yielded a few details. A Sanborn map from 1939 is allusive: a deep, narrow building; a ‘Hall’ on the second floor. A squib from the Buffalo Courier in 1915 announces that the lyceum’s cornerstone would be laid on April 11 of that year, a Sunday. ‘Preceding the ceremony there will be a parade of children and men and women interested in the project.’ A ‘Socialist organizer of Buffalo’ got top billing among the speakers, who also included a Presbyterian clergyman and Mrs. Frank J. Shuler, representative of the Woman Suffrage party. A reminiscence in the Courier Express from 1950 mentions ‘the old time Socialist soapboxes … They used to hold forth regularly, orating from improvised stands at Main and Mohawk, Main and Genesee and other points throughout the city’. The card catalogue in the local history reference room discloses little more, but the librarian found regular announcements of meetings, socialist lectures and card parties at the East Side Labor Lyceum while scrolling through a news database. A dissertation on the role of interior spaces in the formation of working-class consciousness reports that Buffalo had a kind of floating lyceum, a regular lecture series or salon under various roofs, as early as 1904. A sentence in a Daily Worker story from 1924 mentions a Labor Lyceum in another part of the city’s East Side, this one at 376 William Street, near Jefferson, the commercial drag of black Buffalo by the time of my youth. That address today is also an empty lot.

Nothing marks the radical past. Labor Lyceums, typically the undertakings of socialist German immigrants, replaced saloons as primary spaces for union meetings, educational events and working-class entertainments in many industrial cities around the US in the early twentieth century, but I hadn’t thought about their existence in Buffalo until I stepped into a saloon, sort of – the Eugene V. Debs Hall, a former Polish bar, beautifully restored last year and, once the state approves its liquor license, one of two taverns that remain in an East Side neighbourhood that used to be thick with them. People, some my relatives, once crowded the streets of this area; wildlife is common now. A deer loped across the street toward my car the night I visited the Debs Hall to talk with its founder and principal manager, Chris Hawley. The flock of wild turkeys that also frequent the neighbourhood must have been sleeping or shy.

Hawley is a senior planner for the City of Buffalo. He lives in the back of the tavern with a cat named Sputnik, whom he rescued from certain death on the street, and bikes to City Hall, fifteen minutes away. As an avocation he researches the histories that have been erased in what, in so many other ways, is a landscape of memory. Ten years ago, thousands of preservationists from across the country gathered for a conference in Buffalo, marvelling at the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, at the daylight factories and grain elevators that had inspired Le Corbusier but, even in those cases, abstracting the architecture from the lives that had built and animated it. Hawley wasn’t in his present job at the time. He was born here forty years ago, into a family that, on one side, traces its early twentieth century heritage to skilled work and upward mobility from the beginnings of the once-gargantuan Bethlehem Steel works; and that, on the other side, preserved the silences of a working class left to fend for itself – the railroad worker killed on the job, his widow with eleven children, the rough boarders to whom she’d rent out the children’s beds, the violence of everyday life. Hawley’s parents were part of the migration out of Western New York to the Sun Belt. He began unearthing labour histories when he moved to Buffalo after university, piecing together the shards of experience that help decipher a project like the Eugene V. Debs Hall today.

Workers associations were numerous when the building was erected in the Broadway/Fillmore district not far from the city’s vast railyard and stockyards in 1899. It was always a bar, and because, according to a 1901 report by Temperance advocates, all but six of Buffalo’s sixty-nine labour organizations met in saloons or halls connected to saloons, it’s possible that the proprietors of this place augmented their income by renting space to unions. In any event – even allowing for the contradictions of the saloon as a male space, a white ethnic (here specifically Polish) space, a drinking and so potentially disabling space – the bar would have been a communal hearth, locus for workers to forge bonds against the fragmenting processes of industrial capitalism. Especially once it was spruced up in 1914, it likely played the social role of so many taverns, as a site for small wedding parties or funeral repasts, christening fetes and other celebrations. By then, Hawley says, ‘Buffalo was a hotbed of the Socialist Party. Debs had come here in 1898 to form the first local. There were twelve locals in the city, several in the outlying towns; mainly they met in taverns or other halls.’ The East Side Labor Lyceum was a step up, built by the Socialist Party specifically for socialists. He has a picture of its drum corps, a cartoon from 1917 of ‘The Regular Meeting of the Branch’, a reproduction of its mission statement: ‘Dedicated to intellectual advancement of working people and to prepare them for the abolishment of the system of exploitation and profit.’

Graduate student, political philosophy, 30-ish [coolly]: ‘Socialism is the first stage of state control of all means of production and distribution. It’s command central … Socialists are communists.’

Firefighter, middle-aged: ‘Socialism is the practice – the practice – of equality.’

***

Whatever else it was, the recent mayor’s race was a public confrontation with inequality. The dominant boosterist story of contemporary Buffalo is abbreviated as ‘Renaissance’. In the miserablist press the story is typically abbreviated ‘disaster’. Neither suits the whole.

Deer are not wandering everywhere in the city, and even where they tread, the grassy plots represent progress from the thousands of firetraps, shooting galleries and condemned hulks that a working class stripped of its livelihood – by the collapse of steel and then domino-like deindustrialization – had once called home. Buffalo’s population was 532,759 in 1960; it is now 278,349, a bit higher than in 1890. The latest census reflects an uptick, driven most dramatically by new migrants. On the East Side, which for decades has been predominantly black with a Polish remnant, the newcomers include at least 10,000 (possibly 20,000) Bangladeshis, many who fled the high costs of New York City and then encouraged relatives from the old country to join them, transforming some abandoned Catholic churches into mosques and community centers. Not far from the Debs Hall, a Spanish-speaking enclave has taken root, climate refugees from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Rita. The bones of the walkable city have not been obliterated. Housing is typically two-story, two-family wood-frame residences, ‘the Buffalo double’ in the vernacular, like my grandfather built a bit farther east in 1924; or the lower profile, extended ‘telescope cottage’. Until the pandemic-fueled real estate price boom, a house could be had here for $25,000 to $50,000, often less. Residential lots tend to be long and narrow, and as in every poor urban district I know, what people call ‘good blocks’ might be a cross-walk away from blight; ‘good houses’, alongside vacant or tumble-down properties; side streets intact with contiguous houses whose owners are trying, bracketed on each end by broad stretches of near-nothingness – the radial commercial streets that lead downtown and are mute testimony that for sixteen years the city’s first black mayor, incumbent Byron Brown, has not tried very hard for what is considered the black side of town.

Supporters of his challenger, India Walton, pointed out that the mayor’s enthusiasm for bulldozing vacant buildings was excessive (his five-year plan of ‘a thousand a year’ ultimately totaled 8,000); in any case, it had no second act beyond some incongruous suburban-style housing here and there. The city’s poverty rate – about 30 percent, persistent across his tenure – is most starkly visible on the East Side (though hardly unique to it). Among black city residents the rate is 35 percent, three points higher than their rate of home ownership. A stinging report by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies comparing the state of black Buffalo in 1990 and the present, called ‘The Harder We Run’, concludes: ‘Everything changed, but everything remained the same.’ For some of us crossing town on broken pavement or riding laggardly buses, low-boil rage is a familiar emotion.

And yet, and yet …

Man in a wheelchair, on disability, in front of his group home off Broadway: ‘I don’t know about socialism, but I think the mayor’s done a good job. You look at the Medical Campus, it’s beautiful. Look at the waterfront, it’s beautiful.’

Retired housing cop, East Side homeowner: ‘I’ve got nothing against India Walton or her campaign. I’m for the mayor for three reasons: affirmative action (I remember what the police department was like before, okay?); property values (I bought my house fifteen years ago for $30,000, someone offered me $170,000 the other day, that’s $140,000 of wealth); and the waterfront (I mean, it’s beautiful).’

Less than two miles from the Debs Hall, the university’s Medical Campus and the expansion of hospitals and other medical facilities have generated jobs, optimism and angry battles over displacement and disrespect in the nearest, largely black residential community. On Main Street and its downtown environs, long-abandoned hotels, department stores and office buildings have been repurposed or are in the process, with apartments priced and designed mainly to attract a niche public: empty-nesters sick of their suburban baggage, young professionals attracted to the city’s craft beer and arts scene, medical workers and students, a few pro football players, notable because they’ve long been associated with suburban residency. The transformation is by turns welcome and aggravating: welcome because no one yearns for the time when a plastic bag blowing across Main Street could symbolize downtown; aggravating because of the revivalists’ apparent contentment with the clichés of inequity. Years of official rhetoric notwithstanding, there remains the reality of the child growing up in a landscape of destitution, crossing over to one of increasing plenty. Farther west on the lakefront, the Canal district offers the city a glimpse of its long-obscured Erie Canal history along with myriad pass-times. The Outer Harbor is for now a relatively unspoiled stretch of nature trails, parkland, marina and beach where on any given summer weekend Buffalo shows up in rainbow streaks: women in plaid shirts and cutoffs towing boats from the water, latin families grilling skirt steak, mixed couples kissing, black elders watching the sun set from folding chairs, women swathed in black reclining under trees with their children.

All of this development has been accomplished with public money on what in large part was or is public land. ‘Socialism for the rich’, Walton’s supporters sometimes said breezily. The bon mot is inadequate when socialism for everyone is ill defined; it seemed especially counterproductive here, given its note of derision in a political context where ‘socialism’ was deployed most often only to deride.

What the phrase discounted, grievously, was not only the full experience of people and place but also the shape-shifting emotional aspect of urban life, the feeling for the city, which doesn’t resolve the contradiction represented by the man in the wheelchair exalting the nice new things while foot-padding along a street deprived of any of them, but does help explain it. ‘I’m Josh’, he said twice to be sure I remembered his name. His friend Marcus was more critical of the incumbent mayor but similarly admiring of the waterfront. What their expressed pride tacitly acknowledged was a sense of ownership: the lake as ‘the wealth of the people’, in Chris Hawley’s phrase, once befouled, effectively privatized by steelworks, now recovered as a zone of pleasure.

Disconcertingly, this store of collective wealth did not figure much in anyone’s electioneering – even though grass-roots action had been critical in determining the shape of the waterfront’s recovery as a public asset; and developers, who’ve already taken their bites, are perched to take more and ruin it.

Kelly, campaign volunteer for Brown, middle-aged: ‘A free for all, that’s what I think when I hear the word, just unrealistic … I think some of it is very fair, like universal health care. But it’s undefined; I think enough people when they use the word don’t know what they’re talking about, including me.’

***

A column inch in the Buffalo Morning Express for November 6, 1919, reports that in the steel company town of Lackawanna, just south of the city line, the Socialist ticket’s candidate scored a surprise victory as mayor amidst heavy repression against striking steel workers; his first order of business, ‘re-establish free speech’. Until India Walton’s surprise primary victory, no one remembered John H. Gibbons. Few know anything about Anna Reinstein, whose name graces another library I used as a child, in a town just east of the city line – Anna, a Polish Jew, politically radical, a doctor who came to Buffalo in 1891 and began practicing gynaecology. When she was honoured in 1941 by the Erie County Medical Society for fifty years of practice, a local paper noted: ‘Incidentally, she is the wife of Boris Reinstein, a former Buffalo druggist, now a commissar in Russia.’ Chris Hawley has a photograph of Boris seated at Lenin’s elbow. ‘Incidentally’ is a nice touch. Boris left Buffalo to serve the revolution in 1917, and never returned. Anna was a member of Buffalo’s Communist Party when she was arrested with forty-two other party members in an anti-Red roundup in 1920. When, at the same time, eighty-three mostly immigrant alleged anarchists were arrested on the East Side and in surrounding towns, a left-wing paper ridiculed them for ‘phrase-radicalism’. Confusion about aims and definitions, an undisciplined language, only encouraged a crackdown, it argued. Clarity would unlikely have deterred police raids. The first Red Scare … The second Red Scare … Decoupling words from meaning is a tactic and legacy of hysteria. Anna and Boris’s children climbed the social ladder, the son buying up land and getting into development; they secured her name on the library, but sealed the archive of her letters and papers, which became available only in the 1990s.

Socialism, in the deceptively mystic serenity of the Eugene V. Debs Hall’s setting, is a reclamation project. Of place, first, and, with it, confidence in the neighbourhood’s future; of social bonds, frayed by post-industrial fragmenting processes; of local labour history for workers largely unmoored from it. The professed goal is to make a social space, a political and cultural space. In conviviality – the exchange of knowledge, the appreciation of experience, the practice of economic cooperation and mutual aid – the class might see itself, and begin to act for itself if only, as a start, through that act of seeing. Much depends on who will be seeing whom, and how.

The hall itself has a spare elegance. A high tin ceiling, a leaded glass transom across big front windows hand-painted with the hall’s name and Debsian red banner, the original dark-panelled wainscoting, the original patinaed bar and tables, a refinished floor which Hawley and friends uncovered from beneath layers of asbestos tile whose evidence is burned into a diamond pattern on the wood, the ghost of ages of spilled beer and dirty mop water seeping through the seams. Above the barback mirror a photograph of Debs is flanked by small black busts of FDR and Marx. Atop the gleaming Art Moderne cash register, a purely decorative effect, sits an unassuming cast iron bust of Debs in his prison clothes.

Try not to get nostalgic, I thought. Balancing past and present is a delicate business, not unique in a city where memory has been a balm against so much loss. ‘Sentimentality is the only reason we exist as a city’, Hawley says. ‘There’s no reason it’s survived except that people love the place.’ That is simultaneously true and not. Love may be a bet on the future, but all bets are not equal.

This part of the East Side, where some people clawed to stay alive and others settled because property was a bargain, is now an area ‘in transition’ because others volunteered to save one remarkable architectural landmark – the Central Terminal, whose 1929 Art Deco tower looms above the grassy flats – and still others have drawn up a redevelopment plan around it. After decades in the dark, the tower now lights up the night sky in dramatic colours. The plan for creating a Civic Commons around it strikes all the right notes until you get to the word ‘destination’. If history is a guide, the commons will be contested. Ironically, but that feels like the wrong word, in his official capacity Chris Hawley authored a new rezoning plan for the city that does not have inclusionary mandates for affordable housing. That was supposed to be worked out by the mayor, he says. ‘Development without displacement’, the cry of poor and working-class residents everywhere, may well be raised within shouting distance of the Debs Hall. Stripped of its disguise as a mark of shame, vacant land is also the wealth of the people.

Alexandria, activist, 19, immigrant from southern Sudan: ‘You know the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”; socialism means this to me. Buffalo is the child, and the people are the village who must raise it.’

***

Formally, the Debs Hall is a social club. Unlike taverns, Hawley discovered, non-profit social halls tend to survive their founders; he and the 250 founding members – who each contributed $250 to buy the property and, for that, get $1 off beer for life – take the long view. Membership is $10, ‘open to anyone who has an interest in the labour history of Buffalo or the United States’. There is no political litmus test. Hawley is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, as is India Walton – the plainest explanation for how socialism entered the discourse this political season. An outside wall of the building bears her portrait. (As the only member of city administration who’d backed her publicly, Hawley figured his support ought to be big so that if he were fired that would be big too.) The local DSA chapter meets there, as have the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and neighbourhood koi pond enthusiasts. Any community-based organization can book the hall for free. Walton’s canvassers converged there during the campaign. Volunteer bartenders encourage their networks to come out. Hawley has made presentations around the city about labour history and the hall to groups as obscure as the Greater Western New York Bottle Collectors Association. It is, he says, an explicitly socialist hall (the Connolly Forum in Troy, NY, may be the country’s only other) ‘because the ideas are still relevant … how to empower everyday working people to better their lives collectively.’ But ‘if you look at the old socialist halls, they weren’t sitting around all the time talking about socialism; they were interested in whatever the working class was interested in’.

Segregation, and not just by colour, splinters the nominative singular. It always has. The Walton campaign lost the election (out of inflated fears of socialism, ‘defund the police’ and inexperience), but in spotlighting poverty, land use and uneven development it succeeded in organizing a coalition that crossed barriers of colour, ethnicity, age, income, geography, education, national origin. It did not juice turnout on the East Side or ‘win the working class’, as some have reported, unless one wants to write out most of the city’s unions and all of Brown’s working-class voters, including the firefighters, police and other city workers in historically Irish South Buffalo, which powered his victory. But it felt like something new, as if the ground might be shifting. The Debs Hall is in a majority-white slice of a district that, overall, is 48 percent Asian (mainly Bangladeshi), 24 percent black, 8 percent latin and 13 percent white. Walton lost the district by about 650 votes. Almost 17 percent of the people in that white slice are officially poor, and as in the rest of the district, and the East Side, and the city, or anywhere actually, what it means to be poor is as open for political redefinition as what it means to be a socialist or even working class.

Back when John Gibbons became the region’s first and only Socialist mayor, to be a steel worker meant all the things it means to be poor today: to live always on edge and to die young, your housing substandard, the rent too high for your income, your education inadequate, your psychic and physical environment unhealthy. At the time of the great strike of 1919, steel work meant compulsory twenty-four hour shifts every other day. Organized labourers changed what it meant to be a worker by challenging and ultimately changing factory conditions. Henry Louis Taylor of UB’s Center for Urban Studies argues that the point of attack now is the set of ‘conditions that make some neighbourhoods the factories that produce low-wage workers’: change the conditions and so too what it means to be poor.

People tend not to recognize that workers died to change their conditions, died to ‘bring you the weekend’, as an old union slogan once put it. Maybe because work still leaves them poor, running behind, or because it’s absurd to think ‘dying for the weekend’ might ever have been meant literally. Maybe because, as for so many in this region who are linked by ancestry to vanished industry, death was normalized but collective struggle was not. My father’s father, who built the house not so far from the Labor Lyceum, was a railroad machinist: his lungs gave out in early middle age; his daughter died at 4 of diphtheria; a son was stillborn. I grew up with pictures of the dead, knowing my father assumed responsibility for the family at 17; it didn’t seem weird. My grandmother seemed happy. I think she was: my father became a tool and die maker and didn’t die young, and nor did his wife or his children, and nor did my grandmother, who was never alone. No one talked about historical context.

A century after the heyday of Labor Lyceums, socialism is fetishized, like democracy. As words, like any other, even the most abstract – ‘God’ comes to mind – they are animated only in practice, experience. It would be interesting to observe an election that prompted discussion about democracy. In Buffalo the incumbent mayor, so intimate with cronyism, might have had a problem with that one.

Hawley often begins telling people about Debs the man by saying he was imprisoned in 1920 for giving an anti-war speech and ran for president from behind bars. He begins telling about the Debs project’s first labour history memorial with the story of Casimer Mazurek, a 26-year-old decorated World War I veteran shot to death when Lackawanna Steel guards opened fire on 5,000 men, women and children on a picket line in the opening days of the great steel strike. In both cases, he reports, listeners are amazed. The many whose family histories intersect in some way with steel often know almost nothing beyond that convergence. A plaque, sponsored by the Debs Hall and the Area Labor Federation, sits propped against a wall in the tavern, awaiting deployment. When it is finally erected to commemorate the violence, the failed strike, and the success, twenty-two years later, of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel, it will be the first public historic marker to recognize the labour history of Western New York.

Lola, university student, political science/pre-law, 19, at a picket line of striking hospital workers: ‘Socialism? It means you’re for the people.’

Jackie, her mother, gift shop manager: ‘I think the word, … I think it’s evolving.’

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

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Secret Destination

Part of what made Jean-Paul Sartre such an ineluctable figure in the cultural life of his time may be responsible for the subsequent waning of interest in his writings: their extraordinary range and forbidding quantity. Not only did Sartre achieve worldwide renown as a philosopher, a novelist, a playwright, even an idiosyncratic sort of biographer (though a book such as Saint Genet might be better described a nonfiction novel), but in each genre in which he triumphed – except for the theatre – Sartre subsequently threw himself into enterprises whose very scale seems to have been calculated to put his readers, and perhaps himself above all, to the test. The unwieldy quality of his greatest efforts, as much as the notorious dismissal of him as a late-arriving man of the nineteenth century by Michel Foucault, may account for Sartre’s eclipse.

Thus, Being and Nothingness, for all its brilliance in parts, was a baggy monster whose structure could have used judicious pruning. Today, it seems most valuable for its novelistic set-pieces; the tension between Sartre’s totalizing ambitions and his evocation of concrete experience gave an urgency to his thinking that keeps the book alive. Sartre’s second large philosophical work, his Critique of Dialectical Reason, meanwhile, was never completed, and has never really enjoyed a coherent reception. We can agree with István Mészáros that ‘there were some very good reasons why this project could never be brought anywhere near its promised completion’ that had to do with the impossibility of synthesizing abstraction and particularity, necessity and freedom.

Likewise, while Sartre’s first novel Nausea retains its canonical status, his post-war trilogy The Roads to Freedom, equally well received at the time, has receded in importance, perhaps because its elaborate structure exposes more blatantly the problem typical of the novel of ideas, namely a constricting overdetermination that prevents form and content from keeping in sync. As Sianne Ngai recently put it, the genre ‘tends to short-circuit or dissipate the tension between story and discourse that makes narrative so inexhaustibly rich’. (That The Roads to Freedom is not among the dozen examples in her Theory of the Gimmick is yet more evidence that the series has mostly faded from view.) Here, too, we must note that this was also a grand project left unfinished; Sartre intended not a trilogy but a quartet. As with the second volume of the Critique, the remains of the fourth novel were published posthumously.

And then there’s biography. Having written a major book on Jean Genet as well as the autobiographical The Words, Sartre began and abandoned studies of Mallarmé and Tintoretto, though both resulted in published essays, and finally undertook more than a decade of work on The Family Idiot, a vast immersion in the life of Flaubert that, after five volumes, nonetheless remained incomplete. It was, as Fredric Jameson noted when the translation into English commenced, ‘at first glance so cumbersome and forbidding a project’ – and so it has remained after successive glances. In the published fragment of his projected book on Tintoretto, Sartre briefly compares the workaholic Venetian painter, for whom ‘no campo was too vast, no sotto portico too obscure for him not to wish to adorn them’, to ‘another glutton for work, Michelangelo’, who regularly ‘grew disgusted, beginning a work, which he would abandon, unfinished. Tintoretto always finished everything, with the terrifying application of a man determined to complete his sentence’. Sartre, one might say, was a Michelangelo of prose. But he was Tintorettesque at least in this: ‘It is hard to decide whether he was trying to find or flee himself through his work’.

Perhaps there’s another way to approach Sartre’s oeuvre, one that brackets, at least temporarily, the urge to an impossible totalization that ran his greatest projects aground – through his essays, which he collected in ten numbered volumes under the rubric Situations. It’s as if the partial, fragmentary perspectives the essay allows made that genre the secret destination of Sartre’s totalizing projects. The resourceful Seagull Books, which published three hardcover collections of his essays in translations by Chris Turner a decade ago, has recently repackaged them in a dozen slender paperbacks: On Bataille and Blanchot, On Camus, On Poetry, On Revolution, and so on. Sartre’s essays have often been translated before, but these editions represent the most comprehensive gathering available in English, far more copious than the nearest competition, the volume published in 2013 by New York Review Books under the title We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975.

As an art critic, I was most attracted, among the new Seagull paperbacks, to volume seven, On Modern Art. All the more so because the essays it contains were mostly unfamiliar to me; I’d early on let myself be warned off Sartre’s writings on art by a denunciation that turns out to have been false. More about that later. On Modern Art contains half a dozen pieces on artists who were more or less Sartre’s contemporaries and who like him lived in Paris – which is to say that they are all clearly the fruit of personal acquaintance and not just familiarity with the artists’ work. Two of the essays are on Alberto Giacometti ­­– as sculptor and painter – and the others are on Alexander Calder, André Masson, the German painter and photographer Wols, and the now forgotten painter Robert Lapoujade. All but those on Wols and Lapoujade were previously translated in the 1960s. I should perhaps add that there are some stray occasional writings on artists that were not included in the French Situations – I know of texts on David Hare and Paul Rebeyrolle – and it’s a shame that none of these have been included. (The Tintoretto essay can be found in Seagull’s volume six, Venice and Rome.)

The Anglophone art world, should it happen to take notice of this collection, is bound to be surprised, and not only because, behind the times as usual, it may still be under the spell of Foucault’s repudiation. The last it heard of Sartre in any authoritative way was back in 1986, when – under the guise of a review in October of Hubert Damisch’s book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou, Les dessous de la peinture (1984) – Yve-Alain Bois published a manifesto of sorts for his own structuralist-inflected form of art history, whose significance was emphasized when Bois took its title for the influential book he would publish four years later, Painting as Model. What Bois, following Damisch, set his face against was ‘that typically French genre, inaugurated on the one hand by Baudelaire and on the other probably by Sartre, of the text about art by a literary writer or philosopher, each doing his little number, a seemingly obligatory exercise in France if one is to reach the pantheon of letters.’

Disdain for the supposedly superficial and dilettantish nature of ‘literary’ art criticism is an age-old theme, but Bois had a more specific charge to lodge against Sartre. This stemmed not from his writing about artists but from his philosophy, specifically, his early work The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. According to the Bois/Damisch reading of Sartre’s aesthetic, based on the latter’s analysis of the image, ‘a portrait, a landscape, a form only allows itself to be recognized in painting insofar as we cease to view the painting for what it is, materially speaking, and insofar as consciousness steps back in relation to reality to produce as an image the object represented’. As a consequence ‘Sartre’s aesthetic is an aesthetic of mimesis, in the most traditional sense of the word’. For this reason, Sartre becomes the bogey man thanks to whose influence generations of historians and critics have taken abstract paintings as oblique representations.

Even if this were indeed a consequence of Sartre’s thought, it is self-evidently not the necessary or most obvious one. It’s clear that every understanding of a representational painting depends on a consciousness of the dichotomy between the painted image and its material substrate: that’s why a painting is not a hallucination, and why admirers of representational art acclaim the skill of a painter who conjures a vivid and telling resemblance. Does Sartre ignore the materiality of the art object? – he who proclaims that ‘the serious changes in all the arts are material first and the form comes last: it is the quintessence of matter’? But for consciousness to recognize a work of art, it has to form a mental representation of the physical thing – and this is the case whether or not the work itself depicts something.

In any case, the artwork is subject to what Sartre calls ‘the great “irrealizing” function of consciousness’. It is only in my mind that a painting by Mondrian becomes a work of art, not on the wall. As Sartre writes of Lapoujade, though the statement counts for Sartre as a general truth, ‘the paths traced out by the painter for our eyes are paths that we must find and undertake to travel along; it is up to us to embrace these sudden expansions of colour, these condensings of matter; we must stir up echoes and rhythms’. Seeing the street grid or subway map of New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie is one way to do this, but so is seeing the painting as home to what Damisch calls ‘some more secret activity of consciousness, an activity by definition without assignable end’, such as Bois’s passion for finding the expression of a model or system – remember that he is from the generation that followed the path of which Foucault was one of the pioneers.

The collection in fact offers abundant proof that Sartre’s method had nothing to do with a reduction of the artwork to what it might offer an image of. Consider his essay on Calder’s mobiles. How does he characterize these? Mainly through metaphor: ‘a little local fiesta; an object defined by its movement and non-existent without it; a flower that withers as soon as it comes to a standstill; a pure stream of movement in the same way as there are pure streams of light’. Do I really need to point out that he does not say that a mobile is really a picture of a festival, or of a flower, or of a stream? With the fiesta the mobile shares its multiplicity, with the blossom its temporality, the sense of gradual opening up; with the running brook its identity in motion. The sculpture functions, not representationally, but affectively. And Sartre affirms this: ‘His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes.’

The nonreferential absolute was for Sartre the destiny of the artwork. Remember that he rejected the age-old ut pictura poesis: for him, writing was an affair of meaning, of ideas, while painting (representational or abstract), like music, was a matter of things. Thus, we read in ‘What Is Writing?’: ‘For the artist, the colour, the bouquet, the tinkling of the spoon on the saucer, are things, in the highest degree. He stops at the quality of the sound or the form…It is this colour-object that he is going to transfer to his canvas, and the only modification he will make it undergo is that he will transform it into an imaginary object.’ The wonder of Calder’s mobiles, in Sartre’s eyes, was that, with their movements caused by random breezes, they were neither lifelike nor mechanical, but unpredictable and therefore, in a sense, unknowable.

It’s curious that these mobiles are the only works that Sartre describes without trying to fathom why the artist made them as they are. For Sartre, art writing is more a subcategory of biographical writings than criticism. It’s a mistake to believe that he does not look at the paintings or the sculpture. But he believes that understanding them has nothing to do with pretending they are constellations of forms that simply appeared suddenly on a wall as if decreed by nature. Each one was made by someone, and for a reason. To understand the artist’s project is the way toward a deeper, less arbitrary engagement with the work. He therefore begins his essay on Giacometti’s sculpture, not by looking at a bronze in a gallery, or even a plaster in the artist’s studio, but rather by looking at ‘Giacometti’s antediluvian face…’ Sartre is going to assume this oeuvre amounts to a sort of portrait of the artist, but not in any representational sense. He does not presume to find an image of this face in each of Giacometti’s figures. Rather, he is attempting to follow the path of a man who looks, incessantly, at faces: ‘I know no one else so sensitive as he to the magic of faces and gestures’. Giacometti begins from what he sees, but what he tries to extract is not a depiction. ‘For him, to sculpt is to trim the fat from space’; ‘he would like the canvas to be like still water and us to see his figures in the picture the way Rimbaud saw a drawing room in a lake – showing through it’. Giacometti in search of his image is like Achilles trying to catch up with the tortoise; the only image turns out to be the successive traces of motion toward an unattainable proximity.

Of these different artists, it’s evident that Giacometti is the one who most fascinated Sartre. That’s because Giacometti was the most purely a wordless phenomenologist. He’s also undoubtedly the one of whom posterity has, so far, confirmed Sartre’s high regard. And yet to understand Sartre as an art writer, it might make more sense to attend to what he wrote about a painter who means nothing today, about whom one has no opinions, no preconceptions. The 1961 exhibition of Lapoujade’s work that attracted Sartre’s attention was titled, worryingly enough, Peintures sur le thème des Emeutes, Tryptique sur la torture, Hiroshima (Paintings on the Theme of Riots, Triptych on Torture, Hiroshima). One immediately imagines the flayed and tormented figures, but no, Sartre explains, ‘figurative art wasn’t appropriate for manifesting these presences’, and ‘Lapoujade, obeying the very demands of “abstraction”, achieved what the figurative has never managed to pull off’. Without representing the figure, the painting itself, as such and in its very beauty, conjures a presence, that of suffering flesh. How does Lapoujade achieve such a thing? Sartre does not try to describe the paintings, only to convey a sense of their material complexity – ‘Compact in places, rarefied in others, laid on thick at times and liquid at others, the matter of the painting doesn’t claim to make the invisible visible….By its texture and its itineraries, it merely suggests’ – and also of the effort of which they are the outcome, the project of an artist ‘who has reduced painting to the sumptuous austerity of its essence’. But the individual painting never makes an appearance; we cannot answer the question, ‘What does it look like?’

Perhaps, for Sartre, it hardly matters. He is far more concerned with what the painting is meant to do for the person who makes it than for the one who looks at it. ‘It’s the true rapport of the artist with the imaginary which is the work of art’, Sartre once told an interviewer. And the rapport of the viewer? That remains unexplained. Does Sartre cheat us, in some degree, out of the description of the artwork, the ekphrasis we may feel he owes us, when he would only undertake such a thing in an effort to articulate the necessity that drove the painter to resort to that form and not some other? Is there some evasion in his being less fascinated by paintings, finally, than he is by painting – less by what has been made than by the act of making it? Before rendering a judgement, one might seek to act as he said we should with Tintoretto: ‘Oh you lofty, troubled souls, who use the dead to edify the living, and above all, to edify yourselves, try, if you can, to find in his excesses, the shining proof of his passion.’

Read on: Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Marxism and Subjectivity’, NLR 88. 

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Balkan Reversal

Until recently, in Washington and in Brussels, North Macedonia was considered a Euro-Atlantic success story. The country of two million people – the only republic of the former Yugoslavia that saw no violence during the 1990s – had managed to overthrow the conservative nationalist government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for National Unity) after a decade in power. In 2017, Gruevski’s place was taken by Zoran Zaev, the mayor of the agricultural city of Strumica and leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or the SDSM, the successor of the state-socialist League of Communists of Macedonia. Zaev’s new Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, was on exceptionally friendly terms with the US Embassy; he had served as National Coordinator for NATO Integration under Gruevski, and embassy cables revealed that he had worked for years as a CIA protected source.

Two successive protest movements – Protestiram in 2015 and the Colorful Revolution in 2016 – had elevated a number of telegenic youth activists from the streets to positions in the SDSM government, promising hope and change. An anti-corruption campaign was launched to deal with the cases generated by Gruevski’s graft-riddled reign. After the SDSM rechristened the country ‘North Macedonia’ in 2018 (ending a long-running feud with Greece, which claims the name ‘Macedonia’ as its own), Athens dropped its objection to the country’s NATO membership, and in March 2020 the Atlantic alliance welcomed its newest member. EU accession was next on the agenda.

But relatively quickly, the hopeful glow that had haloed Zaev and the SDSM began to fade. Last month’s local elections revealed the depth of public disenchantment. Zaev’s party went into the ballot holding 57 municipalities while the VMRO-DPMNE had just 5. After the vote, the SDSM hung onto 16; VMRO secured 42. The remaining 15 municipalities went to Albanian parties. The poll has been widely interpreted as a verdict on the SDSM’s tenure, and the latest surveys conducted by the Institute for Political Research Skopje (IPIS) reveal that the party is fast losing support at national level: 22.5% of respondents said they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE if parliamentary elections were held next week, while 17.5% said they would vote for the SDSM. 

The disastrous result marked the onset of a new crisis in North Macedonia. Zaev, who pledged to resign if his party lost the capital of Skopje in the second round, reneged on his promise. This triggered a bizarre cascade of events in which the opposition accused the government of kidnapping an MP from the Albanian party, Besa, in order to prevent him from participating in a planned no-confidence vote against Zaev. One week later, Zaev appeared to have changed his mind again, declaring that he would resign and appoint a new leader to head the SDSM. He has encouraged pro-EU MPs to stick with his party; yet since Bulgaria vetoed the country’s accession in 2020 – citing disputes over language, history and minority rights – there has been no viable plan to initiate negotiations with the bloc. 

It’s worth examining how the SDSM arrived at this low point. Few parties in the Balkans have received such effusive praise from Western diplomats, thinktanks and media outlets; and few have disappointed so thoroughly. It must first be stressed that the party inherited a country in disarray, reeling from a decade of dictatorship, illiquidity, a collective identity crisis and corruption on a vast, almost awe-inspiring scale. When Gruevski first came to power in 2006, the US and EU lauded his commitment to neoliberal adjustment and NATO membership. But the warm relationship soured at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, when Greece vetoed the country’s entry to the Atlantic compact: a moment of humiliation that reportedly prompted Gruevski to turn away from the West.

That same year, the global financial crisis provided a new path for the PM. Gruevski’s market-friendly reforms, along with a sophisticated government PR campaign, managed to seduce international investors. ‘While the architecture of global liquidity crumbled,’ writes Fabio Mattioli in Dark Finance (2020), ‘the Macedonian government found itself able to access investments from actors interested in diversifying their portfolios or committed to preventing a Balkan-wide contagion of the debt crisis that had begun to wreak havoc in Greece.’

Much of the new public debt was channelled into mass construction projects, most ostentatiously ‘Skopje 2014’, which cost at least 683 million euros and transformed the capital into a giant open-air museum of bronze nationalist statues and incongruous neo-baroque and neo-classical buildings. Skopje now looks like a kitsch hybrid of a Central Asian capital, a Balkan Las Vegas and Macedonian-nationalist Disneyland. The ​​pièce de résistance of Skopje 2014 is the 35-meter statue of Alexander the Great atop a horse in the city’s main square. Sometimes, during the Gruevski years, surrounding speakers blasted Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ as dancing fountains pulsed in time.

Gruevski’s remaking of the city allowed him to achieve a crucial political objective. The SDSM, having overseen the country’s privatization process during the 1990s, when socially-owned enterprises were sold to private investors at an average of 6.5% of their estimated value, had long been favoured by the country’s oligarchs. But in Skopje 2014, Gruevski found a means to purchase the support of such interests, offering lucrative contracts for domestic businesses which, by turning Skopje into a ‘world-class city’, began to attract finance from abroad. While Skopje 2014 was detested by the middle classes, it proved popular among lower-income workers. The speculative building spree expanded access to housing through a variety of credit schemes and kept employment levels high in the construction sector.

But Gruevski’s cross-class coalition was not to last. Details of the criminal machinations behind the urban renewal plan began to emerge after tape recordings of backroom deals were passed to Zaev (allegedly by disgruntled secret policemen, although Gruevski claims that foreign intelligence agencies were involved). Zaev, who subsequently began holding press conferences and sharing the recordings with the public, quickly became the face of the opposition and mass protests filled the streets, drawing crowds of up to 30,000 in Skopje during the late spring of 2016. 

Cue significant interest from Western governments, particularly the US, which saw an opening amid the public dissatisfaction with Gruevski. The PM and other hardline nationalists had long opposed any change to the country’s name to appease Greece – an intransigence that rendered NATO membership out of reach. As tensions with Russia flared over Ukraine, eastward expansion became an urgent priority for Washington – and Gruevski, an obstacle. There was also long-held optimism that resolution of the name dispute would have knock-on benefits for the entire region, where issues of contested history or territory still linger in Cyprus, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo. 

At the height of the demonstrations, the United States’ Office of Transition Initiatives – a branch of USAID – opened an outfit in North Macedonia. The OTI was established in 1994 to ‘support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy in priority countries in crisis’ (for which read: facilitate regime change). VMRO supporters soon discovered that the OTI programme was supporting the same network of NGOs and media outlets as George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, and that there was a significant overlap between the employees of these US-funded NGOs and the activists leading anti-Gruevski protests on the streets of Skopje. A ‘Stop Soros’ campaign was launched, drawing support from some Republican Senators in the US. In March 2017, six of them wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:

Unfortunately, we have heard credible reports that, over the past two years, the U.S. Mission to Macedonia has actively intervened in the party politics of Macedonia, as well as in the shaping of its media environment and civil society, in an improperly partisan manner, one that, directly and indirectly, has influenced the outcome of elections in Macedonia. 

The US Embassy in Skopje denied such allegations but made little effort to conceal Washington’s priorities. In an email to me at the time, embassy spokesperson Laura Brown wrote that ‘Macedonia’s four major political parties requested the EU and the US government help Macedonia move past its political crisis’. ‘Our policy’, she continued, ‘is to support Macedonia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions as a resilient, prosperous, and inclusive democracy, developing economically.’

This was not the only instance of foreign political support flowing into the country. In 2016, with Gruevski still clinging onto power, the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO) opened with much fanfare. The SJO would, in the words of then Ambassador Wouter Plomp of the Netherlands, ‘establish accountability for past wrongdoings revealed by the wiretaps’. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the SJO to the tune of 649,990 euros. Its three chief prosecutors, Katica Janeva, Lence Ristoska, and Fatime Fetai, received the endorsement of top European officials, as well as fawning coverage from Western media, with the BBC calling them ‘the real crime-fighting Charlie’s Angels’.

Despite the ongoing corruption investigations, the VMRO managed to eke out a narrow victory in the December 2016 snap parliamentary elections. Gruevski’s party won 51 seats while the SDSM took 49. In the aftermath, however, the VMRO struggled to form a coalition, and the SDSM – with rumoured behind-the-scenes support from Western embassies – successfully courted the country’s largest Albanian party and long-time kingmaker, the DUI. VMRO supporters were determined to obstruct the frail new coalition. In an April 2017 parliamentary session to initiate the formation of the new government, a small nationalist mob stormed the Sobranie. Zaev and three other MPs received mild injuries during the ensuing confrontation. Images of a bloodied Zaev went viral, but the drama ended there. There was no coup or renewed Balkan conflict. The Gruevski regime, which once seemed ingrained in every fibre of the country – every phone call, every illegal transaction – finally crumbled like cheap plaster. 

It was a heady moment for the SDSM, yet the elation and relief were short lived. In 2018, the SJO launched a major investigation under the codename ‘Empire’. One of its suspects was Jordan Kamchev – recently named North Macedonia’s richest man – whose reported net worth of 228 million euros was allegedly earned through fraud and money laundering. It turned out that Kamchev had friends in high places. The businessman had reportedly turned to Boki 13, a flamboyantly dressed pop star with cheeks and lips cemented in filler, in an effort to secure lenient treatment from the SPO. Boki 13 had ties to the upper-echelons of the SDSM; in one leaked taped recording he claimed to have direct links to Zaev himself. Kamchev allegedly paid Boki 13 at least 1.5 million euros in cash in an effort to avoid a harsh prison sentence. Janeva, one of the ‘Charlies Angels’ prosecutors, was charged with taking a 50,000 euro bribe from Kamchev. The tabloid-ready scandal dealt a spectacular blow to the credibility of both the SJO and the new government.

Hopes for the SDSM atrophied further in September 2018, when the country organized a referendum on whether to change its name as required for Euro-Atlantic integration. Under the slogan ‘Never North’, the majority of voters boycotted the vote, whose participation rate stood at just 36%. Although this fell far short of the 50% required to legitimize the results, the SDSM nonetheless declared the referendum a victory and pushed through the name-change – prompting widespread disenchantment with the democratic process and crystallizing the image of the SDSM as a conduit for Western interests. 

During its 2017 election campaign, SDSM supporters claimed that Zaev would ameliorate poverty and increase living standards. Zaev played up his humble origins in the southeastern provinces and his early life as a manual labourer. A new Personal Income Tax Law, ratified in January 2019, was supposed to introduce a progressive tax code affecting only the richest 1% of citizens. Yet less than a year later the Ministry of Finance released a twenty-page policy paper explaining its decision to roll back this modest reform. The Ministry cited widespread tax evasion, yet the real reason for the volte-face was clear enough. As a report by the European Commission concluded, the decision was taken to ‘buffer the angry sentiments of the business community’. The Minister of Finance Dragan Tevdovski, widely seen as leading the pro-welfare wing of the SDSM, was removed from office despite enjoying one of the highest approval ratings of anyone in government. Zaev, whose attempt to assume the role himself was deemed unconstitutional, instead appointed Nina Angelovska, a young e-commerce entrepreneur and opponent of Tevdovski’s modest redistributionist policies. Angelovska was in turn replaced by Fatmir Besimi, who had served as Minister of Economy under Gruevski – undermining any pretence that the SDSM had broken with the previous administration.

A series of recent disasters have further damaged the government’s credentials. Last September, a fire at a new hospital built to treat Covid patients in Tetovo killed 14 people. In the aftermath, it emerged that the company contracted to build the hospital was owned by Koco Angjusev, a notoriously corrupt businessman and Zaev’s former Deputy Prime Minister. An investigation concluded that the fire had occurred due to a faulty defibrillator. Predictably, no one was held accountable. Health Minister Venko Filipče tendered his resignation and had it summarily rejected by Zaev.

Then, on 9 November, while the public was fixated on the post-election fallout, the government quietly declared a ‘30-day state of crisis’ in the energy sector. To meet its daily electricity needs, the country has been forced to draw on European energy supplies and racked up a sizable debt. Dramatic measures have since been introduced to curb consumption: Christmas lights have been cancelled in most towns across the country, and a new decree outlines criteria for reducing the lighting of streets, squares and other buildings to a ‘minimum safety level’. In recent months the REK Bitola coal plant, which generates 75% of the country’s electricity and dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, has been the site of numerous fires. It is difficult to view the SDSM as a modernizing force when they have plunged the country into darkness.

With North Macedonia still mired in multiple crises, three potential outcomes have been forecast for the months ahead. In the first, the current SDSM-led majority stays but with a new leader entirely subordinate to Zaev. In the second, favoured by the VMRO, snap elections are called, with the requisite 120 days allotted to organize elections in the middle of unprecedented health and energy crises. In the third, the current majority simply collapses and opposition parties attempt to form a new coalition. The precise parameters of North Macedonia’s future are uncertain. What is clear is that the country’s once-bright Euro-Atlantic future now looks distant and dim. 

Read on: Peter Gowan ‘The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy’, NLR I/234.

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Frugal Germany

Whatever happened to the ‘European Army’? Some of us may still remember the public appeal, issued three years ago by the philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, urging ‘Europe’, as identified with the EU, to arm itself, so as to defend its ‘way of life’ against China, Russia and the Land of Trump, and in the act advance its ‘ever closer union’ in a supranational superstate. Cosignatories were a handful of German political has-beens, including Friedrich Merz, then still of BlackRock. Here, for a change, there is good news: the ‘European Army’ is as dead as any army can be and, unlike perhaps the indefatigable Merz who is currently running for the umptieth time for president of the CDU, beyond resurrection.

What sealed its fate? In various ways, never publicly discussed, as is the neo-German custom when it comes to questions of life and death, the ‘European Army’ project was linked to the longstanding German pledge to NATO to increase its military spending to 2% of GDP, i.e., by roughly one half, by some unspecified date in the transatlantic future. It was and is easy to find out that this would raise German ‘defence’ expenditure above that of Russia, not counting the rest of NATO. It is equally easy to note that German military spending can only be on conventional and not on nuclear arms. In the 1960s, West Germany was one of the first countries to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as a condition of the Western Allies returning some of its sovereignty. Moreover, it was and is obvious that Russia, with its expensive nuclear force, would be unable to keep up with Germany in a conventional arms race, which would lead it to invest in upgrading its ‘nuclear capabilities’. While this should frighten the bravest of Germans, in fact it does not, as merely mentioning issues of this kind marks you as a Putinversteher (Putin empathizer), and who wants to be that?

What exactly the 2% were to be good for, apart from generally adding to the firepower of ‘the West’, was never explained, although it was clearly related to the idea of turning NATO into a global intervention force. Note that the entire German military, unlike the other member countries, is under the command of NATO, aka the United States. Note also, however, that France, too, wants Germany to work towards the 2%. France itself has for years met that target, the reason being that, just like Russia, it is maintaining an expensive nuclear force, and is therefore lacking in conventional muscle. Seen from France, a German non-nuclear military build-up need not necessarily benefit the US but, under favourable circumstances, could benefit France, as it might compensate for its conventional deficit caused by its nuclear surplus.

It is here that the European army of Habermas and friends comes into play. For the French, what Macron calls ‘European strategic sovereignty’ can be achieved only if Germany can be extracted from its Atlanticist military entanglement, wholly or at least in part, in favour of a European-French entanglement. While this would be difficult enough generally, it would be impossible without new units and ‘capabilities’ designated from the beginning for self-determined European rather than US-determined transatlantic purposes. All it takes, however, to discard this prospect is a look at German budgetary planning for the post-Corona near future (if post-Corona it will be). As passed under Merkel as Chancellor and Scholz as Finance Minister, the current five-year budget forecast envisages a decline in defence spending from 50 billion euros in 2022 to 46 billion in 2025, although no less than 62 billion would be needed for an increase to 1.5% of GDP, far short of the 2% NATO target. During coalition talks, military sources let it be known that they had no hope for a turnaround under a government dominated, in their view, by ‘the left’. According to them, the only way under these conditions for the armed forces to repair their allegedly ‘disastrous condition’, due to decades of neglect under successive Grand Coalition Merkel governments, was by cutting military personnel by 13,000, down from 183,000.

Soldiers, like farmers, always complain. However much money you give them, they feel it should be more. But with the huge deficits run by the German federal budget in 2020 and 2021, and with the determination of the incoming Scholz government, with Lindner at Finance, to hold on to the debt brake, not to mention the giant public investment planned for de-carbonization and the ‘digital transformation’, one can safely assume that the dreams of Habermas and Merz of a ‘European army’ were dreamt in vain, and that its hoped-for dividends for both ‘European integration’ and the arms industry will never materialize. The coalition agreement, interestingly, avoids the 2% issue with almost Merkelian chutzpah: ‘We want Germany in the long run (!) to invest three (!) percent of its gross domestic product in international action, in a networked and inclusive approach (?), thereby strengthening its diplomacy and development policy and fulfilling its NATO commitments.’ Nothing on how this is to be paid for, and nothing there for Macron, up for re-election in the spring of 2022, with which to convince his voters of progress toward ‘European sovereignty’, conceived as an extension of French sovereignty – with France post-Brexit being the EU’s only remaining nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, and with German tanks nicely complementing French nuclear submarines, hopefully rendering the AUKUS fiasco forgotten.

Is there a prospect for some sort of compensation? Hope, as a German saying has it, dies last, and this may be particularly true for France in matters European. For four years now, Germany and France have been talking about a French-German fighter bomber, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), to succeed the French Rafale and the German Eurofighter as the two countries’ sixth generation fighter aircraft. Originally FCAS was a French-British project which, however, fell by the wayside in 2017 when the UK chose to go for a plane of its own, the Tempest. Urged by Macron, Merkel agreed to fill the gap. In 2018 Dassault and Airbus Defence signed on as core contractors, and Belgium and Spain were brought in as further project participants. Still, work progressed only slowly, with severe disagreements especially on intellectual property rights, technology transfer and, important for France, arms export policies. Under pressure from Paris, and probably following up on confidential side-agreements in the 2019 Treaty of Aachen, the Merkel government got the Bundestag budget committee in June 2021 to authorize 4.5bn euros as a first tranche, to insure against a possible change in the German parliamentary majority after the September election.

It is no secret that among the German political class, FCAS has few supporters if any. This holds also for the military, who consider it one of those overambitious French grands projets that are doomed to fail due to excessive technological ambition. The system, which officially is to go into operation around 2040, consists not just of a fleet of stealth bombers but also of swarms of unmanned drones that are to accompany the planes on their missions. There are also satellites to support the planes and the drones, and generally to add cyber warfare capabilities to the system, giving it a sci-fi flair that stolid German generals tend to find, at a minimum, frivolous. Recently the German Federal Audit Office, in a confidential report, reprimanded the government for having left open crucial issues in negotiating the agreement, while the Bundeswehr procurement office has expressed doubts over whether the system will ever become operative at all. No doubts over whether FCAS will be expensive. Right now official, or semi-official, estimates are around 100bn euros, while knowledgeable insiders at Airbus believe the bill would be at least three times as high. For comparison, the NGEU Corona recovery fund, to be divided between 27 members states, amounts to 750bn.

Could FCAS be a consolation prize for Macron, to make him forget about the ‘European army’ and ‘European strategic sovereignty’? Perhaps if there was still more money around, but hardly now, after the Great Corona Drain. In Germany FCAS is considered more of an embarrassment than a strategic or industrial opportunity – one of the many problems left by Merkel, with her inimitable skill at making incompatible and unrealizable promises and getting away with it, as long as she was in office. While there are some ‘Gaullists’ left in the German political class for whom the alliance with France – leading, it is hoped, to a French-German/German-French Europe – takes precedence over the alliance with the United States, none of them can be found in the new government.

Indeed, where it might speak of a ‘European army’, the coalition agreement merely foresees ‘increased cooperation between the national armies of EU member states…in particular with respect to training, capabilities, interventions and equipment, as for example already envisaged by Germany and France’. And not to be misunderstood, it adds that ‘in all this, interoperability and complementarity with the command structures and capabilities of NATO must be assured’, declaring even more explicitly a few pages later: ‘We will strengthen the European pillar in NATO and work for more intensive cooperation between NATO and the EU.’ FCAS is not even mentioned, or only indirectly, in language that cannot but hurt French feelings: ‘We are strengthening defence technology cooperation in Europe, especially through high-quality cooperation projects, taking into account national key technologies and enabling small and medium-sized companies to enter the competition. Replacement purchases and systems available on the market are to be prioritized for procurement in order to avoid capability gaps.’ Chances are that the project, if it does not fall apart for technological problems or a tug-of-war over industrial leadership and patent rights, will at some point be abandoned for its costs.

FCAS scepticism is found not just in SPD and FDP. The incoming Foreign Minister, the Green chancellor-candidate-in-vain, Annalena Baerbock, is a faithful Hillary Clinton-type Atlanticist who managed to impose her views on the coalition document throughout. During the coalition talks, the Greens insisted on an early replacement of the Luftwaffe’s aging Tornado fleet with the American F-18 fighter bomber. Not to be confused with the Eurofighter, the Tornados are Germany’s contribution to what NATO calls ‘nuclear participation’ (nukleare Teilhabe). This provides for some European member states, above all Germany, to deliver American nuclear warheads with bombers of their own, with American permission and under American direction. (As far as one knows, the United States or NATO cannot formally command member states to nuke a common enemy, but member states cannot nuke an enemy without American authorization.) For the purpose, the United States maintain an unspecified number of nuclear bombs on European, in particular German soil.

Recently leading figures in the SPD have doubted the wisdom of nuclear participation. The United States for their part have complained about the Tornadoes, first put into service in the 1980s, becoming outdated, demanding more comfortable travel arrangements for their warheads. Currently the few remaining Tornadoes capable of flying – one hears, less than two dozen – stand to lose their (American) license to kill in 2030. Unless one lets the programme wither away, which is what some on the SPD left would prefer, the Tornadoes could in principle be replaced with the French Rafale or the German Eurofighter (both of which are to be replaced, in some nebulous future, by FCAS). It so happens, however, that to be capable of carrying American bombs, non-American planes have to be certified by the United States, which takes time, no less than an impressive eight to ten years. This brings in the F-18, which would be instantly available to inflict nuclear Armageddon on anyone any future POTUS might determine to be deserving of it. It so happens that the F-18 seems to be the favourite of the German military, desperate to preserve their reputation with their American idols and avoid the risks of French technological devilment.

To their relief, speedy procurement of a generously sized fleet of F-18s turned out to be one of the Baerbock Greens’ most unremittingly fought-for demands in the coalition talks. After acrimonious negotiations, they got their way. In the coalition agreement, in language fully comprehensible only to the initiated, the parties announced that they will ‘early in the twentieth legislative period’ – one has to use Google to find out that this is the legislative period now beginning – ‘procure a successor system for the Tornado fighter aircraft’ and ‘accompany the procurement and certification process objectively and conscientiously with a view to Germany’s nuclear participation’. The F-18 being far from cheap for a cash-strapped government, this is more bad news for Macron and his ‘European strategic sovereignty’. While the US won’t get their 2%, at least they get to sell Germany a fair number of F-18s. France, by comparison, is likely to end up empty-handed, getting neither a European army nor, ultimately, FCAS.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Plus Ça Change’, NLR 131.

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Strike Wave

Thirty-five years ago last month – October 1986 – the giant agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere locked out striking members of the United Auto Workers. This event, following shortly on lockouts of meatpackers by Hormel Foods and steelworkers by USX (formerly and today again US Steel) signalled that the punishing waves of layoffs and plant closures of the early 1980s had not satisfied capital’s appetite for working-class blood. In 1959, the year of the previous nationwide steel strike, over half a million workers had walked out. By the time of the defensive action at USX in 1986, there were only 20,000 workers left to do so.

With manufacturing under severe profitability pressures, collective bargaining in the 1980s and 1990s became an orgy of so-called ‘givebacks’ – contract concessions that would have been unthinkable at almost any point in the previous half-century. The UAW, like much of the US labour movement, put up a fight, but eventually begged off. ‘What do you do?’ asked a union official. ‘You can’t control the actions of management.’ In February 1987, both UAW members at John Deere and steelworkers at USX trudged back to work, having accepted a deal with no wage increases in the first case and outright wage cuts in the second – both in return for job security commitments.

The bleeding went on. In 1997 the UAW signed a contract with John Deere that again gave no hourly raises and instituted a two-tier system, with decreased wage rates for new hires. Such structures proliferated across collective bargaining agreements as unions limped into the neoliberal era – evidently the price of survival for a battered labour movement hunted by Republicans and unaided by Democrats.

This month, the UAW settled with John Deere after five weeks on strike, an action launched when the membership rejected an agreement negotiated by union leadership, and renewed after two weeks on strike with the rejection of a second tentative agreement. The 10,000 John Deere workers finally agreed to the company’s offer, overall very similar to the rejected second agreement: a 10% wage increase in the first year, 5% in the third and fifth years, and 3% lump sums in the second, fourth, and sixth years, along with an immediate bonus of $8,500. While the settlement is clearly a victory marking the end of the concessionary years, it does not uproot the hated tier system that divides the workforce, nor get wages back on their pre-1997 trend.

Along with a dozen or two other recent, ongoing or potential labour actions, the John Deere strike forms what has been dubbed ‘Striketober’ – an unexpected revival in working-class militancy in its classic form. Unlike the wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 known as the ‘Red for Ed’ movement, the current episode spans all sectors: nurses recently settled a strike in Buffalo, coal miners are on the line in Alabama, hospital workers in the Kaiser Permanente health care chain on the west coast, musicians in San Antonio, graduate students at Columbia. Tens of thousands of Hollywood’s technical workers authorized a strike with 99% vote at 90% turnout, and only narrowly ratified a settlement instead by means of arcane electoral rules. Numerous others wait in the wings or have recently settled.

Such militancy represents the sharp, organized tip of a more diffuse phenomenon, the so-called ‘Great Resignation’: the quit rate has been driven to historical highs by the conjunctural combination of accumulated outrage at the workplace brutalities of the pandemic, plus increased working-class confidence and labour market leverage due to the emergency expansions of the social safety net and the recovery of employment.

Even as unemployment falls toward 4%, the labour force participation rate remains two points lower than before the pandemic, and does not appear to be rising: in other words, the uptick in wages and downtick in unemployment are not drawing more people back into labour markets who have decided or been compelled to exit them over the past two years. This fact has lent the current episode of refusal its generally atomized shape, due to the low level of organization across the working class – what would once have been strike action appears today more often in the form of unfilled vacancies. But it also helps to explain the trans-sectoral character of the organized workplace activity, particularly the centrality of overwork in many strikes, as employers calculate that it is preferable to force 12-hour shifts than to raise wages sufficiently to lure nonparticipants back into the workforce.

The weakness of much of the labour movement also has paradoxically created room for the ideological left to establish footholds, around which scatterings of militants may emerge – a subtle shift that deserves some credit for rising militancy across sectors. Once-marginal activist formations have proven able to gain ground within union organizations in teaching, nursing and across the culture industries; a democracy movement has emerged within the United Auto Workers, a union which has become a shadow of its former self, plagued at the top by corruption and incompetence. Most significantly, the rank-and-file reform slate recently captured control of the Teamsters away from the Hoffa dynasty in a landslide election.

While mainly due to the weakness of traditional conservative leadership, this is also in part a superstructural phenomenon. For example, rising militancy among journalists has caused a recovery in labour journalism, in turn magnifying the quantity and quality of images and narratives of labour struggle. Discursively, the labour movement commands attention once again from a broad liberal public that shunned it for decades, and while the significance of this development is difficult to estimate with any precision, its effects appear to be widespread in the current moment: unions receive more favourable responses in public opinion polling, and professional organizers across much of the country have reported anecdotally a significant increase in direct contact from disgruntled workers.

I was born the month of the last John Deere strike; I turned 35 during the recent one. Minimum-wage jobs going unfilled, assembly plant workers voting down contracts – these are new marvels in my lifetime. While it is possible to make conjunctural sense of this episode, the true challenge is to search out a strategic path by which such intensified engagement along what remains an exceedingly narrow front might widen into something more. The present strike wave, such as it is, is a matter of only tens of thousands, not the millions of earlier episodes of US labour history. Workers in the United States have been taught a hard lesson for years that collective action only yields punishment. The effect, over the past generation, has been two-sided, shearing apart the working class along its seams of organization and relative security: with union density down to 10%, union members look out on the millions all around who would gladly do their job for less and become resigned to ineffectual leadership and concessionary bargaining; the unorganized 90% see the inability of unions to deliver, and can make out little reason why they should say yes if an organizer ever comes knocking.

Over the past 35 years, labour’s technicians have tried every trick to get the wheels turning again. They installed new leadership, as when John Sweeney triumphed in the AFL-CIO’s first-ever contested presidential election in 1996, running on a promise to reinvigorate the federation’s organizing capacity and renew its taste for confrontation. They developed the so-called ‘comprehensive campaign’, a method for seeking leverage on employers by means other than direct economic power – most famously in the Justice for Janitors campaign of the late 1990s. They launched modest political adventures, founding groups such as the short-lived Labor Party, New York’s Working Families Party, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. They engaged in mergers and divorces, combining unions and spinning off new umbrella organizations – most prominently the new federation Change to Win, formed by AFL-CIO breakaways in 2005. They launched major organizing campaigns in sectors from higher education to hospitals to hotels to Southern auto assembly plants. Some of these initiatives counted major successes, some degenerated into fiascos, but none generated movement on the scale of the class as a whole, or even a significant fraction. (The teachers’ strikes, arguably the only exception, occurred almost entirely as an organic expression of rank-and-file militancy and socialist leadership rather than any kind of leadership stratagem.)

What is the nature of the present fragmentation of the US working class? Paul Samuelson, high priest of the postwar neoclassical synthesis in economics, once speculated that the American stagflation problem of the 1970s would only admit a Chilean-style macroeconomic resolution at the point of a gun. An orthodox Keynesian, Samuelson – coiner of the portmanteau ‘stagflation’, uncle of Larry Summers – conceded that the Chicago Boys indeed had a solution that could tame inflation, but objected that such an exploit would require a ‘fascist political state’. Looking back on four decades of neoliberalism, we might say that, in certain respects, Samuelson’s hyperbole contained a kernel of prophecy. Certainly, there existed ample precedent in US history for such a campaign of repression, marking neoliberalism as more continuous with the country’s tradition of coerced labour than whatever novelty Samuelson imagined. Nonetheless, what came after 1979 cannot be understood in narrowly economic terms: the smashing of the labour movement was only the most targeted blow. Punishment rained down indiscriminately on the class as a whole, through political means as well as in industrial relations.

The first waves of mass industrial layoffs triggered a downward cascade in the labour market – the context in which industrial unions first agreed to concessionary contracts. Millions of individuals either relented to lower-wage work than they had accepted previously, or exited the labour market entirely and were thrown back onto family, the illicit and informal economy or the state for their survival. A radical increase in household labour supply followed, as women filed into fast-expanding low-wage service economy jobs to compensate for the vanished family wage, even as an assault on the social state continued to transfer the costs and pressures of social reproduction onto them. Largely, moreover, they joined sectors of the labour market already fenced off institutionally as a zone of low wages and precarious working conditions, particularly in what has come to be called the ‘care economy’, which accounted for 77% of all low-wage job growth for women between 1983 and 2007, as Rachel Dwyer shows.

Punitive social policy further eroded proletarian room for maneuver. After over a decade of state-level erosion of income support for the poor, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform pushed millions into the bottom of the labour market and, as Melinda Cooper observes, granted fathers automatic custody rights to children regardless of prior relationship – in effect terrorizing poor mothers off the welfare rolls and into minimum-wage work. If this were not enough, the apparatus of policing and imprisonment underwent its extreme metastasis in this period – not precisely what Samuelson imagined as the Chilean solution, but close enough.

Already, global competitive conditions and weakening labour law gave potency to managers’ threats of plant closure or subcontracted work. Even for organized workers, employers were equipped for an increasingly asymmetrical conflict, armed with the power to outsource their jobs or to permanently replace them during strikes. The full chain of implications of this power has grown as the surrounding labour market and social policy environment has become increasingly hostile: the power to permanently replace strikers or outsource positions became the power to push workers toward the unlivable minimum wage, throw them back into abusive relationships, and toss their children into cells. There is no need to lock up trade union leaders themselves if you can instead intimidate their members with the threat of criminalized unemployment – if walking out of the factory gates for the last time means walking into the jaws of the jailor. The form of struggle that results from this punitive dimension of the American class system is, obviously, racialized, and occurs more in the streets and prisons than in the workplaces.

Those parts of the expanding service economy shielded economically against capital flight are contained by other barriers, no less potent. Either because they enact labour processes that cannot be relocated due to the necessity of direct human interaction, or because they carry out functions of social importance that attract state support, workers in food service and hospitality, health care, child care and education are not buffeted by the same forces at play in much of the shrunken manufacturing sector. By the same token, however, the service industries are characterized by stagnant productivity, which presses down wages systematically and constrains workers’ leverage, in turn inducing employers to decompose the employment relation itself in order to hold labour costs down.

Such constraints impel workers to engage in political contestation of the social wage as the medium for their own industrial conflicts – as when teachers struggle over classroom sizes, nurses over staffing levels, or Uber drivers over the legal definition of employment. To some degree the productivity constraint has in this way also generated political potentiality, as workers in such circumstances discover they can only win economic gains on the political field, not in industrial conflict alone, and therefore must construct coalitions sufficient to engage broader policy questions – a strategy the labour movement has begun to explore under the name ‘Bargaining for the Common Good.’

The recovery of the labour market from the pandemic’s damage – renewing the belated and warped recovery from the prior crash in 2008 – has stimulated renewal of working-class militancy within the narrow confines of the organized zones, aided by temporary and partial expansions of the social safety net. But this stimulus is unlikely to translate directly into any kind of broader class unity at the social level or a renewal of class polarization within the political sphere, because it arrives in a working class so badly divided by forty years of defeats. Class formation, as Adam Przeworski observed long ago, is a discontinuous process. Its stops and starts lay down historical deposits that form into new conjunctures upon which disparate proletarian elements must again attempt to compose themselves, in the process he describes as ‘struggles about class’, which precede class struggles. ‘In each successive historical conjuncture, some carriers of the relations of production are organized as such, some are not organized in any manner, and some appear in struggles about class organization in forms that do not correspond in one-to-one manner to places occupied in even a broadly conceived system of production.’ The modest but noticeable rediscovery of workplace militancy in the organized rump of the US working class has occurred amid precisely such a discontinuity.

Classically it would have been the task not of the labour movement but of the socialist movement to bring into contact with one another the various struggling fragments – those who are organized as carriers of the relations of production, those not organized in any manner, and those engaged in struggles that do not correspond to any broadly conceived system of production, in Przeworski’s terms. The promising recovery of American socialism in the past decade is not to be made light of, but it too represents a distinct and delimited social stratum – the frustrated young professionals – and its primary points of encounter and affiliation with the broader working class have been in the electoral sphere rather than the more intimate zones of the social and economic.

This current strike wave, then will almost certainly ebb rather than accumulate the way the unrest of the early 1930s did. But even after it recedes, we will be able to see the pools it leaves behind – reservoirs of solidarity, consisting of material victories and new political experiences. These will occupy more of the terrain next year than they did last year; they will be, if still distinct, nearer to one another – and its examples nearer to hand.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘The AFL-CIO’s Second Century’, NLR I/136.

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Picking Winners

The annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, which convenes the 197 states and territories which have signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is one of the anchoring events of climate politics discourse, alongside the release of IPCC reports and increasingly regular occurrence of climate-fueled natural disasters. Since the first was held in Berlin in 1995, when atmospheric carbon levels were around 358 parts per million (today they hover around 414), a steady procession of COPs have produced a great deal of geopolitical drama, but have not yet managed to reduce carbon emissions. 

In 1997 there was the fight over the Kyoto Protocol, widely criticized for concessions to the US insistence on market mechanisms; followed in 2001 by George W. Bush’s announcement that he would not implement it anyway. In 2009, many expected that Barack Obama’s election would clear the way for a legally binding agreement at COP15, in Copenhagen – officially branded ‘Hopenhagen’ by the UN. Instead, negotiations nearly collapsed over bitter disagreement between developed and developing countries, and eventually culminated in a weak deal brokered behind closed doors by Obama and Wen Jiabao. Six years later, the Paris agreement was hailed as a world-historic triumph, even though the voluntary commitments made by individual member states failed to add up to the agreement’s stated goals. As climate activists pointed out, and even the text of the agreement acknowledged, although the agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2º C’, the aggregated commitments would result in an estimated 3º of warming. Nor were the Paris Accords complete: they dictated that signatories update their pledges five years later. This was the key task set for COP26 in Glasgow.

Although more people are paying attention to the COP process than ever before, there has also been a striking decline in public confidence. The years since 2015 have seen serious challenges to international action of many kinds. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement prompted subsequent acts of defiance from the likes of Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin, while the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s gas tax prompted new anxieties about the backlash to climate policy. At the same time, rising tensions between the US and China have contributed to pessimism about the prospects for global agreement. The ‘Climate Behemoth’ – a reactionary alliance between right-wing populism and national fossil capital, schematized by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright – has gained popularity, countering the bid for planetary sovereignty they see represented in the COP process. Pledges aside, carbon emissions continue more or less unabated.

In many ways the circumstances of Glasgow recall the disastrous proceedings in Copenhagen: taking place in the aftermath of a world-shaking economic crisis, marked by protest and dissatisfaction, undercut by the failure of a US president to secure domestic climate policy. Even Greta Thunberg’s memorable description of COP26 as a place of talk and no action – ‘blah, blah, blah’ – was less novel than it initially appeared: ‘Blah, Blah, Blah, Act Now!’ had already adorned signs at the Copenhagen protests in 2009. On the uselessness of the talks, Thunberg and the world leaders she indicts likely agree: Xi and Putin did not even bother to attend.

By the conclusion of the conference, a few new agreements had materialized, although most came with caveats. Twenty nations agreed to stop financing global oil and gas projects abroad, although most continue to subsidize oil projects at home – echoing the G20’s commitment to stop financing coal plants internationally, even as member countries continue to use coal domestically. A hundred countries, led by the US and EU – but excluding China, India and Russia – pledged a 30% methane reduction by 2030. A hundred and forty-one countries agreed to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 – although Indonesia, where primary forest has decreased by approximately 50% since the 1960s, immediately backtracked, calling the terms ‘inappropriate and unfair.’ The US, France, Germany, EU and UK struck an $8.5 billion agreement to help South Africa transition away from coal use – important in its own right, but perhaps even more so as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of a ‘just transition’. Most incredibly, the text for the first time in the history of the COPs includes the words ‘fossil fuels’.

But even most boosters have been forced to admit that Glasgow was a disappointment. By now the problems with the COP process are well-canvassed, ranging from the features of its institutional design to the nature of national sovereignty. The consensus model tends to result in a lowest common denominator approach to agreement. Countries set their own decarbonization goals, but also report their own progress towards them; unsurprisingly, a Washington Post report recently found that progress towards decarbonization is seriously overstated. Absent a global sovereign, there is no way to compel action, even when agreements are reached.

So be it, many would say: too much time has been wasted on global diplomacy when real progress is being made elsewhere. The conventional wisdom on climate politics is shifting away from the need for grand global agreements focused on climate specifically, and instead emphasizing the potential for addressing climate change with economic mechanisms: industrial policy, trade agreements, global finance. This is, in many respects, long overdue. In spite of the massive fossil fuel delegation and distasteful corporate pavilions, COP26 is not really where important investment decisions are made. The UN’s array of environmental agencies has always been a shadow to the fora where global capital makes its rules.

Advocates of green industrial policy in particular challenge the ‘collective action’ framework, suggesting that climate action is no longer a cost to be shouldered, and that free-riding is no longer the central problem to be solved. Rather, the ‘energy transition’ offers benefits in the form of industrial renewal and jobs: instead of shirking their commitments to decarbonize, states will compete for green market share.

The promise that a brighter green future is just around the corner is another familiar refrain of climate politics: back in 2011, for example, Obama promised to ‘win the future’ with investments in ‘innovation.’ But what is genuinely different about this COP is that the private sector is lurching into gear. The recent rash of corporate net-zero pledges and surge of ESG (‘Environmental, Social, Governance’) funds should not be taken at face value, of course. But Chinese state investment in low-carbon technologies, and solar panels in particular, has catalyzed the renewable energy industry and set a challenge to Western governments.

The hope of industrial policy advocates is that the US, EU, and China will compete for the green tech market – at least, the sectors which China does not already dominate – setting off a virtuous circle of competition amongst green capitalists. Politically, state support for fledgling green tech industries is expected to generate constituencies for decarbonization which can serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of fossil capital. Green industrial policy advocates tend to flatten the differences between labour and capital, suggesting that the central axis of conflict is between carbon-intensive and decarbonizing coalitions, even as clean-energy darlings like Tesla union bust. It is a view which puts most stock in the power of one fraction of capital to counter another; popular mobilization and labour strife feature primarily as threats to stability to be warded off. Joe Biden’s pair of infrastructure bills, for example, take cues not from the public investment-driven Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but from the innovation-oriented Green New Deal of the late 2000s, as outlined by Thomas Friedman and Edward Barbier. The model, which targets subsidies at strategic sectors like clean hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage, is more Silicon Valley than the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Focused on production in one country, industrial policy frequently relies on a methodological nationalism which neglects the global interdependence of contemporary production, while frequently threatening to tip into a more overtly political nationalism where convenient: this is a vision of climate policy that can coexist with, and perhaps even benefit from, increasing antagonism between the US and China. The key elements of its international policy are not grand global agreements but trade deals like the recent US-EU agreement to reduce steel tariffs and incentivize the production of ‘green steel’.  

Industrial policy oriented towards boosting ‘green tech’, however, has limits as climate policy. It does little to directly reduce fossil fuel use, prevent the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, or even directly reduce carbon emissions. It also faces political obstacles of its own. The tariffs and subsidies necessary to nurture emergent domestic industries are likely to garner objections from the WTO. A state which takes a more active role in ‘picking winners’ will face familiar challenges of domestic distributive politics. At the same time, as Cédric Durand has argued in Sidecar, by failing to undertake more substantial planning, states risk a slower and more disruptive transition away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile the still-powerful fossil fuel industry will seek to turn any stumbles to its advantage, as Adam Tooze warns.

From the perspective of many of those gathered at COP26, however, what is perhaps most concerning about the shift to green industrial policy is that it bypasses the many parts of the world which have little hope of competing with the big industrial powers on green tech. There will be ripple effects down the supply chain, of course. Some countries will garner new interest in minerals like lithium and cobalt. Those with relatively intact forests may be able to sell carbon offsets to help multinationals meet their net-zero promises – nearly all of which are currently premised on carbon removal in some form. But many other parts of the world will be surplus to the ‘green economy’, except as consumers of the products it generates. It has long been hoped that developing countries would be able to ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels altogether and move straight to renewable-powered electricity. The countries most in need of electrification, however, are typically faced with high borrowing costs – a problem which bears directly on the energy transition, since renewable energy infrastructure is often more capital-intensive than coal-fired power plants. The problem of access to finance is made still worse by the fact that, as Kate Mackenzie observes, countries deemed to have a high ‘climate risk’ must pay more to borrow.

There was much talk about climate finance at COP26. But for economist Daniela Gabor, what it revealed was simply ‘status-quo financial capitalism entering its green age’ rather than any more transformative project. The response to Covid-19 spurred talk of the ‘end of neoliberalism’ and the return of the interventionist state. But the response to climate change thus far suggests a less dramatic reorientation: as Gabor observes, thus far the role marked out for the state in climate finance is not to undertake public investment but to ‘derisk’ private investments in green sectors.

A different response to the dead end of the COP process, then, would be to make a lateral move, taking climate justice to the global financial institutions. The political scientist Jessica Green argues that international trade and finance ought to replace the UN framework as the ‘locus of climate policy’, while also calling for major reform to global financial institutions. The problem is figuring out how such long-sought reforms might come about. Labour and environmental movements in countries with valuable minerals or powerful industrial sectors may be able to exert some influence over trade deals, as United Steelworkers did in the US-EU steel agreement. The global reach of green supply chains offers the possibility for more internationalist organizing, as Thea Riofrancos has argued. But the prospects for reform of global trade and financial institutions are hazier.

The global climate justice movement has undoubtedly spurred a change in the conversation. But at present, it simply does not have the power to realize its goals. At COP26, climate justice activists criticized the failure of developed nations to make good on their commitment to spend $100 billion annually on climate finance – a sum agreed on in 2009 in an attempt to salvage the Copenhagen talks. Yet the more ambitious demand, both then and now, is for a framework for loss and damage, which would require open-ended funding for harms incurred as a result of climate change – something which might come close to climate reparations. The argument in favour of it is morally unimpeachable. But it is hard to see what could force the US or EU to agree to a programme that would expose them to liability claims long into the future.

Lacking leverage, the movement has resorted to the tools it has available: spectacle, and, most notably, shame. This year, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, gave his COP26 speech knee-deep in ocean waves to symbolize the threat that rising seas pose to his island nation’s existence. This, too, recalled a previous moment of COP politics, in 2009, when President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting prior to the ill-fated meeting in Copenhagen. But if the power players at COP26 have learned to speak the language of climate justice, they have so far remained shameless. Andreas Malm has called for a reevaluation of tactics, arguing that the climate movement must become more combative. Different tactics may help disrupt business as usual – but they are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem of power.

As climate policy is finally incorporated into economic policy, whither the COP process? The COP cycle will continue. But it seems increasingly likely to be an afterthought: a forum where countries with no chance of competing on green tech or being invited to G20-like summits do what they can – which is to say, not very much – to extract concessions from the rich and powerful countries which have built their wealth on ecological destruction, and which are now using that wealth to escape its consequences. In other words, not so much an emergent global sovereign as a charity fundraiser.

Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green?’, NLR 124.

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Rebel Maids

The Brazilian cartoon series Irmão do Jorel offers a cosy-satirical picture of family life, not unlike The Simpsons. Strikingly, however, there is a character with no homologue in the US series: the family’s maid, represented as a purple octopus – amorphous, voiceless, nameless, with eight arms ready to carry out any task requested of her (for a representative episode, see here). The Brazilian entertainment industry has many such images. From blackface turns on TV comedy shows to the maids who form a girl band in the hit telenovela Cheias de Charme, representations of domestic workers pervade the country’s cultural imagination.

Beyond the culture industry, paid domestic work is a daily reality for nearly 6 million Brazilian women, as well as for the millions of households that employ them. It is an occupation strongly marked by the sexual and racial division of labour: 92% of those employed in this category are female, and two-thirds of the latter are black. Restricted to the private sphere, the actual experience of this work has been atomized and largely invisible.

Despite the prevailing silence in Brazil’s public sphere about the realities of domestic work, domestics played a leading role in the 100,000-strong March of Black Women against racism and violence in November 2015. In 2016, a rapper and former maid, Preta-Rara, shared some memories of her time in domestic service on Facebook and was flooded with responses from other domestic workers. The page she set up for them soon garnered thousands of personal stories, from multiple viewpoints – giving voice to the experiences of Brazilian domestic workers in a way that cold official statistics could never do.

In 2019 Preta-Rara – real name, Joyce Fernandes; preta rara translates as rare or precious black girl – produced a compilation of these social media accounts in a book, Eu, Empregada Doméstica (I, Domestic Servant) with the subtitle: ‘The Maid’s Room is the Modern Slave Quarters’. It opens with the story of her grandmother, Noêmia, who began work as a maid at the age of fourteen. Preta-Rara’s mother, Maria Helena, followed the same path, and tells her daughter of the lasting trauma left by never having been taught to read or write. (Preta-Rara herself later made it to college and has taught high-school history, in addition to her music – her first album, Audácia, appeared in 2015 – and establishing a major social-media presence.)

Though some of the stories collected in Eu, Empregada Doméstica recall humane employers, the structural situation of the work means that exploitation is standard. Many depict psychological humiliations: accusations of theft, sexual harassment, moral harassment, effective imprisonment, occupational diseases and chronic exhaustion. Women recall being sent off in their early teens to work in strangers’ houses. Younger children, accompanying their mother to work when there is no one to watch them at home, get mistreated by employers or bullied by their children. Domestic workers often make huge sacrifices to help their children, especially their daughters, avoid going through the same experience. Access to education is frequently seen as the key to change – sometimes provoking mockery and disbelief from their employers. Escape from exploitation and subordination requires enormous individual effort and resources.

Preta-Rara herself recalls the indignity of being forced to use the ‘service’ lift in an apartment block, and to climb eight flights of stairs when it was out of order, because maids were not allowed to use the ‘social’ elevator. A common response emerges, when domestic workers are pushed to their limit: ‘Never going back to that place again.’ It is a phrase that occurs over and over in the contributions, a series of one-woman strikes against an intolerable situation, now brought together by Preta-Rara in collective form.

Nancy Fraser has analysed the heightened contradictions of ‘capital and care’ under today’s form of financialized capitalism, as neoliberal pressures put a squeeze on essential forms of material and affective reproductive labour – birthing and raising children, maintaining households, sustaining personal and community relationships. She argues that every form of capitalist society harbours a deep-seated crisis tendency, as capital’s drive to unlimited accumulation – free-riding on the life world, as she puts it – tends to destabilize the reproductive processes that are indispensable to the perpetuation of society itself, without which there can be ‘no culture, no economy, no political organization’.

For Fraser, these contradictions take different forms in the core and on the peripheries of world capitalism, as also across successive eras or ‘regimes of accumulation’: 19th-century liberal imperialism and colonial extraction; mid-20th century welfare-state Fordism and third-world developmentalism; 21st-century neoliberal globalization. Each, she has argued, produced its own asymmetrical fix for staving off the contradictions of capital and care: the ‘separate spheres’ gendering 19th-century bourgeois life, the expanded welfare provision and male breadwinner of Fordism, the two-earner families of neoliberal emancipation. Each fix in turn entered into crisis. The latest manifestation of this tendency in the US is the ‘crisis of care’ – time poverty, family-work balance – already attracting attention even before the reproductive catastrophe of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet the Brazilian experience – and perhaps, more broadly, that of Latin America – alters this picture. The stories collected by Preta-Rara speak not of epochal ruptures in forms of reproductive labour, but of intergenerational continuities. ‘Almost all women in my family started their lives as domestic servants’, one woman wrote. ‘My grandmother was enslaved – because that’s the right word – from childhood. My mother started to work as a family’s nanny when she was a teenager. My aunt has asthma attacks brought on by excessive work with chemical-cleaning products’.

‘Breaking the cycle of misery to which we were subjected is an arduous task’, wrote another. ‘It means fighting against everything and everyone. My grandmother worked all her lifetime in the fields, my mother was a maid, and I followed in her footsteps. Going against all of this leaves scars, physical and on the soul.’ At stake here are historical continuities traceable back to slavery – the connection Preta-Rara underscores with her subtitle, identifying the maid’s room as the slave quarters. Some of the social media narrators use the colonial term sinhá – ‘madam’ – to refer to their employers. Another makes the same link: ‘I’m always thinking that, if the memory [of paid domestic work] hurts me, I can imagine it must have hurt my mother and my grandmother much more, because, even allegorically, they had to bear the “lash” so that we could eat bread.’

As noted by the Brazilian social scientist and activist Lélia Gonzalez, to understand the place of black women in Brazilian society today, we need to examine their role under slavery. Gonzalez – herself the daughter of a black maid – summarized the historical role of the black mucama: ‘It was her task to keep the master’s house running at all levels: washing, ironing, cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, and nursing the children born from the “free” wombs of the little senhoras… And after the heavy work at the master’s house, she was also responsible for taking care of her own children, as well as helping her friends who had come from the plantations, etc., who were starving and exhausted.’ The Argentine anthropologist Rita Segato has emphasised the longue durée nature of this ‘transferred motherhood’ in Latin America, dating from the onset of colonialism. It has been naturalized over the centuries by serial cultural forms, predecessors of the purple octopus in Irmão do Jorel.

The developmentalist era in Brazil brought many changes, but – pace Fraser – the underlying role of black women in social reproduction continued throughout. If anything, young girls were dispatched from the interior in greater numbers to work as maids in the booming cities. The social media stories illustrate this process well: ‘My mother comes from a tiny hinterland village and was sent to the capital to work at the age of thirteen’ is a typical beginning. This ‘national care chain’ – the internal migratory flow of girls and women from the Brazilian backlands to the cities, which peaked at the height of the ‘rural exodus’ of the 1960s-80s – has its equivalent in the ‘global care chain’ of which Fraser and others also write: the pull of globalized financialized capitalism inducing the emigration of racialized women from poor countries to undertake social-reproductive work in rich countries where, with the onset of the long downturn and collapse of the ‘male breadwinner model’,  women were heading into waged white-collar work.

Brazil is certainly part of the migratory flow of the global care chain, in keeping with its middle-ranking position in the world economy. Immigrant domestic workers are, for example, Bolivian, Haitian, Venezuelan and Filipina women, whose migratory condition intersects with racial, class and gender rankings. Brazilian women, on the other hand, mainly emigrate to the Global North, especially the United States and Western Europe.

How to explain the continuities in Brazil’s social-reproductive order, compared to the successive regimes that Fraser analyses? Here it may be helpful to draw upon the notion of colonialidad developed by the Peruvian world-systems theorist Aníbal Quijano, who pointed out that ruling classes in early 19th-century Latin America battled to prevent the decolonization of their societies even as they fought for independent states. Through this dynamic, the ‘coloniality of power’ was incorporated into the state-formation process itself. The sexual and racial division of paid domestic labour, and its historical continuity with practices dating from the colonial and slavery periods, underlines the relationship between social-reproductive relations in Latin America and this foundational hierarchy. In this context, the ‘care gap’ is not a recent process. It is a dynamic inscribed in the very ‘coloniality of power’.

Thus, paid domestic work is both an expression of the structural inequities within Brazilian society and the perpetuation of them. Its availability at a low cost for Brazilian middle and upper classes lessens the potential pressure for welfare-state measures aimed at supporting socio-reproduction activities – day-care centres, full-time education, community restaurants, community laundries and care centres for the elderly. As Rita Segato puts it in Crítica da Colonialidade em Oito Ensaios (2021), the continuity of women’s invisible low-paid work allows an ‘evasion of social-sector investment’.

It also dissipates tensions within middle and upper-class families, where women’s ‘double shift’ of domestic labour is alleviated, as well as the demand that their partners and other family members do their share. As the American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argued in Black Feminist Thought (1990), historically many white families in the US similarly maintained their class position because they used black maids as cheap labour. At the same time, the delegation of domestic work tends to intensify racial and class inequities, accentuating the polarization between women, especially between domestic workers and their female employers.

Brazilian domestic workers have been particularly hard hit during the Covid pandemic, given their fragile or non-existent social protection. They were torn between continuing to work at high risk of infection or stopping work and losing their income. Nor were they given priority-worker status for the vaccine.

The aggravation of precarious social conditions suggests to some that we are moving forward towards the past. In Critique of Black Reason (2013), Achille Mbembe argued that the world is becoming nègre, as capitalism accentuates the exclusion, alienation and degradation of workers in general. From another perspective, the question of care provides a route to the future. For the Madrid collective Precarias a la Deriva, care should be a guiding principle in all political-economic considerations. Fraser argues that struggles over social-reproduction – encompassing housing, healthcare, food security, migrants’ and workers’ rights, day care, elder care, paid parental leave – are ‘tantamount to the demand for a massive reorganization of the relations between production and reproduction’.

Care and social reproduction are also central to movements such as Quilombismo and Bien Vivir, which focus on social practices based on cooperation, solidarity and equality. Production and reproduction go hand in hand in these radically democratic projects. Everyday resistance takes place in multiple ways, even if it is just to say, ‘Never going back to that place again.’ Certainly, Brazilian society will never be emancipated unless domestic workers are emancipated too.

Read on: Guilherme Boulos, ‘Struggles of the Roofless’, NLR 130.

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Bitmagic

March, 1851. In that month, the Kabylia was shaken by an insurrection; Emperor Tự Đức of Vietnam ordered the execution of Christian priests; a concordat in Spain entrusted the Catholic Church with control of education and the press; Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi was staged at the La Fenice in Venice. Nobody paid much attention to what happened in Chicago on 13 March. London for one was busy preparing for the Great Exhibition, while the debate over abolition was raging in the US itself. What had happened on that day in the Windy City? The first forward contract had been signed for 3,000 bushels of grain (a bushel was roughly equivalent to a hectolitre) to be delivered the following June. This agreement signalled the dawn of the futures market, which came to play host to a whole range of derivatives, eventually becoming the dominant instrument of international finance (and indeed its curse). In 2019, 33 billion derivative contracts were registered around the world amounting to a total value of $12 trillion (though their nominal value was $640 trillion).

158 years later, on 3 January 2009, another event went unnoticed, one perhaps of similar historical consequence to that exchange on the shores of Lake Michigan: the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created. Recall that it had been just over three months since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008, which triggered the most acute financial crisis since 1930, a crisis caused by derivatives (in this case, subprime mortgages).

That the creation of the first completely virtual currency in history went unnoticed is understandable: the planet had substantially bigger fish to fry. But the absence of political reflection on this new financial product became more and more inexplicable as the number of cryptocurrencies soared, and as their capitalization transformed them into a new branch of global finance equipped with its very own diminutive: DeFi (decentralised finance). According to CoinMarketCap, as of 16 November there were 14,289 cryptocurrencies in existence. The total capital of the companies that created them exceeds $2,600 billion: Bitcoin’s value stands at $1,138 billion, whilst Ethereum’s is $503 billion. In an editorial from September, The Economist observed that the volume of transactions overseen by Ethereum alone in the second quarter of this year amounted to $2,500 billion, equal to the value of Visa’s quarterly worldwide transactions.

Perhaps it’s this maelstrom of billions and trillions that prevents us from grasping the weight of the issue, for numbers of this kind are alien to everyday life; they exist in a stratosphere belonging to the world of magic. In this way, cryptocurrencies become one of the many forms of financial wizardry that determine our lives without us realising (on this numerical rhetoric, see what I wrote in June on the ‘Avalanche of Numbers’).

Yet cryptocurrencies pose a serious political problem, not to mention a theoretical one. Put bluntly, cryptocurrencies constitute an insidious attack on the very idea of the state.

This political import is evident from the growing list of countries that have banned their use: Bangladesh and Bolivia in 2014; Iraq, Morocco and Nepal in 2017; Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia and Qatar in 2018; and most notably China, which declared all transactions with these financial instruments illegal last September. Other states – South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam – have passed partial bans on specific types of transactions. Noticeably, no Western financial power features in this list. Only in September this year did the US make initial moves to regulate the sector, a good twelve years after its emergence.

The fundamental characteristic of cryptocurrency is its absence, at least in theory, of any guarantee from a central authority. Money has always derived its value from a convention based on trust. But this fiduciary quality has taken a radical turn ever since the Bretton Woods system (agreed upon in 1944) pegging the dollar to gold was abandoned in 1971. Since then, currencies have become known as ‘fiat money’, defined as ‘government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, but rather by the government that issued it’. Modern currencies are therefore based on trust in the central authorities that issue them: the Federal Reserve for the dollar, the ECB for the euro, the Bank of England for the pound and so on.

With cryptocurrencies the fiduciary role played by central banks is replaced by the mutual consent of exchanging agents, whose agreement is verified by the algorithms that decipher the double-key encryption in which the currency is codified. This mechanism of exchange and verification is made possible by a database known as the blockchain, a series of transactions represented as blocks, where any given block is marked by the one preceding it in the chain in such a way that it cannot be modified or duplicated. Thus, as The Economist noted, ‘transactions on a blockchain are trustworthy, cheap, transparent and quick – at least in theory’. Conversely, ‘conventional banking requires a huge infrastructure to maintain trust between strangers, from clearing houses and compliance to capital rules and courts. It is expensive and often captured by insiders: think of credit-card fees and bankers’ yachts’. Cryptocurrencies are like chips on a poker table: their worth is assured by an agreement between the players to assign them a particular value.

This is precisely how Bitcoin was born in 2009. Here’s how the New Yorker (wittily) describes it:

There are lots of ways to make money: You can earn it, find it, counterfeit it, steal it. Or, if you’re Satoshi Nakamoto, a preternaturally talented computer coder, you can invent it. That’s what he did on the evening of January 3, 2009, when he pressed a button on his keyboard and created a new currency called bitcoin. It was all bit and no coin. There was no paper, copper, or silver – just thirty-one thousand lines of code and an announcement on the Internet. Nakamoto, who claimed to be a thirty-six-year-old Japanese man, said he had spent more than a year writing the software, driven in part by anger over the recent financial crisis. He wanted to create a currency that was impervious to unpredictable monetary policies as well as to the predations of bankers and politicians. Nakamoto’s invention was controlled entirely by software, which would release a total of twenty-one million bitcoins, almost all of them over the next twenty years. Every ten minutes or so, coins would be distributed through a process that resembled a lottery. Miners – people seeking the coins – would play the lottery again and again; the fastest computer would win the most money.

Just like players at a poker table, ‘miners’ began selling ‘tokens’ they had won in lotteries in exchange for fiat money – dollars, euros or yuan, that is – until a market was created for bitcoins. Currencies emulating Bitcoin then appeared; a deluge that led to the over 14,000 currencies we have today including, to name only the most important: Ethereum, (ETH), Binance Coin (BNB), Cardano (ADA), Tether (USDT), Solana (SOL), Terra (LUNA).

But even though it began as a lottery, or as a game of poker, Bitcoin was since its inception conceived as a political instrument. In fact, with extraordinary – almost suspicious – timing, the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto published his online ‘manifesto’ in the most dramatic phase of the financial crisis – a month and a half after Lehman Brothers’ crash. In February 2009, he would confirm his reasoning behind the creation of Bitcoin, a system,

completely decentralized, with no server or trusted parties, because everything is based on crypto proof instead of trust… The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve.

Naturally, one hardly needed to spell out the reasons for mistrusting conventional finance in the winter of 2008-09. Moreover, for several decades central banks the world over had been shielded from any ‘democratic’ control since the guarantee of their full ‘independence’ from political power. Bitcoin thus presented itself as a tool that could render the state superfluous in its guise as a guarantor of currency of last resort, the final creditors or creditors, that is to say as holder of one of its two remaining monopolies (the other being the monopoly of legitimate violence). Bitcoin was a way of realising Robert Nozick’s ultra-minimalist state in the economic and financial realm, well beyond even the most audacious Friedmanian vision, with the supply of money entrusted to the market. The fascination it provoked in stubborn anti-statists was understandable. For instance, Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who, as we learn in a recent article in the London Review of Books,

predicts the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’, has long argued that blockchain and encryption technology – including cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – has the potential to liberate citizens from the hold of the state by making it impossible for governments to expropriate wealth by means of inflation.

But anti-finance and anti-bank left radicals – not to mention crypto-anarchists – were also susceptible to its appeal.

Of course, utopias don’t come that easy. The problem with cryptocurrencies is that as more and more are ‘minted’, the code of the subsequent block on the chain becomes increasingly complex, requiring ever more powerful computers to decrypt it. This means that whoever possesses the most advanced computers is able to mine the most tokens.

As a result, a digital arms race began, a fierce contest within the world of nerds. This variegated galaxy of libertarians, anti-finance leftoids and ‘cypherpunks’ has gradually developed into a fully-fledged sect with its own rites and lexicon, its believers, heretics and enemies.

For rather less mystical reasons, Bitcoin’s independence from state control made it irresistible to the world of crime for exchanges on the black market. In recent years, Bitcoin has sometimes been used as a means to sidestep US sanctions and the global tyranny of the dollar (though Iran has a complicated relationship with cryptocurrencies).

Bitcoin and its followers have enjoyed a remarkable proliferation. In 2018 it was calculated that 5% of Americans owned bitcoins. Certain hotel chains began accepting payment in bitcoin, as have PayPal. Cornerstones of finance such as Fidelity and Mastercard have embraced digital assets, and, as The Economist describes, ‘S&P Dow Jones Indices now produces cryptocurrency benchmarks alongside venerable gauges like the Dow Jones Industrial Average’. To come full circle, cryptocurrency futures and other derivatives are now traded on the stock exchange.

At the same time, the very success of cryptocurrency as an idea has undermined its political project ­– for physical, commercial and conceptual reasons.

The physical problem is the result of the ever-increasing number of ever-more powerful computers required to guarantee both the anonymity of users and the non-duplicability of the object of exchange as the number of tokens rises. This consumes a monstrous amount of energy. According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, bitcoin mining uses 133.68 terawatt-hours (tera indicates thousands of billions) of electricity, a little more than Sweden’s annual consumption (131.8 TWh), and a little less than that of Malaysia (147.2 TWh). Projections say that Bitcoin alone could increase the world’s temperature by two degrees over the next thirty years. Cryptocurrency creators claim to be searching for less energy-hungry algorithms. Ethereum in the meantime marks up its commissions (not coincidentally called ‘gas’) depending on the energy a transaction requires to process. But the problem remains thanks to Bitcoin’s dominant position on the market, and is only aggravated by the growth of its value against the dollar: today a bitcoin is worth $67,000, whilst in September 2011 it was worth just $5. This makes it worth consuming a lot of energy to mine a Bitcoin. And of course, miners install their computers wherever electricity is cheapest: this partly explains China’s hostility to cryptocurrencies; the abundance and affordability of coal there meant that in 2019 it provided 75% of the energy consumed to extract bitcoins. As it turns out, a bitcoin mine is more profitable if it digs next to a coal mine. In short, these imaginary currencies have a devastating impact on our planetary reality. Faced with this undeniable state of affairs, Greenpeace was forced to reverse its decision, made in 2014, to accept donations in cryptocurrencies.

The commercial difficulty lies in the volatility of cryptocurrencies: it is difficult to pay for a cup of coffee with a currency that has a different value when I drink the coffee than when I left home. But stabilising the value in fiat currency would mean losing what is its most coveted asset: its absolute independence from state monetary authorities.  

Conceptually, too, there are issues. They lie in the figure I mentioned at the start: the 14,289 existing cryptocurrencies. Their very number demonstrates an inability to rise to the role, proper to every currency, of ‘universal equivalent’. Even more intriguing is the number of extinct cryptocurrencies, the dead coins, which are around 2,000. To be sure, no currency is eternal, but this figure indicates a veritable monetary pandemic. Their frenzied multiplication and fleeting existence reveal them to be far more crypto than currencies, where crypto signifies not so much cryptography, but rather what is ‘hidden’, ‘covered’, ‘subterranean’ (crypts). Two stories exemplify this.

The first is that of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency brought to prominence by Elon Musk in 2020 when he announced his decision to invest $1.5 billion in it (the previous year, Musk had announced he would accept cryptocurrencies as payment for Tesla cars, then changed his mind due to ‘environmental concerns’). Dogecoin had been invented in 2013 as a joke by two engineers – Billy Markus at IBM and Jackson Palmer at Adobe – to mock the wild speculation that cryptocurrencies were generating. The perverse result of the joke is that today Dogecoin is valued at $31 billion (thanks above all to Musk). We aren’t far from the tulip mania that gripped the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, or what English speakers call a Ponzi scheme.

The others story is that of the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto himself who, in addition to inventing Bitcoin, wrote a series of texts that have been religiously collected into volumes – today on Amazon you can find no less than 64 that bear his name. All of a sudden in 2011, he disappeared from the scene. It is not known whether he was an individual, or whether his name was used by a collective. His writing makes clear that his English was excellent – more likely British than American – and that he was familiar with the most advanced academic publications in the field of cryptography. Many have tried to track him down, and various names have been suggested. The point is that there aren’t many people in the world capable of designing a program like Bitcoin, a couple of hundred at most, with all evidence of their activities monitored by the militaries and intelligence services of the global powers, since much of the war in cyberspace is fought with the weapons and the defences they provide. Nakamoto knew this world well: the Economist reports that ‘to register Bitcoin.org, he used Tor, an online track-covering tool used by black-marketeers, journalists and political dissidents’– and by intelligence services, we might add. We’ve moved from the realm of the Internet of Value into the murky depths of the darknet. Without resorting to conspiracies, it would be extraordinary if national agencies (as well as large banking groups) were not perfectly aware of what led to the creation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. If not, we’d be obliged to think of them as completely inept. The acquiescence of the great Western financial powers to the opening of this new $2.4 trillion front should give pause for thought. What’s clear is that whoever he is – person, group, company, military apparatus – Satoshi Nakamoto is one of the richest entities on the planet. If current estimates that he owns 5% of all hitherto extracted tokens (18.78 million) are correct, then at the current price his assets would amount to around $60 billion. So much for idealism.

Considering all these limits we’ve mentioned, in fact, cryptocurrencies appear as only one amongst many means of payment that modern capitalism has been generating for more than half a century. The fact that cryptocurrency derivatives are now being traded only undescored their function as chips in international financial poker. And just as players at the end of the night convert their chips at the cashier, so too do the partisans of cryptocurrency regularly cash in for fiat money – that is to say, they remember that without the state, there is no market. But by building this new house of cards – even if it ultimately collapses – they have taken home a lot of old-fashioned pennies with which to buy skyscrapers, fleets of ships, grand estates, industries and commercial chains. Better still, they’ve undermined the autonomy of the state by using the method favoured by neoliberals, that of starving the beast: stealing its fiscal resources so as to compel it to either reduce services or get in debt not to do so, thereby forcing it to submit to blackmail.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Victor Shih, ‘China’s Credit Conundrum’, NLR 115.

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Zero-Sum Game

In my recent Sidecar piece, I developed the argument that economic disruptions unleashed by surging energy prices – especially in the gas market – can be connected to state climate policies. Adam Tooze, responding in his Chartbook #51, challenges this so-called ‘energy dilemma’ thesis. What Tooze rejects unambiguously is the theory that Western fossil fuel corporations have priced the prospect of climate related policy changes into their investment behaviour, and that this has contributed to the tensions on the supply-side that came to the fore this autumn. While I agree that stronger evidence is needed to reach a definitive conclusion, I nonetheless have several reservations about Tooze’s essay.

In the context of the current crisis, the term ‘energy dilemma’ was coined by Lara Dong, an analyst for the consulting firm IHS Markit, who explained how Chinese authorities have struggled to balance environmental concerns over coal with the need for energy security. Yet this is not a new idea. It can be traced back to the 1970s, when experts became increasingly aware of the tension between achieving affordable and reliable energy provision and limiting the detrimental impact of growing fossil fuel consumption. In 2010, the geographer Michael J. Bradshaw produced a systematic formulation of the dilemma in ‘Global Energy Dilemmas: A Geographical Perspective’, asking: ‘can we have the energy necessary for economic development and, at the same time, manage the transition to a low-carbon energy system necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change?’

Tooze, in his piece, presents the ‘energy dilemma’ thesis as follows:

The canard that continues to circulate is that the supply shortfall is directly connected to climate policy. Too much talk about net zero has discouraged fossil fuel investors, resulting in lower investment, restricted supply and vulnerability to demand shocks.

His creditable aim is to prevent this narrative being used to postpone the green transition. However, it is worth noting from the outset that the definition he presents is a narrow one, limited to the supply constraints that arise from waning private investment in fossil fuels precipitated by climate policies and related discourses. For Tooze, there is an energy dilemma only when climate policies exert an ‘indirect effect’ on private investment that results in limited supply and translates into systemic fragilities.

By contrast, building on Bradshaw’s perspective, ‘energy dilemma’ can be used to refer more broadly to the crisis tendency of capitalism driven by climate policymaking. That is, a dilemma occurs whenever climate policies hamper economic growth. This includes the direct effects of public regulation on economic actors’ operations (in particular, the impact of climate legislation on production, funding activities and consumption patterns) as well as the indirect effects of policy changes – or anticipated ones – on private investment. These elements are closely intertwined. Since both direct and indirect effects place constraints on the supply-side in terms of rising costs or reduced investment opportunities, their outcomes are similar: a cascading effect on volumes, prices and profitability that impacts growth patterns, either directly or via the financial system.

With this broader interpretation of the energy dilemma – in which both direct and indirect factors contribute to a crisis dynamic unleashed by climate policymaking – much of the evidence cited by Tooze does not contradict my thesis but rather confirms it. Take the case of China’s energy crisis. Tooze writes that ‘There is no doubt that deliberate decisions by Beijing to regulate coal-fired electricity generation played a key part.’ Although other details must also be considered, in the context of booming demand a straightforward energy dilemma causality is discernible: binding targets for energy consumption and coal use = energy shortages = manufacturing disruptions and blackouts. This process ‘plays out transnationally and by way of the spillover of Chinese supply constraints both from coal and low-carbon sources, to global LNG markets’ – an observation which appears to give the energy dilemma framework a global dimension, showing how tentative steps in the direction of carbon transition in China fuel tensions on international markets that reverberate in the rising cost of gas, particularly in Europe.

Tooze correctly points out that the attempt of EU authorities to limit their reliance on Russian gas has backfired. The building of oversized LNG storage capacities subsidized by public money in Europe was intended to set up a credible alternative to Russian supply in order to extract cheaper prices from Gazprom. But this integration into global LNG markets has ended up increasing the vulnerability of the region to gas price surges. The internal difficulty of the energy transition is thus compounded by direct exposure to the repercussions of China’s energy metamorphosis. Moreover, Tooze writes that in 2021 ‘the green factor finally does enter the European story’ since ‘a surge in the price of emissions permits in the EU-ETS’, in addition to rising coal prices, prevented European operators from switching back to generating electricity from coal. Here, climate policy directly restricts the possibilities to mobilize cheaper options which would defuse cost pressure – another iteration of the energy dilemma that Tooze purportedly rejects.

However, although many of Tooze’s examples fit within a more broadly conceived energy dilemma framework, the overall thrust of his argument is distinct. He asserts that the dramatic fall in fossil fuel investment since 2015 is not a consequence of climate policies and campaigns but of falling energy prices, themselves related to the American shale-gas revolution of the early 2010s. It is worth interrogating this point further. Focusing on the coal-gas-renewable conundrum in Western countries, we must understand the extent to which the current misalignment between supply and demand is due to decreasing investment in coal, insufficient increase of renewable supplies and/or insufficient investment in gas to bridge the gap – and how climate policies have influenced these interlocking issues.

On this very complex question, Tooze makes two claims. The first is that divestment from coal was mostly driven by a loss of competitiveness vis-à-vis alternative sources of power generation, especially gas. This was clearly a decisive factor in the short-term, but it would be reckless to dismiss the significance of longer-term financial assessments informed by government climate pledges and civil society pressure on investors. For instance, Magnus Hall, CEO of Vattenfal, explained that his company decided in 2016 to divest from coal-fired power generation in Germany for both short-term economic reasons and longer-term prospects related to climate policy:

society is becoming less and less accepting of coal-fired power generation. And there is an economic truth: it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money from coal in Europe. For our part, we sold our mines and power plants because we knew that these assets had become too risky financially.

Tooze’s second claim concerns the ambiguous position of gas supplies. While the use of gas has grown as a substitute for coal – in part because it is a more flexible complement to renewables – investment has increased in the development of LNG infrastructure for imports. However, production has also decreased in Europe and investment in US shale-gas has slackened. Tooze tries to explain the rationale for this slowdown:  

If there is a force holding back new investment in America’s shale industry today, it is not government climate policy, but the insistence by Wall Street that the shale industry actually pay out dividends rather than plowing back its earnings into new drilling.

There are good reasons to doubt this argument. In fact, from the point of view of capital, not investing – or divesting and distributing profits to shareholders – is a logical way to hollow-out a business without a future. In that sense, the financialization mantra, ‘downsize and distribute’, becomes one way to retreat from fossil fuels and reallocate capital to other sectors. Consistent with this, we observe a marked relative devaluation of the Oil & Gas firms’ market capitalization relative to other sectors in the course of the last decade (Figure 1), reflecting investors’ move away from carbon stranded assets and anticipation of deteriorating prospects. The Wall Street Journal likewise acknowledges that ‘Concerns about long-term demand are exacerbating the oversupply of fossil fuels, and companies say they have become more selective about where they invest’, contributing to one the worst-ever write-downs in 2020. All this can be read as evincing a clear – if dramatically insufficient and untimely – shift away from fossil fuel which, in specific segments of the market and amid booming demand, contributed to the recent shortages in coal, gas and electricity generation.


Figure 1. All-World index versus Dow Jones Global Oil & Gas index: last 10 years (FT.com market data)

Tooze states that ‘What 2021 exposes is that the green push since 2015 has been enacted against the backdrop of a regime of low energy prices set by the price collapse in 2014.’ By green push, he means the fact that the replacement of some coal supplies with relatively cleaner gas was supported by a favourable evolution of their relative prices. The big picture is that this is not a viable pathway for green energy, due to methane emissions and underreporting of leakages which suggest that natural gas could be more environmentally destructive that previously thought. However, as far as the energy dilemma debate is concerned, the dividends of a price environment favourable to a shift away from coal simply adds more weight to the idea that the costs of the adjustment are real. Although they were postponed for a couple of years, they are now abruptly manifest.

In this sense, it would be unreasonable to exclude the energy dilemma from our analysis of the present conjuncture. There are straightforward and precise connections between energy market turbulence and climate policies in China and in Europe. The temporary increase in coal supply in China to defuse economic tensions testifies to at least a short-term trade-off between emissions and economic growth. It may be difficult to disentangle the role of low prices from the longer-term decline in private fossil fuel investment since 2015; but we should not dismiss the idea that the latter was partly driven by gloomy forecasts for the sector based on anticipated climate policies. High payouts to shareholders and declining market capitalization can, indeed, be read as symptoms of such forecasts.

Tooze rightly suggests that energy companies are responsible for the myopia concerning the evolution of demand patterns that resulted in insufficient investment in energy. The fact that global investment in renewables and energy efficiency has actually declined since 2015 is indicative of the sector’s lacklustre engagement with decarbonation efforts. Yet although these companies bear collective responsibility, the issue is also systemic. It reveals a deeper coordination problem that enterprises cannot handle via market mechanisms alone. The energy dilemma thesis is in this sense consistent with the IEA’s repeated warnings about the coordination challenges related to the transition, and their exacerbation by slow and inconsistent policymaking:

As the world makes its much-needed way towards net zero emissions, there is an ever-present risk of mismatches between energy supply and demand as a result of a lack of appropriate investment signals, insufficient technological progress, poorly designed policies or bottlenecks arising from a lack of infrastructure.

At present, shortages of coal and gas coincide with booming demand, but if renewable production rapidly expands, electrification accelerates and/or energy consumption significantly slows, a collapse of fossil fuel prices is possible. In spring 2020, oversupply of oil resulting from the pandemic lockdown pushed US prices into negative territory. Further decreases may occur when fossil fuel producers compete to valorize the last sellable resources in a world shifting beyond carbon. However, even if such price slumps take place amid an energy transition, their wider context will be rising costs driven by expensive investment efforts and the deadweight of carbon-asset legacies.

Tooze and I agree on the limits of the price mechanism to guide the green transition and the necessity of macroeconomic planning. When it comes to the energy dilemma question, I sympathize with his reluctance to give fossil-interests any argument that could be used to postpone further greenhouse gas reduction. Yet we must also resist the delusion that crisis tendencies related to climate policy are not at stake. A smooth transition beyond carbon is no longer an option. There is no Pareto-efficient way of eradicating fossil fuel use in a timeframe compatible with the prevention of climate disorders. A zero-sum or even negative-sum game is in play, which means that some parts of the population will bear the cost of the adjustment more than others.

This looming distributive conflict puts drastic constraints on class compromises. At this stage, I do not see what should prevent a large progressive front from rallying in favour of restrictions on the avoidable emissions related to the consumption patterns of the ultra-rich. A class-biased punitive ecology could become an effective means to stop ecologically perverse expenditure from rebounding onto the poorest. It could also be a stepping-stone to broader social mobilizations. Crucially, the primary implication of the crisis tendency is not the impossibility of humanity to handle the challenges of the energy transition, but the additional barriers to collective agency erected by the imperative of capital valorization. Subordinating profit-making to rapid decarbonation is, in my view, a price worth paying for the cause of climate justice.

Read on: Cédric Durand, ‘In the Crisis Cockpit’, NLR 116/117.

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Theory Daddy

It was a celebration of all the aspects of New York art and culture that Sylvère Lotringer had touched. November 2014: ‘The Return of Schizo-Culture’, staged under the dome at MoMA PS1. It marked the fortieth anniversary of the press Lotringer co-founded: Semiotext(e). Performers ranged from the musician John Zorn to the poet John Giorno.

Lotringer resisted thinking of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde, but it certainly bears comparison to some of the historic ones. Maybe he reinvented their form or found a way to replace them. Semiotext(e) was certainly more than a publishing house. It was international, inter-generational. It combined workers in many media, who attempted to articulate their time in forms appropriate to it – and whose desires were to change life, or at least endure it.

Like many of the animating figures of the historic avant-gardes, Lotringer’s life was blown off course by war. Born to Jewish immigrants from Poland in Paris in 1938, he was kept hidden in the countryside during the occupation. After, he lived with his family in Israel, before returning to Paris in 1958 where he was active in the Zionist socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. To avoid conscription in France’s war against Algerian liberation he enrolled in the École pratique des hautes études. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf under the direction of Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes.

Lotringer’s intellectual formation owes something not only to his teachers but also to movement work as a left-wing militant in postwar France. The everyday life of meetings, groups, manifestos, of publications aimed beyond the seminar room. For ten years he wrote interviews and articles ­– mostly on English modernist writers – for Les Lettres Françaises, edited by Louis Aragon, the former surrealist turned communist cultural commissar. Lotringer was never in the party but breathed the air of its extensive cultural milieu. One way of thinking about his life’s work is that he took the praxis of a militant cultural worker and turned it into an art form.

After bouncing around in Turkey, Australia, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Lotringer landed at Columbia University in 1972, where he would teach for more than 30 years. With a handful of others, he started Semiotext(e) as a journal in 1974. The filmmaker Jack Smith thought Hatred of Capitalism would have been a better title. That is what the 2001 anthology was called.

The journal had several landmark issues, notably: Schizo-Culture (1978), Autonomia (1980), Polysexuality (1981) and The German Issue (1982). These featured a mix of theory and literature juxtaposed against arresting visual imagery and art. In 1983, Semiotext(e) launched its famous Foreign Agents book series, with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations. These small black books, with no preface or blurbs, were central to creating the 1980s passion in the Anglophone world for theory.

Once, when he lamented to me how little he had written, I remarked that he had not written much writing but he had authored several authors. Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Félix Guattari came to exist as figures in American letters in large part through his efforts. Their reception via Semiotext(e) took a different path to the passage of French philosophy into the High Theory practiced in elite humanities institutions. In Lotringer’s hands, it became low theory, the lingua franca of creative workers, avant-garde artists, and downtown bohemians.

Columbia professor by day, Lotringer was also a figure of nightlife, which is where many of us first encountered his warmth and generosity, his curious yet detached, inscrutable engagement. He was not exactly of the East Village scene. He was usually slightly displaced from it. That too was something of a method, a psychogeographic technique of understanding an ambience of the city from its edges. He was, among other things, a nightlife ethnographer, comfortable among those doing their best to refuse work and daylight but not of them. What was contemporary and original in Semiotext(e) came in part from this double practice of learning from the seminar and the soirée, the enlightened and benighted.

Through day and night, work and play, Lotringer came to see a connection between the way New York artists and Parisian philosophers responded to the failure of the festival of liberation in the late sixties, the global crises of the seventies and the rightward turn of the early eighties. In both milieux he found turns toward the materiality of language, experimental practices in social forms, engagement with media as a deepening presence in everyday life, and a refusal of the politics of representatives and representations.

The 1978 Schizo-Culture issue of the journal came out of a conference of the same name that Lotringer organized with John Rajchman in 1975. It brought together William Burroughs, Kathy Acker and John Cage with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard. The poster for the event was emblazoned with quotes from Deleuze about desire and Foucault on power, which signalled the will to go beyond the Freudo-Marxist dispensations then a commonplace among the New Left.

The Polysexuality issue pushed further into ways of thinking the possibilities of sexual practices as neither utopian nor pathological. Famously, it was typeset in all capitals to slow the reader down, as he, she or they perused the material gathered between the front cover image of a man in erotic congress with his motorcycle and the back cover crime scene photo.

At a time when the Italian Communist Party exercised a certain fascination among left wing intellectuals elsewhere, Autonomia looked beyond it to the Italian far left. It introduced many Anglophone readers to the political and intellectual energies of Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Franco Berardi. The German Issue likewise looked beyond the increasingly bourgeois-liberal world of postwar critical theory to the margins where the liberal-social democratic pact had little to offer. It put Alexander Kluge next to Ulrike Meinhof. Lotringer extracted both issues at least in part through the kind of street and salon ethnography that yielded his insights into the connections between theory and the avant-gardes in New York.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Agents book series continued to offer intellectual provocations in bite-size chunks. Lotringer was a superb interviewer and made several interview-based books, including Pure War with Paul Virilio, Hannibal Lecter, My Father with Kathy Acker and Germania with Heiner Müller. All remain excellent introductions not just to the signature concepts of these writers but also to their singular intellectual practices.

While it came out in the book series, Still Black, Still Strong (1993) functioned a bit like one of the issues of the journal, although here Lotringer and his collaborators worked as editors in the service of documenting the theory and practice of the Black Panthers. The book includes contributions by Dhoruba Bin Wahad, Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1990, Lotringer’s partner and collaborator Chris Kraus proposed a second book series as a counterpoint and corrective to the Foreign Agents. Christened Native Agents, these books challenged the apparent universality of the speaking position in what had become by now the genre of theory. The books both anticipated and contributed to the turn towards situated knowledges, in which the author is no longer the universal enunciator of universal difference. The series includes authors such as Eileen Myles, Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz and Situationist International co-founder Michèle Bernstein.

In 2001, Semiotext(e) moved its base of operations from New York to Los Angeles – tracking with the rise of alternate cultural energy there – and switched distributors from Autonomedia to MIT Press. Hedi El Kholti joined as managing editor. Without detracting from the energy and direction that Kraus and El Kholti have brought to Semiotext(e), it is a tribute to Lotringer that Semiotext(e) has been able to grow and adapt and incorporate them. It is now among other things a major publisher of New Narrative authors, including Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian and Robert Glück. They came out of a San Francisco scene where mostly gay and lesbian writers grappled with the limits of the novel as form for non-heterosexual, non-bourgeois lives, and with the impact of theory’s decenterings of subjectivity.

Lotringer’s own writing is sometimes overlooked. Despite the singularity of his project, it always involved collaborators, and some of his best writing is his dialogs with other writers. The big book never quite materialized, but fragments of that project exist, such as Mad Like Artaud (2015). That book extends Lotringer’s dialogic practice to the past, presenting Antonin Artaud’s madness as a kind of shared affect with all of those around him and after him, including Lotringer himself.

What I remember from nighttime conversations with Lotringer is that the larger project on which he was trying to work was a reading of Artaud, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille as anticipators of that fascism and commodification that would sweep across all of their lives. He saw them as attempting to divert fascism’s primal energies into rituals of expiation, and failing at the task. Postwar history then appears as the wake of that failure.

One could think of Semiotext(e) as distracting him from writing more than an essay on this project (published as The Miserables). Or, as I prefer to see it, one can think of Semiotext(e) as that book. The press is a kind of meta-writing. It’s a book written through many others, updated and revised as it went along. How prescient it was that Lotringer worked his whole life against the embers of fascism of which commodification is not the liberal extinguisher but the accelerant. It’s a project that seems now even more timely than in the decades of Semiotext(e)’s formation when the figure to rail and rally against was neoliberalism rather than neofascism.

In Kraus’s novel Torpor, a Lotringer-like character’s refrain is: ‘it could be worse.’ It’s the mantra of a survivor. Lotringer was incapable of the optimism that animated much of the postwar left. Rather, he gathered and connected the energies that might avoid the worst. He certainly published and encouraged writers of a more utopian bent, but more out of a sense of their value as components in the struggle to avoid the worst.

Lotringer appears as a character in several other books: I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia by Kraus; Great Expectations and My Mother: Demonology by Kathy Acker; Inferno by Eileen Myles. There’s traces of him in more fictionalized form elsewhere as well. He was made to be a character in literature because he was one of those rare people who, for a good many people, drew together a storied era and made it both intelligible and deeply felt. He could have that effect on students, artists, but also people whose lives did not end up centering intellectual or creative labour but needed nevertheless to understand the play of power and desire that shaped the limits and possibilities of their lives.

As I remember it, Lotringer would express a sort of wry ambivalence about the success of the kind of theory he fashioned in the commercial art world. ‘It’s a living’, he might say, and flash that grin. When concepts or modes of writing lost their counter-intuitive force he was inclined to move on. There’s a certain ongoing variation and revision one can find playing out all through the Semiotext(e) list. It wasn’t meant to become, as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, sedentary. It wasn’t meant to have too consistent an identity. Or as Foucault once put it: leave it to the police to see that our papers are in order.

Lotringer taught us certain tactics. To conduct one’s life as a discreet yet visible site of experimentation. To look for the play of concepts between one’s pleasures and one’s struggles. To not settle into too dense a representation of oneself, one’s desires, one’s politics. To find languages adequate to the moment and to find the historical resonances of that moment, perhaps outside narrative arcs one merely inherited, from family, school or party. For those who work and play in certain discrete – and discreet – ways, he remains a model. A kind of genial, encouraging, present yet reserved theory-daddy, I name I call and recall him with love and more than a little irony, camp and otherwise.

Read on: John Willett, ‘Art and Revolution’, NLR 112.