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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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Sceptical Credulity

They looked at me with a benevolent smile, almost pitying my credulity, my capacity to be fooled. This person, whom I met by chance, was in their sixties, had taught at the Sorbonne and published several books. They immediately told me they would never get the Covid vaccine. They smiled when I objected that over the course of their life they had unthinkingly accepted over a dozen vaccines, from smallpox to polio, and that to enter a whole host of countries every one of us has been inoculated – against tetanus, yellow fever and so on – with relative serenity. ‘But this vaccine isn’t like the others,’ they replied, as if privy to information from which I had been shielded. At this point I understood that there was nothing I could say to shake their granitic certainty.  

What struck me most, however, was their scepticism. I knew that if I entered into the conversation, at best we would have come to the issue of government deception and Big Pharma, at worst conspiracy theories about the microchips Bill Gates is supposedly implanting in the global population. Here we’re faced with a paradox: people believe in extraordinary tales precisely because of their sceptical disposition. Ancient credulity worked in a completely different manner to its contemporary equivalent. It was shared by the highest state authorities – who typically employed court astrologists – and the most downtrodden plebeians. Inquisitors believed in the reality of witchcraft, as did commoners, as did some of the accused witches themselves. In one sense the occult still functions this way in certain parts of postcolonial Africa, where the political class relies on the same rites as ordinary citizens, using witchcraft to perform some of the operations that are the purview of public relations departments in the so-called developed West. (Peter Geschiere’s 1997 text on this topic remains instructive: The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa). But, by and large, the modern world has given rise to a form of superstition that is accepted in the name of distrust towards the state and managerial classes.

Naturally, we have ample reason not to trust the authorities, even when it comes to vaccines. The journal Scientific American once lamented the impact of the fake Hepatitis-B vaccination campaign organised by the CIA in Pakistan with the aim of discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts, which ultimately resulted in locals boycotting initiatives to vaccinate children against polio. We know of efforts to purposefully garble reports on the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate – the world’s most common herbicide – to tame the ire of its manufacturer Monsanto. And let’s not forget the decades in which the dangers of Teflon were hushed, whilst we cooked (and continue to cook) with coated pans. Nor can we ignore the authorities’ cynicism: between 1949 and 1969 the American armed forces conducted 239 experiments which introduced pathogenic germs amongst unknowing populations. In 1966 for instance, Bacilli were released into the New York subway to study their effect.

Scepticism towards authority is the basis of modern enlightenment rationalism. The anti-vaxxers, one must concede, are enacting the very process which permitted science to develop: refusing the principle of authority, rejecting the ipse dixit (ipse here no longer referring to Aristotle, but to the titled and legitimated scientist), upholding the principle that a theory is not in itself true just because it is espoused by an expert at Harvard or Oxford.

But here we’ve already begun to slide into the unintended consequences of sceptical thinking. We cannot disavow the liberatory force of the suspicion that religion was invented as a disciplinary tool, as insinuated by Machiavelli in the 16th century. It was this distrust that came to animate the tradition of libertinism (Hobbes and Spinoza were both suspected of inspiring libertines, perhaps because they were considered crypto-atheists), as well as the theory of The Three Imposters, which held that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were tricksters who had feigned their divine knowledge to keep the masses in check:

Neither God, nor the devil, the soul, the skies nor hell resemble how they are depicted, and all theologians – those that disseminate fables as divinely revealed truths – with the exception of a few fools, act in bad faith and abuse of the credulity of the people to inculcate in them what they please.

(Traité sur les trois imposteurs ou la vie et l’esprit de monsieur Benoit de Spinoza [1719])

The radical potential of this statement is clear, but it must be noted that this is also the first known espousal of a systemic conspiracy theory. Its scepticism has a fideistic quality. The ambiguity it illustrates can be traced back to the Renaissance, which laid the foundations of modern rationalism and simultaneously found a faith-based solution to Catholic fallacies: the Protestant Reformation. Renaissance doubt goes hand-in-hand with mystic fervour; Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pietro Pomponazzi and Machiavelli are coeval with Thomas Müntzer, Calvin and Michael Servetus. Hence, incredulity had already become a politico-religious problem in the 16th century, as the title of a seminal study by the Annales historian Lucien Febvre suggests: The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (1968). We can therefore understand how beneath vaccine scepticism lies an oftentimes ferocious intolerance, for this group of unbelievers structures itself like a sect. (Tara Haelle has reconstructed, rather interestingly, the way in which the anti-vax movement fashioned itself as a healthcare Tea Party in a recent article for The New York Times.)

But there’s more: the ruling class that squawks in horror at the superstition of its subjects is far from innocent itself. For the majority of people, science and technology have a magical quality, in that there is an obvious imbalance between the effort one puts into an action and its result. Uttering a spell, ‘open sesame’, for instance, needs little exertion, yet this is sufficient to move a large boulder blocking the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave. There is no cost input in reciting incantations that allow you to extract gold from stone. In the world of magic, the limits imposed by nature are no longer valid; you can fly on a broom or see what goes on in distant places. And what exactly do aeroplanes, cars, radars do? The Ring of Gyges and Aladdin’s lamp have become patented products, churned out by assembly lines and sold in supermarkets. If magic is a shortcut which covers great distances by way of an easy path (press a button and darkness disappears, press another one and you speak with people far away, yet another and you see what’s happening on the other side of the world), then the entirety of scientific and technological civilisation amounts to sorcery, even more so given that the vast majority of humans are unaware of the mechanisms by which this magic operates. Like the wizard of old, the modern scientist is a keeper of arcane knowledge. Few among us have even a vague idea of how a phone works, not to mention a computer. Naturally, there’s also the division between white (benevolent) magic and black magic, the latter causing ecological catastrophes and wars.

This enchanted dimension of modern life does not just derive from the fact that the bulk of humanity is kept in the dark about the functioning of the world of objects that surrounds it. The truth is that since the 1930s (and all the more so with the advent of the Second World War) the search for natural truth has changed gears. If research once possessed an artisanal quality (Enrico Fermi researched quantum physics in a Roman basement), now it has transformed into a veritable industry (almost 2,000 researchers work at CERN), and a costly one at that. The natural truths industry is financed by people, from politicians to CEOs, who know little about the projects they fund. An inverted relationship between researchers and donors has evolved in which the former, much like marketers or advertisers, must make constant promises that they will struggle to keep.

After the atomic bomb physicists had an easy ride; they could dangle extravagant weapons – whose unachievable prototypes remain firmly in the realm of Star Wars – before state officials, who would readily cut their own citizens’ pensions to finance the field. With the end of the Cold War, the rivers of military funding began to dry up, and the marketing of research needed rethinking. For decades, NASA has tried to ‘sell the cosmos’, instigating the belief that a colony on Mars was possible (an absurdity given the current state of technology).  It has also promised that with fresh funds it would be able to shield the earth from an inbound asteroid.

No longer able to promise the moon, the only miracle that remains for science to unlock is immortality: who would say no to this? Mark O’Connell’s extraordinary To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017) contains plenty of promethean, multi-billionaire entrepreneurs pursuing infantile dreams of cryogenic freezing pending resurrection. In 1992, the great physicist Leo Kadanoff wrote in Physics Today: ‘We are fast approaching a situation in which nobody will believe anything we [physicists] say in any matter that touches upon our self-interest. Nothing we do is likely to arrest our decline in numbers, support or social value.’

The result is that it’s more and more difficult for non-specialists to distinguish between science and pseudoscience – or between scientists and salesmen. This is because the latter very often mimic the former, but also because of the proliferation of ‘heterodox’ scientists – figures who possess all the trappings of scientific legitimacy (a PhD, publications in authoritative journals, membership of illustrious faculties) but who end up on the community’s margins, or even excommunicated. Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxed (2016) claims that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has covered up the link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and the development of autism. The thesis was originally presented by Wakefield, a respected liver surgeon, alongside others in the eminent medical journal The Lancet. But the article was subsequently disproved, and the surgeon shunned from the profession (though it seems a co-author of his was absolved of the accusation of scientific fraud). From then on, Wakefield has been an anti-vax activist. Another disgraced scientist, Judy Mikovits – PhD in biochemistry, author of articles in Science, also accused of fraudulent practices – is the protagonist of two conspiracist documentaries from 2020: Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 and Plandemic: Indoctornation.

These pariahs of the scientific community present themselves as new Copernicans facing an old Ptolemaic orthodoxy. They’re masters of all the formalisms of scientific research: bibliographies, diagrams, tables, footnotes. It’s understandable how they might sound convincing to those observing the commercialisation of the scientific-media complex from the outside.

I can confirm this disorientation with an anecdote. Shortly before he died, I went to interview René Thom (1923-2002), the founder of catastrophe theory, at a conference of physicists in Perugia. When I arrived, I discovered a meeting of physicists opposed to Einstein’s theory of relativity (nearly a century after it had been formulated in 1905), replete with papers presenting the flaws in the Michelson-Morley experiment (a key test for the theory), or in any case maintaining that its results could be explained by a host of other theories. I felt like I was participating in a clandestine meeting of some sect. I met European physicists who had been highly regarded in their field before they fell for a discovery which was proven to be false, and whose falsity they now struggled to acknowledge.

The close resemblance between science and pseudoscience – particularly in their relationship to funding, and therefore marketing – clarifies our recent difficulties in reasoning with anti-vaxxers, and why it seems almost impossible to break down the communication barrier without profound reforms to public education. For the latter, in its current form, is responsible for our present state of scientific, technological and mathematical illiteracy in an increasingly scientific, technological and digital world. Recently, in a large Roman market I saw an elderly man and woman converse across their respective vegetable stands. The man was an anti-vaxxer, and offered the argument that Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous and experimental. ‘Look who’s talking’, the lady replied, ‘all of you readily took Viagra without having the faintest idea of what it contained’.

A peculiar but highly significant case is that of Russia. Though it was the first country to patent a vaccine (Sputnik), by 2 September 2021 only 25.7 per cent of the population had been vaccinated, and only 30.3 per cent had received at least one dose (compared to a respective 58.4 per cent and 64.7 per cent in the EU). As a result, daily deaths in Russia have continued to reach 800 (out of a population of 146 million). To be sure, Russians’ wariness of the government has played a role (from the Tsars to Yeltsin, Stalin to Putin, there has never been much to trust). Even in Moscow we see versions of the fantasies about Covid and the vaccine we’ve discussed, including the online theory (signalled to me by friends who read Russian) that that ‘the virus was brought to earth by reptilian aliens who gained control of the earth in Sumerian times, and are responsible for creating the “Torahic religion”, and have now decided to curb the world’s population’, controlling humanity ‘via chips contained in the vaccine, in order to establish a new world order’. Amongst the reptilian humans are Obama, Putin and Biden (but not Trump).

But perhaps there is a more prosaic reason for Russian reticence towards the vaccine: Sputnik has not been recognized by Western (American and European) health organizations, invalidating it as a means to travel abroad. Many Russians maintain that if Sputnik permitted them to travel, there would be long queues to get vaccinated. Therein lies the power of bureaucracy, and of pharmaceutical companies’ commercial wars.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, The Philosopher’s Epidemic, NLR 122.

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Corrosive Methods

The biographical outline that typically opens an essay on Paula Rego begins with her birth to Lisbon-based Anglophiles in 1935. It registers her first encounter with England in the early 1950s when her parents – despairing at the Estado Novo regime – sent her to a finishing school in Kent. Via the Slade, the young Rego developed through contact with the London Group, coming to serve as the feminist cherry on their cake. Dividing her time between the two countries for several years, she eventually settles in London with the English painter Victor Willing. From there, her story arcs towards recognition by the British establishment, culminating in honours (she was made a Dame of the Empire in 2010) and retrospectives (the latest runs at Tate Britain until 24 October).

Fame of this kind has led Rego’s career to be plotted as a kind of social narrative, its twists and turns bent to fit agreeable cultural metaphors. Her early work – drab oil paintings like Interrogation (1950), in which a woman flanked by the bulging trousers of two male torturers collapses on herself like a broken Anglepoise lamp, and Portrait of José Figueiroa Rego (1954–55), where the face of Rego’s father wilts into his own fist – are said to articulate a raw breed of anguish connected with her birthplace. Paintings such as Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), which depicts the dictator, his red and white belly stuffed with chauvinist dogmas, disgorging a curl of bile into the canvas’s bottom-left corner, soon garnered Rego a reputation as a fearless critic of the dictatorship. Yet as she becomes established in London a bifurcation occurs: the biographical image of Rego qua British national treasure comes to exist almost independently of her art. She is ‘one of our own’, yet the critical implications of her work are conceived as applying exclusively to the country of her birth.

Paula Rego Interrogation 1950. Collection Ostrich Arts Limited © Paula Rego

Tate Britain’s exhibition is a case in point. Foregrounding Rego’s examination of the female experience, it confines the political and cultural critique her work offers, or else reduces its import to individual psychology. This is primarily achieved by unmooring her paintings from their historical context. By the time of Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail (1981), Salazar has been replaced with the titular animal: a thin pale, orange monkey who vomits while his wife stands behind him wielding a pair of scissors. Biographical readings of this work and others in which the monkey recurs (Red Monkey Beats His Wife; Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove) refer to Willing’s marital betrayals and Rego’s fantasies of revenge: domestic dramas that occlude any wider political landscape. The same interpretation is affixed to the renowned pictures of stocky girls looming over pets or performing household chores, which are framed in terms of Willing’s late illness. These complex portraits of female aggression – in which women are variously rendered as lovers, carers and murderers – are presented as less concerned with matrices of political power than with psychosexual impulses. The bulging fossilised skirt of the bullish girl in Snare (1987) may hint at the darkness of the Portuguese metropole, but it has nothing to do with Thatcher’s Britain.

Instead, we are told that such paintings are primarily about personal revelations Rego had while undergoing Jungian analysis. As Jung himself observed, there are hazards involved in inferring an artwork’s social meaning from the intimate life of its creator. The curators direct us to find in Rego’s art ‘the repressed desires, weaknesses and sexual instincts within the unconscious mind’, but Jung distrusted any such approach. ‘The golden gleam of artistic creation’, he wrote in 1923, ‘is extinguished as soon as we apply to it the same corrosive method which we use in analysing the fantasies of hysteria’. Rather than hunting for visual symptoms of the artist’s subterranean desires, he proposed that we view art as a reflection of a collective unconscious which, contra Freud, was never ‘repressed’ or forgotten. Nor was it pre-political. For Jung, the archetypes revealed by artistic creation were social constructions – manifestations of collective thought, or the ‘psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type’.

Paula Rego The Policeman’s Daughter 1987. Private collection © Paula Rego

The exhibition presents the paintings completed during Rego’s ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1987 as referencing specific Portuguese people and places, but they can be better understood as archetypal constructs: The Soldier’s Daughter; The Policeman’s Daughter; The Cadet and his Sister. In these renowned de Chirico-esque stonescapes we find menacing military WAGs, their strong arms engaged in acts of force that belie the softness of their faces. The soldier’s daughter straddles the neck of a large, floppy goose whose plumage she grips with knuckles almost as white as the feathers themselves. The policeman’s daughter plunges her fist into daddy’s long black boot, polishing it with such intensity that her knee seems to grind against the table. These figures may resonate with themes from Salazar’s Portugal, yet they have no literal kinship with the state or its servants. They are neither psychological portraits of individual women nor ‘indictments of Salazar’s dictatorship’ as the Tate’s curators claim, but rather archetypes of feminine desire as produced by the carceral-military imaginary. For Rego, this imaginary operates in both the Estado Novo and the British Empire, though it is reducible to neither. 

In The Dance (1988), a redoubled husband figure, appearing once with his wife and once with another woman, twirls around a moonlit beach in the shadow of a military fort. The figure of the wife is multiplied such that she appears in five separate stages of her life. Here, the drama of familial loyalty and betrayal is indivisible from the backdrop of war, but the resemblance between the military base in The Dance and the Fort of Milreu on Portugal’s Atlantic coast is incidental. The fort, and the husband, are instead symbols of masculine power without specific referent. It is precisely the generality of these images that gives them equal resonance across Rego’s two national contexts. 

Paula Rego The Dance 1988. Tate © Paula Rego

For Jung, the beauty of the archetype lay in its connection to lost forms of greatness. Types unlock ‘ideals’ which are generally linked to forms of reactionary nostalgia: ‘the mother country’, ‘the symbolic value of our native land’, and so on. Jung writes that art’s social function is to conjure up essential virtues that the spirit of the age is lacking. Although Rego’s work is indebted to Jung on various levels, this is precisely the vision that she seeks to overturn. Where Jung sees valour, Rego sees only vomit. Her excavations of the collective unconscious spurn idealism for brutal realism. Many of her paintings are tragic, rather than triumphal, retellings – of folk tales, nursery rhymes, cartoons, novels, plays and poems. Take The Maids (1987), which reimagines the eponymous protagonists of Jean Genet’s play Les Bonnes (1947): a stylised narrative of the real-life Papin sisters, famed in the nineteenth century as servants who murdered their mistress. Genet depicts the sisters as furtive sadomasochists, restaging scenes of their own domination while wearing their employer’s clothes. When Rego represents them forty years later, the ‘mistress’ is the one who appears to have dressed up for the occasion; thick, burly legs extend beneath her skirt, while the faint outline of a moustache can be seen above her upper lip. Meanwhile, the maid whose hand is gently poised against her master’s neck is given dark skin, as though to hint at an act of colonial retribution.

In Rego’s retellings we see not only the psychoanalytic imperative to articulate again (bring into the present, revisibilise), but also a political will to articulate anew (disrupt, subvert, rearrange) – as in Time, Past and Present (1990), based on Antonello’s St Jerome in His Study (c.1475). The saint is reconceived as a pensive man amid several children. One of them attempts to draw him, yet her page remains blank; another, in the doorway behind him, seems to fade into sand. Antonello’s backdrop of verdant fields is replaced by the empty yellow of an infinite, sea-less beach. Hanging on the wall in the right foreground is a painted angel whose scorched tones evoke Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920): the painting that for Walter Benjamin captures the force we mistakenly refer to as ‘progress’. Rather than longing for the past, as in Jung, Rego uses it to estrange the present, in a procedure more closely allied with Benjamin’s image of messianic time. Her paintings make legible a reordered continuity between the disfigurement of the now and the mistakes of the what-has-been.

Absent from Rego’s art however are the utopias that Benjamin hoped this process would bring forth. In their place we have an unflinching treatment of desire which emphasises its ability to trap and ensnare its subjects. The policeman’s daughter gets off on servitude to the boot; the maids are enthralled by the murderous pleasures derived from their own humiliation. If Rego gives us surprising reconfigurations of the past, she makes no special effort to imagine the route beyond it. In this regard, the final room of Tate’s exhibition is perhaps the most starkly ill-conceived:

Rego is an artist who has consistently made work that responds to and fights injustice. In keeping with this lifelong concern, we end this retrospective exhibition with this group of powerful, harrowing works of art that serve as a provocation for action. Rego’s and our wish is that there might be an Escape, and more justice for all women.

If a woman finds her desire trained on her own, or other women’s subjection, how can this desire be retranslated into an impulse to ‘escape’? The evasive abstraction of the curatorial note – ‘works of art that serve as a provocation for action’ – is sufficient indication that Rego offers no clear answer. Yet, perhaps, by turning this desire into such visceral forms of disgust, she plants some seed of its eventual redirection.  

Read on: Herbert Marcuse, ‘Art as Form of Reality’, NLR I/74.

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Bitcoin Sanctuaries

In early June, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador announced to the Anglophone world his plan to make bitcoin legal tender. Days later, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly – now stacked with Bukele loyalists – passed the proposal, and on 7 September the currency was officially adopted. Bukele promised that the country would soon be awash with bitcoin ATMs, facilitating conversions, transfers, and purchases of tokens. Fielding questions from an adoring audience at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, Bukele explained how cryptocurrency would alleviate his nation’s economic problems and help Salvadorans escape poverty. He said nothing of its darker uses, from untraceable money laundering to anonymous transacting on the black market to priming the country for illicit profiteering.

Bukele was quick to identify his antagonist for the Miami crowd: the predatory wire transfer services and traditional banks that extract commissions from remittance dollars sent by Salvadoran emigres. Bitcoin, he said, would reduce the reliance on expensive dollars and keep more money in the pockets of Salvadorans. At the same time, the President hoped that the move would prompt a new round of tech investment in the country, expanding the prototype crypto-community set up in the small surf town of El Zonte, now known as ‘Bitcoin Beach’. He touted the availability of cheap oceanside real estate, entrepreneurial opportunities, development projects such as geothermal volcano mining, and the inevitable growth of other tourist-friendly industries. Together, these would turn El Salvador into a tropical crypto sanctuary, reinventing the Panama model of a deregulated offshore financial service center for the 2020s. Citing blockchain’s growing adoption in Europe, the US and Canada, Bukele presented it as a beacon of hope for ordinary Salvadorans struggling to get by in the informal economy.

Beyond El Salvador, other Latin American states are beginning to view cryptocurrency as a worthwhile enterprise. They regard it variously as a path towards financial sovereignty, the basis of a successful platform economy, a means to jumpstart the post-pandemic recovery or renovate the region’s decayed financial sector. These dreams of empowerment, deregulation and financial inclusivity hark back to the year 2000, when Ecuador and El Salvador abandoned their national currencies, the sucre and colón, for the US dollar. Prompted by hyperinflation and devaluation, and intended to stimulate global investment, the process of dollarization in fact resulted in extreme income disparity plus stagnating or declining wages across sectors, followed by waves of outmigration. In practice, the US dollar now circulates across almost the entirety of Latin America as a second, unofficial currency – an arrangement that Bitcoin may upend.

In Paraguay, bitcoin and other cryptocoins are swiftly becoming part of mainstream political discourse, with laws mooted to encourage their use and applicability. In Mexico and Panama, new legislation will soon be introduced to increase Bitcoin’s mobility. Bitcoin ATMs and exchanges are scattered across Panama City’s shopping centers and strip malls, granting easy access for crypto traders, who have operated in a legal gray area for many years. Uruguay, now considered the ‘Silicon Valley of the Americas’, continues to make inroads into global fintech, recently launching its own cryptocurrency called the ñeripeso. In Puerto Rico, bitcoin entrepreneurs have taken advantage of liberal taxation laws to create an investment hub known as ‘Puertopia’.

It is no coincidence that Latin America is home to so many crypto havens. ‘Banking the unbanked’ has played a key role in the economic strategies of many Latin American countries striving to synchronize their informal economies with the rhythms of global accumulation circuits. In the 1980s, microfinance emerged as part of IMF-backed neoliberalization programmes to confront this challenge across the developing world. Accelerating in the 1990s, microcredit institutions began to crop up across Latin America – Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Haiti and Venezuela – offering small-risk loans to the poor. As the region became a site for economic experimentation, its population was used to stress-test incipient financial instruments including early forms of ‘fintech’. The countries’ raw materials – bananas, palm, rubber, ore – and, by extension, their entire economies, became objects of market speculation. Meanwhile, trade liberalization policies precipitated recurrent debt crises which kept their governments trapped in fiscal bondage.

The turn towards Bitcoin is the latest of these experiments, which is likely to produce a kind of fiduciary colonialism. For bitcoiners, El Salvador’s reforms will provide valuable data on the social utility of cryptocurrency, demonstrating its function as a viable fiat currency. Yet the primary focus is on developing crypto infrastructure which can be exploited by Silicon Valley risk entrepreneurs. For the street vendor who worries about daily earnings, or the families reeling from the hardship of the pandemic, the influx of these techno-capitalists will inject yet more volatility into economic life. By creating unconventional markets of digital coins, blockchain essentially brings regular people into the speculative crypto bubble, where many will end up trading their subsistence wages for overvalued satoshis (the component cents of a Bitcoin).

Crypto use will likely continue to spread across the region as traditional banking introduces new Bitcoin credit products – from cards to rewards programmes – into the market. Yet El Salvador’s policy innovation, which could become a regional paradigm, is to use crypto for all state dealings, giving it official parity with the dollar for domestic transactions. The Bitcoin Law mandates that every business equip itself to accept crypto: a measure that threatens to create new forms of technological apartheid, given the unequal access to internet and smartphone technology across the country. Bitcoin will also increase the risk of cybercrime and petty theft (since people hold the currency in insecure ‘hot wallets’), as well as devastating local ecology by using volcanic energy to mine coins. Since its adoption, the cryptocurrency’s take-up has been patchy and contested, prompting Bukele’s government to launch propaganda campaigns to enroll citizens in the glitchy government cryptowallet, Chivo app. Almost 70% of Salvadorians oppose Bukele’s reform, and a movement to repeal it has been seen in the #NoAlBitcoin protests in the capital city. But the government, which grows more repressive by the day, has shown no signs of backing down.

If the Dollar Diplomacy of the early twentieth century led to imperialism by investment, forcing Latin American nations to put US interests above their own, then today’s turn to cryptocurrency will perpetuate this dynamic. Instead of offering community-responsive development, crypto diplomacy will pry open economies for super-rich investors searching for fiscal wildernesses to tame. Some risk-entrepreneurs are already receiving transaction commissions, earning on wallet and service adoption. Governments, too, will be able to acquire key information on the financial habits of crypto users by simply reviewing the public ledger – streamlining the mechanisms of state surveillance. For El Salvador, this is pure capitalism delivered through cryptography, where the daydream of laissez-faire decentralization masks an unsettling authoritarian creep.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Latin America Tamed?’, NLR 58.

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Adaptable Cuba?

Ailynn Torres Santana and Julio César Guanche are Cuban political theorists who study republicanism and democracy in Latin America. In the following interview with Martín Mosquera, they discuss Cuba’s anti-government protests, political fractures in the country, and pathways for the ruling Communist Party.

Martín Mosquera: What was the political and economic situation in Cuba in the run up to the 11 July protests?

Ailynn Torres Santana: The protests that began in Cuba on 11 July were the result of a long-term trend stretching back to the 1990s, in which Cuba saw increased impoverishment and inequality after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. This initiated a process of economic and political reform that began in 2006-2007 and continues today. Its most recent stage is the Tarea Ordenamiento – or ‘restructuring task’ – which formally abolished the dual currency system last January and expanded the range of jobs that Cubans can do outside the state sector.    

US sanctions have obviously been a major source of hardship for Cuban workers. But so have the problems in implementing the country’s reform policies. For example, agriculture has been neglected while millions have been allocated to hotel investments. State-guaranteed welfare has been reduced and the domestic economy has been partially dollarized, as the government increases the number of businesses that operate in foreign currencies. This has heightened Cubans’ reliance on remittances, which in turn have been restricted by the US. Real wages have persistently declined, and in the last six months this drop has been dramatic, with Covid-19 forcing many small and medium-sized enterprises to close. Scarcities of food and medicine are beginning to bite.

There are, however, accumulated problems of another kind, including a lack of labour rights for those who work in the private sector; a hollowed-out trade union movement; obstacles to establishing or expanding non-agricultural worker cooperatives; a virtual block on creating new associations or formal spaces in civil society; restrictions on civil liberties; and an intensification of the US government’s ‘regime destabilization’ programme, which gives millions to actors aiming to topple the government. All these elements fed into the recent unrest.

MM: How would you describe the protests, both in terms of their scale and their political content? What role did the US-financed opposition play in them? Was it a ‘soft coup’ attempt?

Julio César Guanche: To be sure, there are right-wing extremist elements in Cuba that are directly connected to US-led ‘regime change’ initiatives. During the recent uprising, there were calls – especially from outside the country – to engage in arson and looting, and to attack police officers. Yet it is dangerous to write off every protest as part of an effort to wage unconventional warfare, because then there is only one possible response: military repression. In fact, the protests had popular aspects that cannot be overlooked or dismissed as anti-socialist.

It is still difficult to verify the details, because the official media has not provided adequate coverage, but one online outlet registered about seventy locations in the country where some form of protest took place. If this is correct, we are talking about the largest social protest in Cuba since 1959. For decades there has been a build-up of political demands that have not been granted any real space within Cuba’s established institutions. The government has not allowed certain sectors – including those that have nothing to do with the US-backed opposition – to participate in the political system. This has pushed them to the margins and created polarization.  

The political response to the protests aggravated this trend. When the disturbances began in San Antonio de los Baños, President Miguel Díaz-Canel travelled there to meet the crowds. This was a tradition started by Fidel Castro, who went to speak with protesters in 1994 and expressly prohibited state forces from using deadly weapons against them. But Díaz-Canel’s approach was different. He announced that ‘the order for combat has been given’: an expression that has a clear military connotation, invoking the obligation for revolutionaries to defend the country against external aggression. This was a lost opportunity to defuse the conflict through political channels, and to acknowledge that the Cuban opposition is more than just a monolithic ‘Miami-funded’ bloc.

ATS: If you map the barrios and localities where the protests arose, most of them are relatively impoverished. That’s important, because there is a tendency to present all anti-government activity as ‘bourgeois’ or imperialist when, in fact, political allegiances in Cuba are more complicated than that. It is true that there are social and political actors with ties to the US government and the European far-right, who are opposed to any socialist programme. Some of them have called for military intervention by the US government, or humanitarian intervention by international organizations. However, an overwhelming majority of Cubans are anti-interventionist, including some in the organized political opposition. Not all critics of the Communist Party come from the far-right.

MM: How much does generational politics factor into these divisions?

ATS: There is a new wave of feminist and anti-racist activists, artists and journalists in Cuba, which is overwhelmingly drawn from the younger generations. Not all of these people are – or see themselves as – left-wing; their attitudes toward the government range from rigid opposition to unconditional support. But this stratum represents an ongoing diversification of Cuban civil society which the state has been slow to acknowledge. For the Communist Party leadership, the political categories often boil down to ‘revolutionaries’ versus ‘counterrevolutionaries’, with many interesting and critical voices lumped into the latter category.

Of course, social media played a central role in the protests. Many young people used their command of the digital realm to broadcast what was happening and mobilize activists from other areas. Yet online platforms were also an important tool for organizing the sizeable pro-government counter-demonstrations. Overall, I’m not convinced that the protests were led by young people to the extent that was portrayed. The evidence suggests there was significant generational diversity on both sides. What seems more obvious to me is the class dimension: the protests began in the peripheries of urban centers, and in the densely populated areas of Havana, both of which have high rates of material insecurity.

JCG: During the crisis of the 1990s, also known as the ‘Special Period’, Cubans saw a drop-off in economic well-being after years of Soviet support. The population lost an average of 20 pounds per capita, and the US escalated its aggression, adding punitive new measures to the blockade. This marked a ‘before-and-after’ moment in the nation’s collective memory. The generations socialized during and since that decade have felt the shortcomings of the revolution more acutely. Their historical reference point is no longer 1959. So when the official government discourse warns that there are ‘attempts to restore a pre-1959 Cuba’, this simply doesn’t resonate with a certain demographic, who are more concerned with the difficulties of everyday life than with a possible return to capitalism.

There is a well-known joke about the Special Period: We all went in together, but we came out one by one. In other words, people ended up finding their own routes out of the crisis. The problem is that in Cuba, that goes against one of the central pillars of 1959: the revolutionary promise of equality. During the 1970s and 80s, Cuba had one of the lowest levels of inequality worldwide – so coming out ‘one by one’ involved an enormous rupture with the past. After 2000, Fidel Castro launched his ‘Battle of Ideas’ campaign to revive the pre-Special Period social settlement. But its scope was insufficient, and after his death it was largely dropped.

MM: What is the internal reality of the Communist Party of Cuba? Is there any possibility of democratic reform within it?

JCG: Today’s Communist Party of Cuba was born from a merger of revolutionary forces that contributed unevenly to the 1959 victory. The old Communist Party (PSP) was a force that did not participate actively in the armed insurrection against Batista. Nevertheless, the unification process of the 1960s brought together the 26 July Movement, the 13 March Revolutionary Directorate, and the existing Communist party into a new party: the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

While in practice the PCC has ruled unopposed since 1976, the Constitution did not officially sanction the single-party system until 2019. In the late 1980s an internal assessment of the PCC’s structures and methods pointed out many problems with its democratic procedures. As a vanguard party born out of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, it has continuously produced gaping power imbalances between its membership and leadership, with the second acting largely free of accountability. The government therefore embarked on a restructuring process based on a new democratic promise made in 1992: if Cuba is to have a single party, they said, it must represent the entire nation, which could mean recognizing some distinct political tendencies. Almost thirty years later, this is yet to happen. Discussion among the party’s lower ranks rarely filters up to its higher cadres, and differences of opinion are seen as dangerous ruptures.

However, now that Díaz-Canel is in power, we are on the cusp of a possible transition. The president knows that the type of popular legitimacy that Fidel and Raúl Castro had in Cuba is irreplaceable. Their role in the revolution and its aftermath was enough to win them broad support among the population. The current government, by contrast, has to legitimate itself solely through its performance in office. There is great pressure on Díaz-Canel to expand the points of contact between the state and Cuban society and set about fixing its serious institutional flaws. Cuba under his mandate has already achieved the enormous feat of producing two Cuban Covid-19 vaccines – the first in Latin America. Now it remains to be seen whether he will use the protests as an opportunity to roll out further popular programmes and democratize the PCC, or whether he will double down on the vanguardist system.

ATS: Judging from Díaz-Canel’s immediate response to the July protests, one might conclude that possibilities for democratization are non-existent. But in the days that followed, he began to appeal for solidarity and pledged to listen to the ‘unmet needs’ of Cuban workers. That rhetorical shift was important, because it signaled an awareness of the gravity of the crisis. I think it is possible that the PCC will adapt to deal with the current discontent, albeit on its own terms.

What would effective adaptation look like? It would involve opening up the country’s social and political institutions, at every level, to popular critique – particularly from younger activists and intellectuals. It would involve rethinking the role of the trade unions to make them less fossilized and more representative. It would mean transforming the state media and regulating the independent media. And it would require the government to ease restrictions on freedom of association, to allow for the creation of new civil society groups outside the PCC. Such sweeping reforms are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

MM: What is your evaluation of the Cuban political system?

JCG: Ten years ago, the word ‘republic’ was barely used in Cuba. It was absent from political speeches, school textbooks and media commentary. Now that has changed, although there’s been no official explanation as to why. The 1976 Constitution was called a ‘Socialist Constitution’, whereas the 2019 Constitution is the ‘Constitution of the Republic.’

Cuba’s concept of republicanism is often distorted and self-serving. For instance, freedom of expression is usually an inalienable republican value, but there are real problems in this area, because rather than using the category of ‘citizen’ – which implies a universal relationship between the state and its subjects – the government draws a distinction between ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘non-revolutionaries’, with different political rights accorded to each. The PCC claims that this constitutes a ‘socialist republicanism’ distinct from the bourgeois republicanism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – but this is clearly disingenuous.

Meanwhile, although the 2019 republican Constitution gives greater recognition to participatory rights and civil liberties, its language is extremely broad, and it has been followed up with several decrees that contradict its ostensive guarantees. (One example is the recent DL 370, which tightly regulates public data networks.) As of 2019, the National Assembly of People’s Power had approved three times more decrees than laws. Drafting legislation involves discussion, deliberation, and the clear articulation of societal codes; so minimizing laws in favor of decrees naturally weakens the role of parliament and removes political contestation from public life.  

Another problem for Cuba’s socialist republicanism is that of ‘state property’. Private property did not exist in a constitutionally regulated form until 2019, while the system of socialist property supposedly encompasses both state assets and cooperatives. Yet the ostensive owners of state property – the people – have rarely been able to exercise their collective rights. Instead, the state has clung to a top-down bureaucratic model which leaves little room for popular agency. If we understand socialism as a programme for distributing power and property to allow people to control their own conditions of existence, Cuba has a long way to go before it achieves this aim.

Translated by Rose Ane Berbeo.

A longer version of this interview appeared on Jacobin América Latina.

Read on: Emily Morris, ‘Unexpected Cuba’, NLR 88.

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Rustling Leaves

The apocryphal story gets told again and again, perhaps because it cuts to the core of one kind of cinematic fascination: what purportedly captivated the first people who saw the Lumières’ Repas de bébé (1895) was not the ostensible focus of the action – the couple feeding an infant in the foreground – but the sight of the leaves rustling in the trees behind them. Whether or not the tale is true matters less than its tenacity. It speaks to an idea of cinema that has flickered in and out of view throughout the medium’s history, constituting a stubborn countertradition to the narrative contrivances that monopolize so many screens. It is a cinema not only of blowing leaves, but of dust particles, flower petals, and strands of hair; of clouds and eyelashes, cresting waves and stray insects. It is, in other words, a cinema animated by the world’s uncontrollable contingencies. Small, ephemeral details sting the spectator with their unruly indifference to all grand plans and occurrences, proclaiming the reign of transience, as if to say: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’

Typically, as in the ur-text of Repas de bébé, these microevents are relegated to the margins, where they may or may not catch the attentive spectator’s roaming eye; here, what is at stake is perhaps less an approach to filmmaking than a way of film viewing. There are, however, instances in which this aspect of the medium surges forth from the background to flood the frame, soaking the cinematic experience in the pathos of time’s passing. Such is the case with Haneda Sumiko’s extraordinary 43-minute film The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (1977), screening this month as part of the Open City Documentary festival at ICA London and in October at the Courtisane festival in Ghent; it will appear in a double bill with the director’s first short, Women’s College in the Village (1958).

Born in 1926 in Dalian, China (at the time Japanese-occupied Manchuria), Haneda is likely unfamiliar to most audiences, even within Japan, despite her immense and accomplished body of work. From Women’s College in the Village to her most recent film And Then Akiko Is… A Portrait of a Dancer (2012) – which returns to Kanda Akiko, the subject of her 1985 feature Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer – she has dealt with an array of subjects including colonialism, elder care, women’s political activity, traditional arts, and the lives of performers. In his 2002 book The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, a rare discussion of her work in English, Eric Cazdyn describes Haneda as ‘a documentarist whose political commitments over the last four decades of filmmaking are matched only by her subtle sensitivity to the aesthetic’.

Like Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Haneda began her career at Iwanami Productions, a company making educational and promotional films, founded in 1950 as an offshoot of the illustrious publisher Iwanami Shoten, before striking out on her own. Yet she has never achieved the same recognition as these contemporaries, let alone that of celebrated male auteurs working in fiction. In Cazdyn’s words, ‘Haneda, who has directed more than forty-five films and assisted on scores more, deserves the same status as any other director in the canon of Japanese film history. At the same time, her struggles as one of only a handful of women in the industry raises her significance to near-heroic proportions.’ Subtitled copies of her films are hard to come by – none have been formally issued on DVD – making the upcoming screenings a special opportunity to encounter the work of this underacknowledged figure.

The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms was Haneda’s first independent venture, initiating a new phase of her practice. In 1969, while in the central Japanese prefecture of Gifu to attend a kyōgen theatre performance, she visited a cherry tree in the Neo valley said to be one of the oldest in the country, planted by Emperor Keitai in the early sixth century. As she would later recount, faced with its ancient, animistic majesty, a thought entered her mind: ‘With this tree, and this tree only, I could make a movie’. Haneda initially planned to use poetry written by her younger sister to ‘make a film similar to a small piece of music that sang praise of the cherry tree’, but only one year later, her sibling died of cancer. By autumn 1972, when Haneda returned to the project, the solitary tree, with blossoms that turn the colour of watery calligraphy ink as they fall to the ground, had become ‘something ominous’ to her. She shot intermittently over two-and-a-half years to capture its changing state across four seasons – in close-up and at a distance, in glorious bloom and dusted with snow – and then worked for a further 18 months to complete the film. The result is a poetic reckoning with mortality and memory at the crossroads of the human and nonhuman, anchored by a female voiceover, haunting appearances of an adolescent girl, and, of course, myriad images of the titular entity. It is a portrait of a village and its inhabitants; a cultural history of a celebrated tree; a film like no other.

‘For me, this film meant becoming true to myself when creating’, Haneda wrote, describing its making as ‘an act of searching for myself’. Whereas others of the director’s films engage directly with large political issues – such as Proof of Women (1996), which explores women’s participation in the labour movement – The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms refrains from social commentary. If it manifests the political commitment of which Cazdyn writes at all, it is in its claiming of documentary as a domain of philosophical and poetic expression and in the ecological humility that pervades Haneda’s approach to the tree and its environs. Although the endeavour feels deeply personal, the film contains no mention of her sister’s death, no traces of autobiography. Haneda does not position herself at the centre of The Cherry Tree; nor, for that matter, does she grant such a place to any human, even the ever-silent teenage girl. The film instead adopts an expansive, non-anthropocentric perspective that sees any one life as but a small part of a vast entanglement, inextricable from the surrounding environment. In its inaugural sequence, images of a flowing stream and a cemetery overgrown with grasses and wildflowers are accompanied by a hymn to impermanence, whispered in voiceover, in which the accumulation of time occurs in inverse proportion to the capacity for human memory: ‘A day passes, then a month, and so the years go by. Fifty years – people will remember. A hundred years – some will remember. Days will pass, months will come again, and so the years will go by. Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred years, none will remember anymore. Seven hundred, a thousand years, all memories fade into oblivion.’ Haneda then cuts to a series of shots of the girl, standing on a bridge, turning repeatedly to meet the camera’s gaze before walking away. The usuzumi sakura has not yet made its first appearance, but already the film has hinted at the nested temporalities it will unfold. From daily rituals to annual seasons, from the span of a villager’s life to that of the venerable tree, all things are bound by the bittersweetness of cycles that recur at their own pace. It is a far cry from the gales and gusts of post-war industrial development. 

Discussions of cinematic duration tend to centre on the long take, a unit of filmic vocabulary that has prospered in the era of digital cinematography, since cameras can now capture expanses of time far greater than the roughly eleven-minute maximum possible with photochemical film. One way of inspiring wonder at the ceaseless becoming of the world, of dwelling with the weight of time, is to let the camera roll and roll. The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms pursues the same ends through very different and less commonly employed means, assembling relatively brief glimpses of the same subject matter filmed over a prolonged period so as to foreground continuous transformation. (In this regard, Haneda finds a contemporary inheritor in another must-see film playing at both Open City and Courtisane, Anders Edström and C.W. Winter’s eight-hour-long The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) [2020], shot over fourteen months in a Kyoto Prefecture village.) The gesture echoes Claude Monet’s serial views but more directly stands as a cinematic iteration of the sensitivity to seasonal variation that has long marked Japanese art and culture. More than formal play, it bespeaks an attunement to the poignancy of transience, a philosophical orientation that is indebted to Buddhist and Shintoist principles.

Across these metamorphoses, the tree’s placid endurance stands against the brevity of human life, as Haneda frames the former as a steadfast witness to the births and deaths of those who live in the six houses surrounding it. After a villager tells her that, years before, bones were found under the tree and taken away to determine whether they were human, she explores the abandoned, crumbling home of the long-dead doctor who had been entrusted with the task. Weeds engulf the house; thick moss blankets the roof. The tree still stands while so many who once laid eyes on it have disappeared. As if to buttress this theme, throughout much of the film Haneda concentrates less on the tree’s leaves or flowers – icons of fleeting beauty that mark the coming of spring ­­­– and more on the hulking solidity of its mottled trunk, carefully documenting its many lichenous bulges and mossy crevices. Possessing little of the vertical elegance of a redwood, let alone the suppleness of the girl who stands in front of it and caresses its bark, the cherry tree wears the scars of its stubborn persistence on its misshapen core, watching over the village as the days, years, and centuries pass.

At the same time, the film emphasizes that the tree, too, is prey to the ravages of senescence. The survival of this elder body is never assured; because it lives, it may die. Unable to sustain its own weight, it is supported by a host of wooden crutches that guard against collapse. It owes its continued health not only to the daily ministrations of the villagers, but to the actions of a dentist from Gifu who in the 1940s grafted 238 young roots onto it, saving it from a termite infestation. The voiceover addresses the aged being with intimacy and directness: ‘You have lived too long; your life is already over. Yet you linger, still surviving…’ Like the inhabitants of the village – indeed, like all of us – the tree is vulnerable, existing within a web of interdependencies, beholden to the care of others if it is to persevere.

The horticultural technique of the graft, used to save the tree from rot, encapsulates ideas that inform The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms as a whole: it is a figure of mutual implication and non-autonomous growth that denies any strict separation between nature and culture. It also speaks to a powerful desire to make things last. As much as the film is imbued with an awestruck acceptance of impermanence, its reconciliation with the inevitability of disappearance remains incomplete. Humming within it is the urge to forestall loss by intervening in the cruel arc of another’s decline, as well as the saturnine resentment that takes hold when this proves futile – affects that complicate the cherry blossom’s famous associations with vernal optimism and the soft sadness of evanescence. There is something harder, sharper, in The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms, even as its delicacy astounds. There is the bittersweetness of mono no aware, yes, but also the sour tang of grief.

Read on: Erika Balsom, ‘Camera Lucida, NLR 129.

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The Sorcerer

Roberto Calasso died this summer at the age of eighty. Among the unpindownable Italian erudites – Eco, Calvino, Pasolini – the author of the international bestseller The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), a hybrid meditation on the enduring relevance of Greek myth, is perhaps the hardest to figure out. The Marriage was the second chapter of a hazy, complex and confounding project – Calasso called it an ‘opera’ and would never explain much further – that might be described as a sustained effort to unlock the mystical potential of literature. Extending to eleven volumes with La tavoletta dei destini (2020), it ranges across world history and geography, freely connecting Kafka and Baudelaire, the Vedas and the Bible, Tiepolo and Talleyrand, Mesopotamian and Greek mythology. Of the first installment, The Ruin of Kasch (1983) – whose wandering, eclectically citational reflections on ancient ritual and the nature of the modern established his procedure – Calasso wrote that he wanted to steer clear of the essay form as it had become ‘sclerotized’. ‘From aphorism to brief poem, from cogent analysis of some specific issue to narrated scene’, the book he’d written was rather ‘a whole host of forms…’

Calasso’s hybrids gained worldwide traction in the cosmopolitan eighties and nineties, touted by stars of international letters like Brodsky and Rushdie – the latter praising the erudition and mix of novelistic and essayistic in his book on Vedic theology, Ka (1996). Not perceived as part of a cohort or scene (in contrast to Pasolini and Nuovi Argomenti, or Eco and the Gruppo 63), Calasso was never characterised as particularly Italian, and this always inhibited popular understanding of his work. Those who have frequented Italian bookstores in the last half century, however, have had a more intuitive path to Calasso. We have been able to read the books he worked on as a translator, curator, editor-in-chief, all the way to president and owner, for Adelphi Edizioni.

‘Bookstores were white back then’, long-time Adelphi editor Matteo Codignola told me about his teenage years. White was the colour of foremost left-wing Italian publisher Einaudi. They were ‘the canon of everything serious and beautiful. I loved Einaudi. And yet it’s not as if you saw their books and said “What’s that?” It might have been a study of Russian populism, on the enlightenment, interesting stuff – but you always knew what you were getting’. From 1962 however, bookstores also started carrying a collection of puzzling, colourful books: ‘It was hard to understand Adelphi at first. Going from Sartre’s Einaudi books to this stuff, it was a big leap… Adelphi’s books took us to unknown worlds.’

The house was founded by Bobi Bazlen, an intellectual with ties to Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba and Eugenio Montale, who died a few years later. Calasso, who joined in the midst of a doctorate on Thomas Browne, dedicated a short book to his mentor – oddly, wondrously, it came out in Italy the day after Calasso’s death. There he recalls Bazlen’s ‘ability to establish, as though it were obvious, the most acrobatic links: La via del pellegrino: you read that? If you like it, I think we should publish it along with Solitary Confinement by Christopher Burney, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, and possibly a very different book as a fourth title, if god throws it our way’. The fourth volume might have been a history of Noh theatre. ‘The way they’d come one after the other had an exotic quality’, Codignola told me, that was ‘somewhat frowned upon’. In Bobi, Calasso writes that ‘For post-1945 Italy, the Irrational was everyone’s arch-enemy’, mostly in reaction to fascism’s bogus mythologies. ‘Bazlen, though, ignored those quarrels. He thought they were a waste of time’.

Adelphi’s books ‘felt dangerous’, Codignola said, ‘as everything literary was extremely targeted at the time: people wanted to know what you were reading and they judged you for it – you were right wing, you were less right wing, you were a comrade, a bourgeois…’ The relationship with the left-wing reader is crucial to defining Adelphi and Calasso’s impact on the Italian scene. Here’s how a major cultural player of the Italian left, Angelo Guglielmi, explained what the two meant to each other: Calasso is Adelphi’s ‘mirror image. Adelphi are very serious, find everything commonly known insufferable’, ‘they want nothing to do with any flatly pedagogical notion of publishing’, are committed to publishing ‘authors from cultures that are distant from the domestically humanistic tradition that rules Italy’. Calasso is just as ‘serious…he’s committed to what’s hard, and distrustful of what’s easy’, and deserves much credit for publishing those who have ‘made the Culture of the Modern’, showing Italian readers how Nietzsche let philosophy give in to the real pressure of the world, highlighting the ‘fragrance’ of Adorno’s prose in opposition to the ‘grimness of the new dialectics’, the value of the ‘enraged aesthete and euphoric moraliste’ Karl Kraus…

A big ‘but’ is coming from Guglielmi, but let’s hold it for a minute.

Let’s go back to those white books offering the canon from Marx to Beauvoir. Luciano Foà is said to have left Einaudi to join Bazlen because they refused to publish Nietzsche. To defend Adelphi from accusations of being right wing it was always necessary to explain that the orthodoxy in left-wing publishing was leaving out too much. Adelphi saw Einaudi’s approach as narrowly instrumental, committed to serving only practical needs. ‘The earth is crumbly… perspectives wobble’, Calasso writes in the The Unnamable Present (2017). The ‘unnameable present’, Elena Sbrojavacca, author of the only comprehensive study of his work, summarises, ‘is the progressive teleological skidding from religious to social, where every element of society is only invited to convey their efforts toward the interest of society itself and only that’. Calasso thought that literature was meant to serve a different god. What this god was is hard to tell, maybe the invisible itself, the hollowness we come from.

In his writing, Calasso strived to create a circulation between the visible and the invisible. That’s my favourite expression of his. Sbrojavacca writes that ‘on every page Calasso invites us to use reading as an instrument to investigate the unseen’. Literature, in this conception, is the polysemic, ambiguous vessel we can use to venture into the invisible. La Folie Baudelaire (2009) is perhaps most explicit on this. Calasso argues that the French poet is the master of analogy, and represents the moment where the sacred becomes the purview of literature as the rest of society abandoned it. Analogic thinking is presented as the only way to access the kind of knowledge ‘that shines a light on the natural obscurity of things’. This is why everything in Calasso is juxtaposed but never explained. The ‘opera’ was a gnostic project, shrouded, as most gnostic projects are, in a mist of poetry, eruditeness, and beauty.

As Baudelaire explained in a letter cited by Calasso, ‘the imagination is the most scientific of the faculties, because it is the only one to understand the universal analogy, or that which a mystical religion calls correspondence’. This aspect of Baudelaire is said to place him in a lineage of ‘pansophists’. ‘Universal analogy: it suffices to utter this formula to call up, like some vast submerged architecture, the esotericism of Europe starting from the early fifteenth century. The forms it assumed were numerous – from the mild Platonism of Ficino to Bruno’s harsh Egyptian version, from Fludd’s Mosaic-naturalistic theosophy to Böhme’s Teutonic-cosmic variety, down to Swedenborg and Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin’. This freewheeling argument ends with a quote from Goethe: ‘Every existent is an analogon of the entire existent; and so that which exists always appears to us isolated and interwoven at one and the same time. If one follows analogy too closely, everything coincides in the identical: if one avoids it, all is dispersed in the infinite.’

The words by Guglielmi quoted earlier come from a newspaper debate over Calasso’s The Forty-Nine Steps (1991), a collection of essays on his favourite European authors. Guglielmi argued that this canon – from Adorno to Heidegger, Kafka to Gottfried Benn – consisted of the ‘authors of end times’, for whom ‘modernity was not a step forward in history but its grinding to a halt’. ‘What Calasso lacks is the curiosity for the strivings of the present. Maybe the reason is he doesn’t believe there is a later to the earlier he is used to devoting his attention to, as he is convinced that that earlier is also the now’. Calasso though was busy doing something different, in the process rearranging the perception of writers in Einaudi’s backlist. Here’s his take on Walter Benjamin: he was ‘the utter opposite of a philosopher: a commentator. The boastful immodesty of the subject saying ‘I think this’ was fundamentally foreign to him. … his dream was to disappear, at the acme of his oeuvre, behind an insurmountable lava flow of quotes’ (this also works as a description of Calasso’s own books).

The harshness of Guglielmi’s judgement is testament to how strongly his side felt that this was all just unorthodox ricercatezza, something decadent and bourgeois by default: ‘The present times being missing from his work, you can only read him for erudition, or the pleasures of good prose’. Most Italian left-wing intellectuals today would be hard-pressed to choose a side, since we are the offspring of both. I think I know what Codignola meant when he told me about a time when everything seemed to make sense, but that Adelphi’s books made you feel that the others weren’t telling you the whole truth. I also feel that while the likes of Guglielmi saw themselves as different in kind to the generation spawned by the Miracolo Economico and portrayed in the Commedia all’Italiana, Calasso must have felt that this self-referential, booming society was too self-involved and lacking in transcendence; he must have had a unique view of the sleazy mix of Marxism and establishment, seaside villas and existentialism, of the characters played by Mastroianni in La Notte and La Dolce Vita.

Calasso didn’t really want to debate with his foes. In The Unnamable Present he wrote of the present time: ‘Thought would benefit more than ever from a period of concealment, of a covert and clandestine existence, from which to re-emerge in a situation that might resemble that of the Pre-Socratics. The powers have to be recognized before even naming them and venturing to theorize the world.’ Alfonso Berardinelli, one of Italy’s best critics, seemed to assent to Calasso’s argument even when highly critical: ‘Modern western literature begins its existence when Europe relinquishes traditional saperi and perennial philosophies. It’s not a given that renouncing all that was a good thing. The virtues of doubt and criticism have been exercised without limits for so long that now we don’t know what to think anymore, where to go, what to love’. Calasso, then, ‘is right on some level’ to devote himself to ‘the superior mind, ecstatic and enlightened’.

Berardinelli wrote this in 2007. The debates that faded with the end of the Italian Communist Party were by now a distant memory, and yet Calasso remained obsessed by his own ‘fight against the modern Western world, against the notions of History and Progress, against the Enlightenment and against “leftwing” politics…’ In Bobi, Calasso cherry-picks from his mentor’s writings, giving a sense of where his own focus was towards the end: ‘And when the revolution comes I’ll put my dinner jacket on and light a cigarette (Egyptian Prettiest Chinasi Bros.) read a Henry James and wait for the son of my portinaia to come take me to the guillotine; it’ll be great times I hope I’m not a coward…’ Sbrojavacca told me that Marx in fact was ‘one of the most important authors for Calasso. He says Marx is a demonologist as he can see the ghosts that haunt the modern world. His criticism of Marx, and of Freud, is that they are human types from the second half of the 19th century who tried to tame the wildness of the modern world, tried to find a way to act on the modern world… a way to cheat the machine and harness the ghosts and make them work the way they wanted to’.

And in Bobi, Calasso quotes this fantastic passage Bazlen wrote on Freud: ‘Hunched over his microscope, Freud discovers the soul’s bacilli. And so he discovers the soul. But he is a 19th-century scientist, and he believes that the soul’s riddle is only solved by looking at the bacilli. He’s a scientist, he refuses to be considered a philosopher, and yet, from his work, a work born in that environment, a philosophy implicitly is derived, a vision of life, a program, a human ideal: of the Man with the Pasteurized Soul, who, in a world that has lost all symbols, and in virtue of his finally normalized sexuality, has the libido liberated that is necessary to finally pursue a career.’

Both Einaudi and Adelphi’s partisans ultimately managed to do enough character assassination to give us a feeling that the fight amounted to nothing. And yet it is Calasso’s adversaries that shed the most light on the risks he took. In that same article, Berardinelli wrote: ‘Calasso (it seems to me) wants everything: to be a sorcerer and a dandy, a neo-ancient man of wisdom and a postmodern narrator (and antimodern). He wants it because he can have it: the neo-ancient is postmodern and today’s sorcerers, here, are just one specific kind of dandy. Since all mystical investigation has ended for the West a few centuries ago, it reappears as illustration, mise en scène, decoration, culturalist orgy, aestheticized depth’.

Codignola employed some Adelphian irony on the ‘decoration’ part. After the successes of Kundera and Calasso’s books, Adelphi ‘went from 10,000 to 50,0000 copies… In the meantime, the gnagnera started of how chic how refined how snob how elitist they are, which Roberto and I both disliked – well obviously you can spot some mannerisms here and there, but it wasn’t a plan… Then people start saying they loved our pastel-coloured covers, “so elegant!” Somebody wrote me once: “I need to furnish my house in Capalbio” – that’s where some of the more wealthy left traditionally goes in the summer holidays – “I need 30cm of pink 30cm of yellow, and 20cm of red if you can find them”… She meant the colour of spines and covers to arrange on the shelves, regardless of authors and titles… she sent me a blueprint of the house, and colour codes’.

If it became decoration for some, Adelphi was the darkroom of Gen X readers. When I was twenty, I told my mother I must kill her and my father in order to be free. I was brandishing my yellow, compact Nietzsche books, where I was supposedly learning about how thin the veneer of civility in my parents’ centre-left and Catholic world view was. A dear friend of mine appeared in a television show with Calasso a few years earlier, a lesson on Greek myth with an audience of high-school students. A handsome young erudite who listened to Blur and appeared destined for a centre-left Weltanschauung, he was tasked with asking Calasso a question: ‘What can we get from myth, today? Can it still show us the way to the spiritual life?’ Calasso replied that we can indeed try to use myth, to ‘try to enter that circulation and understand things we otherwise wouldn’t’. He says one crucial thing: that it’s up to the individual to choose it for themselves. By 1997, individual solutions to problems were now the norm for most of us.

My friend converted to Catholicism two years later and is now a vicar in the Netherlands. He pursued the circulation of visible and invisible.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Lucio Magri’, NLR 72. 

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Will it Be Enough?

It’s summer, Brussels pretends to be on vacation, but nobody believes it: clouds are gathering, no silver lining in sight, nerves wrecked all around. Forests are burning, rain is falling, rivers are flooding – the climate crisis has hit home, more undeniably than ever. Of the €750 billion Corona ‘recovery fund’, not a single euro has yet been spent and the fourth wave is beginning to unfurl. Time for a fiscal booster shot – but how to pay for it? The French war in Africa drags on, the failed states of Libya, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon continue to fail, German demands for a European asylum regime that protects Germany from having to live up to its moral rhetoric are as divisive as ever, regime change in Russia must wait since Putin won’t resign. And now Afghanistan: Good Uncle Joe has become Bad Uncle Joe, toute l’Europe being shocked: unilateralism! In Germany and the UK, governments are desperately trying to avoid explaining why, apart from following American orders, they have been fighting a senseless war for two decades in an ungovernable faraway country. And in the midst of disaster everywhere Angela Merkel, the European Union’s unappointed but all the more effective Super-President, who they say has somehow kept it all together, is to leave her office as German chancellor this coming autumn, forever.

Will ‘Europe’, or the ‘European project’ as embodied by the EU, survive Merkel? In the Realpolitik of Brussels, this translates into whether Germany will continue to fulfil its obligations as the EU’s hidden hegemon after her departure, meaning first of all whether it will continue to pay. This it can do in a variety of ways, many of which are designed to be maximally obscure: by letting its net contributions to the EU budget rise; by allowing the European Central Bank to engage sub rosa in state financing, in contravention of the Treaties; by agreeing to underwrite the Corona ‘recovery fund’, also outside the Treaties; by allowing that debt to be serviced by more debt in the future, letting the €750 billion, sold as a one-of-a-kind emergency measure, turn into a ‘historic breakthrough’ toward a ‘supranational fiscal capacity’ à la française – while, in order to keep interest rates low, intimating to the markets that if the worst came to the worst, Germany would be on-hand to offer ‘European solidarity’.

Can ‘Europe’ continue to count on Germany, with an election coming up whose outcome is more uncertain than ever in the history of the Federal Republic? In late August, it appeared that the next German government, the first after Merkel, would be a coalition of any three out of four parties: CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, and FDP – the AfD excluded from the arco costituzionale, Die Linke struggling to get above the 5 percent limit, and both in any case deeply internally divided. Which of the three Kanzlerkandidaten might end up as Kanzler nobody can predict, lightweight Laschet and solid Scholz more likely than the pop-up candidate of the Greens, Baerbock. Whoever it will be will not have more than a quarter of the vote behind them, and whatever three-party government is cobbled together will invariably include at least two parties steeped in Federal Republic political orthodoxy. Can centrism be more deeply rooted in a political system?

Nations, organized in states, develop ideas of a national interest reflecting, among other things, their historical experience, geographic location and collective capacity. Enshrined in a country’s political common sense and held to be self-evident by its political class, national interests can change only gradually. This holds in today’s Germany, even though there the idea of a national interest is considered alien and must be dressed up as a general European, or even human, interest. At its centre is the preservation of the European Union and, in particular, the European Monetary Union – the latter, by lucky accident, being the wellspring of German national prosperity. Even a national interest as profoundly entrenched as German ‘pro-Europeanism’ may, however, come under pressure as circumstances change, so that continuous efforts seem advisable to keep the pro-EU consensus alive. For example, of the four parties that may in different combinations of three form the next German government, two, CDU/CSU and FDP, will have to beware of their new right-wing competitor, AfD, offering a different, ‘nationalist’ concept of what is good for the German people. While this will not be enough to make them ‘anti-European’, it might force them to be less obliging toward future calls from Brussels for more Europeanism of the pecuniary sort.

For some time now, the European Commission has abstained from publishing information on the net contributions of member states to the EU budget, so as to not wake up sleeping German dogs. But this has not kept the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from crunching the numbers itself, using publicly available data. It found that in 2020, Germany paid €15.5 billion more to Brussels than it got back, on a gross contribution of €26bn, amounting to 1.74 percent of federal expenditure. Germany was followed by Britain (a net contribution of €10.2bn), France (€8.0bn) and, of all countries, Italy (€4.8bn). There is no official information available as yet on 2021; but in June 2020, the Commission estimated that in that year, the German net contribution would rise by more than 40 percent, with gross payments to grow by a hefty €13bn. In part this seems to reflect a promise by the German finance minister, Scholz, to fill most if not all of the gaps inflicted on the EU budget by the British departure.

At first glance, what Germany pays to the EU is no more than a tiny share of its federal expenditure. Like other countries, however, the German state budget leaves little space for discretionary spending, perhaps as little as 5 percent, so any increase in EU contributions is bound to be painfully felt. This might make it a political problem that leading beneficiaries of EU finance are the two black sheep, Poland and Hungary, with net receipts in 2010 of €13.2 and €4.8bn respectively. (Ranking second, topping Hungary, was tiny Greece with €5.7bn, obviously a bonus for signing onto the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding and dutifully replacing Syriza with a properly ‘pro-European’, i.e., pro-capitalist government.) Since the German public tends to regard the EU as an educational rather than an economic or geostrategic undertaking, set up to teach East Europeans neo-German values of liberal democracy with a special emphasis on diversity, authoritarian conservatism in Eastern member states may delegitimate fiscal support for them, especially in times of fiscal pressure. It may even cast a shadow on the ‘ever closer union’ project as a whole.

In this context the infringement procedures that the Commission has started against Poland and Hungary, at the behest of their liberal opposition parties and their allies in the EU parliament, may be helpful as they involve a threat of EU subsidies being cut unless the countries in question cave in on matters such as the status of their judiciary and sex education in schools – fiscal cuts that save frugal Germans money being an especially appealing educational method for them. Note also the infringement procedure simultaneously started against Germany for not reining in its constitutional court as it insists on the duty of the German government to prevent European institutions like the European Central Bank from curtailing German sovereignty above and beyond what the Treaties allow – a procedure that was demanded by German Green members of the EU Parliament and might not have been activated without the secret connivance of the German federal government.

Is that much caution really needed? As Yanis Varoufakis famously let the world know, ‘Whatever it says or does, Germany in the end always pays’ (though not to everyone, as he had to learn). This, however, was in 2015, and while the spirit may still be willing, the flesh may in the meantime have become weak, will being one, capacity another. Owing to Corona, the German national debt increased in 2020 from 60 percent to 70 percent of GDP, and is likely to increase in 2021 at the same pace, to about 80 percent. There are no indications that Germany’s next government, regardless of its composition, would be able, or indeed willing, to abolish the so-called ‘debt brake’ written into the constitution in 2009, meaning that fiscal policy in coming years will still have to observe narrow limits on new borrowing. (There may, however, be more Corona waves, caused by variants of or successors to SARS-CoV-19, which would justify more emergency spending.) Moreover, already before the pandemic, German public infrastructure – roads, bridges, the railway system – had noticeably decayed over the past two decades, due not least to self-imposed austerity, intended to teach other EU member states that saving must precede spending. Now Corona has drawn attention to further deficiencies in healthcare, nursing homes, schools and universities, all of which will be expensive to re-dress.

And this is far from all. Merkel’s ‘energy turn’ will require, on current estimates, €44bn in compensation for coal regions and electricity suppliers between now and 2038, and even more if the next government, as demanded by the Greens, dispenses with coal sooner. Further, to repair the damage done by the floods of July 2021, a €30bn ‘reconstruction fund’ had to be set up, to be spent over the next few years. Add to this that the floods may have finally ended the happy days in which climate policy could consist of cheap-talk commitments to ever earlier and ever more unrealistic dates for ending CO2 emissions. Rather than low-cost gestures, what now seems necessary is expensive investment in dams and dykes, in forests less given to catching fire, in air conditioning for hospitals and nursing homes, in fresh-air corridors for cities, and so on. Alongside all this, the new German debt will need to be serviced, while the new EU debt (‘Next Generation EU’) may turn out to be merely a drop in the bucket.

The latter will likely cause demands in Brussels and Mediterranean member states for another Next Generation debt wave, to be underwritten by German promises, more or less tacit, to step in as debtor of last resort. And don’t forget that all responsibly-minded German political parties have promised that Germany will increase its ‘defence’ budget by no less than one half, to 2 percent of GDP, in euros from about €46bn a year now to roughly €69bn and more, depending on GDP growth – as demanded by both the United States, so Germany can scare Russia on America’s behalf, and by France, so it can be of help in its Sahel wars. On top or as part of this, France had to be promised a French-German fighter-jet system, the FCAS, which will according to realistic estimates cost roughly €300bn over the next ten years – the project being opposed by the German military who believes it is simply a revamping, with German money, of an existing but hard-to-export French system, the Rafale. With that much competition for the little discretionary money in the federal budget, will Mr and Ms German taxpayer continue to stand up for ‘Europe’?

Perhaps this question is misconceived, and the issue is no longer how to pay for what is needed, but what to do if what is needed has become too expensive to be paid for. As a starting hypothesis, consider the possibility that the collective costs of running capitalism may by now have once and for all exceeded what societies can extract from capitalism to cover them – to pay for social peace, the formation of patient workers and satisfied consumers, the preparation for and cleaning up after surplus-producing production, the extension and defence of markets and property rights in distant countries, etc. etc. The result would be, and indeed seems to be, a giant ‘fiscal crisis of the state’, as evidenced by the steady increase of public debt in recent decades, made possible by states under fiscal duress allowing the financial industry to create and package infinite amounts of fiat money into attractive ‘products’. By borrowing from it states can, as long as they have credit, buy capitalism a future, simultaneously creating generous income streams for those with enough money to lend, their entitlements passed down to their children and grandchildren. These are underwritten by equally generous obligations for the coming generations of those with less money, who will be forced to work harder and longer to pay off what has been denominated as their collective debt to capital.

As debt grows faster than capitalism, governing capitalist political economies is becoming a confidence game of a Ponzi variety. Its immortal motto is Mario Draghi’s ‘Believe me, it will be enough’, originally issued to an audience in which everybody had an interest not to notice, and certainly not to say out loud, that the Emperor’s clothes have long landed in a pawn shop – if only because they are the pawn shop. In the European Union in particular, securing the future of capitalism with fictitious capital takes the form of a two-level signalling game: governments at the centre send signals to governments on the periphery that they still have reserves, real or reputational, that they may share – signals that peripheral governments then pass on to their constituents, buoying hopes for more than symbolic ‘European solidarity’, hopes that will soon need to be refreshed by another injection of empty promises. Not everyone is equally good at this game, and among the reasons why Angela Merkel became so important for EU-Europe may well be her unmatched capacity to credibly promise the impossible, her cool contempt for consistency in policy, her astounding ability to enter into incompatible commitments and get people to believe that at some point down the road, she will somehow make them compatible.

Of course, Merkel was helped by a ‘pro-European’ political class which saw no alternative to trusting that the German magician would postpone any future day of reckoning until the end, if not of time itself, then at least of their time in office. Somewhere in the back of their minds might have resided a hope that the resources needed for Germany to deliver actually exist somewhere, in the basement of the Bundesbank perhaps, and that with skilful negotiating and more political-moral pressure they might eventually be extracted. But apart from this they seemed happy enough to behold Merkel’s virtuoso performance as a Ponzi artist of political desire, an issuer of fiat trust if not fiat money, mistress of postponed debt settlement and unmatched champion of the discipline, essential in times of fiscal overstretch, of political imposture – a discipline that they themselves, faced with their own crises of underfunded statehood under global capitalism, must master day by day.

Will Laschet, Scholz or Baerbock be able to keep the magic alive, to follow Merkel’s act when Germany’s European periphery need another deferral of payment, another extension of cheap credit – for example, when the interest on their national debt rises despite the best efforts of the European Central Bank? In the 2021 summer of discontent, this seems doubtful indeed.  

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

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Quad of Mirrors

The Right to Sex is the first book by Amia Srinivasan, to date the youngest incumbent of the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory at All Souls, Oxford, and an essayist for publications including the London Review of Books. While her family background lies in India, Srinivasan, the daughter of a banker and a choreographer, spent an itinerant and international childhood across Bahrain, Singapore, Taiwan, London and New York before settling in her adult home, the elite Anglophone university. It is from within this institution that her book is written, and as addressing its associated population that it is most profitably read. Though her training is that of the academic analytic philosopher – a designation the publisher’s marketing has been keen to emphasise – the work is more precisely categorised as a contribution to the discipline of feminist legal theory. Situating it within this field helps us to parse the ambiguity of the book’s title. There is no right to sex, on this Srinivasan is clear, but sex itself is properly subject to a system of rights by which male sexual violence towards women might be theorized, if not redressed or prevented.

The book comprises five essays and one ‘coda’ to the central, titular chapter. The first, third and fifth chapters are diligently researched, expertly synthesized accounts of the events, theories and materials which have formed the primary interests of much of the last decade’s popular feminist writing on sexual power and consent. Chapter One, ‘The Conspiracy against Men’ chronicles recent, and some historic, instances in which a categorical ‘belief’ in women’s narratives of sexual violence can overlook and compound intersectional injustices; Chapter Three republishes Srinivasan’s lauded LRB article ‘The Right to Sex’ on the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) movement, the history of feminism’s anti-sex position and the fine line between preference and prejudice in online dating (it is followed by a numbered coda, ‘The Politics of Desire’); while Chapter Five surveys the literature on connections between the legal prosecution of prostitution and sexual violence, and the harmful, for-profit prison systems which purport to protect women. These essays provide a useful introduction to contemporary feminism, its permutations and positions, for those who may, somehow, have missed the debate.

Srinivasan’s great strength is to condense and arrange these arguments in ways that make their juxtaposing assumptions evident, to highlight particularly the tensions between calls for the regulation of sex, the punishment of sexual violence and the harmful social consequences of carceral legal systems. Of the book’s 279 pages, over a third is occupied with notes and indexes, suggesting a genesis in materials for the ‘Feminism and the Future’ graduate course that Srinivasan co-teaches at Oxford. According to Srinivasan, though, it is not (just) the students who need teaching. The author details her explanations, usually directed at older dons, of the harmful consequences of seemingly playful flirtations in an academic environment. The feminist’s road to Damascus, in this telling, reroutes for a pitstop at high table. Seven years ago, Rebecca Solnit described the phenomenon and consequences of men’s epistemic silencing of women in her bestselling collection Men Explain Things to Me. In 2021, Srinivasan reports that she has reversed the exegetical flow – no mean feat in the kind of prestigious institution in which, as the author often reminds us, she resides.

Chapters Two and Four provide the structural beams of the book and are the places in which Srinivasan takes up the mantle of two of feminist legal theory’s greatest arguments: the illocutionary power of pornography, and the possibility of consent in unequal social relations. It is in these chapters, also, that Srinivasan engages most fully with the book’s presiding feminist thinker, Catherine MacKinnon, whose entry in its index far exceeds that of any other writer. Srinivasan’s relationship with MacKinnon’s legacy is, like many contemporary feminists, uneasy – but we can use MacKinnon to cast light on the kind of sex, and the relationship between sex and gender, in which Srinivasan is most interested. In MacKinnon’s famous phrase, under patriarchal systems of political power, sex takes one form: ‘Man fucks woman; subject verb object.’ This sexual formula is adopted by Srinivasan without much comment or interrogation; indeed, throughout the book she follows MacKinnon’s example in her use of the verb ‘fuck’ to connote the wrong kind of sex, the sex which disempowers, and degrades, as when she describes the norms of internet porn: ‘hot blondes suck dicks, get fucked hard, get told that they like it, and end up with semen on their face.’ (At times, Srinivasan lets the mask slip and stings that are reminiscent of the literature of the height of the second wave slip through, such as her quip that a list of items banned from porn ‘associated with violence’ ought to include the male penis).

Srinivasan’s debt to MacKinnon extends beyond the lexical, however. Crucially, they agree that the act of sex and the experience of gender are inseparable concepts, a connection not just affected by but formed through unjust power relations between men and women. Where MacKinnon writes that ‘male dominance is sexual…men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy; gender is one’, Srinivasan amends only slightly to tell us that, sex ‘is itself already gender in disguise.’ If there are violent and dangerous power imbalances between genders at a social and political level then these will necessarily manifest in relations at a sexual level also. MacKinnon’s contribution as a practising lawyer to the legal framework for sexual harassment at work in Title VII lawsuits is the basis of the logic behind recent Title IX legislation of sexual discrimination within universities, to which Srinivasan pays great attention. If MacKinnon’s aim, declared at the start of Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), is to ‘engage sexual politics on the level of epistemology’ then of Srinivasan we can say that she seeks to engage sexual politics on the level of pedagogy.  

Chapter Two, ‘Talking to my Students about Porn’, begins by making porn seem a problem of the past. When it came to the subject in her course, Srinivasan admits, ‘my heart wasn’t really in it.’ It was her students, she tells us, who changed her mind, who convinced her to see the positions of the anti-porn feminists not as ‘hysterical’ but ‘prescient’. This ‘return’ to the problem of porn for Srinivasan and the young people she teaches does not mean a revival of the Manichean categories of the porn wars. Srinivasan goes to great pains to point out the distinction between her concerns and those of the second-wave theorists, including Dworkin and MacKinnon. Today’s young feminist scholars know there is no point in legislating the internet, and that criminalising sex work punishes those who are dependent on it for their self-reproduction rather than challenging male entitlement to sex. Nevertheless, in Srinivasan’s account, students are disturbed by a casual and pervasive violence towards women that they see enacted both by their partners and by the sexual culture in which they came of age, ‘The psyches of my students are the products of pornography.’

Srinivasan, through conversations with her students, comes to see porn not as a stimulus for fantasy, but as an educational tool for sex. What, she worries, is it teaching the kids? Conveniently, she has on hand a readymade focus group in the form of her classroom to whom she poses the question. The responses they provide are damning:

By the time my students got around to sex IRL [‘in real life’] – later, it should be noted, than teenagers of previous generations – there was, at least for the straight boys and girls, a script in place that dictated not only the physical moves and gestures and sounds to make and demand, but also the appropriate affect, the appropriate desires, the appropriate distribution of power.

Here, the internet simultaneously stunts sexual development – delaying experiences of the ‘real thing’ because of the overwhelming availability of porn – and overstimulates it, exposing ‘her’ students to a level of sexual intensity to which they ought to graduate via a more wholesome, authentic and intimate model of sexual intercourse first. But most crucially, it defines sexual activity totally for these young people, ‘sex for my students is what porn says it is.’

Porn, then, is bad because it teaches us to want the wrong things – or so one would think based on the argument so far. Yet this clarity is short-lived. A few pages later Srinivasan writes ‘Porn is not pedagogy, but it often functions as if it were.’ What, we might wonder, is the difference between the form and the function of something which instructs and something which is pedagogical? Either porn educates or it doesn’t. Contained in this distinction is an important, privileged category of action for Srinivasan: teaching. For her, what is pedagogical is only what is ethically good; what is imbued with authority, not just power. To teach wrong desires would, to use the term of her 2019 Yale Law Journal paper, constitute a ‘pedagogical failure’ – would fail to count as teaching. For the rest of the chapter Srinivasan prevaricates on whether porn, which is imbued with social power, actually has the authority to teach young people how to have sex, despite having argued quite convincingly in earlier pages that it does.

Her conclusion is a disappointing evasion: once again the modern technological world confounds to the point of indeterminacy, and Srinivasan can only remind us that the internet ‘blurs the distinction between power and authority.’ Young people ought to be taught that ‘the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them.’ This, for Srinivasan would constitute a negative education, and would involve arresting the ‘onslaught’ of images to which young people are exposed, allowing them instead to use their imaginations. Sexual authority ought, in this model, to rest with the individual subject, their freedom realised by thinking and imagining outside the set of social practices within which they have been raised. As a conception of freedom, this is high liberalism, offering up in place of social power the utopia of the blank slate, the unquestionable priority of autonomy.

In her fourth chapter, ‘On Not Sleeping with Your Students’, Srinivasan presents a history of Title IX legislation from the 1980s to today, and what legal theorists Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk recently characterised as ‘bureaucratic sex creep’: ‘the enlargement of bureaucratic regulation of sexual conduct that is voluntary, non-harassing, nonviolent, and does not harm others’. Srinivasan draws on the case of two of her alma maters (Yale and UCL) to show the universal tightening of restrictions that fit this model, while dismissing Suk and Gersen as over-simplifying the issue to one in which consent can be freely given within a teaching relationship. The regulatory expansion Gersen and Suk map, and on which Katherine Franke has also written extensively, was greeted with reservations by some feminists at the time. As Srinivasan points out, they charged the policies with invalidating women’s consensual expression of sexual desire. This heuristic, Srinivasan suggests, is a misdirection of our anger and attention. Instead of debating whether teachers should or shouldn’t be ‘fucking’ their students, we should ask why they wouldn’t simply rather teach them.

On the question of whether there is a place for eros in the pedagogical relationship, Srinivasan concedes that ‘there are many women students who consent to sex with their professors out of genuine desire.’ Interestingly, this goes against the conclusions she reaches in her Yale Law Journal paper, from which large sections of this chapter are reproduced. There, Srinivasan outlines five possible reasons for a young woman student to sleep with her older male supervisor:

1) the student admires and wants to be like her professor, but does not (yet) want to sleep with him; 2) the student’s desire is intense but inchoate: she does not know, or there is no fact of the matter about whether she wants to be like the professor or to have him; 3) the student wants both to be like the teacher and to have him and sees having him as a means to – or a sign of – being like him; 4) the student thinks it is impossible to be like the professor and therefore longs, as a second-best, to have him; 5) the student wants merely to sleep with the professor, and the talk of poetry and understanding is just a form of flirtatious flattery.

In all but one case, sexual desire is in a sublimation of the desire to become the teacher, to attain knowledge, and also, in some cases status. The fifth and final case, and the only one in which the student’s desire is articulated as a motivation rather than false consciousness, Srinivasan describes as ‘wildly implausible’. In trying to formulate a new position that encompasses sexual autonomy and accounts for the distorting effects of power on sex, she risks assuming that there is such a thing as sex devoid of power. But even outside the rigid hierarchies of institutional pedagogy, do we not imbue those we desire with a form of power over us? The central question for Srinivasan here is: does an imbalance of power invalidate sexual desire? Certainly, we know that it might fuel it. We must then ask whether an account of human sexuality that refuses to theorise what is ambiguous and complex in the intermingling of sexual desire and social power offers us much more than a synchronic account of the flip from good to bad.

In both book and journal paper, Srinivasan compares the misidentification of sexual desire for the teacher to Adrienne Rich’s theory of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, in which women sublimate their desires for each other and express them instead through competitive imitation. Rich’s theory, however, is an account meant to explain the lack of conscious (lesbian) desire in the world; Srinivasan’s inversion does the opposite, and discredits (mostly straight) sexual desire – because it is the wrong type – as an errant act of transference. Where Rich aims to add to the volume of desire visible in society, Srinivasan tries to detract from it. In this framing, a student’s pedagogical identity always trumps her sexual identity, even if she doesn’t know it or want it to. The gender roles of this scenario can be reversed or contained within one gender, Srinivasan admits, as in the case of Avital Ronell or Jane Gallop, but generally the relation follows just such a male-female binary. This, then, makes consent in student-teacher relations difficult, when most of the time (four out of five hypotheticals) women students don’t know what they want. When it comes to regulating teacher-student relations, consent-based policies fail not because they patronise or infantilise the desires of women students, but because they ‘do not teach us how to teach well’. The solution? Teach the teachers to teach better: university professors ought to be trained in professional conduct regarding sexual boundaries, just like psychoanalysts. But are analysts the models we want for our pedagogues? And what can any of this tell us about sex outside the university?

In the last decade, a significant movement has taken place within feminism to reject the boardroom as the iconic site of women’s exclusion and oppression. Popular works such as Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser’s Feminism for the 99%, Lola Olufemi’s Feminism, Interrupted and Dawn Foster’s Lean Out targeted what has been referred to as ‘the collusion of gender politics with corporate capitalism’. As a result, feminist discourse has gained a new sensitivity to questions of structural power and coercion, while also being taken up by a reinvigorated activist movement. Within its Anglophone iteration, the dynamic centre of this culture is often to be found within universities; the classroom has replaced the boardroom as the terrain of feminist analysis. The risks of this manoeuvre are evident in Srinivasan’s book, which generalises outwards from the university to diagnose morbid symptoms in a culture that is not bound by the para-legal ethical frameworks of the campus.

The methodology on which Srinivasan’s insights are based is often dubious: why should the opinions of a group of Oxford students, self-selectively interested already in feminism, be taken as representative of the mores of the general young adult population? Despite rising student numbers and the efforts of a new academic cohort each autumn, the majority of human sex still does not take place in college halls. Srinivasan herself concedes the flaw in her reasoning here, when she writes that her students are developmentally much younger than their non-institutionalised counterparts. This does not render them unsuitable for sex, but it does mean that they are unlikely to be having it in the same way. For three years, the university operates a closed system of personal development, unlike anything else in society. Reading issues of desire, power and consent outwards from this solipsistic quad of mirrors will only trick the observer into mistaking their gowned reflection for the sight of the town beyond.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Which Feminisms?’, NLR 109.  

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Castillo’s Path

Nearly two months after Pedro Castillo’s narrow victory in Peru’s second-round runoff, the new president has only just managed to get his first cabinet appointed. The 73 to 50 vote through which the Peruvian Congress approved the ministers on 27 August came at the end of several weeks of obstruction and outcry from the opposition. This included a prolonged refusal by Keiko Fujimori, the defeated candidate, to acknowledge the result, as well as yet more of the hysterical redbaiting that had marked the presidential campaign. The turbulent weeks since the 6 June election provide a depressingly clear indication of what Castillo can expect in the months (and indeed years) ahead; yet at the same time, they also amply demonstrate the profound dysfunction that brought him to power in the first place.

The Peruvian political establishment has in many ways still not recovered from the initial shock of the first round of voting on 11 April. Though the field was crowded, few expected Castillo, the former leader of the teachers’ union and a native of the northern province of Cajamarca, to emerge as the front-runner with 18% of the vote. Still more surprising was that he did so as the candidate of Perú Libre, an avowedly Marxist-Leninist party, in a country still sharply polarized by the legacies of the Shining Path insurgency and state repression of the 1980s and 1990s.

The campaign for the second-round runoff duly brought a crescendo of anti-communist outrage. In Peru the specific form this takes is terruqueo ­– ‘calling someone a terrorist’; that is, tainting anyone on the left by (imaginary) association with the Shining Path – though the media also conjured the reliable spectres of Cuba and Venezuela. Such was the need for elite unity in the face of the supposed Communist threat that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who in both the 2011 and 2016 elections had branded Keiko Fujimori a threat to democracy, now hailed her as the representative of ‘freedom and progress’.

The scare tactics almost worked: in the run up to 6 June, Castillo’s poll lead narrowed day by day. But when the votes were finally counted, he had edged home by a mere 44,250 votes – a nationwide margin of 0.2%. The miniscule gap between the candidates’ totals concealed a yawning geographical divide, however. Across much of the country’s interior, especially the poorer highland departments, Castillo won by crushing margins. Five Andean departments – Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huancavelica, Puno – reported scores of over 80% for Castillo; in Puno, which borders Bolivia, his total was a staggering 89%. Altogether, Castillo carried 16 of Peru’s 25 departments, in areas that account not only for the lion’s share of the national territory, but also for some of its deepest deprivation. At the same time, it is from these areas that Peru’s mineral wealth is extracted, while the benefits of the boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s were mostly felt elsewhere. Hence the resonance of Castillo’s campaign slogan: ‘No more poor people in a rich country.’

Yet Fujimori carried the more populous coast – most notably the capital, Lima, which contains 30% of the national population, and which she won by 31 percentage points. (Her margin of victory in Lima department, which surrounds the capital region and stretches as far as the Andes, was only 7%.) While there are many complexities to consider – there is much poverty on the coast, too – the disparities of Peru’s geography largely account for the fact that Castillo’s victory provided both a resounding, historic rebuke to coastal dominance and at the same time the slimmest possible mandate.

Fujimori immediately contested the result, alleging ‘systematic fraud’ and demanding that as many as 200,000 votes be annulled. Some of her allegations involved scarcely concealed racism: the votes Fujimori contested were from the predominantly indigenous highlands, and in one case her campaign complained that too many of the election officials had the same surname, and therefore must be related. (In indigenous areas, surnames often recur regardless of kinship.) Though Fujimori’s legal challenges lacked any basis, it took weeks for the courts to exhaust them, delaying Castillo from formally taking office until 28 July. The day of the inauguration was also the two-hundredth anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain, but the historic occasion was clouded by the ongoing uncertainties of the presidential transition.

Far from winding down with Castillo’s assumption of power, the Peruvian opposition’s campaign to cripple his presidency simply entered a new phase. By August this had come to centre on the designation of the cabinet – usually a formality for a newly elected administration, but this time the focal point of another round of terruqueo and obstruction. The first casualty was Héctor Béjar, a leftist guerrilla in the 1960s who then worked for the progressive military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado in the 1970s, and has since remained one of Peru’s most prominent radical public intellectuals. His appointment as foreign secretary augured well for the country’s hemispheric policy, not least his vow to remove Peru from the Lima Group, the anti-Maduro coalition formed in 2017. But in mid-August videos surfaced of him making critical comments about the Peruvian Navy and accusing the CIA of funding the Shining Path, and within days he had been forced to resign. (His replacement, Oscar Maúrtua, a career diplomat who also served as foreign secretary from 2005–2006, was a calculatedly unprovocative choice.)

This was an abrupt retreat, and the opposition smelled blood. The day after Béjar’s exit, Lady Camones of the centre-right Alliance for Progress Party told the media that ‘the resignation of the foreign secretary is definitely not enough’. The next target was, if not the entire cabinet, then at least Castillo’s choice of premier, Guido Bellido. Born in 1979 in a rural district of Cusco in Peru’s southern highlands, Bellido is a native Quechua speaker, which in itself brings forth a visceral reaction from elites in Lima. For instance, when Bellido began his address to Congress on 26 August in Quechua, which is one of Peru’s official languages, he was interrupted by deputies complaining they did not understand. Both Castillo and Bellido very much cast themselves as representatives of ‘Perú Profundo’, the country’s long marginalized interior. In that sense, the tussle over Bellido’s appointment is a microcosm of the historic tension between coast and highlands.

But there is a more specific political backdrop to the opposition’s targeting of Bellido, in which Bellido himself is not even the central player. A loyal cadre of the Perú Libre party, Bellido is widely seen as a proxy for the party’s leader, Vladimir Cerrón – a 50-year-old Cuban-trained neurosurgeon and former governor of Junín in the central highlands. It was Cerrón who founded Perú Libre in 2008, initially as a vehicle for achieving power at the regional level. He was elected as Junín’s governor in 2011 and then again in 2018; but in August 2019, seven months into his term, he was removed from office after receiving a criminal conviction for corruption. Further cases against him are pending, including one launched in July 2021 for money-laundering, and another in August 2021 against him and Bellido for ‘terrorism’ over supposed links to Shining Path remnants.

Both Cerrón and Bellido have denied any such connections, but the right has seized on Cerrón’s unabashed embrace of Marxism to paint him as a terrorist sympathizer. Cerrón’s harsh criticism of state repression during the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s also puts him outside the ideological pale. (Personal factors play a role here, too: his father, Jaime Cerrón Palomino, was a respected leftist academic in Huancayo who was kidnapped and killed in 1990 by state-run paramilitaries; in the wake of testimony given to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2002, four generals were charged with the murder, but they have yet to be tried.)

Keeping Cerrón away from effective power is the opposition’s real goal. No doubt personal animus plays a role, as does the whiff of crookedness surrounding Cerrón – though on that front, most of Peru’s Congress doesn’t have a straight leg to stand on. But the core of the contention over the incoming cabinet was the opportunity it provided for driving a wedge between Castillo and Perú Libre. The former’s ascent was already enough of a blow for Lima’s political establishment. Still more alarming for them was the success of Perú Libre in the legislative elections, held in April at the same time as the first round of the presidential vote. From having no seats in Congress at all, Perú Libre went to being the largest single party with 37 representatives. Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular garnered only 24 seats – an improvement on the 15 it gained in the 2020 snap election, but a considerable drop from the 73-seat tally with which it dominated Congress in 2016–20. The remainder of the 130 seats are distributed between a dozen other parties, most of them arranged across a spectrum from centre-right to right.

The new Congress is therefore highly fragmented, which will make governing the country extremely difficult. Perú Libre’s main ally will be Juntos por el Perú, a Syriza-style left coalition led by former presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza. Though it has only 5 seats, it has played a prominent role in the transition, supplying personnel that are undoubtedly more politically experienced than most Perú Libre cadres, but also much more presentable to coastal elites and middle classes. A key example of this is Pedro Francke, Castillo’s pick as finance minister, who had been on Mendoza’s team and was brought in to soothe the markets after Castillo won. (It briefly worked, though the currency nosedived again when Castillo nominated Bellido as premier.) But this raised hackles in Perú Libre: Cerrón has long made clear his dislike of what he terms the ‘caviar left’, and one of the many challenges Castillo faces is how to hold together the very different components of the left on which his government is built.

There are far larger difficulties ahead, however. Well short of a majority, the incoming government will have to cobble together votes for every piece of legislation it puts forward, in a series of confidence-and-supply-type arrangements. Castillo did in the end manage to get his cabinet through Congress – minus Béjar – but the struggle he had in doing so provides a bitter foretaste of things to come. At the same time, both his success and that of Perú Libre are unmistakable symptoms of the profound crisis of the Peruvian political system, which has now experienced several years of rolling dysfunction. A series of corruption scandals, many of them involving the tentacular Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, led to the ouster of two presidents in succession, as well as graft charges against leading members of the Peruvian congress, including Keiko Fujimori. (She was released from a second spell in jail in May 2020, but more charges were filed in March 2021, in the midst of the presidential campaign.)

Elsewhere in Latin America – Brazil first and foremost – anti-corruption politics have been successfully weaponized by the right, against a coherent rival for power on the left. In Peru, in the absence of such a left, anti-corruption largely became a means of score-settling within the political class, all too obviously cynical and devoid of actual concern for the fate of the country. It was in part the disillusionment sown by years of this that prompted calls for a new constitution, including protests that led to the removal of a third (albeit interim) president in November 2020.

The sense of crisis was hugely accelerated, of course, by the impact of Covid-19. Peru has been among the countries most drastically affected, suffering catastrophic spikes in deaths and infections from early in the pandemic. Though its total figure of 198,000 deaths to date is dwarfed by the casualties elsewhere in Latin America, proportionally it has been hit much harder: at 609 per 100,000, its incidence of death is more than double that of Brazil, and three times higher than Mexico’s. In a country where 70% of workers are in the informal sector, the pandemic reversed whatever gains had been made over the past decade: between 2019 and 2020, per capita incomes dropped by 20%, and the poverty rate rose from 20% to 30% of the population.

It was these overlapping crises – public health disaster plus deepening political disarray plus the ongoing inequalities wrought by a neoliberal extractive economy – that made possible the dual shock of Perú Libre’s advance and Castillo’s victory. If nothing else, they made it abundantly clear that there can be no return to business as usual. But less clear is how much of a transformation Castillo’s government will be able to bring about, given the political constraints and polarized ideological climate in which it will have to operate. Perú Libre’s platform – originally drafted by Cerrón in February 2020, when the party had no seats in Congress – isn’t necessarily much of a guide to what Castillo’s programme will be. Its proposals range from doubling the health and education budgets to nationalizations of mining concerns, and from a ‘second agrarian reform’ (after the one enacted in the late 1960s by the Velasco regime) to a transition away from neoliberalism to a ‘popular economy with markets’.

The effects of the pandemic mean at least some increases in social spending are likely to get through, but it remains to be seen if Castillo can, for instance, revise mining contracts to give the Peruvian state a higher share of resource rents. Perhaps the proposal that is likeliest to be implemented is the call for a referendum on a new constitution. This was already in the air in Peru in late 2020, inspired by the example of neighbouring Chile, and it seems the only way to secure both a mandate and a framework for overhauling Peru’s neoliberal model.

In this context, it is significant that, besides Lenin and Fidel Castro, the main models mentioned in Perú Libre’s programme are Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Both these Pink Tide leaders, however, were in much stronger positions than Castillo at the outset of their terms, and even if the referendum were to succeed, the balance of forces in Peru is unlikely to produce as progressive a charter as either Ecuador or Bolivia. But in the absence of such a thoroughgoing democratic renewal, a neoliberal restoration on the old terms doesn’t seem likely either. Far more probable is a prolonged and turbulent interregnum.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Politics and Pandemics’, NLR 125.

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Back to the Workplace

The left’s position within a Labour Party increasingly led by neo-Blairites has taken another knock. On Wednesday, Sharon Graham won the election to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite, one of the UK’s Big Three trade unions and traditionally Labour’s largest donor. She finished 5,000 votes ahead of Steve Turner, the preferred candidate of McCluskey and the broad United Left caucus, on a turnout of 125,000. The union claims 1.2 million members, so that was a turnout of just under 10%, with Graham coasting to victory on the votes of 4.5% of Unite members.

Trade-union donations – Unite pays around £1.3m a year, and contributed £3m for the 2019 election – buy not only a substantial block of seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee but significant influence in electing local parliamentary candidates. Within each union, the general secretary tends to play a quasi-presidential role in deciding policies and appointments. The outgoing McCluskey had spent years taking up the cudgels against the right-wing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn and his large extra-parliamentary support base. He fought in Corbyn’s corner during the 2016 leadership contest when some Labour MPs wanted him off the ballot paper, and has been a voluble critic of Starmer’s purges and ‘vapid New Labour cliches’.

By contrast, Graham campaigned on a slogan of Westminster versus the workplace, criticizing the union’s ‘obsession’ with the Labour Party. ‘We have tried our political project within Labour. It has failed’, she said. Her manifesto – far more considered than Steve Turner’s bland bullet-point offering – called for investment in sectoral combines of shop stewards to coordinate bargaining agendas as part of a wider overhaul of the union’s culture of industrial bargaining.

Graham was previously head of Unite’s organising and leverage department. ‘Organising’ is a centrally driven effort to rebuild shopfloor structures that have been swept away by deindustrialization and privatization. Essentially, it means employing additional officials dedicated to cultivating and training reps. Its antonym is mere recruitment, which leaves unions vulnerable to membership churn.

‘Leverage’ is the targeted application of pressure short of industrial action to sap an employer’s will – basically NGO-style protest campaigns that don’t rely on the labour movement’s traditional weight of numbers but aim for eye-catching events, amplified by media coverage. Graham claims that Unite’s version of leverage has never been defeated, although its half-cocked use in a bruising industrial defeat at Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 – there were pickets of a director’s family home – earned the union a bad press without delivering a breakthrough.

Strikes are hard to mount, let alone sustain, in Tory Britain. Statutory restrictions (further tightened by Cameron in 2016), a notoriously flexible labour market and widespread demoralization have led unions to consider alternative approaches. A shift in emphasis from strikes to stunts was signalled when Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, defeated by Thatcher in a long and bitter strike, opted against industrial action in response to a subsequent round of pit closures coordinated by John Major’s deputy Michael Heseltine, and made do instead with a protest march in London and an attempt to dig up Heseltine’s lawn.

A decade later, during the wave of corporate asset-stripping that marked the New Labour boom, the GMB under Paul Kenny, a bruiser from the old Labour right, brought a camel and needle to the steps of a south London church attended by the head of private-equity firm Permira to illustrate the proverb about the rich getting into Heaven, after the union was de-recognized by a company that the grasping Permira had recently acquired. Chancellor Gordon Brown resisted pressure to curb the activities of such private-equity groups (he now works for one). Kenny retorted with empty threats that New Labour shouldn’t take union support for granted.

Graham’s emphasis on rank-and-file activity has attracted misplaced support from the Trotskyist left, but the Tory press is cautiously optimistic. Although Turner’s approach was more conciliatory than McClusky’s, he had promised continued backing for the Labour left. With Graham, however, the Times comments that ‘If she is true to her word and returns Britain’s second-largest union to its core business of representing members’ interests, her triumph might prove positive’. A ‘hands-off’ relationship between Labour and its largest donor ‘may end up suiting both sides’.

Graham’s warning that there will be ‘no blank cheques’ for Starmer is a rote union demand for face-saving micro-concessions over policy. Distancing is not the same as disengagement: it’s more a case of the labour movement’s traditional deference towards Labour at Westminster reasserting itself. The Labour Party leadership has by and large been short-changing the unions for a hundred years, and it would take a huge effort of will for one of the major affiliates to walk away now. It’s more likely that a politically quiescent Unite will spend the next few years propping Starmer up.

Elsewhere in the Big Three, recent elections have entrenched the right where it was already strong. Christina McAnea became the new general secretary of public-service union giant Unison (1.3 members) in January and proceeded to accuse McClusky of ‘indulgence’ for criticising Starmer. In June, Gary Smith, another Scot, took the top job at GMB (500,000 members), telling the Daily Record that ‘it is Keir Starmer’s problem to sort out the Labour Party, not ours’. Smith was formerly ‘regional’ secretary of GMB north of the Border, where he withdrew support from the Corbyn-appointed leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard. GMB members did not want to get bogged down in an internal Labour Party dispute, Smith insisted. These days many of them vote for the Scottish Nationalists. 

The surprising thing is how Unite diverged from the conformist GMB and Unison under McCluskey and his predecessor Tony Woodley, both products of militant Merseyside, and instead found allies among some of the smaller unions, like railway workers under the bullish leadership of Bob Crow. It looks like that breach within the Big Three has now closed, and champagne corks will be popping again in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.  

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘The New Unionism’, NLR 1/92.