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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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Avalanche of Numbers

In the last few weeks, a report has been circulating in the online fora of the ultranationalist Indian diaspora. Its author, Shantanu Gupta, an ideologue closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatya Janata Party, ‘tracked the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India of 6 global publications – BBC, the Economist, the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times and CNN – via web search results over a 14-month period’. His argument is that these outlets have distorted and exaggerated the effects of coronavirus in India. On what does Gupta base this thesis? On the fact that all these sources have used absolute numbers rather than cases per million. By the latter metric, we are told, ‘India is one of the better performing countries on the global map’. Here he is undoubtedly correct.

Countless times this spring we’ve seen the dramatic, record-shattering daily death counts from India, as it reportedly became the country with the third highest Covid deaths in the world. A quick look at these records: deaths in India reached their highest level on May 18th, with 4,525 per day. The USA topped this morbid leaderboard on January 12th with slightly lower numbers: 4,466. The UK reached its peak on January 20th, with 1,823 daily deaths; Italy on December 3rd with 993.

The problem is, India’s population stands at 1.392 billion. The USA’s is just 332 million, while the UK and Italy have 68 and 60 million respectively. If, then, we were to count the number of deaths per million inhabitants, ranking the highest daily death count yields quite different results: the UK holds a strong lead, with 28 deaths a day per million inhabitant; Italy is in second place with 17; the USA follows with 14; and India comes last, with just 3 per million inhabitants. Regarding the total number of deaths per million since the beginning of the pandemic, each country is almost identical, the only change coming at the very top: Italy clinches gold with 2,091 deaths per million, the UK 1,873, the USA 1,836, and India just 243.

One might argue that Indian statistics are unreliable (a fair objection, no doubt), due to the impossibility of accurately recording deaths in slums and other deprived areas. We now know that the true Covid death count in Peru was around triple the official figure. But multiply the Indian death count by four and it would still be inferior to that of more developed countries with far higher per capita incomes such as the USA, UK and Italy.

So has the pandemic in India been a bed of roses, as Modi has repeated for around a year, and as Gupta still maintains? Not at all. Try selling this to the families brought to ruin buying oxygen tanks on the black market or rooms in facilities with ventilators, or to the millions of precarious workers sent back home on foot, without a penny or subsidy to speak of. Even if, epidemiologically, Covid has not hit India more violently than other countries, it nonetheless spelled catastrophe for the health service and the wider economy. The numbers presented to underscore India’s Covid ‘tragedy’ in reality told an entirely different story. They were a testament to the brutal inequality of Indian society and the awful state of its health service: underfunded, staffed with underpaid workers, and lacking all kinds of vital equipment.

India’s pandemic casualties are but a macroscopic example of how numbers can be made to say anything, often conveying the opposite of what they really mean. In this past year and a half we’ve been submerged, buried, asphyxiated by an ‘avalanche of numbers’, as the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking terms it. In his exceptional The Taming of Chance (1990), Hacking examines the fervour for statistics that took hold of Europe in the 1800s, following the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Statistics, he argues, were endowed with a double dimension: by the 19th century they emerged as pillars of a new mode of governance, and underpinned a colossal epistemological revolution in science (just think of statistical mechanics, the kinetic theory of gases, and the attendant appearance of unsettling concepts: entropy first, the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics after). It was this ‘avalanche’ that gave rise to the human sciences. Modern sociology was made possible by the availability of statistical data; Durkheim couldn’t have written his foundational text on Suicide (1897) without the mass of information provided by censuses. Our contemporary image of human beings derives in large part from the means developed to count them – an image that omits all that cannot be counted or indexed.

Statistics – numbers, that is – were obviously the primary tool for enacting what Foucault termed ‘biopolitics’, a form of governance in which it is essential for the sovereign to know the average life expectancy, the mean age of marriage relative to level of education, the number of possible conscripts at any given time, how long the state would have to pay a life salary, and so on. But a discipline cannot be an instrument of government without becoming a weapon of politics. The manipulation of statistics was born alongside statistics itself, hence the unforgettable, lapidary maxim from Mark Twain in his Chapters from My Autobiography (1906): ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.

This whole process gave rise to a new artform, as the rhetorical use of numbers ripened into a veritable ‘rhetoric of the number’. The media spectacle we’ve witnessed in the last 17 months has deployed this numerical rhetoric to the full extent of its powers; instructive, threatening, persuasive, dissuasive, distortive. It’s opportune, then, to examine this rhetoric a little more closely. We could begin by asking, as Jacques Durand did in his first, pioneering treatment of the subject: ‘What is a number? Is it a word amongst others, an integral part of language? Or is it a purely scientific object, extralinguistic in nature?’

We may not realize it, but we’re perennially bombarded by numbers used in what might be termed an ‘extra-arithmetic’ register: The One Thousand and One Nights, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, The Seventh Seal, Ocean’s 11, Agent 007, 7-Up, 7-Eleven, the ‘number of the beast’ 666. In politics, the rhetorical use of numbers derives ‘from the fact that numbers and statistics – even from official sources – do not hold a mirror to reality but instead reflect, and deflect, it’. Precisely because of this function, numbers produce an effect of irrational persuasion. If I’m told that thousands of people have died in some disaster, I can accept this or I can remain sceptical, but if I’m told that the death count is 12,324, I must take it or leave it in toto. Numbers thus retain a persuasive force comparable to that of an image (‘worth a thousand words’). At the same time, numbers serve to decontextualize and absolutize.

We’re so inundated with numbers that we tend not to perceive just how much of the information we are presented with is superfluous and arbitrary. When we were told, for example, that Malaysia registered a record number of 5,298 cases on the 30th of January, nobody interrogated the reason why this figure was chosen. Why have we never been given daily updates on tuberculosis cases, even if every year it causes the death of around 1.7 million people? Think of the 1.4 million people who die every year in car accidents. Why are we not informed of roadside fatalities in Chile or the Philippines every evening? It’s curious that during Covid’s second wave all mention of deaths in nursing homes vanished; they have literally disappeared from mass media, yet the elderly continue to die in great numbers. The hypocritical sobs for the ‘tragedy of the elderly’ and the crocodile tears for ‘our grandparents’ have now been muted.

So, the first mechanism the rhetoric of numbers employs is the choice of which figures to include and which to omit. To declare the accumulation of total deaths, rather than the rate of mortality relative to the size of a given population, is a shining example of this numerical rhetoric. Rarely does the news – broadcast or print – use relative figures; it generally deals in absolute tallies. Less lethal but just as serious is the doctoring of statistics relating to work, with many curious stratagems at play in assessing the rate of unemployment (in the US, for example, people are not counted as unemployed if they worked just one hour the previous week). Then there are the various figures of speech which we do not have sufficient space and time to analyse at present. With numbers you can use antithesis: ‘A €700,000 fine for missed payment of €1.20’, ‘Murder for €20’; tautology: ‘2021 is not 2001’; repetition: ‘in 12 days, with 12 bottles, your face is 12 years younger’; enumeration: ‘buy two, pay for one’ (a shoe advert) , ‘one exceptional offer, two lifestyles, three advantages’; accumulation: ‘920 tonnes at 920 km/h’. This doesn’t even cover rhetorical devices that mix words and numbers. The list is long.

It’s evident from this brief excursus that numbers are not words like any other, nor are they completely extralinguistic signifiers. Strangely enough, their logic recalls (to come full circle) the use of Hindi words in English-language Indian dailies, which are replete with local terms that communicate what in English would be inexpressible. They represent an exotic solecism embedded in standard English and hark back to a shared local heritage. In everyday consciousness numbers surely enjoy a similar exotic fascination, owing partly to the general public’s imperfect grasp of arithmetic.

What remains to be evaluated is the intention behind this particular wielding of numbers. There’s little doubt here: general panic amongst the population was a poorly-concealed – if not declared – objective of the pandemic response. I don’t wish to say that the pandemic wasn’t to be feared. I do, however, think that authorities around the world considered instilling a long-lasting panic amongst the general public necessary in order for much-needed lockdown measures and curbs on civil liberties to be accepted with such acquiescence. A well-dosed and administered media panic was, and still is, far less costly and intrusive than police measures. And for this aim the rhetoric of numbers has no match.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Geographies of Ignorance’, NLR 108.

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Friedman’s Last Gasp

Thomas Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times reflecting on Israel’s 11-day destruction of Gaza is a showcase for the delusions of liberal Zionism: a constellation of thought that has never looked so threadbare. It seems that every liberal newspaper needs a Thomas Friedman – the UK’s Guardian has Jonathan Freedland – whose role is to keep readers from considering realistic strategies for Israel-Palestine, however often and catastrophically the established ones have failed. In this case, Friedman’s plea for Joe Biden to preserve the ‘potential of a two-state solution’ barely conceals his real goal: resuscitating the discourse of an illusory ‘peace process’ from which everyone except liberal Zionists has moved on. His fear is that the debate is quietly shifting outside this framework – towards the recognition that Israel is a belligerent apartheid regime, and the conclusion that one democratic state for Palestinians and Jews is now the only viable solution.

For more than five decades, the two-state solution – of a large, ultra-militarized state for Israel, and a much smaller, demilitarized one for Palestinians – has been the sole paradigm of the Western political and media class. During these years, a Palestinian state failed to materialize despite (or more likely because of) various US-backed ‘peace processes’. While Americans and Europeans have consoled themselves with such fantasies, Israel has only paid them lip-service, enforcing a de facto one-state solution premised on Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, and consolidating its control over the entire territory.

But in recent years, Israel’s naked settler-colonial actions have imperiled that Western paradigm. It has become increasingly evident that Israel is incapable of making peace with the Palestinians because its state ideology – Zionism – is based on their removal or eradication. What history has taught us is that the only just and lasting way to end a ‘conflict’ between a native population and a settler-colonial movement is decolonization, plus the establishment of a single, shared, democratic state. Otherwise, the settlers continue to pursue their replacement strategies – which invariably include ethnic cleansing, communal segregation and genocide. These were precisely the tactics adopted by European colonists in the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Friedman’s function in the Western media – conscious or not – is to obfuscate these historical lessons, tapping into a long legacy of unthinking colonial racism.

One of the central pillars of that legacy is an abiding fear of the native and his supposedly natural savagery. This has always been the unspoken assumption behind the interminable two-state ‘peace process’. A civilized and civilizing West tries to broker a ‘peace deal’ to protect Israel from the Palestinian hordes next door. But the Palestinians continuously ‘reject’ these peace overtures because of their savage nature – which is in turn presented as the reason why Israel must ethnically cleanse them and herd them into reservations, or Bantustans, away from Jewish settlers. Occasionally, Israel is forced to ‘retaliate’ – or defend itself from this savagery – in what becomes an endless ‘cycle of violence’. The West supports Israel with military aid and preferential trade, while watching with exasperation as the Palestinian leadership fails to discipline its people.

Friedman is an expert at exploiting this colonial mentality. He often avoids taking direct responsibility for his racist assumptions, attributing them to ‘centrist Democrats’ or other right-minded observers. Coded language is his stock in trade, serving to heighten the unease felt by western audiences as the natives try to regain a measure of control over their future. In some cases the prejudicial framing is overt, as with his concern about the threat of an ascendant Hamas to women’s and LGBTQ rights, couched in an identity politics he knows will resonate with NYT readers. But more often his framing is insidious, with terms like ‘decimate’ and ‘blow up’ deployed to cast Palestinians’ desire for self-determination as violent and menacing.  

Friedman’s promotion of the two-state model offers a three-layered deception. First, he writes that the two-state solution would bring ‘peace’, without acknowledging that the condition for that peace is the Palestinians’ permanent ghettoization and subjugation. Second, he blames the Palestinians for rejecting just such ‘peace plans’, even though they have never been seriously offered by Israel. And finally, he has the chutzpah to imply that it was the Palestinians’ failure to negotiate a two-state solution that ‘decimated’ the Israeli ‘peace camp’.

Such arguments are not only based on Friedman’s dehumanizing view of Arabs. They are also tied to his domestic political concerns. He fears that if Joe Biden were to acknowledge the reality that Israel has sabotaged the two-state solution, then the President might disengage once and for all from the ‘peace process’. Of course, most Palestinians would welcome such an end to US interference: the billions of dollars funnelled annually to the Israeli military, the US diplomatic cover for Israel, and the arm-twisting of other states to silently accept its atrocities. But, Friedman argues, this withdrawal would carry a heavy price at home, setting off a civil war within Biden’s own party and within Jewish organizations across the US. God forbid, it might ‘even lead to bans on arms sales’ to Israel.

Friedman reminds us of Israeli businessman Gidi Grinstein’s warning that in the absence of a ‘potential’ two-state solution, US support for Israel could morph ‘from a bipartisan issue to a wedge issue’. The columnist writes that preserving the two-state ‘peace process’, however endless and hopeless, is ‘about our national security interests in the Middle East’. How does Friedman define these interests? They are reducible, he says, to ‘the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party.’ A ‘peace process’ once designed to salve the consciences of Americans while enabling the dispossession of Palestinians has now been redefined as a vital US national security issue – because, for Friedman, its survival is necessary to preserve the dominance of foreign policy hawks in the Democratic machine. The argument echoes Biden’s extraordinarily frank admission made back in 1986 that ‘were there not an Israel the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region’.

Friedman then concludes his article with a set of proposals that unwittingly expose the true consequences of a two-state settlement. He insists that Biden build on his predecessor’s much ridiculed ‘peace plan’, which gave US blessing to Israel’s illegal settlements on vast swaths of the occupied West Bank, penning Palestinians into their Bantustans indefinitely. Trump’s plan also sought to entrench Israel’s control over occupied East Jerusalem, remake Gaza as a permanent battlefield on which rivalries between Fatah and Hamas would intensify, and turn the wealth of the theocratic Gulf states into a weapon, fully integrating Israel into the region’s economy while making the Palestinians even more dependent on foreign aid. Polite NYT opinionators now want Biden to sell these measures as a re-engagement with the ‘peace process’.

The US, writes Friedman, should follow Trump in stripping the Palestinians of a capital in East Jerusalem – the economic, religious and historic heart of Palestine. Arab states should reinforce this dispossession by moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. Neighbouring countries are encouraged to pressure the Palestinian Authority, via aid payments, to accede even more cravenly to Israel’s demands. (Of course, Friedman does not think it worth mentioning that Palestine is aid-dependent because Israel has either stolen or seized control of all its major resources.)

Once this subordinate position is guaranteed, divisions within the Palestinian national movement can be inflamed by making Hamas – plus the two million Palestinians in Gaza – dependent on the PA’s patronage. Friedman wants the Fatah-led PA to decide whether to send aid to the Gaza Strip or join Israel in besieging the enclave to weaken Hamas. For good measure, he also urges the Gulf states to cut off support to the United Nations aid agencies, like UNRWA, which have kept millions of Palestinian refugees fed and cared for since 1948. The international community’s already feeble commitment to the rights of Palestinian refugees will thus be broken, and the diaspora will be forcibly absorbed into their host countries.

Such proposals are the last gasp of a discredited liberal Zionism. Friedman visibly flounders as he tries to put the emperor’s clothes back on a two-state solution which stands before us in all its ugliness. The Western model of ‘peace-making’ was always about preserving Jewish supremacy. Now, at least, the illusions are gone.

Read on: Kareem Rabie, ‘Remaking Ramallah’, NLR 111.

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Get It and Waste It

The landlocked, resource-rich Central African Republic has been in a state of almost perpetual turmoil since independence from France in 1960. The latest bout of unrest started with the 2013 overthrow of President François Bozizé, the former army chief of staff. Within a year, the UN had accused Bozizé of ‘engaging in or providing support for acts that undermine the peace, stability or security of CAR’, having tried and failed to take Bangui, the capital. Three-quarters of the country – which is almost the size of France – came to be controlled by 14 separate militias. A peace accord in 2019 brought a brief respite, but this ended in the run-up to the 27 December 2020 presidential election when the Constitutional Court declared Bozizé ineligible to stand because he failed to fulfil the ‘good morality’ requirement. According to the court, he was still subject to a government-issued arrest warrant for his alleged role in murders, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and torture. Everyone knew that the matter was personal. The incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, previously an obscure academic, was picked by Bozizé to be Prime Minister in 2008, only to be dismissed by Bozizé less than a year later. When the election took place Touadéra swept to victory – although only one third of the electorate was able to vote after militia warfare displaced of hundreds of thousands. Various militias have since come together as the Coalition of Patriots for Change, with Bozizé accepting the ‘call’ to be its ‘general coordinator’.

This is the familiar story of an African country with plentiful resources that never reach the general population. Although not in the top league, CAR has significant deposits of high quality – or gem – diamonds, along with gold and uranium. Yet its five million inhabitants are amongst the poorest in the world, exceeded in sub-Saharan African only by Niger, which is equally landlocked but mostly desert. According to UN figures, two-thirds of the population are dependent on food aid, itself jeopardised by the fighting. In March alone, there were 34 incidents of looting, nine vehicles were carjacked and two humanitarian workers were injured (one by a bullet). None of this is new. It was perhaps even worse in the colonial period when, between 1890 and 1940, the population was reckoned to have declined by half due to disease, famine and exploitation. Nowadays, CAR is of little strategic interest to the former colonial powers, which is why the ongoing tragedy is barely reported. This is in contrast to, say, neighbouring Chad, where the recent death of the long-serving Idriss Déby captured the world’s attention because of the country’s position in an ‘unusually dangerous neighbourhood’ – Boko Haram in the east, Isis in the north – against which it acts as a bulwark.

Indeed, the only time CAR made any showing on the world stage was in 1977 when the then president, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, declared the country an empire and crowned himself ‘Emperor of Central Africa’ in a two-day ceremony during which he wore a replica of Napoleon’s ermine-lined scarlet cape made by the same Paris firm which embroidered his hero’s uniforms. An embarrassed President Valery Giscard d’Estaing underwrote the spectacle to the tune of $22 million – gold-plated eagle throne, gold crown, 60,000 bottles of champagne and burgundy. As Emperor Bokassa I himself put it: ‘We ask the French for money, get it and waste it.’ And yet he had a point of sorts when he said that he did what he did ‘in order to give dignity to my country in the eyes of the world’ – a country which, as The Washington Post noted at the time, was otherwise ‘best known for supplying platter-lipped women to circus sideshows’.

Then, two years into his reign, even the French were forced to turn on Bokassa after the killing of over one hundred children who protested because they couldn’t afford the school uniform available exclusively in his wife’s shops. The leader and his family were forced into exile and the country returned to being an invisible republic. (In a final twist, Bokassa scuppered d’Estaing’s second-term bid by revealing that he had secretly accepted diamonds worth a quarter of a million dollars, rendering them both political outcasts.) 

As I write, there is no good reason to believe that normalcy will return to CAR anytime soon. Although a 12,000-strong UN mission (along with several hundred Rwandan troops) nominally keeps the peace in the territory still under government control, the government is heavily reliant on the services of Russian mercenaries, following Touadéra’s visit to Putin in 2018 to discuss the exchange of mining contracts in return for weapons. Bangui subsequently granted gold- and diamond-mining permits to Russian companies with suspected links to business mogul, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Putin. Officially, the Kremlin admits to having 535 military experts ‘in line with the international community’s general efforts to strengthen [CAR’s] security structures’. Three freelance Russian journalists who travelled to the country to document the activities of a private security company connected to the Kremlin were attacked and killed (‘in an ambush’). Nonetheless, it is known that one such Russian firm, Wagner Group, employs over 1,000 personnel. Another, Sewa Security Services, guards the airports and ministries and is part of the president’s own detail. The UN has accused both of ‘serious human rights violations’, including mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture and attacks on civilian facilities; but it’s unlikely that either they or the president – or Putin, for that matter – will be particularly bothered. If the words of the Russian ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, are anything to go by, the Kremlin has no plan to wind down its intervention. Titorenko recently warned Bozizé to ‘renounce the armed struggle’ or risk being ‘neutralised’.

What is the rest of the continent doing about this running sore? Precious little. Here in Nigeria, not a line in any newspaper or over the airwaves – and this in a country with more newspapers and radio stations than the entire West African region put together. The government itself has not issued a statement, nor has it been debated in the Senate or the House, despite the claim that Africa is the ‘centre-piece’ of our foreign policy. The African Union, which declared itself satisfied with the conduct of the December elections after observing the process in just four of the country’s 20 prefectures, has since called for ‘dialogue’. Their approach, they explained, was ‘as the weaver when he puts the veil on the wheel. It is not to break it but improve it. We must always try to talk to each other, to cooperate.’ This doesn’t seem to have impressed either side.

The 11-member Economic Community of Central African States has been even less forthcoming – although this has not stopped President Touadéra from continuing to solicit help from neighbouring states. In a visit to Abuja on 24 May, he called on the Nigerian government to assist CAR in rebuilding its army, and on Nigerian citizens to invest in the country. Neither of these are likely prospects. Nigeria’s military has been beleaguered by trying to cope with Boko Haram, to say nothing of the increasing spate of kidnappings, and its business community is reluctant to invest abroad given the lack of support from the country’s foreign missions.

In the meantime, the Central African Armed Forces are effectively pushing back against Bozizé following the attack on Bangui by the Coalition of Patriots for Change. Government troops have reportedly been helped by Russian and Rwandan forces, who not only assisted on the battlefield but also improved the army’s administrative and organizational capacity. According to a statement by Cardinal Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, ‘A change is underway in the Central African Republic. The armed rebels who had entered the cities have left them and are in the forests’, yet ‘it remains to be seen whether this is real or just temporary peace.’ Judging from the country’s recent history, it is clear which of these options is more likely.

Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.

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Canny Reader

The death of J. Hillis Miller, in February, marked the end of an astonishing period in American academic literary criticism – North American really, since the dominant figure, Northrop Frye, was born in Québec and taught in Toronto. The period might be said to start in 1947, with the publication of Frye’s first book, the Blake study Fearful Symmetry, and yielded a body of work drawing on the kind of Continental resources – Marxism and psychoanalysis but also theology, linguistics, hermeneutics, and mythopoetics – that had been accorded little place by earlier formalist approaches. Miller, the author of twenty-five books, was rare among the central figures in devoting his attention to study of the novel, from Emily Brontë to Ian McEwan. The arc of Miller’s career has been described by Fredric Jameson as ‘unclassifiable’, but in bald terms, it was the story of a pair of Francophone mentors, Georges Poulet and Jacques Derrida, who washed up in Baltimore – more specifically, the campus of Johns Hopkins, where Miller taught from 1952 until 1972. Miller welcomed their interventions and ran with them, transforming himself into a leading exponent of two critical schools, one – phenomenology – that remains more or less pegged to its post-war moment, the other – deconstruction – with wider fame and implications, and a more contested legacy.

He was born in Virginia, in 1928, and raised in upstate New York – ‘definitely the boondocks’, he recalled. His mother was descended from Pennsylvania Dutch; one of her ancestors, a Rhode Islander, had been a signatory on the Declaration of Independence. Miller’s father, himself the son of a farmer, was a Baptist minister as well as a professor and an academic administrator who emphasised women’s higher education. But Miller’s upbringing wasn’t especially urbane. When he arrived at Oberlin, to study physics, he had never heard of T. S. Eliot. And when he moved to Harvard for graduate studies, he felt uncomfortable – out of step with what he called the ‘white-shoe tradition’. (Miller later wrote that he and his wife, Dorothy, thought of the shift from physics to English during his sophomore year ‘as a vow of poverty for us both’, adding, ‘That has not exactly happened’.)

The subject of Miller’s PhD was Dickens, not an established area of academic study. ‘The idea was that a gentleman had already read these novels’, he told me, during an encounter in 2012. ‘You don’t have to teach them’. When Miller was hired at Hopkins, he was the department’s first Victorianist: ‘Until I came, everything stopped at 1830’. One effect of the appointment was Miller’s meeting with the Swiss critic Georges Poulet, a member of the Geneva School of phenomenology (though, in fact, he never taught there), who argued that literature embodies the ‘consciousness’ of the author. Miller’s dissertation, notionally supervised by the Renaissance scholar Douglas Bush – whose only comment was that he uses ‘that’ when he means ‘which’ – had been written under the influence of Kenneth Burke, especially his idea of symbolic action. But in the published version, which appeared in 1958, he announced the Poulet-like desire to identify in Dickens’s fiction a unique and consistent ‘view of the world’ and called the novel the means by which a writer apprehends and creates himself.

Miller never formally rejected Poulet, but looking back, he saw his period as a phenomenologist as something like a diversion, even a cop-out. He had always been drawn to ‘local linguistic anomalies in literature’, he said, and consciousness criticism provided a ‘momentarily successful strategy for containing rhetorical disruptions of narrative logic’ through reference to the authorial perspective as a unifying – and grounding – presence. But at a certain point in the late 1960s, he abandoned what he called ‘an orientation toward language as the mere register of the complexities of consciousness’ in favour of ‘an orientation toward the figurative and rhetorical complexities of language itself as the generative source of consciousness’. In The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), he continued to emphasise ‘intersubjectivity’ – how the ‘mind of an author’ is made ‘available to others’. But by the time of Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (1970), he had begun to embrace what he called ‘a science of tropes’.

It was a shift cemented in 1972, when Miller was hired by Yale, where his colleagues included Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida. Talk of a ‘Yale School’ now goes back almost fifty years, but did it really exist? Derrida, for his part, said that he didn’t identify with ‘any group or clique whatsoever, with any philosophical or literary school’. Yet Miller argued that in spite of such ‘complexities’ – i.e. the best-known putative member claiming otherwise – ‘a Yale School did exist’, and characterised its activities as ‘a group of friends teaching and writing in the same place at the same time, with closely related orientations’.

Miller once argued that the Yale critics were united by an interest in the eighteenth century. It’s a bizarre contention, the meta-critical equivalent of counting the people at a dinner table but forgetting to include yourself. Bloom, Hartman, and de Man were certainly engaged in an effort, spearheaded by Frye, to overturn a prejudice against Romanticism enshrined by Eliot and disseminated by the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry. The notable products included Hartman’s 1964 study of Wordsworth, the essays in de Man’s Blindness and Insight (1971), and Bloom’s books on Shelley and Blake as well as The Visionary Company (1961), his foolhardy reading of the entire English Romantic canon. Miller, by contrast, specialised in fiction of the Victorian and modernist periods; as late as 2012, he had never read anything by Samuel Richardson.

So the orientations to which Miller alluded are not altogether clear. Even Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), the ‘manifesto’ of the Yale School, exposed the degree of ambiguity, the conjunction in the title separating Bloom from the ‘gang of four’ who practised something called ‘deconstruction’. Hartman complicated things further in his preface by calling Miller, Derrida, and de Man the true ‘boa-deconstructors’ – a gang of three. Even the book’s intended unifying element, an emphasis on Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’, was lost along the way. Looser points of convergence seem more persuasive. Miller pointed out that what he, de Man, Bloom, and Hartman – a different gang of four – were up to differed substantially from the activities of both the New Critics and Northrop Frye. The late Irish academic Denis Donoghue said that what linked the members of the so-called Yale School was simply that they ‘teach at Yale’.

What remains beyond doubt is that Miller was closely aligned to de Man and Derrida, and that their influence explains the discrepancy between the best books of his early period, The Disappearance of God (1963) and Poets of Reality (1965), and the books he published while at Yale, Fiction and Repetition (1982), and The Linguistic Moment (1985), his book on poetry. Miller first encountered de Man’s work at a Yale colloquium in 1964 where he delivered a version of the paper that became the Lukács essay in Blindness and Insight. Another turning point was Derrida’s appearance, two years later, at the star-studded Johns Hopkins conference, ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’ – theory’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Miller was teaching a class when Derrida, a thirty-six-year-old lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, and a last-minute addition ­– delivered his exhilarating lecture, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. But he witnessed Derrida in other sessions – for example, he heard him tell the phenomenologist and autofiction pioneer, Serge Doubrovsky, that he didn’t believe in perception.

It was one of many things he didn’t believe in. Derrida’s project, owing debts of varying sizes to Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud, was to show that the majority of modern thought remained implicitly metaphysical, and posited a foundation – a Transcendental Signified, the logos or Word – from which many unchecked assumptions derived. The conference had been organised to remedy East Coast indifference to structuralism. In the event – a word that became a crucial part of theoretical vocabulary – the opposite was achieved. Derrida dethroned Claude Lévi-Strauss, and deconstruction was born.

You might say that the effect of deconstruction, in its literary-critical mode, was to augment a presiding canon of largely B-writers (Baudelaire, Benjamin, Borges, Blanchot, etc) with a group of H-figures (Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger, Hopkins, to some degree Hawthorne and Hardy), and to replace a set of keywords beginning ‘s’ – structure, sign, signifier, signified, semiotics, the Symbolic, syntagm, Saussure – with a vocabulary based around the letter ‘d’: decentring, displacement, dislocation, discontinuity, dedoublement, dissemination, difference and deferral (Derrida’s coinage ‘différance’ being intended to encompass both). And there was also a growing role for ‘r’: Rousseau, rhetoric, Romanticism (one of de Man’s books was The Rhetoric of Romanticism), Rilke, and above all reading, a word that appeared, as noun and participle, in titles of books by de Man, Hartman, and most prominently Miller: The Ethics of Reading, Reading Narrative, Reading for Our Time, Reading Conrad.

The New York Times, one of various media outlets that offered a beginner’s guide to this new creed, defined deconstruction as the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts. That better describes the structuralist concept of intertextuality. A typical deconstructionist reading reveals the ways in which a text deconstructs itself, essentially by keeping irreconcilable ideas in suspension. (Caution: paraphrase ahead!) De Man argued, for example, that Hegel’s Aesthetics was dedicated to the same act – preserving classical art – that it reveals as impossible; autobiography at once veils and defaces the autobiographer; a literary text is something that asserts and denies its own rhetorical authority. Harold Bloom, in the recent posthumous book Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, called de Man’s Shelley an ironist who believed that disfiguration annihilates meaning, and then pointed out that this also describes de Man’s Rousseau, his Wordsworth, his Proust…

If Derrida was the founder of deconstruction, and de Man its most concise and feline practitioner, Miller was responsible for extending its range beyond philosophy and poetry. He defined the novel as ‘a chain of displacements’ – author into narrator, narrator into characters, donnée into fiction. He pointed out that attempts to characterise the literature of a given period as closed or open are undermined by the impossibility of demonstrating whether any one narrative is closed or open in the first place. It’s possible to reply that Miller’s criticism gravitated to novels openly concerned with the challenge of reading signs, with language as something that both uncovers and evades: The Wings of the Dove, Lord Jim, Between the Acts. But in his essay ‘Narrative and History’, he argued that Middlemarch, traditionally considered a realist text, can be seen as displacing ‘the metaphysical notions of history, storytelling, and the individual, and the concepts of origin, end and continuity’ with ‘repetition, difference, discontinuity, openness and the free and contradictory struggle of individual human energies’. The ‘canny reader’s motto’, from his formidable – and longest-gestating – book, Ariadne’s Thread (1992), begins: ‘Watch out when you think you’ve “got it”’.

Miller also emerged as the critic best-placed, or anyway keenest, to stand up for deconstruction – against the right, who saw it as iconoclastic and jargon-riddled, and the left, who saw it as elitist. He was frequently forced to deny that deconstruction was simply nihilist. ‘It’s not that nothing is referential’, he said, ‘but that it’s problematically referential’. His best-known essay, and the most virtuoso display of his thinking in action, ‘The Critic as Host’, which appeared in Deconstruction and Criticism, was a response to M.H. Abrams’s essay, ‘The Deconstructive Angel’, which argued that a deconstructionist reading was parasitic on the ‘univocal’ reading of a text. Then there was the charge, recently repeated by Louis Menand in his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, that deconstruction was just as cloistered as the New Criticism – that it ignored, in Menand’s phrase, the ‘real-life aspects of literature’. There’s an argument that deconstruction only looked at history when history more or less forced itself onto the agenda when it emerged, in 1987, that de Man had published articles for Belgian newspapers under Nazi control. But Miller had already been engaged in rejecting the view of deconstruction as formalism by another – fancier – name.

In 1986, the year he left Yale for the University of California, Irvine – Derrida went along too – Miller used his first Presidential Address to the MLA Conference to attack the narrowness of newly resurgent historical approaches, and his own later work offered a serial deconstructionist’s riposte. His first formal intervention was Hawthorne & History: Defacing It (1991), an attempt to show that literature never merely ‘reflects’ history, and this was followed by a short book on the relationship between text and images, Illustration (1992), which Jameson called his contribution to ‘“cultural studies” as such’. In the last decade of his life, he produced a study of George Eliot that doubled as an exercise in ‘anachronistic reading’, an account of writing – including the work of Kafka and Toni Morrison – in relation to Auschwitz, and a study of ‘communities’ (always more conflicted than they just appear) in the work of writers as varied as Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Williams. 

But Miller was not content to offer deconstruction as an alternative to what he considered ‘logical’ historicism. He saw it as a truly materialist aesthetics. As long ago as 1972, Jameson argued that opposition to an ‘Absolute Signified’ encoded a critique of the authoritarian and theocentric, and compared the Derridean analysis of the word and its dominance to Marx on money and the commodity. The first overt statement of this position came a decade later in de Man’s essay ‘The Resistance to Theory’, in which he argued that those who dismissed theory as oblivious to social and historical reality exhibited an unconscious fear that it would expose their own ideological mystifications. Then he added, ‘They are, in short, very poor readers of Marx’s German Ideology.’

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that this one sentence determined the course of Miller’s work ever after. He became increasingly insistent on the similarity, even interchangeability, of the two traditions. Rhetorical reading was political reading, with an essential role in teaching citizens how to decode what he called the ‘imaginary formulations of their real relations to the material, social, gender, and class conditions of their existence’. In the 1986 MLA address, Miller called for a deconstructionist understanding of the material base. Later, though, he appeared to suggest that such an understanding had always existed. In ‘Promises, Promises’, a 2001 essay principally concerned with similarities between Marx and de Man, though inevitably emboldened by Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), Miller called The German Ideology ‘a deconstructive literary theory avant la lettre’, adding ‘If Marx is a deconstructionist, deconstruction is a form of Marxism’. Both were based, in his account, on a refusal to take things for granted, and a need to investigate how a certain sign system – language, the commodity – was established, how it works, and how it might therefore be changed.        

There seems little consensus about the influence or afterlife of the movement to which Miller belonged. For many, it appears to have been something transient. Menand, in The Free World, argues that Derrida’s ‘anti-foundationalism’ never had much effect outside literature departments and ‘some kinds of art practice’. But Camille Paglia, writing in 1993, lamented that post-structuralism had ‘spread throughout academe and the arts’ and was ‘blighting the most promising minds of the next generation’, adding with only a dash of melodrama: ‘This is a major crisis if there ever was one, and every sensible person must help bring it to an end’. And Jameson, writing in NLR in 1995, noted that the ‘maddening gadfly stings’ of Derrida’s attack on metaphysics had hardened into orthodoxy – though he didn’t specify where.

Miller, for his part, liked to emphasise the deconstructive strain in the work of feminist critics such as Shoshana Felman, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Johnson (who pointed out that the Yale School was always a Male School), and Judith Butler. He never stopped writing and lecturing about Derrida or de Man or the self-immolating tendencies of language or the self-critical faculties of novels or the radicalism inherent in good reading. But he noted with regret that what he called ‘the triumph of theory’ had been undone, and he stopped using the term deconstruction, arguing that ‘a false understanding’ had won the day with the media, and ‘many academics too’.

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, NLR I/209.

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Pavelić’s Ghost

Like all holidays, the advent of Ramadan unleashes a social media storm of congratulatory memes. Friends, family, and distant acquaintances share photographs of mosques and stylized images of the crescent-and-star superimposed with a snippet of text, ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem’ – wishes for a bountiful holy month. My twitter feed brimmed with such greetings on the first morning of Ramadan, but one in particular caught my eye, a retweet of Jusuf Nurkić, the Bosnian basketballer who plays centre for the Portland Trailblazers in the National Basketball Association. Nurkić’s message was brief: the hashtag #ramadankareem, three emojis – a crescent moon, a heart, and a pair of hands expressing gratitude or piety – and a caption for the accompanying photograph: ‘Zagreb. 1944 Croatia’. The black-and-white image that Nurkić tweeted depicted a rotunda surrounded by three towering minarets. The sinister political context captured by the photograph was implicit, but the flood of responses to the tweet indicated that it was not lost on Nurkić’s followers. He had posted a picture from a notorious episode in Zagreb’s history: the conversion of a famous art pavilion into a mosque by the Nazi comprador government of the Independent State of Croatia and its leader, Ante Pavelić.

Along with Ferenc Szálasi in Hungary, Ion Antonescu in Romania, and Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, Pavelić was a quisling dictator who rose to power on Hitler and Mussolini’s coattails. His Ustaša Movement seized power in 1941 following the Axis attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In short order, they set about cleansing ‘Greater Croatia’ – a region that included most of Bosnia and parts of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, as well as Croatia – of centuries of linguistic, religious and ethnic plurality. Pavelić’s most gruesome legacy was the Jasenovac concentration camp, a marshy abattoir on the floodplains of Slavonia where some 100,000 Jews, Roma, Serbs and anti-fascists were murdered between 1941 and 1945. The Ustaša ambition to Croat ethnic purity was assimilatory as well as genocidal. Drawing on the marginal theories of the 19th Century proto-nationalist Ante Starčević, Pavelić and his cohorts argued that Bosniaks were religiously but not ethnically distinct. In other words, the Ustaše considered Bosniaks to be Muslim – rather than Catholic – Croats, thereby erasing all historically- or culturally-rooted claims to Bosniak distinction. As ostensible Croats, Muslims were desirable components of the Ustaša body politic. Pavelić trumpeted this fascist openness to limited religious plurality by converting Zagreb’s House of the Fine Arts into a mosque in 1944.

The neoclassical-modernist pavilion-cum-mosque had only risen several years earlier, but it was already a weathervane for the region’s rapidly shifting political winds. Initially conceived as a monument to Yugoslav King Petar I, its design was an expression of Ivan Meštrović’s genius. Meštrović was Yugoslavia’s premiere sculptor, a proponent of the Vienna Secession, a disciple of Rodin, and a firm believer in the unity of the South Slavs, the ideological adhesive that bonded Yugoslavia between the wars. His new art pavilion honoured Petar I, a scion of the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty who, from 1918 to 1921, was the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – the predecessor to Yugoslavia. Yet when the pavilion opened in 1938, the rabidly anti-Serbian Ustaše were already consolidating power in Italy under the patronage of Mussolini, who hosted Pavelić in exile for over a decade. Less than six years later, the building was re-dedicated to a dramatically different cause: Muslim-Catholic unity in the new ethnic polity, the Independent State of Croatia. Changes to the building were swift, and mostly cosmetic: the three minarets and interior ornamental motifs befitting a mosque.

These additions proved ephemeral. After the war, Tito’s partisans quickly transformed the building’s function and name again – by 1949, it had become the Museum of the Revolution. This proved to be the site’s lengthiest incarnation, at least thus far. The Museum of the Revolution persisted until 1993, when, in the wake of Croatia’s withdrawal from Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, the building reverted to its original function as an art pavilion and headquarters for the Croatian Association of Artists. Although it remains an exhibition space today, residents of Zagreb still colloquially refer to the building and its surrounding neighbourhood as Džamija, ‘the mosque’, without reflecting on the fascist genealogy of the title. Paradoxically, a trip to Zagreb’s ‘mosque’ does not usually end at the city’s actual Muslim house of worship, a Yugoslav-era campus in a relatively poor, peripheral neighbourhood. Stranger still, ‘the mosque’, a linguistic relic of the Ustaše, resides at the centre of the Square in Honour of the Victims of Fascism, a public space that explicitly condemns Ustaša depredations.

Whether or not Nurkić considered this dense history when he posted his Ramadan tweet featuring the fascist-era image of the mosque, his provocation was clear – the shot scored. One reply to the tweet denounced him as an Ustaša, while another leaned on a common racial-religious slur, branding him a ‘Turk who sold his faith for taxes’. A wag suggested that he had failed to understand the difference between the NBA and the NDH, the Croatian acronym for the Ustaša state. Supportive replies were less common, though a few neo-fascists reared their heads to salute the Portland player. Nurkić’s tweet also inadvertently called attention to an anniversary that passed largely unnoticed in Croatia and the region: the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the Ustaša state only a few days earlier, on 10 April. In Jutarnji List, Zagreb’s daily paper of record, the journalist Robert Bajruši pointedly lamented that ‘the institutions of the Republic of Croatia have absolutely silenced this terribly important event – terrible in the literal sense of the word’. Nurkić’s Ramadan greeting did Croatian institutions one better, though not in the manner Bajruši might have hoped.  

Many in the region reasonably claim that official silence is preferable to stoking the smouldering flames of communal antagonisms. Pavelić continues to haunt Croatia in many spheres beyond the circles of the far right that openly laud his legacy. Postcards and memorabilia from the Independent State of Croatia, including the very photograph of the mosque that Nurkić repurposed for Ramadan, sell for exorbitant prices in Zagreb’s flea markets, sandwiched between Iron Crosses and busts of Tito. Yet Pavelić and the Ustaše have no place in official memory today – a muteness that contrasts starkly with the socialist era when they were bugbears and collective enemies par excellence.

This official muting of the Ustaša past is a condition of possibility for the political successes of Croatia’s contemporary centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ). Nostalgic praise for the Ustaše circulates openly in the right-wing circles from which the HDZ draws some of its support, applauded by figures such as the ethno-folk balladeer Marko Perković, known popularly as Thompson. The party itself, however, aspires to the respectability of its Christian Democratic brethren elsewhere in Europe, and officially abjures the Ustaša legacy. Rather than Pavelić, it is Franjo Tuđman, the first president of independent Croatia who died in 1999, who personifies the nation-state today. Tuđman epitomizes a polite Croatian nationalism, as opposed to the barbaric nationalism of Pavelić and the Ustaše. Yet the two are not so easily quarantined. In the context of the warfare of the 1990s, Tuđman and the HDZ partially rehabilitated Pavelić and the Ustaše as earlier architects of Croatian sovereignty. This political resurrection was entwined with the parallel rehabilitation of another World War II-era fascist movement, the Četniks, on the part of Slobodan Milošević and like-minded Serbian nationalists. The violence of the 1990s was the crucible for a politics of memory in both Croatia and Serbia that found new uses for the Ustaše and Četnici, respectively. 

Zagreb recently erected a monument to Tuđman, cementing his status as an embodiment of the nation. Pavelić’s legacy in the city is far less evident. Several weeks ago, I visited the ruins of his official residence, Villa Rebar, on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain north of Zagreb. It rots anonymously at the end of an unmarked dirt road, inhabited only by racist graffiti and a hodgepodge of litter: broken DVDs, condom wrappers, beer bottles. In a room that was once a cocktail lounge, I discovered a pile of discarded primary school textbooks, including a history primer that no doubt fails to mention his name.

Elsewhere, however, Pavelić’s memory resists ruination, and stirs with troubling new vitality. I witnessed stirrings of this resurgent potential several years ago on a summer morning in Madrid’s San Isidro Cemetery. Just as Mussolini sheltered Pavelić in the 1930s, Franco provided safe haven for him near the end of his life; though he initially fled to Italy and then Argentina and Chile after the war, he died in Spain in 1959 as the result of an assassination attempt in Buenos Aires several years earlier. Pavelić’s grave in San Isidro is a potent site of Ustaša memory. When I arrived, I found two strapping young men taking selfies in front of it. Several bouquets had already been deposited that day, and I heard more Croatian than Spanish spoken during my sojourn in the graveyard. Upon departure, I asked the cemetery gate attendant whether Croatian visitors were frequent – ‘Yes, of course’, he replied, ‘they come to see their leader.’

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of abstention and spiritual reflection. As the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad, it is a period of heightened awareness to the entailments of Islam. It is also a season of peace, when even the most entrenched conflicts frequently abate, if only for a time. Regrettably, Nurkić failed to consider these entailments of Ramadan before tweeting the image of Zagreb’s erstwhile fascist mosque. Had he done so, he might have refrained from such a belligerent incitement in a context in which peace is still a recent achievement. Still, he was evidently unfazed by the conflagration he ignited on Twitter. He went on to score eight points the following day in a close loss to the Boston Celtics.

Read on: Catherine Samary, ‘A Utopia in the Balkans’, NLR 114.

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Chile Confounds

It happened again. Chilean elites have twice been confounded in the past year. First, by the resounding vote on 25 October to draft a new constitution, driven by the popular anger that had built up over three decades inside the country’s neoliberal pressure cooker. Second, by the surge of independent candidates in the elections for the Constitutional Convention on 15 May. For several reasons, there had been a virtual consensus among pundits that the Convention would be monopolized by party politics: the electoral rules which favoured candidates who run in lists (benefiting traditional parties and coalitions); the lack of funding and airtime allotted to independents; the numerous opinion polls predicting less than 1% of the vote would go to non-party candidates; the negative effects of the pandemic on turnout. The Convention, they predicted, would end up looking very similar to the current Congress, only with more women and indigenous peoples due to gender parity rules and reserved seats. Because a two-thirds supermajority was needed to approve all articles of the new constitution – a rule imposed in a backdoor agreement between the party leaderships – there was a palpable sense of relief. The electoral process, they thought, had managed to tame the constituent power that erupted during the popular uprisings of late 2019.  

The two-day election in mid-May saw 1,373 candidates competing for 155 seats. Despite President Piñera’s single-digit approval rating, the most conservative projections had given at least 51 seats to Vamos por Chile, the electoral bloc of the right-wing governing coalition plus the far-right pro-Pinochet Partido Republicano. The opposition coalition, which ruled the country for most of the past three decades as the Concertación, was also forecast to win just over a third of the vote. This would have given the two dominant coalitions (which have ruled Chile since the return to democracy) the ability not only to block new constitutional articles, but also to pass provisions that would entrench the structures of the dictatorship era. Projections put Apruebo Dignidad, the electoral pact composed of Frente Amplio (the ‘new left’ coalition born out of the 2011 student movements), the Communist Party, and other small regional left parties, at around 16%. Independents were expected to get between zero and seven seats, barely reaching 5%.

In the end, independent candidates won 35% of the seats. It was the worst electoral result for right-wing parties since the municipal elections of 1971. Although Vamos por Chile is still the largest coalition, it won only 40 seats, or 26% of the vote. That’s just four points higher than the votes cast in the October plebiscite for the option – ‘rechazo’ – that rejected changing the Constitution, and 11 seats short of unilateral veto power. The greatest losers, however, were the parties of the former Concertación, which came in fourth place, winning only 25 seats, or 16% of the vote. The electoral alliance of the new left and the Communists performed slightly better than expected, securing 18% of the seats.

The biggest surprise was the strong results of the Lista del Pueblo (‘People’s List’), which comprised 163 independents. Of these, 27 were elected, making them the third strongest bloc in the Convention with 17.4% of seats. Many of their candidates were prominent figures in the 2019 protests that forced the constitutional plebiscite – such as Tía Pikachú, a nursery teacher who dressed in a bright yellow Pokémon costume to face down water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in Plaza Dignidad, and Pelao Vade, a leukaemia patient who led marches against exorbitant medical bills. While the Lista del Pueblo candidates all have a broadly anti-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal and pro-democracy orientation, they did not have a unified platform nor internal democratic decision-making procedures in place before the elections. It is yet to be seen whether these 27 independents will be able to rally around a common project and vote as a bloc. Another non-partisan list that performed better than expected was Independientes No Neutrales (‘Non-Neutral Independents’), composed mainly of intellectuals and professionals from the world of NGOs and foundations, which secured 11 seats. The strong showing of grassroots activists and progressive intellectuals contrasts with the weak performance of trade unionists and representatives of more established social movements. Luis Mesina, former vice president of the CUT (Central Workers Union), ran in the Social Movements List with the support of more than 200 organizations, but nevertheless got only 2% of the vote in his district. Candidates from the LGBT community also won only eight seats (5%), despite the heightened visibility of their movement since the 2019 rebellion.  

Behind these auspicious electoral results, which deprived the establishment of veto power, a deep legitimacy crisis is still lurking. About 50% of eligible voters cast their ballot in the plebiscite that initiated the constituent process, while only 43% went to the polls this time to select representatives. More than 1 million people decided to stay home, despite the great variety of candidates and platforms. This decrease cannot be explained away as a ‘pandemic effect’, as infections and hospitalizations were high on both occasions. Rather, it reflected the nature of the vote: while the referendum was a unique exercise of constituent power, the subsequent elections were viewed as part of a more routine political process which is widely perceived as rigged.

In order to make it onto the ballot, unaffiliated candidates had to get hundreds of people to support them – or up to several thousand in the most populous districts. Political parties, by contrast, were assigned slots in relation to their previous electoral results. So, while the former were busy going door to door, the latter were designing their slates and contacting popular independent candidates to co-opt them into the official party lists. The unequal playing field was even more obvious in the media, where candidates running as independents were given 30 seconds of national airtime a day, while parties and lists ran high-definition campaign broadcasts that lasted for several minutes.

On top of this, the fraudulent activities of the traditional parties contributed to the population’s apathy. In 2017, following several high-profile political corruption cases during the second term of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, a special commission recommended all political parties revalidate their membership rolls to prove the true extent of their social base. A law was passed giving each party a one-year period to re-register its members. Almost all of them, including the Communists, struggled to gather the requisite number of signatures, and therefore were on-track to be formally disbanded. They would cease to exist as political entities and be unable to run candidates for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Yet, after successfully lobbying the electoral commission to relax the requirements and allow the registration of members through non-secure methods, the parties were able to double and even triple their rolls within a month. Given that the majority of the Chilean political establishment participated in this fraud, investigations were swiftly buried. Then, in late 2020, a number of candidates attempted to run as independents and found out they had been registered as members of a political party without their consent. A month before the election, videos started to circulate on social media denouncing the chicanery of the mainstream parties. Alberto Herrera, spokesman for the Lista del Pueblo, raised the issue on a national talk show shortly before the polls opened. If this emboldened some to vote for independents, it also exacerbated popular disenchantment with electoral politics. Ultimately, the combination of low turnout, proportional representation, and multiple candidates and lists per district meant that 80% of those who will write the new constitution were elected with less than 10% support among those who voted (or 4% of eligible voters overall).

Therefore, even if the recent elections were ‘free and fair’ on paper, the process has a precarious legitimacy. Recognizing the need to increase popular participation in the constitutional process, independent representatives are almost unanimous in their support for designing new democratic mechanisms for the Convention. So far, the national media has suggested a number of performative gestures to regain the trust of voters: an itinerant Convention that meets in a different region each month, or a mandate that forces representatives to return to their constituencies and ‘gather voices’. Yet more substantive measures to formalize the relationship between the Convention and the general public are also gaining traction. These will be debated in its first meeting on 5 July, which will determine the internal rules and procedures of the institution. There are at least three binding mechanisms under consideration: plebiscites, citizen initiatives, and constituent cabildos. These are aimed at overriding possible conservative vetoes in the Convention and allowing ordinary people to participate in its decision-making. Some are proposing that articles that have majority support but cannot reach the two-thirds threshold should be automatically put to a national plebiscite. Yet, considering that less than half the population turns out to vote, there is a danger that referenda could be used strategically for anti-democratic purposes. Plebiscites are typically organized from the top down: those that participate often do so out of loyalty to established parties and leaders, and the choice of question can dramatically skew the results. As illustrated by Proposition 8 in California or the face-covering ban in Switzerland, ‘bottom-up’ democratic initiatives can also be exploited by well-funded conservative groups to pass reactionary proposals.

In contrast to the plebiscitarian model – which sees citizens only as individual voters, incapable of collective deliberation – the grassroots constituent process that began with the spontaneous organization of neighbourhood assemblies and cabildos in late 2019 has already been enacting alternative forms of direct democracy. Such groups managed to elect a few delegates (as opposed to representatives) to the Convention, along with a handful of mayors and city councillors. In District 6, which comprises the water-deprived territories in the coastal region of Valparaiso, two local activists have been sent to the Convention: Lisette Vergara, a history teacher associated with the Lista del Pueblo, and Carolina Vilches, a feminist campaigner who ran in the Apruebo Dignidadlist. Both are working with elected officials in municipal government to protect the popular constituent process, and are developing proposals that would make decisions reached in cabildos binding at the local level, radically devolving democratic power. These community organizers are not alone. Similar experiments in deliberative democracy are being refined by a sprawling network of Chilean activists. The extent of their imbrication with the Convention will determine the extent of its success.

To reach the two-thirds threshold of 104 votes and approve participatory mechanisms in the Convention’s regulations, a grand alliance of independents, indigenous peoples, the new left, Communists, socialists, and progressive liberals will be needed. While such a coalition is certainly within reach, it could prove difficult to assemble since parts of the traditional left see plebiscites as the optimum vehicle for advancing a radical programme. They remain reluctant to give binding power to the cabildos. This split may yet allow the mainstream parties to undermine the radical potential of a new constitution. Yet, if the left can unite around the idea that the people themselves must determine their future, then the Convention would make history by recognizing popular autonomous institutions and allowing them to legally exercise constituent power. This would mark an unprecedented breakthrough for the plebeian classes, whose overhaul of the political system designed by Pinochet could definitively alter the place of the Chilean people within the country’s representative institutions.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Chile: A Quarter of a Century on’, NLR 1/238.

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1979 in Reverse

In 1979, when Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker chair of the Federal Reserve, the mandate was clear. Tackle inflation, whatever the cost. And so he did. In late 1980, interest rates reached a record high of 20%, and inflation fell from a peak of 11.6% to 3.7% in 1983. For the capitalist class, this came with an economic and political bonanza. The rate hikes triggered a severe recession, precipitating a wave of restructuring and lay-offs that helped to crush the trade unions, demoralize the left and discipline the global south. The result was a ‘revenge of the rentiers’, and a well-documented surge in inequalities.

Volcker’s ‘1979 coup’, as Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy called it in Capital Resurgent (2004), came in a period when declining systemic dynamism in the advanced-capitalist world – brought on by intensifying competition, with successful Japanese and German catch-ups – was met by rising labour militancy and mass social movements, producing a general crisis of governability. Meanwhile radical forces in the former colonial countries called for a New International Economic Order, based on economic sovereignty and the regulation of multinationals. The 1979 coup was arguably the most consequential factor in turning the tide against these insurgent forces. The hegemony of the dollar was strengthened. Countries in the global south were brought to their knees by the rising cost of debt servicing and forced to adopt structural-adjustment programmes, drawn up by the IMF and World Bank in coordination with the US Treasury. In the global north, pro-US governments liberalized capital flows, subordinating industrial relations and welfare systems to the growing power of finance.

Stabilize prices, crush labour, discipline the south. This was the basic logic of the 1979 coup. For four decades, financial returns were systematically prioritized over labour standards, employment, ecological conditions and development prospects. Now, in 2021, there are signs that this era is finally coming to an end. Yet to what extent, and by what means? The logical unfolding of the swing movement that occurred over forty years ago may help to illuminate the present moment. Are the Biden Plans merely a new inflexion of neoliberal norms, or do they amount to a clear break with the post-79 regime?  

The most exaggerated expression of ‘left optimism’ to date comes from the Wall Street Journal. America’s leading conservative newspaper tells us that ‘Joe Biden may be the most anti-business President since FDR’. His Administration is implementing ‘a Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren agenda that would vastly expand government control over business and the economy.’ The WSJ is not particularly perturbed by Biden’s spending spree; but it is incensed about the planned rise in corporate and wealth taxes, as well as the attempt to bolster union organizing with the Pro Act, ‘the most far-reaching labour legislation since the 1930s.’

The Pro Act could indeed be highly consequential, both economically and politically, if the growing associational power of labour opened space for expanded organization, improved social conditions and rejuvenated working-class politics. Its effect will be undermined, however, as long as there is a large reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers, putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Employment in the US remains severely depressed, and Biden famously dropped the $15 minimum wage from the Covid relief package. Nevertheless, reducing unemployment and underemployment appears to be an aim.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus combined with Trump’s packages has injected a total of $5 trillion – almost 25% of GDP – into the US economy, the largest-ever fiscal expansion in peacetime. More than enough to reflate the economy from its Covid-19 trough, this economic voluntarism is an unambiguous departure from the fiscal moderation of the Obama Administration and the dogmatic austerity of the EU. Its ideological significance should not be underestimated.

First, as Serge Halimi noted in the April number of Le Monde diplomatique, one of the most promising features of the American Rescue Plan was its universality. By the end of April, over 160 million Americans had received a Treasury check of $1,400. This was a break with the punitive ideology of neoliberal social subsidies, typically distributed under strict and humiliating conditions. It paves the way for broader measures, with an eye to the 2022 mid-term elections.

Second, the scale of the Administration’s public spending is deliberately designed to generate a high-pressure economy, which necessarily involves an element of inflationary risk. It is on this point that 2021 can be considered a 1979 coup in reverse. As Adam Tooze stressed – hailing the dawn of a new economic era – for decades ‘the bias of technocratic judgement’ has been in favour of price stability and against labour. This is changing – explicitly so. Since 2019, at least, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been referring to arguments developed by Arthur Okun at Brookings in the 1970s, about the social advantages of a high-pressure economy.

Okun, briefly the chair of LBJ’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in 1973 that accepting slack – the under-utilization of resources, especially labour – as an insurance policy against inflation implied ‘the sacrifice of upward mobility’, while ‘a higher-pressure labour market’ would launch a process of ladder-climbing, in which ‘men formerly in poor jobs move into better ones, making way for women and young people in the less well-paid pursuits’. Wage differentials would narrow, as ‘the same forces that make for more jobs also make for better jobs and more output per worker.’

This seems to be Biden’s strategy: increasing employment, reducing inequality and fostering productivity growth, via high-pressure economic policy. As his speechwriters put it, ‘trickle-down economics has never worked’; the objective should be ‘to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out’. Let’s take a moment to enjoy these words – a plain U-turn from the kind of policies that Democrats like Biden have been implementing for decades. For the left, this represents the result of years of ideological and political mobilization with the Sanders campaigns, and AOC’s rise as the tip of an iceberg of activist endeavour.

Yet it also responds to a situation in which financial markets, supposedly the central nervous system of the economy, have spent the past decade on life-support systems and have lost contact with underlying earnings. In other words, we need to ask: if the 1979 coup showed that the rise of finance entailed the fall of labour, could the 2021 pro-labour turn succeed in dethroning finance?

Brian Deese, head of Biden’s National Economic Council, formerly at investment giant BlackRock, doesn’t represent a break from the usual model of Wall Street-Washington technocrats. Yet in an interview with the NYT last month, he explained the rationale for the Administration’s statist turn. The challenges were (1) climate change, (2) inequality and (3) China. None of these could be tackled adequately by the market, so the state had to step in. It’s worth looking at all three.

Droughts, fires and hurricanes have made climate change a concrete reality in the US, and failure to mitigate it is no longer an option. According to Deese, all economic policy must be climate policy, and to be politically sustainable it must be employment policy too. The Administration has duly deployed its ecological policies under the banner of a ‘Jobs Plan’, to defuse any clash between environmentalism and employment.

In contrast to the stimulus, the main problem with the American Jobs Plan – and the companion American Families Plan, for childcare and education – is that their scale is drastically undersized. Their combined $4.05 trillion makes for big numbers. But this is to be spread out over a decade, so that all-in-all it accounts for just 1.7% of GDP per year – risibly small for the claim to ‘rebuild a new economy’ and a fraction of the $16.3 trillion (or 7.6% of GDP per year) proposed by Sanders’s Green New Deal.

On infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.59 trillion of additional investment is required simply to maintain the existing infrastructure for 2020-29 in a state of good repair. Biden’s plan will help to maintain the existing railway sector, but will not expand it to substitute for cars or planes. Biden’s so-called ‘green transition’ aims to ‘clean’ existing processes, not to transform life and consumption patterns. An ill-founded optimism about technological advance complements the imperative to preserve capitalist social relations.

Interestingly, the plan in its current form does not rely on private funding. Financial investors are begging for long-term assets, particularly public-private partnership infrastructure projects. They are worried, explains Larry Fink, Deese’s former CEO at BlackRock, because ‘there are huge pools of private capital standing by’, with a lack of safe projects to invest in. The Biden team is resisting these sirens for now, although it is still promoting that kind of privatization scheme in the global south. One obvious reason is because, as observed by the Financial Times, federal government debt always comes out cheaper than the commercial returns necessary to private-sector infrastructure operators, ‘a cost that ultimately lands on the users of essential services.’ But it was precisely this kind of obviousness that neoliberal thinking stubbornly tried to obfuscate.

Instead, the Biden Administration plans a modest rise in corporate tax, from 21% to 28% – shy of the 35% rate before Trump – and calls for a minimum global rate of 15%. The top rate of income tax will inch up from 37% to 39.6%, and ordinary income-tax rates could be applied to capital gains and dividends for Americans earning over $1m a year. In some states, the combined state and federal capital-gains tax could be above 50% – if the legislation makes it through Congress. Ideologically, its very articulation is a rebuttal of the neo-Schumpeterian claim that incentives for capital owners are the main drivers of innovation and employment. It is all the more compelling in a period when overabundant capital is extremely cheap, private investment is depressed and there is a widely recognized need for public and social infrastructure.

The third element is China’s rise. It would be hard to overstate the strength of American national-imperial thinking here, or the challenges it raises for the internationalist left. Yet an unintended consequence is to further sideline financial markets as an apparatus of macro-economic coordination. Deese puts it bluntly: ‘There’s not a market-based solution to address some of the big weaknesses that we’re seeing open up in our economy, when we’re dealing with competitors like China that are not operating on market-based terms’. This is not a minor concession.

As Isabella Weber documents for the 1980s in How China Escaped Shock Therapy (2021), the balancing act of the CCP road to capitalism was grounded in a debate about the strategy of market reforms. On several occasions, the option of full-blown liberalization was considered, but ultimately set aside. Instead, the PRC engaged in capitalist globalization while keeping what Lenin called the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ under state control. Once Washington recognized that China was not only catching up with, but in some areas surpassing the US, American officials began to consider what Deese described as ‘targeted efforts to try to build domestic industrial strength’ – the measures once mocked as ‘industrial policy’.

With China, as with inequality and climate policy, the Biden Administration is ostentatiously relying on the re-legitimation of state intervention. As the WSJ lamented, the White House seemed to be shifting away from bipartisan assumptions that ‘the public sector is inherently less efficient than the private, and bureaucrats should generally defer to markets’. Combined with tax rises on capital gains, the core interest of the financial class, this can only suggest a reversal of fortune for the hegemony of finance. If the size of the intervention is limited, its logic is distinct from any kind of neoliberal policy.

Since 2008, the financial sector has been dependent upon state support to shore up its returns, which have lost their inherent dynamism. For more than a decade now, financial assets have been persistently inflated by pro-corporate fiscal and monetary policies. Under this regime of escalating plunder, finance has become disconnected from market-based processes. It is sustained by hidden subsidies and central-bank interventions to prop up the structure of liabilities generated by financial leverage and speculation. Financial stability has become a matter of political decision-making, not of market dynamics.

As this situation persists, there is a logical reversal. While states used to be terrified that market liquidity would dry up – a typical feature of crises from the 1990s on – the configuration is now reversed: the financial community is on a permanent public lifeline to ensure liquidity, smooth market clearing and provision of assets.

This socialization of fictitious capital as the new normal is beginning to alter the balance of power between state and markets, and within the capitalist class at the expense of financial rentiers. ‘Bidenomics’ is an early symptom of this reconfiguration. Moves to strengthen the relative position of labour, to overturn rentier-class tax privileges and to reject the neoliberal wisdom that market coordination is always preferable to state intervention: these signals amount to more than just a rhetorical shift. They point to a structural break in the regulation of capitalism, the shockwaves of which will reverberate in the global political economy for years to come.

Is this shift sufficient to tackle the century’s social and ecological crises? Not nearly. Does it alter essential class relations? On the contrary: it strives to re-legitimize the social order. Is it unambiguous? No: while private finance has been kept out of new domestic infrastructure projects, the US is still driving privatization and deregulation in the global south and intensifying its new Cold War on China. Will it propel a new phase of economic expansion? I doubt it, due to the sheer scale of global overaccumulation and the fade-out of the industrialization bonanza. Even so, 2021 will be remembered as the moment when global capitalism was reorganized beyond neoliberalism, a tectonic shift that will irrevocably alter the terrain of political struggle.  

That we have arrived at this moment should not be a surprise. There have been many signs that the neoliberal tool-kit was proving less and less effective for the day-to-day management of capital accumulation. The Eurozone crisis, global waves of ‘populist’ protest, the new assertiveness of digital monopolies, were indications of growing systemic instability. On top of that the pandemic accelerated the pressure for change. At this stage, one of the few things that can be said with confidence is that the possibility of tasting once again the flavour of popular victories is a just little greater than it was five months ago. That’s not much. But for people like me, born in the 1970s or after, it is a first. 

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

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Breathless India

In just the past month, India has officially recorded around 10 million Covid-positive cases and 100,000 Covid-related deaths. As the second wave of the pandemic spirals out of control, India’s healthcare system is facing a chronic shortage of oxygen, hospital beds, vaccines, and critical medicines. Last month, 62 patients died when three of New Delhi’s biggest private hospitals ran out of oxygen. Similar tragedies are unfolding across the country: in Mumbai, Amritsar, Gurgaon, Kurnool, Nasik, Moradabad, Jammu, and Goa. Here and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of patients have found themselves stranded outside hospital buildings, gasping for one final breath or surviving on one rapidly depleting oxygen cylinder.

Last month, the crematoriums in New Delhi ran out of wood. Since then, they have also run out of funeral platforms and ash urns, and have recorded 20-hour long queues. Funeral pyres are now being lit in the parks and parking lots of the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, there is still no news of how the pandemic is affecting the vast swathes of rural India. A recent exposé by the journalists of Dainik Bhaskar, a popular Hindi daily, uncovered more than 2,000 dead bodies secretly buried along the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. These half-buried, half-burnt bodies, some of them eaten away by kites and stray dogs, are a glimpse of the disaster currently unfolding across the Indian countryside. A new report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that the actual number of Covid-related deaths in India is around 650,000, thrice the official number. It projects that by September India’s death toll is likely to surpass 1 million.

As the spectre of mass death looms, a dramatic political transformation is underway. A host of corporations have stepped in to play the role traditionally reserved for the Indian state. In the last month, Amazon, Paytm, and the Adani group, owned by India’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani, have airlifted and shipped in thousands of oxygen cylinders, BiPAP machines, ventilator units, cryogenic tanks, and portable oxygen concentrators and generators. In turn, the key industrial giants, including Reliance Industries, Tata Steel Ltd, ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel, and JSW Steel, have started producing and supplying medical-grade oxygen to various state governments and hospitals. Some of them, including Reliance, owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and second richest in Asia, have also started setting up new healthcare facilities. 

The relief efforts of the government, by contrast, have been trifling at best, limited largely to coordinating the logistics of supply chains between different state governments. Even here, rather than fulfilling its responsibility, the BJP has blamed the individual states where it is not in power for the medical shortages they are facing. Its control of oxygen production has been even worse. A recent report revealed that it was only in October – by which time millions were already infected and thousands dead – that the tenders for building 150 oxygen generator plants were floated. Six months later, amidst the deathly clamour of mass breathlessness, the plants remain nowhere to be seen.

With the government now facing growing criticism, it is crucial to grasp that its failure is not simply a case of botched governance, the kind that stems from ‘poor planning’ and ‘bad policymaking’. The government has not so much failed as altogether refused to intervene in the current crisis. And this refusal is not a one-off. It is systemic in nature, part of a drastic neoliberal transformation where every such refusal is accompanied by a deepening dependence on corporations to fulfil the responsibilities of the state.

Consider, for instance, the annual budget presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this year. Given its pandemic-setting, it was widely hyped by political commentators; Sitharaman herself claimed that ‘the budget will be remembered for 100 years to come’. And yet, what ensued was merely the tragic repetition of a yearly farce: the privatization of yet more state-owned assets; continued cutbacks to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (by 34.5 percent) and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (by 18.5 percent); the reduction of the Corporation Tax/GDP ratio to such a low level (2.5 percent) that Indian citizens will pay more taxes than corporations; and so on.

This systematic withdrawal of the Indian state, particularly from the lives of the poor, is the reason why the Covid-relief efforts have been dependent upon corporate giants. As of 2018, the country had one doctor per 1,453 people and one hospital bed per 2,000, while over 70 percent of its hospitals were controlled by the private sector. And even though Sitharaman claimed a record 137 percent increase in the funds allocated to healthcare in the budget, this increase already included the ongoing Covid-relief efforts, and the actual expenditure amounted to only 0.34 percent of annual GDP. No amount of philanthropy can make up for this ruined infrastructure; in fact, insofar as this aid circulates within the bounds of a deeply iniquitous system, it will only serve to reproduce it.

Commentators have repeatedly underscored the immense scale and speed at which this crisis is evolving. Indeed, its all-pervading character is in stark contrast to other decidedly ‘local’ crises in the country, that have afflicted only specific sectors and groups: the privatization of farming and education; the anti-Muslim citizenship amendments; the settler-colonial violence against Kashmiris; the routine lynching of Dalits; the revocation of existing labour protections; the military-led dispossession of the tribes and Maoists in Central India. As this list of the ‘enemies of the Indian state’ continues to swell, the anti-fascist chestnut – in the morning they came for us, at night they will come for you – has become increasingly popular in the Indian public sphere. The warning is generally directed at the Hindu middle class, which overwhelmingly backs the government, and has enjoyed relative political stability in recent years. As the second wave builds, it seems the wolf of history has finally caught up with them. But it is not that someone­­ has come for them. Rather it is that no one has come to save them. No ambulances, no healthcare workers. Only the invisible hand of capitalist markets, which has shrunk the middle class by 32 million within a few months and is now swiftly choking them to death.

As thousands lie stricken outside hospitals, a black market has sprung up around them: oxygen cylinders and critical medicines are being sold for exorbitant prices while vans transporting oxygen to hospitals are getting stolen. And yet, for a Prime Minister who revels in instructing the millions of unemployed to become ‘self-reliant’– ‘fry and sell pakoras outside public offices’ – this ‘informal economy’ is presumably nothing to lament.  

Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Narendra Modi unveiled the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, a grand national plan for self-reliance. This sparked a brief surge of panic in the business community, with many noting the uncanny echoes of Nehru’s ‘socialist’ vision of atmanirbharta. Fears of a return of ‘import substitution’ and ‘license raj’ though quickly subsided when the government announced plans to boost private sector investment in social infrastructure, and to open several other sectors, including defence, space, and mining, for private investment. Modi’s rhetoric was in fact only pastiche: it was not the country but the people who were to be made self-reliant, by systematically weaning them off their dependence on the Indian state, while, in turn, making the state itself more dependent on private corporations.

This neoliberal lockstep of ‘refusal’ and ‘dependence’ is perhaps most clearly embodied by last year’s relief package. The sudden imposition of a 75-day national lockdown rendered 450 million migrant workers jobless and homeless. After forcing them to walk thousands of miles back to their native villages, the government announced support measures that were among the lowest in the world – totalling a miserly 1 percent of the country’s GDP. In addition to a meagre 5kg of wheat or rice per month, its proposed financial support for a family of four amounts to only 4 Rupees per day per person, when the poverty line in rural and urban areas is 50 Rupees and 73 Rupees per person per day respectively.

A broad range of heterodox economists and social activists criticized these austerity measures. Some also proposed alternatives. The Heterodox Economists’ Collective called for the government to universalize the Public Distribution System in order to provide free cereals, pulses, and cooking oil to all for the next six months; to make cash transfers of 15,000 Rupees to the bottom 80 percent households to compensate for lost wages; and to guarantee 200 days of work to everyone including the migrants who were forced to return to their native villages. Others, including the leading development economist Jayati Ghosh, offered alternate blueprints designed to revive a faltering economy: both short-term measures to stimulate demand and long-term schemes funded by a range of fiscal and legislative measures, including temporarily suspending the Fiscal Budget Regulation Act, increasing corporation tax, and implementing a 2 percent wealth tax on the top 1 percent.

But the government has refused to even acknowledge these proposals. To put its intransigence in perspective: earlier this year, even the IMF, whose fabled touch is known to turn all things into a Structural Adjustment Program, urged its members to increase public spending, and to not worry about increasing their indebtedness. It would seem that the Indian government has successfully out-IMFed the IMF. Rather than increase public expenditure, it has chosen to hold fast to the ‘correct’ level of fiscal deficit, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Even more striking is the lack of attention these entirely feasible counter-proposals have received in the public sphere. The less said the better, then, about actual utopian questions. (Why, for instance, must the wellbeing of the population be tied to the rate of return?) As the emergent mutual-aid networks struggle to survive the ever-expanding swirl of new viral strains and mutants, there has been growing agreement among liberal and left commentators that voting the BJP out of power is now a precondition for making democratic politics possible again. During the recent elections in West Bengal, the slogan ‘No Vote to BJP’ gained widespread popularity, especially among young urban voters, and proved remarkably successful in keeping the party out of power. Though fledgling in its national appeal, the slogan conveys something essential about the present conjuncture.

This rallying is of course an expression of the disgust that the BJP now widely inspires, directed into an emergency electoral measure. Anyone but the BJP will do. But the strategy remains freighted with pitfalls. For one, what if we simply lapse into a vacuous form of secular populism, which might offer a short-term term electoral alternative to the BJP, but not an alternative to the crisis-riven, neoliberal trajectory of the country? In five years’ time, that may well return an even stronger right-wing Hindutva to power. Given the longstanding decline of the parliamentary left – the CPM-led Left Front won a total of zero seats in the recent elections in West Bengal, a state where it ruled for 34 years, while many of its leaders, voters, and cadres defected to the BJP – the poverty of genuine political alternatives is an urgent question. Just anyone will not do.

Read on: N. R. Musahar, ‘India’s Starvation Measures’, NLR 122.

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Big Man

Family lore has it that during the First Russian Revolution – 1905 – his mother carried anti-Czarist pamphlets in her school knapsack, and that she later worked briefly as a secretary to Rosa Luxemburg. That is where any biographer of Marshall Sahlins might want to begin. Or with the 18th-century mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, from whom the Sahlins clan sometimes claimed descent. Born in 1930, Sahlins grew up on Chicago’s West Side, in a family unaffiliated with any Russian faction, but the radical nimbus remained. His interest in anthropology came early, as a boy, playing cowboys and Indians, with a decided preference for the latter. The discipline attracted the children of Jewish immigrants in the interwar decades. Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, fellow West Siders, also started out in anthropology, which provided critical purchase on their otherwise headlong plunge into American society, along with the means to levitate thrillingly above the folkways of the old country that persisted in their families and neighbourhoods.

Sahlins is sometimes treated as an heir to the grand American anthropology tradition of Franz Boas. In fact, he stemmed from a rival line. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, he studied with the Mencken-like maverick – and anti-Boas brawler ­– Leslie White. A former student of Veblen and a member of the Socialist Labor Party, White had toured the Soviet Union on the eve of the Great Depression and wrote for Party publications under the name ‘John Steel’. He was a paradoxical figure. Culture, in his conception, was both a reflection of a society’s underlying economic constraints, but also an autonomous force organizing its social life. He developed a theory of technological determinism in human history, but also insisted that most of his contemporaries had underplayed the degree to which humans were a symbolically constituted species (these were among the antinomies that Sahlins would try to resolve). White led a relentless, at times ad hominem, campaign against Boas and his students at Columbia, whom he believed had failed to appreciate the gap between primitive societies and the impersonal structures of modernity. Boasians were adept at collecting ethnographic data, White conceded, but they were poor interpreters and theoreticians of their bounty. They seemed to care only about the diffusion of social forms, but not their history. The Boasians, in turn, viewed White as a crude evolutionist who was, consciously or not, abetting the worst of the racial science of the 19th century. As for his student: Sahlins relinquished the technological evolutionism but retained the radical and historical commitments, as well as the intellectual scrappiness. Like his mentor, he detested schools and disciples: there are admirers of Sahlins across the social sciences, but no hard-line Sahlinists.

In 1951, for his doctoral work, Sahlins moved to Columbia where the Boasian dynasty was now being eclipsed by a more radical generation. There was Elman Service, who fought against Franco and forged the typology of band, tribe, chiefdom and state; the anti-fascist anthropologist-poet, Stanley Diamond, who founded Dialectical Anthropology; as well as better known left-wing scholars such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz. Sahlins’s main influence while at Columbia was the Hungarian exile visiting professor, Karl Polanyi, then in his 60s. It was through Polanyi as well as the classicist Moses Finley that Sahlins got his first prolonged taste of a heterodox theory of the economy. He learned from them not only how artificial and state-conditioned the neo-classical understanding of the market was, but also how alien it was to settings outside the modern North Atlantic. While Finley and Polanyi applied their substantivist economic theory to the ancient world of the Near East and elsewhere, Sahlins started to do the same with Oceania. His dissertation, Social Stratification in Polynesia, which sought to demonstrate how Polynesian culture adapted to various island environments, was an attempt to blend the anthropological materialisms of White and Polanyi. It is a careful, library-produced work that gives a foretaste of the authority, but not the explosive creativity, of its author.

Sahlins, as was the case with Claude Lévi-Strauss, did not conduct as much sustained fieldwork as many of his contemporaries. In 1955-56, Sahlins and his wife spent nine and a half months living on the central Fijian island of Moala, which had 1,200 inhabitants, three Chinese shop-owners, and two outboard motors (though only one was operational). Upon arriving, the couple were frustrated to find themselves treated as superior beings. ‘It is unrealistic to believe that any European can be fully “accepted”; he can never be a Fijian in their eyes’, Sahlins wrote. After a few weeks, however, Sahlins was able to lower himself successfully in the Moalan hierarchy, to the point that he was no longer the first one served the local sedative drink of Kava, but came fifth or sixth. The couple spent most of their time on the island trying to discern pre-colonial rituals and social forms, though many of Sahlins’s most searching findings have to do with how the Fijians made use of colonial developments for their own ends. Colonialism had already thoroughly cannibalized some of the rituals on Moala. In wedding ceremonies, for instance, Sahlins described how families now indebted themselves far more than they ever would have in the pre-colonial period where gifts were made up of replaceable produce from their own land rather than movable goods from the outside. Rituals once meant to solidify kinship ties now threatened to devastate families (and demonstrated how Polanyi was correct to view the ‘rational economic actor’ as a fiction).

In 1965, nearly a half a century before Sahlins’s own student, David Graeber, co-coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, Sahlins coined the ‘teach-in’. After his doctorate, Sahlins had moved back to Michigan, where faculty members critical of the war in Vietnam came under fire for their plan to conduct a ‘teach-out’ – to teach their classes off campus. In response, as a consensus-building measure, Sahlins proposed ‘teaching-in’ – occupying classrooms and criticizing the war late into the night. (‘I might have been disposed to binary oppositions because in the 1960s Lévi-Strauss was an oncoming rage in the USA.’) The following year, Sahlins travelled to Vietnam, where he spent only a week but managed to produce ‘The Destruction of Conscience in Viet Nam’, a withering ethnographic report on the tribe of Kennedy-era operatives, whom he memorably described as ‘hard-headed surrealists’. He detailed the way Americans evaded structural questions by blaming ‘graft’ and ‘corruption’, minimized responsibility by conceiving of themselves as ‘advisers’, and channelled their rage for order into the torture of prisoners.

Sahlins was in Paris for 1968, working in Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, where he was immediately recognized as capable of holding his own, and even occasionally showing up le maître. A decade later, in Culture and Practical Reason (1976), Sahlins tried to play the peacemaker between Marxists and structuralists. Marxists needed to recognize that structuralists had something to teach them about ‘primitive’ societies, while structuralists needed to acknowledge that Marxists had a unique purchase on the structures of modernity. Sahlins himself was more of an accretive thinker: he didn’t so much move through methodological phases, but compounded them, never really discarding anything, as his library vividly attested. Ultimately, however, Culture and Practical Reason fell on the side of the structuralists – cultural reason over practical reason. Sahlins charged the tradition from Morgan to Marx with willy-nilly positivism. Marxism, itself a product of bourgeois society, had only gone halfway in its analysis of it. For Sahlins ‘production is itself a system of cultural intentions’, as Lee Drummond once put it. Any Crow warrior who stumbled into 20th century Chicago would have been puzzled by the cultural distinctions between steak and kidneys, dog meat and pork, if they relied on practical reason alone, which would, according to Sahlins, see each of these as relatively equal sources of protein.

‘The Original Affluent Society’ – first published in Les Temps Modernes in 1968 – will probably go down as Sahlins’s most widely read essay, though despite its obvious power, it’s also the one most vulnerable to empirical criticism. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sahlin’s epic history of Hawaii in the Sandalwood period, Anahulu [1992], is his most empirically valuable book, but among his least read.) In it, Sahlins argued that far from being an epoch of misery and deprivation, life in the palaeolithic period consisted of a roughly 30-hour work week. With characteristic ferocity, Sahlins tried to account for this by going hour by hour through the palaeolithic working day. There was something quixotic in trying to generalize and tabulate about such a vast expanse of human history, and something anachronistic about trying to jam the concept of ‘leisure time’ into the social lives of cave-dwellers in 8000 BC. But the essay remains a political tour de force, less for its details, than for its bold re-conception of what scarcity can – and has – meant for humans for most of their history. If anything, Sahlins’s development of the argument, Stone Age Economics (1972), is a more urgent book now for the advocates of degrowth than when it was first published.

Even by the standards of postwar anthropology, Sahlins was a formidable critic, capable of laying waste to entire trends and subfields with an essay. A notorious instance was his attack on the ‘cultural materialism’ of Marvin Harris. A widely respected fellow student of White, Harris published a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977), which essentially argued that the Aztecs had practiced cannibalism because they needed the protein. Many hunter-gatherer tribes in Meso-America had practiced ritual sacrifice with a consumption element, but the Aztecs were a giant civilization that instead of quitting the practice – like so many other societies around them – simply upgraded it to civilizational-scale. The reason, according to Harris, was because they couldn’t get enough protein from the Valley of Mexico. In the New York Review of Books, Sahlins subjected this argument to withering criticism. After his trademark athletic tabulating, in which he tried to show that the Aztec elite could not possibly have acquired enough protein from the human limbs that Harris claimed they partly subsisted on, Sahlins pointed to the adequate protein available in a multitude of different forms around them: ‘Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?’

The most famous of Sahlins’s many disputes was with the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere about the fate of Captain Cook – a historical episode Sahlins was always prepared to squeeze more insight from. Two years after the American Revolution, Cook had arrived on the main island of Hawaii and been apparently treated by the islanders as a God, but then they later killed him. Why? For Sahlins the answer was that Cook had arrived in the middle of a ritual in which a local god was welcomed on the island, and so he was taken to be that particular god, but when he later returned after breaking a mast, he haplessly entered into another pageant in which the god – which was now, again, himself – was killed and the king of the island restored to his station. Obeyesekere took the view that this was pure exoticization on Sahlins’s part: the islanders clearly had viewed Cook as a possible ally in their wars against Maui, and only killed him when they had determined he was more of a threat than an advantage. Moreover, they never thought he was a god until after his death, as was the case for all Hawaiian royals. There was something curious about the confrontation, as Clifford Geertz noted at the time: Sahlins, the white American scholar, taking the ethno-particularist position, Obeyesekere squarely in the universalist camp. As was often the case with Sahlins, there was something ‘highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless’, in Geertz’s words, about his account. Captain Cook’s perfect timing sets off what appears to be a ballet sequence. But Obeyesekere’s projection of realpolitik onto the islanders seemed even more dubious.

The debate turned out to be not a particularly fruitful episode for the discipline, as it mostly broke down on academic kinship lines. For Sahlins, it was another occasion to pursue what was perhaps his major preoccupation: reconciling the opposition between ‘structure’ and ‘event’ in the social sciences and philosophy. The point was not to privilege either, but to show their inextricableness: an event can only be an ‘event’ from the standpoint of a wider structure, which in turn can be reshaped or shifted by the event. Threading the needle between the event and the longue durée, Sahlins helped clear the way for anthropologists to refocus on the question of historical change that previous generations of structuralists and functionalists had abandoned. The postwar anthropological turn to history, as Joel Isaac has shown, was in large part an attempt to explain the persistence of human institutions, and provincialize state-centric accounts. No one battled the legacy of Hobbes and his vision of the weak sociability of humans more forthrightly than Sahlins, who believed that only by dislodging Western assumptions about the necessity of states as guarantors of human sociability, could the full panoply of possible human flourishing come back into view. In answer to Sartre’s old question: ‘Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?’ Sahlins was in no doubt: ‘Oui, le jour est arrivé.’

For more than half a century, Sahlins was a member of the University of Chicago’s storied anthropology department. He never lacked for critical targets, either academic or political.  During the Bush years, it was the enlistment of anthropology by the US government in the ‘Human Terrain’ program in the Afghanistan War. In 2013, he dramatically resigned from the Academy of Sciences when he learned of the extent of the program and of the fact that they had inducted Napoleon Chagnon, a former White student who notoriously broke many of the codes of fieldwork and tried to augment the violence among his Yanomamö subjects, into the membership. More recently, Sahlins exposed the network of Confucius Institutes, propaganda mills run by the Chinese government that occupied parts of scores of university campuses in the US, to which he devoted one of his Prickly Pear pamphlets, a very valuable series of short books of which he was co-publisher. What was remarkable was not so much that the Chinese government was running an operation on the fourth floor of the Judd Building at the University of Chicago, but that it took an 83-year-old muckraker to expose it.

A friend of mine once house-sat Sahlins’s dog, a Great Pyrenees named Trinket, whom he had the duty of giving a haircut. ‘She’s too old to go to the doggy salon any longer, so, well, you do your best’, Sahlins told him. My friend explained he had no experience. ‘Do your best’, he said. The verdict was hard on his return: ‘Your best wasn’t very good.’ I remember Sahlins more as a presence than a figure. For decades he kept his fire trained tightly on the economics department, that was still in thrall to Stigler and Friedman, but by the time I arrived, he had sawed off the barrel and brought the whole of Western Civilization into range. My home in the classics department was not spared, since certain Ancient Greeks figured as particular villains in his story. To my shame, I barely knew who the author of Apologies to Thucydides was while I was trying to write an undergraduate thesis on Greek historians. But Sahlins was close with my advisor, and once commented that Thucydides’s History was ‘a good book to read against the grain of the war’. I didn’t realize at the time that he was probably referring to Iraq, not the Peloponnese.

Read on: Jacob Collins, ‘An Anthropological Turn’, NLR 78.

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A True Fascist

Certain words make you feel like you belong to another time. You think you’re at home in the present, but then you’re forced to think again. For me, one such word is ‘antifa’. For the entirety of my childhood, youth and adult life the term ‘fascist’ was the most injurious of insults: the shortened epithet – ‘fascio’ in Italian, ‘facho’ in French – recalling the similar abbreviation that gives us the word Nazi. Then, all of a sudden, ‘anti-fascist’ became a slur, repeatedly used by Donald Trump as a synonym for ‘left-wing terrorist’. My generation came of age in a ‘republic built on anti-fascism’, where – unlike today – that orientation was taken for granted. Now, the term has become a slogan for the subversive left, most commonly associated with black bloc anarchists, portrayed in the media as the specular image of the alt-right.  

What remains unresolved about this word ‘fascist’, which 76 years after the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, continues to haunt our political imaginary? When it comes to fascism (and fascists), we struggle to see beyond cinematic representations. I remember the first time I listened to a recording of Goebbels at the film archive in Göttingen: to my great surprise, he didn’t bark! His mellow, judicious tone bore little resemblance to the image of the Nazi grandees spawned by post-war Hollywood. In this century, the figure of the ‘fascist’ has become an archetype. It functions as a damnatio memoriae: a sentencing of the past without appeal, and a plenary absolution of the present. For it’s unthinkable that anyone among us might share the patent mental deficiency of most fictional Nazis and Blackshirts.

The Italian-American historian Victoria de Grazia’s new book, The Perfect Fascist, counters such commonplaces through a cathartic immersion in the past. This dive into the first half of the last century purifies us of many ills – including the idea of a ‘fascist temperament’ or ‘authoritarian personality’. De Grazia sets out to show how ‘fascists are made, not born’: how the ‘decent man’ she takes as her subject wound up leading gangs of thugs and collaborating with the SS. Her book also rids us of a deeper, more insidious conviction: that human beings are normatively average – that being ordinary consists of ‘not deviating from the norm’, rather than understanding normalcy (and mediocrity) as a sum of interacting exceptions. In unravelling these themes, the story De Grazia tells us is emblematic of a certain age, although its plot couldn’t have been dreamed up even by Hollywood’s most twisted screenwriters.

Who could possibly conceive of a story that charts the entangled lives of Attilio Teruzzi, ‘the perfect fascist’, and Lilliana Weinman, the opera diva? Teruzzi, of Milanese origin, was born in 1882. His father was a vintner and his mother’s father worked as a farmer for a family of nobles. In fin de siècle Italy, the army was the only institution that presented an opportunity for social ascent to the young Attilio, who decided to enlist, even if he lacked the means or titles to be admitted to a military academy. He was promptly dispatched to Eritrea, where he succeeded in becoming a quartermaster. His good looks and respect for his superiors earned him a place at the academy at Modena, the Italian equivalent of West Point, Sandhurst or Saint-Cyr. As an officer he participated in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the conquest of Libya, where he was wounded, decorated, and hailed back home as a war hero.

During the Great War he conducted himself honourably. He joined the Freemasons and became aide-de-camp to General Giuseppe Vaccari, earning himself a promotion to Major. To illustrate the prospects awaiting officers of his rank after the war – provided they survived trench warfare – it is sufficient to note that the other assistant to General Vaccari at the time was a certain Raffaele Mattioli: later a friend of the renowned economists Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes, CEO of one of the largest financial institutions in Italy (Banca Commerciale), putative saviour of Gramsci’s Quaderni and, after the Second World War, the first to finance Enrico Mattei’s newly founded petroleum company, ENI.

At this point in the narrative, the ‘childhood’ of our protagonist-leader – to paraphrase the title of one of Sartre’s celebrated short stories – is already rife with contradiction. For one thing, how did a Freemason rise to the forefront of a movement, party and regime that decried a global conspiracy of ‘Judeo-Masonic’ origin? (This seems anomalous until we learn that several fascist leaders were, in fact, Freemasons: Italo Balbo, Giuseppe Bottai, Emilio De Bono, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Roberto Farinacci and Achille Starace, to name just a few. Fascism’s relationship to Freemasonry bore a resemblance to the US military’s policy towards homosexuality: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’.)  

The First World War was a turning point for Teruzzi. The Kingdom of Italy’s victory translated into defeat for Italians, whose opportunities for social mobility were drastically diminished. In this context, fascism would present itself as the only means to ‘elevate’ one’s status. Little by little, our ‘decent man’ became increasingly involved in the movement. At first, he oversaw the brutality of the squadristi against workers’ associations and parties, participating in the March on Rome as a handsome war veteran – fascism’s ‘virtuous face’ – before being implicated in the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. It was around this time that Teruzzi met Lilliana Weinman in Milan. She was the daughter of Jews from Austrian Galicia that, after emigrating to New York, had made a fortune by ‘patenting a design for elastic trouser belts’. They reinvested their wealth in their daughter’s career: Weinman was a young woman with a burning aspiration to become an opera singer. ‘I feel I will become a great prima donna’, she writes, ‘and a great prima donna’s prerogative is to take, not to give.’

Through Weinman, de Grazia reflects on the relationship between fascism and Jewishness, confronting all the standard cliches. On the one hand, we know of many Jews who adhered to fascism up until the Racial Laws of 1938. To them it was a ‘patriotic’ movement, a check on the growing menace of Bolshevism. Some illustrious German Jewish scientists were driven out by Nazism but would have gladly continued furthering Germany’s ‘glory’ if given the chance. Equally, Italy’s National Fascist Party took an ambivalent view of Jews at least until 1937. For several years, Mussolini’s lover and muse was the Venetian art critic Margherita Sarfatti, who loved him to the point of writing a laudatory account of his life and converting from Judaism to Catholicism (though this did not exempt her from exile once the Racial Laws came into effect). Even Roberto Farinacci, who distinguished himself for his merciless antisemitism, employed and confided in his Jewish secretary Jole Foà, but neither their intimacy nor her convinced fascism could prevent her deportation and ultimate demise at Auschwitz. Weinman – who for many years declared herself a fascist – wasn’t Teruzzi’s only Jewish partner. After parting ways with her he fell in love with the Cairo-born Roman Jew Yvette Blank, with whom he had a daughter. In the final, convulsive months of the war, when the fascist regime amounted to no more than a puppet maneuvered by Kesselring, Teruzzi would do everything to save Blank from the last consignments destined for the camps. It was to the modest lodge she had opened in Procida that he would return in 1950 following his release from prison, before dying in April of that year.

Here another subtext of The Perfect Fascist becomes apparent: the symbolic violence that fascism exercised on women, thematized more thoroughly in another essential book by de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1920-1945 (1992). A Royal Decree of 1939 outlined the specific roles in the workforce that were suitable for women: typists, telephone operators, stenographers, banknote or ticket counters, shop assistants and seamstresses. Under fascism, school fees doubled for female students and female teachers were prohibited from teaching literature, philosophy and history. But despite the open chauvinism and misogyny of the regime, many women remained unwaveringly loyal. On the eve of WWII, 3,180,000 women were enlisted in the Party’s organizations – many of them in the Fasci femminili (Women’s League). My grandmother was an out-and-out fascist, although after the war she became a professor in a discipline prohibited to women by fascism. My primary school teacher, a middle-aged Jewish lady, still identified as a fascist ten years after the war had ended (by which time her two children had emigrated to the new-born state of Israel).

A further piece of received wisdom dismantled by de Grazia’s work is the monolithic – at times granitic – conception of totalitarian regimes. As she follows Teruzzi’s journey from member of parliament to Deputy Minister of the Interior, from Governor of Cyrenaica to leader of the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, from Inspector-General in Spain during the Civil War to Minister of the Colonies (even if these were lost by then), de Grazia sketches the intrigues of the regime’s upper echelons: Farinacci’s revolt, attempted conspiracies against the Duce, the contempt ex-generals working for the regime had for its political strategists, the party’s web of internal wiretaps (even its leaders weren’t above suspicion), and the vacillations which many people experienced between the desire to replace an aging ruling class and the thirst for its patronage.

A good portion of the work is dedicated to Africa, where Teruzzi began his military career, and where he returned on two occasions: first as a governor in Libya (1926-28), then as brigadier general of the Blackshirts in the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. In these chapters we witness the spectacle of an opera singer from New York performing the role of colonial governess paid homage by Bedouin tribes. Africa was where colonialists could vent their lust (note the alliance of racism and machismo in one of colonial Italy’s most famous songs, Faccetta Nera: ‘Pretty black face, beautiful Abyssinian / Wait and see, for the hour is coming! / When we are with you / We shall give you another law, another king’). It was there that Italy pursued its dream of modernity, just as colonialism – in its ‘traditional’ form – was waning. Teruzzi carried out public works in Libya and built roads in Ethiopia, both of which burned through state finances in a striking exemplar of fascist imperialism’s lack of economic rationality. (To think that, at the same time, the Italians in Libya were sitting on oceanic oil reserves which were never exploited).

The abyss that separated the fascist regime’s self-image and Italy’s true position in the hierarchy of world powers is evident from the net result of the counter-insurgency campaign it waged in Libya. At its close in the early 1930s, ‘the army had killed 1,226 rebels, captured 296 rifles, killed 2,844 camels and captured 842, captured 18,070 goats and sheep and killed another 5,050, seized 172 cows and 26 horses’. Evidently, the retributory seizure of camels and goats did not amount to adequate preparation for a World War against the United States.

If the comparison is permissible, Teruzzi could be said to bear some resemblance to Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and The Black. Sorel exhibits qualities that allow him to clamber from his small town in the Jura to the salons of Paris, but the traits that lead to his rise also limit it, and ultimately contribute to his death. For Teruzzi these attributes were his military experience, his loyalty, his dependability and his mediocrity, which rendered him toothless as a potential rival (Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano considered him ‘mediocre, but loyal, very loyal’). Thanks to these, Teruzzi found a way to the top of the social ladder (the actress Anna Magnani was, for a time, a bridge partner of his). But it was this very fidelity that turned him into an executor, an unbridled accomplice of the regime’s infamies. His personal demise coincided with that of the regime. ‘At the time of the liberation’, De Grazia writes, ‘three or four, or as many as seven “Teruzzis” were lynched’: unfortunate resemblances based on his distinctive beard.

De Grazia makes clear that her story is not a biography: ‘It is a social history of a man who, as he makes his way in the complexity of his political and human relations, often captured from the vantage point of his women, shows us how Italian fascism really worked’. A social history, that is, which helps us to specify exactly what being ‘antifa’ should entail.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘What Is Trump?’, NLR 114.