Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.  

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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. 

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

Hard Work

In 1524, a peasant uprising against grinding poverty and feudal rule swept across parts of what is now Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Though it was eventually crushed, the revolt gave rise to folk legends that endured for centuries, among them the story of a towering woman fighter. ‘Black Anna’, as she was known – likely based on the peasant leader Margaret Renner – is the central figure in the German artist Käthe Kollwitz’s striking graphic cycle, ‘The Peasants’ War’ (1901-1908). Black Anna is depicted rallying her forces, her outstretched arms directing a line of armed men who surge across a field. The prints dramatize a dialectic of oppression and resistance: elsewhere we see the upward swoop of armed men rushing through a castle entryway, a mother bending over her dead son.

Kollwitz herself was an unusual figure in many respects. A female artist of the early twentieth century who was widely recognized during her lifetime, her primary medium was printing rather than painting. Committed to narrative and representation in a heyday of abstraction, Kollwitz valued sincerity over irony, distancing her from the key artistic movements – Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit – of the period. Never a member of the SPD or KPD, she nonetheless produced socially engaged art centred on the working class. A survey of her work currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – encompassing early paintings, numerous self-portraits, the major graphic series, the popular posters – brings these idiosyncrasies into relief. It also reveals some of the animating tensions of her oeuvre, among them the use of portraiture as means to represent collectivities, and of an intimate visual language to address world-historic themes.

Self-Portrait en Face with Right Hand (Selbstbildnis en face mit rechter Hand). c. 1900. Pastel on paper, 24 15/16 × 19 3/16″ (63.3 × 48.8 cm). Private Collection, Germany. © Kienzle | Oberhammer

She was born Käthe Schmidt in Königsberg in 1867, in what was then Prussia, and raised in an educated, upper-middle-class family of socialist and dissident religious convictions. Though neither of Kollwitz’s sisters worked outside the home, her father encouraged her to pursue an artistic career, paying for years of training and travel. Her ambitions were shaped by this paternal support, as well as encounters with socialism and feminism – formative writings included August Bebel’s Women and Socialism and the journalism of Clara Zetkin. In 1891, she married a doctor, Karl Kollwitz, and the couple settled in the working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.

The marriage disappointed her father, who thought settling down spelled the end of her artistic ambitions (‘You have made your choice now. You will scarcely be able to do both things.’) Yet the couple divided their apartment between his practice and her studio, and the daily life of the clinic had a galvanizing effect on Kollwitz’s art: ‘When I became acquainted, especially through my husband, with the severity and tragedy of the depths of proletarian life, when I met women who came to my husband, and also to me, looking for help, the fate of the proletariat and all its consequences gripped me with all its force.’ Yet Kollwitz admitted that she was initially drawn to ‘the depiction of proletarian life’ for aesthetic rather than social reasons. ‘The real motive’, she wrote, ‘was because the motifs chosen from this sphere gave me, simply and unconditionally, what I found beautiful.’

Her first major undertaking was historical. In 1893, she saw Gerhardt Hauptmann’s play The Weavers, which dramatized the struggle of these early economic casualties of the industrial revolution. This inspired ‘A Weaver’s Revolt’ (1893-1897), three lithographs and three etchings, which took over five years to produce and established Kollwitz’s reputation. She was not the only visual artist of her day to take up the subject – Max Lieberman’s The Weaver (1883) also portrayed loom-weavers at work. In Kollwitz’s rendering, however, work has stuttered to a halt. A malnourished child lies on a bed, and there is a sense that the family cannot work their way out of a desperate situation. This sets the series in motion: the workers rebel against their conditions, but the revolt is defeated, and we conclude with the return of the victims’ corpses.

Kollwitz was a slow and methodical draughtswoman, and MoMA’s presentation displays her process of revision, with preparatory sketches arranged alongside the finished works. These reveal her emerging vocabulary: in an early version, for instance, a weaver’s hand hangs open; in the final work, their hands are clenched, a detail that transforms the scene. Yet its emotion is nonetheless ambiguous. Are the women surveying the bodies of their husbands and sons paralysed with grief or simmering with rage? The series was shown in the Great Berlin Art Exhibition, where it was denied a gold medal by the state minister of culture who found it, in MoMA curator Starr Figura’s words, lacking in ‘mitigating or conciliatory elements’ and thus ineligible for ‘explicit recognition by the state’.

Woman with Dead Child (Frau mit totem Kind). 1903. Etching with chine collé. Plate: 16 1/4 × 18 9/16″ (41.2 × 47.1 cm); sheet: 21 7/16 × 27 11/16″ (54.5 × 70.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of the Contemporary Drawing and Print Associates. Digital image © 2024 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by Robert Gerhardt

This printmaking drew on a variety of modes and references, from the caprichos of Goya and the virtuosic engravings of Dürer to the radical woodcuts and satirical graphics of magazines like The New Masses and Simplicissimus. Kollwitz’s fine marks and muted tones foster a close connection with the viewer, the complexity of each print obliging one to lean in. This is part of their persuasiveness; they demand physical proximity to their scenes of anguish. ‘The passion inspired in her by her theme’, a disapproving Clement Greenberg wrote in 1945, ‘required a complementary passion for her medium, to counteract a certain inevitable excess.’

Lithographs and etchings predominate in these years, but by the First World War Kollwitz was increasingly turning to the starkness of woodcuts. In some, the background is left entirely uncut; figures emerge from a solid black void. Notable among these is her 1920 woodcut of SPD leader Karl Liebknecht’s funeral. The picture feels poised at the moment mourning tipped into defiance, as the wake erupted into mass demonstration. Though Kollwitz was asked by his family to produce the image, some wondered whether it was appropriate that the portrait be done by a non-party member. Kollwitz felt that she could portray the murdered Spartacist leader without ‘following politically’; that as an artist she had ‘the right to extract the emotional content out of everything, to let things work on me and then give them outward form’.

The Parents (Die Eltern) from War (Krieg), 1921–22, published 1923. One from a portfolio of seven woodcuts. Composition (irreg.): 13 13/16 x 16 3/4″ (35.1 x 42.5 cm); sheet (irreg.): 18 5/8 x 25 11/16″ (47.3 x 65.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Arnhold Family in memory of Sigrid Edwards. Digital Image © 2024 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by Robert Gerhardt

Artistic detachment is not easy to detect in Kollwitz’s work, particular after the tragedy of losing her younger son, killed at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. Peter, who had left school to become a painter, was a minor when the war broke out and needed permission from his parents to enlist, which Kollwitz gave despite her husband’s reluctance. Kollwitz’s guilt was overwhelming, and she struggled to work: ‘I am seeking him as if I had to find him in the work’, but ‘I might make a hundred drawings and not get any closer to him’. It took years to complete the woodcuts that made up ‘War’ (1918-1922). The series went through three editions, with hundreds of copies in circulation; upon completion Kollwitz wrote that ‘these prints should be sent all over the world and give everybody the essence of what it was like – this is what we all went through during these unspeakably hard times.’

Her focus was not the battlefield, but the survivors and their loss. The Sacrifice and The Volunteers, which open the series, depict a mother holding her child out to an enveloping blackness and an arc of faces blending into skulls. The compositions echo recruitment posters, substituting boosterism for grief. Motherhood is both an illuminating and constraining lens through which to view Kollwitz’s work. Notwithstanding her father’s conviction that she had sacrificed her art to family, the MoMA audio guide, which features commentary from the novelist Sheila Heti (perhaps best known for writing about her decision not to have children), suggests that, absent maternal feeling, she may never have produced some of her most significant works.

Kollwitz was also a sculptor and spent years on a monument to Peter. An early sketch shows a mother and father kneeling before their son’s body, but the final version of Grieving Parents (1914-32) subtracted his remains, leaving the parents – who resemble Kollwitz and her husband – with an empty space between them. The sculpture was displayed at the Vladslo Cemetery in Belgium, where more than 25,000 German soldiers are buried. Kollwitz’s sculpture was clearly influenced by Rodin, whom she had met in Paris as a student, and whose preference for naturalism over allegory and textural depth over polished, idealized lines concurred with her own tendencies.

The exhibition includes several other sculptures, including Pair of Lovers (1913-1915), an early effort that shows an entwined couple, one seated in the lap of the other. The face of the larger figure is hidden, buried in the neck of their companion. The ambiguity of the scene meant that the sculpture was miscatalogued for a time as Woman with a Dead Child. In Kollwitz’s work, both romantic and parental love are figured as physical melding. In Mother with Two Children (1932-6) a seated woman folds her arms and legs around two babies. The proportions of the bodies are distorted – necks shrunken, hands enlarged, torsos shortened – so that the trio blend together. In Farewell (1940), not shown in the exhibition, a mother grips her child so tightly she appears to disappear into him. The women’s motive in these latter two are agonisingly clear: to shield their children from carnage.

Mother, Clutching Two Children (Mutter, zwei Kinder an sich pressend). 1932. Charcoal on paper. 25 3/8 x 19″ (64.4 x 48.3 cm). Käthe Kollwitz Cologne. Image courtesy Käthe Kollwitz Museum Cologne

In the interwar period, Kollwitz contributed to anti-fascist campaigns and the Communist-led Workers International Relief. Her famous Never Again War poster (1924) – designed for the Central German Convention of Young Socialist workers – was distributed internationally. With the rise of National Socialism, her husband temporarily lost his medical licence and she was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy. Kollwitz found herself barred from public art programmes, her work removed from exhibitions. Karl died in 1940 and in 1943 Kollwitz accepted an aristocratic patron’s offer to take refuge in Moritzburg (shortly afterward her apartment of fifty years was destroyed in an air raid). She died in April 1945, days before the first Red Army tanks rolled into Berlin.

In Kollwitz’s last major cycle of lithographs, Death (1934-37), Death is depicted almost as a friend; in one image, it is figured as an inviting lap, cocooning a dying adolescent like an easy chair. Death is something to which ‘a woman entrusts herself’, as the title of one print has it; though elsewhere it is represented as a black-cloaked predator who seizes children from their mothers. It separates, welcomes, liberates, with pitiless certainty. And yet, Kollwitz’s final lithograph, Seed Crops Should not be Milled (1941) – the title was taken from Goethe – in which a woman wraps her arms around her children strikes a note of enduring resistance. In 1944, she wrote that ‘every war is answered by a new war’ unless ‘everything is smashed’, and ‘that is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness, and why my only hope is in a world socialism’. ‘Pacifism’, she concluded, ‘is not a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work.’

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

Categories
Uncategorised

Grand Éditeur

There is an infinitely reductive way of commemorating Eric Hazan, simply by saluting him as a courageous publisher and defender of the radical left, an unyielding supporter of the rights of the Palestinians and a man who, against the grain of his times, so believed in revolution that he devoted a book to the first measures to be taken on the morning after.

He was certainly all these things, but we first need to register the essential point: in an age when the word ‘publishing’ conjures up empires of businessmen for whom everything is a commodity, even the most nauseating ideas, he was first and foremost a great publisher. This was not simply a matter of competence. It was much more a question of personality. And Eric was an exceptional personality: possessed of a mind curious about everything, a scientist by training and neurosurgeon in a previous life, but also a connoisseur of the arts and lover of literature; a city-dweller, sensitive to the living history of every stone in the street; an open and welcoming man with a radiant smile and eloquent handshake, eager to communicate his passions, to share his discoveries and convince others – without preaching – of what he considered to be the exigences of justice.

I learnt from our first contact, just as La Fabrique was starting up, that he was no ordinary publisher. He had attended a few sessions of my seminar on aesthetics and wanted to better understand what I was doing and where it was heading. I sent him a short interview I’d done for a magazine published by friends of mine. A few days later, he told me that it was a book and that he was going to publish it. Which he did so effectively that this little volume, barely visible on a bookshelf, found its way around the world. I thereby discovered something surprising: a great publisher is one who can recognize you have written a book when you don’t know it yourself.  

Thus began a long collaboration punctuated by books whose titles alone prove that he was so much more than a publisher of revolutionary firebrands. Were that the case, what business would he have with exploring territories as remote from immediate political action as the landscape of eighteenth-century England, the dissolution of the traditional threads of narrative in the novels of Flaubert, Conrad or Virginia Woolf, the interweaving of time in the films of Dziga Vertov, John Ford or Pedro Costa, or the conception of the spectator implied by this or that installation of contemporary art? What, moreover, would lead him to publish a complete edition stretching to over a thousand pages of Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire? And to immerse himself in Balzac’s Paris? It’s not only that he was interested in everything and his engagement with humanist culture was far broader and deeper than so many of the ‘clercs’ who smirk at militant commitments of his kind. It was because he fought for a world of the widest and richest experience, and did not separate the work of knowledge and the emotions of art from the passion of justice. This man – indignant against all oppression – loved, more than sloganeers, those who seek, invent and create.

Changing the world was for him not a programme for the future but a daily task of adjusting our vision and finding the right words. And he understood that revolt is itself a means of discovery. In the work of the most radical authors he published, whether on feminism, decolonialism or pipeline sabotage, he discerned not only a cry of anger against the reign of injustice but also a project of research, a singular expression of the world we live in, and a new way of shedding light on it. Hence, he was careful to ensure that the most provocative titles appeared in booksellers’ windows adorned in such a way that made them precious objects.

Is this why he chose the name La Fabrique? For connoisseurs of workers’ history, the name recalls Echo de la fabrique, the newspaper of the Lyonnais canuts during their revolt of the 1830s. No doubt it was important for it to evoke the memory of the great days of 1848 and the Commune. But the word ‘fabrique’ also associated this tradition of struggle with a whole conception of the publisher’s work: a radical departure from the logic of profit and its associated strictures of management; an artisanal love of craftsmanship that neglected no aspect of book production; but also an idea of the fraternal workshop where men and women would bring the product of their labours which, as they intertwined, would be transformed into something else: a shared wealth of experience, of knowledge and insight, the sense of a collective capacity to build a world different from the one that our masters and their intellectual lackeys present to us as the only, inescapable reality.

Offering alternative cartographies of what is visible, of what takes place and what matters in our world: this is the concern that brought him together with so many authors of such different interests, ideas and sensibilities, all of which he respected equally without attempting to corral them into a common line. Because this great publisher was above all a free man who could only breathe in an atmosphere of freedom.

Was it the thinning of this atmosphere that, alongside his illness, darkened his final days? Never have the causes for which he fought been so mockingly besmirched in theory, so blithely trampled underfoot in practice, as they are today. For a long time, Eric saw in the very ignominy of the powers that govern us a reason to hope for the coming revolution. Their world, he thought, is so decrepit that the slightest blow here or there is bound to bring about its collapse. This is the logic, perhaps a little too cursory, of good craftsmen and sons of the Enlightenment. They believe that rot causes buildings to crumble. Unfortunately, it is more like the glue holding the system together. And this imposes a long and painstaking task on those who first and foremost need air that is more breathable and more conducive to the preparation of other tomorrows. It is, in any case, a task for which his uncompromising resistance to baseness in every form will long serve as an example.

This article was originally published in French in Libération.

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

Categories
Uncategorised

After Euroscepticism

European parliamentary elections mean different things to different people. For the Brussels press corps, they are an occasion for feverish speculation about who will get the ‘top jobs’ – the presidencies of the Council and Commission, the head of parliament, the High Representative for foreign policy – after days of horse-trading and backroom deals. For leaders of member states, they are an opportunity to increase their party’s share of MEPs and possibly lead a parliamentary grouping – winning power and prestige, plus negotiating leverage with other European nations. For opposition politicians, the EU parliament provides a useful (and lucrative) way to bide one’s time until political opportunities open up at home. Italy’s current foreign minister, Antonio Tadjani, spent more than two decades there; Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage were also long-serving MEPs.

For the bloc’s citizens, meanwhile, the significance of the elections often lies in crystallizing national political struggles. The 2014 ballot marked the breakthrough of Podemos and the Five Star Movement, and allowed Syriza to push Pasok aside and become Greece’s leading electoral force on the left. In the UK, the 2019 vote functioned as a de facto second referendum on Brexit. In 2024, we were supposed to witness a reactionary sorpasso on a continental scale: a moment when populists and extremists would tear down the parliament’s mainstream political formations. Ursula von der Leyen, standing for a second term as Commission President, doubted whether she could maintain her ‘grand coalition’ of centrists and liberals, and reached out to Italy’s Giorgia Meloni ahead of the vote – signalling the prospect of a deal with the far right.

Yet, when the vote was held last week, talk of a landslide turned out to be exaggerated. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom gained six seats but was beaten by the centre-left and green coalition. Germany’s AfD surged from nine to fifteen seats, but lagged far behind the CDU–CSU alliance, which won a hefty 29. In Spain, Vox gained two seats but its vote share remained under 10%, while the Partido Popular claimed victory, coming four percentage points ahead of the governing PSOE. The True Finns also won less than 10% of the vote and lost a seat, while the Swedish Democrats gained one but finished in fourth place, behind the country’s mainstream parties and the Greens. The dominant groupings in the EU Parliament have also proven relatively resilient. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) gained nine seats, bringing its total up to 185, while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost just two, bringing them down to 137. The biggest losers were the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens, shedding 23 and 19 seats respectively.

The two main far-right formations only gained thirteen seats between them; the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) now have 73, while Identity and Democracy (ID) have 58. There is little chance of the two uniting, and it is still unclear where the AfD – unaffiliated to either – will fit in. The ECR was set up in 2009 by the British Conservatives, who felt the EPP was becoming too pro-European. It represents the more moderate wing of the far right, and is not subject to the cordon sanitaire that excludes radical right MEPs from powerful positions in the parliament. Its members include Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia as well as Poland’s Law and Justice party. ID, by contrast, is considered beyond the pale, hosting Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, as well as Estonia’s Conservative People’s Party and Vox.

What is taking place in the EU, then, is a rightward shift in the composition of the parliament, though at a slower-than-expected pace, with populist-nationalist groupings afflicted by deep divisions. The election results indicate that business-as-usual will continue. Von der Leyen has insisted that ‘the centre is holding’ and that her coalition will live to see another day, perhaps propped up by the Greens. The bloc’s main political currents seem willing to put aside their differences in order to maintain their hegemony. Yet, as many in Brussels are aware, this strategy of the grand coalition is liable to make the political centre look even more like an undifferentiated mass of power-hungry politicians, fuelling support for their opponents and causing problems further down the line.

The most exciting national contests were those that seemed to presage political developments on the domestic front. The strong performance of Péter Magyar – a Fidesz insider turned opponent and whistleblower – was interpreted, perhaps prematurely, as a sign that Viktor Orbán’s dominance was on the wane. In Poland, Law and Justice continued to decline, losing five seats and ceding further ground to Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform. Meloni ran a remarkably personalized campaign, telling her supporters to write ‘Giorgia’ on their ballet papers, and coming away with just under 30% of the vote along with 14 extra seats. Scholz’s SPD was meanwhile surpassed by both the main opposition and the AfD, prompting speculation about how much longer he can last in office.

It was France, however, that won the prize for the most drama at the national level. The Rassemblement National cast the elections as a referendum on Macron’s second term and won more than double the vote share of the president’s electoral formation. The Parti socialiste’s Raphaël Glucksmann emerged as a new figure on the centre left, winning thirteen seats – the same number as Macron’s party – for his new joint list. The other parties of the fractured NUPES alliance generally fared badly, although La France insoumise picked up 10% and nine new seats. In light of the results, Macron has dissolved the government and scheduled new legislative elections for 30 June and 7 July. This looks like an attempt to call the RN’s bluff. The far right says it is ready to govern – but should it win the upcoming ballot, its leader Jordan Bardella may well become Prime Minister, and Macron knows that it is difficult to maintain one’s popularity in that position.

Less commented upon is what all this means for the principle division in European politics: between the EU’s supporters and its critics. The political scientist Peter Mair once observed that the peculiar structure of this supranational body made it difficult for citizens to shape or contest individual policies. As a result, opposition to them necessarily took the form of opposition to the EU tout court. While Euroscepticism was prominent on the left throughout the postwar period, it became associated with the sovereignist and nationalist right from the 1990s onwards – emblematized by UKIP in the UK and the Freedom Party in Austria. This shift reflected both the implosion of the continent’s communist parties as an electoral force, as with the spectacular decline of France’s Parti communiste, as well as the wider left’s abandonment of the principle of national sovereignty, vividly captured in Pasok’s journey from arch critic of European integration in the 1970s to a loyal supporter by the end of the 1980s.

This year, while far right parties have made the most significant gains in the history of the EU, the elections also reflected the extent to which they have accommodated themselves to the institution. Strident Euroscepticism has been replaced with tepid reformism, exemplified by Meloni’s campaign slogan: ‘Italy Changes Europe’. Wilders, once an advocate of leaving the EU, swiftly abandoned this position as the campaign got underway. Le Pen likewise argued for ‘Frexit’ in the 2014 European elections but has since embraced a policy of ‘change from within’.

Western Europe’s far right parties have, in this sense, begun to replicate the strategies of their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. Law and Justice has been at loggerheads with Brussels for years, yet it never seriously floated the idea of ‘Polexit’. Fidesz frequently clashes with the EU over its treaty obligations, but it will not contemplate jumping ship. An exception to this reformist trend would seem to be the AfD, which still takes a hard line on leaving the Euro area and reintroducing the Deutschmark; yet this is by no means the party’s raison d’être, nor the cause of its success, which owes much more to its role in fomenting Germany’s culture wars.

One reason for this moderating tendency is Brexit: an event that, by provoking a constitutional crisis and failing to cut inward migration, taught Europe’s far right to be cautious about the merits of leaving the EU. Another is the continued support for the bloc among the populations of most member states. With groups like the RN and Fratelli d’Italia seeking to displace the traditional parties of the right by courting swing voters, anti-EU positions have become an electoral liability. Though the leaders of such parties are often presented as unflinching ideologues, in reality most of them are flexible pragmatists. Those that are too rigid, such as the AfD’s Maxmilian Krah, have typically found themselves marginalized. In recent years, Europe’s populist forces have been slowly assimilated into the Brussels hierarchy. This election may not have seen them rise to its apex, as some predicted. But it has shown that they are willing to ease their ascent by parting ways with Euroscepticism.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton, ‘The Persistence Of Europe’, NLR 122.

Categories
Uncategorised

Rule of Law?

On 30 May, around cocktail time, a jury in New York criminal court found former president and Republican candidate Donald Trump guilty on all thirty-four counts of falsifying business records to cover up a payoff for Stormy Daniels’ silence in the run-up to the 2016 election. Throughout the five-week trial (on state, not federal, charges), Trump had been crafting the story of its end: the proceedings, and now the verdict, are ‘a disgrace’, ‘rigged’, presided over by ‘a judge who was corrupt’, and all of it – every grand juror and trial juror and prosecution employee and court officer – worked by orders of the Biden Administration. On the legal front, Trump will appeal. On the financial front, the verdict has been a boon, raising $52.8 million for the candidate in twenty-four hours. On the political front, CBS News immediately reported that his campaign vowed to launch ‘a grievance war across the country’.

The grievance war has been ginning up for some time. Every day, many times a day, for years, the campaign, the Republican Party and its sound machine have been broadcasting a twin message of alarm: the law is against us; the law is us. Contradiction is the point. Fear is the operative instrument: while the ‘very innocent man’ suffers, crime stalks every citizen. Immigrants and terrorists flood the country from foreign prisons and mental institutions, raping women, stealing jobs from citizens, driving down their wages, destroying their communities. The country is ‘a mess’, government broken and venal. Law and order lie prostrate, police handcuffed by the woke mob. It’s ‘American carnage’ redux, as bloodletting around the world and ‘Jihad Joe’ represent US impotence or worse – and all of this while January 6 patriots languish in federal prison. ‘Remember, it’s not me they’re after’, Trump’s campaign messages wail, ‘THEY’RE AFTER YOU – I’M JUST STANDING IN THEIR WAY!’

Hence, his mugshot is an election poster; his past, recent and pending trials both persecution and campaign platform. Hence, he promises a cleansing fire:

Patriot, when we win, we’ll have the LARGEST deportation operation in HISTORY!

We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.

Today’s victim of a witch hunt is tomorrow’s Grand Inquisitor. Judge Arthur Engoron, who in a civil case in February found Trump, his company, his two sons, the company’s former CEO and former controller guilty of sprawling financial fraud, is ‘whacked out’. Everyone in real estate lies and defrauds insurance companies, banks and assessors, the Trump team claimed; it’s just business. The political strategy has been to inflame emotions: a most instrumental moral panic. The cultural strategy has been to make impunity acceptable, worthy of but a shrug.

Except when it’s not. By Trumpist calculus, when Michael Cohen lied and falsified records as an attorney for the Trump Organization it was just business; when he testified about the Stormy Daniels scheme as a coordinated effort to kill a sex story in order to influence the election, he was a rogue liar who should be sent back to prison for perjury. And so it goes … Trump as president had immunity and should not be tried for anything, ever (a claim the Supreme Court had to ponder and whose decision will come down this month). People who assaulted police and smashed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, are ‘political prisoners’ who should be pardoned; people who smashed storefronts in 2020 protesting police violence are ‘thugs’ who should have been shot. White nationalists who marched with tiki torches shouting ‘The Jews will not replace us’ in 2017 were ‘very fine people’; students who protest against Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza are antisemitic terrorists, so ‘I [would] throw them out of the country.’ Biden is a ‘tyrant’ who hates America; Trump, who will be a ‘dictator’, but ‘only on day one’, tells the faithful, ‘I will be your retribution’ and Make America

Anyone not barraged by Trumpist emails may say, At least with Trump we get truth in advertising. Or, He doesn’t mean what he says. Or, We lived through one presidency; it wasn’t that bad. We got those pandemic checks. He can’t be worse on Israel. And can you believe the price of things? Those are familiar rejoinders these days. They reflect the power of forgetting. They also reveal the power of the right at the level of culture.

We have grown accustomed to the carnival barker, the conman. Just as we grew accustomed to torture and permanent war decades ago, and before that to the ideas that retribution is justice, that market values are human ones, that tax cuts benefit us all, that ‘the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.’ Across the political spectrum, we accommodate the idea that some political views should be silenced. Meanwhile, the liberal sound machine’s gleeful disdain for Trump-the-person, its enthusiasm for prosecutors and national security services, arouse suspicion if not fury on the left. The Biden campaign’s apparent decision to contend for re-election as a bulwark against imperilled democracy is tone deaf. Americans have got used to cynicism; to being taken for a ride economically and politically (or taken into police custody); to ‘democracy’ as a sick joke.

Trump has had much to do with this, but he did not start it. To take but one relevant indicator, since the 1980s, the proportion of US adults with a criminal record has swelled. As the Brennan Center for Justice put it a few years ago, ‘if all arrested Americans were a nation, they would be the world’s 18th largest … Holding hands, [they] could circle the earth three times.’ It is inconceivable that Trump will be sentenced to prison on 11 July, but his story of victimization by the state, told so often and so loudly, can ring true for those habituated to the realities of Prison America. It is canon for those whose God promises vengeance but not much enjoyment. In the country’s long-running morality play of Good vs. Evil, the heroic victim returns as a cartoon of suffering and a back-slapping punisher.

*

The episodic drama of court appearances and appeals has given the lifelong grifter a priceless, if unconventional, stage to propound his version of reality and express contempt (sleeping at trial, insulting judge and jury) when anything interferes. It has done the same for Republican bootlickers, vice-presidential auditioners, assorted tough guys, the Speaker of the House and other lackeys and their entourages, who made the pilgrimage to Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom and found receptive media crews outside. It has also obscured the right’s organizing at the level of law.

A formidable liberal mythology has surrounded the idea that The courts will save us. The right, meanwhile, regards the law, the Constitution, the courts, the electoral process, every other institution, as they are: areas of struggle, where nothing is permanent, and every loss is but a setback. Following the verdict, Trump thundered, ‘We will fight for the Constitution!’ No, he will fight for himself, the law being now convenient, now discardable, as opportunity dictates. This would be just another bit of Flimflam Americana except that it has been cultivated far more methodically than the theatrics suggest. When the now-convicted felon said the real verdict will be on Election Day, his statement was both true politically and a gesture to the right’s preparations for steering that verdict his way.

Earlier this spring we got a glimpse of these efforts. On 4 March, in the case Trump v. Anderson, the Supreme Court ruled that no state – unless, in some near-impossible future, Congress passes legislation – can disqualify an oath-breaking insurrectionist from seeking federal office under the 14th Amendment. It was a political rather than legal decision. The amendment’s language and history are plain. The Trumpists on the court, who typically crook the knee to the text, original intent and states’ rights, blithely disregarded their avowed tenets this time. Four days later, Trump loyalists replaced the leadership of the already grovelling Republican National Committee to concentrate on election finagling. The old party chair had committed an intolerable offense by sponsoring debates and asserting neutrality until voters had made their choice for the GOP presidential nominee. The new party chair, Michael Whatley, had begun lying about a rigged election before it was decided. Check. Once Trump lost, Whatley, then head of the North Carolina GOP, told radio listeners, ‘It really is kind of a scary proposition to think that you’re gonna have a court overturn some of those results. But that’s really the plan.’ Check. Ever since, and despite the Trump team losing more than sixty lawsuits challenging the 2020 results in six states, Whatley has held to the gospel. Consequently, insuring ‘election integrity’ is the ‘core mission’ of the RNC, along with raising money. Check and check.

Co-chairing the party is Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, a former Fox News pundit. Her husband, Eric, a dedicated if dimwitted liar, was fined $4 million for his part in the civil fraud. His brother Don Jr. received the same sentence. Their father, never as rich as he claimed, strapped to cover his $355 million fine (plus interest) and given a break pending appeal, was cunning to have launched another family business. Daughter Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, got $2 billion from the Saudis shortly after leaving his White House job. Lara herself, upon assuming her new job, spoke of using RNC funds to relieve her father-in-law’s legal costs: ‘I think that is a big interest to people. Absolutely. [Donors] feel like it’s an attack not just on Donald Trump but on this country.’

By 12 March, the new party leadership had lawyered up to ‘initiate battle on election integrity from an offensive instead of defensive posture’. That was Chris LaCivita, co-manager of the Trump campaign and the RNC’s chief of staff. Joining him, as chief counsel, is Charlie Spies, an old GOP hand who applauds the boost that his field of election law got after the Supreme Court decided the presidential election of 2000. Next up, as senior counsel for election integrity, is Christina Bobb, a media hack, sometime lawyer for Trump, unindicted election meddler and the author of Stealing Your Vote: The Inside Story of the 2020 Election and What It Means for 2024. Outside counsel for election integrity is Bill McGinley, who as counsel to the Republican convention’s rules committee in 2012 engineered the disqualification of some delegates for Ron Paul to benefit Mitt Romney – shocking Paul’s supporters, libertarians mostly new to politics, who had imagined themselves helping to shape the party’s direction and instead protested outside the hall, ‘Where’s democracy?’

The leadership shuffle aligns the party apparatus with an ongoing Trumpist effort that has been building an army of trained poll watchers, poll workers, election clerks, and legal backup in strategic majority-Democrat precincts to challenge voters at the polls, intervene to block vote counts and generally create enough chaos to win outright or send the decision to courts or state legislatures. As early as 2021 the RNC’s election integrity director for Michigan said at a recorded training session for poll workers, ‘We’re going to have more lawyers than we’ve ever recruited, because let’s be honest, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?’ As reported by Politico, recruits are cautioned that it’s illegal to try to disqualify every likely Democratic voter. But disqualification is the reason they are being trained.

Now the party aggressively promotes Trump’s pitch to black and Hispanic voters – colour has signified ‘likely Democratic voters’ since the mid 1960s – and headlines announce rising enthusiasm for the MAGA brand among them. But ‘the vibe’, as Trump’s appeal has been described, might fade, the voters tire. Law is more reliable, so GOP state legislators have been busily working to dilute black voting strength through redistricting. The party’s lawyers are also challenging various state rules that make voting easier. If history is a guide, Republican poll challengers will not be massed in majority-white districts.

*

‘I am a Political Prisoner’, Trump now begins his pleas for love and money. The quest for love has been a regular feature of Trump campaign missives, the baby voice – ‘please, pretty please’, don’t desert me, say you’ll vote for me, tell me now, ‘before I go to bed’ – alternating with a let’s-get-ready-to-rumble yell: ‘It’s time for me and you to shove it back in their corrupt faces!’

Two years ago, my Inbox rang with fears for ‘the children!’ Tykes were being taught porno, forced into story time with drag queens, urged to turn trans, to hate themselves if white and to rule the roost if black. School libraries had to be purged, curricula gutted, teachers struck off as mind-twisting perverts who’d brought litter boxes into the classroom for kids who ‘identify as cats’. As with previous hysterias over the imperilled child, words didn’t need to be true, only effective for energizing a political base. The mania translated into laws rewarding that base, placed rivals on the defensive, and helped win or hold elective seats for pursuing a broader agenda from school board on up. Liberals have decried ‘Hate’, but however much real pain the manipulators of moral panic cause, they are driven more by tangible benefits than a sadistic frisson. By last June, Republican-controlled state legislatures had introduced 549 anti-trans bills. By year’s end, eighty-six had passed (LGBTQ fightback has been formidable). Then, as if by magic, the children were saved.

The culture war continues as a vehicle for GOP base-building, law-making and leadership training. Legislators have introduced 347 new anti-trans bills this year, of which forty passed. But sex-crazed maniacs destroying children ceased to trip the alarm in national messaging as 2023 wound down. Enter January 6 ‘hostages’, a brotherhood of lambs for liberty being ‘tortured’ by the legal system, like Trump, then on trial for fraud. A Supreme Court decision on a case challenging the federal obstruction statute used to prosecute hundreds (including Trump) for efforts to overturn the 2020 election will also come down this month. ‘Welcome to the end of democracy’, GOP foot soldiers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February were greeted. ‘We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavour to get rid of it and replace it with this right here’, the speaker said, holding up a cross. Yet today, appeals for the prisoners come mostly from their wives.

Having reassured the most embarrassing elements of his coalition – religious fanatics, Proud Boy hoodlums, QAnon symps – Trump’s messaging moved on to focus almost exclusively on one heroic victim and one scourge. The jury’s verdict has upped the volume and the rhetoric, as Trump bellows, ‘The US is a fascist state’ while his campaign simultaneously offers Americans the invigorating prospect of mass round-ups, concentration camps and revenge against those who are ‘poisoning the blood of our country’.

Trump’s consigliere Stephen Miller, a practiced peddler of fear and evangelist for violent white grievance against immigrants, pushed Trump to decree an end to 14th Amendment guarantees of birth citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants while he was in the White House. The idea sputtered, but Miller has said Trump 2.0 will revisit it. Meanwhile, Miller’s organization America First Legal has also been sending scare emails about threats to voters’ democratic rights. It has tied up courts in Arizona, challenging the state’s election administration procedures, claiming, in part, that they favour blacks and Hispanics at the expense of whites and Native Americans. Courts have thwarted Miller on some challenges, as they have the RNC in its effort to impinge on voting rights there, though lawsuits continue in Arizona as part of the right’s election interference offensive in pivotal states.

Other than pushing for a federal law imposing ID requirements on every voter, ostensibly to prevent Democrats from mobilizing ‘illegals’ and fraudsters to pick the president, Republicans recognize that precincts, cities, counties and states are where it’s at in presidential elections. The grift – diverting election funds to Trump’s legal defence – could result in a hollowing out of conventional ground-game organizing, though the spectre of Trump behind bars, avidly promoted by the man himself, has opened spigots of cash, so the party might recoup. After Trump’s conviction, Steve Bannon, Miller’s mentor, criticized the campaign, arguing that on ‘voter registration and ballot chasing, district by district’, on mailing ballots, election officials and lawsuits, ‘we have to be maniacally focused’.

*

All of this draws a contrast with the fantasyland of ‘national elections’ conjured by the Supreme Court in Trump v. Anderson, and to so much reverential talk (beyond the right) about the ‘rule of law’ since the jury’s verdict. I return to Anderson because, of the many legal actions that have favoured Trump, it resonates most with the reality that law, like the voting booth, is not a sacristy of pure principle but a gritty fight ring.

As Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram David Amar emphasized in an energetic amicus brief to the court, there is no true national election in the United States. There is a national popular vote, which does not mean the popular winner becomes president. (See 2000, 2016.) There is a national Election Day, which does not mean everyone votes in the same way all at once, since different states have different rules. The US Constitution sets out basic rules of eligibility – a presidential candidate must be a resident citizen, native-born and at least 35 – but it’s up to states to enforce those. As it’s up to each state to decide how it will run presidential elections, what is required for ballot access, what form the ballot will take, how and by whom votes will be counted, how electors will be delegated to the Electoral College (which chooses the president), whether voting will be convenient or difficult, and who is able to vote. Every stage invites political manoeuvre. Supporters of a third party in some states may find their candidate on the ballot, while in others they have to write in their choice. A convicted felon like Trump may vote at some point in some states, and be disenfranchised forever in others. A college student may vote with only a matching signature in New York, but in 2012 I witnessed students frantically printing out utility bills in their name to be allowed a ballot in Arizona. Presidential candidates have national campaigns, but people in only a few states, ‘battlegrounds’, are likely to see them, and those states’ electors hold the fate of the country. In so-called safe states, for either party, it’s not uncommon for people to say, It’s not on me; someone else will decide it. New Yorkers disgusted with Biden, who so far has fractured rather than consolidated his base, say this today. (The formula is not fool proof, of course; Nixon and Reagan won New York.)

Despite this hodgepodge, justices scratched their head over Colorado’s decision to disqualify Trump from the state’s ballot for breaking his oath of office and fomenting insurrection. ‘Why should a single state have the ability to make this determination not only for their own citizens but for the rest of the nation?’ wondered liberal Elena Kagan in oral argument. Wouldn’t it be undemocratic for a state to have so much power? others pondered. In the end, despite some disagreement, all nine concluded, ‘Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos.’

Nothing in the Constitution even requires states to hold popular elections for president. Chaos, however, is something the document anticipates, and sowed from the start, while lightly sketching how disputes might be resolved, or sort-of resolved, as the people (a fuzzy category) strive to get things right. The great chaos, the Civil War, brought voting rights into the text for the first time, in 1870 with the 15th Amendment. The other landmark Reconstruction-era amendments – the 13th (1865), which abolished slavery; the 14th (1868), which guaranteed birthright citizenship (negating Dred Scott) and equal protection under the law, extended due process rights, limited states’ power over individual liberties, and placed restrictions on insurrectionists – addressed conditions particular to the time, principally for the Freedmen in the South, but also asserted broad civil freedoms that people have fought over ever since.

The symbolism of these amendments in the American psyche cannot be understated. Their drafting, passage, ratification and enforcement were anything but orderly, just as the rights they established were anything but certain or sweeping. For a century after, black people primarily laboured to realize their promise, an unfinished battle, like the unending class struggle to secure a piece of the ‘unalienable rights’ in the Declaration of Independence. Congressional legislation was never understood to be required by the Reconstruction-era amendments; it was required because white state and class power, not only in the South, flouted the plain language of the law, as the justices did this spring. Women’s experience of slavery was ignored in laws written to reverse it. Women are dying or threatened and resisting today because the same court that said states cannot disqualify an oath-breaking insurrectionist from the ballot has held that states can control women’s bodies – each case, in opposite ways, saying history be damned.

Now, after a common jury’s declaration thirty-four-times ‘Guilty’, nothing feels so grotesque as the right’s hijacking of the language of liberation, thundering against fascists, unequal treatment and ‘the ruling class’, all of which Trump plans to advance if elected; rousing joy and rage within a movement aptly symbolized by a Confederate flag marched through the Capitol on January 6 for the first time in history. The rule of law may yet exonerate the hoodlums, as it may exonerate their hero and (exonerated or not) allow his ascendancy once again, at which point he aims to redefine it.

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

Categories
Uncategorised

All or Nothing

Jiajun ‘Oscar’ Zhang’s debut film, All, or Nothing at All, is composed of two parts, each around an hour long, featuring the same cast and designed to be shown in any order. Were it up to Zhang, projectionists would flip a coin. The film is set in and around a huge shopping mall in Shanghai called Global Harbour: 270,000 square metres of retail space sprawled across six floors, above which tower a pair of residential skyscrapers whose neon light-show facades erupt across a never-quite-night sky. When Zhang moved back to his hometown after graduating from the London Film School in 2017 and a stint in the US, the mall had ‘suddenly appeared’ (it opened in 2014). He began to conduct ‘research’: capturing the daily lives of shoppers and workers within its gleaming faux-marble halls (like a ‘magnificent Roman bath’, Zhang has said). The resulting fiction incorporates some of this footage, but each half focuses on a triangle of characters with the same names, engaged in transient, ambiguous and ultimately disappointed infatuations. 

‘Nothing at All’ – the first half of the film as I saw it at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York – follows a teenage amateur filmmaker named Lan Tian as he documents the goings-on of the mall on his phone. He approaches Yoyo (Chen Xiaoyi), a shy, withdrawn girl who works at a skincare kiosk, hoping to interview her, but she brushes him off and summons her manager, Perry (Liang Cuishan). Undeterred, Lan Tian returns under the guise of wanting a free sample. Yoyo talks up the benefits of the product in rote monotone while rubbing cream onto the back of his hand. The moment of ersatz intimacy between strangers is charged with real longing – for romance or recognition, if not necessarily for each other.

It is unclear whether Lan Tian (alias ‘Kafka’ on the social-media app WeChat) identifies with Yoyo’s loneliness, or whether she is merely the first person he comes across who doesn’t tell him to get lost – or whether, perhaps, she fulfils his idea of a romantic object. He films constantly, which at times seems invasive, even creepy, at others touching, betraying a kind of guileless wonder. During their equivocal friendship, he captures hours of mundane interactions, his gaze imbuing them with an almost sacred beauty. For her part, Yoyo appears to warm to Lan Tian’s company, if only out of ennui. When a barista at one of the mall’s cafés asks them whether they are an item, Lan Tian offers a tepid ‘Maybe?’ and Yoyo simply wrinkles her nose. Her thoughts seem elsewhere. When Yoyo risks breaking protocol by having him back for another sample treatment, her manager Perry catches on and lectures Yoyo on professionalism. Yet this gives way to another intimacy: soon Perry and Yoyo are sharing meals and making a game of trading uniforms, the once stern Perry pretending to wait on her new ‘boss’. In the glow of this newfound friendship, Lan Tian is all but forgotten.

The good times, such as they are, don’t last. Scandal erupts over a social-media post appearing to show Perry hooking up after hours at the kiosk with a married man (a sackable offence). Yoyo suspects Lan Tian. He insists he is innocent – his footage purely for his own enjoyment – but their tentative bond is ruptured, though Lan Tian continues to spy on Yoyo from afar, zooming in with his phone’s camera to the point of pixelated illegibility. What does he know of Yoyo’s experience, let alone her feelings?

‘All’ recasts Yoyo as the voyeur and aspiring creative (she wants to study architecture). No longer passive and reserved, here she is stylish and self-possessed. With her pointed sunglasses and effortless cool, Yoyo resembles a character from another film by a Shanghai-born director with a bipartite structure and concerned with youthful alienation – the anonymous woman with the blonde wig in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994). We meet Yoyo also poised between sweet and creepy: peering from behind a column at her high school ex, a transformed Lan Tian (played this time by the taller, older actor An Yu), who is working the front desk at a children’s dance studio. Nodding along to the music, his absorbed, earnest demeanour is endearing but hardly dazzling. What private meanings does Yoyo’s gaze bestow on this unlikely heartthrob? Lan Tian initially rebuffs Yoyo, then relents. Perry reappears as a third wheel, this time as the mother of a pupil at Lan Tian’s studio. He babysits for Perry, but there is a suggestion of a romance between them. Yoyo angrily disparages her as ‘that auntie’; Lan Tian’s puppyish infatuation has been replaced with fierce jealousy.

Although each half follows the transient dramas among its characters, the real protagonist of All, or Nothing at All is the mall itself. In Zhang’s vision Global Harbour is a disorienting space: at once overwhelming and somehow cramped – the effect heightened by the boxy aspect ratio and by camerawork which is alternately still, as though basking in the shopping centre’s numbing artifice, and anxiously following at the heels of characters, like a child afraid to lose their parent in a crowd. The sound is overwhelming too: a muzak version of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ playing from the loudspeakers; the din of background chatter from thousands of mouths; the drone of the air conditioning. Sometimes, American-style pop music blares over montages of crowds using the escalators. Occasionally, there is silence, in which a whisper rings out like a scream.

Global Harbour is a self-contained world, a kind of microcosm of society, but it is also – with its ultra-generic opulence, gleaming surfaces and frescoes of merchant vessels to match its name – an almost phantasmagorical space, a kind of lurid utopia which promises to meet every need – eating, socializing, amusement – but delivers shallow satisfactions. An ambience of tedium, isolation and stupefying artifice prevails. Everyone appears caught up in a personal simulation. People are constantly on their phones; their virtual worlds, crammed with commodified stimulation, seem a logical extension of the mall. In ‘Nothing at All’, Lan Tian hardly looks at the world except as it appears on his phone screen. We see Yoyo and Lan Tian wearing VR headsets aiming plastic rifles into the air as they play a shooter game; looking out from one of the mall’s mezzanines, Yoyo’s mother and grandmother point out paper parrots perched in plastic trees, as if they are birdwatching. (Later, birdsong plays over another shot of the fake parrots.) In another scene, a man stops to admire a digitally animated backdrop of a snowy landscape, then pulls out his phone to record it.

In the postmodern maze of Global Harbour, distinctions between work and leisure are rendered ambiguous. Workers, like Yoyo in ‘Nothing at All’, finish their shift and then while away their downtime spending their wages in the very place that employs them. ‘What is work and what is fun? Tell me!’, Lan Tian says to Yoyo on her day off. Relations between characters become ambiguous too: the distinction between commercial transaction and heartfelt exchange, instrumental attachment and authentic bond blurs. In each half of the film the pursuer is at leisure, the pursued an employee of the mall: in ‘All’, Yoyo can afford to indulge her infatuation with Lan Tian because she’s at a loose end; Lan Tian’s affair with Perry, meanwhile, may be freighted by the fact he is paid to look after her child. In ‘Nothing at All’, Lan Tian can cultivate his obsession with Yoyo because he is unemployed; Yoyo, in turn, entertains his advances in part because it is her job to. Film-making isn’t innocent either, of course. Is Lan Tian obsessed with Yoyo herself or with his project of recording her? At one point he asks a delivery worker if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. The worker agrees, then asks, ‘So, I’m your material?’.

Read On: Fredric Jameson, ‘Future City, NLR 21.

Categories
Uncategorised

Wartime Lithuania

On Sunday 26 May, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda was re-elected for a second five-year term, winning a decisive majority in a runoff with current Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. Nausėda, a centrist who stood on an independent ticket, and Šimonytė, who represents the conservative Homeland Union–Christian Democrats, had previously run against each other in the 2019 presidential contest, with similar results. The ballot reflects a deep-seated inertia among the country’s political establishment, which has taken a maximally hard line against Russia while neglecting a wide range of social and economic problems on the domestic front. How long can this approach last? What opposition might it face?

Lithuania’s ongoing militarization is set to continue over the coming years, spearheaded by Defence Minister Laurynas Kasčiūnas, whom Šimonytė nominated and Nausėda appointed in March. The former head of a neo-Nazi youth organization, Kasčiūnas has accelerated the government’s sabre-rattling, pushing for a civilian armed force, universal military conscription and withdrawal from treaties banning cluster munitions. He has also allowed a US Army battalion to remain in Lithuania indefinitely and visited Washington to pitch the defence industry on his ‘vast acquisition plan’, which includes rocket launchers, air-to-air missiles, four Blackhawk helicopters, 500 tactical vehicles and unmanned aerial systems.

Nausėda’s administration is also ushering in a new era of military cooperation with post-Zeitenwende Germany. Just weeks ago, the first tranche of a planned 4,800 German troops and 200 civilian workers were stationed on Lithuanian soil, with the aim of being ‘combat-ready’ by 2027. They will augment the 1,100 German soldiers already based there under NATO’s mission Enhanced Forward Presence and Germany’s Operation Vigilant Owl, which trains Lithuanian forces in electromagnetic warfare. Twelve thousand NATO troops were deployed for live-fire operations as part of last month’s Operation Steadfast Defender, which NATO describes as its ‘largest military exercise since the Cold War’. Lithuania has also announced that it will acquire German Leopard tanks and spend €200 million annually on a new army division, while opening a Rheinmetall factory to produce NATO-standard artillery shells. The national defence budget has grown by more than 16% each year since 2020, and a law passed in April aims to expand the domestic arms industry. The Finance Ministry has proposed raising taxes and extending a bank levy to increase military spending.  

Lithuania’s hawkishness has been too much for some of its Western allies. In 2022 it was forced by the EU to lift sanctions it imposed on Russian rail transit through its territory. At the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, the host nation was the only one to call for Ukraine’s immediate accession. And this year, when Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis demanded a ‘firm response’ following reports that Russia was planning to redraw borders in the Baltic Sea, he was rebuked by Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, who remarked that ‘In Finland, we always first investigate the facts in detail and then draw conclusions’. Landsbergis, who chairs the Homeland Union–Christian Democrats – currently the country’s largest parliamentary grouping – is among Lithuania’s most rabid New Cold Warriors. He has denounced Hungary for blocking military aid to Ukraine and railed against the US policy of not allowing long-range missiles to be fired on Russian territory. Under his watch, Taiwan opened its first official embassy in the EU, creating an ongoing diplomatic scandal and straining relations between Beijing and the trading bloc.

While Lithuania prepares for war, the home front looks bleak. After three quarters of declining GDP, the country entered a technical recession in autumn. Growth is among the lowest in the EU while inflation is among the highest, reaching over 24% in September, although it has slowed this year. Food price inflation, partly exacerbated by a drought, was over 30% for eight consecutive months from 2022 to 2023. The country’s secular decline in population was recently reversed, but educated young people continue to emigrate in large numbers to seek higher wages. A once-promising tech sector is now beginning to contract. Lithuania has also been one of the focal points of the European migration crisis, after EU sanctions against Belarus in 2021 prompted Aleksandr Lukashenko to send migrants to his country’s forested border with Lithuania, which responded by constructing 500 kilometres of new border fence and engaging in illegal ‘pushbacks’. The general population has mixed feelings about migrants. In some border towns, locals have hung signs demanding their removal; yet the country has also opened its doors to over 65,000 Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war, prompting accusations of favouritism.

Economic pressures, along with EU regulations, have meanwhile activated Lithuanian farmers, who, like their counterparts across Europe, have been organizing a series of mass protests. Last year, farmers campaigning against low milk prices dumped manure near parliament. In January they staged a two-day demonstration in Vilnius, clogging thoroughfares with tractors and demanding changes to EU land management rules as well as the government’s exorbitant excise tax on liquified petroleum gas (which was subsequently scrapped). Unrest has not been limited to the agriculture sector. The union that represents most of Lithuania’s teachers launched two strikes at the start of this school year, while public transit workers engaged in a work stoppage for most of December 2022.

The government has generally been unresponsive to popular discontent. But two recent developments have unsettled an otherwise predictable political landscape. An organization known as the Family Movement was formed in 2021 after a series of well-attended marches against Lithuania’s rigid vaccine passport system. It opposes pro-LGBT legislation, including gay marriage and civil partnerships, and other supposed threats to the nuclear family. It is also out of step with elite opinion on Ukraine. In February, it formed a political party by joining forces with the Christian Union, which broke away from the Homeland Union–Christian Democrats in 2020. Ignas Vėgėlė, a former head of the Lithuanian Bar Association with close ties to the Family Movement, ran a vigorous independent presidential campaign on a platform of soft Euroscepticism, greater investment in education and healthcare, and military de-escalation (although he made clear that he still supported sanctions on Russia). He was placing second in the polls as recently as 21 April, though he failed to make it to the final runoff.

The other development is the rise of the National Alliance, another right-wing party founded in 2020 which opposes emigration and European integration. It is headed by thirty-four-year-old Vytautas Sinica, a former leader of the conservative Christian youth movement Pro Patria, who holds a doctorate in political theory. He describes the outfit as an ‘intellectual party’ which aims to promote ‘national conservatism’ – blending reactionary cultural politics with hardline Atlanticism. Its slogan, ‘Raise your head, Lithuanian!’, is borrowed from the title of an antisemitic pamphlet published in 1933 by Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian general notorious for signing off on the death of thousands of Jews during WWII. In interviews, Sinica has been known appear beside a copy of the memoir of Kazys Škirpa, founder of the Nazi-collaborationist Lithuanian Activist Front. Having won three municipal seats in Vilnius last year, the party is now gearing up for parliamentary and European elections, which will test their popularity outside the capital.

Though the Lithuanian left has grown in recent years, it remains a marginal presence on the national stage. In 2022, a new movement called the Left Alliance was formed out of a thinktank in Vilnius. Last month it launched a political party called Together, whose manifesto calls for large-scale investment in public services and anti-poverty programmes. On questions of war and militarization, however, there is not be much daylight between it and the National Alliance. The Left Alliance has rejected calls for a ceasefire in Ukraine, arguing that ‘peacebuilding is only possible when the autocratic aggressor who invades the sovereign country is fully stopped and punished’. Together likewise endorses ‘comprehensive preparation of the army for national defence’ and ‘civil defence preparedness’. With no serious anti-war voice on the left, elements of the Family Movement have filled the vacuum, forming a group called the Peace Coalition which is contesting the upcoming European elections. Led by a former general, and consisting of members of the Christian Democrats plus a regional party representing western Lithuanians, its platform centres on opposition to sending soldiers to fight in Ukraine and opening up a front in Lithuania. One of its leaders has enjoined the country to ‘start speaking the language of diplomacy’.

Across the spectrum, Lithuanian politicians offer no remedies for the country’s lagging economy, popular unrest and migrant crisis. The Social Democrats and Farmers and Labour Party promote the standard package of centre-right neoliberal policies at home and abroad. The same goes for the Freedom Party, founded in 2019, though it has tried to attract younger voters with its pro-LGBT platform and gaudy pink branding. The Farmers and Greens Union, representing the agriculture industry, has a more progressive economic platform, given its reliance on government subsidies, but is more conservative on social issues. Disenchantment with these electoral options is widespread. A survey conducted last year found that only 20% of respondents had a positive view of the parliament, while 30% had a positive view of the government. Turnout for the upcoming European parliamentary elections is expected to be extremely low, which may benefit newer parties.

It remains unclear whether a popular left can emerge to harness the discontent that has so far been captured by the Family Movement. Will younger generations protest the introduction of military conscription and the rising bellicosity on Lithuania’s borders? New journals such as Lūžis (Fracture) and Šauksmas (Scream) express a more oppositional left perspective germinating in the universities: theoretically sophisticated, firmly anti-capitalist and critical of Atlanticism. The union Gegužės 1-osios Profesinė Sąjunga (G1PS) has also been organizing gig workers, arts workers and domestic cleaners since it was founded in 2018. But the reach of these institutions is limited. G1PS is known as ‘gipsas’ in Lithuanian, which is the same word for ‘plaster cast’. Some have joked that the country’s left consists of nothing more than a fracture, a scream and a cast.

Nausėda insists that he will improve state benefits such as pensions to reduce inequality and ease the burden of inflation. But as long as his priority is ‘national defence’, social progress is unlikely. There are already fears that the billeting of German troops and their families will lead to a spike in rents, in a market where housing prices more than doubled between 2010 and 2023. And as the government welcomes a ‘permanent’ German military presence on its soil, it continues to erode the sense of sovereignty which many Lithuanian are craving – one whose only articulation has so far come from the populist right. Unless the left also begins to challenge the militarization agenda, there is little hope of changing the country’s balance of power.

Read on: Joy Neumeyer, ‘In the Woods’, Sidecar.

Categories
Uncategorised

Raspberries

For the greater part of his life as a poet, J.H. Prynne – who turns 88 next month – seemed to work to a fairly consistent schedule. Every few years a new sequence would arrive, usually in oblique response to world events and social crises. Poems would track developments in scientific research, shred the language of the Financial Times, draw on everything from the English ballad tradition to classical Chinese poetry. Every so often would come a knight’s move, a sudden leap, some sacrificial act which rendered former tactics of composition no longer tenable. That might mean suppression of a recognisable speaking voice or writing in restrictive box-like stanzas. It might involve drastic interventions in syntax and word order, or unexpected shifts into lyricism. In this respect, Prynne’s work carried out modernism’s central tenet – make it new – in rigorously dialectical fashion.

Of course, it’s easy to say this kind of thing in long retrospect, discerning points of departure from the position of arrival. When the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s Poems appeared, twenty-five years ago, Barry MacSweeney wrote: ‘What I say to the dorked-up academics is: Blank. It is all there in the complete writing. And much more to go.’ For MacSweeney – fellow poet, trade unionist, and Prynne’s lifelong friend – the work was in the same league as Shelley, De Kooning, and the Beach Boys, and was political to the core. He signed off with typical flair: ‘Miss it at your total discredit and peril.’

While MacSweeney sensed the emergence of academic interest in Prynne’s work, which has steadily grown in the twenty-first century, he couldn’t have predicted just how much more writing was still to come. After two further expanded editions of Poems (2005, 2015), we now have Poems 2016-2024 to contend with. These 36 sequences, running to more than 700 pages, effectively double the size of his oeuvre. It is a wild gesture, with few precedents, and throws any conclusions we might have started to draw into disarray.

These sequences, like almost everything Prynne has ever written, were first published by small presses in pamphlet format. I read each of them as they came out. Some of them made me giddy; some left me indifferent; one or two I’m not sure if I ever quite finished. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic they would arrive in clusters and bursts, sometimes two or even three at a time. A new book would be announced before the last one had arrived, the relation between them unclear. It was disorderly, frantic. It was appropriate, too. As Adorno puts it in a much-quoted passage about late style: ‘Process, but not as development’, a ‘catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground’.

Faced with this, many ardent Prynne readers of my acquaintance simply couldn’t keep up. The pamphlets were expensive, made with all the bells and whistles, multiple formats and exotic paperstock, a risograph palette at once garish and pastel soft. Tastes vary, but I found these ornaments fussy and irritating. To see all the work in a standard format, meticulously and uniformly typeset, is a relief. Handled this way it starts to make a different kind of sense: maybe it’s just one big poem, a massive achievement of stubbornness and strangeness. But it would be foolish to pretend that I’m not bewildered by it, even after reading it cover-to-cover more than once.

I wrote at some length about Prynne’s late work back in 2019, including four of the opening books gathered here. It seemed to me that in Of Better Scrap (2019), Prynne had established a taut musical exuberance which allowed him to find new exploratory pathways in the holding space of language. The poems had no stable subject matter, but grappled painfully and playfully with fundamental precepts of composition: what happens when one word is placed next to another. These poems are ‘difficult’, sure, but they’re not puzzles to solve, or locks waiting for keys. They’re more like acoustic arguments, mute frenzies of thought, tonal games of hide-and-seek with grammar.     

This mode, which I still can’t put my finger on exactly, becomes an important feature – one of the ‘extremes’ – of the late work. Many of the collected pamphlets operate in this way, including Each to Each (2017), Or Scissel (2018), None Yet More Willing Told (2019), Bitter Honey (2020), Squeezed White Noise (2020), and Enchanter’s Nightshade (2020), maybe 200 pages altogether. It sounds a bit like this:

Butter up oligarch, orchard in-flight credit speck

attar infarct indicated loosened contrition, slate

parchment flattery spread to latch warden; interim

hen latent occupy, to brood.

It’s hard for me to shake an image of the poet reading the newspaper while having his morning egg and toast, though that won’t get us very far. But the links are fairly obvious and undisguised: oligarch gets us to orchard, and maybe also points to oil, which is where ‘attar’ comes in. To ‘butter up’ is a form of ‘flattery’, but butter is also something you ‘spread’ on a surface (and too much butter might eventually cause an infarction). A slate and a parchment are both things you write on. A ‘credit speck’ sounds like a credit check, ‘slate’ shares a rhyme with ‘latent’ and ‘indicated’, and I’m not sure I like the sound of a ‘latch warden’, whatever that is.

With a flourish perhaps we could marshal these thoughts into some coherent interpretation. Yet I think it would be a mistake to assume that the poems in this category are vehicles for an overarching meaning or the site of hidden referential schema which the dutiful reader should unearth. If there is a political critique, it’s less at the level of content (like the corruption of the body politic by oligarchic interests) than volleyed in form. The sheer fuck you audacity that runs through Prynne’s late work is testament to the truth of poetry itself, the folly of it, flung out beyond the author’s say-so.

But Poems 2016-2024 is full of surprises. One such is Parkland (2019), a long poem in prose which forms a two-part narrative in the manner of a pastoral romance. The plot, if it makes sense to call it that, involves two brothers – possibly soldiers? – called Peter and Tom, who compete in a singing match for the favour of the Queen of Sheba. The poem explicitly addresses the Civil War in Yemen, and Britain’s role in arming Saudi Arabia and thus complicity with war crimes and mass starvation. This is one of the dazzling highpoints of the book, and has already attracted notable critical attention in the form of a pamphlet-length dialogue between the American critics Jeff Dolven and Josh Kotin, The Parkland Mysteries.

The writing in Parkland is almost scandalously beautiful, with sensuous phrases shimmering off the page: ‘all ears inquisitive and forgiven, smell of fresh earth by daylight’. It’s hard to excerpt, because the effect involves a cumulative musical phrasing – quite different to the disruptive sound-world of what comes before. It is at once piercingly familiar and totally weird, treading the line between trance and trap. As the voices join together the work becomes ‘a song of harm’, and the fervour builds: ‘singing grind your teeth, to ash cone and gnash relented open view front to back in pitch, in dark’. It is the colonial devastation and dispossession that underpins the entire history of English poetry, in cadence and image and tune.

Prynne’s moral outrage has erupted several times in the twenty-first century. To Pollen (2006) was a ferocious and precise commentary on the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; Kazoo Dreamboats (2011) was an ecstatic dream-vision written in the tumult of the global uprisings of that era; Of the Abyss (2017) – included in Poems 2016-2024 – is about the murderous migrant policies of both post-Brexit Britain and the EU. In the end this is the work that I’m most grateful for, the moments where the poet has to face all the contradictions, to reckon with the unfolding catastrophes of our era.

If part of what Parkland wrestles with is the entanglement of song with war, perhaps this throws light on the tendency to abstraction in much of the other work. In At Raucous Purposeful (2022/23) we encounter heap upon heap of lines like ‘palpation monstrous mortal barricade / parakeet cite alpinist pianist guesswork’, ‘sieve foxglove wolfhound fraught apricot flirt’, ‘munificent ankylose interminable waspish broidery’. Prynne suppresses ‘voice’ as such, and avoids syntactical linkages. The effect is disorientating, because the parts of speech refuse to come to a subject agreement. It is as far from a rousing anthem or an instigation to sentiment as you can imagine, and it can be exhausting to read. As my eyes twitch, I’m reminded of something Peter Schjeldahl said about how Mondrian’s asymmetries ‘may trigger slight bodily crises’ if we look hard enough for long enough.

But then what to make of Snooty Tipoffs (2021), a collection of almost 300 nonsense poems, mostly in rhymed quatrains? It’s a hoot, slapstick humming with mortal dread and absurdity, a riposte to just about everyone:

Swing low you kiddiwinks, all for vroom and groom,

    going for a run now, off to Montana soon,

just whenever get there going to be immune,

    going to as able be a dental floss tycoon.

Cruising for a snap-chat, joking in the snow,

    quicker with a back-pack, ever on the go.

Beyond the obvious precedents in Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, there’s a healthy dose of Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger here, along with the music-hall routines – the kind that surface in The Waste Land – that were still in the air in Prynne’s youth.

When Prynne writes lines like ‘The bear was addicted to chocolate, / he’d roar for a bar every day’, it is as if he’s reminding us that this is what nonsense really sounds like. But there’s deep feeling here, too. The melancholy and difficulty of lockdown, marked by so much separation and loss, is burlesqued by the poet facing his own mortality: ‘When the heart stops, its business concluded / there’s not much to do, however deluded; / immortal longings, like belongings, / abandon their fate at the turnstile’s gate’. What I love about Snooty Tipoffs – and Poems 2016-2024 in general – is that Prynne resists the grave reverie of silence, the late whispers we encounter in Ezra Pound or Samuel Beckett. Instead, the poet blows raspberries, laughs his head off.

Nor does the sound of these poems level out into metrical smoothness. It’s like Dr Seuss by way of Alban Berg, ungainly, even ugly. But the poem ends on a note of totally achieved sentiment and resolve: ‘For you I’d do / the whole thing through / below, above / for now, for love’. Of course, to get here we’ve had to elbow through all the detritus and trash that makes up an individual’s repertoire of available tunes, everything from long-forgotten Cornetto adverts to the slogans and headlines of the daily news. In one of his greatest poems, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, from Brass (1971), Prynne called this the ‘unwitty circus’ that ‘poetic gabble’ has to ‘collide head on with’. Snooty Tipoffs stands as the cherry on top of the wreckage.

Although I’ve focused here on some of the most brash and forthright of what’s collected in Poems 2016-2024, there’s also plenty of delicacy and gentleness and doubt. The prose of Memory Working: Impromptus (2020) flips some of the tactics of Parkland inwards, beautifully and oddly unravelling. The compressed poems in Each to Each (2017) carry what Roman Jakobson would call the ‘semantic aura’ of sonnets. There are sequences which duet with Shakespeare and Milton, and outliers like the short well-ventilated lines of See by So (2020), or Dune Quail Eggs (2021), a total of eighty words long, which is presented in such a way that makes me think it was written on a phone. There is so much flora and fauna, so much mineral life, an environmental unconscious underpinning the whole thing. Some sequences – like Orchard (2020) and Not Ice Novice (2022) – fall flat to my ears, but maybe in time they’ll settle.

In place of any secure middle ground, perhaps there’s a risk of eclecticism. Prose romances, rhyming quatrains, intransigent abstraction and sweet song: maybe this abundance betrays an unresolved aesthetic dilemma. But as the epigraph to Passing Grass Parnassus (2020) reminds us: sing different songs on different mountains. The phrase is a Chinese proverb, which Prynne undoubtedly encountered in Mao’s 1942 speech ‘Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing’. So the work here is various by necessity and practice, running at last in every direction at once.

By any measure, the period Poems 2016-2024 covers has been brutal and unforgiving, marked by social misery, stasis, waves of sickness and mortality unleashed by Covid, warfare and genocide. Although I think this book is destined to be the lesser-loved of Prynne’s collected works, the outpouring it contains affirms the necessity of writing through it. In correspondence and conversation I often find myself flailing, trying to find an image to sum up what it is we’ve been living though. The best I can come up with is from Looney Tunes: Wile E. Coyote off the edge of the mountain but not yet looking down. Maybe these are the songs we start to sing as we face the drop.

Read on: Lola Seaton, ‘Good Mistakes’, NLR 146.

Categories
Uncategorised

Hors Camp

There is no road to Aghor. The village emerges from a trail worn by off-road vehicles, which meanders between copses of acacia trees and herds of goats and camels. Situated about 20 kilometres from Mauritania’s eastern border with Mali, and more than 1,200 kilometres east of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, Aghor is the largest settlement in the sparsely populated rural commune of Megve, with a population of three thousand or so. One could be forgiven for thinking that local politics here have little bearing on the national or regional stage.

In December 2023, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani received a letter from Aghor’s mayor about the growing presence of Malian refugees, whose tarpaulin tents and huts had been springing up on the village periphery since August that year. Relations between locals and the refugee population had so far been amicable, with efforts made to provide for the new arrivals. But their number was now on par with that of the village residents and the influx showed no sign of abating. With lean season approaching and local water sources already strained, the situation was, the mayor wrote, becoming untenable. A number of other villages in Mauritania’s sprawling south-eastern Hodh El-Chargui region found themselves in a similar predicament. On the outskirts of its capital Nema, within the border communities of Fassala, Amourj and Bousteila, and around the market town of Bassikounou, there were more and more Malian nationals seeking refuge from the conflict in their home country.

This is what the UNHCR refers to as ‘hors camp’ – indicating those who have not been accommodated within the M’bera refugee camp also located in Hodh El-Chargui, southwest of Aghor. While M’bera’s population has fluctuated over its twelve-year lifespan, it has recently reached unprecedented numbers, coming close to 100,000. The ‘hors camp’ population, meanwhile, is estimated to be over 80,000, posing a serious challenge to Mauritania’s extant model of refugee resettlement.

The M’bera camp was built shortly after a coup d’état in Mali that coincided with a resurgence of conflict between Tuareg separatists, the Malian army and jihadist militants. In 2013, the French government launched Operation Serval, a tactically limited military intervention in northern Mali aimed at quelling an advance of jihadist groups towards the south. Emboldened by its success, the mission was expanded to the entirety of the Sahel in the form of Operation Barkhane. But much like the global War on Terror, of which Barkhane was a provincial iteration, the French counterinsurgency against jihadist violence merely seemed to multiply it.

Ten years into this vicious circle, the Sahel’s populations had grown weary, as had its armed forces. In August 2020, a military coup in Mali set the script for others in Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, each of which was accompanied by mass mobilizations against Western intervention. In response to these protests, Sahelian military leaders suspended not only French diplomatic and military missions, but also those of the EU, the UN and the US. Russian security actors entered the fold instead, lending their weight to the counterinsurgency in Mali, which has rapidly intensified. Recent arrivals in Aghor spoke of a merciless approach to suspected ‘terrorists’, with reports of summary executions and the routine burning of crops and livestock by counterinsurgency forces. Combined with an aerial drone campaign, this gloves-off approach has accelerated the flight into eastern Mauritania over the past year.

The UNHCR has begun to discourage new arrivals from joining the camp. It continues to coordinate basic services for those already settled in M’bera, but amid squeezed budgets and growing demand, it has advised recent migrants to install themselves in local communities – whose resources are often overstretched. As a result, a profound disparity has opened up between those within the camp and those outside it. Some discerning Mauritanians from surrounding areas have even claimed to be Malian refugees so as to gain access to M’bera’s better services.

To ease this imbalance, the UNHCR is seeking to share the burden with the Mauritanian state, sparse as its presence may be in places like Aghor. This means support is to be offered to the government in providing essentials, rather than constructing new water towers under the auspices of the UNHCR or international aid agencies. There has also been a discursive shift: the informal settlement around Aghor is now described as a ‘welcome site’ rather than a ‘camp’, thereby relieving the UNHCR of its formal governance mandate; though for many residents of Aghor this distinction is yet to sink in.

The Mauritanian government has encouraged this transition. Since 2018, it has pushed to integrate refugees into a range of state services: health, education, social insurance, the national civil registry. This allows it to check off a number of commitments made under the Global Compact for Refugees while also affording more control over its eastern border regions. Whereas the EU is preoccupied with the country’s western maritime border, given increased migrant arrivals on the Canary Islands, Mauritanian politicians have insisted that the security situation on its eastern frontier is more pressing – with reports of Mauritanian nationals being killed in drone strikes while crossing from Mali as well as Tuareg militants entering M’bera.

In recent months these tensions have threatened to boil over. Following the alleged killing and burning of a number of Mauritanians by Malian armed forces and Russian mercenaries in April, the Malian ambassador to Nouakchott was summoned and the Mauritanian defence minister flew to Bamako. The Mauritanian government has since come out strongly against Malian incursions into its territory, promising to defend Mauritanian nationals both within its border and beyond it.

Of course, had French colonial whims differed, Mauritania would not have any jurisdiction in this region. For much of the colonial period, Hodh El-Chargui was part of the Soudan Français, the French colonial precursor to the Malian state. The modern-day border between Mauritania and Mali was created by a 1944 colonial decree which expanded the territorial scope of the colony of Mauritania eastward into what had previously been French Sudanese territory. The logic was incipiently ethno-national, insofar as it sought to incorporate into the colonial territory of Mauritania as many ‘Moors’ as possible. Malian forces are now seeking to invert such ethno-territorial expansionism, with videos circulating online of soldiers removing Mauritanian flags and erecting Malian ones in villages near the border.

Among some self-proclaimed pan-Africanists, this newfound irredentism is part of a regional shift away from French colonial influence. If nothing else, it indicates the multiplication of interests and claims that has followed the collapse of unrivalled Western hegemony in the Sahel over the past four years. In its place, we are now seeing distinct geopolitical camps staking out their claims – with Russian security partners on the one hand, and a beleaguered Western military, diplomatic and cultural presence on the other. For the EU, Mauritania’s strategic significance lies not only in its migration profile, but also in its status as one of a shrinking cohort of Western partners in the region.

Mauritania itself is ambivalent about how to respond to this new conjuncture. While Niger has repealed an EU-backed migrant smuggling law and suspended EU capacity-building missions in the country, Mauritania has decided to enhance its EU security cooperation – most recently in the form of a migration partnership deal, stridently opposed by much of the Mauritanian population. At the same time, however, it has ruled out any US military presence in the country and has kept diplomatic and economic channels open with Sahelian military leaders, even as they have come under international sanctions.

How Mauritania positions itself in this emergent period of inter-imperial rivalry will partly depend on how things play out in places like Aghor. The possibility that Mauritania’s foreign policy could mediate between its Western partners and Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso was already distant, but it has further diminished as Malian incursions have become more frequent and intense. For those living in the border region, meanwhile, the continued influx of refugees, combined with the non-encampment policy for new arrivals, may inflame a highly precarious situation.

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

Categories
Uncategorised

Capital’s Emirates

At first glance, the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich monarchy with a long history of loyalty to American empire, appears to be adapting to the multipolar order. Since 2022 it has recused itself from Washington’s economic war on Russia. Abu Dhabi, the emirate responsible for the federation’s foreign and energy policy (and the one sitting on most of its oil reserves), has blocked the exclusion of Russia from OPEC+ monthly quotas. Dubai, the region’s major freight centre, exports Russian-bound drones and semiconductors, while allowing Russian-originating bullion and diamonds to pass through its Gold & Commodities Exchange. The city’s property market and docks have been made available for Russians who need a place to hide their wealth.

The UAE also provides invaluable services to another American foe: Iran. Ports in Fujairah facilitate the crude shipments which allowed Tehran’s oil exports to jump by 50% in 2023. Abu Dhabi orchestrates sizeable re-export flows, while Dubai provides shadow banking and import arrangements. Official statistics show the UAE conducting around $25 billion worth of trade per annum with Iran, earning it second place on the latter’s bilateral ledger, without factoring in an estimated $10 billion worth of illicit exchanges.

And then there is China, now the largest buyer of goods made in or transiting through the UAE. Roughly two-thirds of all Chinese exports to the Middle East, Africa and Europe pass through Emirati ports. To streamline exchange, significant currency swap agreements have been established between the central banks, and Chinese commercial banks have become ensconced in Dubai’s International Financial Centre, where they hold a quarter of all assets. The Bani Fatima – the moniker given to the UAE President and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and his five maternal brothers – selected Huawei to build the country’s 5G infrastructure in 2019, to the NSA’s chagrin. In another apparent rebuke to Washington, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s spy chief, made a $220 billion investment through his family’s firm into ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.

In some ways, the UAE’s bid for geopolitical autonomy is real – its refusal to choose between rival superpowers a privilege born of unique financial resources as well as lobbying and political acumen. (The country also received various dispensations from Washington by signing the Abraham Accords in 2020.) But the Emirates’ motivations are more complex than mere sovereigntism. On closer examination, many of their recent actions can be understood as respecting, rather than renouncing, obligations to empire. Despite partnerships with nonconforming states, the country remains committed to US-led neoliberal globalization: a faithful servant of what Ellen Meiksins Wood called the ‘empire of capital’.

The UAE’s relations with Russia are a case in point. Though they seem to contradict American interests, in reality they facilitate the US strategy of keeping global commodities markets functioning as if the war in Ukraine were not happening. Mindful of supply shortages and their effect on inflation, Washington has made its energy sanctions easy enough to circumvent – using the UAE as a conduit for Russian crude, which has even flowed into New York’s Upper Bay without too much handwringing. The EU, for its part, has enacted legislation to sanctify the arrangement, exempting refined products from the G7’s regulations. Admittedly, the US Treasury Department decided last winter to sanction four shipping companies domiciled in the UAE for transporting Russian crude sold above the G7 price limit of $60 a barrel. But this was clearly a tokenistic gesture – intended to show that the White House was doing something about violations, which have been constant since the price limit was introduced. The penalties were too small to have any real effect.

Modest gas sales in yuan aside, Emirati commitments to the dollar and to the dominance of American finance also remain steadfast. Pricing virtually all sales of oil and oil-derived products in greenbacks, and keeping most of its windfall profits abroad, the UAE pumped $45 billion into eurodollar and US banking markets in 2022 alone. The following year, Emirati institutions increased US treasury holdings by about 40%, further easing liquidity conditions and helping to pay Washington’s fiscal and current account deficits. Since Covid, the UAE’s enlisting of American banks as primary underwriters for their bond issues has furnished those banks with an ample source of fresh revenue and cash flow. The country’s largest sovereign wealth funds – the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), Mubadala and the Abu Dhabi Developing Holding Company (ADQ) – have meanwhile been recycling massive sums of petrodollars into US shadow banks.

ADIA and Mubadala have also been propping up what is now arguably the key institutional pillar of American finance: asset management. ADIA entrusts 45% of its capital to Blackrock et al., while Mubadala retains a non-negligible equity stake in the same outfit. As part of the Biden Administration’s ‘Partnership for Accelerating Clean Energy’, the Al Nahyan family’s asset management firm has pledged $30 billion worth of green investment, to be co-managed with Blackrock. In arranging long-term leases of forest land in Liberia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the UAE has played a key role in emerging carbon credit markets – helping to bolster Washington’s absurd ‘derisking’ climate rescue strategy.

Of similar benefit to US empire is the maritime trade network that the UAE has pieced together through the dealings of DP World and the AD Ports Group – state-owned firms run by Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively. Their role is to direct increasing shares of global trade through Emirati-owned mega ports, facilitate security arrangements with partner/client countries, and acquire spaces from which the UAE can launch military operations, as when the Emirates attacked Yemen from a DP World port in Eritrea. The Emirati companies build and manage ‘free zones’ around their ports, which operate beyond national labour laws and smooth out logistical frictions arising from the intersection of Chinese, Indian and American commercial activities. Markets along the Horn of Africa, once loosely embedded in the circuitry of the global economy, are now being fully integrated thanks to these zones. By this means, the UAE provides other states – the US chief among them – with spaces to absorb their export capital and advance their geostrategic interests. In return, it extracts rents on a large share of the world’s trade. Its control over key logistical sites is now set to extend to the Indian and Pacific Oceans via recent port takeovers in Pakistan, India and Indonesia.

Global capital is likewise served by the state-owned – or, more precisely, royal-owned – structure of the UAE’s economy. The system’s idiosyncrasies can, from time to time, transgress the principles of free competition or corporate governance. First Abu Dhabi Bank, chaired by Sheikh Tahnoun and majority-owned by Mubadala and the royal family, has granted his royal highness and other board members more than $3 billion in loans. Tahnoun, who chairs public and private institutions with total assets worth more than $1.5 trillion, has used his command of public resources and regulatory powers to propel his International Holding Company, a private Al Nahyan family-owned entity, from total obscurity to a market capitalization larger than Goldman Sachs in the space of a few years. Yet, such excesses aside, the Al Nahyans, along with Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family, have been widely praised for their economic management and openness to foreign investment. They typically act as the first risk-bearers within the MENA region, opening up opportunities for traders in London and New York to grab an easy scalp. In relieving Egypt’s balance-of-payment strains through a $35 billion investment in February, ADQ allowed Western bond traders to safely return to the country and collect enormous interest payments on its sovereign debt. The UAE’s state capitalism can thus serve as a vehicle for investors to navigate the rise of new actors within the structures of contemporary globalization.

Assessed in full, then, the UAE’s devotion to the empire of capital is pure, even though its relationship with Washington shows some signs of surface fracture. The Emiratis know that American dominance is sustained not only by military might, but by the free movement of capital, the management of labour and trade hierarchies, the exorbitant privilege of the dollar and the availability of offshore hideaways. The UAE upholds these principles in all its commercial engagements, including those involving Russia, China and Iran. In contrast, parts of the American political establishment are willing to compromise them by pursuing self-destructive trade wars and weaponizing the global financial system. The apparent divergence between the UAE and US is less the result of an imperial custodian going rogue than of an emperor no longer able to discern, let alone honour, his best interests.

Since the Arab Spring, the UAE no longer views the US as a reliable protector: a scepticism that was fuelled by Biden’s lackadaisical response to the Houthis’ attacks on UAE territory and the Iranian seizures of oil tankers. Even so, by maintaining close relations with particular fractions of US capital – the financial sector in particular – Emirati elites hope to preserve their position in the imperial matrix: one that allows them to augment their wealth, consolidate their power and obstruct the possibility of social change.

None of this is to imply that the UAE is without internal contradictions. Since 2011 especially, it has adopted a muscular military interventionism which has often hindered rather than helped capital accumulation. The Emirati-Saudi misadventure in Yemen was one such instance, which expedited Ansar Allah’s maturation into a force capable of redirecting maritime traffic around the Cape of Good Hope. The UAE’s support for Zintan militias – and, later, Khalifa Haftar in Libya – was another, which fomented political instability and disrupted oil production, while the transnational campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood was, at best, a waste of resources. Nevertheless, Abu Dhabi’s violence, even when it has resulted in short-term losses, has never been wholly useless to capital. While martial crackdowns across the Middle East and North Africa may have foreclosed investment opportunities temporarily, they have also narrowed the horizons of popular movements. By forcing those aspiring for social, political and economic transformation into more defensive postures, they have helped protect the region’s class relations and power distribution. 

As Washington continues to restructure its empire in the years ahead, the UAE will exploit this transition by playing all sides to its material and strategic advantage, while also working to preserve global capital’s boundless hegemony. It is possible that this will lead to fractures between the US and its deputy, which could create openings for a politics of democratization and redistribution. Yet, given the coordinates of the present conjuncture, it is more likely to have the opposite effect: strengthening the dominance of a rapacious neoliberal monarchy, which can court America’s adversaries without weakening the power of its patron. 

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘Fear and Money in Dubai’, NLR 41.

Categories
Uncategorised

Favoured Nation

Britain goes to the polls on 4 July, but one issue not on any politician’s lips is the country’s relations with the Land of the Free. Angus Hanton’s Vassal State: How America Runs Britain is the latest book to break this Westminster taboo, doing for business studies what Tom Stevenson’s Someone Else’s Empire recently did for foreign affairs. The book is a statistical barrage documenting the very high proportion of UK corporate assets owned by US multinationals, private equity and big tech. Parliamentarians who fulminate about China’s TikTok and Huawei may be barking up the wrong tree, it seems. Hanton considers why Britain has been singled out by American capital and urges action to tackle the country’s ‘abject’ economic dependency.

On Hanton’s figures, the UK accounts for 30 per cent of American overseas investment and over half of US corporate assets held in Europe, making New York–London the ‘biggest route of cross-border takeovers in the world’. American investors hold $2 trillion of British assets while UK investors own nearly $700 billion of US assets – actually a favourable contraflow for Britain, given relative GDP and population, but affording US capital a bigger stake in a smaller foreign economy. The Americans employ more people in Britain than in France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. Vassal State calculates that the larger US-based multinationals earned $88 billion in Britain at the time of the last general election, equivalent to £2,500 per UK household and largely tax-free (of course, most tax havens are located in British jurisdictions). It stresses the overtopping size of the larger American companies, the valuations of Apple and Microsoft (each over $3 trillion) individually greater than the combined value of the British FTSE-350.

Dig into any economic sector and you will likely strike American ownership, the book shows, compiling a shopping basket of goods dominated by the likes of Kellog’s, Mondelez, General Mills, Mars, Kimberley-Clark and Colgate-Palmolive. On the ailing high street, an outsize American presence includes Boots the chemist (Walgreens) and bookstore chain Waterstones, as of 2018 owned by Eliott Investment Management of West Palm Beach, FL. Amazon, meanwhile, has captured 30 per cent of all online commerce, partly as a marketplace for third-party sellers – one of many US ‘toll bridges’, as Hanton puts it, within the digital economy. Domestic consumers and companies must negotiate American tech platforms to access their home market, whether it is advertising via Facebook or Google, buying services on Deliveroo or Uber, networking through LinkedIn or Bumble, or paying for things using PayPal or Visa. These digital fiefdoms don’t just apply to the UK, but Vassal State pointedly contrasts the country’s sluggish economic growth since 2008 with the skyrocketing UK earnings of US tech firms over this period.

In the City, the number of firms trading on the Stock Exchange has fallen by 40 per cent since 2008: firms have been taken private or relisted in New York. US shareholders control a quarter of the remainder. Hanton identifies only three British entries in the Forbes list of the hundred largest publicly traded companies – GSK, HSBC and Unilever, each dating back to the nineteenth century. In the West End, Hanton takes in the branch offices of private-equity behemoths Blackstone, KKR and Apollo, leading buyers of British industry. ‘The true financial capital of the UK’, he argues, ‘is located on Manhattan Island’.

And on it goes. We learn that Jones Lang LaSalle of Illinois and Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis of Texas are the UK’s largest commercial property managers. In agriculture, CF Industries of Illinois dominates fertiliser production, commodity giants Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill the buying and processing of farm output. American agribusiness spearheaded by Pilgrim’s Pride of Colorado controls 50 per cent of chicken production for the British market despite a ban on chlorine-washed US poultry. ‘The full extent of US ownership has left most of British society in the dark or, in some quarters, in denial’, Hanton argues. There is a chapter devoted to US commercial inroads into the NHS following Blair’s outsourcing of elective procedures in 2002, and another on government procurement and the recent US takeovers of aerospace firms Cobham, Meggitt and Ultra, acquisitions which Hanton says the French would never have allowed.

What explains corporate America’s Anglophilia and vice versa? Vassal State dismisses a common language and UK law as explanations. Sterling’s weakness since the 2016 Brexit vote and low LSE valuations are clearly factors, but Hanton instead emphasises policy choices – ‘pandering to foreign buyers’ – beginning with Thatcher’s liberalisation and privatisation measures four decades ago. In 1981, less than 4 per cent of UK shares were owned overseas; today the figure is more than 56 per cent. The book recalls Tory grandee Harold Macmillan’s criticism of Thatcher for selling the family silver through her privatisations. In an interview with the Spectator Hanton goes further, warning that the end result of depleting one’s assets is ‘beggary’.

Both governing parties have propounded what Vassal States calls the ‘big lie’ of conflating corporate takeovers with genuinely useful foreign direct investment. Vassal State links this ideological disposition toward FDI to the intimacy of senior politicians with US firms, noting their revolving-door job appointments. On leaving office Blair and Brown were hired as advisers to JP Morgan and Pimco respectively, Cameron worked for payments processor First Data of Atlanta and biotech firm Illumnia of San Diego, and George Osborne was taken on by BlackRock. Rishi Sunak, alum of Stanford Business School, ex of Goldman Sachs, was only reluctantly parted from his Green Card. Britain’s leaders ‘have been coopted into the American machinery of influence and have rarely, if ever, questioned its growing dominance’.

Blame for weak corporate governance ultimately lies with a supine, and self-interested, political class. A chapter titled ‘Puppet Masters’ describes the Trump Administration’s brusque insistence that the Johnson government reverse its decision not to strip Huawei from the country’s 5G network, Pompeo issuing barely veiled threats of repercussions for Five Eyes intelligence sharing. ‘Mostly Washington is happy for the British to have their own conversations and make their own decisions, and there is no need for the US to show its teeth,’ comments Hanton. ‘But if the Brits act against perceived US interests, American diplomats go to work, even threatening “the special relationship”.’ The Huawei episode, he adds, ‘demonstrated the language of partnership coupled with the actions of control.’

What motivates such stinging judgements? Hanton is an Oxford-educated real-estate broker from Dulwich, a picturesque neighbourhood of south London. Now in his sixties, he entered public-policy discourse a decade ago when he cofounded a think tank to promote intergenerational fairness. His father Alastair was a public-spirited Methodist banker who set up the Post Office Girobank for the first Wilson Labour government and devised the Direct Debit payment method. Vassal State is at pains to stress that the logic of its analysis is not anti-American, just pro-British, pleading that a weakened UK poses a problem for the US and Europe in the fight against climate change and authoritarianism (read: Russia and China). It urges a reset and the binning of false prospectuses. Concretely, the introduction of legislative protections like France’s 2006 Danone law, a Gaullist rebuff to reported hostile-takeover interest from PepsiCo.

Anxiety about US commercial penetration isn’t new, but sporadic. In the Edwardian period, amid debate over tariff reform, Canadian journalist Frederick Arthur Mackenzie anticipated in The American Invaders (1902) that British capital faced a ‘Waterloo of Trade’, especially in advanced sectors such as electrical engineering. After the Second World War, as David Edgerton notes in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, the US was already by far the largest foreign investor in Britain. It’s worth noting that it also called the shots in monetary policy: foisting sterling convertibility on Attlee in 1946 after Truman abruptly terminated Lend Lease (a ‘financial Dunkirk’, according to Keynes), forcing Eden into an immediate troop withdrawal from Suez in 1956 in return for emergency funding to maintain sterling parity, blocking devaluation by Wilson in 1965 and leading Callaghan into IMF austerity in 1976. The institutional nexus of US financial influence, continued into the twenty-first century with the dollar swap lines of 2008 and 2020–21, is missing from Hanton’s account.

Nevertheless, Vassal State seems a textbook illustration of the consequences of what Tom Nairn described as the British political economy of eversion, the country’s non-industrial metropolitan heartland waxing rich as a service-zone to international capital while regional manufacturing plant is either shut down or sold off. The book has had mixed reviews in the British press. The Tory Telegraph responded that ‘we have willingly and happily prostrated ourselves – in some ways for good, but clearly also for ill’. The centrist Times was defensive of Hanton’s impugning of the economic value of the transatlantic link. ‘Polyvalent dominance’, Nairn argued in his 2003 Postscript to The Break-Up of Britain, ‘is most effective when the suborned have chosen their prostration. And normally, such elective subjection is founded on apparently sensible (if short-range) economic or career reasons: myopia re-attired as the national interest.’ There will be plenty of that in evidence on the campaign trail over the next six weeks.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Edgerton’s Britain’, NLR 132.