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In Defence of Ken Loach

So, it’s come to that: Ken Loach is now the target of a character assassination campaign waged by those who will stop at nothing to shield the apartheid policies of Israel. Their message to people of good conscience is simple: Unless you too want to be tainted as an antisemite, keep quiet about the crimes against humanity and the assault on human rights in the land of Palestine. They are putting the rest of us on notice: If we can do this to Ken Loach, a man who has spent his life championing the victims of oppression, racism and discrimination, imagine what we shall do to you. If you dare support the Palestinians’ human rights, we will claim that you hate the Jews.

The art of assassinating the character of a leftist has become better honed in recent times. When the Financial Times called me a Marxist biker, I confessed to the charge gladly. Calling me a Stalinist, as some unsophisticated rightists do, also fails to ignite an existentialist crisis in my soul because I know full well that I would be a prime candidate for the gulag under any Stalinist regime. But call me a misogynist or an antisemite and the pain is immediate. Why? Because, cognisant of how imbued we all are in Western societies with patriarchy, antisemitism and other forms of racism, these accusations hit a nerve.

It is, thus, a delicious irony that those of us who have tried the hardest to rid our souls of misogyny, antisemitism and other forms of racism are hurt the most when accused of these prejudices. We are fully aware of how easily antisemitism can infect people who are not racist in other respects. We understand well its cunning and potency, for instance the fact that the Jews are the only people to have been despised both for being capitalists and for being leftie revolutionaries. This is why the strategic charge of antisemitism, whose purpose is to silence and ostracise dissidents, causes us internal turmoil. This is what lies behind the runaway success of such vilification campaigns against my friends Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Brian Eno, Roger Waters and now Ken Loach. 

‘Is your exclusive criticism of Israel not symptomatic of antisemitism?’, we are often asked. Setting aside the farcicality of the claim that we have been criticising Israel exclusively, criticism of Israel is not and can never be criticism of the Jews, exactly as criticism of the Greek state or of American imperialism is not criticism of the Greeks or of the Americans. The same applies to interrogating the wisdom of having created an ethnically specific state. When remarkable people like my heroes Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein questioned the Zionist project of a Jewish state in Palestine, it is offensive to claim that to debate Israel’s existence is to be antisemitic. The question is not whether Arendt and Einstein were right or wrong. The question is whether their questioning of the wisdom of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine is antisemitic or not. Clearly, while antisemites opposed the foundation of the state of Israel, it does not follow that only antisemites opposed the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

On a personal note, back in 2015, while serving as Greece’s finance minister, a Greek pro-troika newspaper thought they could diminish me with a cartoon depicting me as a Shylock-like figure. What these idiots did not realise was that they made me very proud! Trying to tarnish my image by likening me to a Jew was, and remains, a badge of honour. Speaking also on behalf of aforementioned friends vilified as antisemites, we feel deeply flattered whenever an antisemite bundles us together with a people who have bravely endured racism for so long. As long as a single Jew feels threatened by antisemitism, we shall pin the Star of David on our chest, eager and ready to be counted as Jews in solidarity – even though we may not be Jewish. At the very same time, we wear the Palestinian flag as a symbol of solidarity with a people living in an apartheid state built by reactionary Israelis, damaging my Jewish and Arab brothers and sisters and stoking the fires of racism which, ironically, always forge a steelier variety of antisemitism.

Returning to Ken Loach, thankfully no smear campaign against him can succeed. Not only because Ken’s work and life are proof of the accusation’s absurdity, but also because of the courageous Israelis who take awful risks by defending the right of Jews and non-Jews alike to criticise Israel. For instance, the group of academics who have methodically deconstructed the IHRA’s indefensible definition of antisemitism, which conflates it with legitimate criticisms of Israel that many progressive Israelis share. Or the wonderful people working with the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSELEM to resist the apartheid policies of successive Israeli governments. I am just as grateful to them as I am to my friend and mentor Ken Loach.

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War by Other Means

One principle that gives relative coherence to the political rationality of the Trump faction is this: politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. That was on full display in the rhetoric of previous weeks, with Rudy Giuliani calling for ‘trial by combat’, or Trump exhorting his followers to show ‘strength’ at the US Capitol. This combative approach is not reserved for moments of crisis; it rather permeates the political reasoning of Trumpism, and identifies it as a direct outgrowth of a long line of reactionary thought.

Here I want to investigate not so much the ‘warlike’ logic of Trump’s politics but the other half of the equation, which is its grounding condition: the assumption that traditional logics of political mediation are vacuous and serve merely as a ruse. Here one can discern a rational kernel in the deeply mystified shell of Trumpian thought.

First, let me step back and explain briefly what it means to assert that politics is a continuation of war. In his 1976 lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault invoked this transformed relation between politics and war, ‘the inversion of Clausewitz’s formula’, to grasp the functioning of power (admittedly, in a very different political context than our own). When Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously claimed that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, he intended to emphasize that diplomacy between states (this is primarily what he meant by ‘politics’) does not cease with the outbreak of war but continues in other forms. Or, to put this in different terms, military confrontation does not mark the end of political mediation but its persistence in a different mode.

Foucault, then, adopts Clausewitz’s logic in reverse: whereas for Clausewitz war is still ‘filled’ with political mediation, for Foucault politics are reduced to confrontation, ‘emptied’ of mechanisms of mediation. Foucault is experimenting with this formula, in my view, as a key to interpret the emerging neoliberal strategies to undermine the structures and mechanisms of political mediation, such as trade unions, welfare structures, the reformist Keynesian state, and so forth. (Although he poses this inverted formula as part of a general analysis of power, it is reasonable to speculate that it serves also as an indirect analysis of the political developments of the 1970s, especially since this argument appears primarily in his courses, which were much more tied to current events than his books.) The neoliberal vision of a politics without political mediation certainly persists in the Trump world, but it has become more extreme in many respects.

This frame helps cast a different light on the events of January 6. It is instructive that apologists for the descent on the US Capitol claim it was no different to BLM protests of the previous summer. That assertion betrays blindness to many essential distinctions, one of which is that, in contrast to BLM actions, the Capitol siege was not a protest. The logic of protest assumes a context of political mediation: a situation in which social and governmental structures at various levels will potentially respond with reforms. The demand to ‘defund the police’, as it is generally understood, for example, only makes sense in a context characterized by potential political mediation. Yet for Trump and his supporters, since the logic of and potential for political mediation is absent, protest makes no sense. They expected no mediation in response to their actions, only a political result: to remain in power. There was, then, no passage from politics to war on January 6. Trumpist political praxis was already animated by war logic, which is to say, devoid of mediation.

The lack of credence in political mediation also illuminates the Trump faction’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of election results since, at a deep level, claims of political representation are conceptually allied to those of political mediation. There is, of course, an overtly opportunistic element to Trump’s acceptance of some and rejection of other election results, as there is too with the longstanding Republican strategy to exclude voters (especially Black voters and other people of color). But these opportunistic tactics rest on the view, deeply embedded in reactionary thought, that claims to political representation are deceitful. For instance, in the early 20th century Robert Michels, wary of the rising electoral power of European socialist parties, sought to unmask what he considered their false assertion of representational legitimacy: all parties – even those purporting to express the popular will – are in the final analysis dominated by elites, and political representation is an elaborate deception wielded by those elites to gain and maintain power.

The same logic, at a much lower level of sophistication, underpins Trump’s view of representation, and that of the Republican Party more generally. Neither suppressing voter turnout through devious legislative fabrications (as Republicans have long done) nor discarding legitimate ballots (as the Trump faction recently attempted) appears scandalous or hypocritical, because claims of representation – like those of political mediation more generally – are seen as inherently bogus. From this perspective, liberal hand-wringing about democratic safeguards is simply disingenuous, since those who champion representation are not really handing power to ‘the people’, but rather using the ruse of representation to legitimize their side’s social, media, and political elites. Every election, by definition, is rigged.

This brief characterization therefore suggests that, beneath the cloud of lies and buffoonery, a relatively coherent rationality animates Trumpism: since effective political mediation is lacking and claims to representation spurious, the thinking goes, politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. Last week, Mike Davis and Thomas Meaney debated the meaning of the Capitol Hill riot for the future of the Republican Party. If we accept my hypothesis about the rationality of the Trump faction then we should also consider its consequences for the left in the US and elsewhere. What constitutes an adequate response to such agonistic logic? One might reasonably reply that we should contest its premise, championing the existing structures of political mediation and representation as effective and progressive. Alternatively, one could advocate that we inhabit the same plane of combat as our adversaries, treating political contestation as war. My view is that neither of these is adequate. Structures of political mediation have indeed largely been withdrawn and structures of representation are relatively ineffective, but the solution is precisely to invent new mediations, including novel mechanisms of democratic participation and collective decision-making. This is, in fact, what some of the most powerful social movements today are already doing. Articulating that next step, however, must wait for another occasion.

Read on: Hardt and Negri revisit the theses of Empire, twenty years after its release.

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Ins and Outs

For several years now, a serious effort has been under way in Brussels to learn nothing from Brexit, and the way things are it may well be successful. What could have been learned? Nothing less than how to shake off the late-twentieth century technocratic, anti-democratic, elitist chimera of a centralized European neoliberal empire and turn the European Union instead into a group of friendly sovereign neighbour states, connected through a web of non-hierarchical, voluntary, egalitarian relationships of mutual cooperation.

The internal life of the European Union is unendingly complicated and uniquely opaque, but one principle applies throughout. To understand it you must grasp the domestic politics of three key member states, Germany, France and Italy, and their complex trilateral relations. There is no supranationalism here at all, or only as a veil behind which the real action, national and international, takes place. France sees Europe as an extended playing field for its global ambitions; Germany needs the European Union to secure production sites for its industries, markets for its products, and low-wage workers for its domestic service sectors, as well as to balance its relations with France and the United States; and Italy needs ‘Europe’, in particular Germany, for its survival as a capitalist nation-state and economy.

The British never really understood this. Even the famously formidable British diplomatic service found the Brussels underbrush utterly impenetrable. While Thatcher hated the EU – too foreign for her taste – Blair believed that by turning it into a neoliberal restructuring machine, together with Chirac and Schröder, he could become its Napoleon: the Great Continental Unifier, this time from without. Little did he know. France and Germany let him walk into the Iraq war alone, as adjutant of his American friend, George W, and subsequently into his demise. And Cameron learned in 2015 that even Great Britain, used to ruling the waves, was unable to extract from Merkozy the tiny concessions on immigration that he thought he needed to win the referendum of 2016 – called after all to cast British membership in stone. There was no consideration in Germany of the effect on the British vote of Merkel’s open borders in the summer of 2015, letting in one million refugees, mostly from Syria, driven from their homes by a civil war deliberately left hanging by Germany’s American friend, Barack Obama. For Merkel, this was an ideal opportunity to correct her image as ‘ice queen’ acquired in the spring of the same year when she had let it be known that ‘we cannot take in everybody’.

Mystification was mutual. On the Continent nobody believed that the Cameron government could lose its referendum gamble. The only Brits to which the ‘European’ educated classes ever talk are from the British educated class, and these were for widely different, often incompatible reasons in unqualified love with the EU. For the Euro-idealists on the liberal left the EU was a preview of a political future without the blemishes of a political past, a constitutively virtuous state if only because it was not yet a state at all, uniquely desirable for people who saw their own post-imperial country in need of a moral refounding from above. Others who knew how Brussels works must have laughed up their sleeves – in particular a political class which had long cherished the possibility of moving difficult subjects directly into the bowels of that inscrutable Brussels Leviathan to be dismembered beyond recognition. This included the post-Blair Labour Blairists. Having lost power, and facing a working class that they in good British tradition found not quite up to snuff, they were happy to import a residual social and regional policy from Brussels – knowing full well that Brussels was unable to deliver anything of importance, not least because British governments, including New Labour, had pulled the teeth of the ‘social dimension’ of the ‘internal market’ by subjecting it to the sacred imperatives of economic ‘competitiveness’. Nobody realized that this was bound to backfire the moment people began to wonder why their national government had left them unprotected in the social desert of global markets, having turned over responsibility for its citizens to a foreign power and a foreign court.

When Cameron lost, left to his own devices by Merkel and Co., the shock was profound, but then EU politics resumed as usual. France saw an opportunity to unearth its original concept of integrated Europe as an extension of the French state, with the special purpose of locking Germany into a French-dominated alliance. In case Britain changed its mind and the Remainers got their way after all, the return to the flock had to be humiliating enough to rule out any possibility of future British EU leadership. Negotiations on a divorce settlement were to be led on the EU side by the French diplomat Michel Barnier, one of the outstanding technocrats of the Brussels scene. From the beginning he played hardball, doing little to help the referendum revisionists on the British side. But neither was Britain to be let go easily. Here Germany chimed in, keen to uphold discipline among EU member states. Macron and Merkel insisted that the divorce settlement had to be expensive for Britain, preferably including an obligation to accept Internal Market rules and the jurisdiction of the EU court forever, even outside the EU. For Germany this was to show other member states that any attempt at renegotiating their relationship with Brussels would be futile, and that special treatment either inside or outside the Union was entirely out of the question.

It will fall to historians to uncover what really happened between France and Germany during the negotiations between the EU and Britain. There is no democratic, or presumably democratic, political system on earth that operates as much behind closed doors as the European Union. The German national interest in maintaining international discipline notwithstanding, the German export industry must have been equally interested in an amicable economic relationship with post-Brexit Britain, and it must have informed the German government of this in no uncertain terms. No trace of this was visible, however: neither in the negotiating strategy of Barnier nor the public pronouncements of Merkel. Very likely, this was because Germany at the time was under pressure from Macron to use the British departure as an opportunity for more and stricter centralization, especially in fiscal matters – an issue where Germany’s reluctance to agree to arrangements that might in future cost it dear had met with the tacit support of the British, even though the UK was not a member of the Eurozone.

As the deal-or-no-deal day approached and the usual ritual of negotiation until the last minute unfolded, it appears that Merkel finally threw her weight behind the demands of Germany’s export sector. The United Kingdom had now been sufficiently humiliated. During the final negotiating sessions Barnier, while still present, no longer spoke for the EU; his place was taken by one of von der Leyen’s closest aides. Toward the end France used the new ‘British’ coronavirus strain to block traffic from Britain to the Continent for two days, but this could not prevent the deal being closed. Johnson’s brinkmanship was rewarded with a treaty that he could reasonably claim restored British sovereignty. He paid for it with a lot of fish, mercifully obscured by the further unfolding of the pandemic.

What are the consequences of all this? France hired 1,300 additional customs officials to be deployed to interrupt economic relations between Britain and the Continent, including Germany, any time the French government feels that the deal’s ‘level playing field’ is no longer being maintained. France and Germany succeeded in scaring other countries, especially in the East, out of claiming the settlement with the UK as a precedent for their aspirations for more national autonomy. Pressures inside the EU for a more cooperative and less hierarchical alliance didn’t even emerge. And Merkel’s successors will have to navigate an even more complex relationship with France than in the past, having to resist Macron’s embraces without British succour and in the face of the uncertainties of the Biden administration in the US.

As to the United Kingdom, for the Lexiters Parliament rules again, unconstrained by ‘the Treaties’ and the European Court, and British citizens finally have only their own government to blame if something goes wrong: no responsibility without responsiveness. Moreover, the Remainers – the euro-revisionists – seem to have given up, at least for the time being, although they may continue to look for other protections against strictly majoritarian parliamentary government. There is also the possibility of Scotland breaking away from the UK, as the Scottish National Party might mop up pro-European sentiment with a promise to apply for the empty British seat at what will by then be King Emmanuel’s Round Table of 27 knights. This would amount to turning Scottish national sovereignty over to Brussels immediately after having recovered it from London, forgetful of the mixed historical experience of Scotland with French allies and rulers. As long as there is in Brussels a reasonable prospect for Scottish entry, forget about Brussels learning from Brexit. On the other hand, unlikely as such learning is in any case, one might just as well leave the matter to the good sense of the Scots.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton’s analysis of European futures.

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War Zones

With Biden in the White House, do you foresee any major US policy changes towards West Asia?

Let us look at what we are changing from before we look at what we are changing to. This is difficult to do because Trump’s policies, assuming them to be coherent strategies, were chaotic in both conception and implementation. Trump did not start any new wars in West Asia, though he did green-light the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2019. He withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, but relied on economic sanctions, not military action, to exert pressure on Iran. In the three countries where America was already engaged in military action – Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – surprisingly little has changed. Keep in mind that his foreign policy was heavily diluted by the more interventionist policies of the Pentagon and the US foreign-policy establishment in Washington. They successfully blocked or slowed down Trump’s attempted withdrawals from what he termed the ‘endless wars’ in West Asia. It is not clear, however, that they have a realistic alternative approach.

Biden will be subject to the same institutional pressures as Trump was and is unlikely to resist them. He may be less sympathetic to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu in Israel, but I doubt if the relationship between the US and either country will change very much. The next Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, approved the Iraq invasion of 2003, the regime change in Libya in 2011, and wanted a more aggressive policy in Syria under Obama. It does not sound as if he has learned much from the failure of past US actions in West Asia. This is not just a matter of personalities: the US establishment is genuinely divided about the merits and demerits of foreign intervention. It is also constrained by the fact that there is no public appetite in America for more foreign wars. For all his rhetorical bombast, Trump was careful not to get Americans killed in West Asia, and it would be damaging for Biden and the Democrats if they fail to do the same.

Will the Biden administration want to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran?

Biden says he wants to resume negotiations, but there will be difficulties. One, security establishments in the West are against it. Two, Saudi Arabia and its allies are against it, and so, more significantly, is Israel. Three, the Iranians did not get the relief from sanctions they expected from the nuclear deal of 2015, so they have less incentive to re-engage.

A misunderstanding – perhaps an intentional one – on the side of Western states, Israelis and Saudis/Emiratis about the nature of the deal may prevent its resurrection. They claim that Iran used it as cover for political interference elsewhere in the region. But Iranian action, and its ability to project its influence abroad, is high in countries where there are powerful Shia communities such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan – and low elsewhere. Iran is never going to stop its intervention in these countries in which, in any case, the Iranians are on the winning side.

Gulf countries such as the UAE and Bahrain have recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. What effect will this have on Israel-Palestine relations?

This weakens the Palestinians, though they were very weak already. The UAE and Bahrain (the latter is significant only as a proxy of Saudi Arabia) did not do much for the Palestinians in any case. Yet, however weak the Palestinians become, they are not going to evaporate so, as before, Israel holds all the high cards but cannot win the game.

You’ve said that ‘great powers fight out their differences in West Asia’. Why is that?

West Asia has been unstable since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an arena for international confrontation ever since. Reasons for this include, one, oil; two, Israel; three, states in West Asia look weak but societies are strong and very difficult to conquer – witness Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the even more self-destructive US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Invaders and occupiers in West Asia have great difficulty turning military superiority into political dominance.

What role did colonial rule play in the ethno-political conflicts of West Asia?

Foreign intervention usually exploits and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic divisions, though it seldom entirely creates them. Britain relied on the urban Sunnis to rule Iraq; the French looked to minorities such as Christians in Lebanon to rule there. More recently, foreign powers gave money, arms and political support to factions in Iraq to enhance their own influence but fuelling civil war. Opponents of Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But, on the contrary, they got much deeper and more lethal. The same is true of Syria: the battle lines generally ran along sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Intervention in West Asia has traditionally ended badly for British and American leaders: three British Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair) lost power or were badly damaged by the West Asian interventions they launched, as were three American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).

You’ve said that the Iran–Iraq war was ‘the opening chapter’ of a series of conflicts in the region that have shaped the politics of the modern world. Why?

The Iran Revolution was a turning point, out of which came the Iran-Iraq war that in turn exacerbated Shia-Sunni hostility throughout the region. Saddam Hussein won a technical victory in the war but then overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. Aside from Iraq, the sides confronting one another in West Asia are much the same now as they were 40 years ago. One big change is the recent emergence of Turkey as an important player, intervening militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

One has to be careful to distinguish between different ‘proxy groups’. The phrase is often used as a form of abuse to denigrate movements with strong indigenous support as mere pawns – and sometimes this is true. The Houthis in Yemen, for instance, have been fighting for years and receive little material help from Iran, but are almost always described in the Western media as ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’, implying that they are simply Iranian proxies, which they are not. In Iraq, some of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Shia paramilitaries) are under orders from Iran, but others are independent. The Kurds in Syria rely on the US militarily and politically because they fear Turkey, but they are certainly not American puppets.

What has been the outcome of ‘the War on Terror’?

It was America’s post-9/11 wars, supposedly against ‘terrorists’, that created or increased chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These wars turned out to be endless, so populations had no choice but to flee. In Europe, the refugee exodus from Syria peaked in 2015–16 and was probably a decisive factor in the vote for Brexit in the UK referendum. All the anti-immigrant parties in Europe were boosted. The intervention by Britain and France in Libya (backed by the US) in 2011 destroyed the Libyan state and opened the door to a flood of refugees from further south seeking to cross the Mediterranean. The Europeans in particular remain in a state of denial about the role of their own foreign policy in sparking these population movements.

You were one of the first to warn about the emergence of ISIS. What led to its rise?

ISIS was born out of the chaos in the region. Before 9/11, Al Qaeda was a small organisation. Al Qaeda in Iraq, created by the US invasion, was far more powerful. Defeated by 2009, it was able to resurrect itself as ISIS after the start of the civil war in Syria. I am surprised now that more people did not understand how strong ISIS had become by 2014, the year they captured Mosul in northern Iraq. They had already taken Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad earlier in the year, and the Iraqi Army had failed to get them out. This should have been a sign that ISIS was stronger and the Iraqi government weaker than had been imagined.  ISIS was a monstrous organisation, but militarily it was very effective in using a mixture of snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps. Its weakness militarily was that it had no answer to air power.

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

There is a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not on the scale of 2012–14, but still significant. I am not convinced that clones of ISIS in other countries are as significant as is sometimes made out to be. ISIS lost its last territory with the fall of the Baghouz pocket in eastern Syria in March 2019. ISIS leader and caliph, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a raid by American Special Forces on a house in northwest Syria in October the same year. Since then events have favoured ISIS: the US-led coalition against it has fragmented and the defeat of ISIS no longer has the priority it once had; Sunni Arabs, the community from which ISIS springs in Iraq and Syria, remain impoverished and disaffected; ISIS has plenty of experience in guerilla war, to which it has reverted, because holding fixed positions led to it suffering heavy losses from artillery and airstrikes. The Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as the Kurds, all have weaknesses like corruption that ISIS can exploit.

That said ISIS no longer has the advantage of surprise, the momentum that comes from victories, or the tolerance – and probably the covert support – of foreign countries (notably Turkey) that it had in 2014–16. The Sunni Arabs suffered hideously because of the last ISIS offensive with the part destruction of Mosul and Raqqa, their two biggest cities. Many will not want to repeat the experience. Local security forces are more effective than they were five years ago.

Was ISIS an anti-imperial force? Not primarily, since their main enemies were Shia and other non-Sunni minorities. Objectively, ISIS energised and legitimised foreign intervention wherever it had strength.

You’ve recently argued that ‘oil states are declining’. If so, what are the implications for the region and international politics at large?

Biden or no Biden, the nature of power in West Asia is changing. Oil states are no longer what they were because the price of oil is down and is likely to stay that way. This is profoundly destabilising: between 2012 and 2020, the oil revenue of Arab oil producers fell by two-thirds, from $1 trillion to $300 billion, in a single year. In other words, the ability of the rulers of a state like Saudi Arabia to project power abroad and retain power at home has significantly diminished. A country like Iraq has just half the income it needs from oil – and it has no other exports – to pay state employees and to prevent the bankruptcy of the Iraqi state. People forget what a peculiar situation we have had in West Asia over the last half century, with countries that would have had marginal or limited importance in the world – like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya and Iran – becoming international political players thanks to their oil wealth. They could afford to buy off domestic dissent by creating vast patronage machines that provided well-paid jobs. But there is no longer the money to do this. The end of the oil-state era is not yet entirely with us, but it is approaching fast.

Is the US now trying to extricate itself from the region?

Obama and Trump both said they wanted to reduce on-the-ground commitments in West Asia, but somehow the US is still there. In reality, the Americans would like to enjoy the advantages of imperial control or influence but without the perils it involves. They would prefer to operate by employing other means such as economic sanctions or local proxies. The Obama foreign policy was meant to see ‘a switch to Asia’ but this never really happened, and it was the West Asian crises that continued to dominate the agenda in the White House. In other words, the US would like to withdraw from West Asia, but only on its own terms.

Across West Asia, left movements have increasingly been replaced by Islamist forces. How would you explain this change?

I am not sure that this is quite as true as it used to be because Islamist rule in its different varieties has turned out to be as corrupt and violent as secular rule. Both have been discredited by their years in power. Secularism was always strongest among the elite in countries like Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. It never offered much to the poor. To a substantial degree the same thing that happened to the Left is now happening to Islamist forces. Elites with a supposedly socialist ideology were as kleptocratic as everybody else. The same was often true of nationalism because religious identity often remained stronger than national identity.

How would you analyse the changing inter-state dynamics in West Asia?

States have gone up and down. The crucial change in the relative strength of states was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, so regional powers that it had protected became vulnerable to regime change. Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 has somewhat reversed this – but not entirely. Iran became much more of a regional power thanks to the elimination of its two hostile neighbours – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – by the US post-9/11. It is under strong pressure from US sanctions, but these were never likely to bring about its effective surrender. Iraq and Syria are too divided for state power to be rebuilt. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman produced few successes, aside from cultivating Trump and his entourage. Does the embrace of Israel by some of the Gulf rulers enhance their power or that of Israel? Probably less than they hope. Likewise, the Palestinians are weakened, but the ‘Palestinian Question’ has not gone away, will not do so, and will always return.

What of the ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflicts in Syria and Iraq?

The main sectarian and ethnic communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – will still be there in both countries, though there are winners and losers. The Sunni Arabs lost power in Iraq in 2003 and the Shia Arabs and Kurds have been dominant ever since. The Sunnis have failed to reverse this despite two rebellions, roughly 2003–07 and 2013–17 during which they suffered severe losses. The Kurds expanded their power (taking Kirkuk), but could not cling on to their gains. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful player.

In Syria, the Alawites (a variant of Shi’ism) hold power now as they did in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. The majority Sunni Arabs, under jihadi leadership, have suffered a catastrophic defeat with more than five million of them refugees. The Kurds expanded their power thanks to their military alliance with the US, but they are under serious threat from Turkey that has invaded two Kurdish enclaves and expelled the inhabitants.

The Kurds’ problem is that they are a powerful minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but all these states oppose them becoming an independent nation state. They did achieve quasi-independence in Iraq and Syria thanks to central governments in Damascus and Baghdad being weakened by ISIS and thanks to American backing. Without these two factors the Kurdish communities will be squeezed. They will remain a power in Iraq, but in Syria their position is more fragile.

How do you look back at your four decades of reporting from the region?

I am still amazed by the regularity with which Western powers, notably the US, launch military and political ventures in West Asia without knowing the real risks. They do not seem to learn from their grim experience. Reporting this was always dangerous and is getting more so.

A longer version of this interview appears in the Indian fortnightly Frontline on 15 January 2021. The questions – some of which have been shortened – were asked by Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M.  

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Republican Futures

No one writes about the American berserk with the perception and ethnographic fluency of Mike Davis. In his account of the rampage on Capitol Hill, a tonic rebuttal of the present hysteria, he sees an already long-exposed faultline of the Republican Party becoming irrevocable. To one side, post-Trump Republicans for whom the mines of Trumpism have been exhausted: they’ve already extracted their justices, their tax cuts, and their anti-immigration credentials. On top of all this, Trump has now offered them the perfect excuse to spit him out as quickly as they popped him like a pill four years ago. It’s been ‘a helluva journey’, as Lindsey Graham said from the Senate floor, like a man back on dry land. Meanwhile, erstwhile Trump loyalists like Kelly Loeffler appeared like truants mouthing remorse in the principal’s office. To the other side of the divide, Davis points to the ‘True Trumpists’, led by the two Ivy League slicksters, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who hung on to the rocket too long, and now find themselves in Republican outer space – captains of a de facto third party that is mostly concentrated in the House of Representatives and state legislatures.

For all of its obvious power, one nevertheless wonders if Davis’s read on the events is perhaps too categorical. If anything, it may underestimate the sheer cynicism of many of the Trumpist representatives and, more importantly, the traditional, tactical amnesia of the Republican Party, although Davis is hardly unaware of this. If Tucker Carlson’s open-air therapeutic ward is anything to go by, the content of Republican grievances has already shifted away from election fraud – a one-time travesty anchored in delusion – and onward to the dark plots and complicity of Silicon Valley – an on-going travesty anchored in reality. Hawley and Cruz and their shock troops in the House have spent the past four years trying to assemble a permanent front against Big Brother Tech. To this end, they will reframe their own intransigence as just a more piquant version of Republicans blocking Merrick Garland from occupying his Supreme Court seat, and they will recast the rampage of the Capitol as the Alamo of free-speech.

There is much ground to be won by whichever Party can position itself as the long-term opposition to Silicon Valley. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brandishing a copy of Logic magazine will be no match for a party that dedicates itself to that mission. Structurally, the Republicans have the advantage. As Dylan Riley made clear in NLR 126, both Democrats and Republicans have no interest in attacking the components in each other’s coalitions that they share – finance, insurance, real estate – but each has something to gain in attacking the other side’s exclusive components: Silicon Valley, in the case of the Democrats, and extractive industries in the case of the Republicans. As the battle lines clarify, the Republicans have only been aided by the social media monopolies themselves, who appear to be working out deals with the incoming Biden administration and Democratic Party charismatics. Even if Biden’s call to repeal Section 230, as Trump desperately tried to do last month, is the opening salvo of a gruelling offensive on the Valley, as seems very unlikely, it does not necessarily bode well for public speech to have to answer to the pleasure of an implacably centrist regime.

Surely Davis is correct that the Trumpist faction of the party will never rally around another Romney type, but Romney was already a Jurassic figure in his own time. And I will eat my laptop if Chuck Grassley ever becomes president. The extreme stab-in-the-backers may make up a sizable fringe – around 20 percent of the party – and Mike Pence may look over his shoulder for the rest of his days. But it seems that the unstable Republican coalition has a chance not only to hold, but to bind itself anew if it can use Valley-hatred to suture its wounds. Will Trumpist electoral terror against traditional Republicans be any fiercer than the kind mounted by its Tea Party incarnation? However sharply or dubiously the two camps of the American Right define themselves – True Trumpists and Back-to-Businessers – the future leadership of the Party may belong to the most enterprising half-breed.

Read on: Mike Davis’s account of Republican realignments after the Capitol Hill riot.

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Riot on the Hill

Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy – oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc. – constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians – including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat – stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. (The aesthetic was pure Buñuel and Dali: ‘Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.’)

But something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and right-wing young lions, whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long-awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy, with half of the Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. By the White House’s Fuhrerprinzip standards, Pence, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Jim Lankford even Kelly Loeffler are now traitors beyond the pale. This ironically enables them to become viable presidential contenders in a still far-right but post-Trump party. Since the election and behind the scenes, big business and many mega-Republican donors have been burning their bridges to the White House, most sensationally in the case of that uber-Republican institution, the National Association of Manufacturers, which yesterday called for Pence to use the 25th Amendment to depose Trump. Of course, they were happy enough in the first three years of the regime with the colossal tax cuts, comprehensive rollbacks of environmental and labor regulation, and a meth-fed stock-market. But the last year has brought the unavoidable recognition that the White House was incapable of managing major national crises or ensuring basic economic and political stability.

The goal is a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and, via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the battle to replace McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene. (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize his hardcore followers to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red-state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.

Read on: Mike Davis’s New Year’s blast to the American left. 

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The Trial of Julian Assange

The trial is over. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States. If anyone who has been observing the trial says that they aren’t surprised, they’re fibbing.

Nobody who sat through the proceedings (as I did at an earlier stage) could have failed to detect the bias and, on occasion, outright hostility that Baraitser displayed towards the defence lawyers. The bulk of her judgement is in that vein. The defence put forward numerous arguments for why Assange should not be extradited to the US – above all, that the US was bringing political, not criminal, charges against Assange, prohibited by the UK–US extradition treaty – and she ruled against nearly all of them.

She ruled there were no grounds for thinking that Assange’s constitutional rights wouldn’t be upheld in the US or that he would not be subject to arbitrary punishment after extradition. She denied at length, in the final paragraphs of her verdict, that this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing a journalist – essentially providing a face-saver for the UK government.

Instead, she ruled against extradition on the grounds that it would be ‘oppressive by reason of mental harm’ – that under US pre-trial conditions, held in isolation in a maximum-security prison, Assange would not be prevented from committing suicide.

It seems that the spectre of ‘supermax’ – the brutal reality of the American carceral system – was placed in the dock and found guilty. Pure hypocrisy. Is London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was held in isolation after being forcibly arrested in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019, a humanitarian zone by comparison? In late 2019, doctors who inspected Assange wrote an open letter to the British government, stating that he ‘could die in prison without urgent medical attention’ due to the conditions in which he was kept. Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, noted that ‘Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture’, having been ‘in solitary confinement for all intents and purposes for more than a year now’. But Baraitser gave short shrift to this testimony.

Her ruling is only the first step. We do not know whether Assange will be granted bail pending the US appeal, or whether the judge will be vindictive. At his bail hearing tomorrow, the court will be more concerned about the risk of flight than the risk of assassination. And though Baraitser expressed her grave concern for his psychological wellbeing, she is unlikely to safeguard it by issuing an order of protection.

Questions also remain about the real reasons for this clemency. Did the incoming Biden administration let it be known they would rather avoid a US prosecution, in which the New York Times would be bound to defend Assange’s rights under the First Amendment, since it had also published Wikileaks materials? Did the British government want to link this to its own stalled extradition case against Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife who fatally ran over a British teenager in August 2019? More details may yet emerge. But as they say in sport, a win is a win. The refusal to extradite should be celebrated, whatever its motives.  

As most people know, the case against Assange – an initiative of Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under Obama – is little more than an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. In a world where visual propaganda is central to war making, counter-images present a problem for the warmongers. When Al Jazeera broadcast footage of American troops targeting civilians during the War on Terror, a US army general – accompanied by a jeep full of armed soldiers – entered the news channel’s compound in Qatar to demand an explanation. The director of the station, a soft-spoken Palestinian, explained that they were simply reporting the news. A year later he was dismissed from his post.

Wikileaks likewise obtained footage of a 2007 US helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. The pilots were heard cheering, ‘Light ’em all up!’ and cracking jokes after firing on two young children: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.’ The ghoulish cynicism shocked many after the tape went viral. The crime it depicted wasn’t novel, nor was it comparable in scale to previous American atrocities (massacre of POWs in Korea, chemical warfare in Vietnam, carpet bombing in Cambodia and so on). Yet the Pentagon fulminated that the Wikileaks video would encourage terrorist reprisals. The problem was evidently not with committing war crimes, but with capturing them on film. Thus, Chelsea Manning, who leaked the material, and Assange, who published it, must be made to feel the consequences. 

Wikileaks cast light on the real reasons for the military interventions of the 2000s, which had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or human rights – except as codewords for capital accumulation. Using the internet to bypass legacy media, Assange published more than two million diplomatic cables and State Department records that exposed the machinery of American Empire. The reaction of the US state has often tipped into absurdity; a dog snapping mindlessly at everything ends up biting his own tail. Assange pointed out that ‘by March 2012, the Pentagon had gone so far as to create an automatic filter to block any emails, including inbound emails to the Pentagon, containing the word Wikileaks.’ As a result, Pentagon prosecutors preparing the case against Chelsea Manning found they were not receiving important emails from either the judge or the defence.

Revenge was the lesser motive. The primary aim was to deter other whistleblowers. Yet this was shortsighted and foolish. Those who expose war crimes, corruption or corporate malfeasance are usually courageous but ‘ordinary’ people, often quite conservative, working in establishment institutions: think of onetime CIA employee Edward Snowden or former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Would such a person – whose entire worldview has been shaken by some horror in their conscience – succumb so easily to a deterrent? The attempt to make an example out of Manning and Assange is at odds with the mentality of the whistleblower, whose sense of injustice drives them to accept the life-changing consequences of leaking.

Ellsberg, the State Department official who handed over secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, eventually became a liberal sweetheart, especially amongst Democrats, as he had exposed Nixon’s lies and misdemeanors during the war in Vietnam. I doubt whether Julian Assange will ever reach that exalted status on either side of the Atlantic. He has been slandered by media outlets across the political spectrum. Liberal newspapers have lined up to claim that he is ‘not a journalist’ but an ‘activist’ – or, as the Boston Herald had it, a ‘spy’. His trial never got the coverage it deserved in the NYT, Washington Post or the Guardian. The latter, despite publishing the Wikileaks material back in 2011, now appears to have given up on serious investigative journalism altogether. By contrast, El País and the Suddeutsche Zeitung were more objective.

Given what Assange has suffered, a few weeks of freedom in lockdown Britain will be a gift from heaven. No more cramped space and lack of sunlight; a chance to hug his partner and children, to use a computer, or pick up a random book. ‘I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers’, he wrote to a friend from Belmarsh. ‘But the days when I could read and speak and organize to defend myself, my ideals and the people are over…’

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

Like the biologist’s dye that stains bodily tissue and illuminates its cellular structure, the laboratory-grade opportunism of Markus Söder is a useful resource for understanding German politics. As the Minister President of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, Söder currently polls as the leading contender to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor next year, despite not having declared his candidacy. The calculus is not strained: the CDU’s own three pretenders – Norbert Röttgen, Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz – could all cancel each other out. For all of northern Germany’s imputed reluctance to being ruled by a Bavarian, the closest election in postwar German history was between Söder’s political mentor, the Deutschmark fetishist CSU leader Edmund Stoiber, and Gerhard Schröder, who only narrowly won after he cannily channeled popular discontent about the US plan to invade Iraq. Most decisively, Söder is a Nürnberger from the relatively industrialized region of Franconia, not some primitive mountain yodeler of Berlin caricature.

From his earliest days, the German press identified Söder as a formidable political animal. After a minor deviation in childhood, when the five-year-old Söder brought home a ‘Vote for Willy’ sticker and his father enjoined him to pray for his sins, Söder slickly ascended the ranks of the Christian Social Union: president of the youth wing of the CSU at 28; CSU association leader for Nürnberg-West at 30; CSU media commissioner at 33; CSU general secretary at 36; CSU chairman for Nürnberg-Fürth-Schwabach at 41; Minister President of Bavaria at 52; and, as of last year, party chairman of the CSU at 53, with a standard CSU-majority of 87.4 percent of the party vote behind him. In what is essentially a Catholic political aristocracy – the CSU now has a room of its own in the Bavarian Historical Museum in Regensburg that follows the suites devoted to the reigns of Ludwig I and Ludwig II – Söder is perhaps only unusual in being a Protestant. Long known as the CSU’s attack dog – a reputation only aided by his beefy figure and faintly menacing, and quite possibly self-administered, haircut – Söder has been known to pick gratuitous fights with opponents. His ability to switch positions nimbly with plausible conviction, and his sheer enjoyment of political battle, has consistently earned him comparisons to Schröder. In their biography of the ‘Shadow Chancellor’, Roman Deininger and Uwe Ritzer note that Söder, who had a poster of Franz Josef Strauß, the Barry Goldwater of German politics, above his teenage bed, was also impressed by the pageantry of George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’, which he witnessed at close range as a CSU emissary to the 2004 Republican Convention in New York (Curiously, Armin Laschet introduced this fairly critical biography of Söder at an online event in Berlin the other day, partly, it seems, as a gambit to narrow the race for the Chancellorship down to the two of them.)

How did this immaculate CSU stalwart become, over the past year and a half, an ardent progressive, posing as Merkelite Landesvater? It is one of the puzzles of contemporary German politics. The answer has roots deeper than simply the fact that Söder, with his eye on Merkel’s job, now has some appreciation for how she does it. To begin with, it’s worth recalling how drastically both he and the current Interior Minister (and preceding Minister President and CSU chair) Horst Seehofer misread the consequences of Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep the German border open to asylum-seekers. In their interpretation of events, the political crisis over refugees was the uncorking of a bottle that would release all of the conservative spirits that Merkel had suppressed. As Merkel seemed to reveal her true colors – that of a delusional humanitarian – Söder and Seehofer finally thought they had her cornered. 2015–18 was the period in which they tried to finish her off by riding the wind of the right-wing backlash toward her and her policies (Needless to say, there was no principle in any of this: in his days as the Health Minister under Kohl, it was Seehofer who was regularly criticized within his own party for being ‘communist’ when it came to the destitute). Seeing no threat from the AfD, Seehofer and Söder decided to relax the CSU’s Strauß doctrine (‘Never allow a democratically legitimized party right of the CSU’) and appeared to think that the fledgling party’s promotion of more forthright Euroscepticism could be helpful. Then comes the CSU’s Austrian romance. Let us revisit those happy days:

  • Mid-December 2017: The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, and his coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache of the hard-right FPÖ, presented their coalition agenda withdrawing protections for refugees at the Kahlenberg, site of a decisive 1683 battle against the Turks.
  • Early January 2018: Alexander Dobrindt, head of the CSU’s parliamentary group, published his call for a ‘Middle Class Conservative Turn’ in Die Welt (Springer’s ‘prestige’ paper). Portions of it read like a less erudite version of Anders Breivik’s manifesto.
  • Early January 2018: Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the CSU-Klausur, and gave an interview to Bild-Zeitung (that had been leading a pro-Kurz campaign for weeks by then): ‘We are not talking of immigrants or refugees, we are talking about an invasion’.

And so the CSU with Söder in the driver’s seat appeared prepared to go down the Austrian road: EU-critical, Putin-curious, agrarian-traditional, culture-war-trigger-happy, maximally Islamophobic neoliberal.

Then came the stunning upset. The CSU was humiliated in the 2018 October regional election. Söder lost 10 percent of the vote, much of which seemed to have been recouped by the Greens, who offer an ever more urban and online electorate the sought-after credentials of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism. With 16 seats lost in the parliament, Söder’s majority vanished. He had to build a humiliating, if not unprecedented coalition with the Free Voters of Bavaria, a hodge-podge ‘non-ideological’ party of the centre. It was now clear that the turn to the right had been a mistake. How did Söder respond? By conducting one of the most dramatic U-Turns in recent German history. Overnight he became a lover of bees and trees – calling for new regulations for their protection. He declared combustion engines would be banned by 2030. His progressivism even overshot what his party was prepared to stomach. At the CSU conference last year, Söder’s proposal for a quota of 40 percent women at all levels of the CSU was rejected by the party delegates. The CSU still has the best discipline of any party in the land, but there are audible grumblings from lower quarters. The CSU Landtag chair Thomas Kreuzer has been lately appending pointed reminders about ‘the farmers’ to Söder loyalty oaths.

What all of this reveals is not simply that Söder is now, belatedly, reforming the CSU in the same way that Merkel did the CDU. It shows that, with his eye on the Chancellorship, Söder knows that he has no choice but to forge a working alliance between main sections of export-oriented industry and the progressive middle classes. He grasps the objective pressure Merkel is under to balance the hegemonic alliance of big multinational corporations (as opposed to smaller, more conservative family businesses), moderate conservatives and urban liberals. Urbanization and export-orientation are two of the dominant forces shaping German social life: and they are moving the country in a progressive and liberalizing direction. (The AfD, caught in factional infighting, and experiencing diminishing returns on its novelty, has meanwhile become a party of last resort for disenchanted members of the state security apparatus and the Bundeswehr). Söder knows that he must divert some of the Green vote or at least make the prospect of ruling with them more plausible. The Austrian example was always an unworkable fantasy in Germany, even in Bavaria, where there are fewer traditional Catholics, the population is urbanizing, and there is a strong ‘progressive’ neoliberal ideology that emanates from BMW (Munich), Siemens (Munich), Adidas (Herzogenaurach), Audi (Ingolstadt), etc. Companies like this do not exist on the same scale in Austria; the country is 20 percent less urban than Germany; and Austrians never underwent any comparable ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, as they still prefer to think they were not responsible for crimes committed by Nazi-Germany. Despite Kurz’s relative popularity among the professional classes of Vienna, and his wing of ÖVP’s closer position to the Federation of Austrian Industries (Industriellenvereinigung), which represents big capital groups, Austrian conservatives can still cobble together a majority without the sort of urban progressives on whom Merkel has increasingly come to rely.

What are Söder’s chances for Chancellorship? It is still too early to say. He has acquired enemies all over the country, but also ardent supporters in unlikely places. As he approaches the seat of power in Berlin, he will come under much more scrutiny. It is practically a German political rite of passage at this point to plagiarize your doctoral dissertation, but if anything it’s a sign of Söder’s intelligence that he did not resort to the copy-paste method of his peers, but rather appears to have commissioned the thing wholesale, unless one is persuaded by the image of one of the busiest political operatives in the land pouring over hundreds of documents written in Kurrentschrift in a state archive to produce the 263-page thesis, ‘From old German legal traditions to a modern community edict: The development of municipal legislation in the Kingdom of Bavaria between 1802 and 1818’. That said, Söder has had a very good pandemic, which suited both his and the CSU’s authoritarian instincts. He locked Bavaria down faster, harder, and more coherently than any other state minister, and his resolute media performances played well in the liberal press. As he considers the dimensions of Merkel’s shoes, Söder is seeing like the German state: no longer the optics of the Mittelstand businessman or the farmer in the beer tent, but something more total and omniscient: Der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist.

Read on: Joachim Jachnow on the degeneration of the German Greens; Christine Buchholz’s wide-ranging survey of the political landscape under Merkel.

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The Traveller

It is fitting that the filmography of the great American filmmaker Robert Kramer (1939-1999) now comes to us from a distance, released in new restorations by the French distributor RE:VOIR. Not only because Kramer spent much of the latter half of his life in France, or because his work has been far more celebrated there than in his native country – in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, his sprawling mosaic of New Left demobilization, Milestones (1975), occasioned a roundtable, an essay by Serge Daney and even a poem by Jean-Pierre Oudart (‘Pour Milestones’). It is fitting too because Kramer’s cinema was one of dislocation, of distances measures and traversed.

A founding member of Newsreel, the activist film collective established in 1967 after the March on the Pentagon, Kramer emerged from the tradition of militant cinema. The son of a New York doctor, he was one of the many children of the middle class for whom the radical struggles of that decade – above all that of the North Vietnamese against American imperialism – precipitated what Kristin Ross has described as a ‘displacement’ from their assigned station and a passage towards the oppressed. A trip to Brazil in the early 1960s gave Kramer ‘the outsider’s view of my own country that I needed’; his first film, FALN (1965), co-directed with Peter Gessner, was composed of footage shot by Venezuelan guerrillas. In the years that followed, he would travel to North Vietnam (The People’s War, 1970), Portugal (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, 1977) and the nascent People’s Republic of Angola (the photo-essay With Freedom in Their Eyes, 1976). ‘The places I filmed… formed a theatre of conflict’, Kramer told Cahiers, ‘but above all they were places, which meant that it was necessary to travel and to physically confront a land, a relief. Some place, somewhere, somebody.’

The journey was fundamental for Kramer. ‘There’s no English word for trajet’, he muses in Dear Doc (1990). ‘Trajectory is mechanical. The trajectory of a bullet, for example. But trajet gives the human scale of movement. My trajet.’ ‘Making movies’, he said, ‘is about moving toward and moving away. About arriving and departing. Or about the very distance necessary to make them.’ His itinerant spirit quickly proved at odds with the demands of propaganda. The People’s War is the only Newsreel film credited to Kramer (retroactively – most of Newsreel’s early films contained no credits), who left the group shortly after, out of a desire to ‘feel completely free’. ‘I feel culpability’, he stated, ‘but I’m very afraid of contexts and sedentariness. Militant cinema wants to impose an idea, a direction, an information’. We could say instead that Kramer’s cinema is that of the fellow traveller: his subject was the experience of the journey, what he describes as a ‘personal, subjective confrontation’ with events.

At the close of his Dziga Vertov Group period, Jean-Luc Godard made a film titled Ici et Ailleurs (1976). Having initially intended to make a militant pro-Palestinian film, Godard learned upon his return to Paris that his footage of the fedayeen was now of dead men, killed in the interim. The title of the resulting film (‘Here and Elsewhere’) measures the distance between France and Palestine, the militant filmmaker and his subjects – but not to relieve the director of his responsibility. As Daney wrote of the film, ‘what’s at stake is the engagement of the filmmaker as a filmmaker. For it’s in the nature of cinema (delay between the time of shooting and the time of projection) to be the art of here and elsewhere. . .the true place of the filmmaker is in the AND.’ Kramer’s work might be said to live in this interstice. A cinema of the fellow traveller: the one not identified with a group or community, but who involves himself all the same. ‘This’, Cyril Béghin writes, ‘is the centre of Kramer’s method: remoteness leads to all kinds of connections.’

His first solo-directed films were the ‘antithesis to Newsreel’s belligerence’ in David Fresko’s description. Cold and hermetic, they sought to return the militant statement (such as the propaganda film) to the lives of those who utter it. The first, In the Country (1967), is a study of political paralysis. Its early minutes foreground the distance between a New Left militant and the struggles of the oppressed: over a still photo of a black man, a white radical – the film’s subject – delivers an angry, self-loathing monologue: ‘I knew him. At least in the way I know people, functionally to work with. Imagine, this man, given all he knows, was capable of hope. Of course, I could always get out. But them, they can’t get away, but I can. That’s an impossible barrier.’ Concerned with political enervation and pathology (in one scene, the man – isolated in the countryside, avoiding a comrade facing imprisonment – compensates for his political impotence by fondling a rifle), In the Country presents a potential dead-end for Kramer’s cohort: the reification of their privileged distance, with ultra-left fantasies and a sense of political impotence substituting for engagement.

Writing of his second film, The Edge (1968) – about a group reckoning with a friend’s decision to assassinate the president – Kramer stated that the movie’s ‘major question’ was not the ideological or strategic rectitude of political violence, but rather ‘What am I myself doing? What is my relation to a movement for change in this country?’ If his early films thematize separation, it was not to abnegate commitment, but rather to make that space perceptible, to open the question of the relationship between the political and everyday life – and the possibility of their reconciliation. How can the two be reconciled? How can commitment to another’s cause be expressed without, as Deleuze said to Foucault, ‘the indignity of speaking for others’? These are the questions that animate Kramer’s work from his early involvement in militant cinema to his final films, made in the twilight of the century.

Two Newsreel-associated films, released in 1970 – The People’s War (co-directed with John Douglas and Norman Fruchter) and Ice – emblematize the two poles of Kramer’s cinema. The first, shot during a trip to Vietnam, documents the struggle against American imperialism. Its images are entirely of the Vietnamese – at combat, at work, performing a play – while a voiceover translates their testimonies for American viewers. Ice is its obverse; the camera turns back on the group itself: a militant cell based in New York, imagined in a near-future dystopian police state. Ice evokes Newsreel’s rough-hewn, verité aesthetics, but defuses any revolutionary fervour they might evoke. Instead, Kramer embeds the cell’s activities within their messy, intersubjective dynamics, characterized by paranoia, masculinism, and uncertainty. Newsreel refused to distribute the film.

Kramer would return to filmmaking only after the end of American involvement in Vietnam, his style reborn in the embers of ‘60s militancy. ‘I think this is the last film’, Kramer said of 1975’s Milestones (co-directed with John Douglas). ‘Everything has to be in it. Nothing left out because of “considerations”. All the play of the heart. All the fullness of life. The form will make itself passionately. Last movie, in which the form evaporates into life.’ Dedicated ‘with deep gratitude to the Vietnamese people, whose struggle for independence and freedom continues to point the way toward our common victory’, the film is an immense tapestry of a generation and country in transition. From the factory gates of Detroit to the communes of Free Vermont, we move between over fifty characters of roughly Kramer’s age and background – anti-war activists, hippies, labour organizers, dropouts. Blurring, like many of Kramer’s films, the boundary between documentary and fiction, Milestones emanates directly from the interior of its milieu – no longer as oblique psychodrama, but with the elemental intimacy of accumulated experience and comradery. With no establishing shots, the film is stitched together from private, melancholic conversations between lovers, comrades, and outcasts coming to terms with the experiences of the past decade and the uncertainty of their future. ‘I don’t think the centre of my beliefs has changed’, a man recently released from prison for anti-war work tells a friend, ‘but I have to live with them differently’.

The waning of direct militancy appears as a source of melancholy, but also potentially renewal: the chance to reconcile politics and everyday life. The year after Milestones’ release, Kramer expressed his belief that ‘imperialism has entered its final crisis, and that we’re going to be called upon to carry out much clearer tasks now’. The last image of the film – a rushing waterfall – signifies the thawing of the ‘ice’ of Kramer’s first films as much as the experience of, in the words of one character, watching ‘the whole context we did it in melt away.’ The only interruptions of this intimate New Left fresco are a series of black-and-white images of what frames its characters’ lives: the struggles of the Vietnamese, African Americans and indigenous Americans. ‘How do you not take their place and at the same time record their existence, their oppression, their resistance?’ asks Daney of these sequences. ‘One feels that they should be there but at the same time one does not have the right to speak in their place.’ One black-and-white insert comes from The People’s War, appearing as footage shot by a filmmaker played by Grace Paley. In the film’s final scene, she collects two sets of dailies: one, in black-and-white, for her Vietnam film, another, in colour, of her newly born granddaughter. Intimacy and distance, the events of a life and commitment to the struggle, placed side by side.

After trips to Portugal and Angola, Kramer relocated to France. The two films bookending the next period of his work are films of shipwreck, of the traveller washed up on the shores of political retrenchment. In Guns (1980) – an embodiment avant la lettre of what Fredric Jameson would later diagnose as the problem of ‘cognitive mapping’ – the lives of Kramer’s cohort are set on the edges of an opaque conspiracy involving international gun smuggling through shipping containers. Writing of the film, Kramer spoke of a ‘discontinuity’ between ‘my events’ and those of the world – the events of a life and the making of history now appear definitively severed. Eight years later, with Doc’s Kingdom (1988), he returned to the motif of the isolated radical, now in the depths of what Kramer’s friend Félix Guattari described as the ‘winter years’ of the 1980s.  A portrait of exile and creeping disillusionment, it introduces Doc (played by former Newsreel member Paul McIsaac): an American radical who, after years spent working with African independence movements, finds himself alone in Portugal. Doc, McIsaac wrote, ‘grew out of both of our lives and the lives of friends, some of whom were now dead, in jail or just “missing in action”. . . like Odysseus, Doc has been on a long journey home from the wars.’

The return journey is the theme of the two films that mark the end of the sequence begun with the founding of Newsreel: Route One/USA (1989) and Starting Place (1994). In Route One, Kramer and Doc are travel companions – Kramer behind the camera – making their way down the titular highway from the Canadian border to the edge of Florida. Kramer described the film as ‘the reverse angle shot’ of Milestones: no longer the ‘us’ of the radical milieu, but the ‘them’ of America’s people. Route One has the intimacy and sprawl of the former film; in both, the country’s present state is diagnosed not propositionally, but through a flowing series of impressions, gestures, conversations. The ‘secret background’ for the character of Doc, Kramer wrote, was A Fortunate Man (1967), John Berger and Jean Mohr’s portrait of a country doctor, and something of that book’s spirit permeates Route One. On their voyage south, the travellers immerse themselves in communities emerging from Reagan’s eighties, observing, listening, lending a hand where possible. Kramer and Doc are patient, tender – present to the lives encountered, imbued with a quiet melancholy for the country’s health (‘It makes me feel warm, sort of’, says Doc, remembering his mother’s happiness at a bingo hall, ‘but also really sort of angry, because it’s all that people have’). Well before the film’s end, Doc decides to part ways: it’s time, he tells Kramer, to cease wandering and ‘melt a bit into a community’. Kramer, speaking to an interviewer about this moment of the film, puts their divergence in these terms:

The idea behind this was a real collision between the footloose filmmaker, Robert… and Paul about the question of social responsibility… Doc says ‘Apparently as a filmmaker you can go on forever travelling with this kind of relationship to people’s lives, moving through their hearts and onto the next heart. But I’m a doctor, and a doctor only has a sense in the context of being somewhere and having patients.’

The filmmaker is always at the margins, between here and elsewhere.

Starting Place returns not only to places and people encountered in The People’s War, but to the point of departure for Kramer and his cohort: Vietnam. Opening with a quote from Chris Marker – the other great itinerant filmmaker of the left and Kramer’s collaborator the year before – on the role of images in human memory, Starting Place finds the country in the midst of its transition to a market economy, with traces of the war still present. The style is that of the true traveller: a subjective, observant camera – the vision of Kramer, the visitor – encountering a foreign place not yet schematized by habit, appearing as a rush of impressions and associations, and with this a humble deference to the other, the Vietnamese who tell him of memories of the war, their thoughts on Vietnam’s transformation, their daily lives.

Kramer features only one non-Vietnamese: Linda Evans, former member of SDS and the Weathermen, who he visits in prison, where she has been for over ten years. Shot in close-ups attentive to the subtle movements of her face and the play of light from a single window, Evans asks Kramer about his return to Vietnam, about how it has changed since her visit in 1969. Three times she says that the Vietnamese’s struggle changed her life, giving her ‘the vision of another humanity, you know, far beyond what I had experienced here. In my own small world that I was raised up in.’ We are returned to where Kramer’s cinema began: with the distance between one person and another (a people, a struggle), a distance traversed by Evans and her comrades. In the interstices, between the prison and Vietnam, Kramer’s camera now measures and bridges that gap. Over the credits, Kramer returns to Evans: ‘Vietnam is no further than the prison in California where Linda is’ he tells us. ‘She got forty years… She worked with blacks and Latinos… She fought against the Klu Klux Klan. Forty years!’ We feel our distance – from Linda in prison, from the isolation imposed on her – and, in the tenor of Kramer’s voice, the exigency of crossing it.

Read on: Ai Xiaoming, ‘The Citizen Camera’, NLR 72.

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Libya’s New Order

For years, whenever I would come to Tripoli, fighting was either raging or the next round was looming on the horizon. An internationally recognised but powerless government in Tripoli would look on as armed groups clashed over influence in the capital, and as the warlord Khalifa Haftar extended his power over eastern, central and southern Libya, often by extraordinarily violent means. Yet, on a visit last November, the atmosphere had changed. The country remained split between rival administrations, with competing foreign powers carving out their spheres of influence. But at a deeper level, the struggles of the past decade seemed to have reached maturity. Oil supplies and revenues were now flowing across political dividing lines. And out of a multitude of factions, a cast of victorious militia leaders, war profiteers and corrupt politicians had begun to emerge: the makings of a future ruling class.

The creation of this new elite has been both the cumulative result of countless acts of violence and an unintended consequence of failed peace-making efforts under the UN’s aegis. Yet the most immediate catalyst for the calm in Tripoli this winter was the clashes back in summer 2022. Tensions between two opposing coalitions of militias had been building up for months, driven by a power struggle between two competing central governments. The acting administration in Tripoli, led by the Qadhafi regime crony Abdelhamid Dabeiba, had taken office as the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) in March 2021. But soon enough the façade of unity crumbled. Elections planned for the following December were cancelled as the leading presidential candidates – including Khalifa Haftar – contested each other’s right to run. Haftar eventually threw his weight behind his former opponent Fathi Bashagha, who was mandated by parts of the east-based parliament to form a new government in February 2022. But Dabeiba, contesting the legality of Bashagha’s government, refused to cede power. Throughout the spring of last year, the two prime ministers vied for the backing of armed groups in the greater Tripoli area, with promises of positions and payments.

The showdown finally came in August, when two Tripoli militias pre-emptively moved against rival groups whom they suspected of plotting to install Bashagha. One of the militias, known as the Stability Support Apparatus, led by Abdelghani al-Kikli, had initially supported Bashagha, but became his fiercest opponent after he ignored Kikli’s wishes in his pick of interior minister. The other, a powerful Salafist outfit that calls itself the Deterrence Apparatus, had so far kept its position in the power struggle opaque. But its links to the Nawasi Brigade, a militia that had become Bashagha’s strongest champion in Tripoli, led many to believe that it would ultimately line up behind Bashagha. A businessman with close ties to Nawasi’s leaders told me that ‘Nawasi were sure the Deterrence Apparatus had their back – until the last minute.’

On 27 August, the Deterrence Apparatus suddenly took over Nawasi’s bases, while Kikli launched attacks on other forces allegedly colluding with Bashagha. A handful of drone strikes – widely believed to have been carried out by Turkey, which has maintained a military presence in western Libya since the 2019-20 civil war – then stopped pro-Bashagha groups on Tripoli’s outskirts from bailing out their embattled allies. The day ended with Nawasi and several smaller armed groups being driven out of Tripoli, as much of the city fell under the control of only two militias: the Deterrence Apparatus and Kikli’s Stability Support Apparatus. The former now holds the capital’s only functioning airport and port, as well as the districts hosting the key government institutions. Kikli controls part of central Tripoli and vast swathes of the city’s south, including its most populous neighbourhood.

Some might dismiss this episode as yet another skirmish in an interminable conflict between the shifting armed alliances in Tripoli. And so it may be. But there is also a broader trend at work here. Over the years, these repeated confrontations have entrenched the power of several fearsome militias, which have become increasingly professionalized while gradually expanding their territory. Post-Qadhafi Libya offered exceptionally favourable conditions for such groups, most of which operate as official security forces and enjoy generous state funding. At first, these organizations were unruly, fractious and unambitious – prone to splits and petty internal rivalries. Yet over time they have developed centralized leadership structures and absorbed growing numbers of the former regime’s military and intelligence officers. The result has been the consolidation of a militia landscape that, in Tripoli alone, initially involved dozens of different armed groups.

Consolidation in Tripoli was preceded by the expansion of Haftar’s military campaign. Haftar started out in 2014 with a motley alliance of armed groups, but with robust foreign support – from Egypt, France, the UAE and Russia – he gradually built up forces of his own. His Libyan Arab Armed Forces are essentially a family business, with the strongest units run by his sons and in-laws, and financed by various illicit activities which the Haftar clan has successfully monopolized.

Perhaps the clearest sign that western Libyan militias are now also coming of age is the openly political part they have begun to play. Until the formation of the Dabeiba government, armed groups mostly contented themselves with exerting political influence behind the scenes. They left it to politicians to sit at the negotiating table, then strong-armed the newly designated top officials into appointing ministers of their choosing. Allies and clients of armed groups came to operate at all levels of the administration, forming entrenched patronage networks.

As they were courted by Dabeiba and Bashagha, however, western Libyan militia leaders assumed an entirely different role. They began meeting with Haftar’s sons, Saddam and Belgasem, to negotiate the terms of a Bashagha takeover or a Dabeiba incumbency. Participants in these meetings told me of their detailed discussions with Belgasem Haftar in May 2022, on a constitutional framework for elections to resolve the impasse between the two governments. Several similar meetings have taken place since – and though they have not produced any deal, they reflect the country’s overall political trajectory. Previously, few militia leaders had sufficiently centralized control over their groups to enter into controversial negotiations without facing internal challenges. Now, they are powerful enough to talk with long-reviled adversaries.

*

Twelve years after the 2011 uprising against Qadhafi, Libya’s revolution has long eaten its own. The initial revolutionary fervour having faded into a distant memory, holdovers from the ancien régime have made a comeback by allying with the newer gun-toting parvenus – a process epitomized by Dabeiba’s appointment as prime minister. (Towards the end of the Qadhafi era, Dabeiba had acquired spectacular wealth at the head of a public-sector construction company).

Over the last decade, this ruling-class-in-waiting – comprised of state officials, businessmen and militia leaders – have become experts at illicit enrichment. Drug smuggling and trafficking or detaining Europe-bound migrants are lucrative practices. Yet these pale in comparison to the benefits of defrauding the state itself. Militias in control of the energy infrastructure – most importantly Haftar, whose forces hold most oil fields and ports – have repeatedly shut down exports to extort large sums from the Tripoli government. More often, however, oil revenues have poured into the Central Bank in Tripoli, propping up an economy that is almost wholly dependent on them (Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa). The Libyan state currently employs more than two-thirds of the country’s working-age population. State purchases constitute a major market – medicine, vehicles, catering and construction contracts – which creates endless embezzlement opportunities for those who can move the administrative levers. The result has been pillage on a vast scale and the decay of public services.

Much of the proceeds from these transactions presumably make their way to bank accounts abroad. But Libya’s war profiteers are increasingly turning their new wealth into tangible assets in the country, preparing to reinvest their capital beyond the conflict’s current phase. Some do so overtly, but many use proxies – both to reduce their exposure and to build patronage networks. Real estate is the most popular target. In Tripoli, relatives of prime minister Dabeiba are using surrogates to buy up properties in the upscale Hay al-Andalus district, according to local residents. In the coastal cities of Zawiya and Sabratha, militia leaders own beach resorts, cafés and private clinics, among other assets. And in Benghazi, commanders in Haftar’s forces have accumulated properties, partly by seizing the homes of alleged ‘terrorists’ whom they forcibly displaced.

A new shopping centre in the city is officially owned by a businessman who is widely reputed to have made his money through drug smuggling and has close ties to Haftar’s son Saddam. (Last autumn, he published videos showing him buying a hunting falcon at the record price of $1m, shooting in the air to celebrate his acquisition, then giving the bird to Saddam as a gift.) Saddam himself informally controls a private bank headquartered in Benghazi, which he has used to finance a new private airline, Berniq Airways. Its equivalent in western Libya is Medsky, launched in 2022 by Mohamed Taher Issa, a businessman from Misrata who rose to prominence by benefiting from privileged access to foreign currency at the official exchange rate during  the worst years of the 2010s economic crisis.

Acquiring and protecting such assets requires influence over state bodies and, to varying degrees, the ability to wield coercion. Firepower also serves as a deterrent against potential prosecution. As such, these investments not only reflect the confidence of Libya’s new rulers; they are also helping to cement a security landscape that is fragmented into militia fiefdoms.

*

Libya’s vicious new order is emerging amidst a stalemate rather than a settlement. During the 2019-20 war over Tripoli, the opposing powers invited foreign actors into the country, whose presence has generally prevented major outbreaks of fighting since Haftar’s defeat. Turkey, which supported the Tripoli government against Haftar, has established military bases in western Libya, and is therefore able to deter Haftar while using its drones to effectively determine which western Libyan faction rules in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Russia’s Wagner Group, which fought for Haftar, mans a string of bases that run through Libya from Sirte on the coast to the far south.

The current geopolitical conjuncture is unfavourable to a resumption of civil war. During Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, Haftar’s Emirati and Egyptian backers had waged a proxy war against their regional rivals Turkey and Qatar. But since the conflict ended, both Turkey and Qatar have mended ties with their regional adversaries. At present, Haftar can count on neither Emirati drones nor petrodollars to start a new war, while Egypt remains heavily indebted. Wagner withdrew parts of its modest contingent from Libya following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and Russia remains too bogged down to support a new offensive. Turkey is similarly unwilling to enter into a direct confrontation, since this would jeopardize cooperation with Russia on other vital issues. This constellation of priorities and allegiances is undoubtedly subject to change – but, for the time being, ambitious Libyan warlords have their hands tied.

Political pathways out of the stalemate are equally blocked. Successive international plans to negotiate transitional unity governments and pave the way for elections produced administrations that were hijacked by small cliques and determined to stay in power indefinitely. Since the latest attempt to hold a vote failed in 2021, Western governments and the UN have reiterated that elections are the only way out of the crisis. Privately, though, many Western diplomats admit that they do not believe a vote will take place anytime soon.

The obstacles to elections are formidable. Key Libyan and foreign players – Haftar, Egypt, France – insist on introducing a presidential system. But like other leading candidates, Haftar only wants presidential elections if he can skew their legal framework in his favour, excluding the most popular competitors. Ultimately, no Libyan faction wants to risk a hostile president monopolizing executive authority. And even parliamentary elections require the adoption of new laws by the two competing legislative bodies, whose majorities have so far colluded to shoot down any proposals so that they can hold on to their seats.

While international diplomats spend their time debating their preferred solutions in an endless series of meetings, Libya’s nascent elite is creating a new reality on the ground. Ironically, foreign diplomacy has contributed to what could be the centrepiece of a future settlement among warlords, as opposed to a roadmap for fair elections. UN and US diplomats repeatedly pressed Dabeiba to transfer funds for salaries to Haftar’s forces, even as the latter refused to provide information on the recipients. Dabeiba’s government now makes these payments on a monthly basis as a matter of course. Another arrangement has linked Dabeiba and Haftar since the summer of 2022, when Dabeiba appointed a Haftar nominee as head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) in exchange for Haftar lifting his partial blockade of oil exports. That post has proved all the more important since the Tripoli authorities last year allocated an ‘exceptional budget’ of $7bn to NOC.

Such agreements do not yet add up to a settlement. Haftar, who has long wanted it all, still wants more – far more than Dabeiba can give him without antagonizing western Libyan armed groups. Haftar continues to use the Bashagha government’s existence to exert pressure on Dabeiba, and open up parallel financing mechanisms by forcing banks based in eastern Libya to accumulate debts. A corollary of this tactic is the entrenchment of institutional division between east and west.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether Libyans are witnessing the contours of a future arrangement between a new oligarchy, or the prelude to a separatist conflict once Haftar, who turns eighty this year, is no longer on the scene. Haftar has built his coalition on the promise of seizing absolute power, and he is currently seeking to prevent the rise of secessionist sentiments in the east. It is unclear whether his sons could retain control after his death – or even if they would stick together. In western Libya, too, further turbulence is likely – indeed, it looks like an inherent feature of the emerging order. Outside Tripoli, militia consolidation has yet to run its course, and Dabeiba may stumble while juggling competing demands from armed groups. Yet one thing is clear: the vested interests forged by years of conflict are there to stay. 

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Between Past and Future’, NLR 80.

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Goodbye Erdoğan?

Since 2019, Turkish economic policy has been characterized by Erdoğan’s repeated U-turns. Initially, his regime adopted a programme based on low interest rates and credit expansion, breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy in order to consolidate political support among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This led to the devaluation of the Lira, high rates of inflation, a mounting current account deficit and external debt, thanks to Turkey’s high dependence on imports. In an attempt to counterbalance these effects, the government pivoted to a traditional neoliberal programme: high interest rates to attract foreign capital and stabilize the value of the TL, along with credit contraction to fight inflation and indebtedness. Yet, because such policies imperil the AKP’s electoral base, the party has continually reverted to a more heterodox approach – a back-and-forth oscillation that Ümit Akcay has analyzed in these pages.

As long as the Turkish economy was integrated into the transatlantic neoliberal order, there appeared to be no alternative to Erdoğan’s zigzagging. The strategic imperative to keep SMEs afloat by means of expansionary economic policies was irreconcilable with the country’s position in the world market. However, more recently, this oscillatory movement seems to have been abandoned in favour of a firm commitment to economic heterodoxy. Since spring 2021, the interest rates of the Central Bank (TCMB) have been pushed down to the extent that real interest rates are now far into negative territory (approaching minus 80% at their nadir). Conventional Lira deposits, held by the vast majority of the population, are yielding massive losses. Meanwhile, commercial and consumer credit has been massively expanded.

As expected, these measures allowed Turkey to attain high growth figures in 2021 – but at the cost of a massive devaluation of the Lira and skyrocketing inflation. High growth concealed a massive slump in living standards for the majority of the population, whose incomes did not keep pace with inflation despite compensatory measures such as hikes in the minimum wage, price controls and tax reductions. This dynamic led to an economic standstill towards the end of 2021, as businesses were unable to make sound price calculations and lost out on commercial contracts denominated in foreign exchange. A full-scale economic catastrophe was only narrowly avoided when Erdoğan announced what was essentially a state guarantee for foreign exchange-hedged deposits on 20 December 2021.

Shortly after that, the TCMB rolled out a so-called ‘liraization strategy’ which involved de facto foreign exchange control mechanisms: restricting access to TCMB loans for companies with high amounts of foreign exchange, banning the use of foreign exchange in domestic transactions, and creating incentives for banks to switch to TL deposits. This aimed to boost private sector demand for TL and keep devaluation at bay. But because there were no deep structural changes in the Turkish economy, all the ills of this heterodox approach – devaluation, high inflation, a high current account deficit – returned or persisted. This time, though, they were accompanied by rising interest and debt.

This gave rise to an even more fatal policy paradox. Over the course of 2022, Turkey began to experiment with a series of ‘macro-prudential measures’ to contain the crisis, such as de facto capital controls – economic penalties for banks that gave out loans with interest rates above 30% – to boost low-cost lending in TL to the private sector. However, as devaluation decelerated due to the liraization strategy, the inflation rate remained above the devaluation rate, because of the delayed effect of devaluation on inflation and the inflationary pressures emanating from the world economy. This, in turn, led to the effective appreciation of the TL.

In other words, Erdoğan’s policies ended up achieving the exact opposite of what they intended. Rather than deflating the price of export goods, they managed to raise it. Similarly, lower interest rates were accompanied by a massive deceleration of lending by private banks, which saw their profit margins shrink and scrambled to offset the effects of government policy. This was only offset by another rise in public lending in autumn 2022.

The Turkish economy therefore remains caught between a rock and a hard place. The AKP is reluctant to impose neoliberal remedies yet unable to formulate a viable alternative. With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for summer 2023 at the latest, the government’s hegemonic crisis is becoming more apparent. In this conjuncture, three distinct pathways have opened up: a mixture of improvisatory economic policies and authoritarian consolidation, favoured by the government; a full-scale neoliberal restoration, favoured by sections of capital and the main opposition; and a programme of popular-democratic reform, favoured by the left.

Implicit in Erdoğan’s new policy approach was an ‘import-substitution industrialization’ strategy, in which the high costs of imports, combined with the low cost of financing investments and cost advantages due to devaluation and low interest rates, would foster industrial investment – giving Turkey a way out of its overreliance on the world market. Yet this ambition was never likely to be realized, since its success depended on a state-led planning and/or investment strategy that was always sorely lacking. It would thus be more accurate to characterize Turkey’s recent heterodox turn as yet another attempt at crisis management rather than a transition to a new regime of accumulation. Its purpose was to protect large sections of the population, especially those who work in SMEs, from the effects of economic freefall – buying time for the AKP until the next general election.

A return to orthodox neoliberal economic policy would entail much higher political costs than an approach that tries to mitigate the effects of the crisis on SMEs and domestic consumption by simply muddling through. The AKP’s current political strategy is to position itself as the only lifeline for struggling small businesses while ramping up repression against potential threats to its hegemony. But this is not a foolproof method. For instance, high-performing SMEs that feel they can withstand the competitive pressures of an orthodox monetary policy may choose to ally with capitalists calling for an expansion of Turkey’s role in the global economy. Indeed, the factions of capital that are closest to the AKP – mostly export-oriented with lower import-dependency – have already begun to criticize the government for its botched currency devaluation.

So far, there has not been a decisive break between the leading factions of capital and the Erdoğan regime; most sectors are still returning high profits (banks have seen a whopping fivefold increase), thanks partly to wage suppression caused by inflation. But the country’s leading business association, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSIAD), is becoming increasingly vocal in its demand to reimpose neoliberal policies, with the ultimate aim of increasing Turkey’s centrality in international production chains. It also advocates a shift away from AKP authoritarianism towards a model with more civil liberties and constitutional balances, so as to curtail what it sees as the socially destabilizing effects of the current system.

As the AKP’s interests have steadily diverged from those of big capital, the struggle between the regime and its political rivals has also come to a head. Polls show that the public mood had turned against the governing party, with its victory in the next election far from guaranteed. This has prompted the opposition bloc, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to go on the offensive. More often than not, this means trying to outflank Erdoğan and his allies on Turkish nationalism and chauvinism. The opposition, should it come to power, has promised the persecution and repatriation of Syrian refugees along with a full-scale war on the PKK. Its would-be Economy Minister, Ali Babacan, has vowed to continue outlawing strikes. And the bloc has remained firmly against any form of popular mobilization. As CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asserted, ‘Active opposition is one thing, taking to the streets is another…We have only one wish, that our people should remain as calm as possible, at least until elections come.’

The opposition’s goal is to re-establish the neoliberal regime on an expanded scale, purged of its current hyper-presidential structure yet incorporating some of the authoritarian and nationalist ideological elements associated with the AKP and its predecessors, while continuing to demobilize and depoliticize the population. This will be the trade-off for any small degree of democratic reform.

Can such a vision, uninspiring as it is, succeed in galvanizing the electorate to kick out the incumbent? Polls suggest a high level of disaffection with the government, but also scepticism concerning the opposition. Erdoğan, despite his various missteps, has been adept at maintaining the identitarian connection between his party and its base – which, combined with his short-term populist and redistributionary programme (including subsidies for household bills, further wage increases, social housing and state-led credit programmes for SMEs), may be enough to keep him in power. The most recent polls show an uptick for the AKP following the announcement of such measures.

No matter who wins the next election, though, there remains an alternative for Turkey beyond authoritarian consolidation and neoliberal restoration. It lies in new outfits such as the Labour and Freedom Alliance (Emek ve Özgürlük İttifakı), a coalition of pro-Kurdish and leftist parties which aims to unify these dissident forces. For them, the only route out of national crisis is a coherent, democratically-accountable economic strategy that fundamentally alters the Turkish model in favour of the popular classes, along with far-reaching political reform. Their attempts to organize in an increasingly repressive climate will be an uphill battle, but unless it is fought, the prospect of democratizing Turkey will vanish entirely.

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

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Other People’s Standards

White Noise seems to represent a departure from a writer-director who, while not exactly stuck in his ways, has made it clear over the past quarter century that he knows what he’s about. Until now, the work of Noah Baumbach has been low-key and often lo-fi, and based on original screenplays. The characters, either lifelong New Yorkers, Californians resident in New York, or adoptive New Yorkers back in California, are aspiring writers (Kicking and ScreamingMr JealousyMistress America), established novelists (The Squid and the WhaleMargot at the Wedding), ex-musicians (Greenberg), dancers (Frances Ha), documentary-makers (While We’re Young), sculptors (The Meyerowitz Stories), and collaborators in an experimental theatre troupe (Marriage Story). Reference-points and checkpoints include virtually every major museum and university in Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus the New Yorker, the nouvelle vague, the MacArthur Fellowship, Paul Ricoeur, Kafka, and Lionel Trilling.

In the new film, a faithful, full-dress rendering of Don Delillo’s novel, the trappings are different. The film begins in autumn 1984. Adam Driver, looking more than ever like a man wearing a mask of his own face, plays Jack Gladney, fiftyish and pot-bellied, who lives in a small Midwestern town, Blacksmith, with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and four children, three of them from former marriages. The Gladney clan commune over television, engage with fads, read tabloid newspapers, eat frozen food, and enjoy giddy outings to the lavishly stocked local supermarket. They are products of that ‘triumphant, suffocating American philistinism’, that Philip Roth, in a 1989 essay, said it had been the duty of the post-war writer, armed with his Trilling and Kafka – or, to borrow Roth’s own preferences, his Kazin and Conrad – to defy. 

Even Jack’s career, as a teacher of Advanced Nazism at the private College-on-the-Hill, reflects his populist credentials. Regarded as ‘shrewd’ where his colleagues are routinely labelled ‘brilliant’, Jack approaches his subject the same way as his buddies from the cultural-studies department, as a phenomenon in the history of mass taste. In a memorably choreographed sequence, Jack delivers a tag-team lecture with his perennially awestruck colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) that turns on the kinship between their respective specialisms, Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley, a pair of mothers’ boys who found relief from psychic burden in seducing a crowd. Jack is less a successor to embittered, much-divorced professor-fathers like Bernard Berkman the experimental fiction writer in The Squid and the Whale (Jeff Daniels) or Harold the overlooked sculptor in The Meyerowitz Stories (Dustin Hoffman), than to the supporting roles that Driver, acting his true age (b. 1983) and tapping the obnoxiousness in his persona, has performed for Baumbach: Zev the rich-kid playboy ‘artist’ in Frances Ha, Jamie the scheming wannabe film-maker in While We’re Young, Randy the pampered actor in The Meyerowitz Stories.

But Bernard and Harold were not heroic figures – nor, for that matter, was Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller), the hyper-conscientious documentarian whom Jamie exploits for professional advancement. Baumbach has always been clear-eyed about the pitfalls of purity, and open to the virtues of a breezier or jockier outlook. Ivan, the tennis instructor who addresses his eleven-year-old student as ‘my brother’ in The Squid and the Whale, transcends Bernard’s charge that he’s a ‘philistine’, just as Patch, the Goldman Sachs banker ridiculed for using the greeting ‘sup, bra!’ in Frances Ha, proves a devoted partner to Frances’s best friend Sophie. Even Josh’s disgust with Jamie in While We’re Young is revealed as excessive (‘he’s not evil’, he concludes, in the final scene. ‘He’s just young.’)

This is a not a case of Baumbach consorting with the enemy, but of cultivating a part of his personality that he has so far under-explored. Baumbach grew up on Montgomery Place, in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. His father, a notable experimental novelist, wrote for Partisan Review, identified as one of the forces for good in Philip Roth’s essay. Towards the end of The Squid and the Whale, Bernard, a version of Jonathan Baumbach, remembers going to see A Bout de Souffle at an arthouse cinema, The Thalia, with ‘the Dicksteins’, an allusion to Morris Dicksteinthe historian and PR stalwart. But while Baumbach has preferred to depict bohemian types with delicate antennae, there have been hints of a mixed pedigree ever since his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, in which a group of friends, postponing life after graduation, natter about topics ranging from Immanuel Kant to Jason Voorhees, the killer from the Friday the 13th series.

Baumbach has expressed his regret at failing to honour his father, the basis for Bernard, as ‘a great movie companion’ who ‘wouldn’t diminish The Jerk’. He also omits to present Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the character modelled on himself, as the kind of kid who would eagerly consume a Steve Martin comedy. White Noise, in the attention, even indulgence, it shows towards the Gladneys, is a reminder that Baumbach is an unresentful creature of the 1980s, with a taste for popular entertainment – ETBeverly Hills CopNational Lampoon’s Vacation series – as well as for those films, more self-conscious in approach and sinister in energy, which Fredric Jameson identified as contributions to the analysis of postmodern themes: De Palma’s Blow Out, Demme’s Something Wild, Lynch’s Blue Velvet. (In a piece from 1984, shortly before the appearance of White Noise, Jameson described Delillo as ‘the most interesting and talented of American post-modernist novelists.’)

Baumbach’s attitudes are underpinned not by the disdain of Roth or the New York Intellectuals but something closer to the eclecticism favoured by Woody Allen, a fellow Brooklynite and secular Jew, who, in one strain of his work, has been keen to announce and also embody his love for both Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman along with an aversion to taking either too far. Baumbach’s films to date resemble Allen in this middle range, with a shared priority of sympathetic but unillusioned character-drawing in a clearly defined milieu. Both directors have made use of voiceover, inter-titles, location shooting, black and white, NY-LA rivalry, the actor Wallace Shawn. Frances Ha borrows a joke from Annie HallWhile We’re Young pays homage to Crimes and Misdemeanours, another story of a political documentarian in a world besotted with cheap thrills. But Baumbach is no disciple or tribute act, and his films are distinctive achievements – trenchantly funny, affecting, resourceful, heaving with memorable characters.

White Noise offers something less personal – if not quite generic, then genre-bound. It’s like a turbo-charged version of While We’re Young, Baumbach’s previous attempt at a commercial venture – in that case a polished comedy of manners, in this one a period satire with noir and disaster-movie elements. The tone of the new film is at first too goofy, then too pulpy. Delillo’s ornery chatter proves hard to play, though Cheadle and Gerwig fare better than Driver, and the novel’s mysticism is largely sacrificed. Like While We’re Young, the result belongs in the Interesting Failures section of the Video Planet where the put-upon Shep gets a job in Kicking and Screaming. But here, as there, Baumbach uses a smoother-edged approach to explore the thematic concern that has driven all of his work – the relationship between contentment and fear, in particular the fear of change.

With some exceptions, Baumbach’s work to date has traced an arc that parallels his own, with stories of people in their early twenties, early thirties, early forties, and more recently, depictions of divorce, challenges related to fertility and child-rearing, problems with lumbar discs and bones and joints (‘arthritis arthritis?’), marital breakdown, ‘estate planning’. The new film is the first he has made in which the protagonist is paterfamilias, and never a sibling, son, or son-in-law. The quandary is no longer who to be, but how to tolerate threats to a cherished and fragile status quo. Following a collision between a lorry and a freight train which releases chemical waste, the Gladneys vacate their home and pile into the station wagon. On the way to a safe zone, Jack gets out of the car for petrol, and is exposed to toxic rain for two and a half minutes. When he asks a government official if he is going to die, he is told that Nyodene D. will live in his system for thirty years. What Jack discovers, as a newly concrete fact, is that he is ‘tentatively scheduled to die’.

This is not his first intimation of mortality. He sees negative portents everywhere. His pillow talk with Babette concerns which of them will die first. (Little wonder that, in a sequence invented by Baumbach, he suffers night terrors.) His response is to dwell on little moments, embrace the ‘aimless days’. In his intermittent voiceover, he urges, ‘Do not advance the action according to a plan’. It’s the same temporal binarism that Jameson traced in The Antinomies of Realism – narrative progression vs the ‘eternal’ or ‘existential’ moment of bodily affect, with novelistic storytelling requiring both. As Jack tells his students, ‘All plots move deathward’. It doesn’t matter how much he enjoys putting out the rubbish, delights in Birds Eye chicken, or fetishizes his wife’s ‘important hair’ (a bouncy blonde perm).

In its portrayal of negative thinking, Delillo’s novel provides a suitable fit – more than, say, the books that Baumbach’s characters have owned, like Gravity’s Rainbow and Rabbit is Rich, or the subject of his previous adaptation, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (an abortive HBO pilot). Babette takes an experimental drug, Dylar, to deal with her fear of death, which is Josh’s preoccupation at the ayahuasca ceremony in While We’re Young. Babette is informed that while ‘everyone’ is afraid of dying, she fears it ‘right up front’, as Lester in Mr Jealousy is told that he’s just expressing ‘more deeply’ the universal propensity towards envy. Lester’s girlfriend in Mr Jealousy suggests that he is jealous of himself; the Dylar dealer (Lars Eidinger) says, ‘I envied myself’. And Baumbach shares with Delillo an interest in the power of adjectives, as a reflection of neurosis and tool of aggression – words such as ‘difficult’, ‘good-looking’, ‘minor’, ‘painful’, ‘loud’, ‘weird’. In The Squid and the Whale, Walt breaks up with his girlfriend because ‘I thought I could do better’. ‘Better how?’ his mother wonders. ‘I don’t know.’ In White Noise, one of the Gladney children asks whether the winter is harsh or mild. To the reply ‘Compared to what?’ she answers, ‘I don’t know.’

Baumbach has added some highly characteristic details that would not have appeared out of place in Delillo’s novel. There’s a startling moment during the evacuation sequence when the camera closes in on the eleven-year-old Steffie as she calls, ‘We’re late’. Jack urges his children not to care about the behaviour of people in ‘other cars’. In an emergency scenario, acting a certain way carries a Darwinian dimension. But everyday existence also brings a profound awareness of standards derived from elsewhere, or greener grass tantalisingly nearby, a hovering shadow of the not-quite-realised or out-of-reach. Whereas the characters in Allen’s work are given a choice between two more or less philosophical approaches, inherited norms (‘some abstract vision of love’, ‘all these standard, accepted clichés of love’) versus situation-specific flexibility (‘whatever works’ ­– a phrase used in three of his films), Baumbach presents a harsher struggle, the effort to forge an authentic self amid an array of collective pressures. His characters are terrified of being, in a phrase he employed about his father’s literary career, ‘out of phase’. There’s an overwhelming feeling that, as Frances says of her plan to read Proust on a – two-day – trip to Paris, ‘it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it’.  (A detail in draft scripts, about Patch’s expertise in ‘currency stability’, was changed to ‘anticipating inflection points’.)

One would struggle to name a body of work in which age is more reliably noted and sweated over. A key influence on Frances Ha was The Shadow-Line, Conrad’s late novella about the end of ‘early youth’. (It also includes the line, ‘This is not a marriage story.’) Margot’s sister, in Margot at the Wedding, raises the idea of getting a flat in Williamsburg and is told: ‘it’s only young people’. When Roger, in Greenberg, tells his ex-girlfriend, ‘I’m really trying do nothing for a while’, she replies, ‘That’s brave, at our age’. (He is about to turn forty-one.) While We’re Young opens with five screens’-worth of quotation from Wallace Shawn’s version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, about a prominent architect who fears ‘young people’. The theme of physical decay has provided the occasion for a number of sub-Wildean reflections: ‘Getting old is terrible. I don’t care how universal it is’; ‘It’s weird, ageing – right? It’s like, what the hell is going on?’; ‘What the fuck is happening to us?’

But like most of the stories that Baumbach’s characters tell themselves, it is jostled and relativized. A wise sixteen-year-old in Kicking and Screaming explains that getting older is ‘not a disease’. There’s a short speech at the end of The Meyerowitz Stories, delivered with beautiful understatement by Rebecca Miller, in which the daughter of a renowned sculptor gives Danny the reasons why Harold is wrong to feel that, at seventy-eight, his life has yet to begin. Florence, Roger’s love interest, finds his voluntary hiatus inspiring: ‘you don’t feel all that bullshit pressure to be successful. I mean, by other people’s standards’. Baumbach has talked of his connection to Eric Rohmer’s characters, who hold ‘fast to their ideas of themselves’ – ‘their own philosophy’ – in the face of ‘outside evidence that maybe they aren’t like this or shouldn’t be like that’. As Adam Phillips put in an essay on success, ideals should be seen as ‘affinities, not impositions’, things ‘we have chosen’ and not just been given by ‘our culture’. That’s a possibility that Baumbach’s films raises without endorsing. He may want to believe in it, but the social realm, present in a thousand particulars, works to impose a horizon of choice, even if it’s a wider horizon than his characters sometimes fear.

It’s a view that recalls the arguments of modern sociologists at odds with the determinism of their tradition – Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor, for example, who offered two conflicting endings to their 1976 book Escape Attempts, or Anthony Giddens, who sought to protect the idea of agency with his theory of ‘structuration’, a borrowing from French intended to denote an ongoing process, the social structure as both the ‘medium’ and ‘outcome’ of actions taken in a self-reflexive spirit. Again, Delillo offers a fruitful outlet, being something close to Giddens in novelist garb. They were born in the second half of the 1930s, and published their first book in 1971; The Constitution of Society, the outline of structuration, and White Noise, Delillo’s first – one might say only – exercise in social portraiture, were published within three months of each other; and their work in the period since has been concerned with the fate of intimacy, the prospects for the good life in a world dominated by finance capitalism, terrorism, technology, and impending doom. But if Delillo allows Baumbach to explore sociological questions, he also serves to expose his soft centre. 

Baumbach is older than Delillo was when White Noise appeared, and the world in which he is writing is surely more benighted, but the version he has produced is cheerful, even carefree. The implication of its protracted end-credit dance sequence – in the midst of death we are in life – is hard to miss, or to square with Delillo’s minatory final lines about the awful potency of tabloid newspapers, as a stage or catalyst for the collective death drive. Instead, the crowd is affirmed as a source of energy and companionship. Jack wears dark glasses to hide from reality, and at certain points, Baumbach may be seen as a kindred spirit. His films tend to employ the same dramatic formula – a series of episodes built on frustration and confusion, culminating in a crushing low-point or cathartic showdown, and then a tentatively happy ending, with the worst-case scenario being a temporary farewell or lesson learned. While We’re Young was the closest he has come to delivering a culpable deus ex machina – literally, baby-from-adoption-agency – but the unforeseen way through has a habit of materialising. After a period of adjustment, following the breakdown of one’s parents’ marriage or one’s own, a depressive episode, a professional setback, a falling out, there is every reason to live.

In his essay ‘Worrying and its Discontents’, Adam Phillips argued that worrying is an ‘ironic form of hope’ – it is ‘a way of looking forward to things… a conscious conviction that a future exists’, but also to one in which ‘something terrible’ will happen. Death exists in Baumbach’s work, as presiding fear or proximate reality, but has so far afflicted just one character who appears on screen – and a minor one at that. When Jack says that ‘out of a persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we keep inventing hope’, Delillo invites us to hear the element of denial, whereas Baumbach, who closes his adaptation with a variant of that line, presents the desire to carry on not as blue-sky thinking but spiritual resilience. (Then everybody dances.) Delillo’s novel might have yielded a film of greater ambition, or at least one more embracing of various kinds of bad news. But perhaps the feeling of disappointment can itself be transformed, via a kind of Baumbach-like logic, into an enticing prospect, of fresh worlds ripe for conquest, the realms of human and social experience that this director has yet to explore.

Read on: Paul Coates, ‘Pynchon’s Aesthetic Radicalism’, NLR I/60.

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Latour’s Metamorphosis

When the multi-hyphenate scholar of science Bruno Latour died last October at the age of 75, tributes poured in from all corners of academia and many beyond. In the aughts, Latour had been a ubiquitous reference point for Anglophone social and cultural theory, standing alongside Judith Butler and Michel Foucault on the list of most cited academics in fields ranging from geography to art history. Made notorious by the ‘Science Wars’ of the 1990s, he reinvented himself as a climate scholar and public intellectual in the last two decades of his life. Yet amidst the expressions of appreciation and grief, many on the left shrugged. Latour’s relationship to the left had long been fraught, if not entirely unsatisfactory to either: Latour enjoyed antagonizing the left; in turn, many leftists loved to hate Latour. His ascendance in the politically bleak years of the early twenty-first century was to many damning. And yet as he sought to respond to the political challenge of climate change in his final years, he turned, in his own deeply idiosyncratic way, to consider questions of production and class; transformation and struggle.

Latour was candid about his own background, readily acknowledging he hailed from the ‘typical French provincial bourgeoisie’. Born in 1947 in Beaune, Latour was the eighth child of a well-known Catholic winemaking family – proprietors of Maison Louis Latour, known for their Grand Cru Burgundys. With his older brother already slated to take over the family business, Latour was sent to Lycée Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague, a selective Jesuit private school in Paris. A leading placement in the agrégation led to a doctorate in theology from the Université de Tours. Twenty-one in 1968, Latour could be found not in the streets of Paris but the lecture halls of Dijon, where he studied biblical exegesis with the scholar and former Catholic priest André Malet. He wrote his dissertation on Charles Péguy, while working in the French civilian service in Abidjan, then capital of Côte d’Ivoire. There he was charged with conducting a survey on the ‘ideology of competence’ for a French development agency seeking to understand the absence of Ivoirians from managerial roles, while reading Anti-Oedipus by night. (‘Deleuze is in my bones’, he would later claim.) Racist attitudes, Latour’s report argued, were an obvious barrier to Ivoirian advancement. But these attitudes, in turn, produced other effects, a phenomenon which Latour described as the ‘creation of incompetence’: Ivoirians were placed in positions where they had little chance to become familiar with key technologies. ‘How does this factory or this school actually function’, Latour asked, ‘if one examines the circulation of information, of power, and of money?’

Following the ‘historical epistemology’ of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, postwar French philosophers from Louis Althusser to Foucault were intensely concerned with the status of science and truth. Though Latour shared this broad thematic interest, he thought historical epistemology insufficiently attentive to actual scientific practice. Consequently, his original intellectual home was not among the philosophes, but rather the foundling Anglophone field of ‘social studies of science’, which emerged from Britain’s sociology departments in the 1970s before quickly extending its influence into the United States. Its basic conceit was to complete the Durkheimian project for a sociology of knowledge by explaining even the rarefied content of science itself through scrutiny of the mundane social practices by which it was produced. In contrast to the French epistemologists’ efforts to distinguish the conditions of ‘true science’, the reigning principle of the ‘strong programme’ – the core method developed at Edinburgh – was symmetry: both successful and failed scientific ideas had to be studied via the same methods. It was the concrete workaday routines of what Thomas Kuhn had called ‘normal science’ that Latour described in his first book, Laboratory Life (1979), co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar, about the work of the scientists of the Salk Institute, the private biological sciences laboratory based in La Jolla, California. Drawing on his ethnographic experiences in Abidjan, Latour spent two years, from 1975-1977, as a would-be anthropologist observing the lab of Roger Guillemin, a French neuroscientist whom Latour had met in Dijon, and who would in 1977 win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on hormones.

Going from the ‘laws of science’ to the lab is, Latour would later argue, like going from the law books to Parliament. It reveals not a space of rational insight but of fierce debate, controversy, messiness, mistakes – of knowledge produced by human beings rather than disembodied minds. Accordingly, the book opens in medias res, plunging the reader into the laboratory as narrated through an observer’s notes. Laboratory Life claimed to undertake a material analysis of the lab not by tracing its funding sources or the usefulness of its findings to industry, but by mapping the actual physical space of the laboratory, taking an inventory of its equipment, detailing the labour of lab technicians. Latour’s exegetical training in Dijon also informed his study: what the laboratory really produced, he argued, was texts. Scientists were constantly making and interpreting inscriptions: jotting down measurements, writing up findings. It was through papers, after all, that ideas circulated between laboratories and acquired authority. Like its subject, Laboratory Life can be tedious at times. But if its wry tone and mundane observations deflated grandiose narratives of the heroic scientist, the book was not intended as an exposé. To the contrary, Latour and Woolgar insisted that ‘our “irreverence” or “lack of respect” for science is not intended as an attack on scientific activity’. Jonas Salk himself described the book as ‘consistent with the scientific ethos’ in an introduction.

Latour’s follow-up Science in Action, published in English in 1987, was a self-styled field manual for science studies as a whole, looking beyond the lab to the ways that science became powerful in the world at large. Scientific truth claimed to be backstopped by the authority of Nature itself, an ideal for which Galileo stood as the iconic figure: the lonely dissenter vindicated by reality. However great the Church’s religious authority, it was trumped by the fact that the Earth moved. Every contrarian since has fancied themselves a Galileo, standing firm against the corrupt powers that be. But it is not always so clear which side nature is on, Latour observed. Nature does not simply speak for ‘herself’ but through spokespeople – those who measure and interpret the physical world. It is only after the laboratories have been built, the studies published, the papers read, that nature says anything at all. Constructing a fact – showing that the Earth moves around the sun, say – is a difficult task which entails a demanding set of practices. The upshot is that scientific ‘dissenters’ cannot stand alone. They can succeed only by recruiting many others: researchers, funders, publics.

Latour developed this theme more pointedly in The Pasteurization of France (published in French in 1984 as Les microbes: guerre et paix, but widely received in the substantially revised English edition that appeared in 1988) which reinterpreted the legacy of another great man of science – Louis Pasteur, the French biologist credited with revolutionizing hygiene and health by discrediting theories of spontaneous generation and laying the foundations of germ theory. Latour’s account was in part a challenge to Canguilhem, who had identified Pasteur as a crucial figure in establishing medicine as a modern science, and for whom germ theory constituted an epistemological break with pre-scientific ideas. Latour, by contrast, argued that scientists did not produce revolutions in thought by dint of brilliant ideas alone. Instead, comparing Pasteur to Napoleon by way of Tolstoy, he claimed that Pasteur had successfully used theatrical demonstrations to assemble a powerful network of supporters, which in turn constituted the laboratory itself as a site of social authority. But he also challenged the Anglophone sociologists, who he claimed had placed too much weight on social factors alone. Their principle of ‘symmetry’ had to be extended still further to include nonhumans alongside humans as agents in their own right. Pasteur’s networks, in other words, comprised not only hygienists and farmers, but also microbes themselves.

Latour’s challenge to all corners of the field invited sharp responses. The philosopher David Bloor charged Latour with misrepresenting the sociology of science even as he largely hewed to its method, dressing up familiar moves in grand metaphysical claims about the production of nature and society; meanwhile Latour’s genuine innovations, Bloor argued, constituted a ‘step backwards’ towards uncritical empiricism. The historian Simon Schaffer argued that Latour had propped up Pasteur’s great man status rather than undermining it, while his emphasis on the role of microbes themselves served to side-line the significance of experimentation as method. Yet even these critiques worked to position Latour at the centre of the field, such that responding to his work became increasingly obligatory.

By the early 1990s, science studies had become prominent enough to attract its own set of external critics. Partisans in the Science Wars of this period lumped Latour into the ‘social constructivist’ and ‘relativist’ categories, typically deployed as terms of abuse. An appointment to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton was blocked by the school’s physicists and mathematicians. Latour nevertheless claimed to be largely undaunted by the Science Wars, which he described as a ‘tempest in a teacup’. But he was surprised to learn that many thought he didn’t believe in scientific knowledge or even reality. He was interested in how facts were ‘constructed’ – but he had explicitly rejected what he saw as the fully social constructivist position advocated by others working in the field. For Latour, constructing facts was like constructing a building: you couldn’t do it with social relations alone. This was precisely why he thought it imperative to attend to the material practices of research and the nonhuman world that scientists investigated. The irony was that amongst the Anglo-American pioneers of science studies like Bloor, Latour was often seen as a realist, perhaps even a naïve one, whose method took the activity of microbes and electrons too much at face value.

Rather than using social analysis to deconstruct science, in other words, it was the category of ‘society’, and the claims of social theorists to superior knowledge, that Latour most eagerly sought to dismantle. He built on the ideas advanced in Science in Action and Pasteurization through a series of still more theoretical works – We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Pandora’s Hope (1999), The Politics of Nature (1999), Reassembling the Social (2005)which outlined his methodological critique of the social sciences and programme for an alternative. If the controversy around Pasteurization put Latour at the heart of disputes in science studies, We Have Never Been Modern (1991), a short and polemical tour through modern Western philosophy, put him on the broader academic map. ‘The moderns’, Latour claimed, had performed a double move that made them all-powerful. On the one hand, they revealed ‘premodern’ beliefs to be mere superstition – showing, for example, that an earthquake was a physical event rather than an act of God. At the same time, the moderns revealed that seemingly natural phenomena were in fact social – that gender differences, for example, were constructed rather than innate. There was nothing that this double move couldn’t explain. Yet moderns’ inability to acknowledge, let alone resolve, the contradiction between these two moves, he argued, gave rise to a number of dysfunctions. Latour positioned his inquiry explicitly in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and decline of socialism, declaring 1989 the ‘year of miracles’. But he argued that Western triumphalism was misplaced in light of the burgeoning global ecological crisis: the West, he claims, ‘leaves the Earth and its people to die’.

Unlike many other French liberal intellectuals, Latour was not an ideological anti-communist. He was a reliable critic of Marxism, but primarily on methodological grounds. Latour’s sharp-elbowed asides about Marxism were often really directed at Althusser, whose work stood accused of reproducing the flaws of French historical epistemology more broadly: namely, an uncritical scientism and a privileging of philosophical principles over the actual practices of scientists. Althusserian Marxism, in its aspiration to total knowledge, was for Latour the most modernist project of all – not, in his view, a compliment. He was more sympathetic to the Marxist contingent of the first generation of Anglophone science studies, developed via a different formation: anchored by the British Radical Science Journal, connected to the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements, and influenced by work ranging from British social history to Harry Braverman’s study of the labour process. Yet even this tradition, Latour suggested, fell prey to the sociological tendency to explain things with reference to social factors alone.

For his part, Latour was not oblivious to economic questions: he noted that it cost $60,000 to produce each paper in Guillemin’s lab; that the success of fuel cell technology depended not only on physics, but on whether an investor could be persuaded to commit; that Diesel’s engine design not only had to work, but to compete on the market. But he steadfastly rejected the attempt to identify a determining factor, even if only in the final instance. The infrequently read second half of Pasteurization, ‘Irreductions’, contains a striking philosophical set piece: Latour describes driving from Dijon to Gray in 1972 when he is so beset by what he called an ‘overdose of reductionism’ that he is compelled to pull over. Gazing at the blue winter sky like Sartre’s Roquentin at the chestnut tree, ‘for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free’. The lesson he draws is simple: ‘nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else’.

The collapse of Marxist social science following the demise of the Soviet Union left a vacuum in the field of science studies which the committed ambiguity of Latour’s ‘irreductionist’ programme was well-suited to fill. This was centred in the formidable science studies unit he built with long-time collaborator Michel Callon at the École des Mines in Paris. Instead of treating ‘the social’ as a pre-existing category or imposing their theoretical frameworks on the world, Latour and Callon argued, social scientists should simply follow the connections between agents – human and nonhuman alike – without making assumptions about them in advance. ‘There are not only “social” relations, relations between man and man’, he had argued in Pasteurization. ‘Society is not made up just of men, for everywhere microbes intervene and act’. Actor-Network Theory (ANT), the method he developed with Callon, formalized this position. It called for abandoning familiar explanatory categories and frameworks, and indeed the project of explanation altogether, in favour of a new approach: only describe.

Many of his interventions seemed intentionally designed to provoke sociologists, and those on the left in particular. In Science in Action, Latour compared a union representative speaking for workers to a scientist speaking for neutrinos; in Reassembling the Social, he declared that Margaret Thatcher’s famous proclamation that ‘there is no such thing as society’ could serve as a slogan for ANT, albeit with different intent. He championed the idiosyncratic and little-known French sociologist Gabriel Tarde as the preferable alternative to his far better-known contemporaries, Durkheim and Marx: ‘Imagine how things might have turned out had no one ever paid attention to Das Kapital’, his 2009 book on Tarde, co-authored with the sociologist Vincent Antonin Lépinay, began. (Latour’s efforts to spark a Tarde revival attracted few allies.) The enmity was mutual. Pierre Bourdieu made a particular enemy out of Latour, reportedly icing him out of the Collège de France and other prestigious halls of French academia. Latour, in turn, needled Bourdieu every chance he got, at one point comparing Bourdieusian social theory to a conspiracist reading of 9/11. (It is hard to read Reassembling the Social as anything but an extended polemic against the Bourdieusian establishment in Paris.) Accordingly, Latour remained for most of his career at les Mines, moving to Sciences Po – of Paris’s elite academic institutions, the one most oriented towards the Anglosphere – only in 2007. It was nevertheless in this guise of anti-social theorist, one bent on showing that ‘the social’ didn’t really exist, that most academics encountered his work. He was interpellated by an astonishing range of scholars: by poststructuralists and new materialists; by art historians interested in material cultures and philosophers interested in ontology; by media theorists studying networks and economic sociologists studying statistics; by geographers, anthropologists, and historians whose interest in the relationship of nature and society was motivated by ecological questions.

Indeed, Latour’s careful attention to the labours involved in the construction of networks and the enrolment of allies might be read as a promissory manual for his own career. In particular, his ability to translate his position within the relatively small world of science studies into a droll philosophical register helped his ideas travel. His approach to style reflected one of his underlying claims: whereas the Anglophone tradition of analytic philosophy was suspicious of rhetoric’s power to obfuscate truth, Latour argued that the rhetorical and social elements of scientific practice – Pasteur’s use of theatre, for example – did not undermine their veracity. He was particularly inspired by the philosopher Michel Serres’s dense and allusive style. Yet where Serres’s prose was notoriously difficult to translate and little read outside France, Latour proved hugely popular in translation. He drew on rhetorical strategies from across the disciplines: from philosophy he took dialogues; from literature, narratives and metaphors; and from science itself diagrams, which often mystified as much as they clarified. He had a knack for turning phrases which became – to use one of them – ‘immutable mobiles’, circulating freely across fields. Perhaps most of all, Latour was fun to read. He peppered his bold, sometimes outrageous claims with jokes and illustrated them with memorable examples. Latour was if anything too readable, as liable to be misunderstood by his supporters as his critics.

As his star rose, Latour was increasingly preoccupied with climate change – at the time widely understood through the lens of belief and denial. In this context his influential 2004 Critical Inquiry essay ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ was a landmark, frequently seen as the dividing line in his own career, and as a moment of reckoning for science studies writ large. Famous for comparing science studies to global warming denial, it is typically read as a work of auto-critique. It is not, however, a mea culpa but a j’accuse – one among many entries in Latour’s longstanding critique of critique. ‘A certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path’, he suggested – but his apparent self-indictment was itself a rhetorical move. By ‘us’ he really meant others: those for whom critique meant debunking, pulling away the veil of mystification to reveal the superior insight of the critical theorist. Critique, Latour argued, was a ‘potent euphoric drug’ for self-satisfied academics: ‘You are always right!’ The paradox was that the essay suggested, however subtly, that Latour himself had always been right. If antipathy to intellectual smugness often drove him to think more creatively than the narrow channels of French academia permitted, his frequent calls for humility could belie his own ambition and self-assurance. By all accounts a generous interlocutor in person, in print he was prone to tendentious readings of others’ work; and even as he became one of the world’s most famous academics, he continued to style himself as an outsider.

What changed most, as Latour turned his attention to climate change, wasn’t so much his stance on science but his relationship to social science. Instead of critiquing critique, he sought to reinvigorate the project of construction, which he began to describe in terms of ‘composition’. Latour took on a new role: no longer enfant terrible but elder statesman. In this mode, he repeated the beats of earlier projects in a more earnest register. Instead of following neurobiologists in the laboratory, he followed Earth system scientists as they investigated the Critical Zone, the thin band of the planet which supports life. He revisited Galileo, claiming that the Gaia theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis had similarly upended our understanding of our home planet. He leaned still further into stylistic experimentation, undertaking art exhibitions and theatrical performances aimed not only at conveying ideas to non-academic audiences but including them as participants. To the surprise of many, he inched to the left. It was hard to describe the world accurately, after all, without recognizing that it was capital that made things move; without noting the outsized material impact of the wealthy or their ambitions to escape the Earth altogether. His 2019 pamphlet Down to Earth polemically suggested that climate change was a form of class war waged by the ruling class; his final book, Mémo sur la Nouvelle Classe Écologique, co-authored with Nikolaj Schultz and published in 2022, argues that a new ‘ecological class’ must be assembled to replace the productivist working class of past socialist imaginaries.

By the time Covid-19 spread around the world, Latour had largely left microbes behind. But the pandemic illustrated one of the most compelling elements of his thought: that scientific ideas require alliances to become powerful. Vaccines might be developed at record speed, and studies might demonstrate their efficacy – but this alone would not guarantee their uptake. Doctors, scientists, and public health experts revealed the messiness of science in action as they speculated and argued on social media networks, accruing literal followers in the process. Would-be Galileos abounded – and in a world where anti-vax movements and distrust of Big Pharma had been building for decades, these dissenters often became surprisingly powerful. Instead of accepting the chaos of facts in construction, however, self-declared defenders of science embraced the kind of simplistic messaging that Latour had long sought to challenge: ‘Science is Real’, declared as an article of faith.

If these had once been Latour’s central themes, however, he was no longer interested in diagnosing them. His penultimate book, After Lockdown (2021), addressed not the politics of facts but the possibilities for transformation in the wake of disruption, largely explored via an extended metaphor built on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Might imagining life as a giant insect help us to envision a different way of living on planet Earth? In particular, Latour hoped that the shutdown of the economy might help decentre production in favour of attention to ‘engendering’ – the relationships and activities, both human and nonhuman, which make our continued existence possible. Engendering, in other words, recalls longstanding socialist feminist analyses of reproduction – perhaps encountered by way of Donna Haraway, Latour’s frequent interlocutor over the years, who had emerged from the milieu of the Radical Science Journal in its heyday. Engendering is also central to Latour’s theorization of ‘ecological class’, which he sees as determined not by one’s position relative to the means of production but one’s position in a set of earthly interdependencies. If Latour continued to offer perfunctory critiques of the insufficiency of Marxist analysis, in other words, his own arguments tended to redescribe familiar left positions in his own idiom – or, conversely, to use Marxian language to talk about something else entirely.

If Latour’s late political turn saw him exploring new terrain, then, it also revealed the limits of his analytical tools. After decades spent challenging venerable traditions of social thought, he seemed unable to acknowledge what they had gotten right. Latour repeatedly argued that science, for all its messiness and power struggles, was trying to understand something real about the world. But he could not seem to accept that there might be anything but language games at work in invocations of ‘society’ or ‘the economy’, let alone capitalism; that social relations which empirical description could not immediately reveal might nevertheless be agential and powerful.

It is striking that many of Latour’s fiercest critics in recent years – most prominently the eco-Marxists Andreas Malm and Jason W. Moore – have drawn more on Latourian-inflected strains of thought than they have liked to acknowledge. Some of this is simply an artefact of history: Latour’s influence is almost impossible to avoid in recent theoretical and social scientific work on nature and ecology. But Latour was also right that Marxists had generally paid more attention to social relations than the likes of microbes and carbon molecules. (The late Mike Davis stands as a notable exception). Rather than being tarnished by association, the vitality of their work comes from a synthesis of the strengths of Marxist thought with insights gleaned elsewhere – a synthesis that Latour himself only reluctantly and belatedly undertook in reverse.

Read on: Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Freedom and Catastrophe’, NLR 135.

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The Death Gap

There’s no injustice more frightening – more definitive, more irredeemable – than inequality of life expectancy: a form of discrimination whereby years, sometimes decades, are stolen from the majority and given to a select few, based solely on their wealth and social class.

Indeed, the most important form of ‘social distance’ imposed by the pandemic was not spatial, not a matter of meters. It was the temporal distance between rich and poor, between those who could escape the worst effects of the virus and those whose lives were abbreviated by it. Modernity established a biopolitical chasm – a social distancing of death – that was widened and accentuated by the Covid-19 crisis. This was demonstrated by a litany of studies across various countries. For instance:

In this retrospective analysis of 1,988,606 deaths in California during 2015 to 2021, life expectancy declined from 81.40 years in 2019 to 79.20 years in 2020 and 78.37 years in 2021. Life expectancy differences between the census tracts in the highest and lowest income percentiles increased from 11.52 years in 2019 to 14.67 years in 2020 and 15.51 years in 2021.

Many political and scientific discussions are rooted in calculations of life expectancy at birth. But though this criterion holds for modern Western societies, where infant mortality is almost irrelevant, it is misleading when applied to other geographical regions or historical periods. If the average lifetime lasts 70 years, to compensate for every infant death another seven people must live to 80. This is why life expectancy is often calculated at age 40 or 50: a historically more reliable indicator in its exclusion of infant mortality, as well as war deaths, car accidents (more frequent amongst young people) and maternal fatalities in childbirth.

Here is life expectancy at 40 against household income in the United States, as outlined in a study published by The Harvard Gazette in 2016:

As you can see, the gap between the richest and poorest 1% is just over 10 years for women and 15 years for men: ‘roughly equivalent to the life expectancy difference between the United States and Sudan. For women, the 10-year difference between richest and poorest is equivalent to the health effects from a lifetime of smoking’.

Another notable phenomenon, to which we’ll return later, is the fact that the graph never flattens, regardless of one’s income level:

While researchers have long known that life expectancy increases with income, Cutler and others were surprised to find that trend never plateaued: “There’s no income [above] which higher income is not associated with greater longevity, and there’s no income below which less income is not associated with lower survival”, he said. “It was already known that life expectancy increased with income, so we’re not the first to show that, but…everyone thought you had to hit a plateau at some point, or that it would plateau at the bottom, but that’s not the case.”

The difference between the lifespans of different classes wasn’t always so abyssal. It has increased progressively in recent centuries, such that it has now become a constant of modern civilization. The gulf is plainly visible in the below graph, which shows life expectancy at 65 for male workers, divided into categories of higher and lower-earners:

We can see how, in 1912, poorer workers could expect to live to just under 80, while their wealthier counterparts could expect to live to just over that. In 1941, the margin dilates: the former could expect to live around a year longer than in 1921, while the latter gained a full six years (average life expectancy increases with the age at which it is calculated: at 30 it’s higher than at birth, at 50 it’s longer than at 30, and at 65 it’s even longer, because at every step you discount all deaths that occurred prior to that age and contributed to the original average. This is why, in 1912, the life expectancy of the poorer half of 65-year-olds almost reached 80, whereas life expectancy at birth was only 55).

The picture is even more stark if you divide society not into two, but into five different income classes. These graphs, taken from a Congressional study in 2006, show the average life expectancy growing massively for the richest quintile (20% of the population) and rising meagrely for the poorest:

A closer look gives us an astonishing picture. For males in the lowest income quintile, those born in 1930 could expect to live 26.6 years at age 50, while those born in 1960, after World War II, could expect to live 26.1 years: counterintuitively half a year less! The phenomenon was even more pronounced for the poorest women: those born in 1930 at the age of 50 had an average of 32.3 years ahead of them, while those of the next generation had 28.3: almost four years less life: while life in general was getting longer, for the poorest women it was getting shorter, and by quite a lot.

The music changes for the highest income quintile: those born in 1960 can expect to live 38.8 years (i.e. to reach 88 years and nine months), a full 7.1 years longer than their predecessors born in 1930 who had a life expectancy of 31.7 years. The same trend is true for rich women born in 1960 who can expect to live 41.9 years (i.e. to 91 years and 10 months), more than rich women born thirty years earlier whose life expectancy was 36.2 years, i.e. 5.7 years less: between the two generations, while for poor women life expectancy shortens, for rich women it lengthens.

In the thirty years between 1930 and 1960, the income gap had thus widened frighteningly. Whereas among men born in 1930 the richest lived 5.1 years longer than their poorest peers, for the generation born in 1960 the gap had widened to an astonishing 12.7 years. The gap among women was even more pronounced: whereas for the 1930 generation the richest could hope to live 4.0 years longer than their poorer peers, for the 1960 generation the gap had widened to 13.6 years.

Since we the segmented data on household income to extend this analysis further back in time, we must make do with a few scattered clues. If we take the dynasties of Italian nobles during the Renaissance (the Estes, Gonzagas, Medicis), we find that princes were generally outlived by their artists, chancellors and courtiers. This is understandable. Without truly effective medical sciences and developed systems of hygiene (such as sewers and running water), there was no reason for the rich to live longer than the poor – and there is a strong indication that their habits (overeating, alcohol consumption) made them more fragile.

The first great fractures occurred precisely with the introduction of sewage systems and running water, which sanitized the homes of the rich, where they were first installed. Child mortality eased first amongst the more comfortable classes. Dietetics taught the wealthy to better nourish themselves and do more exercise (hence the diffusion of sport: physical exertion whose end was neither profit nor sustenance). And then, naturally, the gap widened even further with the medical advances of the twentieth century. Modern medicine – especially when privatized and dependant on discriminatory insurance regimes – became an accelerator of inequality.

We are now living the world described by Rousseau, where inequality is created and then sharpened by civilization:

the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.

The arts and sciences – ‘progress’, in other words – does nothing but exacerbate inequality and the struggle for property. Immiseration for the poor, fortification for the rich. How could this fail to lengthen the life of the powerful and shorten (relatively speaking) that of their subjects?

Of course, if inequalities in life continue to multiply year-on-year, one would expect the same of inequalities in death. The aforementioned researchers at Harvard were shocked by the fact that in the US, the life expectancy/income gap didn’t seem to plateau, neither at the top nor the bottom of the scale. In France, however, the curve flattens, as shown by this graph:

There, as in the USA, data for life expectancy at birth presents a marked gap between classes: a difference of almost 13 years for men and over 8 for women. But unlike in the US, the curve slows rapidly, almost plateauing over the threshold of €2,500 per month in net income (after taxes and social security). Gross income is usually around double this figure, so it’s at the threshold of €60,000 per year that we see this change, with the line becoming almost horizontal above a monthly net income of €3,500.

The only possible explanation seems to lie in the fact that the French public health system is easier to navigate the higher one’s level of education (with all the income and lifestyle differentials that implies):

Here, too, the curve flattens visibly above the €2,000 mark (we can assume that few of those who earn a yearly income of €60,000 don’t possess at least a secondary school diploma). This is despite the fact that there is an increasing gap between those with an undergraduate degree and those without a diploma (a difference of a little under three years for the same income group of under €1,000 per month, and nearly four and a half at net income of €3,500). In short, studying earns you almost three years of life. Perhaps if children were told this they would strive for better grades.

Until now we’ve discussed life in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. But what kind of life are we talking about? In the UK, researchers have developed separate metrics for life expectancy (lifespan) and the expected length of a healthy life (healthspan). Here are their findings:

‘Heathy life experience’, they conclude,

has also increased over time, but not as much as life expectancy, so more years are spent in poor health. Although a male in England could expect to live 79.4 years in 2018-20, his average healthy life expectancy was only 63.1 years – ie, he would have spent 16.3 of those years (20%) in ‘no good’ health.  In 2018–20 a female in England could expect to live 83.1 years, of which 19.3 years (23 per cent) would have been spent in ‘not good’ health. And although females live an average of 3.7 years longer than males, most of that time (3 years) is spent in poor health.

Not only do the poor live shorter lives than the rich (around 74 years versus 84 for men; 79 and 86 for women). Of this shorter existence, a larger part is lived in weakness and infirmity (for men, 26.6 years compared to 14; for women, 26.4 years compared to 15.8). The result is that the poor enjoy 18 fewer healthy years.

In an effort to extend the length of life, then, we’ve prolonged the length of death. The masters of the earth – those whose fortunes exceed the GDP of several nation states – have clearly realized this. Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (2017) documents the frantic, infantile fantasies of these Lords of the Cosmos, who strive to achieve immortality through financing both the development of cryopreservation projects such as Alcor Life Extension Foundation, ‘where clients sign up to be frozen on dying in the hope not just of resuscitation but rejuvenation’ – as well as research into technology that would allow one to download one’s brain onto a hard disk or a cloud, so as to reincarnate, perhaps even as a computer, with all one’s memory intact.

In the absence of such technological breakthroughs, though, the masters of the universe have now dedicated considerable resources to realizing the more mundane aim of extending their lives by a few years, or perhaps a few decades. Since 2013, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page & co. have been investing in businesses developing anti-aging pharmaceuticals:

With just two short sentences posted on his personal blog in September 2013, Google co-founder Larry Page unveiled Calico, a ‘health and wellbeing company’ focused on tackling ageing. Almost a year earlier he had persuaded Arthur Levinson, the driving force behind the biotech giant Genentech and chairman of Apple, to oversee the new business and lined up $1.5bn in funding pledges – half from Google, the balance from AbbVie, the pharmaceutical company.

In 2022 the venture capital firm Arc Venture Partner, Jeff Bezos and another billionaire Yuri Milner, invested $3 billion in Altos Lab, whose self-declared mission is to ‘restore cell health and resilience through cellular rejuvenation programming to reverse disease, injury, and the disabilities that can occur throughout life’. The billionaires of Silicon Valley believe their money can enable them not only to live longer, but to live well, while preserving the prospect of immortality for their offspring.

Once this is achieved, they will finally have a rejoinder to Max Weber’s famous remark in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). To the pre-capitalist subject, he writes,

that anyone should be able to make it the sole purpose of his life-work, to sink into the grave weighed down with a great material load of money and goods, seems explicable only as the product of a perverse instinct, the auri sacra fames.

To this, the lords of the universe will reply: ‘There is no grave we will sink into!’

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Celebrity Thaumaturge’, NLR 74.

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Money and Mimesis

‘The view I am taking here is that the portrayal can be convincing regardless of whether such a thing has ever been seen or whether or not it is credible…’ – Erich Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World (1929)

On 1 January, Croatians entered the latest EU-mandated experiment in whether monetary ‘portrayal can be convincing’, when they substituted their national currency, the kuna, for the euro, becoming the first member-state to do so since Lithuania in 2015. Like all EU states other than Denmark, Croatia formally accepted the obligation to enter the eurozone with its accession as the Union’s 28th – and still most recent – member in 2013. Its relatively prompt adoption of the currency contrasts with the persistent euro-scepticism of countries such as Sweden, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which continue to maintain their own currencies despite being much older members of the EU. This is largely attributable to the unflagging enthusiasm for Brussels emanating from the centre-right government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and his party the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ; Hrvatska demokratska zajednica). Under Plenković, the HDZ has refashioned itself as a Christian Democratic party of the sort that is increasingly rare in the epoch of ascendant right-wing populism in Europe and beyond.

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, visited Zagreb to sanctify Croatia’s definitive embrace of the euro. (She and Plenković pointedly paid for their coffees with them). Such political fanfare has not been a panacea to apprehension about the new currency regime; Croatian citizens are well-acquainted with the contortions and consternations that the euro can involve. Most real estate transactions and the lion’s share of the tourism industry – the dynamo of Croatia’s economy – have long been conducted in euros, while the kuna has effectively been pegged to the euro since the latter’s introduction in 2002. The Greek crisis of 2009, rooted in the financial and policy constraints entailed by the Eurozone, is a more tangible memory in the Balkans than in more affluent EU member-states to the west. Admission to the Eurozone has nevertheless been broadly welcomed, especially by local political and economic elites, as proof positive that Croatia has reached the final stop on its staggered voyage to ‘Europe’. In light of the euro’s chequered recent past, the near-total absence of domestic opposition to its adoption has been remarkable. The decision to invite Croatia into the Schengen area of passport-free travel, taken in December 2022, only added to the sense that Europe was finally here, rather than beyond the horizon in Ljubljana, Trieste or Vienna. Buoyed by the virtuosity of Croatia’s star player Luka Modrić, who led the Vatreni to the semi-final of the World Cup in Qatar in December, the public mood in Osijek, Rijeka, Split and Zagreb is remarkably sanguine.  

Like all currency, the euro is a crucible for political-symbolic allegories and alchemies. While bills, from five euros up, are uniform across the Eurozone, specie – one, two, five, ten, twenty and fifty euro cent and one and two euro coins – are specific to each member-state, even as they circulate freely throughout the zone and beyond. So: the obverse face of fifty euro cents in Austria depicts Vienna’s iconic Secession building; one and two euro coins in Cyprus display the idol of Pomos, a cross-shaped artefact from ca. 3000 BCE; a two euro coin in Slovenia features a portrait of the national poet, France Prešeren (1800–49); and so on. Ideologically, euro coins integrate the historical and cultural specificity of each constituent nation-state into the universalizing project of the Union, enshrining the dubious conceit that national identities – however problematically imagined and invented – can persevere and thrive in the solvent of EU membership. The delicate selection of which national icons to mint, ranging from historical heroes to material culture, necessarily addresses both domestic and international publics. Euro coins must effectively abbreviate national cultures in a set of recognizable images while also embodying a deracinated, bureaucratized Brussels liberalism.

In the summer of 2021, as part of the lead-up to Croatia’s admission to the Eurozone, Plenković announced the symbols that would receive the mint’s sanction: the Croatian chequerboard (šahovnica) pattern, a key component of the national coat-of-arms; a map of Croatia; a pine marten; the inventor Nikola Tesla; and the Medieval Glagolitic Croatian alphabet. A competition to determine the final design of each symbol was announced, to be judged by a committee of art historians, bankers and sundry public figures. The winning designs were presented to an applauding audience in February 2022, but controversy quickly usurped ceremony. In light of the struggle between Serbia and Croatia to monopolize the legacy of Nikola Tesla, a degree of dyspepsia over the inventor’s star turn on Croatia’s ten, twenty and fifty cent coins was expected. But contention came too from an unanticipated quarter. Only three days after the official unveiling of the victorious designs, illustrator Stjepan Pranjković withdrew his winning image of a pine marten, the eponymous kuna that lent its name to Croatia’s former currency, after Iain Leach, a Scottish photographer for National Geographic, pointed out that Pranjković’s design clearly plagiarized one of his photographs.

The embarrassment of Pranjković’s deception called into question Croatia’s European aspirations generally. Anxieties of incomplete and insufficient Europeanness, which, as Maria Todorova has emphasized, haunt the Balkans at large, lurked in the scandal’s shadows. The process of minting Croatia’s European credentials had been tainted by failed mimesis. Even worse, it was stolen from a European source (leaving aside Brexit-related ambiguities of geopolitical identity). If the Croatian euro coin was a knock-off, might not Croatia’s entry into the Eurozone and Schengen be similarly plagiaristic, inauthentic, fake?

This commotion distracted from reckoning with the weightier, more sinister political history compacted in the image of the pine marten: a legacy of the fascist Independent State of Croatia, the Nazi comprador regime that ruled both Croatia and today’s Bosnia during World War II. The kuna was first introduced as a currency by the fascist Ustaše in 1941, and remained in circulation until the end of the war. Like many emblems of the fascist era, the kuna was resurrected during the 1990s, in the wake of Croatia’s secession from socialist Yugoslavia and its war of independence against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army.

The reintroduction of the kuna did arouse opposition at the time on account of its dark provenance. Ivo Škrabalo of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, for instance, lobbied strongly against its adoption: ‘If we’ve rejected the dinar as Yugoslav money, then we must also reject the kuna as Ustaša money, since neither “Yu” nor “U” are needed in Croatia at this point in time.’ (‘Ako smo odbacili dinar kao jugoslavenski novac, odbacimo i kunu kao ustaški, jer Hrvatskoj u ovom trenutku ne trebaju ni “YU” ni “U”.’) Škrabalo and like-minded MPs proposed that the Croatian crown (kruna) replace the Croatian dinar, but they were outvoted by the right-wing parliamentary majority. In 1994, the kuna was restored. It would last longer this time, 28 years rather than a mere four, and daily use has resulted in collective amnesia about its origin. Even now, as kunas rapidly exit circulation, the pine marten on Croatia’s one euro coin is an unmistakable material afterlife of the fascism of the 1940s. But this presents no obstacle to Croatia’s geopolitical aspirations: as Giorgia Meloni and the Fratelli d’Italia have recently demonstrated in Italy, few things are less controversially European these days than fascist afterlives.

Meanwhile, the denizens of Zagreb, my adopted hometown, negotiate the quotidian dilemmas and exasperations of the transition from the kuna to the euro with a bricoleur’s blend of pragmatism, cynicism and humour. Queues grow long at bakeries and farmers’ markets as customers exploit the final opportunity to pay with the former currency by purchasing staples with hoards of long-neglected coins. Cashiers’ brows furrow with new calculations. There are reports of customers attempting to purchase chewing gum with 500 euro bills; others are immediately nostalgic for the kuna. At my local market, an elderly customer asks me how I’m handling ‘our battle with the euro’ before winking and handing me a chocolate shaped like a euro coin. Even among the tricks and traps of mimesis that Europeanization involves, grappling with a new currency can occasionally offer sweet satisfactions.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Why the Euro Divides Europe’, NLR 95.

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Difficult Nations

I have never been to Greece before, but at the level of the life-world it feels completely familiar: numerous small markets, cafes, apothecaries, the occasional bookstore, chaotic traffic patterns with death-defying scooter-riders weaving between buses and taxis. In one sense Athens seems a generic southern European city. Of course there are differences, especially compared to Rome. The economic fragility is more palpable; an elegant turn of the century shopping centre that reminds me of the big one in Central Milano now sits completely abandoned, the windows still bearing the names of jewellers, upscale clothing stores and restaurants that catered to people with incomes they no longer have. Then there is the empty shell of the Hotel Sans Rival just down the street from where I am staying. Around the corner from it one finds a derelict school alongside a forlorn and garbage-filled basketball court populated by the stray cats which are ubiquitous in Athens. (Giorgos, my host from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, misses no opportunity to pet them, which reminds me slightly of Emanuela.) The graffiti is also bolder and more colourful than in Rome, rising to cover most of the buildings from street-level to three or four feet off the ground. But these are all differences of degree rather than kind.

Another striking similarity between Rome and Athens is the way they exemplify the difficult relationship between their national and ancient pasts. One of the things that drove Emanuela mad about the tourists in Rome was how little interest they usually expressed in the country’s national history. The crowds would rush past Il museo del Risorgimento on their way to Trajan’s Market or the Forum. How many of them paid attention to the massive statue of Garibaldi that overlooks the Janiculum Hill above the Vatican? I have the same sense in Athens; in fact, here it is even more extreme. In the morning I visited the Museum of National History located in the old parliament building. The exhibits commemorating the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence tell a story of the struggle of the ‘enslaved’ Hellenes against their Ottoman oppressors.

There are certain oddities about the tale, such as the fact that no one seemed to know quite what or where ‘Greece’ was. The attempt by Alexander Ypsilantis (the Greek Garibaldi) to raise an army of volunteers known to history as the ‘Sacred Band’ unfolded in Moldavia and Wallachia – present-day Romania. As the exhibit shows, the Greeks were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean in small, basically self-governing units. Did they imagine themselves to be a nation? The curators in any case had clearly read their Benedict Anderson. A printing press was prominently displayed alongside the ‘traditional costumes’ and other artefacts of Greek life before independence. But the most striking thing about the place was that it was almost empty except for myself and a middle-aged American couple, the three of us dutifully reading the plaques as we silently moved around the upper balcony.

The contrast with my early afternoon visit to the Acropolis was enormous. When I finally reached the ticket office it was approaching noon and a lengthy cosmopolitan line stretched out before me. Snippets of French, Spanish, Italian, English, German and Russian floated above the throng, but there was very little Greek. As we tourists waited, the sun cooked us from above and also from below as it bounced off the white marble paving stones that had been installed sometime in the sixties. It was a good-natured queue: polite and relaxed families with couples young and old. I was the only single person as far as I could see; a poignant reminder that I should have been doing this with her.

Affixed to the ticket office was a large white sign with the EU flag on it, announcing that the Acropolis had been decreed a ‘European Heritage Site’ and declaring that this was the place ‘where Europe began’. Here, it stated, democracy, science, philosophy and theatre had been invented. Since these pursuits and institutions were supposedly the defining features of ‘Europe’, then it too must have been invented here. It was hard to swallow this massive dose of Euro-Ideology for several reasons. First there’s the problem of veracity. Is it really true, no matter how remarkable classical Athens was, that all of these things were invented on the Acropolis? Second, even if it were true, why was this the beginning of ‘Europe’? How can Europe, or even worse the EU, claim to be the sole legitimate heir of Athens? After all, until the nineteenth century there was both a mosque and a church inside the Parthenon; Alexander spread Greek civilization far into Asia; and there is the obvious problem of North Africa and the significance of Aristotle for the Muslim world. Third, what of the current relationship between Europe and Greece? To call it strained would be an understatement, given how much damage the Troika’s ferocious belt-tightening measures have done. It’s no surprise that EU flags are very often defaced here.

Perhaps the deeper issue, which creates a certain commonality between Italy and Greece, is the difficulty of linking a pre-national past of purportedly universal significance to a national present that seems to be a second-hand version of the more ‘advanced’ west. Emanuela’s irritation expressed precisely this sense. Both Italy and Greece face such a problem: their greatness as civilizations preceded by centuries the arrival of the nation-state, and the universalization of that political form relegated them to a ‘semi-peripheral’ status. Thus the paradox of Italian or Greek national identity is that these nationalisms, while seeming to have an extremely strong symbolic basis in a charismatic past, can only access that past through the mediation of third-parties who legitimate it as a common ‘European’ one. The national population in both cases is condemned to play the role of curator of a heritage which is not quite its own.

One can therefore understand the hatred that the futurists felt for the past combined with the fetishization of speed, the cult of the new, and the elevation of Milan to the status of an anti-Rome. Futurism was really an attempt to escape the trap of antiquity by establishing a tabula rasa on which to build a renewed national spirit. But this attempt was also doomed to failure, since futurism’s cult of the new was compelled to refer to, and thereby carry within itself, the very antiquity that it rejected.

Black Sheep

We must have walked four or five miles wending our way first through the upscale shopping districts, and then passing by Syntagma Square where the communist party was holding a protest against rising fuel prices, before finally strolling along the broad marble-paved walking path that skirts the southern edge of the Acropolis. The setting sun had painted the Parthenon pink. Giorgos pointed out the massive apartments whose broad windows and balconies opened onto views of the temple. Many were empty – a consequence of the fact that some of their politician-owners were languishing in jail on corruption charges. We stopped to take a selfie in front of the Hellenic parliament, and as we continued our walk he gave me a brief history lesson. The main points he wanted to convey were these.

First, the Greek bourgeoisie was fundamentally diasporic. It had returned to ‘Greece’ only after being expelled from the Ottoman lands as nationalism took hold. Second, Greece has historically lacked a class of large landholders. This was partly the result of the policy of its liberal national leadership to distribute land in small plots so as to avoid the agrarian problem. Third, Greek urbanization had been extremely rapid in the 1960s, and this had created a paradoxical cityscape; one that is both ancient and hyper-modern with little in between. The layering of historical levels one feels in London, Rome or Paris is largely missing in Athens.

Our conversation wrapped up as we neared The Black Sheep – the restaurant where we were to meet two of Giorgos’s colleagues from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Rosa and Phoebe. Rosa appeared just as we settled down at our table. She and Giorgos embraced, and their connection seemed to embody an overlapping set of bonds that were almost familial; they were friends, colleagues, political comrades. Physically the two contrasted sharply: Giorgos tall, dark, slightly heavy-set with an angular nose and intelligent brown eyes under a sharply defined brow; he appeared stereotypically ‘Greek’. Rosa by contrast had bleach blonde hair and soft features. She exuded energy, positivity, fitness. The food arrived, along with the simple refreshing wine that lubricated every evening I spent in Athens, and the conversation ranged widely: from Rosa’s boxing classes and observations about how her fellow pugilists seemed to be searching for an outlet more fulfilling than unemployment or their shitty jobs, to the legacy of the civil war of the late 1940s, to the American west and the foibles of US progressivism.

Rosa described her upbringing as the daughter of a communist family in a deeply conservative village in northern Greece. The communist kids, she explained, played, ate and socialized together, and above all did not go to church on Sundays. Her father travelled regularly to Bulgaria to meet comrades and perhaps to vacation – though when he returned to Greece he would try to point out that not everything was going well up north. Given this background, it was no accident that she shared a name with the Stiftung: Luxemburg was her namesake. Phoebe also described her political formation, explaining that she had worked in some capacity for a UN agency in Berlin but had grown disillusioned with their do-nothingism and was now back in Athens, excited to be involved in the Stiftung.

Toward the end of the evening I posed a question to the group. ‘Could any of you ever imagine being romantically involved with someone not on the left?’ They laughed, a bit taken aback by my query. All of them, after a brief consideration, rejected the idea. ‘It might be exciting at first,’ said Rosa, ‘but to be on the left is to adopt a view of the world, a way of life.’ The others agreed. This of course points to an important difference between the US and those countries that have had substantial communist or at least Marxist movements and parties. In Greece, or Italy or France, political traditions are rooted in a social milieu that spreads out from the sphere of formal politics and toward leisure time, friendship and romantic attachment. In the US, however, the sphere of politics and everyday life remain sharply distinct. To restrict one’s friends or circle of potential partners to ‘the left’ would mean either social isolation or membership in a cult or sect. It is possible that this is changing to some extent now as the widely condemned but in my opinion quite healthy and normal phenomenon of ‘political polarization’ would seem to show.

But caution should be used here, as the specificity of the US often forecloses comparisons and apparent convergences. For the phenomenon of US political polarization cannot be understood in terms of the historical categories of left and right as they emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. One might restrict oneself exclusively to Democratic Party voters in social interaction for decades without ever meeting a person of the left. This is true even within the Sanders wing of the party, which encompasses an amorphous spectrum of opinion stretching from Brandeis-type partisans of the regulatory state to the varieties of Kautskyist who shelter under the DSA banner. The lack of a tradition, or a shared set of intellectual references, or a worldview in the strong sense will take decades to repair. In the meantime, to be on the left but also to be a person in the US demands a sort of lived eclecticism or embodied pluralism which is quite distinct from the experience described by my Greek hosts.

Fritz

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is an admirably internationalist organization as befits its name – with branches in several European countries as well as the US and Mexico. But it is an internationalism with ‘German characteristics’. This is particularly evident in the leadership of the local offices. Each branch must have a German director; in the Athens office, this post is held by a man named Fritz. The evening of the presentation, he stood out immediately as an exemplar of his national type among the Greeks; he had close-cropped white hair, a triangular nose, an earring, and wore a pink linen shirt that seemed a bit like beach clothing. I was most struck by his sad grey eyes. His manner was ever so slightly formal and deferential, something I had not experienced from any of the Greeks. But he later revealed himself to be a profoundly sensitive and perceptive soul.

We were seated across from one another at the lovely taverna where the Stiftung hosted a post-seminar dinner and he explained the difficulties of his situation. Above all, there was the matter of the language. Fritz was taking classes but it was slow going, and the Greek alphabet added another layer of difficulty. He felt isolated, and missed Berlin. At dinner he was the only person to order a beer; I had briefly considered asking for one too in order to soften his sense of isolation, but chose at the last moment to drink wine because it went so well with the food. As I did so I felt slightly guilty, as if I had somehow betrayed him. He then asked if I had a family. This was the first time since Emanuela’s passing that the question had arisen in this sort of setting, and it recalled the numerous times I had spoken of her and described our lives together to relative strangers after giving a paper or speaking. I found myself saying in reply that I had once had a family, but that my wife had died tragically and that my son now attends college in Texas.

Poor Fritz clearly felt that he had committed a tremendous faux pas by asking me, but it was quite natural for him to do so since I was, and still am, wearing my wedding ring. In fact Fritz’s question had been prompted by an observation that showed him, at least in my view, to be a remarkably observant person. He said that he had noticed during the Q&A session that I was touching my ring as if to draw comfort from it. I was not aware of this, but was grateful to him for having pointed it out. It made me feel somehow near to her. I then asked if he had ever been married. ‘Once, for five years,’ he replied. ‘We parted amicably and I realized that I’m just not meant for that sort of thing; better to be alone.’

At this point, a fascinating episode started to unfold. It began with Rosa, who wielded an easy authority in dinner conversation, turning the discussion toward a mysterious episode in her father’s past involving a deployment to Cyprus in the sixties. Fritz seized the opportunity opened by Rosa’s story to share a rather extraordinary piece of his own family history. He was going through his grandfather’s papers and found a letter of recommendation; it must have been from the late 1930s, written by the local party official warmly recommending his grandfather for a position as a veterinarian. The letter deplored the local situation where non-party individuals were advancing in their careers while old NSDAP members such as Fritz’s grandfather could not progress. The situation was all the more scandalous since the grandfather had been involved in an important paramilitary action as a member of the SA (the earlier, more plebeian version of the SS) which had resulted in the death of a communist. Fritz had become obsessed with researching the incident, which took place in 1932, so as to better understand his grandfather’s part in it. This led him to the discovery of a large archival box containing a photograph that, to Fritz’s astonishment, showed his grandfather not only participating in the action but leading a column of SA men through the town where it had taken place.

He then pulled out his cell phone and showed us a picture of the column with an imposing bald man at its head who, he said, was his grandfather. ‘What became of him?’ Rosa asked. To which Fritz simply replied, ‘Stalingrad.’ We all expressed some scepticism, as he was clearly already well into middle age in 1932 and must have been in his fifties by the winter of 1941. But Fritz reminded us that he was a veterinarian and such people were highly valued in the Wehrmacht because of the importance of horses to Hitler’s armies. ‘Family history is fascinating,’ Rosa remarked. ‘There is always a dark secret to be revealed.’ ‘Especially among you Europeans,’ I joked. To which she quite rightly responded that there were certainly dark secrets in American family histories too. True enough, I thought to myself, although the American twentieth century had been so comparatively placid that its population has been somewhat insulated from those fundamental political choices that many Europeans have had to face, and which generate, after all, the dark secrets to which Rosa referred.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Lockdown Limbo’, NLR 127.

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Peronist Legacies

On the night of 1 September 2022, around 9:30pm, the news began to spread like wildfire, first on social media and later on every TV channel and radio station in the country: someone had tried to kill Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK), the current vice-president and former president of Argentina. Earlier that evening, a crowd of kirchneristas had come together in the well-to-do neighborhood of Recoleta in Buenos Aires to support CFK amid her ongoing corruption trial, which they saw as a classic case of lawfare orchestrated by political elites. At 9:15pm, CFK’s car pulled up in front of her house and she stepped out to greet the crowd. Suddenly, a man approached her, held out a 7.5mm Versa semi-automatic weapon and pulled the trigger – but the gun failed to go off.   

After the would-be assassin was apprehended, the episode gradually faded from the headlines and the public moved on. Yet the attack reflected a significant change in Argentinian politics. CFK’s assailant, 35-year-old Fernando Sabag Montiel, is a supporter of the reactionary upstart Javier Milei – a former media personality and economics professor who recently entered mainstream politics. His coalition La Libertad Avanza performed surprisingly well in the 2021 primary elections in Buenos Aires, running on an ultra-conservative platform that nostalgized Argentina’s military dictatorship. The ability of such forces to inspire acts of violence signals an alarming historical regression. Far-right discourses that had been almost eradicated from the public sphere following the democratic transition of 1983 have now been reanimated. To understand how this has happened, it is necessary to recap on the contested legacy of Peronism and examine its role in the current Argentinian conjuncture.

*

The election of Juan Domingo Perón in February 1946 was a turning point for Argentina: a rebuke to an ossified political establishment that refused to recognize the demands of a growing layer of urban workers. Perón was already popular thanks to his record as Labour Secretary between 1943 and 1945. As president, he enacted unprecedented income redistribution while greatly expanding the welfare state, and was reelected in 1951 with 63.51% of the vote – the highest share in national history.

This broad support base allowed him to integrate trade unions into the state structure, which limited their autonomy and consolidated the power of his Justicialist Party. Indeed, Peronism grew in direct proportion to the cooptation or repression of previous union leaders, especially those with Socialist or Communist affiliations. During his decade in power, he took an authoritarian approach to opponents across the political spectrum, shuttering newspapers and persecuting activist groups. Yet his popularity remained high thanks to strong growth rates and continued progressive policies.

The economy began to show signs of exhaustion in 1949, however, as inflation rose following the depletion of Argentina’s foreign exchange reserves – precipitating a turn to austerity. This downward trend, alongside increasing conflict between Peronism and the Catholic church, provided the pretext for a major backlash from domestic elites and significant factions of the military. In September 1955, Perón was overthrown in a right-wing putsch and a military dictatorship was installed. The coup-makers presented Peronism as a populist virus that had poisoned the otherwise prosperous Argentina of the 1940s. The leader was exiled, the Judicialist Party was proscribed, and it became illegal to so much as mention his name or that of the former First Lady Eva Perón.

For more than fifteen years, Argentina alternated between military regimes and ‘democratic’ governments while Peronism remained banned. During the 1960s, political violence became a fact of daily life, as the leftist People’s Revolutionary Army and Montoneros expanded their guerrilla activities while the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance meted out paramilitary repression in coordination with the state. The Peronist youth were radicalized to the left, and called on the exiled president to return home and resolve the crisis. In 1973 they got their wish. Perón flew back to Argentina, won the national elections and reassumed high office. Yet he died of a heart attack the following year, and his widow Isabel Martínez de Perón came to power amid a turbulent economic situation and an uptick in political conflict.

The resultant disorder paved the way for a new military coup, the bloodiest in Argentine history, which took place in March 1976. The new government quickly launched its so-called ‘National Reorganization Process’ in the hope of accomplishing what eighteen years of proscription could not: the eradication of Peronism as a political alternative and popular identity. This involved a campaign of repression against the country’s labour movement and the decimation of its industrial base. By 1983, Argentina’s manufacturing sector had declined from 21.78% to 19.22% as a share of GDP, while foreign debt – both public and private – had risen from 14.4% to 39.7%.

The military junta was put on the backfoot by the economic chaos unleashed by its liberalizing reforms and the disastrous end to the Malvinas War. Utterly discredited, it had no choice but to call presidential elections in 1983, whereupon Argentina entered a new democratic era. The victory of Raul Alfonsin and the centrist Unión Civica Radical that year was a landmark: the first time Peronism was defeated by non-violent political means. For the next two decades, the UCR acted as the main alternative to Perón’s party, and power changed hands peacefully. In 1989, the Judicialists returned to government with Carlos Menem at the helm, but by now their economic priorities had shifted. Though he had promised to revive domestic industry and increase wages during his campaign, Menem switched course while in office and attempted to finish what the dictatorship had started: privatizing public companies, dismantling the last remainders of the welfare state and remaking Argentina in the image of the Washington Consensus.

The effect was a series of deep changes in Argentina’s social structure. During the 1990s poverty became endemic, unemployment rose and the informal economy expanded. Such problems were compounded by the financial crisis of 2001. However, when Nestor Kirchner, a Peronist from Southern Patagonia, won the national elections in 2003, the economy began to see the benefits of the global commodities boom. There followed a period of relative prosperity, with stronger welfare policies and higher living standards. CFK succeeded Kirchner in 2007 and retained these social-democratic provisions, winning reelection in 2011 with more than 54% of the vote.

If Perón integrated the new urban working class into his power bloc, CFK took a similar approach to the crowded suburbs around Buenos Aires, where those in low-income jobs lived alongside informal workers. She also won over a strategic sector of the middle class who had benefited from the commodity boom. It thus seemed possible that a new iteration of Peronism – kirchnerismo – would repeat its original success. Yet from 2011 onward this project began to come apart. As commodities prices fell and markets were hit by the financial crash, inflation became a chronic issue. Growth stalled along with CFK’s progress on poverty reduction. A coherent developmental strategy was necessary to survive in the jungle of the world economy, including progressive tax reform, a plan to increase the export of Argentinian services and a reduction in regressive public expenditures. But such measures were not forthcoming. In their absence, Argentina had no ballast against the global headwinds.

The impasse of kirchnerismo enabled the right to mount an effective ideological assault on the Peronist tradition more generally. Evoking the rhetoric of the erstwhile military dictatorship, they asserted that Perón’s legacy was a pathology which prevented Argentina from becoming a typical Western country with a flourishing free market. The sooner it was abandoned, the better. This was the platform that propelled Mauricio Macri to power in 2015.

A former businessman with an elite education, Macri was more of a traditional right-wing politician than the radicales of the 1990s: culturally conservative, in favour of free-market reform, with close ties to international finance. Yet he accepted the new settlement in which outright violence was no longer a legitimate weapon against political opponents. He instead presented himself as a champion of meritocracy and efficiency, as well as a moral censor who would combat the corrupt practices of kirchnerismo. After four years in office, the impact of his presidency was plain to see: soaring inflation, a spike in poverty levels and an IMF bailout that massively increased the country’s foreign debt. Macri failed to enact any significant structural reforms, and though he reduced the fiscal deficit, this came at the cost of abolishing energy subsidies and cutting public-sector jobs – which resulted in a growing middle-class discontent.

It was on this basis that Peronism once again triumphed in the 2019 elections, with Alberto Fernandez becoming president and CFK his deputy. Their new coalition, Frente de Todos, encompassed almost every opposition grouping: from conservative Catholic outfits to left-wing social movements to centrist technocrats. Accordingly, it struggled formulate a coherent response to the economic problems inherited from Macri, and soon descended into internecine conflict. This dynamic was aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis. Although Fernandez’s public health measures proved relatively successful, their knock-on effects were damaging for the economy, and the president’s reputation was not helped by the revelation that he had attended a party at the height of lockdown.

In the mid-term elections of September 2021, the government was punished for its record – reflecting the Latin America-wide trend towards anti-incumbency. Macri’s coalition re-emerged as the leading opposition force, and although the Frente de Todos kept its majority at the Cámara de Diputados, it lost the Senate, forcing it to make further political compromises. The real surprise, though, was the success of Javier Milei, who picked up 16.5% of the vote in Buenos Aires and became a federal deputy. Meanwhile, the Frente de Izquierda, a coalition of Argentine Trotskyist parties, received around 5% of the national vote: a tally they have been getting for the last ten years without being able to improve it. In practical terms, this means they have a two or three national congressmen yet no real influence beyond their speeches in the chamber.

The election results deepened divisions within the government, sparking a series of high-level resignations by cabinet ministers and officials. Although the mainstream press presented this as a personal dispute between Fernandez and CFK, the actual situation was more complex. Fundamentally, it was a disagreement over the meaning of Peronism in the 21st century – how it might reduce inflation and stimulate growth. Fernandez seems more eager to reduce public spending and improve conditions for international investors, whereas CFK leans towards keeping welfarism alive through more progressive taxation. With the appointment of Sergio Massa, a centrist technocrat, as Finance Minister, it appears that Fernandez’s faction is advancing. At the recent conclusion to CFK’s corruption trial, the vice president was sentenced to six years in prison for the misuse of funds for public works projects. She is expected to appeal, yet the verdict will further damage her credibility, even though the charges strongly suggest some form of political interference.  

*

Whereas Perón managed to incorporate the working class into the state and pass redistributive policies, his legatees have had no such success. Since 2011, the absence of an economic growth engine has deprived them of a viable reformist programme. Despite the hope that CFK initially inspired, she did not manage to heal Argentina’s structural divisions – between economic sectors highly integrated into global markets and informal industries where workers struggle to eke out a basic living. As a result, it is likely that Macri or one of his political allies will win the next election – looming later this year – by capitalizing on disappointment with kirchnerismo. Yet they too will struggle to build a stable majority, since their ideological outlook is founded on the longstanding conviction that Argentina’s problems will be solved, and it will finally become a typical developed nation, once it finally breaks with Peronism. This belief, which drove the coups of the 1950s and 1970s, means that the Argentinian right has always lacked a distinctive political project.

In this sense, neither of Argentina’s two primary political forces is capable of presenting a hegemonic vision. The kirchneristas are missing a unified diagnosis of the country’s problems, while the macristas are clinging to a demonstrably mistaken one. Such paralysis has created an opening for an outsider like Milei to present a radical solution. Milei’s programme is similar to that of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Portraying himself as an outsider, he blames the expansion of public spending and the unions’ strength – along with liberal cultural mores – for the maladies affecting Argentina. His solution is to abolish central banks, eliminate all market regulation, champion state repression and promote the traditional family (for example, by banning abortion).

Another failed macrismo government will only heighten the appeal of these positions. After forty years of democracy, people are frustrated with the incumbent and anxious about the future – a combination that the far-right is currently exploiting. The assassination attempt against CFK might thus form part of a broader pattern, similar to what we have witnessed in Brazil, where reactionary authoritarianism gains mainstream legitimation. If this trend takes hold in Argentina, the country will need an active and resilient left to oppose it.

Read on: Jeremy Adelman, ‘Post-Populist Argentina’, NLR I/203.

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Killing Tigers

Over the last decade Venezuela has suffered the worst crisis in modern Latin American history. This crisis is far from over, but there are growing signs the country may be turning a corner. Economic indicators are more positive than they have been for years. The political situation appears to be stabilizing, with the Juan Guaidó debacle seeming to be nearing its end and government-opposition talks resuming after a year long pause. While relations with the United States remain frosty, there are indications a thaw may be coming. It is far from clear what all this means for the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, the prospects of a return to electoral democracy, or the possibility of a renewal of genuine leftist politics. A degree of cautious optimism may be warranted, though the extent to which the country is entering a ‘new normal’ and the nature of this remain uncertain.

If a new era is beginning, it is decidedly not a socialist one. In recent years, President Nicolás Maduro has implemented a series of free-market reforms. In 2019, Maduro scrapped Venezuela’s foreign exchange system and allowed a de facto dollarization process to unfold. Economists, including from the left, had long called for the elimination of Venezuela’s byzantine currency regime, which facilitated incredibly high levels of corruption and was a major factor in the economic crisis. The government has also established special economic zones (the most infamous being the Orinoco Mining Arc), sold shares of state-owned enterprises on the stock market, aggressively courted private capital, and granted businesses the right to import goods duty free. One effect has been to spur the formation of new businesses, such as the ‘bodegones’ that have proliferated across Caracas, new stores selling high-end imported goods usually paid for in dollars.

The bodegones point to one major consequence of economic liberalization: rising inequality. This has been exacerbated by the unevenness of dollarization. According to Reuters, as of May at least 63% of private-sector employees were paid in dollars, giving them enhanced purchasing power. Public-sector employees by contrast are still largely paid in bolívares. The situation is harder still for the vast numbers working in the informal sector, who continue to struggle to make ends meet. The extensive and continuing deterioration of the state’s capacity, due in no small measure to the devastation wrought by US sanctions, means that the poor are increasingly left to fend for themselves. And this is to say nothing of the millions who have left Venezuela in recent years and are living in precarious conditions elsewhere.

Maduro can nevertheless boast of the resumption of economic growth. 2021 saw growth of 1.9%, according to Bloomberg News. While modest, this reversed a seven-year contraction that cumulatively wiped out 80% of Venezuela’s GDP. Bloomberg estimates that growth will top 8% in 2022. Venezuela has made significant, if uneven, progress bringing down inflation. Hyperinflation (understood as monthly inflation over 50%) ended in 2021 and inflation was significantly down for much of 2022. While it remains high in comparative and historical terms, and Bloomberg reports a marked and worrisome increase in recent months, the current figures are orders of magnitude better than the hyperinflation existing between late 2016 and 2020.

Oil production has also increased and now stands at almost 700,000 barrels a day, double that of two years ago. Production though remains less than a third of the nearly 2,500,000 barrels a day Venezuela produced as late as 2016, and less than a quarter of the historic high of almost 3,000,000 daily barrels in 2002. A major reason oil production has not recovered more from its precipitous decline in 2016 is the persistence of US sanctions.

The overall effect of the sanctions regime has been nothing short of catastrophic. A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research argues that sanctions led to 40,000 additional deaths in 2017-2018. And this was before the Trump administration imposed a near-total oil embargo on Venezuela in 2019 as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to remove Maduro. There has been an immense additional cost to Venezuela’s economy from foreign companies and governments ‘over complying’ with sanctions, for fear of running afoul of the US government and losing access to global markets. As Mark Weisbrot has argued, this predates Trump, with sanctions levied by Obama from 2015 serving to isolate Venezuela from the global economy. The US government has also directly pressured companies not to do business with Venezuela.

The agreement struck on 26 November to partially ease US sanctions is therefore quite significant. It grants the United Nations control of around $3 billion in funds seized by the US government, which will be used to pay for much-needed medicine and other humanitarian aid. Following the agreement, the US Treasury department announced that it will permit Chevron to resume some operations within the country. There are major limitations. The agreement is only for 6 months; it will not provide direct revenue to the Venezuelan government; the amount of aid it will deliver is a tiny fraction of what is needed. The aid will, however, be meaningful. And the agreement holds out promise of further easing of sanctions in the future.

Biden’s willingness to shift US policy stems at least in part from the Republican Party’s increasingly firm hold over Florida politics. This has weakened the influence of rightwing Venezuelan and Cuban expats over the Democratic Party. With Florida appearing to be beyond the party’s reach, Democrats appear willing to adopt less extreme policies towards the two countries, although much remains to be seen. The regional move to the left in Latin America, in countries such as Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and most recently Brazil, has also created a climate more conducive to positive US engagement with Venezuela, with Colombia’s Gustavo Petro playing a particularly important role. War in Ukraine is another significant factor. Washington engaged in its first high-level talks with Maduro in March, just days after Russia’s invasion; the need to secure additional sources of oil was clearly spurring the Biden administration on.

On the Venezuelan side, the November 26 agreement and resumption of government-opposition talks from which it stems are indicative of an ongoing political shift. Opposition leaders have increasingly distanced themselves from Juan Guaidó and his ‘interim government’. Several of the main opposition parties have indicated that they will not support renewing Guaidó’s (dubious) mandate for another year and are moving to strip him of his control over Citgo. Opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles, are pushing for unity around a single candidate ahead of scheduled 2024 presidential elections, with plans for a primary to be held in 2023. This marks a major alteration in strategy: returning to the electoralism that prevailed amongst the majority of the opposition from 2006-2015. The US continues to officially recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, but this has not stopped the Biden administration from engaging with Maduro. Biden sent several envoys to Caracas this year and there are growing calls for the US to recognize the reality that Maduro is Venezuela’s only president.

These developments raise a host of questions, including how the poor, who now comprise the vast majority, are faring. Anecdotal accounts suggest they have generated rising hopes. But the reality on the ground remains immensely difficult. As Pablo Stefanoni writes, in the face of greatly diminished state services and continued economic difficulties, poorly paid workers have been forced to become ever more inventive to survive by engaging in a variety of side hustles, or ‘killing tigers’. The ‘bodegonization’ of Venezuela may be a boon to elites seeking luxury goods, but it is of limited use to the poor. Yet, as Jessica Dos Santos notes, ‘the situation was so critical that just a bit of air is a big relief’. As with so much else, ending sanctions is key to improving life for ordinary Venezuelans. Though by no means imminent, the prospects for ending the sanctions regime appear more hopeful than they have for several years.

This brings us to the issue of how and when electoral democracy might return to Venezuela. The US has made any such easing contingent on getting Maduro to agree to hold presidential elections that are ‘free and fair’. Maduro, for his part, has declared he will hold such elections only after US sanctions are fully lifted. For all his failings, Maduro has a point that genuinely free and fair elections cannot take place without this. Otherwise, the situation is akin to that of Nicaragua in 1990, when citizens understood – and indeed were made to understand – that voting out the Sandinistas was the only way to bring about peace. Lifting sanctions would also remove one of Maduro’s crutches: his ability to point, with some justification, to the US as the main obstacle to peace and stability within Venezuela. If sanctions were to end, Maduro’s appeals to ‘rally round the flag’ would lose much of their substance. The reality of his rule would become all the clearer, as would the need for wholesale transformation of the country’s electoral institutions and judiciary.

Venezuela remains a highly repressive state. In its most recent report – issued in September of this year – on human rights in Venezuela, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights argues that Maduro’s government is guilty of crimes against humanity. The report also condemns abuses in the Orinoco Mining Arc, detailing how state and non-state actors have committed violence against Indigenous communities. Attention is also given to sexual and gender-based violence there. Michelle Bachelet, who ended her tenure as High Commissioner in August, provided a modestly more optimistic view in June. Condemning ongoing rights violations, she offered the government praise for some reforms, including shutting down the notorious Special Action Forces (FAES) in May (though critics argue that this amounts to little more than a rebranding). Bachelet also noted that they had recorded ‘fewer deaths in the context of security operations’ than in previous years. It should be noted that the UN’s work has made limited mention of US sanctions, a point that has led to criticism from those more supportive of the Maduro administration.

Repression within Venezuela has been directed not only against the right but also the left. Leftist parties that oppose Maduro, such as Marea Socialista, have been prevented from registering for elections. In May 2021 the leftist human rights collective Surgentes issued a report titled ‘Giro a la derecha y represión a la izquierda’ which details Maduro’s recent economic policies and repression of workers, peasants, and sectors of the left. It mentions, for example, the case of the website aporrea.org, for years a space for debate on the left, that has been largely blocked by the state communications agency, CANTV, since 2019; the 2020 closing of the Jirahara Communitarian Radio station in Yaracuy; the 2020 eviction of the Residencias Estudiantiles Livia Gouverneur in Caracas, which housed Chavista university students, and detention of student leaders who opposed the eviction; and the detention and intimidation of militants with the Alternativa Popular Revolucionaria, which grouped together leftist parties that identified as Chavista but opposed Maduro ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections.

State repression, alongside the continuing effects of the economic crisis, is a major reason that the left’s immediate prospects are daunting. There are, however, at least a few reasons for cautious optimism here too. One is that, despite its repressive character, the Venezuelan state remains somewhat responsive to pressure from below. For instance, over the summer public-sector education workers repeatedly mobilized against the government’s decision to pay their annual bonus in installments and calculate it with a formula that would have resulted in a much smaller payment. In August the government agreed to their demands. It should also be noted that there remains a leftist current within the ruling PSUV, which has continued to pressure party leaders despite tremendous obstacles. Maduro has long used conflict with the opposition and the US to deflect criticism from the left, portraying it as aiding the enemy. To the extent that a thawing of tensions continues in the coming year, there should be more space for leftist dissent.

Read on: Julia Buxton, ‘Venezuela After Chavez’, NLR 99.