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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.


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. 


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.


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.


Sounds of History

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) begins with a title card: ‘Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me’. Boonmee lives on a farm in Isaan, Thailand’s rural northeast, the same region where Apichatpong was raised. He grows tamarinds and keeps bees. Surrounded by dense jungle, the edges of Boonmee’s farm demarcate a threshold between civilization and wilderness, man and animal – as well as speaking to something else, something mythological.

What are those ‘other beings’ the title card refers to? Midway through the film, a late-night dinner is interrupted by two spirits: Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife, who appears as a faded apparition; and Boonsong, Boonmee’s long-lost son, who has become a ‘monkey ghost’ – Apichatpong’s own creation, resembling a mid-budget Bigfoot with glowing red eyes. There are several more monkey ghosts in the film, and one senses the presence of other phantoms throughout. There is also a talking catfish, perhaps a water god, who copulates with a princess at the mouth of a waterfall.

These are not the only mythic creatures to inhabit Apichatpong’s films. Tropical Malady (2004) features seua saming, or were-tigers, which come in two types, male and female. The latter is always a malevolent spirit, while the former can bend its shape at will, maintaining the mind and soul of a human even in tiger form. The film culminates in an encounter between Keng, a young soldier, and Tong, a seua saming, deep in the jungle one night, where Keng confesses his love: ‘Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness. There… do you hear it?’ The scene may be one of the most beautiful in world cinema – marked, like all Apichatpong’s films, by slowness, stillness and strangeness. Though Apichatpong is today something of a festival darling, this protracted sensibility still sometimes leaves audiences at a distance. Even the Cannes intelligentsia struggled with Tropical Malady when it debuted. Some reportedly left the film early; others stayed and booed.

If you find yourself sedated rather than sutured by Apichatpong’s languid pace and oblique images, he would much rather you simply fall asleep. In fact, he encourages it. He compares the experience of cinema to that of dreaming (not the first director to do so): losing oneself in the dark, the body subsumed by light. Dreams are merely another layer of reality, Apichatpong argues, ever present, much like spirits. This perhaps explains the ease with which his films marry realist aesthetics with the presence of ‘other beings’ – why the ghost of a dead ox can rise from its own corpse and lumber so naturally into the night. As in a dream, ontological borders are dissolved. Living and dead have no difference, nor reality and imagination, truth and myth.

The mythological, however, is missing from Memoria, Apichatpong’s tenth film and his first shot outside of Thailand. The action takes place in Colombia, where Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an awkward orchidologist suffering from auditory hallucinations – the recurrence of a sudden booming sound, inspired by the director’s own experience of Exploding Head Syndrome. Though in many respects Memoria represents a departure for Apichatpong – his first film not in Thai, his first to use professional actors – it nevertheless follows a familiar arc: Jessica travels from city to jungle where, like Keng or Boonmee, she experiences a strange and overwhelming encounter with the other. Only this time, removed from Apichatpong’s native Thai mythology, what she encounters is not a monkey ghost, were-tiger, or concupiscent catfish. To give the game away: it is an alien.

His name is Hernán, a man who can recall all past lives – even those of stones and trees. He resembles Borges’s Funes the Memorious, isolated and evading interaction so as to remove himself from the vast flurry of narratives that would otherwise overwhelm him.

This is one of two Hernáns in the film; the other is young and handsome, with no special powers except as a musician. Jessica asks for his aid in electronically recreating the booming sound in her head, and this, in a sense, is the entire plot of the film: she seeks the source of her sound and meets the young Hernán; she seeks it a second time, following its direction out into the jungle, and meets the old Hernán. Though not quite sexual, nor love-struck, nor horrific, as with the encounters in Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee, what occurs between Jessica and each Hernán is nevertheless a profound experience.

How to articulate a sound only you can hear? Jessica tries at one point – ‘Bang!’ – and it is hard to imagine this helps the young Hernán much. She has come to meet him at his studio in Bogotá, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and he attempts to recreate the ‘bang’ digitally using pre-existing soundbites. Thankfully, Jessica’s second attempt at a description is more illustrative: ‘A big ball of concrete falls into a metal well surrounded by seawater’. It conjures a Magrittian image – simple shapes and textures, knowable objects made strange.

For Magritte, the ocean is a threshold much like Apichatpong’s jungle, the place at which we slithered ashore and became human. (Think of The Collective Invention or The Wonders of Nature, both featuring Magritte’s inverted mermaid – a ‘missing link’. The latter work also implies a colonial arrival, a discovery or first contact, with its hazy galleon looming in the distance, a useful image for thinking about Memoria and its alien.) The surreal seawater sound prompts a kind of evolution within Jessica. She begins to transcend the human world, to lose track of time and place and people. At a dinner party, she mistakenly believes that someone is dead; later, she searches for the young Hernán, only to discover that he may never have existed at all.

When she first meets the old Hernán, at his cabin on the outskirts of the Amazon, he is scaling little red fish. He is somewhat animalian himself – mermaid-like – capable of translating the nearby cries of howler monkeys. For Hernán, all sounds are ‘vibrations’ that hold in them the history of the world. He views the terrestrial as Jessica does orchids: as subjects to be studied. Earlier in the film, Jessica visits a local hospital to see her sister, Karen, who is also unwell. (Another mystery – the curse of a dog, Karen speculates.) Jessica sits in a hallway, blocking a door, until the diener arrives and asks her to move. Noticing what lies within, she asks, ‘Is that a morgue?’ and is promptly invited inside. As she enters, Apichatpong cuts to a library, where Jessica is looking through pictures of infected orchids, their fleshy leaves and petals all painted with disease.

If Memoria is a work of anthropology, in which the alien is an objective and all-seeing observer, then the film is hamstrung by Apichatpong’s fear of descending into ethnography – his discomfort at being elsewhere than his native Thailand, and not wanting to impose. When I spoke to the director some years ago, when Memoria was still in its germinal stages, he communicated this hesitancy, stating that he could not ‘represent a genuine memory there [in Colombia]’ because he was an ‘outsider’. ‘You just feel like you cannot and will not understand certain things. You’re really on the outside’.

This explains Jessica’s role as a fish out of water – a character who relies heavily on Swinton’s distinctive appearance (Swinton herself describes Jessica not as a character but a ‘predicament’). A widow without direction, Jessica is pale and gaunt, eyes over-tired, a ghost drifting through frozen time, haunted and haunting. She hardly blinks when Hernán discloses that he is an alien (‘I remember we were floating through space and then I was born’), nor when he tries to sleep and momentarily dies (‘I just stopped’). Perhaps she senses in him a kindred spirit, or something as strange as herself.

When Hernán finishes scaling his fish he shares some tequila with Jessica, a homebrew apparently useful for invoking dreams. They move inside, and soon we are treated to an incredibly long scene, in single-take, where the two hold hands and Hernán channels his memories (the world’s memories) through Jessica – ‘I am like a hard disk and you are an antenna’, he says. Jessica begins to remember experiences that are not her own. It seems agonizing; tears fall from her eyes. Petrified, she becomes like Benjamin’s angel of history, privy to all the misery of the world, staring back at the great storm blowing from Paradise. There is, in Benjamin’s description, a certain historical impotence that resonates here. ‘The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’; but this vision of an all-at-once history has ‘got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them’.

No reference however is made in Memoria to Colombia’s unique horrors, its slumbering dead. In the style of distorted radio, we hear voices, the vague stories of a man mugged and a girl hiding beneath a bed. Perhaps this is that awful banging noise now attuned to human frequency, revealed not as a roar but a scream. And yet, one senses that we are not meant to feel for these disembodied voices so much as for Jessica, our awestruck angel, who suddenly believes that she has lived these experiences, that she was once hiding in this room, though from what we do not know. As a masterful display of cinema’s capacity to communicate through sound, this sequence represents Memoria’s great encounter – reminiscent of Keng and Tong in the jungle. But though it is certainly affecting, it also feels politically deadened in a way that Apichatpong’s films never have before.

Part of the reason for Apichatpong filming in Colombia is an ongoing battle with censorship in his homeland. ‘The government thinks the media needs to be propaganda’, he said in 2016 of the then-junta government – the product of Thailand’s 18th coup since it ceased to be an absolutely monarchy in 1932. ‘I have no colour but I’m not neutral’. This is true: Apichatpong’s films are never explicitly political, and the scenes that have been censored are often some of his most innocuous. Those removed ­– on apparently moral grounds – from Cemetery of Splendour (2015) include a monk playing guitar and two doctors kissing, for example. Nevertheless, Apichatpong protested their removal by leaving those scenes black, and later pulling the film from circulation in Bangkok.

Apichatpong’s politics are often conveyed through absence and the immaterial. He lets ghosts do his bidding. There are spectres haunting Thailand, and it is no accident that the monkey ghosts of Uncle Boonmee reside in the jungles of Isaan, a land which, during the Cold War, became a stronghold for communist insurgents. It was there that the ‘people’s war’ was launched in 1965 by the Thai Patriotic Front, beginning with targeted political assassinations before escalating into outright warfare. The guerrillas were 12,000 strong at their peak, commanding enormous influence over the region – spurred initially by Chinese Maoists but evolving over time into a distinctly ruralist, native movement. Jungles and caves were their base of operations; in Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong excavates these spaces and their secrets.

Boonmee laments that both his kidney disease and his being haunted by ghosts are the result of bad karma. ‘I killed too many communists’ he confesses. As he succumbs to his illness, in a cave not unlike a communist hideout, Boonmee dreams of a future in which an ‘authority capable of making anybody disappear’ rules the city. Apichatpong sets this monologue against photographs of young soldiers – like Boonmee in his communist-killing days – as they pose with captured monkey ghosts. In doing so, he suggests that photography and ghosts have something in common: they are both prostheses for trauma. Note how Cathy Caruth defines the term: ‘the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’.

Memoria employs its own prosthesis. Jessica is possessed by a sound, a ‘rumble from the core of the earth’. She insists on these elemental descriptions – earth, metal, water – because they lend some materiality to her phantom pain. Unable to represent a ‘genuine memory’ in Colombia (which we might take to mean a historical or political one), Apichatpong has instead constructed a film around the incomprehensibility of trauma, where, like fungal infections on the skin of an orchid, the symptoms are visible but not the disease itself.

‘Trauma is the name for an impossible history,’ Caruth writes in Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Which is to say, it is not history at all. What it reproduces is not actuality or reality but rather the very ‘unrepresentability’ of those things: an infinitely productive paradox that in Memoria begs the question, what exactly are we watching? In this way, Apichatpong’s film – which we might subtitle ‘Explorations in Trauma’ – is more bruise than blunt force. It is frustrating to see the director succumb so fully to the pitfalls of ‘trauma’ when he has otherwise elided them with such grace, with his historical ghosts and mythic monsters, his magic and his realism.

Most telling is the fact that the young Hernán is still capable of recreating Jessica’s sound, using a filmmaker’s library of sound effects, no less – an archive of historical artifacts. That the process of recreating trauma is displaced through a metaphor for that very process is perhaps another way of illustrating trauma’s unrepresentability, but what exactly does this offer the viewer? We are ultimately left watching a man flip switches on a soundboard. Trauma does nothing to resolve the tensions, gaps and transgressions of history. It is another name for a stalemate: two kings stuck in a box step. Perhaps this is what makes the encounter between Jessica and the old Hernán – between trauma and history – so unfulfilling. To even graze the tip of Hernán’s finger would be electrifying, enlightening. But sadly, he takes Jessica’s hand, not ours.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73.


Something Mild

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson has various things in common with his work of the past fifteen years, an unignorable run started by There Will Be Blood (2007) and continued with The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). Like its predecessors, Licorice Pizza takes place at a carefully presented historical moment (Southern California in 1973), and derives key details from an existing source, the early life of the producer Gary Goetzman, here given the surname Valentine. Like Anderson’s other recent protagonists, Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is male and largely defined by his professional activities, in this case as a teenage entrepreneur, and his central relationship, with the twenty-five-year old Alana (Alana Haim), has elements of the collaboration. Other areas of overlap include a running-time that exceeds two hours, and an original score by the composer and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood used alongside familiar music: McCartney’s ‘Let Me Roll It’, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ Yet for all the continuities, the recourse to dependable methods and motifs, what defines the new film – and makes it such a monumentally frustrating experience – are properties not previously evident in Anderson’s body of work: obstinate optimism, conceptual muddiness, and a near-total lack of stakes.

It’s clear enough what Anderson is inviting us to care about. In the first scene, Gary spots Alana at his high school, where she is assisting a yearbook photographer. First he takes her for dinner at his favourite local restaurant, then he enlists her as his chaperone for a trip to New York, where he is performing a skit on a talk show – as things turn out, his last hurrah as a child actor. Back in Los Angeles, specifically the San Fernando Valley, Gary, who loves a scheme, and Alana, whose life is going nowhere, start a business selling water beds, while their downtime is devoted to activities that make the other feel either jealous or cared-for.

Anderson is familiar with the ways of pairs – the oscillations between caginess and receptive warmth, hostility and fondness, enmeshment and estrangement. His short, Cigarettes and Coffee (1993), screened at Sundance when he was twenty-three, portrays both of the kinds of duo to which he has repeatedly returned: in a roadside Nevada cafe, a young man seeks the advice of an older acquaintance, while a few tables over, lovestruck newlyweds bicker. Sometimes Anderson’s films are presented almost baldly as exercises in double portraiture, as with The Master, in which a wayward seaman falls in with a cult leader, and Phantom Thread, about the relationship between a dressmaker and his latest muse. But even when he adopts the outward form of the ensemble or the epic, his chamber-piece proclivities still tend to win out. The ‘Goodbye 70s… Hello 80s’ party sequence that marks the turning-point in Boogie Nights (1997) comprises, among other two-handed scenarios, a chance encounter that ends in marriage, a summit about the future of the porn industry, an abortive come-on, and a man killing his wife and then himself. Anderson’s next film, the vast Valley snapshot, Magnolia (1999), is engaged exclusively with one-to-one dynamics – marital, parent-child, employee-boss, romantic, legal, medical.

Even There Will Be Blood, a feverish depiction of the California oil industry, is really a battle-of-wits-in-variations, with supporting characters taking turns to be bested or rejected by the burgeoning magnate Daniel Plainview. During the thirty-minute passage concerned with the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be his ‘brother from another mother’, Daniel doesn’t cross paths a single time with his otherwise constant antagonist, the preacher Eli, his son is packed off to boarding school, and his sidekick sidelined. In Anderson’s work, three rarely gets a chance to be a crowd. Look past the running-times and period trappings, the yawning vistas and snaking cast lists, and the standout American director of our times is almost exclusively interested in what happens when two people go head-to-head across the space of a desk or dining table.

It’s usually a lop-sided affair, with one key-term recurring. In the first scene of Anderson’s first film, the gambling drama Hard Eight (1996), the drifter John mocks the suspiciously generous Sydney as ‘Mr Helpful’. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood both end with a struggling youngish man turning up at a large house, and telling its ageing male owner, ‘I need help’, with diverging consequences (a hug; a bowling-pin to the skull). The same syllable occurs many times in Magnolia, most prominently in the stories of the cop Jim and the nurse Phil, who says at one point ‘this is the scene of the movie where you help me out’, and with Inherent Vice, Anderson adapted the only Thomas Pynchon novel in which that concept plays a significant role, starting on the very first page. Anderson’s most recent film, Phantom Thread, marked a return to the Hard Eight formula, favour-giving as offered, even enforced, with Alma telling Reynolds that she wants him ‘flat on your back, tender, helpless, open, with only me to help.’

Help with what exactly? The immediate context is often practical – money, a favour. But the broader purpose is to locate a better way of getting by. Alma, for example, believes that Reynolds is refusing to accept, let alone embrace, his vulnerable true nature – a tendency towards repression avidly abetted by the other woman in his life, his stern-faced sister Cyril, whose promise to leave Reynolds ‘on the floor’ is altogether more aggressive in tone. Jim, the Valley cop who likes to ‘help people’, assures the erratic Claudia that she deserves more – and is capable of more – than her prevailing routine of cocaine, hook-ups, and self-censure. Without such interventions, left to their own vices, Anderson’s characters derive their feeling of relief, and perhaps a sense of purpose, not just from quick fixes and cathartic outbursts, but from controlling their environments and silencing dissent, from moments of victory and phallic domination – literally, as with Eddie in Boogie Nights, who wins an industry prize for Best Cock, or symbolically, in the case of Daniel Plainview’s ‘drilling’.

Then there are the many acts of bragging, the assertion of status or even existence: ‘I am a star’, ‘I am an oil man’, ‘I am strong’, ‘My name is quiz kid Donnie Smith from the TV’, ‘We. Are. Men’. What seems to need allaying is the threat of futility or inadequacy, the possibility of being ‘stupid’, ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘an idiot’, ‘a loser’, becoming ‘a laughingstock’ or suffering ‘a crying spell’. Some of Anderson’s characters remain trapped in a cycle, chained to their worst impulses, and confront the end credits with defences intact. But in the stories with apparently happy endings, there’s a willingness to abandon current compensations and find a different way to mitigate a basic anxiety – to do something to help that might actually help.

Anderson’s most gifted contemporary, Noah Baumbach – who is a year older, and made his debut a year earlier – has displayed a similar concern with lost and suffering figures and the bonds they struggle to forge, but Anderson is working more consciously in a tradition. He has spoken with rapture of numerous double-act films, notably F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which bears the subtitle ‘A Song of Two Humans’, and Jonathan Demme’s postmodern screwball romance Something Wild. Perhaps the closest he has to a precursor is Bernardo Bertolucci, a specialist in tales of contretemps, including an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, as well as a film concerned, like Phantom Thread, with an obsessed creative Englishman, living in a large empty house, who is liberated by a foreign employee-cum-muse (Besieged), and another, Me and You, about the alliance between a spotty, strong-willed fifteen-year-old and a troubled woman in her mid-twenties which makes prominent use of Bowie in his science-fiction mode (in that case, ‘Space Oddity’).

Anderson has never cited Bertolucci’s example, though it’s hard to watch the seduction guru Frank berating his comatose estranged father in Magnolia, or hear Lancaster in The Master use ‘pig fuck’ as a curse, without recalling Paul’s speech to his dead wife towards the end of Last Tango in Paris. Whatever the case, the true kinship between these writer-directors – other than a liking for method actors and a precocious start that gave way to substantial achievement – is a shared strength, their ability to exploit psychological terrain (more overtly Freudian in Bertolucci’s case) as a route to the analytic and the sensual, a way of delivering a lesson that is also an experience. Anderson, for his part, has displayed increasing discomfort with one half of the equation, and Licorice Pizza suggests how far he is willing to go in response. His desire to get closer to his characters, to forgo distance in favour of immersion, results here in something close to a rejection of insight and even meaning. (It seems telling that the title, borrowed from a chain of record shops, possesses no claim to relevance.)

It’s the result of a conscious process, an act of serial adjustment that has now reached a point of over-correction. In his early work, from Cigarettes and Coffee to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Anderson used a range of devices to impose his perspective on the material. His characters said silly things while his narrative techniques nudged us to notice delusion or myopia, by presenting an image at odds with a voiceover description or through the use of the Robert Altman jigsaw framework, that grants the viewer a version of omniscience. Anderson wanted to get his message across, and one obvious advantage of the ironic method is legibility of attitude. Magnolia, for example, portrays two deficient fathers with terminal cancer, is bookended with a narrator reflecting on ‘coincidence and chance’, and uses Aimee Mann songs with lyrics that provide comment on the action: ‘can you save me?’, ‘it’s not going to stop / ’til you wise up’.

The oddball romance, Punch-Drunk Love, represented a partial reaction – though half the length of its predecessor, it was still a winky affair (‘he needs me, he needs me, he needs me’, Shelley Duvall sings on the soundtrack). But since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has tended towards an altogether stricter style. Action is presented from two perspectives (at most). Music is used to connote a period of time or enhance the emotional atmosphere. Inter-titles are kept to a minimum. The fourth wall is respected. In Phantom Thread, Anderson steers the audience with organic patterns of detail (the atmosphere at meal-times, the recurrence of dairy products) and moments of pointed dialogue, such as Reynolds’s account of his childhood. Otherwise, the vehicle of expression is the showdown – Reynolds accusing Alma of oppression, Cyril advising him that his moaning hurts her ears.

Licorice Pizza, by contrast, offers neither an overarching framework nor much in the way of local clarity. While Gary and Alana amuse each other, and Anderson appears convinced that something powerful exists between them, there is no clue as to what. The forms of help exchanged are hardly meaningful. His absent father is never discussed, nor is her fractious home life. Gary’s occasional advice to Alana derives narrowly from prior experience – with casting directors, for example, when she dabbles in acting. And it’s Alana who recognises the implications of the OPEC crisis for a business reliant on rubber, though again this is not reflective of her personality, merely the fact she’s an adult. The episodes of verbal combat are difficult to track, with the air of a word-association game and very little paraphrasable substance. So we are asked to make do without the one thing that has underpinned all of Anderson’s previous work – a definable dynamic.

Anderson has talked with awe about how, in Something Wild, Demme showed ‘how loose you could be with the rulebook’. But that is to emphasise the film’s impudent tone and narrative surprises at the expense of its rigorous character-drawing, evident right until the final shot, which reveals that the apparently reformed rebel Audrey has parked her car beside a fire hydrant. It’s a far cry from the anything-goes aesthetic of Licorice Pizza, where causeless chronology rules, details are introduced then abandoned, and the sense prevails of a story that begins afresh with almost every scene and might conceivably go on for ever.

In the one scene where Anderson seems to place a hand on the tiller, Alana sits dejected on a kerb. Gary is making penis jokes with his friends to her right, while to her left their latest customer, the Hollywood hairdresser and playboy Jon Peters, is trying to pick up a couple of women out for an early-morning game of tennis. Behind her, in an office window, is a poster for the local politician Joel Wachs – a passionate progressive and, as it turns out, gay. She resolves to volunteer for his campaign for city council. But even here, the things Alana is spurning – adolescent horseplay, middle-aged predation – have played little role in her fate. And though Alana’s new career is the closest the film offers to what Anderson calls a ‘gear shift’, referring to the mid-point swerve in Something Wild from joy to peril, it yields neither a change in mood, nor any increase in ethical seriousness.

Wachs may have designs on reforming L.A. land use, but Licorice Pizza fails to extend the surprisingly trenchant, committed, and fine-grained critique delivered in There Will Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice, which draw on the story of L. Ron Hubbard, and the work of two political novelists, Upton Sinclair and Thomas Pynchon, to scrutinise the exertion of American power at home at various points between 1898 and 1969. Almost as soon as Alana enters the Wachs headquarters, she calls on the endlessly adaptable Gary to shoot promotional videos, and City Council corruption becomes another opportunity for nostalgic scene-setting and a backdrop to yet more bickering.

The danger with Anderson’s initial approach was a tendency to the traits – bombast, bravado – which he liked to skewer in his characters. His motto seemed to be, ‘I am a major film-maker’. There Will Be Blood realised that statement by legitimate means, and he found the balance he was seeking in the first hour of The Master, and for long stretches of Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. It seems that at this point he would rather do too little than too much. He recently praised the way that Billy Wilder didn’t feel the need to ‘put a hat on top of a hat’. But Licorice Pizza serves up a bewildering spectacle – the director of the six-hatted breakthrough Boogie Nights and twelve-hatted follow-up Magnolia aspiring to a hat-less state, an authorial reticence that borders on the abstinent. (The extremity of the shift recalls the claim, in Boogie Nights, that Eddie ‘can fuck hard or he can fuck really gently’.)

For all its surface busyness, Licorice Pizza is marked by the things it doesn’t provide, in terms of either drama and technique – voiceover, flashback, revelatory dialogue, explanatory cross-cutting, enriching context, escalating discord. Gary’s early declaration, ‘I’m a showman’, is basically right, and his occasional out-of-his-depth moments, or tendency to be ‘braggy’, reflect adolescent gaucheness, not delusional fantasy. When Alana calls him ‘idiot’ in the film’s final seconds, it isn’t a tool of emasculation but a term of endearment. This is the first film that Anderson has made in which a male character doesn’t cry. It’s also the first that contains smiling in both the first and last scene (the smile that clinches Magnolia is especially hard-earned). And though it isn’t quite grins all the way, the emotional range is starkly narrow, leaving an aftertaste that’s not so much licorice as supermarket mozzarella.

It seems odd that the film is so taken with its creaseless hero when Alana is clearly the more fruitful creation, not just in her impulsive behaviour and pained uncertainty and listless lifestyle, but the familiar pathos of her paper-thin assertions: ‘I have integrity’, ‘I’m a politician’, ‘I’m cooler than you’. There’s a similar, and similarly tantalising, glimpse of Anderson’s strengths, the power to illuminate and elate, to fuse the incisive with the energetic, in the sequence devoted to the whim-driven motormouth Jon Peters, played with almost unhinged flair by Bradley Cooper, an actor in the tradition of ragged intensity of earlier Anderson collaborators Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Entitled, vain, and openly aggressive, Peters is a mix of Frank, the agonised philanderer in Magnolia, and the wild-eyed drug dealer who pops up at the end of Boogie Nights. ‘Do you know who I am?’ Peters asks Gary, and then, after he receives the answer he is looking for, ploughs on: ‘Do you know who my girlfriend is?’ (Barbra Streisand.) For a brief passage, Licorice Pizza sparks into life, illustrating and at the same time embodying a lesson taught by all of Anderson’s previous films. We can tame our wildest excesses, or at least reach some form of accommodation, but we can never escape who we are.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Speed and the Cinema’, NLR 16.


Living Fictions

The French writer Christine Angot has built a career out of provocation. In spite of a purported desire to be ‘read, and not seen’, she is a familiar presence in the French media, regularly dispatching unpalatable opinions and clashing with her interlocutors. Notable recent appearances on the late-night television show On N’est Pas Couché have seen her draw unpopular comparisons between the Holocaust and the American slave trade, as well as excoriate the French Green Party spokesperson Sandrine Rousseau to the extent that the latter burst into telegenic tears. Promoting her latest novel, Le voyage dans lest (2021), on the L’heure bleu radio show in the autumn, she was asked of its contents by the host Laure Adler, ‘More incest?’

Ever since L’inceste (1999), Angot’s work has chewed over the same intractable subject: the sexual abuse of her autofictional persona, Christine Angot, by her estranged father Pierre. That book, which also scavenges the fallout of the narrator’s first sexual relationship with a woman, begins ‘I was a lesbian for three months’ – in deliberate, arch parallel with the counterfactual opening sentence of Hervé Guibert’s era-defining À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), ‘I had AIDS for three months.’ To equate lesbianism with an AIDS diagnosis requires, as Paul Preciado has noted, above-average levels of chutzpah. Yet audacity is a shrugged-off given for Angot. The astringency of her prose and public persona reflects an eagerness to antagonise a literary establishment which for many years consigned her to the status of media kindling or a therapeutic ‘diarist’. Only last year did she receive a nomination for the Prix Goncourt, having proved herself, with Le voyage dans l’est, to be a ‘real writer’ at last.   

Born Christine Schwartz in 1959 and brought up in Chateauroux by her Jewish mother – the antisemitism of French society is another contentious preoccupation – she attended university in Reims but left after a year to pursue writing. Throughout her childhood she was deprived of even the acknowledgement of her father, who left her mother for another woman in the early 1960s, but re-emerged in her early adolescence and began to abuse her. Surprisingly, Angot chose to adopt his surname when her work began to be published in 1990. Her debut, Vu du ciel, which appeared when she was 31, centred on the posthumous perspective of a little girl following her grisly rape and murder; her second novel, Not to Be (1992), was a Beckettian exercise which portrayed a dying man’s thoughts in his hospital bed. Angot lived in Bruges, Nice and then Montpellier, where she moved with her partner Claude and daughter Léonore (the subject of her 1993 novel Léonore, Toujours), both of whom recur as fictionalized avatars in her oeuvre, before finally settling in Paris. Much commentary has orbited the unanswerable and uninteresting question of who the ‘real’ Christine Angot is, something which the author has both condescendingly rejected and playfully indulged, publishing a book titled Subjet Angot as well a collection of staged ‘interviews’ baiting the media’s appetite for gossip.

Un amour impossible (2015), recently published in English as An Impossible Love, marks a moment in which Angot sought to shift the spotlight. The ‘impossible love’ of the title refers not to the abusive relationship with her father, but to the more universal, knotty nature of the maternal bond, which, Angot intimates, requires ‘a whole book’ to circumscribe. Angot is often perceived as untranslatable in English – partly because her prose is sometimes cloaked in heavy psychoanalytic garb – but Armine Kotin Mortimer has produced an impressive rendering of the novel which preserves its subtleties, such as Angot’s sensitive depiction of the gap between mother and daughter, which widens once Pierre dies. Christine becomes increasingly resentful of her mother’s failure to incriminate him and testify to the unutterable crime: ‘In the years that followed, I began to attribute my failures to her. I accused her of not having examined her conscience, of having stayed in analysis only three years, of having found an easy guilty party in my father, of not having reflected on her own responsibility for what had happened to me.’ 

Angot has explained how she could not ‘leave a hole in the place of my mother in my books’. But as with L’inceste, whose sentences disintegrate and splinter the more the narrator probes its eponymous subject, the effect is of getting closer to an object without ever truly touching it. Like looking at the sun a beat too long, Angot’s childhood memories dazzle her otherwise precise, insistent prose. ‘Trying to write’, Angot observes, ‘for me is trying to remember what it was like inside. Inside of things, in the middle of living. Not having a thesis or a discourse “on” or “about” something.’ To make a book about her mother would be to reduce her consuming and ambivalent role within Angot’s life.

The title also signals the book’s representational ambitions, its presumptuous narration of the moment Angot’s parents met, and her subsequent conception. This affected omniscience – for how could Angot really knowthe intricacies of her parents’ doomed encounter in such granular detail? – rescues the novel from any narrow debates about veracity. While in L’inceste, where reflexive, metafictional elements perforate the narrative, reminding us that we are reading a constructed literary artefact, An Impossible Love immerses the reader in both the solipsism of the two lovers and the wider world of French society in the 1950s, which is so cinematically evoked that the director Catherine Corsini adapted it into a lush melodrama in 2018. In place of the earlier novel’s meditation on incest as both a corporeal transgression and a seismic violation of the codes of representation, An Impossible Love marshals the tropes of detective fiction, seducing the reader with what Angot has called the ‘libidinal energy’ that pulses beneath trauma narratives.

In further contrast, Angot declines to render the abuse – or indeed the affair between her parents – in salacious detail. In Mortimer’s translation, Angot describes the relationship between her parents as ‘inevitable’ but also ‘unpredictable, incongruous’. It ‘escapes from the social order’ because the pair descend from polarized milieux: he from a multilingual bourgeois family in Paris; she from a small-town where the sole cultural ventilation came from the local cinema. The iron barrier of class, rather than mothers or daughters or the conditions of incest, is perhaps the substrate of An Impossible Love: the divergent sensibilities which mean that Pierre, while declaring his love for Rachel over long, intertwined afternoons and evenings, could never marry her, nor recognize their daughter as his own. ‘He had warned you from the beginning’, Christine reproaches her mother at one point. ‘Contact with his social person – by which I mean his milieu, his identity – was out of the question.’

In interviews, Angot has scorned ‘testimonial literature’ as the sole genre afforded to survivors of abuse. The latter, she argues, have been permitted to ‘speak as much as they want’, yet their writing is rarely considered capital-L Literature. Still, there is something reportorial about the forensic prose of An Impossible Love. In preparation, Angot studied other writers’ texts about their mothers, including Georges Bataille’s Ma mère and Annie Ernaux’s Une femme (whose mode of sociological excavation bears some similarity to An Impossible Love, though Angot never goes quite as far as Ernaux’s bracing self-effacements). But Angot wanted her own effort, she says, ‘to be as if the little girl herself was writing.’ The result is that the text oscillates between the cadences of lullaby and an almost clinical register. The second mode is perhaps marginally more successful, in its counterposing of legibility to the hazy relativity that makes incest possible in the first place: the refusal to acknowledge the lines of filiation that make a father a father, a child a child.  

Angot’s account of maternal indebtedness and entanglement recognizes that the autofictional self, though often viewed as narcissistic, is always embedded in a wider terrain of relationships and references. She is often criticized for repeating herself, for grimly circling the same narrow subject, much like her forebear Marguerite Duras – another survivor of abuse whose work folded and re-folded the worn fibres of her childhood. Yet Angot is interrogating the difficulties of persisting, of continuing, of somehow living in the present – and through her writing – despite a devastating past. An Impossible Love ends with an extended dialogue between mother and daughter in which Rachel, while making notes on Christine’s latest manuscript, interrupts the process to recall a memory of picking cherries in the garden of their former home in Chateauroux. The passage is vivid and resonant, yet it is not straightforwardly nostalgic. In typically rebarbative media appearances, Angot has suggested that there is no distinction between real and fake, nor true and false in literary writing. There is only ‘alive prose’ and ‘dead prose’. There are words that remain on the page, and those that somehow manage to transcend themselves. Angot’s writing lives. 

Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.


Errant History

Hamid Ismailov is widely regarded as one of Central Asia’s greatest living writers. His work has been translated into all the major European languages, including Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and Spanish. Yet in Ismailov’s home country of Uzbekistan his books are outlawed, and since being forced into exile in 1992 for what he has described as his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’, he has only been able to return there on rare occasions. Tragic ironies of history recur throughout Ismailov’s oeuvre, not least in his three most recent novels to appear in English, The Devil’s Dance (2018), Of Strangers and Bees (2019) and Manaschi (2021), which form an extraordinary informal trilogy that interweaves the region’s past and present.

Born in 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Ismailov had a peripatetic childhood spread across the various republics of Soviet Central Asia. Following his mother’s death when he was twelve, Ismailov was raised by his grandmother in the city of Tashkent. It was his grandmother, who had been born into a noble Uzbek family, that kindled Ismailov’s interest in literature, making him read aloud to her from books of Uzbek poetry and One Thousand and One Nights. His adolescence coincided with the cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era, following the harsh years of the purges and Second World War. Censored Uzbek writers like Abdurauf Fitrat, Cho’lpon and Abdulla Qadiriy – all killed at the height of Stalinist repression – were rehabilitated and their literature returned to circulation. The young Ismailov was free to encounter their work, along with translations from English and other European languages that began to proliferate during this period.

After an eclectic education at the military college and local university, Ismailov moved to Moscow where he lived throughout the years of Perestroika. While working for the Uzbek Writers’ Union he translated Uzbek classics into Russian and Russian classics into Uzbek, and eventually became involved in agitating for democratic reform. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Ismailov had published three poetry collections and had finished his first Russian novel, Collection of the Refined (published in Moscow in 1995), as well as parts of another in Uzbek under the title Arosat, a work that would later become the Russian language novel The Railway (1997). When Ismailov showed his early literary efforts in Uzbek to an older writer who had lived through Stalin’s purges, he was told in no uncertain terms that ‘This will never be published. You’ll be arrested. You need to drop this and write in Russian.’

As reaction set in across the region during the 1990s, the independent nations of Central Asia converted into what Dmitri Furman labelled ‘imitation democracies’, pairing authoritarian rule with neoliberal shock therapy. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who had ascended the ranks of the Uzbek Communist Party during the Gorbachev years, remained in post after the Union’s dissolution, launching a brutal crackdown. Political opposition was outlawed in spite of the ongoing election cycle (Karimov’s re-election in 2000 saw him face off against a little-known Marxist historian who admitted that even he voted for the incumbent). Uzbekistan’s culture industry, which had begun to develop during the final decade of Soviet rule, suffered heavily. Critical newspapers were suppressed or banned, television was heavily controlled, and writers such as Mamadali Mahmudov, Yusuf Jumaev and Muhammad Salih were forced into exile or spent years in prison. Yet the country’s geopolitical role as a strategic ally in the War on Terror, alongside Karimov’s crusade against domestic Islamism, kept international condemnation at bay.

Ismailov returned to Uzbekistan shortly after independence, working as a journalist for a Russian newspaper, but the threat of arrest soon forced him to flee. After brief spells in Moscow and Paris, he eventually settled in London, where he worked for the BBC World Service – ascending to the top of its Central Asia department – until his retirement in 2019. His early novels were largely written in Russian and were typified by bitterly comedic reflections on Central Asia as a crossroads of empires. In The Railway, translated into English in 2006, the ancient Silk Road is replaced by the modern Iron Road of the Soviet railways that, like its forbear, brings a carnivalesque atmosphere to the steppe and the small Uzbek town at the novel’s centre. The Underground (2009), published in English in 2015, employs the peripheral outlook of a mixed-race Russian orphan in Moscow – born to a Russian mother and an African father – to metonymize the final decade of Soviet rule. We follow Mbobo, ‘Moscow’s underground son’ – or ‘little Pushkin’, as his stepfather nicknames him in reference to the great poet’s Abyssinian ancestry – as he tours the palaces of Moscow’s Metro system, posing searching questions about what Russian literature is, or could be.

Ismailov’s three most recently translated novels, however, were composed in Uzbek: a change signalling a more concerted engagement with the cultural traditions of Central Asia, and one which brought with it significant changes in form and tone. Whereas the Russian novels are indebted to the biting satire of Gogol and Platonov, the Uzbek trilogy is written with a prosaic economy and the cadences of myth and parable. They have a hallucinatory quality, more reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights than Dead Souls. Taken together, the books offer something like a fable of Uzbek history from the age of Ibn Sina – known in the West as Avicenna – to the tumultuous struggles of 19th-century imperial conquest, through to the resurgent nationalisms and the rise of Islamism in the present. (It must be said, however, that Ismailov disputes his publisher’s claim that the novels constitute a distinct series, asserting that this was never his intention).

The latest to be published, Manaschi, was translated by Donald Rayfield, a scholar of Russian and Georgian who learnt Uzbek solely to work on Ismailov’s writings. It centres on Bekesh, a radio presenter in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, who awakens from a dream believing he is destined to become a manaschi, the venerated figure in Kyrgyz culture who recites the Epic of Manas, a giant oral folk epic widely considered the foundational text of Kyrgyz nationalism. The Epic tells the story of an 8th- or 9th-century warrior, Manas, who united the forty Kyrgyz tribes and clans in a rebellion against the Kitai. Ismailov’s narrative is punctuated with extracts from the Epic of Manas itself, a continually evolving text that, depending on the teller, can comprise anywhere between 250,000 and 900,000 verses. Returning to his village to fulfil his destiny, Bekesh is confronted by the tide of modernity sweeping across the region. As the village is transformed by Chinese building projects and contractors – the product of China’s Belt and Road initiative – the long-simmering border disputes between the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks threaten to erupt into violence.

The previous book, Of Strangers and Bees, is set during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We follow Sheikhov, an Uzbek writer-in-exile in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he makes his way across Europe and America, scraping together a living through stints as a painter, decorator and translator, as well as assisting in the production of a documentary about the real-life Uzbek cyclist Jamaliddin Abdoujaparov, known as the ‘Tashkent Terror’ for his frenzied riding style. Sheikhov’s journey is interwoven with two further narrative strands: one that follows 10th-century polymath Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine, as he reappears throughout history during periods of religious and political strife; the other, the story of a honeybee called Sina that finds itself ostracized from its hive. The book is a deeply felt, richly textured, and multi-layered fabulation that wonderfully evokes the agonies of exile.

But it is The Devil’s Dance, the first of the trilogy, that best encapsulates Ismailov’s literary talents. At its outset we encounter a man crouched over a book in a damp prison cell somewhere in Central Asia on New Year’s Day 1938. Taken from his home just as celebrations were about to begin, the prisoner – a fictionalized version of Adulla Qadiriy – is being held in solitary confinement. During his interrogation, he noticed some writing on a slip of a paper which claimed that he had broken Articles 58 and 67 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. As luck would have it, there happens to be a battered copy of the code by the door to his cell. Qadiriy rifles through it, discovering the reason for his confinement: he is guilty, it says, of counterrevolutionary activity. Nothing Qadiriy has done, he thinks to himself, could possibly fit this definition. While his novels may contain nationalist themes, he’s never taken part in organizing against the state. After several days, Qadiriy is taken during the night and bundled into a new cell that is overflowing with prisoners. Before his arrest, all he’d wished for was a winter of uninterrupted work on his latest novel, a historical work about Oxyon, the second wife of Emir Umar of Bukhara, and the courtly intrigues of early 19th-century Central Asia. But now he longs for the interruptions of family and friends.

Qadiriy was one of the region’s most revered writers during the 1920s and 1930s. Forged at the intersection of empires and cultures, the nomadic and the sedentary, the traditional and the modern, Qadiriy’s work stands alongside that of other great founders of late-arriving national literatures such as Natsume Soseki in Japan and José Rizal in the Philippines. He is perhaps best known for Oʻtgan kunlar (1926), generally considered the first novel in the Uzbek language. This story of a Muslim reformer set in late 19th-century Tashkent high society was so popular that it was supposedly read aloud in tea shops (an English translation, Bygone Days, belatedly appeared in 2018). Qadiriy’s work initially found favour with a Soviet regime under which the distinction between ethnic and national groups in the federalist union was promoted as, in the words of one Party official, ‘a communal apartment’ in which each republic was a ‘separate room.’ Yet this soon changed, and Stalin’s purges targeted thousands of alleged bourgeois nationalists – Qadiriy among them. In Devil’s Dance, the captive Qadiriy descends into the dreamworld of his stories, and his own fate begins to merge with that of Oyxon. Just as Oyxon is subjected to brutal beatings and rape at the hands of the cruel Emirs, Qadiriy, too, is assaulted and brutalized by his guards.

If, as Perry Anderson has written, the classic form of the historical novel developed under the spell of romantic nationalism, as ‘a nation-building exercise in the backwash of romantic reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion’, Devil’s Dance is a more postmodern historical narrative, shaped by contrasting historical circumstances. The work is inflected by the local oral traditions of Uzbek storytelling. In prison, Qadiriy initiates a form of collective narrative, eliciting tales and anecdotes from his cellmates. One prisoner, the Party lector Laziz, holds forth about the ‘ideologically impoverished and artistically shallow’ poetry of Umar, set against the ‘progressive-democratic’ verse of his first wife Nodira (his lecture, Qadiriy tells us, is stuffed with ‘nonsensical jargon’ that pours from his mouth ‘like a kettle’). Another, a Russian professor, when asked about the fate of the imperial-era British spy Colonel Stoddart, turns to his fellow inmate, an elderly scholar who proceeds to reel off a list of books on the Khanate of Kokand (‘to put it bluntly’, he tells Qadiriy, ‘there are a lot of books, and life is short’). It seems that everyone in the prison is an intellectual or an artist; their patchwork of reflections is gathered together in Qadiriy’s tale.

Awaiting his execution, Qadiriy begins to weep. ‘He wept as he recalled his mother’, Ismailov writes, ‘he grieved for the wife and children he had failed to make happy; for his friends lying here in neighbouring prison cells; his tears were bathing the defunct and forgotten, his wretched people and their errant history, of whom the beautiful, betrayed Oyxon seemed such a potent symbol, her memory in danger of being lost along with her poetry, another chapter of Uzbek literature brutally excised.’ Qadiriy’s suppression at the hands of the Soviet regime is another brutal chapter in this story, as is Ismailov’s forced expulsion from his homeland. As Qadiriy thinks to himself in his damp prison cell: ‘Every generation says, “we have come anew to the world, we shall create the world anew!’’’, yet ultimately, it is ‘the same old wooden tub built over the freezing cold.’ Despite its modern maladies, Central Asia appears mired in an endless cycle of imperial intrigue and domestic repression. Few bodies of work register this historical burden more trenchantly, or more beautifully, than Ismailov’s.

Read on: Dmitri Furman, ‘Imitation Democracies’, NLR 54.


Ultra Vires

Remember the campaign, conducted by the European Commission (EC) and the EU Parliament (EP) with the help of the Court of Justice (CJEU), to teach Poland the rule of law by withholding its share in Ursula von der Leyen’s precious, the Next Generation EU (NGEU) Corona Recovery Fund? EU legalese being not by accident notoriously difficult to understand for anyone but the Court itself, hard thinking reveals that ‘rule of law’ means two things here: independence of the national judiciary from the national executive, and recognition by both of the supremacy of European over national law, including national constitutional law, whatever the European law may be, which in case of doubt is a matter for the CJEU to determine, and the CJEU alone.

Poland, according to Brussels, needs to be taught a lesson, and not just because of the government’s packing of the constitutional court with judges dear to the heart of the majority party. Both the constitutional court and the government believe in a narrow interpretation of European legal supremacy, rather than the broad one preferred by the EC, EP and CJEU. As a result, the Polish constitutional court is likely to find certain, but not all, legal commands emerging from Brussels to be ultra vires, transgressing the limits of European jurisdiction, thereby violating not only Polish law but also the European Treaties to the extent that EU member countries have in the Treaties ceded only some but not all legal powers to the Union.

Making it worse and ringing alarm bells all over Brussels among right-thinking ‘pro-European’ Europeans, is that in order to legitimate their lack of obedience to the rule of law as defined by Brussels, the Polish constitutional court, supported by the ‘anti-European’ Polish government, likes to invoke a recent decision by the German constitutional court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (BVG). Having long been seen as a paragon of both political independence (thanks to its careful appearance management) and EU loyalty, the BVG recently declared the CJEU ultra vires for finding the BVG in breach of European law, in particular for failing to affirm loud and clear its general supremacy over national law on an issue relating to the powers of the ECB to commit national central banks to support specific supranational monetary policies. Embarrassed by itself, the German court declared itself satisfied that the ECB had stayed within its competence and would refrain from pursuing the matter further.

This, however, did not satisfy the EC. Under pressure in particular from Green German MEPs, it declared Germany to be in breach of the Treaties for its constitutional court having suggested that the EU’s vires may perhaps have at least some limits after all. To set an example, the EC started a Treaty infringement procedure against Germany – parallel to the several infringement procedures against Poland and Hungary – to let everyone know that invoking the German court won’t get them their money, and that in any case Brussels applies the rule of law even-handedly, to rich and poor, big and small alike. Infringement procedures can end up at the CJEU if the country in question fails to satisfy the Commission that it has mended its ways and forthwith renounced its life of sin.

So far, so good. Then, on December 2, a few days before the new German government was to be sworn in, the Commission all of a sudden dropped its case against Germany, without much ado and so inconspicuously that the German press hardly noticed, or could pretend not to notice. Germany, according to a Commission press release – the only available official document – had formally recognized ‘the autonomy, the supremacy, the effectiveness and the uniform applicability of the law of the Union’, together with ‘the values anchored in the treaties, especially the rule of law’. Germany had also ‘acknowledged the authority of the European Court of Justice’ and the principle that ‘the legality of actions of the Union’s organs … can be reviewed only by the Court of the European Union’. Above all, the German government had ‘committed itself to use all means available to actively avoid (aktiv zu vermeiden) a future repetition of an ultra vires finding (eine Wiederholung einer Ultra-vires-Feststellung)’.

It is symptomatic of German politics, and of European integration today, that the Commission and the German government managed to shield the settlement of the infringement procedure and its terms from public attention. The only response in Germany up to now has been a draft question submitted to the government by a member of the Bundestag, asking whether it was true that the government had undertaken to influence the future jurisdiction of the constitutional court; which legal means the government believes to have at its disposition for the purpose; whether the government considers such influence compatible with the principle of separation of powers; and whether it considers it generally illegitimate for the constitutional court to review legal acts of the CJEU. The fate of the draft is not yet decided.

The case, however, may be closed anyway. In June 2020 the ten-year long tenure of Andreas Voßkuhle as president of the BVG came to its scheduled end. Voßkuhle, a law professor with a mind of his own, had widely been seen as a driving force behind the court’s ultra vires decision. He was replaced, on a proposal of the Bundestag, by Stephan Harbarth, who had been appointed to the court at the end of 2018, initially as Voßkuhle’s vice president. In March 2020 Harbarth let it be known that he expected to be Voßkuhle’s successor. He was elected the same year, and appointed by the Bundespräsident after Voßkuhle’s term had ended. Publicly Harbarth was presented, and welcomed, as the first practicing lawyer on the court. While he had been a partner in a big, American-owned law firm since 2006, however, he had also been a Bundestag member for the CDU from 2009 to 2018, when he resigned from both the law firm and the Bundestag to move to the BVG. In his time as an MP he held influential positions in the CDU, the party as well as the parliamentary party, a mover and shaker mostly behind the scenes, while remaining a partner at his law firm. Harbarth became known largely for being one of the Bundestag members with the highest outside income, at the end of his time in parliament reporting more than 400,000 euros per year (then members did not have to report exact figures, having only to assign themselves to discrete income categories, of which 400,000 and above was the highest). Harbarth’s additional earnings on a few occasions became a matter of public debate, as political opponents and journalists questioned how his additional income could have possibly been payment for work done, given his duties as a member of parliament.

That the BVG should stop throwing spanners into the wheels of the rule of European over national law is no minor matter, and apparently the expectation is that an experienced politician, Merkel mainstay and world-wise practicing lawyer like Harbarth understands this better than an academic who only understands the law. What is at stake here is what has been called ‘integration by law’, which has over time evolved, more or less by default, into the most important mechanism for bringing about the Treaties’ ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. This is because the now 27 member states are unlikely to unanimously agree on a revision of the Treaties to extend the power of the Union, not least because some would need to have the revision approved by popular vote. Thus, an alternative route to supranational state or empire-building has to be found, bypassing the need for a formal Treaty revision and in particular circumventing Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, which states that ‘the limits of Union competences are governed by the principle of conferral. The use of Union competences is governed by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality’, and that ‘under the principle of conferral, the Union shall act only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States in the Treaties to attain the objectives set out therein. Competences not conferred upon the Union in the Treaties remain with the Member States.’

Originally this was understood narrowly and specifically, referring mostly to issues of the common market and of competition law, and later extending for example to the regulation of European arrest warrants. As political integration got stuck, however, Commission, Parliament and Court began to read a less specific conferral of competences into general declarations in the Treaties of intentions and ‘values’, like those committing the EU to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. On this basis, Commission and Parliament claimed a right to intervene deeply in the national politics and legal orders of member states if they determined this to be necessary in pursuit of European values. Moreover, in case countries objected in defence of their own interpretation or of their national sovereignty, it was to be for the CJEU to decide under yet another principle, that of the supremacy of European law – a principle, by the way, that is not set out in the Treaties but was posited long ago by none other than the CJEU itself. Retooled like this, integration by law became a passe-partout for deep EU interventions into the domestic orders of member states, to make them adhere to general principles like democracy and the rule of law as interpreted by the EU, and to cooperate with European integration as directed, again, by the Union.

The way this works can be seen by comparing the cases of Poland and Germany. Germany was accused because its constitution allowed its constitutional court enough independence to rule against the national government – in other words, for its government not preventing the court taking a view different from that of the government, thereby upholding the rule of law. When, upon pressure from Brussels, the German government promised that it would see to it that the court would from now on rule in line with the national government, thereby committing itself to curtailing the independence of the court, and with it the rule of law, proceedings were ended on the grounds that the country had promised to respect the supremacy of European law. Poland, on the other hand, is accused of, and is already being punished for, not allowing its court enough independence to rule against the national government, thereby curtailing the rule of law, this time however by allowing the national court to challenge the doctrine of the universal supremacy of European over national law.

As a remedy, Brussels expects the Polish government to change the composition of the constitutional court so that it will rule in favour of European law supremacy in future, in which case it will pass the rule of law test, which in fact is a cooperation-in-integration-by-law test. Until it does so, the EU will withhold the financial support to which the country is entitled under the Treaties, breaking the law in defence of the law – a Schmittian Notstand. As a side effect, hardly unintended, the domestic opposition to the Polish government, led by a former Polish prime minister voted out of office for strict adherence to EU neoliberal economic recipes and compensated by his Brussels friends with one of the five EU presidencies, will be able to claim that by voting for them and for the supremacy of European law, Polish citizens will again benefit from EU financial support. In effect this turns the battle over the rule of law into an instrument of imperial elite management aimed at national regime change.

To recapitulate: under current EU doctrine, protecting the rule of law requires in some countries repression of national courts by national governments, while in others it requires their liberation. The German government satisfied the Commission by promising to ‘actively’ discourage anti-European, pro-national tendencies on its highest court, thereby undermining domestic in favour of supranational rule of law; while the Polish government drew the ire of the Commission by encouraging anti-European, pro-national tendencies on the part of its constitutional court, thereby undermining domestic but also European rule of law, as interpreted by the CJEU. Whereas German undermining of domestic rule of law is forgivable because it serves European rule of law, Polish undermining of domestic rule of law is not because it undermines European rule of law.

How does integration by law fit the worldview of the new German government, and what are its prospects for the future of the ‘European project’? The coalition agreement’s section on Europe, which comes at the very end of a very long document, reveals the handwriting of the Greens and their Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, in calling for nothing less than a constitutional convention to open the way into, in literal translation, ‘a federal European federal state’ (einen föderalen europäischen Bundesstaat). Nobody in Europe aside from the German Greens wants this in earnest, and Baerbock was told so in no uncertain terms on her inaugural visits to Warsaw and Paris. Baerbock will also have to learn that for Germany, integration by law rather than by convention is the ideal method to build a German-dominated European state or empire: rule-based rather than politics-driven, proceeding through juridical authority instead of political legitimacy, based on ‘values’ and derived, with juridical expertise and authority, from norms rather than interests, drawing for legitimacy on obedience to the law instead of political consent, and engineered behind closed doors by academically trained specialists. It also makes it possible to single out individual dissenting countries for correctional punishment, something difficult to do at a constitutional convention. The only problem is that Germany’s indispensable European co-hegemon, France, has little enthusiasm for this approach, historically and culturally preferring politics over legalism, discretionary over rule-bound decision-making, and personal leadership over the impersonal application of legal norms.

In fact, the French political class seems increasingly disillusioned with the preferred German route to ‘Europe’, which it sees less and less as leading toward a ‘European sovereignty’ modelled on the French that can be projected worldwide.  Instead the impression is growing that integration by law would end in nothing better than government by bureaucracy supervised by a supranational legal expertocracy – suited perhaps to building an international neoliberal market but unable to found an imperial state capable of acting on a global scale. Indications are that recent political pronunciamientos in the run-up to the French presidential elections on the value of national as distinguished from European sovereignty are related to growing doubts over German-style integration by law.

And there are further signs of fracture. Shortly before the holidays, two weeks after discontinuing the infringement procedure against Germany, the European Commission started several additional such procedures against Poland. At issue were various judgments of the Polish constitutional court that insist on the primacy of Polish constitutional law over European law where in the Treaties member states had not conferred specific competences to the EU and by implication the CJEU. Preparing the decision, von der Leyen was quoted by the EU’s PR office as saying that ‘EU law has priority over national law, including constitutional law’, a principle which according to her ‘had been accepted by all EU member states as members of the European Union’. Rhetoric like this has the potential of waking up hordes of sleeping dogs in national capitals, as it offers a taste of what a prominent, politically unsuspicious German European law specialist – a profession with a deeply rooted déformation professionnelle making it condone even the most daring deployment of law in furtherance of ‘ever closer union’ – has found himself prompted to call a ‘coup d’état from above’, by means of integration by law in its new, extended version.

Even the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, usually a faithful foot soldier for EU-Europe, took issue with the new infringement procedures against Poland. On December 23 it asked, under the title of ‘Political Justice’, and an extended quote seems justified here: ‘If the Polish constitutional court was in reality as independent as it is supposed to be, what should the Polish government then do against the court decision that is now the occasion for yet another infringement procedure? The government is after all not allowed to dismiss a decision of the constitutional court or to influence its future jurisdiction.’ And further: ‘Basically the EU Commission urges the Polish government to do that for which it rightly criticizes it sharply: to exert political influence on the judiciary, now only in the opposite direction’. It is indicative of the rotten state of the political public in the biggest and most important country of the EU that there is no mention in this comment of the amazing parallels with the infringement procedure against Germany that had been dropped only a few weeks ago, on assurances by the German government to the Commission that it will ‘actively prevent’ another ultra vires verdict of the constitutional court.

Read on: Alain Supiot, ‘Law and Labour’, NLR 39.


The Antarctic Connection

This short New Year memoir meshes theorizations of two very different subject areas: geopolitics and interaction rituals. The genre, however, also calls for a dose of merry nonsense, which very much includes all sociological jargon. Yet, as-we-all-know-who-theorized-it, rituals must be performed and emotions generated – even at the scale of world-systems theory.

The emotion in this case is an entirely happy one. It was prompted by the ritual New Year postcard arriving from the South Pole itself, more precisely, the NSF Amundsen-Scott camp in Antarctica.

We met in 1992 in the long line at the ex-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The occasion was purely bureaucratic and at the same time fabulously historical. Confirming one of the boldest predictions of Randall Collins, the USSR had collapsed; and we now needed to claim our new citizenship from among no less than a dozen successor nations. This geopolitical fact was finally forced upon me earlier that morning by the fashionably dressed official at the visa section of the French Embassy:

– Your passport is still valid, but the issuing state has expired…

Desperately pressed for time, I flagged down a taxi in the middle of Georgetown and asked the driver (who looked distinctly Ethiopian to my Africanist eye) if he knew the location of the ex-Soviet embassy. The cabdriver turned to me with a broad, cordial grin and replied in perfect Russian: Konechno, znayu, dorogoi tovarisch! – Of course, I know, dear comrade! What a country it was! Do you remember the Ukrainian girls? Borsch and sour cream at the student canteen? He was in fact Ethiopian, with an engineering diploma from Kharkov Polytechnic in Ukraine.

The consular division of the ex-Soviet Embassy occupied a distinguished-looking mansion near Dupont Circle. A few dozen petitioners formed two lines. Following my instantly revived Soviet instincts, I quietly joined the much shorter one. An official-looking woman emerged from the ‘Strictly Service’ door of the consulate to collect our petitions and passports. She approached me with frosty directness:

– Young man, are you Jewish or scientist?

Astonished by this dichotomous categorization, I could only meekly extend to her my – still valid – Soviet passport. Barely glancing at it, the woman immediately ordered me into the much longer line:

– Here stand only the Jews who had long emigrated to Israel and gave up their Soviet citizenship. But now with all our democratization (she could not help a snort) they can get the new Russian citizenship and travel back (oh, she knew all those tricks) without a visa. But your government service (stress) ‘blue’ passport was issued by the Foreign Relations Directorate of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Clearly, you are a scientist.

As a document-carrying scientist, I had to accept the logic of her arguments.

The scientists’ line behaved in recognizable Soviet ways. The people were frustrated by the waste of time and the whole bizarre procedure of having to choose a new citizenship. Yet since the frustrations were directed at the consular officers behind the bullet-proof windows with the dusty blinds unceremoniously drawn down before our faces, the common emotion generated among us was a form of solidarity and even fraternization. This exponentially increased as we learned about the structural homologies of our trajectories and positions. Everyone originally came from one or another of the intersecting Soviet academic institutions; and presently we all found ourselves in roughly the same precarious situation at American universities as post-docs, visiting fellows or lecturers. And, of course, we were cursing, as usual, the ‘Power’ (Vlast) that ‘broke up the country but kept its old habits’.

Vladimir Papitashvili introduced himself first as if begging my pardon for standing ahead in the line. He turned out to be a geophysicist, and his work (about which he was as passionate as any good scientist) consisted of tracing the signs of climate change, which is why he had travelled around the world doing his research. Once in 1984, on his way to Antarctica, as Papitashvili fondly reminisced, he had stayed at a different, much more hospitable Soviet Embassy. The polar expedition had a long trip to make from Leningrad. Their heavy Il-18 transport planes had to refuel often, first in Simferopol in the Crimea; next in Cairo, Egypt; then in Aden, Southern Yemen; and again in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; and ultimately (at this point I gasped, because I knew this route) …. in Maputo, Mozambique.

The Ilyushin-18 turboprop airplanes, painted bright red for the polar conditions, were a common sight in Maputo during their seasonal expeditionary migrations. The airfield at the 26th parallel in the southern hemisphere was situated in the capital of a newly liberated African country pursuing a ‘socialist orientation’. Mozambique offered the southernmost friendly airport that Soviet planes could use before making the final leap to the coasts of Antarctica. Polar expeditions usually had to wait a few days there for good weather along the route, because the heavy planes could not return to Africa from somewhere halfway. The explorers, facing a year amidst the polar cold and night, did not seem to mind spending a few days on the beaches of the Indian Ocean.

To my new friend, Maputo seemed a strange place, beautiful and warm but also (he carefully searched for the word) … adventurous. Once their plane was parked for the night at the airport, it was surrounded by a bunch of wild-looking young Soviets, some of them bearded. They were dressed in civilian pants, short-sleeves and sandals, yet were armed to the teeth. These volunteer guards were provided as a diplomatic courtesy to fellow countrymen pursuing an important scientific mission.

Of course, it all sounded damn familiar to me. Oh, how we hated the ‘volunteer’ night shifts assigned by the Embassy’s Komsomol committee. Who would want to feed mosquitoes all night long, sitting under the wings of the bright-red IL-18 while keeping guard against possible attack by Renamo rebels and South African saboteurs? We carried a hodgepodge of surplus weaponry procured from our friends at the Soviet military mission, because we were actually listed as civilian personnel. (I got the vintage Degtyarev machine gun stamped with the production date of 1942, the year of Stalingrad.) On these improvised patrols we really felt more like bait.

That was all in a previous and rather surreal life. Here, in a new and also quite surreal American life, I realized that I was standing next to the very same man whose expeditionary equipment I had once been prepared to defend to death. We hugged and yelled, to the amusement of our fellow scientists. Papitashvili and I turned out to be old acquaintances. Which, by the way, would not be the end of the coincidences. Twice again Papitashvili and I would be neighbours at various American campuses, drawn together by our nomadic trajectories in search of fellowships and grants.

At last, the stern-looking official came out to deal with our petitions. Having barely glanced at our Soviet passports, she immediately got to the business of state-imposed categorization and essentialization based on the tell-tale endings of our ethnic surnames: All right, Papitashvili, you must be a Georgian; and you, Derlugyan, are Armenian, aren’t you?

Papitashvili burst into hasty chatter, trying to explain that it was his father who had been Georgian but he himself was born in Kirovabad, Azerbaijan. (Oh? The official raised her eyebrows.) There, in Azerbaijan, his Russian mother worked at the railway station, while his father was serving his military draft, but they had divorced when young Volodya was just one year old. I learned later that the Papitashvilis were a princely Georgian lineage, who in the Soviet period had turned their cultural capital into the high status of old intelligentsia. The relatives from Tbilisi had disapproved of the junior’s affair with a Russian working-class girl from the railroad depot. But the child was eventually half-accepted into the family. During his student years in Leningrad, Vladimir could procure coveted free passes to the Bolshoi Drama Theatre – the famed ‘BDT’, a cult destination for the Soviet intelligentsia – where his uncle was none other than Georgi Tovstonogov, the revered Chief Artistic Director. Yes, Papitashvili was a typical Soviet: born in Azerbaijan to a Georgian father and Russian mother, he attended university in Leningrad, then worked for sixteen years in the heart of Siberia, in Yakutia, at the Institute for the Study of Permafrost. Of course, he knew hardly a word of Georgian.

Next came my turn to explain that I really did not know Armenian, although I knew some Ukrainian because that is what my maternal grandmother spoke to me at home in Krasnodar. The official interrogated me with a tone of bureaucratic suspicion in her voice: Krasnodar? Is that where the Cossacks are?

I felt as if the silver-capped bandoliers were already growing across my chest and replied proudly: Yes, we are the Kuban Cossacks!

The official shrugged: Haven’t you seceded along with the Ukraine? You should really ask the Ukrainians for a new passport.

I stood speechless. Had we really seceded from Russia? Who could know in those crazy days. Did I miss the news? The USSR emigrated from me in my sleep. Barely regaining the ability to speak, I asked meekly if the lady would, please, make sure that the Krasnodar territory was no longer part of Russian Federation. After all, it had been for the last seventy years… She looked at the map on the wall and said apologetically: All right, I am sorry, Krasnodar is still in Russia. It was the Crimea that had separated along with Ukraine. (Ah, the neighbouring province, and another Black Sea resort which for a Muscovite like herself must have all appeared the same.) Then she turned her head to Papitashvili and added: And Yakutia is also still in Russia although they now call it by some different name…

– Sakha! The Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, suggested Papitashvili, and hurriedly added: But my propiska registration is in the city of Moscow.

– Very well then, said the official: A hundred dollars from each of you. Cash or money order only.

– For what?! we cried in unison.

– For the stamp in your passports confirming your Russian citizenship.

– But does one pay to become a Russian in Russia?

At this point she finally burst:

– Look, dear scholars, you are all so smart, but this is not Russia, we are in Washington! And we have to pay for everything. Do you realize how expensive it is to renovate the consulate building? Look, look over there: the ceiling is cracking already over our heads. So, a hundred dollars each, and two standard 4×6 passport photographs. Or go to San Francisco, there the consulate charges 85 dollars.

Papitashvili sighed and reached for his wallet, but I simply did not have a hundred dollars, not even in the bank. The times were indeed desperate. I just scoffed:

– Big deal, Russian citizenship! I will apply for Armenian, because I am a Derlugyan, or Ukrainian because my mom is a Kuban Cossack and I can speak Ukrainian. Or, even better, the newly-appointed Kyrgyzstan ambassador is Rosa Otunbaeva, right? She is also a scholar and wrote her dissertation on the Frankfurt School. Otunbaeva has a stamp, and so far no embassy to renovate. I don’t mind becoming a Kyrgyz sociologist, especially if this comes for free. I just don’t have hundred dollars…

The official stared at me tenderly: Young man, do not attempt anything you might later regret. Russian citizenship is a valuable thing. Allow me a minute.

She went through the doors again, and returned a moment later to announce magnanimously:

– Given your difficult material circumstances, the Consul has consented to granting you the confirmation of Russian citizenship at the older rate of 50 dollars. Cash or money order.

And that is how Papitashvili and I, the children of multi-ethnic Soviet parents, became the new Russian intellectual diaspora working in America. He is still following his satellites and drills holes in the middle of Antarctica, only now he is doing so as the head of the American NSF expedition (a good third of its personnel are former Soviet scientists anyway). And every winter/summer, Papitashvili sends his season’s greetings from almost exactly atop the South Pole.


Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘Recasting Russia’, NLR 12.


Law Man

There was admittedly something strange about the man. As a young US Marine scanning the rubble of the Reich Chancellery in 1946, he spotted a bronze bust of Hitler which he took back with him to Dallas, idly telling himself he would one day return it to a German museum for safe-keeping, but which rested in a box in his Manhattan apartment for the better part of a century. Psychological speculation in the case of Ramsey Clark, who died this year at 93, is very nearly pointless. How did the Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson – in which capacity he prosecuted the likes of Dr. Spock for protesting the Vietnam War draft ­– become a welcome guest in Hanoi and Tehran, the legal defender of last resort to enemies of the US state, a reliable champion of Palestinians, Kurds, and other stateless peoples; a man who would come to denounce American imperialism with incantatory consistency – who once publicly mourned not being able to procure a copy of Pablo Neruda in Santiago after Pinochet’s coup?

A certain puritanical streak ran in the family. Clark’s Mississippi great-great grandfather was an ersatz southern ‘general’ who owned 67 slaves but did not allow alcohol in the house, except for cooking purposes. Clark’s grandfather was a judge in Dallas who was responsible for uprooting prostitution from the city. His own father, Tom Clark, was a militantly anti-union Attorney General under Truman, who later appointed Clark senior to the Supreme Court. Ramsey Clark’s first taste of a major legal event was as an observer at the Nuremberg tribunals. He had little doubt that they constituted a liberal show trial, but still believed they could become the foundation of a more just world order. In Clark’s view of himself, he was never a fringe character in American politics but rather the bearer of the true cross of American liberalism, the one that had been destined to prevail in the long run, and which his own liberal contemporaries – Robert Kennedy, above all – would have duly taken up if they had only stayed alive.

But Clark was less significant for the road-not-taken he thought he represented than for the function he served in the projection of US power. Not since Roosevelt’s second Vice President, Henry Wallace, who immolated his career in 1946 with a speech denouncing the Cold War in its infancy and who co-founded the still-born Progressive Party, was there such a high-level dissenter from the ranks of the postwar American political establishment. Clark was a driving force for civil rights inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. But after his time in office, and failing at two bids for a seat in the US Senate, he joined with many of the radical liberals whom he had formerly had in his prosecutorial sights. By the 1980s and 1990s he was a jack-in-the-box figure on television, who, once the smoke from the bombing had cleared, predictably popped up to defend figures from Slobodan Milošević to Charles Taylor when he was not protesting the illegality of the US invasions of Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere.

Liberal capitalist states have a different way of digesting dissidents than their rival regime-types. When they are low-level soldiers or technicians, prison or execution is the blanket solution as it has been for most communist, socialist, theocratic and monarchic states. But for high-level state defectors, the solution has been to incorporate them as court jesters. In the postwar Communist world, the highest-level defector from a regime was Milovan Djilas, who was second-in-command of Yugoslavia in January 1954, minding the state while Tito was on holiday, when he denounced his own regime in a thinly fictionalized parable. When Tito returned home, a show trial began, with Djilas, his old comrade, in the dock. Belgradians were stunned by the live broadcast of his circular self-defence (‘I did criticize every aspect of the system, but I’m not against the system as a whole!’). After seven years in prison for this ‘hostile propaganda’, Belgrade let him leave for England. Like Clark, Djilas criticized his regime for not living up to its own ideals – post-war Yugoslavia, in his view, instead of building a classless society, had merely manufactured a ‘new class’ of communist elites. Likewise, Clark portrayed America as a country that professed to uphold ‘the rule of law’ at home and ‘rules-based order’ abroad, but was in fact the most lawless actor. For all of the clarity of this insight, however, when it came to his actual understanding of law, Clark was a naturalist in the mould of Martin Luther King. Jr, who believed that there was a higher law that America needed to adhere to, and with which the formal law of the country simply needed to be brought into alignment.   

Clark’s finest and loneliest hour came during George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War. Along with Neil Young (cf. ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’) and the American political left at its historical low watermark, Clark had little trouble detecting the capacity for mass-murder behind the patrician mumble and mountains of thank-you notes. In The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (1992), Clark documented in full detail the carnage of Desert Storm on Iraqi civilians, and called for the president to be impeached on the grounds of having violated the US constitution by going to war without congressional consent, something which Bush had openly boasted about (‘I didn’t have to ask Senator Kennedy, or some liberal Democrat whether we were going to do it. We just did it.’) America could be ‘liberated’ once this justice was meted out. It was almost touching how much Clark expected to be listened to about constitutional niceties amidst the Bush administration’s endless trumpeting about how the US was operating under a heavenly edict from the UN Security Council.

Whatever the extra material incentives behind the Persian Gulf War, the most important motivation was ideological. As Peter Gowan argued in NLR at the time, the rhetoric behind the war neatly captured the migration of US domestic legal language to the international sphere, with the ‘criminal’ Saddam Hussein’s invasion triggering ‘the standard procedures of a police response’. The projection of a depoliticized international arena, with the US simply acting as a custodian of liberal norms, was meant to be the main attraction of Bush’s ‘New World Order’. (Never mind that the opposition to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq was fiercely opposed to any kind of intervention). Clark himself fell prey to some rather under-nourished theories about the war. He believed George H.W. Bush’s administration had intentionally encouraged Saddam to start the conflict in order to claim his oil fields, a highly untenable conclusion considering how little encouragement Saddam required. He widely publicized his desire to revise the Ottoman-Anglo Convention of 1913, which had granted Kuwaiti autonomy in the first place, and his determination to expose the ‘Zionist plot’ of the Kuwaiti Emir, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was no secret. (As Wikileaks revealed in 2011, the US Ambassador April Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam in 1990 may have been ambiguous, but she did in fact attempt to get him to nudge away his troops from the Kuwaiti border.) The value of Clark’s account was not what he exaggerated or distorted, but what he didn’t: the mass abuses committed by the Kuwaiti regime which expelled its minority populations during the conflict, the US backing of Saddam and his periodic genocidal adventures until it no longer required his services, the newspeak of ‘smart’ bombing, and the UN-US imposed sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children.

For his pains, Clark became a favourite horse to beat in the liberal press. Christopher Hitchens declared him a Saddam apologist, and went on to make the perplexing argument that, while Saddam in principle deserved the best possible legal representation, Hitchens himself was personally pleased that such a slapstick figure as Clark had turned up for the job since it would mean the opposite. Norman Podhoretz meanwhile tarred Clark as a nihilist, driven by ‘hatred of the United States and automatic support for anyone opposed to the United States, for any reason whatsoever in any context whatsoever’. Neither of them paused to consider the service he was rendering their war project. Clark did his best to raise the standards of the liberal show trial – and even more grizzly execution of Hussein – to standards that could pass muster of ‘justice having been done’ in wider world opinion. He was hardly the thorn in the side of the Iraq War he was often portrayed to be, but rather an unwitting partner in the projection of US hegemony, who bore the message: ‘See, in America, we have fair trials, and even let our own dissidents defend our state enemies’. Clark did the regime the further favour of treating the project of US hegemony as a kind of episodic phenomenon, to be treated on a case-by-case basis, in a fanatical legalistic fashion that often made it seem as if the demand of formal justice – the sanctity of due process – was somehow independent of other political values.

I saw Clark once in midtown Manhattan, when I was covering a meeting of semi-active Tamil Tigers in the ballroom of the New York Bar Association. The two dozen men and women who showed up visibly sagged with a sense of duty. A photo of Prabhakaran rested between engravings of Lincoln and Chester Arthur. After a few words from Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, the Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Clark strut into the room and delivered a short speech while standing under the LTTE flag emblazoned with crisscrossed AK-47s. He misattributed some banalities about world peace to Wallace Stevens and seemed to have gotten the landscape of Jaffna mixed up with that of Kurdistan. It felt like he was performing a ritual blessing, like one of Tolstoy’s hermit monks, an image only undercut by his this-worldly beardlessness. The moral fervour was undiminished. His death was barely noticed on the major networks. The New York Times obituary was long and dull. They could at least have honoured him for the legal propriety he tried to inject into American savagery abroad.

Read on: Peter Gowan, ‘The Gulf War, Iraq and Western Liberalism’, NLR I/187.


Fragments of Revolution

In the tattered remains of a Punjabi literary magazine, I chance upon a faded black-and-white photograph. A Sikh man stands between a newly married Sikh couple, holding a book in each hand. His bearded face is scratched beyond recognition. The bride stares solemnly into the camera, while the groom – clean-shaven face creased in half – angles away, perhaps for another camera. ‘Comrade Buggar Singh,’ the caption announces, ‘is handing out a new form of dowry to the couple’. It is two novels in Punjabi translation, Mother by Maxim Gorky and The Hurricane by Chou Li-Po. The photograph dates to the political tumult of the 1970s, when Mao-inspired Naxalite insurrections burned through large swathes of agrarian India. ‘Looks like the Sino-Soviet split never transpired for the villagers in Punjab’, I say as I turn the photograph towards Bant Singh, a peasant who had held on to this fragment despite the threat of police violence. At the time, the discovery of small magazines in a raid was tantamount to the discovery of illegal arms. But fifty years later, the elderly comrade can recall neither this dowry ritual nor the name of the magazine. Still, he grins widely. The irony is not lost on him.

The Sino-Soviet split, compounded by the Indo-China war in 1962, played a key role in splintering the Communist Party of India. In 1964, the breakaway CPI (Marxist) was formed, swiftly followed by the defection of a Maoist contingent that organized the Naxalbari insurrection of 1967 and formed the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969. The latter judged that India was a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state, and that guerrilla warfare was the only revolutionary response. The Naxalite theses and tactics seemed especially incongruous in Punjab. Newly integrated into the Green Revolution, the Punjabi villages teemed with tractors, tubewells, fertilizers, seed farms and credit cooperatives. Attempts to import Maoist tactics into this capital-intensive landscape triggered even more splinters in the communist ranks, while the targeted killings of landlords and policemen offered little effective opposition to the structural violence of the new regime, orchestrated by US state agencies and subsidized by the Congress government. When he finally spoke, Bant’s voice was a distant murmur. ‘Every public meeting would start with cries of Workers of the world unite! But why didn’t the parties ever start by uniting themselves?’

Maoism however still managed to seep into Punjab’s cultural life in several exhilarating, often erratic, ways. Numerous small and underground magazines sprang up in this period, disseminating homespun cultural revolution across the countryside. Many were outlawed and destroyed by police. Today only fragments of them survive, scattered across obscure rural locations, often still shrouded in secrecy. After weeks of inquiries, I had finally arrived in Dhilwan, a village of roughly 500 houses located in Punjab’s Malwa belt, today afflicted by the Indian agrarian crisis. Here the springtime of the Green Revolution – premised on high rates of mechanization and productivity – has long transitioned into an autumn of endemic landlessness and peasant suicides. Bant had waited for me all day under the slow churn of the ceiling fan on his veranda, a flimsy plastic bag by his side containing archival remains of an armed revolt that had failed to transition into the promised revolution.

Along with communist biographies and party programs, the bag also contained two stapled copies of Rohley Baan (Raging Arrows) from the mid-1970s, their yellowed paper so brittle that I could scarcely pry them open. The magazine was published by the Punjab-Himachal state committee of the CPI (M-L), a splinter group that attempted to turn the neighbouring Himalayan foothills into a guerrilla base. The title is a homage to the arrows fired during the Naxalbari insurrection, but the cover features neither those Bengali insurrectionaries nor Mao himself. Instead, a red icon of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), adorns the front. Famous for waging war against the oppressive Mughal administration, Guru Gobind is depicted in full regalia, wearing a heron plume in his turban and a quiver on his shoulder, holding a quill in one hand while a hawk perches on the other.

In the crumbling heap of stapled paper, I also discovered a stray photograph of Krupskaya – likely torn and saved from Lenin’s biography. Bant’s jagged annotation in Gurumukhi read, ‘Lenin di patni’ (Lenin’s wife). Stuck to the back of Krupskaya’s photograph, there were two crinkled passport-sized photographs. When I enquired about the identity of this other woman, Bant strained at the tiny face, then glowered at me. Half-jokingly, he replied that I should have the civility not to broach this in front of his son. A few minutes later, he gently deposited the two photographs in the left pocket of his shirt. I returned the famed Bolshevik into the company of her unlikely comrades. Spread out on the plastic table, Bant’s archive resembled a jigsaw puzzle, but the edges of these pieces had long frayed beyond repair. One no longer understood how they fitted together.


After hours of torrential rain, a steady stream of peasants, activists and writers begin trickling into the small farm in Talwandi Salem, an obscure village in the Doaba belt. It is the birthday of Avtar Singh ‘Pash,’ the prolific revolutionary poet who came to prominence in the early 1970s. Pash was the editor of Siarh (Furrow), an iconic Maoist literary magazine. In its pages, one finds anti-imperialist boliyan (a folk musical form) next to assessments of Maoist land reforms; an interview with a local Dalit labourer alongside a marsiya (an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrs of the Karbala) dedicated to Salvador Allende. In the mid-1980s, when militants leading the charge for Khalistan – a separate Sikh state – threatened to kill Pash, he fled to California, where, working illegally at a petrol pump, he started another magazine, Anti-47 – handwritten and distributed to diaspora as far flung as Norway and England.

In recent years, Pash’s farm and its tubewell have become totems for the Punjabi left. In the 1970s the Naxalites held numerous secret meetings here, while in a basement dug nearby, Pash assembled a makeshift library, festooned with photographs of Mao, Bhagat Singh and Ho Chi Minh. It was also here that Pash was killed in 1988, aged 38 – like many of his comrades, by Khalistanis. ‘It was a cold March morning. He was sharing a cigarette with a friend near this tubewell’, Sant Sandhu, poet and Pash’s neighbour, whispers into my ear. In 1970, Sandhu had smuggled out Pash’s first poems from prison to be published as his first book, Loh Katha (Iron Tale). ‘Two Khalistani militants ambushed them, shooting several rounds into their backs. Pash died crawling under this mango tree’. Someone passes me hot jalebis and a cup of tea, as members of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (a union of landless labourers, predominantly Dalits) unfurl the gleaming sickles on their red flags. ‘Now, we stand here in his place’.

Surinder Kumari Kochhar, a 78-year-old veteran, holds tea in one hand and a PKMU flag in the other. In the late 1960s, she published the first periodical of Punjabi Maoism, Lok Yudh (People’s War), edited by her father, Gandharva Sen, a communist stalwart who had previously been on the frontlines of the anticolonial struggle. It was an underground magazine – its press hidden in a manhole dug at the centre of an orchard. Surinder worked the press all night, and in the early hours young Naxalites would come to pick up fresh copies and then transport them across the region. Many of them would be later tortured and killed by the police. She grows wistful, but suddenly remembers the buzzer installed in the manhole to warn in case of a raid. ‘At night, if you put your ear close to the ground, you could hear me moving the rollers’. As the light began to fade, I could hear only the rickety buzz of a tubewell – enduring emblem of US neo-colonial aid – that now serves as a makeshift memorial to a revolutionary poet.


In 1972, the short story writer Gurvel Pannu founded Sedh, a Punjabi journal of Marxist theory and culture. The first issues included engagements with the writings of Sikh gurus, Roland Barthes (an entire issue was dedicated him), medieval Sufi thinkers, Eric Fromm, contemporary Naxalite poets, Charles Bettelheim amongst many others. In a series of landmark essays, the literary critic Kishan Singh warned against the wholesale embrace of Leninism, and instead suggested that Marxism in Punjab must discover its own ‘local roots’. His celebration of Gurbani (compositions in the Sikh religious scripture Guru Granth Sahib) as a counterpoint to Marxist-Leninism provoked heated debate. Gurcharan Sehensra, historian of the old guard, responded to Singh’s call for provincializing Europe with characteristic irreverence: ‘When the Punjabi bourgeoisie can find inspiration in the Western regime of the Green Revolution, why can’t the Punjabi workers find strength in the tradition inaugurated by the Paris Commune?’

In these literary magazines, discussions around universal history and difference played out with great intensity. In Hem Jyoti – a monthly so popular that booksellers used to hoard and sell its copies at marked-up prices – translations of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Jackson, were published alongside work by emerging Punjabi writers; assessments of the Moscow Writers’ Conference and the Afro-Asian Conference in between local accounts of literary seminars taking place in Punjab. The integration of Punjabi villages into the global regime of the Green Revolution was accompanied by a growing desire to imagine a literary world-system anchored in the peripheral experiences of Punjabi peasants and guerrillas. In the postcolonial mainstream, such experiments were widely censured. The 1972 issue of Indian Literature, the journal of the state-sponsored National Academy of Letters, famously criticized the ‘invasion’ of Naxalite poets, lamenting, in particular, the ‘sudden’ capitulation of Hem Jyoti to Maoism. ‘No amount of Maoist ideology (can) act as an alibi for a creative vision’ concluded the official indictment.

The sentiment prevails to this day. The intimacy between literary experiment, critique of political economy, and political agitation still confounds contemporary critics, who tend to dismiss it with accusations of crudity and propaganda, showing little interest in either recovering this history or taking stock of its afterlife. To borrow a phrase from Michael Löwy, the cultural memory of Punjabi Maoism continues to flow like an ‘invisible underground river’, silently irrigating Punjab’s social world. On occasion, its currents can still rise to the surface and flood the land. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of farmers and farmworkers in Punjab and elsewhere blocked railways and roads, overran barricades and borders, and erected blockades around the national capital. Long into the night, troupes of Punjabi women across these blockades were seen singing poems by their Maoist forebears, including Pash. Last month, the BJP-led government finally conceded defeat, and agreed to repeal the controversial farm laws. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), a left-leaning Punjabi organization, marked the anniversary of the blockades by paying tribute to those who have died in the struggle. During the two-minute silence, a song by the Dalit Naxailite Sant Ram Udasi reverberated from the stage.


Pulling up a piece of cloth tied behind his turban, Dilbagh Singh bellowed: ‘It is true that people are dying. It’s a disease, after all.’ After a short pause, he added, ‘But you know, sorrow does not stem only from Covid-19. We are now sad all the time.’ ‘And why is that?’ I shifted in the backseat of the Uber, curious to find out. ‘It’s because we have completely lost touch with the world of literature.’ I slipped the tangled headphones back into my shirt’s pocket. ‘So what kind of books do you like to read?’ Navigating a hairpin bend, Dilbagh answered, ‘Lal Singh Dil is my favourite, so is Pash’. I was struck by the uncanny pairing. Marginal and monumental in equal measure, the two poets are rarely discussed together. Dil, a landless Dalit poet, was betrayed by his upper-caste Jat comrades during a guerrilla action. After months of brutal police torture, he fled Punjab, converted to Islam and spent the next decades working as a watchman, a domestic servant, an imam, and a herdsman in several other states. Six years after Pash was killed, Dil was discovered running a ramshackle tea shop near his native village.

‘And what about Amarjit Chandan?’ I prodded Dilbagh to complete the trinity of Punjabi Naxalites. ‘I have heard his name but have never got around to reading him’. Born in Nairobi in 1946, Chandan inaugurated the Maoist tradition of underground literature in Punjab. But when the movement faltered, he fled to Frankfurt and then to London. His dispatches for Economic and Political Weekly ended abruptly – the final article reported on the infamous 1981 racist arson attack at New Cross Road, Deptford – and he later broke with Maoism. In 1994, Chandan re-surfaced with typical panache, when a letter containing his new poems arrived at John Berger’s alpine home in Quincy in the midst of a nationwide French postal strike. The resulting friendship with Berger catalysed Chandan’s emergence as a poet, essayist and translator. His severe criticism of the Naxalites – at the Karachi Literary Festival 2018, he again described them as ‘individual terrorists’ – perhaps explains his relative obscurity in a literary world that bears his imprint.

‘What are you reading these days?’ Dilbagh changed gears and wrested control of the conversation. ‘A novel by Jaswant Kanwal.’ ‘Which one?’ Dilbagh seemed visibly excited. ‘Raat Baaki Hai.’ Reflexively turning around in his seat, Dilbagh let out a rapturous cry, ‘Waah! Kya baat hai!’, the kind of reaction reserved for poets when they recite a particularly moving couplet. I scrambled to echo his adulation, ‘Bilkul, bilkul!’ (Sure, sure!). At one point, Kanwal’s 1957 novel The Night Remains – a literary chronicle of the Muzara Lehar, the sharecroppers’ movement for land redistribution – was so popular that excerpts would be read out on loudspeakers in the villages. The book precedes his more famous saga of Punjabi Maoism, Lahu Di Lo (The Dawn of Blood), published in Singapore and smuggled into India in 1975. By the time Dilbagh turned back to face the road, the car, already out of control, pushed headlong towards a concrete divider in the highway. As Dilbagh swerved, we ended up missing a crucial right turn onto the flyover, the first of four we missed that day.

Read on: Kheya Bag, ‘Red Flags in the Forest’, NLR 118.


Tianxia versus Plato

Tianxia is the newest fashionable word. If you don’t know it, you’re out of the loop. If you do, you’re evidently up to date with the latest trends in international political science, even more so if you use the original Chinese ideogram 天下, which literally means ‘all under heaven’. Yet as Ban Wang, editor of an important volume on the subject, admits: ‘despite its popular revival, tianxia has rarely been defined with rigour’. First deployed under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), ‘all under heaven’ initially denoted the entire world, which in theory was subject to the sovereign, or ‘son of heaven’ (天, tian, being the ideogram for heaven). In practice, it was used to indicate the part of the world over which the Chinese sovereign – and subsequently Emperor – exercised supremacy.

One of tianxia’s most authoritative modern advocates, Zhao Tingyang, defines it as follows:

1. It is a monarchical system, including certain aristocratic elements. 2. It is an open network, consisting of a general world government and sub-states. The number of sub-states depends on the diversity of cultures, nations or geographical conditions. The sub-states pertain to a general political system, in the same way that subsets pertain to a greater set. Designed for the whole world, the all-under-heaven system is open to all nations. Any nation can participate, or be associated, if it is at peace with the nations included in the system. 3. The world government is in charge of universal institutions, laws and world order; it is responsible for the common wellbeing of the world, upholding world justice and peace; it arbitrates international conflicts among sub-states […] 4. The sub-states are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms and values; that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations. The sub-states are legitimated when politically recognized by the world government, and obliged to make certain contributions…

In recent decades, Chinese political commentators have used the concept to explain how China avoided the fragmentation into various national states that occurred in Europe after antiquity and escaped the fratricidal wars that marked the first age of intra-European competition (which subsequently embroiled the entire Western world). After all, at the time of the Han and Antonine dynasties (c. 150 AD), the Roman and Chinese Empires were of comparable size in terms of territory and population, and both were unitary entities. The explanation hinges on the distinction between tianxia and the Latin imperium (root of the modern term ‘empire’).

As Salvatore Babones explains, ‘Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike. Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns’. The first class was formed by states that had adopted Confucianism and the Chinese script (or its variants): Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands. These incorporated polities that were an active element of tianxia. The second comprised those parts of Southeast Asia that recognized – at least formally – Chinese authority and appealed to the Emperor to resolve conflicts: Sulu (modern-day Philippines), the Khmer Empire, Siam (Thailand), Java, and, during the Ming era, the maritime Islamic Sultanates. The third and final class involved the nomadic populations to the north and west: Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan groups that China sought to neutralize by educating in the customs of Chinese civilization.

The concept of tianxia is therefore invoked to affirm the moral superiority of a Confucian view of geopolitics over the so-called ‘Westphalian’ tradition, which upholds the sovereignty of national states, considered equal juridical entities. According to this perspective, the Chinese were forced to temporarily renounce tianxia to manage incursion by the West and its nation states, but with the failure of the Westphalian dis-order the time has come to revive it. Tingyang repeatedly refers to the West in terms of ‘failed states’ in his Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (2019).

What’s curious about this Chinese account is that, at least in the texts available to Western audiences, it completely elides the other great pillar of Chinese imperial politics: the principle of ru biao fa li: varyingly translated as ‘decoratively Confucian, substantively Legalist’ or ‘Confucian outside, Legalist inside’, or more freely still: ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. ‘In fact’, as Po-Keung Ip notes, ‘Confucianism as state ideology has been officially endorsed and followed, while Legalism covertly dominated much of the actual practice, thus forming the two-tiered politics characteristic of dynastic China’. Legalists had appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, with Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) and Hanfeizi (281-233 BC), the latter systematizing the formulations which ‘directly opposed the Confucian ideals, and suggested using the law to impose order, subdue populations to strict discipline, and if necessary, use manipulation to stay in power’. In other words, there appears to be a Machiavellian streak in classical Chinese political theory overlooked by the partisans of tianxia.

And that’s not all: the paradox is that, by claiming the superiority of China over the rest of the world, the recovery of tianxia promotes a nationalist program through critiquing the Western idea of the nation state. Yet these two incongruences – the omission of ru biao fa li and the use of an antinationalist nationalism – have not prevented tianxia from gaining currency in the West, so much so that thinkers such as Bam Wang have begun to introduce the concept of an ‘American tianxia’. Beyond their respective exceptionalisms, a common feature of China and the United States is that territorial conquest does not necessarily form part of their exercise of supremacy.

The concept of American tianxia has been further elaborated by Babones, who believes we live in a post-Westphalian world, where

degrees of sovereignty can be gauged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external ‘controlling’ or ‘overriding’ voices originating in other states. Outside this American centre, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.

The first circle is constituted by the remaining members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which not only share surveillance, but more generally a common language and culture (it’s no coincidence that these are the only white states of the old Commonwealth). ‘The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies’, Babones continues,

participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly ‘outside’ the United States itself they are to some extent ‘inside’ the institutions of American global governance.

The second circle includes the states of continental Europe, from NATO members to the developed countries of East Asia. These ‘allies’ of the United States

enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs […] They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority – and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all.

‘The remaining states of the world’, on the other hand,

are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change.

As we can see, Babones traces a homology between the three concentric circles of classical tianxia and American global hegemony, in a curious ode to the American empire which he even forecasts to last a millennium. Whilst he is at it, Babones might also do well to study the American variation of ru bia fa li, which it seems to pursue with far greater precision.

In all these discussions, however, lies an anomaly that is seldom grasped: Lindsay Cunningham-Cross and William Callaghan observe that, when writing one of the other key volumes to revive the concept of tianxiaAncient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011) – the aim of author Yan Xuetong

was to learn from the experience of ancient China and its political philosophers in order to enrich and improve current understandings of international politics. Yan believes that texts originating from the period prior to China’s unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BC) are particularly useful to scholars today, because interstate relations during that era share many similarities with contemporary international politics. In addition, this period is often viewed as the apex of Chinese philosophy; pre-Qin texts are thus significant because of the sustained influence they have had on politics in the Chinese empire over the past two millennia.

No Westerner would ever think to exhume a concept from the epoch of Homer, or even Heraclitus, and apply it to the governance of the globalized world. When we call the Athens of Pericles a democracy, we do so firmly in the knowledge that this word didn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, twenty-five centuries later. For Chinese political philosophers, however, the contemporary rehabilitation of tianxia (and the quiet omission of ru biao fa li) seems quite straightforward.

This discrepancy leads us to a reflection on the different relationships of China and the West to their respective pasts. The West is currently subjecting its antiquity to a radical critique, a sort of damnatio memoriae due to the slavery, racism and misogyny of our ancestors: classical texts are metaphorically burned, and departments of classical studies are quite literally closing in many American universities (Europe usually follows suit after a couple of decades). The paradox is that this dismantling of our cultural past is made possible precisely thanks to the conceptual tools bequeathed by antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, tools which led to the Enlightenment (French and Scottish), and to modern political thought, out of which anti-slavery, antiracism and feminism emerge.

For the Chinese, this voluntary self-destruction of one’s cultural heritage is totally incomprehensible: in fact, it only reinforces the idea of something amiss in Western cultural development. A civilization which lacks respect for its ancestors must be somewhat off course. A curious phenomenon thus arises: the classics of Western thought are today studied more extensively in China than in the West, for it is in these very texts – Plato, Aristotle – that China looks for ways of interpreting Western politics. That is to say, they apply the tianxia recipe to the West (and by ‘the West’, China primarily means the United States).

In this hall of mirrors – what the French call an abîme, an abyss in which we lose ourselves – the great classicist Shadi Bartsch, after studying Mandarin for nearly a decade, has examined how the Chinese view the classics of Western antiquity. In 2019 she published an essay, ‘Plato’s Republic in the People’s Republic of China’, and will release a book next spring entitled Plato Goes to China.

This study of the Western classics is related to the revival of tianxia, for both converge in their demonstration of the inferiority of the Western political tradition. Chinese scholars, Bartch argues in a recent interview,

focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

The same will occur to the US, considered (wrongful) heirs to Athenian democracy:

The United States’ democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years.

It won’t take much for American democracy to go over a cliff. Chinese theorists though aren’t free from contradictions; just as they pass negative judgements on Athens,

they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable.

But perhaps this reciprocal suspicion, or incomprehension, is never as clear – as in the final example given by Bartsch:

There is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China. All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them – 12BC, 400AD – which is a very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

The idea of antiquity never existing – that it is merely a late medieval invention – seems to be the most ingenious solution the problems that continue to torment our past and present.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.


Honduran Dreams

First, let’s celebrate. Xiomara Castro’s resounding success in the November 28 elections was an astonishing victory for the Honduran people. Before the balloting, most assumed that the ruling National Party would once again intimidate voters, cook the books and steal the presidency, despite polling data which made clear that Castro, the centre-left candidate of a united opposition, was on track to win. When the first, partial results were released that Sunday night, though, she led the ruling party candidate, Nasry Asfura, by 19 points with a 62% voter turnout. It appeared she was unstoppable, unless the military rose up – and it hasn’t, yet.

By Wednesday, with over 50% of the vote counted, Asfura had conceded, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had congratulated Castro, and the current dictator, Juan Orlando Hernández, had acknowledged her victory on national TV. Could the long Honduran night have ended, and so quickly?  

Castro will be the first female president in Honduran history, with the highest vote total ever. Her landslide success was the product of twelve years of hard organizing against the regime installed by a 2009 coup. But in the face of victory, the Honduran people remain devastated after twelve years of repression and suffering, and the challenges Castro now faces are beyond daunting. Looming behind them is the empire of the United States – facing the potential loss of what has been one of its most captive nations.

Castro’s husband, Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, was elected in 2006 from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional ruling parties. He was by no means a leftist; but once elected he raised the minimum wage, blocked the Honduran elite’s privatization plans, and allied himself with the rising centre-left and left democracies elected across Latin America in the ‘Pink Tide’ of the 1990s and 2000s. In response, the military, Supreme Court, and majority in Congress combined to oust him in June 2009. The US initially protested the coup, then did everything it could behind the scenes to stabilize it, as a lesson to the region’s other progressive governments. It bided its time until a November election – boycotted by almost all international observers – and swiftly recognized Porfirio Lobo, the declared winner from the National Party, as president. Thereafter, the post-coup regime immediately plunged the country into a maelstrom of violence, poverty and the destruction of basic state functions and the rule of law. Gangs and drug traffickers, working hand in hand with the military and police, consolidated their control over all levels of government.

But an enormous grassroots opposition rose up to protest the coup, coordinated through the National Front of Popular Resistance, which united the women’s, labour, campesino, LGBT, Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous movements along with a broad swath of other Hondurans. They built a powerful culture of resistance, demonstrating in the streets by the tens of thousands for over two years and building strategic international pressure on the regime. Castro’s party, LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), emerged out of that Resistance in 2011.

Castro first ran for president in 2013, and probably won. But the National Party, which controlled the election machinery, handed the presidency to a rising thug, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose victory was quickly rubber-stamped by the United States. Hernández, from a military background, had supported the coup as a congressmember and, as president of congress, led the ‘technical coup’ of 2012 that overthrew four out of five members of the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night and replaced them with his loyalists. As president, he militarized the police, oversaw near-complete repression of protests and quickly asserted dictatorial control over the military, police, congress, judiciary and most of the media. With the support of the US-controlled multilateral development banks, he used neoliberal privatization as a front to eviscerate state employment and services, while he and his cronies siphoned off billions. In 2013 Hernández and his party stole as much $300 million from the national health service to pay for their electoral campaigns, bankrupting it. As the economy collapsed and terror metastasized, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans began to flee.

In 2017, aided by the Supreme Court, Hernández ran again, in violation of the constitution. His opponent was Salvador Nasralla, a centre-right anticorruption sportscaster, who ran as part of a coalition with Castro. On election night, the theft was naked: Nasralla led by five points in the early results, but after a few hours the government shut down the counting and a week later declared Hernández president. Once again, the US recognized the ‘victory’, despite an outcry from the Organization of American States. When Hondurans poured into the streets to protest, the military and police fired live bullets, killing at least 22 peaceful protesters and bystanders. In the years after that, security forces broke up almost all demonstrations with tear gas; protesters increasingly stayed home in fear. Banners from a 2020 campaign against state thievery of Covid funding, asking ‘Where’s the Money?’ were torn down by security forces.

Castro identifies publicly as a democratic socialist. Her domestic program promises to address poverty, transform the police by establishing community-based policing, and end violence against women and the LGBT community. Much of her agenda is mainstream, though. She wants to roll back the excesses of neoliberalism and promises to deliver a functioning state that provides basic services such as health care, electricity and education. With Honduras facing astronomical levels of debt after successive governments used international lending institutions as private ATMs, she has already signalled her desire to renegotiate the repayment terms. She will apparently welcome foreign investment, and has already hosted meetings with the Chamber of Commerce. To her left, though, she will be held accountable by the grassroots movements that enabled her victory, who have a more profound transformation of Honduran society as their goal. So far, she has joined their longstanding demand for a constituyente – or constitutional convention – which could be used to refound the nation from below. On the foreign policy front, she’s made clear she will establish a wide range of global alliances of her own choosing, including recognition of Venezuela, Cuba and China.

Whatever her goals, Castro will have to try to govern without a majority in Congress. Even in coalition with Vice-President-elect Salvador Nasralla and his allies, Castro will have a hard time repealing multiple laws that have passed since the coup, which guarantee state secrecy, expand surveillance, repress dissent and grant impunity to drug traffickers and government officials. Other key reforms will be even harder to achieve. Castro intends to abolish the ‘ZEDES’ – special economic zones in which the Constitution doesn’t apply – yet this may have to wait until at least 2023 when the next Supreme Court is elected, by the same Congress. Any anticorruption agenda will depend on the cooperation of the attorney general, whose term also expires in 2023 and is also elected by the Congress.

She will also have to contend with whatever further machinations President Hernández might employ to protect himself. In October 2019, his brother Tony was convicted in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and sentenced to life for money laundering, arms sales, drug trafficking and other crimes. Tony’s trial and subsequent cases are replete with evidence against the president, who allegedly took a $1 million bribe from El Chapo Guzman, the famous Mexican cartel leader; appointed a known death squad leader as National Director of Police and instructed him to commit murders; and vowed, memorably, to ‘shove the drugs up the gringos’ noses’. It is widely assumed that the New York prosecutors will charge Juan Orlando once he has left office. But the current attorney general – Oscar Chinchilla, who has been named in New York courts as working with drug traffickers, and is close to both Hernández and top US officials – could refuse to extradite him.

The military and police present Castro’s most serious, and potentially deadly domestic challenge. They remain loyal to Hernández, who has spent eight years promoting his cronies into top positions. The current Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, has four times been named in the SDNY for his involvement in drug trafficking, while the two most senior police officials have protected narcos. Evidence in the New York trials revealed that drug traffickers allied with the president have utilized government military bases, planes and helicopters, and deployed dozens of soldiers to oversee border shipments. These security forces have a long history of repressing peaceful protests in the streets and killing activists. They have used Covid restrictions as a pretext to further occupy the entire country. They are accustomed to tremendous power and could take over or cause disruption through provocateurs at any moment.

But the biggest threat to the president’s ability to govern as she chooses is the United States. The US not only supported the overthrow of Castro’s husband; for twelve long years it has provided the Honduran security forces with training, equipment and funding and looked the other way at drug trafficking up top. For twelve long years it has propped up a government that criminalized and slaughtered Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and campesino activists. Leopards don’t change their spots; they find new strategies for capturing their prey.

On November 30, Blinken was quick to recognize Castro – praising Honduran voters for their ‘commitment to the democratic process’. It’s important to mark that historic moment, when the US reversed its decade-long project of supporting the post-coup regime. A week before the election, Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, travelled to Honduras to meet with top officials in the Hernández government and military. It appears he read them the riot act about manipulating the election results, and instructed them to allow Castro to win. But it’s uncertain how much further the State Department wants the elites and security forces to cede control, and what concessions from Castro it may have extractedin exchange for allowing her to be elected.

How do we explain the State Department’s tentative acceptance of Castro? First, her wide lead in the polls would have made it difficult for the US to try to legitimate another election stolen by the National Party – especially when members of the US Congress, led by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Hank Johnson and Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, have been ratcheting up pressure for the US government to rescind its support for Honduran security forces. Second, the Democrats are rightly worried that Republicans will once again use the immigration question to triumph in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and aware that another National Party presidency would not solve the root causes driving migration. Past practice suggests that the US will now pressure Castro to concede to allies to her right on a number of crucial points, while it subtly questions her ability to govern on her own. Nasralla, a wild card who has been close to the US for many years, has already undermined the president-elect’s authority by declaring that she will not in fact recognize China, Venezuela or Cuba, or convene a constituyente.

In trying to manage Castro, the Biden administration’s goal at the deepest level will continue to be defending and expanding the operations of US-based transnational corporations in the region, whether in garment factories, export agriculture or extractivism. Beyond the interests of any particular company, it wants ensure a wider regional context in which all forms of corporate capitalism can flourish. Its close alliance with transnational capital was made clear in a May 2021 programme launched in a supposed attempt to stop migration, a ‘Call to Action to the Private Sector to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle’, in which the administration announced it was working with PepsiCo, MasterCard, Nespresso and other corporate behemoths to expand their investments in the region. 

The administration’s economic goals are enforced, in turn, by the United States Southern Command (Southcom), which sustains close relationships with US-funded, trained, and equipped Honduran armed forces, shares intelligence and issues public statements praising its top officers. Even if the US State Department sees no alternative to working with Castro for the time being, Southcom is an engine that runs by itself, backed by billions from military contractors. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it will raise the alarm about ‘enemies’ in order to extract more power and money from Congress, and has enthusiastically embraced a new Cold War with China. We don’t yet know how its leadership is reacting to Castro’s victory, or what signals it is sending to the Honduran military.

In its new posture of ostensibly supporting Castro, the State Department has publicly welcomed her commitment to fighting corruption. But its definition of ‘corruption’ is highly selective. When hundreds of thousands of Hondurans rose up in 2015 to protest Hernández’s theft from the national health service, the US blocked their demand for a UN-based commission. Instead, it orchestrated a far weaker body under the auspices of the Organization of American States, in order to maintain control and whitewash the regime, while attempting to discipline it. The State Department’s recent lists of corrupt individuals, mandated by Congress, have assiduously ignored Hernández, his top advisor, the president of congress, the attorney general, and the minister of security. We can assume that under Castro the US will continue to use ‘anti-corruption’ initiatives to choose which figures to rein in and which to protect, attempting to shape the leadership and thereby mould the Honduran government in its interests.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will continue to flood the country with uncharted billions in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ aid. We lack analyses of the full objectives and impact of these ‘soft power’ programmes, in which well-meaning functionaries circle in and out of USAID, think tanks, universities, the State Department, Congressional offices, NGOS and private contractors – learning the same toolkit from MA programmes and their mentors. What exactly do their ‘governance’ programmes consist of? In Honduras, ‘democracy promotion’ has in part meant grooming leaders that will serve US interests; ‘institution-building’ has included shoring up corrupt judges, prosecutors, and police by training them in technical skills; ‘gang prevention’ has meant working with a repressive police force that answers to a criminal chain of command, while marginalizing dedicated activists already working in their communities. Soft power – a seemingly benevolent imperialism – has a well-documented racist history, based on the idea, dating back to the expansion of the US empire into the Philippines and Caribbean, that ‘little brown people can’t govern themselves’ and are in need of tutelage from their white superiors.

Since Biden was elected, the US has been increasingly committed to ‘supporting Honduran civil society’, by which it means pouring tens of millions of dollars into puppet organizations like the evangelical-based Association for a More Just Society, an ostensible anti-corruption organization that follows US policy in lockstep and is understood to be close to Hernández. Private funds are also at play, such as the Seattle International Foundation, whose directors have worked closely with the State Department. It lobbies the US Congress and has moved into funding and showcasing Honduran and US journalists and other civil society actors, attempting to draw so-called independent journalists as well as solidarity activists into the administration’s agenda. Top officials from both the Association for a More Just Society and the Seattle International Foundation are routinely quoted in the mainstream US media as experts on Honduras.

All these challenges are formidable indeed. In the wake of Castro’s astonishing victory, we must once again take up the hard work of solidarity, supporting the grassroots social movements who will challenge their new presidenta to realize their dreams for Honduras’s future, and reject the profit fantasies of the United States.

George Black, ‘Central America: Crisis in the Backyard’, NLR 1/135.