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.


The AMLO Project

The Mexican political system was shaken on 1 July 2018, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his new party MORENA achieved a resounding electoral victory, winning 53% of the votes in a four-way race – a thirty-point lead over his closest contender. This was by far the widest margin since the country’s ‘transition to democracy’ at the turn of the millennium. The parties that had dominated the political field throughout the neoliberal period were suddenly reduced to rubble. Today, the president’s approval ratings remain in the sixties, despite a relentlessly hostile press, a global pandemic, its accompanying economic crisis and inflationary pressures. Longstanding rivalries between the opposition parties have been shelved, with the PRI, PAN and PRD forced to come together or forfeit any possibility of succeeding at the ballot box.

The idiosyncrasies of AMLO’s left-populist presidency have pitted him not only against the neoliberal right, but also against the ‘progressive’ cosmopolitan intelligentsia and neozapatista-adjacent autonomists. These groups have variously accused him of ‘turning the country into Venezuela’, peddling ‘conservativism’ and acting as a ‘henchman of capital’. Yet as his six-year term reaches its final lap, a closer look at AMLO’s record reveals a much more complex picture. His overarching project has been to move away from neoliberalism towards a model of nationalist-developmentalist capitalism. To what extent has he succeeded, and what can the left learn from this endeavour?  

As a general rule, transitions from neoliberalism must take place in a structural setting shaped by neoliberalism itself: the erosion of the working class as a political agent and the dismantling of state capacity. It follows that the basic historical task of the contemporary left is the reignition of class politics and the relegitimation of the state as a social actor. We can therefore assess AMLO’s administration based on three fundamental criteria: the reinstatement of class cleavage as a primary organizer of the political field; the effort to reconcentrate the power of a state apparatus hollowed out by decades of neoliberal governance; and the break with an economic paradigm based on institutionalized corruption. Let’s consider each of these in turn.


In May 2020, as the first right-wing protests erupted against AMLO’s government, a viral video made the rounds on social media. It shows throngs of upper-class demonstrators engaged in a march-by-car on a major avenue in Monterrey, Nuevo León. From the window of a public bus, an anonymous passenger begins to harangue the motorists: ‘This is what moves Mexico!’ he says. ‘The workers…the workers move Mexico!’ For many, the scene captured the return of class politics to public consciousness after a long absence.

Just a few months into his presidency, AMLO declared the death of Mexican neoliberalism. It was a bold statement, more of an aspiration than a fait accompli. The first signs of its realization were rhetorical. Previously, political discourse focused on the division between a vaguely defined ‘civil society’ and the state. Public officials increasingly conceded the necessity of increasing ‘citizen control’ over ‘governance’. Class antagonism had all but disappeared from mainstream commentary. Yet under AMLO it reemerged in Laclauian guise: as a confrontation between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ (fifis and machuchones as he mockingly calls them), the latter defined by their wealth, meritocratic self-delusion and disdain for working-class culture.

This verbal shift was matched by a stark process of party realignment. In the 2018 election, working-class votes were scattered across different parties, including the neoliberal bloc, while AMLO had an edge with middle-class professionals. At that time, 48% of voters with a college degree supported MORENA’s congressional candidates. In the 2021 mid-terms, by contrast, that figure fell to 33%. The inverse occurred at the bottom end of the educational attainment bracket: 42% of people with only elementary school education voted for MORENA in 2018, while 55% did so in 2021. Recent polling shows that those most supportive of AMLO are ordinary workers, the informal sector and peasants, while his most vociferous opponents are businesspeople and college-educated professionals. The ‘Brahmin Left’ phenomenon, which increasingly characterizes voting patterns in Europe and the US, has evidently been reversed in Mexico.

What explains this turnaround? The past four years have seen an avalanche of pro-worker reforms. The formal rights of domestic workers have been recognized for the first time, and precarious hiring practices have been eliminated. As a result, last year 2022 a 109% increase in reparto de utilidades: profit-sharing payments to which all workers are formally entitled, but which employers could previously circumvent by ‘outsourcing’ their hires. Under AMLO the process for forming new unions has been considerably simplified, statutory vacation days have doubled, and legislation is currently on the docket for a forty-hour work week (down from 48 hours). His administration has instituted the largest minimum-wage increase in more than forty years. Before the economic crisis that followed the Covid-19 shutdown, the poorest section of the population saw their income grow by 24%.

These shifting sands have resulted in the tentative re-emergence of the working class as a political actor. Perhaps the clearest evidence is the maquiladora workers’ uprising in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where tens of thousands of employees launched the largest wild-cat strikes in the sector’s history. Energized by minimum-wage hikes, they demanded increases to other benefits, refusing to accept the employers’ attempts to stop bonuses from rising in line with salaries. The movement yielded new and successful unionizing efforts, and propelled one of its leaders, Susana Terrazas, to a congressional seat on MORENA’s ticket.

AMLO’s focus on social programmes has further strengthened this new class politics. Cash transfers now reach 65% more people than under previous governments. In 2021, despite the economic crisis, social spending as a percentage of total government expenditure reached its highest level in a decade. This welfare model operates under a wholly different logic to the previous neoliberal one, moving away from micro-targeting and means-testing towards a more universal approach. While cash transfers are still reserved for broad subgroups (people over 65, students, the disabled, and so on), conditions for accessing them are minimal. Welfare programmes have been enshrined in the Constitution, cementing their status as entitlements rather than ‘hand-outs’, rights rather than charity.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the parties displaced by MORENA have formed a coalition that openly proclaims its fealty to big business. Tycoons like Claudio X Gonzalez and Gustavo de Hoyos, former head of the employers’ confederation, have played a crucial role in financing the opposition and dictating its talking-points. As well as denouncing AMLO’s labour laws, the business sector has fiercely resisted his new approach to taxation. Although the government generally takes an orthodox line on macroeconomic issues, it has made a concerted effort to increase the state’s tax collection capacity, which has historically lagged behind OECD and LAC averages. Without altering the current tax structure, these enforcement measures have had a significant redistributive impact. According to official figures, the government increased tax collection from the richest in the country by more than 200%. (Hence the FT’s description of Raquel Buenrostro, AMLO’s former Secretary of Tax Administration and current Secretary of the Economy, as an ‘iron lady’ cracking the ‘whip on multinationals’ taxes’.)

At the same time, the loss of sections of the credentialled middle classes from AMLO’s support base reflects their symbolic demotion in the grand narrative of the nation, which the president has been constructing in his daily press conferences. Whereas under previous governments, a cabinet stocked with elite-university-trained figures signalled respectability and authority, appeals to ‘expertise’ are now seen as empty political marketing ploys. Ministers are praised for ‘being close to the people’, not for their titles and accolades.

AMLO has come in for criticism in socially liberal circles, predominantly composed of the credentialed classes, for his lack of interest in advancing the rights to gay marriage or abortion. He has refused to take a position on these issues, proposing instead that they be put to popular referendums; yet this is mostly a moot point now that there has been significant progress on such matters at the state level (interestingly, the most meaningful gains have been made in areas where MORENA controls the local legislature).

The president also stumbled in response to the combative feminist movement that emerged in 2019 to contest Mexico’s persistent femicides. From the outset, AMLO seemed more interested in ‘unmasking’ it as a campaign orchestrated by the right (which has indeed tried to highjack the uprising) than in listening to its demands. He has criticized the direct-action tactics of recent mobilizations and praised the work of female caregivers, in what many saw as an instance of male condescension. Although AMLO has stuck to a strict policy of gender parity in the selection of his cabinet, feminist detractors understandably see his presidency as insufficiently concerned with the country’s gendered hierarchies.


One of the main priorities of AMLO’s administration has been to reverse the hollowing out of the state. This process has taken various forms. First, there has been a push to recentralize government functions that had been outsourced to private and semi-private firms. The subcontracting of public services has been abolished, with the aim of reintegrating these into centralized state institutions. The government has also gotten rid of trusts that administered public monies in an opaque and highly discretionary manner, bringing such funds within the remit of government ministries.

This programme has been butressed by a series of state-led infrastructure ‘mega-projects’, the cancellation of private ones like the Texcoco airport, and the public expropriation of parts of the railways. AMLO’s flagship construction schemes include the Felipe Angeles airport, the Maya Train around the Yucatán peninsula, a transportation corridor connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean, a rural road-building project and a major reforestation plan. Such undertakings are touted as means of creating employment through public works and rejecting the failed doctrine of laissez-faire.

Energy sovereignty has received special attention from AMLO’s government, which has tried to revamp the productive capacity of the state-owned petroleum company, PEMEX, and turn it into an engine of growth. It has also worked to curb, however modestly, the power of foreign mining companies. A new Hydrocarbons Law opens up the possibility of revoking permits to private firms that commit certain violations, while an Electricity Industry Law aims to increase the power generated by CFE, the state-owned electricity company, by limiting the requirement that it purchase electricity from the private sector. Both measures strive to enhance the relative position of the public sector and roll back the tide of neoliberal reform. The government recently reaffirmed this commitment with the purchase of thirteen power plants owned by energy company Iberdrola.

The prolonged period of state atrophy that preceded AMLO’s tenure has inevitably obstructed some of his most ambitious policies. The state has not yet shaken its dependency on private-public partnerships. It has been forced to use the administrative infrastructure of Banco Azteca, owned by the media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego, to implement its cash transfer programmes. While there is a plan for public banks to take over these responsibilities, the transition has been slow. AMLO’s signature infrastructure project, the Yucatán train, is owned by the state, but it will include public-private venture components. Previously outsourced government services like child care have been shut down with the intention of taking them in-house, but not all of them have been replaced, which means that people must use state vouchers to purchase essential services on the private market. Lacking real administrative capacity, AMLO has become increasingly reliant on the military to build and operate many of his infrastructure projects.

The need to recover the power of the state is also evident in the persistence of severe drug cartel-related violence – an issue that prompted AMLO to create a new National Guard, composed of members of the army (and additional new recruits), retrained to carry out police work. Critics claim this represents the militarization of public life. They also point to AMLO’s use of the repressive apparatus along the country’s southern border, where migrant caravans from Central America are often met with force. These actions are largely a capitulation to the US’s perennial demand (before and after Trump) for Mexico stop the flow of asylum seekers. Like his predecessors, AMLO has accepted such constraints on national sovereignty, perhaps because it can be used as leverage in negotiations with his northern neighbour. He has devoted considerable energy to preventing caravans from reaching the US: offering Mexican work visas, calling for a ‘Marshall Plan for Central America’, and turning a blind eye as police engage in brutal pushbacks. His overall record in this area is dismal – although one important exception was his refusal to countenance Trump’s attempt to declare Mexico a ‘safe third country’, which would have prevented virtually all Central American refugees from seeking asylum in the US.


In his inaugural speech as president in December 2018, AMLO asserted that ‘the distinctive feature of neoliberalism is corruption’. Neoliberalism, as he sees it, is not merely the contraction of the state but its instrumentalization in the service of the market. This process has transformed Mexico into a sort of reverse rentier economy, in which a network of private businesses siphoned money from public coffers through a series of legal and illegal mechanisms: privatization, outsourcing, the sale of overpriced services and the creation of ghost companies designed to take advantage of state contracts and tax evasion opportunities.

The notion of neoliberalism as a political economy of corruption has informed AMLO’s public spending objectives. The flagship concept of his government is a counterintuitive one: austeridad republicana, or ‘republican austerity’. In practice, this means the ongoing reorganization and recentralization of public spending with the aim of ‘cutting from the top’. Since Mexican neoliberalism forged extensive links between the state and private enterprise, austerity is seen as a means of breaking such connections – casting off parasitic companies whose profits rely on government largesse.

In the long term, strict adherence to austeridad republicana may make it difficult if not impossible to create a robust welfare system. Yet, for the moment, it has succeeded in relegitimizing the state after decades of cronyism and clientelism. Fears that it would result in mass layoffs have dissipated. In addition to large-scale spending on public works and cash transfers, sectors such as science, education and health have had their budgets increased, albeit minimally. The most urgent problem with AMLO’s fiscal restraint is that it undermines the case for far-reaching tax reform, as it implies that the left can realize its aims solely through more efficient spending: rebalancing the books rather than redistributing wealth. 

In theory, AMLO’s left critics could acknowledge his advances while mounting a sound critique of his gender politics, border policies and austerity programmes. Yet in practice, they have missed an opportunity to build a serious alternative to MORENA. So far, left-wing criticism of AMLO has been largely monopolized by the ‘progressive’ intelligentsia, which has in turn been absorbed by the elite-dominated opposition bloc. The autonomist movement, meanwhile, remains uninterested in capturing state power. It abandoned this terrain long ago and focused instead on opposing developmentalist projects, with little to show for it.  

Any assessment of AMLO and MORENA must recognize the difficulties of restarting a welfare state with a dilapidated administrative apparatus and reinvigorating a working class that has been all but defeated as a collective agent. The current administration is, of course, afflicted by many more uncertainties and contradictions beyond the scope of this brief survey. How viable is neo-developmentalism in the context of climate crisis? Can progressive taxation succeed in the midst of stagnant growth? How rapidly can a country wean itself off foreign investment? These are questions for the left worldwide. Whatever the shortcomings of AMLO’s answers, his attempt to break with neoliberalism cannot easily be dismissed.

Read on: Al Giordano, ‘Mexico’s Presidential Swindle’, NLR 41.


At Cannes

For journalists, the process of accessing the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès de Cannes begins months before the first film. The application, designed to weed out all but the most persistent, requires the submission of an extensive dossier (which must include: the circulation – print and digital – and schedule of your publication; a tally of its various social media followings; a signed letter from your editor attesting to your employment and describing the nature of your commission; examples of your latest film criticism – three pieces minimum; a long form of personal details; scans of photographic ID and any professional passes you might hold, and a passport-style headshot). Accreditation acquired (after several weeks’ wait) and badge collected (following a lengthy early-morning queue that winds around the yacht bays of the vieux port), there is still the hurdle of security. A snaking line of white barriers is guarded by bronzed contractors dressed in the kind of smart, pinching uniform usually worn by air hostesses who will, at gated intervals, demand to scan your badge’s QR code, inspect the PDF of a film ticket, check your bag, marshal you through a full-body scanner, pat you down and finally, wave you inside the Riviera’s ziggurat temple of cinema.

From here, make your way to the fourth floor; to the single elevator (located between the Salon des Ambassadeurs and the Terrasse des Journalistes) that links the upper levels to the basement, its doors half obscured by a wilting palm. Descend to level -2, then follow a pathway outlined in chipped green paint, past the stock rooms in which thousands of rolls of toilet paper are being unloaded from large trolleys onto smaller ones, through the vending machine hall which seems to have no onward exit but, beyond the battered armchairs in its far right-hand corner, opens onto a U-bend corridor that spits you into a fluorescent dining room ranged with Formica tables and chairs and a wall-length buffet counter of hot plates and salads. The workers’ canteen is the quietest room for miles. On the final day of the festival as banners are cut from the balconies and white sheets are thrown across the conference tables, only the low thrum of fridges and the occasional chatter between colleagues break the silence. Everyone is exhausted, visibly far too tired to disturb with requests for comment; it is time, you realise – at four o’clock in the afternoon on the last Saturday in May – to go home.


The seventy-sixth iteration of the event known simply as ‘Cannes’ was a twenty-million-euro festival of retirement, the long-rumoured death of cinema pre-empted by a fortnight of curtain calls for the biggest stars and directors of the last half century. Will Scorsese actually, as he has intimated, cease production after his latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon? And Tarantino – a guest of honour this year – after his? At eighty-six, Ken Loach, most people agreed, has earned his pension. Unusually for the entertainment industry, at Cannes, which has long run on the fumes of cinematic heritage (the honorary president in 1939 was Louis Lumière), old age is something of an advantage. Crowds packed the Salle Buñuel to hear Jane Fonda, eighty-five, recount her memories of anti-Vietnam activism, the technical trials of shooting flight scenes in Barbarella, and details of co-starring with Robert Redford (‘not a kisser’) and Alain Delon (‘a kisser’). Her introduction to the final evening’s award ceremony was a brazen synopsis of the two major functions of the fortnight as a whole: insistence on the rude health of the seventh art as a major entertainment industry – ‘I’m sure that this festival has made you feel renewed hope for the future of cinema’ – and an opportunity nonpareil for the marketing of consumer brands – ‘I’m so proud of L’Oréal!’ Accepting the Palme d’Or for Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet ruffled feathers by ascribing a social purpose to filmmaking, while also indicating an ancillary function of the festival – as a demonstration of the singularity of French culture: ‘This year the country has experienced a historic contestation… and cinema is no exception. The marketisation of culture, defended by the neoliberal government, is destroying French cultural exceptionalism.’

Triet’s speech was a rare moment in which the reality of French social and political life threatened to puncture Cannes’ global bubble. The contestation Triet signalled? Ongoing protests against the retirement reforms forced into law by Macron and Borne earlier this spring and the brutal repression of protesters by the country’s police forces. On the central Sunday of the festival a crowd of around two hundred – mostly in their sixties – answered the call of the CGT to assemble beside a roundabout on the Boulevard Sadi Carnot to demand the repeal of the retirement reform, and to build enthusiasm for a national day of action on 6 June. Earlier in the week, the union had staged an illegal protest outside the Ritz Carlton highlighting the plummeting working conditions of the hotel staff. Three days later, CGT members cut the gas supply to the bustling restaurants along the seafront during the midday service, as part of an action whose aim was to target ‘symbols of capitalism’ such as ‘the hotels and restaurants of the Croisette’, ‘the Cannes police station’ and the ‘Palais des Festivals’.

Beyond the employment conditions in the service economy around the festival, did anything link Cannes to the demands of the demonstration, I asked a protester in her early sixties, a hospital worker three years retired, who wished to remain anonymous: ‘Down there,’ she pointed towards the Palais, ‘you see the power of the rich. They’re against the workers who demand good salaries, affordable food, the right to protest in the streets. The government does everything for the rich and nothing for the rest of us. We’re already cutting back on water, electricity, food – soon there’ll be nothing left to cut back on.’ Stéphane, a municipal worker in his late fifties, emphasised the role of the CGT in the creation of the festival. ‘There’s a rich history that links Cannes and the union’, he stressed. Animated by the desire to challenge the fascist film competition in Venice’s La Mostra, the efforts of CGT members were integral to the construction of the infrastructure in 1939 (the inaugural event was delayed to 1946 by the outbreak of war); the union remains part of the organising committee and runs its own parallel film screenings each year. Given the scale and force of the government’s reaction, what were the chances of success for the next wave of demonstrations, I asked a couple who were nearing retirement from the postal service: ‘I don’t think it will work, but we have to keep it up anyway. We want to try and show people elsewhere in the world that things don’t have to be like this.’


That Cannes has become a metonym for a bonanza of industry trading and red carpet photocalls only does so much to distract from the fact that it takes place in a city also called Cannes. This is a deeply strange place, devoid of the usual enjoyments associated with spending time in France – the restaurants are terrible and expensive, the beaches segmented into private strips, then paved over with temporary parquet bedimmed by canopies bearing the idents of food and drink companies: the Magnum Dipping Bar, the Campari Pier, the Nespresso Plage Californian Dream Pop-Up. Every night, these tents hold ‘parties’ that no one on the guestlist wants to attend (the dominant attitude among festival-goers is that there is always a better party than the one to which you’ve been invited, a sense that an imminent call or text will finally get you into the room that matters), while those without tickets stand outside peering past the bouncers at an empty strobe-lit dancefloor.

The coastline of Cannes is often compared to that of Southern California – an analogy no doubt prompted by the reference points of the Angeleno encampment that sets up for two weeks every May – but, demographically speaking, it is surely closer to Florida. On my first night, over dinner in a tourist-trap Italian restaurant with two critics, a raisin-faced Dutchman leaned over from his table to tell me he’d retired here after a career in ‘dance’ (later, a spot of light Googling revealed he had hosted a ballroom competition on Flemish TV before briefly taking over a three-star hotel on the edge of town – an acquisition his Wikipedia page described as ‘not without complications’). Keen to inform us that he had known Weinstein in his heyday, and once, at a festival soirée, seen Iman model entirely nude but for the ‘world’s largest diamond’, he was even keener to try and rent us his retirement yacht for next year – ‘why buy a house in Holland when you can have a boat on the Med?’ In the haunted atrium of the Gray D’Albion mall, a piece of prime real estate that links the beaches to the shopping hub of the rue d’Antibes, only a handful of businesses were occupied and open: a ‘luxury’ realtors whose windows were filled with English-language listings for bungalow villas in the adjoining commune of Mougins (in the interwar period a hub of poets and painters, now a sought-after third-age neighbourhood in the hills above Cannes); an interior design store selling fish mosaics and curlicued mirrors; and a weapon shop where a toy katana and a BB gun could be had for roughly the same price as a salade au chevre and half a dozen oysters at one of la Croisette’s extortionate seafront brasseries. All, in other words, that the adventurous but security-minded pensioner might need to set up and defend their last investment.


The purpose of Cannes – the festival – is not to watch films but to sell them. The organisation works on three levels: market, carpet and press. Arranged here in order of importance they also service one another’s needs: sales of films by agents to distributors are driven by the glamour of the associated premieres; the press, in the form of reviews, provides part of the marketing for the titles whose rights are mortgaged against anticipated ticket sales, while the chance to interview actors and directors – as well as to see advance screenings of the year’s upcoming titles – brings journalists to the Palais in person. The activities of the ‘marché’ dominate, the trade press covering breathlessly the price fetched by territory rights and distribution partnerships in their daily bulletins (large-print magazines with the glossed feel of travel brochures and for whose back pages underemployed critics moonlight). This year, an atmosphere of panic buying predominated, prompted by the Hollywood shutdown enforced by the Writers Guild of America strike and the threat of concurrent action over the summer by directors and other industry workers. ‘It’s not a question of money, since we don’t pay until the film delivers’, one distributor told the Hollywood Reporter, ‘but if everything shuts down, eventually we’re going to run out of movies.’

Common to virtually all cultural institutions, and no less true of Cannes, is the sentiment that it used to be better. Two peaks are evoked by seasoned regulars, one beyond most attendees’ memories – the 1960s, when it is said you could walk onto the beach and see Kirk Douglas braiding Brigitte Bardot’s hair – and the other squarely within it – the 1990s, when fortunes were made by film execs who flew in from LA, London and New York to cut deals and other substances. The long shadow of this latter decade still stretches over the industry side of the festival today. Cannes and the kind of cinema it typically represents – high-profile arthouse filmmaking by star directors with star actors vying for awards (though not as brazenly, most people seemed to believe, as in Venice) – have not recovered from the spectacular crash that ended the Weinstein era. If MeToo was once more in the spotlight thanks to the stunt selection of Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry as the festival’s opening film, it is rather the diminution of Miramax-style mega-company filmmaking that has most unsettled the business of cinema. Streaming service deals, not distribution sales, now account for the biggest payments of the fortnight – this year’s record was the purchase of North American rights to Todd Haynes’s May December by Netflix for $11 million. Killers of the Flower Moon offers an interesting example of the uneasy but occasionally reciprocal relation between the new titans of cinematic industry and the old distributor model: though it was made by and for AppleTV, by partnering with Paramount as a theatrical distributor, Apple gained access to Cannes as a marketing coup; in return, Cannes got the most famous director in the world premiering in the Salle Lumière. The streamers, it is clear, will inherit Le Palais – should they want it.

‘The film industry is not what it used to be’, Sam Brain, a freelance screenwriter and producer confirmed. ‘People don’t go to the cinema anymore, the cinema is really expensive – in part because people aren’t going – and so the glamour seems faded because the stakes aren’t as high. All the focus is on TV, because that’s where there’s more financial opportunity and creative space. The power in the industry is no longer in the international pre-sale market that Cannes functions to serve’. The amount of energy expended during the festival on denying and fighting this entropy is enormous and can even be detected in the form of the films themselves, as the critic Jonathan Romney, who has been attending since 1992, explained. ‘Cannes works under the assumption that everything is as it always has been: we must protect the sacred flame of cinema. The business rolls on, the stars turn up on the red carpet. But there’s a conservatism that’s emerged this year. Many of the films, even very good ones, in competition have been extremely classical. Kaurismäki for instance has made a wonderful film but it is the Kaurismäki film’. Such predictability, plausibly a sign of craft refinement among competition directors, can also be read as a further symptom of the festival’s endemic stagnation. ‘Cannes is like North Korea,’ an editor and programmer for a section of this year’s festival told me over paper cups of wine at Le Petit Majestic, the bar descended on by critics after every evening’s final press screening. ‘Once hired, everyone stays in the same post for twenty years. They complain about it of course, but very quietly.’

What role, then, for the critic at this trade fair? For Yal Sadat, a writer at Cahiers du Cinéma, the end of cinema-going as a mass leisure activity, combined with the cultural shift to a preference for TikTok-length videos as entertainment, has produced a parallel death-spiral within film criticism. ‘The very idea of cinema has weakened, because of this economic problem caused by lack of desire for films, and for watching films in theatres. People are less interested in auteur cinema, and producers are no longer interested in criticism of their films.’ Numbers of tickets sold, scale of theatrical release, online views – these are what count now for producers, not critics’ reviews. At the same time, Sadat noted, there are still a few directors and producers for whom a good write-up in Cahiers is important. Even if the journal’s circulation is declining, its ‘seal of approval’ still counts. But auteur cinema, or an interest in cinema as an artform, is more and more a niche pursuit, the lifestyle choice of a select few, and further than ever from the cultural life of the many: ‘If cinema is dead, paradoxically, cinephilia is still alive and well.’

Viewing the films at Cannes, as a critic, is often surprisingly difficult. The ticketing system has its own hierarchy baked into it – a 7am online release slot is stratified by badge colour, with more tickets available to those at the top. The move to a booking website – as opposed to regular daily press shows for all competition films – is rumoured to have been triggered by a tantrum thrown by Sean Penn when (bad) reviews of one of his films were published after the afternoon press screening but before the glitzier evening slot. Critics were in two minds whether this year’s process was an improvement on the last, when the website would repeatedly fail but, if functional, tickets would at least be available to book. This year, waking up at 6:55am (CET) might only result in one ticket for four days’ hence – and rarely the one of your choice. If the marché du film is where the financial activity takes place, a smaller barter economy exists among the press, as those with higher-ranking badges trade tickets with the correspondents (yours truly) who lack film-world status.

And the movies themselves? Look beyond the death throes of criticism, the immiseration of industry workers, the jewel and ice cream experience pavilions that encircle the Palais, and it is still possible to spend days watching exceptional cinema at Cannes. Standouts of this year’s competition were Hung Tran Anh’s exquisite paean to gastronomic art and pleasure, The Pot-au-Feu, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s novelistic treatment of a school teacher’s midlife crisis, About Dry Grasses, while short films by Wang Bing and Pedro Costa played in a double bill before the lunch hour. (Stinkers included Loach’s trite post-Brexit parable, The Old Oak, Nani Moretti’s humourless self-tribute, A Brighter Tomorrow, Marco Bellochio’s hysterical melodrama, Rapito, and Karim Aïnouz’s embarrassing ‘lean-in’ treatment of the life of Catherine Parr, Firebrand.) An unexpected highlight, as part of this year’s superlative Quinzaine des Cinéastes programme, was the Georgian film Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, the second full-length feature by young director Elene Naveriani. It tells the story of Etero (Eka Chavleishvili), a single woman approaching menopause in a mountain village, stigmatised for her decision to live unmarried and alone. As other women boast of the feats of their children, a friend tries to warn Etero that the future of her shop is threatened by plans to construct a large shopping centre nearby. ‘Then I will retire’, she answers, a look of relief spreading across her face.

Read on: Julia Hertäg, ‘Germany’s Counter-Cinemas’, NLR 135.


High-flown English

Even if he occasionally succumbed to the literary equivalent of quantitative easing – inflating his sentences with adjectives as if to ward off the collapse of the books that housed them – there’s no denying that Martin Amis was a master of English prose. The most tactile writer of his generation? Very possibly. He registered the feel of the post-1968 Anglosphere with relentless precision, fondling the rough surface of everything around him. Coins – specie – for instance. In Money, he could conjure ‘the time when cabbies’ change feels as hot as coins coughed from the bowels of fruit machines’, while in a late shot across the bow in the Times, he recalled the crowd in which Jeremy Corbyn moved in the 1970s: ‘Weedy, nervy and thrifty (you often saw a little folded purse full of humid coins), with an awkward squad look about them (as if nursing a well-informed grievance), the Corbyns were in fact honest and good-hearted.’ How that ‘humid’ clinches the scene! Amis’s early signature move was to revise his footwork mid-stride for maximal kick: ‘The hall smelled of cabbage – or, let’s be accurate, it smelled as if someone had eaten six bushels of asparagus washed them down with as many quarts of Guinness, and pissed over the walls, floor and ceiling.’ Pissing on the floor is nothing, in prose; even to piss on the walls can be pedestrian; Amis was the sort of writer with the hydraulic gifts to aim at the ceiling.

Toward the end, as James Wolcott noted, he was struggling to describe the coldness of cold (‘The winters were unsmilingly cold’, ‘The winters were medievally cold’, ‘the winter in between was petrifyingly cold’, etc.). In his cohort, Amis lagged in some quarters: he lacked the international dimension of Rushdie (his own core readership always hovered somewhere over the Atlantic, perhaps suffering the ‘small beer’ of coach class, as Richard Tull complained in The Information); he didn’t notably improve with age like Barnes (does anyone think The Pregnant Widow bettered the comedy of The Rachel Papers?); and his political feelers could not rival the antennae of pre-2001 Hitchens. But Amis had the widest range among his set: high journalism, reportage, novels, novellas, stories, memoirs, long-form criticism – only art-writing and poetry escaped him.

What was the style in service of? It was not in service of itself. He was not so much of a Flaubertian as that, with truth a mere byproduct of the mot juste. ‘Style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified’, he wrote in Experience. It’s an insight of considerable power. But Amis’s style unfurled a continuous comedy of morals ultimately founded on nothing more morally ambitious than his readers’ common-sense. As for his father before him, all deviations from some upper-class idyll of the mind – here irony would at last be enthroned as the universal sensibility – received acid scorn. For all his self-positioning as the surrogate son of Bellow and Nabokov, Martin Amis belonged, in this sense (and perhaps in the longer view of literary history), more in the line of satirists that stretches back to Fielding. The novels presented a vast pastiche of contemporary society with exaggerated characters whose wildly capacious voices dramatized the excesses of the age. But his anti-utopianism and arch-rationalism meant that their style never disclosed other worlds (as style sometimes does in the work by Ballard and Carter that appeared when he was starting out as a critic and novelist). Amis understood style not as a summons to new vision but as a conspiratorial wink of submission to contemporary conditions. In him, it became a form of eloquent complacency.

Amis was sly with language – and hilariously punctilious and proprietary about grammar and words and what he took to be literary crimes (Henry James’s vice of elegant variation a flagrant example). But he was not very sly about language. That high-flown English itself might have limitations never seems to have occurred to him. This came out in his antipathy for writers such as J.M. Coetzee, whom he derided for practising ‘vow-of-poverty prose’, but who made an art of using worn and etiolated language to escape what they took to be the seductions of English: the way it could pull away from both imagination and reality. ‘The tendency of English toward Chiaroscuro is notorious’, Coetzee wrote in 1973, going on to give the example of Conrad who, at the time that French writers were swerving toward analytical clarity and simplicity, observed that it was impossible to use a word like ‘oaken’ in its most basic sense, ‘for it brought with it a swarm of metaphorical contexts’.

Sixty years ago, in Harold Macmillan’s England, Perry Anderson made a case against Amis Senior, at that time considered a leading writer on the left (his abundant homophobia, xenophobia, disdain of modern jazz and ‘obsessive hatred of intelligence’ not-withstanding). After laying bare the misogynistic plot of Lucky Jim, Anderson zeroed in on Amis’s ‘quivering fear of the serious, with its attendant risks of failure’. The sins of the father were nearly reversed in the son. On the pursuit of sex, drink and coin, Amis could be pitch-perfect (though one puzzles over just what the narrator of The Rachel Papers means when he looks at himself sheathed in a condom: ‘Glancing downward, my rig, in its pink muff, looked unnatural, absurd, like an overdressed Scottie dog.’). But something – perhaps his rivalrous friendship with Hitchens – prompted him to war against his own frivolity, as well as his own courtship of literary celebrity. And so, starting in the 1990s, he began educating himself in public about history. A selection of 20th-century crimes were chosen, and Amis trudged into established hearts of darkness, writing books about Nazism (Time’s Arrow, The Zone of Interest), Stalinism (Koba the Dread, House of Meetings) and Islamism (The Second Plane), as if to prove his political mettle (the barbarism of colonialism and American wars, too far or perhaps too close to home, never aroused anything matchable in him). The trouble, as Benjamin Kunkel once observed, is that Amis’s ‘explanation of evil is … a counterpart to his style; he tends to ascribe it to envious inferiority’. The result is historical forces reduced to pub-chatter clichés, Stalin’s crimes deep down owed to his being a ‘low-brow’ and Lenin’s ‘underbred mascot’, while the attacks of 9/11 could have been avoided if only Mohamed Atta had gotten laid.

There’s a memorable scene in Experience during which Amis kicks Hitchens’s shins under the table to get him to stop grilling Saul and Janis Bellow about Israeli atrocities. Amis’s capacity for ancestor-worship was boundless: (at least) 8 articles on Bellow, 10 on Nabokov. But I wonder if he might have benefitted more from reading less of them. From Bellow he took the street-wise tough guys (already often unpersuasive in the original) and made them even more street-wise until many of them simply became vessels of Translatlantic Amis-speak, while from Nabokov Amis cribbed a kind of cliff-notes postmodernism, furnishing pointless doppelgängers for his plots, and making his narrators pick up a toilet brush and see a ‘moustachioed sceptre’ (a parody of Nabokov, even in the mouth of a character). With the exception of Inside Story, an unexpectedly moving coda to his career, the first half of his output outshines the second by some distance.

But time worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives. I met Amis once, after arriving too early for a party at a bar in Manhattan. He was smaller than I expected, with a tall, handsome head. The voice was unmistakable: in his words, ‘one of those fashionable reedy voices, the ones with the habitual ironic twang’. He glanced at the Roth novel I had on me, When She Was Good. ‘He stumbled there’, he said. And then he proceeded to do what’s not really done anymore at literary parties, if it ever was, and intoned verbatim:

She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. And then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway – even if I never stopped trying; I knew that my father and sister were innocent of my mother’s real nature, and the burden of betrayal that I imagined would fall to me if I ever came upon her unawares was more than I wanted to bear at the age of five. I think I even feared that I might have to be done away with were I to catch sight of her flying in from school through the bedroom window, or making herself emerge, limb by limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron.

And it went on. He had the first few pages of Portnoy’s Complaint to hand like a hip flask.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘A Tory Tribune?’, NLR 105.


Erdoğan’s Resilience

Turkey is headed for tough times. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected for a third term in the runoff elections on 28 May, winning 52% of the popular vote, while the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu came away with 48%. Although most respectable pollsters predicted the governing nationalist-Islamist coalition would lose its majority, it now holds more than 320 seats out of 600 (down from 344). And though Kılıçdaroğlu received more presidential votes than Erdoğan’s previous challengers, his party undershot expectations, securing 25% of the parliamentary vote in contrast to the 30% it received in the 2019 local elections. The opposition was convinced that the timing of the ballot would work in its favour, following a period of unusually high inflation and disastrous earthquake relief efforts. Why were its hopes dashed?

There are obvious institutional reasons for the resilience of Erdoğanism. The government has spent years monopolizing the mainstream media and judiciary. Prisons are overflowing with activists, journalists and politicians. The Kurdish opposition, the only truly organized non-right-wing force in the country, has seen its democratically elected mayors replaced with state-appointed officials, who have consolidated the government’s rule over the eastern and southeastern provinces. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. The regime’s endurance is not simply a result of its authoritarianism; its popularity runs much deeper than that. To understand it, we must grasp three major factors that most commentators and opposition politicians refuse to recognize.

The first is economic. As well as using welfare schemes to build trust among poorer sections of the population, Erdoğan’s administration integrated state-capitalist tools into its neoliberal programme. This mixture has kept Turkey on an unconventional but still somewhat sustainable path. The regime mobilized sovereign wealth funds, import substitution and selective incentives for certain sectors such as security and defence. It also lowered interest rates and boosted production in low-tech industries like construction. While alienating orthodox economists and the professional classes, these measures tightened the AKP’s grip on small to medium-sized businesses and state-dependent capitalists, along with their workers.

The second factor is geopolitical. The government’s foreign policy – which aims to establish Turkey as a Great Power and independent mediator between East and West – complements its economic nationalism. Of course, in reality, Turkey lacks the material basis to change the global balance of forces. Yet Erdoğan’s supporters present him as a powerful kingmaker, and the most delusional ideologues see him as the prophet of a coming Islamic empire. This has helped to maintain his aura and bolster his legitimacy, especially among the AKP’s right-wing base.

The third pillar of the regime’s strength is sociopolitical: its capacity for mass organization. The AKP has strong local chapters and encompasses a host of civic associations: charities, professional syndicates, youth clubs, unions. It also benefits from its alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose paramilitary wing – the Idealist Hearths – has footholds in the military, the higher education sector and working-class Sunni neighbourhoods. These groups give the popular classes a sense of power, stability, strength and often material perks, even in times of economic hardship. They are matched only by the Kurds’ mass organizations (bolstered by socialist allies in non-Kurdish regions). Yet the prevalence of anti-Kurdish sentiment has so far inhibited the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc comprising both Turks and Kurds.

For more than a year, the Turkish election campaign has occluded, and even exacerbated, the most pressing issues facing the country. The mainstream opposition comprises secular and centre-right parties commonly known as the Table of Six. Together, they are led by Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP): the founding party of the Turkish Republic. Although the CHP edged to the left in the 1960s, it has been shifting right since the mid-1990s, both in its economic policy and its stance on the Kurdish issue. The coalition’s second largest party is İyip, a secular offshoot of the MHP, which prides itself on being just as nationalist yet resists using political violence in the same way. Two of the coalition’s smaller parties are breakaways from the AKP, led by the former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Despite their miniscule voter bases, they have had a significant influence on the opposition’s agenda.

During the campaign, the Table of Six refused to discuss the social and ecological impact of Turkey’s free-market reforms over the past forty years; it ignored the costs of dependence on Western powers (which has barely changed with Erdoğan’s increased proximity to Russia); and it kept mostly silent on the Kurdish question. Glossing over each of these burning issues, it instead promised to usher in a grand ‘restoration’ that would supposedly heal all of Turkey’s ailments. The most explicit parts of this programme were a return to the rule of law and renovation of state institutions, hiring competent administrators to replace Erdoğan’s yes-men.

The opposition’s implicit aim, however, was to return to the country’s pre-2010 developmental strategy and re-establish positive relations with the West. The economic model of the 2000s, devised by Babacan when he was a prominent figure in the AKP, was based on rapid privatization, foreign capital flows and ballooning public debt. Although Kılıçdaroğlu peppered his speeches with vague promises of redistribution, this was the core of his domestic offer.

His foreign policy was just as weak. The Table of Six adopted a broadly pro-Western and anti-Russian line that effectively amounted to an endorsement of US hegemony over the Middle East. It simultaneously neglected the most urgent regional issues, such as Turkey’s incursions into Iraq and Syria. When asked about such questions, Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that state institutions such as the military were entirely independent, so he could not possibly make promises on their behalf. The nationalist-Islamist coalition, by contrast, pandered to anti-Western sentiments and pledged to project Turkish influence on the world stage. Its campaign was based on cultivating national delusions of an Ottoman renaissance.   

The opposition hoped that high inflation and state mismanagement, including of the earthquake, would destroy the government’s credibility. But in the end, frustration with these issues was not enough to topple the incumbent. For that, an alternative vision – substantive, popular, concrete – was needed. The Table of Six did not have one. Its limp and uninspiring programme sealed its fate.

Another thorn in the side of the opposition was the Kurdish movement. The Kurds were excluded from the Table of Six from the outset, even though it was obvious that Kılıçdaroğlu couldn’t win without their votes. Though the CHP and its allies supported Erdoğan’s military incursions into Syria and Iraq, most Kurds still saw them as a lesser evil. Hence, the Kurdish party YSP and its socialist allies declared their support for Kılıçdaroğlu a few weeks before the elections. Yet negotiations with the Kurds created fractures within the opposition. (The İyip leader, Meral Akşener, left the Table of Six shortly before the YSP announcement and then returned to the fold some days later.) When the first-round results were announced, with Erdoğan leading the presidential vote by a 5% margin, many commentators noted that Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to court the Kurds had cost him the nationalist constituency. Indeed, the data suggested that a large number of İyip voters had supported their party in the parliamentary elections but refused to back Kılıçdaroğlu for president.

In response, the opposition swung to the far right during the two-week interval between the first round and the runoffs, hoping to attract anti-Syrian and anti-Kurdish voters while somehow keeping the Kurds on-side. This strategy relied on capturing the 5% that went to the hardline anti-immigrant candidate Sinan Oğan, a former member of the MHP and the only other presidential contender in the first round. Unable to extract an endorsement from Oğan himself, Kılıçdaroğlu signed a pact with his highest-profile supporter, Ümit Özdağ, promising to deport all unwanted immigrants – Kılıçdaroğlu put the figure at 10 million – and to retain Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish policies. Liberals claimed this was an electoral tactic rather than a genuine commitment; either way it failed to deliver the results. Only half of the far-right vote went to Kılıçdaroğlu in the runoffs, while his overtures to ultra-nationalism appeared to demobilize the Kurds, as turnout fell in the eastern and southeastern provinces.

Now, in the wake of its defeat, the mainstream opposition is caught between a liberalism that’s no longer sustainable and a nationalism it can’t control. The former is built on a number of illusory prospects: EU accession for Turkey, a Pax Americana for the Middle East, and a domestic economic model that depends on cheap credit. Turkey’s most prosperous decade, the 2000s, relied on hot cash from the West and high levels of public and private debt. This model was rendered unsustainable when global monetary flows slowed considerably after interest rate hikes in the West. The AKP’s nationalist turn of the 2010s was a response to these changes. Its war industries and import-substitution policies provided the material basis for its public invectives against the West on the one hand and the Kurds on the other. Without a similar material basis, the mainstream opposition’s nationalism rings hollow. Before the runoffs, it realized it was unable to match the government’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric and instead attempted to capitalize on anti-Syrian feeling. Yet, without the regime’s nationalist credentials, this gambit was never going to succeed. Its only effect was to further naturalize far-right sentiment and strengthen the ideological foundations of Erdoğanism. 

The question for Turkey is whether there is any hope of building a non-liberal, non-nationalist alternative, oriented towards the future rather than the past. During his third term, Erdoğan’s export-oriented economic nationalism will depend on the intensifying exploitation of cheap labour. In theory, this creates an opportunity to organize the subaltern classes that have long been ignored by every mainstream party. Rather than mimicking the government’s exclusionary politics, anti-Erdoğan forces could strive to integrate both workers and Kurds into their coalition. The opposition, having seen that they cannot outflank the incumbent on nationalism, could instead aim to bring the Kurdish movement into the realm of ‘acceptable’ politics. So far, they have relied too much on the middle classes, bureaucrats and ‘experts’ in their fight against Erdoğan’s authoritarian populism. The historic defeat of 2023 signals that any viable opposition will have to build a wider base.

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


Hidden Dogmatism

Why is history necessary? In what sense is history constitutive of humanness? In one way, the answer to such questions is straightforward. Human beings are teleological animals. Under a determinate set of relations and conditions they formulate ends that they seek to achieve. But in what relation do these ‘micro-histories’ stand to the self-understanding of the human species at a broader level? The best way to approach this problem is to ask what micro-histories imply; that is to say, to identify the conditions of possibility for acting in a micro-historical way. Is it possible for any teleological orientation to do without ‘History’ in the broader sense? Or, to pose the question slightly differently: don’t ‘little stories’ already imply or refer to a ‘grand story’? Can they ever do without one?

To achieve clarity on these issues one must distinguish between the perspective of the actor in the micro-history and that of the observer. For the actor, meaning is fully exhausted in the particular action she undertakes. Consider, for example, the decision to take a job. Imagine the actor decides to work as an Uber driver because the hours are flexible and the money allows her to keep a roof over her head. From her perspective, the meaning of the sequence of actions leading to her employment is exhausted in her desire to pay the rent and maintain some autonomy. But the observer will interpret the sequence quite differently. From their point of view, the very possibility of employment as an Uber driver would be connected to the casualization of taxi work, the technology of the smart phone, the widespread use of digital payment systems, together with a wide array of other historical conditions. One might also connect the actor’s desire for a certain type of autonomy and flexibility with the rise of the neoliberal self and associated ethos of personal entrepreneurship. The point is that from the perspective of the observer, the meaning of the action depends on its relationship to a specific phase of historical development. (Before proceeding further, it should be emphasized that the distinction between ‘actor’ and ‘observer’ is a purely analytic one. The potential for these perspectives to overlap, for the actor to be self-conscious – where the actor herself becomes an observer, constructing herself as an object of consciousness, becoming a third party to her own actions – is itself highly variable, historically and socially.)

To historicize an action, however, is inevitably to face the question: as part of what wider shape of historical development, and what phase within it? But what if one regards history as having no shape? What if one holds to the view that history, in the larger sense, is a piling up of accidents, just ‘one damn thing after another’? The paradox of not having a theory of history is that this is itself a theory of historical development, a theory that says history does not develop or that if it does, the shape of its development is inscrutable. History, from that point of view, would be like Kant’s thing in itself, the paradoxes and contradictions of which have been well explained many times. All these critiques of Kant boil down to a fundamental question: how can one say something is inaccessible to human consciousness, that it cannot be known, when to say something is unknowable or ineffable is to say something about it? (It turns out it’s rather difficult not to talk about things in themselves and be drawn into all sorts of dogmatisms.)

Perhaps a different version of this sceptical position is possible. It would hold that one might have partial theories of development, but no ‘grand narrative’, no ‘big story’. This position – common to the Weberian tradition in sociology – seems attractive and reasonable. And yet it too suffers from paradox. In the first place, why are the Weberians so sure that partial theories of history are possible? What makes them confident that history is not total, or at least totalizing? Isn’t their scepticism just a hidden dogmatism? Then there is the second, more practical problem. If history is explicable ‘partially’, into what ‘parts’ should it be divided? Are, for example, ‘ideas’ to be treated as one causal sequence and ‘production’ as another, parallel one? Even if such a treatment were correct for a given period, would it not be dogmatic to assert that such autonomy always exists? Can it really be the case that the same conceptual framework applies across all historical epochs, or should concepts be tailored to the eras they seek to describe? It turns out that theories of history are, like many other seemingly overambitious ideas, completely unavoidable.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Politics as Theatre?’, NLR 101.



At an event in Washington on Tuesday 23 May, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Ukraine’s new Ministry for Digital Transformation made a remarkable pitch to the American people. US taxpayers were told that they were now ‘social investors’ in Ukrainian democracy. Wearing the Silicon Valley uniform of blue jeans, a T-shirt and a headset mic, strutting the stage like he was delivering an impassioned TED talk, Ukraine’s 31-year-old Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov explained the many features of the country’s pioneering mobile application. Thanks to Diia, he said, Ukraine would be run less like a country and more like an IT company, soon becoming ‘the most convenient state in the world’. USAID Administrator Samantha Power echoed this aspiration, noting that Ukraine – long known as the breadbasket of the world – was now ‘becoming famous for a new product . . . an open source, digital public good that it will give to other countries’. This would be achieved through the transatlantic partnership between the two nations. ‘The US has always exported democracy’, Fedorov said, ‘now it exports digitalization.’

When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, he promised to transform Ukraine into a ‘state in a smartphone’, making most public services available online. A digitalization agenda of this kind was virtually unprecedented, dwarfing ‘e-Estonia’ in both the speed of its rollout and the scale of its ambition. The programme’s crown jewel was Diia, launched in February 2020 with ample support from USAID. US funds reportedly amounted to $25 million for ‘the infrastructure underpinning Diia’ alone. Additional grants have come from the UK, Switzerland, the Eurasia Foundation, Visa and Google. The app is now used by some 19 million Ukrainians, about 46% of the country’s prewar population.

Diia means ‘action’ in Ukrainian, and the word also works as an acronym for ‘the State and I’ (Derzhava i ia). What makes the app remarkable is its array of functions. It permits Ukrainians to access numerous digital documents, including ID cards, foreign biometric passports, drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, insurance and tax numbers. Ukraine claims to be the first state in the world with a digital ID that’s valid throughout the country. The app also offers a variety of services, including ‘the fastest business registration in the world’, where ‘you only need two seconds to become an entrepreneur’ and ‘30 minutes to found a limited liability company.’ Diia can be used to pay debts or fines, receive Covid vaccination certificates and obtain various documents and services related to the birth of a child, via eMalyatko (‘eBaby’). To ensure widespread adoption of the app, the government produced a miniseries with well-known Ukrainian film stars – creating what Fedorov calls ‘the Netflix of education’, particularly for those in rural areas and the elderly.

After the Russian invasion, the app’s remit was expanded. Diia began allowing users to apply for internally displaced persons certificates as well as state benefits (IDPs receive a monthly sum of UAH 2000, or about 60 euros). When Russian forces destroyed numerous TV towers, Diia launched broadcasting services to ensure an uninterrupted stream of Ukrainian news sources. Ukrainians can also register destruction to property from Russian military strikes, which the government says will guide the country’s post-war reconstruction. Beyond the introduction of these useful wartime services, Diia has rolled out an array of ‘civil intelligence’ features. With Diia eVorog (‘eEnemy’), civilians can use a chatbot to report the names of Russian collaborators, Russian troop movements, the location of enemy equipment and even Russian war crimes. Such reports are processed through support services at Diia; if deemed legitimate, they are submitted to the headquarters of the Ukrainian armed forces. At first glance, the interface looks like a video game. Icons are illustrated as targets and army helmets. After users submit a report about the location of Russian troops, a muscle-flexing emoji pops up. When they submit documentation of war crimes, they click an icon of a drop of blood.

Diia is part of a larger nation-branding exercise that positions Ukraine as a technological powerhouse forged in war. In the emergent national mythology, Ukraine has long possessed technological expertise and talent, but was held back by inferior Soviet science and, more recently, Russia and its culture of corruption. This rhetoric is nothing new for Eastern Europe. A number of cities, including Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania, Sofia in Bulgaria, and Constanta and Iasi in Romania, have touted themselves as having the fastest internet in the world. A little over a decade ago, Macedonia inaugurated an ambitious – and since abandoned – project that brought broadband internet to 95% of the country’s inhabitants. Estonia famously embraced IT upon gaining independence, launching the widely publicized e-Estonia initiative which placed most government services, as well as voting, online. Most recently, tiny Montenegro is aiming to become the world’s ‘first longevity-oriented state’, fostering investment in health tech, longevity biotechnology, synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Spearheaded by Milojko Spajić, leader of the Europe Now! Party, which captured the presidency last April, a series of programmes aim to transform Montenegro into a ‘crypto hub’ (Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, has just been granted Montenegrin citizenship). During Tuesday’s visual presentation, which echoed the aesthetics and spirit of a late-aughts Steve Jobs iPhone rollout, it was announced that by 2030, Ukraine intends to have become the first country to go entirely cashless and have a court system governed by AI.

The global communications scholar Stanislav Budnitsky has written extensively on e-Estonia and nationalism in the digital age. In assessing the value of these online services, he stresses the importance of separating the technological from the mythological. Technologies like Diia have clear benefits, particularly for internally displaced people and refugees, but the mythology attached to them requires further consideration. For example, Diia has been widely touted as an antidote to corruption, notoriously rife in Ukraine. The app promises to reduce bribery dramatically by eliminating low-level officials who are well-positioned to demand payment in exchange for certain essential tasks. Diia also introduces ‘randomness’ into the assignment of court cases, which the app’s enthusiasts claim will diminish corruption in the judiciary. As Zelensky noted at a recent Diia Summit, ‘A computer has no friends or godfathers, and doesn’t take bribes.’ Yet while Diia may help to decrease low-level corruption, it will do little to confront its larger and more damaging manifestations, such as the long-standing symbiosis between oligarchs and the state. Often, tech-mythology serves only to obscure the most vexed political problems.

Diia is more than an app; it is now ‘the world’s first virtual digital city’: ‘a unique tax and legal space for IT business in Ukraine’. IT companies ‘resident’ in Diia City enjoy a preferential tax regime. ‘This is one of the best tax and legal regimes on the planet’, said Zelensky; a place ‘where the language of venture capital investment is spoken’. Residents of Diia City will also benefit from a ‘flexible employment model’, including the introduction of precarious ‘gig contracts’, hitherto nonexistent in Ukraine.

Now USAID wants to expand Diia to ‘partner countries’ around the world; in Power’s words, ‘to help bring other democracies into the future too’. At the World Economic Forum in January, Power announced that an additional $650,000 would be provided to ‘jumpstart’ the creation of Diia-ready infrastructure in other countries. On Tuesday, Power said these would include Colombia, Kosovo and Zambia. This global effort builds upon USAID’s 2020-2024 digital strategy published during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. (It’s little wonder that conspiracists tend to link Diia to the so-called ‘Great Reset’: a WEF initiative that aims to rebuild trust in global capitalism by promoting ‘multi-stakeholder’ partnerships that unite governments, the private sector and civil society ‘across all areas of global governance’.)

Perhaps the most striking thing about the rhetoric around Diia is that its app-inspired tech solutionism is such an anachronism. A recent video introducing Ukraine’s IT sector to the world looks as if it belongs to a simpler, more optimistic time. ‘IT is about freedom’, the narrator says. ‘All you need is a computer to invent a great variety of things.’ An interviewee explains that the first computer in continental Europe was built in Ukraine. ‘There were a lot of talented specialists in Ukraine, but the borders were closed and private entrepreneurship was mostly illegal.’ As these words are spoken, images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ronald Reagan and the Pepsi logo flash up on screen.

This is the threadbare rhetoric of 1989 paired with a haggard California ideology. The idea that Twitter was going to bring democracy to the Middle East was stale well over a decade ago. When the Clinton State Department introduced the notion of ‘digital diplomacy’ – with one senior advisor telling NATO that ‘the Che Guevara of the 21st century is the Network’ – it already rang hollow. But in 2023, at a time when banks are collapsing in Silicon Valley, tech jobs are hemorrhaging by the hundreds of thousands and San Francisco is in seemingly terminal decline, such unyielding faith in app-driven prosperity sounds more than naïve. It reflects the impoverishment of the Western liberal-democratic imagination, unable to deliver a convincing or desirable vision of the future, on- or offline. In this imperial thought-world, the Cold War rhetoric of freedom has been replaced by the limp promise of convenience.

Read on: Lily Lynch, ‘A New Serbia’, NLR 140/141.


Khan Against the Generals

For much of the past week, former Pakistani Prime Minster Imran Khan’s house in Lahore has been surrounded by armed police, and the Rangers – a repressive force straddling the police and Army but under civilian control – have been on standby. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has ruled that Khan should not be arrested, but he doubts he will stay out of jail for long. The entire leadership of his party, the PTI, is currently behind bars. A state crackdown is in full swing.

This marks a dramatic escalation of the political war between the PTI and the Army, along with its favoured politicians and the government it manoeuvred into place after removing Khan from office last April. The new administration is essentially a coalition of Pakistan’s dynastic parties led by Bhutto-Zardari and the Sharif family. Since it was installed, Khan has repeatedly accused the US of orchestrating the congressional coup against him – motivated by his refusal to support their interventions in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Large numbers of anti-American protesters have taken to the streets, demanding his reinstatement.

Usually, Pakistani leaders can only be forcibly removed from office once they have lost some degree of popular support. If they haven’t, the choices are limited: exile abroad or judicial murder. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed after a 4-3 vote in the Supreme Court; Nawaz Sharif was whisked off to exile in Saudi Arabia; Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in mysterious circumstances at the start of an election campaign. But Khan? Every opinion poll shows him sweeping the country at the next general election. On 8 May, a nervous Army leadership – by no means unified – and a Sharif government fearing a political wipeout, took the decision to arrest Khan by sending in a team of Rangers while he was in the High Court dealing with an old corruption case. He was immediately dragged off to a squalid prison.

Before long, the Chief Justice ordered his release and reprimanded those who ordered the raid. But what happened on 9 May was dramatic. PTI supporters in their thousands launched frontal assault on the Army, invading cantonments in Lahore and Rawalpindi and destroying a model plane in Mianwali. The residence of the Lahore Corp Commander was firebombed. According to police, the leader of the attack was 34-year-old Khadija Shah: one of the most fashionable clothes designers in Lahore (daughter of a former Finance Minister, and granddaughter of Asif Nawaz, a former Army Chief of Staff) who has become something of an icon for the masses of women participating in the recent demonstrations.

In Mardan, an old town in Pakhtunkhwa province, there was another event that stunned the nation. At a huge public meeting demanding the immediate release of the PTI leader, a mullah took to the platform and described Khan as a ‘paighamber’ – or ‘prophet’. This was blasphemy of the highest order. Every Believer, regardless of sect, accepts the Prophet Muhammed as the final Messenger of God. Was the poor mullah overcome by emotion, or was it a deliberate provocation? We shall never know. The microphone was switched off; the anguished crowd began to chant ‘death, death, death’. The others on the platform seized the mullah and he was hacked to death. Problem solved?

Khan’s criticism of the Army and its constant interference in Pakistani politics (of which he himself took advantage not so long ago) has sparked a serious crisis. Those in uniform have been humiliated. The last taboo has been broken. Even in previously ultra-loyal areas like Panjab province, activists have been marching on the barracks. The Army has responded with mass arrests and announced that political prisoners will be tried in military courts. This draconian move is backed by much of the government, which – stupid and short-sighted as ever – has tried to expel PTI parliamentarians, a decision revoked by the Supreme Court. Sentences for dissenters are likely to be stiff: possibly a few hangings of those without elite connections in the hope of deterring future offenders.

Whatever anyone might think of him, Khan is the first political leader in the country who has publicly denounced the Army and insulted its Generals, going so far as to name the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer who allegedly organised the effort to assassinate him. How will the military respond to this unprecedented challenge? General Zia offered Bhutto exile, which he contemptuously refused, before Supreme Court judges ordered his hanging. Khan, too, may be offered exile or a military trial. The temptation to accept the former will be strong (his two sons already live in London with their mother), but a lot will depend on the advice of his current wife, Bushra Bibi, who masquerades as a spiritual leader of sufi persuasion, but is as proficient as any other politician at taking ‘gifts’ from billionaires. The most notorious of these is like a character from a Mohsin Hamid novel: Riaz Malik, a self-made man who has bribed every major politician and General in the land. This is hardly a secret, and Khan’s own dealings with him are the subject of a High Court trial, currently suspended. This involves the Qadir Trust, of which Imran and Bushra are the key trustees, and which, it is alleged, was set up with Malik’s laundered money: millions of pounds were uncovered by Britain’s National Crime Agency and returned to Pakistan. It was, some say, handed back to Malik, who provided a much larger sum, much of it earmarked for a ‘spiritual’ Sufi university in London and Allah alone knows what else. Did the entire PTI cabinet sign off on this project without being allowed to open ‘the sealed envelope’ containing the details? I honestly don’t know. (How long do we have to wait for a Netflix series?)

The function of a military court, meanwhile, would be to bar Khan from politics forever. The judges would probably refrain from executing him; not for moral reasons, but because it would risk unleashing a civil war of sorts. Khan remains popular among a layer of officers, junior and senior, which combined with his mass support means his opponents must tread carefully. At this stage, the military leadership cannot restore order by falling back on traditional sacralisations of the Army. Its legitimacy crisis runs too deep.

Throughout this century, and half of the previous one, political life in Pakistan has displayed all the characteristics of a permanently diseased organism. Commercial capitalism, foreign aid handouts, state-backed industrial monopolies, illegal import-export deals and money-laundering schemes: together, they have created a continuous crisis. Predators fight for the spoils of power and refuse to accept bureaucratic impositions such as paying tax. Every mainstream politician works hard to cultivate the art of clientelism, gathering around them a following of loyal dependents. The latter can make various offerings to those lower down the ladder, often by skimming public funds off elephantine military budgets. Percentage commissions remain hugely popular within the ruling elite.

Old-style corruption still rules the roost, but the emergence of the internet has made life a lot easier by eliminating paper transactions and allowing the rich to conceal their hidden spoils. Not that too much is hidden these days. People can see what’s going on, and have lost hope in politicians and their cronies. Khan is the exception for three reasons. He is no longer the incumbent; he is enough of a foreign policy maverick to deny the US the total subordination it demands; and he has capitalized on the country’s dire economic conditions. Pakitan is now hopelessly dependent on the IMF, experiencing non-stop inflation, and suffering from a corrupted and useless education system that weaponizes religion to prevent children from learning anything useful (the polar opposite of medieval Islam, which produced countless scholars, astronomers, mathematicians and scientists).

The PTI was complicit in all these failures, but it has the advantage of no longer being in office. At present, two of its factions are preparing for Khan’s departure from frontline politics. One is led by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has served in virtually every government over the last few decades and would be the safest bet for the Army; the other by Jehangir Tareen, who was once a marginally more radical figure and retains a strong middle-class power base. Whether the PTI can exist without Khan remains an open question. The Army hopes that things will revert to business-as-usual once they’ve dealt with him, and the governing parties will no doubt open their doors to defectors. It must be stressed that none of Pakistan’s political outfits, let alone its military, aims for even a modest change in social relations. They’re not in the business of creating a new society. When people take to the streets to demand one, their only response is repression.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘The Colour Khaki’, NLR 19



Unrueh – ‘unrest’ – the title of Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s latest film, set in 1877 among anarchist watchmakers in Saint-Imier, a remote village in Switzerland’s Jura mountains, is the term for the wheel in the centre of a mechanical watch that ensures its continuous and even ticking. The unrest wheel inside a pocket watch is so tiny and the act of adjusting it so meticulous that, despite the film’s extended close-ups on the mechanism, its workings remain mysterious. Even the detailed explanations given by a young factory worker, Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski), to her fellow anarchist, Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov), who happens to be visiting the village, don’t entirely clarify it. When Josephine asks if he understands her, Kropotkin replies: ‘I think so’. If the functioning of the unrest wheel is largely impenetrable, Unrueh suggests, so are the forces revolutionizing production in Kropotkin’s time (as well as those that keep our own economic system running).

Schäublin’s film, which picked up a prize at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is, at a basic level, about the establishment and maintenance of clock time. Yet as the more familiar meaning of its title suggests, it is also about the disruptive effects of this technology on work and everyday life. That includes the lives of the watchmakers themselves, who are dissatisfied with the conditions in their factory, and inspired to resist them by the radical experiments unfolding elsewhere (the Paris Commune was established just six years earlier). The anarchist movement acquired a particular momentum in St Imier – which Kropotkin, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), ascribes to the fact that the small workshops where clocks were produced allowed for easy communication and organization among workers. The film portrays the interplay of these two counter-movements, technological advance and political resistance, at this crucial juncture in the industrial revolution. On one level, the watchmakers spend their days crafting devices that facilitate their own oppression: factory managers could measure the time required for each of the workers’ tasks and use these measurements to ramp up productivity. Yet their close-quartered working conditions also form the basis of their resistance.

The differences in tone and style between Unrueh and canonical cinematic representations of the industrial revolution are striking. In Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the mechanized urban factory is the site of numerous slapstick incidents. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), we witness a highly technologized capitalism that has grown spectacular and monstrous in its brutality. Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921), Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) also focus on the city as the centre of modernity. Unrueh, however, transports us to an entirely different setting. Although St Imier is a centre of production, exporting watches all over the world, here the industrial revolution – and with it, the regime of linear time – has triumphed by stealth, its soundtrack the subtle yet insistent ticking of the clock. But the effects of the change are no less profound and all-encompassing.

The watchmakers resist the increasing domination of the factory over their lives in every way they can: by working slowly, forming international alliances (we see them exchange photographs of famous anarchists), registering their discontent at the ballot box and refusing to participate in a patriotic re-enactment of a Swiss Confederation battle from the Burgundian Wars in the 1470s. Kropotkin, a trained cartographer, is working on an anarchist map that reverses the factory managers’ efforts to rationalize space by assigning each place in the area a letter and a number; he instead draws on the traditional names used by people in the valley in an attempt to recapture the meanings these places had for them. ‘Science must reflect the ideas of the people’, he explains. Later in the film, we learn that the municipality is working on a map of its own. Different territorial logics compete, as do four different definitions of time: municipal, local, factory and church – none of them synchronized. Unrueh depicts the anarchists’ struggle against capital’s growing power over space and time, but also, significantly, over narrative itself.  

The film reflects on the power of another emerging technology, photography. As Josephine is guiding Kropotkin across the factory grounds, they encounter a set: someone is shooting a photograph – which requires a flash produced by a blazing of magnesium and potassium chlorate, as well as twenty minutes of stillness – for an advert whose caption reads: ‘Nowadays one cannot imagine a man without a watch in his hand’. We never see the image; instead we see only Kropotkin, who has been literally pushed out of the frame by the photographer. Similarly, the film treats the fledgling love story between Kropotkin and Josephine as peripheral, hinting at it but never depicting it directly. The two first meet in the distance behind two buildings that take up most of the frame. Later, when asked whether they are willing to take part in a play telling the story of the Paris Commune, they respond with the same phrase: ‘Je ne suis pas le protagoniste.’ By eschewing the convention of relaying historical events through the emotional arc of a love story, Schäublin’s film coyly undermines its own commercial potential. History, in Unrueh, is not merely a backdrop against which a personal drama unfolds; and the film’s steady, flat rhythm – its distance from the pacing of a traditional romance – seems to stage its own resistance to the rationalization of time.

Instead of building towards dramatic peaks, much of the action happens in long tableau shots, often featuring large groups. The narrative unfurls in casual, almost muted conversations, primarily about conditions of work and how to thwart the factory managers’ designs, which always seem to take place either before or after the fact: the time just prior to the shift, during the cigarette break, the end of the workday, and so on. The film’s roving focus is mirrored by its decentred compositions: the protagonists are regularly placed in the margins of the frame, with their extremities sometimes partially cropped. Despite its frequent wide angles, Unrueh stubbornly denies us an overview. We see neither the horizon, nor the streets or paths that connect the village’s squares and buildings. Schäublin’s tableaus are often stage-like units of space that we are unable to connect to a logical whole.

The connections between the present and the late nineteenth century are similarly obscure. Clock time, which in the film appears as a new mechanism of control, now seems to us as normal and natural as the rising and setting of the sun. Yet our relationship to it has also changed profoundly in the post-industrial age. Under the guise of flexibility and autonomy, the customary distinctions between different temporal and spatial dimensions are dissolving: free time is engulfed by productive time, and surveillance, once externally imposed by the factory, is now internalized. It is Unrueh’s subtly elusive form, which seems to resist the demands of rationalized space and time – instead drawing our attention to the peripheral, the before and after, the events usually left off-stage – that makes Schäublin’s film feel at once timely and timeless.

Read on: Marcus Verhagen, ‘Making Time’, NLR 129.


After Solidarity

Tori et Lokita (2022), the latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, opens with a shot that has become a signal part of their visual repertoire: a face in the centre of the screen, crumbling under the voice of an unseen speaker. We see Lokita as she is interrogated by an immigration officer. At first, she seems impassive, but eventually she hesitates, and then breaks down in tears, unable to answer the officer’s questions. We witness the consequences of power, inscribed on a face.

Lokita is a Cameroonian from Garoua who met Tori – a resourceful Bariba child from Benin – en route to Belgium. Back home, he was denounced as a sorcerer, a claim that makes for an easier path to asylum in a West eager to believe in tales of African irrationality. Lokita, meanwhile, is forced to try to claim refugee status by pretending to be his sister. Both immigrants are in desperate circumstances, and both must work delivering drugs to pay off the debts they incurred while being trafficked to Belgium. Given the similarity of their situations, one of the basic questions posed by Tori et Lokita is why Tori should be given papers while Lokita is disbelieved. They share one life, and amid indifferent drug dealers and cold bureaucrats, it is their fictional kinship that proves the only real relationship in the film. Church and family, by contrast, are merely vessels for the extraction of capital. A Sunday service turns out to be where the traffickers who brought Tori and Lokita to Belgium take payments for their services. Lokita’s mother is interested only in the next remittance.

Fictional kinship is a motif the Dardennes have previously deployed. In Le Silence de Lorna (2008), an Albanian migrant’s sham marriage to a Belgian junky, Fabio, leads to his murder. Lorna attempts to salvage a non-transactional form of affinity from Fabio’s death by insisting that she is pregnant with the dead addict’s child: a fake pregnancy that eventually unravels her dream of owning a snack bar. All too often in the Dardennes’ films, it is attempts to find forms of solidarity – real or imagined – that lead to their characters’ downfall.

Solidarity was the focus of the Dardennes’ first works. Raised in Seraing, the Belgian city in which all their films are set, the brothers spent the early years of their career (1978-1983) making documentaries, many of which looked back to the city’s labour movement and its struggles during the 1960s, in the factories that line the banks of the river Meuse. By the 1990s, however, they had switched their attention to fiction films that assess the state of post-industrial Belgium, and memories of labour militancy are notable by their absence. In the Dardennes’ films, the factories have closed, and shuttered with them are any hopes of collective solidarity and worthwhile work.

Their oeuvre depicts a world in which everyone is struggling to survive, the conditions for solidarity are absent, and there is no moral difference between legal and illegal forms of money-making. In Tori et Lokita, we watch Tori cycle between drug deliveries made at the behest of his Albanian boss, Betim, who conducts his business from the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, where he alternates doling out cocaine and preparing caprese salads. Such under-the-counter operations are a familiar scene in the cinema of the Dardennes. There is hardly a single business that isn’t also a swindle; the hidden abode of production proves to be merely the necessary camouflage for illegal accumulation. La Promesse (1996) opens in a garage, with a young man, Igor, fixing the car of an elderly woman, who opines that ‘all work deserves payment.’ The claim evokes a world in which labour is fairly rewarded, and a moral economy could be mapped onto capitalism. Igor listens to her voice as if it emanates from another era; he has already swiped her wallet.

Other values have also been emptied out. Family is no longer a respite. The Dardennes’ films are full of fake marriages and traded babies. Domesticity is either the site of a brutal initiation into illegal business, or else simply the scene for yet another scam – as in L’Enfant (2005), in which a young man decides to sell his child to make some quick cash. Whether the family was ever meaningful, work redemptive, or solidarity possible, is unclear. Such questions belong to the prehistory of the Dardennes’ fiction films, whose characters come in two strains: those who evince no interest in anything other than playing their part in a brutal transactional economy, and those who look in vain for normative attachments. This second group is driven by the desire for normalcy: a job, a family, and a sense of a whole, ordered life. The world in which these dreams made sense is long gone, if it ever existed, but the desires remain.

It is these drives that provide much of the narrative propulsion in the Dardennes’ films, whose cameras follow their young protagonists – tracking them from behind with over-the-shoulder shots – as they search for a place in the world. Rosetta (1999) opens with the film’s eponymous heroine cannoning through a packing plant from which she has just been let go, in search of an explanation for her sacking. Her unnamed boss, le patron, tells her that there was no particular reason – it was simply cheaper to hire another trainee. Don’t take it personally, he suggests; yet all Rosetta wants is for someone to take her personally, and see that she works hard. In other films we encounter other drives. In Tori et Lokita, Tori cycles through the city to make his drug drop-offs and secure a place in Belgium. In Le Gamin au Vélo (2011), we see another child, Cyril, pedalling furiously as he searches for his deadbeat dad, possessed by the idea that they might be reunited. (His father isn’t interested.)

Despite the world’s indifference to their desires, none of these characters can rid themselves of their unattainable dreams. Rosetta tells herself: ‘I want a normal life. I want a real job.’ She hopes to escape the abject trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic mother, but it is not affluence that she craves. Early on in the film, she throws away the salmon her mother scavenges from friends in favour of fishing in a lake. Later, she refuses a job on the black market and instead tips off a patron – rarely do figures of authority receive names in the Dardennes’ films – about a scam being run by one of his employees, Rosetta’s only friend, thereby allowing her to take his job. For a fleeting moment, Rosetta seems calm, almost pacified. Finally, she has a boss and a wage: a normal life. After the factory, the film suggests, there will be neither solidarity nor meaning in work. The best one can achieve is a stunted, precarious existence: in this world, waged labour is a prize for which one is willing to risk everything.

Lokita is also set on achieving a sense of normalcy, and uses the same techniques of auto-interpellation as Rosetta. She repeats to herself: I will get my papers, find work as a caregiver, and live with Tori. This vision sustains her as she delivers drugs for Betim, and during the mock immigration interviews that Tori stages so that she can credibly appear to be his sister. It might be the case that such a dream is achievable in contemporary Belgium, but we see no evidence of this in the Dardennes’ films, which take place solely in the half-light of illegal immigration and extra-legal exploitation. The real mystery is why dreams of normality have such a hold over these characters, despite all the evidence that such reveries cannot be realized.

In Deux Jours, Une Nuit (2014), Sandra has been let go from Solwal, a solar panel manufacturing company, after her colleagues were asked to choose between a €1,000 bonus and keeping her on as an employee. After pleading with management, she is granted another vote, and given the weekend to persuade her co-workers. Sandra is obsessed with getting her job back, though she gives no indication that she enjoyed her work or did it with any pride. What makes her obsession all the more remarkable is that her conversations with colleagues reveal that few of them rely solely on their jobs at Solwal. Willy also repairs garden tiles; Hamid does a night shift stacking shelves at a convenience store. A salaried position is no longer enough to survive. Work itself is unworkable, yet Sandra cannot escape the psychic hold it has over her. The redemptive power of labour in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, of family in Le Gamin au Vélo, and of legal residency in Tori et Lokita are fantasies – convincing only from the outside, to the unemployed, the orphaned, and the undocumented. The Dardennes’ narratives unfold in the ambiguous gap between dreams of a stable life and their foreclosure in the real world.


In Robert Pippin’s treatment of the Dardennes’ films, he makes much of the fact that they all contain a crisis of responsibility. In La Promesse, a dying immigrant worker, Amidou, makes Igor promise to look after his wife, Assita; in Rosetta, the protagonist informs on her only friend in order to take his job, but abruptly renounces the position later in the film; and in L’Enfant, a young man sells his child and then subsequently tries to retrieve it. Some critics, such as Martin O’Shaughnessy, have claimed that the Dardenne brothers are trying to articulate an ethics after the demise of collective politics. It’s quite possible that the directors themselves would endorse such a reading. The series of journals that the Dardennes have published chronicling the making of their films, Au dos de nos images, are full of Levinas and short on Marx. (The same could be said of Sur L’Affaire Humaine, Luc Dardenne’s sole philosophical treatise).

But the films are not the filmmakers. What makes the best parts of the Dardennes’ oeuvre so compelling are the deeply uncertain ethical impulses of the characters. Igor, about to get away with covering up Amidou’s death, confesses what happened to Assita. His motivation is unclear, and seems as much to do with trying to escape his overbearing father, who is intent on initiating him into the family business of people trafficking, as it does with honouring his promise to Amidou. Ultimately, his revelation doesn’t improve Assita’s life, and destroys Igor’s world. Rosetta’s decision to give up her job is similarly complex, bound up with the return of her alcoholic mother and her own preparations for suicide. If this is what ethics looks likes after politics, it is not a redemptive story about new forms of care, but a bleak assessment of our capacity for solidarity under conditions of abjection.

Tori et Lokita is not one of the Dardennes’ finer films. Partly, this is because it functions as something of a greatest hits collection: auto-interpellation, tracking the backs of the characters, and even Tori’s manic pedalling around Seraing have all appeared in other films, to greater effect. More importantly, however, the film locates the crisis of responsibility that propels the narrative beyond the world of the characters: Lokita’s initial asylum claim is denied by the immigration officer. In desperation, she turns to Betim, who promises to supply her with false papers on the condition that she spend a month doing unspecified work for him in relative isolation. The audience fears prostitution, but instead she is taken to – of course – an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city, where she is expected to tend to Betim’s cannabis crop. Her attachment to Tori proves her undoing. He breaks into the factory and reunites with Lokita, but things quickly go awry when Betim’s associates discover them together.

The film’s final scene is an address given by Tori at Lokita’s funeral: ‘Lokita, if you had your papers, you’d have become a caregiver, and we would have lived together in Belgium. Now, you are dead, and I am alone.’ The speech closes the circle of the film, which began with Lokita’s face as seen by an immigration officer, and ends with the consequences of that officer’s decision. Never before have the Dardennes allowed themselves to be so clearly identified with a particular perspective in their films. Tori’s address to the funeral becomes a polemic delivered to the audience, denouncing the violence meted out to immigrants and demanding a humane alternative. After screening Tori et Lokita at the London Film Festival, Luc Dardenne remarked that ‘We were indeed angry, and this anger motivated us to make this film, particularly when we found out that there’s a huge number of unaccompanied minors who disappear. No one seems to worry about it. That absolutely has to change.’

It is incontestable that the immigration policies of Europe in general and Belgium in particular are violent and racist, and there are many crusading documentaries that can and should be made about them. But what the Dardennes’ oeuvre suggests is that the situation cannot be remedied by mere policy adjustments. It’s much worse than that. In their films, papers do not bring security; they are simply another commodity to be traded in a cut-throat marketplace. The problem, the Dardennes’ films suggest, is not simply a world that cannot offer us safety, but our irredeemable desire for it. In this sense, the presiding spirit of the Dardenne brothers’ work is Lauren Berlant, who has written on La Promesse and Rosetta. Their characters are caught in what Berlant would call a state of ‘cruel optimism’, wedded to hopes and desires that post-industrial capitalism cannot deliver. Yet such is the unremitting bleakness of the Dardennes’ oeuvre that what Berlant intended as a historical diagnosis threatens to become a metaphysics: a world denuded of the possibilities of solidarity. In this world, policy reform doesn’t constitute an exit plan.

The endings of the Dardennes’ most interesting films gesture beyond this bleak vision. In La Promesse, Assita and Igor walk through a train station, not quite together but not entirely apart. We cannot sense any solidarity between the immigrant and the people trafficker – yet they keep walking. Rosetta ends with an equally silent encounter between the protagonist and the friend she ratted out to secure a job. There is no coming community in these films, but the characters have, potentially, left behind their normative attachments to impossible fantasies of the good life. There aren’t any words yet for the forms of life that follow the deaths of these dreams.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘A New Proletkino?’, NLR 109.


Hollow States

The return of industrial policy is unmissable, catalyzed by the cumulative shocks of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine as well as longer-term structural issues: the ecological crisis, faltering productivity and alarm at the dependence of Western states on China’s productive apparatus. Together, these factors have steadily undermined governments’ confidence in the ability of private enterprise to drive economic development.

Of course, the ‘entrepreneurial state’ never disappeared, especially in the US. The deep pockets of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health have been crucial in maintaining the country’s technological advantage – funding research and product development over the past few decades. Still, it is clear that a substantial shift is taking place. As a group of OECD economists noted, ‘So-called horizontal policies, i.e. interventions available to all firms and which include business framework conditions such as taxes, product or labour market regulations, are increasingly questioned’. Meanwhile, ‘the case for governments to more actively direct the structure of the business sector is gaining traction’. Hundreds of billions of targeted funding is now flooding businesses in the military, high-tech and green sectors on both sides of the Atlantic.

This pivot is part of a broader macro-institutional reconfiguration of capitalism, in which a high-pressure post-pandemic economy has tightened labour markets while the centrality of finance continues to wane. These phenomena are highly complementary: public funding stimulates the economy and may boost job creation, while the administrative allocation of credit serves as an admission that financial markets are unable to attract the investment necessary to meet major conjunctural challenges. At a very general level, this neo-industrial turn should be welcomed, since it implies that political deliberation may play a somewhat greater role in investment decisions. More concretely, though, there is much to worry about. At this stage, we can identify at least three problematic dimensions.

First is the extent of this turn itself. Though the sums are significant, they do not match the civilizational challenges we are facing – falling well short of the complete restructuring of the economy demanded by climate breakdown. This is particularly true in Europe, afflicted by chronic structural vulnerability due to self-inflicted austerity measures – currently rebranded ‘fiscal adjustment paths’ – and deepening divisions between core and periphery. The geopolitics of industrial policy are especially fraught within the context of the EU single market. Hayek was a strong supporter of federalism precisely because he knew that a union of this sort would create serious obstacles to state intervention. Reaching an agreement at the federal level to support a particular sector is exceptionally difficult due to diverging national interests, themselves a result of productive specialization and uneven development. At the national level, conversely, the relaxation of state aid provisions tends to elicit resistance from weaker member states, who fear that countries with larger fiscal space – Germany in particular – would be able to improve their competitive edge, further aggravating the Union’s productive polarization.

Because the entire European edifice was built on the premise that competition is sufficient to guarantee economic efficiency, there is close to zero technical-administrative capability to enforce industrial policy. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, austerity has had similarly damaging effects on state capacity. Asked about the viability of Biden’s programme, Brian Deese, the former director of the National Economic Council, sounded a cautious note: ‘A lot of that comes down to the professionalism of the civil service at the federal level and the state and local level – a lot of which has been hollowed out.’

Second, the substance of neo-industrialism is troubling. The choices currently being made about the direction of funding will shape the productive structure for decades to come. On the ecological front, the main issue is that they are almost exclusively conceived as subsidies for greening existing institutions and commodities, rather than reorienting the economy on the basis of sustainability. The car industry is a case in point. Ideally, green policies would develop multimodal transport solutions with a limited role for small, electrified vehicles. Yet this would imply a drastic downsizing of the car automotive sector – something unthinkable for profit-driven carmakers, who are instead pushing for fully electrified high-margin SUVs.

To reconcile increased productivity with environmental imperatives, industrial policy would need not only the resources to support structural change but also the means for state planners to discipline capitalists. The lessons of post WWII developmentalism drawn by Vivek Chibber remain valid: businesses understand industrial policy as ‘the socialization of risk, while leaving the private appropriation of profit intact’. They therefore strongly resist ‘measures which would give planners any real power over their investment decisions’.

Another qualitative issue is the global increase in military spending. In the absence of what Adam Tooze calls ‘a new security order based on the accommodation of China’s historic rise’, we have entered a New Cold War with the frightening potential to spread beyond the Ukrainian theatre. While some businesses have a lot to lose from a confrontation with China, others may stand to benefit. Along with the industrial-military complex, Silicon Valley corporations are deliberately fuelling fears about Chinese capabilities in AI, in the hope of securing public support for their activities and locking in access to foreign allied markets. This has created a mutually reinforcing relationship between private profit-seeking and state power, in traditional imperialist fashion.

The third problem involves the balance between classes. In her recently published book L’Etat droit dans le mur, Anne-Laure Delatte interrogates the economic roots of declining state legitimacy. She argues that, in France as elsewhere, rising taxes on households – most of them regressive – were accompanied by increased public spending for the benefit of corporations. This created a vitiated state, oriented largely towards the financial sector, and a general population increasingly distrustful of public policymaking. Today, it is easy to see how an ambitious industrial policy could aggravate such pro-corporate biases. Asset managers are especially eager to take advantage of the new rentier opportunities arising from state-backed infrastructure investment. Without increasing taxes on corporations and capital income, or taking industries into direct public ownership, state subsidies imply a transfer of resources from labour and the public sector to capital, exacerbating inequalities and resentments.

The West’s embrace of industrial policy is explicitly motivated by Chinese productive prowess. Yet one cannot overstate China’s singularity. There, state capital is dominant thanks to public ownership in strategic, upstream sectors of the economy – the ‘commanding heights’ in Leninist terms. As well as enjoying formal property rights to key assets, a highly specific form of state-class organization allows the CCP to exercise some control over the country’s general developmental path. Its culture of internal discipline is crucial in assigning politicians dual identities as masters of capital and servants of the party-state. This provides a firm foundation for public planning, allowing private accumulation to coexist with market-shaping forces such as credit and procurement policies. The CCP’s public-private network is also highly adaptable, enabling the government to implement major policy changes relatively quickly. Following the 2008 financial crisis, political instructions were immediately passed down to party members in anticipation of the huge state stimulus package, resulting in a much more rapid and effective fiscal response than in the US or EU.

In democratic societies, by contrast, effective discipline on corporations can only come from external popular pressure. Thus, for campaigning organizations and left parties, the neo-industrial turn is good news only to the extent that it gives new impetus to old concerns: Who decides where the money goes? What are its objectives? How is it used and misused? Perhaps, in helping us to formulate such questions, neo-industrialism will end up exposing the inadequacy of its own answers.

Read on: Aaron Benanav, ‘A Dissipating Glut?’, NLR 140/141.