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.


Gaining Ground

On 10 April, South Korea went to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. President Yoon Suk Yeol and his conservative People’s Power Party (PPP) suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of the progressive Lee Jae-myung and his Democratic Party (DP). With a turnout of 67%, the DP’s coalition captured 176 out of 300 possible seats, while the PPP took only 108. Yoon is now a lame duck, with little power to pass bills through the DP-controlled legislature. He is promising a complete cabinet reshuffle and a new political approach to restore credibility. Lee is basking in his victory, yet he is also under increasing pressure to live up to his campaign pledges.

Lee was born into a poverty-stricken family in Andong, eastern Korea, in 1964. At age thirteen his family moved to a planned industrial city outside Seoul and he worked as a child laborer in a rubber factory, where an industrial press crushed his wrist and left him permanently disabled. This incident, he says, inspired his decision to become a labour lawyer and engage in left-wing politics. Having worked as a DP spokesman after the 2008 election, he served as mayor of Seongnam from 2010 to 2018 and then as governor of Gyeonggi Province (the most populous region in the country). His election campaign touted the popular social-democratic reforms he implemented in both places, as well as his close relationship with the trade union movement. Lee foregrounded the cost-of-living crisis and workers’ rights, promising to reduce the working week by half a day while expanding welfare for women, children and the elderly. He argued in favour of geopolitical neutrality and diplomatic engagement with North Korea and China.

Yoon, a famed prosecutor who led the corruption investigation that toppled the former president Park Geun-hye in 2017, struck a different note. He described Korea as an underdog nation which has prospered through hard work, giving rise to world-class conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai. He stressed the importance of unfettering the private sector and accused his opponent of being a corrupt crypto-communist with sympathies for North Korea. While Lee called for state intervention to curb inflation, Yoon organized a council of businessmen and banking representatives to deal with rising prices. In the run up to the vote, Yoon made a televised trip to a grocery store where he let slip that he did not know the price of green onions – a staple of the Korean diet. After the clip went viral, Lee began to don a crown made of green onions at his campaign stops. In the end, both parties cruised to victory in their respective strongholds. The richest neighborhood in Korea, Gangnam district, remained dominated by the PPP, while the DP took left-wing constituencies like Gwangju, the birthplace of Korea’s Democratization Movement. Yet the opposition triumphed overall by winning the swing voters in key urban districts.

Lee’s candidacy was dogged by scandal, amid accusations that he had given favours to land developers in exchange for bribes during his mayoral tenure. To his supporters, this was a politically-motivated investigation driven by Yoon and his allies in the judiciary (at one point the president said that he would personally prosecute his opponent if he had the chance). Even so, the charges created an opportunity for Lee’s opponents on the right of the DP to try to oust him as leader, albeit unsuccessfully. They also prompted Lee’s former chief of staff to take his own life, citing the pressure of the case in his suicide note. As the controversy raged, Lee was subject to a lone-wolf assassination attempt, stabbed in the neck during a public meeting earlier this year.  

Lawfare has a long history in South Korea. Since 1987, when the dictatorship collapsed following a massive protest movement led by students and workers, the country’s democratic system has been volatile. Six former presidents and prime ministers have spent time in jail. Some of these arrests were widely supported by the public – as with President Park – while others, such as the impeachment of President Roh in 2004, caused widespread outrage. In many cases, litigation has been used to repress the left. Given the legacy of the Korean War and the effects of military conscription, it is difficult to declare oneself a socialist in South Korea without facing immense scrutiny and possible imprisonment. To give just one example, in 2014 a newly formed left-wing party, the Unified Progressives, performed surprisingly well in the Assembly elections, whereupon its leaders were immediately accused of helping North Korea to plan an invasion and jailed for treason. The party was subsequently banned.

A loophole for progressive politics, however, can be found in South Korea’s unusually militant trade unions, which have a high level of popular and institutional legitimacy. The largest union grouping, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), wields significant power. And the more radical Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has become a model for labour organizing throughout Asia, drawing on its experience of the Democratization Movement and training its members in a variety of protest tactics. Throughout his presidency, Yoon has tried his best to crush this movement. He made international headlines in 2023 for his failed attempt to extend the working week from 52 hours to 69 hours, provoking a standoff with the FKTU and the KCTU, and he has taken a hard line on the ongoing doctor’s strike, threatening to fire those who walked out in protest against the government’s plan to expand medical school acceptance rates.

Yet the most decisive confrontation between Yoon and organized labour came at the end of 2022, when he broke a truckers strike led by the KCTU, sending 2,5000 of them back to work and prosecuting some of the organizers. Yoon, who likened the picket to a nuclear attack by North Korea, saw his approval ratings rise in the wake of the incident, as many people feared the economic damage that the strike would inflict. This emboldened him to launch another anti-union crusade the following spring, targeting the construction unions under the KCTU umbrella. Alleging that ‘illegal bribes’ and other forms of corruption were damaging productivity, Yoon proceeded to go after union members with legislation typically reserved for organized criminals. A total of 2,863 union members were labelled offenders; 102 were arrested and prosecuted.

The following May Day, Yang Hoe-dong, a KCTU member who was facing prosecution, set himself on fire outside the courthouse right before his trial. In a widely circulated letter written shortly before his death, Yang described the humiliation he felt at being compared to a criminal, and suggested that the Yoon government was no better than Korea’s past dictatorships. This sparked a summer of union activism and public demonstrations of a kind that had not been seen since the mobilizations against Park in 2016. The Yoon administration faced off against the KCTU and its allies in other social movements. Mass protests, walkouts and clashes with police were common.

Yang’s suicide evoked the memory of Jeon Tae-Il, the 22-year-old labourer who self-immolated in 1970 to protest the cruel working conditions imposed by the dictatorship. Although the government tried to cover up his death, Tae-Il became a martyr who inspired a wave of clandestine labour organizing led mostly by female garment workers. This episode is implicated in two competing narratives of Korea’s twentieth-century history. The first holds that Tae-Il’s protest was a wake-up call for activists across the country which eventually led to the collapse of the military regime, opening the way for social progress and democratization. The second claims that Korea’s economic success and global prestige were underpinned by the dictatorship’s industrialization policies, which the labour movement opposed on self-interested grounds. Today, Lee represents the former position, Yoon the latter.

The recent election results indicate that Lee’s narrative is in the ascent. The president’s strike-breaking has undermined his popular mandate, while his opponent has benefitted from partnering with the unions. Now, the question for the Korean left is how to consolidate the gains of the strike wave and use the DP’s control of the National Assembly to its advantage. Lee’s attitude towards the unions over the coming months will say much about his political outlook. Will he be receptive to the labour movement, or will he adopt a more top-down bureaucratic approach? So far, Lee has walked a tightrope between the populist rhetoric of a Sanders or a Corbyn and the liberalism of his DP predecessor Moon Jae-in. Which of these tendencies will win out remains to be seen. In recent years there has been a leftward turn in Korean culture, with directors from the generation of pro-democracy activists such as Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook dramatizing issues like inequality, working conditions and state repression. Progressive currents are gaining ground. Might they soon find their way into the halls of power?

Read on: Kevin Gray, ‘Political Cultures of South Korea’, NLR 79.


In the Basement

In 2002, shortly before his death, Roberto Bolaño – always sentimental – surveyed the three central tendencies of Argentine literature after Borges. One was commercial and frankly bad: this was the ‘fiefdom of Osvaldo Soriano’ who wrote nostalgic, high sales pabulum about men in bars discussing football. Another current began with Roberto Arlt, self-taught and ambitious, but paranoid and dark: ‘the literature of doom has to exist, but if nothing else exists, it’s the end of literature’. Then there was a ‘secret current’. In the great house of Argentine literature, Bolaño insisted, there was ‘a little box on a shelf in the basement. A little cardboard box, covered in dust. And if you open the box, what you find inside is hell.’ The high priest of this infernal tradition was Osvaldo Lamborghini, who was born in Necochea, near Buenos Aires, in 1940, and died of a heart attack in exile aged 45.

Who was Lamborghini to fill Bolaño, hardly one to shrink from darkness, with sufficient fear that he could barely stand to read him? For the novelist Alan Pauls, Lamborghini was a ‘damned myth’ even in life. His most famous pronouncement – ‘publish first, write later’ – indicated his antipathy to the book, which trapped writing between tombstone covers and required the approval of that most loathsome creature: an editor. Lamborghini’s three slim books were for a long time near unobtainable, circulating as xeroxes of xeroxes; his magazine work, consisting of poems and essays, even more scarce. In the 90s, a Spanish house (of all places) published a collection of his fiction in editions assembled by César Aira, his literary executor and most dedicated reader. Pauls – among Lamborghini’s sharpest readers – was not alone in expressing a certain discomfort: ‘was it right to pull the cursed from his hideout and sandwich him between two sumptuous slices of carboard, officializing with the Book’s bourgeois dignity the insults, the violence, the deformed phantoms that his congregation had learned to enjoy in zine-like subedits?’

The taciturn Lamborghini first became legend in the Argentine literary world with a short story titled ‘El fiord’. It was published by a half-invented publisher in 1969, in a booklet with an accompanying essay by psychoanalyst-writer Germán García. The story evokes a dizzying succession of brutalities and obscenities – rapes, incest, mutilations, beatings, whippings, murders and cannibalism, for starters – all taking place somewhere overlooking a picturesque fiord. Written in a mix of plebeian street talk, immigrant creole, Freudian lingo and movement-speech, the story was, in part, a harsh satire of Peronism, the governing movement of the working class, proscribed and persecuted after a 1955 coup yet still Argentina’s largest political organization. Lamborghini’s older brother, the poet Leónidas Lamborghini, showed the manuscript to the eminent Peronist writer Leopoldo Marechal, who famously remarked: ‘It’s perfect, like a sphere. A pity that it’s a sphere of shit’.

Characters in ‘El fiord’ include winking evocations of Perón, of collaborationist Peronist union leader Augusto Vandor, of the CGT (the main Argentine labour federation); refrains from the movement and allusions to its subcommittees and factions, including those with a fascist bent, abound. Yet confining ‘El fiord’ to allegory or critique would be short-changing Lamborghini’s genius. As critic Graciela Montaldo suggests, Lamborghini’s story captured the violent spirit of the Argentine sixties rather than its historical facts: a military dictatorship, Peronism persecuted and splitting into right and left, collaborationists and separatists, doctrinarians and innovators. It was a story of the ‘revolutionary threshold’. Hence its beginning, with childbirth, and its ending, in a demonstration:

And why, if at the end of the day the child turned out so miserable – with regards to size, understand – did she proffer such shrieks, rip her hair out by the handful and fling her ass against the tiger-striped mattress?

. . .

And, with that, we went out in demonstration.

The story had two critical antecedents. One was ‘The Slaughter Yard’, written by Esteban Echeverría in 1837 and considered a foundational story of Argentine literature. As César Aira would have it, Lamborghini’s entire oeuvre consisted of rewritings of ‘The Slaughter Yard’. In that story, a handsome bourgeois man travels through a Buenos Aires slum where butchers and other racialized proletarians are working. It is Lent; he is a Unitarian, a Buenos Aires resident disinterested in distributing the port’s income to the entire country. Noticing him, the barbarous poor – federalists, in favour of distribution – attack and ultimately rape him. Argentine literature, as David Viñas remarked a few years before ‘El fiord’ was published, began with a homosexual gang rape.

The other antecedent, contemporaneous with Echeverría, was Hilario Ascasubi’s poem, ‘La refalosa’. Named after a popular dance of the time – described by Echeverría as ‘the dance of throat-slitting’ – the poem describes the torture of a Unitarian gaucho by federalist forces in the language and rhythm of dance. Torture and rape have since been literary symbols in Argentina of political and socio-economic conflict. Lamborghini ­– influenced by psychoanalysis and part of Literal, a magazine that inaugurated a psychoanalytic literary left in Argentina and translated Lacan – took this to a new extremity. Pauls describes him, paradoxically, as a ‘literal’ writer: in his work, premises, archetypes, ideas accelerate into their own obscene impossibility.

No Lamborghini juvenilia exists, except for a poem found scribbled in a notebook. Lamborghini appeared ex nihilo. In 1973, he published Sebregondi retrocede, a poetry collection that his editor suggested he turn into prose, and was thus termed a ‘novel’. Poetry was the backbone of his writing, hence a famous pronouncement contained in that book: ‘Whereby poet, zap! Novelist’. According to Aira, the character of Sebregondi was based on an Italian uncle – who visited in Lamborghini’s youth and stepped back (hence the ‘retreat’) to take a family photograph – combined with Witold Gombrowicz and longtime editor of Sur magazine, José Bianco. Sebregondi was also Lamborghini’s attempt to engage with the canonical Martín Fierro, after whose second part (‘The Return’) Sebregondi’s fourth and final section is named.

Infamously, the book’s third section is an independent short story titled ‘El niño proletario’, which inverts the basic premise of ‘The Slaughter Yard’. Unusually conventional for Lamborghini, it focuses on Stroppani, a malnourished working-class boy who has suffered a traumatic upbringing. One day, three bourgeois classmates run into him outside school, and begin beating him. They slice his face and body with shards of broken glass and take turns raping and otherwise destroying him. Unlike Echeverría’s gallant bourgeois, who resisted the barbarous horde bravely until the end, Stroppani suffers in pathetic, submissive silence:

We towed the proletarian boy’s lax body towards the chosen location. We availed ourselves of a wire. Gustavo strangled him under the gem-like moonlight, pulling from the ends of the wire. The tongue was left drooping from the mouth as in all cases of strangulation.

The prose is crystalline and simple, but with an intensity that conveys the sheer pleasure of the torturers. Lamborghini’s inversion of Echeverría turned out to be prophetic as political violence escalated and a genocidal dictatorship seized power in 1976. Lamborghini fled to Barcelona from its programme of clandestine assassination, kidnapping and disappearance of leftists, students and workers. As he later wrote: ‘On March 24th, 1976, I, a crazy, homosexual, Marxist, drug addict and alcoholic became a crazy, homosexual, Marxist, drug addict and alcoholic.’

Lamborghini spent much of his exile writing poetry, and published a third and final book, Poemas, in 1980. It included his two most famous poems: ‘Die Verneinung’ – first published in the New York-based Cuban exile journal Escandalar – was a thousand-verse, four-part examination of Argentine literary history, Lamborghini’s own life, and his conception of poetry. The other, ‘Los Tadeys’, introduced a creature that would be the protagonist of Lamborghini’s literary opus, Tadeys, a novel which he wrote in three months in 1983. In his final years, Lamborghini wrote pornographic stories and began a sprawling multimedia project, Teatro proletario de cámara, in which pornography of every variety was juxtaposed with poetry and images of everyday life.

What are Tadeys? In the poem, the creatures appear indirectly. Yet in the novel the Tadey, also known as a tadeo, is a humanoid animal discovered in a cave system in the fictional Eastern European nation of La Comarca during the medieval era. They are distinguished from humans by their inferior intelligence, inability to speak, hairlessness and ugliness. They are also sex-obsessed – sodomites by day, heterosexual by night – and quickly become enraptured with humans. The Tadey also has delicious meat and high-quality leather, while their tears are distilled into the most potent alcoholic beverage in the world. Because of this, they are the bedrock of La Comarca’s economy, as well as central to its cultural imagination, rather like cows in nineteenth-century Argentina.

Aira found three folders of Tadeys material and published it in their idiosyncratic, non-chronological order. The first is a family narrative of rural-urban immigration of the humble Cab clan to the capital, Goms Lomes. It culminates with Lamborghini’s most famous set piece – the ‘barco de amujeramiento’ – where in a kind of biopolitical machine on steroids, male prisoners are subjected to a grotesque programme of force-feminization. The second and third sections of the novel deal with the contemporary governance of La Comarca and the history of the medieval discovery of Tadeys and their society. Throughout, sex and violence – which blur together with sometimes cartoonish excess – are a means of examining social power and domination. As Paul Preciado said of Lamborghini – whom he connects with the Marquis de Sade – in his pornography, sex is revealed as the ‘hidden grammar’ of politics. A footnote in Tadeys asks: ‘The state . . . was it a man [hombre] or a woman? By those days, the symbiotic and unambiguous answer was “it’s hunger [hambre] for all, an egalitarian mania that tempted the devil and had fallen into absolute dis-credit (indifference)”’.

In contrast to the rest of Lamborghini’s work – perfect and lazy, mysterious, almost brutally concise – Tadeys’ steampunk unfurling of the infinite myth of a faraway-land reads like some unfinished draft of a total novel; it is also a crude but inscrutable depiction of the violence that had consumed his homeland and forced him into exile. For Bolaño, Lamborghini’s masterpiece was ‘excruciating’. ‘Few books can be said to smell of blood, spilled guts, bodily fluids, unpardonable acts’, the Chilean wrote. Yet what Bolaño recoiled from, he was also drawn to recreate – the influence of Tadeys on 2666 is undeniable. So much for perfection – the real rarity is true perversion.

Read on: David Rock, ‘Racking Argentina’, NLR 17.


First Priorities

The French left is at a crossroads. Having failed to win the presidency or assemble a parliamentary majority in 2022, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is now attempting to chart a way forward for La France insoumise. The party faces a hostile media, voter apathy and an increasingly authoritarian government. NUPES, the electoral alliance over which it presides, has fractured. The only way for LFI to prevail in this unfavourable conjuncture and preserve its fragile hegemony over the other progressive parties is to expand its electoral base ahead of the 2027 presidential elections. But there are competing theories of how to achieve this, and deep uncertainties over the most viable strategic direction.

At present, LFI’s only strongholds are Paris, its surrounding banlieues, the peripheries of major cities such as Marseille, Toulouse and Lyon, and the French overseas territories. The party has struggled to attract support in the peri-urban areas that produced the gilets jaunes. For many activists, this signals a problem with its organizational culture. Since LFI was established in 2016, it has been dominated by a small group of parliamentarians and staffers close to Mélenchon. Stefano Palombarini has described it as a ‘pirate ship’ where all major decisions are taken by the captain. This nimble, centralized structure was partly what enabled its rapid ascent. Yet, today, some members have become convinced that the party will not break out of its Paris bubble unless it is thoroughly democratized. Clementine Autain, the deputy for Seine-Saint-Denis, argues that it is time to ‘throw open the doors’ and ‘become a mass movement’. The leadership and its supporters, however, believe that this cannot occur until robust internal mechanisms for mediating political disagreement have been developed. Since the membership has now expanded beyond the core of loyal Mélenchonistes, they warn, ‘throwing open the doors’ could mean abandoning political discipline and watering down their left-internationalist programme.

This dispute relates to the vexed question of who will lead LFI into the next election. One contender outside the circle of Mélenchonistes is the filmmaker-turned-parliamentarian Francois Ruffin. Born in Calais in 1975 and raised in Amiens, the constituency that he now represents, Ruffin is a self-described ‘petit-bourgeois intellectual’ – his father a manager at the Bonduelle vegetable company, his mother a housewife – who attended the same high school as Macron. In 1999 he founded Fakir, a left-wing satirical journal, and in 2003 published a searing critique of France’s media landscape, Les petits soldats du journalisme. Throughout the 2010s he directed documentaries on life in peripheral France, the dynamics of deindustrialization and the gilets jaunes. His 2016 film Merci patron!, a blistering takedown of France’s wealthiest citizen, the luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault, so enraged its subject that he bribed the French security apparatus to spy on the director. Ruffin was elected in 2017 as a candidate for the micro-party Picardie Debout, before joining the LFI parliamentary group later that year.

Ruffin is in favour of throwing open the doors of LFI. For him, the path to the Élysée runs through the rural areas and deindustrialized small towns once dominated by the Socialist and Communist parties, where much of the population are manual labourers, low-waged service workers or retirees. The only way to win back such voters from the RN, he argues, is to speak to their material concerns: ‘the discourse of real life’, as he calls it. In practice, this means promoting protectionist economic policies and a strong welfare state. He lambasts the government for unleashing an ‘epidemic of bad work’ and calls for limited forms of workplace democracy, with a third of the seats on company boards to be given to employees. This focus on employment conditions is an attempt to connect LFI’s current base to more peripheral constituencies. As Ruffin observes, there are clear commonalities in the working lives of urban racialized populations and those of white people in small towns. As part of this strategy, the politician typically avoids domestic issues deemed too sensitive, such as migration, and moderates his line on international ones. When he speaks at Palestine rallies, he demands an immediate ceasefire and denounces Israel’s war crimes, but he also insists, against LFI’s official position, that Hamas is a terrorist organization. When riots broke out over the death of Nahel Merzouk, a teenage boy shot by police in the Parisian suburbs, the Mélenchonistes denounced the killers as bloodthirsty racists, while Ruffin called for institutional reform.

Ruffin’s approach can be compared to that of Sumar in Spain. He argues that a populist strategy – maintaining a permanent war footing and provoking perpetual conflict with the establishment – will simply exhaust the party’s activist base and alienate large swathes of the electorate. He claims that LFI has already won the battle for hegemony on the left, and that it must now convince voters outside the fold. While many of his LFI colleagues have split with their erstwhile NUPES partners, Ruffin continues to collaborate with figures such as the Ecologists’ Marine Tondelier. Privately, those on the left of the Ecologists say that they would prefer to work with Ruffin than with a Mélenchoniste, and that a NUPES revival in 2027 would be more likely under his candidacy.

The Mélenchonistes have a different outlook. For them, the high rates of abstention in both the banlieues and peripheral France suggest that scores of voters remain disenchanted with the present political system. The party must therefore advocate a rupture with that system: its foreign policy, its economic orthodoxies, its security services and its social ethos. The aim should be to sharpen each political antagonism so as to achieve a state of what Mélenchon calls ‘permanent insubordination’. In a recent debate with Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé, Mélenchon accepted that the left needs to win back rural France – ‘who could argue otherwise?’ – but insisted that a focus on the urban quartiers populaire is even more essential. These areas tend to vote for LFI at a rate of 80%, but with a turnout of only 30%. The left should therefore strive to activate these abstentionist populations rather than gambling on the possibility of winning back Le Pen voters.

One Mélenchoniste who has been mooted as a future leader is Mathilde Panot. The 34-year-old deputy, who represents Val-de-Marne just south of Paris, is the daughter of a mathematician and an agricultural scientist. She studied international relations at Science Po and worked as a community organizer for a social enterprise operating in the banlieues before becoming an LFI staffer. Elected to the Assembly in 2017, she now serves as the party’s parliamentary leader. The optimum strategy, as she sees it, is to construct cleavages in which the left is polarized against the RN and Macronists – revealing the latter to be two sides of the same coin. She has been particularly vocal in her support for Palestine, aware that this issue plays well in banlieues.

Yet Panot is consistently upstaged by Mélenchon himself, who remains a major national presence despite claiming that he is willing to hand over to a new leader. Since October he has been more forceful in denouncing the siege of Gaza than any other national politician. He has attended the ICJ hearing and organized protests against France’s arms shipments to Israel while attacking Macron’s sabre-rattling on Ukraine. Mélenchon seems to be aware that Panot lacks the national profile to have a plausible shot at victory; and he is keen to kibosh the ascent of Raphaël Glucksmann, the ultra-hawkish PS candidate who is currently riding high in the European election polls. This, along with his desire to keep LFI aligned with his vision, may well motivate him to run again in 2027. Mélenchon’s supporters note that each of his previous campaigns has brought him closer to the second round (his longtime friend Lula, who was elected president of Brazil on his fourth attempt, is cited as proof that persistence can pay off). His detractors, meanwhile, claim that he is unable to unite the broad left and point to polling which shows that he would have been beaten had he made it to the run-offs in 2022.

There is plenty of common ground between Ruffin and Mélenchon, both of whom have indicated that their positions could be reconciled. The LFI leadership has established several working groups dedicated to winning over rural areas. They have also deployed a number of so-called ‘popular caravans’: cadres who are dispatched to strategic constituencies to engage with the population and then relay their views to the central party apparatus. For the Mélenchonistes, LFI could yet become a parti de masse by stepping up such campaigns and providing local services like food distribution to deprived communities. Yet when it comes to the party’s overall priorities, the divergence remains stark. Ruffin emphasizes the need to alter the current distribution of voters, while Mélenchon aims to enlarge the total electorate. The first approach implies moving beyond populism, while the second means refining and intensifying it. The two sides disagree over the extent to which the official polling underestimates Mélenchon and whether there are enough potential voters in the banlieues to propel him to power.  

Whoever leads LFI into 2027 will have to appeal to the parts of French society which are disenchanted, but which currently have no affiliation with the left. This problem is exemplified by the ongoing farmers’ protests. As with previous bouts of unrest, the government is trying to halt the demonstrations while the parties to its left and right are competing to capitalize politically. Here, LFI should be in an advantageous position, since its manifesto calls for radical agricultural reform – repudiating the free-trade agreements passed in the European parliament – and one of its allies, the Confédération Paysanne, is among the organizers of the movement. Yet the party has struggled to gain a foothold, partly because of the media’s emphasis on the reactionary elements of the protests and their rejection of environmentalism.  In an attempt to shift the tide, Ruffin has been rubbing shoulders with farmers at the annual Salon International de l’Agriculture, which Mélenchon has boycotted for the last decade, hosting his own counter-salon that promotes peasant farming over agribusiness. Yet neither has managed to cast their party as a vehicle for farmers’ interests.

Over the coming years, the two factions will have to answer a number of difficult questions. Is it possible to shift the allegiances of Le Pen voters? Can this be achieved without alienating LFI’s current electoral base? And does the alliance with the centre left risk corrupting the project? Conversely, is the strategy of constant conflict capable of reaching a broader constituency? Can the radical left win without the centre left? Is there a sufficient number of abstentionists who could be activated? Whatever course the party takes, it will have to operate in a turbulent political climate which is increasingly hostile to the left. The institutions of the Fifth Republic – the state, the media, the mainstream parties, big business, the police – are determined to crush the rebellion that LFI represents. Reversing France’s reactionary drift will be a Herculean task.

Read on: Serge Halimi, ‘Condition of France’, NLR 144.



I first heard about the work of the American writer Susan Taubes on a date. I mentioned that I wanted to write a novel that resisted fragmentation – one that would sustain a scene or an idea or a thought over several pages, several thousand words, in the flow of unbroken narrative. My date wasn’t impressed. The novel is such an expansive form, he replied, why would you want to write in such a conventional way? Because I admire it, I said. This proved persuasive and laid the matter to rest. We saw each other only once more after that, and then (to my dismay) never again. A few weeks later, I bought a copy of Divorcing, which he had said exemplified the possibilities of the form.

Possibility, indeed. Divorcing was the only novel Taubes published in her lifetime, and was recently reissued to great acclaim. This was followed by a previously unpublished novella, Lament of Julia, collected with nine short stories. The word, of course, has two connotations. There’s the possibility of shimmering potential, and the possibility of a set of prospective options, which remains suppositional until one is realised. Taubes’s life story lends itself to the first. Born in Budapest in 1928, she emigrated to the United States before the outbreak of war, completed a doctorate on Simone Weil, taught religion at Columbia, married and had children. Shortly after Divorcing appeared in 1969, she drowned herself off the coast of East Hampton, at the age of 41. The novel had been dismissed a few days earlier in the New York Times by Hugh Kenner; Susan Sontag expressed a belief that her friend’s suicide had been linked to the review.

It is the second sense of possibility that better characterises her fiction. ‘Her life cannot be told’, says the narrator of Lament for Julia. It is a remark that could serve as an axiom of Taubes’s work. The novella begins with the disappearance of Julia, conveyed in lyrical soliloquy. Time and setting are unspecified, though the work shifts from a fable-like account of her childhood to a more realist adultery plot. The only daughter of Mother and Father Klopps, as a child Julia sucks her thumb, wets the bed and daydreams. In adulthood, she marries and has children. She appears to lead a generally contented life but the narrator intimates that only a sense of propriety is keeping Julia in the marriage. Eventually, she falls passionately for a younger man and begins an affair. By the end, Julia has absconded – where to, we do not know. The narrator is bereft: ‘She must’ve slipped away; while I was talking, I didn’t notice; I went on talking to myself. And now it is too late. I have lost her. Lost Julia’s beauty in the water’.

But Lament for Julia is not as straightforward as a synopsis might suggest. We never discover who – or what – the narrator is. ‘If she were simply a body and I simply a mind. If only it were as simple as that. But we are a jumble of odd bits and between us we do not even make up a person’. Is it Julia’s conscience, or a demented guardian angel? The narrator – and we as readers – spend the novel struggling to grasp the nature of their relationship. ‘How did I come by her? What had we to do with each other?’ Despite apparent sorrow at losing Julia in the end, the narrator is deeply ambivalent about her, and their ontological dependency: ‘She was my constant nagging pain. My shame and despair. I wanted to get rid of Julia. But what was I without her?’

The account offered of Julia’s life is equally plagued by indeterminacy. Attempting to describe the Klopps home, for instance, the narrator wonders how it should do so, finding its memory comprised of ‘impressions with as little logical connection as in a dream’, ‘the various facets and angles’ of the house ultimately failing to ‘make up a consistent object’. Julia remains similarly elusive: ‘My sense of her is less of a person than of things, places and seasons’, the narrator confesses. The details, it seems, are unfixed: ‘Shall I not give her a better girlhood? . . . When Julia was still with me I could revise her life at a moment’s notice’. There are said to be many possible and apparently conflicting ways to portray her – child, wife, adultress and so on – though the narrator admits that there ‘could only be one canvas’. ‘Painted by several hands’, it concedes, ‘But which was the true one? Were they all true?’ Lament for Julia is ultimately less an account of Julia’s life than of the narrator’s struggle – and ultimate failure ­– to narrate it.

If Lament for Julia is an exercise in absence, Divorcing is an experiment in abundance. It narrates the life of Sophie Blind, whose biography overlaps with Taubes’s own. The novel opens with her death – she is run over by a taxi in Paris – and then turns back to her life: her divorce from her belittling and pompous husband Ezra; her relationship with a lover named Ivan; her life as a child in Hungary, with a philandering mother who remarries a younger man and a psychoanalyst father who takes her away to live in the United States. We follow these different threads of a life through fragments composed in a multitude of different styles, tenses and perspectives. The first of four sections alone flits from narrating Sophie’s life in the third person to assuming her own voice in the first once she realises that she is dead, before moving into a letter possibly addressed to her lover, from the present to the past.

Running through these shifts, implicitly and explicitly, is Sophie’s own inability to explain herself, to make sense of her life. Attempting to end her marriage, she notes that she cannot explain to Ezra why it is over. ‘Must it be explained?’ she wonders. ‘Even if her own position is groundless, the fact is she has no position, has no plans, she is nowhere.’ At times, Sophie seems less unable to explain herself than unwilling to, resistant to sense-making: ‘Thinking about the sense of one’s life, trying to make sense of it, was an idle and useless preoccupation, Sophie had always believed. Worse than useless, it was positively unhealthy. In short, a bad habit.’ The novel itself is devoid of order and sense in the conventional meanings of those words, caught as it is between life and dreams and death.

Near its end, the narrative returns to Sophie’s childhood: ‘The double loss of a world and of the person who belonged to that world was experienced by an anonymous schoolgirl in a sailor-blouse uniform and high brown laced shoes. Sophie Landsmann, the name on the trolley pass, who was she?’ By this point the reader has spent over two hundred pages considering Sophie’s life, too many for her to be referred to with an indefinite article or her full name. The passage is disorienting, even disconcerting, and reads like a possible beginning. It may well be the case that Taubes intends to disorient the reader; it is also possible that the effect arises from artistic indecision. Why choose how to begin a story, when all the possible beginnings could be included?  

But then, why choose to begin a story at all? Sophie herself is apparently writing a book, but when asked by her father to explain what kind of book it is, she refuses to answer. Writing for her, unlike psychoanalysis for her father, is not about ‘coming into consciousness’. The purpose of writing, for Sophie, is the certainty of the final product:

A book is simply and always a book . . . With a book, whether you’re reading it or writing it, you are awake. The question does not pose itself. Writing a book appealed to Sophie on all these grounds. In a book she knew where she was. Because, however baffling and blundering and ambiguous, a book was a book.

These lines seem to justify a ‘baffling and blundering’ book, absolving the writer of responsibility and acceding to the failure Taubes depicts. Her narratives are less accounts of their protagonists’ lives than of their failures – failures that begin with an inability to express who they are, how they feel and what they want. Sophie appears incapable of articulating her feelings: ‘There was something she had to tell him . . . She could not tell him . . . she could not speak at all.’ Her only act of self-assertion is a negative one: her refusal to answer her father’s question about what kind of book it is, perhaps because she herself doesn’t know, or can’t say. Divorcing mirrors this inability to speak in its refusal to cohere, to assert or resolve itself aesthetically. Taubes’s novels feel as if they break off mid-sentence, still seeking a form for failure that wouldn’t itself succumb to it. Formally and thematically, they are works of unrealised possibilities, and ultimately of limitation.

Assessing her work in the London Review of Books, Jordan Kisner writes that to ‘know where you are, to be able to name things and feel that you belong among them, to come home to oneself in language – this is what Taubes strives towards but can’t fully achieve. Her writing never moves in a single direction, never resolves itself. This isn’t an aesthetic failure, but it is existentially painful.’ This is perhaps the closest any contemporary writer on Taubes comes to acknowledging the failure of her work. That no one has, and that Kisner stops short, speaks to a collective inability (perhaps refusal) to recognise the deep tragedy of her work – and her death, too.

Read on: Claudio Magris, ‘The Novel as Cryptogram’, NLR 95.


End of Innocence

We are sometimes blessed with unexpected moments of truth. ‘The fish rots from the head’, declared French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal as he pounced on the latest fabrication of the unconditional support camp – he was lambasting the alleged moral corruption of student activism against the war in Gaza at ‘elite’ Institut d’études politiques de Paris. A miraculously accurate statement from a mouth typically full of untruths. That the fish rots from the head is even doubly true. For the head can be understood in a metaphorical sense: as representing the rulers and, more generally, the dominators. In this sense, yes, the rot is now everywhere. And it can also be understood in a metonymic sense: as the operations of thought, and in the case at hand, the decay of those operations. More than that even: the collapse of the norms supposed to govern them.

Such collapse is not attributable to mere stupidity (which rarely makes a good hypothesis), but rather to self-interested stupidity. For even if via extensive mediation, material interests are ultimately determining of the inclination to think one way, and to prohibit thinking another way. This is where the rotten head of the fish articulates its dual meaning: the violence of the bourgeois bloc (metaphor) unleashed in the imposition of its forms of thought (metonymy).

Why has it been unleashed with a ferocity that it would not, say, on matters of taxation or working hours? What is it about this international event that has such a powerful resonance in national class conjunctures? One answer is that the Western bourgeoisies consider Israel’s situation as intimately linked to their own. This is an imaginary, semi-conscious connection which – far more than simple sociological affinities – is driven by a subterranean affinity which cannot but be denied. Sympathy for domination, sympathy for racism, perhaps the purest form of domination, and therefore most exciting for the dominators. This affinity is heightened when domination enters a crisis: an organic crisis in capitalism, a colonial crisis in Palestine, as when those dominated revolt against all odds, and their antagonists are ready to crush them in order to reassert domination.

But there is also a deeper fascination for the Western bourgeoisie. It was Sandra Lucbert who saw this with penetrating insight, positing a word that I believe to be decisive: innocence. The fascination is with the image of Israel as a figure of domination in innocence. To dominate without bearing the stain of evil: this is perhaps the ultimate fantasy of the dominant. During his trial, the left militant Pierre Goldman yells at the judge: ‘I am innocent, I am ontologically innocent and there is nothing you can do about it’. As different as the circumstances are, his words resonate: after the Holocaust, Israel established itself in ontological innocence. And indeed, the Jews were first victims, victims at the summit of the history of human violence. But victim, even on this scale, does not mean ‘innocent forever’. The only way to move from one to the other is by means of a fraudulent deduction.

The Western bourgeoisie retains of all this only what suits it. It would so much like to indulge in domination in innocence itself. This is obviously more difficult, but the example is right in front of their eyes, and they are hypnotised by it, and immediately caught up in reflexive solidarity.

Humans have various ways of not facing the violence they perpetrate. The first consists in degrading the oppressed: they are not truly human. Consequently, the harm done to them is not really evil and innocence is preserved. Undoubtedly the most powerful and most common is denial. This is what the term ‘terrorism’ is used for. It is a category designed to prevent thought, in particular the thought that ex nihilo nihil: that nothing comes from nothing. That events do not fall from the sky. That there is an economy of violence, which functions on the basis of a negative reciprocity. And that it could be summed-up by a paraphrase of Lavoisier’s principle: nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything returns. The countless acts of violence inflicted on the Palestinian people were bound to return. Only those whose sole intellectual operation is condemnation were guaranteed not to see anything coming beforehand or understand anything afterwards. Sometimes incomprehension is not a weakness of the intellect but a trick of the psyche: its categorical imperative. You have to fail to understand to fail to see: to fail to see a causality you are part of – and therefore not so innocent.

To claim it all began on 7 October is a vicious and characteristic intellectual corruption of this kind, one that only an ontologically innocent nation could subscribe to, along with all those who envy them, and who love to believe with them in effects without cause. We shouldn’t even be surprised that some of them, as is the case in France, continue to use the word ‘terrorism’ against climate activists – labelling them ‘ecoterrorists’ – without batting an eyelid when they should be in hiding, consumed by shame. They do not even respect the dead, whose memory they pretend to honour and whose cause they support. But ‘terrorism’ is the shield of Western innocence.

The misuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ can be analysed in similar terms. In its present deviations (which obviously does not exhaust all cases, since there is plenty of genuine anti-Semitism) the accusation is intended to delegitimise all those who wish to recognise causality, and therefore call into question innocence.

Rotting of the head is first and foremost this: the self-interested corruption of the categories and operations of thought, because what there is to protect is too precious. The consequence is the lowering – one might even say the debasement – of public debate. It is no coincidence that the rotten fish spoke through Attal’s mouth, since this debasement is typical of the process of fascisation in which Macronism, supported by the radicalised bourgeoisie, has embroiled the country. A process that we can recognise by the growing empire of lies, systematic misrepresentation, even outright fabrication. With – as is only right and proper, and always the case – the collaboration of the bourgeois media.

Yet all the denials and symbolic compromises, all the intimidation and censorship, will do nothing to stem the relentless surge of reality from Gaza. What the camp of unconditional support for Israel is supporting, and at what cost, is something that it is evidently no longer capable of seeing. For everyone who has not completely lost their senses, and looks on in horror, the ideological perdition – between biological racialism and messianic eschatology – into which the Israel government is sinking is bottomless. What we can see, and what we knew already, is that eschatological political projects are necessarily mass-murdering ones.

As Ilan Pappé has argued, the hallmark of colonisation when it is settlement-based is the wish to eliminate the presence of the occupied – in the case of the Palestinians either by expulsion-deportation or, as we now see, by genocide. Here, as on other such occasions recorded by history, dehumanisation is once again the justifying trope par excellence. There are now countless examples of it, both from official Israeli mouthpieces and in the muddy stream of social networks, staggering in their gleeful monstrosity and sadistic exultation. This is what happens when the veil of innocence is lifted, and as always, it’s not a pretty sight.

One feature in this landscape of annihilation that catches our attention is the destruction of cemeteries. This is how we recognise projects of eradication: domination carried to the point of symbolic annihilation which, if it’s a paradox, is reminiscent of the terms of Spinoza’s herem: ‘May his name be erased from this world and forever’. In this case, it was no great success. Nor will it be here.

What we are witnessing is moral suicide. Never before has there been such a colossal squandering of symbolic capital that was thought to be unassailable, which had been built up in the wake of the Holocaust. It turns out that the time for symbolic reckoning is coming for everyone, especially for this colonial project which calls itself the West and claims a monopoly on civilisation, yet wages violence in the name of its principles. If indeed they ever floated, its moral credentials are now sunk. It takes the arrogance of the soon-to-be-fallen rulers, who don’t yet know it, to believe that they can pursue this course without cost. Those who remain passive, who participate as accomplices, even acting as deniers of such an enormous crime being committed before their eyes and before the eyes of everyone else – people of this kind can no longer lay claim to anything. The whole world is watching Gaza die, and the whole world is watching the West watching Gaza. And nothing escapes them.

At this point, we inevitably think of Germany, whose unconditional support has reached astonishing levels of delirium, and of which one darkly humorous Internet user was able to say: ‘When it comes to genocide, they are always on the wrong side of History’. It’s not certain that ‘we’ – France – are much better off, but it is certain that History is waiting for everyone around the corner. History: this is what the West meets in Gaza. If, as there is reason to believe, this is a rendezvous with decline and fall, then the time will come when we will be able to say that the world was upturned in Gaza.

Read on: Alberto Toscano, ‘A Structuralism of Feeling?’, NLR 97.


Hand and Mind

Mark Rothko’s interest in light and space is evident in any encounter with his work. But he was also the author of a theoretical treatise on artistic practice, never published in his lifetime, posthumously titled The Artist’s Reality (2004). Likely written in 1942-43 as the painter drifted away from the figuration of his earliest works, the book treats a wide range of concepts and problems: the use of archaic forms and ancient myth as sources; psychology and the physics of perception; the social-historical changes compelling painters to adjust their practice from demands of lordly benefactors to the vagaries of the market. It is organized according to a central hypothesis, that painting can be divided into two fundamental categories: the ‘illusory’, or ‘visual’, and the ‘tactile’. Like the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts and the Theses on Feuerbach, Rothko dwells on sense-perception – this-sidedness (Diesseitigkeit) as the means by which painting discovered the truth, producing a ‘generalization’ of reality capable of reconciling subject and object.

Among the senses, it was not vision – as might be expected – but touch that Rothko considered to be elemental. Touch organized reality and confirmed the veracity of an object. Painting interested in truth therefore addressed depth perception as it might be experienced by touch, rather than proceeding according to the linear perspective of an imagined or idealized eye. Rothko designated this approach, whereby a painting took itself as its own object, as ‘plastic’. Rather than ‘conveying the illusion of appearance’, plastic artists – he gives the example of Egyptian wall painters – paid no heed to conventions of representation. For the plastic artist, ‘the subject of painting is the painting itself, which is a corporeal manifestation of the artist’s notion of reality’. The visual form, Rothko contended, had been dominant in Western art since the Renaissance in response to Platonism’s denigration of the world of appearance. Tactile plasticity, by contrast, staged the sensuous discovery of generic features of appearance.

Rothko’s opposing terms then were not appearance versus essence, but rather appearance versus the essence of appearance: Plato ‘could not foresee the development of the twentieth-century method for the representation of the essence of appearances through the abstraction of both shapes and senses’. Such representation held the promise of restoring a unity between subject and object which had prevailed in antiquity, much as Lukács looked to the ‘happy’ age of the Homeric epic which knew no division between inner and outer life. It is unlikely that Rothko would have read Lukács, but his theories bear a striking resemblance to those of Christopher Caudwell, who in Illusion and Reality developed a theory of the plastic arts in which ‘the visual sense…is eked out by tactile corrections’, and where ‘the affects do not inhere in the association of the things, but in the lines and forms and colours that compose them’. Caudwell’s principle is not unlike Rothko’s stated aim of raising painting to the level of poetry and music: ‘the philosophers of antiquity were her poets, who symbolized the ultimate unity of all that was considered reality in the created myths’. Ut pictura poesis.

Installation view: Mark Rothko, Fondation Louis Vuitton © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ADAGP, Paris, 2023

At the recent retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, curated by the artist’s son Christopher Rothko and Suzanne Pagé, two early figurative paintings already indicate something of this suspicion of the illusory and the visual. Movie Palace (1934-35), a dim, angled panorama of a cinema audience, depicts those attending with blacked-out eyes (also a feature of the contemporary self-portrait exhibited in the same room) or even nodding off, as is the case for the most recognizable feminine subject, who has propped up her head in her hands, eyelids shut. Contemplation (1937-38), meanwhile, depicts an elderly man, blonde with yellow skin, turned and looking away from a small globe towards a miniature window or rectangular image on the opposite wall; horizontally, the painting is divided by a cash register, with its red light on. A schematic rendering of a windowsill is beige, but the overwhelming backdrop is composed of two shades of black. This is not the only place where the ‘classical’ rectangular forms of the mature Rothko are already hidden in the background of the early work, but it is the most remarkable (though Rothko denied any correspondence).

Having dropped out of Yale to devote himself to painting, by the turn of the 1940s Rothko had abandoned figurative portraits and street scenes, including his well-known subway series, turning to a style he called ‘surrealist’. Such works, which set geometric or biomorphic forms against flat backdrops and relied on cubist rendering of multiple perspectives, carried titles indexing archaic myths, including those of Greece and Mesopotamia: Antigone (1939-40), Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1942), Tiresias (1944) and so on. The Greek gods were a lifelong, enduring symbol of the ‘limitations of human expression’. Rothko’s friendship with Clyfford Still and association with other abstract painters in New York informed a further movement away from figuration. Whether this was to be understood as concrete or abstract was an open question. In a 1946 catalogue essay, Rothko wrote that Still ‘expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths at all times . . . He is creating new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids who have lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries’. It was a matter, as he put it to Barnett Newman, of ‘further concretizing my symbols’. (A self-described ‘materialist’, Rothko would some years later contrast his work with that of the surrealists, who translated the real world into dream – he was rather insisting that ‘symbols were real’).

What followed was a period of the so-called multiforms: modular, abstract canvases, exhibited without frames, which abandoned line altogether and therefore the conventions of illusory perspective, even in heightened or self-reflexive cubist form. In works such as No.17/No.15 and No.14 (Golden Composition) Rothko developed the blurred rectangular structures common to the classical period, though in their earlier stages they are often vertically arranged and placed in a jigsaw pattern, without the discrete planes of the work of the 1950s. No.1 (1949) reintroduces some line, but only as outline, and incorporates the smoothed-over quadrangles in the stacked tripartite form of background, covered by a pseudo-foreground through the application of layers of thin paint above and below the viewer’s line of sight (Rothko insisted, famously, that his canvases be hung frameless close to the floor). These were the first of what are most recognizably Rothko in presentation. Untitled (1949) inaugurates the fully classical period. It is a large canvas. For Rothko, small pictures placed the viewer outside of the experience of viewing – one ‘looks upon an experience as a stereopticon’; but with a larger picture, ‘you are in it’.

Installation view: Mark Rothko, Fondation Louis Vuitton © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ADAGP, Paris, 2023

One remarkable painting, No.9/No.5/No. 18 (1952) – held by a private collection and hardly ever exhibited – suggests a small but significant concession to illusion. A navy-blue backdrop is all but blocked out by the brilliant red rectangle occupying nearly half of the canvas, and the corresponding ochre of the bottom third. What is notable is a narrower yellow rectangular band overlayed in the transition between the two. It is flanked by two lighter layers of the same yellow, extending nearly to the edge of the canvas, where the blue backdrop re-emerges. They are set at a slight angle, suggesting the imposition of perspective, albeit in a spectral way, and achieved without line itself. The presence of minimal illusion among its other elements makes this one of the most stirring compositions of the retrospective.

Elsewhere, among the classical Rothkos of the 1950s, one encounters other means by which depth, space and light are rendered without illusion: as in the rounded corners of quadrangles, their frayed edges giving the appearance of light while actually dispersing it. They evoke organic substances – contracting muscles or membranes – but these forms are generic and cannot be felt to refer to any specific physical body. They do, however, communicate the presence of the hand and its relation to the concept, as a pragmatics of seeing and perceiving. The Blackforms series of the mid-1960s make even greater demands on the viewer. Here, the little light which is not absorbed by these mammoth black canvases reflects back the reality of the mechanics of seeing – conjuring a monument to the effort expended by the viewer and the painter together in forging an image out of what at first appears to be monochromatic black.

Rothko was fastidious about the placement of his works. On various occasions – for the Phillips Collection, the Seagram Murals, the Rothko Chapel – he supervised the design of the room and not just the sequence of canvases. The first of these, dating to 1954-60, was recreated at the retrospective: three canvases surround a bench, their orientation insisted upon by the artist. The organization was undertaken with the aim of recruiting the viewer to better experience the physical process of perception – a process Rothko himself understood, in his own idiosyncratic definition, as psychological (psychology deals with ‘the mechanics of the sensual apparatus’). Although they are meant to be encountered by individual observers, Rothko argued that his paintings were part of ‘social action’. Politics was never absent in this process. A self-described liberal – and a committed anti-Communist who resigned in 1953, along with Adolph Gottlieb, from the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors he’d help found because it was insufficiently vigilant in the Cold War – Rothko was nevertheless highly suspicious of the ruling class which sponsored him, albeit belatedly, and of the art market itself.

This was partly what inspired his use of pre-capitalist antiquity as a model for his early 1940s theories. Not mediated by the market, the artist of antiquity was under no illusions about the nature of his relation to his benefactor, and for this reason those artists understood a social reality not easily accessible to artists of the capitalist (or ‘modern’) epoch. Rothko saw that ‘the market through its denial or affording of the means of sustenance, exerts the same compulsion’ as the direct compulsion of non-market societies, but with a ‘vital difference’. Ancient civilizations ‘had the temporal and spiritual power to summarily enforce their demands’; without this ‘dogmatic unity’, ‘instead of one voice, we have dozens issuing demands. There is no longer one truth, no single authority’.

Installation view: Mark Rothko, Fondation Louis Vuitton © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ADAGP, Paris, 2023

The Seagram Murals indicate something of Rothko’s conflict. Commissioned in 1958 by Philip Johnson’s Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building on Park Avenue, Rothko undertook their construction with ‘strictly malicious intentions’. He said that he’d hoped ‘to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room’ and that he intended to make ‘viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’. Over the course of a decade, a plainly anguished Rothko refused to deliver the work, and became convinced that the wealthy diners were too indifferent to be intimidated by his murals. He had anticipated – or maybe even orchestrated – this dispute, and had included a clause in his agreement, later exercised, allowing him to repossess the works should the room not meet his expectations. By 1969, he had arranged for the murals to be donated to the Tate. He was found dead in his kitchen of an evident suicide the day they were delivered to London in late February 1970.

The Seagram Murals are enormous wine-red and dark–brown tapestry-like canvases. Heavily layered, their forms – the outlines of columns and trapezoidal shapes – are conveyed more by texture and placement than by colour contrast. The gigantic Red on Maroon (1959) is actually a diptych, one portion hung atop the other, mimicking the quadrangular planes of his classical work; here, the small bit of gallery wall in between them is analogous to the layered background in the classical single canvases.

Installation view: Mark Rothko, Fondation Louis Vuitton © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ADAGP, Paris, 2023

The exhibition concludes with the Black and Gray series, here shown with Giacometti sculptures as planned for an unrealized UNESCO commission. The curators attempt to rebut a common interpretation that these works evince symptoms of depression (by the end of his life, Rothko was being treated with the antidepressant Sinequan and suffering from numerous ailments, including an aneurism and high blood pressure). Contemporary with them, they point out, are some of the most vibrantly coloured works Rothko ever produced. Yet, if not morose, the Black and Gray works do appear to be anhedonic, or even anodyne. The effect is accentuated by two distinguishing features: the use of non-reflective acrylic imparts a shallower surface than those produced by Rothko’s typical mixture of oil and acrylic. Secondly, all but one of these works employ a border, achieved by half-inch tape applied during painting and leaving blank canvas exposed. Though abstract, they look more like representations, and share none of the immersive quality of other Rothkos.

Perhaps what they most resemble are minimalist mock photographs – the ironic staging of an illusory technique to represent a stereotype of the then-famous classic Rothkos. Rothko here appears to pursue the objectification of painting through illusory representation of his own work. ‘It is the camera that is chasing the artist’, he remarked in the Artist’s Reality, ‘chiaroscuro is the heart of photography’. These late works suggest by the last years of the sixties, the camera had begun to encroach on Rothko’s project. In this reading, the Black and Gray works are Rothko’s Parthian shot at illusion, one of the last in a lifelong effort to safeguard reality from it.

Read on: Hal Foster, ‘Art Agonistes’, NLR 8.


Republican Resurgence?

In Turkey’s local elections, held on 31 March, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) achieved its strongest showing in fifty years, winning 38% of the overall vote. As well as landslide wins in the country’s largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya – the CHP also claimed several conservative strongholds in Anatolia, where it is traditionally weak and has not governed for decades. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) meanwhile received 35%, its worst results to date. This was a remarkable turnaround. Less than a year ago, Erdoğan and the AKP-led ruling alliance triumphed in the presidential and parliamentary elections with relative ease, seeing off the opposition despite a failing economy and the country having suffered the worst earthquake in its modern history. How might this upset be explained?

First, the economy. The promises of the nationalist-Islamist coalition, made during the May 2023 election campaign, went unfulfilled. The AKP implemented a not entirely consistent return to neoliberal austerity and deflationary policies, a so-called ‘hybrid’ economic regime that has led to contradictory results such as resurgent inflation without a parallel increase in domestic demand. This compounded the dissatisfaction with the AKP that had already been rising since 2018, and was reflected in a large number of abstentions and invalid votes. While voter turnout was 84% in the 2019 local elections, and 88% in last year’s general elections, this year it fell to just under 79%, with the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) losing the most votes proportionately. So far, dissatisfied voters have mostly turned to other parties within the ruling bloc; the Islamist splinter party YRP jumped from around 2% to over 6%; in Anatolia and Kurdistan in particular, it contested the AKP’s leading position in strongholds and even won two provinces.

This accounts for the erosion of the AKP vote. What of the CHP’s success? The party’s strong presence in local politics was the key factor. Its administration of Ankara and Istanbul has shown that not everything goes down the drain when the AKP is out of power. On the contrary, public services have improved and populist redistributive policies have been passed, as more resources were available without the favouritism afforded to AKP-affiliated Islamist organisations and entrepreneurs. This was viewed favourably in the wider context of the AKP’s economic mismanagement. The party’s internal overhaul – with long-time leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu replaced by Ozgur Ozel, who is close to Istanbul’s prominent mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu – also appears to have had a salutary effect. In the major cities, CHP victories were huge: they won not only the mayoralties but also swept the city parliaments and most of the neighbourhoods. Crucially, here they were able to win votes from the government bloc and thus – at least at local level – partially reverse the process of electoral polarization.

A further explanation is that, although the main opposition alliance collapsed following a series of internal power struggles prompted by last year’s defeat, the electorate continued to view its candidates as a de facto unified slate and voted accordingly, along tactical lines. This informal alliance gained some support from the left, although the pro-Kurdish DEM (formerly HDP) decided to run its own candidates across the country. This was based on legitimate grievances about how Kurdish support was taken for granted in the last election. Still, supporters of the former opposition alliance voted almost universally for the CHP and punished the opportunism of other parties. The Kurds supported the CHP in the west and their own party in the east. In Kurdistan, the DEM achieved strong results and won back many provinces – results which the politicized judiciary is already trying to repress.

What lessons can be drawn? The electoral disappearance of smaller far-right and Islamist opposition parties shows that opposition is possible without them, disproving liberal theses that you must please everyone if you want to defeat the AKP. Instead, the results suggest that, in principle, a convincing alternative to Erdoğanism can emerge given a favourable conjuncture. Opposition voters have signalled a strong desire for change. In places where leftists worked together to heed this demand, they achieved some notable successes.

Yet it is also important to note that the CHP is still contributing to the rightward drift in Turkish politics that began in 1980, even if it is currently opposed to the AKP’s authoritarian excesses. Its economic programme simply calls for a definitive return to orthodox fiscal and monetary policy. This means that the party could squander its support if the AKP and MHP are able to improve the material situation for the mass of the population. At present, the CHP can also oscillate between promising democratization to the Kurds and making nationalist-conservative overtures to traditionalists. Yet as it makes gains at the national level, it will have to back up its words with deeds, and this balancing act will be much harder to sustain. It will then fall to the left to articulate a counter-hegemonic vision for the country.

Read on: Cengiz Gunes, ‘Turkey’s New Left’, NLR 107.


Sea and Earth

The far right wants to decolonize. In France, far-right intellectuals routinely cast Europe as indigenous victim of an ‘immigrant colonization’ orchestrated by globalist elites. Renaud Camus, theorist of the Great Replacement, has praised the anticolonial canon – ‘all the major texts in the fight against decolonization apply admirably to France, especially those of Frantz Fanon’ – and claimed that indigenous Europe needs its own FLN. A similar style of reasoning is evident among Hindu supremacists, who employ the ideas of Latin American decolonial theorists to present ethnonationalism as a form of radical indigenous critique; the lawyer and writer Sai Deepak did this so successfully that he managed to persuade decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo to write an endorsement. Meanwhile in Russia, Putin proclaims Russia’s leading role in an ‘anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony’, with his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov promising to stand ‘in solidarity with the African demands to complete the process of decolonization’.

The phenomenon goes beyond the kinds of reversal common to reactionary discourse. A decolonial perspective is championed by the two foremost intellectuals of the European New Right: Alain de Benoist and Alexander Dugin. In the case of de Benoist, this involved a major departure from his earlier colonialist allegiances. Coming to political consciousness during the Algerian War, he found his calling among white nationalist youth organizations seeking to prevent the collapse of the French empire. He praised the OAS for its bravery and dedicated two early two books to the implementation of white nationalism in South Africa and Rhodesia, describing South Africa under apartheid as ‘the last stronghold of the West from which we came’. Yet by the 1980s, de Benoist had shifted course. Having adopted a pagan imaginary and dropped explicit references to white nationalism, he began to orient his thought around a defence of cultural diversity.

Against the onslaught of liberal multiculturalism and mass consumerism, de Benoist now argued that the Nouvelle Droite should struggle to uphold the ‘right to difference’. From here, it was a short distance to claiming a belated kinship with the plight of Third World nations. ‘Undertaken under the aegis of missionaries, armies, and merchants, the Westernization of the planet has represented an imperialist movement fed by the desire to erase all otherness’, he wrote with Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012). The authors insisted that the Nouvelle Droite ‘upholds equally ethnic groups, languages, and regional cultures under the threat of extinction’ and ‘supports peoples struggling against Western imperialism’. Today, the preservation of anthropological difference and a sense of indigenous fragility are common tropes on the European far right. ‘We refuse to become the Indians of Europe’, proclaims the manifesto of the neo-fascist youth group Génération Identitaire.

Dugin, a close associate of de Benoist, has integrated this decolonial spirit into his worldview even more deeply. His system of thought ­– what he calls neo-Eurasianism or The Fourth Political Theory – is underpinned by a critique of Eurocentrism derived from anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss. Russia, he claims, shares much with the postcolonial world: it, too, is a victim of the assimilating drive inherent to Western liberalism, which forces a world of ontological diversity into a flat, homogeneous, de-particularized mass (we can think of Renaud Camus’s ‘Undifferentiated Human Matter’ or what Marine le Pen called ‘the flavourless mush’ of globalism). Contra this universalizing agenda, Dugin asserts, we live in a ‘pluriverse’ of distinct civilizations, each moving according to its own rhythm. ‘There is no unified historical process. Every people has its own historical model that moves in a different rhythm and sometimes in different directions.’ The parallels with the decolonial school of Mignolo and Anibal Quijano are hard to miss. Each civilization blossoms out of a unique epistemological framework, but such efflorescence has been stunted by the ‘unitary episteme of Modernity’ (Dugin’s words, but they could be Mignolo’s).

Modernization, Westernization and colonization are ‘a synonymous series’: each involves imposing an exogenous developmental model upon plural civilizations. That the ethnonational identities Dugin defends are artefacts of the colonial production of difference – the racial regimes through which it differentiates, categorises, and organizes exploitation and extraction – is not considered. Nor, for that matter, is the quintessentially modern character of many anticolonial movements, which sought not to return to a traditional culture but rather to remake the world system. As Fanon put it, decolonization could neither renounce ‘the present and the future in favour of a mystical past’ nor base itself on ‘sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry’ of a debased Europe that was, at the time he was writing, ‘swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.’ 

Dugin and de Benoist are unfazed by such contradictions. ‘The Fourth Political Theory has become a slogan for the decolonization of political consciousness’, Dugin claims, whose first practical expression is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is understood as a long-awaited struggle in the reunification of Eurasia, an ancient pan-Slavic civilization dismembered by Western designs, but also the first stage in what he calls the Great Awakening, a millenarian battle to overturn the liberal world order and usher in a multipolar world. Dugin envisages a coalition of movements across the world participating in this battle: ‘American protestors will be one wing and European populists will be the other wing. Russia in general will be the third; it will be an angelic entity with many wings – a Chinese wing, an Islamic wing, a Pakistani wing, a Shia wing, an African wing and a Latin American wing’. But isn’t the war in Ukraine an imperial war, or a war of ‘competing imperialisms’, as Liz Fekete put it? Dugin would agree. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a key step in its ‘imperial renaissance’.

How is it possible to speak the language of imperial renaissance and decolonization in the same breath? Here, Dugin and de Benoist draw their principal resources from Carl Schmitt. In his writings on geopolitics, Schmitt identifies in the ‘sea power’ of the Anglo-American maritime empires a particular kind of imperial domination – one that is dispersed, deterritorial, floating, financial, liquid. Sea power breeds a scattered empire lacking in territorial coherence and generates a spatial-juridical framework that reads the surface of the earth as merely a series of traffic routes. This imperialism also generates its own epistemology: ‘The juridical way of thinking that pertains to a geographically incoherent world empire scattered across the earth tends by its own nature towards universalistic argumentation’, Schmitt writes. Under the guise of abstract universals such as human rights, this imperium ‘interferes in everything’. It’s ‘a pan-interventionist ideology’, he writes, ‘all under the cover of humanitarianism.’

Against the deterritorial imperium, Schmitt opposes what he considers to be a legitimate, territorial imperialism. This is based around his concepts of the Grossraum and the Reich: a Grossraum can be understood as a civilizational bloc, while the Reich is its spiritual, logistical and moral centre. As Schmitt writes, ‘every Reich has a Grossraum into which its political idea radiates and which is not to be confronted with foreign interventions’. If the imperium corresponds to an ‘empty, neutral, mathematical-natural scientific conception of space’, the Grossraum involves a ‘concrete’ conception inseparable from the particular people that occupies it. This territorial notion of space, Schmitt writes, ‘is incomprehensible to the spirit of the Jew.’ As de Benoist proclaims: ‘The fundamental distinction between the earth and the sea, the land and sea powers, which define the distinction between politics and trade, solid and liquid, area and network, border and river, will become more important again. Europe must stop being dependent on US sea power and be in solidarity with the continental logic of the earth.’ Land is being colonized by water, the heartlands by the port cities, sovereign authority by flows of transnational capital.

With this opposition between the imperium and the Grossraum, Schmitt’s thought provides an impressive realignment: territorial empire-building becomes compatible with a certain anticolonial sentiment. In Dugin and de Benoist’s recent writings, ‘colonization’ is a despised deterritorial affair, while ‘imperialism’ is reserved for a more noble, territorial form of expansion. Colonialism thus comes to mean less a phenomenon of political or military domination than ‘a state of intellectual enslavement’, in Dugin’s words, less a matter of territorial annexation than a form of subjection to ‘colonial ways of thinking’. It is the ‘sovereignty’ of minds, words and categories that is violated. Colonialism dominates the world by stripping away identities: no more women, only Gender X (to use Giorgia Meloni’s terminology). It is ‘ethnocidal’ at its core; cultural erasure and demographic replacement are its principal tools. ‘Military, administrative, political and imperialist colonizations are certainly painful for the colonized,’ Renaud Camus tells us, ‘but they are nothing compared to demographic colonizations, which touch the very being of the conquered territories, transforming their souls and bodies.’

With the meaning of colonization transformed to refer to shifting migration patterns (wrought by nothing other than the colonial structure of the global economy), changing gender norms and a homogenizing liberal culture, the far right can present themselves as champions of popular sovereignty and the self-determination of peoples. They can also stage an imaginary struggle against the ravages of transnational capital. To decolonize, for these thinkers, is to split off one kind of capitalism from another, a procedure well established within far-right thought. A globalist, rootless, parasitic, financial capitalism (imagined now as colonial) is separated from a racial, national, industrial capitalism (imagined as self-determining, or even decolonial). It goes without saying that such a separation is illusory: global systems of capital accumulation, with their entwined processes of immaterial speculation and earthly extraction, cannot be decoupled in this way. But separating the inseparable does not seem to pose a problem for reactionary thought. Indeed, it may be crucial to it. For once an imaginary antinomy has been constructed, one can disavow the hated side of it, and in this way seem to gain mastery over one’s own riven interior.

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


In Pieces

The fictions of the Croatian novelist Daša Drndić are catalogues of a shattered humanity. Families, communities, countries. Broken social orders beget broken lives. In her greatest work – among them, Trieste (2007), Belladonna (2012) and EEG (2016) ­­­­– fragmentation is everywhere. Personal episodes convolve with historical interpolations and primary documents – lists, epitaphs, inventories, recipes, instructions, ledgers, receipts; syntactic fragments are presented as standalone sentences; lines begin in the lower-case, as if severed from larger notions. Layout, as well, is wrenched to the theme: the splintered stories of young Printz in Doppelgänger are divided by the cutting lines found on paper worksheets, or the body awaiting the scalpel. In EEG, the final novel Drndić published before she died in 2018, a character describes the human body as no longer having borders: ‘it is dismembered, scattered, wild, but again, preserved in pieces’.

Is this state of fragmentation a hallmark of existence, or product of a particular social order? Drndić believed that the ‘boring linear construction’ of bourgeois literature merely sustained an illusion that lives are ‘coherent, seamless, with the stitching not showing and everything appearing to be smooth and logically constructed’, as a character in Belladonna (2012) puts it. Yet, Drndić’s work is at the same time inseparable from the Balkans and its history. In her most recently translated novel, Battle Songs, originally published in 1998, the protagonist, Tea Radan, flees Yugoslavia during the internecine wars of the 1990s, along with her precocious young daughter Sara, to find refuge in Toronto. Differing circumstances might allow them to mend what was broken elsewhere – if nothing else, Battle Songs disabuses the reader of this expectation.

Tea’s hardships in Toronto are sadly predictable. Western bigotry misses its target: mandated to visit a tuberculosis clinic, Tea reads ‘ARABS GO BACK TO BOSNIA!’ tagged on its walls. She spends her days working bad, temporary jobs while worrying about the welfare of her daughter. Tea joins the ranks of other disillusioned refugees underwhelmed by the offerings of liberal capitalism: a Bosnian, formerly a professional violinist, solicits business door-to-door with a sack of cheap toys; an ‘economist by training’ who once allocated social security payments in Yugoslavia, now collects them; a Croatian professional in ‘marketing and tourism’ abandons his search for work, bitterly concluding that the reason Canada accepts so many immigrants is that ‘they need cheap manpower’.

The deeper inadequacy of Tea’s new existence is spiritual. It’s a theme common to the literature of the refugee, where gaps in present experience are filled by the miseries and banalities of the past. Working at an illegal envelope-stuffing operation on the wintry fringes of the city, Tea, overwhelmed by unbidden memories, asks her boss for a distraction:

Couldn’t we have a bit of music? I asked at half past three, hoping that would help drive out the thoughts that were thumping in heavy, leaden lumps into the depths of my skull in crazy succession and at speed. I felt an unpleasant, almost painfully rhythmic drumming in my temples. For a long time, there was a rumour that Hitler was a vegetarian, because he was sometimes overcome by an insatiable desire for vegetarian dishes.

The reader learns to interpret these non sequiturs as reflexive masochism. Tea’s frequent flights into Croato-Serbian history similarly demonstrate that she can escape her present only through delving into the past.

The Serbian statesman Mihailo Crnobrnja once described Yugoslavia as a country of ‘seven neighbours, six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two scripts, and one goal: to live in brotherhood and unity’. Tea’s recollections of her time in Yugoslavia present a confounding social portrait. By landmarks and language alone, the reader might locate her in a different country entirely. As a child in Rovinj, Croatia, she noticed that the main street was called ‘Belgrade Street’, its only cinema ‘Belgrade Cinema’. Eventually they move to Belgrade, where Sara’s school workbooks used ‘Serbian terms for chemistry and history, the seal was half in the Latin script, half in Cyrillic, and the language being learned was called Serbo-Croato-Slovene’. Tea reports that the experience of returning from Belgrade to Croatia ‘did not differ fundamentally’ from their later journey to Toronto. In some respects, the culture shock was harder to weather. Tea was warned to ‘tone down that Serbian accent’ and found it necessary to relearn ‘a language that would make my presence in my own country legitimate’.

Whereas Tea describes Sara and herself as ‘adaptable’ to such social volatility, her father is not. A passionate communist in his youth, when Tea would return from Belgrade to visit she found him ‘reduced’, rendered passive and nostalgic:

Before every parting, my father lays out on the kitchen table old letters, photos, newspaper clippings, political tracts. He brings them out and shows me what I have seen innumerable times, what I remember clearly, because what my father lays out in front are in fact mementos of a past life that has marked our whole family…Photographs of my mother. My letters to him. Printed articles, reviews, stories…

A sorrowful image that ritually emerges in Drndić’s writing. The word ‘reduced’ is translated from the Croat smanjen (literally, diminished) which Tea also uses to describe her cremated mother, held in a ‘small, cheap black urn made of tin’. Whether a citizen of a failing socialist federation, or a stranger in a capitalist state, Tea finds that death is not always an immediate affair, that our finer traits can perish long before the body does, reducing us to an animal existence. Hence the characteristic analogy to animals in Drndić’s fiction: the rats of Belladonna; the rhinos of Doppelgänger; and, in Battle Songs, the Vietnamese potbellied pig, whose cultivation as a ‘Western family pet’ is juxtaposed with the experience of the novel’s refugees.

Drndić finds nimbler symbols in the figurines, dolls and game pieces her characters encounter. Waiting for the subway one day, Tea meets a woman selling miniatures: ‘little violins, little guitars, little newspapers, little books, little people, little teapots, little trumpets, little houses, little railways, little tables, little plates, little pianos’. Rather than prompting lamentation for the tragic diminishment of her life, she instead imagines ‘how nice it would be if we all got together and in a shrunken state lived on that woman’s shelf’.

The longing to live in a ‘shrunken state’ finds an affinity with Drndić’s treatment of ultranationalism and fascism. More than once, Tea declares confidence in the ‘purity of my Croatian blood’, which benefited her during the craze for ‘counting blood cells’ in the Balkans. Tea seems both bemused and faintly proud of this asset. Still, Tea has no serious affinities for the far right. The history of her Partisan family was marred by the violence of the Ustasha, the militia of the NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), the Croatian puppet state of the Axis powers. Drndić frames their ‘call for blood and soil’ as a petulant appeal for narrowing social concerns. Tea recalls an instructive example in a student magazine published in Zagreb, 1942.

Croats may only be Croatophiles. Any other allegiance that crosses the boundaries of our shared commitments, is not only completely nonsensical but also absolutely harmful. So all contradictions can be manifested only within the borders of our national and state benefits. It is better that those borders should be narrower rather than wider, it is better that in establishing those borders we should be narrow-minded, rather than allow ourselves greater liberties.

The fascist’s demands for ethnic purity and national fealty betray his vulnerability. Tea’s passing daydream of life in miniature – to live simply amongst the ‘little people’ and ‘little houses’ – becomes the fascist’s consuming political ambition: to produce an uncomplicated, uncontaminated society by externalizing the forces of reduction he feels within himself. The emotional antecedents of fascism are widely felt in Drndić’s characters, and her presentation of them is often seeded with acknowledgements of their humanity. Battle Songs reminds its reader that the Ustasha, too, had parents and lovers and sang ‘ditties’ to their children. Monsters are made, not born, she insists; the structure that Drndić implicates in their making is the turmoil of the Balkan nation-states.

Nationalism, likewise, is the subject of Drndić’s most direct parodies. Battle Songs shares a late-90s fracas within the Balkans over ‘Grandfather Frost’. National factions insist on their own version of the childhood legend, or, in the case of Bosnia & Herzegovina, reject it altogether as something ‘imposed from the outside’. The episode is amusing – and, to Americans, familiar – until a radio host who maintains that ‘Grandfather Frost is one of the rare things that unites people’ is assaulted for his opinion. Similarly, in EEG, the narrator reports that Latvians despise the widespread perception of Rothko as an American artist; they insist that Markuss Rotkovičs ‘is in fact ours, he’s not yours, but in fact ours’.

Of course, this is how nations function, by guarding distinctions between their constituents and foreign nationals, while neglecting divisions within their borders. Nurturing the illusion of nationality, these tendencies can only preserve or expand social fragmentation. Drndić is a pessimist, yet her will to fragmentation cannot help but accentuate, through sheer contrast, the human bonds that remain untroubled by it. In an illustrative paragraph towards the end of Battle Songs, Tea reflects on her daughter’s childhood:

Little keys for tightening the tooth braces which kept getting lost, glasses, doctors’ checkups, orthopedists – ugly high shoes, diaries (allergic to Pentrexyl, sleeps well, sleeps badly, high temperature, low temperature, likes pureed squash, likes apples, doesn’t like sour things, can take cherries, not oranges, will eat spinach, dumplings, dresses herself, ties her shoelaces, right-handed – left-handed, draws circles, distinguishes colours, doesn’t distinguish colours, has grown 2 centimeters, gained 300 grams, doesn’t like the story ‘Hansel and Gretel’, does like ‘The Ugly Duckling’: When I grow up I’ll be a white swan, hard stool, soft stool, throat swab sterile, new words: I can’t get down!)

Like everything else in Drndić, Sara’s life is ‘preserved in pieces’. But this collage is somehow free from the contortions of identity or manias of self-maintenance; rather its parts are suspended in the resin of a mother’s love, boundless, transparent, selfless. What is civilization but the hope that this local, instinctive love can be extended? Drndić spent her career anatomizing how this remains a fantasy within nation-states that must feed fraternity and acrimony at the same trough. In Toronto, Tea sometimes overhears Sara in the shower, singing to herself: ‘What can we do to make things better, what can we do to make things better. La-la-la-la.’ Another daydream: the prospect of people cooperating toward their mutual flourishing is something children sing to themselves when they think no one is listening.

Read on: Robin Blackburn ‘The Break-Up of Yugoslavia and the Fate of Bosnia’, NLR I/199.



Heather Lewis’s Notice – recently republished after decades out of print – is a blistering and disturbing work. Rigorously deviant, technically merciless, to read it is almost an act of physical exertion, the effect viscerally stunning like a gut-punch. The resignation implied by its title – in the sense of ‘giving’ notice, abandoning a task – impels you to encounter it as an agonizingly extended suicide note. Lewis’s final novel was first published two years after she took her own life in 2002 at the age of forty, having relapsed following a long period of sobriety; she had also suffered an addiction to OxyContin, and ‘knew her way around heroin’ from her early years. Notice’s unanimous rejection – publishers recoiled from its relentless catalogue of cruelties, as well as an assumed proximity to its author’s life – coupled with the hostile reception that met The Second Suspect (1998), were widely perceived as precipitating Lewis’s decline. She had ‘gone too far’, though experimenting with limits – and with seeing how much both writer and reader could stomach – was also key to Lewis’s triumph.

The Second Suspect was an attempted compromise. A portrait of a female detective struggling to prove the guilt of a corporate male sadist who has raped and murdered legions of young women, this was Notice repackaged as a commercial thriller. Yet the novel still attracted epithets of rote ‘transgression’ and jejune ‘shock tactics’. Such criticism must have stung. Educated at Sarah Lawrence College and mentored by the writer-teacher Allan Gurganus, Lewis’s youth had been scarred by sexual abuse and parental neglect. House Rules (1994) was Lewis’s first – devastating, jarringly controlled – attempt to transmute her experience into a novel. In high school, she had made a foray into the world of show-horse jumping: the novel tells the story of a teenage runaway, victim of a sexually abusive father, who finds work as a trick rider. Existential squalor follows. Trick riding refers to the act of performing stunts on horseback. The sentence which begins Notice is ‘For the longest time I didn’t call it turning tricks.’

Notice follows a young woman, Nina, as she becomes ‘mixed up’ in brutalizing sex work, drugs, violence and prison. It begins with an ‘ordinary’ commute home, except home is an empty house from which the narrator’s parents have been absent for months. This isolation perhaps makes Nina more prone to the seductions of ‘Ingrid’s husband’ (also never given a full name) who picks her up by the side of the road: ‘Right there he’d flipped the game, right from the start’. Her subsequent account melds stark description with a cavernous lyricism:

I did wake up. Woke up sore and feeling drugged, and wishing I really was, but having no inclination to even find my liquor. I wanted to go back to that blackness where nothing had ever happened or ever had. Wanted this the way a child wants death, or the way I had as a child. A want simply to stop it.

In her former writing mentor’s words, Lewis’s ‘truest subject’ was ‘the void’ between the half-truths we tell ourselves, and the more complex, unflattering impulses behind what we do. Here the premise of turning tricks for money is punctured by the narrator – ‘because it just couldn’t be as simple as money’. Lewis instead sketches an alternative economy where the currency is suffering. As she puts it in House Rules, the narrator is interested in ‘the kind of pain that kills pain.’

The situation that unfolds could be portrayed as tragic, yet the novel resists any trace of pathos. Lewis’s tone has often been described as ‘chilling’, but a more diagnostic term would be dissociative. The writing is glazed and flattened by torment. Yet it carries the weight of something profoundly lived (if not fully resolved). Nina ultimately fluctuates between wanting to feel nothing – ‘it would make me feel something, which naturally is about the last thing you want’ – and wanting to feel everything. Between wanting to endure – ‘to prove I could take anything’ – and ‘a tremendous pull to give in, to give up.’ She knows she must escape Ingrid and her sadist husband, but also that – for ultimately enigmatic reasons – she cannot.

The carnal scenes in Notice are frequently harrowing: those in which Nina is made to dress in the clothes of the couple’s deceased teenage daughter are particularly gruesome. Eventually she is committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she meets Beth, a therapist with whom she pursues a romantic relationship and who eventually ‘gets her out’, but not before Nina has to undergo nightly ‘visitations’ from the patrolling guards. It does not get any better. As the novel raced towards its climax, I waited, almost squinting through my fingers, for some pay-off catharsis, a release from the unabating build-up of traumatic incident, but one never came. 

It is hard to resist a ‘reverse-image-search’ kind of psychoanalysis, reading Notice as the culmination of a lifetime’s effort to deal with the trauma she suffered at the hands of her father (Lewis’s long-term partner, the writer Ann Rower, called Hobart Lewis ‘the grand villain’ of everything she wrote). It is also tempting to read the relationships that Nina has with women as possessing a more sustaining, nurturing dynamic. Yet these attachments sour and turn savage too. The French title of the novel – Attention, translated and published in 2007 – might better encompass the book’s ambivalence, the tightrope walked between vigilance and exhibitionism. Throughout, we are made aware of the narrator’s fear of ‘never holding anyone’s notice for very long’. Perhaps the nightmare Notice dramatizes is not that violence and abuse will lead to further escalation or even loss of life. The nightmare is that such violence will simply continue, without being registered at all. 

Read on: Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, ‘Notes for a Feminist Manifesto’, NLR 114.