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In Defence of Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War by Other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ins and Outs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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Riot on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trial of Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Czech Freefall

Nearly a week and a half ago, parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic ended the four-year tenure of Andrej Babiš, one of Central Europe’s most enigmatic leaders. As polls closed on October 9th, Babiš’s national-populist party ANO achieved 27.1% of the national vote. His main rivals, the conservative Spolu (‘Together’) coalition, squeezed past the incumbent with 27.8% of the popular vote. Despite garnering one less seat in the Chamber of Deputies than ANO’s projected 72, Spolu, headed by the leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Petr Fiala, is now poised to take control of the Czech government. While the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, retains the official duty of inviting party leaders to form a government, his recent hospitalization has prompted the Senate to move ahead in his stead.

Spolu has already come to a provisional coalition agreement with the Pirates and Mayors coalition to put the five parties in their respective blocs behind a new government. This alliance represents 108 out of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, effectively writing off the possibility of another ANO-led minority government. Beyond this, however, the results confirmed two major trends: the continuing decline of the Czech left and a growing fracture in the traditional party landscape leading to unwieldy coalitions. Seven parties representing four broad factions – social-liberal, national-populist, conservative, and far-right – gained enough votes to enter the lower chamber of the Czech Republic’s parliament. Besides ANO and Spolu, the broadly liberal and centrist Pirates and Mayors coalition earned 37 seats. The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) of Tomio Okamura, a Czech-Japanese businessman, garnered 10% of the votes.

The campaign by Spolu and the Pirates and Mayors to remove Babiš from power has shaped domestic and international coverage of the Czech elections and reactions on social media. While liberals can celebrate the end of the controversy-laden administration of an abrasive populist billionaire, this misses a far larger shift in the Czech political landscape: a major defeat for progressive forces. While ANO lost just six seats in parliament – an outcome that Babiš rightly recognized as hardly a meaningful loss – two mainstay left-wing parties were evicted from the Chamber of Deputies entirely: the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). For the first time in the history of the Czech Republic, both parties fell short of the 5% vote threshold nationally needed to attain any seats.

Both the ČSSD and KSČM had seen a large decline in support in recent months. This is largely the result of attempting to cling to power over the course of the past four years by allying themselves with Babiš. Political fracturing has a long history in the Czech lands. One of Czechoslovakia’s most famous statesmen, Edvard Beneš, created a unique marriage of social-liberal nationalism from breakaway bits of Habsburg liberals and disgruntled social-democratic reformists. The communist government that displaced him in 1948 was aided without a deep rift in the Social Democrats to Beneš’s left. Having absorbed the Social Democrats into their ranks, the Communist Party itself proved far from immune from internal strife. Debates between hardliners and reformists crescendoed in the Alexander Dubček-headed Prague Spring, the most liberal and humanistic strain of Warsaw Pact socialism in the 1960s.

The dissident opposition to Czech state socialism in the 1980s also contained various ideological strains. Its most prominent leader, Václav Havel, could only smooth over these tensions by emphasizing their common opposition to communist rule. But the rapidity of the transition to market capitalism quickly emerged as a contentious issue, alongside the viability of the continued binational union with Slovakia. Two years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, a group of conservative economists led by Václav Klaus left Havel’s Civic Forum. As the Prime Minister of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, Klaus, the greatest Milton Friedman acolyte in Central Europe, clashed with his Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar, leading to the dissolution of the unified state. Once the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was complete in 1993, the modern Czech political system took shape. ODS and the Social Democrats alternated in power for much of the 1990s and 2000s, reaching a modus vivendi in which one party dominated parliament and most of the governmental cabinet while the other acted as the primary opposition. The Social Democrats built their support base by focusing on rural residents who felt spurned by the Klaus-led privatization process, which overlapped in some ways with the communist voter base. By contrast, ODS consolidated around a Thatcherite conservatism which coupled monetarist economics and soft-Euroscepticism. This attracted the support of much of the burgeoning wealthy middle-class in and around cities such as Prague and Brno.

ANO’s victory in the 2017 legislative elections marked the first time since 1993 that a party other than either ODS or the Social Democrats provided the prime minister. Babiš originally rose to prominence and found financial success through his part in the development, and later sole ownership, of the agricultural conglomerate Agrofert. In 2011, Babiš used his wealth to found ANO (‘ano’ meaning ‘yes’ in Czech, while also acting as an acronym for ‘Action of Dissatisfied Citizens’) and the party’s initial popularity stemmed from sapping voters from both ODS and ČSSD among those who began to view traditional parties as outdated and corrupt, in addition to widely mobilizing Czechs over 60. After ANO’s entrance to parliament in the 2013 elections, Babiš was named Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democratic-headed government, where he continued to develop his public-facing profile while retaining his ownership stake in Agrofert.

Despite ANO’s notable electoral success, Babiš’s time as Prime Minister has been fraught with controversy. Numerous conflicts of interest and EU funding scandals arose related to his stakeholdings in media companies and the Czech agricultural sector. Babiš was also alleged to have kidnapped his own son in 2018, moving him across various locations in Ukraine and Russia in order to block his testimony in an anti-corruption probe investigating his father. Babiš hit another stumbling block in the week prior to the elections, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the Pandora Papers about global tax evasion. The leaks revealed that Babiš has spent approximately 400 million Czech crowns (roughly $18 million) on various chateaux and properties on the French riviera, purchased through shell companies. Babiš’s premiership has been coloured by shady financial dealings and near constant allegations of corruption, which undermined his initial appeal as a man of the people attempting to take on the post-communist establishment.

Given such scandals, ANO found it difficult to sustain its power in the Czech legislature. Despite controlling 78 seats in the Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 election – the second-best electoral showing for any single party in the country’s history – Babiš led an unstable government. Formally his party was supported only by the Social Democrats, though informally they were often joined by the Communist Party in votes of confidence and budgetary matters. This was the first time that the Czech Communists supported a parliamentary government since the end of communist rule, albeit without any active ministers in Babiš’s cabinet. The KSČM has been largely dependent on support from a small constituency of dedicated pensioners, overwhelmingly retired labourers. The communists have long acted as a protest party on the federal level, removed from the levers of power beyond the municipal level.

The newly perceived proximity of the Communist Party to the ANO government led to further public outcry. For the right-wing opposition, the most promising avenue of criticism was to magnify Babiš’s service as an informant for the Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police, the StB, during the early to mid-1980s. The increased profile of the Communist Party in 2018 also led to the formation of a student-led protest movement called Milion chvilek pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy) which set the resignation of Babiš as its goal. In due time, two electoral coalitions emerged around the project of ousting Babiš. The first bloc, Spolu, unites the right-leaning and financially conservative parties in Czech politics. It is led by ODS, which has consistently claimed at least a quarter of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. ODS’s coalition partners in Spolu are TOP 09 (an acronym that stands for ‘Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity’), a liberal-conservative party that supports orthodox free-market economics but diverges from the Klausite Euroscepticism of ODS by advocating continued Czech integration in the EU and NATO; and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CŠL). Despite meagre results in most elections – they have never achieved more than 31 seats in the Chamber of Deputies – they often take part in government by amorphously supporting both ODS and Social Democrat led coalitions.

The second anti-Babiš coalition, Pirates and Mayors, is a union between the Czech Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents Party (STAN), nominally headed by Pirate leader Ivan Bartoš. Largely finding success with younger voters in urban centres, the Pirates promote unregulated internet use, economic modernization through education and labour market reforms, and green energy. The Pirates are also a culturally progressive force in parliament as outspoken supporters of LGBT rights. They overlap with the localist STAN in their shared support for anti-corruption policies, the decentralization of government in favour of Czech regionalism, and a broad pro-EU stance. In spite of their leading position in the electoral coalition, the Pirate Party lost 18 seats compared to 2017. It currently only makes up just four of the Pirates and Mayors’ 37, leaving them the smallest single party in the Chamber of Deputies. In the months leading up to the election, the Pirates’ popularity fell under the force of incessant attacks from both Babiš and Fiala, who castigated its ‘neo-Marxist’ platform. Bartoš himself was a lightning rod for his opponent’s criticisms; a former software engineer and anti-fascist activist sporting dreadlocks, the Pirate leader stands out among the traditional appearance of most Czech politicians. The more inoffensive STAN leader, Vít Rakušan, has therefore taken a more active public role in the coalition, standing in for Bartoš in televised debates.

It remains an open question how far the Pirate and Mayors, the only progressive force in Czech politics, can advance. Their alliance with the conservative Spolu bloc is predicated on the defeat of Babiš in the name of preserving democracy and governmental transparency. But it remains to be seen how long the unwieldy five-party coalition can stay united once Fiala ascends to the premiership. Painting last week’s election as a resounding loss for Babiš misses a more important outcome. The real losers are those parties that were ejected from parliament, the Social Democrats and the Communists, as well as the broader Czech left. Both parties had been trending downward in support, with both seeing their worst election results historically in 2017. An alliance with Babiš’s divisive party was the final nail in the coffin. Only President Zeman, a long-time ČSSD leader who started his own social-democratic splinter party in 2009, remains in national-level political office; yet it hardly inspires hope that the Czech left’s chief representative, ensconced in his official residence in Prague Castle, is now a 77-year-old veteran of the Dubček era in ill health.

Heading into the 2021 elections, the Social Democrats had a seemingly attractive platform. Its main economic plank was shifting tax obligations from middle-class Czechs to individuals and corporations with more than 100 million Czech crowns ($4.5 million) in assets. This wealth tax would have paid for the costs of the ongoing pandemic in the health sector and helped to stave off the privatisation of the country’s hospitals. Yet voters felt that key parts of the Social Democratic platform were betrayed during their recent time in government, citing the lack of support for socialized housing and slow movement on further pension extensions. ANO benefited from these failures, as Babiš has successfully claimed credit for the success of Social Democratic policies such as increased maternity leave benefits and tax cuts for families with children. He was thus able to siphon off a small but electorally significant section of Social Democrat voters.

The Czech Pirates now find themselves the junior partners within their own coalition, supporting a government headed by the most conservative party in the country. While the Pirates retain a decent base of public support and goodwill, their challenge will be to stand out from their electoral allies in STAN. Any attempt to act as a progressive element in the ruling coalition will no doubt be an uphill battle. On the one hand, Bartoš’s role in the growth and increased popularity of the party is undeniable. But its current position – with only four parliamentary seats – means that the Pirates must reassess the merits of remaining tied to a coalition that ultimately depleted their vote share without granting them any substantive influence over policymaking.

The outlook for the Communist Party, meanwhile, is particularly bleak. The KSČM lacks the infrastructure to mobilize supporters and the vast majority of its base is made up of aging rural voters. Recognizing the need for renewal, its leader Vojtěch Filip, who had been at the head of the party since 2005, resigned shortly after the election results came in. The deck of public opinion is now stacked against the party. Mainstream historical narratives have been unforgiving about the country’s communist past. These discussions dominate the public sphere, most recently through a widely publicized exhibition titled ‘The Red Century: One Hundred Years of the Existence of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’, hosted in the summer at the Museum Kampa, a popular contemporary art museum located near Prague’s Old Town. The exhibit focused on the authoritarianism, corruption and elitism of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, using twentieth-century history to evoke common criticisms of Babiš’s government. Resistance to the ANO was therefore implicitly compared to dissidence from communism. This fit with the dominant narrative that, ever since the inception of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Czechs have been staunch defenders of democracy. Communism and its associated ills, in this account, were largely forced upon the nation by the foreign power of the Soviet Union, with the Czechoslovak Communist Party its dubious puppet. Such tropes fed into this year’s election cycle, as the five parties set to make up the ruling coalition painted their battle against Babiš as the latest chapter in the national epic, whose heroes fight for a free, fair, and democratic Czech Republic. Such romantic idealization of Czech democracy has a history of masking the shortcomings of the state. The evisceration of the country’s left is its latest casualty.  

Read on: Miroslav Hroch, ‘Learning from Small Nations’, NLR 58.  

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Big Politics

‘Everything we do as citizens is determined by politics; and therefore everything unions do is determined by politics’, Len McCluskey wrote in his first book, a tract on trade unionism published shortly after the 2019 general election. Some eighteen months later, in her victorious election manifesto to succeed him as general secretary of Unite the Union, Sharon Graham declared that ‘the politics has failed.’ Her campaign insisted on the failure of Unite’s political project within the Labour Party. Any judgement of McCluskey’s record would seem to rest on what one makes of that indictment. As if to prove this point, McCluskey’s memoir, Always Red, released last month to coincide with the end of his decade-long tenure at the helm of Britain’s most formidable trade union, is dominated by a 180-page narration of his involvement in Westminster politics since 2011. The account of Corbynism therein is one of the most politically astute to date – no surprise given the editorial involvement of Alex Nunns, one of Corbyn’s most impressive former staffers and a historian of the project’s early stages.

When McCluskey began work as a planman on Liverpool’s docks in 1968, post-war trade union power was at its height. ‘You join the union here, son’ was the greeting at the dockland gate. McCluskey’s arrival as a 19-year-old member of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) came the same year as the election of International Brigadier Jack Jones as its general secretary, and through the early 1970s the union ‘reached the apogee of its influence on British life’, according to Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff and official chronicler of the union’s history. By 1969, the T&G had 1.5 million members. It added 250,000 more in the following three years and hit the 2 million landmark in 1977. At this summit it was, in Murray’s telling, ‘the most powerful democratic working-class organisation in Britain’s history.’ Virtually all of McCluskey’s formative experiences, fondly recounted in the book, were in this ‘heroic period; a time when class solidarity…was something we lived and breathed.’

If McCluskey’s time as a lay member of the T&G happily coincided with the tenure of Jones, his industrial hero, then his move into the bureaucracy came at a less fortuitous moment. He became a full-time official for the T&G’s white-collar section in 1979, the same year Thatcher entered Downing Street. Neoliberal ascendancy devastated the industrial worlds of Merseyside with disorienting speed, with T&G membership in the region plummeting from 108,000 to 57,000 in the space of three years. Towards the end of the 1970s, in the twilight of Jones’s period as general secretary, simply keeping factories and other workplaces open became the major preoccupation. In McCluskey’s previous book, he traces the left turn in British trade unionism back to these origins: in Thatcher’s dislodging of unions from their ‘economic role in British capitalism’, and in Blair’s refusal to attempt a restoration.

In the early 1980s, McCluskey was central to organising the nascent left faction (National Broad Left) in the T&G, serving a political-secretarial function to its executive during time off from his duties in union officialdom. He was then ‘stood down from all industrial work’ to assist Liverpool City Council, led by the Militant Tendency, in their battle with Thatcher and Kinnock. This section of Always Red hints at McCluskey’s ecumenical formation. Tony Benn was his political hero, but much was learnt from Communist Party cadres in the T&G’s rank and file – although McCluskey never joined the CP given his discomfort with the Soviet regime. He had even less time for Britain’s Trotskyist outfits, describing them as ultra-leftists who put their ‘own short-term gains before the long-term interests of the working class.’ Militant, however, were the exception that proved the rule: ‘Here were people who lived in my community, worked in real jobs, and spoked a language that dealt with issues that mattered in a realistic and understandable way.’

McCluskey’s involvement in political organising, both inside the T&G and well beyond it, deepened as the industrial horizons of the previous decade rapidly receded. His national ascendancy originated in revulsion at the ‘accommodationist’ ethos of the early New Labour years. T&G general secretary Bill Morris had caught the Blairite bug, selling out the Liverpool dockers and antagonising the Broad Left. Yet the new millennium saw a historic left resurgence in the unions, with McCluskey at the forefront in the T&G: leading the radical opposition to Morris, managing the victorious campaign of Tony Woodley for general secretary in 2003, and subsequently becoming his assistant general secretary for strategy.

In Always Red, two noteworthy things about Woodley stand out: his deft navigation of the T&G’s merger with Amicus to form Unite in 2007, and his establishment of an organising department at McCluskey’s urging. McCluskey got the idea for the latter initiative, he says, from Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and arch-enemy of Jane McAlevey, deep organising’s high priest. McAlevey’s first book, Raising Expectations, is in large part ‘the case against Stern’, whom she describes as the leader of a ‘shallow mobilizing’ programme – aiming to grow union membership for the purposes of advocacy, absent any commitment to actually organising workplaces and readying them for strikes. McCluskey came across Stern in the early 1990s, long before the clashes McAlevey describes. But his commitment to Stern’s ‘ethos’ of organising, restated in the book, is intriguing – insofar as it indicates significant detachment from the McAlevey-esque methods to which Sharon Graham and many of Unite’s organisers are committed.

Among the great strengths of the T&G left tradition, as Andrew Murray points out, was its commitment to doing big politics. For McCluskey, the silver lining of a bipartisan neoliberal settlement which weakened unions in the industrial sphere was the freedom ‘to work in different ways’ politically, beyond the constraints of corporatism and the Labourist bureaucracy. In the days of Jack Jones and Frank Cousins, the political stature of the general secretary flowed from industrial strength. For McCluskey, it was something like the opposite: reviving the conditions of possibility for industrial might was the work of politics. A clear and concerted political strategy was adopted by Unite’s executive committee shortly after McCluskey’s election as general secretary in 2011. It aimed to win Labour for working people, win working people for Labour, and build a ‘broad alliance to defeat the Tories and their policies’, laying the foundations of ‘a socialism for the 21st century’.

Did ‘the politics’ fail? At the launch of Always Red in the upstairs of a Westminster pub last month, packed with Labour left luminaries and a handful of lobby journalists, the speeches of Corbyn and McCluskey both homed in on the most convincing case for the triumph of Unite’s political project: the 2017 general election. So too in the book, McCluskey extols Labour’s performance in 2017 as an object-lesson that ‘radical politics can succeed.’ Against the tide, he writes, ‘despite all the efforts of snide, treacherous snakes saying Labour would be obliterated, the country embraced the unashamedly radical prospectus put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’. There is little to dissent from here, and no doubt that Unite was indispensable in facilitating this remarkable – and likely singular – achievement. McCluskey reminds us that as cowards flinched (Owen Jones visited him just after the 2017 election had been called, insisting that ‘it wasn’t too late to change leader’), Unite remained steadfast in its support for Corbyn.

Had McCluskey not unexpectedly backed Ed Miliband’s introduction of one-member, one-vote for Labour leadership elections, Corbynism would never have come to pass. And had Unite not stuck by the project, it may have lasted no longer than a year. In that sense, judgement of McCluskey’s political strategy’s success and the Corbyn project’s value is one and the same. If the latter is correctly understood, despite its obvious failings, as a historic advance for the British left, then the former cannot be dismissed. Straightforwardly, McCluskey was committed first to pushing Labour to the left (2011-2015), and then to the success of a socialist electoral project – sustaining it financially and defending it against an unprecedented onslaught from the state and media (2015-2019). At neither stage was the political prize separable from urgent industrial priorities: namely, opposing austerity and working for the election of a government among whose earliest acts would have been the repeal of Europe’s most restrictive anti-trade union laws.

What of his shortcomings and misjudgements? It is clear from Always Red that, by and large, they were not due to an excess of the political at the expense of the industrial, but rather to deficiencies (or lapses) of socialist politics. This is most stark when it comes to climate breakdown. In its active support for a ‘just transition’, Unite’s public positioning on climate has in recent years been far superior to that of fellow energy unions. McCluskey himself helped persuade Unite’s delegation to Labour’s 2019 conference to support the Green New Deal motion with a 2030 net-zero target, and a ‘workers’ greenprint for a million jobs’ was central to the continuity campaign of general secretary candidate Steve Turner this summer. Yet beneath the surface there is an affinity between McCluskey’s stance on climate and that of the relatively right-wing GMB. In the book, McCluskey emphasises his support for a state-directed just transition, but explains that in its absence, he must defend the ‘good, skilled jobs’ Unite members have in the fossil fuel and aviation industries.

This is an increasingly untenable position. Not only is advocacy for the expansion of such carbon-heavy work a sectional interest antithetical to the general interest, it also expresses a profoundly conservative trade unionism, embodying  the institutionalisation of defeat (as Richard Seymour has argued). Indeed, Unite’s single most successful act of parliamentary lobbying in McCluskey’s time as general secretary was, in a joint effort with GMB, whipping 119 Labour MPs to vote in favour of a third runway at Heathrow in 2018. As the new GMB general secretary Gary Smith explained, ‘It’s jobs and work for us, we’re in the jobs and work business.’

Surveying McCluskey’s record during the Corbyn years more generally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he often had a fiercer bark than bite, his rhetoric more combative than his political judgements. The mismatch is evident in Always Red. McCluskey gratifyingly denounces the PLP as ‘despicable, spineless people’ and excoriates the People’s Vote lobby, describing the likes of Paul Mason as ‘super-spreaders’ carrying the disease of ‘Remainitis’. On this level, the general secretary appears as the anti-McDonnell: uncompromising, unbowed, not giving an inch to the enemy. But the divergence between McCluskey and McDonnell over Brexit was down to honest tactical disagreements, about both the electoral calculus of Remain vs. Leave and the importance of Labour’s position reflecting that of its activist base. Beyond the European question, McCluskey was often guilty of the ‘knee-jerk conformism’ with which McDonnell has been charged.

During the 2017 election campaign McCluskey warned against Corbyn’s masterstroke speech in the wake of the Manchester terror attack, deeming it ‘too risky’. When it was forecast that Labour would be hammered in that election, Unite considered Emily Thornberry as a potential successor. The following year, McCluskey counselled Corbyn to adopt the full and unamended IHRA definition of antisemitism. He maintains that the leadership should have done so immediately – failing to see the dissonance with his diagnosis of the core of the ‘Labour antisemitism crisis’ as the refusal of Corbyn’s detractors to ‘take yes for an answer’. In the round, McCluskey clearly recognises that such concessions gave the media license for further attacks; yet he puzzlingly seems to think that giving ground more quickly here could have helped clear the path to 10 Downing Street. Not to mention that the opening salvo of McCluskey’s counsel to Corbyn, just before his election as leader, was: ‘You can’t pick John as your shadow chancellor… we think John is too divisive and you’re going to have to think of someone else, maybe Angela Eagle.’ In this light, McCluskey might counterintuitively be seen as a precocious practitioner of ‘McDonnellism’. Such strategic parallels highlight the perils of political retrospectives grounded in narratives of individual betrayal and villainy.

Speaking at a Labour Representation Committee (LRC) meeting at the TUC Congress fringe in 2012, McCluskey sized up the political challenge facing Unite:

Yes, we can move Labour left, we have to move Labour left, but let’s be honest about the task that lies ahead of us. Because the truth of the matter is, there are thousands, tens of thousands, of our activists throughout the trade union movement who tell us that the Labour Party’s dead…When I was running for general secretary in Unite…there wasn’t a single meeting [where members] didn’t ask the question, why are we still paying this Labour Party so much money?

He continued to point out that, in an all-member vote in which the leadership took a neutral stance, Unite would likely opt to disaffiliate from Labour. Nine years later, these remarks convey both the success of McCluskey’s political strategy and the extent to which it was built on quicksand. As the triumph of Sharon Graham’s campaign demonstrated, Unite failed to galvanize enough union members behind its political operation in Labour, or to persuade them of its importance. To that extent, Westminster (and Unite’s ossified bureaucratic club) can be credibly accused of leaving the workplace behind.

Yet McCluskey’s judgement about the centrality of big politics still stands. No amount of workplace or community organising, irrespective of its depth or skill, can circumvent the state. Unite’s new leadership could easily become captive to the anti-politics that (exaggerated for electoral expedience) secured its ascendance, particularly given the fragmentation and decline of United Left – the once dominant faction that has long controlled the union’s executive and secured McCluskey’s election. In Always Red, he writes that at the union’s 2012 and 2014 policy conferences, Unite came ‘closer than most people realised’ to disaffiliating from Labour, and even discussed the idea of a ‘new Workers’ Party.’ Given Labour is now firmly in the hands of forces far to the right of those that drove Ed Miliband’s leadership, it doesn’t seem implausible that such a prospect could surface again. In the best-case scenario, measured by the dictates of the climate timeline, Graham’s agenda would feed into a renewal and radicalisation of Unite’s political strategy without its downscaling, leaving the union and the Labour left in a durably stronger position: deep organising plus big politics. As for McCluskey’s legacy, it remains too early to tell. For now, in the British left’s field of failing again and failing better, it can be said that his political failure was about as triumphant as they come.

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘The New Unionism’, NLR I/92.

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Rule by Target

Can a frugal state be totalitarian? Or, in other words, is an anti-statist totalitarianism possible? These questions have been asked countless times during the era of triumphant neoliberalism: beginning in 1973 when Pinochet implemented the economic dictates of the Chicago School, passing through the various military regimes responsible for carpet privatizations (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, etc.), up to the discussions – no matter how wrongheaded – of the ‘sanitary dictatorship’ of neoliberal governance during the pandemic.

Totalitarianism requires a strong, ‘totalizing’ state, at least according to the doctrine promoted by Hayek in his 1944 Road to Serfdom, which in its redacted form, published by Reader’s Digest, sold one million copies. According to Hayek, a society sinks into totalitarianism as soon as the state begins to worry about the economic security of its citizens. The trajectory is irreversible; we start with social security and end up in concentration camps (or gulags). The omnipresence of the state is thus integral to ‘totalitarianism’ in the Arendtian sense.

A recent book, however, has planted in me a seed of doubt. Johann Chapoutot’s Libres d’obéir. Le management du nazisme à aujourd’hui (Free to Obey: Management, from Nazism to the Present Day [2020]), translated this year into Italian and German but, as is often the case, not English. Its central figure is Reinhart Höhn (1904-2000): a jurist, academic and SS general, sentenced to death for war crimes but subsequently pardoned. Höhn was part of a group of intellectuals that provided the theoretical framework not so much for Nazism itself as for the Gestapo, the SS and the occupation of almost all of Europe. His partners in this project included Werner Best (1903-89): a jurist too, but first and foremost a senior police officer in Hessen, then head of the political police, and finally plenipotentiary of occupied Denmark; Wilhelm Stuckart (1902-53), lawyer, jurisconsult to the Nazi party, member of the SS and formulator and compiler of the Nuremberg Race Laws; Franz Alfred Six (1909-75), a doctor of political science and member of the SS; Otto Ohlendorf (1907-51), an economic consultant and SS colonel who studied economics, held a doctorate in jurisprudence and commanded a unit responsible for around 90,000 deaths in Ukraine, before being sentenced to death at Nuremberg and hanged.

The presence of this educated élite at the head of one of the fiercest apparatuses of repression ever conceived, is a marked contrast with the hysterical image of SS officers in many American Second World War films: an image whose coarseness borders on the comical, and banishes the idea that a phenomenon like Nazism could ever repeat itself. We are typically reassured that such ghouls could never again implement such dangerous ideas. Not so in Chapoutot’s portrait. The author explains how these SS intellectuals were called upon to provide a conceptual framework capable of overcoming the enormous logistical difficulties by the conquest of practically the entire continent. In a 1941 text entitled Fundamental Problems for a German Administration of the Great Space, Werner Best wrote that ‘the rapid and powerful expansion of the territories on which the German people directly or indirectly exercise their sovereignty obliges us to review all concepts, principles and procedures through which this sovereignty has hitherto been thought and constructed.’ However much the territory under German dominion might increase, ‘the German people will never be able to afford doubling the number of public servants.’ More would have to be done with fewer personnel, not least because a large part of the male population was conscripted. The procedures of the state needed to be honed, made more flexible. In fact, Best had (unsuccessfully) proposed to Himmler that the public sector adopt a model of relativ lockeren Besetzung (‘relatively “loose” occupation’). The SS intellectuals thus became advocates of flexible management and streamlined protocols, at odds with the caricatured image of the Nazi dictatorship.  

Chapoutot charts the social trajectory of these characters following the defeat of Nazism. After his commuted twenty-year sentence, Franz Six became an advertising consultant for Porsche; Best worked as a consultant for the company Stinnes AG, then became an adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the German Federal Republic. The most interesting story was that of Reinhart Höhn, who, having escaped the death sentence and spent years practicing homeopathy under a pseudonym, went on to found the Akademie für Führungskräfte der Wirtschaft (the Academy for Business Executives) at Bad Harzburg in Lower Saxony. By the time Höhn retired in 1972, around 200,000 German managers had passed through his institution; when he died, the number stood at 600,000. Professors at the school included other ex-SS officers, such as Six and Justus Beyer.

Bad Harzberg taught a style of management by target derived from Höhn’s reforms to the military chain of command. Under this system, the superior officer demands that his subordinates achieve their prescribed objectives, but leaves them free to decide exactly how, intervening only in exceptional cases (management by exception). Regrettably, Chapoutot does not investigate the relationship of the Bad Harzberg technique to the management styles now practiced in the United States. But his narrative shows how these hands-off methods were initially a product of German military expansion, which sought to reconcile a massive administrative operation with a reduced workforce.

The Nazi theorists were famously hostile to law and rights, viewed as creations of inferior Judaic and Latin cultures (Commandments of the Bible and Roman law codes respectively), and foreign to the proud German spirit which claims freedom from legal obligations. As such, they had a deep-rooted distrust of the state as a guarantor, responsible for the enforcement of law. The state was rather seen as a codified, ossified body which obstructs the flexibility and agility necessary for the expansion of Lebensraum. Nazis always talked of Reich (empire), never of Staat (state). Whereas Carl Schmitt saw states as bulwarks of political order, Best developed the idea of a Völkische Großraumordnung (popular order of the Great Space), in which the superior races would create zones of domination around themselves without fear of any normative restriction. Power was the only all-embracing source of political order. Aside from peoples (not, as per Schmitt, states), there existed no other normative points of reference that could be counterposed to the regime established by National Socialism.

For Höhn and his contemporaries, the state is unable to cope on its own when faced with the huge multiplication of tasks and responsibilities entailed by imperial expansion. It was precisely for this reason – to deal with re-armament, war preparations and the administrative challenges posed by the occupation of Europe – that para-state Nazi organizations began to surface, starting with the SS: a ‘private’ police force of 915,000 belonging to the party (even if Nazis always preferred to speak of a Bewegung – a movement – rather than a party). Likewise, Organisation Todt was born as a para-state company and ultimately employed 1.4 million foreign workers to meet civil and military engineering demands during the war. The state thus became one tool among many for achieving the Nazis’ domestic and overseas objectives.

Höhn believed that ‘legal theory has created an illusion, attributing to the state an “invisible personality”, transforming it in a perennial quest for sovereignty’, whereas in reality the state is nothing but an ‘“apparatus” at the service of power’, a tool which ‘the Nazi movement has captured, and to which it has ascribed other duties.’ In a chapter for the edited volume Grundfragen der Rechtsauffassung (Basic Questions for the Conception of Right), he elaborated on this argument: ‘The state is no longer the supreme political entity… It is rather an entity which limits itself to the execution of tasks assigned to it by the leadership (Führung), which operates in the service of the people. In this sense, the state is no more than a simple instrument . . . [to fulfill] the objectives it is assigned’.

It is this subordination of the state to externally-imposed targets and assignments that links Höhn’s theory to contemporary neoliberalism. Contrary to popular belief, neoliberals don’t seek to destroy the state; they know full well that without state there is no market. Rather, they want to invert the relationship of power between the market and the state. Not a market in the service of the state, but a state in the service of the market. Just as for Höhn the state is merely a mechanism equipped to achieve certain ends, so too for neoliberalism the state is a company that serves other companies – an entity that provides a service to be assessed in terms of the parameters of private enterprise (profitability, flexibility, best practices, benchmarking). None of this prevents a microscopic, pervasive control of citizenry, nor does it necessarily threaten the ability to stifle dissent. Just because war is outsourced to contractors (private mercenaries, that is to say) doesn’t mean it is less bloody, or lethal – or ‘total’.

The idea these Nazis passed down to us, then, is that of a heteronomous state, subordinated to external functions, designed to obey a logic which lies outside of it (and comes from a party or a company). This reverses the conventional wisdom. Totalitarianism doesn’t consist in enslavement by an omnipotent state; it rather wishes to impose a regime in which the state itself is enslaved as an instrument of an extrinsic omnipotence. A theory of management born to facilitate the advance of the Panzerdivisionen came to resemble the neoliberal project. We are thus able to resolve the Pinochet paradox, in which a brutal dictatorship violently imposes the free market. But if we were to think beyond 1973, it would be interesting to dwell for a moment on Paul Bremer’s 100 Orders, formulated in 2004 with the objective of instituting a neoliberal regime in Iraq, at the time occupied by the US Armed Forces. As Wendy Brown explains in Undoing the Demos (2015),

These mandated selling off several hundred state-run enterprises, permitting full ownership rights of Iraqi businesses by foreign firms and full repatriation of profits to foreign firms, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control, and eliminating tariffs […] At the same time, the Bremer Orders restricted labor and throttled back public good and services. They outlawed strikes and eliminated the right to unionize in most sectors, mandated a regressive flat tax on income, lowered the corporate rate to a flat 15 percent, and eliminated taxes on profits repatriated to foreign-owned businesses.

Read on: William Davies, ‘The New Neoliberalism?’, NLR 101.

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Blind Spots

Forty minutes into the latest film by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, the opening credits begin to roll. It is one of many reminders that the Japanese director has refreshingly little interest in following conventions of duration or sticking too closely to his source material. Previous features have run for four or five hours. Drive My Car clocks in at three. The short story by Haruki Murakami from which the film takes its name is structured around a series of flashbacks, but Hamaguchi dispatches with these in the pre-credits sequence. The film portrays a forty-something actor and theatre director, Kafuku, as he works on a stage production of Uncle Vanya for a festival in Hiroshima, shortly after his wife’s sudden death. The 40-minute prelude informs us of her infidelities with a younger actor, which will haunt Kafuku for much of what follows. In Hiroshima, where he has come in his much-loved red Saab, he is forced to take on a chauffeur to shuttle him back and forth between rehearsals and his hotel. We will spend a lot of time in this car, where an audio recording of Chekhov’s play read by Kafuku’s late wife runs on a loop.

All these elements exist in Murakami’s original story, but Hamaguchi’s film is less an adaptation than an excavation of its various themes, in particular the idea of ‘blind spots’, evoked in a literal sense by Kafuku’s early glaucoma, and metaphorically through the difficulty characters have in understanding each other, and themselves. This is captured in a line from the story that Hamaguchi said inspired him to make his film: ‘maybe that’s the challenge’ a character says to Kafuku one night:

to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you can find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.

Using Murakami’s story as a springboard rather than a framework, Hamaguchi introduces many new elements, notably making Uncle Vanya central to the action when in the original it occupied just a few lines. Approximately half the film is taken up by scenes from the play: Kafuku repeating Vanya’s dialogue in the car, the cast at rehearsals delivering their lines in Bressonian deadpan, and the final production on stage. Here Drive My Car follows a rich tradition of films about the theatre, in which the play in question is interwoven with the film’s story and themes – a fine example would be Opening Night (1977) by John Cassavetes, a director who Hamaguchi cites as a key influence.

At the same time, Drive My Car is a charmingly untypical road movie starring a red Saab and a twenty-something female chauffeur. Whenever she appears, the film comes alive, and yet she does apparently so little – straight-faced and tight-lipped, looking more like a character out of a Chaplin noir. She never smiles, just hunches her shoulders over the steering wheel with her gaze set on the horizon, a near-permanent cigarette in her hand or mouth. But she does not complain or judge, and this calm is welcome for Kafuku. Over time it gives way to conversation between them as he shares his deep sorrow and she reveals her own, which leads us to the film’s moving conclusion.

Patience is a characteristic of Hamaguchi’s cinema. He favours long, unhurried takes and allows an event, be it a lunch between friends or a car journey, to play itself out as though it were happening in real time. This was particularly evident in Happy Hour (2015), which explores the daily lives of four middle-class women living in Kobe. Hamguchi’s focus on this social stratum – his characters tend to work in the media or publishing industries, or as relatively successful artists – distinguishes him from the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose family sagas such as Shoplifters (2018) concentrate on Japan’s underclass.

The quiet, unhurried quality of Hamaguchi’s films sets them apart from another tendency in Japanese cinema that works within the constraints of genre, often horror or noir – exemplified today by the likes of Takashi Miike or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Hamaguchi’s sensibility is very different. He gives us the time to observe his characters as they live, doing everyday things like taking public transport or cooking breakfast, and this has a cumulative effect, for when a dramatic event does happen, such as a character crying, or some form of violence, its emotional force is all the more powerful. The intelligence and complexity of his screenplays, which often deal with characters who struggle to communicate with each other or articulate their feelings, has been celebrated on the festival circuit. Drive My Car, with its subtle, resonant use of extracts from Uncle Vanya intermixed with the developments in Hiroshima and the red Saab, deservedly won this year’s best screenplay award at Cannes.

‘My child, how heavy my heart is. If you only knew how heavy’ says Vanya to Sonya in Chekhov’s play. We see these last exchanges in the penultimate scene of Hamaguchi’s film, as it is performed on stage with Kafuku playing Vanya and, in the other great performance of Drive My Car, a deaf-mute actress as Sonya. ‘What can we do’, she signs, ‘we’ve got to live!’

As with much of the film, this quiet moment urging us to take courage is both moving and pure cinema.

Read on: Edward Yang, ‘Taiwan Stories’, NLR 11.

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Abiy’s Misrule

The 21 June general election was supposed to be a day of triumph for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The Nobel laureate’s first electoral test since coming to power three years ago, in the intervening period he had imprisoned or forced into exile nearly all credible opposition as well as potential challengers within his own party. He had also invaded two regional states, using federal troops to remove undesirable administrations, and unleashed a reign of repression on other unruly parts of the country. Such actions resemble those of the previous regime of the EPRDF, in which Abiy served as a Minister and surveillance chief. But the level of repression has been such that they are more reminiscent of the bloody regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. Indiscriminate aerial warfare against population centres and public executions of civilians are phenomena from which Ethiopia has been spared since his removal from power in 1991.

Abiy had taken all possible precautions to guarantee electoral success. In many constituencies – particularly in the sprawling and restive Oromia region – only his party, the Prosperity Party, was on the ballot. In other places, where his party’s hold is the weakest and where repression is consequently the greatest, elections were not held at all. This included the entirety of the northern region of Tigray. In areas where the vote went ahead, the full force of the state was mobilized to campaign for Abiy’s party, while what remains of the opposition largely boycotted the spectacle. The stage was set for a resounding victory, befitting of the ‘Seventh Emperor’ (as Abiy has described himself). Yet as Ethiopians were called to the polling stations, the Tigray Defence Forces – the armed resistance to the invading forces, commanded by Tigray’s regional government – launched its first major offensive since the war in Tigray begun in November 2020.

The campaign overshadowed the elections and shattered any illusions that the war was over as Abiy had proclaimed in late November. Tigrayan forces routed the Ethiopian army across the central, northern and eastern parts of the region, forcing their hasty withdrawal. Since then, Tigrayan forces have pushed into the neighbouring Amhara regional state, capturing swathes of territory including the city of Woldiya – home to nearly 200,000 people. The army responded to the defeat with atrocities against Tigrayans. On 24 June, the regime’s air force bombed the market town of Togoga, killing scores of civilians, and subsequently blocked ambulances from evacuating the wounded. (Tigrayan forces responded by downing an aircraft the same day.) All told, the offensive made what many observers have long held abundantly clear: that Abiy’s war on Tigray is unwinnable. 

Soon after the army’s retreat, the bodies of Tigrayans who had been tortured and executed were seen floating down the Tekeze river from Humera, the westernmost city in the region still held by Abiy’s forces. The withdrawal having been redefined as a ‘unilateral ceasefire’, it was immediately replaced by the encirclement and blockade of Tigray, denying its population access to basic goods such as food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands are now suffering under famine conditions, and malnourished children are wasting away in the region’s under-resourced hospitals. Tigrayan forces have sought unsuccessfully to evade the blockade by expanding their operation southwards. With Ethiopia’s rainy season at an end, fighting has once again intensified, with Abiy’s forces seeking to regain lost territory.

In addition to their misadventure in Tigray, Abiy and his government face crisis on multiple fronts. Two officially uninvited armies are operating on what Ethiopia considers its sovereign territory. Eritrea has engaged in systematic abuses of Ethiopian citizens and remains embedded in North-Eastern and Western Tigray despite Abiy’s insistence that its forces would soon depart. Whether he truly wants them to leave is a moot point: Abiy has no means to impose his will. Sudan’s army meanwhile occupies a triangle of land – al Fashaga – that Ethiopia has in the past recognized as Sudanese, but which it has nevertheless retained partial control over until the past few months. As the war in Tigray began, Abiy requested that Sudan fortify its borders. Consequently, the military presence on both sides increased, leading to clashes. Ethiopia at that point renounced its acknowledgement of Sudanese sovereignty over the triangle, which prompted Sudan’s armed forces to expel Ethiopian troops from the area. Sudan now poses a serious military threat to Abiy’s government and its Amhara militia allies, should they not renounce their newfound claim over al Fashaga.

In both cases, Abiy’s powerlessness is clear. In the Oromia region, meanwhile, the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Army has gained strength over the past year, scoring a string of victories that have greatly expanded its areas of operation. It is now confident enough to stage public graduation ceremonies for its new recruits. Here too, atrocities have followed the frustration of the central government. In May, a teenager was publicly paraded to a central square in the city of Dembi Dollo, where he was executed on suspicion of links to the Oromia rebels.

The Ethiopian economy is also suffering from serious problems, exacerbated by deteriorating foreign relations. Most of Abiy’s former patrons in the West – whose support was crucial to the consolidation of his rule – have abandoned him. As a result of the human rights abuses in Tigray, the US and the EU have frozen aid payments, and the US has imposed economic sanctions which are likely to restrict Ethiopia’s access to funds from the World Bank and IMF. Credits and loans from these institutions, which Abiy once likened to ‘borrowing from one’s mother’, have been essential to staving off a full-scale debt crisis.

One must not expect Washington to promote a genuine democratic solution to Ethiopia’s problems. The US is motivated by its own interests – limited to keeping Ethiopia in a stable enough shape that it can continue to support the status quo in the region, which has been imperilled by Abiy’s mismanagement. Since coming to power, Abiy has craved closer relations with Western countries and financial institutions, presenting himself as a free-market reformer opening up the economy to foreign investors. His government’s ‘homegrown economic reform’ agenda is a carbon copy of the recommendations pushed by Washington in recent decades, and he has cultivated alliances with fellow evangelicals in Washington, including the hard-right Republican Senator Jim Inhofe. Initially, Abiy’s government sought – and partially succeeded in attaining – an international realignment that would bring Ethiopia further into the orbit of Western states. Washington’s first response to the war on Tigray was therefore to support it. This only changed when Abiy proved ineffective on the battlefield.

The rift between Ethiopia and the US has compromised the former’s regional standing further, against the backdrop of already souring relations with Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. Responding to this conjuncture, Abiy suddenly announced that he would close over half the country’s diplomatic missions, citing financial pressures. For a state with a strong diplomatic tradition – a founding member of the League of Nations, the UN and the OAU, and the host of the headquarters of the African Union – which has consistently fashioned itself as a lynchpin of pan-Africanism, this certainly signals a lowering of ambition. Missions earmarked for closure include embassies in Nairobi, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, Accra, Kigali, Dakar, Kinshasa, Harare and Algiers.

The fervour that the regime whipped up in the early stages of the war remains strong in several areas across the federation, with continued statements from political and religious leaders that can only be described as genocidal. But in Addis Ababa, a public mood of widespread despair and despondency is also palpable. This is partly due to the war’s economic toll: inflation is sky-high, unemployment soaring. Whatever optimism existed a few years ago about Ethiopia’s unbalanced yet growing economy is now all but gone. Lately, cautious dissent from Abiy’s vain pursual of a military victory at whatever costs has begun to be voiced from within the regime’s heartland. That 24 Ethiopian NGOs – some of which had previously expressed support for the government’s war aims – recently petitioned for negotiations and ceasefire is an indication of the changing mood in the country’s capital. The mayoral candidate of the hitherto strongly pro-war party Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, likewise, has urged the government to negotiate an end to the conflict. Such calls must be understood in the context of the different positions of the two sides: whereas Tigray’s regional government has repeatedly expressed its willingness to negotiate, Abiy’s government has refused to consider it.

Despite being cash-strapped, struggling in the battlefield and facing increasing scepticism from former foreign allies and the Ethiopian public, the regime has dug in. Senior officials have redoubled their belligerent rhetoric, while the regime’s mobilization of ethnic militias has gone into overdrive. Abiy has gone shopping for drones and armaments to restore the advantage UAE’s air force offered him in the early stages of the war. His government has treated foreign envoys and UN officials seeking dialogue on the humanitarian situation with open hostility. On 30 September it announced the expulsion of seven senior UN officials involved in the hampered relief efforts. The UN Secretary General, hitherto seen as close to Abiy, expressed shock at the move. He ought not to have been surprised, however: starving Tigray into submission has been an aim of Abiy’s government since the early months of the war. This project has now developed into a severe and multifaceted crisis that is gripping all corners of the country. More convulsions are to be expected, as the regime tries to get out of this hole by digging further.

Read on: Emilio Sarzi Amade, ‘Ethiopia’s Troubled Road’, NLR I/107.

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Lines of Succession

In Egypt, the 1973 Arab–Israeli War is a timeless event. But nearly fifty years later, the generation that fought on the banks of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula is dying. The conflict will soon be resigned to historical memory, its battles memorialized in the media and official proclamations, but nowhere else. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was a teenager in the early 1970s, appeared to acknowledge as much during an educational symposium this week on the anniversary of the war, which came just after the death of one of its most famous veterans, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Tantawi, who was eighty-five years old, fought in both the Six-Day War in 1967 and the War of Attrition in 1967–70, but he distinguished himself as commander of the sixteenth infantry battalion in 1973. Among the first Egyptian detachments to cross the canal into the Sinai, the battalion is perhaps best known for its role in the Battle of the Chinese Farm, a brutal two-day confrontation with the Israeli military on the western edge of the Sinai. The Egyptians retreated from this fortification on 17 October, but not without inflicting significant damage on the enemy. Tantawi was awarded a medal for his courage.

Born in the Cairo neighborhood of ‘Abdeen in 1935, Tantawi graduated from the city’s Military Academy in April 1956, on the eve of the Suez Crisis, and fought alongside Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip soon after. He returned to the Military Academy to teach tactics and in the 1960s travelled to post-independence Algeria, where he established a similar institution. After the 1973 war, he rose through the ranks of the motorized infantry, eventually becoming commander of a division. Tantawi led the Second Field Army, the Republican Guard and finally the Operations Authority. From the mid- to late-70s, his role as Egypt’s military attaché in Pakistan and Afghanistan shielded him from civil-military tensions at home – as President Anwar Sadat repositioned Egypt geopolitically with the signing of the Camp David accords and fought to suppress the country’s opposition.

From top to bottom, the ranks of the military were displeased with Sadat’s unilateral realignment with the United States and rapprochement with Israel. So when a uniformed officer, Khaled Islambouli, opened fire on Sadat during a military parade, it was far from unexpected. A couple weeks earlier, the security forces had reportedly rounded up twenty people – some of them military officers – on suspicion of planning an attack. Aside from exposing the inability of the military to control its personnel, the assassination of Sadat precipitated intense internal surveillance and scrutiny. As Hosni Mubarak’s regime emerged in its wake, so too did a new order in the army, beginning, as it often does, with purges. Those who remained in uniform were sent a stark message: stay in line, and don’t fly too close to the sun. Mubarak found at least one senior-level officer who seemed willing to follow these injunctions: Hussein Tantawi.

During the US-led operation in Kuwait, Tantawi coordinated the deployment of Egyptian forces to the Gulf. He also became the primary liaison between the commander of the Arab forces, Saudi prince Khalid bin Sultan, and the Egyptian leadership. Tantawi was appointed defence minister shortly after the war in May 1991. After moving into the official residence off Ibn al-Hakam Square, his main priority was to oversee the transformation – or ‘modernization’, as the US government called it – of the military from Soviet to Western hardware, training and doctrine. Though Tantawi was receptive to Washington’s reforms, he was constrained early on by other senior officers who remained committed to the Soviet model. Whereas Tantawi had never attended a foreign military academy, his immediate predecessors all received training in the Soviet Union, while two of his successors spent time in the United States. His tenure, much like his background, represented an about-face for the military – and for Egypt more broadly.

When the military rules, soldiers are not just soldiers. Bureaucratic organization in an authoritarian state is often conflictual, so while war may have been the army’s vocation, politics became its specialty. They were forced to balance the competing priorities of loyalty and professionalism, reacting to the whims of the ruler (and sometimes the people). Of the twenty Egyptian defence ministers since the 1952 coup, Tantawi held the position the longest, weathering successive rounds of political violence, popular mobilization and economic liberalization. This was frequently interpreted by Egypt commentators as evidence of his complacency, lack of ambition and deference to Mubarak. Yet such characterizations overlooked an important fact: Tantawi beat the odds. In a country where top military officials are often jailed, exiled, muzzled, cashiered early – and have occasionally died in unusual circumstances – Tantawi’s longevity may have also been a sign of his political acuity.

Tantawi was, in fact, willing to push back against Mubarak at critical moments in his presidency, including the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From the first days of the protests Tantawi made his position clear: that the military would neither mount a coup d’état nor prop up the ailing regime. He believed that Mubarak had not grasped the severity of events on the ground, and doubted that he would cede control of the government even after he had agreed to a formal transfer of power. On 10 February Tantawi called a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces without its formal chairman, the president. The next day, Mubarak resigned and Tantawi took power. He oversaw a referendum on changes to the constitution – presidential term limits, a vice presidency, electoral reforms – and presided over the indictments of senior figures from the outgoing regime. Yet, as protesters continued to flood the streets calling for presidential elections to be brought forward, Tantawi’s forces killed dozens and arrested hundreds – at one point sending armoured vehicles to run over demonstrators staging a sit-in at the state television headquarters. Tantawi became a symbol of the ongoing state violence. His removal, or execution, was demanded by the crowds in Tahrir Square.

Two months after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi came to power, Tantawi was asked to step down from both his military and political positions. He remained an adviser to Morsi and received an honorary Order of the Nile, but otherwise retreated from public life. In his place, the ambitious and adroit Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended to the role of defence minister. Morsi had invited the coup-maker in – and before long the unstable civilian government had been toppled by a revitalized military high command.

Prior to the Arab Spring, Tantawi regularly stated that the military would not tolerate succession: a rebuke to Mubarak, who planned for his son Gamal to take the helm. Yet in Egypt, positions of power are often passed from important men to their understudies. One retired Egyptian general described to me the Sisi–Tantawi relationship as that of a mentor and protégé. Another speculated that Tantawi had marked Sisi out to become defence minister ever since he was a young major. While consolidating his iron-grip on the country, Sisi has canonized Tantawi, lauding his heroism and self-sacrifice, and frequently drafting him in for ceremonial duties. Sisi ordered a colossal mosque to be built in his honour, and the military produced a eulogizing film titled ‘A Tribute to Loyalty’. In it, we are presented with a striking succession of Egyptian leaders: Nasser, Sadat, Tantawi, Sisi.

Read on: Hazem Kandil, ‘Sisi’s Egypt’, NLR 102.

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Notes on the Curriculum

1.

Canonizing. Sociology is apparently in the process of de-colonizing itself. A strong point of the project is the recognition that sociology emerged during the age of imperialism and that this gave the field a cosmopolitan and comparative ambition lost after the Parsonian synthesis which was both grand, and a bit boring. The weakness of the decolonizers lies in their deadening approach to ideas. For the enthusiasts of this project, such as the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell for example, the elevation of Durkheim and Weber (then joined at a later period by Marx) to the status of classics is the result of translations, edited volumes and curricula. In the past, per Connell, there were different figures such as Spencer, Comte and Martineau. In the future there might be new ones. Undoubtedly there is considerable truth in all this, but what the decolonizers never get around to is the analysis of ideas. Why is this? It is connected to a cluster of epistemological and ontological assumptions shared across sociology from the most ardent exponents of post-colonialism to hardcore positivists. It could be called the dogma of the shapeless flux. Its picture of intellectual history is something like this. There exists a massive body of texts of more or less equal quality (Connell equates Sumner’s Folkways to Weber’s sociology of religion and Comte’s theory of progress to Hegel’s philosophy of history for example). Some of these texts are arbitrarily elevated to the status of must-reads because their study serves some latent function for sociology such as reinforcing professional pride and presumably also the interests of the white middle-class men who embody it. Occasionally the time comes to shake up the texts; this is an especially urgent task in the current period because of the need to diversify in demographic terms the voices in the curriculum. Without falling into a lazy traditionalism, it should be obvious that this set of protocols for understanding the history of sociology is guaranteed to produce nothing but cynicism, both concerning the previous canon, and concerning whatever new candidates are forthcoming. What it forgets is that the first step in an analysis is the critique and reconstruction of the ideas. Whatever one might say about Parson’s Structure of Social Action at least he got this starting point right. The decolonizers, in contrast, are producing nothing more than more or less extensive annotated bibliographies.

2.

Sunk costs. It is hard to avoid the impression that ‘canonical’ struggles are really a misrecognized clash of quite specific material interests. The importance of ‘sunk costs’ in academic life should never be underestimated. Every professor has a large stock of written materials, images, graphs, reading notes and ready-to-hand interpretations which she has accumulated over years of study and thought. Although one really must avoid the slipshod analogies encouraged by the term ‘cultural capital’, these artifacts have a certain resemblance to ‘fixed capital’ in the Marxian lexicon. They provide a basic framework through which new information can be easily digested or ‘valorized’. In a material sense a challenge to the ‘canon’ poses the threat of the rapid devaluation of fixed assets. The rational response of these asset holders is ‘stand and fight’, to preserve the value of their assets even if their intellectual equipment is somewhat dated. They can at least make good use of it to valorize their ‘circulating capital’. The challengers in a material sense have quite opposite interests. They would like to leapfrog the incumbents and set up shop on the basis of an entirely new set of fixed endowments. This is the material meaning of the various projects of syllabus revision underway across the sprawling complex of US higher education, although ideologically this campaign is carried out under the sign of ‘decolonizing the syllabus’ or similar slogans. A couple of observations are in order about this struggle. First, it is important to point out the limits of the analogy. For in academic life there is no field of natural selection operating to weed out less efficient producers (as much as the managers of the neoliberal university would like this to be the case). Nor is there any analogue to exploitation. Second, the highly paradoxical character of the conflict should be emphasized. The most conservative actors in any struggle over the canon are likely to be in the least prestigious positions with the fewest opportunities to retool. To make matters worse, these are also the actors most likely to be the most vulnerable to negative student evaluations and the bureaucratic apparatus. Thus, we can fully expect that the costs of ‘de-colonizing the syllabus’ will be borne by those least able to bear them. Conversely those likely to win the most from the struggle will be those actors most well-placed with the lowest teaching loads and the most time to retool. The openness of this stratum to student demands for transformation is largely an index of its academic privilege. The outcome, in any case, will hardly be an overthrow of the canon, but a heightening of ‘barriers to entry’ for all players. A final note to the reader. The message of these lines is contained both in what they say and in how it is said.

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

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Yesterday’s Mythologies

There is a world, not too dissimilar from our own, in which Jonathan Franzen is a professor of creative writing at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. He still has his bylines at the New Yorker and Harper’s (in fact, he writes for them more frequently); he still has his books (even if they’re all a bit shorter, one of them is a collection of short stories, and his translation of Spring Awakening lives with his unpublished notes on Karl Kraus in the Amish-made drawer of his ‘archive’); he still has his awards (except his NBA is now an NEA). Despite his misgivings about the effect of social media on print culture, he also has a Facebook page, which he uses to promote his readings and share photos of his outings with the local birding society, and a Twitter account, which he uses to retweet positive reviews and post about Julian Assange. Aside from his anxiety about how much time teaching and administrative duties take away from his ‘real work’ as a novelist, whether his diminishing royalty checks will be enough to cover his mortgage and his adopted son’s college tuition, and whether it would be wise to keep flirting with the sole female member of his small group of student acolytes, the greatest drama in his life occurs when he periodically becomes the main character on Twitter for saying something hopelessly out of touch – pile-ons he less-than-discreetly attributes to other writers’ envy for his hard-won success.

In the actual world, however, Franzen’s face has been captioned ‘Great American Novelist’ on the cover of Time. His publicist has not been too embarrassed to say that he is ‘universally regarded as the leading novelist of his generation’. In this world, he has the time, money, and freedom to do nothing but write what he pleases. Before he finishes a single sentence, he can take for granted that there will be a wide audience for it. In this world, publication alone is enough to justify his book’s presence on the New York Times Best Seller List, on the shelf of every airport bookstore on the planet, and in every outlet – print and online – that still reviews fiction. If privately he hankers after the Pulitzer that yet eludes him, he can console himself with the knowledge that it would amount to little more than a sprinkle of establishment recognition on a career that has evolved beyond the power of prize committees. In this world, when he goes hunting for comp titles, he finds them, not in any of his contemporaries, but in canonical Victorians like Dickens and Eliot. Whether he is America’s indispensable novelist is a matter of opinion, but in this world no one disagrees that since the publication of The Corrections in 2001 he has been the inescapable literary figure of the world’s inescapable nation.

The reason for the difference between the hypothetical Franzen and the real one can perhaps be summed up in a single word: Oprah. If the selection of The Corrections by Oprah’s book club was largely a matter of luck, and his rejection of it a career-defining risk, his reconciliation with Oprah after the publication of Freedom was a piece of canniness that is paying dividends to this day. Still, the plausibility of the former presents a problem for the critic of the latter. The hypothetical Franzen’s books would rarely be read and sporadically reviewed; the real Franzen’s novels cannot be read or reviewed without reference to the vast publicity apparatus that has been put at their disposal. Other than with time, there is no clean way of separating a Franzen-text from the para-Franzen. With Franzen, we are dealing with what philosophers call an ‘essentially contested concept’. Discussions of his post-Corrections work tend to devolve quite quickly into a series of rival camps which all end up talking past each other in defense of positions – about snobbery, privilege, merit, progress – for which he is merely a symbolic proxy.

The truth of the matter is that the para-Franzen is the masterpiece, whereas the Franzen-texts are essentially mediocre. This is not an insult, exactly. Most novels are mediocre, and mediocrity has been more than enough to satisfy the basic needs of reading publics – for entertainment, for edification, for recognition of self, for communal totems, for the idle passage of time – since the days of Amadís de Gaula. For all these needs, Franzen-texts are perfectly satisfactory. Because of the para-Franzen’s acclaim, it is nevertheless a controversial proposition, so I’ll spend a little of my word count proving it. Since the success of The Corrections, Franzen has settled into a comfortable formula: from the one-word abstract noun of the title, to the use of a series of third person close perspectives differentiated by diction indexed to intelligence or worldliness, to the middle-class heartland milieu, to the East Coast/Midwest opposition, to the trip abroad subplot, to the use of Christmas as a telescoping event, to stakes that lie in the fates of marriages and nuclear families. Many novelists have tics and preoccupations to which they return over and over again throughout their careers, but there is nothing particularly Franzonian (a term notable in its absence) about his treatment of these familiar elements from the canonical novel. Indeed, his strict adherence to these conventions in Freedom and Purity have made these books targets for the increasingly widespread suspicion that the cultural prominence of literary fiction is undeserved, nothing more than genre fiction for a specific market segment.

What ought to distinguish a great novel from a passable one is not the social position of its audience, but the quality of its prose. And here, of the dozens of examples I could have chosen, is a representative Franzen-sentence:

The sky broken by the bare oaks and elms of New Prospect was full of moist promise, a pair of frontal systems grayly colluding to deliver a White Christmas, when Russ Hildebrandt made his morning rounds among the homes of bedridden and senile parishioners in his Plymouth Fury wagon.

These forty-nine words – the opening of Crossroads, the first book of Franzen’s trilogy A Key to All Mythologies, which is being touted as a culminating achievement – contain a series of errors so basic the hypothetical Franzen would not have failed to circle them in red pen had one of his eager-to-impress students turned it in for their first workshop. It begins with the sort of melodramatic statement about the weather with which he already opened The Corrections and for which Bulwer-Lytton is mocked to this day. ‘Moist’ is an imprecision; the pair of frontal systems have caused there to be moisture in the air, not in anyone’s anticipation of the unremarkable occurrence of snow in suburban Chicago in late December. Along with ‘broken’ and ‘colluding’, they produce the ‘emotional falseness’ Ruskin described when he coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’. If the repetition of the ‘pro’ sound in ‘New Prospect’ and its cognate ‘promise’ a few words later is evidence of a tin ear, the ironic-symbolic place name and the portentous-symbolic make and model of the station wagon are evidence of a heavy hand. The second clause is a misplaced modifier and the appearance of ‘grayly’ in it is a textbook violation of the adverb rule. Granted, this is not the sort of merely competent, work-a-day, unexciting prose for which young, degree-holding American novelists are often chastised; it is nonetheless prose of a very deep shade of purple, and its author is not in a position to plead inexperience, time pressure, editorial meddling, or the need to appease the public.

In one respect, however, Crossroads is a departure for Franzen: historical fiction by a novelist who once claimed to be ‘particularly resistant’ to the genre. Of the book’s next 145,000 or so words, around half unfolds on 23 December 1971 and around half during the following spring (with a coda that takes place during Easter, 1974). Dissatisfied in his marriage, Russ, the associate minister of the First Reformed Church, has fallen in love with one of his widowed parishioners. His wife, Marion, is punishing herself for her guilt about the life she led before she met Russ by overeating and is secretly seeing a psychiatrist. Their eldest son Clem, a student at the University of Illinois, has had a crisis of conscience, dropped out of school, and revoked his student deferment to Vietnam. Becky, their second child, the most popular girl at New Prospect Township High School, has received a surprise inheritance from her mother’s estranged sister, and has fallen in love with Tanner Evans, guitarist in the band Bleu Notes. Their third child, the mentally unstable Perry, is using his genius-level IQ to conceal his budding drug addiction, unless he is using drugs to dull the pain of his intelligence. At the age of nine, Judson, the only Hildebrandt who does not get his own chapters, is as yet too young to do anything but watch with incomprehension as his family disintegrates.

The lives of the people of New Prospect, adults and teens alike, circle around Crossroads, the church youth organization Russ founded with the charismatic young minister Rick Ambrose, and named after the Robert Johnson song recently made popular among white suburbanites by the English band Cream. Three years earlier, Russ was humiliatingly excommunicated from the group due to an untoward comment he makes about Marion to a teenage girl during its yearly service trip to a Navajo reservation. Under Ambrose’s leadership, Crossroads has become something more akin to an encounter group than a church group however. One character calls it a ‘cult’; Ambrose himself calls it a ‘social experiment’. In this form, it sucks first Perry, then Becky into its orbit.

A crossroads, of course, is a folkloric setting where a fateful decision is made, where one might choose otherwise – not to slay the stranger blocking the road, not to sell one’s soul to the devil—though one never ends up doing so. The Hildebrandt family unit finds itself at a crossroads on 23 December 1971, and by implication, so does the nation. We will have to wait for the second and third volumes of A Key to All Mythologies to see to what degree this ultimately proves true for Russ, Marion, and their children. As for the United States, we already know what happens: the Nixon Shock will pave the way for financialization of the economy; the Powell Memorandum will lead to the corporate capture of the media and the universities; the Southern strategy will embed white supremacy and Christian nationalism into the electoral fortunes of the Republican party; the War on Drugs will create the largest prison system in history and revive Jim Crow; the Vietnam War will continue for another three years and military defeat will only be a road bump in the expansion of the American Empire across the globe; the findings of a paper entitled ‘Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate’ will go unheeded; the grandchildren of ARPANET will inherit the earth.

The question, for Franzen, is whether, in telling his story about the Hildebrandts, he provides a richer, more complex, more profound aetiology than the ones we’re used to. Yet aside from a keen insight into the outsized role the status hierarchies produced by the institution of high school have played in the making of American values and his clever staging of the way therapeutic fads hollowed out certain liberal political impulses in American Protestantism, we are served yet another helping of sex (adulterous desire for Russ; incestuous desire for Clem; first love for Becky), drugs (‘ludes for Marion; pot, ‘ludes, Dexies and coke for Perry), and rock n’ roll (whose cachet in the person of Tanner Evans is responsible­­­ for the popularity of Crossroads) with a side of War, What Is It Good For, all of which is covered with an insipid gravy of period signifiers. (That said, there is something anachronistic and even calculating in the explicitness of Russ’s critiques of white saviourism and power differentials in his parishioners’ interactions with members of the Black community on the South Side of Chicago and of the Navajo Nation in Kitsillie, Arizona. It is as though the para-Franzen – perhaps rightly – does not trust contemporary readers’ ability to differentiate presentation and endorsement when it comes to race. Despite this preemptive strike against the sensitivity readers, the fact remains that the non-white characters serve mainly as props in Russ’s great struggle to get laid by someone other than his wife.) Like most families, the Hildebrandts are held together in a complex network of ancient grudges and mutual deceptions, unconscious repetitions and defence mechanisms mistaken for identities. The issue isn’t that such things are too trivial to be put in a hardback-sized box and shaken up until all the permutations of dramatic irony are exhausted, but that in this case they are not strong enough to bear the social-allegorical load that Franzen has foisted on them.

Part of this is due to the limitations of the framework of the canonical novel, which is forced to reduce society to an aggregation of subjects (a.k.a., characters), the subject into psychology (i.e., narrative interiority), and psychology into desire (paradigmatically sexual desire, a metonym for motivation itself, whose friction with various social blockages – ‘instinct’ and ‘purity’ in Franzen’s terms – moves the plot forward). Franzen has taken the name of his new trilogy from the subject of Casaubon’s monograph in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (unless he’s been brushing up on René Girard). In an early passage in Crossroads, Franzen rushes in where Eliot feared to tread, having Perry hazard a hypothesis as to what the key to all mythologies actually is:

The idea was that God was to be found in relationships, not in liturgy and ritual, and that the way to worship Him and approach Him was to emulate Christ in his relationships with his disciples, by exercising honesty, confrontation, and unconditional love…[Ambrose] inspired Perry to devise a theory of how all religion worked: Along comes a leader who’s uninhibited enough to use everyday words in a new and strong and counterintuitive way, which emboldens the people around him to use the rhetoric themselves, and the very act of using it creates sensations unlike anything they’re used to in everyday life…

This is not, in fact, a convincing theory of how religion works, but the conceptual web of personal relationships, charismatic leadership, uninhibitedness in speech, novelty, and sensation does capture the puerile spirituality of the United States, where God is just another of many addictions. The most charitable way of reading Perry’s theory is ironically. Franzen is suggesting that the belief that one has found the key to all mythologies is itself a mythology, and a potentially dangerous one at that: the climax of the novel occurs on a freezing desert night when drug-addled Perry takes himself for God. But the task of the novelist-rhetorician – as this rather Bloomean-Rortyean passage would also seem to acknowledge – is not only to demythologize, it is to mythologize better.

Neither ‘new’ nor particularly ‘strong’ let alone ‘counterintuitive’, the first volume of A Key to All Mythologies gives little indication that Franzen is up to it. Then again, his own fateful decision – standing, as he put it in his 2002 essay on his erstwhile literary hero William Gaddis, at the crossroads between ‘status’ and ‘contract’ – to adopt the canonical novel’s framework and inherit its wide public and its formal limitations rather than to use his freedom and influence to extend, challenge, deepen, or reimagine it, was made long ago. Thinking back on his meeting with Marion, Russ laments, ‘She’d seduced him into a contract before he knew his value in the marketplace’. Franzen made no such mistake when he wrote Crossroads. For an American novelist to court comparison – even tongue-in-cheek – to Middlemarch in 2021 seems so pompous that it is easy to overlook that it’s not quite the virtue it’s presented as being – and not simply because the lesson of modernism, unlearned here, was that literary tradition is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Crossroads arrives into a world that has grown bearish about the prospects of the United States and for once, Americans seem to agree. This marks an epochal shift in national mythology. During the years of Franzen’s fame, America has turned its back on its characteristic optimism, its openness to experiment, its future-orientation – an overdue concession to the reality of what the United States has become during the period: an Old World Empire. (We should be under no illusion that this is what underwrites its literary culture’s command on the world’s attention.) Whether Crossroads, as a cultural artifact, should be understood as a sign or a symptom of this shift will be for future scholars of American Literature (if there are any left) to decide. It is nonetheless revealing that the person regarded as the nation’s ‘leading novelist’ should stake his claim to the title not by attempting to write the novel of tomorrow, but by attempting to update a novel published a century and a half ago, at the height of the British Empire. Crossroads is far from the novel that America needs; unfortunately, it is exactly the one it deserves.

Read on: Peter Gowan, ‘Crisis in the Heartland’, NLR 55.

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The Intruded

Writing some years after he received a heart transplant in the early 1990s Jean-Luc Nancy remarked on the historical contingency of living beyond his early fifties. Had he been born twenty years or so earlier he would not have survived; twenty years later he would no doubt have survived differently. He also noted the sense of strangeness that accompanied the experience of receiving, and of living with, the heart of another: transplantation, he wrote, imposed an image of nothingness. Into that space most associated with intimacy and interiority, a different emptied-out space had intruded, provoking a sense of no longer being properly oneself. If Nancy was able to turn the experience into something like a philosophical parable, it is because he had long been engaged with questions of the material contingency of thought. Before it is something that we can think of as the site of our most proper self, our body is already inhabited by and exposed to the outside – a condition of co-belonging in the world as well as source of vulnerability. For over a half a century, Nancy elaborated a corpus of philosophical thought that ceaselessly traced its own limits. His thinking addressed fundamental questions of ontology, freedom and consciousness, reason and the foundations of judgement, while constantly exposing itself to philosophy’s various outsides, domains with which it has been historically and perhaps irreducibly intertwined: the political and the social, ethics, art and aesthetics, the theological and the religious.

The bare facts of Nancy’s career are quite straightforward and well-documented. Born in 1940 in Caudéran near Bordeaux, he graduated with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1962, took the agrégation in 1964 then worked at a lycée in Colmar before taking a position at the Strasbourg Institut de Philosophie in 1968. He completed his doctorate in 1973 and that year became a lecturer at Strasbourg’s Université des Sciences Humaines, where he remained until his retirement in 2002. Until his illness in the late 1980s he was active on academic committees and was a visiting professor at numerous universities around the world. Yet this outline belies the richness and complexity of his intellectual trajectory, one that is exemplary of a wider sweep of late twentieth-century French philosophical culture. During his adolescence, as a member of Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne he was steeped in a culture of Christian socialist militancy as well as the wider atmosphere of the French left of the period, defined by the struggle in Algeria as well as the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the difficulty of other attempts to recast socialism in Europe and elsewhere. Yet his beginnings in academic philosophy were made in the absence of any decisive heritage or orientation.

This all changed in the following decade when Nancy encountered the influences that would shape the rest of his career. In 1961 he was introduced to Hegel by the philosopher and theologian Georges Morel, and the following year wrote his master’s dissertation on religion in Hegel under the supervision of Paul Ricœur. Although, by his own account, Nancy was no longer personally religious, he nevertheless continued in these years to participate in activist Christian circles as well socialist and trade union groups. During this time he also discovered Heidegger, and was influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem who taught him at the Sorbonne. In 1967 he met Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, another deeply engaged reader of Heidegger with whom he would participate in the events of May ’68, and who as a colleague at Strasbourg became a long-standing friend and philosophical collaborator. The sixties bear witness to the eclecticism of Nancy’s intellectual formation, one in which the influences of his religious upbringing and milieu, his political activism and philosophical engagements were so deeply entangled as to be inseparable. In this environment Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics could align with a profound disaffection with the political perspectives of the period and fuel non-conformist or non-communist Marxist activism and even insurrection.

Nancy’s discovery of Heidegger was mediated by Gérard Granel, who first translated the key Heideggerian term Abbau as ‘déconstruction’ and who greatly influenced both Jacques Derrida and, much later, Bernard Stiegler. It was through an early article of Granel’s dedicated to the then far less renowned Derrida that Nancy first encountered what would become widely known as deconstruction. With the rise of structuralism in the early 1960s – to a great extent influenced by Canguilhem – Nancy was amongst those who felt that the specificity and even existence of philosophy was under threat. By his own account, his first contact with Derrida was a letter sent in 1968 or ‘69, addressing the relation of philosophy to the human sciences and in particular the supposedly ‘scientific’ status of Althusserian Marxist theory. It is at this point of initial contact with Derrida, which inaugurated a second crucial philosophical association and friendship, and with his appointment at the Université des Sciences Humaines that Nancy’s career as a philosopher can be said to really begin.

His 1973 doctoral thesis, also completed under the supervision of Ricœur, was on Kant, confirming that although Heidegger is often thought to be Nancy’s paramount influence, his early readings of Hegel and then of Kant were nevertheless decisive. Nietzsche likewise became an important reference, shaping Nancy’s interest in the formal properties of philosophical discourse and informing the argument of his first book, The Title of the Letter, published in 1972 and co-authored with Lacoue-Labarthe. A highly critical reading of the writing of Jacques Lacan that reflected Nancy’s scepticism about the status of the structuralist human sciences, it led Lacan to refer to its authors as Derrida’s ‘underlings’. The judgment was hardly fair, but the books that followed over the next several years on Hegel, Kant, Descartes, and German Romanticism could be broadly characterised as deconstructive commentaries, which offer anti-foundationalist readings of canonical texts of philosophical modernity and explore the permeable relationship between literature and philosophy. Yet however much they betrayed a proximity to Derrida these commentaries, with their distinctive synthesis of Nietzschean and Heideggerian approaches to overcoming metaphysics, were highly original, and ultimately paved the way for the differences that would open up between the two.

The turning point was perhaps the establishment of the Centre de recherches philosophiques sur le politique at the École Normale Supérieure in 1980. Founded by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe at Derrida’s suggestion, the centre intended to explore the political dimension and implications of deconstruction. There was a constitutive ambivalence to this project, one that soon produced fault lines: while there was an acknowledgment that philosophy is unavoidably a political practice and therefore always implicated in political activity or struggles, at the same time deconstruction refused any direct assimilation of philosophy to politics or attempts by philosophy to offer a foundational programme for politics, as well as overhasty attempts to seek conjunctions with Marxism. The thinking that emerged at the Centre, and in deconstruction more generally, should be understood against the wider intellectual background of post-war France, in which Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophical foundationalism were perceived to have been retroactively tainted by the experience of twentieth-century totalitarianism, the Holocaust and the violence of European colonialism and imperialism. Hegel, viewed as the paradigmatic thinker of system and totality was taken to be exemplary of a philosophy which, in its aspiration to absolute fulfilment in history, provided a model and expression of the very real ideological conditions of historical violence, totalitarian state-forms, and genocidal projects. Heidegger’s political itinerary also loomed large in this sense of philosophy having been compromised by its relation to politics.

In truth Nancy was a subtle and attentive reader of Hegel, fully aware of the complexities of a philosophical discourse whose drive towards systematicity and the absolute might have been mitigated or undermined by its dynamic of negativity. Nevertheless, the question of philosophical and political subjectivity dominated the concerns of the Centre and informed Nancy’s response to deconstruction’s ambivalence about the relation of the philosophical and the political. Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe were convinced that philosophy’s tendency to produce idealised conceptions of subjectivity – the people, national or racial identity, the proletariat, homo economicus – and proffer them as a basis for political community and forms of social and economic organisation was essentially metaphysical. In this context the ills of both totalitarianism and capitalism could be seen to have a common shared condition. It was therefore the passage from the philosophical production of foundational identities to the enactment of political projects that required deconstruction. By 1984 however, it had become clear that this orientation was not shared by all of the Centre’s participants: Claude Lefort’s work emphasised a much clearer dividing line between democracy and totalitarianism, rejecting Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Heideggerian understanding of subjectivity, while Denis Kambouchner similarly dismissed their distinction – again inspired by Heidegger – between politics understood as an everyday practice and ‘the political’ understood as a more fundamental order of relation organising collective life. Without consensus on these assumptions, it was hard for the work of the Centre to progress.

For Nancy, the impasse coincided with his divergence from Derrida. He now returned to an engagement with Heideggerian ontology and to the question of shared being-in-the-world, fusing this with Bataille’s conception of finite embodiment and corporeal excess. This allowed him to transpose the concerns of deconstruction from the paradigm of textualism onto that of existential phenomenology and its focus on shared, material and worldly existence: it was not just the decentred subject of intertextuality or the differential rupturing of intentional consciousness that would be at play in deconstruction. He understood thought to be fundamentally embedded in the contingency of bodily life, according to which sense and meaning were disseminated as shared worldly existence. Nancy would insist from the 1980s onwards that, prior to the political ‘there is the “common,” the “together,” and the “numerous,” and that we perhaps do not at all know how to think this order of the real’. The attempt to think this ‘order of the real’ would inform his unapologetic return to an – albeit fully deconstructed – ontology that Derrida would always refuse.

From this emerged his conception of ‘inoperative community’ in the early to mid-1980s. Positing community as irreducibly incomplete and open-ended, this was an attempt to recast the experience of historical, social and political community, outside of any logic of shared subjectivity or common identity but as a form of fundamental ontological co-belonging. This was less an instance of philosophy laying the ground for politics than it was an attempt to conceive of an originary space in which relationality of one kind or another could be understood to unfold. There were resources here for rethinking concepts such as equality, solidarity, freedom, democracy and globalisation outside any logic of identitarian political destiny or state form. Yet Nancy continued to refuse the assimilation of philosophy into politics or the collapse of ontology and politics in the service of any given project or programme.

The turn away from Derrida saw Nancy exposed to criticism on at least two fronts. On the one hand there were early critics of the work of the Centre who demanded that it more directly engage with existing political struggles and projects. A trenchant critique by Nancy Fraser urged Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe to ‘venture forth from their transcendental safe-house’. On the other there were those more aligned with Derrida, who were sceptical of Nancy’s return to ontology and its Heideggerian inflection. Later, philosophers such as Simon Critchley, conjugating Derridean deconstruction with Levinassian ethics, saw in Nancy’s return to ontology an elision or repression of the ethical as such. Both criticisms – that Nancy’s thought failed to give sufficient philosophical impetus to political struggle and that it constituted a regressive re-embrace of ontology – would recur throughout his career, informing his long-standing dispute with Maurice Blanchot on the question of community, as well as Badiou’s critique of his primary focus on finitude. In response, it could be argued that the return to ontology that has been evident over the past twenty years might suggest that Nancy was ahead of his time. At the same time, his caution towards the relationship of philosophical foundationalism to the grounding of political projects can be said to respond to the lessons of twentieth-century history, no less relevant today.

It was from this inflection point in the early 1980s that Nancy’s subsequent philosophical oeuvre flowed. His doctorat d’état, supervised by Granel, was published as The Experience of Freedom in 1988. Its demonstration of the failure of Kantian reason to secure a totalising ground for being yielded a conception of existence freed from any unity of foundation and understood as an irreducible multiplicity of contingent beings. This was the hinge which turned Nancy’s philosophy towards the major themes of his mature works of the nineties and of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. A Finite Thinking (1990) established the model for Nancy’s philosophy as an experimental, non-systematic practice which sought to bring itself to the limits of its own conceptual powers and possibilities in order to proceed, in the absence of any grounding or foundational gesture, as an encounter with the contingency and multiplicity of a material existence whose totality exceeds conceptual determination. This would be characterised in different ways in the works that followed, as the fragmentary experience of embodiment in Corpus (1992), as shared ‘sense’ in excess of all phenomenological disclosure in The Sense of the World (1993), as the singular plurality of being that resists ontological determination in Being Singular Plural (1996). These were followed by Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative (1998), which, along with Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel (1996), signalled a definitive end to the post-war image of a ‘totalitarian’ Hegel. From the mid-1990s onwards Nancy continued to engage with questions of politics, most notably concerning ethics and democracy, but also and extensively with art and aesthetics. His meditations on art reconnected aesthetic experience to a renewed realism of touch or contact with the sensible-intelligible world. His major late project, the ‘deconstruction of Christianity’ recast the inner logic of monotheism as an originary absenting of God from the world. In this way, he argued, the seeds of atheism had always already been sown within theism, leading to the eventual secularisation of historical religious forms. Nancy never returned to an embrace of religion as such, but his thinking has proven to be a rich resource for critical understanding of a contemporary return to religion and the category of the post-secular.

Nancy died in August, leaving various projects suspended in a state of incompletion, perhaps testifying to his understanding of thought itself as ongoing, and always incomplete. Decades before the vogue for ‘new materialism’ and ‘speculative realism’, Nancy inaugurated a shift in the wake of deconstruction towards a renewed, albeit highly novel, realism. His refusal of all politics grounded in idealised conceptions of subjectivity, self, and of political community grew out of a collective experience of historical disaster in the twentieth century. What one might call his embodied worldly realism of relational coexistence speaks to the post-secular identity politics and ecological problems of the twenty-first. Without prescribing easy answers or determinate programmes it traces and marks out the relational space in which the challenges of politics will be met.

Read on: Peter Hallward, ‘Order and Event’, NLR 53.

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No Recourse

In The Use of Man (1976), the second instalment of Serbo-Croatian novelist Aleksandar Tišma’s Novi Sad trilogy, a schoolboy stares at the books in his Jewish neighbour’s library on the eve of World War II ‘as if they contained the clues to salvation, as if they could rescue one from being beaten, cursed, spat upon, killed’. The books, it turns out, can do no such thing: the neighbour is murdered by the Nazis, while his daughter, Vera, is forcibly sterilized and put to work in a concentration camp brothel. Are words just so much dust in times as dire as these?  

Tišma does not think so. For his characters, language is no mere luxury: it is, in its own way, as indispensable as food and shelter, for it is only language that can render a private pain public. After the war, Vera yearns to confide in someone, but her memories remain ‘stuck inside her, silent, like resin’. When she is asked to write out her biography on a communist questionnaire, she finds herself trying ‘to put the unutterable on paper’. In the end, she crosses out, ‘in thick ink, every word she had written’. She annihilates first her family, then herself: ‘Father’s name: nothing. Mother’s name, maiden name: nothing. Day, month, year of birth: nothing. She was nothing’. Now, she is ‘a prisoner of those blank sheets of paper, as she had been a prisoner in the camp’. She has been exiled from intelligibility, thereby from human community.  

If silence debases and depersons, then the desire to speak – and to be understood – is no less than a desire to become human again. In Kapo (1987), the last and best book in the Novi Sad trilogy, newly reissued in English translation by New York Review Classics for the first time since 1993, Vilko Lamian is riven by conflicting imperatives: even as he strives to avoid punishment, he longs to confess to the many misdeeds he committed as a kapo in Auschwitz. Sequestered in the remote Bosnian town of Banja Luka, he gains weight and dons dark glasses in an attempt to disguise himself from former inmates who might recognize and report him. But try as he might, he cannot escape his victims entirely. As he goes about his business, working a mindless job at the local railroad, he is haunted by thoughts of the fellow Jews he helped to murder – and the many female inmates he contrived to rape with the help of corrupt camp authorities.  

It is to one of these women, Helena Lifka, that Lamian dreams of making a complete confession. The ‘summing word had to be spoken, and heard, and confirmed – by someone, whose response could be even silence, a look of damnation or forgiveness’, he thinks. Like Vera, Lamian knows that he must talk – and be heard and understood, if never forgiven – if he is to go on living. Before long, he has quit his job and embarked on a quest to find Helena, in hope that she can restore some measure of his drained humanity. 

* * * 

Tišma himself did not testify until late in life. He was born in 1924 in Horgos, a village on the border of Hungary and Serbia. The child of a Serbian father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother, he was raised in the then-Yugoslavian and now-Serbian city of Novi Sad. Before setting out to memorialize his own war-time agonies, he spent years working as a journalist: he began writing about the Holocaust only after a trip to Auschwitz in the 1960s. Though he was never interned in the camps and though he escaped the most violent massacres – a Hungarian neighbour lied to soldiers knocking on doors during the infamous raid of Novi Sad, when an estimated 1,400 Jews and Serbs were rounded up and slaughtered by occupation forces in just three days – he nonetheless considered his fiction broadly autobiographical.  

The result is some of the finest and most brutal writing about the Second World War and its bruising aftermath that I know of. Unlike his Yugoslav compatriot, Danilo Kis, Tišma makes no recourse to the leavening forces of fabulism and black comedy. His fiction is merciless, bereft of relief or respite. It is the work of a documentarian accustomed to confronting atrocity without allowing himself the indulgence of looking away. Even among Holocaust literature, it is uniquely bleak: its capitulation to hopelessness is near complete.  

The novels that make up the unsparing Novi Sad trilogy – The Book of Blam (1971), The Use of Man (1976), and Kapo (1987), all originally translated into English in the late 80s and early 90s and reissued by New York Review Classics in the last few years – are paranoiac and nightmarishly non-linear. They flit from one decade to another as the past claws at the present. In The Book of Blam, a quavering travel agency employee is racked by guilt as he contemplates his improbable survival, the product of his marriage to a Catholic: his unconverted Jewish parents and sister are dead. In The Use of Man, a group of acquaintances – a lonely German teacher, a dreamy schoolboy, a sadistic Serbian youth, and a prosperous Jewish businessman and his family – attempt to navigate an increasingly fraught political landscape as the Nazis solidify power. The two characters who live to see peacetime spend their days not planning for the future but reminiscing, by way of reading and re-reading the diary of their erstwhile German tutor, who died before the war. And in Kapo, Lamian is tormented by flashbacks that yank him out of his solitary life in sleepy Banja Luka and plunge him back into the cold heart of horror. On a warm day when other men on the street are lounging in their shirtsleeves, he shivers, recalling the Nazi who made him stand for hours encased in ice, a perverse punishment for appropriating a sweater from a corpse. ‘Leaving the camp behind’, writes Tišma, ‘he now found himself in a camp of his own’, a camp he cannot describe and therefore cannot escape.  

The Novi Sad trilogy endeavours to speak the unspeakable by means of lists and litanies. Even when its catalogue of deaths and indignities at last comes to an end, they gesture at continuation, as if to intimate that the horrors go on at greater length than we can endure or imagine. One chapter of The Use of Man consists of an inventory of ‘natural deaths and violent deaths’: ‘Sarah Kroner…choking in an Auschwitz gas chamber disguised as a bathhouse’, Robert Kroner ‘lying on his black winter overcoat in the transit camp’. In Kapo, Lamian comforts himself by reciting the names of the witnesses of his crimes and assuring himself that they are all dead: ‘Schmule and Krumholz – by injection. Schmauss and Leitner – sent to the front and killed. Varminsky – strangled in a bunker. Lang, Mell – dead in the revolt at Crematorium 2’. The sheer volume of the slaughter is overwhelming, especially when Lamian reflects on all those he was forced to kill,  

the columns of those who had been selected for him to lead to the dispensary to receive an injection of phenol in the heart…..Or the little girl with the doll who stood by the wall in the execution yard as SS man Pfalzig killed her father and mother with a bullet to the back of the head…..And the Russian prisoners, three hundred and sixty of them crowded into a log hut at the Brzezinka, the windows sealed with mud so that the effects of cyanide D could be tested on them. And the new arrivals who came at a time when the crematorium was too full. Led into the birch woods one by one, they were killed with a bullet to the head and thrown onto a grate across a fire, where their bodies burned, the fat crackling and the black smoke rising.  

All this is ‘too much for one head, one mind; and that was why it rushed forth to be told, to be revealed’ – and why Lamian is bursting to speak. 

Yet he has no one to talk to, even casually, much less anyone to confess to. His university friends became Nazis; his parents and neighbours perished in the camps. Insofar as he interacts with anyone else at all, he does so from a distance: he stands alone in a hotel, gazing out his window at a man behind another a window, or he eats alone in a restaurant, staring intently at the other patrons and speculating about their origins. He is incapable of even touching the prostitute he coaxes to his room, a woman whom he watches with interest but makes no effort to seduce. For the most part, he conducts imaginary conversations – with the Nazi who anointed him a kapo, with the dead, and, most urgently, with Helena Lifka.  

* * *  

Many of Lamian’s monologues consist of frantic attempts at self-justification, for he is desperate to believe that ‘no one was wholly untainted. Each of them, in one way or another, in one form or another, had been an accomplice in that degradation and suffering, even if it was only by consenting to endure it in order to live’.  

It is hard to say if this is just an excuse. Maybe it is true, as Primo Levi once cautioned, that no one is ‘authorized to judge’ kapos, ‘not those who lived through the experience of the camps and even less those who did not’. Lamian himself insists that ‘one had to live through the squalor and the cold and the threat of death to understand’. If we cannot understand, then we cannot judge. The camps are unspeakable precisely because they defy comprehension: do the crimes that took place inside them therefore defy moral censure? 

On the other hand, it is not possible to finish Kapo without experiencing Lamian’s transgressions as sickening. It was obscene to read Tišma’s masterpiece, as I did, in a café, so anathema are the abominations it chronicles to pastries and pleasantries. There are few images more bitterly, biliously hideous than that of Lamian coercing starving Auschwitz prisoners into bed with him by offering them food he knows they cannot resist. ‘If you want to eat, you have to come here and sit with me on the bench and kiss me’, he instructs his emaciated captives. ‘For every kiss you get a bite of bread and butter with ham on it, and a sip of warm milk. Want some?’ The women he selects have no choice but to acquiesce, and the grotesque ritual is repeated with one after another: ‘When she swallowed the food, he took his hand away, raised the pot, and brought it to her mouth so she could drink. He set the pot back on the table. “Kiss.”’ 

For Lamian, women are not only plied with food but equated with it: 

He wasn’t sorry that this one or that one would soon die because he no longer wanted her and asked for her…Because he saw in them….nothing but flesh, shape and colour, which were transient qualities of a fruit bound to spoil. And he used them for his pleasure until they did spoil, just like apples or lemons, which carry in their meat the imminence of rot, though their destruction is still invisible. They are eaten and sucked in the knowledge that if left untouched, they will go bad and be useless. All the women were fruit condemned to rot, tossed in a heap amid the stench of the camp; but then he would appear, the Kapo of the workshop, to grab the best, the soundest ones before the mould and stench got to them. 

If Jews are mere objects to their Nazi tormenters – at one point, a cadaver is heaved onto a cart ‘like a log’ – then Jewish women are ultra-objects, both to the SS men and to the collaborators who abuse them. Tišma is one of the few writers of Holocaust fiction to recognize the plight of those who were degraded both as Jews and women, and throughout the trilogy, rape victims are characterized by their torturers as animals, inanimate things, and bodies bereft of feeling: they are ‘meat without speech, without a voice, without a name, without a will, without a mind’.  

On the face of it, Lamian’s increasingly manic efforts to contact Helena Lifka may seem to entail a repudiation of his former misogyny. After all, a human being is the only suitable or satisfying audience for a confession: rotting meat cannot absolve or condemn. Yet Helena is the only one of Lamian’s victims he remembers by name, and even she remains for him a vague and self-serving fantasy. When he tracks down her cousin and learns that she died several months prior, he is jolted out of his dreams of exoneration by the sheer, recalcitrant reality of Helena’s independent existence. He is shocked to hear that the weeping woman he raped ‘always tried to emphasize the bright side of things’. ‘Oh?’ he exclaims, amazed. ‘Though he had never considered what Helena Lifka’s outlook might be like, her tears had given him the opposite impression – that she was prone to despair and hopelessness’. 

Ultimately, it is not Lamian who utters the unutterable, but Tišma. His prose is for the most part unadorned and unsentimental, but it is punctuated by images that pierce: after an air raid a horse drags behind it ‘a purplish braid suspended from its torn belly’; people lining up on the banks of the Danube to be shot in the raid of Novi Sad are ‘like grain walking to the mill’. Kapo succeeds for the very reasons that Lamian fails so heinously. Unlike his protagonist, Tišma addresses himself not to lifeless dolls or hunks of meat but to fellow human beings, for which reason he is able to say a little of what can never be said quite well ­– or quite horribly – enough.  

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘On Re-reading Life and Fate’, NLR 95.