Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.  

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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. 

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

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.

Categories
Uncategorised

A Kuban Stanitsa

I learned about my mother’s death once the airplane landed in Moscow and my phone could be switched back on. She died while I was en route from Chicago. Immediately switching planes, I flew down south, to Krasnodar, my birthplace.

The funeral, as happens at such family rituals, reconnected me with a whole host of Kuban Cossack relatives from my mother’s side. The majority of them still live in her native village, or stanitsa, which literally means ‘winter camp’ as the Cossack military settlements were traditionally called to differentiate them from ordinary peasant villages. I haven’t seen many of my relatives in years, in fact I had never met a few nieces who were born in the eighties and who now have their own children who called me dedushka – during the years of my absence I became a grandpa, or rather a grand-uncle.

The stanitsa astonished me. It looked very prosperous, clean, modern and efficient. The majority of homes were recently renovated and expanded. My cousins now have heated granite floors in the kitchens and bathrooms, or good oak parquet elsewhere. Only my aunt Marusya, almost ninety years old now, lives in a more traditional house that still has plain plaster walls and painted wooden floors. But she also has a satellite dish on the roof – like everyone else in the village – and uses Skype (her daughter knows how to log in) to connect with her grandson and his family who live in the far north of Russia.

Aunt Marusya is also perhaps the last of my older relatives who speaks solely the local Cossack dialect, which derives from a version of eighteenth-century Ukrainian. (This means that I can easily understand basic Ukrainian but not the literary form that evolved later in the nineteenth century under a significant Polish influence, to counter the Russian influence, and which is still evolving now.) The next generation, my various cousins and their spouses, already speak mostly in Russian, using the local dialect only occasionally to make some colorful comment or joke. Their children speak only Russian and perhaps cannot speak the dialect at all. They were puzzled and amused by my rather rusty ability to switch into the ‘stanitsa talk’. Their parents rejoiced at it – after all these years abroad, I remained a good relative and true to my Cossack roots.

The Armenian name Derluguian, inherited from my father, didn’t seem to deter the familial feelings. The Cossacks were always frontiersmen open to non-Russians, evidently including my late Armenian father. He met my Cossack mother shortly after the victory in 1945. Both were very young and fatherless – there were few adult men alive at the time – so a hard-working and merry Armenian was very welcome in the family. My Russian name Georgi was inherited from my uncle killed in Poland in 1945. An American health insurance form once asked me to list the causes of deaths in my family during the twentieth century. This forced on me the realization that no male, on either side, died from natural causes during the 1914-45 period. I was raised by women, mostly widows.

When in my adolescent years I doubted in front of my mother that I should be considered a Cossack, she exclaimed (of course, in dialect): ‘But your eyebrows! Each worth a hundred rubles. Of course, you are a Cossack. Your grandfather Kondrat had two St. Georgi crosses for the Turkish campaigns, so half of the stanitsa lived in envy!’ And then she got darkly serious and added through clenched teeth: ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with the farmland but you must get it back from that dam kolkhoz. It is our farmland, and we are land-tilling Cossacks.’

In 1978 when I was admitted to Moscow State University and provided with a dorm room as an ‘inogorodniy’ (literally, a landless outsider), grandma Elya (Elena Mironovna) shook her head and muttered: ‘Are they out of their minds? How could you be landless? Tell them, you are a Kuban Cossack of Staro-Velichkovsky kuren (regimental settlement) of the Kuban Cossack Host.’

Despite the dark memories of Soviet collectivization, today everybody, to various degrees but evidently without exception, feels nostalgic for the Soviet collective farm. Even those who are among the most prosperous (the owners of a local motel, gas stations, truck business, or fishery) who are now driving Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, are vocally nostalgic for the kolkhoz. This nostalgia, however, is not exactly for socialism but rather seems to be a deeply conservative form of local rural patriotism. The kolkhoz used to be very dynamic in the sixties and seventies, when it supported its own amusement park, dance hall, cinema, and several splendidly equipped schools. I remember, from my student years in the late seventies, how a couple of my relatives came to Moscow to spend close to a million rubles of kolkhoz money (an astronomic sum) on gym equipment – an industrial-size investment back in those times. Moreover, the kolkhoz owned and operated its own factories that produced sausages, cheeses, preserves and sunflower oil.

The factories are still there, as I discovered. In fact, they have been expanded and renovated lately. But they are now owned and operated by the dreaded generic ‘Muscovites’ – sleek young managers and elite technicians who are parachuted into the village from yonder, spending a few months (or at most a couple years) locally and then moving on to another project. They are the newly made MBAs who earn a lot, know or care nothing about agriculture or the local area. The ‘Muscovites’ are in fact the financial enforcers of some gigantic, impersonal entities whose command channels go so high they are out of local sight. These entities and their renovated factories and industrial farms are rapidly becoming the main employers in the village. There still exist a few independent farmers and small entrepreneurs (electricians, garage and gas-station owners) whose assets go back directly to their jobs in the last years of the Soviet Union (which is why these folks are mostly in their fifties and early sixties today). But I couldn’t determine how many they are nor whether they make up any coherent local force. The local state officials and their families, meanwhile, seem a more numerous elite although they are also threatened by political and bureaucratic intrigues way above the levels they can hope to control.

The local story of privatization seems to have run like this: First, at the end of Gorbachev’s perestroika (which everybody ritually curses) the managers of collective farms and local agro-industrial units discovered that they could now charge ‘market prices’ while the control from local Party and even government structures disappeared virtually overnight. The last generation of Soviet ‘red directors’ simply had to maintain basic production, feed their workers, and share some funds with the localities along old paternalistic patterns. The rest could be pocketed. The sums gained in just a few years must have been considerable judging by stories of vacation homes in Spain and grandchildren now studying at Oxford. Because our southern province is blessed with exceptionally fertile soils, good climate, and has several ports on the Black Sea, there was no problem disposing of wheat, corn, meat or sunflower oil across Russia or exporting to foreign markets – the hard ‘durum’ wheat went mostly to Italy, cooking oil to the Third World. In short, the situation in the North Caucasus was quite unlike the big factory towns in central Russia and Siberia.

But the last generation of Soviet managers held to their new ownership positions for just a few years. All of them, even the youngest and most able, were evicted in the mid- to late nineties by gangsters or ‘raiders’. Their method was the same in almost all instances: an ‘alien’ with a distinctly criminal demeanor would arrive with a large private security detail or even with state anti-riot police and in a surprise move occupy the entrances and offices at a local factory. The pretext was usually a bankruptcy procedure mandated by some obscure court from a distant town somewhere in the middle of Russia.

The new legal owners were completely faceless, an anonymous bank or unknown group of investors registered in some tax haven like Cyprus or Aruba, and they would claim to take the property under a ‘crisis restructuring.’  The old management were sometimes bought out, sometimes sent to jail for various tax violations. At other times they simply disappeared and would later be found dead, or never found at all. The luckiest, those who survived, are still living reasonably well and away from trouble somewhere in Cyprus or Dubai.

But the raider capitalists did not last very long either. In the 2000s a new and mighty force arrived – the ‘Muscovites’ armed with their MBAs and evidently with capital and political connections of an altogether different scale. They also brought new production technologies and equipment imported from Europe. This is probably why the fields look so well-kept, the warehouses and agro-industrial factories so brand-new.

There remains a lot I did not see or understand in just one week. Like in any initial phase of fieldwork, you get surprised almost every hour. Only as one of my distant nieces and her boyfriend were driving me back to Krasnodar did I realize that they were probably more ‘Muscovites’ than locals. She has no father and had to work her way up in the big town, eventually becoming a lawyer. The boyfriend in the meantime turned out to own an advertisement firm where he is apparently the sole permanent employee. Her main interest in life used to be Krishnaism, and she spent a few weeks visiting the ashrams in India. More twists in the ongoing story of our native village. But now, much to her mother’s relief, she seems more interested in starting a new family with her boyfriend.

Years ago, Pierre Bourdieu suggested that I should use my native access to do local fieldwork. I did, of course, in the war zones of the Caucasus. Krasnodar is in fact just a few hundred kilometers away from Chechnya or Abkhazia. But it is so hugely different economically and socially…indeed, I should probably return to spend a longer time in stanitsa.

Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘A Small World War’, NLR 128

Categories
Uncategorised

The Comedy of American Communism

‘What use is ruin?’ asks Emily Wilkes, protagonist of I’m Dying Laughing, the posthumous novel by the Australian Marxist author Christina Stead. ‘Communists should not be ruined: they should stay on top.’ Unfortunately for Emily, ruin is the abiding theme of Stead’s impressive and neglected oeuvre. Her last novel, left unfinished and assembled from drafts by her literary trustee after her death in 1983, occupied her for at least the final thirty years of her life. Its incompleteness is a testament to the difficulty of capturing the full ruinous extent of the lives of its characters: mid-century members of the American Communist Party.

Born in 1902, Stead was an Antipodean émigré whose best-known novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), thinly fictionalised her own Sydney childhood by transplanting it to Washington DC. In later years she moved between France, Spain, Belgium, England and America, supporting herself as a writer through an equally various list of occupations: banker, Hollywood screenwriter, journalist, tutor in the art of the novel at NYU. Despite the recent resurgence of interest in modernist women writers of the American left – Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser – Stead still lingers in relative obscurity. Her decades-long neglect can be partially explained by the fact that no one has ever quite known where to place her. Though she insisted on her native national identity throughout her life, in 1967 she was given the Britannica Australia Award for literature and then subsequently denied it due to her long absence from the country. Her work is just as resistant to categorisation. Unlike Rukeyser, a totemic figure of lyric communism, Paley, whose work pointed to the potential for a coalition between writers and activists, or Rich, who reflected on the conditions of literary production under patriarchy, Stead’s dozen novels and numerous short stories stubbornly refuse to coalesce into a single political message. This, of course, is one of many reasons to read them.

Prima facie, I’m Dying Laughing is the story of Emily, a young, naïve journalist from rural Pennsylvania, fresh off the bus in Manhattan, who finds fame and unhappy fortune as a comic writer specialising in homespun tales of the ‘Mrs Blueberry Pie’, ‘Arkansas peasant’ and ‘Freckles’ variety. Unlike Letty Fox and Her Luck (1946), another of the quintet of Stead’s American works, the political mêlée of the Lower East Side in the 1930s and 40s is but one location among many in the book. Emily and her disinherited millionaire husband Stephen Howard ricochet first across the continent, then over the Atlantic to exile in post-war Paris. In each new domicile, they stage a carnival of ever-more-conspicuous consumption, funded by cheques from Emily’s writing career, first for the workers’ dailies, then Broadway, then Hollywood, then magazine syndication and the bids of the highest paying publisher.

Between fixtures, fittings, curtains, cocktails, lobsters (thermidored and souffléd), bread rolls, gateaux and expanding garters, the Howards discuss politics, the plight of the worker, the disappointment of the New Deal, the parasitism of the intellectual, the laziness of their servants, the fortunes of their children and their own mounting debts. When will Stephen gain the respect of his peers as a Marxist historian and theoretician, or Emily acquire the focus needed to become the next Theodore Dreiser? After the next bestseller, the next soirée, the next relocation, they declare. On and on they chatter and fret until they are consumed by madness, ultimately reneging and naming Party names. The final act of their bourgeois marriage is the pathetic renunciation of their friends to the CIA in the service of renewing Emily’s American passport.

Emily suffers from acute logorrhoea: in Stephen’s words, ‘this chronic verbal excitement which arises apropos almost of the feeblest immediate cause.’ Her loquaciousness is characteristic of Stead’s approach to dialogue, a tool which replaces plot as much as driving it forward in many of her later books. As the novel progresses, Emily’s reliance on luxury increases in proportion to her inability to produce the work which funds her lifestyle. Emily wants to be everything at once: her adopted son’s mother and his lover, a Hollywood success, a writer of literary Marxist works, a slim gourmand; she wants to speak French fluently but can’t stop speaking American English for long enough to learn. She sees herself as a New Yorker, a hick, a ruined millionairess, a made worker.

Money, the need of it, the failure to keep hold of it, runs like a seam through the Howards’ marriage, as Emily’s talent is wrung for every cent it’s worth and then mortgaged out for more. In her figure we see the comic potential of an idea of socialism based on the fulfilment of personal needs: demand everything at once, then have no idea what to do with it once it’s yours. Reconciliation with meaningful work, a political position, a sense of agency and purpose requires decision-making powers – and these are powers Emily does not possess. What’s more, she lives in an age of impossible decisions. The CPUSA, whose orderly arrangement of human history and direction of its necessary future has structured her and Stephen’s entire adult life, has turned against them after their criticism of the wartime policy of a united front. For a while, the couple tries to maintain their faith outside the institution, but what use is a member without a party? These contradictions catch up with the Howards. Their rejection by the European communists and the growing irreconcilability of their political views with their addiction to finery create a fatal gap between their public personae and their private desires, which Emily tries frantically to fill with more of everything: writing, eating, loving. ‘Well of course,’ as Stead said of the couple, ‘it came to a bad end.’

Observing her topsy-turvy bacchanal of unsatiated impulses, it’s tempting to compare Emily to a Shakespearean fool – more Falstaff than Hal, as protagonists go – but her knack is for the comedy of incongruity. When she bemoans to Stephen the fact that ‘the masterpieces of the world are gloomy – tragedies no less’, he assures her that she’s ‘a funny Hamlet’. But it’s another incongruous fool of Shakespeare’s that makes the best parallel for Emily Wilkes. In Act III Scene I of Titus Andronicus,  after being tricked into cutting off his hand in ransom for his dead son, the titular lead speaks the singular line, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ Titus’s laughter is neither genuine nor spontaneous; it is a deliberate response to a world he no longer understands. He is laughing no more than Emily is when she declares,

‘I’m dying laughing. That means something to me, not just a joke Stephen. You don’t know what I mean.’

‘Well, what do you mean?’

‘I lay awake enough nights to know what I mean. I lie awake and try to find out what I’m going crazy for: what the struggle is for.’

When Stephen pushes her to clarify the purpose of it all, Emily laughs.

Underlying the wandering plot of I’m Dying Laughing is the Howards’ run from political defeat and inability to comprehend the scale of their loss. After their deviation from the party line, and a summary interrogation disguised as a screenwriters’ dinner party, they flee the USA before their expulsion from the CP is enacted (or is it? I’m Dying Laughing is hazy on such detail, showcasing what Angela Carter called ‘the arbitrary flux of event that characterises Stead’s later novels’). Ostracism from the party, however, offers no protection against the approaching McCarthyite danger – and, caught in a pincer movement between former colleagues and the FBI, Emily begins to regret their decision not to sit this one out. ‘Those about to die salute you,’ Emily tells a steadfast comrade as she contemplates her isolation and entrapment, ‘I never cared for that.’

That Emily and Stephen were based on Stead’s friends (the author Ruth McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten), and that episodes in the book draw clearly on the author’s own time at MGM and her lives in New York and Paris, are notes of minor biographical interest here. Stead’s habit of moving her characters abruptly between metropolis and backwater, in and out of the tightknit social circles so characteristic of any account of mid-century left political life, can be attributed as much to the fragmentary manner of composition as to her peripatetic partnership with the American economist William Blake. Authorial backstory explains some of Stead’s choice of material in I’m Dying Laughing, just as her time in a Paris bank prompted her to write her earlier novel House of All Nations (1938), but it can’t explain Stead’s use of this material. I’m Dying Laughing is the final work of an author who has lost interest in resolution. For all the political talk in the book, its political lessons are thorny and demotivating where they can be said to exist at all. Emily, like many of Stead’s women characters, is neither a hero nor a victim, nor does she feel herself to be either constrained or liberated by her gender and historical position, declaring to a male peer,

‘I can beat any man alive, I bet, in my writing, and children and house and all. I think it makes a woman an artist, it doesn’t hinder her. If she’s hindered it’s her own fault; she or her husband don’t want her to win … I think it’s possible for a woman to be a wife and mother and woman and artist and success and social worker and anything else you please in 1945.’

Stead’s commitment to writing women characters who vocalise their ideas on everything except their own gendered oppression is remarkable. Especially so when one considers that her only sustained period of public attention came about because of her inclusion in the Virago Modern Classics series in the late 1970s. Indeed, Emily’s arch observations regarding the light burden of her womanly plight could be read as a sly dig at some of the authors who would become Stead’s list-mates: ‘I grant it’s terrible to be a success in literature and the movie trade along with being a wife and mother, but it’s not so terrible I can’t stand it.’

Today, however, on the Wikipedia list of ‘notable’ Virago authors, Stead doesn’t warrant a mention, nor is she referenced on the Virago page paying tribute to its Modern Classics series. The point here is not that Stead has been nefariously erased from the grand history of the most successful feminist publishing project of the last century, but rather that she didn’t belong in it to begin with. This paperback packaging of her as a maligned woman novelist was an ill fit for someone who saw herself, instead, as a maligned communist writer.

Despite this division in views between author and press, Stead has been the subject of serious critical treatment by two of her Virago peers. Angela Carter profiled her in the London Review of Books in 1986, observing that ‘to read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction … She is a kind of witness and a kind of judge, merciless, cruel and magnificently unforgiving.’ A decade later, Vivian Gornick would write of the depiction of party meetings in I’m Dying Laughing that ‘there is no more accurate imitation in American literature of the sound and feel (and length!) of that kind of talk.’

Gornick, whose octogenarian revival has transformed her from cult writer to literary star, is a generation younger than Stead, but a figure straight out of the world she captures, as The Romance of American Communism makes clear. In her introduction to the new edition of Romance, Gornick is caustic about her earlier choice of genre, identifying the root of the book’s ‘problem’ as her own over-attachment to the memories of her youth. ‘To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate; to write about it romantically was not.’ Romance-as-form, in Gornick’s retrospective analysis, flattens the detail of historical character necessary for a complete psychological account of the phenomenon of the CPUSA. ‘As a writer, I knew full well that the reader’s sympathy could be engaged only by laying out as honestly as possible all the contradictions of character or behaviour that a situation exposed, but I routinely forgot what I knew.’

Despite this and many other notes of caution from the author, the book was widely acclaimed among a core readership of millennial leftists last summer. Its republication in April 2020 could not have been timelier, coinciding as it did with Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the nomination race and the election of Keir Starmer to the position of Labour leader. Despair and disillusionment spanned the hyphenated gap between the youthful Anglo-American socialist movements. Among those whose lives had, for some months if not longer, revolved around voluntaristic party activism, a desperate search was underway for confirmation that faith in theory could survive defeat in practice. Gornick’s Romance offered an account which not only showed the new(er) left how to lose but reassured it that losing was in itself a form of moral victory, an inheritance from our historic forebears, the birth right of an honest cause.

Emily, of course, would disagree. Romantic ruin is not the goal, and communists should stay on top. Gornick’s youthfully naïve experience of communist organisation ended with the epoch shift of 1956 and the demise of the Party, events quickly canonised in left-American history as tragic but necessary disillusionments which laid the groundwork for the next generation’s activism. But for Stead, three decades Gornick’s senior and a CPUSA veteran at the time of its fall, the absurdities of its many missteps were integral to the shape of the struggle. Whether the demise of American communism was a romantic denouement or a preposterous farce ultimately depended on how many times you’d lived through it before.

After Emily declares her aversion to ruin, the Howards’ friend, a staunch Party member, chides her,

 ‘Yes, it’s hard. No one accepts that willingly. We should win, not lose. We should fight to win. But we have not fought very much yet in the United States.’

‘We will fight and we will lose,’ said Stephen.

Ha Ha Ha.

Read on: Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, NLR 1/154.

Categories
Uncategorised

Whose Green New Deal?

Socialist visions of a Green New Deal abound, but political roadmaps for their realization seem to have been foreclosed. After the electoral defeats of Corbyn and Sanders, and the fracturing of the climate movement in the Global North following its apex in the autumn of 2019, this disjuncture is starker than ever. From it, a range of dilemmas arise. Foremost among them is how socialists should conceive of the Green New Deal now that its precondition, the prospect of administering the state, has receded into the distance; and how the left can reconcile the ‘long game’ of democratic socialism with the urgency of the climate timeline. To address these questions, a preliminary look at the two main iterations of the GND – British and American – is necessary.

At Labour’s September 2019 conference, a motion approved by party members and two of Britain’s three biggest trade unions defined the GND as ‘a state-led programme of investment and regulation, based on public ownership and democratic control, for the decarbonization and transformation of our economy.’ Bernie Sanders’s presidential manifesto contained a more expansive definition: ‘a ten-year, nationwide mobilization centered around justice and equity during which climate change will be factored into virtually every area of policy, from immigration to trade to foreign policy and beyond.’ Looking back at these proposals, it is tempting to view Biden’s ‘green Keynesian’ infrastructure plan as a concession to the GND (which the president has himself described as a ‘crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face’). Yet, in their political ambitions and implications, the environmental programmes of Sanders and Corbyn are substantially different to Biden’s.  

In the case of Corbyn’s Labour, we can pinpoint three features that pushed the Green New Deal beyond the Keynesian framework, towards a non-reformist programme of reform. First, decommodified forms of ownership were central, taking precedence over policies that sought reforms within the market, such as co-ops and inclusive share ownership funds. Marxist economist Mary Robertson – who, as Corbyn’s head of economic policy, was the unsung architect of this agenda – has pointed out that Labour’s public ownership programme aimed, through ‘removing key areas of social and economic reproduction from the system of production for profit’, to delink large sectors of the economy from the commodity structure as a vital component of its decarbonization plan.

Second, Labour’s 2030 target date for decarbonization intended to disrupt the gradualism that is the default temporality of social democracy. Corbynism marked a welcome turn away from the mimetic revolutionary politics of Trotskyist grouplets, yet the urgency of the climate crisis had nonetheless robbed us of the luxury of the ‘long march through the institutions’. Without revolutionary strategies or horizons, the 2030 deadline was intended to acknowledge the imperative of immediacy. It was the closest thing in Labour’s programme to Andreas Malm’s second principle for ecological Leninism: ‘speed as paramount virtue.’

Lastly, the recomposition of the working class was integral to Labour’s GND. It held out the possibility of superseding itself by reconstituting a proletarian subject that might push the transition beyond carbon into a confrontation with capital as such. Without the support of the firefighters’ (FBU) and postal and communication workers’ (CWU) unions, and the slower but no less significant backing of Unite, there would have been no 2030 target. Labour’s decarbonization strategy was crafted by rather than merely for organized labour. The GND thus had an immanent answer to the charge from the autonomist left that it overlooked the necessity of agents acting outside and against the state. Quite the opposite: new green industries; existing low-carbon sectors valorized and enlarged; decommodified public utilities and renewed trade unions, freed from the need to protect carbon-heavy jobs, would together change the balance of class forces.

The Sanders GND bore many similarities to Corbyn’s. Both shared the same vision of a just, state-led transition away from fossil fuels, foregrounding mass green job creation and the revival of trade unions. And both contained the beginnings of an internationalist (if not consistently anti-imperialist) orientation, with commitments to free or ‘equitable’ transfers of green tech to the Global South. Just as Labour’s manifesto held out the prospect of climate reparations, Sanders promised to slash the Pentagon’s budget to fund the GND. 

Perhaps the most significant shift from AOC’s GND congressional resolution in November 2018 to the Sanders presidential programme was the latter’s explicit commitment to public ownership of new renewable energy infrastructure. However, aside from this policy and the Medicare for All plan, Sanders’s platform contained no other pledges on public ownership (as against rail, mail, energy and water in Corbyn’s manifesto). His 2050 decarbonization target also failed to recognize both the disaster invited by delay and the West’s historic climate debt. Yet, free from the constraining influence of right-leaning trade unions, Sanders was more openly antagonistic towards the fossil fuel industry than his British counterpart. He was not afraid of naming the enemy and threatening them with prosecution.

What now for such promises, after the left’s electoral failures? Evidently, the field is much more open in the US. Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs plan seems to mark a paradigm-shift towards green Keynesianism, commanding widespread support from business and labour leaders alike. But while it comes closer to the ambition necessary for staving off catastrophe than anything previously contemplated by governments in the Anglosphere, the scale is still insufficient. Biden’s plan commits to around $125 billion spending per year on clean energy. As Kate Aronoff has observed, this is a mere four times ‘the amount of money [American] consumers spent on children’s toys last year’. Sizing up the annual 0.6% of GDP that the plan allocates to ‘climate-related’ projects, The Economist, in its own understated way, concurred with such critics: the scheme is, ‘if anything, a little on the low side of most estimates for the costs of rethinking and largely recreating an industrial civilization.’ Measured against the $16.3 trillion of public investment that sat at the centre of Sanders’s GND, Biden’s proposal seems almost trivial.

A comparison with Labour’s 2019 programme is instructive. One of Biden’s headline pledges is to ‘build, preserve and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings’, whereas the plan to decarbonize Britain’s energy system – drawn up by energy experts and civil engineers and adopted in Corbyn’s manifesto – aimed to retrofit the country’s entire housing stock: 27 million homes within a decade. In the entirety of Biden’s plan, just $40 billion is committed to all public housing projects, whereas the Sanders–AOC ‘Green New Deal for public housing’ demands $180 billion for retrofits and upgrades alone. Scale is not the only problem. Public ownership is nowhere to be seen, and Biden’s entire climate strategy is guided by the death-knell 2050 net zero target (although, even then, it falls short of the investment needed to meet it). Seth Ackerman has suggested that, were Biden to make the family allowance provisions of the first stimulus package permanent, this would mark the transformation of the Democrats into a ‘responsible, democratic-minded party of the center-right’. The American Jobs Plan seems to herald a similar shift in climate policy: not meaningless, but modest. That said, Biden’s most important climate legacy may not lie in his infrastructure spending but in the PRO Act, which would dramatically change the conditions for labour organizing in favour of unions were it to pass the Senate and then POTUS’s desk.

If Biden has partially incorporated some of the American GND’s uncontroversial themes, the picture is more straightforward when it comes to Starmer. Having promised to ‘hardwire the green new deal into everything we do’, the Labour leader now appears to have abandoned transformative climate and economic policy tout court. He is evidently too busy with authoritarian-nationalist posturing and a granular bureaucratic crackdown on the left to pay any attention to planetary emergency. The traces of radicalism that remain are largely rhetorical, confined to the occasional interventions of Ed Miliband in his role as shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary. Two episodes neatly encapsulate Labour’s direction of travel. Last November, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions Jonathan Reynolds demanded that UK pension funds be made carbon neutral by 2050, declaring with no hint of irony that ‘the climate emergency demands urgent action’. And in March Starmer forced Alex Sobel (a low-ranking shadow minister and stalwart of the party’s ‘soft left’) to apologize for having once suggested that business was the enemy in the fight against climate change. In his follow up comments to the press, Starmer more or less proclaimed that nobody – including the Conservatives – is more pro-business than him.

In both the US and UK, then, the GND as a programme for decarbonization through socialist transformation – which would be able to take action at the speed and scale necessary to mitigate catastrophe – will not materialize for the foreseeable future. One plausible path for radical environmentalism in this context is co-optation by the political centre and green fractions of capital. Activists have long been attuned to this danger, hence the many prefixes that have accompanied the slogan ‘Green New Deal’: ‘socialist’, ‘radical’, ‘left-populist’, ‘global’, and ‘internationalist’, to name a few. But two factors now heighten this risk. First, GND ‘advocacy’ has become tied to nebulously progressive NGOs and think-tanks. Many of these organizations, constrained by philanthropic funding streams and donors, are incentivized to obfuscate antagonisms and claim easy victories. Last year, Britain’s leading Green New Deal NGO came up with a campaign slogan (‘Build Back Better’) so timid that it was taken up by both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s presidential transition team. Greenpeace UK, meanwhile, cheered on BP’s ‘net zero’ public relations stunts, declaring that the company had ‘woken up to the fact that the next decade will be crucial to survival’. With champions like these, inimical to class-based climate politics, the GND’s prospects look bleak.

The political paradoxes of the climate timeline are the second condition that could encourage co-optation. Adam Tooze has written that ‘in a foxhole, survival is paramount, and radicalism fades’. This is especially true of the climate crisis. Every fraction of a degree of warming mitigated or reversed might mean the avoidance of a tipping point. The politics of emergency – in the medium-term at least – are therefore just as likely to encourage resignation to moderation as the flourishing of radicalism. Catastrophism that couples declarations of emergency with disavowals of class politics (in the mold of Extinction Rebellion) is liable to collapse into a paradoxical combination of nihilism and liberal tinkering. With democratic planning a distant prospect, it’s easy to envisage the GND being absorbed into a ‘green’ capitalism that would not address the fundamental drivers of climate breakdown.

Thea Riofrancos argued in May 2019 that it was ‘precisely the indeterminacy of the Green New Deal that provides a historic opening for the left’. Yet if the GND is not to become hegemonized by the centre, these contradictions and ambiguities must now be resolved by a coherent socialist programme. Political advocacy has been central to the operations of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Labour for a Green New Deal, leading to significant influence on the formation of the Sanders and Corbyn programmes. But socialists successfully lobbying leaders in Washington or Westminster, absent any real social power or organizational base, was entirely contingent on an aberrant historical circumstance: those leaders being self-described socialists. As Matt Huber has recently stressed, no amount of ‘closed door corporatist bargaining’ from climate campaigners will move Biden. Neither Starmer, nor Johnson. Imagining that the GND might be adopted by centrist politicians – if only they are pressed hard enough – is a recipe for confusion and demobilization at best, and abandonment of the programme’s non-reformist potential at worst.

There is also a risk of losing sight of the fronts on which it is most crucial to extend the programme. Take the GND’s fledging internationalist elements, which have always been more gestural than substantive. Confrontation with China and a return to Atlanticist norms are enjoying bipartisan (if not quite unanimous) support in Washington and London. The appointment of John Kerry as ‘climate tsar’ on Biden’s national security council – lauded by the Sunrise Movement –  points to the imperial considerations underlying the administration’s climate strategy. Indeed, Biden’s domestic spending plans are driven as much by consternation about the eclipse of American hegemony as by any organized pressure from the left. As Brian Deese, director of the president’s National Economic Council, put it in a recent interview: Biden is ‘thinking about the infrastructure investments necessary… in contra position to what he is seeing China doing, in terms of strategic investments’. Deese went on to present the left-turn in domestic economic policy as a precondition for revived American global leadership. Biden’s climate advisors might trade in rhetoric about frontline communities, but the State Department’s diplomatic war on Bolivia and the Pentagon’s South China Sea build-up continue apace. Even if the White House acceded to demands from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing for larger climate investments, the result would be a greener empire rather than anything resembling a ‘global Green New Deal’.

In this context, supporters of the GND could do worse than direct their energies towards building a socialist climate movement and arming it with clear, antagonistic themes and demands. Rightly preoccupied with winning support for Corbyn and Sanders over the past five years, the left largely neglected the task of intervening in and shaping social movements, leaving liberals and NGOs ascendant. There are already institutions which render socialists well-placed to recapture the initiative: left-led trade unions in Britain, Momentum, Labour for a Green New Deal, the DSA’s eco-socialist working group, and think-tanks like Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative. To the climate movement, socialists can bring a majoritarian political programme with significant existing popular support. Movement-building can also temper the organized left’s ‘liberal trust in the power of policies to persuade’ – to borrow Katrina Forrester’s term – and sharpen its political strategies. This reorientation would strengthen the hand of socialist legislators in the present, and might help create political opportunities for them in future electoral cycles.

Temporarily decoupling the GND from the electoral arena may also provide the space to radicalize and retool the programme. There is much work to be done in organizing around and thinking through difficult areas like aviation and geo-engineering that have sometimes been dodged by GND activists. Beyond some academic circles, there has so far been scant engagement with Holly Jean Buck’s warning that oil companies could use carbon capture projects to ‘essentially take us hostage’, monopolizing these nascent technologies to redouble their illusory promises of net-zero. A coherent left climate strategy could begin to neutralize such threats.

Post-mortems of the Anglo-American left’s electoral failures have often diagnosed the underlying issue as one of structural weakness. Left commonsense states that there are ‘no shortcuts’ to building the organizational and industrial strength necessary for future victories. Perhaps not. But we must hope that political contingencies can dramatically shorten the timeline. If the emergency brake is ever to be glimpsed, let alone grasped, then a socialist climate movement bound together by the Green New Deal is a good place to start.

Read on: Robert Pollin, ‘Degrowth vs a Green New Deal’, NLR 112.

Categories
Uncategorised

The End of Déby

Of Charles XII of Sweden, who was until 19 April this year the last head of state killed in battle, Voltaire said that he was half-Alexander the Great, half-Don Quixote. While in the trenches of Fredriksten, Norway, a bullet went through his head with the plopping sound of ‘a stone forcefully thrown into the mud’ (according to a witness). Death was instantaneous. Almost equally instantaneous were rumours that enemy fire might not be to blame, especially since the king’s death was followed by a coup d’état and a thorough reform of Sweden’s system of government. Kanem, a desert environment with temperatures averaging 40 degrees, is no Norway, but the demise there of Chad’s president Idriss Déby – reportedly from a bullet wound in the chest – bears a few resemblances to Charles’s Norwegian end. There are the rumours, the bullet wound, and the coup d’état – which is plainly what the rushed succession of Déby’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby is. But the deepest parallel is that, ultimately, Déby was a victim of his belief in the mythology of the warrior king, and in the indispensability of that mythology in what remains the fraying edge of France’s ghost empire in Africa. Déby would never have inspired Voltaire’s quip, but he quixotically saw himself as a Napoleonic Braveheart, a mix of French general and tribal captain. Last August, he anointed himself maréchal du Tchad, symbolically placing himself in the tradition of the maréchaux de France and holding, with a beaming smile, a baton modèle empire (the empire in question is Napoleon’s). But his army is tribal and colonial, not national.

Déby’s career began as part of Chad’s efforts to build a national army, but the country has long had a special bond with that of France. The lands France subjugated at the greatest cost during colonial conquest are typically those where its military’s influence remains strongest, and none took a higher toll than Chad. Commandant Lamy, leader of the French invasion, was killed in battle at Kusseri, in April 1900. Victory there only opened the way for further battles against the highly militarised northern tribal chiefs and sultans, who had easy access to firearms supplied by their putative sovereigns, the Ottoman Turks. It took France two decades to finally assume control, littering the land with ‘here…a Colonel, there a Captain or Lieutenant or an Adjutant, a Sergeant-Major, a Sergeant or a humble Corporal, buried under the sands of the Sahara’, to quote a litany from the British missionary Dugald Campbell. The military imprint was also onomastic. The French-built capital was named Fort-Lamy; Sahr, the country’s third largest city, used to be Fort-Archambault; and the oasis town of Faya was rebaptised Largeau, from the name of the conqueror of Borkou and Tibesti. Just a few years after it was considered ‘pacified’, Chad became the military base of the Free French. The Leclerc division which flew the tricolour on Hitler’s Berghof in May 1945, had left from here with 3000 African troops and 55 French officers. As a result of this feat, Leclerc was the leading figure in the final cohort of the maréchaux de France.

Chad became independent in 1960, though the French army did not relinquish control of its northern provinces until four years later. By then, Déby, born into the warlike desert tribe of the Zaghawa, where men must at all times carry a dagger, was entering his teens. The French military played a key role in the reckless administration of the area by southern Chadians. For many centuries, people in what became southern Chad were preyed upon by northern slavers who established their states on wealth from trade with the Middle East. But for French colonialism, the humid south was the ‘useful Chad’, where school education was expanded and from which administrative aides were recruited. In this vision, the north was a realm of restless nomads and fanatical Islam (in fact, the faith only became hegemonic there in the 20th century) where civilian rule and Western education had no place.

Inevitably, at independence power of administration devolved to the south. Chad’s first president, François Tombalbaye, was inextricably a southern nationalist, colonial collaborationist, and Chadian patriot. In these conditions, civilian rule in the north proved a perverse form of homegrown colonialism. A year after the French lifted their boot, the north revolted. A report which Tombalbaye commissioned from French experts, after a French intervention confronted the insurgency, exposed the extent of the ineptitude and insensitivity of southern administrators. Among other egregious details, the report revealed that women were disrobed and paraded in public and men fined for not cutting their beards, in juvenile attempts at imposing southern cultural norms. Tombalbaye mended fences, released political prisoners, and appointed a government half-composed of Muslims. Faced with France’s failure to quell the rebellion, he radically changed his foreign policy, broke diplomatic ties with Israel and brokered an entente with Sudan and Libya that cut the northern rebels off from their foreign bases and supplies. The rebels shrank from a threat to a nuisance.

Tombalbaye also became convinced that the solution to Chad’s problems lay in cultural renovation and threw himself into the building of ‘Tchaditude’ (‘Chadness’), a sense of national identity that embraced ‘African authenticity’ and rejected Christianity and Islam. That’s when Fort-Lamy became N’Djamena, and Fort-Archambault, Sahr. Tchaditude especially appalled Christians, until then a solid base of Tombalbaye’s regime, and it had no discernible impact on the country’s disintegrating economy. Tombalbaye was killed by a band of gendarmes in April 1975. Within a week, one of the perpetrators gloated on Radio Tchad that the slain president had paid ‘mercenaries’ to watch them, when in fact the mercenaries were working for them. The transparent allusion was to Camille Gourvenec and Pierre Galopin, former French military officers who headed Tombalbaye’s secret police, known as ‘N’Djamena’s Gestapo’. Gouvernec and Galopin had multiple loyalties, including to the French state.

Déby had begun training at the national military academy the year of the coup against Tombalbaye. The following year, he was sent to a castle in French Flanders to receive instruction as a military pilot. One day at the school’s cafeteria, a Chadian trainee had a fit of madness and attacked, dagger out, two of his Tunisian schoolmates. There was some bloodletting, but disaster was averted after Déby lunged at the attacker and subdued him. The attacker was expelled from France, and the peace-maker had to turn in his own dagger. But he had been noticed. Back in Chad, the post-Tombalbaye era had descended into a civil war between ‘Sudists’, under President Felix Malloum, and ‘Nordists’ under rebel chiefs Goukouni Weddeye and Hissein Habré. This wrecked the already tattered Chadian state, which was branded ‘un État néant’ by Jeune Afrique, the Francophone weekly of record on African affairs. (The phrase evidently stung, because Déby recalled it in his last interview with Jeune Afrique, forty years later, in November 2019). It also shifted the balance of power to the north. When Déby returned to Chad in 1979, he was co-opted by Habré who put him at the helm of the northern armies. But if the Francophile Déby’s position reflected French influence, Habré saw himself as the man of the Americans.

Taking advantage of the mayhem, Colonel Gaddafi had invaded a northern stretch of Chadian territory, the ‘Aozou Strip,’ over which he claimed Libyan sovereignty. The Reagan administration resolved to ‘bloody the nose of mad dog Gaddafi’ (in the words of Secretary of State Alexander Haig) and put up their first covert operation – before Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the Contras in Nicaragua – to bring Habré to power. Ultimately, it was French military support that secured the victory against Gaddafi. But for his own grasp on power, Habré relied on a ‘Gestapo’ trained by the Americans which proved far more lethal than Tombalbaye’s. Déby was at first a mainstay in that apparatus of control and repression, but its tribal structure made it inherently untrustworthy from the vantage of the man at the top. Loyalty to the putative nation-state, of the kind which Tombalbaye had sought to foster with Tchaditude, had failed to supersede allegiance to a tribe or a clan within a tribe (Habré himself is a Tubu Daza). As a result, a paranoid Habré lashed out all around him in what looked like genocidal mania, and stoked the very rebellions he dreaded would materialise. Moreover, he imprudently posed as an Americanophile in spite of having invited back the French military. Solidly implanted via the anti-Libyan Operation Manta that morphed into Operation Épervier in 1986, the French army was there to stay. Indeed, Operation Épervier was never terminated, simply segueing into the current ‘anti-terror’ Operation Barkhane. Meanwhile, Déby, who Habré once sought to defang by consigning him to a diplomatic sinecure in Paris, joined a movement of armed dissidents that trekked to Darfur, in western Sudan, and attacked the Habré regime from bases there. Shorn of French support and with the fickle Americans gone, Habré decamped to Senegal and Déby took power in December 1990.

To fully get rid of Habré, Déby mounted a commission that was given free rein to investigate the atrocities perpetrated under him. The official report, which established that upwards of 40,000 people had died in Chad’s gaols between 1982 and 1990, started a long-haul process against Habré – the Senegalese state strenuously resisted getting involved – which finally succeeded in the 2010s. But if the investigation-cum-report stoked hopes that Déby would be a different kind of ruler, disillusionment was swift. Deaths in prison, unrestrained police brutality, torture, ‘compulsory disappearances’ (the phrase is used by human-rights advocates) and other features of the Habré tyranny were soon restored. Compulsory disappearances are the result of inadvertent deaths occasioned by torture, when the damaged body becomes an embarrassment for the regime. This was apparently the fate of Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, not seen since his arrest in 2008. The charismatic leader of the Party for Liberties and Development was respected across the country, and Déby held a bitter grudge against him after they fell out in the late 1990s.  

With Déby, the French had struck gold in Chad, or at least something that looked like it. Déby did not have the dreams of Tombalbaye, which ended up making the man impossible to ‘handle’, and unlike Weddeye and Habré he knew how to live with French control. If the democratisation of the 1990s was an opportunity to resume the task of building a sense of national belonging, this time through participatory rather than authoritarian methods, Déby was not one to seize it. His vision of Chad, shaped by his political experience, was cynically tribalist; democratic formalities merely looked like a way to fake legitimacy and get the necessary winks from the ‘international community’. This approach led him into the same impasse as Habré, and brought about similar rebellions. But the French always stuck by him and saved his skin more than once.

What did France gain in tirelessly propping up a dictator against the aspirations of his people? Such interests are at first sight hard to perceive. They are certainly not economic. Even when Chad became an oil producer in 2003, the players were US companies Exxon Mobil and Chevron, paired with Malaysia’s Petronas. The main explanation is instead that Chad is a prized chasse gardée of the military lobby within the French state, and that this accords with the Élysée’s belief that the French empire somehow survives in Africa in the form of ‘strategic interests’ and ‘responsibilities.’ It is this combination that led, for example, to French support of Hutu supremacists in the Rwandan genocide of 1993-94, even though France had no tangible interests in Rwanda. The only comparable situation is that of Russia in the lands formerly included in the USSR. Like many a Francophone strongman, Déby understood and fully exploited the equation.

But Chad is unlike any other Francophone post-colony, in that military and rebel violence have become the principal mode of political action. For most Chad specialists, this culture of violence must be traced back to the slave economy and to colonial militarism, but it was certainly at an unusually high point in the years when Déby entered the political fray. Déby mastered that culture, or so he thought. His thirty-year reign gave him the stability needed for the building of a Chadian army, if one of a very peculiar cast. Recruitment is national, but leadership is tribal, and is steeped in the mythology of the warrior figure rather than the professional soldier. The result is a brutally efficient fighting force, especially when deployed in fields of action where such an ethos is absent. In this way, Chad’s military became something of a glorified mercenary legion at the service of the French in their ‘anti-terror’ crusade in the Sahel, but also of central African despots and warlords.  

In March-April 2020, Déby enjoyed the glory bestowed on his leadership of a punitive expedition against Boko Haram, in the Lake Chad region. There he won his marshal baton, and perhaps gained a thirst for more such action. The rebel column that descended from Libya, ducking French drone surveillance by skirting into Nigerien territory and emerging in Kanem, looked like an opportunity for that. He may not have known Dugald Campbell’s litany, and did not think a dead marshal might be added to it.

The men who killed Déby in a barren field 400 km from his capital are members of the Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad (FACT), which reportedly has benefited from the largesse of Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar. They claim to be Chadian patriots. In propaganda dispersed on social media, they affirm that the trigger for their attack was Déby’s decision to remain in power for life, nullifying Chad’s democracy. They explained that the true target must be France, and the final objective, freedom. They referenced similar situations in other Francophone countries, and called for an anticolonial rising.

As if in response, Emmanuel Macron, who flew in to salute a ‘true friend of France’, vowed ‘not to let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity.’ In a country that has been the definition of instability for its entire history, the word ‘Chad’ is a tag for the Déby regime. In 2017, at Déby’s request, France had frozen the assets of Mahamat Mahdi Ali, the leader of FACT, branding the man – a French-trained jurist, economist and long-time member of France’s Socialist Party – a terrorist. It must now help the nascent regime of Déby Junior get its bearings, which implies supporting a manhunt into adjacent far east Niger, where the ‘terrorist’ has retreated. As events unfold, one should keep in mind this is Tubu territory, and Mahdi Ali and most of his followers are Tubu. And there is the intriguing fact that last year, a similar Tubu-led politico-military group, the Union of the Patriotic Forces for the Rebuilding of the Republic, emerged in this part of Niger with an equivalent message of revolt against the perpetuation of single party rule in that country by means of fishy elections. But with the repressive apparatus in their hand and the firm backing of the French, there is little chance that such militarised but distant appeals to democracy will frighten rulers in the two countries into opening the political arena. Déby’s end will be seen simply as a lesson about what not to do. 

Read on: Augusta Conchiglia, ‘Ghosts of Kamerun’, NLR 77.

Categories
Uncategorised

Super-Gaffes

Let’s look beyond the new ministerial decree on the easing of lockdown restrictions (which would require a separate analysis) and dwell for a short while on the figure of Super Mario; the neoliberal, Atlanticist, Europeanist, vaccinizing eminence who for some weeks now has, rather unexpectedly, been committing blunder after blunder. The renown of his profile has immediately elevated these to the status of Super Gaffes. But are they to be explained by ‘clumsiness, inexperience or simple carelessness’ – see the dictionary entry for ‘gaffe’ – or by some factor beyond the ken of the lexicographer? Acoustically the word gaffe evokes gawkiness, but given Draghi’s serious, decorous demeanour and deliberate, icy self-control, that we can exclude. Inexperience or distraction? Or something else? For an answer, let’s proceed case by case.

To begin with, foreign policy. In his first and only trip abroad as prime minister, Draghi extolled the ‘search and rescue’ efforts of the Libyan government in the Mediterranean. Lack of experience or inattention? Hardly. Draghi is neither an inhabitant of the moon nor a Martian landed by mischance in the courtyard of the Chigi Palace. From numerous reports in the press and on television, we all know – including Draghi – that far from ‘rescuing’ anyone, the Libyan government captures migrants who have eluded its coast guards and holds them in veritable prison camps rife with rape, torture and brutalities of every kind. So why his eulogy? It was not the product of inexperience or distraction, but – an open secret – of precise economic calculations of a familiar neo-colonial kind. Sale of arms and extraction of natural resources in Libya are too important for big business in Italy. To paraphrase the French: Tripoli vaut bien une messe.

Just days later on 8 April, at a news conference back in Rome, Draghi termed Erdoğan a ‘dictator’, then immediately added ‘but we need him’. It would be hard to know whether the initial gaffe, which provoked threats of reprisals and a near rupture of diplomatic relations with Turkey, was more serious than the cynical admission that accompanied it. In the first place, as Enrico Letta of the PD pointed out on TV, Erdoğan is ‘technically an autocrat, not a dictator, as he was elected by the people’. Draghi’s sally simply exposed him – absit iniuria verbis – as an amateur ignorant of the rudiments of political science. But why supplement his description with such a revealing mitigation of it? The answer is embarrassingly obvious: Erdoğan keeps a huge number of migrants by force in Turkey, away from Europe, which pays him billions of euros for doing so. Such is our brave defender of the EU from an ‘invasion’ of refugees in flight from wars and humanitarian disasters – for which we ourselves are among those responsible.

At the recent special session of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Draghi instructed the representatives of Italy to vote against lifting the US embargo on Cuba, which has now lasted for sixty-one years, and sanctions on Venezuela, Syria and Iran that are strangling countries devastated by the current pandemic. And what is an embargo but the covert, ‘cleaner’ face of an armed attack? In a spirited open letter to Draghi, the mayor of Crema – a small town in Lombardy where 52 Cuban doctors arrived to fight at our side against Covid during the darkest days of the pandemic – denounced his cynical decision as ‘a gross violation of the civilized values of gratitude, loyalty, memory and solidarity’. In his inaugural speech as premier, Draghi called himself an Atlanticist. What does that mean? Someone in Italy, and in Europe, aligned with the imperial interests of the United States.

What of internal affairs? Two gaffes stand out. The first came with a ministerial decree concerning (belated and partial) relief for those sectors and workers hit hardest by the pandemic, used by Draghi for extraneous ends in the form of a ‘concession’ to tax evasion between 2000 to 2010. Naiveté? Distraction? Far from it: rather the familiar banker’s creed, with its dogma of ‘less state, less taxation, more market, more profits’ (even if illicit).

The second faux pas came during another press conference in early April, when Draghi accused Italian psychologists of jumping the vaccine queue. ‘Vaccinating a 35-year old psychologist is absurd’, he admonished, asking, ‘With what conscience does a young person skip the line?’ Draghi thus appeared to forget that in Italy psychologists are legally classified as health workers, and as such prioritised under his own first Covid decree. Understandably, the profession hit back. ‘Perhaps the government should keep itself better informed about itself’, ironized David Lazzari, president of the National Council of Psychologists. Was vaccinizer Draghi unaware of what premier Draghi had signed? Amnesia, inexperience, distraction, improvisation? No. The more plausible explanation is that Draghi was looking for a scapegoat on whom to blame the failures of his vaccination campaign; a maladroit blow that backfired on him.

In each case, then, a political subtext is legible beneath Draghi’s apparent lapsus linguae. Yet, as the Italian premier’s reputation is eroded by these gaffes, one is left wondering: where exactly does Draghi’s alleged super-competence lie?

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti. An earlier version of this piece appeared in MicroMega.

Read on: Adam Tooze, ‘Just Another Panic?’, NLR 97.

Categories
Uncategorised

The Parasite

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, thanks to a combination of cheap rent, easily available visas, the euro, infrastructure investment, budget air travel, lax drug enforcement, liberal sexual mores, a DIY political and artistic culture, a neoliberal-curious Red-Red ruling coalition, and a storied history, Berlin became a major post-industrial hub for tourists and expatriates, with all the splendours and miseries that entails for the people already living there. Although known abroad primarily for its electronic music and visual-arts scenes, the city also became a popular destination for Gen X and Millennial Anglophone writers, which is why it has begun to appear as a setting for their books, including, most recently, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill (2020) and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021).

Because it is Berlin, the ghosts of the twentieth century – of Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Cold War – are always present. Of these periods, the cloak-and-dagger city of spies seems to have cast the longest shadow on the Anglophone literary imagination, as both subject matter and ambient mood. Recent events – CIA spooks at the US embassy tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, Laura Poitras editing Citizenfour from an apartment in Mitte, Russian secret agents assassinating a Chechen rebel in the middle of Tiergarten, Alexei Navalny’s periodic visits to Charité hospital – have done little to diminish its reputation for international intrigue.

This is the Janus-faced city to which Englishman Robert Prowe, his Swedish wife Karijn, and their two daughters relocate in London-based short-story writer and literary critic Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man. Selling their house in ‘polluted’ London at the height of the market has enabled them to quit their respective jobs in advertising and HR in order to pursue their respective passions as a writer and an upholsterer full-time in the ‘cheaper, greener and less crowded’ German capital. They pay 600 euros a month for their rent-controlled apartment in bourgeois, international Prenzlauer Berg, send their children to state-subsidized day-care, maintain a small circle of friends drawn from Robert’s salad days spent clubbing at Tresor and Berghain and seeing World Cup matches, and summer at Karijn’s family dacha in rural Sweden.

Unfortunately Robert – the author of a well-received if modest-selling collection of short stories – has developed a bad case of writer’s block, which has kept his agent waiting to see the first draft of his novel for the better part of two years. He has had to lean on Karijn, and supplement his income by writing reviews and teaching for an English-language creative writing workshop. But Karijn has grown tired of his self-pity, which has begun to affect their relationship, as well as his relationship with his daughters, with whom he is often impatient and irritable, in part because he blames them for taking time away from his writing.

The stories in Robert’s collection ‘had come from episodes in his own life and anecdotes told to him by friends, family, and strangers he met while travelling. People he had been stranded with; got drunk or got high with. Back then he was always running into people who had stories to tell him’. But thanks to his domestic situation in Berlin, the stories have dwindled, except for one told to him by an Australian woman about her relationship with a man in Vietnam who turned out to be a secret service agent, which probably indicates the tenor of those in the collection. The reason for Robert’s writer’s block turns out to be quite simple. He believes that the value of a story can be measured by the drama of its plot; he believes his own life as an upper-middle-class expat father lacks drama; and he lacks both the imagination to invent a story he has not lived and (if the prose of A Lonely Man is any indication) the stylistic chops to compellingly render the one he has. He fancies himself a devotee of Roberto Bolaño, but this is how our book reviewer and creative-writing teacher describes his idol’s work: ‘It’s definitely not conventional, but that’s one of the things I love about him. He wanted to break the forms, you know?…He took what he read, and things he did, and other things he made up, and…mashed them together’.

Imagine his luck, then, when Robert reaches for the same book – Bolaño’s Antwerp – as a drunk Patrick Unsworth before a reading at the local English-language bookstore. This contrivance, which opens the novel, is the first in the series out of which its plot is constructed. Afterwards, Robert and Karijn run into Patrick again and break up a fight he has got into at a bar in upscale Kollwitzkiez. Patrick offers to take Robert out to dinner to thank him, and despite Patrick having shown himself to be a boorish, violent drunk, Robert accepts. Over dinner and drinks, Robert learns that Patrick has ghostwritten a bestselling footballer’s memoir. On the strength of its performance, he was hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Sergei Vanyashin, a minor Russian oligarch living in exile in England. Vanyashin possesses information about Putin that he believes, when revealed in the book, will bring him down. There is only one problem: Vanyashin has been recently found hanging from a tree on his country estate. Patrick is convinced that Vanyashin’s death was no suicide and now he – the man who knows too much – finds himself on the lam in Berlin gushing to a total stranger. You can almost see Robert’s eyes widen as he realizes what his long overdue novel’s going to be about.

All novelists are parasites: just ask their estranged family members, ex-lovers, and former friends and acquaintances. If you have the misfortune to know one you should expect that details about your life will wind up as material – gallingly recognizable, gallingly distorted – in their published work, which is why the first fiction in every novel is to be found on the copyright page: ‘any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental’. Realist novelists in particular cannot help but operate in this ethical grey zone. Wherever the line is to be drawn, however, Robert clearly crosses it. Instead of using Patrick’s story as a mere premise – which he could have taken from the headlines of any major newspaper – Robert courts his friendship in order to pump him for information. It is necessary to A Lonely Man that Patrick’s account both is true within the world of the novel and that Robert does not believe him: without the former the plot would have no import; without the latter it would not be able to continue. But Robert’s initial belief that Patrick is inventing the story about Vanyashin makes what he does more, not less, like theft.

It is difficult to determine whether parasitism is at the core of Robert’s character, or whether he is simply an exemplary member of his class. Either way, his political and aesthetic attitudes, as we will see, work hand in glove. The year 2014, in which the novel is set, saw the first signs of the bubble that would make Berlin the fastest growing real-estate market in the world. The bubble was driven in part by migration from the wealthier Bundeslände in the South, but also by that from financial capitals with higher median salaries, stronger currencies and inflated property values like London. Robert knows well enough to express ‘regret’ for participating in the gentrification of neighbourhoods where he once did drugs and partied, but his regret does not inspire him to learn even the most basic German. As soon as living in Berlin becomes in any way inconvenient for him – and thanks to his behaviour with Patrick, it does – he leaves it. ‘This mess with Patrick only increased his sense of the city as a place to be abandoned’, Robert muses from his wife’s Swedish dacha. In these pastoral surroundings, he vows to ‘write in the early morning and take care of tasks around the property before lunch…He would be competent, patient and productive, every flaw – his negativity, his temper, his selfish need for solitude ­– sieved away, leaving only the good’. This is so improbable that the passage reads like a parody of an epiphany. But even if you were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, one thing is certain: Robert will never learn Swedish.

Meanwhile, 2014 also saw the beginnings of a far more consequential movement of persons: the arrival of refugees and migrants to Germany from Syria, Libya, and Kosovo. Robert and Karijn take their daughters to see the protest encampment on Oranienplatz set up to draw attention to the atrocious conditions at Lampedusa, the Italian island that became the point of entry to the European Union for people fleeing and being smuggled from Northern Africa. Here, too, Robert knows well enough to lament the fact that the camp has become ‘another stop on the Berlin tourist trail’, while treating it just like that. Naturally, when one of his daughters asks whether one of the migrants can come and live at their house, he says no, though he is proud of her for asking, and feels guilty for declining. Robert’s politics are a politics of affect, not action, and as with his writer’s block, the affect is impotent self-loathing. The bourgeois household may take the blame for Robert’s failures of self-expression, but when the chips are down, it must remain inviolate.

Which is why it is unusual that Robert expresses genuine indignation when Patrick, who has discovered what he is up to, accuses him of stealing his story. Robert’s justification is telling. ‘Stories are like coins’, he thinks, ‘passed from one hand to another. When you tell someone a story, you give it to him’. The analogy between language and money is as old as coinage itself, and writers, who operate at the intersection between aesthetic and commercial value, have been uncomfortable about it for just as long. But not Robert, apparently. Perhaps that is because on top of being a parasite, he is also a snob. The reason he feels entitled to Patrick’s coin is that he is the lower-middle-class ghostwriter of a footballer’s memoir, that is, in publishing-speak, a downmarket genre. Robert’s real literary training, it turns out, comes less from his reading of Bolaño than from his decade as a copywriter at the advertising agency in London: he knows how to take someone else’s product and rebrand it for the desired market segment. The personal risk of being in the circle of a dead Russian oligarch may have fallen to Patrick, but to tell the story well, Robert implies, requires the literary techniques of a well-reviewed, prize-winning short-story writer such as himself.

Even if this were true, the writing presented in A Lonely Man would not justify such a claim. Although we are led to understand that the flashbacks describing Patrick’s work for Vanyashin are Robert’s handiwork, there is no stylistic, tonal, or vocal distinction with the rest of the novel. The prose is homogenous and – to use Robert’s preferred term – entirely ‘conventional’ throughout. Power’s transitions to the flashbacks are telegraphed with the subtlety of a cinematic dissolve, as though a future screenwriter were their intended audience. The characters are stock (beefy bodyguards, chatty factotum, barely legal model mistress) as are the scenes (a decadent party featuring ketamine, vodka, and mounds of caviar; a boozy brunch at Vanyashin’s country estate). The treatment of post-Soviet history is framed by Western fantasies/anxieties about Russia and is sometimes delivered in expository dialogue that reads like paraphrases of passages from the nonfiction titles listed by Power in the Acknowledgments. The foundational premise of Patrick’s story beggars belief: if you were a minor Russian oligarch with damaging information about Putin would you put it in a memoir – let alone one ghostwritten by your factotum’s old university friend who speaks no Russian and knows nothing about international financial crime? No, you’d leak it as soon as you could to the Russia desk at, say, the Guardian.

Early in A Lonely Man, Robert reads a novel by a ‘woman who had written about a strange real-life encounter with an ex-lover, and a sequence of subsequent conversations she had about it with her family and friends. She made it clear in the text where she had departed from actual events and where she returned to them, but did so in a way that made everything – the declared fiction as well as the declared fact – feel much more real and consequential than a conventional novel’. Power employs this template for Robert’s encounter with Patrick, but in his hands it produces the opposite effect. Because he uses close third- rather than a first-person perspective from the outset, the reader is unlikely to mistake Robert for an actual person, his meeting with Patrick as a ‘real-life encounter’, or anything either says as a ‘declared fact’. Parsing the differences between the ‘first-order fictions’ (what we are told directly about Robert) and the ‘second-order fictions’ (what we are told about Vanyashin via Patrick via Robert) draws attention to Robert’s status as a fiction and not away from it, which in turn diminishes the consequence of knowing what is real in the world of the novel and what is not. A Lonely Man is not, as its protagonist would have it, a series of ‘stacked realities’, but a series of stacked fictions, and with no formal differentiation between ontological registers, the stack collapses on itself. Ultimately the buck stops with Robert, who would do well to remember that just as with coins and stories, literary techniques that are passed between too many hands end up being worn featureless and smooth.

What about Power? Novelists generally dislike when readers judge the morality of their characters ­­– after all, to present a repellent worldview is not to endorse it – and this is often treated as a sign that the reader lacks the sophistication to know the difference. But the dirty secret of middlebrow literary fiction is that moral readings are just as often generated by its own genre conventions. In the absence of compensatory literary pleasures (e.g. an exemplary prose style, formal innovation, insight into the human condition or contemporary life) or compensatory genre pleasures (i.e. entertainment) moral judgment becomes a way of answering the question all novels must answer: why am I reading this? While there are indications that Power is aware how contemptible his protagonist is, hermetically sealing the reader in Robert’s oblivious consciousness limits his reader’s ability to view his novel as satire, or to enjoy sympathizing with the villain. Worse still, the novel’s structure reproduces the ostensible object of its critique – Robert’s parasitism – at the level of its form. In A Lonely Man metafiction is nothing more than the name for the process by which the conventions of a putatively tired upmarket genre (literary novel about the bourgeois family) can suck the blood out of the conventions of a putatively vital downmarket genre (spy thriller) without doing any damage to its status. There is, however, another, less flattering name for it: gentrification.

Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Reading the Room’.  

Categories
Uncategorised

Scandal in Ankara

The European Union has five Presidents: one for the Council, one for the Commission, one for the Parliament, one for the Central Bank, and one for the Court of Justice. (There are also any number of Vice Presidents; after all, we are talking about 27 member states.) Recently, two of the Presidents, those of the Commission and of the Council, went on a trip to see another President, the one-and-only-one of Turkey. From this resulted a scandal, one that is worth reflecting on at some length to continue to learn about that strange beast, the European Union, and its doings.

These days, when Presidents meet, pictures are taken, and this was no exception. Pictures, however, can take on a life of their own. What one saw was the Turkish supremo sitting on a chair, with the President of the Council, Charles Michel, a former Belgian Prime Minister, sitting on another chair right next to him, both grinning into the camera. To their left and right were sofas, two of them, opposing each other, one occupied by the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the other, facing her, by the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Hardly had the picture been published when the arrangement was dubbed ‘Sofagate’ by the press, as every self-respecting scandal these days must have a label attached to it that ends in -gate.

What was the scandal? The answer was obvious: Erdoğan, the Turkish misogynist, had humiliated our other President on account of her being a woman. Von der Leyen should have had another chair, not a sofa, perhaps to the other side of Erdoğan, so the two European Presidents would have been framing the one Turkish President, while the Turkish Foreign Minister could have looked from his sofa at an empty sofa across the room. Members of the EU Parliament, having nothing else to do during the pandemic, demanded a debate, and the new Italian Prime Minister, Draghi, called Erdoğan a ‘dictator’, to the applause of all right-thinking left-liberal pro-Europeans. Tempers heated up even more when unofficial pictures emerged, who knows from where, that showed the three Presidents entering the salon to set up for their encounter: one saw Michel marching to the end of the room, throwing himself into one of the chairs, stretching his legs and grinning provocatively at von der Leyen, who first let out a gasp of consternation and then, with a resigned smile, sat down on the sofa to the left. (Not so long ago she, or whoever would have been in her place, might have asked Michel for a duel.)

This sparked a ‘discourse’, as it is nowadays called. While Michel let it be known that he was heartbroken and couldn’t sleep anymore, so ashamed was he after the incident, it turned out that the matter had a prehistory. Apparently European Presidents have separate staffs, and so there seem to have been two separate advance visits to Turkey, preparing the ground for the Great Presidential Reunion. Also involved was the EU’s ambassador to Turkey, a German diplomat (the EU has its own diplomatic service; again, there are 27 member countries). Von der Leyen’s staff seems to have been allowed to inspect the dining room where the three Presidents would be served a good dinner after a good day’s work. The staff discovered that the chairs on which Erdoğan and Michel would be seated were bigger than von der Leyen’s chair, which may have reflected the fact that she is not just a little smaller than the two other Presidents. In any case, her staff got the Turkish state to provide equally small chairs for all three of them, in the service of gender equity.

Nothing, however, is known about what the two advance delegations and the European ambassador did regarding the relative status of the two European Presidents. Maybe they were careful not touch on this sensitive matter and instead relied on a diplomatic handbook that the EU provides to non-EU countries in case they are interested. There it is said that the President of the Council is to be considered equal to a Head of State, whereas the President of the Commission is comparable to a Prime Minister. There is some logic to this as the Commission President is appointed by the Council, rather than the Council President by the Commission. That logic, of course, is not popular with the EU Parliament, which may explain both why the handbook is so little known and why the Parliament got so excited about the Sofagate incident.

So far so good. Still, the longer one thinks about this, the more bizarre the story becomes. First, where was the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (that’s a title!), a Spaniard by the name of Josep Borrell? Should he not have been there too? In fact, he might have sat on von der Leyen’s sofa, looking the Turkish Foreign Minister in the eye, as would have been the appropriate thing for him to do, and of course having his colleague look back into his? Those reading the papers may remember that Borrell had recently visited Russia, with no President in tow, against a background of growing tensions after Biden’s ascent to the US presidency. The trip became a disaster as the EU and Germany had let it be known beforehand that they would not end their sanctions over Crimea and might even add more sanctions over Navalny. Having been publicly humiliated by his Russian counterpart, or so it was made to appear, Borrell seems to have been put in the cooler, for a while if not forever. So could it be that there had to be two European Presidents simply so the Turkish Foreign Minister didn’t have to face an empty sofa (and von der Leyen had to fill what would otherwise have been a black hole)?

This seems far-fetched, although with the EU you cannot fetch from too far sometimes. After all, what needs to be explained here is not just why two Presidents made the trip to Ankara, but why any Presidents at all did so. (Does the High Representative etc. etc. not have a deputy?) Assuming that the dual trip was not just a diversion from the hardships of the Belgian lockdown, one might entertain the suspicion that the diplomatic overkill was to express regret over and ask forgiveness for the harsh words from the EU when a few years ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan turned himself into President Erdoğan and, a short time later, into Dictator Erdoğan – in other words, that the visit was to mark the beginning of another wonderful friendship. One reason why the EU would find this desirable would be the important function Erdoğan has never ceased to perform for the EU’s internal peace and quiet: enabling it, in short, to maintain a liberal immigration and asylum regime pleasing some voters without having to let it take effect, pleasing other voters.

This Erdoğan does by keeping millions of refugees bottled up in Turkey, mostly Syrians driven from their homes by a never-ending civil war prolonged by ‘the West’s’ demand for a ‘regime change’ that it is unable to bring it about – a service for which he collects, one hears, roughly three billion euros per year. Should he cease to do so, hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees would call the bluff on European (i.e. German) largesse, forcing European governments and the EU either to face a revolt from the right, or take on the liberal left in a battle for realistic reform of an unrealistic, politically unsustainable legal regime that serves no other purpose than the signalling of virtue, inwards as well as outwards. With Erdoğan as a robust gatekeeper, appointed by Angela Merkel acting in 2016 as de facto president of the EU, the ‘friendly face’ of Europe (Merkel) can be saved without having to become more than that: a façade. Two Presidents, and maybe a little more cash, now that Erdoğan is short of it and Next Generation EU has learned how to make it out of nothing, are the least Europe can offer Erdoğan for his assistance, as reassurance in a year in which his old ally, Angela Merkel, is supposedly going into retirement.

Without any sofa at all on that fateful day was Osman Kavala, a wealthy Turkish citizen who devotes his fortune to cultural, political and educational projects in his country. Kavala sees himself as a bridge-builder between Turkey and Western Europe, working with Turkish and European partners for democracy in his country and for peaceful relations with its European neighbors. Since October 2017 he has spent his time in solitary confinement, originally accused of having incited the Gezi Park demonstrations three years earlier. In 2019 he was finally tried, and in February 2020 was acquitted of all charges. As he was about to leave the court building he was arrested again, this time for alleged involvement in the so-called Gülen putsch of 2016. The judges who acquitted him are now themselves under investigation for supporting terrorism. In December 2020, four months before the two European Presidents’ trip to Turkey, his second trial began. The prosecutors are demanding lifetime imprisonment for participating in the putsch and an additional 20 years for espionage. The previous acquittal was overturned and the case will be tried again. The European Court of Human Rights and several other European bodies, including the EU Parliament, have repeatedly called for Kavala’s immediate release, to no avail. Indeed, Michel and von der Leyen’s presidential counterpart has several times publicly pronounced Kavala guilty. And he is not the only one. As of July 2020, 58,409 were on trial and 132,954 under criminal investigation for links to the Gülen movement; at least 8,500 were locked away for alleged ties to the PKK; dissenters have disappeared, and detainees are frequently tortured. 

Questions: Might not the two Presidents have made their appearance in Erdoğan’s living room conditional on Kavala’s release? How could Sofagate have crowded out Kavalagate as the European public’s scandal of the week? And why does ‘Europe’, as embodied by the EU, impose sanctions on Putin for Navalny while granting Erdoğan a visit from two Presidents at once in spite of Kavala?

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

Categories
Uncategorised

Portuguese Alternatives

Back in 2017, you spoke to NLR about the confidence and supply agreement between the Bloco de Esquerda and the Socialist Party (PS). This arrangement enabled Portugal to roll back some of the austerity measures introduced after the crash, including pension freezes and cuts to social security. Yet there were disagreements with the PS over public spending, Portugal’s relationship with Europe, and the need for deeper structural reforms. How did these tensions play out over the following years?  

After it formed a minority government in 2015, the PS adopted some measures that improved workers’ incomes, but it would not accept meaningful changes to public services or democratic control over strategic sectors of the economy. So we were able to reverse the Troika’s major cuts, yet once we began discussing how to properly rebuild our social infrastructure – healthcare, welfare, workers’ rights – well, things got much more complicated. One of the main sticking points was the PS’s refusal to consider any reform to labour laws. Now, with the pandemic, we can clearly see the effect of that refusal, because we have a large number of precarious workers with no recourse to unemployment benefits or other social protections. Many workers who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19 don’t even appear on the official unemployment statistics, so they’re simply left without an income.

It is crucial to understand that, at this point, the PS does not even pretend to have a political project of its own. It sees its role as managing Portugal’s everyday affairs in line with the expectations of the EU. When the Bloco had an agreement with the PS we tried to offer a more transformative vision; but António Costa would not go beyond repealing the austerity measures of the previous government. This made it a constant struggle to keep our agreement alive.

What changed?

During the 2019 election campaign, the PS said that they could no longer be constrained by the Bloco and the Communists; they wanted a ‘free hand’. So now they build legislative majorities on a case-by-case basis, sometimes negotiating with the left, sometimes with the right. This puts us in a very difficult position. On specific issues, we are not unwilling to vote with the government, but we will not do so just for the sake of supporting it. We must agree on a direction for our country. This is problematic, though, since the PS has no clear direction!

That, in a nutshell, is where we are now. Portugal still needs structural change which Costa is unwilling to consider. He justifies this refusal by invoking the threat of ‘imminent crisis’. Because he doesn’t have a majority in parliament, he constantly raises the prospect of a political meltdown which could usher in a conservative government, led by the Social Democrats and propped up by the far-right. Even though all the polls say that the right-wing parties do not enjoy this level of support, Costa uses this possibility to blackmail the left and prevent any discussion of alternative economic strategies. So long as we are trying to stave off an immediate political crisis, we are not discussing broader social questions.

In the Bloco, we have said that we are open to another agreement with the PS if it meets certain conditions: changing labour laws, strengthening the national healthcare system, giving contracts to health workers and boosting the welfare system to ensure everyone has the support they need during the pandemic. We have a minimum proposal that is always on the table. But I don’t think the Socialist Party will agree to any of it: they would only ever accept the minimum of the minimum during the last parliament.

How did the Bloco fare in the elections of October 2019?

We maintained the position we had in 2015: we were the third party, with about 10% of the vote and 19 members elected to parliament.

You voted against the last Costa budget, whereas the Communist Party came to some kind of agreement with the PS, which is what gave them a majority. What concessions did the Communists get?

They didn’t get many concessions. The PS agreed to go a little bit further with some of the social measures for workers whose jobs had been affected by the pandemic. But the support they offered was so minimal, and so uneven, that this barely mattered. Workers in sectors like tourism and culture are still deprived of basic rights, and the government’s €50 monthly pandemic payments are almost meaningless considering the cost of living. So I believe the agreement with the Communists was mostly symbolic. The PS also agreed in principle to increase investment in the national healthcare system – but this pledge had already been made in the last two budgets and never came to pass, so it’s unlikely that it will happen this time.

One must also remember that the Communist Party lost a significant number of votes at the last election, and can only avoid another one by propping up the PS. Their base is relatively old, so it naturally declines as time goes by. And much of their support is drawn from the unions, which have lost touch with younger generations of workers by failing to understand problems of precarious employment or develop new organizing methods. This has led to a decline in union membership, with knock-on effects for the Communists’ popularity. Before they can rebuild their support, they will do their best to avoid facing the electorate. And I think that as long as the Communist Party wants to avoid elections, we won’t have elections.

Portugal has been hit hard by the pandemic in recent months. In late January, its death and infection rates were the highest in the world. Has the government faced substantial criticism for this?

Yes it has. During the first wave, Portugal had one of the best records in Europe for controlling the virus. It started late here, so we had seen what happened in Italy, Spain and Britain, and were already expecting an outbreak. When it arrived people stayed at home, followed the restrictions, and cases started to drop off. But then, during the second wave, we never managed to get the numbers down – partly because we were one of the first EU countries to have more transmissible variants. The Bloco spent weeks calling for various precautionary measures – mass testing, fewer students in classrooms, more teachers, additional staff to help maintain social distancing, improvements to public transport where buses and trains were still crammed with commuters every morning. But the PS didn’t do any of this. They believed that since we’d done well in the first wave, it would be the same for the second. In the event, the government had simply lost control.

Has the Costa government passed any significant new legislation since it was re-elected in 2019?

Not really. They have allied with the so-called Social Democrats, in reality Conservatives, to give more power to city mayors, who can now elect the officials responsible for managing EU funding – which means that, as usual, the two big parties will define the investments, and redouble the public financing of private companies. They’ve also made it more difficult to run for mayoral positions, and they’ve shut down debates in the parliament. We used to debate with the prime minister every two weeks; now we do so every two months. So there have been these small anti-democratic reforms. But we’ve had no major budgetary changes so far.

Both the 2019 parliamentary election and the 2021 presidential ballot had astonishingly low turnout rates: 48% and 39% respectively. What accounts for these figures?

Well, first of all, our voting system is different to that of other countries, because everyone is automatically placed on the electoral list. Even citizens that have lived outside of Portugal for many years are not required to register. And since so much of our population lives abroad, this inevitably lowers the turnout, proportionate to the percentage of registered voters.

In the years after the Revolution, participation rates were higher. People felt they had a stake in the society that was being built. The idea of popular sovereignty was hugely important. But that began to change when the two-party system was consolidated, and many people realized there was not much difference between the Socialists and Social Democrats. On top of this, the EU has spent decades telling us that we cannot decide our own policies. We cannot increase social spending; we cannot nationalize our electricity system or our airports. When the scope of political decision-making is that restricted, people don’t see the point of elections – and you can’t blame them.

There is a big discrepancy between the vote that the PS gets in national elections, and its seats in parliament. In 2019, with 36 per cent of the vote the party took 47 per cent of deputies – a huge difference, due to the D’Hondt version of PR apportionment. Is there any significant movement for electoral reform in Portugal?

In the Azores, there is one full district of all the islands that compensates those who don’t elect anyone from the particular islands themselves, which makes the Azores assembly more balanced than any other in the country. But all the media pressure is to reduce, not increase proportionality in the national parliament, in the direction of creating just a two-party system of the PS and PSD.

It seems a bit strange that there is no demand for a system like the genuinely fair German model. Shouldn’t that be respectable enough – after all it was Germany under Social-Democratic rule in the 70’s that helped advise and finance the victory of the PSOE in 1976?

That’s not discussed here. The debate in Portugal centres on single-member constituencies, which would just consolidate the power of the PS and the PSD in a two-party system.

Is there a generational division in voter turnout?

Yes, as in most countries, the figures for younger generations are lower. But people aged fifteen, sixteen, seventeen – those who are still too young to vote – are perhaps one of the most politicized cohorts Portugal has ever seen. We recently had a disappointing outcome in the presidential election, with the incredibly low turnout that you mentioned. But immediately after it, we had lots of new members joining the Bloco, 70% of whom were under twenty. This is something completely new. It’s the same generation that has organized the school climate strikes; the same one that’s been deeply involved in feminist and anti-racist movements. These activists are still a minority within their generation. But five years ago we didn’t even have this minority. So there is real hope for how they will reshape politics.

Has the Bloco been directly involved in these youth-led social movements?

Yes we have. In cities like Lisbon these movements have attracted huge numbers of people. Thousands turned out in the capital for a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer. In smaller villages in the interior we haven’t seen as much activity. But thanks to social media even a kid living in a rural town can connect with activists on the other side of the country. This makes it easier for the Bloco to reach that newly politicized generation. I don’t know how that will develop, but it’s very striking.

How do you assess the emergence of the far-right Chega and its leader André Ventura? Was his showing in the presidential election just a protest vote, or does it speak to a real upsurge?

There has been a real change on the Portuguese right. The regions where Chega picks up the most votes are some of the most deprived in the country. In Alentejo, or on the outskirts of Lisbon, you have an ageing population, poor working conditions and low expectations. I don’t believe the far-right is now mainstream, but it has the potential to become so, especially if people feel abandoned during the pandemic. That’s a risk the left should take seriously. In recent years the Christian CDS has almost disappeared, and Ventura has performed best in the places where it was once popular. This constituency – of about half a million people – has always had racist views. But with the rise of Chega, their xenophobia has been legitimized. It has gone from implicit to explicit.

One last question. Would it be right to think that, because of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, the kinds of collective action that were characteristic of the Bloco in the past have become very difficult?

Yes, collective action and other forms of protest are difficult in the present circumstances. But something interesting has replaced them. For the first time in Portugal, we have a self-organized movement of unemployed people who are asserting their right to the social support that the PS has withheld from them. These groups are holding meetings, signing petitions, appearing on TV and so on. I organized an online meeting about this issue and, to my surprise, hundreds of people joined at short notice. So we decided to schedule similar meetings all over the country, expanding the discussion to include other kinds of precarious employment. This has led to labour organizing in sectors that had never seen that kind of activity before. Of course, one needs to be cautious because these are still small and tentative steps. But we believe it is the Bloco’s responsibility to help these new forms of self-organization. It is still too soon to predict the effect of the pandemic on the political situation. In the short-term, people tend to want stability and continuity above all else. But the social crisis will also undoubtedly have an impact, which could open up the space to discuss alternative models of society. The left must be ready to create that opportunity.

Read on: Catarina Martins, ‘The Portuguese Experiment’, NLR 106.

Categories
Uncategorised

Correa’s Legacy

In the second round of Ecuador’s presidential election on 11 April 2021, the right-wing former banker Guillermo Lasso defeated Andres Arauz, the candidate supported by Rafael Correa and sections of the left, by 52.4% to 47.6%. An opportunity to break with Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal policies has been lost. Though opportunistically critical of Moreno during his campaign, Lasso will continue in the same harmful direction: advancing the interests of big capital (particularly the powerful banking sector and import-export industry), welcoming foreign multinationals, uniting with other right-wing leaders in Latin America, and submitting to US dominance of the region. How can this disappointing outcome be explained, given the vast anti-austerity mobilizations that shook the country’s political establishment in 2019?

Lasso’s victory was anything but predictable. In the most recent general elections, the two leading forces were the movement aligned with Rafael Correa – which amassed 42 representatives – and Pachakutik, the political wing of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE), which elected 27 members: the best parliamentary result ever for the indigenous movement. In the first round of the presidential election in February, the votes for Arauz (just over 32%) and Pachakutik’s Yaku Perez (just under 19%) added up to a majority, which could have been further increased by the 14% won by the social-democratic candidate. Lasso came second, with an extremely close lead over Perez and 13% less than Arauz. As Arauz and Lasso prepared to face each other in the run-offs, Perez and the CONAIE complained about what they described as massive electoral fraud. The right-wing flank of Pachakutik began advocating a vote for Lasso, while the president of the CONAIE, Jaime Vargas, supported Arauz, joined by the majority of indigenous organizations in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. The country’s so-called progressive factions were split. Amid these discordant voices, the CONAIE defaulted to encouraging a null vote. On election day, 16.3% of ballots were spoiled, and Lasso stormed to victory.

Though Perez and Arauz are more ideologically aligned than Perez and Lasso, the two candidates of the left were divided by more than just the electoral fraud allegations. These were rather a cypher for an antagonism that stretches back over a decade. To understand why a significant part of Ecuador’s popular movement refused to support Arauz, we need to examine the changing face of Correa’s presidency. From 2007 to 2009, Ecuador’s government set a new direction for the country. It led the way in auditing its public finances to identify illegitimate debts and suspend their repayment. In 2007, at the beginning of Correa’s time in office, the government came into conflict with the World Bank and expelled its permanent representative.

The same year, Correa announced the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which promised to leave 20% of the country’s oil reserves (about 850 million barrels) untouched so as to protect biodiversity in the northwest of the Ecuadorian Amazon and roll back the damaging effects of extractivism: deforestation, contamination of running water, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion, as well as overreliance on international markets. In 2009, the government unilaterally restructured part of its commercial debt and won a victory against private creditors, mainly US banks and investment funds. It also took a number of other positive steps during its first term: democratically adopting a new constitution, dismantling the US military base of Manta on the Pacific coast, and attempting to set up a ‘Bank of the South’ with Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Yet Correa’s second and third terms marked a retreat on all these fronts. His party, Alianza País, became increasingly closed off from the indigenous organizations, the CONAIE, the National Union of Educators (UNE) and the union of Petroecuador (the national oil company). As in Lula’s Brazil, mobilizations by such groups came under regular attack from the executive, who accused them of defending their corporatist privileges at the expense of the national interest.

Correa froze the indigenous community out of the government’s decision-making processes and clashed with the CONAIE over its demand to write the principles of the new constitution into law. In 2009 tensions with these civil society organizations erupted over two measures: the government’s draft water bill – which enabled the privatization of water services and the restriction of community control – and the attempt to open up the mining and oil industries to foreign capital. At a special meeting in September 2009, the CONAIE railed against Correa’s programme, demanding that the government ‘nationalize the country’s natural resources and instigate an audit of concessions in the domains of oil, mining, aquifers, hydraulics, telephone, radiophone, television and environmental services, external debt, tax collection and the resources of social security’.

Later that month, the CONAIE organized rallies and blocked roads and bridges in opposition to the water bill. After weeks of refusing dialogue and claiming that the indigenous movement had been manipulated by right-wing forces, including former president Lucio Gutiérrez, Correa finally agreed to negotiate with the CONAIE in October. His administration conceded on several points – passing amendments to environmental and water legislation, agreeing to initiate a permanent dialogue between the CONAIE and the executive – yet by this time the writing was on the wall. Correa would not mount any challenge to Ecuador’s extractivist-export model, nor entertain the demands of the indigenous movement for greater governmental influence. Things deteriorated from that point. In 2013 Correa abandoned the Yasuní-ITT scheme, citing its unaffordability. His government pursued a free-trade deal with the EU and gradually reversed its non-repayment policies so as to gain greater access to international markets. It adopted reactionary stances on abortion and LGBT rights, and launched an assault on the autonomy of the universities.

In response to these betrayals, in June 2014 a number of progressive organizations led by CONAIE presented the government with a list of demands: greater regulation of the mining and oil industries; an end to the criminalization of protest; a reversal of new liberalizing labour laws; reforms to energy and water policy; an end to ethnic community school closures; rejection of the constitutional reform that would enable unlimited electoral mandates; rejection of the free-trade agreement to be signed with the European Union; and a policy to protect indigenous rights. Correa’s response? The following December his government tried to evict the CONAIE from their headquarters in Quito, but was forced to back down after a major public outcry. He later tried (again unsuccessfully) to silence the left-wing environmentalist group Acción Ecológica by withdrawing its legal status. The state continued to meet peaceful protests with excessive force.

In 2017, Correa’s presidential mandate expired and he was succeeded by his chosen candidate, Lenín Moreno. Almost immediately, the country’s debt rose to a ten-year high, and the new president turned to the IMF for support, negotiating an austerity package that included mass public-sector layoffs and an end to fuel subsidies. That led to the massive popular protests of September–October 2019, which forced Moreno to cancel his cutbacks and roll out some modest stimulus measures. Yet it did not take long for him to reverse course. In 2020 he signed another humiliating agreement with the IMF for a $6.5 billion Covid loan, forcing his administration to commit to a brutal neoliberal reform programme for the following year. He also introduced a bill to grant total autonomy to Ecuador’s Central Bank, removing it from democratic oversight and tying it to the interests of private finance.

Alongside these fiscal measures, Moreno broke decisively with Correa’s symbolic opposition to American empire. He revoked his predecessor’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, handing the Wikileaks founder over to the British justice system, and he recognized the far-right puppet Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela – effectively supporting US-led regime change. All the while, Moreno’s popularity faded to nothing. The final polls of his presidency gave him a mere 4.8% approval rating. Despite Arauz’s attempts to distance himself from Moreno (by promising to repeal the IMF agreement, for example), he remained tainted by Correa’s legacy for many in the indigenous and environmentalist movements. This lingering hostility is what motivated many on the right of Pachakutik to swing behind Lasso instead.

Moreno’s hard-line neoliberal policies will now be extended by Lasso. The new president has announced his intention to lower corporation tax, attract foreign investment, give even more freedom to the financial industry and consolidate free trade by joining the Pacific Alliance. It’s likely that Lasso will also try to integrate leaders linked to Pachakutik and the CONAIE into his administration in order to neutralize potential opposition. If he succeeds, the indigenous movement will become even more divided than it was on the eve of the run-off elections. Yet if he fails, and Pachakutik and the CONAIE return to active resistance, they have the potential to frustrate his ambitions. In October 2019 the CONAIE joined with a range of trade union groups, feminist associations and environmentalist collectives to draw up an alternative socio-economic programme, against Moreno’s IMF-backed model. The following year, more than 180 civil society organizations signed a document demanding the ‘suspension of payment of external debt, and an audit to be carried out on external debt accumulated between 2014 and the present, as well as citizen controls of how the debts contracted were utilized’. This street-level opposition to the IMF and World Bank could form the basis of another popular mobilization along the lines of September 2019, which Lasso’s regime will struggle to face down.

The high number of spoiled ballots in the presidential run-offs signals the disenchantment on which CONAIE could draw. Null votes rose from 1,013,395 in the February vote to 1,715,279 in April – representing about 30% of Pachakutik supporters. Turnout was also on the floor, with 10,501,517 voters and 2,193,896 absentees. Yet the left must contend with the fact that most of the remaining 70% Pachakutik’s vote share was captured by Lasso. So strong was the rejection of Correa’s heritage that these popular forces were willing to ally with the banker if it meant they could keep the former president’s heir out of office. It is fundamental for the future of the popular movement to radically oppose the government that Lasso will form. Now, the challenge for the CONAIE, trade unions, feminist and environmentalist groups is to overcome this polarization between Correism and the traditional right by forging a political alternative.

Read on: Juan Carlos Monedero: ‘Snipers in the Kitchen’, NLR 120.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on the CADTM blog.

Categories
Uncategorised

A New Myanmar?

More than two months after the coup d’état in Myanmar, the military has not yet managed to take full control of the state beyond its monopoly on violence. In response to a massive civil disobedience movement which has paralyzed the economy through strikes in most key sectors, the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar Armed Forces are known) is unleashing all its fury on protesters, aiming to terrorize the population into submission. Over 700 civilians have been killed so far. Meanwhile, pundits and the United Nations are warning that the country risks descending into a civil war and becoming a ‘failed state’.

There is a certain historical myopia in those statements: Myanmar never had a ‘functioning state’. The army had been waging several civil wars against the ethnic minorities living in the country’s borderlands since its independence in 1948. Now the Tatmadaw is bringing to Myanmar’s heartlands – where the Bamar majority live – the brutal tactics it has been using for decades in those wars, making little to no distinction between armed combatants and civilians. Yet the violence has a different purpose depending on who is at the receiving end: in carrying out their military operations, soldiers kill Bamar for what they do (opposing its rule); they kill members of those ethnic minorities regarded as ‘national races’ for what they are (as part of a project of political domination and cultural assimilation); and they kill the Rohingya (widely regarded as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh) simply for being in the country. In response to this shared experience of repression, many Bamar protesters are developing a new sense of solidarity with the ethnic minorities – at times even including the Rohingya – while ethnic minorities are joining the civil resistance movement in states like Kachin, Chin and Kayin.

As the repression continues, very few believe the assurances made by the State Administration Council (SAC) – the new junta led by the Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing – that they will hold elections after a year or two and restore the ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ that was designed by the previous ruling junta and launched a decade ago. The Tatmadaw’s experiment with democracy is effectively dead. If the military prevails, any return to a semblance of democracy is likely to give even more powers to the generals – who already enjoyed full autonomy from civilian oversight, 25 percent of seats in parliament and control over the three key security ministries under the 2008 Constitution. Moreover, no one in the civil disobedience movement is willing to accept a return to the status quo. The opposition of ethnic minorities to the country’s centralized model remains particularly unshakeable.

That status quo was a fragile pact between two Bamar-dominated elites – the military and the old pro-democracy camp led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – which unraveled after the election in November last year and came to a definitive end with the putsch on 1 February. The causes of that unraveling are still unclear, but after ten years of military-guided democracy and five years of Suu Kyi’s government, it has become apparent that the differences between the two elites are not ideological. Both have fundamentally similar visions for Myanmar, from the question of national identity (most dramatically excluding the Rohingya) and national unity underpinned by a sense of Bamar supremacy, to a neoliberal model of ‘progress’ that ignores the poor masses and preserves the inequalities of the extractive economy, largely controlled by the generals and their cronies. Tensions between the NLD and the Tatmadaw, both of which claim ultimate legitimacy to rule the country, are about power – not about what to do with it.

Throughout the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD strategy of engagement with the military had the effect of depoliticizing large swathes of Burmese society, especially the emerging middle classes: she convinced many of her supporters that unpredictable participatory politics could only hinder her attempts to assuage the generals. But the political opening created by the coup also prompted the emergence of new social movements that the NLD had mostly ignored: farmers organizing to fight against large-scale evictions and trade unions striking in the industrial areas for better working conditions. It is not by chance that the latter are at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement in cities like Yangon or Mandalay. Now, the conflict between elites that led to the events of 1 February has evolved into a war between the military and most of the population. There is much more at stake than releasing Suu Kyi and her party’s elected leaders.

It remains to be seen how long the anti-coup movement can endure the brutal repression of a well-armed Tatmadaw. As the possibility of a rebellion within the military becomes more distant by the day, given its strong espirit de corps, the only chance to tip the balance is the creation of a unified front of ethnic guerrillas. Such forces, combined with the ongoing protest movement in central Burma, would seriously overstretch the Tatmadaw. A government in hiding formed by NLD MPs elected in November – the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – is already engaged in negotiations with the ethnic armed organizations to form a ‘Federal Army’; but uniting them would require overcoming historic distrust that runs much deeper than the divisions created by the coup.  

The main source of conflict in Myanmar since independence from the British in 1948 has been a nation-building project imposed by the Bamar at the centre on reluctant ethnic minorities in the periphery. This is predicated on the return to a pre-colonial past in which the ‘national races’ lived in unity, according to a largely fictitious Bamar-centric official historiography. The colonial period was seen as a rupture in that harmony, which would be restored after independence. And a rupture it was, but in a very different sense. The British put the territory which they designated Burma under a single political authority for the first time in history; but what they united by doing this they also separated by establishing a distinction between direct rule in central Myanmar and indirect rule in the borderlands – classifying and dividing groups whose boundaries were previously fluid. The colonial period thus partitioned the country’s ethnic groups, who had very different experiences of that formative period. As such, when nationalism emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century, there was not a common struggle against the British that could coalesce into a multi-ethnic Myanmar nation.

After independence a democratic period gave some autonomy to the minorities, but the project of nation-building was mostly an affair of Bamar elites, suspicious of the minorities who they saw as collaborators with the colonial overlords. Even before the general Ne Win took power in 1962, inaugurating five decades of military rule, this state-building project was taken up by the Tatmadaw against the backdrop of a permanent state of war, as it fought off the Bamar-dominated Communist Party and several ethnic insurgencies. That project intended to expel the putative foreigners that arrived during colonial times: the Indian diaspora of laborers, businessmen and colonial civil servants in central Myanmar, and the Rohingya (whose precolonial roots in Rakhine were denied). Most of the Bamar population were either indifferent to those conflicts or tacitly adhered to the ethnicist conception of the nation, even as they resented military rule.

This project was unaltered when Ne Win was overthrown during an uprising against his regime in 1988, only to be replaced, after killing thousands of protesters, by a military junta that rejected his ‘Burmese way to Socialism’. In this emerging capitalist economy of the 1990s, the Tatmadaw signed a series of ceasefires with some armed groups without reaching a permanent political settlement with any of them. They also managed to co-opt the economic elites of some of the ethnic minorities to partake in the plundering of the rich natural resources in their areas. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces modernized and expanded, swallowing up a large percentage of the national budget while continuing their war against recalcitrant armed groups. One of the ‘three main causes’ expounded by the Tatmadaw over the period was the ‘non-disintegration of the Union’, but the reality is that Myanmar had never been integrated to begin with.

The democratic transition did little to change the situation, despite the signing by a dozen armed groups of a national ceasefire agreement (NCA), which still did not entail a political settlement, during the administration of the former general Thein Sein. Conflicts flared up again, including the war with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), reignited in 2011 after seventeen years of ceasefire. Following the NLD victory in 2015, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi showed little willingness to make political concessions to the ethnic minorities or criticize the military’s heavy-handed tactics.

Yet, despite their distrust towards the NLD, some ethnic armed organizations are already defying the military junta led by Min Aung Hlaing. In the east, the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest armed group still active, is providing a safe haven for those fleeing the cities and has attacked the Armed Forces in recent weeks. The Tatmadaw has reacted by launching airstrikes on some positions and villages, killing several civilians and displacing thousands. In the north, the KIA is redoubling its attacks against the Tatmadaw. In neighboring Shan state, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has ramped up its rhetoric against the junta, but has so far avoided a direct confrontation, while fighting another armed group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The country’s most powerful ethnic armed group with up to 25,000 soldiers, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has little incentive to enmesh itself in the conflict. At peace with the Tatmadaw since 1989, it gained control of its own territory along the Chinese border – an independent state in all but in name – after making huge profits from narcotics. Backed by China, the UWSA is unlikely to turn against the Armed Forces without its patron’s authorization.

More ambiguous is the position of the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine ethno-nationalist organization created as recently as 2009 which in the last two years has engaged the Tatmadaw in a bloody war. The AA signed an informal ceasefire two months before the coup and then kept silent for weeks. The junta has wooed the politicians of the most powerful party in Rakhine state, the Arakan National Party (ANP) giving them positions in its administration, and Rakhine is the only state where the civil disobedience movement has not taken hold, despite several civil society organizations expressing their disgust at the ANP’s collaborationism with the junta. The AA is likely exhausted after its two years of intense fighting against the Tatmadaw, and has issued statements condemning the coup, but so far it has not expressed a firm commitment to fight against it.

In order to attract the minorities to its side, the CRPH has formally rejected the military’s Constitution and released a charter for an alternative one, to be drafted with the ethnic armed groups and political parties. Its aim is to establish a ‘Federal Democracy Union’ that would grant the ethnic minorities a degree of autonomy never seen in the country since independence. In that sense, it is an almost revolutionary document coming from members of a party, the NLD, that showed little tolerance toward the minorities’ demands while it was in power.

But the charter has its limitations. It makes a distinction between ‘fundamental rights’ for citizens and ‘collective rights’ for the ‘national races’ (the original Burmese taingyinthar is rendered in English as the more neutral-sounding ‘ethnic nationalities’). This provision could potentially discriminate against the Rohingya and other groups not regarded as ‘national’, despite assurances from CRPH representatives that the Rohingya will not be left out in the new Burma. It is very unlikely that Rakhine nationalists, who share their State with the Rohingya and are as resentful of the latter’s presence as they are of Bamar domination, could ever accept the Rohingya as a ‘national race’; so the recognition of ‘collective rights’ for the Rohingya remains almost an impossibility. Ultimately, the plight of the Rohingya stems from the pervasive ‘national races’ worldview, and its only solution would be to do away with ethnicity as a political category; but that would be unacceptable for the other ethnic minorities. The charter does not offer a solution to that conundrum, and it is perhaps unfair to demand that that it should, given the pressing circumstances in which it has been drafted. But there is a real danger that, as alliances are formed, the Rohingya will be excluded once again from Myanmar’s body politic.

For now, as the majority of the population faces a long and protracted conflict with the Tatmadaw, the creation of any such Federal Democracy remains a distant possibility. With Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest, the coup and its subsequent repression have unleashed political forces largely dormant in the country’s heartlands during the last decade, as well as a new sense of solidarity among the minorities. The only hope of defeating the junta led by Min Aung Hlaing lies in the borderlands. The ethnic minorities do not share a common history of anti-colonial struggle, but now they face a common fight against the Tatmadaw which could create an altered image of Myanmar nationhood. Throughout Myanmar’s history as an independent country, the project of building a nation-state from the centre to the peripheries has failed. Perhaps the time has come for a leap into the unknown: the attempt to build a different Myanmar from the peripheries to the centre.

Read on: Mary Callahan, ‘Myanmar’s Perpetual Junta’, NLR 60.