In Defence of Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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


War by Other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ins and Outs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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


Riot on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Trial of Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.


The German Söderweg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bitter Fruits

When M.S. Swaminathan died on 28 September at the age of 98, the international press promptly rallied to eulogize him as the Indian architect of the Green Revolution. In the late 1960s, Swaminathan had played a key role in making Indian agriculture self-sufficient by introducing a new package of capital-intensive inputs: High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds, farm machinery, irrigation systems, pesticides and fertilizers. The Economist lauded him as ‘the man who fed India’; The New York Times credited him as ‘the scientist who helped conquer famine’; and The Times of India, the most popular English-language daily in the country, dedicated an entire page to hagiographic vignettes: ‘He walked . . . the earth turned green.’

History, however, knows otherwise. In the two weeks before Swaminathan’s death, three smallholding farmers in the northern state of Punjab committed suicide. All three were severely indebted. All three had ingested pesticide. In recent years, thousands in Punjab, the national wellspring of the Green Revolution, have killed themselves in a similar fashion. The exact numbers are unknown – though the farmers’ union Bhartiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) estimates around 90,000 suicides between 1990 and 2006. But although the statistics are patchy, the consensus about the principal driver of the deaths is not: endemic indebtedness, increasingly compounded by the ecological breakdown of the Punjabi countryside. The seeds of this tragedy were sown under Swaminathan’s supervision during the high noon of the Cold War.

Swaminathan came of age during the Bengal famine of 1943, when British colonial plunder ended up killing between two and three million people. Inspired by the dream of a famine-free country, he gave up a planned career in medicine to pursue agricultural research. After years of studying plant breeding and genetics in the Netherlands, England and the US, Swaminathan’s breakthrough came in 1962, when he invited the American agronomist Norman Borlaug to India. For nearly two decades, Borlaug, whom Swaminathan had met in the early 1950s during a stint at the University of Wisconsin, had been running wheat breeding programmes in Mexico. Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, his experiments had produced a hybrid semi-dwarf variety, whose short, thick stalks were suited to supporting the rapid gains induced by chemical fertilizers.

Borlaug arrived in India in March 1963, leaving a trail of his ‘miracle seeds’ across the hunger-ravaged territories of Latin America, Egypt, Libya and Pakistan. While food riots erupted in India, Swaminathan and Borlaug toured the northern wheat belt running through the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Borlaug’s prognosis was optimistic. Having already supplied 2,500 pounds of seeds during this trip, he dispatched yet more quantities from Mexico in the fall, but with the caveat that the seeds themselves were only a ‘catalyst’. Optimizing their yields would require the introduction of ‘a total package of modern technology’. This, Borlaug knew, was easier said than done. Between the package and its implementation, there stood the ‘untouchable and holy shrines’ of the Nehruvian state, especially the Planning Commission. 

During the next harvest, Swaminathan, working at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, organized spectacular demonstrations of the higher yielding crops in model farms in 150 villages. The new gains in productivity had a thrilling effect on Indian farmers, as they had in Mexico. Thousands queued up to see the results on Swaminathan’s test farms. But the seeds were still not available for commercial sale. Under Nehru’s supervision, the agriculture ministry was mired in a long-running political impasse. Soon after independence, the Planning Commission had dispatched successive delegations to study the emerging cooperative farms in China. Inspired by Mao’s early success, Nehru, who had recently imprisoned and massacred an entire generation of communists, began envisaging a top-down push for cooperative agriculture. His ministers, however, refused to implement even modest land reforms, prioritizing, instead, the interests of the landed gentry. As a result of this deadlock, the Congress government became increasingly dependent on the US-run PL-480 programme to meet India’s growing food-grain deficits. By 1964, the country’s wheat imports had swelled to a record 6.4 billion tonnes. In May, Nehru’s untimely death finally broke the deadlock. His successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, quietly transferred policymaking powers from the Planning Commission to the individual ministries. Then, reversing the priorities of his predecessor – Nehru’s plans had focused on industry over agriculture – Shastri reassigned the steel minister, C.D. Subramaniam, to the ministry of food and agriculture. Already notorious for his opposition to land reforms and price controls, Subramaniam turned to Swaminathan for help.

As the scientist sped up his trial runs, the politician drafted an ambitious overhaul of Indian agriculture. Subramaniam’s proposal to industrialise agriculture and stem population growth – a policy bundle of seeds and fertilizers, credit and contraceptives – was quickly dismissed in parliament. But an unexpected outbreak of consecutive droughts in 1966 gave Subramaniam’s plans another lease of life. As the Indian peasantry reeled from yet another round of crop failures, the newly sworn-in US president, Lyndon Johnson, decided to cash in. Threatening to halt the food-aid shipments, he made the renewal of India’s PL-480 contract contingent on the country’s commitment to future liberalisation. Shastri’s internal reforms had already primed the state machinery for a full embrace of market forces. In 1966, his successor, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, promptly devalued the rupee by 37 per cent, opened 42 industries, including fertilizers, to foreign investment, and implemented a new package of capital-intensive agriculture. So impressed were the Americans with these new agrarian measures that they soon recommended them to the World Bank as a template for ‘the national economy of every developing country’. In the words of Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael, US hegemony was essentially a ‘food regime’; the relations of food production and consumption were fundamental to the take-off of a US-led system of capitalist accumulation in the Third World. 

Within months of Mrs Gandhi’s approval, dozens of agricultural scientists descended from the state universities of Ohio, North Carolina and Michigan to train students and researchers in Punjab. New agricultural fairs were instituted to disseminate fertilizers, tractors, tube wells and the high-yielding seeds across the region. In order to popularize these new inputs, the Congress government offered Punjabi farmers subsidized rates, cheap loans and, most importantly, the guarantee of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) in state-controlled markets. Within a decade, the Green Revolution transformed Punjab into the granary of India, and its richest province, and turned India itself from import-dependency to self-sufficiency in rice and wheat. Despite occupying less than two per cent of the country’s geographical area, by the mid-70s Punjab produced 75 per cent of its wheat and 45 per cent of its paddy. While touring the region in 1975, S.H. Whitewater, the director of agriculture at Michigan State University, concluded: ‘the greatest progress of all time in agricultural development has not been in the USA; it has been in Punjab.’ For his services, Swaminathan earned a clutch of international honours, including the fourth- and third-highest civilian awards in India (the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan), as well as memberships of the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the USSR’s V.I. Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

But the accumulation of wealth at one pole in Punjab was accompanied by the accumulation of misery at the other. The new wave of mechanization expelled tenants and sharecroppers in large numbers. By 1980, the number of landless labourers, predominantly Dalits, had risen to nearly 40 per cent of the total agricultural workforce. Meanwhile, in order to stay competitive, small farmers were forced to take on huge debts to purchase new inputs. Between 1971 and 1981, smallholdings (1–2 acres) declined by 23.3 per cent, while marginal holdings (less than an acre) shrank still more drastically, by 61.9 per cent. By 1975, 75 per cent of all agricultural land and moveable assets in rural Punjab were owned by the richest 10 per cent of farmers, the majority of them Jat Sikhs – though the ratcheting crisis did not spare these dominant classes either. By 1980, as the federal relations between Punjab’s ruling regional party, Shiromani Akali Dal, and Mrs Gandhi’s centralized regime grew volatile, the Minimum Support Price also began to fluctuate. In 1973–74, the Punjabi farmers had sold their wheat at Rupees 589 per hectare; by 1980, the price had plummeted by over 90 per cent, to Rupees 54. When Punjabi farmers refused to bring their wheat to market, Gandhi chose to import it from the US at a considerably higher price. Nearly 40 per cent of Punjab’s rural population had been pushed below the poverty line. Swaminathan’s star, meanwhile, continued to rise. In an ironic turn of events, he was made the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

As in other Third World countries, in India the Green Revolution served to contain the growing demand for socialist land reforms. Now that it was possible to increase agrarian productivity without altering property relations, Nehru’s technocratic blueprints for cooperative farming were finally redundant. Meanwhile, still fixated on the demand for land reforms, the communists in Punjab failed to grasp the rapidly changing contours of the agrarian question. When the land ceiling act – barring family units from owning more than 17.5 acres of fertile land – was implemented in Punjab in 1972, the dismantling of landlordism, where successful, only released the smallholders to the new order of market dependency. The communists found themselves in an even bigger quandary when the Soviet Union began exporting its own tractors and technological aid in order to counter US hegemony. As late as 1978, the otherwise pro-Soviet cadres of the CPI and the CPI (M) were regularly seen protesting the government’s use of Soviet machinery for displacing hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and marginal farmers, predominantly Dalits, along the banks of the Sutlej river. In parliament, the Congress party managed to enshrine the Green Revolution as a nationalist success story. But in the Punjabi countryside, the decolonial illusions of India’s food sovereignty were self-evident: Indian fields were planted with American seeds, multiplied on Soviet-sponsored seed farms, using Soviet tractors.

If this historical sequence began with Swaminathan’s inviting Borlaug to India, then it ended exactly two decades later, in 1982, when Swaminathan quit his duties as Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet and moved to the Philippines, where he became Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), run by the Rockefeller Foundation. His departure soon became the subject of international controversy. Because the new high-yield variety monocultures were found to be susceptible to major tropical pests, they needed to be periodically re-bred with genetically superior indigenous cultivars. In a sensational cover story, ‘The Great Gene Robbery’, published by The Illustrated Weekly of India in March 1986, the Goan environmentalist Claude Alvares alleged that Swaminathan had ‘defected’ to the Philippines having played a key role in transferring a vast germplasm bank of indigenous Indian rice, containing some 19,000 varieties, to the US. The Indian Society of Genetics and Plant Breeding promptly dismissed the report as a malicious conspiracy. Defending Swaminathan, a collective of 121 rice scientists asserted that it was common practice to transfer national germplasm collections to preserve them from natural calamities. In 1987, as the Filipino peasantry continued their mass protests against the IRRI’s ‘seeds of imperialism’, Swaminathan was awarded the inaugural World Food Prize. Three years later, he was back in India, reuniting with Borlaug and Subramaniam at a public event to commemorate their heroic victory over global hunger.

In Punjab, the Green Revolution was rapidly turning brown. By 1991, 96 per cent of the state’s cultivable land had been turned into farmland; 95 per cent of its total cropped area had been irrigated; and cropping intensity had reached a staggering high of 176 per cent. As a result, cereal outputs and profits were finally beginning to plateau, while rates of indebtedness spiralled. Meanwhile, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had degraded the soil quality; contaminated and depleted the groundwater; exterminated the numerous leafy greens commonly found in the fields; and triggered new epidemics of water-borne and genetic diseases, including cancer. It was now clear that the gains of the Green Revolution had stemmed as much from the use of capital-intensive inputs as from the plunder of nature. Defenders of Swaminathan often blame the ‘excessive’ use of the new inputs, citing his own forecasts about environmental crises if the inputs were not used in moderation. But they forget that the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides was itself determined by the structural play of market forces. As Jason W. Moore has expertly shown, the cycle of environmental degradation is co-constituted by the cycle of capitalist accumulation. The dream of a sustainable Green Revolution was always a contradiction in terms.

Despite having long run its course, the Green Revolution continues to shape political discourse in India, now the world’s leading exporter of rice (last year producing 40 per cent of the global output) and touted as an ‘agricultural superpower’. The ongoing celebration of Swaminathan as a national hero – not just by BJP or Congress leaders, but also by communist professors and progressive agronomists – is a case in point. Of course, to blame Swaminathan alone for the harmful consequences of the Green Revolution he helped to initiate would be to overlook the systemic nature of geopolitics and global political economy, as well as his own presumably benign intentions to alleviate hunger and food insecurity. Nevertheless, the encomia to Swaminathan are certainly a symptom of the Green Revolution’s enduring hegemony, as were the successful mass protests in 2020–21 against the BJP’s proposal to dismantle subsidies for farmers and encourage a corporate takeover of Indian agriculture. Rallying against this so-called ‘Second Green Revolution’, a national coalition of farmers’ unions, Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), set up year-long blockades on four key highways around New Delhi. Yet, notwithstanding its militant tactics, the coalition’s demands were limited: mainly, to abolish the three agricultural laws in question and to enshrine the Minimum Support Price as a legal right.

The leftist unions from Punjab, however, sought a broader agenda. They intuited that these demands would only return the peasantry to the old cycle of debt and disease. In a series of memorable speeches, the leaders of BKU (Ugrahan), one of the biggest leftist unions, tried to articulate these demands as the leading edge of a real revolution in the making. But the political initiative quickly foundered on contradictions. Although the unions had raised euphoric slogans affirming the unity of farmers and labourers on the borders of New Delhi, in the fields of Punjab, caste rivalries and class struggles have since resumed normal service. The Dalits constitute nearly 32 per cent of Punjab’s population but own less than 3 per cent of its agricultural land. Despite SKM’s historic victory, their demands for better wages have been consistently met with mass boycotts and physical attacks by the dominant Jat farmers. Although 86 per cent of all peasant households, including poor Jats, are heavily indebted, the prospect of uniting these immiserated sections seems increasingly remote. The effects of global warming, too, are taking their toll: last year, a spring heatwave drastically shrank the wheat yields and triggered a massive shortage of straw fodder; this year, the monsoon floods completely ruined the paddy crops across Punjab. Meanwhile, piecemeal changes in the Minimum Support Price policy have only served to deepen the ecological crisis. Earlier this year, the Punjab state government started offering the MSP to dry moong legumes. Already struggling to break even, the farmers responded by trying to squeeze a third crop between the wheat harvest in April and the start of the paddy season in July. In order to speed up the harvest, farmers and labourers have resorted to the heavy use of Paraquat, a toxic herbicide widely banned in other parts of the world. When they still can’t make a living, the desperate ingest it.

Read on: Harriet Friedmann, ‘Farming Futures, NLR 138.


Insomniac Visions

Philip Guston didn’t sleep well. The first room in Tate Modern’s current retrospective is hung with two late images of insomnia: a painting, Legend (1977) and a print, Painter (1980). They show different stages of the same sickness. Legend has the painter in bed, eyes squeezed shut, surrounded by half-formed clapped-out thoughts. Painter shows him at work, all hope of sleep abandoned, eyes gummed near-shut, face pushed as close to his canvas as it will go. The pairing is inspired. It gives clues to the meaning of figuration in Guston’s paintings – to his entire epistemology.

Legend is a large painting, almost two metres across. It shows that unique feeling for colour, or rather for a particular range of colour – roughly, between salmon pink and cadmium red – that Guston tested throughout his career. The painter’s face is a study in this range, from the delicate pinks of his crumpled forehead, flaccid and puffy like uncooked sausages, to the glistening reds of his temples. Pink suffuses the atmosphere and tints each object: the boot heel, the tin can, the billy-club raised by a disembodied fist. Guston’s pillow is crimped like a thought-bubble in a comic strip, and clearly we are meant to read at least some of the objects surrounding him as thoughts, projections of his sleepless brain. They float in pink space. Some cast no shadows.

Philip Guston, Legend, 1977 MFAH © Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth Photograph © MFAH; Will Michels

There are objects here, like the tin can, the horseshoe, and the studded shield, that he returned to again and again, that he simply could not stop painting. Obviously he thought they were significant. But the weight of that significance, its clarity and legibility – these are what the painting puts in question. Take the horse’s rear end, poking out from behind the artist’s pillow. This has been linked to one of Guston’s favourite books, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), a collection of stories based on the author’s time as a journalist in the Polish-Soviet War. But it is an evasive reference, if indeed it is one. Much more important, within the space of the painting, is the way the downward curve of the horse’s tail is repeated and continued by the stream of brown fluid that pours from the lidless tin can onto an odd studded object (a boot heel?). This does cast a shadow, as do the discarded objects that surround it on the studio floor: an old bottle, brilliant green against the pink atmosphere, glass shards, and useless bits of misshapen wood.

Horse’s rear and boot heel; billy club and broken glass: such detritus is the material of Guston’s painting, as it is the stuff of his insomniac thoughts. For all the talk of his political convictions – which were real, and deeply felt, and drove him back to representational painting from abstraction in the teeth of savage criticism – his great paintings dwell among the sweepings of the studio floor, far from the legible images of waking political discourse. They speak a language of uselessness, anxiety, and helpless alienation. Like all insomniacs, the sleepless painter in Legend is tormented by yesterday’s leftovers: the pointless and circular, the looping thoughts that lead nowhere. These are the building blocks of Guston’s art, as they were for so many other modernists. They are what is left to a painter compelled to ‘bear witness’ (a favourite phrase of his) without much hope of averting the horrors he sees. ‘A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street’, as W.B. Yeats put it, ‘Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags . . . the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.

There are many old bottles and broken cans in this exhibition, bones and iron too. There is an apocalyptic Kettle (1978) in the final room. It squats high on a red horizon against a black sky, at once a vision from a nightmare and the very picture of mundanity. This is the promise of Guston’s art: that in paying attention to the broken-down and meaningless – to what is cliché, outworn, comically decrepit – the painter might break through to some new intensity of expression.

Philip Guston, Kettle, 1978. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Daniel W. Dietrich II, 2016, 2016-3-17

Turn again to Painter. The artist, squinting, encrusted with plasters, is shown so close to his work that he has even dispensed with his brush. The two raised fingers he presses to the canvas make the familiar sign of Christ’s benediction. This is a fantasy of painting as creation (rather than production), of the artist as a god, literally in touch with his canvas, rising from his insomniac visions to create new meanings. But it is also self-conscious, doubly mediated, done in a different medium – lithography – with no canvas present. Much of the pleasure in viewing the work comes from the blurring Guston achieves between print and painting, mediacy and immediacy. Surely few artists since Rembrandt have wrought such painterly effects from a print. Look at the flowing, incised greys on the artist’s shirtsleeve, the thick black smudges on his collar, the pooling shadow beneath his canvas. Painter shows Guston, in the year of his death, working at a furious peak. It is a self-portrait as a bandage-swaddled, mummified wreck, but at the same time a master creator, something divine.

Guston was born in 1913, to immigrant Jewish parents, and grew up in Los Angeles, before moving to New York and changing his name in 1936. He showed an early inclination for politics. In 1930 he made Painting for Conspirators, an image of the Ku Klux Klan lynching a Black man with a crucified Christ in the background (present at the Tate only as a small reproduction). He was still signing his paintings ‘Philip Goldstein’ when he made Female Nude with Easel (1935). It is young man’s work, arrogant, mock-heroic, straining for classicism. But it also shows the emergence of certain enduring concerns: the hard cast shadows of dream, the creaking assemblages of objects (boards, nails, staples), the intense reflection on the function and meaning of the painter’s art, and – perhaps above all – that emphasis on the expansive qualities of the colour pink. At this stage it is crisp, delineated: quattrocento pink, wrapping the easel and the painter’s stool in the colours of Della Francesca and Veneziano. The nude, modelled with a solidity drawn from Picasso’s work of the 1920s, is greyscale. She awaits the touch of the artist to give her colour.

Like other American modernists (his school friend Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning among others), Guston found work in the 1930s painting murals. By 1943 he had worked on fifteen of them, mostly for the Works Progress Administration (a New Deal agency set up to fund public works). In 1934 he and two other artists, Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner, were commissioned to paint The Struggle Against Terrorism, a mural in the Universidad de San Nicolás in Morelia, Mexico. A vast synthesis of Diego Rivera, Surrealism and the kind of large-format fresco painting perfected by Piero at Arezzo, it is one of the highlights of the exhibition, displayed through a series of ingenious projections. The mural shows the victims of fascist torture. Their massive bodies hang from ropes or are dumped, Christ-like, in open tombs. But the mood is not all sombre. At top right, sickle-brandishing communists charge into the frame, hurling down klansmen and swastikas. Bombast and dynamism are the painters’ creeds here, the searing critique of fascist violence married to a polemical faith in left-wing triumph.

In Bombardment (1937), which hangs nearby, these forces reach crescendo. Painted, like Picasso’s great masterpiece, in response to the bombing of Guernica, it adopts the format of a Renaissance tondo. Guston drives this into centrifugal motion, setting the blast at the painting’s centre back from the figures who surge forwards in extreme foreshortening. It is a painting that strains against its own physical constraints: against painting’s flatness, its stillness, its muteness. At the same time, Bombardment mobilizes these constraints for emotional effect. Its figures are eternally caught in the blast, both thrown and held; sucked in and pushed out. The leg of the naked, screaming child endlessly disappears into the void of the explosion.

Philip Guston, Bombardment, 1937. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Musa and Tom Mayer, 2011-2-1. © Estate of Philip Guston

Where did this model of engaged art go? How do we get from the young leftist painting communist murals to the tattered insomniac dreaming of horse shit and empty liquor bottles? A broad answer would take in the crushing of American communism, the end of the New Deal, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the waning of the Mexican revolution, World War Two. Mural commissions dried up. Artistic certainties came under pressure. One feels the 1940s for Guston were a period of gradual disintegration. He went on painting his Renaissance-modernist hybrids. But the convictions seem to have ebbed away as the war ground on and the first images began arriving from the death camps. There are no distinct sides in his paintings of this decade; no battle between good and evil. Self-Portrait (1944) shows him hollow-eyed and gaunt, raising a ghostly hand to touch his cheek, as if doubting the capacity of vision to confirm his existence. Gladiators (1940) updates Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari into a duel of dunces with saucepans for helmets. It is an image of senseless violence unified by the tightness of its composition and the balance of its colours. The pink of its central figure’s strange garment (a dress? a tunic?) echoes in the hoods and fists of his adversaries.

In 1945 Guston brought this sense of uncertainty to an astonishing pitch with If This Be Not I, one of several images of street children that hang in room 3. The setting is some New York slum, piled with trash. Night is coming on. The clock on a distant roof looks past ten, though it might be earlier – the clock might have stopped – there is still a faint blue light in the sky. All is blue here, the hard blue of a winter evening, of street light on frozen metal, and of the stripes on the inmate’s uniform worn by the child at bottom left. He lies, stiff like a dead man, lips drawn back from his teeth. The imagery of the Holocaust is unmistakeable. The painting is haunting, perhaps nowhere more so than in its central figure, another child who stares out from beneath a magnificent paper dunce’s hat (done with a few thick dabs of brown, blue and white). His commedia dell’arte mask has slipped. His gaze is adult, as cold as the air.

It is a wonderful painting but it is also strained, lugubrious, cynical to the point of being hectoring. Guston wrote at the time of the need to find ways to ‘allegorize’ the Holocaust and as the forties wore on he abandoned the directness of his earlier work. Abstraction beckoned, although it was not an easy transition. A work like White Painting I (1951) registers the losses involved – of style and subject matter and commitment – as a kind of bleaching and thinning of the painted surface. The palette is stripped back to the greys and browns of analytical cubism. The central forms hover and crackle against their white ground. Everything seems on the verge of coming apart. Guston made it in a single session. It is easy to imagine him wondering whether he had anything else left to put in.

Guston was able to tolerate these gaps and absences, these crises of indecision. He seems to have driven himself towards them, sometimes destroying whole sequences of his paintings, at other times stopping painting altogether for months, even years, at a time. The effort it cost him to assemble an abstract manner is palpable. Dial (1956) bunches colour and form towards the centre. Reds and pinks stand off the surface in thick ridges. The contrast they create with the green forms is so strong it is almost crass. Thumb marks are visible. Meanwhile, towards the edges, the paint thins, the colours grow less harsh: mauve, sky-blue, here and there a hint of grey. Such abstractions are successful because they find ways to accommodate some of Guston’s old preoccupations – the obsession with certain colours, with the way a particular colour (a blue, a pink) can stabilize and link together a picture of extraordinary violence; the sense of an image straining to allegorize something terrible that is just beyond its reach. They always seem on the verge of materializing into a recognizable form. The meaty densities of Dial almost add up to a figure. There are triangles in Passage (1957-8) that recall the klansmen of the 1930s. In The Return (1956-8) these have become eyes, ears, and noses.

Philip Guston, Passage, 1957–1958 MFAH. © Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth Photograph. © MFAH; Will Michels

There is a massive teleological bias in writing about these paintings, one I am aware of failing to avoid. Guston returned to figuration with his notorious Marlborough Gallery exhibition in 1970. It is difficult to view his abstractions without these later works in mind, as anything other than steps on a path back to the figure, back to the world. The balances they seem to strike – between the disembodied purity of the painted mark and the tendency of that mark, when set alongside others, to coalesce, to take on something of the look and feel of reality – can seem too provisional. Was Guston really serious about abstraction? Did he ever work hard enough to keep out the world? Such questions are to the point. At their best, Guston’s abstractions show the extreme difficulty involved in separating painting from the outside world, in limning it with a fragile autonomy. Others in his generation – Joan Mitchell most spectacularly – never stopped making paintings out of this contradiction. For Guston this wasn’t an option. The Heads he exhibited at the Jewish Museum in 1966 pushed the line between figurative and abstract to breaking point. They used the contrast between a dark central shape and broad, wet, grey brushwork to bring up, again and again, the image of a human head afloat in a sea of static. They are difficult paintings, depressive. They have something of the stunned tenor of If This Be Not I. The eighteen-month period of lethargy and crisis that followed is hardly surprising. It is what happened next that has always come as a shock.


There are continuities between the Marlborough paintings and Guston’s earlier work. But at the time they were read as an absolute break: an attack on modernism, a defection to the other side, or something even stranger. Guston’s friend, the composer Morton Feldman, never spoke to him again after he saw them. Even now, walking into room 8 is an overwhelming experience. The curation is intelligent: you walk through a dark corridor and emerge into a riot of massive, cartoonish forms; exuberant colour; pointed Klan hoods. Everything is pushed to extremes. City Limits (1969) is massive, bigger than any of the abstractions. It shows three klansmen driving a stupid cartoon car through a desolate landscape. The whole surface seems built from those smeared, liquid pinks and reds. Even the Klan hoods are more pink than white. But the affect has changed. There is no hint of the quattrocento in Guston’s pinks here, nothing of balance or grace. The blacks and greys blended with his colours make them look grubby, like greasemarks on cheap newsprint.

Philip Guston, Dawn, 1970. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland

These paintings were horrifying in 1970 and still are (witness the show’s near-cancellation back in 2020, on grounds that it might give offence). They pose a chilling equivalence between their elements. Everything – klansmen, buildings, corpses, cars, windows, cigarettes – is rendered in the same cheerily inane cartoon style drawn in part from Guston’s reading of comic strips like Krazy Kat. The tiny paintings on one wall, which Guston lived with, make the point brutally clear. Each shows a personage in his late paintings. The rubbery form of a skyscraper is there in one; a hanging lightbulb in another. A Klan hood appears in the series too, but fungibly, as one element among many. Dawn (1970) shows another carload of klansmen with a tangle of human body parts protruding from the back of their car. Blood drips from one of the feet. The sun in the sky is a jolly orange disk. The birds on the telephone wire might as well be singing.

It is this cartoonishness that people find disturbing. There is a chasm between the moral clarity of Guston’s work of the 1930s, with its bands of communists ever ready to fight off the Klan, and a work like Dawn or The Studio (1969). In the latter, perhaps his most famous image, it is the artist himself who wears the pointed hood, puffing on a cigarette while painting (yet) another klansman by the light of a single bulb. Guston makes the Klan cute. He identifies himself with those he is supposed to despise, and identifies these with the most debased products of American popular culture. The Studio recognizes the enmeshment of racist violence in the very tissue of American life, as much a part of its workings and history as cigarettes, cars and cartoons. More terrifying still, it suggests that there is no position outside this culture for the artist to take up; no separation that would arrive with the force of a moral binary. The horror of the landscape in City Limits, with its blood-red ground and looming skyline, is of a world in which the Klan have lost their identity as an embodiment of evil and become normalized, banal. We are a long way from the ‘us and them’ of World War Two and the Mexican Revolution. ‘We are all hoods’, as Guston put it.

This sense of helpless complicity, with all the paralysis it implies, returns us to the outlook of the insomniac, obsessing over a world he cannot change. Worry, with its circling momentum, disconnected objects and desperate leaps of inference, is often the subject of Guston’s work in the 1970s, his last decade, during which he produced many of his greatest paintings. Painter’s Forms II (1978) shows a mouth and part of a jaw literally vomiting up the objects – the boots, legs, cigarettes and tin cans – that Guston called his ‘visual alphabet’. It is an image of useless compulsion, as bleak and relentless as anything else to come out of this highpoint of the Cold War.

The final room, titled ‘Night Studio’, is the best in the exhibition. It is revelatory: the full range of Guston’s late works dealing with sleep, death and isolation become apparent. Kettle sits on its high red hill. The figure of the artist curls beneath a too-thin blanket, stick limbs shivering against a black void. Hands gesture unintelligibly. Flames gutter out in the dark. By this point the stakes of these images, their conjunctions of meaninglessness and desolation, the stress they place on bearing witness – even when to do so is impossible – are clear. In Couple in Bed (1977) the artist clutches his brushes even as he pushes his face so close to his stroke-stricken wife’s that their features disappear into each other’s. Guston never lost his faith in modernism; he sought the meaning of modern life, its poetry and heroism, among the wreckage. Creation was the other side of destruction. A sleepless night could always produce a painting.

Philip Guston, The Line, 1978. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

The last work in the show, The Line (1978), shows a godlike hand reaching from a cloud. It makes the same divine gesture as the artist in Painter, although here the two fingers grasp a stick of charcoal and draw a line. It is at once an image of defunct cliché, absurdly anachronistic in the age of burgeoning postmodernism (who on earth still believed in the artist as divine?), and a serious statement of the painter’s vocation. Such paintings resonate today because they are able to hold both poles together: to be both anachronistic and contemporary. Ideas do not disappear simply because they have become outmoded. Like fascism or the Klan, returning to haunt capitalist modernity in ever-new configurations, it is when left behind that they can be most dangerous.

Read on: Saul Nelson, ‘Opposed Realities’, NLR 137.


Free Agents?

‘Agency’ might be the word of the decade so far. When applied to the Ukraine war, the term is usually taken to mean that we must follow the lead of Ukrainians themselves – keeping mum about peace talks, sending more weapons, and supporting the maximalist aims of the Kyiv government. John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, has described those calling for diplomacy as ‘blinkered and arrogant’, urging them to ‘listen to our progressive brothers and sisters in Ukraine’ instead of ‘some set of abstract principles’. Writing in Foreign Policy, Alexey Kovalev has condemned the ‘twisted worldview’ of peace activists for whom ‘Ukrainians have no agency and Russia is the victim of a proxy war’. For such commentators, there is no need to untangle the knotted historical context or weigh up competing Ukrainian interests; we can simply switch our brains off and outsource all decision-making to those under attack. This discourse is prevalent across the ideological spectrum, including on the left. At best, it has served as an intellectual cheat code for eliding the conflict’s complexities; at worst, it has shut down debate and silenced dissent. What are its underlying assumptions? And does its image of Ukraine align with the reality?

Pro-war commentators tend to see ‘Ukrainian opinion’ as a monolithic entity, embodied by those who oppose negotiations with Moscow and favour fighting until the country’s borders are restored to their pre-2014 lines. This notion is particularly prominent in the US and UK, where martial political cultures have fed the public images of a unified Ukrainian people who ‘will never surrender’, regardless of the toll it takes. After a recent trip to military hospitals in Lviv and Kyiv, Boris Johnson wrote that wounded Ukrainians ‘don’t want any anthems for doomed youth or moaning about the pity of war. They want to get on with killing Russians and expelling the invader from their land.’ Any Westerner who contradicts them is accused of being condescending or aloof.

It is true that most surveys depict a Ukrainian public that overwhelmingly backs the continued war effort – which is hardly surprising in a nation that has suffered unjustifiable aggression from its neighbour. But such polling has often excluded those in Russian-occupied or separatist-controlled areas, along with the millions who have fled the country, many of them from Ukraine’s south and east. More comprehensive studies suggest that Ukrainians are, in fact, divided on the question of a ceasefire when these demographics are taken into account. Support for one is significant among the displaced population, and is reaching around 40% in regions that have been hit hardest by the war.

In Crimea, separatism – whether joining Russia or becoming an independent state – has fallen in and out of favour since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may not have commanded a majority in 2014, when Putin used a dubious referendum to justify his seizure of the territory. Yet a series of polls since then show that most Crimeans are now content to remain part of Russia. This is likely connected to the post-2014 Ukrainian retaliation against the region, which included cutting off its water supply and creating chronic shortages for its residents. While the 2014 annexation was a naked act of aggression, it would be hard to argue that a military reincorporation of the region into Ukraine would be legitimate either. It would certainly be contrary to the people’s will, or ‘agency’. (According to Zelensky’s government, at least 200,000 Crimeans would face collaboration charges were the territory recaptured by Kyiv.)

The picture is more complicated in the Donbas – but even there, ‘listening’ to Ukrainians throws up certain difficulties. When I interviewed two communists in Donetsk last autumn, Svetlana and Katia, both told me that Ukrainian shelling, which their communities have suffered since the eruption of civil war in 2014, had worsened significantly since the start of the Russian invasion. ‘This is primarily due to Western arms deliveries to Ukraine’, said Katia. ‘There are no safe places left in Donetsk.’ Svetlana recalled an incident where shelling had killed a young girl and her grandmother in the city centre, and vented her frustrations at the city’s constantly ravaged infrastructure. When I spoke with her, Ukrainian forces had just bombed the local water supply. ‘Every time our workers fix something, the next day it’s totally destroyed.’

While neither had any love for Russia or for Putin’s invasion, they explained how events like these – along with what Katia described as a long-standing and worsening ‘Donbassophobia’ in the country’s west – had left them out of sync with the perceived national mood. They both favoured peace talks and an end to the fighting, even if they were pessimistic it would hold. There is good reason to think Svetlana and Katia’s views are not unique. Within the Donbas, public opinion on the most desirable political outcome – whether it’s autonomy within Ukraine, absorption by Russia or outright independence – is fluid. A majority appeared to favour some kind of secession from Ukraine in 2021; and the most recent major surveys, conducted in January 2022, found that just over 50% of respondents in both Kyiv-controlled and separatist areas agreed with the statement ‘It doesn’t matter to me in which country I live: all I want is a good salary and then a good pension.’ This sentiment may well have hardened over the subsequent months of bloody warfare. 


There are also the many Ukrainians who do not wish to fight. Following the invasion, the government immediately barred men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Many of those who tried to flee were stopped by authorities, separated from their families and sent back to be conscripted. Since then, scores of Ukrainians have defied the order, resorting to elaborate schemes – often costly, sometimes life-threatening – to escape across the border. Thousands are facing criminal proceedings for doing so and hundreds have already been convicted. A Ukrainian official revealed in June that the Border Guard was detaining up to twenty men per day trying to make the illegal journey, while the BBC recently found that 20,000 men have fled to avoid conscription since the invasion. 

Those still in Ukraine have gone to great lengths to not be drafted, staying off the streets, resorting to bribery and consulting Telegram channels set up to help people avoid military recruiters, some of which have more than 100,000 members. Reports suggest that recent conscripts are overwhelmingly poor, whereas those with money have increasingly been able to buy their way out. A petition opposing aggressive recruitment strategies received more than 25,000 signatures last year, above the threshold necessary to elicit an official response from the president. None of this paints a picture of, in the words of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, a wholly ‘determined partner’ that is ‘willing to bear the consequences of war’, nor of a people who ‘do not fear a long war but an inconclusive one’, as one former CIA officer remarked. Nor does it indicate a population that uniformly views peace talks and concessions as greater evils than prolonged bloodshed.

There are, indeed, a considerable number of Ukrainians who believe that ‘even a “bad” peace is better than a “good” war’. After the invasion, prominent politicians and media figures called for negotiations and, in one case, outright surrender. Should we have listened to them simply because of their nationality? Or, indeed, to the minority of the population that actively support Russia? Left-wing Ukrainians who oppose diplomacy and a ceasefire are sometimes cited in the Western press and held up as a paradigm for their Western comrades; but their views are hardly unanimous. Volodymyr Chemerys, the respected human rights advocate who played a leading role in multiple Ukrainian revolutions and staunchly opposed Moscow’s invasion, has called on Zelensky to negotiate since the start of the invasion. When I interviewed him last year, he complained ‘that several small groups that call or called themselves “left”, in fact, have become personnel serving the Kyiv authorities, supporting imperialism and war, denying the existence of Nazism in Ukraine, rejoicing about repressions against left-wing activists and the banning of left-wing parties.’ Marxist groups like the Workers’ Front of Ukraine, and prominent activists like the Kononovich brothers, have taken similar anti-war positions. Listening to Ukrainian voices, given their diversity, is more complicated than Western pro-war commentators suggest. It is inevitably selective, and it requires an exercise of political judgement to decide between contradictory viewpoints. How could it not?

There is also the obvious fact that a population’s ‘agency’, or what we might usually call public opinion, is not static. It is influenced by a variety of factors and subject to external manipulation. Ukrainian views on the war have emerged in a climate of intense patriotism and heightened government repression, with pacifists and leftists facing prosecution, imprisonment and even torture for their political views. Opposition parties have been banned en masse and media outlets shut down or placed under government control, with the Ukrainian parliament recently voting to strengthen the system of state censorship.

As peace activist Ruslan Kotsaba – now in the US after being persecuted for his anti-war views – told me, ‘All opposition figures previously promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict with Russia have either fled or are in prison’, giving peace talks the air of ‘playing for Putin’ or being ‘the work of enemy agents’. When he visited Ukraine in March, Anatol Lieven found that Ukrainians open to conceding Crimea as part of a negotiated settlement dared not make their views known on the record. The bellicose ‘consensus’ in the country reflects these dynamics. With nonconforming positions marginalized by the media and political class, mass opinion is shaped by officials in Kyiv. 

Such malleability is perhaps best illustrated by Ukrainian attitudes toward NATO – another issue frequently cited by Western hawks who defend the country’s ‘sovereign right’ to join the alliance. Until 2014, only a minority of the population expressed support for membership (more have favoured a military alliance with Russia at various points since the breakup of the USSR). Historically, a plurality of Ukrainians have viewed NATO as a threat. George W. Bush’s attempt to draw the country into the military compact was met with angry protests that saw American flags set aflame on the streets of Kyiv. Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks revealed that Ukrainian officials, rattled by the scale of opposition, joined their American and NATO counterparts in stressing the need for ‘public education campaigns’ to persuade the Ukrainian population. This was as clear a violation of Ukrainian agency as you could get – yet you’ll be hard pressed to find establishment commentators, then or since, who objected to it on those grounds.


Throughout the war, Ukrainian ‘agency’ has only been invoked by Western governments when it happens to align with their geopolitical interests, and steadfastly ignored when it doesn’t. NATO states and their client media have, on various occasions, been more than willing to defy the Ukrainian leadership. For months after the invasion, Zelensky called, both publicly and privately, for Western support in negotiations with Moscow, to no avail. Even after the discovery of the war crimes committed in Bucha, he insisted that ‘we have no other choice’ but diplomacy. In May 2022, a majority of Ukrainians polled by the National Democratic Institute – a quasi-governmental entity connected to the US Democratic Party – favoured peace talks. Yet, curiously, those insisting that the West defer to Ukrainian wishes did not amplify Zelensky’s pleas. They expressed no outrage at this denial of his agency and ignored the well-corroborated fact that the US and British governments worked to scuttle a tentative peace deal he was negotiating. Instead, they spent months arguing against a negotiated settlement and in favour of a total military victory. They proved willing to overlook both the Ukrainian president and people in pursuit of this goal, regardless of the risks involved. 

For almost two years, Ukrainian agency has only counted when it means prolonging the war – not when it might mean ending it. Nor does it apply to the designs of Western multinationals on Ukraine’s natural resources, nor to EU plans to use the country’s ballooning national debt and reconstruction costs – which grow with every week the war continues – to impose neoliberal shock therapy. Few invoked national sovereignty and agency when the US and Europe pressured Ukrainian leaders to enforce brutal austerity on their own people and open their farmland to foreign ownership. Today, reports suggest that Washington may finally be nudging Kyiv toward peace talks, only now against the wishes of Zelensky, whose vehement opposition to compromise no longer aligns with Washington’s evolving view of the war as a lost cause that is siphoning resources from a future showdown with China. In each case, the Western commentariat has had zero qualms about overriding Ukraine’s hallowed autonomy. It appears that certain forms of external interference – namely, those that come from the world hegemon and its relays – are considered entirely legitimate.

In a longdivided country like Ukraine, whose fault lines have deepened after years of civil war, public opinion is complex and differentiated. That Western war enthusiasts refuse to acknowledge this, and display no interest in the views of Ukrainians like Svetlana and Katia, is not especially surprising. Like other concepts that have migrated from liberal identitarian politics into the international arena, such as ‘Westsplaining’ and standpoint epistemology, the selective invocation of ‘agency’ was never really meant to reflect the nuances of Ukrainian thought. More often than not, these buzzwords are used to flatten them out. The result is a stifled political discourse and a rigidly conformist outlook the war, from opinionators spanning right and left.

The stakes are larger than Ukraine, as great as those already are. Before this war is even over, another great power conflict is brewing between the US and China. Once again, the ‘agency’ and ‘voices’ of those caught in the middle – this time on the island of Taiwan – are being wielded to whip well-meaning Westerners behind Washington’s aggressive foreign policy, even though it is those same people who will suffer most from its recklessness.

Here, we should pause to consider whether ‘public opinion’ – mutable, unstable, subject to ideological and circumstantial pressures – can be a reliable touchstone for the left. We should also question the wisdom of grounding our political positions in certain identities or experiences that are said to hold particular epistemic authority. In matters of war and peace, our political judgment ought to be informed by the ‘public’; but as in the domestic sphere, this can only be done by recognizing its heterogeneity, and by interrogating the complex factors that give rise to the ‘majority view’. Asking us to follow the latter uncritically may simply be a matter of political expedience for Washington and its subsidiaries, but coming from leftists, it’s a demand for intellectual cowardice.

Read on: Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘Ukrainian Voices’, NLR 138.


Loose Threads

Panics over apparently novel threats to freedom of speech are nothing new. Yet, much like anxiety over the state of the youth, the latest free speech crisis is always presented as unprecedented. And as with other moral panics, those sounding the alarm often turn out to have little genuine interest in what they claim to be protecting. The most vociferous opponents of ‘cancel culture’ have been strangely silent – or worse – in recent weeks on the suppression of speech in support of the Palestinians or critical of Israel. ‘Free speech’ has a political function. Elaborate twists, somersaults and pirouettes are performed to make this most sacrosanct of freedoms do the bidding of those who invoke it.

The results can be discombobulating. Censorship is not the answer to speech we don’t like, we are told: fight speech with more speech. But critical speech itself is routinely cast as a form of censorship. Racist speech is protected; speech which criticises racist speech is an attempt at suppression. Meanwhile, it is permissible, indeed routine, to say that ‘the left’, ‘feminists’ or the ‘trans lobby’ are bigots – the real racists, sexists, antisemites – without setting off the free speech alarm. What this amounts to in practice is that calling someone a bigot is an offence against ‘free speech’ when it’s true, but not when it isn’t.

Underlying this discourse is a common-sense idea of free speech, one with roots in liberal theory. What it means to have freedom of speech, in this conception, is simple: nobody stops you from speaking (for example through a law banning or penalising the expression of certain opinions). Restricting speech, in the traditional liberal view, is justifiable only in rare and circumscribed conditions: where speech poses an immediate risk of dire harm; and in particular situations, such as meetings, where we may temporarily stop someone from speaking in order to allow someone else to be heard (the so-called ‘chairman principle’). By contrast, speech must not be restricted on the grounds of its propensity to cause offence (distinguished with somewhat artificial sharpness from the category of ‘harm’), however warranted or painful. While there may be grey areas, this model is attractive because it seems to make free speech a ‘default’ situation: we have it until someone interferes to prevent us from speaking.

But things are not nearly so tidy as they seem. The liberal conception trails loose threads: pull at any one of them and the whole thing threatens to unravel. One of these concerns the chairman principle. The right to speak without being drowned out by the speech of others only makes sense in specific contexts where you have a legitimate expectation of speaking and being heard – in a debating chamber, perhaps, but not during a concert or a firework display. This suggests that the apparently pristine principle of free speech is something far more pragmatic and conventional. Also implicit in the chairman principle is an acknowledgement that freedom of speech is more than the freedom to make noises: others need to be able to hear us. Freedom of speech is the freedom not just to make words but (to borrow from the philosopher J. L. Austin) to do things with those words.

Here is another loose thread. To be able to do anything with our words, we need not only to be heard but to make ourselves understood, in at least the minimal sense of that term. And how we are understood may be affected by, among other things, what people say about us (or people like us). Doesn’t speech about women, immigrants or benefits claimants – not to mention anarchists, Marxists, even social-democratic ‘Corbynistas’ – do this all the time, in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways? As Catharine MacKinnon has put it, ‘speech acts, acts speak’, and one of the things speech does is affect what others can do with their speech. Our sayings and doings constantly combine to restrict, as well as enable, each other’s speech. Our ability to ‘speak’ in the sense that matters – meaning not the mere production of words but the achievement of some further, inherently social act of communication – is in fact always dependent on power relations.

Seen this way, freedom of speech is not a default condition that prevails unless it is obstructed or suspended. Against this backdrop, we may still discuss the merits and demerits of different ways of managing speech, from censorship and libel law to boycotts or no-platform policies. But the point is that there is no coherent scenario of unrestricted speech, understood as the absence of interference. This is so at odds with how we are accustomed to think about freedom of speech that it will seem to many that it simply cannot be right, that it must be a form of hyperbole to say that speech can restrict speech. Yet if speech is about more than uttering words, it becomes possible in principle to speak of freedom of speech being infringed by interventions that limit what our speech can do. Caroline West makes this point vividly using a thought experiment: suppose a government were to install a chip in the brains of its citizens, enabling it to switch off those citizens’ ability to understand language whenever certain views are being expressed (or when members of certain groups are speaking); we would not hesitate to call this a restriction on free speech, regardless of the fact that, in this scenario, citizens can still say whatever they like – and even, albeit in a thin and useless sense, be ‘heard’.

Yet it might be argued that West’s example only counts as a case in which free speech is being infringed because a definite entity (the government) is intentionally blocking the understanding or ‘uptake’ (in Austin’s lexicon) of speech. But where agency is diffuse and cumulative (as, often, with speech about immigrants, women or Corbynistas), so that no particular intervention or agent can be identified as solely responsible, it cannot sensibly be said that anyone’s freedom of speech has been compromised. This reveals another hanging thread in the liberal understanding of free speech. The so-called ‘negative’ conception of liberty first distinguished by Isaiah Berlin identifies freedom with the absence of external restraint. As applied to speech, this negative conception holds that speech is free so long as it is not subject to any external restriction, such as a government ban, as opposed to an ‘internal’ restriction such as inarticulacy. So far, so common-sense. 

But the line between being prevented and being unable is not so clear in practice. Someone who is too ‘inarticulate’ to make herself understood, for example, might alternatively be described as having been prevented (by education policy, say) from acquiring the skills that would render her speech intelligible and effective, or as being excluded by hegemonic standards of linguistic ‘correctness’. And why should external interference have to take the form of a one-off act by a clearly identifiable agent? If several companies pollute a river over many years, no single act can be blamed for the death of the fish (or the residents of a town downstream), but that does not make it tenable to claim that they merely ‘died’ from natural causes.

The distinction, central to the idea of negative liberty, between being impeded and being ‘merely’ unable, is often used to maintain the semblance of freedom in situations of powerlessness: nobody is stopping you from travelling – too bad you can’t afford the ticket; nobody is stopping you from sleeping indoors – too bad you can’t afford the rent. In the case of freedom of speech, the question becomes: why care only about whether we are ‘stopped’ from speaking, rather than asking what we can do about a society in which – in large part thanks to the concentration of wealth and access to the means of dissemination of opinion – some people are able to do a great deal with their words while others can do very little?  

Those on the political right, along with most liberals, overwhelmingly purport to endorse the standard, narrowly negative conception of free speech. They typically have no truck with talk of megaphones and the marginalisation of certain groups and perspectives in the media, or with the idea that the speech of some might ‘silence’ that of others, all of which they regard as just more soft-brained snowflakery. Yet in the fray of the free speech wars, the orthodox notion of free speech underlying these responses is often forgotten or discarded. For the right, almost anything – criticism, protest, factual correction – can be construed as an attack on ‘free speech’. Suddenly, it seems, speech can silence after all. Something similar occurs on the left, too. Whereas the right operates with a narrow conception of free speech, but drops it when convenient for ideological combat, some on the left disdain the narrow conception, but then invoke it in battle with the right. In the face of the right’s claims to have been ‘silenced’ or ‘cancelled’, the reply is often: boohoo, so you had your book contract withdrawn / got called nasty names. Nobody’s actually stopping you from speaking . . .

This may draw attention to the right’s double standards, but the riposte risks falling into an inconsistency of its own and endorsing the dominant model of free speech as absence of restriction rather than effective power. On this alternative understanding of free speech, by contrast, pointing out that nobody has actually been prevented from speaking when they are ‘no-platformed’, ‘cancelled’ or simply criticised, cannot be the end of the story. If I find that, due to my criticism of Israel, many institutions and organisations are unwilling to employ me, invite me to speak, or publish what I write, then it would be entirely appropriate to see this as a threat to my and others’ freedom of expression: I cannot, in this scenario, speak freely on certain subjects without subjecting myself to an unacceptable risk of unacceptable penalties; and nor can others, to whom my fate may serve as an example of the costs of dissent. Even if I could eventually find a job or a publisher, this might or might not wholly restore my power to do things with my words, and it would not mean that this power had not been damaged in the first place.

Similarly, on this more capacious conception of free speech – understood not merely as the absence of external restrictions, but as the ability to intervene effectively in the world with words – the idea that certain kinds of critical speech might restrict their targets’ ability to communicate successfully is not inherently confused, mistaken or metaphorical. Speech can and does silence: for example, through lies, smears and distortions that can make it difficult or impossible for us to make ourselves heard. The upshot of this need not be sympathy for those styled as free speech martyrs, many of whom see their public profiles and general ability to do things with their speech grow. But the left response is on firmer ground when it highlights the disingenuousness of certain claims of silencing by working with an expanded conception of freedom of speech and insisting that the withholding of platforms to speak be seen in this wider context. That people sometimes become more influential as a result of persecution does not mean they were not really persecuted. Nevertheless, when a purported instance of silencing leads to its victim becoming a cause célèbre, this can tell us something about the position of that person or their views in relation to power (even if what it tells is not always straightforward).

Are no-platforming and other restrictive measures all right so long as they are cases of ‘punching up’ – deployed against the powerful and those with the loudest voices? This isn’t satisfactory, either. Flat-earthers are marginalised and ridiculed; is it wrong to deny them speaking invitations since this is ‘punching down’? Only at the cost of absurdity. Is free speech then a matter of getting the platforms you deserve? The notion that the power of speech should be proportionate to its merit sits uneasily with the way in which we conventionally think about this freedom, because it begins to blur the fêted distinction between how we evaluate the content of an expression and our defence of the liberty to express it – one summed up in the renowned gloss on Voltaire (often mischaracterised as a direct quotation), ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. At the extreme, we end up saying that free speech is the freedom to say true things, or things judged to fall within the bounds of the (politically, morally or empirically) ‘reasonable’.

Yet if we instinctively reject that position, it’s not clear that the supposed content-neutrality of freedom of speech can survive scrutiny – nor that we really believe in it as much as we say we do. Is it a coincidence that those who defend the ‘free speech’ of those accused of racism tend to be those who are unconvinced that the speech is racist? Or that part of the point of defending ‘free speech’ on Israel is to resist charges of antisemitism regarded as cynically employed to suppress criticism? This pattern suggests that Voltaire’s separation, between how we evaluate speech and what we say about freedom, is not hard and fast. What we make of a given statement cannot only influence how we regard the prospect of the restriction of a speaker’s power to express it. It can also affect our judgement about whether a given response counts as a restriction, as an instance of ‘silencing’, in the first place.

Take smears. Clearly, the power of a person’s speech can be diminished if they are shunned and condemned, and this is so regardless of whether they really are a racist, a crank, or merely the victim of a witch-hunt. But it makes a difference whether the case is a smear, or one of legitimate criticism. This affects our view not only as to whether the loss of power is warranted, but also on the extent and nature of the loss. The notion of ‘uptake’ is central here. If my speech is misrepresented in a smear, then I may become unable to achieve basic uptake, to communicate my meaning effectively: my speech is received through a distorting filter, however hard I may try to circumvent it or compensate for it.  By contrast, critical speech which exposes genuine racism (for example) does not block its reception – and might actually enhance the speech power of its target in a sense (albeit not one the target is likely to find pleasing), insofar as it contributes to that target’s speech being understood for what it is.

Trading the artificial simplicity and false neutrality of the liberal view for one attentive to the workings of power might seem like a risky move; the prospect of departing from the safety of liberal norms always gives rise to fever dreams of totalitarian bogeymen, even when those norms are in reality anything but safe for most. As with any nightmare, this is not an ex nihilo invention: it is true that the language of power relations and oppression, ‘silencing’ and ‘safety’, is sometimes invoked to justify practices which are at best strategically unwise and at worst politically and humanly destructive. Yet far from a lapse into authoritarianism being the price of transcending the liberal model of free speech, there are grounds for regarding the malaises associated with a politics of ‘safety’ as symptomatic of the uncritical embrace of liberal modes of thinking which centre on the sovereign individual, and which treat problems like racism and sexism as contaminants of individual souls.

Thinking about freedom of speech as an effective power does not have determinate practical implications, but that is not the same as entailing indeterminacy or committing us to a fuzzy, case-by-case approach. There may be good reasons, in various areas of life, to operate with firm, practical principles. But we need not – and have no good reason to, and have good reason not to – rest these on unexamined or misleading concepts. It may be that thinking about free speech with proper attention to questions of power leads us toward practical postures which resemble or overlap with the relatively ‘hardline’ positions advocated (at least in theory) by some on the right, by libertarians of right and left, as well as by some liberals. If anything, an approach appropriately attuned to power will be less willing than the liberal approach to countenance restrictions of speech by entities like the state, which, once no longer viewed through the idealising lens characteristic of liberal political philosophy, reveals itself as in no way to be trusted.

The apocryphal Voltaire should be supplemented with an extension of the apocryphal Emma Goldman: if speech changed anything, they’d make it illegal. But that liberal rights like the formal freedom of speech and the right to vote are hollow does not mean we don’t have every reason to protest their removal or erosion. You can deny that the UK, for example, is a ‘democracy’ in the full sense of the word, yet still object when the government disenfranchises people through voter ID laws. Equally, we cannot really be said to have freedom of movement in a country where many people simply cannot afford to go anywhere; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t object if the government attempted to enact coercive restrictions on our movement of the kind that Israel has long imposed on Palestinians. The point – which means both that erosions of formal freedoms are to be resisted and also that formal freedoms are not enough – is to bring closer a world in which we have real power over our lives, a world that seems ever further away. 

Read on: Lorna Finlayson, ‘Rules of the Game?’, NLR 123.


Wild City

Some years ago, a friend who lives in Camden Council housing within walking distance from St Paul’s Cathedral told me he’d seen a fox on his way home one evening. This, we agreed, was a landmark. Foxes were spotted in London suburbs for the first time in the 1930s. They made their way into the inner city during the sixties; living in green, hilly southeast London for 24 years, I see them nearly every day. But the dense streets of Central London were still fox-free. And then, they weren’t, and the beasts sadistically hunted by the English upper classes were wandering freely around the very centre of the capital, and can be found stalking the Royal Exchange on the average November night. Urban foxes are among the most conspicuous members of London’s sometimes strange wild animal population. In terms of public fascination, these indigenous beasts rank alongside a much more exotic species: bright lime-green parakeets, who have achieved a similar gradual takeover of the city, suburb by suburb, to the point that they are currently more common – at least in my corner of Camberwell – than sparrows or starlings, nearly as ordinary as pigeons and crows.

Rose-ringed parakeets flying over Hither Green Cemetery, London (2014). Photo by Sam Hobson.

Both creatures get their due in the geographer Matthew Gandy’s comprehensive, ambitious Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space (2022). Gandy has spent the last two decades working on aspects of urbanism that are conventionally overlooked, such as recycling, waste, and most memorably plumbing, the subject of Concrete and Clay (2002), his eye-opening book on New York’s Robert Moses-era water system. He combines this with impatience with neoliberal boosterism (exhibited, for instance, in a ferocious attack on Rem Koolhaas’s praise of excitingly unplanned Lagos). But his most recent book is less a case study than a sweeping, compendious work, focused on the specifically urban nature of ‘urban nature’, and the ways in which accidental and unpredictable interactions of flora, fauna and human beings have taken place within large cities. It is also a timely book; the experience of being locked down in our homes, and finding relief in the exploration of the proximate environment, is still fresh (a phenomenon that has led to the popularisation of the ‘fifteen-minute city’ as both policy and conspiracy theory).

Many people have had unplanned Blakean experiences of finding universes in their local bit of neglected municipal open space – infinities in an allotment, a park, or a back garden. We were locked down as a consequence of the unexpected and ill-thought-out contact among humans, animals and cities; the Covid-19 virus leapt from bats, possibly via expensive, rare trophy animals in Wuhan’s wet markets, to us (another urban anecdote – a friend in the London Borough of Redbridge watching the construction of an impromptu morgue on Wanstead Flats at the height of the virus’s first wave). Both London’s foxes and its parakeets feature in Gandy’s book; he even recounts the delightful urban myth that the parakeets are descendants of birds once released into London’s sky by Jimi Hendrix, rather than, as the more mundane explanation has it, the result of a break-out from Kew Gardens. But much more unusual creatures are just as often the focus – a ‘strange-looking wasp’, for example, that Gandy discovers on his North London window and which turns out to be a member of a rare species (with ‘a liking for dunes, rough grassland and “brambly places”’).

Much of the attention paid to urban nature emphasises its usefulness – urban farms, tree-planting as climate-cooling mechanism and so on. Importantly, Gandy is most interested in an urban-natural landscape that doesn’t ‘do’ anything in particular. Though he concedes that ecology and aesthetics are by no means logically connected, the book is not a study of urban economics or politics (although they do feature) but an attempt to defend a certain kind of urban space created by those evanescent periods in a capitalist economy when one profitable use ends and another has not yet begun; it is essentially a treatise on the virtues of what city planners call ‘brownfield’ (left over by departed industry, property market failure or the effects of war) as opposed to ‘greenfield’ (agriculture, Green Belt, parkland). In trying to create a cosmopolitan, non-nativist ‘reenchantment’ based on the pleasures of ‘brownfield’, he takes issue with a certain urban pessimism that can be found on the left as much as the right; in passing, Gandy mentions his disappointment that the Scottish Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s personal love of ornithology never made it into his critical work on the bourgeois and neo-romantic nature of any project of ‘reenchanting’ space under capitalism.

Natura Urbana’s scope is international. There are detailed excursions to Chennai (home to a thriving community of urban ornithologists), Lisbon (where he finds poplar trees and pampas grass growing around an old gasworks), Yokohama (with its dragonfly-filled ponds), Los Angeles (with its suburban coyotes and parrots) and especially, pre-Wende Berlin, whose wastelands were the subject of a documentary film Gandy made in 2017. But the book is rooted in London, where Gandy grew up in the 1970s. He longingly recalls its bombsites and what used to be derisively called Space Left Over After Planning (SLOAP). In one beloved spot, in his native London Borough of Islington, he recalls a bombsite where ‘bright red cinnabar moths flitted across patches of ragwort, their yellow flowers contrasting with purple drifts of rosebay willowherb, a plant that had become a botanical leitmotif for London bombsites . . . to enter such a space conjured up images from children’s literature, of a magical transition into another world’. This passage recalls Humphrey Jennings’s wartime ponderings on the accidental beauty of bombsites, whose spaciousness and lushness he hoped could inform the practices of post-war planning. But for Gandy it is especially important that this was an ‘accidental garden’, with ‘no planting scheme or trace of human intentionality’ – in 1975, the ten-year-old future geographer wrote a letter to Islington Council protesting the site’s planned redevelopment. Accordingly, this is not a book about consciously ‘designed nature’, though Gandy has some smart and sometimes questionable things to say about it.

Botanists looking for wildflowers on a bombsite, Gresham Street, London
(1943). Source: Getty Images.

It isn’t all poetic encounters with municipal scrubland. Some of the urban-natural interactions Gandy catalogues are nightmarish. He describes the cockroach-induced allergies that beset many children in under-maintained American public housing projects, and the mosquitoes that evolved in interwar London to survive in the Underground, sucking on the blood of commuters. He also evokes the terrifying world of the Gilded Age Chicago stockyards, and the modernist slaughterhouses of Argentina (he could have included the Lyon Slaughterhouse designed in the early 20th century by the pioneering modern architect Tony Garnier, or, in Shanghai’s old International Settlement, the extraordinary, proto-Brutalist Municipal Abattoir). But generally the book is affirmative, if unsentimental.

Against the conventional perception of cities as inimical to plants and animals, Gandy insists, surely correctly, that urban areas are in fact very often highly ‘biodiverse’, especially when compared to ‘their monocultural hinterlands dominated by industrialised agriculture’. This is a consequence of the sheer diversity of spaces in cities, and to the sheer quantity, unusual in the more productive parts of the countryside, of places that are left alone. He is therefore enraged by the dismissive term ‘brownfield’. For one thing, these fields tend not to be brown. As an example, he discusses Hauts-de-Seine, the Paris banlieue borough that includes Nanterre and post-industrial Billancourt, whose ‘brownfield’ zones are far more biodiverse than the city’s manicured parks and gardens, comparable to the countryside around. He also finds instances of heavy industry accidentally fostering urban nature as well as destroying it; a vivid case here is the Sheffield-based biologist Oliver Gilbert’s study of the northern city’s wild fig trees, which flourished because the river Don, used for industrial cooling for the city’s steelworks, stayed at 20 degrees centigrade all year round. There’s also Jennifer Owen’s ‘thirty-year investigation of her back garden’ in Leicester, a particularly Blakean endeavour begun in the early 1970s, during which she found ‘over 2,200 species of insects, including 20 that had never been found in Britain and four that were new to science’. This, Gandy points out, is about the level of biodiversity found in Monks Wood in Huntingdonshire, one of Britain’s largest nature reserves; though over time – ironically, as the city has substantially deindustrialised – the diversity of insect life in Owen’s garden has declined.

Examples of lichens growing on an urban wall (2006). Photo by Margaret Sixsmith.

Gandy’s encomium to the unplanned and overgrown is also a defence of particular plants growing in places where they might be considered ‘foreign’; weeds, wherever they come from, are celebrated here. Much of Natura Urbana is devoted to the ‘non-native’. Examples include the Turkey oak in Britain, hated by conservationists as an aggressive, non-British oak, despite evidence that these oaks were here over 100,000 years ago, before receding and then returning as a consequence of global trade in the 18th century. Gandy speaks up for what are usually described as ‘invasive’, or more heatedly, ‘alien’ plants; most of all for buddleia, the ubiquitous ‘brownfield’ flowering shrub, which is of 19th-century Chinese origin. Just as Asian fauna travelled, usually as a result of imperialism, across Europe and the US, the same process also happened in reverse, like the growth across Chinese cities of sumac plants originally from North America, or the spurges that ‘escaped from the garden of Beijing’s Institute of Botany’ and now grow in the interstices of urban China. This sort of plant life tends to thrive most where systems of management and maintenance have collapsed, though Gandy does not always make the connection. Post-Soviet Kyiv, for instance, he finds to be an especially wild city: by the early 2000s, its 19th-century boulevards and overgrown Soviet ville radieuse housing estates hosted ‘over 500 non-native plant species’. This is undoubtedly true (a photographer and designer of my acquaintance once told me of his joy at coming back to Kyiv after a spell in Vienna – ‘it’s like a jungle!’), but it is a consequence of processes of state abandonment that in other respects have made many people’s lives miserable. Neglect is double-edged, and produces more than buddleia.

The political resonances of the ‘non-native’ species are brought out especially strongly in Gandy’s various tales of Berlin, a city which is returned to again and again in Natura Urbana. Because of the intensity of its wartime destruction and the reservation of an entire continuous stretch of the city as a deliberately fallow ‘death strip’ from 1961 to 1989, Berlin became something like the global capital of ‘brownfield’. It is also, ironically, a city from which Nazi-era botanists, such as Reinhold Tüxen, once attempted to control the vegetation of the Reich according to race science, mapping the vegetation of Germany and Poland according to its degree of Germannness and likening the spread of balsam in rural areas ‘to the threat of Bolshevism from the east’. Gandy devotes much space to scientific attempts to map the city’s post-war wild nature, including Herbert Sukopp’s studies of West Berlin as a place full of what in German is called Brache. Especially intriguingly, he describes Paul-Armand Gette’s 1980s photographs of Berlin streets and tenements overgrowing with shrubs from Peru and North Vietnam as a useful counterpoint to Joseph Beuys’s contemporary proposals for planting 7,000 German oaks in the German urban landscape. Bravely, given Beuys’s enduring (and rather spurious) status as secular saint, Gandy contrasts his nativism, ‘neo-romanticism’ and disinterest in complexity with the much more grounded and egalitarian work of Gette, who was interested in how urban plant life could be at once ‘exotic’ and ‘banal’.

Paul-Armand Gette, photograph of a Berlin street with Ailanthus altissima,
originally from China and North Vietnam, featured in the exhibition ‘Exotik als Banalität(1980). Courtesy of the artist.

Much of this landscape no longer exists, stamped out by the banal stone facades foisted upon Berlin by the neo-Prussian planning regime of Hans Stimmann, but it does survive in pockets. Some of these are unplanned and wild, in the manner Gandy approves of, and are among the city’s most extraordinary spaces, like Teufelsberg, a mountain of rubble capped by the geodesic domes of a derelict CIA listening station, or the ultra-biodiverse wastes on what were once the runways and landing strips of Tempelhof Airport. A few, such as the recently opened Gleisdreieck Park, try to combine the planned and the unplanned. Gandy gives the Berlin examples a cautious welcome, but in general he reserves some of his harshest words for planned urban nature in this otherwise even-tempered book. New York’s High Line, for instance, a linear park on a disused freight line in western Manhattan, he denounces as an ‘ecological simulation’ of what was once a genuinely wild and enchanting landscape, its tastefully selected grasses and pines planted in the service of an extremely successful motor of property development. Gandy gives similarly short shrift to Instagram causes célèbres such as the densely planted ‘vertical forest’ residential towers of the Italian architect and PD politician Stefano Boeri, built in Milan among other cities. These worked well enough in northern Italy, but elsewhere, their spread has fallen foul of exactly the kind of ignorance of the very specific, local character of urban nature that Gandy is trying to outline here. When Boeri’s design was transferred to humid, subtropical Chengdu, the plants covering the skyscrapers quickly attracted dengue-carrying mosquitoes, making the ‘vertical forest’ deeply inhospitable for its human residents and radically reducing the towers’ property values.

The High Line, New York (2011): an ecological simulacrum of elements of
what once existed on the site. Photo by Matthew Gandy.

Like ‘brownfield’ (and for that matter, ‘anthropocene’, a word whose ‘messy omnipotence’ Gandy compares to that of ‘postmodernism’ in the 1980s), ‘Resilience’ is a term Gandy regards with great suspicion. ‘Resilient’ planting in cities tends to entail simple, robust flora, specifically able to weather global warming. This he sees as a new monoculture, in contrast to the constant flux of actually existing urban-natural landscape, the perpetual process of creation and destruction which throws up bizarre and unexpected freaks like the London parakeets. He makes a link between ‘Resilience’ and the mundane practices of neoliberal public management through the example of Sheffield, an especially green large English city, home to those steelwork-induced fig trees. Like ‘Resilience’ planners, the petty outsourcing companies the city charged with maintaining Sheffield’s trees in 2012 have been engaged in a project to replace what were, until recently, ‘fine avenues of elm, lime and cherry trees, some of which harbour rare insects’ with ‘simpler’ streets of little, homogenous, easily pruned varieties. This has led to bitter protests across the city, repeated in the south when a similar bulldozer approach was applied to the post-war boulevards of Plymouth. Disgust at the pruning of the trees helped the Conservatives lose control of that city last year. Gandy cautions that, however justified by the need to counteract global warming, ‘the neoliberal “urban forest” of the future is likely to consist of smaller and younger trees that support far less biodiversity’.

These examples, both glamorous (Boeri’s vertical forests) and shabby (British homogenised tree-lined streets), reveal some of the limitations of planning urban nature. But they are also illustrations of what neoliberalism does in cities. Gandy borrows the term ‘planification’ from Manfredo Tafuri to describe the forces ranged against the unplanned biodiverse urban wastes, but planning is essential to any kind of urban socialism. Given the suspicion of conscious planning that runs throughout the book, there is a question about whether it would be possible to actually create the sort of wild, complex, interstitial spaces that he favours, as opposed to simply waiting for them to emerge through accidents of creative destruction. Gandy surely knows this – his critique of Koolhaas’s dazzled but vacuous reaction to Lagos’s apparent ability to function without planning is among the most powerful attacks on Hayekian urbanism – but seems unable wholly to reconcile municipal socialism with a love of wastelands.

This matters, because conservation can make it perversely difficult to build green infrastructure. Some examples are rural: the construction of High-Speed Rail, for instance, has been made extraordinarily expensive in both Britain and Germany by measures to safeguard landscapes and biodiversity in protected areas – the astonishing cost and endless delays of the ‘Stuttgart 21’ railway project are in part due to the need to resettle thousands of rare lizards whose habitat lay in the path of the high-speed trains, while the preposterous expense of the HS2 disaster in Britain is largely down to ploughing railway tunnels under the Chilterns on routes that would more easily and cheaply run on the surface, so as to leave various southern landscapes untouched. Urban biodiversity is less frequently protected, of course. But a few years ago, campaigners protesting against a council housing development in the London Borough of Southwark, among the borough’s first since the 70s, rechristened the wasteland upon which it was to be built as ‘Peckham Green’. They even managed to get this designation, unheard-of until 2020, onto Google Maps. ‘The intrinsic worth of the ostensibly useless’, writes Gandy, ‘is as much a political question as an aesthetic or scientific one’. Natura Urbana is primarily about understanding and appreciating what already exists; hopefully its many insights will prove useful for understanding what sort of spaces we might want to bring into being. 

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘The Government of London’, NLR 122.


Real Life

A pair of novels from Pier Paolo Pasolini, recently reissued by New York Review Books, display the aesthetic and intellectual range of the Italian writer and filmmaker. The first, his debut, Boys Alive, published in 1955, is a fizzing chemical reaction, its postwar hustler vignettes suffused with speed, lust and disaster. The second, his final work in prose, Theorem (1968), is a chilly, enigmatic parable about a visitor who seduces each member of a bourgeois family and thereby transforms or destroys them. (It began as a poem and was later made into a film of the same name.) Between these two approaches we find tradition distilled and then discarded, moving from gritty Italian neo-realism toward the abstraction of the then-ascendant nouveau roman. Pasolini built upon his literary inheritance before utterly razing it such that neither nostalgia nor mythology could gain a footing. Reading the novels back-to-back is like a cold plunge after a scalding bath.

Pasolini was an urban aesthete, conflicted Catholic Marxist, peasant mythologizer and inveterate lech. He was born in Bologna, in 1922, to a Fascist army officer and a schoolteacher. His father’s military postings and sometime imprisonment for gambling debts compelled the family to move frequently. He attended the University of Bologna, writing a thesis on the nineteenth-century poet Giovanni Pascoli. It was there he began to speak openly about his homosexuality. (He was said to have fallen in love with one of the war-ravaged pupils he and his mother taught free of charge.) A series of disasters precipitated his fateful move to Rome. His brother, a partisan, was murdered by rivals in 1945. His father came home from the war in a state of alcoholic paranoia. Then, in 1949, Pasolini was caught with a group of underage boys performing an undisclosed sexual act. The local anti-Communist authorities put him on trial; narrowly avoiding indecency charges, he was nonetheless expelled from the Communist Party and fired from his teaching position. In January, 1950, he and his mother abandoned his father and set out for Rome.

The city was a sea change, a whirl of pleasure, squalor and art. Pasolini’s fall from respectability compelled a reckoning: ‘Like it or not, I was tarred with the brush of Rimbaud . . . or even Oscar Wilde.’ He sought the desperate freedom of disrepute and found it in Rome’s poverty-stricken underclass, particularly in the beautiful, violent young men who furnished him with the material for his early poems and fictions. He stayed afloat via odd jobs: teaching, literary journalism, bit parts in movies. He would later work as a screenwriter for Soldati and Fellini, and go on to direct a variety of disruptive, legacy-defining works including Accatone (1961), Mamma Roma (1962) and Medea (1969). He was murdered, in Ostia, in 1975, likely by a right-wing criminal organization.

Boys Alive remains his best-known novel. It is plotless, headlong, horny, vascular and often unbearably sad. It follows Riccetto and his friends – all the boys have diminutives or nicknames: Trouble, Cheese, Woodpecker and so on – over the course of five years as they pillage, cruise, fight, strut, gamble and narrowly avoid incarceration. Pasolini is unerring in his dramatic instincts. He seeks heat, battle, humiliation, thrilling reversals of fortune. The boys are either skint or flush with ill-gotten spoils. Money is forever being lost and found, then spent recklessly on indulgences. Financial windfalls – from lifting scrap metal, robbing friends and enemies, or sex work – are splurged on fashionable shoes or enormous bar tabs. Riccetto believes ‘cash is the source of all pleasure and all happiness in this filthy world’. It is above all a means of style, to be used solely in service of what the boys call ‘real life’.

What is this ‘real life’ they speak of? Everything pleasurable, everything wanton, everything unpredictable, incongruous and free. It is competition, fashion, swimming, sex, food, drink and indolence. ‘God, I like having fun!’ Cacciota says. The words constitute the group’s personal code, a philosophy with which they reimagine the meagreness of their circumstances. To experience boredom is to have failed ‘real life’. It is to be found wanting, to lose one’s nerve, or else to work a day job, to achieve a shabby respectability. To be short of cash is to lack the shrewdness necessary for living. It is a kind of total defeat. If the alternative to ennui is death, the boys will unfailingly choose the latter. (Many boys die in the novel: illnesses; drownings; car crashes; suicides.)

Weather and youth are the novel’s twin forces of aggression. There is no season but summer and one practically squints while reading, assaulted by page after page of heat and glinting metal. Asphalt yards ‘crackle with flame’, the Colosseum stands ‘burning like a furnace’; ‘rank heat’ rises from a river; bodies sweat under ‘the full blaze of the sun’. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Pasolini’s Rome in winter, so complete is his delirious, fiery dream. The sun is his engine. Its presence suffuses the novel, forever offering up a plausible, heat-addled motive for petty crime or a disorienting backdrop for flashy exhibitionism. It drives the boys, sweating, heedless, into their next misadventure.

The novel’s episodic structure – built loosely around criminal activity, family life, the procurement of prostitutes, group swims at the river, and plenty of shooting the shit – eludes a totalizing narrative. Scenes never outstay their welcome. A climax approaches, your heart lurches or breaks, and then you’re whisked to the next calamity a month or a year hence. It is in these pungent transitions that Pasolini betrays his obsession with cinema, in the way he weds his lyricism to setting, his prose like a camera eye, ever ready for the close up or tracking shot. Translator Tim Parks renders a lean, athletic prose that oscillates between beauty and brutality. Its wattage can’t be overstated. All is kinetic possibility, open-ended, chaotic, alive. No resolution, no hope, only action, action, action.


In 1968, Pasolini shot his film, Theorem, in Lombardy. Before it hit screens, he’d published a novel of the same name. Despite some equivocation by contemporary critics, he was quick to dispel any suggestion that the novel was mere film treatment. As translator Stuart Hood notes in his introduction, Pasolini said it was ‘as if the book had been painted with one hand while with the other he was working on a fresco – the film.’ The pleasures and challenges of each work are interrelated, a kind of correspondence. To set one against the other is to ignore this complementary formalism, the way each foregrounds the spiritual corruption and erotic ennui of the bourgeoise.

Theorem is a beguiling work of calculated estrangement. Pasolini forecloses any attempt to locate the narrative, geographically or historically. ‘As the reader will already have noticed,’ we are told, ‘this, rather than being a story, is what in the sciences is called “a report”: so it is full of information; therefore, technically, its shape rather being that of “a message”, is that of “a code”.’ Events unfold by way of meticulous description, a kind of poetic data that pins the novel’s subjects like insects beneath glass. What results is an allegory disguised as a memorandum.

The novel immediately establishes an aura of boredom, drift and atrophy. The family of a well-to-do Milanese businessman endures aimless walks, chaste kisses, drowsy reading, and the ringing of midday bells. This soporific mood is shattered when a beautiful, enigmatic young man invites himself to stay at their suburban mansion. Each member of the family – Paolo, the father; Lucia, the mother; Pietro, the son; Odetta, the daughter; Emilia, the maid – is gradually overcome by the youth. He beds them all, one by one, tenderly, as if the family ‘awoke in him merely a kind of loving compassion, precisely of delicate maternal caring’. His magnetism is effortless, his flesh somehow consoling. He remains an inscrutable presence throughout, a figure of almost biblical ambivalence.

His eventual withdrawal destroys the family: ‘The guest . . . seems to have divided them from each other, leaving each one alone with the pain of loss and a no less painful sense of waiting.’ Each fruitlessly seeks some purpose or diversion to staunch the wound of his abandonment: Emilia leaves her post to float surreally above her village; Odetta becomes catatonic and is admitted to a clinic; Lucia cruises for boys half her age; Pietro becomes an artist, pissing on his work in disgust; Paolo strips at a train station and walks the platforms as if in a dream. Between these descriptive chapters there are lengthy prose poems, ostensibly narrated by a member of the family. Their weighty musings (with titles like ‘Identification of Incest with Reality’ and ‘Loss of Existence’) offer bursts of transgressive interiority. These modal shifts continue through to the novel’s conclusion, ending with a reporter’s staccato questioning of the workers outside Paolo’s factory, a strangely detached examination deploying the ‘kind of language used in daily cultural commerce’. (‘Would the transformation of man into a petty-bourgeois be total?’) This alloy of myth, portent, social commentary and dream was as far as Pasolini could take the novel. From this point on, he would focus solely on filmmaking.

What proof the novel takes aim at – what theorem is being explored – tantalizes in its nearness. It remains an ambiguity swirling beneath the frozen crust of the novel’s surface, luring the reader into a strange, almost empirical participation in the presented facts. Everything trembles with restrained volatility as the family is awoken to itself, its hungers, its failings, the abysses of desire that suddenly open amidst so much ease and comfort. Pasolini is at his best here, a poet of ruinous Eros, of the calamities we welcome and fear, each of us ‘a famished animal writhing in silence’.

Read on: Jessica Boyall, ‘Militant Visions’, NLR–Sidecar.


Smart People

‘I don’t think smart people should go to jail’, a young observer who works in crypto remarked outside one of the biggest fraud trials in US history. Samuel Bankman-Fried, the former CEO of the crypto exchange FTX and most famous advance man for the brave new ‘democratic’ alternative to the corrupt old world of cash and wing-tip finance, was the allegedly smart person in question. Three days later, on 2 November, a jury convicted him of wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. For his crimes, Bankman-Fried, 31, faces a maximum sentence of 110 years in prison.

The jury took just a few hours to conclude that he had siphoned off FTX customer funds to its sister hedge fund, Alameda Research, which spent, transferred or gambled that money away. For years he had assured customers that their funds were protected. Even when he knew $8 billion in customer money was gone, and no assets existed to repay it, he tweeted, ‘FTX is fine. Assets are fine’. It was necessary, he’d told his lieutenants, to send out ‘a confident tweet’ as customers frantically tried to withdraw their assets.

My young interlocutor hadn’t thought Bankman-Fried was innocent exactly, but fraud happens all the time, and Think how much good smart people can do in the world! The fallen tycoon’s smarts were much-invoked at trial, by both prosecution and defence. He graduated in physics from MIT. Trained at an elite Wall Street trading firm. Moved on to start Alameda, then FTX. A billionaire before he was thirty. He’d schmoozed with a passel of politicians including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair; a league of non-profiteers, Effective Altruists, vowing to serve mankind once they’d enriched themselves by any means necessary; and celebrities, who helped him market FTX as the safest, smartest place for anyone – the plumber, the barman, the most famous quarterback in American football history – to invest in cryptocurrencies. No one argued, not even his defence, that he’d done any good in the world.

I’d been watching his trial in federal court in New York, trying to put myself in the place of the only audience that mattered. I have to say the biggest revelation was that Sam Bankman-Fried isn’t too smart at all. Certainly not where it counted most – with his freedom in the hands of twelve ordinary New Yorkers: Female, 39, physician’s assistant. Female, 47, high school librarian, lives with cats, sister and sick mother. Female, 33, pediatric nurse. Female, 40, social worker, unemployed. Female, 65, corrections officer (retired), mother of three. Male, 61, postal worker, single. Female, 53, homemaker, divorced, onetime fundraising organizer for nonprofits. Male, 59, married, three children. Female, 50, Metro North train conductor, five children. Female, 43, Ukrainian immigrant, IT at Bloomberg, divorced. Male, 69, investment banker (retired), originally from Hong Kong. Female, 55, special ed teacher, originally from Bermuda.

These twelve were referred to only by numbers. Juror Number 4, a middle-aged white woman, handed the envelope to the judge and later pronounced, ‘Guilty’, seven times, to each of the counts. As she read out his fate, Bankman-Fried stood immobile. His parents, long-time law professors at Stanford – of ethics (Barbara Fried) and tax law (Joseph Bankman) – had walked into the courtroom clutching each other, small people looking smaller now, Barbara Fried gnawing uncontrollably behind drawn lips.

In sunnier days, both had played a role in their son’s business affairs. Bankman had been a paid adviser at $200,000, until he is said to have complained that wasn’t enough, and received a subvention from his son of $10 million. Fried counselled Sam on political donations. A political action committee she’d co-founded, Mind the Gap, received $1 million ostensibly from one of her son’s lieutenants, whose participation she had proposed (‘we don’t want to create the impression that funding MTG is a family affair . . . ’, she wrote in a cheeky email). While FTX customer funds were being raided, Bankman-Fried bought a $16 million house in the Bahamas, allegedly for his parents, who claim they didn’t know their names were on the deed. They are being sued by the post-bankruptcy custodianship of FTX, and call accusations of impropriety ‘completely false’. When Juror Number 4 pronounced ‘Guilty’ the third time, for ‘wire fraud (lenders of Alameda Research)’, Joe Bankman crumpled. For the rest of the proceedings, he remained like this, folded in half in his seat.


I was a latecomer to this event, which since 3 October had drawn a throng of youthful observers – reporters and bloggers, tech workers and traders, systems engineers, millennials dropping in for a glimpse of ‘our generation’s Bernie Madoff’. ‘This is the Super Bowl for nerds’, one attendee told me. Some said crypto’s a scam; others that Bankman-Fried’s a bad apple, ruining the party for revolutionaries fighting for ‘economic independence’, via pieces of code dependent on enormous amounts of real energy and real money to be anything more than figments in a computer game. For many this was their first trial, a kind of black-comic commons where everyone but the accused was making friends.

I arrived just before Bankman-Fried testified. It was a risky move, but Sam, as his attorney referred to him in court, is a gambling man, so he took the stand. Then he lied under oath. It’s arguable that he had nothing to lose (though the lying might cost him if Judge Lewis Kaplan decides that he perjured himself). The defence, having failed to undercut the government witnesses, had little else to offer. Maybe Sam could dazzle the jurors as he had so many journalists, celebrities and politicos; or charm them, as he had Michael Lewis, whose book on the man in the dock, Going Infinite, came out the day the trial began and quickly topped the lists. With a brazenness matching that of his subject, Lewis told the press his book was ‘a letter to the jury’.

This was not Bankman-Fried’s first wild gamble since FTX and Alameda went bankrupt last November and he came under federal investigation. The first was his decision to talk to the media: fifty or so interviews; days spent with Lewis after being arrested in December; hanging out with social media crypto influencer Tiffany Fong. The second was pleading ‘Not Guilty’. The government had millions of documents – myriad FTX financials; real and faked balance sheets of its biggest customer, Alameda; Slack chats; Signal chats; tweets; an executive’s contemporaneous journal; sworn Congressional testimony; records of expenditures by Bankman-Fried himself, on political donations, private jets (including for delivery of Amazon purchases), a $30 million penthouse in the Bahamas, where he’d headquartered the companies, etc.

It had the testimony of Bankman-Fried’s partners in crime, FTX and/or Alameda executives. Three of them had been the defendant’s close friends and associates (one a sometime girlfriend), who started talking soon after the enterprise imploded. Two pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy before Bankman-Fried was arraigned, and agreed to be witnesses for the prosecution. In court they would explain the details of the scam. The gist: there were one set of rules for ordinary FTX customers and effectively no rules for Alameda, which Bankman-Fried controlled by force of personality and 90% ownership. Alameda had unlimited ability to ‘borrow’ from FTX customer accounts, with no contract or written terms or posted collateral. That’s ‘stealing, plain and simple’, the government would argue.

Anyone else, aware of the awesome resources of the state and the cooperation of remorseful former associates, might have thrown himself on the mercy of the court. Bankman-Fried bet on himself. The jurors gave him the attention any defendant deserves. Then he spent hours kicking up dust in their face. The art of the con involves a number of skills. One is talking so much and so well that the mark has no room to think. Another is conjuring a personality that not only plays to larceny in the blood but also arouses in the mark an approving sentiment. The most skilled con artist is an extraordinary actor. The persona is seductive; it never slips, thus winning the mark’s confidence. A trial is not a confidence game; the jury has nothing to gain and much time to think. It is, however, a contest of stories. So, it is not impossible that a conniving storyteller might seduce one juror enough to believe him and then hold to that belief.

And here is where Sam Bankman-Fried’s bet on himself was bound to fail. For neither could he tell a compelling, exculpating, story of what had happened to other people’s money, nor could he make himself likeable. Questioned by his attorney Mark Cohen, he took roundabouts, spewing jargon as he went. I drew spirals in my notebook. With no coherent alternative to the government’s story, Cohen lingered on technicalities, fractured chronology, enabled his client’s discursive patter. One often couldn’t be sure what Bankman-Fried was saying, or why, or whether it was relevant or true. Fragments capture the substance of his testimony: I was busy. I didn’t know. I trusted others. Margin trading. Things happened. Yup.

This was the day of first impressions, and though some in the media would give his performance good reviews, it struck me as an exhibition of contempt – for the jurors’ time, their intelligence and something else: their likely relationship to money. For weeks they had heard about discrepancies of $2 billion, $8 billion, $14 billion; some of Bankman-Fried’s lieutenants had been anxious about multimillion-dollar expenditures. One had cried over what she had done. Here was the boss, speaking with nonchalance. Yup, he’d been ‘concerned’ when he learned of a multibillion-dollar ‘hole’ in his business.

‘Numbers like that just slide off our back’, one onlooker working in crypto told me later. No doubt they do, and jurors probably tried to see things from the perspective of someone who is young and has spent his adult life playing in the big casino. Bankman-Fried never returned the courtesy. In workaday America, a $400 unexpected expense can be calamitous for one out of three adults. Almost everyone knows someone for whom that is true. There’s a good chance that the librarian, the train conductor, the postal worker et al., did too. Most people are also likely to suspect that if a financial trading system is so complex that no one can keep track of the money, as Bankman-Fried had implied, something is wrong.


Overcoming doubt is the prosecution’s burden. ‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ morphed into ‘no doubt at all’ the longer Bankman-Fried talked. Caroline Ellison, the former girlfriend and reluctant CEO of Alameda, had earlier testified that she had made seven alternate balance sheets when the legit one showed Alameda’s enormous liability from siphoning FTX accounts. She said that Bankman-Fried had requested the phony ledgers and picked the one that looked best, number seven, to show to potential investors. Bankman-Fried testified that he had just happened to look at only one tab of her attachment, which just happened to be number seven, which just happened to look the best. Who knows what Caroline was doing?

A skit from the Netflix show I Think You Should Leave became a meme among the young set, mocking Bankman-Fried’s performance. A car shaped like a hotdog drives into a shopfront window, shocking the people inside. A man wearing a hotdog suit pipes up, ‘Whoever did this, just confess; we promise we won’t be mad’. He directs suspicion at someone else and blathers about technology as he steals merchandise. ‘It says so much about what’s happening here!’, a tech designer told me during a break.

‘In what world is someone making eight balance sheets for themselves?’ the prosecution would later ask jurors in closing. Use ‘your own common sense and life experience’. Simplification had been the government’s strategy. It stripped down its list of witnesses and exhibits. It played to Judge Kaplan’s impatience with time-wasters. It explained FTX/Alameda’s secretive operations in plain language, and showed that whenever Bankman-Fried had faced a critical choice, he chose the crooked path. Contrary to defence histrionics, it did not make him out to be a ‘monster’; it likened him to an embezzler, a jewel thief, a banal criminal.

That Bankman-Fried could commit so major a crime and think he might beat the rap with so little effort spoke loudly of his character. Had anyone ever told him No? If not, the initial hour of cross-examination was a brutal first lesson. ‘A public flogging’, one observer called it. Bankman-Fried seemed to have internalized a single piece of legal advice – You can always say ‘I don’t recall’ – heedless of its corollary, that what the prosecution might present to ‘refresh your memory’ could spell trouble.

Assistant US Attorney Danielle Sassoon: Mr Bankman-Fried, isn’t it true that . . .

Bankman-Fried: I don’t recall.

Sassoon: Mr Bianco, please pull up Government Exhibit X . . .

By the government’s tally, under cross-examination Bankman-Fried said ‘I do not recall’ or some variant 140 times. I’d stopped counting at 76. He drew blanks on company policy that he had once touted, on contracts he had signed (some of them agreements with himself), on his sworn testimony to Congress (so many hands had written it), on what he’d told journalists a year ago, and what he’d told his attorney the day before. Relentlessly, Sassoon countered with documents attesting to something the defendant did, or knew, or should have known. Mr Bianco is now the most well-known courtroom tech assistant in history. A retired law professor watching the trial said the cross-examination should be studied by aspirants to the profession: no theatrics, just a clear story, a straightforward plan, and startling efficiency.

At one point some trial-watchers had wondered what Bankman-Fried’s strategy might be. A man so smart must surely have a plan. None ever revealed itself. Perhaps he thought he didn’t need one. He treated the courtroom like a betting parlour. To yes or no questions, he often paused for an uncomfortably long time, staring into a void as if calculating the odds of which response would get a better return. The case was lost. Anything he said might be honest, might be a lie, was likely a lie, because it’s hard to keep track of every previous lie, and Sam Bankman-Fried could not recall.


Now he’s going to prison. Twenty years, twenty-five, thirty? News reports have opted for ‘decades’. Sentencing will occur next March. Judge Kaplan has written of his disdain for the ‘studied calculation’ of white-collar criminals, whose offences he called ‘especially reprehensible’. At trial, he did not conceal his displeasure with Bankman-Fried’s circumlocutions. Mark Cohen has promised an appeal, something he was obviously preparing for throughout the trial.

What Cohen called Bankman-Fried’s ‘extraordinary journey’ is far from over. In March he is also scheduled to stand trial for bribery, conspiracy, bank and securities fraud in an alleged scheme to pay Chinese law enforcement officials $150 million to unfreeze $1 billion of Alameda’s trading funds when his companies were headquartered in Hong Kong. He may also face trial for federal election law violations related to at least $40 million spent on the 2022 US midterms. His lieutenant Nishad Singh pleaded guilty earlier this year in connection with the aforementioned $1 million donated to Barbara Fried’s political action committee.

This trial presented only one neat slice of an exceedingly messy story, both at FTX and in the larger ‘ecosystem’ that endures without it. Bankman-Fried had promoted FTX as the ethical operator in a murky world of a ‘currency’ especially well-suited to crime and crawling with grifters. His reference in court to people using crypto to ‘buy muffins’ or ‘pay rent’ – rather than, say, hire hitmen, fund private armies or steal from each other – was another, albeit minor, instance of giving a wholesome veneer to a fundamentally fraudy segment of an already deeply exploitative sector of the economy. US Attorney Damian Williams called the verdict ‘a warning to every fraudster who thinks they’re untouchable’.

If Bankman-Fried decides to plead guilty to the pending charges, he may have tradeable knowledge gained from his meteoric journey through the rot-riddled universe of finance, politics and crypto. In an excellent article in The Nation, Jacob Silverman reviews some ‘strange movements of cash and crypto’, involving everything from Hong Kong storefronts to US venture capital firms to crypto minters and others whose role remains largely shrouded:

Sam Bankman-Fried didn’t just control Alameda Research and FTX. He had some 140-plus registered companies – many of them shells used to direct billions of dollars in investments made with stolen funds. Some of these start-ups he controlled directly; others seemed to be covert parts of the Bankman-Fried empire . . . we still don’t know the full extent of this network of dirty and pilfered money . . . we do know that for a few years, Bankman-Fried controlled an incredibly valuable vehicle for laundering money.

While being led out of the courtroom, Bankman-Fried turned and gave a childlike smile to his stricken parents. Then he disappeared. Deputy US marshals escorted him to a vehicle waiting to return him to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, where he has been locked up since August. Judge Kaplan had revoked his bail for attempts at witness tampering and other breaches of his conditions of release. (Among his offences: while lounging in his parents’ Palo Alto home, he gave Tiffany Fong pages of Caroline Ellison’s personal diary, which promptly became grist for The New York Times.)

Night had come. As observers gathered their things, Joe Bankman stood with Fried, looking up at Cohen imploringly for . . . what? Outside, jurors scattered into the subways. Lights bounced off the pale façade and blazing brass doors of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse. Thirteen Assistant US Attorneys lined up, unsmiling, to the left of a microphone. To the right, in shadow, stood at least a dozen of their aides. News photographers and spectators snapped pictures. None could fully capture the power that this disciplined formation projected.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Bitmagic’, NLR–Sidecar.


Elective Affinities

It’s time to air an open secret. President Joe Biden is implementing the same policies that were inaugurated by the vilified, mocked and indicted Donald Trump, only with less fanfare and in a more decisive and brutal manner. In particular, Biden is resolutely pursuing the path of deglobalization that caused such a stir when the president in the orange wig embarked on it.

Biden has intensified the trade war with China unleashed by his predecessor. While Trump’s initiatives were sporadic and theatrical, such as the indictment of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, Biden’s more systematic policies – cracking down on advanced technology exports – have upped the ante. The war in Ukraine, which broke out a little over a year into Biden’s term, might seem to distinguish the two presidencies, but its repercussions in Europe reveal commonalities too: the dismantling of the German Ostpolitik (a policy pursued tenaciously by Germany since the chancellorship of Willy Brandt half a century ago), the decoupling of the German and Chinese economies and keeping Europe firmly under the aegis of NATO.

The Biden administration has followed the Republicans’ deglobalization playbook, even down to the details. Trump had weakened the World Trade Organization by refusing to ratify the appointment of judges to its top appeals court, which settles international trade disputes; the Democrats now continue to block those appointments. As a result, the WTO has been paralysed, its relevance diminished. The same continuity can be seen in relations with Saudi Arabia: despite promising in his election campaign to make the Saudis a ‘pariah’ after the barbaric murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Biden visited Riyadh in July 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine to persuade Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production and to encourage closer ties with Israel. The following spring, Biden rolled out the red carpet to welcome the ‘pariah’ Crown Prince to Washington.

One could add other unkept promises, including ecological ones, notwithstanding the much-vaunted green subsidies in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. During his election campaign, Biden vowed to block new oil and gas drilling projects. Then war broke out in Ukraine, and in late April 2022 the White House announced it was opening up public land for drilling – nearly 144,000 acres – to new oil and gas leases, just months after suspending them. It did not end there: in March of this year the administration approved the Willow project, a decades-long oil drilling venture worth $8 billion in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. According to the administration’s own estimates, the project would produce enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to adding 2 million petrol cars to the roads.

But there is another area in which Biden has furtively followed in Trump’s footsteps: the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. A signature policy of the Trump administration – though it only managed to build 80 miles of new wall (repairing or replacing another few hundred miles) – the Democrats had promised they wouldn’t add another centimetre. Now, Biden has authorized the construction of 20 miles (32 km) of new barrier in south Texas. With a year to go before the 2024 election, the intention of the initiative is clear.

And speaking of the pre-election climate: it is notable that during the recent United Auto Workers strike, both Biden and Trump went to Michigan, though they behaved quite differently when they got there (Biden expressed solidarity with picketing workers while Trump told employees at a non-union shop that picketing wouldn’t make ‘a damn bit of difference’). Yet both visits, blatantly instrumental, paid with one eye on the elections, are worth reflecting on. Let us recall that, as Branko Marcetic noted in 2018, Biden has spent much of his career ‘attacking progressive “special interests” while crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans in major instances that were decidedly unhelpful to the working class’ – voting in favour, for example, of the repeal of Glass–Steagall and Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. Bear in mind, too, that Biden has spent 36 years as a senator for Delaware, the internal tax haven of the United States. More than 1.4 million business entities – and among them more than 60% of the Fortune 500 – have made their legal home in Delaware because corporations registered in the state that do not do business there do not pay corporate income tax. Seeing Biden at a picket line is therefore a little strange. Such pro-labour posturing mirrors that of Trump himself, whose courting of manufacturing workers is similarly opportunistic and shallow.

The visits to Michigan bring to mind the expression ‘Reagan Democrats’, the unionized blue-collar workers whom Reagan won over so successfully on ideological issues in the 1980s. Part of this group defected to the Republicans in 2016, when Trump won several rustbelt states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (and for Obama in 2008 and 2012). In a way, the ‘Trump Democrats’ are the inverse of the Reagan Democrats: those who voted for Reagan went against their own economic interests in the name of ideology – partly the theme of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Trump’s supporters, by contrast, were pushed rightward in line with their economic interests – as a result of losing ‘good’ jobs (those with healthcare, pensions, paid holidays) or feeling that they were under threat. At an election rally in 2020, Trump said: ‘We want to ensure that more products are proudly stamped with the phrase – that beautiful phrase – made in the USA’. Under Biden, the Democrats, evidently alarmed by the 2016 election, have co-opted this refrain. Biden’s speeches emphasize bringing jobs back to America: ‘Where is it written that America can’t once again be the manufacturing capital of the world?’

This helps to illuminate the political resemblance between the two presidents, however much they present themselves as diametrically opposed. It is fair to assume that the different fractions of the ruling class in a country sometimes have diverging, even opposing interests. But if the country is the empire that dominates the world, on one point at least the ruling classes will agree: they do not want to see the basis of their power (i.e., the nation-empire) weakened. Those who have power intend, at a minimum, to maintain it, if not consolidate or expand it. So it is reasonable to infer that the conflicting interests between the various fractions manifest themselves in different strategies for ruling the world, in different conceptions of empire. In the United States, these different conceptions of empire are reduced to the clichés of either isolationism (or unilateralism) or interventionist multilateralism. Of course, this binary is too simple: in reality one can have unilateralist interventionism, among other combinations. But by the 1990s, these camps had crystallized into the party of globalization (governing the world by liberalizing trade and financial flows) and its opponents. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, the globalization camp had the upper hand: the neoliberal version of globalization became known as the Washington consensus, which was forcibly asserted in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on.

But by Obama’s second term the cracks in this edifice were beginning to show. Think tanks (and not only conservative ones) were starting to worry about the rise of China and the centrifugal forces that globalization was nurturing within the empire, particularly in Europe. Critics of globalization began to point out that the US strategy, by turning China into ‘the factory of the universe’, was likely to undermine itself.

Such critics also began to point to the ways in which the rebounding effects of globalization were eroding the domestic consensus around the issue of empire. If in the 1950s a blue-collar worker in the US had a legitimate stake in empire (his salary and standard of living were the highest in the world), this was no longer true in the early years of the new millennium, when the vast majority of US factories had been relocated, first to Mexican maquiladoras and then to Asia. In a sense, globalization was weakening the home front of the empire.

This brings us to another aspect of the striking continuity between Trump’s and Biden’s policies. Bien-pensants around the world seriously underestimated Trump, deriding him for his histrionics and his lies. (It is worth remembering that when he was elected, Reagan was also mocked – as a B-movie actor, totally ignorant of foreign policy, a dupe who consulted fortune-tellers and was convinced of the imminent end of the world, destined to be impeached in a few months. We saw the sequel.) But of course, the Trump administration was not Trump alone. His cabinet included the CEO of Exxon, several members of the most powerful bank in the world (Goldman Sachs), a Midwestern billionaire (Betsy DeVos), several generals from the Pentagon, and as second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the Koch brothers’ man. Silicon Valley tycoons attended White House meetings. In 2018, the Heritage Foundation’s Annual Report, bidding ‘farewell to some great people in 2017’, boasted that the ‘Trump administration snapped up more than 70 of our staff and alumni’. The next year the think tank gloated about the Trump administration’s ‘embrace of 64% of Heritage policy prescriptions’. Beneath Trump’s bluster, in many respects his government was being teleguided by those think tanks funded by the fraction of the US ruling class that got him elected.

During the Cold War, a commonplace circulated: that the Republicans were conservative in domestic policy but less hawkish in foreign policy, while the Democrats were progressive at home but more warmongering abroad (the Vietnam War was fought under Kennedy and Johnson; Nixon negotiated peace). After the defeat of the USSR this notion lost its purchase: it was Republican presidents, Bush Sr and Bush Jr, who attacked Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again (although Clinton triggered the attack on Serbia and Obama continued his predecessor’s war). This brings us to the last, but no less significant area in which Biden has doubled down on Trump’s positions: in his vision for the Middle East as formalized in the 2020 Abraham Accords, seen most vividly in Biden’s total and unconditional endorsement of Benjamin Netanyahu. With the Trump–Biden duo it feels like we are back in the Cold War: despite all his bombastic proclamations, Trump has not started any wars. Under Biden we are already on the second.

Read on: Grey Anderson, ‘Strategies of Denial’, NLR–Sidecar.


Hezbollah’s Next Move

Since Hamas’s attack on October 7, the Israeli retaliation has unleashed staggering levels of destruction – with the Palestinian death toll now exceeding 10,000. The US has hurried two airplane carriers and several destroyers to the region, along with special military personnel, to bolster its ally and ward off any possible intervention from Iran or Hezbollah. The latter has been engaged in tit-for-tat hostilities with Israel on its northern border, which runs for a hundred kilometers from the Naqoura in the west to the Shebaa farms in the east. This has forced the Israeli army to keep a high number of professional units stationed in the area, as well as maintaining air-force readiness and anti-missile defences. Whether this localized conflict will escalate is now one of the primary questions for the region and the wider world.

Far from being a puppet of Tehran, Hezbollah must be understood as a powerful political party with a strong militia and a significant influence in several countries beyond its native Lebanon – Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen. Its leadership and most of its rank-and-file consider themselves part of the transnational constellation that owes religious obedience to the Iranian Supreme Leader. But Hezbollah does not operate according to orders and fiats, and is itself a decision-maker in Iranian strategy in the Middle East. The final say on its policies comes from secretary general Hasan Nasrallah and his cadre. Their relation to Iran is that of partners, not auxiliaries.

Hamas, too, has a high degree of autonomy, and launched its attack based on its own political calculations rather those of Iran or Hezbollah. It decided that the policies pursued by the Israeli government and its settler population – indefinite occupation and gradual annexation – had reached a tipping point where inaction would prove fatal. This decision was rooted in a broader assessment of the geopolitical transformations taking place across the Middle East. Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel was anticipated by the end of the year. A deal between Iran and the Americans was on the cards. The proposed India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor, which promises to reinforce the centrality of Gulf states to the global economy, was rapidly becoming a reality. In light of all of this, the ‘international community’ was poised to further marginalize the Palestinian cause and revive the PA as a pliable alternative to Hamas. Internal and external dynamics convinced the organization that it had to either act or accept a slow death.

It is almost certain that Hezbollah had no prior knowledge of the consequent attack. The Lebanese party agrees with Hamas on many issues, and has spent years assisting it with money, arms and tactical advice, yet their geopolitical positions are not always aligned (they were on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, for example). It appears that Hamas’s act of desperation – to engineer a conflict with the aim of reactivating the Palestinian anticolonial struggle and maintaining their political relevance – will not have a straightforward domino effect on Hezbollah. At least not for the time being. By launching limited strikes across the border, Hezbollah is signalling its readiness to open a second front should the pulverization of Gaza reach a point that the party can no longer tolerate. Yet this restrained form of engagement also gives it the space to continually reassess the situation, consider its options and determine its next moves.

At present, the questions facing Nasrallah’s forces are these. Were they to enter a full-blown war with Israel (and possibly the US), would they be able to stop the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinians? Would they risk decimating Lebanon and inflicting tremendous damage on Hezbollah’s support base? Would they lose thousands of fighters and most of their weapons? Would they jeopardize the accomplishments of the resistance axis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen? What would they stand to gain from this hazardous course of action? The answers are liable to change at any moment. The optimum strategy today might be defunct tomorrow. But as yet, it seems that this is Hamas’s war, not Hezbollah’s.

Hezbollah’s options – whether to maintain hostilities with Israel at their current level, escalate them or reduce them – are governed by three important variables. The first is the situation in Gaza. Israel wants to obliterate Hamas in toto, and has been given the green-light to commit genocide in pursuit of this goal, even though its chances of fulfilment are highly uncertain. If Hamas is able to drag out the fighting, inflict significant harm on the enemy and thwart an all-out Israeli victory, then Hezbollah will score major political points with minimal sacrifices, simply by keeping Israel distracted on its northern front. The party could thereby avoid the dangers of escalation and live to fight another war at a more propitious moment.

The second variable is Hezbollah’s power base in Lebanon, which, along with the majority of the Lebanese society, is supportive of the Palestinians but hesitant about a war with Israel. They know very well that, on top of having lost their savings in the 2019-20 Lebanese banking crisis, an Israeli assault would threaten their homes and what remains of their vital national infrastructure. Hezbollah is, understandably, reluctant to endanger and alienate this constituency. The final variable is Iran and its interests, including the diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the delicate negotiations with the Biden administration concerning its nuclear technology and the extent of US sanctions. The Iranian leadership knows that both of these would be upended by a major regional conflict – hence President Raisi’s cautious position and his continued lines of contact with the Saudi Crown Prince.

Yet as Israel’s killing machine mows down Palestinians by the thousands, each of these factors could change. If Hamas appears to be in existential danger, the calculus for Hezbollah may be different – since the loss of this ally could embolden Israel to target its Lebanese adversary next. As for the Lebanese people, it is unclear whether they will continue to prioritize their homes and assets amid the proliferating images of Palestinian body bags. Might they instead prove willing to suffer alongside the Palestinians? The Iranians, too, might have to look again at the balance between their immediate material interests and their nominal commitments to Palestinian liberation. Will they be able to sit face-to-face with US officials while the latter cheers on the immolation of Gaza? Wouldn’t this send the wrong signal to their other allies across the region – that Iranian support is fickle and unreliable?

If the situation in Gaza deteriorates to the point that Iran shelves its negotiations with the US, the Gulf states sour on Israel, and Hezbollah’s base becomes convinced that the party is not doing enough, then this could be a trigger for Hezbollah to escalate. Likewise, if Israel decides to target civilians in Lebanon and causes major casualties, Nasrallah cannot be expected to stand by. For Hezbollah, military intervention is always a political strategy rooted in the arithmetic of gains and losses and the complex field of allies and interests. Its next move will not be decided by Iranian influence or Islamist ideology, but by the demands of pragmatism.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Midpoint in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.


Course Correction?

The extreme centre in Germany is resented and outnumbered. In the Bavarian and Hessian state elections of early October, all three parties in the governing ‘traffic light coalition’ suffered a significant blow, with Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) plummeting to their worst ever result in both states. The much-diminished Die Linke performed poorly, too. Having failed to meet the 5% threshold for representation in parliament in 2021, surviving in the Bundestag only due to the technicality of retaining three independently elected constituencies, the party lost all its seats in Hesse. The rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged as the unambiguous success story, securing nearly 20% of the vote in Hesse, where it came second – a first for the party in a western state. By the end of the month, the AfD was polling nationally at an unprecedented 23%, behind only the main opposition Union bloc.

Last week, however, a new challenge to Germany’s ailing political establishment emerged. At a press conference on 23 October, Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht announced she was founding her own independent party, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – for Reason and Justice (BSW). On the evening of the announcement, anticipated for some time, her new party, which includes nine other MdBs formerly of Die Linke, was already commanding the support of 12% of the electorate, poaching its largest share from the AfD (which fell by 5%) and small parties; the SPD, CDU, Greens and Die Linke also lost support. Expected to launch as a party next January, ahead of the European elections in June, polls suggest the BSW could win up to 20% of the national vote. Wagenknecht’s initiative has shifted the weight of national politics further away from the centre, and, for the first time in years, significantly to the left.

The basis for a broad opposition programme is clear. Germany is once again in a recession, less than a decade after its putative second economic miracle was to be the model for the rest of Europe, if not the world. The temporary conditions that enabled its relatively good economic performance from 2010 to 2019 – world-historic growth in the export markets of Brazil and China, above all – are now exhausted. Yet in today’s straitened circumstances, Berlin has not even gestured towards shoring up the well-being of its citizenry. Instead, it has obediently signed up to Washington’s project of relentless militarization and endless war to the east. This posture has not only undercut Germany’s access to the cost-effective energy essential to its industrial competitiveness, but has also detonated another historic refugee crisis which, for many in the deindustrializing areas, is seen as compounding the effects of the economic slowdown.

The political opening Wagenknecht is hoping to exploit is equally glaring. The public has good reason to regard the current government as continuing the ruling-class attack on its living standards, pioneered, in 2003, by Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 programme, and pursued since by centre-right and centre-left governments alike. Two decades of austerity have led to a rise in poverty, general insecurity and deteriorating public services. As a consequence, there is a wellspring of opposition to further retrenchment of the social state. The Greens’ efforts to shift the cost of environmental measures onto individuals – such as replacing domestic gas heaters – have also been broadly unpopular, stirring dissent from a consensus that is in reality supported mainly by the affluent and highly educated.

Wagenknecht addresses these concerns more directly than any other politician on the right or left. Yet despite her broad popularity, in the Berlin Republic she is often regarded as a controversial figure, notably within the shrunken ranks of her former party. For her critical interventions – on the war in Ukraine and NATO’s part in it, on the contradictions of the government’s Covid policy, and on immigration, as well as on the ‘left-liberal’ politics of a self-satisfied Bildungsbürgertum – she has been denounced as a Putin sympathizer, a conspiracy theorist, an anti-immigrant populist and a treacherous ‘diagonalist’ blending left and right. Her East German formation – she was brought up in Jena and Berlin – combined with her intransigent Communist politics lasting into the 1990s, has in the past even attracted the attention of the state’s internal security services.

Intellectually superior to most members of the Bundestag – she is the author of several books, including an economics dissertation on savings and a critical study of the young Marx – Wagenknecht delivers her arguments in a direct, sober communicative style that has earned her regular invitations to Germany’s television talk shows, despite their hosts’ hostility to her views. Presenting herself as a ‘left-conservative’, though her politics might better be characterized as ‘left-realism’, she has positioned her breakaway formation as a response to the Repräsentationslücke – representation gap – in contemporary Germany, where nearly half of the population does not see its perspective reflected in the party system. She has set out four domains encompassing the BSW’s proposed reforms. 1. ‘Economic rationality’ – ‘innovation, education and better infrastructure’; 2. ‘Social justice’ – ‘solidarity, equal opportunity and social security’; 3. ‘Peace’ – ‘a new self-image in foreign policy’; and 4. ‘Freedom’ – ‘defending personal freedom, strengthening democracy’, which includes widening the Meinungskorridor, or spectrum of opinion.

Nowhere has Wagenknecht’s departure from orthodoxy been more pronounced and consistent than in matters of war. For a time, the Ukrainian flag adorned every official building in Berlin, and any questioning of the conflict – even invoking the postwar taboo against exporting weapons to warzones, much less mention of the right-wing orientation of much of Ukrainian ‘orange’ nationalism, NATO’s eastward expansion or the danger of escalation – was essentially proscribed as partisan alignment with Moscow. Despite this prevailing Gleichschaltung, Wagenknecht’s dissenting line in near-weekly interventions appears to have enhanced rather than hurt her standing. She has also been forthright in attacking the government for its conspicuous incuriosity concerning the sabotage of the country’s energy infrastructure in the probable US attack on Nord Stream 2. She deftly connects foreign policy to domestic issues – linking, for example, the shortfall in Germany’s domestic capacity for producing medicines to the government’s commitment to manufacturing ammunition for Ukraine. More recently, she has criticized Tel Aviv’s offensive against Gaza, a rarity in a country which has banned peaceful demonstrations of sympathy for Palestinians.

The other stance that has attracted criticism, especially from the left, is Wagenknecht’s position on immigration. Yet its significance to her political outlook is often exaggerated. The issue is given minimal emphasis in her public addresses; her weekly bulletin and video lectures almost never mention it. Her position is also hardly an outlier on the German political scene. As she noted at the press conference last month, she supports the full right of asylum-seekers to live in Germany, as well as legal protections for immigrants; she is opposed to what she describes as immigration’s present unregulated form. This is also now Scholz’s revised position; it was the de facto position of Merkel, too, after she reversed twice on the question. Neither is Wagenknecht’s view particularly unusual historically within the trade union and socialist left of West Germany and elsewhere. It is in effect a guild perspective, favouring the regulation of the labour market.

Wagenknecht’s politics are not without theoretical limitations and inconsistencies, of course. As with most left-parliamentary oppositions of the last decade, the economic vision put forward by her Alliance – especially the enthusiasm for reviving industry – is implicitly predicated on an upturn in profitability in the national economy as the basis for a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth. Not only does this framework fail to register the persistent troubles facing the world economy, it also ignores the difficulties of attempting to increase German manufacturing competitiveness while at the same time improving working-class living standards (Germany’s expansion during the 2010s, after all, came at the expense of its working class, as well as the south of the Eurozone). In the context of a chronically weakened global economy, the shallow recoveries states have mustered have been reliant on neoliberal measures that precipitated the erosion of living standards abhorred by Wagenknecht and the majority. Still, whether or not her economic agenda will be able to arrest the deindustrialization of the country and reverse its worst effects, it cannot be denied that the current path of unending war is hastening it gratuitously, as Germany’s resource-poor and export-oriented economy is battered by higher energy costs.

The major weakness of Wagenknecht’s initiative at present is not primarily theoretical but practical: her Alliance lacks an active social movement. In place of cadres, there is an inchoate mass of opinion which remains to be organized through mobilization. Wagenknecht has in the past appeared somewhat reluctant to transform the enthusiasm for her politics into something more disciplined and embedded. She has avoided speaking at events of the university left, or at those which she herself has not convened. Aufstehen (Stand Up), the movement she launched in 2018, fizzled quickly. Loosely modelled on Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, it has now been reduced to an email newsletter. The February 2023 anti-war protest she organized, which drew tens of thousands to Brandenburg Gate, was never followed by further calls for public demonstrations. The party’s theoretical shortcomings and contradictions will likely only be transcended through increased political association outside of the videosphere. Parts of the new platform – especially its commitment to greater democratic participation – may indicate an awareness, post-Aufstehen, of the importance of an active membership. This will be especially critical given the probable fallout for Die Linke, which is likely to be gravely weakened by Wagenknecht’s departure; here the left risks losing significant institutional linkages to the past.

Some view Wagenknecht’s Alliance as a cynical and potentially damaging attempt to appeal to AfD voters. Oliver Nachtwey, for example, has argued that in ‘trying to conform and adapt to the New Right’, Wagenknecht risks ‘legitimizing’ its discourse, which could ‘further normalize and even strengthen the AfD’. But this concern gets the sequence of events the wrong way round. The rise of the AfD, and more broadly of the so-called ‘populist’ right, was itself largely a symptom of the failure of the left generally, and Die Linke in particular, to maintain a credible opposition to the governing coalitions (often because it held out hope of joining them), and so to sustain the confidence of broad layers of society. Only then did much of the polity become available to the right, which capitalized on justifiable indignation against the extant parties. Far from signalling a ‘normalization’ of the AfD, the BSW’s efforts to win over those who have drifted away from Die Linke and other parties potentially points the way back to a more formidable and dissident left, one which foregrounds its opposition to war, and ties this to domestic concerns.

Rather than representing a lurch to the right, then, Wagenknecht’s is a call for a return to popular sovereignty over foreign affairs, set against a political centre which courts nuclear conflagration from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Black Sea to the Taiwan Strait. The test for her Alliance is whether it can inspire the popular action needed to realize its platform, and overcome the many objective constraints faced by any government in contemporary Germany – let alone an opposition party – aiming to change the country’s course towards prosperity and peace.

Read on: Christine Buchholz, ‘Germany Re-Divided’, NLR 116/117.