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.


Germans to the Front

According to Hofstadter’s Law, obviously a descendent of Murphy’s Law, ‘everything takes longer than you think’. Last year the first to get acquainted with it in a big way was the Russian warlord, Putin, who of course could have spared himself the shock by following the lead of Trotsky and Mao Zedong and spending some time reading Clausewitz. His Special Military Operation having failed to capture Kiev – planned to be finished in a matter of one or two weeks, putting an end once and for all to Ukraine’s endogenous fascism and exogenous Westernism – Putin had to face the unpleasant prospect of a full-scale war of indefinite duration, not just with Ukraine but also, in one form or other, with the United States.

Less than a year later, a similar insight hit his American counterpart, Biden. A Ukrainian victory nowhere on the horizon, a full barrage of economic sanctions against Russia and Putin’s oligarchic friends had done astonishingly little damage to the Russian capacity to hold on to the Donbass and Crimean Peninsula. The midterm elections of November 2022, in which the Democrats lost their majority in the House, unmistakably served notice that the willingness of the American electorate to fund the Biden-Blinken-Sullivan-Nuland adventure was far from boundless. Indeed, the war of attrition with no end in sight that was taking shape now was increasingly seen as a potential liability in the 2024 Presidential election.

Another Afghanistan-style pullout being out of the question, that of 2021 not yet forgotten even by the notoriously forgetful American public, and Putin having no choice but to hang on or be damned, it is now for the Biden administration to decide how the war will develop. By early March 2023, it seemed that the United States had to choose between two broad alternatives, and fast. Call the first the Chinese Escape. Since Scholz’s one-day visit to Beijing on 4 November, China, and Xi personally, have repeatedly urged that the use of nuclear arms, including tactical ones on the battlefield, must be ruled out under all circumstances. For obvious reasons this concerned Russia more than the US or Ukraine, given the now widely visible deficiencies of Russia’s conventional forces. With a military budget hardly higher than Germany’s – the latter found dismally inadequate from the perspective of Zeitenwende – Russia unlike Germany has to maintain a nuclear capacity, including a strategic intercontinental one, equal to that of the United States. This leaves precious little for its conventional forces. The consequences became evident when the Russian army proved unable to take Kiev, only about 300 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border.

By signalling to Russia, dependent on China as its closest and most powerful ally, that a nuclear response to an American-armed Ukrainian advance would not be appreciated, China did the United States and NATO an important favour, important enough to make it hard to believe that it should have been offered without some quid pro quo. Indications are that in return, the United States had to commit to keeping the military strength of Ukraine at a level where it cannot create a situation that would force Russia to resort to nuclear arms. The result of an understanding like this, if indeed it exists, which it probably does, would essentially be to ‘freeze’ the war: creating a stalemate around the present territorial positions of the two armies that could last for years.

What is more, if the United States were willing, diplomacy of this sort under the aegis of China could advance further. There is not a long way to go from a stalemate to a ceasefire, and perhaps from there to something like a peace settlement, even if it turns out to be a dirty one like in Bosnia and Kosovo. The United States would have to bring along the Ukrainian government, which should not be too difficult given that the US helped to install it in the first place: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; may the name of the Lord be praised.’ From an American perspective, though, an important flaw in this kind of resolution would be that the Chinese, in return for their good services and, in effect, their help with Biden’s reelection, might expect a concession in Asia of the sort that would make it more difficult for Biden to do what he evidently wants to do post-Ukraine: to attack China one way or other, to escape from what has come to be called the ‘Thucydides trap’ in today’s strategic debate in the United States: the position where a sitting hegemon must attack a rising rival early enough to be sure to prevail.

Tempting as the prospect of a way out of the Ukrainian quagmire might be, there are signs that the United States is tilting toward a second, alternative approach, which we may call the Europeanization, and indeed the Germanization, of the war. Remember Vietnamization? While it ultimately didn’t work – in the end it was the United States that was defeated, not its regional substitute, which was never more than a figment of American imagination – it did create some breathing space for the US. It also enabled its propaganda machine to sell to the American public the prospect of an honorable retreat from the battlefield, the battle turned over to a politically reliable and militarily capable bona fide ally. There was no such ally in South East Asia in the 1960s, but in the Europe of the 2020s things may perhaps be different. Unlike Afghanistan, the United States might manage to slowly dissociate itself from the operative business of the war – to preside over rather than conduct it – leaving the material support, the tactical decisions and the delivery of bad news to the Ukrainian government to a local subcomandante who, if things went wrong, could serve as scapegoat and whipping boy.

Who could do the job? Not the European Union, clearly. While its leader, Ursula von der Leyen, had been a defence minister when she moved to Brussels, she was widely considered an incompetent one, and only narrowly escaped a parliamentary investigation into her pitiful performance. More importantly, the EU has no real money, and who in Brussels decides on what with whom is a mystery even for insiders, which typically makes for slow, ambiguous and unaccountable decisions – not useful in a war. Nor can the job be given to the United Kingdom, which by exiting has cut itself off from the law-making machinery of the EU. Also, the UK already serves as a global aide-de-camp for the United States, helping it build a worldwide front against China, potentially the next target of its forever war. Equally out of the question is the famous French-German ‘tandem’, a contraption of which nobody knows for sure whether it is more than a journalistic or diplomatic chimera.

This leaves Germany itself – and indeed looking back one feels that it has for some time been groomed by the United States as its lieutenant commander for the Ukrainian section of the global war for ‘Western Values’. Germanization of the conflict would spare the Biden administration from having to indebt itself to the Chinese for helping it pull out of a war that threatens to become domestically unpopular. Efforts to draft the Germans as European auxiliaries can draw on the legacy of the Second World War, which includes a strong US military presence in Germany, still based in part on legal rights going back to the country’s unconditional surrender of 1945. Right now, there are about 35,000 American troops stationed in Germany, with 25,000 family members and 17,000 civilian employees, more than anywhere else in the world except, it appears, in Okinawa. Dispersed all over the nation, the United States maintains 181 military bases, the largest being Ramstein in Rhineland-Palatinate and Grafenwöhr in Bavaria. Ramstein served as an operational headquarters in the War on Terror – among other things coordinating the shuttle flights for prisoners from all over the world to Guantanamo – and continues to be the command post for American interventions in the Middle East. American bases in Germany host an unknown number of nuclear warheads, some of them for the German air force to drop on US-specified targets using US-certified fighter bombers (under the auspices of what is called ‘nuclear participation’).

There were times in the postwar era when German governments sought to develop a national security policy of their own – like Willy Brandt’s détente, viewed with suspicion by Nixon and Kissinger; Schröder’s refusal, together with Chirac, to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in its abortive search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Merkel’s veto in 2008, alongside Sarkozy, of Ukraine’s admission to NATO; Merkel’s attempt with Hollande, culminating in the Minsk I and II agreements, to broker some sort of settlement between Russia and Ukraine; and Merkel’s stubborn refusal to take seriously the NATO target of a 2%-of-GDP defense budget. By 2022, however, the decline of the Social Democratic Party and the rise of the Greens had weakened German capacity and indeed desire for a modicum of strategic autonomy. This was evidenced two days into the war by Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech in the Bundestag, which if anything was a promise to the United States that insubordination of the Brandt, Schröder and Merkel sort would not happen again.

Scholz may have hoped that the €100 billion special fund (Sondervermögen) set aside to upgrade the Bundeswehr, all debt-financed and therefore invisible in standard fiscal accounts, would assuage any remaining suspicions of German disobedience. Instead, the first year of the war saw a series of tests of the true depth of the German conversion from postwar pacifism to Anglo-American Westernism. When no more than a few weeks after the Zeitenwende speech, sceptical observers noted that the €100 billion had not even begun to be spent, it was not enough for the German government to point out that the new hardware had to be ordered before it could be paid for, and that before it could be ordered it must be chosen. So, to show its good will, Germany hurried to sign a contract for 35 F-35s with the United States government – not, as one might have thought, with its manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The plane, long an object of desire for the Green foreign minister, is to replace the allegedly outdated Tornado fleet Germany maintains for its ‘nuclear participation’. For an estimated price of $8 billion including repair and maintenance, the planes are promised to be delivered towards the end of the decade, with a unique proviso that the American government may unilaterally adjust the price upwards if it deems expedient.

As it turned out, the F-35 deal got the Germans no more than a short reprieve. While the service branches and lobbyists from Germany and beyond fought over what the rest of the fund would best be spent on, Scholz, to appease American impatience, fired the defense minister, an old SPD party hack who had been appointed against her will to satisfy imagined public demands for gender parity. Shortly before her dismissal, one of her would-be successors, serving as Bundeswehr ombudswoman, demanded that the €100 billion be increased to €300 billion. A few days later the job went to someone else, Boris Pistorius, up to then interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony, a man also lacking military experience but radiating something like all-round managerial competence. One of the first things he did was resolve an until then carefully cultivated ambiguity in the Zeitenwende speech, which was whether the €100 billion would bring the regular defence budget up to the NATO-sanctioned 2%, or whether it was to be in addition to the 2%, like a fine for past negligence. According to Pistorius it was the latter, so regular defence spending would have to grow by €10 billion every year, for several years, above and beyond whatever was spent of the Sondervermögen. Moreover, when the general secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, about to become head of the Norwegian central bank – a sinecure if there ever was one – let it be known that 2% was from now on just the minimum, Pistorius was among the first to agree.

Meanwhile, in September 2022, the next test, again a tough one, was the destruction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines by, according to Seymour Hersh, an American-Norwegian hit squad. Here the task for the German government was to pretend they had no idea who had done it, to keep silent on the matter, and to get the press either to do the same or tell the public that ‘Putin’ was the culprit. This test was brilliantly passed. A few weeks after the event, when a Bundestag member – alone out of 709 MPs – asked the government what it knew, he was told that for reasons of Staatswohl – the well-being of the state – no such questions would be answered: not now, not in future. (The day after Hersh had made his findings public, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported on it under the heading, ‘Kreml: USA haben Pipelines beschädigt’ (Kremlin: US damaged Pipelines).

Yet another loyalty test, this one more protracted and cumulative, conducted in parallel with the battle of the budget, concerned the delivery of arms and ammunition to the Ukrainian army. Ukraine had since 2014 been the one industrialized country with by far the highest yearly increase in defence spending, paid for not by its oligarchs but by the United States, in pursuit of so-called ‘interoperability’ between the Ukrainian army and NATO (officially declared to have been achieved in 2020). While this may have been a cause for concern among Russian generals – who were surely aware of the dereliction of their conventional forces subsequent to Putin’s decision to keep up with the modernization of the American nuclear forces – from the first day of the Russian attack NATO states were asked to send arms to Ukraine, increasingly powerful ones and in growing numbers. As it became obvious that Ukraine would be unable to hold its own without a steady inflow of material support from a revived West, the US insisted that European countries carry a growing share of the burden, particularly those guilty of having neglected their military, above all Germany.

It soon transpired, however, that national armies were less than enthusiastic about having to surrender some of their most precious and prestigious equipment to Ukraine, claiming that this would diminish their capacity to defend their own countries. Underlying their reluctance may have been a fear that what they gave to the Ukrainians might fall into the hands of the enemy, be damaged beyond repair on the battlefield or sold on the international black market, with no hope of reimbursement even for equipment formally just on loan. Another worry concerned prospects for rearmament once the war was over and Ukraine had to be rebuilt – better than ever – by ‘Europe’, as untiringly promised by Brussels. There were also worries, typically expressed in public by retired high-ranking military officers, about European countries being drawn into a war the conduct and aims of which their governments, as demanded by the United States and public opinion, had left to the Ukrainians to determine. Not least, there seems to be a concern that if the war came to an abrupt end, Ukraine would have the biggest and best-equipped ground forces in Europe.

Again it was Germany, by far the largest West European country, that more than all others had to prove, under the watchful eyes of the United States and the international media, its readiness to ‘stand with Ukraine’. At first, the then German defence minister had offered 5,000 helmets and bullet-proof vests for the Ukrainian military, which was widely ridiculed by the country’s allies and, increasingly, its public. In subsequent months ever more powerful weaponry was demanded and supplied, including air defence missiles like the Iris-T system that has not even reached the German troops, and the mighty Tank Howitzer (Panzerhaubitze) 2000. Each time the Scholz government drew a red line, it was forced to cross it under pressure from its allies as well as the two smaller coalition partners, the Greens and the Liberals – the former controlling the foreign ministry, the latter the Bundestag defence committee, chaired by an FDP deputy from Düsseldorf, home of Rheinmetall, one the biggest arms producers in Europe and beyond.

In the winter of 2022 the debate on arming Ukraine began to focus on tanks. Here in particular, Germany had to be pushed step-by-step toward ever more powerful models, from armoured personnel carriers to that famous battle tank, Leopard 2, a global export success built by a consortium led by, well, Rheinmetall. (Around 3,600 such Leopards of the most advanced 2A5-plus product line have been sold all over the world, to such enthusiastic supporters of Western values as Saudi Arabia, to assist them in their tireless effort to bring peace to Yemen.) Partly because German tanks figure prominently in Russian historical memory, but also because there were no signs that Germany would have a say on what its tanks would be used for (it is no more than 500 kilometers from the Ukrainian border to Moscow), Scholz at first, as usual, offered one reason after another why, unfortunately, no Leopards 2 could be supplied. In response, some of Germany’s allies, in particular Poland, the Netherlands and Portugal, let it be known that they were willing to donate their Leopards, even if Germany wasn’t. Poland even announced that they would send Leopards to Ukraine, if need be, without a German license – a legal requirement under German arms export policy.

The way this story played out may have been of formative importance for the future course of events. Cornered by its European allies, Germany no longer objected to sending Leopards to Ukraine, provided the United States also agreed to supply their main battle tank, the M1 Abrams (another worldwide export hit, with a total production up to now of 9,000 pieces). As a ‘first step’, Germany promised to provide 14 of its 320 Leopards, forming a tank regiment to be handed over to Ukraine within three months. From there, it would proceed to build two tank battalions, with 44 Leopard 2 tanks each, out of its own Leopards and those expected from its European partners – training, spare parts and ammunition included – to be turned over battle-ready to the Ukrainian army. (According to expert estimates, Ukraine would require about 100 Leopards of the latest model for a significant improvement of its military capacity.)

At this point, however, around the time of the Munich Security Conference, two unpleasant surprises ensued. First, it turned out that Germany’s European allies, now that German resistance had been overcome, discovered all sorts of reasons why they had to hold on to their Leopards, export licenses or none, leaving the provision of battle tanks essentially to the Germans. (All in all, NATO armed forces command an estimated total of about 2,100 Leopards, of both the 1 and 2 models.) Second, American investigative reporting, particularly in the Wall Street Journal, revealed that the Abrams tanks would show up on the scene only in a few years’ time if at all, something that the German negotiators seemed to have overlooked, or had been asked to overlook by their American counterparts, and had certainly not been shared with the German public.

In the end, then, the Scholz government was left holding the bag – as practically the sole supplier of battle tanks to Kiev. What made this even more uncomfortable was that precisely on the day the Germans agreed to the Leopards deal, the Ukrainian government declared that, now that this had been achieved, the next items on its wish list would be fighter planes, submarines and battleships, without which there was no hope for Ukraine to win the war. (Ukraine’s former ambassador to Germany, one Andrej Melnyk, having moved back to Kiev where he now serves as deputy foreign minister, tweeted on January 24, in English: ‘Hallelujah! Jesus Christ! And now, dear allies, let’s establish a powerful fighter jet coalition for Ukraine with F-16 & F-35, Eurofighter & Tornado, Rafale & Gripen jets & everything you can deliver to save Ukraine!’) Topping this, at the Munich security conference the Ukrainian delegation asked the US and the UK for cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs, outlawed under international law but, as the Ukrainians pointed out, held in large numbers by their Western allies. (The FAZ, always eager not to confuse its readers, in its report called cluster bombs umstritten – ‘controversial’ – rather than illegal.)

For the German governing coalition, but also the Biden administration, a crucial question with respect to the assignment of a leading role to Germany is whether the country’s postwar pacifism is still strong enough to interfere with it. The answer is that it may not be. Not unlike in the United States, the abolition of the draft seems to have made it easier to consider war an appropriate means in the service of the good: unlike in Ukraine, German sons, boyfriends, husbands are not at risk of having to go to the battlefield. Among large parts of the younger generation, moral idealism covers up the crude materialism of killing and dying. Within and around the Green party, something like a new taste for heroism has emerged, among what was until a short time ago considered a post-heroic generation. No parents, indeed no grandparents are around anymore who can offer firsthand accounts of life and death in the trenches. Dreams have arisen of a sanitized warfare, executed strictly according to the Hague Convention, at least on our side – no longer a matter of war and peace but one of crime and punishment, with the ultimate aim, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of human lives, of Putin having to stand trial in a court of law.

There may also be specifically German factors at work. Within the Green generation, nationalism as a source of social integration has effectively been replaced, more than anywhere else in Europe, by a pervasive Manicheanism that divides the world into two camps, good and evil. There is an urgent need to understand this shift in the German Zeitgeist, which seems to have evolved gradually and largely unnoticed. It implies that, unlike in a world of nations, there can be no peace based on a balance of power and interests, only a relentless struggle against the forces of evil, which are essentially the same internationally and domestically. Clearly this bears some resemblance to an American conception of politics, shared by neocons and Democratic idealists alike, and embodied by someone like Hillary Clinton. The syndrome seems to be particularly strong on the left side of the German political spectrum, which would in the past have been the natural base of an anti-war and pro-peace, or at least pro-ceasefire, movement. Now, however, not even Die Linke would endorse the peace demonstration organized on 25 February by Sahra Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s feminist icon, at the risk of breaking the party apart and ceasing to be a political force.

Moreover, postwar Germans have long tended to listen with sympathy to non-Germans attributing to them collective moral deficiencies and demanding humility in one form or another. It is hard to think how else to account for the extraordinary popularity enjoyed by the above-mentioned Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Melnyk, an unashamed fan of the terrorist, Nazi collaborator and war criminal Stepan Bandera and of his co-leader of the Ukrainian nationalists in the interwar years and under German occupation, also named Andrej Melnyk. Via Twitter, Melnyk has relentlessly lambasted German political figures, from the federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, downwards, for not standing sufficiently with Ukraine, in language that in all other countries would have led to his accreditation being revoked. There was hardly a week when Melnyk was not invited onto one of the weekly television talk shows to accuse German political leaders of genocidal conspiracy with Russia against the Ukrainian people. Named deputy foreign minister in the fall of 2022, Melnyk continued to figure prominently in the German debate on the country’s obligations toward Ukraine. For example, referring to an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung in which Jürgen Habermas advocated a cease-fire in Ukraine to enable peace negotiations, Melnyk tweeted: ‘That Jürgen Habermas is also so brazenly in Putin’s service leaves me speechless. A disgrace for German philosophy. Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Hegel would turn in their graves out of shame.’ (To gauge the tone of much of the discussion, see a tweet from a young aspiring comedian, one Sebastian Bielendorfer: ‘Sahra Wagenknecht is simply the empty shell of a completely mentally and humanly depraved cell cluster. She shouldn’t be invited on talk shows, she should be treated.’ A day later: ‘Twitter has deleted the tweet. Regrettable. The truth remains.’)

Taking everything together, there seems to be a concerted attempt by the United States and NATO to drag Germany into the war, in an increasingly prominent and active capacity. Over the past year, other European countries have learned how to nudge Germany onward so they themselves can remain on the sidelines (the Netherlands) or pursue their interests with a greater prospect of success (Poland and the Baltic states). Germany, in turn, tired of being nudged forward by others, may be more inclined to nudge itself. Already last year, Social Democratic leaders, including the new party chair, Lars Klingbeil, talked about Germany’s need to lead Europe and their willingness to do so. Importantly, France was no longer mentioned in this context. Having pretended for too long not to be involved, a more self-confident Germany may now treat it as exactly that.

A possible role into which Germany may be growing could be that of a privileged political and military subcontractor of the United States, having been sufficiently humiliated publicly in the Nord Stream and Leopard 2 episodes to understand that to avoid being pushed around by the US, Germany must be ready to lead Europe on its behalf, receiving orders from Washington through Brussels, Brussels being not the EU but NATO, the emerging line of command visualized by the seating order at the Ramstein conferences, with the United States, Ukraine and Germany at the head of the table. In this evolving capacity, Germany would be charged with both scraping together and paying for whatever arms the Ukrainian forces may feel they need for their final victory – at the risk, should that victory fail to materialize, of being found guilty, in lieu of the United States, of incompetence, cowardice, stinginess and, of course, sympathy with the enemy.

As time passes, indirect German participation in the war could become more and more direct: a slippery slope, like its role as arms supplier. Considerable numbers of Ukrainian troops are already being trained in Germany, on American but increasingly also on Bundeswehr bases, and not a few Germans, mostly right-wing radicals, are fighting in international legions with the Ukrainian army. Very soon, the Leopards that have been deployed will need to be serviced and repaired, which may require sending them back to Germany. Rheinmetall has announced that they will set up a plant in Ukraine to build about 400 Leopards a year, obviously on the assumption that the war will last long enough for the Ukrainian-produced tanks to come on stream, and for the plant to be profitable. As a matter of course, the factory will have to be protected by air defenses – best operated, one imagines, by experienced German teams. As for the fighter planes, they would most safely be stationed away from the battlefield, perhaps somewhere in the Rhineland where the facilities necessary for their maintenance already exist. Specialists in international law will debate whether backstage support like this does or does not make a country a combatant; ultimately it will be the Chinese, not a court of law, who will decide what actions Russia can take in response.

Scholz’s surprise visit to Washington on 4 March – no information was made available by either side on what was talked about in an 80-minute conversation with Biden – may have involved Scholz being read the riot act, Biden explaining to him in no uncertain terms what being a reliable ally of the West will mean for Germany, politically, materially and militarily. It may also have involved the delivery of the ‘narrative’ that the American secret services have concocted to counter the Hersh report: telling the Germans that this was to be the official preliminary result of their own investigation, thereby subjecting them to another credo quia absurdum test of how much they will put up with for the sake of Western unity. Remarkably, the story Washington is spreading refers to a ‘pro-Ukrainian group’ supposedly responsible for the attack, though it has not been made clear whether they are connected to the Ukrainian state, leaving open the possibility that they might be.

Quite possibly, Biden and Scholz may also have discussed what to do when the wisdom of all military experts, trivial enough, can no longer be kept secret: that a ground war can ultimately be won only on the ground. At this point, the question will have to be addressed of how to replace the many dead, wounded or missing-in-action Ukrainian soldiers. Might this possibly be the hour of a ‘European army’, trained by the Bundeswehr and equipped at German expense with quality products from Rheinmetall and others? Volunteers might be recruited from Eastern European countries or among would-be immigrants from elsewhere, with European citizenship available after service, along the lines of the first European army, the multinational Roman legions. Commanders on the battlefield, indispensable even in an age of artificial intelligence, could then have two passports, one of them Ukrainian or ‘European’. Other ways could be found to involve Germany in the war, short of a return to compulsory military service; as the Ukrainians, according to von der Leyen, are freely giving their lives for our ‘values’, there would be no need for Germany to reinstate the draft at the risk of forfieting popular support. Although one never knows.

There is, however, another path that could be taken with Germany as European franchisee of the United States. Indications are that the unending demands of the Ukrainian government for more and more arms have led to disenchantment on the part of the Americans with their Ukrainian ally, especially as the willingness of Congress to continue to fund the war is declining. Looming in the background may also be the memory of Zelensky’s public demand for nuclear retaliation by the US for an allegedly Russian missile landing on Polish soil, one that later turned out to have been a misdirected Ukrainian missile. Add to this the public request for cluster bombs in the moment of exuberance over the Leopard 2 success. Seen from this perspective, the American secret-service fabrication of an alternative account of the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines could well be read as a warning signal to the Kiev government.

By withdrawing from the operational conduct of the Ukrainian war and contracting it out to Germany, the United States might spare itself the embarrassment of having to inform Kiev that Western support for its more ambitious war aims is not unlimited. Germany, for its part, may try to do what agents sometimes do if their principal cannot control everything they are doing supposedly on its behalf. Having assumed European leadership as demanded by the United States, Germany may find itself in a position to push back against Ukrainian attempts to draw it deeper into the war. Perhaps it may aim for more than a mere freezing of the conflict, at something like a settlement along Minsk II lines. By helping the United States liquidate part of its position in Ukraine, it could end up rekindling a beautiful friendship.

Whether Germany will in fact be able to do this will depend in part on whether it can temper the new enthusiasm for war that has taken hold in the German public, especially its Greenish section. Baerbock and her followers denounce as treason and disregard of Ukrainian ‘agency’ anything short of what it takes for a regime change in Moscow. The spirits invoked to bring about Zeitenwende may not easily go away when commanded to do so. The rhetoric of the first year of the war may have foreclosed any peacemaking outside of total victory for the time being, making it impossible to end the slaughter on short order, even after the United States has lost interest. There is also the fact that the demolition of the pipeline has, probably intentionally, deprived Germany of the ability to offer to Russia a resumption of gas delivery in return for its participation in something like a peace process, optimally one with a roadmap attached – not to mention the full salvo of economic sanctions directed, de facto, by the United States.

During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the European Expeditionary Corps led by Sir Edward Hobart Seymour, Admiral of the Royal Navy, was on its way from Tientsin to Beijing. Close to its destination it met with fierce Chinese resistance. At the moment of greatest need, Admiral Seymour issued to the commander of the German contingent, Kapitän zur See von Usedom, the order, ‘The Germans to the front!’ German military tradition views the episode with pride, as a moment of supreme international recognition for its prowess. History sometimes repeats itself.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘An Avoidable War?’, NLR 133/134.


Order Prevails

If you believe the hype, Berlin is a city of the left. A historical stronghold of the German workers’ movement, rooted in proletarian districts such as Lichtenberg and Wedding, it was the site of the 1918 November Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and almost established a socialist republic. Into the late twentieth century, as Soviet-aligned Communists like Friedrich Ebert Jr. – whose father helped drown the November Revolution in blood – built a new Germany in the East, and Social Democrats like Willy Brandt created a walled-off island of welfare-state capitalism in the West, the city retained this status, with plenty of room for anarchist squats, 24-hour dance clubs, and the accumulation of cultural capital that has served the place so well over the last few decades.

The exemption from military service granted to West Berlin’s inhabitants and an ample supply of cheap housing attracted a radical counter-cultural milieu that, though numerically always a small minority, exerted considerable influence on Berlin’s politics and culture. Most of the squats were forced to dissolve in the decade following reunification, and the city-state’s left-alternative scene became a shadow of its former self, but it continues to boast a remarkably active civil society (Berlin saw 12,744 protests between 2018 and mid-2020, an average of 14 per day). Even now, far-left street art remains ubiquitous in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods like Neukölln and Kreuzberg.

Consequently, the city hews to the left of national electoral politics. Following a brief experiment with the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the 1990s, Berlin’s electorate returned to its traditional party of government, the Social Democrats (SPD) in 2001, and has renewed its mandate in every election since: first in an alliance with the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the forerunner to Die Linke), then with the CDU, and finally, since 2016, in a three-way coalition incorporating the Greens and Die Linke under the motto of ‘good governance’. Effectively, Berlin has been governed by the centre-left throughout its transformation from an economically moribund haven for the underemployed to a real estate developer’s playground.

The most recent coalition’s track record was nothing to write home about, but it could point to new schools, increased access to affordable child care, and, perhaps most impressively, a five-year rent cap that, though later overturned by a federal court, suggested the city government was serious about getting exploding housing costs under control in a city where 85% of the population are renters. Voters seemed to like it, and the coalition was re-elected in 2021 with 54% of the vote, while 59% cast their ballots in favour of a referendum authorizing the city to ‘expropriate’ large real estate firms and ‘socialize’ hundreds of thousands of housing units – a popular mandate most centre-left governments in Europe could only dream of.

The second coalition lasted for only a year, however, before a raft of voting irregularities in 2021 prompted the courts to invalidate the result and schedule new elections for 12 February 2023. Given the city government’s culpability in botching the vote, and the poor polling numbers for SPD mayor Franziska Giffey, voters were expected to punish the incumbent parties. Yet when the dust settled, their losses were surprisingly small: the Social Democrats took the hardest hit, registering their worst result ever in the city, while the CDU emerged as the clear winner, jumping from 18% to 28%. Nevertheless, the coalition still enjoyed the support of 49% of the electorate and seemed set to remain in office.

Giffey, however, had other plans. She announced her intention to give up her mayoral position and pursue a partnership with the CDU: the same arrangement over which Angela Merkel had presided for most of her sixteen-year tenure. The so-called ‘GroKo’ was deeply unpopular when it finally came to an end two years ago, and the rank-and-file have vowed to prevent its return. Yet assuming she gets her way, the decision will likely end up giving Giffey exactly what she wants. Charitably, the move could be interpreted as a sign of moral integrity – the Christian Democrats did win the election, after all. But Giffey, who resigned her post in the last federal government after it emerged that she plagiarized large parts of her PhD (along with, according to at least one former instructor, her Master’s thesis), is no paragon of virtue, and her rightward pivot was no parliamentary mea culpa. Rather, it was a sly manoeuvre intended to side-line critics within her own party while neutralizing that pesky housing referendum once and for all. Measured on her own terms, she snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

That Berlin’s outgoing mayor loathes the left, inside and outside her party, is no secret. The protégé of Berlin SPD right-wing grandee Heinz Buschkowsky, she was open about her preference for a centre-right coalition prior to the 2021 election. It was only due to pressure from the party base and her predecessor in the mayor’s office, Michael Müller, that the coalition with Die Linke continued in the first place. Now, though, extending its lifespan would mean coming to terms with its undeniable mandate to socialize the big real estate firms: something neither she nor the Greens had any intention of doing. The issue was delegated to a commission of experts that, much like the original Socialization Commission chaired some 100 years ago by Karl Kautsky, was designed to spend years deliberating until the public eventually moved on. Yet, having ditched her former partners, Giffey won’t even have to go through the motions – the CDU will take care of the problem for her. This will allow her to take up a more junior role in government until the public forgets about her latest scandal; at which point she will presumably return to the national stage.

Though the Greens and Die Linke are understandably dismayed by her decision, for the people of the city it looks like the impact will be minimal, at least for now. Negotiations between the parties will stretch into April, but based on what has leaked so far, at least some of the previous government’s initiatives – such as expanded bicycle lanes – will be retained. The CDU has also agreed to job guarantees for the city’s administrative staff, which will prevent it from implementing its plans to slim down the municipal bureaucracy. Thus, it looks like business as usual in the German capital, where the routine reshuffling of candidates has a limited effect on the country’s notoriously stable governance.

On the national level, the reshuffling gives the CDU under Merkel’s right-wing successor Friedrich Merz the chance to exercise a veto in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament composed of appointed representatives from all 16 state governments. Theoretically, this could be used to block federal initiatives, but practically, the SPD and CDU remain the dominant parties in the Bundesrat and typically work out compromises in advance of major legislation. Whether Merz’s tough talk will change that remains to be seen.

Yet even if it won’t differ much in immediate policy, the new coalition says a lot about Berlin’s shifting demographics. A look at the electoral map shows the CDU winning a plurality in almost every district outside the urban core, where the Greens dominate, while the SPD and Die Linke managed to hang on to a few scattered strongholds and Alternative für Deutschland won in parts of the eastern periphery. Berlin thus appears to be catching up with the rest of Germany, where the urban centres are increasingly the domain of the professional middle classes and their party of choice, the Greens, while the suburbs are dominated by downwardly-mobile sections of the middle and working classes, who tend to cast their votes for the centre-right or their populist rivals. The two traditional parties of the left, the SPD and Die Linke, find themselves squeezed between these poles and unable to rely on stable voting blocs. Berlin long stood out as an exception to that rule, but if last month’s vote is any indication, this era may be coming to an end.

The sociologist Oliver Nachtwey has written that German society is undergoing a process of ‘regressive modernization’, whereby cultural liberalization and increased inclusion of women and minorities occurs alongside the hardening of class-based inequalities and declining social mobility for the lower segments of the population. This transformation can also be seen in the political arena, where the Greens are increasingly the object (and occasionally the subject) of American-style culture wars, with spats between them and the CDU erupting over electric cars and vegetarian meals in schools, obscuring their broad agreement on most major issues. In Berlin, this ‘hyperpolitical’ antagonism has centred on the government’s attempt to turn the Friedrichstrasse, a main thoroughfare in the city centre, into a pedestrian boulevard – a fitting hill to die on for a CDU looking to score points among disgruntled commuters and anyone else suspicious of change, however cosmetic.

For the left, the shifting winds in the capital can only be seen as a defeat. For the thousands of Berliners who spent months collecting signatures to get the 2021 referendum on the ballot and campaigning for its passage, it’s back to the drawing board. At the time, the referendum seemed to mark a watershed in the city’s approach to its spiralling rent problem and a breakthrough for the left wing of civil society. Yet paradoxically, even though the non-binding decision hinged entirely on parliament’s willingness to implement it, the only party that unequivocally advocated doing so, Die Linke, received a worse result in 2021 than it had in the previous elections. Last month, with the housing market as bad as ever and Giffey openly opposing socialization, the party’s tally declined even further, particularly in former strongholds like Marzahn. For years, Die Linke has sought to compensate for its losses among its traditional base in the East by picking up more supporters in the booming districts in the core – and not without some success. Nevertheless, on election day, thousands of them seemingly stopped caring about the measure, or lost faith that the party could do anything about it.

Read on: Benno Teschke, ‘Imperial Doxa from the Berlin Republic’, NLR 40.


Estonia’s Hawk

In Europe, the face of steely resolve is female. While Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron are ridiculed for their supposed weakness and unreliability, Sanna Marin of Finland and Annalena Baerbock of Germany are celebrated as the conscience of the continent, unflinching in response to Russian aggression. This formula – female, youthful, telegenic, hawkish, neoliberal, no-nonsense – has proven remarkably successful since February 2022. The concept of ‘feminist foreign policy’, first introduced by Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs almost a decade ago, has recently been adopted by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, and is currently gaining traction in Northern Europe. Countries long associated with antinuclear peace activism are now embracing a rebranded militarism.  

The same pattern played out in Estonia’s general election on 5 March, when the incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and her centre-right Reform Party secured a decisive victory, netting 31% of the vote and increasing their seat share from 34 to 37. Kallas has become an icon of the new feminist Atlanticism: styling herself ‘Europe’s Iron Lady’, demanding Putin’s prosecution for war crimes, encouraging world leaders to break off dialogue with him, and steadfastly opposing any peace settlement in Ukraine (while also telling the Times that ‘if women were in charge, there would be less violence’). Under Kallas, Estonia has given roughly $400 million in aid to Kyiv – about 50% of its current annual defence budget. In terms of its population to GDP ratio, Estonia’s aid contribution has been greater than that of any other nation. And as of last month, some 43,000 Ukrainian refugees had applied for temporary protection status, making Estonia the recipient of the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita. 

While Kallas has come to embody the determined female leader uncowed by the Kremlin’s strongman, this hasn’t changed much for women in Estonia. The country’s gender pay gap remains the second largest in the EU, with the average per-hour wage for women 21% lower than for men. The country also has the highest inflation in the trading bloc, peaking at 25.2% in August. Such factors have been exploited by the right-populist Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), the loudest opponent of Kallas’s foreign policy, whose election campaign argued that gargantuan military aid was undermining Estonia’s national interests while the influx of refugees was eroding its identity. Early election polling indicated that this message had resonated with voters. Yet, last month, Politico published an article alleging that Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group had planned to carry out ‘influence operations’ in support of the EKRE ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections – as part of a broader attempt to ‘stir Euroskepticism and distrust toward NATO’. This accusation dented the party’s popularity in the run-up to the recent national vote. In the end, the EKRE undershot expectations and received just 16%.

Kallas’s triumph coincided with Estonia’s first majority ‘e-vote’. Out of a total of 615,009 votes, an impressive 313,514 were cast online (prompting a fierce debate between the government and EKRE over the accuracy and constitutionality of the election). For the liberal parties, this was a step forward for Estonia’s much vaunted ‘digital society’. Since it gained independence in 1991, the country has launched an array of digital public services, including e-tax filing, e-residency, e-signatures, e-prescriptions and digital IDs. The libertarian ethos of ‘e-Estonia’ (the country has a flat income tax rate) has elicited praise from the expected corners; the Cato Institute calls it ‘the country of the future’. It aims to mark a rupture with the nation’s Soviet past, building an entrepreneurial paradise from the ruins of technological obsolescence. By fusing this modernizing project with a hyper-Atlanticist disposition, Kallas has made herself the face of the twenty-first-century Estonian consensus, aligning her country with the enlightened West.

Yet Estonia still shares a 383km border with Russia, and about a quarter of its 1.3 million people are ethnic Russians. In northeastern Ida-Viru County, home to Estonia’s third-largest city of Narva, ethnic Russians comprise about three quarters of the population. This has made the area a site of long-running tension. NATO has warned of a ‘Narva Scenario’ in which Russia may seek to exploit existing ethnic fissures, or even annex Estonian territory, in a bid to project its westward influence. In December, Kallas passed a law outlining a full transition to Estonian-only education, to be implemented in 2024: a move that critics described as ‘forced assimilation’. The government also removed a WWII monument of a Soviet tank from Narva and arrested eight of the city’s residents last summer, supposedly to prevent ‘mass disturbances’. The politics of historic monuments are particularly raw in Estonia. In April 2007, unrest broke out in response to government plans to relocate a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier in Tallinn. An intense period of rioting, looting and arson – known as the ‘Bronze Nights’ – left 156 injured and one dead. 

Over the past year, the Russian minority population has grown increasingly disengaged from mainstream Estonian politics. Many citizens of the former industrial heartland – which has the highest unemployment rate in the country – have been alienated by Kallas’s hawkish approach. In March, the lowest voter turnout was recorded in Ida-Viru county, where the candidate for the pro-Russia United Left Party, the successor of the Estonian Communist Party, performed exceptionally well. The party’s total vote share increased from just 510 in 2019 to 14,605: ‘a very clear warning sign’, according to Narva’s Social Democratic mayor Katri Raik, who added that ‘the alarm bell should be ringing.’ For now, Kallas may have beaten her electoral rivals and consolidated support for the NATO war effort. But a significant section of the population does not share her vision, and attempts to forcibly integrate them into the Atlanticist paradise of e-Estonia may provoke a backlash.

Read on: Joachim Becker, ‘Europe’s Other Periphery’, NLR 99.



In the first two hundred days of 2022, Taylor Swift’s private jet made 170 flights, covering an average distance of 133 miles. It emitted 8,293 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process. By way of comparison, the average annual carbon footprint for a US citizen is 14.2 tonnes. In Europe it is 6.8, in Africa 1.04. Swift’s jet, in other words, has a carbon footprint equal to 1,603 Americans, 2,225 Europeans and 14,552 Africans.

None of us would consider taking a plane to travel 133 miles. But evidently, we live in a world apart from the likes of Kylie Jenner – sister of Kim Kardashian – who is apparently partial to taking 12 minute flights. One wonders about the mental processes that govern such decisions, or those that led her to post on Instagram a black-and-white photograph of herself and her partner kissing in front of two private jets, captioned: ‘You wanna take mine or yours?’ It’s dispiriting to see that their uncertainty is seemingly no different from that of children deciding which scooter to ride. But the 7 million plus people who liked the post – evidently dreaming of owning a pair of jets themselves – inspire even more despair.

The dream of everyone having their own private aircraft – every man an Icarus – has been a figment of the Western imagination since before air travel even existed. See, for example, this French illustration from 1890 of a graceful lady with hat and parasol on her flying taxi-carriage: 

Albert Robida, Un quartier embrouillé, illustration for La Vie éléctrique, Paris 1890.

Just as the carriage, once the preserve of ‘gentlemen’, became available to all classes once it was mechanical and motor-powered, so too the aeroplane would one day become a personal form of travel, whizzing along the boulevards of the sky. An American illustration from 1931 already exhibited the idea of city parking for planes, even suggesting, perhaps in keeping with the ineffable Jenner, that a family may possess a number of them, just as they own multiple cars.

From Harry Golding, The Wonder Book of Aircraft, London 1931.

An unsustainable utopia: imagine a world with a few billion aircraft whirling around the sky. A few billion cars are already unbearable for the planet. But of course, it is the rarity of aircraft that makes them so desirable. There are 23,241 private jets in operation worldwide (as of August 2022), 63% of which are registered in North America. (The number of private aircraft as a whole is much greater; there are still 90,000 Pipers in operation, plus several other brands of private propeller planes).

Orders for new private jets are on the rise, even as calls to reduce CO2 emissions intensify. Beyond the opulent lifestyles of starlets and ephemeral idols, it is major corporations that are leading the charge. An Airbus Corporate Jet study found that 65% of the companies they interviewed now use private jets regularly for business. The pandemic caused this figure to skyrocket. Last year saw the highest jet sales on record. As one commentator noted: ‘According to the business aviation data firm WingX, the number of flights on business aircraft across the globe rose by 10% last year compared to 2021 – 14% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. The report lists more than 5.5 million business aircraft flights in 2022 – more than 50% higher than in 2020’.

While solemn international summits make plans for reducing emissions (along with the use of plastic, noxious chemicals and so on), elites are polluting away as if there were no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the poor fools down below busy themselves with sorting out their recycling. For our rulers, the question of whether it would be better to have an egg today or a chicken tomorrow is entirely rhetorical. Never in human history has a king, emperor, statesman or entrepreneur chosen the chicken: it is always and only the egg today, at the cost of exterminating the entire coop.

As Le Monde reports, the five largest oil companies posted ‘an unprecedented $153.5 billion (€143.1 billion) in net profits for 2022. The oil giants are approaching the total figure of $200 billion in adjusted net profit’ (i.e. excluding provisions and exceptional items), of which ‘$59.1 billion in adjusted earnings (+157%) for ExxonMobil (US); $36.5 billion (+134%) for Chevron (US); $27.7 billion (+116%) for BP (UK), despite a net loss of $2.5 billion linked to the Russian context; and $39.9 billion (+107%) for Shell (UK).’ Even the environmentally friendly Norwegian state pension fund, Equinor, will benefit from the bonanza: it posted ‘an adjusted net profit of $59.9 billion at the end of just the first nine months of 2022’.

The announcement of these record profits (which have not been taxed by any government) comes on the back of last year’s much-hyped COP27 conference in Sharm el Sheik, attended by as many as 70 executives from the fossil fuel industry. They will be gathering again for another no doubt portentous summit later this year, presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. (Naturally, a geopolitical emergency serves as a good excuse to delay the slightest environmental action: war in Ukraine has led even the ecologically-minded Germans to reopen their coal mines. Rather than prompting a shift away from natural gas, the war has sparked a frantic search for more of it. The pandemic likewise led to a vertiginous increase in plastic consumption, and if for a few months it helped reduce the emissions from road and air traffic, it dealt a far more serious blow to public transportation, now viewed with suspicion, as a site of infection and contagion.)

It is as if global elites weren’t just mocking the rest of humanity, but the planet itself – poisoning it with one hand while greenwashing with the other. The Italian oil company Eni has as its symbol a six-legged dog, formerly black, now green, thus assuring us of their environmental bonafides. ‘Investment firms have been capturing trillions of dollars from retail investors, pension funds, and others’, Bloomberg writes,

with promises that the stocks and bonds of big companies can yield tidy returns while also helping to save the planet or make life better for its people. The sale of these investments is now the fastest-growing segment of the global financial-services industry, thanks to marketing built on dire warnings about the climate crisis, wide-scale social unrest, and the pandemic.

Wall Street now rates the environmental and social responsibility of business governance, though Bloomberg rightly points out that ESG scores ‘don’t measure a company’s impact on the earth and society’, but rather ‘gauge the opposite: the potential impact of the world on the company and its shareholders’. That is to say, they are not intended to help protect the environment from the companies, but the companies from the environment. ‘McDonald’s Corp., one of the world’s largest beef purchasers, generated more greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 than Portugal or Hungary, because of the company’s supply chain. McDonald’s produced 54 million tons of emissions that year, an increase of about 7% in four years.’ Yet in 2021 McDonald’s saw its ESG score upgraded, thanks to the ‘company’s environmental practices’.

The elites are fond of dangling a grass-coloured future in front of us – deodorized, disinfected and depolluted thanks to biofuels and electric cars. But to produce sufficient biofuel we’d have to cover the earth with soy plantations, definitively deforesting the planet (not to mention the production of fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery). As for the electric car, whilst it pollutes less than its petrol-powered equivalent when used, it actually creates far more pollution to produce one. According to one professor at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Energy Technology, manufacturing an electric car emits as much CO2 as driving 170,000km in a regular car. And this is before the electric car’s engine is even turned on. As one academic study concluded:

the electric cars appear to involve higher life cycle impacts for acidification, human toxicity, particulate matter, photochemical ozone formation and resource depletion. The main reason for this is the notable environmental burdens of the manufacturing phase, mainly due to toxicological impacts strictly connected with the extraction of precious metals as well as the production of chemicals for battery production.

This is without even counting the fact that the electricity used to drive the car will benefit the environment only if it’s produced by clean and renewable sources. At best, the electric car is a mere palliative: the problem is not so much having billions of non-polluting cars, but producing billions of cars in the first place (in addition to the necessary infrastructure).

The elites are fooling the world, but they’re also fooling themselves. They believe they can poison the planet with impunity but save themselves by escaping to recently-acquired estates in New Zealand, far from all the smog and radiation, or else to Mars or some other extra-terrestrial refuge. Infantile dreams, cartoon utopias. One wonders what right they have to proclaim themselves elites in the first place. In the original French, ‘troupe d’élite’ denoted a superior stratum. The term was popularized in postwar sociology by C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite (1956), essentially as a modern synonym for the classical ‘oligarchy’. After the sixties, it fell out of fashion, until reappearing again in the 1990s.

In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), Christopher Lasch wrote that what characterized the new elites was their hatred of the vulgar masses:

Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing.

(Note how the fortunes of the term ‘elite’ have gone hand-in-hand with those of ‘populism’, wielded as a pejorative).

Lasch defined the elite in intellectual terms, thereby opening the way for the problematic concept of the ‘cognitive elite’. The champion of the term was Charles Murray, who together with Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), a book whose essential claim is that black people are more stupid than white people. (In a subsequent conversation with the New York Times, aided by a significant amount of alcohol, Murray summarised his life’s work as ‘social pornography’.) Its introduction claims that ‘modern societies identify the brightest youths with ever increasing efficiency and then guide them into fairly narrow educational and occupational channels. These channels are increasingly lucrative and influential, leading to the development of a distinct band in the social hierarchy, dubbed the ‘cognitive elite’.

Those who govern today’s world consider themselves part of this enlightened set. The legitimacy of their power is based on their supposed intellectual superiority. This is meritocracy in reverse. Rather than ‘They govern (or dominate) because they are better’, we have ‘They are better because they govern (or dominate)’. Weber had already caught onto this inversion in the early twentieth century:

When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate One who must equally have earned his misfortune. Our everyday experience proves that there exists just such a need for psychic comfort about the legitimacy or deservedness of one’s happiness, whether this involves political success, superior economic status, bodily health, success in the game of love, or anything else.

Given the social, environmental and geopolitical disasters which we are heading towards at breakneck speed, it is easy to doubt the claims of the elite to cognitive superiority. Yet perhaps it is not so much that they are dim, but rather that they are asleep at the wheel – and accelerating towards the precipice.

P.S. I must confess that before researching this article I did not know of the existence of Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner: it must be me, rather than the elites, who lives in a world apart.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Jacob Emery, ‘Art of the Industrial Trace’, NLR 71.


Je ne sais pas

When I was a child, my mother would read to us from an illustrated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The content of each page – words in a large well-spaced font followed by a colourful picture – was bordered by bright patterns. Young children are often drawn more to the rhythms of speech than its meaning (their attention seems always to be directed to the conditions which make things possible rather than the things themselves). To the extent that I concentrated on the content of the story, I thought of – and can still partly remember – pictures surrounded by margins so decorative that they threatened to crowd out the main event. I imagined that the margin would grow with each turn of the page, surrounding, constricting and finally overwhelming text and image and, in so doing, bringing about an ending. I thought, or I imagine now that I thought, that perhaps this was the movement which guided the story.

The French filmmaker Alice Diop often refers to her work as an attempt to draw attention to the margins. Marginality does not, as her films make clear, suggest inferior status. It can exist on both vertical and horizontal axes. The closest analogy is psychological: what is marginal is what is not thought about, what is suppressed. The director of six documentaries and most recently Saint-Omer, for which she won the Golden Lion at Venice, Diop is the child of Senegalese immigrants who moved to France in the late 1960s. Born in 1979, she grew up in the Cité des 3000, a district of Aulnay-sous-Bois, a northeastern suburb of Paris built to house migrants working in the nearby Citroën car factory. She studied history, focusing on the legacy of colonialism, at the University of Evry, before training at the prestigious Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son (La Fémis). Like the writers Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux, she is a transfuge de classe who has dedicated the early part of her career to challenging polite society’s view of the dominated classes.

Conceived as a political project, Diop’s documentary work offered successive portraits of the banlieues that intend to dispel misconceptions and half-truths. Clichy For Example (2006) documents the aftermath of the riots that swept through France after two men died fleeing from the police; Danton’s Death (2011) follows an aspiring black actor, Steve, who dreams of being cast as the lead in the Büchner play after which the film is named, but encounters belittling acts of racially charged dismissal; On Call (2016) presents a series of vignettes set in a refugee medical centre which focus on the psychological and physical difficulties of its patients; Towards Tenderness (2017) examines race, love and masculinity via a set of interviews with young working class men. Most recently, We (2021) saw the director bring herself into the frame, reflecting on the death of her father and the co-existence of modernity and tradition in Paris’s suburbs. Taking inspiration from François Maspero’s Les Passagers du Roissy-Express, a book of photos and prose documenting a journey through the outskirts of Paris which Diop says taught her to love the banlieues, the filmtraverses the city’s periphery without stopping at its centre.

The film marked something of a departure for Diop. Made in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, We counterposes an image of a France divided between secularism and religious fanaticism with one whose fissures are too subtle to discern. Its scope – monarchists and car mechanics, nurses and game hunters – was wider than anything that Diop had previously attempted. In one scene we see a crowd, entirely white with the sole exception of a black priest, at a mass commemorating Louis XVI at the Basilica Cathedral in Saint-Denis. The camera scans the faces of the attendees. Some are moved, almost to tears, as they listen to the priest read Citizen Louis Capet’s final address. There is something pathetic about the scene, which is shot with an ambivalence that hesitates between disdain or pity. What we see are not those who would once have supported the Vichy regime, but a confused mass descending into the tomb of a dead king that is not kind enough to close behind them. Strange things live on in Paris’s margins.

In what follows, Diop recalls a dream in which she has mislaid the keys to her apartment. She recognizes the names of other residents on the intercom but cannot find her own. Eventually she is let in by a woman to whom she explains that she once lived in the building with her family. From deep in her pocket Diop retrieves a heavy bunch of rusty keys. With force the door yields; she enters, tentatively, and is greeted by a darkness which feels like a ‘tomb’. Unlike the monarchists of Saint-Denis, though, the director wakes up. Video footage of her father recalling his arrival from Senegal now plays. We see him move his face away from the camera and touch it as he speaks – through discomfort at being filmed or the effort of recalling the past? ‘I have always had work since I arrive in France.’ Should we share in his pride or find something melancholy in his assertion of it? Diop again lets the camera linger long enough for a shadow of doubt to be cast over first impressions. Her aim in such scenes is less to challenge a stereotype than, through the slow gaze of the camera, create a space in which the viewer can reflect on the varying meanings of the lives and words of her subjects.

Ambiguity is at the centre of Saint-Omer, Diop’s first feature film and her finest work alongside We. The film is inspired by the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegal-born French woman sentenced to twenty years in prison for the murder of her child. Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), who confesses to the crime but pleads not guilty, confounds jurors and onlookers with her eloquence and psychological opacity. Asked by the judge why she killed her child, Laurence utters a line which will become a refrain: ‘Je ne sais pas’. At the film’s midpoint its other central character, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a black professor of literature who has travelled from Paris to the suburb of Saint-Omer with the aim of writing a book on the trial receives a call from her editor, who asks, ‘What is she like?’ A pause, slight but heavy follows. Whether this is out of exasperation or to collect her thoughts we do not find out, for Rama’s editor quickly supplies an answer: ‘She sounds fascinating’ (To whom?) ‘The press say she talks in very sophisticated French.’ Finally Rama speaks, her voice steady and dismissive: ‘She talks like an educated woman, that’s all.’

Diop’s animating theme is hereby complicated by the fact that Laurence, as with the real-life Fabienne, is in some respects the opposite of an outsider. She comes from a well-off Francophone Senegalese family; we are told that her father is a translator for the United Nations, that as a child she was forbidden from speaking Wolof. (Diop did not speak Wolof at home either and recalls her parents being warned off doing so by her teachers.) That Laurence’s background could count as marginal, that it could make her interest in European philosophy and literature inexplicable and fascinating, is a consequence of the provincialism that Diop sought to expose in We.

The existence of Rama, easily read as a fictionalized version of Diop but probably closer to her image of an ideal viewer, allows the drama of the trial to be seen from a sympathetic perspective. This is in stark contrast to the fetishistic response of the French press, who were quick to treat the real-life events as an expression of ungraspable cultural differences between Africans and Europeans. Rama however is also locked in her own, more familiar drama: a difficult relationship with her mother and her working-class upbringing and the anxiety – fuelled by her pregnancy – that she is at risk of becoming either too close to or too distant from them. In the first glimpse of her personal life, Rama, accompanied by her husband, visits her family. She hesitates when asked by her sister whether she can take her mother to the hospital, before insisting she cannot. At play is not just Rama’s refusal to allow her mother into her life, but the sense that her autonomy has been won by drawing a screen between her upbringing and the life she has made for herself. We are invited to compare the two women: how thin is the line which separates the successful professor and mother-to-be with the woman on trial?

Further details of Laurence’s life are soon revealed. An emotionally distant but disciplinarian mother whom she resents; a kind father that does not raise her but whom she admires; a wealthy family; a bookish, isolated childhood; and an elite class position which places her uncomfortably in French society. Added to this is a relationship with a much older man, Luc Dummontet, with whom she begins an affair not long after arriving in Paris. He is married with children and an irregular presence in her life. When Laurence tells him that she is pregnant with his child he keeps this news to himself, even after the child’s death. Dummontet is frail and pathetic; sheepishly, he complains of Laurence’s jealousy, her anger, her silent treatments, his fear that she will leave him because of his age and declining health.

Rama looks on with compassion, but through Laurence’s plight she is playing out her own fears and anxieties. One night, sitting alone in her hotel room she listens to recordings of the trial. As we hear Laurence speaking about her mother, Rama thinks back to her own childhood. A wordless scene around a kitchen table unfolds. Rama’s mother finishes a drink from a bowl after which she washes it and then retrieves a container of Nesquik from the cupboard, placing it on the table for her daughter who has entered and, without speaking, sits to drink some chocolate milk. The young Rama is wearing pyjamas and her mother is dressed for work; it is dark outside and unclear whether it is early morning or evening. When the camera returns to Rama as an adult her face is heavy with sadness. Is there something in Coly’s sad story that could have relevance to the life of Rama or any other observer?

The latter half of the film attempts, with varying degrees of success, to interrogate this question by treating Coly as a symbol of universal issues of femininity and agency. Laurence tells the court that she was a victim of sorcery, an excuse which the film gives us plenty of reasons to doubt without discounting it. In Saint-Omer’s most unpleasant scene, the police officer tasked with investigating the case explains that in an attempt to provide a cultural explanation for Laurence’s actions he suggested witchcraft. A back and forth ensues between the officer and prosecutor about the difference between infanticide and female genital mutilation, a practice the latter describes as having ‘cultural value’.

To read this scene purely as an instance of racist ignorance and dismissal would be to miss something. The police officer’s fantasies offer Laurence an opportunity to envelope herself in mystery, withdrawing into the symbolic world and becoming someone that cannot be reduced to received social categories. In her final monologue – repeating the words uttered by Fabienne – she explains how, standing on the shore with her child in her arms, the moon rose before her ‘lighting the path like a spotlight’. The judge attempts, unsuccessfully, to point to inconsistencies between this poetic narrative and Laurence’s initial testimony but to no avail – ‘Je ne me souviens pas’, she replies. Evidently, within the world of facts there is no possibility of making oneself intelligible, at least for someone like Laurence.

In her earlier films, Diop was often torn between a desire to depict working class life authentically and angst about the meaning of her images. In the case of Danton’s Death, for instance, she has said that she was careful with her footage lest it might inadvertently reinforce pre-established narratives about working-class men from the banlieues. Steve smoking weed with his friends was left on the cutting room floor: ‘We were not there to reinforce stereotypes but rather to dispel them!’ Rather than careful, sometimes excessive curation of the material, Diop’s solution in Saint-Omer – as in We – is to embrace ambiguity and complexity. But the solution comes at a cost: it runs up against the director’s commitment to a kind of universalism. Two provocative but ultimately contradictory statements made by Diop clarify this: following the release of We she declared in an interview that ‘Cinema makes it possible to test in an extremely sensitive way the existence of the other’; after the release of Saint-Omer, she claimed that ‘the black body carries something universal… I think that all men and women feel some kind of mirroring through this figure of a black woman… that is a political statement.’

The insistence that there are ways of being that cannot be reduced to pre-given frameworks and a desire to show that the particular is in fact universal pull in opposing directions. Saint-Omer responds to this contradiction with a forking path, following one before retracing its steps to follow the other. The first sees Diop granting Laurence the right of indeterminacy. Rama withdraws to her hotel room and watches a scene from Pasolini’s Medea. We watch Maria Callas tenderly dispatch her two children with a blade. They offer no resistance. She opens the window to a moon which lights a path across her face before the camera turns to Rama, stunned with recognition, her face lit by the same glow. A line from Pasolini to Laurence to Rama is drawn – its meaning unclear, its existence indisputable.

The second path is illuminated by a monologue from Laurence’s lawyer, who argues that her client is in need of psychological care. We hear of the chimeric nature of women who, like the mythical beast, are ‘hybrid creatures composed of different animal parts’. Women carry their mothers and their children with them; they live torn between different selves. The camera shifts to the women in the audience, moved almost to tears by this speech. Something like universalism emerges here but the cost of its appearance is never seriously interrogated by Diop. In Laurence’s story there is undeniably some analogy to the condition of women, to some universal – not to say mythic – experience of maternity. But in embracing it, are we not confining ourselves to a binary between ghettoization through racist narratives or universalism offered by empathetic members of the middle classes? Lost in this false choice is the incomprehensibility of Laurence’s actions beyond the poetic drama of her worldview.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘What’s Your Place?’, NLR 136.


Sovereign Africa?

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Namibia’s Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was asked about her country’s decision to abstain on a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Russia for the war in Ukraine. Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, an economist who has been in post since 2018, did not flinch. ‘We are promoting a peaceful resolution of that conflict’, she said, ‘so that the entire world and all the resources of the world can be focused on improving the conditions of people around the world, instead of being spent on acquiring weapons, killing people, and actually creating hostilities’. The money being poured into arms, she continued, ‘could be better utilised to promote development in Ukraine, in Africa, in Asia, in other places, in Europe itself, where many people are experiencing hardships’.

This view commands a broad consensus across the African continent. In September Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the Chair of the African Union, echoed the call for a negotiated settlement, noting that Africa was suffering the effects of sanctions-induced food and fuel price inflation while simultaneously being dragged into the conflict that the United States has provoked with China. ‘Africa’, he said, ‘has suffered enough of the burden of history . . . it does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War, but rather a pole of stability and opportunity open to all its partners’.

The ‘burden of history’ and its emblems are well-known: they include the devastation wrought by the Atlantic slave trade, the horrors of colonialism, the atrocity of apartheid and the creation of a permanent debt crisis through neo-colonial financial structures. Whilst enriching European nations and spurring their industrial advancement, colonialism reduced the African continent to a provider of raw materials and consumer of finished products. The terms of trade sent its states into a spiral of indebtedness and dependency. Attempts to break out of this condition – by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso – resulted in Western-backed coups. Technological development in the name of social progress was rendered impossible. Hence, despite immense natural and mineral wealth and human capacity, more than a third of the African population now live below the poverty line: almost nine times the global average. By the end of 2022, the total external debt in Sub-Saharan Africa was a record $789 billion: double that of a decade ago, and 60% of the continent’s gross domestic product.

In the last century, the leading critics of these colonial dynamics were Nkrumah and Walter Rodney; yet there is little contemporary scholarship that carries forward their legacy. Without it, we often lack the conceptual clarity needed to parse the current phase of neo-colonialism, whose stock concepts – ‘structural adjustment’, ‘liberalisation’, ‘corruption’, ‘good governance’ – are imposed by Western institutions on African realities. Yet, as the statements of Sall and Kuugongelwa-Amadhila show, recent conjunctural crises – the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China – have highlighted the growing political gulf between Western and African states. While the former rush headlong into a Great Power conflict with terrifying nuclear stakes, the latter fear that warmongering will further weaken their developmental prospects.

As African nations have diverged from the Atlantic powers, many have edged closer to China. By 2021, 53 countries on the continent had joined the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), designed to enhance trade and diplomatic relations. Every year for the past two decades, bilateral trade has risen – from $10 billion in 2000 to $254.3 billion in 2021 – such that the PRC has become the main trading partner for the majority of African states. At the eighth conference of the FOCAC, China announced it would import $300 billion worth of manufactured goods from African countries by 2025 and increase tariff-free trade, later waiving tariffs on 98% of taxable goods from the twelve least-developed African nations. The afterlife of colonialism means that Africa’s overseas trade is still heavily financed by debt; its exports are mostly unprocessed raw materials, while its imports are mostly finished products. For China, investment in Africa is motivated by the desire to strengthen its role in the global commodity chain, and by political imperatives such as the need to gain African support for Chinese foreign policy positions (on Taiwan, for example).

Chinese financial institutions have also disbursed significant loans for African infrastructure projects, which are grappling with an annual shortfall of over $100 billion. China’s advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, green technology, high-speed rail, quantum computing, robotics and telecommunications are attractive to African states, whose new industrial strategies – such as the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – rely on technology transfers. As the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, wrote in 2008, ‘China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations, and non-governmental organisations’. This is a widely held view in countries still suffocated by IMF debt traps. It has become all the more prominent amid the recent decline of Western Foreign Direct Investment on the continent.

Closer ties between Africa and China have elicited a predictable backlash from Washington. Last year, the US published a strategy document outlining its approach to Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to what it describes as its own ‘high standards, values-driven, and transparent investment’, China’s investments are characterized as an attempt to ‘challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments’. To counter such ‘harmful activities’, the US hopes to shift the terrain of contest away from trade and development, where China has an advantage, towards militarism and information warfare, where America still reigns supreme.

The US established Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, and over the next fifteen years constructed 29 military bases across the continent, as part of a network spanning at least 34 countries. AFRICOM’s stated objectives include ‘protecting US interests’ and ‘maintaining superiority over competitors’. It aims to enhance ‘interoperability’ between African militaries and US and NATO special operation forces. Building military bases and setting up liaison offices with African armies has been the primary mechanism for leveraging US authority against China. In 2021, AFRICOM General Stephen Townsend wrote that the United States ‘can no longer afford to underestimate the economic opportunity and strategic consequence Africa embodies, and which competitors like China and Russia recognise’.

At the same time, the US has ramped up its propaganda campaign on the continent. The COMPETES Act, passed by the Senate in March 2022, pledged $500 million for the US Agency for Global Media, as part of an attempt to combat PRC ‘disinformation’. A few months later, reports began to circulate in Zimbabwe that the US Embassy had funded educational workshops that encouraged journalists to target and criticise Chinese investments. The local organisation involved in the programmes is funded by the Information for Development Trust, which is in turn funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Development.

Needless to say, the West’s militarization of Africa over the past decade has done nothing for its people. First there was the disastrous 2011 war in Libya, where NATO led the push for regime change, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of key infrastructure (including the world’s largest irrigation project, which provided 70% of all the fresh water in Libya). In its wake, the Sahel region experienced an upsurge in conflicts, many of them driven by new forms of militia activity, piracy and smuggling. Soon after, France launched interventions in Burkina Faso and Mali, which – rather than clean up the mess of the Western war in Libya – served to further destabilize the Sahel, allowing jihadist groups to take over large tracts of land. French military involvement did nothing to alleviate conditions of insecurity. Indeed, Global Terrorism Index rankings worsened for both countries: from 2011 to 2021, Burkina Faso went 113th to 4th, while Mali moved from 41st to 7th. Meanwhile, the US continued its decades-long intervention in Somalia, internationalizing its local conflicts and strengthening its violent extremist factions.

The recent departure of French troops from parts of the Sahel has hardly reduced the scale of Western military operations in the region. The US retains its major bases in Niger; it has developed a new military footprint in Ghana; and it recently announced its intention to maintain a ‘persistent presence’ in Somalia. It is clear that the African Union’s plan for ‘Silencing the Guns’ – its campaign for a conflict-free Africa by 2030 – will never be fulfilled as long as Western states continue their pattern of bloody intervention and weapons companies reap massive profits from arms sales to state and non-state actors. As African military expenditures skyrocketed between 2010 and 2020 (by 339% in Mali, 288% in Niger and 238% in Burkina Faso), a vicious cycle of militarism and underdevelopment was gradually consolidated. The more money spent on arms, the less is available for infrastructure and development. The less spent on development, the more armed violence is likely to break out, prompting calls for further military spending.

This year, the African Union will mark 60 years since the foundation of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. During the 1963 inaugural conference of the OAU, Nkrumah warned leaders that in order to achieve economic integration and stability, the organization would have to be an explicitly political one – motivated by a clear and consistent anti-imperialism. ‘African unity’, he explained, ‘is, above all, a political kingdom which can only be gained by political means. The social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom, not the other way round.’ Yet, despite the best efforts of decolonisation movements, economic interests – primarily those of Western multinational corporations and their state backers – ultimately usurped politics. In the process, African unity was hollowed out, and with it the sovereignty and dignity of the African people.

Nkrumah’s vision may be far from fulfilment in 2023. His contention that ‘no independent African state today by itself has a chance to follow an independent course of economic development’ still rings true. Despite some noble attempts, such as the 2016 resolution to ban foreign military bases, the African Union has so far been unable to free itself from neo-colonial constraints. Yet the continent’s refusal to toe the line on the New Cold War – its calls for peace negotiations in Ukraine, its reconfiguration of international partners – suggests that a different world order is possible: one in which Africa is no longer beholden to the ‘united West’.

Read on: Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.


Curious Stranger

July 1957. A 26-year-old Romila Thapar waits at Prague Airport. She is dressed in a sari. The pockets of her overcoat are bulging with yet more saris. ‘It is blasphemous’, she laments in her diary, to have crumpled ‘the garment of the exotic, the indolent, the unobvious, the newly awakening East’. But there is no more room in her suitcases. They are stuffed with photographic equipment (‘cameras, cameras, more cameras’) and saddled with ‘large bundles of books and papers, strapped together with bits of string’. Thapar – today the pre-eminent historian of ancient India – is on her way to China along with the Sri Lankan art historian Anil de Silva and the French photographer Dominique Darbois. Earlier in the year, the Chinese Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries had accepted de Silva’s proposal to study two ancient Buddhist cave sites in the northwestern Gansu province, Maijishan and Dunhuang. After some hesitation, Thapar, then a graduate student at SOAS in London, agreed to join de Silva as her assistant. She had been nervous about her limited expertise in Chinese Buddhist art, as well as the practical difficulties posed by the cave sites. And not without good reason. Just imagine crawling about in those rock-cut caverns ‘enveloped in billowing yards of silk’.

But China was still far away. The three women were waiting for their delayed connection to Moscow. The latest, much-publicized, Soviet plane had got stuck in the mud. Loitering in the terminal, Thapar observed the entourage of the Indian actors, Prithviraj Kapoor and his son Raj, a newly anointed superstar in the Socialist Bloc. As heavy rains poured outside, some members of the group began discussing the film Storm over Asia (‘Would they think it rude if I gently pointed out to them that the film was not by Sergei Eisenstein, but by Vsevolod Pudovkin, and that the two techniques are so different that one can’t confuse them’). Elsewhere, a French family tune into Radio Luxembourg; a young African man listens to the BBC on his radio; the terminal loudspeakers play the Voice of America (‘poor miserable propagandists’). Late into the night, Thapar leisurely smokes her black Sobranie. She thinks of herself ‘an overburdened mule wrapped in folds of cloth’.

This journey followed a new, but already well-worn, diplomatic trail. In 1950, India had become the first non-socialist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Two years later, a motley crew of Indian economists, writers and artists embarked on a self-styled Goodwill Mission. Their visit inaugurated a wave of political and cultural exchange that lasted for nearly a decade. In 1954, Nehru and Zhou Enlai signed the Panchsheel Agreement (‘five principles of peaceful co-existence’) in Beijing. Friendship societies bloomed on both sides of the MacMahon Line. And Indian trade unionists, state planners and litterateurs became eager pilgrims to Mao’s fabled cooperative farms. This growing decolonial intimacy was memorably captured in the breathless opening sentence of a 1956 dispatch, ‘Huai aur Cheen’ (‘Huai and China’), by the cultural critic Bhagwatsharan Upadhyay: ‘Abhi mazdoor-jagat Cheen se lauta hoon’ (‘I have just returned from the workers’ world of China’). The tone of the original Hindi conjures a neighbourhood gossip returning with the latest news from a corner teashop.

Thapar’s diary, recently published as Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, is a relic of this fraternal decade. But she was neither an emissary of the Indian state nor a member of any friendship societies. Unlike her fellow countrymen, Thapar’s travels were not fettered by the demands of cross-border diplomacy. Traversing the Chinese hinterland on trains and trucks by day and recording her experiences by night (often in the flickering light of a single candle), she travelled and wrote with greater freedom. The resulting travelogue is not only steadfastly historical, but also unexpectedly entertaining, a quality sorely missing from the reverential accounts of her compatriots. For instance, when the historian Mohammad Habib chanced upon a group of elderly war veterans during the Goodwill Mission, he sanctimoniously declared: ‘We are your sons from distant India’. Spreading her arms, a woman promptly responded: ‘If you are my sons, then let me press you to my heart’. When Thapar encounters a member of the youth team working on the Beijing-Lanzhou railway line, she cheerfully asks the young man if he stuck pictures of pin-up girls on the wall by his dormitory bed (he did).

Thapar’s political commentary is equally revelatory. Unlike other visitors who eulogized the popular emblems of Chinese development – factories, farms, oil refineries, dams – she highlights the uncanny persistence of ancient China in the Maoist era. As the workers laid the foundations for new construction sites, the remains of prehistoric societies were turning up with unprecedented frequency. After just a few years, hundreds of accidental archaeological digs spread out across the country. During stopovers at a neolithic excavation site near X’ian and a Ming-era Buddhist monastery in south Lanzhou, Thapar learned that groups of archaeologists and younger students were being attached to construction sites, where they mended, labelled and catalogued the discovered artefacts on the spot. The quantity of newfound prehistoric greyware was in fact so large that the country was facing a severe shortage of buildings to house them. During conversations with Thapar, the officials explained this popular enthusiasm by repeatedly quoting Mao’s directives to archaeologists – ‘discover the richness of China’s past’ and ‘correct historical mistakes’.

Faced with Thapar’s inquiries about the pitfalls of ‘salvage archaeology’, the provincial archaeologists and museum officials regurgitated statistics; politics was never mentioned, while the name of Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe drew blank faces. Her requests to meet the historians of ancient China, university students and young intellectuals meanwhile were brusquely ignored. This puzzled Thapar to no end, not least because their counterparts in India were working through similar problems. Back in Bombay, she had recently come into contact with the left-wing polymath D.D. Kosambi, whose work contained a blend of Marxist theory, numismatics, archaeology, linguistics, genetics and ethnographic fieldwork. In An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), Kosambi lyrically described India as ‘a country of long survivals’, where ‘people of the atomic age rub elbows with those of the chalcolithic’. China, Thapar slowly realized, was no different.

Recording her group’s trek towards Maijishan and Dunhuang, Thapar’s travelogue gracefully blends the world-historical with the everyday. Multiple timelines gather a heterogenous throng of characters onto the stage. At a monastery in Xi’an, we hear of the legendary seventh-century monk Xuan Zang lugging cartloads of Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and relics collected during his sixteen-year sojourn across northern India. Back in the twentieth century, in nearby Lanzhou, Czech-made Škoda buses ferry Chinese workers to a power station. As Thapar proceeds across the hinterland, extended spells of isolation are broken only occasionally, as when a radio set catches the BBC News (‘the Russians had developed an intercontinental rocket that had alarmed the Western world’). On most days, Thapar’s battered copy of Ulysses serves as a marker of the passage of time (‘Ulysses is stuck at page 207 and at this rate will probably see me all through China’). Fittingly, this drama reaches its climax at the ancient cave sites, nested at the Chinese end of the Silk Routes which had once linked the region with Central Asia, India, and the eastern Mediterranean.

Thapar and her companions were the first group of foreign researchers to access the Maijishan site. Carved into sheer cliff faces, the caves contained hundreds of Buddhist murals and sculptures created over the course of a millennium. They were ‘like museums of Chinese paintings’: offering something like a historical timelapse of how the earliest Gandhara-era depictions of Buddha’s life were gradually adapted to the Chinese landscape. Every evening, the group descended from ‘heaven’ on rickety wooden ladders, sometimes nearly a hundred meters long. Back in the candlelit monastery, as wolves and bears roved outside, their experiences were equally startling: we hear of holidaying Chinese soldiers singing Cossack folk songs picked up from the touring Russian Red Army choir; a head monk toasting the end of the hydrogen bomb; a guard playing scratched folk records, featuring a Chinese cover of ‘Aawara Hoon’, the title song of Raj Kapoor’s latest hit. Meanwhile, at Dunhuang, the group discover that the Western explorers of the early twentieth century had vandalized and stolen numerous murals, paintings and manuscripts from the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’. In 1920, the White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks had found refuge in these same caves, and had spent their days gouging out gold from the artworks.

The thread of the present ties these proliferating timelines together. In 1957 the Chinese revolution started to unravel. Shortly before Thapar’s arrival, Mao had effectively ended the Hundred Flowers Campaign. His key distinction between ‘fragrant flowers’ and ‘poisonous weeds’ had instead impelled a brutal ‘anti-Rightist campaign’. Meanwhile, despite stiff resistance, the CCP was still pushing its ill-fated campaign for rural collectivization. Arriving in Beijing, Thapar fleetingly notes the ubiquitous ‘bright, bold cartoons and statements’, portraying the so-called ‘Rightists’ as venomous snakes. In the following weeks, her solidarity with the Maoists was severely tested by ongoing clampdowns on intellectual freedom (she was greatly disturbed by the case of the feminist novelist Ling Ding, who had been denounced and exiled). Despite warm encounters with the locals, she greeted village cooperatives with a mixture of guarded suspicion (‘Were we expected to believe that before 1951 production was low, in 1954 it rose by half and by 1956 it had doubled?’) and open cynicism (‘I asked somewhat diffidently if they had tried any experiments along the lines of Lysenko in Russia’). On returning to Beijing, she was told that Professor Xiang Da, an authority on Dunhuang, was too busy to meet her, only to discover from a newspaper report that he had already been charged as a Rightist last month. Soon China would be utterly transformed by the Great Leap Forward and the ill-fated Sino-Soviet split. The 1962 Sino-Indian War over their borderlands would close the curtain on a short-lived decolonial friendship.

In the six decades between Thapar’s journey and the diary’s publication, her scholarly studies have spanned the history of state formation in early India, the politics of the Aryan question, the conflicts between the Brahmanas and the Shramanas (the Ajivika, the Buddhist and Jaina lineages), the Itihasa-Purana traditions, and the Indian epics, among others. Along with Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma and Bipin Chandra, Thapar is widely credited for inaugurating a paradigm shift in the study of Indian history – a radical break with the British colonial periodization and research methods. Her honours include both the Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences, and the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India (she has declined it twice). In the context of such an illustrious career, the diary is likely to be read as a relic of youthful indulgence. And yet, as Thapar has often argued, past events always accrue new, unexpected meanings in the present. It is hardly surprising, then, that the diary has significant affinities with her later work.

In the widely acclaimed Somnath (2004), Thapar describes how a single event – the destruction of a Hindu temple by Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turkic king, in 1025 – has been narrated across Turko-Persian and Arabic chronicles, Sanskrit temple inscriptions, biographies and courtly epics, popular oral traditions, British House of Commons proceedings and nationalist histories. Patiently decoding these dissonant voices, Thapar disproves the myth of Hindus and Muslims as eternally warring civilizations, established by British colonizers and popularized by their modern-day heirs, the Hindu nationalists. In doing so, Thapar reflexively shows that history is a process of ‘constant re-examination and reassessment of how we interpret the past’. Her pursuit however has never devolved into a postmodernist free-for-all. This is not just because of Thapar’s lifelong engagement with sociological theories, economic histories, archaeological methods and Marxist debates, but also because her scholarship has always been grounded in the public life of postcolonial India. Thapar has written school textbooks, given public lectures on All India Radio, and published extensive writings on the relationship between secularism, history and democracy in popular periodicals.

In recent decades, Thapar’s work has been systematically discredited by a Hindu right-wing smear campaign (popular slurs include ‘academic terrorist’ and ‘anti-national’). She has responded with characteristic aplomb, poking more historical holes in the fantasies of a ‘syndicated Hinduism’. Shortly before turning 90, she published Voices of Dissent (2020). Written during the upsurge of nationwide protests against the new citizenship laws (CAA and NRC), the book traces a genealogy of dissent in India – spanning the second millennia B.C. of the Vedic times, the emergence of the Sramanas, the medieval popularity of the Bhakti sants and Sufi pirs, and the Gandhian satyagraha of the twentieth century – that offer a vital corrective to the popular right-wing tendency to label ‘dissent’ as an ‘anti-national’ import from the West. Yet with the BJP pushing for the privatization of higher education, its affiliates infiltrating university administrations and its stormtroopers terrorizing college campuses, the struggle for decolonizing Indian history is no longer merely a matter of critique. There now exists a nationwide network of 57,000 shakhas operated by the RSS (the parent organization of the BJP), where the rank-and-file receive both ideological and weapons training, while the BJP’s IT Cell has infiltrated the social media feeds of millions of Hindu middle class homes, promoting its historical propaganda.

These changes have not only upended the paradigm shift in Indian history of which Thapar was a leading figure but have also illuminated its political limits. Historically anchored in the Nehruvian-era universities, the decolonial turn has struggled to significantly transform popular consciousness beyond the bourgeois public sphere. The Hindutva offensive has put liberal and left intellectuals in a difficult double bind. This contradiction was first captured by Aijaz Ahmad, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, now widely recognized as the emblem of the ‘Hindu nation’. The Indian left, Ahmad had argued, cannot abandon ‘the terrain of nationalism’, but nor can it just occupy this terrain ‘empty-handed’, that is, ‘without a political project for re-making the nation’. In Ahmad’s words, to counter Hindutva with secularism is certainly ‘necessary’, but it remains ‘insufficient’. Likewise, countering the syndicated, market-friendly Hinduism by recovering a subversive genealogy of the Indian past is necessary but by itself, it too remains insufficient.

Thapar’s studies of ancient India naturally offer no ready-made cures for these modern maladies. One incident from Gazing Eastwards though reads like an allegory for future action. As Thapar declared in a lecture for All India Radio in 1972, ‘the image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future’. In Lanzhou, Thapar and de Silva’s clothes drew considerable attention from the Chinese public. Trailed by curious strangers, they found it difficult to walk the streets. To blend in, they ditched their saris in favour of peasant jackets in the customary blue, made famous by Maoists at the time. As the universities continue to crumble, perhaps historians of the new generation should also discard their clothes of distinction, and blend as organizers, pedagogues and foot soldiers into the agrarian and citizen struggles erupting against the BJP-led right.

Read on: Pranab Bardhan, ‘The “New” India’, NLR 136.


Victorious Defeat


Historically speaking, political funerals have been associated with authoritarian rule. Surrounded with an aura of sanctity that even brutally oppressive regimes have been reluctant to suppress – with exceptions, of course, as the Israeli state demonstrated during Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral procession last May – political funerals have often acted as outlets of public dissent when other forms of protest are unavailable. The association, however, misses an important precondition: a conception of grief and mourning as a collective ritual. Such a perspective can help make sense of our contemporary predicament. The gradual eclipse of political funerals does not, of course, signal the eclipse of authoritarianism. It rather indicates another wind of change, one that has swept through authoritarian and liberal regimes alike: the transformation of mourning into a private affair. 

Against the spirt of his times, Gáspár Miklós Tamás’s funeral in Budapest in January 2023 was unequivocally political. It did not just bring together relatives and old friends. The overwhelming majority of those who made their way to Farkasrèti cemetery on that cold Tuesday afternoon did not know Gáspár personally. With the exception of a couple of supporters of Orbán’s government (some of whom came, perhaps, to see with their own eyes what a Hungarian newspaper announced after Gáspár’s death: the end of Hungarian Marxism), this wonderfully mixed crowd of young and old, local and visitors, was there because their grief for the loss of a public intellectual was not a private affair.


Gáspár was born in 1948 in what was historically seen as the capital of Transylvania, a city Hungarians call Kolozsvár and Romanians Cluj. In 1974, in line with Ceaușescu’s attempts to embed his rule in nationalist mythologies, the pre-Roman Napoca was added, giving the city its contemporary name, Cluj-Napoca. Linguistic differences and national myths aside, these various appellations all describe a ‘castle within a closed space’. The ruins of castle Turnul Croitorilor remain on the outskirts of the old town, but the rest of the name has never rung true. The city’s permanently suspended sense of national belonging meant that it was more open than closed: Gáspár’s wide horizons, intellectually and geographically, can be seen as a testament to that.

With life stories forged in the turbulent years before, during and after the Second World War, his parents Gáspár Tamás (1914-1978) and Erzsébet Krausz (1907-1977), committed internationalist communists, were a strong influence in this same direction. While many Jewish relatives from Gáspár’s mother’s side were murdered in Auschwitz, she escaped deportation because she was already imprisoned as a ‘Bolshevik agitator’ by Antonescu’s Nazi-allied military dictatorship. His father, in prison since 1938 for communist activities, had his sentence abbreviated by forced conscription to the front, returning to Cluj in 1944 with an injury that forced him to walk on crutches for the rest of his life.

Their trajectories after the war reflected the fate of a large part of the revolutionary movement crushed by Stalinism and nationalism. Many of their comrades, who had survived torture at the hands of the Romanian and Hungarian secret services or the Gestapo, returned from Nazi concentration camps only to be re-arrested by the authorities. Contrary to Stalinist apologetics, it was steadfast allegiance to the emancipatory project that made such people dissidents against the new ‘socialist’ regimes. In his childhood and adolescence, Gáspár’s parents transmitted their knowledge and experiences to their son: alongside music, poetry and philosophy and the necessity of rigorous study to grasp each one, they taught him techniques for withstanding torture, in expectation of the arrival of the black car of ‘their’ Party.

Gáspár’s turn came in the early hours of a bitter February morning in 1974. The reason was not had he had done but what he refused to do, namely write an idiotic appraisal of Ceaușescu’s new ‘moral code’ for the Utunk literary magazine where he was employed. This cost him his job and, shortly after, the black car arrived, inaugurating a period of intense intimidation. When the regular ‘invitations’ of the Romanian secret police became unbearable and a prison sentence only a matter of time, his parents urged him to leave the country. In 1978 he did exactly that.

He could have settled in France: an uncle worked at the Renault factory in Paris. Instead, he opted for Hungary, inspired by the growing opposition movement there. His mauvaise reputation preceded him, however, and he was greeted by the secret police of a system just as ‘mendacious, stupid, brutal, repressive and treacherous’ as the one he had left behind. A job teaching philosophy at the University of Budapest would eventually also be cut short by his engagement with the dissident movement. When, after the Jaruzelski coup in Poland of 1981, he published his support for the Polish opposition under his own name, he was, once again, fired.


It is often overlooked today, but the revolt of East German construction workers in June 1953, the workers’ councils of Hungary in 1956 or the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia were made in the name of proletarian self-management, not that of market freedom. Gáspár’s dissident network similarly advanced a critique of the regime from the left. Yet, though inspired by the anti-Stalinist positions of Socialisme ou Barbarie or Karl Korsch, by the 1980s many dissidents, Gáspár among them, started feeling that ‘attempts to overcome the Soviet-style system from the left were doomed’ (see his ‘Where We Went Wrong’, 2009). Increasingly convinced that putting an end to dictatorship meant ‘paying the price of capitalism’, they began to seek theoretical justification for their change of position. The times found Gáspár taking various teaching posts in the West: his wide knowledge and his linguistic genius – he was more than fluent in many languages ­– allowed him to teach in universities including Columbia, Oxford, École des Hautes Études, Chicago, Yale and the New School. In these years, his deep disappointment and anger at the oppression of the ‘communist’ regimes melded with a (neo)conservative zeitgeist.

Their collapse was accompanied by an upsurge of collective hope and political imagination. Gáspár hastily returned to take part. But the dismantling of the Stalinist apparatus went hand in hand with ‘an economic black hole, galloping unemployment and Third World-type inequalities’ (see his ‘Words from Budapest’, 2013). Party chairman for the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and elected to the opposition after the transition, Gáspár felt implicated in the historical disaster during which, in a country of 10 million, 2 million jobs evaporated while parliament spent months debating the republican coat of arms. ‘Our naïve liberalism’, he later reflected, ‘delivered a nascent democracy into the hands of irresponsible and hate-filled right-wing politicos, and contributed to the re-establishment of a provincial, deferential and resentful social world, harking back to before 1945’. What was intended as ‘liberation from centralized coercion’ ultimately resulted in nothing more than a ‘weakening of compound social power’.

In response, Gáspár ‘went back to school’ and re-emerged, once again, a dissident. In addition to Marx, Gáspár returned to the council communist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions that he believed had seen ‘much more clearly than famous and brilliant theorists that, however deserved the terminal defeat of the Soviet bloc. . . it was at the same time a historical disaster, heralding the demise of working-class power, of adversary culture, the end of two centuries of beneficent fear for the ruling classes’. He became an avid reader of Italian operaismo and the German Wertkritik school as developed by authors like Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz, as well as the writings of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Guy Debord became one of his favourite thinkers. These resources, coupled with his observation of a transition that had unleashed the ‘most destructive power of capitalism’, set the stage for his most profound contributions to radical critical theory, re-conceptualizing communism as the emancipatory abolition of capital, state, nation and class. While most of his writings on these topics are in Hungarian, a significant number of essays and interviews were written, given and/or published in English, French and German. (And as his young comrades confirmed recently, a lot more will be published in English in the near future.)


Gáspár wrote and commented extensively on Central and Eastern European affairs. In numerous interviews (whose eloquence renders them of equal value to his writings), the dissident years before the collapse of the Soviet world and the transition to market capitalism were central topics, as were subsequent developments in the region. One of his most influential texts, On Post-Fascism (2000), is widely seen as a prophetic account of what has now become the all too familiar phenomenon of ‘authoritarian’ or ‘right-wing’ populism. For Gáspár the term ‘post-fascism’ was more appropriate.

Such interventions contributed to an image of Gáspár as an expert analyst of the region and a reliable forecaster of its authoritarian turn. Though flattering, this view is somewhat misleading. It was his analysis of the universal tendencies within capitalist social relations and its propensity towards (and compatibility with) authoritarianism that above all propelled his thinking, rather than any intimate knowledge of Romania or Hungary. On Post-Fascism begins, after all, by shredding any implication that what he is about to describe is regionally specific. Pointing to ‘a cluster of policies, practices, routines, and ideologies that can be observed everywhere in the contemporary world’, Gáspár’s primary concern was to spell-out what was post about contemporary fascist and authoritarian tendencies. Rather than relying on a violent mass movement, death squads and even the occasional suspension of the social function and political power of the bourgeoisie, contemporary authoritarianism in fact sits very comfortably within Western-style electoral democracies and a free market framework. In the absence of a radical, communist workers’ movement (the eradication of which was the historical task of Nazism), there was no longer any need to militarize the whole of society. Militarizing the police appeared to be sufficient.

It is for this reason that the frequent depiction of authoritarianism as a peculiarity of Central and Eastern Europe (and Gáspár as its local critic) is ultimately a mystification. The Polish and Hungarian governments do not hide their contempt for key aspects of EU law, or have any qualms about presenting their racist, anti-LGBTQ and anti-left positions as a defence of Western Christian civilization. But it was a French president who declared that the existence of a ‘rule of law’ renders any talk about repression or police violence ‘unacceptable’, while his militarized police maimed hundreds of gilets jaunes demonstrators with full impunity. It was in Greece that investigative journalists were wiretapped by the secret services and where the law-and-order dogma propounded by the government co-existed with extensive evidence of police collaboration with the mafia. Gáspár’s insistence that it was a mistake to approach contemporary authoritarianism through the lens of Central and Eastern Europe was not, unfortunately, given the attention it deserved. Even many on the left who otherwise refuse to normalize authoritarian tendencies in Western liberal democracies continue to describe their emergence as a process of ‘Orbánization’ .  


Gáspár also pioneered the concept of ethnicism (‘an apolitical, destructive practice opposed to the idea of citizenship’), contrasting it with a civic-democratic nationalism that he went so far as to proclaim the only remaining ‘principle of cohesion in a traditionless capitalism’. In later years, however, he grew increasingly sceptical of the universalizing potential of national citizenship: buried under anti-Roma policies in Eastern Europe or the EU’s systematic anti-migrant violence, citizenship had become weaponized as a justification for exclusion. When parts of the left joined this chorus and condoned the exclusion of migrants as a prerequisite for re-establishing a national welfare state, Gáspár did not just see a form of ‘banal left nationalism’, inspired by bygone visions of social democracy. He also saw in such positions the shameful affirmation of a contemporary paradox in which equality, for the first time in history, is portrayed as ‘an elitist idea’.

Recognizing this regression did not mean, however, that Gáspár saw equality as the end goal of a radical transformation of society. In one of his most penetrating analyses, ‘Telling the Truth About Class’ from 2006, he explored the ways in which the historical trajectory of the left had been split between a demand for equality and recognition of the working class and a call for its abolition. On one side, Gáspár saw a ‘Rousseau-ian’ affirmation of class: against the bourgeois projection of the working class as barbaric and uneducated, a mob ‘tied to vice and corporeality’, Rousseau-inspired socialism counter-projected the working class’s cultural superiority and ‘angelic’ nature. On the other side was the lineage deriving from Marx, who had identified the historical potential of revolutionary transformation in the wretched and alienated existence of a proletariat that has ‘nothing to lose but its chains’. Calls for a more egalitarian and democratic inclusion of workers might be noble, but they ignored the constitution of the working class through the capitalist mode of production. Quoting from the Grundrisse, Gáspár reminded his readers that ‘labour itself has become a moment of capital’; for this reason, while calls for equality (rightly) attacked persistent systems of privilege and caste, they failed to identify the significance of capitalist social relations in the production and maintenance of class society. Communism should be the abolition of class society, not an equitable recognition of its constituent parts.


A few years ago, I was invited to Hamburg to join Gáspár on a panel discussion that sought to criticize left nationalism and notions of sovereignty through emphasis on the question of migration. As luck would have it, the organizers had us staying in the same house; it did not take long before we decided to extend our stay for a few days, which we spent taking long walks around this exceptionally hospitable German city, trying out sausages, drinking wine, and talking insatiably. In that time and place we became, I dare say, friends.

Ever since, we maintained regular contact, using emails for logistical arrangements (we brought him to Berlin for a public discussion on nationalism and migration, an event that took place under the heavy shadow of the Hanau massacre that had happened the day before) but hand-written letters for more engaged exchanges. The terrible news of his cancer intensified our correspondence. Among other things, I promised him that once he beat that awful disease, I would find a small datscha near Berlin for him and his daughter Hanna. He welcomed the idea as something that could ‘help our mood and give us a semblance of a putative future’.

The fluctuations of his illness and the state of the world at large did little to subdue his pessimism. ‘It is an uphill struggle’, he wrote to me two years ago, ‘to defend myself from feelings of disgust, contempt & hatred when I am looking at this world’. But expressions of despair were, despite everything, the exception. Short of breath but full of life, he wondered in his last letter if he could ‘venture forth on an eight-hour train journey to the town of my birth’. He was also excited about finishing a text on how ‘resistance to war had turned young Lukács, Bloch [and] Benjamin into revolutionaries’. Regretfully, I never responded. The fear of sending a letter that might never be received paralyzed me.  


When we first met in Hamburg, I gave Gáspár a copy of Paolo Virno’s ‘The Horror of Familiarity’, a text which he became very fond of. In it, Virno evokes the dialectic between Heimlich/Unheimlich (familiar/uncanny) prevalent in our times, drawing attention to the ominous, hyper-modern appeals to tradition and Heimat. ‘Anytime one tries to say: country, community or authentic life, penetrative and frightening screams come out’ Virno writes, suggesting instead that the search for familiarity is a ‘historical bet, not an already guaranteed property’. In a similar vein, Gáspár answered the accusation that communism is insensitive to the ‘Home’ by unequivocally declaring: ‘Yes, it is, as it is concerned about the homeless’. As it turned out, his last public intervention was a text defending the homeless against renewed attack in Hungary. ‘One should not live on the streets’, he wrote, ‘one should protest there’. There is, perhaps, no more fitting legacy than this.  

Read on: G.M. Tamás, ‘Words from Budapest’, NLR 80.


New Stability?

On 1 November 2022, the night of the Danish general elections, a triumphant Lars Løkke Rasmussen – leader of the newly established Moderates party – told his followers, ‘This country is going to have a new government!’ Exit polls put the Red Bloc, the progressive coalition supporting the Social Democratic incumbent Mette Frederiksen, short of an outright majority. The right-wing Blue Bloc were also forecast to miss that threshold. Which meant that Løkke’s centrist platform, which elected 16 deputies out of 179, was set to play the role of kingmaker, potentially catapulting Løkke himself into high office.

He had been there before. From 2009 to 2011, and again from 2015 to 2019, Løkke served as Prime Minister and leader of the largest Blue Bloc party, Venstre. In this capacity he continued to hollow out the welfare state, strengthen punitive migration policies and ignore the climate crisis. He also sought to suppress the most right-wing elements in his Bloc by reaching across the aisle – running, in the 2019 election, on a pledge to unite the centre by working with Frederiksen’s Social Democrats and marginalizing the two ‘wings’, left and right. This would have marked a historic rupture in Danish politics, where parties outside the mainstream typically have to be considered, and thrown a bone or two, when building minority governments.

Although Løkke’s party increased its seat share in 2019, the overall performance of the Blue Bloc was dismal, and Frederiksen showed no interest in working with her rivals. Three years later, though, the situation had changed completely. This time it was Frederiksen herself who ran on the platform of creating a cross-party centrist government. Having spent the entirety of her administration resisting the demands of smaller red and green parties, she had now made it her mission to isolate the left and rule without it.

The final results confounded the early polls: the Red Bloc had, in fact, secured a majority with the slightest of margins. But Frederiksen was no longer interested in a leading a ‘progressive’ government. Instead, she formed a coalition with the Moderates and Venstre, now led by Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. While the Social Democrats secured almost 28% of the vote, its new partners came in second and third place: Venstre with 13% and the Moderates with 9%. That was enough to make Løkke Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Elleman was appointed Minister of Defence. The Social Democrats took the finance ministry as well as the office of Prime Minister. The left performed relatively poorly, with a combined vote of 17%, while the far right – reconfigured as three separate parties – collectively won 14%.

Løkke had broken with Venstre after the 2019 elections and named his new outfit after the governing party from the popular TV drama series Borgen. Life imitates art, as they say; but if Zelensky made the transition from fiction to reality, Løkke has done the opposite: modelling his persona and programme – and even his party’s brand colours – on this centrist fantasy-world. Such Netflixification reflects a wider shift in Danish political culture. Although the country has traditionally been governed by broad coalitions spanning multiple parties, the division between the Red and Blue Blocs was its major fault-line. In this electoral landscape, consensus was established on a range of issues, while specific policy areas were subject to relatively peaceable debate. This meant that a basic level of ideological contestation was preserved; real differences could be aired, albeit to a limited extent, and voters could easily categorize each party according to its Bloc. This system, though far from ideal, at least guaranteed a degree of public participation – which, in turn, ensured political stability and basic trust in the state. Such factors helped to slow the pace of neoliberalization and keep living standards relatively high. They also contributed to Denmark’s comparatively effective handling of the Covid pandemic.

Under this model, Danish businesses may have complained about higher taxes, but they profited from the country’s healthy, educated workforce. Politicians likewise resented the need to make deals with peripheral parties, but they were equally attached to the routine of stable governance. Now, though, the elite’s conception of stability has changed. The alternation of the Blocs has fallen out of favour, and the priority is to fight the wings – or yderfløjene – while consolidating the centre. Frederiksen has framed this about-turn as a response to the changing global conjuncture: war in Ukraine, the rise of China, inflationary pressures. Her election slogan, ‘Safety Through Uncertain Times’, captured this new disposition. 

Frederiksen has a strategic interest in forging this alliance. Leading the Social Democratic government since 2019 has made her an isolated political target. Since her election, the right has portrayed her as a would-be dictator, exploiting the Covid crisis to push through policy in a constant state of exception. She hopes that, by diminishing the intensity of these attacks, a broader centrist coalition will improve her long-term prospects. For Løkke, meanwhile, the new government provides an opportunity not only for a personal comeback but also for ruling without the racism of the far right, whose representatives – such as the Danish People’s Party – had previously undermined his ability to present himself as a sensible, pragmatic technocrat. For these leaders, the main inspiration is the Germanic model, which allowed Merkel to spend decades stifling dissent while maintaining a political status quo that benefited domestic business. Another parallel is Macron’s ‘revolution’ in France, where a dynamic centrism short-circuited the nominal contest between left and right.

Yet such analogies show how easily this model of stability can undermine itself. In France, election turnout is in freefall and the memory of the gilets jaunes still haunts the Élysée Palace. In Germany, the GroKo proved too unwieldy and uninspired to deal with the country’s most pressing issues, from public investment to climate breakdown. The Danish political system is already beginning to display some of the same symptoms. In 2022, voters were confused by the proliferation of new centrist parties, which emerged out of nowhere and were typically dominated by single politicians hoping to create a cult of personality around themselves: Løkke’s Moderates, Inger Støjberg’s Danish Democrats, Alex Vanopslagh’s Liberal Alliance. These faux-charismatic leaders stole one another’s policies, broadcast a similar range of vacuous soundbites and engaged in endless circular debate about, well, nothing really.

Vanopslagh courted younger male voters with a mixture of entrepreneurialism and Jordan Peterson-inspired self-help psychology – mounting an aggressive online advertising campaign that targeted TikTok and porn sites. Støjberg, a former Minister of Integration, leaned into xenophobia, capitalising on the fact that she had previously served a two-month prison sentence for illegally separating asylum-seeker couples. Løkke was hesitant to put forward any concrete policy ideas, aside from tax breaks for the rich and the gradual abolition of state pensions. What all three had in common was the lack of a traditional party apparatus: no large membership base, no conferences, no internal democratic culture. These were top-down PR operations. As they came to dominate the election campaign, public enthusiasm waned. Turnout sank to its lowest level since 1957 (excluding 1990, when voters had been worn down by a series of snap elections). The practice that Peter Mair described as ‘ruling the void’ was now fully operative in Denmark.

Three months into its tenure, what are we to make of Frederiksen’s ‘post-ideological’ government? One of her first acts was to renege on an agreement she had made with the left to increase investment in child care. At the same time, she introduced a raft of regressive tax cuts and – despite public pressure – refused to increase taxes on one of the country’s largest businesses, Mærsk, which posted record profits of over €25 billion for 2022 while paying an effective tax rate of less than 0.3%. Frederiksen recently announced her intention to scrap one of the country’s bank holidays while rapidly increasing military spending. She also unveiled plans to ‘reform’ higher education by cutting the majority of masters courses in the humanities and social sciences down to one year. The latter decision is particularly strange, since no one – not even Danish business – seems to support it. Yet the Social Democrats hope it will advance their political narrative, which positions them on the side of an ordinary, hard-working Denmark, against a parasitic stratum of educated cultural elites. Regrettably, this narrative – which has seen the Social Democrats adopt the anti-immigrant talking point of its erstwhile opponents – has so far enabled the party to appeal to a broad range of social groups.

Frederiksen’s removal of the bank holiday has, however, elicited more resistance than most of her previous policies. More than 400,000 people signed a petition against the bill, about 50,000 demonstrated in Copenhagen, and Social Democratic politicians were disinvited from May Day events across the country, signalling a growing rift between the party and the major trade unions. Although union leaders still maintain friendly relations with Frederiksen and her inner circle, rank-and-file discontent may make this increasingly difficult to sustain. Traditionally, the so-called ‘Danish Model’ demands that industrial disputes are settled by the stakeholders – workers and bosses – with politicians staying out of negotiations or at most playing a mediating role. Yet Social Democratic MPs have become more brazen in their willingness to interfere with this settlement. This has drawn criticism even from the notoriously timid grassroots members of their own party. Whether it leads to deeper divisions between the government and organized labour remains to be seen.

The latest opinion poll shows that support for the governing parties has fallen precipitously, by a combined 11.3%, while the wings have gained about 5% each since the elections. But these shifts in public mood do not mean that a counter-hegemonic project is on the horizon. The Social Democrats remain by far the largest party, with a solid support base comprising public-sector employees and working-class constituencies outside the largest cities. The party and its allies are intent on pushing through a centrist programme that seems as ineluctable as it is unpopular. But the new stability that they are establishing may rest upon a cracked foundation.

Read on: Niels Finn Christiansen, ‘Denmark: End of the Idyll’, NLR I/144.


Turkey’s Statequake

On 6 February, southern Turkey and northern Syria were shaken by two massive earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.7 respectively. At the time of writing, the death toll has climbed to over 47,000, with more than 110,000 buildings either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. For Turkey, this represents the worst natural disaster in modern history. The scale of state failure, however, has been just as striking.

Erdoğan’s regime frequently boasts of having overseen a massive construction boom, in which airports, bridges, metros, highways and innumerable housing units were built – supposedly in accordance with new regulations drawn up after an earthquake shook the city of Izmit in 1999. But it is now clear that those building laws were paper tigers. Erdoğan has asserted that virtually all the buildings that collapsed this month were built before the millennium, but satellite images and first-hand reporting appear to belie this claim. In the city centre of Kahramanmaraş, the worst affected province in the country, almost 60% of the population live in buildings constructed after 2001. Luxury developments – which were supposed to be entirely earthquake-secure – have been reduced to rubble. Key infrastructure, such as the Hatay airport and highways crucial for disaster relief – as well as schools, hospitals and municipality buildings – have been destroyed or rendered temporarily unusable. Prosecutors are currently investigating more than 430 people, including developers and engineers, over their role in the disaster. Over 130 are already in prison. Some were taken into custody at airports as they tried to flee the country.

As with the price shocks Turkey has experienced in recent years, the government is trying to blame this disaster on ‘evil businessmen’. Yet the state itself is also culpable. Regulations were not sufficiently enforced, and many building projects were able to circumvent them through the AKP’s construction ‘amnesties’ – which allowed proprietors and developers to escape any possible charges by paying a small sum. The government’s own figures suggest that around 50% of Turkey’s building stock are non-compliant with contemporary regulations. Nobody knows what became of the taxes – totalling approximately $38 billion – intended to make buildings earthquake-resistant. When asked about the the money, Erdoğan refused to give any details and snapped that it was used ‘where it was needed’.

In short, the imbrication of the state with rentier capital was a major factor in the fallout of the earthquake. As scientists and architects have pointed out, it is perfectly possible to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes of this magnitude. Yet there was apparently no will to do so, despite repeated warnings from the Chamber of Geology Engineers and other prominent researchers. Islamist-inflected hostility to science is an element here: the mayor of Kahramanmaraş reportedly told the head of the Chamber that he does not believe in the discipline of paleoseismology.

With earthquakes, the first 48 hours are crucial – survival rates drop rapidly thereafter. Yet the state failed spectacularly to organize emergency relief in the immediate aftermath. Independent reports note that, during the first day, there was almost a complete absence of official relief efforts on the ground. In cities such as Antakya, it took a full three days until disaster management was fully operational – and even then, it was limited to urban centres as opposed to the peripheries or villages. The reason for the incompetence is clear. It was not the cold weather, as Erdoğan claimed, but the fatal combination of neoliberal orthodoxy and the authoritarian degradation of public institutions.

In recent years, all aspects of disaster management in Turkey have been centralized within one body, AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency), which has been left with very limited resources after successive rounds of austerity. The organization was also restructured to promote AKP militants, chosen for their loyalty rather than their professional qualifications. When disaster struck, the person tasked with directly overseeing the intervention was a cleric, while the head of AFAD was a former governor. Neither had experience of disaster management. The incompetence was such that the government asked the previous, more experienced, chief of AFAD to take control in the Adana region. Anonymous sources from inside AFAD confirm that the first 24 hours in particular saw a complete lack of coordination, with senior AKP loyalists not wanting to go out into the streets for fear of a public backlash over their sluggish response. The AFAD is not only hamstrung by its lack of expertise, staff and equipment; its officials are also reluctant to take initiative due to their deference to Erdoğan. The decision was made, for example, to refrain from sufficiently mobilizing the armed forces, for fear that this would damage the government’s legitimacy.

The contrast with the response to the 1999 earthquake is stark. Back then, the scale of the devastation was likewise the product of state failure and the neoliberalized construction industry. Yet in its aftermath, civil society and state institutions – including the army – responded rapidly; the media was free enough to hold the government to account; and the actions of the executive were criticized by ministers as well as a parliamentary inquiry. Today, however, Turkey’s authoritarian settlement precludes even the slightest self-criticism. The iron fist of the state is being used to suppress independent reporting, with threats of retribution levelled at critical journalists. As with the Covid-19 pandemic, regime propaganda insists that the state response is beyond reproach. We are told that the destruction is ‘part of destiny’s plan’, and that no politician could prevent it.

Where the state has failed to intervene, however, ordinary people have done their best to fill the gaps. An astonishing wave of solidarity has swept across the country and the diaspora, with Turks volunteering in large numbers and sending money and equipment to the disaster area. Trucks loaded with desperately needed aid are constantly arriving in the province. Donations to independent bodies and political organizations have skyrocketed, reflecting the growing distrust in state institutions. For many, it feels like the spirit of the 2013 Gezi protests has been revived. The ‘other Turkey’, forever latent behind Erdoğan’s chaotic fiefdom, has become visible once again. While the government has made half-hearted efforts to restrict these grassroots relief efforts, it has refrained from stamping them out entirely.

Weakened by this calamity, the regime is trying to regain the initiative and reduce the political fallout through a theatrical display of national unity: ‘we’re all in this together’. So far, it is unclear whether his public-relations campaign will save Erdoğan’s regency, or whether, as Henri Barkey predicts, he will soon be submerged beneath a ‘tsunami of discontent’. In the end, only decisive political action can channel the current discontent to bring about his downfall.

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