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In Defence of Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War by Other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ins and Outs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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Riot on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trial of Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Cologne

That morning, on the weekend’s first flight from Heathrow the only other passengers are a dozen silent Rhineland businessmen, raising their coffee cups in greeting as they shuffle down the aisle. The transition from England to Germany is disturbingly seamless: at each end the same clean terminal corridors, the same overcast skies; only a shift in train moquette, Piccadilly blue to S-Bahn red, confirms arrival. Nine years ago, at the height of the refugee crisis, German stations were guarded by droves of heavily armed police. Now small khaki groups of soldiers mill around the ticket hall, chatting, scrolling, sipping Cokes. On exiting the Hauptbahnhof, the cathedral is too huge and too close to fit into one’s field of vision. It sits in the middle of the station forecourt, as if hastily dropped there. On its southern transept, the Gerhard Richter window, a derivation of his 4096 Farben painting: 11,500 coloured glass squares – ‘pixels’ – ordered by random number generator, then tweaked to avoid any suggestion of meaning.  

On the walk to Matthias Groebel’s studio, through the low-rise city centre, the sense of immanent Germanness deepens: long past their widespread disappearance in England, small independent shops of single purpose stagger on here under smart mid-century signs. The lettering of Elektronik van der Meyen is bright bee yellow; Top Service Reisebüro boasts a clean cobalt type; Boxspringbetten promises, in chirpy burgundy cursive, that you will ‘mehr als nur gut schlafen!’ From the direction of the river there’s the sound of a protest; I walk towards it and am, naively, astonished to see such numbers on German streets for Palestine. But it’s the red-white-green of Kurdish flags they’re waving, alongside banners bearing the face of Abdullah Öcalan – a proscribed image in a country where the PKK has long been banned. The crowd is mostly young men, escorted over the Rhine by black-clad members of the Bereitschaftspolizei.  

‘Wider brush, more colour’. I’m on my haunches by the tank, peering at the machine. ‘Narrower – less’. Matthias puckers, mimes a nozzle spitting out a delicate drop of paint. In the centre of the cool-lit studio is a small booth with a computer, walled in with piles of papers and books, an antique set of stereoscopic lenses; a few small bottles of acrylic ink indicate what is produced here, but there are neither brushes nor palettes, not a single mark or stain on the whitewashed concrete walls. We are looking through two panes of glass at a mechanical painting device. I am here to view the images this machine creates; something happens when you do, a friend has told me, that can’t be reproduced in photos.  

‘An artist has every right to turn around.’  

‘Something changes in the world, something changes in how we see.’  

‘Photos fade, a hard drive collapses, tapes rot, a WhatsApp message once took a fucking day to arrive – painting functions in different time.’

Matthias speaks in slogans, like he’s composing a manifesto on the spot. Offence as defence by a painter who trained and worked as a pharmacist – a painter who doesn’t paint. His practice is, has always been, unusual, taking images from analogue video stills, converting them via homemade software into digital information – pixels – that his painting machine then applies to canvas (an apparent automation which is, as Moritz Scheper has written, full ‘of artistic decisions’). The machine is a ship of Theseus, its parts continually replaced, removed and recalibrated over thirty-odd years. Today it is a contraption of chrome tubes, silver springs, slithers of wire and gaffa tape, bike chains and bolts soldered together and perched on rails, shoebox in size. Its first form comprised parts adapted from a Fishertechnik toy drawing set and electrical debris scavenged from Westphalian junk yards. Put together in the early 1980s, before any analogous commercial process had been developed, its assembly was a matter of skill, obstinacy and persuasion: You’ll never get an electrician to wire it up for you, warned one mechanic. Good luck finding a mechanic who can put that together, cautioned an electrician. ‘I left them to it’, Matthias says, shrugging, ‘and in the end it worked.’ 

The paintings I’m here to see are of a single building in Whitechapel, the Rowland Tower House. Made in 2006, they represent a shift in Matthias’s approach which he divides (slicing the air with his hands) into two rough periods: from 1989 – 2000 he used images taken from satellite TV, which arrived in Germany in 1984. At first there were only two stations: Programmgesellschaft für Kabel- und Satellitenrundfunk and Radio Télévision Luxembourg; PKS and RTL, the country’s first private TV channels, both specialising in endless repeats of American chat and game shows, padded out with ad hoc local programming to fill the yawning pit of 24/7 broadcasting. The need for footage of anyone doing anything fostered an anarchic attitude among producers; Matthias was drawn to anonymous faces caught off guard, at awkward angles and in lo-res close ups, which, paused, he used as the source material for early works. But TV got too predictable, or rather, ways of being on TV became too predictable. People stopped acting normally weird and started acting weirdly normal – like they were on screen. They pulled faces and posed. They anticipated the shot. The images Matthias was looking for vanished. So, from 2000 onwards, he started making his own tapes. ‘I always used cheap tech’. He picks up a Canon video camera onto which he’s grafted a two-mirrored lens as a viewfinder. ‘No need for grants that way – no need to explain yourself.’  

A lurch of nausea, a rush of adrenaline, a front of pressure in the brow. Something happening that your body can’t understand. Six paintings, each with its own internal duplication, of video stills of the shuttered and boarded Tower House. On the left, the building is in a dilapidated state but uncovered, on the third and lowest canvas two elderly men in kurtas and skull caps walk towards the image’s edge, then do so again. On the right, the same sections of building, now covered in tarpaulin, scaffolding, adverts for the property developers who are gutting and selling this former doss house, a model of Victorian industrial philanthropy, in which Stalin, Orwell and Jack London all stayed, as well as thousands of anonymous working men.  

The effect is astonishing. Somehow – Matthias himself cannot explain it – there is depth in the canvas, not the flatness of a Magic Eye nor the pointed jabbing of a 3D movie, but textural latent space. The tarp over the building flattens and bulges as if the windows have inhaled, the poles of the scaffolding protrude and hang, retreating into the walls, the cornicing of the gated entrance might crack and fall in front of you. In another painting, from the same series, a girl in a hijab and long skirt twirls in front of a young boy who is about to walk through a wall. Matthias’s paintings are often referred to as ‘ghosts’. Before visiting, I thought this was a description of the figures within them, but I was wrong  (‘your eyes adjust to the depth of the frame at the wrong speed’ I write down ‘not too fast, not too slow, but wrong.’) A few years ago, the poet Timothy Thornton, wrote that ‘ghosts are people who remind people of nobody.’ But these aren’t paintings of ghosts; better to call them ‘ghost paintings’. Something awry, misplaced, there where it isn’t, caught on canvas but missing, an absence without a gap.  

Over dinner with Matthias’s family that evening, in their warm kitchen (the windows steamed from cooking, a cage of chattering budgies by the door, books and clothes and cushions scattered in just-orderly piles) we all forget the word for the animal we’re eating. Sophia, his wife, mimes antlers, Matthias cries ‘Hirsche!’, I yell ‘deer!’ and the table bursts out laughing at this impromptu game of charades. We finish our venison stew and I’m handed a pair of silver goggles to try on, each lens a kaleidoscope. Everyone doubles, blushes eight different shades of pink. Now in the cage behind me there are hundreds and hundreds of birds. 

Cologne’s art scene has cycled through boom, bust and back to modest boom again, Matthias and Sophia explain. Site of Dada’s formation in 1919, home of the storied Kunstverein and the first art fair in 1967, at the end of the 1980s openings had crowds queuing down the street: women decked out in furs, limos crawling towards the galleries. When the wall fell, the artists decamped, as a flock, to Berlin; rising costs in the capital had lately brought some back but gone were the days of David Zwirner cycling around town waving hello to painters, collectors, friends.  

What is a ghost? I ask Matthias before I leave. He answers without missing a beat: ‘a ghost is information out of place’.  

Back in London, a few days later, a friend shows me around the theatre where he works. We sit in the stalls to catch up; I tell him about my trip and ask if he’s ever seen a ghost. Not personally, he says, but recounts a story about his colleague, B., who has been known to take naps in the flies. One day, B. woke up and knew, immediately and certainly, that there were people on stage. There was no one there, of course, but nevertheless there they were. Information where it isn’t; something stuck in transmission – there in that gap between pixels and paint. 

17 – 18 February, 2024 

Read on: Julian Stallabrass, ‘Radical Camouflage‘, NLR 77.

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Against Solutionism

‘It’s coming ever more sharply into focus’, declared Anthony Blinken on a recent trip to Doha, speaking of a ‘practical, timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel’. America’s Arab clients have also been invoking the two-state paradigm, with both the Saudis and Qataris stressing the need for such a ‘comprehensive settlement’. In the UK, David Cameron has declared his firm support for Palestinian statehood, while in Brussels Josep Borrell has insisted that this is ‘the only way to establish peace’. These statements can be seen as a frantic attempt at imperial containment. If the Palestinians cannot be ignored entirely, as in the Abraham Accords framework, better to push for a demilitarized, segmented Palestinian quasi-‘state’ so that Israeli normalization can proceed apace. Biden, personally and politically minutes to midnight, is desperate to put Jared Kushner’s agenda for the Middle East back on track after its derailing on 7 October.

How should we respond to the inglorious return and cadaverous persistence of two-statism? The most common reflex is to dismiss it as dangerous imperial ‘fantasy’, premised on the diplomatic formalization of the apartheid regime, and to advocate for one state as the only realistic alternative. This latter position was first formally put forward by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the aftermath of the Naksa. It was then adopted by Arafat and Abu Iyad as the official line of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In Oslo’s wake, Palestinian intellectuals – Edward Said, Ghada Karmi, Lama Abu-Odeh, Joseph Massad, Ali Abunimah, George Bisharat and Yousef Munayyer, among others – returned to this framework. Writing in 2002, Karmi noted that although the demand for a secular democracy ‘might seem utopian’, it is no more so than ‘the Zionist enterprise of constructing a Jewish state in someone else’s country’. Last year, she published a book-length intervention on the ‘inevitability’ of a single, democratic state.

Recognition that the two-state solution is foreclosed is increasingly common across the political spectrum. An essay in the latest Foreign Affairs argues that ‘the effect of talking again about two states is to mask a one-state reality that will almost surely become even more entrenched in the war’s aftermath’. On the whole this is a welcome shift, reflecting the mainstreaming of Palestine solidarity and support for multi-ethnic democracy over Zionist supremacism. Yet there are good reasons for the Western left to tread carefully here. Given the current regional coordinates, is one-statism still the most principled and realistic option? The irremediable sickness of settler society, clearer and more horrifying than ever, may be just as much a barrier to one state as the entrenched colonial geography of the Occupied Territories is to two. If the uprooting of settlers from the West Bank is impossible to imagine, it is surely harder still foresee Israelis accepting the end of ethno-nationalism and peacefully cohabitating with Palestinians.

The Palestinian people – in Gaza, the West Bank, historic Palestine and al-Shatat – will inevitably determine the telos of their struggle. Solutionism risks abrogating this basic principle, and even making major strategic and ethical judgements on their behalf. While two-state models tend to deny Palestinians the right of return, one-state discourses might mean telling them to surrender the fight for decolonization, make friends with their oppressors and permit all settlers to stay. Such decisions could at some point be made by the Palestinians themselves – hence the importance of democratizing their national political structures to enable genuine popular deliberation – but they cannot be presupposed. In this sense, valorization of final-status political forms can involve losing sight of anti-colonial first principles. It can also neglect the objective conditions needed to establish lasting peace in the region. For no ‘solution’ that fails to command mass support from the Palestinians will endure, and only an endpoint that upholds their inalienable rights is likely to have such democratic standing.

It is on this basis that organizations like Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign have long refused to take a position within the strictures of solutionist debates: one state, two states, no state. For them, the primary aim is to build political pressure to redress the crimes on which Israel was founded: the denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the return of refugees. The struggle against these brutalities must precede the development of political blueprints for the region; indeed, the course of the former will invariably determine the shape of the latter. As the Palestinian scholar Karma Nabulsi puts it: ‘I’m very secular about what the solution should be. Some people are very keen on two states . . . There are those who argue for one, bi-national state. I would say, it’s much simpler than that. Allow the injustice to be rectified . . . Once people can return to their homes, let those people democratically decide, the people that live there, what kind of framework they want.’

This perspective has particular relevance to the post-7 October reality. Given both the historic strength and popular legitimacy of the Palestinian armed resistance, it cannot be assumed that the establishment of one democratic state in, say, the coming three decades is more plausible than the liberation of some Palestinian land from colonial occupation. In 1974, the PLO’s Political Programme stated that it would ‘employ all means . . . to liberate Palestinian territory and to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated’. This vision, of asserting Palestinian rule over portions of liberated land, now seems remarkably contemporary. As Tareq Baconi has shown, the strategic conception of Hamas’s founders was not dissimilar, in aiming to secure a ‘complete withdrawal from the West Bank, the Strip and Jerusalem without giving up on 80% of Palestine’. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi looked to Hezbollah’s success in forcing the Israelis out of south Lebanon as a model for how this approach might work.

Such a trajectory, however unlikely, may now be more probable than the miraculous deradicalization of Israeli society. Of course, the odds remain daunting, not least because of the triumph of counter-revolutionary forces across the Arab world over the past decade. Perhaps the single most consequential and dispiriting factor here is the decimation of radical civil society in Egypt under the iron rule of El-Sisi – which, until it is overturned, could well preclude justice for the Palestinians. Yet the picture is complicated by the gradual waning of American dominance and the striking durability of the ‘resistance axis’. On such overdetermined terrain, there is no reason to think that the Palestinian struggle will conform to neat teleologies or ideal-types. Both imperial two-statism and more honourable visions of secular democracy long for quick-fixes: the former hoping to impose ‘order’, the latter to end the unbearable suffering in Gaza and the West Bank. But it is vital to note that most Palestinian conceptions of the struggle are temporally indeterminate. This is a national liberation project that has learned to distrust false promises of imminent salvation. We might therefore ask whether there is an element of projection in the search for rapid ‘solutions’ which are more easily assimilable and less discomforting for Westerners than a protracted, armed, anti-colonial struggle.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.

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Reactionary Ecology

For many continental philosophers, the first two decades of the new millennium were a time of vibrant matter, hyperobjects, and a weird fixation with intestinal microbes. The late Bruno Latour saw this ‘new materialist’ doctrine – which decentred the human subject in favour of the world of ‘things’, believed to have agency of their own – as a useful resource in his career-long polemic against Marxism. Yet as Alyssa Battistoni has argued, Latour nonetheless ‘inched to the left’ during the latter half of the 2010s, focusing increasingly on the climate crisis and its imbrication with capitalist production. By way of Gaia theory, he became less concerned with micro-agency and began to develop a concept of the totality of interlocking organic and inorganic planetary forces. In Down to Earth (2019), he even introduced a form of overarching social antagonism by suggesting that the primary division of the twenty-first century was between the majority of the global population, who recognized the earth’s biophysical boundaries, and the elites who transgressed and disavowed them. 

This apparent radicalization culminated in Latour’s final published work, On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo (2022), co-authored with the young Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz. Here, all prior reservations about terms like ‘class’, ‘society’ or ‘capitalism’ seem to have evaporated. No more sniffing the ground in search of lost microorganisms. Latour – true to his name – towers above the political landscape, scanning it in search of an ‘ecological class’ capable of salvaging the planet. Divided into 76 short entries, each of which takes up little more than a page, the Memo aims to develop a new ecologism capable of winning ‘the battle of ideas’ – just as ‘liberalism, followed by the various socialisms, then neoliberalism, and finally, more recently, the illiberal or neofascist parties’, have done. How should we assess this ambitious final project? To what extent can the late Latour be described as a figure of the left?

Latour and Schultz write that, in the present conjuncture, ecologism must cut across social categories to achieve hegemony. It must break the Marxist monopoly on class struggle and consolidate environmental activists of every variety into a single, universal subject. If this movement has not yet come to fruition, that is because of a ‘crisis in our mobilization capabilities’ caused by ‘anxiety, guilt and impotence’: ‘all these sad passions so characteristic of the times’. A ‘misalignment of affects’ at the level of our shared existence has left us ‘powerless to act collectively’. This, in turn, is described as the result of modernity’s ceaseless expansion of ‘production’, which has alienated and uprooted premodern community life. For Latour and Schultz, the fundamental problem isn’t property rights, capitalist social relations or wealth disparities; the world is simply out of joint. To realign it so that mass collective action is easier to imagine, the Memo urges us to recalibrate various political-ecological concepts: ‘soil, territory, land, nation, people, attachment, tradition, boundary, border.’ 

The authors are aware of the reactionary connotations of these terms. Still, they insist that rather than invoking them as abstract values, they are repopulating them ‘with a whole host of living things’: feminist movements, decolonial uprisings, indigenous struggles for land rights. Religion, too, can supposedly be reclaimed for progressive ecology. Latour – described by one obituarist as ‘the most important Catholic philosopher in the world’ – views the faithful as potential future allies, who have already been labouring, ‘over the course of centuries, to transform souls’. ‘So let’s add to our list all those who work, rite after rite, to make sure that the “cry of the Earth and the Poor” – to take up the beautiful expression (or, rather, cry!) of Pope Francis – is finally heard’.

Drawing on Christian theology, the authors’ ultimate ambition is to gather together the lost souls from across the world and give them a renewed sense of purpose and direction under the banner of ecology. The Memo directly addresses anyone who may be inclined to fight for climate justice, urging them to overcome the internal obstacles to political activity. In their conclusion, the authors draw a parallel between military mobilization for war and affective mobilization for ecologism, asserting that in the final analysis, ‘political ecology’ is ‘the name of a war zone’.

Full of literary flourishes, programmatic statements and bombastic assertions, The Emergence of an Ecological Class mimics the style of an avant-garde manifesto. The reader is warned at the outset that they ‘won’t find nuances or notes’. Yet the book also begins by quoting the dictionary definition of ‘mémorandum’: originally a term for an official document outlining the government’s views on a given issue. This curious combination of forms speaks to an underlying tension: between the elite sensibility of the authors and the popular cause they claim to advocate. Latour and Shultz write that ‘Marx remains an indispensable guide’ in their endeavour, and they recycle his image of a haunting spectre – substituting ecologism for communism. But when faced with the radical implications of a Marxian approach to climate crisis, they instinctively recoil, and the Memo’s bureaucratic temperament supplants the manifesto’s political urgency. 

This is most apparent in the authors’ discussion of their eponymous class subject. Membership of the ecological class is not reserved for the proletarianized, the propertyless, the underemployed, the precariat, or the racialized ‘surplus’ populations disproportionally affected by climate change (though they are, presumably, welcome to join its ranks). It is rather defined by the question, ‘When disputes involve ecology, who do you feel close to and who do you feel terribly far away from?’ Latour and Shultz deny any structural division between owners and producers, creditors and debtors, and replace an analysis of material fault lines with a faux solidarity based on gut instinct.

The effect is to flatten the social terrain by making ‘affects’ the primary determinant of one’s socio-political position. Rather than pitting the exploited working masses against their natural enemies – settler colonizers, landowners, industrialists and rentiers – Latour and Schulz juxtapose ‘living beings’ to ‘modernization’. This leaves them with a quasi-Heideggerian ecology, saturated with the jargon of dwelling places and authentic existence. ‘Primitive’ life is idealized as the antidote to ecocidal ‘development’. Attempting to outrun the long shadow cast by the tradition of class struggle, the authors embrace a reactionary obscurantism.

At the same time, the Memo evokes the blandest variety of French centrism, asserting that ecologism represents ‘the grain of truth in the cliché “neither right nor left”’, and framing politics as a ‘battle of ideas’ instead of as a struggle between classes. Ni droite ni gauche was once a mantra of the far right, as Zeev Sternhell demonstrated in his 1983 study of L’idéologie fasciste en France. Today, it has become associated with the post-political vision of Macron – who, shortly after the news of Latour’s death, lamented the loss of this great ‘thinker of ecology’. Formally at least, Latour’s ecologism resembles macronisme in holding that ideas and principles, through their persuasive power alone, can surmount political divisions and win support from across the social spectrum.

Latour and Schulz argue that before sad passions paralysed the world, ‘people’s energies used to flow from their ideals’ and ‘understanding a situation was enough to mobilize’ for social change. Their primary task, then, is not political – to assess the balance of societal forces and the strategies for overturning them – but pedagogical: to ensure that those who are choosing between the ideology of the ‘ruling class’ and that of the ‘ecological class’ know that truth and justice are on the side of the latter. There is no need to undertake a detailed analysis of contemporary radical politics and the conditions of emergence for a unified climate movement. Instead, the proper role of intellectuals is closer to that of neoliberal politicians: ‘selling’ the correct environmentalist doctrine to the people.

The book’s proximity to a sales pitch is clear from its overwrought prose (not to mention its frequent use of exclamation marks!). Yet in the final analysis, what is being sold to the reader is not a set of principles or policies, but rather a series of self-help precepts. As is typical of the genre, the Memo lays out its central purpose on its title page: ‘How to promote the emergence of an ecological class that’s self-aware and proud.’ For Latour and Schulz, pride is the foremost remedy for ‘misaligned affects’, the emotion that will embolden the ecologically-minded to take action. Their aim is to instil this feeling, not in any particular class subject, but in anyone who – thanks to the onslaught of undifferentiated ‘modernity’ – has become paralysed by loneliness, frustration, fear, shame or guilt. On the Emergence of an Ecological Class must be read in this light: as a ‘how to’ book for would-be climate activists who yearn to escape their existential inertia but are still too timid to blow up a pipeline.

Read on: Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Latour’s Metamorphosis’, NLR—Sidecar.

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Death of the Innovator?

One of the many contradictions within the ideological realm of Silicon Valley and its satellites is between a faith in decentralization and an infatuation with corporate ‘leadership’. Identifying companies by the surnames of their chief executives – Altman for OpenAI, Ellison for Oracle, Zuckerberg for Meta – has become industry parlance. In the trade press, there is a prevailing sense that these names serve as synonyms rather than metonyms, as if the individual atop the corporation is also the hinge upon which its success or failure turns. Yahoo’s botched acquisitions, security breaches and monetization challenges throughout the 2010s were indelibly associated with its CEO Marissa Mayer. The triumphant comeback of a near-bankrupt Apple in the late 1990s was attributed to Steve Jobs’s fabled boardroom coup.

CEOs did not always occupy such a privileged place in global business culture. Corporate leaders were once as anonymous to the public ‘as their secretaries, chauffeurs, and shoe-shiners’, according to the Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana. In his 2002 study Searching for a Corporate Saviour: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs, Khurana describes the shifting practical and symbolic function of these figures since the late nineteenth century. The original titans of industry – the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, Henry Ford, Charles Eastman et al. – gained public notoriety for their empire-building, technical and managerial innovations, philanthropic endeavours and anti-labour agitation. They embodied a distinctly bourgeois type of Weberian charismatic authority, wherein the accumulation of wealth was seen as a divinely ordained reward for their exceptional work ethic. By the mid-twentieth century, though, this image had been transformed, as the development of corporate routines, procedures, laws and norms led to a recognizably modern form of legal or rational authority.

At this point, the tycoon was reincarnated as a capable administrator. While Khurana attributes this to the rise of tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini, which burst the ‘myth of the self-made man’, a more comprehensive explanation might draw a connection between the midcentury CEO and the formal management principles of Taylorism. Appeals to rationality and efficiency impersonalized the subjugation of labour by capital. Exploitation could no longer be personified by the corporate baron, since workplace conditions were the result of an ethically neutral, law-like system of analysis, calculation and planning. Though organized labour continued to revolt against the ‘straw boss’ of the Fordized factory, by the 1950s the growing scale of corporate operations, as well as the supersession of entrepreneurs and their heirs by shareholders and then by boards of directors and managers, helped usher in a period during which the CEO delegated much of the firm’s visible daily operations.

By the 1980s, conditions were ripe for another transformation. The effect of the Dow Jones’s five-year bull market, followed by the much longer rally of the next decade, was reflected in the fortunes of the mutual fund. After the US Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1978 – which legalized and popularized tax-deferred, defined contribution plans, or 401(k)s – money poured into these pooled investment vehicles, which meant that the capital of non-professional or ‘everyday’ investors was funnelled into a diversified range of corporate shares. This had two significant implications. It supplied a broad baseline of demand for stocks, and it encouraged a widespread emotional commitment to the overall performance of the stock market. American news outlets still devote an overwhelming amount of airtime to stock price levels; Donald Trump often seemed to peg the success of his presidency to the performance of the S&P 500, and funds that replicate that index’s performance have surged in popularity in recent decades amongst the international investment community.

This enabled the rapid expansion of the business press – with outlets like CNBC, MSNBC and Bloomberg News founded during the 1980s and 1990s, alongside many more specialized finance reporting publications – as well as the coveted new job title of ‘stock market analyst’. Business journalism narrowed its focus, emphasizing the short-term performance of individual companies, for which the stock price was a clear and readily available barometer. Naturally, as Khurana notes, this coverage was always ‘tinged with the individualistic bias of American culture’, focussing on single personalities over complex strategies. Chief among them was the CEO, the most visible embodiment of a company’s fate.

At the same time, the duties of the CEO began to skew much more heavily toward media appearances, shareholder summits, industry conferences, earnings calls, one-on-one briefings and other responsibilities under the umbrella of ‘investor relations’. The ideal corporate leader was one who commanded the attention of, and inspired confidence in, a greatly expanded field of stakeholders. Those who could do so were remunerated with skyrocketing executive earnings. Khurana charts the rise of the ‘outsider CEO’, describing the process by which the scouting for a new chief executive evolved from a bland formality – merely the next promotion for a dutiful senior employee that had climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder – into a trumpeted media spectacle.

This period also saw the revival of the mythology of the founder-entrepreneur – which, not coincidentally, occurred in tandem with the tech boom, as well as a significant rise in both the popularity of venture capital funding models and the number of firms seeking access to capital. In this environment, technology moguls needed to proclaim paradigm-shifting ambitions for their work, and sought out creative ways of narrativizing those ambitions. This was reflected in the peculiar literary genre that emerged at this time and remains on the bestseller lists today: the evangelizing business biography or autobiography. A staple of this genre, as Khurana notes, is showing how the subject achieved success despite early-life misfortune: a stutter for Chrysler’s Jack Welch, dyslexia for Cisco’s John Chambers. More recent hagiographies have continued this trend: Walter Isaacson’s study of Steve Jobs dwells on his childhood adoption and pancreatic cancer diagnosis, while Ashlee Vance’s portrait of Elon Musk explains the effects of teenage bullying and marital breakdown on this ‘real-life Tony Stark’.

Can the cult of ‘the innovator’ sustain itself in the 2020s? Consider Jobs’s presentation at MacWorld 2007, a pomp-and-circumstance ceremony during which Apple announces its upcoming products. In his keynote, Jobs listed the three new devices to be released that year – ‘an iPod with touch controls, a phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device’ – before lifting the veil to reveal that these were, in fact, the functions of one single hybrid device, the iPhone. This has become the dominant template for technological innovation: what Jason E. Smith calls the ‘twenty-first-century Swiss army knife’, in which already-existing capabilities are mixed, assimilated, adapted and subsumed into multi-functional, composite tools. The consumer gadgets of recent decades are nifty chimeras that can recombine and superficially enhance familiar technological functions. This, Smith argues, signals the systemic absence of the kind of revolutionary innovation which once transformed daily life for the general population – automobiles, railroads, electrification, telecommunication, photography and cinematography – and made major productivity gains for the greater capitalist economy.

Today, we are witnessing this innovation-as-recombination reproduce itself at the level of the firm. The death of the internal research laboratory, once epitomized by institutions such as Bell Labs or the Manhattan Project, signals an organizational strategy that Nancy Ettlinger calls ‘the openness paradigm’, in which firms downsize or eliminate in-house R&D, opting for a coordinated practice of socialized innovation characterized by the external sourcing of research, technology and skills. Like the iPhone, the twenty-first-century technology firm becomes a composite tool, a heterogeneous collection of proprietary patents and licences, contracted vendors and suppliers, autonomous divisions and teams, open-source projects and frameworks, third-party integrations and cloud providers, browser-native applications and platforms, and transferrable educational competencies gathered across a transnational corporate reservoir. Amid this flux, the CEO must project an image of unity and integrity. Yet, when the market value of a company falls, the chief executive is revealed to be just another modular unit from the repository.

Read on: Sebastian Budgen, ‘A New “Spirit of Capitalism”’, NLR 1.

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Line of Succession

This year, elections across the world are offering a stark reminder that voters can expect very little from liberal democracy, even under conditions of ‘free and fair’ competition. It’s easy to bemoan the rigged results in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Russia, or the advantages of incumbency for the BJP in India and the ANC in South Africa. But the spectacle of a Biden-Trump rematch in the US, plus the dismal expectations for a Starmer government in the UK, suggest that problems with contemporary electoral systems are not confined to repressive or clientelist regimes. In Indonesia, the third most populous – and largest majority-Muslim – democracy in the world, a notoriously sinister and volatile figure is now set to take office. Prabowo Subianto, elected on 14 February, is an ex-son-in-law of the long-time military dictator Suharto, a former Army general dishonourably discharged after allegedly overseeing the kidnap and torture of dissidents, and a politician who has exploited ethnic and religious tensions and is now threatening to return the country to authoritarian rule.

Prabowo ran in the previous two elections and lost both times to Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’). Having been co-opted as Jokowi’s Defence Minister in 2019, he stood again in 2024 with the president’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka as his running mate – a clear sign that his candidacy had been blessed by the incumbent. Jokowi’s tacit endorsement – as well as the bullying, bribery and bandwagoning of local officials to mobilize support – may help to explain why Prabowo’s 58% vote share on election day was nearly ten percentage points above pre-election polls. The scale of his victory obviated the need for a run-off against his two opponents, former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who picked up 24%, and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, who won only 17%. Yet to fully grasp why Indonesians have anointed this grotesque figure, we must take a closer look at the country’s political system.

Compared to earlier iterations of democracy, the parameters of Indonesian politics have been set very narrowly since the return to competitive elections in 1999. During the early post-war struggle for independence, the beleaguered Republik was led by a succession of fractious multi-party governments. Following emancipation from Dutch rule, it saw a short-lived parliamentarist experiment, with four parties dominating the 1955 elections: Partai Nasionalis Indonesia (22%), Masyumi (21%), Nahdlatul Ulama (18%), and Partai Komunis Indonesia (16%). Each was a mass organization with its own regional and sociological strengths and onderbouw of civil society groups. At this time the PKI was steadily building power among the electorate and within the state. Its labour federation, peasant union, women’s and youth groups – along with its cadre of artists and intellectuals and its numerous party publications – made it a formidable presence in public life and political discourse: probably the largest legal, above-ground Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and the PRC.

But this highly inclusive and participatory system could not survive the Cold War era. Amidst the CIA-backed regional rebellions of 1957-59, President Soekarno proclaimed martial law and dissolved parliament, banning Masyumi in 1960. Following a military coup in late 1965, led by Army general Suharto and supported by the US, the PKI was obliterated in an anti-communist pogrom, with hundreds of thousands of activists and affiliates murdered, and millions more subjected to intimidation and incarceration. Over the next three decades, the military regime retained a thin veneer of pseudo-democratic legitimacy, with carefully stage-managed elections producing both a pliant parliament and a largely appointed supra-parliamentary body, which reliably ‘re-elected’ Suharto and his chosen vice-president every five years. The PNI and the two small Catholic and Protestant parties were forced to merge into the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI), while NU and other Islamic parties were combined into the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP, or United Development Party). Meanwhile, the regime’s electoral machine, Golkar (an abbreviation of Golongan Karya or ‘Functionary Groups’), dominated the largely rubber-stamp parliament thanks to the guaranteed support of the military establishment, the bureaucracy and, with the rise of Indonesian capital over the 1980s and early-mid 1990s, the expanding business class.

It was only amidst the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, and Suharto’s stubborn prioritization of his children’s business empires and political fortunes, that open dissent and outright defections eventually destabilized the regime. In May 1998, Golkar leaders joined with cabinet ministers and senior Army figures to insist that Suharto give way to vice-president B.J. Habibie, the long-time Minister of Research and Technology and bitter rival of Suharto’s daughter Tutut. The diverse business interests represented within the regime – construction companies and customs brokerages, logging and mining concessions, agribusiness and real-estate firms – could not withstand the continuing depreciation of the rupiah and the deepening economic downturn. Suharto and his family had to go.

Habibie restored competitive elections in 1999 and Indonesia’s party system expanded, but within tightly circumscribed limits. Enduring anti-communism ruled out any resurrection of the PKI. Union organizers and student activists had little choice but to join the rebranded PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), which was led by Soekarno’s daughter Megawati Soekarnoputri, and backed by enough retired Army officers and evangelical Protestant businessmen to offset any left-leaning tendencies. The 1999 election results set the tone for Indonesian democracy in the new millennium: 34% for the PDI-P, 22% for Golkar, and much of the remaining votes split among a welter of smaller parties representing various streams of Islamic education and associational life. This new system offered a highly conservative form of pluralism, with each party and its financiers enjoying state patronage and policy influence in a succession of broad-based coalition governments, which onlookers soon began to label ‘party cartels’.

Against this backdrop, prospects for meaningful political or economic reform were largely confined to the presidency. After Megawati’s brief and disappointing stint in office between 2001 and 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired Army general with a marketable reputation as a ‘professional soldier’ and experienced cabinet minister, was elected, first in 2004 and again in 2009, promising to rise above the corruption and fractiousness of party politics. But his ten years in office proved to be a decade of missed opportunities for institutional reform and industrial deepening, amidst the bonanza of multiple commodity booms driven by rising demand from nearby China.

In 2014, Jokowi’s presidential candidacy offered what appeared to be a more promising vision of change from the top down. A small-time businessman with a furniture-exporting company, Jokowi was praised for his problem-solving and coalition-building skills as the PDI-P mayor of the Central Javanese city of Solo, and for his well-publicized impromptu chats with local residents as Governor of Jakarta. His supposedly ‘clean’ business background, his record of campaigning and cooperating with ethnic-Chinese Christian deputies, his engagement with local NGOs, community groups and labour leaders, and his distance from Megawati – now chairwoman of the PDI-P – raised hopes that he would be an incorruptible, independent, inclusive and progressive president.

Under Jokowi’s tenure, economic growth continued thanks to global demand for Indonesian minerals, palm oil and other exports, and the government engaged in a massive infrastructure spending spree that helped to boost the president’s popularity. Jokowi also impressed some Indonesians by taking up the mantle of economic nationalism. He imposed a ban on the export of unprocessed minerals such as nickel, in which Indonesia holds a commanding share of the global market, spurring a wave of investment – most of it Chinese – in new mineral processing plants. In response to rising concerns about low-lying, flood-prone and continuously sinking Jakarta, Jokowi rolled out plans to relocate the national capital to a new planned city in a remote rural patch of East Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo. Such measures helped to sustain his popularity ratings, which remained above 80% throughout his two terms in office.

Yet expectations of progressive reform were sadly mistaken, as seen in the introduction of new laws placing restrictions on union organizing, the media and sexual freedoms. By the end of his decade in power, the labour movement, civic activists and human rights groups felt bitterly betrayed. Critics charged Jokowi with an increasingly authoritarian disposition and an intolerance for dissent. He retained as close advisers a number of retired Army generals such as A.M. Hendropriyono, the former head of Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency, who was implicated in a massacre of Islamist activists in 1989 and the assassination of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004.

But the biggest disappointment was yet to come. Following raucous street protests after his re-election in 2019, Jokowi brought his two-time opponent Prabowo into the Cabinet as Defence Minister, ignoring concerns about the latter’s incendiary rhetoric and human rights record. In late 2023, rather than accepting Megawati’s choice of former Central Java Governor as the PDI-P’s presidential candidate, Jokowi struck a backroom deal with Prabowo and spent the final months of his presidency ensuring the victory of his anointed heir. So much for the promise of change.

How to characterize Prabowo himself? In most Western media coverage, there is a near-pathological tendency to portray him as a marginalized figure whose political resurrection reflects the ‘populist’ appeal of his brash and personalist style. But Prabowo’s ascent to the presidency can only be understood through a properly historicized analysis. He was born in 1951 into the ranks of the priyayi, the Javanese aristocracy which staffed the Dutch colonial state and survived the transition to independence, as well as subsequent decades of economic, social, and political change, with many of its privileges intact. His grandfather was a Dutch-educated colonial civil servant who joined the Republican government during the Revolusi and founded the country’s central bank. Prabowo’s father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, received his PhD in Economics from the University of Rotterdam and went on to hold key economic portfolios in successive cabinets in the 1950s. But as a leading member of the conservative Partai Sosialis Indonesia (PSI), Sumitro played a role in the anti-Soekarno rebellions later that decade, whose defeat forced him and his family into exile for much of Prabowo’s adolescence.

With the establishment of a conservative military regime under Suharto in the mid-1960s, however, Sumitro returned to Indonesia to serve as Minister of Trade (1968-73), playing a key role in the reopening of the Indonesian economy to foreign loans, investment and trade. Prabowo entered the Indonesian Military Academy in 1970 and graduated four years later. His family background and formative years bear the traces of Dutch colonial rule, aristocratic privilege and the success of conservative anti-communism and economic liberalism in weathering both the transition to independence and the eventual lurch to military dictatorship.

Prabowo’s Army career spanned much of the Suharto era and the heyday of military rule, with his marriage to one of Suharto’s daughters in 1983 ensuring his rise to senior leadership roles. Much of his career was spent in Special Forces (Kopassus), with long stints in Indonesian-occupied East Timor and alleged involvement in large-scale violence against civilians, including the deployment of irregular militias to terrorize the local population. He faced similar allegations when he led Kopassus operations in West Papua, where local resistance to forced incorporation into Indonesia in the late 1960s was met with harsh military repression throughout the Suharto era and beyond.

The mid-1990s saw Prabowo promoted to key Army positions in Jakarta, first as Commander of Kopassus and then as Commander of Kostrad, the Army Strategic Reserve – the position held by Suharto when he seized power in late 1965. By the spring of 1998, when the ageing dictator was facing an unprecedented economic crisis and calls for his resignation, Prabowo controlled the single largest garrison in Jakarta, while close friends held the key Kopassus and Greater Jakarta Region commands. It was in this context that Prabowo arranged for the illegal detention of leading student activists and orchestrated large-scale rioting in Jakarta, evidently envisaging a martial law scenario in which he could consolidate power.

But with the accelerating flight of capital and ethnic-Chinese businessmen from the country and defections from within the regime, an alternative re-stabilization plan was put in place in late May 1998. Suharto resigned, Habibie assumed the presidency, and Armed Forces Commander Wiranto regained effective control over the military establishment. Prabowo and his allies were summarily removed from their commands, and within months he was discharged from the Armed Forces. It took him no less than twenty-five years to make a full comeback, using his sizeable fortune (acquired through interests in fossil fuels and palm oil), party machinery (including his own Greater Indonesia Movement, Gerakan Indonesia Raya or Gerindra), and social-media presence to mount a successful presidential campaign, which promised continuity with his predecessor on key policy fronts.

For many younger Indonesian voters, this backstory may have seemed utterly irrelevant in the run-up to the election, and Prabowo’s larger-than-life personality may have inspired confidence in his ability to exert presidential authority more effectively than his opponents. Over the years Prabowo has built a reputation as an effective political operator. He heads his own party, and he managed to win both a cabinet seat and a tacit endorsement from Jokowi while appropriating some of his popularity. In a depressingly stable system of oligarchical democracy, where the political field is narrowed by the requirement of nomination by one of the major parties, along with the practical necessities of campaign financing, Prabowo’s election is hardly a ‘populist’ aberration. It is, rather, an ugly reflection of what democracy has come to mean in Indonesia today. Prabowo and his family played a central role in the country’s post-independence history, and he is emblematic of the ultra-conservative forces which continue to haunt its present and its future.

Read on: Rohana Kuddus, ‘Explaining Jokowi’, NLR 130.

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Sublimations

Terence Davies, who died late last year, described the final film he made – though he had no way of knowing it would be that at the time – as a love poem. Passing Time was commissioned as part of a project that paired directors with composers, and in the music of Florencia Di Concilio he heard the ‘tentative bittersweet sensation of remembering’. Consisting of a single, still shot captured on an iPhone, Davies shows us a view of the Essex countryside, the spire of a church looming in the distance. Birds rise into the air, lowering to land on the branches of distant trees. Their song rings out and fades into Di Concillio’s score, overlaid with Davies’s rich, low voice:

If you let me know you’re there,

in silence’s embrace; breathe a sigh and tell me so,

for you are gone and not replaced

but echoes of your lovely self will bear us through life’s cruel stream,

and if I am to join you there,

oh what joy your face will bring.

Oh tell me now,

oh tell me all,

for my poor heart with tears is ringed.

We hear the flutter of pages, and then the music swells and the screen fades to black. ‘We recorded the poem twice in my study at home; the first take I dissolved into floods of tears on the final word, and the second take had me shuffling the pages’, Davies explained. ‘I think we chose the best one.’ In these three minutes, we see so much of what distinguished Davies as a director. A love of nature, of music, of poetry, of family – matched by an acute awareness of suffering and loss. The looming presence of religion. The presence of Davies himself, made explicit here by the use of his own poetry and voice. And memory, pressing down like a thumb on a bruise. The poem is dedicated to his sister Maisie – ‘Her loss broke my heart’.

It’s hard to talk about Davies’s films without reference to his biography because the two are so closely entwined. Born into a working-class Liverpool family two months after the end of World War II, Terence was the youngest of ten children. ‘I don’t want to watch violence. I had enough of that in my childhood’, Davies later reflected. ‘My father was a psychopath’. He died when Davies was seven. ‘For about four years, I lived in utter bliss. I was happy all the time. Then I had to go up to secondary school…’ It was around this time that Davies realized he was gay. He struggled enormously. ‘I prayed to God: “Please make me like the others. Why must I be different from them?” Being homosexual destroyed my life. Really destroyed it. In school, I was beaten for it for four years.’ He left at fifteen to become a bookkeeper, prayed until his knees bled, and finally left the church when he was twenty-two. ‘I can’t revisit that’, Davies said of this time in his life. ‘My teenage years and my twenties were some of the most wretched in my life. True despair. Despair is worse than any pain.’

Yet Davies began his cinematic career by revisiting it. His first three films were a trilogy of shorts, Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration (1976-83). They follow Robert Tucker, Davies’s surrogate, through an unhappy childhood into lonely adulthood. While we see the beginnings of Davies’s signature style – long, elegant tracking shots and dissolves, an obsession with the human face, an associative and dreamlike structure that mimics memory, musical anachronism – it is entirely in service of despair. Robert weeps on ferries and in the records room in his office. His sexual fantasies and encounters are haunted, his interest in masochism tormented rather than the playful transgression of a Kenneth Anger or a John Waters. Robert’s only comfort is the love of his mother, whose death devastates him and leaves him with nothing except his own death ahead of him.

When asked about the choice to shoot the trilogy in black-and-white, Davies mused that ‘the problem with colour is that it does prettify and soften everything – there’s an intrinsic richness you can’t get away from. And I don’t like pretty pictures.’ These are beautiful films, but entirely without solace. ‘I was not only exploring literal truth – my relationship with my mother and father, my religious and sexual guilt’, Davies wrote in the introduction to a collection of his early screenplays. ‘I was also examining my terrors’. It is remarkable that Davies’s next films transcend this mood not by looking to the present or the future, but to the past. As T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets, poems which Davies loved so deeply he apparently carried a book of them when he travelled, ‘This is the use of memory: / For liberation – not less of love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire, and so liberation/ From the future as well as the past.’

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) draw on the years of ‘utter bliss’ between the death of his father and the awakening of his sexuality. They remain his best-known films. The first was shot in two parts, two years apart, and concentrates on the lives of his older siblings: ‘they were all wonderful storytellers . . . They were so vivid that they became sort of part of my memory, I felt as though I’d almost experienced them’. Davies dramatizes this, reproducing events not as they happened but as he felt them; he shoots from the foot of the stairs, looking out like a child sitting by the door. The Long Day Closes then turns to his own experience. In this sense it covers the same ground as the first of the trilogy, but here the everyday is not haunted by pain but transfigured by the glimmering of memory. Streaks of rain on the windows, projected into oozing drips of light running down the wall. The voice of his mother singing softly in a darkened room; the sun flaring through the clouds for only a moment as they sail by. The whistle of a rod moving through the air as a teacher whips each student in turn. The shadows of two faces glimpsed behind the decorative glass of a door, uniting into one when their lips meet.

At the time of Distant Voices, Still Lives Davies explained that he made films ‘in order to come to terms with my family history’. But by 1992, he had reconsidered. ‘I thought it would be a catharsis, but it wasn’t. All it did was make me realize my sense of loss’. His next film – an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s coming-of-age novel The Neon Bible (1995) set in rural Georgia – reflects this. The attempt to transpose his autobiographical concerns into an alien setting led to a strangely shaped film, which was a commercial and critical failure. In spite of moments of brilliance, it is at once too close to reality and too far from it. Davies accepted this, but he also saw it as a ‘transitional work’, insisting that he could not have made his subsequent Edith Wharton adaptation, The House of Mirth (2000), without it.

If The Neon Bible didn’t allow Davies’s style to expand fully, The House of Mirth is perfect for it. You can’t help but feel Davies is having fun, even as Lily Bart descends the social ladder into hell. How could he not, with a heroine firing off lines like ‘If obliquity were a vice, we should all be tainted’? On first viewing, the film plays like a standard melodrama – Davies’s trademark associative style replaced by plot and dialogue. Davies grew up watching ‘women’s pictures’, and the film has much in common with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or Frank Borzage. As Luc Moullet once wrote about Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You, ‘the excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty’. The House of Mirth succeeds on similar terms. The more hysterically defeated Lily is, the greater the power of the film – and the greater the power of Davies’s style. When Lily departs on a doomed trip to Europe, Davies slowly tracks through ghostly rooms filled with covered furniture, dissolving and moving through each one in turn until we see a garden doused in summer rain and then, finally, the liquid glitter of sunlight on water.

‘It seemed completely natural to me to make a women’s picture’, Davies said. When asked about his use of music, he revealed why it came so naturally:

I grew up with American musicals. It’s a woman’s genre, as people said then, but for me it was a frame of reference. That’s why there is so much singing in my autobiographical films. For minutes at a time, the camera stays on the singer’s face. Naturally, the songs didn’t do away with the brutality we were subjected to. Yet music was healing. That’s how women are in north England. They’re strong and capable, they have a sense of humour, and they sing. I grew up among these women. Neither the women nor I understood at the time that they expressed their feelings through their songs. Singing changed them, gave them a way to speak about themselves, without becoming too personal.

To suffer, to forgive, to learn the trick of transfiguration by turning experience into song. If autobiography had failed Davies, his identification with women’s lives and women’s suffering gave him the freedom of disguise. The House of Mirth was both an artistic breakthrough and a critical success, but Davies was unable to get another film made. He spent years shopping projects around, but they all fell through: ‘I’m sick of not working and having no money. Work is my raison d’etre, and if that’s taken away from me I don’t have a reason to be alive.’ His first films had been made with funding from the British Film Institute Production Board, which was abolished in 2000, and it was only through other sources of cultural funding that Davies found work again. His wonderful city symphony, Of Time and The City (2008), was commissioned as part of Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture. And his return to fiction, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2011), was commissioned by the Rattigan Trust to mark the playwright’s centenary.

The Deep Blue Sea and Sunset Song (2015) begin where House of Mirth’s sublimation of autobiographical concerns left off. Between them, they have all of Davies’s trademarks: tormented desire, a distaste for religion, groups of people bursting into song, abusive and unstable men, and women who somehow manage. Their heroines bear enormous suffering. Hester’s tormented, adulterous love affair and its painful consequences in The Deep Blue Sea; Chris’s abusive father, returned to her in the form of a doting husband transformed by World War I in Sunset Song. There is a rape scene in Sunset Song so horrible I found on revisiting the film that I remembered it almost exactly: the camera slowly moving closer as Chris weeps and struggles. She screams at her husband to put out the lights, and, mercifully, Davies puts the lights out too – the camera moving down to the darkness under the bed.

But there are also moments of perfect tenderness: Davies’s swooning camera moving through a pub singalong to ‘You Belong To Me’ in The Deep Blue Sea, the camera closing in on Hester and her lover. He sings to her, but she doesn’t know the words – stopping, laughing, watching his lips. And then just the two of them dancing in warm light, the camera pushing in closer still as they rotate slowly, her arms around his neck, clasping hands, kissing. Tenderness and suffering: the world will give you both, but not in equal measure. For Davies, the transformation of life into art was the only way to bear this fact. Perhaps this is why his last two feature films were about poets: Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016) and Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction (2021). My favourite – perhaps of all his films, in spite of its occasional awkwardnesses – is A Quiet Passion, where Dickinson’s poetry hangs over the film like mist over water. In a scene where the young Emily sits in a firelit parlour with her family, she looks up at them with a faint smile on her lips. The camera follows her eyes, and we hear:

The heart asks pleasure first,

And then, excuse from pain;

And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;

And then, if it should be

The Will of its Inquisitor

The liberty to die.

It’s a moment that’s almost overdetermined – freighted with the relationship between Dickinson’s life and her work, between Davies’s life and his work, between pleasure and pain, life and death. The camera moves slowly around the room, lingering on the face of each family member in turn. It is perfectly silent except for the sound of a clock chiming and the crackle of the fire. And when the camera finally lights on Emily’s face again, something in her has changed. Her eyes glisten and shift side to side as if panicked, her lips turned down faintly. When asked about the scene, Davies said: ‘When we come back to her, I said to her, “But something in you has died,” and I didn’t explain it . . . Because I did that as a child, thinking one day, they will all be dead. And even as a child, I experienced the ecstasy of happiness, but knowing that it wouldn’t last.’

Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Privatized Grand Narratives’, NLR 131.

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Barbed Wire

Few topics are more politically contentious in the West than migration. In election campaigns, the right predictably attacks the left for being weak on border enforcement and pursuing irresponsibly lenient policies. Scaremongering about the ‘great replacement’, dark portraits of ‘criminal foreigners’, declarations of war on smugglers, complaints about the theft not only of jobs, but of housing and hospital beds – all these have become commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic.

One cannot fail to notice the political ironies of this spectacle. For, given the supposed effects of immigration on the labour market, the right could just as easily be in favour of maximizing inflows. Capital has always hoped for an increasing stock of labour to replenish the mythical ‘industrial reserve army’, put pressure on the unions and lower wages. As early as 1891, Eleanor Marx wrote in a letter to the American trade union leader Samuel Gompers: ‘The most immediate question is that of preventing the introduction from one country to another of unfair labour – i.e., of workers who, not knowing the conditions of the labour struggle in a particular country, are imported into that country by the capitalists, in order to reduce wages, lengthen the hours of labour, or both’.

A classic example was the ‘Great Migration’ in the US, when millions of African Americans left the South, some finding jobs in Northern factories, which were short of workers because the flow of European immigrants had slowed due to the First World War just as US industries were working at full pace to supply its allies with weapons. Empowered by the shortage, the most combative unions – such as the Wobblies – were making substantial demands. African Americans hired in Northern factories were immediately accused by white workers of being ‘strike-breakers’ and branded as a ‘scar race’, reinforcing the racism of the AFL-CIO (several unions belonging to the confederation excluded African American workers for many decades).

So why is the politics of migration more complicated and paradoxical than these alignments would suggest? Firstly, because political coalitions often include conflicting interests. Elements of both the left and the right’s constituencies, for example, may benefit in various ways from illegal migration. The wife of the worker whose job is endangered by migrants, for example, may be quite happy to employ an undocumented Filipina to look after her children, allowing her to stay in work and so keep the family budget afloat. The small-scale entrepreneur trading on the black market, meanwhile, who owes his profit margins to the illegal labour that saves him taxes, social security contributions and higher wages, also has an interest in blocking the legal flow of migrants that would force him to bring his business above board.

Then there are the contradictions between the economic interests of significant segments of the party’s base and its dominant ideology. As Dutch sociologist Hein de Haas writes in his stimulating – if at times verbose – recent book, How Migration Really Works, ‘left-wing parties have to accommodate the conflicting interests of labour unions who traditionally favour restrictive policies, and liberal and human rights groups favouring more open policies. Right-wing parties are divided between business lobbies favouring immigration and cultural conservatives asking for immigration restrictions.’ Rather than dividing the right from the left, migration splits both right and left formations internally.

Upon gaining power, the only way for both left and right to resolve this tangle of contradictions is through hypocrisy: to adopt practices that contradict public proclamations. Left-wing governments are often no more welcoming to immigrants than their right-wing counterparts. Recall that Obama – nicknamed ‘Deporter in Chief’ – consistently deported more immigrants than Trump, despite the ‘big, fat, beautiful wall’ the latter spoke of. As de Haas points out, ‘the highest-ever levels of legal immigration in the US were reached during the Trump presidency.’ Meanwhile, earlier this month Biden attacked Republicans for sinking his immigration bill, which he called ‘the toughest set of reforms’ that would ‘shut down the border’.

In reality, whoever is in government, it is always the labour market, in turn determined by relevant legislation, the business cycle and the geopolitical situation, that determines migration policies. This can be seen from long-term trends: the maximally restrictive phase between the two world wars was followed by an era of liberalisation during the Cold War, followed by a period of more restrictive measures that reduced migration, though it continued to rise. Increased entry controls, often draconian, have often been accompanied by more visas granted for work, family reunification and so on. In recent years the rather counterintuitive consequence has been that policies have often been less restrictive than they appeared.

This is among the surprising conclusions de Haas reaches in the course of dismantling 22 ‘myths’ about migration, drawing on copious and often unexpected data (though some of it marshalled in contradictory ways). One of these persistent misconceptions is that emigration is generated by poverty, meaning the way to reduce the flow of migration is to accelerate the economic progress of the countries people are leaving. As all specialists know, however, the development of a country leads, at least initially, to increased emigration, not to its reduction. The countries that generate the most emigrants – such as Turkey, India, Mexico, Morocco and the Philippines – tend to be in the middle-income bracket, not the lowest.

The reason for this, as de Haas explains, is that migration is the result of two factors: aspiration to migrate and ability to do so. Leaving one’s country is expensive – not only because of the plane tickets and visas, ‘the fees to be paid to recruiters and other middlemen’, but because ‘it usually takes time to migrate, settle and find work’, and relatives back home ‘need to be able to forgo the income from the labour of migrated family members for several months, or even longer’. If development makes migration more viable for more people, it may also increase the desire to emigrate: development does not only improve the living conditions of a country, it also transforms the culture of its inhabitants, especially its young people, who ‘surf the internet, obtain smartphones, are exposed to advertising, see foreign visitors and tourists and start to travel themselves’, and may begin to nurture new ambitions, at first heading to cities, and then abroad. In a growing country, the number of graduate students also tends to increase faster than the number of jobs suitable for their degrees, creating a surfeit of skilled labour that must look further afield.

Another of the myths debunked by de Haas is that tighter border controls reduce migration. Those who erect walls or intercept rafts neglect to consider the boomerang effect of these measures: they interrupt the circularity of some migration. Seasonal migrants who might have gone home instead settle in the host country because they know that once they leave, they are very likely to be unable to return. This settling produces more family reunifications. The grim display of barbed wire and barking dogs is, in other words, largely smoke and mirrors. As de Haas explains, if ‘protectionist’ governments really wanted to crack down on irregular immigration, they would devote themselves to inspecting the places where undocumented migrants work. Rather than patrolling the borders, they would prosecute the employers of those who have already illegally crossed them. They rarely do, of course. In the US, where there are an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants according to de Haas, Customs and Border Protection has 60,000 agents, whereas Homeland Security Investigations has just 10,000, of which only a fraction are dedicated to inspections in workplaces.

As a result, employer indictments have rarely exceeded 15–20 per year, and of these indictments only very few result in convictions. The average penalty for employers was only between $583 and $4,667. Even among foreign workers, the chances of being caught are low: between 117 and 779 individuals out of 11 million, even in the years of Trump’s much-trumpeted ‘crackdown’. It is in this contrast between governments’ inertia with regard to clandestine labour, and the belligerent posture of border controls, that the hypocrisy of draconian immigration policies appears most stark. Such hypocrisy must have something to do with the fact that, as de Haas observes, ‘immigration mainly benefits the wealthy, not workers’, the poorest of whom may lose out (a fact that helps to explain why recent immigrants are among the social groups most opposed to migration).

One could invoke many other examples of the circular self-deception of the so-called sovereigntists. For instance, scaremongering about the ‘great replacement’ is often accompanied by exhorting native women to procreate more, to be ‘brood-mares’, as was the case in Italy under Mussolini. But these sovereigntists ignore the fact that women may have fewer children because the welfare state has been dismantled (fewer crèches, less parental leave) and they can’t afford to give up working to raise children because their partner’s salary has also been reduced to below the level of labour force reproduction – which creates the need for migration.

Another often overlooked aspect of migration politics which de Haas draws attention to is that the rhetoric of tight border controls has a two-fold advantage for the lobbies that benefit from migration. On the one hand, it leaves intact, as we have seen, the migratory flow that is indispensable to a labour market increasingly in deficit (especially of ‘unskilled’ labour: contrary to popular belief, it is precisely lower-skilled workers that advanced economies need most, for agriculture, construction, hospitality, and care of the elderly and children). On the other, it generates huge demand and ballooning profits for the surveillance industry (‘the multibillion-dollar military-industrial complex in border controls’, as de Haas puts it). Between 2012 and 2022, the budget of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, soared from €85 million to €754 million. For the period 2021–27, the European budget for ‘migration and borders management’ totalled €22.7 billion, compared to €13 billion for the previous six years. In the United States, in 2018, the budget for border enforcement was $24 billion – three times the budget of the FBI ($8.3 billion), and 33% more than the sum of spending on the other major federal law enforcement agencies combined. This bounty rains down on the big arms manufacturers – in Europe: Airbus, Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE – and leading technology companies, such as Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl.

Then there is the additional industry spawned by the barriers to entry, which have created the need for intermediaries who know how to interpret and circumvent the cumbersome (and often contradictory) national and, in the case of Europe, supranational legislation. This industry feeds huge multinationals specialising in the ‘administration of workers’ such as the Dutch Randstad (€24.6 billion turnover) based in Diemen, the French-Swiss Adecco (€20.9 billion turnover) based in Zurich and in the American firm Manpower ($20.7 billion) based in Wisconsin. These three multinationals ‘administer’ more than 1.6 million workers worldwide (rising to 4.3 million with Adecco’s recent expansion into China) and occupy a central position in the import and export of labour: global gangmasters in advanced-capitalist guise.

Read on: Rachel Malik, ‘Fables of Migration’, NLR–Sidecar.

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Breathing Space

Architecture is, along with finance and armaments, one of the few industries in which the United Kingdom punches above its weight; perhaps the more benign of the three. The fact of Britain’s prominence is somewhat counterintuitive, given the notoriously poor quality of the British built environment compared with elsewhere in northwestern Europe, but then this isn’t a matter of actual buildings in this country. It is owed to the global dominance of two largely British-based architectural trends: High-Tech, devised by Archigram, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers in the late sixties; and a more amorphous movement, spearheaded by designers based at the Architectural Association (AA) in Bloomsbury a decade later, such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, and occasionally known by its practitioners as Deconstructivism or Parametricism but more usually described through faintly insulting epithets – ‘starchitecture’, ‘signature architecture’, ‘iconic architecture’, ‘oligarchitecture’. Both of these initially distinct movements overcame a difficult 1980s to fuse as a house style for New Labour at home and the ‘emerging markets’ – mainly China and the UAE – abroad. Beneath the famous names – some of whom are dead, and few of whom are much involved today in the buildings that carry their signature – are a plethora of obscure multinationals with roots in Britain that have spent the 21st century quietly designing entire new cities, with the likes of Aedas, Atkins, Benoy or Broadway Malyan working in watered-down versions of the styles of the archicelebrities. The quality of what they do may be questionable, but the profits are substantial.

Throughout the period during which this architecture arose out of its Clerkenwell studios to bestride the globe, there were firms who practised some sort of principled refusal, working quietly and unobtrusively in Britain. The foremost non-players were perhaps Caruso St John, whose work since 1990 is now the subject of Collected Works, a valedictory two-volume set of monographs published by MACK. To see the firm’s major works, you have to go to Nottingham, Walsall or Zurich, rather than Abu Dhabi, Beijing or New York – or, for the most part, London. Adam Caruso is Canadian, trained at McGill in Montreal, and Peter St John is English, from the Surrey-South-West London interzone, trained at the AA. The pair met in London in the 1980s, working first for Florian Beigel, a designer in the Walter Segal tradition of participatory, socialistic building, and then for Arup, the global megacorp that grew out of the London firm established by the Danish engineer Ove Arup in the 1930s; Beigel appears to have become their model for what to do, Arup for what not to. The sparse oeuvre spread across these two slabs of books is, accordingly, devoid of computer-aided geometries, spectacle, giant spans and wild cantilevers; but it also wholly transcends the dull-minded literalness of neoclassicists like Quinlan Terry or Demetri Porphyrios. You can as little imagine a Caruso St John building in Poundbury as you can in Dubai.

To be sure, many of the firm’s virtues are negative ones – the explicit posture of refusal is helpful here. There are contemporaries working in a similar vein – Sergison Bates, Haworth Tompkins or Lynch Architects, for instance – and they can be seen as successors to slightly older designers whose work aims at subtle negotiations between classical and modern, like David Chipperfield or, especially, Tony Fretton. But unlike a superficially similar confrère such as Chipperfield or the German designer Hans Kollhoff, their engagement with classicism has no hint of totalitarian chic. Unlike the occasionally dour work of some of the firm’s London co-thinkers, there is always humour and imagination in Caruso St John’s designs, but in contrast to the similarly perverse but much more successful duo of Herzog and De Meuron, they have never given in to grand ‘iconic’ gestures, as the Swiss duo eventually did in their Hamburg Elbphilharmonie. There is no house style – every project is an event, a unique response to a place and a brief, a process which is, inevitably, expensive and long-winded. Because of this, and because of the delight and surprise their work provokes, they are the only London-based architects whose new work I will almost always make the effort to go and see. This is easy to do, as a major Caruso St John building comes along only once or twice a decade.


Caruso St John, Brick House, from
Collected Works: Volume 1 1990-2005 (MACK, 2022). Photograph: Hélène Binet. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

The Collected Works may be sparse in terms of finished buildings, but they are bulked out with ideas. Their built and unbuilt work, interviews, dialogues and contemporary reviews are here placed alongside texts intended as a guide to how the buildings were conceived: a curious bunch, ranging from Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Double Negative’ to a dialogue between Wim Wenders and the young Hans Kollhoff on the gap sites of 1980s Berlin. With these are texts about or written by some of the architects they consider forebears, usually figures who ambiguously straddle modernism and classicism: Sigurd Lewerentz, Louis Sullivan and Ernesto Rogers (but never his nephew Richard). There are long-forgotten early built projects – an exceptionally deadpan doctor’s surgery in the sixties suburbia of Walton-on-Thames, a shed in the Isle of Wight – and there are shadow projects, such as competition entries for contests won by spectacular monuments by a very famous firm, for the London Architecture Foundation, which they note was ‘won by an inexplicable and unbuilt project by Zaha Hadid’; and for Rome’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, where Hadid again won, and would go on to construct an immense flowing mass of precipitous voids and sudden surges. Caruso St John’s proposal was for a giant corrugated iron barn, a hypertrophied version of the industrial buildings already on the site.


Caruso St John, Centre for Contemporary Arts Rome, competition model, from
Collected Works. Model photograph: David Grandorge, 1999. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

The first volume begins with a combative joint lecture to the AA in 1998. It is aimed against, specifically, the work of Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and the notion that ‘if is to continue to be relevant, the discipline must have a closer knowledge of the workings of the global market economy’, and must perforce design its products – sprawl, luxury housing, airports, malls, infrastructure. This, in the work of OMA, results in ‘an architecture of exaggerated complexity, where bifurcating plates are somehow expressive of optimised programmatic systems and the non-Cartesian space made possible by the new descriptive tools of computing’. That formalism is placed explicitly in the service of neoliberalism, an ideology which the pair describe as ‘yet another abstracted economic model’, which they expect to be proven in time to be every bit as flawed as ‘the Soviet centralised economy’. The placement of this assault at the start of the book is surely a deliberate well, we told you so. Alongside the polemic is the positive programme, which they outline via a series of oblique slides: Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’; the stained sheet metal of a cement works in Rugby; corrugated iron houses in Georgia; accretive brick warehouses in Clerkenwell. They then present Caruso’s own house, built in and around a small, converted abattoir in a Highbury backstreet. Its brick shell has been added to with a perch of MDF and glass; inside is torn seventies wallpaper, dirty brick, bare concrete.

Caruso St John, Studio House, Swan Yard, from Collected Works. Photograph: Hélène Binet. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

At first, the firm’s position was laid out as being neither neoclassicist, in the banal sense then embraced by British developers and local authorities, nor neomodernist, in the manner of Foster, Rogers, Hadid or Koolhaas. In a late nineties article in High-Tech’s house journal Blueprint, Caruso argued, against the magazine’s raison d’etre, that ‘the hysteria that characterises the creation of new markets and the behaviour of existing ones cannot be financially sustainable and, more seriously, are not environmentally sustainable’. He agrees with Koolhaas that to build for much of the late 20th-century environment is to build for neoliberalism, and therefore the critical act was to refuse to do it. After all, ‘has the percentage of total construction involving architects ever been higher than one per cent?’ So why not drop out? Why not, instead of trying to harness all the madness of the stock market into computer-aided globules and crescendos, ‘put forward ameliorative strategies and paradigms that might suggest what could come after the global market and can remind us of things that are excluded within the current social model’?

Against the metaphors of movement – collapse, explosion, eruption – favoured by Hadid or OMA, Caruso insisted here that, being wholly inanimate, ‘architecture is by definition about stasis’. The photographs the firm favoured as documentation and displayed in their early lectures were also static, laconic, in a Dusseldorf School tradition indebted to Thomas Struth or the Bechers, and tended to depict all the mess around the building that was ostensibly the focus. The odd little perch in Highbury that Caruso and St John showed off to the AA is a case in point, a peculiar found object, and a very London one. The essays and talks collected in the first volume of Collected Works, dating from the mid-1990s, describe London lovingly, outlining something close to the oddly calm city depicted in the series of sustained shots that make up Patrick Keiller’s now-canonical 1994 film, London (the similarity is unsurprising given Keiller and Caruso St John share Beigel as a mentor). Dirty, depopulated and often derelict, defined by the legacies of 19th-century speculation and 20th-century public housing, it is a place to get lost in, irrational and at least partly abandoned by capital. In a 1998 dialogue at the AA, St John explains ‘we’ve always enjoyed the broken fabric and additive character of London, the way it accepts the new amongst the old without too much fuss’.

St John’s 2000 essay ‘London for instance’ depicts the English capital as a fragmentary city seen through odd angles and juxtapositions. Each form has its own value, with the space shared by the terrace, the warehouse and the council estate, all accepted for their distinct qualities: ‘in this openness is space for architects to breathe’. That city is long gone. In a later conversation from 2019, on the approaching thirtieth anniversary of the practice, Caruso remembers this ambiguous city, and cries: ‘it’s much more depressing now!’ Post-industrial London was repopulated and rebuilt after 1997, and ‘most sites have been built on in a very poor way. That development could have been controlled to make something so much better, but this late capitalist laissez-faire is very careless. Damaged urban fabric has a poetic content, and you can do something that is careful and attentive to those qualities’, but the Richard Rogers-inspired preference for ‘brownfield’ development quickly erased nearly all those interestingly empty dream-spaces.

The important buildings by the duo, the work for which I suspect they’ll be remembered, comprise two purpose-built art galleries in the English Midlands – Walsall New Art Gallery, designed in 1995 and opened in 2000, and Nottingham Contemporary, designed in 2004 and opened in 2009. These were for sites similar to those that Caruso and St John described in 1990s London: an apparently unplanned mess of industrial remnants, council housing, stray civic monuments, banal postmodernist retail and developer housing, wasteland, canals, viaducts. Both are highly atypical products of the wave of new arts funding and urban regeneration cash that flowed into post-industrial Britain in the Major and Blair years. After nearly a decade and a half of austerity, one can easily imagine a certain affection developing for New Labour architecture. The best of it – the late Will Alsop’s monumental, cranky Peckham Library, for instance – is now well-loved. But the great majority of this construction was, and is, patronising trash, galumphing into cityscapes in order to brighten and enliven an assumed Northern and Midland misery via lime-green cladding, barcode facades and meaningless giant atria. Most of all, very little of it showed the slightest engagement with what was already there. Indeed, that ignorance was precisely the point – these buildings were meant to launch Gateshead, Barnsley or Middlesbrough out of their depression into a future of creative industries and creative property development. Here, Caruso and St John’s interest in the mundane and ordinary and their scepticism towards the ‘aspirational’ bullshit of neoliberalism meant that they were able to design buildings in post-industrial towns and cities that felt wholly of their place, without ever being tediously ‘in keeping’. Neither of the two Midlands galleries could be imagined anywhere other than exactly where they are.


Caruso St John, View of New Art Gallery Walsall from the south, from
Collected
Works. Photograph: Hélène Binet, 2000. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

Walsall, the earlier of the two, was designed to house the Garman Ryan Collection, a first-rate modern art collection granted to the town in the 1970s and then shoved into a room above the municipal library. So from the outset, rather than offering a shell for an amorphous programme, Caruso St John knew what they were designing for – small-scale, mostly modernist but figurative paintings, drawings and sculpture – and built around that, with the light and views precisely calibrated towards what was inside; and what was around it, with the apparently arbitrary arrangement of windows providing both frontal and oblique views of Victorian civic buildings and canal-side factories, framing your own little Dusseldorf School miniature. The stubby tower that housed the galleries was clad in grey tiles, with a blocky form that seemed designed to be appreciated like the grain silos or coal hoppers of a Bechers photograph. It isn’t all deadpan, and a certain perversity creeps into the detailing, with the same module used for the shuttering imprinted on the concrete and the wood of the stairwells. This love for decoration and paradox would come to the fore in the subsequent gallery in Nottingham. Rather than a flat site by a canal, this is on a steep hill connecting the railway station to the 19th-century Lace Market, between a main road and a tram viaduct. It is, again, rectilinear, slightly box-like, housing big concrete halls for temporary exhibitions; but these stacked forms are scalloped and then incised with a lace pattern.


Caruso St John, Nottingham Contemporary, from
Collected Works. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

This sort of gesture towards long-gone industries was very popular at the time – think of the Dutch firm Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham, whose decorative hoops were said to have been inspired by the city’s Jewellery Quarter, even though the designers had used them elsewhere. The lace pattern here is much more subtle, rewarding attention: a complex weave scanned and etched into precast concrete panels which is best seen up close, like the terracotta ornament on one of Louis Sullivan’s Chicago School office blocks. Nottingham Contemporary is also the closest the firm has ever come towards the computer-aided design deployed by their more successful contemporaries; not through the ultra-complex parametric equations and ‘scripting’ favoured by Hadid’s partner Patrik Schumacher, but through Photoshop: the duo discovered that darkening a banal digital image of lace would help its successful imprinting (via a latex mould) into the concrete.


Caruso St John, Nottingham Contemporary, facade detail, precast concrete, from Collected Works. Courtesy of Caruso St John and MACK.

Around the time of the building’s completion, Caruso pondered that ‘getting close to vulgarity is an interesting place to go’, drawing on the ‘long tradition of ugliness’ in British architecture – the ‘rogues’ of High Victorian Gothic, the New Brutalism of Stirling and the Smithsons – and not coincidentally offending the good taste of High-Tech. The second volume of Collected Works begins with the V&A Museum of Childhood, an expansion project of the old ‘Brompton Boilers’, a Victorian hangar with instructional mosaics inside, which the firm supplemented with a new set of ornamental patterns in a new entrance pavilion. It was and is highly popular among High-Tech designers to add an abstract, wide-span steel and glass atrium to these sorts of Victorian futurist structures, but for the duo, ‘when we work . . . on a listed Victorian building, we’re interested in explicitly (using) ornament’. They took a similarly sympathetic approach to listed modernist buildings – their small additions to the Barbican (a new ceiling for the auditorium) or Denys Lasdun’s Hallfield Estate (new buildings for the estate’s school) worked with rather than against the ethos of these heroic modernist projects – but from here, the firm’s work develops ever closer to neoclassicism.

This can be seen in the small cafe Caruso St John designed for Chiswick House, the closest they get to Chipperfield, an example of austere, stripped classicism in lush materials (the duo note here that their interest in Burlington’s Palladianism is owed in part to its being ‘a rare example of England leading an architectural movement’). This highly establishment commission, expensively executed, must have helped them secure the job of refurbishing and redesigning Tate Britain. There are small additions throughout the building, but the focus here was a new staircase leading from the building’s Victorian baroque rotunda to the basement cafe, via a sensuous and somewhat camp stone spiral, with incised ornament in its terrazzo surfaces – an idea the firm first tried out in a new chancel for the Cathedral of St Gallen in Switzerland. In the face of the postmodernist and neomodernist additions by James Stirling and John Miller, this re-classicises the building, emphasising the bombast of rotunda and then undercutting it by burrowing underneath. It is also the first of a series of great staircases that the firm would start to specialise in, paradox-filled ascents and descents owing equal debts to Inigo Jones and Berthold Lubetkin.

There is another of these flamboyant staircases in the duo’s most complete London building, the Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, which was designed to house the extensive art collection of Damien Hirst – sadly, much less eccentric and interesting than the Walsall art collections of Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan – and as a new home for his silly and very 1990s pharmaceutical-themed bistro, Pharmacy. It is constructed on top of Hirst’s old studio, a block originally built for West End scenery painting. It has much of the found-object industrial deadpan of the firm’s 1990s work, linking it with the increasingly opulent turn of their designs of the 2010s, and it sits in one of those inner London spaces described so longingly thirty years ago – next to an LCC housing estate, with a scrubby park and some fragmentary Victorian terraces nearby, all hard up against the noisy railway viaduct into Waterloo. But the feeling of freedom that such spaces once offered is gone, with the site loomed over by the cluster of new luxury residential towers on the other side of the viaduct in Nine Elms. These have morphed in shape over the years from cheap, naff versions of High-Tech, like Broadway Malyan’s hideous St George’s Wharf, into austere brick and stone-clad grids, their quasi-classicism in no way hiding the feverish speculation that has brought them into being. Caruso and St John’s adversaries of the 1990s still build, and have a few successors, such as the bumptious ex-OMA Danish designer Bjarke Ingels or the ridiculous English charlatan Thomas Heatherwick, but they are loathed by critics and younger designers. The architecture schools, and the most feted architects in London, tend now to favour a dialogue with the past, a willingness to use ornament, and a scepticism towards big, dumb, iconic architecture. Caruso St John are now elder statesmen among them. How does this affect their work, and their posture of refusal?

Some of Caruso St John’s early ideas are now clichés: as Tom Wilkinson has pointed out, the found-object approach of leaving as much as possible of an existing building intact, no matter how banal, has become bathetic, as the marks left by an ordinary accidental fire in an ordinary London public building like Battersea Arts Centre are conserved with the same reverence as the scars left by the Battle of Berlin; and fetishizing the mess of a London that is unplanned and unaffordable, rather than unplanned and cheap, is somewhat less appealing. Meanwhile, the old men and women trained by the AA in the sixties and seventies are now so ridiculed by young architects and critics – look, for instance, at the disdain of the meme page Dank Lloyd Wright, or the scorn directed at that generation by the excellent New York Review of Architecture – that one has to remember that they spent the 1980s largely unemployed, submerged under the moronic, anti-urban and ostentatiously reactionary postmodern classicism that dominated that decade. Twenty years ago, it was novel and daring to link neoliberalism to Stalinism as yet another failed utopia, and to argue that the Junkspace elation of Koolhaas in Atlanta or Shenzhen – ‘his thrill at flying ever closer to the naked flame of capital’, as Caruso put it in 2012 – was yet another iteration of Le Corbusier’s wonder at aeroplanes and Ford factories. It is perhaps close now to being common sense.

In an essay on ‘The Alchemy of the Everyday’, Caruso lays out the firm’s case against heroic modernisms, whether of the 1920s or the 2000s: ‘this utopia, any utopia, is simply not interested in or able to engage with the granular detail of reality. Despite modernism’s self-evident interest in the quotidian, with its emphasis on housing, hygiene and the design of kitchens, these all too often lead to simplification rather than the complexity that one would expect from an interest in the everyday’. It is the valuing of everything that distinguishes their work – there are no failures, no eyesores, for Caruso St John, and in a situation where successive forms of working-class housing are seen as ‘problems’ to be solved rather than places to live, this remains refreshing. A planning department inspired by their work would never build an Aylesbury Estate or a Thamesmead, but it would never demolish one, either. Their position is far from a banal anti-modernism – the texts in the second volume of Collected Works refer approvingly to Fischli & Weiss’s photographs of the in-between spaces of Swiss post-war housing, for instance. What it is, is decisively anti-utopian, with the market seen as just another abstract utopia. In aesthetic terms, theirs remains a bracing approach given the tedious style wars between reified versions of modernism and classicism that still rage on social networks, despite their near-total irrelevance to much current practice. In 2012, Caruso lays out an alternative canon: ‘I want to reclaim the English Arts and Crafts, the Chicago School, the Wagnerschule, the Paris or Perret and Pouillon, the Milan School, and other so-called “peripheral” figures for a modernism of realism, a modernism of continuity, and a modernism that has the capacity to be socially and physically engaged’. This is sensible and liberating, but it does not translate well on the internet.

British architecture today is in a strange position. Major new construction outside of London and Manchester has been squeezed into near-nonexistence by austerity. Although Caruso St John’s rejection of ‘iconic architecture’ is now mainstream, they themselves appear to have benefited little from this; any third volume of the Collected Works, dealing with their production since 2012, would so far include just two British buildings – a tiny adaptive re-use project in Arbroath and an office block near King’s Cross. By now, they are effectively a European firm, designing housing, offices and entire city blocks in Germany, Belgium and especially Switzerland, a country which has become a mecca for younger architects, where they can admire the austere, beautifully detailed, somewhat brutalist, somewhat classicist works of cult figures such as Peter Märkli or Valerio Olgiati, and enjoy a global financial centre which still manages to employ its architects to build large quantities of social and co-operative housing. Caruso St John’s influence is very clear on the better London architects today, such as Amin Taha, 6A Architects, Apparata, Studio Weave, et al.: all equally happy referring to Palladio, William Morris, Gropius, Mies and the Smithsons. There is an entire microindustry of this now, with its own favoured photographers such as David Grandorge and Hélène Binet, and its own places of pilgrimage like Ghent or Basel, where Good Architects build Good Architecture at a reasonable scale.

Architecture critics love all of this, finding it a tonic after having to go and watch cladding panels fall off the latest computer-designed Googleplex, tech billionaire’s retreat, or arts centre with nothing in it, usually designed by Ingels, Thom Mayne, Heatherwick or the posthumous firm of Hadid. But relatively few of the alternatives have actually been built, with the position of refusal and the consequences of austerity melding to the point where interesting architecture can largely be found only in tiny infill projects in London suburbia while dross is stacked to the skies in Battersea and Deansgate. As one broadsheet architecture critic privately observed recently, much of his job now consists of reviewing house extensions.

Caruso St John’s deliberate, principled sitting out of the great constructional dramas that British-based architects have participated in – the urbanisation of China, in particular – has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The refusal of utopianism cuts both ways. In the work of Foster, Rogers, Koolhaas or Hadid, the progressivist, teleological, technocratic bent of utopian interwar modernism – however curdled by irony in Koolhaas’s case – was yoked to the building of a radically unequal world. In turn, this has created immense problems, of the sort that utopian modernism emerged to solve in the first place a century ago. A housing crisis the like of which hasn’t been seen in the rich world for a century; a desperate need for green infrastructure to achieve a transition away from fossil fuels; a new wave of public transport to drag people out of their cars. The redress of these enormous problems will surely require utopians as much as realists. But then who needs utopia when you have Switzerland?

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

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Feminist Correctives

Nearly all novels remind us that the story of one person both is and is not the story of other people, each of whom is the main character of their own life. In the populous characterological world of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Hippolyte, a stableman at the inn in Yonville, must be pushed to the back of the crowd so Emma Bovary can seize the foreground. Hippolyte may in principle be worthy of a whole novel of his own, but that would be a different book; Hippolyte, not Madame Bovary. Rare exceptions such as Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet or Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, in which narrative agents take turns as primary and secondary characters, prove the rule: the bourgeois, legal principle that all men are equal under the law can’t be neatly transposed to the bourgeois novel, in which men and women are necessarily unequal under their creator.

The problems of narrative priority and characterological hierarchy – the axiomatic impossibility of every character achieving protagonist status – are especially rich in the realist novel, which emerges in an era of abstract equality among citizens, and simultaneous inequality in those citizens’ real conditions of life. Such problems don’t attend earlier forms (the ancient epic, for example, or the Elizabethan play) – quite natural that god-like heroes should get more air time than ordinary mortals, nobles more than commoners! It’s the legal principle of equality under the law, along with the democratic precept of equal dignity among human beings, that creates our uneasiness about the character system, as Alex Woloch calls it in his fundamental study, The One vs. the Many (2003), of the realist bourgeois novel. Since the flourishing of the realist novel in the nineteenth century, the form has exhibited what Woloch identifies as two apparently contradictory achievements: both ‘social expansiveness’ (encompassing everyone) and ‘depth psychology’ (usually reserved for just one person). To apply Woloch’s general formulation, Madame Bovary relies on this dialectic, at once casting ‘a wide narrative gaze over a complex social universe’ and depicting ‘the interior life of a single consciousness’.

When it comes to the identity of that consciousness – that is to say, who’s privileged with main character status – there exists an uncomfortable overlap or simultaneity between justifiable narrative efficiency on the one hand, and dishonourable existential or social priority on the other. At the level of the individual work, the former’s a simple matter of technique (we can only inhabit one consciousness at a time). At the level of the novel in general, however, it’s one of politics and even prejudice. Woloch’s readings of Balzac, Dickens and Austen suggest that in the realm of class, the two principles of narrative expediency on the one hand and social privilege on the other more or less coincide: protagonists are typically bourgeois subjects whose important interactions involve other bourgeois subjects, while the ranks of minor characters are filled out with silent, often nameless members of the working class. (John Lennon, in all the hale rancour of ‘Working Class Hero’, could have been singing about realist fiction and its character system: ‘As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small/By giving you no time instead of it all’.)

If this unequal apportionment of narrative attention is unsurprising – after all, it was the rich and educated who had the wherewithal to write and publish novels, and social solipsism means that their milieux were reflected in their fiction – we encounter something more complex in the realm of gender. While it would be a fair generalization to say the realist novel has neglected the proletariat, the same can’t be said of women: our socio-political subjugation did not correspond to narrative sidelining. For every serious young man pursuing the Napoleonic slogan of ‘la carrière ouvertes aux talents’, there exists a middle-class young woman whose intelligence and desire make her a main character, and whose social unfreedom (especially to marry and divorce, and to acquire and dispose of property) provides the novel its engine of tragedy. And to the ranks of the heroines of Eliot, Gaskell, Chopin and the Brontë sisters can be added an equally credible fictive sorority – that of male-authored women trying to get free: Emma Bovary, Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, plus a constellation of Hardy heroines among them. If gender difference hasn’t resulted in the same imaginative disability as class difference, this may be explained by the fact that men and women tend to get to know each other intimately in a way that property-owners and wage-laborers don’t. So it is that Flaubert, unable to get pregnant yet able to write persuasively of maternal ambivalence, could declare ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’

A few years ago, the critic Merve Emre tweeted about the Molly Bloom soliloquy that concludes Ulysses, writing: ‘I feel confident insisting that it is the best – the funniest, most touching, arousing, and honest – representation of a woman ever written’, adding, ‘this is shocking to me’. What’s salient here is not so much the testimony to a male author’s representation of a woman, as the word ‘shocking’. Such shock seems to emerge from a current intellectual mood of what might be called possessive identitarianism, which asks why should men speak for women, or indeed white people for people of colour, or cis people for trans people, or citizens for undocumented immigrants, when the latter groups can speak for themselves with more authority than any ventriloquist? Neither glib universalism, nor mutually incommensurable alterity, provide a satisfactory answer. And if such identitarianism were pursued to its extreme – dictating that fiction comprise only protagonists corresponding perfectly to their author’s identities – we’d be left with few novels.

In keeping with this anxiety, recent years have seen a proliferation of a type of work we might call the feminist corrective – the rewriting of canonical texts, ones originating in past paradigms of even greater sexism, from the perspective of an overlooked female character. An early instantiation came from Italian novelist Pia Pera, whose Lo’s Diary (1995) told the story of Nabokov’s Lolita in the voice of its eponymous teenager rather than that of her middle-aged male abuser. More recent examples include Pat Barker’s reimagining of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, The Silence of the Girls (2018), Jeet Thayil’s retelling of the New Testament as ventriloquized by its various women, Names of the Women (2021), Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships (2019) her version of the Trojan War from an exclusively female perspective, and her Stone Blind (2022), a reconstruction of Medusa – ‘the original monstered woman’ as its jacket copy has it.

These examples named above take ancient, non-novelistic forms of literature as their starting text, but the most interesting examples of the genre are to be found in novels that rework novels. Among them, one of the most overtly hostile to its predecessor text is Lucy Snyckers’s Lacuna (2022) which presents itself as agonistic redress to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). (Curiously, it seems to have been with the feminist corrective genre in mind that Coetzee wrote Elizabeth Costello (2003). That novel’s eponymous figure is a fictional Australian novelist best known for a book whose main character is Molly Bloom.) But what exactly is to be corrected in Disgrace? Much of the dynamism of Coetzee’s book lies in its troubling narrative symmetry. In the first half, a white professor, David Lurie, rapes one of his female students. Chillingly, in his own assessment David evades the term. ‘Not rape, not quite that’, he tells himself with repulsive ease and self-exculpation, ‘but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core’. Later, David’s ex-wife will accurately diagnose him: ‘you were always a great self-deceiver, David’. The author himself, however, is undeceived; Coetzee neither excuses nor anathematizes his creation. Exposed, David resigns and bolts to his daughter Lucy’s farm. When the novel’s second sexual crime occurs, it’s freighted by post-colonial history: Lucy is raped and the perpetrator is a Black man. Snyckers’s rejoinder to Coetzee is built around the conceit that there exists a real-life Lucy Lurie upon whom the author based his story. It’s this Lucy who narrates Lacuna and takes competitive pride in her trauma; at one point she fantasizes about dressing down another woman: ‘If they gave marks for rape trauma, mine would get an A-plus and yours would get a D-minus.’ Snyckers’s Lucy regards the narrative crimes committed by Coetzee as on par with the home invasion, arson and assault that she’s experienced. The author’s offenses, as Lucy sees them, include his appropriation of her suffering, his presentation of her fictional counterpart’s acceptance of rape as some sort of atonement for colonial sins, and – finally and least forgivably in her eyes – his reducing fictional Lucy to the titular ‘lacuna’ – a missing person in her own story.

There is, Snyckers/Lucy claims in Lacuna’s prologue, a ‘complete absence of the raped woman’s voice’ in Coetzee’s novel (‘the rape book’, as she refers to it.) The charge is readily refuted. Disgrace contains one of the more powerfully feminist orations of twentieth-century fiction: pregnant by one of her assailants and intent on keeping the baby, Coetzee’s Lucy makes a redoubtable speech to her horrified father: ‘You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor’. With that, Lucy refuses minor character status, a refusal that seems directed at both her father and her author. When we compare Coetzee’s Lucy to Snyckers’s doubly-fictional Lucy, it’s as if Lacuna is dealing with a fictional, even fraudulent version of a real novel. In this way, Snyckers’s novel appears symptomatic of one of the least useful strains of identitarian politics, in which for a person characterized by one identity to speak for another person characterized by another amounts to the ‘erasure’ of the latter.

Snyckers seems to be replacing the idea of imaginative literature with literal testimony, which naturally can only be given by real people – a misprision arising from an over-hasty assimilation of literature to contemporary politics, in which the pieties of ‘listening’, and of ‘hearing from’ another voice can be conscience-salving substitutes for action. To invert this phenomenon: that we don’t have Lolita’s account, only that of her abuser, does not make Nabokov’s novel an endorsement of child rape. If Lo’s Diary was misbegotten it was perhaps due to an excessive belief in protagonism, in other words, the notion that hearing exclusively from one voice amounts to uncritical readerly sympathy. With Nabokov’s egregious and charismatic sex offender quite the opposite is true. When Humbert Humbert remarks, casually, and in passing, on the sound of Lolita’s sobs, it both indicts him and is grimly eloquent of his victim’s suffering.

A less antagonistic rewriting of a famous male author’s novel comes by way of Sandra Newman’s Julia (2003), ‘a feminist retelling’ of 1984 which boasts of being the first reworking of that novel to be approved by the Orwell estate. Unlike the original’s third person narrative, in which Winston is the main character and Julia his fellow party member and love interest, Newman’s novel is narrated by Julia herself, while hewing to the basic story of the original. If we take this work as exemplar, a merely cynical interpretation of the feminist corrective genre would attribute its rise to simple brand recognition. Orwell comes with seventy-four years of cultural cachet. The imprimatur of ‘feminist’ – having undergone its girlbossification via neoliberalism – also comes with dubious cachet, albeit a newer one. (Dubious since ‘feminist’ now too often describes something merely cosmetic, namely the substitution of some male executive with a female one who’ll oversee the corporation’s predations and exploitation just as efficiently as he did.) In this way, the conservative appeal of pre-approved prestige is given a little frisson of the putatively radical.

The totemic 1984, a book whose life has come to exist more beyond its pages than within them, is something more than canon; a work alluded to more than read. See the widespread abuse of the term ‘Orwellian’ to tar any political move found uncongenial – mostly from a book-banning right unwilling to acknowledge that Orwell was a committed socialist. Taking place in a future Britain in the grip of totalitarianism, and asking what possibilities of individual thought, freedom and selfhood exist under such circumstances, 1984’s protagonist, Winston, is necessarily more of a figure than a character; to borrow Forster’s term, he is ‘flat’, rather than a rounded, multi-dimensional person. This is also true of his lover, Julia. Brainwashed by the Party, neither has much ‘voice’ in a politico-literary sense. Orwell’s book is therefore a curious choice for a feminist retelling in that all its characters, whatever their gender, are effectively silenced. As Erich Fromm points out in the novel’s original Afterword: ‘the dehumanized characters of satire can be equated with the dehumanized subjects of totalitarianism. That is, the suffering of satirical characters is comical or inconsequential rather than tragic – because they are two-dimensional figures without a mature psychology, unable to inspire full sympathy in the reader.’ How does the Julia of Julia differ from the Julia of 1984? Not much. She remains chimerical. There is too meek and scrupulous a fidelity to the original. The wincing irony here is that of the sense of a novel written under Big Brother’s watchful eye – that of the Orwell estate. There are echoes, too, of the speciously feminist blockbuster reboot, albeit in higher-browed form. In the Hollywood formula, an established, profitable franchise exchanges men for women in the lead roles – usually resulting in a combination of select financial enrichment (a few studio executives) with mass cultural impoverishment. Part of that impoverishment is the way in which movies like Ghostbusters, Wonder Woman, and Ocean’s 8 trade on ‘feminist’ as if it were a synonym for ‘woman’ and vaunt the phrase ‘ass-kicking’ as though the violence enacted on screen by male characters becomes somehow emancipatory when perpetrated by female ones.

The faulty logic that views female liberation as a matter of personnel exchange (all men = bad, all women = good) is nonetheless aligned with a worthy epistemological question. Can a man rightly (in both senses: persuasively and justly) conjure the reality of a woman? This inquiry depends on the gender binary; it ceases to exist in a state of ungendered innocence. The closest a reader gets to that utopia is, paradoxically, when she is at her most impressionable. A girl reader of, say, Arthurian legend, not yet familiar with the terms ‘agency’ or ‘patriarchy’ and not yet exposed to the forces of a world whose problems include a pervasive erotics of female subordination, feels little impediment in imaginatively inhabiting the role of gallivanting hero rather than passive heroine. She’s valiant King Arthur, not maundering Guinevere; it doesn’t yet occur to her that empathetic allegiance should run along gender lines. This is both potentially emancipatory and possibly deleterious: soon she might wonder why Arthur is deemed a worthy protagonist and Guinevere isn’t. Is this a reflection or even endorsement of the exclusionary sexism of the world? Or, worse, does his maleness somehow, improbably, make him a priori more interesting than Guinevere in her femaleness? Later, this hypothetical girl reader might encounter the cohort David Foster Wallace damned as phallocrats – Mailer, Miller, Roth, and Bellow – and experience the cramping dismay of mostly finding women instrumentalized to either frustrate or gratify male protagonists. If these works make manifest their era’s ghastly sexism (one can delight in Bellow’s febrile high-low prose while also recoiling every time the word ‘bitch’ blights the page) what is to be fixed here is too amorphous to warrant a feminist rewrite – more a miasma of prejudice, rather than a formalistic problem of character and elision.        

The less successful feminist reworkings partake in the fallacy of ‘the one true story’, a monovocal ideology alien to literature, with its fundamental commitment to and reliance on intersubjectivity. Natasha Solomons’s Fair Rosaline (2023) for example, describes itself as not as a ‘retelling’ but an ‘untelling’ of Romeo and Juliet in which the title character (ditched by Romeo for her cousin in the original, lest you need a reminder) gets her own story. Shakespeare, so the implication goes, got it wrong. In Solomons’s novel, Rosaline ultimately saves Juliet from a man described in the author’s note as a ‘groomer’. In this way, Fair Rosaline seems to promote the idea that Shakespeare should be some kind of Esther Perel for teens, dispatching therapeutic pointers on healthy relationships. As the book’s press release reads: ‘it seems that forming an anxious attachment, and then suicide pact, with a controlling narcissist who comes and goes as he pleases may not have been the best model of true love to teach young literature students’. Even if delivered facetiously, such an attitude erases character in any meaningful sense of the term, by denying a fictional figure moral complexity and reducing them to something inert as a role model.

The presence of frustrating or misbegotten examples do not, however, make this a sterile genre. A rough typology emerges. The bad faith antagonism of Snyckers and Solomons presents one type, the redundantly respectful mode of Newman another. A third approach, in which the relationship to the original text is simultaneously complementary and critical, proves the most dynamic. Per Henry James: ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw […] the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’ No man or woman is an island, not even a person on a literal island — as demonstrated by Foe, Coetzee’s 1986 reworking of Robinson Crusoe narrated by a female castaway. With 2003’s Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee performed a similar sleight of hand. As Elizabeth explains from within the novel: ‘Certain books are so prodigally inventive that there is plenty of material left over at the end, material that almost invites you to take it over and use it to build something of your own’. The implication here of fiction’s generative capability is heartening. It is because Molly Bloom is such a rightly written woman that she invites response as complement, rather than impels it as corrective. Elizabeth’s fictional novel is an enthusiastic supplement to Joyce’s real novel, taking up Ulysses’ implicit invitation to ‘build something of your own’.

Within this third type, what we might call the critical complement, the most exciting new addition comes not from a woman rewriting a male narrative but from a black novelist reconfiguring a canonical white story. Percival Everett’s James, published next month, is a revision of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrated not by Huck, the young white boy runaway, but by his friend Jim, the fugitive slave with whom he takes a raft down the Mississipi. Everett is not so much silencing the original as engaging it in conversation. Dialogue, especially between Huck and the narrator, forms a large part of the book, and thrillingly, the latter is given not one voice but effectively two – the interplay of these two voices lends the book a mordant dynamism. First, there is the speaking voice our narrator uses with white people. This is Jim-the-slave, whose exaggerated vernacular resembles Twain’s original. Second, there is the inner voice – sagacious, circumspect, wry – of James-the-man, and it’s this voice, the one we understand as the character’s ‘true’ voice, that narrates the novel. So it is that our narrator can outwardly answer one white character perturbed by signs of a disturbance in the library like this: ‘No, missums. I seen dem books, but I ain’t been in da room. Why fo you be askin’ me dat?’ while later, reflecting on Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke, can privately think to himself: ‘How strange a world, how strange an existence, that one’s equal must argue for one’s equality, that one’s equal must hold a station that allows airing of that argument, that one cannot make that argument for oneself, that premises of said argument must be vetted by those equals who do not agree.’ The book’s drama has less to do with Huck’s moral awakening via the plight of his enslaved friend (even if that narrative thread remains) and more to do with the way in which the self-actualized voice of James must be freed from interiority to literally speak, thereby vanquishing, or at least claiming primacy over ‘Jim’. In a Tarantino-esque final flourish, our narrator trains a pistol on a slaver and declares, before wasting the guy: ‘I am the angel of death, come to offer sweet justice in the night. I am a sign. I am your future. I am James.’

James’ most obvious antecedent is Jean Rhys’s terrifying and indelible Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) which takes Jane Eyre as its predecessor, and proceeds in the same dialogic spirit as Everett’s novel. ‘Do you think’, Jane demands of Mr. Rochester in Brontë’s original, with all the indignation of Coetzee’s Lucy Lurie inveighing against her father a hundred and fifty years later, ‘because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’ Security, for Brontë’s soulful and impecunious heroine, finally comes by way of a dead wife – the banished ‘madwoman in the attic’ and in Wide Sargasso Sea that silenced voice finds full expression. The implication of Rhys’s book is not that Brontë’s needed to be put right, but that hidden behind Jane’s story is the story of another woman. Wide Sargasso Sea assumes its own priority, scarcely acknowledging the presence of Jane Eyre, in a way that Snycker’s Lacuna, for example – trapped in protest against a famous work, thereby ironically reinforcing that work’s power – cannot. Both Everett and Rhys seem to recognize, to return to Elizabeth Costello’s term, the prodigality of self in the figures of Jim and Antoinette. It’s this same abundance that also allows characters within novels to become more than the sum of their parts. In other words, this extramural phenomenon – taking a character from an existing novel and writing a whole new novel for them – redounds upon the intramural qualities of literature.

Norman Rush’s Mating (1991) for example, might read in precis as a howler of white saviourism and sexism: ideologue white guy (sporting a ponytail, no less) instigates a female-only utopia in Botswana, and is pursued by a besotted white woman. Yet the ways in which Rush’s main characters refract, alter and complicate one another mean they cannot be reduced to damning superficial readings – he is not merely an egoist with a ponytail, she is not merely an admirer with a slavish crush. The implication here – that fictional people are brought into greater aliveness by one another – sits uncomfortably alongside a predominant strain of liberalism in which scarcity logic presumes a zero-sum situation of attention and sympathy. Such logic does indeed apply to the hiring committee and the judging panel – only one person, after all, can be awarded the tenure track job or the lucrative prize – but the spoils of readerly attention are less bounded. Sympathy is not a discrete and finite resource, and the dialogic world of fiction is not one but many worlds.

To use an overtly gendered term, the critical complement’s mode is not one-upmanship so much as fellowship. Rhys is not suppressing Brontë’s Jane, but adding to what she called ‘the lake’ – as one of her grandest, somewhat humble-bragging, yet most quotable pronouncements has it: ‘There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake’. When it comes to rectitude, literature is about as biddable as water. It’s not to be corrected but rather complemented and kept flowing with fresh currents. If contemporary fiction and its reception are suffering from Procrustean applications of non-literary logic, there’s optimism to be found in this flow being reversed – in the thought of some countermanding undertow that would bring generative literary principles of polyphony and healthy disputation trickling back into the political discourse.

Read on: Rachel Malik, ‘We Are Too Menny’, NLR 28.

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Syncretic Past

During the Russian Revolution, few groups experienced wilder twists of fate than Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. Born into the serenity of Habsburg rule and enlisted in an imperial army that erased national distinctions, they returned to a Europe of independent states and competing ideologies. Many were radicalized by the ordeal. One of them was the muckraking Transylvanian journalist Béla Kun. ‘Captured in 1916 and interned in the Urals’, Jacob Mikanowski recounts in his new book Goodbye Eastern Europe, ‘a passing acquaintance with Lenin vaulted Kun into the revolution and the leadership of the fledging Hungarian Communist Party’. The 1919 revolution in Budapest yielded an independent Hungarian Soviet Republic that lasted only 133 days. By the time it collapsed, Kun had taken flight. From the roof of the Soviet headquarters at the Hotel Hungaria he piloted a small airplane, ‘staying so close to the ground that his face could be clearly seen by those walking below’. He carried with him several stolen gold chains and church relics, some of which he dropped by accident, before vanishing into the USSR.

Life stories as tumultuous and unusual as Kun’s are difficult to reduce to history lessons. History, if it teaches anything, only does so obliquely, by way of paradoxes, contradictions and accidents – all of which feature heavily in Goodbye Eastern Europe: a sprawling account of Eastern Europe from the Medieval period to the present day. Mikanowski’s book sets out to tell the history of the region’s cohesion at the moment it has begun to disappear as a cohesive region. If this sounds paradoxical, then the book’s central conceit is no less so. ‘This is a history of a place that doesn’t exist’, it opens. ‘There is no such thing as Eastern Europe anymore. No one comes from there’. What he means is that few people now ‘identify as Eastern European’: the Hungarians and the Polish think of themselves as Central European, while the Baltic states prefer to claim membership of the ‘Nordic’ zone’ to their north. The geographical rubric is an ‘outsider’s convenience’, often a ‘catch-all’ for stereotypes.

Has Eastern Europe ever been anything but a construction of the Western gaze? Most recently, the region’s various peoples were bound together by the shared experience of communism. Eastern Europe’s disappearance as ‘a tangible presence’ and ‘instantly recognizable reality’ coincides with the system’s demise, after which the region fractured into nation-states forging their own discrete identities. But Mikanowski argues that this cohesion, consolidated in the postwar period, reaches back further in time. Throughout the modern period, Eastern Europe was characterized by its distinctive and remarkable diversity: a ‘diversity of language, of ethnicity, and above all, of faith’.

This tension between diversity and cohesion finds expression in the region’s uniquely rich and heterogenous narrative traditions, especially its folklore and legends. ‘Hasidic Jews used to say that the best way to get to know their wonder-working rabbis was through the tales their disciples told about them’, Mikanowski writes. Similarly, ‘tales – stories, rumours, and folksongs . . . get to the heart of what it was like to experience the horrors of the fascist anti-utopia, the brief elation and prolonged terror of Stalinism, the stasis and scarcity of late socialism, and the sudden evaporation of solid values that accompanied the arrival of capitalism’.

Among the regional myths Mikanowski recounts is the story of a ‘great vampire plague that affected the Austrian military frontier in the 1720s and 30s’, during which Viennese officers, ‘their pockets bulging with treatises by Newton and Voltaire’, arrived in Balkan villages to find every grave exhumed and the freshest corpses ‘pierced through the heart with hawthorn stakes’. (The villagers told them matter-of-factly that this was how they dealt with the undead.) Mikanowski also mentions the Ottoman devşirme: the blood tax by which the Christian peoples of the empire were forced to give up their children ‘to be raised in the image of their conquerors’, converting to Islam and serving as soldiers and administrators. This, Mikanowski tells us, would later become the subject of various Serbian folk songs about Ottoman subjugation, sung by ‘wandering bards’ who carried with them ‘a stringed instrument called a gusle’.

In setting itself the task of describing and explaining this diversity, the book evokes another tension, one long prominent in Eastern Europe’s historiography: between the stories that populate it and the political or conceptual categories that try to tame them. Goodbye Eastern Europe is divided into three rather incommensurable parts: ‘Faiths’, ‘Empires and Peoples’ and ‘The Twentieth Century’. The first two interrogate categories of people – Pagans and Christians, Jews, Muslims, Wanderers, Empires, Nations, Heretics – while the last is a more conventional attempt at periodization. The narrative is chronological but rarely proceeds at the same pace. It skips around, dwells on exemplary episodes, shifts into the style of ethnography or into the personal one of family history.

A journalist and critic trained as an academic historian, Mikanowski has written for various American magazines about history, science, language and Eastern Europe. Raised in Pennsylvania, he spent much of his childhood in Poland with his half-Catholic and half-Jewish family. The book’s subtitle, ‘An Intimate History of a Divided Land’, yokes the historical to the personal, incorporating elements of memoir, travel writing and reportage. In the preface the author tells us that his ‘family’s history forms a braid running throughout’, and quotes Czesław Miłosz’s Native Realm: ‘awareness of one’s origins is like an anchor line plunged into the deep’ without which ‘historical intuition is virtually impossible’.

Terms like ‘intimate history’ and ‘historical intuition’ suggest a style of historical writing most accurately termed Romantic. Emphasizing intuition over analysis, and the ability of history to move us over our attempts to understand its workings, Romantic history makes ample use of literary techniques, aiming to provide the reader with a close encounter with the past rather than a mere representation of it. ‘Intimate history’, however, doesn’t simply name a genre. It also suggests that Eastern European history is itself of a different order: more tangible, vibrant, deeply felt. Though whether this is indeed the case, or whether it’s a trick of the light, is not easy to discern.

Just as Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Goodbye, Lenin! turns out not be a paroxysm of Ostalgie but a meditation on how people confabulate the past to create a liveable present, Goodbye Eastern Europe’s nostalgic overtones conceal a sophisticated argument about the power of storytelling – a form of practical magic that can be put to various ends: to justify pogroms or devise syncretic rituals. Mikanowski’s historical snapshots range from eighteenth-century messianic movements and their charlatan techniques, to the attempts by contemporary nation-states like Hungary, Poland and Ukraine to form ‘usable pasts’ out of their heavily redacted histories. Above all, he suggests, storytelling and popular rituals have been means of regional self-fashioning.

Mikanowski at one point cites an episode from the memorial book of his great-great grandfather Meir. In 1893, the shtetl of Zambrów suffered an exceptionally terrible outbreak of cholera, which at that time was ravaging Russia and Poland. At a loss, the residents organized a Shvartze Khasene: a ‘black wedding’ for the man and woman deemed the most miserable in the town (‘a pauper girl named Chana-Yenta and the old bachelor Velvel’). Rolls were baked and meat and fish prepared by local housewives, while the wider community supplied the couple’s attire. They ‘set up the wedding canopy – in the cemetery, of course’, and on the wedding day, ‘a lively throng accompanied the bride and groom to their huppah’: the wedding canopy in Jewish marriage ceremonies. Soon afterward, the plague ceased, and Chana-Yenta ‘became known as the “City’s Daughter-in-Law”. She was given the job of municipal water carrier, and her husband was given an official beggar’s licence’. The Shvartze Khasene wove the tradition of Catholic exorcism into Jewish shtetl life. The villagers invented a ritual that mended the fabric of the community by translating the expulsion of malevolent forces into the partial upending of social hierarchy.

Elsewhere, Mikanowski invites readers to imagine what it would be like ‘to journey down the Istanbul-Belgrade highway in Ottoman times’, or to picture the American-born nature writer Eleanor Perényi, née Stone, accompanying her parents through Budapest in 1937 and falling in love with a Hungarian nobleman. Perhaps the most famous literary antecedent here is Claudio Magris, whose Danubio (1986), subtitled ‘A Sentimental Journey’ in the English translation, also used first-person anecdotes and diary entries to construct a heterodox history of the region. Just as Magris ferries his reader down the continent along the Danube’s riverbanks, Mikanowski flies low over the terrains that formed the Western flank of the Soviet empire.

Even minor narrative forms can have world-shaping power, Mikanowski suggests, and it is this argument that allows him to illuminate the connections between Eastern Europe’s twentieth century and its earlier history; in particular, between its eclectic stock of legends, folk tales and rabbinical parables and the twentieth century ideologies that took root in the region: fascism, communism and neoliberalism. At the book’s core is an examination of the interplay between the historical experience of communism and the deeper cultural traditions that gave that system its particular regional shape.

For Mikanowski, Eastern Europe’s superstitious and syncretic past holds the key to understanding communism’s industrial miracles, worker-heroes and paranoid surveillance apparatuses. The dogmatic and mystical character of the communist period is rooted, somewhat paradoxically, in the region’s deeper history of religious intermingling. In this part of the world, the resolutely atheist creed of Marxism was interpreted as yet another salvational doctrine, inspiring exceptionally zealous forms of devotion. Mikanowski tells the story of the Polish essayist Jerzy Stempowski, who, while walking with his father in Berdychiv in 1909, heard ‘a voice, intoning as in prayer’ and, after following it, arrived at a tailors’ guild hosting a live reading of Capital. The man reading Marx’s words had a ‘singsong voice, pausing after every sentence to answer questions. As the night wore on, the text – difficult to begin with – became even less clear, but that did not deter the tailors’.

Mikanowski also provides a striking account of the Holocaust, which dispenses with the high-altitude vantage of traditional histories in favour of an ‘up close, often face-to-face’ perspective on Nazi barbarism, as it was experienced among neighbours and within families, the author’s included. Instead of tracking large-scale trends or statistics, we are given vivid individual biographies that were deformed by the black hole of Nazism. Mikanowski tells the story of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, ‘the Proust of rubbish heaps’, who spent his whole life in Drohobycz, now in Ukraine, producing mesmerizing stories and illustrations as well as translating Kafka. While living under German occupation, he was protected by a Nazi officer who liked his drawings (in return, Schulz painted a mural for the officer’s children). But in 1942, another officer got into a personal feud with his protector, and both of them decided to shoot each other’s ‘pet Jews’. Schulz’s murder, Mikanowski suggests, doesn’t fit with the traditional image of the Nazis’ ‘mechanistic genocide’; ‘in most of Eastern Europe’, he writes, the Holocaust was experienced as ‘an intimate slaughter’. 

A history composed of extraordinary persons and remarkable events, emphasizing paradoxes and coincidences, sometimes threatens to dissolve broader ideas in the fizz of its colorful minutiae. At times the book’s argument, while impressive and complex, is in danger of getting lost among the curious anecdotes and vignettes about the author’s ancestors. Ironically, Goodbye Eastern Europe can sometimes feel like a series of scattered tales rather than a continuous history of a cohesive region. Still, for Mikanowski, the aim is not only to approximate the lived experience of the past, but to unlock insights that lie beyond the reach of conventional history – which fails to capture the kaleidoscopic complexity of the region’s competing narratives and belief systems. In this sense, perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is stylistic. It shows how the continuities in Eastern Europe’s longue durée can only be captured by a mode of writing that reflects its intimacy and heterogeneity.

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