The Time of No

Anon, Fountain of Life, Tinos, 18th c. (photo: Maria Desipris)

The Time of No

The gray-faced pilgrims coming off the Athens boat
Are not expecting a cure this time.
Tinos is an island of miracles, but the essential
German one, the papers say, is not for the likes of them.

The young leader’s face on the ferry T V,
Lunar, stubborn, sardonic, disappointed, with just the shadow of a smile
As the news from the bourse ticks by below,
Seems to be attending to the suits across the table
With the look he perfected in a previous life
For the gym-trim, six-figure vice-chancellor with his plan
To digitize the library and double the footprint
Of the business school.

Surely some evil is near for the children of Priam.

Up the road in the dark Panaghia, where all the pale faces have gone,
To the left of the door there’s a light-hearted icon
With more than a touch of the eighteenth century to it,
A relief on a day like this.
The Fountain of Life, if you follow McGilchrist, is pouring its streams
On a strange crowd of invalids seated below;
And the youngest among them, off to the side in the melee, soft as Tsipras
And dressed in the same shapeless Kung Fu shirt,
Has a neo-liberal demon issuing from his mouth,
Gray as a wisp of garbage smoke.  Up he goes.
If only Dijsselbloem and Schäuble could be exorcized as easily.

The wind from the mountain is blowing strong. The sun
Sucks the last moisture out of the air.  Summer is a monster.
Then mid-afternoon on the seashore, Mein Schiff goes sailing by:
Two thousand passengers headed for Rhodes,
Name on the hull in merciless freehand,
Plastic faeces pouring uncontrollably from its 21-storey stern.

Ah, the good ship Austerity, that Creditor of the Seas!


Winners All

After two days and one night, not to mention several weeks of mutual recrimination and blackmail, 27 national governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament declared themselves to be winners – all of them. A miracle? The first thing to learn about Brussels is that nothing there is what it seems and everything can be presented in an unending variety of ways. Moreover, the number of players and playing fields is huge and confusing, and they are working under an institutional framework called ‘the Treaties’ so complicated that no outsider understands it. Skilled operators find in it innumerable opportunities for obfuscation, procedural tricks, evasive ambiguity, pretence and excuses – differing interpretations and alternative facts cordially invited. And, importantly, there is on top of it all a deeply rooted tacit understanding among the members of that most exclusive and secretive body, the European Council of Heads of State and Government, that it is everybody’s duty to ensure that none of them has to return home looking like a loser, so all of them will remain willing to continue playing the game.

Take the Corona Recovery Fund. The first thing one must know is that it has nothing to do with Corona and everything to do with saving the Italian government from Signor Salvini. The second thing is that it has nothing to do with European solidarity either: every country gets something and nobody pays anything, as the fund consists of debt and debt alone: a supranational extension of the debt state. Moreover, nobody knows how that debt will be serviced and repaid, and nobody cares since this will start only seven years hence. Most likely repayment will be by new debt anyway or, through some arcane channel, by the European Central Bank. This, of course, would be illegal under the Treaties, but so may be taking up the debt in the first place. It also seems that all 27 national parliaments must agree to the fund, but nobody worries about this since they all get a share of the booty.

This doesn’t mean it’s all peace and friendship. Empires depend on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favour of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy. Germany and the European Commission have long suspected the present governments of Hungary and Poland of not being sufficiently ‘pro-European’. Similar suspicions exist in the so-called European Parliament, which does not covet members who are not in favour of ‘more Europe’. (‘More Europe’ is the raison d’être of this strange Parliament that has neither an opposition nor a right to legislate.) EP-members from Hungary’s and Poland’s liberal opposition parties therefore find ample support for withholding European money from their home countries’ non-liberal governments, to make voters there believe that they get more cash from ‘Europe’ if they vote for ‘pro-European’ parties. So why not make payments from the Corona Recovery Fund conditional on a country upholding the ‘rule of law’, defining ‘rule of law’ so that the policies of non-liberal elected governments do not conform to it?

Sounds good? Well, there are the Treaties. Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

Can this work? Anything is possible in Brussels. The reasoning is similar to that with which the European Central Bank prevailed in the European Court of Justice against the German Constitutional Court (the PSPP ruling). The Treaties limit the ECB to monetary policy, reserving fiscal policy for the member states. But the ECB argued that monetary policy can today no longer be separated from fiscal policy, from which it follows that fiscal policy now falls in the domain of the central bank. In response, the German court, now cited by the governments of Poland and Hungary, insisted that European competences are strictly limited to what members have explicitly conceded in the Treaties, and if more European competences are needed the Treaties must be changed accordingly, which requires unanimity. This was the situation when the wrestling began in earnest.

Move I (the EU): We invite you to agree to the Corona Fund, including the ROLM and the possibility of you not getting anything unless you mend your illiberal ways.

Countermove (Poland and Hungary): We will never vote for this mechanism, so forget about your fund. Veto!

Move II: If you vote against the mechanism and thereby against the Fund, we’ll set up a fund for the other 25, and we’ll find a Treaty base for it, the Treaties are big and complex enough, paper is patient as the Germans say, and you won’t get a damn cent.

Countermove: That won’t be nice, it won’t be European (little they know!), and it would be illegal.

The chorus, impersonated by the German press, singing and dancing: See, money works; they do as they are told because they want our cash. It’s so good to be rich.

Enter the presidents, in the hour of truth, led by Merkel, dea ex machina, Mistress of the Closed Session, representing the country that happens to formally preside over the other countries in the second half of 2020, and informally anyway. Germany needs Eastern Europe for business. It also feels it cannot allow the Americans to have a monopoly on anti-Russian geopolitics. This precludes falling out with Poland over Polish sovereignty. After much back and forth, in the darkroom of intergovernmental diplomacy, Poland and Hungary agree to the Recovery Fund, complemented by a ROL document. According to it the Commission will issue a ‘Budget Protection Directive’ tying Corona and indeed any other EU subsidies to a national legal system independent enough to secure a correct accounting for EU moneys received. The Directive will not, however, take force until it is reviewed by the European Court. In the meantime – likely to last until early 2023 – the Commission will take no action under it, and money will flow to all 27. Once, and if, the mechanism has passed muster by the Court, the Commission may start proceedings against Poland, Hungary or both, to claim back money already disbursed, on the ground that the Polish and Hungarian legal systems are so rotten that they cannot generally be expected to render judgments in line with, well, the ‘rule of law’. Clearly this will take more time, and nobody knows what the world will be like then and what member states will by then be concerned about.

In Europe, grace periods work wonders. For the time being there is universal happiness: among the various Presidents, the Parliament (which got its amendment passed), the Commission (which gets a new toy with which to harass member states and feel important), the Court (its jurisdiction growing by the day), and the national governments including Hungary and Poland (who won’t talk about the informal assurances they received under the counter). The politics of deferment, Merkel’s favourite discipline, knows only winners – as long as it lasts.


International Letters

A strong dose of idealism is needed to keep any magazine going. For Lettre Internationale, it’s no less than to counteract the ‘provincialism of the great cultures’ and induce them to ‘see themselves through the eyes of others’. How? By scouring the world for the best texts in any language and offering them in exquisite translation.  

That was the ambition of Antonín Liehm, a Czech editor who spent his life between France and the US after the crushing of the Prague Spring. On December 4, he passed away in that city, at the age of 96. Three-quarters of a century before, he had started his first magazine, Kulturní politika, along with E. F. Burian, one of the country’s most innovative theater directors. As the rubble from World War II was still being cleared, the 21 year-old Liehm churned out the culture-meets-politics platform at the mad pace of a weekly. The magazine was pro-communist, but not an appendage of the Party, and ran for three years before Liehm rubbed the government the wrong way by publishing a poem deemed an anti-state conspiracy.

In 1960, he took over the Litérarní noviny and transformed what had been a Stalinist mouthpiece of the Writers’ Association into the most popular intellectual journal of the country. The LN wove a critical politics out of reportage on culture, philosophy, film, theatre and literature – Sartre, Aragon, the New Wave. For a readership of over 130,000, it supplied uncompromising and provocative articles that shimmied past the censors via sympathetic connections. Within a few hours of its appearance every Thursday, the magazine was sold out.

In 1960s Czechoslovakia, Liehm later reflected, its place was akin to that of the Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France: a venue for the taboo in pamphlet form. And it carried similarly profound political repercussions. Promoting the reform of communism, Liehm’s concoction was a crucial catalyst for the Prague Spring, and several of its writers were leaders in the uprising. A year after the Soviet tanks rolled in, the magazine’s editor, on the list of people to be ‘shot down’, found refuge in Paris.

In exile, Liehm cobbled together his finances by teaching film and literature at universities in France and the US while searching for another publishing venture.  Gunter Grass and Heinrich Böll showed interest in assembling an East-West magazine, but for Liehm, this was too parochial. Only something truly international would suffice, something that would take down not only the wall separating Eastern and Western Europe, but the pedestal on which the latter stood as well. For Grass, this was not German enough, and the two parted ways.

It was at sixty that Liehm founded the outlet for this vision: Lettre Internationale. Funding he scrambled together from the French Ministry of Culture and Polish and Hungarian émigrés, who were willing to support an intellectual journal of the type they knew from home.  It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to birth the magazine in a one-room office shared with another dissident leftist, Paul Noirot. What money there was all went to pay the translators, whose work had to be of the highest quality: the texts were to read as fluently in French as they did in the original. Without funds to commission writers, the magazine was assembled as a collage, anchored by central text, juxtaposed against others, and refracted through images and poetry interspersed throughout. 

But it was to be much more.  The foundational idea was an international network of publications, but one quite unlike the standard sort that offers simply the same fare in different languages. Moving past the intellectual divisions in Europe and beyond – not merely East-West, but also North-South – meant not standardization but localization: half of the texts in each issue were to overlap, while the rest could be determined on the ground. Perhaps only Le Monde Diplomatique’s global federation of partner editions provides a contemporary comparison. 

In the late 1980s, Leihm’s vision spread quickly, with the rapid appearance of sister magazines in Italian (Lettera Internazionale, 1985), Spanish (Letra Internacional, 1986), and German (Lettre International, 1987). When the East opened in the 1990s, the pan-European ebullience, buoyed by foundation funding, spawned even more – Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian versions, while smaller western countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, caught up.

But noble intentions alone don’t pay the presses and the idealistic aim struggled against the technology available at the time: the texts circulated, slowly, by post. Within a decade, the French version collapsed, and no edition ever appeared outside Europe, which remained the central geographic focus. Now merely six languages remain: the Russian edition has found refuge online, and the rest struggle to hang on.

Only in Germany has the project continued in full form, without qualification, under founder-editor Frank Berberich. With a circulation of over 20,000, the Berlin-based Lettre International is the widest-read literary magazine in the country. This is no small feat for a chunky periodical of 150 pages printed on broad A3 paper. As such, it’s very much a stay-at-home quarterly: even rolled up, it won’t fit into a handbag. In public, it can be seen mostly in the window of cafes or wine shops, like a Zagat sticker signaling taste.

But the uncooperative format is perhaps a needed concession to the magazine’s interdisciplinarity. In the tradition of Breton’s Minotaure, it showcases artworks between the articles, and the uncompromised size gives them their rightful due. Covers are typically head-turners (for example, a watercolor of an S&M orgy), while the pictorial contributions inside, from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Annie Lebowitz, or Georg Baselitz, offer a moment for breath between the texts.

Three-quarters of these are translations that range across essays, reportage, interviews, poetry, fiction, commentaries and analysis. European languages predominate, but authors outside the West are not in short supply. The point is discovery – German readers have Lettre to thank for the introduction of Slavoj Zizek and Liao Yiwu to their shelves – and disruption. The magazine darts between political perspectives and hovers around the contentious.  It was in an interview with Lettre that then Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin first expounded his views on Muslim immigrants’ ‘unwillingness to integrate’, sparking a media frenzy and his eventual departure from public life. Recent issues have covered deglobalization and epidemics, the ganglands of Kosovo, the transformation of writing, apocalypse past and present, mutations of racism in America, the fraught Americanization of Europe, as well as the philosophy of touch – all from original texts in more than a half-dozen languages – and in its massive, obstinate format.

How should we conceptualize these internationalist endeavours? In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova mapped the global literary order onto an uneven political-economic terrain. If universalist vernaculars once facilitated literary communication across vast swathes of territory, the Herderian revolution of nineteenth-century nationalism swept them aside as authors embraced writing in one’s native tongue as both right and necessity. The outcome was a more localized literary space, bounded by nationalized languages. Yet if languages were increasingly homogenized within state borders, literary worlds remained vastly unequal beyond them, country power a determining feature of their global rank. The effect is a hierarchy, much as in the field of international relations.

Within it, what passes now as world literature is determined in the hubs of power – London, Paris, New York. These dominant centres host the publishing, reviewing, translating and prize-giving mechanisms that function as gatekeepers of taste and arbiters of the new. The result is not a Republic of Letters, but an Empire of the same. Outsiders, whether from social margins or peripheral countries, gain admittance only if they conform to the establishment’s criteria of taste. The parochialism is perhaps strongest within the current global hegemon: in the US, works in translation account for only 3 percent of all books sold. 

Liehm’s vision for Lettre – like his politics since the 1940s – subverted this order from the inside. He took a project, born on the periphery of Europe, and transposed it to Paris where he attempted to raze the inequalities on which the continent’s literary capital rose, for translation was supposed to go both ways. There are as likely to be Arabic texts that readers of Swedish should access as vice versa, he would comment. The success of the magazine’s offspring in Germany would not have surprised Casanova. The country’s linguistic power lags far behind its economic might; as such, interest in translation from its hinterlands is an understandable response.

Or maybe it is that Germany remains the last bastion within Europe of the once wide-spread feuilleton culture, still materialized as an extended section in weekend newspapers. These, as a rule, carry long-form essays on politics and arts that assume a far more literate public than even the London Review might expect of its readers. Perhaps only this, and the feuilleton’s ritual venue – the Sunday breakfast that stretches on until sunset, round a table covered in jam and breadcrumbs – can explain how a magazine as thick and uncompromising as Lettre can survive in an age of blogs. 



The Soviet Union had a rule that any urban area that reached a million people had to have an underground Metro system. This went alongside a developed network of trolleybuses and trams that served most cities, which of course had its gaps and failures – there was nothing in the USSR that did not. Yet ‘1 million = Metro’ was such a strong rule that it was open to abuse by ambitious local authorities.

In the 1960s, the city council in Yerevan, which had been lobbying repeatedly for a Metro despite having an urban population of less than half the magic figure, received a delegation from Moscow. Although a supposedly autonomous soviet socialist republic, Armenia couldn’t build a Metro without the capital’s permission, cash and resources. Yerevan’s city council accordingly organised enormous traffic jams to keep the Moscow Nomenklatura stuck for hours on their way from the airport to the city hall, and insisted that this proved that Yerevan would be in chaos by the time it had reached a million inhabitants. The government were sufficiently impressed, and since 1981 Yerevan has had a gorgeous, if currently somewhat dilapidated underground Metro network. Public transport in Britain is administered in a similarly centralized manner, but is more miserly in spirit.

According to the EU’s planning project ESPON, there are twelve urban areas with over a million inhabitants in the UK – Greater London is in a category of its own at 10 million, but Greater Manchester, the Birmingham-Coventry-Black Country and Leeds-Bradford-Wakefield-Halifax conurbations all have over 2 million people; at over a million are Glasgow, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, Nottingham-Derby, Southampton-Portsmouth, Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys, Bristol and Sheffield.

Of these, none outside London and Nottingham has a fully integrated public-transport network where buses, trams and trains are planned and owned by the same body, and only London, Newcastle-Sunderland and Glasgow have true Metro systems of the sort you will find in cities and conurbations of their size in France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Some cities have trams, usually integrated with old railway tracks, such as Nottingham, Sheffield’s grandly named Supertram, Manchester’s Metrolink and the West Midlands ‘Metro’ between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Liverpool and its satellites have an extensive S-Bahn-style network, Merseyrail, built in the 70s as a replacement for the dismantled Liverpool Overhead Railway; operators try their best to hide it from the tourists, presumably because they might expect better.  

To find such a failure in provision elsewhere in Europe, the only obvious comparison is Dublin (the Republic has inexplicably copied almost every foolish planning decision made in Britain since 1922). Elsewhere, you have to look quite far – the big cities of the former Yugoslavia are the nearest equivalent, where a decade of war in recent memory and a total economic collapse provide a better excuse. One of the less-discussed possible consequences of the coronavirus is that the already rudimentary British public-transport systems may soon go bankrupt.

Where they exist, these urban-rail networks have lost between 80 and 95 per cent of their custom since the start of March 2020. In Britain, where urban rail and Metro systems are funded largely out of ticket receipts and advertising – most around the world are funded by government grants – this has led to mayors like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham raising the possibility that their systems will have to be abandoned. As a result, a bailout was organised for England’s urban-rail and tram networks (somewhat inaccurately called ‘light rail’) in May. Some money has been thrown to the Tyne and Wear Metro (a superb system, built in the 1970s as a part of T Dan Smith’s ‘Brasilia of the North’), West Midlands Metro, the Metrolink, the Supertram, and Nottingham Express Transit.

A similar bailout was later agreed for Transport for London, which had deliberately onerous strings attached. These were designed to humiliate Sadiq Khan, whom the government appears to consider a prime enemy after the vanquishing of Jeremy Corbyn – a telling obsession, given his centrist politics. As bankruptcy still loomed, a further bailout of TfL followed in October, after some grandstanding between Khan and the government, which initially planned to force a series of draconian fare hikes, before executing one of its trademark U-turns.

It is of course an odd time to talk about extending public-transport provision, given that local governments have at least temporarily been encouraging people not to use it, but to cycle or walk instead. But we still know there is only one plausible approach to ensuring city and town dwellers can move around in an allegedly soon-to-be zero carbon age – not just by cycling and walking, even less by buying electric cars, but by taking tubes, trams and trolleybuses, segregated from cars and roads. The cities that have lowered their emissions furthest are precisely those that have the most extensive, efficient, frequent and cheap transport networks.

The fact that there are so few of these in the UK is the consequence of the micromanagement of all infrastructure from Westminster – an Act of Parliament is, preposterously, required in order to fund a tram line – intersecting with a ruinously complex, expensive and wasteful system of contracting and procurement.

Local authorities can be criticised for a great deal, but the paucity of public-transport provision in the UK is not for want of cities trying to get funding for something more ambitious. Glasgow has repeatedly, over many decades, begged for money to extend its one-line 1890s Subway; such an extension has never been agreed, let alone commenced. In the 1970s, proposals for a Manchester Metro were thrown out by the government – the fact that the city’s public spaces are clogged up by what are basically railway platforms for the Metrolink’s heavily engineered tram-trains is a direct result of this. Most of the networks outside London, Newcastle and Glasgow date from the 1980s and 90s, and were attempts at putting back a little of what was lost in the 50s and 60s, when the Beeching Axe – wielded by a ‘modernizing’ Tory minister, Ernest Marples – slashed suburban lines, while tram networks were torn out to make way for buses and, mainly, cars.

The South Hampshire conurbation, where Southampton and Portsmouth, the two densest cities in England outside of London, have had to contend with a Tory county’s objection to any expansion of their local-authority boundaries, have had two proposals rejected in Parliament. A slightly goofy Monorail proposal was thrown out by Thatcher, and, much worse, a serious, costed and extensive Metro network which would at last have properly connected this interminable sprawl, with a line gradually being built westwards from Portsea Island to Southampton, was vetoed by Gordon Brown’s Treasury and replaced with a bus running in railway cuttings between Gosport and Fareham.

New Labour talked a great deal about public transport, but Brown seems to have had an animus towards urban rail and trams, spiking plans for Liverpool and for Leeds, whose transport is probably the worst of any big city in Britain. The latter’s problems were compounded under Cameron and Osborne when a truncated trolleybus, which would at least have given Leeds transport of the quality of, say, Sloviansk, went to a public enquiry and was thrown out in 2016. Some of this hostility derives from an early New Labour report on urban transport, which argued that buses should play the major role in expanding public provision. While their importance is considerable, refusing to back pretty much anything else was strikingly short-sighted – even before one considers the way buses are run as private fiefdoms by private companies, seldom integrated with trams and trains.

Yet what did get built sometimes became cautionary tales, making the situation yet worse. Only two new systems were commenced under the Blair–Brown governments – Nottingham Express Transit (NET, modishly), a good, publicly owned tram-train which is partly funded by a surcharge on car parking; and Edinburgh. This was a scandal in Scotland, as cost overruns and ineptitude on the part of its contractors meant that the system came in at half the planned length and thirteen years late; its expense has become notorious, though the single line that now exists is pleasant and popular. Le Havre’s recently constructed light-rail/tram system, longer than Edinburgh’s, with more stations and a 500-metre tunnel, took three years to build, at a cost of £347m – less than half the price of the Edinburgh system.

The enormous expense of building infrastructure in the UK has been as prohibitive as the Treasury’s refusal to invest outside of London and Manchester. It is often claimed this is due to labour costs, but the French counter-example makes this obvious nonsense. The labyrinthine public-private contracting systems that have been dominant in the UK since the 1980s are the real culprit. In this context, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield can be proud of what little they have.

One of the many possible interpretations of the profound shifts in electoral politics in the North and Midlands – dramatically instantiated in the 2016 Brexit vote and the December 2019 Tory landslide – can be derived from public-transport provision, or the lack of it. The cities, towns and suburbs covered by the London Underground, Merseyrail, NET and the Tyne and Wear Metro mostly voted Labour in 2019; but an electoral apocalypse hit the poorly served outer towns of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Leigh, for instance, the Greater Manchester town that saw the largest overturning of a Labour majority in the country, held by Labour since 1922, is almost completely cut off from Wigan, Salford and Manchester except by unreliable and slow buses. Dudley, not far from the centre of one of the largest urban areas in Europe, is treated by government and residents alike as a self-contained provincial ‘town’. The‘left behind’ cliché has a very concrete meaning in places like this.

Britain is clearly being polarised between London – plus a handful of similar places with property booms and bankers, such as Manchester and Edinburgh – and everywhere else. The entrenched character of the current culture war rests upon people believing bizarre things about the people who live down the road, and upon inculcating a sense of parochial resentment in places that are in reality dense urban areas. The possible collapse of the urban-transport networks was clearly not planned by this government, and it is unlikely that they will be allowed to fail permanently. A situation in which they rust away, offering a skeletal service to ‘key workers’ (or the ‘metropolitan elite’, depending on the audience) is highly plausible. This will only aid a politics based on pettiness and paranoia. 


Only Joking?

The crisis of English government that has gathered pace since 2016, accelerating further in the context of the Covid pandemic, has frequently revolved around the predilections and vanities of three men: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. The three were bound together by the Vote Leave referendum campaign, but already belonged to the same intellectual and journalistic milieu, whose political implications appear increasingly stark. It is brash, disruptive, libertarian and disdainful of liberal-conservative establishment norms, including those of the legislature, judiciary and civil service. Media-savvy, it seizes on hot-button ‘cultural’ issues to distract from less spectacular (but usually more consequential) economic decisions being taken elsewhere. If this ideology has a basecamp from which to mount its assaults on the state, it is not – as was the case for Thatcherism – a post-war think tank, but a Georgian magazine: the Spectator.

In April of this year, commenting on how the government appeared to be stoking a new ‘culture war’ amidst the Covid emergency, the political editor of the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley referred to the ‘Spectocracy’ that was driving it. Johnson, who was editor of the Spectator from 1999-2005 is clearly this faction’s totemic leader, but Cummings (who departed Downing in Street in November) held a position as online editor, which he resigned in 2006 shortly after insistently re-publishing a Danish cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. Cummings was hired as Gove’s advisor the following year, but still occasionally uses the Spectator blog to issue his over-wrought meditations on the state of politics, while his wife, Mary Wakefield, has held a succession of senior editorial roles at the paper since Johnson’s tenure. 

Shrimsley was also referring to the role of libertarian provocateur Toby Young, an associate editor, who has refashioned himself as a free-speech campaigner and ‘Covid sceptic’ who seeks to challenge expert opinion on policies such as lockdown. He might equally have mentioned the magazine’s political editor, James Forsyth, whose wife, Allegra Stratton, has – with great media fanfare – recently been appointed Downing Street press secretary. At their wedding, Forsyth’s best man was none other than Rishi Sunak, now Chancellor of the Exchequer. The cultural front of this new conservatism has been pushed in alliance with the Daily Telegraph, with whom the Spectator has shared the same owners – Conrad Black and then the Barclay brothers – and many of the same columnists and editors since the 1980s. Johnson’s December 2019 electoral triumph, built solely on the promise to complete the Brexit process, represented a startling coup for a clique that had spent much of the previous two decades trolling and trivialising politics.

In 10,000 Not Out, David Butterfield, a young(ish) Cambridge classicist, author of books on Lucretius, Varro and A. E. Housman and regular Spectator contributor, offers a lovingly told history of the magazine, its key characters, controversies and fluctuating readership. As Butterfield underlines, the Brexit era is not the first time that careers have zigzagged between Westminster and the Spectator. Previous editors include a sitting Conservative MP (Iain Macleod, 1963-65) a future Conservative Chancellor (Nigel Lawson, 1965-70), and Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, newly ennobled by Johnson (Charles Moore, 1984-1990), while among its mainstays have been such figures as Thatcher’s policy advisor, Ferdinand Mount. Johnson combined the editorship with a parliamentary seat, plus stints as deputy chairman of the Conservatives and as Shadow Arts Minister. His successor, Matthew D’Ancona, was closely involved with David Cameron’s efforts to shift his party to the centre, and remains chair of the Cameronite think tank, Bright Blue.

This level of intimacy between a political party and a publication would be significant enough. What’s stranger is that the Spectator has frequently been at pains to stress its ambivalence towards the Conservative Party. Every incoming editor appears to have felt compelled to make the same self-regarding declaration of independence and lofty intellectual aspiration, no matter how personally entangled with the party they may have been. Some (like Cummings) appear to have held the Tories in some contempt, while fraternising and gossiping with them for a living. Perhaps they doth protest too much, and this rhetoric of independent mindedness is simply how the establishment likes to present itself. On the other hand, there is something distinctive about this restless branch of conservatism, which is constantly on the verge of attacking the very institutions it claims to cherish. Since this is the culture that has shaped Britain’s latest political elite, Butterfield’s impressively researched if hagiographic book might be read as a kind of history of our unhappy present. 

The Spectator was founded in 1828 by Robert Rintoul, a Scottish journalist with Whig sympathies and a progressive Benthamite perspective on social reform. Rintoul deliberately revived the title of the famous but short-lived coffeehouse periodical, established by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711, and Rintoul’s descendants have occasionally muddied the waters surrounding its true origins (the Spectator blog is named ‘Coffee House’). Like the Economist, which became something of a sister when it was founded fifteen years later, its main political concern was to defend and extend free trade. Beyond this core liberal principle, Rintoul hoped that his paper would avoid political partisanship, and instead focus on offering a form of intellectualism and heterodoxy that its readers would revere and learn from.

Coinciding with the heyday of Victorian laissez-faire, the early decades of the Spectator placed it firmly on the side of political modernity. Despite its stated desire to remain a neutral spectator of politics, it was forced off the fence where key liberal objectives were at stake, offering whole-hearted support for the 1832 Reform Act, then (less popularly) opposing slavery and backing the North in the American Civil War. John Stuart Mill was a frequent and enthusiastic contributor, while Butterfield reports that ‘the paper’s admiration for Gladstone had risen almost to the point of idolatry by the mid-1880s’.

The Spectator first turned on the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish home rule, which cost it a considerable number of readers, whose loyalties were to party before newspaper. By the close of the nineteenth century, the paper could boast a famous litany of literary contributors – Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle – but its progressive credentials (both culturally and politically) were growing shaky. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Spectator was firmly supportive of the Tories (a stance embedded in a vehement anti-socialism), by which point it had also undergone a brief flirtation with Mussolini.

Yet the existential dilemma of liberalism versus Toryism has never entirely deserted the paper. The cultural world of its writers is unmistakeably that of a fading public-school and Oxbridge elite, whose access to political power has been routed via the Tory Party for the past century. But in addition to its early attachment to laissez-faire, its social values (not to mention the lifestyle choices of its leading lights) have been liberal and individualistic, to an often provocative degree.

The dilemma is constitutive of a certain strand of conservative liberalism, which is (somewhat paradoxically) nostalgic for the Victorian model of progress. Various means of squaring this circle have been sought, most powerfully the modernising neoliberalism of Hayek and Thatcher, which sought to reinvent and reimpose laissez-faire. Never sufficiently committed to economics to add much to that agenda, the Spectator has clung to a different strand of ‘classical liberalism’, the rhetorical acrobatics and innuendos of the gentleman’s club and the Oxford Union, which ultimately resolves in the self-serving free-speech activism that has become the contemporary Spectator’s greatest cause célèbre.    

The perpetual editorial declarations of political independence and liberal intellectualism continued after the War. Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Iris Murdoch and Ted Hughes were all occasional contributors, though Butterfield notes that the paper never quite got modernism or anything that smelled of the avant-garde. Social liberalism continued to inform the policies it advocated, including opposition to the death penalty and support for legalisation of homosexuality. In 1958, Michael Foot wrote to say that ‘no journal in Britain has established a higher reputation than the Spectator for the persistent advocacy of a humane administration of the law or the reform of inhumane laws’. Nigel Lawson’s paper attacked Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech as ‘a nonsense and a dangerous nonsense’.

The distinctive Spectator tone of reactionary satire, later advanced in cruder form by the likes of James Delingpole and Rod Liddle, was apparent in 1968 via the pen of ‘Mercurius’, a pseudonymous academic who railed against student protesters, social science and expansion of higher education. It seems fairly clear, though never confirmed, that the author was Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Beyond such fripperies, what’s surprising is how little of substance the Spectator contributed to the resurgence of the right over the subsequent decade, especially given the critical importance of other print media (Samuel Brittan and others at the Financial Times in particular) to the spread of Thatcherite ideas. Lawson briefly positioned the paper as pro-European, though this was swiftly reversed by his successor George Gale, under whom the Spectator’s financial position and profile slid.

As for the country, so for the Spectator, 1979 proved a turning point. Under the accomplished editorship of Alexander Chancellor (who professed never to have voted Tory), Moore (who described himself as an ‘independent Tory’) and then Nigel Lawson’s son Dominic, the magazine became more spirited and increasingly hedonistic. Sales rose, as did the quantity of provocative and racy content. Thatcherism provided the backdrop, but the sense one gets from the Spectator of the 1980s is of the old patriarchal establishment becoming drunk on the freedoms of the revived laissez-faire.

Yet to grasp the cultural roots of the present political crisis, and to some extent of Brexit, it’s the Blair era that deserves closest attention. Beyond its enthusiastic support for the Iraq War, the paper found it difficult to gain a political toehold with respect to Blairism. After all, London in the late 1990s was everything that rich and well-connected social liberals could ever have hoped for. Unable therefore to offer serious or substantial criticism of the New Labour government, the Spectator under Johnson began to take libertarian swipes at what he called the ‘ghastly treacly consensus of New Britain’. Young joined in 1999, and Liddle jumped ship from the BBC three years later.

Offence-giving became a mark of intellectual freedom and was steadily ratcheted up under Johnson. William Cash, son of the Eurosceptic MP of the same name, asserted that Hollywood was the fiefdom of a Jewish cabal. Taki, a far-right lifestyle columnist, wrote of New York Puerto Ricans that they were a ‘bunch of semi-savages’ and that ‘Britain is being mugged by black hoodlums’, before later praising the Wehrmacht. In 2004, a Spectator leader repeated the lie that ‘drunken fans’ were culpable for the Hillsborough football-stadium tragedy, whose memorable death toll (96) the paper could only put at ‘more than 50’.

Throughout this period, anti-European barbs were being tossed on a regular basis, in tandem with the rest of the conservative press. Given how few steady ideological positions the paper seems to hold, the persistence of anti-Europeanism – following Nigel Lawson’s brief effort in the 1960s to embrace European integration – has become one of its most significant political identifiers, at least since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Butterfield treats as obvious that a publication committed to ‘free trade’ would adopt this stance (which unsurprisingly resulted in support for ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum) but this is to underplay the nationalist undercurrents of both Brexit and the contemporary Spectator.

Much of the time, this Euroscepticism is too flippant and jingoistic to count as a credible policy vision. As with kitsch Brexiteer appeals to ‘Global Britain’, it is rooted in nostalgia for a 19th-century modernity when you could ‘say anything you like’, cultural hierarchies were explicit and government supposedly did as little as possible. Since Thatcher left office in 1990, what Brexitism has offered subsequent generations of conservatives is a way of going ‘meta’ on the establishment that spawned them, distancing themselves from orthodoxy and authority, in the name of some higher freedom. The squaring of the liberal-Tory circle ends up in adolescent efforts to cause offence for its own sake, but the political side-effects have turned out to be far more serious.

The identity of William Cash – son, not father – has been corrected. Thanks to the Sidecar reader who pointed this out.


Was Christ a Collaborator?

Jesus of Nazareth lived in a time of political turmoil. Between the lines of the Gospels, which are our main source of information about him, this comes through loud and clear. But it is never brought to the surface. The last thing that the writers of the Gospels wanted was to drag in politics. They wanted to extract Jesus from his real historical situation and put across a universal message, which could apply to anybody. Above all, they did not want to tie Jesus in with the fate of the Jewish people who, at the time of writing, had just been crushed by the Roman legions after a bitter resistance war.

However, the actual situation in which Jesus lived is plain enough. In 63 BC Palestine was conquered by a Roman army, led by Pompey, and made part of the Roman province of Syria. Pompey, accompanied by his military staff, strode into the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, which had been defended by its priests after the reigning king had opened the gates of the city to the invaders. From that moment on, until the final showdown 133 years later in 70 AD, the history of Palestine is mainly a history of Jewish resistance to Roman rule. It was a hopeless resistance which took place during a time which fundamentally was one of Roman expansion. Jesus of Nazareth lived right in the middle of this period and, despite his well-known attachment to the other-worldly, he could hardly have been blind to what was going on.

Palestine’s strategic role

The situation was not an easy one for the Romans. Palestine ­– Judea, as the Jewish part of it was called ­– was one of a chain of small states, stretching from Armenia down to Egypt, which formed a buffer zone between Rome and the Parthian Empire to the east, based in Persia. Palestine was a crucial link in the chain because it bordered Egypt, granary of Rome. Parthia was the second major power of the region and it was never conquered by Rome. Indeed, it several times inflicted defeats on the Roman legions, routed them and captured the eagles which were their battle standards. So Palestine was a sensitive area. A Jewish uprising could count on Parthian support. Indeed, in 40 BC, only about twenty years after Pompey’s invasion and not very long before the birth of Jesus, this was exactly what happened. The Roman puppet regime was overthrown and a new king installed, with Parthian support. The Parthians, moreover, unlike the Romans, took care not to desecrate the Temple. Their position was more or less like that of the Indians in Bangladesh, a foreign power aiding a national movement for its own purposes.

The Romans reacted quickly. They ditched the old lot of puppets and brought in a new candidate, Herod, who was about 30 at the time. Herod’s father had been the strong man, main pro-Roman in the old regime. Herod himself had been military governor of Galilee, the northern part of Palestine. When the Parthians came in he managed to escape to Egypt and eventually got to Rome. There he was crowned king of Judea. With full Roman backing he returned, taking Jerusalem with the help of the legions in 37 BC, and promptly executed the rebel leaders. The anti-Roman king, Antigonus, was crucified, the first of tens of thousands who were to be executed in this way by the Romans or their puppets. Once on the throne, Herod stuck to it until his death in 4 BC.

It is not certain exactly when Jesus was born. All we can say is that it was during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who died in 14 AD, and that during Jesus’ adult life Augustus’ successor Tiberius was on the throne. Jesus may have seen the end of Herod’s reign, as an infant. Certainly the events which followed Herod’s death must have impressed him, either as childhood memories or as stories which were told him as he grew up.

Herod’s death

Herod’s death produced a crisis. Herod had been servile to the Romans and cruel and extortionate to his own people. He was loathed and hated. Naturally, when he died there was general rejoicing and the national movement came to the surface again. There had already been rumblings shortly before the end of his reign. A student demonstration, more or less led by two Pharisees, Judas and Matthias, had culminated in the tearing down of the Roman eagle which Herod had displayed in the Temple to please his masters. The ringleaders were burned alive. When Herod finally died, there was an uprising in Jerusalem. The procurator, Sabinus, the top Roman official in Palestine, immediately moved troops into the capital to maintain law and order and also to seize Herod’s treasury. During the festival of Pentecost, fighting broke out between pilgrims to the Temple and these Roman troops. Sabinus was pinned down in the garrison.

At the same time, there was another armed uprising in Galilee, led by a partisan leader called Judas, known as the Galilean, whose father had been executed by Herod for insurgency. This was a large-scale uprising in which the partisans took Herod’s palace in Sepphoris and seized the arms which were stored there. Sepphoris was only a few miles from Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood. About an hour’s walk away, in fact. The Romans had to send two legions, that is, twelve thousand troops, down from Syria to suppress these revolts and rescue Sabinus. During the fighting the Temple was badly damaged and Sepphoris was completely destroyed. When the Romans had restored order they crucified 2,000 rebels.

Twice the size of Northern Ireland

Palestine is a comparatively small country. Herod’s kingdom of Judea was not much bigger than Wales, about twice the size of Northern Ireland. It did not extend so far south as Israel does today but it covered a fringe of what is now Syria and Jordan. The population, about five million probably, was not homogenously Jewish. The Jews were concentrated in the Jerusalem area – Judea proper – and in Galilee, to the north, where they were fairly recent settlers. In between was Samaria, where the Samaritans lived. The Samaritans had their own religion which was a variant of Judaism. For example, they did not recognise the Temple, but had their own holy place on a mountain in Samaria. In the towns there were a number of Greeks and Hellenized Syrians or Phoenicians, who had first come in the wake of Alexander’s armies and now identified with the Romans. Herod had encouraged further immigration of Greeks and had built a number of new towns for them, including a new port and capital, Caesarea, which nationalistic and pious Jews would not live in because it was dominated by irreligious monuments, such as a theatre and a racetrack.

The divided country, split by national and religious differences, had some of the features of Northern Ireland or Cyprus. The Jewish national movement took a religious form; it was religion which bound the nation together. The leaders of the Zealots, as the guerrilla partisans were known, were often ultra-religious and religion was one of the two main issues around which opposition to the Roman occupation crystallised. There were riots over the pagan eagle desecrating the Temple, as described above: later, after the Romans had adopted direct rule, there were more riots under Pontius Pilate over the same issue. There were uprisings in the late thirties, only a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, when Emperor Caligula wanted to put up a statue of himself in the Temple. Ten years after that there was a big riot when a Roman soldier on guard on a roof overlooking the Temple made an obscene gesture to the pilgrims.

Imperialist taxes

The second issue was economic: the Roman tax appropriations. Rome did not tax its own citizens but relied on wringing what it could out of subject peoples. The system was laid down officially and then the actual tax-collection was left to private enterprise, on something like a tender basis. Roman troops backed up the tax-collectors. Naturally tax-collectors were regarded as collaborators with the Romans and there were frequent attempts to sabotage the system and boycott it. Quirinius’s census in 6 AD was designed by the Romans to help implement tax-collection and it provoked widespread resistance and armed struggle, which was not subdued for some time, right during the childhood of Jesus. Once again Galilee was a focus of the revolt, but this time there was heavy fighting in the south as well, led by a shepherd called Athronges. Thousands were killed by the Romans during this period.

Direct rule starts

The census was particularly resented because it marked the beginning of direct rule by Rome. The puppet regime was abandoned by the Romans shortly after Herod’s death. His son was exiled after the Procurator was given full powers, in Judea at least. In Galilee and in South-East Syria, the Golan Heights area, two other sons of Herod were allowed to stay on as autonomous rulers. Generally speaking, the Romans changed Procurators quite rapidly. Pontius Pilate, who lasted nine years, from 27 to 36 AD was an exception to the rule. Pilate was intensely hated and this loathing shows through all the Jewish source documents which remain. He was both harsh and corrupt. When he took money from the Temple treasury there were massive demonstrations against him. He suppressed them by putting troops into the crowd in plain-clothes, and with concealed weapons, who suddenly leapt into action at a given signal. In the Gospels, there are references to the killing of Galileans, always troublemakers, and to riots in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death, while the word used to describe the two ‘thieves’ crucified with Jesus is the same generally used to describe guerrillas, rather like ‘bandits’.

The Pharisees and armed struggle

However, the real struggle built up from the forties onwards, culminating in the full-scale national uprising in the sixties. At the same time, the national struggle began to cross-cut with an increasingly overt class struggle. The traditional ruling class in Judea consisted of an interlocking bloc formed by large landowners and the hereditary high-priestly families who controlled the Temple. The Sadducees were members of this bloc. They were challenged as religious authorities by the Pharisees, who were rigourists, organised on a strict entry basis into cells, led by scribes, graduates in theology, but also including elements from artisan and even labouring backgrounds. It was the Pharisees who welded the Jewish nation together into a religious-political force. Many of the Zealot leaders were Pharisees who had decided to move into a phase of armed struggle.

The mass of Zealots however, came from the people, from small towns and villages. This period was one of an overall movement in the countryside towards large estates, throwing small peasants, many of them in debt, off the land. There were a large number of slaves in Judea at the time and these made up part of the guerrilla armies. There was also an increasing number of hired hands, who are often mentioned in parables in the Gospel. The surplus of labour meant that they were usually employed on a casual basis. There was naturally a drift from the country into the towns and an increasing amount of employment in small craft industries.

Jesus and the apostles came from artisan families; Jesus was a carpenter, working with lumber imported from Lebanon and many of the apostles were fishermen, owning their own boats. We know from other sources that the fishing industry was thriving in Galilee at the time and there was investment in pickles for use in exporting fish. Jesus did not come from the masses, who were either living off charity – there was an efficient dole system in operation – or else were day labourers or slaves. Neither, of course, did he come from the priestly caste or from a rich business or land-owning background. He was a petit-bourgeois.

Kidnapping and assassination

The ruling class throughout this period became increasingly compromised with the Romans. It was the Roman Procurator who appointed the High Priest, usually a matter for bribery. In return, the High Priest acted as a Quisling, maintaining law and order in Jerusalem, a sensitive area for Romans, with his own Temple police and handing over troublemakers for trial. Yet at the same time, the Temple and its High Priest were the main symbols of national consciousness. In the end, class feelings came out into the open. Zealots kidnapped a Temple official and, like Tupamaros, held him ransom for the release of political prisoners. Assassination of collaborators was stepped up, until a High Priest was struck down too.

When, in the sixties, resistance gathered momentum, there were particularly troubled economic circumstances. For years extensions to the Temple had provided employment in Jerusalem and these suddenly halted. After riots, the programme was set in motion again in the form of paving the city streets. At the same time, there were complaints that the high-priestly families, who had equipped themselves with armed gangs, were marauding in the countryside extorting ‘tithes’ on which they had no claim. Matters came to a head in 66 AD when, after a huge tax boycott, the Roman Procurator looted the Temple treasury to make up the deficit. There was an immediate Zealot uprising. The Roman’s main force withdrew and the remnant left behind were massacred. One of the first acts of the Zealot regime was to destroy the record of debts – freeing the masses from the grip of moneylenders and landlords. A new High Priest was elected by lot, which fell to a peasant, an impoverished member of the priestly caste, an act regarded as outrageous by ruling class opinion.

The left is isolated

During the four years between 66 and 70 AD there was all-out war. A whole Roman expeditionary force, comprising two legions and several thousand auxiliaries, was wiped out. The Romans lost over 5,000 infantry and 480 calvary. This victory led to the setting up of a national Government, representing all aspects of religious opinion, both Sadducees and Pharisees, and even Essenes, the monastic group who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Zealots opposed this Government, which they regarded as class-based and potentially collaborationist. They were quite right.

The Jewish commander in Galilee, Josephus, who was a Pharisee, spent more time harassing the Zealots than preparing defences against Rome. When the Romans arrived, under Vespasian, he capitulated on the spot and became an open collaborator. Later he wrote a history of the events to justify his completely treacherous role. The backbone of resistance was led throughout by the Zealots who fought to the last in Jerusalem and then in the mountain fortress at Masada. When the Romans took Jerusalem in 70 AD, under Titus, hundreds of thousands were butchered and the city levelled. Josephus recounts how at one point the Romans ran out of wood for crosses and, when they had enough, had to search for empty spaces to put more crosses up in. It is in this context, that the crucifixion of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels must be seen.

Where did Jesus stand?

It can hardly be believed that he was as oblivious to what was going on around him as the Gospel writers make out. Roman reprisals must have struck the families of Jews known to him in the area. One of Jesus’s own disciples, one of the Twelve, was Simon the Zealot, who presumably participated in one of the uprisings.

Reading the Gospels, the picture presented in the main is that of a passive collaborator. Although Jesus was condemned and executed by Pontius Pilate, every effort is made to clear him of any real responsibility. Crucifixion was not a Jewish method of execution. It was the Roman punishment for political crimes. Spartacus was crucified, for instance. Whereas the Jews had responsibility for ordinary crimes and for religious offences, the political crimes went to Pilate. Yet the Gospels claim that Pilate washed his hands of the affair, protested Jesus’s innocence, could see no wrong in him and was only pressured into crucifying him by the High Priest and his lobby.

Jesus himself is represented in a pro-Roman light. For example, he is described as friendly with tax-collectors and collaborationists. He heals the child of a Roman centurion. He advises, not simply going along with the authority of Rome under duress, but going twice as far as required. And, of course, the most important incident recounted concerns the payment of tax. ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s’. In the Gospels, this is presented as a particularly cunning reply which outwitted the Pharisees who asked it. In fact, it is not at all equivocal. It plainly supports the payment of taxes to Rome. The whole question of taxation was the burning issue of the day. On this issue, Jesus took a pro-Roman stand and backed the claims of the Imperial power.

Keeping Jesus clear of Judaism

The counterpart of this pro-Roman attitude of the Gospels is the persistent denigration of the Pharisees. The Zealots, as such, play no part in the Gospel story at all. They are simply suppressed verbally, as the Romans suppressed them militarily. But the Pharisees are very much in the forefront. They are used as straw-men who feed Jesus the straight lines which enable him to score off them. The purpose of this, as far as the Gospels are concerned, is clearly to distinguish Jesus and the Christian community from the Jews and the Jewish cause. In almost every case, it is a disagreement with Judaism which is stressed, so that Jesus can be distanced from his own people. Stories like that of the Good Samaritan are heavily promoted to the same end.

A number of scholars have tried to rescue Jesus from this Pro-Roman presentation, especially in recent years when, after Auschwitz and Belsen, commentators on the Gospel have at long last become sensitive to its anti-Jewish bias. In particular, the episode of Jesus’s trial has been gone over in detail and it has been admitted that Rome and not the High Priest was responsible for his execution – as a political offender.

Pilate was not a weak administrator who was likely to allow the High Priest’s lobby to pressure him against his better judgement.

Pacifist sentiment

This line of reasoning has led some writers to go as far as claiming that Jesus was actually pro-Zealot and sympathetic to armed struggle. This interpretation means discounting the great slabs of pacifist sentiment which fill the Gospels as nothing but post-Fall of Jerusalem PR, put in by the fawning Evangelists, eager not to rub Rome the wrong way. In contrast, episodes like driving the money-changers out of the Temple are stressed and the fact that Jesus was arrested by an armed patrol and one of his disciples drew his sword and resisted arrest. Indeed, Luke describes how Jesus apparently instructed his disciples to buy swords just before the arrest, though he quickly adds that two would be enough.

It is certainly true that there are patches of anti-Roman material in the Gospels which may get closer to the attitude of Jesus, or at least the early followers, than the Gospel writers do. For example, the story of the Gadarene swine seems to have an anti-imperialist gibe hidden away in it. Jesus exorcises an evil demon, who is called ‘Legion’, and the demon then enters a herd of pigs who plunge over a cliff. The Roman occupation troops were known as ‘pigs’ by the Jews, so the moral is pretty clear. But conversely, there is a definite strain of anti-Temple feeling in a Jesus’s preaching. He is critical of a number of Temple institutions, particularly the financial institutions, and more than once criticises the various ways the Temple made money: donations, taxes, commercial transactions and so forth.

Above all Jesus did not in any way advocate violent resistance to the Romans, but believed that it was necessary to undergo a spiritual change in readiness for the coming of the Kingdom. He conceived of this change in a way which brought him up against the Pharisees, because he was an anti-traditionalist in his attitude to the Jewish religious Law. Ethically, he was a purist, but not in a legalistic way. Judging from his numerous parables about vineyards, labourers and husbandmen, he was fully satisfied with the existing relations of production, including slavery, and the general economic set-up, though he was distrustful of the rich. He seems to have felt that the Temple should not be in any way a secular institution, either commercially or politically.

Jesus not subversive

In itself, there was little that was subversive in Jesus’s preaching and, in this sense the Gospel writers were right to portray him as a passive collaborator. But his fate was sealed when he began to attract crowds, partly because of his feats of healing, partly because he was a compelling orator. The Gospels several times tell how he tried to get away from the crowds and give them the slip, anxious about the outcome, as well he might be.

Pontius Pilate’s last official act for example, in 36 AD, only two or three years after Jesus’s execution, was to massacre a crowd of Samaritans who expected a revelation on their Holy Mountain. Anybody who gathered large crowds was in danger of being halted in their tracks for political reasons. In Rome the careers of sports and theatre stars were abruptly stopped when they began to acquire supporters who were too vocal or demonstrative.

Religions of the oppressed

It is quite usual for messianic and prophetic religious movements to spring up in times of political upheaval. Jesus can be compared with the new movements which sprang up as part of the response to the advance of European imperialism: Peyotism and Ghost-dancing among the American Indians, Ringatū among the Maoris, Hòa Hảo in Vietnam. These movements attempt to break out of the confines of an apparently hopeless historical predicament, by stressing a glorious other-worldly role for the followers of their prophet. In a time of political turmoil, they appear dangerous to the authorities, anxious to suppress anything which might develop into a threat, usually cynical and ignorant, and inclined to err on the side of ruthlessness rather than mercy. They are put down and, if the circumstances are right, a new cult based on the prestige of martyrdom springs up.

The man in the middle

The real strength of Jesus’s preaching lay in his ability to respond to conflict without being sucked into it. He was the man in the middle. Not only was he in the middle of a class conflict but of a national liberation struggle. He was able to find something to say which made sense to all kinds of people without ever coming down on one side or the other. This still is his strength. The discontented, the disaffected, the wretched of the earth could respond to him. So could tax-collectors and Roman soldiers. In part, this was because he chose out of preference to speak in riddles and parables, to tell stories rather than make statements. But partly too it was because he had a talent for the ring of truth, for words which sounded right, which pushed everyone a little bit further together. He walked a verbal tightrope which he wove as he went along. And he could back it up with a quotation every time. It is precisely because he had this ability to reconcile conflicting aspirations, that he sometimes seemed subversive. But in the long run anything that covers over contradictions by appealing to both sides always favours those in power, and Christianity still does.

First published in the left weekly 7 Days, 22 December 1971. An offshoot of Black Dwarf, the paper ran from October 1971 to March 1971; it is available at the Amiel Melburn Trust internet archive under Creative Commons license.


The Werewolf

It is a northern country; they have cold weather. The cold gets into their bones, their brains, their hearts.

Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within; there will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Nothing else.

The devil is a living presence to the upland woodsmen. He’s often been sighted in the graveyards, those bleak and touching townships of the dead where the graves are marked with portraits of the deceased in the naïf style and there are no flowers to place in front of them, no flowers grow there, so they put out little offerings, loaves, sometimes a cake that the bears come lumbering from the margins of the forest to snatch away.

Wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out of the vampires. A blue-eyed child born feet first on the night of St. John’s Eve will have second sight. When they discover a witch – some old woman whose cheeses ripen when her neighbours’ do not, another old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about, they strip the crone, search her for marks, for the supernumerary nipple her familiar sucks. They soon find it. Then they stone her to death.

Winter the cold weather.

Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked on the hearthstone for her, and a little pot of butter.

The good child does as her mother bids. Five miles trudge through the forest; do not leave the path because of the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves. Here, take your father’s hunting knife – you know how to use it.

The child had a coat of verminous sheepskin to keep out the cold. She knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she grabbed hold of her knife, dropped her basket and turned on the beast.

It was huge, its eyes were red, its chops grizzled, any but a mountaineer’s child would have fainted from sheer terror at the sight of it but she did not. It went for her throat immediately, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf emitted a gulping, almost sob when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are cowards at heart. Then it went lolloping off disconsolately between the trees as well as it could on three legs, leaving a trail of blood behind it. The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth in which her mother had packed the oatcakes and went on towards her grandmother’s house. It soon came on to snow so thickly the path and any footsteps, tracks or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured.

She found her grandmother so sick she had taken her to bed, the covers pulled up her chin. The old woman had fallen into a fitful slumber, moaning and shaking so dreadfully the child guessed she had a fever. She felt her forehead, it burned. She shook out the cloth from her basket, to use it to make the old woman a cold compress, and the wolf’s paw fell to the floor.

But it was no longer a wolf’s paw. It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand gnarled with work and freckled with old age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger and a wart on the index finger. By the war, she knew it for her grandmother’s hand.

She pulled back the sheet but the old woman woke up, at that, and began to struggle, squawking and shrieking like a thing possessed. But the child was a strong child and held her down long enough to see the cause of the fever – there was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already, oozing pus.

The child crossed herself and cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and came rushing in. They knew the wart on her hand at once for a witch’s nipple, they drove the old woman, all in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcase as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell down dead. The child cleaned up the mess in her grandmother’s cottage and lived there happily.

First published in the left weekly Socialist Challenge, 15 December, 1977; Angela Carter was a subscriber and supporter of the paper. Republished with kind permission of Mark Pearce and Alexander Pearce. A later draft of this tale appears in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979).


Nigeria’s Revolt

Since October, protests against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad have brought tens of thousands onto the streets and deluged Twitter with stories of police brutality, under the #EndSARS hashtag. But though this upheaval received widespread global coverage and international celebrity support, in the Western media it was largely cast as an African variant of Black Lives Matter. Few attempts were made to situate it within the broader history of Nigerian struggles against the corrupt ruling bloc and its kleptocratic economic order. Domestically, the protests have been variously characterized as an uprising, an insurrection, the start of a revolution, an outpouring of anarchic rage; but #EndSARS is a fragmentary resistance, not a singular movement, and its actors cannot be easily classified as a homogeneous group. With a second phase of mobilizations now underway amid a vicious crackdown by the Buhari government, how best to understand the movement, both its structural conditions and political character? How might it compare to previous struggles; and what of its prospects?

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in 1992 under General Babangida’s military dictatorship. This was in the context of an upsurge in armed robbery, as Nigeria’s urban-slum populations soared under the impact of the structural-adjustment programmes imposed by the generals and IMF. The squad has long been notorious for extortion, extra-judicial killings, corruption and torture. It operates with impunity. Typical victims are young men between 15 and 35 from low-income backgrounds, but SARS also targets middle-class youth – online platforms abound with stories of abuse and demands to abolish the unit. Following a video of officers shooting a young man in Delta State on 3 October this year, the demand to #EndSARS went viral. The hashtag had been circulating for years, but it had never sparked the kind of explosion that followed. When another report surfaced of officers killing a twenty-year-old musician, protests in Rivers State garnered national attention. Encouraged by Nigerian celebrities – Afro-popstars Wizkid and footballer Odion Jude Ighalo, along with a host of online influencers – crowds began to assemble outside the state governor’s mansion in Lagos. From there, protests spread to smaller cities and rural towns, eventually spilling across the border into neighbouring West African countries, and eliciting solidarity actions in North America, Europe and Oceania.

In response, on 11 October the government announced that SARS would be dissolved and replaced by SWAT, a Special Weapons and Tactics unit. But this rebranding exercise did little to stem the discontent. Protests continued, undeterred when bands of thugs – widely believed to be sponsored by the government – began to create chaos with the aim of discrediting the movement. When that tactic failed, the Buhari regime sent in the Army. Twelve unarmed protesters were shot dead by the military in Lagos on 20 October in what has become known as the Lekki Tollgate massacre. Nationally, 38 were killed that night, with many more injured and arrested. The upshot was to trigger another round of street protests, in parallel with riots and vandalism across the country. Notably, rioters broke into the stores where foodstuffs supposedly intended for the population during the Covid crisis were being hoarded by the authorities – rice, garri, sugar, salt, noodles. Police stations and hospitals were torched. Military repression was stepped up. Protest organizers had their bank accounts frozen and passports invalidated.

Muhamma du Buhari, a former general, ran in the 2015 election as a ‘born-again democrat’, winning a second victory in 2019, but his repressive response to the protests instead recalls his years as Nigeria’s military dictator in the early 1980s. Aloof, rarely communicating with the public, his reaction has exposed the systemic entanglement of politicians and police – the former often reliant on the latter to harass opponents and crush dissent. When Buhari announced on 7 December that ‘any act of hooliganism hiding behind lawful peaceful protests will be dealt with decisively’, the Nigerian political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim responded with a more accurate characterization: ‘law enforcement will sponsor hooligans and deal with peaceful protesters.’

Though a product of Nigeria’s dysfunctional democracy and economic disparities, the movement’s form has in large part been determined by the country’s divided oppositional forces. Historically, it is striking for being the first nationwide popular mobilization with no trade-union involvement. Since the 1980s, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) had been at the forefront of opposition and democracy movements, not least in protests against the ending of fuel subsidies. Between 1999 and 2007, it called six effective general strikes, with notable success in resisting deregulation and passing legislation through collective bargaining. When the Goodluck Jonathan regime attempted to cut fuel subsidies in 2012, the NLC called another nationwide walkout. By now however, there were clear signs that the trade-union movement had lost touch with civil society – particularly its younger politicized layers. The protests brought a wider swathe of radicalized youth to the street, opportunistically supported by opposition politicians like Buhari. But while the unions saw it as simply another strike, the youth saw it differently. They were not willing to let the NLC dictate the terms of their struggle. Many questioned the organization’s representational legitimacy, accusing it of taking bribes and collaborating with the authorities to end the protests prematurely. The result has been a split between organized labour and a new generation of dissidents, one that has yet to heal. When I spoke to various activists in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, they were unanimous in their distrust for the unions.

The backdrop for this previous wave of popular resistance, known as Occupy Nigeria, was the country’s long period of oil-led economic growth. The present one, by contrast, has unfolded during the dual crises of a global oil slump – hitting petro-dependent Nigeria with particular force – and the Covid-19 recession. Poverty and inequality have been progressively worsening since the return to electoral democracy in 1999. Unemployment and inflation are skyrocketing, while incomes are in decline. Forty per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. The public health and education systems are a shambles, while the elite typically seek medical treatment in London or Saudi Arabia and send their children to private schools abroad. The current conflagration is inseparable from the political-economic system of extreme inequality and violence that plagues Nigeria. In the words of radical lawyer Adesina Ogunlana, it is ‘a metaphor about everything wrong in Nigeria, and not just a unit of the Nigerian police’.

In this new conjuncture, the Buhari government’s own move to slash fuel subsidies and increase electricity tariffs, in September of this year, provoked a wave of anger: the inflationary effect of fuel-price rises on other goods has devastating consequences for workers and poor households. Yet the NLC dragged its feet, only announcing a general strike after an extended period of prevarication, when activists picketed its Abuja headquarters. In another novel development, the government initiated negotiations with the unions before the strike was scheduled to begin. No sooner had the NLC entered these talks than it declared its intention to halt industrial action and accept the subsidy cut in exchange for a few trivial concessions, including tax exemptions for minimum-wage workers. This was considered a historic betrayal: resisting fuel subsidies through social alliances has been the centrepiece of the unions’ resistance to neoliberalization for over three decades. #EndSARS – a movement without leaders, and which rejects negotiations with the authorities as a road to corruption – erupted a week later. The ossified labour movement was subsequently forced to change course: at the beginning of December the NLC reversed its line on electricity prices and declared that the strike was back on.  

This leaderless, inchoate movement is also distinguished by its predominantly youthful composition, a product of the country’s generationally inflected politics. Nigeria has a young population – over 40 per cent are under 14 – but its gerontocratic political structures are dominated by figures from the pre-1999 dictatorships. Although youth campaigners won a legislative battle in 2019 to lower age limits for candidates contesting elections by five years, this reform was largely immaterial, as the cost of entering politics remains prohibitive for most young people. Among those under 34 years of age, 35 per cent are unemployed and a further 28 per cent are under-employed. Buhari has only exacerbated the alienation of this demographic, describing them as entitled, uneducated, lazy and uniquely disposed to crime. As Tarila Ebiede observed in the Washington Post, ‘tech-savvy’ twentysomethings are now pitted against the ‘clientelist or patronage driven oil economy’, whose dividends have failed to trickle down. The movement against SARS can thus be seen as, among other things, an unprecedented kick against the oil economy. Yet this picture of an old petro-establishment rattled by a green youthquake needs some qualification: the government-sponsored thugs are also drawn from this younger cohort, along with the militants (including armed gangs and religious cultists) in the Niger Delta. Their warm relationship with local politicians embeds them in the oil-fuelled patronage structures that have failed their fellow millennials, creating significant obstacles to youth solidarity.

Nigerian politics also remains profoundly patriarchal, but in this recent movement young women have taken their place on the front line, radicalized by earlier engagements and a recent feminist re-emergence. Activists like Aisha Yusufu, a leader of the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign (aimed at rescuing the hostages of Boko Haram), and organizations like the 2020 Feminist Coalition, have rallied to the struggle against police brutality. The latter organized crowdfunding for medical and legal support, turning to bitcoins when their bank account was frozen.

As in earlier protests, immediate demands have been mixed with calls to deepen democracy, end corruption and improve social welfare. This programme has enabled it to transcend the traditional dividing-lines in Nigerian politics – religious, regional and ethnic (the country is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, as well as hosting over 250 ethnic groups with strongholds in different states). But in contrast to the NLC-led struggles, these myriad players have been brought into an avowedly ‘classless’ coalition. The historic fuel-subsidy protests adopted the language of the radical left, using social injustice as the crux around which systemic corruption and democratic deficits were discussed. At their heart was the conception of fuel subsidies as a meagre but essential form of social welfare, derived from the country’s vast petroleum resources. #EndSARS, on the other hand, was initiated by relatively well-off Lagos protesters and amplified by social-media celebrities, who have wished to restrict its demands to democratic reforms and a functional police force.

This latest movement has undoubtedly expanded the Nigerian youth’s sense of agency and political imagination, amid conditions of widespread poverty. Its minimum demands include re-training the police, releasing protesters and salary rises to end endemic corruption. The government is currently undertaking a police salary review, and judicial panels for victims of the squad have been established in most of the 36 Nigerian states. Yet it remains to be seen how far this will contribute towards building an effective left-democratic opposition. Those who tried to steer the movement towards social issues have been told to stick to the core message; some more experienced activists from the radical student movements of the 1980s and 1990s – taking on the military junta – have decided, or have been asked, to step back this time around. A cluster of organizations on the Nigerian left though have been mobilizing. Of note are the Take It Back network, which helped establish the African Action Congress (AAC) as a political party in 2018, and their united-front organization CORE (Coalition for Revolution). The radical journalist Omoyele Sowore, a student activist from the 1990s and founder of Sahara Reporters, the go-to site for the 2012 protests, was the AAC’s presidential candidate in the 2019 elections. He was arrested in a massive security operation mounted to suppress CORE’s #RevolutionNow protests of August 2019. Since then, the AAC has begun coordinating with community organizations across the country – supporting striking workers and citizens fighting inflated energy bills – as Baba Aye has reported for Africa Is a Country.

Given the widespread distrust of Nigeria’s state institutions, the organizations and campaigns clustered around the police reform movement will continue to operate mainly outside of party politics; but they may nonetheless have an influence on the elections in 2023. Here, the events of 2012 offer a precedent – and a warning. Both establishment parties in the 2015 election parroted the language of the streets, running on slogans of ‘change’ and ‘transition’. Buhari and his party, APC, benefited greatly from his positioning against subsidy cuts and corruption – his victory marked the first time an incumbent had been ousted by a presidential challenger. The 2023 elections will most likely see another two-party competition where the contenders adapt their messaging to an emboldened youth movement. The parties may try to recruit new members into their increasingly formalized bureaucratic machinery – without, of course, altering their core centrist-liberal ideologies. Nor will they relinquish their interest in maintaining a kleptocracy shored up by state institutions – the first-past-the-post parliamentary system as much as the Army and police – that descend directly from British colonialism. In the struggle to replace them with structures that are both equitable and accountable, ending SARS will be just a beginning.

Read on: Matthew Gandy’s map of financial insecurity and infrastructural collapse in Lagos. 


Latin American Symptoms

Surveying the state of Latin America, as it reels under recession and pandemic, it’s useful to bear in mind that these are essentially extractivist economies, based on the export of cereals, vegetables, minerals, meat, fish, gas and oil. With cheap manual labour, they also produce second-rank manufacturing goods – and drugs. Such economies generate overblown service sectors, run-down peripheries and devastated hospitals and schools. The stick and the carrot are firmly in the hands of the exploiter classes, who, while native to the region, behave like foreign occupiers.

The centre of gravity of these ‘lands of the gospel’ has always lain elsewhere. Since the days of the Bourbon and Braganza monarchies, Latin America has imported and adapted its ideas, its systems of government, traditions, artistic forms and technologies. Just as the industrialization of the continent subordinated it to international chains of production, so its modernization was subject to the interests of the advanced-capitalist metropolis. In the words of the Brazilian thinker Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, we are exiles in our own lands.

It will be objected that Latin America has also been the world’s leading continent of revolt, that the working class succeeded in establishing advanced forms of organization here in the 20th century. Examples range from the forms of popular representation established by the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana) during the Bolivian revolution of 1952, or the creation of the PT (Workers’ Party) in Brazil during the 1980s, which mobilized the poor under the aegis of the working class. But on the whole, authoritarian and demagogic regimes – Perón in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil – have set the political tone, absorbing spasms of revolt into a retrogressive caudillismo. This was the local version of combined and uneven development.

In the past few years, this combination of rebellion and paralysis, advance and retreat, has undergone a vertiginous acceleration. Instability has become permanent. Take Bolivia. In October 2019, the country had its 190th coup d’état in 195 years of independence: the police mutinied, the military came out against Evo Morales, the elected president, and drove him into exile. (The police had also spearheaded the 2010 rebellion against Rafael Correa in Ecuador.)

An OAS investigation found no irregularities with the official count of Bolivia’s first-round election, which Morales won – only with the unofficial ‘quick count’. Yet not just Trump and Bolsonaro but the EU and OAS threw their weight behind the Bolivian coup. With the presidency occupied by an unelected figure of the far right, Bolivia endured a year of tumult until the October 2020 elections, decisively won by Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’s movement, MAS.

The situation is not a complete return to Bolivia’s status quo ante, since Arce’s economic policies are closer to the Anglo-American ideal. Politically he is in a position to learn from the mistakes of Morales, who used the judicial machinery to override a plebiscite that had denied him the chance of a fourth term.

Meanwhile, Chile has opened a window onto the future – although the ruling bloc is trying to make sure it doesn’t open too wide. The first inklings came in October 2019, when students at Chile’s oldest state school, the Instituto Nacional, began vaulting the turnstiles in metro stations to protest against a 30-pesos increase in ticket prices. The student body has been changing: wealthy families have steadily withdrawn their offspring, preferring to ensconce themselves in the well-policed suburbs flanking the foothills of the Andes. But it wasn’t just about the 30 pesos. The fuse was lit and within a few weeks, Chile was ablaze.

October 2019 saw one of the largest demonstrations of all time in Latin America, with a million people in Santiago’s Plaza Italia, now rebaptised as Plaza Dignidad. Polite opinion said this was a typical Latin American uproar that would soon die down. But the popular forces organized a general strike that brought the country to a standstill, from one end to another. New forms of political organization flourished alongside – and despite – the traditional Socialist and Communist parties.

Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera, is a scion of one of Latin America’s most extravagantly wealthy families. He responded to the uprising by ordering the police to fire rubber bullets at the insurgents’ faces. More than a hundred people suffered facial injuries, many were blinded; thousands were arrested. (Rubber bullets were developed by the security forces in the UK and used against protesters demanding British troops’ withdrawal from Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They were taken up by the IDF, aiming at the foreheads of the Palestinians, and have since been used globally – against the 2013 protesters in Brazil, the gilets jaunes in France and BLM demonstrators in the US.)

Rubber bullets did not kill the movement in Chile. In November 2019, the Congress ruled that a referendum should be held in April 2020 on drafting a new Constitution to replace the one imposed by Pinochet forty years before, which enshrined the neoliberal order. The move was supposed to halt the protests, yet by early 2020 the uprising was spreading again, with strikes across dozens of sectors, occupations, militant demonstrations, attacks on the rotten political establishment and confrontations with the police.

The pandemic offered Piñera the chance to delay the referendum till 25 October 2020, but he could not change the outcome when the vote finally took place. More than 5.8 million Chileans voted in favour of drafting a new Constitution; only 1.6 million voted against. A majority also voted that the Constituent Assembly, due to be elected on 11 April 2021, will be made up exclusively of delegates elected for that purpose – not recycled parliamentarians. The Assembly will be made up of 50% women, 50% men, and indigenous minorities, starting with the Mapuche, will have guaranteed representation. The candidates won’t need to run under the auspices of a political party: representatives of factory committees, neighbourhood groups, schools and trade unions will be able to stand.

That said, the election will use Chile’s disproportionate constituencies – favouring the rural regions, to the detriment of the cities – and the D’Hondt system of proportional vote allocation, which notoriously favours larger parties. The Constituent Assembly’s 155 members will have to agree any measures by a two-thirds majority, so a minority of 53 will have a veto. They have been instructed to focus on social security, education, healthcare and employment: the daily life of society, rather than what the Argentinian jurist Roberto Gargarella has called the ‘engine room’ of the political system. In addition, 648 people have been arrested for participating in the demonstrations against Piñera’s regime, and another 752 people have been convicted of damage to private property. The government refuses to pardon them and denies that they are political prisoners.

Nevertheless, though nothing is guaranteed, Chile’s uprising has produced results that go well beyond what has been achieved by formidable protest movements elsewhere, from the US to Algeria, Lebanon to France, Belarus to Nigeria.

While Chile advances towards an uncertain future and Bolivia reverts to a changed version of its recent past, Peru sinks into the present. No nation better expresses the volatility of Latin America. It last held a presidential election in 2016, and has had four presidents since then: Martín Vizcarra replaced a discredited Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in March 2018, and was impeached by a hostile Congress in November 2020; his successor, ultra-conservative Manuel Merino, lasted barely five days, amid popular uproar at Vizcarra’s ouster, and was replaced by Francisco Sagasti, a US-educated technocrat, before the month was out.

Peru’s political class has utterly dissociated itself from the Peruvian people, and the parties stand for virtually nothing except themselves. Congress has been occupied by charlatans and opportunists of every stripe, or by out-and-out crooks: mafia men, evangelical sects and robber barons.

Four factors feed into the present crisis. First, Peru has still not settled accounts with the Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s, an era of death squads, embezzlement and maximum corruption in party politics. Second, the boom in raw mineral exports, which sustained development in recent decades, never reached the poor with its proceeds and has now gone into a tailspin. Third, denunciations of corporate and political corruption have been instrumentalized to benefit the right – and the extreme right. Finally, the pandemic: Peru has had one of the world’s highest death rates per capita from coronavirus.

These four features can be found today in all Latin American countries, as can a fifth: deindustrialization. With factories closing, the working class has been fragmented and millions of its former members thrown into unemployment, precarity and abject poverty. From the point of view of the dominant classes, the best governments are undoubtedly authoritarian ones that can push through the dismantling of trade unions and reduce wages, to compete on the international market with China. Unemployment would be structural; any progressive projects definitively abandoned. In theory, a basic income would compensate for permanent unemployment. In practice, the economy would centre around agribusiness and mineral extraction, with most lacking regular work.

This is the social framework the Bolsonaro government has been trying to impose on Brazil. But here too, we find the same instability, advance and retreat, on the extreme right. Though he organized demonstrations calling for Congress to be shut down, Brazil’s President has given up the idea of a coup due to lack of support. His Senator son is being tried for embezzlement of public funds, a case that will be heard in the Supreme Court. At the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro called for monthly cash-transfers of 40 dollars to the unemployed. Congress tripled the sum in an afternoon.

Instead of whipping up his horde of fanatics, Bolsonaro now doles out cash and sinecures to the swamp of old-school Congressmen and political-patronage networks known as the ‘Centre’. The candidates he backed in the October 2020 municipal elections fared badly. He has sabotaged attempts to develop a vaccine for the virus, which has already killed 170,000 Brazilians. He has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of finance capital, but that sector takes a dim view of the emergency-support programme. And Trump’s good will no longer counts.

At the heart of Latin America, spreading out across the Guianas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, there is the Amazon. The ‘lungs of the planet’, seen as an indispensable natural asset by those apprehensively watching the process of climate change and environmental breakdown. And greedily coveted by powerful states, giant pharmaceutical companies, big landowners and cattle ranchers, multinational corporations that plant and harvest myriad agricultural products; by well-intentioned NGOs and by those desperately fleeing the cities where no work is to be found, who act as the spearhead of capitalist incursion. For them too, the Amazon is still summed up in the words of John Donne to his mistress: ‘O my America! my new-found-land … How blest am I in this discovering thee!’

Translated by Max Stein

Read on: Mario Sergio Conti’s analysis of the Brazilian pandemic response; Roberto Schwarz on Bolsonaro’s neo-backwardness.


The Short Life of Fake News

Never believe anything until it has been officially denied

Claud Cockburn

Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare

Louis XI the Prudent, King of France (1461–1483)

Figures of speech and their trajectories make an intriguing study. For example, partly due to Covid-19, one of this year’s most popular locutions was, ‘We are entering uncharted territory’ – a portentous way of saying that we have zero understanding of it. These expressions disappear, often overnight, sometimes more gradually. Why? Their fortunes follow an erratic path, hard to decipher. For example, the term fake news has barely been used in 2020, when just three years ago it was rampaging across the media, with legislation drafted on it in various parliaments. It is not as if the world has grown more truthful over the past few years, yet now it seems to have been almost deleted from our vocabularies.

Which suggests the opposite question: how come it was only in 2017 that a stunned humanity discovered that lies are told in politics and war? It is over two millennia since the figure of the ‘doomed spy’ was first etched in The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu and transcribed in the 4th century BC. In Chapter 13 (‘The Use of Spies’), Sun Tzu identifies five types of secret agent: local (employing the inhabitants), ‘inward’ (recruiting the enemy’s officials), ‘converted’ (turning the enemy’s spies into double agents), ‘doomed spies’ – agents ‘to whom we deliberately give information we have fabricated out of thin air’ and who are sacrificed to the enemy – and ‘surviving spies’, who bring back news from the enemy’s camp. A thousand years later Tu Yu, who died in 812 AD, commented on the category of the doomed spy: ‘We allow genuinely false information to escape and we make sure our agents come to hear of it. When these agents travel into enemy territory and get captured, they won’t be able to avoid revealing this fabricated information. The enemy will believe it – because they will have obtained it through extortion – and will proceed accordingly. But we will operate quite differently and the enemy will therefore execute our spies.’ It was the discursive equivalent of the chess move that sacrifices a piece to lure the adversary into a trap.

No wonder the maxim, ‘truth is the first casualty of war’ has been speculatively traced as far back as Aeschylus. The oldest sources for that particular formulation can be traced only to the First World War, although Samuel Johnson said something similar – ‘Among the calamities of war may justly be numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages’ – in ‘The Idler’ column of the Universal Chronicle in November 1758. In general, though, this type of ‘fake news’ – the deceptions of war, or war as the art of lying – goes back to the dawn of time. Not for nothing did the Romans used to say, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’, thinking of the wooden horse the Achaeans gave to Troy – the trick that constituted the final act in the war which founded Western culture.

A second type of fake news is more ‘social’ in character, closer to civil war than war between states, and can be catalogued under the rubric, ‘slander’. Anonymous calumnies and denunciations did not need social media to cause misfortune. From the tamburo, or letterbox, in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence in which the unsigned accusation of sodomy against Leonardo da Vinci and others was deposited in 1476, through to the innumerable anonymous accusations of sorcery in Germany and Scotland in the 1600s, which led to just as many immolations: the viral tom-tom insinuating that Obama was not an American citizen and studied in an Islamic madrasa has precedents which, if not illustrious, were ancient and more lethal.

But it was in 17th-century Europe that treatises began to multiply on the art of lying, or of saying nothing; understandably, as saying what one thought risked the stake or decapitation. And it was at this time that the canonical definition was stabilized. ‘We simulate that which is not and dissimulate that which is’, wrote Torquato Accetto in On Honest Dissimulation, published posthumously in 1641, a year after his death. Francis Bacon used the same terms in his essay Of Simulation and Dissimulation (1625): ‘Dissimulation’ is ‘when a man lets fall Signs and Arguments, that he is not, that he is’. And ‘Simulation’ is ‘when a Man industriously, and expressly, feigns and pretends to be, that he is not.’

Skipping three centuries forward to 1921, the great French historian Marc Bloch turned to examine the falsehoods employed during the First World War in his Réflexions d’un historien sur les fausses nouvelles de la guerre. The era saw a vast expansion in the dissemination of mass propaganda and the wartime use of radio. So today we are not in the least surprised by a text like this:

Never have we lied as much as in our time. Nor lied in as brazen, systematic or constant a manner. We may perhaps be told that this is not the case, that the lie is as old as the world, or, at least, as old as man, mendax ab initio; that the political lie was born with the city itself, as history superabundantly teaches… All that is true, undoubtedly. Or almost. It is certain that man defines himself through speech, that this entails the possibility of lying, and that… the lie, even more than the laugh, is peculiar to man. It is equally certain that the political lie belongs to all time, that the rules and techniques of what once was called ‘demagogy’, and today ‘propaganda’, have been systematized and codified for thousands of years… It is incontestable that man has always lied. Lied to himself. And to others. Lied for his own pleasure – the pleasure of exercising that astonishing faculty of ‘saying that which is not’ and creating with his own words a world of which he is the sole author. Lying, too, as self-defence: the lie is a weapon. The preferred weapon of the low and the weak who, in deceiving the enemy, affirms himself and takes his revenge. But… we remain convinced that, in this domain, the present epoch… has made powerful innovations.

All entirely recognizable. The only problem being that ‘the present epoch’ in which we lie as never before lay 77 years ago: the original text of Alexandre Koyré’s Réflexions sur le mensonge appeared in 1943 in the first number of Renaissance, a quarterly journal published in New York – proof that the sensation of being enveloped by a world of lies and falsehoods, of swimming in an illusory reality, belongs to every age.

There is thus no doubt that the sudden discovery of fake news must have been instrumental. But what was it for? And why at that precise moment? Why do hardened liars become indignant when others lie? There is only one explanation. If, for Weber, the state holds the monopoly on legitimate use of physical force, in the world of modern communications – in which TV counts for more than armoured divisions – the state, or more precisely the establishment, is that which holds the monopoly on legitimate lying. It alone has the right to lie and to impose its lies as truth. We could therefore hypothesize that the almost hysterical indignation against fake news was caused by the dominant groups’ fears of having lost the monopoly on legitimate lying.

Social media endangered such a monopoly. Recall that Facebook was born in 2004, QZone (China) in 2005, VKontakte (Russia) and Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. It took some years of dissemination fully to unleash their power in reconfiguring the market for truth and lies. And it was in 2016, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, that the establishment felt the earth crumble beneath its feet, when it saw the triumph of lies that weren’t its own. The campaign against fake news was therefore immediately reconstituted as a campaign to regain control of social media, to introduce a kind of censorship or self-censorship. By definition, censorship consists in giving oneself the right to decide what is true and what is false, what can be said and what it is forbidden to say, what citizens can know and what must be kept from them. Based on the behaviour of social-media platforms during the US elections this November, it seems that the objective of regaining control of the flow of news has been at least in part achieved. The category fake news can go into hibernation, ready to be brought back out in case of need, when a better liar than those in power comes to assail the power of the liars.

Translated by Eleanor Chiari

Read on: Marco D’Eramo’s history of print journalism, from the rising bourgeoisie to the new oligarchy.