A New Voice

The publication of this first novel by 26-year-old Fatima Daas has generated much media excitement in France, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the work itself. Daas has attracted attention for breaking taboos. She grew up in the Paris suburb Clichy-sous-Bois, best-known as the site of major rioting in 2005 which provoked Sarkozy’s comment about cleaning the place up with a Kärcher, or high-pressure water hose. The riots had been sparked by the death of two boys who were electrocuted at a Clichy substation when they were hiding from police. Daas is French – she was born in another Paris suburb – but her parents are Algerian and all her family, apart from her two sisters and her parents, live in le pays, as Algeria is commonly referred to. Daas is a practicing Muslim. She does not wear the veil and prefers chunky jewellery and red lipstick. She is openly gay though acknowledges the problems this poses her in her religion.

So it is worth noting two things: the novel itself is impressive and does not sit easily in any box, and the author has been wary about her warm welcome from the literary establishment:

What affected me (after the two boys died) was the aftermath. I had the impression we couldn’t change this image of the banlieue. At college I put all my energy into wanting to change the negative image people had of Clichy-sous-Bois, I often said it was up to us to show we were not people who torched cars. I realized it wasn’t just up to me to do everything to change the way people see the banlieue; just like I don’t have to say, because I am a Muslim, I break with the terrorists. It is not up to us to change the images and perceptions others have of us, it is up to people to change how they see things. I don’t owe anyone anything. Not Clichy, not anyone.

Les Inrockuptibles, 19 August 2020

I called myself a writer very early on and I was supported by my classmates in Clichy. That gave me a lot of strength, to be encouraged like that. Then over time I undid certain things. I do not want to incarnate success, I do not want to be a symbol, ‘the chick from the banlieue who made it’, because that would mean writing is exceptional when you come from Clichy-sous-Bois. I am tired of having to be either those who do nothing, who are violent, or ‘those who make it’.

Elle, 28 August 2020

Evidence that the novel deals with difficult issues, acknowledges contradictions exist, and offers no easy solutions can be sought in the controversy that has followed its publication. In September Daas appeared on France Inter, and in response to the question: Do you believe it is a sin to be a Muslim and gay, she said: ‘Yes, yes I do’. For anyone who has read her novel there is nothing surprising in this statement. The conflict between Islam and homosexuality is one of the subjects explored with care and subtlety. But to hear it spoken on the radio at 7am, ‘while people are brushing their teeth, it can be a surprise’, as Mediapart put it. On Mediapart’s A l’air libre, Daas looked genuinely troubled by the whole furore, and in particular to being catapulted into the role of a public figure making pronouncements about Islam. She insisted that life was full of internal conflicts and certain things could not be resolved but that did not stop her from being a Muslim and gay. This controversy has not settled, nor will it given the atmosphere in France right now. Daas has avoided further media interventions. To her credit she seems more interested in writing and has no intention or desire to be a spokesperson for any cause or debate the media wants to pull her into. She is outspoken on many issues, but on her own terms.

La petite dernière – ‘the little last one’ or ‘the youngest’, though neither are satisfactory for the term is used for the youngest child, specifically a girl, and is one of endearment – appears autobiographical because the protagonist is also called Fatima Daas, grew up in Clichy and when we meet her she is 30. It is important to note here that Fatima Daas is a pseudonym. The author has called it a work of ‘autofiction’, a familiar genre in France, but how much is auto and how much fiction in any given novel depends very much on the writer.

For much of the novel we are with the protagonist aged 30, though we cut back and forth to events in her past, from childhood to recent history. Each chapter runs to no more than a few pages. The novel is written in the first person, with every chapter beginning with the line ‘My name is Fatima Daas’. Often the next lines repeat themselves too, though always with a significant if subtle variation. We return to the same themes and get to know the salient facts of her life that influence her sense of who she is: Islam, her relationship with the religion, the meaning of names and words, the significance of certain events and people. Statements recur, in various forms: I am Algerian. I am French. I am from Clichy. I am the youngest child. I am asthmatic.

The cumulative impact of the familiar refrain of each chapter opening is to create the impression of the protagonist seeking to make sense of herself. It also gives momentum to the prose, not unlike the chorus of a song. This quality of the writing has been described as ‘rapping’ by some critics, but it reads more like verse, though not with a fluent or balanced cadence – it is clipped, and captures the protagonist’s own speech patterns. Her asthma is serious and she recounts episodes from her childhood when she visited doctors and took classes that taught her how to breathe and deal with attacks. In adulthood she continues to have a complicated relationship with speech: the physical act requires effort, brings some discomfort so she must force words out, and sentences have to be short. On the occasions when we do have blocks of paragraph or dialogue it is usually someone else speaking, or the words of her prayers, which feature throughout and provide a total contrast in rhythm and language.

Though the story does not reduce to simple summary, one is never in doubt about what is happening. Daas pares down her descriptions to the bare minimum. A great deal happens, but all is recounted episodically and we jump around in time within a few lines. Daas is the last child of three girls and not the son her parents had hoped for. She grows up a tomboy and finds school easy. The relationship with her parents is full of silent conflict. More dramatic scenes involve friends, and her first girlfriends, and clashes with teachers. There are some passing references to moments that impact her development as a writer, though only elliptically. She also describes her solitary moments praying, quoting at length various Muslim prayers. Nothing is resolved exactly, by the end of the novel, but it does conclude with the promise that Daas is writing a novel and may, finally, manage to communicate with her mother, whose portrait is more tender than that of her father, whom Daas cut out of her life in her twenties.

Religion, and Daas’s evolving relationship with it, is one central conflict. Early on she states:

My mother told me we are born Muslim.
But I think I have converted.
I think I continue to convert to Islam.

I try to be as close as possible to my religion, to get closer, to make it a way of life.

I like finding myself on my prayer mat, feeling my forehead on the ground, seeing myself prostrated, submissive to God, to implore Him, to feel myself tiny before His greatness, before His love, before His omnipresence

La petite dernière is also a love story. ‘Nina Gonzales is the heroine of this story’, we are told midway through. But Nina only appears fleetingly, and we do not know what happens to her. All we can be sure of is the strength of Daas’s feelings for her, and how these have upturned her world. Here one of the few scenes of the two together, towards the end of the novel:

Nina lets me in, apologising.
I say I’ve seen worse.

At Nina’s, there’s a little hallway of two metres that leads to her bedroom. In there the bed is unmade, under the bed there are cigarette butts, on her desk there’s a TV surrounded by books.

There’s a guitar and next to it clothes that she has left lying around.
I feel funny in Nina’s place and at the same time I feel good.

There is something reassuring about this mess, as though I was finding my place, as though it was a bit my own place.

I have the pretention to think I will put order into Nina’s life, when there’s not any order in my own life, when I can’t even be arsed to tidy up my room, to make my bed, that at my age my mum still makes it for me.

With Nina by my side, I feel less weird. Less crazy. Less blocked.

The most impressive quality of La petite dernière is its restraint. So little is said about most things, but single phrases tell us or suggest to us a great deal. This is achieved through the quality of the writing. Every statement counts, and every statement is rich with meaning.

Given the subjects Daas engages with, and the very personal register she uses, I had expected a more conventional tell-all story. The novel is the opposite of this, and I was left instead with an impression of integrity. Daas is clearly wrestling with the difficult balance between fiction and reality, and how much she will allow herself to say. This integrity is inevitably reminiscent of Annie Ernaux’s work. Daas quotes a passage from Ernaux’s novel Passion simple when she asks Nina if she could write about her, to which Nina offers no clear reply:

            All this time I had the impression I was living my passion in a novelistic form, but now I don’t know in what form I am writing, if it is the form of a witness, like the accounts written in women’s’ magazines, or the form of a public witness statement, or even that of a text commentary.

I do not want to explain my passion – that would be like treating it as an error or an anomaly that has to be justified – I just want to set it out.

The French literary establishment has poured praise on the book, uncritically and unanimously celebrating the author as a ‘revelation’ with ‘intrepid prose’, as if to sidestep the main point Daas makes in La petite dernière that she became a writer not because of this literary establishment, certainly not with its help, but despite it. This is made clear in passages such as this, recounting an incident in college:

My name is Fatima Daas.
Before allowing myself to write, I satisfied the expectations of others.
After college I went to hypokhâgne, to prepare for a literary degree.
That’s what the good students do.
They go into medicine, or in prépa, or to Sciences Po.

For several months, I imitate my classmates.

I must:
Work several hours after each day of classes.
Learn dates and definitions by heart.
Take oral exams, read and comment on texts written exclusively by straight white cisgender men.

I arrive at my first class of the day, on a Wednesday. It’s eight thirty.
My Spanish teacher hands us back our homework. He keeps a hold of my copy. He looks at me with his big glasses.

– Mademoiselle Daas, would you please step outside with me a moment?

I get up and push my chair under my desk.
I can feel his impatience.
I don’t have the time to take my jacket.
I follow him, like an idiot.
He’s already outside, the door is closed.
Two, three students watch me as I leave.
I am wearing a T-shirt and I feel the wind on my arms, my hairs stand on end and it tickles me.

– So… Mademoiselle Daas (he says this with a good strong voice, looking at me straight in the eyes), I won’t do anything, you can relax, I just want to know the truth (he lets time pass to create a pathetic suspense). Who did your work?
I don’t really understand, so I say with a smile, my homework?
He says yes, your homework. Who did it in your place?
Sometimes, when people doubt me, I doubt myself, it’s funny, I invent situations to prove them right, but this time I didn’t want to because the work was easy and I didn’t enjoy doing it.
I said nothing.
I hoped he would tell me it was an April Fool’s joke in February, something, but he wasn’t the type of guy to crack jokes. I carried on believing he would eventually catch himself, that he would sense, from my silence, that it was all one big fucking joke.
He carried on with his mad story:
– OK, fine, who helped you?

I was getting tired, but I did reply:
– I love Spanish. I had 8/10 on average last year and I got 16 in the bac.

Then I realized that proving, demonstrating, making myself legitimate, showing what I was worth was not what other students had to do, the students who were all inside, in the warm. Nobody had to argue for ten minutes, in a T-shirt, in the cold, to prove they had deserved 17/20.

A month later I stopped preparatory classes.
I didn’t go into medicine.
I didn’t enter Sciences Po.
I wrote.

Daas did not choose Sciences Po, and it certainly did not choose her. She has since chosen not to play the designated role of ‘the chick from the banlieue who made it’. All of this makes her path harder, as does her unwillingness to iron out the conflict she sees between her religion and her sexuality. This has made for a fine first novel.

Read on: Natasha Pinnington’s engagement with the experimental life-writing of Annie Ernaux.


Riot on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Left Tide in Ireland

Parish-pump politics has underpinned elections in the Republic of Ireland for many years. In sending politicians to parliament, voters often think hyper-locally, foregrounding parochial issues and punishing representatives who neglect their home constituencies. The result is a frustrating lack of creative policy ideas and long-term planning at the national level, along with a cronyist and clientelist political culture that permeates the entire polity.

Yet the February 2020 general election demonstrated a series of shifts – social, political, ideological – that threaten to disrupt this decades-old pattern. For the first time, more voted for Sinn Féin, running on a social-democratic platform, than any other party. It secured 535,595 votes, next to Fianna Fáil’s 484,320 and Fine Gael’s 455,584. But because of Ireland’s proportional representation system, and Sinn Féin’s strategic error in not fielding enough candidates to fully capitalize on its vote-share, the division of seats was almost evenly split: 38 for the populist centre-right Fianna Fáil, 37 for Sinn Féin, 35 for the Thatcherite Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin has evolved from what is broadly described as the political wing of the IRA, and now occupies an odd space in Irish politics: a left-populist party whose policies are pitched at a newly politicized generation, but whose identity is tied to nationalist ideals that chime with an older demographic, many of whom imbibed the free-market orthodoxies of the Celtic Tiger. Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, does not come from Sinn Féin’s traditional pool of Northern republicans with erstwhile paramilitary affiliations. A charismatic 51-year-old from Dublin, she is popular with female voters and has expanded the party’s growing base in working-class urban areas since becoming leader in 2018. Meanwhile, the party’s Northern arm has returned to Stormont after a three-year hiatus under the leadership of Michelle O’Neil. Sinn Féin’s aim of eroding partition by accumulating power in all 32 counties is back on course.

Analysis of the astonishing 2020 election results was soon eclipsed by the pandemic and the protracted process of government formation. With the Fine Gael-led caretaker administration mounting a relatively effective Covid-19 response, and Fianna Fáil desperate to install their leader, Micheál Martin, as Taoiseach, the country’s longstanding political establishment gained a new lease of life last May. The coalition government, formed after months of negotiation, comprised Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. It settled on a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement: giving the job to Martin initially, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar agreeing to serve as deputy before assuming the post again in two years’ time. This outcome – a damp squib belying the profound political shift evinced by the election – gave rise to a chaotic, old-new power-bloc which has since lurched from crisis to scandal to mishap.

Yet within this maelstrom, the most significant change of 2020 may not be the rise of Sinn Féin, nor even the electorate’s clearly articulated disenchantment with the Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael duopoly (one of these parties has served in every government since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922). No, it was rather that the electorate appeared to turn away from their localities and zoom out, voting on national issues in a national election. Added to that, the haze that has traditionally obscured Ireland’s left–right divisions (a symptom of the near-identical centre-right colouration of the ruling parties) seemed to lift, and people began discussing politics in those agonistic terms.

If, as the veteran Irish current-affairs journalist Vincent Browne once remarked, the problem with politics in Ireland is the lack of politics – if the electorate is typically asked to measure the subtle distinctions between two outfits cut from the same conservative cloth – 2020 ruptured this setup. The election was no longer a hair-splitting contest but an ideological struggle, forcing each party to set out its vision – or lack thereof – for the post-recessionary period. Fine Gael, having been in power since 2011 (first in coalition with the Labour Party, then in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil), clearly resented this development. After a self-satisfied campaign in which they avoided discussing Ireland’s overlapping social crises (particularly in housing and healthcare), they came away astounded by the electorate’s failure to reward them for ten years of austerity, plus a warped ‘recovery’ in which rents skyrocketed, homelessness soared, and tens of thousands emigrated.

Baffled by this transformation, Ireland’s national media came increasingly to sound like international observers, assessing the events from afar and distilling them for a foreign audience. People ‘voted for change’, they said, without specifying which people or what kind. Voters, especially in young and previously disengaged demographics, had clearly gravitated towards Sinn Féin – long the black sheep of Irish party politics. Yet beneath that movement was a grassroots campaign whose simple instruction was expressed by its hashtag: #VoteLeftTransferLeft. This sentiment cut through, catapulting inexperienced candidates to parliament on the back of the Sinn Féin brand, and enabling most far-left contenders (from the Trotskyist parliamentary bloc Solidarity–People Before Profit) to retain their seats.

In one sense, Ireland’s 2011 election was just as seismic: voters instigated the third highest turnover of parliamentarians in any Western democracy since World War II. Yet this was occasioned by a singular event – the economic calamity overseen by Fianna Fáil, and the consequent imperative to expel them from power – rather than a secular trend. The social fragmentation wrought by the recession of the 2010s saw another bizarre pattern play out in the forgotten 2014 local elections, which returned a staggering 193 independent politicians, while increasing Sinn Féin’s tally of local councilors from 54 to 159 (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 267 and 235 seats respectively). This erratic showing testified to a growing political vacuum, and a disorientated electorate with little enthusiasm for any party. Much of that floating vote now appears to have settled (albeit temporarily, perhaps) on Sinn Féin, whose identification with the left – and emphasis on social issues alongside Irish unity – has increased under McDonald’s leadership.

Amid Sinn Féin’s rejuvenation, there has been a burgeoning sense that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil represent an outmoded twentieth-century political orthodoxy. Ireland’s social revolution – whose landmarks were the referenda on marriage equality in 2015 and abortion in 2018 – began long before those votes, as the 2008 economic collapse coincided with the ongoing decline of the Catholic Church, compounded by revelations of historic sexual abuse and brutality in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. The consequent ructions to the national psyche created an opening for Sinn Féin to alter the ideological consensus, whose standard-bearing parties, having reinforced the power of the Church for much of the last century, are now desperate to diminish that association – hence their token adoption of socially liberal policies over the past decade. The Repeal and marriage equality campaigns created a primarily millennial political bloc led by women and queer people, whose formation is a far cry from Sinn Féin’s often highly macho republican tradition, but whose insurgent energy – and single-issue focus – has nonetheless harmonized with the party’s progressive platform.

The 2020 election rearticulated the nebulous sense of discontent we saw in 2014, yet this time its object – the ‘quality of life’ issues affected by Fine Gael’s austerity programme – was more clearly focalized: poor planning, urban gentrification, grinding commutes, lengthy hospital waiting lists, a multifaceted housing crisis that had rendered over 10,000 people homeless, crippling rent, inflated property prices, expensive childcare and unmanageable living costs. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s abstract metrics of success – reduced unemployment and GDP – felt meaningless to many voters. Our economy was apparently ‘booming’, but for whom? We were said to have ‘turned a corner’, but to where? With EU backing, Fine Gael may have struck an authoritative note when it came to negotiating Brexit (though that was hardly difficult compared to the chaotic and cartoonish Tories), but whether they could protect the Irish people from its impact, given their dogmatic aversion to stimulus spending, was another matter entirely.

Though Fine Gael tried to cash-in on the ‘recovery’, voters recognized that this return to growth was not a monolithic process. By and large, they approved of new independent businesses but rejected hyper-gentrification. They accepted the need for urban development, but not the kind that began to pockmark Dublin’s city centre at an alarming pace: luxury student accommodation, five-star hotels and socially corrosive ‘co-living’ developments. Tourism was welcome, but AirBnB’s unchecked accumulation of housing stock was not (leading activists to occupy the company’s Dublin headquarters in 2018). Unemployment had dramatically decreased from its peak of 17.3% during the recession, but it was hard to ignore the minimal tax intake from the Big Tech companies – including the government’s determined refusal to claim back €13bn worth of public revenue from Apple despite the orders of the European Commission.

While many analysts have come to terms with the fact that Sinn Féin are currently the main benefactors of this diffuse appetite for change, it remains to be seen whether they will retain this position – or whether the intergenerational coalition they’ve assembled will eventually come apart. Indeed, if the underlying dynamic is an electorate shocked out of localism by a decade of national upheaval, there are others who stand to gain from this trend. Fine Gael, having reached across the aisle to its historic rival, and steered the country through a major public health crisis, has been polling evenly with Sinn Féin – and may redouble this ‘one nation’ messaging once the post-pandemic downturn hits. Could it work? Only if the official opposition squanders its momentum, and fails to preserve the continuity between its social policies and the broader cultural transformation that has taken shape during the recessionary era.

Read on: Daniel Finn’s study of the power blocs of post-crash Ireland and opposition from the streets.


The Trial of Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.


Hopes for 2021?

Someone wrote me asking ‘what were my hopes for 2021?’ I replied that before talking about hopes and opportunities we first need to acknowledge our collective shame in failing last year to build an effective national protest movement against the policies that led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and the economic ruin of tens of millions more. The impacts, of course, have been grotesquely amplified in communities of colour and amongst the low-wage workforce. (Here in California two-thirds of the dead bear Spanish surnames.) Minority senior citizens are reckoned to comprise a majority of the 110,000 nursing home deaths highlighted in the New York Times yesterday: a massacre equal in number to a common estimate of those killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  

From late March onwards the momentum for such a movement was generated by hundreds of rank-and-file protests and job actions by healthcare, food industry and service workers, with Nurses United as a national voice. In some areas, DSA chapters and BLM groups organized support activities while immigrant and prison rights activists attempted to draw attention to the pandemic explosion inside prisons, jails and detention facilities. But there was no real attempt at national coordination or the creation of an inclusive emergency coalition. Nor can I recall a single progressive publication editorializing in favour of national protests and movement building.  

One might have expected the leadership to have come from Sanders and Our Revolution, but while Bernie applauded workers and offered progressive proposals for congressional action, his camp was almost entirely absorbed in getting out the vote in November. In effect he abdicated what had been a major premise of his campaign: the integral role of protest in galvanizing voters. The national union response was equally electoral and on the part of many unions, chillingly low-key. While BLM repeatedly demonstrated that masked and distanced protest could safely return to the streets, liberals and too many progressives stayed bunkered down and harmless.

As a result, Trump’s neo-fascist mobs – criminally active vectors of infection – ended up owning the pandemic or, perhaps more accurately, the economic sacrifices that Republican policies imposed. For its part, the slow-brained and mechanical Biden campaign allowed health and jobs to be counterposed as priorities, giving away millions of votes to Trump. Nor did the Democrats press the most obvious populist button available: the immense upward transfer of wealth to Bezos and the zillionaire class.  

A national protest movement would have opened a second front for BLM and changed the election dynamics. It would have highlighted the specific union and community organizing campaigns that should be priorities for support in 2021. It would have kept Medicare for All on the top of the agenda and prevented the current marginalization of progressive voices inside the Biden administration.  

The left needs to face the fact that despite the huge popularity of its ideas and the dynamic example of BLM we remain clueless and disorganized as a national force. We need to stop looking for electoral silver-linings and get ourselves together. Renew our commitment to BLM and work like hell to build a multi-issue national coalition for life and justice.

Read on: Mike Davis’s granular analysis of the US election results.